Archive for the ‘Arc 1 – A Rock or a Jar’ Category

Chapter Twelve

Posted: May 9, 2014 in Arc 1 - A Rock or a Jar

Shadow. Light. Clutch head. Down the stairs. Back up. Dig nails into forearms. Street. Freeze. Scream Tim’s name. Scream Eric’s name. Just scream. Up again. Pace. His own fault. All my fault. Stop yelling at myself. My fault. Shadow. Light. Listen. Listen. Listen. Scream. Claw at slime. Won’t come off. Claw at eyes. No eyes, just slime. Collapse. Breathe. Listen. Listen. Voices?

Lynn flew down the stairs yet again. By touch, in utter darkness, she found Russell, Eric on his right arm, Tim holding his left. She clung to them, unwilling to let her Ducklings go. Eric barely responded, limp on Russell’s shoulder. Tim was tense. After a few moments Russell, exhausted, pushed onwards, towards the light. Тhey went back up together as a group, afraid to let go of each other, afraid the Shadow would swallow whoever was left behind.

Russell laid Eric down, gently unclasping the boy’s arms from his neck. Eric lay motionless, his eyes open wide. Tim sat by his side, guarding his brother. He glowered at Lynn as she bent down to cover Eric up with a blanket. His accusing gazed followed the girl, and Lynn didn’t dare face it. She turned to Russell instead.

“Where was he?”

The older boy was sitting on the floor, just as pale as Eric, with just as haunted a look on his face. He turned towards Lynn, blinked twice slowly until he could focus on her and not on the darkness still lingering in his mind.

“Down by the tiger fountain, in the basement of the tower nearby. The one with orange murals.”

“How did you even find him? How did you find your way back? That’s further than I’ve dared to go…”

“Lucky, I guess. I’m just glad I got to Eric in time. Being alone in the Shadow…” Russell shivered before forcing himself to finish the thought, “It’s not something anyone should have to endure.”

“You didn’t see anythin’ in it, did you?”
Russell was quiet for a while.

“I don’t want to talk about it. I got Eric back, that’s what counts.”

They sat in silence, too physically exhausted to move, too emotionally exhausted to speak. Children on one side, slightly older children on another. The Shadow danced before them, cruel and mesmerizing. Lynn couldn’t help but look on. Another day was gone. All problems resolved. All her worries were for nothing. Everything was fine. She felt empty, tension departing her body, leaving space for other feelings. Her face had begun to smart. She must have looked dreadful, she thought, caked blood and slime smeared all over, under her nails and furrowed into her face. Lynn was looking around for a piece of cloth to clean up when Eric spoke.

“It hunted me.”

The boys’ voice was thin and distant, not really addressed to them. It sounded as if it came from somewhere else, as if Eric was still trapped in a nightmare, the same nightmare he still saw with his wide-open eyes gazing nowhere.

“It knew my name. It called to me. Once it chased me down to that hole. When it couldn’t find me, it called out my name with Lynn’s voice.”

“How…” Lynn swallowed, trying to find words for a question the answer to which she already knew, “How did you know it wasn’t me?”

Eric looked straight at her. Grey innocent eyes met with brown tainted ones, and the brown eyes looked away. Without any judgment, he answered.

“Because I knew you wouldn’t come.”

All the lies Lynn told herself, maintained so desperately, came crashing down like elven towers. Tears mixed with blood and slime.

*  *  *

“I know who the beast is.”

Russell looked at Lynn incredulously. She had cleaned up since the last night, as much as was possible. Her eyes still seeped, red and swollen, surrounded by scratch marks. Some were so deep as to leave scars as they healed. She kept to the shade, shielding her eyes from direct light. Despite her best attempts, no one could fail to recognize her addiction. For the first time in several months, this bothered Lynn.

“What do you mean, ‘who’?” the boy finally asked, “And what’s he doing here?” Russell nodded at Josh, who sat on the ground, his back to a wall and eyes closed.

The three of them were in an out-of-the-way square, far beyond the safely lit centre of the city. Hardwood benches still remained here, two of them unbroken, surrounding a tree in the middle. Lynn liked coming here, before. She’d imagine the ones who’ve built the benches and planted the tree; how they sat there, sunlight, made green by leaves, playing on their faces as they enjoyed a lazy afternoon, their music and laughter mixing in with birdsong and leaves rustling in the wind. She’d toss her head back, but all she’d see is bark blackened by fire which burned them away. All she’d hear is wind howling through empty streets and broken houses. Still, Lynn liked to come here and imagine, before. Before the slime.

“You’ve heard what Eric had said. It’s not just an animal, come here from the bog. It’s smart, smart like folks. It spied on us, learned who we talked to, learned our voices.”

“That may be, but how would you know who it was? Why do you think it’s, what, a man?”

“No. Not a man. A monster. I saw a monster, where others saw a man.”

“Where others saw… Was it slime, that made you see it?” Russell’s face twisted with disgust.

“It was slime that let me see it,” Lynn said matter-of-factly, not rising to the challenge, ”Perhaps, it had let Josh see it before, too. Do you remember that night, when you thought someone was chasing you?”

