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Young Bruno the Elfy and Sarah, his mostly-human teenage girlfriend, are in deep trouble. Can young love, desperation, and great unexpected power win out despite it all?

 

 

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A Little Elfy in Big Trouble

fantasy

Barb Caffrey

 

 

 

Chapter 1

I hope Samuel has some answers for me, Bruno thought as he watched Reverend Samuel Andrews pace the length of his comfortable living room. I don't understand why Roberto believes that the only option is for Sarah and me to go away, while he is quietly sacrificed. What could be worse than his death, and Dennis the Dark Elf taking his power?

"Could you sit down, Samuel?" Bruno asked mildly. "You're giving me a bit of a crick in my neck."

Samuel snorted, but sat back down on his leather chair.

Bruno felt a little bit better, as it was far easier for him to see the tall, black man when he was sitting down. "Thank you. Now, do you have any idea what is going on in Roberto's head?"

"As I haven't met him, I can only suppose so much. One, he's in mortal danger. We both know that."

Bruno nodded.

"Two, he's worried about Dennis taking your fiancée's power, and perhaps yours as well, though I'm not sure why."

"Neither of us is properly trained," Bruno murmured. "That's probably it."

"You are both powerful-you, especially, my friend. I don't see how Dennis could possibly match you, much less surpass you."

Bruno didn't want to enumerate the many ways a Dark Elf could hurt an Elfy right now. Instead, he asked, "Can you tell me much about him? All I know is that he's tall, thin, and passing for Human...and that's not enough."

"Dennis isn't of the Light, and I've known that for a long time. That he's an Elf...that's going to take me a bit to process." Samuel frowned, but went on. "He's about six and a half feet tall-so a little taller than me, Bruno-and he weighs about one hundred and thirty pounds, about half of what I do. He has extremely pale skin, gray-green eyes, reddish hair, his nose is so sharp it could draw blood, and his ears are rounded."

"He sounds like a typical Elf, then, except for the ears. Are they really round?" Bruno asked, interested despite himself. Every Elf he'd ever heard about had pointed ears. "Or is that because of a first-rate glamour?"

"If he was going to use a glamour, why not make himself conventionally handsome instead?"

"Good point." Bruno sighed, and wished he could chew his thumbnail.

"The next time I see him, I'll check him on the astral if I can get away with it."

"Just...be careful, and be safe, eh?"

"I always am. But back to your teacher. I thought of a third reason he might believe you and Sarah are better off somewhere else."

"What?"

"Dennis...well, he's been passing for Human for at least the past three years, ever since he came to Knightsville and took over as pastor here. He has obvious magic, but it doesn't seem to be any stronger than mine-yet he always gets his way. Which means he is gifted at spells of compulsion."

"Figured that already, considering what he did to Roberto. What's your thought here?"

"How strong a mage is Roberto, anyway?" Samuel asked, returning question for question.

"Roberto the Wise is adjudged a Master-level mage, and is a member of the Guild of Scholars," Bruno stated. "Why?"

Samuel tented his hands, as if he were praying, and looked lost in thought. After a long beat, he said, "Dennis has already proven that he can get his way over me, and I'm a Master mage with many years of experience...and it looks like he's also proven that he can get his way over a Master-level Elfy mage of distinction in Roberto."

"I know this already," Bruno growled. "Get to the point!"

Samuel swallowed hard. "Even though I don't think Dennis could take you, or Sarah either, Roberto obviously does. And you Elfys know far more about Elfs-Dark or Bright-than I do. That's why he thinks you and Sarah are better off going to the Elfy Realm, or at least away from Knightsville, rather than try to rescue him. Because that way, you two won't be taken-broken-by Dennis."

"That-that's vile, Samuel!"

"Agreed," Samuel said heavily. "But it's the only thing I can come up with." He bowed his head, adding, "I do hope I'm wrong, though."

So do I, Bruno thought. "Even if Roberto thinks I cannot rescue him, why doesn't he want his sister, Lady Keisha, to do it? She's a Priestess of the Light, and more to the point is an extremely well-qualified Adept. And she's been to the Human Realm before. So why not let her try, even if he thinks Sarah and I can't do it?"

Samuel looked up at that, his dark eyes looking a little less bleak. "Could he be fearful for his sister?"

"If you met Lady Keisha, you'd realize the rest of the Realms had best be fearful of her. But I suppose he could be so addled from not eating, not drinking, and being cooped up in that Elfy-trapped house that he has forgotten just how formidable she is."

"Maybe." Samuel shrugged his shoulders. "Remember, Bruno, I don't know him. I only know what you're telling me. But it seems likely, under the circumstances."

"Dammit." Bruno felt like tearing his hair out. "I wish we could've gotten him out of there."

"You did all you could," Samuel said. "I bet he was grateful."

"He was. But I wish I could've done more. Considering how much Roberto's done for me-" Bruno took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes. He hated this. Roberto thought Bruno was the most powerful Elfy magician alive, and this was the best he could do?

"What are you thinking?"

Bruno put his glasses back on and stood up. "This isn't easy for me to say, Samuel. And I'd rather not, because it sounds so hubristic."

"What?"

"Roberto...told me I'm the most powerful Elfy magician alive," Bruno admitted.

"That doesn't surprise me," Samuel murmured.

"Well, if I'm so zcucking powerful, why does he want to send me away?"

"He's worried for you, my friend." Then, as if to himself, Samuel added, "They really must've done a number on you at that school."

Bruno ignored this.

"Roberto was the only friend I had, besides Iarlait Leftwich...and Leftwich mostly needed my help with his dog." Bruno ran his hand through his hair, which already felt damp. "As my favorite teacher, he did what he could to shield me from most of the bullies, and interceded for me with some of the other teachers."

"I know he's special to you-" Samuel started, but Bruno waved him down.

"In addition to being a good teacher and an excellent scholar, Roberto is also an incredibly talented inventor." Bruno pointed to his black backpack, which he'd placed next to the long, overstuffed floral-print sofa Sarah had sat on earlier. "D'you see my backpack? Roberto invented it. It's called a 'talking backpack' because of a spell he came up with."

"Hey! I can think, too!" the backpack interjected.

Samuel looked at it, startled. "You speak?"

"And think, and help Adept Bruno when I can..." the pack agreed.

At Samuel's raised eyebrow, Bruno confirmed, "Yes, my pack has made all sorts of things thus far."

"Roberto made you?" Samuel asked the pack directly.

"He created me, yes. And Adept Sarah's backpack, my sister."

"Interesting." Samuel blew out his breath. "A man who can create thinking backpacks is a formidable man indeed. But he does seem extremely fearful of what this Dark Elf could do to you or Sarah." He gave Bruno a long, level look. "So why aren't you more afraid?"

"Och, 'tisn't that I'm no' afeared-'tisn't that, now," Bruno said, finally losing control of his English idioms in the effort to speak. "'Tis that th' only way before me's t' do it, or t' die in the tryin'." He paused to collect himself, then added with better control of his accent, "I can't let anything stop me: not fear, not anger, not anything. That Dark Elf must be stopped. He cannot be allowed to sacrifice my teacher. He can not be allowed to take children from their beds in the middle of the night."

"Bruno," Samuel said gently, "aren't you're a little young to be talking about 'do it, or die trying?' What do you know about death?"

"What do I know about death?" Bruno got to his feet. Samuel got up and tried to speak, but Bruno glared at him until Samuel took his chair again. "My parents died in an aircar crash several years ago. I nearly died in that accident; it took years of care before I was able to do so much as dress myself." Well, that's one way of explaining it without admitting to being a replica, he thought. "I know what I'm talking about."

"If you nearly died back then, son," Samuel said intensely, "why court fate again? You're far too young. Let the adults handle this."

"There isn't time for me to find any adults powerful enough to handle this, Samuel!" Bruno exclaimed. "What am I supposed to do, conjure them up from thin air? Powerful I may be, but I'm not that powerful!"

"I suppose not," Samuel said, teeth flashing white in his dark face. "Still. Why must it be you?"

"If I were the captive, being tortured by a Dark Elf," Bruno said, wondering why he had to belabor the obvious, "Lady Keisha and Roberto would try to rescue me. They'd not leave me behind."

"If they found out about it, you mean?" Samuel asked. "Because from what you said, this Elfy High Council has it in for you and wouldn't have been likely to tell them anything. So if your teacher hadn't known what happened, what would you have done?"

"I'd have tried to reach any mind I could at the ceremony, and begged for aid," Bruno admitted, looking at his shoetops. "I wouldn't have gone quietly, or meekly."

"I'm sure you wouldn't," Samuel agreed. "Why won't your teacher do likewise?"

"Roberto is afraid that if he makes too big of a ruckus," Bruno said, picking his words with great care, "he'll somehow make everything worse. He wasn't able to tell me why he feels this way due to the noxious spells laid on him by Dennis and others, so all I have to go on are my own observations."

"Damn." Samuel brooded for a moment. "I grant that there's something very wrong going on."

"Thank you," Bruno breathed.

"But I still don't get why you have this overpowering need to stop Dennis. Why not let me and my wife handle this, along with your friend Lady Keisha?"

"No offense, Samuel, but you aren't powerful enough," Bruno said. "And your magic works in a way Dennis understands. He's surely studied you, your wife, and maybe even your daughter while he's been here."

"But he's not studied Lady Keisha, has he?" Samuel asked, persisting.

"Most likely not," Bruno said. "But Lady Keisha's magic is better suited for clerical matters. She will probably try to disrupt the ritual, because rituals are what she's good at. That leaves Roberto's rescue to you and your family, and combating Dennis to me and Sarah. There's no time to get anyone else."

Samuel sat and pondered this.

"You can't ask the folks who sent you here for any aid at all?" he finally asked.

"No. They sent me here because they feared me. Most of them wouldn't help; the few who might have been most effectively prevented."

"Your High Council sent you because there was a problem, right?"

Bruno nodded.

"But there's no backup? You have to solve this problem alone? What sense does that make?

"None," Bruno said quietly. "But it's the job I've been sent here to do. The people who sent me weren't honest, honorable, or ethical, but the job still remains. Originally, I was sent to watch Dennis, as I'm sure he's the cause of the unusual magical currents. Now, Dennis intends to sacrifice Roberto. I'm not about to allow that." Trying to explain just how angry he was, calmly, was like walking barefoot over broken glass. One wrong step, and he'd hurt himself. Yet he had to go on. "Yes, I'm young and inexperienced, but I can't let that stop me. If I let Roberto be sacrificed-killed-there'd be something profoundly wrong with me. And if I were that bad," he fixed Samuel with a glare, "I should have died in that aircar accident. Because I wouldn't deserve to live."

Samuel sat, stunned.

"I didn't know you felt so strongly, Bruno," he said after a long pause. "Why?"

"Because of what Dennis is," Bruno spat out. "He's a Dark Elf, and he wants to kill my teacher. He probably wants to kill Sarah, too." He calmed a bit. "The thing is, Samuel, no one here looks for Elfs or Elfys; that's one reason Dennis has gotten away with so much."

Bruno paused for breath. "If Dennis is allowed to continue to pass as a Human among Humans, and mess about with the Human Realm, my people will continue to be unknown to most Humans. And that just won't do. Even if this priest wasn't so terrible, even if he didn't defile the term priesthood by his very existence, still, someone would have had to come over here and at least point out that he's an Elf, not a Human, and that he's just doing whatever the Hells he pleases!"

He did his best to calm himself. Getting upset was not the answer.

"Dennis, or whatever his name really is, is a menace," Bruno continued in a level tone. "He can't be allowed to manipulate innocent Humans, and he can't be allowed to feed off death-energy. Ever. The Elfys as a race will go back to war with the Elfs if we find out they're supporting anyone like this nasty Dennis-all of the Elfs, not just the Dark Ones. And it's very likely that war would spill over into the Human Realm, as Elfys are not known for moderation when we're angry."

