Dec 03

Mulberry Wands Chapter Eleven

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Want to start at the beginning? Go here.

Chapter Eleven

 

 

Paul sat on his tiny balcony, smoking a cigarette and wondering if he wanted a beer badly enough to walk to the convenience store to get one. Stores were open even at midnight here, which was a fantastic improvement over the last time he’d been on earth. He tapped his ash in an empty beer can. He didn’t have to be at work for another four hours. It would have been a perfect night for relaxing, if he weren’t about to receive visitors.

He knew that an owl was coming to see him minutes before she arrived, which meant that he was learning a little bit about how to communicate with them. The thought didn’t cheer him up enough to balance out the irritation he felt that an owl was going to visit him. She wasn’t coming for a social call. They never visited him for a reason other than to criticize him or give him an order.

It wasn’t [this owl] and it wasn’t Fallon, but a barn owl he didn’t recognize. She held a translator in one claw, and set him down on the metal railing as she perched. The translator didn’t look very happy to be there, and he gripped the metal railing with two hands and both legs. It was less than twenty feet to the sidewalk below, but probably felt like a mile when you were that small.

“Greetings, fellow Sunward,” the translator said, in a surprisingly deep voice.

“Hello, senpai.” Hooray for his scant magic ability. He could tell she was his senpai, and he could tell she was female, and he could tell she was bossy. Oh, that last one was a freebie. They were always bossy.

“Tell us where the mage Susan Stillwater lives.”

“Why?” Paul asked. He stubbed out his cigarette and dropped the butt into the can.

“It is not for you to question those who came into the light before you.”

“I don’t want you to hurt her. She’s innocent.”

There was a two second lag, while the translator did whatever he did to communicate with the owl, and then Paul was touching his bloody face where the owl had slashed him with her claws.

“We need to resolve the situation with this mage. She no longer lives in her old nest. We need to know where the new one is. You will show us.”

“I won’t,” Paul said.

He tried to be ready for the next gash, but the owl moved much faster than a normal, mortal owl would have. He didn’t even see her wings flutter.

“Damn you!” Paul touched the slash on the other cheek, and hissed in pain. The first one was stinging now. Blood tickled down the line of his chin, dripping of the end of his beard to stain the tiny metal bench. He wiped it on the sleeve of his jacket. “I told her we weren’t going to hurt her. I’m not going to betray her to you.”

“Whether we hurt her or not is not your concern.”

The translator’s voice had grown emotionless, as though he were trying to distance himself from the conversation. Paul could hardly blame him; he himself still bore scars from the last time he’d had an argument with an owl. He took comfort from the knowledge that they weren’t allowed to kill a fellow Sunward. All they could do was hurt him. He could take a few scratches to keep Susan safe.

“You gain nothing with your silence,” the owl told him. “We will find her and continue our investigation. The parliament will decide her fate.”

He stood up. This time he’d be ready to hit her so she couldn’t scratch him again. “I won’t tell you where she lives,” he said.

His shirt flapped open as four parallel claw marks extended from collarbone to nipple.

The owl hadn’t even moved, at least, not from what he could see. She lifted each claw in succession and tapped it against the metal railing, a menacing tattoo. A bead of his blood swelled at the end of her sharp talons, then fell off, splattering against the tile on the balcony.

“You are disobedient, chick. Prove to me that you can be obedient to your senpai or I will take your…” the translator paused, aghast as though he wasn’t sure he’d heard correctly. He swallowed. “Or I will take your eye.”

Owls didn’t bluff. They were terrible liars, not like foxes and humans.

He swallowed.

Sorry, Susan. He didn’t have that much courage.

“I’ll show you.”

The owl flapped, and suddenly she was perched on his shoulder. He hissed as her claws stuck straight through the leather of his jacket into the flesh above his collarbone. She extended her wings and dug in further, trying to get her balance, and then settled in.

“I suppose you have to come too,” Paul said. He reached out for the translator. He was furiously angry, but it wasn’t the little guy’s fault. It wasn’t like they had a choice about all this. Owls could claw and maim him. They could eat a translator. “You mind riding in my pocket? It will be easier.”

“Thank you,” the translator said. He could tell the translator was speaking on his own behalf and not for the owl. Owls didn’t thank humans.

Paul had plenty of time to rethink his decision to betray Susan on the walk to her house. He felt sick with guilt, but he didn’t change his mind. Every man had his weakness, and for Paul, it was his eyes.

 

***

 

Susan’s spell to summon translators worked quickly, because before she’d even unpacked all her stuff, two of them appeared in the backyard of the new house. She saw them climb under the back gate, a man and a woman, nude and holding hands. She slid open the door to go out and greet them, but Sphinx was faster. The slinky black shape dashed outside. Susan was right after her, but Sphinx had a head start, snatching the tiny woman in her jaws and leaping to the top of the wall in two bounds. She disappeared over the top of the wall, with a twitch of black tail and the faint screams of a woman in pain. Susan heard the man shriek in horror, and it was worse than the woman, because she’d heard women screaming so many times on horror movies that it had lost its power to terrify her, but she’d never heard a man scream like that.

