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.

Chapter Twenty

Posted: February 10, 2015 in Arc 2 - A Trick of Light

Shadowfall. The thief’s hour. The Sun has retreated before the Shadow’s relentless assault, and all the good and sane people follow suit, rushing to finish their business for the day, before they hide behind the intangible walls of the daylight crystals. The nightly siege is about to begin. There is just enough time, if you’re desperate enough, to sneak into a hastily abandoned place, before the Shadow’s vanguard arrives, or the Shadowguard catches you marauding.

Lynn opened the window that was a door. With Josh’s help, she wrapped one corner of the sail around a curtain bar above her. The sail looked long enough to reach the other side. If this whole thing worked. If there actually was some truth to the ramblings of a drunk historian.

Behind them, the Shadow had broken into their tower, its long tongues worming their way between the stones, hunting for the soft bodies inside. Somewhere below, Melai was going to sleep, huddled under a window closest to the nearby daylight crystal.

Lynn pulled out the moonstone she had carefully wrapped in a piece of cloth in her bag. The moonstone’s surface was rough, full of microscopic holes, making it seem like it was mostly empty space. Or, rather, that the thin stone walls barely contained its true essence, the moonlight hiding within. It still had nice heft to it, and in the twilight of the room it shone with a soft pale light.

As she lowered the stone on the open window’s edge, Lynn held her breath. First in fear of disappointment, then in amazement. The groves in the doorframe she had taken for imperfections revealed themselves to be elven runes, responding with the same pale glow to the moonstone’s approach, like lovers finally seeing each other after one hundred and seventy eight years of being apart. For the first time since the Last Battle, moonlight shone on this elven tower.

The runes drew the light in, but nothing was happening. Lynn exchanged a worried glance with Josh, who stuck out of the window, extending the sail to shield the area where the moonbridge presumably would appear from the daylight crystal.

“Do you have to, I dunno, say something?” He volunteered.

“Melai didn’t mention anything. Are you covering it well?”

“Ain’t exactly a complicated job.”

“Let’s just wait.”

Minutes passed and Lynn began to grow desperate when the moonbridge finally appeared. The runes have seemingly absorbed enough of the light that spilled from within the moonstone and now shaped and channeled its flow into a thinnest pale ribbon. It extended gradually from the doorway, harsh daylight on the left, terrifying Shadow on the right.

Lynn reached down, placing her hand on the bridge. It looked so flimsy, so immaterial, she fully expected it to go through. Instead, she met a cool, smooth surface. She pushed against it, first carefully then with full force, but it didn’t give in. It may look fragile and transparent, Lynn concluded, but it should support her weight.

She took a step forward, still holding on to the window frame, and didn’t fall through. Behind her, she heard Josh exhale, and she turned to him with a smile.

“It works!”

“Now all we have to do is walk across it and into the Beast’s lair, to find and steal something that’ll prove it’s the Beast. Piece of cake,” Josh smiled back.

Lynn couldn’t think of a better response than sticking her tongue out at him. She carefully took the sail’s edge from Josh and extended it further. With another half a meter shielded from daylight, the moonbridge grew out. At the edge, where the sail waved in the wind and the daylight broke through, the bridge disappeared, only to regrow in the shade. Lynn wasn’t sure if it simply became invisible or if it really dissipated, and didn’t want to find out.

Step by step, unfurling the sail along the way, treading on hardened moonlight, Lynn moved toward the Beast’s tower. Josh followed suit, holding up the cloth in the middle.

“Y’know,” he ventured, “Bards’d have something to say about this. Something about walking the thin line between the light and darkness. The good and the bad.”

“There’s no thin line. There’s a few good people, and a few monsters, and then there’s everyone else.”

“And yet here we are.”

“Yes, well. Bards are stupid. And you are slimed.”

It was Josh’s turn to stick his tongue out. Figuring out the appropriate response took effort on his part, and as he did, the sail slipped out of his hands, sagging under its weight. He caught it almost immediately, but not before a few sunrays fell on the moonbridge between his legs. The hole in the bridge nearly cut it in half, with Lynn on the outer, unsupported side. The kids froze, waiting for the moonbridge to repair. The ground below looked awfully far.

“Quiet now,” ordered Lynn, and Josh nodded.

