“Teh Esselone par entin lesky – upton orski par insun!”
There is little to describe how Jack was feeling in that moment. What seemed like just minutes earlier, he was standing next to his backyard pool back home, in the 21st century, Earth, mourning the yearlong memory of his daughters’ loss. Next thing he knew he was naked and being chased by some four-legged vulture-like creature through the brush of an unfamiliar forest. He could have sworn the beast was just about to latch onto his neck when he found myself mid-air, falling fast, then landed in a river, swept away by the rapids, and ended up getting washed ashore next to some… uh… a medieval village? But that wasn’t even the weirdest part of the previous few minutes of Jack’s existence because, while he stood there in the night, observing the outskirt structures of the town, his blue eyes were drawn to the three large moons suspended amid the stars above.
No… this was just a dream, it must have been. The most bizarre, lucid and scariest damn dream he’d ever experienced, but a dream no less. Alas, this dream wasn’t about to end.
As he ventured farther, creeping in the shadows as best he could, making way around a log cabin to assess what must have been the main street of town, a young girl – for the love of god, why it had to be a child – caught sight of his exposure when he tripped on a fallen branch. Needless to mention, it took all of a second for her screams to draw the attention of other townsfolk.
Jack was back to my feet quickly, covering his manhood with both hands while somehow managing to find the audacity to lay silent awed judgement on the people that had stopped their activities to glare at him with looks that, to his surprise, didn’t kill him. Had it not been established yet, now it was; just by the clothes these people wore, there was no doubt he had entered a place far detached from his own time and world. For an instant, just for an instant, he imagined laying sight on a dragon ascending with roars from the sky. Of course this imaginative thought, which would later turn out to be more a premonition, was broken by the large stranger who seemingly came out of nowhere, making himself known to Jack by the cold steel of his swords pressed firmly against his neck.
For fear of having his throat slit open, or possibly dying of asphyxiation from the potent stench of the man’s body odour, Jack could but turn his eyes to him - Oh wow, he looked like Grizzly Adams – And, if things could not have gotten any weirder, the stinky brute opened his mouth to speak the aforementioned words:
“Teh Esselone par entin lesky – upton orski par insun!”
Despite the fear of losing his life, Jack would have likely replied with a smart remark about the stranger being polite enough to take a bath before sneaking up on a naked man, but he never got the chance. At the ending of the strangers statement, a sharp pain struck – it shorted like electricity through Jack’s ears, his throat, and stuck like a knife at his frontal lobe like he was undergoing a lobotomy. With it, a high pitched shriek could be heard, like that of a dogs whistle before, a moment later, the strangers gibberish words were repeated like an echo of English in Jack’s mind.
He had said; “Have you lost your mind, man? - I should have your head!”
“N-n-no-no….” Jack found himself stammering for the first time in his life, and although he was speaking English, it felt strangely like he was speaking the man’s own language as well. “Steady there, big man, I don’t want any trouble. I actually don’t know how I got here. But I would really appreciate it if you had some clothes I could wear….”
The large stranger, or, well, let us just call him Mr. Adams for now, curled his upper lip, squinting one eye in familiarising thought as the cold steel of his blade removed from Jack’s neck. He lowered the weapon, letting the tip of blade ride to a stop in the dirt of the road before he replied:
“I see. Too much drink today, stranger? Mr. Adams chuckled, and added; “Never be that of mind. Still, if you wish for a whore, the Blackgale Inn across the street should meet your needs of fine lady types. No need to run about naked like a perverted type, from where do you co – ”
His words were cut short by a peculiar turn of events, and Jack was just as taken aback by what happened as Mr. Adams was: The black denim jeans Jack had been wearing before his arrival in this current world appeared on his person again. Just like that, no sound, no flash of light. Nothing. They were just there, covering his nakedness once again, held up by a crocodile leather belt.
Jack dropped his eyes, wide with wonder, before looking back at Mr. Adams with an unknowing shake of his head. The big brute glared back with an equal amount of question. Yet, despite this miraculous turn of events, he found the wisdom not to get overly distraught;
“What sort of magic is this?”
Jack shook his head in response, utterly lost on how to explain myself, at the same time concerned by the content of the question. Magic? What? Mr. Adams had mentioned the word like it was more or less as common as sliced bread, which, to be fair, may or may not have also been a thing in this world.
“I uh… I’m not really sure what to sa….” Jack began replying, only to be silenced by the appearance of brown Goodyear Welt Boots on his feet. A grey, sleeveless t-shirt materialised on his upper body. An android cell phone appearing in his left hand. A gold Rolex analogue watch appeared on his wrist. Then, as the phone announced a recently received text, Jack rolled his eyes back to the man, the man who was now portraying a look of intense trepidation.
Mr. Adams and Jack locked stares for a moment, while many of the nearby onlookers released a gasp of dismay.
“Please,” Jack said, “before you get any more ideas about cutting off my head, I really don’t know where I am. I have no idea what’s going on right now. I need your help. Please…. Where the hell am I?” His voice began to shake with honest intent.
Grizzly Adams gaped for quite some time before responding, and when he did at last peak, Jack was somewhat appreciative of his surprising amount of understanding.
“Listen, Friend.” He told Jack straight. “I don’t know who you are or where you are from. But I have never seen magic like this…. For the sake of all of us here, I hope you intend us no harm.”
“I assure you. My friend.” Jack was quick to reply in the calmest voice he could muster. “I mean you no harm, you or your people. I can promise you that.”
Mr. Adams returned his sword to the sheath on his back, seemingly defeated as someone putting away a stick while being confronted by a mammoth. His eyes denoted the same sentiment.
“What is your name?” Jack added, attempting to ride the upper hand he now found himself with.
“You may call me Travius.” The big man declared with a forced sense of pride. “I am the local blacksmith. Take respite in our town, of course. We of Sonarlis wish for only peace. You may come to my workshop to acquire weapons in the morning if you wish. Outside of that, please stay clear of my kin. I however wish for no further kinship with the likes of your own kind.”
Despite the circumstances, Jack suddenly felt ill with disappointment at the sounding of Travius' words. He had been in this strange and far detached world for less than five minutes and already he was despised by the first person he met.
“It’s okay,’ Jack nodded firmly to say. “I meant what I said, I mean no harm – but thank you for the offer. Pleased to meet you, Travius. My name is Jack.”
Travius responded with nothing more than his own firm nod, and as Jack extended his right hand, all Travius did was take a cautious step in retreat. Jack lowered his hand and watched Travius walk away before he looked around at the other bystanders, most of them still intent on staring at Jack, analysing his odd clothing, his cell phone, his watch, murmuring among themselves.
