The bell above the door of the tiny, hole-in-the-wall shop jingled as the pale, incredibly thin, and dark-haired Dylan Averty stepped inside. The place she had entered was quite dark, lit only by a few flickering, almost dead bulbs in the corners of the very densely packed room. It was a shop meant to hold only half the shelves that had been crammed into it, leaving only a narrow walkway to the small counter in the back corner. A counter where a heavyset black man with long vividly purple hair sat in a comfortable recliner that had been boosted up on top of several wooden pallets to put him higher than the counter itself and able to see through the entire shop, like a judge presiding over a courtroom. Though rather than a gavel, he held the remote to the television hung in the opposite corner, on which a rather intense soccer game was playing.
The man watched her in silence throughout the next few seconds as Dylan approached, picking her way through the narrow aisle. The shelves around her were filled with random artifacts in no particularly apparent order. There were bone necklaces, knives, small golden bells, a remote control car, a board game, several decks of cards, a box full of various strange-looking coins, a clock, and more. The sole common factor from all of the items was the sense of magic that seemed to waft off of them almost like a physical scent. It hung heavily in the air of the shop.
Only once she was directly in front of him did the man speak. “Ain’t a pawn shop, baby.”
“That’s okay,” Dylan informed him promptly with a quick head shake, “I’m not looking for a pawn shop baby. I’m not even sure how you could have a baby pawn shop. Wait, is that a very small and immature pawn shop that isn’t fully grown yet, or is it a pawn shop that sells babies? Because that second one sounds really bad and I’m really glad this store isn’t doing that.”
For a moment, the man on the raised recliner just stared at her in complete bafflement. His finger gradually found the mute button for the television, cutting off the excited announcer’s voice in mid-sentence. As silence descended on the room, the guy managed a flat, “What?”
“Oh, it’s okay, I don’t think you sell babies,” Dylan promptly assured him. “We watched this place too long to think that could be possible. I was just worried about how many people come in and ask for infants that you’d immediately tell me you didn’t sell those. Is this a bad neighborhood?”
“Are you fucking with me right–” The man stopped in mid-sentence, doing a double-take. “Wait, what’re you… did you say you’ve been watching this place?” Even as he said it, his hand moved toward the hidden compartment under the counter, eyes narrowing at the decidedly strange girl.
“Please don’t point your weapon at me, sir,” Dylan politely asked. “I think I might’ve said the wrong thing again, but I’m not here for anything bad. And I really don’t want to have to spend another week verifying that a place is safe before we buy the spell components we need.”
Pausing for a moment, the man seemed to be debating back and forth between whether the girl in front of him was an actual threat, or simply strange and awkward. In the end, he settled on asking, “First of all, have you really been watching this place for a week without me noticing?”
Dylan gave a short nod. “Yes, sir. We had to be really careful about who we came to for this.”
“Okay, that’s the second one,” the man continued. “Who’s this we? I mean, is there someone else with you?” As he said it, his gaze flicked to the door, then back to the girl again. He wasn’t reaching for his weapon anymore, but he also wasn’t exactly settling down. He was cautious.
“Um, yes.” Dylan shifted on her feet a little, clearly choosing her words more carefully after her distraction about the ‘baby pawn shop.’ “There’s someone else, and she wants to come in, but first I’m supposed to tell you that she promises she’s not going to hurt you, cross her heart, needles in her eyes, everything. So please don’t freak out or anything when she comes in, okay? She’s definitely positively not here to cause any problems, but she’s sort of ummm…”
The man belatedly picked up on the implications, realizing what the girl was trying to say. “She’s a Boscher, isn’t she?”
“I don’t know what that means, si–wait, yes I do.” Dylan changed from shaking her head to bobbing it up and down. “That Bosch guy she was telling me about. Yes, she’s from his school. Or whatever. But she said to tell you she’s really not–wait.” From her pocket, the girl produced a small white handkerchief attached to a stick. A white flag. She held it up, swinging the thing back and forth a little. “She was supposed to wave this in the doorway before she came in, but she said she wouldn’t–this is gonna have to be good enough. Is this good enough?”