“Sphinx!” she shouted. “Come back here!”

She raced to the gate and tried to open it, but it was stuck fast, and she wasn’t even sure if it pulled or pushed open. The man screamed again, in horror and grief. Susan hoisted herself over the wall with a strength she didn’t know she had, scraping her shin and the inside of her upper arm. She dropped to the other side and looked around for the cat. Sphinx was running down the alley, still with the body of the tiny woman in her jaws. She looked back, and at the sight of Susan, dropped her tail between her legs and tried to find a way through the wall of oleander lining the backyard of the house across the alley. Fortunately for Susan, there was a chain link fence on the other side that the cat couldn’t get through. Sphinx tried again, and it slowed her down enough that Susan was able to grab the scruff of her neck. Sphinx growled.

“Bad cat!” Susan scolded, and pried Sphinx’s jaws open. The tiny woman fell limp to the oily gravel of the alley. Susan picked her up as gently as possible and walked back to the gate before remembering that it was stuck. She couldn’t climb back over the wall without setting the woman down, and Sphinx was looking up at her and meowing, evidently still interested in disemboweling her prey.

“No, you can’t have her,” Susan told the cat. “You’re a naughty girl.”

Susan walked down the alley, taking the long way around to the street that led to her house. The woman was still unconscious, cradled gently in Susan’s hand and forearm. She was bleeding. Sphinx followed Susan most of the way, still meowing, with her tail vertical in anticipation. Not only did Susan refuse to give Sphinx her prey back, but she didn’t even let the cat come back inside.

She carried the limp woman upstairs to her room, laid her on the bed, and rooted around in her drawer until she found a clean handkerchief to use as a blanket. It felt like she was playing with a doll, in a way, except that this doll was alive and badly hurt.

Susan jiggled the mouse and opened the file containing her spellbook.

“Injuries, injuries, healing?” Surely she’d had to heal someone at some point, right? Wasn’t that one of the most common prayers? Maybe that was one of the few that the big guy didn’t subcontract. No, wait. Hadn’t she healed a bird once? When it fell out of a tree or something? She remembered keeping a branchling sparrow in a shoebox when she was six or seven, but in her reality, the bird had died. Maybe it had been different here, in Hayden’s Ferry, where magic worked. Every little girl had the desire to heal a hurt animal at one point or another.

“Yes!” She found it. Good news, it was quick. Better news, it was easy, using only mental energy and a few words, not hard-to-find ingredients. The only downside was that she had to take the injury onto herself. It wasn’t proportional, was it? Was she going to have cat-fang wounds going all the way through her midsection and internal injuries? Or was she going to have tiny cat bites and as much damage as would come from being hit by Sphinx’s paw? She was pretty sure it was the latter.

Pretty sure. Hadn’t she done this before? She tried to remember.

Susan looked at the bed. The woman wasn’t moving, and there was a half-dollar sized red splotch spreading out from where the handkerchief touched the woman’s midsection. She had to hurry.

Susan cast the spell, and touched her pinky to the tiny woman’s foot to activate it. She felt a stabbing pain in her midsection. Susan lifted her shirt up to see how bad it was, but there were only a pair of cat-bites right next to her navel. A tiny drop of blood escaped, then turned black as it coagulated. Well, that was a relief.

The woman sat up.

“How do you feel?” Susan asked.

“I’m alive,” she said, to Susan’s surprise, in clear English. She touched her hands to her chest and pulled them away, staring that the blood-free palms with an expression of wonder. “You healed me.”

“Yeah. Sorry about the cat. I tried to keep her inside, but she was too fast for me.”

“Why did you heal me?”

Susan blinked, not quite sure how to answer that. “Um, because it was the right thing to do? I’m Susan. I’ve been wanting to talk to you guys.”

“I am Felia,” the tiny woman answered. “You wanted to talk to us? Coincidence, then, that we had intended to come here anyway.”

“Yeah.” Susan was going to point out that her spell to summon them probably made them decide to come, but she decided not to mention it. People don’t like to learn that their apparently free will has been compromised by someone else’s spellwork.

“Why did you wish to talk to us?”

“I wanted to ask you some questions. See, I found a, one of your kind, in my old garden, except he was dead. I wanted to find out who killed him.”

“You surely know, as you were the cause of it.”

“No,” Susan said, affronted. “It wasn’t me.”

“His name was Garaant. He was hired to speak with you,” Felia said. “We knew you killed him. We were certain of it.”

“If you were so sure I was a murderer, why did you come back?”

“We came armed this time.” Felia looked guilty. “We were sure you were a murderer.”

“Oh, is that so?” Susan asked archly, folding her arms. They had come here to kill her? Eight inch tall naked people who couldn’t even hold their own against a spoiled housecat came here to mete out some kind of justice? Who the hell did they think they were?

