It wasn’t fair. Lynn had overcome her addiction to slime. She was clean. Not for very long, but still. She had won that battle, she had stayed away. And now the world had thrown slime at her. It was all around, dissolved in the water. Just a miniscule amount, a taste. But it was enough, she was starting to feel its effects. The separation of self from the rest of the world. Slime didn’t make empathy harder. It made empathy a conscious choice.
Lynn remembered about Nessa, and decided she still needed her protection. The Allyrian girl floated next to Lynn, confused at their abrupt stop. Or was she rejoiced? Nessa rubbed her eyes, and Lynn slapped away her hand. It was bad enough Lynn had been affected by slime, there was no way she’d let Nessa get a full dose, she wasn’t that far gone yet.
Lynn looked around. Where did the slime come from, and where can they go to avoid it? And how, by what astonishing bad luck, did she even managed to run into it? Except it wasn’t bad luck, was it. No, she’d caught a whiff of slime, and followed it without realising she did it. It made her feel better, of course she followed it. The world didn’t throw slime at her, she sniffed out a drop of it in an entire sea.
There was no obvious source. No coral building, no crack in the ground in which vile mermen would produce the drug. Lynn had heard the rumors, had seen someone from Under Valenar deliver slime to Azary, so she knew it originated within the sea. No one knew anything else. The mystery would have to remain. She had to get Nessa out of here, not look for the slime manufacturers.
Lynn pointed up, the only direction she knew there wouldn’t be any slime. The two swam towards the water’s surface. Above, the swirling red in the water was replaced by the red haze of the mist. The Bloodmist Sea lived up to its name.
And just like in the water, the dreadful red mist was lifting, disappearing in the sunlight and the wind. Sunlight and wind. It’s only been a few days, but they felt so strange on Lynn’s skin. Not least of all because she was covered in a thin film of bloody ooze and slime. Rubbing her face to little effect, she turned to Nessa who was doing the same.
“Are you alright?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll get back to safety soon. I think the worst has passed.”
Nessa nodded again, less enthusiastically.
“I don’t like it here. Not in water. Can’t see below,” Nessa spoke slowly, carefully picking words. She must not get much practice with the spoken language, thought Lynn.
“We can’t dive yet. There’s… It’s bad there. Can you find this place, later? Can you explain to Nicholas where we are right now?”
“I think so,” said Nessa, unsure.
“Good. Tell him this is where slime comes from, he’ll want to know that.”
“Why can’t you tell him?”
“I ain’t coming back,” said Lynn to her own surprise. She hadn’t exactly planned this. And she wanted to go back. To see Nicholas again, to be there when he sees his sister is safe. But she was also the reason Nessa was in danger in the first place. She and her demon.
So that was that. She needed Stan more than she needed Nicholas to like her. It felt strange to acknowledge that she wanted him to like her at all, but it didn’t matter anymore. She never had to see him again, crisis averted.
The pair swam towards the barely visible shore. Above them, tiny snowflakes swirled in the grey skies, melting as they approached the last remnants of the blood mist. Half-way there, they saw a group of soldiers approaching from below. Lynn tensed up. If these were merfolk attackers, they were doomed. There was nowhere to hide, and they were too tired to try and run. Lynn and Nessa awaited the soldiers, resigned to whatever their fate may be.
For once, fortune was on their side. With the end of the blood storm, the attack on Under Valenar had ended as well. The soldiers were human, or as human as Allyrians got. Lynn watched Nessa set off towards them, then turned to the shore. Her job here was done, and it was time to go back.
She didn’t get far before Nessa caught up with her. The girl hugged her, smiled, then dove again. Lynn smiled, too, as she swam. Whatever else may happen, whatever else she may have to do, she had done something good.
Half an hour later, utterly exhausted, Lynn clambered out of the water. She was still some distance away from New Valenar, their flight during the storm took them a long way from the city. Lynn looked around, memorising the place. If Nicholas failed to find the source of the slime, knowing where it comes from could be useful. Somehow, someway. But not now.
