Lost Magic by Nicolette Jinks

Rain and wind raged on the glass roof above the old biplane swaying over the books I was reshelving following a recent incident with a storage ghost. It was the sort of day that called for a mug of hot cocoa and a roaring fire to take the cold, wet feel out of the air. Not that I wanted any sugar in that mug, mind. Just straight cocoa and milk would be perfect. Ever since I had an encounter with Death which, I supposed, had triggered my father's shifting ability to become active in me I haven't been able to stomach sweet things.
Lost Magic
Lost Magic by Nicolette Jinks
Mordon Meadows was a few rows over, doing something with the Roman pithos-jar-thing. It hadn't been physically broken, but the ghost had animated it. If it was left to its own devices, it would roll around the floor seemingly with the intention of smashing anything in its path. Mordon's reddish hair had suffered badly from the storage ghost, but so far he hadn't noticed. I anticipated that once he did realize the tangles, he'd want my smoothing comb from upstairs. Aside from the dust coating his black shirt and the smudges on his knees and hair which looked like a mouse had braided it, Mordon wasn't looking too shabby. Not that I was staring at him, exactly. “I think I'll go make up some Drake's Brew. Maybe enough for myself, too,” Mordon said, standing up and brushing the dust off his knees. Drake's Brew was nothing at all like hot cocoa, but I liked it so well I wondered if I had an addiction to the colony's recipe. He'd been feeding me constantly ever since we got back from the Wildwoods two weeks ago, apparently under the impression that the fight I'd had with my parents prior to leaving the woods could be soothed through the stomach. Mordon owned the shop and was the principal force behind forming our motley crew into a formal coven. Unlike me, his heritage hadn't been formed through the melting pot; he was all-drake and found my parentage intriguing rather than threatening. He was also biding his time before stepping up the ranks into the Kragdomen Colony's rulership, performing an occupation he called a Watcher. I thought it was a clever ruse by the Colony elders to keep their up-and-coming lord just far enough away from the roost so he didn't get impatient enough to snatch the title for himself a little early, or otherwise butt heads with his superiors. Perhaps it even served as a 'get out and see the world' function. Now that I thought of it the Colony didn't have many people about my age lurking in their hallways, though the rest of the Colony talked about their adventures. “Sure,” I said. “When do you think the trio will be home? I'm wondering if it's worth it to slap dinner together.” “The two of us can cook when we're hungry. Leif and Lilly will eat at the celebrations, but Barnes will stick around until late to see all the drunks home. Want me to close up the shop? I doubt anyone will come by now.” Mordon stroked his nonexistant beard in thought. “We could still go, if you'd like to?” For once I didn't tell him I wanted to be left alone. I smiled. “You asking me on a date?” His fingers froze in place and his brow knitted in confusion. “Yes,” he said, “I think I am. What a strange concept.” “It's approaching evening on Midsummer Day. Are you sure you want to ask me to that?” “Why? What have you heard? That we're to dance naked around a tree and drink freely of wine to encourage good crops and animals?” “Mmm, I hadn't heard that bit. No, Lilly mentioned something about jumping over bonfires and tossing wreaths of flowers into the duck pond.” “Lilly's doing the kiddie activities.” Mordon grinned mischievously. “Want to take a guess of what the adults do? The fairies are taking charge.” I had a feeling that I knew what some of those activities included, if the way he was looking at me was any indication. “Whatever, I'll give it a shot. Just know I draw the line at anything that'll get me knocked up.” This was one of those times when the filter between brain and mouth failed, and I regretted the lapse. So I tried to fix it. “Spring is way too early for me to be ready to even hold a child, nevermind raise one.” “Oh, I don't know. You held my nephew pretty well.” “You have no clue how lucky he was.” “I think it is you who has no clue how lucky he was,” Mordon said, knowing that I'd embarrassed myself already, the gleam in his expression telling me he found it adorable to see me flustered. “Are you trying to find a way to tell me no? You could just say it, unless you like teasing me.” “I accept, before you change your mind and don't take me out at all. Close up shop, go sear some steaks, I'll tidy up here and meet you upstairs in five.” He hooked a thumb in the pocket of his black silk trousers, still taking in my doubtless red cheeks. “Will I be escorting you to the kiddie pool, or do you think you're big enough for the deep end?” I laughed. “Where on earth did you learn that turn of phrase? You haven't been to a swimming pool in your life.” “From you. And you're deflecting the question.” “Depends what I'm in the mood for and if you are going to be a rogue or a gentleman.” “Which one leads to jumping in the deep end?” I looked for something to toss at him, found nothing that would not be damaged, and formed a burst of compressed air instead. He tried to catch it and ended up ruffling through his red hair. He laughed and moved away, humming a jaunty tune. I shook my head, my cheeks still hot, and tried to return my attention back to the books, but I kept wondering...I'd only ever seen him shirtless twice before...and even then, only had one decent look at him. Not that I was willing to be reckless to see more. Definitely not. I planned to stay well away from the free-flowing wine. I hardly heard the locks slide, grind, and groan their way to security, but I knew from the contented purr through the floorboards that not only was the shop itself happy, Mordon was, as well. They'd been worried about me—everyone had been. The day that a letter had formed itself out of a curl of smoke and a tendril of flame, I may have seen my father's handwriting on it and fallen into an angry rant and refused to open it. On top of my frantic panic at having the man I'd killed reappear mysteriously from the dead, I hadn't exactly been faring too well in the steady nerves department. He'd spoken out publicly addressing my statements. I'd read the speech in the next day's Thaumaturgical Tribune. Cole Addresses Swift's Allegations, Expresses Sympathy TRANSCRIBED BY SIMONA ECCLES / AMERICAN SORCERERING TODAY Upon my safe return to my family, I was made aware of the trial and hardships Miss Swift has endured as a result of my carelessness. First, I feel it is my civic duty to apologize for all she has had to endure. Although some would say I owe her no such apology, I feel one is required. As to Miss Swift's allegations, I am as surprised as anyone else—however, I do understand the cause behind it and I know the reason for her conviction. As with many sorcerers, I protect my family and home. Miss Swift's story goes to a time when my beloved wife, without my knowledge, contracted Miss Swift for housework. As I was not aware of the arrangement, I did not release the protective wards within my house. These wards are of a delusional, persuasive nature, intended to frighten by employing the target's own imagination. I use this rather than lethal force, but it is said to be the most frightening thing to ever endure. Miss Swift did witness as she said she did, but it was an illusion. Not knowing this, she returned at a later date and confronted me. Being in a state of agitation myself, I reacted unwisely. Though misinformed, Miss Swift behaved bravely and in the belief she was doing good. It was an unfortunate turn of events and I am sorry for the disgrace and discomfort she has had to endure on my behalf. The courts must release her at once from any and all culpability. It was an accident and an illusion. It was not real. I furthermore expect and anticipate apologies to be given to her from those who have maligned her good name and brave nature during my weeks of absence. Thank you and good night. “He's up to something,” I said to myself, glad for a little bit of time to think without being stared at. “A bigger fish than little ol' half-feral me. But what?” Nothing came to mind. Cole was clever, I knew that much about him, even if I knew little else. Once I discovered what he was doing, then what? Find a way to foil it without entering the limelight, that's what. The last of the cloth-bound books nestled in place, making a satisfyingly pleasing arrangement on the shelf. I stood, stretched my stiff back, and caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Was someone here, despite the way the doors were locked? Casually, I fell into a defensive position with my ring held in front of me to face the intruder. It was a woman. She held herself upright against the glass display case which glittered with jewelery at a flash of lightning, blindingly bright light filling the shop. My ears stung immediately afterward with the clap of thunder directly overhead. The rain pounded harder. When I next could see, the woman hadn't moved, but she had doubled over, and her cry of pain echoed with the next burst of lightning and thunder. She spoke. I couldn't hear what she said. Brown hair askew, she took shuddering gasps and tried over and over to tell me something. She looked pregnant and in distress, but her sudden appearance had me wary. I approached her and leaned my ear in closer and closer, until I could make out her words. “Are you Feraline Swift?” She looked up, now certain I'd heard her. How she knew my name, I could only guess, but I saw no reason to deny it. “I am. Who are you?” “Josephina.” Wild-eyed, she grasped me by my shirt and dug talon-like nails into it. “Gregor Cole...was dead.” I wetted my lips. “The papers say he just went missing for a time.” “He was with Death and we both know it! He was snatched out of purgatory and placed back on the earth. And they want to do worse. Didn't say what.” I hadn't felt so exposed since I'd had a classmate confront me about cheating on a college algebra pop quiz. I wanted to deny all she said but could not. I ignored what she said about Death. Josephina had the black, shining eyes of a bird of prey, one which fear had touched and driven to wit's end. She begged, “Don't let me fall into his hands. Promise it. Swear it! On a blood oath, swear to me you won't let me into his hands.” Though I tried to step away from her, my feet were rooted in place. I explained, “Josephina, I can't. I don't know anything about what's happened to you. Let me fetch someone who can help you.” “You can help me. If you want to help me, swear.” “I don't know you.” “Inimicus inimico amicus, the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Now, swear—” A scream of agony broke off the last word, curdling my blood. Her face went red and white with pain and her free hand clasped my arm and her fingers sank into my forearm. Lingering half-way between staying beside her and running off, I felt my pulse quicken, knowing I was wasting time but not knowing what I should do. “Sit down, I'll get Mordon.” “No time.” She threw back her head and forced her body to relax a fraction. “It'll be here in minutes. You know Cole. You know what he intends. He wants me.” “Josephina...” “He's not my enemy, he's the lapdog. The real enemy, the real one—” She stifled a scream. “Immortal. Is the Immortal. Will you let him have me?” I stared at her, suddenly my mind was blank yet filled with questions. How did she know about the Immortal? About purgatory and Death? How did she believe in actual manifestations of the things people thought of as myth? The wind thrashed against the ceiling, finding crevices to enter the shop through, making the papers shift and shake. Any dismissal I'd had for her earlier was gone; I couldn't tear my eyes from her. A vital part of Cole's mysterious plan was right here before my very eyes. I couldn't draw myself away from her. I stood there, gazing into eyes wide and black with exhaustion from too many portals and too little sleep, understanding the depth of her concern the longer I looked at her. By the time she had settled into breathing shallow little puffs of air, it was as if a piece of her soul had left her and entwined with mine. Damp clothes hugged her body, her wrists and ankles livid with angry red welts. Images of ropes burned into my head. No bruises, no beatings. They didn't want her information. But they had wanted her. Our eyes met again, my expression saying that I knew what I saw written on her body. The dip of her head and wet strands of hair falling before her face communicating that she'd been afraid I'd bar the door from her. By the time the sweat dried on my own skin, the wind tickled goosebumps up and down my arms with the expanse and collapse of her chest. Not too long ago, I'd come to this shop seeking help, too. With the memory of my own desperate hope—and the realization that this may have been how Mordon felt upon first seeing me—my last inkling of wariness was disappearing. “No. He won't have you.” Crazy as it all might be, insane as I might be, terrified as I was of this woman and her condition and of whatever she might ask of me, I knew that for certain there was no way I was going to back down from her needs. No matter how frightened it made me