Chapter Twenty Six

Posted: July 24, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

“Tell me more about rakshasas,” said Lynn.

She sat cross-legged in a backroom of the submerged temple. Perhaps, elven priests retreated here between services. With everything but the walls either looted or rotted, it was hard to guess the room’s exact nature. Right now, it served as a somewhat concealed demon summoning chamber.

The demon in question was busy scratching an elaborately obscene scene on one of the walls with its claws. Lynn tried again: “Stan, please.”

The demon looked back, then let out a long-suffering sigh.

“Not my name. Fine. Fine. What do you want to know?”

“Everything. What are they?”

“Hoo boy. We’re gonna be here a while. Sit down and try not to interrupt, then. There’ll be a quiz in the end,” Stain began pacing back and forth with its spindly hands clasped behind its back.

“Do you know what happens when you die? I said don’t interrupt. You soil yourself, that’s what happens. But then your soul goes to the Grey Wastes. A miserable place. Very grey. But souls don’t care, they left the brain rotting behind. So they just wander around doing whatever it is they most often used to do. Gardening, or drinking, or crying. Lotsa crying. Once met a guy who was farting a tune. I kid you not, he had spent the majority of his life perfecting the art of fart, and then a good chunk of the afterlife practicing it. Fetched me quite a price for that one.

“That’s what I did – I hunted for souls. Well, that’s an exaggeration. More like sniffed around for them. Used to be the more evil you’ve done, the more your soul would stink. Oh, the delicious stench of murderers. The pungent aroma of rapists. Now you just gotta run around until you spot something.”

“Aren’t Hells, um, broken? What’s the point?”

“So what, oh interrupting leader? Have you ever seen someone with punctured lungs? Lies there, gasping for air that just bubbles right back out with blood. The bugger’s trying so hard, haha, and it’s just bloody foam, hahaha, oh, the faces they make, ahahaha, the wheezing noises,” the demon collapsed into a laughing garbage heap.

“Ahem,” Lynn tried to interrupt his happiness at someone’s violent death, “You capture these souls, and then they just escape again?”

“Sometimes. More like leak, remember, they don’t have a brain to tell them to run. They only react to what’s happening to them right that second, if they react at all. So one would climb off a torture rack and just stand right next to it like it’s nothing. Mostly they just sit there and suffer.”

“It’s all a mess now, after the Last Battle. There were no Grey Wastes, just trodden paths to the domains of gods and other much more fun places. Used to be, someone would be there to greet you when you died, to guide you to wherever you deserved to go. There was still competition, just which Hell you end up in was a question of who got there first. Nowadays it’s all finders keepers. And there is no stench of Evil anymore. No shining Goodness, either. Just souls, lost in the grey mists. Some stay there for decades, waiting. Stupid souls. I much prefer it this way, lots of opportunities for an enterprising demon to make a name for themselves.”

Lynn listened in stunned silence. She knew the world was broken, has seen ruins every day of her life, was sitting in one right now. But to learn that the afterlife was broken as well, that whatever you did in this life, there would be no due reward or just punishment, that was terrifying. She thought of Josh. Maybe he wasn’t that great a person. But he wasn’t awful, either. Few people were. And to imagine him being dragged around by something like Stan was almost too much to bear.

And then Lynn thought of Peter. Peter, who had been kind to her and paid for his kindness with his life. Who didn’t deserve any of this. And regardless of that, whose soul was also standing in the Grey Wastes, just like Josh, waiting for a demon to claim him. Lynn already knew life was unfair. Now she found out death wasn’t fair either.

“They are the lucky ones, anyway,” continued the demon, “The ones that we get. Not as lucky as the ones the other guys get, but still. Because we’re not the only ones out there anymore. There are things prowling in those grey mists. Nameless things not of this world that got in through the cracks during the Last Battle.”

“What does this have to do with rakshasas, with Karadash?” Interrupted Lynn, before her worldview became even more miserable.

“I was getting to that,” answered Stain grumpily, “Remember how I said souls just do whatever it is people used to do for most in their life? Turns out, Karadash had spent most of his life being a vicious bastard.”

“Wait, he died?”

“More than once, likely. Now, if you’ll let me finish, perhaps I can get to the point before we both perish of old age, too. And that’ll take a while in my case. Yes, Karadash had died, and I was the one who found his soul. It… It didn’t turn out the way I expected. He tore me apart, plain and simple. The proper me, a demon, not this meager apparition I’ve become. He tore me apart and made himself a body out of my carcass. What he didn’t use, he ate. Or, maybe, what he didn’t eat he used, my memories of that moment are a bit hazy. All that remained was this claw you’re holding. And in his new demon-flesh body he wandered back into the mortal realm.”

“That’s what rakshasas are: mortals dressed in demon flesh, fouler even than my kind. They are the scary story us soul hunters tell one another. They are very rare, but they do happen. My bet, it takes not just will and viciousness to become one. I think the bastards can’t conceive of a world without them. They are so egotistical, they refuse to accept their death. So, enlightened leader, now you see why I laugh at the idea of you taking one on.”

Lynn hesitantly nodded. She had set out to rid New Valenar of the Beast, a creature of cunning and claws. It turned out the Beast was a shapeshifting sorcerer whom even death couldn’t hold. Who also had cunning and claws. “In over her head” didn’t come close to describing it.

“There’d be no shame in giving up,” a tiny voice in the back of her head said. The tiny voice could go drown in the sea of guilt Lynn already felt. It’s been four days since she’s entered Under Valenar. She now had a roof over her head, and a family that had taken her in. It wasn’t her home, Lynn knew. She was a guest. But it was so good to pretend. This was everything she had wanted. But this was everything others didn’t have. Why should she get to have a home, however temporary, while Tim and Eric didn’t have one, while Jenny didn’t have a father, while Josh would never have anything?

She had been so intent on waging her war, she didn’t know what to do with the inactivity that was forced upon her. Lynn almost felt happy here, and that made her feel terrible.

“Does he have any weaknesses?” she asked to try and assuade some of her guilt.

“Weaknesses?”

“You know. Maybe he has to keep his promises, or can’t refuse hospitality, or can’t touch his old body?”

The demon snorted.

“You’ve been listening to too many fairy tales. That’s right, you’re just a child, of course you have been. Is that how you imagine it’ll go, the brave heroine defeats the big scary monster through the power of friendship and rainbows? The frog,” he bowed, “becomes a prince in the end? Well, give us a kiss and lets find out,” it stuck out its lips, somehow making its breath smell even worse.

“Don’t you want revenge against Karadash, too?” asked Lynn, annoyed, “Isn’t that what demons are all about, giving in to their desires?”

“I want a great many things. Sure, I’d like to see Karadash choke on the body he stole from me, bit by bit. But I’d also like to eat your brain to find out what stupid tastes like. And right now I want to rip out the tongue of the tiny human spying on us. May I?”

The demon crouched down, ready to leap towards the chamber entrance. Lynn looked up to find Nicholas’ sister peeking around the corner, petrified.

Lynn was no less petrified. She couldn’t be discovered with Stan. They’d take him away, her only weapon against the Beast. But what to do, how to explain it away, how to stop Nessa from telling on her? At least Lynn knew her name – she had finally asked Nicholas during an evening chat yesterday.

“It’s okay, wait…” said Lynn.

“Grrr,” said Stain.

“Eep,” said Nessa as she disappeared.

Her bare feet slapping on the stone floor echoed through the sunken temple, followed by a splash.

“You, in the claw. Now,” it was Lynn’s turn to growl.

She ran after Nessa, diving head first, claw in hand. She had little to no hope of catching an Allyrian in the water, Lynn knew, but she had to do something. So far, she couldn’t even see right, everything was too dark. Lynn blinked fiercely as she swam towards the obscured temple doors.

It wasn’t her eyes. There was something wrong with the water. It was murky, like shallow waters after a storm when all the tiny bits of seaweed get dredged up. Except this wasn’t shallow waters at all. Everything was tinted red and tasted of copper. And it was warm, too, realised Lynn, warmer even than the amulet she wore made it appear to be. The name Bloodmist Sea came to mind. Blood-red mists giving the sea its name would rise occasionally over it, always a bad omen. Is this how they looked beneath the surface?

Freaking out, she spun around, looking for Nessa. It was growing darker by the second. There! A small shape swiftly receding into the distance. Lynn followed, as fast as she could. Stupid Nessa, what was she even doing there, spying on her. Of course she was spying on her, Lynn groaned internally, the girl had been fascinated by her from the first day Lynn got here, she was probably the first land dweller Nessa had seen.

