Dash of Fiend – Chapters 1-4

Chapter One

Tork was possibly the most intimidating
creature I’d ever seen. Nine feet tall with a horned nose and bony carapaces
covering his shoulders, he dominated my tiny shop. The two gnomes who’d been
here when he arrived had long since fled, leaving me alone with the
short-tempered troll.

“I say THREE chips!” His fetid breath washed over me and a speck of
spittle hit my cheek. I didn’t flinch.

“Four. I don’t haggle Tork, you know that.”

“Was three chips last time. Tork pay three. Give me now or I crush you
like bug.” His hand squeezed shut in front of me as if to demonstrate what
would happen if I resisted his demands. Perhaps he realised how bad his English
was and wanted to make sure I understood the message.

“Four. My costs are up, and so is demand. If you don’t want it Tork, I’m
happy to sell it to Obar. I’m sure he’d love this blend.” My heart sped
up as I said that. It was a big risk to threaten a half-troll, but I’d been
dealing with Tork a long time. He was all bluster… I hoped.

Perhaps I was wrong. I could almost see the steam coming out of his ears
as he processed what I’d said, then his giant arm reached out and he tried to
grab me. Heart galloping, I skirted out of the way.

“SQUASH!”

“Come on, Tork! If you squash me, who’s going to make the next batch?
You’ll never have your special tea again.” Despite my spike in anxiety, I kept
my voice level. I stole a quick glance to the side where Lenny was lying on the
floor nonchalantly ignoring us. Some guard dog he was.

Tork hesitated. His brow wrinkled as he considered his options.

“No more… tea?”

“No more tea. If you want more tea in a month, you can’t squash me. And
you have to pay four chips, like we talked about last time. Without fighting,
Tork. If you threaten me again, I’ll tell Gibble you’re not allowed back.”

“Tork no threaten!” A trembling smile stretched over his crooked teeth,
somehow making him look even scarier. “Tork just haggle. No haggle with
tea-lady, is ok. You not tell Gibble, Tork be good. Four chips! See, Tork pay
four chips like tea-lady say!”

Using Gibble as a threat was something I tried to avoid, but I didn’t
want to have to deal with this every moon-cycle. GNot that Giggle minded – he’d
appointed himself my protector, and if he’d been here, would have evicted Tork
long before he’d gotten this aggressive.

Gibble was a big, scary boggart, and he was mine, bonded to me after
years spent with my family. He would do anything to keep me safe, so I felt
comfortable offering up his name during my negotiation. Still, I was a little
proud that I’d gotten my four chips without getting squashed.

I placed the chips into the box that held my otherworld currency and
handed over Tork’s tea. It was a complicated blend. I’d had to overlay a mind
sharpening spell with one that would also calm him. Usually, the two would
cancel each other out but I’d found a way to make it work by focusing the
calming aspect to work on a purely emotional basis.

As he left with his precious packet I wondered, not for the first time,
what he was using it for. He’d come to me with the request some time ago; to
have a tea that would make him able to think better, but also control his rage.

Maybe I need to juice up that calming spell, I mused as I watched him go.

His departure was noted and within minutes my shop was full again. A
kobold, two piskes and a half-blood Talent like myself were easily taken care
of with regular orders. A half-giant and a hobgoblin were both sent away with
instructions to return in a few days for custom orders and two mortals came in
to browse the selections of teas. Gibble had arrived by this stage and was
helping to serve customers, tidy the shop and generally keep things in order.

When the tiny bell above the door tinkled again I looked up and was
surprised to see DCI Charlie Greyson. He gave me a respectful nod, then waited
in the corner as I finished wrapping a parcel for one of the mortal customers –
a party pack for the weekend, consisting of an energy and libido blend along
with the world’s best hangover cure, if I may say so myself.

I wished the customer luck and he gave me a cheeky grin.

“You want to see the results?” he asked, winking. “I don’t have a date
for Saturday night yet.”

“I’m… good, thanks. Have fun!”

The guy gave me a wave and took off. A piske slipped through the door
before he closed it and I raised an eyebrow at Gibble, then tipped my head
towards Greyson. Gibble nodded to indicate he’d take care of the shop, so I
grabbed Greyson’s arm and pulled him towards the door.

“I didn’t expect to see you today,” I said once we were outside. “Is
everything ok?”

Greyson had taken to dropping by every couple of weeks. Not as a
customer – I don’t think he’d ever tried my tea – but to talk. After taking the
position as head of the Otherworld Crime Unit, he’d made a conscious effort to
maintain his connection to the community – Talents, half-bloods and
Otherworlders.

Part of that involved visiting me regularly. I’d become something of a
touchstone for the community as a whole, a place where people would meet, pass
messages and share the latest news of gossip. That wasn’t an accident; after
the incident six months ago, when a Talent Lord had gone on a killing spree,
I’d realised how hard it was to be a part of a community that was so fractured.
I’d set to work building relationships and encouraging others to do the same,
providing my shop as a place of neutrality and safe haven. I’d met Charlie
Greyson during that time, and had come to trust him over the following months.

Despite one date and Greyson’s frequent visits, it had never progressed
past friendship. Still, things were comfortable as we strolled along the bust
street. We’d taken to walking while we talked to avoid the constant
interruptions in the shop.

“It’s not, actually. Did you hear about the damage last week?”