“‘Course I do. Dunno what I saw, though. Someone, something. Mighta been your beast, mighta been slime.”

“I think it was the beast. It studied us for a while, before it began to hunt.”

“Suppose it was, so what? What makes you think the monster you saw was this beast?” Russell pressed on.

“You haven’t seen it. I only caught a glimpse, and it was the most I’ve been scared in my  life. I knew since then, knew it couldn’t be anything else.”

“Fine. Let’s say the Outskirts Beast is this man that is a monster. Not like we can do anything about it. Not like anyone’s going to listen to us. To a…” Russell’s voice trailed off.

“A slimer. You can say it. I know I’ve… Let everyone down.”

Josh smirked at this, but remained silent.

“Right. I don’t know if I believe, don’t think Shadowguard would, either.”

“They won’t. That’s why I asked you to come. Both of you. I’m goin’ to find proof. Somethin’ we can show.”

“And how would you get that?”

“I know who the beast is. It’s the marquis. You know, in the Upper Valenar. It all adds up: he arrived in city recently, just before the attacks began. He’s the one I saw. He’s bound to be out a lot, doing, I dunno, noble things. Masquerade balls and stuff. All we have to do is sneak into his house, find somethin’ there. Anythin’.”

Lynn finished speaking, feeling she’s said more than she had in a week prior. The trio exchanged glances. Silence dragged on, and Lynn’s confidence faded fast. Despite her newfound drive, she didn’t really know what to do next, how to achieve this goal. She rubbed at her eyes, disturbing the wounded skin around them. With pain came the all-too-recent memory of Eric. He wasn’t angry with her, didn’t blame her for anything. She got used to that, got used to shrugging it off, to fighting it with indifference. Instead, he accepted her. Given nothing to deny, Lynn could no longer deny the truth. It was this memory, this truth that spurred her on now, to do something she never had before. To ask for help.

“Please. I can’t do it on my own. I wouldn’t know how. I asked you to come, because you’re the only ones still talking to me. I ain’t got no one else.”

“Suppose we do try it,” Josh spoke up, “do try to spy on the beast. Won’t it just murder us, like it done to the folk before? In case you ain’t noticed, it’s fond of that.”

“Then we’ll just have to not get caught.”

“I can’t believe it,” Russell shook his head, his voice rising with each word, “You finally understand we need you, understand you’re hurting more than yourself by throwing your life away, and what do you do? You find the most assured way of doing just that, again. Tim and Eric need you. I’ve been bringing them all the food I could get, but I’m not good at this. I’ve… I’ve been doing all I can,” he shivered slightly, making Lynn briefly wonder if Russell’d been through more than he let on, before his angry words interrupted that thought, ”You finally see how much they need you, and you’re just going to get yourself killed over slime-fuelled fantasies?”

“For once, I’m doing something with my life! If I can stop the beast, won’t that be good? Won’t that make them safer, us all safer?”

“I’m done. You want to die? Go ahead. I won’t be waiting on you to clean up your act anymore.”

Russell stormed off, leaving Lynn staring at his back. She didn’t feel helpless, though. She felt angry. That was a start. Josh smiled a crooked smile.

“No surprises there.”

“You’re not leavin’?”
“Like he said. Well, not said, implied. I ain’t got no one who needs me, other than myself. Figure that means I can take a risk. And if we do catch the beast by its tail, won’t that be something. Heroes, us.”

Lynn smiled, awkwardly, unaccustomed to the emotion.

Above her, tiny green leaves poked through the branches blackened by fire. Perhaps there was some life left in the tree after all.

Chapter Eleven

Posted: May 6, 2014 in Arc 1 - A Rock or a Jar

“Have you seen Eric?”

Lynn was startled to find Russell standing before her.

“Have you seen Eric anywhere?” he repeated impatiently.

Lynn shook her head.

“Why? It’s not shadowfall yet.”

“Because of the Outskirts Beast. Because it’s eaten a half-dozen people already, and it hunts in twilight. For someone who spends their days watching, you really are blind!”

Lynn flinched away from Russell’s outburst. It wasn’t like him, to snap at her. And she certainly didn’t deserve such attitude. By the time she had gathered her thoughts and decided to snap back, he was already gone, running down the street. Lynn hesitated for a bit, then followed his lead. Russell’s rudeness aside, he was right – Eric did need to be found.

The sun had almost set, but it was still bright enough to see clearly. Normally, the streets would still be filled with people wrapping up their errands for the day, rushing around to use every last minute of the day, before the Shadow comes. Now, they were deserted. Lynn knew this, had seen streets empty every evening, has heard people speak with fear in their voices. She just hadn’t put it all together, hadn’t paid any attention to the way those around her behaved. From the safety of her isolation, she saw the patterns in their motion, but not the reasons behind them.

Lynn watched Russell run in one direction, shouting Eric’s name, and went the other way. As she did, she smeared slime over her eyes. Maybe it’d help her spot something, she reasoned. It couldn’t hurt. She thought she heard Old Martha’s voice, also calling out for Eric. Perhaps she imagined it.

