A ghostly crow flitted over the city, leaving a shadow on the ground. Far below, a boy looked up and scowled. He reached for his bow, then took his hand away. Shooting a Crow would be a very bad idea.

A black dog with short, rough hair, pointed ears and a tail that swept over its back trotted beside him. Samuel, it communicated. Samuel! Take your mind off the Crow.

"It's hard," the boy spoke aloud. He watched the crow suspiciously until it vanished behind a tall building. Crows were not actually crows, but they weren't entirely human either. They were elite warriors who were given the power to transform into black crows. It was easy to get sucked into the Crows' power, even though they had a tendency to do terrible things: kill, steal, kidnap but never "illegally." No, they always committed their crimes while on "missions." The king had given them permission to do so, which made it legal. Still, many beheld the Crows with suspicion; they were never to know when these otherwise-delightful people were to strike.

Just pretend you didn't see it. It's probably on a harmless mission.

"I doubt it," Samuel replied. "Are Crows ever on a harmless mission?"

I'm sure they are sometimes. They do very good works, too. They just don't get recognized for them.

Samuel resumed walking. The dog, Earthshaker, picked up his feet in a prancing walk, pink tongue dangling from the side of his mouth. It's a good thing I'm here to talk sense into you.

"Of course it is. I'm a Wolf-whisperer."

That's what I'm here for. Earthshaker butted Samuel's hand affectionately. I'm your best friend.

"Hurry up," Samuel answered. "Jesyca's waiting for us."

They walked through the dark streets until they came to a thin tenement, crammed in a row of other homes. A doorman answered, dressed not in the uniform of the wealthier apartments' workers but in a beat-up jacket and pants. "Who are you coming to see?" he demanded. Samuel decided that this man was decidedly unsavory.

"Jesyca," he answered "Jesyca Cooper."

"I don't know a Jesyca Cooper," the doorman rasped. "You'll have to take your dirty business somewhere else."

Earthshaker moved from his position in Samuel's shadow to bare his teeth at the doorman, making him look very ferocious.

"Get that mutt out of here!" the doorman ordered.

Just give me the word, Samuel. Then I'll be at his throat. Or maybe somewhere else.

"No, don't," Samuel told him. "Wait."

"You're a Wolf-whisperer, you dirty—"

"If there is a problem, Mr. Brewer, I'd be happy to take care of things myself." A girl with long blonde hair had appeared in the dim, tiny atrium behind the doorman. "I've been waiting for Samuel for quite some time, and you know very well who I am. Now let him through."

"Not his mutt," the doorman whispered.

Another dog, identical to Earthshaker except for her longer hair and tan markings, stepped out from behind Jesyca. Yes, with his mutt, Samuel heard her communicate. He's my brother.

"The dog comes," Jesyca said firmly. "He's no ordinary beast."

Grudgingly, the doorman stepped aside and allowed the two of them to pass.

Climbing up rickety stairs, Samuel asked, "How have you been, Earthdigger?"

Not bad. This place is a dump but the food is all right. Jesyca keeps me well-fed.

Have you been all right? Earthshaker asked anxiously. Everyone's been decent to you?

Of course they have, little bro. She gave his ear a playful lick. You don't need to worry about me so much.

"He can't help it," Jesyca told her. "He's very protective."

"And how have you been, Jesyca?" Samuel asked. To his dismay, a note of anxiety crept into his voice.

Jesyca noticed it and smiled. "I've been all right. You're a worrier, too."

He shrugged, embarrassed. "Yeah, I guess I am. I can't help it; this is a pretty bad part of town."

"It's all I can afford," she sighed. "I wish I could live in a nice part of town like you do, but I'm on my own and I can't."

"I live with my family," he reminded her. "I'm pretty poor myself. I'm just a fletcher and occasional hunter."

"But it pays for Earthshaker to eat," she responded. "And I can barely do that, plus pay for board."

"I'm sorry." He tried to make his voice sound sincere. He could never put sincerity into his voice, even if he was truly sincere.

"Oh, yes." Jesyca looked sheepishly over, making eye contact. "I hope you don't mind, but there's someone at my apartment. Someone I want you to meet."

Samuel raised an eyebrow. "Oh, really?"

"It's not…a bad thing, Samuel. She's my friend."

"A she?"

"Yes, it's a she." She scowled at him. "What, did you think it was a man? Were you jealous?"

"Nah, I was just checking. I've known you for a long time and I want to make sure you don't get into any trouble with men."

"You know I'm not that type."

"Do I?" He raised his eyebrow again. "You tell me."