“The vandalism over at the supermarket you mean?” He nodded. “You think
it could be related to the damage to the zoo this morning, don’t you?”

Greyson stopped walking and looked at me, surprised. “You heard about
that already? Cripes. Your network is almost as good as mine. Yeah, we think
both incidents were related. It’s got to be an Otherworlder but no one’s
talking.”

“I’ll tell you anything I can. Can you share what you know or is
it under wraps?”

“We don’t know enough to put under wraps yet. We think it’s some
kind of creature. The supermarket manager said he didn’t think anything had
been taken, just destroyed. The doors were forced open, looked like they’d been
rammed. Whatever is was ripped apart the produce aisle, ate the fresh flowers
and then hacked it all up before leaving through a window.” I glanced at him
and he snorted. “Yeah, smashed it out. All we got from the scene was some grey
gunk and a pile of puke.”

“And the zoo?” I prodded.

“Damage to the front gate. Greasy trail through to the exotic
amphibians’ enclosure. They think there’s a missing platypus and some eggs were
destroyed. The babies were near ready to hatch – none of them made it, but they
don’t think it was deliberate.”

“Wow.” My mind raced, trying to quickly assemble all I knew about
animals and wildlife from the Other. “Well… it won’t be any of the sentient
creatures, unless a troll went on a mating display. Trolls don’t eat plant food
though, they’re strictly carnivorous… well, meat and rum anyway.  There
are a few herbivores in the Other but the ones I can think of are all either
really gentle, or never come into the city. I’m sorry, I don’t think I can be
much help on this one.”

“It’s fine,” Greyson said with a quick grin. “I didn’t expect you to be
a walking Otherworld directory.”

“Oh.” I wondered why he was here then. I enjoyed it when he dropped by
but he was a cop – social visits during work time? No, there was something
going on here. As if he knew I’d could he his hesitation, he grimaced and took
a breath.

“I want you on the case. As a consultant, you know? You can talk to
people that we can’t. We can’t pay you but-”

“No.” My voice came out louder than I intended, but he didn’t seem to
notice.

“Oh. Well, I mean, I can try and rustle up some funds-”

“It’s not that. I’m not a detective, I wouldn’t know the first thing
about questioning people. This… it isn’t something I can get involved in. Not
now.” I wrapped my arms around myself as we walked on in silence. The hum of passing
cars seemed muffled against the sound of my heart thundering in my ears.

“You’re still having nightmares.” He said it as a statement, not a
question, though his voice was gentle.

“Yeah.”  I hadn’t spoken about that for ages.

“I’m sorry, Emma. I didn’t realise. I shouldn’t have asked.”

This time it was me who stopped. Eyes on the pavement, I cursed myself
for being such a coward. Greyson had done so much for me, and I wanted to help.

“No, it’s ok. I’ll keep an ear out and tell you if I hear anything.”

We headed back to the shop. Greyson caught my arm before I went in, then
pulled me close for a friendly hug.

“Take care, ok?” he said. “And don’t worry about the case. I’ve got
other contacts; we’ll figure it out.”

I gave him a tiny smile, and went inside, leaving him alone in the cold.

Chapter Two

 Gibble looked up when I entered.

           “You look sad,” he said matter-of-factly.
 

“It’s nothing, Gib.” Guilt biting at my stomach, I tidied up, waited until the last customer left, then flipped the little door sign over to ‘closed’. I didn’t bother locking it, instead ducking upstairs to get changed while Gibble sat down with a book.  When I came back down, he was waiting by the door for me. I threw my purse into a handbag and we left.

“Do the lessons be helping, Lady?” Gibble asked as we walked to the port-gates.

“No. Maybe. I’m more aware of what I can do, but I still have no control over it.”

“It be taking time, Lady. Do not be getting discouraged.”

We reached the port-gates and I spoke the word to take us to the entrance to the Inner City. Flashing my papers to the guard on duty, we hurried through the streets as the sun started to dip behind the tall buildings. Gibble had taken to walking me to my lessons with Mergime, but was always eager to leave for the Otherworld by sundown. He never spoke of why, or where he went, and when we were running late one day he did stay until after the sun disappeared to make sure I reached my destination safely. He’d seemed anxious though, so I tried not to let that happen again.

We arrived at the house of Lady Mergime Dumass. When I turned around to see Gibble off, I gave him an impulsive hug. He chuckled and waved as he left. Before I had the chance to knock, the old oak door swung open. I took a breath, set my shoulders and stepped inside.

As soon as I passed through, I was assaulted by a cacophony of noise. Beethoven’s Fifth screamed at me while birds screeched in the background and thunder boomed. I flinched but, try as I might, couldn’t engage my blocking Talent to stop it. The noise intensified, piercing my ears and making my head throb. Then, a physical attack. Not pain, but the pattering of a thousand butterfly wings on my skin, beating me with tiny flicking sensations. I reflexively tried to wave it out of my face, squeezing my eyes shut and holding my breath to stop myself inhaling imaginary insects. Abruptly, it ceased.

“Were you born in a cave?”

Flushing at the reprimand, I turned and closed the door behind me. Mergime was old, a strong Talent and a legend in the Talent-tutoring field. She also had the compassion of a bedpost. How Harrod had convinced her to take on a student like me was beyond my imagination. Mergime snorted loudly at my inability to block her spells. Every visit followed the same pattern. She’d coaxed me, bombarded me, surprised me and used some pretty coarse language. My blocking ability was sporadic at best, absent at worst. Today was one of the worse ones. Halfway through the lesson, she stopped.

