After Niska's Raid

Main Street(#61RJ)
This brick-paved, north-south street is in significantly better repair than the roads leading into town. It's nearly impossible to tell what color the original bricks were, or in what pattern they were laid, but someone has made sure that no hole gaped too large without being plugged with something. The roadbed is a patchwork of multicolored bricks, chunks of cinderblock, and large, flat stones. The mere thought of riding a vehicle over the resulting uneven swells is almost physically painful.
Most of the buildings along the street have not fared even this well. In fact, it is clear that much of the brick in the road was scavenged from the more ramshackle structures. Yet there are signs of life: a cafe with a newly painted sign, a clean welcome mat on the library's decrepit porch, a windowbox full of vivid flowers clinging to a crumbling windowsill. The brick-paved road extends less than a quarter mile before disappearing again into grass and chunks of decaying asphalt.

Rowan comes out of the Ursa Diner and steps onto Main Street.

Sunshine walks up the Farm Road into town, her hat shading her eyes. She has a large and apparently reasonably hefty basket over one arm.

Rowan, while Rex chops, is up on a ladder, trying to fix some of the shingles that have come loose from the Diner.

Layla is sitting on the curb, watching Rex chop wood and otherwise minding her own business.

Niska enters town from the north.

Layla is sitting on the curb, minding her own business, and watching the world go by.

Rex is chopping wood for Old Man Collins' large and surprisingly neat woodpile, which sits between the Collins' house and Miss Anita's newly rebuilt little place.

Sunshine is walking slowly up the Farm Road, a basket on her arm. She pauses now and again to look at the wildflowers along the road, as usual.

A strange sound trickles along the treeline from the southern road. It sounds a little like small pieces of metal rattling together.

Layla looks to the south and sniffs at the wind.

Rowan, in between hammering, hears something of this, and pauses, briefly curious, before he goes back to hammering.

Chop... pound... pound... pound... thunk. Another log split by the bare-to-the-waist-despite-the-early-winter-temperatures Rex. He bends to retrieve the split pieces, oblivious to the strange noise.

Sunshine looks to the south as she comes to the crossroads, although she spares a glance each for Rex and Layla and a nod for Rowan.

The sound repeats, and after a moment the wind tugs piece of ragged black cloth over the crest of the trees -- oh, wait. That's Niska. The raven spies the bustle in the road and gives three loud calls that sound like cheers.

Sunshine's appearance actually makes Rowan pause in his hammering, as he stops to say, "Heya, ma'am." He's therefore prime meat for Niska's caw-ing, shades his eyes to look up at the trees.

Layla raises her hand and waves a greeting to the raven.

Rex looks up from stacking wood and glances around, startled. After a moment, he focuses on what everyone *else* is focusing on.

Sunshine smiles at Rowan. "Hello, Rowan." She looks up at the raven, whom she's not met before. From the corner of her eye she sees Layla's wave and deduces that this is at least not a wild raven.

The raven fairly divebombs the gathered folk, skimming low over their heads, still calling loudly, though the cheerful raven-cries seem eerily mingled with something approaching girlish laughter. She's got something clutched tightly in one black talon, a piece of card, or plastic or something.

Rowan starts laughing as he ducks. "Geez, Niska --" Rageboy makes assumptions, evidently -- "You're in a good mood!"

Sunshine ducks as the raven swoops overhead. She has good reflexes, and ravens are apparently not her favorite creatures in the world. She sets her basket down and watches the bird warily.

Rex ducks the bird's pass and, sniffing something interesting about to happen, he sets the axe in the stump one-handed, picks up his jacket and sword, and hops over Old Man Collins' fence to join the folks in the street.

The bird does a couple of neat aerial somersaults, then cups her wings and drops, shifting as she does so -- apparently oblivious to or else simply unmindful of the stranger in the little gathering -- and allowing the paper thing to flutter out of her transformed toes. She's a fast shifter -- she touches the ground fully homid, one arm casually outstretched to grasp the paper, which obligingly flutters into it.
"I am SO cool!" Niska declares enthusiastically.

Sunshine's eyebrows arch as the bird shifts, something like comprehension touching her features, though the wariness doesn't lift.