They reached the opposite window. Lynn leaned in, listening to any noise coming from the inside. Nothing. She tried the window, but it didn’t give. Fortunately, she had examined the windows in Melai’s tower, and knew there was a small hook holding them together. Sticking her knife through the opening she lifted it. Lynn pulled, and the window opened outward with a bit of resistance, as if a string holding it closed had snapped. Lynn hopped in, followed by Josh who secured the sail on a similar curtain bar.

The room took up the entire floor, separated from the stairs by a door. It was as far from the cold desolate elven towers she knew as Lynn could imagine. Books and trinkets and things lay around in seeming disarray, though none of them looked out of place, either. In another room with actual furnishing Lynn had seen, that of Isabel, everything lay in jumbled piles. Isabel had more possessions than she knew what to do with, or where to place them. The marquis had just enough, whatever their purpose was.

A wrought twisted glass jar with no lids or openings, murky purple liquid inside, some dark shape hiding in it, high up on a shelf. A dried up finger of some beast, it’s claw long and razor sharp, pressing down papers on the table. A bowl shaped like a cauldron with tiny metal figures crawling out of it, candle underneath, some oil-like liquid within. Draped mirror in a corner, its one visible corner flashing green as Lynn moved around, a color not found in the room. A tall cage, tiny bird skulls scattered on its floor, hanging from the ceiling.

“Whoa,” said Josh, and Lynn agreed.

They moved through the room, gawking at its contents. Josh went to uncover the mirror, but Lynn stopped him. They should disturb the place as little as possible, she reasoned. Ideally, the Beast wouldn’t even know they were here.

“So, any ideas?” whispered Josh after a couple of minutes.

“Look for records, or weapons, or blood, I don’t know. Something evil.”

“There’s the claw.”

“What about it? It’s just a claw.”

“Don’t you see it? It’s like… Like it’s full of malice. It’s practically growling at me.”

“Slime visions.”

“Don’t mean they ain’t true.”

“Grab it, then. Maybe it’s something.”

The Shadow had made its way into this tower as well, swallowing most of a wall, then a shelf, curling up under the table. Lynn pointed out of the window. Shielding the moonbridge from daylight has allowed the Shadow to move in instead, and take bites out of the fragile light. They didn’t have much time.

“What about that?” asked Josh, pointing at a portrait.

The heavy frame hung on the wall, almost entirely engulfed by the Shadow. Only one side of the picture was still visible, but it was enough. A clawed, furry paw rested on a hilt of a sword. Was the Beast really so arrogant as to have its true form on display?

“Not sure what good it does us, not like we can even lift it.”

“Guess we can point people to it, when it comes to that,” offered Lynn after some consideration.

The window slammed shut behind them. The kids stood still, their hearts beating in terror, but no other sound came.

“Just the wind,” grinned Josh.

Lynn returned to the table, rifling through the stack of papers lying on it. Her mother teaching her to read was one of the few memories of her Lynn had, and to her shame she couldn’t read very well. The papers were full of numbers, leaving her mystified. The idea that someone could have so much money they’d have to keep track of it was utterly alien to Lynn.

She felt around on the table, where the Shadow had taken hold, and fished out a journal. Flipping to the last page that had writing on it, a date caught her eye.

“Hey, Josh, what’s the day today? Thirty seventh of winter?”

“Think so, why?”

“Peter had been killed two days ago. There’s something here about the thirty fifth day. An in… invi… invitation. The marquis was invited somewhere. He left the tower. And here…” She flipped through the journal, “Here! There was a victim a week before that. And on the twenty eighth day of winter he’d had trade nego… negotiations. There’re probably entires for other days, too.”

“So, what, he goes out to chat to people and on the way back murders someone?”

“Looks like it. Gives him an excuse to not be home. Not like anyone’s going to question him on how long it took him to get back.”

“Guess we’d better take it, then. Who knows what else we’ll find inside.”

Lynn nodded. The Beast would definitely notice its journal being gone, she just had to hope it wouldn’t know who took it.

Footsteps heading up the stairs. Lynn jumped, looking at Josh in a panic. The man in the black vest! She was so focused on evading the marquis, she had forgotten about the creepy servant. What did he want in his master’s room?

The door handle began to turn. The window was too far, and closed to boot. Lynn grabbed Josh’s hand and pulled him to the only hiding spot she could see – under the table, into the Shadow.

