Dead Letters 1: In The Ruins Of Hope

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I will strive to keep my own interruptions to a minimum however I do believe some explanation is in order. We here at the catalog hold true to that keystone belief of the Brothers of the Pen: “Knowledge is meant to be shared.” Only through arming ourselves with the sword of knowledge can we slay that monster ignorance and hope to learn from the mistakes of the past. Now, imagine my dismay when stories with no or questionable sources were simply being logged and then shelved, forgotten. These tales of dubious origins, these dead letters, are still worthy of consideration despite their patchwork form. So I have made it my mission to pull the stories together with the folios we have here and my own resources so that a valuable asset can be added to strengthen our understanding.

~Valfor, First Brother of the Dead Letters

 

The following was taken from letters sent by both guard and prisoner out of Kenwork Prison, as well as from a story often overheard on stormy nights at both The Saucy Goat Inn and The Verdant Tap-House.

 

~ ~ ~

If the moon could talk, it would have a million stories to tell. Waxing or waning, full or new, it cannot look away from the lands and seas. So it has become, by its position, an expert on all things that happen below it. It has seen wars rip families into bloody pieces. It has witnessed a lover’s secret kiss on dark rendezvous. Stared unblinking at more travesties than even the most morbid poet could imagine. Yes, it would have many things to say if it could. As it was forced to watch the lone traveler make her away down an overgrown path, it would have screamed.

Mary was sure a turn had gone wrong somewhere, as turns are wont to do and now she and Oats were well and truly lost. The tan shire horse was having a time moving through the underbrush. It wasn’t just because the trail was overgrown. No, Oats had forged through quite a few forest roads, but something felt off to the beast. The air had a touch of foulness to it, as if something were rotting up ahead, and the dirt felt wrong as well. It felt as if her hooves were treading over graves.

I’m sorry, girl.” Mary patted Oats between the ears. “We’ll bed down up ahead, first wide spot we find, I promise.” The horse just snorted at her and slowed the pace a little more. They’d just come across bit of broken cobblestone. “Whats this, now?” Mary swung her lantern low to get a better look at the uniform rocks.

Cracked and overgrown but these bits of stone were the first good turn she’d had since the trip started. You might make a path to nowhere in the middle of the woods, but no one takes the time to pave it. This road had an end to it, a destination. And while she might not know what that was, finally having a sign of progress after so long gave her hope.

Oats was far from overjoyed though. That smell in the air had turned into something much worse. The breeze reeked of unwashed bodies and rancid vomit. The stones were too smooth, too polished, almost broken tombstones. But as usual, her master did not perceive any of this. The two of them had been through a lot over the years. Racing from bandits to deliver what ended up being cakes for a wedding. They even survived a month after being snowed in at an old hunter’s cabin on moldy barley and a boiled saddle. None of those things had been Mary’s fault, of course, Oats knew. But in the horse’s heart, she couldn’t help but wonder why her friend never listened to her.

While Mary continued to urge her steed faster along the road, the wind began to pick up. Mary took a long deep breath of it. She always had enjoyed the earthy tones of the forest and could make out a storm tempting to show up soon. Oats stopped dead and snorted when a stone stand came into the swinging light. She bucked back and started stomping at the ground, nearly unseating Mary in the process.

Whoa girl, easy. Easy!” Mary tried to calm the animal. Pulled back on the reins to let her get some distance and squeezing tight with her thighs. After she manged to settle her down a bit, Mary hopped off and tied Oats to a nearby tree. “Lets go see, huh? You’ll feel silly. I know it.” The horse tugged at her sleeve with its teeth, but Mary pulled away. Took out one of the precious few torches from her pack.

The stand itself was pretty eroded and overgrown with moss. The tiny statue atop it had held up much better. A small, well detailed sphinx done up in an odd black stone looked over her head in an almost regal pose. The stone it was carved from looked more like black glass than granite.

What could be at the end?” she wondered aloud. She’d checked and double checked her maps. The shortcut she’d decided to take didn’t have have anything out this way. There road she had taken wasn’t on any of them in fact, though she wasn’t surprised. Many of the maps for this area were out of date or so amateur it was laughable. It wouldn’t be hard to think that this was just the way to some old family estate or one of the silk farms.

While many in Mandria preferred the safety of the walled towns and cities. There were still a fair number of outlying farmsteads and country homes. More than a few of them had something to do with raising the giant Ulchek spiders used in the silk trade. She cringed a bit, remembered a time her father had taken her to see one of those ranches. She attributed her fear of the beasts’ smaller cousins to that experience.

While nothing horrid had happened to her. She would never forget the sight of those giant spiders descending from the trees to bring down whole pigs. The thought of her father brought her mood back down. It often did. Memories of him were precious but a little sour after everything that had happened. They were also tinged with anger, confusion a little resentment.

He had died on a delivery five years ago and Mary found that the business she inherited was more debt than profit. Her father had taken what had been a successful caravan company and drank it away behind the scenes. They once had twenty runners, a full stable of the fastest horses around, and not a single day without work. After she took over and had a scribe go over the books, it all fell apart. Just to keep herself out of debtors’ prison Mary had been forced to let the workers go. She’d also had to auction all the horses but Oats. Now she was down to taking whatever job she could. Even running nails to an outpost across the country for a fraction of what she should be charging.

Lost in worries, Mary ran her hand along the polished statue. She debated whether to continue on to whatever was at the end of the trail. This shortcut hadn’t been so short after all. She could backtrack to the main road and take the longer but surer route there. Oats struggled against her ties and tried to make as much noise as possible to draw Mary away. How could she not see how the statue was looking at her? How its eyes moved and followed every fidget her master was making? Oats feared the hate coming off it, the hunger. Mary turned to sooth her upset friend and gave a shout when something sharp dug into her finger.

She jerked her hand away and brought the torch closer to the sphinx. There, smeared across a protruding fang was a bit of her blood. Mary popped the injured digit into her mouth and scowled. The cut wasn’t deep but it stung. Oats was beside herself when Mary made her way back.

Alright, alright. I know we’ve been at it long enough.” She kept her voice low and even. “Lets get this off and have a nice rub down huh?” Mary began unstrapping the packs and saddle. With a grunt, she slid off the delivery of nails and started running a brush over Oats’ smooth sides. The horse was still frustrated. She wanted to leave now and get away from what lurked ahead. Although, the brush felt nice and having all that extra weight off was heavenly. She nuzzled Mary in gratitude.

