It took some time for Shard, Eidolyn and Gryphon to explain everything, and to Eidolyn, speaking aloud what she had to contribute to their report felt newly surreal now that it had come down to relating it to a party new to their predicament. The three of them took turns narrating while Windemir sat stoically as he learned the magnitude of what he was getting himself into, wishing he knew where his men stashed whatever it was they put into their coffee. Outside, the storm that had been building over the city was slowly conquering the clear sea air, filling it with humid shadows that all had a faintly purple tinge, but the four continued on to the sound of distant thunder. Magic thunder often came mixed with the sound of bleating goats, hissing steam, voices shouting gibberish or the sound of thirty-three horseshoes falling into custard.
Momentarily, Eidolyn had a panic, asking Shard where Mittens was, but he quickly consoled her.
“It’s presently wearing a dryness spell. The storm should not bother it one bit, and I’ve expressed openly that it’s free to amuse itself however it likes while we conduct our business here.”
Eidolyn nodded in relief as Windemir brought them back up to their more pressing line of conversation:
“And you say you encountered Lord Pelgrin just earlier today? In my city?” For an elf, Windemir's complexion was terribly hardened. It almost seemed as if Windemir had to make an active effort to force his stiff mouth open to form words.
“It’s as you say.” Shard paused, seeming to wait for a well-timed clap of thunder for some moments, holding up a silencing index finger. Defeated, he continued, “Not far from here.”
“He did not stop,” Eidolyn added, “and he seemed awfully upset about something. I can only think that anything that would make him that mad must be good for us!”
“Suspicious, dat's wot I call it,” came the growl from Gryphon.
“Perhaps, perhaps, but there are no magic shops, not even ones hidden for the purpose of selling forbidden paraphernalia on the East Side,” Windemir rumbled. “But it could be that he had an agreed-upon arrangement with someone, who then went back on the bargain or changed it in some manner that was unacceptable.”
What could that mean? Eidolyn imagined people in dark clothes, huddling in moldy, muddy alleys and hiding merchandise in voluminous cloaks next to their sharpened daggers. A black market in the most literal iteration of the term. ‘I know we agreed upon fifty gold pieces, but circumstances being as they are, I’ve been forced to up my prices. If you can see your way to paying eighty, there’s a good chance I’ll let you leave with your throat intact and that handsome robe un-bled upon.’ The idea of someone getting the better of Pelgrin was simultaneously satisfying and scary, Eidolyn decided.
“I feel somewhat responsible for his presence here,” Shard admitted.
“Nah!” Gryphon scoffed. “I fink ‘e was gonna come ‘ere anyway. A coincidence.”
“Unfortunately,” Windemir stated in an emasculated grumble, “If nothing can be proven, it will be difficult for me to take official actions against Lord Pelgrin. I don’t doubt your story based on what I've seen myself, though there are some telltale gaps in your recounting…”
“’e does that,” Gryphon interrupted.
Of course, Windemir was aware that Shard knew more than he was letting on. The fact that Shard was so cagey around Eidolyn was a perpetual, but peripheral slight that hung over him, but that he would find cause to omit details at a time when revealing the would help them was especially frustrating. Then it occurred to him that Shard must realize this too, but feel the need to continue his aberrant secrecy anyway.
But then, remembering the contents of the note dropped by Lord Pelgrin at the Asher market and then looking to Eidolyn, Windemir realized there was a fairly good reason for Shard's vicious secrecy. Another clap of thunder roared from outside, mingled with the sound of wind chimes the size of people.
“As I said,” Windemir said, “I agree to investigate the compound of Lord Pelgrin. A portion of my men will accompany me to Asher when we are able to make arrangements to do so.”
Fate allotted no time for relief at Windemir's statement to sink in. Without a sound, Eidolyn suddenly felt a surge of magic nearby, startling her terribly. She yelped as the window over Windemir’s desk melted and turned into a sticky pink ooze. The afflicted window held its flat, upright shape for a lingering second as if frozen in a state of existential confusion. Then it glopped over the sill like a collapsing jelly and onto the desk where it immediately began to congeal into cloudy, malformed jellies that smelled of bacon and oil. Not just owing to the odor, Eidolyn felt quite unwell, and the sight called mysteriously to mind the vision she had in Shard’s library and the feeling of impending oblivion. Her breath left her.
For the moment, though, Shard seemed only mildly concerned. “Oh dear,” he said flatly.
But Eidolyn had the increasing overwhelming desire to express her discomfort. Shaking, she took his sleeve, panting for a moment before she managed to gasp out, “Shard…” That stuff was raw magic in a semisolid form and she knew it. She also knew, without understanding why, that touching it would cause her some sort of grievous harm.
But, without showing any negative reaction apart from exasperation over the mess, Windemir began scooping up the jellies, which seemed to be vibrating agitatedly, and tossing the wretched things outside. “No need to fear, milady,” he said. “Magic storms are generally harmless, and this could not possibly hurt you.”
Magic storms have the ability to directly affect organic matter, but only on a lower scale than people. Plants and small animals are certainly vulnerable among the most powerful of magical storms such as the one related here, and the sort of storm that could directly affect anything larger than a small dog has only been theorized for the sake of morbid curiosity and the relative ease of pushing the parameters that predict the power of these storms to a logical, but impossible (or so most people think) extreme.
But then, comprehension and a resulting cold fear worked its way across Shard’s face as he realized what Eidolyn just had. “Oh gods,” he croaked drily and wiped his brow, and leaped lightly to his feet. He began scanning the room, quickly springing upon the burgundy curtain hanging stiffly over the front window and tearing it free with a rain of dust and a clatter that was barely audible over the storm.
