Ron wondered how much the tall girl's nonstandard healing process would complicate matters. She sat in the back of the police car, holding her side. If she'd been unclaimed, and their story true, she should be bleeding, but a green growth had closed the wound. The smell, somewhat like freshly cut grass, was odd in this context, but unmistakable.
Her companion caught Ron's eyes in the rear-view mirror, and held them.
"So, what kind are you?"
The assumption he had to be claimed, too, just because he had not sided with the locals whom she accused of taking pot shots at her and her friend, irritated him. However, he cut the lecture, on the basis that she'd had a really bad day. Besides, her assumption was correct.
"So, do you turn into a big shaggy monster on fullmoon nights?"
"He's not that insistent." Well, if she wanted to talk... "What about you? Dragon?"
She rolled her eyes a little. "Wyvern."
"So, do you turn into a venom-spitting flying lizard on occasion?"
She rubbed her cheek self-consciously. The scales had faded to something resembling giant freckles, her eyes to an unspectacular hazel. "I try to avoid it."
Light played on the iridescent feathers of the Kingfisher mask. The huge, dark glass eyes looked strange. An enticing danger, a challenge. Or mockery?
Nico shook her head and looked around her room. It was small, the mask was bulky, and she was foolish for not re-selling it. Though she wasn't so short on either cash or space she couldn't afford a bit of sentimentality. That was all there was to it. Right?
There were people in town she could consult to find out if the mask was enchanted or haunted. But quite apart from the cost, she didn't want to. She was quite sure the feeling of being someone slightly different when wearing it was all in her head. It was the same in other situations where she had to, or wanted to, pretend.
And if she was wrong? Well, it would be rude poking into the mind of anything with a personality, particularly if you liked him. It. Whatever.
That was a better reason than, I like the little thrill of this doubt.
The door was wide open. It led from the old cellar to a corridor whose one side was all windows, with blue light filtering through. There was a faintly glowing threshold dividing the dirt floor on this side from the carpet on the other.
Nicolas took a deep breath and stepped through. The door collapsed to a fading point of light immediately after.
Angus didn't like it. He hadn't liked much of anything since Nicolas had found him—well, that was unjust. After the initial worry the human would cause a stir, it was nice being able to talk to him openly. For a while. Until he had turned more or less to blackmail. His secrecy in exchange for knowledge. If it had been anyone else, things would have been different, but Angus couldn't work against the rightful owner of the house.
Hopefully he had paid attention and didn't cause any messes. Or run into any dangers too big to handle.
On the other hand, if he stayed disappeared, this might solve the problem. They just had to take care whoever inherited or bought the house didn't spot them.
That might be Nicolas' sister, at that. She should arrive any day now, invited to watch the house.
Considering that affront, Angus decided he didn't want Nicolas to come back. As if a house spirit couldn't do the job.
Nico ambled away from the main hubbub of the party, and found Daaren on the veranda, apparently watching the gardens. She propped herself up next to him, and asked conversationally, "So, why'd you leave?"
Caor decided that as sorry sights went, a wet phoenix ranked pretty high. The specimen on his windowsill was soaked so badly its feathers had turned black, and puffed up to wait out the rain. The metal capsule on one long leg identified it as a messenger bird, and the fact that it had been employed during the rainy season identified its owner as someone with more pride than sense.
After spilling a handful of grains next to his uninvited guest, Caor went to the serious business of speculating who might have sent this bird to whom, and what it might be carrying. Deciding that it might be profitable to know, he caught the bird - who twisted its neck to continue eating, must have been underway a while - and removed the capsule. Deciding that trapping the bird in a basket was a bad idea, since, once dry, it might set the reed on fire to escape, he turned his full attention to the scroll. It was blank on both sides. Puzzling.
It could be an error. Or a very, very bad sign.
Caor put it back exactly as he thought it had been and performed a simple ritual that he hoped would erase any soul-trace of him opening the capsule.
The phoenix, now fuller and more happily tired, nipped him in protest about being grabbed again, but the capsule went back without issue. He left the bird to fluff up and preen indignantly. It showed some bright, dry down between the still dark contour feathers.
