The Heart of Spring:Part Five
I stared at the Ruki, my mouth hanging open like a goldy. “H-how did you know about the magic of seasons?”
“I’d read an old document about the hearts of seasons shortly before we met,” she said. “The way Sunbeam was eventide, covered her paws, was being guarded and hunted, and the magic-sapping spell Jango had on his paw, it all sort of clicked.”
I frowned, irritated that it had been so easy. Then again, with the size of the tomes Rachelle liked to read, maybe it hadn’t been easy. “And, the solution?”
Rachelle grimaced at her page. “Well, ideally, it’s supposed to protect against most magic-sapping and life-sapping spells, as well as the specialised ones that your pursuers have developed.”
“I stole the documents for those spells,” Alli piped up proudly.
“The problems are that, firstly, my spell has some very complex and rare ingredients, and secondly, it just becomes a magical arms race, the faeries and I have to keep competing to have the strongest spell. Obviously that’s an interesting and worthwhile pursuit, but I want to have the upper hand at all times.” She was distracted for a moment by Aqua walking up to Alli and asking her to help put a dress on one of her Usukis. I wondered how many of the family members were here at the library, hidden behind the many shelves.
“How much will these ingredients cost?” I asked.
Rachelle waved her hand. “I have it covered.”
“Your owner just lets you spend his neopoints like this?”
“No, the ingredients are coming from my bank account.”
“Your bank account?” I echoed. I’d never heard of an owned pet using the bank before.
“Yeah. Dad says that since I made the money, I get to spend it as I please.”
“How do you make neopoints anyway?” I asked.
She shrugged. “I’m still collecting royalties off of a medical technique I patented a few years back. I also enter the occasional math competition or spelling bee. There’s also the games of Red Peadackle that I play with some of the other students at the university, it’s simple if you know enough about statistics. And recently, I’ve been dabbling in a side job that… well, let’s just say that it’s… revenge-based.”
“That’s so cool,” said Sunbeam.
“So it’s that simple?” I asked. “You buy your ingredients, cast the spell, and Sunbeam is safe until the dark faeries find a loophole?”
“Not quite that simple, unfortunately. The spell has some finicky aspects, and I have the neopoints, but not the contacts.”
I shrugged. “Between me, Jango, and… and a friend named Abraham, we should be able to patch together a few contacts. What do you need?”
“Well, firstly, the spell needs to be aided by a faerie from each primary element.”
“Oh.” Faeries and their busy schedules usually didn’t make friends with anyone but other faeries. “Maybe Abraham could---”
“Me, me!” Aqua burst out unexpectedly, hopping forward and waving her arms. “Me help, me help!”
“Use your big girl words, Aqua,” said Rachelle. “What is it?”
“I know! I know faeries!”
Rachelle looked a little surprised. “You do?”
“Uh huh! Baby faeries! From day care!” She began listing off the names of the faeries she knew.
I shook my head. “We can’t bring children into this. It’s too risky.”
“We aren’t children!” Aqua said indignantly. “We’re big! Well, not the faeries, they’re small. But we’re grown up enough!”
I looked at Rachelle, who clicked her antennae in hesitation. “See if you can find any adult faeries among your contacts,” she said. “I don’t want to put children in danger either, but I can set up an extra ward around the ritual site without too much trouble. Faeries are tiny and agile, and they won’t be the primary targets.”
“They will if they decide to play hero,” I said, gesturing toward Aqua.
“If there’s danger, tell them to fly away fast,” said the Usul, as if this was the simplest thing in the world. “Faeries are pretty, but not brave. Except fire faeries. But Kiki isn’t brave. And don’t worry about dark faeries, Leah is super nice. She likes toys and crafts, not being mean.”
“We’ll see,” I said, not wanting to argue this further at the moment.
“I’ll call them with my telephone!” Aqua declared, scurrying off.
“What’s a telephone?” I asked.
“It’s a pair of cans tied together with a string,” Rachelle explained. “When the string is pulled taut, the vibrations of someone’s voice pass to the other can. Aqua sometimes likes to pretend that she has a telephone that works over long distances, without a string.” She shrugged. “Kids and their imaginations.”
“Alright. And for the other ingredients?”
