Friday, November 16, 2018

The Merbeast's Pain

I always visit Chinrar last, and would even if the merbeast wasn’t my favorite of the beasts in my care. He lives in a saltwater lake, so visiting him involves, at minimum, getting briney water on my dress and at worst ends with me covered in mud. The condition of my dress is important because a lot of the creatures in the Miac Mountain Preserve refuse to acknowledge me as a Caretaker if I’m not in pristine white. Since it’s my status as a Caretaker that calms the nervous enough to be seen and keeps the more aggressive from eating me, it’s pretty important that I maintain my qualification.

If I could change one thing about my job, it would be the dress. What sort of lunatic thought white skirts would be a suitable uniform for traipsing through the wilderness? I mean, yeah, okay, the original Caretakers were also priestesses, but they were clearly doing more than praying. If only the Preserve had been founded by a group of rangers instead of a temple!

This week as I approach the jut of rock where I usually meet Chinrar, I notice something wrong. He rests on the outcrop, his breathing sallow. When I meet his gaze, I can almost feel the pain in them. The wind that ruffles the fur on his dog-like upper half and the waves lapping against his scaley lower half mask his distressed whimpers until I’m very close, but as soon as I hear them my heart starts to race with the knowledge that I’m very much needed here.

I rush forward, sparing just enough thought to where my steps are going to keep from losing my footing. With soothing sushing sounds, I approach and kneel in front of the magnificent being. “You poor thing. What happened?”

He doesn’t answer, of course. While some of the creatures here are capable of human speech, he is not. But he moves against the hand I hold out to his snout.

His face looks fine, as do his forepaws, but when my visual examination drops to his lower half, I see a patch of missing scales. Oh, no. Not loose scale. Not Chinrar.

My magic rises inside of me, begging to be released. But magic can’t cure loose scale. The best it can do is ease the pain of it. “Please Goddess,” I pray quietly, “don’t let it be loose scale.”

Loose scale strikes fast and hard, prying scales off subjected animals at a rate of a few a day. Chinrar’s scales are where his magic is stored, and without them he’ll die. From the looks of things, if this is loose scale, it struck right after I saw him last.

Chinrar pulls himself further onto the rocks, allowing me to move down to the missing the scales. My blood chills as I take in the picture presented. With loose scale, scales separate quietly, leaving no blood. Right now, I’m looking at scabs. That means it isn’t loose scale, and I’m relieved about that. But it also means that something pried these scales off, which I’m not so happy about.

Pressing my hand against Chinrar’s side, I let my magic seap out into the wounds. “Of course you hurt,” I say gently. “I’d hurt too if someone ripped parts off me.” The closest a human has to the connections of scales would be the beds of our nails. I tore off a nail in a climbing incident once and that hurt like hell, and from the looks of things, Chinrar is down several dozen scales.

Chinrar begins to purr as the healing takes place. He’ll never grow the scales back, but at least he’s going to be spared the pain of healing and free from possible infections.

We have poachers though. I’m certain the only reason they didn’t kill poor Chinrar is because for the scales to retain their magic, and thus their value on the black market, they have to belong to something still living.

I finish healing my friend and then use the communication spell on the ring I wear on my left hand to inform the station of what happened. My boss isn’t happy with the report, but thanks me for telling her and says I can take some time to comfort Chinrar before coming back in. Sitting with the merbeast, I consider what to do next. It’s not my call, but I want to have a plan to suggest... The scabbing I observed means that the scales were stolen at least a day ago, so the people responsible are likely long gone. The sort of masking spell that would keep them from alerting me and my sister Caretakers to their presence wouldn’t be able to last more than three hours at tops. They would have needed to come straight here, knock Chinrar out somehow, and take their plunder as quickly as possible to get out again before we sensed them. They’ll be back, though, if not for more of Chinrar’s scales, then for a phoenix feather or a sphinx tooth.

I stroke Chinrar’s fur, thinking about how I’m going to trap and kill the people who hurt him.

The merbeast raises his head, interrupting my thoughts. He pulls back with a growl, then leaps over me. And a blast of magic slams into him, knocking him senseless.

As Chinrar collapses to the ground, I roll behind his body. The cursing I hear makes my breath catch and lights a fire of anger in my chest, because I recognize the voice behind it. Manilla. My direct superior and the only person I’ve told about Chinrar’s injury. She knocked him out, but was aiming for me. And magic strong enough to knock Chinrar out would have killed me.

