The Lost Girls


Prologue


Night, when the world was at rest. A small sliver of light cut through the darkness of the room, landing on an ornate box. Its lid rising, revealing small figures, jerkily moving as the music box’s melancholy tune played. It was old, but lovingly cared for. Beyond the light were vague suggestions of shapes unmoving, yet basking in the tinny melody and the small dancers. As the light faded, the box reached the end of its tune, closing gently and leaving the room silent but for the sound of a key winding. A cold gloom settled in for the night.

Chapter 1: A change of a snail’s pace

The wind caressed her form as she glided through the morning sky, a lazy flap of her wingtips turning her flight into a gentle spiral towards a peculiar wagon standing close to a clear, clean stream. A wisp of smoke rose from the cooking fire that smelled like breakfast. She smiled, showing sharp canines in a suntanned face framed by white hair tinged with purple as she began her landing. The trick was to know when to spread her wings in an arc so air would catch underneath and let her step onto the ground without toppling over. Raising her hands overhead, she began inspecting her arms and their attached wings. No broken feathers or unwanted passengers like the insects borne aloft on winds marred them. She was pleased, an Impundulu needed to be able to count on her ability to fly, though her stomach complained that she needed food now.

“Another perfect landing, Mai~!” Maihiera turned to the speaker waving at her from beside the pot that smelled delicious even from this distance. “Thanks Chi’ch. I didn’t see anyone on the road, though there’s some signs of woodchoppers on the far end of that woodland over there.” She stepped over and sat down besides Chichi, her best friend in their hometown and a very unusual Ureonggaksi. Unlike many of her snaily kinfolk, Chichi was absolutely ripped, her powerful arms showing tough muscles under the soft skin. A casual observer might think her mild green hair and four brown eyes ‘common’ for the species of mamonme sometimes called rice fiends, until they caught the glint of pure determination they carried. Presently, her eyestalks were focussed on the pot, while the eyes in her face winked at Maihiera. 

“Sometimes I wish I could fly like you do. But then we’d not have something warm for breakfast.” She lifted the ladle from the pot and sampled the stew via a finger. “This is about ready to eat. Would you mind waking up Edelweiss and Fridr? I’ll fill the bowls meanwhile, don’t take too long.” Maihiera grumbled, rising to her taloned feet and entering the wagon. It was more like an elongated Ureonggaksi shell that rested on six wheels and a few kickstands. A mobile home that could comfortably house its four occupants while allowing their one Ureonggaksi to move it from place to place easily. Maihiera could not pull it herself, though she’d tried once, for fun. Even Edelweiss had attempted it, but being a Wendy, she couldn’t really reach the shoulder harness, or get the carriage moving while flying. It had been a spectacle to behold, Maihiera reflected with an amused chirp.

“Edelweiss, get up! There’s good stew waiting.” Maihiera was glad that her friend was already putting on her clothes when she peeked behind the curtain dividing the sleeping space from the wagon’s narrow hallway in the sleeping compartment. Edelweiss did need to put a brush to her bed-head hairdo, but Maihiera didn’t want to try her luck by pointing it out. Still, the motherly young woman with pink wings and heart-tipped tail was a good friend when sufficiently awake. Also Chichi’s cousin. Moving on, she poked her head into the sleeping space where Fridr still slept. An annoyed caw percolated behind her teeth as the Valkyrie was still sleeping. Worse, twitching in her sleep while small anxious sounds escaped her lips. That nightmare again. Steeling her resolve, Maihiera put one hand on Fridr’s forehead and hummed softly as her other hand stroked the Celestial’s shoulder blades. 

“Fridr, it’s okay. You’re safe. Wake up, please.” Peculiar as it might seem to those who’d been raised by say the Luminaire, Maihiera was always gentle when it counts. Though unrelated to her other friends, Fridr was no less of one, even if Maihiera’s grandmother had frequently clashed against the Valkyriar. Fridr had survivors’  guilt as the last of five sisters to still be alive after the destruction of their Old Heaven home. The Impundulu could not quite comprehend it, even if she (still a chick then) had witnessed some of the rubble falling towards Praxis and the spectacular way in which it had been mostly destroyed. The closest she could get to that was hearing of her grandmother’s passing in the old town of Meliddis.

Gradually, Fridr’s breathing eased until she gave a small gasp and turned her head. “Oh. Ohhh… Maihiera? I…” She shushed her friend gently, taking note of the raised temperature of Fridr’s forehead. “Easy does it Fri. I’m here with you.” Soft footsteps and a swoosh of the curtain later, Edelweiss appeared, laying a hand on Fridr’s leg. “Me too. But let’s get you some food. And some clean water. No buts, okay?” Though short enough to be mistaken for a young girl, Edelweiss was an excellent caregiver and bossy enough to have earned her horns. If a bit more reasonable than other Wendy’s. By the time they got outside, Chichi snuck a worried glance at Maihiera, who nodded slightly. While this was a vacation trip, it wasn’t as simple as just plopping down the wagon somewhere and staying there. Each of them lived and worked in Meliddis, the new town built where the old one had once stood.

Maihiera reflected that she did like the place, in spite of all the shenanigans they had to put up with, like that pirate Phantom Ship causing a ruckus. Nevermind the subterranean ruins or the frequent arguments between settlers who’d been on different sides in the nameless war. Given that Fridr was the town’s only full time guard, some creative deputising had been done to prevent the scuffles ending up in a brawl. Maihiera herself helped a lot with keeping the peace, something she didn’t mind doing as her family had been decidedly militaristic. But her passion was the beadwork she did for the town’s tailors and shoemaker. A typical skill for Impundulu, maybe… but there was something soothing about designing the patterns, dyeing the beads and seeing it all come together.

Edelweiss had her school that also doubled as a daycare. While that was a greatly joyful place for the children, more than a few misbehaving adults had been lectured to tears after Fridr and she brought them before Edelweiss in her role as interim town judge. Chichi could match each of them in determination though. Her dojo was the town’s most used form of fitness and combat training. But she also saw to it that the town snailstop did not disappoint, serving as a sort of regional manager on behalf of her family’s company, though only a handful of people knew that latter part. Maihiera grinned wickedly at the thought of the town probably going to pieces without them. But they needed a break, especially Fridr who’d become more and more withdrawn as the anniversary of her sisters’ death came closer.

The Valkyrie was technically the oldest of their group, and the only one besides Chichi who could (if with a lot of effort and swearing) move the wagon. The silver wings attached to her back at waist level might not be as nimble as Maihiera’s, but served well enough that the two could race each other from time to time. After all, without a challenge you’d grow complacent with the skill you had. And complacency meant an Impundulu with a fat ass who could only waddle around the nest. Not something Maihiera wanted. “How are our supplies Chi’ch?” Chichi did a mental calculation while pulling a foil-wrapped package from the ashes of the fire. “We should have enough rice and dried beans to last a week more, but we’ll need to hunt a little if you want meat stew again. Tinned veggies…” She opened the package and bit off a chunk of the rice hot-pocket before continuing: “We’ve got kelp. We’ve got radishes. Neither’s going to carry a dish, right?”

Edelweiss set down her bowl and removed a map from her dress’ front pocket. “I think we could do with a detour. It’ll add a few days to the trip, but Fallytun is supposed to have a market where we can trade in those. I know all about how kelp is healthy and radishes are too… but their flavour is disgusting.” She made a face that her students never could imitate, disgust radiating like a small sun. “W-we should not waste those supplies though.” Fridr’s expression told that she was on board with Edelweiss’ idea despite not wanting to dump supplies. That she tried to take part in the conversation was a good sign. “Are you sure they are… safe to visit?” The group grimaced as they recalled the recent incident where a town had taken exception to mamonme travelling with a celestial. Though the area was part of Lady Eiraiha’s efforts to rebuild Praxis’ territories, some villages evidently were settled by those with a grudge against Celestials and those ‘allied’ with them.

“They really should be safe enough, there’s a Snailstop there.” Chichi was rubbing the base of one of her eyestalks. “Call me gullible as an Ureonggaksi-” She stuck out her tongue. “But I think that’s a point in their favour, no?” That brightened the mood considerably. Snailstops had been introduced shortly after the nameless war as a combination of town hub, postal office, mail order shop, communication centre and rest stop. Ureonggaksi being both enthused travellers and capable of bearing quite a lot of weight while shuffling across the world were more than happy to bring post along. In snailstops they could pass on the packages and letters going to a different destination or into the town itself, be paid for delivering them and partake in rice-centric meals. The rice kettle was always on and the doors only closed at night. They’d proven major assets in any community open to them.

But the choice was with the community, the parent company would not force one on a settlement, especially if the locals vehemently objected to the A.R.E. (Articulatory Relay Engine) oft doubling as a shrine where people could offer a prayer. There were some stories of hooligans trying to raid the snailstops, or burn them to the ground, but the friendly and always welcoming shells were rumoured to have next level protections that made those attempts moot. Chichi had in fact confirmed more than a few of the outlandish stories, as her family ran the company behind the snailstops. “That is a relief.” Fridr refilled her bowl in a fairly dainty fashion, also providing Maihiera with a refill. “If so though, we can hopefully buy some things with the money we put into that blanking-account?”

Chichi and Edelweiss shared a sigh, the former raising a finger: “Bank-ing account. And yes, we should be able to draw cash from it at need. But you remember what aunt Kaori told us, right?” Edelweiss tilted her head sideways, taking the chance to show off her knowledge. “That it gains interest the longer we leave it there. Because the banking account money is used to make more money through lending, infesting and… switcharoonies with foreign coin?” Chichi laughed goodnaturedly as she refilled their bowls. “Almost, Weissy. Investing, putting money into new businesses and collecting a decent interest when they pay it back. And currency exchanges help to build trade opportunities in distant lands.” Her eyestalks crossed comically for a moment. “And distant worlds too. I’ve seen some things myself, but our cousin Mellie told me about a world where candy is alive. She even got abducted for a bit by some old guy ruling over penguins.” 

Maihiera burst out laughing, shaking her head. “So, did she bag him?” They spent the remainder of the meal discussing the potential romance, even though Chichi said he was still ruling over those rebellious birds. Fallytun, when they got to it, was a welcome sight for the group. Occupying a valley through which a river and its tributaries flowed meant that the town had lush vegetation and thriving farmfields. According to the guidebook Edelweiss had consulted, Fallytun had originally been much smaller until they’d opened the doors to the settlers looking for a new life after the war. A wealthy local aristocrat under the crown of the Heartlands had spent most of their fortune on ensuring the new inhabitants could thrive in what had been a mostly human village before. It explained the new buildings amidst the old ones, the ordered structure of the farmfields and the accommodations for Mamonme like the snailtrail sideroads.

Though modernised, these spongy mats helped Ureonggaksi save on slime when going about their daily movements though others needed to be careful not to slip on the slime left behind. On the other hand… it meant that there were no meandering slimetrails across major roads, so they were seen as a net positive by the populace in general. Chichi was easily manoeuvring the wagon through the larger streets towards a meadow reserved for travelling Ureonggaksi’s shells. It drew a lot of attention, including from an elderly couple: “Deary, that’s a big cart you’re attached to. Do you have mmmh… gnomes or something turning the wheels inside?” The woman seemed perplexed as Chichi shook her head. “No m’m, but the wagon’s made so that it’s easier for one gal to pull it. A year back I’d have had to ask my younger sister and two aunts to help pull something of this size.”

“Fancy that.” The old man tapped the side of the wagon with his cane. “I reckon this’d be more fun than being stuck with a house, love. Do you think you’d want to sell this and make my wife snaily enough to pull it?” This earned him a swat. Chichi smiled, explaining that there would be models like this one or modified to be pulled by horses and mozur available at the Snailstop within a year or so, as hers was meant as a test model. Also, given that the Demonic Energy issue had been resolved, any species changes (and only willingly) had to be requested at a temple to lady Meadlowry, the Matrika Beluaine. The old couple thanked her and went on their way.

“Smoothly handled. I’d have gone full Wendy on them there.” Edelweiss sighed as she fiddled with her habitual apron’s strings. “I can handle people, but really old ones make me nervous. Mostly because they don’t pay attention, think I’m a child-” She rolled her eyes at that. “And that just because they haven’t died young they are entitled to a toddler level meltdown.” Fridr clapped a hand to her shoulder, smiling ruefully as she added: “It gets worse. By Helmir’s twin maces, there’s been so many times when they think they can still fight like some arena champion and you have more trouble holding them down without breaking their bones than actually fending off their attacks. I’m glad our Meliddis does not yet contain that sort of elder.”

“Foolish… They just want to be heard, usually.” Maihiera’s voice was unusually subdued, perched as she was on the wagon. “Old folks don’t like that their bodies are getting worse and that they can’t do everything anymore.” She flicked an errant strand of hair back over her ear. “Mom taught me to be patient with them especially. You wouldn’t credit her with that normally, but grandma was pretty old when mom hatched. As were her friends.” She let out a sigh. “I don’t want it to become a tradition, so let’s keep our eyes peeled for someone with tasty blood.” As she and Fridr had an impromptu discussion over how blood could be tasty, Chichi pulled into the meadow and parked the wagon. It unfolded supports that they hastily placed planks under, changing from its travel mode to the more stationary one for stays longer than a few days.

“I know how it works…” She said as she hoisted on a handle that let her slide out the sleeping compartments so the space in the hallway increased. “But it still looks like magic when I see it happen. Ha~! I think Rukia’d call it cart-o-mancy or something similar if I told her.” Thinking of the mischievous little Azeban Danuki who was technically a cousin, but more a little sister, brought a smile to her face. She did miss her and the others, but they were still children and it wouldn’t do to unleash their magic-laden chaos on an unsuspecting town. Edelweiss tried to stifle a giggle, knowing all too well. “Does that make you a cartomancer? And us a cartomancy coven?” They laughed at that, even Fridr joined in, if slightly hesitantly. “She’s the one who grew the treehouse, right? And told our resident Sorceress she’d been doing a spell wrong for over two decades?”

“Yes and yes. But she means well, even if she also put a nappy on half of the grumps back home before we stopped her.” Chichi laughed, shaking her head. “We do need to check in with a mrs. Leafbee at… that shell and pay for the use of the meadow. We can then go into town.” As an afterthought, she pulled the collapsible stairs out and was satisfied when they unfolded into place neatly. “Schweet like a footsweep.”

Chapter 2: Sampling the goods

Mrs. Leafbee turned out to be a mother of three who insisted the young women join her family at the dinner table once they’d had a look around town. Given that she shared a husband with the local Aranei seamstress it was logical she recommended them to check out the goods there. Especially since her co-wife could make any dress in W-size and blue as a summer sky. Edelweiss tried not to be too irritated, people saw a Wendy and thought she’d want every dress in blue. Back home she actually had a few dresses in green, black and even gold among other colours, but the ones most practical for this outing had been blue. Fridr and Chichi went to trade the bemoaned tinned vegetables so she and Maihiera took to the market. The Impundulu might be rude and crude sometimes, but Edelweiss liked her even if she had to curb her natural inclination to do something about that potty-mouthedness.

One thing that had surprised her when getting to know each other was that Maihiera actually preferred flight to walking. Given how her legs were more avian than humanoid, those big talons well suited to lifting prey into the sky, Edelweiss had to concede that they probably weren’t as comfy to walk on. “Ey, would you look at these Weissy?” Maihiera had stopped at a stall which sold coloured beads and trinkets. “Good variety, nice display… and going by these glass ones you’re not skimping on quality.” The merchant nodded, producing a smaller tray which he presented for Maihiera’s inspection. “Naturally. My wife and I take our business seriously. This smaller selection is not available in bulk as they’re more experimental or niche, but given your enthusiasm for beadwork…” He motioned at Maihiera’s shoulderbands. “I thought you might want to look at them too. And your friend is interested as well?” He directed that question to Edelweiss, who smiled.

“I always enjoy artistic crafts, though I can’t really see things too well down here. One of the small issues in being a Wendy.” She was grateful when he lowered the tray a little. The contents were indeed different from the normal stock. “Is this? Is this a working clock?” The small mechanism was the size of a somewhat larger lozenge, with a ring on its top so it could go onto a chain of beads easily. “A watch, actually. That’s a smaller clock you can carry around. My wife made it and it is fairly accurate, losing only about an hour a month.” Maihiera let out a low chirp at that. “She must be very talented. But I’m guessing she’s human then? Thought she might be an Impundulu like myself with how beautiful your stock is. But you lack scars.” He laughed aloud, shaking his head. “No, she’s a Cyclopean. A… mamonme species that’s more common on Ithus. But she wanted to go places, so she signed on when Lady Eiraiha sent out that invite to settlers.”

Presently a large but dextrous hand clamped onto his shoulder. “That’s right. This one’s not for sale though, ladies.” A large eye winked at them by itself. “But the watch can be yours if you pay adequately for my work.” She looked a little surprised when neither appeared shocked by her appearance. “Nice to meet you, I’m Cuda. You’re the first natives who don’t gonk out on meeting me.” They introduced themselves, Edelweiss stating that she had in fact been to Ithus once and visited some place called Homsburg that Cuda turned out to be from. Even with a friendly discount though, the watch was technically a bit beyond Edelweiss’ budget, even if she took some from her bank account through the Snailstop. “I’m sorry. Even though it would be very handy for my school and daycare, and that it’s more than worth what you’re asking… I cannot afford it.” Cuda’s husband offered to reserve it, should she change her mind.

“And a trade?” Maihiera was pouting slightly. “I’m nowhere near as good as my aunt yet, but…” She lifted one taloned foot to showcase the ankleband. Cuda took hold of the proffered limb and let out a low whistle. “Simple wood. But each bead made so well their grain blends together.” She unhanded Maihiera’s foot. “You’d make a fine rival to compete against. But what else do you have in beadwork beyond the ankle- and shoulderbands?” Maihiera sighed, pulling what looked like a bunch of grapes from her waistpack. “Ornament… Basket.” By twisting sideways, the grapes spun out to form a small basket that could hold pencils and things. “Grrrrrape~! I like that one a lot… Egggh… I’ll take it, I hate seeing work going to waste. Just be careful with the watch and don’t you dare let some other chump repair it if you ding it. I’ll charge fairly.” They thanked her and continued further into the market.

“I’m really grateful Mai, I’ll pay y-” Maihiera shook a finger in Edelweiss’ face. “No, it’s a gift. I’m just glad she took that little basket toy instead of my ankleband. It’s got a few of my gran’s beads in it…” Edelweiss blinked, raising a hand to her mouth with a small gasp. “Thank you, but if that ankleband’s got such precious components… I’d feel horrible if you’d traded it. But…. uhm…” Her heart-shaped tail tip swished in agitation. “Out with it.” Maihiera nearly cawed, Edelweiss knew that tone of voice. “Sorry, but you’ve not told me about your grandmother before. Are you close with her?” Maihiera shook her head, taking a moment to calm her agitation. “No. She died before I hatched. But mom and aunt Este were. Gran lived her last years in Meliddis. The old town.” Scratching one leg with a cautious talon, she continued: “Only a few bits of her beadwork survived. I wanted to make mom happy with a gift, but… she insisted I wear it myself.”

“It does suit you.” Edelweiss’ sigh was almost lost in the ambient noise. “You’re a right mystery though, you know that?” Maihiera smirked in response. “That so?” Edelweiss skipped over a sleeping dog, nodding. “Yes. I was actually terrified of you when I first saw you, dripping blood from your mouth after you bit that bandit.” She giggled. “But you’re actually really kind and considerate too, aside from fierce. I… am really glad to have you as a friend. More so since you are also friends with Chichi. My snaily cousin is a pretty good judge of character.” She smiled. “But there’s still many things I don’t know about you. I’m glad you shared a bit on this trip… and hope you’ll trust me to share more.” Maihiera chuckled, shaking her head. “Chi’ch’s an insidious one. But I’m glad to know you both. Thing is…”

She deftly scooted back to avoid a cart crossing the thoroughfare. “Asshole! You’re not on the open road, be more careful!” Snorting, she resumed speaking. “Thing is, like you both I have to be cautious and not reveal too much about my family. Your shrine visiting aunt… and what my mom has done for yon aunt’s old foe.” This made her chuckle. “I actually got tutored by Maraina when mom was watching over her, you know her, right? But otherwise, a military brat.” She leapt up and kicked off of a post to lightly land on Edelweiss’ shoulders. “My feet are getting achy from all that walking, I’ll rest a bit. Y’know? I learned how to break necks in this position. Never, ever let a random harpy-kin rest on your shoulders!” Edelweiss could barely nod, staggering under the weight. For all her efforts, Wendy still were not the strongest mamonme around.