“Most of the base ingredients can be bought at human-owned shops. A few others I can find on the trading post. But then there’s… ‘kiko root’ and ‘wart of gwortz,’ I could not have made that last one up. I’ve never heard of either of those. I asked the shop wizard and he looked at me like I was insane.”
I frowned. “I know of a cultist who buys and sells rare magical supplies, I once spied on him to sell out info about his next shipment so bandits could rob it.” It definitely wasn’t one of my more noble assignments, but I’d been out of work and desperate. “I wasn’t caught, though, so he shouldn’t know who I am.”
Her antennae twitched upward a little, but she otherwise made no comment about my less-than-lawful employment. “Alright. Could you go get those items, then? Thankfully, there’s no moon phase required for this spell, so we’re not really on any time constraints.”
“Won’t it be suspicious if I go around asking for the ingredients of this spell? Will it give the faeries a head start to finding the loophole if I’m sold out?”
“Uh, no, not really, because this is an original spell. At worst, the faeries would get word of what I’m trying to do, but they wouldn’t be able to pick any specific loopholes without my notes.”
“So you’ve never done this before?”
“I’ve cast some spells, although nothing of this magnitude. I’ve done extensive theoretical studying of magic, and my spell follows all the magical laws.”
I supposed I didn’t have a better option. If she could figure out that Sunbeam had the power of legends just by looking at her, then I had to trust Rachelle’s magical knowledge. “Alright. But what about Sunbeam?”
“Alli can guard her.”
I looked at Alli. “Have you ever been a bodyguard?”
The Kacheek shrugged. “Not specifically.”
“Don’t let her out of your sight, even for a moment. If you absolutely have to, then make sure she’s with plenty of trusted witnesses. I don’t think I’ll be gone overnight, but if I am, make sure that the window and door are locked, and that there’s at least one light sleeper in the room.”
“Geez, Ninja, don’t worry too much about little old me,” said the heart of spring, bumping me playfully with her shoulder. “I’ll follow Alli around and scream if anything scary happens, like a good little assignment.”
I nodded. I’d have to trust those two to collectively keep Sunbeam safe as well. This job was starting to require a lot of trust. “I’ll send you updates. If I need to,” I added, remembering how diligent I’d been at keeping Abraham updated.
Rachelle nodded, passing me a heavy bag of neopoints. “Good luck.”
I figured I’d better neomail Abraham before I forgot again. I sat at the nearest table.
Going shopping for ingredients for something that’ll hopefully help. Left the girl with the hostess’s sister. We also need basic element faeries, tell the hostess if you know any.
With one last nod to Sunbeam, I started off.
The sound of my paws on the soft moss kept me company as I made my way to the Haunted Woods and the tiny cottage owned by the magic seller. I tried not to worry too much about Sunbeam. If I’d been able to keep her safe up to this point, Alli and her superior battledome skills would be just fine.
A woodland juma tried to get my attention by flicking at my tail, but I ignored it. It persisted until I barked loudly at it. I immediately cursed myself for making noise. Nothing would be after me, right? I was expendable. There were hundreds of bodyguards like me, but only one Sunbeam.
I crossed the border into the Haunted Woods, keeping my ears close to keep them from being caught on anything. Actually finding the cabin was going to be tricky. The Haunted Woods was rumoured to shift around you on a whim. I did know that the cabin was about as far away as possible from the noisy fairground. I started off in that direction, hoping the forest wouldn’t be too stubborn today.
At first, all went without issue. I’d been using the moans of the Esophagor to orient myself when a rustling caught my notice. I forced myself to inhale deeply, trying to tune out the scent of rot and smoke. Fur and the faint smell of neggs, mixed with the scent of raw meat and burnt eggs. A Cybunny and a Grarrl.
I casually started in the opposite direction, not wanting to encounter any of the natives. The rustling only got louder. Great. I kept my ears back, both in a defensive position and to grab my scrolls at a moment’s notice.
“Something smells fresh and alive,” cooed a deep but feminine voice. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. Vampires. Or worse, wannabe vampires.
The Grarrl struggled to tear its way through the tangle of brush I’d just passed through. It revealed itself to be a female Halloween grarrl. Even struggling through the undergrowth, I could tell that its costume was a fake. I decided I didn’t have time for this, and started away.
“No! Frother, get him!”
A Cybunny made a relatively impressive leap through a hole in the mess of dead vines, landing on my back. I bucked like a uni to throw it off.
