Edwin’s New Wings

[Transcribed at 0.5x speed from a taped interview.]

So they asked me to write this down because apparently what happened to me is special and unique and hasn’t happened too often.

As best as I can recall it all started at my final meet of the season. Oh! Yeah! I was a track star in college. I mean, I’ve always wanted to run super-fast. When I was really young we lived in the country. Dad was a county extensions manager and he would go out to the farms and give advice to the farmers who needed help with livestock, or crops. He would tell them about loans or about businesses that would buy for the most money and stuff. He was really good at what he did. Mama was a teacher. She taught in the combined elementary and middle school. There weren’t many of us kids in that area, and most had to travel really far to get to the school. She did her best to not only teach but to make it relevant to the lives we were likely to lead. She was loved by the whole community because she went so far out of her way to help out. She also did things like the local quilting bees and keeping kids when the parents needed all hands on deck for harvest. Our home was always open to the community. 

Those were golden years for me. Because my parents were so busy, and the place we lived was so safe, I was allowed to basically run wild, and run I did. I knew the trails behind the house, the fields where the mean cows lived, the woods, and the quickest way from house to house. I could jump creeks and run on logs over ravines. I ran so fast it felt like flying!

When I was still pretty young, oh, about eight I guess, the government shut down my dad’s office. They would let him keep his job, but we would have to move to a bigger town. My parents, and the community, were broken-hearted, but he had to do it so that we could live.

That was the first time my mom and I were in separate places. She got a job at the elementary school, but I was now in middle school. The kids laughed at me of course. I was not that far from wild and all I knew was crops and livestock. I had no idea what the games or TV shows they were talking about were about. I was not interested in learning either which just made the whole thing miserable for all of us. They did have one thing though that made perfect sense to me, track. I could run. I could jump hurdles. I could long jump. I could even learn to pole vault! that was just heaven on earth. I excelled.

Over time I did make friends with the members of the track team, and I did start to fit in better. They accepted the eccentricities I had remaining and I learned to just accept people and not let their opinions worry me. I took our team to the National Finals my first year, and every year thereafter. When it came time to go to high school, there were recruiters trying to get me to go to different schools. I’m super glad that my parents refused them all. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to keep this life. Actually, I wanted things to go on like this forever. 

High school was mostly a repetition of middle school. I did okay in school, and I utterly lived for track. The coach would have to kick me out to get me to go home. Our little high school won tournament after tournament. We had so much fun as a team. We were even invited to go to Japan for a competition. We managed to raise most of the money, but we were shy. The Japanese did their own fundraiser and got the last of the money we needed. We were all shocked at their generosity and caring. They were just as warm when we visited in person. Everything was so amazing there. We were so lucky to have that chance. It really changed a couple of the guys’ life paths. One studied Japanese and ended up teaching English there after college, and another became a voice actor for anime. How cool is that? And you know what, after being told that they wouldn’t have sweets as we knew them, the team there totally showed us that wasn’t true. We had some of the best sweets ever! I adore mochi and kakigori! I even had to learn how to make it for when we got home. They also made these great snacks, Onigiri. One of the guys showed me how, and I impressed mom by making them for us when I got home. I’m still friends with those guys. Oh, but yeah, so we had a camp where we did nothing but track competitions for a few days. It was awesome! They seemed really impressed that I could beat them all at so many events, but unlike Americans, they were proud of me and cheered for me instead of trying to bring me down. I learned a lot from those fellows.

Anyhow, after high school I was recruited by a lot of colleges. They had scouted me some along the way or course, so I was familiar with all the coaches. Some were the yelling kind, others the kill ’em with kindness sort, and just about everything in between. I picked based on the one that gave me the best vibe, the one who was tough but fair and treated everyone the same. It was a smaller school in Houston. They hadn’t been winning too much but they had enough to give me a full scholarship, which I wanted to spare mom and dad trying to figure out how to pay for it or going up to my elbows in debt. I hadn’t told anyone yet, because I went in undecided, but what I really wanted was to teach like mom. I saw the difference she was making in those young lives and I wanted a piece of that action! Shaping minds will shape the future after all. 

So here I was, studying my hardest, and working my tail off at track in order to earn that scholarship. There wasn’t time for much else in my life really. It happened in my senior year. After four years of hard work both individually for me and for our team, we were going to compete for state champions in our division. We were so excited. The school threw us a first-rate pep rally and everything. We took the bus to Dallas and since it was between semesters we were all put up in the dorms. Day one went wonderfully! We were doing great by the numbers, and it looked like we would make it to the next round. Same for day 2. The final day, day 3, was steamy. Since it was the last day, there was a pretty sizable crowd out to see how the races and jumps panned out. 

Have you ever been to a track event? No? Well, they are pretty causal and open, at least for small schools like ours. There are people milling about, and families and stuff. There are usually food trucks there to keep people happy. This was no exception, it felt sort of like a carnival. 

I was stretching on the sidelines, sort of keeping warm for the next event, which for me was the long jump. I was near the fence around the track but sort of off by myself getting in the zone. I heard the gun go off for the start of a race and I looked to the track to see if any of my team needed cheering. As I looked up I saw a kid. I found out later that he was five. He’d gotten away from his parents and gotten onto the track. He was sort of jumping up and down enjoying the feel of the track. They are made of composite material and they are pretty springy. It’s fun, so I get where he was coming from. That said, he was in the middle of the track with a half dozen guys barreling down on him at full speed. People were definitely going to get hurt, and it might be pretty bad…

I didn’t think. I just made for the kid as fast as I could. I guess my plan was to scoop him up and make for the middle where we would all be safe. All I could see was the runners closing in and the kid not seeing them. You know how when you are hyped on adrenaline and everything sort of slows down around you? It was like that only more than I’d ever felt before. I didn’t think about jumping and I cleared the fence without even seeing it. I had to go faster…faster! I saw the runners closing in, the kid turning in slow motion, and then I had him by the waist and we were in the middle of the track. I kept expecting things to slow back down but they didn’t really. The kid was looking at me with huge eyes, his mouth hanging open. I guess I expected that because it didn’t seem odd. People were starting to stare and point, again, exactly what I would expect if they caught that show. People started coming over our way, and the kid struggled so much trying to get away that I let him down and he ran toward them. As long as it was away from the track it was fine by me.

After he ran off though, everyone was still staring and pointing at me. I couldn’t figure it out. No one was coming anywhere near me. Then I saw Coach approaching with this look on his face I still can’t describe. I was a bit afraid, a bit in awe, and a bit confused. That’s sort of how I was feeling too, confused. I was still buzzing and I kept wondering when the adrenaline would wear off. Coach called to me. I don’t honestly remember what he said, but he led me back to the locker room as people kept staring and pointing. Then we were in the locker room and I passed a mirror. 

Oh my god, what the heck were those things?! Were those wings?! I looked down and that’s when I realized my feet weren’t touching the ground at all, and probably hadn’t been since I moved that kid. My wings were moving almost too quickly to see. They were beautiful. I mean, really. Look at them! Aren’t they gorgeous! I have great wings. Anyway, that about sums it up. I was poked and prodded and documented and interviewed and stuff for the next couple of years. Since they passed me from doc to doc for research, I stayed in school and got my master’s in child psychology. No sense in wasting time. They figured that it was a combo of magic coming back, my love of running full out, and my desperate need to save those folks that let me get ’em. it was rough at first, but it’s really been a blast.

That’s about it for that story. Nothing too fancy. I’ve got much better stories, like the one where I meet my spouse. Wanna hear one?

[End transcription.]

Anho Awakens

I was born ages ago. It was a time of high magic and wonder. My nest brothers and sisters and I had a wonderful childhood filled with the love of our parents, and a community of dragons that believed in raising us as a cooperative endeavor. We were taught to read, write, hunt, and a million little skills to help us to fit into dragon society. When we began our first molting we were welcomed into adulthood and allowed to choose our own treasure. Some chose the obvious, items, either crafted or from the earth, others chose knowledge, or a type of creature, or a certain patch of earth. I chose knowledge. I read everything I could get my hands on; whether draconic or that of a different species. We were far from alone. There were dragons, elves, goblins, trolls, humans, medusa, pegasus, mers, and many more. Each had its own society and each had its own knowledge to impart. I was content and traveled from one source of knowledge to another.

When I was still young, the magic began to fade. It happened slowly, so very slowly. I don’t think most saw it as a big deal and few really considered it at first. Dragons are long-lived, so I can honestly say that we paid little attention to the fade. Other, more short-lived races were more impacted simply because they had to be more in tune for their own daily survival. The races that were inherently magical began to fade first. The fae races felt the impact the hardest because they are largely magical in nature. Pixies and fairy dwindled quickly. In an effort to preserve them, the elder fae with larger magical reserves began to offer these races a preservation spell. The belief was that this would keep them safe from fading out while the rest could research the issue and find the problem. Once the main problem was resolved we would bring them back. To that end, large numbers of the less magical fae were preserved.

Sadly, their word was not kept and as usual, each fae and really each race went on as though it were business as usual. More and more races reached a crisis and asked for the preservation spell. Each would try to open the eyes of the rest, but we refused to see. In our arrogance, we felt that we would be the exception and we could continue to do as we liked. I am ashamed to say that I did not turn my knowledge seeking to ways to aid the failing races. I continued to research how to create the perfect, what do you call it now, ah, bonsai, miniature trees. I know how to cultivate the soil, how and when to trim them. I could keep any tree alive in a miniature form without magic! I was renowned for my knowledge in this area.

And the races of the world faded around me as the magic faded. I never noticed lost in my non-magical pursuits. It only dawned on me as I struggled to find new sources of knowledge and there were none. Only then did I really open my eyes and see what was happening. By then it was too late. I did turn my research to try to solve the issues along with those who had already been working hard to that end. We were finally able to determine that the process could not be stopped. The magic would fade until it was, for all intents and purposes, gone. The magical creatures would adapt or fade without preservation. Most races were already choosing to take new, non-magical forms. Those closest to their animal natures were faded into those natures. Our research did seem to indicate that after a long period of dormancy magic would once again return to the world.

Once again I turned my skills to another use. I focused on learning the preservation spells and helping any who wanted to be preserved fulfill that desire. It was truly an ingenious spell if I do say so myself. It was set up to determine how much magic was necessary for the preserved item to survive and to only fade once the magic had reached that level and been stable for a year. It used a small magically imbued stone battery to run, and it could maintain itself indefinitely. Things that were preserved were in a sort of magical pocket that sealed behind them with the battery in this dimension to monitor the magic.

I worked to preserve everything I could; magical plants and animals as well. I traveled the world slowly fading myself, but doing my best before that time to preserve any and all that I could. The magic lingered, seemingly aware of our efforts at the end until the final few of us gathered to say goodbye. I had intended to be the one to preserve the gathering. One, unfortunately, cannot preserve oneself, and so I fully expected that gathering to see me saying goodbye to all of my friends, and then awaiting my own end.

I’m still not entirely sure how it happened, but I felt a spell taking hold as we were saying goodbye. The next thing I knew, I was waking to a new world, one filled with amazing wonders and just starting to discover the joys that come with the return of the magical. 

I found myself somewhat confused when I returned. Not so much about how different things were, and they were vastly different, but more because as a larger creature of magical nature who had used my reserves near the end, I would have assumed that far more of the smaller races and plants and animals would have returned first. While I did find some, I did not find nearly as many as I had hoped. It took me longer than it should have to realize that the humans, who in the absence of magic had gone on to develop amazing technologies, had shattered a tremendous number of the stone batteries for the magical beings for use in their buildings and roads. I doubt the poor creatures understood what they were doing as they barely have a grasp on magic, and yet, they had caused so much destruction. And like us, who had come before, they had used their technology to ‘improve’ their lives at the cost of their own environment. 

Here I was, in a new time and what may as well have been a new place, with magic just awakening and so many directions I could have chosen to take. It was all so overwhelming. The number of humans, the technology, the tremendous loss, and my own re-awakening brought me to my knees. I needed a purpose. I needed something to claim and to pour my focus into. I picked New Houston. As a new city, founded in magic, it was more comfortable against my skin and my soul. Being new, and filled with magical creatures as well as humans, it needed direction and care. It needed to be a guiding light for the rest of the world to follow into the new ages. I could be that guidance. I claimed New Houston, the land, the city, the people, the whole of its essence as my own.

Sals Awakens the Dragon

Alright, fine. Everyone wants to know the story and I don’t want to have to tell it a million times or hear about it anymore so this is the story.

It needs to be kept strictly confidential and should be shared only with those who have a need to know. If you don’t need to know, keep your nose outta here!

I was born in 2025, only a few years after the magic started coming back. I was, oh, twelve, I think when my wings came in. It took about a week, and they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. My parents didn’t think so. That’s okay. They never liked much about me anyway. I was more trouble than I was worth during times that were pretty tough. I have come to terms with them and my youth a long time ago anyway and it’s none of y’all’s business so I won’t say any more on that except to say that I up and left home shortly after that.

Of course, I was way too young to do that and things were tough for me at first. It was bad enough being a kid run away from home, but add the wings and it was a challenge. I found out that some people are mighty kind and others are mighty cruel pretty darn fast. Eventually, I made my way to a sort of refuge for early wingers. We were like gypsies or circus folk. We weren’t really welcome in any town but we could make a few bucks putting on a show as long as we didn’t hang around. We didn’t have much, but we had each other and it was so much better not to be alone. We would teach each other flying tricks and work on comedy acts to please the paying public.

We also spent a lot of time researching our wings and how the birds that have them use them. My beauties were owl wings. My flight was so silent that my shtick was soaring in from the back of the tent silently to scare the crowd. It was a blast!

In a little town in western Italy near the border with France, we were doing a show, and I heard some jerks talking about how they were going to hunt some strange creature off in the mountains. Apparently, it had been taking livestock and a friend of a friend had seen it flying off with a calf just the week before. They weren’t sure that they believed that until they saw our show. Now they believed and they were going to hunt it down and kill it.

Now we also have griffins and hippogriffs with our troop. While not dumb by any means, they aren’t human and we haven’t found a way to communicate with them yet to know just how smart they might be. We took them in and we have them as a part of the show though and while we pay them in room and board, we ensure they are well cared for and that the humans feel safe.

I found myself wondering just what this creature was and if we shouldn’t hunt it down ourselves in order to save it. These people were pretty intent on killing it, and whatever it was, it didn’t deserve that for doing what its nature said it should do. I talked to the others and they felt we should stay out of it. ‘We don’t know what it is and besides, we need to move on.’

I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t just desert this poor creature to its fate at the hand of these locals. If we hadn’t been able to talk and defend ourselves, that could just as easily have been us. Heck, if we stayed to long, it would be us. I knew our route and I told the others I’d meet up with them at the next stop or the one after. They just shook their heads and we said our see you later’s.

That night, after the show, I packed a bag with some food and supplies and headed out towards the mountain range where the men said it was last seen heading. I made some good distance and made myself a camp for the day. You might say I’m a bit of a night owl. I searched the next few nights, going further and further into the mountains. I found a few likely caves and valleys but had no luck. I figured I could spend another day or two max before I needed to start making my way back to the others.

