An Abandoned Flower
In the midst of a sleepy city street, a night watchman yawns beneath the shallow glow of a lamp post. He yawns a second time, and slumps to the ground in an unexpected slumber. A clamour like the fluttering of wings abates around the dwindling pool of light.
From behind the curtain of night shadows, a young woman steps into the circle. She is shrouded in a long coat, her hair swept under a cowl. Gazing down at the unconscious watchman, she looks about, ensuring that none remain. She produces from her pocket a pouch full of pale feathers, which she arranges in a ring on the ground beneath her, encircling the lamplight. Raising a candle in her hand, suddenly aglow, her back straightens. In a low cadence, she begins to sing to herself. The song is slow and rhythmic, like a lullaby.
As the song swells, the feathers begin to stir. They gather into the air as if propelled by a mighty breath, dancing together into the shape of a ball, which then falls again to a pile on the stones. But from where it was suspended, a strange sight spreads. As if a pane of glass were materializing before her, looking into a vast room, an image fills the air. In front of the woman is an opening, beyond which she sees a grandly decorated niche. Abruptly, her candle flame extinguishes as if retreating.
Within is poised a man, tall and princely, robed in white samite. Rings of gold adorn his wrists, and an array of ornamental weapons are tied to his sash. His hair falls with deliberate ostentation from his shoulders, interwoven with silver and stark white feathers. The man stands at the opening as if expecting it, staring down at the woman from his incredible height. A pair of mighty wings, like those of a dove, cast grandeur from above. “Who, in this day, could invoke me?” Says he.
The woman kneels on the stones, her head bowed. “O White Knight, Prince of the Court of the Rose, Steward of Faery, Merchant of Secrets, I call upon you for aid.”
The man smiles softly. “A bargain, then. What have you to offer me?”
Thus, the stage was set.
A festival was cooking in Arguila. The nomadic Mawan, who travel from region to region via caravan peddling wonders, had begun moving through the city. As customary, they made trade with the citizens and offered grand performances. Arguila, a proud crux of culture, was swift to make a celebration out of it.
Watching the assembly, Royce Christi and Gilda Arhamboras began making their own preparations. This was a perfect opportunity to make some money, and the con expert has just the scheme in mind. This venture would involve the face of Saint Vespertina, old hero of druidic legend. Despite her association with the collapse of Faery, the hope of her eventual return to the world livened the spirits of the public. Hope was a rich crop, and Royce designed to harvest a little for himself. The witch, annoyed with the festivities, warned him that he had best assure their success this time, or she would do some reaping of her own.
Elsewhere, Ambrose Mahlay was adjusting to the bustle, which animated his particular hope. He had been seeking out the Mawan caravan for weeks, trying to meet with it, and finally had reached a place where he might have an audience. His journey was driven by his investigation into the fall of Faery and an aim to root out the whereabouts of Jubelon and Jari, the shining keys to the puzzle. Ambrose had found that the Mawan people were rumored to know the secret of the twins’ disapperance, something they kept a secret from outsiders. He had a gamble to make—there had to be some way for him to convince them to assist him.
Standing outside of a luxury tea shop in the middle of town, a youth named Mabry Wilhelm was greeting the passers-by. He was trying to make the best of the busy streets to aid his missing person’s search—for his older sister, Aubrey. He had come prepared with a series of detailed drawings, but to his dismay, no one seems to be able to match the face or the name. The only creature to linger for long on his plight was a small black cat, which he noticed wreathing about his ankles. A little warmed by its affection, he gave the cat a red ribbon as a makeshift gift, fastened around its neck.
Royce set out to do some fact finding about the festival in order to fine-tune his performance, and Gilda prepared her “props” for the evening. While Ambrose was navigating a path amongst peddlers and eager shoppers, he bumped into Mabry, who was well armed with Aubrey’s image. Caught off guard by his immediately cheery salutation, Ambrose confessed that he’d never seen the young lady in the picture before. Visibly disappointed at the continual failure of this exercise, Mabry thanked Ambrose and wandered off into the crowd, leaving the man feeling a pang of pathos. He, too, was on a search, probably with an even slimmer chance of success.