“Get back here!”
Another voice joined the encounter with a quiet chuckling. “Wow, Storm, you’ve been known to piss off lowlifes, but I think you’ve outdone yourself this time.”
I inhaled again. Over the scent of the snarling Cybunny was a smell I recognised. “Jango?”
“The one and only.” He dropped from a nearby tree. “How about I teach you how to actually hunt, hm?” he asked the Cybunny.
The fake vampire’s feet slipped on dead leaves as it scrambled away. The grarrl continued to struggle in the mess of undergrowth. Jango shot her one look and turned away. “Where are you off to without your shadow, Storm?”
“I’m more like her shadow.”
He shrugged. “The sun to your moon, whatever.”
I grinned a little. “I thought you couldn’t write poetry. Anyway, have you heard of Red Mercury?”
The Gelert nodded slightly. “Heard of him.”
“Have your sisters told you about what they’re up to?”
“I’ve been away for the past two days. The whole rebuilding-and-hanging-out-in-libraries thing isn’t my scene. I take it you can’t give me the details out loud.”
“You’ve got it.”
“Alright. I’ve called on friends for favours I couldn’t tell them about. This sounds more entertaining than anything going on out here today. Count me in.”
I was glad to have him on my team, but I didn’t bother saying so. “By the way, are you actually a vampire?” His teeth and eyes looked pretty real.
“Partially,” he said in a low voice. “Wanna know a secret?” Without waiting for me to respond, he continued: “I actually find blood disgusting. Even the sweetened stuff that comes in popsicles or slushies.”
Popsicles and slushies? I decided it was better not to ask. “There are partial vampires?”
“We’re pretty rare. It’s a long story.”
I wanted to hear it, but it sounded like Jango didn’t want to let the whole Woods know that he was a partial vampire, so I decided to ask another time. “What do you know about Red Mercury?”
“Keeps to himself. Deals in magical supplies. They say he’s really ugly, but isn’t everyone in this forest? Current company excluded, of course.”
I snorted. “I already knew that much. Any weaknesses? Things I should watch out for?”
“I hear he likes to play word games. And that doesn’t mean he plays Word Pyramid in the games room.”
I rolled my eyes. “Just what I need.”
“Don’t worry, little guy. I know how to deal with his type.”
We found the cottage in question. Like every nearby building, it was made of dark wood and looked abandoned. Thorny plants grew along one wall. I remembered the bush around back that sat just under the window. That was where I’d hidden to spy. I tried not to think about that.
I tapped on the door, worried it would fall off. “Red Mercury? Hello?”
An eye peeked through a hole in the door. “Who are you?” the voice crackled.
“Storm,” I answered reflexively. “I’m here to buy some supplies.”
“Only those who solve my riddle are worthy of purchasing my supplies.”
Jango stepped closer to the door. “Yeah, buddy, we’ve got neopoints but not time. Just open the door.”
“A feeble mind cannot attempt any meaningful magic, vampire.”
“The mage isn’t here. We’re just the messengers. Open up.”
I looked at Jango. Was this what he meant about knowing how to talk to him?
“The mage should visit me themselves.”
“Really? Does the Legion send its archmages to run their own errands?”
I didn’t know what the Legion was or if Jango was trying to say that we were with them, but Red Mercury opened the door a crack. “I suppose. Come in.”
I pushed the door open the rest of the way, and stood stunned for a second. Yep, Red Mercury was ugly. He was a mutant Ogrin who looked like he’d been sewn together with spare body parts. Tentacles for ears, horns at random places, a multicoloured ruff and swollen tail and hoofs, and three eyes. The one that had peeked through the crack, his centre eye, looked normal, while the other two had split pupils that made my skin crawl. I tried to act unbothered. To keep from staring, I looked around the dim cabin. The place was lit only by a candle on the table. Several books sat open on it. I tried not to stare at the rug on the floor that hid the trapdoor to his cellar. The shelves were lined with various magical items, some that looked deceptively natural, like dried leaves and branches, and others that looked dangerous, like angry-coloured berries and a pulsing slime.
Jango looked over at me. “What were the things again?”
“Kiko root and wart of gwortz.”
Red Mercury’s tentacle ears perked up. “You’re not with the Legion, are you?”
