The next morning found me standing in the freezing cold dawn banging on a shop door in the middle of the Inner City. A window in the street slammed open and an irritated Talent Lord poked his head out to see what was happening. He pulled his head back in and snapped the window shut. Hitting my fist on the door again, I cursed when it made no sound. Bloody Talent. He’d traced a silence on it.
“Bee? Dammit, open up!”
The sound of a latch being lifted on the other side choked off my next angry yell. The door swung open and a small brownie bowed, then motioned me inside. He led me to a pink curtain at the back of the room, and pulled it aside to reveal a rabbit warren of hallways branching out from a small sitting room. Bowing again, he waved at a chair and I sat, tapping my foot impatiently.
“Emmeline, so wonderful to see you.” Bee came gliding out of a doorway, dressed in a white silk pantsuit. It was belted with a silver cord and a posy of blue flowers was tucked into it, matching a hairpiece made of the same.
“Bee, tell me about Serraceuse. Is he back? What do the Guardians have to do with this?” I stood as I spoke, tilting my chin up in a bid for confidence that I didn’t feel.
Bee coughed delicately. “Max, we’ll be opening late today. Please put a note on the door, and bring Emmeline some refreshments shortly?”
The brownie, who’d popped out of nowhere, nodded and disappeared back through the curtain. Bee sighed. “I knew I shouldn’t have gotten involved. Come, best we speak upstairs.”
She led me down one hallway, then another. Despite not actually seeing any stairs, the room we entered had a window that looked out over the street. A small table perched by it, with two chairs. We sat, and I peered out the window. It didn’t look out on the street I entered from, but I banished that from my mind. I’d come here for answers – getting side-tracked would make that all but impossible, with the way Bee often twisted conversations like a pretty ribbon caught in the wind. I could see it in my mind’s eye. Purple, and long, floating on the-
“Stop it,” I snapped, and the vision dissolved. Bee gave me a wry grin.
“Of course, I apologise. It’s a reflexive habit, one that’s very hard to break. You know this really isn’t a conversation I want to have, don’t you?”
“Then why come to me?” I asked.
“Because I care about you, Emmeline. Do you remember the first time we met?” Max darted into the room and deposited a tray of biscuits and tea on the table.
“When Harrod brought me for a dress fitting. I remember it.” Was she trying to divert me again?
“No, dear. It was your father who brought you to me, when you were seven.”
Memories flashed through my head, of a trip to the Inner City long ago. The City had seemed bigger then, more exciting. Father had taken me to get a special dress fitted for a gala we were to attend. The woman who’d seen me was fuzzy in my memory, but I remembered the beautiful gowns. I’d begged Father to let me have something more grown up, more glamorous than the simple child’s dresses he’d made me wear. He had refused.
It was a short visit and three days later, my dress had been delivered. Rather than the bejewelled masterpiece I’d hoped for, it was, as always, simple. A dress of bronze silk, adorned only with gold clasps at the throat and sleeves. It had fit perfectly and the cut made me look taller, the colour giving life to my normally pallid complexion. Despite it being exactly what my father had ordered, it was somehow more.
My sisters, several years older and of a station that demanded full gala attire, had waltzed into the room in elegant dresses, dripping with lace and pearls. Both were of the current style and worthy of a Lord’s daughter, but somehow, my dress had outshone them. Something about its simplicity made theirs look overdone, almost cheapened by their adornments.
Aveline, my oldest sister, had glared at me in pure hatred and muttered something about a potato sack under her breath. Myr, always loyal to Ave, had wrinkled her nose at me in distaste. Another memory nagged at me – later in the night, Myr had approached me quietly. “I think your dress is pretty, Emmeline.” Simple words, that shouldn’t have meant what they did. It was perhaps the only compliment Myr had ever given her unwanted half-blood sister.
“You made that dress? The bronze one?” I whispered.
“Yes, dear. You so badly wanted to look like the other girls at the gala, but your father was adamant. He wanted you to stand out, and the best way to do that was with simplicity. I do hope you liked it.”
“I did.” My voice was thick, my mind buzzing with resurfaced memories, but I pushed past that. “Tell me about Serraceuse.”
Bee’s face whitened and she took a sip of tea. “He was a monster. Preyed on my people, on our beautiful children. Hurt people, innocents and those who tried to stop his nasty trade. He was… dealt with, but only temporarily. Not long before the Otherbeasts started to disappear, a rumour came to me that he was back.”
“What do you mean he was dealt with, Bee?”
“The Fae took him. Oh, they wanted to kill him but they couldn’t. He has Talented blood, and we’d already signed the treaties by then. And he is Fae. A terrible pairing, that. When such a coupling turns out well, it creates a beauty like you’ve never seen. Sadly, he took a darker path. So, he was ensorcelled, made to forget his desire. It’s not a nice spell, Emma, and it takes an awful lot to maintain. Living with no desire for anything at all, not food, nor love, nor death. And yet somehow he broke free. Those watching him failed and now… Emmeline, I’m sure he’s back. A darkness is coming and he’s a part of it, a small one, but a part nonetheless. You must stop him, but you must be careful.” Bee’s hand shook and the tea she held slopped onto the table. Gasping in dismay, she blotted up the spill with napkin, then stared at the wet spot left on the tablecloth.
“What about me? Bee, when I met the Guardians, they said things that didn’t make any sense.”
“That I can’t tell you. You know how future-seeing works, dear. If you know, if you expect it, the outcome can be altered and that’s rarely for the best.”
I stood. By the set of her face she wouldn’t say any more, but she’d confirmed my suspicions.
The Guardians were planning something and it involved me.
“Take care, my dear.” Bee rose and pressed me into a gentle hug. “I shall do what I can to help, you know that?”
Later that day, I met with Greyson to discuss the possibility of Otherworld poachers. To my surprise, he’d already followed that track some way.
“Yeah, we’ve got a contact who deals with the Fae. They knew about the previous history of these guys and entered it into our records, unofficially of course. I’d only come across it a few weeks ago, so it was fresh in my mind. Far as we know, Serraceuse hasn’t been heard from in years. We’d discounted him, but not the possibility that smugglers are involved in some way.”
“Why didn’t you mention it at the beginning?”
Greyson took a large bite from a salad roll and chewed for a moment before answering. He was stuffing it down like he hadn’t eaten in days. “Didn’t want to throw you off. It was only a hunch and so far, we don’t have anything to suggest it’ll pan out.”
“Fair enough. However, one of my contacts has suggested Serraceuse is still around. I didn’t really get the chance to ask any questions – all I got was his name, and that he’s no longer… well, wherever he was before.”
After I filled Greyson in on what I’d learned over the last two days, we discussed our next plan of attack. I decided to go back to Olfred. He might be able to get me a glimpse at the creatures, and I wanted to ask him about Serraceuse and the takers he’d spoken about. Greyson was still waiting on the maps from Harrod, so he was going to talk to the contact who’d informed him about the smugglers. With luck, he’d get a chance to speak to the Fae who’d been the source of his information.
As we talked, we walked along the river. I was in no hurry to get back as it had been a quiet morning and I was sure Gibble would handle the shop, though I felt a pang of guilt at that. I’d been leaving him there far too much lately.
“Oh, damn,” I said, thinking aloud. “If my father was involved in busting the smuggling ring then Gibble must have the details. That’s how he knew the name Serraceuse.” And why he was so worried about him, I added to myself. I hadn’t gone into details of the retribution that had been taken on those involved, assuming Greyson already knew. If he didn’t, then I didn’t want to risk being taken off the case, not now. Greyson stopped walking and touched my arm, halting me mid-stride. He looked at me, then looked away.
“Look, I just wanted to check in with you about all this. You’re ok? I don’t want to be pushing you into this. It’s getting more dangerous than I expected.”
“Please, Charlie, don’t take me off the case. I know I was reluctant to start but I made a promise to Olfred. Now that I know my father was working to stop these people, it means even more to me.”
“I wouldn’t pull you off, not if you want to keep going. Just keep me in the loop, alright? I know I’m only a mortal but I have resources that can help, and I don’t want you doing anything crazy without touching base first.”
“Oh c’mon, you do pretty well for ‘just a mortal’. You took down a rampaging orc a month ago and you shut down a goblin fighting ring before that. You hold your own.” I nudged him in the side as I spoke and he chuckled.
“I did do that, didn’t I?” A corner of his mouth twitched up in a smile.
“You’re even getting a bit famous for it. My customers have been talking, Greyson. They’re impressed by the work you’re doing. Dyson told me Abnett’s working towards getting you more help from his end, and he wouldn’t do that if he didn’t think your team was effective.”
“Don’t suppose you’ll be part of that help?” he asked, looking at me hopefully.
“Me? I couldn’t hold my own for a moment against the Talents he’ll have working with you. You won’t have to settle for a half-blood who runs a tea shop anymore.”
“Oh, now who’s being modest? You took down one of their Lords remember. And besides, you make damned nice tea.”
It was my turn to laugh. Despite my reservations in the beginning, and the gnawing in my gut that reminded me that what I was doing could very well put me in danger, I enjoyed working with him.
“Look, you might not have the magical brute strength of your boyfriend but you’re smart, quick on your feet, and that counts for more in this line of work. You also have connections my people could only dream about.”
“What? Harrod’s not my boyfriend.” I shot him a sideways look and caught him grinning.
