I cleared my throat, not that it was necessary to get anyone’s attention. The room was dead quiet, and all eyes were on me. My characters had joined me and Miles to discuss some recent bizarre events.
“There has been a strange creature in the yard. Sorceress told me she first noticed it the day after my last outing, when Cleric and the lads accompanied me on a nature walk.”
“Aye, she tolded us some blatherskite aboot how she seed a wee beastie wit eyes thet glowed.” My Old Dwarf snorted and waved his hand dismissively.
“That is exactly what I saw.” Sorceress sniffed and fixed my Old Dwarf with a steely glare.
My Gypsy nodded. “I’ve seen it, too.”
“Bah! Have ye two been sippin me brew?” My Old Dwarf waved his hand again and shook his head.
Dragon turned toward my Old Dwarf, her eyes narrowed and smoke curling from her nostrils. “Do not doubt the veracity of these reports, my rotund companion. I can assure you they are most accurate.”
“And why should I be believin ye, ye big scaly beastie?”
Dragon opened her maw in a most unpleasant grin, showing her mouthful of wickedly sharp teeth. “As you well know, Dwarf, Dragons are honorable creatures. I assure you, I speak truthfully. There appeared a small Red Squirrel in the yard. It was not the resident Red Squirrel that Mistress and her spouse have dubbed ‘Reggie’. As Sorceress reported, this beast’s eyes glowed.”
My Arrogant One stood up, heading for the door, sneering. “While I am sure all of you find this quite fascinating, I have no interest in the wildlife inhabiting the yard. I will take my leave. My time is far too valuable to waste it suffering through such boring trivia.”
My Foreman stepped in front of him, and spoke through clenched teeth. “I think not, friend. I think you will resume your seat and show some respect toward the Mistress and the others.”
My Arrogant One drew himself up and grasped the front of his robes. “Why should I? This is of no concern to me!”
“Because you were told to, and because you are such a courteous fellow.” My Foreman grasped the back of the elf’s neck and hustled him back to his chair. “Now sit there and listen.”
My Arrogant One started to bluster a response, but my Bounty Hunter shook his head. “Yes, why don’t we hear what Mistress Writer has to say. I am certain she will explain why this is of interest to any of us.”
I nodded. “It concerns us all because, obviously, a Red Squirrel with glowing eyes is no normal Red Squirrel. If further proof of its abnormal nature is needed, earlier today four of us saw it fly.”
My Old Dwarf snorted. “Squirrelsies do na fly!”
“Some do.” Miles furrowed his brow. “Flying Squirrels. They don’t really fly, of course. If I remember correctly, they have membranes stretching between their front and back legs that allow them to glide.”
Sorceress shook her head. “This was not such a creature as you term a Flying Squirrel, Master Miles. This was a Red Squirrel, identical to the one you and the Mistress call ‘Reggie’ — identical in every respect save the eyes. This one had decidedly glowing eyes. It was not just an optical illusion caused by light reflecting in his eyes, as the phenomenon was evident even on a cloudy day. And, I assure you, it did indeed fly. In reality, it would be more accurate to say it appeared to levitate, as it possessed no wings or other obvious means of flight.”
“If it do na be havin’ wings, it do na be flyin’.” My Old Dwarf folded his arms over his chest and shook his head.
“If you would open your ears, Old Dwarf – or perhaps your feeble mind – perchance you could hear and understand. I said the squirrel did not achieve true flight. It was closer to levitation.”
My Old Dwarf started to sputter a reply, but Miles cut him off. “Are you certain it was a real squirrel? Could it have been a drone? A drone’s manner of flight could appear similar to levitation.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think it was a drone, honey. It appeared real.”
“What be this ‘drone’ thingie? Be it valuable?” My Old Dwarf leaned in, eyes gleaming.
“No, it is not valuable.” I chuckled at the avaricious old reprobate.
He slumped back in his chair, the greedy light in his eyes dimming.
“A drone is an unmanned mechanical or electronic device that can fly. It is controlled remotely by its operator, usually through a radio signal.” Miles warmed to the subject, and would have gone on with his explanation, but Dragon cut him off.
“I do not believe the creature in question was a contrivance such as you describe, Master Miles. And I do not believe it glided or levitated. I think it actually did fly.”
“What?” I wrinkled my brow and rubbed the back of my neck. “Squirrels do not fly.”
We all waited for Dragon to explain, but she merely stood there, a smug expression on her reptilian face.
“Well, do ye be tellin’ us what ye be meanin’, ye oversized lizard, or be ye waitin’ fer us ta reckon?”
Dragon curled her lip and blew smoke in the dwarf’s face, sending him into a fit of coughing. My Arrogant One got him a glass of water, and he was soon quiet again, though the look the dwarf shot Dragon clearly promised retribution.
Dragon continued. “I believe the creature in question was a living beast, not a mechanical or electronic device. But I do not believe it was a squirrel. Through my shapeshifting ability, I had changed into a Black-capped Chickadee. I landed quite near the creature where it sat on a tree branch. I felt something emanating from the beast, a trace of magic. I believe someone cast a glamour or a spell of disguise on a bird.”
“Morcant!” Cleric blanched.
“Morcant?” Miles cocked his head and frowned. “But why?”
“He is evidently trying to disguise his familiar, the milky-eyed Common Grackle.”
“Okay, but why?”
Cleric shuddered. She rose and wiped her sweaty palms on her robe. “I believe, Master Miles, it is an attempt to allow his familiar to approach us unnoticed, that Morcant might eavesdrop on our conversations. I believe he is still seeking information, information he knows we would not divulge in the presence of his familiar should we know it was near. He is still searching for a way to procure the magic keys that would free him from his eternal exile within the enchanted tower.”