"Ha, ha, very funny."

They finally reached the dark green door that marked the entrance to Jesyca's apartment. The paint was peeling, and the dim, flickering lights above did nothing to enhance the appearance. Jesyca knocked three times, then opened the door. Indeed, a girl was seated at Jesyca's dining room table, which was directly in line with the door. She was very pale, with blonde hair and darkish doe eyes.

"Samuel, this is Anna," Jesyca introduced. "Anna, this is my friend Samuel. He's a Wolf-whisperer like myself, and his dog here, Earthshaker, is Earthdigger's brother."

"How do you do," Anna answered. Her voice was soft and whispery, and she looked quickly away without meeting Samuel's eyes.

"The pleasure is all mine," he said formally, glancing over at Jesyca, a little incredulous at the idea of the confident girl being friends with this wraith.

"Well, now that you are introduced, I'll get some coffee," she said brightly. "Samuel, why don't you come with me?"

"Sure."

"That okay with you, Anna?"

"Yes," she said, saying the word so abruptly that it was almost as though she had to carefully let it out in case other words escaped.

"Good." Jesyca walked into the kitchenette, and Samuel followed her.

"Anna's been through some tough times," Jesyca whispered.

"You don't say."

"Please be nice to her. She's got a wonderful character. She had a tough decision that she had to make, and she made the right choice, but she's suffered a lot of grief for it."

"Oh." Samuel looked at the small young woman. "So, how long have you known her?"

"A few months. It's hard to really get close to her. She's been so hurt that she's afraid of letting anyone closer than arm's length."

Samuel peered at Jesyca. "What is it, exactly, that she did?"

Jesyca shook her head. "She wouldn't want me to tell you."

"Oh. Aren't we secretive?"

Jesyca made a face. "Here, take the coffee."

They came back into the living room. Anna watched Samuel's face. She moved slowly and deliberately, without making a fuss. Her elbow, cradling her head on the table, slowly separated her hair into long strands as she stretched it out in front of her. She was a good-sized girl: average height and weight, not a bony little thing. It wasn't for awhile that Samuel realized that she was staring at him.

She makes me feel uncomfortable, Earthshaker communicated.

"We can't talk here," Samuel said sharply.

Anna's eyes flicked down to Earthshaker. He watched back at her from brown eyes, then finally made a snort and a grumble, then looked away. Anna went back to staring at Samuel's coffee cup.

She's the oddest girl I've ever met.

That's for sure! Earthdigger replied. Sometimes I wonder how Jesyca stands her.

How do you stand her?

She's not all bad. I just mean, trying to start up a conversation and that kind of stuff. It's infuriating just to listen to.

Really? Do you have any idea of what it is she did?

"Hush," Jesyca said sharply. "Anna, since you can't hear, the dogs are chatting under the table."

Anna lifted her head slightly off of the sleeve of her pine-green cardigan. "I can hear," she said softly.

Uh-oh.

She's not a Wolf-whisperer! Earthdigger was outraged. She can't hear what we say!

Anna continued to finger-comb her hair.

The three sat in silence for awhile longer, with the dogs quiet at their feet. Anna gazed into space, her dark eyes unblinking.

Suddenly, a sharp caw sounded outside the window. Earthdigger leapt to her feet and snarled. If those dirty beasts come any nearer…

We'll crush them! We'll rip the wings right off of them! Earthshaker growled.

"It's just a crow," Jesyca said exasperatedly. "It's not a Crow crow."

"Don't worry about it," Anna whispered.

Samuel watched the window for awhile anyway. He was still suspicious of Anna and her ability to hear the dogs even if she wasn't a Wolf-whisperer.

"It's getting late," he said finally when he couldn't stand the silence. "I'd better go. Jesyca, I'll see you…when I see you. And I hope to see you again too, Anna." Not really, he thought privately.

"Do you have to go, Samuel?" Jesyca sounded disappointed.

"I really do. My parents will beat my hide even though I'm seventeen. I'll see you all again sometime."

"I'd better go too," Anna murmured. "Thank you for having me, Jesyca. Until we meet again, Samuel." She exited the apartment without a handshake or a farewell from either of them.

"Strange girl," Samuel commented.

Jesyca leaned forward and kissed his cheek. "I'll see you again sometime," she said. "Let's not wait too long before the next visit, please."

"We won't," he assured her. "I'll be seeing you, Jesyca."

"Goodbye," she whispered.

He winked at her and left, with Earthshaker trotting beside him.

