Guest Week Day #3: MaddiroseX

Department Chief

He was a creature so vast and horrible that they didn’t say he ‘slept’, they said he ‘slumbered’, and he had been slumbering for a long, long time. So long that when people used to call him ‘awful’ they meant he inspired awe, when they called him ‘terrible’ they meant he inspired terror. It had taken countless lives for humanity to buy themselves a mere thousand years’ reprieve, a reprieve that they had desperately needed. All throughout that thousand years he had chuckled deep in his slumber, dreaming of when he would wake.

Now, with that same chuckle in his throat, the Great Wyrm Zyxial opened his eyes.

It took him a while to climb out of his cave, but he was in no hurry. Inexorable and unstoppable, he had no reason to rush, indeed, he preferred to savor this. The smell of humans filtered through the mouth of the tunnel, and the Great Wyrm savored that too as rays of sunlight hit his scales for the first time in centuries.

The crowd gathered in front of his cave pleased him, for it meant the bards had spread tales of his return, and they thought they knew what to expect. These paltry few hundred wouldn’t pose him a challenge, but it meant he could begin feasting and savaging immediately, leaving only enough to spread news of his dread return.

Sectioned away from the mass by dark red ropes, two figures stood halfway between the crowd and the cave, waiting for him. Zyxial nodded, he was very familiar with this. The humans had gotten it into their heads that these heroes could defeat him, and they waited with bated breath to see if they had guessed right. It was the age old tale of the humans’ champion, potential savior of their kind, the tale of the dragonslayers versus the dragon.

Thus far, Zyxial had found that champions tasted just as delicious as any other human.

The taller one, a woman with red hair and thin spectacles, stood a little straighter, a little closer to him. Their main hope, then. She carried a small metal tablet and a stylus rather than a sword, but then, it had been a thousand years. It made sense to Zyxial that their weapons would be different, that apparently scribes had learned to fight like warriors. He suspected they would be no more effective.

“Shall I be gregarious,” the Great Wyrm said, rolling the word around in his mouth and enjoying its taste, “and announce to you the name of your doom?”

“That won’t actually be necessary, Lord...” the scribe consulted her metal tablet, “...Zyxial. As you can tell from the crowd, we actually knew that you would be awakening, although we did expect you ‘when sun reached its zenith’.”

The Great Wyrm Zyxial blinked. If he didn’t know any better, he would say that the little scribe's tone was reproachful. He knew of the concept of polite scolding, but didn’t know quite how to respond when it happened to him.

“Well, it took some time to climb out of the cave...” the terrible and awful Zyxial said uncertainly, “...I am inexorable and unstoppable, you see.”

“I’m sure you are, Lord Zyxial, I’m sure you are,” the scribe said sympathetically, “and it’s no trouble, it just means that we’re a bit behind schedule, is all. Normally there’s more pomp and ceremony that comes with this sort of thing, but I’m afraid we’ll have to skip that. My name is Amanda Willow, and I’ll be addressing your needs this afternoon.”

“I suppose that sounds reasonable-” Zyxial began, but then shook his head, “hold on, wait. Do you think to trick me, wordsmith? There shall be no ceremony, for all that awaits you is flame and death. Your cities shall burn, your Kings shall fall. Your only reprieve will be when I cross the seas to strike terror in distant lands, and even that will be a bitter mercy, for you shall quake at the anticipation of my return.”

Fear was a fairly standard reaction to Zyxial’s threats, when he got going. Perhaps anger and defiance, from champions. This scribe’s reaction, though, was new to him, and it took him a few moments to identify it; she looked patient. A polite smile on her lips, nodding in acknowledgement, waiting for him to finish. As emotions went, it was just about as infuriating a reaction as he could imagine.

“Do not humor me, speck!” he snarled, “do you think my threats idle? We will see if your foolhardy bravery remains in the face of my reign of blood and pain!”

“I’m actually going to stop you there, Lord Zyxial,” Amanda said primly, looking over her spectacles at him. It was starting to annoy him how perfectly she pronounced his name. “I have written here that humankind can provide you with a sacrifice which will appease your mighty hunger for a period of one-hundred-thirty-seven years, is that correct?”