“We thought you had sent your beast to attack Garaant to keep the Sunwards from discovering what magics you were up to,” Felia continued. “Garaant was sent to find out if you were the one slaying the rumblers.”

“Rumblers? You call them that too?”

“No,” she said, puzzled. “You call them that. I am a translator. I speak to you in your language. Surely you know this?”

“I don’t know anything about you. I don’t know anything about rumblers either, except that they’re cute and they look like hedgehogs and I haven’t ever killed one.”

“Nor your beast?”

“I don’t think so. Well, no, I take that back. She got one. I try to save any animals she catches, but I’m not always quick enough,” Susan said. “I don’t control her anyway. She’s not even my cat. I didn’t know she’d killed Garaant either. I didn’t know what he was doing there or what his name was. I was trying to find out why he died because I didn’t like the idea of him being unavenged if he was murdered. I couldn’t find out anything though, so I buried him.”

“Why did you bury him?”

“That’s … that’s what we do with our dead.”

“We were mistaken about you,” Felia said. She turned, glancing past Susan at something in the room behind her. “Hastuur, No!”

But Hastuur had already let fly with his javelin. Susan tried to dodge, but she wasn’t quick enough, and the tiny spear jabbed her in the bare calf. Whatever poison it was laced with worked quickly. She had just enough time to glance down and see the naked little man, his arm outstretched from his throw, and his face full of murderous intent. Then the floor spun up to greet her as she fell, impossibly far, landing on the icky blue carpet with as much force as if she had jumped off the roof of the shed.

Hastuur was on top of her before she even caught her breath. He grabbed her wrist and yanked it up behind her back. He snached a hank of her hair and pulled it back, wrenching her neck. Susan screamed. She’d always had a sensitive scalp.

“Murderess!” he snarled into her ear.

“Hastuur, no!” Felia scrambled down the side of the bed, using the sheet to rappel.

“Felia?” His voice broke with emotion. He dropped Susan’s hair and arm and rushed across the carpet to embrace his partner. “Felia?”

“Ow,” Susan said. Her hair hurt, and her shoulder hurt from where Hastuur had wrenched it, and she still felt a little pinprick on her calf where his javelin had stabbed her, but what bothered her most of all was that she was now less than eight inches tall.

And as soon as Felia and Hastuur grabbed her again, she realized she’d completely blown her chance at escape.

They tied what felt like a piece of broken shoelace around her head so she couldn’t see, and led her down the stairs, through the cat door, and out of the house. Her hands were bound together with a piece of wire. She stumbled frequently, and her legs were covered with scrapes. The only good thing about not being able to see was that it made her less embarrassed about not having any clothes on.

She walked for what felt like hours. Hastuur and Felia spoke to each other in a language she’d never heard before, and when she asked them where she was going, didn’t say. She tried to get herself free, and when that didn’t work, she sat down and refused to move, but Hastur just picked her up and carried her over his shoulder, which was quite uncomfortable and made her motion sick.

He must have climbed something, because when he yanked the shoelace off her eyes and unwound the wire, she found herself on the edge of a precipice. It was a cinderblock wall, only five or six feet high, but it might as well have been the Grand Canyon by how high it felt. On one side of the wall was the alley, with an old mattress, a dumpster, and a branch of a grapefruit tree dangling over a wall. On the other side was a dirt yard with an abandoned doghouse and two ten-speeds chained up to the patio supports. She kept looking, trying to find something familiar, but it could have been anywhere.

Hastuur and Felia pushed aside the end cap on top of the wall to reveal a dark hole.

“Get in,” Felia said.

“No way in hell am I going in there,” Susan said. She backed up along the top of the wall, wondering if she’d die if she jumped. It looked like a mile down.

“This is where you will stay while you await your trial,” Felia said, pointing at the hole.

Hastuur grabbed her from behind (and how had he gotten behind her? She hadn’t even heard him, and the top of the wall was only a few inches wide.) He was intensely strong. She flailed out with her legs, trying to kick something, anything to keep him from shoving her in the hole. She was reminded of when Zoë had to take her old cat to the vet. The cat had yowled and scratched and bit and flailed to keep herself from going in the cat carrier, but all for nothing. In the end she got her vaccinations anyway.

Hastur shoved her into the hole, feet first. She fell. If her hands had still been bound, she would have smashed her face against the cinderblock, but she was able to roll with it and only got scraped.

“You ungrateful bitch!” Susan screamed up at Felia, who was peering into the hole. “I could have let you die! I risked my life to save you!”

“I know,” Felia said. Then her face disappeared from the hole as she and Hastuur pushed the cinderblock cap back into place, plunging Susan into darkness.

The darkness appeared absolute, but after a few minutes she found she could see a little. It was still darker than anything she encountered when she was big, because even on moonless nights there were streetlights somewhere. The floor was rough and dirty under her, and when she felt around she realized she had fallen down through two cinderblocks. The blocks were mostly hollow, with vertical wells which had lined up perfectly. On the floor here, the hole got partially blocked by a lump of hardened mortar which had oozed between the cinderblocks when they made the wall.

