A Tale by Aaron Canton and Michael DeAngelo
The upper deck was a sea of rain, and Minerva staggered forward when the oversized ship hurtled up and down in the midst of the titanic storm. A wave smashed into the vessel and Minerva yelped as the swell of water surged over the deck and almost washed her off her feet, but she managed to grab on to the railing and save herself from plunging overboard. “Where are they?” she screamed at a nearby sailor, her voice barely audible above the roaring waves and pounding thunder. “The animals! Where did you put them?”
“What?” The sailor, who worked to lash something to the rail, gave her a mystified look. “What are you doing here? Get back to your cabin!”
“I need to protect my animals!” Minerva snapped. Her auburn curls were matted to her head and a few long strands brushed against her eyes, but she just wiped them away and stepped closer to the man. “Tell me where they are!”
The sailor scowled and then jabbed a thumb in the direction of several crates, each one secured to the deck by ropes and chains, before resuming his work.
Minerva made her way over to the animals as quickly as she could while keeping her balance on the pitching and rolling vessel. She distantly regretted having insisted that her animal charges be left on deck instead of secured in the hold, but she’d known how much the creatures would have disliked being stuck down in that musty compartment for days, and she’d naively believed the weather-witch who had predicted sunny skies for the duration of the trip. The captain had wanted them all down below, of course, but Minerva had insisted. She was the one with experience taking care of and calming various wild beasts, not Jacinda.
Of course, Jacinda was the one with experience on the open seas, and right now that was looking a good deal more relevant.
When Minerva reached the animals, she didn’t need her magic to sense how agitated they were. “I’m here,” she insisted as she moved between the cages and worked to calm each beast in turn. “There’s nothing to worry about. Captain Jacinda is a good sailor; she’ll get us to safety. You don’t need to fret.”
One of the creatures, a young lion cub, yipped in agitation. Minerva focused so that a little of her magic flared up around her before flowing into the cub, the rain passing harmlessly through the spell as it moved, and the creature relaxed by the slightest amount. “There we go,” she soothed. “Just relax. We’ll be fine.”
A titanic cracking sound echoed from behind her, and she swiveled in time to see the mast shudder. Her mouth dropped as it began to sway, and she had time for one moment of regret. She shouldn’t have taken this job, she thought, not even after the Cirque de Malorum had collapsed, and she’d needed other employment. Transporting exotic pets from one noble to another had seemed like decent work, especially given how her own talents could make even the fiercest monsters as docile as a pack of friendly puppies, but nobody had mentioned how dangerous the seas could be. Maybe it would have been better to look for jobs which didn’t require ocean travel.
Then Minerva caught herself. She wasn’t just some little girl anymore, she insisted to herself. She was a skilled animal tamer whose years of experience had taught her how to handle herself in any situation. Whining could wait. What she needed to do now was take charge and use her unique skills to help keep the ship afloat.
The mast creaked again, and Minerva could see sailors rushing to stop it from crashing down and leaving the ship adrift. Minerva made up her mind and fumbled in her soaked pocket for the key to the cage containing the biggest of her animals, a massive bear. “I need your help,” she murmured to the bear as she unlocked its cage. “You’re going to help me, okay? And then I’ll give you lots of honey.”
The bear opened its mouth to roar, but Minerva summoned her magic again and it relaxed. She smiled and opened the cage, braced herself against another huge wave, and then led the newly docile beast to the mast. “Hold it steady!” she urged it as she manipulated her magic, imprinting that desire in the creature’s mind. “Don’t let it fall!”
“What are you doing?” demanded a sailor as the bear gripped the mast and held it tight.
“I’m helping!” Minerva snapped. “Get out of my way!”
“Get below deck, you idiot!”
Another wave smashed into them before she could respond. The impact was hard enough to knock several of the sailors down, but the bear stood tall, and it kept the mast straight. Minerva shot a brief smirk at the sailor before grabbing a rope of her own and lending her strength to the effort.
“Everyone!” someone shouted from the prow. “We’re heading for that island! Just hold on until we get there!”
Minerva squinted to better see through the pouring rain and was just barely able to make out a distant blob which might have been land. She frowned, knowing their route didn’t take them past any islands larger than a sandbar and wondering just how badly off course they’d been pushed by the storm. But then yet another wave hit them, thunder boomed directly overhead, and all of Minerva’s thoughts turned toward hanging onto the rope and doing what she could to keep the mast upright.
It took what felt like ages before the ship neared what Minerva could now see was a jungle island. The rain started to die down and Minerva managed a smile as a few sunbeams peeked through the clouds and brought the faintest traces of warmth to her soaked and shivering body. “Land ho!” she joked.
Most of the sailors near her cheered at that, though the one who had called her an idiot still looked annoyed.
The ship dropped anchor once it was snugly in the middle of a deep cove which was well protected from the waves. As the last drops of rain fell, Minerva led the bear back to its cage. “You did great,” she murmured to it as she got it inside. “You held up the mast like a champion. You deserve a nice long nap.”
The bear growled in a gentle fashion, let out what Minerva thought was an adorable yawn, and then curled up to sleep.
Minerva smiled at the creature, but her thoughts were interrupted by approaching footsteps. She turned to see the other members of her party who were helping her transport the animals: Ranzik, the burly gnoll whose halberd had ensured no bandits had bothered them during the overland portion of their journey; Cyndal, the dwarf cleric whom Minerva could personally confirm was an excellent healer, and Taycha, the goblin mage whose reputation was that she always knew the perfect spell for any situation. Rumor had it that Taycha had once assembled an army of fellow goblins to perform some great service for the Westwick Thieves Guild in exchange for the thieves fetching her a bevy of magical books, scrolls, and tomes stolen from the universities and archmage towers of Raleigh. Minerva could easily believe those tales; nothing but exhaustive study from a superlative library could explain Taycha’s immense knowledge of magic. “Yes?” Minerva asked. “What is it?”
“Captain wants to talk,” Cyndal said. “She insists it’s urgent.”
Minerva looked around. The crew had already started to inspect the deck and sides of the ship, with four different sailors examining the cracked mast in particular. “She doesn’t want to look at her ship first? This boat needs repairs.”
“It does, but she said she needs to talk to you first,” Ranzik growled. If the gnoll had any mood besides ‘surly,’ Minerva had never seen it. “Hurry.”
Minerva was led by her party to the enclosed pilothouse where Jacinda, the lanky kaja who captained the ship, gave Minerva a tired look. “I’m given to understand you left the cabin area, where we instructed all the passengers to remain, and came above deck?”
“I needed to make sure my animals were safe,” Minerva insisted.
“These being the animals that were supposed to have been put in the hold in the first place?”
Minerva frowned. “The weather was supposed to be good. And besides, we helped. If my bear hadn’t kept the mast upright, it could have come off entirely!”
“That isn’t the point.” Jacinda sighed. “When you purchased passage for your party and these animals, I explained to you that you need to follow my orders while on my ship.”
“I couldn’t ask you for permission to have my bear help! There wasn’t time, and you were busy trying to keep this ship afloat!”
“And if you’d talked to me in advance and mentioned that your bear could help out in the event of some emergency, that would be one thing. But you didn’t. You went against my orders and could have caused a catastrophe.” Jacinda gestured out the porthole. “What if you’d been swept overboard? I’d have had to put my other crew in even greater risk to rescue you!”
