Panting, the young woman raced on as the empty scabbard at her side slapped madly against her thigh, her short black hair damp and stuck to her forehead as her footsteps echoed loudly through the night. As she raced, she scanned her surroundings, her eyes darting from shadow to shadow with nary a break in her stride. The smaller shadows, she ignored outright, for they posed no danger to her. But the larger shadows, those she scanned as closely as she could as she raced past.
“Where is it?” she breathed as her eyes darted from shadow to shadow. “Where the bloody hells is it?”
In her desperate scans, the young woman paid little mind to the shadows above her, and it was those that housed that which she sought, for as she raced, so too did the beast. Leaping from shadow to shadow, its eyes glowing in the night as it landed on silent paws with each leap, the creature seeming to meld into one shadow before bounding out of a shadow beyond, its paws making nary a sound each time. Its gaze was upon its quarry throughout, salivating as it sensed the coming kill. It knew it should end the chase, for soon, they would be out in the open, but the fear emanating from the woman filled its nose and whet its appetite like nothing else, till at last, unable to contain itself any longer, it pounced at the woman, its maw open wide as a row of razor sharp teeth sought its prey’s flesh, a soft growl emanating from its throat as it sailed through the air.
And it was that self-same growl that saved the woman’s life, for the moment it reached her ears, she dove to the side, sliding upon the cobbled street as the beast sailed overhead to crash into the wall of the building to her left before bounding off it and sliding down the street.
With her teeth gritted hard, the young woman scrambled to her feet and raced on, a raging inferno engulfing her lungs as she bounded down the street to her right, the manic scraping of the beast’s claws upon cobblestone filling the woman’s ears as the beast scrambled after her. And thus, the chase continued.
But the chase was soon ended, for it was an alley that the woman had run down, and as its end came into view, the beast slowed, and with its teeth bared, it growled once more as it sauntered towards its prey.
The woman was at the alley’s end now, her eyes scanning frantically for an exit, but there was none. The walls were smooth, impossible to climb, and their top was simply too high for her to leap to, nor was there anything around to climb upon. It seemed certain this was the end.
Turning at last, she faced the beast, and with her back to the wall, she watched as it approached.
“You…” she said, her voice quivering. “You little bastard… This is what you did to the others, eh? Ran them down, did you? Get them caught somewhere, did you? Did you like that, then? Eh? You like watching them sweat, that it? You like listening to them beg, eh? Well, do you?”
Stopping within pouncing reach of the woman, the beast smirked, its saliva dripping from its lips. It was time to feed, and it would be a feast he was sure to enjoy.
But then, just as the beast moved to pounce, the woman smiled, it was a smile that chilled the beast’s blood and stopped it in its tracks, its growl gone as it raised its head and stared frowning at the woman.
“Well, you bastard?” the woman bellowed. “Did you like it?”
Licking its lips, the creature stared at the woman a spell, unsure what to make of her change of mood. Then its stomach growled again, and as its snarl returned, it lowered its head, preparing to pounce. As it did so, its gaze fell to the cobbled street beneath it, and it was then at last it noticed the single red line painted onto the cobblestones, a line it was now standing upon.
“Now!” the woman roared, raising her gaze to the walls. “Do it now!”
Startled, the beast turned to the walls, and it could only watch as four others appeared atop them, staves in their hands as they chanted as one, and before the beast could move, a brilliant light filled the night sky, emanating from the tip of the staves, and with a brightness to blind the beast and banish all shadow from the alley.
Yelping, the beast staggered back as it sought to clear its vision, but as it did so, a wild roar rang out, followed swiftly by booted feet upon cobblestones, and as the beast turned to where its query once stood, it opened its eyes just in time to watch as the woman plunged a rune-etched stake into its shoulder.
Whining, the beast darted back, before barking and lunging at the woman once more, its swift motion startling the woman and sending her staggering back, and as she fell, the beast leapt at her, its pain driving it into a murderous rage. But even as the woman fell, her mind was clear, and as the beast leapt, the woman pulled back a foot and kicked out with all she had, slamming her boot against the stake and driving it deeper into the beast.
Howling, the beast scurried away from the woman and reached for the stake, the runes upon it glowing with a vibrance that shone far above the light about them, and as the beast howled and whined, it tugged at the stake, but the more it tugged, the brighter the runes glowed.
“Ha! You’re never getting that bloody thing out!” the woman yelled, the triumph in her voice unmistakable.
Then she stood tall and turned to the others. There were two more upon the wall, and they had bows nocked. “Kill this bloody thing! Now!”
The two archers raised their bows and aimed, their arrows bearing some of the same runic etchings upon the stake, and as one, they loosed their arrows. But the will to survive is strong in all creatures, and in the moment right before the arrows were loosed, the beast chanced a glance up, and as its eyes fell upon the rune-etched arrows, it yelped and ducked its head, then spun on its heel and raced back the way it came.
“What?” the woman gasped, her eyes wide. “No! No, no, no, no! You’re not supposed to be able to move! Damn it, after it!”
And then, the hunter became the hunted, the beast tearing down the street in its frantic search for sanctuary. Time and again, it leapt towards a nearby shadow, desperate to fall into its dark embrace, but each time it leapt, the shadow was banished by the light of the stake within it, and stumbling, it turned and raced on.
Panting, the beast glanced behind it, and sure enough, the woman was giving chase, fresh sword in hand as the two archers raced on behind her. They were fast, without a doubt, and worse, the stake was taking its toll, the magic within it sapping the beast’s strength at an alarming rate, not to mention the searing pain coursing through the beast. There was no doubt in the beast’s mind, it had to find a place to hide and quickly, for it would soon no longer have the strength to even lift a paw.
Barrelling down a side street, the beast raced on, its eyes scanning the night, searching for salvation. But the light, the infernal light, it kept salvation at bay.
“Don’t bloody lose it!”
And then, the beast’s steps began to slow, its paws leadening. It was nearing the end of its strength, and still, its hunters pursued it. But it pressed on, nonetheless. This could not be its end. It just couldn’t.
Then, without warning, an arrow pierced its thigh, and with a yelp, the beast leapt to the side, crashing through the fence beside it and stumbling down a steep flight of stairs before falling into an open sewer to be carried away from its pursuers.
“No! Gods damn it, no! Get after it!”
With near euphoric relief, the beast let itself be carried by the tepid current, the stake’s light lighting its path as it drifted on till it reached a half-open box of rotting vegetables. Using the box for leverage, the exhausted beast pulled itself from the sewer and lumbered forth, its senses too dimmed for even the rancid stench upon it to pierce, and in a stupor, it lumbered on till at last, its strength was spent, and with a soft, low whine, it stumbled onto its knees before collapsing onto its side, the stake’s light a beacon for any seeking it as it lay still.
It was the soft brushing against its nose that woke the beast, the sound of gentle licking filling its ears as it fought to open its eyes, and as it used all its strength to raise its head, the beast stared at last as the large Saint Bernard before it.
Stopping, the large dog stepped back and sat before staring at the beast, its head to the side. The beast in turn held its gaze a spell, then huffed and lowered its head onto the cobblestones beneath it. As it did so, the dog rose and neared it before nudging it with its nose. But though the beast wished with all its might to slay the idiotic dog, it could do nothing save brave the indignity of being poked and prodded by such a base creature.
Then the dog began licking it again, and in response, the beast growled with what little strength it could muster. Once more, the dog sat back and stared at the beast, its head to the side. Grateful for the respite, the beast closed it eyes and focussed on gathering its strength. It was a miracle its pursuers hadn’t found it yet, but it was under no illusions that they hunted it still. It had to rise, find a way to escape, find a way to…
Then the dog returned, and this time, it began licking the stake itself.
Startled, the beast snapped at the dog, its jaws missing the dog’s snout by a hair’s breadth, and raising its gaze, it growled at the dog. But then, a most peculiar thing happened – the light from the stake began to dim.
At first, the beast and the dog stared at one another in silence before turning to the stake, and as the silence grew, another of the stake’s runes began to fade, and then another, and then another, till at last, the only light around was from a nearby street lamp.
Rising on unsteady legs, the beast grabbed hold of the stake and pulled, but the stake did not budge. Growling, it pulled and pulled, and pulled again, using every ounce of strength it had, but the stake remained unmoving, and then, utterly spent, it crumpled onto the cobbled stones once more, laying still as it panted and whined softly.
Then the Saint Bernard stepped forth, stopping right before the beast, and lying on his belly, reached forth and licked the stake, then turned to the beast. The beast turned to the dog, staring deep into his eyes, and after a brief spell, it lay its head down once more, and tensed as hard as it could.
With a snort, the dog turned to the stake, licked it once, then, ever so gently, clenched its teeth about it, and began to pull. It took all of the beast’s resolve to fight against the searing pain coursing through it as the dog pulled, and for a time, the stake did not budge. But then, at last, it shifted ever so slightly.
Growling, the Saint Bernard shifted its footing, clenched harder upon the stake, and pulled. He pulled, and pulled, and pulled and soon the stake began to finally slide out of the beast. With each slide, fresh pain unlike anything the beast had ever felt ripped through the beast’ bulk frame, but it was determined to be rid of the infernal thing, and fighting against the nausea threatening to claim it, it lay still, biting back its growls as it clenched and waited, then, finally, the Saint Bernard pulled the stake free.
Springing to its feet, the Saint Bernard flung the stake away, then began barking madly, its tail wagging wildly as the beast lay still, but was no less elated.
