“The main strength of the Western Stronghold is its very secrecy. No one knows much about it, except that any who speak of it openly die.” – Guide to Foreign Countries by Scholar Horse
She coughed at the first breath of smoke, and dove into her workspace for a blanket to put the fire out with. She coughed harder, pain locking her chest. Her heart was racing out of control, far faster than it was meant to go. She held her breath with what control she had over the spasms, and put the fire out before crawling towards the scent of fresh, if frozen, air. The back door to the inn would keep her in the shadows, and it was better than dying wasn’t it? Her fingers brushed a pile of snow as she reached the door, and she paused a moment, considering turning back. Despite the cool air, her senses kicked into overdrive.
There was danger outside her tunnel. Predators were everywhere. She had to escape. It felt so good to be traveling underground. It was always safer to be beneath the surface. One only came out at night to hunt, when most other predators had gone to sleep and only owls and cats remained potential dangers. She paused as she heard something echoing down her tunnel. Odd. That didn’t sound natural.
Gradually it came to her. They were words. She remembered what words were, didn’t she? Frowning, she struggled for focus, and gained back a small measure of comprehension.
“Find out what you can,” a voice shouted, tinny and distant. She listened for several minutes longer, but the voice did not come again.
She collapsed against the snowy ground, relieved to remember who she was again. The frozen air gave her goosebumps, but it was almost a pleasure to lay there and feel the hard bumps on her smooth, bare skin. Schreber hadn’t meant to kill her, she thought as she lay in the snow. He just wanted to tell her he knew her secret. Chills not caused by the snow ran up and down her spine at that thought. If he knew her secret, she would have to help him, no matter what she wanted for herself, and that was not a thought she wanted to contemplate.
No one paid her any attention when she got up the courage to return to Shadow-fy. All she found when she returned to the place of her near-death experience was a pile of ash, and a single gold coin.