Mary hummed a song her mother had sang before the Gray Cough took her. It was her song for Oats. She had sung it for her since she helped pull the chestnut horse into this world. It reminded her of rides by the creek. Of secret lunches pilfered from neighbor’s apple barrels and this. A late night brushing before bed. Mary kept humming as she watched her friend’s big eyes start to close and her legs lock in place. Oats swayed and was fast asleep.

Mary picked up her torch and lantern from the large root she had set them on. She began going through her travel bag for that tattered old tent she called home far too often. The rain might be far off. She couldn’t even see many dark clouds in the starlit sky, but the wind never lied. It was going to pour alright. That statue kept coming back to her mind. Mary was sure it was a marker of some kind.

Maybe they were close now. She had little silver but was willing to part with it if the place would put them up. And besides, she always carried a few things for trade if they weren’t hurting for coin. It would be so much better than having to brave another storm on this trip. The last one caused her to lose two inches from her cloak just to get the tent back into semi-working order. She wouldn’t be gone long, she reasoned. Just scout out ahead a ways and see how far off it was.

She walked back up to the trail with a short bag and the lantern. Oats snoozed on next to a scattering of tack, unaware her friend was braving the night without her. The overgrowth died down after a while and the cobblestone became more uniform and less broken up. It was an odd thing. Parts of the road looked almost maintained while long stretches were completely ruined. She had gone about fifty paces before the trees started to die.

She didn’t notice it at first, only a handful of dead branches here and there in the tiny glow of her lantern. But the deeper she went, the more barren all the trees were. They stood there like skeletal sentinels, leaving long fingered shadows all around. Mary kept her eyes on the ground in front of her, on the lookout for that stray stick or hole that was bound to trip her up. She would glance up ahead every few steps to scan for a change in the dark. Just as she was sure it must be further than she thought, Mary walked into an iron gate.

The gate was rusted and blackened but still firmly closed. She strained her eyes but couldn’t see anything through the bars. No building, no sign of life. She decided to follow the iron fence a ways and see if there was another way in. Nothing, same for a way of reaching someone inside the grounds. She walked to the left of the gate and after a short while came across an odd scene. The fence here had fallen over. Parked in front of the hole were two different vehicles.

An old coach leaned to the left on broken wheels closest to her. The cab had been something else in its day, judging by the ornate woodwork above the windows. There was even red, rotting fabric inside. It was a in a gaudy style that fell out of fashion years ago. It must have been sitting here in disrepair for a while. She gave the leather reigns a tug and they broke down in her hand. Next to it sat a pristine cart.

The wood was bight and new, it couldn’t have seen a single winter. The metal nails even sparkled a bit when she inspected the cart closer. It was a single horse model. After she found the maker’s mark along the driver’s seat, Mary couldn’t help but smile. Darby Brothers. They were known across all the land for expert craftsmanship and cost quite a bit. She’d had a Darby not too long ago. As she recalled how she’d lost it, Mary cupped her backside. A tingling ran down a scar on her left cheek.

~

She knew better than to take the job. Broke a lot of her rules. But when the guy offered to pay up front, in full, it piqued her interest. Mary could tell it showed too, because the guy sat down across from her with a smug look on his sour face. It looked all scrunched together, like he’d eaten spoon full of vinegar. Right here, right now, two thousand silver coins. Along with a hundred and fifty copper shillings for expenses. That would pay back one of her bigger debts and still give her a nice jingle in that otherwise woeful pocket.

And tell me again why I can’t know what I’m carrying?” She asked him. The man claimed to be from Las, a trader of some reputation, and went by the name Reginald Winters. So fake it made her laugh when he had introduced himself. She’d been to Las and knew he was a liar. The man hadn’t bothered to even half-ass a braid in his hair. The people of that cold place wore their braids with pride. Even the exiled and condemned kept their hair knotted.

What’s inside is quite sensitive. Valuable to the Hermetic College. My man will meet you at the mark and take the cargo the rest of the way.” He’d tossed down a crude map with one of the most haphazard routes she had ever seen drawn on it. “And if you leave straight away, I’ll send word to him to offer a bonus. Half the standard fare.” That had got her and he knew it. Shifty or not, that was too much coin to pass up.

By the time Mary had readied Oats and bought supplies, on credit, Reginald had already filled her cart with three massive wooden crates. He’d also handed over a satchel stuffed with silver. Mary later thanked her lucky stars for leaving that bag with the local scribe. Along with insisting on a signed letter of retrieval. Otherwise nothing would have come from that awful trip. The boxes bothered her more than she cared to admit.

This whole thing was off from tip to tail. Not knowing what she was hauling was just the start. The path he wanted her to go by screamed she was being followed. It looped and broke direction every which way, even doubling back on itself a few times. Not only that, but attached to each of the crates, at the top was a glass jar filled with a pinkish gas. She figured it wasn’t able to completely leak out thanks to a cotton stopper. But it was giving whatever was inside a good dose of the fumes.

While all this should have made her run for the hills, desperation had become her middle name. It wasn’t far into the run that things turned south. Mary took the cart around a long turn. From the tree line came six other riders. They had their faces in wraps. If Mary hadn’t already been taking the turn fast, they would have overwhelmed her. As it were, she was able to gain a little head way after the turn evened out. She utilized that to jump from the cart to Oats’ back and kick off the hitch.

Now liberated from the weight of their haul, Oats sped off from the bandits. Sadly the cargo didn’t appear to be what all of them were after because three continued the chase. Ditching the goods had been a tactic that saved her life more than once. Nothing was worth dying over and since she had to travel without guard, it had worked well in the past. She would just ditch out and give them what they wanted. Paying a refund was far cheaper than a funeral.

However, she could tell by how hard those three were pushing their horses, this wasn’t going to end well. She spurred Oats into a frenzy and lunged off her back. She hit the dusty road and rolled hard to her right, she flattened out in the ditch. Oats would keep on for hours and hopefully lead them on a chase wide enough for her to slip away. Mary pressed as tight to the ground as she could. Her heart was pounding in her ears when the bandits rushed by but stopped only a small way up from her position. She tried to keep still when she heard boots hit the ground.

She’s here.” A long, wet snorting sound. As if a dog were sniffing the air.

Ditch,” another one said, followed by scrapes across the ground.

Well, that’s obvious.”

No, milk sucker, she’s in the ditch.” Mary jumped up and ran. She ran along the ditch a way before scaling up the side and back on the road. Her plan was to cross quickly and make it to the trees. Would have been a sound idea if they hadn’t been faster. One slammed into her and they both tumbled to the ground. She sprang up first and drew a thin dagger which had cut more goat roast than people, but it turned out to be apt at both.

