rowyn: (huggy)
Apart from the staircase leading up to the attic, the storeroom held mostly empty boxes; Jim poked through them while waiting for the rest of the kids to catch up, and found an old journal. "Hey, it has more of Mr. Vernon's notes about his experiments." Jim flipped through to the final page as the last kid entered the room. "He wrote 'They're coming for me tomorrow. I won't have time to perfect my work. I'll have to complete the process on my wife tonight, so she can join the children. She won't be the same afterward, of course. But then they'll all be mine. Forever.'"

"Want to know how it works, do you?" a sepulchral voice said. The kids all turned to watch as the skull with burning eyes floated through the wall into the room. It drew closer to Jim. "Perhaps I'll give you a personal demonstration."

Adelaide brought down the fireplace tongs and grabbed the skull with it, bringing the skull to the ground. Bobby yelled "BAD SKULL!" and stomped on it with all the might of one small shinguard-clad leg. It was a very solid stomp, grinding the skull against the floor. Even so, the skull was unharmed, laughing hollowly and not even trying to get out of the grip of the tongs. Bobby drew his foot back, and Jim drew out the ceremonial knife to impale the skull.

The knife thrust didn't seem to hurt it either, but the skull stopped laughing. "So that's how you're going to be, is it?" It flew to the ceiling and disappeared through it.

Mark stared at the spot where it had gone. "We have to go up there, don't we?"

"Yeah," Matt said. Wayne was already starting up the final stairwell. The other kids followed suit. Tears of stark terror poured down Mark's cheeks, but he went with the rest into the attic. Watching him, Kristi thought she had never seen anything so brave.

*

The attic was dominated by five giant bell jars of green glass, each one holding a pitiful human figure curled up and suspended in liquid inside of it, the people varying in size from a tiny baby to an adult woman. A massive antique machine beside the jars connected to them via hoses and wires. The jars were lit from within by tortured spirits, their faces locked in expressions of horror. The adult spirit's expression changed from agonized to fearful as she saw the children entering. "Get out, children," she said, urgently. "You have to leave. He'll get you too. Run!"

"We can't leave you," Matt said, the kids staring at the jars and trying to figure out what to do.

"You must!" the mother's spirit urged.

The skull rematerialized in the attic then, now larger than a grown man, pits of fire in its eyes. "You cannot take them from me! They are MINE!" it screamed. "Get out! You can leave now!" The bars melted away from the attic windows. Far below, they heard the bang of the front door flying open.

For the last hour, Kristi had wanted nothing more than to leave, but neither she nor any of the kids moved to depart now. Even if it's not just another trick, we can't leave those poor souls like this. I'm in a ghost story. If I were writing this, how would we stop him?

Bobby stared at the sinister horror and the family it had been torturing for over a century. His young mind came to a quick decision. "NattiecanIattackthemonster?okaythanksbye." Pulling free of Natalie's hand, he charged it with an incoherent yell. Wayne charged with him, but the preschooler was going after the nearest of the jars, not the skull itself.

"The machine!" Kristi yelled with sudden insight. "Jim, if you can figure out how to make the machine let them go, his family can stop the skull!"

Jim ran to the machine, Kristi and Mark with him, helping him trace the connections, while Natalie, Matt and Bobby worked to attack and distract the gigantic skull, which was diving down to engulf Wayne. In a moment, Jim shouted, "That lever!" He pointed to a switch in a central pipe between the machine and the bell jars, some eight feet above the floor. "Pull it and it'll release all of them!" Jim scooped up Wayne with the intent of holding him up to the lever. Instead, Jim was just in time to keep the skull from catching the toddler up in its now-massive jaws. Matt knocked both of them further out of range of the undead creature, while Bobby's headlong charge passed right through the skull.

Adelaide scrambled up the machine with the same ease that she climbed trees, and yanked the lever down. There was a mechanical a hiss and a ka-clunk, then the liquid filling the bell jars began to bubble and the souls bound inside rushed out through the glass walls. The five previously-bound ghosts fell upon the giant skull in a phosphorescent swirl of soul-stuff, crying out for vengeance. All six forms fell screaming through the attic floor.

The kids seized this opportunity to flee, pelting out of the attic and back to the third floor. The house seemed more unstable than ever, walls and floorboards shuddering from the struggle of supernatural forces. Matt and Mark picked up Scotty and carried him with them, while Bobby scouted the second floor for hostiles. The toy soldiers had vanished, so the kids continued their headlong flight, skirting around a hole in the floor from part of the ceiling falling through it.

*

When they'd escaped to the yard, they saw that part of the attic had collapsed inwards too. Mark and Matt lay Scotty down as gently as they could on the unkempt grass.

"Now can we call 911?" Kristi asked.

Jim checked his phone. It had signal now, so he punched the buttons. "What am I going to tell them?"

"We are going to be in such trouble," Natalie lamented.

Wayne got onto this pedalcar and took off for home.

Kristi held out her hand for the phone. "Here, let me do the talking." After the 911 dispatcher got the details of the emergency and their location, the inevitable questions of 'why are you out by an abandoned house in the middle of the night in the first place?' began to arise. Kristi explained that they'd been having a sleepover, and Bobby had thought that he'd seen Wayne outside and headed this way, so the kids had gone to investigate. Of course, they'd been mistaken -- Wayne was home safe in bed -- but Scotty had gotten hurt searching the mansion with them.

While Kristi was on the phone, Natalie scolded Bobby for breaking away from her in the attic and going after the monster. Bobby looked at her with big mournful eyes. "But I asked Nattie sorry."

"You didn't wait for an answer!"

"You din't say I had to wait for an answer!"

During a pause while the dispatcher handled something on the other end, Kristi put the phone on mute and suggested Adelaide and Mark go home: "The adults already know about everyone else, but there's no need for any more of us to get in trouble."

In the end, though, Kristi was able to convince the grown-ups that they'd had good reason for worrying and being out there, and no one got very much trouble from their parents as they came out to pick up the kids.

It was very late when Natalie and Matt got home and crawled into their respective beds. As Natalie dropped off to sleep, little blue hands drew the covers up over her and tucked her into bed, before the beersoul slipped back downstairs to his newly-adopted cellar.
rowyn: (huggy)
Wayne had wandered into one of the side rooms. A grand piano and a piano bench rested in one corner, while a couple of chairs and a couch bracketed the fireplace. Wayne searched the room with the thoroughness of the World's Greatest Detective. As the other kids came in, Wayne was pulling out a sack that had been concealed in a hollow behind a flagstone in the fireplace. The contents were about the size of a bowling ball, though much lighter to judge by the way Wayne plopped it down atop the piano bench.

Oh no, Kristi thought, horrified. It's Mr. Vernon's head.

"What do you have there, Batman?" Natalie asked.

The group's tiniest detective opened the sack, facing towards them.

An ancient skull rested inside, desiccated remnants of skin and hair flaking from it. It slowly revolved within the bag, turning to face them. Fire flared behind empty black sockets, and it levitated from the sack, skeletal jaws parted by echoing mirthless laughter. "HA HA HA HA HA!"

The children erupted in panick. Bobby flew at the skull, flailing with ineffectual terror. Mark gibbered. "Who said we were going to be okay? This not okay! We are not okay!"

Kristi froze. Wayne wailed. Matt tried to shield his twin sister. Jim pointed, yelping "That's red! It's totally red to us!"

As the skull flew in wide circles around the room, only Adelaide and Natalie remained calm. "It's all right," Adelaide said. "It's just a skull with burning eyes. We're all fine." She took Kristi's hand, and the older girl grabbed it in a white-knuckled death grip.

The front door slammed shut with a bang audible even over the bedlam of terrified kids. The wood of the window frames began to melt and run in downward streaks, forming bars across the windows to seal them shut. Still laughing, the skull passed intangibly through the ceiling.

"Everyone calm down. We're okay," Natalie said, while the others continued to freak. "Who wants a cookie? I've got cookies."

With the aid of Thin Mints and soothing words, the children gathered their scattered wits. Jim armed himself with the poker from the fireplace, Natalie grabbed the fireplace shovel, and Adelaide took the tongs. Matt broke the stout legs off the piano bench to serve as clubs. Kristi took a deep breath and held out her hand to Jim. "May I borrow that for a moment?"

Jim passed it to her. Kristi walked to one of the windows, newly-barred by wood, wound up, and swung the poker as hard as she could.

The iron poker bounced off the wooden bars. The wood was unaffected, with no scratched in its varnish or cracks in the glass. Kristi handed back the poker. "Can we call 911 now?"

Jim dug his phone from his pocket. "No."

"No?"

"No signal." The icon for 'one new text message' flashed at the top of the screen. Jim flicked his fingers over the touchscreen to check it.

FLAMING-EYED DEATH SKULL: HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA
Sent: Nov 18 1:03
"I don't think we need to bother checking the front door," Kristi said.

"Yeah." Matt started for the door back to the foyer, bench-leg club stuck through his belt, flashlight in one hand, and pocket knife in the other. Wayne darted out in front of him, skidding on the footies of his Batman pajamas. Matt tried to get an arm around the toddler " -- Hey, stay behind me -- " but Wayne broke free of the older boy's grasp. The rest of the kids ended up following Wayne up the stairs.

*

In the second floor hallway, the four year-old boy peeked through the first door. It was a little girl's room, with a canopied bed layered in dust, a dollhouse on a low table by one wall, and an armoire with little-girl clothes in it. Jim checked the family tree in the Bible as the other kids filed into the room. "This must be Elise's room. She was four. The two boys were a bit older."

"No Batman toys," Wayne announced, and left the room, evading Kristi when she tried to stop him.

Adelaide stepped over to the dollhouse, reaching inside to touch one of the curiously dust-free pieces of doll furniture. A tiny glass hand took her finger. "Play with us," it said, in a lilting high-pitched voice.

The young girl stammered in response, startled. The doll was of glass, two inches high and pretty by the flashlight glow. Kristi's skin crawled; all the kids were remembering the beersoul saying Mr. Vernon was 'putting souls in inanimate objects'.

Kristi stepped closer to her friend, putting an arm around Adelaide's shoulders. "What did you want to play?" Kristi asked the tiny glass figure.

"'Stay with Us Forever'," the figurine answered, as more tiny dolls joined it. Their eyes glinted red.

"I don't think we have enough time for that," Kristi said.

"BAD TOY!" Bobby yelled. He charged, slamming his makeshift club down on the dolls. They smashed into tiny pieces with a tinkling crunch.

As he lifted his club, the glass remains melted and flowed together to form a glass chimera, doll-legs and arms and heads sticking out of it in all directions. "Oh, so that's how you want to play," the chimera's many heads spoke as one.

Jim dropped the heavy old Bible on top of the chimera, smashing it again. As they heard tiny glass shards clawing their way through the thick book, the kids fled.

*

In an adjoining little boy's room, Wayne had found a cache of toy soldiers. They animated as he watched. "TEN-HUT!" their leader barked. "FORM UP!" They arranged in orderly ranks. "FORWARD MARCH!" They marched to the door.

Natalie scooped up Wayne as the kids streamed past and up the stairs.

"PRESENT ARMS!" the toy soldier shouted.

Still running with the others, Bobby held out his arms.

There was a crash of gunfire behind them as the kids raced to the third floor, but no one was hurt. The toy soldiers didn't pursue up the stairs.

*

Matt reached the third floor landing first. There were doors before him, to the right, and to the left His knife was glowing faintly. "Why is it doing that?" Natalie asked in a whisper.

"I don't know ... but the beersoul did bless it." The blade tugged in Matt's hand, turning towards the door on the right. He opened the door and stepped through. It was a master bedroom, with a big four-poster bed, a vanity with a stool, a high-backed chair, and an armoire. A path a little more than a foot wide had been dragged through the dust towards the armoire. The knife tugged Matt's arm towards it.

Smears of red-brown showed in the flashlight along the trail. Adelaide covered her mouth.

Matt opened the armoire.

Scotty was stuffed inside, unmoving.

Natalie rushed to help her brother get Scotty out of the armoire and lay him flat on the floor. He was bruised and bloody, and the tip of white bone was visble poking through the muscle of his right thigh. Bobby whimpered, and Kristi moved to hug him, turning his face from the scene. But Scotty was still breathing, shallowly. The twins splinted his leg with the bench legs and bound it and his other injuries with strips torn from the bedsheets. As they were working, Scotty regained consciousness. "Uhhnnh ... " His eyes focused on the room and the other kids, and widened. "Get out!" he said, urgently. "We have to -- " he tried to stand, and cried out in pain.

Matt pushed him flat again. "Don't move," Natalie said, "you're leg's broken."

"Doesn't matter," he croaked. "You gotta get outta here. They'll kill you. Leave me! Get out!"

"We can't," Kristi said, shocked by his earnestness. "Even if we wanted to leave you, we can't get the doors open and the windows are all barred and unbreakable."

"Oh man. You gotta get farther from the attic at least."

"Can't do that either," Kristi said. "The toy soldiers are blocking the second floor. 'PRESENT ARMS!'" she said in mimicry, and flinched at a crash of gunfire from the floor below.

Scotty winced in memory at the sound. "Hell, them."

"What happened to you, Scotty?" Natalie asked.

"I was running for the attic, away from the toy soldiers. There was this woman's voice coming from up there, begging for help. Then she said 'No, don't come up, get away!' I never even made it all the way up the ladder. Something knocked me off the ladder, and I don't remember anything after that."

"We have to go up there," Matt said.

"You can't be serious," Mark protested, at the same time as Scotty shook his head. "We can't go to the attic! It's the worst part of this whole nightmare."

"What else can we do?" Jim asked. "Hide here until we starve?"

"How do we get to the attic?" Natalie asked Scotty.

The red-haired boy shook his head, but answered anyway. "There's a store room through that door." He pointed to another door. "The stairway in there leads up to it."

"Thanks. Bobby, Wayne, you need to wait here with Scotty."

Bobby clung to Natalie's leg. "No! Gonna go with you!"

Wayne crossed his little arms in front of his chest. "I'm Batman."

Natalie tried and failed to pry Bobby off her leg. "All right, Bobby, you can come to the attic if you hold my hand, and if you remember to ask for permission while we're up there."

"Permission for what?" Bobby asked.

"Anything," Natalie told him.

"You don't need permission to breathe," Matt qualified. "But everything else."

"But you have to wait with Scotty, Batman," Natalie told Wayne.

By way of answer, Wayne walked through the door to the storeroom.

"You're just a little kid!" Natalie yelled after him. "Somebody has to make him wait here."

Kristi looked between the two. "... when have any of us managed to stop Batman from doing whatever he wants?"

Mark and Jim shrugged and trooped after Wayne, followed in a moment by Kristi and Adelaide.

Natalie sighed and patted Scotty's shoulder before following the rest of the kids. "We'll be back for you."

As the storeroom door closed behind the last of them, Scotty whispered hopelessly to the empty room, "No you won't."
rowyn: (huggy)
Kristi convinced Adelaide's mom as well as her own parents to let Adelaide sleep over. Kristi's own father worked the night shift, and her mother went to bed around nine. At about eleven, they prepared to sneak out: Kristi dressed up like a ninja, all in black. Adelaide was as quiet in sneaking as she was in class: she went out the window and climbed down the adjoining tree with perfect balance, helping Kristi along as she went. As they walked to the rendezvous, Adelaide munched nervously from a box of Wheat Thins.

Natalie and Matt had an even easier time getting out. Their parents mostly ignored them, leaving them to the care of their crazy-cat-lady nanny. She cooked for them: sometimes magnificent meals like grilled salmon and risotto. And sometimes ... more inexplicable dishes. Like tonight's macaroni with liver, and Cheez-it loaf.

They were too anxious to have eaten much anyway.

The four of them met on the street leading to the abandoned mansion, and were surprised to find Jim and Mark there too. "I figured it'd be like an adventure," Jim said. "I brought everything we'd need in my backpack -- rope, my phone, flashlight, lantern, kerosene, lighter, canteen .... "

"Bobby!" Natalie cried out, as the little boy came running up too, wearing his soccer shinguards like armor. "What are you doing out this late? You shouldn't be out by yourself!"

"But I had to make sure you were okay Nattie!" Bobby insisted. Natalie bent down to rig a tether for him, tsking. It was too late to send him home. And besides, it's not like any of us should be here, Kristi thought to herself, clutching Adelaide's hand. Adelaide crunched on another Wheat Thin.

As the seven continued up the hill, a movement from the side caught their eye, and they turned to see a lone figure emerge from the shadows at the wheel of a vehicle.

It was Wayne, wearing Batman footie pajamas, in his pedal-powered batcar. A cape made from a blanket tied around his neck fluttered in the breeze, then fell around his shoulders as he pedaled to a stop beside the group.

"... okay, who brought Batman?" Kristi asked.

"I think he brought himself," Mark said.

Natalie made a tether for Wayne, too, and passed the handle for it to Kristi. Together, the eight of them made their way to the yard of the abandoned house.

Kristi looked around nervously. "Did Scotty say to meet outside or inside?"

"Outside," Matt said.

"Okay well we're here and he's not so I guess he chickened out let's go," Kristi said.

"I'm here." Scotty stepped out from the woods surrounding the property, with five of his friends at his back. "I see you were too cowardly to come alone."

Kristi eyed Scotty's friends, all 5th-graders like him. "So were you."

Matt glanced over his own collection of friends, all younger and some of them less than half Scotty's size. "Well, if you're afraid to face Batman in the dark ... "

Scotty crossed his arms with a sour look. "I'm not the one who's a chicken. So here's what you're going to do, if you wanna prove you're not a coward. You're going to go into that house, go to the basement, flash your light through the window so we know you're there, then go to the attic and do the same."

Adelaine and Mark both looked terrified at the very mention of this.

"What we're gonna do?" Matt repeated. "What about you?"

"I'm not the one with anything to prove," Scotty said.

"So you admit you're too scared to do it yourself?"

Scotty started to say something, then snorted. "Fine. I'm not scared. I'll go in first."

Adelaine clutched at Kristi's hand, looking like she wanted to stop the other boy even if he was a mean bully. But no one did. The kids stood on the grounds outside the house, watching as the red-haired kid disappeared inside. A minute later, a light flashed through the basement window. Adelaide squeaked a little.

