I listened quietly as the night bells rang. The first was pretty distant. A hollow sound that bounced off the walls, becoming more like a low hum than a ring. Another bell went off, closer this time, with a whole bunch jangling on the same cord. More bells hastily joined in, clanging and blurring into a thick, ringing soup.
Last call. Better hurry inside. Monsters wander the streets past now.
Of course, we monsters don’t pay attention to any bells. Ruin’s eyes were locked firmly on the sky, determining exactly when night had truly fallen. I could still see hints of color. So it wasn’t time yet.
“They ring them earlier and earlier…” he said softly.
“Does that mean we won’t catch anything?” Ferrous asked. “They’ve got such a big warning…”
Ruin shook his head. “The opposite really. Since it’s only a warning, there are many who think they can accomplish a few more small tasks before true dark.”
“Well that’s sure nice of them!” Havoc barked, “Like ringing our dinner bells!”
Crusher rolled his eyes, “Havoc. Don’t be gross.”
“They decide what time to ring on their own,” Ruin said, “I doubt it’s any courtesy to us.”
Ruin slid the metal cover of the spy hatch shut, and turned to all of us.
“Tonight,” he said solemnly, “Is your final accompanied hunt.”
I stood with my three bunk-mates, Crusher, Havoc, and Ferrous. Havoc and Ferrous looked excitable as ever. Big old Havoc, broad shouldered and big-fisted, was trembling, eying the door hungrily. Probably, literally hungry. Like he could eat that damn door.
“You’ve all followed my lessons and examples for a long time now,” Ruin continued, looking at each of us in turn. Like me, the big guy was built tall and slim, had grey skin, and man-legs. Unlike me, he had a thin face with sharp eyes. I watched the baby-bare jaw bob as he talked. “You know your duties. You know the streets. You know the dangers, and have the skills to overcome them. This night is your formal graduation. I will be supervising you from afar, and asses your teamwork. I will be offering the last of the advice. I will only protect you if I truly see the need.”
“Protect us?!” Havoc scoffed, “From our prey?! You’re kidding me, right? We’ve got this!”
“A lot could happen out there,” Crusher mumbled, “A whole lot. We’re far from safe.”
“Well we’re not babies, Crusher!” Havoc shot, “At least I’m not one! You, I think you need to go back and find your momma’s tits to hide in!”
Ferrous chuckled. Ferrous stood beside Havoc, his thin deer-like hooves giving him a sort of willowy gait. He had a brand-new knife at his waist, one he stole off a corpse. He was popping the blade in and out of its sheath, the noise clicking constantly from his waist. I rolled my eyes.
“Oooh nooo,” I cried, cutting in, “Havoc used ‘tits’ in a sentence! That means he’s all grown up now, Crusher. Our little baby hearts can’t take such foul language.”
Crusher laughed weakly, more a pity laugh than anything else. He was the shortest of us four, had an overbite that made his tan face look round and babyish. He looked about as excited as I was, and that was, not very. But, unlike me, he also looked frustrated and nervous. Like all the time. Sucks for him. He didn’t get the easy job. Because that job was mine.
Ferrous’ knife clicked out of its sheath, and he gave me what I think was a meaningful look? With the meaning probably being: ‘Going to cut off your nose if you keep blabbing.’ Crusher shrank away from the threat, holding his hands up defensively. He never thinks he looks scared, but man, he was such a baby. He didn’t have to be intimidated by these chumps.
Of course, we wouldn’t get into a real fight in front of our ‘beloved’ Elder Brother. Ruin cleared his throat, and my bunkmates all stumbled into attention.
“This night,” Ruin said gravely, “Will be about solidifying teamwork most of all. You’re all still young, so if you wish to be productive hunters, then you will have to learn to work with those you may find personally distasteful. Understand?”
We shuffled our feet and nodded our heads noncommittally. See, Elder Brother Ruin was weird. He had been talking for almost five minutes, and he hadn’t shouted or hit anybody. I respected the guy for it, he had a whole lot more patience than any other the other adults. But guys like Havoc and Ferrous, they didn’t respect anybody for anything. It was some wonder they even stomached learning from the guy at all.
“You all know your roles,” Ruin finally said, “I will be here to answer any final questions, but tonight, this hunt is your responsibility. I hope it goes well for each of you. Once true dark comes, your work will begin.”
Havoc nodded eagerly, and his eyes returned to the door. I guess that was enough words from the big guy too, because he returned to the view hole, and watched for True Dark. We were all back to just waiting again, except quieter and more orderly than usual. I mean, there was an adult in the room.
Crusher inched away from his bunkmates, and came over to me. Glancing quickly back at Ruin, he whispered to me, “Seriously, Brynth? You still don’t have a knife?”
“What? I don’t?! Oh no!” I whispered back, patting myself down. “This is horrible! I’m going to fail my first hunter’s exam and be shamed forever and ever!” I rolled my eyes, “I’m the portal master, Crusher. I open portals. I don’t have to fight.”
“But what if we get attacked?” Crusher insisted, “We could run into a group of dogs, or an elder man. What if Havoc and Ferrous get knocked flat?”
“I portal away and leave you all to die? Duh.”
Crusher frowned. I offered him a smile.
“Okay, okay. You can come with,” I said, “But I’m leaving Havoc and Ferrous. They’d see their sacrifice as noble, anyway.”
“You will take everyone to safety, Labyrinth,” Ruin said suddenly, making Crusher jump. “Your job is important for the last tactical retreat.”
“Oh, that’s my job?” I piped up, “I thought I was here to chuck dead bodies around. Wow. Where did I get that wrong?”
“In addition to your normal duties,” Ruin sighed. “You seem rather confrontational tonight, Labyrinth. Are you nervous?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. Who wouldn’t be, big guy?”
“Elder Ruin, younger Labyrinth.”
“Oh. So that matters now…”
“Tonight, it does,” Ruin said. He shut the hatch on the view hole, and said, “True Dark has fallen. Your first hunt has begun.”
Havoc leapt at the door like a starving animal, which again, he probably was. His claws dug into a crack in the masonry and gave the heavy rock a push, his wings flaring. Opening the door was no trouble for a fully grown Chimera, but unfortunately, all of us were about six years and half a meter short of that benchmark. It took Ferrous and Havoc struggling together to swing the door open, squirming out as soon as it barely cracked open.
Crusher and I walked out after our bunkmates, and Ruin pushed the door the rest of the way open to accommodate his stupidly big body. Once he was out, the eager beavers turned around and pushed the hefty thing closed. With a heavy thud, the stone slid back flush with the wall. It looked like any other wall in the city: Big. Black. Stone. Weird metal hatch two meters up the wall, but I bet most of these short kinds don’t even notice it. There’s weirder stuff in this city than metal stuck in these rocks.
Luckily, Run didn’t have to lecture us on the proper etiquette of shutting doors. We stood out in the streets, the only kinds able to see in the whole lightless city.
