Dash of Fiend – Chapters 19-21

Chapter Nineteen

 By the time I woke the next morning, head pounding from broken sleep and bad dreams, Harrod had left. A note, given to me by Cym, said he’d had to attend a meeting with Abnett. I didn’t expect him back for some time if that were the case; Abnett was notoriously long-winded and perpetually running late to appointments. The note insisted that if I needed anything, to ‘charge it to the household account’. It sounded like Harrod-speak for ‘let me buy you stuff’.  The credit card Cym handed me was given straight back. I had a small amount saved for emergencies and I was pretty sure this qualified. 
 
           As I dismissed the faske, Martin stumbled into the kitchen. He was puffy eyed, hair squashed down on one side of his head and spiked up on the other. I raised an eyebrow at him. He squinted at me, grunted, and poured himself a glass of juice.

“You look like you had a rough night.”

“Not as rough as you’ve had recently.”

“You sure about that?” I asked, unable to stifle a laugh. He really did look awful.

“Well, I wouldn’t say it was a bad night. It certainly was rough, but I’m not one to complain about that.” He mustered up a cheeky grin, then decided to go back to bed after draining his glass. I’d never put stock in the bachelor stereotype, but with his string of Fae liaisons he was certainly living up to it.

With the day to myself, I decided to head out to the garden. I took my new laptop and sat at a small table in the sun to set it up, then catch up on my business concerns. Orders would have to be shut down for a time, though I should probably start building up my supplies again. Harrod had the space for casting, and for storing my teas, there was no question of that.

My eyes kept drifting from the work in front of me. There were a few plants from the Other scattered between the local varieties, and they attracted sprites and nymphs. The tiny creatures flitted to and fro, glassy wings catching the sunlight and throwing pinpoints of light across the ground. A shadow crossed over them and a silver serpent flapped down noisily into the flowers. She wasn’t as graceful as the sprites, but she was stunning. The sun hit her ivory scales, sending rainbow reflections darting around the garden. Big dark eyes sparkled with glee as she romped with her tiny companions.

“Pearl?” I called.

The dragonette swooped up and spun around, showing off her delicate wings, then fluttered over to perch on the back of a chair. Her foot slipped, claws glancing off the metal bar and her wings flicked out to help her balance. I carefully put a hand out and she leaned forwards to let me stroke the back of her neck, stretching it out and crooning as I scratched it.

“What are you doing here?” I mused, more to myself than the dragon. She stayed for a few minutes more, then opened her wings to flap away, leaving her new friends to gallivant in the sunlight without her.

Tearing my eyes away from the garden, I tried to focus back on my work. Clicking through to my emails, I set about answering the few that were urgent. As I scrolled through the list, one from the O.C.U. caught my eye.

I’d already opened it – it contained the details I needed to log in to their system – but I clicked it anyway. Clicking again, I opened the link to the database, typed in my username and password, and checked for any updates to the files I had access to. I veered away from the reports added in the last few days, the ones that covered the attack on my home and my own near-death. There would be time for that later, but for now, I wanted to avoid thinking about it. Instead, I opened the maps that Greyson had shown me, hoping for some kind of lightning bolt idea that would give me the breakthrough I needed.

As my eyes ran over a map littered with little pins and notes, they snagged on something. Greyson had marked the bridge I’d called him to. Nothing had happened there yet and in all the excitement, I’d forgotten all about it. Highlighting the pin dropped there, I noted the warehouse location and the building that Markson, the tech giant with the zoo in his back yard, had tipped as one of the meeting places. The bridge wasn’t far from either. Desperate to go out and do something useful, I made a quick decision, then called Lenny for a walk.

It took about twenty minutes to get to the bridge through the nearest port-gate. When I arrived, Masik was standing at the gate with a large box.

“Hi, Masik,” I said, momentarily unsure if the troll had somehow known I was coming.

“Greetings, huma-” His surly frown fell away as recognition spread across his face. “Wait! Masik know this one. This door lady! Did you find door, Lady?” His eyebrows were raised in eagerness for my answer, and he looked downcast when I ruefully shook my head.

“No, I’m still looking for it. Are your people keeping an eye out for me?”

He shrugged, the motion of his big shoulders moving his entire body.

“They look, but no door on bridge. It bridge, not door. Poh-leese are gone now.” He said ‘police’ like he was speaking around a potato, rolling the unfamiliar word over his tongue. “My people not liking the poh-leese watching us bridge.”

So, Greyson had given up on my information, too. With all that was going on he’d probably just run out of people to spare, though I wished he’d told me. Sighing, I accompanied Masik back to the bridge. When we arrived, he greeted the gathering of homeless and dropped the large box on the ground. They clustered around it, pulling out coats and boots and blankets, exclaiming over them and arguing over who got what. They sounded good-natured and I assumed Masik had brought enough to go around. The troll turned to me with a large, crooked grin, contentment shining in his eyes.

“It be winter soon. Humans not like cold. Masik, he go get warm-makers for humans.”

“That’s very kind of you Masik. Where did the clothes come from?”

Another shrug. “Masik find.” He’d probably stolen them. Trolls don’t exactly respect the concept of ownership.

Poking around under Masik’s watchful eye, I examined the campsite while Lenny rolled on the ground, begging for tummy scratches from anyone who walked by. I stayed until the sun had climbed higher than it had been in my vision dream, yet there were no burnt patches of ground and nothing had happened. Defeated, I returned home, arriving only to feel the need to leave again. Frustrated, I paced around, wishing there were something I could do.

“Are you trying to wear a hole in the floor?” Martin’s voice made me jump.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Martin. I woke you, didn’t I?”

“If you’ve ever tried to sleep through a hangover from Fae wine, you know damned well I wasn’t sleeping.” Looking him over, I could see he really was hurting, though I couldn’t dig up much sympathy. Only an idiot would let a Fae get them drunk. “You didn’t disturb me, but I heard you come in and I thought… well, I wondered if you could do something for me?”

My eyes narrowed. “You want me to enchant you a tea for your hangover, don’t you?” A hint of colour touched his cheeks. Even with his dark skin, he looked pallid and sickly, enough that I felt sorry for him. “You’re lucky. I just so happen to have the best hangover cure known to man or Fae. But you know the best cure is prevention, don’t you?”

He grinned, then winced and put a hand to his head. “I knew you’d do it for me. You wouldn’t let anyone suffer like this. You’re too nice.”

Rolling my eyes, I set off to rummage through Harrod’s kitchen to see if he had any fresh tea. His comment about letting people suffer pricked at my conscious. Was I a nice person? I wouldn’t let my friend suffer from a self-induced headache, but I’d gladly string up Serraceuse, Ronson and the rest of their crew, regardless of the consequences.

The rest of the afternoon was spent holed up in the room set aside for spell tracing. I could easily have done it in my bedroom, but the quiet, warded space allowed me to concentrate uninterrupted and the lack of windows meant the faint aroma of tea soon permeated the whole room. With eyes closed, it almost felt like home, and the familiar task let my mind finally rest while concentrating on each trace. I worked for as long as I could stand, giving up only when my hands started to shake. Whatever I worked loose in that room, absorbed in the spells and concentrating on nothing but familiar techniques, left me feeling lighter than I had since the gala.

That night as I lay in bed, staring at a ceiling that wasn’t mine, I made a plan. Oh, it wasn’t much of one, and it probably wouldn’t lead to anything, but it wasn’t like I had anything better to do. Losing my shop meant my normal daily rituals were gone. With nothing to soak up the hours, I was left to dwell on what I’d lost, what I faced and all sorts of other horrible things. Staying busy was the only way I could stave off the boredom and restlessness. Sensing my mood as he always did, Lenny wriggled up to nuzzle my face.

“Tomorrow, Len. Tomorrow, we begin again.”

 

#

The next morning, I visited Melanie. I’d called before I left, so she knew to expect me. As always, I was met with a warm greeting and a hot coffee.

“Here it is,” she said, pointing to her printer. “I can’t believe Harrod doesn’t have a computer, how does he function? The man must use carrier pigeon to send messages.” She showed me how to access her network and within a few minutes I’d run off a few copies of Greyson’s primary map. I’d zoomed it in to the area I wanted to cover.

“You sure you don’t want to stay for coffee, Em?” Melanie asked. The concern in her voice made me wince, but I shook my head.

“No. I need to be outside, doing something.”

“Come on. I know you’re up to something, at least tell me what so I know where to send search and rescue?”

A smile pulled at my lips. Yes, Mel would support me even as I ran headfirst into danger with my eyes closed. Hoping that wasn’t what I was doing, I told her my plan. It didn’t get any simpler, really; I intended to walk the streets between the bridge and the warehouses until I stumbled on something useful. Together, over coffee, we marked out the section of London I wanted to focus on.

“You can scratch out this area.” Melanie used a pencil to section off part of the area we’d marked. “It’s all government buildings. They wouldn’t be brazen enough to set up there, would they?”

“Probably not. What’s this area?”

“A ghost town. Old, all listed buildings with tight restrictions. No one wants to take on anything so derelict, with so many strings attached. I went to look at property there once, but even if the buildings were worth saving, living in a place like that with no one around?” She shuddered. It seemed as good a place as any to begin my search.

“Emma, are you sure about this? I mean, you should at least take Gibble or Harrod with you.”

“Gibble is… away. Harrod is busy. Lenny will be with me and besides, I’m just looking. There’s a good chance I won’t even find anything, but if I see the slightest thing out of the ordinary, I’ll be straight on the phone to Greyson.”

“You promise? Absolutely, for sure, no hesitation?” Melanie put her cup down to look at me, eyes piercing.

“I swear, Mel. Even if I was willing to risk myself – which I’m not – I can’t take them on, and I definitely can’t risk them getting away again; we could lose their trail forever. As soon as I know anything, I’ll call anyone and everyone who’ll listen, and we’ll take the bastards own together.”

Satisfied, she reached across the table to squeeze my hand. “You will, Emma, I don’t doubt it for a second.”

 

#

After I left Melanie’s I went straight to the bridge. After briefly greeting Masik again, I set off walking the streets. With each turn I took, I marked off my path on the map. I had no idea what I was looking for or where to find it, but I had faith that I would. If one of the Guardians had made the effort to return the ring, then I would need it. Twisting the ring as I strolled along a bustling street, I wondered why they’d gotten involved. Were they seriously considering going to war with the humans? I couldn’t begin to imagine how bad that would be. Our kind – both Talented and Mortal – had done some really awful things to the Otherworlders over the centuries. Slavery, abuse, now poaching, which wasn’t at all a new thing. Not knowing what the Guardians wanted with me now made me awfully uncomfortable.

For the next three days, my routine was the same. I’d get up, eat breakfast with Harrod and Martin, then make some excuse and leave for the morning. The thought of telling either of them where I was headed never even crossed my mind; I knew Harrod far too well to try and explain why I needed to do this. He wouldn’t understand and it would only lead to an argument.

The walks took me out of the house, away from the awkward feeling that I was living in a hotel, and away from my growing concern that Gibble hadn’t returned as expected. As hard as I tried not to worry about him, it was just one more thing piled on top of all the others, weighing on my mind and adding to the vague sense of urgency I felt.

Then, on the third day, I opened the door to find Barg standing on the other side brandishing a lock pick.

“Barg?”

He flourished a deep bow, then saluted me. “Lady! Barg does wish the company of the Lenny-friend if he may be spared, Lady!”

“Are you racing him?” I asked warily.

“Yes, Lady! Lenny-friend is most quick, and Barg is of the spending way at this very moment, Lady! Barg might be persuadable to share the proceedings of the Lenny-friend’s racing, if Lady wishes?”

It seemed like a genuine offer, but I shook my head. Though I trusted Gibble’s reassurance that what they were doing was safe, I didn’t want to be involved. “It’s ok, Barg. You and Lenny go have fun.” Lenny whined and pushed his head against me. Barg frowned at Lenny, then looked at me.

“Lady, Barg has had a… a changing of the plans. Perhaps a nice sleep will be the ordering of today.”

“What did he say to you?” Great, now even my dog was playing protector.

“Say, Lady?” Barg sidled back towards the footpath. “What would make you be asking a thing like that? Lenny-friend, he is often talking and he does say many things, why, yesterday he told me-”

“Barg! What did Lenny say to you just now?”

“Oh.” Barg’s face fell and Lenny made a grumbling sound. “Lenny-friend did say Lady be… ah, doing something that may require his assistance.” At my glare, he added, “Lenny-friend… well, the wording of the words are coming from himself, Lady, not Barg, Barg would never say Lady is doing the stupid thing!” He clapped his hand over his mouth as if horrified at what he’d let slip.

I cocked an eyebrow at Lenny, who sat back on his haunches, whumped his tail once and gave the canine expression that was equivalent to a shrug. “Stupid? Well unless you have a better suggestion, it’s all I’ve got. You don’t have to come.” Lenny immediately stood and pushed against my legs. “That’s what I thought.”

“Barg will be departing now, Lady.” The little hobgoblin, once realising I wouldn’t blame him for what Lenny had apparently said, walked back up to us and gave Lenny a vigorous scratch under the chin. Lenny’s leg twitched with enjoyment.

“Wait, Barg. Do you know where Gibble is? It’s been more than three days and I’m getting-”

“Barg! Did you not be telling Lady Gibble does be returning?” Gibble’s voice preceded him up the drive and I flew out to greet him, Lenny racing ahead. The big dog galloped around Gibble’s feet like a puppy while I gave Gibble a hug. The relief that ran through me was so strong that my nose prickled and I had to blink away tears.

Barg blushed. “Ah, sorry, Lady. Master Gibble does be returning. Ahh, today.”

“Gibble! I’ve been so worried, when you didn’t come back on time, I thought-”

“Oh Lady, that be Gibble’s fault. Gibble did be forgetting that Barg does not be thinking of the time in the Other and the time in the this-world, and of there being a difference. Gibble does be most sorry, Lady, for causing worry.”

Leading Gibble inside by the hand, I took him through the house to the sitting room. Cym popped his head in to check if we needed anything and gave Gibble a respectful nod when he requested a book to read.

“Thank you, little-helper, any book will be being the right one.”

Cym scampered off while Barg made his apologies for depriving us of his wonderful company, waved goodbye to Lenny, then darted off to goodness knows where. Shaking my head as he left, I wondered where he was going. I explained to Gibble what had happened over the days he’d missed.

“Yes, Lady, Gibble do be knowing of the house, and of those who be going to build Lady a new one.” At my look of surprise – I’d known they were clearing the site but had thought that would be the end of it – he said the Others were planning the rebuild of my house and shop. He smiled at my shock. “They do be caring for you, Lady. After many years now of seeing you, and your helping of them for little things, they do be wishing to help you now. We all do be very sad for what did happen, and Gibble does offer most sincere apologies for being gone for many days since.”

“It’s fine, Gib. I had Lenny, and Harrod and Martin to take care of me.”

“Yes, little-man does be looking after Lady well, Gibble thinks. But why did Lady be going without him? Lenny-dog did be saying that Lady be hunting, but it do not be safe, not after the fire and the killing-man.” His name for the man who’d tried to shoot us chilled me, but I wouldn’t let it sway me from my course.

“Gib, I’m not putting myself in danger, I swear.” Grateful as I was at Gibble’s safe return, I tried not to let irritation prick at me. “I can’t drag Harrod out on a wild goose chase, I’m just walking around the city, that’s all. If I find anything, and it’s a big if, I’ll call Greyson straight away, and Harrod, and I’ll send Lenny for you.”

“Lady, Gibble do think it be better if we did go together.”

