Caw— Caw— Caw!
The ubiquitous crooning of Corvids at dusk was such an emblematic feature of London that it possessed the same ambience as vomiting drunks on Friday night.
With the sun fled and the lightless sky overcast with impending showers, the Tower's infamous murders flocked overhead, hopping from rooftop to rooftop, observing a swaggering trio of Magical Beasts sauntering away from Mudchute Farm.
Under normal circumstances, the farm's fences, not to mention its small battalion of Wolfhounds, would have prevented the entry or exit of magical fauna. These, however, were no mortal monsters.
One was a Pseudo Kirin fed on the Essence of a True Dragon and a primordial Tree Serpent, made mobile aerially by blessings no terrestrial mongoose could match.
Another was a Void beast, a thing of bottomless hunger that Consumed its way into possessing both form and ego, a deathless fiend even the Hvítálfar would think thrice about accosting.
The final member of the swag-posse was a duck that drank the milk of paradise and was now near-escaping the mortal coil, a mathematician and a lord of larceny cowing the students on Emmanuel's campus.
It was with great interest then that Morrigan divided her murder so that a flock of Corvids observed the Familiars, while the rest kept their eyes on Mudchute, where her principal observation subject was in the midst of orally flagellating the Editor-in-chief of the Herald Sun.
What dastardly evils could the Familiars and the duck be dreaming? Morrigan burned with curiosity.
In a row, lead by Dede, the creatures strolled into Millwall.
"Quack!" Dede raised a wing when he passed the Soup Kitchen. As with the construction site not far from Millwall's inner dock, the suburb burned the midnight oil. The clinic's patron, Elvia Lindholm, had secured funding from her new masters at the Order of the Bath and had expanded operations of late. Subsequently, "Evee's Clinic" and the "Our Lady Elvia's Soup Kitchen and Shelter" now operated twenty-four hours, drawing vagrants from far and wide.
Outside the clinic, Morrigan observed Gwen's predatory recruiters loitering about with pamphlets printed by the press, ready to seduce the honest swagman into dishonest work.
"Oi there, lass. Had a good feed, 'ave we?" The rat-faced men dressed in the navy-blue uniforms of the Isle of Dogs Redevelopment Project, or IoDRP, would burst into bouts of capitalist evangelism. "Would yer like a job, feller? Full-time and all yer got ter do's hand out papers, don't even have to sell em! You there, lad, you look like you could shoulder a barrel of ink no problem, how about some gainful employment?"
More often than not, the churning maw of the press lured men and women from the surrounding boroughs into its depth, emerging attired in blue, confused and weighed down with work.
"Dede Duck! Mister Cali and Ariel!" The cries of children echoed in the night before emerging into the floodlight like a swarm of moths. Morrigan marvelled as the children began to dance around the trio, with Ariel emerging the clear favourite. That these kids weren't afraid of the Familiars gave the Sprite food for thought as to whether Caliban thought of the children as food.
Several of the children climbed onto Caliban, who hissed at them, sending the laughing kids scattering into the clinic before they emerged again, challenging one another to climb the snake.
Dede stood regally, observing the children, possibly considering the consequences of swallowing one wholesale.
"Yer Snots! Buzz off!" came a cry from the rumbling dark as a pair of headlights approached. From the rolling dust emerged a Dwarven Apprentice astride a Work Golem. "Don't play ed de road, yer Gobs! Do you want ter be stepped-on? Oh—"
"Alright, alright, I didn't see yer duckness there." the Golem took a detour, churning up blocks of dark mud and construction debris as its three-claw toes sunk into the soft earth.
The kids blew raspberries at the Dwarf as the Golem passed.
Morrigan was just about to croon about the audacity of these NoM Goblins when a heavy-set nurse built like a Dwarven matron burst from the clinic with a booming cry.
"WHY ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR DORMS?!" the NoM woman's voice may or may not have been naturally empowered with Clarion Call. "BACK! BACK YA GET! I SAID NOW, BILLY!"
The kids fled.
