Without a Pullstring 2

It had started as a tiny scratch in the painted bone china of Rosie’s right cheek. No one was quite sure when she had got it, nor had they really paid much worry about it, she was a little girl after all, and it was only a scratch. The problem was the scratch didn’t fade as scratches should; but rather it grew until it became a crack. Healing attempts had been made by the best healers Christine and Lilith knew, but nothing seemed to work. At best, the crack would go away for a few days before coming back, at worst it didn’t work at all.

It became apparent that the crack was a sign of a bigger problem. Edgar Torvald was a researcher of the arcane, known for his work with the Midnight Squad. He came highly recommended by MAGI, and had cleared his schedule for Rosie, and was making time for regular appointments with the girl.  Desiree Diabolic and Heather McDonald were babysitting on one such appointment day and had come to pick her up. Heather was first to notice that the crack was bigger.

“Does the crack hurt Rosie?”

Rosie put one of her live porcelain fingers to the crack in her face, and shook her head, her braids flying about.

“… Lotsa people worried. Rosie feels fine.”

Heather looked at the girl with concern. “Des, do you know what’s happening to her?”

All Desiree could do was shrug; she was as in the dark about the crack as Heather, and just as concerned. They arrived at the library where Torvald worked, just in time to catch several Circle of Thorn mages emerging from the building.

“Shaite, what are the Thorns doin’ here?” Heather murmured under her breath and then cursed in Gaelic.

Desiree swore in infernal and whistled shrilly for her hounds.

Mr. Clicks popped his head out of Rosie’s Pikachu backpack, took one look at the Thorns, and clicked something in Clockworkeese.

Heather glared at the tiny clockwork gear. “Now, now Mr. Clicks, dinnae be givin’ Rosie any ideas.”

The gear whirred and the hounds growled. Des looked to Heather and then nodded, the hounds charged and Heather eased her blades out of their sheaths while Des chanted and encircled the charging cultists with magical fire. Heather rapidly moved in close, her blades flicking out to cripple the first mage with a cut across his hamstring, and then stabbing the heart of a summoned behemoth. She leapt towards the second mage, shielding Des and Rosie with the bulk of her well built body. Rosie let out a musical blast of energy that hit the third mage square in the chest and knocked him out. Desiree pushed a lock of her golden hair out of her face and then carefully stepped over the fallen mages, tagging them for Zig transport. When the three were tagged, she put a hand to the door of the library and intoned a few words. The door glowed a moment and she looked to Heather and Rosie.

“There’s more inside, we should call for backup.”

Heather gave a curt nod and got out her comm and spoke softly into it while she watched as Rosie drew a hopscotch board on the sidewalk and played with Mr. Clicks.

“Aight, I hiv Anna and Reggie on thae wey.”

Rosie bobbled her head at this and squealed. “Papa Reggie and Mama Anna are coming!?!”

“Aye.”

Rosie’s eyes twinkled and she continued to play hopscotch and hum to herself while they waited. The two arrived as promised about twenty minutes later.

“Hiya Kids!” Madame Anna, a lively woman with slivering hair, cheerily greeted the girls.

“Mama Anna!” Rosie ran up to the older woman and hugged her legs then sneezed.

“Rosie, dae ye need a hanky?” Heather asked casually, not thinking much of it.

Anna dabbed Rosie’s nose with her handkerchief, ruffled her hair, and smiled.

“G’devening, loves. Bit of a chill, tonight.” Reginald Butler, the Yesteryear Titan, grinned as he came upon the group.

“Goamins Reg, Anna! Des and I be babysitting bonnie wee Rosie.”

“I got the call, Everything good, then?” Reggie asked, adjusting his cap over his balding blond head.

“Nae, we hae got Thorns…” Heather began to explain, her curly red hair bouncing with the shaking of her head.

“Rosie has an appointment with Mr. Torvald!” Rosie exclaimed excitedly at the same time.

Reggie turned his attention to Rosie. “Do you now? Are we going to have to get you a candy striper’s outfit after this, love?”

Heather grinned at Reggie and the group began walking back towards the library.

