I’m pretty tiny, at least compared to my humans (who I like) and all the things that seem to want to eat me (who I’m less fond of). Standing on the Looking Tree, with the last of my mother’s scent fading away in the breeze, I didn’t feel small though. There was a hole in my heart that was too enormous to be contained in anything as tiny as a little cat’s body.
“Are you ok?” Shadow asked.
“I don’t think so,” I said, and leaned against one of the tree’s branches. It’s not easy to trip when you have four feet to work with, but it seemed like the world was listing sideways on me and only the solid weight of the tree was enough to keep me upright.
“Don’t worry,” Shadow said. “I’m right here and I’ll stay here with you. Penny’s heading over too.”
Something about that seemed wrong, and I felt a shiver run down my whiskers.
“No!” I said. “I’ll be ok in a minute. Don’t let her come here. We don’t know if it’s safe.”
I don’t know why almost seeing my mother made me feel unsafe, but cat instincts are never wrong (except when they are, in which case they are instantly forgotten). Whatever the case was, I didn’t want my witch outside of the safety of her house. Not tonight. Maybe not ever.
“Now she’s really coming,” Shadow said.
I rolled my eyes, a gesture I’d picked up from my humans.
“Aren’t you supposed to be her better judgement?” I asked.
“No, that’s Seeming,” Shadow said. “I’m her wild side.”
I knew that, but it wasn’t convenient at the moment, so I chose to pay it no mind. I loved and respected Penny, she was made for me, but she still had a terrible sense of self-preservation. She should have stayed where it was safe, even if I was in danger, or especially if I was in danger. Not that I was sure I was in danger, but she should have stayed safe anyways.
(I was glad that she didn’t – I’d never had anyone who would walk towards scary things for me.)
“We should get going then,” I said. “I can’t tell where my mother went, and if we meet Penny halfway, that’s half the time she’ll be out here in the dark.”
“You know there’s nothing out here to be afraid of, right?” Shadow asked. “I mean, we are the things that go bump in the night.”
“We’re some of the things that go bump in the night,” I said, hopping out of the tree and starting to walk back towards our house. “And just because we can’t see anything that makes bigger bumps doesn’t mean they’re not out there.”
We managed to meet Penny a little closer to her house than halfway. My witch isn’t slow, but she and Rosie and Betty had stopped to pick up a flashlight before leaving (which was a good choice) and neither Shadow nor I needed anything like that.
“It might not have been your mother,” Betty said once we were secure back in Penny’s bedroom.
“It was definitely her scent,” I said. “It’s been a long time but I’ll remember it forever.”
“Yeah, and that’s part of why it might not have been her,” Betty said.
“Is this a goblin thing?” I asked. “Because that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not a goblin thing,” Betty said. “A changeling thing.”
“Changeling? Like a fairy?” Rosie asked.
“The word ‘fairy’ gets used to describe a lot of magical people,” Betty said. “The kind of Changeling that I’m referring to is sort of like a Seeming, except instead of mirroring just one person, like a Seeming does with their witch, a Changeling can mirror almost anyone.”
“Even their scent?” I asked.
“Only if the person looking at them has a strong sense of smell,” Betty said. “They take their identity from the people observing them. Sight, sound and smell, at least from the stories I’ve heard.”
“Why would there be a changeling posing as September’s mother though?” Penny asked.
“Maybe to get close to him and then get to you?” Rosie said.
“I haven’t seen my mother in years though,” I said.
“Sounds like a perfect disguise then,” Betty said. “She’s someone that you will instinctively care about and respect, but who doesn’t have a lot of shared memories that the changeling could get tripped up by.”
“Why go to all that trouble though?” Penny asked.
“Did the Miser King have any changelings working for him?” Rosie asked. “Maybe one of his associates is trying to get even with you for taking him down.”
“That wasn’t me though,” Penny said. “Brooks and all the other people he brought in did all the hard work there.”
“Brooks is too scary to try to get revenge on though,” I said. “Maybe they feel safer coming after you?”
I didn’t believe the idea that I’d seen a Changeling taking the form of my mother, but I definitely felt like we were in danger, so anything I could do to instill caution in my witch felt like a good idea.
“I guess the question is what are we going to do about it?” Rosie asked.
“I don’t know,” Penny said. “Can we follow the changeling? If there is one that is.”
“Her scent vanished,” I said. “I don’t know if even Wolf or Akemi could track her from where we lost her.”
“Then we’ll have to be on guard,” Rosie said. “No leaving you alone for a while, until we’re sure no one is coming after you.”
She was speaking to Penny, but I agreed with the notion. The nightmare mice could flourish for a few nights. I would stay inside where it was nice and safe, for as long as it took. That prospect was less comforting than I expected it to be though. A part of me wanted to head back out into the dark and keep looking for my mother.
It was crazy to think that, and I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen without risking Penny’s safety, but looking out the window at the deep shadows that had swallowed Penny’s house, a little voice in me was whispering that I had to know what happened all those years ago.