“Just checking,” he said. “Sorry. I shouldn’t poke fun. You know he has feelings for you though, don’t you?”
I rolled my eyes and groaned. “Apparently the whole bloody world knows. It’s not the slightest bit awkward, not at all!” I glanced at my watch. “My time’s almost up, I have to get back,” I said reluctantly.
“Right-oh. You’ll do what I said though, won’t you?”
“Of course. You’ll let me know if anything else comes to light?”
“Of course.” He smiled and, as I turned to go back to work, said “Maybe next time we can do this over dinner?”
“You’re on,” I called back with a wave.
When I entered the shop, I was surprised to see it had gotten busy again. Dashing behind the counter to help, I called a quick apology to Gibble, who just shrugged and continued on at his own steady pace. We worked until close and a little while after that. When the doors were finally shut, I collapsed onto a chair in exhaustion. My busy schedule was catching up to me and I realised something was going to have to give, and soon.
“Gibble, I think I need to get some help for the shop.”
“I think that be a good thing, Lady. You be working too hard and leaving Gibble behind – I do not be minding, but I be thinking your customers might be.” His eyes didn’t lift from the bench he was wiping down.
“What? Gibble, if anyone has given you a hard time, I won’t stand for it. You tell me who, and I’ll throw them out faster than a hobgoblin can eat a loaf of bread.”
“It not be anything, Lady.” He shrugged and continued to tidy up.
“Oh come sit down, you big lug. You work yourself to the bone every day and I keep abandoning you. The least I can do is clean up.”
He hesitated, then put down the cloth he was using. Everything was done, anyway. He came and sprawled out on a chair across from me.
“Ah, Lady…” His knobbled brow furrowed in consternation. I had a feeling I wouldn’t like what was coming next. “Lady, I think you be needing to stop this hunting of bad people.”
“Gibble, I promised Olfred. You were there, you know I can’t back down on that.”
“Gibble can do the thing for Lady. Gibble can be owing Olfred a favour in return, and be helping to find the creature. Gibble has many favours to trade, and Olfred… he be old, and somewhat wise. He will be understanding. Lady, I be thinking this be a safe thing to do.”
“It’s because of Serraceuse, isn’t it – you think he’s back too?”
He let out a long, warbling sigh.
“Please Gib, tell me what happened. Tell me about my father and the gaiscedach.”
He looked at me in surprise, perhaps wondering where’d I’d heard the term.
“What do Lady be knowing of the champions?”
“Columbine told me last night. She was one of them too. I need to know, Gibble.”
After another sigh, he told me the story of Serraceuse. “It be a long time ago Lady, and I not be knowing the all of it. I be telling you what I did see though, so you can be deciding on what you must be doing.”
Gibble told me of a time before I was born, when my father was alive. He and some friends were actively fighting for equality, before he moved into taking up the fight on a political level. They’d formed a warrior-band, fashioned on the concept that they were the champions and protectors of those without a voice of their own. They freed wrongly indentured creatures, brokered deals to improve the laws and weren’t averse to making threats to get their point across. All was done under cover of pseudonyms and darkness – no one knew who they really were, though many suspected.
Columbine had told me it was before I was born; however, Gibble knew that my parents had met and fallen in love, and that my mother was already pregnant with me. At that stage it was still secret – there was a concern that my mother would become a target if it were known. The thought sent goosebumps running over my skin. Father’s fight had largely been on the wrong side of the law, but when the kidnapping of several demi-fae had threatened the safety of all the Talented held dear, he and his comrades-in-arms were asked to deal with it quietly. They were given few resources and little promise of protection – they were fighting for a principle.
Somehow, they’d tracked the source of the smuggling ring to Serraceuse. Thinking to take him down unawares, they’d launched an attack on his warehouse, not realising he was already prepared. Gibble said there were rumours that he was tipped off, but admitted it was possible he was just very, very careful. The attack was moderately successful; enough of the demi-fae escaped to appease the Fae and it was rumoured they had passed on enough information that the Fae had gone back to rescue those that were still missing. For the gaiscedach however, the nightmare was only beginning.
First, there were messages. Small dead animals left on children’s beds and locks of loved ones’ hair, taken without their knowledge, posted back to the members of the band. When one of them discovered a loyal pet decapitated in his daughters bed, he’d committed suicide, a note left to say that he hoped it would be enough to keep his family safe. It did, for they weren’t targeted after his death.
Dyson’s stable had been torched while they were out at a council meeting one night, his horses already killed in their stalls. Another member of the gaiscedach went missing, never to be heard of again. There was a small chance she’d gone into hiding but the common belief was that Serraceuse had gotten to her. Finally, the attack on my father, leader of the band and instigator of the warehouse coup.
An arsonist had gotten inside the house and barred my sisters’ doors closed before setting the home alight. The fire was uncontrollable, lit with magic and fed by wards. Ave, my oldest sister, had managed to blast through her warded door and escape, while Gibble freed our other sister with Fathers help. They’d made it out, but only just. As they fled, a beam collapsed in a stairwell that would have trapped them if they had still been inside. Both girls suffered horrific burns that required weeks of healing by the best Talents Father could afford. Gibble shuddered as he told me and I placed a gentle hand on his arm.
After that? Nothing. Not a peep. A warehouse explosion had occurred three nights later, at a site rumoured to belong to Serraceuse. The kidnapping stopped, as did the terrorising of my family and the others who’d been involved.
“Lady, we did hope it be the Fae who be dealing with the monster Serraceuse, but Gibble did not be convinced they be making him walk the deathlands. Some did say he be fleeing in fear, other that he be finding a better place to be working. None did be knowing of a certainty, and even Gibble’s own asking did not make the Fae beings tell Gibble the truth of the happening. It did always be a risk that he be returning, and it would be an easy thing for him to find Lady if he did want. If there be any hinting that Lady, the child of the man who did fight him, be the one to go after him now? Gibble will protect Lady with his own life, but that might not be being enough.”
He trembled at the last and I put a hand on his arm, my heart breaking at the fear in his face. Fear not of facing this cruel, powerful man, but of losing me, of failing the duty my father had set him. My resolve had never been so sorely tested.
“Ok Gibble, I’ll make you a deal. I won’t go after the ringleader directly, at least, not unless we’re sure it’s not Serraceuse. I’ll try to direct Greyson to take down the buyers, and the lower level dealers. If he’s doing this, it’s a safe bet he’s not doing the dirty work himself, right? If we can disrupt the chain, it’ll buy us enough time to go to the Guardians. Surely they’ll help?”
“That be a good plan,” Gibble said in relief. “The Guardians not be looking lightly on any who be taking their people. If you be having enough knowing of where the dealers be going on this side of the portals, it be enough for them to act, I be thinking.”
Hugging him tight, I wondered how much harder this would have been without his support. I’d been treating him poorly lately, and made a promise to myself that once this was over, I’d somehow make it up to him.
After Gibble left for the day, I headed upstairs. Deciding on a simple dinner, I heated some instant soup and settled into the couch with a bottle of wine and my bookwork, intending to catch up on some neglected duties while I had time. Sipping merlot and filling in figures, my mind drifted. I thought of Olfred’s love for his creatures and wondered how he fared. Though an Otherworlder, he clearly held a human-like concern for the animals he watched over.
Did he feel the same anxiety and fear I would, if Lenny were missing? Most Otherworld denizens had very little concern with anyone else, let alone those of other races. Olfred was particularly unique in that his care extended towards creatures of the mortal world as well. More than a passing concern, too. Gibble once told me that Olfred had almost died, more than once, trying to channel a quantity of magic that was unsafe, in order to heal a suffering animal. If he died, it would be a huge loss to creatures in both worlds. Would there be an afterlife for a once-god turned animal-healer?
“There will be a place for him,” a voice said behind me.
I blinked slowly, infused with a warmth and peace that belied the presence of a stranger in my locked house. Lenny growled, whimpered, then ducked his head submissively, before lying down with his big head resting watchfully on his paws. It took all my effort to carefully place my glass on the coffee table, then turn to see the Parlour Guardian behind me, just as I knew I would. She smiled at me and took my hand, helping me to rise. Despite the myriad questions battering my mind, my mouth felt immobile and full of soggy newspaper.
“Why?” All I could muster was a single word, and she seemed surprised even at that.
“Why am I here? To help, of course. One who stole from us has returned, and he has taken one of our children. You must find her. This task I give to you, and you alone.”
My muddled mind knew there was some spell at work, dulling my mind and stopping me from speaking. Though she looked human, she was a Guardian. Her magic was as old as life itself and ran deeper than the oceans. Her awesome power made my humanity seem as an ant to a giant, I would have no hope of comprehending her thoughts.
She pulled me towards the door and placed her hand on the doorknob. Locked. She turned it with ease. I had just enough sense left to pull back slightly, resisting the tug on my hand.
“How?” My voice croaked with the effort.
“You have travelled the dream path. You are… open. This is something that must be addressed, but at a later time. Now come, there is something you must see”
Every last bit of free will I had left disappeared. The door swung open, and it led not to a narrow staircase leading down to my shop, but to a field of purple grass swaying under a moonlit night. The skeletons of old trees dotted the eerie landscape, and a sparkling silver stream cut through the dead forest. Above, stars filled the sky in a random pattern, while the moon shone with unearthly hues. We were in the Other.
