Dresden Files Grave Peril Ch19

Right, so there will be a delay returning to Moon and so instead there will be an end to the delay of Grave Peril.

Last time, Harry’s bullshit “reasoning” led him to figuring out the nightmare wanted revenge for that time Michael killed it, at which point he declared he needed to go warn Murphy.

We open this chapter with him attempting to explain his equally bullshit decision:

There’s a kind of mathematics that goes along with saving people’s lives. You find yourself running the figures without even realizing it, like a medic on a battlefield. This patient has no chance of surviving. That one does, but only if you let a third die.

For me, the equation broke down into fairly simple elements. The demon, hungry for its revenge, would come after those who had struck it down. The ghost would only remember those who had been there, whom it had focused on in those last moments. That meant that Murphy and Michael would be its remaining targets. Michael had a chance of protecting himself against the thing – hell, maybe a better chance than me. Murphy didn’t.

Wrong, dumbfuck. The correct answer was, “The nightmare, being a nightmare, attacks when people sleep and can’t use their normal abilities to defend themselves. Murphy chugs coffee to stay up all night for cases while Michael is a responsible individual with children who goes to bed at nine.”

Weirdly, the book sorta agrees on this point, it just…doesn’t care.

Harry gets on the phone rather than rushing off, so we don’t even have a situation where he can only be in one place. He calls Murphy who hasn’t slept for other, cop-related reasons like I said. Because of the very important lesson he learned in book one about ordering Murphy around without explaining himself, and because of the very important lesson he learned in book two about ordering Murphy around without explaining himself, he orders her not to go to sleep without explaining himself.

He does say he’ll explain later, when he gets there in twenty minutes, but given there’s no actual reason this can’t be said on the phone, the only reason he’s even pretending he’ll tell her something useful is so she can get grumpy over the fact he just told her it’d only take him ten minutes and he realizes something else has been talking to her.

The phone line snapped, crackled, and popped, and I struggled to calm down before the connection went out.

This is interesting. So even with half his magic intestines swallowed by some monster, the techbane is still in play.

However, instead of taking the fact the line could go out at any time as a sign he should try to tell her as much information as possible, he asks her to clarify so he can be sure of what’s going on, and Murphy is too tired and too sick of his rambling conversations to do anything but hang up on him.

Honestly, this did not play out well. If he ends up hung up on because he couldn’t get to the point in time, then why have him reminded partway in that phone time is precious and can end at any moment? I could completely buy Harry not picking up on how pissed off Murphy is and how she, assuming he’ll be there in person soon, wouldn’t think much of hanging up. The insertion of the crackle does nothing but make Harry look dumber.

Harry then explains that there are totally tons of things that can pretend to be you but the probabilities were limited: either another supernatural beastie had wandered onto the stage or, I gulped, the Nightmare had taken a big enough bite of me that it could put on a convincing charade.

Or it was vampires. I mean, they can glamour themselves up. With more human vampires, I could see the argument that they can only add bonuses onto their pre-death appearances, but a big point was made about how Bianca is really a giant slavering bat thing, and worse, one with saggy old lady tits so Harry can’t possibly jerk off to it.

It’s wholly reasonable to say that probably whatever’s involved here isn’t anything new – although the events of the previous book say it’s actually not all that unlikely a random newcomer has wandered in – but Harry knows vampires and Bianca are somehow involved in all this.

I’ve mocked Harry’s reasoning about the exact connection, but whether Bianca is the complete master of everything happening or just aware of a completely independent entity’s rampaging, he knows she’s sent out vampires to grab someone connected to the angry ghost monster already.

Instead the story goes on to explain that actually, immaterial ghosts can make completely material forms so long as they’ve got enough power, which just…what’s the point of it being a ghost even? Why even have a variety of different magical creatures if extra power just erases their differences? We know ghosts can poltergeist and creepy phone calls are a perfectly valid horror element. It shouldn’t need a meat body to make sound come out of a speaker.