Rumours of Jack’s arrival had spread as quickly as fire in dry brush. By time he entered the local tavern, otherwise knows and Blackgale Inn, there wasn’t one eye in the entire establishment that didn’t lock onto him. Every mouth became deathly silent. After refraining from the initial impulse to vomit from the stench of body odour, urine and stale alcohol, He dropped his eyes demurely, feeling it a prudent course of action not to make eye contact with the many faces peering at him. The sound his boots made on the floorboards, however, was awkwardly loud, being the only sound to be heard as he made his way to the bar. There, he raised his attention to the bartender; a scrawny looking pop-eyed elderly gentleman with a fear-induced grin straddling his face.
Jack gave the man a small smile, yet since he had no idea what these people used for currency he attempted a request that would avoided payment of any kind: “Name’s Jack." He said. "All I want is a drink of water. A table to sit at. That’s all. Thank you.”
The feeble old man’s lips were trembling as his eyes made their way over Jack’s clothing, his watch, his cell phone, still gripped in Jack's left hand. Eventually the bartender found words to reply:
“Take it.” He produced a clay jug of water with a wooden mug, placing them on the dark wooden timber of the bar. “Take any seat you wish for. Just please… with respect, try not to bring about any trouble in my establishment.”
After sliding the phone into his pocket, Jack took up the jug in one hand, the wooden cup in the other, and made his way through the still silenced and watchful group of drunks, whores, diners, even a few children, until he arrived at a small empty table with two chairs near the door. Nothing like preparing for a quick exit…. Taking his seat at the table, he kept his eyes to himself, poured a cup of water, sighed, but held off on actually taking a drink.
“Might be safer to drink my own piss….” He mumbled, staring dismally at the murky water in his cup while the ambient voices of those in the tavern started up again, and the tavern musician started playing a peculiar, questionably cheerful tune on an unfamiliar stringed instrument.
Please hurry back home. Your mother's condition is worsening. I fear she may not make it.
What a load of dragon meat.
Chery's lips pulled back into a snarl. In two quick movements, she crumpled the letter and tossed it onto the street. She didn't pause as she strode down the cobblestone path. The townfolk milled around her, giving her a wide berth as she passed. She ignored them.
The afternoon had been an entire roll of cow dung thrown in her face. First, she'd had to bury her own mother. Then, she was forced to snap the caretaker's neck. Well, not forced per se, but she'd be lying if she said it hadn't felt good. And that it was perfectly justified. Seriously, admitting to murdering the person she'd just gotten in the ground in front of a renowned bounty hunter who happened to be the murdered's daughter? A phenomenally stupid move. It was so stupid Cheryl wasn't sure if Elena's brain had decided to take a walk during the burial or just given up entirely after her misdeed. Either way, she was certainly braindead now.
The splash of orange in the sky faded to a dull grey as the sun set. Night fell and the moons, having hidden behind the sun's glory all day, shone against a canvas of stars.
She dragged a calloused hand over her face. Everything was a mess. She was a mess. A very tired mess. She'd left her last job unfinished in her haste to get here and it hadn't mattered; Mum was already dead when she'd arrived. Probably had been for days. Bloody Elena. Cheryl's fingers itched to hit somebody.
A soft churr broke through her thoughts. Cheryl didn't glance down at the bundle of white feathers curled around her neck, but she sighed.
'I'm fine, Piper,' she said. 'Just...there's a lot on my mind right now.'
Not to mention the number of eyeballs pointed in their direction. She hadn't been in Sonarlis in what, eight years? Almost a decade. Maybe it was a decade. Time seemed to blur these days. To her, it was just one target after the other. Even so, it seemed news of her arrival had spread quickly. Everybody's body language practically screamed wariness and distrust, with maybe a little bit of fear included. Not to mention the disgust she could see in some of their eyes. She knew, without a doubt, that that last emotion was entirely reserved for the pipio pygmy on her shoulders.
Let them stare. As long as they didn't bother her, she couldn't care less what they thought.
Of course, it would happen just as she thought that. The world seemed out to get her today. She looked down at the kid who'd stepped up to her. Her gaze flicked to the side, where a group of older boys were trying and failing to suppress their snickers. A dare, then. Her gaze returned to the kid.
When she didn't say anything, the kid continued, 'Is-is it true that you, um, y-you steal breaths from people?'
'Why, you wanna see it happen, kid?' Raising her arm, fingers splayed, she bared her teeth. 'Want me to show you?'
The kid was a stammering mess now, nothing but a melting, sweaty bunch of 'um's and 'uh's. She flicked her fingers and he flinched.
He did. Piper gave a little snort of laughter.
'Shush, you. We've got more important things to handle than a snotty kid.' It was starting - the whispers of the common folk. Though she couldn't hear what they were saying, it was an easy guess. What a vile piece of work she was, scaring a child, using magic, owning a dragon, yadda yadda. All talk and no action since none of them would actually dare throw her out the village. That would be an amusing sight to see.
'Focus.' God, she was all over the place. It was official: she needed a drink before she could sort any of this out. She glanced around, then grinned at the sight of a squat little tavern. 'Blackgale Inn,' its wooden sight read, swinging back and forth in the slight wind.
Chatter and music drifted out from the doors and once she pushed past them, a familiar ranky smell greeted her. Her grin widened. It was this kind of bar that ended up being a funhouse by the time she left. Not today, however. She had a mission and an unfinished job. The sooner she got to the bottom of this, the sooner she could return to her target and lob his head off.
'Or suffocate him,' she thought with reluctance as she sat down at the bar. It had become a cool trademark of hers - Breath Stealer and all that jazz - but watching them squirm and then die without her even touching them had gotten old real fast. Snapping Elena's neck with her bare hands was a fresh breath of air. Cheryl's lips quirked at the irony of it.
'It's become quiet,' hummed Piper in her mind. So she'd noticed; it was hard not to when the din in the tavern practically vanished the second she had stepped in.
Without turning around, she raised her hand, waving nonchalantly to the gawking patrons.
'I know I'm nice to look at but there's nothing happening here. Why don't you all go back to whatever you were doing before?' At this point, Piper got up, clambering around her so that he sat on one shoulder, peering at the crowd behind her. The couple other patrons sitting at the bar shifted several inches away. Cheryl raised her eyes to the heavens as she felt the tension in the tavern spike. Nevertheless, she continued, putting her hand down. 'I'm sure it's more exciting than staring at my back.'
A couple beats of silence. Then, slowly, almost reluctantly, the chatter resumed, as did the music.
Piper shifted his paws on her shoulder, as if kneading her for a brief moment. 'So curious. There are so many of them, yet only one of me. Still they are afraid.'