She thrust blind and he let out a scream somewhere between a person and a doused cat. She pulled back to lunge forward again, but before she could a rock cracked against her shoulder. It hit with enough force to spin her around, dagger flying. The one she stabbed flew at her then and knocked her on her back. Looming above her, Mary finally got a chance to get a good look at him.

The wrap had fallen almost completely off his face to reveal sharp teeth. A fine reddish fur covering his body. One yellow eye sliced almost completely in half cried blood down on her. He was a Gooya, a male Nanako, in fact. His presence here confused her to such an extent that Mary didn’t feel the first cuts from his angry claws.

There were few Gooya in Mandria. They were mostly confined to ghettos in the larger cities and almost unheard of out in the country. People weren’t kind to the half folk here. They were often victims of lynching or just downright murdered in mass for any conceivable reason. The last Gooyas she had seen were a tiny family of Aluieen and those winged people were just passing through.

That shock of discovery didn’t last long. Mary curled into a ball to avoid as much of his sharp claws and vicious kicks as she could. His companions arrived and manged to pull him off her. They were also Nanako. The largest of them hauled her to her feet. Mary was cut and bruised in a dozen places but able to answer their questions, though she didn’t have many to give. Turns out they weren’t bandits at all. They were actually after her cargo for a completely different reason than money. The big one didn’t seem happy with her story.

She told him about Winters and everything that happened before they rushed her. He dragged her back to the cart without a word. Back at the cart, Mary felt her heart sink when she saw what had been in the crates. The ones who hadn’t pursued her were helping Nanako females to their feet. They looked groggy and stumbled often, one couldn’t stand even with help. Her head just rolled around with eyes wide but vacant. It was obvious the three of them had been heavily drugged.

Their leader explained to her that they were kidnapped from a ghetto in the capital by the man she called Winters. The men had given chase but he switched transport often and they had lost the trail. It had only been thanks to their good sense of smell that they had tracked her down at all. She was a slaver to them, no better than the men who had kidnapped their wives and daughters in the night.

Mary felt sick, she knew where they would have ended up. Tris, to the south, was famous for its Pleasure Bazaar. Mary was familiar enough with the other kingdoms to know not all of them shared Mandria’s aversion to the Gooya. While still second class citizens, Nanako women were popular as comfort girls. Worse yet, Winters might have been telling her the truth. He could have been selling them to the Khemics at their college. There were rumors of horrible experimentation on people deemed unfit. It wouldn’t be a stretch to think the Gooya fit into that category.

She became a topic of heated debate among her captors. A few of them wanted her given a punishment fit for her crime. Some were very interested in burning her alive. While another group wanted her drawn and quartered. There were a few leaning more to the side that thought she had more to tell, at least she hoped there was. At any rate, they all agreed it would be better taken care of in the morning because tonight was a night to celebrate.

The women were overjoyed at being rescued. The men manged to throw together a pretty impressive party with what little they had. A lyre showed up from somewhere and a bottle of cider was passed around. When night had fully settled and so did they, all in a heap around the fire. Mary had been unceremoniously tied to her wagon wheel.

They all seemed to be passed out but she was still careful to keep her gentle rocking in check. There was a cracked spoke where the rope was looped through. She figured with enough persistence the sharp edge of the crack might just get her out of here. It was slow going and she ached from the earlier beating. She had a dozen cuts along her body. Mary could tell by the dull pain in her jaw she was sporting a nasty bruise.

She ached but the prospect of what they would do to her in the morning was powerful motivation. Up, down, up, down. That became all she thought about. When the rope would get hung on the wood, Mary felt almost giddy knowing it was a little closer.

Trying to escape?” The voice was close and made her freeze. She’d been so focused she hadn’t heard anyone approach. “You know, your kind are amazing. Even caught red handed, you still try to worm out.” She recognized him as he got closer. The bandage over his eye was red with blood.

I didn’t…” His fist knocked the rest of her words away and split her lip.

Why do you think I listen?” He leaned in closer, the smell of bad apples burned her nose. “It’s all lies, right?” He nodded, not needing an answer. His claws moved so fast Mary didn’t have time to flinch. One dug deep into her left ass cheek and sliced through the cord that had held up her breeches in the process.

She let out a cry, but he quickly grabbed her by the throat. While choking back her noises, the Kanako explored the new space her sagging pants had opened. Mary kept her thighs tight as he roamed his hands along them, pawing at her mound of curly dark hair.

You like to take.” He tore and pulled down what remained of her pants before stepping back a bit to undo his own belt. “Maybe I’ll take too.” Mary hadn’t truly been afraid throughout his assault. She wasn’t a stranger to unwanted advances. You frequent enough bars and taverns and before long you’ll have your fair share of them. But she’d always manged to beat back the odd drunk who decided to get frisky.

Even tied up and bottoms down she’d remained calm. She thought of the small knife they had forgotten in her boot. Tried to judge how much struggling that damn rope would need. That calmness ran away when he dropped his trousers.

Mary knew there were vast differences between the Gooya and Humanity despite how many features they shared. She’d heard that the winged Aluieen had bones as hollow as a bird’s. That the seldom seen Gilmer could see in the dark as well as a man could see in the light. She had not known, however, that the Kanako had hooks along their dick.

His member was covered in sharp looking barbs that ran all the way from the base to an angry hooked tip. Mary jerked the rope as hard as she could despite the increased pressure on her throat. She’s never been with a man before. While the prospect wasn’t entirely unpleasant to think about, taking that spiny rod was.

Her panic excited him. He ran his hands over the dark skin of her legs before forcing them apart. His grip didn’t let up and Mary struggled just to get a breath. So caught up in his conquest, her unwanted lover failed to hear the clatter rushing toward him. He was then quite surprised when a hoof collided with the side of his head. He was gone before he even hit the ground, a bit of blood ran from his mouth.

Oats!” Mary couldn’t help but shout as her horse nuzzled her forehead with a big wet nose. She continued to struggle with the rope as she watched a few of them start to roll around. After watching her master pulling at her bonds, Oats began stomping and kicking at the wheel. It wasn’t long before the extra noise roused someone.

With a drunken shout, one of the women got to her feet and stumbled toward Mary. She had nearly made it to the captive before the wood gave way and the spoke broke. Mary pulled her arms free and jumped up. Her ruined pants were still stuffed into her boots and as a result tied up her legs so the jump was more of a desperate hop. She manged to throw herself sideways onto the saddle so that she was hanging half on, half off. Oats took off immediately.