“Now listen here,” Zyxial said, exasperated, “this is not how things are supposed to go. The sacrifice is supposed to be a secret, you’re supposed to hunt for mystics and oracles until you learn hard-to-decipher clues that you try as a last resort! It’s no fun if you know exactly how to appease me and exactly when the terror will return, it’s supposed to be ambiguous, so you all can...you know...cower, and things.” The crowd was making him very self-conscious, and a small part of him wondered if he should’ve just kept slumbering.

“Well I am very sorry to hear that, sir, it’s not my goal to keep you from having fun,” Amanda said with the air of one who is not sorry at all.

“Worry not,” Zyxial pushed forward, trying to get back into the spirit of things through sheer willpower, “it is easy to say you will make a sacrifice, but in practice...oh, but perhaps you do not know the cost. Perhaps you think me some meager drake, for whom a simple sacrificial serf will calm my hunger. No, I am Zyxial, the Great Wyrm, and my mercy comes at a much higher cost.”

“The life of a virginal princess, pure of heart, beloved by her father and praised by her subjects for all her eighteen summers?” Amanda suggested.

Zyxial deflated a bit. He did not care for this interaction, not one bit. He briefly considered asking if there was some other human he could deal with instead.

“Lord Zyxial, this is Rachel Walker,” Amanda gestured to the young lady standing next to her.

“Good afternoon, Lord Zyxial,” Rachel Walker said in ancient Alnatlarean, curtseying.

“Impossible,” Zyxial said, although he was so turned around that he wasn’t quite sure what he was objecting to.

“I don’t know if you care about the paperwork, but we have it here for you if you’d like a copy for your records.” Amanda waved a small folder in the air.

“I have no need of parchment,” Zyxial said sullenly.

“Very well, we can just go over the details here,” Amanda consulted her metal tablet. “Her father, King Jeremy Walker the First, was sworn in five years ago...no political power of course, but that shouldn’t be a problem...she’s lived for eighteen summers, although she’s nineteen years old, normally we try to be more precise but we only have control over so much. She is virginal-” Amanda paused, squinted at a line on her tablet, then raised an eyebrow at Rachel, “-technically. Since she’s had eight years and a team of very good counselors and therapists to make peace with this day, she is ready to face it, although I’m sure if it’s important to you she could give a fairly good ‘fear and terror’ impression?” She gave Rachel a questioning glance, and the princess nodded. “And as a bit of a bonus, she is one of three people in the world fluent in Alnatlarean, we threw that in just for you.”

“I don’t know about ‘fluent’, her accent is atrocious,” Zyxial grumbled, although even he knew he was just being finicky at this point.

“Well it is a dead language, sir,” the princess said.

“And you’re sure she’s beloved by her father and praised by her subjects?” Zyxial asked the scribe, grasping at straws, “positive that she’s pure of heart?”

“The young lady who volunteered to sacrifice her life to save her country?” Amanda Willow said quietly, “yes, I should think so on all three counts.”

Zyxial sat heavily on the ground, his enthusiasm gone. There wasn’t much to do at this point, of course. The humans had given him his princess, there was no real point to ravaging the countryside, but...it just wasn’t anywhere near as satisfying as it used to be.

“Well...let’s go, I suppose,” he grumbled. His tail whipped as he turned to leave, clipping the scribe along the side of her neck, but even that petty vengeance did nothing to improve his mood.

The Great Wyrm Zyxial slunk back into his cave, followed by a princess who didn’t even have the decency to make a shrieking yet futile run for it or tearful plea to grief-stricken onlookers. The last thing he saw before turning the corner was Amanda Willow, ignoring the angry red mark on her neck, signing her tablet with a grim and satisfied flourish.

***

Tina leaned back in her chair and tried to focus on her computer screen, ignoring her body’s urge to slip into a post-lunch nap. It was a battle she was starting to lose.

“I’ve got to stop overeating,” she moaned to no one in particular. The lazy squeak of fans and the occasional creak of office chairs was the only answer she got back.

There weren’t a lot of quiet days in the Department of Preternatural Affairs, but this particular Friday was a lazy one. The Great Wyrm Zyxial was scheduled to rise from his slumber at noon, but it was the only thing of note that had happened all week.

At least she wasn’t alone in her laziness. A quick glance around the office showed that more of Tina’s coworkers were dozing or nodding off at their desks than were alert. Tina grinned and clicked back over to her news feed.

“Tina, would you mind coming with me for a moment?”

