A Midwestern Yankee... (Chapter 9)

Chapter Nine

Preparations

              On Kathy's first night at the Phoenix Inn, she heeded Daggeuro's warning to stay away from Baron Dimanche. Her room, rented for three nights for a total of one drake and ten bits, wasn't as lavish as the guest quarters at the king's manor, but it was nice enough for her to stay in.  A queen-size bed, a simple three-drawer dresser (sans Bible, which she found strangely awkward), a small table to eat or read at, and an attached bathroom.

              Kathy locked her door and undressed, her course direct for the bathroom. Clean towels sat on shelves over the toilet, and the tub abutted the commode, so she just hopped right in and turned the knobs for a nice warm shower. "Bless those gnomes," she said, moaning as the warm water and steam blasted her back and neck.

              When she finally felt fully relieved, Kathy turned her attention to the alien word written in stylized script on her right forearm. No idea what this says, she thought. The mark wavered a moment, then went still again. The scent of her Dove soap still clung to her from the shower, the bar now back in its plastic box in her bag. Cleaned up, toileted and exhausted, she didn't even manage to get under the covers before passing out, laid back on the bed.

              When she awoke the following morning, it was to that second internal voice, which she had begun calling Ivy in her own mind. You should get up and meet the Baron, said Ivy. Daggeuro is a good man, a good judge of character, but you're getting a biased view. Kathy agreed.

              She got dressed in the simple peasant's outfit she'd been given by the king's staff, her green cloak clasped at the throat, and headed out into the hallway of the second floor. The hotel's theme seemed to be tasteful, but simple. The Baron's room was two doors down across the hall from her, so she headed there and knocked softly. The door practically flew open, revealing Dimanche standing there, dressed in the same fashion as the day before, but in neon red.

              "Ah, serendipity, Miss Katty," the voodoo spirit proclaimed, arms thrown wide. "I was just coming to ask if you'd like to grab breakfast wit' me!"

              "I think that would be a fine idea," she replied. "I was warned about you, but I like to be fair and hear both sides of any story."

              "Ah, you are indeed wise, Miss Katty. Follow me. Dere's a place ovah on Greenway Street dat has de best breakfast." He pulled his door shut, locked it, and pressed his right hand to the wood. A moment passed as black lines of force shot from his hand throughout the wood, quickly fading. "Always good to ward your place of residence, even if it is just a hotel room."

              "I don't know how to do much yet with my, uh, stuff," she said.

              "Your magic, you mean?"

              "Yeah, that." She frowned, shook her head. "It's still all kind of hard to wrap my mind around. I've always wanted all of this to be real, but I think a big part of me had just accepted that it wasn't. I'm an agnostic, so this all sort of threw me for a loop."

              "I can imagine," said Baron Dimanche. He led the way out of the hotel, and on the front porch of the building, Kathy froze, looking out at the streets below. Every crowded market street from every film she'd ever seen stood before her, a seething ant farm with goods and services for sale or trade. "Yes, morning markets are de busiest here in Celia. Keep tight hold of your money pouches- pickpockets rule de narrow running lanes."

              Kathy, on a whim, closed her eyes and reached her hands within her cloak for the money pouches, mentally envisioning their drawstring mouths filled with teeth that would nip at anyone's hand but her own. The cool, itchy sensation flared at the back of her neck, and an impish grin spread across her lips. "Like to see them try," she muttered.

              Using his long stride to his advantage, the Baron swooped ahead, leaving Kathy to try and maneuver through the throngs of people choking the street. She could have muscled her way past many of them; most faerie folken here were slight of frame, except the kennin, gnomes and bear-faerie, the ursines. But these races were minorities in Celia, whose chief races were elves, fairies and pixies. That made movement a little easier.

              As she caught up with the Baron, a gotrin passing the other way bumped into her. As soon as he tried to pull away from her, the rat-man began howling in shocked agony. Kathy whirled, a ripping, squelching noise issuing from her hip area. The gotrin's right arm pulled upward, blood spouting from his hand where the ends of two fingers appeared to have been bitten off.