Afterward, Ambrose enters the tea shop alongside a chatty citizen, a middle aged gentleman with a rich accent. The two of them talk over drinks, Ambrose askiing about a way to obtain an intimate audience with the caravan’s leader. The gentleman, who explains that he owns a book store, mentions his education in the Mawan customs. He explains that the Mawan are a secretive people, and that it’s likely that many of the rumors that abound concerning them are indeed spread by the Mawan caravans themselves. It’s important for them to have an air of mystique, both to attract business and to ward off the threat of persecution, he says. Probing their knowledge could impose on their sense of self-styled mystery.
Unwilling to be discouraged, Ambrose left after thanking the man for his help and his offer of free service at his shop. Outside in front of the booths, Ambrose decided to take part in a demonstration in which a Mawan performer named Mireille uses divination cards and palm reading to tell the fortunes of her viewers. While reading Ambrose’s fortune, she was stricken by a powerful vision and taken aback, her performance thrown into disarray. She explained that when she attempted to see into his future, she was overcome with strange images that filled her with sadness, and then was blinded by a pure white light. She informed Ambrose that his fate must be fraught with tension, and that she would like to meet with him after the festival to try a divination again.
An hour or so later, the caravan staged a dramatic play before a modest assembly of enthralled citizens. Mabry and Ambrose were in attendance, as well as the bookstore owner and Gilda – though Royce was nowhere to be seen. The performance entailed a shadow play, in which the actors stood behind a paper curtain where their silhouettes were projected. They voiced the figures in the story of Faery’s fall, adding romantic flair of their own, such as by depicting Jari and Jubelon as valiant youths rather than babies. While the crowd was rapt in attention, the storytelling was interrupted by a strange sight.
From the borders of the streets, ghastly in the fire and lamplight, monstrous figures were sprawling toward the stage, letting out eerie moans. The crowd panicked, but was coralled in by the throng. Before the beasts became vicious, a shining visage entered the fray. Appearing as a resplendent woman, limned in brightness, she announces that she is the ancient Saint Vespertina, returned to vanquish darkness and champion the weak. With an extravagant display of lights and sounds, she blasts the terrors into submission. When approaching the last creature, a batlike beast hunching near the stage, she waves her hands and lets loose a burst of light – to no effect. The beast merely blinks, and starts eyeing the champion, baring its claws.
Dropping his illusionary disguise, Royce cried out to Gilda – this was not one of her minions! In the confusion, a woman stepped forth, dressed in an austere black cloak and an ornamental hairstyle. Taking a moment to mock Royce for his weakness, she beset the creature – now recognizably her servant – against the bystanders.
Ambrose, watching the unfolding chaos, witnessed a foul aura about the woman and her bestial companion. Feeling incensed at the violence, he bore his blade – a sword coalesced of pure radiance in his grip. He noticed that the youth Mabry, who had been watching the performance, had drawn a sword from his side, a slim wakizashi that glinted like silver. Drawing near the man, the boy assessed the creature. “I remember you! So you want to help, too??”
As the crowd fled, Ambrose tried to push back the ominous woman while Mabry attempted to distract the creature with his swordplay. Meanwhile, Gilda appeared from the sidelines, casting away caution to subdue the attackers. The woman revealed a host of eldritch powers, assailing Ambrose and Gilda as she tried to defend Royce. At first hampered by his opponents’ unexpected prowess, Ambrose unsheathed his true secret weapon. In an array of explosive light, he flung off his human raiment to show the celestial form beneath, Seget, radiating glory across the dusty stones.
Tantalized by this new sight, the woman pitted herself against Seget. The three managed to frustrate and thwart the stranger and her pet, forcing them to flee – but not before capturing the prostrate Royce! Standing shocked and irritated in the aftermath, the three were beset by the now too late police force. Whipped into an anxious confusion by the events, the officers arrested Gilda, Ambrose, and Mabry. Deciding to cooperate, the three were surprised by zealous officers who knock them unconscious.