“Well Lady do think that a boggart crashing around might just tip off the people we’re looking for.” Despite my frustrations, guilt nagged at me for snapping at him. “Gib, I love that you care so much. And I do rely on you to keep me safe. This is just something you can’t help me with, not like that, anyway. If anything goes wrong, Lenny will come for you.” Gibble’s forehead was knotted and his big mouth screwed up in distress. “Please, Gibble? I need to do this.”

Finally, he nodded. I briefed him on what I was doing and where I was looking, so that if anything did happen, he’d know where to look for me. Trying not to let his unease get to me, I beckoned to Lenny. Together, we set off to walk the streets once again in search of a killer.

 

 

 

                                                                  #

Lenny sat beside me, looking up benignly as I cursed. After three hours traipsing the streets I was tired, sore, and completely empty-handed. Berating myself for what now seemed like a ridiculous plan based on hope and fairy dust, I veered back towards the port-gate. After all my faith, I’d turned up nothing and I was debating whether I even wanted to do this again the next morning. Feet aching, I shuffled along the footpath, then slowed at the corner to check for the car I heard approaching from behind me. As I turned my head, fear engulfed me. My heart started racing, my skin went cold and my knees shook. A feeling of desperate loneliness warred with pure terror and I twisted my head back to hide it from the approaching vehicle. As it trundled by, the sensation intensified and darkness started closing in. Stumbling against a wall like a drunk, I slid down it to wrap my arms around my body, shaking violently. Lenny whimpered at my distress as I panted in short breaths, willing my heart not to explode in my chest.

The van passed. The feeling subsided.

Sucking air through my nose as my heart slowed, I tried to focus. What just happened, a panic attack? No, it had gone too quickly. It seemed to go when the van… The van. I stood to look and just saw the tail end disappearing into a driveway, right down the end of the street. Tugging on Lenny’s lead I ran, hurtling up the footpath until I was a few houses down from where I’d seen it stop.

The property looked abandoned. Bushes, grass and weeds were unkempt, almost choking the long driveway lined by an enormous, straggling hedge.  The brick fence was crumbling and the old gate rusted, though a shining new padlock hung around a chain that dangled loose off one side. Were they only making a short stop, or were they expecting someone else? Reflexively I scanned the street. No one.

Afraid of being spotted, I approached cautiously. I placed a hand on the gate. A tentative nudge made it whine loudly, so I used the decorative ironwork between the bars as a foothold and climbed over. Lenny paced along the gate, then bunched up his hind legs.

“No!” I said in a loud whisper. “Lenny, I need you to wait outside. If I don’t come out in an hour, get Gibble. Hell, get everyone. Can you do that?”

Whump. His tail hit the ground and he ducked his head, panting. Hoping that meant yes, I watched as he turned, and trotted off into someone’s garden across the street. A bush rustled and a brown face popped out, then withdrew. Good boy, I thought.

I checked again to make sure no one was coming, then crept in behind the hedge, following the driveway up past the vacant old manor. As I closed in on the rear of the property, the feeling of terror threatened to envelop me again. I knew the shared sensations were to do with my trip to the Other, that it had to do with my acceptance to the pack. With it came some understanding of how to use it. Acknowledging the emotional cry for help, I pushed the feeling away and it dwindled to a manageable level.

A white van, similar to the one left behind at the warehouse, idled at the end of the path. Two men opened the door at the rear of the van, then lifted a blanket off a large cage inside. As the cover came off, an ice cold shudder ran through my body as I saw what was inside.  The creature was a little bigger than a soccer ball. Compared to its brethren, it was tiny. Beady, red eyes blinked in the sunlight and it wiggled back, pressing itself into a corner of the cage. The small barrow fiend still had the purplish skin and patches of fuzz that preceded the growth of sleek fur and its mewling cry was far from the deep harrumph of the herd I’d seen in the Other. The cries he emitted penetrated my psyche, and I could feel his terror and loneliness. He didn’t know where he was and he missed his pack, the companionship and protection they provided. Somehow, seeing the fiend and knowing that’s where the emotions stemmed from kept them separate from my own. I couldn’t stop my heart reaching out to him. Somehow, he sensed it. He quietened in the cage and swung his head back and forth, looking for one of his kind. Finally, he settled back, cowed but not asleep.

The men complained constantly as they stood on guard – they were bored, they didn’t like the presumptuous attitude of the buyer they were due to meet and their ‘boss’ had been on edge. When a third man walked up to the truck, they fell silent. The man was short and wiry, with a mean looking face and a crooked nose. A scar hooked around his jaw, adding to the impression he was not a man to cross. Lady Columbine had mentioned a scar like that; Serraceuse. My stomach turned and I pressed one hand to my mouth to hold back a cry.

The thin branch my hand rested on wavered; I was gripping it unconsciously. Easing my hand off, I crouched lower as the men passed in front of the thick hedge I hid behind. A vehicle rumbled at the house of the house. The men paused, listening as it came to an abrupt stop and a car door slammed.

“Someone’s out front. You, go check.” Serraceuse thrust his chin at one of the men, who promptly jogged off down the long driveway.

He returned a moment later, calling out from some distance away. “Yeah, it’s him.”

“You saw him?”

The man hesitated. “Nah, but it’s his car.”

“How many people were in the car? Was he alone?” Serraceuse snapped.

“Look, he always comes alone. We been dealing with this one for ages, why’d he start bringing people with him now?”

Shaking his head and muttering about the incompetence of his employees, Serraceuse pulled a gun and set off down the drive, beckoning the last man to follow. This was likely to be my only chance – if they returned with the buyer and I lost track of them, the poor fiend could be gone forever. Keeping an eye out for movement, I pushed through the branches of the hedge, ignoring the scratches and scrapes. A quick glance down the empty drive and I dashed over to the truck. The cage sat in the open tray, baby fiend inside. The lock came open easily. I was surprised the simple tracing worked, but perhaps they didn’t feel the need for such high security here.

The fiend jiggled and wobbled in joy, then started to scurry around in circles in the cage. I reached in to grab him and he looked up at me. He shrank back in the cage, out of my reach.

“C’mon, over here.” I whispered desperately. Using the tow bar as a step, I lifted myself up so I teetered at the edge of the cage. Uncertain, the small creature backed up further, terrified. Putting my wand next to the cage, I braced myself with one hand and leaned in, stretching as far as I could.  Something shoved me from behind, hard, pushing me forwards into the cage. Pain lanced through my shin as I struck it and my face connected with the bars hard enough to make me cry out. Hands grabbed at my kicking feet and forced them up. Then, to my horror, the door slammed shut. Trying not to crush the fiend underneath me, I twisted around in the small confines of the cage to see Serraceuse standing there, baring his teeth in an evil grin. He dangled my wand just out of reach and gave a vicious laugh.

 

 

                                          #

“I’m sure we can get a fair price for you, whoever you are.” The nasal voice held a note of scorn for the girl who dared come after his merchandise.

“Let me out,” I gasped, knowing the words were useless but unable to stop them falling out of my mouth.

“Sure, I’ll let you out. ‘Course you might not be alive by that point… unless there’s a profit involved, of course.”

“Serraceuse, what’s going on? Where is my product?” A husky voice called out from behind and Serraceuse spun around.

“Hold your horses. The beast’s in there, just had a minor mishap is all.” Serraceuse stepped to the side to reveal an older man, well dressed with a pair of silver glasses perched on his nose. A Talent Lord, here? His face was familiar and after a moment I could place him. He’d been the target of Bee’s anger at the recent gala.

“What? What is she doing in there?” Looking over his glasses he peered into the truck, backing away when he caught sight of my face.

“Tried to steal my wares. Your wares now, or it will be as soon as you hand over the chips.”

The Lord shook his head nervously. “Oh no, I’ll have no part of this, my friend. The deal’s off – do you know who she is? A favourite of the High Seat, courting one of the ranked Lords. She has friends, Serraceuse.”

“Dead people don’t have friends. You agreed to the price, Bolter. You’re paying, whether you take the beast or not.”

“She works with the Fae.” His voice was urgent, shaking. “Some have even said she’s met with a Guardian. I told you, the deal is off. You’ll not get a thing out of me, you fool.”

“Oh, I’ll get it out of you alright.” My eyes widened as Serraceuse turned his back on the man and pulled a gun from the front of his belt.

“No!” I cried, too late. In one smooth motion, he swung back and shot the man between the eyes. The sound rang in my ears and sent shock waves through my body. Bile rose in my throat and my chest constricted until I couldn’t breathe. Despite my horror, I couldn’t tear my eyes away.

“Damned Talents.” Serraceuse walked over to the body, kicked it, then started rifling through the dead Lord’s pockets. “Can’t dispose of them with style, can I? Bastards’ got too many tricks up their sleeves, even if they’re too dumb to dodge a bullet. No matter, I’ve got myself a new plaything, don’t I?” He gave me a deadened smile, calmly slipping the gun back into his belt as if nothing had happened, then pocketed the few trinkets he’d found on the body.

“What do you want us to do with that, then?” One of Serraceuse’s men spoke up behind him, sounding unenthused at dealing with a dead body.

“Throw him in the truck. We’ll go down the river for a barbeque, yeah?” Serraceuse pulled out a wand and I flinched. “Oh, didn’t expect that, did you? Lowly crim having a bit of Talent of his own? Deal with it.” As he spoke he traced a ward on the lock to secure it. Then, he pointed it at me. I felt the spell and my power swelled. The gun poking out of his belt made me hesitate, and I pulled away from the magic that would allow me to resist the spell he traced. If Serraceuse couldn’t subdue me with magic… well, the alternative could be a lot worse.

Despite my intention, my gift flared inside me. I had to fight to keep it down, to let the trace wash over me, drown me in its effect. Somehow, I did both. The feeling of grogginess took over, but a thin tendril of my blocking ability reached out. My body slumped and my mind slowed, but I retained some kind of foggy awareness of my surroundings as rough hands pulled at me, then tugged at my belt. A rough hand dug in my pocket and pulled something out – my phone. My sleepy mind nagged at me, saying it was important, but the spell had a tight enough hold that I couldn’t move. Vaguely, I heard the muffled thump of something heavy being dumped beside me. The door slammed and darkness enveloped me. A moment later, just before I slipped into unconsciousness, sharp claws dug into my back. The pain seared my senses, waking me enough to harness my power and shake off the sleeping spell.

The engine rumbled, and I lurched and swayed as the truck started to move down the uneven driveway. It stopped briefly, and a moment later, a screech signalled the rusty gate opening, then we drove off. My stomach dropped as we went down a hill, and I tumbled against iron bars as we lurched carelessly around a corner. Once, my fingers touched warm, damp cloth beside the cage and I jerked back with a sob, scrubbing the tacky residue off my fingers with my skirt. When the truck finally stopped, I tucked the baby fiend inside my shirt and curled around it, pretending I was still under the power of the ward. The back door of the truck opened and I prayed they hadn’t seen me flinch at the sudden noise. I was jostled, then felt the cage scraping across the back of the truck. The fiend dug sharp claws into my chest as we slammed onto the ground. Eyes closed, all I could do was prepare to face my worst nightmare.

 

 

 

Chapter Twenty

 “You want her out yet?” 
 
          “Yeah. Look, someone left us a nice old barrel to cook her in.” Shoes crunched, stopped, them a whoosh and a wave of heat billowed over me, washed away a moment later by the icy breeze. “Should’ve brought sausages. I love sausages.”

Serraceuse had a voice like a knife down a windowpane. I’d landed face down, so he couldn’t see me squeeze my eyes shut in terror, or the single tear that leaked out. I breathed quickly, trying to calm myself before they noticed I was listening to them talk – talk about the pain they were going to inflict on me.

The lock on my cage joggled. “Uh, boss? You’ll need to pop the lock.”

Shoes crunched on dirt. The lock clinked again and the door swung open with a light squeak. Rough hands – different ones this time – grabbed me and hoisted me up, almost squashing the small creature tucked in my shirt. My lungs screamed as I held my breath to stop from whimpering. My heart pumped so hard I was sure the man carrying me would notice. Very carefully, I opened my eyes, just a crack so they were still shaded by my lashes. He was carrying me over old concrete, broken by straggling grass. There was graffiti, and we passed an old drum packed with cold ash. The ground was strewn with rubbish. One of the worse sections of London, by the little I could see.

We stopped, and I was thrown to the ground. The poor creature under me suffered a blow, but stayed still and silent, only a flickering tongue on my skin to let me know he was still alive. The man walked off and, terror of the unknown winning out, I risked a slight movement of my head to see what was happening. I’d been left on the ground across from the men. I could hear the river gently slopping over the muddy bank just behind me. Serraceuse, Ronson and the two others I’d first seen by the truck were standing by a second drum. Serraceuse poked at it with an iron bar. He held it up and spat on it, saliva hissing and sending up a thin ribbon of steam.

My stomach turned and adrenalin shot through me like fire. I didn’t wait for a safe moment; I didn’t sneak off. I panicked. Scrambling to my feet, I ran, blindly. A shout from behind made me turn, just for a moment – the wrong moment. A divot in the ground twisted my foot and I stumbled forward, trying to get my balance as I clutched at the wriggling fiend in my shirt. Startled, I realised where I was headed – straight for the wall that dropped down into the river.

Eyes blurred with tears, I whipped my head around, desperately looking for a way out. There were no buildings to hide in, no people to go to for help, and though my gift raged, it wouldn’t stop bullets. As that thought flew across my mind, three shots rang out. I jumped, one arm wrapped protectively around the wriggling fiend I still carried in my shirt. Another shot went off a moment before I hit the water and more muffled booms sounded as I sank.

The shock of icy water pushed the air out of my chest and sent daggers of pain through my head. My boots were waterlogged in moments, and I awkwardly kicked one off. The other stuck. Water dragged at the skirt wrapped around my legs, weighing me down. I kicked my legs desperately, lungs burning, and managed to bob up to the surface for a desperate breath.

Claws needled my skin as the drowning barrow fiend tried to climb clear of my shirt, and it bit into my neck for purchase. The pain made me cry out and water sloshed into my mouth. Still flailing in the water, I went under again before the fiend could escape. Fear and pain warred for my attention as my body screamed for air.  The fiend clawed and bit until I helped it out, ripping my shirt buttons off to give it room to escape. It floated free, twisting and jerking in the water.

Out of air long enough for spots to start appearing in the darkness, I kicked with the last of my reserves and finally started to float upwards. My lungs strained and my limbs were heavy. Finally, I popped up like a cork, and held myself above water long enough to gasp a few breaths in. Something yanked at my hair, ripping my head back, then tried to climb on my head. Terrified, the barrow fiend had gone for the closest thing it could see – me.

Flailing in the water, I twisted around to see where I was. We’d been carried downstream a short way and there was no sign of our attackers. The bank was only a short distance away, but I had to get ashore, now. My legs burned and my arms were like lead, too weak to pull me out of the steady current that sucked us along. Helpless sobs wracked my body as I gulped in air and water all at once.

Taking a breath and hoping the fiend knew to do the same, I let myself sink again, taking a gamble. We weren’t far from shore and I knew boats had gotten into trouble here. My feet kicked and flailed until they hit the soft, muddy bottom of the river. I tried to kick up, but one foot slipped. Using my arms to propel myself down again and trying to ignore the piercing in my scalp, I tried again.

This time I got it right, though with less force that I’d hoped. My thrust pushed me toward the bank, angling up for more air. When I broke the surface I was closer. Resting my legs, I pulled myself towards the sloping ground with my arms, weary, useless strokes that barely battled the current. I bobbed down again. This time, I hadn’t gone far under when I hit dirt. That last push got me close enough to reach the bottom and I waded the rest of the way, feeling the weight of my clothes hanging down as I dragged my weary body to shore. Fingers numb, I fumbled at my open shirt, eventually just pulling it across my chest and hoping it stayed there.