              Before she could accuse him of attempted theft, the gotrin fled through the crowd, holding his maimed hand to his chest. Kathy called softly after him, "Sorry."

              "You shouldn't be," Dimanche whispered, cheek-to-cheek with her. "Dere are many kinds of justice, child. Poetic is one of my favorite sorts." Kathy let the Baron take the lead once again, until they ducked into a quiet little diner staffed by several elves, with a broad, green-skinned brute in the kitchen, visible through the narow servers' pickup window. The cook's face was wide and somewhat flattened, with a jutting lower jaw, two tusk-like teeth poking out. "Orc," the Baron said as Kathy looked on.

              "Huh. I've landed in a Dungeons and Dragons game."

              "Piffle. Dis Plane is much more interesting dan de one you come from," Dimanche said. An elven woman in a waitress's apron bustled over to their table and handed them each a menu. They each ordered a Breakfast Bonanza, then got coffee poured out and cream and sugar set down in saucers. "So, Miss Katty, sorry, Kathy," he said, carefully pronouncing the 'th' sounf, "tell me a little about yourself."

              "Hmm. Well, I've got an older brother, Jack, who used to terrorize me as a kid. My mom and dad split when I was eight, because they couldn't stop fighting. Let's see, what else," she said rhetorically. "Um, I've always loved faerie tales, since I as a kid. I always wanted to go on some big adventure when I was growing up, so this all is just, um, just incredible."

              "I t'ink everybody yearns for dat dream at some point," Dimanche said seriously. "I just wish your species wasn't so keen as a collective to find ways to make dat not happen. Between de human enslavement to economics and de seemingly irresistible urge to try and dominate one anodder, your people are screwed from birt'."

              Kathy, nonplussed, offered no response. Ultimately, she couldn't give one, because in the long run, she agreed with the Baron's assessment of humanity.

              Their food arrived a few minutes later, but Kathy didn't want the conversation to dry up on that awkward point. "So, I know about your older brother, but I've never heard of you," she said.

              "Dat is how Samedi likes it," Dimanche said without pause. "Frankly, I don't much mind it myself. When dere's blame to be cast, he's usually de first one fingers get pointed at."

              "But he also gets all of the worship," Kathy pointed out. The Baron shrugged.

              "De Loa knows who does what, and dat satisfies. Could you pass de salt?"

              "Here you go." Kathy watched with mild disgust as Dimanche poured a heavy dose of salt on his home fries. "Egads, aren't they already salty enough for you?"

              "Not for my tastes," he said, reaching inside his red dinner jacket. He pulled out a bottle of General Chaos' Hot Sauce, liberally sprinkling the thin red sauce on his omelet. He tucked the bottle away, then started in on his food again. "Mmm, dat's so much bettah now." Kathy moved from her home fries to her pancakes, drizzling syrup over them.

              "Why are you indebted to king Ovin's court? Was it something to do with the animosity between you and Daggeuro?"

              "Yes, as a matter of fact, it was," said Dimanche. "I make routine visits here to de Ether Plane, specifically to dis kingdom. De people are friendly, and it's centrally located on dis continent. A couple of years ago, I was playing some pranks on de membahs of de court, to remind dem dat dey aren't invincible. For Sir Daggeuro, I laid a rope snare along his patrol route. Unfortunately I miscalculated his agility; he knew as soon as he stepped on de snare. When he tried to jump off of it, de rope cinched his tail and ripped it right off."

              "Oh, Jesus!"

              "Yes, he was hurt. But he found me quickly enough, struck de fear of de gods in me before blood loss knocked him down. I took him to a healer, but de tail was lost. Took him two or t'ree weeks t regain his full balance."

              "Did you get into a lot of trouble?"

              "Indeed. De king was about ready to banish me from Amermidst, but queen Titania talked him into settling me wit' a debt to be paid later. Now, I'm paying." Kathy thought, you're lucky that's all that happened.

              When their meals were finished and the bill arrived,written on a small scrap of paper, Kathy was surprised that Dimanche snatched it up. "Daggeuro gave me some money to pay with."

              "Dat may be so, but a gentleman always pays when he's de one who issues de original invitation," said Dimanche amiably.