Minerva scowled. “I saved the mast.”
“I know this ship better than you. My sailors could have kept it upright without your bear.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
Jacinda shook her head and then held up a hand. “I’m not going to argue with you, Minerva. I’ll make this easy. Will you swear here and now to obey all my orders for the rest of your journey with us, or do I need to have my men lock you in your cabin for the rest of the trip?”
Minerva flushed and turned to her companions, but each of them looked the other way, and she realized she had no support. “That won’t be necessary,” she finally muttered through gritted teeth. “I’ll follow orders.”
Jacinda nodded, then turned as a sailor rushed in and began rattling off which repairs were most urgently needed.
“The captain’s just trying to keep everyone safe,” Cyndal said as they left the cabin. “Don’t take it personally.”
“How can I not?” Minerva growled. “I’m not stupid. I know I don’t look like a grizzled veteran, but I’m good with my magic and I can do a lot of things!”
“Just because you have power doesn’t mean you should use it,” Taycha opined. “Like that guy who ran the circus you worked for.”
Minerva swiveled to glare at Taycha. “I’m nothing like Faroon,” she hissed. “He just abused others to line his own pockets. I didn’t try to help save the ship out of some desire to, I don’t know, extort the captain. I just wanted to keep us alive!”
Sailors brushed by her carrying repair supplies from a hold and Minerva slouched over to the railing before looking down at the battered ship. “I guess we’ll be here for a while.”
“A few hours, at least,” Cyndal confirmed. “I heard the sailors talking about it.”
“Well, at least we’ve got plenty of food for the animals…” Minerva’s voice trailed off as she looked over the beach. A jagged, jumbled shape was behind a rocky outcropping, and as she looked at it, she thought she could start to see parts which looked familiar: a toppled mast, a cracked hull, even a figurehead. “Wait. Look there, behind those rocks. Isn’t that another ship?”
Taycha stood on her tiptoes, then scrambled up to the railing and took some kind of magic spyglass from a little pouch at her waist. “The remains of one,” she said. “Probably hasn’t been here long.”
“Why do you say that?” Ranzik asked.
“It’s soaked, but there’s no mold.” Taycha tweaked a dial on her spyglass. “There hasn’t been time for anything to grow on it. And in this climate, with that kind of vegetation?” She gestured at the trees. “Most bits of driftwood get moldy within a day or two.”
Ranzik frowned. “If there are survivors, they might try to hijack our craft so they can get off this island.”
“They’d probably just ask for passage,” Cyndal replied. “We have room, and they have no reason to hurt us.”
Minerva said nothing. Her gaze remained on the jungle where Taycha had pointed. Some of the underbrush rustled, but not in the way she would have expected given the direction of the wind from the dissipating storm. “Taycha, can I borrow that?”
Taycha passed over the spyglass, and when Minerva looked through it, she saw creatures of some sort darting back into the trees and knocking plants out of the way as they went. They had short fur which ran the gamut from brown to gray, and as she watched, a few of them pointed at the newly wrecked ship and made frantic gestures to their companions. The creatures bounced around a little as if agitated before vanishing into the underbrush.
“There’s something in the jungle,” Minerva said at last. “I don’t recognize their species, but they seemed to recognize the ship. They might be from that other wreck.”
“Are you sure?” Taycha asked. “I mean, I’m not opposed to helping them. But they might be dangerous too. And the captain might object.”
Minerva snorted. “The captain’s in charge of the ship, but those creatures in the jungle aren’t on the ship, so she’s not a factor. Besides, I’m pretty sure Jacinda doesn’t want me around here anyways.” She managed a smile. “I know what I’m doing. Let’s go see if those critters need help.”
She walked to the makeshift gangplank which some sailors had extended so they could get down to the beach and do hull repairs, and once she reached it, she waved to her party. The other three exchanged glances, but they all followed.
* * *
“There’s a lot of magic here,” Taycha noted as the quartet moved through the jungle. “I wish we could stay longer so I could do some more research.”
“Haven’t you researched enough?” Minerva joked. “When I hired you for this job, you said you were one of the most knowledgeable mages in Raleigh.”
“A true wizard can never know too much.” Taycha grinned. “Besides, this interests me. I’d love to learn where this island’s magic came from, and if it could be harnessed.”
Ranzik glowered, and when he spoke, his voice was surly like usual. “We don’t have time. Jacinda told me that if we’re not back when repairs are done she’ll dump the animals on the beach and leave without us.”
Cyndal waved a hand. “I’m sure she was kidding. She seems like a decent sort. She wouldn’t abandon us.”
“Well, maybe Minerva,” Taycha teased.
Minerva flushed. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get those animals to their new home as soon as possible; it’s not humane to leave them cooped up in those cages for longer than necessary. That means we need to be back on the ship the moment it’s ready to leave.”
“Wait,” Cyndal objected. “What about the other ship? If there are survivors on this island, we have a duty to rescue them.”
“That kind of wreck? Doubtful.” Ranzik snorted. “Bet all you saw were wild animals, Minerva. Bet nobody survived that wreck. And we don’t have time to go through this whole island looking for people who aren’t there.”
“Which,” Minerva countered, “is why we’re not going to do that. We’ll just check as much of the jungle as we can before we have to leave. And we’ll tell people back at port what happened so more rescue teams can be sent too, if needed.”
It had been some time since the Cirque de Malorum had collapsed, and while she occasionally missed Barbas (who had pretended to be her father during circus acts as per Faroon’s orders, and who had been surprisingly kind to her even though he had ultimately just been some actor whom she’d never even seen before joining up with the show), she was nonetheless overjoyed that it was gone. Faroon had been a wicked man, and while Minerva had been spared the worst of his abuses—those had been reserved for others, like the poor kobold who had finally gotten away—she’d still experienced enough to know that nobody should be subjected to that sort of treatment. When people like the kobold were weak and needed help, others who knew how should step in and provide that aid instead of making those people suffer for their own gain.
That was why Minerva had insisted on helping when the ship had been caught in the storm, whatever Captain Jacinda thought. And it was why Minerva needed to help now. If some crew really had been shipwrecked here, she couldn’t just leave them behind.
Ranzik swiveled, his ears twitching, and he jabbed his halberd to Minerva’s right. “There,” he growled. “In the trees.”
Minerva turned and saw the briefest glimpse of a grey, furry face peeking out from the bushes at her before the creature dashed away.
“Wait!” Minerva called as she ran after the critter. “We want to help you!” Vines and bushes grabbed at her legs, but she forced her way through them and continued her chase. “Come back!”
Minerva’s party followed her and the group pursued the scampering critter, which led them through a circuitous path before they arrived at a small clearing that butted up against a rocky outcropping. A stream flowed off the rock and dropped down into another river below, creating a little waterfall. And in the foam of the waterfall, frolicking in the water, were several more of the creatures.
“I think they’re local to this area,” Cyndal said as the creature they’d been chasing dashed over to its companions and leapt into the water. “Not from the shipwreck.”
“Still,” Taycha said. “I’ve never heard of any creatures like this. We should see what we can learn!”
Minerva said nothing as she approached the critters, though mentally she figured she shouldn’t completely dismiss the idea that they were from the other wreck. “Hey there,” she said as she reached out with her magic. “Can you understand me? My name is Minerva.”
The creatures looked at each other, and then a few of them swam back to shore. Minerva smiled at them.