With the stake pulled free, the beast was at last aware of the deep ache coming from its thigh, and remembering the arrow, it turned, but what it saw drained its strength all over again. The arrow was still within it, but its shaft was broken. Worse there were runes etched upon what was left of the shaft, though, for a mercy, the runes seemed dormant.
Huffing, the beast lowered its head to the cobblestones. It would deal with the arrow later. First, it had to escape, gather its strength and—
“Over here! It came from down this way!”
A deep chill ran through the beast as it raised its head once more. He knew that voice, it was the woman. Gritting its teeth, it moved to rise, but there was no strength left in its limbs, and though it fought with all its might to pull itself to its feet and wander the few paces it needed to reach the nearest shadows, its legs refused to obey.
“This way! Hurry!”
Scanning its surroundings, its eyes wide and wild, the beast searched for a means to escape. To have freedom snatched away so close from its grasp would be the cruellest of jokes, but the more it searched, the more it realised there was nothing it could do.
Then the Saint Bernard rose and wandered between the beast and the street lamp, and as its shadow fell upon the beast, the dog sat and turned to the beast, staring deep into its eyes, then turned to the direction the sound came from and began barking once more.
The beast lay unmoving for what seemed an eternity, its mind devoid of thought as the weight of the dog’s actions bore down hard upon it. But soon, it shook its head, and getting a hold of itself, slipped into the dog’s shadows just as its hunters stepped into view.
“Horace?” The woman frowned.
The beast remained still. In its current state, it was simply too tired to swim the shadows, and it barely had enough strength to stay within the dog’s shadow, but stay it must, and as quietly as it could.
“Horace, what the bloody hells are you doing here?” the woman snapped as she marched forth, the two archers stepping out behind her, the runes upon their arrows drawing the beast’s gaze.
“Oh, no!” the woman gasped, coming to a halt as her eyes fell upon the discarded stake.
“No, no, no!” she cried as she hurried towards it.
“Gods damn it!” the woman thundered as she slammed a foot onto the cobblestones. “I can’t believe this! We had it!”
“Helena, please—” began one of the archers.
“Where are you, you lousy no-good bastard! Show yourself!”
“Helena!” the other said. “Shouting’s not going to help us none!”
The woman turned to glare at the man, but even as a deep snarl twisted her lips, she breathed deep and stood tall as she fought to bring her ire to heel. Then she turned to the dog once more.
“What the hells are you doing out so late anyway?” she demanded. “You’re supposed to be home! Shoo! Go! Get back home!”
Stepping forth, she began ushering the dog forth. “Go on!”
Licking his lips, the dog rose and, ever so gently, walked round the woman, doing its best to keep the woman between him and the street lamp. As it wandered past, the woman sighed and ran a hand through his coat before giving him a loving rub.
“Didn’t mean to shout, okay? Just hurry home.”
The dog stopped and panted at the woman before barking once and sauntering forth, careful to keep its shadow away from all the light from the archers’ arrows.
“Now, then,” the woman said as the dog stepped free of the trio, “where could that bloody thing have gone?”
“I’ll get it!” came a cry from beyond the door.
Those words soothed the ache in the young woman’s heart, and breathing deep, she raised her face to the rain, closing her eyes as the soft raindrops washed away her tears. Then, the door opened, and as it did so, she returned her gaze forward, locking eyes with the bearded man standing in the doorway.
“It got away,” she said, her voice soft as her shoulders sagged.
“What?” the man gasped.
Nodding, the young woman raised her hand to her forehead as she fought against her tears.
“Who is it, James?” came a voice from within the house.
“Uh…” the young man at the door began, turning his gaze inside. “It’s Helena, Da’.”
“What? At this hour?”
“Yeah. Just catching up on some work.”
“At this hour?”
The man smiled and nodded. “Yeah. Asked her to come by so we could finish.”
“Well, let her in, then! No sense letting her catch her death in the rain, is there!”
“No, yeah, you’re right, Da’,” the man said, turning to the woman.
As he turned, however, his smile faded.
“Come on, then,” he said, his gaze as pained as the woman’s as he stepped aside.
Sniffling, the woman nodded and entered.
“Evening, Derek,” she said, forcing a smile as she nodded at the elderly man in the sitting room who was staring at her through the open sitting room door.
“You alright, love?” the man said, his voice soft. “You look a right state.”
Forcing her smile wider, the woman smoothed her hair a spell and shrugged. “It’s the rain, that’s all.”
“Hrm well…” the man said, then turned to his son. “Go put the kettle on, eh? Get something warm down her.”
“Yeah.” The man nodded. “Right.”
The older man turned to the woman once more. “You staying for dinner, then? James made enough for one more.”
“Oh, uhm…” she woman began, turning to the young man behind her, but as the man nodded, she smiled and returned her gaze to the elderly man. “Why not?”
“Good.” Derek nodded, smiling. “I’ll set the place. You go help James in the kitchen, sure you two’ve got some bit of peace-keeping gossip you don’t want a nobody like me to hear.”
With her smile warming at last, the woman shook her head and made her way towards the kitchen, young James following close behind. But, as she entered, her smile faded, and as she breathed deep, she turned to James just as he closed the door behind him.
“It got away?” he said, his voice barely above a whisper.
Sniffling, Helena nodded.
The young woman shook her head.
“What happened to your sword?”
The woman glanced at the empty scabbard at her side and sighed. “Threw it at the blasted thing.”
“What? Helena, you never relinquish your—”
“Don’t start, alright, that thing was going to kill me! I panicked, it happens!”
James stared hard at his friend, but as he watched her shoulders sag further as she averted his gaze, he smiled and shook his head.
“So, what happened, then?” he asked instead.
Sighing, the young woman wandered to a nearby stool and slowly sat. “I don’t bloody know, James. I really don’t.”
James stared at his guest a spell, then wandered over to the stove.
“Why don’t you start from the beginning,” he said, picking up the kettle upon it.
“Well,” the woman sighed, “uhm… I picked up its trail on Wilton Street. You’re right, that place does look like its favourite hunting spot.” Then she shuddered as she stared into the ether. “Gods, thinking back to the sound it was making taking chunks out of that poor dog…”
“But you got it to chase you, yeah?”
The woman returned her gaze to the man, then nodded and smiled. “That bit was easy.”
The young man smiled. “You do know how to wind anybody up.”
Chuckling, he placed the freshly filled kettle onto the stove and light flames beneath it.
“So, you didn’t have any trouble luring it to Compton Alley, then?” he soon said.
“Well,” the woman replied, crossing her arms beneath her bosom, “I wouldn’t say I didn’t have any trouble…”
The woman nodded. “Damn thing almost bit my bloody head off. Twice.” Then she shook her head. “Never been more bloody scared in my life.”
“But you made it though, eh?”
“Yeah.” The woman nodded. “Got it right on the line you drew.”
“And the stake?”
Once more, the woman nodded. “Had it on me the whole time.”
“So, what went wrong?”
“Bugger if I know.” The woman sighed. “Soon as we got it on the line, Rufus and the others did their thing with the light and I shoved the stake right in it!”
“And the runes were lit?”
“Yeah! Every bloody single one of them!”
“So, what. Went. Wrong?”
“I! Don’t! Know!” the woman seethed. “One moment, it was standing there, pulling at the stake, the next it was bolting—”
“Bolting?” The man frowned.
“But…” The man’s frown deepened. “But the runes were meant to keep it in place.”
“Well, they didn’t!” the woman snapped.
“But…” the man began, but soon fell silent.
“Did you go after it?” he asked instead.
Sighing, the woman nodded. “Hannah loaned me her sword and we chased after it. She managed to get an arrow in it, but didn’t make much difference, bloody thing still got away.”
“Yeah…” The woman sighed, nodding, then turned to the man square. “I’m not going to pretend I know anything about this magic stuff, that’s your thing, but I know what I saw. Whatever your mage friend said about that stake, it did not keep that thing still. It bolted.”
Once more, James moved to speak, but fell silent and turned to the pot upon the stove, picking up a ladle to stir it as his brow furrowed deep.
“Well, he did say he’d never heard of a freybug before…” he said at last.
“What? That elf that sent you the stake and those staves without bloody knowing anything about freybugs?”
“Yeah.” James nodded, turning to the woman. “Maybe he didn’t carve the runes quite right.”
“Or maybe Hannah was right, and that elf was playing with us.”
“Oh, leave off, Helena!”
“What? He’s a bloody elf! You can’t look me in the eye and tell me those pointy-ears don’t have some secret bloody scheme going! I’ve crossed paths with them more than you, James, okay? Father’s always going on about this betrayal and that double-cross, maybe he’s…I don’t know—”
“What kind of bloody scheme would have him give us a bloody magical stake, two magical staves, and magical arrows? Hrm?”
“And what kind of person gives all that for free?”
“Someone with honour, Helena.”
“Honour my arse!”
“You said it yourself; he didn’t need us to save him from those bandits, he could’ve taken care of them with a snap of his finger!”
“Well, yeah, but—”
“Which is more likely, that he made a mistake given he’d never even bloody heard of a freybug before we spoke to him, or he’s got some grand scheme up his arse?”
The young woman moved to speak, but fell silent, choosing instead to sneer at her friend.
“In any case,” the woman threw back, “the bloody thing is still loose, and we’ve got nothing.”
“Then, we try again.”
“How?” the woman demanded.
“What do you mean, how?”
“What do you think I bloody mean? That thing knows my scent now! It knows all our scents. If it smells us, it’ll smell a trap and not follow us.”
The man shrugged. “Then I’ll be bait.”
The man stared hard at his friend. “What’s wrong with that?”
