Archive for the ‘Arc 4 – True Faces’ Category

Chapter Thirty Three

Posted: April 19, 2016 in Arc 4 - True Faces

Silence. The blade that entered the man’s body is so sharp, he doesn’t yet feel it. Melai doesn’t yet know why the hand holding him is suddenly limp. Lynn hasn’t yet processed what just happened. Neither has Isabel, and she’s the one holding the dagger.

Azary begins to laugh.

Fury. The man lets out an angry scream, turning to swat away the girl who dared to attack him. Blood sprays out in an arc with his movement, hitting Isabel’s dress. He collapses by the time he faces her. Lynn has pulled out something dark and sharp from her bag. “Get him!” she yells, and a clawed screeching blob flies out of it at the face of another man.

Azary laughs.

Movement. Lynn pushes Melai forward as she rushes to grab Isabel’s hand. Tamara draws her weapon. The man attacked by the clawed thing stumbles backwards, disappearing into the Shadow. Melai jumps over the prone thug. Blood drips from Isabel’s dagger. Lynn yanks Isabel after her. They run.

“Well, that was an amusing diversion,” says Azary, “After them.”

***

Isabel would be lost here, in the half-ruined remnants of the old Valenar drowning in the Shadow, if not for Lynn. Is it the familiarity with this part of town, she would wonder soon, or the glow of her eyes that allows her to navigate their path so easily? But right now, all Isabel could do was run. Melai kept up effortlessly, his long legs outpacing the girls. Shouts of their pursuers propelled them forward.

Just as Isabel was starting to run out of breath, she saw the safety of lit streets was within reach. Blazing through the clutching Shadow, a daylight crystal had appeared from around a corner. Instead of leading them towards the light, however, Lynn suddenly took a sharp turn. When Isabel tried to voice an objection, Lynn hissed at her.

They clambered over a broken wall, barely visible in the deepening darkness, then onto another. The populated terraces ended only a couple of meters to their right. To their left, vast nothingness boiled. Lynn expertly led them down the middle, stepping into the light one moment, into the Shadow another.

She ducked into a dilapidated building, with Isabel and Melai blindly feeling their way up a flight of stairs after her. They stepped out through a hole in a wall onto a lit ledge, breathing heavily. Below, the collapsed masonry peaked from the Shadow. They were hidden on both sides by the remains of the tower’s exterior. In front, only terrace roofs and a daylight crystal towering over them were visible.

“No one will find us here. At least for a while,” said Lynn.

Melai collapsed onto the floor, leaning onto the remains of the wall. He tried and failed to find an angle at which the bricks sticking out wouldn’t poke into his back. Lynn sat down and lowered her legs over the edge. Isabel paced back and forth their tiny safe balcony. Though tired, she couldn’t stop.

Couldn’t stop, that is, until Lynn transfixed her with a glare.

“You may have killed him,” said Lynn.

“I guess so? That’s what happens when you stab someone,” replied Isabel, repeating what she once heard her father say. She suddenly noticed the bloody dagger still clutched in her hand. Isabel knew she had to clean the blade, and, in the absence of grass, wiped it on the already ruined dress. This gave Lynn the time necessary to collect her thoughts.

“He was, is, a person.”

“A bad person. He works for that dreadful crime lord, Azary.”

“So does Tam. So do I.”

Lynn hadn’t blinked yet, realised Isabel, growing increasingly uncomfortable with the conversation. Why couldn’t Lynn understand? It was so simple: he was a bad guy, she fought him off.

“It’s different,” said Isabel, “You have a good reason, I’m sure.”

“And you’re sure he doesn’t? His name is Karl, by the way. He likes to carve wooden figurines when he’s not busy,” replied Lynn by way of accusation.

“Girls,” interfered Melai, “Maybe now is not the time for arguments about morality.”

“When he’s not busy being a bad person,” ignored him Isabel, “This Karl was going to hurt Melai, surely you don’t think we should have let him.”

“No, I… No,” said Lynn, anger gone from her voice, “I dunno, okay? You are right, he was a bad person. But he was still a person. He is what a friend of mine may have grown up to be. Had he not been killed by the Beast.”

“Oh. I’m sorry,” said Isabel, “I didn’t know…”

“Forget it.”

“What was that thing you commanded?” asked Melai to break the ensuing silence.

After some hesitation, Lynn pulled out the demonic claw and held it up for them to see.

“A demon,” she said, “A nasty little demon I stole from Karadash.”

Isabel gasped. Melai leaned forward, examining the grisly object.

“This is how you control it, right?” he asked.

Lynn nodded: “Here, I’ll show you. Stan, come out.”

Heavy smoke poured out of the claw, making Isabel recoil. Moments later, it coalesced on the ground into the most hideous creature she had ever seen. The bloated toad looked up at her, and recoiled in turn. It expertly mirrored Isabel’s expression, quickly going from surprise to disgust to confusion. The creature didn’t waste a moment of bodily existence on not mocking.

“Stan, be less insufferable,” said Lynn, struggling to suppress a smirk.

“Not my name, boss. And what’s all this, a snack for me?” the demon barred its teeth at Isabel. Instinctively, she bared hers in response.

“Oooh, scary. And you’re covered in blood. I like this one. We can keep her. This one, however…” the demon turned to Melai.

“I beg your pardon?” up until now, Melai had been too fascinated with the creature to react to it properly.

“Can I eat this one, boss? He don’t look like much, but at least I could gnaw on his bones for a while. He can watch, if that’s his thing.”

“Stan, enough,” tried to control her demon Lynn.

“What a remarkably horrible demonic entity,” exclaimed Melai, “Though I suppose that’s a tautology.”

“Boss, he’s saying something about me and I don’t like it.”

“Turnabout is fair play,” Lynn could no longer hide a smirk.

“I hate fair. Watch out, not-quite-elf. Blink, and I will use your not-quite-elven-ears as a chamber pot.”

“Charming,” Melai did his best to appear unfazed.

“Lynn!” finally found the ability to speak Isabel, “How can you joke around with this, this monster. You have to know it’s evil. It’s a demon!”

Stain bowed, or at least rolled forward on its gut a bit.

“Now you get it,” said Lynn, pushing back her hood, exposing the scarred, slime-drenched visage beneath, “I ain’t whatever you imagined me to be. Take a good look. See if I’m a ‘bad person’, too. Do you feel like stabbing me yet?”

“Yeah. Do you feel like stabbing people? Cause I’m in,” unhelpfully joined in Stain, taking a break from licking blood off its claws.

Isabel retreated, lost for words.

“Very dramatic. If you’re quite done scaring Isabel, can you tell us what your plan is? You’ve got one, right?” intervened Melai.