A deep vibrating wave travelled through Lynn’s body, rattling her teeth before settling somewhere in her guts. Then another one. What was that?! She’ll ask Nicholas later. First, she needed to catch up to Nessa.

Lynn couldn’t see far, an experience not unlike being swallowed by the Shadow. But this was a turbulent kind of obscurement. Bits of… on reflection, Lynn really didn’t want to know what these crimson bits were of. Bits swarmed around her, swirling chaotically, growing more and more thick. Stan’s claw in her hand was squirming uncomfortably. She imagined the demon licking its lips and shuddered.

This was worse than the Shadow. At least in it, you could trust the ground under your feet. Most of the time. Here, Lynn already didn’t know up from down. But she still could see Nessa’s tiny dark shape, so onwards she swam.

At last, the moving shape grew larger. With a burst of speed, Lynn covered the rest of the distance separating them. It wasn’t Nessa. It was another Allyrian floating lifelessly, impaled by a spear. His arms were thrown back, his legs bent, his mouth open. Blood must have been streaming from the horrible wound in his chest, disappearing into the red storm, feeding it.

With a muffled shriek, Lynn pushed back from the body. It had finally dawned on her that this wasn’t just a nasty underwater weather. Someone was using it to attack Under Valenar, they may even have caused it. Nicholas had mentioned “attackers” before, but didn’t go into any details. The deep wave hit her again, adding to Lynn’s growing panic. It was a warning bell, she finally realised.

She suddenly felt incredibly exposed. An attack could come from any side. Lynn spun frantically, her heart beating wildly. Someone swam by at the edge of visibility, causing Lynn to recoil. They didn’t notice her, or maybe they had other priorities.

She needed to stop for a moment, to think what to do next. It wasn’t just about preventing Nessa from telling others about her pet demon anymore. They were in danger. Nessa was in danger because of her. This family had taken her in, if only for a few days, and in those few days Lynn managed to get their daughter killed. She was poison.

No, she stopped herself. That hasn’t happened yet. Nessa is fine, she’s got to be. She probably swam straight home at the first sign of danger. That’s what they’d teach their kids. There was no need to worry about her. All Lynn had to do was find her way home, too.

“I knew you wouldn’t come,” she heard Eric’s words, the words that’ve been echoing in her mind for the last few weeks. Lynn kicked off away from the body of the dead Allyrian, calling Nessa’s name.

Chapter Twenty Five

Posted: July 7, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

Once again, Lynn was being discussed like she wasn’t in the room. What else would Nicholas and his mother argue about, glancing at her from time to time. Lynn “sat” at the merfolk table and stared right back at them. She had considered not coming back at all, just like Nicholas had suggested. She could have swum to the shore, hidden somewhere, waited until the Beast would stop looking, until Azary would stop looking, until everyone would forget about her. But there was no better place to hide than beneath the waves. As much as she abhorred it, Under Valenar was the safest location for her.

Fingers flew and tongues clicked. There was something familiar about one of the gestures that both of them kept repeating, noticed Lynn. There it was again. Just like a thieves’ sign Josh had taught her. New Valenar thieves had their own sign language for silent communication – or maybe they’d stolen it. Lynn only knew a few signs, but this one was the first she was taught: “danger”.

She knocked on the table to get their attention, then signed as best she could: “Me danger you no.” Nicholas frowned. The mother laughed. Lynn cringed. Another signed exchange, and Nicholas indicated for her to follow.

They swam towards the sunken temple again, the nearest place where they could talk. Judging by the darkening waters, the sun was setting. While there weren’t that many people out, they weren’t in any hurry to get home. Darkness was an inconvenience, not a threat. They passed close to a group of soldiers milling about, watchmen like Nicholas, guessed Lynn. The soldiers did what bored soldiers do: laughed at everyone who went by. They all made a similar gesture at her, as mysterious as it was obvious. She was an outsider. Lynn frowned, while Nicholas just kept swimming.

Lynn couldn’t help but look for traces of her blood on the mosaic of the temple as they walked up it’s sloped floor. She had spent some time clearing it all up after the fight this morning, in fear of Stan being discovered. Afterwards, she had rushed to her assigned room to stash the bag with the claw in it, before submitting to the mother for treatment. She had shrugged in response to any questions she may have been asked about her wounds, which clearly didn’t satisfy. But at least she was now covered in some kind of green baked mud, and her scratches didn’t sting in the salt water anymore, even if she still had trouble moving her right arm.

“What in broken hells happened?”

“A fish bit me.”

For lack of a better lie, Lynn settled for being annoying. Nicholas threw his arms in the air in exasperation, mission successful.

“You are some kind of magnet for trouble, it seems. How am I to keep you safe if you won’t tell me what attacked you?”

“Won’t happen again.”

“So you say!”

“What do you care, fishface? Just another, what was it you called us, a walker. Just another walker washing up ashore.”

“I care because I was ordered to watch over you.”

“I’ll do my very best not to disappoint your boss by croaking, wouldn’t want to mar your service record.”

“That’s not what I mean!”

“What do you mean, then? Why would anyone care what happened to me, much less you people? I’ve seen the way those soldiers sniggered at me! The way your family chastised you for bringing me here. The way you all look at me, like I’m a piece of trash spoiling your pristine waters.”

Once again, Lynn had worked herself up to screaming. These days, screaming came easy. It felt good to let it out. No, not good. It felt like all the seething anger within couldn’t be contained inside her body. All she had to do was open her mouth.

And oh, it was so easy to be angry at Nicholas, who had matched her tone for tone from the start. Except he wasn’t raising his voice now. Instead, he hopped up to sit on the cracked lectern.

“There it is again,” said Nicholas, with an unexpected sadness in his voice, “I haven’t picked up on this before. That’s how you really view the world.”

“What are you talking about?” Lynn was taken aback by the sudden shift in the conversation.

“That word. ‘Care’. You don’t believe anyone cares if you live or die.”

“And?”

Nicholas rubbed his forehead with a pained expression.

“That’s a horrible way to live. Don’t you have any friends, any family?”

“You’ve seen my friend. Others… Others will miss me, but they’ll survive. Until they don’t. That’s what happens to people like me.”

“But even beside that. I’m not your friend, I only just met you. And you’re combative and annoying and…” Nicholas saw Lynn’s bristles come up and smiled, “And I still don’t want you to be hurt. Not just because I was ordered to protect you, but because you’re a living being. Just like me, just like everyone else. And I refuse to believe I’m the only one.”

Lynn thought of Isabel, and Melai, and Jenny. And Peter. And Josh.

“You are right. There were others who cared. And I hurt them all. I abused their trust, and put them in danger. Some have already died. Some still could. Maybe you’re right. Maybe, it’s not the world that’s horrible. Maybe it’s just me. You say you care? You shouldn’t.”

Nicholas grimaced.

“That’s not… Not for you to decide what I care about. And not for you to shoulder all the blame for all the ills of the world. I’m sure you had your reasons.”

“I did. Don’t make the ones who trusted me any less dead, though.”

“It wasn’t you who killed that boy.”

“Gods old and new! You sound just like Jenny. A girl whose father… Whose father died because of me. You’d get along. It’s true, the Beast killed them, but I put them in Beast’s path. And I’ll live with that. As long as that lasts.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Lynn smiled a fake smile.

“Absolutely nothing. I promise I won’t be attacked by the same fish on your watch. And then I’ll be out of your gills.”

“Fine. You don’t have to tell me what happened. Just promise me no harm will come to my family because of you. You’ve managed to sufficiently scare me.”

“Good. And no, I’m not doing anything to endanger them. I’m not a monster. The thing that’s hunting me is. But it won’t find me here.”

“You promise?”

“Promise.”

“For a long time,” said Nicholas slowly, carefully picking his words, “I blamed myself for my father losing his leg.”

Lynn looked up to find him gazing at a wall, engrossed in an unpleasant memory.

“I was playing far from home, even though my parents told me not to. I was just a kid, but I should have known better. There was an attack, and my father broke from his squad to search for me. He did find me, then the attackers found us both. He was a hell of a soldier, my father. But he was alone, and they were many. He was alone, because I was too afraid. I was just a kid. I’ve spent years wishing I had done something different. Wishing I had stayed at home, had found the courage to stab one in the back, had… Had not been found by my father. Things are what they are, though,” he smiled briefly, “My father is alright now, mostly. And after years of hating myself I finally realised it was now that hate that was hurting my family, long after our physical wounds had healed. They still needed me, not in the past but here and now. So I decided I needed to do better. To be better. And I’m trying. I can’t change what happened, so I had to find a way to live with it. For as long as that lasts.”

