I awoke with a start. Where am I? Wait! Let’s not start that again. I know where I am. I am in my own bed, sleeping next to my husband! I reached over to the other side of the bed, only to feel cold, empty sheets. Wait! Where’s my husband?
I quickly rose. I hurriedly washed and dressed, and headed toward the kitchen. Miles greeted me with a smile and a cup of hot tea. “Good morning, sweetheart! I heard you moving around, and figured you’d like this.”
I thanked him with a kiss, then took a long swallow of the warm, soothing liquid. I sighed contentedly as I took a seat at the table. “Where is everyone?”
“They’re all outside, helping Dragon and Sorceress.” He handed me a container of yogurt and a spoon.
“All of them?”
“Yup, every one. They may not have been overly concerned before, when your Bounty Hunter and your Arrogant One disappeared and reappeared without explanation; but the fact that it also happened to you seems to have them quaking in their boots.”
“I think that’s because they’re all feeling very vulnerable. Especially since Dragon has postulated that Morcant was not the one behind the incidents.” I raised an eyebrow and started slowly stirring my yogurt. “We really don’t know who or what we’re dealing with.”
“Well, good day, lassie! I seed ye finally be up and aboot!” My Old Dwarf made a bee-line for the refrigerator, my Young Hero and my Gypsy following in his wake. “Do na be mindin’ us. We just be gittin’ a wee snack fer everyone, so’s we kin be keepin’ up our strength.”
I raised an eyebrow at his wee snack. He piled the two lads’ arms full of items from the refrigerator, then pushed them in the direction of the living room. He grabbed another armload from the cabinets and followed the lads as they went out the door and onto the deck.
“That’s enough food to feed an army!” Miles shook his head and rubbed the back of his neck.
“Or one hungry dwarf.” My Foreman entered the room and headed to the coffee maker. “Mind if I help myself to some of your brew?”
“Sorry, I just drank the last cup. I’ll make a fresh pot. It will only take a few minutes. Sit down.” Miles bustled over to the counter. My Foreman nodded appreciatively and took a seat opposite me.
I continued to absentmindedly stir my yogurt. “How are things going? Have they made any progress?”
“Some. Dragon and Sorceress think they may have found something. I’m not sure I understand the specifics, but they have apparently found some sort of residue in common to the locations of the disappearances and reappearances.”
“Residue?” I wrinkled my brow.
My Foreman shrugged. “Nothing tangible. I believe Sorceress termed it an echo.”
“Intriguing, but not very informative.” I stopped stirring my yogurt and ate a spoonful.
Miles handed my Foreman a steaming cup of coffee and took a seat next to him. “Residue? Echo?” He furrowed his brow. “Are you talking about some sort of magic energy trace? Something like the magic signature the keys emitted that allowed the wizard’s familiar to follow them here?”
My Foreman raised his eyebrows at Miles and nodded. “Yes, Master Miles. If I correctly understand Dragon and Sorceress, it is very like that magic signature, except it does not seem to lead anywhere. They are unable to follow it to its source.”
“You said they have found it at the sites of my disappearance and reappearance, as well as the sites where my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One disappeared and reappeared?”
My Foreman nodded.
I quickly finished my yogurt, stood up, and threw away the empty container. “I think I’ll find Dragon and see if she has any further news.”
My Foreman promptly drained his cup, then he and Miles joined me. We found my Arrogant One and my Bounty Hunter on the deck, helping my Old Dwarf set up a buffet. “Anyone know where Dragon is?”
My Arrogant One bowed respectfully. “She was examining some magical residue in the grass by the steps a few moments ago, Mistress. I am not certain where you might find her now.” Will I ever get used to the idea of a polite and humble Arrogant One?
“Last I seed her, lassie, she be headin’ toward the back o’ the yard.” Preoccupied with the food, my Old Dwarf raised a fork and used it to point to the reeds by the pond.
We soon found Dragon in the garden shed. She was frowning and puffing clouds of black smoke from her nostrils.
“Uh-oh. Something wrong?”