The two of them rushed through the woods. Mary was in an awkward position, but try as she might she was unable to right herself. With her pants still down and her hands still tied she was forced to lean more forward to stay balanced. This put her bare ass high in the air. Soon they rushed though a weigh station and the guards on duty at the gate just stood slack jawed.

As they rounded the stables of her hometown, the miller’s boy nearly fell over. He’d caught sight of more than he had ever imagined. After she slid off into the dirt in front of her house, it took quite some time to wiggle her way inside. Fortune showed mercy on her dignity. In a pleasant turn of fate, no one had manged to catch a glimpse of her face. So while it was a hot topic in the town for weeks, none knew the true identity of the Bare Maiden. The town crier had been rather pleased with that title.

Mary never did find out what became of her employer. Winters never came back to the town, so she suspected he was still out there stealing women in the night. She became much more discerning of her clientele after that, no matter how empty the coffers were.

~

A rustling from inside the dilapidated coach brought her back from her memory. It was a slow scratching sound, followed by a loud tap. She looked inside the cab but couldn’t make out anything. As her lantern lit up the small space, the noise intensified. Curious, Mary tugged at the door which gave way with a loud creak.

She fell back as a crow cawed at her and beat its wings inches from her face. The lantern toppled to the ground and flickered but held, casting a beam right up at the bird. Its foot was stuck in a bit of hanging cloth, the molded fibers tangling it up like a net. Mary got back to her feet in a huff, her pride hurt a bit more than her rump. She couldn’t help but laugh at herself though. Getting spooked by a blackbird like she was some green on the vine schoolgirl.

Her father always told her that her ability to find the humor in things would make her fast friends. He hadn’t been right, of course, as was the case with most things she found out. The only friend she could claim was tied to a tree nearby. As far as netting herself a husband, well, her wit didn’t seem to be winning her any points with the local men.

Not that she was heartbroken over that. Few had made her take a second look. And they all seemed to resent her a little. Being a caravan runner, wasn’t something many women did. It was considered unladylike. Mary half suspected many of the men who held it against her hadn’t the courage to do the job.

They balked at the idea of leaving their safe little farms or towns to venture into the wilds. They feared the bandits, hill men, and beasts of the wood, the boogeymen of their bed time stories. Mary feared these things as well, but that fear brought an excitement. A thirst for life she found she’d developed a taste for. It was dangerous, times were hard, and she had been in more tight spots than she cared to admit. And yes, this job would probably be the death of her just like it was her old man, but she couldn’t see life any other way.

Careful to avoid the thrashing beak, she untangled the bird. It flapped its wings before taking off.

“Well that’s a fine thank you.” She muttered before picking up her lantern and continuing through the hole in the gate. There wasn’t much to the grounds, though for some reason it wasn’t overgrown. The grass looked yellowed and sickly. The tiny bubble of light from her lantern wasn’t much. After a while she was able to make out something odd in the distance. A large patch of darkness that seemed blacker than the night around her, stood out against the shadows.

Mary found herself before a wall made of the same strange dark rock as the statue. She ran her hand across it, smooth as a mirror but not one she could see herself in. Even the light from her lantern had a hard time reflecting back. She strained her eyes to look above. She could tell the wall was part of a much larger building, easily the size of a fort or some manor house. Mary kept her hand running along the smooth rock as she followed the wall to the left.

After only a few feet the rain finally came. The sky opened up and poured all over her. The wick of her tiny candle flickered as the wind whipped itself into a frenzy. Mary pulled up her hood just as an arch of lightning burned away the dark for a few seconds. In that flash, she could see a battered door not far ahead and made for it as quick as she could.

It smelled of dust and wet wood. The room behind the door was small and filled with broken shelves. There barrels inside filled with the petrified remains of potatoes and carrots.

“Seems nobody’s home.” Mary whispered. Judging by the rotten state of the door on the far end of the room nobody had been for quite some time. She settled her back against the grimy wall and took stock of this new development. This place being abandoned posed much more than a free night out of the rain.

These old ruins from kingdoms long past often held treasures for the adventurous. Mary knew that most would be looters focused on caches of jewels, coin or arms. They would pass right by what she would be after. Once when she was a young girl, she’d helped her father raid an old keep not far from one of their main routes. It had been picked over for years by dozens of hands, and at first glance held about as much as an empty chest to her. But not to her father.

Together they found paintings that sold for almost a hundred gold a piece. Upstairs in a flipped over desk, they uncovered the deed to a patch of land where her house now sits. With claimants long dead, the land belonged to whomever held the deed. That day, she learned fools run for the obvious, but a winner leaves no stone unturned.

She thought about going back for Oats. Hitch her to that cart and fill it up with enough artifacts to get out from under those moneylenders once and for all. The outpost be damned, those nails could wait. A thunder clap shook the stone around her and left her ears ringing. The horse would be fine until things died down outside. In the meantime, she decided to get a head start on finding something worth taking.

The door gave way from its hinges in one tug. The air behind it smelled of mildew and sweet decay. The hall was filled with broken clutter and grime. A long, water stained rug snaked along the floor. Broken pictures along the walls were worthless, along with the torn banners strewn about. Mary stepped over bits of wood and stone.

The first door she came across was on the right of her and opened to a collapsed room. This didn’t seem to be a main hall. It was too narrow, one meant for servants or slaves to use. Despite that, she did find something of note. Nailed to the wall not far from the collapsed room was an old tapestry. It was dust covered but unstained and uneaten. She dusted a bit off with her coat and let out a shout.

The spider silk glittered and sparkled as it caught her light. The scholars said the stuff was as strong as steel and could last for centuries. Seeing the pristine state this weave was in, Mary could believe them. Even the dyes had kept their luster well enough that with a bit more dusting she was able to see the art in all its glory.

Black figures huddled under a radiant yellow sun, each one holding up their hands to the rays. In those hands were severed heads that shone with the same light, as gruesome a scene as it was confusing. There was no hint as to who might have owned this place was or any definable maker’s mark near as she could tell. At any rate, she knew a weaver in the capital who would pay a high price for such a tapestry. The old style patterns were nearly lost, so any find in good condition was sought after. She packed it up delicately into her bag before venturing further.

All the other doors had weathered time well for the most part and refused to budge. Mary had almost given up hope on this path. She was about to backtrack to see what fortunes lay on the opposite end when a large door came into view. It was massive and adorned with a scorched-in depiction that matched spider silk in her bag.