The woman, Morrigan saw, was the mistress of the orphanage now operating behind the clinic. Despite the rising land price, the subject had gifted the lease to a block of land for her friend Elvia's charitable endeavours.
"Terribly sorry, yer Familiarships." The woman scraped and bowed.
"Quack!" Dede fossicked inside the feathered breast, then tossed an HDM at the woman. "Quack!"
The NoM caught the crystal, bowed again, then retreated.
"EE!" The Familiars approved of the duck's generosity.
"Quack!" Dede raised its head high.
After a round of self-congratulations, the trio continued on their way. Puzzled as to their destination, Morrigan set a crow overhead.
Billingsgate Market! She realised at once when the crow cleared the dock's warehouses. At night was when the fishing fleet arrived at Canary to offload the fresh produce. Were these creatures on their way to pilfer the fishermen's hard-won labours?
Just as she wondered how the trio hoped to reach the market, Dede took flight, its wing-span almost two meters in length, dwarfing that of her Corvid spies. Ariel took to the air by stepping on invisible steps, allowing its sibling to coil around its torso to catch a ride.
Near the lower dock at Billingsgate, Blackwall, the scent of fish guts churning the Thames polluted the atmosphere with the stench of bacteria busy at decomposition. There, the Familiars landed, much to the shock of the fishermen and the workmen busy cleaning the night's catch.
"Quack!" Dede informed them that there was no cause for alarm, then took his companions toward the fishery.
"Your lordships!" The shopkeep, who must have recognised who these creatures belonged to, hailed them. "Are ya here to purchase fish for her Ladyship?"
"Quack!" Dede waddled closer. "Quack! Quack!"
"One moment." The man bowed. "Hey, you lot! Can anyone use Speak with Animals or Tongues?"
"I'll get me-Missus, she's a Diviner!" someone shouted from one of the bobbing ships swaying in the flickering dark.
Morrigan circled the docks as the men who were resting on their vessels disembarked to observe the spectacle of the "Familiars" running errands. This time of the night, the area churned with activity, with both Mages and NoMs swarming over the fresh catch. As for why they remained unfazed by the Familiars, Morrigan suspected it was because they were wearing bowties. Without doubt, these were educated Familiars.
A few minutes later, a young woman in rubber boots and a bloody apron rushed down from one of the larger ships.
"Your honours." The woman curtsied. "How can Fawsitt's be of service?"
"Of course." The woman turned to her foreman. "Bring out the fresh catch from tonight."
The men soon produced several carts laden with fish.
"Quack! Quack!" Dede patrolled the produce. "Quack!"
"Six Sea Bass, Three Rainbow Bream and four kilos of the Ivory Scallops, de-shelled and cleaned!" the woman hollered.
While the men worked, there was an awkward silence. Once someone weighed the fishes, she demurely delivered the price.
"That's 17 HDMs and 11 LDMs, milords…"
Caliban rose to its full height. Just before the seamen could holler blue murder, it coughed up a fistful of HDMs covered in grey goo.
"Quack!" Dede counted the crystals, then pushed them forward.
"… you want them bagged?" the Diviner chose not to question her good fortune.
Morrigan withdrew from her crows, feeling a little faint. There was the matter of training Spirit-Affinity through Humanisation, but what the hell was this? Why was a duck, a Void Fiend and a Kirin buying fish?
Also, how did Caliban cough up the right change?
In her mind's eye, across the docklands, the creatures' Master was now painting for the crowd a picture of a Millwall and Cubitt studded with skyscrapers and new residential apartments.
When her attention returned, the snake, duck and Kirin had finished eating.
The scallops were for Dede, while Ariel had the Bream. Caliban must have swallowed its meal wholesale, for there was nothing left but an empty cart.
Maybe they're returning to the Party now? Morrigan studied the fish carcasses. It was impossible for a duck to de-flesh a third-tier deep-sea fish with scales like steel plates, but Dede was able to peck part the fish with the ease of eating peas.
