[Word Count: 3640]
Early autumn breeze blew through the city streets, dry from the desert to the south. The restless air stirred around the young woman as she made her way through the ancient roads, her dark curls dancing in her face until she tied a brightly patterned scarf about her head.
Cas’s commute took her through the western part of town, where farmland interspersed the buildings and the land allotments were larger. Walking along a wide road she enjoyed the fresh feeling the air had at this hour as the sounds of people waking and getting ready for the day drifted through open windows and across yards.
The sun had already crept half way down the decorative facade as Cas approached, its rays illuminating the clefts and depths of the birds and animals carved into the stone.
“You’re later than usual,” a flat voice observed as she entered the cooled air of the waiting room.
The other nurse looked up from his computer screen, obviously bored at being stuck on reception.
“The tram stopped halfway here, I had to walk most the way from the wall,” she said as she rushed past him with a scattered smile, pushing through the doors marked STAFF ONLY.
The clean crisp conditioned air gave way to a warm wave of animal smells and disinfectant and she closed the door behind her, rushing down the corridor beyond.
Already the sounds of voices raised in anger were reaching her ears.
“You’re an animal, a Vana blessed animal,” one of the young volunteers was yelling as she entered the room.
“Your fucking point?” a familiar voice hissed, dangerously calm.
“You two know you’re disturbing the patients, right?” Cas asked to disrupt the argument.
The small room was lined with large enclosures, all empty except one whose occupant, a large gold and purple tortoise, didn’t seem the least disturbed by the heated exchange.
“Right,” the volunteer thrust a clipboard at her before leaving the room.
Turning to the possum sitting on the back of a chair she frowned to see his grey-brown fur still bristling in anger.
“Calm down,” she said. “What were you arguing about?”
Shaking himself the possum composed his emotions and fixed her with a sharp black eye.
“He was looking for you to give you your charts, I told him to leave them with me, he refused, I wondered aloud why he would do that,” the possum spoke clearly and swiftly, raising himself to stand on his hind limbs and revealing his paler belly fur.
“I think I can guess the rest,” she said, sighing.
New volunteers often made this mistake, particularly those who’d worked at regular animal shelters in the past, shelters where the animals were all standard issue cats and dogs with maybe the occasional parrot or lizard.
The transition to the variety of beings housed and cared for at their own Home for Foundling Familiars and Misplaced Magical Animals could take a bit of getting used to. Terrance was far from the oddest creature within these walls.
“He’ll learn quick enough,” she said, scanning the top page of her papers.
“Before he meets Mama, I hope,” he said, wrinkling his whiskers.
Some young entrepreneur had gotten it into their head that an enchanted animal show in the city centre would be wildly successful, and instead of starting small with a house cat they’d managed to get hold of a tiger and had experimented on her instead. The resulting magical explosion had killed the young experimentalist, and endowed the animal with an unfortunate telekinetic ability.
The mess was terrible.
Animal control had gone in without waiting for magical backup, and were slaughtered with the rest of the people in Mama’s line of vision.
After she’d been subdued an argument had erupted over what to do with the beast; many people wanted her terminated. Instead she’d been brought here, to live out her days in a custom built enclosure paid for by the city.
Only Ms. Rosa, the Home’s director and a skilled witch and veterinarian, entered Mama’s massive enclosure and she covered herself in layers of magical protections every time.
Pushing thoughts of Mama snacking on fresh volunteers from her mind Cas fed the tortoise and filled the water dish.
“I have to clean enclosures all morning; you don’t have to join me.”
Terrance shrugged. “I’ll come watch.”
“Delightful,” she muttered, lifting him onto her shoulder.
Few animals had come through the clinic recently, but an injured marmoset languished in a cage, its torso wrapped in clean bandages.
“Poor little dude,” Cas crooned as she opened the lock.
Alerted by the sound the creature launched itself at the door just as she opened it, bolting past her and toward the corridor outside. Stumbling in surprise she wheeled toward it, ready to make chase throughout the warren of the Home’s main building. The marmoset stopped in mid-air.
A shining golden bubble enclosed the animal as it leapt for freedom, brought forth by Terrance’s outstretched paw. The bubble carried the marmoset to hover before them, immobilised but evidently enraged.
“Oh, forgot you could do that,” she murmured. “But can you, I dunno, calm it down?”
Terrance sighed beside her ear. “It’s a magical monkey, it’s fine.”
“But stress has such negative effects on the whole system.”