They crouched underneath, suddenly blind, an arm’s reach away from being discovered. Someone walked into the room. Two sets of footsteps. The marquis must have returned. Lynn held her breath and winced as Josh’s fingers dug into her arm. One of the men said something in an unfamiliar language, right next to her. The Shadow was playing tricks on them, Lynn hoped, distorting sounds, disorienting them further. Her heartbeat was starting to drown out everything. The footsteps circled her. Josh had let go of her arm, and faded into the darkness. She was alone with the Beast. Just her beating heart, the darkness and the thing that dwells within it.

Her lungs were burning, and she finally attempted to breathe out, a slow, torturously wheezing exhalation, sure to attract the predator’s attention.

Leather creaked. The chair in front of the table! She could touch the Beast. More importantly, the Beast would touch her, if it were only to extend its legs. Don’t panic, Lynn thought. She could wait it out. They would be fine. The marquis would leave.

Lynn stifled a scream as two baleful green orbs ignited somewhere far away, the only thing she could see. She’d seen them before, she realised. Josh’s slimed eyes. Lynn reached out to cover them, slowly, incapable of judging the distance between them. Her touch startled him, and the table bumped slightly, deafeningly, from his movement.

Then it creaked. As if the marquis leaned on it. As if the Beast had found them in their hole, had jumped on top of it, toying with its prey. Seconds passed. A thick smell began to drift down, like a box of spices she had once smelled at a market had caught fire. Lynn breathed in, and the smoke streamed into her nostrils, twisting in them, tugging at the tiny hairs within, stretching and scratching. Lynn sneezed.

Chapter Nineteen

Posted: January 31, 2015 in Arc 2 - A Trick of Light

“Are you going to rob a tower?”

“Why does everyone keep saying that,” muttered Lynn.

Melai looked at her with amusement.

“Moonstone is primarily used as a reagent in magic rituals, or a source of moonlight, a novelty these days. You don’t appear to be a ritualist. Plus I remember telling you about moonbridges.”

“I have to do it. The marquis…”

“Is it about survival? Can I dissuade you, offer food or something else?”

“It is. And no, it’s not about food.”

“Then I won’t stop you.”

“You won’t?”

“You have your reasons, I’m sure. And me, I’m just a silly elfblooded historian, how am I to guess what you’re going to do with a moonstone and a moonbridge. On the sixth floor of my tower, where no one lives. Why, I’d be just as surprised as anyone to find out you knew the key to it was hidden in a gap between bricks to the right of the door. Or how you waited until sundown and shielded the moonbridge from the daylight crystal somehow, as if you knew moonlight couldn’t overcome it.”

Lynn looked at him in mute amazement. This wasn’t how she had expected this conversation to go, she had prepared lies and leading questions to extract the information she needed.

“Don’t look so surprised. Robbing people is wrong, of course. But I won’t lose any sleep over the marquis getting robbed. Perhaps it’s time he became closer acquainted with misfortune we are all so intimately familiar with.”

“Thank you.”

“I haven’t done a thing, so there’s nothing to thank me for. Unless you need a partner in crime,” Melai swayed slightly, cheap wine splattered on his sleeves.

“Oh no. No, you can’t be involved. At all. No one else can. It’s dangerous.”

“I see. Very well, I will defer to your professional opinion on this. Wait, does that mean you are going to be in danger yourself?”
“I have a plan. I’ll be fine.”

She’s gotten really good at lying. And it wasn’t entirely a lie, Lynn did have a plan. Isabel was the next person on it.

Lynn waited for her at the open square in Higher Valenar. Some of the dragonkin who passed her by stared at the girl in disapproval. Lynn didn’t care. She wasn’t here to be accepted. She had a mission.

Sure enough, Isabel showed up on her way to, what was it, harp lessons? Some nonsense like that. Unfortunately, she wasn’t alone. She was accompanied by a solidly built man wearing House Jahrimir’s blazing blue tabard over his armor, a few scales present on his cheeks and brow continuing on over his shaved scalp as a tattoo. A few generations removed from the patriarch, he was more man than dragon but tried to appear otherwise. Proper dragonkin or not, he did look fearsome.

Lynn tried to attract Isabel’s attention without alerting her bodyguard. Isabel noticed her, only to frown and demonstratively look away. Lynn deserved that, she knew. And she’d have to talk to Isabel anyway, so hiding was pointless.

“Isabel, wait!”