Rowan tells Sunshine, "She also walks dogs," with a grin. "Yeah, Niska, we know -- but why're you cool /this/ time?"

Sunshine can't help but laugh at the now-young-woman's statement. It's a mellow, clear laugh, and it succeeds in lifting the wariness from her expression, though Rowan's commentary may also have helped.

Rex drawls, cheerfully enough, "Ye-up. What'd'ja do?"

The raven-girl preens visibly, shaking out her short, ragged black hair and regarding Rowan and company through her lashes. "*I*" she announces, inserting a dramatic pause to ensure she has absolutely *everyone's* attention, "just got back from the *Hive*." She waits for a reaction, her mouth curved into a smile so smug it's a wonder lightning doesn't strike her right there.

Sunshine's reaction might not be exactly what the girl had hoped for: she goes white, and all of her earlier wariness returns to her eyes, with interest. Her lips thin in disapproval.

Rowan drops his hammer. On his foot. "/Alone/?" He sounds a cross between incredibly worried, annoyed, and awestruck.

Rex blinks and his brow knits with concern and puzzlement. "You got in?" he exclaims, probably at nearly the same time as Rowan's outburst.

Layla gives a mock glance down the street for signs of pursuit. She turns to Niska, "Do tell!"

"Tch. Yeah!" Niska enthuses. "Well, Higami was there at first -- remember he wanted t'go confront the madness or whatever. But they got him right away like he wanted and then I went in and I went *right* up to their *Ancestor Shrine*!" Unable to keep still, she does a little shuffling step, her head nodding back and forth as though under her breath she was saying Nyah-Nyah! "And the guard stopped me," she continues, all in a rush, "So I was all, like --" she drops her voice and scowls "'Do you know who I *am*?' and some junk, and he *totally* let me right in!"

Rowan finally realizes the hammer fell on his foot, and he winces. "But wait," he says, once he's sat down to massage it, "Who'd he think you were, then?"

Sunshine looks at Niska as if not entirely certain she'd approve of the answer to the question of her identity. Still, the others don't seem terribly concerned. She takes a deep breath and seems to say something under her breath, relaxing as she lets the breath out.

Niska continues her narrative unabated, "And the inside guards, they tried to stop me, too, but they were too slow for *me*! I -- *whoosh!* -- grabbed what I came for and was *totally* outta there! And they were all like 'Take her alive!' and shit and swingin' sticks and stuff, but *nobody* can hit *me* with any ol' stick! Hah!" She skips around Rowan, waving the crumpled of paper like a sword. "I am *Niska*!" she sing-songs, "And I Dance Like Fire! La-la! La-la!"

Layla hates to damper Niska's enthusiasum, but asks anyway "Where is Higami now?"

Rowan draws a breath, but is beaten to the punch, and instead just eyes the piece of paper with interest.

Rex cocks his head, opens his mouth, but is forestalled by Layla's question, which apparently wasn't anything like the question *he* was going to ask.

Niska, Walking Like an Egyptian and singing little congratulatory songs to herself, barely pauses her little victory dance. "He's in the Hive getting tortured by the Bad Guys, *duh*!" She rolls her eyes. "That's what he went in there for, remember? The Wyrm told him t'go fight that Corruptor thing they've got down there or whatever." She does a little spin, her too-nice boots grinding softly in the gravel of the road.

Rowan pauses to let several thousand unpleasant mental images skim through his head. When he speaks again, it's rather slower, a little grimmer, as he stands up and dusts himself off. "Right. That." There's a long pause. "And we can't help. I keep having problems with this concept." He shakes his head. "So," he asks, in entirely the wrong tone of voice for such a triumphant hero, "What's the paper, there?"

Rex grins despite himself at Niska's antics. "So, what'd'ja get?" he asks, watching the piece of paper in her hand.

Sunshine blinks slowly, not being at all familiar with this concept of leaving someone in Argent's clutches. Still, she's not going to volunteer to rescue him.

Layla shakes her head in dismay. Still, she can't help but smile at Niska's joy.

