And so we left. Oddly, the raven did not protest. He seemed pretty eager to be moving about as a human being again. I talked to him all the way to the city, but I could tell he wasn’t paying attention most of the time. It was strange, he seemed so thrilled to be seeing the world from this perspective. I always imagined someone capable of flight would consider an earthbound lifestyle dull.
Come high noon, we’d finally reached the city marketplace. Bustling as ever, the place made it hard to breathe. Nevermore seemed none too pleased to be there, yet he was ever watchful. He must have taken the escort job to heart. That calmed me down a bit. The last summer bazaar ended with the Lord of Malady burning down half the stands. I was not intending to let that happen again.
As my luck would have it, I started to spot some shadowy figures with the corner of my eye. Having Nevermore watch them, frantically shifting his gaze from one end of the bazaar to the other was not exactly reassuring. At least I knew the direction from which I could expect an attack. I finished packing the heaps of asparagus I’d just bought almost for free, and turned toward an alley where I thought I could lose them.
“Come, Nevermore,” I pulled him by the cuff. We entered a dark alley, passing by some homeless people begging for some money. Nevermore eyed them carefully, all the while occasionally glancing back. His pace quickened. I started walking faster as well. As we made a turn, I bumped into someone. We both tripped. My fall was broken by Nevermore who’d managed to catch me before I reached the ground. She had no escort. A tall woman in a maroon robe, her flowing brown hair done in a high pony tail. The distinct mole below her right ear and the shadow figures pursuing her were proof enough – she was one of us. “Can ye get up?” I extended a hand toward her.
“Yes, but we’ve no time,” she gasped for breath. “I must-“
“I know, they’re following us too. There’s no way out. Ye got any magic left in ye?”
“No such luck, I’m afraid. I’ve been pursued for quit be exe some time now.”
“Step aside, then. Nevermore, hold her.”
The raven man listened and shielded the woman as I sent out a fiery whirl to deal with the figures that had been on her tail. Had I not wasted all my energy on making Nevermore useful, I’d probably have done more. That was my last spell for the day.
“Let’s get a move on.”
We ran down the alley the woman had come from. As was to be expected, a whole crowd of them was waiting for us as we entered the main street. There were no back alleys on the way, and we knew there were more and more of them coming from where I had come from. I was sure that was the end. The figures soon approached the other two. Nevermore managed to knock a few of them down with his cane, but I knew that was only a temporary solution. Nothing short a miracle could help us.
Yet what happened I’d hardly call a miracle. The main street filled with terrified screams as a huge beast came rushing down the adjacent hill. It hurled itself at the crowd of shadow people, separating shadowy limb from shadowy limb with its huge lupine, its auburn fur ominously fluorescent in the midst of the blackness, its electric blue eyes a ray of hope to us, the petite rider on its back shockingly familiar.
“Isolde!” I shouted. “What in Lamia’s name are ye doing here!”
Isolde smiled as the beast slowly dispersed the crowd of shadows, black liquid seeping from its multiple rows of teeth as if it were the blood of its victims. Though the body was mostly lupine, the ears, paws and tail were more reminiscent of a lynx. The creature was oddly familiar.
“Is that Cillian?!” I gasped. The shadows had finally disappeared but I could not find it in me to rejoice. I was simply baffled. “Did ye turn him into a strix again?”
“Don’t be silly, sister, I can’t do that,” she grinned. “William here was pretty thrilled with the idea, weren’t you, honey?”
“It’s different this time, ma’am,” Cillian said, his voice unchanged. I saw Nevermore and the witch that joined us flinch. “I mean, Matoya. That is to say, I’m not a strix this time, I’m slave to no one. I mean, this change was not of my own volition, but now I can change at will with no repercussions. The power of the eye is amazing and lady Isolde’s powers are quite impressive.”
“Ye were supposed to keep an eye on her, not let her change ye into a wolf, or cat, or whatever yer supposed to be, ye dimwit!” as I scolded him, his ears lay flat on his head, the look he gave me was uncomfortably guilt-inducing, and I was pretty sure I heard him whimper. His rider was smiling in the most smug way imaginable. “And what are ye smiling at, lady Isolde? I told ye to stay home!”
“No you didn’t,” she grinned. “Ye told me not to touch the biscuits. I didn’t. I was bored out of my mind, though, so I used the eye and took Trillian for a walk,” at this point Cillian grumbled. “Quiet, I’m talking. I believe it’s turned out to have been for the best. Wouldn’t you agree, sister? It did not look like ye were going to handle those by yourself.”
“I thank ye,” I said through gritted teeth. It was true. I owed her my life. Woe is me.
“And who’s the witch ye brought?”
“She’s been running away from that same lot, we’ve met by chance.”
“My name is Leofwyn,” she said as she released herself from Nevermore’s protective embrace. The robe she was wearing was actually pretty ornate and covered her body tightly, revealing a distinct, full hourglass figure. She looked at me with large emerald eyes. “I thank you, my sisters, for helping me escape the clutches of the Lord of Malady. You must be Matoya and Isolde, holders of the crystal eye.”
“Aye, I be the holder now.” I said. Isolde’s tiny fist sunk into Cillian’s soft fur with a muffled thud. He didn’t seem to notice.
“That is absolutely delightful. I’ve actually been sent to find you.”
“Really? By whom?”
“The Grand Hierophant himself requests your aid.”