Harry, of course, does not take the thirty seconds it’d take to call Michael but dives into grabbing stuff to fight a ghost, then, interestingly, does think to call Michael before he goes out the door – but he doesn’t say why, and I suspect he was calling for backup, not because it’d finally occurred to him that Michael really needed a warning. At any rate, Michael’s phone is mysteriously busy just like Murphy’s when he tried to call back! I’m not sure if this is going anywhere but if we hadn’t established the ghost was using phones through the boring method of a flesh hand picking up the phone and vocal cords vibrating in patterns, we could’ve had supernatural interference there.

BUT! We do get to hear about what you need to fight a ghost.

Salt, a wooden spoon, a table knife, a couple of storm candles and matches, and a coffee cup. I stuffed them all into an old Scooby-Doo lunch box, then, as an afterthought, reached into a bag of sand that I keep in the kitchen closet for Mister’s litter box, and tossed a handful into a plastic bag.

So many questions. Like, does he seriously use sand? Is this because Mister-the-totally-a-real-cat has mystical odor-free urine as if it’s not being actually a waste product produced by a biological organism? Does Harry just not realize that kitty litter isn’t made of sand, as he doesn’t seem to have figured out cat food is an actual item you can buy, because he’s never entered a supermarket before? Did he actually just grab a handful of legitimate clay-filled kitty litter and he just thinks it’s sand because it’s gritty and sand is gritty, and if so, how has he not been blown up when making potions yet?

Also, why the hell does he have a Scooby-Doo lunch box? He can’t have gotten it as a teen because he was busy being apprenticed to a nutjob, and it can’t be a beloved childhood memento from his father or he wouldn’t be casually grabbing it, which suggests it’s something he’s bought recently, but “old” when tied to a TV show this old adds up to “vintage”, and why would he pay a whole bunch of money for a children’s lunch box of a show he can’t see because TVs don’t work around him? Presumably the idea is supposed to be that he bought it cheap from some secondhand store, except we know Harry’s purchasing decisions never factor price into anything.

More seriously…I wonder whether modern salt works.

Salt is associated with purity, and the average table salt these days is laced with iodine, but I’d guess traditional saltmaking left plenty of impurities, but those impurities were usually earthen in nature (“salt of the earth”) and maybe the real effectiveness of salt lies in the connection to the dirt, often a grounding force against more unnatural things. The purity association also likely stems from its great value as a preservative, but I don’t think we have that association so much these days, so if it’s magical thinking it won’t work so well, and if there’s magic in the simple fact it does preserve things against corruption, I’m not sure that’d do you good against the undead since salting meat slows its return to the natural cycle – if you think about it, wouldn’t decay be a stronger weapon against a ghost’s attempt to persist as it once was? Much like fire consuming and transforming to ashes.

Speaking of, Harry makes sure to get his hands on his staff and rod before heading out to visit Murphy.

The district station Murphy worked in crouched down amongst taller buildings that surrounded it, solid and square and a bit battered, like a tough old sergeant amongst a forest of tall, young recruits.

Pretty sure a very similar but slightly better comparison was already used here – plus, you can really see how hard the author’s struggling by fact it’s a simile where one thing “amongst” others is like another thing “amongst” others. See, not only are traditional bizarre noir comparisons more interesting, but because they’re about weird comparisons you can describe the same thing over and over in a different way. Plus, “crouched, surrounded, battered” and your association is some insipid thing about a sergeant hanging out with fresh faces and not the aftermath of a fist fight or something? Especially since this book seems to be about history and sordid pasts.

Hm, that’s another thing, isn’t it? The city should be a character in this, reflecting the storyline. Grave Peril is about things Harry did coming back for him – the Bianca screwup of the first book and the demon fight earlier – and the city’s past coming back – the ghosts, and the fact we hear about the history behind them and see a funhouse version of the early city. New buildings looming over the station that policed the old ones could probably be worked into that. They keep getting knocked down while the station endures, but they keep getting built back up to do the same things again while the station slowly falls into disrepair.

The grizzled old sergeant behind the desk

If I’m recalling correctly, he was there in the previous book. I wonder if he’s completely taken over from the “matron” Harry was weird about originally and if so, what does that change mean about the narrative’s varying feelings about women?

Anyway, he asks if he was there already and otherwise rambles about like he can’t just explain himself. Thing is, if he’d said, “Was my murderous twin just here???” the guy probably would’ve asked even fewer questions and would definitely have tried a bit harder to help. It’s not like one guy looking like another guy only happens because of magic, Harry. And yeah, “evil twin” might sound silly if you just tell people about it, but if your statements make it clear an evil twin is currently mid-murder attempt, people will probably roll with it.