'Don't take all the credit, pal. I'm scary, aren't I? Hey!' The last word was a bark aimed at the bartender. The old man stiffened in response, clutching the wash cloth in his hand like a lifeline.
'Whatever you want, it's on the house-' he started, but clammed up when Cheryl waved a dismissive hand at him.
'If you're trying to say that I'm so poor that I can't afford a drink, just stop.'
'Exactly. So get me a sour-' She reached into one of her belt pouches, pulled out a silver coin, and slapped it on the countertop. '-and take the money. You're running a business, man. Act like it.' The old man nodded, wide-eyed. He took the money with trembling hands, then set about making her drink.
Cheryl leaned her elbows on the countertop, the hair on her right side falling forward as she dipped her head and closed her eyes.
Mum was dead.
She wasn't quite sure how to feel about it. On one hand, she hadn't seen her in years. On the other...all those years away had been to help Mum.
No, that wasn't right. Their financial situation had stabilised years ago. The fear of Mum asking Cheryl how that had happened and finding out what her daughter had been up to all these years was what had kept Cheryl away after that.
'Well, now she'll never know. Good job, Cheryl.' She opened her eyes, frowning. 'Wait.'
The money. Their savings. For mana's sake, she'd come straight here after snapping Elena's neck and hadn't thought to check the crime scene itself. She slumped further on the counter, groaning. Piper readjusted his hold on her shoulder, wrapping a tail around the front of her neck.
'Sorry to, uh, interrupt, but your sour, Miss Hunter.' Her cheek pressed against the countertop, she watched the stained glass slide close to her face. The dark blue liquid fizzled, bubbles popping at the surface.
'Yeah, thanks. And Lusby's fine.'
Well, she'd come here to sort out her mind. She had a plan. Or at least, the next step of a developing plan. So, the way she saw it, it would be waste of energy to execute it right away. Better to drink and wait for the next next step of the plan to pop in her brain.
So she raised her head, took a deep swig of her sour, gasped for air, then slammed the glass down.
Travius made a curios offer… “come to me if you require a weapon.” A blacksmith, and no doubt dealing in swords and the like, items that were obviously essential in this world. Not a good sign, but helpful. It’s now more than probably that getting myself a weapon would be a good idea. If only I had been in possession of my gun instead of my stupid phone when I was taken. No such luck…. But one thing’s for sure, I’m really going to need a weapon of some sort if I’m going to be in this place for a while. I guess I’ll be paying Travius another visit in the morning. But fuck, what the hell am I going to use for money? My watch? Hey, it was expensive, it’s made of gold, no doubt people here thought as much of gold as anywhere else on Earth… wait, this isn’t Earth, but still…. My items had enough of an effect on these people to find me wary, so maybe there is some trading value in that…. I don’t know, I don’t even know what’s going on.
All I know right now is that my Hannah might be here, my baby…. But could she be? Had I actually been taken to the same place she had been abducted to? I mean… what are the chances of arriving in a place like this at all, let alone being the same place she had been taken to? But then… maybe that actually makes sense, maybe what took her took me too, in which case it would actually make sense that we ended up in the same damn place… right, Jack? After all, I was literally standing just feet away from the spot she had been taken from, one year to the day, when I too was taken. Not so much a coincidence when I look at it like that. No… yeah… I can feel it in my bones. She’s here alright. Somewhere. But where? When? The more appropriate question; When would she have arrived? It could have been years ago. There isn’t anything to say that she would have arrived here the same time I did. Maybe time is synchronized somehow. I’m no quantum scientist, but hell, maybe a year to me back home was a year here too. That would mean she arrived a year ago. Maybe… just maybe… but there is no way to tell for sure. All I know is I have to find her. But what if she is all grown up now? What if she’s been stolen and abused for years? No – don’t think that, you can’t think like that, God help any man that lays a finger on her – but if she’s settled down, gotten married to some stinky medieval bastard around here…. What if she doesn’t even remember me? Her father. Her daddy. Hey… thing is… Would I actually even know her if I saw her?
Jack’s thoughts were interrupted. Not by noise or direct interference, but by the crowded Inn suddenly falling silent. His eyes took the door as once again the locals found reason to quietly scrutinize a young lady who had entered.
Maybe that’s Hannah? Similar coloured hair, hair change over the years. But no. Those sharp eyes, not like my daughter at all, and what the hell was that thing on her shoulder? Some sort of freaky rodent? Is that what passed as a cat in this world? What the...
As it turns out, falling silent like a bunch of stunned mullets and staring at people wasn't such an uncommon practice for these paranoid folk. This girl, notably a few years younger than Jack, seemed to have the same effect on them as he had, which was strange... interesting though. Since her general attire and overall appearance didn’t seem too estranged from what others were wearing – not like she looked like she stepped out of a portal from another planet or anything – so there must have been other reasons for the majority of these people to find her worth gaping in fear at.
He watched with speculatively as the woman and her weird-ass rodent made way to the bar and took a seat - which was when it happened, the one thing Jack needed to hear to open a window of opportunity: She raised her voice defiantly at her onlookers:
'I know I'm nice to look at but there's nothing happening here. Why don't you all go back to whatever you were doing before?'
Jack chuckled, he liked her already, if for no other reason than her audacity in the face of prejudice. This girl wasn’t frightened. She had something over them. But what? It's not like she was of intimidating size, either. Maybe that feathery rat on her shoulder had something to do with it? Whatever it was, it scared the hell out them, but she handled her obvious status with style. If there was anyone there, anyone at all he could possible approach for answers, it would be her. Nothing better than approaching another misfit for information, and judging by her remark to the crowd, she would likely make a note of being brutally honest. An admirable quality in Jack's eyes. One things was apparent, however; fear wouldn’t influence her reaction to Jack.
He watched her for a while. Form his position near the door, he could see that she paid the old bartender with what looked like coin. Good, that meant they had a form of currency. Unfortunate for Jack, he had none of what they used. The same recurring problem…. He wondered how easy it would be to rob some helpless lowlife in this world and get away with. God knows he had a talent for theft in the real world, his world. But that was a different matter. But wait, was he mistaken or did he just see this girl talking to herself? Maybe she was crazy, not right in the head, so to speak. Maybe that is why the others feared her. Leave the crazy lady and her rodent alone.
Nevertheless, Jack waited a while longer before rising from his chair, since he didn’t want to cause any possible suspicion by approaching her too soon. While he waited, he fished through the pockets of his jeans and found a few coins from back home. An Australian two dollar coin, two twenty cent pieces, and a fifty cent piece. He only just then realised his wallet was also in his back pocket. He didn’t bother to check, but he was sure he had a couple of fifty dollar bills in there. Now, he knew of course his own money would likely not be recognised as currency here, but maybe there was a way to swindle a deal with the old and frightened bartender. After all, Jack could have really done with a stiff drink as well, and this water wasn’t even worthy a look at. Maybe they had a beer. In a bottle. Maybe.