And then their bodies twisted and warped.
“Back!” Ranzik shouted as he hauled Minerva backward and jabbed his halberd forward. Minerva, however, grabbed his arm and forced him to lower his blade. Then she took another look at the creatures.
They weren’t all grey anymore, she realized. Two of them now had brown fur with striped patterns very similar to that of Ranzik’s, their faces had changed shape, and the little brown antlers on their heads had swung down and taken on darker colors that also mirrored the fighter’s. It was like, Minerva thought, they had tried to turn into gnolls but had only accomplished a few outward changes.
Nor were those creatures the only ones that looked different. Some of the others had shifted so that their bodies, faces, and other features became more like those of Taycha and Cyndal. One had even turned paler and grown thicker auburn fur on its head in what could only be a mimicry of Minerva’s own fair skin and red curls. “They’re trying to imitate us!” Minerva managed.
Taycha’s eyes grew wide, and she beamed. “Fascinating!” she said. “They’re using some kind of innate magic sense to reshape their own bodies. I’ve never heard of anything like this!” Her hands fumbled to open her rucksack, which Minerva knew contained many pieces of magical gear. “Imagine what we could learn from them!”
Minerva watched as Taycha approached the creatures. The ones who imitated the goblin hurried to stand between Taycha and their companions, as if trying to protect them, but Taycha just smiled and said, “Hello, little guys! You don’t have to worry. We’re friends, not predators. Here, look!”
She reached into a small pouch of her pack and pulled out a bag of sweets, then popped two of them in her mouth before licking her lips and offering the bag to the creatures. “These are delicious! Try some!”
One of the creatures cautiously tiptoed forward and snatched the bag from Taycha’s hand, then experimentally dropped a candy into its mouth. It chewed, grinned, and then ripped the bag apart to offer the candies to its friends. Soon, Taycha was surrounded by a bunch of furry critters who seemed very happy with her. A look of pure glee suffused her face as she spread several magical instruments from her pack out before her, some of which the creatures began to fiddle with, and she picked one such instrument up before tapping it upon her own forehead and then that of one of the creatures. The creature squeaked happily as it floated up about a foot in the air and was suffused with a faint purple glow; Taycha’s eyes glowed yellow as she examined it. “Such incredible magic,” she murmured. “Remarkable.”
Ranzik still pointed his halberd in the general direction of the creatures, presumably in case some of them became hostile, and Cyndal took a closer look at the ones which had become more dwarflike. Minerva, for her part, looked at a few of the critters which were still in the water and seemed more nervous. “Don’t be shy,” she called to them as she let her magic wash over them and soothe away their fears. “You can relax. We’re all friends here.”
The critters seemed to calm at that, and soon enough they were trotting over to their brethren even as their bodies shifted and warped to become a little more humanlike.
“This is amazing,” Taycha said after a few minutes of examination. “I’ve never seen creatures with such intricate and instinctive magical control. It’s like the Strain is…is…” She gestured feebly. “I can’t explain how, but it’s like they’ve somehow bonded with the Strain on an incredibly deep level.”
“Do you think they’re native to this island?” Cyndal asked. “Or are they from the ship like Minerva first thought?”
“If they existed anywhere else in the wider world, I would have heard of them.” Taycha spoke with absolute certainty. “Creatures like this couldn’t possibly remain secret unless they were all by themselves on this little island, with no visitors until we showed up.”
Minerva frowned. “And that one ship before us. If these creatures really aren’t from that vessel, then any survivors must still be out there. We should look for them.”
Taycha sighed. “I know, but it would be a shame to leave these guys here.” Then she paused. “Do you have any extra space in your animal cages, Minerva? Maybe we could take a few with us.”
“We shouldn’t disrupt nature,” Cyndal said at once.
“But we also shouldn’t throw away a perfect opportunity to learn more about the magic of our world,” Taycha responded.
Ranzik snorted. “Jacinda won’t like it. And besides, we don’t even know if they can sail. Maybe they get seasick.”
Taycha looked at Minerva, who smiled a little. “They looked perfectly comfortable in the water, Ranzik,” Minerva said. “And even setting aside Taycha’s studies, I think it’d be good for us to help them experience the wider world on the mainland. Why should they be stuck on the same boring island all their lives?”
“Maybe they like it here,” Cyndal pointed out. Then he glanced up toward the sun. “And besides, if we do want to search the island further for survivors, we won’t have time to wrangle all these creatures back to the ship.”
“True, but I think we can gather up a few.” Minerva nodded. “Alright. Taycha, can you handle getting some of them back to the beach while the rest of us look—”
Minerva froze as Ranzik’s word cut through the air, and the critters jumped back while squeaking in fear. Then Ranzik tackled Minerva to the grass, and she grunted as he fell on top of her.
Before she could complain, a burst of magical lights went off from above her, and her vision filled with bizarre colors flashing right in front of her eyes. “Stop it!” she cried as her mind reeled under the sensory assault. “Stop!”
Taycha muttered something from Minerva’s left and the colors abruptly vanished, but before she could relax, she saw several armed figures stepping out of the trees and entering the clearing. Most wore uniforms which made them look like members of some professional organization, though their outfits were damp and torn in various places. They carried cages and they wielded a mixture of melee weapons and bows, except for a single mage who was wrapped in an elaborate robe and carried a staff with a glowing crystal attached to one end. Four of the newcomers, Minerva noticed, had more militaristic uniforms which also featured a golden sigil above their breast pockets; these included the mage, two swordsmen, and a woman with a large captain’s hat.
“Stay down,” Ranzik hissed in Minerva’s ear from atop her back. Minerva twisted her head as much as she could to see that Cyndal and Taycha had also dropped to the ground; the critters, by contrast, staggered around and still seemed to be afflicted by the color spell. “They mean trouble. I can smell it.”
“Yes,” said a new voice. “Do stay down.”
Minerva twisted her head back around to see the woman with the captain’s hat smiling. She then drew a jeweled scimitar from her belt, swept it through the air, and pointed it straight at Minerva.
“You four just stay out of our way,” she continued. “My crew and I will gather up what we came for while you remain perfectly still. And then, if you play along, we’ll take you with us when we get off this accursed island at last.”
* * *
As the newcomers approached, Ranzik leapt up and shifted his halberd forward while the rest of Minerva’s party regrouped. Minerva glanced back and saw that most of the critters still stumbled around with colored lights flashing in their eyes, but after a few more seconds, Taycha muttered another quick spell and the creatures steadied as those colors vanished. Then the apparent captain of the newcomers scowled. “I told you, stay out of this!”
“I don’t take orders from you!” Minerva crossed her arms. “You’re hurting them!”
“Hardly.” The man with the magic staff chuckled. “They’ll be fine. These little things are very durable on account of their shapeshifting magic.”
“How do you know about them?” Taycha demanded.
Minerva’s eyes narrowed as she took a closer look at the cages the figures were carrying, and before the newcomers could answer, she already knew what they would say. “Someone hired you to kidnap those creatures, aren’t you?” she asked.
“It’s not kidnapping. They’re not sapient.” The leader of the gang smiled. “But yes, we were hired to collect a dozen ligomorphs and bring them back to our employer. Now get out of our way or suffer the consequences. I trust you’re familiar with the Blades of Varagnon?”