“As fascinating as I find it to wonder what depths of uselessness you’ll reach every day, I really do wonder why I bother.” Her wrinkled face scrunched up around her monocle. It was easy to believe the rumour – that she’d declined healing after the loss of an eye simply because the healer in question hadn’t studied beneath her.

“I’m sorry, Mergime, I’m trying my best.” I tried to keep the words respectful but they came out through gritted teeth.

“In which case I wonder why you bother.”

I muttered something nasty under my breath and she raised an eyebrow at me.

“I’ve spent the last six months using every technique at my disposal. Today, you haven’t even managed a simple rebuff of the most basic spell.” She flicked her wand up as she spoke, and I flinched from an attack that didn’t come. She sneered.

“I’m trying.” My nostrils were flared and my face hot, not embarrassment this time. “I don’t enjoy being assaulted every time I walk through the door. If I could snap my fingers and engage the block, I would. If I knew of something, anything that would help, I’d tell you. Are you sure you’ve tried everything?”

My mouth clicked shut and my heart started racing. What had come over me? Speaking so disrespectfully to a Talent—especially one ranked as highly as Mergime – was not a good idea. Mergime looked at me, her pointed expression telling me how well she appreciated my question.

“There is nothing left to for me to try. I’ve even employed methods used by less qualified tutors who have need of cheap tricks to bolster their meagre reputations. At some point, one has to wonder if a student is simply unteachable.” She folded her hands and stared me down.

Rather than feeling cowed, anger rose within me. “Even if progress is gained by cheap tricks, it’s better than six months of going backwards.”

“Perhaps.” She stared me down, unmoving.

“It’s useless!” I said. “It can’t be controlled. Surely if it could I’d have found a way by now, even just a hint.”

“Perhaps,” she said again. “And yet, you’ve just completely shut down a three tiered attack on all the senses without batting an eyebrow. Ah. I see from the surprise on your face that you hadn’t even noticed.”

My body seized, rigid with shock. She was right – my gift pulsed through my body, the ever-so-light touch of spells slithering off my skin. This wasn’t the first time I’d embraced it unknowingly. The frustrating part was that instead of getting easier to tell when I’d done it, it was getting harder. Mergime shook her head disparagingly.

“Harrod was right to bring you to me, despite your shortcomings. You may just be the most unique student I have ever encountered; that is the only reason I persist. It’s certainly not due to your dedication to your work, or the respect you show to your superiors.”

And so our lessons went. It seemed the only way I was consistently able to use my gift was when I was angry, or in fear of my life – a training technique I’d vetoed after the first session. Mergime would taunt and prod at me, until I finally got fed up and my anger fed into my gift to trigger it. I was no closer to figuring out how to control it consciously than I was the day I first used it. Harrod insisted that despite her prickly demeanour, Mergime was the best Talent trainer he knew; that she was an expert on training Talents with gifted abilities like mine; and that above all, we could trust her.

This last was key, as a gift like mine could be dangerous to have if it became general knowledge but Harrod swore up and down that she wouldn’t tell a soul. Unfortunately, ‘trustworthy’ didn’t mean ‘nice’. Mergime treated me like dirt and I was pretty sure it didn’t have anything to do with a tactical effort to trigger my gift through the anger she caused. No, she was just a curmudgeonly old bat with a strong prejudice against half-bloods. To her, I was nothing more than an experiment.

As if to drive that point home, she rounded on me after my block slipped yet again.

“Do you have any idea how many students wish I could give them the attention I’ve given you? I have nobles demanding my classes who spend every moment in study and practice, who do nothing but work on the improvement of their skill. Your dedication leaves much to be desired, no matter how impressive your raw ability is.” She pursed her wrinkled lips and snorted. “This lesson is at an end. If I see no convincing sign of improvement three lessons from now, I will need to seriously consider whether I shall keep you on as a student.”

I wasn’t angry anymore, I was mortified. My face burned and tears pricked my eyes. How would I tell Harrod? He’d bent over backwards and put his reputation on the line to even get me an audience with Mergime. The only half-blood she’d agreed to train before me was incredibly gifted and done great things. Me? I’d failed before I’d even got out of the gate. Mergime threw the door open with a flick of her wand and I hurriedly gathered my things. As I passed her, she caught my shoulder in a painful grip.

“Don’t think tears will engender my sympathy, girl. I have students undergoing far worse trials than mere laziness. You will return having trained and improved, or you will not return.”

As soon as she let go I bolted out the door and into the dark street. Rain pattered on my head and I threw my arms up in disgust. My lesson had ended early; normally Harrod would be here to drive me home – he didn’t like me wandering the streets of the Inner City alone any more than I did. Glad for a short space of time to gather my thoughts and calm down, I sent him a text message and started walking. Ok, it was more of a sodden stomp. When the Bentley slid up behind me, I was shaking with cold and sniffling miserably. Letting out a sigh of defeat, I climbed into the car, ready to face a barrage of questions. To my surprise, Martin was in the car instead. I shut the door and he gestured to Davoss, the faske who worked as Martin and Harrod’s driver, to head home.

“You look like you’ve had a wonderful time.”

I didn’t grace him with a reply, sinking back into the leather seat and staring out the window.