In the moment of chaos, Windemir paid no heed out the brazen vandalism, instead calling from his place next to the slimy hole in the wall, “Good. Let’s have that here, and I’ll mend…”
Ignoring him utterly, Shard strode to Eidolyn, murmured, “Pardon my forwardness,” and began wrapping her snugly in the musty old curtain.
Too shocked to cry out, she found the material to be thick but rather coarse, perhaps from age, and that now, with Shard holding the curtain around her, standing close enough to her that she could feel warm, ragged breaths that mingled with his cologne, her heart was pounding for an entirely new reason. She simply had to voice some sort of indignant protest, for the sake of her modesty.
“Er, Shard, why…”
This time, the thunder came with a sharp whizzing sound that buzzed in their ears like a swarm of insects making their way through a wheat field.
“Sorry!” Shard pulled a loose flap of curtain over Eidolyn’s exposed head and threw her, as gently as he seemed able, to the braided rug next to Gryphon. The beast rose to his feet in an accusatory manner a moment before the entire roof over them met a fate similar to the window. Shard threw himself over Eidolyn as slime rained down into the station with a terrific series of splatters and splashes. In the humid, musty darkness, Eidolyn this time smelled mint and rot, surely a more vile combination than the last one!
Over the sound of Shard panting and scraping away piles of slime, Windemir was heard saying, “I’ve not seen it this bad in almost eighty years!”
“Do you have a cellar!” Shard demanded as rain began to replace the falling slime, mercifully seeming to dissolve it into a foul, watery pink broth.
But now Eidolyn was having a hard time drawing each breath. “Shard!” She attempted to create a hole for ventilation, but Shard sternly held the cloth cocoon shut.
“Under the rug!” Windemir could be heard sputtering.
“Perfect.” That was Shard’s voice.
“What’s the fuss, anyway? I demand an explanation!”
“There’s no time to explain! Help me, quick!”
Of course, Eidolyn remembered, to Windemir, the worst the storm could ever hope to accomplish was considerable property damage. She didn’t even understand the nature of the threat that raw magic posed to her, only that she now felt a burning, persistent chill creeping outward from her spine that made her shudder noticeably, and that the shuddering exacerbated the dizziness and nausea she felt. She was very nearly sick when she, curtain and all, was lifted off the floor, almost dropped, then lifted the rest of the way. Shard’s voice, trembling from the exertion and muffled as it filtered through the curtain, came:
“Eidolyn are you all right?”
She was not sure how to reply to that. She felt ill and afraid, but she supposed she could be worse off, certainly. And after all, she did not want Shard to fret unduly. She nodded faintly.
“Yes,” she managed, again overcome with the feeling of being about to be sick. She didn't even want to speak or open her eyes for fear of the nausea overtaking her. It seemed to be seeping into her being as the slime soaked into the curtain protecting her.
The feeling disappeared when startled yelps came from Windemir, Shard and Gryphon as another series of wet glops issued from below her, and she was jerked protectively away, Shard's fingernails digging through the curtain. The movement let a fold of cloth fall from around her eyes enough to afford a view of he fireplace, where brick-shaped gobs of pink slime were plopping, one by one, from above into the fireplace, rapidly filling it and spilling out onto the hearthstones. These jelly bricks smelled pungently of fruit, but the sugary sweet smell was accompanied by a burning spiciness that made Eidolyn cough. She wrinkled her nose, at least glad the heat of the smell seemed to have burned off most of the nausea.
“Oh, Shard! Can’t you magic it away?”
“Not that simply, even beyond the fact that my hands are occupied!” Shard yelled coarsely back as the jelly bricks vibrated and jiggled their way over to his feet, trying futilely to scale his legs. “I don’t know how well casting a spell on raw magic would work! I suspect it may actually make things worse!” Shard was dripping with little rivulets of pink all over, but the rain was washing it away. It also was soaking, very unpleasantly, into Eidolyn’s curtain so that she now was encased in a dripping, coarse casing with water pooled around her backside where it was slowly soaking through the fabric and spattering onto the floor in a thin stream.
Shard stepped aside, and Windemir and Gryphon yanked up the braided rug, tossing into the dripping shadows everything on it—chairs, small tables, the fireplace poker on its rack, and about thirty jelly bricks, which were quickly replaced as the flow coming through the fireplace redoubled with an almost sentient determination.
Frustratedly helpless, Eidolyn recoiled further into her curtain, though Shard’s efforts to kick the jellies piling up around his legs and throwing themselves at his waist had loosened it from around her. “We’ll never make it if we can’t stop them!” she groaned.
As Windemir hesitated over a heavy trapdoor, his hand on the old iron rung, Shard shifted his grip. He would not be able to hold her much longer, no matter how desperately he wanted to. “I fear you are right.”
As he looked down in defeat, the jelly bricks suddenly stopped falling out of the fireplace! The remaining globs of raw magic rolled over the hearth lazily, leaving oily, iridescent trails as Mittens’ head poked down through the chimney—or, at least one giant button and a curl of smiling felt teeth.
“Mittens! Thank you!” Shard cheered as Windemir recoiled with a look of being so far at the end of his rope that he was in danger of losing his grip entirely. “A ha, you plush paragon, you! Don’t fret; we shall be back to rescue you as soon as the danger has passed. Now we must do something about the floor or our escape into the cellar will be quite useless.”