I’d bet my last copper that’s the main hall there.” Her voice was still a whisper. The hinges were rusted and would take a lot of work, but she braced her back against the wood and pushed. It groaned in the silence all around her. It was as if it was angry at being disturbed or warning her against what lay on the other side. The light couldn’t pierce the dark past the doorway, she see only inches in front of her face.

Mary felt along the wall to the left for a sconce or maybe an ancient torch she could strike up for a little visibility. The wind howled like a pack of wolves somewhere in the distance. The patter of rain sounded like the angry murmurs of an audience bored at a show. Her hand slipped on the slimy stone and brushed against something that felt like a dirty ring of metal. She pulled at it and it snapped out of her hand with a whiz.

Old gears groaned around her, the sound of metal scraping filled her ears. Under it all came the rushing sound of wine being poured into a deep cup. A glow started next to her, yellow and glittery. It lit up the chain she had pulled before shooting up along a glass tube to spread out along the wall in a bizarre pattern. More lights bloomed on the other side of the room. They worked their way up the walls to the ceiling where they pooled into a large glass dome. Dirt muted the light somewhat, but the glass sun overhead illuminated the massive foyer. The light was so bright it hurt her eyes.

She ran her fingers over the thick glass tube, marveled at the shimmering gas undulating within. It was a rarity outside all but the richest mansions. Mary had only seen the golden smoke once before when she had made a delivery of fine wines to House Dabos on the coast. The alchemical creation was otherworldly. An alien beauty that fascinated her now as much as it did then.

What was this place? She thought.

Judging by the giant barred doors to her right and the grand staircase, this was the main hall. The carpet here was ripped and scorched in places. Wood and fabrics rotted in heaps all around; along with broken, featureless statues. Something foul spoiled the air. It smelled of wet frogs and corpse-thickened water. She made the rounds at the piles of junk, netting a slightly tarnished set of silverware and an intact figurine of a sphinx much like the one from the woods. A sound caught her attention.

It was just a little louder than the distant shouting of the wind. It was sporadic, like the croak of a frog or the wet smack of a rock thrown into mud. Mary headed toward the noise, up the cracked stairs and onto a landing with an intact statue. It was a grand thing. One of the black robed men but with the hood thrown back and arms outstretched to the light above. The face was handsome, with a well-detailed beard and two green gems set into the eyes.

It stood in the center of a large bowl filled with some dark water and out from it, tipped over on its side, was was a placard. Mary set it upright and found a tarnished book under it. The faded gold leaf on the cover spelled out: Tales of the Marvelous Alphonse Graylegg, the Mad King of Mandria. Whatever had been written on the sign had become unreadable due to large scratch marks that carved through every word. Mary smiled as she picked away some mold from the weakened, damp book.

Old king Alphonse was a favorite of hers. Some of the tales she was sure had happened. The Grayleggs had ruled Mandria since the First Kingdom split. The stories of their exploits were favorite topics in just about every pub. But any story about the mad king never failed to split the sides when wine was flowing enough. From opening a free theater where he would read poems stark naked to appointing his favorite horse to head the treasury. Every tale was more and more scandalous.

She opened it, eager to thumb through the weathered pages and maybe find one she hadn’t heard before. Every page had been written over in hasty, jagged lines.

IT CRAWLS

From the basin of black water, Mary could hear that strange croaking again. Only this time louder and coming much faster. It was as if the water had began to boil, the roar of it unsettling. Mary backed away as it bubbled over to spill out on to the floor. Dozens of black dyed bones tumbled out in a waterfall of inky slime. Legs and ribs, spines and fingers started to form arms to pull across the floor toward her. Mary turned to run just as the whole building gave a rattle.

A great boom filled the air and startled her so much she tumbled down the steps to land in a heap. Her left arm ached and a small cut dripped blood down her nose. As she tried to right herself. Dazed, she watched a few drops fall onto the stone floor where they disappeared. As if the ground had sucked her blood up. She struggled to her feet in time to see that the ooze had added a dozen chattering skulls to its form. It threw itself forward at her in a breakneck charge.

Mary let out a shriek as her wooden legs managed to take her away from the horror, toward the door, toward freedom. Her lantern lay forgotten on the top of the stairs, but her mind pushed that worry away. Just make it to the exit. The hall wasn’t that long and the way out was only a few hurried steps ahead. When she crossed the threshold of the massive doors, a cold fell over her as tight as a wet blanket.

Her head split open in white hot agony, as if she had taken an ax to the back of it. More blood poured out of her ears and nose. She staggered but kept on her feet . Mary continued to lurch forward, almost blind from the pain in her skull. She almost tripped over the door which she’d taken off the hinges. She cried out and quickly ran back through the little storage room toward the exit. She could smell the storm, feel the fresh dampness from the rain. A smile face as she threw herself through the door way…

and into a nightmare.

Mary lay there on the warm carpet for what felt like hours. She focused on her breathing, just letting her body work away the tension. The carpet smelled like it had had a fresh cleaning, all woolly and earthy. She knew there were candles lit nearby. The few times she had opened her eyes since finding herself here had made them ache from the brightness. Her head walked a fine line between slightly woozy to near blackout. The only thing she felt more than the pain was confusion. Why wasn’t she outside? How could see be here after smashing through the door?

She had brought bits of the wood with her, they stung her hands and arms as angry reminders that it had indeed happened. Mary could still hear the ooze clattering, but it was far away and faint, hunting for her. She pulled herself to her knees and willed her eyes to open. The hall was beautiful. The black stone of the walls polished to such a shine one could be forgiven in thinking they were mirrors. Paintings stared down at her, some with stern eyes, others with tight mouths not used to a smile. Torches burned and above her, and in smaller glass domes, the shimmer gas flowed.

Nothing would stay in focus, the world looked in a haze. As if everything were under water and no amount of rubbing her eyes would make things any clearer. She was seeing this place as it had been at its height, as the dead still see it. But her living eyes struggled to make sense of it all. She had heard stories of this. Legends where anguished souls would pull people into a phantasmagoria, a dream of the dead.

Time had no sway here and nothing was ever as it seemed. None of those fables had ended well, she remembered, and Mary felt her eyes burn with tears. She clenched her hands into fists and beat at her knees. She wouldn’t let them fall, wouldn’t let that thing find her bawling on the floor like a little girl. She shrugged off her pack and emptied her pockets.

Mary set out the tarnished silverware and the sphinx figurine. She left the silk. From her cloak, she produced two matches and a box of tinder. Her side pouch yielded only a bit of dry jerky and ten silver pieces. Not much, but one of the knives from the set still had a bit of an edge. She knew it wouldn’t do much against the spirits that lingered here, but was better than nothing. A door creaked open ahead of her and a young boy’s voice called out.

