If Found, Please Return


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Chapter 1

The bookstore was, in the tradition of all good bookstores, musty, dimly lit, and empty of people. It was primly organized, or at least in the intent of the original organizer, because since the original and unknown Day of Organizing, a few things had changed. Namely that Young Adult had somehow sandwiched itself in the middle of Sci Fi due to a mixup involving vampires and wizardry, Western Historical Romance had somehow evolved into a category large enough to fill a case, and audio CDs had infiltrated the language section. This was not to mention the misshelvings, of course, since they were the backbone of every bookstore employee’s career, forever shelving and reshelving the same ten or twelve books that always ended up in the wrong place. Sometimes it was in a passive-aggressive maneuver aimed at another employee or a boldly intrusive customer who thought they knew the rules.


Sage disliked such people. There was nothing worse. (Well, that was not strictly speaking true, but that’s not the point.)


On good days, Sage would carry the books a few at a time in a basket hanging in the crook of their elbow. On better days, they would forego the basket and take what would balance easily in their hands,setting the cane aside for a while as they flitted around the store.


On okay days, Sage would push the wobbly-wheeled cart around the store and reshelve the books with that. This took a lot of time, but it wasn’t so bad.


On bad days, Sage would sit for a long time and organize the cart first, store quadrant genre high to low alphabetical by author’s last name while performing a secondary mental sort based purely on size and weight. On worse days, they would leave the cart for someone else altogether and crumple on top of a stool behind the register, dreaming of organizing another bookstore by color alone and replacing all the chairs with cushy recliners.


A bell that lived over the door dinged whenever someone entered or left. Sometimes, Sage thought about how nice it would be to remove the bell. It was a quaint, nostalgic sound, of course, but on busy days it practically morphed into a fire alarm. But it also provided a note of warning, on the rare occasions that it was necessary. So the bell stayed.


Sage sighed and shelved the last of the vampire-based YA novels. They had been meaning to reorganize that quadrant of the store for ages, but there was nowhere to put the books aside except the floor, and Thistle would never stand for that. One of the times Sage was thankful they all worked different shifts. Less so when the bell over the door rang in the middle of the night.


The bookstore was not the sort where helpful, friendly employees wandered around asking if they could help you with anything. They weren’t outright rude, because that really would get them in trouble, but customer service was not their express purpose. So that was why Sage waited behind a case, bracing one hand on the cart, holding their breath, and listening to the silence.


A whispering hiss filtered through the air, like stars spilling into the night sky in The Tears of Samara, and the already low lanterns blew themselves out. Sage bit back a curse. Word-thieves always showed up on their shift, when the store was empty of customers. At least they didn’t have to face shapeshifters very often for the same reason; that was more of an issue for Azul, and sometimes Rose.


Sage kept listening. The creature was already running its shapeless shadow fingers along the spines of every book, searching for its next victim. The sound gave them shivers, like a dozen birds’ wings flapping frantically. Sage would only have one chance - word-thieves were essentially invincible until they plunged their otherworldly tentacles into a book and searched for something to steal. And if they actually latched on to something, there was no telling what would happen. Sage had made that mistake once in training, and it was only because of Moon that the world hadn’t descended into chaos powered by the Void Stone the creature pulled out of the story.


They knew better now, though. They had learned to listen.


The monster had found a book. It flung the helpless text to the floor and shoved a shadowy tentacle hand between the pages. Energy crackled through the air like the beginnings of lightning. Sage felt the pendant hum against their chest. Their eyes burned behind the lids. The connection stretched, the creature’s armor thinned as it passed through the veil-


Sage leapt around the corner- and stumbled, rolling forward hard. Pain flared from their knee to their hip, wrapping long, hot fingers around their torso and digging in with spiny teeth. They pushed themself up with their good leg, dragging their other one behind them and gritting their teeth against the pain, and lunged clumsily for the creature. It was as horrible to look at as it sounded, liquid shadows poured like ink through the air, swirling and shifting like a mirage on a hot day. It was even more enormous than Sage had thought - it took up nearly the entire corner, bending awkwardly near the ceiling, reaching numerous tentacles out and waving them like disgusting feelers.