Lynn knew the story he told was an attempt to relate to her, and it worked. His mistake may have been less grievous than hers, its outcome less tragic, but the sadness in his voice as he told his story was undeniable.

And he was wrong to draw the parallels between them, of course. Nicholas still had someone who relied on him, thought Lynn, and he wasn’t still intent on pursuing the ones who hurt his family. Except… Except he was in the Tidewatch, just like his father. Why else would he join it if not to face the same attackers one day, whoever they may have been. Maybe he was a bit like her after all, just not in the way he imagined.

The tension was gone. Even Lynn’s anger had dissipated, at least for now. Without it to cloud her vision, she looked at Nicholas for the first time as a person, not as her merman captor. He really was annoyingly handsome. For a fishface. Lynn realised she wouldn’t want him to get along with Jenny, for some reason. It was an unfamiliar emotion, one she’d have to examine later. Much later.

“D’you know,” said Nicholas after a bit of silence, “I sometimes come here to just look around, and imagine how it used to be. Before. The fresh air, the light shining through the stained glass windows, the crowds. It must have been really beautiful here. Bright.”

Lynn shrugged.

“We have temples up top. Not quite like this, but still large. You can come look. And if you want bright, just stare at a daylight crystal.”

“I know, I’ve been there,” Nicholas ignored the jab, “Just doesn’t feel the same. Everyone’s staring at me, almost literally a fish out of water. In here I can imagine I’m a part of the crowd.”

Lynn looked around, and tried to see what Nicholas was seeing. Tall, slender elves in their pretty flowing dresses, so unlike her rags, so unlike her. Statues with faces, all stern and looking right at her. The priest, condemning her. No, even in this fantasy Lynn still didn’t belong.

“And sometimes, I think of just how shocked the elves would have been to see me here,” continued Nicholas, “Can you imagine the faces the priests would make, if they saw me sitting where their holy book lies?” He patted the lectern.

Lynn smiled, a little. Encouraged, Nicholas continued.

“Or what they’d say about this,” he jumped off, picked up a pebble and sent it bouncing over the water. The stone jumped three times before colliding with a column. Nicholas cast another one, and it made it all the way to the roof over the submerged temple gates. He turned to Lynn with a grin.

“Do you think they’d join in?”

Lynn imagined haughty elves bouncing pebbles inside their temple and giggled.

“You try it,” Nicholas offered her a stone.

She accepted it after a moment’s hesitation. It sunk with a splash.

“No, like this, sideways,” tried correcting her Nicholas.

“I’ve thrown plenty of stones, thank you,” replied Lynn. She neglected to mention she was usually hoping to hit someone like Nicholas when she did. That detail just didn’t seem relevant.

The next stone bounced once off the water, then off a column, and then collided with one of the few remaining pieces of stained glass. Lynn cringed at the resounding crash. Nicholas laughed, seeing her expression.

“Don’t worry, there’s absolutely nothing of value left here. What the looters didn’t get, the reclaimers did.”

Lynn breathed out.

“You mean I didn’t ruin a priceless elven artifact?” she said with a meek smile.

“Way too late for that.”

Almost an hour later, having exhausted all the pebbles in the temple, they were about to leave when Lynn remembered something.

“By the way, what does this mean?” she asked Nicholas, contorting her fingers.

“Where’d you see that?” he frowned.

“Those soldiers, outside. I’d like to know what I’m being called.”

“It means ‘merfolk’,” said Nicholas before diving.

“But I’m not…” objected Lynn to the rippling water.

Puzzled, she followed Nicholas to his home. A surprise awaited Lynn there. The little girl followed her into her room, a bundle of cloth in hands. Lynn took it hesitantly, and unfolded it to find dark green pants, thick and coarse. She looked up at the girl in confusion. The girl pointed at Lynn’s legs, then at the pants.

Lynn blushed, realising it was a present. The girl giggled. The pants were much nicer than her torn dress. Not to mention, a dress wasn’t the most modest clothing for swimming, something Lynn had done her best to ignore up till now.

The girl tugged on her arm to get her attention, then floated onto the bed. Unlike Lynn who had tried and failed to stay on top of it, however, the girl climbed under it. It was a kind of a blanket, Lynn finally realised. Heavy enough to weigh a person down, to prevent them from being dragged around by the currents. The girl giggled, and this time Lynn giggled with her.

Life was different here under the water, yet also the same, pondered Lynn as she lay in, or maybe under, her bed later that night. Maybe tomorrow, she’ll help the father trim the coral walls, and then go exploring for a bit. She’d better make it home before dinner, though. Home. What a strange thought.

Chapter Twenty Four

Posted: May 25, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

Lynn barely had time to raise her arms when the toothy screeching wart of a creature flew into her. It bit and scratched and tried to get to her face in a frenzy. Acting on pure instinct, she tossed it away before it latched on properly. The creature landed on its side, rolled and pounced right back at her. It looked like a toad the size of a large cat, except toads didn’t have multiple rows of needle-sharp teeth, didn’t stink of carrion and didn’t, generally, try to tear one’s throat open.

The creature slammed into Lynn. What it lacked in mass, it more than made up for with single-minded murderous intent, driving her to the ground. It bit deep into Lynn’s left arm, pulled on her hair with one clawed hand and tried to gouge her eyes out with the other. It squirmed and bounced and raged, resisting Lynn’s attempts to get any kind of hold on it. Twisting, she brought up a knee between her and the creature, and with a cry and a lock of her hair still clutched in the monster’s hand kicked it away.

With barely a second of respite she got and still on the floor, Lynn reached for the bag she had dropped. Knife. Something to protect herself with. The creature landed on her back and screeched in her ear, claws on all of its limbs digging into her. Lynn’s fingers closed on… Not a knife. Didn’t matter. She clutched the monstrous claw that Josh had stolen from the Beast, and swung it at her assailant. Pinned on her stomach as she was, with the thing sitting on top, the claw failed to reach its target. The creature screeched again and bit into her right shoulder, causing her to drop the weapon.

Lynn got her knees under her, slipped on the wet mosaic, got up on all fours again. The thing was still stuck on her shoulder. She grabbed the claw with her left hand and finally managed to jab it into the monster.

“Get off me!”

The thing yelped, and skittered away. Lynn stood up, panting, her right arm hanging limp, blood dripping down it, the claw clasped firmly in her left. The creature crouched a couple of meters away. It poked at the gash the claw left on it.

“Oh well, can’t blame a demon for trying,” said the thing.

Lynn brought up the claw defensively.

“Relax. I know when I’m licked,” the thing’s long tongue dashed over its wound.

“You can speak.”

“Noticed that, huh. I can already see this’ll be a wonderful working relationship.”

“What are you?” Lynn was growing more confused by the minute.

“A demon. Keep up!”

“You’re a demon?”

“Oh boy, we have ourself a smart one. Real observationist, you are.”

“Shut up. Why were you here?”

“Lady, I don’t even know where ‘here’ is. You brought me here.”

“What are you even talking about?!”

The demon sighed.

“I’ll use small words, okay? The claw you hold. It’s me. I live in it. Like… Like a maggot in a corpse. Except it’s my corpse,” the demon waved its left hand around, one of its fingers missing, “It’s complicated, and doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’m yours to command, as long as you hold my phylactery. My finger, I mean.”

“Mine to command?”

“Got it in one. Who’s a good fearless leader? You are!”

“So why did you attack me?”

“You didn’t have the finger when I did, now did you? I swear, where’s a warlock out to make a deal when you need one. Those guys know what they’re doing. Well, they think they do, it’s actually hilarious. But at least they know something.”

Lynn’s annoyance at being both a physical and a verbal punching bag finally outgrew her confusion.

“Shut it. If you’re under my control,” she brandished the claw, “Then stop insulting me, to start with.”

“Yes, your commanding highness,” the demon stood to attention, as much as its crooked legs, pot belly and humped back would allow it.

“And no more attacking me.”

“As you wish, your magnificarious majesty.”

“In fact, no attacking anyone, unless I say so.”

“A most prudelicious order.”

“And stop making up words.”

“A made-up word to a fool is just picayune altiloquence to a sage.”

“Did you just call me a fool?”