Streets blurred together. Blank-faced people looked out of their windows, and quickly ducked behind them. One didn’t. Tim stood in the empty frame of the window of their home, watching her intently. Though he didn’t say anything, the Ducklings barely spoke, Lynn could see the anguish on his face. Or was it just fear? Or… Joy? She’s suddenly realised she wasn’t sure. She could see him clearly, could see his dilated pupils and thin lips, the trembling arms and whitened fingertips gripping the ledge. But what did it mean?

Should he be happy his brother’s missing? Is that how people feel? What does she feel, herself? The uncertainty had overwhelmed Lynn. She slowed down her steps, looking around, suddenly panicked. It was growing darker by the minute. Her eyes itched. Lynn was no longer sure of what she was doing, or why.

A thought came to her, unbidden: nothing would change. If Eric was never found, nothing would change. Her life will be exactly the same. Every now and then, she’d look somewhere Eric would have been, and he won’t be there. She’d speak, and he won’t be there to answer. And life would go on. Lynn suspected she should feel aghast at herself for thinking this. It was a faint memory, of how she would have reacted. It came to the surface, and was immediately dragged back down. Lynn stopped.

The Shadow had begun its assault. Burrowing through the rock and air alike, it spread. Through the grass and the clothes and the trees and the hair and the sky and the skin. Only light could stop it, but light wasn’t there anymore. The Shadow reached out in a cruel caress, and the world shivered at its touch.

Lynn stood alone in the street, surrounded by swirling darkness. As she turned away and hurried home, she felt guilt, but only because she felt relief. It was out of her hands now. She’s done all she could. There was no beating the Shadow, no way anyone would blame her.

Except Tim did. Hearing Lynn’s lone footsteps on the stairs was enough to send the boy flying down them. They collided mid-way between tower floors. Lynn instinctively reached out to grab him as Tim made to jump off the spiral stairs. The pair struggled in silence, the boy’s single-minded determination more than a match for their difference in weight.

A cavalcade of thoughts rampaged through Lynn’s mind. She couldn’t let Tim run out, that much was certain. Wasn’t it? He was just a child, and she knew better. She was the adult here, and she was responsible for him. Except… The same thought came back: she had never asked for this responsibility. She didn’t really care about these strange boys, didn’t want to be relied on. All she had to do was let go. Let go of him, like she had let go of herself, and watch the problem disappear.

As if from outside, Lynn observed herself pick the bundle of thrashing knees and elbows that was Tim and drag him into the light. As she whispered calming words, she heard them fail to convince her. She had become untethered, her own actions making as little sense to her as anyone else’s. It was a pantomime, a farce, ridiculous dolls pretending to be human. Lynn felt herself, her true self, fall ever further away. None of this mattered. Her grip on Tim grew weaker.

“How could you?!” the boy had finally ceased struggling, just as out of strength as Lynn was.

“You saved Josh from the Shadow. Mean, stupid Josh. You went out, and you got him. Why wouldn’t you get Eric?!”

“I tried. I don’t know where he is. We can’t get to him now.”

“That didn’t stop you then!” doll-Tim glared at doll-her.

“And now it does. Maybe it should have then.”

“I wish it did! I wish you never saved stupid Josh and never would have got into your stupid slime. You were nice then!”

The boy resumed his attempts to escape. Lynn resisted. Two marionettes, tangled together, on the border between light and oblivion. And the Shadow’s tendrils reached out to them, the strings that controlled them. It almost made sense, Lynn could almost see where they lead, could almost comprehend their puppetmaster. Tim broke free.

Chapter Ten

Posted: May 2, 2014 in Arc 1 - A Rock or a Jar

Whatever delicate machinery had regulated the change of seasons, the Last Battle had disrupted it. Gods that were supposed to come back to life with the coming of spring stayed dead. Spirits that oversaw summer’s maturing into autumn and autumn’s decline into winter had starved without their just tributes, their secret names forgotten, their songs unsung.

Seasons still changed, winds still grew colder, trees still bore fruit. But gone was any semblance of reliability. Winter would not end for a year, then be gone for three. Autumn would come and be gone in a week, unpicked food withering on the vine overnight. Which was the cause, and which the consequence? Wise men argued while common folk tightened their belts.

People of New Valenar still measured time in years and seasons, ninety days in each. In other places, druids would declare the end of a season, no matter how irregular. Elsewhere still, calendars had been abandoned altogether, another broken remnant of a broken world.

Autumn had come, and nothing had changed. Lynn watched days pass through the lens of slime, safe in her isolation. The constant motion of a living city around her had merged into a blur. The city’s secrets remained just as secret, and she no longer burned with the excitement of chasing them. Now, she was content to let them flow around her, an impartial observer, unmoved and untouched by the bustle of life.

Lynn stayed away from Higher Valenar. She told herself it was to avoid the marquis, and had nothing to do with Isabel. She told herself there wasn’t anything for her in Higher Valenar anymore. Eventually, she had even started to believe it.