Helena’s gaze went from James’s frown to his paunch and back. “James, no offence, but I can run rings around you without even trying, and that thing almost caught me twice. You try and bait it, you won’t get far.”
“And besides, it’s not like you can leave your Father and go out late at night, now, can you?”
Once more the young man moved to speak, but stopped and glanced at the closed door, his lips pulled to a thin line.
“No,” the woman muttered, slumping where she sat, “the plan is dead. We had only once chance, and we blew it.”
The young man stared at his morose friend a spell. Then the kettle began to whistle.
“Tell you what,” he said, pulling free a fresh mug and picking the kettle from the stove, “let’s just have something to eat, then we can think of what to do next, eh?”
The young woman smiled and sighed. “Yeah, let’s just do that.”
“Good!” The man nodded, then began making his friend some tea.
“Oh,” the woman frowned, “by the bye, where’s Horace?”
Young James frowned. “He’s in the shed. Why?”
“He went wandering again, didn’t he?”
The young man’s frown deepened as he shook his head. “No. Told Da’ to keep him in tonight.”
“Well, he didn’t.”
“What do you…?” James began, but soon the blood drained from his face as he slowly stood tall.
“Yeah.” Helena nodded.
“Gods damn it, Da’!” James spat as he spun to glare at the door.
“That dog isn’t a stray anymore, James,” Helena continued. “He shouldn’t be roaming the streets.”
“It’s Da’ you need to tell, not me!” James threw back. “He’s the one banging on about how Horace still has friends out there that he doesn’t want to abandon.” Then he sighed. “But nothing happened though, yeah?”
Helena shook her head. “No. He’s bloody lucky we found him before that thing did.”
“Thank the bloody gods for that.” James sighed.
Then, he slid the cup in his hand to Helena. “Now, you sit there and get this down you. I’ll finish up dinner and we can eat. Okay?”
The young woman smiled and picked up her cup.
“Okay,” she replied and lifted the cup to her lips.
Opening the shed, James stood in the doorway as his eyes adjusted to the gloom within, but a foul stench assaulted his nostrils almost at once.
“Guh!” he gasped, wafting the stench from his nose as he stepped back from the shed. “Did something bloody die in here?”
Opening the door wide, the grimacing peace-keeper turned to the dog lounging upon his bed in the corner across from him and shook his head.
“Did you go swimming in the bloody sewers or something, Horace?”
The lounging dog raised his head and stared at his master’s son, then licked his nose.
“Don’t you give me that! Gods, going to have to give you a bath when I get back!”
Then he stood to the side. “Come one, then. Out you get.”
In response, the lounging dog lowered his head onto his bed, his gaze upon his master’s son still.
Young James frowned at the lounging dog. “What, you want to stay here?”
Horace lowered his gaze.
“You feeling alright, Horace?”
The dog remained unmoving.
James stared hard at the dog, then shrugged. “Alright, then. I’ll leave the door open though, head on to the house when you’re hungry. Okay?”
The dog glanced at his master’s son, but remained unmoving still.
James stared in silence at the dog as his worry grew. But he had to leave for work, and though he’d love nothing more than to march in and see to poor Horace, he knew he could not, lest he risk being late.
“You be good, yeah?” he said, then, holding the lounging dog in one last worried stare, he turned and left the dog be, the shed’s door left ajar.
Horace stared at the door in silence, his ears raised and pricked, and the moment he heard the back door close, he sat up and turned to the shadows beside the door before emitting a soft, low bark.
In response, shadows shifted and took shape as the freybug stumbled forth, and as the shadows returned to as it once more, the beast collapsed. The wound in its shoulder from where the stake had pierced it still bled, and it was clear its strength was still far from returned, and for a spell, the seated dog stared at the exhausted beast, his gaze soft, till at last, he rose and headed for the door.
Almost at once, the freybug rose its head, its crimson eyes locked upon Horace as a low growl escaped its lips. Horace stopped and glared at the beast, then turned to the door, ignoring the beast utterly as it stepped through the door. Pushing the door closed with its hind leg, he wandered towards the back door, his destination his food bowl, his mind already concocting the perfect plan to slip the bowl away from the house and back to the shed.
With her hands shoved deep in her pocket, Helena hummed to herself as she walked on, her thoughts wandering far as her feet guided her towards the Peace-Keeper’s Hall. She was early, far earlier than most, for most peace-keepers in her shift would only just be making their way in. But she had reason to be early, and thus she walked, her gaze firmly in the ether.
So lost was she in thought that she did not notice the young man resting beside the Peace-Keeper’s Hall’s entrance, his tapered jaw and high cheek bones a near perfect mirror of Helena’s, but the man noticed her, and as she neared, the smile upon his lips grew wider.
“And a good morning to you, too, Sister,” he said at last, startling her for all she was worth.
“Lucas!” Helena cried, her gaze upon her brother. “Bloody hells, how long you been standing there?”
Grinning, the man sauntered towards his sister. “Long enough to watch my big sister shuffle on for a mile, muttering to herself.”
“I was not muttering!”
Helena glowered at her brother a spell, but as he reached her, her gaze softened as she hugged him tight.
“Mmh!” she gasped as they parted. “How’ve you been? And when did you get back?”
“A couple of days ago.”
“How did it go, then?”
The young man grimaced. “Bloody awful.”
“Yes.” The man nodded, then sighed. “I don’t know why Mother keeps insisting I’m the lucky one, I’d much rather be spending my time bashing criminal’s heads in than sitting in boring meetings all day listening to half-dead codgers prattle on about all manner of worthless shite!”
“Ha!” Helena cried “Just don’t let Father hear you speak like that, or he’ll tan your hide!”
“Helena…” Lucas replied, giving his sister a pointed stare. “I‘m a little too old for a hiding, don’t you think?”
“Oh yeah…? Well, then, I dare you to say those words to Father.”
“Ah, yes, well…uh… How’ve you been, then?”
Chuckling, Helena shook her head. “Coward.”
Lucas pulled a face in response, but as he lowered his gaze, his eyes fell upon his sister’s hip, and he frowned. “Where’s your sword?”
Young Helena sighed and pulled a face. “I lost it last night.”
“Now, don’t you start—”
“Is everything alright?”
“Yes,” Helena replied, placing a calming hand upon her brother’s shoulder. “It’s all fine.” Then she sighed. “Actually, I’m here early because I intend to sneak into the armoury and grab a spare before my shift’s desk sergeant starts. Last thing I need is that pimple-headed gobshite running his mouth at me again.”
At her words, Lucas frowned. “Armoury? You have a key?”
“Hm.” Helena nodded, reaching into her pocket to pull out the key James gave her the night before. “James gave me his.”
“Ah…” Lucas muttered, rolling his eyes as he spoke. “James.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
“Oh, nothing…nothing at all.”
Helena glared at her brother a spell, then shook her head. “You’re beginning to sound like Mother, you know that?”
“Can you blame me?”
“What? You’re always going on about—”
“For the last time, James and I are just friends, alright?”
“So you keep saying…”
“Yes, so I keep saying,” Helena threw back, then she sighed. “Come, I really need to hurry.”
But then, as she made to hurry forth, she paused as she, too, frowned. “Hold a moment, how come you’re here?”
The young man pulled a face. “Father. He’s meeting your station head later and sent me ahead to sneak some details about the place.”
“Oh, gods,” Helena gasped, her face whitening. “Father’s coming here?”
“Mhm.” Lucas nodded.
The young man smiled. “Do you think she’d pass the opportunity to come see her darling daughter at work?”
“Is she bringing someone?” Helena asked, her voice soft.
The young man’s smile grew.
“Oh, dear gods…” Helena groaned, as her face fell.
“Helena! Lucas!” came a cry from behind the pair, and turning as one, they watched as another peace-keeper hurried towards them.
“Ah, Hannah!” Lucas said, the smile upon his lips calling forth a most severe eye roll from his sister.
“And how are you today?” Lucas continued as the woman reached the siblings, her long auburn hair falling across part of her face as a smile parted her lips.
“I’m not too bad,” Hannah replied, her voice as soft as her smile. “When did you get back?”
“Two days ago. I’ve been—”
“Hannah,” Helena interjected, placing a hand upon her brother’s arm as she spoke, “sorry, would you mind looking after my brother, there’s something I need to do urgently.”
“What, run away?” Lucas grinned.
Helena threw her brother the fiercest glare she could, then turned to Hannah once more. “Please?”
With her smile widening, the peace-keeper nodded. “Of course.”
“Thank you!” Helena gasped. Then she spun to her brother, bringing her face within a hair’s breadth of his as her glare returned.
“Not. A. Word!” she seethed as her brother’s smile grew, then hurried to the Hall.
Lucas and Hannah watched her leave, and as she fell from view, young Lucas turned to the woman peace-keeper, but as he did so, all joviality left his face as he held the woman with a glare that caused her to cower from him.
“You’re late,” he snarled.
“Forgive me, my lord,” Hannah bowed slightly, “I hurried as fast as—”
“Spare me your excuses!” Lucas hissed as he cast furtive glances about them. There were few around, and those abound paid them little mind.
“Forgive me,” Hannah replied, her voice barely above a whisper, “I wasn’t expecting—”
Young Hannah fell silent, bowing lower as she did so.
“And stop snivelling! We’re in public!”
All at once, the young woman stood ramrod straight as she cast furtive glances about her.
“My sister’s missing her sword,” Lucas continued. “I take it you all went hunting for my beast last night?”
“And?” Lucas hissed.
The woman smiled. “I managed to swap the stake without her noticing, my lord.”
“So, my beast still lives?”
“Yes, my lord.”