“I can hardly be blamed for the conclusions you draw from the observations I state.”

“Enough! Enough with the snide remarks and the sarcasm and the rudeness.”

The demon opened its mouth, then closed it again. Rotated its bulging eyes. Opened the mouth again, let out a stifled croak, and sat down, looking pitiful.

“You can’t,” Lynn realised with a nervous laugh,  “You can’t actually not be unpleasant. You have nothing to say that’s not meant to ruin someone’s day.”

The demon nodded, and attempted its version of puppy-dog eyes, which ended up being much more like constipated toad eyes, not that Lynn ever saw such a thing. Thankfully.

“Fine. You can talk.”

The demon cleared its throat with a quick succession of words describing acts that were biologically improbable, historically inaccurate and theologically unwise. Lynn could understand about a quarter of it, enough to turn her face bright pink. Another quarter she could surmise the meaning of, and felt like her hair had turned pink in response as well.

“Much better. Now, fearless leader, what villainy am I to conduct for you?”

“I want to bring someone down. Get rid of them,” Lynn found herself saying, without any pause to think.

“A vendetta! I may have underestimated you. Who’s the unfortunate soul, then?”

“The Beast. Your previous owner.”

The demon fell on the floor, laughing. Every time it seemed like it was done, it would look at Lynn’s determined face and begin anew.

“I’m not kidding,” she said grumpily.

“I know,” replied the demon between the croaking fits, “Wouldn’t be funny otherwise.”

“Done?” enquired Lynn after it had finally stopped.

“For now. But seriously. You, against a true rakshasa? You barely overcame me, in this puny form.”

“I don’t intend to fight him directly. And what’s a rakshasa?”

“Rakshasa, my suicidally fearless leader, is one of the meanest things to ever walk these blasted lands. I say that with envy and admiration. And that particular one, Karadash, has walked them before they were blasted, too. So what do you have to oppose a centuries-old sorcerer with a demon’s heart?”

“You.”

“I see. Sorry to disappoint, but the most use he found for me was as a paperweight. He’d defeated me at his weakest, and me at my strongest. The demon’s heart I mentioned? Not a metaphor.”

“I’ll figure it out.”

“I’m looking forward to my eventual return to being a paperweight. Is there anything else you wish me to do right now, or can I go back to sleep?”

Lynn considered the question. If not for the scratches all over her arms and back, this was a good luck turn, and her head was still spinning from it. Or maybe it was the blood loss. A stinking, swearing opportunity had landed on her lap and took a bite.

“How can I call on you? And why did you come out now, for that matter?”

“The delicious blood woke me. There’s something about those last few drops, as it’s growing cold on your tongue, you know? You can almost taste the emptiness the soul leaves behind.”

Lynn shuddered. It was Josh’s blood the demon was talking about. For a brief moment, she had been glad to have this comically vile thing serve her. Now she realized there was nothing comic about its vileness.

“As for calling me, just use my name: Stain.”

“You’re called Stain?”

“As in shit stain, yes.”

“That’s… No, that’s just wrong. Even for a demon.”

“Like you’d know.”

“I’m your boss now, and I say your name is… Stan.”

The demon chortled. “That’s not how it works. You can command me to respond to that name, sure, but you can no more change my name than you can command me to be nice. One and the same, really.”

“Why not? Be Stan. Be nice.”

Not-Stan smiled sweetly, exposing all of its crooked teeth.

“You poor little defenseless girl. It must be so scary, being alone in the whole wide world, with no one to turn to,” it crooned, “How desperate you must be, to ask a demon for help. The blood I tasted, was that your friend? Your only friend? How horrible your fate, how unfair. How you must torment yourself, wondering if you deserve all this, if you are at fault, somehow. Is that why you are on your silly little quest, to end your suffering?”

“Stop. Stop,” Lynn was shaking, “That wasn’t nice. That was mean and condescending and… Don’t.”

“Was it? I wouldn’t know. I know about being nice as much as you know about being a demon.”

“Fine. You are a horrid little thing, I get it. I’ll still call you Stan.”

“Your wish, etcetera, etcetera. Oh, by the way. Those scratches I left, you may want to get them treated. You don’t want to know where my claws have been. Though I’d be delighted to tell you.”

“Why the sudden concern for my well-being?”

“Oh, I want you dead, but I don’t want you dead in a ditch. Being a paperweight is better than being lost.”

With that, the demon disappeared, and the claw throbbed in Lynn’s hand. She stood alone in the gloom, wondering what she got herself into. Faceless stone angels observed her in silent judgement.

Chapter Twenty Three

Posted: May 6, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

Morning came, but brought no relief, only numbness. Lynn may have passed in and out of consciousness a few times – the light outside her alcove seemed to grow rapidly. If she did, she didn’t dream. Unless it was all a dream, a haze of terrible events, all blending together in her tired mind. Wouldn’t that be nice. Would explain how she ended up in an underwater coral cavern some crazy merfolk called home. Lynn tried to will the wavering seaweed curtain to dissipate, to turn into an actual cloth curtain on the wind, to wake up inside her tower, to hear the breathing of Tim and Eric instead of the omnipresent susurrus of the currents. No such luck.

Lynn blinked. Whether a second passed or an hour, she couldn’t tell. A face was looking at her from within the seaweed. Lynn jerked up and out of her corner, and the face was gone. Was that a dream?

“Hello,” she tried to call out, but it didn’t sound right. The word came out distorted, quiet, more air than sound. “E-oo,” she tried again. Stupid water. A giggle came from behind the curtain. Lynn scowled. Of course, of course merfolk laughing at her would sound just fine.

The face appeared again, a child, even younger than the twins. Lynn’s scowl grew angrier, and the child disappeared, frightened. Good. She didn’t feel like being a laughing stock, for merfolk or their children.

Glad to be left alone as she was, Lynn soon realised she’d have to go out of her cave. She hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s morning, and was even more thirsty than hungry. Somehow, drinking the sea water didn’t seem like a good idea, even if she could breathe it now. Lynn’s fingers found the water breathing amulet at the thought, checked the string around her neck. It would not be pleasant to lose it.

Lynn approached the curtain with trepidation. Who knew what waited for her on the other side. What scurrying things lurked within the curtain itself. She’d been marched down here so fast, she had no chance to look around. Nicholas lived here, but who else? Was that girl his daughter? Sister? Were there many merfolk out there, waiting to laugh at her?

Lynn pushed through the curtain to find none. Another room, larger than her alcove, much smaller than her tower. The ceiling curved unevenly, as did the floor. The corridors entering the room were sloped, two leading up, one down. It actually was an underwater cave, after all.

There was a table in the middle of the room, but no chairs. Instead, mysterious planks protruded from below it, too narrow and low to be benches. Strings hung from the ceiling above it, some with food items on their ends, swaying with the flow. At least Lynn assumed they were food items. With the exception of an apple, she couldn’t recognize any of them.

Another giggle sounded behind her, and Lynn spun clumsily, provoking more giggling. The annoying girl was there, poking her head out of a downwards tunnel.

“What?!” Lynn asked, and to her relief it sounded at least somewhat recognizable.

The girl responded with a series of clicks and flashing fingers, then giggled again at Lynn’s puzzled expression. She repeated her movements slower, fingers flowing into patterns and breaking up again, tongue clicks accentuating some signs. Lynn could only shrug.

The girl raised her hand palm up in a universal gesture that meant “stop, wait” and dove down. A short while later, two sets of clicks followed and Nicholas swam out, still groggy from sleep. He and Lynn exchanged angry glares.

Nicholas tried to communicate to Lynn in a similar manner, to which she responded with the only gesture she knew. Annoyed, Nicholas mimed his message: pointed at Lynn, then at the girl, then shook his head energetically as his hands drew a cross. “Stay away from the girl.” Or what, Lynn thought to herself, she’ll get her surface filth on the little brat? But she nodded in acknowledgement. Not like she wanted to spend time with her.

With the method for communication established, Lynn moved on to a more pressing need. She mimed an explosion coming out of her rear, and watched the disgust on the merman’s face with vindictive glee. He led Lynn through the downward tunnel, pointing at another seaweed curtain at its end.

“Drafty”, is the word Lynn would have used to describe the experience, had it transpired on the surface. There were two holes on the sides of the room near the floor, opposite one another. A strong current ran through them, sucking everything in the room down and out. Lynn wondered where it led, then realized she didn’t know where the sewers of the surface city led either. Some things were better left unknown.