“A mercenary gang,” Ranzik growled. “Mostly works for nobles and the richest merchants. It’s said they’ll do anything if the price is right.”
Minerva gulped. “And these guys are all part of the Blades?”
“No. There’s no reason to send an elite army to go poaching. Most of them are probably just trappers for the creatures.” Ranzik tensed. “But the ones with sigils are in the Blades. Celeste Varagnon and a few of her sellswords, to make sure nobody else grabs their creatures on the way home.”
“How do you know that’s Varagnon herself?” Taycha asked. “They might have sent an underling.”
Ranzik scowled. “We’ve met.”
“What?” Minerva swiveled to face Ranzik. “When?”
“She tried to hire me once. I said no.” Ranzik took a breath. “I have scruples. I wouldn’t have fit in.”
Celeste beamed. “I see my reputation precedes me. Well, I can assure you that everything you’ve heard about me is true. My crew and I always win our fights, and like your gnoll friend said, there’s nothing we won’t do to complete contracts. But we also don’t care for pointless bloodshed, so I’ll give you one last chance. Surrender and back down, and not only will we leave you be while we gather up the ligomorphs, but we’ll even take you with us when we leave.”
“You can’t leave,” Minerva said. She risked a glance behind her and saw the ‘ligomorphs’ were huddled by the banks of the river and rapidly cycling through different appearances. Her heart clenched as she was reminded of some of the animals that Faroon had mistreated, and she had to take a moment to steady herself before continuing. “Not if you arrived on that ship we saw on the beach. It’s wrecked.”
“Although,” Cyndal added, “we still have a ship, and ours should be ready to leave this island in just a few hours. If you give up on your plans to abduct these creatures, we could talk to our ship’s captain and convince her to take you with us. Otherwise, no matter how many creatures you fetch, you’ll be waiting here a very long time for someone to rescue you.”
Celeste burst into laughter.
Minerva and her party exchanged astonished glances while Celeste regained control of herself. “Fools. Do you think a little rain can stop warriors of our capabilities? We wouldn’t even have wrecked at all had our client not insisted on using his own ship, crew, and trappers; my men could have weathered that storm. But no matter.” She grinned. “My mage already used his magic to contact our home base and arrange another ship, this one crewed by my people, including elite water-wizards. They’ll not only ensure the ship arrives safely but will also bring it to the island in a far shorter time than you can imagine. Very soon we’ll be out of this horrible jungle and relaxing on deck. Along with the cargo for which we’re going to be paid quite handsomely by our client, of course.”
“That isn’t going to happen,” Minerva growled. “You’re not gathering these ‘ligomorphs,’ or whatever you called them, so some noble can keep them in tiny cages and abuse them for his own amusement or the delight of his sick friends.”
“Why do you think he’ll be abusive?” one of the trappers demanded. “Plenty of nobles have menageries.”
“Yes, they do, and my current job involves bringing animals to those nobles,” Minerva snapped. “So I know how to tell the difference between a noble who intends to actually care for his animals, like the one I’m working for now, and a noble who doesn’t care at all, like your boss.” She jabbed a finger at the trappers. “First of all, those cages are too small for these animals. They’ll barely fit! You’d need cages at least double that size in order to properly move those creatures without hurting them. Second, if your gang cared about what you were doing, you’d have proper nets and other tools for catching animals without hurting them, but instead you’re all armed with swords and arrows. And third…”
She took a breath before continuing. “That color spell could have blinded them. No real trapper, or at least no trapper who actually cared about the safety of the animals she caught, would attack the animals like that. I’m guessing you’re just a gang of hunters who were hired to stuff a bunch of these critters in a cage and haul them back to be chained up in a tiny room somewhere and get gawked at by idiots.” She spread her arms. “We’re not letting you have them.”
Celeste sighed, then advanced with her sword pointed at Minerva. Ranzik moved to block her and Celeste shook her head. “You’re going to regret rejecting my offer,” she told the gnoll.
“Doubt it.” Ranzik hefted his halberd, then charged, and the battle was joined.
Celeste and Ranzik clashed their blades together and then battled furiously as Minerva rushed at the mage, who just smirked and waved his staff almost languidly. The crystal at the staff’s end glowed and Minerva was blasted backward hard enough that her teeth clacked against each other when her back slammed into the grass of the clearing. She pushed herself up in time to see Taycha making a series of gestures and casting a spell of her own, some kind of energy blast which the mage swatted away. Meanwhile, the two mercenary swordsmen rushed at Cyndal, who drew a heavy hammer from his pack to meet them.
Then the ligomorphs began to run past Minerva and charge the trappers and mercenaries. “No!” Minerva shouted, causing the ligomorphs to pause and stare at her. “Get away from them! They’ll hurt you! We’ll protect you, so just go!”
The ligomorphs gave her a confused look. One gestured at the enemies, then picked up a long stick and waved it about aggressively, jabbing it in the others’ direction like he wanted to fight them.
“I said, we’ll do this. You can’t handle them. Trust me, I’m an animal expert!” Minerva growled at the uncomprehending faces of the ligomorphs. “I said go!” she yelled as she shooed them away.
Then the trappers, who were less well armed but were far more numerous than their companions, began to attack. Minerva ducked under a trapper’s arrow and reached out with her magic, soon sensing what felt like a big cat in the nearby woods. She streamed her magic in the cat’s direction, urging it to advance and attack the hunters; at the same time, she charged forward herself. Barbas had shown her some basic fighting skills during his time as her ‘father’ in the Cirque de Malorum, and she knew that she’d need everything she’d been taught if she was going to survive.
The cat, a huge thing that looked like a cross between a lion and an especially nasty cheetah, burst out of the woods and tackled two of the hunters just as Minerva moved into range of one more. Her enemy struck at her with a sword, but she ducked under it as Barbas had taught her and kicked the enemy squarely in the kneecap. He howled as his knee buckled, and then he went down with a thump.
“Minerva!” She turned in time to see Cyndal gesturing at her, and moments later she felt a rush of energy as the cleric’s blessing took effect. Minerva grinned at the surge of energy and threw herself at two more hunters, felling them both in moments. Then she heard someone moving behind her and glanced back.
She was slammed in the head by something which sent her sprawling into a tree.
The world swam around Minerva, and it took her a few seconds to see that the mage, who had smashed her head with his staff, had already turned back around and was throwing more magical energy at Taycha. The goblin sat cross-legged and floated a few inches off the ground as magical energies ran over her body, but when the mage’s spell hit, Taycha’s magic stuttered, and she almost fell. At the same time, Ranzik—glowing blue from what Minerva guessed was another of Cyndal’s buff spells—was forced down to one knee as Celeste’s superior swordsmanship let her move inside his range and begin slicing apart his enchanted armor in a flurry of attacks. And Cyndal, for his part, was steadily pushed back by his two enemies.
A hunter screamed and Minerva turned in time to see the big cat slash his arm. Then Celeste shouted, “Trappers, retreat. Let us deal with these rabble.” She smirked as they fled; meanwhile, a spell from the mage sent the cat sprawling to the ground in a stunned daze. “Given their performance so far, it shouldn’t take more than a couple of minutes.”
Taycha threw several magical attacks at the mage, and a couple pierced through, but they did little more than singe his robes. Then the mage paused and raised his hands over his head as energy flooded into his fingers. His hands began to glow with power until they were almost pure white. Taycha gulped and stood up so she could scurry away, but the mage gestured, and a circle of energy appeared and surrounded her. “Help!” she squeaked.