Oy when’s the grub?” Mary threw the meager supplies into her sack and brandished the tiny knife at the open door just a few steps in front of her. “Come on, come on. I got a hunger!” Slowly, Mary took a step closer. From behind her came a croak, closer. She rushed into the room. Mary slammed the door shut, a panic on her lips. It died as she caught sight of the boy who had been calling her.

On the bed, wrapped up tight in a white sheet, was a boy no more than ten summers old. His face looked as if it was at a slant, due in part to a bulbous and sloped forehead. One of his eyes was easily three times the size of the other and milky. He was bound in linens by ugly iron buckles and rawhide straps. In a way that he looked like a strange caterpillar.

Oh, for all the stars. I’m saved.” His one good eye looked this way and that, on either side of her and all around. “You did bring dinner, right?”

What?” Mary was shocked at her own voice. The voice of dry leaves in the wind.

You’re kidding right? Don’t get between Slim and his meal, now. Cats have been eaten for less, dogs too. But only the little ones.” He started to inchworm his way to the edge of the bed. “Joke’s been fun, give up the nosh.”

Slim?”

Slim, yes,” He cocked a bushy brown eyebrow at her. “Me. I am Slim. In no small part thanks to you playing silly games with my food.” He tried to swing off the side of the cot, failed twice before finally toppling to the ground. Mary moved to catch him, but the instant he hit the floor, Slim slithered lightning fast between her outstretched arms. He wormed around her legs, and up her back. Mary spun and flailed, knocking him off her. He landed with a grunt.

What’s this then, I can smell it there. Game’s won, can’t hide morsels from me.” He rolled and undulated, giving Mary the unsettling impression of a maggot. Slim grinned at her, showing gapped teeth and yellowed gums. Mary remembered the jerky stump and opened her pack. Slim rocked back and forth, his giant milky eye blinked rapidly. When she reached in, a sharp claw dug into the back of her hand and a voice, almost like a purr, filled her head.

Only a fool gives something for nothing.

In the darkness around her hand, she saw a pair of bright yellow eyes. She pulled her arm back out, slow to show him the hunk of dry meat in her palm. Slim let out a whistle and began licking his lips with a patchy tongue.

That’s a good lovely, give us those treats now.”

What are you going to give me?” Mary asked, holding the food just out of reach.

Whats this then, a trade?” He sounded shocked. “For such a little thing?”

That’s all I’ve got.”

You’ve got a toss, a mouses dinner that.”

Well if you don’t want it…” She moved to stow the jerky away. Slim shook his head so quickly that giant eye seemed to still spin even when he stopped.

Don’t be hasty, don’t be hasty.” Slim looked this way and that before he nodded toward a small trunk at the end of his bed. “There, have a grab at that.” Mary opened the chest. It creaked like a scared cat. Inside, right on top of a bunch of blankets, was a small bow. It was like a child’s toy, not much longer than her forearm.

What, no arrows?” Mary felt her mouth go thin.

Nah, won’t let me have any of those they wont.”

Who are they, Slim?”

The brothers, silly. All black robes and sour eyes. You must have seen loads of them out there.” Slim inched closer to her, his eye focused on the food in her hand. She bent down and held it out to him. He opened his mouth impossibly wide, and she tossed the meat into his maw. He groaned in ecstasy. Munching and gnashing the tough chunk with such delight Mary couldn’t help but smile.

Where am I?” He chewed thoughtfully, mulling something over.

That would be a gift, unless you got another goody for me?”

I don’t have anymore food. I’m sorry.” His face fell. He looked as sad as she had ever seen someone.

It’s alright. Thanks for the bite, miss.” He rolled away from her and snaked back toward the cot. “You’re where all us loony loons go, Our Last Hope.”

Loony loons… an Asylum?”

Fancy name for for such an awful place.” He made it up onto the bed with little trouble, as if he’d done it a thousand times before. He rolled to face away from her. “Well, go on now, fancy lady.” She watched him laying there, rolled up like a sausage. One somebody threw away. Mary’s heart ached for him, though he was already long dead, stuck in this in-between place like she was. On small steps she went to his bedside and tugged at the buckles keeping him wrapped up.

What you doing, loony?” He struggled against her, a worm trying to stay buried in the dirt. “Lay off now.” Mary just kept pulling at the raw hide still she got some give and manged to undo one of them. “Hey don’t, don’t, you hear!”

Be still! I’ve only got one left. Then we can get out of here.”

No! I can’t, you can’t!” Was he sobbing? Was he smiling? His face flickered in and out again so Mary couldn’t tell. Finally she manged to get the last clasp undone. She took hold of the edge of the linen and with a tug, rolled him out of the blanket. Slim’s body was as small a doll. Little more than a skeleton painted skin pink. His little arm flopped a bit as he tried to use muscles that just weren’t there anymore. She could count his ribs and see the outline of his guts.

As the air hit his skin it began to crack and peel away, like paper being eaten by fire. She picked his big head up in her arms and laid it across her lap. Horrified, she stammered nonsense words and shed tears that fell onto Slim’s big brow. He just looked up at her with fear in his eye but a smile on his face. He kept that smile until it too burned away and all she held in her arms were bones. Those bones turned to dust at the slightest of movements. Mary slumped back in a cloud of it, almost falling off the bed completely. He was gone, off to walk the Summer Land at last. Maybe he’d eat his fill finally, til his belly was fit to burst.

What horrors had kept him here, she wondered. If his body was any indication, did she really want to know? A smell of swamp rot wafted up her nose and she shuddered. It was coming closer, she had to keep moving.

She took up Slim’s bow and peeked out the door. A trail of sludge ran across the carpet heading to her right, so she darted to the left. It just went on forever, an endless series of paintings and door ways. Many of the doors opened to empty rooms, but she tried them all. One must branch off, had to. She wouldn’t let herself think of anything else. There must be a way out. After the ninth door, things started to change.

The rooms became more sparse, little more than empty squares with a hay bed in the corner. Finally after what felt like hours, she came across a desk. It was loaded down with papers and scrolls. Quills lay scattered all around. One drawer was open, stuffed with ink wells. Mary split the wax seal of the scroll on top. It was some sort of intake list. People’s names, the cities where they were from, what crimes they had committed.

The crimes seemed to range from pick-pocketing to murder. There were a few hysteria and sodomy charges tossed in. More than a couple were listed simply as undesirable. Given up by their families for anything that might bring shame. Mary had heard of noble parents locking away their children for things as trivial as a hunchback. She thought of Slim.

