(Posting to add to archive of short stories for ease of reading. Originally posted in 8 sentence sections. Though incomplete, this is the start of the journey, and works as a short story.)

Hokusai_Dragon

“And here’s my house,” the mage waved at a two-story with cream siding and bright purple trim, behind a wrought-iron fence painted the same purple.

“It looks… lovely,” Shan said, when Auber and Reagan had both been silent, staring up at the building for several awkward moments.

“Thank you,” the mage tapped the right-hand lion’s head post framing the gate, which swung open silently. “After you.”

Shan half-shoved Auber and Reagan into motion, herding them down the wide cobblestone path to the front door, which was set with a star mosaic of tile and mirror that glittered in the sun filtering from the branches overhead. Two large trees shaded the house and parts of the yard, with flowers and plants growing in beds everywhere, and little gravel paths winding around the beds in a maze-like profusion.

A four-foot tall oriental dragon reared on one side of the path, a manticore—with a human head, lion body, and scorpion tail—curled up on the other side. That’s an odd way to carve a statue, Shan thought, as the dragon turned to face them.

“Oh, hello, Bell,” the mage said cheerfully, “haven’t seen you on guard duty in a while.”

“Sometimes I like a break from the gardening.” The dragon stretched and settled on all four feet.

Auber spotted something moving deeper in the garden—a statue of a centaur half-hidden behind some bushes, peering at the group. When the centaur saw Auber, the statue ducked out of sight, backing up so a swishing white-stone tail emerged from the opposite side of the bushes. Smothering a giggle, Auber studied the rest of the statues, but none moved except for the manticore sleeping on the other side of the path, which winked.

Reagan loved to garden, and had fallen into a conversation with the mage and the dragon about the best kind of mulch for high sun exposed beds.

A loud throat clearing had no effect on them, or the bout of coughing the throat-clearing set off, so Shan finally decided to be rude and interrupt. “Excuse me?”

“Oh, sorry,” the mage flushed and fussed with the pointy black hat with three blue-jay feathers stuck in its brim, perched precariously atop a riot of black curls. “I love plants, so I created my guards more to help me with the yard than to prevent intruders, though they’re very good at that.”

“Nearly ate a thief last week,” the dragon confirmed.

“Bluebell!” The mage shook a finger at the dragon. “My statues don’t eat people, they have no stomachs, so they can’t—hey, why don’t we go inside? You needed a potion for finding something you lost, right? Follow me!”

The teenagers exchanged worried glances, but if they didn’t locate the Shield of Namarr, they’d never rescue their friend Jamie, and the Stonespeller was the only mage they could afford.

Keeping carefully to the center of the path to avoid anything that might be lurking in the greenery, they walked into the open door, which swung shut behind them with a soft tap.

Inside, the mage’s house was crammed with shelves and cabinets in a rainbow of woods, lining the walls in every available space—even around windows and above doorways.

“Have a seat!” The mage waved to a half-dozen wooden chairs, all upholstered in a cream fabric with a green vine pattern. The chairs sat in a rough half-circle, facing a long, wide counter, completely empty of clutter. That changed in a moment, as the Stonespeller opened cabinets, stretching to grab items high overhead, and crouching below the counter to retrieve items stored in cabinets below—glass vials with liquids or powders, a few larger jars with dried herb leaves, and a small cauldron.

Each item formed a neat line when the last cabinet door clicked shut, the cauldron at the end of the row.

“Now, what have you lost?” The mage asked, turning to face the group settled on the three center chairs.

None of them had expected the question—just a potion they could pay for and leave with. The three of them exchanged worried glances, since they couldn’t very well tell the Stonespeller that they had lost the Shield.

The Shield of Namarr, a pale green stone bound in a complicated lattice of gold, powered a spell that repelled dangerous magical monsters—the wyrms from the cliffs to the north, the daggerfish out of the river to the east, and the many beasts that roamed the plains to the south and west.

With it gone, the shield-spells would eventually fail, and the monsters would make their way past the city walls. But if the people knew… if they fled, they would only find the hungry creatures out there, waiting for them. Safety was so far away—more than two days travel by caravan, and even longer on foot.

“You don’t have to tell me,” the mage said into the silence, “but I do need to know a few things–such as, who will suffer the most personally, for its loss?”

Auber and Reagan glanced guiltily at Shan.