It must have been a good five minutes before he got up, his jug of water still untouched. Yep, once again many in the tavern grew silent to watch him walk to the bar, but it wasn’t as bad as their previous reaction to him, they must have been losing interest to some degree, or maybe after observing the girl and her rodent, Jack kinda paled in comparison.
One can hope.
The others patrons at the bar had made a wide birth around the girl and her rodent, which made it easy for Jack to walk up close to her without rousing suspicion of being deliberate about it. Besides, if she lived in this town and had any fashion sense at all, she would likely see that he wasn’t from around here, and therefore she should have no reason to feel like something threatening was taking place. He’d likely just appear as an out-of-towner walking to the bar for a drink.
Of course, he didn’t say anything to her at first, his attention mostly on the withered old man behind the counter, but he did take a moment to steal a closer inspection of the animal on her shoulder.
I don’t think that’s a rat. Good lord, I have no idea what that is. It has friggen wings though, so that’s new. And thank all things merciful, this lady didn’t seem to smell like the majority of the people around here. Yeah, she smelled too, but it wasn’t so potent as the majority of body odour around this place.
The bar tender was there to meet Jack, wide eyes of feared anticipation again.
“Was the water to your liking, sir?” He almost stammered, then froze in preparation for the worst possible response from Jack.
“You know.” Jack told him with a smirk, not raising his voice at all, and hopefully, secretly, attempting to gain the girls attention, maybe even impress her with his wit. Maybe that would help with her acceptance of him somehow. “If you expect the worst, the worst will likely happen. Looks like you’re about to suffer from heart failure or something, so relax, old man. But no, you’re out of luck, the water was hardly worth looking at, no less drinking. You got something in a bottle? Something sealed? Something actually clean enough to drink?” With that, Jack slid a fifty sent piece across the bar for old man to take as he perched himself on the stool right next to the woman and her winged rat. “How about a beer? A bottle of Merlot? Mead? Rum, perhaps?
The old man wasn’t set at ease by Jack’s witty candour, he just stared dumbfounded until Jack mentioned the words Mead and Rum, at which he nodded sharply, saying;
"Rum or mead, yes, we have that. Which would you prefer?”
His eyes then went to the coin on the counter, to Jack, to the coin, then back at Jack again. He seemed even more petrified now, apparently unwilling to be confrontational about the type of money Jack was offering him. Finally making a decision on what to do, the man swiftly grabbed the coin and shoved it in his trouser pocket, almost like he was trying to prevent anyone else from seeing it. Too late of course, anyone nearby, including the girl next to them, would have probably seen the unusual currency sitting there before he snatched it up.
“Hmm…” Jack replied. “Maybe a bit of both, a bottle of mead, and a few mouthfuls of rum. Thanks.”
The bartender placed the corked bottle of mead in front of him then poured a cup of rum. After serving Jack with a shaking hand was done, he gave another nod and promptly walked away to tend to other matters.
Jack rested with his elbows on the counter, sunk back the rum quickly to help settle his own nerves in anticipation for making contact with the girl. He had to be cool about this. Collective. He released a sigh of satisfaction, since the rum actually wasn’t all that bad. Seemed clean enough anyway. Then he popped the cork from his bottle of mead before turning his head to look at the girl. He was about to speak, but then hesitated when he saw the look on her face. Jack had been around the block many times, and it didn’t matter what world a person was from, he could tell when someone was troubled by something.
He rethought his words, cleared his throat, took a swig of the sweet mead, and then finally asked her casually, softly; “You alright there, mam?” That said, and despite his genuine sounding sentiments, he made a note of keeping his gold Rolex watch within view for her to see. If nothing else, maybe it alone could act as a lure, something to make her more willing to interact. She likely wouldn't have known what a watch was, but hey, it should have been interesting to her at the very least. Again …one can only hope.
'Someone's always staring at us, Piper.' Cheryl gave the tail around her neck an idle flick. 'Do you mind? I was trying to have a moment.' Piper didn't respond. Used to his odd conversational habits, Cheryl went back to nursing her glass.
Getting drunk senseless seemed to be an appropriate response to the situation. Then again, she needed her mind clear for later. Elena had been responsible for Mum's death, yes, but her final words...
'They were going to kill me!'
She hadn't really listened to whatever babble Elena was spouting to save herself. Strangling was hard work, after all. It was only after she was cold on the ground did those words register and Cheryl admitted that maybe killing Elena right off the bat wasn't the best move. She wasn't even sure how Elena had killed Mum. Poison, probably. She'd looked like she was sleeping when Cheryl had barged into her room.
'He's coming over now. He seems...interested.'
Cheryl hummed, indulging. On her shoulder, Piper kept his gaze fixed onto the strange man with the shiny wrist thingy. He cocked his head when the man peered at him, then bared his canine teeth.
When the man settled next to Cheryl, she paid him no mind. Despite Piper's comment, she was neither concerned, nor interested. If the guy came looking for trouble, she was plenty capable of delivering a fresh knuckle sandwich. However, the glint of something shiny caught her attention. Not moving her head, her eyes darted to the side.
What was that? Something was strapped around his wrist. Gold, mostly, with a round black disc on top of his wrist tucked behind glass. What seemed like two little sticks moved around inside. A magical accessory? A charm? Not to mention his strange clothes. Of all the articles on his figure, his pants had to be what baffled Cheryl the most. Black, but of a material she had never seen.
When he started speaking to the bartender, her gaze flicked back to her drink. Almost lazily, she leaned her cheek against her knuckles - her middle ones. It was a thing of habit, borne out of accidentally leaning her face into blood-soaked steel knuckles far too many times. She watched the exchange between the stranger and the bartender. Unbothered by her blatant show of interest, her gaze lingered on the coin the stranger had placed onto the table. Silver, but it wasn't right. There were carvings on the thing. She watched the bartender walk away.
The interaction over, she took another swig of her drink.
A stranger from far-off lands, perhaps? Past the borders of Nihilo? Wherever he came from, he stuck out like a damn twisted thumb. He looked like he could be a mage. Weird mage attire. Weird artifact thing attached to his wrist. She wondered if it was actually magical.
'You alright there, ma'am?'
She turned, leaning on one elbow to face him. Piper was already staring at him, she noted with amusement.
'I've had better days, stranger.' She gestured over to the bartender, smirking. 'That was a little mean.'