The floor was a quivering, wavering mass of pink, glinting in the stormy shadows, the rain having diluted the jelly bricks enough that they could not hold their shape but not enough to wash the raw magic away entirely. Opening that trapdoor would only send it all into their prospective shelter ahead of them. Perhaps they would have to give up on the idea of the cellar and head outside. Doing so couldn’t possibly make them any wetter, and it looked as if Gryphon was about to suggest just that when the slimy pink carpet coating the floor began vibrating harder than ever—so hard that little sticky droplets were thrown upward. The slime almost appeared to be boiling! Eidolyn didn’t like this development at all and everyone present regarded the slime warily, afraid to make a move just yet.
Then, the slime began to rain upwards! Shard covered Eidolyn so quickly that it squeezed the breath from her as, very quickly, almost all of it rose above them, hanging over their heads as if trying to create a new ceiling for the police station—a smelly, dripping one. It shut out the rain, and now the storm felt and sounded very far away.
Windemir acted first. With a heavy wooden bang, he threw the trapdoor open with a hurried grunt and a great sweep of his arm. “Inside!” he barked, just as Shard slid through the hole before the wooden slab had even caused the whole way. As a result, he managed to slam Eidolyn’s forehead on the edge of the door. Thankfully, the curtain still shielded her somewhat and it was more shocking than painful, and as she fell downwards into dizzying blackness, she immediately struggled free enough to loose an arm, which she used to expose her head. The earthen scent of the cellar, mixed with that of rust and old leather was delightful when compared with what she’d been subjected to over the last few minutes.
She waited for Windemir and Gryphon to accompany them, but instead the cellar door was slammed back down just as the overwhelming din of raw magic jelly raining angrily onto the floor saturated the dank air of the cellar. Eidolyn winced, but remained free of slime. She was, however, very waterlogged from the rain. Shard tremulously wiped some water from her brow and went about unwrapping her, his chill hands sending shivers down to her toes. Her dress still clung coldly around her so severely that even after the curtain was gone, she didn’t feel much different. However, her bare ankles and arms were freezing.
“A moment.” Shard, shivering a fair bit himself, briefly left Eidolyn to search the small cellar.
Exasperated and tired, Eidolyn rubbed her cold bare arms after wringing out her dress as best she could. “Oh, Shard, what’s going on? This was supposed to be simple!”
“I know!” The boxes and sacks Shard was feverishly searching were mostly covered in dust and laid erratically around the room, as if having been searched through recently. There was a cache of weapons and armor, some old musty, mildew-smelling bundles of parchment (probably old records of some kind), a near-empty bottle of liquor hidden behind a sack of coffee, and several small crates whose contents were not immediately apparent, as nothing was labeled. He wrenched open a couple of them after casting a lighting spell that cast a warm yellow light on the cellar.
“Gryphon! Are you all right?” Eidolyn called up. She sheepishly realized that though she must have heard the name of the police chief, she couldn’t remember what it was. Her brain was simply too occupied to retrieve that bit of information.
“Ugh! Fine, luv! Dun worry about ol’ Gryphon. Fings ‘ave calmed down a bit up ‘ere now you’re down there.”
She sighed, relieved, but wondered if whatever was compelling the raw magic to chase her would find a way to get her in the cellar. What would happen to the slime after the storm was over? Would it dissipate somehow? Where had it come from in the first place? Theoretical magicians maintained that magic itself couldn’t be destroyed or created, so could it have been part of the magic native to the area, turned corporeal somehow?
Shard returned from his searching, fluffing his clinging, wet silver locks around his cheeks. “I suppose we’ll have to hole up, as they say, until the magic has returned to its normal state. Magic, in any state other than its natural one, is very unstable and has a natural inclination to rejoin itself with the greater forces of magic that it’s separated from, so it shouldn't take long.”
Shard draped a dusty old blanket over Eidolyn’s shoulders. Though thick and coarse, it smelled, very strongly, like the rest of the cellar, and once she began to feel warm and dry she quickly found herself feeling sleepy. She bowed her head into her chest, wishing they could immediately return to the inn—or better yet, that they were already there. At least she’d already eaten, so she wasn’t hungry. She was grateful that Shard was down there with her while Gryphon and the police chief cleaned up the mess above them, since there was no way to tell how long they’d be there.
“Eidolyn, are you feeling all right?” Shard asked guiltily.
She supposed she was. Now that the gobs of raw magic were farther away, she no longer felt sick. But she also no longer had the energy to ask why they posed a danger to her, but not to anyone else, or even to silently speculate to herself using her limited understanding of how magic worked. Or so she thought. As she drifted off to a blur of half-consciousness she began letting her mind wander in that direction anyway, in a sort of tired fretfulness.
Recalling Shard’s explanation that creatures that are naturally magic must be in the presence of magic to survive, she realized that this was, of sorts, the opposite scenario. No, not quite; she was in the presence of magic all the time, just in its natural state, in which it was available for use but couldn’t actually make contact with her. Shard, in keeping with his usual demeanor, didn’t seem to be in any hurry to tell what he knew about it, so for the time being it would have to be a mystery. He, at least, seemed confident in his ability to keep her safe, but she would have preferred to have the knowledge and ability to do that herself.
“Well!” Shard sighed as he sat on the crate next to hers, wrapped in his own blanket, “At least all we need do is wait. I only see one problem with the prospect of returning late to the inn.”
Among the dry dust and sounding more somber than she intended, Eidolyn asked, “What?”
The two of them chuckled nervously as the sound of rain and thunder began to trickle off into the sound of rainwater dripping from rooftops.