This got a glance from the guard, who quickly positioned himself between his charge and Lynn, but not from the dragonkin girl.

“I only need to talk to you for a minute!” Lynn did her best to ignore the guard.

“Stay away, street rat,” he growled.

“It’s really important, please, I need to ask you something!”

Lynn tried to dodge the bodyguard as he moved to intercept her, but he was faster than she anticipated, and his heavy hand grabbed her by the shoulder. Isabel just kept walking.

“It’s about the marquis. I just need to know when he’s out.”

The guard unceremoniously tossed her backwards, causing Lynn to half stumble and half fly a couple of meters before landing on her behind with a yelp. That, at last, got a glance from Isabel.

“I’m sorry, okay. I’m sorry I lied to you, and I’m sorry I used you and I’m sorry I didn’t say this sooner.”

“You don’t get to talk to your betters, trash,” the guard loomed over Lynn, distaste on his face. He moved his leg back, readying for a kick.

“Stefan!” said Isabel in a calmly commanding tone which Lynn hadn’t heard her use before, and the guard froze, “And you don’t get to decide who talks to your betters.”

“But mistress…”

“Enough. You will wait for me at a distance. I won’t be long.”

“Yes, mistress,” he bowed, “Your father will hear about it.”

“I know. Now leave, or he will hear you disobeyed my order.”

The guard bowed again before departing, though Isabel wasn’t looking anymore.

“This doesn’t mean I’ve forgiven you.”

“I know,” said Lynn as she got up, then brushed dust off her dress.

“I just didn’t want Stefan to hurt you. Or anyone. He’s too mean.”

“Thank you for stopping him. I really need your help, though.”

“And why should I help you? You got me into so much trouble. It’s your fault I have Stefan following me around everywhere.”

“It’s about the marquis. Remember, the monster you had in your home.”

“I remember. And since your freakout, he’s been making my scales grate, too.”

“Does that mean you’ll help me?”

Isabel sighed, “What do you need?”

“Just to know when he’ll be out. I will find proof of what he is, but I can’t do it while he’s at home.”

“Are you going to break into his house?!” Isabel’s eyes grew large.

“It’s best if you don’t know.”

“Wow. Okay. Well, there’ll be a ball at the Blue Palace in two days, in honour of Lord Jahrimr’s newest consort. Everyone’s going to be there, so I guess so will the marquis.”

“Excellent! Thank you, that’s perfect.”

“Be careful. I’m angry at you, but I’d rather you didn’t get caught.”

Lynn did her best to imitate Josh’s carefree grin.

It was the same grin Josh displayed two days later, presenting her with an entire sail he had pilfered from somewhere. “Wasn’t hard,” was all he said, and Lynn didn’t question the poorly concealed limp with which he moved.

The pair sat on the sixth floor of Melai’s tower, occasionally sneaking a glance at the opposite window, a doorway into the lair of the Beast. The floor was empty, everything of value carried away by the owners. They had the moonstone to create the bridge, the sail to protect it from the artificial daylight, and now they were just waiting for the real Sun to set and for the marquis to leave.

Josh absentmindedly twirled a jar of slime in his hands, and Lynn couldn’t help but stare. Multiple times, he’d grip it, seemingly ready to open, only to let it go again. All the while his gaze wandered, and Lynn suspected these weren’t conscious movements. Each time the lid looked like it was about to come off, she flinched away, fearing the pungent, alluring smell.

“You don’t have to come,” said Lynn to fill the silence.

“What? Where?” Josh looked at her, blinking, puzzled.

“Into the tower. You could get caught.”

“So could you.”

“Yeah, well. I have to do this, I’ve screwed up too many times to back out. You helped me get this far, you don’t got to risk it further.”

“But I want to! You ain’t the only one who wants to… Wants to do something.”

“You’ve done plenty!” Lynn gestured at the sail lying crumpled on the floor.

“Not just today. I want to have done something. With myself, with my life. You’ve been a slimer, you know it’s not about a high. I hate how it makes me feel. But it distracts me from giving a damn. From knowing me, all this, is worthless. I know I won’t feel any better, won’t do any better, not ever, but at least I don’t have to care,” just like Lynn, once he finally started talking, Josh couldn’t stop, “I know it’s killing me, I’m not stupid, but so what? It doesn’t matter, because I don’t have hope anymore. For anything. Except for this. For you. You give me hope that I will have done something. I will have mattered. That I wasn’t born on a broken world too dumb to end when it ought’ve, only to suffer and die in misery, like my friends did and do. Without hope, I was just about ready to die; you can be damn well sure I’m ready to die for it.”