Mark muttered to himself, "He shouldn't go in the attic, it's not safe in the attic."

"It's fine," Kristi said, patting Mark's back in reassurance. "He's gonna be fine. We'll be fine. It's just a house. Here, hug Cthulhu." She took her stuffed toy out of her backpack and passed him to Mark, who clutched at it and did not look comforted.

Minutes passed. No light shone out of the attic window. Scotty did not come back out. Wayne started cutting away at his tether gradually, with a pair of fingernail clippers. "Stop that," Kristi said. "Batman doesn't break things."

Jim checked his smartphone. "It's been twenty minutes," he said finally.

"This is crazy," Matt said. "He should have been back by now. I'm going in after him."

"No," one of Scotty's friends said. "It's cool. I'm sure he's fine. Give him another ten minutes."

Not entirely persuaded, the kids waited.

Five minutes later, a terrible scream pierced the night, like the wailing of a woman in agony.

Scotty's friends took off in a panic.

"Call 911!" Kristi yelled at Jim.

"We can't call 911!" Mark said. "None of us are supposed to be here!"

Matt said, "And they'll just think we're pranking them, if we tell them we heard a scream at night by the haunted house."

"It doesn't matter if they think it's a prank, they still have to send someone!" Kristi said.

"Maybe Scotty is pranking us," Jim said.

Wayne gave up on waiting for the others and charged for the front door, snapping his weakened tether. Kristi tried to intercept him, but the little kid easily evaded her lunge.

Bobby followed in Wayne's wake, pulling Natalie stumbling along behind him. As Wayne vanished through the mansion's front door, Bobby reached the porch. It caved way beneath him and he fell into the basement below.

"Bobby!" Natalie fought to keep her balance at the edge of the hole. Jim and Matt tried to tackle her to keep her from falling, and instead sent all three of them tumbling in after Bobby.

Through good luck, though they suffered a few bruises, no one was seriously hurt. They got out their flashlights and called up "We're okay!" as the kids above yelled down at them.

Adelaide, Kristi, and Mark advanced more cautiously on the porch, skirting the gaping hole. "Jim, throw me your rope," Kristi yelled. He tossed it up, and Kristi tested the posts of the porch and railing for something sturdy enough to tie it to. Everything felt rotted and weak. "This is a death trap ... I can't believe it hasn't fallen down already. I can't find anything safe to secure it to."

"We'll find the door up," Matt said. "Don't worry!"

Kristi threw the rope back down. Wayne had vanished into the house. "Okay, we'll go in and look for the entrance from the first floor."

Jim and Matt shone their flashlights around the basement. The basement was full of wine racks -- row after row of them -- but no bottles. There was no door visible, but stacks of wooden crates were piled against one wall. Detritus and cobwebs littered the dusty floor. An old moosehead was mounted on the wall, something metallic glinting in its mouth. Natalie checked Bobby over to make sure he was all right, scolding him for running ahead of them.

A flash of something blue by the crates caught the attention of the older boys. "What was that?" Matt whispered.

"I don't know," Jim said. "One of the websites said that this house used to have a beersoul."

"A beersoul? What's that?"

"It's like a brownie for wine cellars. They'll take care of your stuff, keep it in order and clean and make sure nothing happens to it. But you have to give them a pint of beer a day, or ... "

"Or what?" Natalie asked.

"Or else." Jim gave them a meaningful look.

Matt gave the moosehead a closer inspection, putting his hand into its mouth. He retrieved a metal flask, like the one Mr.Jacobs carried, but much older. Its cap was rusted shut, but something was sloshing inside it.

A blue face appeared behind the crates, yellow eyes glinting ferally at the kids. Natalie hugged Bobby to her chest so he wouldn't see. Jim swung his flashlight to catch it in the full beam, but it darted out of sight again. "Something's there."

Matt tried to open the flask, but it was stuck fast. He got out the plier attachment on his swiss army knife and wrenched at it, but only scored the metal around the lid.

"I'll help you with that Mattie!" Bobby broke free of Natalie's grip and took the flask, wrenching it open. Alcohol fumes wafted out. "There you go!"

"I loosened it first," Matt mumbled.

A plaintive, drawn-out whimper came from the crates. Matt handed Bobby back to Natalie and advanced on the boxes, holding out the flask. He put it down where they'd seen the face, and stepped back.

A blue furry creature, looking a bit like a cross between a chimp and a dog, snatched up the flask in both paw-hands and drank it down, making tiny slurping contented noises. The children stared with a mixture of terror and fascination.

Natalie broke the silence first. "It's so cute!"

Bobby squirmed about in her arms. "Ahhh MONSTER!" He broke from her grasp and charged it.

Matt tackled him to the ground. "No, Bobby, don't!"

"Are you a beersoul?" Jim asked. The furry blue creature nodded. "How long have you been here?"

"Man many years," the creature said. "All dry, so dry, so very dry. Now at last! Drink again." He waved the flask happily. "Thank you."

"It's not a monster, Bobby," Natalie said, as Matt let Bobby up. "It"s a magical talking puppy."

"Puppy?" Bobby said. He peered at the beersoul, then ran over to it and began patting its head. The creature's mobile ears splayed out to either side. "Can you do magic?"

The beersoul nodded, and spread its arms. Candles in sconces the children had not noticed earlier lit up, flooding the room with a soft golden glow. The dust and debris in the room swept from the room, billowing from the hole in the porch in a mass of cobwebs. Planks flew upwards to nail themselves neatly into place, repairing the hole like a master carpenter.

*

From the front hall, Kristi, Adelaide, Mark and Wayne could see through the open front door as the cobwebs billowed up for no apparent reason, and heard the sound of wood hammering into place under its own power.

They freaked out.

"They shouldn't have gone into the basement!" Adelaide wailed. "There are always monsters in the basement!" Kristi stared in stunned disbelief, clutching her stuffed Cthulhu. Wayne shrieked. Mark worked to calm them down, and after some moments he got them to stop panicking.

"We have to get them out of the basement," Kristi said once she'd calmed down, starting for the stairs leading down.

"No!" Adelaide grabbed her arm. "You can't go in the basement! You don't know what might be down there!"

*

In the basement, the beersoul was moving the crates for the kids. At their request, it showed them the contents as well, ripping crates open with three-fingered taloned hands. One box was full of old books: an antique family bible with a family tree in it, an ancient picture book of fairy tales that Bobby seized on, and several other old and valuable-looking volumes.

Another crate held alchemical supplies. Jim dug through them while the beersoul opened another crate. He couldn't tell what must of the supplies did, but he found a ceremonial-looking knife, with the groove down its center streaked by rusty brown. Jim pocketed the knife, and next found some notes. "It says Mr. Vernon was using these for scientific experiments based on practices by ... African slaves in the Caribbean," Jim said. "... the last page says that his first subject was going to be 'to save my unfortunate daughter, Claire.'" Jim turned to the Bible and flipped to the family tree. "It says Claire died at four months."

The next crate held a tiny coffin.

The kids didn't open the coffin.

Kristi and Mark came down through the now-cleared doorway, having left Adelaide upstairs to protect Wayne, or possibly the other way around. They watched the beersoul in wide-eyed amazement.

"What was Mr. Vernon doing?" Natalie asked the beersoul in a hushed voice.

"Bad things. Very bad things." The beersoul shook its head. "Putting souls into inanimate things."

"Is this all of his experiments?"

"No. Others in the attic."

"... what's in the attic?" Matt asked.

"Things I not let him keep here," the beersoul said.

"We are NOT going to the attic," Mark interjected.

"He was bad man," the beersoul said. "Very bad. They took Master Vernon away. But then they brought him back."

Kristi swallowed hard. "... how many pieces was he in when they brought him back?"

The beersoul counted, slowly, using both hands. "Six."

"... Scotty's on his own let's go home," Kristi said.

"Have you seen another kid tonight?" Matt asked. "A red-haired boy, few inches taller than me?"

The beersoul said, "Boy appeared at top of steps, shone light through, went back up."

"That cheater!" Kristi exclaimed. "He didn't even come down here."

"We still have to find him," Matt said. The kids started trooping up the stairs, the beersoul following them. Adelaide stared at the strange creature as it reached the top, then offered it a Wheat Thin.

The beersoul took the Wheat thin and turned it over, perplexed. "Thank you?" Adelaide demonstrated by eating one herself.The beersoul ohhhed and put it in his mouth. He gave a big artificial smile, turned around and walked past the other kids, and spit it out as soon as he was out of Adelaide's sight. He put the cracker in a pocket with an expression between confused and appalled.

But before they left the basement, Natalie turned to Matt. "What about him?" She pointed to the beersoul. "We can't just leave him here."

"He does need a can of beer every day," Jim said.

"That's less than Bobby's uncle," Matt pointed out.

"We have a wine cellar," Natalie said. "He could stay there. Our parents order more liquor after every party anyway. They'd never notice one drink a day."

The beersoul brightened at this prospect, long ears pricking.

"Well ... all right."

After Natalie gave him the address, the little blue furry creature put a blessing on Matt's swiss army knife in thanks. Then it hurried away, speeding out into the night.
rowyn: (studious)
At school, the principal reprimanded both Jim and Scotty, one after the other, for causing trouble on the bus.

Bobby's teacher took him aside before class to try to calm him down and clean out his hair. "I used to get bullied too," the teacher told Bobby as she brushed his hair.

"By Scotty? He's a big meaniehead!"

"No, no, when I was your age. By other bullies." The teacher smothered a laugh. "You just have to learn to ignore him. Don't give him what he wants."

Class went smoothly for most of the kids, though Adelaide got yelled at by her teacher for reading during class instead of paying attention to the lesson.

*

During recess, Mark stole over to Kristi as she and Adelaide were playing with Kristi's plush Cthulhu. "Hey, um, Kristi?"

"Mmmm?" Kristi looked at him.

"I overheard some kids talking about Scotty ... no one pays much attention to me so I hear stuff ... and he's telling everyone that he and his buddies are gonna get the 'boy scout' and 'that girl with the squid doll' after school."

"It's not a squid -- oh." Kristi stopped to consider the implications of this. "... thanks for warning me." What am I going to do? I better talk to Mrs. Wilson. Maybe she can help. Mrs. Wilson was Kristi's teacher and her favorite adult in the world.

Mark gave an embarrassed shrug. "''s okay. I was gonna tell Matt too."

Matt was with his twin, Natalie, and Bobby was clinging to her leg when Mark let them know. "We'd better all stick together, then," Matt said, and crossed the playground to talk to Kristi. "Hey, do you want to sit together with us on the bus? So Scotty can't catch us alone."

Kristi blinked in surprise. "Really? You'd do that for me?"

"Sure."

Kristi smoothed down her skirt, flustered and pleased by the novelty of some kid being randomly nice to her. "That sounds like a great idea. Thanks."

*

Meanwhile, Bobby -- having overheard the gist of the problem from Mark and Natalie -- decided to take matters into his own tiny hands. He snuck up on Scotty in the playground and kicked him the shin. Before Scotty could exact revenge, the teacher on recess duty swept in and carted Bobby off to the principal's office.

Bobby was used to being sent to the principal's office by now; he was always getting in trouble for one thing or another, no matter how much he wanted to do well in school. The principal called Bobby's mother to have him pick him up for being disruptive. When she arrived, the principal explained, "He attacked another boy, ma'am."

"He was mean! He blew snot in my hair," Bobby protested in his ow defense.

His mother turned to the principal, purpling in anger. "Some boy put bodily fluids on my son and I was not informed?"

"Now, Mrs. Leon, I don't think -- " the principal raised a placating hand.

"Obviously you don't! Has this other boy been tested? Do you have any idea what diseases he could have? I demand a Hepatitis B test! How dare you subject my son to this kind of environment!" For a solid half hour, Mrs. Leon delivered a paranoid and overprotective rant on the evils of germs and the failures of the public school system in general, and for that matter the kind of language her son was learning, until at last Bobby interrupted her.

"Mommy mommy I wanted to know! Is BJ a bad word? Because it's only two letters ... "

Mrs. Leon looked blank. "Where did you hear that, baby?"

"From Uncle Clyde ... " Bobby drummed his hands against his knees, thinking hard. "He said ... he said ... ohh ... 'I gotta go to the hoe-house and get me a -- '"

Mrs. Leon turned from purple to white. She grabbed her son's hand. "We have to leave now. Excuse me." She hauled her son from the room, muttering, "You're not allowed to see Uncle Clyde any more, understand?" As soon as they were outside, the principal closed his office door behind them, then locked and bolted it for good measure.

*

At noon, the kindergartners and pre-schoolers went home, while the older kids ate lunch. Natalie happened to see the teacher on duty loading the toddlers onto the bus to go home; the teacher had Wayne on a tether connected to her wrist to keep him from wandering off. "That's brilliant," Natalie said, marveling. "I need that!"

*

Kristi cornered Mrs. Wilson during the lunchbreak to talk to her about Scotty. "He's horrible! He's threatening to beat me up. What am I going to do?"

"What happened, dear?"

"Well, he says I broke his retainer."

"Did you?"

"... maybe kinda."

Mrs. Wilson raised her eyebrows.

"I stepped on it."

"So it was an accident?"

"Not ... exactly. But he was picking on Bobby! And he's like twice Bobby's size! I had to do something."

Mrs. Wilson sighed. "I know, dear, but you can't go breaking his things."

"What am I supposed to do? Just let him beat up little kids whenever he wants?" Kristi gestured wildly, indicating the relative size differences.

"No, of course not, but you need to let the adults handle it. If you have a problem, talk to Mr. Jacobs."

"But he's drunk!"

"I assure you he is not!"

"Hungover, then. He smells like a drunk."

"He's allowed to be hungover. I'll talk to him, Kristi; I'll see if he can keep Scotty under closer watch."

Kristi gave her favorite teacher a grateful smile. "Thank you, Mrs. Wilson."

*

As the older kids lined up to board the bus for home, they found the front seat was marked off with "CAUTION - POLICE LINE - DO NOT CROSS" tape. Mr. Jacobs escorted Scotty on board personally, unsticking the tape to put Scotty in the seat demarcated by it. He gave a stern look to Matt, Kristi, and their friends. "And you lot, no sitting behind him. Or anywhere near him. Got it?" Matt, Kristi, Natalie, Adeleine, and Mark all filed to the back of the bus. Jim, oblivious, played games on his phone for the ride home.

As they were riding, the other kids on the bus handed back two notes: one for Matt and one for Kristi. "Ugh. I bet it's from Scotty." Kristi felt sick just looking at hers.

"Want me to read yours?" Natalie asked. Wordlessly, Kristi handed it to her. Dear Shithead, it began. Natalie stopped reading, tore it to confetti, and let it flutter out the window. "Yeah, it's from Scotty."

Matt read his note, looking increasingly angry the more he read.
Dear Moron:

You're real brave when you're hiding behind teachers and bus drivers, getting them to do your dirty work for you. Are you willing to face me without any adults to protect you? You and Kristi better meet me outside the haunted house on Maybury hill tonight at midnight, or I'll tell the whole school about what a coward you are. And all those things you do with your sick sister, too.
It got worse as it continued, describing incestuous acts in perverse and insulting detail.

Natalie noticed how tense her twin was getting. "What's wrong, Matt?" She peered over his shoulder to look at it. She swallowed, then started to cry.

"Don't -- don't let him get to you." Kristi grabbed the note and threw it out the window. "It's just words. He can't hurt us."

The bus got to their stop, and the kids piled off. Bobby and Wayne were waiting at the stop. "Nattie! Mattie!" Bobby cried. He was carrying fistfuls of cookies, his face smeared with chocolate and crumbs. "I brought cookies! Do you want some? What's wrong?"

Wayne pedaled up behind Bobby, riding in his mini-batcar.

"Bobby, what are you doing here?" Natalie wiped the tears from her face, then set to work cleaning cookie detritus from Bobby's. "Shouldn't you be home?"

"I wanted to see you! What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Natalie lied.

Kristi asked Matt, "Was he threatening you?" She wondered now if maybe she should've read the notes after all.

Matt wrestled with his conscience. He knew he had to meet Scotty's dare, for his own sake and especially his sister's. But maybe it'd be safer to keep Kristi out of it. Yet -- she hated it when kids teased her, and if she didn't come, Scotty would be worse than ever. At last, Matt said, "Scotty dared you and me to meet him at the haunted house at midnight, or he'd call us cowards."

"At midnight? We can't go at midnight. My parents would kill me. And you. And Scotty. So at least we wouldn't have to worry about Scotty any more, but we'd still be dead so no. You can't go, Matt."

"You're going to the haunted house?" Bobby asked.

Natalie was horrified. "Don't talk about it in front of the little kids!"

"I have to go," Matt answered Kristi, grim.

"No you don't. Please don't go, Matt," Kristi pleaded. "You have no idea what he's planning. And the stories about that place are awful."

Jim went online with his smartphone, researching the mansion's history. "Wow, yeah. It hasn't been occupied since 1837, when the owner, Mr. Vernon, was executed after his whole family had ... disappeared. He was drawn and quartered."

Matt just shook his head. "I'm going."

"Well ... if you're going ... I won't let you go alone," Kristi said.

"Of course he won't go alone!" Natalie hugged her brother.

Adelaide found her best friend's hand and squeezed. "I'll come too," Adelaide whispered. "If you can talk my parents into letting me sleep over at your place." Kristi squeezed her hand in return, scared and glad for the company nonetheless.
rowyn: (huggy)
It was Monday morning, and eight kids -- ranging in age from four to eleven -- waited at the street corner for the school bus to arrive. Kristi, in fifth grade, was the oldest, wearing a black skirt and jacket with a neckcloth and a white blouse -- like a school uniform, even though they all went to public school and didn't have a uniform. She was talking to her best friend, a shy seven-year old named Adelaide, because Kristi was weird and most of the kids her own age avoided her.

"I was working on my new book all weekend!" Kristi told her little friend, who listened with quiet attentiveness. "It's got a dragon and a knight and a princess. The princess and the dragon are trying to rescue the knight -- "

Next to them, Jim looked up from the game he was playing on his smartphone. "What kind of dragon? Western, eastern, winged, not winged?" Jim was the wizkid, the one who knew everything, especially about computers and video games.