Collapsing into sodden mud, I heaved and choked, spitting out water and slime. The barrow fiend dropped from its tangled nest in my hair, dislodging a few clumps as it fell. Still terrified that Serraceuse would catch up, I forced myself to wobbly knees to look around. The bridge was just a little way off. Masik would be there, he would offer protection. People, there were people there, too. They’d help, surely.

My head felt as soggy as my clothes and I didn’t know how long I’d been floundering in the water. It took three tries to haul myself to my feet, and nearly toppled over again when I leaned down to scoop up the fiend. Biting wind tore through my wet clothes and my teeth ached from chattering so hard. Not happy in my shaking arms, the tiny fiend wriggled free, falling to the ground. It rolled in the mud for a moment, but followed as I started dragging my sorry limbs to find Masik.

When I reached the campsite of Masik and his tribe of homeless, it was empty. An old campfire still smoked gently, and the smell of something cooking filled the air. I dropped to my knees, exhausted and confused. Trolls never left their bridges. They must be close, surely?

“Masik?” My voice was weak and tremulous.

“Looks like he’s scampered, my love. Never trust a troll to bail you out of danger.”

Ronson’s voice startled me and I screamed, turning to find him and Serraceuse both pointing guns at me as they advanced.

“Come on, let’s do this quick. She’s not getting a free pass, not after that little escapade. Tie her up.” Serraceuse sounded vaguely irritated, voice still cold as a winter’s night.

Ronson tucked his gun in his belt and instructed me to lift my hands. Seeing no other choice, I obeyed. Ronson tied them together, the cord cutting into my skin. He threw me to the ground, then stood over me, gun drawn. Serraceuse poked an iron bar into the spent fire. I watched the bar as it started to glow red, sucking in the heat as the smoke for the coals dissipated. The freezing tremor in my body changed to one of terror as he drained the last of the heat out of the fire and into the burning weapon. He turned to me, leaving a patch of cold, burnt ground behind him.

The baby fiend was gone – I hoped it was safe. My sideways vision wavered as I lay, face tacky with drying mud, too frightened exhausted to move. Focusing on my hands, on anything but Serraceuse’s advancing figure, something caught my eye.

Somehow, the little Fae ring was still clean. It sparkled in the sun that streamed down, not yet high enough to warm my skin. A noise drew my focus back to the more distant Serraceuse, who pulled the now glowing metal bar out of the hot barrel to examine it. He spat on the end and at the hissing sound it made, my blood ran cold. I flinched, drawing Ronson’s attention. He kicked me, once, then placed a booted foot on my tied wrists, pinning me in the mud. My heart raced as Serraceuse turned to me and smiled. Short, shallow gasps tore at my chest as he approached, and a last wash of adrenaline flowed through me. Unable to hold back a pathetic whimper, I struggled, flailing about in the mud but unable to escape.

Serraceuse touched the iron brand to my shoulder. Searing pain lanced my shoulder and I screamed, bucking and thrashing, a visceral need to escape taking over all logical thought. I channelled Talent – with nothing to trace with and no way of controlling it, the magic flowed towards the only source of concentrated magic it could find. The portal ring.

A howling sound rent the air. The sun flickered. The hot poker fell to the ground as Serraceuse’s eyes widened, horror pulling his twisted face taught. Wrenching my head around, I saw why. A portal to the Otherworld had opened. Ronson tried to flee the widening sliver of empty space, but stumbled. He caught himself, then barrelled backwards as a small figure launched through the air and hit him in the chest. On its own, the barrow fiend wouldn’t have been able to overbalance him, but my limp body provided leverage as Ronson’s heel snagged on my outstretched leg. Time slowed for me as he flailed, thrusting a desperate arm in my direction. There was time, I could save him.

I pulled back.

Ronson staggered, reeling, into the void of the portal as the barrow fiend jumped free. Though my mind reeled, I had enough presence to know what was coming, and that I wouldn’t survive the stampede that was coming. Still, I curled into a ball, whimpering at the pain of movement as I covered my head with my arms.

Quiet. Not silent, but the sound of padded feet on wet mud was eerily soft. As the barrow fiends passed, their movement stirred up a chill breeze that tickled my arms. One or two leathery, bristled bodies brushed my huddled form, despite their efforts not to jostle one of their own. I felt that acknowledgement as they ran, mingled with lust for blood so strong my mouth watered. Vengeance, for the one they lost. Fear, for her child. Resolve, to put an end to it. Though time stretched out, it was only moments until a terrified shriek split the air, cut off with sudden finality.

Stillness.

I lifted my head to see the pack clustered around something on the ground. Sirens wailed, penetrating the fog of my mind. Something small and dense nuzzled me, then shoved a blunt head under my arm. A bony plate pressed roughly against my head. Taking the message, I sat up, painfully aware of the damage I’d taken. I felt… closure. Was Serraceuse dead? Probably.

Despite the immense weight of my feelings, the overwhelming tiredness, the pain that flooded through me with every movement, I felt peace. It was done. 

Chapter Twenty-One

 I didn’t find out the rest of the story until later, as, once again, I lay in a hospital bed while Deirdre tended my wounds. 
 
             Masik, with that sixth sense that many of the Others possessed, had known that something bad was coming. After herding his people to another safe place, he’d tried to get in contact with me, and sent one of his people to the local police station when he couldn’t get in touch. The poor young officer had a world of trouble trying to decipher a message that simply said ‘Bridge is Door now, Lady’. Thankfully, she’d kicked the message over to the O.C.U., where it had eventually made its way to Greyson. He’d immediately known what it meant and rushed over.

 Greyson and his team arrived to find me in Gibble’s arms, untied but barely conscious, Lenny standing guard. My loyal dog had come to check on me after hearing the gunshot and realised that he had no chance against a locked cage, and gone to Gibble for help. At least, that’s what Gibble told me later.

As for Olfred… well, no one knew exactly how he’d made it there before anyone else. Gibble had found him sitting on the bank, lecturing my unconscious self on the perils of running headlong into danger. Though we were surrounded by some very large footprints, there wasn’t a barrow fiend in sight.  

Serraceuse’s body turned up a street away, so badly mangled that the officer who found him had passed out at the sight. Ronson had disappeared; they were still looking, but I knew they’d never find him. The rest of Serraceuse’s crew were tracked down soon after. It wasn’t hard to spot two men dangling from a bridge, hogtied and held up by a thin strand of arachinum silk. Rumours abounded as to who would use such a rare and expensive material on two lowlifes, and they all pointed at the Fae.

There would be an inquest and I would be called to the stand, there would be no escaping that. Greyson assured me that temporary amnesia was common in crime victims, and that I shouldn’t worry too much about my statement for now.

“He wasn’t Talented, you know.” Greyson looked at me over the paperwork he was filling out at the foot of my bed.

“What? He had magic, I saw him use it. The only way he could do that was if he were Talented, or… oh, of course.”

“Yeah, half Fae. At least, that’s what our delegate claims. We’ll verify it later with genetic tests, but Umbers said it’d make sense.”

“Oh?” I said, unsure if I wanted to know why he’d been talking to Harrod.

“Harrod couldn’t dismantle the ward, the one at the warehouse. He said that’d bothered him at the time, but with everything going on he hadn’t put two and two together. Seems Serraceuse got none of the looks and just a touch of Other magic, but a bloody good knack for wards.”

The explanation did make sense, but I shuddered to think how badly things could have gone if he’d been born with more of the Fae genes showing through. Mortal-Fae couplings were rare, and for once I found myself exceedingly grateful for the fact.

“It’s finally over, Em,” Greyson said. “No more detective work, not for a while at least. Think you can keep out of trouble for bit?”

That brought a twitch of a smile to my lips.

“It would be nice to see you on a personal visit rather than a professional one for a change,” Deirdre chided. “As much as I love my work, I’m much happier when it’s not needed, especially on a dear thing like yourself.”

“Dear thing? She just singlehandedly took out the most dangerous criminal we’ve ever been up against.” Greyson looked downright affronted at her use of the term, then laughed as she rolled her eyes at him.

“No, it wasn’t me. It was the barrow fiends. And the Guardian, she gave me the ring. I didn’t really do anything, except get caught.” I grimaced at my own ineptitude.

Greyson and Deirdre looked at me, agape.

“What?” I asked.

“Em, you found them.” Greyson shook his head in wonder. “You tracked them down when my entire team couldn’t find them. You saved the fiend, escaped from them once, and then you… what, called up an entire horde of beasts to trample them?” He chuckled, then added, “If that’s what happens when you do ‘nothing’, I can’t wait to see what your ‘something’ is.”

Placing her hands on me, Deirdre trickled a little more of her healing power into my shoulder. “That’s about all I’m able to do for now. You might have some stiffness in it for a while, and I haven’t touched your poor scalp. That should heal quickly, though I’ve no idea how you even did that. If it’s still bothering you in three days, come and see me.”

Healing relied as much on the recipients’ capability as the healer’s. My exhausted, burnt-out state meant she wasn’t able to completely fix my shoulder, but she’d done an excellent job notwithstanding. Reaching up to rub the spot, I could still feel some knotted scarring, but I could move my arm with only a little pain.

“Do take care, Emma.” Deirdre leaned in to give me a warm hug. “Let your friends look after you for a little while. I might be able to fix bodies, but minds are a different thing entirely. You’ve more healing ahead of you, but time will help.”

#

Harrod came to collect me not long after Deirdre left. As he helped me into the car, he asked if I was up to a detour on my way home. Feeling tired, but not wanting to spoil his surprise – it was obvious from the smile he kept trying to hide – I said yes.

Instead of driving to his house, we drove to mine. Expecting to see nothing more than a clean building site, when we pulled up the street I almost had to look around and check where we were. There, right in front of me, in the space that only days ago had been nothing but empty air and smouldering rubble, was my shop. It was beautiful.

“Harrod… how?” My mind reeled, and as I pulled myself out of the car I had to grip the door to keep from falling.

“Magic.” He smiled at me and took my arm. “Come on. I moved all your things back while you were in the hospital.”

My knees shook by the time I reached the door and I placed a hand on it, overwhelmed. Made of old silverwood and carved in the shape of a very large arch, it was not only beautiful, but functional. Even the tallest of my customers would be able to enter without having to awkwardly duck their heads. Above my hand, an intricate ward decorated the door. It was unfamiliar, but as I examined it, I noticed the circle wasn’t quite closed.

“It’s a Fae ward of protection. Unbreakable. At least, it will be once you finish it. We didn’t want to get locked out before we were done.”

“You organised this?” I asked, lost in wonder.

“Me? No, not by a long shot. I just helped a little. Barg was the main instigator but I think there were a lot of people involved.”

I pushed against the door. As it swung open, smooth and soundless, a sob rose in my chest. It was… indescribable. My builders had harnessed the magic of the Other, and I stood inside a shop that was at least four times the size of the plot of land it stood on, with a ceiling high enough that the whole room seemed like an elegant ballroom.

The counter in front of me was made from mottled stone, polished until it was as smooth as glass. Running my hand along it, I walked around to examine the tall shelves behind, all stocked with finely crafted boxes for my teas. Glasses, cups and teapots adorned the lower shelves, all in different styles but somehow matched in an eclectic way. A stone sink with a pitcher of water beside it was set into the cabinets on the wall.

“No plumbing down here, but the pitcher will refill itself. The water is from some remote mountain spring, I believe. You should have everything you need to run a full service cafe, with a little staffing assistance.”

My mouth was slack and words simply escaped me as I looked around. On shaking legs, I wandered in circles, looking over the shop. My shop.

Tables and chairs carved from heavy planks of raw oak filled part of the room, dotted with styled jars of glowing light. There were booths along one wall, and a long table against the front window. As my eyes slid over it, I realised the view from that window was not of London. Instead, a field of purple grass and orange-leaved trees lay outside, a sparkling silver stream cutting through the landscape. One hand to my chest, I squeezed my eyes shut to force back tears.

“Harrod, that’s… my dream…”

He shot me a quizzical look but didn’t ask, and I didn’t bother to try and explain. Tearing my eyes from the stunning scene, I let him pull me away to the small door at the back of the shop. Dizziness hit me briefly on my way through, and I almost stumbled but for Harrod’s hand on my arm. It led to a tiny room with wide steps leading up, and a door to the right. A peek into the side room revealed a casting room, sparsely furnished but surrounded by shelves for tea. Another ward, bigger than the one on the door but simple this time, covered the ceiling.

I pulled back and started up the stairs. Flutters of fear washed over me for a moment as I remembered fleeing my home, starved for breath and drowning in smoke. When I hesitated, Harrod simply stopped, and waited until I was ready. The stairwell was bright, lit by a skylight that showed blue sky through a glass pane at a dizzying height above us.

Closing my eyes and taking some deep breaths, I tried to steady myself. Harrod pulled me down to sit next to him on the step, and placed an arm around me.

“Sorry, Em. You’ve been through hell and back these last few days, I should have waited.”

“No,” I said, gulping down a sob. “It’s not just that. This… this is all so beautiful. Harrod, I can serve people tea while they’re here, people can sit and drink it while they meet with friends and… it’s perfect. I just can’t help remember that last time I was here, right here, I almost died. I could have lost Lenny or Gib that night, too, I-” Fear shot through me. “Where are they? Where are-”

Squeezing my shoulder, Harrod hushed me. “They’re upstairs waiting. They wanted to give you time-”

Without letting him finish I dashed upstairs, throwing open the door and rushing into the arms of Gibble, who waited just beyond it. Lenny cantered around, jumping up to lick my face as I laughed, head twisting away from the tickling sensation.

“Lady be liking the work that friends be doing?”

“Oh Gibble, it’s just stunning. Show me!”

Harrod stood back while Gibble led me around my new home. Lenny gallivanted beside us, nudging open kitchen cabinets that were stocked with food and demonstrating how comfortable the new couch was by rolling on it enthusiastically, tongue lolling out with an upside down smile. The furniture was mismatched – dining chairs were interspersed with tall stools and a large, wide bench; the living room had an enormous arm chair next to a long couch and a small, elegant chaise. I realised why when Gibble, happy to watch me explore, sat down.

“Gibble! They made furniture just for you?”

“Not just chairs, Lady. Be going down the stairs and thinking of me.”

Eyeing him, I did as he asked. Again the dizziness washed over me as I passed through the door, and when I looked down, I knew why. The stairwell wasn’t… well, it wasn’t quite in this world. I looked down not to the small room by the casting chamber, but to an enormous door. It opened to a single room, with a large pile of soft blankets scattered over a giant bed, some large chairs and walls lined with more books than I’d ever owned. Thudding steps behind me signalled Gibble’s appearance.

“You live here now? That’s wonderful!” As soon as I said it, I felt guilty. “Gibble, Serraceuse is gone. I’m safe now. Won’t you miss the Other?” I forced the words out, knowing I owed it to him. As much as I wanted him here, I wanted him to be happy, more.

“If Lady be allowing it, Gibble would much be liking to have a place to be sleeping on this side of the port-gates. Be you willing for that?”

Dismayed that he even felt he had to ask, I threw myself at him again. He caught me without stumbling, patting my back as I squeezed him. “Gibble be thinking you be not minding then, Lady?” He chuckled, and we headed back upstairs together.

“The small chairs are for Barg, right?”

“Well, Barg and one other, Lady. Gibble will have to be explaining…”

 

 

#

“Oh, hello Master Tork. Your usual today?” Ellandra greeted the troll with a warm smile.

Tork eyed the demi-fae behind the counter who beamed up at him with innocent eyes. His normally surly expression softened and he handed over the chips without argument. “Tork want two box next week.” Ellandra raised an eyebrow and he quickly added, “Please.”

“Certainly, Master Tork. I’ll let Lady Emma know to have them ready. You have a nice day, now.” She waved a tiny hand at the troll, who gave her a respectful, yet slightly awkward half-bow and stomped out of the shop.