              "Huh. I wouldn't have pegged you for the traditional sort," she said.

              "I'm full of surprises," he replied, handing the waitress one drake. "Keep de change," he said.

              "Thanks," the waitress said, flouncing away happily.

              "So, what now," Kathy asked.

              "For now, I have preparations of my own to make. As for you? You may want a word wit' de Royal Guard woman who's been watching us from de café across de street," he said, pointing out the window they'd been seated next to. Kathy took an inconspicuous glance through, spotting an elven woman in Royal Guard chain armor and a blue cloak of the same sort Daggeuro wore.

              "Son of a bitch," she snarled, stamping out of the diner. She made a beeline for the elven woman, who, as Kathy approached, looked up from her book. Kathy stopped a few fet away, hands on her hips. "Have you been watching me?"

              "Sir Daggeuro's orders," the elf replied, her voice airy and high registered. She had a lovely, picturesque face, with rich brown almond-shaped eyes, flawless skin, and dark crimson hair down to the middle of her back in a tight braid. She had a little mass to her, an athletic build Kathy could appreciate as tough, but far from butch.

              "Daggeuro told you to watch me?"

              "Yes," said the elven woman. "He also asked me to work with you today, though that wasn't supposed to be until later." The Royal Guard woman stood up and curtsied, holding out imaginary skirts. "Selena Barnick, Royal Guard. I'm a scholar of human history, customs and magic."

              "Ah. Um, Kathy Potts, group home worker and, uh, scholar of Italian food," Kathy replied, putting on a goofy smile and crossing her eyes. Barnick giggled, covering her mouth with one slender hand.

              "Oh my. I was warned that you had a jester's spirit," said Barnick. "Please, sit with me. Would you like something to drink?"

              "Nah, got my own," said Kathy, pulling a can of Coke from an inner cloak pocket. She popped the top and took a sip. "Sorry about coming off hostile. I know Dag means well, but I don't like being spied on."

              "Understandable. The Baron was more my concern, if he were to tag along."

              "He doesn't seem so bad if you sit him down and talk to him," said Kathy.

              "I'm sure you're right. Sir Daggeuro gave me this to study," said Barnick, tapping a heavy black tome. It was the one the kennin High Knight had been browsing through at the king's manor. "He said your only form of accessible magic right now is focus magic. This tome is a kind of reference guide, accounts of things humans with this power can do."

              "Yeah, I've been meaning to ask about that," said Kathy, propping her elbows on the table. She caught a faint whiff of Barnick's perfume, a pleasant scent of peaches. "He gave me this axe," she said, pulling the cloak aside to reveal the weapon. "I was able to see into its past, so I can use it as well as anyone who's wielded it in combat. But nothing like that happens with this," she said, reaching to the small of her back and drawing the dragonbone knife. "Why is that?"

              "It's because that knife has never been used in battle," Barnick said without hesitation. "I just finished reading about that an hour ago. If you'd like, Sir Daggeuro suggested that I offer to help you train your talents until you depart on the mission his majesty has given you." Kathy thought about this for a minute. It couldn't hurt to have a little practice.

              "Sure," she said, finishing off her soda in one long pull. "Where do we go to train?"

              Twenty minutes later, Kathy and Barnick stood in a wide open park a mile from the Phoenix Inn. Celia had three such parks, and this one, being the largest, was the most practical choice. Selena Barnick held in her hands a hefty rock. She set it down in front of Kathy gently, then stepped back.

              "Um, what now," Kathy asked.

              "Well, we'll start with shaping. According to the tome, as a wielder of focus, you can change the shape of most objects you touch, with enough magic spent. This rock is a good size to test your current limits." Kathy sat down on the grass with the rock between her legs, placing her hands upon it. Its rough, weathered surface grated against her skin, but she ran her fingertips over it nonetheless. "Start with something simple. Imagine smoothing the rock, making it round."

              Kathy closed her eyes and concentrated on the image of a perfectly rounded rock, like a soccer ball made of stone. She ran her hands over it until she felt the itch at the base of her neck, her sign that her magic was in play. The rock began shifting under her hands, smoothing out by degrees. Two minutes later, she opened her eyes to behold a perfectly rounded rock. She sighed, feeling a little drained, but not too badly.