Unable to contain herself, Niska is quietly but no less enthusiastically repeating her story out loud to herself while the others take a moment to gather their thoughts: "...And I walked right into the Hive! And I stole a picture *right* off their altar! And I flew right back out again! And they couldn't even *touch* me! (Well, except for that one tail-feather, but I was about to lose that one anyway, and it'll grow back...) and *I* am just *so* cool! I am the coolest thing since -- Wha ?" she comes out of her reverie at the questions. "Ooh! Ooh!" she rounds on Rowan, her black eyes glittering and wide. "See! This is the coolest part! The ghosts were *right*! I *am* evil!!" She gleefully tugs the crumpled paper thing out flat and points it at Rowan -- it's an old photograph. It's hard to get a good look at it, though, because of the way she's bouncing around, and the fact that she's presenting it upside down.

Sunshine's expression is indescribable as the girl describes herself as evil. Even her evidently unmixed joy in her own accomplishment isn't enough to reassure the older woman.

Layla rises from her curb and moves in for a closer look at the picture.

The photograph is quite old and faded, with the corners flaked and damaged. But the meat of the picture is visible enough: an unsmiling, dark-haired young man with a long face and high cheekbones sits on a chair, and a small, grinning, dark-haired young woman who is unmistakably Niska (in exactly the clothing Niska is wearing right now) is sitting on his lap.

Rex's jaw... drops.

Sunshine asks slowly, "And who is that young man in the photograph with you, child?"

Rowan takes a brief mental vacation at this news, and stands there with his mouth open. There's an audible *clack*, and then he takes the photo.

Niska releases the picture to Rowan and continues to dance. At Sunshine's question, she stops still, cocks her head at ROwan and her thumb at the newcomer and asks suspiciously, "Hey, who's she?"

Rowan explains, "She's Sunshine, she helped a kid from the Hive, and she's cranky." He's too busy staring at the photograph to be particularly polite.

Sunshine's mouth twitches in what be the beginning of a smile. "I am Sunshine. I am a healer and midwife, and I am occasionally cranky, it is true. I had my training of Dorothy at the Farm. Will that be sufficient crendtials for you, young lady?"

Rex maneuvers around behind Rowan and Layla and peers over their shoulders.

Niska edges sidelong to put a few more feet between her and Sunshine. "Oh?" she sniffs. Then, listening to Sunshine's introduction with narrowed eyes, she addresses the older woman directly. "So, are you a Good Guy, then? You're one of the New Moon folks, but you're hanging with the skinchangers? And you helped one of the Hivers?" Who's interrogating whom, here?

Sunshine's smile thins. "Yes," she says, then pauses. "Would you care to answer my question, young lady?" Mundane or no, she clearly expects an answer.

Rowan says, slowly, "Good question, since it's no one /I've/ ever seen..."

The raven-girl tosses her head arrogantly. "Hn. The guy? No clue," she sniffs. With a sudden dark glare, she snatches the photo back, suddenly possessive of it, and peers long at the young man. Then her mercurial temper bubbles back to cheer and she grins. "Teresa didn't know, either -- she was too low in the pecking order. But he's gotta be the 'handsome bastard' I betrayed everybody for, right? Like the deaders said."

Sunshine's eyebrows arch again, as the various tenses confuse her. Betrayed? The rest of the group certainly isn't acting as if this child has betrayed them for anyone.

Rex blinks several times and looks bewildered.

Rowan sighs. "Niska, this is so damn confusing. You still don't /look/ like you're 200 years old or whatever and you don't /remember/ all this stuff and you don't /recognize/ him... Would Glitters, maybe? Can you still access her or whatever?"

Sunshine is now thoroughly confused. She looks at the Corax speculatively, but doesn't voice any of the questions that flit through her mind.

"Ooh! Hey, good idea!" Niska chirps. "These dead folks don't usually give me much beyond the last couple minutes, but Glitters has been stepping on my tail ever since I ate her, so what the hell. Gimme a sec and I'll see if she's got anything for me." She mutters under her breath, "Though usually she only shows me stuff if I *haven't* asked for it...." The raven girl actually stills for a moment and closes her eyes, her head cocked to one side, her thin, small hands hanging motionless at her sides.

Rowan explains quietly to Sunshine, while watching Niska, "We invited ghosts into the Wards, up at the Caern, and they've been saying that Niska's like 200 years old and won't let her in, because she betrayed the last Caern, /even if/ she's only about 10 or something. And now it looks like..." He trails off. "Looks like they're right. Somehow."