“You tell your friend as long as she behaves herself, she can come in,” the man replied. He seemed a little more calm now that he’d figured out that the girl in front of him was simply eccentric rather than an actual threat. Though he still made a point of moving his foot toward a certain rune on the floor even as he agreed to let the Bosch Heretic into his store.
“Oh, good idea,” Dylan piped up, pointing to where his foot was. “You have an escape spell too! Yeah, we have those, except mine are these trip bags that make smoke come out and–”
“Dylan!” The voice came from just outside the door. “I’m coming inside now!”
Erin showed her hands first, then pushed the door open and stepped inside. She hadn’t been able to hear all of the conversation within, but she had picked up enough to know that it was roughly as safe as she could possibly hope for it to be. Her gaze centered on the man in the recliner, and she swallowed as her Heretic-sense immediately started blurting out about him being a threat. From the way he winced upon seeing her, the man was getting his own warning.
“Hello, sir,” Erin carefully spoke while letting the door close behind her. “Like my friend said, we’re not here for any trouble or anything. I’m not…” She hesitated, swallowing hard. “I’m not with those guys anymore.”
“Yeah, I heard something about some old rebellion picking up again,” the man murmured. “Was a bit before my time, but my dad suddenly showed up telling me all about some memories that’ve been popping into his head.” He considered briefly before stepping down from his recliner to offer his hand. “Name’s Wuen. And I understand why you sent your friend in here first. Lot of us have a… well, a pretty instinctive reaction to someone like you popping in.”
The blue-haired girl swallowed before accepting the offered hand, having a vague idea of just what it meant for him to offer it. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure I understand why. Um, I’m Erin. Erin Redcliffe. This is Dylan. We’re umm… looking for some unique spell components.” This was all new for Erin, whose exposure to magic was mostly limited to early and relatively simple enchantments, not the kind of magic that Dylan had told her about when they’d first come up with this plan.
Wuen didn’t respond immediately. He seemed to watch them for a moment as though trying to decide something. Finally, the man settled on, “I’m not sure what kind of trouble you girls are in, but if you need something from my shop for this rebellion, you’re welcome to find it.”
“Oh, we’re not actually…” Trailing off, Erin hesitated before explaining, “I’m not with the rebellion right now, but I do agree with them and all that. I’m actually trying to contact my dad. Crossroads was basically holding me hostage and I’ve gotta let him know that I’m safe so he can leave them now. But they’re all over the place and I can’t get close to him or call or anything.”
“You know,” Wuen muttered, “somehow hearing all that doesn’t surprise me. Not with everything I’ve seen about those Boschers. No offense. But ahh, what exactly do you think you can find in this place that’s gonna help you get past something like the kind of powers and magic Crossroads is gonna have keeping an eye on that dad of yours?” He glanced around, his expression vaguely doubtful and somewhat apologetic. “I mean, I love the place and all. Been in the family a real long time. But truth be told, we don’t exactly carry the big fancy stuff. Business has been kinda slow, as you might’ve seen while you were spying all week.” He said the last bit with a raised eyebrow.
Erin caught herself staring at the man when he looked at her, flushing reflexively before quickly gesturing with both hands. “Oh, oh, yes, I mean we were spying but just to make sure you weren’t being watched by Crossroads or Eden’s Garden or anything. Or that you weren’t a bad guy.”
Before she could say anything else, Dylan quickly piped up. “I’m still not totally convinced you aren’t secretly evil, but we couldn’t find any evidence. So if you are evil, you’re good at hiding it and pretending to be good, and that’s gotta be enough cuz we’re in a hurry.” A brief moment of silence passed before she abruptly blurted in one long run-on word, “Unlessstartlingyoumakesyouconfessyou’reevil!”