Havoc immediately stalked forward, hand gripping the hilt of his own knife tightly. He weaved around the alleyway’s refuse, a covered pile of half-rotten vegetables tops and stalks, some broken clay pots, and shot into the main street. His eyes darted back and forth. I could tell, because he was craning his neck around and around, dragging his body around like a meaty doll. He waved the rest of us forward, already set up with a massively disappointed frown.
“C’mon!” Havoc hissed, “You’ll never catch anything dawdling like that!”
Ferrous and Crusher immediately started jogging. I wasn’t feeling it. It took a firm hand from the big guy to steer me into the street at any kind of pace.
“Take note of the difference between true dark, and the time before it,” Ruin offered to his fidgeting students. “Lack of color isn’t the only indicator you can use.”
Havoc looked at Ruin long enough to pretend like he was listening, then turned right back around, resuming his hunt. Crusher tripped on the uneven cobble more than once, and I didn’t blame him. The walls and ground looked exactly the same, like an uneven void with occasional gray blocks for doors cut out of it. Sometimes there were objects pressed up against the walls to give a clearer indication of the corners, sharp gray silhouettes of trash and water barrels mostly. But when it came to the black cobble, we may as well be walking on void, our bodies the only bright thing in the whole city.
Well, actually no. Plenty of other things besides us were a bright white out here.
We all spotted a rat almost instantly, pressed tightly against the wall and curled up. A tiny white spot breaking the blacks and grays around it? The light of a torch could have hidden it better.
Havoc and Ferrous nearly tripped over each other, bright white bodies rushing to catch the rat. Havoc overshot and bashed his head into the wall, and hey, good for him. Ferrous’ knife slipped readily from its sheath and pinned the rat’s leg. The creature squealed and writhed, bent on taking off its leg before getting caught. But Havoc’s fingers already dug into the fur in its neck, squeezing it tightly.
“Think you’re gonna get away, huh?!” Havoc squealed, “Thought you can hide?! Wrong! So wrong!”
Crusher shrugged his shoulders uncomfortably, “Don’t shout at the thing…”
“Part of the job!” Havoc huffed. “C’mon, portal master! Stop criticizing my job and start doing yours!”
Crusher looked down at his narrow, cat-like claws, and said no more. Ferrous began slowly nicking off the rat’s toes as it screeched and squealed in his own language. I knew enough rodent to know nothing he said was pretty. More on the threat side than the scared side. Fairly normal. For, you know, rats.
“I got this,” I said, sauntering forward. Only made Crusher look more sour, but honestly, there’s just no pleasing that guy.
I kneeled down, and stretched out my fingers. Each digit had a long, talon-like claw curling up from the end. They looked solid and yellowish in normal light, but right now, like the rest of me, they were a bright and shining white. They made some things in life difficult, sure, but it made the most important thing the easiest of all.
Heat flowed down my arms, and collected at the tips of my fingers. Long gouts of aura flame swelled from the tips of my nails. With one hand, I pulled apart the shadows, like pushing aside a curation of fabric.
The next part would be tricky, for someone who wasn’t me. I thought clearly of the vermin cells, forming an image in my mind. I knew exactly where this was. What it looked like, what it sounded and smelled like. It looked like several stacked mesh cages of black iron, among the rows of other, larger cells. Smelled like waste and blood. Sounded like screams of pain.
That image spread from my claws, creating a blurry portrait on the ground. I carefully kept that image clear in mind, and with my other hand, I reached into the portrait of the cells, and tugged the shadows apart on the other side.
I tugged apart the opening, ripping open a hole in space. Heat flowed down my back, and out my arms. The blurry image popped into three dimensions, a few rats and mice popping in as they did. Sights, smells, and sounds resolved into the actual location, drifting up through the hole in space.
The spell worked, of course. Hell, I could rip open a portal in less than five seconds if I knew the place well enough. I’m just that good.
Ferrous eyed my portal. Satisfied, he nicked off one last toe off his rat before Havoc yanked the vermin from his friend’s grip and tossed it into the open hole. I quietly watched the body fall into the mesh cell, landing with a splat as it hit the ground.
With that all done and done, I lifted my hands away and let the portal clap itself shut. Right back to the natural order of things. This kind of magic didn’t last too long without heat feeding it. I rolled my shoulders, testing them. A bit stiff, but I could open three or four more of those.
“We caught it!” Havoc exclaimed, “By ourselves, too! Does that mean it’s mine?!”
“I doubt the cook will be so accommodating, but he might humor you,” Ruin said. “Though it might be difficult to distinguish exactly which rat is the one you caught after it’s been processed.”
“I guess that’s true…” Havoc said. He swung himself to his feet. “Uhg, I should’ve just gutted it here. We could’ve munched on its guts like a midnight snack!”
“I assure you, that is not very sanitary, healthy, or even tasty,” Ruin chided, “Your brothers would show you no sympathy for becoming ill.”
Still mumbling and muttering, Havoc shot off down the street again, followed by Ferrous quietly trying to clean his knife with a tattered rag. I, on the other hand, wondered if I just stood still they’d all leave without me. They’ve done it before! It’d be a fun trick to try again.
But of course not. Ruin once again took me by the shoulder, and shoved me forward.
“You’re very obstinate tonight, Labyrinth,” he said. “I’ve been too lax with my lessons. You have it in your head that you can do whatever you like. Including skipping out on work.”
“We caught a rat. Not exactly Hunters of the Century here. Right Crusher?”
Crusher flinched at the sound of his name. He frowned at me, but offered no other words.
“The people of the city are smarting up,” I continued, “No matter how many hunting parties we send out, we’re not going to catch jack, right? Let’s save some energy and just go back. Right? C’mon, man. Back me up here, Crusher.”
My bunkmate frowned down at his hands, “I really hope we catch something big,” he said firmly, “Something like a cow or a couple Goats. Our Elders can get terrifying when there’s not enough food to go around…”
“Just find a good place to hide, then. Same as always. Not like the adults know the whole Castle backwards and forwards.” I glanced up at Ruin, still gripping my shoulder. “No offense, big guy.”
Ruin let the comment slide. He said, “You are of age, Labyrinth. If you do not hunt, you do not eat. And I would vastly prefer for you to not starve to death.”
“Aw, thanks big guy,” I sniffled dramatically, “That may be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
Ruin’s head snapped upwards, and his hands left my shoulders. There was a scream up ahead. Not from the prey. Havoc’s voice. In three strides he was down the street and gone around the corner. Crusher rushed after him, only stopping to see that I wasn’t moving.
“Brynth!” he hissed, “Hurry up! Havoc could be in trouble!”
“Good!” I said, “I don’t like that guy anyway. Surprised you’re so eager to run and help him.”
“Well, no, but… Brynth, please!” Crusher hissed, shoulders tensing , “The adults are going to kill you if you keep skipping out like this!”
“Yeah right! They can’t kill what they can’t catch,” I scoffed, “But if you’re so scared of them, go on. I’m not stopping you.”