Ambrose and Gilda roused an indeterminate time later in a small but clean jail cell, confined by manacles and chains. They awakened a few minutes after Mabry, whom they found busy working on his locks while chatting to them nonchalantly. They watched as the ribbon in his hair untied itself as if of its own accord, whipping into the air. The silken cord twisted into intricate shapes in the air, threading through the lock and snapping it open. Humming as he worked, he then opened the rest of the locks on himself and his two cellmates. Before striding out the door, Mabry suggested they behave inconspicuously. After a moment of concentration, he declared that there were two officers standing in the outside room. Two muffled thumps were heard, and a slow clicking as if a key were turning in the lock. Then, the cell door swung open.
The officers were lying on the floor outside, rendered asleep by Mabry’s power. The three of them fled to the lower floor, but on the way encountered a unit of officers accompanied by the sheriff. Before repelling them and escaping, the sheriff stopped them, begging that they hear his explanation. He apologized anxiously for wrongfully jailing them, saying that he knew now that they were not responsible for the incident. In his office, he told them that a local child had been kidnapped shortly before the festival, and that he believed the kidnappers were also the criminals responsible for the attack and for capturing Royce. According to his information, it had been a small family of blood-drinking demons or undead that had set up a nesting place in the dregs of the city, an impoverished area with little to no citizens living there. They had spied indviduals moving in and out of a large manor that had once been used as city housing in that district, and he understood that the criminals were hiding away there.
He revealed that the missing child had been called “miracle girl” by some of the locals. It was as if she had a power looking over her, as uncanny events transpired at her hands. Stillborn babies had mewled back to life when the girl touched them, food and water had been purified, trees and gardens cured of parasites and rot. Knowing that there were some who sought out children with supernatural blessings, those in the borough were very protective of the child. The sheriff felt it was foolish to assume that her kidnapping had been a coincidence.
The sheriff pleaded of them to help him in routing the vampires. His officers had witnessed their skill in combatting the woman and her monster at the performance, so he asked that they infiltrate the hideout and try to take them down from the inside. He feared to send a full force because of the hostages, but all agents he had sent in the past had presumably been killed by the vampires. Ambrose agreed to go, feeling it to be his duty. Mabry joined, desiring to take some kind of action. Gilda joined, even if only to regain her debtor.
In short order a team led them to the hiding place, a derelict mansion hunched on a scarred old bit of land. It had grown dark now, the clouds veiling most of the evening light, so Mabry, Gilda, and Ambrose were cautioned, as the vampires would likely be more dangerous at night. The team waited a distance away in case they had to rescue the three, and they ventured into the manor.
The building was dark and creaky within, full of dust and signs of weathering. No light could be found except for dimness sliding in through the lined windows. Mabry revealed his ability to communicate telepathically, suggesting that the group speak to one another through mental link so to avoid making noise.
All the rooms on the second story seemed to be empty, with no obvious signs of occupation. In the first room, the three found the first source of light in the house, a candle sitting on a desk that was burned halfway down as if someone had lit it recently and just forgotten to extinguish it. On the desk was a long sheet of paper, on which was drawn in ink a rough circle. Symbols had been written around and inside the circle, but they didn’t resemble language as much as strange pictograms. Two white beans were lying in the center of the circle, the insides facing each other. Unable to decipher the meaning of this odd clue, Ambrose took the beans, leaving the paper. Gilda searched the room briefly and took a few tallow candles, a flask of musty water, and a piece of charcoal.
There was a room on the edge of the hall that held a large window in the wall, inviting moonlight to fall upon what looked like a stone fountain embedded in the ground. It was dry, but the fountainhead had a series of misshapen grooves that formed an unrecognizable pattern. Mabry suggested that they try to place something in the grooves to see if the pattern would look differently that way. Ambrose experimentally put the beans into the fountainhead, letting them fall into the warped grooves.