There was a long walk ahead of her. Instead, Lynn sat down on the cold sand to catch her breath. She felt like she’d woken up from a dream, but not yet rejoined the outside world. In this one moment, she could be anyone, do anything. Out of Under Valenar, but not yet in Lower Valenar, Lynn was briefly free. She could turn around, and go in the opposite direction. Away from it all, to whatever lies beyond the hills blocking the view. She’d heard of the city called Char in the middle of the Everbright Desert, maybe it wasn’t so bad there. There shouldn’t be any rakshasas there, at the very least.
And that was why she couldn’t go. She made a promise. Took on a mission. And the mission had cost people she cared about their lives. It couldn’t be in vain. Their lives and their deaths couldn’t be in vain. She had to finish it.
Lynn got up and began to walk. Time to wake up fully, to come back to the real world.
Her clothes were covered in thin sheets of ice, cracking with every move. The shirt, long since worn out, looked like it was about to be pulled apart by the ice. Her hair had become icicles, sticking out of her head at odd angles. The day was cold, even for winter.
Thankfully, the Menar’s Embrace amulet protected her from the elements. It’s a pity she’ll have to hide it somewhere as soon as possible, thought Lynn. Anyone who saw it would try to take it from her. At least, anyone like Josh. Street kids supported one another, but only up to a point. They weren’t a family, not like House Jahrimir and its draconic patriarch.
To live in an azure house, to always know you are protected… Lynn’s old dream resurfaced to her surprise. She’s been so busy chasing her enemy, she forgot how it was to dream of anything but the end of the chase. She’ll have to forget again. There’ll be plenty of time for idle fantasies later.
The guards at the gates followed her with their eyes, but didn’t bother to stop her. She must have looked terminal to them, about to freeze. Just another street rat claimed by the winter. As amusing as the glances she got were, Lynn needed to stop standing out. She considered stealing some shirt drying in a window, but decided climbing up a wall to get one would not be worth it. Her shoulder, where Stan bit her, throbbed painfully. All the swimming she’d done didn’t help.
Instead, Lynn went to the temple of Cerulea. While clothing the poor wasn’t exactly a part of the dogma of the Mother of All, her followers did their best to prevent any loss of life. Usually, this meant Lynn could get a couple of coins from them, but a spare shirt wasn’t entirely out of the question.
She made sure to shiver as much as possible as she entered the temple. People inside looked away. Lynn sneezed, looking for one person to make eye contact with her.
A great tree grew in the middle of the temple, its branches almost reaching the bright blue ceiling, extending all the way to its sides. A narrow circular pool surrounded the tree’s patch of land. Several stone pipes fed into it just above the pool level, filling the temple with the gentle sound of running water. Roots could be seen at its bottom. Birds nested on the tree. At least they weren’t afraid to look Lynn in the eye. It was a tiny tranquil oasis of nature in the middle of the rushing city.
Lynn didn’t feel tranquil. Sunbeams reflected in the pool made her nauseous. Bright plumage of the birds left splotches in her vision. The tree’s angles were too sharp, it hurt her eyes to look at them. Well, that’s new, she thought. And only temporary, obviously. As soon as the slime wears off, it will no longer hurt to look upon the holy place of the goddess of nature and purity.
Petitioners sat around the pool, ignoring her. Many were much worse off than Lynn, their bodies and minds ravaged by the Shadow or some other horror. She wasn’t like them, not really. Not as warped, not forever tainted by her contact with the… whatever it is slime is. The un-things.
Still, the best that the priests could do for them was ease their sufferings. They could save Lynn. That is, if she was actually freezing to death. Lynn sneezed louder.
“Do you require assistance, my child?” the elderly voice came from behind and below her.
Lynn turned around, then took a step back. Just her luck, to run into the head priestess. The gnome woman regarded her with a kind smile… or was that a contemptuous one? Slime made it impossible to tell.
“P-please, I need s-some clothes,” Lynn did her best to sound miserable.
“So you do. Come, we’ll find you something. Took a tumble into the river, did you?”
“Tut-tut, how clumsy of you.”