When she returned to the living room, Lynn found the rest of the family gathered there for breakfast. In addition to Nicholas and the girl, there was an elderly couple, probably their parents. They had assembled around the table, their legs hooked around the protruding planks, keeping them from drifting away. “Clever,” thought Lynn, before correcting herself: “Stupid mermen.”

As she entered, the clicking, hand-waving conversation stopped, with four pairs of eyes staring at her. At least they weren’t laughing. After half a minute of awkward silence, the mother gestured for Lynn to join them at the table.

Something green, leafy, and wrapped in a net was placed in front of her in a stone bowl, and the conversation continued. Fingers flew, tongues clicked and glances were cast her way. Lynn picked at her food, feeling utterly alone. As far as she could tell, Nicholas was being berated for dragging her in. Not surprising.

The food tasted primarily of salt, or maybe that was just the seawater Lynn swallowed with it. Either way, she could only eat a bit. She tried to untangle herself from the not-chairs, bumped into the mother, then Nicholas, and finally was free, if red faced. Lynn tried to both apologise and thank them for the food, a gesture consisting in equal parts of a shrug, a nod and a spin (stupid water!). The girl giggled again, making Lynn turn even redder.

Not knowing what to do now, Lynn waited in the corner as the family finished their meal. The father, a thin, wiry man with short gray hair, ate quietly and deliberately. There was a rhythm to his movements, an almost mechanical precision: pull down a section of the net, tear the revealed food off, chew it five times, repeat. The girl was the opposite, surrounded by a widening cloud of food debri. Nicholas barely touched his food, but what he did eat he swallowed almost immediately. And the mother was in charge. At her command, the girl sat more still, Nicholas ate and the father participated in the conversation.

Lynn was surprised by how much she had learned about them by just observing the family eat, and also by how relatable they turned out to be. How human. Still, she reminded herself, they may well be just as human as they once were, as they claim they are, but being human has changed its meaning since then. To be human was to fear the dark, to not know when or how you’ll eat next, to huddle in ruins and not trust anyone. To not have a home, or a family. That’s what it meant to be human. Or at least to be Lynn.

The meal at its end, the merfolk family got up. There was something strange in the way the father moved, a bit lopsided. As he swam out of the dining room and past Lynn, she finally noticed the reason: most of his right leg was missing. Lynn gasped at the ugly scar poorly concealed by the trimmed pants, and got a withering glare from the legless father.

The day was starting, and the merfolk were moving around, embroiled in whatever activities merfolk engaged in during the day. Lynn floated, uncertain of what to do. No one was paying her any attention. She went back into “her” room to get her bag, then swam out. She wanted to get a better look at the cavern home. In the diffused light of day, it didn’t seem quite so magical. Instead of a glowing mountain it was a red-brown hill, with other red-brown hills here and there around it.

The father was out here, moving around with some sort of instrument, akin to gardening scissors. He moved his hand along the hill, occasionally snapping off a protruding piece of coral. That’s right, Lynn realised, the coral was a living thing, and it kept growing. She watched the father work for a while, an occupation he approached just like he approached eating, just like he approached most things, Lynn imagined. Row by row, from start to finish, even and dependable.

A short while later, Nicholas came out of the house, on his way into the Under Valenar proper. Seeing him, Lynn remembered just how desperately thirsty she was, so she mimed drinking from a bottle. It took a couple of tries, but he got the message. Nicholas waved for her to follow, and the two swam for about ten minutes, arriving at what looked like an actual mountain, barely covered by the waves. Nicholas swam down, so Lynn followed, to a grand ruined building at its feet.

It used to be a temple to one of the Old Gods. The dead and forgotten deities who failed to prevent the end of the world – or caused it themselves. It sat at an angle, having barely survived the sinking of the bay during the Last Battle.

Statues which used to guard the entrance, no doubt once fierce and awe-inspiring, now wore shoals of seaweed, warriors turned beggars by the fall of their god. Inside, fish swam between the magnificent columns, crabs scuttled across the intricate mosaic of the floor.

The temple may have fallen into ruin, but it still resisted the final collapse. Water couldn’t conquer it in its entirety. Much like the half-sunk tower in which Lynn was interrogated yesterday, the back half of the temple had air in it. Emerging from the water after Nicholas, Lynn looked around.

Similar glowing moss covered the corners and crept up the walls. Within its gloomy light, a lectern could be seen, cracked in two. None of the statues here had faces. The conquering army of Evil must have vandalised the temple. Except it had sunk during the sacking. Hopefully, they had the time, Lynn found herself thinking. The alternative explanation, that all the statues of saints and angels had their faces crumble to dust when their god died, was more disconcerting.

“There is water here,” said Nicholas pointing at a barrel behind the lectern, “For walkers who visit. You can come here when you need to, but don’t stay too long. The air will run out one day.”

Lynn contemplated sneering as a response, but deigned to say “thanks” in the end.

“I’m off to the Tidewatch, and will be back late. Don’t bother my family.”

“You’re not going to watch me? What if I escape?”

“Escape where, to the surface where you said the Beast waits for you? Either that’s true, and you won’t, or it’s a lie and we’d be wasting our time keeping you here. Please do, I’d rather get a chewing out from my officer than babysit you.”

“‘s true. And I ain’t no child in need of babysitting.”

“Then I will see you later tonight.”

With that, Nicholas walked down into the water without turning, causing Lynn to waste a perfectly good glare on his back. As soon as he was gone, Lynn rushed to the barrel, and drank until she washed the taste of salt out of her mouth.

Finally satiated, Lynn looked up just in time to see something leap at her, teeth first.

Chapter Twenty Two

Posted: April 2, 2015 in Arc 3 - Sinking

“Knife, dull. Apple, half-eaten. Comb, bone. Claw and knuckles, bestial, dessicated. Slime, jar of. Body, male, still in the boat,” the obese merman looked up from the wax tablet, “Quite an assortment of possessions.”

Lynn glared at a wall in defiance.

“And you say she was drifting in a boat with these items when you found her, in the middle of the night?”

“That’s correct, sir,” the younger merman responded, “Right on top of Under Valenar. I was out on a patrol when my sharks smelled blood.”

Lynn’s gaze wavered, but didn’t go down. She wouldn’t look at her dress. Soaked as it was by the underwater trip, Josh’s blood would never wash out. She didn’t look at her hands, either. She may be shivering, but she wouldn’t let them touch her.

“Did she say anything?”

“No, sir.”

“What’s your name, child?”

The obese merman tried to sound kind. Lynn didn’t buy it.

“You’re in some trouble right now. But nothing that can’t be cleared up with your cooperation. You didn’t murder the fellow you were found with, did you?”

Lynn shot him a venomous look.

“Didn’t think so. How about you tell us what happened, then?”

Lynn imagined the merman catch fire. His stupid little moustache would burn off first. The younger merman who caught her tried to lay a hand on her shoulder. With a tiny shriek Lynn dove out of the way, moving until she could keep them both in front of her.

“Nicholas, don’t,” the fat merman almost sounded concerned, “The girl is obviously in shock. Her friend, was he your friend? Her friend had died in front of her,” he turned to Lynn again, “We can help you. Tell us what happened.”

Lynn exploded. “Why? What do you care?!”

“It’s our job to care. We are the Tidewatch of Under Valenar.”

“You’re doing a piss-poor job of it, then, or he wouldn’t be dead!” Lynn was shaking, and only partially due to the cold clinging clothes.

“We can’t be everywhere. But we can help you now.”

“No, you really, really can’t. You say you care. Everyone says that. Makes them feel good. No one does anything. Especially not you mermen in your underwater palaces,” she spat on the floor. The sponge this Nicholas had stuffed into her mouth before dragging her out of the boat had left a foul taste on her tongue. It also, somehow, allowed her to breathe underwater long enough to get here.

The older merman raised an eyebrow: “Take a look around you. Does this look like a palace?”

They were in a lower floor of a half-sunken tower, out in the harbor. The part that still stuck out from under the waves at a perilous angle was used as a lighthouse during the shadowfall, to guide the last ships hurrying home. No one was stupid enough to sail during the night. The part below the waves kept the air somehow. There were some pipes hanging from a sealed staircase leading up that probably had something to do with that. They’ve ascended a different flight of stairs to get here, emerging from the chilling water into a dark, dank room.