She climbed the wall easily; there were plenty of nooks and crevices, and climbing at the rock gym was the only thing she’d done for exercise since she had come to this magical reality. Once she was at the top, she felt around for the hole she had fallen through. The cinderblock end cap covered it completely, and it was quite heavy. Without better leverage, there was no way she would be able to push it aside.

She climbed back down. Her toes were aching, since she usually wore climbing shoes when she did this, and they’d already been cut from walking here. She’d ripped a toenail open, and stubbed the second smallest toe so that a flap of skin hung loose. It wasn’t bleeding badly, but it looked nasty. If she ever got back, she’d treat herself to a pedicure.

Once she got back down to the place where she’d fallen, she inched along the “floor” until she found the second hole in the cinderblock. At first, it seemed that it too had been plugged with mortar, but when she tugged on the cement it came free, as though it had been broken off and then set back into place as a kind of door. The hole underneath was quite small, and she had to angle her hips before she could squeeze through it. Her legs kicked free in the space underneath, which was the only thing that kept her from panicking when she realized her chest had become wedged tight in the hole. Even if you weren’t claustrophobic, it wasn’t pleasant to be stuck in a tiny tunnel inside of a pitch black wall with no exit.

As soon as she got her breasts adjusted, she slipped free of the hole and fell one cinderblock’s height (about her own height, now). This time, instead of landing on dirt and mortar, she fell onto carpet.

A tiny chink in the wall, just large enough to stick her arm through, let light into this chamber, which appeared to be a storeroom. A stack of mesquite pods had been stacked along one wall like firewood. A birthday candle had been stuck to the floor with its own wax, and a skein of thread hung from a protrusion on the wall. A line of what looked like gray jackets hung behind her, and when she got closer she realized they were dried lizards, skewered through the neck and hung for storage like hams. There were a pile of insects next to the lizards, and when she got closer, she realized from the stumps of wings and the frilled feelers that they must be moths. The walls were covered with fuzzy moth wings, like wallpaper. She placed her hand on one. It was hard underneath, and smooth, as though they’d used melted wax to adhere the wings to the wall. Her hand came away sticky from the wing’s powder, and she wiped it on her thigh.

“Bienvenidos,” a high pitched voice said.

Susan looked around for the source, but she didn’t see anyone until a child pushed aside the lizards to reveal a neatly carved archway in the cinderblock behind it.

“Hola,” Susan replied, covering her breasts and pubes as much as she could with just her arms. She didn’t speak Spanish that well, but she could say that much.

“Ven,” the boy said, smiling and beckoning with his hand.

He was young enough that he had the face of a girl, and sounded like a girl, but he wasn’t wearing any clothes, which made his gender clear. It made her feel better about being naked herself. Maybe none of them wore clothes? That meant that the dead gnosti she found had probably been naked when he died.

She followed him through the passage the light grew brighter. Holes punched in the wall made spears of white light in the dust. This chamber had a scrap of canvas on the floor, and was lined with sewn sacks which bulged at the seams. The walls had more moth wings, which was quite pretty and made her feel more like she was in someone’s house rather than in a cinderblock prison.

The boy turned back again at the end of the passage, where another neat arch had been carved into the cinderblock. Beyond him, more arches led the rest of the way down the hall, ending perhaps ten or fifteen feet away. Holes in the wall leaked light, keeping it illuminated enough that she saw what appeared to be more translators, sitting on floor cushions. They were chatting with one another, and even though she couldn’t understand the language, the intonation sounded friendly and intimate. The boy pointed down the hallway, smiling and nodding. Was he leading her out, or was he leading her into a trap?

She decided to follow.

As she walked into the chamber, she smelled food, and realized she was hungry. The room was long and narrow, as it had to be since it was inside a wall. People lined the walls, mostly children and young women, like partygoers spilling out into the hallway to get some fresh air. Some of them stood, and others sat with their backs to the wall, and the smaller children shrieked and ran back and forth, causing the adults to trip over them and scold ineffectively. A naked girl (they were all naked) handed Susan a wooden cup, and she drank. It was warm and salty: lukewarm tapwater. She drank it all and handed it back.

“May I have some more please?”

The boy cried something in Spanish.

A ripple of laughter went through the hall, and a woman said, “Not everyone speaks the same language. And you need to practice English.”

The girl handed her the wooden cup again, and Susan drained it again. Tapwater had never tasted so good.

“Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome,” the girl said. She looked at one of the women sitting on the floor, and when the woman nodded, the girl beamed as though she’d just gotten praise from a teacher.

A man ducked under the arch at the end of the passageway. He couldn’t have been more than nine or ten inches tall, though he seemed huge. He dominated the room, obviously a leader of some sort, which was probably why he seemed so tall. He looked older than the others, maybe in his mid forties. He had a stern face, as though he rarely showed any emotion and when he did it wasn’t anything like a smile. Her heart beat faster, and if she could have run, she would have. Since she couldn’t run and probably couldn’t fight, she settled for avoiding eye contact and pretending not to be there.