“And did you mark it?”
The woman nodded. “Yes, my lord.”
“Good…” Lucas replied, smiling at last. “The stake?”
In response, Hannah pulled a roll of parchment from her bag, one with an uncommonly hard centre, then offered it to Lucas.
“Good,” Lucas muttered, taking the wrapped stake from the woman, his gaze upon it. “This may come in useful when the times comes to procure a new beast.”
Then, he turned to the woman before him. “I don’t know what you’re smiling about. It’s your brother’s incompetence that allowed the blasted thing escape in the first place.”
All at once, the woman’s smile dissipated as she lowered her gaze.
“Your brother will come round later,” Lucas continued, “along with three others. I trust you have nothing better to do?”
Hannah shook her head. “No, my lord.”
“Good. Go with them, keep the rabble at bay while they recover my beast.”
“Of course, my lord.”
Lucas took a step forth. “See this done, Hannah, and your brother’s blunder will be forgotten.” Then his smile returned, and as Hannah raised her gaze to his, she began to cower once more.
“And, who knows,” Lucas continued, his gaze drifting to her bosom, “you might find me…grateful.”
The young peace-keeper said nary a word.
Smiling still, Lucas took a step forth and, with a soft hand, pushed young Hannah’s hair behind her ear, only to grasp the back of her neck and squeeze tight, his gaze as steel.
“Don’t fail me, Helena,” he seethed, then let the woman go and marched forth.
Young Hannah stood unmoving as she was left alone, her face ashen and her gaze to the floor as she quivered from head to toe.
Waking with a snort, old Derek Pritchard spang up, then paused and groaned as the pressure in his bladder grew greatly. Sighing, he turned to his cup, which sat empty upon table beside him, and shaking his head, he slowly rose.
“Me and my bloody tea,” he growled as he made his way towards the back door.
“James?” he called out as he went, but even as he spoke, he knew he was alone. His son would’ve long left for work, and as he reached the back door, he was not surprised by the silence that was his response.
“Horace?” he called out as he reached the door, but as he did so, something in the corner of his vision caught his eye, and stopping, he turned, and as he stared at what it was that had caught his eye, the old man sighed as his shoulders sagged.
“Gods damn it, Horace…”
It wasn’t so much the sight of something that had upset old Derek, rather the lack of something. It was Horace’s feeding bowl, it was no longer where it was meant to be. Worse some of his feed was scattered about where it would normally be.
“Don’t tell me you brought another bloody stray home…” Derek growled before turning to the door beside him. “James’ll talk my blood ear off again if you did.”
Sighing, the elderly human moved to search for the feed bowl, but as he did so, the pressure in his bladder grew even more and, gritting his teeth, he shook his head and reached for the door.
“Do that later, me old son,” he muttered as he opened the door. “Best not piss yourself.”
Stepping out into the garden, the old man hurried forth, but as he passed the shed, he slowed, his brow furrowed deep. The door was ajar.
“What, James forgot to lock it, did he?” the old man muttered, then made his way towards it.
Reaching it, he reached for the door handle to slam it shut, but as he did so, a vile stench assailed his nostrils.
“Guh!” he gagged and recoiled from the open door. “Bloody hells, what is that?”
Pausing, he stared at the door, the furrow of his brow deepening. Once more, he reached for the door handle, but this time, his hand paused as if of its own accord. It was a feeling, one that was faint, but unsettling nonetheless, and the more he stared at the door, the more it grew.
Pulling his hand back, the old man surveyed his surroundings. No Horace. And no signs of anything more than a single dog coming and going from the shed.
“Horace?” he called out.
The unease remained, gripping his heart in a slowly tightening vice, till at last, the old man shook his head.
“Stop being such a bloody baby, man!” he spat before reaching for the door and swinging it open.
Just then, a loud bark reached him, halting him mid-step as he spun to watch his beloved Horace race towards him. But, in that self-same moment, a deep guttural growl emanated from the shed, and as he turned, old Derek’s heart all but stopped as he watched two hellish eyes blink at him in the gloom as the freybug stepped into the light, its teeth bared and its gaze locked upon Derek. The old man was held rigid by pure terror as all self-control left him.
Then the freybug made ready to pounce.
Whistling softly, young James Pritchard wandered through the modest doors of the Peace-Keeper’s Hall, his hands shoved deep into his pocket as a soft smile parted his lips.
“Morning, Sarge,” he called out to the desk sergeant as he walked past.
“You’re late!” the sourly sergeant growled at him in response.
Grinning, the young peace-keeper wandered on, weaving his way through the building as he made his way towards the armoury at the building’s rear, nodding and smiling at his fellow peace-keepers as he went.
Then he spied Helena.
Keeping the relief that washed over him away from his face, he sauntered on, his demeanour one of nonchalance as he made his way towards his friend.
“Hey,” he said as he reached her.
“Oh, hey!” Helena smiled. As she spoke, the short-haired woman turned to face him square, her hand coming to rest upon the hilt of the blade by her side.
“Fancy seeing you here this early.” James grinned.
“It’s true, though…”
The short-haired woman glowered at her friend, then rolled her eyes and tapped him lightly with her fist. “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood right now, James, or else I’d…”
Grinning still, James clasped hold of his friend’s fist “Promises, promises…”
Shaking her head once more, Helena sighed and pulled free her hand, and as she sauntered off, James shook his head and made to carry on his march as he shoved a cupped hand into his pocket.
“Oh, gods!” he heard Helena whisper behind him, and stopping, he turned just in time to see Helena hurry back towards him.
“Fancy going on patrol with me?” she whispered. “Right now.”
“What?” James asked, his frown deepening.
“Now, James!” Helena hissed. “Now!”
“Helena, darling, there you are!”
Those words seemed to drain the very life out of Helena, her shoulders sagging as a heart-breaking sadness twisted her features. Then, breathing deep, she forced a smile to her lips and spun about.
“Hello, Mother,” she said, smiling at the older version of herself standing at the other end of the corridor within which she stood. “You shouldn’t be back here, you know.”
“Oh, nonsense, dear,” the woman admonished. “Now come, your father’s here.”
“Hello, Missus Weatherly,” James said, bowing slightly at the woman.
“Hm…” the woman muttered, grimacing as she glared in the man.
“Come, Helena,” the woman added, gesturing to her daughter before turning and marching back the way she came.
Wincing, Helena shrugged at her friend, then hurried after her mother.
“You needn’t be so rude, Mother!” she hissed in her mother’s ear once beside the woman.
“Rude?” the woman replied, her face a picture of innocence. “Why, whatever do you mean?”
“You know what I mean!”
“Ah!” The woman waved her daughter’s words away. “Now come, your father’s dying to see you.”
“I shudder to think why…” the young girl muttered.
“Helena!” her mother snapped, drawing forth a sheepish smile from her daughter. “Now, come!” And without another word, marched for the station chief’s office.
It was the incessant licking that finally brought Derek back to his senses, the sounds of panting filling his ears as he groaned and stirred.
“Horace…?” he said.
The Saint Benard barked and stepped back.
“Mmh.” Derek muttered as he slowly pulled himself to sitting, his mind befuddled as he wiped the slobber from his face. As he lowered his hand, however, a sharp gasp escaped his lips as he saw the blood upon his palm, and with eyes wide, he wiped his face and head with both hands and checked his palm.
There was no blood.
Frowning, he turned to his beloved Horace, and as he spotted the gash by the Saint Bernard’s throat, and the blood that had deeply matted his fur, his heart stopped as his whole frame went numb. And it was then he remembered what he last saw before darkness claimed him, and with eyes wide, he scanned his surroundings till as his eyes fell upon the infernal freybug as it sat beside the shed, its piercing gaze upon him. Old Derek felt his terror return, the blood rushing from his face as his self-control threatened to leave him once more.
Then, the beast turned to Horace before emitting a single soft whine.
The old man sat unmoving as he stared hard at the beast, his mind a blank. The last thing he remembered was the beast pouncing at him, only for him to be knocked out of the way by something large and furry, his head landing hard upon the ground and sending him into darkness’s embrace. It was clear Horace was his saviour and the creature had turned on Horace because of it, and yet, not only do both he and his dog still live, but it was also now pleading with Horace.
Turning to his dog, Derek frowned. “Horace, what did you do?”
Horace barked in response, then rose, his gaze fierce upon his owner, before turning to the beast.
Derek’s frown deepened, then he turned to the beast. As he turned to his dog once more, he found himself meeting Horace’s gaze, and it was then he realised what was being asked of him, and with that realisation came even more confusion.
Horace barked once more, then stepped forth to stand between the pair, only to turn about and hold his master in yet another piercing stare.
Derek held his dog’s stare, but remained as he was. It was clear, even to him, that Horace wanted him to approach the beast, but the mere thought of going anywhere near the creature filled him with true and palpable dread. But he still lived. And so did Horace.
Horace barked again.
“Alright!” Derek cried and rose, only to stagger for a spell.
Finding his feet, he approached the creature, but even though he wore a smile, every fibre of his being was poised to flee. Reaching the beast, the paused, and as their eyes met, the beast licked its maw and lay upon the soft earth.
It was then Derek saw the broken arrow within its thigh.
“Ah!” The man winced. “That’s a bit nasty.” Then he turned to the beast. “Where’d you get that, then?”
Horace barked once more.
“Alright, alright!” Derek threw back, turning to his dog. “Don’t be so pushy!”
The Saint Bernard barked once again, then began panting, his gaze greatly softened.
Shaking his head, Derek turned to the beast. It was staring at him.
Sighing, he turned to the broken arrow, and the more he stared, the deeper he frowned.