But we know that Harry doesn’t explain because he doesn’t want other people to know and all that stuff about not being able to is just an excuse, so instead he charges to her office, has a similar brief conversation with another officer on the way, and then barges in.

Murphy’s office stood at the back of the room, with cheap walls and a cheap door that finally bore a genuine metallic nameplate with her name and title on it. I leaned back and drove my heel at the doorknob. The cheap door splintered, but I had to kick it again to send it swinging open.

Again, should’ve gone with the minimum murder-twin explanation. It’d have made it less likely anyone restrains you when you do this sort of thing in front of several cops. Harry may be assuming they’ll be too stunned by this to react, but counterpoint: cops. You should not be betting on people trained to respond in a crisis freezing and letting you do whatever, especially when the consequences for just one of them reacting and dragging you away are so dire.

But Chicago’s finest apparently just sit and stare.

We then get a pretty sane description of Murphy:

Murphy sat at her desk, still wearing the clothes I’d last seen her in. She’d taken her hat off, and her short blonde hair was mussed. The circles beneath her eyes were almost as dark as bruises. She sat perfectly still, staring forward with her blue eyes set in an expression of horror.

Nothing about makeup! Nothing about cuteness! Nothing about how her shirt was open in just the right way! Just the fact she was tired and working.

I stood behind her, all in black – the same outfit I’d worn the night we’d stopped Kravos and his demon.

This, meanwhile, is just hilarious. Because imagine Harry didn’t dress in Goth Cool. Now what’s a ghosty monster to do? How’s it supposed to have its dramatic scene of revenge AND do an ironic echo of the past if Harry didn’t pick his wardrobe for the convenience of future doppelganger murderers?

Consider that if Harry dressed in plaid and floral prints, Mr. Nightmare here would never have got this far.

I didn’t know my face was capable of making an expression like that – serene and malicious and frightening.

I would bet this is expression has been on actual Harry’s face plenty of times.

Harry orders him to leave her alone, and Nightmare-san talks!

“Be thou silent, wizard,” it murmured, steel and razor blades in its words. “Else I will tear thee apart, as I already have this night.”

“There is something thou hast forgotten, wizard.”

“I have partaken of thee. I am what thou art,”

It did not sound nearly this purple back in the dream: “That was then,” the demon purred, its voice silken. “This is now.”

Is that because it was a dream and Harry’s subconscious was partly in charge of rendering the events, and it’s too lazy for this fancyspeak? Or is it deliberately trying to play itself up? It could be the latter – the fact it wasn’t concerned with putting on a show for Harry then but seems to be now could be explained by the fact that it expected him to die right then, but if he’s going to live through this encounter than you’ve just got to put on a proper show.

But back to the actual content, it’s saying it is what he is because it’s about to airbend at him and knocks him into the other two police officers behind him, which stuns all of them so much that it can calmly stroll past, because everyone but Murphy is a pile of failure.

Unfortunately Murphy is also out of commission due to bluescreening from whatever Ghosty did.

I heard him go to the nearest phone and start calling down to the desk. I didn’t bother to tell him that it wouldn’t do any good. The Nightmare could walk out through the walls if it needed to.

Does this mean its material form is actually able to simultaneously immaterial, or does it mean the material form can be dissolved and reformed? Also, if it takes power to construct a form it should take more power to deconstruct it again, which means that most ghosts who can make a body would more likely abandon the shell. And wouldn’t that be way creepier? Imagine if the people downstairs see “Harry” walk up to a wall then suddenly collapse, apparently dead. And what would it look like when they call a doctor to look at it? Will it be a real corpse or is it only the outside that looks like a person? For that matter, if it wasn’t planning on stripping, the deception doesn’t even need to be skin-deep. They could discover that what looks like clothing is attached to the corpse and when you try to cut it off you can’t find where the body starts.

But we don’t get such coolness. Instead, we just get Murphy staring into space. Harry tries to soulgaze her. Eyes are the windows to the soul. And apparently these windows are shuttered because it doesn’t work.