Minerva surged forward and tackled the mage just before he had a chance to get his spell off. The magic went wild, blasting through the trees, and Minerva howled in pain as a thick branch dropped and smacked her squarely on her head. Then the mage scrambled away and hit her with his staff again before rushing back to where the trappers had been standing to check himself for wounds.
“Minerva!” The animal trainer’s eyes flicked up to see Ranzik struggling to disengage from his opponent. With a mighty blow from his halberd, he finally succeeded in knocking Celeste back the slightest amount, and he took advantage of the chance to dart toward Minerva. “We need to run. We can’t beat them like this.”
“But the creatures!”
“They’re gone!” Ranzik gestured at the spot where the ligomorphs had been waiting. They had, indeed, vanished. “Let’s move!”
“The hunters won’t give up!”
Ranzik reached her and hauled her to her feet. Cyndal and Taycha also ran toward them, though Cyndal hobbled as he went and Taycha had a greenish scorch mark across her left cheek and down her neck. “Can you distract them?” Ranzik called to Taycha.
The goblin nodded and flicked her fingers toward the trees. Vines jumped forward and surged around the pursuing mercenaries, who had to stop to free themselves. By the time they escaped, Ranzik had dragged Minerva away and the other members of her party had followed.
“No!” Minerva insisted. “We have to stop them before they put those creatures in some horrible menagerie! Like the Cirque de Malorum!”
“Minerva!” Ranzik’s voice sounded more frustrated than Minerva had ever heard it. “This is not your specialty. It is mine. I know battle. And I know we cannot win. Stop arguing and run.”
He continued into the woods, dragging Minerva after him. And Minerva did run, but all the while her heart pounded, and her head felt flooded with shame. She wanted nothing more than to return and save the poor ligomorphs from Celeste and her monstrous client.
But all she could do was flee.
* * *
“We’ll figure out a way to help them.”
Minerva gave Cyndal a tired look. The party had fled from Celeste’s mercenaries and looped back around in the woods in an effort to track down the ligomorphs before Celeste could find them again. Taycha had cast a spell which she had said would help her to sense their unusual magic and was accordingly leading the group, though the scorch mark on her cheek flared up occasionally and broke her concentration. “Their mage knows spells which should have been forgotten long ago,” had been Taycha’s only response when Minerva had dared to ask about it; her unhappy tone had forestalled any further questions.
“We will,” Cyndal insisted. “Cheer up, Minerva. I’m confident we’ll be able to find them and protect them from the hunters.”
“Oh, you are?” Minerva could not keep the bitterness out of her tone. “Because we didn’t do a great job of that before, and now half the team’s wounded.” She gestured at Cyndal’s right leg, which was still dragging, and Taycha’s magical burn mark. “Next time we’ll be lucky if they don’t just kill us or cripple us and leave us here to die when Jacinda sails away.”
“Minerva,” Taycha began.
“Stop trying to make things sound better!” Minerva snapped. “I know what’s going to happen to those creatures. Celeste and her gang are going to stuff them into their tiny cages and haul them back to the mainland, probably lose a few to exposure and disease on the journey, and then cram the survivors into more cages in some noble’s basement so they can languish in chains. Then they’ll slowly die because their new ‘owners’ don’t have the faintest idea of how to care for them and figure they can always hunt down more anyways.”
Cyndal opened his mouth again, but Minerva clenched a fist and kept going. “I saw too much of this kind of thing when I was with the Cirque de Malorum. I’ve met bad people who feel entitled to obedience from exotic creatures, and I know how they abuse their ‘pets.’ I was hoping that we could at least save these creatures from that horrible fate, but the stupid things don’t even know how to run away right! They charged forward instead of fleeing, so we had to fight the mercenaries instead of just defending while the ligomorphs retreated, and they’ll probably do the same thing when Celeste finds them again!”
“Minerva.” Ranzik’s voice was flat. “Stop talking.”
“You’ll scare the creatures away.” Ranzik turned and gave her a flat glare. “And you’re annoying me.”
Something in Ranzik’s voice made Minerva think that continuing to argue would be unwise. She didn’t know many details about the gnoll warrior’s history, but she’d gotten the impression he didn’t have much tolerance for obnoxious or unintelligent employers. And so, despite her immense frustration, she made herself fall silent.
After half an hour of pushing through the thick jungle, which included two stops where Cyndal applied healing magic to Taycha’s burn mark, Taycha held up a hand. “I think we’re close,” she whispered as she weaved an esoteric sigil in the air with her fingers. “I can feel them.”
“And the mercenaries?” Cyndal asked.
“Not them.” Taycha shook her head.
Ranzik nodded. “Celeste’s crew probably doesn’t know how to track down wild animals themselves; that’s not their skill set,” he murmured. “They’ll need to go back and collect the trappers before they can find the ligomorphs again.”
Minerva said nothing as Taycha led the group forward. The little goblin eventually scampered up onto a tree stump and tore off a few low branches from another tree, which gave the party a small window into another clearing that was surrounded by the jungle. “There!” Taycha said as she peered through the hole in the foliage. “I see them!”
Minerva was immediately at the goblin’s side. Taycha obligingly moved over and Minerva leaned down so she could see.
And, for a moment, she was stunned into silence.
Scores of ligomorphs scampered around the clearing. Some that Minerva saw shared meals of leaves and berries. Others frolicked between rocks which had been arranged to provide shelter, makeshift lean-tos, and even a couple of wooden structures which looked like extremely rudimentary attempts at setting up huts. Several of the creatures had stayed in their shapeshifted forms, Minerva further noted, and they’d also arranged leaves on themselves which resembled the outfits worn by Minerva’s party and Celeste’s mercenaries. Even as she watched, one of the critters which still had striped fur that matched Ranzik’s body hefted a long stick and jabbed it about as if it was a halberd.
“Fascinating,” Taycha murmured from Minerva’s side. “Their mimicry skills are incredible, especially because I doubt they’ve ever seen creatures like us before. This island seems mostly deserted aside from them. Maybe their magic can interact with our own and give them an instinctive knowledge of our shapes, the kinds of weapons we use, our…”
“Shh,” Ranzik hissed.
Minerva thought furiously. “Do you think we can get them over to Jacinda’s ship? They’d be safe from Celeste there.”
“We don’t have enough people to grab them all,” Cyndal noted. “We don’t have the right equipment to lure them. And I don’t think Jacinda has room to keep all these creatures anyways.”
“Still.” Minerva shook her head. “I can’t let them wind up like those poor creatures in the Cirque. I just can’t. And since they can’t defend themselves, it’s up to us.”
“Who says they can’t defend themselves?” Ranzik again sounded annoyed.
Minerva gestured in their direction, “Just look at them! They’re little, they have no weapons besides sticks, and their shapeshifting doesn’t let them become bigger or stronger or anything. How could they fight off anything that wanted to hurt them?”
A faint noise sounded from the woods, no more than a few snapping twigs, and Minerva froze as her heart raced. But then she realized that if the mercenaries and trappers had found them again, there would be more than just a single footstep. Something else was approaching. So she took a breath to steady herself and reached out with her magic.
At which point she sensed the big cat.