Caor left it alone as it steamed and slowly turned orange, and hoped the rain would end soon.
Another job well done. Kyara was happy with her trophies, Rogal with the valuables, and Taer with the festivities the liberated visitors had held. Only Maya was left brooding over her tattered diary.
Rogal, sensing an opportunity, asked, Hey, what's dragging you down?"
"I think I am cursed."
She waved off worried enquiries by the other two. "Nothing new or life-threatening, just... Look. The spellbook I got from that first affair was confiscated the next day." She ignored Rogal's muttering about how that could have turned out better and continued, counting on her fingers. "The whole library of the necromancer in Hallen fell into the swamp along with her tower. In Jarambale the lab and library went up in flames when the guarding golem got out of control. I thought there was something to liberate from that demonologist-hideout near Mount Wing, but that giant acid-spewing blob ran us out, and certainly destroyed everything besides. The mage messing with time around Foraen Town had rigged all his books to rot within hours if he was killed." She threw up her hands and continued in a strangled wail, "And now those--- people burned down the mill with all the notes and books still in it."
Taer looked back over his shoulder, glad that Maya had bottled up that complaint until they were well away. "They were rightfully angry, I think."
Maya titled her head, accepting the point, but not that it changed anything.
Kyara added, "They probably think nothing good can come out of magic, now."
"Which is wrong." They certainly could not deny that, considering Maya's contribution to their work. "They're throwing the baby out with the bathwater. And what happened just now is not the point. It's half a dozen, do you hear me, half a dozen incidents of the same pattern: We keep going up against mages posessing either unique new spells they developed, or ancient lost knowledge lost to the rest of the world, and something keeps arranging matters so I don't get to learn any of it!!" A bit belatedly she added, "At least the things that are not intrinsically morally objectionable would be nice to know."
"You really believe there are powers steering us like puppets, like in a sort of game?" Rogal was not trying to hide his sneer anymore. Since it was met with two frowns and a glare, he modulated it with a shrug and said, still amused, "I'm sure the gods have better things to do, really."
"With most of those, magic was the problem that lead to the destruction." Kyara meant it as explanation and consolation.
"Or it could still be coincidence," Taer suggested. "Bad luck."
Maya nodded and gave a noncommittal hum, not wanting to talk about it further. She was not convinced.
She lay cradled in a little nest that had grown for her, at the heart of a little world she had made using scavenged memories and wishes. The slight swaying of the tree caused by the wind she had summoned was soothing, as was the lack of voices. She liked being around people, but sometimes solitariness was good. From being pulled any which way until you were stretched so thin you barely knew yourself anymore, you could gather yourself into a compact drop, so each part of you kept all the others in its sights.
The downside was that too much navel gazing rotted your mind, and too much time alone led to boredom.
At some point, hurt and afraid after being betrayed in on of the bigger worlds she thought of as "outside", the thought had crossed her mind that being a Creator meant that she could make people for company, too. She found the thought of being able to create a person to her tastes of company, and changing them on a whim sickening.
Her world felt less real than the outside worlds, and it would remain so. A temporary retreat, and a place to stash the few mementos she wanted to hang on to.
Janine and Fred had a nice dinner at home together. It was still nothing as happy as, say, a year ago, but they were healing. The conversation was carefully edging towards family planning, when the children appeared in the garden.
"I'll lock the door." Janine spoke and moved automatically, not pausing to be horrified.
When she came back, Fred stood with the back to the window front, blinds drawn, staring at the sofa.
Lilly, who would have turned nine in three months, sat there, holding the hand of her little brother. She turned to look at her mother. Her face was dark, rotting. Light glittered in her left eyesocket, reflecting off the carapace of a carrion beetle.
"You cannot exclude us. We're part of the family."
Janine choked. This can't be real. Nightmare.
"You left us," Jimmy. His body was pale and bloated, his voice even fainter than in life, and he had always sounded shy. "That was bad."
There was distant thunder outside as Lilly told him, "Don't worry. We won't be alone anymore."
She smiled first at her mother, then at her father. He twitched and threw back the blinds to flee, only to find the glass door darkened with soil.
Lilly said, "We're family. We will always stick together."