Harry works out/guesses that Murphy is hallucinating, which means that apparently eyes have no soul link. This kind of reminds me of the shinigami eye thing in Death Note and how they start trying to figure out just how much of a face you need to be able to identify the person. That’s what happens when you take something mystical and start trying to actually use it.

We previously knew that soulgazes require a couple seconds of direct eye contact to trigger. Now we’ve learned that soulgazes don’t trigger unless both parties are capable of perceiving the other party as there. Light bouncing from one eye into another isn’t enough, the nerves have to activate and transmit that to the brain. Presumably blindness prevents soulgazing…but most “blindness” isn’t the all or nothing we think of.

Check this out:

Rats have pretty awful eyesight, and albino rats have awful eyesight by rat standards. As a result, it’s very common for albino rats to wave their heads from side to side to try to pick up any visual information. It doesn’t seem to do much in my experience – at least, they don’t seem to do better at seeing the hand coming for them, which seems like it should be priority one for a rat. But the very fact they do it indicates they’re not actually blind but are seeing something, useless as that may be. (…or, it occurs to me, possibly trying to pick up smells. Their scenting abilities also barely work, because it turns out lacking melanin screws up a whole host of things. Either way, they’re doing it because they have enough of a sense that this improves it.)

Point is, an awful lot of blindness is eyes not working well enough but still sending something or other. How bad does your vision have to be before soulgazing doesn’t work? It presumably won’t work through mirrored sunglasses, but would it work through tinted lenses? There are a number of high-tech options to enhance vision, would reflecting and magnifying to enhance the image up to average vision allow for a soulgaze or not? What about a camera plugged right into your brain? (And sure, at the moment the answer is both that one doesn’t exist and that one that did exist would just short out…but eventually, robot eyes are going to be old news and wizards won’t have any issue being around them.)

Or how about lenses that flip images? Our eyes naturally flip images and our brain just flips it again. If you make people wear lenses that invert the image going to their eye, the brain keeps flipping it for a little bit, but then learns not to. And we also know our brains process faces separately from all other images and only do that when they’re the right way around, which is why you can mangle a painted face and people won’t notice if the image is turned. Would you be immune to a soulgaze if you’d just put on the inverting lens, even though you were still aware you were looking into someone’s eyes, because your facial recognition wasn’t actually fired up? If you have one of those very specific brain disorders that messes with this part of your brain, are you permanently immune?

Conversely, if hallucinating someone’s not there protects you from the soulgaze, what if you hallucinate someone is there? Or dream? I’d assume you can’t straight up soulgaze an imaginary person, you have to have another person to actually poke around the soul of, but say you both have your eyes closed but are picturing the person’s face staring at you. Your brain has the image of the person’s eyes staring at you, and the soul is in the same location as it would be if you opened your eyes. Does there need to be actual light bouncing between the two sets of eyes to transmit the soul?

Is soulgazing partly about recognizing another human being? Harry made a big deal last book about how you must be this human for eyefucking with him, but what if instead of that being a way for Harry to tell, it’s a reflection of what Harry already subconsciously feels? He’s certainly surprised by when it works, but Tera is a complete anathema to everything he believes in while the lycanthropes are defined by alpha male posturing and violence with a touch of sexual rage – Harry may not have enjoyed seeing inside the guy’s soul, but he doesn’t seem to have had any difficulty understanding it. And we know that the lycanthropes were defined as not having a human soul, yet they counted more than Tera who, different as she was, seemed to have a much more compatible emotional range. And that’d suggest that visual barriers, or even eyes themselves, aren’t the point – the only reason Harry thinks eyes are the window to the soul is because he was taught as much, and there’s enough cultural support it works with pretty much anyone you meet. For that matter, maybe Tera flunked solely because she doesn’t give a damn about eyes and humanness is about having mutually held beliefs on how to best see into a person’s soul.

Back to the story. Harry, having failed on Plan Soulgaze, starts ordering the police to go loot the evidence locker for Evilly McEvilson’s spellbooks. He phrases this as though it’s in response to asking how they can help Murphy, but actually he’s going to do a spell he already knows, so I guess he figured he needed this slight of hand to make sure they gave him the books. In fairness, I can see the police being a bit leery about handing over evil magic books to a new magic user even if they did trust him.