“Oh hey – I’m a grandma again! My youngest, Donna, had her first kid!” Anna pronounced happily.

“…And I bet she’s an auld battleaxe like her Gran.” Heather murmured to Desiree as Reggie pushed the library door open.

“I heard that!” Anna laughed and then stopped suddenly at the sight of even more Thorns.

“Right, then. Let’s see about getting ’em to talk, wot? A right good bashing should do the trick.” Reg said as he cracked his meaty knuckles, and pushed up the sleeves of his old military jacket.

Rosie bobbled her head. ”Rosie sings!”

And sing she did, along with throwing a tantrum when anyone got the least bit hurt. The group made their way through the first floor of the library, carefully eradicating the Thorns from the stacks. They made their way up the stairs and then paused as the sound of voices filtered through the air.

“So, Trevor Ansgrave animated his dolls with something he stole from us?” A raspy baritone voice asked.

“Yeah.” Replied a second voice, deeper than the first.

“And we’re looking for his other?”

“Right, the first one didn’t have the heart.”

“The one we found with the Tsoo?”

“Yes.”

“And Ansgrave himself?”

The second voice emitted a sickly laugh that ended in a coughing fit. “He was found by the RIP, ripped apart… pun not intended.”

An unsettling silence fell over the group as the adults quietly stewed over this new information.

“The tither doll? Dae ya think thay mean…” Heather dared to whisper and motioned towards Rosie.

“Curiouser and curiouser, said Alice.” Reggie murmured.

“Uh oh!” Rosie exclaimed, pointing towards the bend where the discussion was taking place. The two mages had turned the corner, and gawked at Rosie for half a second before regaining composure.

“Intruders!” The baritone cried.

“Just now figuring that out, lad?” Reggie replied with a laugh as he slammed the first to the floor while Anna froze the second in place. Heather tagged out the frozen mage to the Zig, and then turned to the others. “Whet wey tae thae office, Rosie?” she asked the little girl, who tilted her head and pointed down the hall the Thorns had come from.  Reginald nodded and led them around the corner and down the hall into the waiting room.

“Ah Bugger.” Reg muttered.

“Shaite.” Heather swore then turned to hug Rosie. “Dinnae look, me bonnie wee lassie.”

There was a body on the floor near the door to Torvald’s office, sprawled out without any obvious marks on his person. Desiree knelt, touched the body gently and then let out a long slow sigh. “He’s gone, I cannot bring him back.”

Anna let out a breath. “Ya know, as many times as Reg and I have seen stuff like this it never gets any easier.”

“No, it doesn’t” Des alleged as she slowly stood up from the corpse.

“Think that’s the way it’s supposed to be, old girl. Now, someone mind telling this clueless old boy what this do’s all about?” Reg asked as he checked the offices.

“Reg, recently Rosie’s mask started to crack. Dr. Torvald was going to research what it means, but…” Heather started softly.

“Do wot? I thought that were just a little scuffing, little girl getting her tumbles in, and all that.” Reggie looked up, concerned.

“It’s magic. Ae dinnae ken what it all means, but…” Heather sighed.

“It’s been fixed before, but always seems to come back within a few days, the same that it was and it’s getting worse.” Desiree finished for her.

“Best get it seen to, then.” Reg said a bit grimly. “We better get this called in.”

Desiree nodded and pulled out her phone. “I’ll get this, you secure the area.”

Heather and Reg bobbed their heads and moved out of the room to check for any stragglers while Anna went downstairs to wait for the police.

“Magic Library!?” Rosie exclaimed. Desiree ran into Torvald’s office where Rosie had wandered unattended. The little girl pointed to a map that appeared to be hastily scratched into the wood of the desk. Desiree stared at the carving for a moment and then radioed to the others. “Rosie found something, best get back up here.”

They regrouped police in tow and took a look at the found map while the police wardened off the area.

“I think that’s in Astoria.” Desiree commented as she studied the map closer.

“Aye, maybe we can find out about Mr. Torvald.” Heather agreed.

“That used ta be such a pretty neighborhood. Real quiet, lots o’ good folks.” Anna murmured.