It wasn’t the same one that she’d used before in the fight, Minerva thought distantly. This one felt stronger, and more than that, it was definitely angrier. Minerva had sensed those kinds of emotions only a few times before, when the lions or other exotic beasts in the Cirque had gotten sick and begun lashing out at anyone who approached. “Everyone,” she whispered. “There’s an angry jungle cat approaching.”
Ranzik swiveled and raised his halberd, and Cyndal and Taycha both turned and dropped into stances where they would be able to cast quickly. “Can you calm it down?” Ranzik hissed.
“I can try.” Minerva reached out with her magic and tried to soothe the approaching beast, but it seemed almost to swat away her attempts as it neared them. It was like the creature’s rage was drowning out every attempt she made to calm it. “It’s not working for some reason!” she whispered.
Then the creature sped up and Minerva gasped, but after a moment she realized it wasn’t approaching them. It was instead coming up from their side and heading right for the ligomorphs before them. Minerva turned to her party and snapped, “It’s going for the creatures!”
The trees rustled and a huge leopard with sunken eyes and fur that looked almost moldy sprang into the clearing. It wavered on its paws like it was about to drop from exhaustion, but it stayed upright, and its steps grew steadier as it sighted on the creatures before it. The ligomorphs squeaked and scattered back to their rocks and huts in response, with several of the bigger ones peeking out from concealment and watching the leopard with wide eyes. Then the leopard made a grotesque roar as it pushed itself further forward.
Minerva tensed. “We’ve got to do something!”
“No!” Ranzik snapped. “Whatever’s wrong with that cat could be contagious!”
“It’s magical in nature,” murmured Taycha, who had again seated herself and was casting something with finger gestures as she spoke. “In fact, the magic on that cat is like the spells the mage was using.”
Minerva blanched. “Do you think maybe he’s bewitching the local predators to go crazy, stop caring for themselves, and spend all their time hunting down the ligomorphs until they collapse from exhaustion?”
“Yes.” Taycha frowned. “He’s using evil, forbidden techniques which could destroy his body and soul. Somebody needs to stop him.”
Minerva’s eyes bulged as the cat approached the ligomorphs. “Steady,” Cyndal said as Minerva tensed further. “It’s a safe bet that Celeste and her wizard friend are tracking that cat. If we intervene, they’ll know.”
“I don’t care! We have to save them!” She scowled at her team. “I know what I’m doing. Those creatures need help!”
Taycha glanced out into the clearing again and froze. Minerva turned and then gaped too, because at least two dozen of the ligomorphs had just shifted to become more catlike.
They still weren’t great impersonations. The creatures retained too much of their initial appearances to pass as cats. But their fur had shifted to match the cheetah’s very closely, even taking on the same mottled green color as the mold-like magic which coated the big cat. Their eyes had narrowed, whiskers had sprouted from their lips, and they had leaned forward like they were about to drop to all fours. And then, in unison, a half dozen of them roared.
The roars weren’t especially intimidating, of course. The ligomorphs weren’t big enough to be loud. But six of them together were certainly notable. And then Minerva sensed a new emotion from the cat, one cutting through its unhinged rage.
The cheetah, she realized, was afraid.
The ligomorphs that had taken cat-like forms advanced, splitting up into teams and approaching as might a lion pack, and the cheetah clearly couldn’t tell that it wasn’t actually facing six other furious jungle cats. It let out another roar, that one more panicked, but it backed up a step. And before Minerva could do anything, it had sprinted away into the woods.
“I see!” Taycha murmured. Minerva glanced down to see the little goblin had drawn a parchment from one of her pockets and slid her finger over it like she was writing something; as her finger moved, the words it traced out glowed briefly before darkening to look like they’d been scribed with quill and ink. “That must be how these creatures deter predators!”
“What a marvelous application of magic,” Cyndal added.
Ranzik shot a look at Minerva, and though he was clearly trying to look professional, she thought she saw a hint of smugness in his features. “We didn’t need to get involved and reveal our position to the mercenaries after all. Maybe you don’t know everything.”
“But I,” Minerva began, “I just wanted to help, to save them from that cat and from men like Faroon who abused them because they thought…”
And then Minerva cut herself off at the realization that, just like Faroon, she’d also thought she’d known best about how these creatures should be made to act. Yes, Faroon had wanted to exploit his exotic beasts while she had truly wanted to save the ligomorphs, but it was the same basic error. She’d decided that their desires and knowledge didn’t matter, that she was going to step in, override them, and force them to bend to her will. And that had already been disastrous; if she’d just let the creatures charge and shapeshift like they were used to, perhaps the initial fight would have gone better. The trappers at least might have been surprised and disabled, and maybe even Celeste’s people would have been shocked for a few crucial moments. But Minerva had insisted on chasing them off and leading the fight herself, which had led to things falling apart.
For that matter, Minerva’s plan to get some of the creatures off the island probably hadn’t been a great idea either. She’d wanted to help them, to show them the world and let them enjoy it. But if the creatures didn’t exist anywhere outside the island, and if they reproduced as quickly as their large numbers within the clearing seemed to indicate, she could cause an ecological disaster by removing them.
And finally, she forced herself to admit, she’d also been treating the captain and members of her own party badly too. She didn’t really have any authority on the ship, and she had less experience than Ranzik and Taycha in the fields of tracking and magic, respectively. But she’d still ordered them around and insisted they obey her because, well, because she’d wanted to help and had been certain she’d known best.
“Don’t worry too much about it.” The voice was Cyndal’s, and when she looked down she saw the dwarf cleric smiling at her. “We know your heart was in the right place.”
Ranzik growled something, but Cyndal shushed him and turned back to Minerva. “Nobody’s perfect, Minerva.”
“I know, but I…” Minerva hung her head. “I’m just sorry,” she said at last. “I should have respected your knowledge, just like I should have respected Jacinda’s. And those critters, for that matter.”
“Speaking of which,” Taycha chimed in, “what are we going to do with them? Those things might be able to drive off their local predators; in fact, I’d say we’ve just seen proof that they can. But Celeste is another matter.”
“We can’t defeat the mercenaries on our own,” Ranzik said. “Especially not with our wounds.”
“We aren’t on our own.” Minerva managed a faint smile. “Those critters seem a lot better at defending themselves than I’d figured. So instead of overriding them, I think I—we—can work with them to drive off Celeste’s gang.”
She outlined her plan, and Cyndal immediately inclined his head. “I like it, Minerva. A righteous act, and quite possible if we can get the ligomorphs on our side.”
“I agree!” Taycha grinned. “And personally, I’d be upset if I didn’t get another chance to take on that mage. He needs to learn not to meddle with the kind of powers he’s working with before he does something worse than give me an annoying burn.”
Minerva turned to Ranzik. “Well?” she asked. “You’re the warrior. Will that work?”
“…maybe,” Ranzik conceded at last. But he flashed a little smile at her, and Minerva grinned. “If we can get the creatures on our side.”
“On it.” Minerva took a breath and gathered up her magic, then stepped into the clearing. “Here goes,” she muttered.
The ligomorphs turned to stare at her, and then several shapeshifted to take on more human-like forms. Minerva smiled. “Hi!” she said as she reached into her own pack and took out a few pieces of dried fruit. She tossed the snacks to the critters and also used her magic to keep them calm as she approached. “Don’t worry,” she added. “I’m not a predator. I’m on your side. And I think I can help you drive off those scary people from before.”