"It seems more to me, Bruno, that you're feeling guilty," Samuel said.

Bruno flinched. "Does that matter right now? No matter what reasons I give you, I'm still going to do the same things, because I have to do them or I won't be me."

After a long pause, he added, "You know that Roberto did not want me to try to take out this Dark Elf alone." He smiled grimly. "He wanted me to get the flirb out of here and let him be killed, because he was afraid for me. Even if that weren't against every precept I've ever been taught, I still wouldn't do it."

"Good," Samuel breathed. "How did you stop Dennis last night?"

"With some help." Bruno didn't know how to explain Egbert's presence to Samuel, so he didn't try. "And I will stop him again, come the Five Heavens or the Seventeen Hells or high water over the levees, because nothing and no one is getting between me and Sarah. Not ever again."

Samuel smiled. "I'm glad your fiancée has such an able protector." He sobered. "What do you want me to do, though? My family will certainly stand with you; there's no question about that. But what, exactly, can I do to help?"

"Make sure that you and your family stay well-protected," Bruno said firmly. "Keep any talk about Elfys outside of this well-shielded house to what you've seen of Roberto, and don't mention his name. Certainly don't mention me, or Sarah, or anything about Sarah's parents. Because, in case I didn't tell you already, they don't know that Dennis tried to take Sarah."

"How can they not know?"

"They were asleep," Bruno said. "Sarah wasn't; she was knocked to the floor, unconscious. I was within reach, but in a magical trance, communicating with Lady Keisha. When I returned from the trance," he decided to gloss over the rest, "I gave Sarah enough energy to get her back into her bedroom before I collapsed."

"And you still were able to neutralize those four bullies on the bus this morning?" Samuel asked, an unusual look in his eyes.

"Yes," Bruno affirmed. "Why? Shouldn't I have been able to do that?"

"How much sleep did you get last night, son?"

"I think four hours, maybe a bit less. Why?"

"Nobody I know is capable of recharging their magical energy that fast," Samuel told him. "My teachers certainly weren't, and at least one of them was a powerful Adept."

"Well, if I could have tapped into the sun, like I normally do, I'd have even more power," Bruno said. "Today, I just used power pools and a few big rocks that had some energy in them. Earth power, instead of solar power. Seems to be working just fine, though."

Samuel just stared at him. "You...usually...use...the...power...of the sun? Not the Earth?"

"Yes, why?"

"Does every Elfy do this?"

"No, most don't," Bruno said. "Lady Keisha does, but most of our Adepts use Earth power, not solar power. Why do you ask?"

"Because I've never heard of anyone who can do that," Samuel said. "We know it's there-we can feel it-but it's just too much power for any Human mage I know to handle." He looked Bruno up and down again, his eyes half out of focus. "Maybe you can defeat Dennis, after all."

"I sincerely hope so." Bruno sighed. "But I'll need your family's help, and Sarah's, and Lady Keisha's, and it's not going to be easy."

"I know. Dennis has the power of the united congregation behind him, except for us. I don't know how to get around that. Do you?"

"No, I don't," Bruno replied. "But I do have some ideas..."

"Which are?"

"Well, first, Dennis doesn't know I'm here," Bruno said, ticking the points off on his fingers. "He thinks there's only one Elfy-Roberto, who's badly hurt-in the area. And he might believe that Sarah has Adept potential, but he doesn't know she broke the Gilded Cage Roberto put around her, and has no idea of the instinctual power she has. Plus, he doesn't realize yet that you and your family know he's a Dark Elf. And with the grace of the Gods, he won't until May Day."

Samuel frowned. "Tomorrow is May Day-are you sure you'll have enough time?"

Tomorrow? Bruno thought, but said only, "I thought today was Wednesday."

"It is," Samuel agreed. "But this year, May Day falls on Thursday."

"I thought it was on Friday," Bruno said faintly. One day? That's all I have now, one day to fix all this?

Samuel went on, a flick of an eyelid betraying his awareness of Bruno's doubt. "Mikayla, my daughter, spoke to your fiancée Sarah yesterday about coming here." He shook his head again, then said, "So, son. Powerful as you are, what can you do in one day?"

Sarah, we have a problem, he subvocalized. Samuel here says that tomorrow is Ba'altinne! What'll we do?

Sarah's dark-haired head poked out from the kitchen, and she gave him an encouraging thumb's up. Her dark brown eyes looked merry rather than sad; he knew that getting her over here and away from her parents had been the right move. Bruno studied her face for a moment...she was so beautiful, she took his breath away. Then he shook himself into sense-he didn't have time to admire her right now-and said subvocally, Sarah, you have to explain this! Later, please? She nodded almost imperceptibly.

Then, perhaps to explain all this somewhat inexplicable behavior to Samuel, she said, "Breakfast will be ready soon. Mikayla and her Mom are making oatmeal, among other things." She shuddered dramatically. "But despite that, Bruno, I think you'll like it." She darted back into the kitchen.

"What does she have against oatmeal?" Samuel asked.

"I think her mother makes it too often," Bruno told him. "Seems to be one of those Mom-things that Sarah's mother tries to do, but fails at. Maybe it doesn't taste right, coming from her?"

"Could be, son. But it will from my Rebecca. Just wait until you eat her food. You'll want to emigrate to Jamaica." Samuel's eyes smiled.

Ah, yes. The Andrews family was originally from there. Bruno remembered Samuel telling him that. So he smiled, and went along with the change of subject.

"The breakfast will definitely help. Still, though..."

"Yes?"

"I have a few more thoughts, if you don't mind me sharing them."

"Go on, son."

"My clothes," Bruno said, indicating his raiment with a wave of his hand up and down his body. "They don't seem like what the other kids wear, do they?"

"No, they don't," Samuel said, frowning. "Most kids don't wear so much black, and that jumpsuit doesn't-quite-have the expected lines. But what can we do about it now?"

"I was thinking about maybe going to buy some clothing that wouldn't, um, stand out so much," Bruno said, blushing. "I can cast an illusion, but it'll be much easier for me if I'm wearing something that's a bit more like what people are used to seeing a kid wear in the Human Realm. That way, I'll only have to use my illusion to make myself a bit taller, if I even bother."

"That's a good idea," Samuel said. "Why didn't I think of it?" He touched the top of his head lightly, almost as if he were searching for brain function, and looked at his fingertips.

Bruno wondered if this was some sort of strange ritual that he'd never heard about before, but decided not to ask about it. He had questions enough already. "I'd better try to save as much energy as I can if we're going to have to fight Dennis tomorrow. Getting new clothes should help, at least a small amount, with that." He sat for a moment, then said delicately, "I'm not sure what I can do toward paying for anything like that, but..."

"We should be able to get you some clothes, Bruno," Samuel said with a laugh. "We're not that broke, son."

"I didn't think you were," he muttered. "I just didn't want to put you out."

"You're not," Samuel started, before they both heard a strangled burp. He looked at the backpack at Bruno's feet, and asked, "What was that?"

"Oh, that's my backpack," Bruno said off-handedly. "Maybe it's come up with another way to help me. Let me check."

"Thinking backpacks?" Samuel mused aloud, scratching at his head. "Young Elfy mages with unprecedented power? Children with lifemates? My daughter's best friend with a fiancé? What will they think of next?"

Bruno paid him no heed. He opened his backpack to find a battered, black leather wallet inside. "My pack just made this," he explained. "Although I'm not sure from what. It seems to do that from time to time." He opened the wallet and found a thick sheaf of green paper strips, similar to the one Sarah had used to pay for the "donuts" the day before. "Will this help?" he asked Samuel, holding it out.

Samuel took the wallet and looked inside. "Except for the color, it's identical to my wallet," he breathed. "But the money? Where did you get that from?"

"The Elfy Embassy leaves resources, usually, for travelers," the backpack said in its deep bass voice, sounding as if it were quoting. "There is a medium of exchange. The Traders' Guild runs it."

"And?" Bruno asked.

"You should've had this money from the start, Adept Bruno...Master Roberto told me to give this to you, and I almost forgot." It sounded shamefaced. "It has been cleared through the Elfy Embassy, and is your rightful payment for this task."

"You have another problem, son," Samuel said before Bruno could even attempt to reassure the backpack. "I'll take the pack's word that the money is legitimate. But all of these notes have the same serial numbers!"

"Might get me into trouble with the law, eh?" Bruno asked. "Fear not. Just a second." He took back the wallet and held it in his hand as he silently intoned, Make the money as legitimate on the outside as it was always meant to be. Vary the numbers, each by one, then two, then two again, for each with all. He poured energy into the wallet, bound about with the bit of doggerel he had just put together and a silent prayer to the Goddess that what he was doing made some sort of sense, and looked at the money again. This time, the serial numbers on the notes were radically different. Even the money seemed changed, somehow-some of the bills were new, while others were old. And the colors had changed, too...instead of merely green, there were bits of orange and purple here and there.

"Samuel, is your money supposed to look like this?"

"The colors are fine, Bruno," Samuel said absently. "But the numbers can't all be the same."

"They aren't. At least, not any more." Bruno passed the money over.

"How did you do that?" Samuel asked, raising impressed brows. "With magic, I'm sure, but...how?"

"I asked nicely," Bruno said. "And I was answered."

At this moment, Sarah, Rebecca and Mikayla came back into the room, laden with plates and bowls. They placed them on a low table and went back to get trays from the kitchen. Bruno sat cross-legged on the floor rather than spend the energy to hover in the air before the tray table, and decided not to try to cut the tray down to his size for the same reason.

Sarah also refused a tray, taking only a muffin and some juice.

Bruno took helpings of a sort of egg dish with vegetables-a quiche, said Rebecca when asked-along with the aforementioned oatmeal, some fried, spiced fritters with syrup, two bran muffins, and a glass each of milk and orange juice.

"Like I said," Rebecca said, her brown eyes twinkling. "Growing boys are the same the worlds over."

"Maybe even the universes over," Mikayla said, smiling widely.

Sarah picked up a napkin and threw it at Mikayla, earning them both sharp looks from Rebecca, before breakfast proceeded apace. Everything tasted wonderful, although quite foreign; Bruno wasn't sure about the spices.

"Will you give me the recipes, ma'am?" he asked lightly once the meal was over.

"Not right now," she told him, taking a look at her watch. "Mikayla has to go get ready for school."

Bruno helped take his dishes to the kitchen and handed them to Rebecca, who placed them in the sink. "You're very polite," she murmured. "I should have Elfy guests more often."

Sarah, carrying in her own dishes, started laughing. After a moment, Bruno joined in. Then he asked, "Is there enough time for Sarah and I to have a brief word, ma'am?"

"Sure," she said. "I need to talk with my husband anyway."

Bruno took Sarah's hand and led her back outside through the door they'd originally come in. He looked with his mage senses, and felt nothing; no Elfy magic, no Human magic, and as far as he could tell, no Elf magic, Dark or Bright. He put up a light shield that should help conceal their voices, and decided it was safe enough to talk for a bit.

"Tomorrow is Ba'altinne, Sarah." Bruno rubbed his fingers through his hair and tried not to look too hard at Sarah. Goddess, she was beautiful. But he had to stay on topic. "That's your May Day. Tomorrow." He shook his head and tried not to frown. "How can we get everything together in time to stop this nasty Dennis?"

"I have faith in you," she said. Her eyes darkened. Bruno felt as if he were falling, before she gently brushed her lips against his. Before he got a chance to do anything except feel how soft her lips were, she drew back. "I-didn't intend to do that, Bruno," she said, sounding shaken. "Why did I?"

"I liked it," he admitted. "If we had more time, I'd try to start it." Then, getting his mind ruthlessly back on track, he said, "What are we going to do, though, in only one day?"