“Heck of a place for it. Good thing I brought the jacket, wot? Rosie love, stay close to Des so you don’t catch a cold again.”  Reggie said as he threw Anna a knowing smile.

Rosie bobbled her head and took Des’s hand. The group headed to the Carnival of Light base and teleported to Dark Astoria, then walked through the mist to where the map had indicated the entrance to the Magic Library was. Rosie stuck with Desiree the whole time.

“I don’t like it here.” Rosie said with a shiver.

“Nor do I.” Desiree agreed.

They entered the library and began making their way through the winding passages of Oranbenga. A chilling silence entombed the place. Heather eased a pair of cold iron daggers engraved with glowing red runes out of their sheaths; it was too quiet by her reckoning. Her instincts were dead on. As soon as she had them free, the ambush came from both sides.  Startled, Rosie took a tumble and couldn’t move as she landed at the feet of a mage.  He grabbed the girl by the collar of the dress and held her up.

“Gotcha…” He said with a smirk.

The reactions were simultaneous:

“Get ya filthy mitts off her, ya bastid!”  Anna shouted as she summoned an ice elemental.

“Oh no you don’t!” Desiree cried and motioned for her hounds to surround him.

“Hands. Off. HER!!” Heather growled as she crouched and then lunged at the Mage, while Reggie murmured:  “Not so fast, lad.” and bashed his head into the wall.

The mage was unfazed and yelled: “YOU dare interrupt what you don’t understand?”

“I understand you’re taking our girl.” Reg replied and bashed his head into the wall again.

“That’s about the size of it.” Anna chimed in, motioning for the elemental to kick the mage in the bollocks.

The mage’s eyes rolled into his head and he fell backward, taking Rosie with him. Chaos ensued as the rest of the ambush fell in on the adults.  As things settled down, Rosie wiggled free, and then picked up something that had fallen out of the mage’s pocket. She held up the red crystal and examined it, then clasped it to her chest where it started to glow brightly.

“Hold up. Look at Rosie.” Anna said as the adults were recovering from the fight.

Heather’s eyes widened. “Rosie… what IS that thing?”

“Uh, I’unno!” She replied.

“Well… best to keep it safe in your pocket, love. Might be what we need to get you right as rain.” Reggie said after a moment. Rosie nodded and tucked it into her pocket.  “Oh Tay!”

The group continued through the maze, eventually finding two more crystals for Rosie to keep safe: one blue and one purple; both reacting to the girl in a similar manner to the first. In addition it becomes clear to the adults that Rosie’s “daddy”, Trevor Ansgrave, created his dolls with stolen circle magic, and that he had died making his third doll.

“Rosie wants to know why these men talk about her daddy.” Rosie finally said after a while.

“Nae just you, Rosie. Header’s a mort curious too.” Heather told her with a grin.

“Best way to explain it, love…. It’s like your Pinocchio story. Except these men make bad puppets. They probably want your daddy to teach them how to make good puppets. But it won’t work, because everything they make is bad.” Reggie explained.

“Thae’s very astute, Reggie.” Heather concluded, looking from doll girl to gentleman.

Reggie nodded and cleared his throat as they came into a large room and they heard voices.

“What do you know about Asgard’s doll! You’ve inspected her; you know what magic she holds!”

Heather peeked around the corner to see the Librarian standing over Torvald.

“Let him talk, we need to know what’s up with Rosie.” Heather whispered as she knelt by the entrance of the hall.

“Iiii don’t… just that she’s got an artifact inside of her…. I’m just seeing about the metaphysical crack she has! Honest!” Torvald whimpered.

Reggie raised a bushy eyebrow at the statement and Heather stood, a rock clattering to the floor as she did.

“Who goes there!?” cried the mage.

“Right. And that would be our stage call…” Reggie rumbled as he stepped into the door way to where the mage could see him.

Rosie ran in after them spotting Torvald right off. “Mister Torvald! Yay! We can have tea now!”

“Rosie! Not now!” Anna and Desiree shouted simultaneously as they watched her approach the man in the middle of the fray, three mages trailing her.

“Oh … oh tay!” She exclaimed and then turned on a dime sounding forth a powerful note that sent all three of them flying back to where Reggie and Heather were fighting the Librarian, the four of them falling off the edge of the pedestal into the water.