“Everyone told me trolls were cranky beasts, but Tork is just lovely,” Ellandra said as she pulled a box of tea out and tipped some into a pot.

“You do tend to bring out the best in him,” I said. I watched my new assistant pour water over the tea, then press her hands to the sides of the pot and heat it. Wondering for the umpteenth time how she did that without burning her hands, I set out a tray with some cups.

Ellandra had appeared on my doorstep the day I reopened. My surprise at seeing the demi-fae I had rescued from Serraceuse was only slightly less than when Gibble had shown me a letter from the Guardians, asking me to take her on as an apprentice. Of course, when the Guardians ‘asked’ you something, you agreed, which is why my entire home had been built to accommodate not only myself, Gibble, Lenny and the frequently-visiting Barg, but my new assistant as well. They’d instructed Barg to make sure she had a place at my table, and Gibble told me there was another room in case she needed to stay the night. Despite my initial concerns over the arrangement, it was working out wonderfully.

“Why don’t you take a short break, Ellandra? I can handle things for a while.”

“Oh I couldn’t, Lady Emma. The tree-god will be here shortly and will likely wish to speak with you.” Ellandra took up the tray of freshly made tea and gracefully glided over to deliver it to a table of hobgoblins that sat in one corner. Not bothering to question her about Olfred, I simply took it for truth. It wasn’t the first time she’d mentioned someone turning up, and she’d never been wrong. Sure enough, about five minutes later, he arrived and took a seat by the window, Lenny loping over to settle on the floor at his feet.

Carefully selecting a nice blend of lemonbalm and mint, I scooped some into a fresh pot, then stepped aside as Ellandra shooed me away.

“Please, Lady, go and sit. I shall bring you the tea as soon as it’s ready.”

Thanking her, I took a seat next to Olfred.

“I see them sometimes, you know,” I said, eyes searching the picturesque scene for any sign of the barrow fiends. The fields and forest were empty, as they always were when people were around.

“Aye, that ye would. They be owin’ ye a great debt, an’ they no’ be forgettin’ it.”

“Olfred, I’ve been meaning to ask you something. That day, when… everything happened, Greyson said you were one of the first there, even before the police. How did you know?”

“Well, it’s no’ tha’ I didna trust ye had the ability te keep ye’self safe, lassie… I jus’ didna think ye’d have the sense. I sent young Pearl, as ye named her, to watch over ye. Ye didna see her? She slipped back te me as soon as she saw ye in trouble wi’ those louts. More’s the shame I didna get there a mite earlier te save ye some grief from th’ bastards.” He looked me over sadly.

“Oh, Olfred, please don’t blame yourself for that. If you’d come any sooner, I might not have been able to open the portal and it could have gone a lot worse. In fact, if-” I stopped, a thought occurring to me. “Olfred, what if I hadn’t opened the portal? I’d already seen it happen, in the Other. Somehow the Guardian showed it to me before it happened. Could I have changed it?” Dread settled in my bones as I waited for his answer.

He looked at me closely. “Aye, lass, ye could have. What ye saw in the Other was just one o’ many things ye could have seen, an’ no’ all o’ them would have come te pass. It’s no’ the answer ye wanted, was it? Aye, Pearlie told me abou’ the one tha’ fell. Ye made a choice, lass. I might be one o’ the old gods, but I canna tell ye if it were the right one.” He put a dry, gnarled hand on my arm and looked into my eyes. “Only you can decide that. Dinna be tearin’ ye’self up over it, though. It’s done, and ye canna undo it. Dinna waste too much o’ ye heartache over that monster, if he dinna be takin’ beasts wha’ dinna want te go with him, he would’na been there te get hurt, aye?”

Tears pricked my eyes. Throat tight, all I could do was nod. The guilt that lurked in the corners of my soul since that day had surfaced at his words, but I made myself think through what he said. He was right – if Ronson hadn’t been such an evil sod, smuggling animals, stealing babes from their mothers, he wouldn’t have been standing on that river bank in the first place. If he hadn’t been helping Serraceuse in his game of torture, he wouldn’t have been right where the portal opened. Anger rose to war with the guilt and not for the first time, I pushed both down. There was no right answer, and I didn’t have the courage to ask the question anyway.

Olfred left a little while later, and Barg dropped in to take Lenny for a walk. When the shop closed, I still sat at the window, so deep in my reverie I barely noticed Ellandra’s farewell as she locked up and left me to my thoughts.

As I stared out the window into the now silver grass and red-leaved trees, movement drew my gaze. A herd of animals ambled in the distance, slowly walking along the tiny stream as a smaller pack member gambolled around their feet. The baby fiend, now three feet high and with a sleek coat like the older animals, reared upon to its feet and looked in my direction. As one, the pack stilled and turned to me. In a single movement they dipped their heads and pawed the ground once, then looked to the sky, mouths open. Somehow, in the far distance, carried on the smallest trickle of a breeze, I heard the harrumph of the calling herd. It was the call of the barrow fiends to acknowledge one of their own; a call to one who was not them, but who had become one of their herd in spirit, if not in form.

I watched their display, sitting at the window, and I waved, and laughed through my tears as the youngest of the fiends shook his bony head, and entertained me with tumbles and jumps like a child showing off for his mother. My heart swelled, dislodging a tiny bit of the guilt that had taken up so much room. I watched the herd until they wandered off, knowing that no matter what I’d been through, it was entirely worth it.

 

Dash of Fiend – Chapters 16-18

Chapter Sixteen

Fibres tickled my nose and I opened my eyes. Blinking and pushing myself up on to my hands, I found myself lying on a thick, plush carpet, the strands of which had been responsible for interrupting my sleep. Pulling myself up onto the daybed next to me, I looked around. I was in a small sitting room, and the walls were green. Unfinished needlework sat discarded on a stool beside me. A tapestry of a large, angry boggart terrorising a sandy-haired man hanging on the wall drew my eye. As I watched the painting, it almost moved – grasses swayed in an imaginary breeze and if I squinted just right, the boggart seemed to close in on his frightened victim. One edge of the tapestry started to lift and curl, smouldering away with a thin wisp of smoke.

“A vague premonition, or perhaps a memory. One that could go both ways, though I suggest you heed it regardless.” I jumped, and the woman behind me laughed at my surprise. “I am most pleased you have returned. I did so want a chance to thank you for freeing our children. Of course, there is more work to be done once you wake.”

The Guardian reached up into her dark, meticulously curled hair and pulled free a silver pin, dislodging her coiffure. Tight ringlets tumbled over her shoulder. I watched, mesmerised by the flowing locks.

“Emmeline – oh dear child, time really is of the essence, isn’t it? Such a pity, I’d so hoped we could chat.” She sighed, then adjusted the collar of my nightdress. “You need to return, my sweet. Return to the world of the living before you no longer belong there.”

What did that mean? I couldn’t form the words to ask, my open mouth moving senselessly.

“Focus.” Her voice was urgent now, eyes snapping brightly at me. Those fathomless eyes, pools of ancient knowledge. “Emmeline! Your gift – you must embrace it. You must wake!”

She drew out the pin she had taken from her hair earlier. With impossible speed she whipped it in front of my face and scratched my cheek. Jerking my head back upset my balance and I fell to the floor, landing sprawled on the rich carpet. Her cold, expressionless face looked down on me from above. My heart beat faster and pain lanced my chest with every breath. I coughed, choked. Trembling, I tried to suck in more air but the carpet was over my face, stifling me. Heaving, I lashed out with my fists, then my feet, trying to hit or kick or grab at whatever held me down.

“Until next time, Emmeline.” The voice was distant now, but it seared into my mind.

Power flooded into me, a raging torrent of release. The world popped.

I sat up in bed and drew in a ragged breath, choking on acrid smoke. Dazed, I coughed and rolled off my bed, landing on the floor with a thump. The boards beneath me felt hot on my bare skin, but the smoke wasn’t as thick down here. It was dark, and a roaring noise filled my ears, confusing me more.

“Lenny? Gibble, where are you?” My voice was hoarse and my efforts sent wracking coughs through my aching lungs.

Reaching around I found my bearings – the side table in front of me, my wand atop it. I clutched at it, cast a light globe. The little bobbing light was unable to penetrate far into the haze filling the room. Pulling my shirt over my nose I tried to filter out some of the smoke, managing to get enough breath to call for Lenny. There was no answer. He’d gone to sleep on my bed- I reached up and ran my hands over the rumpled blankets and found a soft mound. I shook him then, when he didn’t respond, ripped off the covers and grabbed him. The power inside me overflowed into him, pushed by an effort I didn’t quite understand. He jolted upright, frantically scrabbling back out of my reach. A soft thudding onto the bed told me what I needed to know. This time, when I woke him I held him tight, coaxing him over to me.

“I have to keep a hold of you Len, got it? Where’s Gibble?” My voice croaked the words out but Lenny guided me, one hand wrapped around his collar and touching his neck, over to the rug in front of the fire that served as Gibble’s bed. It took only a moment to know it was empty.

“Gibble!”

The crackling roar that surrounded us drowned my words, but I didn’t stop calling for him. Lenny led me to the door. There was no choice but to trust him. The dim light from my globe was near useless, though I left it there for the small bit of reassurance it gave.

The door to the stairwell was already open. Down we went, crouching as the smoke billowed over my head, seeking the most vertical path it could find. The shop below was lit with an eerie orange light, dancing and throwing shadows all around. Lenny shied away and I had to drag him along with me. A whooshing noise sent a rush of heat towards us and the glowing heat intensified in a corner of the shop. As I stepped into the room a column of flames in the corner, shot up to the ceiling, then across it, towards me. Tendrils of fire snaked through the room, one climbing up a curtain on the other side of the shop. My skin burned as the temperature climbed; We had to hurry.

Yanking at Lenny’s collar to try and guide him to the door, I nearly fell over him when he pulled back. He whined, scrabbling the floor with his claws. Tugging him behind me, I reached the door, flicking my wand out to trace a spell. The lock snicked open, but when I turned the handle, the door wouldn’t move. Choking on a sob I pressed my hand against the pane of glass, feeling its ice cold surface on my scorching skin. I kicked at it, with no more effect than a mouse trying to beat down a brick wall. Lenny pulled again, trying to go back into the room, towards the flames that now ran across the wall and up the stairs. Tears streamed down my face, blurring my vision but I could just make out what he was doing.

Between us and the wall of fire, a huge lump lay on the floor. Lenny guided me to it, while I ducked my head to shield my face from the raging heat. Unable to see, I stumbled, landing on Gibble’s tough hide. The moment we made contact I pushed my power into him and he reared up, then cowered down from the fiery ceiling. Careful not to lose my grip, I followed him back to the door, trying to shout to him, tell him it was warded shut. My throat stung and my lungs screamed; no sound came out. Gibble pushed at the door, muscles straining. Nothing. He let out a visceral bellow, then stood tall and thrust his arms out, knocking me back and dislodging my hand from his arm.

He didn’t fall, he grew. I’d seen this once before, in the Other. Bony spikes sprouted from his arms and down his back and his arms. His legs widened, muscles bulging. The flames shrank back from his terrifying roar, skittering away and drawing the thick smoke with them. Ramming his body forward in a single motion he plunged at the door, breaking it clean out of its frame and exploding glass in a rain on the pavement outside. I fell through after him, hauling Lenny behind me and collapsing after a couple of steps. Gibble reached down, wrapped an arm around my waist and lifted me, carrying me away from the flames that now reached out of the hole he had left in the wall behind us.

A shot rang out, then a flurry of others. Chips of plaster exploded from the wall as bullets screamed past. Gibble dropped me back to the ground and shielded me with his monstrous body until it stopped. Turning bleary eyes towards the street, I saw a man walking towards us, reloading a handgun. Lenny growled and looked to me for permission. Barely breathing let alone able to speak, I pushed myself up, raised my arm and pointed to the man. He paused, fumbling with his gun for a moment before raising it again, aimed directly at me. Lenny bounded towards him as Gibble stomped onto the road.

The shooter dropped his gun and fled.

He never had a chance. I heard his shriek as Lenny caught him, and an unearthly growl as the raging boggart caught up. The screaming intensified, then cut off, leaving my ears ringing against the roar of the fire behind me. I sank back to the ground and watched everything I owned crumble before my burning eyes.

 

 

Chapter Seventeen

 Cool hands touched my face and I heard a dramatic sigh. I cracked an eye open to find a blurry mess of golden curls obscuring my vision. 
 
           “I told you, she’s my patient. The paperwork is all in order and as soon as she wakes I can-”

Something tugged on the skin at the back of my hand as Deirdre spoke and I gasped. The intake of breath to speak sparked a bout of painful coughing. Someone ran hands over my back, gently rubbing it in soothing motions as a tracing slipped off me, making me shiver.

“Emma, can you hear me?”

I nodded, wheezing loudly, eyes closed against the bright, burning lights.

“You need to let go of your block, sweetheart. I can heal you, if you let me.”

Surprised, I reached inside to let go of my gift, not realising I’d been holding it in the first place.

“Could you…?” Deirdre’s voice was soft.

A moment later I felt a sharp pain in my hand, like a large splinter was being ripped out. I grunted in pain. Then another tracing touched me. This one pierced deep, healing my torn lungs and blistered skin. This time, when I opened my eyes I could see clearly. The pain washed away and a deep breath filled my lungs with sweet, cool air. Deirdre stood in front of me looking satisfied with her work, while a nurse wheeled away a bag of IV fluids. To one side, my wand sat on a white hospital table, along with a plastic water jug and a box of tissues. Examining my hand, I found a smudge of sticky reside, the only sign left from the cannula I assumed had been there moments ago.

“She’s healed?” Greyson’s rough voice startled me and I turned to see him hovering by my shoulder, face creased with worry.

“Yeah,” I answered before Deirdre could. “I feel fine.”

Greyson helped me sit – I was well, but weary after the healing. “What happened? Where are Lenny and Gibble, what about my house?” The words tumbled out as memories of what had happened overcame my initial disorientation.

“Woah, slow down. You got burned pretty badly, you need to rest up.”

“Charlie, I’m fine but I need to go.” My eyes darted past Greyson, past Deirdre standing behind him, to the door of the hospital room.

“You’ve got no clothes.”

His bland statement had me reaching for a rebuttal before I stopped and realised he was right – embarrassingly so. I’d escaped in my nightdress and was now wearing a hospital gown. Pulling the blanket back up that I’d started to thrust aside, I sat back in the bed, disjointed thoughts racing through my head.

“Where’s my bag? Why don’t I have a bag? Is there a faske around? Why wasn’t it sent for a hospital bag, I thought that was standard procedure on admittance now?”

He looked at me, mouth downturned and brows furrowed. I took a breath, then another one.

“There’s…” I swallowed, took another breath and tried again. “There’s nothing left, is there?” I tried to keep my voice steady, to stay calm and controlled in front of Greyson’s stoic form. I tried to be brave, to keep a clear head in front of Deirdre who had seen people go through so much worse. I failed. Deep breaths turned into shuddering gasps and I started trembling violently. Deirdre darted to my side as Greyson wrapped a strong arm around my shoulders.

“It’s alright. Just breath, that’s it, keep breathing… that’s right. You’re ok.” Greyson’s voice murmured soothingly in my ear while Deirdre sat holding my hand.

“Lenny and Gibble?” I managed to ask.

“Lenny is fine, Harrod’s taken him back to his place for now. Not a scratch on him.”

“Gibble?” Why hadn’t he said anything about Gibble?

“We… think he’s ok. He disappeared after-” he coughed “after apprehending the suspect.”