“Ah, Mistress!” She heaved a deep sigh and another thick cloud of smoke drifted upward. “I am just becoming frustrated. Sorceress and I detected a faint magical residue on the upper stairs of the house, the site of your recent disappearance, and on the front steps where you reappeared. Cleric and the Gypsy believe they have found the same residue, or a similar one, on the ground by the back steps where the Arrogant One and the Bounty Hunter disappeared, and here in the shed where they reappeared.”
“Well, that’s good news, right?” I raised my eyebrows and raked my hand through my hair.
“It would be, but the residue from the earlier incidents is already too faded to be of much use.” Sorceress and my Gypsy walked into the shed. Sorceress was carrying several pouches, while my Gypsy carried a tray of sandwiches and drinks.
“Do not spill anything in here!” Dragon shot my Gypsy a stern look and growled softly. He replied by waggling his eyebrows and sticking out his tongue at Dragon when her back was turned, which earned him a slap to the back of the head from my Foreman.
Sorceress ignored their byplay and continued her explanation. “We are hoping these components will intensify the echo of the magic.”
I gave her a blank look.
“What we have found is akin to a single footprint in the sand, with no other footprints around it to indicate the direction from which something came or the path it took when it left. Since we can not trace it to its origin, the next best thing is to identify what left the residue. However, because it is fading quickly, we have been unable to identify any likely source. By intensifying the echo of the magic, we hope to be able to identify it, if not trace it.”
I chewed on my lower lip and furrowed my brow, trying to understand. “So, suppose you can identify the source or trace it to its origin. Then what? How do we deal with an entity powerful enough to perform the magic of transportation and memory deletion?”
“It is impossible to answer that until we know more about the nature of the entity and its power.” Sorceress handed one of the pouches to Dragon, then turned to my Gypsy. “Put that food down and make yourself useful!”
He ducked his head and wiped his hands on his trousers before reaching for the pouch Sorceress held out to him.
“We will let you know if we are successful, Mistress.”
I nodded and beckoned Miles and my Foreman to leave with me. “Let’s let them do their work.”
As we left the shed, I saw my Young Hero next to the staircase to the deck. He was waving frantically at us. “Come quickly! Quickly! It’s Cleric!”
The three of us broke into a run.
“What is it? What has happened to Cleric?” My Foreman grabbed my Young Hero by the shoulders as if to shake the information out of him. I placed a restraining hand on his arm.
“What’s wrong? Where is Cleric?”
My Young Hero looked at me, his green eyes bugging out and his normally ruddy face ashen. His voice faltered. “She . . . she was just here. She was showing me the two areas where she and the Gypsy found the residue earlier. She was explaining its significance, and in the middle of a sentence, she . . . she was just gone!”
My Foreman almost collapsed against the steps, his hands balled into fists. His strong chin quivered and his soft gray eyes, full of concern, darted about the yard as if he hoped to catch a glimpse of Cleric.
I turned to Miles. “Get Dragon and Sorceress. Now!”
He nodded and took off across the yard at a trot.
My Old Dwarf, my Bounty Hunter and my Arrogant One came down the stairs wearing matching looks of concern. I held up my hand. “Stay there! Do not walk on the grass! If Cleric’s disappearance was perpetrated by the same power that caused the earlier disappearances, perhaps Dragon and Sorceress will be able to trace the fresh residue from this site.”
I saw Miles bursting out of the shed with Sorceress, Dragon and my Gypsy following in his wake. Before they could get half-way across the yard, however, Cleric was suddenly just there, beside us, looking slightly weak-kneed.
My Foreman jumped up and caught her. “Milady! Are you injured? What happened?”
Cleric raised her hand to her forehead. “I . . . I do not believe I have sustained an injury. I am just a bit dizzy and disoriented.”
My Foreman gently guided her to the bottom step, and eased her down. “Sit here until you regain your strength.” He looked around. “Bounty Hunter! Fetch some water!”
My Bounty Hunter ran up the steps, returning moments later with a glass of water. Cleric accepted it with shaking hands, and took a few sips.
I stepped forward. “Cleric, you were gone for several minutes. Do you know what happened, or where you were?”