“Oopsie…” Rosie peered over the edge at the mess she had made of the Thorns before turning to face Desiree and Anna. Her onyx eyes glittered “Is it tea time now?”

Anna recovered first. “Um, sure sweetie, just as soon as we make sure Mr. Torvald is ok.”

On that cue, Desiree went to see to the man. Once he had recovered some he looked to the group with relief.

“Steady, lad. We’ve got the crystals and more importantly our little girl safe and sound.” Reggie said as he came back from trouncing the remainder of the Thorns with a fourth crystal that he handed to Rosie nonchalantly.

“Oh thank heavens! I don’t know what I’d have done. And Rosie… it’s good to see you again. They were going to kill me and I don’t even know half of what it was they wanted.” Torvald rattled out.

“Did you discuss Rosie with anyone?” Heather asked softly after a moment.

“My research assistants… Paul, the one they killed… and Naomi… Oh dear lord… Naomi!”

“Where does she live?” Heather asked as the rest of the group came to attention at the thought of another in trouble.

“Founders Falls.” Torvald gave them the address.

“Think we’ve got our next ring, loves. Don’t worry, lad. We’ll take good care of everything.” Reggie said with a nod to Torvald.

They escorted him out and made sure he was safe with the paramedics before heading for Founders only to arrive at Naomi’s apartment to catch a stray mage. With a little persuasion they got a location out of him.

When they found Naomi she was in one piece, apparently thanks to a mage called Akarist. He had left a note for them to meet him in another Circle base a few days later. They agreed to meet at the entrance at the appointed time.

“Rosie…this is where the note said?” Heather asked as Desiree, Rosie and herself waited at an entrance to a cave for Anna and Reggie.

Rosie bobbled her head. “This is where Mister Akarist is supposetabe.”

Heather nodded and looked at her watch. “Good… now we just need tae get the old goat- err Senior citizens in on this.”

“Watch ya mouth, kid! Haw!” Anna boomed as she turned the corner, Reggie in tow.

Rosie’s eyes sparkled. “Old goat?!?! Baaaaah!” she exclaimed.

Reggie chuckled. “G’devening loves. I can see the spirits are up. Does this old boy good.”

“Old goat, old goat! baaah baaah!” Rosie chanted as she pranced about on a rock.

Heather hid her face in her hands and shook her head as Des gave her the patented “now look what you have done” glance.

“Right then. I think I know what the next story time will be. I’ll have to stop at the library for Three Billy Goats Gruff” Reggie said with a grin.

“Yay! Goats!” Rosie cheered as she hopped off the rock and pointed to the cave entrance. “Mister Akarist is supposetabe here.”

Heather nodded. “Well, let’s talk tae him about your crack and snifflies, me boonie braw lassie.” With that, the group filed into the cave, readying themselves for the worst and expecting nothing less.

They waded through the seemingly endless tides of Thorns and when they stopped to catch a breath after a wave, Anna grinned.

“Wouldn’t Belle love ta see us now!”

“Belle?” Rosie asked.

“Ring Mistress Bellefontaine, the Ring Mistress when Reggie and I was Header’s age.” Anna replied.

“I know it’s hard to believe, but we weren’t born old.” Reggie added.

“Papa Reggie and Mama Anna used to be Rosie’s age?” Rosie asked, doubt in her small voice.

“Aye…once, back when Fire was a new thing…” Reggie said with a laugh.

“Rosie demands pictures or it didn’t happen.” Her eyes twinkled.

Heather grinned at Anna and Reg and Anna swatted her behind.

“Wouldn’t know. I did my thesis on the Theory of Dirt.” Reggie quipped.

“By torchlight? With a bronze chisel?” Heather asked teasingly.

“Copper, love. Bronze wasn’t made yet.” Reg retorted.

“Oh…” Desiree murmured.

“Hey, just because my social security number is “3”…” Anna warbled.

Desiree giggled and then stopped abruptly as they came upon another group.

Heather thundered: “Get oot O thae Bluidy hall!” and dashed past a surprised behemoth and right  into the Mages controlling it.