The next night there was a big storm. When it finally cleared out at just about dawn I settled on a mountain and looked into the valley below. This was a pretty country where no one had settled because the terrain is just too harsh. Humans are social creatures and while some might be okay for a bit, no one wanted to be this far away from medical care and food; not to mention the internet. As I looked across the valley and started thinking about how best to meet my friends again, I saw a small stream of smoke rising up from the next ridge. Smoke, huh. That might mean some men out hunting, or it could be something like a phoenix or maybe just another winger out hiding from the humans. I decided to check it out.

When I got near I circled, trying to get a good view. I needed to drop down quite a bit to see that the smoke was curling up from some trees in front of a cave. It was spring, so the ground and foliage were wet. I didn’t think it was likely to catch and turn into a forest fire. I mean, really it was only smoldering anyway. I was about to pull up and away since I figured it was caused by lightning from the storm last night. That’s when I saw the bodies. It looked like it was three men and some dogs.

I should have left right then and there. It’s not like I could carry them, or even that I would tell anyone. If I tried to explain that I had found three men and their dogs burned to death out in the woods, they would undoubtedly think I was responsible. Maybe I was thinking they deserved a decent burial, but I didn’t have a shovel or any way to dig a grave. I was in the mountains, sure, but I wasn’t thinking cairns. I wasn’t thinking at all. I was all of sixteen and stupid, really stupid.

I touched down in the only place I could, between the men and the mountain. I saw them lying there, facing the mountain, half-melted guns in their hands. I saw the dogs spread around the face of the mountain. I saw the cave. They had found the creature I was looking for the last two days. It was hiding in the cave. It would be scary and dangerous. I was young and stupid. I headed for the cave. I started a stream of talking about how I was a friend and how I was going to help. I told it I was going to keep men from hunting it and it would be safe and welcome with me. I didn’t know if it would understand, I just wanted to sound calm and reassuring. I knew that when these men didn’t come back, others would follow and whatever creature this was, it would be killed. I had to try.

I was about fifty feet into the cave when I saw the flames coming toward me. Instinct made me wrap my wings around my body and huddle down. Then the pain started and I heard screaming. I heard myself screaming. And there was pain, so much pain in my outer wing. I passed out for a bit and it was sweet relief.

When I struggled back to consciousness the pain was less, but still very present. A woman had my wing spread and was putting a salve on it. She was lovely; with long chestnut hair pulled into braids and wide dark blue eyes, she possessed a grace I knew I would never have. Her hands were gentle and the salve soothing. She looked over and caught my glance. “Sleep,” she said and I must have because the next thing I remember was waking up again next to a campfire (which probably should have spooked me but didn’t). She was across from me watching me.

“What happened?” I said, followed by, “who are you?”

“My name is @[Emilia Koehler](person:fb103bab-8060-4fb4-94c6-81003fb97b6f)‌ and I live here.” She sounded German though she was speaking Italian fluently.

“Here? In the mountains?” I asked incredulously. No one lived this deep into the mountains.

“Yes. Specifically here in this cave, though not for much longer I suspect. Who are you and what brought you here?” she asked.

I ignored that she hadn’t told me how she had found me or what happened to whatever had sent flames my way, and told her my name and the story of why I was in the mountains.

“So you came to rescue a creature you knew nothing about?” she sounded surprised.

I unfurled my wings a bit and winced as the pain hit. “I figured I had a few things in common with it.” I explained.

“Yes.” she cocked her head to one side. “How does it feel?”

“It hurts but it’s much better. Thank you for taking care of me.”

“I owe you that and much more,” she said.

“What exactly happened?” I asked.

“Can I trust you, Sals?” she asked.

I’m not sure why but I knew her question held a far deeper meaning than it appeared to on the surface. She really meant trust with a capital “T,” not the average trust. I pondered it for a while, and she let me have the time. “Yes.” I finally stated firmly while meeting her eyes.

“I am the creature you came to the mountains to rescue. When the others attacked me with their dogs and weapons I defended myself. They had somehow managed to actually wound me with those strange devices they carry, and when you arrived I thought you were more of the same and lashed out. For that I have a deep sorrow, Sals of the pure heart.” she said.

I wasn’t sure what to say to that. She certainly didn’t look like a creature, nor like someone that could throw fire around like what had hit me, but the world is a strange place as I had found out from a young age. “I forgive you,” I said.

“That is kind of you, but you do not know what you forgive. Not entirely. My flames, the damage they have done will never fully heal. You will not hurt, but your wing will remain without the feathers that were burned. I have stolen something priceless from you that I can never repay.”

Oh, gods! I wouldn’t fly again? Ever? I was struck for a time with the pain of the loss. She silently watched me and waited for the attack she knew would come. The only thing was, I just didn’t have it in me to hold it against her. I’m sure I would be able to fly at least a little, glide if nothing else, and she wore her heart on her sleeve. Her remorse was seeping into the rocks around us.

“Yeah. Okay. That really, really sucks. And I still forgive you.” I struggled with the words. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt me, you were hurt too and defending yourself.”

“You have a truly great soul, Sals,” she said meeting my eyes. “Do you feel strong enough to see my true form?” she asked.

What an odd question, but hey, I knew she wasn’t human. Not if she was flying and carrying off-farm animals. She also wasn’t a griffin nor any other flying creature I had seen. “Sure,” I said, trying to sound certain.

She smiled a little at that and then she was a dragon. A dragon. A DRAGON! She was a lovely shade of bronze throughout her body with a slender arching neck, horns atop her head, the most beautiful dark red wings. Her eyes, though, were still the same dark blue that could see right through me. I was in awe. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. I would have been happy to just sit there and watch her till the end of my days.

Time passed as we stayed in the cave. She kept the fire going, tended my wing, and brought food. She explained that the properties of dragon fire would keep me from ever healing entirely. She did think that I would be able to glide and such, but not truly fly again. She was obviously struggling with something she wanted to talk to me about. I wasn’t sure what.

Our conversations ranged from when she had woken up, she assured me that she had not hatched in this time, to my youth, to the return of magic, to basic history of the last hundred plus years. She listened attentively and asked many questions, though I did not know all of the answers.

Then one day she addressed me directly over dinner. “Sals, I have reached a decision. I will guard the wingers,” she stated.


“I’m sure you have heard the legend that dragons have hoards,” I nodded.

“I have decided that the wingers will be my hoard in this new world.”

“Uh, I thought you hoarded gold?” I said doubtfully.

“Whoever told you that?” she said, looking both shocked and appalled. “We hoard things that we find precious. For some it was gold, others precious gems, yet others hoarded knowledge, or art. As we are each unique, we each hoard what we find precious. I used to hoard the woodlands and her creatures. At that time there were no wingers.”

“I have listened to your tales of the world, and I can see that while the woodlands are in desperate need of a protector, the wingers have a more dire need. And in no small part, the damage I have done to you has shown me that I need to do my part for you and your kind. We are so closely related, and you are so new to your magic. You all need guidance as you grow to your full potential.”

I wasn’t sure what to make of that but I knew that she had decided and that I would help her.

From there we began to plan how to best ‘hoard’ wingers in the world. The rest you know. We gathered precious metals from the mountain and started Rook, Inc. From there she started the Courier business as a front and money-making tool to help raise and protect wingers across the globe. We started in New Houston because it was a new community that embraced magic and magical beings. When it was time to expand she moved on and left me here to run things for her. And that’s what I have been doing ever since.

Journey to the Warehouse

“Tomas Nat, please report to the office, Tomas Nat, please report to the dispatch office.”

Why did the speaker system have to be so darn loud! Sitting quietly in my room meditating, the sound had been enough to make me jump to my feet in shock. I suppose that’s what I get for not wearing the comm. They had probably buzzed me a few times already. Reaching for the comm, I tapped it twice letting them know I had heard the summons and would be gearing up and arriving quickly.

I took my time prepping. It’s important to be very careful when preparing for a cursed run. Each “t” must be crossed and “i” dotted. I always meticulously followed my checklist. First, do a thorough visual check of my uniform. Ensure that there are no tears or holes, no matter how small. Then, with the goggles on, do the whole check again. The goggles allowed for vision in all magical ranges. You should see only the white glow of a fully sealed cursed object uniform.

Being of vulture stock I have some abilities to see curses and such even without the goggles, but they have far more range in the cursed spectrum than I do with my vision. Next, I carefully surveyed my body with the goggles and the special mirror to ensure that I was not showing any signs of magical interference. I carefully packed my uniform in my bag and headed up to the cursed objects dispatch office.

At the entry, I placed my uniform, bag, and all onto the belt to be further scanned for any anomalies. I stepped into the archway scanner in my plain clothes. The doors closed and I disrobed. I put my clothes into the receiving bin and watched them disappear until the end of the run. I then put my arms above my head and spread my legs allowing the scan full access to my body. This part took an uncomfortable ten minutes to complete. The back door opened into the changing room and my uniform was already waiting at the end of the conveyor. I slipped into it carefully checking each seal as I pulled on the jumpsuit and the boots. I put my gloves in my helmet and held that under my arm as I made my way into the office proper. Everything in the office was also sterilized and verified, so it was okay for me to not don my full gear until I left the premises.

D‌on was behind the desk and ‌Beth was in the Watcher position. “Good morning, Don, what’s the job.” As protocol demanded I did not speak to, or acknowledge Beth. She was three years ahead of me, and she had helped to train me. This was her first year on Watcher duty. I could not imagine how it would feel to be at that point, but I had three years to get there.

“This is a Class III pickup at The Burning Tower,” Don said loudly enough for both of us to hear him clearly. You will proceed to the landing area and use the door on the left. You will be met by the Cursed Objects Detail who will brief you on the object, what is known about it, and signs to look for to determine if it is active. They will then seal the object in your bag and you will proceed with haste and caution to the Warehouse. You will be using the reserved flight path which will be cleared for your use for two hours. The Cursed Objects Detail will notify the authorities when you begin to move. There is a 30-minute buffer window; however, if you do not reach the Warehouse in the allotted two hours, it will be assumed that you have succumbed to the artifact and you will be hunted with orders to capture or kill as the situation warrants. Once you arrive at the Warehouse, their Arrival Department will notify the authorities and the object will be considered delivered. You will submit to decon at their facility. You will then return directly to The Rookery Decon for a second decon and debrief. Do you understand?” Don queried.

I repeated his directions exactly as he had stated. He nodded and we both signed the documents which stated again what he had read to me.

“Break a leg, Tomas,” he said, using the old theater wish for luck. Given our line of work, we can be a bit superstitious.

He pushed the button to open the doors, and I launched myself out. I love to fly, and these tower launches are wonderful. As soon as my wings clear the door, I snap them open and feel the updraft catch them and pull me upward. I don’t play in the air, no matter how wonderful it feels. It’s time to get this item where it belongs and I need to stay focused. It’s not unheard of for someone desiring an object to try to take out and replace the courier. I don’t look for my Watcher. I trust that she’s up there and has my back. Watchers generally stay behind and above the courier in order to have a good view. They will move around though to create an indiscernible pattern. A smart intercept would want to take them out first.

I hate to say it, but this job is perfect for me. I am afraid of pretty much everything, and that paranoia, as some have called it, makes me especially suited for a job where you cannot trust much of anything including yourself. I question what I am told, the actions of others, and their words. It’s saved me a time or two already. I have been on the job for two years and that is considered incredibly successful in my line of work. I have lost to members of my cohort, and three have withdrawn because they were declared mentally unfit for duty. I don’t want to be one of those people. I hope to make it for the full eight years and then continue to work for The Rookery.

For now, though I am focused on the task at hand. I make it to The Burning Tower, land in the designated area, and head for the left-hand doorway. I walk in, leaving the door open for my Watcher, and proceed to the table in the middle of the room. On the other side of the table is a lone individual in the uniform of the Cursed Objects Detail. The Cursed Objects Watcher is near the door leading to the inside of The Burning Tower. When working with Cursed Objects we always work in pairs as a minimum safety measure. On the right side of the table is a null bubble with a knife in it, and on the left side are several documents.

The Cursed Object Detail person is standing in front of the papers. “Good morning, Courier,” she says. I think it’s a she from the tone and inflection of the voice. We really have no idea who we are across from due to the nature of our protective uniforms.

Today you will be transporting a Class III Cursed Object. This object appears in the form of a dagger. She handed me one of the pieces of paper. On it were several excellent drawings of the dagger. They showed it from both sides and from the two narrow sides as well. It indicated the areas where there was engraving and was detailed enough that you would be certain of what you were looking at. “Please compare this to the item.”

I walked to the null bubble and compared the dagger to the drawing. Using as little contact as possible, I rotated the dagger to compare all angles as they were drawn. “The drawing appears to match the item,” I stated for the record. I then stepped away and allowed the Watcher to follow the same protocol. She did not touch the bubble and instead instructed the person on how to turn it in order to verify.

This may seem odd, but if something were to happen to me, it is important that the Watcher be able to identify if the item was indeed what had been picked up from the point of origin. If I was affected by it and tried to turn in a different item, she would be another failsafe. She took the drawing and put it into her case then retreated to the back of the room.

Loud enough that everyone in the room could hear, the person began to read from the other documents. “This dagger, of unknown origin was delivered to The Burning Tower by Winged Courier to Thomas Sendon. At that time it was classified as a Class IV magical item. He received the package in front of several witnesses, signed for it, and went to the elevators. Due to his high ranking in the Magic Circle, the exact nature of the item and where it went in the Burning Tower is unknown. The dagger was found clutched in his hand as he lay dead in the center of a sacrificial circle in a sub-basement after the Burning Tower was ignited. It has since been discovered that Mr. Sendon was committing acts of human sacrifice in order to gather power. It is unknown if this dagger was used in the sacrifices or if it was the cause of his death. What we have been able to determine is that this dagger is a source of tremendous negative energy, and as such it has been classified as a Class III Cursed Object. It is to be removed to the Warehouse for decontamination and possibly for additional testing and classification.”

“Understood,” I replied. I took off my delivery bag and lay it open on the table. Unlike a traditional bag with an opening at the top and a flap, zip, or combination of the two, my bag was collected at the four corners, so when it was opened it lay flat upon the table. Once the four corners were connected, a seal was formed, and the bag was coded to The Rookery Cursed Objects seal, so anyone without that seal could not open it at all. Laying flat allowed the bag to accommodate a great number of shapes and sizes of items. The person moved the dagger and its containment field over my bag. I pulled up the four corners and sealed the bag around both. Once the bag was sealed, the null magic inside caused the containment field to collapse and the bag fit itself to the dagger. I reconnected it to my chest harness.

The person handed me the rest of the paperwork and gave a nod toward the door. We headed that way and at the doorway, we faced each other.

“Safe travels, Courier.” She said.

“Thank you,” I replied. We both turned to her co-worker. That person had a communicator out, and said, “Warehouse, package 745 alpha alpha is leaving now. I repeat package 745 alpha alpha is leaving now.” We all clearly heard the response, “Burning Tower, confirming package 745 alpha alpha is in route now.”

With that, I opened the door and ran for the edge of the building to launch myself into the air. The Warehouse was far outside of town. It would take about eighty minutes if I moved at a steady pace. I had one hundred and twenty to get there before they would begin hunting me. The flyways were being held open for me, so I should have plenty of time, but that was no reason to dawdle. It was also no reason to rush. I needed to be vigilant and aware of my surroundings in case of an incident. Slow and steady wins the race. I set my pace and moved through the city.