The stolen jewelry had bought her “credit” with Azary. This wasn’t a good deal, she knew, but it was the only one she could think of. All she had to do to get more slime was ask for it. Lynn probably used more than she needed to. Sometimes, it bothered her. Sometimes, it even bothered her that she needed to use slime at all.

Lynn often found Josh with her. They didn’t exactly grow close – the whole point was to separate herself from the life she couldn’t handle. But there was comfort in knowing there was someone else just as disconnected as her. Somehow, this legitimized her choice. She didn’t give up, she chose not to fight.

When she remembered to, Lynn would get food for herself and Ducklings, one way or another. But that wasn’t a concern somehow, they seemed to be able to provide for themselves now. Lynn suspected Russell has been helping them out. She felt annoyed and jealous at this unasked-for kindness, but not enough to make an issue out of it.

Slime took it’s toll. Josh had succumbed first. His right-hand pinky, the one he’s been using to spread the drug, has been inflamed and scabbed for a while. Then it cracked open, scars parting to reveal a murky yellow eye that’s grown within. It looked around of its own accord, unfocused, mindless. Small blessings. At least his own hand wasn’t spying on him.

Lynn had to wrestle a knife from Josh’s hands, to prevent him from cutting the warped finger off. She still wasn’t sure that was the right thing to do. Josh had taken to wearing a glove, and always keeping his right hand in a pocket.

The incident had scared them both into quitting. They’ve lasted less than a week.

Chapter Nine

Posted: April 29, 2014 in Arc 1 - A Rock or a Jar

It took Isabel a couple of seconds to regain composure and try and close Lynn’s mouth. By that point, Lynn had pressed herself as far into the wall as she could manage. Her eyes, wide with terror, stared right through the equally terrified eyes of Isabel. From below them came the sound of a very heavy body moving very fast across the room.

“I’m alright, dad! Don’t worry!” shouted Isabel, trying to buy them some time. It worked, as the movement below had stopped abruptly.

“Please excuse me, marquis. It appears my daughter has brought home a stray. I shall deal with it momentarily,” a deep voice sounded.

“Of course,” came a bemused response.

Isabel didn’t waste the opportunity, however brief. She grabbed Lynn’s hand and ran. Not backwards, where her father would be coming up the stairs any moment from now. Forward, along the inner edge of the balcony, ducking down so as not to be seen. Lynn followed, still in shock. They burst through a door at the balcony’s end, down a corridor and into a side room. It was much more modest than Isabel’s, a simple bed and table its only contents.

“The window here opens,” Isabel explained as she pushed at the heavy frame.

Lynn joined in, desperate to get as far away as possible. She would have jumped through the window if she had to. Heavy running footsteps sounded on their floor. They didn’t have much time. The window gave with a shuddering noise. Isabel forcefully pushed Lynn through, then picked up the bag Lynn had dropped in the process and handed it over.

“Run! I don’t know what my father would do to you if he catches you!”

Lynn, now standing on the roof on the other side of the window, grasped her arms instead.

“Come with me! You can’t stay here!”

“What are you talking about, what happened there?” Isabel tried to free herself, but Lynn held on tight.

“That thing, the marquis. I don’t know what it is, but it’s not a man. It’s dangerous. Please, come with me.”

“Isabel!” came her father’s voice from the corridor.

The girl looked back, hesitating, then reached a decision. She climbed out after Lynn, to her audible relief, Lynn’s bag still in her hands. The girls ran towards the edge of the roof and down. The jump barely slowed Lynn down, but Isabel took the time to lower herself from the ledge. As she did, she saw her father in the window.

“Isabel, where are you going?!” he called for her again. She didn’t have an answer for him, so she let go. She lost her balance as she landed, falling over on her back. Lynn helped her to her feet, grasped her hand and sprinted. She took several sharp turns, not stopping until they’ve put several streets and corners between themselves and the marquis.

“What is going on, Lynn?” Isabel demanded as soon as they did.

“I don’t know. I don’t know what that thing was, that pretended to be a man. I just know I’ve never been as scared as I was when I looked at it. Just being near it was unbearable.”

“But… I’ve been near him. My dad’s been talking to him. He’s just some rich person that’s trading with our House.”

“You don’t see what I see! I saw the man, sure, but I also saw somethin’ hungry just below the surface. Like a shark in shallow waters.”
“I believe you. I just don’t know what to do now. My dad’ll kill me. Wait… Do you think the marquis is a danger to my dad?” Isabel gasped at the realisation.

“Yes. Maybe. I really don’t know what it was.”

“I need to go back and warn him, then. Here’s your bag. Ow! There’s something really sharp in it.”

Isabel lifted up the bag she’d been clutching the entire time to look at the offending object. A silver pin was sticking out. Through the threadbare cloth, an outline of a brooch to which it was attached could be seen.

“What is it?..”

“It’s nothin’,” Lynn finally realised what Isabel saw, and tried to take the bag.