Reggie sighed. “Remind me why I’m here again?”

Anna quipped “Good looks.”

Heather grinned at him as he took his fists to the behemoth before darting under the arm of a mage. “The wee lassie needs us.”

They finished prison tagging the mages and Reggie cracked his meaty knuckles. ““Ha! Now that was a right good show!”

“Ya still got it, old man.” Anna said with a smile.

“He ne’er lost it.” Heather replied.

“What’s it the kids say? How we roll.” Reggie grinned and the group continued through the winding passages.

“Oe’r here!” Heather called and motioned towards a side room full of Thorns guarding another mage.

Rosie pushed her way through the adults to peer into the room. Her eyes sparkled and she waved.

“Mister Akarist!”

Almost immediately the whole room of mages and summoned demons erupted into an out roar focused on the small doll girl.  In a blink with a single musical note from Rosie they all found themselves blasted backward before the adults could even react. The demons disappeared in a puff of smoke and before the disoriented mages could regain themselves, the adults were on them, disabling as they went.

Soon enough, only Akarist was left, watching Rosie intently.

All eyes went to him and Heather tightened her grip on her daggers. Finally he spoke.

“Ah… so one of Trevor’s doll’s still does exist.”

He nodded to himself and squinted at Rosie, a small smile crossing his lips and eyes.

“And what do you know about it, you old bag of bones?” Reggie demanded while at the same time Heather murmured: “Aye… now how do we help her?”

Akarist straightened and looked at the adults as if seeing them for the first time.

“I helped him make them… helped him acquire the hearts of Briar and Solus…”

“Do wot?” Reggie said in surprise. The others found themselves speechless as the mage continued his explanation.

“Solus was recovered from the one doll… we had thought… I had been afraid…”

Desiree was the first to recover. She nodded.

“So how do we help her then?”

“I will do what I can; I got the details from the girl… Naomi…” Akarist paused as if he was asking a question.

“She’s safe. We made sure of that.” Reggie said, filling in the gap for the mage.

“I thank you for that… Trevor was my friend…  I had warned him that without one of the hearts a binding wouldn’t work.”Akarist said as he looked towards Rosie who was occupying herself by looking for pictures in some tomes that had been scattered through the room during the fight.

“What’s wrong with her and what do you need to heal her?” Heather blurted, growing impatient with the mage.

Desiree put a hand on Heather’s shoulder and Reggie stepped forward.

“But she’s right.” He said and nodded at Heather. “She needs fixed. And we’re not taking ‘can’t’ as an answer.”

“Oh you can say it, but you won’t like the answer… Rosie /will/ be fixed.” Heather retorted dryly as she thumbed her blades.

Akarist regarded Heather carefully before answering.

“As I said, I will do what I can. You found crystals in the Library?”

“Aye, several crystals. So why do they react to her?” Heather asked, finally sheathing her blades while Desiree continued to contemplate Akarist coolly.

“It’s the Heart of Briar, a crystalline artifact that resides at the heart of the doll.  I gave two such hearts to Trevor to make the dolls. Then he made a third without a heart… it cost him his life.  In any case, the heart, it resonates with the crystals, you need to find the right one. They contain souls you see…”

Desiree nodded. “I see, go on.”

“It should be in the library somewhere, the Heart of Briar should be able to be restored when the Soul of Briar is free. Unless, of course, it’s not a problem with the Heart.”

Desiree whispered something softly in a strange harsh language.

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, lad.”  Reg said with a nod.

“Go to the one you call Azuria… with the information I gave Naomi you should be able to summon yourself a guide.” Akarist continued.

“Aye. But if ye are trying tae trick us or hurt Rosie… “Heather trailed off and thumbed her blades again.

Des nodded and said quietly. “You have been warned…

Akarist glared at them. “So I have.” Then he murmured a few words and disappeared in a sudden fog.

Heather breathed and murmured a breathy “Aye” and the group made their way to Atlas Park. When they arrived, Reggie and Desiree went in to speak with Azuria while Heather and Anna watched Rosie chase butterflies in the park.  An hour or so later, the group was back off to Astoria and the Library after a full briefing with Azuria.