I press into Chinrar’s side and summon the opposite magic to the healing I used earlier, letting it sizzle on my fingertips as I wait to be able to unleash it. My mind scrambles to catch up with events, to figure out why Manilla is here attacking me. “The poachers didn’t mask themselves, did they?” I call out. “You knew they were here. You let them in. Or...” Bile rises in the back of my throat. “Was it just you? Have you been hurting our wards?”

When Manilla speaks, her voice comes from closer than the cursing did. “It’s so easy to be righteous when you don’t know what it’s like to know your family is starving. My sister died from the famine. Her kids are next unless I do something, and the Goddess knows they don’t pay us enough for me to save them without finding something to sell. Do you really think a handful of scales are more important than the lives of children?”

“You took an oath,” I call back, shifting into a crouch that I hope will make me more able to react should Manilla come into sight. “We’re Caretakers! We exist to make sure people don’t hurt these animals.”

“I took an oath to defend life,” she says. It sounds like she’s still moving, still getting closer. Chinrar lets out a snore, a sign that he’s not going to spring into action to help out. “Those kids? They’re just as alive as the creatures here, and just as deserving of staying that way.” Her voice catches. “So was my sister.”

Her pain is honest, I can tell that from the suffering in her voice. But hurting our charges won’t bring her sister back, and there are better ways of taking care of the children. I’m pretty sure saying so won’t make an impression on her, though, so I stay silent as I try to figure out a way to get out the situation without ending up dead. My skirts are bothering me, so when Manilla starts to cry and I can tell she’s not approaching right now, I yank the dress off and crouch in only a bra and panties. It will be somewhat less dignified to die this way, but maybe it will help me avoid dying at all.

“You don’t understand!” Manilla sobs. “You’re an only child with no children of her own! You can’t say what you’d do for them!”

“You’re right!” Maybe if I act sympathetic, I can get close enough to hurt her without being hurt myself. “It can’t be easy to know that kids you care about are hurting.”

“It isn’t!”

I lick my lips. Will she buy it if I offer to help her? Only one way to know… “I think I would do what you did. I don’t blame you. You’re just being a good aunt.”

She lets out a caustic laugh. “Nice try. You’re hoping I’ll let you live if you pretend you won’t turn me in.”

“I guess I should have taken drama as a kid.” What I took instead might have been better though, because it’s my gymnastics training that lets me leap up over Chinrar with a mid-air flip and twist that causes the spell Manilla throws at me to miss. I let go of my own magic even as I stick the landing.

Tears form in my eyes as I look down at Manilla’s form. Breaking an oath like ours, an oath backed by magic, comes with a price. I suspect hers came in the form of impaired thinking and loss of rationality or surely she would have pretended to investigate rather than try to kill me for realizing something was wrong. Maybe she’s been taking things for a while now and it was the impaired thinking that led her to take enough scales that I could know there was a problem; if she’d only taken a few, or taken them from different places, would I have noticed and put the pieces together?

Crouching, I put my hand against Manilla’s throat. The pulse is faint, but there, telling me I judged my magic correctly and she’ll wake up in an hour or so.

After I pull my silly dress back on, I activate my com-ring again, call both the police and my mother, and then sit down to wait for the authorities to take my former boss to jail. I stroke Chinrar’s fur as he sleeps, keeping an eye on Manilla just in case she stirs early, and I ponder ways to raise money for the famine victims without hurting my charges. Because although what she did was wrong, Manilla was right about something; we are sworn to protect life.

Featured image is Strength, by Meredith Dillman. Prints can be ordered from her store here.
It was featured as a prompt in my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Potions Are a Girl's Best Friends

"What are you doing in here?" my father asks, using a weary tone I wish I was less familiar with. He stands in the doorway to my brewlab, looking at the beakers and conconcutions in them as though baffled by their presence. Neither of my parents were ever very good at potions, focusing instead on verbal spells. They conceded to grant me this lab a few years ago as a coming-of-age present, but neither of them seem to understand why I spend so much time here.

"Just checking on something." The vial closest to me bubbles merrily, which it shouldn't be doing. I lower the flame under it, although I don't shut the heat off completely. Across the room my feline familiar, Whiskey, stares at a different section of the brewlab. Does that mean the tea over there has finished steeping? I need to add it to the cauldron if it has.

"Darla, dear..." Daddy lets out a slow sigh. "It's your birthday ball. It's bad enough you insist on wear black and refused to put your hair up, but now you're not even there."