“That good? Don’t worry, I won’t ask. I imagine you’ll be thrilled to hear my next bit of news though – Harrod’s not here because Abnett popped by for a meeting. When Harrod said he was on his way to get you, Abnett insisted on sending me, to bring you back. He wants to talk to you.”

“You can’t be serious,” I groaned, covered my face with my hands.

Martin looked at me closely. “Are you ok?” All trace of his usual smart ass self was gone from his voice.

“I’ll survive. Just… Can we go back the long way?”

“Sure.”

Martin sent a quick message from his phone, then leaned forward to say something to Davoss. The faske grunted, then nodded. Martin’s phone beeped and he fired off another text. I paid little attention, settling back with my eyes closed and trying to will the puffiness from my face. It was still early, but fatigue made my bones ache as it often did after a lesson. Despite the lack of Talent I’d displayed for my tutor, I had used some magic, and the effort of trying to grasp at something I couldn’t find had left me drained. When the car came to a halt and the engine switched off, I looked about, confused.

“I thought you said Abnett was waiting for me at your place?”

“I told them to reschedule. Oh, don’t look at me like that – I just said you were tired from the lesson, that’s all.”

“Thanks Martin. I owe you.” I was glad Martin had come instead of his brother. Though Harrod’s heart was in the right place, sometimes he could be a little blind to the needs of others.

I climbed out of the car but before it drove away, Martin’s window slid down.

“You know,” he said. “You don’t have to keep doing it. Harrod suggested the lessons because he thought they’d help. You won’t be letting him down if you stop.”

“I know.  It’s fine, the lesson just didn’t go as well as I’d hoped.” A lie, followed by the understatement of the year.

Despite Martin’s assurance, I knew Harrod did care about the lessons – he’d been on my back from the very first one, grilling me about how it went. He’d constantly asked for updates and though he was always kind and encouraging, it felt like I was failing him. I was failing him, myself, and everyone around me. Why couldn’t it be easier? If I could just figure out the how, then I could work at it. Mergime telling me to practice when she wasn’t there was like telling me to practice a symphony without an instrument.

I slunk inside like a cowed, wet dog. Lenny greeted me with a whine and a cuddle and I took myself up for a shower and bed. 

Chapter Three

 The next morning was bright and sunny. The weather, along with the knowledge I wouldn’t have to face Mergime for another week, lifted my spirits and I started the day in a far better mood than I’d ended the last. Opening the shop, I greeted my first couple of customers warmly and when Abnett arrived, I managed not to let on that anything had been wrong the night before.

          “Emmeline, so good to see you again. I trust you’ve recovered from your exertion yesterday?” The High Seat was, as always, cheerfully polite. He certainly had the charm required to run the Council without treading on toes, and the energy he’d invested in turning that charm onto the mortal and half-blood population hadn’t been wasted. He was becoming as popular outside the Inner City as he was inside it.
 

“Good morning, High Seat. I apologise for not coming to see you last night. Martin didn’t– ”

Abnett waved his hands, cutting me off. “Nonsense, it was a spur of the moment visit and I hadn’t expected you to be there. I’d intended on seeing you today, so here I am, no trouble at all.”

“Thank you. What was it you needed to see me about?”

He smiled and shrugged. “Oh, just the usual I suppose. Exchange of information, keeping up with the local gossip, that sort of thing.”

Abnett had begun visiting much like Greyson did, to touch base with the population this side of the Wall. As the High Seat of the Inner City, he was trying to introduce new agreements that would be more inclusive towards mortals and half-bloods. The new Council positions had been filled, meaning there were now mortal representatives, and several other new initiatives had been introduced, such as the Council’s official endorsement of the Talented healing centres in the outer city.

Abnett had decreed that in addition to the Talented volunteers who normally manned them, young Talented students with an eye for the healing arts would now serve as apprentices in the centres for one year of their training. Senior healers who had never stepped outside of the Inner City were being pressured to offer time as well.

This had had the unfortunate effect of causing riots by the mortal medical professions, who were against these centres serving as anything but a stop-gap for London’s homeless population. They worried jobs would be lost, or that harm would inadvertently be done by the students. Several other initiatives had come across the same problem, so Abnett had pulled back to re-evaluate and keep an eye on things for a while.

I passed on the information Greyson had given me about the damage to the supermarket and the zoo.

“So you’ll be working with him on that, I take it?” he asked. An uncomfortable feeling settled in my gut.

“I don’t think I’m quite qualified to lead an investigation, my Lord. If there’s a Talent who can help, though, I’m sure he’d appreciate it. His superiors won’t give him the funding to pay a consultant, but could the Council… er, donate someone?”

“We can, we can. Pay them handsomely, set up a fund perhaps. The problem is getting someone to do it. Tension is high right now and volunteers are scarce.” His brow wrinkled in thought, jowls quivering as he nodded to himself.

“With all respect sir, you’re the High Seat. You could order someone to do it. Even the Talents and half-bloods this side of the Wall would obey an order from you.”

I wasn’t entirely sure why I was pushing the matter, except that I felt a strong urge to help Greyson out, even if it wasn’t how he’d intended.

“Yes, quite right. Well then Emmeline, I order you to assist this Mr. Greyson in his investigation. You will of course be compensated for your time and if there is a specific accommodation you need, the Council shall supply it.” His teeth flashed in a self-satisfied grin and he clapped me on the shoulder. “That was easily sorted, yes?”