“Rosie, love? Do you have the crystals in your pocket still?” Reggie asked as they arrived at the gates to Astoria.

Rosie bobbled her head and pulled the three crystals out of her backpack.

“Good.” Reggie gave the little girl a grin. “Now… Azuria says we need to make a rainbow. What colors do you have?”

Rosie looked at the crystals and promptly answered. “Red, blue and purple!”

Reggie nodded. “Good girl. So we need find?”

Rosie stared down at the crystals again. “Roy G. Biv. Orange, yellow, green and… indigo?”

“Spot on.” Reggie ruffled Rosie’s hair and smiled then fell into thought.

Rosie looked down at the purple crystal. “Why’s purple got two names?”

Heather grinned. “Because it’s too pretty to have just one… according to Jeannette.”

“Oh. Oh-tay.” Rosie’s eyes sparkled and they began walking through the ghostly part of the city.

“Remember when this used to be such a quiet place, Reggie?” Anna said after a while of quiet walking.

“Do wot?” Reggie said, falling out of thought.

“Pretty quiet now, except for the chanting.” Desiree commented.

“Ah… Yeah, I remember when it wasn’t, old girl.” Reggie smiled wistfully and returned to his thoughts.

Eventually they arrived back at the library and slipped in as quietly as possible. After a little searching they stirred up all the crystals but the indigo.

“Indigo…. It’s not quite blue and it’s not quite violet. It’s right in between, like…” Reggie chuckled as the answer came to him. “Like the child. Loves I think we have our answer.”

“Rosie’s indigo?” Rosie asked as she peered at the yellow crystal they had just found.

“Very much so, love. So once we find it, we can get you fixed up, right as rain.”

“Oh. Oh-tay!” Rosie exclaimed and she held up the crystal and it started flashing as she twirled around to the south of the cave.

“Look! It’s glowing in a certain direction!” Heather cried. The others attention went to the crystal and Rosie.

“Off we go then!” Reggie scooped up Rosie and sat her on his shoulder.

The crystal led them out of the caves to the south and into a labyrinth of smaller caverns. The troupe carried on until they came to a large cave full of crystals.

As they entered a loud alarm clanged and everyone froze a moment before Reggie took charge.

“Right then, Rosie love, look for the crystal, we’ll deal with this.”

The doll girl nodded and started going through the large room, waving the yellow crystal around as she went.  Desiree whistled for her hounds while Heather loosed her daggers and the battle engaged as mages and demons rushed into the chamber from two sides. After some time, the flow of the Thorns subsided and Heather called to Rosie as she fought hamstringed a demon.

“Did ye find it yet Rosie?”

“No, just clear ones.” Rosie called, still looking with the flashing yellow crystal.

“It’s a big place, it has to be somewhere.” Reggie shouted as he pummeled a mage in the stomach.

Finally Rosie approached the south wall. The crystal emitted a bright beam of light and Rosie stared at the wall as a section of the rock wall grinded open. Rosie tilted her head and went over and tapped Heather on the shoulder as she crouched to leap at a behemoth. Heather blinked as the girl pointed at the wall.

“Look!”  She shouted over the battle before finally leaping at the demon.

“Move!” Anna called and the group started moving to the door. They filed through to the musty corridor beyond and as Rosie bounded though it grinded closed again.

They followed the passage until they came to another large cavern hosting an underground lake. Desiree looked down and frowned at some tracks in the mud.

“Plant Pokemons!” Rosie exclaimed from the other side of the cave, and the adults went running.

“Ugh, wonderful… Devouring Earth.” Heather mumbled, thumbing her daggers thoughtfully.

The group stood silent staring at the adjoining bustling room full of animate plants, crystals, rocks and devoured and then at the yellow crystal that Rosie held, that was now pulsing rapidly.

Reggie laughed after a while. “Probably think the crystals are a long-lost cousin or something.”

Heather got a sick look on her face. “That… makes sense, knowing the Thorns.”

Reggie stopped laughing and blanched. “Now that you mention it, does seem like less of a joke.”