Tina yelped, trying to look both innocent and busy while simultaneously exiting her news feed and pulling up her spreadsheet. Amanda Willow, arms folded, raised an unimpressed eyebrow, and Tina blushed. How the hell did the woman move around so quietly? “Yes, of course, Chief Willow,” she said, and hurried to follow the long-legged captain through the quiet halls.

Willow was quiet as she made her way through the sleepy hallways, and her silence made Tina nervous. When the small conference room they entered turned out to be empty except for a matronly-looking woman with a manilla folder, her nervousness graduated to full-blown worry.

“Tina, this is Mary from HR,” Amanda Willow took a seat next to Mary, forcing Tina to sit across from them. “It’s procedure for our department to have an HR representative present for these meetings.”

“Oh come on, you’re writing me up again?” Tina groaned, “Chief Willow, no offense, but you’ve got to lighten up! It’s a really slow day, no one in the building is working. I barely have anything to do anyway, why are you singling me out?”

“I’m not writing you up for laziness, Tina,” Willow said, “and I think you know why I’m singling you out.”

Tina paused for a fraction of a second, her natural paranoia overcoming her happy-go-lucky demeanor. No...nah, there’s no way. Willow is good, she’s not THAT good. “I really don’t,” she pouted, “did I offend you or something?”

Willow turned and slipped the manilla folder out from the elbow of Mary from HR, who had started to drift off to sleep in her chair. “As you say, no one in the building is working. We’re usually one of the more urgent departments, but recently...well recently everyone has seemed rather sleepy and unalert, haven’t they? A bit...what’s the right word…‘drained’?”

For a moment Tina searched for another possible interpretation, but no, it was obvious by the way Willow was looking at her.

The Chief knew.

Tina relaxed in her chair, letting her teeth retract back into her skull and her fingers curl backward into their normal positions with a sigh. “Dang it, how did you know? I was so careful!” she said. “I even dyed my hair in case people noticed it was too black!”

Amanda Willow looked just as unimpressed with her transformation as she had with her attempt to look busy, folding her hands on the table and staring Tina down. It was a bit unnerving. Tina didn’t expect terrified screaming or anything, but a quiet and confident lack of reaction wasn’t what she had hoped for when she finally revealed herself.

“I’ll admit, it took much longer than it should have. I was overconfident, and I’m a touch embarrassed that I made such a human error,” Willow finally said.

“Aw, don’t feel bad, ‘to err is human’ after all,” Tina joked.

“We have, as a species, so many folk stories about monsters hiding in our midst,” Willow said, as if to herself, “and I thought I was being so careful. Blood testing for morphics, ID badges made of silver, ever-changing passwords to root out shapeshifters. Everything needed to catch someone impersonating my staff.”

“You don’t really think of us turning in a resume and interviewing for the job, do you?” Tina nodded sympathetically, “you humans aren’t really primed to be suspicious of the coworker who’s been working for you for years, it catches you off guard. Well, them’s the breaks, I suppose.”

“I suppose they are,” Amanda Willow said, regret in her voice. After another moment of silence, she resumed her businesslike tone. “You’ll notice I’ve put a Syphon-binding rune on the underside of your seat.”

Tina tried to rise, and found that she couldn’t.

“Well what do you know! I didn’t know humans had discovered that one yet,” she said with surprise. “Of course, you know you can’t keep me here. It’s wrongful imprisonment.”

“And eating the life-force of an entire department isn’t wrongful?” Willow asked.

Tina wagged a finger, “you can argue ethics all you want, Chief. You can’t legally imprison me in this chair whether you use a rune or a rope. Me eating three square meals a day isn’t legally wrong, I’ll starve without it.”

“You won’t starve, Syphons can live perfectly well on human food,” Willow said.

“Sure we can, but do you have an expert witness to testify to that?” Tina asked. “Are you willing to risk letting a judge make that call? A judge out there, who has probably never dealt with the preternatural before?”

The Syphon grinned. This was actually even more fun than she had thought. It had been a mere five years since the worlds had collided, all of her kind cast over to this lovely ball of water and carbon. Five years was long enough for the novelty to wear off, for humans to get bored of them and accept that they were just another thing that existed. It was long enough that the papers didn’t write about them whenever they sneezed. It was nowhere near long enough for the humans’ legal system to catch up with them.

“I’m part of this department, Chief, I get the memos,” Tina said, still grinning. “We have to be careful what lawsuits we attract, ‘cause every preternatural lawsuit breaks new ground, and we need to make sure it breaks our way. Do you really want to set the legal precedent on confining preternaturals with this case? The case of the office worker whose crime was simply feeding herself, a crime that barely hurt anyone?”