“Dylan,” Erin wearily began, “that didn’t work on the taxi driver, the motel clerk, or that nice couple walking their dog. Why would it suddenly work now?”
“Oh, you just wait, Erin,” Dylan replied knowingly, her eyes narrowed as she squinted at Wuen. “One of these days, someone’s gonna be taken completely by surprise at the-areyoureallyevil?!” She accompanied the sudden demand with waved hands and wiggling fingers in the man’s face.
“Nope,” he answered in a flat voice. “Not the last time I checked, anyway. You keep on trying that though, someone’ll break someday.” Looking to Erin, Wuen added, “Let me guess, you ran away from Crossroads, and because they don’t let their students have any actual interaction in the real world with real people, this girl’s your only connection to things.” When Erin nodded, he looked to Dylan and smiled faintly. “You could’ve done worse. Yeah, you guys go ahead and look around. See if you can find what you’re looking for. But like I said, don’t go expecting miracles. We don’t exactly stock the rarest stuff in here.”
Dylan promptly gave the man two thumbs up. “It’s okay, the things I’m looking for aren’t rare. It’s not like we’re trying to make a spell to turn an entire car into candy or anything.” Head tilting, she added slyly while waggling her eyebrows, “Although if you diiiiiid have those ingredients, there might be a chocolate fender in it for you. Huh, huh? I’ll look for those too, just in case.”
With that, the skeletally-thin girl began to mosey through the shelves, humming to herself as she picked up things here or there, examined them thoroughly, and put them back. She made a few comments here and there as though talking to someone just over her shoulder.
Lowering his voice once Dylan had moved into the back area, Wuen asked, “She’s okay, right?”
“I think so,” Erin confirmed. “She’s just… had a hard time. It’s a really long story and…” She looked to him. “Sorry, can I ask… um, I know this is probably rude and everything. I just don’t know what the–I mean I’m still trying to learn what–I don’t–”
“You want to know what I am,” the man finished for her. “And you don’t know how to ask because the only thing Crossroads taught you to do when you see someone that isn’t human is stab it repeatedly. That about sum it up?”
Blushing despite herself, Erin gave a short nod. This was even harder than she’d thought it would be. Every time she looked at the man, both her senses and her training screamed that he was a threat and she should do something about it. She felt so much tension, despite trying to force it down. This was hard. How did the others do it? Was it really as simple as just being around people like him more? Being around… “Um, what do–do you call yourselves Strangers? That doesn’t sound–”
“Alters,” he informed her. “As in ‘alternative from human.’ As for me, I’m what we call a Peuchen.”
Erin’s eyes widened a bit, and she made an involuntary noise of surprise. “A Peuchen? Like the animal shapeshifters? But I thought they looked like… um, big snakes with wings and–wait.” Her face flushed even more than before. “Shapeshifters.”
The man winked. “See, you got there in the end. Yeah, we have what we call our hunting form. That looks basically like you said. Giant snake with wings. Think of a python with these big-ass…” He trailed off, squinting at the girl who was subtly leaning away from him. “I’m not helping right now, am I? Ahh, sorry. Yeah, we shapeshift into anything really. Like Pooka except without the kickass respawning powers. Trust me, those would be nice.”
“And you can really whistle to paralyze people?” Erin asked carefully.
“You must’ve gotten a C on that assignment,” Wuen dryly informed her. “The whistling just makes people uncomfortable. Kind of messes with their equilibrium, makes them nauseous. It’s the stare that paralyzes people. You know, looking right into their eyes, meeting their gaze.”
He chuckled, and Erin belatedly realized that she had dropped her eyes to stare intently at the floor. “Now you’re making fun of me,” she mumbled.
“Sure,” the man agreed, “but only because I’m pretty sure you’re not about to stab me in the throat or snap your fingers and barbecue me.”
He… he had a point. Erin peeked up. “I’m sorry about everything Crossroads and Eden’s Garden have been doing to your people for so long. And to… to everyone’s people.”