feel. Chapter Two Josephina breathed quick, panting breaths which I felt tug on my magic, seeking to draw in my power as well as the air itself. I hesitated, then let her take from my own strength. It seemed to help, she regained color and a measure of sanity returned to her eyes. It was this sanity which alarmed me, made me wonder what it was I had just done. But I was here now, and while I could backtrack and say I wasn't going to help her anymore, I knew that I couldn't do that. I wouldn't do it. Beneath the swaying biplane and storm on the glass, within the thrumming confines of this shop, I knew this was right. And I was going to go through things I'd never ever imagined before. Her gaze met mine and she blew out a huff, trying to be businesslike despite the contractions doubling her over. “Give me your oath.” Kneeling next to her, I took her hand and noticed that the very rims of her eyes were a rich rosewood hue. “I give you my oath, I will keep you safe from Gregor Cole. And the Immortal.” “And deliver me to Julius Septimus.” Who he was, I hadn't an idea. Never heard of him before, and I had a decent enough memory for placing names and facts. What I could tell was that he didn't sound like he'd been born in the States. Unless he had a family dedicated to keeping the old-fashioned names alive. He also didn't sound very ''creature'', unlike Mordon or Enaid or Feraline or anything else. This meant he wasn't drake, wasn't fey, and I had a good feeling he wasn't sphinx or gryphon. Had to be a man, it was a man's name. Couldn't be that many Greeks around, could there? Her nails stung as they ripped down my arm when I hesitated, dedicating his name to memory. “And I'll deliver you to Julius Septimus. As soon as I can.” A part of me wondered how I would find him, and reasoned that she could tell me. It'd be the best solution. I started to ask her, but the color faded from her cheeks. She half-closed her eyes and gave a final push, whispering, “Catch me.” I grasped her shoulders, but she wasn't tipping over. Her child. “Oh, no, don't you dare push.” Too late. A streak of panic tore through me as I realized she'd crowned her child. Then it happened. The calm happened. It'd taken over my actions before on a few occasions, a blessed intervention, yet a thing which I could not properly explain no matter how often I felt it. It was as if all the things I could think, I did think, all at once, before they were peacefully discarded or put into constructive use. It was as if I'd done this a hundred times before, so often that it was a routine procedure invoking little emotion within me. Once I'd thought of it like a puppeteer was moving me. That I was his marionette. This time was a little different. This time I was the puppeteer and I was manipulating my own body, without residing within it. It had been frightening to feel in the past, but not now. Now it was a tool, a thing which I could use to do what needed to be done. It could have been fast, it could have been slow. Time ceased to matter, nothing mattered except for the next contraction. With her leaning against the counter, I took the infant from her body as it slipped into the world, still and unbreathing and faintly blue. Air wasn't being tugged in and out of its mouth, I knew without having to look at it. No one had ever told me how slick these newborns were; I nearly dropped it, jarring the child and causing it to spit up goop. Almost instinctively, I swirled my probably too dirty finger around its mouth and cleared the passage. Could this final stage of labor happen within minutes, or had I been so involved that I hadn't noticed the minutes going by? It started up a weak wail. What I knew of childbirth had come to me through first responder classes, and I felt woefully under-prepared as I scrounged around for something to tie off the umbilical chord with, then cut it. Mordon had everything in that old fashioned medical kit, thankfully in its place behind the counter beneath the register. He even had a sterilized cloth in a sealed bag, which I rolled up around the child. It had been a dry birth, she must have done most of her laboring somewhere else, which meant she'd been desperate to seek me out. I turned to face Josephina. “Look, here she is. A little girl.” A little girl who had bugged-out eyes and bright red skin, a baby who didn't look too happy to have joined the world of the living, and looked even less happy when her lids flitted open and she saw me. Despite the lack of appreciation on behalf of the newborn, I felt my muscles slowly unknot. Around me wasn't as much of a mess as it might have been. The medical kit lay open, scissors and strings out of their usual place, rags helter skelter where they'd fallen while I'd dug through them for a clean one. None of it mattered, because Josephina wasn't excessively bleeding—in my undereducated opinion—and both mother and babe were alive. Josephina watched as I tried to tidy things up a little, refusing to touch the infant which I half-held out for her to take. Holding the child as awkwardly as one can, I wasn't sure if I should put the baby in her arms or cradle the little thing close. “Good thing neither one of you died, coming to me instead of a doctor,” I said, failing to transform it from a joke into an actual question. Josephina reached a pale, shaking hand out to the child and just skimmed over her cheek. A faint smile touched Josephina's lips. She murmured, “Treat me well,” and slumped to the floor. I didn't understand. Josephina wasn't bleeding out. So far as I could tell, she hadn't been physically beaten nor was she choking. Yet I knew, sure as I knew my own name, that the life was draining away from her. What I didn't know was why. The otherworldly, calm feeling didn't return. My mouth went dry and I felt frantic panic course through every fiber of my existence, wondering what had gone wrong and how I could have stopped it, yet knowing that nothing had gone wrong. Nothing. This shouldn't be happening. Yet it was. Right before my eyes, she was dying. And there was nothing I could do about it. The baby cried stronger now, as if it knew what was happening. I knelt beside Josephina, shaking her with one hand. “Hey, you, I'm getting Mordon. Hang in there. You hear me?” Heavens knew what he'd do. Bloody, mucusy newborn cradled in the crook of one arm, I strode for the door disguised as wainscoting which would take me to where Mordon was cooking dinner. My hand trembled too much to seize the handle the first time, and while I was forcing my hand to work, I heard a whoosh like gasoline touching a match. Spinning around, I saw a giant ball of flame engulfing the place where Josephina sat propped up against the display case. The child screamed, as loud as a newborn could. I rounded the corner with the antique cash register and my jaw slackened. Josephina's body was an outline, a slightly darker shape within a raging inferno. Hurriedly connecting with my magic, I threw up a vacuum around the fire, trying to starve it of air, adding a frantic, “Smorae” and hoping that I'd used the correct verb. It did nothing. For an instant, I doubted my Anglo-Saxon. Then I realized the reason the spell didn't work: the fire didn't take in oxygen and exhale carbon monoxide. It wasn't a normal fire. But for the smell of smoke in my nostrils and the sight of flames, it didn't exist. Within seconds, the outline disappeared and became a white-hot core which seared my retinas and prompted the baby's wail to new pitches. Soothing her as best I could, I tried the door again—and felt it wriggle from someone else on the other side starting to open it. I heard the wainscoting door open and after a second, Mordon yelled something and darted around me. He ran to the inferno and put out his hand. I saw him struggle to connect with the fire, to quench it and kill it, but nothing came of his efforts. “It's not there, Mordon, I've tried. My element does nothing, your element won't work, either.” He jammed his hand in the flames. I rushed forward, yelling, “what are you doing” and grabbed his arm. When it came out of the fire, his hand was white and powdered with...“Frost?” Mordon slumped back, sitting flat on the floor, staring at the white flames which were now diminishing, getting smaller and smaller, until all that was left of the incineration was the faint scent of singed hair and a tiny handful of ashes. The baby cried afresh. I looked down at the blotchy-faced thing and tried jiggling my arms in a soft bounce, not having a clue what to do with it now that Josephina was gone. Feeling a little shameful, as if I had somehow brought this about. Or that I could have stopped it in some way. Should I have just walked out on her and left her on her own? But I didn't see how that would have in any way been the responsible, good-person thing to do. Despite this, I couldn't think of a way that this night could have gone worse than it had. With the white-hot burst of energy gone, a draft tickled my skin and I began to shiver. Slowly I began to catch up with what had happened and accept the reality that my life would never, ever be the same again. Avoiding looking at Mordon, I straightened out the baby's blanket. Red tinted my cheeks and my fingers wouldn't stop shaking. Then I let out a breath. I wished I could go back in time and have nothing to worry about, to not wonder if I'd somehow caused all of this to happen. But of course I hadn't. She'd come for help, and I'd done my best. She hadn't fought the fire, hadn't been surprised that it had struck, even. Which begged the question, what now? Mordon ran a hand through his hair, the jewels of his rings catching on the flashes of lightning, staring at the spot the woman had been. Mordon climbed to his feet in one graceful movement and touched the ragged marks where Josephina's nails had torn into my skin. “What happened?” he asked. “She just appeared, after you left. Bam, here. Didn't set off any wards. Didn't seem harmful. I couldn't walk away and leave her. Nothing went wrong. I don't know what happened. But that was a...a...I don't know what to do now. I swear there was no warning.” I swallowed the hard lump in my throat. “She came out of nowhere. Needed help. I made a blood oath.” “To do what?” “She said she wanted me to keep her away from Cole. And give her to a man...Julius Septimus.” “The baby?” “No,” I said. “She kept referring to herself, not to the baby. Now she's...she's not even ashes. Mordon. What happened?” Mordon folded me into his arms, gazing at the spot where the fire had been and had left no trace. Not answering, Mordon made crooning noises, and showed me how to hold the newborn. He wouldn't take it for himself, and he wouldn't stop staring at the place where maybe, just maybe, there might have been a bubble in the jewellery counter glass where it hadn't been before. “Was there anyone else around?” Mordon asked. “I don't think so.” “She came here alone, gave birth, and burned?” I sat stunned. “I didn't see anyone else. She didn't say she was cursed. Was it a curse?” Mordon stroked his chin. “I do not know.” I swallowed a lump in my throat. “What now?” “Now?” “Now, you follow through on your promise. If you couldn't keep this Josephina safe, you need to extend that instead to what she has entrusted you with.” I felt heat rise in my cheeks. The urge to snap at him dominated, so I kept quiet. I clenched a fist. “I meant, should we go to the Magic Constabulary?” Mordon frowned at the cracks in the floor. “Since we know Barnes, that would help our case. However, another crazy story connected to you might raise some eyebrows. A few members of society believe you are half-mad and unpredictable at best. They may believe you lit her on fire.” “That's ridiculous. I can't even burn a letter.” “That tidbit will make the conspiracy theorists very eager indeed. Can you truly not command a lick of flame, or is it a carefully constructed lie? After all, fire elementals are far more common than wind.” Mordon scowled. “Any hint of scandal will make keeping the infant under your care difficult.” He was right. There were people who inherently distrusted people with fey in their blood, and my half-feral magic compounded matters. I was in the public eye now, and a story like this would stir up questions. Right when I'd hoped to start a 'normal' life, too. “We have to tell our coven the truth,” I said. “Yes, but they may agree it is best to not spread the word around.” A whisper of wind moved the ashes. A glint of light reflecting off a shiny object caught my eye. Something compelled me to advance on the spot, to reach a bloodied hand into the pile of dust, I felt dizzy and revolted. Mordon said nothing until I drew back from the ashes with a pea-sized gemstone in my fingers. “What is it?” Mordon asked. I shook my head and dropped it into his waiting hands. He held it between thumb and forefinger, examining it from the backlight of a green ember. “It's a teardrop. Amber colored.” His lionlike eyes met mine. “It's very powerful.” “Powerful enough to kill for?” “Without doubt.” Mordon frowned. “We need to be rid of it as fast as we can. Sweep away the dust, no good will come of leaving trace of her presence. Hurry, we haven't time to waste if anyone was following Josephina.” I did as he asked. Mordon knelt on the floor, marking out a circle and symbols, preparing what seemed like nasty wards. I knelt to help him, then decided that my time would be better spent