Wincing at the contact, my stomach dropped into my boots. Well, that was my day gone to hell. Oblivious to my discomfort, Abnett spent the next hour chatting about Talent politics. I didn’t absorb much of it – I didn’t know many of the players and much of what he spoke about had little to no impact on those outside the wall. Then, he gave me a discerning look that made me squirm under his gaze.

“I suspect this won’t be the last time your Mr. Greyson requires assistance,” he said. “I shall have to see about that.”

“What’s Greyson after now?” Harrod entered the shop, dropping his hat on a coffee table. At my glare, he hastily picked it back up and fiddled with it, as Martin followed him in.

“Ah, Harrod, my friend! Hope I didn’t keep you up too late last night, eh? Jolly good time that was, but I must be off now. People to see and all that. Goodbye, Emmeline. Let me know how you go with that other business, won’t you?”

I gave him a tight smile and he left, waving jovially as he strode away. As soon as he was gone, I dropped my head into my hands. Harrod stood in front of me, waiting patiently for me to speak. Martin wandered over to examine a shelf of tea. Peeking through my fingers to see who was in the shop – there were two unfamiliar piskes – I gestured for the two of them to follow me upstairs, leaving Gibble behind to deal with the shop. I didn’t want to rehash this in public; I didn’t want to do it at all.

“So… Greyson? I thought you said you weren’t… err…” Harrod said as we filed up the narrow stairs.

“How’s he doing?” Martin asked. “Bloody good fellow, but he’ll drink a man under the table in thirty minutes if you’re not careful.”

Harrod turned to Martin, agape.

“What? We went out for a drink after that ruckus with Opius. He asked me to keep an eye on Emma. I told him she’s keeping an eye on us.” He winked at me and I laughed.

“He’s doing great, Martin, he’s just been busy. He drops by every few weeks to check up on things. We haven’t been out again though.” I narrowed my eyes at Harrod’s disapproving expression. Was he… jealous?

“Checking up on you? You’re fine. Why is he checking up on you?” Harrod said, his tone sounding a bit discomforted. Martin eyed him as I tried not to chuckle.

“Harrod, he’s checking up on everyone. He comes here because he knows I hear everything that goes on.”

“Does he come by often?” Harrod persisted.

“Oh, every so often. Why?” I watched him closely for a reaction. It was too hard to resist baiting him gently.

“Got a bit of the green-eyed monster there, Harrod?” Martin snorted.

“What?” Harrod’s eyes widened in consternation. “I don’t know of any monsters with green eyes. Have one of the Otherworlders been causing trouble?”

“Gods, sometimes I’m embarrassed to say I’m related to you.” Martin shook his head disparagingly.

“Actually, Martin, that’s sort of why he was here. Greyson came by to ask for help on a case – some kind of creature causing damage to property. He hasn’t got any leads, so he wants me to ask around.”

“You said yes, of course?” Martin asked, just as Harrod said “I hope you told him no.”

“I told him no, but now I have to call him and tell him yes.” I sighed, all trace of humour gone. “Abnett just ordered me to.”

“What?” Harrod’s voice was loud enough that I had to shush him. “Look, I’ll take care of it. You’re not getting involved, it’s too dangerous.”

My skin itched at his tone. It was one thing to not want to do it on my own terms. To have someone else forbid me?

“Harrod, don’t you dare go to Abnett. I’ve already given him my word that I’ll help. Greyson wouldn’t put me in any kind of danger, he just doesn’t know who to talk to. I have contacts he needs, that’s all. I’ll be perfectly safe.” My stomach quivered at the last bit. Was I trying to convince Harrod, or myself?

“Of course you’ll be safe.” Martin gave a wolfish grin. “I’m sure Greyson will take very good care of you.”

“Shut up, you.” I punched Martin in the shoulder.

“I’m not comfortable with this. You’re overstretched, and this detective-”

I cut Harrod off. “What do you mean I’m overstretched?” I snapped.

“Martin said you were tired after your lesson last night, that’s why you couldn’t come to see Abnett. You’ve been working hard and training – I know Mergime rides her students, it’s why she’s so good. You can’t afford any more on your plate.”

I looked at Harrod, eyes narrowed.

“I’m fine.” I said flatly. “And even if I wasn’t, you don’t get to decide where I spend my energy. I told Abnett I’d help Greyson and I will. In fact, I’m about to call him right now.”

Harrod’s brows furrowed. He was clearly unhappy with my decision and I wasn’t sure it was a good one either. Unfortunately, I had little choice. To go against Abnett’s wishes probably wouldn’t have devastating consequences right now, but it would make it less likely I could count on his help if I needed it.

Harrod saw the man as a puppet, controlled by those who helped to put him in power. I saw a man who, while he relied on the usually good advice he was given, knew he had been granted an incredible gift and was determined to use it well. He was set on improving the relationship between mortals and Talents and he wouldn’t look kindly on anyone who seemed to be getting in the way of that.

Harrod ran his hands through his hair, turning away in frustration.

“You’re doing that thing again,” Martin said to him.

“What? What thing?”

“The thing where you try and boss her around because you think you know better. You know, the thing you told me to tell you not to do if I saw you doing it?”

“Not in front of people!” Harrod flushed, then raised his hands in defeat. “Fine, I’m doing the thing. I’m sorry.”

