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March 5th, 2019, 6.45AM

Columbia River, between the Emerald Cities, USA

 

The fog had been creeping in from the sea for hours now, until at last even Emerald Tower vanished. Silently, without fuss or hurry, the mountain of vapor muffled out the distant roar of the two cities, softening the world into a cold, wet blanket. The warning blasts of ships moving up and downriver blunted against the billowing clouds. The river itself had become dark and oily, lapping against the houseboat like gentle, insistent fingers trying to find a way in. The soft bump had gone almost unnoticed, but might have if not for the second, much stronger knock at the hull of the rocking house.

 

With a ripple-less whisper, it emerged from the river. A slender creature, skin smooth and tough as a whale's, large eyes, fin-like fringes at the joints and crowing the head, webs between the fingers and toes suspending it above the water's surface with gentle, rhythmic strokes of its long limbs. 

 

"Mr. Kepler," it said in a soft, almost feminine voice, round eyes staring into his, "I am willing to pay several million dollars if you will represent my interests and meet with a dragon. Will you hear me out?"

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This early in the day, Len Kepler had not yet had a chance to throw his runestones and gauge where and when his talents would be needed the most. It seemed the fates, not for the first time, had saved him the trouble. Even with all the fantastic places he'd visited and the wondrous things he'd seen, things like a fish-person showing up on his doorstep still managed to daze him, although he recovered quickly. He glanced around and behind the fish-person.

 

Even with this fog, I'd better get them out of sight as soon as possible, before someone else sees them and starts asking inconvenient questions. Besides, this sounds serious.

 

Len pulled the front door to the barge house fully open and stepped to the side, clearing the fish-person's path and beckoning them with his other hand.

 

"Please, come inside, and enjoy the protection of sacred hospitality for the duration of your visit." In addition to invoking ancient customs, his words activated the magic wards etched into the walls of his interdimensional mansion, marking the fish-person as a guest rather than an intruder. "You can follow me to the drawing room. If it would make you more comfortable, feel free to speak in your native tongue, if yours is not that of the Angles and Saxons like mine. The house will make sure your meaning is made plain. Mister Hewitt?" He looked up, but not at anything in particular. "Please rustle up some refreshments for our guest."

 

As they walked, a vaguely canine fire-spirit, about the size of a loaf of bread, trotted a couple steps behind, licking at the river water that had been left on the floor in the fish-person's passing. The puddles and droplets boiled away at the fire-dog's touch. Len guided the fish-person to a large chamber which wouldn't have looked out of place in a traditional gentleman's club of 19th-century Europe. The walls were lined with ornate carved wood paneling, while the floor was filled with plush leather chairs and couches, and coffee tables and end-tables of various sizes, with a fireplace at the far end. Upon closer inspection, the crackling fire was actually another fire-dog, and the logs were burning because it was eating them. Len sat down in one of the chairs and invited the fish-person to do the same.

 

"I would very much like to hear your tale, including the part which led you to my door specifically, but I need to clarify one thing before you begin. I apologize if you were misinformed, but I'm no mercenary. If you have excess funds in need of re-allocation, then I can recommend several charities far more worthy than my own coffers. As a purely separate matter, if there's a dragon who needs meeting with, of course I'd be happy to meet with them."

 

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"What dear little things," murmured the fishy visitor, who smiled fondly at the fire-spirits. They let themselves be led into the sitting room, looking curiously about at the furnishings, sliding a finger along the trim of an end-table with the air of someone poking at the faded, discarded leavings of some lost civilization. "Always caves. Enclosures. Was the same with the Chinook upriver, that cozy feeling. Like an embrace. And it will translate anything?" Wrapping a suitably absorbent cloth around one of the seats, they crouched on it, looking solemnly into Leonard's face. The next time they spoke, it was like the cacophany of whales, chirruping dolphins and clacking of crabs all blended into one complex rhythm. It sounded wholly alien, unlike anything Earth-born merfolk used. "If such is your will, sir, I will do as you say. Though I should warn you, my money may need conversion. Gold keeps well, but...you know." They shrugged finned and dripping shoulders, regarding the hearth-keeper for a moment, visibly drawing themselves to the point.

 

"I am Vah-Lei, of the River Clan. I and the Clan's other Piscean Lor are descended from would-be colonists who crashed off the coast 500 years ago. There is a dragon in the tunnels of Mt. Forge, the mountain north of the river. His name is Sugaar, in old days he masqueraded as a deity of storms and fire. They have minions, the Fire Clan. These minions stole and...they ate our eggs." Muscles under the tough hide of their hands clenched tight, membranes sliding rapidly back and forth over their large, trembling eyes. "Every one we laid last year, in the cave our ancestors dwelt for centuries. Where I was born 80 years ago. With painted walls, deep pools and stone gardens and little wonders of our homeworld waiting for them. Picked clean."