"Western! Green and scaly and HUGE and he shoots fire from the vanes of his wings, like a jet plane. That's how he flies," Kristi said.

Jim pushed up his glasses. "Actually, dragons breathe fire. It doesn't shoot from their wings. And they're too big to fly."

Kristi made a face at him, crossing her arms. "It's my story and he can fly in it if I want him to."

"Dragons?" Bobby piped up. He was only six. "I like dragons! Are they scary dragons?"

"No, the dragon is the good guy," Kristi said.

"Yay!" Bobby bounced up and down, while nine year-old Natalie clung grimly to his hand to keep him from running into the street in his enthusiasm. Bobby's mother paid Natalie five dollars a week to make sure Bobby got to school each day. Natalie and her twin brother Matt were with four year-old Wayne, too, because the twins were the sort of people parents trusted to be responsible. Wayne was wearing his Batman hoodie, as always, and wouldn't walk to the bus stop with his foster parents because 'Batman don't need help'.

Wayne had ... issues.

Nine year-old Mark stood a little apart from the other kids; he was the outcast, and even in groups like this where he didn't get picked on, kids rarely paid attention to him. He peered at them over the edge of his book, listening.

The bus rolled up to the corner and stopped, the door opening with a pneumatic hiss and a ka-chunk. Mr. Jacobs, the bus driver, gave the children a surly look. "No running," he started to say. Wayne dashed headlong up the steps, evading Matt's attempt to slow him. Mr. Jacob's arm swung down and caught Wayne by the throat like the hand of God. He turned the little boy's head towards him. "It's Monday, I'm tired, I'm hungover, and they don't pay me enough. So walk to your seat, sit down, and keep your mouth shut. Got it, Batman?"

Wayne blinked at him, and nodded. In silence, the rest of the kids filed into seats: Bobby near the front between Matt and Natalie, Wayne opposite them, Kristi and Adelaide in the middle, Jim across the aisle, and Mark near the back of the bus.

As the bus started up, Jim slouched down in his seat, playing with his Gameboy. "Hey, did someone see the Joker on the bus?" he asked loudly, without looking up.

Wayne jumped atop his seat and spun about. "Where?"

Mr. Jacobs slammed on the brakes. The bus jerked to a halt, causing Wayne to bang his head against the seat back. Without a glance to the toddler, Mr. Jacobs stumped back to Jim's seat. Jim slouched lower still, continuing to play his game. Mr. Jacobs hit the power button on it.

"Dammit!" Jim swore, then blanched as he realized what he'd said. "Sorry," he added, looking up at last.

"I don't care if you swear," Mr. Jacobs began.

From the front of the bus, Wayne's little voice piped up, "What does 'dammit' mean?"

"Now I care if you swear."

Jim said, "It means 'thank you'."

"It's a bad word. Don't repeat it." Mr. Jacobs glowered down at Jim. "And I care if you lie to little kids about what words mean. Or say things you know are going to provoke them into jumping around and getting themselves hurt on the bus." His pen scrawled across a detention slip. He handed it to Jim. "I'm giving the other half of this to the principal's office. Report there as soon as we get to school." Mr. Jacobs stumped back to the driver's seat. His fingers tapped longingly against the bulge of a flask in his pocket. The bus started up again.

In his seat between Natalie and Matt, Bobby was kicking his feet back and forth and humming to himself until he felt something wet and gooey dripping into his hair. "Hey!" Next to him, the older Matt turned around to see what was happening.

Scotty, the ginger-haired fifth-grade bully, was blowing his nose messily against the back of Bobby's head. "Cut that out!" Matt yelled.

"Make me," Scotty sneered.

Matt shoved the older boy back, hard enough to knock Scotty's retainer out. The mouth gear skittered down the aisle of the bus. Bobby jumped out of his seat and chased after it as it neared Kristi's seat. Kristi extended one foot and very deliberately stomped on the retainer. Then twisted. The device snapped with a satisfying crack.

Bobby picked up the two pieces and helpfully returned them to Scotty. "You dropped this!"

The older boy -- the biggest on the bus -- snatched up the pieces. "Who broke it? Did you break it, you little freak? I oughta break you -- "

Kristi jumped to her feet. "I broke it," she yelled. "What are you gonna do about it?"

"Just wait 'til we're out of school, you weirdo -- " Scotty balled one hand into a fist.

The bus driver slammed on the brakes again. Kristi swallowed, reconsidering the wisdom of taking credit for breaking the retainer.

But Mr. Jacobs went straight for Scotty and Bobby instead. "What's going on back here?"

"He dripped boogers in my hair!" Bobby piped, pointing at Scotty. "He's a big meaniehead!"

"You whiny little brat -- " Scotty started.

Mr. Jacobs cut him off. "Look, kid. You're being a dick -- " the bus driver paused, suddenly aware of the littlest boys staring at him, wide-eyed and attentive. He cleared his throat. "He's being a Richard. Richard was a kid I always hated. Scotty, you may think you can get away with anything, but not on my bus you don't." He handed Scotty a detention slip and stumped back to the driver's seat.

The bully glared alternately at Kristi and Matt. "I'll get you two for this." Matt bore the threat stoically, but Kristi was worried. Boys didn't usually fight girls ... but Kristi didn't stand a chance if Scotty decided he was going to make an exception.

*

[This story is adapted from the tabletop RP Little Fears game that Randy Milholland ran Saturday night. I played Kristi. All other characters and the game itself are copyright their respective creators. Most of the events are directly from the game, but in cases where I can't recall what led from one event to the next, or where I felt that a literal translation of in-character events didn't properly capture the feel of the game, I've invented additional material.]
rowyn: (Delight by Tod)
[This is the for [livejournal.com profile] terrana's tarot story prompt. Since Terrana likes Delight, I decided to make it a [livejournal.com profile] delight_in_wt story. Delight is long-winded, so this will take several entries. Cross-posted to [livejournal.com profile] delight_in_wt.]

Guess what? I'm going on another adventure! No, not because I need money. I'm still rich from the last adventure! This one is kind of a favor to Mirhandrax. Well, I guess technically to Outcast but I'm not really doing it for him. I should probably start more at the beginning.

Archonandi, Mirhandrax, Outcast and I met up yestereve at the pub in the Vheshrame Adventurer's Guild. (Mirhandrax has managed not to start any brawls in this one so he's still welcome here. Unlike Ulmarn.) We were seated on the second floor's interior balcony, overlooking the main floor where patrons sat on benches before long tables. The balcony seating is big comfy arm chairs and tray tables and I like it lots better. Mirhandrax, being the biggest bear of a Gormorror EVER, had to sit on a bench anyway because chairs big enough to seat two normal primes aren't large enough for him.

Being a smith for months and months and not adventuring has changed Arcsy. His arms and chest muscles are bigger than ever, but his grey-furred body doesn't have quite the same lithe agility he used to. There's something in his eyes too: an ease and affection behind the raccoon mask of black fur, instead of the constant state of wary, alert preparation.

And you know, Outcast looks SO DIFFERENT from the scrawny scraggly brown otter-man we rescued from bandits back in Chirreb. His fur is a glossy mahogany now, paling to soft beige on the underside and he's let his headfur grow out long enough to pull back in a ponytail. He's filled out -- not plump but muscular; his shoulders look twice as broad as they were. I don't think I'd recognize him if I hadn't been seeing him every couple weeks since we met. It's weird to realize that this must be how he's supposed to look and that the way he was when I first saw him was the result of months of imprisonment and abuse. Sometimes I wonder what it was like and mostly I'm glad I don't know. I know he brought it on himself in a way but I still feel sorry for him because NO ONE deserves that.

We'd gotten together just to be sociable since Archonandi's retired from adventuring and I'm rich. There's no reason Mirhandrax shouldn't be rich too, except that he probably gives all his money away because he's that sort of prime. Also he's determined to help Outcast.

Their current plan to find Outcast's really-should-stay-lost-if-you-ask-me-but-no-one-does mewellicapfriend was to have an enchanter make a Tempador-based tracking enchantment. Then they could go to the spot where we'd thrown her off the world-branch (well she was with the other bandits how were we to know she was being blackmailed?) and the enchantment would see into the past to find which way the elements had taken her, and they'd follow the trail from there. Of course they'd be months behind her, but they were hoping this would get them close enough to track her by more immediate means. Outcast had found an enchanter willing to create the enchantment for a payment of more money than he or even I have. Outcast, Mirhandrax and Archonandi were discussing ways either to raise the funds or get the cost down.

"Adventuring is the best way we've got of raising this kind of sum, and we did have a good run for the last couple of tasks." Mirhandrax drummed the claws of one giant paw against his tray table. "But the market of high-paying adventuring work has dried up recently."

Archonandi took a swallow of ale. "I don't hear as much as I used to, but I'll let you know if anything comes my way."

"Lady Inithia gave me the list of reagents she'd need for the enchanment." Outcast laid a short scroll on a tray table and pushed it where the others could reach. "Some of these are irritating to gather but not particularly difficult. Third-minute milkweed blossoms, for example, I can get myself with patience."

I made a face at the idea. Third-minute milkweed blooms for 9 seconds at random intervals between three and nineteen days apart. It is super annoying to harvest and hardly anyone cultivates it because of that. Well, it wasn't me going to do it.

"The most expensive item on the list is fresh knowledgefruit, though." Outcast tapped a blunt claw against the final line.

Mirhandrax wrinkled one side of his broad muzzle. "No wonder. I didn't think that grew anywhere in Ketheria."

"Not in the Flats, no. Lady Inithia has a source in Borenexia. That's six branches down and four thousand miles away. And since it has to be fresh, not preserved ... "

"At that distance, it'd be easier to get Lady Inithia to it than it to her," Mirhandrax said.

Outcast smiled wryly. "True. Unfortunately, she doesn't like to travel and her laboratory isn't mobile. And even setting aside the cost of an express courier, the prices from Borenexia aren't cheap."

"I think there might be knowledgefruit trees closer than that," Archonandi said. "I've heard rumors of it growing in the Underneaths of Dentheia. With the secret of its exact location guarded by an azgrath."

Outcast grimaced. "I don't mind taking risks, but going into the Underneaths to face an azgrath might be more trouble than this one is worth."

"That depends on how old it is. A young azgrath ... " Mirhandrax started.

"That rumor's over a decade old," Archonandi said.

"Never mind, then. To be honest, I'd rather not kill an azgrath for the sole crime of having a thing that I want, anyway." Outcast exhaled. "I did some research and there are closer known knowledgefruit trees, but not from anyone who will sell the fruit. A nyacanth raider in the Verticals of Mrasteia is said to have one."

"A raider? How many monsters does it lead?" Mirhandrax asked.

"Fifteen or twenty, by most accounts."

Archonandi whistled. "That's a bit much for two adventurers, unless they're all scawn."

Mirhandrax grinned. "Sounds like a worthy challenge to me."

"They're not scawn. I wouldn't want to plan an all-out assault on them," Outcast said, "but a distraction and a snatch-and-grab might be feasible. I'd need more information first, to know what their defenses are like."

All this planning talk was WAY too much like work if you ask me, so I interrupted to say, "What's knowledgefruit anyway?"

"Wrinkly yellow-brown berries." Archonandi held thumb and forefinger a half inch apart. "Some say they look like curled-up infant Orren. If you eat a bunch of them, they'll give extra power to the next Kennoc spell you cast, and -- some say, though I personally doubt this -- improve its accuracy."

"Ohhh babyberries!" I said. "There's a crefian nest in the Verticals below Vheshrame that grows those why don't you just trade with them?" Everyone stared at me. "What?"

"Crefian nest ... ?" Outcast said.

"Yes I met them when I was still an adventurer like a year ago maybe? They're nice they look like gigantic butterflies with intangible wings if you've never met one and they traded us some babyberries so we could boost a tracking spell we needed."

"... yes. That does sound much easier. Thank you."

Then Mirhandrax asked if I'd show them how to get there and I figured I'd just come with them because I'd like to see the crefians again anyway. I don't know if this will really be an Adventure but it's in the Verticals! So probably.
rowyn: (jaunx)
"Come play a game with me, Limit." A video window opened, showing a brown-and-beige space otter at a computer.

"Hello, Arc. Sorry, I have work to do." Limit was a space otter as well: a genetically modified human adapted to life in space, whose exterior appearance mimicked a Terran otter's. Unlike Arc, Limit looked the 'space' part of his species name, with a coat of midnight blue dusted with white dots like stars.

"So do I, but I'm not doing it either. C'mon, you've been staring at the same file without doing anything with it for half an hour."

"I'm thinking."

"Then you can think while playing. Seriously, Limit, you need a break," Arc said. "And I need some help with Kingdom of Death."

Limit chuckled. "Are you still playing that?"

"Yes. And I really need a partner for this section. Plus it'd be more fun with company. The NPC AIs don't count."

The midnight-blue space otter gazed at a window full of diagrams, charts strategic options, available resources, supply lines, and probable outcomes. Maybe pondering a scenario where no one I knew was actually going to die would be a nice change of pace. He sighed. "All right."

*

An hour later, they were pinned down on the wall of a crumbling fort, besieged by slavering hellhounds and fire-breathing demons. They'd lost the NPC spellbinder and rogue, Arc's archer avatar was nearly out of arrows, and the only components Limit had left were for his avatar's weakest heals and some esoteric spells to which their enemies were generally immune. Limit tossed another heal on the NPC warrior that was holding the smashed gate, while Arc took aim at a demon tearing apart the wall, brick by brick. "You know," Limit said, reviewing his spell list to see if he'd overlooked anything that was still available for casting, "if you want a constant struggle to maintain a bare minimum of necessary supplies in a war against hopeless odds, near-friendless, and facing almost certain death, we could go back to reality."

"Shut up." Arc loosed the arrow at point-blank range, spearing the demon through its eye and taking it out. "I'm sure we can do this." Another monster moved up to take its place.

Limit tried casting Create Water on the demon that was barbecuing their warrior. With a sploosh, water filled the demon's mouth, extinguishing the blast of fire breath and sending the enemy into a choking fit. Their NPC warrior closed with the monster and beheaded it, then backed up to avoid a counterattack by a hellhound. "That worked?" Limit said, surprised.

"That's terrific! How many more times can you do that?" Arc asked, aiming another arrow.

"As often as I can make the gestures, really. It's a cantrip, no components and not much mana." Limit put out another fire-breather. "This will not be enough to turn the tide, however.."

"Yeeeaah ... not at this point. But I bet we can get through this if I reload from an earlier save and we use that trick from the start."

*

On the second attempt, they kept the computer party members alive and fended off enough of the horde of monsters to escape the fort. They were still perilously low on everything: neither the hellhounds nor the demons had carried any supplies of note. "Didn't the developers ever hear of loot?" Arc complained.

"We just have to get to the Light Isle," said Misty, the NPC spellbinder. She was a beautiful elf with black skin and long black hair. Nearly all the PC and ally avatars in Kingdom of Death were elves, half-elves, or humans, with the exception of a couple of demons that the player could recruit to his team under certain circumstances. Their warrior, Asmodel, was one of the ally demons; his backstory was that he wanted to learn to be good. The rogue was Kitty, a human street urchin. Arc's archer was a brown elf, and Limit's healer-mage was a blue-skinned human.

"You keep saying that." Kitty didn't get along well with Misty. "'Everything will be sunshine and rainbows and unicorns as soon as we get to the Light Isle'. I'm starting to wonder if it even exists. Or maybe you just don't know how to get there?"

"I do!" Misty insisted. "The ferry to the Light Isle is east along this road, down by the sea."

"And the ferry still runs?" Limit asked skeptically. "What's it ferrying between here and the Light Isle? Demons? Skeletons?"

"It's only a game, Limit. The economy doesn't have to make sense," Arc said.

"It'll be there," Misty said, earnestly.

*

The ferry was docked where Misty had said it would be. The docks were in disrepair, demon-clawed and scorched, and the surrounding grounds had the same blighted look as the rest of the Kingdom of Death. The water around the ferry was brackish and choked with weeds. No one was visible on the boat, but it appeared unharmed.

"Well, that doesn't look like a trap at all," Limit said, looking down on the dock from the top of the adjoining bluff. Hellhounds howled in the near distance behind them. The NPC party members whooped in triumph and ran towards the deserted dock. "Do they have to charge in like that?"

Another baying behind them, closer. "Might as well," Arc said, running after them, "or we're just going to get caught here."

"Or we could get caught in the trap and by the enemies behind us," Limit said, but Arc was already gone. Resigned, Limit cast a few Create Water spells on the dirt road behind them, turning it to mud to slow the pursuit down, then followed suit. By the time he caught up to them, the NPCs were already on the boat and surrounded by an army of skeletons. The skeletons were fragile, but there were a lot of them and Arc's arrows were ineffective against skeletons, forcing him to use his flail. When the pursuing monsters finally caught up with them, the NPC party members started dropping.

"All right, new plan," Arc said, bashing skeletons with his flail. "We'll reload from save, then take the pursuit on top of the bluff. Then we can take the ferry ambush separately."

"Why are we taking the ferry ambush at all?" Limit cast a weak heal on Asmodel.

"To get to the Light Isle?"

"How? The crew's dead. Does your avatar have sailing skill? What makes you think the boat's even seaworthy?"

"I can sail," Asmodel said, stabbing a hellhound through the heart, while skeletons clawed at his back.

"See? It's got to be this way," Arc said.

"Very well, but later. I've got to get back to work."

"C'mon, Limit! We're almost there. Just one more fight." Arc reloaded the game, putting them back on the road to the bluff.

Limit sighed. "This is the last fight, though."

*

Somewhat to Limit's surprise, once they had cleared the pursuers and the ambush, the ferry was salvagable. It needed minor repairs, but a few minigames were sufficient to cover that. ("It's not a fight, Limit, it's a puzzle game. That doesn't count.") Misty and Asmodel were able to crew the boat, and soon they were at the Light Isle.

It was as beautiful as Misty had promised.