For some reason Jack couldn’t help but chuckle, though the laugh was very slight and probably unseen, perhaps the only amusement to be noticed was a smirk on his face that matched her own in sized. Really, that wasn't the response Jack had expected from her, but then, he didn't really know what to expect. He felt a sense of satisfaction though, which was a start. She could have reacted worse, much, but he actually got a smirk out of her. Yay? Regardless, he couldn't think of anything further to say on the matter of the poor old bartender. That may have been because his prior words to the bartender were just a modality, but it was more likely that Jack's mind was now distracted by another matter, or let’s call it a fascination, as it were.
It occurred to him that the girl hadn't been talking to herself at all. Based on the responsive body language of the creature on her shoulder, she was actually talking to... it. It just didn't seem to be talking back. Or was it? Thing is, this entire world was new to him, there was no real telling the capabilities of the people who lived here or the creatures that lived alongside them. For all he knew these two individuals had some sort of spiritual connection. Maybe the snarling little vermin was her animal guide. American Indian’s had similar practices going on. And besides, it was more than just the creatures reactions to her speech, the glint in its eyes portrayed an acuity that far surpassed the glint he had seen in any other animal responding to its master. It was uncanny.
Based on this hunch, and in the hopes that doing so wouldn’t undo the small amount of progress he made thus far, he decided to shift his attention and directed his following words to the creature.
“And how about you, little guy, having a better day than your friend here?” He asked it, with a charismatic rise of one brow.
In truth, Jack didn’t actually expect the creature to talk back, but in all his years of meeting people with pets, and even children, there was hardly a better way to win further favour of the parent or master than paying their cherished loved one some caring attention.
Inwardly happy with his smart thinking, he quickly took up his mead in one hand, pausing with the intent to take another sip, and directed an additional comment to the girl in an empathetic tone:
“Yeah, I can relate. Believe me, this day has been… well, out of this world.”
The question he directed towards Piper was unexpected, to say the least. Judging by the twitch of feathers she felt against her neck, Piper was just as surprised as she was.
'What's it to you, human?' Ah. He'd opened up a shared telepath signal. How polite. Sometimes, she wondered if he'd ever conversed telepathically with other people without her knowledge. Probably did at some point, though she had no way of knowing unless she asked. Considering that he still hung around and hadn't stabbed her in the back yet, she never did. He was his own dragon just as she was her own person, and she could mind her own business.
She was certain now that Jack wasn't from around here. Most common folk wouldn't dare approach Piper, much less talk to him. She'd heard of dragon mages; foolish wizards who thought they were powerful enough to make contact with dragons and learn some of their magic. They were few and far in between, however. His strange attire aside, this man didn't look like a mage. Too scruffy. Too out of place. He didn't belong and they both knew it. Whether it was intentional or not, associating with her was just making him stick out more.
Giving a noncommittal hum to his comment, she downed the last few drops of her sour, waiting to see if he would acknowledge Piper's question. It'd be rude to talk over him, after all.
Jack spat his mouthful of mead all over the counter –
“WHAT THE FUCK!”
His voice yelled out loud like someone who had just badly stumped their toe. He slammed his bottle down on the counter. The tavern went through another moment of silence as everyone turned to gape at Jack, while one person across the room yelled out:
“How does it feel to be assaulted by a flaming dragon, friend?” Some others in the room sounded with a mocking, though awkward, even fearful laugh.
“Shut the fuck up!” Jack snapped back at the person that had commented. In an instant, despite the shock of what had just happened, he in that moment felt angered by the outside comment. “Mind your own fucking business and stop being a bunch of insecure assholes!” At that, the total of three patrons knocked over their chairs as they made a run for the door to escape any possible ensuing trouble, while everyone else gaped like dead fish at Jack before they quickly returned to their own business, or at least they pretended to.
The telepathic link from the creature had done more than just send a message, it had triggered something in Jacks mind and body. He was suddenly filled with fury and an unprecedented sense of power, and yet at the same time he felt completely in control of the rage. The unfamiliar power, however, had him suspended in trepidation as he turned his glare back to the creature and the girl.
His lips moved for a while like he wanted to respond, but no words came out as he tried to fathom exactly what he was feeling. Besides the inducement of rage and unknown power, he felt violated, like his person had been penetrated without permission. Had his mind just been raped? Or was that even the issue at all? His emotions and mind were in turmoil.
Eventually a cold chill ran his flesh. Goosebumps stood tall on the skin of his arms. The skin of his face prickled like a ghost had passed through him and the flames of a nearby hearth turned blue and leaped wildly towards the ceiling. Jack’s mead froze solid while the glass of the mead bottle, no longer in the grip of his hand, cracked open. In seeing that, a few more patrons ran out of the tavern in fear. But then, as the door thudded shut in their absence, Jack became calm. Somehow subdued by an unrecognizable influence, all the things he had been feeling fled from his person while the flames of the hearth simultaneously reduced, returning to their usual orange hue. Everything was still, and finally, Jack found the ability to speak again.
“…what did you do…?”
As he finished speaking, the phone in his pocket alerted him of incoming message.
Cheryl jerked back at the outburst, her eyes wide. A low growl sounded from Piper. Throughout his tirade, Cheryl tensed, ready to react if he attacked. It was only when his glass shattered did she flinch, shielding her face. When she lowered her hand, the mead was still standing. By itself.
'What in the seventy pits of hell just happened?' She frowned. 'And why the hell does he keep mentioning beans? Weirdo.'
The stranger himself seemed confused, behind his fit of anger. When he finally spoke up, she scowled.
'The flame? I should be the one asking you that! Don't try to pin this on me, meathead.' Flaming mage! Learning magic he couldn't control and trying to shift the blame on her? As if to enunciate her point, his...butt...made an odd sound, almost like a tune. Shaking her head, she moved back. She was having none of this meat.
As Cheryl got off her seat, Piper weaved around her head, moving to her other shoulder. His ears were flat against his head and he snarled at the stranger. He switched back to the signal he shared with his mistress.
'Strange magic. Don't want to talk to him again,' he sent to Cheryl.
'Then don't,' snapped back Cheryl, keeping her eyes on the stranger. She was not dealing with this crap. The guy could go off blazing fire and breaking glass somewhere else. She had enough on her plate without having to handle tantrum-throwing wizards.
'Well, don't know about you, but I've got things to do, stranger.' She glanced around and couldn't help a whistle at the nearly empty tavern. The few that were left were studiously not looking at them and trying not to shake. 'Might wanna learn how to temper that magic o' yours. Ciao.' She turned to head for the door.
The door slammed open. Piper's wings flared open, brushing against her hair, and he snarled.