“Stay alive. That’s my plan,” replied Lynn and pulled the hood over her eyes again.

“No arguments there. Any details? We can’t remain here forever.”

“We’ll stay for a bit more. Then we need to move to a better spot, somewhere to spend the night.”

“And then they’ll move on and forget about us, right?” asked Isabel.

“No,” replied Lynn flatly, “Azary doesn’t forget. You went against him. He’ll get his due, one way or another. If he can’t get to you, he’ll get to me and Melai.”

“Well that’s hardly reassuring,” let out a nervous laugh Melai. “But at least I’m alive right now, and for that you have my thanks,” he nodded at Isabel, “As for shelter, I suppose my humble abode may suit our purposes. It is not that far from here.”

“It’ll do,” said Lynn after some thought, “Azary wouldn’t know who you are yet. For now, get up. You don’t want to be sitting on the cold stones for long.”

She struggled to follow her own advice, nearly stumbling over the edge before Isabel caught her. Cold proved a sufficient distraction from silence, and for the next hour only their teeth did the chattering. At one point, they heard movement nearby, but no one came up to confront them. Finally, Lynn decided it was time to move.

As they walked through the streets of New Valenar, Isabel and Melai kept twisting and turning, looking for their pursuers. They looked into the eyes of every passer-by, searching for a hint of recognition, a glimmer of bad intent. All they saw was indifference turning to fear. No one wanted to help blood-covered fugitives, but at least no one wanted to bother them either.

The only one to spare them more than a passing glance was a cogheart. Isabel shivered, imagining the wheels in its head turning, weighting, evaluating whether or not they were in violation of Iron Judge’s law. Evidently, they weren’t. The machine man let them pass, and Isabel sped by towards the already visible tower, trying not to look guilty. Lynn concentrated on putting one leg in front of another.

Isabel spotted Stefan approaching them from an alley, and felt her worries lift. They were going to be fine now. Her bodyguard would take care of it.

“Well, here we are. We made it sa…” Melai’s words were interrupted by a mail glove colliding with his stomach. He fell backwards, all air knocked out of him. Stefan followed, putting all the maintained momentum into a kick to the head.

“Stop! What are you doing!?” shouted Isabel. Her worries didn’t lift. Entire world had turned upside down and she’d been too slow to notice.

Stefan ignored her, turning to Lynn as he drew his sword. The dragonkin man was dressed for war, his polished armor glinting under the daylight crystal. Lynn jumped back and crouched, clasping the demon claw like a knife, more cornered animal than a person. Melai groaned. Stefan took a step forward, and Lynn jumped back again, maintaining the distance. Sadistic smile played on his face. Stefan was finally in his element. Isabel punched his back, to little effect.

“Run, scum,” spat Stefan, “You’re not worth staining the blade. And you, my lady,” he turned to Isabel, deftly grabbing her by the hand, “Are coming with me.”

“How dare you! Who do you think you are, attacking my friends, laying your hands on me!” Shouted Isabel, increasingly hysterical.

“I am the one your father hired to keep you safe, you spoiled brat, and that is what I will do. If I get to kill someone stupid enough to try to kidnap you, that’s a bonus. My lady,” sneered Stefan.

With the assailant momentarily distracted, Lynn crept up to Melai. He had rolled to his hands and knees and was trying to stand up. Blood dripped from his mouth onto the frozen ground. Lynn went to pull him up but jumped aside when she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. Stefan’s boot connected with Melai’s ribs, tossing him like a rag doll.

“You really are the dumbest kidnapper alive,” Stefan towered over the moaning man, Isabel still clutched in his left arm, “Did you think I wouldn’t find out your name, or where you lived?”

A blade came flying out of nowhere, grazing Stefan’s neck. He spun around, pulling Isabel behind him. His sword came up too late to parry Tamara’s attack, her weapon leaving a bloodied gash under Stefan’s armpit. Caught in an awkward position, he retaliated with a backhanded blow with his sword arm. Using the force of the impact, Tamara bounced backwards. She smiled, her teeth stained red by the blood flowing from her nose.

“Hands off the prize, scaly. They’re not yours to hurt,” she said.

Tamara twirled a short sword in her right hand as she pulled out another dagger for her left. Stefan pushed Isabel back, readjusting the grip on his sword. The warriors took several measured steps, circling one another.

“What do we do?” whispered Isabel to Lynn, “Who do we help?”

“Ourselves. We have to run. Before they notice. Before Karadash notices.”

Isabel shot a nervous glance up, at the tower of the Beast. Were they being watched? Was the Beast laughing at the violence they were caught in? Beneath, steel clashed. Despite his initial wound, Stefan was an imposing opponent. He swung the sword in broad powerful arcs, keeping Tamara away. She ducked and weaved, waiting for an opportunity to close in. Every time she wasn’t fast enough, forced to parry, Tamara’s entire body rattled from the blow, accompanied by Stefan’s savage barking laugh.

With the fighters preoccupied, Lynn again tried to get Melai up and away. Isabel couldn’t do that. Stefan was horrible, and from what she’d seen Tamara wasn’t any better. But Isabel wasn’t ready to let one kill another. Maybe it was because she knew their names. Maybe, had she known Karl’s, she wouldn’t have been so willing to stab him, either. At the moment, it didn’t matter. She sprinted down the street. She would make it right.

“The prize is getting away,” said Tamara, taking a step back.

“You can have the elfblooded. I’m here for my House,” replied Stefan.

“That’s going to be a problem.”

“Not for long,” snarled Stefan as he advanced.

“Oh, bugger this. Scaly, BE BLIND,” said Tamara.

Stefan stumbled, and Isabel nearly did the same. Those words sounded different, heard clearly over the distance and her frantic footsteps. Was that magic? Her lessons in it weren’t supposed to start until next year. She just had to hope she’d live long enough to attend them. The absurdity of wanting to attend lessons escaped her.

“Help! You’ve gotta stop them,” she exclaimed as she ran into the cogheart they had previously passed.

The machine man turned to Isabel, its unchanging metal face impossible to read.

“Stop whom, child?” It said without moving its lips, soft whirring and rattling coming from within its throat.

“They’re going to kill each other. Please, do something,” Isabel pulled on its arm.

Several silent moments had passed while the cogheart evaluated the request and Isabel regretted not listening when the proper way of invoking Iron Judge’s law was explained to her.

“Remain here,” finally commanded the cogheart, turning to where Isabel came from.

She had no intention of obeying, though couldn’t keep up with it either. As she rounded the corner, Isabel saw Stefan on the ground, clutching his side, fuming Tamara next to him, with only the cogheart between them. Stefan rubbed his eyes with the hand still clutching the sword. Melai stood, leaning heavily on Lynn.