“Hold this tightly,” a small, clear crystal appeared in the mage’s hand, passed to Shan, “and think of why you need to find this item.”

Before Shan could respond, the mage focused on the cabinets away again. “Is this item living–like a person or animal–dead–like a piece of wood cut from a tree–or never lived–like metal?”

“Never lived,” Reagan said.

Three glass jars clicked onto the counter in front of the cabinets, and the mage asked, “Is this item magical or unmagical?”

“Magical,” Shan said, thinking of the missing magical storehouse that Jamie was currently replacing,  trapped, until the spell pulled too much magic and burst the the apprentice mage’s heart.

“Here, please,” the mage scooped up the cauldron in both hands, and held it out to Shan.

Hastily, Shan dropped the now-hot crystal, which hit the bottom of the metal container with a soft thunk.

“Let me see,” Reagan grabbed Shan’s hand. “Does it hurt?”

“No,” Shan pulled back the hand, which smarted painfully.

“Why didn’t you warn–” Reagan glanced at the mage, and paused, eyes wide with disbelief. Half of the neat line of vials and jars had disappeared into their respective cabinets or shelves, the mage currently measuring a fine pink powder with a tiny silver scoop, and transferring it to the cauldron a few grains at a time, stirring with a silver whisk.

When the ingredients of the last vial, a dried leaf, crumbled into the cauldron, the mage picked it up again. Carefully, moving as slowly as if the small cauldron were a heavy stone, the Stonespeller shuffled out of the room, down the halfway, and out of sight.

Several minutes later, the Stonespeller returned, hands empty, “I need to tend to the fire while the potion cooks, but I won’t be long.”

With that, the mage walked off again, but popped around the corner a few heartbeats later. “It’s best if you don’t touch anything, though.”

Reagan leaned over to pat Shan’s shoulder, “We’ll find the Shield in time, and Jamie will–”

A fawn statue clacked around the corner, carrying a tray in its mouth, and set it on Reagan’s lap.

Reagan stared at the tray, which had three clay mugs, a small pitcher of water, and a covered dish, arranged with a clear eye to the tray’s balance.

But the fawn, clearly, had no hands. Were there more statues in the house with them? The fawn seemed harmless enough, but Reagan remembered the sharp teeth and claws on the dragon, and the stinger on the manticore, who seemed unnecessarily fearsome for pulling weeds and trimming hedges.

Auber leaned over, and lifted the cover, revealing a neat pile of fruit and cheese, and ate one of each. “Tasty.”

Regan yelped. “What if that was enchanted?”

Auber paused, pitcher in hand, then, poured water into each cup, and took a long drink from one. “We haven’t even paid yet, why would the Stonespeller harm us?”

“But— ” Reagan tried to stand, remembered the tray just in time, and slumped in the seat, defeated.

Shan took a few sips from the closest cup, cradling it and staring into the water as if it might hold something important. All that stood out on the bottom was a faint swirl from the potter’s fingers impressed into the clay, though. “How do you think…”

The mage appeared around the corner again, carrying three small vials. “One for you, and you, and you–but eat something first, the potion makes an empty stomach a bit queasy.”

Something hissed loudly from down the hallway.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” The mage strolled away, humming, hands tangled in the floor-sweeping black robe.

The hissing sound grew louder, but the Stonespeller didn’t seem concerned, ambling around the corner, the little song trailing off down the hallway. Suddenly, the hissing and the humming plunged into silence.

Reagan pulled a grape and then another off the stem, making a neat line on the plate, ““Do you think everything’s okay?”

“I’m sure its fine,” Shan said. “Eat.”

After they’d done so, Shan stared at the dose for a moment, then knocked it back in one gulp. Auber followed suit, and with a shrug, so did Reagan, and then Auber stood, pulled a pouch with the agreed upon price, and placed it on the counter just as the Stonespeller emerged from around the corner again.

Picking up the pouch, the Stonespeller poured out the coins and counted them, “Good luck.”

“Pardon?” Shan asked.

“I said good luck. It must be important, so I hope you find what you’ve lost.”

“Me, too,” Shan said, “Me, too.”

 

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About Caitlin Stern

I have a MA in English, and have so many fantasy/urban fantasy WIPs it's not even funny. I'm an avid reader of science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, biography, fiction, and anything else that catches my interest. I collect books, and bookmarks I find that are visually appealing and useful.

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