Some sort of luminescent lichen covered the walls, giving barely enough light to see the people inside. There was a desk to the side, behind which the senior merman sat, with a single candle on it. Water dripped from Lynn’s dress and formed a stream running down the sloped floor, towards the descending stairs. There were smaller streams coming from under the mermen, their attires lacking absorbent cloth – or much of any material altogether. No, this didn’t look like much of a palace. But then again, it was meant for people like her, the ones not able to breathe underwater without disgusting sponges.

Mistakenly taking her silence for agreement, the merman continued: “Oh, and another thing. I wouldn’t advise you to call our people ‘mermen’. Some may react unfavorably. That’s the term we use for the ones made for this life. We are still human, though changed. Call us Allyrian if you have to, the name of our sunken kingdom. Or Menar’s Chosen, though that’s a mouthful. By his grace we’ve survived the Last Battle.”

“Regardless. If you refuse to cooperate, we’ll have to turn you over to the surface authorities. The murder happened above, so that’s where the investigation will occur.”

“Then I’m dead,” said Lynn matter-of-factly.

“I’m certain they’re not so quick to judge.”

“Who, the ‘surface authorities’? They won’t do anything. Another street kid dead. We’ve been dying for half a year now. It’s the Beast that’s been hunting us that’ll get me.”

The mermen (Lynn didn’t care for their distinctions) exchanged uncomfortable glances.

“I’ve heard of this Beast,” said the senior one after some consideration, “Is there a reason it is after you?”

“It is the Beast. That’s what it does. But you’ve already heard about it, and yet you’re still here. You’re still here and the Beast is out there. Lucky you, the Beast doesn’t go into the water, and neither does the Shadow. Fortunate. Chosen.”

“Watch your mouth, girl, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Nicholas angrily.

“Or what?” spat Lynn, “There isn’t anything you can do that scares me anymore. The Beast is after me. You, ‘authorities’, none of that matters. Empty posturing, all you’re good for.”

“How about we give you to the Shadowguard for drug trafficking?” Nicholas raised his voice to match her, “They’ve been on our backs about slime for quite some time.”

“You know full well I’m as guilty of that as I am of murder. But sure, go ahead. Lie, get rid of the inconvenient street rat. Not your problem, right?”

“Nicholas, enough. The girl has a point – the Shadowguard is too busy to protect her. And if the Beast is after her as she claims, we can’t turn her away. That means she stays here, for a few days at least, until we figure out what to do with her,” he turned to Lynn, “I’m really tired to talking about you in third person, by the way.”

“Why? I’ve been referring to you as ‘the fat one’ in my head, works for me.”

“Delightful. And that’s not third person, by the way. Either way, I am officer Thomas, officer Nicholas you already know as ‘the skinny one’.”

“Lynn,” she said grumpily.

“No family name?”

“No family.”

“Right. Nicholas, you are in charge of Lynn here. Take her in, temporarily.”

“Sir! I don’t want a criminal on my hands or in my home!”

“Or what, she’ll escape from you? A surfacer will outswim and outsmart a Tidewatch officer in his own home, is that what you’re saying?”

“No, sir, but…”

“Then do as you’re ordered,” Lynn couldn’t tell if Thomas was amused or annoyed, “You can claim compensation for whatever expenses she incurs later.”

“Sir, yes, sir,” Nicholas straightened his back and bowed slightly, almost shouting his consent.

“Do I get a say in this?” Lynn wasn’t too happy either.

“No. Unless you’d prefer to be turned over to the Shadowguard.”

“Fine, I’ll go with the fishface.” An uncalled for, and entirely inaccurate insult – if anything, Nicholas was quite handsome, sharp cheekbones and all. “But I want my things.”

“You’re not exactly in a position to make demands,” Thomas kept his ambiguous smirk.

“But you are in a position to steal from me the only things I own. I ain’t about to let you.”

“The term would be ‘confiscate as evidence’. But there’s no need for that. Take it.”

Lynn dashed forward, sweeping her meager possessions into the soggy bag. She stopped when she laid her hands on the jar of slime. Raising her eyes, Lynn saw Thomas watching her, eyebrow cocked. Demonstratively, Lynn let go of the jar, a finger at a time, and moved back. Thomas nodded in approval, causing her to hate the merman so much more.

Nicholas lost the last of his patience.

“Come,” He didn’t bother to look at Lynn. Suited her fine.

“You’re forgetting something. Here, Lynn, take this,” Thomas extended an amulet to her, pulled from within the desk drawer. It looked like a bunch of horizontal wavy lines, or, Lynn realised, a hand with wavy fingers clasping the string. The candlelight reflected from it in a rainbow of colors, like a shell she’d sometimes find washed up on the shore.

“Menar’s Embrace. We keep a few for visitors. It’ll let you live among us,” explained the merman.

Lynn put it on, and a wave of warmth washed over her. Her shivering stopped as the damp clothing wrapped around her ceased being freezing, now merely cool.

She nodded in thanks, more automatically than purposefully. Nicholas was a few steps down already, half submerged in water and looking back. His smirk wasn’t ambiguous at all. Lynn hurried after him. She’ll bide her time. Not dead yet.

“Follow me. Don’t even think of escaping. My sharks will get you before you swim a meter.”

Two dark shapes, as long as Lynn’s leg, were swimming in circles just outside the submerged tower. Nicholas dove, and the sharks moved to him, wagging their tails like puppies. Shark-toothed shark-puppies. Lynn followed. No choice. Again.

With the merman amulet on, the sea accepted her, there was no other way to describe it. The water was warm and welcoming; the stinging darkness dissolved before her eyes and Lynn could see clearly, down to the very seabed; even her movements seemed easier, like the liquid parted more eagerly before her, and propelled her on her way. She forgot to hold her breath, and water rushed into her nose, filling her lungs. A moment’s panic dissipated as Lynn kept on breathing. She felt the heavy movement of water inside her, felt it expelled and inhaled with greater force than air would require. Lynn didn’t choke, didn’t gasp for air that wasn’t there, didn’t drown. Menar’s Embrace, huh.

With her vision clear, Lynn saw Under Valenar for the first time. She knew it’d be sprawling, but didn’t expect it to be so colorful. In the darkness of the night it glowed softly with greens and blues, walls themselves shedding light. And what walls they were!

The houses were built into a coral reef, made out of it, grown into it. Canyons of corals spread under and around her. Dark holes of windows and passages marked their surface chaotically. Seaweed swayed in unseen currents. Schools of tiny fish sped here and there, black silhouettes outlined by the glowing walls. The place looked both unmistakably inhabited and entirely natural. So unlike the opulence of Higher Valenar, yet just as ornate. So unlike the towering history of Lower Valenar, yet not without its own grandeur. Here, the ruins of the older city were neither demolished nor rebuilt. They were used as a foundation for new growth, elven masonry still seen here and there through the enveloping coral.

The third, often forgotten part of the trifold city was beautiful, yes, but also gloomy. The glow of its walls only served to frame the deeper darkness of the night sea. It was a mundane darkness, not disembodied flesh of an insane god crawling across the land, but darkness nonetheless. Lynn had spent her entire life fearing the dark, and this place set her teeth on the edge. The sea may have accepted her, but she wasn’t about to accept the sea.

As she swam after Nicholas, keeping up as best as she could, Lynn seethed. For years, she’s hated mermen, mostly because they weren’t like her. Actually meeting them didn’t change her opinion. She hated the mermen for the safety of their city and for how uneasy being there made her; for doing nothing to protect others against the Beast and for keeping her here to do the same; for the slurred way in which they spoke in the air and for the speed with which they swam in the water. If she could see these contradictions, she’d hate the mermen for them too.

The city seemed endless, rows upon rows of houses, mountains of corals stretching under her. Lynn’s arms burned from exertion, and still they swam. Nicholas had to stop more and more to wait for her with that annoying smirk on his face. Lynn couldn’t see it, but sensed it just the same. Eventually the glow diminished, the coral grew more sparse. Now, there were only splotches of color, tiny islands of illumination under the sea of darkness. Lynn would wonder what lurked there, had she not been so exhausted.

Further out and down they went, finally coming to a small coral hill, barely aglow. Nicholas gestured for her to follow, leading Lynn inside. He led her through a gloomy house, more cramped that Lynn had expected. There was water inside. Of course there was water. For some reason Lynn had thought there wouldn’t be, that inside a home there’d be regular beds and tables and all the things people who have houses have.

They passed through a seaweed curtain, arriving in a tiny room, barely more than an alcove. Lynn felt her way around in pitch black. Something woven and heavy lay on the ground. The walls were uneven and Lynn could almost reach them all from the middle of the room. She turned to Nicholas, but he was already gone. Fine then.