              "That's excellent," said Barnick, clapping her tiny hands. "Okay, now for something more complex. Now, imagine arms or legs growing out of the rock." Kathy closed her eyes and summoned the image, her power flowing more easily now. When the magic ceased, she felt like she'd just finished half a day's work, her fatigue now building. Yet when she opened her eyes, the rock had sprouted little legs. It looked a little like a crab.

              And it was scuttling around like one, too. She hadn't intended for that to happen, though she had to admit to herself that she'd envisioned just this very kind of thing. Barnick seemed elated, though, her eyes wide, teeth showing in a huge smile.

              "My goodness! Form and function! Miss Kathy, how do you feel?"

              "A little tired. I need a break." She grunted, getting to her feet. She wished the little rock-crab would stop moving around, and for a wonder, it did. "I think I just stopped it," she said.

              "Try severing your tie to it," Barnick suggested. "Imagine it having its own will." Kathy did, and the rock immediately fell over. "As I thought. Your constructs or altered objects can't act on their own, not yet."

              "There's a 'yet' to that?"

              "Possibly, though not always," Barnick said. "And before that, you'll need to work on your magical stamina. But come, we should get you back to your hotel. A rest is called for." So they left the park together, heading back for the hotel, engaging in small talk along the way.

              "How long have you known Daggeuro," Kathy asked at one point.

              "Well, I've known Sir Daggeuro for about twelve years. I've served with him and the Royal Guard for ten of those years." She pulled a lock of hair from her face, tucking it back behind her ear. "I personally trained with him to learn how to wield dual blades. I had spent twenty years previously as a Ranger, specializing in single longsword techniques for combat. But he saw potential in me," she said. Kathy didn't miss the wistful, longing note in Barnick's voice, and it cheered her heart.

              "Soooo, does he know," she asked coyly.

              "Know what?"

              "That you're in love with him." Barnick stopped in her tracks, color rushing into her cheeks and nose, eyes wide.

              "Well, I, that is, you see, um," she stammered. Finally she lowered her head, eyes cast aside. "No." She sniffled, moving once more. Kathy's heart went out to her. Poor woman, she thought. And he's not always the quickest on the uptake from what I can tell. "Sir Daggeuro is a very important man," Barnick said. "I needn't distract him with such frivolity."

              "Hey," Kathy barked, putting one hand on Barnick's shoulder and turning the elf towards her. "Don't do that. Don't dismiss your own feelings just because you think he's some grand high poobah! And don't hang back from dating just because your ideal guy isn't available! Have you even dated this whole time, since you fell for him?"

              "I've tried," Barnick said dismally. "They've all been dreadful. Once, I dated a Watch sergant for three weeks, had seven dates with him, even slept with him, only to discover he was married!"

              "Whoa, douchebags like that exist everywhere," Kathy said. "Good to know."

              "I was mortified. For weeks I was the subject of ridicule among my comrades in arms,and Sir Daggeuro wouldn't even speak to me when I submitted my reports." This last bit struck Kathy as utterly out of character for the kennin warrior. "Besides, it isn't like I could openly be with him."

              "What do you mean?"

              "Royal Guard are forbidden from courting one another," Barnick said. "One member of the couple would have to renounce their post. I feel privileged just to serve with him. If I sought his affections and was rejected, I would have lost my post for naught." Kathy could see tears threatening to spill over in her eyes, and so acted on impulse- she hugged Barnick tight.

Quite the reflex, Ivy chimed in from the back of Kathy's thoughts. That's two impulse embraces. You sure you're not pregnant, Ms. Hormones?

              Kathy thought back, oh shut it! Barnick released her shortly, guiding her without any more conversation to the Phoenix Inn. Before Kathy headed inside, the elven woman said simply, "Thank you, Miss Kathy. Yours is a wonderful soul." She departed then with a wave, and Kathy headed to her room for a much-needed nap.