"The best we can," she said. "Besides," she added impishly, "we have the most powerful Elfy magician alive-you-" she fixed him with a mock glare "-much as you don't want to admit it. Then, we'll have Lady Keisha, who's well-trained and powerful, and me, who you say can do unprecedented things, and Mikayla and her folks. That's a lot more than we had two days ago."

"Yes, but where did the time go?" he asked, frustrated. "You said that May Day was Friday, not Thursday, when I asked you."

"I lied," she said blandly.

He felt like throttling her.

"But if I'd told you that May Day was tomorrow, and that we only had two days to get everything done, would you have tried? Or would you have just given up?"

"Sarah," he said in a long-suffering tone, "I would have tried anyway. Roberto wants to sacrifice himself for me. Maybe even for you, too. And he did not want me here. Probably still doesn't. But I'd have tried to stop this nasty Dennis no matter what." He glared at her. "You should have told me!"

Sarah looked down at her feet, and scuffed one against the other. Softly, she said, "I was afraid for you. I didn't want you to force yourself into doing something, just because no one else was."

"Difficult honesty?"

"Something like that," she said, still looking at the ground.

He tilted up her chin with his forefinger. He enjoyed the sensation despite his anger, but tried to keep his mind on the problem at hand. "Sarah, my darling," he murmured, "even if Dennis hadn't tried to take you, how could I let him stay here and try to sacrifice Roberto? Even if I hadn't made any contact with Lady Keisha, even if we didn't know that you have power, too, how could I do that?"

She looked him in the eye; for the moment, perhaps because she was slumping a bit, they were almost the same height. He grabbed her shoulders and gave her a fierce hug. "My love," he said quietly yet forcefully, hardly believing that he had dared to call her that, "I need to have all the facts. Don't, please, don't keep things like this from me anymore, all right?"

"Deal," she murmured into his hair. After a beat, she said, "This relationship stuff is hard. I wanted to protect you, and I figured if you didn't know when May Day was, you wouldn't feel obligated. And although I agree we have to help Roberto, I don't want you to feel that you must stop this nasty Dark Elf guy. I was hoping we could get Lady Keisha here, and she could stop him. Why must it be you?"

He hugged her harder. "Because, my dearest," he breathed, "Roberto took my place. I have to stop this Dark Elf from sacrificing him." He brooded a bit. "Besides, Roberto isn't half as powerful as I am. I have the better chance."

"Still, though," she repeated. "Why must it be you?"

"First Samuel, now you," he said, rumpling her hair. "Maybe it's peculiar to us Elfys to be so loyal, Sarah. I don't know." He shook his head a bit; how could he get through to her? After a moment, he said, "Lady Keisha can help me, you can help me, and Samuel and his family can help me, but the impetus must be my own. I knew from the first moment that Roberto was taken that I'd have to save him." Trying for a lighter tone, he added, "Although I didn't know it was from a Dark Elf; I just thought it was from your parents in that Elfy-trapped house!"

Sarah stepped out of the hug, and smiled. If her smile was wobbly, it didn't make it any less genuine. "Well, Bruno," she said, "just don't get yourself killed, all right? Fine companion you'd turn out to be!"

He couldn't help it; he laughed, which coaxed a smile from her in return.

"This isn't easy for me to say," he said awkwardly. "But I'd better try, regardless..."

"What is it?" she repeated, sounding a bit worried.

"I have to tell you about the dream I had this morning."

"What about it?" Sarah asked. "You had a strange dream, one that featured Roberto again, and the Dark Elf, right?"

"Yes," he admitted. "Did you see it again, through our empathic link?"

"I saw it through whatever," she said, snorting. "Roberto sure seemed frightened."

"I...saw it as if it were me. And there's much more to the story."

"Isn't there always?" she asked. "What now?"

"The spirit in the house, well, spoke to me, Sarah. And..."

Mikayla put her head out the door. Her beaded braids jangled, but her coffee-colored face looked serene. "Daisy? Um, Sarah? We have to get to school."

Bruno looked at her, mutely pleading.

Mikayla relented, saying, "Mom says you can come too, Bruno. Just slouch down when we get to school, so no one sees you, all right?"

"I can do one better, Mikayla," he said, feeling relieved. "Once we get within six blocks of the school, I'll put a minor invisibility spell on, and no one but you three should see me at all."

"Sounds good," she said. "Now, we'd better get."

Bruno, frustrated, whispered to Sarah, "We have to talk about this later. All right?"

"Whatever you want, Bruno," she said. Then, shyly, she kissed his cheek, before turning around and racing back into the house. Bruno slowly followed, wondering if he were a condemned man, or a reprieved one.

Could he be both at the same time?

Almost quicker than thought, Bruno found himself inside a boxy gray vehicle, much smaller than the "bus" that had brought him and Sarah to Mikayla's house. Mikayla sat up front with her mother; Sarah sat in back with him. She put strap around her waist, fastening it with a metallic click. Bruno felt around for one where he was sitting, but didn't find any.

"All belted?" Rebecca asked brightly.

Bruno just nodded, not wanting to cause any trouble. He vowed to brace himself in as best he could, or use his magic in the event of a serious problem; other than that, there was nothing he could do.

"Well, let's go, then," Rebecca said. She backed out of the small structure she'd called a "garage," then Mikayla got out to close the door.

While Mikayla was out of the car, Bruno asked, "Did your husband talk with you, ma'am?"

"Yes, he did, and please, for the love of God, Bruno, call me Rebecca," she said pleasantly. "It makes me feel like I'm a hundred years old when you call me ma'am."

Bruno smiled; for a moment, she sounded almost like his vague memories of his own mother, lost so many years before. Except that his Ma would have said "for the love of the Goddess," of course. "You know, your husband said something very similar," he told Rebecca.

"Sometimes we're alike that way," she said. "Don't worry, Bruno. Your plan of getting some more clothes makes sense, if only because you don't want to wash your one set of clothes all the time!"

Sarah laughed while Bruno squirmed. Should I tell her about my backpack, Sarah? he subvocalized. She shrugged; Bruno assumed that was a no.

Instead, he said, "I'm not sure there's a washing machine in the Human Realm that's set up for people as short I am to operate."

Rebecca asked, "You use washing machines, too? Where you're from?"

"What else?" Bruno asked, startled. "It's that, or go back to beating the laundry with sticks and such, or using magic frivolously for the same purpose, and, really, there's no reason to do either as far as I can tell!"

Any further comments on this subject were forestalled when Mikayla got back into the car. Rebecca backed the car out of the "driveway" and drove down the road.

Bruno watched the scenery as it rolled past. The trees looked no different than any he'd seen in the Elfy Realm-mostly deciduous trees this far north, as was proper. But the signs, the muted colors, and most particularly the houses stood out as alien. Their odd angles and proportions wakened the homesickness Bruno thought he'd put behind him. Would he ever feel comfortable here?

Sarah squeezed his hand, and whispered, "It's all right. Focus on the car, on me...you can get past this."

Bruno did his best to center himself and stop projecting, as he didn't want to worry Sarah. He concentrated on the scuffed leather seats, on the gray-brown carpeting on the floor, and most particularly on Sarah's hand.

"That's better," she whispered. "Stay in the moment."

Rebecca turned onto a new street, which featured a few stores with garish signs that wouldn't have been too out-of-place in the Elfy Realm. Sarah pointed out the turnoff to the local university. Oddly, the lawns there were nearly as well-manicured as Geadhail Mebrugud, though browner due to the drought.

"I suppose your California isn't that different than the Elfy Realm," he mused.

"My husband thought it wouldn't be a good idea to talk about the Elfy Realm in public," Rebecca put in.

But we aren't in public, he thought. Why bring this up now? Still, it was the height of rudeness to say that to his driver. "That seems wise. Although it does make it harder to converse, ma- um, Rebecca."

"Do your best," she said. "D- Um, Sarah said that you know an invisibility spell?"

How much were they talking about me in the kitchen? Ah, well, at least I can answer this one. "I can put up an invisibility screen about six blocks from the school, if you warn me in time. That should help keep people's suspicions from being raised, and it might protect you all."

"I can do that," Rebecca said. "Mind you, I do hope we are all worrying over nothing."

"Same here," he murmured.

Sarah smiled briefly at him, but said nothing. What are you thinking about this time, my love? he subvocalized. She just shrugged, and went on smiling.

Ah, I do love the lass, but she can be most secretive at times, he thought. Then, almost without realizing it, he smiled, too. Maybe I'm getting used to all this? Ma always told me I'd find "the right one" in such portentous terms; maybe she was right? If she really was my mother...

As he was both a replica and an outcast, what could he offer Sarah? And he still wondered about that kiss; what had prompted it? She'd seemed to want to try to distract him from the truth, more than just wanting to kiss him. Could that be right?

Had Roberto been right about Sarah? Could she be playing her own game, meaning she was not a true lifemate after all?

Well, there was one quick solution to that. He opened his empathic sense while the three women chatted among themselves. He felt some concern from all three; that made sense, considering the situation. But he didn't feel panic. And what was this...?

He was surprised: he felt amusement-actual amusement-from Mikayla. The deep contentment he felt from Rebecca made a great deal more sense; Rebecca was settled and happy in her life. But when he looked at Sarah, he saw something that combined both, but was deeper than both. Other than that it was positive, he didn't know exactly what it was-but he did know that no one who meant him ill or who was playing her own game and cared nothing for him could feel that way.

Ah, Hells, he thought to himself, disgusted. I'm woolgathering again. Sarah's good, I know it, and more importantly, she's with me. Better yet, she wants to be with me forever. He smiled at Sarah, who returned his smile and squeezed his hand.

Roberto was wrong. He even admitted as much already...and that's strange, considering how arrogant he usually is. Why did Roberto want to "set things right," unless Roberto was looking at his own death square in the face? Bruno vowed that he would somehow get to Lady Keisha, and ask her what, if anything, they could do to try to keep Roberto's spirits up.

"Bruno?" Mikayla asked, interrupting his reverie.

"Yes, Mikayla?"

"Were you there, the other day, in the school?"

"Yes," he affirmed. "Sarah was worried, and I could feel it. I didn't want her to go alone. Now, I'm glad I didn't."

"Ah!" she crowed. "I was right, then!"

"About what?"

"Well, I felt something...strange," she said in an odd tone. "Not Human, but not-well, not like anything I'd felt before. Now that I've met you, though, and seen your aura, I'd recognize it in a heartbeat. Then, all I knew was that it was positive, and focused on Sarah. It faded in and out, but I did pick it up."

I thought so! I knew she'd picked up something. He thought for a moment. Good thing she's on our side. If not, I'd just have blown it. "You're a strong empath, Mikayla, if you picked that up, especially not knowing about me. When you get older, and have more training, you might make a very good Healer. And those are always in demand in the Elfy Realm; I find it hard to believe they aren't, here."

"They are," Rebecca put in. "But they call Healing by many names, and most of the actual magical healing is done secretly."

"That's strange," he blurted out. "Why?"

"Some of our religions think it's a very bad thing to have any power beyond that of being alive," she said. "It's quite silly, and more to the point, wrong, but that's the way it is. So, most of what we do is done covertly."

"That makes sense, if the culture and social structure are that much against it," he agreed. Mikayla and Sarah stared at him; he had the feeling that Rebecca would have stared at him, too, if she could. "What, just because I'm young, I shouldn't know words like 'culture' and 'social structure,' or something?" he asked. "What's wrong with that?"

"Nothing's wrong," Rebecca said. "Nothing at all. It just sounds strange, considering how young you are."

"Well, I'm not as young as all that, am I, now?" he asked irritably. "Besides, Sarah uses big words all the time, and no one tells her to stop using them. Or acts surprised when she does."

