Monday, March 23, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 21



“Give me the locus,” I demanded.

She pulled it in tighter to her body, and it squeaked. I huffed out an angry breath and lowered my head, staring directly into her wide eyes. “I will kill you and then take it.” Damn spellcaster. What was she doing with the poor thing? Going to use it for something, probably. A spell or a charm or some of both.

I was getting the picture the locus was a very valuable Being, even if I hadn’t heard of them before. That’s what I got for being part of a race of Beings who deemed themselves pure and hid away from the world.

Pressing upward with my knife, I made my intentions and complete willingness to take her life in a very painful way clear. Blood, scarlet and scorched, ran down my blade with a sharp hiss.

She had something in her. Something… fiery. But the fight in her eyes faded to nothing under my glare and she uncurled her arm.

The locus whimpered as it scampered away from her, its tiny legs working furiously as it headed straight for me. It crawled up my body, and then inside my cloak on the side opposite my blade arm, which I’d luckily cinched tight with my belt.

How to escape? If she was a spellcaster, moving the knife away from her would free her to work her magic. It would not affect me directly, but she could use things around us against me. Not that she would know what I was. Probably.

I grimaced. “If you try to stop me from leaving, I will kill you.” She opened her mouth, and I moved the knife, digging it in. “Evil witch, I know your type. Don’t try it; I will not let you harm a youngling. You’re lucky I’m not like you, or I’d kill you where you lay, in the dirt and filth, and leave your body to rot as a warning to all those who’d try to harm those under my protection.”

My horn may have been taken, my soul sheared with its ivory brilliance, and I may not have the majestic form I longed to take… but I would not allow evil to triumph. I would fulfill my role as a protector. This little locus would be going home or to someone who knew him and would take care of him, if his family was gone.

“Is death worth whatever foul spells you would have achieved if you took him from me? Trust me, you will fail if you try, and I will kill you.” Her blood was smoking on my knife, and it scorched my hand when it trickled down to touch my skin, but I ignored the pain.

Placing one cautious foot back, I stepped away, stretching my arm out. I hesitated, then I took another step, my knife moving away from her chin. I moved more rapidly but didn’t take my eyes off her, holding my knife ready. I could throw it if I had to, right through her throat.

We were almost clear, almost out of sight, when a stick rolled under my foot and I stumbled. I took my eyes off the witch for just a second, and that was all it took.

“Enkindle!” She waved her hand in a circle, and a wall of flames sprang up around me in an unbroken circle. I couldn’t stop her as she rose to her feet and wiped the dirt from her tunic.

She was a witch of unparalleled power, if she could do that with a single word and gesture. Fear—not for me, but for the idea of what failing to stop her would mean—churned in my stomach. I should have killed her when I had the chance, why hadn’t I?

I held the locus close, keeping my cloak from the flames. The heat was intense, sweat popping out in an instant. The knife was slippery in my palm, so I gripped it tighter.

She’d have to kill me to get him. I crouched, my eyes above the flames, to watch her.

“Wait,” she said. She stood with her hands raised, and I tensed even more, when I’d thought I couldn’t get any more on edge.

“For you to kill me like I should have killed you?” I snarled. “I don’t think so.”

“No. You didn’t kill me because I’m not evil. Your magic must have recognized that.” Her voice was calm. Beguiling in its sincerity.

A witch’s voice, with the power to tempt and taint your mind.

“Right.”

“If I was evil, would I not have harmed the others with the locus?”

“You stole him away from a unicorn. No one who wasn’t evil would do that,” I insisted.

“I took him to save him from you. I saw you with them, with him. I thought you had entrapped them somehow.”

“Even after I left them?”

“I thought them trapped, penned in by magic. I could only carry the locus.” She moved a few feet closer. “The locus clan was raided days ago; I promised to do my best to help them.”

“You know the clan?”

“We are allies. My territory borders theirs. I have been listening, trying to find any mention of their missing young, when I heard you.”

“You heard me? How?” She paced closer, and I clutched my knife. She might sound as if her story was true, but I would not be taken unawares again.

“Through the fire. It is mine to control. Watch.” She’d gotten close and I bared my teeth, swiping my knife through the fire. It parted, but I missed. The heat crackled along my skin, but I wasn’t burned.

“Stop that! I don’t want to hurt you,” she said.

“Then what are you doing?”

“This.” She waved her hand and the flames coalesced into a solid sheet in front of me. “Serai, Tinn. Please—”

The locus squirmed under my arm. “Tinn?” it squeaked.