For cases like this, I was to move through the commuting lane. It was the highest lane over the city [keeping me far from the buildings], and below the flight paths for the planes and other mechanized transports. It was a beautiful day. The sun was shining and there were enough clouds to keep the temperatures from climbing too high. I did not focus on that though. I kept repeating my mantra, ‘aware’ over and over in my head. I find that this helps to focus my mind and remind me of the task at hand. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to concentrate during long flights, my mind tends to wander. Durning a delivery that wasn’t cool. I needed to stay focused and on task. For a delivery like this, it was about six hours of focused, intense concentration. I needed to be at the top of my game from the initial gear check through the final gear check.

The flight was uneventful. I saw nothing out of the ordinary, and I did not sense anything from the dagger.

I arrived at the warehouse exactly eighty-one minutes after leaving The Burning Tower. I landed at the delivery entrance and approached the door. In front of the door, I stated clearly, “package 745 alpha alpha for delivery to the warehouse.”

“Acknowledged. Delivery of package 745 alpha alpha. Please hold for the scan.”

I stood still in the circle just outside the door. You can’t tell by looking but there are eyes and weapons trained on you for at least the last mile of the approach. They had known I was coming and I had already been scanned innumerable times, but this scan was more thorough and detailed. I’m sure even I don’t know all the security details, and I’m sure I don’t really want to know. The items in the Warehouse are scary beyond reason. I know only of the few I have delivered and that’s more than enough to scare me silly. Whatever their security, it’s probably not enough!

“Scan complete. You are cleared for delivery of package 745 alpha alpha. Please enter.”

The door in front of me opened and I walked through into a room that was basically identical to the one in the Burning Tower. I walked up to the table, removed the bag from my chest harness, and placed it on the table. I did not move to open it yet. The person on the other side of the table surrounded my bag in a containment field. This field was designed to allow those with the Cursed Objects seal to reach in. I did so now and released the seal on my bag revealing the dagger which then floated to the center of the containment field. I removed my bag from the field. Just to be clear, I could not have removed the dagger. I have the Cursed Objects seal, as does the bag, and that’s the only reason those things can be moved into and out of the fields.

With the dagger secured on the table, I began the process of visually examining the dagger to ensure it matched my memory of it. It did.  I then removed the dagger’s description from a pocket and read it aloud to those present. I then placed the documents on the table and stepped back. My Watcher stepped into my place and took the visual reference documents and did her visual examination. When complete, she handed the document to the Warehouse agent and they reviewed it as well. 

“Item cleared. Delivery complete,” the agent intoned. “Please proceed to decontamination through the door to the right.”

We headed for the door on the right [no there was no confusion because there was only one door that was a side door!]. Through the door were two decon units. We each entered one and waited while it ran through its processes. After about fifteen minutes a green light came on and the door opened. I exited at the same time that the Watcher did. In the room, an agent was waiting. He made a note of the time and used his communicator, “Cursed Objects Control, your people are heading home. Copy?”

“Copy, Warehouse.”

While we did not have the same time limit on getting home to The Rookery, having gone through one decon, they radioed us in any way because we were expected to go straight back for our second decon. If we didn’t show or took too long, people would come looking. It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes decon isn’t successful and, well, things happen.

Ahead of us was a door. We opened it and were outside. Time to head for home. Taking off from the ground is not as fun as a soaring leap, but we do it often enough that it’s not really a big deal. We both took off and used the air currents to rise, then headed toward The Rookery and home.

When we were about ten minutes out I used the communicator. “Tomas to Cursed Objects Control. We are ten out.”

“Understood, Tomas. The door will be open when you get home.”

While not quite done with my delivery day, those were sweet words to hear. It meant we were in the home stretch. We also called in to ensure that the skies were clear around The Rookery. If we were carrying any residual curse magic, we didn’t want anyone else exposed. We flew through the decon door and landed. There we went through the same process as we had upon leaving. I entered decon and went through that process, put on my civilian clothing again, and deposited my uniform in the bin for additional decontamination. They would be returned to my rooms within twelve hours and I would personally inspect them again at that time. We never went out more than once every third day. Then I entered the stark office where Don was still on duty.

“Welcome home, Tomas, Beth,” he said with a smile. “Beginning recording now. Please describe your experiences upon the delivery of the cursed package 745 alpha alpha.”

I described the delivery from my perspective and then listened to Beth’s description. They were almost identical which is perfect. 

“Recording ended,” Don stated. “Sounds like a pretty smooth run. I’m glad. Thank you for your service. Enjoy your downtime.”

“Thank you, Don,” I said. I then turned to Beth, pulled my wings in tight, and bowed slightly. “Thank you for being my Watcher.”

“You’re welcome, Tomas. Someday you will do the same for another.” 

In case you’re wondering that is a form of blessing. Given how dangerous our work can be it’s like telling you that you will be safe and able to function long enough to become a Watcher. I bowed again, and we both left and headed our separate ways. 

I, personally, took off and flew through the tower to my apartment. I was wiped out. Today’s workday may have been short, but the stress and fear took a lot out of me. I needed a shower, a light meal, and some deep sleep. Tomorrow I would see the counselors for an additional debrief before being cleared to be put back in the queue, but that was for tomorrow. The rest of the day was mine, and I was going to curl up in my safe space and relax.

Tony Makes a Friend

After work, I headed to my apartment in the complex, grabbed a quick meal, changed into casual clothing, and headed out to the shelter. Tuesday is my day to help with making the meal and tonight I was making black bean stew. It is a great way to get veggies and some protein, as well as a warm meal into those in need of it. It’s also got pretty cheap ingredients so the shelter can afford it, and it stores well so if we make too much, it can be pulled out again on a busier night. I learned the recipe years ago from one of my trainers. It has helped me through some rough patches.

I hustled down to the shelter. It was only about a mile from the apartment. A quick jog got me there in no time and served as some training.

“Hey there, Jerry,” I said as I entered through the back door. Jerry helped to found this place and runs the charity that provides supplies. He works here four nights a week.

“Hey yourself, Tony. Glad you’re here. I never could figure out how to get these beans done right.”

“You do just fine,” I told him smiling as I took over stirring the beans and adding spices.

He snorted and moved to the large wooden table where he began cutting up bread for distribution with the meal. We worked in companionable silence until the meal was prepped. None too soon either as the clocked chimed to tell us it was eighteen hundred. Time to open the doors.

Jerry walked over and opened the doors as Belinda and I waited at the serving stations. Tonight there wasn’t much of a line, only about a dozen waiting at the door. We served them as they came up to the line with a smile and a warm hello. Belinda is far chattier than me and she talked them up, being sure to make those who were regulars feel special as she remembered little details, and tried to get to know the new folks. As the line slowed down a bit, I felt eyes on me. I scanned the room but no one was looking. As new folks entered, the feeling stayed. After about an hour, I finally saw who was looking. A small pair of eyes peeked over one of the side windows. I could also see a set of horns on a bald head. Another gargoyle, but in miniature.

More people walked in and I smiled and served them. I kept expecting to see the kid, but he never showed. Sometimes I would look up and see him at the window, other times not. When we closed the doors for the evening and finished cleaning up, I took a quick walk around the building but I didn’t see the kid anywhere. This is not the greatest neighborhood, so I sent a quick prayer out to the universe to keep the kids safe. I hope there is someone looking out for him.

Things went on like that for about a month. Some nights I would see the kid watching, other nights he wasn’t around. The weather was starting to shift and I couldn’t stand the thought of a kid out on the streets without warm clothing or a warm place to sleep. Also, he wasn’t coming in for a warm meal even though it was free. Kid most likely had trust issues.

Finally, I broke down and talked to Jerry about it. I told him that I was going to take a break the next night I saw the kid and take some food outside. Jerry agreed to that in a snap. He hadn’t noticed and he was as unhappy about the possibilities as I was. When I took a break mid-shift, I walked a bowl of food outside to the window. Of course, the kid wasn’t to be seen. I put the bowl on the window ledge along with some bread wrapped in foil.

“This is for you, kid. You are more than welcome to come inside. No one here will hurt you.” I said, then turned and went back inside. I had really hoped to see, or hear him, but no luck. When I went back out as we were closing up, I did see the bowl was empty and the bread was gone. That was something at least.

For the next couple of weeks, whenever I saw the kid, I would repeat my actions, bringing food out to him and something he could carry wrapped in foil for later. One night I even packed some brownies I had baked that day. Kids should have treats now and again. I only ever saw the kid through the window though.

I heard that morning that we were due for a hard freeze overnight. I couldn’t get the kid out of my mind. This had to change. I needed to know he had a warm place to stay for the evening and warm clothing. Gargoyles may be tough but we aren’t immune to the elements. Cold is cold. I was determined to find him tonight and see that he had shelter.

He showed up that night and I was glad. I had been worried it would be one of those nights he skipped. The brownies the last time must have done the trick. I went out on my break as usual and put the food out, along with cookies this time.

“Kid, come on inside out of the weather. It’s supposed to get real cold tonight and I would like to know you at least have some warm clothes and a warm place to sleep. I promise, no tricks. I just want to be sure you’re okay.” I waited for nearly 15 minutes but he was a no-show. When I came back out later only the stuff wrapped in foil was gone. He must have grabbed it and ran rather than hang around to be caught out. Damn. I’d blown it. He might not show up again and I might never know if he was dead or alive.

Unacceptable. Completely unacceptable. This was going to end tonight. I wanted answers. I began the hunt. I had some pretty extensive training in finding and tracking, and this was a kid after all, how tricky could it be. First I examined the wall. One of the perks of being a gargoyle is the ability to climb sheer surfaces. I could see small dents where the kid’s fingers had clung to the wall so up I went. He’d spent some time on the roof. This is probably where he waited once I came out to give him food. I was able to track him fairly well using a combination of sympathetic magic and instinct. About a mile away, on the roof of an old apartment building, I saw what was probably the housing for an elevator engine. The door didn’t shut quite right. Looked like it might if it had been yanked from its hinges and set back right.

I slowly approached the door and knocked. I expected a startled reaction from inside but the kid came barreling through the door knocking me flat with the door on top. I jumped up and gave chase. The kid looked to be about eight or nine, wearing summer clothes (just like I was afraid of). He could glide really well given the size of his wings and he really knew these rooftops. If he lost me now I would probably never see him again.

“Please!” I yelled. “Just stop a minute and talk with me!” I have no idea if he could hear me or not, but he seemed to slow just a hair. Keep talking, Tony. “Hey, my name is Tony and I’m the guy that’s been bringing you your private meals at the food bank. I just wanna talk!”

The kid started to circle glide. “Okay, so talk,” he growled. “I just wanna make sure you have a warm place to sleep tonight and see if you have clothes for the cold. I have some spare gloves and a hat plus a few blankets. I don’t really have any clothes, but I’ll help with that too if you’ll let me.”

“Why would you do that? Why would you help me?” he snarled and pleaded all at once.

“Look at me kid. We goyles have to stick together. You came to my food bank. You shared my food. Now I need to make sure you’re gonna be okay.”

“You’re not my dad,” he muttered.

“No. I’m not. Right now, I’m not your anything, but I would like to be your friend.”

“I don’t trust you.”

“I didn’t think you would. At this point, it would be dumb to trust me. Still, it’s a good offer if it’s for real.”


“Let’s go back to your place and get your stuff. We can wash it, and you can have a nice hot shower while it gets clean. We can talk about the rest in a warm place. Okay?”

“Okay. I’ll follow you so I can keep an eye on you.”

“Fair, kid, fair.”


“Excuse me?”

“Toby, not kid.”

“Sure thing. Good to know you, Toby.” Well, that settles it. He’s a he. I hadn’t been entirely sure until then.

I turned my glad back to his building. I wasn’t quite high enough when I got there so I climbed the rest of the way. The kid had landed at the top. Show off.

“Do you want me to get your stuff so you’re not in there while I’m out here? Or don’t you trust me with your stuff?” I asked.

“I’ll get it, but don’t come too close to the door. I’ll hear you if you do.”

“I won’t.”

A few minutes later the kid, Toby, came out with a small bundle.

“Where to?” he asked almost shyly.

“Just follow me.”

I glided to the face of my building. Toby stayed near me but not too near. I landed on the broad balcony outside my place, and unlocked the door, opening it for him. He looked a bit stunned.


“Your place has a landing balcony and an outward-facing front door.”

“Yeah? I am a goyle. I want my flying guests to have a way in.”

The kid dipped his head and took a step back.

“Come on in and let’s get your stuff, and you, cleaned up. Okay?”

He nodded, not meeting my eyes, and headed inside. He seemed to shrink into himself as he entered.

I lead him over to the kitchen island and nodded to a stool there. “Have a seat. Let me see if I can find you something to throw on so we can wash your clothes, then some food and a shower, or bath for you.” I said as I hustled into my room. I knew nothing I had was going to fit the kid, but I found some old sweatpants with elastic at the ankles and a drawstring waist, and a t-shirt. “Here, put these on,” I said tossing him the clothes I had found. “Sorry. There’s no underwear that’s going to fit you, but you can go commando while yours wash and dry.” The kid just looked at me a little stunned.

“Oh, sorry. The bathroom’s that way. You can change there and then I’ll show you how to wash a load…unless you already know.”

The kid just gave me an odd look and headed for the bathroom. When he came out, I had started shaping up some burgers and fries. The kid could use the protein and carbs. I walked him over and showed him how to use the washer for his things and we got a load started. It was a very small load. That wasn’t going to do at all. “Okay, let’s get your hands washed and you can help with dinner.” Again, that inscrutable look. I set him to chopping veggies for a salad. He didn’t do a bad job. He didn’t do a good one either, but it was pretty good and got the job done. When all was ready, we sat down and ate. He dug in like he hadn’t eaten in a week. I know he’d eaten at least a couple of days ago. How sad is that?

We moved the laundry from washer to dryer after dinner, then I asked, “Bath or shower?” “Uh. Bath I guess,” he replied. I took him into the guest bath and showed him how to set the water temperature and plug the tub. I gave him soap and set out a towel for when he was done. “Just put the sweats back on for now. Take your time. Enjoy it. Come on back out to the living room when you’re done.” “Okay.” I heard the bathroom door lock behind me. Fair enough.

Nearly an hour later the kid rejoined me in the living room. He was wearing his clothes and brought his meager pile of folded laundry with him. “Thanks for everything,” he said. “I’ll be seeing you.”

“Hey! No. I brought you here to stay the night. It’s way too cold out for anyone to be outside tonight.” I blurted out.

“Mister, I don’t know what your deal is, or why you are being so nice to me, but I can take care of myself. I have been doing it for a while now, and I’m okay.”

“You have been doing it. You have been doing it very well. That doesn’t mean you should have to though. Look, I don’t know your story, and I’m not gonna ask. I’m sure it isn’t pretty. One thing I do know though, and that’s that none of us can do this alone. I sure didn’t. There were people who helped me out and I try to give back when I can. That’s why I work in that food kitchen. You are an amazing kid to have done so well. I want to help. You’ve trusted me this far. Trust me for the night at least. Please.”