Crusher wavered for maybe a couple more seconds before he charged off around the corner, gone and out of sight. I quickly did the same, but in the opposite direction, and with more magic.
I pinched the edge of the shadows between my claws, peeled them from the wall. It was a spell similar to what I used to open the portal. But I didn’t paint a picture this time. I just lifted the shadows up like it was fabric, and slipped underneath. The shadows tried to snap back against the wall, but as long as I held my focus, they’d stick around me instead.
Simple, effective camouflage from all kinds of sight. In this kind of true dark, absolutely nothing would be able to see me. Doubt Ruin would even know where to look!
Finally, a peaceful night was mine. Hunting was exciting maybe the first month of learning it, but it fell into a boring routine after a while. Run around, chase white spots, portal, run around some more. If that was going to be the job I’d have to do nearly every night for the rest of my life, then screw it. I’m taking advantage of my screw-off time while I still have the chance.
Anyway, Havoc only shouted once, so he probably got a nasty bite from something. Surprised by a cat scratch. Confused that something would fight back, as if everything he catches would just surrender peacefully to fate.
Well, we take our small victories when we can.
When I decided I was a sufficient distance away, I stretched my arms, wings lightly flaring. Shadows snapped and popped off me as I let the spell go, because really, who was going to see me now?
I immediately wove a new spell, illusion this time. A faint gray ball floated above my fingers, and dropped lightly into my hand. It didn’t have any weight, or any solid form at all. But it was fun to try and make it look like it did.
I began tossing it up into the air, bouncing it off the back of my hand, making it squash and stretch as the image jumped up and down. I looked up at the sky, making the ball float past my eyes. Man. Those clouds. May as well be a second ceiling to my eyes, just much higher up. The permanent cloud layer was just as black as the stone, letting no light of any kind through.
I flicked at the ball, and made it bounce wildly around the narrow back alley. There’s got to be something I can do to kill these hours besides ‘wander around under shadows, hoping I don’t run into a single other soul in this city.’ If I headed back now, an adult might find me and shove me back out the door. And what about dinner? If I got back before the rest of my bunkmates, I could feign like I’d arrived first. But if I arrived too early, it’d be suspicious. Too late, and no dinner. Again.
I made the ball bounce higher and higher. There was some muffled shouting in the distance, probably another hunting party, catching something that speaks Angeocian. You know, maybe if I did catch something big, like a horse or a man, Ruin would get off my back about hunting with the chuckleheads?
Maybe I could start going out on my own at night. No supervision, no whining, no screaming. Just knocking prey out with a spell, then dumping them in cells. No mess, no fuss. I get respect, nobody disputes any of my rights. Just good, clean, peace. Do what I want, when I –
There was a loud slamming sound. I don’t know what made it, because bright light smacked me straight in the face. I stumbled back, completely blind. My illusion spell fizzled. There was shouting. I wanted to cringe and cover my eyes, try to get them to adjust, but my heart was pounding. I had to be just seconds from getting attacked. Either by an angry Ruin, or worse. Prey that fights back.
Someone shrieked, “Violet you shut that door this instant!”
“Oh!” another one said, “There’s a guy out here.”
I squinted into the glare, furiously trying to pinch for shadows behind me. Of course there weren’t many. Light was streaming from some kind of doorframe, blowing pretty much every shadow away but my own. I saw a big white blob resolve into two struggling black ones. The first voice was babbling hysterically, just crying ‘oh my goodness’ over and over again.
“What are you doing?!” she suddenly cried, “Get inside, quickly!”
Before I could react, the pink blob was upon me. I was roughly grabbed by the arm, and yanked forward. I tripped over my feet, legs bashing into something hard like stone, and tumbled into that bright room, collapsing to my knees. A door slammed behind me, first voice babbling on and on about the danger they’ve been put through.
This was bad, right?
I stumbled to my feet, blinking furiously, trying to get my eyes to adjust to the light. It wasn’t all that bright in here. A few artificial lamps. Some candles. The transition was rough, but I could get used to it. I saw the two blobs resolve into two men… no, sylph. One was far too pink to be man-colored, and the other one was a dark blue. Definitely sylph. The pink one was on her hands and knees, stuffing cloth under the door. The other one, smaller one, was staring directly at me.
“Wow,” she said, eyes wide, “What kind are you?”
I stumbled to my feet, “U-uh…”
“Foreigner?” The pink one demanded. “Do you speak Angeocian?”
Foreigner? What? The little blue one cleared up even more. she was still staring at me, not with fear, but curiosity.
“Well?” Pink one snapped.
“Um. Yes!” I replied, “I speak Angeocian.”
“C’mon,” the little blue one insisted, “What kind are you?”
“I… uh…” Oh no. What did the prey know about… the everything? About the Chimeras and the hunts and the killing? I flailed desperately for a good lie.
“H-harpy?” I stammered.
The blue girl nodded, satisfied with the answer. Nice save!
The pink one shot to her feet, also satisfied with the door. She strode over, and I mean strode. She was like a furious noblewoman about to lay into her servants. Hell, she probably was a noblewoman. Most sylph are, right?
She looked me up and down, back straight and face stern. And only growing sterner. Aw crap, did she know I was lying? I mean, sure Harpies are winged humanoids. But they’ve got talons for feet and buttload more feathers. My feet were clearly too manlike to be bird talons.
“The curfew is not something to sneeze at, you know,” she said, “Being on the streets at night is deadly. Did nobody tell you this when you came here?”
“Oh, I know. But uh…”
“I don’t think it is dangerous,” the little blue one huffed. She folded her arms in defiance. “Everybody goes on and on about the monsters that come out at night. But I dunno a single person who’s died of it.”
“You don’t know a single person who was foolish to go out at night either, Violet!” the pink one cried, “Do I have to repeat myself for you? These nightmares are very real!”
Oh wow. They actually used the term ‘nightmare?’ Not Chimera? Well that’s… odd. Hearing my kind being talked about, with terms I didn’t know? Yep. Weird. This was weird.
“And you!” the pink one said, turning to me, “Did you think these things were just silly little stories too?! What were you doing out there?!”
“No, no! I uh… yeah, I’ve known people to go missing. I know the night hunts are no joke.” Gods. Do they even know of them as hunts? What the hell would someone call it? I keep going anyway. “I just got stuck outside… was hiding with shadow magic, when your light blasted it away.”
“I see…” she pursed her lips, nodding, “Well, the nightmares are bound to have been attracted by the light, so you will be staying here for the night. Even under cover of shadows, you are not safe. You understand?”
“Er. Yeah, sure. Thanks for saving me, I guess?”
She sighed, “You both take this far too lightly…”
The pink one’s hand chopped towards me, and I took an automatic step back. But she wasn’t trying to hit me, I don’t think. She just held her hand to me, fingers flat.
Staring me in the eye, the pink one said, “I am Lady Melody of June. And you, my lady, my lord?”
