Gertrude wondered, not for the first time, what in the Serantha's-- no, bad thought, she was doing here in Ostian again. Much less here at this house.
She sat at the wobbly table, staring at the splintery wood, fighting back the wash of bittersweet memories that the old house brought back. Callisto, Gabor, Kim...
"You're back!" Kim exclaimed, throwing his arms around her. "I've never been so worried in my-- What happened?"
Gertrude grimaced. "I'll tell you about it later," she said. "I need a bath."
"Yes, yes you do," Callisto said from where he sat by the fire. "You smell like something the dogs dragged in."
"Ouch," Gertrude whispered, and drank deep from the bitter beer in her mug. With her free hand, she wiped away a tear that escaped from her eyes. "I'm beginning to think this wasn't such a good idea."
She settled her head into her arms, and sighed slowly. "Ai, Kim, you idiot," she muttered, half-fondly, half-sadly, and realized she could smell the alcohol on her own breath.
The door creaked softly; perhaps with the wind, perhaps not. The dancing fire guttered low, filling the room with creeping shadows. Gertrude raised her head, squinting into the darkness that congealed around the doorframe.
"Who's there?" she asked. "If you want to rob me, let's get it over with so I can drink some more."
"I am not here to rob you."
It was a woman's voice, calm and measured and somehow dangerous. Gertrude shivered, despite herself. The last time she had heard a voice like that was not a pleasant memory.
"Then what do you want?"
"I want to thank you," the woman said, stepping into the firelight. She was hooded and veiled, but her eyes gleamed like dark stars. "You freed me."
Gertrude shook her head. "No offence, but I think I'd remember." She tilted her head back and squinted. "Who are you, anyway?"
"Who I am is not important," she said gently. "I am going to do something you will both curse me and bless me for."
Gertrude stood so fast she nearly set the table flying. "No!" she said. "No, no, no no! I have had enough of being used! Take yourself and your double-edged gifts somewhere el--"
The woman reached out a hand, and Gertrude realized she couldn't move. She was frozen, unable to blink or breathe.
The memories were fading. She realized she could no longer recall Kim's face, or his smile, or Serantha's vicious laugh. Arantheal's hot-headed rages and Arkt's tempered scorn. Callisto's one sentence of gruff praise. Every recollection of anything that had happened over the past few years was fading fast.
"And so I will remove your pain-- for a time," she said; and turned to leave. Gertrude fell back into her chair, reeling.