“You could feed yourself another way,” Willow repeated.

“And you’re sure you can convince people of that?” Tina sucked in her fat so that her bones protruded, going from healthy-looking to emaciated in a few seconds, “I can do a really good ‘help I’m starving I’m withering away’ if put under observation. Is that how you want this to play out?”

Willow pressed her lips together in a tight line. “No,” she admitted, “it isn’t.”

“Good.”

“I can keep you here until you confirm that you understand you’ve been written up, though,” Willow said.

Tina rolled her eyes and held out a hand, palm down, fingers up. “Sure thing, Chief, I’d hate to be informal about this. Give me the form to sign.”

“And I can slap you with an ‘Improper Use of Preternatural Powers’ charge,” Willow added, handing her the sheet.

“Mhm, mhm,” Tina said, scribbling her name down, “what is that fine up to these days? Twenty dollars?”

“It’s forty now,” Willow said.

Tina grimaced. “Ugh. Ah well, I guess that’s not a bad price for an all-you-can-eat buffet as it’s been. Here.”

Willow glanced at the signed form, and something about the way she glanced made Tina pause. She quickly reviewed the last several moments in her mind. The reactions, the halfhearted struggle, the defeated look...those were very human reactions, but they weren’t Amanda Willow. Willow wouldn’t give up that easily. She had something up her sleeve.

“The...uh...the rune seems to still be here on the chair,” Tina pointed out, after trying and failing to rise again.

“You know,” Willow said conversationally, looking over the write-up slip again, “it occurs to me that, since we are technically a governmental department, this is technically a legal document. You’ll have to print and sign your name.”

“Come on now, don’t play that, I did sign it,” Tina said, pointing. “It says ‘Tina Winkle’ right there! You may hate what I’m doing, Chief, but you wouldn’t lie or break the law, that’s not you.”

“Not ‘Tina Winkle’,” Willow said sweetly, sliding the form back to her, “your legal name. You know, the one your parents gave you.”

Tina paled as the blood drained into her face. “My...my True name? You can’t require that.”

“Legal document, Tina. I think you’ll find that I can.”

“I’m sorry,” Tina said. “I’m sorry, okay? I’ll stop eating peoples’ life-force, I promise.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Willow said, handing her a pen.

“Look, it’s not like I killed anyone, right? So I made them less effective for a few weeks, big woop. If I swear not to come back-”

Willow slammed her palm on the desk so hard that the wood rattled, the smile utterly gone.

“This is my department,” she said, quietly. “My department, my people. Every case that comes through that door is important, and this tiny little department is the only one who can understand half of them, much less has the expertise to deal with them, to answer the people who need help. Your gluttony means we haven’t been our best. We could’ve helped more people, we could’ve gained more traction, we could have been better. You come into my house, you mess with my people, and then ask me to lenient?”

Tina had taunted hunters and faced down bullets and blades, but for some reason the quiet voice across from her didn’t seem as funny as humans normally struck her.

“Sign the damn paperwork, Tina,” Willow said, “or I swear by two of the three gods I’ve met that I will walk out that door and wait a month before I ask you again.”

Tina picked up the pen and signed, keeping one eye on Willow as she did so. As soon as she slid the paper across the desk she felt the rune under her chair give way.

“Hexil, what a pretty name,” Willow said, her smile and sweet voice returned.

“Thank you,” Tina mumbled under her breath. A confusing blend of shame and anger and fear almost made her stumble on her way from the chair to the door, but any action that put more distance between her and Willow was a good one.

“Oh, and Hexil? Don’t ever feed on a human again,” Willow said, almost absentmindedly, as she filed the paperwork away.

Tina winced as the order melded with the power of her True name and bound them together like steel. It was cruel and unfair, but all things considered, it wasn’t the worst that Willow could’ve done. Judging from a few moments ago, it wasn’t the worst that Willow wanted to do.

“Thank you,” she growled. Yes, it would be difficult to find work again, and yes she no longer had the ability to feed, but manners were important to her, even in circumstances like this.

“Don’t mention it,” Willow waved a hand, “see you Monday.”

Tina walked down the hallway and through the department in a haze, her hearts still hammering. Half of her wanted to be furious that she could no longer feed, but the other half was too shaken, too aware that Willow could’ve taken much more away from her.