The man stepped in front of her, which was too close considering how narrow the inside of the cinderblock wall was. He was nude too, which didn’t make it any better. She glanced up at him and saw that he was actually smiling, though he didn’t appear very good at it.

“You are welcome here, Susan Stillwater.”

“Thanks, but I’d really like to go home,” she said. “Can you tell me how to get out of here?”

A flicker of annoyance crossed over his face, very brief. “You must stay here until your trial.”

“You intend to keep me prisoner, then?” she said.

He smiled, if you could call it that, pulling up the corners of his mouth while his eyes still scowled. “No, you are our guest.”

A woman came through the passageway, carrying a leaf upon which rested some delicious smelling food. She glanced at the man in a familiar way, not disrespectful but not cowed either, and Susan got the impression that she was his wife or his sister. It made Susan feel safer, that this guy wasn’t the alpha tyrant that he seemed to be.

The woman handed the leaf to Susan. The food on it looked like buttered crab meat, sprinkled with cayenne. “Please, eat.”

Susan thanked her and began to eat. Her fingers were dirty, so she folded the leaf and used it like a burrito wrapper to keep the meat clean. It tasted as delicious as it smelled, buttery and spicy and meaty all at once. It had an aftertaste too, like something she’d had a couple times before but couldn’t quite place.

The man said something reproachful to the woman in that language of theirs.

“It’s the best food we have, Tuusit,” she chided. She was gentle but firm, a practiced midway point between calling him a doofus and calling him ‘Sir’. “And she is our guest.”

Tuusit glared, looking fierce, but since the woman didn’t appear afraid there probably wasn’t any malice in him.

“Hmph. It’s on your head if it causes problems.” He folded his arms and walked away.

“How’s the food, dear?” the woman asked.

“This is so delicious!” Susan had to keep herself from scarfing it down. “What is it?”

“I believe you call it hexelmoth,” she said. “But you may not have had it prepared this way. This is my own recipe.”

Hexelmoth. Those were garden fey. Oh. That’s what the aftertaste was. Hexelmoths ate spell remnants. They were to partially-worked magic what bottom-feeders were to the gunk in the bottom of the fishtank. That meat she ate probably had enough manceogens to make her levitate.

“I’d better sit down then,” Susan said.

The woman set a large cushion on the ground, and Susan sank down onto it before she got too dizzy to do so gracefully.

Not all hallucinogens aided magic, but quite a few of the substances that aided magic muddled your mind. You couldn’t channel energy well enough to craft the spell without it, but the more you used, the less rational you were able to think. The stereotype that mages were brain-fried druggies had some truth behind it; manceogenic substances worked so effectively at increasing your power that some people used them often enough to become addicted. Susan had only used them when absolutely necessary, because she hated not being in control. Jess and Christopher had been big fans, and had made a little money selling their own personal manceogenic teas to people who either wanted to craft difficult spells or just wanted to get fucked up for the weekend.

Tuusit’s sister came through the passage again, carrying more leaves with meat on them, which she handed to others in the passageway. Susan noticed that except for Tuusit they were all women and children. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of this, but it made her think a little of a gorilla family, especially given Tuusit’s scarred and muscular appearance.

The walls were shifting and blurred now, and strange patterns flitted across her eyes, as though she were looking through polarized glasses through a polarized car window. People started getting trails behind them too, like they were blurring as they moved.

Yeah, she was pretty messed up already.

How much time had passed? It felt like a few moments, but it could have been hours. Her bottom was numb from sitting on the cushion, and her back grew cold from where she’d been leaning against the cinderblock wall. It was hard to breathe too, the air close from all the people in such a narrow chamber. Or maybe that was a hallucination too. She managed to lie down, shifting the cushion so that it supported her head. Someone laughed, not at her, she hoped. She’d have to escape later.

The funny thing was, Jess and Christopher would have loved this. Getting high with a bunch of nudists, eating strange but delicious food, sense of time all skewed. She didn’t like it at all. She never felt safe when she was intoxicated, especially with strangers. She would never do drugs around anyone but her family, and she had a self-imposed one drink limit when she was out on a date.

She was just glad that Tuusit wasn’t there. She already didn’t like him. He reminded her of Julia’s dad, her step-dad: patriarchal and arrogant.

She was too stoned to move, so she decided to leave her body and go wandering around for a little while. If the hexelmoth meat hadn’t addled her mind so much, she might have realized that this would be a great way to get someone to help her, tell Maggie she was captured and ask for help, or at least tell Zoë and Darius so they wouldn’t worry. Instead, she just wandered around, looking for someone she knew, floating above the city.