To her mortification, the trio's adventure continued. With Dede leading, the creatures continued to stroll toward Blackwall's night market, with the NoMs and the occasional late-working Mage sparing the trio a wide berth. Here and there, someone recognised the subject's Familiars, for the Void Sorceress' generosity on the Isle of Dogs ranged far, drawing labourers widely from London's Tower Hamlets.
Once inside the bustling night-market, the crows watched with fascination as Dede continued to dispense HDMs, trading with the locals for everything from hot plates of fish and chips to buckets of beer. From one seller, the duck bought the entire pot of spicy crawdads and gobbled the lot with Ariel. Afterwards, Caliban ingested the rest, stock-pot and all.
Then somewhere in the chaos, the duck and its gang of Familiars found something else of interest— a little girl in yellow Wellies and a pastel pink rain jacket. Morrigan had noted the girl earlier, who seemed to be lost or at least looking for someone. The market was bustling this time of night, with hundreds of fishmongers pushing the day's produce onto London's restauranteurs. The lass looked local, though it was without doubt that a little girl was out of place in a square stinking of decaying fish. The girl was cute, Morrigan decided, but exceptionally common.
"Quack?" Dede turned its head intelligently. The girl looked about nine or ten, barely as tall as the duck that now questioned her. "Quack?"
"Ee!" Ariel swished its tail, patting the girl on the head as if to ask if she's alright. Beside it, Caliban drooled spicy hot sauce.
"Hello Mister Duck…" the girl looked up at the enormous duck with its rainbow-hued feathers. "And Mister Monsters."
"Oh, me? I am looking for my cat, Mittens" the girl explained. "She always runs away when fresh fish is arriving."
"You want to help find Mittens?" The girl guessed at the duck's intent.
In contrary to the girl's belief, what Dede had said was "Get out of my way, peasant". It was a very duck thing to say, who were rude bastards compared to her Corvids.
"Thanks, Mister Duck!" the girl hugged the enormous waterfowl.
"Quack!" Dede replied the avian equivalent of, "Don't touch me, you Plebeian!"
"Okay, I think Mittens went this way!" the girl patted the duck on the snout. "Look for a Mittens this big. She's got short stumpy legs, a black patch on one eye, and a brown patch on her tail."
For a nervous second, Morrigan considered calling on Ravenport, for the duck looked as though it was seriously considering eating the NoM.
The other two reminded Dede that it was bad to harm humans.
"Quack…" Dede waddled after the girl as she skipped away. Up above, Morrigan furrowed her avian brows. Was this turning into a kidnapping incident? If Dede pulverised the ignorant girl by accident, who would take responsibility?
Her worries were for moot, for the foursome ran circles around the market until the NoM girl grew too tired to walk. Frustrated, she sat on the steps on a fishmonger's warehouse and began to sob, complaining that someone might have abducted her cat.
"EE!" Ariel was up in arms.
"Shaa!" Caliban likewise hollered.
"Quack!" Dede patted the NoM child on the head. "Quack!"
Seeing the trio so dejected, Morrigan decided she could perhaps do the duck a favour. After all, if she wanted Dede in her murder at a future date, it was good to establish diplomatic ties early on.
Caw— Caw— Caw!
A conflagration of dark feathers flocked overhead.
Ten minutes later, Morrigan found her mark.
There was a man putting cages into the back of a van not far from the market. She could sense that the man was a low-tier Evoker, one possessing just enough skill to be a pest-controller. Monster Catchers, the locals called them, a Mage variation of the traditional Rat-Catcher, a sort of bounty hunter who hunted small fauna that had grown used to the Tower's Shielding oscillation. Presently, the man had a dozen cages worth of wild beasts, both mundane and quasi-magical. Most places like Fish Market and the city's abattoirs hired such individuals, for the abundance of blood and offal attracted all kinds of nasties down in the sewers. Inside the van, near the outer row of cages, Morrigan spotted the girl's cat, meowing away.
Some distance away, a crow landed in front of the crying girl and her trio of frustrated animals.
"Quack!" Dede pointed at the alleyway her crow had indicated. "Quack!"
"Is that where Mitten's gone?" the girl ran after the hopping crow.