“I’m going to have to cut it out of you,” he soon said, turning to hold the beast’s gaze. “You better not bloody bite me when I do, though. You hear?”
For some inexplicable reason, Derek felt sure the beast understood.
“Good.” He nodded, then turned. “You wait here, going to get a few things.” Then, as he noticed at last the dampness all down one side of his trousers, he grimaced.
“Going to need to change me bloody trousers as well,” he muttered, then made his way towards the house.
Walking as casually as he could past their chief’s office, James stopped by Hannah’s desk and nodded to her, then tried as surreptitiously as he could to catch a glimpse of what was transpiring within the office.
“They brought another one,” Hannah said, drawing James’s gaze.
“Oh?” he said. “You saw him?”
“Hm.” Hannah nodded. “His father owns that silk house over by Bishop’s Grove.”
“Oh?” James frowned, then his eyes grew wide. “Oh! That place.”
“Yeah.” Hannah nodded once more, grinning.
“Least he’s a better looker than the last one,” growled the desk sergeant as he wandered past.
Grinning, James turned to the man. “I’m surprised you noticed, Sarge.”
The old man’s growl brought a chuckle to James’s lips.
“I’ll tell you what, though,” the desk sergeant continued, his face as sour as his voice, “the chief needs to tell that bloody family to bugger off! His office isn’t their bloody parlour!”
With how much coin they’re pumping into this place, you really think he’s ever going to do that?” Rufus asked, wandering over to sit upon Hannah’s desk.
The old desk sergeant growled once more, then shuffled on.
“But honestly, though,” said another peace-keeper as he wandered over, “why do they bring them here?”
“Because whenever they go to Helena’s place, she ducks out the back and pretends like she was out all night working,” James replied.
“Yeah.” Hannah nodded and sighed. “Sneaky, our Helena.”
“But why is she even bloody here, though?” the peace-keeper pressed. “Her family’s bloody loaded?”
“Because she likes nothing more than pissing off her parent something fierce,” Hannah replied.
“And she gets to run around beating people up whenever she wants,” James added.
“Hunh…” the peace-keeper muttered.
“Hannah!” the desk sergeant barked. “Your brother’s out front! Says it’s time!”
“Oh!” Hannah cried, springing to her feet. “Right!” Then she reached for her bow.
“Trouble?” Rufus frowned.
“You need help?” James added.
“Hm?” Hannah frowned, then smiled at the men. “No, it’s fine. Some buggers have been harassing Jacob’s shop again. Going to wander over in my gear and have a nice talk with them, see if I can’t scare the shite into them.”
“Ah.” Rufus nodded, a knowing smile upon his lips. “You’re going to give them the talk, eh?”
Hannah’s smile widened as she shrugged. Then she turned to James. “And you, you’re not allowed to go anywhere, you hear? Helena’s going to need someone to come save her soon.”
“Ugh!” James growled, pulling a face. “Don’t remind me.”
“Good! So long as you remember.”
Then, grabbing her quiver, the smiling peace-keeper headed for the door. But, as she turned her back to her friends, Hannah’s smile dissipated as her face fell, and breathing deep she marched forth, gripping her bow tight.
“There!” Derek gasped, holding the broken arrow up to the light, its head slick with the beast’s blood.
Grinning, he turned to the beast, whose head was being held firm by Horace, and as it turned under Horace’s grip to hold his gaze, Derek nodded.
“Feeling better then?” he said.
The beast panted in response, then licked its lips.
Giggling, Derek tossed the broken arrow to the side and turned to the beast’s thigh. Its blood flowed freely, and Derek knew he’d have to sew the wound shut, but as the thought formed, the ache in his arm grew, and wincing, he turned to the heavy bandage about his forearm. His blood was still seeping through.
Gritting his teeth, the old man sighed and tensed his arm, clenching his fist as he did so. The pain wasn’t as bad anymore, at least.
“Wish James was here,” he muttered. “He’d heal this thing right quick.”
Sighing once more, he lowered his hand, but as he turned to the beast, and as their eyes met, the beast whined.
Forcing a smile, Derek shrugged. “Eh, it’s okay. I’d be barking and snarling too if it were me. Least you didn’t bite me arm off.”
The beast whined some more, then lowered its gaze.
With his smile warming, Derek turned to his dog, and once more, his heart warmed.
“I don’t know how you bloody do it, you know,” he said. Then, breathing deep, he wiped his hands and reached for his sutures.
“Hold him down now,” Derek muttered as he braced himself. “This is going to hurt.”
Hannah sat silent as she stared intently at the man across from her, the others in the carriage with gazes no less intense.
“Anything?” she asked at last.
The man shook his head, his eyes upon the glowing crystal in his hand and his gaze in the ether. “Nothing.”
Then he gripped the crystal tight and closed his eyes.
“What do you think that means?” her brother seated across from her whispered.
Turning to him, Hannah couldn’t help but smile, a soft smile that spread to the young man. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Jacob.”
“It better be,” growled the man sitting opposite the one with the crystal. “M’lord wants his bloody pet back today!” Then he turned to the pair, a deep sneer on his lips. “And if he doesn’t get it today, there’ll be—”
“That’s your son’s problem, Richard,” Hannah interjected, her tone freezing the very air about them. “My job was to mark the beast, your son, to find it. I’ve done mine, so, now, have him do his.”
“Why you little—”
“I’ve got it!” Richard’s son gasped, opening his eyes wide as he gazed into the ether still. “It’s faint, but I’ve got it again!”
“Faint?” Richard frowned, turning to his son. Then, his eyes went wide. “Wait, don’t tell me it’s dying.”
“No,” his son replied, shaking his head, “though maybe the arrow fell out.”
“No.” Hannah shook her head. “I stuck it right into its arse cheek. That arrow’s going nowhere.”
“So you say,” Richard growled. “But if we lost this thing because of you, Hannah, there’ll be—”
“Oh, piss off, Richard!” Hannah snapped. “For all we know, it might be your fault!”
“Yeah! You! Who carved the runes on that arrow in the first place, eh? How do we know you didn’t do a bloody shite job of it?”
“Oi! You better—”
“I am trying to concentrate here!” the man with the crystal yelled, silencing all within the carriage.
“So, what’re you seeing, then?” said the last in the carriage, her eyes as daggers upon Hannah.
“I…” the man began, then shook his head. “It’s not very clear.”
“Try, Malcolm,” the woman soothed. “Just try.”
“I am trying!” the man snapped.
“Easy, son,” Richard added, his voice soft. “Mabel’s only trying to help.”
The young moved to speak but fell silent as he stared on into the ether.
“Maybe just describe anything you’re seeing,” Mabel offered. “We can try guessing it.”
The young man gritted his teeth but said nary a word.
“It’s worth a try, son,” Richard said at last. “Describe it.”
The young man gritted his teeth still, then sighed. “I see a lot of…brown.”
“Like…what, shite?” Richard replied.
“No.” Malcolm shook his head. “It’s too…it doesn’t feel like shite. And it’s wet, too.”
“Mud?” Jacob offered.
“Mud…” Malcolm muttered, then nodded. “Could be.”
“There’s a lot of places around this city with mud in it, son,” Richard replied. “We’re going to need more to go on.”
“I know,” Malcolm growled, but that’s all I’m seeing right—”
Then, without warning, the young man flew back into his seat, his eyes wide as a sharp gasp escaped his lips.
“Bugger me!” he gasped as he broke free of the ether at last to stare hard at the crystal.
“What is it?” Richard asked, his brow furrowed deep. “Malcolm!”
Malcolm turned to him. “I saw old man Pritchard.”
“What?” everyone in the carriage gasped as a deathly chill fell upon them all.
“You mean Derek Pritchard?” Hannah asked.
Malcolm turned to her and nodded. “Yeah.”
“Oh, gods,” Jacob said, his voice soft. “They have a bloody garden out back, don’t they. With all the rain from yesterday, bloody thing’ll be muddy, won’t it.”
“Are you sure, though, son?” Richard asked, his gaze hard upon his son.
“Yeah.” Malcolm nodded. “I’ll never forget that old bastard’s face. It was him I saw, no question.”
“How in the bloody hells did that thing get there?” Hannah cried.
“How the bloody hells should I know?” Malcolm threw back.
“Nevermind all that,” Jacob replied, “how is he not dead?”
“I…” Hannah began, her brow furrowed deep. Then, with a groan, she fell back into her seat.
“What?” Richard frowned.
“Horace,” Hannah replied, turning to the man, “his dog. Bloody thing takes strays home with him from time to time.”
The others stared hard at Hannah, as if she’d spawned a second head.
“What?” Hannah snapped at last. “He does.”
“Are you bloody telling me some bloody dog dragged a bloody freybug over to its house thinking it was a bloody stray?” Mabel asked at last.
“You got a better explanation?”
“Doesn’t matter the reason,” Richard said at last, turning to the window beside him. “M’lord wants his freybug back, and we’re going to get it for him.”
“Yeah, but, Richard,” Mabel replied, turning to the man, “the man used to be a peace-keeper, and his bloody son is one! If we start anything with him, we’ll be bringing the whole lot of them down on us.”
The old rogue smiled. “We will be doing no such thing.”
“And just how do you intend to get into that bloody house without him knowing?” Hannah demanded.
The old man turned to her. “We don’t have to worry about it, you’re here.”
Slowly, the sneer upon Hannah’s lips began to fade as the blood drained from her face, and as her sneer faded, so, too, did Richard’s smile grow.
“Malcolm,” he said, sitting back into his seat, “tell the driver where we’re going.”