Blue waves and white sea foam slapped against beaches of golden sand. Tall green trees covered in white and orange blossoms waved in the gentle breeze. Inviting green meadows full of flowers peeped out of the forest. The party docked their boat at a city of white marble, where an impromptu audience of elves and men gathered to welcome the war-weary strangers with cheers, eager for news of the mainland. The Queen of the Light Isle herself came to offer them sanctuary, and ask for their help in the continuing struggle to protect the Light Isle against invasion.

While Arc started on the tutorial for the resource-gathering-and-building game that followed from the Queen's request, Limit took his leave and logged out of the sim.

*

Three days later, Limit returned to his quarters after running some errands, and found a message from Arc on his computer: "Can you take a break for a while and join me in KoD? There's something I need help with."

With a shrug, Limit logged into the fully-immersive sim. He asked one of the city guards where Arc was, and was directed to a hostel. There, he found Arc's elven archer avatar in a small spartan room. Making out with Misty on the room's single bed.

Limit cleared his throat. "I'm pretty sure you can manage that minigame on your own."

Misty leapt apart from Arc, embarrassed. Arc gave Limit a sheepish grin. "Eheheheheh. Noooo, it's that the main game has gotten really annoying."

"How's that?"

"'Taxes'. The building game lists all kinds of cool stuff you can make -- siege weapons, armor, enchantments, even non-combat stuff like buildings and furniture. The building game is sort of annoying in itself -- if you do the puzzle just wrong, you can get a 'catastrophic failure', which for enchanted items means 'will explode on equipping', so you have to recycle those immediately. Because of course there's no warning tag on it or obvious defect, if you don't notice the problem while you're making it. But the worst part is that I can't get to any of the good stuff, because it all requires gathering sufficient resources and crafting tools and building intermediary stuff. And before I can get half the stuff I'd want for something awesome, the Queen sends her guards around and they take everything."

Limit raised one of his human avatar's eyebrows. "Everything?"

"Yes! And I have to start over from scratch with gathering. They say it's for 'the defense of the Isle'. I'm wondering if it's a bug, although the documentation does say she's supposed to collect what we make. But everything? I'm still stuck in the equipment I arrived in."

"I didn't expect her to be so ... greedy," Misty said, reluctantly. She was perched at the foot of the narrow bed. "I know the Light Isle needs materials for its defense, but we're part of that defense. Why does she want us under-equipped?"

"Maybe I need to build faster, somehow?" Arc said. "So I can finish the good stuff before the guards come to take it?"

"But we still wouldn't be able to keep it," Misty said.

"At least I'd feel like I was getting somewhere. Sort of. Contributing to the defense."

Limit was thoughtful. "What's Kitty doing?"

"She's on a resource-gathering mission."

"She's got spying skills. Send her out to find out if the guards 'tax' everyone like this. And maybe what the Queen's actually doing with your goods," Limit said. "Let me know what she comes up with. I'm going to log out."

Arc wrinkled his nose as Limit's avatar winked out, then glanced to Misty. "We've still got some time before Kitty returns. So ... where were we?"

Misty grinned, and crawled up the bed to kiss him.

*

A couple hours later, Arc called Limit, fuming. "She's completely corrupt! She's just plain stealing from us!"

Limit ran through his mental list of untrustworthy singletons. It wasn't a short list. "Who's this?"

"The queen!"

"... you're talking about that game again, aren't you?"

"Yes! I can't believe I've been wasting my time building things for her! She's not using it to 'defend' the Isle! She gives the best stuff to her favorites or keeps it for herself, and sells the rest! To -- and this is the best part -- the frigging Kingdom of Death. To demons! Argh!"

"Ahh."

"I sent Kitty on like eight different missions to figure it all out. The queen confiscates almost everything anyone makes. Practically everyone in the city is stuck in tiny rooms like the one I'm in. All the mansions and grand carriages and tall ships, they're just for her and her cronies. And if the Kingdom ever does turn on her, the defenses are in shambles. Everyone resents her, but they're scared because she sics demons on dissenters, to 'disappear' them. Gah! It's almost as bad as the KoD itself."

"If you're tired of playing in a crapsack universe, you could go back to the one we live in," Limit suggested.

Arc glowered. "It's a game. There must be some way to win."

This was more than Limit could say for the universe he lived in. "I'm not getting a lot done right now anyway. I'll log in and look at it in a few minutes."

*

Kitty's unmasking of the Queen's corrupt regime had triggered scripts in all the NPCs. "Is this what good is supposed to be like?" Asmodel asked. "It's an awful lot like the side I left."

"No," Limit answered.

"Just let me steal it back!" Kitty begged. "We made it and she's got no right to use it for her own selfish ends."

"Not when you can use it for your selfish ends?" Misty said. "Sorry. ... It's not that I wasn't expecting better. A lot better. But I don't want to be on the run from demons again. No offense, Asmodel."

"It's all right," Asmodel said. "I don't like running from demons either. Or getting caught by them."

Arc said, "There must be a way to cheat her. Keep her guards from getting what we make while we stockpile it."

"But she'll still be defrauding the rest of her city," Limit pointed out. "You said she kept the 'best' stuff for herself. How does she determine what's best, anyway?"

"She keeps anything that uses one of the three rarest resources ... " Arc trailed off, his eyes lighting up. "That's it! Limit, help me look through these recipes." He passed over a set of files: in the game's UI, it looked like a fat tome of blueprints.

"All right. What are we looking for?"

"The perfect failure. We're going to give that queen exactly what she wants." Arc cackled, rubbing his hands together.

*

They had to plan the creation carefully, distributing tools and resources evenly among the party to make sure no one of them had enough items to trigger the 'tax' routine that would take it all. When they had enough between them to make the Golden Crown of Storm Summoning -- an enchanted item requiring all three of the rarest resources -- they handed everything over to Arc at once, and he immediately started the construction puzzle for the item. The tax routine initiated at almost the same time, but it couldn't finish while Arc was in the construction puzzle. So the guards waited while Arc botched the minigame in exactly the way he wanted, creating a normal-looking Golden Crown of Storm Summoning while getting the 'catastrophic failure' message.

The tax-collecting guards took possession of the crown, oblivious. The party waved cheerily to them. "Enjoy!"

"Do you think the game actually has her use it?" Limit asked, after the tax collectors were gone. They were on one of the public balconies that overlooked the city.

Arc shrugged. "Hope so? Kitty did say she used the best stuff."

"Have you ever actually seen one of the catastrophic failures explode?"

"No. The tutorial said it depended on how powerful the enchanment was, but that it was always ... " In the distance, the queen's palace exploded. A giant plume of smoke and dust rose into the air. Rubble rained down for blocks. "... bad."

*

With the queen and the best of her guards dead, her AI-run people revolted against her remaining cronies. Limit and Arc were appointed by general acclaim as the Isle's new leaders. A great festival was held in their honor, for their cleverness in tricking the queen to her downfall. It was quite lovely. Arc spent part of it figuring out what resources he needed in order to build a new palace for himself.

"Enjoy," Limit told him.

"You're not leaving in the middle of the victory cutscene, are you? Really?"

"Really. Good night, Arc."

But Limit didn't go to bed after logging out from the sim. Instead, he found himself studying his strategic problems in the real universe. Pity there isn't any way to use the greed of my real enemies to lure them to their destruction, Limit thought. He reached for the 'sleep' button on the computer, then paused. He rested his chin against one paw. Though, given their typical motives, perhaps that idea could use further consideration.

[From a prompt by [livejournal.com profile] terrycloth, using his characters Arc and Limit from the Space Otters stories. I think this is the first time I've ever written fanfic that wasn't using an RPG setting. This story would take place around the second half of Familiar. ]

Cards behind the cut-tag: )
rowyn: (Bethany)
The arrival of the first garden faerie was, to be honest, a relief.

It was the height of a summer drought. The grass in my neighbors' yards was brown, and the grass in my own yard wasn't. Not "wasn't brown" but "did not exist". Over the years, most of the grass had been choked out by weeds, and now even the weeds were gone, destroyed beneath the wheels of CAT construction vehicles when my old septic tank was excavated and the new one installed at a different location. Most of the remaining greenery in my yard was black locust trees and poison ivy.

So you can imagine my astonishment when I saw the garden faerie surveying my yard from the giant lopsided oak tree whose surviving branches create a canopy over half my house. She was about as long as my hand, with bark-brown skin and curly black hair held back from her face by a wide headband. She wore denim coveralls, gardening gloves and laced-up workboots. Dragonfly wings flickered at her back, and she carried a carved wand a little larger than a toothpick. A riding hawk in harness waited beside her on the branch. When she saw me staring at her, she flew near and landed on the clothesline by my head. "You're not very good with nature, are you?" she said.

"Well." I considered my blighted yard. "I didn't do this on purpose."

"I'm not sure how you could have." She gave the yard another look, then held out her hand. "Name's Gentle. I like a challenge, so I'm going to help you out here."

I gave her my index finger to shake. "I'm Ashley. That's awfully kind of you, ma'am."

Gentle eyed my yard again. "Yes. It certainly is."

*

After that, Gentle asked me to bring this and that for her work, which I thought fair. If a garden faerie is willing to use her magic wand to eradicate the poison ivy climbing up the walls of one's house, it seems the least one can do in return is bring her seeds and mulch when she wants them. Granted, some of the requests were a little odder than that; however little I may know about plants, I don't think hedges actually feed on fresh snickerdoodles, and even if they did it probably wouldn't be necessary to feed them at three in the morning. Nor am I convinced that there has ever been such a thing as a "compost emergency". But I wasn't the one prying the thorny limbs of black locust trees out of the wire mesh of the fence, or removing the six-foot tall pile of dead leaves and brush from between the shed and the garage, so I did not regard myself as ill-used.

One day, I returned home to find a faerie ripping vines from the top of my fence. "Aww, I kind of liked those vines, Gentle."

The faerie emerged from the cluster of vines to stare at me, and I realized she wasn't Gentle: her hair was straight and pulled back in a single braid, and her skin a lighter shade of brown. "You liked these vines?" she said incredulously. "Do you know what they are?"

"Not poison ivy? And less ugly than the fence."

She shook a fistful of green leaves and white flowers at me. "This is Japanese honeysuckle!"

"... okay?"

"No! Not okay! This stuff is a pernicious killer! It'll take over your whole neighborhood if you don't stop it, and choke out all the native vegetation. Next you'll be wanting to plant kudzu!"

Gentle flew over to join us, landing her riding hawk on a fence post. "Hey Ashley. I see you've met Temperance."

Temperance rounded on Gentle. "Who is this nutjob mortal? Did you know she likes Japanese honeysuckle?" she said, in the same tone one might say 'she approves of genocide' or 'she murders kittens for sport.'

"She doesn't even know what Japanese honeysuckle is. Go on inside, Ashley. We've got this."

I quit the field while the opportunity was available, without even asking where Temperance had come from, or why.

*

A week later, there were two male faeries, one bright green and the other nearly white, weeding what had once been the daffodil beds around the back patio. Temperance was with them. I waved to them and went looking for Gentle. She was by the oak tree, talking to a different green faerie, this one female with red hair. I called out, "Hey, Gentle?"

"Hey, Ashley. This is Tranquility, and that pale one is Hope, and the green boy is Surety."

"Great, nice to meet you all. Say, what happened to my fence?"

"It's in the garage."

"The garage."

"Yeah, you should call someone to get rid of it. We can't dispose of metal."

"So ... is there any particular reason it's not, y'know, surrounding my property instead?"

"It's hideous?"

I allowed this to be true. "It's not exactly a weed, though. Or an invasive non-native species."

Temperance grumbled something under her breath about all human handiwork being the product of an invasive non-native species. Gentle waved off my complaint. "You don't need a fence, Ashley. It'll be much easier to take care of the garden without it. No more weeds growing through it!"

"Well, yes, but you could've asked me first."

Gentle looked surprised. "But you told me I could take care of the yard."

"Yes, but I thought that meant weeding and planting and stuff."

"Exactly! Removing the hideous fence is part of 'stuff'. Go on inside, Ashley, it's all under control."

*

A week later, I awoke to fireworks over the daffodil bed. I peered out my window to see Temperance, Hope and Surety dueling with wands. Sparks flew. Perenials perished in a hail of magic, while Hope and Surety struggled to shield them. "Daffodils are not an invasive species!" Hope shouted.

Temperance shrieked, "They're not natives either!"

"These daffodils have been here for fifty years! How much more native do you want?" Surety yelled.

"I don't know, howabout, oh, prairie?" Temperance said, aiming a defoliating blast at another dormant daffodil plant.

"Faeries, faeries, please." Gentle flew into view from around the side of the house. "Calm down. I thought we agreed the daffodils were staying?"

"You agreed." Temperance folded her arms, hovering in the air with a grim expression.

"We're not recreating the prairie here," Surety said.

"Why not?" Tranquility piped up.

"On a quarter-acre of yard?" Hope was incredulous.

"Gotta start somewhere."

I cleared my throat. "Do you think you could start some other time? Like in the morning?"

"Sorry, Ashley!" Gentle looked embarrassed. The other faeries were annoyed by the interruption.

"And maybe let the daffodils live? I like the daffodils." That made Hope and Surety happy, if not Tranquility or Temperance. I went back to bed.

*

Within a month, my yard had been divided into five separate quadrants. Temperance had planted one slope with native prairie grasses and flowers. Tranquility had done the same, but apparently they hadn't been able to agree on which plants were most native, or most in need of cultivation, or something that kept them from agreeing on the same plot of land. Hope was cultivating a flower garden with tulips and peonies around the daffodils by the back patio. Gentle had replaced the fence with hedges and berry bushes. Surety had a vegetable garden. It looked -- well, less bizarre than my dusty plantless yard had. But still pretty weird. At least the hedges screened it from casual view.

I thought that would be the end of it, until war started at dawn one day.

Afterwards, I found out it started over a tulip. One had taken root in Temperance's prairie. Temperance had come to Hope's flowerbed to insist that tulips were invasive: "They're invading right now!"

"So weed it! One tulip! Are you afraid it'll ruin the immaculate ugliness of that scrub you're cultivating?" Hope sneered.

"I'll show you ugly!" Temperance started blasting tulips in the flower garden. Hope tried to shield them. Surety counterattacked against the prairie to draw Temperance back, but he misaimed and hit some of Tranquility's plants instead, drawing her into the fight. Gentle came out from the hedge to try to restore peace, deflecting wand-bolts of vegetative death into the sky. That prompted the enraged combatants to use stronger bolts to avoid deflection and pierce shields.

No one was exactly aiming at the giant oak tree, but some of the deflected bolts hit it, and then some mis-aimed bolts struck it, and, well, it had been laboring under a blanket of poison ivy for years, as well as losing half its branches to an ice storm two years ago. It was a great sturdy monster, but the faerie war was too much for it.

It fell.

On top of my house.

That's when I woke up.

The house was not, technically, destroyed. Granted, I climbed out of my bedroom by going through one of the smashed holes in the roof, which was near ground level and had a large section of flattened wall underneath it. But most of the basement was intact, and there were a couple of walls still standing.

The faerie war had stopped by then. Even Temperance was taken aback. Hope and Tranquility were crying, over the dead oak, I think. Surety was stunned.

Gentle had dived into the wreckage to help me get out. "I ... um ... I'm really sorry about your house, Ashley."

I stood in the patch of prairie, looking at what was left of my house. And the poor old oak tree.

"We'll go now," Gentle was saying. The chastened faeries gathered around my feet.

I shook my head, slowly. "You know what ... no. You stay. I'll go."

"What?"

"My insurance covers fallen trees and Acts of Fae. And ... I think some people just weren't meant to own houses. Keep the yard." With that, I waved and walked away.

It's for the best, really. I never could take care of it on my own.

[Prompt by [livejournal.com profile] ankewehner. Tarot cards drawn were: Three of Coins, Five of Wands, and Death. I don't have the cards with me, so I'll add a photo of them when I get home.]
rowyn: (studious)
[This is from a prompt by [livejournal.com profile] argonel. I drew the King of Cups, the Five of Cups (reversed), and the Nine of Cups (reversed) for it (photo of the cards at the bottom of the post). I had some trouble deciding what to write, until I remembered Crow-Woman, who to me is a very Five-of-Cups-reversed character. This ended up a lot more like a sequel to the previous stories than I'd intended. The first is here, and the second here.]

Crow-Woman moved like a tree walking, in long, slow, rusty strides, as if her muscles did not exactly remember what they were supposed to do. She was twelve feet tall, with a head like a crow's and great dark wings obscured by molted grey down. Her body was human in shape, save for her scaled lower legs and taloned feet. Dead vines and brambles dangled from her torso, shedding bits of leaves and falling away as she walked down Highway 50 in the light of pre-dawn. She held a digital camera in her left hand, its strap around her broad wrist. Though clumsy, her progress was patient and inexorable.

It was dawn when she reached the town of Renwood.The few people up and about stopped to watch her progress, staring and whispering to one another. One old man out walking his dog stopped to wave at her, and scold his dog as it strained at the leash to reach her. Crow-Woman returned the wave with her empty right hand, and continued on her way.

At length, she reached a small strip of shops, including a camera sales and repair store. She bent to try the door: locked. Her crow's head cocked and turned, one grey eye studying the posted hours. The store opened at ten. Crow-Woman turned and stood before the shop window to wait. Her eye fell on the wisps of grey fluff her wings had shed in her wake. Her head rotated to inspect the disarray forty-two years of unpreened molts had made of the feathers on her wings. One wing curled before her, and her beak dipped to preen it.

The sun was high in the summer sky and Crow-Woman was mostly done with the right wing when a car pulled in and parked at the back of the lot. A middle-aged man with dark skin and graying hair got out and stared at her. "Crow-Woman?"

She dropped her wing. "Yes."

He seemed surprised that she answered. "What are you doing here?" he asked, walking gingerly to the door of the camera store, his eyes on the monster.

"I wish to have a camera fixed." She raised the camera in her right hand.

The shopkeeper blinked a few times, digging out keys from his pocket. "... really? You have a camera?"

"It is not my camera."

He unlocked the door. "Oh. Uh. I didn't think you ever left that one spot in the nature preserve, along Highway 50."

"I have left it now. Will you fix this camera?"