Everyone but the cogheart and Melai were yelling, trying to convince the cogheart they were in the right. Melai was busy probing at his teeth to see if any had been knocked loose. While the argument was heated, no one actually dared to cross the arbiter of Iron Judge. Maybe it would work out after all. Isabel didn’t think she had it in her to run for much longer.

As she approached Lynn, Isabel saw her stop mid-sentence, looking somewhere over Isabel’s shoulder. She turned around and saw Azary strolling down the street. The elfblooded man walked leisurely, all but whistling. Everyone became silent as he approached, even the cogheart turned around to see what drew their attention.

They stood opposite one another, metal faceplate to a porcelain-like face, cogheart to something much colder.

“Your involvement is unneces…” began the cogheart.

Azary sprang upwards, bounding off the nearby wall, rotating as he vaulted over the cogheart. He froze upside-down in midair, impossibly high, balancing on a thin blade Isabel didn’t see him draw, planted deep into the cogheart’s shoulder, where the joints of its metal body came together. Smile cracked the porcelain face as the blade slid deeper.

The cogheart collapsed, Azary landing on his feet with a flourish. A performance, nothing more. Stefan pushed himself upwards to face Azary, using his sword as a clutch. He griped it in both hands, letting go of the deep wound in his side. Blood steamed in the cold air.

“Run,” he shouted, a barely comprehensible roar, fury drowning out pain.

Tamara looked at him in amazement. Azary raised an eyebrow quizzically. With a juddering lunge, the cogheart grabbed Azary’s leg with its one functioning arm, irrevocably broken but not yet defeated. Stefan charged. Azary laughed.

The girls ran, pulling Melai after them. As they did, Isabel desperately tried to listen. To hear anything other than the beating of their feet. To hear Stefan. The horrible, violent Stefan who nearly killed Melai, who was going to hurt Lynn, too.

She didn’t.

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Chapter Thirty Two

Posted: January 18, 2016 in Arc 4 - True Faces

Isabel had fantasized sometimes of what she would do if she came upon villains terrorizing innocents. She imagined how she would descend on the crooked-teethed bandits (and all the best villains had crooked teeth) with the fury of a storm, fast and powerful, dodging every blow, wreaking devastation with her claws and fangs.

In reality, when faced with a single deceptively straight-toothed woman with a dagger, Isabel froze. And when said woman grabbed Melai by his scrawny shoulder and roughly pulled him along, telling Isabel to follow, she obeyed.

“I’ll ask again, and there won’t be a third time. What do you want with Lynn?” the woman snarled once they were on the other side of the street.

“We, ah, just wished to speak with her. We can see she’s busy, though, so we’ll leave you to your, ah, burglary,” mumbled Melai, trying to wriggle as far away from the blade pressed to his side as possible without dislocating the shoulder.

The woman sneered, effortlessly holding him in place. Melai’s panicked expression finally snapped Isabel out of her stupor.

“We didn’t see anything,” she said, “And we won’t tell anyone. Please, it was my idea, Lynn is my friend, you can let him go.”

“Not likely,” the woman turned to her, “Not until I know you haven’t ruined our ‘ah, burglary’.”

“There’s no need for mockery. Just like there’s no need for violence, I may add. We are no threat to you, can’t we discuss this calmly?” said Melai, anything but calm.

“But I am a threat to you, and this isn’t a discussion,” said the woman as she put the dagger away, “Make no mistake, if either of you try to run or scream, I’ll find the blade a home in your body.”

“So noted,” gulped Melai.

“Now then. You really need better friends, girl. You went looking for her in a wrong place. Just how wrong a time you picked, we’re about to find out. If you’re lucky, you get to go home. If not…” she let the implied threat hang in the air. Melai’s protestations broke apart against it.

Waiting for their fates to be decided, Isabel studied their captor. She struggled to tell the age of humans. Not much grey in her black hair, so not very old. The woman must have been pretty once, before the poorly set broken nose, the long scar on the left side of her neck and the murderous scowl.

Maybe she’s a bandit queen, fearsome and rough, but secretly good-hearted, mused Isabel, and immediately felt better about the situation. This was all a misunderstanding. The bandit queen will see their goal is worthy, and will surely let them go. Maybe she’ll even help.

A wave of cold air staggered Isabel. Next to her, Melai gasped, a cloud of steam coming out of his mouth. The bandit queen swore. Rime spread rapidly across the ground, freezing mud solid. Isabel looked up to its source, already knowing what she’d find. A fragile, frozen bush, and behind it, a looming presence. An imperfectly ordinary building.

The doors slammed open as Lynn stumbled out, dazed. Isabel rushed to help her up. The woman behind her swore again. Lynn’s fingers chilled Isabel, their color almost as blue as Isabel’s scales. The girl shivered, unable to stand.

“Both of you, help her. We have to move. You’re all coming with me,” barked orders the bandit queen.

Isabel threw Lynn’s hand over her shoulder. Melai attempted the same, but being a couple of heads taller than either of them, settled for awkwardly supporting her weight with an elbow. Lynn’s feet barely moved under her. Fortunately, she didn’t weigh much. They walked two whole blocks before the woman stopped.

“What are you doing here?” Lynn finally found the strength to move her bloodless lips.

“These are your friends, don’t you know,” replied the woman before Isabel had a chance to open her mouth, “You can thank them for blowing the operation. But hurry up, I don’t think you’ll get a chance after the boss is done with them.”

Lynn looked forward, a dead, unwavering stare. Peeking under her hood, Isabel saw pus-like discharge smeared around and over Lynn’s bloated eyes, frozen by the unnatural chill she barely escaped, cracking each time she blinked. The scars surrounding them pulsed with her heartbeat, red, angry, infected. Isabel winced, then cursed at herself for reacting this way to her friend’s misfortune. Lynn didn’t notice.

“You can’t do that, Tam” she finally said in a flat, distant voice.

“I can and I will. The boss will want to punish someone for the failure, and it sure ain’t gonna be me,” replied the woman, “And you’d better hope it ain’t you, either.”

“I don’t care if he punishes me. And it wasn’t entirely a failure.”

Lynn pulled out a small leather pouch out of her bag, fumbled with its strings for a bit with unbending fingers, then released licks of blue flame from within.

“Deep ice! To be expected, I suppose,” exclaimed Melai, “I mean, that place was somewhat cold-oriented,” he finished weakly as everyone turned to him.

“It’s everywhere there, but it didn’t blaze like it does now. It burned calmly. Like candles,” explained Lynn.

“It’s nice and valuable, but hardly noteworthy. The boss was counting on something more substantial,” frowned Tam.

“We’ll just say it didn’t pan out. We went in blind, got what we could.”