This was her prison. She could wait for the jailer to fall asleep. There were no locks, at least none that she had seen. But then what? Where would she run to? Swim to. No, she was too tired, too disoriented and not in an immediate danger. She’ll wait.

Lynn tried to lay on the woven bed, at least what she assumed was the bed, but kept floating off it. Mere act of drawing breath propelled her. She resigned to sleeping in mid-air, well, mid-water, then bumped her head into a protruding bit of coral. Add that to the long list of merman indignities.

Finally, Lynn managed to back herself into a corner, arms and knees braced against the walls to prevent movement. Not the most restful position, but it would have to do.

Lynn closed her eyes, and felt blood squelching between her fingers in great pulses. Felt the grip on her arms weaken. Heard the gurgling breath grow more desperate and more quiet with each exhalation. Heard her empty, meaningless, lying prayers and promises. Felt the hot blood covering her turn cold, the flesh under her hands turn cold, the whole world turn cold. Felt Josh’s fear as he died, fear from which all his grins couldn’t save him.

Lynn opened her eyes and stared into the darkness.

Interlude II

Posted: March 24, 2015 in Uncategorized

Brother-in-light,

The investigation into the activities of the so-called Outskirts Beast has taken on a new urgency. The Beast grows bolder. Two days ago, as you are undoubtedly aware, it has fatally attacked Peter Malych near the butcher’s shop he ran. This was the first occasion of an attack within the illuminated zone. It also came too soon after the previous attack. Despite these deviations form the established pattern, I am certain the Beast is the perpetrator. Characteristic non-fatal lacerations likely left by claws are present, the victim’s death purposefully prolonged, even though this time his torment wasn’t as long, likely due to a greater risk of exposure in the light.

The Beast relishes victims’ fear. It displays sadism not normally present in the natural world. This, coupled with the unconfirmed reports of the Beast calling on its victims in the voices of their friends, offers further credibility to the theory that the Beast is not, in fact, a beast, but a malicious individual. Thankfully, there are no signs that would indicate the Great Shadow’s or its slaves’ involvement.

Taking these facts into consideration, it is my belief that the Beast’s uncharacteristic attack was not random like the rest. Mr. Malych must have somehow gotten close to the Beast’s secret identity, most likely unwittingly. Therefore it is my recommendation that his daughter Jennifer is to be observed and approached by someone more fitting to the task, in case she knows something without realising it or is to become the next target.

This concludes my report on the assigned task. However, I must once again question the wisdom of the decision to not move on the known distributors of slime. I realise we do not have full information on the suppliers yet, beyond their aquatic disposition, but the immediate effects of this poison flooding the streets are truly sickening. Any respite, however temporary, would be welcome.

Yours,

Sister-in-darkness

Chapter Twenty One

Posted: March 2, 2015 in Arc 2 - A Trick of Light

The precious time Lynn had spent on sneezing, Josh used to run. By the time Lynn had emerged from their hiding spot under the table, he was already at the window. As Lynn got up, the marquis took a step forward, toward Josh, between her and the escape, stopping Lynn in her tracks. Josh slammed into the window with his entire weight, little though it was. The marquis took another relaxed step, no urgency in his movements. The window flew open under another blow, and Josh stumbled onto the bridge. The marquis was right behind him. The boy scrambled forward on all fours. The marquis reached up, one hand behind his back, effortlessly tearing through the sail still wrapped around the curtain bar with the other. The sail fell. Sunlight poured in. The moonbridge disintegrated. Josh disappeared. A cry. A thud.

Lynn still stood frozen as the marquis turned back to her.

“Now, then. Take a seat,” he gestured at the chair, “it is so rare I entertain guests.”

Lynn strained to look past him, to hear anything. Anything that’d indicate Josh was alive. Instead, all she saw was a perfectly manicured hand that had just cut a heavy sail in half. That had left fatal claw marks on Peter, and many before him. The hand that was ordering her to sit. Lynn remained standing.

A fleeting smile appeared on the marquis’ face. He prowled towards the girl, still standing transfixed, waiting for a killing blow. Instead, he sat on the only chair, throwing one leg on another.

“Suit yourself. You must forgive me my rudeness.”

Lynn responded with an expression of blank horror.

“You must think us closely acquainted, after all, to have come into my home unannounced,” elaborated the marquis, “And I can’t recall your name.”

She was being toyed with, Lynn knew. She looked around for another exit, only to discover the man in the black vest standing silently at the door. She was trapped, Josh was gone, and she wasn’t getting out of this. Lynn felt tiny, insignificant, out of control, out of illusions of ever having had control. But as she imagined herself shrink, a scared girl face to face with a giant monster she had foolishly chased, she found a cold, hard part within that wouldn’t diminish. Lynn hid behind her anger.

“Peter.”

“Peter? A peculiar name for a girl.”

“His name was Peter. The person you had killed two days ago. Do you not recall it either?”

“My dear guest, whatever gave you the idea I have killed anyone, much less this Peter?” The way the marquis pronounced ‘kill’, Lynn has heard others say the name of their lover.

“I know what you are. Underneath that mask you wear. I’ve seen your claws and your fangs and your stripes.”

The marquis smiled broadly with pearl-white teeth as he folded manicured hands on his knee.

“And how, pray tell, have you managed that?”

“Slime showed me. It messes with you, but it cuts through others messing with you, too.”

“Ah, a drug-induced haze. Hardly the most convincing of accusations.”

“I know what I saw.”

“Quite so. And you even convinced a friend! Pity he had to leave us so soon.”

Lynn took a step forward, looming with her slight frame over the bemused marquis.

“I’ve told others, too. They know where I am. They’ll know I was right once you kill me. You won’t hide forever.”

The smoke made her head spin. It was rising from the bowl Lynn saw earlier, with the candle underneath now lit. The metal figures tried to escape the smoking oil, damned souls forever futilely fleeing their punishment. The marquis really liked hellfire and demons in his art. Was he one?

The marquis laughed. “My dear nameless guest, do I look like I’m hiding?”

“You do, with every second of your disguise. And I’m not nameless. I’m done being nameless. My name is Lynn.”

“Finally, some civility. That is what my ‘disguise’, as you put it, is – a courtesy. A pleasure to make your acquaintance, however briefly. I am Karadash. And so, high on a poison, you saw I am not what I appear to be. Therefore you have concluded I am exactly what I appear to be. My, what a delightfully straightforward mind you have.”

Lynn felt her confidence crumble, her shield of anger begin to give in. The other genuinely dangerous person she had spoken with in her life, Azary, was always out to hurt you. Every word was a sharp dagger, but at least they all came straight at you. Karadash was circling her, stalking her through the conversation. Though he remained immobile in his chair, Lynn’s swirling vision blurred Karadash and the room, made it seem like she was fleeing the lurking Beast through a labyrinth of trees spinning around her. A deeper memory that all of humanity shared deep in their bones: of a dark forest and a yellow-eyed shadow that stalks it, of pursuit and blood. Of terror. Lynn pinched her thigh until the forest receded.

“Say I’m dumb all you like. I got this far.”

“Indeed. For all the good it’s done. Do you think your street friends will do any better?”

“They ain’t the only ones who know. One of the dragon’s own.” Lynn immediately knew this was a mistake. Hadn’t she learned by now, she can’t drag others into this. Karadash can’t get to Isabel, can he? The smoke made it so hard to think.

“I thought it was you at Narid’s house. Still,” Karadash continued over Lynn’s attempts to swallow her words, “You did get this far. And you might even have gotten further, had you had any education. Take a look at the window you got in through, see if you can spot anything unusual. Go on, I won’t bite.”

On unbending legs, Lynn walked over to the window. All she had to do to see if Josh was still alive was look down. She didn’t dare. Facing the Beast was easier than facing another friend being dead. Another person she had failed with her carelessness.

A breath of fresh air cleared her mind a bit. The walls stopped spinning, the Beast hid beneath the skin of a smug man again, a tiger in tall grass.

Lynn examined the frame, if only to avoid thinking of everything else. She didn’t understand what game Karadash was playing, but perhaps she’d stay alive as long as she played along. The frame was much like the one in Melai’s tower: elven runes carved into the wood, their glow receding; a metal hook for holding the panels together she had lifted. Lynn cast a glance back at Karadash, to find him looking at her with the same amused expression he’s had from the start. At least his disguise was holding.