The ligomorphs looked up at Minerva with curious eyes and little smiles, and she beamed. “All I need,” she told them, “is some help from you.”
* * *
A half hour of preparation later, when Minerva heard the march of approaching armored feet on twigs and fallen leaves, she tensed. Another minute later and the footsteps were right at the edge of the clearing. There was a pause, then a shout, and a tall tree shuddered before abruptly tilting over.
“Here we go,” Minerva muttered.
The tree collapsed with a crash to reveal Celeste, who swiped her jeweled scimitar through the air as if to emphasize that she’d just destroyed a tree with a single strike. The mage and two swordsmen that she’d brought with her stood at her side as well. Behind them in turn were the trappers, all of whom had their weapons. And finally, Minerva grimly noted, there were a few more of the corrupted jungle cats. They prowled amidst the trappers, shuddering and softly yowling as the mottled green patches on their coats rippled in time with the breathing of Celeste’s mage. “One last chance,” Celeste said. “You lot back off and we’ll consider letting you escape this island with your lives.”
“We’ll give you one last chance too,” Minerva replied. Ranzik and Taycha moved in front of her while Cyndal and the ligomorphs stayed back. “Destroy your trapping equipment, go back to the beach, wait there for your new ship, and then sail away without harming a hair on the ligomorphs’ heads.”
Celeste chuckled, then turned to her people. “Let’s make this fast. Our boat should be here soon, and I for one would like to get off this island as soon as possible.” She swept her scimitar at Minerva’s group. “Attack!”
The jungle cats trotted forward, passing both the trappers and Celeste’s gang. Minerva gathered her own magic to calm them, but as she sent it out, it hit what felt like a wall. Celeste’s mage smirked and waggled his staff at her. “Nice try, lass.”
Minerva just let herself smile. And then the ligomorphs sprang into action.
A dozen of the brown and gray critters darted forward, their features rippling and taking on a more cat-like appearance, and as they neared the cats, they let out loud yowls. The cats hesitated at the sight of other predators and the mage glowered before taking a breath and raising his staff up. “Not a problem,” he said to Celeste. “I’ll just cast again and—”
Another dozen ligomorphs ran out from the huts and lean-tos. They had already shifted into vaguely human forms and dressed up in leaves and tattered scraps of cloth which, from a distance, could be said to look like mage robes. And they all carryied staffs topped with glittering ‘crystals.’
There hadn’t been any magical equipment in the ligomorph colony, of course, but that wasn’t important. All they’d really needed were some sticks and a few shiny rocks which the ligomorphs had fished out from the island’s rivers or collected on its sandy beaches. Cyndal had done the work of affixing the stones to the sticks, and now each of the ligomorphs had weapons that, at first glance, could easily be mistaken for actual wizard staffs.
And it worked. The mage swiveled around to aim his staff at them, acting on instinct as the new ‘wizards’ raised their ‘weapons,’ and by the time his mind had caught up to his reflexes and he’d realized there was no real threat, it was too late. His cantrip which had blocked Minerva’s magic had faltered, and Minerva was able to punch her own spell through his and hit the cats. “Shoo!” she ordered them. “Back off!”
Part of her wanted to simply calm the cats and then turn them against the mercenaries, but she knew that if she tried that, the mage would likely be able to reestablish control. So instead, she gave up on calming them and instead heightened their anxiety. The cats acted at once; they swiveled on their paws and charged back into the woods, bowling over a couple unfortunate trappers who couldn’t evade in time. Minerva smiled and turned to their other foes. “Anyone else?”
“Go!” Celeste roared, and the remaining enemies charged forward.
Ranzik again met Celeste in single combat, his halberd flashing out and even driving her back a couple of steps before she recovered, and Taycha blasted a massive spell which the enemy mage only barely swatted aside. Both briefly glowed blue as Cyndal cast divine spells on them. As for Minerva, she positioned herself in front of the two swordsmen, both of whom laughed.
“What now?” one taunted her as he drew his huge broadsword. “Can you even fight?”
Minerva smiled. “Sure.”
“Oh?” The mercenary pointed his sword at Minerva’s throat. “Then let’s see what you can do!”
And Minerva smiled. “Gladly,” she said, then snapped her fingers.
Several ligomorphs, who had spent the first part of the fight creeping through the clearing’s grass into position, sprang up around them.
The elite mercenaries would normally have seen such an attack coming, even from relatively small critters. But the ligomorphs had taken the shapes of chipmunks, kittens, and other little forest animals that Taycha had shown them with illusion spells, and they had blended in perfectly. Now they attacked, shucking off their animal forms and taking on bodies which were more like those of Ranzik or the burly mercenaries themselves, and Minerva couldn’t help but laugh as the enemies were each hit by a dozen critters at once and went down.
“I’ll take those,” she said as she grabbed the swords that the mercenaries dropped when they fell, then rolled the enemies over and—even as they swatted frantically at the critters—began tying them up with thick vines taken from the area. “Just stay still. This fight will be over before you know it.”
Shouts from the woods alerted her to the rest of the battle, and when Minerva looked up, she saw the trappers dropping their equipment and running as another mob of ligomorphs swarmed them. Those critters had taken on other shapes that Taycha had shown them via illusions, the shapes of big wolves, fierce rhinotaurs, and other such creatures, and though they still didn’t look very much like what they were imitating, the comparison was just enough to make the trappers flinch and panic at all the wrong moments. And once they’d panicked and dropped their weapons or moved into bad positions, the sheer numbers of the ligomorphs sufficed to push them back.
Celeste let out a cry of triumph, and Minerva turned to see the mercenary leader grin as her sword slashed into Ranzik’s shoulder, but Cyndal cast a healing spell and Ranzik’s wound knitted up again. Then Celeste cursed and Minerva realized that probably wasn’t the first time she’d injured Ranzik only for him to be healed right away. “Tarkyon, deal with their healer!” she snapped. “I can’t make any progress if he keeps fixing up the gnoll every time I wound him!”
“Working on it,” growled the mage. He threw spells at Taycha and swatted aside the ones she cast in return, and Minerva noted how Taycha was steadily being driven back toward the huts. The mage, presumably Tarkyon, was breathing hard but also had a triumphant smile. “Shouldn’t be much longer before this overgrown rat gets what’s coming to her.”
Taycha glanced at the ligomorphs around her and waved to them, at which point the critters began scampering toward the mage. Minerva’s heart clenched, since she knew the mage could very easily resist their attacks and even kill them in response, but the creatures didn’t attack him. They just ran close to him and then darted away, laughing all the while, with one or two even throwing little gobs of mud as they scampered around. They were mocking him, Minerva realized.
The mage scowled and yelled at the critters, but they just laughed harder, and finally his face flashed an ugly red. “We only need a dozen of them,” he said at last as he raised his staff high. Taycha lobbed a spell at him, but he swatted it into a tree, bursting it apart as if it were made of brittle clay, and then grinned. “We can kill a few and still make our quota. You foolish beasts will suffer!”
Minerva’s eyes widened as the crystal on the mage’s staff glowed. He then began to chant in some language she didn’t know, the syllables harsh and grating on her ears, and she winced. The ligomorphs fell back too, squeaking in fear, and Minerva tensed. “Come on,” she muttered. “Taycha, come on!”
Taycha grabbed a rock from the ground and chucked it at Tarkyon.
