Many of those who had watched the horror were already there. Lelayna Vlad was hugging James lovingly, trying to console him. "You did all you could," she whispered to him. "You can't always be the hero."
Ashakahn turned to look at Echo with an expression of pure disgust. Gauge commented, "Mmmm, that was quite a ... ummm..." and shrugged. Demon Moon looked at Echo, then back at James and Lellie. Lellie herself looked toward Echo in silence. James, noticing Ash's expression, snarled at him, "Keep quiet, fool."
Necrocide came in just behind Echo, his body clanking against the hard floor. He looked at Echo and chuckled a bit. "Now ... it seems ... you got your son. But was that worth ... killing your love?"
In a voice like death, Echo replied, "No. But Blood told me to do it."
Necrocide chuckled quickly. "Oh?"
"So," asked Jaim Tashima, "did Blood die or not?"
As Vezhan looked around at his new surroundings, Echo said, "I don't know, Jaim."
Ashakahn moved swiftly to Echo and spoke in such a low voice that no one else heard his words. "I despise you," he said.
Echo's voice was a faint whisper. "I'm not surprised," she said. "I despise myself."
In Echo's distraught condition, the necklace of scarlet and jet -- Blood's gift to her -- now betrayed her, opening her mind to all the animosity, the disgust ... and the studied indifference ... that surrounded her. Everything that had happened -- every thought directed at her -- combined to fill her heart with a terrible image ... an image of the pain Blood had endured, and hidden.
Ourus, who had earlier seemed to have sympathy for Echo, was now trying to dismiss her from notice, reflecting that he did not care any more; Jaim, too, merely shrugged, no longer caring. Ourus sighed and stroked his dear Shadow's hair, shaking his head a bit. Shadow turned her gaze away from Echo, hating Blood but thinking she would never have believed Echo to be capable of skinning her own love.
As Lellie settled her eyes on Vezhan, James waved his hand over the green globes he had for eyes, and they turned into lifelike eyeballs once more. Demon Moon smiled at his adopted son and chuckled briefly.
Ourus exploded suddenly, "Goddammit, I'm leaving here. This is all hypocritic crap."
James glared at all those who seemed disgusted with Echo. "Fools! You do not know a thing!" Jaim sneered at James.
Echo felt it all. The thoughts, the sneers, they were like blows to her withering soul. Of all the patrons in the Inn, only James and Lellie seemed not to have turned against her.
Echo sat down with her child on her lap, rocking, crooning in a cracked voice, "Baby ... what you saw tonight ... should never have happened ..."
Lellie, her heart crying for Echo, for Blood, and especially for their son, walked to Echo, gently saying her name. Echo looked at her with dead eyes. "What?" Lellie slid down to her knees at Echo's feet. "Nothing," she said, but reached up and held her friend's hand. James, made still angrier by the sneer from Jaim, said, "You have never had your child taken from you when it was only a baby."
Josh looked at James. "She skinned him." Echo flinched as if struck, and the loving image faded as if it had never been.
"She is sick," said Ashakahn, and new nausea filled Echo.
Josh went on, "James ... the baby is lost no matter WHAT. Don't you understand? Static WON. Are you stupid?"
"I know he won," James said sullenly. "So what?"
"You think he'd just give back the baby for some sick ritual?" said Josh. "No. Vezhan has evil blood now. Vezhan has already been trained as a killer, and will be that. Evil."
Shadow glared at Echo. "But is it worth it? One brainwashed child for the death of your love?" With that, she walked out.
As Jaim rolled his eyes, James exploded, "Fools! Hypocrites! You are disgusted with Echo, when she was the victim!"
Implacably Josh said, "What Echo did was unnecessary, and there were OTHER WAYS to do it." "What other ways, Phoenix?" James flashed back. "Losing eyes? Losing lives?"
Ashakahn said, "James you are defending a woman who killed her own love. She skinned him ... alive ..."
James said, "Ash, shut your mouth before I rip out your tongue!"
Ash laughed. "Is that a threat?"
A stranger rose and walked toward the exit, reminding herself to keep away from people who live to kill or torture ... wondering how could someone skin anybody? She shuddered and left, biting her lower lip. Echo, too, bit her lip, almost drawing blood.
Echo looked around at her ... friends ... thinking most of them will never understand. "James ... take Vezhan. Please."
James gently took Vezhan in his arms. "Should I undo the evil that has befallen him?" He gestured slightly with one hand, and a shield went up around him and the child, protecting them from any sort of kidnapping or attacks.
Vezhan looked back to his mother. Echo murmured, in answer to James' question, "If you can ... if you can ..."
Echo rose and, as if pursued by the demons of her own self-loathing, ran up the tower stairs, then climbed out onto the roof. She stood there, looking up at the moon, for a long moment ...
Then she looked down at the ground, sloping downward far below her, and at the darkness beyond it which was the lip of the ravine ...|