"Ah, but not so long ago, you were surprised," Sarah put in with asperity. "You're just more used to me now, and you know my age isn't what we thought it was. That's all."

"I'm not sure what I want to do yet, Bruno," Mikayla said in a conciliatory tone, "although Healing is one possibility." She paused, then went on in a bemused voice, "I've bopped back and forth between so many things that-"

"Bopped?" Bruno asked.

Sarah moved up, down, right, left, and sideways quickly. Bruno laughed, partly at how quickly Sarah's mood could change, and partly out of how strange she looked. But it made sense, yes it did. "Ah, yes. Bopped."

"Anyway," Mikayla looked back briefly to glare fondly at Sarah, "I've thought at times of being a professional basketball player, then a scientist, then a priest, then I'm not sure!"

"Well, there's still plenty of time," Bruno said kindly.

"I suppose so," Mikayla said with a sigh. "But I'd feel better if I knew what I was going to be, really!"

"The thing is, most of the time you think you want to be one thing, and you turn out to be something else," he said. "Look at me. I wanted to be a scholar, which is a very powerful position-" he nearly said in the Elfy Realm, but caught himself before it came out, contenting himself instead with, "-where I'm from. And what am I instead?"

"The most powerful mage I've ever met," Sarah murmured.

Mikayla chimed in with, "Yeah, Bruno. You have so much power, why would you want to be anything else?"

"But I didn't know I had it, until I came over here," he sputtered. "And I was good at my studies, and had-still have-a good memory. And scholars are revered where I'm from. Why shouldn't I become one?"

"It just seems strange, that's all," Mikayla muttered.

"Well, being a 'professional basketball player,' whatever that is, seems strange to me, too, but I don't look down on you for it!" Bruno exclaimed. "Not that I could, mind."

"True," she agreed. They all laughed.

"I'll tell you more about basketball, and some of our other sports later, Bruno," Rebecca promised.

"Thanks," he said gratefully. "Sometimes, I feel like a fish out of water, here. But I do the best I can."

"You do quite well," Sarah murmured.

He patted her hand, but otherwise stayed quiet. He knew, though, that he felt like if he wasn't already sitting, he'd fall. Was this what love was supposed to be like? Weird feeling...

"So, Bruno," Mikayla said in a tone of gentle mockery, "what's it like to have all that power?"

"Strange, Mikayla," he admitted. "Very strange."

"How much more powerful are you going to get?"

"I'm not sure," Bruno said. "I think it'll depend on how good my training is, and I really haven't started it yet."

"Six blocks warning," Rebecca said, her eyes intent on the road.

"A moment, please, ladies," Bruno said. He closed his eyes, focused briefly, then thought of a mirror reflecting his face. He gradually erased his face from it, imagining it changing from a mirror to a transparent, non-reflective window, as he mentally recited the Words of the spell. After a moment, he opened his eyes. "Well, can you all still see me?"

"No," Sarah replied first, followed by Mikayla's, "How did you do that so quickly?" and Rebecca's, "You really must teach me that trick, Bruno."

Bruno reached for Sarah's hand and squeezed it. "Can you still feel that?" he asked in an extremely low tone.

"Yes." She sighed. "It's just a bit unnerving, not seeing you. Last time, I could see you-but everyone else couldn't."

"It's easier to do an overall spell, my love," Bruno said gently.

"But you promised that we'd see you, even if no one else did!"

"Next time, if I can, I'll do what I did the first time, if only to spare you pain." He wanted to look deeply into her eyes, but it seemed strange to do that if she couldn't see him. What was the significance of the gesture, then?

"You two," Mikayla said, laughing as if for all the world invisible Elfys were in her car every other week. "Lovebirds, definitely. And to think you've only known each other a week!"

"Don't tease them, Mikayla," Rebecca scolded. "I've heard about this lifemating thing; it's rare, especially in childhood, to have one, and there are special requirements."

"But you already know your fate before you begin!" Mikayla exclaimed. "I'd love to know who I'm going to end up with, if anyone."

For just an instant, Bruno saw an image of a tall, slim man standing behind Mikayla, his skin darker than hers and his handsome, but craggy face wearing the same sort of besotted look he imagined he displayed when he was around Sarah. Were the man's eyes really almond-shaped and emerald-colored, Bruno wondered, and had he really seen what he thought he had?

"You'll find someone special someday, Mikayla," Sarah vowed. "And believe me, in most cases, you wouldn't want to know something like this so early on. Bruno was afraid that I wouldn't want him, because he wasn't getting much choice about who to wed, and he wanted me to have more chance than he was getting."

"That's sweet," Mikayla said soothingly. "You'll have to tell me more about that, after school." They pulled up to the front door of St. Elizabeth Gloriana. "For now, you're Daisy, and I'm Mikayla-"

"You're always Mikayla!" Sarah said mock-sternly.

"True," she said. "But you're Daisy, my young, ten-year-old fifth-grade friend, who doesn't know anything about Elfys other than what you've read in books, and seen a bit on the tube-" What's a "tube?" Bruno wondered "-and certainly isn't lifemated to anyone, much less an Elfy mage of considerable power." Mikayla winked toward where she'd last seen Bruno.

"Ah, well, if you insist," Sarah said reluctantly. She said in an undertone, "Bruno, I'd give you a hug, if it wouldn't look strange to hug empty air. For now, will you let go of my hand?"

Bruno let go, then subvocalized, Keep you safe, my darling. I'll be here when you're done with school.

Without another word, Mikayla and Sarah got out of the car. Rebecca waved to them, watched until they were safely inside, then drove away.

 

Chapter 2

While driving toward the mall, Rebecca asked, "Bruno, Samuel said you wanted to go to the mall. And that you have money?"

"It may sound trivial, Rebecca, but I know I have to go to the mall. It's important." He wished he could explain these odd feelings he had. Were they like his long-dead father's talent of clairvoyance, or not? He sighed, adding, "Yes, I have money. My backpack made it."

"I thought I wasn't supposed to talk?" the pack asked querulously.

Bruno told it, "You're not."

"Yes, Samuel told me your backpack talks..." Rebecca put in. "Human beings, even magically talented ones, are not used to talking backpacks."

"Your loss," the pack said.

Bruno shushed it again, this time adding a few small pats in the bargain. The pack muttered a bit more, then was still again.

"Sorry about that, Rebecca. My backpack has a mind of its own."

"So I see. But if it keeps speaking, you'll never pass for one of us."

"I promise I'll behave," the pack said sulkily.

"Good. That should help." Rebecca drove a few more blocks before she said in a meditative tone, "It's very hard talking to a disembodied voice."

"Sorry." Bruno made the back windows reflect extra sunlight while he reversed the spell, and added a strong shield in the bargain that should allow them to speak freely while moving. "Better?"

"Much." She smiled. "I hadn't intended on taking you to the mall this morning, you understand. You're sure it's needful?"

"Yes, I'm sure. I don't want to tip off Dennis, if I can help it." He decided to change the subject, especially as he was starting to get a touch claustrophobic. "How long have you known Sarah?"

"Two years," she said promptly. "My daughter liked her from the start. They met in an Advanced English class together, studying the Classics, like Shakespeare. Of course, Mikayla thought Sarah was incredibly bright."

"Most people do," Bruno said absently. Then, he asked, startled, "You know Shakespeare?"

"Of course. We still study his plays."

"We call William, Lord Shakespeare, 'The Man Who Loved Elfys'," Bruno told her. "He enjoyed Elfys, especially Robin Goodfellow-better known to you Humans as Puck-and wrote about him. Though what he said about Puck wasn't necessarily truthful."

"Hm," Rebecca said. "In A Midsummer Night's Dream, Puck was high-spirited, loved puns, odd circumstances, and practical jokes. Does that mean all of your people are that way?"

"Many are," he agreed. "Although some aren't, and I'm definitely not."

Rebecca turned into a long, empty parking lot. At the end of the lot was a large, brownish structure of some kind...some parts appeared to have multiple stories, while others were single. It looked like a hodgepodge. "We're almost to the mall," Rebecca told him.

"Good. Now, can you stop the car so I can get in the front seat?"

She did so, opening the door for him, and silently helped him on with his seat belt before she started driving again. Then she surprised him by saying, "You have to be the most powerful mage I've ever met. And you're still young?"

"Yes." He sighed. "Although what our Realm calls childhood and what yours does isn't always congruent."

"How old are you?"

How could he answer this without admitting to being a replica? "I was in a coma for several years, and because of that I feel younger than my actual age. But I've been told I'm about to turn thirty-two years of age-the legal age of consent, or the equivalent of what an eighteen-year-old Human would be-even though I feel a few years younger than that."

"Now I understand why you understand your friend so well," Rebecca said perceptively. "She's older than she thought she was, too."

He reminded himself to never, never underestimate this woman.

"Sarah and I are about the same, as far as we can tell," he went on. "Both physiologically and psychologically. We intend to take it slowly."

Rebecca turned and started driving alongside the mall, apparently looking for a good place to put the car. "But she's your Companion, your life-bound mate. That may not be possible."

"How do you know so much about it?" Bruno asked, startled. "I know very little, myself..."

"While lifematings of the type you two have are rare, they're not unknown." She smiled, as if remembering something particularly sweet. "For the moment, though, don't think about that. Just be yourself, a young man out for some shopping because school is out. If anyone asks, I'll tell them you're my friend's son, visiting from Ireland for the first time. If you have to, can you use that accent again?"

"Sure, and that's no problem at all, at all," Bruno said with a smile. "But it's not really an accent, now. Well, 'tis and 'tisn't. It's just the way me own tongue puts the sounds of the words in a row, d'ye see? To m'own mind, and cravin' y'r pardon for the sayin' of it, some o' the ways your Human tongue puts them t'gether are after bein' totally nonsensical."

Rebecca nodded, satisfied. "Yup. Just like that. It'll help to throw anyone off the trail."

Bruno nodded. "It makes good sense." They pulled up near a door and stopped. "Is this a, um, parking place?"

"Close enough," she told him. "Since there's no one around, I can let you off at the door. Stay here; I'll be just a moment." She helped him unsnap the seat-belt device.

Bruno opened the car door, thinking Why must they make doors so heavy in this Realm? But as it would be the height of rudeness to say so, he didn't; instead, he simply hopped out and backed away.

She waved gently, drove a few car lengths down, went down a completely deserted set of parallel diagonal lines, then renewed the circuit before parking in a spot facing him.

Bruno wondered why she'd wanted him to get out of the car before she parked it; it didn't seem overly difficult, what with those empty spaces and all. Or was this some sort of bizarre Human ritual? He opened up his mage senses, but felt nothing other than the overlay of low-level electrical residue. If it's a ritual, I'm not sure what good it is.

Rebecca came back across the painted black surface to the grayish one where Bruno was standing, then took his hand and led him to a set of large, glassed-in doors. "This is where we go in, Bruno," she said quietly. "I think the children's store is open in a few minutes."

"Good," he said. "You're sure you don't want me to use an illusion spell?"

"Yes," she affirmed. "Save your magic for tomorrow, as much as you can. Besides, most people expecting to see one of your people are looking for bright colors, big, pointed ears, and metal allergies, not a quiet, solemn boy dressed in black carrying a backpack."

"What is it with you people, anyway?" Bruno groused. He looked around; there were no people on this side of the long building, and he sensed no hidden listeners. Safe enough to speak freely. "We don't have pointed ears," he said, pointing to his ears, which might be big but were far from pointed, "we don't have allergies to metal," he pointed to his wire-rimmed glasses, "and some of us," he pointed directly and emphatically at himself, "don't like to wear bright colors, either! And we don't all rhyme, and we don't all play mischievous pranks, and we don't, don't all act like my honored forefather Puck all the time!"