“Tera, did you find him?”

“Daddy!” the locus squealed.

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Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Wednesday Briefs Unicorn Quests Chapter 20


“We have to find him. He’s too little to be on his own.” The map. Maybe the map could help.
“I didn’t see him leave. Are you sure he didn’t follow you? You didn’t see him on your way back?” Londe asked.
“No, I couldn’t come back the same way. To avoid being followed, I had to leave town a different direction and circle around. That’s why I was gone so long.” I unfolded the map, my hands unsteady and my stomach flipping.
How could I have lost another young? I should have woken Londe. Told him I was going. Put the locus near him…
Wait. I had. I paused before the map was fully unfolded, then quickly shut it, tucking it into my tunic. This wasn’t right.
I hadn’t left in the early morning when Londe and the foals were sleeping. They’d been awake. My heart began to hammer in my chest, even as my hands steadied.
‘Something is wrong.’
He tilted his head, staring at me with one dark eye. ‘I know. The locus is missing.’
‘Yes, but something else is wrong. I left him with you. On you. My stuff wasn’t over there.’ I sent a mental picture to go along with my words, the first one showing where my cloak was when I came back to camp and the second showing what I remembered from leaving before I went down into the town.
Were we being watched? The hair on my neck prickled. ‘Stay close to the foals’. “I’m going to head toward the path. Stay here, look around, maybe he’s hiding?” ‘Don’t leave the fire. Stay aware.’ The mental conversation was completely different from the verbal one, but if we had a watcher, I didn’t want to tip them off.
I picked up my cloak, sniffing it as I dramatically whirled it around my face. My scent. The locus. Londe’s clean scent, like icy air on a winter’s day and sweet, frosted berries.
And something else.
There had been someone, something here.
Sweat. Tang. Metal.
Human?
How could they have snuck past Londe? Why didn’t they go after him or the foals? How had they changed the memory of where the locus was?
Magic-wielder. Human, but with spellcasting. That had to be what it was. Why take the damn locus? Why did they keep preying on such a tiny young Being?
Rage danced in my chest. Londe and the foals had stayed by the fire; I had stepped away from it. I must have passed beyond the threshold of the spell to notice something was wrong. Or maybe it was because I wasn’t there when it was cast, so it wasn’t strong enough to fool me.
My weapons still hung on my belt. I resisted the urge to put a palm on my long knife. My gaze swept across the ground. I made a show of it, using just the edges of my vision to sweep farther away, higher. Looking, searching. Where was it? The mark?
There! Draped on a tree branch. A small bag, beaded, something dripping from it. Dark.
Blood.
My roar was barely suppressed.
Striding forward, I yanked the bag off the limb. Brown smeared across my palm. Fluid, not blood. Not my little charge’s blood.
I dropped the bag on the ground and crushed it into the dirt with my heel, shattering the spell it contained.
That’s when the calls broke the silence.
“Locus!” It was him. I knew it was. The long, low vibration shook the air like a piteous moan over the distance.
He’d made that call before, and I’d heard it up close. It was faint now, not even really a sound, but the vibration inside me quivered just the same. “I’m coming!” To the devils if it warned the one who’d taken him; I’d let him know he was not alone and I would rescue him if he could hear me.
And the thief should quiver in fear.
I threw my body down the path, legs churning up the distance in my new boots. My cloak, unfastened, streamed behind him as I sped down the path. I followed those vibrations, let them guide me, the rage rising as his fear called out to me.
Rocks sprang up to block my way. I leapt them. Trees bent, but I endured their whipping branches and the sharp, stinging blows to my face, chest, and arms as I barreled through. Roots tried to trip me, to twist my ankles.
Snarling, I used all the agility I’d retained from my former life and made it through. “You will not escape me!” I shouted.
Blue fluttered in front of me. To the right. I swerved, last minute, then jumped. I caught the fabric, jerking on the fistful I gripped with all my might. “Caught you, you bastard.”
The figure choked, stumbling, one arm wind-milling wildly before they slammed onto their ass with a broken gasp. I spun, slamming one boot down on their arm at the shoulder to pin them to the ground. The locus was in their other arm, its ears rolled down, covering its eyes, mouth open and warbling that vibrating call unabated.
“I’m here. You’re going to be fine. I’m here,” I assured him. My knife hissed as I pulled it from my sheath.
Bending, I used the edge of the blade to push the hood of the cloak off the human spellcaster’s face where it had fallen.
Female? The face was narrow, heart-shaped, with green eyes surrounded by pale lashes and a riot of red hair spilling from the cloak. Her chest heaved, still trying to draw in a breath.
She opened her mouth, and I put my blade under her chin. “No speaking,” I warned. “Or this will go right through your mouth and keep you from using that wicked tongue to cast a single spell in the most painful way possible.”