I grabbed her hand with both of mine and gave it a squeeze. Tried my best not to pierce her weirdly soft hands with my talons.
“The name’s Labyrinth,” I said, seeing no need to lie about my name, “People call me Brynth.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Labyrinth,” she said, either taking no notice or too smoothly polite to comment on my handshake.
She stepped back, and nodded to the little blue one. The blue one shot forward and grabbed my hands the same way I had grabbed her pink friend’s.
“I’m Violet of June!” she declared, shaking my hand, “I’m Melody’s little sister!”
“Good to know,” I said. She giggled at something. I dunno what.
But anyway. Cool. Got both their names. And both are convinced that I am a totally swell harpy guy. I mean, they really bought it! They didn’t even have the slightest guess that I was one of the things that made the night streets so dangerous?
I looked up at the ceiling, and praised the good fortune of my Elders. Never let a single one of us ever die in the streets? No bodies or evidence left behind? You are all beautiful, awful murderers.
Anyway, Melody seemed to wander off to the other side of the room. It was the first chance I really gave myself to look around. The floors were the ultimate basic: black stone. Walls, though. They were wood and plaster, which was pretty swanky. The plaster looked pretty beat up, though. It was chipping and cracked in a bunch of places. We seemed to be in some kind of kitchen larder place. There was a countertop against the far wall. Some knives, some cupboards. A kind of hearth with a low flame and a small, hanging caldron. I guess that was where Melody was heading, because she lifted the pot lid with a hovering spell, and stirred it with a dull-looking clay spoon.
“Remind me, Labyrinth,” she called from across the room, “What is a harpy’s diet?”
“Are you a carnivore, or an herbivore?” she asked.
“I’m a carnivore…” I said slowly.
“I don’t have much for you here to eat then,” she said, replacing the lid of her pot. “I did not buy any meat or eggs today… I suppose I’ll have to make due.”
“Make due?” I asked, “With what?”
“With whatever I have…?” she asked back, equally perplexed. “My sister and I were just about to split dinner. I’m not so rude to eat in front of you and offer nothing.”
Well, my mind was thoroughly boggled. Who cares about something like that? I was just some random stranger they yanked off the streets. There’s no point to splitting food with someone you don’t care about and will never see again. Man, Melody must be dumb to not get something that simple. That or rich.
Well, okay then! I’m up for taking advantage of other people’s stupidity. Unless she planned on poisoning me. Buuuut we’ll burn that bridge when we cross it.
“Better to not argue with her.”
I jumped a little as something poked at my wings. Violet was still right beside me, talking with her hand outstretched.
“Melody operates on ‘proper social butterfly law,’” she continued, “If you want to win against her, you’ve got to memorize the rulebook.”
“No such thing,” Melody hummed, “Violet, please entertain our guest until dinner is ready.”
The little blue girl looked up at me, “So, did you play cards in the bird country?”
“Not what I meant when I said entertain, Violet!”
“So, the boring kind of talking lady entertainment?”
“Exactly,” Melody said, “I leave you to it.”
I snickered lightly, a couple of quips coming and going from my mind. It was just so bizarre. I’m in an actual house, with actual prey… Just being actual weird people. Being nice to me. Never thought I’d see something like this up close. It was different. Interesting different.
“Well c’mon, uh… harpy guy.” Violet said, waving me through the open doorframe. “The boring talking room where we do boring talking stuff is over here.”
I followed Violet out of the kitchen. But man. What in the world should I be doing here? The hunt could be boiled down pretty simply: Find anything? Knock it out, maim it a bit, and drag it home. Smash Sylph gems. Break any heavy claws. Snap off horns. You were not allowed to go into buildings unless spotted. If you saw any light, you extinguished it, and killed anyone who dared light something in the dark.
I guess, in this situation, to protect our secrets, I had to kill them both? I didn’t really tell them anything, but I had been ‘spotted’ by them, right? Even though I’d deftly tricked them into thinking I was a Harpy, it didn’t really change our relationship. Chimera? Hunter. Everything else? Prey. Done? Good!
But I didn’t have any means to smash their gems… Even if I had a knife, I’d need something to bash their heads, either a blunt object or some really tricky portal magic. Which they might be able to cancel? Sylph are tricky. They train in magic really young, and who knows what crazy spells they could throw around.
I am so glad that Ruin had no way of figuring out where I was without returning to the Castle. Running away from my hunt is bad. But fraternizing with the prey? He’d freaking kill me. Well. Not literally, seeing as how it’s Ruin.
Wouldn’t put it past a different adult, though.
While I wondered, we wandered through a kind of big, dark common room… only to be lead into a different, smaller, and more well-lit and furnished common room. Violet kicked aside pillows and blankets that were spread out on the floor, and dragged a couple of spindly chairs from behind a battered armoire. I noticed there was heavy cloth hanging over parts of the wall. Probably leading to other rooms? But the cloth was at waist height, and, I noticed, held tightly in place by nails and hooks driven into the plaster.
I watched as Violet set out clay cups and a teakettle from the armoire, then waved at the wooden chair for some reason before sitting on the other one. The wood screeched loudly as she dropped into it.
“Oh, and, by the way, thanks!” Violet said, grabbing a teacup, “You probably stopped my big sis from yelling at me some more.”
“Huh?” I asked, “What did you do?”
“I dunno, maybe dozens of things by now. It got pretty serious. Oh, and,” she pointed at the chair across from her. “You can sit down, you know.”
I stared at the wooden chair. Never saw the point of these things. They looked uncomfortable as hell, and of course the high backs do not get along with wings. Ah well. I’m killing time here anyway. And figuring out if I’m going to kill these guys. So, may as well?
I grabbed the back of the seat, and spun the chair on its legs. I dropped into the seat with the back of the chair pressed against my chest, and immediately rested my arms on top of the back. Pretty comfy arm rest, if nothing else.
Violet grinned at me, mouth wide. “Ooooh, Melody’s going to tear into you…”
“What, she is?” I immediately stood up again, turning the chair right back around. “What does she do when she’s mad? Fire blast? Smack upside the head? Yeah, she seems the smacking kind of girl…”
“No, what? Of course not!” Violet laughed, “She’ll pretend like nothing’s wrong. Sit down again, I wanna see her reaction.”
I stared at the chair in my hands. One the one hand, I am very familiar with the joy of provoking and annoying your Elders. On the other hand, a proper provocation usually means standing far out of their reach, or making sure you can pin the blame on somebody you hate.
Wait? Was that what Violet was doing to me? Did she hate me already? Wow, that was fast. Sylph kind is just as cruel and vindictive as my own.
So, what now? With no idea what the true result of the prank would be, survival instincts kicked in. I sat backwards in the chair, but as I sat, I dragged a claw through the air to my left. A flat, two-dimensional image swirled into being. It was a perfect replication of myself, sitting properly in a not-so-perfect replication of the chair. In the dim light, Violet probably didn’t notice the weird distortion of light beside me, but it should be enough to trick Melody’s eyes.