              Foruk stirred the brewing stew over his cook fire, staring off into the bog. His master had ordered the creatures called wraiths to remain in his pocket realm until such time as they were called upon. The troll vindicator hoped that time was far off in the distant future.

              His stomach rumbled impatiently, the smell of cooked deer meat and potatoes calling to him. Blip, a wicked little black-winged pixie, sat on his left shoulder, humming some unknown tune. Foruk finally asked, "What song is that?"

              "Meet Zep, from a movie soundtrack," said the pixie in his tiny, phlegmy voice. He sounded like a rat with a cold if it tried to talk.

              "I like movies," said the troll. "Which one?"

              "'Saw' movies, you know, with the death traps?"

              "Yeah, seen 'em," Foruk said. He stirred the stew again, then brought the wooden spoon out, setting it on a metal tray next to him. His own tent was a two-chamber affair, the second-biggest one in the tent city encampment that was the core of Luga's forces. Though he controlled the goblin village four miles south, the shade preferred his camp, ever the outsider. Being indoors didn't seem to make the master uncomfortable per se, but he definitely showed more confidence when out in the open. Foruk admired that.

              There was much about Luga that he admired, in fact. Luga was unique among shades, a man all his own. Unlike other shades, he acted on impulse frequently, took chances and risked everything without hesitation. He flaunted his disdain for Ovin's court, refusing to become mired in the political gamesmanship most other such creatures resorted to.

              That more than anything was why Luga's forces were as vast as they were. Luga did not betray his own. If he was sending a henchman to his or her likely doom, he told them so. The loyalists to the crown called him a villain, but at least he was an honest villain.

              Blip fluttered down off of Foruk's shoulder, landing on a camp chair to his left. "Hey, some of the guys got a generator set up in Whirly's tent, hooked up a tv and DVD player. Wanna check out a flick later?"

              "Sure," the troll said, grinning. "They pick out a movie yet?"

              "Nightmare on Elm Street 3, best one of the bunch," Blip squeaked. "Um, is it done yet? Movie's starting in an hour."

              "Take it easy, I'll give it a kick," Foruk said, waving one stubby-fingered hand at the cook fire. It flashed bright blue, a veritable butane torch under the pot. Thick gravy broth bubbled and spit, but only a moment later the troll vindicator conjured a blob of water into his palm and tossed it on the flames. They hissed out, leaving a roiling stew for them to eat. Foruk carefully plucked out a tiny piece of meat and a sliver of potato, setting them on a plate the size of a quarter and handing it over to Blip.

              "Thanks, man."

              "Sure." He spooned stew into his own bowl and tucked in, warmed by his meal. His thoughts wandered once again to his master, as they often did since the taomen's arrival. He hoped that whatever his master was doing, it paid off in the long run. He didn't like having all of these strangers hanging around.

              Daggeuro reviewed Chief Watchman Verit's rundown report, seated behind the desk that was officially his own. He only had this one in the west end Watch station; the other three stations in the city just kept one empty desk randomly available, just in case.

              Verit, a veteran owl faerie with eighty-three years serving as Chief of Celia's Watch, sat across from Daggeuro, looking miserable. He was molting, tufts of feathers falling out as new ones sprouted up in thin patches. He hadn't molted in twenty-three years, and for it to happen now sat ill with him.

              "Ridiculous," he muttered, plucking more loose feathers out from under the sleeve of his blue uniform coat. "Utterly ridiculous, a man my age molting this profusely! I should be done with this nonsense!"

              "Verit, it says here on page three that you fired four watchmen a week ago for 'conduct unbecoming an officer'. Why isn't there an incident report?"

              "Wouldn't be one, sir. They were arrested," Verit said, pointing toward a tall green filing cabinet. "Full report's in there."

              "Oh. What did they do?"

              "Got caught walking out of Grizan's with about two-hundred drakes' worth of potionmaking equipment between them," said Verit sadly. "Old Grizan kept an alarm ward on the doors. Shrieks like a mandragora, woke half the neighborhood." Daggeuro flipped through to the last page of the report.

              "And what's this note here about Clay Jessup," he asked in a half-whisper.