The kid spent a few minutes just looking at me. I had no idea what was going through his head. My only experience with kids was on disastrous volunteer effort with @[Edwin Marsh](person:aeae5a65-183b-4c4c-8b18-b557ba815c36)‌, and his young wing. I shudder just thinking about it.

“Alright. One night.” he finally answered.

“Great. Here, I’ll show you where you can sleep.” I walked him down the hall to the spare room. I made sure he had an extra blanket and walked to the door. I’m going to do some reading in the living room. You are welcome to join me or just stay here whatever suits. Tomorrow I’ll make you a good breakfast and maybe we can talk some.” I told him. Again, I heard the door lock as I left.

The next morning when I woke the kid was gone. The bed was neatly made and there was a note that read thanks. Damn.

I spent the next week looking everywhere I could think of, and knowing I wouldn’t find Toby. I was really upset. I hadn’t had a chance to offer Toby any warm clothing, or anything. It wasn’t as cold as it was that night but it wouldn’t be long before it was. I was, honestly, a bit frantic. Jerry tried to put me at ease, telling me that I had done all I could. I couldn’t help but feel I’d approached Toby all wrong.

Seven days later after another fruitless search, I dragged myself home only to see a small bundle by my door. No. It was Toby all curled into a ball!

“Toby! I am so glad to see you.” I said. It was all I could do to keep my voice even and not reach out and hug the damn kid.

“Tony. I…I need a place to stay.”

He sounded rough. I wanted to ask a million questions, but I was afraid of chasing him off again. “Sure. Come on in.” I said holding the door open.

“He heaved himself up and slowly walked inside.”

I wasn’t sure what was up, but I know that warm water heals a bunch, and food most of the rest. “Bath first I think. Let me get those clothes and a towel.” I said, bustling to get the aforementioned items. I took the things to the bathroom and he headed that way slowly. I was really starting to worry. “You okay, Toby? Do you need some help?”

“I’ve got this part, Tony. Thank you.” And he softly shut the door on me and I heard the lock click.

In my family when something is wrong it’s time for some chicken noodle soup. Luckily had some baked chicken in the fridge so I pulled some together quickly and got it simmering to let the flavors mingle. It really should simmer for at least an hour but I didn’t think the kid could wait that long. He looked to be on his last legs and I didn’t know if he was sick, tired, hungry, or what.

Forty-five of the longest minutes of my life later, the kid showed up in the kitchen. That was when I noticed the chips and rough spots on his head and arms. Now we gargoyles don’t bruise; instead, we chip or get rough patches. Toby had been beaten, and pretty badly at that. Like regular humans the wounds heal in time; however, it’s much harder to tell if there is internal damage or not because our skin is so tough. “Who did it?” I asked.

He looked like he was going to deny knowing what I meant, but then he said, “A gang. A bunch of toughs. I was camped out in their territory and they ‘don’t like your kind.’ They decided to make me leave. It could have been worse.”

“Well, you walked away, so yeah, it could have been,” I said, pushing the soup in front of his seat at the island. “Toby,” I said not meeting his eyes, “I have been worried sick about you for the past week. There are so many things I want to say and ask. You have no reason to trust me, or even to agree to what I am offering, and I won’t force it on you, but I would really like for you to stay here, at least until we can decide what to do from here. I don’t know what that looks like. No offense, but you are still a kid, and that does put limits on the options. I would just really like to know you have a safe place and that you’ll stay there.”

“Okay, Tony,” Toby said and slowly started on the soup.


“Yeah. I’ve been running and running. I’m tired and scared, and you seem nice. No promises that I’ll agree to whatever scheme you cook up, but I’ll stay awhile. I’m not gonna freeload though. I will do laundry, and help clean, and if you show me, I’ll help cook too.”

“Sure, kid, sure.”

The next morning the door was still closed and I heard what I thought was breathing in the room, so I picked up the phone and called work. I told them I needed a personal day. In all the years I have been working here this may be the first day I’ve taken off. While no questions were asked, I knew there would be an inquisition later. My co-workers care.

I started making breakfast. Eggs, toast with butter, and bacon. Not knowing how Toby liked his eggs I opted for scrambled. The smell probably woke him because a few minutes later he stumbled into the room and took a seat. “Scrambled okay,” I asked over my shoulder. “Yeah,” he grunted back. I finished fixing it all and set it down with some tea at his place and took mine standing up so I could see him. He still looked pretty rough today. We at in silence. After he had finished and we had cleaned up and put the dishes in the washer, I motioned him onto the couch.

“Okay, I’m not good at this sort of thing so I’ll lay out the things I am thinking about and we can go from there. Please, just hear me out.” He nodded and stayed quiet. “I want to take you to see a doctor. We don’t know how beat up you are, and there could be real damage judging by your face.” The kid sort of drew back inside himself, but I barrelled on. “Then I would like to get you some warm clothes. Even if you leave, they will be yours.” The reaction was no worse than when I said doctor. “And finally, I want you to consider applying for The Rookery Academy.” I stopped there though there were a lot of things I wanted to say.

I waited quietly for his response even though it was killing me. Eventually, he lifted his eyes and said, “First I’d better tell you something I don’t think you get.” Huh? Not the response I expected. “I’m a girl.” Okay. I know this sounds cliche, but truly I could feel my jaw hanging open and the wheels turning in my head. I closed my mouth and looked at him…er…her.

“What are your preferred pronouns?” I finally braved.

She laughed. It was like night and day. It was full and rich and filled with life. What an amazing sound! “She and her, please,” she replied.

“It doesn’t change anything. Rather it changes a lot of things, but none of the things I said.” I told her. “I still want to take you to see a doc. Even more so actually. You still need warm clothes, and you should still consider The Academy.”

“I’ll bite. What is The Rookery Academy?”

“As a winged individual, you are entitled to training at the Rookery Academy. They will teach you to use your wings to the best effect, and if you and your family agree, you can get your full education through them. There is no charge for this. When you graduate, you’ll most likely be offered additional education and/or employment.”

“You sound like a brochure.” she laughed again. “There’s just one problem with that plan, Tony. My parents want no part of me so they ain’t gonna give permission. They may not even admit I’m their kid unless it gets them something.”

Deep breaths, Tony, deep breaths. “Understood. We can talk through that later then I guess. Will you agree to the doctor and the clothes?”

“Yeah, okay, I guess.”

“Great. Let me call to get an appointment, and depending on when it is, we can decide what to do next.

The day passed in a blur. I got her an appointment at the clinic early. I might have pulled in a few favors. The x-rays showed only bruising. We gargoyles are tough after all. Doc Shamus said she just needed rest and Tylenol if it started to hurt too much. He said it was okay to use heat today. I took notes.

Then we hit the first-floor mall next door. I generally lean to practical and sturdy clothing. Since we were in a Rookery building, the stores all catered to wingers. I had her pick a few pairs of pants and shirts, and a winter coat, gloves, and hat. I turned her over to the woman who was helping us with the undergarments. I know when I’m ignorant. I sat in the chair by the dressing room and heard them giggle. I wonder what they were talking about.

Shopping always wears me out. We headed home and I had her wash her new things and put them away. “Okay. I need to know more about you in order to help you from here. Tell me about yourself. How old are you? When did you have the change?”

“I am ten. I changed a little over a year ago,” she said, looking away. “I loved my life, Tony. I miss my mom and dad.” Tears started forming in the corners of her eyes. Unsure of what to do I started to move closer but when I saw her start to shrink away, I stopped myself.

“I’m here to listen. Cry if you want to. I’m sure you’ve been through a lot. I know I cried a lot.” I said trying to find some way to provide comfort.

“It’s not fair. Everything was going so well. I love my family. We were happy. And then this!” she said, gesturing to her body. “When I started to change, my parents took me to all kinds of specialists trying to cure me. I went to doctors, a million doctors. They poked and prodded. They took me to church to pray over me. They finally took me to The Burning Tower and left me for weeks on end where they did ceremonies and enchantments and poked and prodded. My parents got more and more distant. When they finally got the news that no one could ‘fix’ me, they stopped talking to me. They started talking about me in front of me saying things like wondering if they could find a ‘discreet’ boarding school to send me to, or simply hire an au pair and set us up to live someplace out of the way. They even mentioned your Rookery but it was dismissed because it would be too visible and embarrassing. They had found a boarding school in the middle of nowhere that they were going to send me to. They didn’t even ask me. So I left. I’m sure they’re very relieved. Now they don’t have to be embarrassed by me. Why don’t they love me anymore? What’s wrong with me?” she started sobbing.

I took the risk and grabbed the box of tissues on the end table, sat next to her, and held her until she cried herself out.

“Toby, there is nothing wrong with you. Some people just cannot handle the change that’s happening in the world. They are scared and feel threatened and they do crazy dumb things like deciding to send their kid off just because they are different. I can’t pretend I can make any of that any better for you. You’re strong and I know you will find a way through it. I am here to lean on and help you how I can. Would you like to hear my story?”

She nodded, so I told her how I had gotten to where I am today. She was vulnerable and shared her pain with me, and she deserved the same in return. When I was done, she gave me a hug.

So much sharing wore us both out so I ordered in a pizza. Pizza makes everything better, at least for a short time. We chilled and watched TV and talked about what foods we like and light-hearted stuff. I offered her my old eReader to use. She was thrilled and we sat in companionable silence for a while until I had to address the last remaining issue.

“I can take to tomorrow of work again, but I am going to have to go back to work here soon, and no offense cause you’re very mature, but you are too young to be home alone,” I said, looking her in the eye.

She sighed deeply, and said, “you said I could stay.” Tears started to well up.

“No, no! That’s not what I was saying. Of course, you can stay. I want you to stay. I am saying that I want to see about enrolling you in The Academy.”

She still looked a bit sullen, and resistant. “How about we make a deal. We’ll go for a visit tomorrow. If you hate it, we’ll come up with something else, but I know you’re gonna love it. Deal?”

“Okay. Deal.”

I sent her off to bed, and made a call to @[Sals](person:3a601b94-f359-48a0-95b1-60daaa805c8d)‌ .

“Hey, Sals. I need a favor.”

“Does this have anything to do with you taking today off to take a young gargoyle to the medical wing and to go shopping with, uh, her?”

“Sals did anyone ever tell you that you can be super creepy.”

“Yeah. All the time. I enjoy hearing it though.” I could swear I heard her chuckle…but maybe I was imagining it.

I shared what I knew with Sals. As usual, she said little, mostly grunts to let me know she was still listening.

“We will reach out to her parents, and get the necessary permission and signatures. You take tomorrow off and show her around. Get her used to the place. Bring her up to meet me at 1330 sharp.” Sals said, then hung up.

I headed to be secure in the knowledge that it would all be handled from here.

In the morning we took our time and had breakfast. At around 0900 we headed down to The Academy. We headed for Ms. Felicia’s office. I expected a wait, but we were ushered in immediately.

“Hello.” Ms. Felicia said. She is a winger, no shock there. She Has the most lovely pale yellow wings with blue undertones. She’s almost always wearing a smile. When she’s not, you’d better watch out. She has been at The Academy for a long time She started as a teacher and slowly took on more responsibilities until she became the head of The Academy. “You must be Toby,” she said extending her hand to Toby. Toby looked at me and then shook Ms. Felicia’s hand.

“Tony.” Ms. Felicia said with a dip of her head.

“Ms. Felicia.” I returned.

“Well, Toby, I don’t know what Tony has told you about The Academy, but I personally think it’s a great place, as do most of our students. I know Tony was one of our star pupils in his day graduating in record time. We have structures for our classes that we call wings. While you are expected to learn basic life skills, we also want you to have the opportunity to explore less mainstream interests. We have classes on magic, though most wingers can’t do magic, some can and we want to ensure the best education. We have, of course, music and art, winged acrobatics, distance flying, martial training for the Courier track, and so much more. While you are assigned to a wing, your individual classes are at your own pace and interest. Once you are ready you can pick a specialization and we will do our best to ensure that you are successful in your long-term goal even if The Rookery has no part in it. We have many entrepreneurs of whom we are very proud. An example would be Shelly’s Boutique, which if I am not mistaken is where you got those fabulous boots!

What I would like to do, if you are amenable, is to take some time to show you around the facilities, the flying arena, the classrooms, the studios, the dorms, etc. Around noon we will head to the cafeteria for some of our award-winning cuisines, and then I believe you are to see Sals at 1330. You won’t want to be late for that!” Ms. Felicia could be a whirlwind on her favorite topic.

“Uh. Okay.” Toby said, moving a bit closer to me and grabbing my hand. Wow. She grabbed my hand. That felt really good. I may have let a small smile show.

We followed Ms. Felicia on the whirlwind tour. We were introduced to a number of faculty and students. We saw all of the amazing things The Academy has to offer, and we ended up in the cafeteria right at noon. No shock there, Ms. Felicia had made the schedule and we were one hundred percent on time.

At the cafeteria, there was a low buzz of conversation. There was some amazing soundproofing done in order to keep the normal roar of a school cafeteria down. The room had round tables that would accommodate about six comfortably. We found an open table, after waves and greetings to Ms. Felicia as we passed by other tables. We sat down and pushed the button in the center of the table. Holographic menus appeared in front of each of us with today’s selections which were, as always varied. Wingers, as a general rule, are vegetarians or vegans, but gargoyles, for example, are not. Individuals can do their own thing, but physiology plays a part as well.

“Pick whatever you want, Toby. It’s all gonna be phenomenal.” I told her.

“How do I…”

“Oh, just touch it on the menu. It will then ask if you have any special requests. If you do just use the menu keyboard to make your selections.”

“Okay. Can I have a milkshake?”

“As long as you have some real food to go with it.” I smiled.

“Sure thing!” she replied and got busy ordering.

Her excitement made me smile and I caught Ms. Felicia looking at me with a smile of her own. Okay, so I admit it, I was doting a bit, but she’s a good kid!

Our meals were brought out by none other than Chef Igneia herself. I could feel the surprise on my face. Chef never left the kitchen even if his staff was all hand-selected to her specifications. Plus she was obviously excited because her hair was flaming a bit. Good thing the chef’s hat is fire retardent.

Chefs eyes narrowed in on Toby, and she tried to shrink into me.

“You!” she shouted. “You are new. You ordered this?” she said holding up a milkshake. The waiter behind her was all eyes and ears at this unusual turn of events.

“Y-y-y-yes.” Toby managed to squeak out from the crack between my arm and my wing.

“You are new here. You’ll be starting soon?”


“You will start soon, and you will sign up for my culinary classes. You have a refined palate, a bit uneducated, but you have promise, which is more than I can say for most of the patrons here.” That last bit was undoubtedly directed at me. Igneia never felt that condiments were necessary on her food. I beg to disagree.

Toby looked over at Ms. Felicia who nodded with raised eyebrows, then at me. I shrugged. “Sure. If you want to.” I said.

“It would be an honor chef if I can come here that is,” Toby replied.

Chef Igneia looked at me, then at Ms. Felicia, then said, “You. Make it happen.” turned on her heels and headed back for her kitchen after placing the shake gently in front of Toby. The waiter, still hovering, finally stepped forward and delivered the rest of our order.