So there we go. Violet’s happy because I’m doing what she says, and Melody won’t gut me for messing with her strict chair protocol. Win-win, both points to me.
Violet took a sip from her empty cup, apparently satisfied.
“So tell me… uh…” she scrunched up her face, “Sorry, what’s you’re name again?”
“Oh yeah! Shortened to Brynth!”
“That’s me alright.”
“So,” She grinned. “What’s it like to fly?”
“No clue,” I replied, “You’re asking the wrong guy.”
“But…” she pointed at me, “Those are wings, aren’t they?”
“Last time I checked, yeah.”
“But you can’t fly with them…?”
“If I practiced, maybe?” I said, shrugging my shoulders. “But I don’t get much use out of them. They’re basically only there for extra spell heat. Most my brothers and sister get their wings cut off as soon as they grow too big. If they’re not a portal master, that is.”
Violet was gaping at me, empty cup down in her lap. “You… but… You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”
“Nope,” I said, “Dead serious.”
“But how’d you get into the city if you didn’t fly into the skyport?”
“Carried by something that can fly better than me, obviously,” I smoothly lied.
“But you…” she frowned down at her cup. “You’ve got the means to fly. Why wouldn’t you want to? If I had wings I’d be flying all the time!”
“Where?” I asked, “There’s no room to fly around this city.”
“I’d do it anyway,” she insisted, “Might even try flying with magic as soon as my stupid gem grows in. Fly right above these dumb clouds and get the heck out of this city!”
Her gem? My eyes wandered up her forehead. Huh. So it hadn’t grown in. Well. Good! That means I’d only have to break the pink sylph’s skull. My workload was halved.
“Just seems sad…” she mumbled, “You’ve never flown? Not in your whole entire life?”
“Um. Maybe. When I was really tiny, I could glide and flap around,” I said. “But I dunno if I actually did that. I barely remember that far back. Besides, I know exactly what happens if you fly up to the clouds.”
Violet’s eyes widened. “What happens?”
“You suffocate and die.”
Violet stared at me.
She asked, “Really?”
“Well yeah. I mean, had to go through it to get here, didn’t I?”
Also a half lie. I didn’t really know what would happen, but seeing as how those clouds are A) permanent, and B) Don’t even let in the kind of light that makes my night vision work, I feel pretty self-assured that they are suffocating hell clouds, if not outright solid.
Of course, the conversation had to come to an end there. Violet’s eyes were firmly rooted on the ceiling, and I could hear the pink one wandering towards us. It was barely a couple seconds between hearing her walk, and she was already in the same room as me and Violet, carrying a plate in one hand and a steaming bowl in the other.
“I hope this will do,” Melody said, “The only thing I have to suit your diet is some cheese. But I do know many carnivorous kinds have trouble with milk products so please…”
That’s when I noticed it. I screwed up. I had built an image to the side of myself, assuming that she’d never see me from another angle. It was a hasty decision, instantly undone. Because, as she was talking, she immediately leaned down, passing right by the image in order to place the plate in front of me.
She looked up, directly at backwards-sitting me.
“Ah. Hm,” she mumbled.
The barest twinge of recognition passed over her face. I smiled, bracing for her wrath. My fingers twitched. I got rid of the image beside me, before either of the girls could catch the trick. It melted into wisps of red aura and vanished entirely. No need to pay attention to the dissolving spell over here, nope!
Neither noticed, and weirdly enough, Melody didn’t shout at me, or even slap me on the arm. She just stood and smoothly placed her bowl in front of Violet, as if nothing had happened. Violet, for what it was worth, looked absolutely thrilled.
“I’ll be right back with my own bowl, and some broth for you, if you would like,” Melody said, nodding in my direction. “And Violet… why is there no water in these cups?”
“I was trying to trick Brynth into thinking there was,” she cheerfully replied, “But I think he caught me. He didn’t touch his cup at all!”
I had a cup? Melody huffed, said she’d fetch some water, and, that was that! She left without shouting, or muttering darkly, or hurting me at all. There weren’t even any veiled threats under her breath. Just bang! Gone!
“Violet,” I whispered, leaning so far forward in the chair that the back bumped into the table, “You said your sister would be mad at me!”
“Yeah, she looked pretty confused huh?” Violet replied, giggling.
“No? She looked angrier when she pulled me in from the street!”
“Well duh. That’s as angry as she’s going to get, uh… Brynth.”
“What?! Why didn’t you tell me that?” I groaned, “I was dead convinced she was going to hit me!”
“No way, hitting people goes against her perfect butterfly rulebook,” Violet explained, “She’d sooner jump in garden muck than actually hurt anybody.”
I dropped back down, staring at the grinning sylph. “Well, huh.”
I don’t know why I was that surprised. All these different animals were weak-willed weenies compared to us Chimera. I wondered if that meant they wouldn’t put up much of a fight if I tried to kill them? Nah, I can’t assume that. All prey goes berserk when their life was on the line. Can’t even assume that Violet wouldn’t use magic when threatened…
I heard Melody coming back, and I didn’t bother flipping my chair around. If she wasn’t going to do anything about it, then who cares, right? I’m more comfortable this way.
She set down the kettle and another bowl in front of herself. Pulled up a chair, took a seat. The table was pretty low, and Melody was a few hairs taller than me, surprisingly. So the lip of the table was just barely below her knees as she sat. She leaned over to pour water from the kettle, and when she was done, she asked.
“So, Labyrinth?” she asked, “What brings you to the city of Helleborus?”
“Family work,” I instantly said, “Why else would I be here?”
“Does that mean you’ve lived outside the city for most of your life?” Violet asked, excited.
“Sure does,” I casually lied.
“Well what’s that like?” Violet asked, “There’s actually a ton of stuff outside the walls, right?”
“Can’t say,” I said, “Where I lived sucked, though.”
“I’m a little curious, actually,” Melody said, “There’s so little news that comes through the ports…”
“Yeah!” Violet interjected, “Most of it comes down the Rathole.”
Melody shushed her sister, “I was wondering, and thought I would ask you directly. Are the harpies and griffons not allowed to share information of the outside world with us directly? As my sister says, we hear most news so indirectly from merchants and mail…”
“I… what?” I frowned, confused. “What’s there to tell?”
“Well… a lot, really!” she insisted, “What’s it like out there?”
I frowned. “That’s a pretty broad question. Could you honestly tell me what it’s like in here?”
Okay. Are they seriously going to press me on this? Sure, we Chimera dealt with griffins and harpies. All of us worked for Father Kindness. But I was no expert on the situation, and I’d obviously underestimated the allure of my foreign-ness. I may be damn good at brushing off the truth, but none of it is going to hold up under a literal question waterfall.
By the look on her face, Melody herself seemed to be working through my words. Could she already tell I was lying, or was she just frustrated with my non-answers? She lifted her bowl of soup and took a drink, in silence. I looked down at my own provided dinner… Looked like a melty white blob on toasted bread. Cheese, supposedly.