“You say you have enough hope to risk your life, but not enough that you’d try and save it, stop sliming?”

“Funny how that goes,” shrugged Josh.

“That’s just dumb,” said Lynn, growing angry at him again.

“Heh. Maybe. Once we do this, maybe you can show me how you’ve stopped. But for now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll use it. Can’t see straight.”

The moment of sincerity over, Josh’s grin returned. It had never looked more hollow. All those times she thought him fearless, smiling in the face of danger, and only now did Lynn realize he needed the same smile to face a wall. She moved away while he applied the slime, her stomach heaving at the mere sight of it.

Sitting side by side, the two kids looked out of the window in silence. Despite her anger, Lynn smiled to herself, sneaking a sideways glance at Josh every now and then. She gave hope to someone, no matter how dumb that someone was.

A palanquin stopped under the tower as the Sun was setting, and the kids hid, not to be spotted by the marquis, waiting for the footsteps of palanquin’s carriers to fade. The street was almost empty, and no one looked up. It was time.

Chapter Eighteen

Posted: December 2, 2014 in Arc 2 - A Trick of Light

Lynn stretched in her “bed”, exposing different parts of her body to the cool wind, burying others into the rags. Artificial sunlight mixed with the warmer real light on her face. She was adrift on the surface of a dream, deep darkness below her, sunlight and wind above. No, she was the surface, the boundary between the real and the fleetingly real. Dissolved and carefree. She’ll have to get up soon, she knew. Become a girl again, with all her aches and fears and responsibilities. But not yet. She deserved a quiet morning. Everything was well.

Lynn’s tranquility was shattered by a question.

“Where did you get this?”

Lynn jerked forward, sitting up to cover up the traitorous metal near her leg. She hadn’t found a better hiding place last night, having never had a need for one before. She had wrapped the candlestick in a piece of cloth, which obviously hadn’t been enough. Lynn looked up to find Eric standing over her.

“It…” she paused, half-dreams still swirling inside her mind. Lynn ran her hand through her ruffled hair, forcefully blinked a couple of times, willing her consciousness to coalesce, then tried again.

“I took it. From a bad person.”

Eric nodded, then looked back at Tim, who sat in their corner. Tim has barely said a word to her since the night Eric went missing and Tim ran off to rescue him because she wouldn’t. The boys had returned, the trust hadn’t. Whatever their relationship was now, they weren’t her Ducklings anymore.

“You don’t need to worry, they won’t even know it’s gone,” Lynn tried to address the worry on Eric’s face.

“What will you do with it?”

There was another, unspoken question behind this one, Lynn could sense it.

“I’ll sell it. It can feed us for a long time.”

Another glance was exchanged between Tim and Eric. There was a wordless conversation happening, to which Lynn wasn’t privy. Her ignorance did not last long, as Tim blurted out the next question:

“Will you buy more slime with it?”

Eric punched him in the shoulder. Lynn barely registered that. Her first reaction was to lash out back at Tim. How dare he question her like that, after all she’s gone through to get clean. She fought it down.

“I don’t want to. But I don’t know if… I can’t promise it. I will try.”

She looked up at Tim, daring him to say something about it. To let her scream back and feel good.

He didn’t. In the awkward silence that followed, Lynn turned away to examine her throbbing thigh. Three lines of dried blood were left where the candlestick had been. Incredulous, Lynn took it out. There was a bit of dried blood on one of the sides, too, and on one of the sharp demonic tongues. The demon looked pleased with itself. Shuddering, Lynn wrapped the candlestick back up.

The sound of people outside told her the morning had truly begun. The twins were heading out. Tim paused at the top of the stairs, waited for Eric to reach the ground level, then looked Lynn in the eyes.

“If you do get slimed, don’t come back here again.”

Having said this he bolted after his brother, leaving Lynn to sit there, dumbfounded. Somehow, she didn’t feel like screaming anymore.

Soon, the butcher’s shop would be open. She had to go, too. She wouldn’t let this mar her mood, Lynn decided. For once, she was doing something right, and Tim would come around to seeing it.