"Um. Bring it in, I'll have a look." A bell tied to the door jingled as the man opened the door and stepped inside.

Crow-Woman turned her head sideways and eyed the entrance. She dropped to her knees and one hand to crawl through, wings folded close to her back. At the front counter, she set the camera down and sat back on her heels. Her bird's head was scarcely lower than the human's. An orange tabby cat was at the man's feet, ignoring her and meowing impatiently at him. "Uh, just a minute." He went into the back room. Two more cats followed him, darting suspicious looks at the monster. After he put down fresh food and cat milk for them, he returned to the front. "Right. Camera."

The glass of the LCD display on the back was spiderwebbed with cracks. He tsked and powered it on. It lit, screen distorted. He clicked a few pictures, then powered it down and fiddled with it. "Looks like it's just the display. I can replace that for you, be about $80."

Her crow's eye looked at him.

"... you don't have money, do you?"

"I do not. May I barter for it?"

"Huh." He leaned back. "You know, back when I was young, I took some pictures of you. Where you used to stand."

"Yes. Near sunset, every week for a year, from the start of one summer to the next, thirty-one years ago."

The middle-aged man swallowed. "You remember."

"You said your name was Quentin Longfellow. The worst thing you had ever done was break your brother's arm when you pushed him out of your treehouse." The blank birdlike stare did not waver. "I do not forget."

"Did you mind?"

"No."

"I remember I asked if it was all right, but you never said. Yes or no. Just asked what the worst thing I'd ever done was."

"Yes."

Quentin swallowed again. "Are you going back there, to your spot? After the camera's fixed."

"No. I am done with that."

"What are you going to do now?" the human asked, curiously.

Crow-Woman considered that question. "I do not know."

"Well." He looked down at the broken LCD screen on the camera. "How's this. If you'll do some shoots with me -- you know, you let me take more pictures of you -- at different spots, not at the preserve -- I'll fix your camera for you. Say ... three shoots. Hour or two each."

"It is not my camera," Crow-Woman said. "But that is acceptable. Will you fix it now?"

"I don't know if I've got the parts. Let me see." Quentin checked his inventory, then disappeared in back. He returned brandishing a small cardboard box. "You're in luck." While she waited, legs folded beneath her and wings cramped to her back in the human-sized store, he removed the broken screen and replaced it. A few times, customers came in to interrupt him. Crow-Woman simply waited until it was done, then left.




It was after dusk when Crow-Woman approached the small house near the nature preserve. She bent almost double to knock on the human-sized door. A minute later, a pale human man answered, and gaped at her.

"This is yours." She handed him the camera.

"Uh ... what?" By reflex, he took it, staring. "But -- how -- where did you find it? I left it in my study -- "

"I took it from your study."

"What? Why?"

"I needed to." She turned and left.

"Hey! Hey, wait!" The man dashed down the steps after her. "You can't just go into people's houses and take their stuff!"

Crow-Woman did not answer. She kept walking.

"There are laws against that, you know! I ought to call the police!" He yelled.

A fair-skinned woman came out of the house, asking, "Honey, what's going -- oh! That's the monster from Highway 50!"

"She took my camera!"

"... the one you're holding?"

"Well, she just brought it back. Hey! Don't you walk away from me!" the man yelled.

Crow-Woman walked away. The woman calmed her husband down, leading him back into the house. From an upstairs window, a little boy watched, wide-eyed.




Three days later, at two hours before sunset, Crow-Woman met Quentin on the shores of a lake for their first photo shoot. She had finished preening both wings by then, and they gleamed black in the late afternoon light. She'd also cleaned off the remnants of the vines and plant life that had grown attached to her during her long vigil, and replaced the tattered remnants of her clothing with a simple toga-like garment.

Quentin was nervous when he saw her. "You, uh, sure look different when you're not, um. Rooted. Can I see what your wings look like outstretched?" She swept them out to either side, pinions spread to maximum extension. The brown-skinned man gave a low whistle, forgetting his nervousness as he started snapping photos. "Can you fly?"

"No. Too disused."

"But you used to?"

"Yes. Perhaps someday they will be strong enough again." She shifted her wings in uneven flaps, flexing the muscles.

Quentin spent the rest of the afternoon taking pictures. He did not so much pose her as ask her to do things -- walk down the lake shore, look over the water, stretch her wings back -- and then photograph her while she did them. "You're a very patient model," he told her, setting up his tripod for some final long-exposure shots while the sun set. "But I guess you would be." She cocked her head, and he added, embarrassed. "Lot of practice just standing there."

"Yes."

"How long were you there?"

"Forty-two years, three months, seven days, and twenty-three hours."

Another low whistle. "Lady, you are overdue for a new hobby."

Crow-Woman considered that. "Yes."

He clicked the next photo and waited a moment. "Figured out what you're going to do next yet?"

The twelve-foot tall monster stood silhouetted against the lake and the setting sun, wings outstretched and raised at her back. She thought about his question, then asked, "What is the best thing you could ever do?"

"What? Uh. I don't know. Save someone's life, I guess. Wait, do you mean 'best' like 'most heroic' or more like, the best occupation I could do?" Quentin smiled wryly. "I guess either way, it's not going to be 'running a camera shop in Renwood'."

"I don't know," Crow-Woman tilted her head. "I think I will make finding out my new hobby."
Photo of the cards from the drawing behind the cut )
rowyn: (studious)
Angela Mercado sat at the vanity in her room, opening a fresh pair of disposable contacts and then putting them in. She rubbed at her eyes for a moment, blinking, before tweezing her eyebrows to fashionable slender arches. She curled her straight hair into loose waves, brushed to frame her face. Next came makeup: foundation the same shade as her olive complexion, smoothing out barely-perceptible blemishes in teenage skin. A hint of blush to highlight her cheeks, a hint of shadow to accentuate the hollows, eyeliner to make her eyes look larger, white on the inside, black around the edge. Eyeshadow in three different natural shades, to bring out the contours. Mascara to lengthen her eyelashes. Eyebrow pencil to darken the arches of plucked eyebrows. Glossy lipstick matched to her fingernail polish, a shade redder than her lips. A whole new face, like her own but subtly different.

Better.

Mask in place, Angela hid her school papers in an oversized purse and slung it over her shoulder, before she went downstairs to eat breakfast and catch the bus.




Before she got off the bus at school, she checked her reflection in a compact and touched up her lipstick. Angela had a secret.

Actually, she had two.

Her first class was on the south side of the second floor, but as always Angela headed to the north stairwell when she entered the first floor of the school building. On the way, she passed locker 117, where Stephen Mamarsh was stowing his jacket and getting out his school books. She gave him a little smile and a wave as she walked by.

Stephen smiled in return, his handsome face open and expressive. "Hey Angela." Her heart skipped a beat, and she paused, breathless. He usually smiled and waved back, but he hardly ever spoke, in the tumult before class. "Do you remember if the quiz in World History is tomorrow or Thursday?" he asked.

Thursday, she thought. "Let me check." She pulled her notebook from her purse and went through it slowly. "It's Thursday."

"Cool, thanks. See you later." He waved. Angela waved again and turned to the stairwell. He said my name! her heart sang.

Stephen Mamarsh was her second secret.




Being a good student was her first secret.

Oh, everyone knew that she wasn't a troublemaker, and her teachers and parents knew that she got straight As. But she was careful not to draw attention to herself in class. She didn't raise her hand to answer questions in class, and if called on, she answered slowly and hesitantly, as if she weren't sure of the answer. Even though she was. Always. She managed her homework with care so that she was never carrying more than two school books home in the evening. She didn't want anyone to think she was an egghead. No one liked a smart girl. She'd learned that lesson in junior high. And she was a good student.




Angela had lunch during fifth period. She sat every day with four other girls at a table in middle of the left side of the room. Stephen and his friends sat at the table behind theirs. Stephen sat down directly at her back today; if she turned her head, she could see his dark hair, wet and freshly-showered after football practice.

Angela's friends were talking about movies they wanted to see, but Angela wasn't paying much attention to them. She was following the conversation at the table behind her instead. Sometimes they talked about football or last night's TV shows or girls, though Stephen never seemed to have much to say about that last. Today, though, they were talking about economics. "It's a simulation," Stephen said. "If you raise the price of your goods, fewer people will buy them."

"But the real world doesn't work that way," one of his friends, Matt, said. Yes it does, Angela thought. "I mean, not if you've got monopoly power."

"That's why the real world has anti-trust laws," another friend, Jose said.

"Even a monopoly doesn't give you total market control," Stephen said.

"Yes it does. Duh. That's why they call it a monopoly." Matt again. No, it doesn't, Angela thought. There are equivalent goods if your raise your price point is too high.

"No, it doesn't," Stephen was saying. "Even if you control all the corn in the US -- heck, let's say the world -- if you raise the price to $10,000 a bushel, people aren't going to buy it. Or not very much of it. They'll do without. They'll buy wheat or potatoes or whatever."

"What if I had a monopoly on all food?" Matt asked. "People can't do without food."

"You can't have a monopoly on all food," Jose said.

"Even if you owned every farm in the world, people would grow their own food in their backyards, or hunt, rather than buy yours, if your price was high enough," Stephen said. "Look, this isn't the point."

"Howabout if I made it illegal for them to grow food?"

"Then they'd break the law. Being illegal doesn't make something impossible, it just raises the cost of doing it. If your price is high enough that the risks of law-breaking are cheaper, they'll break the law. But my point is, there's an optimum price point for goods. Based on cost of production, supply, and demand," Stephen said. "And, um, how much the most demanding consumer is willing to pay. Because selling one uint at $10,000,000 is better than selling ten thousand at $100, even if your cost of production is negligible."

"Okay ... "

"There's a formula for figuring it out," Stephen continued. Yes, Angela thought. That's what you use calculus for. "But I don't know what it is." I do.

"Don't look at me," Matt said. "I'm still not convinced markets even work like that."

"Well, I need to figure it out if I'm going to finish this paper." Stephen sounded glum. Angela tried to will the formula to appear in his head.

"So what did you think of The Hunger Games, Angela?" Michelle, sitting next to her, poked her arm.

"Calculus," Angela blurted out.

"What?"

Angela tried to cover up her mistake. "I was just thinking there's a lot of math in it. Economics, I mean." The other girls looked at her askance. "You know. The way the artificial food shortages caused by the Capital prompts District 12 residents to hunt, even though it's illegal."

Michelle gave her an are-you-crazy look, but Kiana said, "Uh-huh. You don't see it so much in the movie as in the book, but there's a lot of interesting stuff on the periphery about how what the government's doing makes them poor. It's not like there really isn't enough to go around."

Stephen leaned back in his chair to look over at them. "Hey, are you all talking about economics too?" he asked.

"Apparently?" Michelle said.

"Because I'm writing this paper, only I'm stuck ... " He explained the problem to them. "I don't suppose any of you know? It seems like it should be something simple."

"I don't think it is," Kiana said. "Simple, I mean."

Angela didn't say anything. Don't be smart don't be smart guys don't like smart girls. Stephen was giving her a pleading look. ".. do you know how to do integrals?" Angela mumbled, almost involuntarily.

"... kind of?"

"I think that's what you need."

"Really?" He passed over his notebook. "Hey, can you show me what you're thinking of?"

He's talking to me! Angela's heart sang. Yeah, so you can do his homework, her mind thought, bitterly. She gave up and wrote out the formula for him, and then drew a graph to help explain. "It's a lot easier to understand if you look at it visually."

"Wow, yeah. I didn't know you were so good at math." Stephen looked from the page to her with an admiring smile.

Angela couldn't help blushing. "I'm not."

He chuckled. The end-of-period bell rang and everyone got up to go to their next class. "Thanks, Angela!" Stephen said as he headed out.

Her stupid heart would not stop rejoicing, no matter how many times she told it she had just relegated herself forever to the status of "undateable girl who will do your homework".




On Wednesday, Stephen was standing by the school's front door when Angela walked in. "Hey, Angela!"

She couldn't stop herself from smiling. Please don't ask me to do your homework please don't ask me to do your homework, her mind chanted. "Hey," she said, softly.

"Thanks again for your help yesterday." Stephen fell into step next to her. Out of habit, Angela walked her usual circuitous route that would take her past his locker.

"You're welcome." Please don't ask me to do your homework.

"So ... I was wondering ... "

"Yes?" Please don't ask me to do your homework.

"I was going to see this play The Invisible Heart on Friday and would you like to come with me?" Stephen gabbled out in a rush. Angela blinked at him, too surprised to respond. "See it's sort of about economics but it won't be boring I'm sure it's also a romance I know that sounds weird but the troupe is really good -- "

Angela touched his arm and he cut off in mid-sentence, holding his breath. "You mean like ... a date?"

Stephen gave her a panicked smile. "Yes? It doesn't have to be The Invisible Heart we can see something else if -- "

"I'd love to."

Stephen's face lit up. "Really?" She nodded. "All ... all right then. I'll pick you up at 7?" She nodded again. "Great. Great! See you then!" He stopped by his locker and waved to her.

Angela waved back, smiling, stunned, and walked on to the north stairwell, as part of her mind filed away a new lesson: Maybe not everyone dislikes a smart girl.

[From a prompt by [livejournal.com profile] the_vulture, requesting a story using the cards from this reading. It uses more the message I got from that reading ("don't be afraid of what other people will think, and don't be afraid of using your abilities to their full potential") than from the individual cards. I think this is the first time since 1996 that I've written a story that wasn't fantasy or sf. Also, I'm now done with all the tarot story prompts. Yay!]
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
Before his rounds the next day, Aunbrel stopped by the captain's office. Captain Tasker was a tall stocky woman of middle years, hunched at her desk as she went over the day's assignments. He tapped at her open door. "Ma'am? May I have a word?"

Captain Tasker waved him in. "Yes?"

"I've noticed there's something of a chronic backlog in the matter of filing reports and logging case notes in this peacehouse."

"Are you offering to fix this?" the captain asked, dryly.

"After a fashion, yes," Aunbrel said. Captain Tasker raised her eyebrows, surprised. "My nest-partner has an -- "

"Wait," Captain Tasker interrupted. "Did you just say 'nest-partner'?"

Kinsley had found out two days ago and been teasing Aunbrel about Ember ever since, along with half the peacehouse, it seemed. Aunbrel had assumed everyone knew by now. "Ember. The viper-dragon who lives with me. Yes."

"'Nest-partner'?" Tasker repeated.

"If I may continue?"

Tasker shook her head to clear it. "Go ahead."

"Ember has a knack for organization, excellent penmanship, and an eye for detail. If you are amenable, I'd like to invite her to help with the peacehouse's paperwork."

"Huh. You want me to offer her a job? I don't know that we've the budget for more clerical staff, though you're right that we could use some. Never had a viper-dragon working here before. They can write?" The captain looked skeptical.

"And sort, shelve, file, and pretty much anything you would assume one would need hands for. So far as I can discern," Aunbrel said. "If Ember's willing to do it at all, I suspect she'll be amenable to part-time volunteer work to start." It's not as though I'm paying her to index my books as it is. "If you're happy with her after a few weeks, you could see about finding room in the budget for another clerk. It might be cheaper in the long run than the mad scrambles to produce needed documents at the last moment."

Tasker snorted. "There's that. I'll talk to the Bright Lady about it. It's the sort of thing she likes to be kept abreast of."

Of course. "Thank you, captain."

When Aunbrel finished his rounds several hours later, a message from the captain was waiting for him on his desk: Bright Lady gave it her stamp of approval, send Miss Ember to see me if she's interested.




When Aunbrel returned home, Ember was working on the book project on the kitchen table again. Dinner was in the oven. "Why are you samassas?" Aunbrel asked.

Ember raised her head to give an open-mouthed smile in greeting. "Because I'm tiny," she answered, returning to her writing. "I can't take care of myself."

"You can't really believe that." Aunbrel scrounged about the kitchen drawers for another pen.

"I can't?"

"You can cook, clean, and scribe. There's plenty of humans, and elves for that matter, living independently with fewer marketable skills." Aunbrel returned to the table with pen in hand, and took a seat.

"But I can't do that outside the nest."

"Because you're samassas. You do realize that's circular reasoning?" The elf took one of the books from the waiting pile, and one of the blank cards.

"I ... yes. But it's not safe for me, going outside alone. Any larger viper-dragon could ... what are you doing?" Ember asked, a note of horror creeping into her voice.

Aunbrel paused in writing out the author of the volume on the card. "Helping with your project?"

The viper-dragon shrank back. "I'm sorry it's just there's so many and it's slow going I am trying I didn't realize -- " she gabbled, trembling.

The elf blinked at her. "Er? I'm not upset, Ember."

"butyou'rdoingmywork!"

"Yes? I can do it while we talk and I don't have anything else to do with my hands." A flash of inspiration struck him. "It's an elf thing. We don't divide up work, so there's no worries about who does what."

Nicitating membranes flicked over orange eyes. "Ohhh." She digested that, and relaxed. "All right."

They returned to their respective cards and wrote for a moment in silence, before Aunbrel returned to the previous topic. "I understand that you're small, Ember, but it's hardly as though I am invulnerable. Any large viper-dragon could eat me for breakfast and be hungry again by dinner. Any large group of any people could kill me, for that matter if they were so inclined. I am not protected by my physical strength: I am protected by the rule of law. By civilization. Those protections may have ... certain exceptions, as regards nest matters among viper-dragons." Aunbrel made an effort to keep his tone neutral. "But those exceptions only apply to internal nest matters. I checked. You are my nest-partner now. No viper-dragon may assault, detain, abduct, or even harass you without violating that law. And I daresay they know that." Ember nodded, but didn't speak. Aunbrel forged on. "I don't know if that makes a difference. My profession is to keep this city and all its inhabitants safe, and the Air knows we don't always succeed. At protecting people in their own homes, for that matter. But it is a good system, and it works well enough that I do not think you should feel a prisoner here, Ember. I don't want you to be afraid to live in the world outside these walls."

Ember shifted her coil, pensive. At length, she said, "It's ... sort of like the whole city is your nest, isn't it? This is just a little part of it. You're protecting the whole city."

Aunbrel nodded. "I am."

"And the other guardians are your nest-partners in it. They keep the city safe too."