cleaning the baby, as Mordon was not only faster at doing the symbols, he also hadn't told me what he was doing and I knew from the set of his shoulders that he was in no mood for a lengthy lesson. All we'd do was start a snipping, stressed-out fight. Explanations could wait, I reasoned. As I started to swab down the child with the cloth dampened from a day-old water bottle beneath the counter, there was an explosion from the back room which shook the airplane overhead and made everything leap half an inch on their shelves. A sudden shield popped up in front of Mordon and me, vibrating as bits of wood and porcelain struck it. Belatedly I recognized the shield as one of the shop's automatic defenses—I'd never seen these particular ones in force before. I clutched the infant to my chest. The door leading to the back room was in a million little shards embedded in anything soft enough to accept the shrapnel. Dust drifted like fog out of the busted opening. Our eyes met and Mordon slowly set down his chalk. Then he curled his fists around his rings, the gems one by one starting to radiate a light from within. Even the shop itself tensed, every ward standing at ready. Waiting to see what had penetrated through the defenses. The first sign of its movement was the noise. It sounded like rocks sliding one against the other, a groaning roll of rubble which I thought was the tumbling of the brick wall and the means by which it had entered. But the noises got louder and louder, and with it came the cool, damp chill which I normally only ever felt when I was at the site of a particularly bad haunting. The hair on my arms rose and the infant had gone strangely quiet. Mordon just stayed there, kneeling on the floor, his eyes on mine reading my expression. Waiting. It approached the door, those grinding noises getting louder and louder until I at last saw the first sign of it—the stubby, gray fingers grasping the remains of the door frame. What they were I didn't know, but they weren't human, nor anything so easily identifiable. Still I waited. A slow simmering ball of white heat crouched in Mordon's palms, needing the signal for when he had a target. With greater chill its head entered the room, a thing with two horns, huge eyes, blunt nose, and a mouth which seemed to encompass all of its face. There was no color to be found at all, the beast rendered a solid gray, its skin rough, its features deeply set as though chiseled. Under my fingers I felt the infant's breathing increase but I didn't remove my eyes from the new face which was looking slowly, ever so slowly, around the room. It eased its chest out of the door right when its head turned in my direction. It saw me and smiled. “Now,” I said. Mordon spun. The firebolt left his hands and streaked through the air. Mordon rolled behind the shelter of a heavy chest right as the firebolt struck the intruder full in the neck and upper chest. Its head slapped back and it tumbled to the floor. Mordon's expression asked his question. “I think you got it.” The infant, though, screwed up her face into displeasure. When I next saw the thing, it had its hand to its head, shaking, and it glared at me with a snarl. Mordon looked at it and made a wild dash over the counter, urging me downwards with him. “It's a grotesque.” This statement he accompanied with a few choice words which would have made Nest scowl at him, given his present company. “Well, it is ugly,” I said, watching through the glass as it got to its feet and started to crawl on all fours towards us. The wards assailed it, flames soaring higher, higher, higher, up towards the ceiling, hot enough to burn, melt, and even forge metal, yet leaving the shop's contents untroubled. The intruder hissed and withdrew, leaping to the relative safety of the top of a bookshelf. Mordon gave me a look which said he wasn't pleased with my levity. Except I wasn't trying to be funny, I was making an observation. People often didn't appreciate my observations. Mordon said, “No, it's a guardian.” “Of what, a crypt?” The comment, meant seriously, Mordon took as a joke, which resulted in his sigh and glare. Upon seeing my sour expression, he said, “Churches. They guard churches from evil.” “I thought those were gargoyles,” I said, watching as it leaned over the edge of the bookshelf, its haunches high in the air, its other half steadying itself for a jump to the next place of shelter to get nearer us. Mordon said, “No, gargoyles are fancy looking water spouts to keep the church walls safe from rain. Grotesques do all the heavy work, keeping the undesireables at bay.” “What's it doing here?” I said, “If there's anyone behind that thing, it's Cole, and if there was ever a man to be refused admittance to a church...” “I know it.” Mordon seized me by the waist and I braced myself. “What are we going to do?” “The only thing we can do.” The grotesque jumped for a shelf up on the wall which would provide easy access to us. When its hands closed on the edge of the shelf, the other end of the shelf shot upward, sending a spray of antique urns everywhere. Some hit the grotesque as he fell, others broke on the way down and a host of particularly angry ghosts burst forth, falling on the grotesque as it floundered on its back. In the haze of ashes and confusion of shrieking ghosts, we ran. Chapter Three My heart, which up had settled into a steady pace, began its double-time pace hammering away under the head of the baby. Mordon took me by my hand. I knew that we didn't have long to decide what to do. But, that thing was tearing up the shop and the wards which were going to start protecting the shop would make it unsafe for us to remain in it. “Where to?” I asked. “Away from everyone.” Under his quick rap-tap-tap, the wall took the form of a door and Mordon's hands tightened as he waited for it, impatient. Everything that had happened today repeated in my head: the flirting, the woman, the birth, the promise, the stone, and now the infant in my arms. The grotesque, strangely enough, was the most normal thing about this entire day. Still I wondered if I had somehow caused the woman's death, if I could have done something differently which would have kept her alive. What else was I supposed to do, leave her alone in her condition? The door finished forming in front of us and Mordon squeezed my hand too hard to be comfortable. He wrenched the door open and we plunged into the darkness. We thrashed around from one side to the other, Mordon pressing me tight against him. Usually his portals were far superior to this, but he'd rushed it, and I felt a fresh bolt of fear. Mordon never rushed it, so—we were on the run from something even he did not want to face. And that gave me the chills. I wished I could go back and shake Josephina from the dead. Tell her to tell me what she'd done, who was after her—besides just Cole—and why. Not the least, why she'd left me with this all too tender burden in my arms. I knew I'd only had seconds to make my decision with her, and that I'd done rightly, but all the same I wished she'd have gone to someone else. Eventually the portal smoothed, and then the pressure about my ear drums changed. We stepped out into our destination. The ground under my feet was strange. Black asphalt. I'd grown used to the market's wooden walkways swaying ever so slightly underfoot, and had forgotten the 'normal' world of concrete and blacktop. I caught the briefest glimpse of a grocery store parking lot which had been unlit and unused for long enough that the gas prices still read below $2 a gallon. Imagine that. But I didn't have time to admire the scene, because Mordon already was leading me towards the filling attendant's station. Our escape hadn't set in yet, but I did feel marginally better without having the grotesque ripping into the shop right before my eyes. What did we do from here? Where would we go? How long would we be away before we reported the incident to a Constabulary and what would we say to them? Then there was the whole thing with the infant. I didn't even know if I was allowed to claim guardianship over a stranger's child. What if Josephina had been avoiding the father, would the father have paternal rights to her? Or would those be suspended until the mystery was solved? The night air was sticky and warm, and I was about to ask where we were when Mordon reached out to the door and said, “Onloocan.” In the fraction of a second between what he said and the response, I guessed: an unlocking spell. The door opened and we stepped inside. I stopped a sense of victory over my translating success. Of course, given the circumstances, it would make sense if he wanted the door unlocked. The real question was why did he want in the abandoned mini-station, and where were we going from here? Before I could ask, Mordon yanked open the drawer under the counter, exposing a miscellaneous junk drawer consisting primarily of torn candy wrappers and crushed soda cans. He snatched a lanyard and wrapped it over his wrist, my wrist, and the baby's. “What is this?” “A portal trinket.” Trinkets gave a rough ride, but it shouldn't be worse than what we'd just gone through. Mordon had a knack with imbuing and enchanting, so I wasn't afraid of what was in store for us. What I did worry about, though, was what he wasn't telling me. Were we on the run? Where would we go? “Mordon?” He shook his head to keep me quiet. “An escape plan. Just stay with me and keep yourself safe. We must hurry.” “But—” “They'll be so confused they won't know up from down. Don't worry, I set up the shop wards to mimic the things you did when you were racing away from Barnes. You gave Leif, Lilly, Barnes and me the slip back when you were completely feral, it'll be the same now.” “Where will we go? You know, when we're done?” “Back to the market.” He said it as though it were an obvious destination. “This is just to waste their time and energy.” For a second, I believed him, but there was no merriment in his stiff frame as he started the portal. So I gave him a grin. “Who is the liar now?” Ah, there was a flicker of amusement. I didn't have long to savor it before we were plunged into another portal, this one rustling my hair with the wind and swaying underfoot like the rocking of a ship. It took us all of several seconds before the ground solidified and we found ourselves in a kitchen. Confused, I looked around. High-end white cabinetry, gloss-polished concrete counters inlaid with glass marbles in a pattern, track lighting embedded in the ceiling. It smelled of glass cleaner and brand new carpet, and the housekeeping was positively magazine-photo-shoot immaculate. “Someone isn't going to be happy about us crashing their home,” I said. “Or rather, anyone who follows us.” This was the sort of place that I wouldn't be able to stand living in. I'd feel compelled to keep it in perfect condition, and that would mean either never using it the way a home ought to be lived in, or hiring a full-service maid. Given the state of my homes past and present, the full-service maid might be a half-decent idea, actually. I snuggled the baby closer to my body. Particularly if I was going to have home inspections or dumb stuff like that. Did the Council do home checks in special cases, or was I just going bonkers? “Show house. It isn't sold yet. Too many zeros added on the end.” Mordon put a hand on the counters, leaped up, and searched the top of the cabinets. He jumped down with a thin artist paintbrush, the cheap sort which came with children's water color sets. It must have been from an old set, it was made of wood. “Hold this but do not break it.” Before I could ask what he was up to, I saw both that the house had alarms on the windows, and that he was going to open the door. I found a way to cover the infant's ears, but as soon as the siren blared through the house, she jumped and started wailing. Less than ten cries of the alarm later, I already felt a matching throb starting to form into a painful pulse behind my left eye. A migraine was the very last thing I wanted today of all days. The glare I gave Mordon made him give a sheepish shrug, then he took the other end of the paint brush. Breaking it wasn't as easy as you'd think, but I was impatient to escape the assault on my ears. The noise followed us through the portal and hummed around my head for a time after we were left standing on the sea side. Deciding that the noise was just in my memory—or maybe a trace remnant from the portal—I walked slowly along the beach, shushing and sympathizing with the baby as we went along. By now I felt like I'd spent all day and night drinking at the snail races at the Mermaid's Tale, and it took me a few minutes before I noticed, much less enjoyed, our surroundings. I knew next to nothing about beaches. I'd never lived within two hundred miles of the coast, so I had no way of knowing if this was east or west. But I was reasonably certain we weren't north of the 45th parallel, and probably weren't as far south as California unless it was unusually cold. Nor was the beach sand the pristine white of tropical paradise but a motley grayish color, and the skies were dark. It was getting colder as the sun had evidently already fallen below the horizon. To my embarrassment, I didn't even know if the tide was coming or going. There were so many things I didn't know, such as what I was going to do with the baby or what was with the amber stone I was determined to keep