Chapter Twelve: Clamor After the Storm
That storm had been unlike anything the shadelings had seen. Magic storms weren’t any rarer in the vicinity of Asher than they are in most of the kingdom, but the more majestic and strange effects tended to blow over their secluded settlement, most of the time indistinguishable from any other storm. Occasionally a shadeling would be out for a walk afterward and discover that some of the stone path had been flipped upside down so the cobbles were buried under tightly-packed dirt, or that an ivy vine had been turned to ornately-folded green paper, or that the mysterious scent of nutmeg pervaded the old gazebo, and would suppose that the storm they’d been taking shelter from must have been a magical one.
After sitting, mostly in silence, with the angel for only a few minutes, the storm had begun abruptly after a chill wind forced most of the coffee shop’s patrons inside (apart from the wind elemental drinking her tea, who was actually much more comfortable that way). Rather than commit the inexcusable assault on the balance that would result from mingling with non-neutrals for the duration of a storm, the shadelings instead left the shop as the rain and thunder seemed to approach them from all sides and eventually come to an angry climax to the east of them, where it seemed to concentrate and expend most of its energy. The clouds of magic storms usually are purple, but some distance in the east, the clouds were restlessly roiling and a glowing pink that somehow seemed hot with energy. As the shadelings searched for signs of Shard, it appeared that the people of Analerna were just as unused to this phenomenon as they were, and when they weren't busy denying having seen another creature resembling the shadelings, it was almost all they were talking about.
At last, they came to a considerably large crowd in a large courtyard which seemed to be elbowing its way between a tannery and a butcher, the shops' placement effectively ensuring that the whole area was drenched in a mélange of unpleasant odors. Dispersed among those who were braving the storm to observe the anomaly from any open areas with a good view of the borders of the east end of town were a number of others who both did not seem to be paying any mind to the rare feat of nature overhead and were hard at work reaching into the pockets and purses of those who were distracted enough not to notice.
“Come,” Elder Feinlore spoke, barely over the distant thunder sounding off like cannonfire against the cobblestones and sides of buildings, when a sudden gust of wind blew the rain almost horizontally, along with it tugging at cloaks and skirts, shop awnings and banners and everything else it could get its chill grip on. Regarding the crowd like a herd of newly-discovered creatures that an explorer is trying to work out whether they are predator or prey items, the elder leaned in to his inferiors while keeping an eye over their shoulders. “Enough people are gathered here that someone must know where the Shard is.”
Piebalm and Jasker soberly disagreed, but avoided voicing their opinion. They began by approaching one of the men who were hard at work scanning the occupants of the large square, seeming to analyze up and down each person for some sort of quality, usually moving on but occasionally closing in, not appearing to actually pay attention to them as they deftly lifted objects from their person, usually items from their purse, or the entire thing.
“Excuse me,” Feinlore attempted. He hobbled over unsurely; it was terribly awkward to actually interact with non-neutrals, especially since shadeling code prohibited the act of acting actual questions, but it had to be done. The damage they did by speaking to these creatures was surely nothing compared to the disruption Shard was spreading. Briefly the elder envied these humans' ability to move about the crowd unnoticed and the way they moved in flowing motions, each action jointed seamlessly to the next and not a single movement wasted.
The human man looked more shocked than even the elder had anticipated, almost panicked, and the elder briefly wondered if he’d somehow made a huge mistake after all. But the stranger suddenly put on a hurried, irritated expression. He smiled too broadly and was too clean for the quality of the clothes he wore, the impression he was trying too hard to make lost between ″well groomed everyman″ and ″humble rogue.″ “What? I… what do you want?”
“We would just like to know if you have seen another person who resembles us in the recent past.” These people generally hadn’t heard of shadelings, an ignorance that the elder was more than content with.
“Oh yeah, sure sure sure,” the man grumbled, cautiously stepping away from the exorbitantly-dressed woman he’d been approaching. “Saw it, uh… headed to Hunters’ Respite.”
“I would like to know where that is.”
“Uh, yeah. Just go east,” the man grumbled, seeming more and more eager to go back to his business. “It’s got an orange banner out front and a statue of a goat.”
“Ah. You have actually been very helpful,” the elder nodded. He acknowledged and empathized with the man’s desire to get back to his duties, but at the same time, the stunted, vestigial sense of curiosity from ages long past reared its dusty head from the inner recesses of the elder’s instincts. “My beliefs prohibit me from offering you any kind of reward, or actually expressing my thanks, but were I permitted to, I might consider it. While I am at it, I would like to know what you are making yourself busy with. It is my assumption that you are a cutpurse—a thief.” It mattered to the elder as much as one watching a spider spinning its web and knowing full well what it was for, and he told himself with cold and creeping dread that the reason he asked was not that thing called curiosity.
“Oh, no, no—not at all!” The man cut off the shadeling, seeming to go back to his state of panic at the mention of the word. “In the magic storm, sometimes peoples’ belongings become harmfully enchanted without them knowing it. It’s our responsibility, out of the goodness of our hearts, to go about ridding these ignorant citizens of these objects before it’s too late.”
“It would be simpler to just tell them they were holding a source of harmful magic, I assume.”
“Oh, no, no. Wouldn't want ‘em to panic. Besides,” the man nodded knowingly. The shadeling elder recoiled like a startled cat when the stranger put a filthy, knobby hand on his shoulder. “You must know that here in Analerna, folks of the unsavory sort are around every corner. If someone like that got a hold of some of these things, well… no telling what could happen. See this?” The man held up a beautiful ornamental hand mirror whose frame was inlaid with gems, just enough so that the elder, and the elder alone, could see it. “Thanks to this pesky storm, it now threatens to suck up the soul of anyone who says the word, uh…” He paused, just as one of his colleagues sidled up next to him.