I lifted the piece of bread and took a bite. Little crunchy. Little chewy. It had a really sharp, biting taste, and I didn’t exactly know if I liked it or hated it. It was pretty interesting, though. Definitely not a boring meal.
“’In here’ sucks,” Violet finally said, “So if this place sucks, and where you were sucks, then guess that means that the whole world just sucks, huh?”
I nodded, taking another bite of the cheesebread.
“From what I do know, the situation on the outside never sounded particularly… pleasant?” Melody said slowly, staring towards who-knows-where. “Life seems so short and brutal within these walls. That much doesn’t seem to change outside. If any of what I’ve heard is true, it’s worse.”
“What have you heard?”
Seemed like a safe question. I can just listen to what she had to say, and then nod and say it’s correct. Done deal. She actually took a while to answer, and after maybe a minute or so, Violet spoke up instead.
“Well I’ve heard that all the animals just kill each other, all the time,” she said, “The carnivores have all decided to go by hunting law, and nobody stops them.”
“That’s certainly just a rumor,” Melody insisted, “Even in the day when the Law of Hunt was in effect, there were very strict rules and regulations—”
“Yeah, but what’s stopping them now?” Violet huffed.
“The God of Wisdom, and the rest of the Seven Virtues, obviously,” Melody said. Then, more firmly, “But that’s beside the point. If the instability had grown so large that carnivores just killed freely, then there would hardly be any trade to the city. Without mutual trust, the economy would just collapse outright.”
“Wow,” I said, staring at her. “You really think that?”
She frowned, “I take it that I am incorrect?”
“What? No, of course not! Carnivores, you know… They mind themselves,” I said shrugging, “You’re right. It works the same out there as it does in here.”
Still. Total economic collapse? What? Where did that come from? Who am I talking to, a female version of Ruin? Maybe that shock of annoyed familiarity led me directly into the question I had for her:
“So why hasn’t the economy in here collapsed? Your kinds get random murdered every night.”
That may have been dangerous. I regretted the question for all three seconds it took Melody to flatly answer:
“Well, obviously because we don’t do trade with the nightmares.”
“Maybe it’s a secret carnivore raid!” Violet cried.
“Highly unlikely,” Melody huffed, “That is not a secret that can be easily kept for decades. The source is clearly something supernatural, or a threat from outside the society of this city.”
“But what if—“
“This is not a topic to be discussed in polite company, Violet,” Melody asserted, “It is highly distasteful, and I suggest we drop it immediately.”
Even I could see that Melody was uncomfortable. Though she only looked that way for a couple seconds. Then there she went, back to be composed and ladylike, as if nothing upset her at all.
Just like when I first stepped into this house, these two just kept talking on and on about some big unknown threat, right in front of a small portion of that big unknown threat. I never really wondered what prey thought about us Chimeras, I mean obviously they hate and fear us. What’s to know? But all these small observations, wild guesses, and this acceptance and denial of whether or not I existed…
I don’t know what I was feeling, but boy, did it make for a tense conversation. Violet and Melody hadn’t said a word, and they weren’t even going through the same thing I was.
“Well, actually,” Melody asked, “I’ve got just one question, and then this subject is officially dropped.”
“Yeees?” I asked, eyes flicking to the calm-looking Melody.
“You said it works the same on the outside… so, does every other city out there have this particular kind of curfew?” she asked, “The harsh penalties for being out at night…”
“Well yeah, I guess so?” I said, “But I don’t actually know about everywhere, in every city. I just know about where I’m from, and here.”
“Is that so… Well, then where exactly are you from?” Melody smoothly asked. “You said you were a foreigner, though your Angeocian seems fine. Are you from Angeocia? Another country?”
“Another country,” I lied, “I’m not sure what the official name for it was. I just know it as ‘The Castle.’”
Melody shook her head, “I certainly haven’t heard of it…”
“Me neither,” Violet added.
The interrogation continued for a while longer. They asked about my family, what work I was doing here, how long I had been here. Melody was especially persistent, trying her hardest to pry information out of me. I continued to dodge out of the questions the best I could, filling them in with vague half-truths about my actual life, and what little I knew about the harpies in the city.
Sure, I work in the south skyport. Sure, I live in the tower there. Sure, I load and unload carts. Sure, my ‘family’ ‘worries’ and ‘cares’ about me very, very much. Any more pointless trivia you need? I could do this all night.
Eventually, Melody gave up. I didn’t know if I actually satisfied her curiosity, or she finally realized that I wasn’t going to feed her more fake details. She collected the empty bowls in silence, and stalked back off to the kitchen.
“Do you want to help me wash these, Violet?”
“Suuuure,” her sister huffed, rising to her feet. But just before she left, she turned to me and said, “Man, Brynth. You make working in a skyport sound really boring.”
“It’s work,” I replied, “All work, no matter who you are or what you do, is boring. Don’t tell your sister, but I’m pretty glad I dodged outta there tonight. Talking to you guys is way more interesting than rolling barrels around.”
“Well I’m bored,” Violet huffed, “She always does this. Blabs on and on and asks a million questions, even though you sure don’t seem like you like answering them…”
“I can still hear you, Violet!” Melody called from the kitchen.
Violet seemed to flinch, but immediately laughed it off. I shrugged to her, which, I think summed up my feelings on the subject. I guess the answer was good enough, because Violet wandered back to the kitchen, leaving me alone in the dimly lit common room.
By this point, I was rocking back and forth on the chair, mindlessly trying to balance on two or less legs. After a bit of silence, the only sound being the click of dishes from the kitchen and the creak of wood from the chair, I did what I usually do when I’m bored and there’s nothing to say.
With a twitch of my claws, a gray ball snapped to life between my fingers, balanced between then. I flicked it back, and made the sphere roll up my arm. I jerked my shoulder, and the ball bounced up to my head. I tried to make it look like it was balancing there as I rocked side to side on the chair, rolling the little ball back and forth.
In barely any time at all, I heard a single pair of returning footsteps.
“Huh? Where’d you get that?” Violet asked, poking her head around the doorframe. A small wooden plate was in her hands, with a splotch of what I think was butter stacked in the middle of it.
“Found it,” I replied. “Here, catch!”
I snapped my head sideways, and let the little ball roll down my arm. With a flick of my wrist, I backhand slapped the ball towards Violet, making it appear to sail in a clear arc. She reached out to grab it.
But as soon as it hit her hand, the ball shattered like an egg. Bit of shell went flying, wet yolk splattering through her fingers.
Violet squealed, shouting this like, “EW! Gross! Why?!” She vanished back around the doorframe. I heard her stomp around for maybe another ten seconds before she realized the illusion was, for one, not wet at all, and for two, probably no longer reacting to her at all.
“And you can do magic too?!” she cried, barging back around the door, “No fair! You’re not allowed to be this awesome!”
I thought, from her words, that she was mad. But her eyes were wide, and a huge grin was across her face. Unless I seriously am out of the loop when it comes to sylph body language, she seemed pretty damn excited.