Maihiera giggled and stepped off lightly. “But a tale for a tale… What’s the skeleton in your family closet?” Edelweiss frowned. “My direct aunts are an infamous pirate captain and the adoptive mother of shall we say aunt shrine goer. Also a right terror around Crystal Plinth. Mom’s definitely the more vanilla baby sister, but also a major pain in the butt on safety. I’m young, yes. But not helpless. Especially since I do know some magic.” Maihiera cooed softly. “I know. But… ergh… It’s kinda funny we all ended up in Meliddis, no? I’m sure there’s a few others in town I kinda know…” She shrugged, letting her wings extend to encompass a small space.” But our families having ties like that is uncanny.” Edelweiss conceded this point, then tilted her head. “Not Fridr though. While she’s relatively our age… well… you know about her family.”

They nodded together. Part of the reason for this trip had to pull their celestial friend out of the deep depression survivor’s guilt had put her in. “Chi’ch’s trying to adopt her, I think. And me, as you are already in the bag.” Maihiera grimaced. “No offence, but Ureonggaksi might as well be the real mothering bothering demons.” Edelweiss merely laughed. They meandered a bit more, Edelweiss surprising Maihiera with a simple harmonica bought from a tinker. Eventually they arrived at the clothes shop recommended by Leafbee and were surprised to find another Wendy there. A very young one to boot. “Hello laydies, here to look at the dresses too?” Edelweiss shot her a wink. “That’s right. But what’s a big girl like you doing out here? Don’t you have to look after your momma and poppa to keep them from being silly? I’m Edelweiss and this is Maihiera. She does bite, but is nice.” 

This elicited a giggle. “‘M Rosey. Momma says I need a new dress, but she’s busy heckling the shop laydy so I went out.” Small hands rubbed their thumbs over the middle fingers. “An’ there’s no helping poppa from being silly. He toots lots.” Maihiera snorted, covering her mouth with one hand. “It’s true~!” Maihiera chuckled. “We don’t doubt it squirt. But my imagination makes that really funny. Your daddy’s nice too, right? Not just tootsome?” Rosey considered this, then nodded, her tiny horn-nubs barely showing through her hair. “He’s the best poppa! Just stinky too. I’m gonna go back in and help momma, but you two are nice.” She turned and lifted the latch. “Charming. But way too comfortable around strangers. D’you reckon we should have a chat with her mum about putting the kid behind briars?” Maihiera’s species in general would make sure their kids were cautious around other people.

Edelweiss shook her head and led them inside.There’s no point in arguing with another Wendy over their kids if you didn’t have some of your own. And even then it’s tricky. “That will be three hythes, mrs. Floralisae. And Rosey will look cute in that dress, just remember to unclip the waist parts when she grows, it’ll last a good long time. And if my estimates are off, I’ll adjust the dress for free.” The proprietress ruffled Rosey’s hair as she took the money, then gently saw them to the door, nodding at Edelweiss and Maihiera. “Now then, what can I do for you two? Together, or should I ask who’s first? But where are my manners? I’m Bianne, and you are?” Maihiera tilted her head slightly before answering. “I’m Maihiera and this is my friend Edelweiss. We’re on a vacation, mrs. Leafbee suggested checking out your store.” This got them a confused blink. “Leafbee? That’s unusual, she normally only refers Ureonggaksi to my store. A nice change though. But you two are staying with her?” 

“Yes, with our other friends Chichi and Fridr.” Edelweiss giggled. “Chichi’s also my cousin, they may visit the store later as well. But we’re from Meliddis, the rebuilt town a ways away from here.” She clapped her hands. “Now, I’m just dying to check out your dresses and other outfits, but let me preempt this: I’m a Wendy, but I like colours beyond blue. So please don’t dread having to dye things blue, okay?” Maihiera parked her elbow between Edelweiss’ horns and nodded as if shocked. “She has green dresses. Red ones. Even a purple one…” She winked. ” Me, I’m interested in shawls. Maybe if you have dresses that work with these?” She extended her other wing cautiously. Bianne failed to stifle a giggle. “Screw stereotypes, eh? I won’t skimp on quality in my work, so I’m confident you’ll find something you like. Just be prepared to pay for that quality, I do need the money so I can’t magic a discount for you.” She reached back and grabbed a length of un-glued thread from her spidery abdomen.

“I gotta ask though, what kind of Harpy are you? Those feathers… I’ve not seen their like.” Maihiera’s raised eyebrow escaped notice. “I’m an Impundulu, actually. Harpykin known for being ferocious, calling down lightning and the drinking of the b-word. Hence the fangs and the red eyes, but ehh… I only bite if needed.” She waggled her hand dismissively. “Personally, I like my beadwork a lot more, but better you know what’s what.” As they tried on various dresses, Chichi and Fridr meanwhile had succeeded in trading in the unwanted tinned goods for something a little more edible. The Snailstop was so new it still smelled of fresh wood and newly made shell, though it was surprising to Fridr to see just how many goods were in stock. Most people would gawk at the giant ricekettle being tended by a one-armed woman… unless they were in line with a big bowl and a spoon as an Ureonggaksi. 

But Fridr was more amazed by the toilets stacked three rows deep. These astonishing modern inventions meant that latrine pits and outhouses were fast becoming a thing of the past. They resembled a seat with a hole over a large bowl filled with water. The water was safe, even to put your hands or face in, but when in use a complicated magical circuit annihilated bodily waste that entered the water. And dust. Well, as far as she understood. Chichi’s little sisters had tried explaining that it actually did something with the waste material, but she didn’t understand a lick of it. Aside from that small bricks had to be removed and tossed out sometimes. “Admiring the selection?” Chichi’s smile was bathed in light reflecting off of the mass of rice in her bowl. “Sorry for making you wait Fridr, I was able to fix that issue for them, but it’s hungry work.” She proffered a smaller bow and spoon.

“Thanks Chichi. I’ve always been curious about the rice in these shops, back home there’s that unspoken implication that it’s only for Ureonggaksi.” She tried a small spoon’s worth and blinked, this was delicious. “Eh, it’s mostly for travelling Ureonggaksi and their families, since I did bring along the mail from Meliddis we’re good on that front.” Though her spoon was no larger than Fridr’s, Chichi was making the mass of rice disappear in record time, prompting the Valkyrie to do the same. ”I’m still amazed by how much stock there is here. Heaven knows a giant city might have storerooms this size for their army…” A small burp escaped her. “Excuse me. But here it’s filled to the brim with goods.” A low chuckle flowed into the conversation. “That’s right. We’ve got almost everything this city to be and its people will need. Maddy wasn’t too happy about having to build shells this big, but that architect’s instructions made em stronger than I’d thought.” 

The one-armed woman had evidently turned the kettle over to the Ureonggaksi proprietress for a break. “Cainlin, best rice cooker this side of the mountains… and co-owner of the Snailstop. Hope you two don’t mind me joining you for lunch? I haven’t seen Valkyriar since the war and seeing one with ehh… an Ureonggaksi regional manager? I heard that right, by the way? Well, it’s interesting.” Chichi stifled a deep burp behind her hand, smiling as she replied: “Not exactly, but I was able to solve the problems you were having. It’s easier than it seems, but you do need to know what does what on the A.R.E.. And putting it slightly higher off the floor means it won’t get as much damp in it. Don’t be angry at the folks who installed it that way though, most of them are just learning their trade on the go.”

Cainlin nodded. “Yeah yeah, but still, I couldn’t fix it and I’ve seen a few A.R.E.’s. We need the bloody thing to order stock so you knowing better means Birdy doesn’t have to fly halfway across the country to get a repair crew over.” She clapped Chichi on the shoulder. “And you’re ripped. I know how strong Maddy and the local snail crew are, but dang girl, those are impressive muscles. Any chance you’d tell me how you got them?” Chichi explained that she’d been training as a martial artist since she was still small and ran a dojo back home. “I really got into it thanks to my aunt Kaori, truthfully. She uses martial arts for self defence and introduced me to a good teacher who taught me enough that I can now train others. I’m happy with it, but the little girl in me still misses out on doing guard work like I wanted to.” her grimace said a lot.

“My younger sister Lena is a berserker Ureonggaksi, as is aunt Limn. Not me though.” Fridr sighed as she placed a hand on Chichi’s shoulder. “You do try though. And better than any other Ureonggaksi I’ve met. But that hesitation before you get your fright under control would be deadly in unexpected combat.” Cainlin nodded. “You’re a guard alright. Are those wings as good in combat as I think they are?” Fridr hesitated before giving a nod. “More or less. With them, I can fly on high and evade at speed. But they’re a lot more fragile than is useful, so I have to keep them folded for ground combat. But you have had some combat experience?” Cainlin tapped the small stump of arm left on her shoulder with her hand.

“No formal training, but when those bastards tore through my old hometown I just picked up the ice knife from the storehouse and well… you should’ve seen the others. But if Maddy hadn’t picked me up I would have kicked the bucket. Instead, I’m kicking the rice kettle here.” Fridr clapped her on the shoulder in a warrior’s salute. “And you do so well. This rice makes me wish I were an Ureonggaksi so I could eat more.” Cainlin took the compliment with a small blush. “Thanks, Fridr. But I do see loss in your eyes too. I won’t pry, but ehhh… No mistaking that.” She shrugged. “So many folks still have that look in this town. I don’t know how long you’ll stay, but we do have a support group that you’d be welcome at. Maddy does the cupcakes, a fair warning not to touch those green ones unless you like matcha.”

Not long after they left the Snailstop Chichi took a moment to stretch her back. It was an ingrained habit now, but she’d been surprised to learn that sitting too long could hurt your spine in the long run, even as an Ureonggaksi so she made a conscious effort to keep her torso limber. “Fridr, wanna go check out that dress shop? I’m sure Mai and Weiss are still having fun looking through everything there.” Fridr touched the small stone pendant she wore, a weary sigh on her lips. “Might as well. I hope they stock loose outfits Chichi.”  The market thankfully kept wide lanes between clusters of stalls that accommodated larger mamonme as well as  carts. In a few years they would need to expand the space to widen those lanes and fit more stalls. Fallytun was booming and Fridr enjoyed the cheery atmosphere.

Chichi, Edelweiss and Maihiera were unusual friends to have as a Celestial, maybe… But amazing ones. Had the nameless war not happened, she’d not have met them and that would be sad. She would have loved to introduce them to her family, Maihiera’s beadwork would’ve made her sisters green with… An unbidden tear dropped onto the packed dirt. She was shaken out of her sombre reverie when screams came from the crowd ahead. “Chichi! Follow!” Her shout trailed as Fridr leapt forward with wings unfurled to glide above the parting crowd. Ahead two adventurers were trying to fend off escaped mozur which were trying to catch and rend what looked to be two children cowering between crates. Fridr cursed that she had left her axe at the wagon, but pulled the oaken club she used for close quarters combat from its holster and slammed the thick end into the nearest of the aggressive birds.

It dropped, stunned thoroughly. The next one cracked its beak on the sword it had bitten when Fridr’s club smacked into its temple. The third went down to the other adventurer’s poignard, causing Fridr to stumble to the ground. The remaining two mozur found that an iron grip held one of their legs before they were lifted and tossed hard to the ground. Chichi could not kick, but ensured they stayed down with quick jabs to their heads. She hadn’t even broken a sweat, but hurrying to the fight meant she had left a thick layer of slime in her wake. If she hadn’t eaten, Fridr would’ve had to carry her along to an eatery, but she was proud of the takedown. “Thank you, ladies. I’m not sure we could’ve held them off.” The man with the sword looked at the mozur with its cracked beak, then put the animal out of its misery.

The other man had pulled a small red-haired girl from the boxes who was crying, then swore and yelled for a healer. “Step aside please. Fridr, can you check the child?” Chichi was glad she kept her first aid kit with her always, even if the bag of holding it came from drew some attention from the crowd. “Oh my gosh.” She was shocked to see that the injured girl was in fact a Wendy. And one badly injured enough that without the training she’d gotten from granny Balase, Chichi would not have been able to do anything for her. A deep purple bruise indicated a shattered collarbone, one wing was in tatters and worse, a deep gash bled freely on her arm. The gash was the most pressing injury and Chichi  stemmed the blood flow by tightening the scraps of the girl’s dress into a tourniquet.

Her patient moaned when she cleaned the gash with the stinging brownish fluid granny Balase had taught her to use, but Chichi knew it had to be done. A rinse with purified water followed by an application of healing paste into the wound was followed by a quick and practised stitching of the wound with a special twine that would be absorbed into the body when the wound healed. This meant that scarring would be minimal. By the time she loosened the tourniquet there was no further outflow of blood. Chichi silently thanked her mother for teaching her to sew well and fast, even if clothes and toys were not the same as patients. She turned her attention to the collarbone when an older man tried to push her aside. “What are you doing!? I’m the town doctor, this girl needs professional medic-…”

 

He spotted Chichi’s efforts on the arm. “I have been trained professionally as well. But I’d appreciate it if you can help out. She has a broken collarbone and a tattered wing.” The old doctor nodded, opening a slightly worn but cared for doctor’s bag that accordioned outward with trays. “Listen to her breath for me before we continue.” Chichi did so, noting that it was rapid, but not laboured. “Good, then there’s no bone shards in her lungs. But we’ll need to fixate her shoulder before moving her to my clinic.” Chichi agreed and together they managed to stabilise their patient. When a wide plank was supplied they transported her to the clinic. Fridr had checked the younger girl over, who was thankfully unharmed. She clung to the younger adventurer, her father as it turned out. “Don’t worry little one. Your sister’s in good hands.” This caused the child to burst out crying.

“That’s actually my wife, she’s a Wendy and Rosey’s mom too.” Fridr looked mortified. “I’m Jasen by the way and my mentor ser Leunet.” The older adventurer nodded. Fridr sighed. “My apologies. I’m Fridr, recently of Meliddis. My companion is Chichi, of the same town. She’s thankfully skilled as a medic.” Fridr smiled gently at Rosey. “I should’ve known better though, one of my other friends is a Wendy too.” Rosey uttered a surprised huh at that. “You know that laydy with the bitey friend? Mayhiehie an’ Weissy?” Fridr nodded, correcting her gently. “Edelweiss and Maihiera. They are good friends.” She turned to Rosey’s father. “Sir Jasen, sir Leunet, lady Rosey… May I ask you how that happened? We came running when we heard the screams, but I confess I find it… unusual that all those mozur would escape and then attack just two Wendy’s.”

The men nodded, wearily. “Momma says it’s the bumpy man!” Jasen nodded, gently patting Rosey’s head. “My brother Brett. He’s been harassing my family ever since Floralisae and I got married. He got what he wanted, the entire inheritance, but he keeps on trying to kill my wife and popping up in the strangest places.” He grimaced. “But I can’t catch him. At all.” Leunet curtly nodded, adding in: “The confounding maleficar’s ability to evade us borders on the supernatural. I swear I had him last time,caught by the brown cloak he wore. But it turned out to be a sack of potatoes.” Fridr jotted this down on the small notepad she habitually carried around, along with a description of the man. “So he looks like you, but flabbier, blue-eyed and with bumps all over his body?” She bit the eraser on her pencil, a handy little invention of recent years.

“Mhm. I see.” She noted details of the scene of the attack down as well, considerably easing the efforts the local guard would put into finding the culprit. Yet something nagged at her. Valkyriar were somewhat sensitive to negative emotions that a killer might emit. Never mind sensing killing intent in combat. But she’d only heard the screams and felt the susurrus of panic spreading through the crowd. Something screwy was going on.

Chapter 3: Dinner is served, breakfast is given

“Thank you, for letting us stay over.” Jasen looked tired and sad, though he tried not to show it in front of Rosey who was playing a game with Edelweiss. Leunet had declined the offer, saying he wanted to check in with the guild and would sleep there. “You’re welcome. Sorry if it’s a bit messy, but we’ve been on the road for a while and had planned to see to laundry and things tomorrow.” Maihiera carefully ladled stew into bowls, a tricky venture when one had feathers. Chichi and Fridr had just entered the wagon, evidently tired from the day’s exertions. “Any news Chi’ch? I have your rice ready, gimme a moment to finish this.” Chichi nodded, lifting herself onto the Ureonggaksi chair and turning to Jasen.

“She’s… stable for now. Doctor Henneman’s looking over her, and guards are around the clinic. But she needs help that’s a bit beyond us.” Her disappointment was evident. “I’ll try to call in one of my relatives who can handle such a complex operation. Thing is, she’s in a different part of the world right now. Meaning she’s not yet awake since there’s a time difference. I’ll try after dinner.” Jasen’s face radiated questions unasked. “We’ve got an A.R.E. and she can get here quickly.” She effortlessly took the ricebowl with its stew topping from Maihiera and ate a few bites before continuing. “I hope for your discretion of course, but my family includes a few very skilled healers… among others.” Jasen nodded, promising to keep mum on things.

“I just hope she, you and doc don’t mind if payment takes a little while… things have been stretched a little thin after moving back here.” Rosey sat down next to her father with Edelweiss on her other side. “Momma’s gonna be okay?” Chichi’s smile and nod were enough of an answer for her to start digging into the stew. “Don’t worry about money, okay?” Chichi’s finger waggled emphatically. “I’d charge you for training, if you were a student at my dojo. But for helping folks out? I’d be mortified to even consider it.” The others echoed that sentiment. “Besides, the good doctor will be compensated. I just hope he considers letting some student doctors help him going forward.” Her giggle was as disarming as it was earnest.

Edelweiss gently dabbed Rosey’s mouth with a napkin as the little Wendy’d gotten stew all over. “Rosey, it is okay to take smaller bites, you know?” She gave Jasen a friendly smile. “Rosey’s a good girl, but how old is she?” Jasen sighed, rubbing his neck. “She’s just two. My precious little daughter.” She happily nuzzled his hand as he put it on her head. “Floralisae is a good wife, naturally. I just wish we didn’t have to come to this place again.” He took his stew bowl and smiled when he’d tasted it. “Damn, this is really good stew.” This earned him a poke. “Poppa! No bad words!” Fridr let out a laugh at Rosey’s serious expression. “Sorry Rosey, poppa’s just surprised. And forgot to turn off his work mouth.” This mollified the girl, who resumed eating her own bowl with a slow swishing of her tail and winglets.

“I’m glad you like it. You both could do with a bit more, no? Fridr, mind doing the refills? I somehow got stew on my pinions!” Maihiera cawed under her breath as she wiped the feathers. “I think you grazed the lip of the pot. But no matter.” Fridr smiled ruefully. “Wings are always tricky around sticky food. My sisters used to… they used to get porridge on theirs. But I’m glad we have you two for company.” Edelweiss added: “As do we all, despite the circumstances. I hope we can have Floralisae at the table too before long.” A grin slid across her face as she fussed over Rosey. “Such a good and brave girl. But you did not want to come to Fallytun again?”
Jasen shook his head. “Too many bad memories. But since my brother officially vanished, the town decided that I have to clear the house so they can declare it abandoned and tear it down or something. With this attack though I hope they’ll rethink that.”