My fingers brush my hair. I don't actually like having it down, but Mama said I couldn't wear my ponytail. She had meant I needed something more elaborate, but I didn't have the time to sit there while my maid did my hair. It may be my birthday, but it's also the week before the university selection tests and I need as many working potions by then as I can get or else I'm not going to get into anywhere decent.

"My education is important to me, Daddy."

He sighs again. "I know that, sweetheart. And I want you to go to wherever you want. But you making a good personal match is important to your mother. There's no rule that says you can't fall in love and go to school at the same time. Your mother and I did."

"I know." And I do. I've heard their story over and over. They met in middle school, were friends through high school, and started dating after they were both selected by the same university. It's sweet, but not really relevant to me. I have precisely two friends and neither of them are the gender I'm attracted to. "That's just not my focus right now."

As I approach the tea I've been preparing today, Whiskey jumps from her perch and sashays over to Daddy, who bends to scratch her behind the ears. "It doesn't have to be," he says. "Just finish here as soon as you can and come down. Please?

"Yeah. Give me another ten minutes."

"Alright." He smiles. "See you in half an hour."

He leaves me to my work, which I finish up in about fifteen minutes. There are other things I could start, but if I did that, it will be another hour before I get downstairs... If I were the only one Mama would be displeased with about that, I might do it, but she'll get mad at Daddy for not forcibly removing me from the brewlab and I'd rather spare him the marital strife.

"Well, Whiskey, wish me luck."

The cat looks up, meows, and returns to cleaning her paws. Sometimes I envy her.

I turn to go, but before I make it to the door, I find the exit blocked by someone I've never seen before. The young woman is busy taking in the room with eyes that are wide behind a pair of stylishly chunky glasses made of something silver and glittering. She wears a strapless dress with a corset similar to mine, but whereas I am all in black, she is all in purple. It's my favorite color. "Whoa," she says. "You have a brewlab in your house. That is so awesome."

"Um... Yeah." I smile hesitantly. The woman, who I think is about my age, isn't classically beautiful, but rather what I would call cute. I like cute.

She smiles, turning up the adorable factor considerably, and I find myself grinning inanely as she continues to look around the room. Her gaze falls on my cauldron and she gasps. "Is that a Wexter?"

Whoa. She can tell that from a glance? The girl knows her cauldrons. "Yeah. I inherited it from my grandmother."

"Sweet. The only things I've ever gotten from my grandmother have been questionably knitted sweaters that I feel compelled to wear to make her feel appreciated." She laughs. "The last one had one sleeve that was six inches longer than the other one, but I love it anyway."

My imagination helpfully provides a picture of her wearing nothing but a poorly constructed sweater, one sleeve hanging well past her finger tips and her legs completely bare. The image very nearly makes my heart stop.

"Anyway..." My visitor bites her lip for a second as she stops examining the room and looks at me. "Your dad said you were here. Says you're hoping to get selected by Marsters."

I nod. "Yeah. I'm Darla, by the way. But I guess you knew that already."

She blinks. "Oh! I didn't introduce myself! I'm Eliah Banks. My dad works for your mom."


We smile at each other as seconds tick by. It seems like the silence should be uncomfortable, but it isn't.

"I go to Marsters," Eliah says after a bit. "So if you have questions, I can answer them."

She goes to my dream school. Oh dear Fates. Maybe Daddy is right and I can find love and get an education at the same time. Not that I'm in love with someone I just met. That would be stupid. But... Damned if I don't want the chance to fall for Eliah.

"Do you want to dance?" I hear myself ask, although the words never formed in my mind.

Slowly, she nods. "Yeah. I really do."

Our hands fit together perfectly when, with a boldness I usually lack, I take her hand and lead her to the ball.

Image is "Poison" by the incredibly talented Victoria Frances. It was provided as a prompt on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.

Monday, November 5, 2018

Night Mission

Milton walks beside me, squinting at a map that I’m pretty sure he’s holding upside down. “It should be around that corner.” He uses his flashlight to point to what I’m assuming is the wrong path. I don’t know Milton well, but I’m pretty sure he’s a master at getting lost, so I’m not too surprised that he doesn’t say anything when I nod and proceed to walk in a completely different direction.

The last time I was in Capitol City Park was more than twenty years ago. I was here with a school trip; there was no way my parents would have lended enough credence to royal rule to visit the newly created city. At the time, I thought they were crackpots, but that was before I lost friends in the University Masacre and learned that the Queen isn’t the benevolent mother she wants people to see her as.