“So?” she asked, setting down the plate and leaning heavily on the table beside me, “What else can you do?!”
“Just mess with light and dark. Not much else beyond that.”
I nodded solemnly. “For example…”
I reached out a claw, and dragged it across the table, cutting between her outstretched arms. The shadows, what few of them there were, pulled with my finger, rolling over her flattened hands.
“…Your hands are gone.” I concluded.
Her hands vanished up to the wrist. It had the fun effect of making her look like she was leaning on nothing, her arms vanishing into thin air. For a couple seconds. She yanked herself back, and the shadows easily popped apart, her hands instantly reappearing.
“Woah…” she mumbled, turning her hands over and over, “Brynth! Do you know what you can do with this?!”
“I’ve got an inkling.”
“You could… you could, oh man…” She sunk to her knees, “I need a minute to process this.”
Melody walked into the room, carrying a plate with some brown bread-looking things. “You’re both in luck! Today, I got paid with some very special foodstuffs—“
“I got it!” Violet shouted, shooting back up. “Make a lizard!”
I did so, creating a fat little mudpuppy gecko. It sat on the table, carefully inching around on all fours.
“Give it a wizard hat!”
I did so again. A little blue cap dropped on the gecko’s head. A beard curled out from its chin, and little sylph gems sprouted from its forehead. The mudpuppy seemed unperturbed by these changes, each of its steps shooting off flares of fake aura.
“Make it dance!”
The mudpuppy sprung up on its hinds legs, and started doing a little jig. It danced and twirled, rays of light shooting off its fingertips, confetti drifting from his beard.
“Nice!” she squealed, “I don’t even see your aura at all! How do you do that?!”
“Practice,” I said with a smug grin.
“Well!” Melody laughed, “I didn’t know Harpies could use magic!”
“Some of them can,” I said mysteriously. I tried to make the lizard do backflips and spins, trying to make it look like the thing actually could. It bent its knees when it jumped, beard and hat flapping in the ‘wind’ as it spun and hopped midair.
Its dance was rudely interrupted when Melody calmly swiped her hand through the illusion, cleanly cutting the little guy in half. The illusion wasn’t solid, of course, and the image snapped back together with barely a tuft of red aura escaping.
But I still made the mudpuppy collapse, squirming and clutching its middle as it rolled around the table. Melody also took a seat on the floor, placing her plate in the center of the table.
“Such a clean illusion,” Melody said in possibly awe. “Precise and careful movements, not a single visible tongue of aura flame… You must have practiced this for quite a long time!”
“Something like that,” I replied, grinning, “It’s a hobby of mine. But pretty much everybody in my, uh, family’s bored of it by now.”
“They shouldn’t be! This is practically an art!” she insisted, “Trust me, I work with magic every day as part of my job. I understand how difficult this must have been to master.”
“Oh,” I mumbled, my grin growing even more impossibly smug, “Well, thank you.”
“I know crafting visible light is a simple task, but how do you control the emissions cleanly enough to produce such a crisp image? Are you specifically directing every part of the aura as it burns? Or maybe you’re incasing it in a semi-solid bubble membrane?”
I turned to Violet, and stage whispered, “Do you have any idea what she said?”
“Nope,” she loudly whispered back, “Make the lizard shoot off fireworks.”
“Done and done. And um,” I turned back to Melody, “Thanks again, for calling this an art. Controlling the burn is kindve an instinct by now, and it’s too much trouble making it solid, so…”
Melody nodded smoothly through a shower of flameless sparks. “Sorry for pestering you about it. Here, have a muffin.”
She pushed the plate full of bread things towards me. They were two round little mushroom puffs, cut into six fat wedges. I picked one up with my free hand, the other claws buzzing hot as bursts of flame and sparks popped over my head.
I took a bite. It was squishy, and melted like cake. Sugar, oats, little chunks of sour fruit… My eyes widened.
I asked, voice muffled by crumbs, “You said this was a muffin?”
“Cranberries!” Violet squealed, clutching her own muffin, “Where’d you get this?! This is fancy people food!”
“I may have gotten a job in the Upper Wisdom District,” Melody puffed proudly, “With any luck, I may be lamplighting for the Master of Exports herself!”
“Woah, really?! Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
The girls blabbed on and on about sylph politics or something, I don’t know. I just continued eating my muffin, staring at it, wondering if I had ever had anything this good in… in my whole life. My burning claws dug into the table, illusory lights unfolding and showers of sparks bouncing and rolling all around the little common room.
“Put butter on your next piece, it makes it soooo much better!” Violet shouted ten centimeters from my ear.
I nodded eagerly, reaching for another muffin wedge.
“This is delicious,” I said, in awe of a stupid little piece of baked goods.
“Seven!” Violet shouted, flipping over her card.
“Dammit! A five…” I said, flipping over my own.
“Another loss for Rocktopia,” Melody said gravely, “Defeat, snatched from the jaws of victory.”
“From the lizard jaws!” Violet shouted, “The Wizard Lizards developed metal traps that bite the Rocktopians!”
I nodded, and began to simulate the battle. On my own side of the table, I made a small strike force of ‘Blue Rocktopians.’ A made-up race of people made out of blue rocks. Easy. They stood in armor, also made out of blue rocks, and held aloft rock sword and spears. Their little pebble faces were crunched into frowns.
Across the table, Wizard Lizards soared over Violet’s head, holding dominance over the skies. They soared and spun around the table, glorious and terrible in their little wizard hats and robes. Then, out of nowhere, they began chucking metal sets of teeth from the sky. The Rocktopians fought bravely, shooting down dozens of Lizard Wizards, but all was lost. Violet giggled as the Rocktopians scattered, frantically running from chomping metal jaws, exiting the battle by jumping off the table.
She didn’t even wait for the illusion to end before she reached across the table and snatched away my card.
“Another victory for the mighty Wizard Lizard Empire!” she proclaimed, adding the card to her significantly larger discard pile.
“The Rocktopians haven’t lost yet!” I proclaimed, folding my arms proudly across my chest, “The Noble Forces of Blue Rocktopia will never surrender to the cruel Wizard Lizard Empire!”
Melody nodded solemnly, “The battle is lost, but the war goes on. This cruel, unjust conflict will turn for centuries, and will continue centuries more. Neither side will yield while the other breathes.”
“You’re just mad because Princess Platinum lost early,” Violet said, grinning widely.
“History was unfavorable to her,” Melody said, “She could have never predicted that her reign over the Northlands was under threat by things such as rocks. Or that lizards could develop sapience.”
“Got it, Melody!” Violet cried. She slapped a card off the top of her deck, and slapped it down on the table. “A lizard priest challenges the puny Rocktopia!”
“No!” I cried, drawing my own card, “A two?! Really?!” Violet cheered, jumping to her feet as I threw down the card. “Where the heck is that god I won?! Jeez!”