Martin gave me a mock bow for his service and I laughed, letting go of my anger.

“Really, Harrod?” I asked.

“Yes, alright.  I know you hate that and I know I do it a lot… not just to you.” His eyes slid to Martin and I wondered what they’d argued over.

“Yeah, he does it to me all the bloody time, only he doesn’t listen to me when I tell him to stop.” Martin said, confirming my suspicions. Neither of them seemed to be harbouring hard feelings over it though.

“What is this, crucify Harrod day?”

Martin just laughed.

Harrod turned to me, apologetic. “Look, I fully support your decision and I’ll help in any way I can.” His eyes narrowed. “I’ll even bring my brother, even if he’s only good for wise cracks and cooked lunches. If nothing else, he might get eaten. Might save us both a world of trouble.”

Martin socked his brother in the arm and Harrod winced. My nerves flared again at the reminder of what I’d agreed to do, despite having their support. I didn’t know what Greyson expected of me, or Abnett for that matter. My biggest fear was that trying to track down an Otherworld creature would inevitably involve a trip to the Other. There was no real way around it. A trip to the Other meant potentially running in to the Guardians, a prospect that made me sick with fear. They’d taken an interest in me and I didn’t know why. I wasn’t sure I wanted to…

Martin looked at his watch.

“Sorry to love and leave folks. I have to run. I’ll see you tomorrow Harrod; Emma, keep me updated on the new case, and the new beau.” He gave me a sly wink and dashed out the door.

I glanced at Harrod, who was looking at the now closed door with concern.

“What is it?” I asked.

Shaking himself out of his reverie, Harrod assured me everything was fine. Martin had dated several Fae over the last few months and Harrod had made his disapproval clear. He was trying to stay out of it, but I understood his concern for Martin’s safety. Though most Fae who lived and socialised with mortals meant no harm, their very differences could make them a little unsafe. Few mortals survived a long-term relationship with a Fae without being changed in some way.

“I know you’re worried, Harrod, but he’s a grown man. You have to let him make his own choices.” Without thinking, I touched his shoulder. He turned away.

“He’s mortal. He doesn’t know the danger like I do, and he won’t listen when I try to explain.”

Oh boy, this was going to be delicate.

“Harrod, do you understand what you’re saying? You’re telling Martin that because you’re Talented, because you were born with power and he wasn’t, that makes you more competent than he is. You’re telling him that because he had the bad luck to be born Talentless, you think he’s unable to fend for himself. You do it to me too and… well, to be honest, it’s a little insulting.”

“What? That’s not what I mean at all. He just… he hasn’t had the exposure to things that he would have if he’d been raised inside the City.” His eyes searched my face, trying to convince me of his words.

“No, he wasn’t raised in there, he grew up out here. There are Fae on this side too, remember. We grew up alongside them just fine and Martin didn’t have any Talent to protect him – no magic, no title, no council. Don’t you think that maybe that’s enough?” The blank look on Harrod’s face said no, it wasn’t. “When you keep nagging him like that, all you’re doing is rubbing it in his face he missed out on your privileged upbringing. Just because you had expensive tutors, it doesn’t make you better than us.” He opened his mouth to protest, but I cut him off. “Oh, I know you don’t mean it that way, but how do you think it feels from our end?”

Harrod shifted uncomfortably. “It’s not the same. Living a few streets away from one of those blasted creatures isn’t the same as dating one. He doesn’t know the risks.”

 I knew he didn’t see it the way I did, but he really was acting like a clueless jerk. Even though his heart was in the right place, it stung that he thought so little of us. He blew out a breath and looked down.

“Fine. I’ll leave off the both of you and I’ll try to think a bit more before I speak. Damned if I’m going to let either of you walk into a dangerous situation alone though; I won’t let you get hurt.”

I shook my head in exasperation. The guy just didn’t get it, and I didn’t think he ever would.

“Ok. I suppose that’s better than nothing. I have to go down and check on Gibble. Are you staying for a bit?”

Harrod nodded – I suspected he felt a bit lost now Martin’s social life had taken off. Since Harrod moved in with his brother, they’d been close, Martin giving Harrod the company he craved when he left the society he’d been raised in. Now, he was like a lost puppy. He trailed behind me as I walked downstairs, wondering if there was anything I could do. Despite Harrod’s bossy streak, he’d become a really good friend over the last six months. So had Martin. The brothers were as different as chalk and cheese, but they fit together like they’d been raised together. I didn’t want them to lose that closeness, but I was wary of trying to fix their relationship – meddling with other people’s problems was Harrod’s department, not mine.

Chapter Four

 Downstairs, I found Gibble cleaning the counter down in between customers. He looked up and grumbled good-naturedly as I entered, Harrod and Martin jostling each other behind me.

           “Where’s Lenny?” I asked, frowning.

“Ah. The hobgoblin did be taking him for a walk.” He shook his head ruefully. “Gibble did not be thinking what might be happening when I did ask him for one small favour. He and Lenny-dog be good friends, but Lady, Barg be a lot of hard-working when he does come.”

I laughed. ‘Hard-working’ didn’t begin to describe one of Barg’s visits. The tiny Otherworlder was a pocket rocket of energy and mayhem, and he’d taken to Lenny like a duck to water. After I helped clear the few customers that were waiting, I told Gibble to go take a break.