“Good luck convincing him.”

They walked as they argued, presumably getting closer to this ‘boss’ even Tam was afraid of. Lynn lacked the strength to put up a fight, Isabel courage, Melai ability. The shadowfall was starting, and she hadn’t returned to where she was supposed to be, studying with Melai. By this point, Stefan has no doubt kicked down the door only to find them gone. Isabel shivered. Everything has gone wrong so quickly.

With alarm, she noticed they were leaving the safe lit districts behind, stepping into a different world. Here, the Shadow ruled. From the cracks in the ground, it spilled. Out of gaping windows, it slithered. Watching, probing, engulfing. It coiled through the air, tearing at the waning daylight, biting chunks out of it. Tam snorted at Isabel’s attempts at stepping over it.

“A little Shadow is the least of your problems right now, princess.”

But Isabel had spent her entire life safely away from the Shadow, she wasn’t about to recklessly walk through it, the way Tam did. Looking for ways around it, she was startled to find people sitting within.

The Shadow teemed around them, poured into their vacant eyes, licked at the pus they cried, nested around their expressionless faces. And in the Shadow, their eyes glowed with a sickening green radiance, illuminated from within, showing every squirming blood vessel, every quivering pupil. Like bloated flies on corpses, the Shadow feasted. But these weren’t corpses. Some blinked, others turned after the group. One bent down in a coughing fit which shook her entire body, and for a moment Isabel could see her clearly. Just a girl. A girl with eyes like Lynn’s. The girl stopped coughing and sat back straight, the Shadow settling around her head again, content.

With tears welling up, Isabel turned to Melai, looking for an explanation. This couldn’t be real. Couldn’t be happening. Or if it was, no one could possibly have known about it. Her father, lord Jahrimir, anyone, any adult, they would have done something. Would have sheltered, fed, healed these people. Would not have left them to die out in the cold and the mud and the slime. They wouldn’t have. They couldn’t have. Melai, just as shaken as her, replied with a pained expression. For once, he didn’t have any words to say.

“Slimers. They chose this. No reason to pity the wretches,” said Tam. Her voice was cold, determined, but Isabel could see she avoided looking around. Isabel decided she didn’t like this bandit queen after all.

They kept moving. Before them, torches burned, dispelling the twilight but not the Shadow. It wrapped around a small garden plaza, turning it into a claustrophobic chamber, closing in by the minute. The flickering light revealed an elfblooded man sitting at a table in an ornate chair, entirely out of place here. Three others were nearby, demonic figures protruding from the primordial writhing nightmare, or so they seemed to Isabel. Lynn stiffened in their hands.

There weren’t any of the slimers in the vicinity, but Isabel could still see their eyes. Green, terrible eyes, burning woefully through the Shadow. All around the courtyard. Unblinking stares full of misery trapped within. And the king of this misery sat in his throne, surrounded by his supplicants.

“This wasn’t quite what I had in mind when I sent you two to rob the frozen house,” said the man in the chair.

“Lynn was inside, and she got some deep ice, when these two…” started explaining Tam.

The man in the chair somehow made the simple act of raising an eyebrow violently abrupt. Isabel stumbled back, and Tam stuttered. It was clear that with about as much effort and in as much time, the man could have run them through with a blade. It was not at all clear that he wouldn’t, next time.

“These two walked right up to the house, and, um, they must have disrupted the inhabitants. Who kicked Lynn out,” finished Tam weakly.

The man turned to Lynn, who had pushed Melai and Isabel behind. The girl met his gaze.

“And what of these inhabitants, do you know what they are?” he asked.

“Didn’t seem them, just glimpses. They were definitely there, though. It’s like there’s gaps in my memory,” shrugged Lynn. Her speech was still slurred from the cold. In the deepening darkness, her eyes were beginning to glow green, too.

“Gaps. Seems there are gaps in your usefulness.”

“Azary, we knew the place would be warded,” protested Tam.

“That’s why I sent the two of you. Lynn at least got in. You were on the lookout, and you failed to stop these fools from stumbling right into the thick of it. You’d do well not to remind me you exist right now, Tamara, or the next scar on your neck will be deeper.”

Tam’s cheeks flared up, but fear must have overpowered her anger as she bowed her head and took a couple of steps back, fading into the darkness. Melai squeezed Isabel’s shoulder. All that stood between them and the wrath of this Azary was Lynn.

“Gaps or no gaps, I did glimpse them,”drew attention to herself Lynn, “And I reckon I retained enough. They were a bit like you, only more so. I reckon they might have been actual elves.”

“Impossible,” breathed out Melai, before clasping his mouth shut.

“It speaks!” exclaimed Azary in mock delight, “How unfortunate for it. Go on, then, old man hanging around with young girls. What’s so important you had to interrupt us?”

Melai swallowed, looked around for ways to escape, then decided it was better to risk Azary’s displeasure by obeying than to certainly cause it by refusing him.

“It’s just that, elves are all dead. Wiped out by Dargoth and the other forces of Evil in the Last Battle. That’s how it started. Those fleeing were cut down in the Whispering Woods, only of course it wasn’t called that then. Which is not important right now. While there may have been survivors elsewhere, they haven’t made themselves known since, making it highly unlikely. As you no doubt know, being a fellow elfblooded.”

“I am a fellow nothing to you. The only thing you inherited from the elves is the propensity to go extinct. I have no use for these two,” turned to his henchmen Azary.

For a moment, Isabel hoped they were about to be released. Then she saw the way the thugs moved towards them, and realized what kind of release was in store for them.

“You don’t want to do that,” she said, with as much bluster as she could manage.

The thugs continued their advance until Azary said “Oh?”

“Do you know who I am, who my father is?” Isabel tried to puff out her chest, to will lightning into the bony ridges framing her head. The best she could do was a few nervous sparks.

“A guessing game? Very well. Your snout isn’t that long, scales are fine and teeth small. Which means the dragon isn’t your father, grandfather at best. Sorry to say, dear, but there’s a lot of you out there, the old bastard will hardly miss you.”

“No, but my father will. And he is Jahrimir’s Lightning.”

“Curious. You are correct, then. I do not need the trouble. Go.”

Isabel couldn’t believe her luck. They were free. They would get out of this, alive and well. She turned to Melai, only to see him grabbed by one of the thugs. Lynn protested weakly. Tam was silent. No one was going to do anything. Only she was free.

“No, you can’t. Let him go!” cried out Isabel.

“Keep talking, and soon I’ll decide the satisfaction of gutting you would be worth the trouble your precious daddy might bring,” replied Azary.

“G-go,” said Melai.