Samuel's home was not very large, but his father had poured all excess wealth collected over the years into its upkeep and furnishings, so it was luxuriously furnished. He walked into the parlor to find his mother stirring a cup of tea.

"How was your visit?" she asked, sipping from the porcelain cup.

"No complaints," Samuel answered. "How was staying home without me?"

"It was fine," she replied. "Did Earthshaker behave himself?"

"Of course, Mother. He's perfectly housetrained." Samuel's parents didn't know that he was a Wolf-whisperer, and he liked it that way.

"Good. Now off to bed with you; it's late."

"I'm an adult, Mother."

She gave him a stern look over the brim of her glass. "But you live in my house, and I make the rules. Bed."

"Mother-"

"Now," she commanded.

Samuel blew threw his nose but went into his room. Pulling back the thick wine-colored drapes, he lay on his soft, ample bed. Earthshaker jumped up and lay down next to him. Good night, Samuel.

"Good night, Earthshaker," Samuel yawned in reply, and soon fell asleep.

Light shining in his window woke Samuel up. Earthshaker was staring into his eyes. You're extremely boring to watch as a sleeper.

"Well, why didn't you wake me up?" Samuel yawned.

You had a late night last night. I don't think you realize just how long you were out with Jesyca.

"And that freaky girl, Anna," he reminded the dog. Earthshaker whumphed. "She was so weird; I don't know what Jesyca sees in her."

Probably a lonely girl who needs a friend.

Samuel blinked. "Don't we all wish we were dogs?"

Is that supposed to mean something?

"No, no."

He grabbed an apple and a hunk of bacon for Earthshaker. They walked out, Earthshaker dripping foam from delight at the savory meat in his mouth and Samuel munching his tart breakfast. They came to his everyday stand on a street corner, where he set up his goods: arrows fletched with delicate feathers, as well as elegantly carved bows and quivers with some sort of inlay (both of which he had bought from traders and was selling for a small profit). Arrows were extremely prized, since they were the main objects used in hunting and were also valuable for self-defense.

After selling three arrows to a young woman with a dirty face, he saw a man approaching from the opposite corner. He had gray hair, an aquiline nose, cool eyes, and clothes that were too fine for Samuel's taste. The whole ensemble made him feel uneasy. To his dismay, the stranger did come over to Samuel's cart.

"Good morning, sir," Samuel said.

The man picked up an arrow and ran his finger along the smooth line of the feathers. "Do you fletch these yourself?"

"Yes, I do."

"Hmm." He scrutinized another arrow. "And are these feathers from the peregrine falcon?"

"Yes, sir. They are."

"Hmm." He gestured at the quivers. "Do you make these yourself?"

"No, sir. They've been purchased from the traders across the White Ocean. The inlay on that one is mother-of-pearl. I have a matching bow if you're looking to buy."

"No, thank you. So you don't dedicate all of your time to this craft?"

"Making the arrows is a very tedious process. It takes a long time and I could never carve quivers and bows." Samuel felt extremely uneasy. The man was grilling him like a criminal.

"Indeed. Well, you have talent. Keep practicing and you shall go far." He peered into Samuel's eyes. "Very far."

Then, he abruptly turned and walked away.

I didn't like the look of that man, Earthshaker growled.

"Me, neither. That was the weirdest thing I've ever seen."

Between him and Anna, maybe we shouldn't leave the house anymore.

"Mm."

To his delight, the next person to visit his stand—perhaps half an hour later—was Jesyca.

"Hello, Samuel!" she said brightly, rubbing Earthdigger's ears. "How are you?"

"Actually, something really bizarre happened…" He related his account to Jesyca.

Sounds awfully fishy, Earthdigger communicated.

"How do you know it wasn't just some weirdo that you're never going to see again?" Jesyca inquired. "How do you know it's a big thing? Not everyone's out to get you, you know, Samuel."

"I do know!" he defended. "But this man…he was …creepy."

"There are lots of creepy people in the city, Samuel. That's why I'm glad to have Earthdigger with me."

Samuel sighed. "You're not getting it. Never mind."

"There's no getting for me to get," she said sharply.

He glanced at her with curiosity. "This has gotten you on edge, too."

"It has not!" she said sharply. "You're just annoying me. Fine. Goodbye. I'm going to meet Anna at the Bazaar." She turned and walked away. Earthdigger remained for a moment, whumphed, licked her nose, and followed Jesyca.

Samuel rolled his eyes. "Aargh. Women. Be glad you don't have to deal with them, Earthshaker."

The dog cocked his head. I thought she was our friend.