“Gibble not be needing a break, Lady. It be almost time to close the shop.”

A quick glance at the clock showed he was right – time had flown. We closed up, Harrod helping to tidy away the day’s mess and set everything in order. Lenny returned, Barg riding atop him like a horse with one hand grasping his collar and the other flying in the air like a rodeo cowboy.

The dog had grown since his strange Fae healing by the Otherworld animal healer and he carried Barg with ease. The two of them galloped up to the door, then skidded to a halt, walking in sedately and looking for all the world like they’d just been out for a gentle walk. Lenny’s stomach growled and Barg’s followed suit. It reminded me I’d skipped lunch.

I turned to Harrod. “Stay for tea? I don’t think I’ve got anything to make but we could walk down to that new fish and chip shop near the port-gates?”

“Sure.” Harrod looked pleased at the prospect of a warm meal.

“Ahem.” Barg cleared his throat delicately, then looked away disarmingly. “Barg has delivered the Lenny-dog back safely, Lady!”

“Thanks Barg.” I tried not to chuckle, waiting for what was coming next.

“Lady, Barg is forever your faithful servant! As long as Barg does not have other duties to attend to first, of course. Barg gives this service freely, Lady!”

I raised an eyebrow and waited for him to continue.

“Ah. Lady. Barg, your poor and ever-so-loyal servant, is ever so loyal. And, well, Barg is also ever so hungry, you see… would this fishenjips be a sort of food by any chance, Lady?”

Harrod chuckled and I told Barg he was more than welcome to accompany us to dinner, as long as he didn’t steal any cutlery or try to sit on the table again.

“Yes, Lady! Barg will be the uttermost epistome of decorative decorum!”

“I think you mean epitome?”

“And Barg will be an epitome also, Lady!”

The weather was perfect for walking, so we took advantage of it. We left together, Barg vaulting back on to Lenny’s back, much to the dog’s joy. The walk was a short one and the sun had only just set when we arrived. The shop was new – small, but trendy, and a line had already formed. The tables were all taken so after a short discussion, we decided to order our meals to go, then take one of the port-gates to a small park I knew of for an outdoor picnic. We had to wait for our order, while Lenny and Barg entertained the waiting customers. Watching a hyperactive hobgoblin who thinks he’s a medieval knight on his noble steed isn’t the most peaceful way to spend an evening, but it’s fun. The eager duo paraded up and down the queue, entertaining the other customers while Harrod and I watched on in fits of laughter. We finally got our meal, much to the relief of the shopkeeper, and headed for the park. The light had just begun to fade into the chalky tones of dusk when we found a table. Using his wand to trace a globe of light, Harrod chased away the darkness. Then, he enclosed the small picnic area in a warm bubble to ward off the night-time chill.

An hour later, we were full, tired and happy.

“Barg is most grateful for your sustenance, Lady!” Full tummy bulging, Barg saluted me. Lenny wagged his tail in agreement.

“As am I, Lady,” Harrod said, with a mock salute of his own.

I stood and gave a formal curtsy in the style of the High Talents. “Lady is most-”

A threatening growl made me stop mid-sentence. Lenny jumped to attention, tail straight up and ears forward. His hackles were raised and the sound coming from his chest seemed to vibrate all around. Fumbling for my wand, I looked around to see Harrod had his out already, and was scanning the park for danger. Barg threw himself on to Lenny’s back and leaned forward to whisper in his ear.

“Danger comes, Lady. A disturbance in the Force. Lenny-dog suggests we leave, now.”

Harrod scooped the leftover food into the paper and we hurriedly collected our things, Lenny and Barg standing guard all the while. An almighty crash erupted from the darkness. I jumped, and Harrod shot a globe of light in the direction it had come from. Lenny let out one deep, loud bark. A skittering, shuffling sound in the distance indicated that whatever it was, it was going in the opposite direction. Something moved in the shadows and I thought for a moment that a pair of orange eyes looked back at us, reflected in Harrod’s light. We fled.

The port-gate wasn’t far and we dashed through as soon as Harrod spoke the word to activate it. On the other side, I looked up to find we’d gone to the one closest to his house.

Catching my glance, he said, “I thought this would be safest. We’re only a minute from my place and I can drive you home from there.”  

I accepted without a second thought, happy to take the safest option. We didn’t quite run, but it wasn’t a leisurely stroll, either. After we were safe inside, door locked behind us, I felt silly. We’d run from a growling dog and a clatter in the park? Probably a stray cat. As for Barg’s melodramatics, there was no way I believed he could actually communicate with Lenny.

“Barg,” Harrod said as he took off his coat off. “How long have you been able to communicate with Lenny?” He asked the question as if it were perfectly reasonable that a hobgoblin and a dog shared a language.

“Well, quite for some time, I am supposing. Lenny-dog and Barg have many deep and complex speakings, on topics such as the virtuous nature of sausages, and what the Darth Lord might say if he could be tasting one.”

“You talk to my dog. About Star Wars. And sausages.” Well this was turning out to be an informative night. “Barg, have the two of you always understood each other or is this… different?”

“Ah, Lady, this is… well, not a this-world occurrence. Lenny-friend is of the believingness that the tree-god did occur this change in the Lenny-dog, for it was after he was healed with Otherness that he did begin to speak to Barg of such things.”

Lenny whumped his tail on the ground and blinked at me.