Some stalls have already been set up. Simple wares of the traders from New Valenar and farms beyond lay on crude wooden tables, surrounded by exquisite ruins. As Lynn walked through them, wary eyes followed her. They were right to be afraid, she smirked. She wasn’t just a street kid anymore, she was a thief. But she only stole from those who didn’t need it. These people were not that much better off than her.

A dwarven merchant had her back turned to the walkway, too busy wagging tongues with her friend at the next stall. The dwarf’s left arm had been hidden in the folds of her shirt, bulging disproportionately. Out there, beyond the protection of daylight crystals, all lived in the Shadow, all bore scars of its touch.

At the corner of the merchant’s table lay a box of dried figs, inviting. So easy to reach out and pocket a few. Lynn walked by, delighting in her benevolence.

Two minutes later, she heard Russell call out her name as he ran after her. He seemed even thinner than when she last saw him, a couple of weeks ago in that square. He’d walked out on her then, so Lynn didn’t know what to expect from him now.

“You look well. Better.”

“You don’t,” she replied with only a tiny bit of satisfaction.

“I’ll be fine. But you, I’ve heard you have a job now!”

“I do. It’s strange, having somewhere to be each day.”

“I bet. Any chance you can put in a word for me?”

“Don’t think the butcher needs any more people. Don’t even think he needs me, really. But I’ll ask.”
“Thanks. Oh, want some?” Russell extended a handful of figs to Lynn. She hesitated, but only briefly.

“And how’s the other thing. You know. The Beast,” the boy lowered his voice as he said it, to Lynn’s amusement.

“We’re getting somewhere. I’ve been in his tower yesterday. It’s very creepy, but I haven’t found anything we could use. Yet.”

“Maybe it’s a good thing.”

Lynn looked at him incredulously. Has she let her guard down too soon? Seeing her expression, Russell raised up his arms.

“I mean, it’s a good thing you’re taking it slowly, not putting yourself in danger. I have said some harsh things to you before, and I… I can see I was wrong. You got yourself a job. You’re not abandoning your friends, your life. You’re building it up. Certainly doing so better than I am.”

Lynn wanted to retort that the job was just a cover. A lie to get her into the Beast’s tower. One she would give up as soon as it had served its purpose. But would she? Not for the first time but still to some surprise, she realised that she liked it. Not the job, but how it felt to have one. To be trusted and valued. Russell took her silence for quiet acceptance.

“So I guess I’m saying I’m sorry. Let me know if I can help somehow. I’ll stop pestering you in the meantime.”

He turned to leave, but Lynn grasped his shoulder.

“Wait. What about you, do you need help? Food or the like?”

Russell shrugged, looking away: “Don’t worry about me, I’ll get by. I’m fine.”

Lynn could see that he wasn’t, but didn’t have the time or the strength to push the issue. She settled for promising herself she’d deal with it once she was done with the Beast. An arrogant thought, she knew, but that’s how she was starting to feel. She’d fix her relationships once she was free of this task she has taken on.

Once she had defeated the Beast. She hadn’t really thought about it before, hadn’t allowed herself the luxury. But it was like Russell had said: she was building up her life, even if that had been an accident on the way to her real goal. And now she had something to look forward to.

She’d almost made it to the butcher’s shop when Josh appeared in front of her.

“Broken hells and empty heavens, is everyone going to ambush me…” Lynn began, when she saw the look on his face. And behind him, an all-too-familiar crowd of gawkers.

“Lynn, don’t…” he objected futilely as she pushed past him.

Josh tried to pull her back, but she shrugged off his hands. Lynn squeezed through the onlookers and onto the street on which the butcher’s shop stood.

As she stood there, all she could think of was how much she wished she was slimed. She would still see the blood and the wounds, but not how much they must have hurt. She would see the tensed muscles of the face, but not the fear that will now forever stain it. She would see the butcher, but not the man who has been kind to her. Yes, she would see the wounds, the three long gashes coming together on the butcher’s chest, but not the candlestick they formed.

Not just that. It was the crowd around her. Buzzing with concern, curiosity, shock. Concern they might be next, curiosity at the manner this stranger had died, shock that it had happened near them. Them, all about them. A good man had died and nothing was going to change and no one was going to do anything. Lynn felt alienated from this selfish mass of humanity. She craved to put as much distance between herself and the people that surrounded her, to shield herself with the detachment provided by slime.