Terrance sighed louder but obviously changed his spell, as the marmoset soon calmed and closed its eyes.
“It’s sleeping,” he snapped, interrupting her. “Just finish with the cleaning so I can let it go, this takes effort you know.”
None of the other clinic animals, two kittens whose fur alternated between red, orange, and yellow, and one large, friendly python missing the tip of its tail, gave her any trouble as she cleaned their temporary homes.
Cas felt Terrance’s tail tighten around her neck as she tended to the snake enclosure.
“Worry not little friend, I’ve fed recently,” the large reptile told him.
Carrying the assorted used towels and soiled bedding down to the laundry she listened to the possum rationalising his own fear.
“I am, after all, a prey animal, with the subconscious instincts of a prey animal, and no matter how endowed with intelligence I may be it’s only natural, to be expected really, that I respond appropriately when faced with a predator,” he said, shifting his weight from foot to foot on her shoulder.
“Perfectly natural,” a voice responded as they entered the laundry.
The large basement room was poorly lit, and Cas squinted into the gloom.
A glowing golden bubble grew before Terrance’s tiny outstretched claws, and flew up toward the ceiling to dispel the shadows.
“Ouch,” the voice complained.
The soft glow lit the room well enough for her to find the speaker, and her irritation was immediate.
“Riley how many times? Don’t lurk in dark corners?” Cas scowled at the unnaturally large fruit bat hanging from a ceiling rafter, “It’s creepy as shit.”
“Well the light hurts my eyes so I’m not sitting out in the sunshine.”
“You have your own rooms,” she pointed out as she started to pack the machine. “Or you could sleep during the day like a normal bat.”
“You can’t send me to my room,” he said, sounding at once like the petulant teenager he’d been before his own magical accident.
“I wouldn’t dare,” she said, the smell of antibacterial soap filling the air as the washing machine grumbled to life. “Just suggesting that you not make a nuisance of yourself since Ms. Rosa let you stay.”
Riley had been found dazed and wandering and brought to them under the assumption that a bat that large had to be magical. After he’d regained his senses and explained himself Ms. Rosa had taken him to a hospital.
Cas had only ever been given the short version of events; left at the clinic she wasn’t told exactly why the spell couldn’t be reversed or why the bat boy had returned to live at the Home instead of wherever he’d lived before. Which was also a mystery, but his past couldn’t have been idyllic if he tried to transmogrify himself.
“I’m a bat,” Riley said. “Hanging around dark places is what we do.”
“Well if you’re in one of those moods I’ll leave you to it, or if you’re feeling helpful you could come help me feed a clutch of puffball chicks before my lunch break,” she said, leaving the room.
A scrambling sound marked his landing and he awkwardly followed her on all fours.
“Meet you there,” he called, entering a side passage.
Reaching the kitchens she left Terrance on a bench and unlocked the restricted walk in, searching amongst the rare and dangerous ingredients for the one she needed.
In the wild the young puffball’s would be fed a regurgitated diet of insects and bubbleroots by their parents, but these had been bred in captivity, and then abandoned when their popularity as pets subsided. Finding the box of freeze dried bubbleroots she left the chilly room.
“Have you ever been tempted to try it?” Terrance asked, gesturing to the plant matter as she poured some into a food processor.
“It doesn’t work on humans,” Cas said, glancing at him. “Or possums.”
“I’m satisfied with fruit thank you,” he said, leaving her to raid the pantry.
“This counts as your lunch,” she called after him half heartedly.
Pouring the insect-and-root-goop into a bowl she collected the possum, his cheeks red with berry juice, and headed to the nursery. All of the young animals were housed in this wing.
Riley waited for her outside the feeding room, his eyes and half of his face obscured by large, dark tinted goggles.
“For the lights.” he tapped the side of them when Terrance stared.
A small, fleece lined box had been brought into the well lit room and awaited them on a table in its centre. The heating was turned up in here for the babies’ comfort, and they could hear them cheeping in their box.
Getting Riley set up was her first task, his wings less than capable of wielding the eyedropper. Terrance offered his assistance, so with Riley cradling a baby bird on his wing membrane the possum could manoeuvre the eyedropper with both of his dexterous front paws.
“This stuff helps them to fly, right?” Riley asked with his face inches from the happily guzzling creature.
“Yeah, they build up gas in their chests to become buoyant,” she said, holding the chick close to her own face to compensate for her less-than-perfect eyesight. “Their wings won’t get much bigger in comparison to their bodies.”