safe. I exhaled, releasing all the fear and pressure from the last hour or two. My hands were cold, shaking, just remembering what had happened with Josephina. The grotesque wasn't too terrible, I told myself, but at the uncomfortable weight of the child in my arms, I felt more terrified than I could ever remember being in my whole life. What had I done? What would my parents say, what would Mordon do when the immediate troubles were over? I knew this would change everything. Like, everything. Right down to how I took my showers in the morning. All I could do was feel anxious. This wouldn't be the first crazy thing I'd done, so my parents and Leif and Lilly would be cool enough about it. Probably not perfectly OK, but they'd understand. In my parent's case, I fretted getting a talking-to. Adult I may be, but I didn't feel like one at the moment. Not with the harried way I'd been chased, not with the sheer uncertainty of how to cope with the sudden responsibility in my arms. Mordon was occupied doing his thing, whatever it was, but I didn't want to interrupt him anyway. For a few minutes longer, I wanted the illusion that the two of us wouldn't be radically changed by the presence of this tiny body. I knew our relationship would never be the same again. Or at least, that's what all my child-rearing cousins and friends said. That their relationships had changed after kids. One had even ended in divorce. That was a reassuring thought. As the child calmed, I watched the ebb and swoosh of the waves as they washed ashore, flurried with seaweed and foam, then slid back into the ocean. Every now and again I heard the roaring of a big wave building, and it would crash against rocks and send spray up into the air, to land with a slap on the shore. After a while, I started to get wet. The tide must be coming in. The baby had fallen asleep, and I went to find Mordon. He was finishing a portal in the sand, his neat symbols a little overhasty. At the sound of a big wave building, I said, “Put that a little close to the water, didn't you?” “That's the idea. No trace of where we've gone.” “Think they'll get wet if they follow us this far?” “I hope so. You have no idea how glad I was that we weren't hip-deep ourselves.” “Last jump, then?” Even he looked wearied as he pushed his hair out of his eyes. “Last jump.” The wave washed ashore. A thin curtain of water rolled over the sand, turning into froth at the edges of Mordon's portal. At the twitch of his finger beckoning me inside with him, I stood hip to hip beside him, closed my eyes, and lent my own magic to mingle with his own taxed strength. He took my hand and said on a sigh, “Aginnan.” The portal started as another wave, larger than the last, rolled towards us. This one just may be the one which reached the edge of our portal and wiped it away, the way the sea had scrubbed from its face so many a child's sand castle. Not for the last time, I wished that I wasn't slapped with the infant in my arms and a hundred questions I never thought I'd ever need the answer to. Wishing that my relationship with Mordon would come out of this madness intact. Chapter Four Several minutes later found us in the communal living quarters above his shop, the commons room we shared with Leif, Lilly, and Barnes. The shop had sealed itself off, running through what Mordon called a decontamination routine. Apparently it involved a series of pre-made spells to contain as many disturbed ghosts, spirits, and curses as possible before allowing human admittance. Magical antiquities. Not to be mishandled the way that normal antiques could be disturbed without retribution. At least I hadn't heard a crash or shriek coming from downstairs in a few minutes. Mordon sat at the breakfast table with a pair of pliers, a dainty chain, and the teardrop which he'd put into a plain yet pretty setting. The pliers tapped against the table as he put them down. “Come here, eat, and give me your foot.” I had found a plastic jar of first-milk concentrate powder to mix up, but had to make do with a needle-less syringe to feed the baby. Lilly had a bit of everything, except baby bottles. From this point on I would stop complaining that we needed to use the cupboard space for more practical items like food. The child blinked at me with unfocused eyes and thrashed her fists in the air, blowing frothy milk bubbles instead of drinking. Baby in my lap, I sat across from him and picked up my fork. Mordon slapped his thigh. I eased my bare foot onto his leg, asking, “What are you doing?” “I'm going to make you a quick anklet to keep the teardrop safe. Less of a chance anyone will get a good look at it.” “And then what? We can't go around with a newborn minus its mother.” “Unless you work up an illusion to make it look older. A few weeks older.” “Mordon, I'm tired. I don't want to do an illusion.” A thoughtful expression crossed his face. “I'll claim it's a colony child you got stuck with.” “A new mother does not just pass off the baby like that, does she?” “There are a few circumstances which would require an impartial party to behave as a guardian. Criminal cases, for instance.” “But I'm not...I don't know how to do anything baby-related.” “Did you or did you not promise to look after her?” “I did,” I admitted, grudgingly. “Then you're her guardian and she's therefore your ward.” He puffed out his cheeks, looking aged. “And since I'm technically your guardian in order to keep the overenthusiastic males at bay, you're my ward, and that makes this child mine as well. And in order to keep the both of you safe, we should hasten off into the most crowded place we can.” The baby was already making me feel fatigued and positively terrified. How was I going to do this? “So, we're still going to the Midsummer Festival?” “And we're going to blend in with the adults. Be ready to be the center of attention, everyone is going to want to croon over her.” Mordon grabbed the pliers, clamping the ends of the anklet shut above my foot. “How long will it take to find this Septimus fellow?” “That depends if he's easy to find. Could be a matter or days or weeks. If not,” Mordon closed his eyes and tilted his head back, “it could take a while.” The implication gave me a bad feeling, but I had to know. “How long is a while?” “Months. Years.” “Years!” The outburst lacked strength, just a whispered cry of despair. “You're the one who made the oath.” A retaliation on the tip of my tongue, I glared at Mordon—and saw a strange, soft expression on his face. “You...weren't accusing me of making a mistake?” Eating with one hand, he grasped my ankle with the other, passing his thumb over the bottom of my foot. “It wasn't that long ago that I had an intruder in my shop. Got through all my wards, didn't set off a one of them, not until someone else set them off.” I put my head in my hands. “Mordon.” “Let me finish. She was hurt and in trouble, and she had nothing, nothing at all, to offer me. There wouldn't have been a single person who would have blamed me for turning her aside. But she had a need, and I was in a position to fill that need. Why would I be angry with her now for following in my footsteps?” The baby was starting to get the hang of swallowing the milk instead of letting it drip down her jaw. “People thought you were crazy.” “Just the ones who would have been too frightened to do the same in my place.” I raised a tentative glance at his face. He was watching me with a mixture of warmth and amusement. I wasn't ready to be buoyed up yet. “But, I've drawn you into it. A lot of people into it. And you said yourself, this is dangerous territory. With whatever Josephina was involved in. It's dangerous.” “So were you, my chicklet, so were you.” My chicklet? That was a new term of endearment, not one I'd even heard applied to me before. A tiny fire started on the table between us. My first instinct, after the fireball of earlier, was to put out the mysterious flame—but then I saw the corner of an envelope being left behind as the fire spread. As it grew and wavered, the black following the flame turned white and crisp, and before long I saw a familiar shorthand of hard vertical lines. “Who is that from?” Mordon asked. I picked up the envelope, impatiently waiting as the last corner formed and the fire died out. “My contact in the Tribune. It's been ages since she's written me. I wonder what's up?” I tore the flap open and exposed a thick wad of papers and parchment. I read the cover letter aloud. “ 'Swift, I am enclosing an article to be printed in tomorrow's edition. If you find it is not accurate in its source, please sign the last page and burn it back to me now. RJ.' ” Mordon took the last page from the bottom of the stack while I read the article. “ 'Wildwoods Burn After Black Magic, Feys Return to Damaged Home, by Simona Eccles, American Sorcerering Today. A spokesperson for the Wildwoods Fey Council has confirmed today that a black magic spell has caused over 70% of the Wildwoods to burn. The identity of the spellcaster is as yet unknown, and authorities are seeking information related to the incident. Rumors of the Fey Council seeking legislature to identify and license practitioners of harmful magic have not been confirmed, but it is suspected they will add their support to the grassroots movement Safe Streets in order to prevent tragedies like this in the future. “The loss of the forest of the Wildwoods hurts us all,” says' ...some man from a socio-economic company. What is Safe Streets?” I asked, putting down the page. “A movement to document everyone who has magical abilities over a certain threshold. It died out about five years ago, too many people calling it intrusive and a violation of privacy rights. Ironic to call it grassroots, though. It originated from a strong ruling class family.” “Can I suppose that family was the Cole family?” “It wasn't their idea, and Gregor Cole was playing coy with the topic,. I think he supported the movement, just not the man who proposed it.” Mordon tipped his chin to encourage me to read on. “Who does it say is the spokesman for the feys? I personally cannot imagine that their council would want anyone to know of their vulnerability. People may decide to storm the woods if this gets out.” “Why bother?” “Power, spider silk, even digging the dirt itself. A lot of medicinals come from the Wildwoods, and no one likes how the feys hold dominion over the management of those resources. Personally, I believe the feys like to sell as much as they dare, but others disagree. Such as that socio-economist quoted.” “I don't like the ramifications of this article, and I haven't even read the second paragraph,” I muttered and flipped to the next page, where a name was circled in red ink. “Oh, nice one. How illegal is it, exactly, to get violent with a journalist?” “Not at all if you know how to incinerate the body without leaving a trace,” Mordon said. “Why?” “Because apparently the spokesman for the Wildwoods Fey Council is me.” “Did you contact them?” “Of course not. I haven't hardly talked to you about it, nevermind shooting my mouth off to the papers.” I felt insulted he even asked. The paper made a rustling noise as Mordon smoothed the trifold creases out of it. “Best sign on the dotted line then.” “What is it?” It was clearly a form, with my name and details filled out in RJ's block capitals. “Two copies of a fraudulent account notification. It says that someone falsely claimed your identity, that the information contained within the story is 'horrifically inaccurate' and that if they publish anything about either the event and/or with your name associated with it, you will pursue legal reparations for damages associated with your life and the lives of those involved. Your contact has taken the liberty, too, of signing you into the books of a certain Donald Steele and has submitted a complete copy of all items to him.” “He's my father's brother. Does criminal cases. He's one of the Wildwoods' Hunters. You saw him at the Wildwoods welcoming party, but we didn't have a lot of time to talk at that moment. So he chases down criminals at night and prosecutes them during the day, and there's some loophole that makes it all cool with the law. Go figure.” “Well, hurry up and sign these things then. I'll burn one right back to your contact, and the other should go to your uncle.” I did as he asked, and he stuffed the first one into an envelope marked URGENT while I signed the second copy. While I was addressing the copy for Uncle Don, Mordon focused and lit the letter on fire with the green ember in his hand. I tried not to be jealous. One day I'd learn how to perform the method of communication that everyone else in the whole sorcering world had down pat. Mordon took care of the second envelope, too. “Who do you think it was that wants to make me out as a traitor and put the Wildwoods in danger as they do it?” “An excellent question, and one we should keep an open mind about.” “So you don't have a clue?” “I have several people who come to mind, but I'd rather see who draws your attention first. If our lists match, we might be onto something.” I nodded, feeling weary and like the day had transformed me into someone older. The baby thrashed in my lap, fighting sleep. I smoothed the few dark hairs over her scalp. One thing at a time. The papers, presumably, were taken care of as best as it could be. Another thing was sitting all too naked in my arms. I looked to Mordon, drawing his attention