Her arm lifted and my eyes followed her gesture out over the field. The movement of my head seemed to bring us closer to it, swooping in without having taken a single step. A herd of animals grazed, creatures that rolled and played on the edge of a muddy swamp. They had smooth, hunched bodies and two rounded horns protruding from hard skulls. Sharp claws scrabbled at the ground, throwing clumps of sodden dirt into the air while flat tails slapped the ground, shaping mud into duvets and mounds, then swiping it aside as they played.
“Watch,” came the quiet command, and I watched.
A bright slit pierced the night, widening into a ragged door. The harsh yellow light was blinding but the animals paid it no heed, continuing to play and frolic in the dirt. Three men, no more than silhouettes, appeared and stepped through the portal.
“Watch.” The voice was still quiet, but insistent now.
The men split up to search amongst the trees. They would approach each one carefully, keeping an eye on the creatures and waiting so none were near, then would thrust their hands into gaps under the old, lifting roots. The third man approached his second tree, only a few paces away from where the Guardian and I stood. Holding my breath, I waited for him to see us, to sound an alarm. His eyes passed over us without seeming to see us. A moment after kneeling, he stood, holding a soft, squirming lump the size of a basketball.
He headed back to the portal and when there, let out a slow whistle. His companions stood and hastily followed him through. The Guardian turned to me.
“This happened three days before the moon was at its fullest, as the passage of time in your world flows.”
I understood what she was showing me now. It was like a Fae security camera recording – a replaying of events that had already happened. We continued to watch as one of the barrow fiends lumbered towards the tree where the man had found the small creature. It plunged its head into the cavity beneath the tree, snuffled about its base. It was looking for something, its movements becoming frantic as it searched. After a few moments, it sat back and let out a piercing, mournful howl. The sound reverberated through me with grief and sadness. My eyes stung with tears and my chest tightened. Then, it vanished. I looked around but there was no trace of the creature. We waited and I felt time pass, though the scene in front of me still moved as normal. The creature reappeared, and howled again. Through the dream, I understood it had gone to my world, that I was watching it pass between here and there – and that as time stood still here, it was fleeing by on the other side. A day here could be a week in the mortal world, and I was watching the passage of several weeks’ time in my own world condensed to a single dream.
Bounding to the other trees, the creature continued to search. Its desperation and grief infected the rest of the herd who moved restlessly, several moving to pull their spawn from under the trees where they were hidden. The herd started to move, slow but steady, away from the site they’d been playing in. The one who’d lost her young remained, head-butting those who were leaving as if to implore them to stay. Then, she vanished again.
The Guardian pulled my hand down to the ground and we sat.
“Do you feel her grief?” she asked.
I nodded. It seeped right through to my bones, making them ache with sadness. Again the barrow fiend returned, and again she vanished after mere moments. We waited, longer this time, until an orange sun started to break over the horizon. Through the shadows stretching across the surreal landscape, we saw the movement of the herd. Some of them were still travelling away, while a smaller group had broken off and were returning. Noticing my curiosity, the Guardian explained.
“They are taking the herd to safety,” she said. The herd vanished into a small dip in the ground. “Those who are able will return to help their herd-mate. They would not leave her alone. They will help her seek her infant.”
However, the grieving barrow fiend did not return. The cluster of fiends milled about, sniffing the ground and awaited her return to no avail. Without warning, they lifted their heads as one and let out a deafening keening. Though I’d felt the grief of a mother before, now I was drowning in the grief of the herd, and I knew that the mother-fiend would not return.
My body trembled, shaking so hard that even sitting, I almost fell to the ground A slender arm enveloped me, dulling the cascade of grief that washed over me. Glancing to my side I saw a single tear slip down the Guardian’s face, though she showed no other sign of emotion. The sun climbed higher as the fiends milled about, knocking heads gently and rubbing against each other to ease their grief, but they showed no sign of leaving. The Guardian made a clicking noise and one shambled over to us. It snuffled her hand like a pet dog and she whispered in its ear.
It slowly approached me and gazed into my eyes. Whirling brown, with flashes of red sank deep into my soul as the weight of grief wrapped around me. A strange sensation filled my chest and made me understand what it wanted – my help. I didn’t know how to give it.
A warbling cry broke the still night, a sound of war. A portal split the air nearby. This time, it was close enough for me to make out details. It looked out onto a river, and a bridge that crossed it. The sight pulled at my memory – I knew the bridge; it was in London. A man stumbled backwards through the portal, almost falling, then caught his balance at the last moment. He looked around, bewildered for a moment as the herd stared at him. A koi fish tattoo on his arm seemed to move as his muscles bunched, his stance dropping into a defensive position. The whites of his eyes displayed his terror even as he readied himself to fight. It wouldn’t help him.
Rage filled me, lust for blood and vengeance. As one, the herd rushed him, trampling over his body and leaving it broken in their wake as they hurled themselves through the portal. The beast that had been with us was the last to get there, kicking up sods of dirt as it rushed to join its brethren. Now that its hypnotic gaze was broken, the sensations I felt washed away. Coming back to myself I watched, horrified as the fiend stopped at the man crumpled on the grass. With a quick duck of its head it picked him up, shook him like a dog with a bone and threw him into the air. As he fell, a swipe of a claw ripped him open. I started forward without thinking, but the Guardians grip on me was like iron.
“You can’t save him. Would you, even if you could?”
The last barrow fiend dashed through the portal a moment before it closed. The Guardian let me approach the man – she was right, he was dead, head twisted at an impossible angle and blood oozing too slowly for a working heart. Sickened, but unable to look away, my eyes settled on another koi fish – this one etched onto his cheek, a tiny version of the one on his arm. It seemed to move in the Fae sunlight. Finally, I tore my gaze away.
“Would you?” The Fae woman beside me pressed for an answer I couldn’t give.
I thought so. I hoped so, even with the pain of a mother’s loss still weighing my chest down like concrete.
“I have something that will help you in this quest.” My companion held a hand out and I saw a small ring nestled in the palm of her hand. “It holds a portal stone. The barrow fiends-”
“The barrow fiends.” I gasped, realising what I’d seen. They’d gone into the mortal world as a herd – there was no telling what damage they’d do. If seen, they’d be hunted and hurt and would fight back. It would be a disaster.
In my fright, I tapped into the power that lay dormant inside me. I shook off the dream-spell and woke in my own home, alone, sprawled across the couch I’d fallen asleep on. It was still dark. Without waiting to catch my breath, I threw on clothes, and traced a spell that would not only unlock my door but open it and the one downstairs, too. Calling for Lenny and fumbling with my phone, I raced downstairs.
Harrod answered the phone on the second ring. “What’s wrong?” It was late enough that he knew it wasn’t a social call – his voice was alert and ready.
“The bridge,” I panted, “You have to get to the bridge.”
“I’ll leave now. What do I need?”
“There’s a herd of barrow fiends coming through a portal – it’s underneath, on the east side. I don’t know when. Hurry, they might already be there.”
“Emma, which bridge?” The sound coming through the phone suggested he’d just stumbled, probably trying to get dressed.
“Do you know Masik’s bridge? I can’t remember what it’s called.”
“Masik… Oh! Yes, I’ll go right away.”
It was night-time, so Gibble was gone. I cursed that – I had no idea how to get word to Olfred if he was needed. Lenny bounded along beside me as I ran to the port-gate near my house. It took me two tries to get through, my anxiety choking me so badly I could barely speak the words required to activate it. The gate I used took me across the river, a short distance from the bridge.
Checking only to see that Lenny had gotten through with me, I took off again while gripping my phone and trying to press buttons. In my haste, I dropped it. Cursing, I stopped to retrieve it and waited until I’d dialled before setting off toward the bridge.
“Greyson,” came the curt answer.
“It’s me,” I said panting. “There’s a bunch of creatures coming. Under the bridge. East side, the one Masik lives near.”
“Ah hell, I’ll be right there. Gimme fifteen. Don’t you go in alone Emma; you hear me? Wait for me, I’ll be there as soon as I can.” A beep signalled that he’d ended the call. A minute later, I reached my destination.
I slowed to a trot and Lenny pulled his pace back to match mine. Creeping up around the corner, I was surprised to see a half dozen hobos settled around a campfire. Watching them, it didn’t seem as if anything was amiss. Something made a rustling sound behind me. I jumped, whirling to face the danger, wand out and ready even as my heart flew into my mouth. A familiar voice called out quietly.
“Put your wand down, it’s just us.” Martin opened his coat for some air and Harrod stood next to him, hands on hips, trying to catch his breath. “What’s happening? Harrod just told me to get the car, then we were bolting for the bridge.” Lenny sidled up to Martin, who scratched him behind one ear absentmindedly.
“I – there was a portal, opening here. A whole herd of fiends came through it into our world.”
“Here? Can’t be.” Harrod was still struggling to catch his breath as he spoke. “Can’t be here, there aren’t any major lines this close to the river. Your source was leading you on a goose chase from the sound of it.”
“Source? Harrod, it’s here, I saw it.”
“You saw it? Here? How?” He straightened, then looked around again as if to reassure himself there was no herd of wild Others waiting to trample him.
“A dream,” I said, distracted. Where was the portal?
“A… dream?” Harrod sounded confused.
“One of the Guardians came to me in a dream. She took me to the Other, showed me what happened when the smugglers stole a baby barrow fiend and brought it to our world. Harrod, Olfred was right. The smugglers are back and they’re stealing more than just a few beasts.”