Setting down the eyedropper she held out the cheeping baby’s tiny wing so he could see how small it was next to the near spherical bulk of the body.
Absorbed in their task they lapsed into a comfortable silence.
“What happens to these little guys after this?” Riley asked.
“They’ll probably have a nap.”
“But once they grow up. Do they get released into the wild, or sold or what?”
“Oh,” she said, smiling at her own mistake. “Uh, probably put up for adoption. They aren’t endangered, and everything indicates that these were bred for the pet trade so who knows what we’d do to the wild population if we introduced these little ones into it”
“Can anyone adopt?”
“No, not quite,” she said.
Looking up at his face she tried to read his strange features, obscured as they were by the large goggles. He seemed totally focused on the bird that he held, not even looking at her as they spoke.
“If you can get someone to agree to help you with feedings,” she began.
“Terrance, please buddy I-”
“Stop that,” the possum scowled at him, “I’ll help you, just don’t promise anything, or whine at me, okay?”
“Okay, sure,” he agreed, resuming his study of the small bird.
Having returned the birds to their cosy box Cas was collecting the dirty eyedroppers, and yet more towels, when a knock at the door made her pause. It opened without her having to answer, and the volunteer from that morning popped his head in.
“Oh good, you are here,” he said, stepping into the room.
He looked much more flustered than he had while arguing with the possum.
“I’m not trying to avoid you,” she said, feeling like he was blaming her for being hard to find.
“I need you to take this,” he held out a small cardboard box.
“What is it?” she asked, accepting the item.
“Lizard, it’s all in the comments,” he said, pulling a piece of paper from his pocket and thrusting it at her.
Reading over it as he left she pulled a face.
“Well that’s informative,” she grumbled, returning to the table to examine her new charge.
A dish towel had been neatly folded and laid in the bottom; it was bunched up on one side from the box being tilted, and a small spiny green lizard lay in the middle.
“Hey there little one,” she murmured as she grabbed it, moving quick as she expected it to bolt.
The lizard sat calmly in her grip, cocking its head to look at her as she lifted it out of the box. Even as she manipulated its little body to examine its underside it didn’t seem bothered.
“You do seem remarkably tame.”
The lizard nodded slowly.
“I’d say it understood you,” Terrance said, having wandered across the table to see what she was doing.
“Can you talk?”
It shook its head.
“I thought all clever animals could talk?” Riley asked, also drawn in by the odd lizard.
“Not all,” Cas said as the lizard turned a sharp eye on the bat. “It takes a lot of effort for the cleverest animals, not even all familiars learn. If I put you on the table will you stay there, not run away?”
The lizard nodded.
Setting it down gently she chewed her lip in thought.
“Are you a wild lizard?” Riley asked.
It shook its head.
The lizard started to nod its head, then shook it.
“I think that means ‘sort of’,” Terrance said.
“Are you missing a human or other person who typically takes care of your needs, and who you would like to be returned to?” Cas asked, rubbing her forehead which was starting to feel tight.
The lizard nodded emphatically.
She sighed. It was now technically her lunch break, but time could be a factor. Checking the admission sheet the volunteer had left with the lizard she pulled a face. It’d been found in an entirely different neighbourhood.
“You’re lucky I know a good dumpling place near there,” she muttered.
The tram ride had taken them along the river and through a tunnel in the old wall before it veered north into the city. Riley had stayed at the Home because he felt he got odd looks when he ventured out. Cas supposed that even for their city’s varied population a five foot bat was abnormal.
He needn’t have bothered.
The lizard had protested to being returned to the box, so Terrance had agreed to carry it as he rode on her shoulder, his long tail curled about her neck. The sight of a possum perched on a woman’s shoulder, clasping a small lizard in its forelimbs was already drawing a lot of blatant stares.
“Let us know if you see anyone you recognise,” she told the lizard as they approached the Serpent’s Square, where it had been found.
The street opened out abruptly on both sides, the autumnal sunshine bright against the reddish stone of the surrounding buildings. Small market stalls were scattered across the wide paved plaza, cafes sprawled out from the buildings lining the sides, and small and large groups of various peoples gathered in the sun around the fountain in the centre.
Meandering through the square as she dodged statues and shoppers Cas headed for one of the other avenues leading back into the city.
“Please be open, please still exist,” she sang under her breath.
Midway down the block she grinned to see a flag flapping gently in the breeze, a happy dumpling smiling on a white field.