“She was with us.”
Everyone whirled toward the voice. There, in the grass, was a trio of small, furry creatures, each no more than half a foot tall. I cautiously approached and looked closely at them. With their handsome golden-tan, sable-brown, and creamy-white markings, they appeared to be common Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels. One stood there on its hind legs, eyes closed, paws clasped in front of its face, as if in prayer or supplication. A second huddled in the thick grass, staring at us wide-eyed and ready to bolt. The third peered about curiously, taking in the entire scene and boldly eyeing us over its shoulder.
“Is this another of your tricks?” I rounded on my Arrogant One, but the way he was gaping at the creatures, I knew this wasn’t one of his illusions.
“Nay! We assure thee, Mistress Writer, we art no illusion, nor is this thy elf’s trickery.” The voice, faint and reedy, seemed to come from a great distance, and it was impossible to say which of the small creatures was speaking.
“Explain yourselves! Who or what are you and where do you come from? Are you responsible for all of the recent disappearances? Why are you here? What do you want?”
“Prithee, calm thyself, Mistress Writer! Our troth, we shalt answer all thy questions. First, though, we beg thy kind indulgence for having heretofore inconvenienced thee.”
“Inconvenienced?” I realized I was shouting. I swallowed hard and tried to control my voice. “I would call it slightly more than a mere inconvenience!”
“Forsooth. We . . . we intended no offense. Let us assure thee, we mean no harm. Verily, ’tis just the opposite.”
I folded my arms over my chest and raised an eyebrow. “Oh really? How reassuring!”
“We understand thy vexation—”
“Do you now? How can you possibly understand my . . . my vexation?”
“Prithee, Mistress Writer, do calm thyself! Our time here is short. We must speak with thee. It is of vital importance.”
I raked my hand through my hair and scowled. “So speak.”
“We have been trying for . . . for an incalculable period of time to . . . to . . .” The voice began to fade; then the trio of squirrels was just gone.
Miles blinked. “Where’d they go?”
“I do na knowed where they be gone to but methinks I knowed why they be leavin’.” My Old Dwarf jerked his thumb in the direction of the maple tree. “I be afeared somebody be havin’ a look-see from that tree.”
The milky-eyed grackle that served as familiar to the evil wizard, Morcant, had returned to his customary roost in the tree by the window. I could see him observing our little lawn party, bobbing his head up and down for a better look.
I nudged Dragon. “That bird needs to go.”
I sighed, pondering the torment of Morcant’s eternal exile without the eyes and ears of his familiar. Total darkness. Complete silence. Forever. I just couldn’t do that, not even to him. “No. It just needs to go far, far away.”
She nodded. She took two hops and spread her leathery wings, launching herself toward the hapless bird. The grackle squawked and fled, streaking over treetops and buildings.
Dragon landed next to me. “I do not believe it will return this day.” She stretched her reptilian lips in a reasonable facsimile of a grin, her razor-sharp teeth glinting in the sunlight.
Miles moved over to join us, taking great care not to walk too close to the spot where the three Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels had been. “So, any explanations?”
Dragon and I both shook our heads. “We will continue our examination of the residue, but I doubt that we will know anything until our visitors return.”
Miles continued to star at the spot in the grass. “Think they’ll come back soon?”
“There is really no way to know, Master Miles.”
While the magic users continued to search for clues, the rest of us stayed on the alert for the return of the Thirteen-lined Ground Squirrels. By the end of the day, however, the secrets held by the residue had not been unlocked, and the trio of creatures had not reappeared.
Before retiring for the night, Miles and I checked the front yard, searching the lawn and hunting through the butterfly garden. Finally we sat on the porch, hand-in-hand, and watched as the deep rose and gold of the setting sun faded.
As the velvet twilight deepened, and the stars began to wink into view, Miles turned to me, yawning. “We better go inside, honey, before we fall asleep right here.”
I nodded and heaved a weary sigh as Miles and I went inside, turned on the porch light, and headed upstairs to sleep.
We never noticed the milky-eyed grackle swoop silently into the tree just outside the halo of light.