He took a slow drink of the cool water provided. “I just want to be rid of it. My parents favoured my brother and disowned me for marrying Floralisae.” His hand found Rosey’s hair again. “She and Rosey are my family. But I am wondering where we should go. My brother harassed us in four different places already.” Edelweiss frowned. “Well, maybe Crystal Plinth or Mistburg? There’s also our homeland, but uhmm… oh well, we can maybe talk through a few things when she’s here. No rush, right?” As dinner concluded, Edelweiss took Rosey to brush her teeth and put her to bed. Chichi slid out of her chair and shuffled off to the A.R.E. while Fridr and Maihiera began sorting the dishes. Jasen insisted on helping out, marvelling at the technological advances in the wagon. A water filtration system and a small sink made the dishes a breeze.

They took a seat at the table again, talking of small things until Chichi shuffled back into the room. She was not alone as a tall, red haired woman with cloven hooves walked in after, yawning. ”Good morning everyone, nice to meet you.” She gave a quick handshake to them, then turned to Jasen. “You must be the victim’s husband. Don’t worry, okay? Call me Licci, I’ll have her sorted in a jiffy, good as new or I’ll eat my hooves.” Her smile was encouraging. “Now, Fridr, right? Mind showing me to the clinic? Chichi’s dead on her foot tired and I want to avoid banging into pottery.” Without a chance to voice a response, Fridr was taken along, barely able to grab her coat. “Sorry for bringing you along like this, but my nieces have been talking a lot about you. Well, all of you really. I’m glad you’re friends with Chichi and Edelweiss too.”

She pulled on one ear. “Just wish they weren’t so stubborn about doing their own thing in Meliddis, but I’m proud of them both. Thing is, while she doesn’t blab, Chichi did mention you have… circumstances that affect your health negatively. I’m not going to pressure you, but I’d be a poor excuse for a doctor if I left you without any offer of help.” She handed the Valkyrie a small cardboard plaque with an A.R.E. node code on it, the Praxian equivalent of a telephone number. “Keep this, okay? If you feel okay about it, give me a call. I promise confidentiality and can assure you I know my way around trauma.” Fridr took it, though her expression was one of fragile defiance. “I’ll… consider it. But who are you? I’ve never heard of a Chimaera practising medicine.” In response, Licci held up a hand. “I can pass for a Chimaera, but I’m not one. I’ll gladly tell you if you agree to my offer, but… otherwise you’ll have to ask Chichi first. I’ve promised not to interfere with her life too much.” A deep sigh escaped her lips. “Just know that I am one of her aunts and that I am qualified to help you. Now let’s get to the clinic so I can help this Wendy.” Without further fuss, they made their way over. A short while later Fridr made her way back to the shell where Jasen was being talked to sternly by Edelweiss.

“I know she’s cute, but this is one of those things where it’s important to start this at the proper time. A Wendy may not on average be archmage material, unless she tries hard, but all need to learn to control their magic. Rosey will need to practise daily, or the buildup will give issues. You don’t want her to set the house on fire by accident, or overcharge a magical device.” Two small hands chastely grasped his wrists. “I’m sure Floralisae would’ve brought it up to you soon, but I’ve been trained to recognise the signs. And it will be fun for her to learn.” Fridr sagged into her seat, a finger tapping the table. “Chichi, your aunt’s at work on mrs. Floralisae. She asked me to tell everyone that she has everything under control. I do want to talk to you about her if you’re up for it tomorrow.” They nodded and went to bed. Rosey and her father slept in Fridr’s bed while she rested with Edelweiss.

Unsurprisingly though, there was a second redhead in their bed when Fridr awoke. Though she wasn’t a Mamonme herself, it still brought her amusement to know that little ones were so innocent. She felt somewhat  refreshed, but suspected today would probably be busy as well. Her room was empty so she quickly grabbed fresh clothes and prepared to begin making breakfast. Technically, Maihiera would have to make it today, but Fridr wanted to avoid little Rosey having to chew through the thick slices of bread Mai tended to make, with a veritable pudding of jam on top. However, it looked like breakfast was waiting for her. “Hey Fridr, good morning again.” Licci was seated at the table with Jasen, a pile of jam sandwiches on the big platter the group had brought along. “Good morning mrs. Licci and Jasen. I take it that you being here means things went well?”

“Yeesh, just Licci. I’m not married, even.” Licci indicated a chair for Fridr. “Have a seat, I’ll ping the others as it’d do not to have to tell my findings all over again.” She flicked a small bell that seemed to appear out of nowhere, causing slightly surprised awakenings. When everyone was seated and enjoying the sandwiches, Licci cleared her throat and spoke: “So, the actual surgery was pretty straight-forward. I had to replace her collarbone, the old one was just a hair away from fracturing completely. Her wingbones were thankfully not broken, those membranes are very much easier to mend than you’d think… She’ll be flying again in a few weeks.” This was met with a cheer. “Chichi, I’m not kidding when I tell you both me and doc Henneman think you did extremely well with her arm. Just had to shave a little nub of bone from her radius where a bit too much healing paste had gone.”

“Otherwise, I dare say you could turn that dojo into a hospital… with a few more years of medical training of course.” She smiled at the blushing Chichi. “I’ve given the doc some… tips and things so he can improve as well. But he’ll have to look over Floralisae for a while longer.” She ran a hand down the side of her neck as she blew out her breath. “It’s a good thing I checked a bit more than just her physique though. I don’t know what happened before those mozur hit her, but her magical reserves were ravaged. Almost as if something ripped magical energy from her. Frankly, I’ve never seen that kind of injury before, though Granny’s notes on it and a quick word with… you know who… let me heal her.” She reached for the tall glass of lemonade and took a swig.

“But for the moment, she needs to rest deeply.” She turned to Edelweiss. “Weissy, I need to ask you this, as I’m not 100% certain… but you can open portals to NeverNeverLand, right?” Edelweiss nodded, shrugging slightly. “Yes aunt Licci. But my magical ability is small enough that I can barely get myself through unless its near an access point.” Licci sighed. “No worries, we can’t all be Rukia, eh? But I’ll see about getting someone here who can. It’s one of those silly doctor things, but in my experience Wendy’s heal better there.” She blinked in puzzlement as she caught Maihiera glaring at her with a hand over one eye. “Something the matter?” The Impundulu cawed softly in response. “You might say that. What’s the deal with your back?”

“My back?” Licci looked comically confused, making Rosey giggle. Maihiera switched eyes and sniffed. “There’s something on your back, hidden from view. Are you really Chichi’s aunt? Or those munchkins disguised as such? I’ll not be dragged from the sky again for another nappy.” This caused Licci to burst out laughing, wiping tears from her eyes before she calmed down. “No-no, I’m definitely not those three. But ehhh…” She looked at Chichi imploringly, who sighed resignedly. “Mai, I’d know my own aunt from my sister-cousins. Even if they do a credible imitation of her and some other aunts.” Maihiera flushed, apologising. “No, I should apologise. But… look. Aunt Licci is aunt Licci. I’ve known her since I was small and she was as well.”

Licci nodded. “I kinda used to be a lot shorter, even as an adult.” Chichi nodded, closing her eyes. “I remember meeting you when we first went to Ithus. You went to fight in the nameless war while our family took to Ithus for aunt Kaori and uncle Damast’s wedding. I just want Fridr and Maihiera to know you as you are. But it’s not fair to keep them in the dark.” She sighed, looking determined enough to go through the wall if needed. “Edelweiss and I are bringing them to the next family gathering.” Licci laughed aloud at that. “I’ll hold you to that. But since Jasen and Rosey are here? Does everyone agree not to blab about things outside of the wagon? Or treat my nieces differently?” They nodded, then Licci stood up and reversed her chair, sitting down as bright crimson wings with orange fur at their base materialised on her back.

“Seen? I’m the only Mahoumet around, known in full as Liccitia LaMont-Saerti.” She fluffed her wings. “I’m a qualified doctor, but my main ‘job’ is being the Goddess of Magical Girls and Sorceresses. I’m an adopted cousin of Chichi’s mother and related to Edelweiss’ aunts through my sister.” It was like dismissing an unimportant thing, the way she shrugged it off. “I’m just Licci or aunt Licci to friends and family. Just with a slightly more complex job. Any questions?” Rosey stuck both her little arms in the air and waved like she was trying to ward off thousands of mosquitos. “Is those wings real? Really really real? The feathers are so pretty!” Licci’s response was to pluck a small feather and hand it to Rosey. “Real as can be. You can keep that feather.” Jasen looked perplexed, Maihiera sighed and Fridr seemed at a loss as to where to direct her gaze.

“So that’s what I saw. I really, really should have known.” Maihiera scratched her head. “Tch! I expected someone a little more…” She glanced at Chichi with a raised eyebrow, catching her nod she continued: “A little more of a blonde, or like that weird sending critter.” Fridr let out a shocked bleat. “You don’t mean… Lady Eiraiha too?!” Chichi sighed, reaching over to her hand gently. “Just aunt Eihy to me. Might as well add aunt Clover. But you have to believe me that I wanted to tell you that myself… Just… Edelweiss and I have to be careful about mentioning our family relations.” Edelweiss and Licci nodded in unison. “Let’s just say a few desperate people tried to make use of several cousins as hostages.” Licci scowled. “They won’t try that again.”

Flipping her dark red hair over her shoulder, Edelweiss remarked: “It makes our connection to the Trading Tales company  seem like an afterthought sometimes. But Chichi’s adopted aunt and uncle founded it and got the entire family involved. Not that it makes anyone rich, mind you. Just… we have a few minor perks at most and a lot of responsibilities.” Chichi grinned, slightly embarrassed. “Mom and a lot of our aunts and older cousins put in the work on Ithus to raise money for both the war and the rebuilding. Not to toot my own horn, but I got to do that a little bit too.” She clasped a hand to her biceps. “Good training, according to my teacher. But there you have it. We have a fair few unusual folks in the family… but I can guarantee you they are good people. I hope you can forgive us for the secrecy.” Maihiera and Fridr shared a look.

“I’ve no issues with it. Chi’ch and Weissy are my friends.” Maihiera gave Licci a stern look. “Don’t put miniature sendings on my head and we can be too.” Licci assured her she wouldn’t if she could avoid it. Fridr though looked worried and crestfallen. Rosey noticed this and gently grabbed one of her hands, giving the lone Valkyrie silent support. “I… I don’t… I don’t understand.” She finally said. “Am I having some fever dream nightmare? Or is this some elaborate ruse to get me to go to that cheap imitation of Heaven? How can Chichi and Edelweiss…” Licci surprised her by sliding a thermometer between her lips and putting a hand on Fridr’s forehead. “No fever here.”

“Honestly, I get that it’s shocking. But it also isn’t, trust me. And for the record: NO! Good grief girl, I wouldn’t dream of making anyone set foot there if they don’t want to.” Licci lightly knuckled Fridr’s forehead. “Gimme some credit, okay? And please don’t make weird leaps of illogic on Chichi and Edelweiss.” She gave them a smile. “They met you in Meliddis, right? I didn’t know there was a Valkyrie there until they mentioned you. But will you give me a chance to be your friend too?” Fridr shivered, then nodded. “Sorry. Just… every other Celestial I’ve spoken since the war ended has been trying to get me to go there. I can’t. But I’ll try to be your friend.” Licci clasped her arm in a warrior’s salute. “Excellent. Now, I’ll be back when I can to check on Floralisae… but with that knob still on the loose I need to ask you girls to look over these two.”

She stood up and willed her wings back into aetheria. “Unfortunately, I do have to go. Elysetixa said she’d found another Sorceress unhappy with her bequeathed form, locked inside of her Perception Bauble. I also need to check up on a dozen others today. Oh, but one more thing?” She plonked a small pouch down on the table. “Some money to cover expenses, use it as you want. Watch out for each other and keep safe.” Giving everyone a hug, she left the wagon and vanished without any of the town’s folks noticing. Maihiera coo-ed with relief evident on her face, lifting the pouch with an appraising look. “By the Demon Lord’s teats! Would you look at this?!” The pouch was evidently bigger on the inside, as a small basket of hythe bills stood on a collection of coins and cyrune crystals. “Ah…Aunt Licci…” Chichi shook her head.

“She means well, but… this is way, way too much.” Edelweiss nodded in agreement, but spotted a note and read it aloud: “C&E, no buts. This money is for you and your friends. For making Meliddis a viable place and for always helping out with the company. Put some of it into this town’s shops if you see some nice things, see an investment opportunity, or people in need. Spend it as you want to. Or give some to Rosey and her parents. That last bit was added this morning.” Edelweiss smiled as she passed the note around. “So… that was what she was scribbling on.” Jasen looked troubled. “I don’t want to offend, but you have already given us so much. I’d be-” Fridr silenced him gently. “We will share it with you. Please do not say no.” She patted Rosey’s head gently. “Hopefully we can put it to good use helping the other folks in town as well.”

Jasen bowed his head in gratitude, offering to show them around. “But I’ll have to bite the slingstone and clear out the house too.” Rosey gave a sad look and whispered to Edelweiss: “That’s the bumpy man’s house? It looked so sad when poppa showed us.” She patted her father’s arm. “Like poppa when he’s there.” He pulled her close, gently ruffling her hair. “I grew up there. It’s not fun to go back there if you were told to leave Rosey. But maybe it can be a home for a different family down the line if its in a good condition.” His grimace softened. “Maybe several ones.” Before long they put together a plan for the day.

Chapter 4: Education and the cats

Edelweiss liked Rosey. The girl was sweet, smart and cheery despite what had happened. Fridr had been busying herself by digging her armour out of its storage compartment and would be ready to accompany them to the town later on, so while they waited Edelweiss had taken out some sketchpads and crayons, drawing a few pretty flowers and items for Rosey to colour in. Sticking inside of the lines was a little tricky, but the child was having a lot of fun. Edelweiss meanwhile challenged herself with a pencil drawing of her right hand. It was a pet peeve of hers that unless she really tried, any hands she drew looked more like boneless noodles than like the real deal. “Miss Weissy? Why’s people so big?” Edelweiss blinked out of her concentration. “What do you mean Rosey?” The little girl let out a small burp. “‘Scuse me. I mean, most people look so big. Momma and poppa say I have to grow a lot more, but momma and you is small. You’re really a grownup?”

This earned her a laugh. “I did wonder about it too, when I was little like you Rosey. But people come in many different shapes and sizes. Us Wendy’s are not as big as say Ushi-Oni or a Jotun. One of those girls couldn’t fit in this wagon. But Amori, those are little matchmaker Angels related to us, they could fit over a hundred in here if they haven’t gotten too… chesty. Same with Zvezda in their compact form or-” Edelweiss tried not to grimace. “Fairies from NeverNeverLand.” Rosey squealed in amazement. “Fairies is real?!” Edelweiss affirmed this, explaining that Wendy’s and Fairies didn’t get along so well on average. “I mean… I really want that to change. But there’s something infuriating about them and the way they can mess things up. Especially when it concerns kids they try to raise.”

She snorted. “Wendy’s make sure you have fun. But we, and especially me as a teacher… We want those in our care to become happy adults who can handle life. Fairies though? Too permissive and lax on every front so that their adopted kids end up depending on their Fairy parents for all their lives. They also try to undermine Wendy’s methods unasked.” She smoothed her dress. “There’s a few that are okay though. A couple who went to Meliddis were nice enough once they understood that my school has rules for good reasons.” A soft chinking sound came into the room, followed by Fridr. “I’m glad they did not stick around. They paid for their food and lodgings with fairy gold. And you know what that turns into on the next sunrise. But I’m ready to go.” She looked the part of a veteran Valkyrie, though her ash blonde hair was unbraided.

“Excellent! Now, I need to grab a thing or two myself before we go. Would you like to do some drawing with Rosey? I shan’t be long.” Edelweiss proffered a fresh sketchpad and skipped off to her own room. “Its fun miss Fritter~! Look! I have a blue teapot all done.” Fridr smiled gently, praising Rosey for her efforts. “It is fun. But did you know you can also hold your crayons like this-” She angled one sideways to the paper. “And then if you move it lightly, it leaves a broad, but faint trail. That’s good when you want to draw a Zvezda’s star-lights” Rosey tried it herself. “Pretty! So pretty!” A few short minutes later Edelweiss returned, hefting what appeared to be a toy hammer. “I just hope I won’t have to use this. But it’s the only real weapon I brought along.” She put it in her apron pocket and took them outside.

“This town’s really nice, you know. I’ve seen a few towns during my travels across Praxis, but here they’ve gone an extra acre on planning for everyone here.” Edelweiss was happily chattering away, encouraging Rosey to learn something without making it a lesson. Fridr thought that was an admirable quality in a teacher, but she had to keep watch for all of them. Someone overhead cast a winged shadow, but it wasn’t Maihiera. Their fiery friend said she needed to fly and would be looking for boltholes from the sky. It was a good idea. Rosey’s mom might be guarded at the clinic, but Fridr worried the rest of the guards were too busy to search for her murderous uncle Brett. Fridr felt a chill, knowing that one who’d try to kill a child was about. She’d been training thoroughly, even before being accepted as a cupbearer, but nothing could prepare one for that reality.

“Fridr? Praxis to Fridr?” Edelweiss giggled when she responded. “You were thinking again, hm?” Fridr nodded, heaving a huff of irritation. “Yes, I’m not that good at multitasking. There’s just so many moving entities in this town, I’m glad we didn’t go via the marketplace today.” She shook her head briefly. “Uffff… It’s a really useful ability to have, normally. But in crowded places it’s like having lots of marbles resting on your brain. My normal senses should be enough though, I couldn’t detect any hostility in a large radius.” Rosey had taken the conversation between them as an opportunity to explore her nostrils, her tail swishing impatiently as Fridr explained. Then something hit her tail and she squealed in shock.

“Rosey?” Something hit her tail again and she scooted forward. “My tail! Somm-mming hit my tail!” Edelweiss examined the stricken appendage while Fridr scooted around the collection of boxes on a small cart, thinking it might be a naughty kid pranking Rosey… But she found nothing, turning back as Edelweiss yelped in pain. “Getitoff-getitoff!” Fridr burst out laughing as she stopped Edelweiss and then removed two small bundles of fur from her tail. “Looks like your tails seemed as toys to these little ones.” While Praxis’ natural biodiversity included Gulong, cat-like animals raised as livestock, the two kittens she held were housecats. A technically invasive species that had wandered into Praxis one day. Some say they actually ruled the world now, but evidence was not found… nor witnesses recovered. Humans, mamonme and others had accepted their role as catbutlers.

“Kitties! They’re tiny~!” Rosey’s fright had all but disappeared. Fridr though, noted that these two were very thin. Edelweiss ignored the tiny toothmarks on her tail and peered between the boxes. “Oh.” She turned to Fridr. “Would you mind getting some goat’s milk for them? With Rosey?” Taking the cue, Fridr moved away from the cart to a shop that sold dairy products. Her senses noted that Edelweiss was removing other shapes from between the boxes… but those did not move, not anymore. Keeping a cheery face on, she successfully procured milk and a slice of ham for the tiny kittens. “Lookit! They love it!” Rosey squatted behind them, stroking their small backs as the tiny tails wiggled about.

“They do.” Edelweiss’ eyes were slightly reddened when she rejoined them. “I couldn’t find their mother, the nest looked abandoned. We’ll have to find them a home, but for now let’s bring them along.” She pulled a scarf out of one of her apron pockets and tied it around Rosey so it formed a loose pouch. With the kittens thus kept warm, they decided to check in at the clinic before returning home. A relatively tall building down the street looked to have been outfitted with a gargoyle, until Maihiera was fairly certain her friends had moved on. She really did not like having to do this, but with them serving as unwitting bait she’d hoped to spot Brett. Idle hope maybe, the wannabe killer was supposed to be very crafty. She’d actually surveyed the town quickly, for while it was growing, it was doing so orderly. 