Jango snorted. “So the rumours about you aren’t real, then? I didn’t say we were with the Legion.”
“You’re more astute than you sound, vampire.” He picked up a small book from a shelf. “Your master had better know what he’s doing with kiko root. It’s a potent anti-magic.”
“I’m sure she does,” said Jango. “Again, we’re just here for delivery.”
He looked up at us with only his centre eye. “You’re not working with Feral Reign, are you?”
Jango snorted. “Do you think Feral Reign would have anything to do with me?” Feral Reign was an all-female cult intent on destroying civilisation. I’d had to spy on them once to make sure they weren’t a real threat. My results had been inconclusive.
“Point made. I’d certainly like to meet the mage who thinks she can handle Kiko root and wart of gwortz. The former could prevent her from doing magic if used incorrectly, and the latter can cause excruciating pain if mishandled.”
“Maybe I’ll arrange a playdate,” Jango said dismissively. “I’m ready to buy those items and go.”
I probably shouldn’t speak when I was so out of my element, but I couldn’t keep my worry at bay. “Is there anything we should know about delivering it?”
Red Mercury smiled, showing crooked, rotted teeth. “I’ll put it in boxes. You’re better off not opening the boxes at all.”
“Fair enough. Thank you.” I turned back to Jango.
“So this stuff is unbuyable, right? So… 100k each?” Jango suggested.
Red Mercury cackled. “Clearly you’re only the messenger. The pair of them for two million neopoints.” He smiled again. “Eight hundred thousand if you answer my riddle correctly. Four million if you try to answer my riddle and fail.”
Jango and I exchanged glances. I shook my head slightly. Rachelle had given me four million neopoints, so we didn’t need to gamble. I doubted either of us were proficient in riddles anyway.
“Two million. We’ll take it,” said Jango.
Red Mercury looked shocked, as if he wasn’t used to his gambles being refused. “Are you sure, vampire? Think of what 1.2 million neopoints could buy you. Actually, maybe money is the wrong way to go about this.” He flipped to a page in his book. “Do you see this?”
Jango read it from afar, proving that he had excellent vision. “Revival spell… for a ghost who has not yet passed on.”
“If you guess my riddle correctly, I’ll perform this spell for you, free of charge. The price is still four million neopoints if you lose, and I won’t perform this spell.”
“I… I didn’t know that spell was possible.” Jango stepped forward as if to read the book more closely, but Red Mercury slammed it shut.
The gelert and I exchanged a glance again. I gestured toward him with my chin. It was his choice. If he could help Luna…
Jango gulped, but held his head high. “I’m done with your games. Storm, give him the two million neopoints.”
I took the million-NP bags out from under my cloak, setting them in front of my paws. “Show me the items and you can have these.”
“You’re making a mistake,” Red Mercury muttered. “Out of my cabin for a minute. Take your neopoints with you. When I call you back in, I’ll have your ingredients.”
Jango looked like he wanted to protest, but noticed me leaving and followed as well.
“Do you think he’s pulling something?” Jango whispered as Red Mercury drew the shades.
“No,” I whispered. “His expensive ingredients are in the cellar.”
“He has a cellar?”
“We’re not supposed to know.”
Jango’s ears rose slightly, but he didn’t ask questions.
“Jango… about Luna’s spell…”
“Luna is none of your business.”
Oh. I looked away.
“Sorry, it’s just—”
“No, I shouldn’t have asked. I get the point, man, really.”
He nodded gruffly. “Yeah. Thanks.” He looked at me through the corner of his eye, then looked away. “You’re alright.”
I got the sense that he didn’t say that to just anyone. “Yeah. Thanks.”
We waited in silence until Red Mercury opened the door. “Here you are.”
We peeked in the cabin. On the table were two black boxes, each the size of a ring box.
“Oh,” I said in disappointment. “We didn’t specify the quantity.” Rachelle hadn’t even told me how much.
The ogrin laughed loudly. “If your master requested more than that, then Feral Reign will have their wish after all.”
Geez. I’d have to take him at his word. I looked at Jango, but he didn’t seem to know either.
“Thanks,” I said gruffly.
“We’ll be back if there’s a problem,” Jango said threateningly.
“If you have to return, bring your master this time. She seems like an interesting pet.” He closed the door.
“Yuck,” I muttered. “Let’s go.”
To be continued..