Paul was sitting in one of the branches of the giant carob tree in Daley park. She knew that tree. The tree had been the highlight of the park when she was a kid, as its branches were thick and easy to climb, thornless and nearly horizontal, making a leafy green jungle gym to crawl around in. Later they’d trimmed some of the branches off, on account of homeless people sleeping under there, she’d heard. It was still easy to climb, and the branches were still smooth and thick, almost as comfortable to sit on as a bench if you were child-like or athletic enough to want to get on one. Paul had his back against one branch and his legs swinging freely. There was a little dog with big ears in front of him, like a Chihuahua but not as bug-eyed, and he appeared to be talking to it.

“Hey, Paul,” she said. “Thanks again for helping us move.”

Paul didn’t look at her. He didn’t even act like he knew where she was (which didn’t make her mad, because she wasn’t even sure where she was either.) The dog did though. It flicked an ear at her. Wait a minute. That wasn’t a dog, it was a fox, one of those little desert foxes. She’d never seen one outside a zoo before. How cool was that?

“Where?” Paul asked in response to something the fox said, though Susan hadn’t heard it speak. “I don’t see her.”

“Hey, I get it! The fox can hear me, but you can’t, and I can’t hear the fox, but you can!” Considering how muddle-headed she still was, Susan felt like that was a remarkably lucid thought.

“Ask her where she is. Is she safe?”

“I don’t know where I am,” Susan said. That was true both of her body, which was in the cinderblock wall, and of her consciousness, which was floating somewhere to Paul’s right, above the ground hovering among the branches. “I guess I’m inside a wall, and I’m also here in this tree. Whoa, I’m also back home too, except that’s not my body anymore. Weird, huh? I’m in three places.”

The fox apparently did something to relay the message, though Susan couldn’t see how it was doing so.

“I don’t get it. What’s going on, Susan?”

“I ate a hexelmoth. Eating some gnosti gives you magic powers,” Susan said. The fox flicked an ear at that, as though she’d said something interesting, and it left a trail behind it. She wanted to see if her fingers had trails too, but she couldn’t find her hands. “Man, I am so. Yeah. Not right.”

“What’s wrong? Are you in trouble?”

“Yeah. A lot of trouble, I think. They got me.”

“Was it the parliament? They didn’t have the right to do this to you.” Paul gripped the branch tighter and leaned forward.

“No, I’m fine. It’s cool.” She could get out of this herself, as soon as she figured out where she was.

And where were her hands? She really ought to figure out where they were. Just as she thought that, she felt herself being pulled away, like water down a drain.

She was in her body again, in the dark wall, lit only by a birthday candle. Oh, there were her hands. They were lying on her chest. That was a good place to put them.

A little girl was looking at her, as if expecting her to do something monstrous. She glanced back at her mother, and clung to her mother’s hand then looked at Susan again. Susan sat up.

“Are you, um,” the girl said, then asked her mother a question in their language.

“All right,” the mother said. “Are you all right.”

“Are you all right?” the girl asked.

“Yes, I’m fine.” Susan rubbed her eyes and looked at her hands to see if they were still leaving trails. She wasn’t perfectly sober, but she felt better.

“Tuusit wants to talk to you,” the mother said. She pointed down the dark hallway, where there were the sounds and smells of people, but no light. “He’s in the far passageway.”

“Give me a few minutes,” Susan said. She put her head between her hands and rubbed her temples. She needed another drink of water, and she had to go to the bathroom. She didn’t feel like she was going to throw up though, which is what happened after most of Christopher’s manceogenic brews.

The woman nodded and pulled her child away. The little girl looked back as she walked. She stumbled because she didn’t look where she was going, but she didn’t turn away, as though she’d never seen anyone as fascinating as Susan and might never again.

Susan took a few more breaths. She was about to stand up when two little boys came up to her. They were whispering, as though daring each other to go closer. Finally one of them did, though it seemed to take all his courage.

“Do you …” He broke off into giggles. “Do you have six fingers?”

Susan held up her hand, splaying the fingers out. The boy held up his own five fingers, and almost touched her, but then he broke down into giggles and the two of them ran off together, whispering.

She stood up, rather shakily, and started to walk down the passageway. People had begun to go to sleep, curling up wherever they happened to be. One of them was a man, which struck home again how most of the people were women and children. No old people either. Were all of these women Tuusit’s wives? She liked him even less.

Susan made a small witchlight in her hand. It was a wan glow, about as bright as the screen of a cell phone, but it helped her pick her way across the sleepers on the floor. Normally she couldn’t even make this small of a witchlight. Despite the name, creating light out of nothing was actually a psionic ability. Generally, she sucked at psionics. She could credit the hexelmoth meat for that.

The passageway seemed to go on forever. People lay on the floor in groups, sometimes snoring, but more often talking quietly. In one chamber, six children were piled in a lump next to their mother, like puppies. She climbed down and then across and then up, like she was a hamster in a Habittrail. And then the tunnels forked. Down one passageway, she heard what sounded like men’s voices. She didn’t particularly want to see Tuusit again, or any other men if they were like him, and the other passage smelled almost like fresher air.