 

For a very long, tense moment, the visitor could say nothing more. Swallowing a little, they shifted position on their haunches and went on.

 

"I begged the others of River Clan not to seek vengeance. Not only for the power of our enemy, but the risk of further, and needless harm compels me against mass violence. But something this evil cannot happen again, nor go unremarked. At a meeting of the other Clans it was agreed a magician was needed. But there are few with your power, and the one who lives on the south shore would not understand us or our ways. His heart is in currents and code. Luckily, there was a spider who knew your name and spoke highly of your magic. And so, here I am."

 

"I can ask only a little of you, Mr. Kepler, but will you settle our dispute with Sugaar?"

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The fire-dog which had been following the fish-person trotted over to the fireplace to join its fellow elemental in making a meal of the logs. The pale blue translucent image of an old man appeared beside the fish-person, holding a silver serving tray in a white-gloved hand. The top half of his body appeared human, save for the transparency and odd coloring, but below his waist, his body became a wispy trail of mist floating a couple feet over the floor. He set the tray on an end table next to the fish-person. "A sushi roll with fresh Sockeye salmon, and a selection of beverages; water, black tea, and espresso. Enjoy." He spoke with a refined English accent. Without another word, he set a mug of black tea next to Len, then faded from sight. A few seconds later, the doors of the drawing room appeared to pull themselves closed.

 

Len sipped his tea, reclined in his chair, and leaned an elbow on the arm wrest, and in turn, his chin upon his hand. When the fish-person mentioned the eggs, he frowned, and his gaze slowly fell to the floor in front of him. Golden flames enveloped his eyes for a few moments. Then he closed them and took a deep breath. When he opened his eyes, and looked back up at the fish-person, they were green again.

 

"I am truly sorry for your loss. You were wise to forego revenge. It would not ease your pain, but simply create more. But I imagine such lofty abstractions are cold comfort in the face of such tragedy. There is clearly still much that goes on in our city that escape my notice. I confess I had no knowledge that such an...entity had made their home so close to our own, or that they had conducted themselves in such a manner. Of course I will speak with this 'Sugaar' about his behavior. It would help me to know your desired outcome, if it is not vengeance. Do you wish for Sugaar and their followers to leave this place and find a new home? Is it some form of restitution or contrition you seek? What is it that you hope I can convince them to provide that the River Clan cannot compel directly?"

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The creature chirruped faintly, studying the wall beside Leonard's head before their abyssal eyes swung to meet his. "We...want him to swear before the other Clan leaders he will respect the borders and deliver those who killed our young to justice. Failing that, compensation for our loss. There are rumors that Sugaar is fabulously rich, but I put no stock in them. Genetics research data, historical documents or relics, knowledge, those are far more precious and far closer to what we lost than gold. However the Fire Clan rarely leaves Mt. Forge, and I have only my word, fleeting glimpses, and circumstantial evidence to say they are the killers. That will do no more than make Sugaar laugh at me."

 

They fidgeted, shifting their broad, flat feet on the chair, watching Leonard intently "The dragon is suspicious and his Clan fiercely territorial, but the spider spoke highly of you. With any luck your magic" the way they said it, Len could almost hear faint unease beneath the squelching croaks and short chirps "will let you avoid further violence."

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A multi-colored gust of wind in the vague shape of a tropical bird soared across the drawing room to rest on Len's shoulder. While still focusing on his guest, Len reached for a bottle of perfume resting on the end table, pointed it near the air spirit, and squeezed out a spritz. One of the fire-dogs looked up from the log in the fireplace and gave it a high-pitched bark. The elemental bird inhaled the tiny cloud of perfume, then flapped its wings and flew to the door, where it slipped through the cracks at the top.

 

Len drank the last of his tea and rose from his chair. "I cannot guarantee the results you desire, but you have my word that I will make every effort to convince this dragon to hold his servants to account, or, failing that, to compel him to do so. I will need to do some preliminary research, and I will need as much information on this 'Sugaar' and their 'Fire Clan' as you can provide. But first, if you will allow it, if it will not cause you further grief or discomfort, I would like to take a look at the cave from which the eggs were stolen. I may be able to obtain the evidence you lack. I doubt the effort would yield anything sufficient for a court of human law, but, fortunately, it will not be a human court where I plead our case."

 

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the cave

 

Was easy enough to reach. With his mirror, Vah-Lei showed how a seeming blankness could barely be made out as a vast underground grotto, lit spectrally with thin ribbons of what the River Clan elder referred to as 'miner mist', though they weren't sure what it was, beyond luminescent and harmless.

 

With Hex's magic to part the barriers of space, water and earth, the two were soon standing on the slimy stone, breathing the humid, cold air and looking at what would have on other occasions been a wondrous tableaux. 