“No, it’s… It’s my brooch!” Isabel had opened up the bag, revealing the rest of the stolen jewelry.

“Lynn, what is it? Did you… Did you steal this?”

Lynn stood in silence, her guilt written on her face.

“How could you! I thought we were going to be friends! I thought you’d like me! I trusted you, followed you here. And you were just after the things I have!”

“You have so many! You don’t need them, not like I do,” Lynn finally snatched the bag out of Isabel’s fingers.

“And it doesn’t matter now! I don’t care about this stuff,” she tossed the bag to the side.

“I’m trying to save you! Please, don’t go back. The marquis will know you know his secret. He will hurt you!”

“Dad was right, all people want is to use me. You don’t deserve my company. You’re just a thief!”

Sparks started jumping between the bony ridges on Isabel’s face, her teeth bared. Lynn was suddenly very aware she was yelling at the dragon’s granddaughter. She took a step back, putting her arms up before her.

“Hate me if you want, just, please, be careful of him. I’ll go. I won’t bother you again,” she pleaded.

Lynn took another few steps back, and watched Isabel storm off. Lynn stood there for a while, still shaken from her vision and ensuing confrontation. Just a few minutes ago, she was so pleased with herself. Now, she was furious. She didn’t need the self-centered dragonkin’s friendship. She tried to help, and has been rebuked. Deep inside, Lynn knew Isabel had every right to be angry with her. She hid from the guilt behind disdain, another thing she was getting used to doing.

Lynn picked up the abandoned bag with jewelry still in it, and hated herself as she did.

Chapter Eight

Posted: April 25, 2014 in Arc 1 - A Rock or a Jar

Isabel lived in a mansion, not a leftover elven tower and not a terrace constructed to maximize the living area covered by daylight crystals. Even in Higher Valenar, such stand-alone buildings were uncommon. Her father must be extremely wealthy, Lynn mused as she took up a well-concealed position in a back alley. She didn’t want to be accosted by a resident who might rightly wonder what a street rat like her was doing here.

Lynn resisted the urge to pull out slime while she waited. She couldn’t risk spacing out while inside, not until she got something for her troubles. She was almost out, anyway. Time crawled excruciatingly slowly, as it did now whenever Lynn wasn’t slimed. Everything was dull, even here. She couldn’t concentrate on anything, couldn’t see the intricate details. She looked at what must have been a beautiful mural adorning Isabel’s wall, but all she saw was paint on bricks.

She was ready to leave when a door opened, and Isabel’s head poked out, looking around. Lynn got up to show where she was, then hurried towards Isabel as she waved for her to come. Isabel was grinning mischievously as she let Lynn inside. Lynn barely noticed. She froze as she stepped into the door.

The corridor was huge, broader than her living space. A carpet ran its length, and Lynn could see another one covering the stairs going up in parallel to the corridor. At its end, near the entrance to the stairs, stood a massive wooden door. It was embellished with entwined serpents covered in gold leaf which made up a frame for its embedded middle. The door handle was formed by the serpents’ heads. It was just a door. It probably cost more than anything Lynn has ever owned, combined, including Lynn herself.

Living as she did in an elven tower, Lynn understood they had also surrounded their daily lives with things of beauty. And just like elves themselves, their art has long been gone, ripped away, leaving Lynn with only scarred walls. Here, beauty still lived. Lynn’s hands felt for the jar of slime in her bag of their own accord. What secrets this door could tell her.

Isabel had to pull on her arm to get her to move. Putting a finger to her still smiling mouth, she moved forward, leading Lynn up the stairs. Another corridor similar to the one below waited upstairs. Instead of a door at its end, it branched off into a crossroads. A thin column stood there, holding up a wall at the intersection. Its top, Lynn realised as she moved, was covered with two small mirrors at a right angle to each other, forming a triangle with the wall. It seemed to be an odd ornamentation, but she didn’t have time to consider it as Isabel dragged her further. Voices sounded from the path leading forward. Instead, Isabel turned left and ushered Lynn into her room, closing the door behind them. Another mirror column stood opposite the door, parallel to the first one.

The room overwhelmed Lynn with the amount of things it had. Porcelain dolls sat at their own miniature table. Dresses were hanging off mannequins. A whole table has been devoted to wire brushes and mysterious bottles. Lynn couldn’t comprehend what a person would do with so much stuff, how they’d find the time to use it.

As she looked around, a dazzling brilliance from the ceiling caught her eyes. It looked like a miniature daylight crystal was attached to it. Could such a thing even be? The cost would be astronomical, and Lynn thought they were public property by law. Of course, the dragon didn’t care for law he didn’t like.

“That’s just a dispersal crystal,” said Isabel noticing Lynn’s dumbfounded expression.

Lynn gave her a blank look.

“See, here, it spreads the rays sent to it through the gap above the door. Did you see the mirrors outside? They direct sunrays all over the house.”