Morrigan suspected having the little girl confront a scallywag Evoker over the matter of a cat might not be the best idea— until she reminded herself this wasn't her rodeo, but Dede's. If Dede could swat down Elite Mages attending Cambridge, why would it fear a mere Monster Catcher? Likewise, it had a Void Fiend and a Kirin to back it up— both lacked the means to activate their Combat Forms, lest Gwen calls them back, but dealing with a mere goon was no object.
Just in case the man drove off without the girl finding him, she sent crows to harass the Evoker. As expected, the scoundrel was quick to pull a few Magic Missiles at her birds, resulting in her creature fleeing the scene imbued with her shadow magic.
"MITTENS!" the little girl cried out the moment she burst onto the scene of the swearing Monster Catcher. "Mittens is in that cage! The bad man has her!"
"Stand back!" the man growled, having just fought off a murder of crows— and everyone knew just how unlucky it was to be accosted by crows in London. "Nonsense, young lady, here is a... Sumerian Dagger-Toothed Tiger! Albeit a young one. It'll take off your hand in one bite!"
"No! That's Mittens!" the NoM lass insisted. "Give her back!"
The man glanced behind her, then gulped. "Jesus Christ, that's a fat duck."
From her rooftop vantage, Morrigan could see that Dede had arrived on the scene to act as the distraction while the other Familiars circled from behind.
Pack tactics! The Sprite marvelled. How did the duck learn this?
"Quack!" Dede demanded the return of the cat so he could get on with it. To lubricate the process, it rummaged in its chest feathers for another HDMs crystal and tossed it at the Evoker's feet.
The Monster Catcher picked up the HDM and took a bite with his good teeth, testing the hardness. When the crystal proved to be real, the man eyed the duck, then slowly wetted his parched lips.
Morrigan recognised the bloodshot look in the man's eyes.
Here was not a man marvelling at a duck tossing an HDM, but a man wondering if there were more HDMs inside the duck. Granted, a duck of Dede's size could probably hide a small fortune.
The little girl approached, heedless of the Evoker's expression, her small hands reaching for Mitten's cage, who was now meowing frantically.
"Is this your duck, lassie?" the man may as well have "villain" stamped on his forehead.
"Give Mittens back!" the girl demanded. "She's mine!"
Morrigan could see the hunter looking around. He and the girl were alone— not in the sense that no one was watching from the small townhouse windows surrounding the alley, but that there was no one to stop the man from taking what he wanted.
He glanced at the back of his van, only quarter-filled with dead and dying Monsters, then at the giant, HDM producing rainbow duck.
Life for a Monster Catcher was hard, this Morrigan knew. On a good day, there were enough Magical Creatures in the sewers to eat you alive. On a bad day, the monsters had their meal.
Unsurprisingly, the man chose to grasp this unlikely opportunity.
"Girl, tell your duck to get in the can, and I'll give you back your cat," the man promised.
The girl glanced at Dede, then back toward the Evoker. "No!"
The man materialised a catcher-pole from his Storage Ring. "Not your duck? I am afraid that duck is a public hazard. I'll have to take it into custody."
The little girl must have grown afraid, for she released her grip and began to shout that Dede needed to flee. Morrigan wondered why the man thought it was a good idea to catch a creature as conspicuous as Dede, but then again, human greed had lead to absurder and stranger acts by far.
"Come on, now.' The Evoker edged closer to Dede, its catcher-pole primed and ready to wrangle the duck by the neck. "Be a good duck now and— Whoa!"
With one swipe of its wing, Dede deformed the hollow pole with the attached claw. When the Evoker attempted to use the bent head to snag Dede's neck, it pecked at the mechanism, tearing apart the metal as though it were paper.
"Jesus Christ!" The Catcher allowed the pole to fall when Dede tore the thing from his grasp with force rivalling a CQB Mage imbued with Ogre's Strength.
With a stomp, the duck crushed the pole underfoot. "Quack!"
"Little ducker—!" The Catcher swore. Pulling back, he instantly erected a Mage Shield, then buffed himself. "Enhanced Strength!"
