CW: death/murder, body horror, background racism
Prior to the Forrath years, deaths from feral magic were matters of people wandering out-of-bounds, or active attacks. However, as Forrath’s influence grew worse, something equally terrible began to rise in response to his cruelties; humans attempting to bypass the intense study of structured magic entirely and make deals with the devil. While rumours abound, of course, none of these worked; but they had a much more gruesome effect, of both killing would-be rebels and giving away their locations and activities to Forrath’s enforcers. After all, when feral magic destroys a human body, it’s rarely discreet about it.
It bears repeating, however, that there has never been a successful case of a human directly interacting with and controlling feral magic for more than seconds at a time – and even those cases cause untold damage to the psyche and body. As a result, the vast majority of investigations entail understanding where the victim got both their materials and their ideas; investigating the victim just as much as their death. One would hope that their death alone would dissuade anyone else from trying it, but it’s always good to be safe.-Report from the desk of Thaumatist-Colonel Albertssohn Baer, Investigations, 1919
Investigations was in the same fenced-off area as the building they’d been in the other day. It was a shorter, stubbier building, linked to another building across the barricades with a strange brick-and-glass enclosed bridge… thing. It seemed easier to Csindra to take down the barricades, but hey, she didn’t work for bloodsucking leeches—
Shit. She supposed she did.
There went her dignity.
She couldn’t decide if she was more or less unhappy with the idea of entering the Cop Building than the Anti-Terrorist Building, but she didn’t really get a choice. So she followed Rook up, comforting herself as much as she could with the reminder that she had her axe this time. Worst came to worst, she’d take some of them down with her.
Lovely. Now you’re having violent murder-suicide fantasies. Maybe Jacob had a point.
“You could look a little less like you’re walking into an execution room,” Rook teased a little. “Olivadocht’s not that bad. A little loud, that’s all.”
“Oh, we all call her that.”
This wasn’t helping with the sense of alienation. She tried not to sound too irritated as they got to the landing. “I do not understand the name thing. You’ve all got three names, but is everyone here related to each other?”
“You must know what the manor families are.”
…Sort of. “I know they’re nobility. Haven’t gotten the foggiest idea beyond that. They call the shots, and that’s all I know.” She admittedly knew a bit more than that, that there were twenty or thirty of them. And who some of them were. But there was the vague understanding that these people were In Charge, and then there was the nitty-gritty of what that actually meant, when you had to care about more than just not pissing them off.
Rook just snickered a little, although there was a bit of an edge to it. “Yeah, that’s an understatement.” He knocked on the door
Oh, very helpful. She didn’t have time to ask anything more than that, though. The door opened in response to his knock – and suddenly she was being dragged into the office, with Rook’s sigh of protest drifting after her.
“Finally, finally! I thought we’d never get another girl in our neck of the woods—”
“You’re not allowed to steal her, Olivadocht,” Rook groaned, rubbing his forehead. His lack of real panic was the only thing stopping her from reacting more violently – as it was, she was tempted.
Instead, she managed to steal her arm back out of Olivadocht’s grip with a note of complaint. “I’m right here.” She tried to take in the woman in front of her, who was looking her up and down in — not quite the same way as Scheffen. Scheffen had been cold, calculating, but with a hint of something else lurking under the mask, something that could have been warm or monstrous or something else entirely. It was too well hidden to say. This woman was… well, for one, grinning so widely she looked like she’d pop at any moment. She was worryingly blonde, with big eyelashes, cropped curls bouncing around her head, and the lingering scent of lilac perfume around her like an aura. In short? Terrifying, in a completely different way.
Csindra took a few steps back and tried not to look like she was hiding behind Rook.
“Aw, I was being friendly,” The apparent Olivadocht gave a slight pout. Olivadocht hadn’t really prepared her as a name for the amount of, uh, Flapper Femme she was faced with. She wasn’t sure what she had expected, to b
“Yeah, she’s not,” Rook laughed in response. Csindra promptly rammed her knee into the back of his. “Ow! Case in point.”