Sunshine mouths 'Ate her?' at Rowan, her expression a mingling of confusion and distrust. She nods slowly in response to the boy's explanation.

"Five. I'm five," Niska corrects out of the corner of her mouth, eyes still closed in an attempt at concentration.

Rowan corrects, "Five," and then nods. "Yeah. Coraxes, I dunno a lot about it, but they kinda, well, eat parts of dead people, as kinda a tribute. And plus it lets 'em see how they died." He stops. "Have I mentioned my life sounds really weird, sometimes?"

Niska's face tenses and she skins her bare knees as she drops to them, there in the road. Her mouth opens slightly.

Sunshine chuckles faintly at Rowan, letting one hand rest on her boy's shoulder. "It does not sound much weirder than other lives whose tales I have heard," she says quietly before turning to stare at the girl.

Rowan gives Sunshine a quirked smile, but then immediately stops paying attention to anything else, and crouches down in front of Niska. He probably didn't even notice Sunshine's hand on his back.

Rex has somehow managed to lever his mouth shut, but is still staring at the raven-girl, mired in trying to work everything out. He fidgets with his sword.

"Blood," Niska husks at the road, barely audible.

Rowan doesn't really know how to talk to a memory imprint of an ages-old being, and it shows. "Blood?" He's quiet, but not nearly as quiet as Niska is.

Layla blinks, but says nothing that might break Niska's concentration.

Sunshine stands quietly, a frown on her face. She's as unsure of herself as Rowan, but she has a decade or two extra of training in wariness.

"Dead," is the next thing she says, barely above a whisper. It is still Niska's voice -- husky, but soft, like red wine and smoke -- not Glitters' hoarse grate. "Must be dead, with all that." Pause. "A Parliament."

Layla watches Niska with great curiosity.

A flicker of confusion flashes across Sunshine's face, quickly replaced by understanding. Perhaps she was recalling or translating the term 'Parliament' in this context.

Rowan doesn't seem to gain any understanding, really. But he doesn't ask anything, since Niska seems to be talking all on her own.

Rex rubs a hand over his face and paces a little.

Then, in Glitters' voice, but from Niska's throat, "*I* have to be the one?" The voice is creaky, even young like this, but it is heavy with a mixture of emotions.... Then it subsides, and Niska sighs and opens her eyes. "No, she won't show me any more," she scowls at the cobblestones past her bruised knees. "Damned old squab. She knows, but she won't let me *see*."

Sunshine frowns at this, but, having no real knowledge of the Corax and their ways, there doesn't seem to be anything she could do to help. She glances at the photograph, still in Niska's hand.

Rowan thumps a cobblestone. "Can you figure out why not?"

"I DON'T KNOW!" Niska snarls abruptly at Rowan, then draws back, biting her lip, abashed at her outburst. Tears of frustration glitter at the rims of her black eyes. "I had this dream, and she said-- I thought if I went there, and found this--" She glares at the photo where it lies in the road. "I thought if I went there and got this, that it would start to make sense..." She chews savagely at her lower lip.
"I don't know why she's here at all," Niska adds forlornly. "It's like she's haunting me."

Rowan flinches back only slightly. "Dream?"

Sunshine's smile has an edge of some kind as she says quietly, "It *will* all make sense, in time, child, if you let the Goddess guide you."
The edge to Sunshine's smile sharpens for a moment, then relaxes as Sunshine's eyes unfocus. Her hand drops from Rowan's shoulder and she straightens, somehow becoming more than the mid-thirties midwife.

"Don't patronize me, you dried-up old --!!" Niska lashes out at Sunshine, the newcomer, and therefore, the scapegoat. Her curse trails off into something unintelligably avian. "I'm fucking 200 hundred years old, and I took down an entire caern, and I *went* in there, and I *took* this thing, and they were fucking *expecting* me! Explain that, Miz Serenity. How did they know that I was here, now, if _none_of_them_have_ever_seen_me_in_homid?!?"

Rowan stands up, glaring at Niska. "How 'bout you don' make another Kelsey out of Sunshine, huh?"