away from a distant gaze and absent stroking of his hairless chin. “I...was wondering if you knew where Lilly stashed the used clothes for the Care for Chronic Curses drive.” I cleared my throat. It was due to my own affliction, the gryphon's curse, that Lilly had taken an interest in the charity. The subject had always felt a bit embarrassing for me, but Lilly genuinely enjoyed her part in the group. “I thought there might be some newborn clothes.” “In the closet.” I started to rise, but Mordon held out his hand and got up first. The baby suckled on the syringe, waving one fist in the air until I depressed the plunger and fresh milk filled her mouth. “We have a closet?” I called after Mordon, wondering where it was. The commons lounge was shared by all five of us, the central hub which linked our respective residences together in the form of doors to individual apartments. As it wasn't great fun to cook for just myself back in my private apartment, I usually manned the kitchen in the commons area, so I also knew that all of the kitchen cleaning supplies were kept under the sink. However, Barnes tended to clean the sitting area, Leif the chairs and couches, and Lilly did whatever was missed—so I'd never had reason to wonder where they kept their sanitary paraphernalia. Obviously in a closet, which I hadn't known we had. “We do, indeed.” Mordon stopped at the top of the stairs and knocked on the wall. A sliding door appeared, and inside were rows and rows of shelves, and on those shelves were all the clothes folded nicely, coordinated by color and age, a rainbow of ages and genders. Lilly's work. Or, wait... “Lilly had everything in bags. By the door.” Mordon shrugged and didn't offer an explanation, reaching for a yellow dress with red poppies on it, then taking hold of plain white fabric. He totally didn't even look, because he knew where everything was, which meant I was to live the rest of my life with a neat freak. Why I hadn't realized this before was beyond me. Then he was beside me, sliding his hand between my thigh and the baby's head. He asked, “Do you know how to fold a diaper?” The unexpected contact had taken my thoughts elsewhere. Mouth too dry to answer, I just shook my head. “Watch.” So, I watched as this guy who had probably saved my life, my magic, my career, and reputation, all at least once if not more, took this tiny baby which I didn't even know how to look at, and he laid her on the cloth and made a diaper out of a square of white cotton and a pin. When she blew milky froth at him, he carefully dabbed it with the corner of the cloth, then set to dressing her, talking to me the whole while in a soft, crooning tone meant for her. “How do you know all of this?” I asked when she was dressed in the poppy dress, interrupting his explanation of how to use a swaddling blanket. Mordon chuckled, climbing to his feet with the baby in his arms, bouncing her gently. “How do I know this, she asks? How indeed, little one, since I don't have any babes of my own.” He kissed the baby on her forehead. She blinked and screwed up her face, eyes unfocused, looking concerned about the strange man holding her. “Remember, I told you that I was required to perform every station in the colony. I spent a considerable amount of time in the nursery, and in the infirmary.” Watching him with the baby wasn't something I could take my mind or eyes off of. Not that I'd ever thought of him as cold-hearted, even when we were fighting and he was being moody and petulant, but I had never once seen this level of warmth from him. I knew Mordon the Grouch. I knew Mordon the Worried, and Mordon the Royally Pissed-Off. But Mordon the Swooning Father was not a thing I'd ever witnessed. I wasn't sure how to respond to it. Other than to kiss him. And I so wasn't ready to exercise yet another emotion so fast on the heels of the others. So I fell back to my standard position. Planning. “Before we go, we should give her a name.” He raised a brow. I rushed to explain. “People will be asking.” “Yes, they will. I wanted to know what you had in mind. Her mother was Josephina.” “But we've discussed saying she came from the colony, so it should be a drake name. You know those names better than I do. Maybe something that doubles as human? Denise's name is like that.” “Sebile?” “Not very human.” “I think it's Saxon, actually, but I see your point. Anna?” The baby shrieked, just the once. I put my hand on Mordon's shoulder and tried to discern a smile on the infant's face, but if anything she looked shocked that the noise had come from her own mouth. “Anna will work.” “Here, hold her.” Mordon passed her over before I could back out of the duty. “Her neck muscles aren't strong enough yet to move her head.” She settled in my hands, the position feeling strange now that I'd had a few minutes to hold my hands the way I felt comfortable holding them. Mordon continued, “Her head will flop around unless you're mindful of what you're doing. You were fine earlier, but I can't help nagging a little.” I could kill her with my ignorance. The very thought served as a switch to instant panic. “Mordon, I don't know what I'm doing. Not a clue. And she could be mine for years. I'm not ready for this. I don't know if I can do this.” “You've survived Death, killed monsters, and saved the Wildwoods, and you can't take care of a little orphan?” Mordon bent to whisper in my ear, his voice sending tremors down my spine. “You're not alone. No matter how long it takes, no matter what happens.” “But this isn't your oath to fill. You didn't agree to it. To be a parent.” The word numbed my lips. “I'm agreeing now. If need be, I'll be father and mother to her.” “It's dangerous to be around me. The shadows, the Unwrittens, how can I bring her into that?” “You didn't. You were chosen. And it's natural to be afraid, but don't let it undermine your strength. Now, come. There are people who may be able to shed some light on circumstances, but we must move, now.” I took him by the crook of the arm and molded myself against his side, letting him guide me through the portal and out into Merlyn's Market. Chapter Five Flying carpets filled the air, a huge portion of them with customers kneeling on them. So many carpets were going in the same places, actually, that their steady flow followed an invisible road ducking between the holes in the floating walkways. It was like watching a video of soldier ants packing off with their cargo, except the ants were flying at thirty to fifty miles an hour. Actually, Merlyn's Market was downright terrifying today. Usually it wasn't this packed. Must be the Midsummer Festival bringing in all the crowds. I looked around our surroundings, a bit confused. The portal had dropped us off between door 58 and 823, very much out of the ordinary place next to King's Ransom Magical Antiquities. It took me some time to identify the merchants on the floating deck. It was the Produce Deck, a place which I admittedly didn't spent a huge deal of time on. Mordon gazed around, staring at the hideyholes between crates and watching as carpets folded up from forming staircases between the floating walkways. “How long are we going to have to run around for?” I asked. “Is it going to always be like this?” “Not always. But after every sighting, it would be a good idea. You do not want to let them catch up with you.” “But they'll eventually chase us into a trap,” I said, less out of fear and more because that's what I would do if I were hunting myself. “So we'll have to be careful about creating predictable patterns.” “I'm not bound to abandon my territory,” Mordon said, his eyes forming vertical pupils. Before he would do more, I took his arm and snuggled against him while a flying carpet at a rapid descent dodged a flock of songbirds. “I didn't expect you would. But I would like a back-up plan.” “Our back-up plan is that I shift into dragon form and kill them all.” I laughed at the simplicity of it, not that it was necessarily very funny, or that he'd said it as a joke. “And if you aren't there?” We approached the edge of the walkway and waited while a carpet unfurled itself from the deck and uncoiled to meet us. Beneath my feet, it was solid enough, a little springy. Having Anna had given me fresh worries about the possibility of it failing one day. So far there had been no incidents, though. “If I'm not there, you shift into your dragon form and kill them. Or take flight. Whichever appeals to you at the time.” Being on the solid wooden dock was a relief, but I didn't relax until we were in the center of the walking path lined with merchants who hooked their moveable decks up to the dock. It was sort of like the pictures of a marina, I mused, every stall like a ship. Hopeful shopkeepers called out their wares. Merlyn's Market was an enclosed ecosystem. It might as well be called that. The only way in or out was through portals. Leif had once said that the market had started out as a standard box canyon in the middle of the desert, but I'd never have guessed that now. Permanent portals had moved in, lining the walls of the canyon with their storefronts from top to bottom, walkways going around and around. More pathways were in the center, sprawled this way and that like someone had given a child the option to draw out the floors using a game of Tetris. The top was sealed off, to keep out the weather and prying eyes. Spells held artificial lighting so the market stayed open at all times to accommodate every time zone. “Where does the festival take place at?” I asked, wondering why the decks themselves were so dead while the carpets bustled with activity. “All the way down, Ma'am, upon the floor,” answered a cheerful shopkeeper with fat cheeks and beady eyes. He motioned to his produce. “Rune Gourd or Turban Squash? They're fresh from the field.” “Not today, thank you,” Mordon said, steering us toward the standing platform where taxi carpets waited for customers with bags tied to their tassels for receiving payment. It sounded like a much better idea than making our way slowly down many sets of carpet stairs, even if I wasn't fond of riding the carpets. Mordon handled the cash. I'd gotten good at working the till, but I still triple-counted everything. Where we'd inherited the monetary system, I had no idea. The biggest unit was a dinaire, a coin imbued with an authentication spell while it was cast. We also had sevens, which were a seventh of a dinaire. Beneath them were nobbles, thirteen nobbles made up a seventh. Lowliest of all were pennies, a hundred to the dinaire. Why we bothered with pennies when there were a total of 91 nobbles to a dinaire, I had no idea. Other than pennies had been an experiment to convert the magical community into using a standardized system—it had only made things more complex, but they stuck around anyway. Prices in the shop were usually written something like this: 1d2s11n2p. To the frustration of all too many customers, I made up most of the change with pennies, as I hadn't figured out how to do anything more complex yet. The carpet charged us a dinaire, a seventh, and ten nobbles. Highway robbery, but today wasn't a lazy day for the taxis and so long as no one reached the limit of two dinaires it was all legal. I almost made Mordon take Anna so I could settle in the very center of the carpet, but decided last minute I didn't want him to know how chicken I was. My position ended up being just enough off-center to not be perfectly dead center. He sat down behind me, making me scoot forward. I hadn't realized that by taking dead center, I would be robbing him of a lot of space. Still, he knew me better than I'd hoped. He took me in his arms and held me as the carpet drifted away from the deck and started its descent. At first it was slow going, navigating through a twisting maze of folding stairways and hustling carpets with kids out for joyrides at top speed. I started to relax and even feel like maybe Anna was going to be safe in my care. Then the carpet came to a near standstill and peered down, and over the hump of its curve, I saw that the way down—straight down—was going to be clear in a second or two. The carpet bolted like a late businessman trying to beat the train crossing before the signal bars dropped. With respect to the baby, Mordon didn't whoop and roar, but I knew he wanted to. Plunging maneuvers were among his favorites, same with rolls, and while I was all too happy to scream out delight while he was in his dragon form, I was little short of sickened. For her part, Anna seemed to be sleeping through the narrow misses with other taxis. She didn't even know of the chink of coins as their bags tapped against a walkway after cutting it a little too close. My stomach lurched into my mouth when the carpet swung up to slow down, then glided to a dignified stop on a patch of lawn which was apparently being trimmed by a pack of peacocks. Flock of peacocks. Or whatever their group-name was called. I shook as I got to my feet. I watched as the taxi moved into the pick-up zone to rob some not-so-unsuspecting joyrider. Mordon said, “You look a little pale.” “I've told Lilly. Things that are meant to fly have wings.” “You're adorable,” Mordon said, and before I could take offense, he kissed me. It was the rough, breathtaking sort of kiss which took me off-guard and had to be because he'd had so many thrills today he couldn't help but to show his excitement. Seeing the way I wobbled when he let