The beans started to pop and jump around as if the fountain were being shaken. Stepping back, drops of liquid began to appear from the stone surface while the beans skittered about. It looked like thin blood pooling in the fountainhead, watery but deep red, leaving an acrid sweetness on the air. Gilda’s blood sense revealed it to be the most like human blood, and she speculated that the fountain was used to provide sustenance for the vampires to drink in case hunts were unsuccessful – although it could have served a more sinister purpose. Gilda emptied the water flask and gingerly filled it with the viscid ichor, wishing to examine it later.
Eventually the three found a narrow hall at the far end of the floor, a room empty except for a heavy stone door in the far wall. The moonlight, which was clearer now, shone down from a window situated far above the entrace, casting eerie shadows onto the rough hewing. The door appeared to have no handles, latches, keyholes, hinges, or other means of opening. Mabry’s telekinesis was not successful in lifting or pushing it. Gilda, suspecting sorcery, took a guess and drew the flask of blood from her bag, hurling its contents onto the stone.
As the blood fell, it ran in rivulets down the rough surface, falling in such a way as to outline a ghastly image in the glow. The door absorbed the blood gradually as if the stone thirsted for it. The three watched in suspense as the panel slid slowly upward into the wall.
The passage led into an old drawing room, the ceiling as high a vault, with stained glass refracting firelight and moonshine like the coalescion of a dream. Immediately, they saw Royce sprawled out on the floor in the room, alongside the smaller form of a young child. They appeared to be in the exact center of a circle painted on the floorboards. Stepping into the room, they saw the shape of a tall woman draped in black, her back turned, looking over the circle in perfect stillness. The circle was on a slightly elevated dais, adding to the woman’s height. The vampire from the square was there, sneering as they entered and scratching the pelt of her bestial pet. A handful of other such individuals stood in the room, arranged as to imitate the painted circle in shape. All of them stared purposefully at the newcomers, until at last the stone portal fell closed again with a thud.
“Welcome!” One of them cried. A man in a leather sheath bowed mockingly to them. “Have you come to sup with us?” At this distance, it was clear that the paint was dried human blood, and none but the tall woman on the dais stepped anywhere near the edge.
“Relinquish the girl to me.” Ambrose demanded stolidly. “I fear you not, no matter your number. I am more frightful than the greatest of you.”
The woman with the pet chuckled coquettishly, but she appeared to be trembling. “I would surely heed you, O Great Warrior-” the title she assigned to him was heavy with venom “-but a will mightier than you has need of these waifs.”
Gilda snorted. “If you desire him for his power, I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed. He’s more mirage than miracle.”
The man laughed again, this time sounding close to hysteria. “Ah, but you misunderstand. We care not what he is, or how strong. We only care that we were commanded to fetch him.” His eyes glinted toward the woman standing by the circle, and his head bowed as if in reverence. “For Sheila!” As he pronounced the name Sheila, his voice scattered into mad giggles once again. The others in the room followed suite, crying out “Sheila!” with abandon. It was evident that the vampires were not shaking in fear, but in excitement. Like a statue roused to life by the chorus, the figure turned toward the center of the room. Her black hair and raiment fell with such straightness that she seemed somehow entirely vertical. Beneath the woman’s eyes, softly closed as if in a sleep, she wore a vague smile.
Sheila emanated a sensation of dread like a shout. As if she bore an invisible mark signalling terror, a panic strangled the air in the room, belying her stillness and humanlike appearance. Gilda, Ambrose, and Mabry had to steel themselves to not be shaken to the core, grasped by a nameless horror that bore down on the floorboards like a weighty shadow. As her eyes opened and her gaze fell squarely on the door, the three felt an intense pressure. “You are welcome in my abode,” she said, quietly and calmly. Her facial expession, like a mask, did not move even when she spoke. “Especially you, Seget.”