'Cheryl Lusby, you are wanted on account of murder.' Guard Sancho. Or rather, judging from his maroon uniform, Chief Guard now. Balding head, wrinkled forehead - the last decade had not been kind to him. 'Stay where you are. Do not move. And get that flaming lizard under control!' He levelled his sword at her. Behind him, just outside the tavern, Cheryl could see other guards waiting. Blue uniforms. Lower rank soldiers, but just as capable of fighting with the spears they held by their sides. They weren't waving those around just yet, but she could tell they were itching to.
'Hey Sancho.' She reached up, and Sancho took another step, sword still pointed towards her in warning. Rolling her eyes, she continued with the move, scratching Piper between his ears. His wings folded closed, but his snarl remained. 'Bit much for a welcome greeting, don't you think?'
'Lusby. Don't make this any harder than it has to be.' Sancho's voice was firm, unshakeable. So different from the quivering guard she remembered from back then.
'The only one making this hard is you, Sancho.' Sighing, she dropped her hand, inciting a slight flinch from the Chief Guard. 'Elena killed Mum. So I did you guys a favour, got rid of another murderer. Saved you the paperwork of having to write up another bounty too! You're welc-' She stopped, staring down at the sword at her throat.
'Elena told us what's been happening lately. We should've listened. I should've known better than to trust the Breath Stealer, of all people.' Disgust swam in the middle of the hate in his eyes. Cheryl narrowed her eyes. Something wasn't right.
'The flame you on about? Whatever Elena told you, it's not true.'
'This says otherwise.' He reached for something tucked in his belt and held it up. It glinted in the flickering firelight. A small corked bottle, containing a pink-tinted translucent liquid. 'Pinkshrub. Funny. What, did you think poisoning her was more merciful? Couldn't face strangling your own mother?'
Dread sat cold in the pit of Cheryl's stomach.
'What', she whispered, 'did you just say?'
Sancho lowered the bottle, stowing it away in his belt. He narrowed his eyes, practically spitting his next words.
'Cheryl Lusby. You're wanted for the murder of Elena Rushel and Velva Heilman.'
At the mention of her mother's name, Cheryl's throat closed.
'You will come with us. Your execution will take place tomorrow morning.'
Jack was literally scratching his head as the woman and her pet took off.
Temper that magic? Ciao? Meathead?
It's possible he had said something wrong, but as he quickly hit rewind and played back the prior succession of incidents in his mind, Jack realised - at the time - he wasn't even aware of the bottle breaking, which he now was. But he still wasn't aware of the fact that something inside of his person caused the hearth fire to rage out of control for several seconds.
'Wait…' he called after her, but the word never made from his mind to his mouth 'did I do something here?'
She continued in haste, her and her pet, towards the door as he lowered his hand and looked down at the shattered bottle, the frozen liquid, and realised that there was no one else nearby who could have possibly done that. The wacky lady and her pet surely didn’t, that is, if her reaction was genuine. From the broken mead bottle, his eyes lifted to the bartender who was now standing with back against the wall, looking pale as a corpse while his apron and trouser pants were growing with the spread of his own urine.
“Oh jeez, I’m sorry, dude” Jack said with a sigh, and turned to pursue the girl.
She hadn’t gotten far, only to the door, where she’d been stopped by what looked like, uh…. Really? Why am I not surprised ancient Roman-style soldiers are involved in this? One of whom had a sword to her throat. What was it with these people?”
Jack took a stance fairly close, but not too close, able to hear and see the very informative conversation taking place. Apparently this girls name was Cheryl Lusby, wanted on two accounts of murder, one victim being no other than her own mother - the latter accusation being something that Cheryl adamantly objected to. Of course, as one would expect from a primitive race like this, such a crime warranted an execution. Curious, though, the entire scene played out like some cliché setup. He’d seen this sort of thing in more movies than he would care to recall. Really, they were horrible movies, so predictable. But they did help Jack realise that no, this girl wasn’t guilty of killing her own mother. If not for the reflection of B-grade Hollywood films, the tone in Cheryl’s voice was convincing enough. Hearing the truth in someone’s voice was something Jack knew well, too well in fact, since his occupation back home trained him well to recognize when someone was sincere, or not. This girl was innocent, at least of her mother’s murder.
Regardless of the fact that she may have killed the other victim in question, which to be fair Jack didn’t really doubt at all, he couldn’t let her be executed. Not that he valued her life all that much, but as far as he could tell she was still the person most likely to help him. She seemed smarter than the others, less paranoid, perhaps? It was also possible that since she was a little bit crazy and misunderstood that she would be more likely to believe his story. That is, if he ever got a chance to share it…. And hey, truth be told, she was kinda cute. No sense in wasting a good looking woman over something so trivial as a murder. Wait… never mind
In any case, Jack had to try and do something, these guards didn’t seem like the type to mess around. They meant every word they were saying, and when it comes down to it, like everyone else, he was certain that Cheryl would much rather be a fugitive than be executed for the crime of killing her own mother. Problem was, Jack had no weapons at hand, and therefore no match for these brutes.
He thought quickly for answers, something clever that might distract them and allow her to escape, but almost every thought he had came to nothing. Even if Cheryl did get away, he himself would have ended up being cornered in that smelly, smelly tavern. He was just about to give up when, as fate would have it, futuristic Earth technology stepped up in the form of Mc Hammer -
As 'U Can’t Touch This' suddenly belted out at full volume, Jack moved into unmissable view of the guards with the phone raised above his head, miming the words as his feet began moving over the floorboards in an awkward rapping beat to the music. The sight of the luminous screen of the phone, the watch, the unusual clothing, and Jack moving across the floor in dance, made Sancho step back in sudden dismay, causing him to stumbled and fall down the small flight of stairs to the street beyond. The guards in blue in waiting on the street also began to back-step in horror. The Patrons left in the tavern scrambled to take cover beneath their tables, and the poor old bartender had finally had enough and passed out with a thump to the floor.
It was then when everyone around was, in one way or another, suspended in a state of shock, that Jack took a moment out from his fanciful exhibition to yell at the girl and her pet… lizard.
Strange music jarred Cheryl from her stupor and she took a step back. Her mind whirred fast in the next few seconds.
A set up. Of course Cheryl wasn't responsible for Mum's death - the hell would she obtain from killing off the one person she'd risked her life for all these years? Sancho had to be dumber than she'd thought, buying Elena's lies like that. Under all that false bravado, he hadn't changed a bit.
This only confirmed that this went further than Elena. The caretaker couldn't have cooked up something like this on her own. 'And', a part of her grudgingly admitted, 'she wouldn't have much reason to do something like this without outside influence.' Her few interactions with Elena years ago had reflected a capable young lady with a demeanour others might have called "sweet". Cheryl called it "sickening naivety" - but that was probably what Mum needed all those years. Someone who actually knew to care for her and love her the way she deserved.