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Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 19





The map showed the mountain range. The town was nestled in its foothills. Did Maize expect us to backtrack over those infernal ridges and peak? I hoped not.

What was this map to? I knew from her information how to find the rough direction to head to find them. Of course I had to find my way back to my mate and young first. I glanced down the road.

Damn it. What to do? Continue on with my plan, keep the same course? I sighed. The first thing to do was get back to my family. I desperately needed to speak with Londe, and our bond was stretched too thin.

There. Decision made. I wouldn’t make one yet. I’d speak to my mate. Just then, a speck on the map floated off. What? I looked up. No, nothing coming from above me. It wasn’t some sort of debris from the tree.

Dots along the left edge of the map were moving. My breath caught and I watched, wide-eyed in shock.

I’d heard of imbued artifacts; tales of the magic being given to such things. It was well beyond anything I’d encountered before.

But who or what were the dots? I turned, facing the east. A square in the map twisted. So I was on there.

Did I want to go toward the other moving symbols? Or away from them? Damn it, this is where a little information would have come in handy. I sighed. Well, the first thing I needed to do was get back to Londe and the foals. Looking at the terrain around me, and then the map, I only wished it looked as easy and flat as it did on the paper.

There was some nasty brambles in the spaces under the trees. It would make walking tricky. Damn unstable two legs. I missed my body all the time.

I forged on, continuing the struggle until I broke out of the trees finally. The meadow lead down to a stream flanked by several large boulders. I could hear my mate’s mental patter as he quietly fussed at the foals.

“Stay still, stay quiet. No, I don’t know how long. Yes, we can move after your papa gets back. Soon.” I hope followed the last, the words so loud that I was surprised the foals couldn’t hear them even though Londe muttered them in his mind.

“I’m back,” I said, slipping out of the shadow of one of the large trees.

“Papa!” Marces cried. He rushed over to me, butting his head against my chest. “Did you get some food?”

“Weren’t you just eating?” I asked.

He batted his big eyes at me, like that would work. “Candy?” he asked hopefully.

“Not this time.” I hadn’t had time to get sweets at the shop. “I have good, nutritious food, supplies, and something special.” I patted Marces a few times on the neck.

“Can I see? Can I see it?”

“After your father has a few moment’s peace. There could be important messages; details we need to know immediately,” Londe said reprovingly.

‘Nothing like that.’ An image came to mind of the papers with my image.

“Then why are you in a different form?” He answered me by speaking aloud, his neck arched so he could look down on me. His horn glinted in the light.

I sighed. “Because there was something….”

Colete grimaced as she rose. “Do we need to go?” she asked faintly. Her eyes were red, her nostrils flaring.

“Not this second. While I may have been pursued, I do not think they will find my path easily.”

“Who is they?” Londe asked sharply. “Who is following us now? You just went for supplies. Tell me you paid for them!”

“Of course I did.” I was affronted by the very idea. “I wouldn’t steal from Beings, much less Maize.”

“Maize?” Colete asked. “You saw her?”

“Yes, and she gave me some medicine for you. Hold on.” I dug in the sack tucked against my back. “Here we go.” There was a metal can with an unguent inside. It smelled bitter, briny, but I trusted Maize. She wouldn’t harm a fly, not even merciless killers, to save her own life. She would not harm a young, much less a unicorn foal.

“Tell me if this hurts.” The wound were red, weeping, and hot to the touch. I grimaced, hoping the medicine would kick in and heal the worst before we made it to the meadow.

“Ahh,” she said. “It feels cool.” She wiggled, her skin twitching.”

“Where is my little friend?” Everyone else had greeted me. Where was the locus?

“Isn’t he with you?” Londe asked.

“No, of course not! Why would I take him with me?” I was aghast. Did Londe really think I took him. “I left him here, bundled up in my cloak. I rushed over to the pile of things by the fire, calling the locuse’s name.

“Where was he?” I’d faced a growing certainty that saving this young one would help us find out all the questions plaguing us.

Who had stolen my horn? Who wanted me dead? Londe out of the way? The young captured and taken away for an unknown Being. Londe, a non-fighting unicorn, allowed to leave the safety of the herd…

And how in the spirits did that map help me figure all that out?