Even the local Harpies she’d spoken to had not found many hideyholes and most of those were actually disappearing under the urban redevelopment efforts. She had checked them regardless, even the ones a human could not logically reach unnoticed, like the steeple on the local temple of the Gentle Flame. Her talons clenched in frustration as she could practically hear her mother lecturing her about how this should be a simple assignment for a trained member of the Morguis family. She’d almost hear her sister’s laugh as that brat liked to see her scolded. Yet she doubted either could do better and thus turned her thoughts to a bothersome notion. That this Brett employed a form of magic to teleport to and from his intended victims. Not the garden variety though, so she was way out of her league on that front.

As Maihiera launched herself skyward and set a course for the house where Chichi and Jasen would be headed about now, hoping that she’d catch her quarry there. Her unease did not wane though. Meanwhile Edelweiss had overcome her sadness and was leading the group towards the clinic where Floralisae rested. Doctor Henneman let them in with a slightly distracted smile. “Ah, you’ve brought Rosey. Your papa Jasen was here earlier with miss Chichi, thankfully your mama’s awake now. Just be quiet and gentle, she needs a lot of rest. So five minutes at most.” He promised a lolly if Rosey behaved. Edelweiss went inside with Rosey, but Fridr stayed with the doctor. “Not going in? Usually I have to limit visitor numbers with a stick.” He gestured to a short shepherd’s crook in the umbrella stand. 

“I can imagine.” Fridr’s dry reply didn’t diminish her grin. “But no, it’s more important for Rosey to be there and Edelweiss is a little less intimidating than I am. Unless she’s in her role as interim judge.” She ran a hand along an old Akrufian spear mounted on the wall. “Curious. You must have travelled far to obtain this weapon.” Doc Henneman carefully lifted the spear from its hooks and easily put it through a complex pattern of moves. “It’s actually been in the family for a few generations, but I used it a lot when I was younger.” He tapped her halberd. “This one’s a little different from how Valkyriar weapons are depicted though.” In response, Fridr twisted the handle and collapsed it in on itself. “Mine’s definitely not standard. The halberd form has reach and hits hard… But the axe form is better suited for close combat.”

“It was a gift from my mentrix, she claimed the design came from a different world, but I’ve yet to encounter a similar design so that’s likely true.” She offered it to him, hilt first and he nearly dropped it. “It’s heavy! But beautiful too. I think it’s best I don’t try to put it through its paces though.” He handed it back and she reverted it to its halberd form. Shortly after, a concerned Edelweiss brought Rosey back out, who sniffled softly into a handkerchief. “She’s still very much out of it. I’m guessing that’s due to sedatives? She thought I was some Wendy named Clematis and couldn’t place Rosey for a while.” Her shrug spoke volumes. “I’m thinking we should go for ice cream on the way back.” They said their goodbyes to the doctor and walked out into the afternoon sunshine with three lollies accepted.

“Momma’s still hurt.” Rosey tried to scowl, but the lolly got in the way. “No, but yes. She has gone through surgery and got healed, but that takes a toll on your body Rosey. She’ll be much better next time, I’m sure.” Edelweiss sniffed the air and smiled, her determined footsteps leading the way to a pastry shop that had a frosty display. “Good afternoon, miss.” This was said to a young Bovitauride standing behind the counter. “Good afternoon you three. Oh? Rosey, what are you doing with these ladies?” Rosey stood on her tippy-toes and tried to smile. “Hi Marjie. Momma got hurt, so miss Fritter and miss Weissy is looking after Rosey. Poppa’s at the bumpy man’s house with miss Cheepcheep and miss Maiheehee flies.” This earned them what’s known as an old look from the woman.

“Hnn… It’s not exactly classy to try to musc-” Edelweiss stopped her oncoming tirade with a pertinent finger. “Please do not presume such things. Mrs. Floralisae was attacked in the market yesterday, Fridr and Chichi saved her life. But since she’s still in recovery at doc Henneman’s clinic, we’re looking after Rosey. With permission from Jasen and the doctor.” She frowned in a way that had put dread in more than a few petty criminals. “Okay, okay! Sorry, sheesh. I know Rosey, but I’ve never seen you two before.” With a resigned sigh, she smoothed her dirndl. “I am Marjoram, also known as Marjie to little ones. Now, can I offer you a scoop each as an apology? And mind filling me in on what happened to Lisae?” Fridr succinctly told most of what had happened.

“Strange. I mean… I am grateful that you had a doctor who could help her… But to think that wastrel still is going after her… and now Rosey too?!” Marjoram snorted in disgust. “To think they used to be engaged. Or that a fair few of the girls in town were jealous. But ehmmm… how about a little paper umbrella for Rosey? You can put it in your hair if you’re careful with the tip.” Rosey was delighted with the little umbrella. Moreso were the kittens she still carried, who tried to grab it from her hand. “Oh my golly! You got kittens Rosey?” Marjoram was very clearly a cat person and insisted on giving some of her own milk along when they left. On the way back, Edelweiss seemed to be thinking a lot, so Fridr taught Rosey how to watch for the tells of when her mewing friends wanted to pounce on a toy.

“We’ll need to go to the Snailstop, I think they have litterboxes for housecats.” Edelweiss emerged from her thinking with a practical goal in mind. “Some sand or clay pellets would work, I think. We may need to start thinking of names for them as well.” Her tail’s tip began to swish again as a smile returned to her face. “They’s so cute! Can I name’m?” Rosey had both hands occupied rubbing under their chins. “We’ll do so together. Cats are very peculiar about what names they like.” Fridr suspected Edelweiss wanted to avoid having to call the kittens something like Kornok the Destroyer of Pants like one dog in Meliddis. She liked the Snailstop and clasped Cainlin’s arm when she spotted them. “Fridr, nice to see you again. You’re with different friends today?” She insisted on helping them find the needed supplies, including some toys. 

“Now, they’re small, but they have a lot of energy. Just keep them warm and don’t be too loud. And play with them. By the pyre though, I didn’t know we had housecats in town. Or why we stock these things for em.” Edelweiss giggled at that. “Well, if I heard correctly? You do get that intra-company catalogue, right? Chichi mentioned that the yearly version also includes things to try out. I’m just glad I remembered these were in the catalogue.” Cainlin sighed and shook her head. “I swear, Maddie usually handles that, but I should know. Damn thing’s too thick to read with one arm though.” Edelweiss conceded this, but mentioned the lectern on page 200 might alleviate that. They’d just left when without warning one of the toilets stacked up high came crashing down right where Edelweiss had been standing.

Cainlin could not explain it. She’d been hoisted up to the shelfspace in question after the Erumo repairwoman swore up and down that there was nothing wrong with the clamps, aside from small scrape marks from the toilet apparently being lifted out of them. She reported the incident to the guard, but also to Trading Tales’ headquarters where the incident report caused a stir. Back at the wagon, Edelweiss and Rosey had installed the litterboxes and named the kittens Brandy and Mindy. Had they not been occupied thusly, they might have heard a loud scream coming from across the burgeoning town.

Chapter 5: House of sorrows

There were things Chichi liked about being an adult. Having to explain to mrs. Leafbee that the events of yesterday had led them to forget the dinner invitation was not one of those things. But Leafbee was understanding and apologised about getting in a huff, she even reinvited the group with Jasen and his family included when things had settled. Chichi even managed to convince her to accept a small investment for the campground so that visitors would have functional toilets on site. Much more hygiënic than the current method of outhouses. They’d left Rosey with Edelweiss and Fridr of course, and Maihiera had gone out early on a patrol if she’d heard right.. But she needed to go with Jasen, so he was stuck with her until she completed a few errands.

Chiefly, she wanted to get a few tools that would come in handy, and finally visit the dress store before dark. Jasen wanted to check in on his wife first (making Chichi wish she had a husband like that), so they shuffled along to the clinic. Doc Henneman let Jasen in, explaining that Floralisae was still fast asleep. Mindful of things though, he invited Chichi to a cup of tea that had a surprising addition: mochi. “Please help yourself Chichi. Think of it as a small thank you for your efforts yesterday.” He’d settled into a comfortable chair suited to reading, next to a bookshelf. “I am no cook, but thanks to my patients I do know a splendid address for them.” Chichi bit into one and had to agree, these were delicious. “They are really good, I’d say you’d need to go to Kaku or Crystal Plinth to get better ones.” She fought the impulse to put the plate to her mouth and shove the lot in like a kid might try to do.

“But please tell me, uhm… What’s your impression of aunt Licci? Did she mention some things or just stick you with some of Granny Balase’s books?” The doctor slapped his knee as he laughed. “Some of both, honestly. I’m humbled by the medical knowledge in the books she left behind. Even though I’m a competent doctor, I have a lot more to learn.” He shook his head. “I did not expect her to… unveil shall we say? But… am I glad she did not do some ‘repent ye sinner’-routine on me for being sceptical.” Chichi sighed in relief. “She is chill. As are aunt Eihy and aunt Clover too, of course. Just don’t get them mad, trust me on that.” She smiled. “Honestly, I love them all to bits, so it salts my stride that to have a more or less normal life I have to be cautious about whom I can talk to about them.” The doctor flipped a hand airily, glad to be worthy of their trust.

“Not an issue. But you mentioned Kaku? That’s the port of that Ureonggaksi island, right?” Chichi nodded, grinning. “Grandma Kimisa and grandpa Ollivier live there. The island’s formally separate from Zipangu on some levels, but the community of Kaku-An is still very friendly to the Court of the Moons. Though the current Empress Sukina (May she live forever) had a bit of a cold war on snails going on with great-aunt Kusuhimi.” She couldn’t stifle a laugh though. “Grandma’s still unamused that her shell’s named The Snail’s Moustache due to the curved beam she put in the outer wall over the door to go with the local building style.” They passed the time companionably until Jasen emerged from the room Floralisae was in, looking sad. “Thanks for waiting. I’m…” He shook his head.

“She’s asleep, but sleeping peacefully. Blast it though, cute as she is when snoring… I have to resist the urge to awaken her and tell her it’s gonna be fine.” Doc Henneman rose, shaking his head. “She’ll awaken when she’s ready. Sleep, Jasen, lets her body focus on recovery.” With a slightly concerned exhalation, he examined Jasen. “Be sure to rest as best you can yourself. I cannot clear you for adventuring as things stand, you’re exhausted and jittery.” Jasen nodded. “Thanks doc, mind giving me a note for the guild? They get on your case if you are on leave too often. Miss Chichi, mind a small detour there? I wanted to check in on ser Leunet regardless, but this may take a bit longer.” Chichi nodded, said goodbye and followed him outside. Fallytun’s guild for adventurers, something a bit more social than a mercenary guild, was nearer the part of town where income was lower.

“Here we are.” Jasen pushed open the spring powered doors and let Chichi through. It was… different from what she’d expected. The furniture was rough, scarred and stained with unknowable substances, but lovingly cared for all the same. There was a receptionist’s counter, separated into three booths by panels and evidently defensible with the drop-down ironwork she spotted. Ser Leunet rose from his seat at one of the tables, bringing his bowl of stew. “Jasen, miss Chichi, I trust you have some good news?” Chichi smiled, nodding as she replied. “Floralisae will make a full recovery. She’s still sleeping after the surgery, but that’s to be expected. Just a small blessing we could get her the medical care she needs.” Her eyestalks twirled in curious wonder. “But this is the adventurer’s guild? I hadn’t seen inside of one before, does it double as an eatery?”

Jasen and Leunet shared a look, then nodded. “To some degree, yes. But it’s more like a canteen operates in here for adventurers like myself and Jasen. Speaking of whom…” He clapped a hand to Jasen’s shoulder. “I’ve explained what happened, but you should make a report yourself too. I’ll have a talk with miss Chichi and finish this stew over here.” As Jasen made his way to the counter, ser Leunet leaned a little closer to Chichi while seemingly engrossed in his stewbowl’s contents. “I wasn’t sure before… but you spent some time in Crystal Plinth, correct? And you have a sister with a parrot doll and pirate hat?” Chichi blinked in surprise before responding. “Yes, though I’ve gotten a few more little sisters since then. I’m sorry, but have we met there?”

Leunet grinned. “Not directly, but back then I was on duty when word came around of an invasion force of Ureonggaksi needing to be given space at the Yule Meadows Farm. Your family, I take it?” Chichi laughed, nodding. “And a few friends at the time… family too now, of course. But you left that city? I’m a bit surprised, from what I know cousin Ellie still has most of the same folks under her since before the nameless war. Not to pry, but…” Ser Leunet’s eyebrows raised quite a bit. “That is true. However, since we no longer had to contend with the Demon Lord… still can’t believe Lady Meadlowry took that mantle before it changed… I felt a little restless. Knight or not, I need some action in my life. And seeing as how there was a major drive for people to resettle these lands I thought I’d spend some time here.” Their reminiscence was cut short as someone slammed the counter Jasen was at.

“Seriously?! You got a doctor’s note?!” The man behind the counter was not a happy camper. If Chichi were to hazard a guess, he was a former Luminaire, but not one of officer material. “I don’t give a crap Jasen, you know how crucial the caravans are to our town and what’s riding on tomorrow’s caravan. Yeah, your wife stubbed her toe, boohoo, tell it to someone who cares. I’ll revoke your licence if you’re not ready to go with them!” Ser Leunet seemed unamused as he stepped over to the counter and set down the bowl with a bang. “What by her ladyship’s grace are you blathering about Joccopo?” Joccopo looked at him with irritation before replying: “This layabout signed on for that crucial shipment caravan and now is trying to back out with some sob story and a note!”

Leunet shook his head. “His wife AND daughter were attacked yesterday, I put in the report as you should know. You weren’t asleep behind the counter as usual, so what in blazes are you going on about?! And as per the guild regulations a doctor’s note is-” He nearly closed his teeth on the finger stuck to his nose, Joccopo going red. “I don’t care! We’re down way too far on guards for this caravan. I need him on it. And no, you have your own task to do: hunt down that criminal who let the mozur escape. The client insists that either you do it or we’ll have to reimburse him directly for those killed birds” Leunet sighed, shaking his head. “I did give my word I’d look into it, but that man should’ve known better than to bring that untamed bunch into town.”

“However, Jasen is not cleared for duty. And no amount of your pointless threatening will change that.” Chichi slid into the conversation. “That’s right. If you disagree, you’ll have to change both doc Henneman’s mind and mine. Being trained in medicine means I kind of know how bad an idea that would be.” Joccopo’s face had turned red with anger. “Enough! Joccopo, go to the back. I will handle this” A woman had appeared behind them and took Joccopo’s place. Chichi did not like the arrogant gleam in her eyes or the dismissive snort sent her way as the Dragoness examined her. “I am Legesa, the guildmaster here. I’ve been patient with you, Jasen… but you’re not cut out to be an adventurer.”

Her sigh was cold. “That caravan tomorrow is important to expanding the town. Without you, I will have to leave my lair and escort it. And that on my wedding anniversary.” She snorted small blue flames out. “I’m not happy about that. You are too much of a family man as it is, I’d never have hired you if you’d started out at my branch. I cannot depend on you to do your job. Even without this latest incident with the mozur I’d still tell you to leave and get a job where your little girl won’t become an orphan. Or subjected to some snail muscling in on your marriage.” This deliberate jab angered Chichi, resulting in a very pointed retort: “Are the old spinsters in this town so desperate for a man that they have to assume every other woman is just out to muscle in on another’s marriage?” 

She gave Legesa a sharp poke. “You presume wrongly, I demand an apology.” This got her an incredulous snort. “You got a lot of guts. I will apologise for my presumption, but you need to get your brain checked if you think you can tackle a Dragon.” Chichi smirked. “Apology accepted, but don’t underestimate me on that front. Or any Ureonggaksi for that matter, you’d be surprised.” A dismissive shake of the head was the only reply. “Regardless, Jasen, you’ll hand over your guild card. I do wish you luck finding a new job. You may use us as a reference.” After they’d left a door creaked open and a peculiar person shuffled behind the counter. “You were lucky, you know? She could have thrown a fit and wrecked our guild easily.” Legesa shook her head, giving a hard look at the four legged Mios.

“You and your wild stories… Do you expect me to believe one of those could kill your aunt?” Ice crackled on the response: “A closed casket means a lot, more than words can convey in Mios culture.” Chichi was blissfully unaware of the exchange, her attention focussed on the tasks ahead. “Sorry for that unpleasantness. M’m Legesa’s capable, but dismissive of everyone bar her spouse.” Ser Leunet had tagged along and was apologetic, but Chichi turned her eyestalks on him as she replied: “No worries. I shouldn’t have lost my temper, but eesh! If she’s not careful, that lizard will feel the flat of my hand. My mom’s not as trained as I am, but she defeated and dragged a Dragon all across the continent.”

Her snaily eyes twinkled with mirth as her more humanoid ones did. “Just so Metala, one of my younger sisters, could learn to control her fire breathing. Her being an Azure Dragon and cute as a button. But ehhh… I need my energy to help Jasen clear out that house. And there’s what we will have a use for.” She stopped at a stall in the market that sold tools. “Good morning gents, miss. What are you looking for?” Chichi raised an eyebrow at the muscular woman behind the stall. “Oh hello, are you miss Cuda by chance? My cousin Edelweiss and our friend Maihiera mentioned a Cyclopean artisan here.” A low chuckle escaped under the central eye as Cuda extended a hand. “That’s right, I’m Cuda. You must be Chichi, right? Who’re these two though?” Chichi did the introductions and managed to obtain a crowbar, hammer and some wedges.

“These are really good tools and I really do like your beadwork.” She rested the crowbar on one shoulder easily. “But running two stalls with just your husband’s a lot of work. Not to mention pricey, riiiiiight?” Cuda conceded both points. “Yeah, but we are ahead of the game still. Just wish it were a bit more so I could invite one of my cousins back home to work with us. It’s not an issue of seeing if Mert is open to another hot-eyed gal in our home, but the town needs some proper smithing done and I need more hands to deal with that.” Chichi nodded, whispering that they’d come by some money and asking Cuda if she’d want an investment had been on their minds, especially in light of the handy watch. “I won’t say no to that, if it’s legit. But mind me asking how?” Chichi deftly explained a few things about her aunt and the family company.

“Basically, its back wages and a little extra for our efforts back home. If you agree to abide by the investee’s guidelines there may be more the company can do to help you out… eventually. But golly me, we three need to get to work on that house.” Obviously she liked Cuda enough to want to continue talking at the stall. “Meanwhile, could you do me a small favour and see if there’s some other craftsmen who could improve with a little help?” Cuda promised this and agreed to visit the wagon soon. Beyond the market the road led to a less densely populated area, through a gate into an older style park until Jasen brought them to a large house. A mansette, practically. The front door yielded easily to the crowbar without damaging too much.

“Well… home sour home. But welcome to you both even though none of us want to be here.” He sighed. “Guess we’ll need to take inventory first, make sure my brother’s not hiding out here so Ser Leunet can scratch it off of the list.” Striding determinedly, Jasen took them to the kitchen. None too spacious and covered with dust. “He’s not used this in a long while.” Ser Leunet efficiently rifled through the cupboards, turning up some mouldy shapes that had been bread once, long ago. The cold room was likewise abandoned, though the cellar down the opposite stairs had some pricey vintage wine bottles that Chichi guessed might still be good for sale. Alderwood furniture dominated the parlour and living room, which held surprisingly little else.

“I used to love these chairs… good to read in and even to nap in when I still fitted wholly onto the seats.” Jasen’s eyes shone with a personal pain. Chichi’d taken a broom from the kitchen to move dust out of the way so it wouldn’t soak up all her slime. The floor behind her shone. “Well, why not hold onto them then? I know your situation’s complicated… but I do have a bag of holding to spare back at the wagon, and I can stuff them in this one till then.” Jasen agreed and they disappeared swiftly from the room. Chichi thought that this mansette would have been beautiful in its heyday, but years of dust marred it. Nevermind the mess that the drawing room and garderobe had become. She evicted a six-armed maratin from the latter and boarded up the window it had entered through.

