The Patrons of the Carter's Rest Inn were in high spirits tonight, and Nodge Prayner was no exception. The music was loud, the girls were dancing and Nodge had just been paid.
Mistress Welman and her maids were serving up drinks as fast as Jaik could pull them. It was always like this just before the start of the Changeling Festival. People were tired of working all summer and worried about the coming winter, and trying to find some time to enjoy their lives in between.Nodge had already had a few ales more than he normally would have, but he was determined to make the best of the night. This was going to be his last night of freedom for some time, as he'd gone down to the docks yesterday and joined the Palonian Navy. He would be assigned to a ship tomorrow, and gone the day after that: sailing the seas and seeing what the world had to offer.
Nodge's parents, Novril and Ella Prayner, were unhappy about this decision, but he'd made up his mind. He knew was never going to be a rich man, so this was his best chance of seeing the world. Besides, the pay was good, and the opportunities to gain status were better in the military than if he stayed and worked in his father's bakery.Nodge tried to explain his reasons to his father, but Novril took the decision as an insult to himself and his profession. His reaction had been to become angry and shout at Nodge a lot, while Ella simply cried."Do you see what you're doin' to your mother?" His face grew redder moment by moment, as he pointed at Ella, who sat at the table weeping with her face buried in her hands. "She don't want her idiot son gettin' himself killed on account o' some bickerin' 'tween lords or somesuch! And all you'll be is the smallest pawn in their bloody games. How can you not see that?""But, Dad, It's not -" Nodge tried to respond. His father was in no mood to listen, though."My own dad was a baker as was my granddad. It's what's kept us fed an' with a roof over our heads. We may not be rich, but we're better off than most and you've never wanted for anything! How can you just walk away like that? How can you throw your own life and your family, and all our work away like that? You think your better'n me and your granddad, is that it? You're too good for the life we've struggled to build for you and your sister?""No dad, of course not. But I -""Shut your mouth, you wastrel. Spend all your time down the taverns drinkin' and whorin' and -" It was at that point that Ella's crying became a loud wailing."Is that what he wants? That why he's runnin' off like this?" She was hysterical. "I thought he was a good boy! But, now I find he's runnin' off to find loose women in strange ports. Is that what this is all about?" She wailed again and fled up the stairs.Novril started in again. "That's it. You're killin' your ma. Get OUT! Get out of our house and I never wanna see your ungrateful face again!" Novril all but picked Nodge up and bodily threw him out into the street.
Nodge shuddered at the memory, and took another huge gulp from his mug of ale. It was their eyes that had disturbed him most. His mother's had flowed freely, puffy and red. His father's had gleamed like hardened steel – full of anger and betrayal. He never wanted to see eyes like that again.What do they know, anyway? They've never been anywhere or done anything but bake loaves and sweets all day. That was fine, as far as it went, and maybe someday he'd settle down to a steady business like that himself. But before that day came, Nodge wanted to explore – to see what opportunities lay over the horizon ... and if he fell into the arms of a comely lass or two along the way, what was the harm in that?As it happened there was a lovely girl, dark of hair and eye, who'd been giving him quick smiles all night. Perhaps it was time to introduce himself. Besides, if things didn't go well, it's not like he'd be in Ayrst much longer anyway. He drained the last bit of courage from his mug, and strolled confidently – or as confidently as a young man who drew his courage from a cup could – up to the woman sitting in the corner."Hello, ma'am," he began as he bowed. "My name's Nodge, and I couldn't help but notice – even from across the room – that you have the most lovely and mysterious eyes." She offered her hand, and he took it, bowing. "Would you be so kind as to allow me a dance?"She blushed slightly and stood. She gave him a small curtsy. "Gladly," was all she said, and then they were dancing.She moved gracefully, and she wasn't shy about holding him close. They danced through two numbers before she asked him for a drink.He waved at the nearest serving girl and motioned for two fresh mugs of ale. They sat together on a bench against the back wall of the common room, beneath the loft above, where shadows danced darkly in the light of the fireplace."Thank you for the dance," Nodge said. He was slightly out of breath. "Where did you