“Cabbage,” his colleague said.
“Yes, cabbage, that’s the one! Say the word ‘cabbage’ while you look into the mirror and you’re good as gone. Imagine the nefarious uses for something like that, going around making great humanitarians, politicians and heroes say ‘cabbage.’ In fact…” The man raised his eyebrows in gentle surprise, giving the shadeling elder a look of apologetic regret. “In fact, I’m afraid that most of those coins seem to be rather nastily enchanted.”
“I see. That is a shame.” Elder Feinlore had been using the coins to pay their way, them having been allocated from a stash of currency kept in the shadeling treasury for a dire emergency which calls for its use. It had been there for so long that no one was sure where it had come from, but most shadelings preferred to believe that it was conjured by a previous Bugul Noz, so as to avoid direct influence. They’d puzzled for some time over which coins were worth the most and no one seemed to be able to agree on the denominations. The tiny gold coins which featured a picture of an elf woman on one side and a tree on the other had been deemed to be the one worth the least. The medium-sized copper coins that featured a picture of the Sofiides constellation on one side and a mountain landscape on the other was worth more than the small coins but less than the large copper coins, stamped with a dragon on one side and a different view of the elf woman from the gold coin, this time sporting an eccentric grin. No consensus could be reached, so the best the shadeling elder could do when purchasing something was to slowly lay down coins until the vendor seemed satisfied and took the money, occasionally giving back change. “Please tell me which ones are enchanted.”
The man, fortuitously, took all of the gold and most of the silver coins, leaving most of the largest ones behind. “It’s small change,” the man said, “But I suppose I oughta give you something in return to lessen the blow of the loss. Just a moment, good sir.”
Surely, reports of Analerna being an unsavory town were mistaken, or rumor. It was a common mistake, especially since most shadeling records were very old and probably out of date. The elder nodded as the man poked about in his bag and produced, after a few moments of searching, produced a small cloth sack. “Magic beans. You probably heard of ‘em, but never seen the like of ‘em before, I’m sure. A cunning gent such as yourself should be able to make good use of ‘em… or sell ‘em to the right buyer for a considerable amount. They’re hard to move here in Analerna, so it’s not worth my trouble keeping ‘em around.”
Haplessly, Elder Feinlore accepted the little sack as the man quickly retreated into the crowd. No sooner than this happened were they descended on by a group of four young, rugged men in the garb of the local branch of law enforcement, consisting of navy suits and caps with sea green trim, both decorated with images of a kelpie rising out of a tumultuous sea, the emblem of the city of Analerna. These particular suits were awfully rumpled, even taking into account the fact that they’d presumably been out in the storm as long as everyone else present. This, at least, was the shadelings’ assumption: they all looked severely unhappy and lumbered around, shoulders and chins squared and chests inflated. The shadeling elder recalled that many animals exacted exactly those sorts of tactics on their own kind when laying claim to their territory by asserting their superior position over other members of their population, and correctly guessed that these individuals were not to be crossed.
Unfortunately, it didn’t look as if they’d have a choice, as one of them steered his fellows in their direction.
“I see you’ve just been robbed,” he said sternly. His face looked as if his chin had been formed for the sole purpose of jeering, and the rest of his head had been formed around that.
Out of turn, Jasker spoke. “Pardon? Oh no. That human was merely gathering objects struck by harmful magic in the storm. It is a good thing he noticed that most of our currency was afflicted.” The other shadelings nodded, in varying degrees of confident affirmation. For the elder’s part, his nod was slowed by the bittersweet syrup of slow realization.
The four guardsmen frowned and shook their heads amongst themselves.
The one who had originally spoke chuckled tactfully. This time, as the guard began to put his hand on the shadeling elder’s shoulder, the elder caught it in time and backed up a step, catching sight of the club, sword and manacles displayed around the guard’s waist like the mane on a lion or the horns on a stag while his head was bowed. “Shame you fell in for such a ruse. You see, the problem is that we can catch the thief, but us police in Analerna are so busy that we have had to take mandatory donations for our services. So we’ll be collecting that robbery fee, now, and we’ll just be on our way to find the man what took your money.”
“Ah, I see. You will be needing a description of the assailant, then.” Elder Feinlore withdrew the rest of the coins that remained of their cache.
The guard took most of the coins, seeming to leave a couple of the large copper coins as an afterthought. “Oh. Oh no, it’s fine. I’m sure we can work it out. We’re professionals. And, uh… you probably shouldn’t come by the police station. We’re awfully busy on days like this and little things like... oh, people needing help tends to slow down the flow of… uh…”
“Yeah, that’s the word!”
Eidolyn slept for hours. It was a peaceful, exhausted sleep, heavy with the events of the day and deepened by the thick, musty cellar air and by Shard’s company. If she dreamed anything, she didn’t recall it when she fluttered awake to the sound of the cellar door being prised open with a thunk, heralding a rush of fresh air, swollen with humidity following the storm. As she groaned softly, she realized that she was blissfully unaware of what day it was. However, as she accustomed herself to it, she realized that there was a cool twinge of twilight hiding amidst the golden rays.
When she yawned, Shard’s voice came much closer than she’d been expecting; she’d been leaning on his shoulder as she slept. She felt compelled to reel away from him.
