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.

 

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