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Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 18


When I least expected it, a reprieve. “Thank you, but I really need the things on the list I gave your partner.”
“Supplies? For more than one person. Are you rescuing others?”
“My mate and foals,” I admitted. “The foals were stolen, then sold. I had to steal them back, but they were being held by trolls who also had a large number of other young Beings. Also picked up something called a locus.”
Maize gasped. “I’m so sorry. Are they okay?”
“Eventually they will recover.” I tried not to think of the marks marring Colete’s coat or the hardness I saw in Marces’ gaze.  
“You also found a locus? They are rare.”
“You’ve heard of them?”
She nodded. “There’s an enclave west of here.”
Damn. Not the direction I wanted to travel. But if they were in the area, then they were probably related to the little one I had in my care. “My family is okay, though one of my foals was hurt by a bug-like Being who was forcing them to travel to its employer or master. Whoever is behind this all, at least.” I scowled. “It got away before I could kill it or get more information.”
“Pity.” For all she belonged to a type of gentle Beings, Maize hadn’t flinched when I used violence to save her tree. Living among humans lead to knowledge that sometimes violence stopped violence, that sometimes it was the only way. “I had wondered, about the poster on the board in the town center. It looked so much like you, but…”
“I know. My herd pushed me out; it was too much for them, after I took this form. They stripped me of my link to the herd when they took my horn, and if Londe wasn’t so stubborn, I’d have lost my family as well.” We almost had, when that bastard Trevis had failed to protect the young—my young—from predators.
And he let our allies think I was dead, trying to cut me off from assistance. Trevis had always been threatened by my power. Not that I wanted to lead the herd; that was not my desire. I wanted to protect my family, protect the herd, protect the land and those who lived upon it from those who would do harm.
“Here.” Maize’s partner plopped some sacks on the counter. “As I said, two silvers, five coppers.”
He was some form of tree spirit; I recognized it now that I saw him near Maize, but there was still something else about him. Something strange. His gaze met mine and his pupils flashed silver and then back to black that contrasted the pale violet of his irises.
“Shequi! You can’t charge him. He saved—”
“He can. This is a normal transaction. One you might do with any other traveler.” I was glad Maize had gone back to the counter, putting space between us. I darted a quick look at the window, the dirty panes not enough to obscure the spy watching us.
Just curious? Or had I aroused too much suspicion? I flicked my fingers, then scooped them into the coins knotted in a pouch on my belt. “Thank you.” I collected the bags, tucking them into my pack. One was heavier than I expected.
I flashed a look at Shequi, but he remained inscrutable. He’d already made the coins I’d pay him with disappear. Clearly a master of sleight of hand. I’d kept an eye on his movements in the front of his shop, and I hadn’t seen him put anything that should put this amount of weight in the bag.
Some kind of minor magician? Most nature Beings didn’t go in for things like that.
Maize fluttered into the back for a moment, then came out. She raised her voice. “Thank you for your business, sir. As I said, if you go east, then south, you will find larger towns with more likely business to hire your services.”
I knew she figured I’d go west, and she was right, but then I did need to go south. So it wasn’t the best ruse.
“Thank you, lady.” I accepted the hand she held out to me, bowing over it, my pack heavy on my back.
Huh. Sleight of hand. Apparently Maize and Shequi weren’t just associates in a goods business.
“You’re welcome,” she said when I slid my palm from hers. Afraid of who might be listening now, I kept our parting brief.
Steeling my nerves, I stepped through the door. Would I be rushed? Captured? Given to irate humans or a fleeced vampire?
People were going about their business. No one seemed to be even looking at me. I narrowed my eyes; someone had been spying on us.
But were they spying on me?
Maybe. Maybe not. I had the supplies we needed. I looked up and down the main road that ran through the center of town. Maize had been helping, but now I had to go east. Londe and the foals were north. I’d have to travel out of the town openly and then cut back through the country.
I casually slid my hands into my cloak sleeves, tucking the paper Maize had given me into a pocket sewn into the end of one sleeve. I’d look when there were less eyes.
The burn of scrutiny didn’t fade until I’d left town, and even then I assumed someone was watching. Not until I’d passed from sight of the walls around the town, and the silence of the solitary road surrounded me, did I finally feel it dissipate. Casually strolling over to a tree stump on the side of the road, I stopped and pulled off my pack. The new boots were calling my aching feet to step inside.
Under cover of changing my boots, I unfolded the scrap of paper that had been folded into Maize’s palm.
A map?