“Ah. You’re awake. I, er… I couldn’t have you leaning against that dank wall or those old sacks of coffee. It really was a thing of necessity. Think nothing of it,” he hastily spoke. “Are you feeling well?”
She nodded. The storm was a memory, and as she looked up through the trapdoor, there was no sign of the pink slime that had rained down on them. There was not even a trace of the strange smells they had brought with them. All had been washed clear, and the only sign that it had existed at all was the state of Gyphon’s fur, not full of slime but left dried in strange, erratic spikes as the slime had dissipated. The police chief’s hair was in a similar condition.
“Luv! ‘ave a look, coast is clear!”
“It’s as he says, milady,” Windemir nodded, a silhouette against the sunlight lighting his backside. “The storm has passed, and the wretched grime has departed. It appears to be safe up here, and if you would care to, Shard, I would like to briefly detain you for questioning. It should not take long, provided the answers come freely.”
Eidolyn knew that Shard would have none of that, and yet he stood, gently lifting her to his feet. “A reasonable request,” he answered with a sort of relieved defeat.
They pulled themselves from the cellar, and immediately, Shard and Eidolyn embraced Gryphon. Mittens sat atop two walls of the police station with its tail dangling down into the room, grinning skyward at the tattered orange and pink clouds standing out against a sky that still had the slightest twinge of lavender. The storm seemed to be retreating to the southwest, toward Sela. Oh dear, Eidolyn thought. They would have a dreadful time of it there, even with all the magicians at the Sela Magic Academy there to deal with it. Perhaps it would die down somewhat before it could reach the capital city.
“Now,” the police chief nodded sternly. His shoulders squared like a brick wall and aligned perfectly with his widely-parted, firmly planted boots. “Just because our station doesn’t have the luxury of a roof doesn’t mean that I can’t conduct business here. There are those who will want to know what transpired here and why. There are those,” he spoke with menacing weight, “who will not be content with rational explanations. This city sees transgression at every turn because, generally, that view is accurate. However, while you and I know that this was simply the product of an unusually strong magic storm…” Here, he raised his eyebrow, challenging Shard and Eidolyn to agree with him, “… they will prefer to hear that it was the result of a mad wizard experiment gone wrong, or a shipment of forbidden magical contraband that went up after being hit by lightning, and also that the situation is entirely under control. Now…” He invitingly righted two chairs that had been thrown aside when the rug had been tossed into a soggy, lopsided heap against the front door of the station. It would be no quick feat to move it. “Why don’t we all sit down and decide for ourselves exactly what transpired here?”
Elves were generally not given to delivering threats as a manner of invitation, but Windemir was no typical elf. Shard managed to not sit down in a way that managed to look deliberate and peevish. “What you mean to say is that you want to know why the magic storm targeted us.”
“Yes,” he replied. “But it is true that an innocuous explanation will not please everyone in positions of authority higher than mine. If you wish me to mobilize a force to travel to Prill to investigate your wizard, I cannot be tied up with red tape. If you do care to make something up, do take care that it sounds convincing and not tell me that it is a fabrication.”
Eidolyn couldn’t tell if he was jaded or simply very well versed in the way the city’s politics worked. Possibly it was measures of both that enabled him to make such a request. At Shard’s side, arms folded over her lap, she said, “Then tell anyone who asks just that: a mad wizard was involved. It's true enough.”
“I say, Eidolyn!”
She smiled, an eyebrows raised, at Shard. “Well! Perhaps he wanted to conduct some sort of experiment with the storm’s magical energy and it got out of hand. You gave him a stern talking to, but not before part of the station was demolished. If they doubt the conflict being resolved that simply, tell them that he was drunk.”
“Now, there just remains the explanation of why all of you were so worried about the raw magic making contact with the lady Eidolyn.” Arching his brows slightly and tilting his head inquisitively, the Windemir gave the impression that he knew he was treading in delicate, sensitive territory, but Eidolyn wasn’t sure herself whether or not he was. She was as mystified as he was.
Shard, however, received the elf’s tactful expression, but nevertheless went on the defensive. “My knowledge of magic is considerable, but I will need some time to think about what happened today. Even if I were completely sure of the reasons behind what happened today, I don’t believe that’s something you need to know.”
“It looked to me as if the girl’s life was in danger during the storm,” the police chief said, seeming to press in on Shard without actually moving closer to him. It was probably a technique he’d practiced and mastered. “Can you tell me in confidence that disclosing to me what you do know would not make her any safer?”
“My dear Windemir…” Shard, on his toes, seemed ready to make a run for it. “That is an entirely personal matter and we are all tired. Now if you mean to persist in your curiosity, I implore you to wait until we next meet. Things may come to light that will afford a more complete explanation. But I promise you that I could not possibly waver in my desire to keep Eidolyn safe. I consider it a personal obligation.”
At first Eidolyn felt a bit hot around the still-damp collar of her dress, but on second thought, she thought something didn’t sit right with her about his words. The statement rung hollow like a cold iron ball falling into a cold iron cup. Despite feeling silly for this sort of speculation, she looked to Shard for any confirmation or denial of this, but he’d put up his wall again, his normally inquisitive eyes glowering stubbornly. He was not going to budge and was in no mood to be coy about it either. So cagey! But she supposed she ought to be glad for his protection at all. She caught a glimpse of Gryphon looking sympathetically up at her.