The man holding Melai yanked him forward, ready to lead him to whatever grisly fate awaited. Azary was grinning, clearly enjoying the consternation on Isabel’s face. Lynn tensed up, slipping a hand in her bag.

Isabel took a step back. She was free. She did something stupid, but was able to walk away. Except she wasn’t. She couldn’t leave Melai here, in this horrible place, with this horrible man. She was fed up with feeling powerless and afraid. So she did the only thing she could. She rushed to the thug holding Melai and stabbed him in the back with her dagger, twisting it inside and pulling it out at an angle, letting the curved blade do its job. Just like Daddy taught her.

Chapter Thirty One

Posted: November 25, 2015 in Arc 4 - True Faces

Throngs of people walked the streets of Lower Valenar, or so it seemed to Isabel. She had rarely left Higher Valenar, and never on her own. Her trips to Karadash didn’t count, she’d spent most of the way fuming. Isabel was struck by just how much the city she thought she knew changed when one crossed the river bisecting it.

House Jahrimir basically owned Higher Valenar, so it stood to reason it was mostly its members that lived there. Still, it was odd to be surrounded by so many people in Lower Valenar, so many non-dragonkin. So many people not related to her. Isabel felt isolated, outside of her extended family, her House. Isolated and excited.

She couldn’t think of a better way to find Lynn than to ask around. Approaching the first person was scary. After the third, it became a chant: “Hi-excuse me-do you know Lynn-she’s this tall and has scars around her eyes-oh well-thank you anyway.”

People shrugged, tried to sell her something, asked annoying questions like “do your parents know you’re here?” and were otherwise unhelpful. No one had seen Lynn. Isabel kept an eye on the declining sun. There was still time before the music box masking her absence would stop playing.

Finally, in the temple district, she had a stroke of luck. Some of the people here were dressed as poorly as Lynn, which gave Isabel some hope. She tried speaking to a woman leaning on a wall, but the woman’s eyes, wide and vacant, only looked through Isabel. Uncomfortable, Isabel left her staring at nothing.

As Isabel backed away, someone tapped her on the shoulder, causing her to nearly trip over from surprise. It was a boy a bit older than her, who had overheard her enquiries and claimed he’d seen Lynn a while ago, hanging around a particular tower. As he described the location, Isabel’s heart sank. It made perfect sense for Lynn to spend time near Karadash’s home. It was also the last place Isabel wanted to visit.

What choice did she have. Isabel thanked the boy, and made her way there. Eventually, she realized she no longer possessed the purse with her savings. Whether it was the boy or someone else that took it, Isabel didn’t know. At least she still had the dagger. Cursing herself for a fool, Isabel moved on. This adventure wasn’t off to a great start.

With dread she approached Karadash’s tower, for the second time today. Isabel didn’t dare look up to its windows for fear of the marquis spotting her. She just had to hope the hood would do its job. The girl resumed her enquiring chant. The first person she approached seemed deeply offended at the mere thought she’d associate with a human. The second was merely annoyed. Isabel didn’t give up.

The fifth person she asked was Melai. He was sitting on the stairs of a tower, visibly drunk, so Isabel almost didn’t talk to him. But she was running out of time, with barely anything to show for it. The elfblooded man stared at her in confusion, until comprehension dawned on his face.

“Oh. Lynn. Yes, her. Yes, I’ve spoken to your friend a few times. Is she alright? I haven’t seen her around lately.”

Isabel’s hopeful smile turned into a disappointed frown. Another dead end.

“I don’t know, that’s why I’m trying to find her. She’s been involved in something dangerous,” she said.

“Oh my. Oh dear, yes, I do think you are correct. And I may have even helped her to endanger herself. Most egregri… egrige… bad of me,” Melai sighed, disappointed at his slurring tongue.

“What happened?”

“She had attempted to… I probably shouldn’t get you involved. I’ve done enough harm, if she’s missing.”

“No, please, wait. You have to tell me. I need to find Lynn!”

“You know, you are a bit like her. Very well, how about this: I will attempt to locate her, and let you know what I’ve found out. If. If you tell me what this is about, and promise not to run off on your own.”

“You’d do that?” Maybe this wasn’t a dead end after all.

Melai considered his answer.

“I believe I will. It would appear it was partially my fault she’s missing, I was a bit cavalier in my interactions with her. Do we have a deal?”

Isabel nodded eagerly.

“Let’s start with your name, then. Mine’s Melai.”

“Isabel Sparkteeth of House Ja… Jahrimir,” she finished weakly. It probably wasn’t the best idea to give out her full name like that.

“Don’t worry, your secret is safe with me,” smiled Melai, “Well then. What is the danger Lynn finds herself in, and what does it have to do with the foreigner?” He nodded in the direction of the maquis’ tower, distaste in his voice.

Isabel looked around to make sure no one was listening, then whispered:

“Lynn thinks the marquis is the Beast that’s been attacking people.”

Melai raised an eyebrow, then, unsatisfied with the level of incredulousness he displayed, tilted his head as well.

“As it may be apparent I dislike the marquis, but I find this to be a far-fetched accusation,” he said.

“Lynn didn’t think so,” replied Isabel defensively. A similar conversation with Daddy didn’t go very well, “She saw through his disguise. And he’s really creepy and I don’t like him and Lynn would know more, she was investigating.”

“If the marquis is the Beast, and that’s a big ‘if’, she would be in a lot of trouble,” Melai got up, steadying himself on a wall, “I shall see what I can find out. When can you come back here?”

“I don’t know. I’m not really supposed to be here on my own.”

“I gathered as much,” chuckled Melai.

“I’ll come when I can sneak away. Maybe tomorrow, maybe in a couple of days. Please, please find Lynn.”

The conversation left Isabel both hopeful and worried. Before, she was mostly concerned for her Daddy. Now, Melai had confirmed Lynn may have gotten into trouble herself. Was that why no one had seen her around? Karadash wouldn’t… He wouldn’t do something to Lynn, would he? Of course he would, he’s the Beast. He kills people. No. Lynn is fine, she has to be. Melai will find her, and Isabel will talk to her, and together they will bring proof to lord Jahrimir, and everything will be fine.

Heart in stomach, Isabel approached her home. Has her absence been discovered? She’d never get out of the house again if it was. Not until she’s an adult.

Shadowfall had begun, sky growing darker, the Shadow sprouting in the cracks between the daylight crystals. The back alley from which Isabel intended to climb up to her room was one such place. The girl approached it with trepidation, and jumped back when the Shadow reached out to her.

She looked for a way to climb that would avoid the hungry blackness, but there was none. “It isn’t dangerous, not if you barely touch it,” said to herself Isabel, over and over. The longer she waited, the more the Shadow grew. Finally, the dragonkin girl rushed to the engulfed wall and leapt up. She wanted to move as fast as possible, but, hanging there, covered in the Shadow, couldn’t see past the first couple of handholds.