“You’re not making sense. It can’t be a baby, we saw it. The beast that’s here is too big, causing too much damage.”
“Not the baby, the mother. She’s been popping between worlds looking for her offspring. We watched her go back and forth but she didn’t return. I think… I think she’d dead, Harrod. We waited, and a portal popped up in the Other – I saw the bridge, this bridge. It was here, dammit.”
Seeing no danger, I started down towards the group of people sitting where the portal should have been, Lenny trotting to my side as soon as he saw me move. I stopped short when a large figure blocked my way.
“What you want?”
Lenny pushed in front of me and chuffed at the large being. It was as if he was telling it I belonged to the big dog, and that the troll best tread carefully around me.
“Oh – you’re Masik?”
“Me, Masik.” The troll pointed to his chest to confirm that that was, indeed, who he was.
“Masik, did you see a portal here earlier? A doorway to the Other?”
“Huh. This bridge. Bridge no have door. Bridge flat, over water. Door? That hole in wall.” His big head shook in a condescending manner.
“Did you see any barrow fiends? Anything at all?”
“Barrow fiends Other.” Masik waved his big hands emphatically, then pointed at the ground in front of me. “Not here. Here, bridge.” Miming a bridge, he looked at me expectantly to see if I understood. I was getting the feeling he was the one who though I was dumb as bricks.
“I… can I speak to your people, please?” Masik was the guardian of this little bridge – at nine feet tall and with a face like a broken pot, he certainly made a good one. Still, he nodded warily and let me pass.
“Um, excuse me. Can you tell me – was there a portal here earlier? Like a hole in the air, leading to a big purple field. Or some creatures, big ones?”
I was met with shaking heads and looks of pity and confusion. Great. They thought I was mad. “Please, this is important.” Masik edged closer as my voice rose, Lenny burring up in response. Along with the bridge, Masik had taken guardianship of those who lived under it. The homeless who slept here were under his protection, and his looming presence reminded me I had best step carefully in his territory.
“It could have been hours ago. A day, even? It was here, I saw it!”
“Masik said no. That means no. He’s always here, never leaves.”
“Masik would’a seen it if’n it ‘appened ‘ere.”
I turned back to Harrod and Martin. Martin seemed to be on guard for anything that would leap out and attack him. Harrod’s focus was all on me. He frowned, hesitating. “You said it was a dream. You’re sure-”
“Of course I’m bloody sure, do you think I’d have dragged you out here otherwise?”
He raised his hands “Ok, it was just a question. After last year, I just thought that perhaps-”
“You shouldn’t think, Harrod, you’re terrible at it.” Martin said to him, then looked at me speculatively.
Greyson picked that moment to pull up in a car with another officer. He jumped out and strode over to me, giving Lenny the same distracted scratch Martin had earlier.
“What’s going on?”
“I… oh hell, I don’t know. I saw something, saw a portal opening, and it was here. Except, we’re here and the portal’s not, nor are the barrow fiends I saw pass through it.”
“I saw it from the Other, so I’m not sure. Time passes differently over there; I was watching the fiend that we’re chasing, I saw her pass through to this world and back three times. It happened in the space of minutes over there.”
“What did you see, exactly? No, close your eyes. Picture it in your mind and describe it to me, even the things you don’t think are important.”
I described what I’d seen – the stump of the bridge, the road beyond, the man falling through. Greyson led me over so I could view the bridge from the same angle I’d seen it through the portal. I pointed to the area I’d seen, Masik and his friends watching on warily.
“You said you saw the graffiti?”
“Yeah. It’s there, I’ve seen it before, you just can’t see it in the… in the dark!”
Greyson nodded at me as if waiting for me to connect the dots.
“The sun. The sun must have been…” I turned and pointed. “So, mid-morning?”
“Good, good. What else could you see – sky? Grass?”
I squeezed my eyes shut and wracked my brain. There had been a patch of ground just beyond… but here, it was straggling green grass. I hadn’t seen grass in my dream, just charred ground. I approached the gathering of mortals now huddled by their fire, talking in low voices.
“Listen, guys, can you do me a really huge favour?” Eyes turned to me warily. “See that bit of grass over there? If it changes – frosts over, dies off, anything like that – as soon as it changes, call me.” I found a scrap of paper and borrowed a pen from Greyson to write my number onto it. “It could get dangerous here. If there’s somewhere else you can go, you should.”
There was no response. I imagine living under the watchful eye of a troll makes a bit of grass seem somewhat boring in comparison. Harrod walked over to me and, in a quiet voice, asked if I still needed him here.
“No.” My voice was flat and I didn’t look at him as I spoke. “Go home. Charlie and I can stay and deal with this.”
“Look, I didn’t say I don’t believe you, I just know you’ve been under a lot of stress and-”
“Just go, Harrod. It’s fine.”
“Really. Fine. Go.” Lenny whimpered at my tone and butted my hip with his head. I gave it a quick rub as I turned away so Harrod couldn’t see my face. Martin, who had seen the exchange, just shook his head at his brother, then wandered off behind him after giving me a short wave goodbye.
“Hey, Greyson?” I climbed back up the small embankment to where he was talking to his partner. She looked up and gave me a nod as I approached, as Greyson turned to see what I needed. “Can I trouble you for a lift back to the gate?”.
“I’ll take you home. I’m not leaving you to walk the damned streets at this time of night, what do you take me for?”
“Thanks.” I didn’t have to be asked twice.
Greyson finished his discussion with the other officer, setting a schedule to keep watch over the bridge. “Anything, anything that happens or just doesn’t feel right, you get them to call it in, right? I’ll wait for Miles to get here; he can join you until the next shift starts.”
“Sure thing, captain.” She flipped her notebook closed, then turned to me again. “I’m Trainor, by the way. The captain told us you’ve been helping. Gotta say, we appreciate a set of eyes from the other side, so to speak.” Lenny lifted a paw and Trainor looked at him, quizzically. He kept it up and she put her hand out to shake it. Lenny made a snuffling sound, then dipped his head at her before shambling off to jump through a window into Greyson’s police car. Trainor gave me a nod then turned to the car. Eyeing Lenny who sat sedately in the back seat watching her, she pulled out a bottle of water and a small bag that she slung over her shoulder. “How far away is he?” she called to Greyson.
“I called him as soon as we got here. Should be any minute.” As if on cue another car rolled up. Greyson walked over and had a brief conversation through the window then gave Trainor a quick wave.
“I didn’t mean to pull you away from your people,” I said.
“You didn’t. I’m headed back to the station; my shift was over an hour ago. My team will keep a watch on the bridge, two officers, twenty-four seven. You think that’ll do it?”
“I guess so,” I said. I hoped so. Being wrong about what I’d seen would be embarrassing, and a blow to my credibility in Greyson’s eyes; being right could turn out to be much, much worse.
Once inside, alone with Lenny, I curled up in a chair with a blanket and hot cup of tea.
“Would you like to explain your astounding lack of manners earlier?” I said out loud, looked at my dog with an eyebrow raised.
Lenny made a guttural sound and rolled onto his back, looking up at me wistfully. Sneaking a toe out from under the blanket I rubbed his tummy.
“Seriously, Len, you don’t jump in someone’s car without permission.”
He whined apologetically.
“Oh, don’t pretend. You know everyone is wrapped around your little finger. Well, your paw.” I thought back to his interaction with Trainor. “You like Greyson’s partner, don’t you?”
He snuffed agreement and I smiled. I’d often had late night conversations like this with Lenny. I hadn’t realised his recent answers were more than just my imagination and the behaviour of a restless dog. As I moved my foot back into the warmth he curled up on my feet, putting his head down to sleep.
There would be no more rest for me tonight. The apparent ease with which the Guardian had entered my dream disturbed me. She’d meant no harm as far as I could tell, but what would stop it from happening again? She’d completely disregarded my wards, set up months ago but still rock solid.
Begrudgingly, I admitted to myself I hadn’t really intended to go to them as I’d let Gibble believe; not directly, at any rate. No, I thought wryly, I was too chicken for that. My plan had been to pass on the whatever information I found to whoever was brave enough to take it, then leave the Guardians to take care of Serraceuse. Maybe they’d known my intent and circumvented it, just because they could. Maybe they just wanted to meddle. There was no doubt in my mind that ‘wanting to help’ had no place in their motives. The Fae, and even more so, the Guardians, just didn’t work like that. Everything was part of a greater plan and that plan usually worked out to their benefit, or their entertainment.
Glumly, I looked into the bottom of my cup, then tipped the last mouthful of tea into my mouth. Something hard and round caught in my throat, causing a moment’s panic as I coughed it up. I spat it out into my hand, then felt a chill through my spine. It was the ring, the one that the Guardian had shown me. The dream had ended before she’d had the chance to give it to me. How the hell did it get in my tea? Damned Fae. Shuddering at the thought of a Guardian wandering around my flat while I’d made the tea, I carefully folded the ring in a tissue and tucked it inside the small satchel I used in place of a handbag. It was almost always with me, and the easiest way to keep the ring close without having to wear the cursed thing. I frowned, hoping it wasn’t actually cursed.