Someone who could give her everything Cheryl Lusby couldn't.
At the stranger's shout, Cheryl gritted her teeth. Turning around, she flung a hand out towards him.
'Stop that-whatever it is you're doing, idiot! I had it under control!' she snapped. Without waiting for his response, she twisted back towards the door. It hung open, revealing the pitiful, scattered mess of the town's guards. Sancho was still gathering himself, dazed from his tumble down the tavern's steps. The guards, however, were still on their feet and as soon as Cheryl stepped through the door, they raised their spears. The unison of their movement and wariness of the action showed that they could be somewhat competent after all.
Too bad Cheryl was better.
In her walk to the door, she'd opened the clasp of her second belt pouch, closer than the one she'd gotten her money from. It had to be - its contents were far more important than some old coins. Now, she stood at the door, one hand tucked into that pouch.
Then she glowed. Wisps of pale turquoise rose above her skin. Green pupils flashed, almost as if electrified. The guards hesitated at the display, some gasping aloud, but to their credit, all of them stood their ground. She walked down the steps and Sancho, who'd just gotten to his knees, scuttled back on his ass.
'No-don't do this! Please!'
The guards stepped closer, then stilled when Cheryl raised a glowing hand.
'Come closer and and the life of your Chief Guard falls by your hands.'
They did not move again. Her gaze flicked down towards Sancho. His face was as pale as a scroll, almost ashen in her light.
'Give me three days.'
'I'll prove that it wasn't me who killed Velva Heilman.' Detachment. It helped numb the cold emptiness of grief, grounded her from running from reality. 'In three days, find me in Rareckel and you'll have your proof. Do we have a deal?'
Sancho hesitated. Cheryl cocked her head. Then a bark of laughter escaped Sancho, hysteria colouring its edges.
'A deal? The moment you're out of my sight, we'll have a fugitive on our hands! You really expect me to trust you?!'
The corner of her lip curled upwards.
'Yes. Because if you don't...' Fingers alight with turquoise twitched. Sancho gasped as a gust of wind blew through the area.
'Since you're such a fan of rumours, I'm sure you know what I can do.'
The area was void of but a few people, commoners who had not the presence of mind to think of running away. Siphoning out all other expressions that had previously been aimed towards her, there was a collective tension that ran through every witness of the display:
Cheryl relished in it.
Sancho nodded weakly. 'Three...three days.'
'Good.' In her pouch, she let go of the mana shard and the wisps returned into her skin, as if sucked in. The light dissipated. Piper started cleaning the underside of his wings, the scrape of his rough tongue against his feathers audible against her ear. 'Remember. Rareckel. And call your dogs off. I'm going home.'
With that, she stalked off. Now that the light show was gone, the disgust had returned. She could feel it emanating from every civilian she passed, nearly drowning out that fear. The whispers started up again.
It’s funny, not in a ‘haha’ kind of way, the memories dredged up by the emotion of years detached.
Jack recalled a time when he was a child in school. He had at that time a crush on a girl in the same grade. Amy was her name. Amy didn’t really know who Jack was, since he kept to himself, but one day he heard that Amy’s birthday was coming up, so Jack spent some time preparing a gift for her in hopes to win her heart. Three days he spent drawing an image of her. It was a portrait of Amy. No, he wasn’t the best artist in the world, far from it, but he put his heart into it nonetheless. When Amy’s birthday rolled around, Jack worked up the courage to give the drawing to her at the end of the school day. Alas, Amy took less than one look at the drawing and laughed mockingly before snapping at Jack with a scouring sneer, ‘That is so fucking stupid’, she had said, ‘get away from me, freak!’ And there it was, the same stabbing hurt caused by Amy’s rejection, stabbing Jacks heart in much the same way as it did when Cheryl turned and snapped at him with a similar look on her face and tone in her voice.
The fun-loving smile ran from Jack’s face as his best impression of CM Hammer died, and he lowered the phone to his side while watching on rather glumly as Cheryl started to glow a turquoise hue and made her stand with the guards. No doubt he would have felt more impressed by her own exhibit had he not been feeling sorry for himself at the time. He continued to watch her and Sancho exchanged words. Nope, Jack could admit it, she apparently didn’t need his help, but how was he to know? More than that, who the hell was this girl - this girl that had such power and authority over the local law? At the very least, Cheryl would have certainly come in handy on a dark night.
There was so much more to this world Jack had entered. He knew nothing….
Jack continued to watch on in silence while Cheryl walked away with not so much as a thank you for his efforts. He had stepped out onto the porch of the tavern, watching her and her feathery pet fade into the distance on their way back home when he felt the urge to call after her with something like, ‘You know it’s customary where I come from to show gratitude when someone tries to help. Sure, you didn’t need my damn help, but how was I to know you could make your ass all shiny? Not like I tried to save your life or anything, right!? Bitch….’ But he found these words only remained stuck in his throat and echoing through his mind. This girl, Cheryl, would never know how he felt. Still, it was all for the best, the death of her mother was enough to worry about, she didn’t need to be antagonized or guilt tripped by some stranger as well.
He’d been wrong about her. She wasn’t the one who could help him.
As Jack came to this conclusion he found himself surrounded by the town guard. The same men that come to take Cheryl away had now come for him instead. Sancho stood up close, doing a fair job of hiding his caution for Jack as he opened his mouth to say in an authorising voice;
“We don’t know you, friend. We don’t know your kind.” He glanced down at the phone in Jack’s hand. “But around these parts we do not take lightly to those abetting the criminal type. You will accompany us to the Imperial Guards Station. You will answer some questions we have for you.”
Jack sighed as he slid the phone back in his pocket:
“Fine, Mr. my-breath-stinks-like-roadkill, let’s just get this shit over with.”
A small time later, Jack was in the watchhouse of the guards’ station, seated across from Sancho, a sorry excuse for a wooden table separating them. Several armed guards in blue uniforms occupied the room as well, lining the wall, all of them nervous, looking like they were at any moment prepared to drive a blade through Jack’s torso.
Sancho made himself as comfortable as he could under the circumstances, attempting to seem at ease as he rested back in his seat to regard Jack with an intimidating look.
“Listen to me.” He Sancho said, tapping his index finger on the table. “I can find no immediate reason to detain you at this point. Since you are… obviously new to these parts, you may not be aware of how things work around here. Nevertheless, we cannot let you walk free if there is at all a chance you pose a threat to this town or any of the towns under the reign of our Queen. You Are here because we need to understand where it is you come from. We need to know what your intentions hold.”