“DEVOUR!” The shout came and interrupted all plans that the adults had begun to come up with to get around the cavern. A lesser devoured had spotted them, and now, so had a good part of the rest of the creatures.

Rosie stood staring at horde, not 10 feet away from the stampede on a rock. “Uh oh!”

“ROSIE!” Heather tried running for her, but they were on the little girl before anyone could do anything.

The adults fought off their panic at the same time as they charged into the Devouring Earth in a desperate attempt to get to Rosie. Desiree’s hounds and fire magic overtook the plant creatures, Anna’s ice and fire magic caused cracks and fissures in the rock creatures, Reggie’s strength smashed the crystal creatures and Heather’s blades cut into the devoured themselves.

In due course the shouting of “Devour!” and “For the Hamidon!” subsided, leaving instead a dead silence to fill the room.

Heather sunk to her knees as she surveyed the battlefield, where nothing moved, and began to cry. “Damn it… I was too slow…”

“None of that, now.” Reggie said as he moved through the downed monsters to the rock where they had lost Rosie.  “Found you!” He shouted as he popped around the rock and pulled Rosie into a hug and then tossed her in the air. Rosie squealed in delight and then Reggie put her down and watched as she ran to Heather.

“Its otay Header! Rosie is good!” Heather reached out and hugged Rosie, still crying.

“See? Rosie’s just fine. And we’re this close to getting her right.” Reggie said, as he patted Heather on the shoulder.

Heather nodded and let Rosie go after a few minutes. “Aye, dinnae scare me like that ye we lassie” She wiped her nose on her sleeve and straightened. “Okay, lat’s find thae creestal.”

The team regrouped in fairly short order and made their way through more corridors dug by the Devouring Earth, finally coming again into Oranbengan style ruins. Strangely enough, the creatures seemed to ignore Rosie outright, just as they had in the larger cavern, and the fact didn’t escape the notice of the rest of the group, though not one of them wanted to say it, lest it become a horrible reality.  Eventually they came to a large room housing an altar where a host of crystal creatures gathered.

Rosie’s eyes sparkled. “Rosie sings?”

Desiree looked to the others and then nodded sagely. “Rosie sings.”

With that, Rosie ran in the middle of the green, purple, and black crystals and let out a resounding high C that shattered most of the pack, and sent the rest of them flying backward, allowing the adults to clean up the mess while Rosie triumphantly stood atop the altar with the brightly glowing indigo crystal in hand.

Prologue.

A few hours later, the group found themselves back in Oranbenga, though well rested and fed, waiting for Akarist to rendezvous with them.

As they waited, Anna pulled out some old photographs and tossed a grin to Reginald. “Hey. You wanted pictures. While we broke for lunch, I hit the tents and got some stuff from my old scrapbook.”

“Pictures!” Rosie exclaimed, immediately rushing over to her “Mama Anna”.

“There’s Reggie and me, about 20, Reggie holding me in mid-air with one hand pullin’ me off kickin’ Requiem in his little Hitlers.” Anna grinned broadly again.

“What’s a little Hitler?” Rosie asked as she stared at the photograph, her onyx eyes sparkling.

“Nothin’ you need ta be askin’ ya Auntie Jeannette about, not at that age anyway. You’ll find out one day.” Anna blurted while at the same time Heather replied: “Something only bad boys have. You are a good girl so nae worry aboot them.”

Reggie snorted and Desiree giggled.

“Why does everyone tell me to ask Auntie Jeannette when I’m older?” Rosie inquired, tilting her head and shifting her gaze to each of the adults.

Heather blushed. “Because she’s the expert.”

“HEATHER!” Desiree blurted and gave Heather a soft jab with her elbow.

Akarist coughed as he approached the group. “You have the crystals then?”

Rosie nodded and pulled the crystals out of her backpack.

The mage nodded slightly. “Good. Now… spread the crystals around her, and have her hold the indigo…”

The adults complied, Heather taking the red and orange, Desiree taking the yellow and green, Anna taking the blue and Reginald the purple, leaving Rosie with the indigo.

“That’s a good girl.” Reggie said, patting Rosie on the head as he placed the purple crystal opposite the yellow.