Olivadocht waggled her eyebrows, leaning in slightly. “Has he been bothering you? Because I know how to take care of men who are bad at hearing no—”
“You’re talking to a girl with a battleaxe, Olive, I’m pretty sure she could teach you something about it. And, no, I haven’t, Olive,” Rook added with a firm note and a blush spreading over his face. Poor boy. Csindra couldn’t help but sympathize. At least when she was flustered, it didn’t get signposted so hard the ants could see it.
“You know I’m teasing, love. That is a big axe, though—”
Csindra moved her shoulder away before Olive could get too close. “Any finger it kisses, it keeps. And the joke’s getting old. He’s been fine.”
Olive swiftly retrieved the finger, although she was smiling. “What’s your name, darling?”
“No rank?” Olive asked after a beat passed and Csindra realized she’d been waiting for more.
“I’m not military,” she replied, and then after realizing the burning glare at her neck was Rook, amended it. “I’m a contractor.”
“Oh, I see.” There was a little gleam of mischief in Olive’s eyes. “Well, dear, I assume someone neglected to mention that contractors still have a base rank of Sergeant.”
“…Do they,” she mumbled, returning Rook’s suddenly quailing glare. “And I suppose they have to salute, too.” More and more she was feeling like she’d been talked into selling her soul.
“Not – not generally,” Rook was clearly trying to salvage it, but Olive just laughed, turning around and leading the two of them between the rows of desks down to the other office door. It wasn’t quite a twin to the set-up over in NatSec, but it was similar, with a few Investigations soldiers glancing up at them in curiosity and others abandoning all pretense and looking them – her, really – over with undisguised interest. She recognized Hank at one of the desks, and he gave her an uneasy but genuine smile. So that’s what he did when he wasn’t getting pushed around by Rook.
“It depends on the contractor, dear. You should be alright, but you’ll have to introduce yourself with Sergeant, yes. Salutes are… tricky territory. But I’d suggest it for the properly higher-ups. Standard practice is name, rank and regiment. For example, officially, I’m Major Baer, 298th NEI.”
“National Elessan Investigators.”
“That’s right,” Olive said, and Csindra decided to pretend not to notice the amount of surprise in her voice.
“I’ve already met a Baer so far. Uh —” She fumbled through her memory. She’d met a lot of people the day before. “2nd Lieutenant something?”
“Ah, yes, Tiff.” Olive smiled. “Sweet girl.”
“You’re not sisters.”
“No, no. There’s so many Baers in the military. That’s why Rook calls me Olivadocht, or Olive. A lot of people do. My actual name is Roxanna Olivadocht, but first-name basis is a little too familiar for the army.”
Csindra cast a sly look at Rook, who just quietly coughed and ignored her. “…Noted.”
Olive opened the door to her office, and when the two of them were inside, closed it behind them with a discreet ‘click’. Rook immediately flopped comfortably into one of the upholstered chairs; Csindra stayed standing, because she couldn’t shake the wrongness of being in a military building to begin with. She wasn’t stupid enough to start getting casual about it.
Olive gave her an odd look, then plucked an abaca folder from her desktop. “You’re working for Rook for now, I assume you’ve got identical clearance?”
“Close enough,” Rook yawned.
“You know that’s not an answer—” Olive started, then sighed, pressing two fingers to the bridge of her nose. “Never mind. I’m not doing this with you again.”
“Just hurry up and tell me about this murder case or whatever.”
Olive gave Csindra a despairing look before moving behind her desk. “Murder case is a little general, but at least I know what you’re talking about. I requested NatSec support for a reason, but it’s not pretty.”
Csindra doubted most murder cases were. She came a little closer to the desk as Olive opened the abaca folder – and caught the little twitch from the other woman. So much for welcoming. She’d figured the cute thing was a front.
A moment later, though, Olive turned the folder around, pushing it towards her. “Nine recorded deaths so far, at least with this pattern.”
There were photos. Csindra picked one of them up, shoving her twinge of hurt aside – and then nearly dropped it. It’d taken her a second, but…
“What is it?” Rook asked curiously. She couldn’t quite put together an answer. The sepia toning had almost hidden what the substance on the asphalt actually was, and she’d taken the scattered bits of white for – for pebbles, maybe, or some other debris—
She put the photo down hurriedly and retreated to the office wall, leaning her head and hands against the cool wall and trying to steady the spinning in her head.