Beyond the beams of our flashlights, the park is eery. The tall buildings surrounding the park lent light to the entrance, but we’re well past that now, so the only illumination comes from what moonlight makes it through the lush late-spring branches and the scattered glowshrooms spreading their greenish radiance along the ground. Nearby, a bird launches from one of the trees, diving for a prey too small for me to see. Milton stops dead with a gasp, and the beam of his flashlight starts to shake. I wish, not for the first time, that our leaders had paired me with someone a little more… competent. That’s not a kind thought, but if this extraction goes sour because I’m working with someone completely lacking in common sense and basic skills, my ghost will be even less kind.

“Keep moving,” I grunt, and I’m relieved when he starts walking again. We go onwards, deeper into the park. A park after closing is an interesting place, and under other circumstances I’d be really enjoying the novelty and quiet of the deserted paths. Maybe if my wife were here with me instead of dead at the hands of the people who will execute me if I’m caught. Yeah, seducing Jeanie in a place like this would have been amazing.

“Vanessa?” Milton tugs on my sleeve as though saying my name wouldn’t be enough to gain my attention. What is he? Five? Because he’s acting five, for all that he looks thirty. Again, not a kind thought for me to be having.

“Yes?” I say, trying to sound less annoyed with him than I am. He’s been in the resistance movement for years, but this is his first field operation. And I do need him, much as I hate to say it. I’m about as magically inclined as the average turnip and it’s going to take sorcery to break the creature’s bonds. The device I’m carrying should do the actual work, but it has no magic of its own and will need someone to power it.

“I feel funny.”

My teeth grit together even as I try to smile just in case he can see my expression. “That’s the no-see we took. You know, the stuff keeping us from showing up on the sensors and protecting us from being spotted by the park rangers?”

“Yeah, I know.” And well he should; he’s one of the people who makes it for us from ingredients that are increasingly hard to come by as the Queen’s Service cracks down on them. We’re going through some of our movement’s last no-see ever and I can only hope we aren’t wasting it on a failed mission. “I just… Are you sure we’re doing the right thing?”

My eyebrows raise. “Hell of a time to start worrying about that.”

“I know…” He slows, but keeps going fast enough I don’t feel I can say anything about it. “It’s just… If we free this thing, people are going to die.”

“Bad people,” I answer swiftly. “It’s not going to hurt us, or even the rangers. It’s going to go straight for the Queen. It’ll only take out people who try to stop it from hurting her.”

“And you’re sure they’re bad?” His pace decreases even more as he looks over at me. WIth the lighting, I can’t really make out his expression. “Aren’t they just doing their jobs? Trying to make money to support their families like everyone else?”

I let out a slow breath. It’s an argument I’ve had before. I used to have it with Jeanie every time I’d leave for a mission. She never actually did any fieldwork herself; she was too much of a pacifist to risk hurting anyone. “They know who the Queen is, maybe even better than we do. And they’re still choosing to work for her.”

“Maybe. Or maybe they don’t think they have a choice. And at this point, I’m not sure they do either. We picked sides a long time ago, and changing them now?” He shakes his head. “They’d have to give up their whole lives. Maybe literally. Have you ever heard of anyone who quit the Queen’s Service and didn’t wind up an outlaw?”

Something calls out from up the path, the creature hurrying us onward? How would it know we’re coming? No one has ever established how intelligent it is.

“I’d rather die than help that woman,” I say simply as I stomp onward, picking up my speed and assuming he’ll do the same.

“I guess,” says Milton. And though he doesn’t sound convinced, he trots to catch up with me.

We round a bend and stop in unison as we behold the target of our rescue. It stands there in its tiny moonlit yard, staring at us with eyes that burn with hatred. I can’t blame it for despising us. I’d hate a species that kept me locked up in a paddy barely large enough for me to lie down in then paraded a series of onlookers and gawkers to look at me. How many people have taken selfies with this beast? How many people posed their grinning children next to it? 

I’m suddenly less sure the creature is only going to hurt the Queen. Maybe it will hurt all of us, driving its singular horn through chest after chest until it collapses in exhaustion. And maybe we deserve it. 

Slow but steady, I walk up the creature’s pen. I hold up the device I was given. “This is going free you,” I tell it. It bows its head as though it understands. I can’t touch the fence due to its magic, so I put the device on the ground and roll it toward the barrier. 

“Alright,” I tell Milton. “Do it.” 

He nods once and holds his hands out, directing magic into the device that should destroy the bonds holding back the unicorn. And despite the fact that he could well be releasing the agent of my death, I pray to the fates that it works.

The above was prompted by a image of The Unicorn in Captivity which was shared on my Wording Wednesday group on MeWe.