The monks of the Watchtower watch the thing that pretends to be Hardwon Surefoot enter their domain with no amount of trepidation.
Their Watcher, too young and too trusting for his own good, sees Moonshine Cybin and Beverly Toegold V and Balnor and determines that the thing with them is Hardwon. When they ask, he invites the thing in and it smiles, closed-lipped, and pretends to be relieved. It cannot be relieved. It is not Hardwon Surefoot. It has no such feelings.
Their Watcher greets the thing that pretends to be Hardwon Surefoot and its traveling companions with wild abandon and open arms. He lets it know that it is welcome any time. The monks of the Watchtower do not tell their Watcher that he is inviting disaster. That the thing wearing the face of Hardwon Surefoot now has free reign in their home for the rest of forever. That their home is no longer safe.
The monks of the Watchtower never speak but they watch. That is their duty and they watch as this monster is invited in, treated like a treasured guest, and then bid a fond farewell. They watch the retreating forms of people who don't know what they're traveling with. They watch and know that, long after they have passed and long after they have moved their sanctuary, this thing will come back and demand its pound of flesh.
They do not weep for the false sorrow that paints its face in streaks of grey. They do not feel empathy for the mask it wears. They just watch as it leaves and wait for the day it comes back, façade long forgotten. They wait for it to forget it's supposed to be pretending. Not if, but when.
Because it is not Hardwon Surefoot.
No matter how much it says to the contrary.
The High Elves of Gladehome knew they were right to refuse entry to the Cricks sitting at their door. Not just because the damn things are uncouth, muddy, and rowdy monster-loving imitations of what an elf should be, but also because of the thing that they greet like a friend.
It calls itself "Hardwon Surefoot". They call it Hardwon as well, with a fondness that makes the University's stomach sour.
It might have been this so-called Hardwon Surefoot once, though it certainly isn't now.
The Cricks are blind to the predator that stalks them, stands beside their many spawn, and sows distrust among their people. They don't see its gaze linger on necks and veins and supple flesh. They don't see it grip its arms until it would have once drawn blood—its lack of being the only thing that prevents its sleeves from turning a dark rust—as it marks its meals.
They welcome it into their group, a wolf pretending to herd among sheep with sharp horns and burr-filled fleece, thinking themselves safe. They're fools. The High Elves will not make that mistake. It is not welcome among them and, so long as they associate with this thing calling itself Hardwon Surefoot, they definitely aren't welcome in their walls.
They have so little to offer anyway. No amount of wealth would buy passage for a pest you could never truly be rid of.
So the High Elves watch as the Crick rally and call and holler about "injustice" and "kin" and "home". But if they and their muddied, sullied bloodline want to play house with a monster, then they can do it away from the ones who matter.
You can't revoke an invitation after it's given. Not to something like that.
So they won't ever get one. It won't either.
Egwene Kindleaf has appointed herself the protector of Hillhome. Erlan—dorky, stupid, trying his damndest—isn't in any position to protect anyone and, while Nana was a formidable woman once, she couldn't kill an owlbear at a hundred paces. That's her job. Her burden. Her choice.
Egwene Kindleaf, protector of Hillhome, knows a monster when she sees it.
She should've kept it out of Hillhome but—
It's hard to argue with Martha Toegold. Not when she gets going. And if her boy, her baby, back from a battle that was one piece of a war no one was really gonna win, says that this thing is Hardwon, his friend, then Egwene has to concede.
It doesn't mean she has to trust it like he does.
Sure, the thing looks like Hardwon. Little more pale, little more thin, little more grey than Hardwon last she saw him, but it's similar enough to be easily mistaken for him at a distance. And sure, the thing sounds like Hardwon but—
—magic can make a Seeming and any actor worth their spit can mimic some dumb jock from under a mountain. It's not hard.
She doesn't trust it and that's what matters.
Her brother wraps Bev up in a wild hug and it's so warm and so happy but she can't appreciate it because she has to keep an eye on the thing that's with them. She can't let her guard down.
She has so much to lose. This thing doesn't.
So she holds her action. She waits. She watches. She's a good hunter anyway. Half of the hunt is stalking and Egwene is a snake. She was made for stalking.