It barely hit the mage and didn’t even bruise his skin, but his eyes flicked toward the rock and the words leaving his mouth stopped for half a second. It was enough. The crystal began to pulse with an ugly red color as he lost control of the spell, and his voice rose into a frantic cry. “No!” he screamed.
The crystal detonated with the force of a small fireball.
Tarkyon was blown forward and hit the ground hard enough that his arm snapped like a twig. He screamed in pain, then howled again as his robes, now on fire from the blast, smoldered. Only after a few moments of him thrashing around on the ground did Taycha approach.
“You fool,” the goblin snarled as she put one foot on his chest to stop his flailing, then began to beat out the flames. “Forbidden spells like that are forbidden for a reason. They destroy all they touch, including the caster. But you thought you were too clever for that, didn’t you?” She kicked the mage in his singed head, of which not a single hair had been left unburned, to stop him from interrupting as she continued her rant. “You stupid, conceited, arrogant…”
Minerva finally finished tying up the swordsmen and approached Ranzik and Celeste with a swarm of ligomorphs at her back. Celeste looked around and then said, “I don’t care. I’ll fight you all myself if I have to, and I’ll win too. I am Celeste Varagnon, and“—”
“The cats should be free now, yes?” Cyndal called to Taycha.
“Oh, certainly.” Taycha nodded as she kicked the injured mage again. “With the staff destroyed, all of its magic should have dissipated.”
Cyndal grinned. “Minerva, how long will it take you to get all the big cats from this part of the island over here to attack Celeste?”
Minerva smiled. In truth she couldn’t attract animals from huge distances, but Celeste—though the events of the day had surely taught her that Minerva could control animals to some extent—wouldn’t know exactly what her range was. “Just a few minutes,” she lied. “Ever fight a cheetah, Celeste? Better yet, ever fight ten to twelve at once? They’re incredible predators. Faster than you can imagine, incredibly strong, jaws like a guillotine, and once they get your scent, they’ll never stop chasing you.”
Celeste paled. “I have a ship coming,” she managed.
“Yeah, but you won’t make it halfway to the beach.” Minerva spread her arms. “So, what’ll it be?”
Celeste gave them all a long, glowering look, and then she sighed and dropped her scimitar. “Fine,” she muttered. “I give.”
The ligomorphs burst into cheerful squeaks and rushed around hugging Minerva and her party. And Minerva, for her part, happily hugged them back. It was over, she thought.
They had won.
* * *
“What, exactly, is going to stop us from coming back and finishing the job?” Celeste hissed as Minerva’s party led her defeated group through the jungle. The beach, Minerva thought, had to be getting close. “I have a contract. I can’t just abandon it.”
“You told us that your ship was crewed by your client’s sailors, right?” Cyndal asked pleasantly. “Well, that makes it easy. Blame the sailors. Point out that you crashed because of their incompetence, and then just say you spent all your time here tending to your wounded and making sure you didn’t get eaten by predators. So really, it’s your client’s fault you didn’t look for the creatures.” He smiled. “When your client tries to hire you again, just say you’re mad about the shipwreck and refuse, and also spread the word that this client doesn’t fulfill his or her contractual obligations. After all, you were promised to be safely taken to this island, and that didn’t happen. Your name has weight in the mercenary community, so you blacklisting this client should make it impossible for him or her to find anyone else willing to take this job.”
“And why would I do any of that?” Celeste snapped.
Minerva said, “Because, if you don’t, we’ll tell everyone the truth. How the great Celeste Varagnon was beaten by a handful of people, only one of them a trained warrior, and a bunch of little critters that didn’t even have weapons.”
“Nobody will believe you!” Celeste’s voice was an angry roar. “You have no proof!”
Ranzik smiled, then drew Celeste’s jeweled scimitar from his belt and waggled it in front of her face. “It’s well known that Celeste Varagnon prizes her family sword and would never give it up,” he said. “Meaning the only way someone could have it is if they really did defeat her.”
Taycha, who had been prodding the mage while continuing to steadily berate him, looked up from her task and nodded. “We’re willing to keep it locked up in a vault somewhere as long as you play ball. But if you don’t? If we hear that you, or anyone else, has been here and so much as harmed a hair on a lagomorph’s head?”
Minerva chimed in. “We’ll take that sword straight to the nearest Adventurer’s Guild, find someone who recognizes it and realizes what it means, and then regale the tavern with the story of how we utterly crushed your pathetic little gang here.”
Celeste glared at the others for a moment longer before she lowered her head and fell silent.
They arrived at the beach a few moments later and were just in time to see a cutter from Celeste’s second ship, which was now anchored out in the cove, arrive. The crew from the cutter ran forward but Celeste just snapped, “Not a word. You got the sailors on the other beach?”
“Then we’re leaving right away.”
“I said, we’re leaving.” She stormed toward the cutter, her two swordsmen and her battered mage running after her. The crew gave Minerva and her group mystified looks before turning and rushing back to the cutter as well.
Minerva led her group back over to Jacinda, who was supervising as her crew finished the repairs. “Glad that you’re back; I was getting worried we’d need to leave you behind!” the kaja said in a voice that was half-joking.
“Sorry.” Minerva glanced at the other ship. The cutter was already heading toward it, and its sails were unfurling in preparation to leave. “We had to take care of something.”
“Who were they?” Jacinda gestured at Celeste’s ship.
Minerva shook her head. “Monsters. But they’re gone now.”
Jacinda frowned for a moment, then shrugged. “Well, get aboard. We’re sailing in a few minutes.”
“Wait.” Minerva took a breath. “I need to apologize. For assuming I always knew best and for trying to force you to go along with that. I was arrogant, and I shouldn’t have been.” She inclined her head. “Like I said, I’m sorry.”
Jacinda smiled a little. “Well, alright then. I’ll accept your apology, provided you do something for me in turn. We had a couple injuries in the storm, nothing serious, but we do need someone to handle a few menial duties tonight while my sailors recover. And I figured, since you were so eager to contribute to running my ship, it’d be fitting to let you handle a couple of chores.”
Minerva smiled, and even though she knew the task was at least partly a punishment, she found she didn’t care. “I’d be happy to help.” And then she saw the rest of her party smiling at her, and she realized she felt happy. “Thank you all,” she said. “For helping me to see my mistake.”
Jacinda blinked. “Did I miss something?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Taycha said with a merry grin. She smiled at Minerva, as did Cyndal, and even Ranzik looked a little more pleasant as he nodded at her. “I’ll tell you later.”
The party clambered aboard, with Cyndal going to provide healing for the injured sailors, Ranzik heading off to maintain his equipment, and Taycha going below deck to study some magic book. Minerva lingered on the deck for a moment, her gaze drifting back to the jungle.
And she saw what looked like hundreds of ligomorphs in the tree line.
All the critters began to wave, and Minerva felt a burst of glee as she responded in kind. No, she thought, she couldn’t take them from the island. They’d be hurt by people like Celeste, and there were overpopulation concerns too. But that was fine; they’d be alright here. And besides, now that she knew where this place was, there was no reason she couldn’t come back sometime. She knew she’d like that, and she was sure the critters would too.
The anchor clanked as it was hauled up, and then the deck jerked under her feet as the ship began heading back toward the ocean. Minerva gave one last wave to the little creatures of the island. Then, with a smile on her face, she turned and headed toward the captain’s chambers so Jacinda could tell her how she could help.
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