She shifted through more of the papers, hoped to find something more about what was going on here. Seems the building was called Last Hope Asylum. It was ran by a cult, the Brothers of the Sun. They seemed obsessed with the idea that only light could drive out a man’s darkness. It was a phrase echoed on a dozen or more papers.

What that meant she wasn’t sure, but the other things detailed made her skin crawl. Food therapy, which was just starvation on a long term plan. Water treatment, which had led to seventeen drownings. Something called the Daybreaker, used to “Shine through the madness.” Lists of body parts for heat application and what they were supposed to change. It just went on and on, detail after detail of atrocities committed under the guise of healing.

Mary pressed on, jogged for spans at a time to ease the strain on her legs. She was trapped in a madhouse with ghosts put through some of the most horrific tortures she had ever heard. She felt like a thread of spider silk being pulled at both ends. How long could she hold before it all became to much and she finally broke?

The hall opened up ahead of her a bit into a circular seating area. She slowed to a crawl, catching sight of the giant sphinxes lounging on twin cushions. Her pack shook with fear.

Come now, come now,” they said in unison. “Lets get a look at you. All warm and sweet-smelling.”

Like a steak on a fire.” The one of the left said

Or a boar on a spit.” The right one replied.

I don’t want any trouble!” Mary shouted before she was knocked to the ground from behind. She rolled like a ball of string. It had moved so fast that she hadn’t seen the left one dart behind her. A blink was all it took for the monstrous cat to have her at its mercy. Its paw was as big as her chest.

She could feel the sword sharp claws ready to spring out every time it patted her back and forth. Its fur was tawny with bits of brown. On its chest was a triangle of what had once been white fur. Now stained with blood and gore from other sweet-smelling things.

Don’t bruise the meat, sister.” The other said, stretching out its long body before sitting up. This one was speckled with black like the desert cats of the east. It too wore a grizzly bib of blood-stained fur. Her attacker bent down its bald, human head and smiled at Mary. Teeth sharpened to points, rows and rows of them, loomed above her.

She remembered her father as death prepared to send her into that horrid maw. She remembered a nursery rhyme he used to sing to her as he helped settle Oats into the stable. The words were a mess, something about a great knight challenging the queen of cats to a riddle game.

Don’t you want to hear a riddle?” Mary stammered. Those glaring teeth stopped and a paw eased its pressure on her chest.

A game it asks for,” the other one said.

It begs for.”

I beg too. It has been so long since we had a good game.”

There was that one.”

It was hardly fun, though.”

He was so bad at guessing.”

Well, he didn’t have a tongue, to be fair.” The two of them went on and on like that until finally agreeing that yes, a good game was in order.

You’ll let me go?” Mary felt the paws pull away. They moved back to their sofas and flopped over.

You haven’t even played yet and here you are winning,” the left one laughed. It was a sound similar to a scream on the wind.

So, confident one, you get to start,” the one of the right said. Mary’s legs were shaking so much she could barely stand. She kicked her pack on the floor. Nothing, no voice from within, no movement, playing dead. There would be no help this time. Mary had never felt more alone. Why had she even thought of riddles? She had never been any good at them, how could she hope to beat them?

The sphinx was known to be as smart as it was savage. Mary knew she’d have to watch her back even if she managed to win. There were two, after all. She rattled her brain. The noise must have been annoying to her two captors because they began to growl low in their throats. The hair on their lion bodies stood up and one gnashed its teeth at her. They were getting bored and she knew time was not on her side. She blurted out the first thing that made any sense at all.

I have a heart that never beats, a home but I never sleep. I can make a man’s house and build another. I love to play games with all my brothers, though it makes me feel like a king among fools. Who am I?” The two monsters looked at each other for a long moment, their eyes narrowing to slits.

What do you think, sister Sha?” The one who had pounced on her before asked the speckled one.

A good one, Shil, but who is she asking?” Sha licked her sisters ear with a tongue as long as Mary’s arm.

Well which one is it? Come on girl, you’re doing well. So far.” Shil rolled around in her seat, which Mary could now see was covered in dried blood. She noticed piles upon piles of bones under the tables and chairs. Mary swallowed hard.

You Sha, if it pleases you.”

Such manners! And yes. It does.” She yawned again, “It is the king of hearts. Never did care for cards though. So easy to cheat.” Mary’s own heart fell. Her riddle hadn’t taken any time to answer and that made her worried. How many before her had tried to best the sisters in a game she wondered? Would her own bones end up tucked away under some stool, her soul resting in their bellies forever?

My turn then, yes?” Shil turned to her sister for confirmation. Sha nodded. “Yes! Alright then. What cannot see but knows the way. Even the youngest has a face covered in lines. It is one a sailor dares not leave behind, but in the wrong hands makes everyone blind. What is it?”

While Mary pondered it over she ran her hands over Slim’s bow. For a child’s toy it was sturdy and polished. The string wasn’t frayed at all, and there wasn’t a scuff on the dark wood. It looked fresh and new, as if it had been made yesterday. Still carried a faint whiff of black pine.

Black pine. May loved the smell. It reminded her of long hikes and camp fires. Stories from her father and that one time he’d gotten them more lost than a frog in the sky. Lost, her mind echoed. Lost like a sailor at sea. And why was the sailor lost then, what had he forgotten? What always knows the way?

A map.” Mary said, taking a seat herself. Shil looked surprised and angry all at the same time, but Sha laughed that horrible laugh.

I told you to stop using the same one. Somebody was bound to get it.”

Hush, you! It was a lucky guess is all.” The two began to circle her while she sat and thought. The smell of piss and musk took her breath away. Their playfulness was fading. She could feel their hunger and knew this game was going to end soon if she didn’t come up with something.

Your turn, Shil.”

Ask it then.”

I have a head but no eyes, arms, or legs. I give you courage but make you stumble. I leave all your friends in a jumble. Through me you see a woman’s beauty before you’re blind. What am I?”

Have a thing for blindness, do you?” Sha hissed at her, “Maybe we’ll start with the eyes then?” Mary could feel herself trembling but refused to break down in front of them. The game was still on, and she had a chance.

Look who’s confident now, you haven’t won yet.” They both laughed at this, making her ears ring. Shil stopped and stood before her, she reared back till she was sitting on her back legs. Those massive paws hovered above Mary, ready to fall down and sweep her into that hungry mouth.

Poppy milk.” Shil said with as much arrogance as the highest born king.

No.” Mary could have screamed with relief.