Rebecca gave him a long, level look. "Have you wanted to say that often, lately?"

"Yes, I have," he said. "Sarah knows better-" Stay safe, my love, he thought, before getting back to the current business "-but the rest of you don't, and it's frustrating! We're not all the same!"

"I know you're not," she murmured.

Some other people came up near the doors and jiggled them; they didn't open. Perhaps to cloak the nature of their conversation, she continued with, "Every child is different. I know that. You're a whole lot different than Mikayla, that's for sure!"

He smiled involuntarily. "She, um, seems very independent," he murmured, trying to keep his voice from carrying. "How'd she get that way?"

"My husband spoils her," she said.

Bruno laughed.

"Well, I help," she added unrepentantly, before her face broke out in a grin. "Let's just say that Mikayla is a chip off both blocks."

A tall man, an obvious functionary of some sort to judge by his severely plain red jumpsuit, came to open the doors and usher them all inside.

"Hold tight to my hand, Bruno," Rebecca said as a wave of people pushed them in. Bruno wasn't sure how many others there were; at least twenty? Thirty? He made sure to hold her hand.

"Everything okay so far?" Rebecca asked, smiling down at him.

He shrugged. "Too many people for my taste," he said over the din of people rushing here and there, shops opening, and people acting for all the world as if there were a track meet being held today-without the track.

She gave him a wordless grimace of sympathy, and led him onward to a shop she told him was the right one. Small yellow toy dump trucks stood beside the doors; mocking irony, or something else?

A bored looking man dressed all in dark blue, except for a metallic badge at the shoulder, stood at the entrance. "Where's the young men's section?" Rebecca asked him.

"Ah, the little boys' stuff?" the guard rephrased the question more accurately, and Bruno flinched. "Down the hall to the escalator," the man went on gruffly. "And make sure you hold his hand, ma'am-sometimes the little ones can get pulled right under. Take the escalator down one floor, then take a sharp right. Can't miss it."

"Thanks," she called back, towing Bruno onward. As soon as they were out of the guard's earshot, she said, "I'm sorry for that, Bruno. But I'm afraid you're going to get a lot of it."

"What do adult short people do in this culture?" Bruno asked irritably, as they walked past people admiring jewelry, pushing perfumes, and selling cooking utensils. "Just grin and bear it? There have to be a whole lot more short people than just me and Sarah; why aren't they staging revolutions every few years?"

She took his hand, leading him onward into the store. "While being underestimated may help some short people, my guess is that most with the mage gift are using illusions to appear somewhat taller, just to ease their way in society."

He looked around; good, no one appeared to be listening, and no one was in earshot anyway. "But illusions are so draining!" he blurted out. "Why would anyone want to live that way, year after year?" Then, he stopped himself; one person-well, a spirit now, but at least a former person-had wanted to do just that: Sarah's grandfather, Egbert. How had he stood the energy drain? Was it better than the ridicule he might have suffered if he'd refused to cast the illusion spell?

"I don't know, Bruno," she said.

He quietly dropped the subject.

They stepped onto the top step of a flight of gleaming metallic stairs that seemed to slide out of the floor and then move down to disappear under the floor below in a never-ending sequence. There were two sets; the other one went up.

Rebecca pulled him off the escalator into a small, well-lit area. More toys abounded: miniature curlnoses-elephants, in the Human tongue-made of some sort of soft, velvety material, bears with friendly expressions unlike any bear he'd ever seen in the zoo, and all sorts of other stuffed animals seemed to take up most of the room, almost overflowing into the aisle. Behind the piles of animals, he could dimly make out dolls of many types and sizes, some sitting on shelves by themselves, others in boxes, miniature vehicles, and other things for which he had no name. He wondered why Rebecca had taken him this way; he was a good many years too old for these types of toys.

Then they arrived at the section where the clothing was displayed. Bruno had the sense that the clock was ticking, even though he didn't know how or why; he had to find clothes that marked him as Human, and he had to find them fast.

Rebecca engaged a young woman, obviously a worker of some kind, in conversation. Much of what he saw in sizes close to his own was made of fabrics in shades and combinations that would have been right at home-if a bit subdued-at any formal Elfy function. There were even a few things that the most tasteless of Elfys would consider garishly loud and unsuitable.

At the woman's suggestion, Bruno took a pair of pants that were "the hottest style" and went over to hold them up in front of a mirror. They would never fit; were Human kids really wearing things this loose? How could they walk around in pants that fell off?

He went to Rebecca, and grabbed hold of her arm. "Are you sure we're not in the wrong place?" he whispered. "Everything here seems to be too big for me!"

"I'll find something else," she told him, and went to ask the woman again for more suggestions.

They found a few sweaters, one in light grey, the other in a black and silver pattern, that Bruno felt he could wear. He decided to carry these until they found some pants that weren't totally impossible. Rebecca found two pairs of straight pants that looked about his size; they were of a heavy fabric, something laborers would wear in the Elfy Realm. When he asked, he found out these were called "denim" pants, or "jeans." He wondered why the multiplicity of names for the same garment, but shrugged again at the vagaries of Humans.

"I'll look around for some undergarments, and t-shirts and things," Rebecca said softly. "You said you were cold, so the more layers, the better." She showed him to something she called the "fitting room," and told him she'd be around whenever he wanted to get going.

"Thank you," he said. "Let me try this stuff on, and then you can tell me if it looks right." After all, how would I know? he thought sourly.

He went in, closed the door behind him, and took off everything but his underwear. He put on the blue pair of "denims" over his long johns. They seemed to fit; he could bend in them surprisingly well, and if he had to run, he thought he could. They didn't bind or chafe, strangely enough, and he thought they'd wear well. He followed with the black pair; they, too, fit well. He decided to leave these on while trying on the sweaters.

The grey one proved to have some sort of black device on the front. He wondered what the skull and crossbones had to do with anything, and what was with the eyepatch and bandanna on a skull? Was this a Dark symbol of some sort? If so, he couldn't wear it. But it fit well; no question about that. The black and silver sweater followed; it, fortunately, had no device work and no words of any sort. It, too, fit well, and looked fine with the black denims.

He folded up his old clothes and put them into the backpack. The pack shuddered a bit while he did this, which made him think about his new wallet. He took out the battered-looking black wallet, even though he wasn't sure he knew where to put it. For the moment, he'd carry it in his hand.

He knelt down to put his boots back on, and while he was down there, thanked the backpack for reminding him about his wallet. Then, he whispered to it, "Do you think you could keep an eye out for spells, here in the mall? I'd better not, considering what's coming."

The pack moved slightly; Bruno took this as an affirmative. "Thanks," he breathed. "Do you need any assistance from me, in looking for this stuff?" He augmented his empathic sense with a bit of magic and sensed a bit of frustration or irritation emanating from the pack. "All right, it was just an offer, pack. I'm not trying to cast aspersions."

He got back to his feet and left the fitting room, making sure he had everything he'd brought in with him. He asked Rebecca (who was carrying more shirts, some underclothing, and other paraphernalia), "Does it look like me?"

"You look good," she affirmed. "Although you have a definite affinity for black."

"What can I say?" He shrugged. "I like it." He let it go without saying that most Elfys wouldn't be caught dead in an outfit this plain, which might just save his life.

Bruno knew they needed to hurry, but he wasn't sure how to say this to Rebecca without worrying her. So he bit back his frustration as they seemingly ambled toward the cash register, though he couldn't help one, "Are we there yet, Rebecca?" from escaping his lips.

Then a white-haired, wizened, elderly woman-almost the stereotype of the wise crone in Elfy lore-appeared in their path. "You shouldn't talk to your elders that way, boy," she croaked. "The Dark Elf will make you if you do."

"But-but-she wants me to call her by her name!" he exclaimed. Or thought he did.

"You have to hide yourself better than this, or that Dark Elf will ruin everything," she warned. Then she winked out.

Bruno turned to Rebecca; had she seen the woman, too? When he asked, she said, "What woman?"

"Maybe I'm seeing things," he grumped, just as he caught sight of the crone again out of the corner of his eye. "Never mind." He knew that whatever he'd seen was important. And that personage felt he should not address Rebecca in such a familiar manner; ignoring that hint would be absolutely wrong, his feelings told him. And he absolutely, positively couldn't tell anyone about the personage, in case the Dark Elf was around and knew what the personage was...that was obvious.

He and Rebecca got along well enough, and she was older, friendly with his betrothed. Could he call her aunt?

He thought about this, but decided it needed some sort of modifier. "In your culture," he said, feeling his way slowly, "what do you call people who care for others, but aren't related?"

"Nurses? Doctors?" she ventured.

"No, no!" he exclaimed. "I mean, when people are orphans, like I am, but someone takes care of them, if they're not in an orphanage, or a school, or something. What is that called?"

She considered; her eyes glazed over for a bit, before clearing. "I know! We call people like that foster parents. Why did you want to know?"

He pulled her to a nearby bench, waited for her to sit down, and sat down next to her. He put up a light shield, one that should be just strong enough to warn him if anyone tried to listen in, and decided to let her know at least part of what was going on. "I've been stuck at school for eight years," he murmured. "In the Elfy Realm, if we have no family left, we stay at school during holidays like Ba'altinne."

"What ...are you trying to tell me?"

"If I call you by your name here, as you wish," he said slowly, "I may call more attention to myself than not. What else might be an appropriate title to call you?"

"Well, Sarah's my daughter's best friend, despite the age difference," Rebecca mused. "So, she's almost another daughter to me. Doesn't that mean I could be your mother-in-law, almost?"

He laughed briefly. "Somehow, that doesn't seem quite the thing." He thought for a moment, then ventured shyly, "I'd call you aunt, except no one would believe it!"

She looked at him, all paleness and shortness and angularity, and looked back at herself; the clean, tall, bronzed lines of her seemed even more pronounced upon comparison.

"I think I see," she said. "Well, if I'm not your mother-in-law, almost, and if I'm not your aunt, almost, why can't I be your auntie? So call me Auntie."

"That sounds good to me, Auntie," he said gratefully. He thought he saw the wizened crone wink at him for a moment, but once again saw nobody when he looked closer.

"You've been alone for eight years?"

"Yes, except for Roberto." He sighed. "That's one reason I have to help him. Do you understand?"

"I'm not sure," she admitted. "You've said he's a bit of a, well, jackass is the only word that comes to mind. But he's been the only one who's cared about you, really, in eight years?"

"More or less," he said, pointing his toes so he could scuff his feet against the ground.

"I'll help you try to save him," she said. Then they resumed their trek to the register.

As they got closer to it, they found some heavier shirts that looked like they'd fit. Rebecca picked out a dark gray shirt that would almost certainly match his sweater, and said, "Why not try this one on?"

He did so; it fit well, but for some reason, it just didn't match as well as he'd hoped. The next one she grabbed was solid black, and made from some sort of nubbly material; this one matched, and fit perfectly. It even felt good to wear, and he realized for the first time that he actually felt warm.

"Yes, that looks good, too," she said. She indicated some more plastic-wrapped bundles, calling them 'T-shirts,' even though they didn't look like they made a "T" or any other sort of English letter to him. "Are you warm enough?"

"I think so," he said.

"We should pick up a few of these anyway, just in case you get cold again," she told him, before picking up several different packages. He noticed gratefully that the brightest color she picked up was a sort of sapphire blue; the dullest was an off-black shade. All of them should go with the new sweaters and pants, he noted.

"By the way, what's with the picture on this gray sweater?" he asked.

"Oh, I think that's one of the local sports team's logos," she said absently. "Why do you ask?"

He motioned her closer; she bent her ear near to his mouth before he whispered, "I was afraid it might be some sort of Dark symbol; if so, I couldn't wear it."