Sage’s fingers dug in to clear slime. The creature shrieked and howled inhumanly, and a ghoulish green glow erupted from Sage’s hand. Already they felt the creature trying to retreat, trying to enclose its armor around them, but they pushed back with everything they had. They could see through what passed for the creature’s eyes, into the world, straight to the object of its desire. An amulet, not unlike Sage’s own, though of course more ornate and elaborate. It must have been a high fantasy novel. The amulet was on the floor now, the crimson jewel in its center reacting to the creature’s energy field. This was more serious than Sage thought. They pulled harder, like planting their feet on either side of the doorway and giving it one good reverse shove-


There was an intense, overwhelming sensation of being vacuumed that lasted for two solid seconds. Then they felt their body hit the floor. This was not the floor of the bookstore - and as the resident Professional Faller, Sage would know - a fact that was determined mainly by the sound, as tile possessed very different acoustic properties from wood. Sage allowed themself one moment to breathe and get their head together. Then they rolled onto their good side and looked around. One wall of the room was painted a lush, midnight blue the exact shade of Azul’s hair. They made a mental note to let him know to check out this book later. He was a sucker for things like that. A partition of gold worked into a delicate geometric pattern divided the room further. It was too dark to tell much else, although the tile beneath Sage’s face was gorgeous - a layer of clear glass pressed over a layer of coppery gold, each tile worked and placed individually. Definitely atmospheric enough for Azul.


Sage located the amulet.The crimson gem at its heart was dark again, thank goodness. Sage found no trace of the creature’s energy or influence and picked it up by the chain, then looked around to see where it belonged. A glass case atop the dresser caught their eye, with a blue velvet cushion likely meant to hold the amulet, judging by the depression in the center. (Sage could just imagine it now - the author describing the piece of furniture, attempting to pass it off as some newly designed object instead of the repurposed dresser in the corner of their bedroom that needed a layer of paint. Perhaps Azul would not like this book so much after all.) They pulled themself out of the book just enough to read the page - slept upon a bed of finest blue velvet, within a glass cage, the walls of which were never left unlocked, especially on a night like this - okay, so the box was closed, then. Sage put the amulet back and closed the lid. They took one last glance around the room to ensure that everything was in order. The last thing they saw before they pulled themself out of the book was a pair of glittering eyes staring at them from the shadows.


Sage landed on the floor again, this time the more familiar one of the bookstore. They picked themself up with a groan and grabbed the book - Sands of Time - from where it lay, then flipped through the pages to find where the creature had interfered. It wasn’t very far into the story. Ah. As expected, it was the hero (or thief, depending on your point of view) that had been watching them. Well, hopefully it wouldn’t leave a lasting impact. They would leave it on Moon’s desk for review, just in case.


The pain from Sage’s many impacts with the floor over the past few minutes was subsiding and sinking into their bones at the same time, as was often its way. They made their way back to the main desk, their movements made unsteady by the weight of the creature inside their pendant. They couldn’t wait to deposit it in the purifier later. Their cane waited in its usual place behind the counter, leaning quietly against it where customers couldn’t see. Sage knew they wouldn’t care if they did see it. If they did, they could take it up with Moon. They just wanted to avoid the stares and the questions as much as possible.


Sage determined that further reshelving could be someone else’s problem. Instead, they returned to reading their own book. It was poetry. Moon had always warned them about poetry. So fluid and intense were the images - and so often divided and diverse could be the author’s intended meaning - the chances of them getting lost were high. So Sage had to settle for simply reading the words and imagining what they could. Not that any value was lost in that.


Half an hour before Thistle was to arrive, Sage set their book aside and got back to work, still feeling the effects of the fight. But they were able to get around just fine, and it didn’t take much to get the place looking neat again before regular customers began to arrive. In the daylight hours, the dinging of the bell signaled welcome guests instead of intruders. Sage greeted them as cordially as they could, but their eyes were growing heavy, and they were aching for a salt soak. Thistle arrived on time, but never a moment early (that was definitely Rose’s job).


“Rough night?” Thistle asked, always the first to see Sage after a shift on this half of the week.


Sage nodded. “Word-thief, Sands of Time. No worse than usual, I suppose.”


“Well, at least you’re alright.” Thistle set their bag behind the counter. “I brought you an extra tea,” she added with a small, lavender smile.


Sage took it, aching and grateful. “You are wonderful.” It was fruity and minty and laden with honey, perfect for the rainy walk home. “I shall see you tomorrow.”


Thistle handed them their coat, a worn, gray thing that was always getting left behind. “You as well.”


The rain was relentless in Pendragon. But, to be honest, if Sage wanted hot deserts or frozen tundra, they were available at their fingertips. There was still something invigorating about the rain, the smell and the gentle chill and the way it tapped at the window all night. Sometimes it grew into a roaring beast of a storm. Sometimes it drizzled. Sage spent so much time inside that it hardly made a difference. The trek to their apartment was something of a challenge on a normal day. It would be made longer by the extra injuries they had sustained, but it was nothing they weren’t used to enduring. They engaged a minor music charm to encircle their head - one only they could hear - and set off for home.

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