In the late night, long after the thing and its companions have headed to bed, she watches them through a window. Enclosed in a large coffin—big enough for several people—are the monster, her brother's boyfriend, the Crick, and their strange halfling dude. They're sleeping soundly, wrapped around each other like it's a bed instead of a coffin. They don't seem to know the danger they're in.
Four hours later, the monster opens its eyes and lays there, wrapped between Moonshine and Beverly. It doesn't move, even when Moonshine shifts around and jams her foot in its face. It doesn't move, even though Bev is loudly snoring and drooling a puddle in there. It doesn't move, even though the older halfling—whose name she never got, nor cared to get—fitfully keeps turning about and muttering. It just lays, rigid, and waits, its red eyes trained on the ceiling above it.
Then it speaks, in a voice so soft that she starts and almost falls off her perch.
"Do you think I'm blind?" It waits like it wants her to respond but she doesn't. "You smell like smoke, kid. If you wanted to spy, just sit up-wind."
Fuck. She bites on a curse, balancing in the tree she's using to see in the room, and draws her bow.
"Will it make you feel better? You and the others? The elves at Gladehome, the monks at the Watchtower, even the fucking Crick Elves. Will killing me make you feel better? It won't stick, I'll say that much." The monster laughs, reflexive. Coffin and red eyes means vampire and that means that it doesn't breathe. It doesn't need air. It laughs as a way to draw sympathy.
Still...this monster disguised as Hardwon continues, unbidden.
"Give me a few days and I'll be back up in my coffin in no time. Pointless waste of arrows." It smiles, closed-lips, and continues. "But I'm not fucking stupid so I'll give you this much: you really want me dead, Egwene? Kill me in the sun or in water. Killing me now, in the dark, in my element? An inconvenience at worst." Its eyes track to where she is looking in, pupils wide disks, and it bares its fangs in a grimace. "So if you wanna do it, do it right. Do it right and do it fast."
It falls silent again. All Egwene can hear is the sound of Hillhome insects screaming for attention and her own heartbeat in her ears. She swallows but doesn't lower her weapon.
It's a monster. It needs to die.
It needs to.
"I wonder what would make you do it? Draining someone? Hurting your family? Attacking you? What would make you hate me more than I hate myself? Though—" the monster chuckles, dry, and continues, "—I don't think I could bring myself to hurt anyone here. Not on purpose, anyway. If I got misted? I dunno. Might be far enough gone to make that mistake and then, fuck yeah. Gank me."
It takes a beat before continuing.
"I keep asking them to do it. She said she'd use Reincarnate and that's fine. I'll take that chance. But they keep finding excuses not to."
It mimics Moonshine first, sneering, frustrated. "Hardwon, you just met your ma. Ain't no reason to ruin that. It can wait."
Then it mimics Beverly. It's softer this time, face more wistful than angry. "I just don't think I can! You're my friend, Hardwon, and I don't think I could really bring myself to kill you!"
It lets out a shuddering gasp, like it's trying to hold back tears. It can't cry though, not for real. It's a monster. But it pretends pretty well.
"I just want to stop. I want to stop looking at people and seeing food or pathetic or worthless. I want to stop fighting the urge to rip into everything I see just because I can. I want to see the sun, swim in a river, fuck, just fucking sleep during the night again. I'm so tired Egwene and if you're willing, I'd fucking pin my feet to the ground and let the sun take me. Because I'm tired of being a monster. I'm tired of people looking at me like you did. I'm just tired."
It sounds desperate and, for a moment, she wonders if this is sincere. But it's a vampire. They're charismatic and liars and she's certain that if she goes anywhere alone with it, she wouldn't be coming back.
She looses a single arrow into its shoulder. It lets out a wet-sounding laugh but doesn't flinch. "Okay then. Guess I'll have to wait until someone takes me up on it. Thanks for listening though." As she starts to climb down the tree to head to bed, certain it won't move for fear of waking the others, it calls out to her one last time and what it says makes the truth as clear as the night sky.
"Sleep well, Egwene. Tell Nana and Erlan I said hi."
She does sleep that night. Not well, mind you, but she sleeps.
Because there is a monster in Hillhome.
And it is not Hardwon Surefoot.