Ambrose jumped forward in shock. “Who are you? Do you know me?” Her answer was a limp gesture of the hand. Her minions sprung to action. Once the three had regathered their courage, fighting off the gravity that threatened them, they were able to muster a defense. Displeased with what she had seen, Gilda unbound her secrets, and sent her will into the bones and flesh of the vampires. Fingers splayed before her, she uttered a guttural command, and a snap of cold struck one of the vampires, causing a pale essence to seep from its undead body. She bent her power over the dead to erradicate the force that held these vampires to unlife, ebbing away at her attackers’ strength one by one. She stood with aloof composure as one of the minions crumbled at her feet, long before its weapon struck her.
Ambrose raised his sword into the air, and let his mortal shape fall away. Seget illuminated the room, searing away the umbral pallor. His weapon arced like a bolt of lightning, and with his wings he slammed his surrounding opponents. The vampire’s beast slave locked him in a contest of strength, but Seget subdued him. The thrusts of his arms clove the darkness. Sheila watched, unmoving, with her eyes gazing at Seget as if she beheld something fascinating that no one else could see. Her icy grin had been replaced by a solemn frown.
Rapt in concentration, Mabry had begun moving the fingers of his sword hand as if he were manipulating invisible threads. Musing on his art, he released his grip, and a patina of irridescence appeared in the air around him, gleaming like a bubble. One of the vampires lashed at him with it’s claws, but the blow became slow and impotent within the bubble, and was pushed away. He smiled to himself as the barrier slowly glazed over Gilda and Ambrose nearby, as surely as the formation of a pearl. Mabry’s blade flashed from the sheath like a falling star, and in a smooth movement he brought the blade through the vampire’s armor, drawing blood.
While they fought, Sheila was touching her hand to the ruddy circle. She barked a signal to her minions, and in an instant all of them withdrew. They opened their wounds to the air, and as Sheila’s fingers caressed the dried blood, their wounds shimmered, a greenish light tinting their dripping blood. As if animated by violence, the drops gravitated toward the circle. As the wet and dry merged, the old blood started writhing, as if it had been brought to life. The circle steamed and surged like a pool of acid, pulsing with emerald lambence. As the light strengthened, beads of luminescence started to fall from Royce and the girl. The color were being drained from them, motes of energy were sucked away, all merging with the streaming ring of power which Sheila stroked eagerly.
“It is time!” She shouted. “Strike them down!” Even renewing their assault, her minions were severly weakened. But now Sheila herself claimed the battlefield. Poised with one foot forward as if meeting a tide, she raised her arms. A wall of force pummeled the rescuers, and they were pushed back, though Mabry’s barrier lessened the damage. Her face was now twisted into a leer like some nightmarish porcelain doll, and phantasmal green limned all of her movements.
Gilda blasted one of the vampires as she recovered, channeling her will into a single burst like the snap of a whip. The vampire fell apart, it’s spirit ripped out. But she noticed that in destruction, emerald light started to bleed from it, running into the swirling circle.
Seget’s feathers strewn about him like fallen manna, he rose once again and charged at Sheila. She met him without wavering, and gripped his wrist in one inhumanly strong hand. Slashing her with his offhand, a black mist spewed from her wound, but she ignored it. She threw him to the ground again, where he tumbled back to his feet. With amazing swiftness, she made a fist and threw a blow into midair. Where her fist hit, light sparked and faded into blackness, creating a shockwave carrying acrid vapor outward. Mabry was hit by the blast, and stumbled momentarily. Sheila bared her teeth as drops of his life energy flew back to her waiting palm.
“Hmmm, I should have chosen you for my rite. Your spirit is sweeter than any I’ve tasted, even this girl.” She looked at one of the few minions that was still strong. “Do my will!”
The vampire nodded, and began performing an exotic mudra with one hand. Mabry’s eyes grew glassy as she formed a menacing grip, as if she had taken hold of his soul. He twitched for a few moments, then his gaze cleared. He looked up at the vampire, who was now puzzled. “That wasn’t very nice.” She gasped as he reversed her power on her, falling into a mesmeric trance.