A lone voice cut through the noise of the crowd. Lynn knew who the sound of pure anguish belonged to, and forced herself to move. She didn’t get to feel self-pity, if she was any better than the people she had condemned just a moment ago – this wasn’t about her either. On unbending legs, Lynn went to find Jenny.

The front door of the shop was closed, the inconsolable weeping coming from the inside. Jenny didn’t respond to knocking or calls, so Lynn went around. The back door was closed too, but not locked, and she knew how to nudge it open. Lynn found Jenny leaning heavily on the front counter, tears forming a puddle between her arms.

Jenny didn’t react to her being there. Not knowing what to do or what to say, Lynn approached her quietly, then put her hand on Jenny’s shoulder. Jenny’s arms were shaking, the only thing holding her up. She reached out to Lynn, grasping at her, dragging her down. The two of them sank to the floor, and Lynn found herself weeping with her.

“Oh, Lynn, what am I going to do?” Jenny’s words came between huge sobs, making it seem like she was coming up for air briefly, drowning in grief, “Da’d be opening the shop up by now. He’d be telling me to, to, to hang up a pig or to go pick up a delivery or… He always knows what to do and I’m just, I don’t know how to run the shop, or what to do about his… his… he didn’t want to become a zombie, but I don’t know if I need to say something to someone or what I’m going to do tomorrow or the day after and he’s just… gone. It’s not fair.”

“Go home, and don’t worry about anything. Tomorrow I can help you hang the pig up and deal with the delivery. And I don’t know what to do either. I don’t know how to help you beyond that. I didn’t even know your dad’s name.”

“Peter. His name is… was… Peter.”

“It’s my fault,” Lynn whispered.

She didn’t meant to, but the words came out on their own. Jenny didn’t respond, so Lynn said it again: “It’s my fault he’s dead.”

Jenny pulled back to look her in the face, her fingers digging deep into Lynn’s shoulders.

“Why would you say that?!”

“I’ve caused it.”

“Are you the Beast?”

“No, but… It should have been me.”

“Then don’t say that. No matter what your life was like, whatever had happened to you, it’s not your fault someone you know got hurt. You’re not cursed, you’re not to blame for what others have done. You’re no use to anyone if you fear what might happen to them. Bad things happen, you can’t help that. You can’t save everyone. Just… Be kind, and do good, a day at a time. Like my Da did.”

Lynn’s protestations got stuck in her throat, and she simply nodded instead before hiding her face with another hug.

She left, eventually. Jenny had headed home at Lynn’s insistence, avoiding the mainstreet. While they were inside the shop, Peter’s body has been taken away by a Dargothian priest, and the crowd dispersed.

Lynn felt drained, like she had cried the last tears she would ever have. And with the tears her fears and worries had washed out of her, until there was only emptiness and smouldering anger left.

Josh had been waiting all this time for her outside.

“How is she? Didn’t know you were friends.”

“She’s lost. Even more lost than I am. And we’re not. But I know how she feels.”

“So… What do we do now?”

“We tried to be careful. It didn’t work. The Beast killed again, that’s what it does, that’s what it will keep doing. So we stop it now, or we die. No great loss.”

“Are you sure? I mean, I’m a lost cause,” he waved his gloved, tainted hand, “but you’re not. You could actually have a life.”

Just that morning, Lynn would have gotten into another fight with Josh over those words. She would have tried to convince him he had something to live for, that he had to try and find it.

“Maybe thinking that was a mistake. That’s what got the butcher… Peter… killed.”

“Why did the Beast attack him, actually?”

“I stole from it, and it retaliated. Maybe it thought I was stealing for Peter. Or maybe it’s coming for me next. All the more reason not to waste any time.”

“Wait, you stole from it? Is that what Azary was talking about?”

“Yes. I’m to blame. And now I’m going to make it right. I don’t have a plan yet, but I will. Let’s meet in the evening and figure it out. There’s one thing I have to get that I know we’ll need.”

Lynn moved through the city in a haze. She no longer felt like an urchin, or a slimer, or a benevolent thief. She felt like a missile. Propelled by the rage at the injustice of the world in which beasts flourish, she flew towards her target, utterly out of control.

“I don’t care about my cut. I need a moonstone,” she said as she slammed the damned candlestick on the table.

“Why would you want such a trinket? Unless…” Azary’s grin grew wider, “Are you going to rob a tower?”