Every corner of the room was brightly lit, leaving no place for the Shadow to hide in. It was a safe place. More so than the luxury of the doors, the comfort of the rugs, the joy of toys, this was something Lynn wished she had. To sleep, and not to worry. She had given up that worry, accepted her eventual downfall, and was now sharply reminded of the other possibility. Did she make a mistake? If Isabel could live like this, why couldn’t she?

Isabel didn’t see Lynn’s inner turmoil. She walked over to a shelf and retrieved the items she had saved, the figurine and the comb, handing them to Lynn. The girl accepted them distractedly, and put them into a new bag. Just like the old one, it was nothing more than a sack with a strap. Then Lynn shook her head, sending the doubts away, and forced herself to smile.

“Thank you.”

“No problems, and again, I’m sorry about my dad.”

“He must be really important,” Lynn spread her arms, gesturing to the house as a whole.

“He is! He’s lord Jahrimir’s Lightning. It means he’s a trusted assistant, and can give orders to everyone in the House, except other Lightnings. And the lord himself, of course.”

“And he’s meeting someone else important tonight?”
“They are here right now. A marquis, I think he said.”

“What’s a marquis?”

“A noble of some sort. I don’t know where he comes from, only that he’s arrived recently.”

Lynn’s eyes itched, but she couldn’t pull out slime just yet. She rubbed at them, and felt her hand come away wet, like her eyes have excreted some slime themselves.

“Are you sure you’re alright? Is it…have you been tainted?”

“Yes. And… yes. We don’t have dispersal crystals out there. Don’t have much of anythin’.”

“Oh. I’m very sorry. Have you gone to the Cerulean temple? I’m sure they could help.”

“Don’t worry about it. It’s too late, anyway. It doesn’t matter.”

“Well, can I help you somehow?”

Lynn looked around once again. Isabel couldn’t possibly understand her problems. She had lived her whole life without. Lynn squashed the rising feeling of guilt.

“I’m okay, it is what it is. I could use some water, though.”

“I’ll get you some, then,” Isabel smiled, and walked out of the room.

Lynn didn’t waste any time. She moved to the table with the brushes and the bottles. There, glittering in the reflected light, stood a small bowl full of jewelry. Rings, brooches, pendants. Lynn thought of taking the whole thing, but realised it’s absence would be too conspicuous. Instead, she grabbed several sparkling pieces from the bottom, and placed them in her bag.

She hurried back to the spot where she stood before, her heart racing. She has done it! Almost. Now she just had to get out, and not get caught. Not get caught stealing from Jahrimir’s Lightning. Her hands started shaking, and cold sweat had appeared on her brow. Isabel would know immediately she had taken something, as soon as she saw her! Slime would help, it would ease her nerves. By the time Lynn made the conscious decision, she had already opened the jar. When Isabel came back with a glass of water, a distant smile lay on Lynn’s lips.

“Here. They’re very busy there. Do you want to sneak out and take a look? The marquis looks funny.”

“Sure.”

Lynn’s worries have dissipated. Everything was fine and would be fine. She had succeeded. She’ll just follow the dragonkin girl, nod at whatever she says, and be on her way. Isabel won’t even notice the jewelry was missing. Lynn followed Isabel out, sneaking after her example.

They went down the corridor, stopping at a heavy velvet curtain. Isabel once again put her finger to the lips, then moved the curtains aside just enough to look through. Lynn obeyed. Behind the curtain lay a balcony overlooking an enormous open room. Sofas formed a square in its middle. In one of the corners of the square stood a small pedestal with a dragon’s bust on top of it. There was a short table in the middle, with a tray full of ornate metallic cups and pots. A large dragonkin sat at one side, his back straight. Sitting leisurely opposite him with his feet on top of the table was his guest.

The slime had shown Lynn many things, not all of them pleasant. She had learned to tolerate them, and to avoid certain places where they were prevalent. She had learned not to go past the terrace that had frost in its windows despite the summer. She had learned not to look up at the moon. They filled her with unease, a vague sense of danger, but she’d gotten used to it.

Lynn saw the marquis and began to scream.

Chapter Seven

Posted: April 22, 2014 in Arc 1 - A Rock or a Jar

There were several ways to sell oneself in New Valenar, beside the obvious. You could go into slavery to House Jahrimir. The usual arrangement was life-long shelter and sustenance in exchange for life-long servitude, but exceptions could be made to provide for the family as well. It wasn’t a terrible life, all in all, if devoid of personal freedom. Many Valenarians detested slavery, but its voluntary nature made it much more morally ambiguous. More importantly, no one dared argue morality with Jahrimir.

You could sell your body to Dargothians, to be collected upon death. A small mark would be placed on the underside of your left arm, informing the corpse collectors they are free to do with it as they wish. Presumably, they’d animate it as a mindless zombie for menial labor. Rumors persisted of corpses being used in experiments, or as spare parts for high priesthood of Dargoth. When asked, Dargothians merely smiled and asked if you wished to live forever.

Finally, you could sell your soul to Iron Judge. He would reforge it, burning away your mortal weaknesses such as free will, and place what’s left into a cogheart. Though intricate, the machines required an animating force. Their numbers were few, yet growing each year. Iron Judge was assembling an army of artificial soldiers, to wage war on the broken, lawless world. Some found refuge from its insanity in the absolutism of his dogma. Most harbored no illusions as to their place in the coming confrontation.