“I see,” Windemir nodded stiffly. “I’ll respect your privacy on the matter. You had best take your leave; I don’t suppose we’ll be alone much longer, and I don’t reckon the force will be pleased about the prospect of leaving Analerna but…” Here, the elf performed a wry smile, interestingly an expression that both his angular elven complexion and clashing five o’clock shadow were very given to. “I think I can whip them into shape.”
To Eidolyn’s relief, Shard, seeming to think better of his rigid demeanor, passionately shook Windemir’s hand with both of his, his own hands like two pale leaves wrapped around a calloused stone. “I’ll hold you to that, friend,” he said warmly.
“And I’ll send word ahead of us before our departure,” Windemir said. “Please be safe.”
Shard, Eidolyn and Gryphon left with Mittens leisurely, a good thing, since Eidolyn had begun to fear that Shard might exact some sort of escape in order to avoid answering questions that would spoil their relationship with the surprisingly companionable Captain Windemir.
As twilight was beginning to descend over Analerna like a gauzy sheet cast over the city, many of the shops were already beginning to shut up for the night. The Howling Woods lining the hills to the south had become a streak of jagged black silhouettes and the shadows of evening seemed to be bleeding down into the city from them, like the mournful souls the haunting voices belonged to were engaging in a silent nighttime march of revenge in the streets. Eidolyn both thrilled and shuddered at the thought. On the way back to the Salty Chafe, they this time avoided the seafront, almost getting lost and thus returning nearly an hour later than they’d expected to in the process, making it, by Eidolyn’s estimation, nearly nine o’clock. By this time, only the broad-chested elven cook Faelauuveherafarren was up, clearing away the lobby after the guests’ dinners. She gave them some leftover dinner and a wary look as they went up to their room, where the basket silently greeted them from where it had been sitting motionless on the bed. Upon checking, it still held the book, The Arduous Journey of Innocence Reclaimed: A Preening Peacock's Guide to Not Being a Thieving Little Twit, that Eidolyn had borrowed from the Sylvan Tomes. With the intention of thumbing through its pages once again while she was feeling more lucid, she removed it from their faithful wicker friend. There was a suspicious and disappointing lack of mysterious lights or singing voices as she opened the cover and discovered that there did not seem to be anything contained within that was not related to the title this time. A chapter on being sincere and truthful with footnotes on how to avoid condescension, another on resisting the urge to steal with an addendum on what to do if you've already done so (this section was particularly large). There was no author listed. What of last night? Had that been a dream or a vision of some sort? She sighed and closed the book up again, deciding that if it was going to play tricks on her, she couldn't really stop it.
“The poor basket. At least it got through the storm safely. Shard?” she asked as she set aside the book for the night and they prepared for bed. She stood at the newly-polished mirror, washing her face with fresh water from the copper washbowl that was left for them by the staff after starting at how tired she looked. Making a face at herself, she asked, “Do you really mean that you don’t know why…”
For lack of a way to phrase her worry, the question trailed off, but Shard picked up where she left it, in the process of combing his hair with the small pick he’d brought. His tone was concise and brief, and she knew when he began speaking that what he was about to say would be all she’d get out of him for now. “I spoke the truth when I said that I need more time to work it out for certain. But until then, there’ll be no more trying to teach you magic. I don’t think I need to elaborate.”
He didn’t, and anyway she didn’t want to anymore. The aversion was even stronger than it had been just after her apocalyptic visions in Shard’s library.
“I’m sorry, Eidolyn,” he said sincerely, setting the hair pick down. “There’s a lot tied up in it. Please believe me when I say that it’s my concern for your feelings that makes it so hard! To relate everything confidentially to a stranger would be so much simpler.” He looked like he really meant it, seeming pained, and Gryphon, sitting by the east-facing window with his head sagging under the burden of shared knowledge, didn’t seem to have the heart to give him his customary scolding.
Sighing, she reiterated to herself that she didn’t appreciate the fact that Shard’s secrecy made her very dependent on him, but anyway, that didn’t seem to be an arrangement that Shard relished, either. “All right. I suppose whatever it is will come to light at the right time.”
All present feeling more than a little melancholy, they soon decided to go to bed in the hopes that the next day would bring a fresh attitude and good news. Gryphon, however, seemed determined to stand watch next to the window, a muscular winged silhouette, given a silver-tawny halo by the moonlight that reached for them over the adjacent rooftops and over the windowsill. Sighing with a bit of forced relaxedness as she pulled the rough, threadbare blanket over her eyes, the last thing that Eidolyn recalled as she drifted off to sleep, after she suddenly felt something brush her leg and Shard apologized profusely for letting his tail touch her, was watching a dark gleam in Gryphon’s black eyes and a golden sheen painted across his sharp beak.
However, after a brief sleep whose length was hidden by the haze of sleep, the slightest disturbances of cool night air brushing a bit of cheek exposed to the silent blue of the night gently stirred her awake. She nearly started as she saw Gryphon’s eyes glowing in the blackness, past her shoulders, and she sensed that Shard was no longer lying beside her. She did, however, hear his footsteps behind the bed as he crept to the window, beside Gryphon, and both of them looked down into the street, where the lights had been dimmed, but not put out entirely, and a pale glow lit both of them from below.
Shard turned to leave the room.
“You dun ‘ave to do this,” Gryphon whispered after him with a look of desperation conflicting with the knowledge of futility.
Shard silently shushed his friend with a sad smile, lit by the feeling of being at peace with the decision he’d come to. His usual flourish was decidedly missing as he turned, picking his shirt up from where it was folded over the back of an old chair and stepped out of the room, leaving Eidolyn unsure why she didn’t try to stop him as Gryphon, resigned, turned back to the window more vigilantly than ever.