"No, it's not," she said softly. "Just free advertising for whatever team, if someone notices you wearing it. But if you throw one of these heavy shirts over it, no one should even see the logo. You won't even have to make small talk about these teams."

"Good, because I'd surely not be able to pass for Human if so," he whispered again. She pulled away, and he asked in a more normal tone of voice, "What else do we need?"

"Underwear," she said. "Socks. Maybe shoes."

"Socks, I'll trust you on," he said. "As for underwear, I have been wearing a sort of ...um, you'd call it a long john. That's what we wear, um, in my country. It's self-cleaning, so that's not a problem, but I only have the one." He decided that it would probably be better not to mention the fact that the only reason his underall was "self-cleaning" was because his backpack did the job for him; that would require too much explanation.

"We normally don't wear that sort of thing here except when it's very cold."

"Ah," he said. "Well, since I don't know what sort of underwear Humans wear, will you just buy some that seems right to you? If it doesn't fit, we can always return it."

"Suits me," she said. She went over and picked up a few packages at random. After a beat, she said, "We still have to talk over the whole facts of life thing, as Mikayla said earlier. I suppose we could start there, with the different sorts of underwear."

Oh, please, no, he thought. Can't this wait for Samuel to tell me? Bad enough for him to tell me whatever this stuff is-I just know I'm not going to want to hear it. Suddenly, he thought of a way out. Pitching his voice just a tad bit higher, and whining just a shade, he said, "Can we do it after lunch?" What does underwear have to do with the facts of life, anyway? he thought irreverently. It sounds like a breakfast cereal! He looked around, and quickly checked with his mage sense: no one around, not even cloaked. It was safe enough for him to say, "As it stands, I've already done three spells today. Even after your excellent breakfast, I'd much rather rest!"

"That makes sense," she said. She looked at him carefully, then nodded a bit. "You do look worn out. After we finish our shopping, I'll take you to the mall's food court, and we'll rest there."

Bruno nodded tiredly.

"That sounds good. Why don't you take my wallet and pay for this stuff? Let me know if there isn't enough, please?"

"All right," Rebecca said, giving him a strange look. She went up to a counter next to a machine that she called a "cash register," even though Bruno couldn't see any cash-or anything else-being registered anywhere, and took his wallet. He went up with her, and pointed out that as he was wearing several things, maybe they'd want to start with those, first?

"Well, you're a well-spoken young lad, aren't you?" The clerk smiled. "Most people aren't anywhere near so polite."

"My auntie wanted to take me shopping today," Bruno explained. "School's out until next Monday, you know."

"Ah, I'd heard a few of the schools were out this week," she said, deftly passing a thick wand-like device over Bruno's sweater until it beeped, then doing the same for the pants and the shirt. "Here, lift up the shirt and sweater for a minute, please." She did something behind Bruno's back with another tool, this one looking like a peculiarly-shaped plier or wrench. He heard three hollow thunking sounds, then the woman dropped the tool on the counter, along with three ivory-colored discs that he hadn't noticed before. "Anti-shoplifting devices," the woman told Rebecca. "Wouldn't want those nice things to get covered with glowing yellow dye when you leave the store."

"Very true, and thank you," Rebecca said as she handed the young woman the other things.

"Let me total these up, and I'll get you on your way."

They thanked her, took the purchases, and were on their way back out. "Nice lady," Bruno said. "Why is she working here?"

"They gave her a job?" Rebecca asked in return. "Honestly, how would I know, Bruno? I don't know everyone on Earth, you know."

"I didn't think you did, Auntie," he said, bowing.

She laughed. Then, she spotted something. Or maybe, someone. "That's Dennis," she said, hissing. "Be careful!"

His backpack jerked a bit in warning, then was still. Bruno quickly raised a two-layer shield. The outer layer gave the semblance of someone barely talented, and Human; Bruno based this shield on the auras of several of the kindergarten children he had seen. The second was the aura of someone a bit more talented, but still Human. He barely had time to hope it would be enough before a tall, inordinately thin, red-haired, weaselly looking man-no, Elf-stopped in front of them.

"Hello, Rebecca," Dennis said in a drawl whose undertones sent a shiver of dread up Bruno's spine. "What are you doing here?"

 

 

Chapter 3

"Just shopping with my sister's foster-son, Dennis," Rebecca said rather coolly, considering the innocence of her words. "What did you think I was doing? Just hanging about?"

"Temper, temper," Dennis scolded.

He gave Bruno one look, then focused his attention back on Rebecca's face. That was probably a good thing, Bruno reckoned; at least Dennis hadn't started firing off spells yet.

"It's nice that you want to help your sister's foster-son, Rebecca," the Dark Elf said, perhaps trying to mollify her.

"I thought it was," she replied icily. "Really, Dennis, what do you take me for? I'm not a rude person, you know."

"Never said you were. I'm just trying to be polite," Dennis offered. His oily voice grated on Bruno.

"Well, be polite somewhere else," she told him. She indicated Bruno, then looked directly into Dennis' eyes. "Surely you don't think acts of Christian charity are wrong, too?"

Bruno hoped that the Dark Elf couldn't take Rebecca over that easily. He readied a few spells, just in case, but kept the double-layered shield up for camouflage.

"No, of course not," Dennis said in a condescending manner. "Although charitable acts can be done by anyone, not just Christians."

"Did I ever say they couldn't be?" Rebecca snapped.

Bruno wondered what Dennis was about. But he couldn't augment his empathic sense as he normally would, because if Dennis caught him using magic overtly, Bruno was sure the masquerade would be over.

He was convinced Dennis was trying to get Rebecca to act badly. But why? And for what purpose?

As he heard Rebecca and Dennis cordially, then not so cordially, insult each other, he thought harder. Will my shields hold? I can't augment them now, that's for sure. He hated having to work "blind," but there it was. Dennis would surely pick it up if he used his magic.

Dennis continued to ignore him, which Bruno decided was just as well. All I know is what Samuel said before, he mused. And what I see here. Goddess, Dennis is a rude bastard, isn't he? He chided himself for that thought; after all, he didn't have any idea what Dennis' actual parentage was.

Why was Dennis acting like this?

Because he was thinking so hard, Bruno missed the next few exchanges, until he felt his backpack wiggle hard. He grabbed hold of it, and subvocalized firmly, hoping the pack would pick it up and Dennis wouldn't, What's wrong with you, pack?

The backpack wiggled some more, and Bruno remembered. Ah. It's the warning you wanted to give me? The backpack stilled; Bruno thanked it, and firmed up his shields underneath the two false layers and prepared to defend himself any way he could.

"Auntie?" Bruno asked in a high-pitched voice, accompanying it with a wide-eyed stare. He tried to emulate the kindergarteners he'd seen in Sarah's school the day before, because somehow he knew, without knowing how he knew, that Dennis would see right through his fake Irish accent to the very real Elfy beneath, and tugged at Rebecca's sleeve. "Please?"

"What is it, Bruno?" Rebecca asked, as if weary of dealing with such a small child. If Bruno hadn't seen the brief, quickly stifled glint in her eyes, he would have been fooled, and he'd have bet real money-not these small, green strips the Humans used-that Dennis was.

"I gotta use the bathroom," he whined. "I gotta go right now."

"Well, Dennis," Rebecca said, "you see how it is. I have to take Bruno to the restroom." Then, pointedly, "You don't plan on following us there, too?"

"Of course not," he said silkily. "I'll see you tomorrow at the celebration?"

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," she tossed off. Then, she marched away, Bruno's new clothes bag in one hand, and Bruno's hand in the other. While they walked, Bruno kept up a line of whining.

"Please, Auntie, we'd better hurry! I really gotta go!" He hoped he was convincing; if the pitying looks both he and Rebecca were getting were any judge, these Humans couldn't tell that he wasn't a Human child of six or seven. Good thing the hair on his body hadn't migrated up to his face, or he'd have never pulled this trick off.

Just as they reached the bathroom, which Rebecca told him was a family bathroom, meaning they both could go in, Bruno felt something strike his shields and fall away. Rebecca, however, nearly fell down; Bruno steadied her and helped her inside the room. Once there, he made sure there was no one else in the small room, then locked the door with the latch. (This wasn't easy-he had to stretch to his tiptoes to get a good hold on it-but he managed.) Then he put up a shield around the room, and a warn-off; to all the Hells with what Dennis thought about it, if he thought anything at all. Then, he said gently, "Are you all right, Rebecca? Do we need to call Samuel?"

"No, don't," she said with a quick burst of energy. "I don't want to worry him. Besides, you're more powerful than me, or him, and for all I know more than both of us put together! Can you help?"

"I can try," he said. "I felt what Dennis did."

"How?"

"My backpack warned me."

"So those things are good for something after all," she tried to tease.

The backpack, perhaps worn out from all its warnings, did nothing. Bruno subvocally thanked it while studying Rebecca's face in concern. She looked as if she was going to faint; she was grayish-white, as opposed to the healthy bronzed brown she'd been just a few minutes earlier. He asked intensely, "What do you feel?"

"I...feel...sick, Bruno," she said extremely slowly. "All of a sudden. I feel like I'm going to pass out." Bruno helped her sit on the floor, which he remembered from the Purple Pentacle course was the best thing to do, and tried not to fret.

"Do you really have to go to the bathroom?" Rebecca asked, trying to smile.

"No, I just wanted to get us away from Dennis, and that was the only thing I could think of," he told her. "I realized when he was trying to bait you that he must be up to no good."

"I was mad at him," Rebecca admitted. "But mostly because he didn't want to be introduced to you."

"Why would that bother you?" he asked. He noticed that her eyes were starting to glaze over; she appeared to be going into shock. "No! Talk to me about anything. Otherwise, I can't help."

"I'll...try," she said weakly. "Can you get me some water?"

"To drink, or to put on your face?"

"Face," she managed to get out before seeming to shrink into herself.

Bruno looked around, trying to spot something he could soak with water to use as a compress-if nothing else served, he could always use one of those "T-shirt" things they'd just bought, but he didn't want to have to do that. Almost immediately, he spotted a silvery box on the wall that seemed to be a dispenser for paper sheets of some sort. The bin below it was overflowing with crumpled sheets, some of them obviously wet. Perfect.

He went over to the dispenser, stood on his tiptoes to reach it, grabbed the dangling paper and pulled it. A folded sheet came out in his hand, and the end of another appeared. He grabbed that one as well, and two more for good measure. Although the texture was different, they seemed very like the paper towels Rebecca had given him to use as napkins at breakfast; he hoped these would hold some water rather than turning into a soggy lump.

One of the wash basins was set at a convenient height for him, so he went to it and turned the knob on the right-hand tap. Sarah had assured him that right-cold, left-hot was the standard everywhere in the Human Realm, and in this case, at least, she was right. Even though the tap didn't want to stay open, he was able to get enough water onto the towels to soak them through; he hoped it would be enough to help.

He brought them back to Rebecca and put one of them on the back of her neck. The other he put into her hand; she started to slowly put it across her face and neck. This isn't right, he thought angrily. Whatever Dennis did, it wasn't good, and she wasn't expecting it. And her shields didn't hold it; that's another thing I'll have to remember. The zcuckfshwl bastard can get through her shields!

"What else can I do to help, Rebecca?" he asked gently, trying not to let her see any of his inner turmoil.

"Tell me what's wrong," she pleaded. "I've never felt anything like that! What was it?"

"Dennis's magic," he told her. "He wants you to stay home from that ritual tomorrow, that's for sure." He got up to turn the water on again, re-wetted the towels, and brought them back to Rebecca. I'll have to try to figure out what he did, he thought. I don't have very much energy left, but I can't leave her like this. Let's hope I can do enough to help. "Hold these to your head and neck, Rebecca," he commanded, "while I try to unravel the spell."

"You can do that?" she asked, looking up at him in bemusement.