With her blood frozen in her veins, young Hannah sat back in her seat, her heart in her throat as she gripped her bow tight.
“You know what, bugger this,” James muttered and rose.
“Where’re you bloody going?” one of the other peace-keepers called out as James made his way towards their chief’s door.
“Pritchard!” the desk sergeant barked, stopping young James in his tracks. “What the bloody hells do you think you’re doing?”
“They’ve been in there for bloody ages,” James replied, “something’s gone wrong, Sarge.”
“Back to your desk, boy!”
“Sarge, if I’m right, and she really is stuck in there, you really want to see her moping around all week, snapping and snarling at everyone?”
The desk sergeant glared hard at young James, but it was clear his words had drawn him into a scene that could only be described as a nightmare, and as his gaze softened, the elderly peace-keeper stood tall.
“Yeah, alright, then,” he said, nodding stiffly. “Carry on.”
James grinned at the man. “Thanks, Sarge!” Then he knocked and swung the door open before any within could respond.
“James, what is the meaning of this?” the Chief barked, though the venom in his words were nowhere to be seen in his gaze.
“Begging your pardon, Chief,” James bowed, “but just got word from one of Helena’s informants. He’s got something for us about the freybug.”
“What?” the man gasped.
“Hm.” James nodded. “But he’ll only speak with Helena. Bloke’s skittish like that.”
As one, the two men turned to the young, seated woman.
Helena stared from one to the other, then shrugged.
“Well,” she said as she rose, “if he’ll only speak to me, then I guess I have to go.”
“Oh, sit down, Helena,” Helena’s mother said, “you’re not going anywhere.”
“Darling,” Helena’s father piped up, “if this is about the freybug, I’m afraid it can’t be helped. That beast is a menace, and any news that can help its capture must be investigated.”
“Oh, please, George!” the woman cried. “Can’t you see they’re making all this up?”
“And if they’re not?”
“Forgive me, Ma’am,” James added, “but this is really im—”
“What’s this informant’s name?” Helena’s mother demanded, rounding on the man.
“Uh…” James stammered.
“I’m afraid James is not at liberty to share that information, Madame,” the Chief said, coming to the man’s aid. “Else we might lose the informant’s confidence.”
“It can’t be helped, my dear,” Helena’s father added, glancing at his daughter to give her a quick wink before turning to his wife. “I’m sure we can carry on over lunch tomorrow.”
“Why’re you doing this?” Helena’s mother demanded, rounding on her husband. “You’re always doing this! Why must you defend her like this! Is it so wrong to wish for her to find a good man, get married and settle down?” Hunh?”
Helena’s father smiled. “Darling, I just want to see our daughter happy, just like you.”
“No, you don’t!” the woman spat. “You’re the reason she’s even doing this bloody job! Left to you, she’ll spend all her days running around the place with that bloody sword getting into all sorts of foul madness day after day!”
“But she’s happy, though, isn’t she?”
The rage within Helena’s mother’s gaze would dwarf a thousand suns.
Clearing her throat, Helena turned to the young man seated beside her, one whose gaze was pinned firmly at his feet.
“It was nice to meet you, Ralph,” she said as she rose, a warm smile upon his lips. “Father mentioned lunch, so let’s have lunch at my parent’s house tomorrow.” She turned to her mother. “Hm?”
“That’s assuming you’ll actually attend!” Helena’s mother growled.
Grinning, the young woman kissed her mother on the cheek, then turned to do the same to her father.
“Make sure you come, pet?” he whispered as his daughter leaned in. “Or your mother’s heart’ll explode.”
“Do I have to?” Helena whispered as she kissed him.
“Yes, young lady.”
Standing tall, she turned to James. “Come on, then, before the little weasel changes his mind.”
Then, as the pair stepped free of the office and James closed the door behind them, they sighed.
“Looks like I owe you another one,” Helena said as they stepped forth.
“Eh.” James shrugged, walking abreast her as they headed for the door.
“So, where to?”
“Well, we could head by to my place, have some tea. You can keep Da’ company while I give Horace a bath.”
“A bath?” Helena frowned.
“Yeah,” James sighed, “smelt like a bloody sewer this morning.”
“Ah…” Helena nodded, then shrugged. “Might as well!”
And, as one, the pair headed forth.
“There!” a kneeling Derek cried, a grateful smile upon his lips as he sat back and raised his gaze to the heavens, a heavy sigh upon his lips.
As a loud bark rang out, the old man lowered his gaze just in time to watch dear Horace stand at last, the freybug that had been held pinned beneath him leaping to its feet the moment it was freed.
Smiling still, Derek watched as the freybug tested its hind foot above which his handiwork rested, and as it walked gingerly about, his smile widened, till at last, the freybug began barking and prancing, an elated Horace joining in chorus.
“Even with glowing eyes and all them teeth, you’re still just a dog, hunh,” Derek muttered, watching the pair. Then his gaze drifted to the many broken suture needles about him.
“Some bloody dog, though,” he muttered before returning his gaze to the pair.
“Steady on!” he cried as the pair’s play became more frenetic. “You’ll open the sutures!”
But even as he spoke, Derek knew there was little reason to worry, for never had he seen any beast recover as fast as the freybug.
Then, the dogs stopped, their ears pricked and their gazes at the door leading back inside.
“What’re you…” Derek began, frowning.
Then, he heard a faint knock.
“Oh, bugger,” he said, the hairs on the back of his neck standing tall.
The dogs turned to him, and as he stared into the freybug’s eyes, a deep shiver ran down his spine.
The knock came again.
Swallowing hard, Derek glanced from the door to Horace, then scrambled to his feet.
“Horace, stay!” he hissed.
The standing Saint Bernard made nary a sound, nor did he move.
Derek turned to the freybug.
“Stay!” he hissed, but with much less command than before.
The beast stared at him unblinking but remained unmoving.
“Good boy,” he whispered, then headed for the door.
Standing tall, Jacob chanced a glance at his sister, and what he saw broke his heart. From the pain behind her eyes to the clenched fists, from the clenched teeth to the tight frown, it was clear his sister was barely keeping it together, and forcing a smile, he slipped a hand into hers.
Startled, she turned to him, and as their eyes met, he widened his smile.
“We’ll get through this, Hannah,” he said, his voice soft. “You’ll see.”
Smiling, Hannah breathed deep as her eyes glistened. “I’m the older, but you’re the one always looking after me.”
The young man shrugged, his smile widening, but as he moved to speak, a voice called out from beyond the door before them.
“Who is it?”
Startled, the pair wiped the smile from their lips.
“Derek, it’s me,” Hannah replied as she wiped her tears away.
“Yeah.” Hannah nodded.
“What’re you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you. It’s urgent.”
“Yeah.” Hannah nodded, glancing at her brother.
“Please, Derek,” she added. “It won’t take long, promise.”
A brief silence fell upon the pair, with the siblings exchanging glances as the silence drew on, till at last, they heard the lock being turned, and as the door was slowly opened, the siblings smiled.
“Is James okay?” a wary Derek asked.
Hannah’s smile warmed as Jacob grinned at the old man. “Yeah, he’s fine, Derek.”
“Oh, good!” Derek gasped. “With the way you were sounding, feared the worst!” Then he turned to Jacob. “And I see you brought Jacob with you!”
Grinning, Jacob nodded. “Been a while.”
“Yeah, it has, hasn’t it. Been keeping well?”
Grinning still, Jacob nodded.
“And you been keeping out of trouble?”
“Actually,” Hannah replied, glancing at her brother, “that’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Oh?” The old man frowned.
“Yeah.” Hannah nodded, then glanced about her. “Can we talk inside?”
“Oh, sure,” Derek replied as he stepped in and stepped aside.
“Thank you,” Hannah said as she stepped into the house, her brother following close behind.
“I’ll put the kettle on, then,” Derek added, closing the door behind them.
“We’ll join you,” Hannah replied and fell in step behind Derek as he wandered past them, her brother walking alongside.
Then, as the pair entered the kitchen behind Derek, Jacob moved to shut the door.
“No, no,” Derek called out. “Leave it open, so I can listen out for Horace.”
As old Derek turned to the kettle, the siblings exchanged pained glances and headed for the kitchen stools.
“So, what’s this about, then?” Derek asked as he began filling the kettle.
“It’s me, Derek,” Jacob replied. “I’ve got some trouble.”
Stopping, Derek turned to the pair. “Is this the kind of trouble you don’t want the others to know about?”
The siblings exchanged glances and nodded.
“I see.” Old Derek sighed, then moved to place the kettle onto the stove. “Let’s hear it, then.”
“Well,” Jacob sighed, then leant forward, his hands shoved between his thighs as he sought to clearly recall the tale they’d agreed on the way over.
“Started a new business a couple months ago,” he said at last. “Deliveries.”
“Yeah.” Jacob nodded.
“Well…” Jacob shrugged, “wasn’t rolling in it, but wasn’t bugging Hannah for any either.”
“Heh, that’s a first.”
Chuckling, the old man turned to the pair. “So, what’s the problem?”
Jacob turned to his sister. It was her turn now.
“His shop’s landlord’s a shyster, Derek.” Hannah added, gripping her bow tight as she held it between her thighs. “Real bastard. Been getting Derek to smuggle mist all over the city.”
“Mist?” Derek cried.
“Yeah.” Hannah nodded.
“Wow. No bloody wonder you don’t want James to know about it.”
“Yeah.” Hannah nodded once more. “Really don’t need his temper on this.”
Derek turned to the younger of the siblings once more. “What’s he got over you?”