Perhaps it was dark, or maybe the man just wasn't that smart, but he did not notice as Morrigan did that the pavement under the drake's webbed feet fissured.
When Dede did not attack, the man raised a hand in warning. "You better come quietly, duck. Don't make this harder for either of us. I work for the Tower."
"Mittens! Mittens!" The little girl, perhaps realising she had one chance, frantically pulled at the cage piled on top of a row of other pens. Thanks to the Catcher's preoccupation with a colossal duck, she managed to climb up to the second row before her luck ran out.
With a sound of warping wires, the whole rack began to backslide, sending the animals inside tumbling toward her.
"Quack!" The Catcher didn't care, for the girl was neither his child nor his liability. The duck, however, did fancy itself responsible for the human it had inadvertently adopted.
"EE!" A flash of light, quick as a flaring lumen-bulb on a recorder, turned the alleyway momentarily quicksilver. When Morrigan's crows regained their sight, Ariel in its Ermine-Kirin form stood beside the van, the little girl half-caught in its mouth, while a small mountain of cages fell over its robust body.
The Catcher turned to look at the Kirin.
The man's eye lit up with undisguised eagerness. "Well, I'll be damned—What's a thing like you doing here in London? Do you have an owner?"
"EE!" Ariel shrieked in warning, sounding as cute as ever.
Morrigan seriously began to doubt the Catcher's survival rate. Was the idiot thinking of catching Ariel for a reward, perhaps selling it to one of the local syndicates who would inevitably present it for auction in the Grey Market? Still, even without having seen the IIUC, common sense dictates that this was a powerful Mage's Familiar. Can't the man see that here was a Kirin! A chimeric Draconic being! Did he have cabbage for brains? Did he write for the Herald Sun?
From his Storage Ring, the man produced yet another catcher-pole. This time, Morrigan could see that it was a magical device, one with a Glyph that caused paralysis and numbness when the barbed mouth closed. Against mundane Magical Creatures lucky enough to survive the resonance, it would work wonders.
"Quack!" Dede told Ariel to get back. The Familiar belonged to the subject and would get into trouble if it dismembered a human in the centre of London. As for Dede, he was a wild, proud and free-living Magical Creature, or so Morrigan discerned; that and there was no crime in acting in self-defence.
"Buzz Off!" The Evoker snapped at Dede, fearful that the cute dog-thing would escape while he fended off the overlarge duck.
When Dede aimed for his pole again, the man lost his temper.
"Magic Missile!" Three shrieks of unerring mana shot toward Dede's chest.
SPAK! SPAK! SPAK!
Dede swatted aside the missiles without blinking. "Quack!"
The Monster Catcher's eyes almost popped out of their swollen sockets. In his carelessness, his pole went wide, near grazing the little girl were it not for Ariel jousting the claws with its horns.
"EE!" Ariel grunted as the paralysis sorcery struck. Its fur bristled— Morrigan could imagine the Monster Catcher becoming a human pin-cushion in the next second.
"Shit!" The Catcher erected a Shield again, but this time, his Mage Shield failed to form a semi-dome.
Morrigan crows hollered blue murder, flocking into the skies.
The Monster Catcher turned to examine what had blocked his Shield.
"SHAA—SHAA!" Morrigan felt every hair on her scalp stand on end as the monstrous Void Fiend exploded forth from the darkness, its segmented body tearing open to reveal a multitude of tentacles. With a splatter of grey saliva, Caliban smothered the man from head to toe with non-digestive juices.
"ARRRRGH—! ARRRRRGH—!" The man began to scream.
"AEEEEE!" The little girl screamed as well.
"MEORRRWL! WEEEEERARAGH!" Mittens fought the cage, determined to do or die in an attempt to escape. The other animals, from foxes to dogs to hedgehogs that wandered into the wrong borough, raged within the van's caged confines, fighting the barriers, fighting one another.
"Quack! Quack!" Dede added a much-needed percussion.
"EE! EE—! EE—!" And Ariel added the castrato vocals.