I woke the next morning to the screech of my phone. Shaking off the drowsiness and surprise at having slept at all, I checked the screen. Shit. It was the alarm I’d set to remind me of my lesson with Mergime. She hadn’t been happy when I’d asked to reschedule and I was sure the early morning catch up was some kind of sadistic revenge. When I double checked and saw it was the second alarm and that I’d slept through the first one, I jumped to my feet and started throwing things into a bag. It was a twenty-minute trip and I had half an hour to get there.
Harrod was waiting when I dashed outside twelve minutes later.
“Cutting it a bit fine, aren’t you?” was all he said. I ignored him, tapping my fingers nervously as the car pulled out into the traffic.
I did at least have the decency to yell a quick thank you for the lift when I threw myself out of the car a short time later. Barrelling up the door I took a bare second to right myself before knocking.
The door opened. Not to a barrage of attacks thankfully – I wouldn’t have been the slightest bit prepared. Instead, Mergime stood there with a scowl on her face. She stomped into the sitting room, leaving me trailing behind. Stopping, she picked something up and threw it at my chest. I flinched, not expecting it. Magic, yes. A newspaper? Totally got me. Confused, I opened it to see my face splashed across the front page of The Custodian. High Seat’s Secret Weapon the title read. I went on to read. Emmeline Beaumarchais, daughter of controversial Freedom Fighter Lucius Beaumarchais, has been enlisted by the Talent Council as a Mortal Liaison, in an attempt to woo the Talented populace into supporting new changes to the Agreement. The half-blood has been tasked with assisting the police on several high profile cases, and was instrumental in the fatal apprehension of Lord Mikael Opius of the Second Family, earlier this year. In addition, she has been sighted at several locations that suggest she is now involved in a case investigating the alleged escape of a smuggled Barrow Fiend… I stopped reading. This was awful. Though I hadn’t hidden my involvement with the O.C.U., having it make front page news was far more than I’d bargained for. I wanted as few eyes on me as possible, and this guaranteed the opposite would happen. A quick scan of the rest of the article and… yes, they’d gone on to mention the smuggling connection and even drawn it to Serraceuse and my father’s involvement with him. Greyson would be furious.
Mergime let out an irritated cough to get my attention. Hand on hips, her brows were knitted so tight they looked as though they’d joined, lips twisted so sourly they’d put lemons to shame.
“Are you suddenly so competent at wielding the Talent that you are no longer in need of my lessons?”
“What? No! Why would you think that?”
“Oh I assure you, I am under no illusion whatsoever regarding your competency. You, however, seem to be so arrogantly misinformed as to the level of your ability that you’ve taken on one of the most dangerous criminal organisations known to Talent-kind in the last century.”
“Would not have requested your assistance if he had not been under the misapprehension that you were qualified for it.”
“Didn’t what? Practice? Apply yourself? Dedicate yourself to learning the very basic principles that you struggle so poorly with?”
“Fine.” Heat rushed to my cheeks and for once, I wasn’t cowed by it. Anger rose inside me; I was sick of trying to control my loathing for this woman, sick of bowing and scraping to her. Turning, I took a step toward the door.
I stopped. My limbs froze, caught in a web of holding. Damn Talent.
“You will not walk away from me, you insolent little half-blood. I may have dedicated more time to teaching you than you have in learning but that doesn’t mean I’m done with you, not by half. You will not leave this room until you demonstrate the three basic skills, three times. You will not leave this house until you’ve blocked me twice, without letting your petty emotions run rampant and out of control. You will not speak, you will not move and you will not trace without my explicit instruction.”
The tracing that held me fell away in a blink. Caught off balance, I wobbled and had to grab the wall for support. When I opened my mouth to speak, it was snapped shut by another tracing. I reached out for my gift, vibrant and throbbing in my anger. Mergime saw – she often said I had a set to my face when doing it – and a pitcher of water rose off its tray. Cursing my lack of fortitude, I let go of the rising power.
“At least you have learned that lesson. Though, it took more than once to teach you not to use that little Talent of yours without permission.”
I tried not to breathe a sigh of relief when the pitcher settled back down. Mergime doused me over the head with it (yes, twice) for not listening to her, and resisting her with my gift. It might let me block direct attacks, but I couldn’t stop her manipulating objects around me.
“Now, the basic skills. Demonstrate.”
I ground my teeth, knowing that what she asked was impossible. Two of the three basic skills – knowing an objects form, and tracing a spell – were easy. Naming a trace was another matter entirely. Half-bloods couldn’t see the magic worked by another. We were born blind to all magic except our own. This created a double blow, because not only could we not recognise another tracing, we couldn’t learn from it either. Half-bloods had to fend for themselves, feeling out the magic by instinct and by trial and error. Luckily, a tracing gone wrong would just fizzle ninety-nine percent of the time. The other one percent… let’s just say there was a reason the half-blood life expectancy was a little lower than that of a full Talent.
Mergime held a vase out in front of me. Barely hesitating, I traced its pattern, the thing that made it what it was. She nodded, unimpressed.
“Make it weightless.”
Holding my wand out, I sullenly traced over the pattern, embellishing it in just the right places to detach it from the gravitational pull that held it down. It shifted slightly as Mergime let it go to hang in the air.
She pursed her lips and nodded once more. I immediately let the tracing go – affecting something so complex and so pervasive as gravity was difficult. The vase dropped, Mergime snatching out a hand to catch it before it hit the ground.
“Examine my tracing,” she said. The vase lifted again.
“I can’t see it, you know that.”
“Are you stupid as well as blind?” she asked.
“Well, I know you traced the same spell I did.” My shoulders sagged a little, the fight going out of me.
“Reverse it.” Her tone brooked no argument.
Reversing a spell meant I’d need to see her tracing, which I couldn’t. Instead, I tried to trace a spell that would weigh it down, make gravity latch on to it harder. Another difficult task and one I apparently didn’t have the strength for. The first part felt smooth, then, as I continued, it was more like trying to write tiny words in dry sand. As I’d expected, he tracing just wouldn’t stick – though small portions stood out clearly, others blurred and faded too quickly for them to work.
“Pay attention, you foolish girl,” Mergime berated me. “Don’t you see it?”
“I can’t do it! You’re a Talent, I’m a half-blood. I can’t see your tracing and I can’t alter it. What did you expect? I could barely hold the first one you asked me to do.”
“Trace it again – no, not that one, weightless. Girl, if you roll your eyes at me one more time…” The pitcher in the corner jiggled and I hurriedly tried to cast weightless again on the already-floating vase. Just as my last attempt, it wouldn’t get purchase, though this time a large portion of it held clearly. That was strange, it should have been less clear as my capacity for holding the spells diminished with each attempt.
“Oh for crying out loud. Tell me what you see.”
She was pushing awfully hard for a test designed to fail. I thought it though, forcing my aching brain into gear.
“It was easier the second time. Trying to trace over your spell was like writing in ink on wet paper – parts blurred and ran, but small portions stayed crisp, like on dry paper. The second time, it was like the paper was… less wet?”
“The parts that stayed – why?”
I rubbed my head. I hadn’t gotten enough sleep for this. “I have no idea, Mergime. I really don’t.”
“What? You said-”
“Come back when you learn to think. I don’t have the patience to deal with simpletons today.”
Stifling a growl, I did as I’d been told, in part relieved the ordeal was finally over. Still feeling dazed, I plodded down her front steps and into the street outside. The whole session had just been bizarre and I wasn’t sure what to think. Wrapping myself in my coat to fend off the drizzle that was just beginning, I set off for home, only realising when a horn beeped behind me that Harrod had come to drive me back. I slid into the car and rested my head on the window.
Harrod eyed me warily.
“What is it?” I asked.
He passed me a copy of the newspaper I’d seen at Mergime’s. I tossed it back on the seat.
“Ah. You’ve seen it then.”
“Mergime took it as a personal affront that’d I put myself in harm’s way like that. She seems to think I had a choice.”
“You could have turned Abnett down – I told you, I can speak to him.”
“Morally, Harrod. Morally, I didn’t have a choice.”
“Ah.” There was a short silence, then, “I have the map of lines. It took some convincing to let Abnett give me an official copy. I’m heading to see Greyson now if you’d like to join me?”
“I have to open the shop.”
He hesitated again.
“Oh come on Harrod, whatever it is, just say it.”
“There’s no ley line at the bridge. Or, there is, but it’s very weak – water tends to disrupt the patterns. The lines that close to the river aren’t even listed on most of the standard maps.”
I couldn’t help but sigh. “I’m not crazy, Harrod. I know what I saw.” He looked away.
“Harrod, what happens when you try to trace over another Talent’s spells?”
“Er, what? I usually succeed. I mean, it depends on the spell of course but-”
“What about when it doesn’t work, when they’re stronger? What does it feel like, what does it look like?”
“I… what are you talking about?” He seemed completely flummoxed by my abrupt change of topic.
“Mergime got me to trace over her spell. Twice. The first time was a counter-trace. The second was a re-trace of the spell she had active. It was hard, I mean weight-based spells are really taxing for me at the best of times, but the third time – the re-trace – was easier than the second one.”
“You mean it worked, you undid her tracing?” I winced at the shock in Harrod’s voice that my measly ability could outstrip Mergime’s.
“Of course it didn’t work, you lummox. I mean the strain of trying to do it was less. The trace – it’s so hard to explain. You know when you’re trying something outside your ability and the lines just fuzz into nothing? Some of it stayed clear.”
“I don’t see your point.”