A brief moment of silence passed before Wuen exhaled, shaking his head. “Kid, don’t apologize for things you didn’t do. Just worry about what you can do. You start taking on the blame for everyone that came before you… shit, you might as well try to put the whole planet on your shoulders. Nobody’s got that kind of strength. You worry about you and the things you can affect, you got it?”
Somehow, Erin managed a faint smile, nodding to him. “Yes, sir. Thank you. You’ve been… it’s been interesting meeting you.”
“Right back at you, Crossroads girl,” Wuen replied. “And hey, nice hair.”
“Got it!” Dylan abruptly piped up, heading back their way with an armful of various jars, paper bags, bottles, and even a couple notebooks. “This is everything we need to make the Dreamjaunt.”
“Dreamjaunt, huh?” the man blinked between them. “You trying to give someone nightmares?”
Shaking her head, Erin corrected him, “Crossroads won’t let me near my dad in the real world, so we’re gonna use magic. I’ll talk to him in his dreams and tell him where to meet us.
“You know, if it works.”
“Damn it, this isn’t going to work!” Erin blurted explosively two weeks later, after the girls had worked extensively on the spell throughout the intervening days. She and Dylan were back at the mansion that Dylan had inherited from her Kitsune-savior, sitting in one of the many, many rooms throughout the place. The written part of the spell was drawn on the floor, with the empowered potion bubbling in the crockpot they’d stuck it in. On the far side of the room, Fiesta and most her pups were soundly resting, though Queso, as usual, was restlessly watching the girls with the obvious hope that they would play with her.
The idea behind the potion was that one would take it, fall asleep, and be able to direct their dreams toward the target of the potion to communicate various ideas. It didn’t require that the other person be asleep at the time, as it would simply wait until they did fall asleep and then implant the dream message. It should’ve been easy as long as the potion was made correctly, and all their tests showed that it was. But Erin still hadn’t been able to get anywhere near her father’s mind.
“It’s like he’s too far away or something. The spell can’t get through,” she complained with a long sigh while picking up one of Dylan’s extensively drawn-in notebooks full of pretty decent sketches and random thoughts. “But the only way that would happen is if he wasn’t on Earth. Or somewhere like Crossroads, anyplace connected to Earth. He’d have to be a lot further away, like one of the colony worlds.”
“I have a lot of questions about that,” Dylan informed her. “But right now, maybe there’s someone else you can contact besides your dad? It has to be someone you’ve spent a lot of time with, and it’ll take another week to switch the target to a new person, but maybe–”
“Vanessa,” Erin immediately announced. “We lived in the same room for almost a whole year. Months, anyway. Yeah, she didn’t tell me about a lot of stuff, but we still lived together. Or maybe Sands or Scout. We spent a lot of time together when we were kids. Me and the twins, I mean. My dad was friends with their mom.”
“Why not all three?” Dylan pointed out. “We made plenty of Dreamjaunt, and if there’s three of them, they won’t just dismiss it as a normal dream or their imagination. They’ll take it seriously, right?”
“Yes!” Erin grinned, poking the other girl. “See, you’re brilliant. Still totally paranoid, but brilliant. Come on, let’s get this set up again so we can start shifting the targets. Let’s see those guys try to leave me behind when I’m in their… dreams… yelling… at… Dylan, who’s this?” Turning around the notebook of sketches she had been randomly flipping through, Erin held it up to indicate a single sketch of a man with somewhat dark shoulder-length hair.
Somehow managing to look even more pale than usual, Dylan quietly replied, “The servant of Galazien the Iron-Souled who cut off my father’s head with an axe just before his friend put a sword through my mother. Why?”
It was Erin’s turn to pale. “I… because… because I know this guy. His name’s Jeremiah Dallant. He’s the Baron of Wyoming for Crossroads. Which means there are Heretic leaders trying to bring this evil Galazien guy back, or free him, or whatever.
“But why the hell would they do that?”