go, he tapped my arm and leaped back, anticipating a game of tag. I wasn't going to play, until he chanted, “Catch a tiger by a toe, Round and round we go, Who is hunter, who is prey, Who will lose the game today?” I balled up a fist of air and bopped him over the back of his head, making his eyes pop wide. He stood upright, bowed half-way at me, and joined me by my side. “Not while I'm holding a thing with a floppy neck, Drake Lord,” I said. “If you insist.” He said it formally, but I knew he was in a cuddly mood even before he nuzzled the crook of my neck and planted moist kisses there. “What is with this?” I tried—and failed—to be annoyed with him. “You're brave and clever and strong and I want you to know how happy I am to be by your side. That's all.” “So long as that's all.” I would have kissed him again, but Anna woke up, her moods as fitful as her sleep, and this time the mood was angry, or her closest approximation to it. On every side, we were surrounded by merrymakers with smiles and revelers soaked with too much wine. Music from three folk bands could be heard strumming and pouring over the lawn. One banjo band grew louder then softer as the flying carpet they were on drifted near then away. Merlyn's Market was an endless sprawl, it seemed. So far I'd been to the cemetery and to the actual market with its many layers of floating decks and doors which changed locations on the wall on a whim. Now we stood on the crest of a hill, one way sloping down to a duck pond populated with annoyed fowl pecking at flowers and screeching children who pursued the fowl, the other way flattening out to a very formal Victorian garden with manicured hedges and precisely placed annuals. The glimpses of the activity I saw going on within the formal gardens made the grounds a decidedly ironic choice of venue. We headed towards them. “Where are we going?” “To find Nest,” Mordon said. “Agnes is here?” “I'd be surprised if she wasn't selling some feel-goods to the crowd. She and Denise have been practicing that thing you call the Loopy Potion.” I nodded and had to slow my pace, mindful of the lightly sleeping thing bound in a tight swaddle in my arms, feeling the too-slick grass slip beneath my feet. The traffic had bruised the lawn in paths, rendering it a pulpy mess of sludge. As soon as Mordon noticed, he took us off to the side where traction was better. I had a part-time potions business which was blooming and consuming more time with each day. Agnes, or Nest, as the colony called her, made no waste of selling my talents and Denise had come to me for her fourth lesson yesterday. With baby Anna now in my care and needing everything that a baby needs, I was wondering about expanding my student and product list. Loopy Potion, more properly called by the name Mother had given it, Mandrake Potion Number 1, did pretty much what the common name suggested: it made the consumer feel mildly hallucinogenic. That is, if the potion was done correctly. Done incorrectly, it gave a whomping headache. Like Mother's formal name suggested, it was the first mandrake potion a new brewer ever made. I hoped that if they were selling it, they'd tested their results out first. The memory of Mother cut. It brought back the memory of Wildwoods, of the fight, of the way they disapproved of Mordon, and how they'd tried to get me to ditch him by offering up a ready-made life in the woods complete with house, job, and presumably a love interest to replace my old one. They'd thought Mordon was leading me around by the nose. Look at him now, and see if they'd say the same thing. On second thought, they probably would. I felt like our relationship was one of those Escher paintings where you could see the black figures or the white figures but not both at the same time. “If you want to write a letter to them, I'll burn it for you,” Mordon said. Some days it was like he could read my mind. “It's not me who has to apologize.” “No.” “But what?” “But your parents likely don't think they have to, either. And they'll be hurt if you don't tell them about your ward.” “But I might not have her by the end of the week.” “Do you still think they wouldn't care to know?” I tugged him to a stop beside the first flower bed we encountered, a rectangular thing with cornflowers and marigolds. “Don't. Not now, please. I don't want to talk to them, in any manner. I'm too...raw from our last encounter.” “That's because you're hiding from them, not facing the issue.” I squared up my shoulders and stood to my full height. Without heels, the crown of my head came level with the bottom slope of his neck, and my usually stocky width seemed diminutive by comparison to his chest. Despite being fairly short, I had always felt big in presence and in overall dimensions, but when I was with Mordon, I felt feminine. It was one of the nice aspects of being with him. Mordon touched his forehead against mine. “Write to them, for my peace of mind. They'll think you left the woods just because I coerced you somehow.” I wanted to cross my arms, but the baby—Anna—hindered that motion. I bounced her instead and she opened her mouth in what was either a yawn or the beginning of a smile. Though I didn't want to admit it, Mordon had hit the nail on the head. “Fine. I'll write something. Might not be much. You can send it tonight.” “Perfect, thank you,” he said and took me by the elbows. I thought he was going to press his lips to my forehead. I closed my eyes and felt the first real second of relaxation in a long time. Instead his lips touched mine, freshly licked and hot on a day when everything felt sweltering. The annoyance I'd felt earlier morphed into a ground-spinning desire that made me feel doped up on a good mandrake potion. An arm around my back nudged my body in line with his, and he kissed me so I hated it when he let go and stepped back. We resumed our walk, going quicker when I thought someone might be following us. Chapter Six The skies began to get dusky, a cause of spells not of nature, resulting from the way that the market's climate was controlled. We found where a few chosen vendors were situated with various food carts. New York Hot Dogs were grilled or boiled right alongside Lou’s Cajun Crickets 'n' Critters, run by a person who looked perhaps Irish instead of Southern, but who was I to say. Lizard's Tongue and Tonsils seemed to not sell anything reptilian, unless their hamburgers were mystery meat. However, Snakebite BBQ Pit had an assortment of things that had once slinked or slithered hanging up for sale, to be grilled on site with any type of seasoning. A few carts did vegetarian options, but vegetables didn't have the gross-out capacity to entertain kids—or me, for that matter. At the center of the activity we found Nest with Denise by her side, rummaging through their last remaining crates for a glass swing-top bottle for a customer. Nest was a perennial gray-haired woman with a youthful sass, but Denise had changed just in the time since I'd met her. She'd lost more of her childishness, in manner as well as appearance, and grown a good inch. She'd be taller than me by lesson ten. Though she radiated energy, it was the overtaxed kind, the hyperness some people get right before their bodies yell 'stop' and signal for crash. Sold out of stock, and perhaps knowing that Denise had had enough, Nest put up a closed sign, sold what they could to the last people in line, and began to shut down the cart. It took a minute for Denise to catch the honeysuckle scent of my magic, but when she did, she dropped her job of locking up a drawer and was hugging Mordon in a heartbeat. “What do you have, what do you have?” Denise grinned at Anna, which surprised me. She'd never cared for having anything to do at all with babies. “She's so cute! Who dumped this little burden on you, huh?” Denise took Anna with greater sureness than I thought she would and paraded the baby over to Nest. “See, Agnes, I thought someone we knew would come. Who does this belong to, Jerold, maybe?” “Who, indeed?” Nest ran a gnarled finger over the baby's fine dusting of dark hair. “Aww, it's not someone from the colony?” Denise huffed out her annoyance, but kept hold of Anna anyway. Apparently, holding someone's kid meant she didn't have to finish locking up the drawers. Mordon started on the task, leaving me to face a skeptical yet intrigued elder from the Kragdomen Colony. “Her name is Anna,” I started, then didn't know where to go from there. “I'm...” “A god-mother? Wow, I didn't know Leazar and Sim were having a kid, you never told me,” Denise said, referring to my brother and his wife. Denise's moods while exhausted differed a lot, a whole lot, from what I'd come to expect them to be under normal circumstances. “A guardian,” Nest said, reading my expression all too well. I dropped my voice and put up a small privacy circle in case there were interested parties listening in. “Her mother came to me while I was in Mordon's shop. It all happened fast, very fast, I think she waited until the very last minute to meet me. I promised to keep her away from Gregor Cole, and she birthed the child, and then...” I wanted to find a nice way to say 'burst into flames', but it wasn't coming to me. “She died?” Denise guessed. “She turned into an inferno and self-incinerated,” Mordon said. “It was a shock to find Fera holding the newborn and a ball of flames in my shop.” “Fire spirits do that,” Denis said. “We were learning about them in class last month.” “Self-immolation happens in a number of races and species, however, it is also possible that she was cursed. It would not be a pleasant way to cease existence,” Nest said. “The fire narrows it down some, but not enough. You are taking charge of the offspring?” “Yes.” I fought down a knot of uncertainty. “And Mordon says he wants to share guardianship.” “A wise plan. He has status and a wealth of resources. A lone young woman may face difficulties if someone were to find cause to object to her guardianship.” My mood darkened. “Someone like Cole.” “That is my thought. You have connections with a constable?” “Constable Barnes, he's in my coven,” I said. “Why?” “Have him take a statement, and find someone with legal authority—one of the market judges, you know them, too—put signatures to scroll as quick as you may do so. Once news of this child, this Anna, is out, you will have the hounds on your door and they won't stop.” “Why do you think so?” Nest gave me a wizened smile. “Why else would a woman on the brink of her own death seek out a complete stranger and entrust her with everything she holds dear? This isn't the end. This is the beginning.” “I didn't say she was a stranger.” “If she was a friend, you would know if she was a fire spirit or not.” I had wished that Nest would have laid my fears to rest rather than confirming them. “What does Cole even want with the baby to start with?” Or was he after the stone? But surely, he couldn't have known about the stone, could he? If he had wanted the stone, it would have been easy to steal. “That is the very thing you must find out, but tread carefully, very carefully.” Mordon finished with the cart, easing the top down with a soft click to form a solid wooden box which enclosed the drawers. “Can we say that the child is from the colony?” “In order to avoid attention? Yes. Say...” Nest thought about it. “Say that Feraline Swift was called for guardian duty. It's plausible.” “Guardian duty? Is that like jury duty?” I asked. Mordon tilted his hand in a noncommittal answer. “A little, except you don't have to sit on jury, you have to sit on whatever child the elders give you. Doesn't happen a whole lot, but often enough.” I had a sudden, unwelcome thought. “Nest, can you think of anyone who would pose as me? To say things I wouldn't?” Her craggy old hands clenched. Before she had to ask, I dug into my trouser pocket and withdrew the copy of the Tribune article. Nest read it, her mouth twitching as she made 'hmm', 'mm-hmm' noises at different points. Mordon put an arm around my waist, his hand tense at the thought of one of his colony members being behind this slander. I squeezed his hand, hoping that nothing would come of my question. At last, Nest looked up. “The information given here is painted to be sensational, to inspire fear. It is an attempt to illustrate the importance of this Safe Streets bill. But of the information itself, the writer would have had to either compile it from various sources—or speak with someone high ranking within either the Fey Council or in the Drake Elders, as we did contribute labor and resources to restore the villages for the evacuees to return home quickly. If it was one of them who spoke and arranged this, we will not learn who it is without a great deal of difficulty.” That was far from welcome news. I would have rather been told that no one in the colony knew all of this and that would eliminate them as possibilities. “Are all the feys back home?” I asked. They'd gone to stay with the colony when the fire had blazed out of all control. Many had remained with the drakes until some order could be established again in the village. Last I'd heard, there weren't many feys left, just caretakers with young children waiting until the schools were opened again. “They are by now,” Nest said. I was about to say more, but at that exact time, I heard familiar voices calling through the privacy ward. “Fera! Mordon! You came!” It was Lilly, positively sober and decked out