“Tina!” Aaron, the department secretary, was only packing up now. “I got back from my meeting late and they said Willow had taken you into the back, I was worried.”

“Thanks for worrying, Aaron,” Tina was too turned around to process much, but she remembered to extend her teeth when she talked to him, and to grab the purse with fingers that bend down instead of back. “It means a lot.”

“Hey, you okay?” Aaron asked, “you look close to tears, she didn’t fire you, did she?”

“I guess you could say that,” Tina was close to tears, for some stupid reason. “She wrote me up and then...and then...”

For a moment she paused, turning to look over her shoulder at the hallway. ‘See you Monday’, Willow had said.

“...and I guess I still have a job?” Tina finished, uncertainly. “Which is...good, I think? I mean, I guess I am pretty good at it...”

“That’s good, right?” Aaron said hesitantly, “look it sounds like you’ve had a rough week. I’m meeting Mark and Ann at the pub on 3rd, do you want to grab some food with us?”

Tina cocked her head to one side, trying to put a finger on the strange feelings rushing through her. “Yes, actually,” she said, surprised. “I think...I think I’d like that a lot.”

***

Amanda Willow, Chief of the Department of Preternatural Affairs, took a deep breath and summoned up all of her will. It took a special kind of steel to withstand torture like this, but after an hour, even that special kind of steel felt the strain. Across from her, her second-in-command David Thorne gave her an encouraging nod. It was the only help he could offer her, but she appreciated it nonetheless. They both knew that there were some monsters which only she had the power to face, and this was one of them.

Willow unmuted the phone on her desk. “Hello, Principal Anderson? Thank you for waiting, now where were we?”

In the end, it took another half hour to rehash the exact same points over and over again. Yes, she did realize how important the recital was to some parents. Yes, she did know Gracie Jones was the star performer. No, she couldn’t reschedule Mind Wake’s execution for a time more convenient to Bluelake Middle School. Yes, she was sure. No, another nine-year-old wouldn’t work, that was sort of the point of a “chosen one”.  Yes, prophesies were very inconsiderate.

When she finally hung up, Willow did so with a touch more force than was strictly necessary.

“You’d think he’d remember Wake’s killing spree from the papers,” Thorne said. “I’d have thought everyone would be pleased the execution.”

“Oh he remembers,” Willow said, a little bitterly, “he just doesn’t believe the prophecy that Wake can’t be imprisoned for more than one phase of the moon.”

“Civilians,” Thorne snorted, “totally on board with an evil sorcerer who can destroy memories, but a prophecy about who will kill him is too far a stretch.”

“Sometimes we just have to deal with the civies, Thorne,” Willow sighed and rubbed her eyes, then looked at the clock. “What the hell are you still doing here, anyway?”

“Moral support,” Thorne was already gathering his things, “and making sure you were okay. I saw the news footage, that wyrm got you pretty good with its tail this afternoon.”

“It’ll leave a scar, but I’ve had worse,” Willow rubbed the red mark on the side of her neck, “I could’ve done without the news airing that part though. We look pretty good on public events like these.”

“We still look good. You kept your cool, and I don’t think anyone can blame you for getting smacked by a dragon tail,” Thorne smiled. “Still. Long day.”

“Very long,” Willow agreed, beginning to pack up her own things.

“Listen...” Thorne paused at the doorway, “maybe take Seventh street home tonight, alright? Or First?”

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to take Eighteenth,” Willow rolled her eyes, making shooing motions with her hands, “now get out of here, it’s Friday night. Maybe grab some flowers on the way home for your wife, apologize for staying late. Again.”

It took Willow another quarter of an hour to actually leave the courthouse. She had to set the pixie traps, check the locks on the filing cabinet, lay out a comb of honey for the cleaning sprite, file the day’s paperwork, and wait until Bluelake Middle School finally faxed Gracie’s permission slip for Willow to sign. By the time she made her way down the steps, the moon was starting to rise.

Willow was just dialing home when her phone buzzed in her hand.

“I’m sorry, I’m on my way now,” she answered, “I didn’t get distracted, I promise, just had a busy afternoon.”

“I figured as much, haven’t even put dinner in the oven yet,” her husband Frank chuckled. “Just making sure you were coming home eventually.”

“Wow, you’re making dinner and everything?” Willow said, the worries of work already slipping away, “you spoil me.”