“Neither do I…” My voice trailed off as I sank back into thought. I spent the rest of the drive in silence, so preoccupied with the question Mergime had posed that I almost didn’t notice when we reached my destination. Coming out of my reverie, I gave Harrod a quick thank you and a wave before I got out of the car. I walked to the door of my shop and coughed politely at the hobgoblin trying to break into my shop.
“I have the keys here, Barg. Would you like me to open the door?”
The hobgoblin sheepishly slipped the lock picks back into his pocket.
“Aha, many thanks, Lady. Barg was hoping to speak to the Lenny-dog if he is present and available?”
“You… want to ‘speak’ to Lenny. The dog.” I received a flourishing bow and a nod in return. Sighing, I unlocked the door and stepped aside as Lenny came bounding out, greeting Barg by slobbering on his small, wrinkled head. I latched open the door and flipped the sign on the door to say ‘open’.
“What are you two up to today?”
Barg hesitated, then rushed out a cascade of words that indicated they were simply going for a walk. There was more to this than he was saying, but I didn’t push it. He’d never let Lenny come to harm, and in a strange way, I trusted Barg. They left, Barg in his now-usual position astride Lenny’s back, and I set to work. Gibble showed up at his usual time, unhappy at Lenny’s absence.
“I not be knowing what Lenny-dog be doing with Barg, but Gibble be feeling that it not be good.”
“You don’t think they’re doing anything dangerous, do you?”
“Not be danger. Just trouble. Gibble be having to pay debts or make promises, most likely.” He sighed, big bristly brows pulling together and wrinkling his face.
“I’m sure it won’t be that bad, Gibble. Barg wouldn’t let Lenny get into trouble and Lenny wouldn’t let Barg do anything that stupid.”
“Yes, Lady.” His demeanour didn’t improve and he let out another sigh, softer this time.
“Gib? Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
“Something sad be in the air today, Lady. I not be knowing what, but today… it be a sad day.”
Refusing to say any more about it, he went about the day’s tasks. I joined him, a pit of worry settling deep in my stomach. The last time Gibble had had a feeling like this was three years ago, when a mortal had gone on a shooting spree at the central port-gate, killing everyone in sight. It was a massacre. An event in the Inner City had brought Fae and Otherworlders into the city, via the gate. So many had died, humans, Talents, Fae and Other, in such a short space of time. The tragedy was still etched in the minds of any who had been in the city that day.
The sense of dread pervaded everyone. The Others who came to shop with me that day were bristly, quiet except for vague mutterings about what was to come. The mortals and half-bloods, though they couldn’t feel it, reacted to the others and often left more subdued than when they came in. After the first couple of sales, I started adding a small packet of heartsease to each order. Ever since I’d learned to enchant my teas, I’d kept a small packet on hand for myself; when I opened the shop I extended that to my customers. There always a supply reserved for emergencies, and I felt that it may be needed by the day’s end.
I was almost relieved when Greyson called me in the afternoon. Gibble answered the phone then handed it to me, ears drooping and a face so sorrowful I thought my heart would break.
“What is it?” I asked him, afraid to take the phone call.
“I not be knowing, Lady, just that the sadness be near.” Terrified of what to expect, I put the phone to my ear.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, my voice breaking slightly.
“We’ve found it.” Charlie’s voice was clipped, urgent. “It trampled a fence, and it’s on the grounds of a small estate outside the city. House belongs to one a mortal, some tech giant apparently. The place is surrounded and they’re about to go in. I’m trying to hold them off until you get here, but you’ll have to hurry. I want you on the ground.”
“I’ll come right away.” Sick with fear, amplified by Gibble’s earlier statements, I scribbled down the address. A day of sadness – something was going to go wrong, I could feel it in my bones. I looked at Gibble for a moment, debating. Then,
“Everyone out. We’re closing, sorry. Emergency.” A quiet snarl from Gibble hurried them up. He held the door open for me and I flicked the lock with my wand as we left.
We headed to the nearest port-gate and jumped outside the city. Greyson had organised a car for me and it was waiting when we got there. The driver, a young policeman with sandy hair and an eager smile, greeted us enthusiastically, even as the car creaked under Gibble’s weight when he dubiously sat in it. He didn’t take cars often.
“We’re only a few minutes away ma’am. The Armed Response Unit was called in first – the Captain’s arguing with them now. I hope we’re back before he rips their heads off, he’s a sight when he’s angry, he is. Well, so long as it’s not at one of us, but that doesn’t happen often.”
I kept half an ear on his chatter as the car slid up a driveway owned by someone with a whole lot of money. The house was monstrous, and dwarfed the dozen marked cars and three black sedans parked in the ample driveway. Greyson stood outside with four of his underlings – I recognised most of them by sight now. Two other officers leaned back against cars talking into radios. One started to approach us, but Greyson beat him to it.
“They’re with me,” he growled at the other officer.
“She’s a civilian. She can’t be here, and he’s a bloody monster.” The red faced man continued towards us, jabbing a finger in Gibble’s direction. My shoulders tightened and I stood taller, ready to meet the threat.
“She’s a consultant and he’s with her.” Greyson smirked and added in lower voice, “Paperwork’s already been lodged.”
“Consultant, pah.” The burly, red-faced man looked me up and down disdainfully. “Keep ‘em on a short leash, Greyson, or it’ll be one more nail in that coffin I’m building for you.” He stalked off, after lighting a cigarette, sucking on it, then flicking some ash in Gibble’s direction. The boggart just shrugged and turned to Greyson.
“What the hell was that about?” I asked, heart slowing now the beast of a man was no longer in front of me.
“Asshole.” Greyson’s fists were clenched and I could almost see the steam pouring from his ears. Swallowing down the last of my own rage, I put a hand on his arm to calm him, worried he was about to walk over and throw a punch at the other officer. Shaking me off, Greyson walked back to his car, Trainor inside with a radio in her hand. It crackled to life and someone spoke. Trainor popped her head out.
“Cap’, it’s a mess in there. Sturk’s boys have opened fire and Miles has completely lost control of them.”
“Ahh, to hell with it.” Greyson reached in the back of the car and hurriedly threw a bullet-proof vest on. “Not letting my people go down for that prick.”
“Woah, opened fire? Why can’t we hear shots?” I looked from Trainor to Greyson, who slammed the car door shut. “You’re not going in there, are you?”
Greyson, ignoring me, strode off in the direction of the mansion’s front door. Trainor punched the dash of the car.
“Trainor, what the hell is going on?” My voice was unsteady as I watched him disappear through the big doors, Gibble’s words from earlier bouncing through my skull. Please, not him.
“Sturk – yeah, him,” she motioned to detective ‘asshole’ who was speaking into his own radio. “Got here first. Because a mortal called it in as a threat and Sturk has the guns, he figured he had point. Bastard wasn’t even going to let us on-site until Greyson threatened to take it to the uppers. Sturk let Miles, one of our boys, and a couple others go in with his team. Miles and their unit leader were supposed to coordinate, but it’s been a shit fight the whole way.”
“Who are they shooting at?”
“They came across an old barn. Looks like some kind of private zoo, and our fiend has forced its way in. Some of the cages were damaged and a few animals got loose. Between that, the police, and the security on site, it’s a mess.”
“Why would security be causing problems?”
Trainor snorted. “Not exactly legal to have a zoo full of smuggled animals now, is it?” She jumped when Gibble let out a low growl. “We weren’t supposed to find it. A maid called in the incident, they weren’t gonna let us in when we got here.”
They were shooting at innocent creatures – creatures I’d promised Olfred I would do my best to protect. Steeling myself, I turned to Gibble with fearful eyes. He nodded.
“We have to get in there.” I said to Trainor. Her eyes widened but then she looked at me discerningly.
“You taking your friend?”
“Yes.” I waited with bated breath. I didn’t want to go against her orders, but I would if I had to. She reached into the back and threw another vest at me.
“Take that. If Greyson asks, I tried to stop you, hear me? Gods, he’s gonna have my balls for breakfast when he sees you in there.” Quickly explaining the route they’d taken to get into the enclave as I strapped the bulky vest on, she added, “I can’t give you a weapon. You’re on your own in there.”
“Not quite,” I said, holding up my wand. My voice was steady, and sounded more confident than I felt, knowing my ability to trace anything would still be painfully difficult from yesterday’s efforts. Together, Gibble and I headed in the same direction Greyson had gone moments earlier.
“Oy, stop there,” Sturk called. I flicked my wand and the back tyre of his car exploded with a bang, not even regretting it when I was rewarded by a twinge of pain in my skull. He hit the deck and Gibble and I hurried through the big doors. I prayed he wouldn’t follow us in.
The manor was huge but easy to navigate. We quickly found the outer door Trainor had described and headed through. Together we trotted down a short path, then ducked between some bushes that had been trampled. There, hiding behind an overgrown fig, was the barn, one door hanging off a single hinge. Gibble and I stood in eerie silence for a moment, then heard muffled yelling. Gibble held a hand up and pulled the door open. His body blocked the entrance as I heard a gunshot ring out, deafeningly close.
Over the ringing of my ears I heard a man yell, “Stand down! Stand down! Goddammit, Faulkes, if you don’t put your goddamned gun down, I’ll have your badge.”