Gilda tried her spell on Sheila, and tried again, each time to no effect. “She’s not a vampire!” The witch exclaimed. Sheila laughed delicately, and directed the weight of her mien to Gilda. Haze suffused Gilda’s vision, like she was being hit with a heat wave. She felt the blood in her veins begin to run as if it were attempting to escape her body, her temperature rising rapidly. This creature was trying to boil her alive from the inside using her blood! Gilda grinned. “Foolish.” With a deep breath, she asserted her will inside herself, and took control of the blood flow, rendering Sheila’s power meaningless.
Taking the opportunity, Seget struck again, aiming for Sheila’s heart. His blow connected, and tore her flesh. She did not cry out, but wrath shot through her visage. Seget assailed her with the strength of his wings, repelling her back toward the circle. She tried to counterattack, but Seget’s stamina outmatched her. “You will tell me what you know about me.” His voice was stiff with command, mechanical like a rehearsed decree.
Sheila was holding her wound, witnessing that her only minion still standing was under Mabry’s mental command. But her expression was calm again. “You are more resourceful than I expected. And you, Seget, have power worthy of your title. But if you have forgotten yourself, I have no compassion for you!” She smiled as she placed her feet directly on the circle’s energy. Radiance shone through her body, closing her wounds. Her hair flew back as if by a wind from Hades , her glaring eyes crackling. “Suffer.”
Sheila unleashed a ghastly blaze, emitting sickening wails. Gilda was disoriented by the force; Mabry covered his ears from the assaulting screams, unable to keep his hold over the vampire; Seget shook as he tried to deflect the blast. She was too fast—she rallied again instantly, levying unnatural fire against them. In her hand appeared a lash like a piece of solid midnight, with which she struck them, shredding their vitality with each stroke. Crooning with glee, she lunged at Seget.
Seget was winded from the attack, and was overcome. Mabry leapt from the ground and tried to intercept the onslaught; her weapon broke through his barrier like a raging gale. Her blows did not stop, even after she saw that Seget was not receiving them. Mabry crumpled to the floor as the sound of malice licked the moaning walls. He did not move.
Disheveled, as if emerging from ecstasy, Sheila glared with lust at Seget’s prostrate form. “You will be the key.” She took one deliberate step forward, and tramped on the flap of Mabry’s jacket. It was as if the entire room drew breath, slowly, and with fear. Sheila’s arm shuddered as she raised the whip. Gilda and Seget felt a terse exhalation, like relief or pain – the two were indinstinguishable now. The light of the circle faltered. It wasn’t Sheila’s passion that excited the atmosphere – something was coming.
There was a mute burst of color, and Sheila recoiled, blinded. She dropped her implement, which scattered into shadows. Mabry’s ravaged body seemed to have burst into flame, burning azure as though the midday sky had brought its fist down to smite them all in their folly. Sheila lapsed into shock. As the brilliance intensified, Gilda and Seget spied the lines of Mabry’s figure fraying, as though something were peeling it away. The images took a vague shape that rose up into the center of the conflagration, like a terrible flower blooming. All sound had been replaced by a rumbling that pealed from the back of each listener’s mind, like groaning on the verge of a shriek. The light dimmed, and they could see a face.
It was a new body standing before them, where Mabry had lain. It resembled Mabry in its basic features, only distinctly inhuman. Skin tinged silver and blue, covered in bands of gossamer carapace like a bizzare raiment woven from insect’s wings. Actual wings sprang from the shoulders like the blades of a poisonous blossom, six in total. The new creature was clearly a female, with bright cerulean hair. Her eyes were milky and colorless, but shone like jewels.
Sheila was recovering, and she looked upon the new creature – her quakes of rage were unmistakeable. “Too late! Outsider! Too late!” She flung her body at the creature. But this time, the barrier did not weaken. Without transition, the growling stopped. In the sudden silence, a deafening scream rang forth from the creature’s throat. Gilda and Seget covered their ears, but the sound did not abate. Sheila convulsed in agony as if her mind had been set alight.