Isabel reached up, feeling for the protruding bricks she knew were there. As she did, the Shadow was feeling its way inside her. Isabel could feel the cold tendrils sliding in between her scales and into the soft flesh underneath. Or, at least, she imagined she could. Mostly, she just felt cold. Up and up Isabel went, desperate to get to the safety of her home.  

She fell into the open window of her room, breathing heavily from stress rather than exertion, then stopped breathing entirely when she noticed she wasn’t alone. The family servant, Margaret, stared back at her in mute surprise. In the silence, the music box’s halting, strained melody sounded ominous, each lone plucked note hanging in the air far too long. The dancer on top of the box stuttered and jerked.

Isabel got up, closed the window behind her, walked over to the music box and closed the lid over it, putting it out of its misery. Margaret kept watching her.

“Where were you?” she finally managed to ask.

“Out,” tried answering nonchalantly Isabel. It didn’t quite work.

“I thought something had happened, that you were kidnapped. I was about to tell Stefan…”

“You can’t. You can’t tell him, please don’t,” Isabel’s nonchalance crumbled, “You can’t tell anyone.”

“I have to. If he found out I hid this…”

“He won’t. You don’t need to worry about him,” cut her off Isabel.

Margaret shook her head.

“I’m sorry, mistress. We have to keep you safe.”

“I… I forbid you,” Isabel copied Daddy’s tone, wincing internally. She’d been on its receiving end far too often.

Margaret grew a bit pale.

“I’m sorry, mistress. Your father…”

“My father isn’t here. That means you will obey me. And I say you will keep quiet of what you saw,” Isabel stomped her foot, guilt washed away by anger.

Margaret bowed, paler still. This wouldn’t work on Stefan, knew Isabel. He was a member of the House, though far removed. Margaret, on the other hand, was their family’s servant since before Isabel was born. Still, Margaret would likely tell Daddy on her, so Isabel needed to find an excuse. Maybe lord Jahrimir himself would favor her for exposing the marquis, and Daddy would be proud. More likely, though, Daddy would be proud and she’d still be grounded.

Next day, Stefan came to Isabel’s home earlier than usual, and watched her like she was made of gold. When Isabel locked herself in her room and looked out of the window, she found him standing out on the street, basking in the winter sun. Whether or not Margaret told Stefan, he must have suspected something, concluded Isabel.

Going anywhere that day was out of the question. The next day, she had more tedious lessons, then more of being watched. Isabel could slip away, just not in a way that wouldn’t be quickly found out. On the third day, she began to consider that option.

Isabel dragged her legs on the way to yet another tutor. Daddy insisted she got the best education possible, but while some of the topics Isabel learned about were interesting, elven language simply wasn’t one of them. How could she concentrate on the intricacies of the wishful future tense when her Daddy still hadn’t returned.

She waited in the guest room for Stefan to check the study, something he insisted on doing whenever they came to a home belonging to anyone outside of the House. Isabel suspected he simply liked to appear busy, as well as to intimidate the host. He even tried to do it the first time they came to see the marquis. He had come back out quickly and silently, nursing his arm, and hasn’t attempted to do so since.

But this wasn’t Karadash. Stefan has begun an argument with her tutor, their muffled voices barely reaching Lynn through the door. Something about a change of the plan, a different teacher. Isabel sighed. She didn’t care who taught her, she just wished they could get it over with.

Outside the window, the river flowed. Somewhere beyond it was Lynn. She didn’t have to endure silly tutors and mean bodyguards. She went where she wanted, did what she wanted, was free. It wasn’t an easy life, Isabel knew. But sometimes she wanted to trade, if only for a day.

The door finally opened, and Stefan walked through. He nodded to Isabel. Mean and obnoxious though he was, Stefan knew his station. Isabel went inside, looked up at her elfblooded teacher sitting at a table and stopped at the threshold.

Melai winked at her conspiratorially.

Isabel composed herself long enough to close the door with a straight face, then the surprise exploded out of her in a barely contained whisper: “What are you doing here?!”

“Since it appeared you were no longer free to travel, I undertook the steps necessary to have this meeting. Turns out, there aren’t too many young dragonkin ladies undergoing an education, and some of my fellow archivists were tutoring on the side. I just asked one for a favor, said I’m trying to get my life back together,” Melai explained, very pleased with himself.

He looked different. For starters, he didn’t reek of alcohol. His clothes were cleaner, and even his face looked younger. Isabel spotted traces of makeup on his fingers, solving that particular mystery.

“A necessary disguise,” shrugged Melai, noticing her attention, “Otherwise the lovely fellow with fake scales wouldn’t let me anywhere near you.”

Isabel wanted to ask if this meant he was just pretending to not be a drunkard, but had more pressing concerns.

“Nevermind that. Did you find Lynn, how is she?”

“Ah, well. Almost. It turns out, our mutual friend had been briefly employed at a butcher’s shop at the time of our acquaintance. Tragically, the proprietor of the shop had been slain by the Beast, lending credence to your theory that Lynn was investigating the monster.”

“It’s not a theory! And can’t you speak less.. pretentiously?”

“As you wish,” replied Melai, his spirits dampened only for a moment, “As I was saying, Lynn had worked there. And while the propri… the butcher is sadly deceased, his daughter was easy to track down. The young woman had joined the city militia. She didn’t know where Lynn was, either, but she’d seen her conversing with another youthful miscreant, someone I realized I had also seen.

“Armed with the description of them both, I could elicit… I mean, it was easier for people to remember seeing them. I found a matronly woman, a pillar of the homeless community, it would seem, who spoke kindly of Lynn. She had been alarmed at the news of her disappearance, and pointed me toward Lynn’s adopted family of sorts.

“Unfortunately, it appears they’ve had a falling out of some description, but the boys were still able to point me towards a likely location. They said they’d seen her there recently, and I quote, ‘casing the place’. They had also indicated she had, unfortunately, and I quote again, ‘fallen off the wagon’.

“I’ve briefly pursued the, ah, drug angle. It was a long shot, the suppliers of the stuff being understandably cagey about their clientelle. The only thing I was able to ascertain was the fact that Lynn had been blacklisted by someone they feared. No one is to sell her any kind of substance. Which is most curious, though I do not know what it means. So that is where my investigation has led me so far,” Melai finished, beaming.

Isabel sat in silence for a few moments, digesting the new information. That was a lot of running around Melai did on her behalf, she was very fortunate to have found him. A lot of running around, but still no Lynn.

“What are we waiting for?” asked Isabel, “Let’s go find her, then.”