My Foreman jumped up, eyes wide. “Mistress, didn’t you say you disposed of those keys?”
“I did. I felt they would be too much of a temptation for some of this group.”
My Arrogant One, my Bounty Hunter and my Old Dwarf all had the grace to blush at that.
My Young Hero quirked an eyebrow and tilted his head toward me. “You may have told us that you disposed of the keys, Mistress, but I do not think anyone informed Morcant.”
“You’re right, of course. And maybe that’s what we need to do.”
Miles tilted his head and blinked. “How do you go about informing the wizard?”
“We communicate with him through his familiar.”
“If he is disguising his familiar, how can you find the bird?”
“I be findin’ em.” My Old Dwarf puffed out his chest and straightened his tunic.
“You?” My Young Hero shook his head.
“Aye, meself and no other, laddie! I be the only one what can see the bird for what it really be.”
“And how can you do that?” My Young Hero quirked an eyebrow.
“Dwarves can na be magicked, laddie.”
“Right.” My Foreman rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Need I remind you that the Arrogant One used magic on you to abduct you?”
“Thet spineless fop done no such a thing! He magicked a tree limb ta conk me on me head. He never magicked meself!”
“You’re right.” I frowned and raked my hand through my hair. “Dwarves are immune to most magic. Still, you might not be able to see the bird.”
“What be ye sayin, lassie?”
“Whether or not you could see the bird would depend on exactly what sort of spell Morcant has used to disguise his familiar.”
“Speak plain, lassie. Ye do na be makin any sense.”
“I see what the Mistress means,” Sorceress said. “If Morcant cast a spell of deception on the bird, that spell works not on the bird, but on those who see the bird, causing observers to see something other than what is actually there. You, Old Dwarf, being immune to magic, would not be affected, and would see the bird in its actual form. But if Morcant cast a spell changing his familiar into something other than the milky-eyed grackle, then you, Old Dwarf, would see the same thing the rest of us would see — whatever Morcant changed his familiar into. The magic would be cast on the bird, not on the observer.”
I nodded. “That’s it exactly.”
“Do you understand, dwarf, or must we draw diagrams?” Dragon puffed a chain of smoke rings in the direction of my Old Dwarf.
“I be understandin’ jest fine. I do na be daft! Boot I do na think thet the wizard be changin’ the bird. I think he done that magic ye talked aboot what makes people see what do na be there.”
Sorceress frowned and shook her head. “What makes you think that?”
“Cause iffin he changed the bird inta a squirrelsie, the fool squirrelsie woulda skedadled off like a squirrelsie do.”
I blinked. “You’re right. The only way we could have seen a squirrel appear to fly is if it were really still a bird that only appeared to us to be something different. It flew because it really was still a bird. So my Old Dwarf should be able to see the bird that is actually there, as he will not be affected by the magic.”
I looked at the magic users, who nodded their agreement.
“Good.” I turned back to my Old Dwarf. “Then I suggest first thing tomorrow, you start spending some time in the yard, observing the wildlife. If you see the milky-eyed grackle, let me know.” I paused, rubbing my chin. “You’d best let me know, too, if you see any animal that looks unnatural.”
“Yes, like one with glowing eyes.”
My Old Dwarf nodded, and turned to leave.
“Wait! What if Morcant decides to change what type of magic he uses? What if he uses that other type of spell that Sorceress described? The one that affects only the bird, not the people who see the bird.”
“Master Miles has a point. We can not depend on the dwarf being able to see the bird, as we can not depend on Morcant being consistent in his efforts to deceive us.” Cleric wrung her hands and chewed her lower lip. “Perhaps Sorceress, Dragon, the Gypsy and I should consider other means of dealing with Morcant’s magic.”
“Perhaps we could attempt scrying? We all know the wizard’s familiar, so we should be able to find him through scrying.”
Sorceress nodded. “That is an excellent idea, Gypsy! That can be the first thing the four of us attempt. And I am sure we can come up with other ideas as well.”
The four of them looked at me. “That sounds good. Dwarf, you go ahead and start looking around outside tomorrow. Sorceress, do you and your companions require anything?”
“Might we use the conference room?”
I nodded. “I shouldn’t need it tomorrow. You can have it all day. Right now, everyone best get a good night’s sleep.” I motioned the others to leave, but stopped my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One. “All but you two. I want to talk to you.”
Before either could object, I held up a hand, silencing them. “If either of you are still in contact with Morcant, please let him know he can recall his familiar to his own world. He has absolutely no chance of ever getting those keys. I disposed of them, and he will never find them.”
“Did you, now? And how would you dispose of something that powerful, that valuable, that dangerous?” My Bounty Hunter quirked an eyebrow at me.
“You doubt my word?”
The elf looked down his nose at me. “Why should I care what you did with those keys? Upon learning that Morcant is not to be trusted, I have no buyer for the keys. I know no other person to whom I could sell such objects, and so I have no further interest in them.”
I narrowed my eyes. “Don’t go looking for another customer, okay?”
“And where, exactly, do you suppose I would find another in this world who would have any interest in the keys?”
“I don’t know, but I recommend not trying.”
My Arrogant One drew himself up and started to argue, but my Bounty Hunter interrupted. “May we leave now?”
“Go. And stay out of trouble.”
“Of course.” The two of them tried to hide their smirks as they left the room.
Miles was waiting for me as I left the conference room. “Ready to get some sleep?”
I nodded. We walked up the stairs, stopping at the front door to check that the porch light was on. I opened the door and took a quick look around. All seemed quiet.