Lord Pelgrin stood in a nearby alley, so encased by the darkness that it was as if he stood in a palace of shadows, and he looked even more furious than when Shard had seen him earlier that day. Normally he would have welcomed seeing his foe so upset. Had he not been so distressed himself and attempting with all of his being not to show it, he would yearn to frame Shard’s own distress and hang it over his bed. He would distill Shard’s inner conflict into a chutney of agony and spread it on a savory sandwich of revenge… ahh, but no. The willowy, prancing meddler had toyed with magic he didn’t understand on multiple occasions and now he, Lord Pelgrin, had been forced into a disagreeable situation in the name of correcting his insolent bumbling.
There he was. Of course, it had been easy to discover the inn that Shard had chosen once he’d had the time to do some searching and summoning him from within was scarcely more complicated than making himself visible from his window. As Shard approached stridently as he was able, Lord Pelgrin pulled aside his robe in order to finger the vial in his pocket. Yes, it was still intact. He’d conjured the potion at great expense. Analerna may be and would always be a place to acquire an amount and degree of illicit things and services that would shatter the soul of the most resilient soul, but it had been no simple task to acquire the materials for this very rare tonic. The Inter-City would have been simpler; while not magically inclined it was a place where one could acquire anything, and Sela, the seat of one of the greatest magic universities on the planet would be even simpler. As such, he treated the gently-bubbling concoction as if it were both worth its weight in gold, and explosive.
“Shard. Such an appropriate name,” Lord Pelgrin sneered, his breath puffing out into a white cloud of anger in the cool air. “An unwanted dreg; a broken fragment, one which digs itself under your thumbnail or the space between your fingers; a brief nuisance remedied by the swift and merciless application of hot water and soap. But there’s a problem.”
At this, Shard appeared both affronted and baffled. There in his hastily-applied shirt and bedraggled bed hair, he gaped briefly and then righted himself indignantly. “I’d say there are a good many problems at hand, the least of which is the way your cravat clashes with the brocade on your vest.”
With a growl, Lord Pelgrin snatched a pouch out of his pocket and sent it bitterly across the square to where Shard stood. With a quick swipe, his arch enemy caught it and held it up to the warm, golden torchlight. “Analerna Cheese Sculpture Museum?” he asked, reading the label on the pouch. The gold stamp on the pouch featured the city's mascot, a kelpie, rising from an angry sea in order to attack a wheel of cheese. Delightfully tacky, and thus in keeping with most local institutions of tourism.
“Wrong bag!” Lord Pelgrin grumped hurriedly. “Hand that back.”
“No. I take it as payment for forcing me into the streets without the chance to properly dress myself.”
“Vile creature!” Wiping his brow, Lord Pelgrin delved further into his pocket and withdrew the glass vial, stoppered with cork with wax melted over it to prevent contamination of its delicate formula. Holding it up, the drops of blue liquid sloshed about and glowed faintly in the scant light that lent a slick, humid feel to the serpentine sidestreets of Analerna. “You must induce Eidolyn, by whatever means necessary, to imbibe every drop. I’m sure you have noticed… changes.” Of course, it would not be so easy to pass off this errand to Shard.
Frowning sternly, Shard called back, “And I can be sure that this potion is what you claim it to be? That it is in her best interest to consume it?”
The arrogance! It stung all about Lord Pelgrin like a swarm of stinging insects, relentlessly asserting itself despite his best efforts. After all that Shard had done to destroy his plans and after all the harm he’d done, inadvertently and otherwise, he yet claimed to be on the side of good! “You can’t save her!” he hissed.
As Pelgrin predicted, these words, ancient in the history of their rivalry, struck Shard deeply. They burned up his spine so harshly that for a moment the shadeling seemed to lose strength in his knees.
“… but I can,” Lord Pelgrin finished. “Give Eidolyn the potion. It should sustain her for a few days, but little more. I will offer no more assistance. After that, you must turn her over to me for her continued existence.”
Of course, Shard was thinking to himself that this meant he had a week to defeat him. It wasn’t difficult at all to goad Shard into acting hastily; he’d discovered that long ago, and by the gods, he’d be sure that his brash tendencies and his insufferable stubbornness were used to Lord Pelgrin’s advantage!
“We’ll see about that later,” Shard spoke flippantly. “Give it here, and I’ll be sure she drinks the potion.” Of course, the fool had no intention of acquiescing to his demand, but that wasn’t the point.
“Ah, no.” Lord Pelgrin reckoned that for all the trouble he’d been caused, he was owed some measure of revenge, and he had come prepared to exact it. “If you want this, you’ll have to do something for me. But I think you’ve come here suspecting that, haven’t you?”
Shard’s submissive nod almost gave Lord Pelgrin hope that the boy may yet be coerced to take responsibility for the damage he’d already done, but he quickly reminded himself that it was far more likely that Shard was presently enshrouded in the cloak of heroic self pity. Like a disheveled beggar donning the stolen fineries of a duke, it was highly infuriating. All the more reason to teach the boy a lesson. “On your knees.”
Shard complied immediately, but not before funereally placing a handkerchief on the cobblestone so as not to soil the knees of his trousers. Lord Pelgrin supposed he could permit him that much; he despised seeing fine clothing ruined, and after all, if blood was all the streets of Analerna flowed with on any given day, that day could be considered to have been a good one.
An uncommonly well-dressed specter crossing the shadowy square, Lord Pelgrin produced from his robe a serrated knife.