Compassion or mockery? As long as she got a shirt out of it, Lynn didn’t care. She followed the gnome into one of the rooms radiating from the tree chamber. It was full of supplies: shelves filled with jars, crates and boxes to the roof. Just like elsewhere in the temple, there was a window in the ceiling, letting a daylight crystal perched on top of the building to shine through. The air here was permeated with the smell of medicine.
Lynn stood at the entrance awkwardly while the head priestess rummaged through one of the crates. The girl wasn’t sure she warranted such attention.
“Here you go, dear. A bit thin in places, but should do just fine,” the priestess handed Lynn a dark grey thick tunic, with a short dark green cloak folded on top of it, “You can change behind the shelves.”
Lynn thanked her, then did as the priestess suggested. Her shirt actually split as she took it off, tearing in two. It made a clinking noise as it fell to the floor. The priestess was still waiting for her when Lynn emerged, much to her disappointment.
“Thank you, this is much better.”
“I’m sure it is. Does anything else ail you, dear, is your memory alright?”
“I… think so, why?”
“You forgot to shiver”
“Do not fret, you can have the clothes, on one condition. When you are ready to ask for help with your drug problem, come to us.
“I don’t have a drug problem,” said Lynn, acutely aware of the slime that covered her.
“As I said, when you are ready. I sincerely hope it won’t be too late. And next time, please consider asking instead of lying.”
Lynn nodded, ashamed. Shame, huh, the drugs must be wearing off. She covered her face as she ran out and told herself it was to shield her eyes from the tree.
The day was mostly over by then, the sun barely visible between the towers. Lynn headed home. Her real home, the one without half a roof, but with Tim and Eric. The twins weren’t there when she climbed the stairs. It felt strange being there, even though only a few days had passed. It felt like she was spying on them.
And with good reason. Someone else had been sleeping in the pile of torn cloth she called her bed. In its depths Lynn found a gaudy hat she had seen Russell wear, given to him by some kind colorblind quilt enthusiast.
So the twins found someone else to take care of them while she was gone. Big deal, this was her home, Russell would surely go back to wherever he used to spend his nights now that she had returned. Lynn smirked at how easily she’d been replaced. She never asked for this responsibility, but she took some pride in protecting Tim and Eric, even if they barely spoke to her anymore. Even if she had been utterly consumed by her struggle against the Beast. Even if she couldn’t remember the last time she brought them food.
Lynn stumbled out of the tower that wasn’t her home anymore. Not for a while. For the second time today, Lynn questioned her mission.
She looked up to find Tim stare back at her from across the street. Lynn saw herself through his eyes. Disheveled, bloodied, reeking of slime. Gone for days, not truly back. Lynn couldn’t read his expression, but she saw disgust on his face nonetheless. She ran.
This was for the best. She didn’t have the time or the strength for them. Not while the Beast was out there. Russell could take care of the twins, they’re better off away from her. Everyone’s better off away from her. She’ll do the most good by ridding New Valenar of the Beast. It was for them. This was for the best. This hurt will pass.
Lynn ran away from her only home, and found herself near a hiding spot Josh had used. Just as well, it would be a good place to stash the water breathing amulet she had failed to return. Another stolen item, another disappointment. She kneeled at the back wall of an abandoned building, looking for the loose brick she knew was there. Lynn glanced around, but the shadowfall had scared off anyone that could have noticed her.
Lynn pulled out the loose brick, then took off the amulet. A shudder ran through her, and she bent over, coughing up the seawater that was still left in her lungs. She immediately felt the winter wind grip her, creep up her wet legs. Cold, miserable and tired, she shoved the amulet inside the hole in the wall. Her hand bumped into a glass jar.
It wasn’t fair. She was clean. Except she wasn’t. She had found the one jar of slime she knew of in an entire city. This couldn’t make things worse. Except it will. She had given up so much for her mission. Her friend, her home. What else did she have to lose? Except for everything.
She was so tired. She had fought this battle every day for weeks now. Today was one too many. She didn’t have the strength to fight herself and the Beast at the same time.
She was always so good at excuses.