Aunbrel involuntarily tried to envision Kinsley or Captain Tasker in the role of nest-partner. "... I ... that might be stretching the analogy somewhat. After a fashion, perhaps." He gave her a curious look. "Does it help to think of it that way?"

Ember bobbed her head, nodding. "It makes sense. And it explains why you're not here during the day."

"I was wondering about that, after you were talking about samassas not working outside the nest," Aunbrel admitted. "Because ifisith don't either, do they? They stay to protect the nest. It's only the -- the mid-sized ones that work outsized."

"The mashisith. Yes. And you're not mashisith. But you're not really leaving, you're just protecting another part of the nest. And this part is being kept safe by the other guardians. Nest-partners." Ember gave an all-over happy wriggle. "So there's no reason I can't do nest-work at the peacehouse. It's just another part of the nest!"

Aunbrel smiled. "Does that make sense? To your hindbrain, that is."

"I think so? It's ... awfully large, as a nest. And encompasses other nests in a way, which doesn't make sense. But still. I think I can do it."

"Good. Because the Air knows we could surely use your help."




It took a few days to arrive at a good routine. Ember had to be introduced to every member of the peacehouse ("It doesn't feel right if I don't even know them"), although Aunbrel cautioned her against calling them 'nest-partners'. "Especially Kinsley."

After trying a few variations, they settled on going to the peacehouse together in the morning. Ember would work half a shift on filing, deciphering and transcribing notes, and organizing documents. Then she'd return to the flat to tend to home-chores or read, and cook dinner. Aunbrel had once or twice attempted to persuade Ember that he was, in fact, capable of feeding himself. "When I got here, your larder consisted of two tins of chicken, a half-packet of stale flatbread, and the remains of a bottle of wine turned to vinegar," she'd answered.

"I like chicken."

"You didn't have salt."

His heart wasn't really in it.

With her spending part of the day out of the apartment, the place was no longer obsessively immaculate, which was something of a relief to Aunbrel. The elf was inclined by nature to be tidy, but there was something vaguely unnerving about having freshly-scrubbed ceilings. Tonight, she was making a casserole of mushrooms, spinach, crabmeat, and rice when Aunbrel returned home. He sat at the kitchen table while she assembled the ingredients, and took up one of the blank cards and a book. They were still working in desultory fashion on the index project, because it was a terribly beguiling idea once conceived.

While dinner was baking, they talked about the day's incidents; Ember took notes to write up when she was at the peacehouse the next day. When the casserole was ready, they cleared the table to eat; Ember had grown used to Aunbrel's help and no longer took it as implied criticism.

During a pause in the dinner conversation, Aunbrel sipped at a mug of warm spiced cider, watching Ember snap up bites of food from her plate with quick and oddly dainty motions. "When I first invited you to stay, I had no idea what I was getting into. I daresay if I'd had the least notion what it would be like," he paused for breath, and Ember looked up nervously before he finished, "I'd have invited you weeks earlier."

Ember's tailtip wriggled in shy pleasure. "Truly?"

"Absolutely."

Ember dipped her head back to her plate. "I feel like an awful bother sometimes, with all my irrational impulses that don't make sense to you."

The elf shook his head. "I don't know that all my habits are based in strict rationality either. Not that it's not an adjustment. And more than a bit peculiar at times. I rather feel like I'm taking advantage of you, to be honest." She looked puzzled, and he gestured vaguely around the room. "You don't need to do all of this. Cooking and cleaning and whatnot. You're not my servant."

"But I like doing it." She glanced away. "Maybe because you don't expect me to."

"If you ever change your mind, I promise not to complain if you stop. But I think I am done trying to talk you out of it." Aunbrel smiled. "In any case ... thank you for accepting the offer."

The little dragon ducked her head again. "I think I should be thanking you. This is a very strange sort of nest -- and I love it. All my life, I've been told so many rules, so many codes of behavior, all designed to keep me safe. And it seems like none of those rules matter now. And you know ... for the first time ... I actually feel safe."

Aunbrel raised his mug in salute. "To our very strange sort of nest, then."

Somber, Ember curled her tail around her glass and clinked. "May it never be normal."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
They stayed up too late talking, about everything. How to mend rugs (because Aunbrel had no idea and it seemed like magic to him, and still seemed like magic after Ember showed him, especially her deft handling of the hook and yarn with the curl of her tail). How Ember's former nest-partners had treated her on the visit ("Very well! I think we'll get along wonderfully now that I'm not living there.") Commander Lisia's informal commendation and attendant lack-of-enlightenment from her. Viper-dragon nest behavior. Elf home behavior. By the end of the evening, Aunbrel still did not feel he understood, but he was beginning to conceive that understanding was, perhaps, more journey than destination. And he might be farther down the road than he realized.

Aunbrel left Ember coiled up in her blanket on the couch, thinking I should get a bed for her in the spare room. Or something. What do viper-dragons normally sleep on? When he'd originally let the apartment, he had intended to use the spare room as a study, but all it had were more bookcases at the moment. He just hadn't gotten around to furnishing it yet.

He'd changed and settled beneath the thick furs of his blankets and was starting to doze off when a click at the bedroom door and a slithering sound snapped him to full wakefulness. "Ember?"

A little red dragon head peered at him over the side of the bed. "Um."

"Is something wrong?"

"No." Ember shifted uncomfortably. Her blanket was curled in her tail. Aunbrel waited. "It's just I know elves normally sleep alone and that's fine I'm sure I can get used to it eventually I managed to sleep last night and in the cage at jail for that matter but viper-dragons usually sleep in piles and -- "

Aunbrel threw back the covers, and bent to scoop her up. He settled her at his back, and pulled the furs back over them. "Better?"

She snuggled in against him, a warm solid weight at his back, tucking her own blanket against her other side. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. Sleep well, Ember."

"You too, Aunbrel."




Four days later, Aunbrel returned home to discover Ember at the kitchen table, with dozens of small white cards spread before her, and more in boxes beside her. A dozen books were neatly stacked at her other side. Ember was carefully printing on one of the cards, using a pen held in her tail. Dinner was simmering on the stove.

"What are you doing?" Aunbrel asked curiously.

"I'm indexing your book collection."

Aunbrel blinked. "What?"

"I thought it might be useful. You've got so many! And at least a third aren't even fiction. I thought I'd make an index first, and cross-reference them by author, title, and subject matter. Then maybe regroup them by subject matter. I mean, all the cookbooks should at least be together, for example. I'm putting the entries on cards so they'll be easy to reorganize. And add to." Orange eyes turned to him. "Oh! You got a new book!"

Aunbrel set his latest purchase on the table, feeling somehow guilty. "You're indexing. My books."

"It was that or strip the kitchen table and re-varnish it, and the novelty of housework without being interrupted is wearing off." Ember looked a little anxious. "Do you think I shouldn't?"

Aunbrel leaned against the table, giving the little dragon a considering look. "I think there is a growing mound of rather more urgent paperwork at the peacehouse that would benefit from your attention."

Ember wiggled her tail, amused. "It's a pity I can't do that."

"Why can't you?"

The viper-dragon's tail stilled as she saw he was serious. "I guess if you brought it home and showed me what to do ... ?"

"No, I mean, why can't you come to the peacehouse and do it? The filing cabinets are all there. Clearly you are capable of such organization."

Ember looked agitated. "But that'd be outside work!"

"No, it's indoors."

"I mean outside the nest! I can't work outside the nest! I'm samassas!"

Aunbrel took the simmering pot from the stove, inhaling the fragrance of chicken stew and dumplings, and set it on a trivet. "Is this a problem because someone else told you it should be, or because you feel it is one?"

"I don't know. Yes?" Ember coiled up on herself, her scales rumpled.

The tall elf sat in the chair beside her. "It's all right, Ember," he said, gently. "I'm not going to make you do it if you'd rather not."

"I'd do it if you told me to," she said in a small voice.

"... is this another viper-dragon thing?"

"Yes."

"I am disinclined to ask you to do things you don't want to, Ember, much less order you," Aunbrel said. Ember didn't reply. She gathered the loose cards with her tail and tucked them into boxes. " ... do you mean that you want me to tell you to?"

"... maybe?"

Aunbrel attempted to digest this concept. "I don't think I've quite got the trick of this nest-partner business."

Ember's tail gave a weak wiggle. "Me either, and I was born to it."

"So. Why might you want me to order you to do something you don't want to do otherwise?"

"Because then I'd know I was supposed to."

"And if I suggest it but don't order it?"

"Ifisith don't make suggestions to samassas."

"May we opt out of this rule of nesting behavior?"

Ember wiggled her tail again. "I think we already did. But it's still there, in my hindbrain."

"I didn't order you to index my book collection. I didn't even ask you to."

"But that's different. It's just another part of nest-care. I'm supposed to do that. I'm not supposed to work outside the nest. I'm not even supposed to go outside the nest without an escort."

"But you have been," Aunbrel pointed out. "To the grocer's. I didn't buy fresh chicken or rosemary. And I didn't tell you to."

Ember rested her chin on the table. "I know. That feels sort of wrong too, still, and sort of wonderful. I did sneak out from the Coalstone nest a lot. It's still strange not to be sneaking."

Aunbrel took a deep breath. "Why don't I talk to the captain about you doing the work, and you can think some more about whether you want to do it? Or need me to order you to, I suppose."

She nodded, clearing the rest of the book-index project from the table so they could eat.
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
After they finished their rounds the next day, Aunbrel was in even more of a rush to leave the peacehouse than Kinsley. The elf dumped the day's notes in his drawer and headed for the door. "What's gotten into you, elf boy?" the old officer asked, shrugging out of his uniform jacket.

Aunbrel had spent the day not explaining the situation to Kinsley, and wasn't about to ruin his record now. "I am taking the admonishment that I not work so hard seriously. You should be pleased."

"Hey, did I complain you worked too hard?"

"Yes."

"Really?"

"Yes."

"Huh. Don't know what I was thinking." Kinsley walked with Aunbrel down the steps to the main floor. "Want to get a drink?"

"No, thank you." Aunbrel crossed the big main room, headed for the door. "I just want to get ho -- "

"Commander on floor!" a senior guardian's voice barked. By reflex, every person in the large room, including prisoners, complainants, Kinsley (somewhat creakily) and Aunbrel, turned to the door and dropped to one knee, ducking their heads as Commander Lisia entered the peacehouse.

"As you were," the Commander said, her leopard pacing beside her. Everyone rose and returned to their purposes, stealing covert glances to the Bright Lady's fur robes and gold headdress. She carried a leather folder tucked beneath one arm. Aunbrel and Kinsley kept their eyes respectfully averted as they moved to the door.

"Guardian Aunbrel?" Commander Lisia touched his arm.

Aunbrel reflected that twenty-foot viper-dragons had nothing on the Bright Lady when it came to intimidation. And she's not even trying. "Yes, Bright Lady?"

"I'm glad to find you here. Might I have a word with you?"

Aunbrel wondered what he'd done wrong now. "Yes, Bright Lady." He trailed obediantly behind her as she entered the guard captain's office. The captain rose and started to kneel at her entrance, but stopped when she waved off the formality.

"Thank you for bringing the Coalstone nest matter to my attention, Captain Tasker," the Commander said. "You were quite correct; it's exactly the sort of thing I need to be informed about." The captain acknowledged this with a nod.

Ah, that. Naturally.

Commander Lisia turned back to the tall elf. "You've been causing quite a stir with the viper-dragon populace, Guardian Aunbrel. They're not used to interference in nest affairs."

"Yes, Bright Lady." Aunbrel held himself formally, hands clasped at his back. You did say I should get a hobby.

The commander leafed through the folder in her hands, saying absently, "Some of them did not appreciate it much, although Mistress River ... I'm sorry, Guardian, were you in a hurry this evening?"

'No' was untrue and 'Yes' was impossible. "Bright Lady?"

"No matter." She closed the folder. "I appreciate your efforts. Well done, Guardian. You may go. Have a good evening." The commander turned back to Tasker, taking a seat opposite her at the desk and putting the folder on the desk. "There's a few things I'd like to discuss with you, captain."

Aunbrel stood near the door, blinking, as his superiors fell into discussion. Need warred with prudence. He opened the door, and started to step outside, before need overthrew caution and prudence both. He cleared his throat.

His superiors looked to him. "Yes, Guardian?" Commander Lisia said.

"Permission to ask a question, Bright Lady?"

A graceful nod. "Speak."

"... do you know what's going on? That is, does any of this viper-dragon business make any sense at all to you? Because if you could explain it to me, I would be forever in your debt, Bright Lady."

A small smile formed on the commander's face. "I do believe, at this point, that you understand as much of it as any other person in Hopestart, Guardian Aunbrel."

"... that is not the reassurance I had hoped for, Bright Lady."

"Now you know what my job's like. Go home, Guardian."




When he got home, Aunbrel opened the door to an apartment he barely recognized.

It gleamed.

The hardwood floor in the front room had been polished and the tile in the kitchen waxed. The rugs had been aired and beaten, making them two shades brighter, and the threadbare patches in them mended so faultlessly they looked new. The tattered sofa had been patched artfully over the top and arms. The books stacked two-deep in the row of cases against one wall had been pulled out, dusted, alphabetized, and returned with the back rows stacked atop small empty boxes so that the spines were visible above the front rows. An appetizing smell of spiced beef and vegetables wafted in from the equally-pristine kitchen.

Ember called out from the kitchen, "Good evening! I know you weren't sure when you'd be home but I thought I'd try cooking something -- I remembered you saying that the izkawa beef from A Hope in War sounded good, so I found a recipe in one of your cookbooks ...." She slithered into the front room and trailed off. Aunbrel was standing open-mouthed by the entranceway. "Is something wrong?" she asked in a small voice.

"What happened here?"

Ember coiled up on herself. "I'm sorry I just thought I should straighten up a bit and I didn't think you'd mind you said it was all right to go to the grocer's if I needed anything and well I didn't mean to mess up your books I can put them back the way they were if you don't like it -- "

The elf threw his arms out. "I don't -- " He took a deep breath. "I'm not angry, Miss Ember. Surprised. Yes. Surprised. I thought you'd spend the day reading or somesuch. Did you do all this yourself?"

"... mostly? Glasscale, you remember him, he stopped by with Mistress River to bring some of my things and they helped with getting the boxes to prop the books on. But mostly me."

"... what happened to 'I'm lazy and hate all my work'?"

"Well. It's much easier to get things done when there's no one around to interrupt me. And I couldn't spend the whole day reading. And I thought I should try to start things off right. I'm sorry."

"Miss Ember," Aunbrel said, with a straight face but a smile in his voice, "You are as bad an overachiever as I am. Is that food ready? Because I am ravenous."

Ember uncoiled, her tail giving a tentative pleased wiggle. "Yes."

The viper-dragon insisted on transfering the meal from pan to serving dish before serving. Aunbrel hadn't even known he had a serving dish. The table was already set with plates and napkins; Ember looked chagrined when Aunbrel retrieved flatware for himself. Aunbrel was somewhat relieved to see that though the scuffed kitchen table had been scrubbed and polished, it had not been stripped and revarnished. Yet. He sat in one chair while Ember coiled atop the other. They ate in companionable silence for a few minutes, until Ember spoke. "Guardian ... do you think you could call me Ember instead of 'Miss Ember'? Since we're nest-partners?"

"Only if you'll call me Aunbrel," the elf replied.

Ember's eyes widened. "Oh, no, I couldn't do that."

"Miss Ember it is, then."

Her tail tip gave a nervous wiggle. "But you're ifisith! I ought to call you Master Aunbrel."

Aunbrel set his fork down and favored her with a look. "Don't you dare." She tilted her head to one side, puzzled. The elf sighed. "I understand this is all different from what you're used to, but I did not invite you here to be my servant. Or samassas, for that matter. I invited you as my friend. I should like us to still be friends. Ember."

She ducked her head, then opened her mouth in an imitation smile. "Me too ... Aunbrel."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
River flowed down the street faster than Aunbrel could run; when the viper-dragon realized he wasn't keeping up, she scooped him into the curl of her tail and carried him. It was the most undignified mode of travel he'd ever experienced. Even when they reached the nest, she didn't stop. He had never been inside its labyrinthine halls before, but River bore him inside now, slithering through passages into a wide low-ceilinged chamber at its heart. The room was packed with seething viper-dragons in an echo of the situation he'd first seen them in: medium ones watching, big ones circling, Ember at the center. River bored through the pack. hissing "Stop," in their native tongue. Aunbrel could not speak it, but he'd learned to understand a bit of it by now. She deposited Aunbrel in the inner ring, between two of the large viper-dragons. They hissed their displeasure.

Aunbrel got to his feet, straightening as much as he could, though the low ceiling forced him to stoop. He stumbled to Ember's side. She was missing a half-dozen scales around her neck. "How bad is it?" he asked. She met his gaze with blank orange eyes, as if she couldn't remember how to speak his language. That bad, then.

River coiled between them and the other viper-dragons, repeating, "Stop" again and again, and then something longer that he didn't understand until she repeated it in the human tongue. "This one has protected the samassas. He has a right to be here. He is ifisith. He has a right."

I am what? "Ifishith"? That's ...a nest role? Leader? Aunbrel boggled, watching the viper-dragons around him. Frequent contact had given him a better feel for their moods, and he realized that the nest was not only angry and hostile, but pained. Wounded.

"Then he should stand with us," hissed the turqouise dragon. "Why does he stand by the samassas-fith?"

"And he must agree with the amendment," the indigo viper-dragon hissed.

"No." Aunbrel hunched, his head pressed against the too-low ceiling. "You're not fixing anything. Not like this." Like a wounded animal, gnawing at its own limb in an effort to stop the pain. "Tell me what's wrong."

A half-dozen voices called out answers in the dragon tongue: even if he understood it like a native he could not have made them out. River again slithered a circle just inside the ring of the leaders made, hissing a warning. They fell silent, then spoke one at a time.

"She defies the natural order."

"Refused work."

"Spoke against the will of a leader."

"Encouraged willfulness in others."

"Resisted all prior amendment."

"She must be amended." All of the leaders hissed in unison on the final words.