“Saw you on the news today, with that dragon thing. You did good, you deserve some spoiling.”

“Oh it was nothing,” Willow said, “I deal with dragons every day. I’ll see you soon, love.”

“See you soon...” Frank paused, and Willow could tell what he was about to say. “Don’t take Eighteenth street home, okay?”

“No no,” Willow laughed, “today was a good day, hun. I won’t take Eighteenth street.”

Her smile slowly slipped away as she hailed a cab. Behind her, the courthouse shone with a silver glow in the moonlight, glyphs and runes reflecting the stars.

***

It started to rain sometime during the cab ride, but Willow hadn’t been paying enough attention to pinpoint when. Her eyes were closed, her head leaned back, and she focused on the bumps in the road. The cab had a bad suspension, but they were more affordable than trying to buy a car in today’s economy, after the eldritch oil crash. She could they had arrived before the cabbie spoke, just by the way the bumps slowed.

“Here you are, ma’am, Jefferson and Eighteenth,” the cabbie said.

“Wait for a few minutes?” Willow asked, pressing the fare into his hand. The rain was cold, but the day had been warm enough that it felt good when she stepped out into the wet and dark. A few streetlamps and an everflame lit the sidewalk around her, but the locals had put up a string of lanterns along the walkway to light the entire wall next to it. Cass didn’t need the lights, but they lit up his mural like the work of art it was.

“Someone there?” Cass called out, tilting his head from where he worked.

“Hello, Cass,” Willow said.

“Ah, Madam Amanda Willow,” Cass smiled his toothless smile and turned his head in her direction. He kept spraying his spraypaint as he spoke, but then, a blind man didn’t need to look at what he was doing. Neither, for that matter, did an oracle. “How’s the mural looking?”

“Looks good, Cass,” Willow mused aloud, eyes locked on the huge piece. Cass nodded and happily went back to his work. It wasn’t a lie. Every line of the mural was beautiful, and the way they twisted and turned in and out of each other like knots was mesmerizing. The knots and colors formed dozens pictures, layered on top of each other but somehow all fitting together perfectly, so that one could look at the wall and see each vignette as clearly as if it was laid out on a page. Every one of them was of a tall red-headed woman with thin glasses, facing off against some creature or challenge.

It hadn’t taken long for the newspapers to identify the woman in the oracle’s mural as Preternatural Department Chief Amanda Willow, but after the initial buzz most people just accepted the mural’s presence. Even Willow didn’t depend on it for much insight. The dangers in the mural were usually only helpful in hindsight. Willow recognized a new image now, her sitting across from a Syphon whose back was to the viewer.

“A little late for you to visit, isn’t it Miss Willow?” Cass asked.

“Just wanted to see what you’ve added since I’ve been here last, Cass,” Willow lied. Instead, she walked to the end of the wall, to one of his oldest pictures.

No one knew how exactly Cass had conveyed it in the image, but everyone said they saw the same thing. The paint was a bit muted, but it still conveyed the scene perfectly. A red-haired woman, on her knees, glasses broken on the ground. The picture captured a moment of complete and utter defeat, a moment just before death.

Willow had wondered if it was just her own morbid interpretation, but everyone who saw it agreed. The woman in the picture had only seconds left of her life.

As she always did, Willow ran a hand over the long-dried paint. Smudged on the day it was painted, far too smudged to make out, the smear of purple and blue that stood over her fallen form still seemed so menacing. Granted, anything became menacing when you knew it would kill you. As she always did, Willow ran a hand down over the image of herself, pausing on her three hopes, the three details she clung to on nights like these.

In the image, Willow was missing her right ring finger, a severed and healed stump in its place. Willow ran her hand over her own finger, whole and healthy.

In the image, Willow’s ears were pierced, and little silver stars dangled from them. Willow reached up and tugged on her earlobe, smooth and unmarred.

In the image, Willow had an angry red mark on the side of her neck, like a magical burn that would never heal. Willow ran her fingers gently along her neck where Zyxial had whipped her with his tail, tracing the length of the angry red mark thoughtfully.

“Two hopes, now,” she said quietly.

“Oh, you still there, Miss Willow?” Cass called, “I thought you’d left.”

“I’m not gone yet, Cass,” Willow said, to him, and to herself, and to the vanquished figure in the mural. “I’m not leaving for quite some time.”

 

For more from Maddirose, check out her site at https://twistedcogs.wordpress.com/