Akarist then began chanting in an ancient sounding language as they closed the circle. As the chanting climaxed, the glow from the crystal spread out so Rosie herself also began glowing indigo. The light then slowly spread until there was a bright flash and all they could see was the light. The mage smiled as the light faded and Rosie’s face seemed to be restored.

“There, my promise to you done.” He said with a nod.

Rosie’s eyes sparkled as she hopped out of the circle. “Time for a tea party?”

She barely had the words out when there was a sickening green light and the smell of foliage and mold, and a sharp crack as the fracture returned to her face, though only two inches now. Reggie tried not to flinch as he knelt down and grinned at the girl before sending a warning gaze at Akarist.

“It sure is love. All your friend and lots of cakes to go around.”

Akarist got a look of pure shock on his face. “”No… It was fixed, she was fixed… Briar’s soul mended Briar’s heart…”

Desiree made a subtle hand gesture and her hounds circled her, their hackles up.

“What’s wrong?” Heather breathed.

Akarist shook his head. “I… there’s something else wrong, it’s not the heart.”

Reggie stood up from where he was kneeling by the purple crystal and put all seven feet and 300 pounds of himself in front of the mage. “Now would be a good time to guess what else, old boy”

Akarist closed his eyes for a moment. “I…” Then he shook his head and asked: “What has she played around? Devouring Earth?”

“Devouring Earth? It sure smells like them.” Heather asked her eyes flicking down from her daggers to the mage.

“They WERE after the crystals.” Reggie affirmed. “Why?”

“I -really- wish I had paid more attention to Mother’s lessons now…” Desiree murmured softly.

Akarist murmured under his breath. “Has she been exposed to any of Hamidon’s chemicals?”

“Not while I was around.” Reggie said and looked to the others.

“Rosie helped play doctor!” Rosie declared.

“With who, Rosie?” Desiree asked.

“There was Foxy who doesn’t like pokemon, and a kitty… and a chimera…” Rosie began rattling off another three or four descriptions.

“Aye! She was recognized for helping prevent the Unity Plague…” Heather remembered suddenly, and then paused.

“Sounds like those Second Nature folks. I best have a word with them.” Reggie nodded.

“”Yes… and I will see what I can find out… this hasn’t ever happened before, but if the chemicals got inside the crack…” The mage frowned.

“Akarist, I never thought I’d hear myself say this, but… ya done good.” Anna smiled and nodded to the mage.

“Anna love, why don’t you get Rosie ready for bed, and I’ll go fetch that book.” Reggie said after shaking his head at Akarist.

“Ya better head Chris off first. She’s going to be spittin’ nails.”

“Right. I’ll have her come fetch it with me.” Reggie said and then headed off towards the Carnival Tents.

Akarist murmurs to himself. “I need to do some research… I trust you aren’t cross with me specifically anymore?”

“Just behave yaself and we got no reason ta be… for now. Mess up, and we mess YOU up. Besides, I think ya actually are caught up in all this mystery stuff.” Anna said, turning away from where Reggie went.

Desiree waved a hand. “Stand down, Anna. He deserves that much for helping us.”

“Aye.” Heather slid her blades back in their sheaths. “Akarist. Let me know how I can help.”

“That I shall.” Akarist nodded to the scot and then looked to Anna, Desiree and Rosie.

“C’mon, Rosie. Let’s get you ta bed. You’ve had a long day.” Anna said, and then paused, getting an idea. “Before that… you got anything ta say ta Akarist?”

“Thank you Mister Akarist! Say Hi to my daddy for me!” Rosie’s eyes sparkled at the mage.

Akarist hid a slight frown. “That I will.” He pats the doll-girl on the head. “Until then… I bid you farewell.” He turned, blushing and walked off.

“Bon chance. And thank you.” Desiree nodded to the mage.

Anna whispered to Desiree. “Look at Akarist! She got him! She got the old duffer!”

Desiree smiled tiredly and nodded. “Uh huh.”

And with that the group dispersed, Desiree and Heather went to their apartment and Anna escorted Rosie home to the Carnival, a chorus of “Old goat, old goat… baaaah” all the way home.

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