“What kind of shake did you order?” I asked a heartbeat ahead of Ms. Felicia.

“Chocolate with a swirl of raspberry compote, cinnamon, and thinly sliced chocolate shavings,” Toby said, slowly returning to her chair from her safe position at my side.

“Ooh! That sounds great. May I try?”


“Me too?” Ms. Felicia asked.


We both took up our spoons and took a sample. That was about the best milkshake I had ever had in my life! I wanted more, but I knew I could order it myself, and I was afraid to order it at the moment. I didn’t want the Chef coming out again.

“Wow.” Ms. Felicia said. “That’s awesome! That may just be the best shake I’ve ever had. Have you had it somewhere before?”

“No. It just sounded good and I saw each of those items on the menu in other dishes so I knew they had them.”

“Well, you do have a gift!” Ms. Felicia laughed. “Chef only takes one or two into her class a year. I’ve never heard of her asking for a specific student before. I guess we’ll have to get you to agree to come here to keep her happy. If we don’t we’ll all suffer through basic food for the next semester.”

I saw the doubt and fear enter Toby’s eyes and she lowered her head just a bit. I could tell she had doubts. I just hoped we could work them out.

We spent the rest of the mean quietly enjoying the food and talking about some of the more interesting classes The Academy offered. Ms. Felicia had to remind me of some of my more spectacular failures while at school. She’s been in the wing with me and had seen some first hand. If gargoyles could blush I would have been red from my forehead to my neck. It had Toby smiling though, so it wasn’t all bad.

I heard a soft chime from my wrist and looked down. “Ah, we need to finish up, Toby. It’s time to head up to the office to see Sals.” I announced, my stomach flipping a little. I love Sals. She is the best boss a guy could ever want. She was demanding and expected miracles, but at the same time she never expected anything you didn’t end up being able to deliver, and she always had your back. Always. I just hoped she could come through on this.

We took our dishes to the washing station and sent them through, then headed for the door. Once we reached the door we said our goodbyes to Ms. Felicia and I told her we would be in touch.

“I wanted to show you the place, so we’re going to take the elevator up to the gardens and then walk or climb from there,” I told Toby.


We hopped on and rode up to the 5th floor. When the doors opened it was like we were in a different world. This floor was open from here to the offices far above. Around the inside edge was a series of ramps leading upward without railings. As you looked up you could see wingers soaring, gliding, and flying both up and down the empty column, landing on the ramps and entering and leaving rooms. Laid out around us was a beautiful garden filled with trees, bushes, and flowers as well as benches and open grassy areas. There were walkways and grated areas with updrafts being generated to allow for easier flight. No matter how worldly you are, it’s an amazing sight. This is where the winglings learn to fly, where those who have graduated and accepted employment can choose to get an apartment and a general gathering area away from prying eyes for those who prefer that. Toby looked pretty impressed.

We headed up the walkway slowly circling higher and higher. It was a nice climb and it gave us some time to talk. I kept it light. I love Sals to the ends of the Earth and back, but she intimidates the heck out of me and just about everyone else. I really didn’t want to freak Toby out by freaking out myself.

Sooner than I was really prepared for we reached the office area. We came up the ramp of course but you could see the center entrance for regular fliers right in the middle. I waved at a few I knew but didn’t wave them over. It didn’t do to be late when you had an appointment with Sals.

We arrived five minutes early, as I had planned, and took seats outside the office. She’d call when she was ready. I saw @[Courier St. Claire](person:eee17246-af44-4570-b135-1cdeadd72052)‌ coming out with a somewhat chastened look on his face, as much as that kid ever looked chastened anyway. He saw me and winked. Yep, it was an act. I knew it, he knew it, and Sals knew it, but we all let it slide because…well, because we’re all family.

“Tony, Toby, come on in,” Sals called.

We went in. She gestured to two seats in front of her desk. Sals’ desk is in a large open office with access to the floor entrance and the external exit. There were other desks around hers, hers is back against a wall, but in the center of the comings and goings. At first glance, you wouldn’t find Sals imposing. She has beautiful cocoa skin, disarmingly auburn hair, and owl wings. While one looks normal and powerful, the other appears burnt and the flight feathers have not grown back. She kept it pulled in tight to her body. She could, and did still move it, but the best she could do was a short glide rather than the beautiful soaring flight it was no doubt able to sustain at one point in her life. I often wondered why she didn’t get it healed. I mean, we have healers on staff, but as far as I know, no one has gotten up the courage to ask her. For that matter, no one that I know has any idea what happened to her wing either. If you find out, please let me know!

“Hi, Sals,” I said as we took our seats.

“Tony.” She said looking at notes on her desk. Her eyes lifted and she looked right at Toby. “You must be Toby,” she stated the obvious. “Welcome to The Rookery.”

“Uh, thanks,” Toby replied tentatively.

“I know you haven’t had much of a chance to look around today, but you have some decisions to make, so I’d like to hear what you think of the place,” Sals said.

“Now Sals…” I started.

“Zip it, Tony. Toby and I are having a nice chat. We’ll let you know when you’re invited to join.”

I think I expected Toby to retreat into herself, or shy back from Sals’ brisk manner. Instead, I saw her eyes light up and a smile play across her face.

“Well, since you asked. I find the place to be well thought out and crafted for the specialized clientele. I think the food is far above standard for the accommodations and the employees are friendly and all seem to enjoy their work. I’d say you are running a top-tier company.”

My jaw was starting to get sore from hitting the ground.

“Thank you. I pride myself on doing just that.”

“You know who my parents are, don’t you,” Toby stated.

“I do. We need to get right to it. I’m sorry, but we don’t have much time. I have been given until 1600 to make whatever arrangements we decide on here. I am quite certain that you don’t want to return to your previous living situation. Let me assure you that no matter how we proceed, that won’t happen. You are one of us, and you will be cared for accordingly. Do not let that worry cloud your judgment. I have been told that The Rookery can ‘do with you what we will’ if you agree to legally change your name and have the court documents sealed for 75 years. If you in any way violate that name change, all bets are off. The Rookery would fight that, of course, if you feel it’s a fight you would like to have; however, I have to tell you that we might not win.”

“Of course, you wouldn’t win. It doesn’t matter. I am more than happy to agree to their terms.” Toby replied bitterly.

“I know it hurts, and I ain’t gonna lie, it always will, but you’re strong and you will get through it,” Sals said it in that way she has that simply doesn’t allow room for argument. Me, I was totally lost at this point.

Toby’s resolve came back onto her face. “So what are my options since I have agreed to their terms?”

“You will definitely need to enter The Academy. What you’ll take and for how long will, of course, be up to you. I hear you’ve already charmed Chef. That’s impressive. I think you’ll fit right in.” Sals smiled. A genuine, light-up-your-face smile. Wow. Toby smiled too, and said, “Yes. I would like that. Thank you.”

“Now you have to decide the big stuff. You’re a bit young, but you’ve faced the world on your own already, so I’ll give you the choice. Do you want to live in the dorms with a bunch of kids your age, or do I stick this big rock with you?” Sals asked.

I started to lean forward but one look from them both saw me retreat again. A man has to know when he’s not in charge and this was just such an occasion.

“If Tony is okay with it, I would really like to stay with him.”

They both looked at me now. “Of course, she can stay with me!” I blurted out before my brain fully engaged. Does that make me a dad?

“And now for the bigger question,” Sals said turning back to Toby. “And yes, Tony, this is for you too, but I want Toby’s thoughts first. Toby, would you like to take Tony’s last name and have him as your legal guardian? If not, you can choose whatever name you want and the corporation can be the guardian, but I think it makes for a more personal touch, and since he did let you follow him home…” There was a definite twinkle in Sals’ eyes. I *think* she was teasing…

“Uh, Tony, what is your last name?” Toby asked.

“Vinzenni,” I replied.

“Toby Vinzenni,” she said. “I like it. Tony,” she suddenly got shy again, “would it be okay to use your last name? Will you be my guardian?”

I was complete and utter mush. I had melted completely when she used my last name and then she asked. She had to know, but she asked anyway. “Toby, I would be honored. I haven’t ever done anything like this, and I have been told that I’m lousy with kids, and I will do my best to do right by you.” I said.

She turned to Sals. “Done then. I have no idea how you managed any of this.” Toby stood from her chair and approached the desk. She stuck out her hand. “My name is Toby Venzenni, and I am pleased to meet you, Sals.”

“Likewise,” Sals said taking her hand and shaking it. Both ladies smiled.

“Okay, I have arrangements to make and paperwork to get signed before 1600. Get out!”

We got.

I am a guardian. I am Toby’s guardian. She will be staying with me!

I am Igneia

I was born on a dark and stormy night. Okay, reborn then. You see, I am a phoenix. I know I look more human than bird but trust me on this. Also, trust that you don’t want to see me in bird form because that can be bad for your health. All those myths that say we are birds who can control fire and burst into flames, well they aren’t exactly right, but they aren’t exactly wrong either. Okay, I’m jumping all around, let me start with a little about what we are, and aren’t.

Phoenixes are generally human-like with a magical form. Think of us as werewolves. Yeah. That’s a good analogy, only we are way cooler. Generally, we look like most humans, act like most humans, and live among humans mostly undetected. We do tend to have fair or ruddy skin with red hair. Eye color varies between clans so there is variety in that. We are so closely related to humans that we can even have children with them; so most science thinks we’re human. Blood work even shows that we are which has helped us greatly through the years.

So what makes us different? For starters, how we are born. As I said, I was born on a dark and stormy night…from a bed of ashes…phoenix ashes to be precise. I was born from the ashes of phoenixes in one of our sacred locations. It’s pretty common knowledge that phoenixes immolate upon death. That is the truth. We do. Unlike humans, we generally know when our end is coming and we make our way to one of our sacred spaces and allow the end in the ashes of our kinsmen. That is the fitting end.

As the myth goes, we are born from the ashes of our old selves. Unlike the myth though, we are not reborn immediately. No one knows when it will happen, but it does, and only from the ashes of a phoenix.

As near as I can figure it, you humans reincarnate also, just a bit differently. Whereas we are literally reborn with all of the memories of our previous selves, and to science a clone, you are reborn in parts and pieces, a laugh here, a gesture there. I think it has to be about souls. For some reason, ours hold together, and yours splinter into pieces and are reassembled into a whole again from a variety of parts. It would explain how we sometimes recognize things about someone we knew when we have only just met you. But I digress.

When we are reborn, our souls are intact as I said, and our bodies are those of children. Just like you, we need to be cared for and helped along the way until we can join society. Obviously, this would look very strange to humans. I mean a five-year-old discussing philosophy or reminiscing about what it was like in ancient Egypt? So we are raised in secluded enclaves of phoenixes until we are 18 and your society feels that we are mature enough to be adults. Kind of silly I know, but even after the magic returned we followed the old ways.

Oh, yes, our way of life continued while the magic was gone. True, no children were born, but we kept the sacred funeral pyres burning and we kept the old ways believing that magic, and our friends, would be reborn. Luckily we have lifespans that are generally far longer than humans, and with a reason to do so, we can live for an indefinite period of time. Each of our sacred areas maintained at least a few caretakers who were able to preserve tradition. We also agreed at that time that we would all take turns in that caretaker position in order to preserve the old ways. Accidents do happen and we couldn’t afford to lose the knowledge. We managed to hold our population mostly stable during the dark time.

Anyway, I was born again on a dark and stormy night when the winds were whipping through the burning grounds, and lightning was striking all around. The night watch was present, as always, to welcome a new birth should it happen. Char, the watch during that time, was shocked to see me sitting in the ashes, and she dashed out to grab me and bring me into the shelter. Once brought in and dried, she found me to be quite small. I was also extremely quiet for a newborn. Our souls may be old, but we do have to grow into our bodies, and it does take some amount of time to remember our past selves.

Char wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about my arrival. She had signed up for the watch, yes. She felt it was her duty to our race to take her year-long turn on the watch and to raise any child who happened to arrive. She had been on duty for eleven months now and her time had almost passed. She had already been considering what she would do after her year was up, and this small, quiet, child threw all of that into disarray.

She took it well though. As I said, she brought me back to the shelter where the watch keeps an eye on the ashes. She courteously welcomed me back to the physical plane and allowed my body to rest. When it was time for the shift change, Kai arrived and was surprised to see me as well. He thanked Char for her service and said he hoped to see her again in this lifetime. She took me back to the enclave and the current curator. Her presence was duly noted and the gears were put in motion to replace her at the watch and to ready a small house for us to share until I could attend to my own physical needs.

I have thanked Char many times for her courteous and understanding care. I was able to gain verbal skills and walk within a year. It was then that we discovered, after some conversation about my last corporeal life, that I had not been reborn in centuries, probably close to a millennium. I had to learn everything about the age in which I was now living. I had to learn history, and even basics like toiletry, computers, and social media. It made the time pass very quickly. I had enough motor control to care for myself by five. At that point, Char took her courteous leave of me. I availed myself of the communal resources and learned from Google and Youtube.

When I was eight I was allowed to begin contributing to the enclave. I did basic yard work and maintenance. I helped with the laundry and the physical care of the two phoenixes who were still too young to have full control. My favorite thing though was when I could help with kitchen duty. I talked the enclave curator into buying me specialized kitchen supplies, and ingredients from time to time. He was thrilled with the results. Before I knew it, kitchen duty was my sole responsibility. I adored it. Each meal, to me, was a work of art full of love and sensual pleasure.

Before I knew it I was approaching my eighteenth year. Soon, if I wanted, I could leave the enclave. While you can choose to leave, no one is forced to go. Those who opt to leave are given a generous stipend and can return at any time. We all tithe generously to keep the enclaves running smoothly because you never know when you might return or in what condition, so there isn’t a shortage of funds.

I opted to leave. I wanted to explore the world of gastronomy in this new age. I wanted to learn the new skills and ingredients and determine how to make them taste even better. I wanted to use my gifts and knowledge to bring pleasure. I decided to start at the Sorbonne in France.

After the full course of study, in which I excelled, of course, I decided to travel the world’s restaurants. I started in Europe and worked up the ranks in several of the top restaurants. That was fun for a bit but got rather boring, and as I aged, I decided to walk away before the very insular group grew suspicious. I think worked my way slowly through indigenous cultures learning their skills. That took longer because trust had to be built before I would be allowed into their inner circle. Once I learned about the herbs and their properties and felt that I had a proper grounding, I went to America and toured their various small dinners and dives. Guy Fieri left a great record of opportunities. Most welcomed a new chef or waiter or dishwasher. I did what it took, and I watched and learned.

I suppose that at any time I could have opened my own restaurant but that felt…small. I traveled. I learned. I honed my skill. I ended up in Nou Houston working at a small dinner that had opened up once the city had moved. I felt for the owners. The dinner had been in the family for four generations and the old, much-beloved location was now underwater. They were glad that they had been able to reopen in the new city. They had the same square footage and it was a better floorplan. They had all of the furnishings and decorations and had done their best to replicate the feel of ‘home’ the old place had. I hadn’t ever been to the old place, but they seemed happy. They were great and let me try out a ‘chef’s choice’ once a week.

