"You're dead. I killed you." Anima straddled him. Gazed down at the horror in his eyes. She could see it, even in the darkness of his bedroom. A stillness in that moment. A rising ecstasy. Anima wore the face of the woman he murdered, and she had come for him as her. Her name was Lydia. Nine days ago, Anima found her body in the Allir strait. Only her hand poking out of the water. A portent. Intrigued, she worked quickly, mindful of eyes on the bridges above. A delicate task, to cut away the skin of a human face. Once done, she donned it. Her body slowly morphed to Lydia's, and then...the flood began. Lydia's final moments, relived through Anima herself. The fear. Desperation. A surge through the skin, a fire in the heart. But also, hidden underneath, sadness. A sense of a duty unfulfilled. And so Anima walked the streets of Alliria as Lydia, the familiar paths she took sparking hints of emotion here and there. And then she saw him. His name: Belenor. A merchant. Wealthy, but not enough to live in the Inner City. Surely an aspiration. He didn't see her at the time. Lucky, it turned out. But the exquisite fear of those last moments rushed back at the sight of him. Robbed the strength from her knees and the air from her chest. Anima knew it at once. This was the man who had killed her. A day's worth of stalking, and she found his home. Again, wealthy, but not enough to afford permanent guards. Simple, then, to wait for nightfall. To wait until Belenor crawled into bed. Anima put her hand back over his mouth. Let out a quiet hush. Smiled. This would be the last time he would wake. And she slid the knife between his ribs. * * * * * Anima watched from afar in the midday sun. The Outer City market bustled with business. Local Allirians and travelers alike roamed and browsed and talked and argued and laughed. But her eyes were locked on a single man. A blacksmith. He had a small open-air shop. Two apprentices younger than him, hard at work. He coughed and pointed a tool at them, at the metal they were forging. Instructing them in the craft. She knew it was him. Lydia's love erupted at the sound of his name, and Anima savored it. And then that same sadness crept in. Settled, for a while. Followed by a longing for something. A burning hope. Conviction. What a sweet wine of emotion, all from the sight and sound of this man. But she couldn't be drunk on it forever. It was time to let him know. She approached the smithy. Slowly. Carefully. People passed by between her, blocking her view of him time and again. His voice, distinguishable from all the rest. Lydia's tears formed in Anima's eyes, threatening to break free. A solemn delight. A heavy burden. Ten paces away, and their eyes met. "Erik," she whispered. His mouth fell open. He dropped the tool in his hand. A clattering of metal on stone. His quiet gasp, thunder amongst the bustle of the market crowd to her. His lips quivered. He said to his apprentices, "Leave me. Please." Confusion from the two at first, but when they each noticed her as well, shock and surprise clutched them. Unsure, they nevertheless listened to their master, and parted from the smithy. Slowly again, she closed the distance. Stood in front of him. And he spoke, his voice breathy with disbelief, "Lydia...oh god, Lydia. You're...you're alive! Thank the--" Anima softly placed her hand on his chest as he moved to embrace her. Held him back. Shook her head. A rare occasion of being forthright. But she had decided that Erik deserved the truth. She said, "This is not her." And she watched as a different kind of disbelief overcame him. A rising exuberance giving way to a sinking uncertainty. "I don't...Lydia, I don't understand." "This body looks like her. But it is not her. Lydia is dead, adrift in the Allir strait. Her body is gone now." A narrowing of his eyes. "Then who are you? What...are you?" "An avenging shadow." Doubt lasted a while longer, but there, a spark in his eyes. "So she was murdered then? And you avenged her?" Anima nodded, and Erik stumbled backward, bumping into an anvil on a thick pedastal. "I knew it," he said. "I knew that bastard Belenor was lying. I knew and I--" He made a fist. Held it against his mouth for a moment. "I just couldn't prove it. An accident, he said. Really? How many maids die in accidents? My Lydia...my dear Lydia...murdered by that son of a bitch." Minutes passed, and nothing was said between them. Anima stared at him, and Erik stared down at the ground. The white hot flames of anger diminished back to embers. And the sadness returned. Lydia's love tugged at Anima's legs, beckoning her forward, yearning to comfort him. She stood still, smile unbroken, as he wiped his face. How fortunate Lydia had been in life, to find someone who cared so deeply for her. And so it was in death as well. "She can rest now," Anima said. "May you find peace as well." She turned to go. Erik's hand on her arm. A desperate clutching. A plea, expressed through his hand and the false skin Anima wore. A love to burn the world to cinder caged in her chest. And there, in that tiny moment, Anima wished that she was Lydia. Truly, and