While that’s happening, it’s circle time! He draws one with chalk, then uses will to close it, then goes to his memories of friendship to power the next part.

And…I do think there’s something for my theory he’s fucking himself up emotionally.

I put my hand on her cold fingers, and thought about all the stuff we’d been through, the bond of friendship that had grown between us. Good times and bad, Murph’s heart had always been in the right place. She didn’t deserve this kind of torment.

A great fury began to stir in me – not some vaporous, swiftly dissipated flash of anger, but something deeper, darker, more calm and more dangerous. Rage. Rage that this sort of thing should happen to someone as selfless and caring as Murphy. Rage that the creature had used my power, my face, to trick its way close to her and to hurt her.

From that rage came the power I needed.

It sounds like he started off trying to reach for positive emotions, like friendship, and it quickly twists into anger, and then he says despite how this seemed to happen suddenly the anger isn’t the flash of anger type, perhaps because that part got sucked straight in. He then stokes the even worse rage, the kind that feeds on itself to build up in apparent calm, either because he’s used to seeking out self-renewing emotions on purpose for magic or worse, because it’s just that everything else was already fed to the magic but this kind of thing keeps generating so it stays with you throughout.

The spell that results appears to be a perfectly benign sleep spell, but of course, it’s always seemed like you can pour any emotion into any spell and I think that’s actually worse as far as realizing what’s going on in time. Someone in the grip of cold, determined rage can move gently, but it doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous to everyone around them.

With an effort of will, I smudged the circle and broke it.

And this too is odd, especially because he then has to spend more magic power activating it again and given how difficult that is. It suggests willpower circles are magically kept in place and you have to break the magic to damage them, which really doesn’t seem to fit with how circles are traditionally used. I’m guessing the author is assuming that you have to have something stopping the creature you’re binding from disrupting the circle, but normally that’s covered by saying that anything the circle is actively warding against can’t affect it, not that nobody can affect it.

Or maybe Harry actually did bind himself into the circle in the process? That could be pretty dangerous if you run low on power.

We end with Harry remembering that Michael exists again and, now that he’s walled off Murphy, he should probably go do something about that. Calling is just another busy signal, so off he goes to try to find the guy.

But first, threats!

Rudolph’s expression was serious, earnest. He’d never much liked me, anyway. “I mean it, Dresden. If you let Murphy get hurt, I’ll kill you.”

“Kid, if anything happens to Murphy because of me …” I sighed. “I think I’ll let you.”

Really cliche threats with an uncomfortably gendered component (it’s pretty much always guy accepting total responsibility/protection over girl).

10 Comments

  1. Profile gravatar of Mini-Farla Mini-Farla says:

    The paragraph after the readmore isn’t italicized and you’ve got tons of typos.

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  2. Nerem says:
    Yay! Dresden Files is back! I’ve been waiting for this!

     

    I… agree a lot that your idea of how the demon should leave is easily the creepier and better idea. Rather then just “Ghosts and demons work in whatever way is most convenient to the plot.”

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    1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

      I wouldn’t mind seeing ghosts operate on a kind of Agent Smith level. They can possess any human body, then morph that body however they like, but once you exorcise them, it turns back into the victim. You’d get these murders that seemed like hobos or whatever going on random killings until it’s revealed that all of the victims are connected and their murders all follow some pattern.

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  3. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

    Pretty sure a very similar but slightly better comparison was already used here –

    IIRC Harry first described this building as like a faithful old bulldog trying to police unruly children or something. Which was just… fantastically bad.

    So many questions. Like, does he seriously use sand? Is this because Mister-the-totally-a-real-cat has mystical odor-free urine as if it’s not being actually a waste product produced by a biological organism? 

    It would actually make for a super good horror story if some malignant creatures went around killing and replacing people’s pets, and you could only catch on because the disguise wasn’t quite perfect, biologically. Though what the endgame of such a creature would be if the victim is not!Harry is beyond me. Mister’s clearly just a corrupting agent. Why run the changeling scam on a normal house?

    Also, you need to cut “being” out of that paragraph.

    More seriously…I wonder whether modern salt works.