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Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 17



I couldn’t change genders; I didn’t have the right clothing, and I needed to be able to trade and travel without drawing suspicion like a woman or Being alone would. So I thinned out my body, growing a handspan taller than my own height. I focused on my hair, making it a truly unfortunate shade of red, and covered my skin in blotches.

My looks would make me stand out even more than being a stranger, but no one would connect me to the bills with my true face. My clothes were nondescript enough to belong to any traveler, the blue linen shirt long since faded to gray and my leather trousers nothing remarkable. My boots were in a state, strapped in one place on the right one, and my cloak was also coated more in dust than true color.

“Who’s in there?” Loud bangs on the door of the privy startled me. I knocked my elbow on the wall and cursed.

“Just a moment. I grabbed my pack and slung it over my shoulder, then opened the door. “Sorry.”

“This here ain’t no public toilet, Mister. Who do you think you are just barging in?” The man was holding a small polished club and had a gleam to his eye that I didn’t like.

“Again, sorry. It was an emergency, and I spied the outbuilding through the alley.” I made a show of fumbling with my belt and the small coin purse I’d left hanging on it. The small copper bit wouldn’t hurt to lose. “For the owner, sir. Or you?”

“Well, see as I might have had to fine you for public disturbance creating a ruckus using someone else’s privy and upsetting Missus Phillers, I suppose I can accept this instead.” The man snatched the copper from my fingertips and it disappeared so fast I knew for sure he was a human lawman.

Only them and magicians could make that trick happen before your very eyes.

“Thank you,” I said, bitter gall burning my stomach. “Can you point me to the purchasing establishment? I need to replenish some supplies.”

“Hoity toity talk you got there. You wanna get some victuals or some herbals, you gotta see the store keep on High street.”

“All right then. Thank you.” Being as the place only had one real street, with a few alleys the size of two men at their widest, perhaps, it wasn’t hard to figure out what I wanted. I hadn’t needed to ask, but it was always best to ingratiate yourself with the law whenever possible.

“Don’t be sticking around too long, hear? We don’t need no strangers.”

“I won’t.” I hitched my bag up on my shoulder again and took off back up the alley toward the wider road that they’d apparently felt they needed to name High Street. Well, I suppose one side did have wooden sidewalks put it in front of the store, and even stairs. My worn boots shushed across the boards quietly instead of clopping.

“I hear a woman or a man in need of boots,” came a voice from behind row after row of shelves. “If I miss my guess, and I never miss my guess, you’ll be needing these.” A Being came out from behind the shelves.

Not that I wouldn’t have guessed he was a being if I didn’t have magic myself. He looked human enough. No ears, no scales or fur or feathers. No fangs protruded from his mouth. His eyes sparkled a pale violet, but a rare human might claim that gaze.

It was his aura. I could manipulate mine to adjust my form; it was part of how my magic now worked. The other side of the magic meant I could recognize others’ auras as well. Good, evil, human, Being, in-between… This one was definitely some form of Being.

What are you? The question hung on the tip of my tongue, but I bit it, holding the words back. “How much?”

“With the goods I think you will need, two silvers, five coppers.”

“How do you know what I need?” I asked suspiciously.

“Just a knack.” He shrugged. “You look like a traveler. I know what travelers usually buy. Food, medical supplies, more food. Boots after traveling over the mountain.”

Haggling would just take longer, bring unwanted attention to me, and delay my departure. I had the coin; I also had several bags of gems and other tradeable items. Those would be best spent in a larger town or city to avoid speculation or possible robbery.

“I have a list.” I fished it out.

“We can handle that.”

Huh? “We?” I handed over the list and took the boots. They were made of thick leather, but it was warm and supple in my grasp.

“My helper.” Another Being came through the doorway and this one I recognized.

“Maize.” I hadn’t changed my voice, but she’d seen my body change before.

She gasped, dropping the list. “You’re supposed to be dead.”

“Rumors of my demise were greatly exaggerated,” I said calmly. “I bet I could guess who told you that I died though.” Sodding bastard.

“To hell with who. You’re alive.” She slipped under the counter and rushed into my arms. Her hold on me was tight enough to make my ribs creak, for all she appeared as a willowy, fragile human woman. I dropped the boots.

Tree Dryads…. No one really knew all the different kinds or why they chose to leave their kith and kin and walk among humans, but that was what these two were. How strange.

“Your tree okay?” I’d kept some humans from cutting it down.

“Yes, thank you again! She is lovely, the harm barely even noticeable.” Maize beamed. “But life has not been easy for you.”