It sounds morbid until you see it.
Édjan’na wasn’t supposed to do that. Édjan’na didn’t do that.
“Oh, damn. Olive, you could have told me this was one of the really messy ones. Who was he?”
“Ansel Rolandsohn Riviere. Heir to the Third Manor.”
“Hm. Not anymore.”
Rook was joking about it. How on earth was he joking about it? That had been an actual person.
Get yourself together, you wimp, she snapped at herself. She was a mercenary. She’d seen dead bodies before. Just… normally not exploded. Or — it looked like he’d been turned inside out.
Dimly, Csindra processed… something.
“Decompression,” she said, and her voice sounded like it was coming from miles away.
“Is there… another picture of him?”
“Are you sure, dear?” Olive asked — kindly, which just made her feel worse. “You already look a bit ill.”
“I’m fine. Just wasn’t expecting it.” She managed to pull herself away from the wall, and took the photo that Olive offered her, making herself look at it. This photo was from directly above, and she could see more details now. He’d literally exploded, but not the normal way. “I’ve uh — I’ve seen this before. Not in people.”
“Really?” Olive actually looked interested. Rook just looked skeptical.
“There’s a lake in Etamara – Lake Meliǩénate.” She scratched a little at her arm. “I hate it, personally. It’s the deepest lake in Elessa.”
“How deep is that?”
“Deep enough that sun doesn’t reach the bottom, that’s all I know. Anyway, some people actually practice holding their breath to go catch the fish from way down in the bottom, and when they bring them up, the fish end up looking like that. All…”
“Exploded?” Olive offered, looking a little queasy.
Csindra nodded. Rook was giving her a fascinated look, which just made the whole thing worse. “Did you ever—”
“Not in a million years.” What she didn’t say was that she couldn’t even get close to Meliǩénate. Neither of them had seen it, clearly. It wasn’t a normal lake. It was more like a crater; a cave that had been torn open to the sky and still had edges that surged up past the water, far enough that during the dry season, it was a good six foot drop to the water itself. No, you couldn’t pay her to get anywhere it. The corpses of the fish brought up from its depths just made it that much worse. She’d eat them once they were cooked, sure, but not happily, and only if there was nothing else — and she preferred not to look at them at all.
“If it’s a natural phenomenon, that makes sense. Feral magic can copy anything natural—”
Csindra bit back her strangled reaction at copy.
“—but I can’t see a Riviere fuckin’ around with feral magic. And you said this is a pattern.”
“Yes. That’s why I figured the 214th should get involved. Nine deaths like this, all feral magic, all similar… uh, results. And look at the names.” She slid the list of names over. Csindra peered over Rook’s shoulder. Elessan names didn’t mean anything to her, but she was seeing a couple other Rivieres on there.
“Cousins?” she asked with a quip.
Olive didn’t seem to find it funny. Csindra looked back down at the names, then at Rook – who was looking much less casual. “They’re all Rivieres, huh?”
“Not officially,” Olive sighed. “You know how it works. The Beckers don’t work for the Rivieres on paper.”
Nine deaths. Csindra counted three Rivieres – and four Beckers. The other two had the last names Hedrick, and —
Oh. A nasty feeling coiled in Csindra’s stomach. Angtaiki. That wasn’t Elessan.
“One of these is Tosaka. Do you have anything more on him?”
“Give me a moment.” Olive pulled out another piece of paper. Csindra wasn’t surprised that it seemed to have the least information — even if Elessans hadn’t been so continually dismissive of anybody from the clans, she doubted there was much information on him to begin with. She was proven right when she scanned over the file, pausing at the picture of him before his death that they’d managed to acquire. He was young, although old enough that he’d gotten his tattoos. Not on his face, nobody got them on their face anymore unless they were criminally stupid; but they snuck up past the starched collar of his shirt, designs barely visible. He’d worked for one of the other victims – Paul Jacobsohn Becker, which, god, all their names sounded the same after a while. Probably a bodyguard or blade for hire, just like her.