There, the only thing that was different, a piece of string torn in half, hanging from the sides of both window panels near the top, stuck to them somehow. She did feel something snap as she opened the window. Lynn pulled, and the torn strings came off. With both pieces in her hand, she turned back to Karadash.

Silently, he held up his left arm sideways, elbow bent in front of him. Dangling from the seam of his green coat in a row were decorative strings, just like the one she had. One was shorter than the others. Torn in two.

“Is that how you knew someone got in? Are those strings somehow connected?”

“Very good,” the marquis sounded delighted at his prey’s efforts, “Each of these strings is linked to another, guarding my property from intrusion, here and elsewhere. You really had no chance. Grit and bravado can only get one so far.”

“At least I tried.”

“Spare me the martyrdom act, defiance was much more entertaining.”

“So what now? Will you kill me here, or will you spare the carpet?” Lynn was done with Karadash’s games.

“Much better. It’s almost a pity I have no use for you. As for your death, whatever gave you that idea?” Unfortunately, Kardash himself wasn’t done playing, “It serves no purpose. There’s hardly any sport in it. Go.”

“You… won’t kill me?” Lynn couldn’t believe her ears.

“Would you like me to? Don’t try my patience.”

“But sire…” the servant in black, who Lynn had forgotten existed, spoke for the first time. It took one glance from Karadash to make him silent again.

“Teresh here will take you down.” The servant bowed.

“Meanwhile, I still have a ball to go to. I understand my good friend Narid will be there,” Karadash watched Lynn bite her lip before continuing, “Oh, and before you go. I understand concepts such as courtesy may be as unfamiliar to you as bathing, so I will offer an advice. It would be most ungracious of a guest to leave with hosts’ property. A fatal mistake, one might say.”

Lynn pulled the journal she stole out of her bag and placed it on the table. Karadash nodded in mock gratitude. Teresh had opened the door in front of her, and she walked out, utterly defeated yet somehow still breathing.

She flew down the stairs to escape the horrible tower, the horrible marquis and the horrible servant. The latter somehow kept pace. Light-darkness-light, a flight of stairs, partially engulfed by the Shadow. Over and over, down and out.

“Thieving little mouse,” hissed Teresh as he reached over Lynn to open the outer door. She recoiled from him, slipping into the crack, towards freedom. It took the rest of her fraying will not to run the last few steps towards the gate leading onto the street. Lynn felt the servant’s angry gaze lingering on her, stumbled under its weight. She got away.

But what about Josh? He wasn’t lying on the ground broken, as Lynn feared he would. The sail fluttered up above against the Melai’s tower, hanging heavily from the window. The moonstone still rested there, the bridge still tried to appear, only to be destroyed by the magical sunlight, again and again. Some things just couldn’t be overcome.

There was no way Lynn was sticking around long enough to pick the moonstone up. She moved down the street, away from Teresh still watching her from the doorway. She didn’t have to go far to find Josh: his head stuck out of a shadowed alley at her approach, and he waved Lynn in. Through the Shadow they went, to the other side, away from the Beast.

There was a grimace of pain on Josh’s face as they emerged into the light. The entire right side of his pants was torn up and stained with blood. The skin beneath was already swelling up, a massive bruise if not worse. He limped heavily towards a wall, then dropped down with a groan.

“What happened?” asked Lynn.

“What’d ya think? I fell when the bridge gave out. Clutched onto the sail on the way down,” Josh accompanied his words with tired gesticulation, “It took me most of the way, then slammed me into the tower. Don’t think I broke anything, but it hurt like hell. Almost blacked out, and it was still too high. Thought I’d cry for help, but just couldn’t draw a breath. Dunno how I held on. Wouldn’t have mattered none, had Azary not sent one of his thugs to spy on you.”

“What?!”

“Yeah. You owe him. We both do. Again. For saving me, and for failing to steal anything for him. She made sure to tell me that.”

“That’s not… That’s not fair. What does Azary have to do with anything?”

“You tell him that. I warned you to stay away.”

“Fine. We’ll deal with that later. Somehow. How’d you get down?”

“Azary’s thug turned out to be more than just a thug. Clambered up the wall like it was nothing and dragged me down. Magic-like.”

“Magic. Life’d be much easier if we could do it.”

“Lotta things would make life easier. We ain’t got them.”

“Maybe we should try to fix that. But that’s for later, too. For now, we’ve gotta move. Still too close to the Beast’s tower. Here, let me help you.”

The kids moved through the night streets of the city that never slept, Josh leaning heavily on Lynn. Passers-by turned away when they noticed his state, but they did that anyway. Not their problem. Never their problem. Soon, they’ll be lost in the crowd. Soon, they’ll be safe.

Except they weren’t. Something bothered Lynn, an itch in the back of her head. There, the same set of footsteps that’s followed them for the last couple of minutes. She turned around surreptitiously, but there was no Beast behind them, no marquis. Just people. Lynn took a sharp turn, dragging surprised Josh with her. The footsteps followed.

Josh had noticed them by now too, limping along as fast as he could. Under an arch, up a street, down another, through the crowd, over a fence (“Ow!”), the footsteps followed. Past a procession, into a tavern (“Get outta here!”), out of the back door, the footsteps grew closer.

Maddeningly, they didn’t appear to belong to anyone. Every time Lynn looked back, there were different indifferent faces. Elfblooded and dragonkin, humans and dwarves, an occasional cogheart too, but no Beast.

Once again, images of a dark forest, of pursuit and prey came to her mind. Stone buildings may have replaced trees, people may have replaced foliage, but the hunter and the prey remained. The terror remained.

She could ditch Josh, it occurred to her. No one could catch her in her city, not at full speed, not even the Beast. In this forest, she knew every branch. And Josh did abandon her up in the tower. He was quiet now. Pale, sweating from the pain of every step, a burden. There was no way she was going to make it with him. There was no way she was leaving him behind.

Josh looked like he was about to pass out, so Lynn distracted him with a panting conversation.

“What should we do now, what menace should we tackle?”

“What d’you mean? We ain’t done.”

“Yeah, we are. We failed to defeat the Beast. There wasn’t anything we could have done. He gloated as he explained that, and he was right, Shadow take him.”

“So what, give up?”

“What else is there? We got caught. We’ve spent weeks trying to get into the tower, and we have nothing to show for it.”

“The journal?”

“He took it.”

“I still have the claw, though.”

Talking while dragging Josh was taking its toll on Lynn. She couldn’t hear the footsteps, so she slowed down to catch a breath and glare at him in exasperation.

“We have a claw. And he has wealth, influence, actual claws and some invisible bastard chasing us.”

The footsteps appeared again, ahead of them. They were being herded. Away from the temple district, from busy streets. With a groan, Lynn set out again. Josh glared back at her even as he was being half-carried.

“We knew all that. It’s not fair. But we can’t lie down and…. ugh, this hurts… we can’t wait for it to become fair. Ain’t happening.”

“You’re dumb,” said Lynn with warmth in her voice. Josh grinned.

The docks. Not the best place to hide: open, somewhat deserted at night, right at the edge of the Shadow. That’s it, they could hide in the Shadow again. Even blind, they knew where to go, Lynn reasoned, could navigate by memory. A desperate plan, she realised, as a single misstep would see them plummet into cold water; a single wrong turn would leave them in a dead end. The wooden docks looked like bridges into eternal night.

“Lynn!” Old Martha called out.

A wave of relief washed over Lynn at the sight of the stout woman. If there was anyone who’d know what to do, it was Old Martha. Weird, strong, kind Old Martha. There were no footsteps. Lynn nearly sank to her knees as Old Martha approached. She was so, so tired of dragging Josh around. Josh, who was pulling on her, pulling her away.

“I’ll help you,” said Old Martha with a kindly smile. Too kindly. Josh whimpered.

Thoughts collided in Lynn’s head. The Beast could pass himself for the marquis. They were being followed by no one in particular. Different faces, same footsteps, same terror, same Beast. Smiling with Old Martha’s weathered lips, barely concealing the fangs within.

Thoughts collided and propelled Lynn. Away. Down the dock. Grab the rope. Into the boat. First Josh, then her. Kick away. Again. Drift. Into the sea, into the Shadow, away from the Beast. They made it.

Karadash stood on the docks with a disinterested expression. He wiped his hands with a handkerchief, then dropped it on the ground and turned away. Red. Silk stained scarlet. But she was fine? Behind Lynn, Josh collapsed quietly.

The Shadow swallowed them.