“What? No. Your guard will eat me.”

“Nonsense. Stefan doesn’t eat people. He just bites.”

“And I very much would prefer to not be bitten!”

“He doesn’t need to know. The lesson takes at least an hour, often longer. If we sneak out of the back door, he’ll be none the wiser.”

“Lynn may not even be there,” protested Melai weakly.

“But she may be. We’ll see. And if she’s not, we’ll come back, I’ll go home with Stefan, and you can tell me what you find out when you do find her. You seem to be very good at this.”

“Thank you, it had been quite an enjoyable experience. I still don’t think you should…”

“She may not be there for long!” interrupted him Isabel, “Please. I just want to know she’s alright.”

Melai teetered on the brink, and Isabel’s puppy-dog eyes pushed him over the edge. He slapped the table quietly as he got up. He was just as happy as Isabel to be on an adventure.

“Let us go, then. But if she’s not there, we’ll come back immediately.”

Isabel nodded impishly.

The two of them snuck out of the back door, leaving Stefan to guard an empty room. On the way, Isabel mulled over the things she learned.

“Does ‘casing the place’ mean what I think it means? That Lynn was looking for ways to rob it?” finally voiced her concerns Isabel.

“Pretty much. It would appear she is making a career out of thievery. Which is concerning, and a terrible example to set,” Melai glanced at her as he replied, seemingly worried Isabel would follow suit.

Amusing though the thought of picking up robbery was, Isabel didn’t smile. Her best hope for getting rid of the marquis was a thief and an addict, she now knew. She had always known, just pretended it wasn’t important. Pretended that by not thinking about it, she’ll make it untrue.

Before she had the chance to discourage herself any further, they had arrived. A quiet place in Lower Valenar, recently built up as the daylight crystal coverage expanded, its architecture designed to maximize the reach of the light. Wide windows, densely packed houses forming terraces, with not a ray going to waste.

“Any ideas on how to find her?” turned to Melai Isabel.

“Not a clue. I suspect asking if people had seen a girl looking to rob them may have an adverse effect.”

“Then we’ll simply look. Wander around, maybe we’ll spot her.”

There weren’t many people on the street, this close to the outskirts, and none of them were Lynn. Of course, if she was here, Lynn would be hiding. Bright as the place was, she’d find a way to disappear. Isabel circled one terrace block, then another. There wasn’t much time left before they’ll have to head back. She stood in the middle of the street, looking back and forth, and waited for Melai to join her.

“No luck, I’m afraid,” he reported.

“We have to figure something out. Running around doesn’t work.”

“Agreed. I’m wondering, why here? In the whole city, why would she come here, far from her usual home? Is there some building here that stands out, some resident we should know about? Some, ah, likely target?”

Isabel shrugged. They all look similar, rows of windows upon rows of windows. Nothing special about any of them. And yet something nagged at her in the back of her mind. Something’s been bothering her since she first got here. Isabel closed her eyes to try and concentrate on this feeling. One of the buildings had to stand out, there weren’t that many options…

“Huh,” said Isabel.

“What, did you think of something?” asked Melai.

Isabel nodded slowly, unsure.

“Take a look around. Now close your eyes. How many buildings can you see from here?”

“Five, I think. Why?”

“Now open your eyes and count them.”

Melai gave her a confused look but complied, pointing with a finger as he counted.

“One, two, three, four, five… six. ‘Huh’, indeed.”

“Indeed,” smiled triumphantly Isabel.

“It’s this one. No, this one that’s missing. No, this one?” Melai spun in a spot, pained expression on his face.

“I think it’s this one. It’s slippery, like a fish. My mind can’t get a grasp on it. I blink and I no longer notice it.”

“Then we’ll approach it like a slippery fish. Instead of ‘grabbing’ it, leave it no place to go. That bush in front of it. It’s not disappearing. Concentrate on it.”

Isabel breathed out, relaxing. She would not have been able to maintain attention on the building for much longer.

“How did you notice it at all?” asked Melai, impressed.

“I’ve walked past it twice. The air is noticeably colder near it. Then I closed my eyes, and couldn’t remember it being there, except I remembered it being cold.”

“Fascinating. I don’t feel it.”

“Guess we’re more attuned to the elements. Dragon blood, you know,” said Isabel, almost apologetic.

“Fascinating,” repeated Melai.

They stood in front of a completely ordinary building. As Isabel looked up at it, she felt her mind go blank. There was nothing to see here, so the brain filled the void with idle thoughts.

What was for dinner, she wondered. She’d better hurry back home, or she would be late. Wouldn’t it be great if Daddy was there when she returned. Maybe he brought back a souvenir for her. And if he’s not there, wouldn’t it be great if she found Lynn. She’s been looking for her, remembered Isabel. But why here, in this perfectly boring place?

Isabel shook her head, then elbowed Melai under the ribs. He gasped, looked down at her in surprise, then rubbed his forehead.

“We’d better avoid looking straight at it. There’s a serious enchantment on this place. I’ve only read of such things,” he said, averting his eyes.

“We’re not here for the building anyway. Let’s walk around it, see if we can spot Lynn,” suggested Isabel.

“Eek,” replied Melai.

“Now what would you want with our pet burglar?” asked the woman holding a dagger to Melai’s back.

Chapter Thirty

Posted: October 26, 2015 in Arc 4 - True Faces

“Forget about roaring flames and flashy theatrics. Magic is all about logistics. Casting a lightning bolt down from clear skies rarely accomplishes something that a dozen arrows couldn’t. But it’s getting those arrows to where they need to be, that’s what magic excels at. It is a shortcut. And where there are shortcuts, there are economic opportunities.”

Karadash sipped wine from an elegant silver goblet before continuing.

“Old World was built on this. A network of teleportation circles linked the globe. Commerce thrived. Now, of course, that’s all but impossible. Teleportation has become risky, unreliable, for reasons we don’t need to go into right now. That’s not the problem, though. If every fifth shipment doesn’t arrive, that’s just the cost of doing business.

“No, the problem is that there’s barely anyone to do business with. New Valenar is the greatest metropolis in the known world, yet it is hardly impressive by the Old World standards. About ten thousand people live here. Twice that number lived in the original Valenar alone, and elves weren’t particularly populous to begin with.”

“Is that why you had lord Jahrimir send Daddy away? To find someone else to trade with?” demanded Isabel.

She hated coming here. Hated the tower, hated the lessons, hated the chair she had to sit in, hated Stefan for bringing her, and most of all, hated the marquis.

“That was one of the reasons, yes. I have in my possession maps predating the Last Battle. While mostly useless, they may still offer hints as to the relative location of places of interest. The New Gods preserved the world in a rather slapdash fashion…”

“But this wasn’t the only reason?” interrupted him Isabel. Karadash smiled unkindly.