Olive and Rook were still talking. That was fine. She was just trying to wrap her head around how feral magic worked from this side of things. Sure, she’d dealt with it before. It was like anything else. It could kill you, if you crossed it the wrong way. But there was a malevolence here that she wasn’t used to. When people called it down on their own heads, sure, they got what was coming to them…
…and if he hadn’t had his damn tattoos, maybe she wouldn’t have been so hesitant. Tosaka culture wasn’t Kanet’ culture, but she knew enough to know that if you got your tattoos, and you kept your name, you were probably smart enough not to mess with édjan’na for no reason. Someone who spent the hours with his elders necessary to get those tattoos in the first place had heard all the stories, all the words of warning, how to keep the odjanien happy and away from you and yours. Of course, he’d probably heard the lectures about not going into her line of work, but that was different. You had to make a living somehow.
She sighed, pressing the abaca folder to her head. She was projecting. He’d probably done nothing wrong but be in the way.
“So what are you thinking?” Rook asked Olive, still sounding almost devastatingly casual about the whole thing. “If this was one person, I’d think it was a botched attempt to use feral magic, or someone making a mistake somewhere, but this is spread out over, what, three weeks? Nine people? And none of ‘em are thaums, either.”
Olive shook her head. “Not a one. I’m wondering if it’s a demon.”
“Demons aren’t this smart.”
“Some of them are.”
“Okay, reword,” Rook amended. “Demons don’t give a shit about family names, unless there’s some other connection, and you guys are the serial killer squad, you would have found something before tossing it over to me.”
That much was true, Csindra thought grimly — although once again she was struck by how much she hated the way they were talking about édjan’na and its creatures. Demons. There was nothing demonic about most of them.
“It’s probably a person,” Csindra murmured, not really saying it out loud, but both of their eyes suddenly shot over to her. Her stomach flipped suddenly. She hadn’t thought that through. “I mean — I mean, this seems like someone with a grudge, right?”
“People can’t use feral magic,” Olive sighed, sliding the papers back into the folder. “Trust me, I thought of it, but if it was possible, we’d know about it by now.”
Rook’s cold gaze didn’t move from Csindra for a solid few seconds, pale irises like ice boring into her — and then he tore his eyes away, snorting. “Yeah, the longest we’ve seen any idiot last is what, a few minutes?”
“Technically, the record is three days.”
“Yeah, with some dinky freshwater shit and it still killed them. Slowly.” Rook scratched the back of his neck. “I’ll take the files, though. I’ll figure something out.” Another cold glare from Rook. She’d said too much — and even then, she knew perfectly well that wasn’t anger from Rook. At least, not purely. It was fear.
After the matter with Pieter Janssen, Rook didn’t try to make friends anymore. Oh, he hadn’t really been trying before; he’d been sort of vaguely attempting the gestures he saw around him. And he and Pieter, despite appearances, had almost been friends, at least by any metric Rook could figure out. Sure, Pieter had pushed him around. Pieter had also talked to him more than anybody else did.
So when Pieter didn’t come back to school – transferring out of the academy entirely — Rook wasn’t surprised when rather than picking up the slack and going back to picking on ‘Ghost’, the rest of the boys in the academy simply chose not to speak to him at all.
It could have been worse, he supposed. Pieter could have come back. Or died.
He just spent most of his time in various nooks and crannies, reading. When he wasn’t reading, he was practicing seals and incantations behind the cover of whatever library book he had on hand. They were useless without any wicks or lenses or instruments, and really, you didn’t need a lot of them, but they took the burden off of a thaumatist’s mind to carry all of the pieces of a spell on its own. Besides, he liked the way they looked and sounded. They occupied his mind, and it needed a lot of occupying. When he was having a day like today, it felt like even reading and practicing seals wasn’t enough to stop a third rail of thoughts from pounding through the back of his head.
You could practice Bloodwork.
Rook yanked in annoyance on his long sleeves, then slouched back against the tree he’d claimed for himself. He’d been good and not cut himself at all since Scheffen had told him off about it, but there didn’t seem to be much point. Sometimes he woke up and his elbow or wrist would just… be yelling at him. Other times after eating he felt so dizzy he’d considered – or actually had, once or twice – making himself throw up to see if it helped. Normal stuff, he figured, or as normal as puberty seemed to get – every time he tried to ask about any of it, people kept defaulting to that, so he supposed that explained plenty.