I entered to chaos. Next to the door, a man in a white suit splattered with blood curled in a corner, sobbing. A little further along lay the sleek, unmoving body of a barrow fiend. Gibble pulled me back as I tried to go to it. I looked up and realised I’d walked in on a massacre. There were a dozen people here, standing around, some with guns pointed at motionless lumps on the floor. Greyson looked up at my entrance, eyes haunted, face hard. He nodded grimly at me and I noticed the gun in his hand, though not pointed at anyone in particular, was out and just slightly raised. I tightened my grip on my wand and held a spell at the ready.
“Right. You, you and you – out, and take them with you. You too, Faulkes.” An officer in body armour opened his mouth but was cut off. “Don’t you bloody argue with me. You’re outranked, and out of your depth. I’ve got the scene now.” The officers he’d motioned to marched out, each one herding a handcuffed security guard in front of them. “Myles, you here stay with this one.” He thrust his chin at the man in the corner. Myles said something into his radio and it crackled back at him. “Bus is still fifteen away sir.”
“Then you watch him for twenty. He’s not hurt, he’s a coward. The girl down there gets medical priority. Filthy animals.” The last was said in a low voice as if to himself. I didn’t think he was talking about the creatures in the room.
The huge space inside the barn had been adapted to resemble a high-tech zoo. The walls were padded with a soft layer to muffle sound and barred rooms ran along the walls, the bareness of the concrete walls broken by plants and greenery. The floors were covered in straw and the stink of animals and blood made my stomach want to heave. Three cage doors hung open, bent out of shape. I walked carefully through the debris on the floor – broken bits of cement and roof tiles chipped from gunfire, bits of plant matter, water, blood… Approaching the nearest cage I saw what was inside. When I reached a hand out to the lifeless serpent, Gibble pulled it back, shaking his head. Boggarts didn’t have tear ducts. I was glad of that, in this moment, while I tried so hard to keep my own emotions in check.
“Olfred?” I said, looking to Gibble. “Perhaps Deirdre too, if you can find her quickly.”
Gibble looked to Greyson. “It be safe for Lady if Gibble be gone?”
Greyson gave him a tired nod, then said “Any help you can bring… this… this is just bad.”
Gibble slipped back out the door.
Further along, one of the locked rooms held a wall of smaller cages, some empty, some not. Three bearded luskes sat quietly in a corner with their plumed heads flared in distress. One opened its mouth at me, stretching it wide to show tiny rows of pointed teeth. It probably knew it couldn’t hurt me, but was desperate to ward off any threat in this terrifying place with nowhere to hide. Under the luskes, a reptilian creature lay motionless. There was nothing to suggest it was still alive.
I jiggled the padlock on the door then traced an unlocking on it. A quiet snick, heard in the now silent room, told me it had worked. Carefully stepping inside, I checked over the cages, thankful most were empty. There were some long-eared sorn’ts, and a tiny ball of fur that hissed when I approached. Heartsick, I decided against opening the cages until Olfred could see to them.
A few more steps and I could peer into the next small room. It was empty, the door unlocked and straw roughly swept into a corner. A plastic wading pool in the middle of the room held a murky grey puddle, and grey, congealed grease coated the bottom of the wall as though a muddy soccer ball had been rolled against it. A jolt went through me as I touched the residue. It was too thick to be fresh. It had to be where they’d held the baby fiend, so where was it now?
The rear of the building was built out to create a room a little larger than the others. This one had a proper door, with a clear plastic square fitted as a viewing window. The door sat ajar and I pulled it open. My knees trembled and my breathing stopped. The cell – for that’s what it was – looked almost like a tiny bedroom. A singe bed with a purple coverlet; a tiny side table with a tattered book, a mirror, a hairbrush; a rug on the floor, dirty and faded. And on the bed, curled into the tightest of balls and crushed as close as the wall as she could get, a demi-fae.
The girl looked young – like a thirteen-year-old if she were human. I wasn’t great at working it out but that should mean she was in her seventies. For a demi-fae… that was about the equivalent of a young adult human. They’d been keeping her down here to use as… I nearly retched on the floor. A female officer sat in the opposite corner of the cell, eyeing me, as if to warning me not to approach. I didn’t. Whatever atrocities she’d been subjected to, a room full of spectators wouldn’t be helpful.
Stepping back out, I completed my circuit of the barn, Greyson waiting at the door to give me my space. Thirteen creatures dead, nine injured badly and seven alive and well. I approached the body of the barrow fiend and lay a hand on its back. It twitched slightly. It was alive? I came around to examine its face and one cloudy eye opened. It focused on me and I leaned close to pat its greasy hide, ignoring the sting in my hand where I touched it.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered to it, tears dripping down my face. “I’m sorry I couldn’t save you.”
Icy cold washed through me. The room spun and blackness closed in. A pinprick of light widened and then, I could see a single image. A tiny, dark ball of fur, covered in the slick, protective substance that would keep its skin healthy. Longing and loss pierced me, a feeling of failure; then, a feeling of hope. Understanding rushed through me and I nodded, whispering a promise to the fallen mother. My vision cleared an instant later, and I stood.
Walking over to the man huddled in the corner I called out to Greyson.
“Him? He’s the bastard that put them down here.” Greyson spat on the floor, unable to bring himself to look at the cowering man properly.
“Mind if I have a word with him?” I asked in a perfectly reasonable voice. Despite my tone, rage boiled inside me, searing my insides and aching for a way out.
“Oh, go ahead. You’re outside the realm of my jurisdiction, you know, so you can do whatever the hell you want.” His voice was just as placid as mine, but the man at my feet whimpered and curled tighter into his pathetic little ball.
“Please, please, I didn’t do anything wrong. I cared for them, gave them a home…”
My foot struck him in the side and he spasmed. Leaning down to get closer to his ear I said in a low voice, “You’re keeping a demi-fae. Do you know what her people will do to you when they find you?”
“Oh please, no, you have to keep them away!” The man’s voice rose to a squealing pitch as he spoke.
“Keep them away? I could open a portal for them right now. In fact, the reward for turning you over to them…” My wand traced a pattern in the air as I stood and the man started screaming. Baring my teeth, I traced a spell of silence on him and the horror on his face increased as he tried harder to make himself heard. After a few moments he gave up, shutting his mouth and squeezing his eyes closed.
“How did you get them?” He didn’t answer, so I kicked him again. My eyes slid over to where Greyson stood, arms crossed and back turned.
“Listen to me, you despicable little man. Your men – whoever they were – took an infant barrow fiend from the Other. Where is it?”
I waited until he looked ready to speak and lifted the spell.
“-my men, they weren’t my men! I just bought the animals off them, I didn’t take them, I’d never do a thing like that”
Holding my wand up was enough to get him to stop talking again. “See that?” I pointed to the barrow fiend. ”You had one of those, a baby. Where. Is. That. Baby.”
“I’ll make you a deal, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you everything if you promise to keep them from me.”
“No deal. You tell me everything, now, and I won’t open a portal at my feet. After that, you’re on your own.”
“Fine, fine! I sold it, I sold the thing. I couldn’t afford to keep feeding it, Carter didn’t tell me how much it needed and I couldn’t keep up. I sold it back, at a loss, I lost twenty grand on it, oh no, oh god please don’t-” I silenced him again, then traced a bubble around Greyson and I so he couldn’t hear us.
“I think he’s ready to tell you anything you need,” I said.
“Thanks. Sorry. Sorry you had to see all this. And deal with him.” His face was worn and gaunt, and I had to resist the urge to pull his head down to my shoulder. There would be time for that later.
The door to the barn opened just as I dispelled the privacy spell. Olfred thumped through, then stopped, aghast. He’d have known it would be bad, but I don’t think anything could have prepared him for this. A low keening sound started in the back of his throat as he walked through the room, placing a hand on each of the dead creatures he passed. He ventured into the cages, his presence soothing the frightened animals as mine had roused them to hysterics. His low voice spoke a language I couldn’t comprehend as he treated each one with care and tenderness, never ceasing the low cry for his fallen friends. He passed the cell at the end and I called out to him.
“Olfred please, see to her. She needs your help.”
“I dinna treat Fae or Human, ye know that lass. Hers will come, they not be waiting long.” He proceeded over to a cage where the fallen serpent lay and placed a hand over its face. A sound at the door made me jump, and I turned to see Deirdre storming through, Gibble close behind. She faltered for only a moment when she saw the carnage in the room. Giving Olfred a low bow, she made the hand sign for peace and respect. Olfred, though he’d clashed with her in the past, seemed to accept this. “Ye be needed in th’ back, lassie.” Deirdre looked at me for confirmation and I nodded, pointing to the cell where the demi-fae was still cloistered.
Watching her gently approach the door, I turned and leaned into Gibble for a moment of comfort amongst the heartache. Greyson was talking to the white-suited man and jotting notes down – I hoped the scumbag knew enough to lead us straight to the barrow fiend’s pup.
Leaving Gibble, I went back to the small cell. The demi-fae hadn’t moved and neither had the officer. Deirdre leaned over the bed, looking worn about the eyes, suggesting it had taken a good deal of magic to heal the girl. Remembering the ring the guardian had given me, I dug it out of my bag.
“Here,” I said carefully and reached out to place it on her bed. “Someone gave this to me, but I think it was meant for you. Do you know how to use it?”
Strikingly blue eyes widened. The child was pretty, like a finely sculptured porcelain doll. It tore at me to see her ebony hair lank and dirty, her dark skin swollen and bruised.