"I can try," he said grimly. "But while I do it, I want you to promise me something."

"What?"

"Do you know any meditation exercises?"

"Yes ...why?"

"No time to explain," he said. "Just do them, and hold your center. Keep at it until I'm done unraveling the spell, all right?"

"All right," she agreed weakly, "but you'd better explain once you're done!"

He smiled. "If it works, you'll know what I did even as I do it. If not, well, meditating should help keep Dennis's spell from doing whatever it's doing as easily as it's doing it now." He wished language wasn't so imprecise; he could see the concepts he wanted to impart, but he just couldn't explain them in words!

Fortunately, he got enough through. She patted his hand gently, saying, "I'll meditate. Not easy, this way...too tired...but I'll do my best."

He nodded. She closed her eyes, and tried to relax her body; he could feel her doing it as he attempted to root in the Earth underneath this concrete-and-metal-and-glass-and-Goddess-knew-what-else "mall." It wasn't as easy for him to ground as it should be-the unfamiliar building materials kept distracting him-but he finally achieved a sort of rooting that he thought might hold long enough. He centered quickly, then gathered his energy as he had outside Sarah's home. He didn't have time for what he'd done there, so he examined Rebecca's aura as thoroughly as he could in a quick look while he tried to figure out his next step. Her attempt at meditation showed him what her normal pattern was-a sort of bright, greenish-brown cheerfulness. Now, though, it was overlain by a nasty, reddish-black stain.

Oh, this isn't good, he thought. What will take away stuff like this? None of his teachings had talked about removing Dark aura-linked spells-was it possible to even do it?

I'm going to try, he thought firmly. He thought of an eraser, like the ones his teachers had used to rub chalk marks off the blackboards at school, wondering if this was a silly concept. He banished the thought as unworthy-if it worked, it wasn't silly, and if it didn't work, it was no sillier than some of the imagery associated with the spells he had been taught-and used the "eraser" to rub the stain away. It seemed to work, but so slowly-he was afraid he wouldn't have enough strength to make it back into his body before it was done. As it was, when he'd erased all the nastiness and went back inside his body, he nearly fell.

"That...took a lot of out me, Rebecca," he said weakly. She opened her eyes; they didn't look as bad as before, only tired, rather than out of focus. He had the feeling she could really see him now, rather than just sense him. "Do you feel better?"

"Somewhat," she said wearily. "I don't feel like I'm going to pass out, at any rate. What was that thing?"

"Dennis threw an aura-spell at you," Bruno said. "It was intended to drain you of magic, and possibly of vitality as well."

She sucked in a long breath. But before she could say anything else, he'd gone on.

"Fortunately, he didn't think it over too hard; your husband might have been able to clear it with Mikayla's help. The thing is, it'd have knocked all of you out of tomorrow's ritual, and that's if Samuel had figured it out right off and taken it down immediately. Things like that, well, they fester, and take more and more energy from you if you don't get rid of them right away. That's why I took the spell down right here, despite the distinctive energy signature and the danger to us if Dennis picks up what I'm doing."

"Why...would that matter?" she asked feebly.

"Because if Dennis spotted what I was doing, Rebecca, he'd immediately know an Elfy was here, as I don't know how to cloak my energy signature very well," Bruno said. He felt like wringing his hands, but done was done; they'd have to keep going, and let things fall where they would. "In any event, Rebecca, if Dennis was paying attention, he now knows there's an Adept-class Elfy about, because there's no way for me to stop him from knowing. The shield and warn-off I threw around the room will cloak exactly what I did in here, that's all, and keep him out for the time being. But it won't do anything else; that's one reason I think we need to call your husband-he's still at more-or-less full strength, and now, neither of us are."

She shuddered. "I don't want to call Samuel just yet. I don't want him to worry."

Doesn't she understand? he thought. If Dennis is still out there, he'll have us for lunch! But because Rebecca was still weak, he only said, "All right. I can check one more thing before we leave this shielded room. Just a second, please." He was still grounded and centered; it was but an instant until he was back out of his body. He went looking for unusual astral signatures outside the family restroom, but saw nothing strange, only non-magically-gifted Humans. Dennis wasn't there.

Good.

He returned to his body and opened his eyes, only to see Rebecca staring at him. "It's a gift," he said weakly. "When I learn something, I get better at it the more often I do it, and lately, I've had to do a whole lot of out-of-body traveling."

She just stared. "I can't do that," she said, barely getting the words out. "I don't know anyone who can. What are you, Bruno?"

"I'm your friend," Bruno snapped. "And I'm your family's friend, as well as Sarah's fiancé. What, you thought I'd not risk myself to save you?"

Rebecca looked at him with a sort of awe that made his teeth grind, and the gratitude he felt coming from her made him feel even worse. That just would not do.

"Look, Rebecca, what I have is an ability, nothing more. It's the same as, oh, playing hurley well. Do you know the game?"

"It's something they play in Ireland?"

"I think so," Bruno said. "They play it where I'm from; I don't know how to describe it." He tried to think, through his weakness; how could he explain the sticks, the strategy, and everything else? Finally, he said, "It's a sort of sport, like track and field, except not."

"What does a sport of any sort have to do with what you just did?" she asked with a bit of asperity. "That was one of the most incredible things I've ever experienced, Bruno-I saw what you did, or at least I saw something, and more to the point, I felt that horrible magic leave. Is that why you wanted me to meditate?"

"Partly," he admitted. "But mostly it was so your essential pattern would be there, and I'd know what was you, and what wasn't, and what was safe for me to get rid of."

She looked at him with astonished respect. "I don't know anyone else capable of that, Bruno. And you're still a kid; what will you do as an adult?"

He felt like snarling; as it was, he didn't even have the energy to pace. He compromised by going to the sink, wetting another napkin, and toweling down his face and neck. Then, he turned back and squarely faced Rebecca.

"My mage gifts are no different than a Trader's talent for making deals," he said evenly. "Or when a Healer heals ills of the body. Or when a cleric gives reverence to his God or Goddess, or all of them together." She still didn't understand; he tried one more time. "They are a part of me, yes, but they aren't all of who I am. Please, don't revere me for something I was born with."

Slowly, Bruno felt the awe fade.

"You're a person like any other, then?" she joked.

"Not exactly, no." Bruno snorted. "Nobody is just like any other person. Anyway, I don't think we have to worry about Dennis for the moment."

"Why not?"

"Spells like that are said to be draining to cast, and almost as hard on the person who sets the spell as the one upon whom it is cast," he said firmly. "He wouldn't be able to just up and do something else right away. And I don't think he spotted that I was-am-an Elfy, or he would've stuck around and tried to take me right now. Instead, I think he saw me as young, Human, and rather unskilled. Which is why he's no longer here." He considered further. "I'd never lay a spell like that on anyone, so all I have to go on is hearsay."

"Good," she said, smiling. "Now...what...can we do to get back our energy, Bruno?"

"Considering that you won't do the sensible thing, and call Samuel?"

"I'd rather have a bit of energy, so he won't see me quite so badly off," Rebecca said with a bit of an edge to her voice. "You don't understand. We've been married a long time, and he hasn't seen me sick very often. Nor have I ever been magically attacked before."

"Ah," Bruno breathed. "Yes, I'm sure he'll worry, but-"

"But nothing. The fact is, I'm not sure he'll know what to do, and I want to have enough energy to deal with him when I call."

"That makes sense, I suppose," Bruno said reluctantly. "I know Sarah will be worried, too, providing I tell her. Do you think I should?"

"She deserves to know," Rebecca said, "but not just yet. Wait until school is out. I'll have Samuel pick the girls up, and you can tell her then."

"I won't even have to cast an illusion spell, now, or an invisibility spell either, will I?" Bruno asked, grinning a bit. "Now that Dennis there has seen me, and thinks of me as Human, no one will think anything of it!"

"They shouldn't," she affirmed. "Now, what can we do to feel better?"

"Since neither of us has any magical energy to give the other," he said slowly, "the only thing we can do is to eat, and eat a lot. After that, and a bit of rest, I should be able to tap into either the Earth or the Sun and give you some magical energy."

"Good," she said. "Well, if you'll help me up, I should be able to get us down to the food court."

"You said they had a food court before, even though I still don't know what they court," he said teasingly. "Will they have real food there, or are they just all courting?"

Rebecca laughed weakly.

"Good," Bruno pronounced. "Laughter is the best medicine. Keep laughing. Now, where is this so-called food court? I'm starving!"

He helped Rebecca stand up, gently; her hand rested on his shoulder for a moment longer than it should have before she stood completely up. She went to the mirror, put some water on her wrists, then applied the newly-wetted napkin again to her face and neck. "I feel a little better; well enough to walk down there. It's not far."

"Wonderful," he said with feeling. "That's the fourth spell I've cast this morning, Rebecca, and I'm tired!"

She laughed again. "Just so long as you stay alive to be tired, Bruno."

"That's for sure," he admitted. Before he opened the door, he dissolved the shields around the room and re-formed them around Rebecca; his own personal shields should be enough for him at the moment. As they opened the door, he removed the warn-off as well, thinking, This way, if anyone needs the bathroom, now they can use it.

Bruno stepped out first and checked around, just in case he wasn't as good at interpreting what he sensed during out-of-body travel as he'd thought he was. No Dennis. Good, he exulted. Maybe we got away clean. Although thinking about being clean, after being in a bathroom, felt weird.

Rebecca followed, looking ill. She took his hand; he took the bag with his new clothes in it from her other hand, because she still looked so drained. They proceeded to walk a distance that Sarah would call "a few blocks" to a large, well-lit area dominated by neon-bright signs hawking this, that, and the other sort of foodstuffs. One of them had a sign that seemed to say "hot dogs," if Bruno's meager knowledge of written English served him correctly, so he asked Rebecca about it.

"Hot dogs?" she asked in return. "Well, you can have one, if you want, or three, or sixteen."

He smiled involuntarily. I can see where Mikayla gets her sense of humor. "No, it's just that I'm surprised. Sarah said you had hot dog stands, too. We harvest special types of unintelligent dogs for the purpose; is that what you do?"

Rebecca shook her head severely. "No, for us, a hot dog is a sort of sausage made out of pork meat and sometimes chicken or even beef. Never out of dogs, as far as I know!"

"Oh," he said, feeling a bit disappointed. "So, they won't taste right, then?"

"Probably not," she said. "Still, you could try one, for the experience, and get something else for me."

"What would you like?" he asked politely.

"Probably a sub," she said. "That store," she pointed at a whitewashed area with a long, glassed-in section, with one of those strange cash registers at the end, "is a sub place. Just get me whatever is on special."

"All right," Bruno agreed, mystified. What was a "sub," anyway? His spell-induced knowledge of English told him that the word was a short form of the name for a type of boat that went under water instead of on the surface, but he'd already learned that these Humans always had at least two, and usually more, totally different meanings for every word in their language. "What else is there to eat, here? One hot dog won't fill me, and I probably need a wide variety of things to make up for all the lost personal energy."

"Like vegetables, and fruits, and such?" Rebecca asked. Her eyes sparkled for a moment as she went on. "You have to be the first boy I've ever seen who wanted to eat his vegetables."

Bruno flushed. "I just like them," he said, scuffing his feet. "And they do restore energy faster; they've proved that, back home."

"The sub place should have salads, too," she said. "Ask them for one."

"All right," he said agreeably. "But that still doesn't get us anything to drink."

She pointed at yet another store, this one with a large, silvery glass above a sort of mock doorframe. "That place has what they call smoothies, and you can ask for any sort of fruit you want. I'll take their special; why don't you ask for a few samples, to see what you like best?"

He shook his head; so many choices! It was like being in Dun Sidheach on a major feast day, or very like; the only difference was, he didn't know the traditional viands, he didn't know the traditional drinks, and the traditional salutes and songs and so on. For a moment, he felt very lonely.