Liar!” The two of them roared in unison.

I am not. It was good a guess though. Poppy milk can definitely leave you in a jumble but making women pretty? You’d need a beer for that.”

A beer? A beer doesn’t have a head.” Mary wasn’t sure, but Shil sounded like she was pouting.

Ah, the foam!” Sha said behind her. “Now that was good.”

So I’ve won then.” Mary stood up, shaking so bad she looked like she was having a fit. “Yes yes. I knew I should have gone first,” Sha snapped at Shil, who had her back to both of them.

Wouldn’t have done any better. You can’t even make a good pun.”

Better than your old map riddle. I swear, a whelp could figure that out.” While the two of them bickered, Mary moved to the opposite end, ready to sprint down the hall.

Oh, piss on you! You didn’t even go.” Shil swished her tail at an angry pace.

I didn’t, did I?” She turned to Mary and smiled, showing all those teeth again. They glistened with spit in the light. “Hardly seems fair that. I’ve got one for you, little tasty. All friendly, for the one that got away. Will you hear it?” Mary knew it didn’t matter what she said so just nodded. Her body tense and ready to try an escape, though from their display of speed before, she had little hope in her.

What follows but never rises, spreads after the burn and fills a murderer’s heart. What runs from you in the morning and surrounds you at night?” Behind the two sisters, the way she had came, the hallway began to decay. It was as if time was finally catching up, bringing years of rot and dust and neglect. Something approached with the ruin, fluid and pulsing and chattering. Mary couldn’t answer, fear had robbed her voice.

Can’t guess? What’s the matter, cat your tongue?” A purr, a laugh. “I’ll tell you anyway. It’s the dark.” With that, all the lights died.

Mary stumbled backward, scrambled up onto her feet and tried to run. She felt bogged down, as if the darkness itself was pressing on her, slowing her. The slime was just behind her. She could smell it, hear it as it dragged its bones across the floor, rattled its skulls in search of her. Something wet and thick splashed against the back of her leg and burned hotter than fire. She grit her teeth and willed her legs to move faster. They listened, giving her some distance again. It was a small victory and, in the end, one that didn’t last long.

She slammed headlong into a door, knocked flat on her ass. Stars bloomed in the night around her and a buzzing filled her ears. She felt a little warm blood run down from a cut that burned across her brow. Some ran into her eyes as she tried to stand up. Weak and dizzy, Mary felt around for the latch, one thought yelled over the pain: It was closing in. It was so close. She manged to fling it open just in time for her pursuer to slam into her back and send her flying.

The force of it lifted her off her feet and pitched her into the room where she fell hard into something mushy. Her stomach rolled and lurched before she threw up from the smell all around her. The buzzing of flies was deafening as they hummed an angry hymn in the dim room. There was some meek light on the far end, as if a candle were trying to shine through a dusty glass. It was enough for her make out the dozens of bodies all round. All bloated and rotten.

She had landed on a few, their putrid gore covering her in viscera and the smell… all the gods, the smell. It choked her, pulled more from her guts in heaves. The door closed with a creak. She slipped and fell backwards. On reflex she put her arm out to catch her fall and ended up shoving it through the decaying chest of a body. She felt the ruined skin give way and her hand sink into the cool, vile cavity of its chest. Mary jumped up and yanked her arm back. An arrow clutched in her hand.

She saw the black shape of the creature move closer to her from the door way, but she wasn’t able to move. Glued to the floor by black slime. She felt her boots cave in and screamed as the muck covered her feet. It ate at her skin, chewed away at her toes. As it threw itself toward her, the bodies began to slide up and join the mass of corpses that made its form.

Skin peeled back and muscle trickled away until only the bones remained, stained black. The goo moved up her legs like flaming snakes. Mary knew that this was the end. She would die in this ruined house of horrors, another body in a dead man’s nightmare. The monster must have sensed she had given up because it slowed to a lazy crawl. Wanted to savor this fresh kill, she imagined.

A tapping came from somewhere on the other end of the room. It wasn’t loud but it was insistent. Mary strained her eyes to see and could just make out some small shape fluttering up and down near the muted light. It let out a faint caw and went back to tapping. The tapping increased as the ooze loomed over her, just a few feet away. Mary’s eyes went wide when she realized that the crow was pecking on filthy glass.

Mary leaned over as far as she could and snatched Slim’s bow off the ground. With a prayer to her father and whatever god was watching, she notched the gruesome arrow and let it fly at the bird. It whizzed over the monster’s head and faltered. Dipped lower than her target but close enough to shatter the window. Light poured into the room and every mouth on every body opened in a blood curdling scream.

Rays pierced the black horror like spears. Burned away the foulness which had kept these souls trapped here. Ribs and skulls and teeth and bones of all shapes and sizes shot out in an explosion of purification. One of the bones struck Mary and she dropped to the ground. The world went in and out, a tide pulled her away.

She awoke in a groggy mess. Her head felt cracked in a million different ways. Just the thought of moving made her stomach churn. She didn’t know how long she had been out, but birds were twittering somewhere. It was a cautious sound, lenitive, hopeful that what had scared them from the forest was finally gone. She got up and looked around.

Behind her, where she had come, had caved in and looked to have been that way for years. All around, instead of putrid corpses, were long dead skeletons. Some were still wearing the long black robes of the brothers. Others garbed in mismatched armor. Bandits, most likely. They probably attacked the asylum and the cult had made a last stand here in this room.

The window she had shattered was massive and had been made of stained glass. Mary could make out sun rays on the few shards that held on to the frame. The crow as no where to be found, neither was the bow. In her bag she found everything as it had been except the figurine, it was gone without a trace.

Mary trudged to the broken window. Her toes were bright red, dozens of cuts covered them. They felt as if the skin was thin and even the littlest movement could cause it to rupture. She stubbed her toe on something and felt the nail split.

Son of a horse sucking whore!” She cursed. She bent down to find what had done it and break it to pieces. A small chest was half way covered by a bit of moldy cloth. The lock fell off with a tug in a puff of rust. Inside were golden coins, gems of amethyst and ruby. There were silver chains and crude chunks of diamonds. Enough treasure to pay off every money lender and bring her business back to its glory days. Enough for a lifetime.

While she stood there awestruck, a shadow fell across the room. A black shape formed against the light and Mary jerked back only to start laughing as the panic faded away. The laughter kept coming in great spurts, hysterical and gasping. Oats snorted at her master. The horse leaned her head as far as possible into the room. The chewed bit of tie-down rope wagged like a disappointing finger.

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