Something scampered through the long grass in front of him; he cast his eyes briefly upwards, then snorted and returned his gaze to his book. That, he was starting to suspect, was less normal. Over the last year or so, especially after coming to Den Elessa, he’d noticed that the wildlife and living things that were notoriously shy around everybody else didn’t give him the same wide berth. It didn’t help the reputation he had with others, but he’d gotten used to it. It seemed like every month there was something else vying for his attention. Last month, he’d kept finding frogs in his apartment — in fact, he’d joked to himself that it might be the same dratted frog every time, sneaking its way back in. Still, it was a little unnerving, especially with how seriously his teachers talked about the threat of feral magic. The wild was full of temptations and promises, they warned, but the power of the wild was interested in one thing and one thing only – consuming humankind into itself and destroying what they had created.
All very dramatic, Rook sighed, raising his head to look at the squirrel’s bushy tail as it twitched about the green-and-yellow blades. If you cared for those kinds of theatrics, or could figure out what people found so terrifying about squirrels and weeds.
His train of thought ground to a sudden, startled halt as the squirrel lifted its head and met his gaze with four iridescent, triangular eyes in a face that was — well, it wasn’t human. But it certainly wasn’t a squirrel’s face either. Some mix of the two.
Rook froze — then scrambled to his left, grabbing his saxophone. Of course he hadn’t had his flute with him, oh no, it couldn’t be the normal instrument. He’d been doing so well with the flute that he wanted to try something else for a change. As he did, the thing that was — especially now that he was looking at it properly — far too big to be an actual squirrel started to walk, then run towards him.
He put his mouth to the reed —
— and a dissonant blare came out. Ow. At least the demon seemed to agree. Come on, come on, come on. You were learning this yesterday. Binding spells in – in, uh, major, with —
Too much thinking. He exhaled, and let his instincts guide him.
The demon threw itself at him again, but its clawed front paws hit the air and sank into it like soft dirt. It tried to pull them back — but they were stuck. Rook tried not to smirk, and focused on playing the pattern over again. What was he playing? He wasn’t sure. He wasn’t making it up — it was something he’d heard, maybe changed enough to work as the spell he needed.
He’d never actually done this before.
Oh, sure, there was what he’d done to Pieter. But that had been mostly Bloodwork. Pure instinct. This was him using an actual spell — and more importantly, he wasn’t hurting anybody. Even the demon was unharmed, if stuck.
“There it is!”
The shout surprised him enough that he bit down – and between the sound of his reed cracking and the sting of his tongue, he missed the demon’s enraged leap until the claws raked his nose. “Motherf—”
“I got it!”
He’d vaguely smelled it before, but the smell of smoke got stronger, and he felt the static rise on his arms as something was cast; what exactly he couldn’t tell without looking, but when he opened his eyes again, the demon was trapped on the ground, and there were two new people in front of him. One was holding a simple Smokework wick – just two branches bound and burning at the top — and the other was carefully opening up a cage, looking even more disheveled than her male companion. She glared up at the man holding the Smokework wick. “I asked for your help specifically, specifically so that this didn’t happen—”
“Phania, when you said you had a specimen, I thought you meant a dead one. Where did you even get a living drabuka?”
“I have my ways,” she sniffed at him. “You should be lucky for little girls. If it weren’t for her, you’d be getting court-martialed.”
“I’m sorry, okay—?”
Rook felt himself going pink, and rubbed the cut on his nose, wincing a little as he looked over the two. The older one was in a uniform, at least; dark green and only slightly crumpled. The younger one — the girl — was in a shin-length dress, long hair pulled back in a ponytail and covered with a flat, broad-brimmed hat. Certainly nobody he’d seen around before, at least that he consciously remembered. “I’m not—” Oh, whatever. It wasn’t the first time he’d been mistaken for a girl. “What’s a drabuka?”