Oh gods, they’d taken down the gunman. Would Lenny and Gibble be in trouble? Greyson saw the panic on my face start to return and quickly added, “He’s fine, by the way. The suspect. He was found on the road outside your home, prints all over a gun that more than likely matches the bullets we pulled from the scene. Someone scared the pi- the pants off him, but they left him in one piece – more or less. He might have tripped over in the street, but who’s to say. He’s in lock up now.”

Last time Gibble had tapped into the power of the Other and changed like that, he’d disappeared for days. Forcing my breath to slow, I reminded myself that was likely why he couldn’t be found. His Otherworld magic would have protected him from the bullets, he wouldn’t be lying somewhere – banishing that thought, I pressed my fingers against my eyes, held my breath for a moment and exhaled slowly. Inhale, exhale. When I opened my eyes again, Harrod was standing in front of me. He dropped the small parcel he was holding and strode to the bed, leaning down to give me a hug. Greyson moved back over to the corner of the room.

“Emma… You’re ok?”

“All healed up,” I said nodding at Deirdre. “Thanks to Deirdre.”

Harrod looked to her and she smiled. “She’s fine, Harrod. In fact, my dear,” she ran her eyes over me, then nodded. “I’d say it’s safe to let you go. I’ll go find a doctor to discharge you.” Deirdre left the room just as Martin wheeled Melanie in. She nodded briskly at the two, then disappeared down the corridor.

“Oh Emma, what have you gotten yourself into this time?” Melanie asked as she came over to the bed. I leaned down to give her a hug, and she handed me a shopping bag with some clothes in it. I thanked her, relieved my clothing issue had been resolved for now. Reminded of what I’d lost, I had to bite my lip to keep the tears away.

“Harrod, is Lenny alright?”

“He’s fine, he’s resting at home. I took the liberty of setting up a room for you too, if you want it. You’re more than welcome, for as long as you need. Gibble and Lenny too, of course.”

“Um, yeah. Thanks.”

“If you’d rather somewhere else, I’d understand…”

“Oh, it’s not that. I just… I hadn’t even considered it. I was too worried about Lenny and Gib and… wow. I don’t have a home any more. Nothing was saved?”

“We drove past, hon.” Melanie put a hand on mine. “It doesn’t look like it. There’s not much left of the building. The place was still smoking and there was a fire engine out front, so we didn’t stop.”

“Oh.” My voice was small as I looked down at my hands, wishing I could wake up from this nightmare. “What about my neighbours? No one was hurt, were they?”

Greyson pulled a face. “It was a targeted attack, the only building damaged was yours. The fire chief said wards were found on some of the shattered glass and on the door. Our guy thinks they were to contain the fire to your premises.” Looking at Harrod, he added, “I’ve made sure they won’t destroy anything. You mind taking a look later?”

Harrod nodded and the two men exchanged a look – the kind two guys give each other when they’re helping a damsel in distress. I shook my head and turned to Melanie.

“Thank you for the clothes” I said.

“Harrod had another parcel – oh, it’s here. There’s toiletries in there, and Martin made a quick stop on the way so I could pick you up some things. The rest is in his car. Oh gods Em, I was so worried when I found out!”

“How did you find out?” I asked.

“Martin came over while Harrod was getting Lenny settled. He knew I’d want to know, and wanted help to grab you some clothes. You’re lucky he did – the man has taste but no eye for sizing.” She grinned. “You just got a new wardrobe, courtesy of Lord Harrod.”

I closed my eyes and groaned – I’d have to figure out a way to pay him back later, if I could even get him to take it. Still a bit unsteady, though more from shock than any physical reason, I stood up and grabbed the bag of clothes. Excusing myself I headed into the tiny hospital bathroom to change. Luckily Mel had guessed my size right and I shortly emerged feeling somewhat more human in a three-quarter shirt, skirt and tights. Greyson met me at the door, a little away from the others.

“How are you feeling?”

“I’m fine. Deirdre doesn’t do things by halves, I don’t have a scratch on me.”

“That’s not what I meant. Emma, you nearly died. You lost your home and everything in it because someone tried to kill you. How are you feeling?”

I tilted my face up to him, looking him straight in the eye. “I’m angry. I’m terrified, confused, devastated, and exhausted but most of all, I’m angry. The people who did this think they’re above the law and immune from the treaties. They prey on innocent creatures and kill anyone who gets in their way. I’m angry, Charlie, and I want to make them pay.” My voice was low but that didn’t keep the heat from it.

“We’ve got the guy who did it. It’s just a matter of time before we get their leader.”

I shook my head emphatically. “You can’t, not alone. You’ll lose men if you go after them without Talents on your side. They’ve got magic and we still don’t know how much. Don’t you dare leave me out of this Greyson, not after this.”

He nodded reluctantly. “We can talk tactics later. You need to get some rest. Will you stay with Harrod and Martin?”

“I don’t have much choice.”

He cleared his throat and looked away. “You could-”

“It’s fine, really.” Dammit, this was all happening too fast. Stopping to take a breath, I tried to explain. “They’ve got the space. Not everyone can say their house is big enough for a boggart. I’ll be fine at Harrod’s, and you have more important things to worry about.” Greyson raised a sceptical eyebrow at that. I tried to give him a reassuring smile and on a whim, reached up to touch his cheek. He gathered me up in a bear hug, holding me tight enough that my feet nearly left the floor. Then he put me down with a chagrined smile, and headed for the door. “I’ll drop by later to talk, if that’s ok?”

“Of course. You know where I live now.” I forced a smile and waved goodbye.

#

 Harrod made sure we stopped at my house, on the way to his. I sat in the car, watching tendrils of smoke rise from the rubble that was once my house. The vacant gap was juxtaposed between two perfectly clean and intact buildings. The car was permeated by the smell of smoke and for a moment I was transported back to the burning building, surrounded by smoke and flames. My breath came in short gasps and I started shaking. Harrod reached over and squeezed my hand. Two officers stood by the roped off area, next to a melted awning. Seeing the car, the taller one headed over. It was Sallaway. Davoss slid the window down and Sallaway leaned her head in. 

“How you doing? Cap said you almost didn’t make it out.”

“I’m fine. Can I go have a look?”

“Sure. Just stay ‘round the edges, it’s still a bit toasty in there. The fire-guy dug through it a while ago, got what he could find for evidence. Said it was like nothing he’d seen – magic?”

“Yeah.” Harrod waited in the car while I picked my way over to a spot where most of the wall had come down. I could see enough to know that nothing would be saved, except maybe a warded chest I’d kept stashed under my bed. I asked Sallaway if they’d seen it.

“Not yet. We’ll drop it by if we do. Captain knows where you’re staying I bet.” That was said with an exaggerated wink. “Oh here, before I forget…”  Sallaway jogged over to the police cruiser and returned juggling a wide cardboard box. “People keep leaving stuff here.”

“What do you mean?”

“People. Well, Others, mostly. And stuff, like the sorts of things you’d give to someone who just lost everything, I guess.” She handed me the box and I looked inside. There were swathes of fabric, some bottles, soft leather. It was a little unwieldy, so I didn’t unpack it to see the rest of its contents. Sallaway helped me put it in the trunk and said goodbye. As the car pulled away and the sight of my broken house slid past, I was filled with unbelievable sadness.

 The perfect cure for that awaited me at Harrod’s house. I was slow getting out of the car – by the time I headed up the path to the front door, Harrod already had it open. A large brown shape flew past him and barrelled into me, jumping to put his paws on my shoulders and cover me with slobbery dog kisses. In that moment I knew without a doubt that what people said was true – no matter what you lost, your house, your things, all of it – none of that mattered, as long as you still had the ones you loved. The few scattered tears that fell were of relief and joy at seeing him safe. Laughing, I put my arms around him and hugged. He lifted his big feet to my shoulders and licked my face. Standing on his hind legs he was taller than me – he was still growing after Olfred’s healing.

  Harrod showed me to the room he’d made up for me and set the parcels from Melanie on the bed, hesitated, then awkwardly excused himself once he was satisfied I was ok on my own.

The room was huge, with its own small ensuite. The four poster bed was enormous. I hoped no one minded Lenny sharing the bed, there’d be no keeping him off it. A silverwood dresser sat against a wall, empty except for some blankets in the bottom drawer. A matching wardrobe had dozens of empty hangers inside. I closed the door and smoothed the blanket on the bed, then sat carefully on the edge. This was my room now. For the foreseeable future, this was home.

 

Chapter Eighteen

 Later that day, Harrod joined me for tea in the parlour. We’d just gotten settled when Harrod hushed me. The silence was broken a moment later by a metallic scratching coming from the door.

“Barg,” Harrod called out. “Can you please just knock? You don’t need to pick my locks every time you visit, I’m happy to let you in.”
 

The lock snicked and the door creaked open. Feet pattered down the hallway and a chagrined-looking Barg popped his head into the room.

“Barg was not wanting to be disturbing the Lordly resident of the domain, Sir. It is no bother to open the door my ownself, although it would be a small bit easier if Barg did not have to also be sneaking through the wards, litt- ah, Sir.”

Harrod’s eyes narrowed and I stifled a snort. I decided against asking how Harrod had managed to convince Barg to stop calling him ‘little-man’, and instead asked Barg if he was here to see Lenny.

“Lady! Sir! Barg has many important businesses to discuss. Shall we adjourn to the kitchen-room?”

“Barg, if you need something to eat, just ask. I don’t mind feeding you, you know,” Harrod said, and did his best to keep a straight face as the overjoyed hobgoblin requested several jam sandwiches. Once Harrod passed the request to Cym, his faske servant, Barg threw himself up on a chair and wriggled about until he was comfortable.

“What’s up, Barg?” I asked.

“Foremost and first, Barg is bearing a message from Gibble. Gibble is currently residing in the Other, and will be on his return in an exact approximation of three days.”

A band around my chest that I hadn’t known was there suddenly loosened. “Oh, that’s such a relief. He wasn’t hurt, was he?”

“No, Lady!” I let out a quick sob of relief and Harrod grinned, seemingly as happy as I was at the news. “Gibble is taking the time to be the Gibble of the this-world once more. Now, the foremost and second point of being, is… wait…” Barg screwed up his face and scratched his wrinkly scalp, then jerked in remembrance. “Ah, it is the box of things. Did the officer-lady procure it for you?”

“She did, but I haven’t had a chance to open it yet. She said they were gifts?”

“Yes, Lady. Some of your most regular tea-buyers from the Other were most worried about your predicament. They said ‘Barg, where can we take things for the tea-lady, so that she can be dressed in clothes and drinking of the teas that she makes so kindly for us’. Except, they mostly grunted, but Barg knew the words they did mean to say, and told them to give the gifts to the officer-lady with the nicest of shoes.”

Summoning Cym back, I asked him to retrieve the box from my room. We put it down and I sat on the floor to unpack it. Barg dived right in, taking out the items one by one to exclaim over the craftsmanship of the piece, or expound on the kindness of the giver. He was right – the box had several dresses and shawls, made from the finest of fabrics and coloured or painted in the most beautiful way. Barg explained the small pouch of beads were seeds from an Elder tree, a gift that was highly thought of by Otherworlders, Harrod noted that three feathers on a chain were from a saff bird’s nest. Two leather strips came out and Barg showed me how to wrap my feet in them, creating shoes that fit perfectly and felt like heaven. There were several boxes of my own tea, returned to me by their buyers, all enchanted with sleep, comfort, heartsease and fortitude – things I’d need over the coming days. There was a set of clay bowls, simple yet striking, and a four place setting of the most finely crafted silverware I’d ever seen. A comb made from redwood and a matching mirror came out after a set of jewelled hair clasps. When I pulled out a swathe of rolled up blue silk and stood to shake it out, Barg tugged it gently out of my hands.

“Apologies, Lady! Barg did commission this piece for his ownself. It was to be delivered to the tea-shop in the case of Barg not having a place to be receiving such goods.”

He shook it out to reveal an embroidered wall hanging that depicted him riding astride Lenny. Both wore armour in the medieval style, and Barg carried a pennant raised in a victorious salute. The two of them had been spending so much time together it was understandable they’d grown close; I just hadn’t realised how devoted Barg had become to Lenny. I smiled as a wave of emotion hit, closing up my throat and wetting my eyes.

“Of course… If Lady does request the ownership of the item… considering the circumstances Lady is in, Barg would of course relinquish it immediately.” He held his breath, waiting for my answer. He could put any puppy to shame with those eyes.

“Barg, I’m so grateful for the friendship you’ve shown Lenny. The hanging is beautiful, but it’s yours. I wouldn’t dream of taking it away from you.”

He toed the floor bashfully for a moment, then threw himself at me, hugging my legs like a small child. Staggering to keep my balance, I patted him on the back until he dislodged himself, blushing furiously.

After he left I went upstairs to put my treasures away. They might just be the most valuable things I’d ever owned – not for their beauty and worth, but because of who they’d come from. Strangers, who had no reason to know me except for a few boxes of tea. So many of them had become friends. The gifts had no names attached, typical of Otherworld customs. They would want no thanks or recognition of their gifts – to do so would be considered rude. It was enough that their gifts would be used.

 

                                          # 

The clothes were a long way from filling the wardrobe, but they eased a little of the loss that kept rising up to suffocate me. I put the bowls and silverware in the bottom drawer of the dresser; the brush, combs and clasps on top. Satisfied that everything was neat and orderly, I headed downstairs. There were phone calls to make, services to cancel, paperwork to sort. The practice of denying insurance to those with Talented blood had never hit me so hard.

Rather than get to work, I made tea. Heartsease and fortitude together made a wonderful mix in times of crisis. Harrod was still in the sitting room and I joined him with the steaming cup.

“Feeling ok?” he asked.

“I guess so. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet. There’s so much I have to do, and I don’t know where to start.” My voice trailed off as, once again, the overwhelming task of rebuilding my life hit home.

“If you need anything at all, just ask. Do you need to go shopping? I can call the car around.”

“I do.” I sighed. Shopping was my absolute least favourite pastime. “Three hours until everything starts to close. How much do you think I can get done?”

“Would you like me to come? I’ll carry the bags for you.”

As Harrod drained his cup, there was a knock at the door. A faske had come with a delivery and needed help bringing it inside. It was a good-sized trunk, lined with copper detailing and a garden scene carved on the top. It was addressed to me. Hoisting it into the sitting room, I opened it to find it stuffed full of clothes. A note from Bee sat on top. She’d made me an entire wardrobe full of clothes. I pulled out pants, dresses, tops and – much to Harrod’s embarrassment – underwear. With a cough, I quickly closed the lid. Gratitude and relief filled me and I had to blink away tears yet again. Confident that those needs were taken care off, I crossed clothes shopping off my list of things to do.

By that evening, I had a new phone, a small laptop and everything I needed for at least the next couple of weeks. On Harrod’s advice, I didn’t buy anything I’d need when I got my own place again as he assured me there were things he’d been meaning to take to a charity store that I could have. On the way back to his house – my house now, for the time being at least – we drove back past my old building.

It was almost dusk, and in the falling light I could see people working at the site. As we drew closer I was shocked to see who it was. I recognised most as Otherworlders who frequented the shop. There were kobolds and gnomes, two half-giants, and brownies, piskes and faskes, all working together to clear the rubble. And clear it they did. Already, much of the rubble had already been removed. The larger beings hoisted the heavier rocks and beams while smaller ones ferried bags of rubbish all over to a large, trembling machine near the centre that groaned and squawked as it digested the piles of debris fed into it. A murmured question to Harrod revealed it was likely a gnomish contraption used in the mines to remove dirt from the shafts. In the middle of it all, calling out vague orders and rousing the workers with the occasional cheer, was Barg.