Jacob shrugged. “Been doing deliveries for him in exchange for only paying half rent. He’s saying one of my deliveries was what caused that fire over at Roland Crescent three weeks ago.”
“I heard about that,” Derek replied as he reached for some cups. “Didn’t some orphanage burn down, or something?”
“School,” Hannah corrected.
“Right, right.” Derek nodded at her, then turned to Jacob. “He says he can prove you did the delivery?”
“Yeah.” Jacob nodded. “Says he’s got a witness stashed away somewhere.”
“Sounds like a load of bollocks to me.”
“Exactly, right?” Hannah cried.
“So, what do you need from me?” Derek added as he laid the cups upon the kitchen table before the siblings before returning for a third.
“Well,” Hannah sighed, “been trying to dig some dirt up on him, but the name he gave Jacob is total bollocks, and everyone around there seems too shite scared to talk, so was hoping you could help us with some names, or some…I don’t know, leads. Because right now, I’ve got nothing.”
At those words, Derek smiled. “Flattered you’d think I’d be of use after all this time, pet.”
Hannah smiled at the old man. “I know you still keep in touch with your old informants, Derek, old habits die hard.”
“Do they, now?”
“Yes.” Hannah nodded, her smile widening.
“And where exactly is the shop?”
“It’s over at—”
Just then, a loud bark rang out, silencing Hannah as old Derek turned to the door, but the bark was swiftly followed by a sharp yelp, then silence.
“Horace…” Derek breathed, his eyes wide and his face ashen. “No!”
“Wait, Derek, maybe…” Hannah began, but her words had no effect on Derek, and before she could say anymore, the old man darted for the door and was gone.
“I thought you told them not to harm Horace?” Derek hissed.
“I did, but clearly, they’re too stupid to understand!” Hannah spat, then sprang to her feet and raced after Derek, her brother following close behind.
Reaching the back door, the old man came to a halt, and what he saw held him rigid and froze his soul, for in the garden before him lay his beloved Horace, his blood pooling swiftly about him.
“No,” Derek breathed as he stepped into the garden and made to dart to his fallen friend’s side.
“Derek, wait!” Jacob cried as he reached the man, grasping his arm and pulling hard.
But it was too late, for he’d already spied the three masked figures within the garden, and they’d seen him.
“You were supposed to keep him out of here,” the tallest of the three growled.
“What?” Derek gasped.
“And you were supposed to not hurt Horace!” Jacob threw back.
“You’re with them?” Derek said, glancing first at Jacob, then at Hannah.
Neither could meet his gaze.
“You’re with them?” he cried.
Through it all was the sound of a deep growl filled with rage and desperation, and as Jacob turned from Derek, he spied the freybug at last, the fell beast held within a circle of utter blackness, black, writhing tendrils emanating from the circle and entwining the beast, pulling it down even as it fought with all its might.
“Well,” the tallest of the masked figures sighed, drawing all gazes to him as he turned to the figure standing in the freybug’s path, “you know what to do.”
In response, the figure bowed her head and whispered words of arcane, and as she did so, Derek gasped and groaned as his whole frame grew stiff.
“Derek?” Hannah said, turning to the man.
“What’re doing to him?” Jacob demanded, glancing from the old man to the three figures.
In response, the masked woman raised a hand, tiny shards of ice swirling between her fingers before rising and forming a frozen lance above the mage’s hand.
“No, wait!” Jacob cried, darting forth before Derek as he spoke.
“Jacob, no!” Hannah yelled, reaching for her brother.
But it was too late, the lance had been thrown, and in that one brief moment, all within the garden watched in horror as the lance flew towards both men, piercing Jacob’s heart with enough force to send him crashing into Derek, the lance tearing through the youth to impale the former peace-keeper and sending the pair flying backwards into the house.
The silence that followed was deafening.
“What the bloody hells did you kill him for?” the tallest of the masked figures barked at last, rounding on the mage.
“Me?” the woman cried. “The idiot jumped in the bloody way! How the bloody hells was I supposed—”
“You killed him…” Hannah said, her voice as soft as it was raw as she stared at her brother’s lifeless body.
“Now look, Hannah, don’t…” Richard began before pulling his mask free. “What’s done is done, alright? Don’t—”
“You killed him…”
“Lucas still has his eye on you, alright? Don’t do anything stupid.”
“You killed him…”
“Hannah, listen to me,” Richard warned, “we don’t need things getting any mess—”
“You killed my brother…”
Swallowing hard, the rogue reached for his throwing daggers. “Listen, Hannah. Calm down, okay? What’s done is done. This doesn’t—”
“You killed my brother!” the young peace-keeper shrieked before spinning about, and as she spun, she pulled free an arrow, notched her bow, raised it, aimed, and pulled the arrow back, all while dropping to a knee.
“Damn it!” Richard spat as he pulled free a dagger, but as he was about to loose his dagger, a sharp crack rang out as a flash of light flew past him, striking Hannah square in the chest just as she loosed her arrow, a startled cry escaping Richard’s lips as he darted to the side just as the arrow flew past him, and as he spun, he watched as the arrow struck the fence behind Mabel, and for a moment, their eyes met.
Then the mage raised a shaking hand to her neck, and as she pulled it away, she lowered her gaze to it. The thin smear of blood upon her fingers chilled her no end.
“Mabel?” Malcolm asked, his mask pulled free.
Mabel turned to the struck peace-keeper, her whole frame quivering as she glared at the felled woman.
“You…bitch!” she seethed, raising a hand. “Oh, you’re really going to pay for that!”
“Enough!” Richard barked, freezing Mabel’s hand in place, then turned to the beast. “Let’s just get the blasted thing and go.”
The others turned to the beast. Its legs were no longer visible, and though it still growled and writhed, dark tendrils had wrapped round its snout, closing its mouth shut as it continued its slow descent into the circle.
“Can you hurry this up?” Richard asked, turning to Mabel.
Mabel glared at the man. “It’s a bloody binding ritual, Richard. It’ll take as long as it bloody takes.”
“Well, we don’t have a lot of time now, now that you’ve told the whole bloody neighbourhood we’re here.”
“I told…” Mabel began, her nostrils flared as she glared ate the man before her. “I saved your bloody life!”
“Yeah, well, next time try not to use such a noisy bloody spell!”
“Ugh!” Mabel cried, raising her hands in exasperation. But as she turned from Richard, her hands froze before slowly coming down to her side, and as she turned to Richard once more, the old rogue saw at last the fear in her eyes.
Slowly, the man spun about, and as he laid eyes upon Hannah’s body, his mouth ran dry, for though she was still prone, her bow was nocked and drawn.
Swallowing hard, Richard turned to face the woman square, taking pains to step to the side and away from Mabel.
“Now, listen to me, Hannah,” he said, “don’t do anything stupid.”
Hannah loosed her arrow, and as one, Richard and Mabel dove for cover. But they needn’t have bothered, for neither were her prey, and it wasn’t till the arrow flew towards the trapped beast that they realised this, and it wasn’t till the arrow sliced through much of the tendrils along one side of the beast that they realised just what shape her vengeance was to take.
“Oh, bugger me,” Mabel gasped as the beast turned its gaze to her, a deep snarl upon its lips, and with a bark, it began pulling itself free.
“Mabel!” Malcolm yelled as the prone woman scrambled to her feet.
But it was too late, for before she could stand, the beast was upon her, clamping down its maw about her neck, and as it bit down, it began shaking its head with all its might.
“Mabel!” Malcolm shrieked, pulling free his blade and lunging at the beast.
“No!” Richard cried, leaping at his son and bringing him to earth before dragging him toward the other side of the garden.
“Let me go!” Malcolm yelled, fighting his father’s grip. “Mabel!”
“Forget her, she’s gone! And we can’t win this fight without her, so move!”
Slamming his son against the fence, Richard pushed the sobbing youth up it, and as he began climbing at last, the old rogue turned to the beast, his teeth gritted hard.
Then he turned to Hannah, and as a rage the likes of which he’d not felt in an age came upon him, he pulled free a dagger and marched forth, a deep sneer upon his lips.
Then he heard hurried footsteps coming from the house.
“Hurry!” Helena yelled as she raced forth, her blade drawn.
But as she turned into the corridor that would lead to the garden, she came to a screeching halt, her heart racing up her throat.
“No…” she whispered as her eyes drifted from Helena’s still face to Jacob’s, and then to Derek’s.
“Helena, what…” James cried as he raced after her, but as he appeared behind her, he too came to a halt, the blood in his veins turning to ice.
“No! Da’!” he cried as he barrelled past Helena. “Da’!”
Coming to life, the young peace-keeper hurried forth, but her friend had already reached Derek, and was working to pull the man free.
Biting back her tears, she raised her gaze, but as she did so, she noticed Hannah’s hand twitch.
“Gods, she’s still alive!” Helena breathed and hurried towards the woman.
“Help me!” James shrieked as she squeezed past. “I can’t pull this thing out!”
Pausing, Helena stared at the still peace-keeper a spell, then shook her head and darted to James’s side.
“What do you need me to do?”
In the precious few moments that followed, the pair fought to save old Derek Pritchard, his son in tears through it all. But for a mercy, his wounds weren’t as grave as they’d first appeared, for young Jacob had borne the brunt of the assault, and though the lance had claimed Jacob’s life, it also meant the two friends would soon sit old Derek up, the old man shivering as the faint aura about his son’s hand as he rested it upon his father’s wound slowly faded to nothing.
“Thank the gods,” Helena said at last.
Then she remembered Hannah.