"SHAA— SHAA— SHAA—" Caliban began its aberrant serenade, joining the choir of madness.
"Caw! CAW—!" The sound of crooning crows added the final touch to the Magical Creature variation of Dante Alighieri's Virgil falling to hell, reified by a hundred frantic string-segments.
When finally Caliban's tendril forced open the man's clenched mouth for a sloppy, spicy-crawdad kiss, the Monster Catcher's sanity evaporated.
From above, Morrigan watched the man go limp.
Dede pecked open the cage as though it were paper. The cat was now catatonic, though that was beside the point. In the sobbing girl's arms, Dede deposited the limp feline.
In the distance, the sound of police sirens added to the chaos.
"Quack!" Dede pointed toward the Isle of Dogs, indicating that they should split post-haste. With practised expertise, Caliban mounted onto Ariel, then the trio made their escape into the night, trailed by a murder of curious crows.
Her remaining Corvid looked down at the foaming Catcher and the confused, crying girl. Feeling overwhelmed by inexplicable fatigue, Morrigan sighed. The Familiars were gone, but someone had to waffle-stomp the shit stain they left behind.
A split-second later, Morrigan assumed control of the crow.
"Hey you," she addressed the girl, who was on the verge of hysteria after her allies fled, leaving her with a van full of hooting animals and a nasty bloke that even now twitched involuntarily.
The girl looked up with large, liquid eyes. "Birdie?"
"Yes, tis I, birdie." Morrigan nodded her avian head intelligently.
"Where did Mister Duck go? I just wanted to find Mittens…"
The child's mental elasticity in facing otherworld horrors was nothing short of incredible. Hopping on to the girl's shoulder, she patted the girl on the head. "What's your name, child?"
"Sandy, when the police get here, I want you to say nothing. I'll take care of it, and after that, the nice officers will take you home, okay?"
"Okay." Sandy nodded. "Is Mitten going to be okay?"
Morrigan examined the cat. Physically, the cat was okay. Mentally, the cat had screamed out all nine of its lives.
"I don't think Mittens will be running away again," she assured the girl.
It took only a few more minutes for two officers to alight from a squad car. Following protocol, the two advanced into the alleyway with wands raised, their off-hands operating hovering Light Globes.
"MPS! Hands and Wands on the floor!" the leading officer, a Senior Sergeant, flicked off the safety on his Baton-wand. "Move away from the body!"
Morrigan's crow watched while Sandy turned, the girl's face ashen from the sight of two armed officers.
"It's a little girl… with a cat," the Senior Sergeant identified their culprit. "I see the victim. I think it's the local Monster Catcher."
"Right." The second officer lowered his wand. "Little girl, did you do this?"
"Caw!" Morrigan flapped her wings to catch their attention. "No need for alarm, Officers. You're speaking to a Tower Crow, Officer Code: TC21319. Watchword 'Raven's Loft'. The girl's with me and the man's alive, just unconscious. He's a smuggler who has been kidnapping local pets. Just check his van and his home, and you'll find what you need."
"Sarge." The younger man gulped. "Is she one of them Tower Crow Mages?"
The older man packed away his Baton-Wand, then swatted the youngster on the helmet. "That's Magus to you, dimwit. Sorry, Ma'am, do you mind if we run your ID code?"
The Senior Sergeant took a moment to communicate with Scotland Yard. When the Message returned, he bowed, as did the younger man. "Lord Magister, how may we be of service?"
"Take this girl and her cat home," Morrigan commanded, indicating with her beak. "I have business elsewhere."
"Yes, Ma'am." The men bowed again.
"Sandy, go with them."
"Okay, birdie." The little girl quickly ran into the officer's open arms.
"Don't you worry, Miss Sandy, we'll see you home," the Seargent explained. "Have a good night, Ma'am."
Morrigan nodded her avian head at the officers. "Goodnight, officers."
The sergeant and the constable saluted.
Morrigan retracted her mind.
That wasn't at all how she had hoped to contact the duck, but what was done was done. If her Master would allow it, all that's left was to cement the bond of Corvid and Drake.