He spotted us and waved, but didn’t approach, busy directing the workers. When we left, my cheeks were wet and my heart swollen with gratitude. I thought back to the first time I’d seen the small flat. It was tiny but cheap, and set up so that I could sell my tea downstairs and live on the upper floor. It was the fifth one I’d seen, but I somehow knew it was the one. In the five years I’d lived there, I’d come to know all the little traits of the building, like which floorboards squeaked and how to thump the wall to stop the pipes rattling.

It was a place I’d called home, not just for the walls around me, but for the community I’d found while there. My little shop had thrived and the customers, many regularly dropping by and sharing gossip and personal stories over the years, were now friends. Those friends were out there in the falling light, helping me to build back a little of what I’d lost.

 

#

 Greyson visited the next evening, looking more worn than ever. He handed me a box, a tiny chest packed with my most valuable possessions. It was fitted with the most protective wards available, a heavy investment that had apparently paid off beautifully. The box was pristine, untouched by fire or soot and still locked shut. My throat tightened as I took it from him. 

“They found this. Forensics took it thinking it might have been related to the cause of the fire, but they cleared it an hour ago. I thought you might want it.”

Thanking him, I asked how the case was going. He sighed.

“Well, we didn’t get much out of the shooter apart from his name, which is Arnold, in case you were wondering. He seems alright in normal conversation, but when you ask him about his boss? Bloody bastard starts shaking and gasping like he can’t breathe. Lasts for ninety seconds. Exactly ninety, every damn time.” He shook his head in amazement and I wondered how many times he’d ‘tested’ that theory. I squashed that thought. Charlie could be full of righteous fury, but he’d only bend the rules so far. He was a good man, a better person than I could ever be. Oh, how I longed to get Arnold in a room and hurt him like he’d tried to hurt me.

A shiver went through me at the anger I felt. It wasn’t like me; it wasn’t how I’d been before the fire. Serraceuse and his men had made me into something I wasn’t, and all that did was stoke my rage. It was a feeling I hated, but if I didn’t embrace it, use it to prop me up and keep me going, I’d fall apart. The ache of what I’d lost gnawed at me, alongside fear of the people so callous that they could lock someone in a house and burn it down with no remorse. If I let go of the anger, those other emotions would worm their way in and crumble my resolve. I couldn’t afford that, not until this was all over.

“Hey.” Greyson noticed the goosebumps prickling my skin, and touched my arm. “You want to sit down?”

Deep in my reverie I’d almost forgotten he was here. I’d lost track of our conversation and looked up at him, knowing my confusion as written on my face.

“Sorry, Charlie. I’m ok, just tired. What were you saying?”

“We’ve got someone coming in from the other side of the wall. We’re hoping they can help break the curse on our perp.”

“You got nothing at all out of him?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that – he was eager enough to rat out three more buyers. I’ve passed those details up the chain and a task force will handle that as a simultaneous raid on all three properties. There’ll be animal handlers on site and your friend, the veterinarian that looks like a tree? We’ve kept in touch with him; he’ll be on the task force as well.” His face darkened for the barest of moments. “Don’t want a repeat of last time.”

“You said ‘they’ – your team won’t be involved with the raids?”

“Nah, we’re off to fry the big fish. My crew’s only focus is to shut this thing down from the top, but I’ve made sure the guys running the raids are people I trust.”

He told me Ronson hadn’t been seen since the raid, which made my heart skip a beat. He must have been the one who’d organised the fire, unless it was Serraceuse, acting on information Ronson had given him. Greyson’s team was good, I knew that – I just had to trust they’d bring them down, before I got caught in the crossfire.

He made small talk after that, but fell quiet after a short while. The inaction stifled me, making me want to run, act, escape from this strange house and the way people looked at me with pity in their eyes. Ever-perceptive, Greyson flitted me a look through narrowed eyes.

“Bloody hell,” he said, eyes widening. I looked at him quizzically, unsure what he was talking about. “You’re itching to go, aren’t you? I know that look, I see it on my officers when we’ve been beaten down by a case but we know we’re close. You’re dying to get out there and take them down.” He ruefully ran a hand through his hair.

Emotions warred inside me, but he was right. “Yes,” I said. “Charlie, I’m tired of being scared and I’m sick of being one step behind them all the time. We got to Markson’s too late, and they got away from the warehouse. I want to find them, rescue the baby fiend and then… I want to make them pay.” Anger burned deep within me, alongside a loathing for those who’d done this. Fear, of being made to sit out, give up. Eagerness to be moving, to break the stasis of the last few days.

By the time Greyson left I felt like a nest of ants was crawling under my skin. I retreated to my room and sat on the bed for a short time, then used my wand on the small box in front of me. It had three wards – one for heat, another for moisture and a third to keep it securely locked. Inside were some old photos, various papers… and a ring. Frowning, I pulled it out. It looked like the ring the Guardian had given me in my dream, but I’d given that to the demi-fae child. It had been months since I’d last opened the box, so how had in gotten in there? Damned Fae.

It slipped over my finger and fit comfortably. I’d know it would – Fae jewellery had a habit of doing that. Later that night I dreamed of normal things – like road trips and movie scenes and deadly fire climbing towards me, intent on eating me alive.

 

Dash of Fiend – Chapters 13-15

Chapter Thirteen

 Greyson stayed in touch over the course of the next few days. He’d made some progress on the information given to him by Markson, the rich socialite who’d been buying Otherworld beings on the black market. Two more properties had been raided by Greyson’s team, both belonging to socialites with too much money and not enough morals. Over a dozen creatures at each had been rescued and set free, shepherded back to the Other by Olfred with no casualties at either site. There were few leads on the dealers though – word must have gotten back to them, as the abandoned factory Markson named as the meeting place burnt down the night he was taken into custody. The slimy little creep was now out on bail, thanks to his deep pockets, but Greyson had someone keeping tabs on him.

Sunday morning, I decided I needed a change of scenery and mind-set. I had to patch things up with Harrod, or at least give him the chance to set things right, so I sent him a message, asking if he and Martin would like to join me for lunch. He responded almost immediately, leaving me rifling through nearly empty cupboards and wondering what I was going to serve.  I picked up Lenny’s lead and gave it a jiggle, causing the giant canine to jump in excitement and nearly topple a chair over.
 

“Alright, alright. Settle down, we’ll go in a second. I suppose we can pick you up a treat while we’re out.” Lenny sat up properly and gave a happy whuff at the mention of a treat. We walked briskly – well, Lenny did and I trailed along as fast as I could manage. We wandered the market, picking up some cold meat, fresh bread, olives, cheese and other bits and pieces that took my fancy. Just as I was getting ready to leave for home, Lenny started whining and gave a gentle tug at his lead. I looked over to see a rope of enormous sausages hanging in the window of a nearby butchers. Laughing, I headed over.

“Can I have two pounds-” Lenny butted my leg. “Oh, fine, three pounds of the sausages please?” I asked the surly man.

He weighed them out and only just had enough to cover my request. Gruffly he asked for my money, then called out the back “Oi, Ronson, you got more snags coming or what? You said they’d be out half an hour ago.”  

“Oh ‘old up, they’re comin’.” A second man – Ronson, I assumed – backed through the swinging doors balancing a wide tray loaded with fat sausages. Lenny stood and I glanced down at him, surprised to see his hackles raised. He was growling, low enough that almost couldn’t hear it, but his chest vibrated on the side of my leg. Startled, I looked at the tray of meat, wondering what on earth could have upset Lenny. A muscled arm moved back and forth loading sausages into the refrigerated display case, as a koi fish tattoo rippled as he worked. A quick glance at his face made my heart stop.

“Get that mutt outta here. Dog’s ain’t welcome in this shop, ‘less you want ‘im ending up in the window if ya know wha’ I mean.” The tattooed man’s voice was high and mean, and sent shivers down my spine.

“Sorry,” I stammered. “He’s just hungry. C’mon Len, we have to go.”

Stumbling outside and around a corner I whipped out my phone to call Greyson. Words stumbling over each other, I told him what I’d seen.

“Emma, I want you to listen to me. Start walking, now. Don’t rush, and don’t look back. If they see you hanging around, they’ll get suspicious. Go home, make sure no one follows you. I’ll meet you there.”

“Greyson, I can’t just leave. He’s involved, I know he is. What if he isn’t here when you get back?”

“Safety first. Go, now. I’ll send a car over to watch the place as soon as I’m off the phone.”

Cursing at the thought of my target slipping away, I went to leave. Catching sight of a pastry shop across the road, a thought occurred. It wouldn’t look at all out of the ordinary if I were to stop there first. I dallied, browsing the window for some time while I watched the butcher’s in the reflective glass. Nothing. I went inside, ordered some croissants, and made light, distracted conversation with the girl at the counter, who fussed over Lenny. Every few moments, my eyes darted towards the doorway, towards the butchers. Still nothing. Finally, feeling awkward, I stepped outside, just as the butcher’s shop door opened. The tattooed man stood at the door. His eyes met mine, and narrowed. Losing my nerve at his glance, I looked away and strode down the street toward home.

I took a roundabout route, once doubling back on my path to see if anyone was behind me. Unable to settle my worry, despite the empty street, I finally got back to my shop and warded the door behind me, then shook my head at myself when a knock sent me running back down before Harrod set it off. Dammit, I’d forgotten all about lunch.  

Harrod and Martin came inside, Martin stopping to kiss me on the cheek on his way past. He handed me a bottle of wine.

“A token of appreciation for putting up with my idiot brother,” he said. Harrod raised an eyebrow at him. “And for lunch,” he added.

“Yes, well, I suppose I do owe you somewhat of an apology for-” Harrod’s cheeks were pink, making me wonder what Martin had said to him.

He was cut off by a honk as Greyson pulled up outside.

“I er… didn’t realise we’d have company.” Harrod looked displeased at the notion of Greyson joining us.

“Look, guys, I’m really sorry. Something happened while I was at the market, I saw – wait, I’ll explain when Charlie gets in.” Martin cocked an eyebrow at my use of the detective’s first name as I held the door open for Greyson to pass through, shaking off a smattering of rain that had caught him on his way inside.  “Have you eaten today?” I asked.

Greyson shook his head at my question, then looked at Harrod. “I’ll get something later. Don’t want to put out your plans.”

“They’re out already. Come up, I can throw all this onto plates while I talk. Upstairs?” Trumping upstairs behind them, I gave my wand a quick flick to re-ward the door. Today was not a day for taking chances.

 

#

Upstairs, Gibble was sitting on my couch with a book. He stood when we entered. As I stacked five plates on the table and opened the paper packages I’d bought for lunch, I explained what I’d seen at the butcher shop. Greyson helped himself to my kitchen, finding butter, knives and the last of a few beers I’d bought for him weeks ago when I’d asked him over for dinner He passed one to Martin, then held one out to Harrod, who shook his head. Before I sat, I passed a plate to Gibble, who had gone back to his book. He’d eat on the couch – my dining chairs were too small for him. As he took the food from me, he gave me a piercing glance. The look was clear. ‘Be careful’. My eyes dropped, aware that waiting after Greyson had told me to leave was a stupid move. As easy as it was to convince myself I was being clever at the time, my logic couldn’t hold up to those eyes.

“This visit from the Guardian,” Greyson said. “The one that showed you this guy. Not exactly the standard sort of Talent magic, that. Any chance there’s something else to go on?”

I looked at him confused. “What do you mean? I can’t prove what happened, not with physical evidence but I saw him. I saw his tattoos. I didn’t imagine it.”

“He means something admissible in court.” Harrod didn’t look up as he slathered butter on a roll. “It’s not that he doubts you. Neither do I – I’m sorry if I gave you the impression I did. He can’t get a warrant based on trust, though. The mortal courts have allowances for Talent based evidence but only if it fits specific criteria, and this… well, it’s out of the ordinary even for us.”

Greyson nodded, confirming what Harrod said. “We’ll have to get at them somehow.”

“I could go back,” I offered. “Ask questions, pretend I want to buy something they’d trade in.”

“Too dangerous. These people operate deep in the black market. A stranger off the street asking questions would ring too many alarm bells.”

Lenny woofed and tipped his head. Gibble grunted, then sighed.

“Lenny-dog does offer to be going to the smugglers,” he said. I froze. “He be the kind of thing they be wanting, with some help.”

“What do you mean?” I asked in a hoarse voice.

“They be wanting Otherfolk, yes? Lenny be not of the this-world now, not all of him. The dressing-fae, Bee, she be able to make him look more Other. If he be willing, they be taking him and you be following.”

Lenny whuffed again and wagged his tail.

“No.” Were they joking? There was no way I’d risk Lenny, especially after almost losing him once already.

“We could do it. He wouldn’t have to be in danger.” Greyson said in a careful tone.

No.”

“I’d help. Emma, I don’t think they’d hurt him, he’d be valuable to them.”

I turned on Harrod. “He’s a dog. He doesn’t understand any of this, I won’t put him in danger.”

“Lady, Lenny-dog… he not be the same now. He be understanding, it just be in a different way. He be knowing the danger and wanting to help the Other. He be knowing they did save him, and he be wanting to make things right. Lenny-dog does know we be keeping him safe.”

“You know this? You’re certain?”

“Lenny be speaking in the way of the Others. Gibble be hearing him and he be wanting to be brave. He be wanting to be like you, Lady.”

Be like me. Brave? No, stupid and headstrong and mad as hell at anyone who got in my way. Damn dog. He still sat there, wagging his tail at me with eagerness in his eyes. The promise I’d made to Olfred was because of Lenny, how could I risk his life to keep it? Because his reason for offering is exactly the same as mine, I thought. Ah, hell.

“How would it work?” I asked.

“Tracking device. We can wire him up so we know where he is at all times. We’d follow close behind. As soon as they take him, we’ve got grounds for an arrest, but ideally we’d wait to see if they lead us to their warehouse or a hand-off point. If we can let them – safely let them – give themselves enough rope, they’ll hang the whole damn organisation. We might be able to shut them down completely and recover any livestock they still have.”

“But you could pull him out early if you had to?” My stomach twisted at the thought of agreeing to this ridiculous idea, knowing the alternative meant leaving the barrow fiend, and countless other creatures, at the mercy of monsters.

“Of course. We wouldn’t risk him just on the off chance they lead us to something.”

I looked at Lenny, who stared up at me with the same hopeful eyes that usually just wanted me to share my sandwich. What Gibble said was true – he wasn’t a normal dog any more, I’d known that for a while. Barg was certainly able to speak to him, and he understood my words to an uncanny extent. Harrod reached across the table and put a hand on my arm.

“Emma… whether you do this or not, you’ve got my full support. I’ll help in any way I can. I really do want to make it up to you.”

At Harrod’s words I closed my eyes. ”Is there another way?” There was silence. “Alright. Only if I’m there with you every step of the way. I want to know what you do, every second.”

Greyson nodded and Lenny trotted over to nuzzle his hand. Greyson smiled and gave him a rough pat, then slipped a bit of ham under the table for him.

“And none of that,” I said, throat tight. “You’ll teach him bad habits.”

Greyson left us to continue our lunch while we waited for his call. It came a few hours later. The sting was set up for the following afternoon. Lenny would hang around the butcher shop for a while before closing, hopefully catching the attention of the smuggler I’d unidentified. He would appear to be alone, and made up so that they wouldn’t pick him for the dog they’d seen the day before.

With luck, they would take the opportunity presented by a stray Otherworlder, and a quiet street at dusk, to snatch him up and take him to wherever they kept their unsold animals. So much depended on luck, and I shuddered, thinking of what could happened if it turned sour. 

#

 The next day Greyson, Trainor, Martin and Harrod all arrived at my place at lunch time. Trainor immediately remarked on the wonderful job Bee had done that morning to make Lenny look like an Otherworlder. She’d smoothed the hair along his back but roughed it up near his head, giving the appearance of a shaggy mane. Dark marks provided contours to give his already long body a supine appearance, and his normally brown eyes were now an unearthly shade of green. The changes weren’t extreme – they were subtle enough that he could run the streets without frightening people, but anyone who looked closely would be easily convinced he was Other. Trainor ran a finger along his coat then examined it.