“So the town is going to take this place as payment for your brother’s back taxes, hm?” She took a sip from the water flask she’d brought, annoyed internally that she could estimate the value of the place and its grounds. “Honestly, even in this state it’s worth a lot more than taxes would warrant, even with… how many years of back taxes?” Jasen tilted his head. “Four or so? Floralisae’s got a better head for taxes than I do, but it’s still a big number and it looked correct as far as we could make it out.” Chichi sighed, noting mentally that it would be better to ask aunt Kaori to review all of it. “We’ll see about that. I worry that you’re being ripped off on this.” She groaned in irritation as they came to the stairwell. “Okay you two, I’ll need a little help getting up the stairs. They’re a bit narrow so you’d be sliding down them on the slime if I just clambered up myself.”

Afterwards all three were glad that was over. It might make excellent skit material for Kaaiman and Erumo comedians, but having her foot and torso carried by two men around those narrow turns was not fun. She hated that she’d practically deafened them with an unintentional belch when her stomach had gotten pinched. “I’ll scout ahead if you don’t mind.” Ser Leunet thumped his ear as he moved down the corridor to what Jasen had said was the weapon room. Jasen meanwhile did a sweep of the master bedroom. Dust aside, the bed and its furnishings were gorgeous. The dried-out residue in a wine bottle was not. Jasen accidentally bumping several more over made Chichi question what was wrong, in a specific sense, with people who did this.

His old room was… strange. Items in there had been broken, but inexpertly fixed sometime later. “Weird. Did Brett do this to taunt me or something?” Jasen shook his head and lead the way to the ballroom. It was packed with furniture. Chichi could barely get her foot beyond the door before bumping her nose against a wardrobe and sliming Jasen’s ankle. “What in the blue blazes is the meaning of this? These used to be all over the house. There’s even grandma’s drinks cabinet. She’d have had a fit if she’d seen this.” Jasen scratched his head, then stepped over Chichi’s foot. “Chichi, could you move this one out of the way, you think? I’ll check the attic real quick, just to make sure the rest isn’t propping up the ceiling or something.” Good thinking.

Chichi shuffled out of the room, then reversed back in so her foot got under the wardrobe. Ureonggaksi being as deceptively strong as they are, the wardrobe and its contents were no heavier than an empty human sized picnic basket to her, just a bit more bulky. With her strong foot lifting it off, she pulled it outwards and rotated it so it could fit through the doorway. She didn’t think it would fit down the stairs though. “Yeesh, you make that look way too easy.” Maihiera looked a little winded as she stepped up to help Chichi move the wardrobe off of her foot and onto the floor. “Sorry I’m a little late, but Weissy and Fri took a bit of a detour and… well… We’ve got new wagon guests.” She shook her head. “Those tiny not-gulongs you hear about a lot. I’m not sure how to feel about that. But no sign of Brett stalking them.” A caw slipped between her teeth.

“Housecats? That’ll be interesting. But ehhh… I’ve heard they’re really smelly sometimes. Kind of like that pet auntie Colly has, it looked cute but raised its striped tail and sprayed great-granduncle Petersen at the last gathering. He smelled horrible for over a week afterwards.” Maihiera looked somewhat baffled at Chichi’s statement. “Let’s hope that’s not true then. They were starving though, so I doubt they’ll spray people. Their nestlings won’t have that chance…” She shook her head. “Sad as that is, we still have this house to tackle. I see no way to get this thing down the stairs though… and it’s too big for that ridiculously overpowered bag of holding you have.” She eyed her talons gloomily. “Did you bring that ring of flight? It’ll score the wardrobe, but with that ring I think I might be able to fly it down slow enough to not damage it.”

Chichi’s forehead itched and she gave it a scratch as she replied. “It’s in the wagon, but honestly? I don’t think it’s worth the strain on you to try it. We’ll just disassemble the wardrobe and things so it will fit. But uhhhmmm… Could I ask you to do something else instead?” She pulled a small notepad and pencil from the bag and wrote down a node-code. “I think Jasen’s getting badly shortchanged by the town. Could you wing to the A.R.E. in the wagon and dial this? Ask for my aunt Kaori, say hi to my mom if she answers instead, but tell aunt Kaori that there’s something fishy going on in Fallytun and I hope she could spare a little time to go over things with me tonight. The Trading Tales company is investing in the town, but this could be a major red flag going forward.” Maihiera took the note and hugged Chichi before practically skipping back out the window in an adjacent room.

“Mai is a really sweet person. But she thinks this is overpowered?” Chichi reflected that if she hadn’t put her foot down about it, she’d have gotten a literal pocket plane of existence instead of a spacious pocket dimension. Rukia meant well, but being around her made one a lot more foggy on what people normally thought made a powerful magic item. “Am I just too used to things like this? Oh well, I’ll go have a look around the room, see if there’s other things I can evict before Jasen returns…” She also considered ser Leunet, who briefly appeared bearing a roll of tapestry that he set down in the hallway. Beyond the barricade of cabinets there was far less clutter than she had anticipated. A small table held an ornate music box that still worked. She loved the complicated little contraption instantly and stored it in the bag of holding’s confines.

The table followed, the dust falling away to reveal a gorgeous pattern on its wooden surface. “Yeah, aunt Kaori will definitely want to know about this. Even the mansette alone as payment for taxes is obscene, but these bits of furniture on top of that? No way, that’s grand larceny.” With a cheery hum she removed books from the bookshelves, fine porcelain from a different cabinet and the remaining bottles of aged alcohol from the drinks cabinet. This would make the heavy wooden furniture easier to move afterwards. She also couldn’t spot any sagging on the ceiling, though there was a bit of a dent in the floor that produced a groan when she shuffled onto it. Worse, something like a hand hit her in the ribs. When she turned around to right what she thought was a statue, Fallytun was instead treated to a scream of fright that made windows rattle.

Chapter 6: Lost girls

Maihiera was glad to be out of the mansette, though she was more happy to have something else to do. Chichi understood and that in and of itself was valuable beyond estimation. The breeze felt good on her wings and she enjoyed the opportunity to really let loose with some acrobatics. She spotted Cuda as she did a barrelroll over the marketplace and gave a trill of greeting before turning sharply towards the meadow. Mrs. Leafbee got a similar trill while hanging up washing, but Maihiera guessed she’d not heard as the Ureonggaksi had scooted inside after finishing the laundry. Oh well. One aced landing later and she was greeted at the door by Edelweiss who’d been waiting for them, or so it seemed.

“Hey Mai, welcome back. Chichi and Jasen are also coming then?” Maihiera shook her head, explaining that she needed to make a call on the A.R.E. on behalf of Chichi. Edelweiss sighed, explaining about the litter boxes and other fresh items they’d bought for these cute little housecat critters they’d picked up. “Rosey is taking a nap with them and Fridr, but I’ve heard a few things that I’d like to ask Jasen and Floralisae about. Thank goodness she’s on the mend.” Maihiera sighed in relief, but startled when there was a loud knock on the door and a man stepped through whom she knew. “Good afternoon Edelweiss and Maihiera, pardon the unexpected visit.” He set a merchant’s backpack down and took off his coat, but this was Chichi’s uncle, the one who’d fended off her pounce with a piece of firewood when they’d first met.

“Hello uncle Damast, what brings you here?” Edelweiss was happy to give him a hug, Maihiera kept it to a polite handshake, slightly embarrassed that his relationship to Edelweiss had slipped her mind. Damast Wayfarer looked much as she’d remembered him, though he looked kind of worried as he replied: “Well, we heard about the lady who needed medical care, but then this report came in from the Snailstop. Seems like someone tossed a toilet from on high around where you were standing a little bit before.” He shook his head. “Usually, it’s enough to send in someone who knows their way around magic to investigate, but I thought it couldn’t hurt to go along.” 

“It is good to see you again. But I’ll have to make a call to their aunt Kaori.” Maihiera turned to leave, but was stopped by a touch on her shoulder. “Kaori? My wife’s currently not on Praxis, but maybe I can help?” Maihiera was rattled by his undetectable movements, but rallied enough to not show it. “Chi’ch wanted me to call her specifically since there’s something fishy going on with this town. Do you think you can go over things with her then?” Damast nodded with a grin. “I’m sure of it. Kaori and Rukia are hyper intelligent, but I’m a successful merchant in my own right you know? This wagon’s actually a pet project of mine, in a sense. If I can’t manage though I can at least connect the A.R.E. to Ithus for you. It drains magic a lot that way, so let’s save that until I have had a go at it.” 

Fridr entered the room with Rosey on her arm, a frown creasing her brow. “Edelweiss, Mai, did you two hear that? And who is this?” After a short introduction, Fridr and Maihiera went outside to investigate the noise that awoke Rosey and Fridr. It had been a soft rattling of the window, but given that other campers and townsfolk had rushed outside she felt better investigating, even if it turned out to be a false alarm. Taking to their wings, the two saw a crowd moving towards the mansette, guards pushing onlookers away. “By ozone and sparks, Chichi!” Maihiera’s sharp eyes spotted their friend, lying unconscious while doctor Henneman was doing something nearby. Ser Leunet and Jasen were talking, vehemently, to the guards at the scene. They’d have gotten in trouble for the rather forceful landing if Henneman hadn’t spoken up on their behalf.

“Can you explain what in blazes happened!? You went to clear out this place with Chichi. What happened after I left?!” Maihiera’s voice thundered, her eyes hard as flint. Jasen and ser Leunet shook their heads in disbelief as they tried to start an explanation, Jasen ultimately managing to get his thoughts out. “I hadn’t even seen you, but Chichi was supposed to wait for me to return from checking the attic. She went inside and cleared out some of the bookcases and cabinets, then let out a scream that definitely cracked the windows. We found her out cold with…” He shook his head and indicated doc Henneman’s work area. “That on top of her. I can’t believe it, but that is my brother’s dead body. How though?! He attacked Floralisae and Rosey yesterday, by all the gods!” Doc Henneman looked up from his work anew, with a sigh.

“Impossible, I’d welcome a second opinion, but this body’s been deceased for months by my estimates.” Fridr did a cursory examination, nodding. “I concur. At least six months, maybe more but it’s well preserved.” She did not touch the body directly, but sent her divine senses into it. “A dry room and alcohol will do that.” The doctor agreed, though he looked troubled. “Miss Chichi had a fright mostly, but she’ll have a bruise on her back for a while. Not often that I’m called out as a doctor and as the local coroner at the same time, but here we are. Commander Flik? I’ve finished the examination on site, but the conclusion is that the deceased died of a stab wound. A self-inflicted one as far as I can judge. We could do a more indepth autopsy at the guardhouse” The commander of the guard patrol nodded, signing off on the report.

“I have to note that our dear tax collector did not do her job very well if she didn’t check the mansette properly before summoning you, Jasen.” He sounded unamused. “But who attacked your wife then?” The question remained unanswered. Chichi thankfully came to, dismissed the bruising as superficial (Ureonggaksi skin bruised easily, but healed fast) and suggested retiring to the wagon. “I just hope aunt Kaori-” Maihiera cawed mellowly, shaking her head. “She has gone elsewhere. Your uncle showed up at the wagon and told me.” She looked Chichi in the eyes then. “Bloody tears Chi’ch, he still moves in ways I can’t follow. I’m spooked by that. My mother’d be spooked by it. He’s not one of those yokkiyais, right?” Chichi laughed, placing a comforting hand on Mai’s shoulder.

“Nono, he’s not a yokai. We are, technically. But he’s just really well aware of his surroundings and how mamonme tend to do things.” Her one eyestalk was trying to look at her back, causing the other to be tugged along slightly. “You can ask him if you want, you know? But I don’t think it’s a conscious thing at this point, just years of training and a knack for it.” She shrugged. “Granduncle Walt is somewhat the same, come to think of it. Ergh… I hate this bruise on my back though, I probably won’t sleep right tonight.” Fridr’s sigh cut into the conversation, she’d been pouring over her notes and talking to ser Leunet and Jasen. “Take a potion at the wagon, please. I’m thinking it’s better to have as few injuries as possible with that killer still on the loose. By my estimation… might be a contract killer who’d been paid in advance.”

She slung her axe over her shoulder. “I think it’ll be better to evacuate everyone as soon as Floralisae’s well enough to be transported.” They agreed, reaching the wagon swiftly only to be treated to an unexpected sight, it was locked and protective spells tinkled across the door. “Crap!” Maihiera rushed to the door, fumbling the key in her haste until the door was opened from the inside by Damast. “Ah, you’re all here? Inside quickly please, we had an unwanted visitor, but Edelweiss and I managed to drive him off.” He moved to the table where Edelweiss (being somewhat dishevelled) was encouraging Rosey to play with the kittens until Jasen entered. “Oh look Rosey, it’s your poppa. Go give him a hug, I’ll take Brandy and Mindy to the bedroom for now. You should go there too after the hug, okay? I need to have a word with him on some boring stuff.”

Once they were out of the main room, Edelweiss returned, accepting a large glass of lemonade from Damast. Sipping, she let out a sigh and fixed Jasen with a serious look. “I’m glad everyone’s okay. But what just happened has me worried we’re dealing with something worse than a human. I hope I am wrong, but you need to answer questions I’ve formed so we can exclude it with a little lemonade and a lot of luck.” She suppressed a shiver. “After Mai and Fri left uncle Damast and I were just talking about things, while playing with Rosey as well of course. But then the door was kicked open and what appeared to be Brett rushed in. I say appeared, as all three of us saw something slightly different. Uncle Damast kept Rosey safe while I whacked that… being with my hammer.”

She glared at the innocent looking weapon on the kitchen counter. “I can’t use this on people. Rukia made this too powerful. Brett was blasted out of the wagon, we activated the defences and beeped the town guard via the A.R.E.. They couldn’t send someone over though, I’m thinking you know more about that?” A nod in unison preceded Chichi explaining what had happened. “We can rule out Brett, unless his ghost’s been attacking people?” She grimaced as her bruise touched the rim of her chair and gratefully accepted the potion Damast took out. Edelweiss’ tail thumped the floor in agitation. “Damn. Well, Jasen, I need you to be honest with me: is it true that Floralisae was originally engaged to your brother? And was she human before becoming a Wendy?” She tapped her finger onto the table for emphasis. “Answer me, please.”

Jasen looked uncomfortable, then nodded slowly. “Yeah, on both accounts. She used to be called just Lisae, and she was engaged to Brett for some time. I… had a crush on her back then, being a teen. She’d have been a wonderful sister-in-law, but one day just before the wedding some mamonme passed through her bachelorette picnic. Not the nice kind exactly. Lisae was one of the people they kidnapped. Those were… released sometime later, all changed into mamonme, but saved by some random adventurers. Lisae on the other hand was brought back by a different Wendy while still going through the changes.” He grimaced. “Brett tried to get people to help her then, even though… Clemens? That Wendy left, saying she’d be back in a few days, but she never returned.” Edelweiss nodded, encouraging him to continue.

“Eventually Brett snapped. He called Lisae all sorts of horrible names and tossed her out. I… got into a big fight with him and our parents over that. Mamonme now or not, she still was the person he’d sworn to love. She stayed with a friend then, now calling herself Floralisae. I kept visiting her.” He looked contemplative. “Trying to undo the damage, I suppose? But we fell in love and I proposed to her. That being overheard by people is why my parents kicked me out. Bloody lantern lighter wannabe’s.” His hands vibrated the table. “We left, working as we travelled until Floralisae became pregnant. Most of our savings went to renting a small home and the doctor’s fees for the delivery. That’s why I signed up as an adventurer at the guild. Hazardous work for better pay.” Ser Leunet gave a sharp nod, adding: “Fortunately I was able to serve as a mentor and keep him somewhat safe.”

Edelweiss was in full judge mode as she filed this information. “This may be difficult, but did Floralisae tell you how much she learned about being a Wendy? And could that have been a Clematis who brought her back? She mistook me for that in her… delirium when we visited with Rosey.” Jasen hemmed quite a bit before he could give an answer. “She said Clematis, if that’s the right name, would teach her more on returning. But since she never did, Floralisae tried to figure things out for herself… or with the help of the resident mamonme like those Harpies. They taught her to fly, but she’s not good at it. I don’t know what else she’d have learned though.” Edelweiss visibly fought down a panic. “A-and magic? Did she learn how to use her magic?” When Jasen shook his head, saying his wife had never shown much interest in the arcane around him, she leapt from her chair and landed on the table.

“By the distant mountain. She’s a Lost Girl! Curse it all, the situation’s the worst case scenario.” Pacing in a tight circle, Edelweiss bit her tail. “I need to call aunt Alyssum right away.” Chichi stopped her. “Wait, what do you mean by a lost girl? I don’t think I’ve heard that term before. And why auntie Alyssum over aunt Eihy?” Edelweiss was shivering as she responded. “A lost girl is the most dangerous thing for a Wendy to be. Chichi, you have your need to know footcare, right? Mai and Fri have their flight lessons. A Wendy needs to learn how to control her magic… and deal with the longings among other things. If they don’t… Well, this is what can happen: the killer is a Dreamstalker. The unused magic must have combined with her trauma and the longing for what was to create a not quite sentient creature that feeds off of magic and fear.”

She tried to calm down, but shook more as she explained: “Those things can’t be reasoned with. It would be over if she’d died during those first attacks, ironically. But it showing up here and trying to scare me and Rosey shows that its trying to find a new source of sustenance. Aunt Alyssum has dealt with those before, not aunt Eiraiha, nor cousin Rukia. If brute force worked, it’d be easier. But the Dreamstalker is a thing we’re not fully told about. There’s been…” She struggled. “NeverNeverLand was kept out of the war. But some Wendy’s allied with the Demon Lord. They… one at the least… tried to create Dreamstalkers on purpose. One liberated itself from its victim and went on a rampage, changing into something else that took aunt and her squad of Sorceresses to an extreme to defeat. I’d not even know this much if I hadn’t overheard her and aunt Rosebay reminiscing.”

She leapt off the table, turning to go to the A.R.E.. “Uncle Damast, if needed I’ll go to NeverNeverLand to get her, but in that case could you please call aunt Eiraiha when I leave? Everyone else, prepare for combat.” She vaulted towards the device which spun up as she dialled in the node code for Alyssum’s offices in Crystal Plinth. “Office of her ladyship Alyssum, Kiki speaking.” Edelweiss sighed, asking if her aunt was in. “No, she said she’s visiting her grandson in Luminance above. If it’s urgent I can patch you through to the guardpost there?” Edelweiss thanked Kiki, asking her to instead alert the magical squad, disconnected and dialled the node code she still felt… unworthy of having. A genuinely warm and kind voice picked up the call. “Hey Edelweiss~! How nice of you to call. You… feel agitated though?” 

“Hi aunt Eiraiha, I’m sorry to bother you, but is aunt Alyssum still with you? We’ve a situation here on our holiday that requires her expertise.” She felt as Alyssum was pulled into the responding A.R.E.’s field of interaction, catching the mild annoyance as her aunt had been hauled over. “Edelweiss? I hope it’s important, you only seem to call if-” Edelweiss’ eye twitched and she responded sharply: “Shut! Up! Aunt Alyssum, I know you’re having time with your daughter and grandson, do you think so lowly of me that I would disturb you for anything NOT important during that?!” She took a deep breath. “A Dreamstalker is on the loose. One trying to liberate itself from the Lost Girl that spawned it.” From the other end came a definite feeling of dread followed by some very inventive cursing.

“Damn it, I thought we’d caught all of those years ago! Do you know anything more about this Lost Girl? Eihy, can you beep Kiki and tell her to call the squad? And get a babysitter, I’ll need your help.” Edelweiss nodded, though such would only be a mild impression on the other end, much as she felt Eiraiha leave the A.R.E.’s field. “Aunt Alyssum, the lost girl’s Floralisae. She was abducted and turned into a Wendy, possibly by one called Clematis. Who brought her back, but left immediately afterwards. The Dreamstalker tried to latch onto me and Rosey, Floralisae’s daughter, but with uncle Damast’s help we drove it off. Sorry for snapping at you.” She got the impression Alyssum shook her head. “Don’t apologise, you did right by telling me off. I shouldn’t have presumed, but things have been hectic lately. And Begonia’s been bugging me to nag you to visit her again.” They shared a groan. “First this though. Is Rukia… oh wait, she is on Ithus.”