deeply. "Please don't leave," Erik said. But she was not. She merely carried on the last vestiges of her spirit. And then, those too would be gone. Dust in the wind. Anima reached over with her other hand. Placed it on Erik's own. Looked over her shoulder at him. Whispered, "You have to let her go." A heavy moment. And he said, "May I do one last thing?" "You may." Erik carefully spun her around. Placed his hands on her cheeks. And kissed her. And she him. He deserved such a farewell from Lydia, and Anima enjoyed that fleeting moment as her messenger. He parted from her. Said, "Goodbye, Lydia. I love you. I will always love you." Anima took a step back. Said, "Goodbye. Erik." More steps back. More. The crowd took her. And she disappeared among them. Erik dropped to the ground when he lost sight of her. His face in his hands. * * * * * Anima sat on the edge of her bed back in her room at The Moonlit Sweetheart. Inns in the Outer City always seemed to be competing for the most memorable name. It worked. Anima had some spare coin, and a need for some privacy during her venture as Lydia. A few nights' stay didn't cost much, but you got what you paid for, didn't you? A bed, a lamp, and a locked door. Some rooms had windows. Anima's did not. All the better. She sighed. Smiled in a defeated manner as she glanced over at her normal armor, clothes, and weapons on the bed. It was time. She took the underwrist knife out of one of her leather bracers. Placed the tip of the blade against the bottom of her left ear, at the point where it met her face. Pressure. The metal sunk into the flesh. A wet parting of skin, near inaudible. Down along the jawline, along the chin, up now past her right ear, half moon over the forehead, and back to where she started. A hiss as sorcerous energies escaped. She placed the blade down on a piece of cloth on the bed. Not much blood on it. Clean, this time. A thumb under the loose skin of her chin, index finger pinching it. A slow peel upward. Red strings of ichor tried and failed to hold it in place. False muscles stretched and snapped. And Lydia's face was off. Anima gasped for air. Watched the skin on her arms change ever so slightly to its regular hue. Lydia's blonde hair gave way to Anima's black. The gray settled back into her eyes. Minutes passed, and her body grew to match her normal frame. The facade was over. She wiped the blade off and placed it back into the hidden slot in her bracer. Wiped her face with the cloth. Stood and stripped off the clothes she had purchased ten days prior when she first began her masquerade as Lydia. And she stood for a while. Looking down at her naked body. She had felt it. The love Lydia had for Erik. As raw and powerful as if it were her own. It was only just this afternoon, but now, in dusk, the memory was distant and numb. A ghost of something sweet. Something of worth. Meaning. This body had felt it. But this body had not truly felt it. A shadow takes form, but it is not that which stands before the light. It would be a long time, she thought, before such an experience came again. A rare fortune. And as she dressed and re-equipped herself, echoes from her mother, from the blackest corner of her mind, heralded a sobering reminder. There would come a time when no such experience could be had again. When all fell to the dark. When humanity finished eating itself. Anima opened a small satchel. Placed the skin of Lydia's face at the bottom. The ten-day-old clothes on top. She would need to dispose of the satchel. The face was no longer of any use, and deserved to be at rest with the rest of Lydia. And the clothes...fitting for the facade, but not otherwise. Unappealing to her now. One final item of Lydia's remained on the bed. The unopened letter. Anima shouldered the satchel, its strap going across her body and armor. Satchel on one side of her hip, sheathed shortsword on the other. She took the unopened letter in one hand and held the strap of the satchel with the other and blew out the flame in the lamp and left her room and closed the door behind her. Smiled to another inn patron as she passed him in the hall. He didn't smile back, or so much as look at her. Disappointing. Necessary, perhaps, with the satchel task at hand, but disappointing nonetheless. She walked past the innkeeper, the glow of his own lamp illuminating his face. A returned smile this time. The faintest hint of curiosity. What lurked in the innkeeper's mind? Was he a hidden hero, or a common coward? How soon would he give in to what lurked inside him? Eyes forward, toward the inn's front door. Not now. Leave him be. Out the door and back onto the streets of Alliria. The last vestiges of sunlight in the sky. The smell of certain rain in the air as large clouds encroached from the east, riding the wave of the approaching dark. Anima turned toward it, her back to the dying of the light in the west. She stood on the toes of her boots, her heels lifted from the ground. Her head tilted back. Eyes closed. Arms open in embrace. An exaltant smile. "Fear not the coming of the dark," she whispered to herself. And still, she trembled.