She followed her nose, towards the cold breeze. She still wasn’t wearing any clothes, but the winter air hadn’t bothered her as much when she was next to all those people. She shivered, and held her witchlight up over her head until she saw a pale outline of a mouse-hole, carved into the side of the wall.

She half expected someone to stop her, but no one else was in this part of the wall. She covered her witchlight with the other hand and crept forward, listening. Silence. She crawled through the mouse-hole.

She was outside, underneath an oleander bush. She had to climb a wall in order to see where she was. She walked along the walls, searching for familiar landmarks. After about an hour of circling she realized she was only two blocks from the new house. It took a long time to walk when you were as small as she was, but the night was cold and moving quickly was the only thing that warmed her up. The thin moon had almost set by the time she slipped under the side gate. She didn’t bother knocking on the front door; they’d never hear her. She’d just climb in through the cat door, up to her room, and look around on her hard drive until she found a spell that would make her big again.

She set out across the backyard. The grass had gone dormant for the winter, but it was still thick, and because it was Bermuda grass, it made her sneeze, and itch on her skin where it touched. It was dark, almost too dark to see by, even with the witchlight. Her feet had gone completely numb from the cold, and her hands were aching too. Maybe before she made herself big again she’d ask Darius to fill the sink with hot water so she could have a little swim. That sure would be nice.

She heard the rustling in the bushes, but she wasn’t used to thinking of herself as prey, so she didn’t run or hide. She heard it a second time, and idly turned to look, but even when she saw Sphinx rush out, it didn’t alarm her enough to dodge. After all the times she’d cleaned up that cat’s messes while she was learning to be litterbox trained, after all the times she’d brushed and pet her when she thought no one was looking, she’d figured that the cat would feel some affection for her in return.

It wasn’t until she was knocked to the ground and felt the cat’s needle-sharp claws sink into her that the realized how weak feline loyalty was. The pain almost stunned her.

“No! Bad cat!” Susan said, shaking her finger at Sphinx’s nose. It would have sounded more authoritative if she hadn’t been supine and bleeding.

Sphinx responded by lifting her paws and batting Susan hard to make her tumble end over end. She didn’t even have enough time to get her bearings before Sphinx pounced on her again, this time giving her an experimental bite and lick to see how she tasted.

It hurt like hell. Even the lick hurt, like someone taking a palm sander to a stab wound. Susan screamed.

Sphinx paused, blinking and regarding her with a cat’s puzzled expression, like she was trying to reconcile human words and human taste out of something that was obviously prey-sized.

Susan used the cat’s momentary pause to sit up and press her hands to her wounds.

Dilemma over, Sphinx attacked Susan again, holding her down with one paw easily while she licked and gnawed on Susan’s head. Susan screamed with the first bite, but after that her adrenaline kicked in and all she felt was fear.

Susan flicked her fingers at the cat’s eyes, throwing a small curse as she did so. If she’d had enough time to think, to ground herself, she might have done more, but the finger-flick was the only thing she could do without thinking. It made Sphinx blink, as though she had sand in her eyes. She didn’t let go with her paw (or her claws) but Susan grabbed the claw and lifted it out of her flesh, and then stumbled to her feet. She took off running, scanning frantically in the darkness for something to hide under. Or the cat door. If she could make it to the cat door before Sphinx did, she could lock it from the inside. Wasn’t there a little plastic tab she could slide to lock it?

With a meow and a rustle of grass, Sphinx resumed her stalking.

Susan realized she was still holding the witchlight in her left hand so she threw it. It distracted the cat long enough for Susan to sprint to the cat door. Her plan was to hit it at a run, tumble into a somersault as she got inside, then double back and lock it before Sphinx could reach the door.

The only problem with this plan was that the cat door had already been locked from the inside.

She smashed into the plastic door with nearly enough force to knock her unconscious. She couldn’t recover in time to avoid Sphinx’s pounce, and she lay stunned, expecting the stabbing pain of claws any second.

Instead, she heard a yowl of pain.

She gingerly lifted herself to see, cradling her aching head with one hand. Tuusit had a javelin lifted, poised to throw. Another javelin stuck out of Sphinx’s paw, wedged in the webbing between her pads. She paused to gnaw on it with her teeth.

“Susan Stillwater, go to the gate and wait for me to take you back home,” Tuusit said. He pointed without either taking his eyes off the cat or lowering his javelin. “We don’t have long before the cat attacks again.”

“This is my home. I’m going to figure out how to get inside.” She stumbled to her feet. Wasn’t there a hole for the dryer exhaust? Maybe she could climb in that way. Or through Darius’ window. He usually left it open when it was cool outside. She looked up at the patio roof and the second floor windows. It might as well have been a skyscraper. She’d try the dryer exhaust first.

“Susan Stillwater!” he shouted. “Go back to the gate! The beast is almost ready to attack again!”

Sure enough, Sphinx bit down on the javelin and pulled, and it came free. It must have been wedged in there deep. Sphinx pounced again, this time at Tuusit. He gave a war cry and stabbed at Sphinx’s face. Susan pressed her hand against the wound that was bleeding the most and stumbled towards the dryer vent.