This is unbearably petty. Aunbrel licked dry lips. "Who was hurt?" He turned, looking from one viper-dragon to the next. They returned blank, uncomprehending gazes. "What did she damage? Because the only injury I'm seeing right now is on her."

"You do not understand." River slid into place in the circle of the other leaders. "She damages the order. The nest cannot continue like this."

Aunbrel choked. "Is your culture so fragile it cannot abide one tiny creature questioning it?" Then why am I here?

"This is the moment of amendment. We cannot lose it," the turqoise dragon hissed. "You need to understand."

"Well I don't! She's not broken!" the elf guardian growled, "And if she was, this wouldn't fix her! This is madness!"

"There is no other way!" Coils bunched about them, necks drawn back to strike.

Aunbrel shifted to a fighting crouch over Ember, truncheon in one hand and guardian blade in the other, painfully aware that neither was likely to do him or Ember much good against six dragons several times his size. He looked from one pair of dragon eyes to the next, waiting for the first strike. The elf's eyes fell on River, as ready to attack as any of the others. Why did you bring me here? To approve? You had to know I wouldn't. Is that a dragon custom too? What are you waiting -- Realization hit him. "You don't want to do this."

"Of course not!" River roared. "Do you think we would, if we had any choice at all? The nest cannot abide this turmoil."

'And where else am I going to go?' Ember had said.

"Ah." Aunbrel blinked, twice. "Ahh. Of course. Miss Ember, would you like to join my nest?" His tone was almost conversational. Around him, viper-dragons gaped, astonished.

Ember rolled her head back to stare at him, her eyes still blank. After a moment, she gave an all-over shake of her body, as if coming back to herself. "... what?"

"I know it's not an actual nest, as such. Just a flat. And I don't have any nest-partners so it'd be very different from what you're used to. But you don't seem exactly wanted here, as you are, and I'd like your company -- I hate living alone, in truth -- so. Er. Would you?"

Ember considered this for another two and a half seconds. "Yes."

"Splendid. That's sorted, then." Aunbrel holstered his weapons and lifted Ember. "Which way is out?"

The nest around them seethed in confusion. River sidled over to make a gap in the ring. Stooped by the cramped ceiling, Aunbrel made his way to the opening.

"Stop!" the indigo dragon cried.

"This is impossible," said the turqoise. "He is not even dragon!"

"I don't see how that enters into it." Aunbrel didn't stop. "Mistress River called me ifishith. You've let me protect your nest-partners before. If I am ifishith, I may lead my own nest. You cannot abide my nest-partner's behavior, and have failed to amend it to your liking; I have no such problem. Miss Ember is no longer your nest-partner, so you need not concern yourself with her any longer. Hence. Good night." Aunbrel moved forward on chutzpah alone. If I pretend convincingly enough that this makes sense, maybe we can get out of here before they realize it doesn't.

River slithered in a U-shape around the two, leading the way to the exit as her broad length shifted aside any other dragons. She ignored the protests and confusion, and Aunbrel followed suit. When they finally cleared the labyrinthine tunnels into open air, Aunbrel straightened, flexing his shoulders backwards and sighing. "Thank you, Mistress River."

"And you, Guardian. May your nest prosper. Farewell, Ember. Know that you both are always free to visit here." The giant dragon lowered her head to Ember, who lifted hers to bump noses gently, tongues flicking out. River turned and slithered back into her nest.

Aunbrel helped Ember up to his shoulders, wincing as his hand brushed one of the bare patches of skin where a scale was missing. "Will those grow back?" he asked quietly. "Do you need medical care?"

"I'm fine, now. They'll grow back in time." Ember rested her head on top of his. "Thank you."

"You're welcome. That is, you truly are. Honestly, I hate living alone, and I enjoy your company, and ... " A sudden horrible thought struck him. "... and ... and ... I didn't just ask you to, er, become my mate, did I?"

Ember convulsed with mirth, her coil shaking around his shoulders.

"You're laughing. That means no. Right?"

She bobbed her head, gasping. "No. Nest-partner is different from mate."

"Ah. Good. Good." Aunbrel exhaled in relief, and started walking home. "You know I don't have any idea what I'm doing, right?"

Ember nodded again. "Me either." After a moment, she added, "I think I like it. Oh, and samassas aren't normally allowed to mate. That's why it was so funny. That and your panicked tone ... you don't mind that I was laughing, do you?"

"No. Why would I?"

The little red dragon nestled her head in the elf's dark hair. "No reason," she said, with a happy sigh. "No reason at all."
rowyn: (Aunbrel and Ember)
Three days later, Aunbrel returned with a pack half-full of books: Ember's to return to her, and a few new ones to lend. A turquoise viper-dragon answered the door, eyed him suspiciously, and left him waiting on the stoop for several minutes. At length, the same midnight-blue dragon Aunbrel had met at Mistfield Park opened the door, upper body raised to fill the entrance. Ember was just visible beyond the dark dragon's body. The scales of both dragons were raised and ruffled. "Have you found some new false charge to place upon my nest-partner's coil, Guardian?" the midnight-blue dragon hissed.

"Not at all. I am quite convinced of her innocence in all things." More than I can say for you. "I lent her a few books by way of apology for my error. I'd like to speak with her, if she's so inclined."

"She is not. Go away, Guardian."

Aunbrel looked past the large dragon to meet Ember's worried eyes. "Is she a minor?" The midnight-blue dragon stared at him, and Aunbrel continued, "I was given to understand that minor viper-dragons had very fine scales, and that the large thick ones denoted majority, but perhaps I am mistaken. Is Miss Ember a minor?"

"You know she is not."

"Then by the laws of Hopestart, she's a right to determine for herself with whom she chooses to associate. As she is not three yards away, I should like to hear her answer from her own mouth. Miss Ember?" Aunbrel met her eyes. The large wedge-shaped head of the midnight-blue dragon turned to Ember as well.

Ember lifted her head as high as she could. "I am busy this afternoon, Guardian," she said, quietly. "Would you be able to come back tomorrow?" The big dragon hissed in evident irritation at this answer.

"Certainly," Aunbrel replied. "What time would be most convenient?"

"5 o'clock?" Orange eyes darted to the midnight-blue dragon. "Please, Mistress River. I'll be done with everything by then. And I want to."

River's hissing reply did not sound convinced. Aunbrel ignored the large dragon and bowed to the small. "5 o'clock. I shall see you then."




When Aunbrel returned at the appointed hour, Ember had the door open even before he knocked. "You came back!"

"Of course." Aunbrel shrugged off his pack, pulling out Ember's books. "I still had to return these." A dragon slithered into the hall behind Ember, glanced their way, then slithered off. "Did you have a chance to finish the other Hope novels?"

She nodded eagerly, taking her books back on her tail and stowing them atop a cabinet in the wall, then offering his own back.

"How did you like them?"

"I loved them! I think the second one is still my favorite, though. I miss Rielle."

"Do you? I always thought them well rid of her and her foul temper."

"Oh, but she had such wit! No one else gets half her good lines."

"If you call sarcasm wit." Aunbrel was dubious.

"I do! I think I could forgive all her misplaced anger, to have a travelling companion who provided so much entertainment." As Ember spoke, River loomed up behind her in the entranceway. Aunbrel noticed other viper-dragons were watching them through the round windows of the nest.

Aunbrel disregarded the audience and focused on Ember. They conversed for a quarter of an hour on the stoop. At length, Aunbrel massaged at the back of his neck. "I passed a little park about two blocks from here, with a few benches. Might we go there to talk? It would be nice to speak more on a level."

River hissed. Ember glanced back to the other dragon and sunk down. Aunbrel cleared his throat. "Is something wrong?"

"She is samassas," River hissed, slithering past Ember to interpose between her and the elf. The midnight-blue dragon rose up on her coils to loom over Aunbrel. "She cannot leave the nest without a protector."

"She will not be without a protector. I will be with her."

"You? An elf?" River circled around Aunbrel, looping coil on top of coil in a wide circle around the guardian's feet, head several feet above his, looking down. "What would you do if someone menaced my nest-partner?"

"I am Guardian Aunbrel of Hopestart, an official protector of this city." Aunbrel caught River's eye. "And, Mistress River, if I felt Miss Ember were being threatened, I would ask the individual, politely, to cease in such behavior."

"You would ask. I could swallow you whole, Guardian Aunbrel, and leave neither bones nor body for your fellows to find." The midnight coils drew in closer, not quite touching his legs. At the nest's round windows, the faces of other viper-dragons watched them. "So what would you do if asking were not enough?"

"Do you truly want to know, Mistress River?" Aunbrel's voice was low and dangerous.

"Yesss," she hissed.

"Then move just one inch closer."

The susurration of shifting coils stopped as the dark viper-dragon froze. She stared at him for a long moment. Aunbrel met those near-black eyes unblinking, and waited. After a very long pause, River uncoiled, widening the circle she formed around him as she withdrew, her head lowering until it was of a level with his. "You have leave to go with this one, Ember. He will keep you safe."

Ember watched open-mouthed, small pointed teeth white against her gums, as River slithered back inside. Orange eyes turned back to the guardian. Aunbrel extended his arm, and Ember climbed up to encircle his shoulders. He'd walked halfway down the block before Ember spoke. "That was amazing! I've never seen Mistress River back down from anyone, not even another dragon! What would you do if asking didn't work?"

Aunbrel shrugged. "Get swallowed whole, I suppose." Ember gaped at him. "That's a lot of extra weight for a viper-dragon to carry, even a big one. It would have to slow one down. Might give you enough time to escape. I suggest you use the opportunity wisely in the event."




After that, Aunbrel returned every few days, to exchange new books and to talk about the ones they'd already read. On the third or fourth visit, Ember asked if she could invite other viper-dragons to join them. It struck Aunbrel as the sort of thing she shouldn't need his permission to do, and he said as much.

"But may I?" she asked anxiously.

"Of course? Yes."

Then on some days it would be four or five little viper-dragons with him, some of them chattering about books and some of them just wandering around the park and enjoying the day. Sometimes Ember asked to go elsewhere: a museum, a café, a local landmark, and Aunbrel would escort her and her nest-partners around Hopestart. She lent him one of her favorite books in her native language, and a translation dictionary to go with it: Aunbrel puzzled through it slowly with her and on his own, gradually making sense of it.

On making sense of the dragons themselves, his progress was more uncertain. The large ones no longer threatened or postured at him. The small ones deferred to him. Ember, whom he saw the most, seemed to think him a friend.

That was nice.

The rest of it was as confusing as a burning labyrinth, but not all bad. If he had been sure the nest wasn't still try to 'amend' Ember via physical trauma, he might have been content.

If he had been sure.

Then, during one of his still-frequent late nights at the peacehouse, River's head appeared at his office window. "Guardian," she hissed.

"Fire and Air!" Aunbrel jumped to his feet and went to the window. River had risen two stories on her coil to stare at him through it. "What are you doing there?"

"You must come."

"What? Where?"

"To the nest." River started to slide back down the wall.

"Er. Why?"

The giant serpentine body stopped. "You said you would protect Ember. Did you mean it?"

"Yes."

"Then come."

Smoke and blazes. "I'll come. Let me assemble a squad. What's going on?"

River hissed in fury. "No! It is not their business. It is ours. You must come. Only you."

And if that doesn't sound like a trap.... "On my way. Wait for me out front."

Aunbrel stopped at the front post to tell the guardian on duty, "I'm going to the viper-dragon nest at 101st and Coalstone to investigate a disturbance. No, I don't want backup now. But if I'm not back in three hours, send a squad to find me, or what's left of me. Blazes, send a platoon."

[Did I say this story would have three or four parts? I'm thinking ... maybe seven. ]
rowyn: (studious)
Ember tried to explain.

Viper-dragon society was stratified based on the size of the individual. Certain roles were reserved to the largest: they were the leaders, protectors, and enforcers of order. It was their part to ensure that the nest was safe, that it ran smoothly, that everyone's needs were met and that everyone knew their role. Mid-sized dragons were providers, crafters and builders: the ones who gathered resources for the nest. Small dragons, like Ember, were tasked with maintaining the nest: repairing, cleaning, cooking, caring for hatchlings. "So everyone has their place and duties. The trouble is ... well ... I'm very lazy." Ember sunk to the floor of her cage, curling her head on her tail. "And disobedient. And insolent. There's a dozen different duties that I'm suited to, and I hate each of them. I do my part poorly if at all. I quarrel with the leaders if I disagree with their decisions. I sneak out unaccompanied. I ... it's a long list." She sighed. "Today I was caught alone outside. That's a very serious offense. It's for my own good, of course. I'm too small to be safe travelling alone."

Aunbrel bit his tongue to avoid saying that she hardly seemed safe in the company of her nest. Just listen. Try to understand.

"Since I'm not behaving the way I should be, endangering myself and the nest, it falls on the leaders to amend my behavior. They have to do it, you see. I have to learn my place in the nest and keep it. It makes the whole nest angry and upset when I don't. That's what you ... interrupted."

Try to understand. "They looked like they intended to beat you." Aunbrel strove to keep his tone neutral.

She nodded. "I've been ... very intractable. They have to escalate."

Do they. "You do not sound intractable."

Her tail tip wiggled a little. "It's easier to say you're contrite than to actually do better."

"Won't they resume this ... punishment, when you return?"

"No. The moment of amendment is past. The leaders need the anger of first realizing the error, in order to act so. And the correction would be too delayed from that moment, now, to do me any good." Ember closed her eyes, looking weary and sad.

"... does it normally do you any good?"

"Not so far."

Well, that all sounds perfectly barbaric and revolting, and if it's not illegal it ought to be. "So you want to go back to them."

Another nod. "They only want what's best for me. And where else am I going to go?"




When they released Ember the next day, Aunbrel escorted her back to her nest. The small dragon seemed at once embarrassed and appreciative of the gesture. They avoided difficult subjects by talking about books the whole way: the Hope volumes Ember had read in the cell, her favorites in dragon literature, other works that Aunbrel liked, human books they'd heard of but that neither had read yet, and so forth. The time passed quickly.

Her building had been constructed for use by viper-dragons, and was accordingly little-suited to the needs of those who walked upright. The stoop was a ramp leading to a round door four feet wide. Even the awning over the ramp was too low for Aunbrel. A pair of small viper-dragons opened the door from within as Ember slithered up the ramp. They hissed a greeting to her, touching noses and then twining necks in what seemed an affectionate gesture. Aunbrel, however, they viewed with suspicion.

The elf guardian responded with a tip of his hat and "Good morning." Turning to Ember, he extended a long-fingered brown hand to offer a pair of books he'd been holding under his arm. "I thought you might have an interest in some of the others in the series."

Her orange eyes lit with pleasure. "I would! But -- no -- I've no way of returning them."

"I'll stop by sometime to pick them up." Aunbrel still held them out. As she hesistated, he added, "And then I'll have someone to talk to about them." The guardian was not entirely sure, on reflection, if that last was disguising his ulterior motive of following up on the dragon's situation, or if it actually was his ulterior motive.

With only a little more reluctance, Ember balanced the books on her tail. "Oh! Wait here," she said, as a thought struck her. She slithered into the round carpeted corridor of the entranceway and disappeared up a tunnel. The interior of the nest looked labyrinthine, the ceilings everywhere too low for humans, nevermind elves.

A few minutes later, Ember returned with three different books balanced on her tail. She extended them to Aunbrel. "There. Now you can read something new, too."

The elf grinned and accepted. Tipping his hat again, he took his leave.
rowyn: (studious)
Kinsley was nowhere close to forgiving Aunbrel by the time they had finished booking their 'prisoner' and were en route to the Drunken Scarab. Aunbrel attempted to beg off from his earlier promise, but his partner would have none of it. "After that? After that? You owe me a drink, elf boy. You owe me a week's worth of drinks. By smoke and blaze, what do you think you're playing at, sticking our necks in the midst of dragon business?"

"Ember needed our help." They'd learned the viper-dragon's name when they incarcerated her.

"Hah! If she'd truly needed our help, she'd've asked for it. 'No trouble', she said."

Aunbrel shook her head. "She was lying then. You saw how she was once she was away from them."

"Yes, I saw how she didn't want to tell us a blazing thing about what was going on there. Dragon business, boy. Don't imagine you've made anything better for her with that little stunt of yours." Kinsley pushed open the door to the Scarab, spilling warmth and firelight from the pub into the evening chill of the narrow street. "Hullo everybody! Drinks are on him!" Kinsley jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Aunbrel. Resigned, the elf forced a smile and followed his partner inside.

*

Elves were just as capable of intoxication by alcohol as men, and enjoyed liquor just as much, though elves favored wine and cider where men preferred beer and ale.

Aunbrel cared for none of it. He disliked the bitterness and pungent aftertaste lurking beneath even sweet wines. The substance made him sleepy, morose, and faintly nauseated. Every now and then, he would try drinking again to see if it had improved any from his last experience, and it never had.

He was nursing his second mug of mulled spiced cider, which was the least objectionable drink he'd ever tried. If he ignored the aftertaste and the effects of inebriation, it was quite tolerable. He couldn't help feeling he was missing the whole point, though.

Kinsley was on at least his seventh or eighth drink by now, roaring drunk and regaling the pub with a preposterous account of how he'd single-handedly put down a riot in the Iron District twelve years ago. Aunbrel couldn't help feeling that sobriety, if not honesty, would have improved the tale. Kinsley kept losing his place in it, starting over or going back to add forgotten details. No one else seemed to mind, laughing and toasting and drinking themselves further into a stupor. Surrounded by giddy cheerful drunks that kept smiling at him and encouraging him to "Drink up, Guardian!", Aunbrel felt more alone than he did at night in his peacehouse office.

After buying another round for the house, Aunbrel offered the pretext of going to relieve his bladder and made his escape during the crush to place orders. He turned up the collar of his brown rabbit hide jacket against the chill of the night, hoping the wind would clear the morbid weary alcohol-induced fog from his mind. His feet turned toward the peacehouse of their own accord, his mind unwilling to face the loneliness of his sparsely-furnished flat. I might as well get some of the blazing paperwork done. Then he remembered the Commander, observing the light of his office every night, and couldn't bear to disappoint her by turning the flame up again. Well, what is it all for?