Edelweiss sighed. “Maybe aunt Licci then? Shall I call her?” Alyssum said they’d bring her, giving specific instructions on what to do. “Ask Damast to guard Rosey as a priority. I need you to secure Floralisae before that thing decides to kill her for real. ”In a few minutes Alyssum stepped out of the A.R.E.’s field, looking grim. “Eihy, I’m sure we can handle this, one way or the other… But I need you around to keep people safe. I’ll be ready to go, but I need to ping Rosebay too, I think I recall that name, but she has our records on who was involved and how.” Eiraiha nodded, smiling as she welcomed Dandelion into her house. The Bovitauride was her son’s accidental first priestess and a very capable teacher. Once situated, they made for Licci’s location.

Chapter 7. Guilt and innocence 

“I told her to shut up, you know?” Chichi nodded at the somewhat distracted Edelweiss. She’d said that three times already, not surprising as Alyssum was not someone you told to shut up normally. “Focus! You can be flummoxed later.” Maihiera found Edelweiss’ reaction a little unsettling, if she were honest. “I swear, you both treat this aunt as if she’s some sort of ticking explosive.” Fridr chuckled, putting her hand on her friend’s shoulder. “I’ve heard stories about the lady Alyssum’s displeasure. Even if half of them were not true, an explosive would be an understatement. She’s the mother of Crystal Plinth and it’s terror.” She did not expound upon that, trusting Maihiera to ask later if things worked out. “Edelweiss, you said we should not use magic directly on that thing?”

This caused Edelweiss to shake herself out of the baffled state she’d been in and she nodded. “It is able to leech power from magic directly aimed at it, especially if you’re emotionally upset. Fear too, it’ll try to scare us silly. I really am not fond of how strong this hammer is… but an enchanted weapon should be able to affect the creature enough to knock it around.” Chichi peered at her friends before reaching into her bag of holding and pulling out layered gloves with short metal spikes on the knuckles. Each had a faint glow to them. “Better to have that hammer than not, right? Mai, do you have an enchanted weapon?” The Impundulu grimaced, shaking her head. “Just my luck, I left the spurs at home. Not that them giving a bit of light would help.”

“Okay, but that thing’s immune to regular physical attacks, right?” Chichi’s gaze was thoughtful as she slipped her hand back into the bag. “Think you can use this?” She handed Maihiera what appeared to be a sickle with a fancy dark blue handle. “Yeah, but… what does this do?” Maihiera had grasped it with her taloned foot, moving her leg through passes that no human could mimic. Chichi responded with a shrug. “It stays sharp and you can ask it to saw through tough stuff. Rukia might be able to make something better, but…” She blushed. “I think it’s the best I can manage on enchanting things.” She got a hug in response. “I’ll put it to good use, thank you.” Maihiera took to her wings, keeping pace with the others while keeping her eyes on their surroundings. A loud caw escaped her lips. “Blasted ashes! The clinic’s been hit by something!”

As they neared it, everyone could see that doctor Henneman’s clinic had a gaping rent in its façade, the doctor himself sat down on the steps with his spear broken in his hands. “Oh, it’s you. Well, the short run is: Floralisae was taken from my clinic by force. I couldn’t stop the thing that took her.” He ran a hand down his chest. “It looked vaguely humanoid to me, then turned into a storybook monster and broke my spear.” Chichi was glad they’d convinced Jasen and Leunet to stay with Damast and Rosey, but her training made her check Henneman over. He seemed okay, but his heart rate was much higher than it should have been so she gave him a mild sedative and instructions to rest.

Maihiera was glad that she could carry Chichi during the aerial search they conducted. Unsurprisingly they found their quarry at the mansette’s entry. The Dreamstalker appeared like a bloated greyhaired version of Jasen with a moustache and irregular bumps all over its form. Chichi’s stomach turned as she looked at the thing, it had the same otherworldly quality as the Shoggo colony near to Meliddis: the Shellmounds. Unlike that place and its inhabitants though, this creature was clearly a menace. Floralisae’s body hung from one oversized hand and Chichi prayed silently that they were not too late. “Prioritise saving her and separating her from that thing. I’ll use my strength to wrench its grip, but you need to grab Floralisae. Weissy, Fridr, back me up after!” Maihiera knew what Chichi intended and swooped in at speed, releasing her friend with enough momentum to let her hit the Dreamstalker with her enchanted gloves.

“Ora! Deyyyyaaaa!” Contrary to her estimations, hitting the creature did not feel like trying to hit fog or a regular body. Rather, it felt like a bag of wet cement that tried to flow around her  fists. She therefore didn’t let up and delivered a barrage of fast and heavy punches. A smell of ozone filled the air as Maihiera managed to extract Floralisae, Edelweiss swooping in with her hammer that literally squashed the Dreamstalker  for a moment and Fridr pulling both her and Chichi away. This was just in time as Maihiera cawed and a bolt of lightning surged down to hit the Dreamstalker square on its reforming head. “Gogogogogogogo! To the wagon!” Fridr did not complain, but she did wish at that moment that Chichi could fly by herself. The feeling of her slimy snail’s foot against Fridr’s legs was not pleasant.

“Damn it! She’s getting heavier?!” Maihiera struggled with her burden. “Edelweiss, a hand please!” Edelweiss did as requested, lifting Maihiera by her waist sash. Every stroke of their wings was more strained, which Chichi spotted the cause of. “It’s being dragged along! Fridr, put me down and help them!” On the ground she could only look on in disbelief as the Dreamstalker’s form dug its heels into the ground and somehow pulled back against the three flyers. “It feeds on magic… maybe that’s why it’s got a hold on Floralisae still?” She reached into her bag of holding and pulled out a small grey orb with a pink plaster on it. “No idea if this’ll work, but…” She removed the plaster and licked the red dot beneath before tossing it to the Dreamstalker.

Chichi didn’t know what to expect, but the orb exploded into a cloud of tinkling dust that elicited a cry from the Dreamstalker and a surprised bleat from all of her friends as they shot forward suddenly. “Golly. Rukia, you’re a genius. Now then…” Chichi didn’t dawdle, but was grateful when Fridr returned and lifted her up again. Strong or not, Ureonggaksi were not speedy over long distances. “I hope we can hold it off until backup arrives! It’s already chasing us again! By the lore, what did you use to loosen its hold on us?” Chichi sighed. “Magic chaff orb. Rukia came up with it but I don’t know if she made more after I confiscated this one. It seemed a little dangerous to let her try it on her own magic.” Fridr nodded, wings pumping the air to increase their speed. When they made it to the meadow where their wagon stood, they found the meadow lit up spectacularly.

“HERE!” A familiar stretchy arm plucked Fridr and Chichi from their flight. “Well done you two, now just hang back behind me.” Eiraiha raised her shield and it emitted a wall of force that was transparent enough that Chichi could see clearly what happened on the other side. Auntie Alyssum might be small of stature, but there was no mistaking her capabilities as she saw to it that the Dreamstalker was intercepted. Dark smoke emitted by a Sorceress began to encapsulate the creature, which tried to slip out between layers of the vapour only to be wacked back in by hammer wielding dolls. It seemed to be safely wrapped up, but the Sorceress emitting the smoke agitatedly waved to Alyssum who had drawn energy between her hands. Chichi understood that it was not exactly normal magical energy, but it was still a force to be reckoned with.

Alyssum flew closer to the agitated ball of smoke and unleashed the gathered energy as a beam of light that lanced through the Dreamstalker, which literally popped like a soap bubble. “Wheeeee~! That went well, girls~!” She gracefully landed and hugged the Sorceresses and Magical Girls with gusto. “Now, please keep alert a little longer, just in case. I’ll see to things and then we’ll have a meal.” She walked over to Eiraiha, hugged her and then spoke to Chichi and Fridr. “Girls, you did really well. But we’re not out of the woods yet. Mind tagging along? Floralisae needs an intervention and you four have done a lot for her and her family… Afterwards, mrs. Leafbee will bring the meal, to her we just happen to be ’a taskforce’ here to deal with a magical issue.” Eiraiha nodded to that. “She sees me as a Sorceress too, most likely. Licci has some… interesting ideas sometimes, she told Leafbee and other locals that we’re under a charm that shows them an illusion to protect our real identities.” She grimaced a little at the deception though.

“That’s really clever aunt Eihy. But uhmmm… Auntie Alyssum? What was that light you used? Weissy mentioned those Dreamstalker things eat magic, right?” Chichi’s eyestalks were freewheeling as she tried to let go of the adrenaline rush. Alyssum giggled in response. “Yes and no. Basically, that was a highly concentrated and layered beam of different magical energies. A Dreamstalker can grow infinitely with enough food over a period of time… but what I fed it was the equivalent of the Saerti clan’s annual meeting food supply… It couldn’t handle it and burst. It’s why we needed my squad of magic experts… we’ve done this before you know.” Her smile faltered. “Just hope it’s the last time, and that we can actually save Floralisae.” Her heart-tipped tail dipped low. “Lost Girls… unfortunately tends to be an accurate appellation.”

As they entered the wagon, its normal dimensions were magnified to accommodate the folks currently within. “Ah, there you are. Everything went well?” Liccitia waved her hand and they found themselves deposited into waiting chairs. “As well as it could go. How are things here? No injuries to treat?” Alyssum privately held her heart, sighing as Licci smiled in response. “Nothing a good night’s rest won’t cure. But Floralisae’s magical energy is currently under a small seal of mine.” She turned to the side where Rosey’s mother sat, looking fearful and dejected, clinging to her husband. “Now don’t worry, you’re safe here.”

Floralisae blinked, tilting her head to the side. “Am I? Are we? I’m not sure if I’m dreaming, in a nightmare, or in some weird alternate reality. I’m pretty sure Jasen’s real… but Goddesses? How in blue blazes did things end up here? I just… Can’t wrap my head around it.” She sighed, resting her brow on Jasen’s collarbone. “Honey, I know it’s a lot to take in. But this is real, even if we both need a runup to comprehend it.” Jasen kissed her on her horns, eliciting a soft purr. “If it helps? Just think of it as having wandered into a family gathering. I’m just a little Ureonggaksi, but you could see everyone as just people, okay?” Chichi gave a gentle smile that Maihiera tried to echo. “Yeah. Just people, see? Don’t think too much about it. I know how you feel though.” The Impundulu tried not to stare at Eiraiha too much, who merely smiled back encouragingly.

“Well then…” Alyssum left her chair to sit on the table in front of Floralisae. “We need to have a talk. Your daughter’s currently safe and having a tea party in a nearby perception bauble, so you can speak freely. We think we know a few things about your story, but we do need to tackle a lot of ground, my girl.” She gently but firmly put a hand on Floralisae’s shoulder. “Be proud that you’ve survived being a Lost Girl. With a little help, you’ll have a long, happy life ahead. Trust me on this.” She rested her tail in her free hand. “First things first: the thing that attacked you was not your brother in law. It was a Dreamstalker that fed off of your magic and emotions. Brett has been dead for a long time now. He cannot hurt you, and hasn’t been able to for a fair while. But the fact that your Dreamstalker took his form…” She pointed the tip of her tail at Floralisae. “We’ll need to get to the bottom of things to keep it from trying anew.”

She stood up on the table and pulled Floralisae up as well. “I… I don’t really understand. Isn’t it dead now?” Edelweiss skipped into the room and joined them on the table with a reply: “It’s complicated, but Dreamstalkers aren’t really alive. Aunt Alyssum Is the best person on Praxis to help you be rid of it for good though.” Edelweiss turned to her aunt, Floralisae thought she saw a certain resemblance and nodded. “Aunt Rosebay was able to find her in the records. Your hunch was right.” Alyssum nodded, grimacing deeply. “Great. Well, ki-… Edelweiss, I think it’s best if you stay on the table too. Floralisae, if you want we can make this a private talk with just us three, my daughter knows a trick or two to ensure that.” Floralisae shook her head. “What’s the use?” A soft hand touched her calf.

“Your consent matters. Don’t feel pressured one way or the other.” Eiraiha gave an encouraging wink. Floralisae sighed. “I… appreciate that. But unless it involves me having to go bare naked, I don’t think it matters. Having Jasen with me will probably help. What do you mean by calling me a Lost Girl though? I don’t remember being lost in the woods recently or anything like that.” They explained this to her and asked her to tell them the story of how she became a Wendy in full. Flipping her rusty red locks over her horns, Floralisae shrugged and began her tale. Hesitantly at first, but gaining momentum. “I… was born Lisae Freia Dilsward. My parents were just impoverished people who set a lot of store by the family tree… more a distanced little branch of some minor nobility.”

“They did love me, I think. But poverty and their failures to rise from it made them eager to have me marry off to someone wealthy. Brett turned out to be alright compared to some horror stories I had heard before from slightly older girls.” She sighed. “Fallytun was not a nice place back then. I actually was feeling hopeful through the engagement-” She listed her optimism. “Thought Brett would be a good husband, Jasen a loveable brother in law, my parents happy with the money, their parents happy with their oldest married. And that between us we’d have a happy life ahead.” Her eyes were misty with memory. “I miss my old hair colour most, you know? Used to be corn blonde with a few tawny brown streaks instead of this rusty red. Odd that I don’t mind not being able to reach the high shelves as much.” She laughed, shaking her head.

“Weddings like ours took some preparation. Bunting, big wheels of cheese, my dad using his frayed connections to get a bottle of uncommon wine from the Alvan settlement. The dress was the old, old, old one… but repaired and refitted to accommodate my proportions.” Her eyes dimmed and sadness crept into her voice. “But things went wrong. The bridesmaids had the idea of a picnic and invited a lot of others along for a bachelorette party. Marjorie had just eaten some spicy spread on toast and was coughing for water when she was tackled to the ground with a forced feeding of milk. I’d never seen a crazed Bovitauride before, and definitely not any other hostile mamonme either.” She picked at the sleeves of her dress.

“Had I not fallen on my back then, I’d probably have been nabbed by the Harpy swooping down from behind me.” Maihiera tsk’d in the background, shaking her head in disgust. “We were taken to their camp and…” She frowned. “Let’s say that they weren’t gentle with us. In time, some of my friends disappeared, I thought they’d been killed… Possibly eaten. But it turns out that they’d been shot full of DE and turned into mamonme themselves. Some wandered back to Fallytun, but others I’ve never seen again since.” She shook her head. “Clematis came into the camp not long after Marjorie, now Marjoram, had become a Bovitauride. She owns an icecream and pastry business in town these days.” Edelweiss nodded, explaining they’d met her. “Honestly, she deserves the success she got. I would not have survived my return without her help.”

Floralisae swung her tail around until its tip rested in her hands. “I thought Clematis a child at first, but she turned out to be a fair bit older than I. Kind, happy and compassionate, but definitely a Demon Lord supporter too. She stopped fights, helped the injured and brought a bit of order to that camp. She even convinced them to let me go.” Her hands clenched at her dress. “On the way back though… bandits attacked us. I got shot with an arrow to the back and nearly died then. I have a scar near my right wing from that.” Licci nodded, she’d seen the scar during the examination. She and Eiraiha shared a look, Alyssum’s tail was twitching at the base. Floralisae continued. “It must have been a few days, but the wound was not looking good. It hurt, a lot. But Clematis offered a solution: To boost my healing through changing me. It would clean out the wound and let me recover… but I’d turn into a Wendy soon after.”

“She used her DE to wash out the wound, even gave me some weird salts to slow the changes. When we got back, I’d already shrunk a bit, Brett was supportive and even got all sorts of doctors to look at me. Didn’t help anything though… Clematis said she needed to check on a friend of hers, but would be back to help me learn things about being a Wendy in a few days… Just after that Brett snapped. Called me all sorts of awful things and ran me out of the house with barely the clothes on my back. My own parents wouldn’t help me and… well, I had the luck that Marjoram took me in.” Her wings folded over her shoulders in remembered pain. “I never knew how much it could hurt to lose practically everyone I ever knew. I was still myself, just… smaller and with some new body bits.”

“Some time later, Jasen found me. Kept pestering me, really.” She smiled coyly at him. “Then we had to take him in too, after his parents threw him out for associating with a monster. Honestly, I hadn’t pegged them as such Luminaire fanatics… But we decided to leave Fallytun. I… made a mistake then. My gift to Brett for the wedding had been a… very, very dear heirloom that my grandmother had given to me. I did not want to leave it in his hands, so I straight up asked him to return it… That was when he first attacked me.” She sighed. “Probably destroyed my music box… But Jasen and I left town, working hand to mouth just to stay above water… saved up a bit, but erhhhhmmmm… Rosey happened. I love my little girl to bits, but the pregnancy was stressful with more attacks incoming. We got the summons a little while ago to clear out the old house. Found out that way that both our parents had passed away in the meanwhile.”

“Marjoram and I had kept in touch, but she’d been kind of busy with her store and hadn’t heard anything… My parents had lost their money again… so nada on that front to help us.” She bitterly stared at the tabletop. “I blame myself… but them as well… for not teaching me some more useful skills. Can’t even work for that snailstop company since I fly like a brick with tied up wings. And my wonderful Jasen has had to do increasingly dangerous work to keep food on the table.” She began to sob. “I’d barely gotten Rosey a new dress when that creep set mozur on us. I hate mozur! I’ve been scared of those things forever.” Edelweiss and Alyssum gently wrapped her in a hug that Jasen joined in on. Chichi meanwhile had started digging in her bag of holding. “Found it~!”

Lifting herself onto the table with some effort, she pulled something out of the bag and presented it to Floralisae. “We were clearing the house, I came across this and like the other fragile things put it in my bag for safekeeping.” Floralisae blinked in disbelief, taking the ornate music box from Chichi’s hands. “T-t-t-this… it is my music box. Jasen, look! It wasn’t destroyed.” Her husband nodded, smiling at the joy in her voice. “Thank you so much miss. I…” She wept. Chichi simply smiled, glad to have given her some comfort. “Don’t mention it. We’ll look through the other stuff later, see if more of your belongings are in there.” With a complicated backflip, she left the table for her chair.

“Later is better. Now, Lisae, please give that box to Jasen.” Alyssum smiled encouragingly. “You’ve been through a lot… more than you realise. But to get the full picture… Tell me of Clematis. What colour were her wings and tail?” Floralisae honked into a handkerchief before responding. “They were a pretty shade of purple with green membranes.” Alyssum nodded. “And those ‘salts’ she gave you? Sort of blue?” A hesitant nod followed. “Well, that confirms it. Edelweiss is a bit too young to have seen it firsthand… but the one you knew as Clematis was more properly known by her rather nasty title as the Nightdrinker. We never learned her birth name, or whom her parents were.” Alyssum’s tail twitched noticeably as she continued.

“She led a faction of mamonme known as The Roughhousers. Whose stated goals involved forcibly converting all human women.” Floralisae looked stunned. “There were a few factions like that under the prior Demon Lord Seretique vi Alloriel, but The Roughhousers took it several factors beyond what she would have found… acceptable. Blinkered idiot didn’t have full control of her people even back then.” Alyssum calmed somewhat when Eiraiha touched her shoulder. “Thank you Eihy. Now… the thing they pulled here was one of their favourite tactics: entice many of a town’s women to go on a picnic adventure by mesmerising one or two they could catch off guard. Those victims would then advocate for it, a grand adventure or something like that… And they’d go ham on inviting people left and right. Men too sometimes, depending on their ordered goals.”