learn to dance so well?""Oh, here and there," she replied. "I've had a little practice. You dance rather well yourself." She gave him a warm smile.Nodge blushed. "Oh, but nothing like you, umm ... miss?""Please forgive me," she said. "I'm Lily." She once again offered her hand."I'm very pleased to finally meet you, Lily. A lovely name for a lovely girl."The serving girl returned with their mugs and hurried on. Nodge took a sip of his."Oh, I'm so sorry," began Lily. "I had hoped for some red wine." She looked at Nodge with a hopeful expression."Anything for you, m'lady. I'll take this back.""No, no. Just keep it for later, after we dance some more, you're going to be thirsty." She winked at him.Nodge stood and bowed to her. "I'll be right back with your wine. Then I'll join you for a drink and another dance.""I'll guard these with my life." She laughed as she motioned to the two mugs of ale that sat on the bench.A few moments later, Nodge returned with a pair of full wine glasses. "If I'm to drink two more mugs of ale, surely you'll be thirsty enough for another glass of wine."Lily stood, took the two glasses from him, drained one in a single gulp, and sat both of them next to his two mugs. She took his hand and pulled him back onto the dance floor. She pulled him closer and looked up at him. He could get lost in those dark eyes ... her smile ... her smell. They danced for what seemed like eternity.Finally, he had to beg off for a moment's rest. The inn wasn't as crowded as it had been, so their seats were still available, and their mugs and glasses stood undisturbed. Nodge sat and took a big gulp, while Lily put her arms around his neck and sat in his lap. She nuzzled against his neck, giggling."Aren't you tired?" He asked Lily."Maybe a bit. What about you?""Yes, but with you around, I think I could stay up 'til morning."She gave him a mischievous grin, and pulled herself a little closer. She whispered in his ear ... and the next thing he knew he was using the last of his coin to rent them a room upstairs for the night.
Nodge couldn't believe his luck. Where had this girl been all his life? And why did he have to meet her tonight, right before he was to leave Ayrst for gods knew how long? He was determined to make the most of this night with her, at least.After the serving girl left them alone, Lily leaned against the door. She sat her still-undrunk glass of wine on the mirrored dressing-stand. Then she went to the window and opened it. The night air was cool but pleasant, as the curtains billowed in the breeze."Put out the lamp," she said. "Then sit on the bed." Nodge didn't hesitate.He could just make out her shape in the light of the moon as she unlaced her corset. She still danced in a strange way ... so fluidly. She seemed to bend in places a body shouldn't bend. Maybe it's just the drink, he thought to himself. I have had quite a bit."Now close your eyes, and I'll give you a surprise."He did as he was told, and realized he could barely sit up. Did I really drink that much? He was suddenly afraid he would pass out. He fell backwards on the bed.Nodge heard a noise at the window. He opened his eyes, but all he could see was the ceiling spinning above him in the pale light reflected off the mirror. He struggled to sit up before he heard Lily's voice in his ear."Be still my sweet. It will all be over soon." That seemed a strange thing to say. Wait. Who's voice was that?"Lillleee ..." He could barely slur out her name. "Wha'sh happening? Ish shomeone in here wit' ush?"He finally managed to sit up. From the window approached a bulky figure. It was something inhuman – unlike anything he'd ever seen before – a nightmare made shadowy reality. He could barely make out anything in the darkness, but it had a large, bulbous head with a long snout ringed with small sharp teeth that glistened in the moonlight.But it was at the eyes that he couldn't stop staring: or rather, it was where the eyes should have been. In their place were a pair of long tentacles, reaching out towards his own face. What in all the hells is that?The voice continued, "Don't be frightened. You'll be in a better place soon." He could almost feel the lips against his ear, but he couldn't turn his head. He couldn't look away from the monstrosity before him.The creature moved closer and leaned over him. Nodge felt hands on his shoulders, pushing him back down onto the bed. Then he felt his arms being pulled over his head, and a tightness around his wrists. He was powerless to resist. The creature was on him ... he could feel its weight, holding him down while the world was spinning. I'm going to be sick, he thought."No," came yet another voice, seemingly from inside his own head. "You're going to die."He could hear screaming from somewhere. That's me. I'm the one screaming. Why does it sound so far away?Screaming, however distant, was the last thing Nodge Prayner ever heard.