"Eeeeek!" Cressidor Blan-Virgine screamed like a little girl. Of course, as she reminded herself later, she was a little girl of eight, so it was probably acceptable for her to react like one. But she still felt somehow guilty. After all, she was the daughter of Mage Consul Lillet Blan, and her home life included such things as dragons in the stables, elven servants, attack rosebushes lining the garden wall, and for that matter a second mother who was a homunculus. Cress felt that it was somehow beneath her dignity to scream just because there was a two-foot-tall bug staring at her from its weirdly faceted eyes, legs twitching beneath it as if to spring, mouth parts moving ominously...

To heck with dignity. She screamed again.

In the next instant, a giant black streak exploded past her. Razor-fanged jaws snapped down on the bug, catching it in mid-jump. Teeth sheared through the rounded shell, piercing chitin effortlessly, and the bug fell to the library carpet in two roughly equal-sized chunks.

"Shuck! Good, good, good boy!" Cressidor caroled out and flung her arms around the huge barghest. Sometimes, it was very useful to have a pet dog was over five feet tall at the shoulder! Shuck wagged his tail enthusiastically, even while his muzzle was making weird scrunchy faces. Apparently, giant bug tasted really bad. He finally let a fireball bloom up in his mouth, burning the icky goop away.

"Would somebody please tell me what's going on here?" At first Cress thought the elven majordomo was talking about the screaming and growling (and the bug innards on the carpet), but soon realized that he had his own issues, fighting off another giant bug with a long-handled broom as he retreated into the library. "These things are all over the place!"

"Shuck! Breathe fire!" Cress ordered, pointing at the new bug. Growling, Shuck crouched down on his haunches as if about to spring, then thrust his head forward and exhaled. He had good aim; a ball of flames shot out and turned the monster bug into flambé.

"Gaff, do you know what these bugs are?" Cress asked.

"Not a clue." The elf used the broom to beat the flaming corpse out, just in case the fireproofing wards didn't hold. "Maybe one of your mother's experiments got out of the lab?"

"Excuse me!" The voice from behind them definitely sounded offended. Cressidor and Gaff both turned to see the Mage Consul emerging from the laboratory door on the far side of the library. "What's going on? I could hear the huge ruckus even in there."

"The place is infested with giant bugs!" Gaff complained. "There's at least two dozen of the things hopping around!"

"Two dozen!" squeaked Cress, and snugged up even closer to Shuck.

"Show me." Lillet marched right over to the one Shuck had bitten in two and crouched down. She looked it for about two minutes, her expression fixed in her "thinking hard" face, the one Cress knew not to interrupt even when there weren't giant bugs running around the house. "All right," Lillet concluded, then stood up and took out her wand. "I think this should handle it."

She began sketching a pattern on the floor with the tip of her wand, each stroke leaving a stream of pale blue light in its wake. Cressidor recognized the color as that associated with Necromancy, the magic of the dead. It took just under another two minutes for Lillet to finish crafting the Rune; she then held her hand up and the Rune's light blazed up brightly, the faint images of skeletal hands that seemed to dance above it grasping and clutching with frantic speed. The light dimmed after another minute, and Lillet snapped her fingers. A wave of blue light surged outwards from the Rune in a hemisphere; Cress shivered with sudden cold as it passed through her and Shuck whimpered—as a creature of Sorcery, the barghest did not like necromantic magic.

Lillet let out a deep sigh.

"There; that should solve the problem."

"Are you okay, Mama?" Cress asked. Beads of sweat were standing out on Lillet's forehead, like she'd been working outside in the hot sun.

"I'm fine, darling. I just had to push a lot of extra mana into the Rune to boost its effectiveness, and I did it faster than I normally would have so no one would get hurt during the delay. So I'm a little tired." She wiped her forehead with a handkerchief.

"I've seen that Rune before, Lillet," Gaff said. "Isn't that the one you use to keep the house vermin-free?"

"Um-hm. It just takes a little extra push to deal with giant ones. Okay, a large extra push," she amended that as she wobbled a little. Cressidor had the feeling that this was one of those things that not many magicians could have actually done. Exterminating dozens of monster bugs over a large area in one shot using a household charm was, the more she thought about it, pretty amazing.

Plus, well, giant bugs were scary, and her mother had made them go away.

"That was incredible, Mama!" she decided to express that, hugging Lillet around the waist.

"Thanks, Cress," Lillet snaked an arm around her daughter and hugged back. "Gaff, why don't you check and see if anybody got hurt? Come get me if it's anything that you elves can't handle alone."

"I will. And then," he grumbled, "it'll be time to clean up. Again."

He left the library, and Lillet dropped into one of the comfortable reading chairs.

"Shuck was really amazing too, Mama!" Cress continued giving credit where it was due. "He saved me from that one bug, and then he burnt the other one that Gaff was fighting! Oh, I did tell him to breathe fire," she said at once, since that was very high on the list of things Shuck wasn't supposed to do unless told to.

"Well, it's good to see him taking responsibility."

"Mama?" Cress asked. Shuck seemed to find the statement equally confusing; he made a confused little noise that sounded kind of like a whine mixed with a howl.

"I guess you didn't recognize those bugs, then? They were really big, but otherwise they were ordinary fleas."


"Fleas that have been drinking the blood of an otherworldly creature of chaos, and so been affected by the magic in his blood."

Shuck scratched at his right front shoulder with his hind leg.

"Shuck has fleas?" Cress said, wrinkling her nose. She was a basically clean girl, who found the idea of little bugs nesting in her dog's fur rather disgusting. Especially when they grew to extra-large size.

"Not any more. The Rune would have destroyed any little ones along with the giant ones. But yes, he did."

"But how did he get fleas, Mama?"

"My best guess? Sneaking out over the garden wall to go play with the Molsons' wolfhound again. Their stables are a disgrace."

"Shuck! You know you're not supposed to go out on your own!"

"Of course, this is why I put a mild enchantment on the animal soap, to keep vermin off them for a few weeks after a bath," Lillet went on. "So, since I doubt anyone has been casting any dispelling magic at Shuck, I have to wonder just how it is that the protection failed. There don't appear to be any problems with the horses or dragons, so the enchantment looks to have been potent."

Cress squirmed.

"Unless, of course, the person whose responsibility it is to give Shuck his baths fell victim to his pitiful puppy-dog eyes and didn't wash him, hm?" her mother said pointedly.

The girl looked at her pet, and two heads drooped.

"We're in trouble."

Shuck whimpered.

"An exotic pet is a lot more work than an ordinary domestic animal," Lillet said. "Even if, admittedly, a plague of giant fleas is a little bit outside the expected range of problems."