    I love this line of thought. Technological progress and cultural progress are an amazing reflection of each other at times like this. We don’t use salt to ward off demons anymore, but that’s because we don’t believe in demons, not because salt production has become more advanced. The properties that originally granted salt that power may no longer exist, but the belief in that power remains like a kind of echo nevertheless. Maybe that’s enough?

    But Chicago’s finest apparently just sit and stare.

    They’re well-trained side characters. Good on them, staying out of that main character’s way.

    Unfortunately Murphy is also out of commission due to bluescreening from whatever Ghosty did.

    Oh I cannot wait to see how Butcher writes Murphy’s recovery from this.

    And…I do think there’s something for my theory he’s fucking himself up emotionally.

    Still love that theory to death. Also, you know, it would kind of explain why Harry is always so lackadaisical in the first half or so of each book. What if he’s now physically incapable of feeling urgency until the very last minute? He gets on the phone because he knows Murphy desperately needs information, but he wastes time chatting and being confused because his brain just isn’t used to working in straight lines anymore.

    In noir and other detective fiction, it’s really typical that there are a few victims before the heroes really make any progress in cracking the case. There wouldn’t be a story if the case were easy to solve and further crime prevention basically effortless.

    In Harry’s case, what if he really is mentally ineffectual until the bodies start piling up as kindling for this rage he needs to function?  

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    1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

      Why run the changeling scam on a normal house?

      Threshold parasitism. A cat or dog standing before a door and crying would cause the owner to tell them to come in sooner or later or even carry them inside, thus granting entry. Perhaps posing as a pet in such a manner would make the entry permanent or they could mark their territory to that effect.

      That gives them a safe haven to hide from other spiritual entities.

      Such beings may not even be malevolent towards their hosts and may even protect them from lesser threats that managed to get inside.

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      1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

        Hm. If they are malevolent, then maybe there are ways for them to weaken the threshold from the inside, paving the way for a larger threat. I could even see a wizard’s familiar pulling stunts like that.

        Still, I would think there’d be some kind of threshold protection there. Pets aren’t so much kept for their usefulness anymore, but dogs were there for guarding and cats were for pest control. I think even in the Dresdenverse, smaller fae are desperately afraid of cats (though I may be misremembering, since they did clean Harry’s cat in Storm Front). It seems weird that they’d be straight-up liabilities like that.

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        1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

          I actually like the idea that such beings normally aren’t malevolent and are more symbiotic by nature. That way, it’s more of a weird magical ecosystem than outright horror scenario with things you love wanting to kill you.

          As for pet protections, perhaps the trick of threshold acceptance requires the creatures to imitate pets successfully in behavior as well as appearance, so they can’t simply murderize everyone inside and maybe they have to obey the rules of hospitality to some degree (hence Mister drinking Cola).

          Of course, some creatures manage to subvert the system and subtly influence their hosts into being their obedient servants, like that zombie fungus, so humans would only think about fulfilling their needs while they do nothing for them, hence modern domestic cats.

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          1. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

            I actually like the idea that such beings normally aren’t malevolent and are more symbiotic by nature. That way, it’s more of a weird magical ecosystem than outright horror scenario with things you love wanting to kill you.

            Okay but like the premise was that they kill and replace your pet. Even if they don’t do further harm, that’s still amazingly fucked up. Like, it’s not all peaches and cream just because they make a good faith effort to be a pet after that.

            I could see more benign supernatural creatures mimicking stray cats, perhaps. People will pick those up off the street and take them into their homes, I know.

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            1. Profile gravatar of illhousen illhousen says:

              Well, yes. Natural symbiots are also often extremely fucked up, especially when it comes to insects and plants. Even when they do some good to their hosts, they still feel like something that crawled straight out of bowels of hell just to give you nightmares.

              Beings that kill your pet and probably wear its skin to disguise themselves are obviously not nice. They’re just more animals adapted to specific niche rather than outright malevolent spirits of doom.

              Strays also work, though it’s probably less reliable.

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            2. Profile gravatar of Roarke Roarke says:

              Yeah, that is true. Maybe they eventually go full-on changeling and eat your kid, too. Hell, maybe that’s how wizards are actually born. You get spirits going straight Roa-style, looking for prominent families expecting an heir soon. Eat the family dog to get into position, and then bam.

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