One of the regulars was a short, stocky woman with wings. One of her wings appeared to have been damaged at some point and not healed correctly, an oddity for these magical times. Between that and the sheer force of her personality, she stood out. Week after week she would come in once a week and order the chef’s choice. After about six months of this, she came in twice in one week, and this time with another woman. This woman was taller and very refined looking. She was wearing expensive clothing and had her hair up in a chignon. I had thought the first woman had a commanding presence, but this new one put her to shame. They didn’t appear to be a couple per se, but more like a sovereign and her advisor. They ordered the chef’s choice, which was no surprise. I had outdone myself this week with a new burger. Neither of these ladies looked to be the burger type, but they both dug in with gusto. They didn’t even use the silverware, but adopted the Guy ‘hunch.’ I’d have laughed but I was too busy cooking to do more than keep an eye on the unusual pair.

Before I knew it they were gone. Lunch hour can be super hectic and we had been slammed. I helped to get the place back in order after the lunch rush and we set up for the dinner crowd. Dinners are full of long days, but we laughed and joked during the downtime, and I liked these humans. They were good people.

When I finally got off work, around 10 pm, I waved to the owners and headed out the back. There in the alley was the short one I had been seeing for weeks. She seemed to be just standing there waiting. I raised an eyebrow. I mean, it’s kind of spooky finding a customer in the alley, but I didn’t get the feeling she meant any harm.

“Hello, Igneia,” she said. “Let me introduce myself. My name is Salimanca Franklin, but you can call me Sals.”

“Hi Sals. Why are you stalking me in a dark alley? Should I be worried?”

“Hm. I guess I could be stalking. Should I have asked to speak with you during your work time? That seemed less prudent as you seem to take your cooking quite seriously.”

“No. This is okay. It doesn’t look as though you brought your gang.” I said with a straight face.

She chuckled a low, pleasant sound. “I just came to talk. I noticed that there is an all-night coffee shop a few blocks away. Will you sit with me and hear my offer?”

“I’m intrigued. Sure. Their coffee is awful though. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

She laughed heartily at that. “You haven’t tasted my coffee. I’m sure this is a step up, and I will get you whatever you’d like.”

We walked companionably to the coffee shop. One of the things I like about this time is that the races, for the most part, appear to have learned from past prejudices. There was still a learning curve, of course, and haters, but no one blinked an eye at the winged woman as she walked into the coffee shop with me. They even had a couple of booths that had open benches so that she could have a comfortable seat. We headed for the barista and placed our orders. She ordered a coffee with no cream and used honey for a sweetener, as she did at the dinner. I opted to try a smoothie with bananas, strawberries, and cocoa nibs. We stood to the side and waited for our order. We were the only people there but that was no reason to make the woman bring it out to the table. I was happy to see that Sals left a sizable tip in the jar as well; also as she has always done at the dinner. Wait staff are never paid enough for what they put up with in my opinion. We waited in a pleasant, companionable silence that oddly did not feel awkward given that we were essentially strangers.

We were handed out drinks and went to sit at one of the winger-friendly tables. She stirred her coffee for a bit and took a few sips with what appeared to be real pleasure before glancing up at me again.

“As I mentioned before, my name is Sals. I am the Manager at the Rookery. Are you familiar with the Rookery at all?” she queried.

“I have heard of it. It’s a winged messenger service, right?”

“At the highest level, yes, that is the consumer-facing part of the company. We deliver packages of all sizes, priorities, magical classes, etc. We also have a branch that transports cursed items as necessary, usually to remove them to safe locations, and a school that goes from initial winging to career. We also provide affordable housing for our students, employees, and winged families in need of refuge. In essence, we are like the old stories of Chinatown. A place where wingers can come to be with those who understand them and their challenges, and that provides a refuge or a jumping-off point for them in their lives.”

“Okay, that all sounds great. I am not a winger though, so why talk to me?”

“Let’s be clear, you are a form of winger. When I brought my supervisor, Ms. Koehler, to sample your offering, she indicated that you belonged with us. I have no idea what you are, but I trust her implicitly. You are not the human you appear to be.”

I started to comment, however, she made a motion to indicate that she wasn’t done talking so I sat back. “I also don’t care and I won’t tell anyone or pry into it. As one of us, you will find that you always have the space and time to share whatever you want or to never share.” I nodded my understanding.

“Ms. Koehler has authorized me to offer you the position of head chef with the Houston Rookery.” She did not pause to allow me to comment, which is probably good since I would have turned her down flat. “The Houston Rookery is far from complete. We have a full city block of buildings between the housing, the school, the business, and the parks. We expect that area to grow in the future. To date, we have no on-premises, winger-run eateries. We plan to build a variety of locations to feed the growing needs of our community. We intend to have a standard cafeteria-style location, with food that is actually edible which will be the free option for all who hold a Rookery ID. We also plan on having a variety of restaurants ranging in price from the pricing of the dinner where you currently work to a Michelin five-star level. My guess is that running all of that would be child’s play for you, and boring, so here is the hook; as wingers of a wide range and variety, we also have a wide range of dietary requirements.” At this point, she slid a small notebook across the table to me. “Please take a moment to review it.” she indicated to go ahead with a quick dip of her chin in its direction as well.

I took the next fifteen or so minutes looking through the carefully detailed notes on the variety of wingers and what was currently known about their dietary requirements. it was pretty comprehensive and exhaustive. She quietly sipped her coffee while I read.

When I looked up, she said, “does that begin to peak your interest? If so, I must mention that it is not our intent to limit the visitors to the restaurants to only wingers. We do not condone prejudice. We aim to provide a safe space for wingers, and their families, and any who are accepting of us. When children come to our school, we do our best to bring their families as well and to see that they have the means to provide for themselves while their child is aided with their abilities and general education. So humans and a variety of other species also live in or visit the Rookery. You would be head chef over all of that and we would expect you to bring your top-level work to each of those facilities.”

I just stared at her, not sure what to say, or even how I was feeling.

“I believe that you are up to the challenge, Chef Igneia. If I didn’t think you would take excellent care of our people, I would not extend you this offer. That Ms. Koehler believes that you are one of us only adds to my desire to have you run this important branch of The Rookery. I am not asking for an answer tonight. I would expect this decision to need quite a bit of thought and consideration…” she started, but I interrupted.

“These experiences will be mine? No interference from you, or Ms. Koehler? I get to decide the theme, ambiance, menu, staff, and all other areas? I am in charge and these are my spaces to do with as I choose?”

“As long as our people, and when I say our I include you, as long as our people are well fed and happy, I will keep my nose out of your kitchen, and your space in general…well, other than, I hope, to eat your marvelous cuisine.” she chuckled a bit at that thought.

“And how many spaces will I have?”

“We intend to have one free cafeteria in each building and one additional dining facility that will be a paid service establishment as well. Our goal is to have enough places to dine and experience as our population would enjoy. If you need more space that can probably be arranged, and as new buildings are added, and they will be added, you can expect to create new experiences for those as well. There are existing spaces currently, that unfortunately, you did not design. We expect you to recreate those and put your personal touch on them. All we ask is that if you decide on a complete renovation for any space that you do keep that to one space at a time to ensure enough available space for all residents and employees. I should also mention that several spaces will need to be open at any given hour of the day or night. We are a 24 hour a day operation and everyone should have the same experiences available. That means fine dining at 4 am if that fits their schedule.”

“You are quite demanding.”

“Yes. I’m glad you realize that about me now. It will save time later. That said, I suspect I am not alone in that.” she said, giving me a pointed look.

I laughed, a great, deep belly laugh. “I like you Sals. I like you quite a bit. I accept your offer, though I will sign no contracts! You cannot hold Chef Igneia with a piece of paper!”

“I did not offer one. I intend to keep you with us through challenges, adventure, honesty, and affection.”

“My favorite currency!”

She laughed, and said, “Shall I offer you a salary?”

“Keep me in chef’s clothing and give me a place to live near my work. The biggest payment is going to be in ensuring that I have carte blanche on my ingredients and my experiences. If you make me settle for the second-best carrots, i will be gone before you can blink!”

“Then we are agreed. The details will be worked out as they arise, though you will also receive spending money. You need something to allow you freedom as you choose to travel to expand your culinary repertoire and you need some to donate to the enclave for your future self and your kin.”

She said it with a straight face and met my eyes. Once again I laughed deeply.

“Yes, Sals, I like you a great deal. I look forward to working with you in three weeks’ time. I will come by tomorrow at this time to begin inspecting the restaurants you already have and to select a living location. I will be by each night until I begin working exclusively with you. Until then, I expect you to eat my Chef’s special at least three times a week and recommend the dinner where I currently work to anyone and everyone. My leaving will be a blow and I don’t want them to suffer more than they need to for my departure.”

“Of course,” she said, standing and extending her hand. We shook on our deal.

And that is how I began my tenure at The Houston Rookery.

The Burning Tower Burns, Part II.V

Emilia was angry, not just angry, furious. She had already ruined her least favorite sofa. It was charred to cinders. Her well-manicured nails clicked on the floor as she paced in her penthouse room. Luckily it was fireproofed. She would hate to burn down the entire Atlantis Rookery because she couldn’t control her temper today. She furled and unfurled her wings, taking three deep breaths to calm herself. When she felt calm she called out.

“Bernard, you may return now,” Emilia called in her usual melodious rumble.

“Yes, ma’am,” Bernard said, promptly opening the door and standing attentively. Bernard was 6’3″ of solid stone. He was in excellent form, even for a goyle, and he was impeccably dressed in a suit that perfectly suited his marble skin. He looked at Emilia and noted the condition of the sofa. While not pacing, she was lifting and resettling her wings still so caution was in order.

She was a beautiful dragon of what most would consider the western order. Her long slender neck topped by a graceful head with two horns contained her piercingly dark blue eyes. Her scales were burnished to a high sheen and not a scale was unburnished, or out of order in any way. She. had even had the nails all done in a glorious shade of dark green which completely complemented her bronze coloration. Her long sinuous tail was currently wrapped around the pillar in the center of the room to keep from thrashing in agitation. She was normally impressive, and her current ire did nothing to dull that impression.

“I will be going to New Houston in an hour. I need to evaluate the situation there. I do not know if I will be staying. Please ensure that Sals is aware of my arrival window and had taken all the usual precautions. Also, ensure that no one knows I have left here. Reschedule all meetings until my return.” she directed.

“Of course, ma’am.” He replied. He retreated from the room to make arrangements. He had thick skin but not thick enough to protect him from her flames if she lashed out again. And even if his skin would make it, he had no desire to purchase new clothing.

Emilia took fifteen minutes to meditate and regain her composure. For the next fifteen minutes, she was on a call with the Magic Counsel. She took fifteen minutes for a scrying spell to locate her destination in New Houston. She then packed a small travel bag which she strapped to her torso. Fifteen minutes later precisely, she leaped from the landing ledge outside of her rooms and began her trip to New Houston.

Sals went on the PA system. “We will be going on lockdown in sixty minutes, people. If you need out, go now. If you know someone who needs in, they’d better get their butts in here in fifty-nine minutes.”

Sals shooed everyone from the main office and sent them home. I’ll make an announcement when lockdown ends, until then go home. No one disagreed with her when she had ‘that look’ on her face.

Precisely ten minutes later, Emilia touched down on the landing area and immediately took human form. She walked up to Sals and gave her a big hug, which Sals enthusiastically returned. “Oh Sals, it has been far too long since I have seen you!” Emilia said, holding her at arm’s length and examining her. “You look lovely, as always. I see you are still enjoying the work.”

“It’s good to see you too, Lia,” Sals replied lower her head a little and smiling shyly. “You know how much I appreciate this job. I love my people, even those who are a handful.” Sals glowered a little then laughed and shook her head. “Courier is a handful, but this wasn’t his doing. Not a bit. Someone set us up.”

“Tell me what happened,” Emilia said.

“Early this morning we had a package delivery request called into the downstairs office. I have talked to Sam who took the call. He said it was called in by a small Asian-looking man with white hair and a long mustache. All he could see on the call clothing-wise was a red tunic that looked silk with gold embroidery on it. The walls were covered with some glyphs. We have a picture and video if you’d like to see it.” Sals reported.

“When you are done,” Emilia responded.

“He e-signed in a Class IV delivery. He had all the proper paperwork and ownership papers. He sent copies of that paperwork so I can show you the signature if you’d like. The name was @[Anho Timakaru – The Dragon](person:2b646341-ce1b-4c7d-aaec-0a32bb7bb767)‌.”

At that name, Emilia started as if a bit shocked. Sals stopped talking. “You know that name?” Sals asked.

“I do not. Please continue.” Emilia replied.

“Anyway, it was all by the book. We accepted the delivery request and I called up Courier. He was next in the queue who met the Class IV requirement. I handed off the package request to him personally and saw him out the door with the proper transport container. He says he flew straight to the designated pick-up address, accepted the package, and went straight to the burning tower. He delivered the package to @[Thomas Sendon](person:fadc382e-2387-4b6e-9782-9d5d032ee83b)‌ personally and has the paperwork signed as proof of acceptance. It was all by the book. Courier does good work.”

Emilia smirked, “Don’t worry. I’ll never tell him you said that.”

“I trusted you wouldn’t.” Sals chuckled.

“Next thing we know we hear the news that The Burning Tower is burning. Courier hasn’t returned, and no one knows exactly where he is. Not that it’s unusual for him to freeload after a delivery. When we started getting official calls from the Magic Counsel wanting to talk to him, I called you immediately and sent some of the others out to look for him. He turned up about twenty minutes later, and ever since I have kept him in The Rookery. He’s safe in his room now, and he will damn well stay there until this is resolved.” Sals said.

“Good. Our children should be kept safe. I have contacted the Magic Counsel and assured them that we had nothing to do with the event they are investigating; however, they still want answers. I intend to get those answers. Thank you, Sals. As always you have the situation buttoned up.”

“Thank you, but I won’t feel easy about this until I know that the Counsel isn’t coming to ‘interview’ Courier.”

“You have my assurance that they won’t. I am going to address the situation immediately. Keep The Rookery on lockdown until I return. I know where I am going and I shouldn’t be long.” Emilia said.

“Of course,” Sals replied.

Emilia regained her natural form and jumped from the ledge flapping her wings a bit. The updraft in the New Houston Rookery was delicious. She may, or may not, have performed some aerobatics before heading toward her destination.

Though not the same address as the pickup location Courier had been given, Emilia landed in the same rooftop garden and made her way to the same door, 12C. She knocks a rapid staccato. The old man opens the door to her knock. He gives a small nod of acknowledgment, showing no sign of surprise, but then why would he? He probably knew she was here when she entered New Houston.

“Won’t you please enter?” He said, gesturing past himself.

“Thank you. I am Emilia Koehler,” she stated.

“And I am Anho Timakaru.” he replied. “Would you like some tea?”

“I would love some, yes.”

He led her past the calligraphy that Courier had seen, and that Emilia recognized as draconic wards of protection, and into a cozy living room with two large comfortable chairs near a fireplace with a crackling fire laid. “Please.” he gestured to the chair on the left, the one that offered the safest space in the room. She carefully took the seat and he bustled off through a door that presumably led to the kitchen.