Alyssum’s horns  began sparking with dark energy arcs as she continued. “Fish in a barrel. That’s how they caught you. But they’d spent the time you were having a good time sizing up the group and deciding who’d be used how. Note that I say used.” Edelweiss nodded, adding in: “Aunt Rosebay was very… colourful when we spoke on the A.R.E.. It takes a lot to get her that angry.” Alyssum sighed with a nod. “Those that were turned immediately, well… conscripted most likely. The rest? Just fodder for the plans they had for this town. You see, they would have known you to be engaged, preparing to marry.” The arcs around her horns intensified. “Your use to them would have been unleashing that Dreamstalker on Fallytun and dying in the process.” Floralisae’s jaw dropped.

“T-that can not be true! She saved my life!” Alyssum shook her head resolutely. “No. You are not the only one she did this to. Once she’d gained your trust, she arranged your release. Along with her Hussenkiar lieutenant trailing you and shooting the arrow. Then, once you were dosed with DE… and drugs that would further destabilise you emotionally, she brought you home for the finishing touches.” Arcing black energy tried to ground itself on the ceiling. “Brett didn’t snap. Both your parents likely didn’t want to do what they did. Her skipping town on you was done when she judged you primed to explode with just the right nudge. That excremental spume of creation had given you a bit of hope… likely hit Brett and them with a mind-affecting magic to act like that.” Alyssum’s tail struck the table hard enough to chip it.

“I can’t confirm it 100% with him and your parents dead… but that’s what she did in at least five other places as far as we pieced together.” Sighing in her armoured dress, Alyssum put both hands on Floralisae’s shoulders. “She left you without teaching you anything about Wendy’s. Our species, mamonme of celestial descent, has a lot of… call them quirks. Wendy, first of our kind, was originally an Amoris. But she was hit by DE from the first Demon Lord, Bal Herahgnal when she and Io tried to escape… then sealed for ages in a preservative crystal.” A rueful chuckle escaped her lips. “Our species emerged only shortly before the Grand Changing, but even then we were old… Young and old, at the same time. Mothers from birth, in tune with our inner child.”

“Which means we do need to be careful. Our emotions can be… very powerful. Add in our connection to magic and you might understand why Wendy’s in general make extra efforts to find and help Lost Girls to learn how to be Wendy’s. The Nightdrinker spat on that. You were lucky to have Jasen and Marjoram… having your own Lost Boy is a good way to stabilise your emotions… But your own inner resilience needn’t be discounted either.” Floralisae shook under her hands. “Why www-w-w-would s-s-sshe do that?” Tears flowing freely, she shook her head in denial. “How could someone fake being that kind? Or do such terrible things to anyone?!” She calmed down when Licci used a blessing of calmness on her. “Unfortunately kiddo… Not everyone is nice. Or as they appear. I… I should beep Korae on this, she was basically the most organised of Seretique’s inner circle… And she did keep tabs on a lot of those factions.”

Alyssum nodded. “Later, Liccitia. Now Lisae… I know it’s hard to believe. But I swear upon my daughter and grandson that I am telling you the truth.” Her hand strayed to her ribs. “I’m guessing she did not stay around as she normally did, because her troops needed her. Thing is, we’d been dealing with the results of their nastiness. Too late to save most victims, given that we didn’t have a network of stable portals or direct ways of keeping tabs on all parts of the world.” She doubted she could ever forget them, if she were honest. “It took months to pinpoint their movements. We had a lucky break in finding Terrianne among those intended to be sold off to the Nephirum.” She sighed. “Fallen celestials living in bleak depravity, in case you hadn’t heard of them. She had seen some of the logistical planning and overheard some of their intentions for Ballyridge, a town across the border from here.”

“We lost some good people then. Got a scar on my ribs too, but we ended that threat, once and for all.” Floralisae gasped. “You mean?” Alyssum nodded. “They left us no other choice. Even tried to bring the Nightdrinker to some sense… but she revelled in her misdeeds. I hate killing… but I’ve no regrets about emerging as the survivor of that one on one fight.” Eiraiha frowned, a small cloud forming over her head. “You gave me a terrible fright, you mean, mom. I’m sure I’ve never been as close to being a Wendy as when I scolded you for being that reckless.” She sighed, waving away the cloud. “Not having as much power then as I do now… I still examined the Nightdrinker’s body. She was… pretty old and weirdly different from what a Wendy is normally. We couldn’t entirely figure out why… but my educated guess is that she was changed in some way by the Nephirum. They’re known for experimenting on those below them.”

“How can they do that?! Why isn’t anyone stopping them?!” Floralisae only knew a few tales of the Nephyrum, intended to scare children. “I wish I had a nicer answer… but they have been a festering problem for Principal Gods for ages. They dwell in Limbo, a dangerous plane. And while I could charge in swinging my sword…” Eiraiha shook her head. “They’ve had ample time to prepare traps and their escapes. We’re fortunate that the Prime God liberated the victims somehow when they returned. The Nephyrum’s access to Praxis is more limited now, we found most of the points where they can still enter our world. Those are guarded.” Surprisingly, Maihiera spoke up then: “Mother mentioned that those that do make it into Praxis again and don’t merit killing on the spot are not happy about the state of their home… or their former ruler.”

This was affirmed by both Goddesses before Alyssum steered the conversation back to topic. “You survived. But nobody around you knew enough to bring your situation to our attention. It was a tremendous good fortune that the girls got involved with you. A few more days and that thing would have been free to rampage all over Fallytun. I popped it, but it will try to reform and come back. To truly be rid of it, you’ll need to learn how to control your magic. And how to deny it access to that magic. You’ll also need to learn a lot of intricacies… Once we’ve had dinner, I’ll take you and your family to our homeland for a while. It’s different from Fallytun and most of Praxis for that matter, but you’ll heal there.” She turned to Edelweiss. “Edelweiss, can I ask you to come along? I’ll return you here afterwards, but opening a portal is easier if we do so together. Plus, you haven’t been there in a while, so a short recharge should do you some good too.”

“I’ll even spot you a banana dakry, okay? You’ve earned it, as an adult Wendy.” Outside, dusk was falling and a delicious meal was served. Damast returned with Rosey from the Sorceress’ perception bauble where they had seen a puppet show. Before the magical squad left though, Damast pulled Eiraiha aside for a moment. “Eihy, I do not want to impose, but could I trouble you to create a suit for me? I’ll need to talk to the town council tomorrow, but I left my formal wear at home.” He scratched his head, averting his gaze as if ashamed. ”I just didn’t expect such a thing and going home through gating just for that would be wasteful.” She giggled, a small rainbow forming over her forehead. “That’s not a problem Damast, but if you really want to be prepared for anything, you should use Rukia’s bag of holding. She spent so much time on it, you know?”

Damast sighed into a nod. “I’m just not comfortable with how spacious the inside is. I had a few nightmares of putting the girls and Aered in and then having everyone get enraged while I pull out Leviathans, Murrough and other larger mamonme instead.” Eiraiha laughed, sharing she’d had the same fear, but talking with Rukia had helped allay them. Once everyone else had left, Damast tagged along with the girls to mrs. Leafbee and thanked her for dinner. Edelweiss would return the following morning, with some good news.

Chapter 8. Proceedings and losses

“It was delicious. I don’t like alcohol much, but even aunt Eihy will drink a dakry, I’ll wager.” Edelweiss smiled. “It doesn’t really travel well though, or I’d have brought you some too.” Instead she handed them a few smaller souvenirs, small ships made from coconut shells. “Mom was surprised when she saw me and floored when aunt Alyssum said I’d done damn well. We had a good time catching up and she may just come visit the school in a few months, a vacation for her and dad. But Jasen, Floralisae and Rosey are lodging with her  now. The kittens as well.” Her tail swishing lazily, she grinned. “Honestly, it helps that they are all eager to learn, even if Jasen is spooked easily by wallaby’s and bower birds. I even got to hug aunt Alyssum’s wallaby friend Zara, a cutie who loves fruit and cookies.” 

With a small flourish she showed a plush wallaby doll. “They sell these toy versions at the zoo, I’d have gotten you one too if I’d had time to visit there myself. Maybe a tasmanian devil one or a croc plushie if you prefer.” With some effort she tucked the doll in the seat next to her. “I will need to budget to get more plushies for the school though. Did you know they’re made with fur and scales shed by the animals there?” She laughed. “But that’s a good way to keep everyone there fed.” Damast nodded, leaning over to Chichi: “Remember our visit? It’s a little warm for my liking, but the local fish was really good.” She nodded in reply. “I want to go there again, uncle. But I don’t think we can do another family gathering there at the rate our clan’s growing. Anyhoo… Edelweiss, I’m glad things went so well with your mom. We should consider our next move though, much as I like Fallytun I do want to travel a bit more before we go back home.”

Maihiera sipped from a mug of affeïne, having slept in for once. “Agreed. Maybe we should ask around town now that we’re not scrambling to save people. How does that sound to you, Fri?” Fridr shrugged. “That would be alright with me. But we should enjoy the town before leaving. As is, I don’t want my memories coloured by all that just happened. And ser Damast’s appointment with the town council is something I do want to look at.” She frowned at her slightly tatty outfit. “And I will go to yon tailor today. Sentimental value or not, this dress is about ready to serve as rags.” They shared a laugh at that. Edelweiss clapped her hands. “We should all go there. And to check in with Cuda. Uncle, you really should have a look at her work.” Damast tilted his head slightly. “Someone with skills that can blossom a bit with our help?”

Four nods followed in unison. “There’s good folks in town, uncle. We did invest a little of the money aunt Licci left with us, but you’re a better judge at how much backing would really help people here.” Damast nodded, finished his breakfast and stood up. “I can’t make definite promises without meeting them, but we’ll make merchants of you yet. Now, please go make ready. I’m going to put on my suit. Go to the town hall, but stay at the public seating, okay? I’ll return home at the end of the day, but I’m glad we got to spend this time together. And ehh… Chichi, Edelweiss? Visit Mistburg again, soon if possible. Everyone misses you and getting there is no issue. Rukia might not have exaggerated when she mentioned having a stable portal in Meliddis.” He looked slightly worried before laughing that concern away. “Maihiera and Fridr are also welcome at our hometown on Praxis.”

Thirty minutes later they were weaving through the market, Damast scribbling away in a notebook, seemingly oblivious to the world around him. “He’s doing it again Chi’ch. Didn’t even look, but slipped between those Minotauride haulers. And sidestepped that turning Unicorn.” Maihiera was perched on Chichi’s shoulders as she did not feel like being trampled in the early morning bustle. “I’m glad it’s not just me he does it to. But it’s still spooky, eh?” Chichi nodded. “You’ll get used to it Mai. Weissy, Fri, are you two holding up okay? I can carry you both as well if needed.” Edelweiss chuckled, sitting on Fridr’s shoulders. “Fri was kind enough to give me a safe seat, Chichi. I’m not too heavy?” Fridr replied cheerily: “Light enough, aside from your tail anchor. But Chichi, I do wonder what it’d take for someone to actually catch your uncle. Look at that, he jumped through a gap in a moving cart!”

On the other side, Damast had already landed gracefully, but waited for them to catch up. “Well… The way he told it, he caught aunt Kaori… But I’m kind of wondering if y’know? My aunts you just met could catch him.” Damast chuckled, having caught her words. “Well, I’d rather not put that to the test if I’m honest, your aunt Kaori would not like that idea one bit. But I’ve practised martial arts for a long time too. Just a different one where evasion is the primary focus.” Presently he lightly stepped aside even as a large hand tried to clamp onto his shoulder. “Missed, drat. You’re definitely not boasting, fella.” Cuda grinned at the group. “Hey you lot, out with the whole bunch today? Mind introducing me to your blonde friend and… your uncle? Did I hear it right?” She offered Damast a hand.

“Uhm, sorry for the grab, but I couldn’t resist trying. Anyhoo, my name’s Cuda and I run a pair of stalls here with my hubby.” After the introductions and a promise for Damast to visit for business talks later, she kind of averted her eye and put a question forth that had been weighing on her mind apparently. “Did you see any of what went down yesterday? Not gonna presume things, but you did say you were staying at the campsite meadow, right?” Chichi sighed before responding. “We saw the Magical Girls and Sorceresses take down a nasty thing, but it’s kinda hush hush if you know what I mean.” Fridr looked uncomfortable, but chimed in: “I prefer foes that I can hit with my axe. But it was something to behold alright, just not something you want to be too close to.”

Edelweiss and Maihiera nodded. “I just hope we don’t see that kind of excitement again while we’re here,  Cuda. But don’t avert your gaze. If you’re shy, just look at our foreheads. I’ve a few shy pupils in my class and that really helps them.” Edelweiss smiled encouragingly as Cuda raised her eyebrow. “Ehhh… I guess that’d work? I’m just a bit nervous to tax your good will and that makes me shy-ish. Thanks for the tip.” They left and made their way through the rest of the town to the town hall. “Looks like the reports were right, this one’s mostly function over decoration. Still, I like the arches with the drinking fountains.” Damast grinned, wishing he had the time to marvel at these convenient additions to a public building. Edelweiss and Maihiera had taken to their own feet again and moved to the entrance.

Once Chichi had cleared the ramp for Ureonggaksi (and other non-bipedal mamonme), she joined the others as they moved to the public benches. Damast moved to the council table, a blunt wedge of wood on sturdy legs that was barely decorated with a single embroidered table runner from its farthest end. Handing a small set of papers and a business card to the attendant clerk, he took a seat on the waiting bench next to a rather agitated highwayman in chains. Despite what others might think, Chichi was relieved by his silly insistence on patiently waiting in line. Edelweiss had adopted her judicial pose and was observing with interest, leaving Fridr and Maihiera to converse softly until the council called the next people in line forward.

Most were simply delivering reports on the town’s growth, troubles along the way and requesting extra resources where needed. Orderly, neat and calmly handled until one messenger reported that a brand new waterwheel had escaped the builders when they’d been hoisting it into place, smashing through the mill downstream. As both were apparently crucial for the area’s development, the councillors became quite agitated. “Oh my gosh.” Chichi had grown up mostly in the area around Mistburg, so she knew the value of a working water wheel and windmill. “How! How could that have happened!?!” To her surprise everyone looked at her when she’d shouted. “Erhhhh… sorry. I just can’t imagine that happening on its own.” She slowly turned red as she spoke, her eyestalks shrinking into her hair.

“Wel miss, I were getting to that. We were hoisting the wheel when it just slipped out, kinda saw something between the spokes, but couldn’t get a better look.” She shrugged tiredly. “It just kept going after smashing the mill too. Replacing them is gonna be costly.” Chichi nodded glumly. The councillors dismissed the builder and moved onto the highwayman, who took the hint and pleaded guilty to attempted robbery rather than make a fuss. “Is that all the business on the agenda?” The speaker was a middle-aged Nandi, her wide frame, bearlike attributes and prominent sack set besides her chair being unmistakable for the species. “If so, I’ll go and see if I can’t get a word in with the supply company. With a little luck, they’ll extend credit for the needed repair supplies.” The attendant tapped her on her shoulder, shaking his head and urgently whispering in her ears, which twitched.

“What do you mean, the company owner’s been waiting in line!?” She rubbed her face with one paw and a heartfelt groan as the attendant pointed out Damast calmly reading some papers. “Wünderbär. Well, sir Wayfarer… I thank you for your patience and apologise for the wait. We’ve had a lot of trouble to deal with, but what brings you here today?” Damast took the seat offered at the table, setting down the papers and clearing his throat before responding: “Well, counsellors… I am sorry to hear of such a tragedy. But I should clarify that I’m merely the co-founder of Trading Tales, not a sole owner of the company. I’m correct in assuming you’re lady Bäerniss?” He got a polite nod in response. “Counsellors, I came here today to get an explanation for a situation in Fallytun that has become cause for concern with the company. Until that is resolved, one way or the other, I cannot approve any aid to the town.”

Standing up, he handed Bäerniss the papers. “I was also asked to give you this report on the intervention at the camping meadow yesterday, which ties into the situation.” He was not threatening in the least, but the entire council looked pale as he described what Chichi, Maihiera, Fridr and Edelweiss had relayed as well as what he’d learned himself. The danger in which the town had been was not downplayed, an elder counsellor growing quite agitated at the seal of office of one of the Principal Goddess’ high priestesses on the report. “Lady Alyssum is thankfully quite capable at handling the aftermath so that mrs. Floralisae will have a life now. But what alarmed not just me was the fact that the town council had intended to seize mr. Jasen’s family home, which even in disrepair would be worth more than the amount of taxes apparently owed. I would have you explain that.” Damast sat down, his hands calmly clasped on the table.

“As you may know, Trading Tales cannot condone seizing of property like this. It sets a bad precedent and would make investments in Fallytun pointless as one among you could then seize what we’ve built for personal gain too.” His grey eyes set resolutely upon each counsellor. “What do you say about this?” To the mild shock of those at the table, one of them smacked the surface. “What do I say?! That you’re misrepresenting things! Just back taxes? Try also the loans extended to Brett, the interest on both and reimbursement for the delays our town suffered because the blasted fool didn’t return the money he said he needed to cure his fiancé!” The man who had spoken took some effort to calm down. “If I and others hadn’t lent that money, we could have had the new school done. And contracted that architect for canals. Instead, he buggered off and children are having to sit in a draughty shell!”

Lady Bäerniss gave him a look, but nodded in partial agreement.”Sir Meron, the school shell is not draughty. But it lacks proper windows and needs a lot of upkeep.” She coughed pointedly. “The loans are technically not part of the town’s direct business, but that money having gone missing has closed opportunities.” Damast seemed to digest this, before countering: ”But there was no mention made of any loans when you summoned Jasen and his family back. In fact-” He pulled a slightly used letter from his bag of holding. “Explicitly, this letter only mentions back taxation. Cushioned in legalese thick enough to float a horseshoe.” He sighed. “Not a good look, as the company values honesty and transparency. This is nearly the exact opposite.” Sir Meron took the letter, then the envelope and thoroughly searched both.

“It’s missing pages. And this is not the original envelope. My legal expert wrote it, but the handwriting on the new envelope is different.” He grunted, handing both back. “Attendant, send for Molly, will you? Have her bring the copy we kept and the accompanying files.” Turning back to Damast, he continued: “Can’t do much about the legalese, Molly’s insistent on using it in order to stop people from trying to wriggle out from their legal obligations.” One of the other counsellors sought to fill the wait by asking Damast to clarify some details of what had happened. Before long though a short if striking woman walked up to the table, bearing a large box with a ledger on top. Her burgundy coloured outfit contrasted sharply with the soft gray colour of her hair, fur and tail. “Pardon.”

She set down the box and rounded on sir Meron to smack him across the head. “You irresponsible snobbelnokker! Do you know how long I spent compiling that comprehensive letter and addenda?! Next time, make sure it’s shipped in a secure package!” The Grey Wolf turned to Damast. “My apologies for having to watch that, but Meron’s habit of saving pittances in ways that can cost us gold need to be corrected.” She glared at the rest of the council. “The rest of you can sit in on the lesson.” Damast wanted the meeting to stay on point though. “That may be better left for a later time, miss Molly. Or is it mrs.? I’m hopeful that you can shed light on the matter at hand first.” They went over all the documentation she’d brought, including the copy of the letter sent to Jasen.

Less than an hour later, Chichi, Edelweiss, Fridr and Maihiera were among the few still in attendance as Damast and Molly had gone through everything. Three piles of documents remained and the largest one was the dismissed pile, evidently. Brett’s misbehaviours due to the Nightdrinker’s mind-affecting magics had netted some genuine fines and a fair few ones that turned out to be false claims of damages. Ancient debts of distant relatives to Brett and Jasen’s family line were also promptly dismissed. The two remaining piles were genuine, but Damast separated them into pressing and less pressing ones. “There we are. I’m glad that we were able to sort this out. Once I’ve had a chance to talk with Jasen and Floralisae about them, it’ll just be a matter of payment.” He patted the dismissal pile. “I trust I’ve been clear on why these are not applicable? Some among you have closer ties to the old bills debtors, right?”