“The old ones – they sent you to rescue me?”
“Well… I guess so. I’m sorry – I didn’t do a very good job.”
“Your spirit-pet, she came and found us. No one else could. The man in white, he paid for wards that would keep my people’s eyes away. Your spirit pet, she found us anyway. She saved us.”
“She was very brave,” I said, forming a tiny smile. The girl moved to take the ring.
“The good man – he is your knight?”
She pointed at Greyson. “The other men, they came in with weapons and they killed. Your knight stopped them. He protected us, he and his people. They are good people. Why did the others who came try to hurt us?”
“I think they were afraid,” I said, hedging my bets. I’d be speaking to Greyson about that later. “They didn’t understand what was happening here, that you were being held against your will. They saw the creatures and thought they were dangerous. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“I must go,” she said. “I must tell of the Knight and the Spirit. If I do not, my people will have anger towards yours. I must tell them you saved me.” The demi-fae slid the ring on her finger and slipped into a sliver of light that vanished as soon as it was formed. The officer in the room with us reached out instinctively to stop her, but she was gone.
Gibble came over and I realised he’d been watching.
“It be good that she did go. Hope that she be speaking to Guardians. They be angry if they be thinking the humans be doing this and none did stop them.”
“Oh, Gib.” I buried my face in his side as he wrapped leathery arms around me. “How could this happen?”
“Myles led the team in, they were supposed to answer to him. When they got to the barn, a few creatures were loose. The big one, our fiend, had one of the hired security bailed up against a wall. It hadn’t done anything to him, the man was fine. Myles said they were all just frightened animals looking for a way out of the building, none of them were a risk. He tried to get the team to move aside, let the creatures run. One of the on-site security tried to stop them. ‘Valuable merchandise’ I believe was the term used. Sturk’s men opened fire anyway. It was a slaughter; poor beasts didn’t stand a chance.”
His eyes were dull and his voice flat. I’d ever seen him like this before. I placed a hand on his shoulder and he leaned into my waist, face hidden. He started to soften as I rubbed the knot of tension from his neck.
“I’m going after them, Em,” he said in a quiet voice. A heavy weight settled in my gut, a feeling of dread and certainty. I opened my mouth but it took two tries for the words to come out.
“So am I.”
I didn’t open the shop the next day, or the day after. Melanie called, but I didn’t answer my phone. It felt like too much to try to explain. I stayed locked up inside, grieving for the lives that had been lost and the deaths I should have been able to prevent. It was only Lenny and Gibble that gave me any solace, Lenny nuzzling my face when I cried, Gibble sitting with a book and an endless supply of tea. Neither expected me to speak, work or doing anything of consequence. Together, we mourned for those who had no one to mourn them.
Martin phoned on the second day. The discovery of the underground zoo had finally made the news that morning, and he’d wanted to check on me.
“Emma, we saw what happened. Are you alright?”
“Yeah, Martin. I just need a few days to myself, that’s all.”
“Understood. Well, I understand; Harrod’s probably barrelling over right now to check on you.” He sighed. “I probably should have thought to stop him. Sorry.”
“It’s fine. He wouldn’t have listened.” Cringing at the thought of Harrod turning up while I was in this state, I resolved to tidy up as soon as I put the phone down.
“Well, you’re right about that. The man’s an expert at ignoring the sage advice of his younger brother. Anyway, you take care and promise you’ll let me know if you need anything, whether it’s a cup of tea or somewhere to hide a body.” I winced at his choice of words, but told him thank you. Just as I said goodbye, Harrod knocked on the door. Typical. Letting him in, I wrapped my shawl around me to hide a coffee stain on my shirt, then collapsed back into the chair I’d been hibernating in. Gibble didn’t look up.
“Was it bad?” Harrod asked.
“It was terrible. I keep seeing it when I close my eyes. All the blood. The bodies. That girl, Harrod. The pain in her eyes, and what she’d endured… demi-fae are so beautiful, graceful, to see one beaten down like that is just awful.”
“It’s over now. You’ve done your part and fulfilled your promises. You can start moving on, put it behind you.”
I looked at him, confused. “Harrod, what do you mean? They haven’t found the smugglers, just one buyer. I need to track them down, I need to find them and get the pup back to its herd.”
Harrod sighed. “You have to stop this. They’re smuggling demi-fae, Emma, these people are dangerous. You’re going to get yourself killed if you keep sticking your nose in this”
“Sticking my – Harrod, I’m trying to help stop monsters. They took a demi-fae. You know how serious that is, what it means. The Fae could go to war over it if they think we’re not doing enough. The mortals don’t know, they don’t understand what war with them would mean. You can’t seriously think I’m going to sit back and let that happen?”
“Why do you need to be the one to do it? Leave it to Greyson and his department, and to the Council. It’s their job, not yours. You’re not an officer, not a Lord, you’re just…”
“The tea lady.” I snapped the words out with more venom than I’d ever spoken. “Oh I get it, Harrod. You think I should stay here in my little shop and let the important people fix it, the clever Lords with their incredible Talent. I’ve got news for you – they’re not. They’re not doing a damn thing to stop this from happening. Have you even spoken to Abnett to see what his solution was? He offered to increase my retainer. He’s not devoting a single resource to this other than me.” When Harrod tried to speak, I slammed my fist into the table, cutting him off. “The police are doing more harm than good with bigots like Sturk getting involved, and Greyson’s hands are basically tied dealing with him. Who does that leave, Harrod? Not the special people, not the mighty Talent Lords, people like me. People who run tea shops. Old gods. Boggarts. Even Martin’s offering to help and all you can do is tell me to keep out of it?”
Taken aback by my outburst he tried to backpedal but I wasn’t in the mood to hear it. I told him to leave and when he refused, I glanced at Gibble. When the boggart stood and took a few threatening steps towards him, Harrod finally understood I was serious. He gave a bewildered glance to the creature he’d thought of as friendly, the one who’d once sworn to protect him… and who was now threatening to grab him by his perfectly stiff, white collar and throw him into the muddy gutter outside. Harrod left, and I went back to sitting in my chair, wishing the pain would go away.
An hour later, I cursed as someone else rang my doorbell. Peeking through the window I cursed again when I saw Bee standing out front. I’d forgotten she was coming, though she must have arrived early. We’d scheduled for four o’clock and it was only… ah, hell, it was five past. Had I really lost the entire day? I opened the door and called down for her to come up to my living quarters, then threw a few coffee cups into the sink and some clothes into the laundry basket. To say my flat looked ‘lived in’ was an understatement, but I couldn’t muster up the energy to care.
Bee entered the room, looked around and gave a polite snort.
“Oh Emmeline. I know you’ve been through a lot in the past days, but really…”
I glared at her through narrowed eyes, entirely prepared to give her the same treatment Harrod had received not long before.
“Don’t look at me like a sullen child. You have work to do.”
“Of course. You don’t think this debacle is over, do you? The mortal police force that killed the poor souls in that place have set something off far bigger than they realise. Half the Other is ready to go to war over it.”
My head dropped to my hands. “Bee, what can I do? I utterly failed at protecting even the barrow fiend. I got there too late and only because Greyson called me there. He’s the hero, I’m just the useless bystander.”
“You care, Emmeline. That might be just enough to save us, but not if you give up now. You returned the child, now save the pup. When it matters, you will make a difference. You will save them. For now, though, your tasks are somewhat simpler.” She eyed me up and down, then shook her head disparagingly. “Get dressed. Brush your hair and wash your face. I can’t work when you’re in this state.”
I did as requested. When I returned to the living room she had a dress of sombre charcoal and lace, adorned with small stones that looked like glittering tears. It fitted my mood perfectly. Bee fussed around, making minor adjustments.
“Is that buffoon of a Talent Lord behaving himself?”
I rolled my eyes and she sighed. “Why is it that the more power a man has, the less wisely he uses it?”
“I don’t know, Bee. I swear, he thinks I’m completely incompetent.” She tactfully didn’t mention I’d been feeling the same way. “I’m sick of him trying to wrap me in cotton wool and I want to slap him for his self-righteousness. At least Greyson can accept my choices.”
“And how is our esteemed Captain?”
“Oh, Bee.” Pain welled in my chest as I remembered his visit. “You should have seen him. He looked so… broken.”
“The other night?”
“Yes, he – oh, stop.” Bee raised a delicate eyebrow and one corner of her mouth twitched. “It wasn’t like that.”
“And Harrod?” she asked.
“What about him?”
“Is he taking this well?”
“Bee, there’s nothing to take! Harrod and I are just friends, though right now I’m hesitant to even call him that. The man needs to look around and realise he’s not the only person in the room with half a brain, and start treating people like equals instead of errant children.”
“Well yes, there is that. The two of you need to work out your differences before the Gala. You’ll need to show a united front, no matter what’s going on between the two of you.”
The conversation lapsed and she continued to work, lifting my hair then letting it fall, pulling it over my face then pushing it back and holding up various pieces to see how they looked.
“Bee, why did you have to come today? You’ve never fitted a dress for me before, you just make them.”
She was silent for a moment. “I wanted to check on you. You saw terrible things, Emmeline. You mustn’t lose heart though; good things will come. Chin up, child. We’re relying on you.”
It wasn’t until after she’d left that I realised she had booked the fitting weeks before. How had she known I’d need her that day?