"She is! She's just frustrated me for now."

You never frustrate me, Earthshaker accused.

Samuel scratched the dog's ears. "That's because you are a dog and get along with everyone who is friendly to you."

I'm not sure if that was a compliment.

"Everyone loves dogs."

The rest of the day passed relatively uneventfully, and Samuel went home with a pocket full of coins.

The next morning, Samuel was in his bedroom when someone knocked on the door. Earthshaker pricked up his ears. "Come in."

His mother stuck her head through. "There's someone here to see you."

"Who?"

"A girl," she said.

Who could be coming to see us? Earthshaker asked curiously.

Samuel shrugged, which communicated both to Earthshaker and to his mother, and went downstairs. To his delight, Jesyca was waiting in the foyer, wearing her best dress (which wasn't very nice at all) and looking nervous.

"Hello, Jesyca," he said. "How might I help you?"

"I came to pay you a visit, Mr. Fletcher." She seemed quite conscious of his parents' presence, and Samuel could tell instantly that something was wrong.

"Would you like to take a walk?" he asked.

"That would be quite lovely, thank you."

He offered her his arm, and she took it. They walked out the door and down the street.

"So," Samuel asked, "what's wrong?"

She laughed and tossed her hair, but her "smile" was really bared teeth. "I'll tell you in a moment," she said with difficulty through her gritted molars.

They rounded the corner and instantly broke apart. "What happened?" Samuel demanded.

"It's the Crows," Jesyca hissed.

"The Crows—"

"Shh!" She glanced around. "We're not safe here. We have to go somewhere secure."

How about a den? Earthdigger suggested.

"Excellent idea." Jesyca turned to the wall of the nearest building and placed her hand on it. She shut her eyes.

"Using my power as a Wolf-whisperer, I beg of thee, o great Canine, a place for myself and my companions to be safe unto thy power. In the name of Jesyca Cooper and Earthdigger, whelp of Earthsniffer, I cry for thy mercy."

A gaping hole opened. The four hurriedly jumped in, and the gap closed behind them.

"We have the longest password of any magic in all of Sylvursa," Samuel commented.

"Well, I didn't come up with it," Jesyca snapped. Samuel knew her well enough to tell when she was completely frazzled, and this was the most frazzled that he'd ever seen her.

"Jesyca, what happened?"

"The Crows," she said in a barely audible voice. "They invaded."

"What?" Samuel was shocked. "Tell me this story."

"I was in bed with Earthdigger and heard a commotion downstairs. I jumped out of bed right away and grabbed my bow. There was screaming and shouting and all kinds of horrible sounds—" She closed her eyes, as though the memory was too much for her. "They were everywhere. And they kept coming. They were flying through the windows and transforming. Everyone was fighting their hardest, but it just wasn't enough. The cook, the doorman, one of the maids, my next-door neighbor, the parents of five children who live a floor below me—they're all dead. The blood was all over the floor. My nightgown was soaked with it." A tear trickled down her cheek, and she hesitated a moment to compose herself before continuing. "It was trashed. Furniture overturned and ripped open. Silver spilled all over the floor."

"What did they take?"

"Nothing. They just killed."

"Oh." Samuel pondered this. Why would the Crows randomly attack a building full of people and destroy its furniture without even taking anything?

"What's going to happen to all those people?" Samuel asked.

"Two of the children are living in my apartment," she sighed. "Two girls, Kala and Bryanna. They're right on the

brink of womanhood; they need their mother more than ever now."

"Jesyca! You can't afford them!"

"One can always afford people in need," she defended. "You, as a Wolf-whisperer, should know that. And Bryanna's old enough to work."

"What can she do?"

"She's—" Jesyca hesitated. "It's hard to explain. She's good with animals. She knows how to make them feel better and how to make them do what their owners want. She's connected."

"Like we're connected?"

"No. She's not magic. It's not that kind of connection. She just knows a lot about them and can do things with them. She's pretty good."

"Jesyca, the fact still remains that you are unable to support yourself, a dog, and two rapidly growing children with your very small income and a girl whose only skills aren't good for anything except recreation."

"Then…" Her voice trailed off. "Will you help me?"

"Help you raise two girls?"

"Yes."

"I suppose I have to."

She threw her arms around his neck. "Oh, thank you, Samuel! Thank you! I knew I could count on you!"

"When do I meet them?"

She shrugged. "As soon as you want."

I love children! Earthshaker cried happily.

"Then I guess we'd better get going," Jesyca grinned. "Come on. But I want to warn you; it's not going to be pretty."