“Such a vast difference in strength,” Melody muttered, face serious and quiet. “A Priest, facing off against a two? Rocktopia will be overwhelmed the moment they commit to battle. What forces have these terrible Wizard Lizards committed to this fight? What do they stand to gain, overwhelming such a punitive force?”
“I dunno, what do you think happened?” Violet asked, leaning towards her sister.
Melody was quiet for a little bit, staring down at the cards. She looked up at us, eyes distant.
“The Wizard Lizards have finally attained an alliance with a kingdom of warhorses. They commit a cavalry charge, on the day of a Rocktopian holiday,” she said, voice cold and even, “The Rocktopians are slaughtered while they sleep, dreaming of rock candies, and such. There are no survivors.”
“Wizard Lizards riding horses!” Violet cried, “Melody, you are awesome!”
Laughing along with Violet, I construct a pitched battle. Lizards charge down a hilly slope on the backs of monstrous black horses, their lizard robes flapping in the wind as they bounce and jostle towards a pile of blue rocks lying in a pile. The horses jump into the air, and blast red laserbeams from their eyes. The rock pile is reduced to slag.
“Perfect!” Violet shouts, grabbing my card from the smoking crater. “Lemme shuffle quick, and we’ll play another round!”
The night got later, and things got quieter. Violet had, apparently, worn herself out playing War, and now she was ‘studying.’ She sat at one end of the table, one long stick planted on her shoulder, and pulling another, thinner stick across it. There was a faint tap of wood on wood, but otherwise, she was whisper quiet. She watched her carefully shifting fingers with an intense concentration I didn’t think she had.
In the meantime, me and Melody talked magic. Melody held her hands on either side of her face, quietly concentrating as a ball of her own white aura grew between them.
“An aura is like an extension of your body,” she whispered. “It’s the same as a hand, or a foot. To control it, your mind must stay connected. It cannot remain stable without the instruction of a mind.”
“Or mind-made instructions,” I whispered back. “Like that stuff burnt into on rocks.”
“Yes. But. Set that thought aside for now, Brynth,” she said. “I’m trying to get at something here.”
“My bad. Keep going.”
She nodded, and let her arms drift downwards. The pale orb of flickering aura followed them, hovering cleanly between her hands. It looked pretty basic, since she hadn’t given it many instructions. Pale as steam, but acting more like a flickering flame. Tongues of expended aura twisted into the air and burned off, leaving behind a smell like wet rocks. Like the city after a long summer rain.
“Even now, at arm’s length, my mind still is in contact with the unspent aura,” she said slowly. “It is still a part of my body. The same as my fingers and toes, instruction is sent via this connection. And also like fingers, signals are being sent back.”
Carefully, she flattened her hands against the table. The aura flattened, and sunk into the surface. Little wisps still drifted from the spot between her hands, through the wood.
“If I keep my mind open, I can tell how this material feels. Sense the difference between the air, and the solid matter. This is the first essential sense one must learn to be a lamplighter. The ability to detect and understand exactly what is in your hands, and the differences in energy between lit and unlit matter.”
She exhaled, and the aura broke apart, the final pale flames drifting towards the ceiling.
“You should be able to do the same,” she said, a bit more relaxed now. “If your instruction includes some room for perception, you should be able to sense anything within your illusions.”
“Hm…” I said thoughtfully.
I looked down at the table. Tapped it with my claw, summoned a ball between my hands. Let it sink into the wood. It passed through easily, of course, but I couldn’t help making the ball look like it was flattening, squishing into a disc.
I closed my eyes, like Melody had, and tried to open my mind.
Hey. Ball. You got anything for me? Hello?
There was a cold prickle up my arms, but that was it. They were getting tired, is all that meant. Simulating an entire game of war wasn’t exactly small potatoes when it came to burning magic. I shook my head and let the illusion go.
“I’ve got nothing,” I admitted, “Sorry.”
“No need to apologize,” she cheerfully whispered, “Nothing is learned in a day, right? All kinds of magic take practice, even this.”
“See, I was apprentice to another harpy wizard,” I half-truthed, “And he never mentioned anything like this. And I’ve got a hunch that he used to train with sylph monks, or something.”
“Monks? Or something?” Melody laughed. She thought for a moment. “I wonder though. It might be more difficult for your kind, actually. You’re casting magic via your claw’s connection to your fingerbone. Whereas my gem is directly touching the source of thought and instruction…” Her eyes drifted upwards. “Maybe my kind’s physical makeup is what makes perception through aura easier? I have no idea. I may use magic daily, but sometimes, the higher theory behind magic is lost to me.”
“No idea here,” I said, throwing up my hands, “I love learning new stuff about magic, even if it turns out a little useless. But hey!” I dropped my hands on the table, and created the image of a plain cube between them. “Wanna figure out how a master does illusion magic?”
She nodded, chuckling. “Yes, I’d love to.”
The rest of the night had gone… really, really well.
Violet was always so full of energy, and the suggestions she had for my illusions were endless. In our game of War, Violets’s horde of Wizard Lizards eventually overran the Rocktopian forces in a pitched battle on the slopes of Vanilla Pudding Mountain. And Me and Melody eventually were able to talk about magic some. I didn’t know a lot of the terms she used, but I sure did know about how it all worked. Once we crossed that gap, we talked for ages about little things.
At the end of the night, when the girls were getting ready for bed, they actually asked if I could come back. They asked how they could get ahold of me during the day, and if they’d ever be seeing me again. I didn’t know the answer to that, but before I knew it, I told them I’d see about visiting another night.
I started out, in this place, ready to attack and defend myself if needed. Just thinking about escape, and lies, and hurting these two sisters. But by the end of the night, it was just… so warm. And comfortable. And I had so much fun!
They had offered me a blanket and some pillows, and while they drifted off to sleep, I sat to the side. The blanket was around my shoulders, heat from my wings toasting up my cold and drained arms. I was wide awake, because hey, Chimeras are nocturnal. But both of the girls had fallen fast asleep. They actually slept in this very same common room, bundling up together in the wall opposite the short table.
I waited there, thinking for maybe an hour, listening to the girls calmly breathing. There wasn’t a particular time or moment I was waiting for. When I felt like I was warm enough, I shrugged off the blanket and walked out of the common room. I headed for the kitchen, and then the back door. I couldn’t open it, I had no way to make sure the cloth was back in place if I did leave.
But despite my arms still feeling so dead and heavy, I still had enough to open a little shadow portal through the door. Instead of an image, when I drew back one side of the curtain, I mentally ticked off a distance of exactly one meter before reaching through and ripping open the shadows on the other side. A cold breeze drifted through the open portal, and I stepped through, eyes well-adjusted to the dark of the midnight streets.
I left, confident in my choices. Their entertainment had amused me! My secret was safe, and they were both pretty alright girls. It’d just be a seriously asshole move if, after all the fun I had, I just up and killed them. Talk about rude! They earned the right to live another night.
But would I ever go back? I dunno. Maybe…
I mean, if push came to shove, I could always kill them later.