The girl had the drabuka half in the cage, and blinked a little at hearing his voice, before finally getting the door closed and looking up at him. “Oh, goodness, sorry. The – the hair, that’s all—”
“It’s better than some of the other things I get called,” he sighed.
The man just covered a small grin. “Oh, hell, I know who you are.”
Rook took a small step backwards despite himself — Phania gave her companion a whack on the knee. “Don’t scare him like that.”
“Sorry. You’re Scheffen’s kid, right?”
…Of course that was how Scheffen talked about him. “She isn’t my mother,” he protested. “I just… um…” Well, alright, there wasn’t a lot of ways of explaining that she paid for his food, lodgings and clothing that didn’t end up sounding a bit like she was his mother. “Yes, that’s me. Rook Zeesohn.”
“Yeah, I heard about you. I thought that looked like clean Bard lines for a student. Phan, he’s twelve.”
“That’s not funny.” Then Phania looked at him with a curious gaze. “Really?”
“Is that weird?” he asked — and just found himself more confused when Phania scowled, dramatically.
“You’re just young to be that talented, that’s all,” she said, sounding a little like she was pulling teeth.
The older man just got another cackle off. “I’m Wolfie. This is my little sister, Phania, who’s already trying to be the youngest thaumatist on record at sixteen. And not quite there yet.”
“I am close, Wolfie. And besides, I don’t care if I’m the youngest, I care about being the youngest girl, which means I have to be under twenty, that’s all.”
“How gracious.” Wolfie waggled his eyebrows at Rook. “So you’ll beat her if you’re under that.”
“I hate you.”
Rook shook his head, although he wasn’t sure what he was shaking it to. “I don’t — uh — I mean, I don’t think I’m —” Then he rubbed the back of his neck, suddenly at a loss for what had just happened. “Who are you again?” he asked weakly.
“Right, you’re the amnesiac.”
“What? Oh, that’s insensitive, huh?”
Rook was struck with the urge to laugh. “Is that relevant?”
“Not really, except that you don’t know how shit works yet. I work with Scheffen. Technically, she bosses me around, and I let her, because she’s hot and can kill me—”
“And I’m going to rescue you from my brother before he gets all three of us killed by Scheffen,” Phania interjected. Then to Wolfie — “That’s his mother, you ass.”
“She’s not my mother,” Rook protested again. Then — “I’d still rather not hear it.”
“See?” She gave Rook a pat on the shoulder. “I, on the other hand, don’t work for Scheffen.”
“You’re fifteen. You don’t work for anybody.”
“And I don’t plan to. I’m aiming for Thaumatist-Independent.”
Wolfie just rolled his eyes again, then gave Rook a little bow of his head. “…I appreciate the help,” he said, a little ruefully. “I don’t normally get taken by surprise.”
“Do you normally have to deal with demons?” he replied, eyeing the locked and rattling cage with trepidation. He couldn’t blame Wolfie for being unprepared. But Wolfie just pulled a face.
“I don’t normally have to keep them alive.”
Rook refused to let his jaw actually drop, but from the smothered giggle from Phania, his face was saying plenty on its own. “So you do this all the time?”
“Chasing drabukas? No. Dealing with feral magic? Yes.”
The proud look on his look was deflated with another jab in the side from Phania’s elbow. “He’s a Second Lieutenant,” she clarified. “Only been in the job what, six months?”
“And you’re not on it at all. Do you know how much trouble I can get you into?”
She stuck her tongue out at him. “Love to see you try. For your information, Uncle Stef said it was fine.”
“So if I go ask him about it, I’m not going to find out you floated this as a complete theoretical, right?”
Rook couldn’t help it — he burst into helpless giggles at the look on Phania’s face. “You don’t tell Uncle Stef about the drabuka,” she muttered, “I don’t tell Scheffen you let it escape.”
Then the two of them, as one, turned to look at Rook.
“What?” he asked, before it dawned on him. “Ohh. You need me to stay quiet.” An impish smile crept onto his face. “…So how much should I charge for my silence?”