The stranger and Sheila wrestled, her attacks glinting off the barrier’s sheen. She threw the creature from her, who skidded onto the dais. Her wings brushed the circle, and green glow paled, pitching to a soft blue. She pawed at the blood. Methodically, almost artfully, she placed her fingers at the edge of the circle’s band and pulled, like yanking at a string. “No!” Sheila exclaimed. The circle dissolved, the blood spattering from the ground onto the walls. The light of the ritual vanished. Rising up into the air, the creature battered into Sheila, and the two of them broke through the floorboards, leaving behind a ragged hole.
Gilda hurried to Seget’s side to confirm his condition. “I mislike this,” she intoned. “The boy has become something wild—I have not seen such a thing before.”
Seget steadied himself. He gathered up Royce and the girl. They were both apparently unharmed. Collecting all of their belongings and Mabry’s fallen gear, they roused Royce. He darted up at first in a fright, but composed himself quickly when he saw who was with him. “What happened to those fiends?”
Gilda shook her head. “We slew the vampires. But their master, a being they called only Sheila, lives. She was working a rite in which she intended to drain your spirit from you.”
“We will go below to hasten Sheila’s end. Come.” He took Gilda in one arm, the girl in the other, and had Royce climb on his back. He swooped down through the hole in the floor.
They flitted into the antechamber on the first floor, a column of eerie illumination cascading down from their descent. Sheila huddled in the dust; Mabry, if it was indeed still Mabry, hovered over her. “I will not be denied.” Sheila was muttering. She was grasping at her hair compulsively. “I will not be . . . denied.” Quietly, like a midmorning dream, she disappeared into darkness.
Seget and Gilda were left alone with the girl-creature. “Mabry?” Seget asked. “Do you know where you are?” She flinched upon hearing the words. Her head darted about erratically, as if her surroundins confounded her. Whimpering, she sunk to the ground.
“Whoa!” Royce’s eyes widened, blinking at the Mabry-creature while Seget handed the sleeping girl to him. “Who is that? She’s . . . ” he paused, adjusting his shirt collar. “She’s sort of pretty, actually. In a weird way.”
“We don’t know who it is.” Gilda whispered. “Now be quiet. Stay back, and protect the child if there is need of it.”
“Do you know where you are?” Seget repeated, more gently.
A deep voice replied from beneath the earth. “You are in hell.” A roar rent the ground at their feet—a beast leaping up from the pit! It was tremendous, in the shape of a canine, only covered in glittering black scales, many tails lashing behind, and with wide jaws unlike any creature on earth. It laughed with a horrifying likeness to a human child’s mirth. It seemed to have no eyes on its head, but instead its vision shot out from it like daggers, visible as blades of flame encircling its skull. Sheila!
“Damn it!” Royce yelped. He held the girl to his chest, and put his back to the wall. “Kill it, Gilda!”
“I am not to be denied!” Sheila’s human voice was gone. It whipped one of its thundering tails, and coiled around Mabry’s torso. She struggled, panicking. Sheila drew her toward the dripping jaws. Seget swung at the tail with his sword, tearing the unearthly flesh with blows too swift to be seen. Gilda rallied all her power, and focused it into a spear of unadulterated will that she flung at Sheila’s heart. Their combined might caused her to flinch, dropping Mabry.
They fought the demonic beast, desperately withstanding as she assailed them with choking smog and spikes of solidified magic. She was ferocious, but they drove her back. Her eyes lifting, the girl-creature channeled her aura into an arrow, and joined in the battle once more. At last, the three of them vanquished Sheila, sending her flailing back into the earth. The last of the din ending, Mabry fell to the floor, exhausted.
She instantly transmogrified back into human flesh, pink and vulnerable, scarcely covered by tatters. But Mabry breathed deeply, steadily, asleep rather than dying. Gilda and Seget, who reverted to Ambrose as his strength was spent, stood panting in the antechamber for what felt like a long time. Royce stepped closer, taking care not to move too fast. He looked about, afraid Sheila might reappear at any moment. When he reached Mabry, he stopped over. “What the . . . ! She’s . . . she’s a boy!” His face nearly turned blue with shock. Ambrose rushed to take the child from his arms before he dropped her.