“Bee said it won’t rub off. It’ll fade after a day or so though. Will that be long enough?” I asked, part of me wishing someone would say no, Bee’s work would entirely unsuitable and the whole plan would need to be cancelled.

“Sure, we won’t leave him in too long. He’ll be fine, Emma, we’ll make sure of it.” Trainor gave me a reassuring smile, and I tried to convince myself she was right.

After a quick bite – or on my part, a slow shuffling of some food on my plate that ended up going to Lenny – we started talking logistics. Trainor explained how the tracking device would work. It was a small box with an aerial protruding from it, attached to a bright red collar. It looked garish and obvious, but when I pointed that out, Trainor smiled and snapped the clasp shut. As soon as she did that, my eyes slid off the tracker. Even though I knew it was there, I couldn’t make myself look at it. Even touching it, my fingers ran over the woven nylon collar, but dodged over the box. To someone who didn’t know its little trick, they’d never notice it.

“Who traced the spell for you?” I asked, but Trainor just placed a finger on her nose, grinned, and shook her head. “Not even a hint?”

“If I told you I’d have to kill you,” she said in a serious voice. She explained that, though they could track it from a few miles away, the accuracy was far better over short distances. That, added to the need to be close enough to snatch Lenny back if something went wrong meant they’d have officers undercover watching as long as possible, and we would trail them from a few blocks away.

“Emma, maybe it would be best if you stayed behind. They know what you look like.” Greyson’s face didn’t hold much hope that I’d agree, and my raised eyebrows met with a defeated sigh. “Oh, fine. But you need to stay out of sight, and you have to do what I say. You’ll need to trust me, Emma. Can you do that?”

“Of course,” I said. “I know you’ve done this before. If I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t have let Lenny help. I need to be there though; I need to know he’s safe. I promise I’ll keep out of the way.” As long as Lenny is safe, I silently added.

 

                                          #

We met the rest of the team an hour before the operation commenced, crowding into a coffee shop that looked so much smaller with a large boggart perched on a chair in the corner. Harrod and Martin were both already there, tucked into a tiny table and generally looking like they didn’t belong. Despite feeling like a goose, I took Lenny aside and had a chat with him.

“Are you absolutely sure you want this, Len?”

“Wuff.” He wagged his tail.

“I’ll be close by, ok? Anything goes wrong you get the hell out of there, I don’t care who you have to bite to do it.”

“Wuff.” A wet tongue made for my face and I ducked, laughing. Wrapping my arms around his lithe, wiry body, I prayed nothing would go wrong. I stood to go back to the others and nearly fell over when something cannonballed into the back of my legs.

“Apologies, Lady! Barg did not see you, Lady!” He rolled over to Lenny and jumped on his back.

“Barg, what are you doing here?”

“Barg is Lenny-dog’s protector, Lady! Barg will join the humans in their quest for most glorious victory! Barg understands the chief headquarters will be at this place of warm beverage consumption, Lady! Barg will be most pleased with offerings of chip-chocolates for his involvement in this proceeding.” Barg grinned at me, then added a belated, “Lady!” He saluted from Lenny’s back, then nudged his bony knees into Lenny’s sides. Lenny rolled his eyes back then trotted over to Greyson and his team to be fitted with his collar.

“I take it you weren’t expecting Barg?” Harrod asked, startling me. I hadn’t seen him come over.

“No. How did he even know we were here?”

Harrod grimaced. “I have no idea. Gibble didn’t-” he stopped when I shook my head. “Oh. Well, I just hope he had the sense not to tell anyone else.”

“I might have a chat with him, see if he’ll tell me how he found out we’d be here. Not good if news about a covert op is being passed around the Other.”

Greyson, finished with Lenny, ambled over. “Where are the undercover people?” I asked, cringing at the nervousness in my voice.

“They’re undercover. You won’t see them, but they’re there. I trust my team; they do good work. We won’t let anything happen to him, you hear?”

Nodding, I clasped my hands behind my back to stop from fidgeting.

“Right. Trainor, you’re my right hand. If I go in, you’re running things from here.” Trainor nodded, all trace of her earlier easy demeanour gone. Her shoulders were set and her eyes bright, eager for the responsibility she now had. “Steenson, I want you monitoring the GPS and radio, filtering the information from our plants and keeping me informed.”

Steenson, a wiry, grizzled man, nodded from where he sat by several coffee tables shoved together and laden with equipment and screens. Much to Barg’s delight, I dug in my bag for some coins and bought him a chocolate chip muffin. I set him up under Gibble’s watchful eye and hoped he could manage to stay out of trouble. Barg had the best of intentions, but I didn’t want him getting in the way of the experts.

Lenny turned his face up to me, waiting for permission to go. Giving him one last pat, I set him loose. He bounded out of the small shop and rounded the corner, out of my sight. A few minutes later, Greyson beckoned me over to where he and Steenson were sitting. Crowding in to look over his shoulder, I could see three small screens – one was the GPS tracker, one had a jumble of text information and the third showed a TV screen. On it was a jittery picture of the butcher’s. Greyson nodded to it.

“This camera’s on one of our plants. She’ll keep a visual as long as possible. It’s the only one we could get for the department, but it comes in handy.”

The image moved, swaying up then down as the officer with the hidden camera moved slightly. Then, I saw Lenny. He wandered down the street in a random fashion, sniffing at the ground and shying away from passers-by. His movements were smooth and graceful, almost feline. I wondered how he’d managed that. Perhaps Bee had given him some kind of enchantment without telling me. As he passed the butchers he sniffed at the meat hanging in the window. He lingered just long enough to catch their eye, then retreated. He strolled down the street, sniffing the air, then went back, repeating the move several times. Each pass looked entirely random and authentic, like a stray animal attracted by the smell of fresh meat but wary enough to stay away from the people around it.

We waited, and watched. Minutes crept on into hours, and the few officers left inside the cafe wandered about, restless. Martin stretched out across a bench seat, while Harrod frowned at his indecorum. On the small screen in front of me, Lenny eventually settled into a lazy ball by the door. Twice, he was disturbed by customers stepping over him to get into the shop. Once, a man in a dirty white apron came to shoo him away. Upon getting a closer look at Lenny, however, he paused. The man ducked inside, then came out with a bone and threw it to him. Lenny darted into the air to catch it, then sat chewing it by the front window of the shop. 

#

Finally, dusk started to creep over the city. Lenny had moved his position to across the road from the shop. He wasn’t visible on the small surveillance screen, but the camera had turned twice to give us a brief glimpse of him rolling on the pavement and snapping at flies. I hoped he didn’t ruin Bee’s work.

The butcher’s door opened. A low, female voice said, “Target moving.” Lenny strolled past, giving no sign of being rushed as he wandered into the middle of the street. He turned his head to look at the officer. The setting sun glinted off his eyes, making them glow a fiery green. His hackles were up, tail switching in a very lionesque sort of way.

A man appeared in the doorway of the butchers, standing very still. Lenny didn’t move any closer, but yawned and stretched. Then, padding over to the window again, he sat looking up at the last bit of meat still hanging there. I heard a whistle. The man stepped forward and turned his head to Lenny, showing the small tattoo on his cheek. Ronson. Lenny perked his head up at the man watching him and Ronson held a hand out, dangling a bit of steak.

Lenny twitched his head in interest. His eyes followed the meat that was swinging from Ronson’s hand. Lenny stood, edged closer, then shied back. He played at this for a few minutes. Then, he lunged to catch the piece of steak that was thrown at him. Ronson stood back and watched him eat.

“Why is he just watching? I thought he’d be trying to get closer.” I glanced over to Greyson when he didn’t answer. His brow was creased and the corners of his mouth downturned. A terrible thought occurred to me and my eyes darted back to the screen. I watched as Lenny, meat gone, took a few wobbly steps towards Ronson, then went sideways. He turned, dragging his feet and pulling himself away with an effort. Then, he fell to the ground.

“Lenny?” My voice was panicked. I stood, but Greyson grabbed my wrist.

“Wait. They won’t hurt him, he’s worth more alive. Just wait.”

Ronson called out, words too indistinct to make out. A second, unfamiliar man emerged from the shop carrying a large sack. Together, he and Ronson laid it flat on the ground, rolled Lenny onto it, then lifted it like a stretcher. They disappeared back inside. A minute later the second man came outside and looked directly into the TV screen. I shuddered and my breathing quickened. He walked over to the undercover officer with quick strides.

Dropping bag in front of the lens he said, “Ya didn’t see nuthin’, roight?” He leaned forward as he spoke, the side of his face moving close, obscuring our vision. It took me a minute to figure out what he was doing and when I did, I nearly retched.

“Nuthin’ ter see. Oi, what am I s’posed ter do with a bag o’ sausages?” The woman’s voice was hoarse and a little slurred.

“Take ‘em ta the shelter off Church. They’ll let ya cook ‘em there.”

“Right-o.”

The man disappeared back inside.

“I swear to God, Greyson, you fucking owe me for that,” a muffled voice said quietly through the speakers next to me. It made me jump, for it sounded nothing like the voice from a moment ago.

“You good, Sallaway?” Greyson said, after clicking a button on the mic in front of him.

“I’ll live. You still owe me.” She sounded unimpressed.

“If we take him down, I’ll kick him in the balls for you.”

“If you bring him into custody I’ll do it myself.”

Greyson barked a laugh. “You’re a lady, remember.”

“Fuck you, Greyson.”

The last was said with a quiet chuckle. Greyson glanced over as if remembering I was there, and blushed.

“Oh. Ah, Sorry ‘bout the language. Comes with the job.”

One corner of my mouth lifted in response and he smiled back, then ducked his head back to the video screen. It wobbled sickeningly, turning to one side then righting itself. Sallaway was lurching down the street. Then, she stopped.

“What is it?” I asked, as Steenson made the same query over the radio. Harrod glanced up from across the room at the alarm in my voice, but didn’t intrude.

“They’re going by car.” Sallaway explained, just as the camera turned to show an old Volvo chugging down the street away from the shop. I closed my eyes and took a steadying breath. Greyson twisted his head up to look at me.

“It’ll be fine. We accounted for this. They won’t be moving too far, operations like this tend to keep things close. We’ve got people stationed in each direction, they can move in quicker than Sallaway can catch up. If they see her again they’ll think it’s strange, so someone else will take point now. Steenson, where’re they headed?”

“Toward the river, Boss.”

“Myles?”

“No, Beefcake’s closer.”

Hurried words passed over the radios, passing directions to several officers including Beefcake. Then, Steenson said, “Looks like they’ve stopped. Hang on, let me check the location. Trainor, you ready?” He rattled off an address as Trainor clicked at a small computer in front of her.

“It’s a warehouse, Captain. Belongs to a C. M. Smith. Er… dog food, it says here.”

Well that was reassuring. Backing away from the monitors, I took a seat, clasping my hands in my lap and reminding myself to stay out of their way. My instincts screamed at me to run for the warehouse, ploughing through anyone who stood in my way. Instead, I sat quietly, body as tense as a violin string.

“Ok, they’re stationary now. No eyes on the target, Captain.”

The next fifteen minutes were fraught with tension. The tracker was stationary, and the officers watching outside saw no movement in or out of the building. As the weight in my stomach grew, I turned to Gibble.

“Gib, if something happened to Lenny… would you know?”

He shook his head worriedly, then turned to Barg.

“Little friend, you do be knowing the Lenny-dog. You be telling the truth, for this be of great import.”

Barg shuffled his feet, looked at the floor and twisted his hands. Gibble made a low rumbling sound and Barg winced, bony arms covering his head defensively.

“Barg be so sorry, Lady! Barg be taking the Lenny-dog to the racing and we did be winning so many, but then we did be put against another and his rider, they did be joined and there were so many chips against us, Lady! Barg has never been seeing so many chips! None did expect us to be joining, and… we did make so many chips!”

Dismayed at the angst in his voice and completely lost by his explanation, I turned back to Gibble for an explanation. Barg wouldn’t lie but I’d found he was very good at dodging the truth. Gibble sighed.

“The racing do be a thing of the Others, Lady. A rider and his steed be set against another pair, and who wins does be getting a cut of the winnings. Barg do be bad at the wagering – when he did stop coming to ask Gibble to be saving his wrinkly skin, Gibble did be wondering.”

“What did he mean by joined?” My words were tight, angry. Barg whimpered and edged under a table.

“It be a thing of the racing. A rider may join his steed, or it may be the steed who joins the rider if it be choosing so. It do be making them run faster, but it be a thing that, once done, be done for all-time.”

I turned to Barg and he cowered. “All time? You did something, to Lenny, and you can’t undo it for all time?” My voice made the hobgoblin squeal in fright.

“Lady,” Gibble’s voice held a tone of moderation in it. “The thing Barg has done, does not be harming Lenny-dog and could not be done without his consenting. Perhaps, Lady, it do be a boon in this-time. The bonding be joining their souls, a tiny part of each be put in the other one. They be knowing if their bond-mate be hurting, or be in danger. It be a good this this day.”

“Harrod? Do you know about this… joining?”

Harrod, who’d been watching the exchange while Martin snoozed beside him, shook his head. “Sorry. I know of the process, but hardly anything about it. It seems to be fairly common though, I don’t imagine it would be if it was harmful.”

“Lenny-dog is safe, Lady,” Barg was quick to say. He’d manoeuvred himself so he was standing a little behind Gibble. “Lenny-dog, he did want the bonding, he did tell me himself before Barg even did suggest it Lady! Barg swears! Lenny-dog is Barg’s mostest of friendships and Barg would never be doing hurt to him!”

Being Other, he couldn’t lie. I believed him… Mostly. “Is he safe? What can you tell me?”

“Lenny-dog is safe, Lady!” Barg saluted. “Barg would know if Lenny-dog hurts, or fears, or finds a life-mate.”

I pulled a face at that. “But you don’t know anything else? If he’s unconscious he might be in danger, but not afraid.”

Barg cowered. “Lady, Barg is sure Barg would be knowing if Lenny-friend would be in the danger, even if Lenny-friend did not know himself. Barg would never let Lenny-friend be hurt, Lady.” His pointed ears drooped and he looked at me with big, mournful eyes.

Letting out a growl of frustration, I turned back to Greyson.

“So what do we do now?”

#

The cafe door banged open, making me jump. A shabby figure with a small, overloaded shopping cart pushed through, grumbling obscenities under her breath. No one else in the room reacted. Parking the trolley in a corner, she proceeded to remove the large encrusted coat and pull off her oversized trousers to reveal a pair of black tights and a singlet top underneath. Both were, thankfully, clean. Greyson tossed her a small duffel and she opened it, pulling out a woollen dress, hairbrush and some other toiletries.

“Next time you want someone to dress like a hobo, you might consider doing it yourself Captain. I think I’ve got fleas. You gonna foot the bill for the spa treatment I’ll need to get this shit out of my hair?”

“Oh come on Sallaway, you know you love a chance to get dirty.”

“I’m a lady. Ladies don’t like dirt. Asshole.”

Sallaway walked over to the table and slapped something down. She looked at me.

“Smart pooch you got there, and one hell of an actor. I found these after they left.” On the table before her sat two slimy pink pills, one with a tendon of meat hanging off it.

“That’s what they spiked the meat with?”

“Pretty sure.” She used a wipe to scrub at her face and ears. “I saw him flick them away when our perp turned away for a moment, so I checked on my way past. He’s not out – smart ass dog winked at me as they carried him inside.” She stopped talking for a moment, as she pulled the dress over her head. “Since when do dogs wink? Anyway, thought you’d feel better knowing.”