A few minutes later he returned with a teapot which he placed on the table between the chairs. He also placed mugs near each chair. “It will need to steep a bit,” he said. “Shall we share pleasantries first, or do you want to get right to business?” he asked.

Emilia had to fight to keep from grinding her teeth. Damn Asian Lungs with their impeccable manners!

“I would prefer to get right to business,” she said.

“Of course, of course. How can I, and my city be of assistance?” he inquired.

“I believe you have involved MY Rookery in your business.”

“The Rookery is a part of New Houston.”

“No, The Rookery is located in New Houston. It is a part of Rook, Inc.”

“A fine distinction, don’t you think?”

“No. A completely separate and inviolate entity.”

“it is true that I am newly invested in New Houston. It took me some time to find a comfortable space in this time. I did not notice any markers on The Rookery. Is that no longer a courtesy that our kind partake in?” he asked.

“Ah. Have you newly awoken then?” Emilia asked, softening her stance a bit.

“Fairly so, yes. I have been trying to adapt to the new ways, but I fear that things have changed rather dramatically since I was last awake.”

“If I may then, I will explain.”

“Please,” he said.

“In these times, it is no longer true that we must have one set location and a large territory. Where we used to claim land, now we are free to claim business enterprises, ethnicities, or any number of other such for our protectorate. Some do prefer the old ways; however, you must also be aware of the new. What you choose for your own should be registered with the Library. Here, let me give you their website.” Emilia took out a notebook wrote the URL on it along with her personal email and cell number. “Are you familiar with the internet yet?”

“I am learning, yes. The child downstairs seems well versed in its intricacies and he has informed me that Lord Google knows anything that I do not.”

Emilia stifled a chuckle. “The child is not too far wrong, though Google won’t know about the Library. When you access that URL, you will need to have your webcam on and be able to answer some questions in draconic. Once you are on the site, you will be able to research who has what protectorate. As I have already laid claim to Rook, Inc and its holdings, the Rookery and those in it and associated with it are mine. You are, at least as far as I know, welcome to the rest of New Houston. The Library also has a wealth of other useful information to help you learn the intricacies of this new world. Would you like me to help you research your claim and register it if available?”

“That would be lovely,” he replied.

They spent the next hour sipping wonderful Oolong tea and researching New Houston and its surrounding areas and registering it under Anho’s protection. They both certified that while in New Houston, The Rookery and its inhabitants and associates to the first degree, family and friends, was Emilia’s.

“Thank you for your assistance, Emilia. I deeply regret my intrusion into your protectorate without requesting permission first. I assure you I had no intention of inflicting harm on your young ones. There was an evil attempting to take root in New Houston and I needed to prune it before it grew. They were in no danger from what I did. That said, I will ensure that they are cleared with the mundane authorities and give them some reassurance. Will that be enough to make amends?” Anho asked.

“Yes, of course. I can see that no harm was intended or done. If you need assistance from me in the future please do reach out. I gave you my email and phone number.”

He made a low bow. “May you live long and in peace,” he said in the eastern tradition.

“May you prosper and win all your battles,” she replied in the western tradition.

Emilia took her leave and headed back to The Rookery where Sals waited. Once she landed, she filled Sals in on the details and outlined the protectorate that Anho had claimed.

“Understood. New Houston is Anho’s protectorate, with the exception of The Rookery to the first level. If we wish to expand here or participate in any local activities we should seek his permission first. We will be sure to abide by your word.” Sals said.

“Of course, you will, my daughter,” Emilia said, ruffling Sals’ hair. Emilia bent in for a firm hug before pulling away and holding her at arm’s length. “You be sure to take care of yourself and get enough rest, little one. I count on you to protect your brothers and sisters, and you can’t do that if you work yourself to death.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Sals replied. “Have a safe trip home.”

“Thank you for all you do, Sals. I love you.” Emilia said, and took off for The Atlantis Rookery.

Sals sighed. She loved Emilia, but she was glad this was settled and things could get back to normal now. She used the PA to announce the end of the lockdown and the night shift started shuffling in. The phones started ringing about an hour later. The magical counsel had called off the investigation. Courier would not be questioned and those being held at The Burning Tower had been released.

Sals grinned to herself as she leaned back in her chair and watched her office return to business.

The Burning Tower Burns, Part III

When I woke up, I was incredibly refreshed. I had the weirdest dream. I dreamed of a great dragon. It was like the sort you see depicted in kung fu movies; long and sinewy with catfish like mustaches and a furry mane. In my dream, he spoke to me. He told me that I was caught up in things that were bigger than they seemed and that he would make sure that Kee and me were okay because we didn’t deserve to be caught up in it all. In my dream, and still, upon waking up, I felt completely reassured and at peace.

I got up, dressed, and tried the mirror again. Kee picked up right away. “Dude, I have some stuff to tell you! When can we meet?”

“I promised Sals I wouldn’t leave till things were sorted.”

“Go check with her. I bet it’s all sorted now.”

“Uh. Okay. I’ll call you back then.’

“Do that.”

Shutting down the mirror I headed up to see Sals. She didn’t look like she’s slept all night. She gave me an evil glare. “What did you do?”

“Nothing you don’t know about, why?”

“Because as of about thirty minutes ago, everything has blown over. No one in The Rookery knows what happened. They got a call from the Council saying they were withdrawing their request to question you.”

“That’s good though, right?”

“Yeah, it’s good, but without knowing why it’s also a bit concerning. Still, we’ll just hope that the Counsel is really done and will stick to its own business and leave ours alone.”

“So I can go to see Kee now? It’s okay?”

“Sure kid. Take the day off. But be ready to get back to work tomorrow.”

“Thanks for everything Sals.”

“Get out of here,” she growled.

I got.

Kee and I agreed to meet at the Rooftops for All, one of our favorite restaurants. I needed some good food after all the activity of the past few days. I landed and saw Kee waiting at a table outside. I joined him.

“I ordered your parrot chow,” he joked. Fliers are generally vegan. It’s tough to fly if you’re loaded down with a stomach full of heavy foods. We eat less, and more often to keep our energy up. He likes to give me a hard time, but I knew he was vegan too.

“Thanks,” I said as I sat. I wasn’t even sure where to start, and he looked like he felt the same way, so I started. I told him the story of what had gone on with me since we’d last been able to talk. I saw his face go pale when I told him about the old man’s place.

“That’s a kind of crazy powerful that I can only hope to achieve in my life. He must be the one responsible for what happened at the tower.”

“Seems pretty likely, yeah.”

“So after we talked, I was taken to a room and I sat there for what felt like forever. It was probably closer to two hours, but man did I need to pee! Anyway, two dudes came in, you know the type, black suits, and ties, white shirts. Goons. They started asking me about you, and the package you delivered. I told them, like, yeah, I’d seen you come in, but I was across the room at my station, I wasn’t really close enough to see anything. It all looked like a normal drop-off to me. The sigils didn’t light, my magic sense didn’t tingle at all. Nothing.”

“Bet they didn’t like that.”

“No, they didn’t. I must’ve told the same story to them about fifty times. They just kept asking me over and over. I didn’t change my story though. I know what I saw, and what I didn’t. I guess I sort of threw K’estra under the bus though, and I feel bad about that. She was close enough to see more after all.”

“There was nothing to see. I mean, it was a box, wrapped in plain brown paper, like a grocery store bag, you know? There wasn’t any writing or anything. Nothing glowed or anything. It was just…normal.”

“I figured as much. If it were weird you’d have stopped to tell me about it on your way out and you didn’t. But seriously, about thirty seconds after you left, it all went to heck. There was a weird implosion feeling and then a strange glow outside the doors. The place went on lockdown, as I said. When they got tired of talking to me, they turned out the lights and left me in the room. It might have been scary if we hadn’t learned cantrip in like, first grade.” Kee let out a chuckle. “I got pretty tired, so I’m guessing it was late, so I sort of napped in the chair for a bit. The next thing I knew, they opened the door and told me I was free to go. Just like that. They didn’t look really happy about it, but that was it as far as I can tell. They didn’t even watch me go, they just went to the next door and let out Fred. I high-tailed it out of there and went to look outside. Dude, the building had this soft light green glow. It was licking up and down the whole building. It was a bit tough to see in the daylight, but we have got to check it out tonight.”

“You know it,” I said, giving him a fist bump. “It’s so weird that they let you go like that.”

“You don’t know the half of it. It gets even weirder. I had the weirdest dream. I dreamed of a great dragon. It was an Asian Imperial Lung. I know that ‘cause it had five fingers. He was the most beautiful shade of red with mustaches, and his mane was the most amazing shade of yellow with red at the tips. He told me that I was caught up in things that were bigger than they seemed and that he would make sure that you and I were safe because we didn’t deserve to be caught up in it all. Ever since then I have felt completely reassured and at peace.”

“Shut up! I had that same dream!”

Kee started shaking his head, “Dude, that is not right. No one should be that powerful! You don’t think…you don’t think it’s really a dragon, do you? I mean, they’re just stories, right? No one has seen one, right?”

“Fifty years ago, no one had seen a winged person either. Maybe it just took them a little longer to come back. They are supposed to have more magic in one little toe than all the mages in the world combined, right?” I responded.

“I dunno. It’s all just rumors and tall tales, or at least I thought it was. Do you really think we are being watched over by a dragon? What do you think Mr. Sendon was doing that pissed him off?”

“He didn’t exactly tell me. We had basically the same dream after all.”

“Fair. Fair. Are we going to leave it at that?”

“What do you think?”

“Ugh. Of course, we aren’t. That would be smart. What we really want to do is pester an all-powerful dragon until it decides it doesn’t like us.”

I laughed. Kee smiled, and we moved on to other subjects. Deep down though, I kind of hoped I might see that dragon again someday.

The Burning Tower Burns, Part II

The problem with being a flier is the same as its benefit. Wings. It’s tough to walk down the street with wings and not cause a stir, or get noticed. Fliers are a small portion of the populace so we stand out. Sure, you can throw a cloak over it, but who wears cloaks these days? That would be as noticeable as wings, and with the huge lumps of wings under it, it seriously gets attention.

Luckily, Kee had scrounged me an item that made me appear to be a normo. Of course, his sense of humor took over and it was a cloaking cloak. Nerd. As far as I know, only Kee and I know I have it. I don’t use it often, and I don’t recall that I have used it at all since I joined The Rookery. Now, I wasn’t going to fool a mage, they would know I had a magic item, and depending on their ranking they might be able to see through the disguise. But it would get me out of the building without alerting Sals. As long as the Counsel wasn’t watching the building for me, and I find that unlikely, I mean, who am I, I should be okay.

I decided I was going to confront the old man. I mean, it might be stupid if he was as powerful as the news was saying, but I needed to help Kee out if I could. I left through the vendor door. I wouldn’t be able to get back in that way, but out was no problem. I hoofed it through town to the building where I had done the pick-up.

Whew! It wore me out. Why walk when you can fly? Am I right? I got there though. I took the elevator to the twentieth floor. It was odd that the elevator didn’t go all the way to the top of the building. I mean with one more floor and a nice garden up there, why would the elevator stop at the twentieth floor?

When the doors opened, it wasn’t right. This didn’t look at all like the hall I had seen. That hall had two main apartment doors. The walls were a dark shade of green with wood panels along the bottom of the walls. The doors were a cherry wood color with brass numbers. There were windows at each end of the hall. This hallway was a modern shade of gray, with white doors, gold numbers, and a window only at one end. There were four apartments. Surely they wouldn’t have another floor with a completely different look and feel, would they?

I looked for the stairs. I opened the doorway to the stairwell and there was no higher floor. The stairwell had one of those pull-down ladders that was locked with a padlock. There was no way up to the roof. My knees folded and I nearly sat on my wings. I’m not sure how long I sat there with my mind reeling, but eventually, I stood myself back up and went back out into the hall.

Okay, so obviously the old man was a seriously powerful mage. Either he fooled me into thinking that this building looked completely different, or…and my mind could barely grasp this…he had ‘made’ two new floors on this building; a living floor and the roof garden. I would say it was the former because that seemed so much more likely, but I don’t see how I could have landed on that roof, and climbed down that ladder as an illusion. No matter what had happened, it was big magic. Counsel big.

I took the elevator down. The building across the street had a sign indicating that it was flier friendly so I headed there and made it to the roof. Luckily the roof was empty. I deactivated the cloak and took to the air. Not really knowing how things stand for me with the city powers, I did my best to avoid attention and kept to the speed limits and airways. I made it back to the Rookery safely, but I had to land at the front entrance and walk-in hoping to avoid Sals’ notice.

“Hey Courier. The boss wants to see you.” Tony Vinzenni, the front desk guard, told me almost before I was through the door.

“Thanks, Tony. I’ll head that way.”

“Better be now. I was told to report it if I saw you enter or leave.”

I heaved a huge sigh, making Tony chuckle, and lifted my way into the core and up to the office. Sals shot me a look and glanced at the chairs against the wall. I sat. And waited. After about two hours she looked up at me again.

“I know, Sals, I’m sorry. I had to do something. Sals, I’m scared.” I said. Her brow went up, so I continued, “I went to see the sender, or I tried to. Not only was he not there, but neither was the whole floor and even the roof access.” She stayed focused and silent as I told her my story.

When I finally wound down, she said, “Yeah. This ain’t good. Not good for you, but also not good for business. According to the delivery laws, none of this comes back on us. I’m just not sure the Counsel will see it that way. You sit right there while I report this up the food chain.”

She turned to her desk mirror and I sat. A few times I had to get up and walk around her desk to share my story with the higher-ups. Names and faces started to blur as I got tired. What had started as such a great day had bottomed out fast. Finally, Sals closed down the call and turned to me.

“Claire, you got yourself into quite the mess and we surely didn’t help. This will be a game-changer. Try not to worry too much though kid, we’ve got your back. Now, can I trust you to stay in the Rookery now, or do I need to have you guarded?”

“Thanks, Sals. I promise I will stay put until this gets sorted.”

“I believe you, Claire. Leave this to the higher-ups. Check on Kee then get some rest.”

“Will do,” I replied. I headed to the public mirrors and activated it to search for Kee. No response. I sure hoped all was okay with him. I needed some rest though. Tomorrow I would try again and maybe call in a favor or three.

The Burning Tower Burns, Part I

“Claire, you’re up,” the boss growled through the intercom.

Taking a deep breath, I carefully closed my book, put it on the table next to my chair, and headed for the Lift. Launching myself from the landing, I flapped to the dispatch office on the roof of the Rookery. I grabbed my bag from its hook in the hallway as I entered the office, and headed to Sal’s desk.

“What’cha got for me, Sals?” I asked her.

“That’s boss to you, Claire,” she replied.

It was our ritual. She adores me.

“Delivery for the Burning Tower. Class IV enchanted parcel.”

I whistled low and long. Class IV was high-level stuff. Someone had put a fortune into protecting this package from magical spying. That seemed odd considering it was going to the Burning Tower, the literal home of some of the most powerful magic users in the city.

Ah well, none of my business. I only deliver. If I started getting nosey about packages, I would be out of a job fast, and this is an easy paycheck for me. I get to spread my wings, put on speed without worrying about the cops, and had plenty of downtime to do my own work. The living arrangements and food aren’t bad either.