Jack rolled his eyes and slumped; “Look, man, I don’t want any trouble, I just saw the girl needed help and acted accordingly. You can see with your own eyes that I’m not from around here, sure, good for you. But if I told you where exactly I was from you’d imprison me, even kill me for so much as saying it. Let’s just say it is better that some things remain unsaid. Let me go now and I’ll be on my way. I have no quarrel with you or the people of this town. I have more important business to attend to.”
Sancho’s face became stone. “Tell me why you are here!”
“Hmm…” Jack rolled his eyes in a thoughtful manner, and replied; “I’m looking for someone, someone dear to me. I need to find her. I need to know she is safe. That is all I can say. Imprison me if you need to. I just don’t feel right telling you more than that. Yeah, I thought maybe Cheryl could helped me, but I was wrong. She seems a little preoccupied at the moment, if you know what I mean?”
Sancho grimaced. “Are you in league with her?”
“For fuck sake….” Jack muttered. "What did I just say...?"
Sancho furrowed his brow like someone that had heard something vaguely amusing.
“You didn’t listen to a word I said.” Jack continued. “I don’t even know that woman and her freaky lizard. I only met her tonight. I just figured she might be able to help me, so I tried to spare her from being beheaded, or whatever it is you depraved people do when executing someone around here. Primitive bunch of fuckers.... But I was obviously mistaken, right? I’ll need to find someone else, another way, yeah? Chill out, man. I'm not here to cause a problem. End of story.”
Sancho stared thoughtfully at Jack for a time, attempting in his own primitive way to makes sense of what Jack was telling him. Finally he spoke up once more, giving a nod to his subordinate guards to set themselves at ease, which they did, as Sancho replied to Jack:
“Very well, outsider, but before I release you, I request your name.”
“Names Jack. That's all you get. That's all I have to give you.”
“Jack." Sancho reaffirmed. "Unusual name. I haven't heard a name such as this before. It will be remembered... Ah, You must be from a far, far away land….” He now spoke suspiciously. “Very well, you can go. A word of warning, though. Stay clear of Cheryl. She is not the type to mingle with. No good can come of her. May the gods guide you on your own quest and may the Queens’s speed be with you. However, be warned, Jack, I will be sending out word of you to our Queen. We will be watching. Keep your magic to yourself…. If you know what is good for you….”
Despite Sancho’s words, Jack knew that his freedom was provided of fear. Sancho was afraid. Still, Jack wasn’t about to press his luck; he stood promptly from his chair, gave all the guards an equal look of recognition, and exited the guard station.
Out on the cobblestone street, Jack stood for a time staring up at the three moons in the star-spangles sky wondering what in the hell he was about to do next. Lowering his attention after some time, he gave a nod to the two guards guarding the door of the station before he made his way up the street, utterly ignoring anyone who may have been watching. His next stop was the house of Travius, which was now in darkness, and stood for a moment wondering on how a knock on the door would be received at this late hour.
Cheryl Lusby could hardly recognise this place that was meant to be home. How could she, when she'd spent nearly all her life away from it? The door opened silently, giving out only the smallest of creaks. She glanced at its hinges. Well-oiled. Her gaze moved up to the unlit torch by the doorway, then flicked towards the centre of the room. In the darkness, she could just about make out the hearth. She strode over to it, kneeling down. There wasn't much firewood left, but it wasn't like she was staying long.
Piper got his head out from under his wings and spat. Instead of spittle, however, a tiny lick of dark red flame shot out towards the fireplace. Fire consumed dry wood, burning dark red. Despite the dark colour, it lit the room as well as a regular fire would. The room was a little more than dimly lit now. She stood up, looking around. The living room was a mess. Not in the way that someone hadn't bothered to maintain it; the haphazard way the furniture was placed and objects scattered indicated something else far more irritating.
Sancho and his dogs. They'd been here, messing with things that weren't theirs while she'd been at the funeral.
'Hungry,' sent Piper as she took the torch from the doorway. She didn't say anything until she lit it with some of the fire from the hearth.
They were both tired. Cheryl had left Ferlois the second she'd heard about Mum, riding straight to Sonarlis. Piper, who'd just flown back from Sonarlis, had taken to riding on her shoulder since then. Guilt crawled around the edges of her mind. His wellbeing had completely escaped her.
'Here.' She tossed a silver coin at him and he caught it with a deft paw. 'Get yourself something.'
A soft churr in response, a flap of wings, and he was gone. Now alone, Cheryl looked towards the deeper interiors of the house.
He could smell Cheryl's exhaustion. It was a strong scent; if they'd been in the wild, some animal would have come, thinking she was easy food. In a way, she was. But they were both slippery and Piper marvelled at how they had escaped death more than once with nothing but her wits.
He knew his species wasn't particularly intelligent. That was what all the humans said. Pipios - good for following orders and nothing else. Piper was content with that. At least he could help Cheryl.
The one person who'd showed him mercy in a place where there had been none.
Cool air soothed his wings. He was a streak of white against the black sky, hungry eyes darting everywhere as he soared over the village. Few humans were out; those who spotted him reeked of either fear or disgust. He watched them scuttle back into their stiff, blocky homes.
The lack of human activity also meant a lack of food - at least in the open. When Cheryl let him free like this, he could usually snatch up something from the market, leaving behind his payment for the humans to find after they calmed down from their outrage over the thievery. He'd been more than a little startled the first time it happened, but Cheryl had told him it was alright. He paid for what he took so it was still legal, whatever that meant. Humans and their funny clan rules. So complicated.
He could try going into one of the homes that offered food to humans who went in. Then again, it would be harder to fly out and they might blame Cheryl if he fought someone. Most things he did, they blamed on Cheryl. Sometimes, he felt like attacking humans who did that, but Cheryl usually didn't want him to, so he didn't.
His middle rumbled. He settled on the edge of a sloping roof, shaking his head vigorously.
'Mrr,' he grumbled, displeased. For a while, he was content to sit there. Wriggly silhouettes occasionally passed overhead. He stared up at them, watching them fly by. Another type of pygmy, wingless ones who could fly. So much mana - he could sense it even at this distance.
It was a little later before he noticed a vaguely familiar scent permeating the air. Further down the street, something glinted at him. He perked up.
He raised his wings, then hesitated. The last time he'd spoken with this stranger, the stranger had, as Cheryl would put it, 'lost his meat'. Clearly, the stranger was someone Piper should stray clear of.
That little gold trinket winked at him once more.
Piper took off, landing neatly on the sconce jutting by the home's entrance where the stranger was. He puffed out a small flame, lighting the torch in greeting.