“I do. Thanks.” I let out a small, relieved breath. Knowing of Barg’s bond with Lenny – something that had offered some reassurance despite making me entirely furious – and finding out he’d duped the dog-napper made me feel a lot safer.

Now that Sallaway was dressed and clean, she looked… wow. Neat hair in a bun over a sedate grey dress, stockings, small heels and what looked like a string of pearls she was clasping around her neck. The woman oozed class and elegance in a way that was completely at odds with her language.

“Cap, they’re still not moving. You think we should make a move?” Trainor piped up from across the room.

“Too risky without eyes in the building, tell Miles to hurry up with that. They might be waiting for another contact to move him somewhere else. Did we get any more on the premises?”

“HQ sent through blueprints, but they’re at least thirty years old. They could have refitted the interior, there’s room in there for sure. Latest we have is three levels inside, mostly open areas. Used to be a textile workshop, owner went bust a decade ago.  Now owned by…” She checked the notepad in front of her. “Extension Applications Incorporated. The dog food company is one of their smaller arms. Can’t find a scrap of useful info on any of them.”

“We need a visual, dammit. How many do we have in the vicinity now?”

“Nine, sir.” Trainor said. “Straud and Banksy on the way now. Will I send them in?”

“No.” Greyson shook his head. “We need to keep a few men out in case they move again. What’s the holdup?”

“Beefcake said there’s a ward up.”

Harrod perked up. “Who’s Beefcake?”

“One of our half-bloods,” Trainor explained. “Hardly any actual power, but he can sense the presence of a ward from about twenty feet. Can’t tell what they do, but it’s saved our skin more than once.”

“Esteemed Captain! Barg can go, Barg is very good at sneaking!”

Greyson shot me a glance over his head. He looked dubious.

“Barg, do you have hiding powder?”

“Pah! Barg can’t afford that, hiding powder is forty-seven chips for a squinch! Barg can be careful though, jumping on roof with quiet feet and peeksing in a window from up high. Humans, they don’t look up high. They do forget about us sneaking ones.”

Greyson looked at me, and I shrugged. Barg was fast – really fast. I’d seen him dodge the grasp of many a creature faster than humans. He seemed to attract that sort of attention a lot, and over the years had become adept at avoiding it too. I told Greyson what I knew of Barg’s ability and added that though he ran riot on his own, he was good at following instructions.

“You’re on point, Trainor. What do you say?”

“Well, we’re still on sketchy ground for a warrant. If we wire him up with a mic and camera, that could get us enough to go in clean.” She looked at me. “You’re sure he can get out in a hurry if he needs to? If something goes wrong, we’re responsible.”

“I’m sure. And look, if we’re honest? Your higher ups aren’t going to give a damn if something happens to him, or to me.”

Trainor looked at me. “Just so happens my superior does give a damn. I don’t give a toss what the rest of the department thinks – I work for Greyson, not them, and I care as much as he does. I won’t send him in unless you tell me it’s safe.”

I met her eyes. They shone with honesty and I nodded, satisfied Barg would be taken care of. Within a few minutes he was wired up and looking as though he’d just won an award. I hoped he could reign in his excitement enough to get the job done safely. One of the screens flickered to life and we could see through his eyes, or at least through the pin on his shoulder.  A mic was attached as well, though Steenson didn’t manage to get the earpiece to stay on. Barg instead draped the cord around his neck and promised to hold it to his ear every few minutes to check for instructions.

Off he went. The camera sped through the street, bounding off walls and scurrying around corners. Once in sight of the building, he stopped. A shadow passed at a window, then he shot up the side, an occasional hand coming into view, digging gnarled fingers into impossible handholds.

Trainor looked worried.

“Captain? Looks like we’ve got a mic problem, I’m not getting audio.”

“It was working when he left. He didn’t turn it off?” Greyson frowned.

“Says it’s transmitting.”

“Maybe there’s just nothing to hear,” I suggested.

“It’s highly sensitive. We should be hearing his steps, movement, breathing.  I’ve got the sound at max and there’s nothing.”

“I think you’re underestimating him. He can be pretty damn quiet,” Harrod said. He’d joined me, peering over my shoulder at the video feed.

Trainor looked unconvinced until a deafening voice boomed through the speaker. She and Steenson both lunged forwards and fumbled the volume down to a bearable level.

“…the back. You know, the blue thing? Give it a poke and see if it’s still kicking.”

The voice was muffled then trailed off as Barg climbed to the roof. Once secure, he stopped and a hand fumbled around in front of the camera.

“Officer Lady, Capitan, are you hearing Barg? Over?”

His voice was a raspy whisper.

“We hear you Barg. We can see you’re on the roof. What’s your plan?” Trainor asked.

“Officer Lady, Barg is feeling the Lenny-dog most closely at the bottom-most of the building. Barg is very near to being on top of him. Over.”

“Barg, see if you can get a look inside. All we need is proof they’re holding Others in the warehouse and we can go in. And Barg? You don’t have to say over.”

“Yes, Lady! Over and quiet!”

The video screen waved around as Barg plucked it off his shirt and held it out so we could see him salute. I shook my head in exasperation while Trainor snorted softly.

Another wobble of the camera and he was off across the rooftop. There was barely a scrape as he shimmied down a pipe, jumped to a windowsill, dropped to the ground and peered inside.

“Psst. Lenny-dog? Barg has come for rescuing you!”

“Barg, you’re only there to look. Don’t go off half cocked, you’ll jeopardise the operation. Just show us what we need and come back, ok?” Greyson had a note of worry in his voice.

“Yes Capitan! Barg will follow the illustrious leader and all his demands!” Barg’s voice was a loud whisper and I cringed, wondering if he’d be heard. “Lenny-dog, Barg has a serious mission to be completing, yes? You be waiting for his triumphant returns.”

Creeping back from the window, Barg scuttled along a ledge to the next window. It was dark inside and nothing moved when he softly called.

“Ah, Officer Lady? Barg is feeling something in this room. When the cavalry does descend, please bring ones who can help this one, it does not heed Barg’s calls.”

Trainor glanced back at Greyson, eyes worried. Gibble signalled me, then quietly left the cafe. Greyson looked at me, surprised.

“He’s gone to get Olfred,” I said quietly. That the old god was needed again was a sad, sad thing. Harrod put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed.

The image on the screen was suddenly filled with light. Barg looked to be peering through a window, bars crossing in front of the camera lens and obscuring the visual for a moment. It was a small room, bare and dirty with a tree branch propped against one wall. Sitting on that branch, tail wrapped around to hold it steady, was a miniature albino dragon. Its wings were held tightly against its body, making it sit awkwardly. Black eyes swung to the window, directly at the screen as a serpentine mouth opened, tongue flicking out to taste the air.

“Gods,” said Harrod, face white.

“Got it,” said Greyson, smiling in satisfaction. “Right boys. We ready to go take these bastards down?”

We waited by the radio with Trainor as the task force entered the warehouse grounds.  Barg, perched atop the roof again, watched black-clad officers run silently around the corner in single file, then peel off to surround the building. Our eyes were up front, where Greyson would take the main entrance with four of the team. Trainor explained that each officer held a small, warded stone designed to disrupt any nearby wards. They would be kept safe from any traps laid, but if a warded alarm was set the person who created it would know is was down.

We watched the small screen as they stopped as one, waiting for the signal to move in. We watched, as Greyson held up a hand, let it drop. We watched a dozen armed officers advanced toward a building full of dangerous smugglers. Together we watched as, in a single motion, every one of those officers dropped to the ground, unconscious.

Chapter Fourteen

 “Oh, God.” Trainor’s eyes were wide, her face white. “Greyson? Captain? Miles, Beefcake, anyone?”


           Harrod and I glanced at each other for a heartbeat, then moved as one for the door. I grabbed the last transmitter off the table and dropped it in my pocket as I passed.

“Wait, you can’t – You don’t know what happened to them.”

“The wardstones failed, they’re in danger. Get backup, we’ll let you know when to send them.” Harrod’s voice rose as we fled into the street outside. Martin, woken by the noise, bolted upright and looked around, bewildered.

We arrived at the warehouse in moments. Stopping abruptly, we crouched behind the small brick wall and peeked around the corner to see four men, moving about in the shadows cast by the stark street lights. They approached the fallen officers one by one, crouching down to tie their hands and feet.

“Can you see anything?” If it was a ward, Harrod should be able to see it affecting the fallen officers.

“They’ve got guns; I think they’re tying them up.”

“I mean the ward, Harrod.”

“Oh, right. It’s… different. It’s not a trace I’ve seen before. I… don’t think I can disable it from here.”  His voice lowered in shock as he spoke. With a power as strong as his, it would be rare to come across something he couldn’t fight.

“Then what do we do?”

“We wait for backup.” Harrod sat back panting, eyes wide.

“Harrod, we are the backup. No one else is coming; I’ll have to go in myself.”

“What? How are you going to get past the ward?”

“I can block it. Whatever this is I’m sure I’ve fended off worse. Where’s the ward? If I can get to it, I can take it out. They’ll wake up, won’t they?”

“Emma, you can’t even use your block!” He grabbed my arm, hard.

“That’s Lenny in there,” I spat. “And Greyson lying on the ground outside. You think I’m not terrified? Pissed off at the monsters who did this? Harrod I’ve got a firmer grip on my power now than I’ve ever had before.”

He looked at me for a long moment, lips pressed together. I expected him to tell me to stay, half expected him to try to force me. Instead, he let out a frustrated breath and said, “Barg.”

“What?”

“Barg. Tell him you’re coming; he might be able to help.”

I put the ear piece in and clipped the tiny mic to my shirt. I turned it on and immediately heard a voice.

“…answer me, dammit. Harrod? Emma?”

“Yeah, it’s me, Trainor. There’s a ward, it took everyone out. Harrod can’t dispel it but I think I can get past. I’m going in to see if I can shut it off.”

“Is that safe?”

“If I don’t, you’ve got an entire team of officers lying helpless on the ground for god knows how long. It’s the safest option we’ve got.”

“Right. What do you need from me? Barg’s still up top, scene looks about the same as when you’ve left. No movement.”

“Tell Barg I’m going in.”

A light click sounded in my ear, then, “Barg I’ve got you patched into Emma. She’s coming in.”

“Ah, Lady is very brave! Very sensible Lady, little-man is staying behind?”

“Yes.” Trainor snorted and I had to stifle a nervous giggled. I had no idea why the Others in my life insisted on referring to Harrod as ‘little-man,’ but the name had stuck. I was glad he couldn’t hear my conversation.

“Ah, that is most sensible of him. Lady may pass the sleeping ward but little-man would be like a snoring snootle if he did try.”

“A snoo-? Never mind. Barg, can you scoot down and see if that window on the ground floor… the smaller building, the side facing us. I think I can get through there. Can you check it out without being seen?” I could get to that with little effort, and the window looked easy enough to climb through if it was unlocked. A smaller window on a higher level was directly above. I’d have to be quick, and hope for the best.

I heard no response, but peeking out from behind the wall I saw a small dark figure slipping down the side of the building. A moment later, he waved, and I headed forwards, ducking down and staying in the shadows so I wouldn’t be seen. Power coursed through me, my gift in easy grasp while my adrenaline was peaked.

A few metres closer to the building and a prickling sensation washed over me, like wiggling ants being held against my skin. Shuddering but relieved I’d successfully blocked the ward, I continued forward. One of Greyson’s men lay sprawled on the ground. Putting my hand to his cheek, I funnelled enough power into him that the blocking ward faltered. He stirred, and I moved away quickly, leaving him to drop back into slumber before he made a noise.

“He’s alive,” I whispered into the mic. “They should wake up once the ward is down.”

“Thank God,” Trainor replied, her voice thick.

A shadow passed on the ground where a patch of light shone down from the window. Heart beating so loud I was sure they’d hear, I froze, flattening myself to the ground and staying as still as I could. It passed and I waited five breaths before scuttling over to the wall. Safety. I let out the breath I didn’t realise I’d been holding.

#

Barg was waiting for me at the now open window. He waved at it with a flourish then hopped through. I climbed in behind, tripping as I landed with a light thud. Wincing, I looked around. Small noises came from a distance, but no cries of alarm. That was a good sign. We were in what looked like an office reception, though it smelled like a poorly kept zoo. A quick shuffle of paper and a peek in some drawers revealed nothing of interest, and I was anxious to move on.

“Which way?” I whispered. Barg pointed at a door leading to the rear of the building. Muffled noises came from that direction, sounds of banging and mumbled talking. Pressing an ear to the door, I figured the noises weren’t coming from the adjacent room. Holding a trace in my mind and my wand at the ready, I gently pushed the door open.

It led to a short hallway, narrow and dim, lit by a single naked bulb hanging loosely from the ceiling. There was a door at the end, and one leading off to each side.

Letting out a breath, I crept forward, Barg darting around my legs to point to the door on the right. A quick listen revealed silence. The door was locked, but I shook my head when Barg pulled a small pouch from his belt. I traced it open without much difficulty, cracked the door open, and slipped into the room. The door snicked shut behind me and I jumped. Reaching a hand out to try the knob, a cold fear settled in my stomach as the handle didn’t turn – it had locked again. Breathe I thought to myself, knowing I could unlock it with the same spell I’d used to get in.

Using my wand to trace a small globe ball of light, I looked around the room. There was a door across from me, a table in the centre, and something hanging on the wall next to me. Bile rose in the back of my throat. It was a rack, with muzzles and restraints hanging from it. There were barbed choke chains, and an assortment of leather harnesses. The noises I’d started to become accustomed to were clearer here, and I could make out scraping and banging, and the low rumble of a parked truck.

“Come on, they won’t stay down forever. Serraceuse would have a fit if we gotta leave any behind. Nah, nah, load the dog crate first, it’ll fit better.”

My chest constricted in fright. The voices were right on the other side of the door and from what they’d said, I only had a short time. Something clinked behind me and I spun around, ready to unleash a force spell. Barg was at the rack, holding one of the harnesses.

“Oh dear, oh dear,” he whispered. “That would be fitting across a winged nulkin, Lady. Ooooh, Barg would like very much to use it on one of these humans.” His voice vibrated with emotion and his eyes flashed. For a bare moment he was not the funny looking little person that rode my dog like a jockey. No, he was a vicious demon, ready to unleash his fury on those who had hunted these innocent creatures.

He twisted the harness in his hands, snarling as if ready to strangle someone with it. Far from being disturbed, I felt the same urge. Anyone who’d treat a living being like this deserved to be strung up the same way.

“Barg, the ward?” That was my first priority. If we were caught before I could disable it, we were done for. Barg looked at me quizzically.

“Barg does sense it, Lady, so close.”

I searched, looking at the floor, the table, the walls. It was while I was on the floor, looking to see if it had been drawn under the table, that I saw it. There it was, etched in the wooden floorboards of the upper level. Magic wouldn’t interrupt it; my gift worked on me and anything I touched, but I couldn’t use it from a distance. Hell, even full contact with it would probably only disable it until I took my hand off of it.

Cursing, I wished I’d thought to bring something with me to disable the ward, not relishing the thought of using one of the torturous devices on the wall. Barg, sensing my need, emptied his pockets, turning out a small stone knife. Thanking whatever power was granting me luck tonight, I nudged the table so it was directly under the ward and stood on it. I could just reach – all I had to do was change the ward enough to shift its meaning and the spell would be broken. I stood on the chair and reached up, steadying myself with one hand on the ceiling above.

The second door to the room slammed open.

“Where’s the- HEY! It’s the bitch with the dog!” Light from the open doorway flooded the dim room and blinded me. I threw my wand out and traced a spell, slamming the door closed. Instead of a lock, I made the handle seize. Maybe that would confuse