in wreaths of flowers with her red hair down about her shoulders in curls. Not far away Constable Barnes shooed an amorous couple off towards the garden maze, out of the kid-friendly zone. Lilly looked gorgeous as always in a long peach dress with a drapey neckline, while Barnes looked stern as always in his dark blue uniform. Leif wasn't too far off, he could be identified from a considerable distance by his height and shining bald head despite his youth. Letting down the circle, I motioned for my friends to join us. After a quick hello, Denise promptly broke the ice by saying, “Hi, I'm Fera's student, Denise. We met last week in the shop, do you remember? What do you think of her ward?” And so saying, Denise pretty much put Anna straight into Lilly's arms and walked off, leaving two stunned friends in her wake. “Is there something you'd like to tell us, Miss Swift?” Barnes asked in his gruff on-duty tone. “A lot. And I hope you believe me.” Chapter Seven “And so that's the plan we came up with. Are you going to help?” I said, rounding out the story of our adventure since we'd last seen Leif, Lilly, and Barnes a little over six hours ago. They looked to Mordon to confirm my tall tale. Couldn't say that I blamed them. I'd watched Lilly's expression, startled at first, giving way to a blank, professional mask as I spoke. After all that portal jumping, I had been positively famished, and I persuaded Mordon to try the Snakebite BBQ Pit with me. Having a new food for the first time was always a hit and miss adventure. Of late my chances had been striking the 'miss' rather than 'hit', so I was taking a real chance on the snakes. But it was so worth having a hit that I went back twice before I felt full enough to start my tale. I'd have only gone back once if it wasn't for Mordon, who also had taken a liking to the food. Lilly was revolted. But her sugar addiction had me nauseous every morning as I watched her dump half the sugar bowl into her coffee, so I didn't mind her disgusted expression. Barnes took Anna and laid her on her back in the grass before him. It wasn't affection which had made him take the child, it was professional curiosity. He thought over what I said while Lilly quizzed us with questions so thoroughly I doubted that the FBI could do a better job of covering every possibility. That she'd have to listen to a newborn's wail at all hours of the day hadn't occurred to her yet. She was in work mode. That meant cross-examination. For his part, Leif remained quiet, listening to my answers, jotting down notes, occasionally making a comment on Barnes' examination. They asked the same dumb things over and over again. “So you were cleaning up when a lady comes in looking for help?” “She didn't come in, I turned around and she was just there. It isn't the same thing at all.” “She was an intruder?” I shrugged, not clear on this point myself. “Could have been. Or maybe she entered before Mordon locked up and she hid from him until he'd gone? Hard to know.” “It would be easier to know if you hadn't set the wards off. Spell traces will be hard to follow now,” Lilly said. I sucked in a breath at that and tried to remind myself that Lilly did this for a living. Being accusatory was part of her job. “That is beside the point. And not our doing to begin with. The wards went off because of the grotesque, when it entered, following her.” Nothing bothered me more than repeating what I'd already said, and I could see that they were going to question the time line. “I was answering you about the wards. First came her, then came baby, then came fire, then came Mordon, and after that came the grotesque and the wards.” “Did you warn the intruder prior to setting the wards on him?” That did it. I officially wanted to scream. “They're created to respond to a stimulus. We didn't ''set'' the wards on anyone. Look, are you going to help or am I going to have to start running away from here like a headless chicken?” “There was a woman dead on your floor. Why didn't you go to the constabulary?” I bit my tongue and took a great deal of time to count to ten. Even so my voice had a dangerous edge to it. “Did you miss the part where a thing that even Mordon didn't want to face intruded into the shop and probably laid waste to it while we were gone? This is Mordon we're talking about here, Mr. They're Just Young Dragons Out for Rabble-Rousing It's No Big Deal Mordon.” Having put it like that, Mordon smiled sheepishly and shrugged. Lilly's eyes opened a little wider, and Leif gave me a look which said that I'd need to tell him that story, pronto. Ah, well. Life was life. But Lilly did not look convinced, and my throat was starting to tighten on itself. “And once we shook it off our tail, we came here and talked with you. Barnes is a constable. I think this is reporting it as quickly as possible.” Lilly shook her head. I didn't even listen to everything she said from that point on. From the way Lilly was talking, it sounded like I'd done every single thing wrong and that the child would be better off in someone else's care—anyone else's. She made it seem like it had all been one big colossal mistake and that it was a shame the grotesque had torn up Mordon's shop, but that I shouldn't have done virtually everything that I did do. By the time Lilly was done making me see a hundred things I could have done better—and differently—I felt ready to burst into tears. This sensation was very odd for me. I didn't know how to cope with it. When Lilly said, yet again, “I can't believe you discarded the ashes, do you know what we could have done with them,” I decided to hang it all, and let myself bawl my eyes out. The effect was astounding. Everyone stopped what they were doing and stared, horror-struck. Not a one of them knew what to do, not even Mordon, all of them petrified right where they sat. This struck me as funny, and I giggled, falling into a full-blown laugh unlike anything I'd done in a long, long time. Needless to say, that worried them even more. Anna opened and closed a hand above her body and seemed to enjoy the sound. As she was the only one responding to me, I cleared my throat, leaned against Mordon, and fell asleep very abruptly on his shoulder. I woke up about twenty minutes later, feeling a great deal better for what could only have been an emotional breakdown. Within a minute of waking, Anna was in my hands. I didn't remember grabbing her, but I must have. That's when I realized that my breakdown hadn't been for myself. It had been because I thought they'd take Anna away from me. How could I care so much, so fast? She'd filled my life with worry and fear, yet her unequaled trust in me had also shown other things. Her very presence had woken me up to the brighter, kinder side of life which I'd seldom seen before in such intensity. Everyone was watching, not knowing what to say, or if they should acknowledge that I'd gone full-blown meltdown on them mere minutes ago. I asked again, “Do I have you guys with me on this, or is it down to me and a partner again?” Leif frowned, realizing that I meant it—that if they wouldn't back me up, I would leave the coven and Mordon would likely do so, as well. Barnes' wrinkles at once were deep furrows, set in stone from age and disappointment, and Lilly went so white even her freckles seemed to pale. “No,” Leif said. “We're all in this together. If you left, we'd have fairly boring lives.” Pink tinged Lilly's cheeks and her eyes brightened. “This means you need to have a baby shower!” And for some reason that reminded me: I still needed to find a way to tell my parents. Chapter Eight Outside, the storm had returned. Not the peaceful patter of rain, but the howl of wind whistling through cracks in the windowsill, a sound which had always put me on edge. We got the baby to sleep, all rocking and lullabies and leaving-alone-for-a-while efforts having failed miserably until Leif, Lilly, and Barnes were all too glad to exit my house. Even Mordon's knack with kids had done nothing to stop her fussing. Only securely wrapped to my chest would she quiet and sleep, and now Mordon crashed on my bed while I stared at a fresh sheet of blank paper, a small heap of crumpled attempts to write to my parents lying on the floor by my feet. The rest of the festival had been far less exciting than the events earlier in the day, but we had been restricted to the kiddie activities seeing as we had a kid in arms. I'd sat there and watched the noise and commotion of children at the peak of their enthusiasm. I was mortified to know that up until now, my life had been practically as serene and peaceful as a convent. I was so not ready for this. 'Don't hit, Johnny, that's not nice.' 'Sally, you need to share with your sister.' 'Timmy-Tom-Thumb, come off of that log right now, before I get angry.' 'Ah! No! Don't eat that, it'll explode in your mouth! Why do they sell these illusion pebbles to kids, anyway, all they do is eat them.' And so on. Seeing my lack of everything baby, one of the other women had made a dash to get this stretchy strip of fabric which they showed me how to wrap around my body to carry Anna in. The freedom of my arms was fantastic, but the heat from the wrap not so much. And it brought curious strangers very close, because as Mordon said, they all did want to see her. All the congratulations had been embarrassing. I didn't know what to say when a woman had told me that Anna definitely had Mordon's eyes. For the most part, it was just way too much effort to explain that I was a guardian. At times, I'd say, “She's my ward,” but only to those who had known that I hadn't been expecting a baby in days prior. I didn't think that anyone who knew my parents had seen me, but now I worried that word would somehow get back to them. That would be an awkward thing. The candle flickered, enchanted to be bright enough that I could see well enough to illuminate the paper. How did I even start this? “Hi”? “Hello”? “Greetings”? “So, hey, guys, I temporarily (I hope) adopted a newborn, just thought you'd know you're grand-guardians or whatever this makes as”? The last seemed like an efficient way to tell them, but alarming and confusing. My eyes stung, and all I wanted to do was sleep, but I was afraid of putting Anna down and waking her up. I blinked my eyes open and just wrote the stupid thing. Mother, Father, I know I haven't talked to you since the woods. I know you blame Mordon for taking me away, but that's not how it is, and that isn't why I'm writing today. I don't know how far into detail I can or should go, but I made a promise to a woman in duress that I'd keep her and her infant safe. She was pursued by a grotesque, which we've shaken, and which had done some horrific damage to King's Ransom. I winced at the description of the damages that Barnes had given Mordon. Neither Mordon nor I would go back into the shop until we could know that we weren't going to be followed upon leaving it again. The cases had been smashed, everything inside them cast around, presumably nothing was stolen but who knew. Books had been stripped off shelves. Everything that could be torn or dug into had been. Barnes said he was calling in favors from other constables, who were going to do their work. And that was the last I'd heard. I burrowed back into the letter. But the thing is, the woman's dead. A curse, maybe, or maybe she was a fire elemental? Impossible to know at this point. Am undergoing the legal side of guardianship now, might take a while. Which means I have a newborn in my care, and though Mordon has the practice with infants, she seems to cling to me. I thought that she was too young to have a preference yet? I'm utterly lost and I have nothing at all for her. Lilly's talking about throwing a shower, but where do I even start? I'm so worried I can't take care of her. The coven's with me, of course, handling this and that, so that helps. Well, anyway, thought you'd like to know the truth of the matter, in case anyone mentioned that I've got a kid with me now. —Fera As far as letters went, it wasn't all nice and touchy-feely, or even very explanatory, but it would have to do. I folded it, stuck it in an envelope, and planned on surrendering it to Mordon tomorrow to send. Saying that I had nothing was a little bit of a stretch. Leif had appeared a few hours ago with a cradle and everything that was to go inside it, so I laid Anna down in it now, carefully lest the movement wake her. All the fussing must have been exhausting, because she was sleeping pretty solid now. I plopped down on the bed beside Mordon, pushing at his arms and legs to make room for myself on the mattress. I fell to sleep to the whoosh of water pouring off the roof. All too soon, Anna's soft cry woke me. My eyes felt glued shut and my mouth like it had been stuffed with cotton balls, but I pulled one arm up then the other. By the time I sat upright, Mordon was already on my side of the bed, his red hair all fanned out and his clothes rumpled. He had Anna and was already seeing to her needs. “Go back to sleep,” he told me. I didn't, though I wanted to. The biggest disadvantage of mail in the magical world is that it finds you no matter where you are, and you can't pretend to have not checked the box or mail slot. And someone chose nice and early at seven in the morning to burn me a letter which landed in my lap. Bleary-eyed, I watched as the words revealed the addressee. It made me grumble but I wasn't awake