The council nodded, gloomily looking at the pile as if it were money on fire that they couldn’t save. “No need for such gloom everyone. With this matter settled and no major issues uncovered, we can move on. I’ll have to introduce you to one of the best architects I know. And as it happens, I can get him here by say tomorrow or the day after. Getting a water wheel to replace the one lost may take a little longer…” He scribbled speedily on a fresh notepad as he added things, then copied what he’d written and signed both. “Here you go, please do keep it safe. As stated, Trading Tales will continue to invest in Fallytun, extending near zero interest loans, providing services and expertise. All for three relatively small considerations.” Lady Bäerniss read through the list, looking like she’d seen a light at the end of the tunnel.

“I see no problems with those conditions. But… a regional headquarters? Adopting the council of nations’ tenets for fair treatment and trade? And adding White Witches to Molly’s tax office? Why the latter, if I may ask?” Damast pointed out that some of the issues had come from Molly getting overworked due to a lack of staff. “One Grey Wolf is enough for even a large village, but a growing town with a financial history could do with specialists in dealing with numbers. I’m not bad at them, nor is ms. Molly, but the first White Witch we hired was able to spot the root cause of a small monthly loss instantly.” In short order, the meeting concluded and runners were sent out to relay what had taken place and what would need to happen. Damast sighed as the group finally made it outside again. “That’s done at least. Now comes the hard part, convincing your aunt Kaori that this needs priority.”

Edelweiss nodded, then gave a little shrug of her wings. “She’ll understand I’m sure.” Chichi nodded, adding: “If not, we’ll take a leaf out of Rukia’s book and apply the cure for grumpiness.” They shared a grin as she pulled a folded nappy out of her bag. Damast chuckled, knowing it wouldn’t be needed. Kaori and he shared a deep bond of trust. “Still, uncle… I’m a little surprised at how many of those debts and things you got tossed out. Especially with the entire council looking at that pile like you just took a grain silo’s worth of food away.” Chichi shook her head as Maihiera snorted. “Talk about it being worth the wait just to see that look on them, mr. Wayfarer.” They got another chuckle in reply. “Well, it’s something I only heard of before… but for some people an outstanding debt is like a bit of hope. Even if realistically, that money’s gone.” He sighed.

“It’s why we’re cautious when dealing with Nerana. Our local trade partner at the Faultless Vault tends to go overboard with collecting outstanding debts. While his goal of bringing peace to that world is laudable, I’m not okay with his habit of putting people in debt so they owe him a favour. Even if ultimately he’s beneficial to them, that goes against how our company conducts business. I’d rather lose a little money helping people than to put a proverbial ball and chain on their lives.” Fridr sighed. “Honestly, I did consider that offer made in the flyers from Nerana at one point before going to Meliddis. But then I read the fine print. That man wants to own the universe… possibly all dimensions and things too.”

Damast nodded, adding a caveat: “Former man. The Covetous Demon Lord might be the most humane, but he was changed into something no longer quite human. He had an Arch Demon, a being more powerful than the Gods we know combined, pull Licci to that world just to start a trade route. Rukia and Eihy still vouch for him, but it’s a chore and a half making sure his merchants and tourists don’t acquire land deeds or other assets that would let him stake a claim on Praxis. Or Ithus for that matter. Thankfully he’s content for now to make a game of it rather than put in a serious effort.” He shook his head. “If he did, we would have to surrender. No doubt he’s mapped most stable portals in Rianobed on Logendra already so it would be like trying to plug holes in our defences when he can just angle in from different worlds.”

“Eghhhh… Enough doom and gloom. I’ll treat you girls to lunch, but then I’ll have to leave for home.” Lunch was a quiet affair, except when Rukia, Emmy and Metala gated in and took Damast home.

Chapter 9. The breeze lifts up our hearts

Several days later Fallytun was even more in a bustle. Chichi was glad the rest of their time there had been mostly uneventful, though it had been nice to see her other uncle Brum at work again. The bearded architect had fixed the draft in the temporary school before claiming a better spot for a new school building and was sketching furiously as his staff began levelling the ground and demolishing the old farm buildings. The new location would be easy to reach from every area in the town’s borders, even if they tripled in size. Her aunt Naki was at home, apparently finally gravid. Chichi was glad a new little cousin was underway, moreso as her aunt and uncle had been trying for years to have children of their own. Edelweiss had helped the local teachers by filling in as a guest teacher for a day and had been very happy to cross-reference their methods.

“Chi’ch, got a minute?” Maihiera’s voice came from above as she made a speedy landing. “Hnnn… I’m impressed. I don’t think a pair of drunken Ushi-Oni could tear those buildings down faster. Anyhoo, your auntie Alyssum and Floralisae are back at the wagon.” Her smile was impish. “No spoilers, but do you want a lift?” A giggle and a nod was the response, so Chichi quickly waved goodbye to her uncle Brum and sought to enjoy the flight back. It gave a weird feeling in her stomach to have her whole foot dangling, but Maihiera took care when flying and that made Chichi feel safe and secure. She reflected that this was yet one more sign that Mai needed to be adopted into the family. Fridr too of course. A smaller part of her mind wondered why not everyone did this.

As they came to the wagon Maihiera landed them gently, lifting up so Chichi’s foot settled down evenly and she effectively carried Mai. “Hey you two, perfect timing~!” Edelweiss and Fridr waved at them from the door. Once inside they were enthusiastically greeted by Floralisae who looked well rested and cheerful as she described how she and her family had been. “Rosey’s glued to the kittens, of course. But NeverNeverLand’s been a blast for all of us. Jasen got spooked by one of those little Tasmanian Devil critters… They are so loud. Meanwhile Edelweiss’ mom has been a perfect host. I’ve learned so much already even if I spent the first day or so asleep.” Alyssum nodded, her hands clasped around a warm mug of chocolate milk. “You needed the rest and our homeland makes resting and healing easier. Blrrrrp! ‘Scuse me.”

“I’m not sure if homeland’s the right word… But it is a place I want to spend more time at so it will feel like home too. First things first though, mr. Wayfarer visited and explained what had happened at the town council. ” Floralisae’s eyes shone with wonder. “I was a little shocked when he told us he could help us with the actual debt, but wanted to give us options and go over them first.” Chichi smiled at that, saying: ”So, don’t leave us hanging… what did you do?” Floralisae waggled a pinky and winked. “I was getting to that. He told us he could take care of the debt regardless so we could try to… salvage Jasen’s family home. But he offered us something better. Trading Tales is getting a lot more involved with Fallytun, so he wants us to manage a regional headquarters. Specifically, he wants me to become a regional manager.”

“I’m not surprised.” Edelweiss grinned. “Uncle tends to look at what someone can be rather than what they might be just now.” Alyssum and Chichi both nodded in agreement. Floralisae scratched at her left horn. “You should’ve seen the look on my face. I thought he’d want Jasen for that, but… He said Jasen’s qualities lay elsewhere and I’d be a good fit with some training. I’ve accepted, on the condition that if I don’t match up he’ll appoint someone else.” She grinned, spreading her arms wide. “I’m gonna ace it though! My little girl will be proud of her mom and her dad.” Alyssum laughed, drained her mug and put it down. “First things first though, it’s why we’ve come here today. Girls, you remember what I said about the Dreamstalker?” This caught their attention.

“That waterwheel breaking away and rolling through a mill might be a bit more than just bad luck. I want to check that out. A Dreamstalker that’s been popped could, in theory, reform around a physical object.” Floralisae nodded. “A dreadful prospect. But I can’t ask Alyssum to face that thing alone if that’s the case. Sooo… I’m bait.” She got a stern look in response. “You’re a lure. Bait is meant to be eaten, you’re intended to be at a distance. Girls, I don’t ask this lightly, but do you four think you can tag along just in case?” Soon they left the wagon behind, quickly reaching the site of the watermill where local workers and a few employees of Trading Tales were hoisting the new wheel into place. Fridr remarked upon the rubber incorporated into the wheel and its axle. 

These and other little advances would ensure that the wheel would last a good long while. A Kaaiman in the water was committing the scene to memory, though she had also been employed to place small deterrents in the space below the wheel so fish and others wouldn’t be at risk. The destroyed windmill would take longer to replace, but people were patiently collecting fragments and digging through the soil. Chichi had to admit that flying was a good idea, even if she still had to be pulled along on a rope despite the ring of flight. Floralisae also struggled somewhat, but Chichi saw that she was far from the self-declared flying brick. Still practising to unlearn wrong wing movements maybe, but…better than one brick with eyestalks. At least the view was nice, even though her stomach wanted to freak out.

Farther away from the fields and farms, the trail of destruction hadn’t been completely restored. Maihiera sighted a broken hazecrown sapling and groaned. Those trees were rare enough as it was. Chichi was at least easy to lug along with the ring of flight. Fridr would take the rope in a bit if it were much farther. Their Valkyrie friend soared along in an efficient flight pattern, keeping a good eye on the landscape. Edelweiss though… Had it rough. Mai could only hear snatches of the conversation, but Alyssum was passing the time by discussing an old legal matter. If her diminutive friend was not as interested in the conversation, Mai would have swooped in by now and ordered Alyssum to lug Chichi along instead. “Mai! Stop us! Auntie! Fri! Weissy! I think I’ve spotted it. Good golly, it’s wedged fast down there!”

Peering at the ground, Maihiera cawed, Chichi was right. A lip of the wheel barely protruded over a grassy rise. It was wobbling feebly. They set down a short distance away and approached on foot. “Well… I wasn’t expecting this.” Alyssum looked in disgust at what had been a serviceable waterwheel before the Dreamstalker claimed it. Warped wood and pseudoflesh intermingled  along its surfaces. Writhing tendrils flopped around in the shade, unable to free its cumbersome form from the disused haha into which it had fallen. Eyes like malformed tumours focussed on Floralisae, who glared back. “That’s disgusting! It doesn’t even resemble Brett anymore.” Alyssum nodded. “It’s been unable to feed for many days. It’s tenacious, but at this point, it’s probably spent.”

“What should we do then? Call in your squad, aunt Alyssum?” Edelweiss twirled her dreaded little hammer like a baton. “Or can we whack it ourselves now?” Alyssum shook her head. “No. If it spooks Floralisae again, the dolls will be dancing. We cut the connection, but metaphorically it just needs to tear off the scab to feed anew.” Her smile was thin and humourless. “Instead, we’ll burn it with these.” She pulled out a book of matches, a small bottle of alcohol and a strip of cloth. “Thing is, with the one that broke free before? In the end we burnt it with non-magical fire.” She removed the cork, stuffed the cloth into the neck of the bottle  and was about to light it when Floralisae put a hand over the matchbook. 

“Mind if I do it? I’m not scared, I’m angry.” Alyssum handed her the bottle, instructing her to throw it as soon as the cloth was lit. It did not make a lot of noise upon landing, the bottle broke and the waterwheel caught on fire. What was left of the Dreamstalker writhed pathetically and died. Floralisae shuddered, revulsion evident on her face. “Is that it?” Fridr prodded the burning mess with a fallen branch, shrugging as she tossed the wood onto the fire. “That would appear to be so.” Alyssum though kept her eyes on the mess, causing Edelweiss, Chichi and Maihiera to subject it to their scrutiny as well. The waterwheel’s shell broke open and a sooty lump oozed out. It tried to form a hand and reach for Floralisae, but the skin burst and it deflated into nothingness. “That’s it. For safety we’ll mark the area and inform the townsfolk in Fallytun to stay away from here for a while longer.”

Alyssum looked tired, mentally at least. Floralisae did as well, so Edelweiss fussed over them as the others put freshly cut stakes into the ground, using a roll of twine to mark off the area. “Honestly… I can’t believe it.” Chichi looked in disgust at the ashen mess. “That thing was untouchable. Now it couldn’t dent butter and got burnt like old paper.” She laughed. “Still, we’ve fought worse. Auntie, remember the Vault of Ages?” Alyssum nodded, a slight smile on her lips. “I do. I’m glad things didn’t go to that length here though.” Her wings stretched on the breeze. “I wish we could have helped the other Lost Girls this way… but changing the past is at best tricky business. Things stay as they happened, unless there’s wiggle room and you’re somehow not tearing the whole business apart.”

“Yeah, I mean… I had a talk about it with one of the Shoggo at the Shellmounds actually… but she straight up said that time travel is a bit like moving through liquid corn starch solution. The harder you try to change something, the harder it’ll try to bounce back.” Chichi wiped the sweat from her brow. “Kinda like what Rukia and aunt Eihy also said.” They shared a nod, turning to the future. Fallytun would prosper, but after Alyssum and Floralisae left, the group turned to their next travels. “We’ll need to head back to Meliddis soon.” Maihiera’s eyes roved the map on the table, her hands tracing roads for consideration. “But maybe we can go through the Aeries Canyons? The local flock says it’s a fun place even if you don’t build nests.” Fridr leaned across the table, tapping a different route leading to a rural shire with an abundance of forest. “There’s Unicorn glades if we go through the Moondew valley… I have always wanted to visit one.”

Edelweiss was busy with the dishes, but remarked: “We could also go visit the travelling carnival in Glimmerbrook. I don’t know about you, but after all the excitement I’d like to let loose a little in a more safe environment.” Critically eyeing a spatula, she giggled. “And winning plushies is a bonus, no?” Chichi had been massaging her foot and storing excess slime in a bottle, but her eyestalks wandered the room. “I think all those places sound wonderful… but I’ve kept an eye on the calendar. The mountain region we’d need to cross through again has… a stormy season. And taking those detours would end us having to wait out the storms.” Slipping out of her chair, Chichi poked at a small town a little to the south of Fallytun. 

“So I’ve been thinking. Tunney’s not far from here, but they have river barges every week. If we leave tomorrow, we’ll be there in time to get on one with the wagon. Pricey maybe, but a river ride that will put us near Cannaegh. And along the way we’ll pass by the Singing Rocks. Lorelie nest there, but there’s also a Mudwasp village that we can visit during the off- and on-loading of the barges. I know it’s not the same as a carnival, but they do have fun things to see and do at their art market.” She grinned. “Aunt Pealfi talked my ears off almost when she showed the ceramic cups she’d bought from a Mudwasp. Cousin Nelfi can do the same about her rock collection though, heh.” She had to restrain her eyestalks as she looked over the others’ routes. “Ooooohhhhhh… I want to see all these places though…  but there’s always next time.”

“If only we could.” Fridr sighed. “It will be hard work, back home. But we’ve such an amazing story to share now with our friends there.” She grabbed her coat and made for the door. “Shall we enjoy a last evening on the town my friends?” They did, making their goodbyes and toasting to the friends they made in Fallytun. On the morning, Chichi thanked mrs. Leafbee for helping to get the wagon back on the road, along with the good care. Leafbee for her part made sure to tell them they would always be welcome here. Thankfully the wagon rolled smoothly even after all the time they’d spent in Fallytun. “I do wish we’d have seen Cainlin before we went though…” Edelweiss sat on the roof, cleaning the ventilation hatch. “Maddy did say she had something urgent to do.” Maihiera cawed from above before dropping down with Fridr to respond.

“Yeah, but eh… nothing we can do about it. We’ll talk on the A.R.E. with her soon enough. Still, can you believe how much this road’s changed?” It was indeed the same road on which they’d entered the town. It had been packed dirt outside the gate, but now there was a stretch of stonework road with orderly pallets of stone beside it. Old bushes had been removed and replanted in neat rows with trees besides. Shaped stone borders shimmered with crystals that would light up the road slightly at night, enough to make travel safer but not enough to deprive wildlife of sleep. Early workers marvelled at the wagon until it disappeared behind a bend in the road ahead. Chichi hummed a song that Edelweiss sang the lyrics to and let her eyestalks roam the landscape.

A dot on the horizon became a person until it resolved into the form of Cainlin, heading back to Fallytun. “Hey~! Am I glad to see you four. I didn’t think I’d be back in time from that assignment by the big cheese.” She grinned. “Mrs. Wayfarer herself called in though, so I couldn’t say no. Mainly just a ton of work material for the new regional office that uhm…” She indicated a larger shape in the distance. “Company haulers are bringing to town. I spotted you though and kinda ran ahead.” Fridr landed, clapping her on the shoulder in salute. “It is good to see you again, Cainlin. Duty is important, but so are friends. But…” Fridr blinked and Cainlin laughed revealing a very slim and pale arm under her cape. “I don’t know how she did it… but there was also some Celestial healer who gave me a new arm! For the work I and Maddy put in.”

She waved it about, clenching her fist slowly. “It’s still weak, but it should get stronger with a bit of training.” They talked until the haulers caught up and Cainlin left with them. By the time Tunney came into view, the afternoon had started to fade into the evening. A place for their wagon on the barges was easier to obtain due to the materials sent to Fallytun. Three days down the river they caught a concert by a quartet of Lorelie and two days after that had to scramble to get back onto the barge with the ceramic art they’d bought at the art market. Like so many good things though, the journey came to an end when they landed at Cannaegh and made for Meliddis.

Epilogue: Homecoming

Fridr sighed as she crossed the threshold of her home. Meliddis had survived her absence well enough, even if some of the more rowdy types would grace the jail again before long. She intended to drop everything she’d brought back on the trip inside, do some dusting in her bedroom and light the fire so the house would soon feel lived in again. It was a bit of a shock therefore to find that her home was spotless, a low fire crackling in the hearth and her bedroom having been aired. Nevermind that there was a piece of candy on her pillow with a welcome home card. Inside the living room, her altar to the memory of her sisters had been tended to, a small loom sat between their figures. “Who on Praxis?” She lifted the tiny contraption and blinked in surprise: it was functional. The kitchen was mostly as she’d left it, though the old piece of cheese had been removed to the compost pile in the backyard.

Even the small vegetable patch had been neatly weeded and her armoury, a small shed, opened to reveal the arrows, spears and leather training gear in better condition than before. Around the same time, Maihiera was feeling violated on some level. Her nest had been cleaned. The briars had their thorns angled outward so she or any guests wouldn’t get scratched while inside. The ratty old trunk she’d used for storing things had been replaced. On her nest’s sleeping area, a pillow lay with a welcome home card and a piece of candy. The shaded spot she used to entertain guests, where she cooked and did most of the housework had been made more accessible and more secure with a lockable door. The cauldron over the firepit gleamed and her clay tableware stood neatly stacked in a small cabinet. Her store of beads and her crafting place were no less neat now, but also contained a small written note suggesting a different spot for her nest if she wanted to have more space. “Who would do this?”

Edelweiss literally had to sit down and drink a bit of water. Her school and daycare were neat, clean and stacked with reports on what a replacement teacher (that she had not in fact hired) had taught her students. Drawings from them welcomed her home. Her own little apartment over the school was immaculate, several new books on historical research completed only just before had been added to her library. And a small card welcoming her home had a piece of candy next to it on her pillow. Weirder still, her wardrobe had already been ordered so the dresses she’d picked up in Fallytun could fit right in. And the rickety old chair she used to get to tall places was now perfectly stable. “How is this possible?”

Chichi was tired. The trip back had gone smoothly, but the wagon was tough to pull through Meliddis where the roads were still… being worked on. She couldn’t believe her eyes though, her Dojo and her house were lit with paper lanterns. “BIGGER SIS~!” Before she could react, Metala rushed to her and wrapped her in a warm hug. Rukia and Emmy also joined in, followed gently by Nelfi. “Hey girls, it’s good to see you four again. Did you light the place up?” They happily affirmed this, Nelfi adding: “I’s just a li’l Ureonggaksi, but we heard you’d be home today and made everyone’s place clean. Teacher helped too~!” Rukia and Emmy clapped their hands, smiling as Metala took Chichi by the hand and led her to a table set for many, shortly after the girls brought everyone to the table, treating them to a delicious meal.

As the moons rose over Meliddis, Chichi was glad to be back here even if having a normal life seemed impossible. She laughed it off, scooping up some delicious ku lo yuk along with more rice. Normal was what you made of it.

The End.

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