“Fool.” Gilda reprimanded, leaning beside Mabry to check his pulse.
The girl roused now, rubbing her eyes and yawning. “What time is it?” She asked sleepily. Her eyes opening a little, she stared up at Ambrose. “Who are you?”
“We saved you from the mean people,” Ambrose explained soothingly. “You’re safe now.” He let the girl down on her feet.
She gasped when she got a full view of the man. “Beautiful!” She covered her mouth and giggled. “I see shiny wings around you! Can you fly, Mister?”
Ambrose was taken aback that she perceived his celestial nature so immediately. “Uh . . . yes. I can fly.”
“Wow!” She took Ambrose’s hand, and a brief glimmer passed over him. Feeling his muscles relax, his wounds were miraculously cured.
Gilda, looking fatigued, brushed a strand of hair from her forehead. “He’s fine. His breath and pulse are normal. Whatever that was, it saved him.” Mabry stirred as she touched his shoulder. His eyes fluttered open.
“Sheila . . .” he coughed. “What happenned? Is the child alright?” He pushed himself up on his hands, looking around.
The girl skipped up to him, giggling. “Hey, aren’t you cold?”
Mabry looked down at his shredded clothing, and his face flushed crimson. “What have you been doing!?” He wrapped his arms around himself.
Gilda draped his jacket around his shoulders. “We defeated Sheila, though she nearly killed you. But her rite was ended in time.”
“More specifically, you ended it.” Ambrose volunteered.
“What?” Mabry did not appear to remember any of his actions in the other form. They described how he had shapechanged, and what had triggered it, and how he
- or she - had appeared.
He held his head for several minutes, staring blankly as if he hadn’t heard them. “So that’s what it is,” he said finally. “I had another blackout—but I didn’t know that’s what happened in the meantime.” He explained to them that he occasionally lost consciousness, awakening some time later in an unusual state, not able to remember what had transpired.
While the group prepared to return to the police station with the child and to tend to their various needs, Gilda spoke to Royce. “Go back to the wagon, and find Mary. We will depart soon—your scheme failed this time. Wait for me there. It may be that I can get a reward for rescuing you and salvage what I can of this.”
Royce sniffed. “Reward, eh?”
Gilda’s brow furrowed with disdain. “You should not be rewarded for being kidnapped! Now go.” Grumbling, the con artist marched off out of sight.
Back at the station, the three were showered with thanks, and rewarded by the sheriff with cash. The girl’s parents were called, and they wept with joy to see her safe.
While the three recovered, they officially introduced themselves and explained what had brought them into the night’s events. Ambrose said he was seeking the Mawan’s aid to help him learn about his destiny, and to see if they could inform him of how to locate someone important. Mabry immediately sympathized and said he, too, was searching for someone special to him, and that he hoped that the Mawan council could help him understand his blackouts.
While they talked, Gilda was given a letter by one of the officers. He explained that a woman had come to the station looking for a Gilda Arhamboras after the attack in town, and asked that they convey the message to her. It was a brief note, reading:
“I am glad to have found you. If you can, please meet with me this evening at the Tranquility Tea House. We have much to discuss that pertains to our past collaboration.
Intrigued, Gilda went to her wagon to retrieve Royce. When she arrived at the spot, she found the wagon gone, with track marks leading outside of town. Mary, her skeletal servant, stood motionless by the tracks, with yet another note attached to her skull. Gilda scowled. Royce! His note, opening with “Dear Ghastly,” explained that he had high-tailed it out of town to thwart her once and for all, and taunted her by claiming that if she wanted to find him, she’d have to find the Grey Court of the Mawan, where he’d gain sanctuary.
Smiling coldly, Gilda decided that she, too, would follow the caravan to track down the renegade. Sighing, she went to meet with Margarete and find out what she wanted.
The Grey Court. The thoughts of Gilda, Royce, Ambrose, and Mabry were all focused on that one endpoint. There the path will be made clear.