“Were you going to tell me at any stage?” I directed that at the dog, who gave a guilty whine, sneezed, then let his tongue loll out with a dopey grin. Barg’s explanation made sense, if talking dogs made any sense at all. Olfred, the healer who had tended Lenny after an attack, had imbued him with magic from the Other. That could have all sorts of unintended consequences and to be honest, I’d been surprised to only notice him eating more and growing a little.

I asked Barg if he knew what had come upon us in the park, but he said neither of them were sure – just that it had, I guess, the Otherworld equivalent of bad vibes about it. It hadn’t seemed like a sentient creature – the shuffling sound it had made put me more in mind of a bear, if a little more… vigorous. Harrod was frowning in thought; I was certain he was thinking what I was.

“We could go back,” I suggested tentatively. “Quietly, just for a look. If we can catch a glimpse, we’d at least have some idea of where to look for answers.”

“What? You’re joking, aren’t you?” His face fell as he looked at mine. “You’re serious. We just ran hell for leather away from a giant creature stalking us in the dark, and you want to go back for a look?”

I waited, expecting him to say no. Despite all my earlier thoughts of rebelliousness, I wasn’t brave enough to go on my own and honestly, I didn’t want to go at all.

“Fine. But you promise to stay behind me and if I say run, you run. Ok?”

Crap.

Barg insisted on joining us, saying Lenny would never speak to him again if he let any harm come to me. Lenny himself pressed against my legs as if to suggest I should stay. It seemed like a really good suggestion, but I was knee deep in this now. I’d given my word to Abnett and if I was going to track this creature down, I had to do it properly. This time, we set out on guard and watching for danger.

#

We passed through the port-gate near the park. The short walk seemed to take forever, and the night wrapped around us, stifling us with its darkness. Harrod traced a globe, but positioned it off to the side – that way it wouldn’t blind us, and it would draw attention away from our actual position. We moved slowly, and stayed close to each other as we approached the park. My ears strained over the sounds of distant traffic and buzzing, chirruping insects, trying to pick out a noise that didn’t belong. I placed a hand on Lenny’s back for reassurance. He gave his tail one quick swish as if to comfort me.

We reached the table we’d sat at and my heart jumped into my mouth. Ragged claw marks had gouged deep scratches across the wooden table and a greasy film covered the area. Lenny whuffed quietly – he didn’t seem to be picking up any imminent threat. Harrod threw out some more globes, lighting the park in full. There was a bin lying on its side, contents strewn over the ground, and a tree had been attacked. The old elm had claw marks at its base, similar to those that had destroyed the table, and the ground around it had been torn up as if the creature had been digging for something. Lenny nosed around the area, and found a short trail that ended before it really went anywhere. The park was open; there was nowhere a beast this size could hide. Where had it gone? I shuddered to think what damage it might do if it came across a person. That made me wonder what it would have done to us… Swallowing, I forced that thought away.

“I’m going to call Greyson; he’ll want to send someone out tonight I think.” I pulled him up on my contacts and dialled, cursing as it kicked through to voicemail. The message I left was short, simply telling him where we were and that we’d seen the creature he was looking for. After I was done, I looked at Harrod, unsure what to do next.

“Do you want to wait here for him to call back?” he asked.

“There’s not much point. The creature’s gone, we didn’t see much. I’m kicking myself for running now, dammit.”

“We don’t know what it is, or how dangerous.” Harrod’s eyes darted around nervously, as if expecting it to pop out of thin air, right next to us.

“It hasn’t hurt anyone so far.”

“So far. So far, it’s been in secluded places with no one around to antagonise it.”

“Fair enough.” I wasn’t going to argue the point. A sudden yawn erupted from my mouth. “Let’s go back to yours, then Lenny and I will head home from there. That is, if that lift is still on offer?”

“Of course.”

“Ah, little-man? Barg would be most appreciating of the driving also.”

“Sure.”

Harrod left the globes up until we were well on our way back to the port-gate. We reached his house to find Martin just getting in from his date. He looked… odd. He gave us a dreamy smile, then headed in without speaking. Harrod huffed irritably, giving me the impression that Martin had come home in a similar state before.

“You want me to talk to him?” I asked.

“You told me to stop ordering him around. Why do you get to do it?”

“I’m not going to tell him to stop. I’m going to ask him how he’s been feeling, if everything is ok, and how on earth he puts up with you on a daily basis. Then, I’ll tell him you’re not being a jerk intentionally, that it’s somewhat genetic and a little due to an upbringing deprived of reality, and I’ll see if he wants to talk about it. There’s more than one way to express concern, Harrod, it’s not always about telling them how to live their life.”

He grunted and fell silent, but I could see the wheels turning. I hoped Martin would talk to me – there was an element of truth in what Harrod had said. Martin hadn’t spent enough time around the Fae to really grasp the danger. Opening the door of the car, I stepped back to let Lenny and Barg through. Davoss was nowhere to be seen, Harrod explaining he would likely be asleep. Rather than wake the faske, Harrod took the wheel himself. Lenny draped himself across my lap in the back seat, Barg snuggled into my side. We reached my house and went our separate ways. Barg set off into the night and Harrod drove away. Lenny and I trudged upstairs, both wearied by the evening’s events. I slept poorly that night, tossing and turning, dreaming of hideous creatures chasing me through a forest. 

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