              "He's back in the city. Thought you'd want to know." Daggeuro just stared at Verit, eyes half-lidded, jaw set. "He's shacked up over at Harley's." Daggeuro got up from his chair, signed off on the papers, and filed them in a short, two-drawer cabinet. "Going for a walk, sir?"

              "Yes."

              "Shall I send word to have patrolmen pulled from that area?"

              "Yes." Short, sharp, to-the-point. Those that knew the High Knight knew what that meant; steer clear. Verit jogged o his own office and picked up a small horn which fit to his lips, speaking into it.

              "South station, be advised. Pull all patrols from the vicinity of Harley's Hotel until further notice. Sir Daggeuro is on his way," he said. The words, spoken into the conahorn, would flow out of a box connected magically over the distance at an amplified volume. The watchmen on patrol would be alerted via messengers, and knowing who was in town and who was coming, they would clear out in a heartbeat.

              They knew to clear the way.

              It would have taken the better part of an hour to get to Harley's Hotel from the west end station normally, but Daggeuro knew the ins and outs of traveling via the in-between. He got there in ten minutes. The property was a dive, always had been. He walked into the office hut without slowing, banging the desk with a furry fist. From a room behind the counter scrambled a warty-faced goblin, looking unhappy. "What? What do you want?"

              "Clay Jessup. What room," Daggeuro asked, orange light rimming his eyes. The goblin clerk, belligerent though he was, wasn't oblivious. He knew from the glow he was dealing with a knight of the court.

              "Uh, room eleven," the clerk said, snatching a spare key from the pegboard on his left. He set it on the counter. "He's by himself." Daggeuro said nothing, taking the key in hand and stalking outside. Harley's was what many referred to as a wanderer's hotel, the sort with two long buildings whose rooms opened directly outside. Daggeuro marched down to room eleven, squaring himself to the door.

Don't kick the door in, he thought. Use the key, retain some civility. He nimbly slid the key in, turned it, and thrust the door open with a heavy-handed shove. The elven man inside, seated at a card table opposite the door, brought his feet down from the other chair with a snap, exclaiming "What the hells?" But one look at the kennin, and Jessup knew who it was. He would never forget. "Oh, oh shit, hey, listen," he said, hands up and waving defensively. "I'm just passing through the area, man. Swear to all the gods! On my way west, just a traveler now. I just take on some private work different places, clear out specters, trade and sell some of the hides."

              Daggeuro took two steps toward Clay Jessup, orange light now blazing from his eyes. He thrust one clawed finger toward the elven man and snarled in his twin voice, "Silence, cur! Thy words mean as nothing lest they be in reply to me! If thou takes understanding, say so."

              "I understand," said Jessup shakily.

              "Clay Jessup, doth thou intend to remain here in Celia?"

              "I, I was going to," Jessup croaked. "But only for a few days."

              "Thou speaks true, and though I don't care for it, I accept that truth comes from thee. Now," the kennin warrior said, orange lights blaring painfully into Jessup's eyes. "Didst thou intend to attempt contact with Selena Barnick, whose reputation you already tarnished once?"

              "N-no," Jessup said. Daggeuro lunged forward, right hand flying to Jessup's throat and gripping tight.

              "LIAR! The Word o the Knight reveals thy deception!" With a roar he flung the elf against the wall, which cracked open upon impact. "Speak true or I will visit all manner of pain upon thy head! Didst thou plan to contact her?"

              "Yes," the elf groaned, getting to his hands and knees among the plaster. "I, I've been so alone since Margaret left me."

              "She left you because you couldn't keep your cock in your pants," Daggeuro snapped. "She didn't deserve what you did to her, either woman. Now get up." The light faded from his eyes and mouth, leaving a still-terrifying knight standing there. "You may stay here, in this room, until the early morning tomorrow. Then, you will depart this city. If I discover that you're still here by noon bell tomorrow, I will have you arrested for trespass against the court."

              "You can't," Jessup said weakly.

              "I am High Knight of Ovin's court, Clay," Daggeuro said softly. "The only two voices louder than mine in this kingdom belong to the king and queen. I can have you charged if I have to. You will leave in the morning." Without awaiting a reply, Daggeuro stalked out of the room, tossing the key he'd been given over his shoulder.