“Oh, great, he’s just like Scheffen,” Wolfie groaned in frustration, clapping a hand to his forehead before running it through his sweat-soaked hair. He was interesting, Rook decided; not just because he worked with Scheffen, but because he was the first young thaumatist he’d met — well, him and Phania, but he hadn’t actually seen Phania do any thaumaturgy yet. Then it tracked—
“I am not,” he squawked.
“Aww, don’t worry. He doesn’t mean it badly. I bet she’s mean to you, though. Makes you go to bed on time and everything.”
Rook nearly said no, then decided against it; the utter bemusement he felt at the idea probably said something, but he didn’t know what. Once he got a good look at Phania’s face, though — “You’re making fun of me.”
“Only a little! The nice way. Come on, we’ll buy you lunch. You can decide how else to extort us along the way.”
“I — I have school.”
“We’ll write you a nice note or something. We’re Vandemeers, we can do that.”
“You think Scheffen will care?” Wolfie asked with an eyebrow raised.
“I think she’s smarter than to get mad at me,” she shot back. “You, well, you’re always pissing her off in one way or another, you might as well earn it.”
Rook eyed the cage again. “…Will you explain what that thing is?”
“Yes! With great joy.”
“She likes demons so much she’d marry ‘em,” Wolfie snorted.
“You take that back. You’re disgusting.”
“Oh, please, like I haven’t seen you drawing them. Just never thought you’d grab a live one—”
“It’s a drabuka! It’s harmless! Well, mostly. It’s not exactly a brain surgeon, Wolfie.” She scoffed, and moved over to the tree where Rook had been sitting — it took him a minute to realize she was picking up his bag for him, which supposed meant she’d heard a yes somewhere. He’d meant to say it anyway, so it didn’t matter; it was just kind of funny. Then she leapt back, startled. “Ack!”
“Phan? What is it?”
She sighed, shoulders dropping. “Rook, you could have warned me about your pet!”
“P—” Rook kept the word muffled behind his lips as he came over and looked down at the creature nuzzled into his satchel. It hadn’t been there five minutes ago. He thought, anyway. As he looked down at it in confusion, it crawled out of the satchel, gave Phania a baleful look, then jumped up onto his arm with only a surprisingly soft scratch from its claws and sat on his shoulder. A ferret, with soft, smooth black-and-grey fur and a tail that wiggled back and forth as it looked expectantly at him. “Oh, huh.”
“What’s that mean?”
Vervloekte. He had a feeling ‘random friendly wild animal’ wasn’t going to fly. “Uh — I just thought I left him at home, that’s all.”
“See, that’s why I like dogs,” Wolfie sighed. “Not so damn sneaky.”
Rook nodded, not really paying attention as he held up a finger to the ferret and let it perch one of his paws on his hand. He was starting to suspect this wasn’t just a regular ferret. He packed up his saxophone and books, hefting his bags over his shoulders and following after Wolfie and Phania. But he lagged behind, just long enough to whisper, “I feel crazy, but you’re not a demon, right?”
The ferret very deliberately, very conspicuously, shook its head.
Rook tried not to fall over. He didn’t want to give anything away. “I don’t suppose you’ve been moonlighting as a frog.”
The ferret licked his cheek — and this time he did giggle. He couldn’t help it. That was one mystery solved, he supposed… although, if it wasn’t a demon, he wondered, what on earth was it?
A friend, he thought quietly, and that was enough. And, he brightened, jokes about bribery aside — Wolfie and Phania seemed nice, too. They hadn’t said anything about how he looked. Just that he was good at thaumaturgy — more than good.
He just had to make sure he didn’t hurt them, too.
This is one of the chapters that I went back to and rewrote a little bit after initially writing it out; the next one is where most of the expansion happened, but I’m much happier with the rising tension here!
Explosive decompression is a real thing (like most things I reference) – it’s why “blobfishes” look like that when they’re brought up from the depths. Deep-sea organisms maintain an internal pressure to match the depths they live at; when that changes rapidly, it has… interesting effects.
The Tosaka tattooing tradition is inspired heavily by Samoan and other Pacific Islander traditions, although the Tosaka are in no way Samoan, Kanaka Ma’oli, etc. There’ll be more about them later, but this is the first time they’ve shown up in the narrative.
Edited July 4th.
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