“No. No it hasn’t.”

“How can we help?”

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Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 16




Walking over the mountain wasn’t the best idea with two foals—one wounded—but it was better than going backward toward the cave and trolls. I wanted to stay as far away from the road near where the cave had been as possible. Who knew if the beasts had other partners who would come for the kidnapped Beings?

There had to have been a reason they’d taken so many. Humans caught Beings, especially young ones, in order to kill them in their attempts to purify the planet. They killed them.

They didn’t do whatever the boss, or master, or whoever-the-hell it was pulling the strings had been doing with the Beings kept in cages.

So over the mountain was their best course. He did his best to forage for food for himself and his little side warmer. The others did the same for their needs; Londe found the most succulent treats for the young, encouraging them to eat.

It was slow going, and I was exhausted. Sleep came fitfully. I expected an attack at any moment, and the tension got to the foals even when Londe and I tried to keep it light. Colete was skittish and Marces wanted to be fierce.

“I will help you protect us, just like you used to do, Papa.”

Bile churned in my stomach. At least it overpowered the hunger.

Used to.

Back when I was a unicorn, a white battle unicorn with a short mane and thick muscles. When I had my magic. My horn. I’d lost all that in an attack on the herd, when insane humans used a Being against another Being all in the name of their purity. The curse stole my form, my magic, and my home. I couldn’t live with the other unicorns; they shunned me for the taint draining me.

It’d taken months of journeying, learning, and some sheer dumb luck to find another witch who had been able to seal breach slowly seeping away my magic and killing me and my mate. The spell she used changed me and my magic into this. I could change shape, but never to the form I craved with all my soul.

Without that, I was nameless. Herdless. The foals knew me as Papa. Not even Londe would say my name. I hid my hurt from him, deep inside, but I’d become faceless to the herd.

Leaving my mate and foals had been hard but leaving them orphaned because I’d killed their pater would have been worse. Londe was supposed to stay with the herd, stay with them, and they were supposed to be safe.

But they hadn’t been.

Once again, Beings had done what the humans failed—they took away that which was most precious to me. Just like the witch who took my soul, I would find out who was behind their kidnapping.

Or they’d find me.

I’d take advantage of that as well. Each night I sharpened my blades, polishing the edges. I stretched, flexed, limbered my sore body.

Kept watch behind us and on the sky.

We approached a small hamlet that boasted a tavern and a small market. I peered down from the edge of cover, the pass almost behind us. The forest bordered the short fields and a brook went along one side. With the sun shining down, grass waving, and people passing in bright clothes, it looked peaceful.

Idyllic.

Where was the rot in this peasant soup?

“Can we go into the town?” Marces asked.

“I don’t want to.” Colete’s voice shook as she quickly contradicted him.

“No, you are not going into the town,” Londe said. “We need to avoid humans.”

Marces tucked his chin to his chest and tried to bat his lashes. Those big, brown eyes did not tempt me to give him permission at all. “No.”

“Daddy come?” My little sidekick, the locus, repeated that any time I brought him out of the cloak. His ears perked up, unrolling some to expose his eyes. That and yes or no was all about we could get him to say, at least that was understandable. Sometimes he sort of vibrated and made a humming call.

“No, buddy.” I handed him over to Londe, tucking a blanket around him as I nestled him in the center of his withers.

He collapsed into a small ball, his ears covering his eyes again. I sighed. Yet another problem I couldn’t solve. I pulled out the small pouch of money from the pack Londe carried.

“Food. Clothes. Medicine. I’ll be back as soon as possible.” I also desperately needed new boots; I’d almost worn the leather off mine.

Unlikely to find a tanner or cobbler in a town this size, though. Or readymade boots in my size.

I entered the town cautiously, my cloak covering most of my travel-worn clothing. I kept my hood up until the curious gazes turned suspicious. Then I had to put it down. People who were up to no good hid who they were.

The tavern was in sight, the store just beyond it, when I saw it. The post bills with my picture. Murderer. Thief. Well, the poster was right, but the image was too damn good to be anything but a simulacrum by a damn spellcaster. Damnation to all witchery—it always did me wrong.

And I’d been justified in everything I did. But if I went near that poster, or someone who’d scrutinized it a few times came near me… It’d be over. I rushed through an alley into an outhouse.

The stench was incredible. Time to shift, yet again. Time to lose more of the magic and more of my soul. It was the only way I’d be able to buy the supplies we desperately needed.

Of course, I’d never told Londe what shifting did to me.

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