“Pork buns,” Terrance whispered in her ear.
Taking their lunch back to the square they went to the centre, where Cas sat on the wide edge of the fountain. Three stone serpents rose in the middle of the wide pool, water spraying in thin arcs from their mouths to fall back into the pond with a pleasant chuckle.
“So you were found here, right, we haven’t come to the wrong place?” she asked the lizard, who sat on her knee watching the crowd.
Terrance sat next to her on the rim of the fountain, nibbling his pork bun.
“I don’t see anyone who looks like they’ve lost someone,” he said.
“I know, we’ll ask around in a moment,” she said, stuffing the last dumpling into her mouth.
A large crow had hopped closer while they ate, so they left the last of the bun on the stone for it and binned their waste.
“Can you point to where you were found?” Cas asked, taking the lizard from Terrance and holding it on her palm before her.
Following its directions and with a bit of minor circling they approached one of the many statues in the open space.
It featured the legendary founder of Carmine City, standing tall atop a pedestal and looking out over the square with flowers woven through both her beard and her wind tossed hair. On her shoulder perched a juvenile vulture; in her arms she held an eedarc, an endemic arboreal marsupial; between her feet crawled a young crocodile, no larger than a house cat.
Cas approached the closest street vendor.
After explaining herself to five separate stall holders, a waiter, and two passers-by who were curious about her small menagerie, she had yet to find anyone who’d seen or heard of someone who’d lost a lizard. She was starting to doubt her plan. Maybe hoping that the owner of a magical lizard would stick around once they realised it was gone was too much to ask for.
The sinking feeling in her stomach was echoed by the cries of a child in the distance. What if she couldn’t return the clever little lizard to its home? The horrible thought that maybe it had been abandoned on purpose occurred to her, but she shoved it aside viciously.
Setting a cheery smile on her face she approached the next stall.
“I hate to say it,” Terrance said after further fruitless questioning.
Cas paused in the shade of another statue, looking about them. As the afternoon crept on the crowd thinned and she worried that the person she was looking for, whoever they were, would leave as well.
“Terrance could you climb up to the top of the statue with the lizard and see if they can spot anything from up there?” she asked, holding the small reptile up to him.
Waiting for them to return she listened to the music drifting through the air from various street performers. Was that still a child’s cry mingling with the general clamour? She cocked her head, trying to catch the sound. Yes, it just got louder again, as if they’d re-entered the square.
“No luck,” Terrance said, startling her out of her thoughts.
“It was a long shot,” she admitted, helping him back onto her shoulder. “Let’s see if we can find a site office or market director or something, they might have a lost and found.”
“You, aren’t planning on handing-”
“No I’m not planning on handing the lizard into the lost and found,” Cas snapped. “I’m going to ask if anyone has been looking for a lizard.”
Weaving around the sides of the square she looked for anything that seemed like an official building, or someone in a uniform.
“So young to be lost,” Terrance murmured softly, obviously more focused on his scaly charge than their surroundings.
“Could you help me look-” she stopped mid sentence.
“Help you look at what?”
“Hey,” he protested.
“No, sorry, don’t shut up, but I just had an idea,” she said, switching more attention to her hearing.
Following her ears rather than her eyes she headed back toward the centre of the square.
“Would you care to share your idea?” Terrance asked crossly.
“The lizard is young, so young that of course they haven’t learnt to talk yet,” she said with a grin as her idea solidified.
The child had stopped wailing but his softer sobs and occasional shout led her to him.
Tears shone on full cheeks as he stood with an older man, frown buried deep on his small forehead. Glossy black curls alike her own fell around his reddened face.
“Hello,” Cas called as she approached. “Have you lost someone?”
“Ellie,” the little boy cheered as she crouched and Terrance held up the lizard for inspection.
Leaping from his grip the lizard, Ellie, launched herself at the child, landing on his laughing face.
“You’re a lifesaver, thank you so much,” the man said.
“No problems, it’s actually my job,” she said, forcing her smile to sit naturally.
“He usually carries her in his pocket, but she must have slipped out,” he ruffled the child’s curls, “We’ve been in a panic for hours.”
“Well I’m glad we found you, a young witch needs his familiar.”
The boy smiled up at her, cradling the lizard against his chest. “Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome little one, you’ve got a very clever lizard, take good care of her okay?”
The child nodded eagerly.
Waving a hasty goodbye as they called blessings behind her Cas rushed back between the lingering pedestrians and headed for the tram.