 

An underground stretch of the Columbia had wormed its way through the grotto, once upon a time, leaving a shallow, slow-running heir that spanned the cavern, vanishing into a crack in the wall that looked uncomfortably like the result of an ancient earthquake. The cave was broad and high-roofed, the stones by the stream fashioned into fantastical pillars, arches, winding stairs, slender bridges, and a precarious mushroom-like rock worn through with holes Hex could see even a large child finding roomy. Set into the walls were shelves full of strange toys, charms and gadgets and scroungings for taking care of children. Above them monitors scrolled with information, while what looked for all the world like a kid's show made by space aliens taught people about Earth's ecosystem.

 

Scorch marks were everywhere. One of the monitors was smashed in, and several of the shelves had obviously been ransacked. A red gem, large as Hex's head and cracked down the middle, sat in the middle of the largest scorch mark.

 

At the shore of the stream, a mermaid and a massive snake sat talking quietly over a long blue sheet covered with eggshells. The shells were arranged so that the shattered pieces helped make up the wholes they used to be. At the sudden appearance of Hex and Vah-Lei, the two vanished instantly into the black stream. A soft hooting from the Clan elder brought them cautiously back to shore, the pair watching Len with immense skepticism.

 

"This is where it happened," they told Len, "what do you need to see?"

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Before leaving his manse, Len Kepler "said" a command word in his mind, activating the runes etched and sewn into his clothing, transforming a mundane flannel and denim ensemble into the lavender and indigo robes of Hex.

 

When he reached the vandalized play area, his shoulders sagged. He wiped a couple of stray tears from his eyes.

 

"For sale," he whispered. "Baby shoes. Never worn."

 

Quote

"What do you need to see?"

 

The question snapped him out of his melancholy reverie. "Whatever there is to see. I apologize for not having a better answer, but I will not know what specifically I am looking for unless I find it."

 

Hex gave another mental command to the tiny magic runes worked into the leather of his goggles, revealing any persistent or lingering magical auras in his field of view. Once he'd taken stock of those, he knelt down onto the moist stone. He drew a sigil in the air with his fingers, leaving trails of sparks behind his fingers, and spoke a quick phrase in Ancient Atlantean. All of the moisture suddenly evaporated from a spot on the gound approximately one meter in diameter. Then he reached into the messenger bag slung over his shoulder to retrieve a pouch and a small wooden case. He laid the pouch off to his side, and removed a stick of chalk from the wooden case. With that chalk, he drew two concentric circles upon the ground, forming a ring. Then he drew lines dividing that ring into six pieces, and a rune inside each of them. He carefully placed the chalk back in its box, set it aside, and plucked the pouch up off the ground.

 

He closed his eyes, reached into the pouch, clutched a handful of something which made a clacking noise, and flung it in front of him. It turned out to be a pile of round ceramic tiles. Each one was roughly the size of a half-dollar coin and one quarter inch thick. One side of each tile was painted white, the other, black. A different sigil was etched into both sides of each tile, and then painted black on the white side, and white on the black side. When his rune "stones" came near the circle on the ground, their fall slowed down, as if they were suddenly falling through water instead of air. Each rune stone slowly glided and spun for a few seconds before gradually coming to a stop, hovering in mid-air over one of the runes in the ring, or inside the ring, some adjacent to a rune, some in the center of the circle. After all of the rune stones he'd flung into the circle had come to a resting place, Hex opened his eyes. He stared at the placement, contemplating the implications of each one individually, as well as the sum of the whole.

 

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The three Cryptids looked at him dubiously, the fish-tailed woman with seaweed-like hair and seal's eyes looking like she really wanted to say something, but all kept a respectful hush and distance. 

 

On the 'inside', Hex felt it at once. The attraction-repulsion from something in the ground, the runes wavering around energy leaking from elsewhere, the perplexing isolation from any other guiding current.

 

"Does this take long? Do we help?" whispered a voice Len hadn't heard yet, piercing and sibilant.

<"Doubt it, would have said in either case"> murmured Vah-Lei, ending on an uneasy, whale-like chirp.

 

As well as the smaller, local phenomena, Len could feel something all around him. A constant in every other divination in the Emerald Cities' area, and something that skewed the results just barely enough to be noticed. Something elusive yet constant as his own shadow.

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As he scooped his runestones back into their pouch, and wiped the chalk dust from the cavern floor with another spell, Hex spoke to the fish-folk again. "There is a fold, or a hole, in space here." His hand made a sweeping gesture over the floor. "I had, in my arrogance, considered myself something of an expert in dimensional magic, but I have never seen its like before. I suspect this was the means by which the attackers gained entry, whether by creating it themselves, or merely hijacking an existing enchantment or naturally occurring phenomenon. If it is not your creation or tool, then I can, if you wish, attempt to close it, or at least to study it further." He rose to his feet. "But while they may have used magic for their entrance, they appear to have used other means for the actual assault. Mundane technology, perhaps?" He pointed to the cracked gem embedded in the floor. "May I ask what the function of this device was?"

 

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