Particularly enterprising or desperate sorts could combine these deals, selling their lives, bodies and souls at the same time. Lynn was growing desperate, but not quite desperate enough.

She had limited herself to a deal with Dargothians. The whole process was much less mystical than she had expected it to be, a mild disappointment. The temple had a deliberately mundane side room for such negotiations, devoid of any glaring skulls or arched ribcages. At least the priest was pale and wore the ceremonial dark robe. She had observed Lynn, asked her to turn around, lift her arms, hummed, looked at her teeth and eyes, tsked. A bag full of coins was placed before her. Fewer than Lynn would have liked, but she wasn’t in any position to argue. She walked out of there, the bag safely hidden, rubbing the burning mark on her arm.

That was two weeks ago, and the money had almost run out. She tried not to think about how little consequence her life had amounted to. She didn’t expect or want anything grand to have happened to her body after her death, never had even considered this. But it was the one thing she was sure to leave behind, a tangible evidence of her existence. Now it was gone, with only several empty jars to show for it.

Lynn wandered the streets, looking for an opportunity. Or, frequently, just looking. Surrounded by people yet utterly alone, she was free to observe them. There was a certain beauty to their motion, a rhythm. Like sea foam on waves, they hurried back and forth, dissipating, congregating, following some incomprehensible patterns. Incomprehensible for now, but seemingly within reach. Places of significance, hidden roads, ebb and flow of it all, it would make sense if she would just keep observing. The patterns of the city were tantalising, and Lynn would get lost in them for days, forgetting about everything.

Something yanked her out of her trance, something that stood out too much to be a part of the pattern. Not something, someone. Isabel was covertly waving at her. Lynn was momentarily overcome with anger at the interruption, feeling the city’s secrets slip away from her. She shook her head, and looked around. She was in Higher Valenar, Lynn realised with some surprise, which explained Isabel’s presence. Lynn walked across the street to the dragonkin girl, following her into an alley, away from people’s eyes.

“What?”

“Hi! I saw you, and thought I should ask how you are. You don’t look so good.”

“I’m fine,” Lynn rubbed at the inflamed eyes unconsciously, then jerked the hand away.

“I’m so sorry about my father.”

“It’s okay. I understand.”

“Oh! I have your things. Well, the comb and the figurine. I’ve picked them up after you ran away. Do you want them back?”

Lynn nodded. The comb was worthless, but the figurine was something she actually valued. Ugly and crude as it was, It has been with her all her life.

“Great! Do you want to meet me in the evening, at my house? It’s on the Magnificence of Flight street, number 10. You’ll have to wait by the backdoor until I can open it,” Isabel made an apologetic grimace. At least Lynn thought it was apologetic, despite the abundance of revealed teeth.

“Daddy is meeting with someone important tonight, he’ll be very busy, and our slaves will be with them, too. If we’re quiet, they won’t know a thing.”

Lynn kept nodding, mostly to get rid of the prattling girl. Isabel was being nice to her, Lynn realised, but it was easy for the dragonkin girl. She could afford to be nice. She could never understand the life Lynn led. Lynn no longer wished to impress Isabel, to be like her. Gone was Lynn’s trepidation at making a fool of herself. She had nothing to lose. And with that thought came the realisation that she had something to gain, instead. She’d be let into Isabel’s home. A home full of… whatever wealthy people had in their homes. There must be something there she could take, that Isabel wouldn’t even miss or notice.

“Until evening then,” Lynn smiled warmly.

Chapter Six

Posted: April 19, 2014 in Arc 1 - A Rock or a Jar

It wasn’t that slime made you see things differently. Not quite. It changed your point of view, Lynn concluded. You could see anything clearly, focus on a tiniest detail. At the same time, it provided distance, like you were up on a balcony, in one of those elven towers. Whatever was happening, whatever you saw, it wasn’t happening to you, anywhere near you. It wasn’t real. Not a cause for concern, a subject for examination.

Lynn liked not being concerned. The daily horrors of her life were always so close, and it was nice to move away from it all. So when the jar of slime had run out in a couple of days, she went looking for Josh. Unsurprisingly, she found him in trouble.

His wrist was caught in a steel-clad grip of a broad hooded figure. The boy was pulling with all his weight, which failed to even budge his captor. Lynn was content to let the scene play out, when she noticed the figure wasn’t wearing metallic gloves. It had metallic fingers.

“Thank you, good sir! Thank you for finding my idiot brother!” she rushed towards them.

The figure turned to regard her with a barely audible whir, and her suspicion was confirmed. Did the boy actually try to steal from a cogheart? He really was an idiot.

“He runs off, sometimes, when I turn away. Was he bothering you? He probably wanted to give you a hug,” Lynn talked faster and faster, at the same time trying to pry the metal fingers from Josh’s hand. They didn’t ease.