The good news, there was a space large enough for her to slip through between the tubing of the dryer exhaust vent and the block of the wall around the laundry room. The bad news, it had been blocked up with screen to keep insects out. Also, it was higher than her height, so she had to hold herself in a pull-up just to see it. Some of her puncture wounds had closed, but they opened again when she pulled herself up, and she was losing her grip because her hands were slick with her own blood.

Tuusit grabbed her from behind and lowered her to the ground. “Why didn’t you run when I told you? We need to go home.”

“This is my home,” Susan said. She thought it would take her months, or even years before she thought of the new house as home, but knowing that her spellbook (on her computer) and her friends were in the house was the most important thing in the world right now, and she was desperate to get inside.

“I’ve wounded it, but not killed it. We have to go now,” he said.

“Okay,” Susan said. She let him pull her down. As soon as he let go, she broke into a run, heading for the other gate. Maybe she could reach the doorbell.

Tuusit pounced on her. She tried to flick a curse at his eyes like she had with Sphinx, but he had grabbed her wrist and wrenched it behind her back so that she couldn’t flip over without straining her shoulder. “Why do you have to be so stubborn? Don’t you understand how important it is that you stay with me? I’m your—”

“My what?” She spat grass out of her mouth. Now that she was calmer, she could feel the cat bites and scratches again. She wasn’t sure she’d ever been cut this badly, ever. “A big bully who wants to make my life miserable?”

“I’m very important to you,” Tuusit said. He had all his weight on her, though it didn’t feel like he was all that heavy. She couldn’t get free though, not without wrenching her arm further. “I’m the most important person in the world to you right now.”

“I doubt that.” A pillbug crawled across the dirt in front of her, seemingly as large as an armadillo. She’d never really thought about how weird they looked up close like that.

“It’s true,” he said. “I’m your—”

“My what?” She tried struggling more, but she was growing so tired. Tired, and hurt and dirty.

“Your…it doesn’t translate well.”

“Captor? Warden?” She thought she could find a way out of his arm lock, but Tuusit apparently knew what he was doing. “Arch-nemesis?”

“Defense Attorney,” he said.

She stopped moving. “What?”

“That’s why you have to live with us, to become one of our family, so I can defend you as one of my own. If you don’t live with us, if we don’t get to know and like you, we have no reason to defend you.”

“I didn’t kill him. Felia already figured out that Sphinx was the one who did it, and you can tell that cat doesn’t obey me.”

“You have a strong case,” he said. He was still on top of her, but he supported some of his own weight.

“Defense Attorney? You expect me to believe that? Why would you agree to defend me? What do you get out of it?”

“So far, I have two broken javelins and a nasty scratch on my thigh,” he said, sardonically. When she didn’t reply, he continued. “I’m doing it because I’m a liberal. Because I don’t hate humans as much as others of our kind do. Because I think that learning more about each other is good for both of our peoples. I believe in this so firmly that I’m willing to risk my family by having a human mage live with us.”

“You’re a liberal.” She ladled a lot of sarcasm into that sentence.

“Yes.”

She could probably get back into the house. She might be able to. She could knock on the door or just wait there until Zoë or Darius left to go to work. Could she make herself big again before Sphinx ate her? She didn’t know. Could she keep the translators from attacking her again? If they had the ability to get to her once, they could probably do it a second time.

“If … when I’m found innocent, can you make me big again?”

He paused, like he was thinking out how likely that was, or maybe like he was crafting a good lie. “We’ll have to bargain for the spellwork, as we did with the javelin poison that made you small, but we can make it happen.”

She couldn’t see his face, so she didn’t know if he was telling the truth or not, but she was too tired to do anything but agree at this point.

“Okay, I’ll come with you. Let me up.”

He didn’t budge. “You’re going to run.”

“No, really this time.”

He let her up, but didn’t let go of her wrist. They started walking, and after a while she was glad that he held her wrist because it got even darker when the moon set, and she began to stumble more and more until he had to half-carry her. She was so cold and aching that all she wanted to do was sleep.

When they got to the cinderblock wall, some of the women woke up and helped her clean her wounds. They gave her some teas and bound her deeper punctures with bandages soaked in an astringent ointment. Their foreheads were all furrowed with concern, and they spoke to each other in low voices, cutting off and smiling when Susan asked what they were talking about.

It was a testament to their skill as healers that they thoroughly cleaned seven scratches and five puncture wounds so well that they healed with only faint scars. It was a testament to the nature of cat scratches that one scratch became infected anyway.

The next morning, she woke up with a fever that addled her brain more than the hexelmoth meat had. She burned and froze in alternating cycles, shaking and aching and losing all sense of time.

She asked if she was going to die.

The women told her she’d be fine, with smiles frozen on their faces, and when they turned away from her their smiles fled, and they spoke to one another in worried whispers.

 

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