After evaluating my reaction at a glance, Sals nodded her head once and held out the address. The pickup was at a small, older apartment building on the south side of town. It was more than a bit run down, and we didn’t usually get deliveries to, or from, that part of town. The delivery name, Simon Dales, wasn’t one I knew, but it didn’t really matter. The Burning Tower had a receiving office. It was only my job to get it there and get a signature showing that I had gotten it that far. It all seemed a bit strange, but it isn’t my job to wonder about such things.

“I’m on it Sals.”

“You’d better be. That’s what I pay you for,” she replied making a shoeing gesture in my direction.

After carefully securing my bag to my body, setting it comfortably around my wings and across my body, I headed for the bay doors at the back of the room. On a beautiful day like today, they were wide open. This was going to be a cakewalk. The sun was out, and the temperatures were warm enough to have created some updrafts. It was always fun to play in city wind currents, and I do love to stretch my wings, but it’s also nice to just get the delivery out of the way so that I can play on my way home.

Snapping my wings open I dropped from the landing of the Rookery. The location of the building was chosen because it is a sea of updrafts. All I needed to do was circle a little and it felt like I would rise into the clouds. I let myself savor the breeze ruffling my feathers before heading for the Burroughs.

These days all buildings had their addresses on the roofs. It used to be that all humans were stuck on the ground walking everywhere, but with the return of magic, flight was a fairly common thing.

I found the pickup location, 567 Shepherd Ln. It was, as I suspected, a rather run-down apartment building in the poor, human section of the city. Without cyberware or magic, it was tough to do more than survive. Still, the building was in good shape and the grounds were well kept. There was even a garden on the roof where I landed.

Despite the nip in the air in the early mornings, autumn hasn’t really set in. This garden was amazingly green and fertile. I could see veggies and flowers everywhere. The tenants really took care of it. I made my way to the door and down to apartment 21C one floor down. I knock three times, and announce myself, “Courier.”

I’m not superstitious, but this can be a dangerous job and we all know three is a magic number. I hear steps and tapping from inside and I take a step back, just in case. The door creaks open, slowly revealing a small, old man. He appears to be of Asian descent. He has white hair to his waist and a fu Manchu mustache that touches his chest. He comes up to about my armpits. Granted, I’m 6’3”, but that’s still pretty short in my book. He is wearing an outfit like one of those you see in old kung fu movies with slippers that have a separate space for your big toe and everything. He takes me in with one glance and I can feel myself squirming uncomfortably. I’ve never experienced it until now, but this must be what it means when they say, ‘he could read my soul with one glance.’

“Ah, welcome. Come in and I will get the package.” He stands aside and gestures me in with the cane he held in his left hand. That was where the sound of tapping had come from it seemed. I politely entered and stayed just inside the door as he shuts it and heads to another room.

I kill time by examining the calligraphy he has all over the walls. I don’t mean in frames, I mean painted right onto the walls. It seems a bit odd, but the overall effect is beautiful and captivating. Symbol flows into symbol. I wish I could read it. I can only imagine that it sounds as beautiful as it looks.

I shake myself free from the beauty and carefully unclip the delivery pack from its harness. I take out the magical sealing strips and the permanent marker. Once a customer uses the strips to seal the bag and writes the name of the recipient on the strip, only that person can break the seal. Most of the time, I never even know what I am carrying, and it’s the reason our services don’t come cheap. We guarantee delivery with no tampering. Most of the time it’s not a big deal, but the job, as I said, comes with some risks.

“Would you care for some tea, Courier?” he calls from the next room. It must be the kitchen.

“No thank you, sir. I appreciate the offer but I must stick to my schedule or the boss gets mad.” I respond. It’s even true. Sals would get really mad at me for goofing off, and if I was going to get Sals mad it would be for doing something more fun than drinking tea.

“As you say, young man.” I hear the tapping again and he shuffles back into the room with a smallish package. It’s about one foot by six inches by two inches. Well within the expected size for my delivery bag. I hold out the bag to him. He takes the bag and carefully inserts the package. He has obviously done this before because he reaches out for a seal, carefully seals the bag, and writes the name of the recipient on it, Thomas Sendon. He hands me back the bag and I secure it to the harness again. He watches me carefully with a little smile. As I finish he gives me a slight bow. For some reason, I return the bow the same way and see his smile get a little broader. No doubt this guy is a kook, but he seems nice enough.

With that out of the way, I head back up to the roof. Next stop, the Burning Tower. Feeling energized by the day, and ready to get this class IV out of my hands, I run to the edge of the roof and leap. My wings snap open and I feel the wind running its fingers through my feathers and hair. Glorious. I start to drop but flap to gain altitude and take to the skyway.

The good news is that with all the magical possibilities out there, there still aren’t so many fliers that the ways are crowded. I dodge in and out keeping my eye out for patrols. They have wings so I don’t understand how they can be so harsh about enforcing the fly lanes, but whatever. All I have to do most of the time is flash them my messenger bag and they cut me some slack.

It’s an easy flight across town. The Burning Tower is in front of me before I know it. It’s a sleek glass creation. At 30 stories it was amazing to buzz. I’d come in fast at floor fifteen and turn up at the last second and run my fingertips along the glass up to the runway on the roof. In a normal building that wouldn’t be fun, but when I say this is a glass creation, I mean it. It’s made of solid glass, completely smooth and polished. Since it’s the home of the Magic Circle, it defies the laws of physics, and it was designed to flaunt that. It curves and twists its way into the sky giving me lots of arcs and twists to follow. And there won’t be fingerprints because nothing leaves a mark on it.

When I get to the top, I fly up another ten feet then come down onto the runway. I guess it’s more like a plank really; you know, the kind pirates use. It juts off the roof of the building. It’s large enough for a griffon to land comfortably and walk through the large doors into the receiving area. Those doors are usually shut. The messenger traffic all enters through a smaller side door.

Actually, thinking about it. The whole thing if approached from the right angle would look like a winking emoji with its tongue stuck out. Huh. Can’t wait to tell Kee about that.

I knock three times on the messenger door. It opens and I pass through. The door frame is inscribed all over with runes. In the past, I have seen them start to glow and once they were so bright I had to close my eyes. On those occasions I was ushered back out, my package was removed and placed in a magic sphere which I assume kept everyone safe from the contents. I really only knew second-hand tales from Kee.

Kee is my best friend. We have known each other since middle school. We were both outcasts. Me for my wings and him for his mad magic skills. By eight he could tell if anyone was using magic, and his honesty had him telling on our magic-wielding, cheating classmates. Needless to say, he did not make many friends that way. Just me. But that was okay because we both enjoyed testing our new skills. I learned to carry him while flying. He learned how to find things using his magic. We made a whole childhood business of finding missing pets. I would fly him up above the houses, and he would scan for the missing critter. Together we had a great success rate.

Now of course, since we graduated high school, we’ve had to find gainful employment. I guess in that regard we got lucky. I got my dream job at The Rookery delivering high-priority items, and Kee is a junior scanner at the Burning Tower.

I wait in the door frame for the full fifteen seconds to ensure the runes won’t go off, and they don’t. With a nod and a wink for Kee at his post near the door, I head for the delivery desk. I remove the package from the harness and show it to K’estra, who’s manning the desk today.

“Hey, K’estra. I have a class IV delivery for a Thomas Sendon.” I inform her.

“Hey, Courier. I’ll call him up.”

I hang out at the desk until she contacts Sendon. K’estra is a super nice mage. She loves to talk about her dog, Bethany. I don’t have any pets myself since they aren’t allowed at The Rookery. Growing up, my parents had a cat, so I don’t know too much about dogs really, but I love hearing about Bethany’s exploits. Apparently, she loves to be dressed up; if you can trust K’estra’s word for it.

We both snap to attention as the elevator dings. An older man, at least I assume he’s older because of the gray sprinkled through his hair, steps out, and storms over to the desk. He has an incredibly sour look on his face, his lips twisted in anger, eyes narrowed, and brows drawn down. K’estra instinctively shrinks in on herself. I step forward to interject myself into his narrow focus. His face relaxes into a more neutral pose when he sees that he has an outside audience. I hate people like that.

“K’estra, what is so important that you called me when I had my do not disturb on?” he demands, and I’m sure he’s being far more gentle because I’m there despite the ugly tone of voice.

“Sir, you have a Class IV package and it needs to be delivered to you directly. I apologize for the need to disturb you,” she whispers.

“Mr. Sendon?” I interject.

“Yes, I’m Thomas Sendon.” I extend the package to him. He looks at it and hesitates for a few seconds. Class IV is no joke. If you touch it and you aren’t the messenger or the intended recipient; well, there are consequences. I wonder about his hesitation, but before I can wonder too much [and let my mind go on to a myriad of conspiracy theories] he reaches out and grasps the package.

Despite the hesitation, there are no fireworks. I release the package. He turns around without another word and heads back for the elevator. Jerk. I turn to K’estra and roll my eyes. She gives me a rather wan smile, but at least it’s a smile. I really don’t like this guy, but hey, none of my business.

“Have a great day, K’estra. Give Bethany some extra love from me, and keep posting! I live for her pictures.” I say with my most winning smile. That’s done it, she’s really smiling now. Good. With a wave for Kee, I head out through the side door and take a running leap from the tongue, snapping my wings open.

For a moment I just hover in the sky there. It’s not weightless for me, but it’s got to be close. I dip one wing and I’m off. Dropping below the skyway, I twist and turn between the buildings. Being careful to stay above the second floor so that no one calls the cops on me, I put on the speed and play my favorite game of chicken. It may seem harmless, but unless you know the buildings well it would be easy to hit a sign, or a flag pole, or an awning. I’m good. I don’t hit anything in my mad flight. I even pick up a few pigeons as I enjoy my tour of the city. Before I know it, the buildings start getting shorter and further between.

Leaving the city proper, I head for the suburbs. The community of Lafayette is just outside of town but they have a lot of greenscape; city of trees and all that. The trees aren’t right for a forest run, but without pavement and other city niceties, the air currents have a different flavor and feel to them. I enjoy testing myself against their variety and randomness. Cities are generally pretty predictable in the air.

Since the return of magic, huge strides have been made in cleaning up the environment. Fliers don’t like a faceful of smog, and with the Magical Rights Law, we don’t have to put up with anything which would inhibit our natural gifts. The rivers got cleaned up as well for the Aquas. All cities have a minimum requirement for green space to give the nature dwellers a place to live. Nature is returning to nature.

Eventually, I headed home, back to The Rookery. As my feet hit the roof I hear, “Claire, to the office. NOW!!” bellowed from inside. I sigh then head inside, wondering how I’ve pissed Sals off this time. She eyed me up and down.

“Glad you’re okay,” she grumbled.

“Why wouldn’t I be? You know me Sals, I was just out enjoying the day.”

“Because the Burning Tower is now literally burning and I wasn’t sure if you’d made it out first,” she said, studying my face. “No need to worry, Kee is okay. He reached out to make sure you were okay. You’d better contact him right away. Use the office mirror.” she said. I could feel the shock showing on my face.

I raced to the mirror, closed my eyes, and pictured Kee. When I opened my eyes, he was there in the mirror. “Thank the Maker!” he whispered. “I thought you were already gone, but I wasn’t sure. I’m so glad to see you in one piece.”

“What the heck, dude! What’s going on? I go play hooky and it all hits the fan. Spill!” I exclaim.

“Just as you were leaving there was some sort of magical…explosion? Implosion? Incident? It’s hard to describe. Basically, something big happened, and when it was done the Burning Tower was…burning!”

“What?!? That’s crazy!”

“I know. At first, the building went on lockdown. No one was sure what was going on. K’estra and I saw this weird greenish glow around the door. We both tested our skills against it but we couldn’t sense anything. We reported it but security already knew and told us to stay put. About an hour later we were given the all-clear but the glow was still there. We checked it out and it looked like a low burning fire around the building. You could put your hand on it and not feel a thing, but it was totally there! I didn’t feel a thing when I touched it; not physically or magically. That’s when I realized you had left about the same time. I freaked out and tried to reach you, but Sals said you weren’t there. Glad you’re okay, dude.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. How are you guys? Are you still on lockdown?”

“Not entirely. They found out that it’s safe enough to enter and leave the building. Most everyone was sent home. I’m still here though. They want to talk to me about your delivery. If you haven’t heard from them yet, I’d expect to hear soon.”

“They’d have to get through Sals first. She’s really good at standing between us and authority.”

Kee dropped his voice to a whisper, “I don’t think even Sals can stop these guys. They are the black suit type.”

“You okay?”

“I’m not gonna lie, I’m scared. These guys aren’t government; they’re magic counsel. They own my ass. I guess it’s good that they’re letting me call you, but if I disappear, don’t look for me; it’d be too dangerous.”

“Never happen, Bro. You don’t disappear on my watch.”

“Thanks, dude. I think I should go.”

“Understood. I’ll talk to you again. Keep in touch as you can.” With a shaky smile, Kee shut the connection.

My mind was going a million miles a minute. No one wants to mess with the magical counsel. Kee owed them big time because they paid for his advanced magical training. They found a position for him, and he needed to work for them for another ten years at least in order to pay off his debts. Not to mention that as a mage you pretty much had to be a part of the counsel guild. It was hard to get employment if you weren’t. Now he was in their hands, but not in a good way. And if that weren’t enough, they wanted to talk to me! Why? Did this have something to do with the package I delivered? I didn’t know anything about that and the laws around package privacy were almost as tough as client/attorney privilege. You don’t talk about deliveries. The only information you can share is pickup and delivery addresses. We can’t share descriptions of the people on either end or anything like that. They could get everything they need from Sals.

Sals! I bet they’d already contacted her. I headed back to her desk.

“Hear from the Magic Counsel lately?” I drawled.

She raised one eyebrow at me, “Finally up to speed are we, Clarie?”

“I bet you know more than I do.” I sighed.

“Of course,” she said, turning her head back to her computer.

“Oh c’mon, Sals! Dish! Kee is involved.” I wheedled.

“I can’t do much for that troublemaker, but yeah, they reached out. I gave them the addresses and told them to stuff it on the rest. They wanted to talk to you, but that’s a no-go. They know that.” she took a deep breath, “But, Claire, I’m taking you out of service. You need to stay in The Rookery until this blows over. I’m being serious here, kid, these guys are no joke and they really want to talk to you. I don’t want you violating your oath to us intentionally or unintentionally…if you know what I mean.”

My heart dropped. This was serious if Sals was telling me to stay home. She knows I would never violate my oath but she still said that. That meant she thought they would force the issue.

“Okay, Sals. I can catch up on my games.” I said and turned for the inner sanctum.

Gliding down to my room, it all really started to hit me. I was in trouble. Kee was in trouble. I had no idea what I was going to do, but I know it wasn’t going to be sitting around playing games…and Sals knew that too, so I was going to have to be sneaky about it.

Sals went on the PA system. “We will be going on lockdown in sixty minutes, people. If you need out, go now. If you know someone who needs in, they’d better get their butts in here in fifty-nine minutes.”

Lockdown. We’d heard about it in school. The whole building could be magically shielded from the outside. The only communication would be by tech means. This Magic Counsel thing must be even more serious than I thought. I played for a while then hit the sack.