              Clay Jessup started packing his bags.

              The next morning saw Kathy awakened by a knocking at her door. She'd spent most of the previous afternoon after her nap exploring the various markets of the city, and in the evening had gone into a tavern with a small stage on which three local thespians (an elf, a kennin and a minotaur) performed a two-act play she found both amusing and sweet. It had been followed by a group of four gnomes, all dressed in ruffled red tunic shirts and shiny black trousers, their faintly yellowish skin gleaming with nervous sweat. Together this quartet performed several accapella songs, producing a beautiful harmony and showing an impressive octave range for fellows who reminded her so strongly of Gimli from Lord of the Rings.

              Their set had run rather long into the evening, which resulted in Kathy getting back to her room rather late. Now, dragging herself to the door, she felt like she had barely slept. When she opened it, she discovered Selena Barnick standing there, a small black box in her left hand.

              "Unless you have breakfast or a check from Publishers Clearing House for me in there, I'm not sure I'm up for it right now," she said blearily. She left the door open, and the elven Royal Guard came into the room behind her. "Just let me take a leak and I'll be right with you."

              A minute later Kathy returned to the room, where Barnick sat at the small table in the corner. She had the box open, and as Kathy approached, she saw that within the box were half a dozen small painted ceramic figurines. There was a rearing red dragon, a matching blue dragon, two skeleton warriors in full plate armor, and two spider-like creatures with blades on the ends of their eight hairy legs.

              "What are these all about," Kathy asked, pointing at the figurines. She took a seat at the table with Barnick, taking hold of the little red dragon. She made it lunge at the blue one, making a face and snarling like a seven-year-old with an action figure. She snickered, as did the elven woman, then held the dragon aloft.

              "You can guess, I think," Barnick said, folding her arms over her chest.

              "You want me to animate these things. Why? What's different with these from the rock at the park yesterday?"

              "Focus magic can be used to change both form and function. But doing both is tiring, and drains your reserves of energy more quickly. These already have form, so you would only be imbuing them with function. So, give each of these as much function as you can."

              It sounded like an interesting enough exercise, and if Kathy was honest with herself, she had to admit that she didn't know what else to do with her time until Daggeuro came to collect her so that they and Baron Dimanche could depart for the home of the Gaedling Goblin.

              So, she would train herself in this gift of hers, and hope there came no need for it too often in the wilds.

              The moon hung high overhead as Daggeuro made his last preparations. He would give Kathy one more day to do some light training with Barnick, and the Baron one more day to, well, do whatever it was that a voodoo spirit had to do. He worried a little about the lanky younger brother of Baron Samedi. Dimanche was, like his elder brother, brash and cocky, given to impulsive behavior. Only his skill with dark spirit magic seemed to be an asset for their trio, and even that seemed suspect to the kennin warrior.

              His eyes wandered from his armor through the window, up at the moon. Ever had it captivated him, igniting his limited imagination. On this score he had never deceived himself; brilliant tactician and combatant that he was, Sir Daggeuro was not creative. His sense of humor could be best described as either 'dry' or 'macabre', dependent upon circumstances. Yet when he gazed upon the moon on a clear night like this, he always imagined walking along its cratered, lifeless surface. He could in those moments feel the soulless chill of empty space clinging to his fur, smell the absence of other scents that would otherwise ruin that cold, alien atmosphere.

              Daggeuro stood in his room in the barracks barechested, his baggy black trousers his only garb. His cuirass and chain leggings lay on his bed, now buffed and polished as he sat on the edge and pulled up his left plate boot into his lap. He used a pair of tongs and a suction clamp to pull out a dent in the shin plate, then proceeded to rub polish into the metal. His eyes finally left the moon, turning down to the boot in his hands.

              The flexible mesh atop the point where his ankle joined his foot to his leg had become too loose. Yet at this hour there would be no smithies to take the boot to for repairs. He sighed, set the boot aside, and did the other one up. Its mesh was also worn through.

              "I hate preparations," he muttered to the darkened room.