enough to feel more than that. It said: THAUMATURGICAL TRIBUNE LEGAL DEPARTMENT Chapter Nine Blankly, I read the sender's name and wondered what could possibly be within the envelope. They'd obviously received my false account letter. So they could respond to it in, what, three ways? To say that 'oh hey we got this thing from you, just letting you know we got it;' to say, 'we got this thing from you and it was all an honest mistake;' or to say, 'we got this thing from you and we're going to make your life miserable.' Perhaps not exactly phrased like that, but that's the intention. Legal department. I hated anything dealing with laws, and my recent encounters with the law after being accused of murder or wrongful death made this all the more exciting. Feeling sick to my stomach, I wished the smelly old thing had never been sent. There was no way I could sleep now. Ripping the paper open, I read the entire contents. Feraline Swift: This is in regards to the Fraudulent Account Notification and Order to Refrain from Publication which our legal department received yesterday in reference to the article “Wildwoods Burn After Black Magic, Feys Return to Damaged Home” by Simona Eccles of American Sorcerering Today. We require a full account of the grounds for this Notification and Order, as well as three (3) forms of identification to confirm the legitimacy of your claim. See Constabulary Guidelines Ch.5 para. 12 for acceptable forms of identification. Respond within two days. I dropped the letter and rubbed my forehead. Mordon, who was finishing with a diaper change, snatched the letter off the bed. “I'm thinking about sending it straight off to Uncle Don. The papers don't have a right to demand that of me, do they?” It took a couple of minutes for Mordon to reply. “No. They're mining for information, hoping that you'll perjure yourself by giving a legitimate account. Anything you say to them about this is fair game for them to use in their articles.” “So don't say anything?” “You can respond with a reminder of who your legal representative is.” I grunted and stared off at my storage chest, wondering what was clothing clean within it. “Might as well pester them letter for letter. Feel like burning letters for me?” A few minutes later, it was done, a lot of fuss work and forwarding. While Mordon cooked up some brew and made a fresh batch of Anna's milk, I sat at the communal breakfast table and wrote a record of what happened when and what documents had been sent to whom. Not that anyone had ever told me to do this, it just seemed like a smart idea, a thing I should have done back when my troubles with Cole first started. Once more I fed Anna in my lap. Before I could finish with my written account in my book—I realized that I was recording this in my poor spellbook, Skills of the Thaumaturge—Mordon put a plate down in front of me. Usually he didn't care a great deal for breakfast, but this morning he must have been hungry. I recognized the hash-brown patties which I'd stocked in the freezer months ago, and eggs, and lamb medallions. He'd given me twice as much as I'd eat, so I pushed my book to the side and ate what I wanted. The rest went straight back to Mordon, who had cleaned his plate spotless. “You must have been worn out from all the activity yesterday,” I said with a smile. “Hmm?” He was genuinely puzzled until he looked down at the plates. “Well, it did work up an appetite.” Today I picked out a dress for Anna, standing in front of the closet staring at the piles of clothes with their crisp corners and uniform dimensions. I grabbed something purple and fuzzy. I studied Mordon from the closet. A while back, I had been focused on understanding Mordon's character, figuring out his motives and seeing if we could be compatible. Now I still analyzed him, but it was different somehow. What could I call him? Constant. Precise. Following Mordon's example yesterday, I dressed Anna on the floor, realizing too late that I'd forgotten to tie my hair back. Mordon gathered my hair and held it, letting his thumb rest against my neck. Kindness comes in many forms, and the littlest things matter as much as the grandest. Odd that I hadn't truly understood this before. The snaps at last finished on her dress, I gave Anna's face a fresh clean-up. She was perpetually sticky and I was beginning to understand all the various reasons behind a burp rag. “Where is that baby holder sling?” Mordon asked. I squinted, trying to remember where I had put it down last. By the bed? Was it on the floor? I told him, and he went to go get it. I stayed sitting on the floor, feeling like I'd been squashed by an elephant. I leaned against the bench. When I opened my eyes, I saw Lilly and Mordon working out how to wrap Anna up to his chest. Lilly was doing it wrong, Mordon had it almost right. Across my shoulders I wore the throw blanket which usually decorated the couch. My muscles hadn't liked the position but I felt better for my nap. “What's up?” I asked. The armchair creaked and shifted as Barnes got out of it. He said, “The constabulary has gone through King's Ransom. We're going to help Mordon clean up.” “I'll come.” I stretched my limbs. “Sure you want to hold Anna?” “Yes,” Mordon said. “You stayed up all night and morning with her. Sure you don't want to sleep?” “So my schedule will become nocturnal? I'd rather not.” Mordon hesitated. I knew that he didn't like tired people doing detail work, he said they made too many mistakes. And he was right about this, so I said, “I can sweep and wipe down counters or whatever. Nothing heavy, nothing like picking up busted pottery.” He agreed, and as soon as Leif entered the commons lounge, we all descended into the shop. When I saw what was beyond the door, I felt like someone had smacked me over the back of the head. My ears even started ringing, but it might have been the silence. Broken glass was everywhere, shards shining on top of ripped-up book pages, tangled necklaces littered the floor, hung up on gouges in the wood. Entire shelves toppled over. Vases and urns alike were smashed and their contents scattered. Ghosts stirred from their piles, sucking the warmth from the air as they formed and giving me goosebumps. Years of bogey busting kicked in. I found myself at the front of the procession, saying, “Be at rest. We are here to clean and put you at peace.” One ghost wavered, but the others continued to gather power. Mordon repeated the message in Saxon, then Leif in Latin. All of the last ghosts shrunk back to their ashes, except for one. “What is it doing?” Lilly whispered, hiding behind me a little bit and walking in exactly the same places that I did. “Probably ensuring that we're not being disrespectful or causing trouble. They had a big shock with the grotesque and the reaction from the shop wards. It was a traumatic event,” I said, speaking loud enough that the ghost could hear me if he wanted, yet still slowly and calmly. “But why does it care?” “Every ghost is as individual as living people are. If they appear to be irrational, it could be because they're old or have had a bad day. For the most part, they are no more good nor evil than you or I. Why it cares is impossible to know. Maybe he was a law enforcement officer. Or a decent person, one who doesn't like to be messed around with.” I must have drawn too close to the ghost because Lilly wasn't behind me any longer as I crouched to search through the rubble for suitable vessels to place ashes within. One pile was obviously on its own, spilling from a busted urn. Gently as I could, I started to scrape the ashes into a vase, keeping an eye on the ghost who was a little close. “I need another replacement urn for the next pile,” I said, accepting another vase and advancing slowly to a scattering of ashes which had been rolled in. Handling human remains was not high up there on my comfort list. If I started to think about what I was handling—the burnt remains of a human body which had once moved and breathed and lived—I began to feel lightheaded and my mouth would go dry. So I started to hum. Singing seemed like a bad idea, both by opening my mouth around ashes and with the possibility of blowing the ashes away. Which was what gave me the idea to use my wind magic to sweep the ashes into the containers. All the while the last ghost stood watch while I hoped he would not turn violent. A violent ghost could burn and scratch and grasp throats. That gave me bad memories. He—it was impossible to tell for certain, as the form hadn't solidified enough to be sure—just stood guard as Barnes and I put any remains we could find into new containers. When the ashes were taken care of, the final ghost faded away. With him gone, the rest of the shop laid out before me, presenting a long, arduous cleaning task. Not merely for the simple reason of the mess, either. As Mordon collected and sold antiquities instead of antiques, a great deal of the items had enchantments or curses which had been released to do their worst. Wards had kept anything from leaving the confines of the shop, but that meant that they were all here in tight concentrations for me to fix. Not that I was supposed to be the one doing the fixing, but I soon realized I was the person who had the best knowledge of what to do. Lilly demonstrated this when she lifted a box and out of it came a loud buzzing. She stood there, her brows pinched together in confusion, then we both placed the noise at the same time. “Bees!” Lilly dropped the book she'd been holding and grasped her arm. A red, angry welt formed. She said, “I never saw it.” Then Leif was stung, and Lilly was stung four more times while we hopped through the shop, trying to see where their hive was. When I closed my eyes and felt the air, I felt their little bodies humming this way and that. “They're invisible,” I said, stunned. “Can someone make this place cold, like cold enough to see my breath? It'll slow them down.” Barnes stepped forward and said, “Frigus locus.” I watched as frost formed on the surface of the shelves and across the backs of books, spreading through the entire shop at a rapid pace. Shivering, we all watched as the bees became visible by the frost on their bodies. They fell to the ground. “Congregabo apes,” Leif said, holding a box open. The spell gathered all the bees together and shuffled them into the box, where he folded the flaps and added, “Calor.” At Lilly's surprised expression, he shrugged. “I know a beekeeper. He'll take them. They'll be a novelty.” “Succenderetur locus,” Barnes said, and the frost began to melt then evaporate. Leif took the bees away, to the relief of everyone who had been stung. The rest of the day wore on and on. It was one thing after another after another. With Leif gone, our productivity slid, particularly as Lilly had an allergic reaction to invisible bees when she claimed to not have a reaction to normal bees. Her face puffed up and her eyes watered so she couldn't see. While she was gone giving herself medication, we encountered other troubles. Most memorably, a rag which dripped water at the rate of a leaky sink, and a spell which acted like a cat which was particularly fond of clawing its way up a person's legs and perching on their shoulders. Barnes was the only other person who could find and take care of the broken item so that its spell stopped bothering us. Despite my promise to Mordon not to take care of any detail work, I found that was what I was doing. Things which would have confused me a few years ago, I had no problem in tracking and tending to. As the coven had been accustomed to thinking of Barnes as being a professional, they were awed to see me in action. Lilly returned to us in good health except for a slight puffiness about the cheeks and a purple welt at the site of each sting. Much to the relief of everyone, she brought food and had acquired Leif along the way. “You know this is what I usually did when I was busting bogies,” I said when we stopped for a sandwich lunch. The bread tasted like gummy dough, but I ate it anyway, same as Mordon. “I thought so. That's what you've told us, anyway. But I never realized how good you were at it,” Leif said. He was sitting on a folding chair he'd conjured up out of thin air, one chair for us each. “I'm just glad the grotesque had enough sense to leave the sarcophagus alone, that would have been a frightening thing to contain again.” “What was the worst?” Lilly asked. “The ghosts,” Barnes said, and I nodded in agreement. Barnes continued, “They aren't yet shades, but if they'd been angered, they could have crossed into that.” “Shades?” Barnes started to pass water around. Our stash of water bottles behind the counter hadn't been damaged, but it was whittling down now that it had so many people taking from it. “Some people call them evil, but that isn't right. They're ghosts, and they've been pestered into feeling like they need to protect themselves.” “Like the last one? He watched us pretty closely.” “Good thing you explained matters to him, then.” A thought occurred to me, something which had been bothering me for a while. “I haven't seen the grotesque anywhere.” “Yes. The grotesque.” Barnes did a poor job of hiding a smile. “It seems that a certain sheriff is having a royal headache dealing with a mess much like our own in an upper-end show home. The police got there in time to see something prowling around on the roof.”


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