He stepped into the peacehouse, hands stuffed in his pockets, and strode to the west wing, where the jail cells were.

*

Ember had a cell to herself -- more a cage, in truth, five feet on a side, built to hold belligerent felis. It was set at the end of a hall, far enough from the rows of iron-barred, stone-walled cells that a felis paw would not be able to claw out at another prisoner -- nor another prisoner poke into the cage. The small red dragon was curled atop a blanket, a book propped on her tail, turning the pages with her tailtip as she read. Aunbrel paced down the hall to her, ignoring the taunts and pleas from the drunks and petty thieves in the cells he passed. She stirred at his approach, body tensing at first, then relaxing when she recognized him. "Good evening, Guardian." Ember shifted to a narrower coil to raise her head as high as she could, which was about the level of Aunbrel's waist. Her head tilted back to meet his eyes.

"Good evening, miss." Aunbrel crouched next to her cage. "Thought I'd stop by to see how you were doing."

The dragon's chin dipped in a nod. "I am well, thank you. Thank you for the books, too."

The elf rubbed the back of his neck. "You're welcome. I'm sorry about the lack of selection."

"No, don't be. A Hope in War is much better than the procedure manual I thought I'd get when I asked for something to read. It's very engrossing." Ember lowered her voice and added, "I had to skip ahead to the epilogue just to make sure Guisonel would be all right in the end."

Aunbrel chuckled. "I thought I was the only one who did that." He shifted his crouched legs, then sat on the floor, leaning against the wall beside the cage.

Ember adjusted her coil and slithered closer to his new position, lowering her head to his level. "I only do it with tense novels. I hate wondering if it'll turn out well or not. Even if it's going to all end badly, I'd rather know."

The guardian nodded. "It's a shame one can't peek at the end in life. Is Guisonel your favorite character, then?"

"He's the one I worry about. He keeps charging into the middle of these dangerous situations. I think he's looking to be a martyr. So you read it too?"

A wry smile. "The Hope books are some of my favorites. That's why I had them here. Guisonel gets a little less foolhardy with time. A little." Aunbrel gestured with thumb and forefinger pinched close together. "Where are you?"

"The battle for Royale Wyenard. Just after the archers arrived."

"The first time I read it, I'd forgotten the archers were even on the way. I yelled out in triumph when they showed. Got the strangest looks from my school fellows."

The little viper-dragon wiggled her tailtip, orange eyes amused. "Did you really?"

Aunbrel gave her a serious nod. He looked at Ember, her tail stroking over the book cover now. "Miss ... what were they going to do to you, that a night in jail would be a pleasant vacation in contrast?"

Ember would not meet his eyes, shaking her head and looking at the floor of the cage instead.

Aunbrel put his palm against the crossed metal bars of the cage. "Did I make it worse, intervening?"

Her head darted up to look at him. She shook her head again. "No. No worse." She rested her cheek against his hand through the bars. "Is your arm all right?"

"It's fine. Do you still want us to release you tomorrow? We could hold you a few days before we'd need to prosecute or dismiss the charge." It's not as if we've gotten any paperwork done tonight anyway.

"No. I should go back." Ember dropped her head to rest her chin on the book. "I'll run out of books to read before tomorrow night in any case."

"I could bring more from home."

The viper-dragon parted her jaws in imitation of a smile, and gave another headshake. "I have to go back eventually. One night should be enough."

"Enough for what?"

Aunbrel let the silence stretch after his question this time, not insisting, not importuning, just ... waiting. "To lose the moment," Ember said finally. Aunbrel waited. The dragon exhaled. "It's a matter of dragons. You wouldn't understand."

"I certainly do not understand now," the elf admitted. "But I am willing to learn, if you are willing to teach."
rowyn: (studious)
They were three blocks from the end of their round when they saw the viper-dragons.

A full nest of them had gathered on the green of Mistfield Park: long thick-bodied serpents in bright metallic colors, some wider than a man and several times as long, others not even two yards from nose to tail. Half a dozen of the largest, in shades from sea-green to indigo, were slithering in a wide circle with a small orange-red one at the center. The back and ruff scales of all of them were raised in threat display, the red one coiled tight, head turning in a doomed effort to watch all the others at once. Perhaps a dozen other viper-dragons waited coiled at the perimeter, observing.

Aunbrel started for the disturbance, but Kinsley caught his arm. "Not our problem, kid."

"What are they doing?" Aunbrel hesitated, but his eyes were narrowed on the scene.

"Dragon business. Not our problem."

One of the large circling dragons snapped forward and back out in a motion too fast to follow, accompanied by the clashing rake of tooth against scale. The red one loosed a hiss of pain or warning, glaring at the assailant. Aunbrel's nostrils flared and he strode toward the scene. "They are in Hopestart, they are obliged to follow its laws."

Kinsley hauled on the elf's arm. "They've got dispensation for their customs. They're not violating any laws."

Aunbrel glanced sidelong at him. "This is a custom?" Another clash and a hiss jerked his attention back to the nest.

"Among dragons. Yes. They're allowed. It's only assault if they draw blood. See? No blood."

The red dragon's head lifted at Aunbrel's motion, looking past the larger dragons to stare at Aunbrel. Luminous orange eyes seemed to plead Help me.

Aunbrel shook off Kinsley's hand and marched into the park. Kinsley trailed after, grinding out in a low whisper, "Not our problem." The observing dragons turned their heads to mark the tall elf's progress as he walked past them.

At the edge of the circle formed by the largest dragons, Aunbrel stopped. "Is there a problem here?"

The nearest viper-dragon, midnight-blue, at least eighteen feet long and two wide, coiled, twisting to face him, rearing up until the draconic head was several feet above the elf guardian's. "No problem. Not for two-legged folk."

"Glad to hear it." Aunbrel tilted his head back to meet the midnight dragon's gaze. "I am Guardian Aunbrel of Hopestart, a keeper of the peace. As I'm sure you're aware, Hopestart's peace applies to all sapients of our fair city, regardless of number or lack of legs. Be they man, elf, felis ... dragon. So if there was trouble here for dragons ... "

The turquoise dragon next to the midnight one flicked out a tongue in warning at Aunbrel, scaled ruff mantling wider. "There is nothing here to concern you, Guardian."

Aunbrel took three steps sideways, to meet the eyes of the small red dragon at the center of the circle of larger ones. "If there was trouble here for dragons," he repeated, "I'd be glad to help."

The red dragon's bearing spoke of terror and desperation, but those orange eyes would not hold his. "No trouble," the little dragon echoed, in a voice haunted by hopelessness.

Kinsley's hand gripped Aunbrel's sleeve; the elf didn't need to look to know what words the human was silently mouthing. Aunbrel's teeth ground together, but he forced them apart to say, "Good. Good. Because it's near the end of my shift." Aunbrel glanced about, then walked to a nearby bench and sat. "And if there's no problems here, why, my partner and I can take a break." Kinsley covered his face with one hand and shook his head, but took a seat at the far edge of the bench. Aunbrel waved a hand to the viper-dragons. "Please, don't let us keep you from your peaceable enjoyment of this public park."

The dragons turned about, hissing at one another in their own tongue. Aunbrel had no idea what they were saying, although the hostile looks he was garnering were unpromising. The red one's eyes darted from the large surrounding dragons to the elf guardian and back again. After a few minutes, the dragons uncoiled and began to slither from the park. The largest ones herded the small one, keeping the little red dragon between them. Aunbrel grimaced, then leaped to his feet. "Ah, wait, just a moment." He stepped around and over the large dragons even as they reared back in anger at his intrusion.

"It is not your place to interfere, two-legs," the midnight dragon hissed.

"Right, I know, my apologies." Aunbrel raised a hand for patience and addressed the red dragon directly. "But I have just recollected that a dragon meeting your description is wanted for questioning. I am afraid I must ask you to accompany me back to the peacehouse." Kinsley cradled his head in both hands.

"What is this about?" an indigo dragon demanded.

"Burglary in the Merchant District. An orange-red dragon of about this length was sighted fleeing the scene."

"It is not her," the midnight dragon said.

"Oh, perhaps not, but that's not for you or I to decide. This way, miss." Aunbrel held out an arm to the small dragon, gesturing for her to follow him. She slithered up his arm instead, gliding higher to coil over his shoulders. Aunbrel checked his surprise as the giant viper-dragons seethed around them. Pretending that this had been his intention all along, Aunbrel put a hand on the red dragon's side to help her balance. The large dragons seethed and writhed around them, but Aunbrel stepped over and around them as necessary and the dragons were, apparently, unwilling to physically stop the guardian. Kinsley, peeking between his fingers at the scene, rose to follow on his partner's heels as the elf carried the small viper-dragon from the park.

"Air and Fire! Have you gone mad, boy?" Kinsley hissed as soon as they were out of earshot of the rest of the nest. "What do you think you're doing?"

Aunbrel wasn't sure either. "Keeping the peace." The viper-dragon was a heavy weight around his shoulders, coiled too tight and trembling.

She dropped her chin to rest on the top of his head. "Is there really a dragon wanted for questioning?"

"Yes." Aunbrel walked briskly. "Although I fear I will discover when we are back at the peacehouse that the description is not quite a match for you. Might have been tiger-striped in green and black, and five yards long. I apologize for the inconvenience."

"Thank you," she whispered. "Will you lock me up?"

Aunbrel shook his head. "Of course not."

"Please?" she begged. "For the night? Lock me in a cell?"

"Er ... " Aunbrel tried to decipher that request, giving Kinsley a pleading look. "Not for the burglary, surely?"

Kinsley scrubbed at his face and heaved a sigh. He started to push back the cuff of one sleeve, then changed his mind and did it to Aunbrel's indtead. The old human held the elf's brown wrist to the dragon's face. "Bite him."

Her head drew back, nictitating membranes flicking open and closed over her eyes. "I don't want to -- "

"Bite him," Kinsley repeated. "Hard enough to leave a mark, not hard enough to break skin. And by Fire's hells, don't poison him!" The viper-dragon slipped her head forward, glancing at Aunbrel for permission. The elf gave a little nod, and she closed her mouth around his wrist. "Harder," Kinsley commanded. Aunbrel winced, and the human said, "All right, that's enough." She drew back, leaving small tooth marks dented and red in his skin. "There, that's assault. We can arrest you for it tonight and dismiss the charges tomorrow. Fire and Air! I need a drink."
rowyn: (studious)
Aunbrel was working another late night in the peacehouse, completing the case notes for the day's investigations. His partner not only disliked paperwork but was abysmal at preparing it, and as junior partner tradition dictated Aunbrel do it in any event. Aunbrel didn't mind; late night was the only time the offices of peacehouse lived up to the name. His uniform jacket was off and hanging from the back of his chair, shirt sleeves rolled back to keep them from smudging the ink. On the first floor the hubbub of the night's arrests and complaints continued, but up here all was still. Quiet enough that the soft pad of feet in the hall outside drew the guardian's attention from his task. He rose and stepped toward the open door. "Hello? May I help you?"

A human woman in a golden headdress and elaborate fur robes, a jeweled staff in her hand, peeked through the doorway. A spotted leopard prowled about her feet.

Aunbrel fell to one knee, dropping his eyes. "Bright Lady!"

A fair hand touched his shoulder. Aunbrel's tan skin darkened with a flush that crept to the pointed tips of his tall ears, in mortification at being caught out of uniform by Commander Lisia herself, the leader of all Hopestart. But the gentle voice that said, "Rise, Guardian. There is no need for such formality," held no rebuke, only a hint of amusement.

Reluctant, Aunbrel stood, eyes averted. With an elf's height, he towered over her, which only added to the sense of his own impropriety. He straightened his shirt cuffs self-consciously. "My apologies, Bright Lady."

Commander Lisia waved off his words. "There is no wrong to forgive. Be at ease ... Aunbrel, is it?"

His gaze jerked up to her face in a moment of surprise. Faint lines around her large dark eyes and at her mouth and jawline hinted at her age. Aunbrel dropped his head again quickly, giving an awkward nod. "Yes, Bright Lady." Her leopard sat at her feet, leaning against her leg and staring at him with unblinking eyes.

The Commander took a step back, dipping her hand to scratch the leopard's ears. "It seems there's light in this office every night, Guardian. Is it always you here?"

"Not every night, Bright Lady."

A smile played on her lips. "Almost every night?"

Aunbrel didn't know what to say to that. "I am only completing my work, Bright Lady."

"And perhaps the work of one or three others as well?" The Commander shook her head, smiling still. "Your diligence is commendable, Aunbrel. Relax." He would have rushed into a burning building at her command, or faced down a rioting mob, but Aunbrel had no idea how even to begin to follow that instruction. "I appreciate your service to my city, Guardian. And perhaps it is unfair of me to ask one more thing of you, but I shall."

"Bright Lady?" He raised his eyes to her lips, but no higher.

"Don't let the work eat you alive, Aunbrel." She touched his arm. "If you do nothing but Guard, you will forget the why of it. Do not allow yourself to become isolated, with no one and nothing to return home to. Remember to enjoy your life and the world you live in. Else what is it all for?"

"Yes, Bright Lady." Aunbrel had no idea how to follow that instruction, either, but there was no other possible response.

The Commander patted his arm. "Good night, Guardian." With her leopard beside her, she withdrew from his office. In the corridor, she shook her head and sighed to herself as she left.




Kinsley had been Aunbrel's partner in the peacekeepers since Aunbrel joined three months ago. Kinsley had been a Guardian for nearly thirty years, and no one would accuse him of working too hard. Not that he was corrupt, or bad at his job, exactly. Though Kinsley was lazy: he had a habit of splitting the two of them so Kinsley could take the shorter half of a patrol route, or sending Aunbrel to run errands or interview witnesses in inconvenient parts of the city. But that sort of thing had to be expected from a partner with seniority, and the old human had the insight and knowledge of law and regulation that one would expect from someone with his experience. If he left early every night to go drinking -- "You don't mind finishing up the casework, right, Aunbrel?" -- well, surely he'd earned that right.

The two were walking their usual circuit through the Iron District, narrow cobbled streets winding past dilapidated warehouses and aging smelteries, walls and roofs blackened by soot. Kinsley's pale face was open and smiling. He tipped his hat to the occasional passing human woman, offered a casual salute to human men, and a nod to members of other races -- elves, dragons, an unescorted panther. Aunbrel's own expression was grim, mouth thinned beneath an aquiline nose. After a little while, Kinsley elbowed him in the ribs. "Elf boy, you need to lighten up."

Aunbrel made an 'oof' sound and failed to lighten up.

Kinsley raised a graying eyebrow at him. "What's eating you? Your dog take ill?"

"I don't keep pets."

"Maybe you should start. Seriously, you look depressed even for you, and that's saying something."

"I am not depressed."

"Look in the mirror and you will be. You can't let the job get to you, kid. You work too hard." Kinsley slapped Aunbrel's back.

The tall elf sighed. "That's what the Commander said."

Now Kinsley raised both eyebrows. "The Commander was talking to you?"

"Last night. I am using too much gaslight at the peacehouse or somesuch, I imagine."

Kinsley laughed. "That'd be you all right. Look, it's been a quiet day. We wrap up this loop, why don't you come with me to the Drunken Scarab?"

Aunbrel rubbed the back of his neck. "I could stop by after I finished the day's paperwork."

The older guardian shook his head. "No no no. Just skip it. Take off early." At Aunbrel's look, Kinsley chuckled. "I'll let you in on a secret, elf boy: the paperwork's not going anywhere. You don't do it today, it'll still be there tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after that."

"Yes, and there'll be more of it," Aunbrel said sourly.

"Ah, you wait long enough, and some of it won't matter any more and you'll never have to do it at all. Don't give me that look, kid. I've been at this game longer than you have. Trust me, one night's not gonna kill any one." Kinsley punched his arm, and Aunbrel yielded with a nod.

[This is from the prompt [livejournal.com profile] tuftears left me last month, using cards he drew from the Tarot of the Cat People, and which I proceeded to not write. I finally coupled the prompt with a drawing by [livejournal.com profile] djinni and came up with "A Guardian's Companion". The cards Tufty drew are:

The Empress (right side up)
The King of Pentacles, reversed (7th picture in the link)
The Three of Cups, reversed (2nd picture in the link)


As short stories go, this one is not very short. There'll be another two or three parts. ]


rowyn: (Default)
Fire unfolded the instructions and reviewed them.

How to Make a World
You may begin any where
You may begin any time
It does not have to be at the start

You may begin with a spark
With light
With nothing

You may begin in the middle
With a man
Or a cat
With a city
Or forest
Or mountain

You may begin with a sun
Or a hundred thousand species of beetles.

It doesn't matter when it is
If you do it right
You will find the present leads to past and future
The man leads to his people
The people lead to the land
The ocean to the archipelago
The world to the stars
The stars to the world.


Love,
Air
That sounds easy enough, Fire thought. Let's start at the end.

Firestorms blossomed, to fall upon a vast corrupted city. The city sprawled in a wasteland of ruined civilizations. The firestorms rained down from moons -- no, great spaceships, which hung in orbit about a world of grey seas, frozen deserts, and very little life. The only screams come from that single city.

But a hundred thousand artificial monuments and archaeological remnants were left behind in those deserts, in wrack upon those seas, in metallic debris in low orbit. The ships spread out and the firestorms with them, obliterating everything.

Fire marveled at her creation. I wonder how it came to this? The silver web of time stretched backwards from the end. Fire stepped lightfooted onto it, and danced towards its beginning. She paused in the middle to watch the lives of people unfold when their civilization was at its height, vibrant with promise. She ran quickly from there to before the people existed, when the world turned without animals more complex than a microscopic cluster of cells.

So quickly that she did not see the snarl in the silver web, the way it caught and pulled in places, the way the tug sent ripples up and down the fabric of the world, the way the tangle was growing.

It's hard to get something right on the first try.

[Cards from Tarot of the Silicon Dawn: Ace of Swords (NSFW), Ace of Pentacles (NSFW). Card from the Hanson-Roberts Tarot: The World (SFW). Prompt from [livejournal.com profile] alltoseek. I don't usually write free verse, but the instructions on How to Make a World really didn't want to be in prose. Apologies!]

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