“Of course not. It is a reason your lord found sufficient, however, so your precious Daddy didn’t have a choice, and neither do you. Do not interrupt me further.”

“Or what,” asked Isabel, defiant, “You won’t dare to hurt me.”

Karadash chuckled.

“Hurt you? Whatever gave you such a ridiculous notion? I am but a marquis, not some… beastly murderer.”

Isabel chortled. “I know what you are,” she almost blurted out. She suppressed the urge with an angry growl.

“I see,” replied Karadash, “The topic of economics doesn’t interest you today. A lesson in politics is in order, instead.”

He refilled the goblet while Isabel fumed. She could walk out. Slam the door, order Stefan to take her home. Except he wouldn’t. He had to obey her, naturally, but he was also left with orders from Daddy, orders he would follow first. Like taking her to the marquis for her tuition. No, she had to endure the full hour.

“You’ve committed a cardinal mistake just now,” resumed the lecture Karadash, “You’ve shown me your true face. Never show your true face unless it is the last thing your enemy will see. And everyone is your enemy, do not doubt that.

“Which is not to say you should always lie. If you do that, it only takes being caught once for your words to be worthless. No. Lies are a tool of the last resort. Tell your enemy truths they already suspect, and they will trust you. Tell the truth, but never the entire truth. Never show your true face, your true intentions.

“If they know what you want above all else, they will be able to offer it or threaten it. Due to your outburst, I know you want your precious daddy back, and dislike me immensely. Pathetically predictable, but still useful. Now I can threaten I’ll find more expeditions for your lord to send him on, if you don’t stop misbehaving. See, no need for violence. Of course, I may well do this anyway.”

“Doesn’t that mean I’ve given you the truth you already suspected? And aren’t you lying right now?” sneered Isabel.

“You didn’t give it. I took it from the emotional wreckage of your face. You could be playing a subtler game, of course. You could be pretending to be just a child missing her daddy, letting her fear control her mouth. If you could pull that off, if you could fool me into thinking I found your truth while all I got was lies, that would be quite a coup. Tell me, granddaughter of the dragon, are you that savvy an opponent?

“And as for my lies, I assume you’re referring to what a certain urchin told you. How is that association working out for you?”

Isabel pouted. Her pout only grew with Karadash’s smug chuckle. It would be so satisfying to slam the door on her way out. Throw a tantrum. Refuse to ever come back, smash something breakable against a wall, claw something to shreds. But Daddy would be back eventually, and then she’d be in trouble. If he ever came back. He should have already been back.

Isabel always worried when he went away. He’s the Lightning of House Jahrimir, he’d explain each time. He strikes at the enemies of the House. Except now, he wasn’t protecting the House. He was away on some errand the marquis had convinced lord Jahrimir would be profitable. That on its own would be bad enough, the fact that it was the marquis’ idea only made it worse. These lessons were also his idea. Daddy didn’t want to put her education on hold while he was gone, and the marquis “graciously” volunteered. Oh, how Isabel loathed him.

She couldn’t see what Lynn saw when she looked at the marquis, but she could still hear the startled cry Lynn had let out when she had glanced at Karadash for the very first time. The pure terror on her face.

And of course, Daddy didn’t listen to her. He said Lynn had lied to distract her. Lynn did lie about many things, Isabel knew. Lynn pretended to be her friend to rob her, and Isabel was so desperate for a friend that she fell for it. She knew better now. The one thing she could trust was Lynn’s fear.

Isabel had to do something, to protect her Daddy, protect her House, before the marquis had wormed his way even deeper into it. She’ll have to help Lynn expose Karadash for the monster he was, she thought once again. A recurring idea, a fantasy she’s had ever since her lessons started.

A stupid idea. Daddy would be back soon. He’ll know what to do, if anything. She was still a child, what did she know. Isabel bit her lip. She looked up to find Karadash studying her with a smug smirk on his face. That was it, then. She’ll do it.

“I’m sorry,” she said, eyes down, “You are right. I worry for my Daddy, is all. I know better than to believe someone who had already betrayed me. I won’t lose my temper again, please continue the lesson.”

Isabel endured Karadash’s condescension for the rest of the hour. She’d long since mastered the art of appearing obedient. She didn’t need the marquis to teach her to hide her true face.

She remained quiet on the way home, plotting. Once there, Isabel informed Stefan she would be practicing on the harpsichord and was not to be disturbed. The bodyguard nodded, the scales tattooed on his brow creased with… suspicion? Isabel ran up the stairs to avoid his gaze.

Once in her room, she closed the door and pulled out a toy she’d long since abandoned, a music box with a dancer carved out of some poor animal’s bone spinning on top while it played. It didn’t sound quite like the harpsichord, didn’t sound like it at all, to be honest, but Isabel hoped Stefan wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. He hadn’t been tortured by the infernal instrument for the majority of his life, after all.

Isabel opened the music box, and the dancer sprung up, smile painted on her face, always ready to please. That’s why she abandoned it in the first place, remembered the dragonkin girl. Not that music boxes were all that riveting to begin with. This one, however, reminded her too much of herself.

From memory, it played for a couple of hours. Dinner was in about three. With any luck, no one will open the door into her room until then. Isabel had that long to… Do what, exactly? First, she’ll need to find Lynn, and see how far she’s gotten. And to do that she’ll go… somewhere.

Lynn lived in Lower Valenar, of that Isabel was certain. She’ll just have to improvise. Ask around. She’ll need a disguise. It was all very exciting, a hero embarking on a quest to save all she valued from marauding knights. Isabel settled on a cloak that could at least somewhat obscure her features from onlookers. In it, she’ll pass for a lumpy-headed human, as long as no one looked under the hood.

Isabel picked matching gloves, found the coins she had stashed back when she still had an allowance, and, after some hesitation, took the dagger Daddy gave her for her birthday. He’d have her head if she lost it. It was, in a word, sinuous. The hilt was an ornate serpent, its mouth open impossibly wide to form a crossguard, the tongue long and curvy and very, very sharp.

Of all the souvenirs he had brought back from his missions, this was her favorite. This wasn’t a toy though it may look like one, Daddy had warned her. Isabel had to promise, over and over, that she’d take it seriously before she was allowed to have it. Taking the dagger with her meant this was serious.

Isabel stood near the window, gathering her courage. Counted to ten, then opened it and climbed onto the roof of the ground floor, quiet as a mouse. A clawed, scaled, half-dragon mouse. A few quick steps, a jump, and she was on the street. Isabel looked around, but no one saw her. No one knew she was here. She was free. Isabel giggled. Back in her room, the dancer spun, smiling.