"It's not so bad, Bruno," she said feebly. "I'd do it myself, but I don't feel well. Go on, and I'll help as soon as I can."

He went first to the sub shop, and got Rebecca the biggest "personal" sub they had, because she needed to eat. He got a salad for himself, the biggest one they had; they threw some white cheese on top because the young servingman said he needed it "to grow up straight and healthy." Bruno just smiled; the nice fellow didn't need to know this was as tall as he was likely to get. He gave the servingman, almost a boy, really, some green strips; the man gave him back some others, asking him why a little boy like him had so much money this early in the day.

"Oh, it's my auntie's money," he explained. "Normally, she'd come and get the food herself, but she's having some sort of medical problem, and is really weak and sick, like."

The servingman smiled a bit. "My mother has diabetes; sometimes, she gets weak like that. Don't worry, this sub should help put her to rights." Then, he paused, and pointed at the other place Rebecca had pointed out. "You see them?" he asked Bruno. Bruno nodded. "Good," the man went on. "Ask them for an Orange Juice Special for your auntie; that seems to help my Mom a lot, when she gets this way."

"Thanks!" Bruno called, and carried the food back to Rebecca. He showed her what he'd bought for himself; she smiled weakly at the salad he'd picked out, and goggled at the size of the sub he'd bought her.

"I normally don't eat this much food in a week!"

"You normally don't have nasty Dark Elfs throwing spells at you to drain your energy, either, auntie," he said firmly. "Eat it all. You need the energy."

Bruno stood there for a moment, doing his best to loom over her like a stern parent until Rebecca stopped staring doubtfully at the sub and started to eat it without further complaint.

With many a glance back at Rebecca, Bruno went over to the "fruit smoothie place" and asked for a big glass of the "Orange Juice Special"-which was apparently actually called "Orange Juice Banana Delight"-for Rebecca. Strangely enough, it didn't look like it had oranges in it, although he saw them add several different exotic fruits that he'd never seen before to the large container they used to make it. He hoped Rebecca would like it; maybe she'd even know what all the things were in it. While the Special was being blended, he tried several things, finally settling on something called "straw-rasp-blackberry," whatever that was. It was tasty, and he was sure it was full of vitamins. He needed those. He paid them with one of the green strips again, and when he was once again asked why he had so much money, pointed to the wan, pale Rebecca; the young woman at the counter gave him back more green strips without further comment.

He went back to Rebecca, who'd only managed to nibble on her sandwich, and set the two glasses down. He put the larger of the two in front of her, and said severely, "Auntie, you need your strength; that's why I bought you the biggest sub they had. Leaving it on the plate isn't going to help you recover your strength any faster, now, is it?"

"It's not that easy to eat right now," she whispered.

"Well, then try this fruit smoothie thingy," he answered. "It has pineapple juice-whatever that is-in it, the lady said, and a whole bunch of other exotic things I've never seen before. I hope you like it."

She sipped slowly, then more avidly. "Oh, this is good! I'll have to order this again sometime."

"Someday I hope you'll tell me what's in there," Bruno said. "I like to know what I'm eating and drinking. No matter; mine is called straw-rasp-blackberry, and I don't know what that is either, although I like it."

"That's actually three types of berries-fruits picked off bushes-Bruno," Rebecca said. "I can't tell you how they propagate, because I'm not sure. But I know that raspberries and blackberries grow on bushes; raspberries are red, and blackberries are black. Strawberries are red, too, but they look a whole lot different than raspberries."

"Strange," Bruno said. "But it has lots of vitamins?"

"Yes, it does," Rebecca said. "Having a boy around who's worried about vitamins, and who actually wants to eat all his fruits and vegetables, is an interesting experience."

He flushed, and shook his head at the vagaries of adults; would he ever understand them if he lived to be a million years old? Somehow, he doubted it, as he walked over to the hot dog stand and got their special: two hot dogs (not made from real dogs-but when in Latium and all that), a glass of lemonade, and "frenchfries"-skinny strips of something sort-of-yellowish that looked more like fat toothpicks than any sort of edible vegetable he knew. He paid the older servingwoman with some more green strips, and got back some silvery small bits for his trouble; he wondered why he wasn't getting back more green strips this time, but he was too tired to care if he was being cheated. He brought the last of it back to the table, and started to tuck into his food.

"You're different," Rebecca said abruptly.

"Well, and what if I am?" Bruno snarled. "I'm sorry; it's just that seemed like a strange thing to say. What's it to you, anyway?"

"Mikayla won't eat her vegetables without a fight, and you started with a salad, that's all," she murmured. Her eyes lit up. "And you have so much food! That salad, and then you have the hot dogs and two drinks and French fries. I knew it! Growing boys are the same all over."

He decided not to correct her misapprehension. Why was it all these Humans thought he'd grow taller, anyway?

"Sometimes, yes. But right now, we need to recover our strength, and unless I eat a lot, I won't have enough energy to even feel the Earth or the Sun, much less to tap into their energy. And somehow, I think we're going to need me to do that before the day is too much older."

"You do seem to know what you're doing," Rebecca said. "So, I should eat this whole big thing?"

"Yes," he said firmly. "Not just the quarter you've managed, either. Eat it all, and drink that whole smoothie thing, and then if you need more to drink, get another! 'Tisn't as if I've run out of money so soon, belike."

"Yes, you've got enough to keep you for a day or so, from what I saw," she said, smiling. They continued to eat. After a while, Rebecca sat a bit straighter, reached over to tap Bruno's hand, and pointed out a group of children being herded past the food court by a handful of harried-looking adults. "Those look like St. Betsy's kindergarteners. I wonder if they are?"

"What would they be doing at the mall?" he asked, startled. Was Andrea in there? And what would she think, seeing him here?

"Going to a movie?" Rebecca asked in return. At Bruno's confusion, she added, "It's a sort of theatrical production, but it's recorded, and they show it on big screens, so many people can watch at once."

"Oh!" he exclaimed. "Keisha showed me a private movie, once, recently."

"Well, there are home movies, and movies meant for kids, and adults, and all ages," Rebecca added. "A plethora of movies, since you like big words."

"Why shouldn't I like big words?" Bruno asked irascibly. "I'm sorry to keep snapping, but I need a few hours of uninterrupted horizontality, so to speak, after I've finished this lunch. I hope I can impose upon you to find a handy bed?"

Before Rebecca could answer, Andrea had separated herself from the group and was standing in front of Bruno. She was wearing the same outfit as before, but wasn't wearing her elaborate cat brooch today. Bruno wondered idly where it was.

"You're real!" Andrea exclaimed. "My very own Elfy friend!"

"No, Andrea," Rebecca said wearily. "He's just a boy, like you. Don't make up stories." Andrea started to say something; but Rebecca put one finger to her lips and cupped her other hand behind her ear.

"Oh!" Andrea half-whispered. "It's a secret!"

"Yes, Andrea," Bruno said. "It is a secret. And I was planning on coming back to see you soon, I swear." He decided he had to know; he quickly detached his consciousness from his body to look at Andrea's astral presence, then just as quickly returned, hoping neither Andrea or Rebecca would notice the momentary inattention. Gold, green, white, he reflected. Potentially gifted-but no strong mage talents active now, although she might have some later. So...how did she see me yesterday?

"Well, I knew Daisy would bring you around, because she never breaks promises," Andrea said as a large, florid woman stomped up.

"Andrea! How many times have I told you not to go off by yourself?" the woman asked.

"I'm sorry, Mrs. Cartwright," she said unrepentantly. "It's just that I saw Mrs. Andrews here-" she indicated Rebecca "-and I know her, and wanted to say hi, like my Mom always tells me to do. To be polite."

"That's a laudable thing," Mrs. Cartwright said in a relieved tone. "But next time, ask, please? I didn't know where you were, and it wouldn't be good for you to get separated. There are bad people about, and you can never tell."

"That's true," Bruno added quietly for Andrea's ears alone. "There are bad people, and you should ask. But I will see you again, Andrea."

"Maybe I can come over later, Mrs. Andrews?" Andrea asked, eyes shining. "To see Mikayla, if nothing else?"

"Yes, of course, dear," Rebecca agreed absently. "But not until after five o'clock. Mikayla has some errands to run this afternoon. Have your Mama call me first, and we'll talk."

"Okay!" Andrea exulted, then skipped off to rejoin her group. Mrs. Cartwright threw Rebecca a bemused glance, then followed.

"What was that about?" Rebecca asked. "How could Andrea know you?"

"She saw through my invisibility screen the other day at school," he told her meekly. "I'm not sure how. She doesn't seem to be a mage of any sort, although she seems to have the potential."

"Later on, I'll ask her mother about that," Rebecca said. "You do seem to bring the oddest people around, don't you?"

"Andrea's not odd, she's just young," Bruno said, stung.

"That's...not exactly what I meant," she said, her eyes a bit unfocused. "But no matter. Let's see if we can get back to the car and make it home, so you can rest. Then we'll figure out what to do next."

 

 

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Author Bio

Barb is a writer, editor, musician, and composer. She holds two degrees and is an inveterate and omnivorous reader. Her short fiction is available in Bedlam's Edge, How Beer Saved the World, First Contact Café, Stars of Darkover, Gifts of Darkover, and the forthcoming Realms of Darkover, while her poetry has been published in the Due North anthology, Joyful Online, Written Word online magazine and the Midwest Literary Review.
You can find Barb at Elfyverse.

TTB titles: An Elfy on the Loose -- book 1
A Little Elfy in Big Trouble -- book 2
ChangingFaces

Author web site.

 

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A Little Elfy in Big Trouble Copyright © 2015. Barb Caffrey. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.

 

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  What people are saying:

"Barb Caffrey's An Elfy on the Loose is a fresh and unexpected take on the urban fantasy genre with a charming and original protagonist. You'll want to read this one."
~ Rosemary Edghill, author of Dead Reckoning, The Bast Mysteries, Music To My Sorrow
 



"You will never look at a little person again without wondering..."
~ Katharine Eliska Kimbriel, author of the popular Night Calls series.
 


"It took me awhile to categorize this book. Yes, it's a fantasy, but it's also something more. Then it hit me: a fantasy/mystery/thriller—that's what An Elfy on the Loose is! Filled with fascinating characters both good and evil, characters that, because of their strengths...and weaknesses...seem to come to life for the reader, and a riveting conundrum of a mystery with many facets—Why is Sarah/Daisy's house an Elfy trap, blocking magic? Who and what are Sarah's parents and why do they want to hold an Elfy captive? Why can't they tell the difference between Bruno and Roberto, his teacher? The further into An Elfy on the Loose I read, the deeper it drew me into the story. And I went eagerly!"
~ Stephanie Osborn, author of the popular Displaced Detective series.
 


"Quick and witty, Caffrey's Elfy on the Loose is one of those novels that grabs you and refuses to let go. Straddling a fine line between absurdity and suspense, it's a story for the ages."
~ Jason Cordova, author of Corruptor and many, many short stories.
 


"If you love Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, you're going to love the Elfy duology by Barb Caffrey.

"...The characters are what really made this a fantasy gem for me. Not only are you dealing with the main characters, you're also encountering minor characters that I loved. The "ghost" who helps Bruno was one of my favorites as well as the thinking backpack. Each character was fleshed out and multi-faceted.

"All I can say is that it was worth the wait to read this conclusion to the Elfy duology. I enjoyed all the magic, good versus evil battling, action, quirky comic relief and of course, the sweet romance between Sarah and Bruno. The author told me there might be more from Elfyverse and that makes me excited.

"If you're a fantasy fan, I highly recommend this book. You won't be disappointed."
~ author and book reviewer N.N. Light, Princess of the Light
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