Sunshine.... well, it *was* Sunshine.... suddenly snaps around her head to look at Niska with the kind of stare one usually only sees on the other end of a seige weapon. She's taller suddenly, surrounded by a dark nimbus that is also, paradoxically, glowing. She takes two strides up to Niska and slaps her clean across the face.
"Think. If you're capable of it, you little feather-brained bitch. Glitters remembers you. Do you think she's the only one? She's still trying to tell you what you will not listen to. She's got more patience than I do. It's been barely a century, little girl. Some people live long and remember longer. But you have trouble with that, don't you?"

Rowan takes about six quick steps backwards and becomes slightly harder to see. A little blurred around the edges. It's apparently reflexive.

Layla retreats slowly.

Rex takes two steps back, left hand resting on the hilt of the sword that hangs on his right hip. Then his hand drops and he gawps.

Niska squawks in outrage, scrambling backwards with one hand pressed to her face. Her black eyes blaze and it looks for an instant like she'll start screaming. Or crying. Or both. Then she stills. "You have no clue what I'm 'having trouble with'," she husks in voice like frost, eyes wide and perhaps not entirely sane. "No fucking clue." Then she turns and bolts.

There's a brief moment of strained indecision, and then Rowan's lurching toward Niska, still Blurred, ineffectually. "Niska, wait--" He grabs at what wisps of clothing he can, mostly out of instinct, but he's not actually necessarily trying to hold her there.

Lilith folds her arms and sighs. "Actually, I know exactly what you're having trouble with. The trouble with not remembering is that you never grow up."

Rex moves his jaw, still staring at Sunshine, evidently trying to say something, but fails.

Sunshine staggers slightly as the Goddess lets go of her, her arms unfolding, as the posture isn't particularly natural for the midwife. As her eyes refocus, she sighs gently, blinking at the bolting girl.

Niska takes three steps, gathers herself to leap-- then clatters to a halt, still in homid. She turns slowly back to face the little group, doubt in her face as her eyes flicker from one face to the next. She opens her mouth, but nothing comes out, so she shuts it again and simply waits for whatever is going to be said to be said.

Rex finally bursts out with, "Goddess!"

Sunshine's smile holds that same, slightly pained, edge again as she turns to look at Rex. "She is gone again, now." She reaches down for her basket, picking it up as if quite weary. "I hope she was not too harsh," she adds, glancing back at Niska.

"Fuck you," Niska snarls softly -- those standing nearest might hear. She glares dully at the street, no longer fidgeting, seemingly drained.

Rowan, who's stopped moving entirely, says, quietly, "Can we -- any of us -- help at all, Niska?"

A flicker of pity, or maybe sympathy, shows in Sunshine's smile. "I am sorry, Niska," she says gently, using the girl's name for the first time. With that, she steps across the street, carrying her basket towards the diner.

"I'm not stupid," Niska whispers at the street. Blood makes a thin line down her left shin from her barked knee. "I keep asking, but they just riddle at me, or sneer at me, or-- or hit me. She said I was running away. But I'm *trying*..." she hugs herself and looks up at Rowan, finally, her eyes red around the black centers. She pleads with him, "Am I just not asking the right questions?"

Rowan crouches down next to her. "Probably. And maybe we're all beating ourselves against a brick wall, but dammit, there's gotta be /some/ kind of answer. We just... Keep getting closer. Slowly."

Sunshine looks at the trio for a moment at the door of the Diner and starts to say something, then thinks better of it, shaking her head slightly. She goes into the building, closing the door gently behind herself.

Rex shuffles hesitantly closer. "Older folks allus like bein' all cryptic and stuff," he says quietly. "It ain't your fault. Well," he amends, glancing back at where he last saw the Goddess, then skyward, "it ain't *all* your fault. It prob'ly seems real clear to them as knows it already. I s'pose."

Niska looks from Rowan to Rex, and manages to drag one corner of her mouth up out of its scowl. Glancing toward the closed door to the diner, she asks hesitantly, "Was that really... ?"

Rex nods slowly. "She looked jus' like my mama did when the Goddess come down. Cross my heart."

Rowan glances back at the Diner. "Uhm. Ain't met Her before, but it sure the dark seemed like it. I... Guess."