“Sister? I was so lost, sister. I was trying to find you, and suddenly the man grabbed me,” Josh quickly joined her ramshackle deception.

It was very hard, lying to a cogheart. Their faces didn’t express emotions, they gave no reactions to play off. Which is why Lynn was working for the crowd, instead.

“Please, sir. I’m sorry we disturbed you. He is a bit simple, you see. Our poor mother, New Gods shelter her soul, she left him in my care. Please stop hurting him,” Lynn raised her voice as the passersby turned their heads. Josh drooled woefully in agreement.

The cogheart must have reached a decision, as its artificial fingers clicked open. The kids ran. The metal figure stood unmoving, watching them disappear behind a corner.

“Are you out of your mind?” Lynn asked when they were far enough.

“Are you?! Coghearts don’t care what others think. They serve Iron Judge. All that matters to them is whether you’re guilty.”

“Worked, didn’t it.”

“Only because I wasn’t guilty of anythin’! He grabbed me as I was following a mark. Guess it was a warning.”

“Fine, I won’t try to save you next time. Again.”

“…sorry. Thank you. You tried to help me, and I was being a jerk.”

Lynn didn’t expect an apology, and didn’t know how to accept one. After a few seconds of awkward silence, she changed the topic.

“I was looking for you. Can you tell me where you got slime?”

Josh looked into her eyes, just like Russell did yesterday. They were bloodshot and squinted from the painful sunlight, like his. Unlike Russell, he didn’t judge, simply nodded.

“I’ll take you to the guy I got it from. Azary, his name is. I’ve got to warn you, though. Watch yourself with him.”

Lynn nodded. This was to be expected.

“I mean it. Don’t even think of cheating him. And don’t borrow off him if you can’t pay it back.”

Lynn nodded again, this time less certain. Josh sounded genuinely afraid of him.

They made their way south, staying within the hearing distance of the sea. Bustling districts lit by sunlight, both real and magical, were replaced by less well kept but still inhabited outskirts, much like Lynn’s home, and then by utter ruins left after the sacking of Valenar. Their destination had been a garden, once. Columns framed an open space, where feeble green-gray vegetation clung to ground. It must have been beautiful, when the flowers bloomed and the vines sprawled over the unbroken statues, providing shade.

Lounging on a luxurious if garish chair under the cover of the still-standing part of roof, his feet up on a table that looked equally out of place, was the man they came to see. In others, elven ancestry provided an air of otherworldliness, a subtle shift of features that made them look ethereal, their movements flowing. In Azary, elven ancestry provided sharp edges. He looked like his every gesture could cut you.

Two other men were sitting nearby. Big, threatening men with openly displayed weapons and heavy gazes. Lynn barely even noticed them, she was so focused on watching Azary’s every move, ready to sprint at the earliest sign of trouble.

“What have you brought, boy? Is she to be your payment?” the elf-blooded looked Lynn up and down. The sheer lecherousness of his gaze made her feel like a slice of meat strung up by a butcher, and about as dressed. People have recently started looking at Lynn that way, and she didn’t appreciate it.

“This is Lynn. She, um, she wants to buy some slime,” Josh stuttered nervously.

“Does she, now. Come here, girl. Let me introduce myself.”

The man sprung to his feet, causing Lynn to flinch. This didn’t escape his eyes, and a thin smile appeared on his face. Coupled with the scars cutting into his lips, it looked like a crack running across a porcelain mask.

“Azary. Whatever your kick, I can get it. For a price.”

“I can pay. I’ve got some money.”

Normally, she’d spend these coins on food for herself and Ducklings. But a few won’t be missed.

“I’m sure you do. Otherwise you would be wasting my time. And you look too smart for that. Not smart enough to stay off the stuff, though.”

“I know what I’m doing,” Lynn bristled despite her fear.

“Couldn’t care less.”

Lynn placed the modest sum she had on the table, eager to get out of there. Azary snorted.

“That ain’t going to get you much, girl. Consider this a gift, then. You won’t get another.”

He gestured to one of his thugs, who went into the half-ruined building. A minute passed. Lynn tried very hard not to look at Azary. He sat back on his chair, and made no such efforts. Every time Lynn looked up, he was looking back, with the same unsettling thin smile. Every time, the smile grew wider, the crack ran further.

Finally, the thug came back with two jars of murky substance. Azary placed them in front of himself.

“This one’s for you. And this, for you,” he nodded at Josh.

Lynn shot him a gaze. Was she just sold out? Josh looked back, sheepishly. Azary started laughing at the silent exchange. The sound, harsh and sudden, broke Lynn’s resolve. She grabbed her jar of slime and ran.

Running from laughter at her expense. She was getting used to it. Did she really know what she was doing? She felt like her life had spiraled away from her. Lynn imagined herself falling through a tower, watching flights of stairs swish by. Once again, she weighed the jar of slime in her hand. Could she stop it? Latch on to a ledge, climb on it and keep climbing?

She could. She was in control of the situation. She knew not to be stupid, not to put herself in danger like Josh did. She also knew she was lying to herself. And didn’t care.