“James,” she said, “Hannah needs…”
As she spoke, the young woman turned about, and as she did so, her gaze drifted to the garden, and into the crimson eyes of the freybug as it lay beside the unmoving Horace, and as their eyes met, Helena felt the blood drain from her face.
“James…” she said, her voice quivering and barely above a whisper.
James didn’t hear her.
“James,” she said again, pulling at his sleeve.
“What?” James frowned, turning to her.
Helena pointed, and James turned.
“Woah!” the young peace-keeper cried as he scrambled back. But as he raised a hand to the beast, his father gripped his arm.
“No,” the tired man said, shaking his head. “No, he won’t harm us.”
Wide-eyed, James turned to Helena, whose gaze was just as wild. The pair turned to Derek once more, then turned to the beast. It remained as it was.
“Ha…Hannah,” Helena said at last, her eyes upon the beast still.
“Right…right.” James nodded and rose, his steps measured and his gaze locked on the beast.
“They killed Horace,” Derek said, his voice raw as it drew the gazes of Helena and James. “The bastards killed Horace.”
“It’s alright, Da’,” James replied. “We’ll get you another dog.”
“No, it’s not alright!” Derek cried. “They killed Horace!”
“Easy, Derek,” Helena soothed, drawing closer to the man. “You don’t want your wounds to open up again.”
The old man paused as a haunting gaze took him.
“What matters is you’re alive,” Helena continued. “Yeah? You’re alive!”
“It’s okay, Derek,” Helena soothed, slipping a hand into Derek’s as she placed a calming hand upon his shoulder. “It’s okay.”
“And Horace, well,” Helena began, turning to the still dog, but as she stared at him, she frowned. “What’s that thing doing?”
At her words, the others turned, and as one, they watched as the freybug gently opened the door shed, nosing the door open before shoving it wide with its head.
“What in the world…” James muttered.
Then, they watched as it wandered over to Horace, a soft whine upon its lips as it gently nosed Horace’s head up, only for the dog’s head to fall limply back. Then it did it again, and again, the dog’s head fell back to the soft earth. As it did it a third time, however, Horace’s head remained aloft.
“Gods, he’s alive!” Helena gasped and made to rise.
As she did so, the freybug turned to them and growled.
“Oi!” Derek snapped.
The freybug fell silent, licking its lips.
“What the…” Helena began, turning to Derek, who grinned and shrugged.
Shaking her head, she turned to James, then frowned as she noticed he was no longer attending to Hannah.
“Will she be okay?” she asked.
James turned to the woman, then nodded to Helena. “Was just about able to heal her. She’ll live, she’s just out now.”
Then he turned to the freybug.
“Look!” he cried, nodding.
The others turned, and as one, they watched as the beast began gently shoving Horace towards the open shed door, its head nestled against the limp dog’s chest.
“What in the world is he doing?” James muttered.
Helena shook her head, then moved to rise again. “I don’t know, but we need to stop him, or Horace is really going to die.”
“No, wait,” Derek said, grasping hold of her hand.
“Hrm?” Helena frowned.
The old man shook his head. “You didn’t see what he was like with Horace earlier. He’s not looking to hurt Horace.”
“Then, what’s he doing?”
“No,” Helena shook her head, pulling her wrist free, “we have to stop it.”
“And if he turns on you?”
Once again, Helena paused, unable to answer the question posed to her. Then, gritting her teeth, she turned to the beast once more. It had pushed the entirety of Horace into the shed, the dying dog’s whole frame within the shadows. Then the freybug stepped back, sat down, raised his snout to the heavens and howled. It was a haunting howl, unlike anything the gathered have ever heard, its sounds sending the hairs on the back of their necks standing ramrod straight as it made their hearts beat faster. Then the beast’s shadow began to lengthen.
“What the bloody hells!” Helena gasped.
“Are you seeing this?” Derek added.
On, still, the freybug howled, its shadow lengthening till it reached Horace, and as it touched Horace, a wall of utter blackness began to rise from the shadows the bleeding dog lay in, its surface rippling and writhing as it began covering Horace.
“James…?” Helena said, her voice quivering.
The young peace-keeper shook his head, his eyes fixed upon the scene before him. “I have no idea what it’s doing.”
Then, as Horace became utterly covered, the freybug ceased its howls and rose, its gaze upon the writhing mass within the shed. At first, nothing seemed to happen, and just as Helena was about to turn to James once more, the writhing mass began to sink down into the shadows.
“What’s—” she began.
“Wait, let’s see,” James interjected. “Let’s see what it’s doing.”
As the mass disappeared, the freybug headed over to where Horace once lay, and stopping at the doorway, it began barked fiercely, but though its barks boomed about garden, nothing happened.
Then a head rose form the shadows.
“Woah!” a startled Derek cried.
“Good lords!” Helena added as she, too, leapt back in surprise.
“So that’s how they’re made!”
As one, Derek and Helena turned to James, whose eyes were wide and bright.
“What is wrong with you, boy?”
Coming to his senses, James shrugged and grinned at his father, then turned to the scene before him.
As the others turned, they saw that the new freybug had stepped out of the shadows. Its face was Horace’s, but with its red eyes, shorter and vastly darker fur, and much bulkier frame, it was a far cry from the loving and huggable Saint Bernard they all knew. Then, as one, the freybugs headed for the three.
“Uhm…” Helena began, glancing at the others.
“Just stay still,” James replied, his voice quivering as much as Helena’s did. “Lets…uh…let’s just…”
As the beasts reached them, they sat, the newer beast’s eyes upon Derek, who sat still and unmoving. The others turned to him, then back to the beast.
“Horace?” Derek said at last.
The freybug barked and darted forth to lick his master, his tail wagging wildly, and as Derek laughed and hugged his dog in turn, the others exchanged glances, the relief in their gazes plain. They turned to the other freybug. Its eyes were upon Horace and its tail was wagging also.
Shaking his head, James shrugged and turned to his father as he waited a spell, and as Horace finally sat, he spoke up.
“So, Da,’” he began, “what happened?”
“I…,” the man began, then sighed and turned to Hannah. “Hannah and her brother came to visit earlier, but they were just keeping me from the garden. They had others scale the fence and try to take the freybug.”
“Take?” Helena frowned.
“Yeah.” Derek nodded as he petted Horace. “They had a circle under it, had these black…ropes coming out, pulling it in.” Then he frowned. “They looked funny too, them ropes, like the black wall that pulled Horace under.”
With her brow furrowed deep, Helena turned to James, who shook his head.
“I don’t know either,” he said.
“It was a binding ritual,” Hannah said, her voice barely above a whisper. “Mabel was binding it to her shadow.”
“Hannah!” Helena cried, a wide grin upon her lips. “Thank the gods, you’re alive.”
The young woman smiled, but as her gaze drifted to her brother’s lifeless body, her eyes began to glisten.
“Hannah!” Helena said, drawing the woman’s gaze to her. “What happened here?”
The young woman swallowed hard, then turned to Derek.
“I’m sorry, Derek,” she said, her tears falling at last. “I really didn’t want to—”
“It’s alright, pet,” Derek soothed, a soft smile upon his lips. “Can’t really be angry with you, can I, I’m only here because of your brother.”
Smiling, Hannah sniffed and nodded, wiping her tears.
“Yeah,” she said at last, shaking her head as she did so. “He’s always looking out for everyone else, isn’t he.”
“Hannah,” Helena said, her voice as soft as before.
Hannah turned to her.
“What happened here?”
“I…um…” Hannah began, then moved to sit up, but her arms were too week.
“Hold on,” James said, then carefully pulled the woman to sitting.
Smiling, Hannah nodded at him, then turned to her brother once more before forcing her gaze to Helena. “Your brother sent us.”
“I take it that’s what that is, then?” James gestured toward the fence on the other side of the garden. “One of your people?”
“Hrm?” Helena frowned and turned, only to recoil in horror as she caught sight of the bloodied lump of torn flesh that was there.
“Is that…human?” she said.
“Yeah,” Hannah nodded. “The beast got one of them, the one trying to bind it.”
“I see…” James muttered.
“Bloody hells,” Helena muttered, turning to the freybug.
Then she turned to Hannah once more “What did you mean, my brother sent you?”
“The freybug is his, and—”
“Wait,” Helena interjected, “what do you mean, his?”
Hannah shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know how he got it, but it’s his, Helena.”
“Helena,” Derek said, placing a soft hand upon Helena’s wrist. “Let her speak.”
Gritting her teeth, Helena turned from Derek to Hannah, then nodded.
Breathing deep, Hannah let out a long, ragged sigh, then spoke up once more.
“I honestly don’t know how he got it,” she said, turning to the freybug, “but that thing is his. He’s been using it to attack his rivals as they travel away from the city. He’s been doing it for a couple of years now.”
“Good gods,” Helena breathed.
“Yeah.” Hannah nodded.
“So, how’d you end up working for him?” James asked.
Gritting her teeth, Hannah turned to her brother once more.
“Remember the mist gang we busted a few months ago?” she said at last, fighting back her tears.
James and Helena exchanged glances.
“Yeah,” Helena said, turning to Hannah.
“You had to go undercover, didn’t you?” James added.
“Yeah,” Hannah nodded, turning to the pair, “and I got hooked on mist.”
“What? the pair said in unison.
Closing her eyes, Hannah nodded, then turned to Helena. “Your brother bought my debts, told me I had to pay it all off doing favours for him—”
“What sort of favours?”
“Whatever he bloody wanted.”
At this, Helena stared deep into Hannah’s eyes, and when Hannah didn’t flinch, the young woman felt a vile wave crash against her soul.
“How often?” she asked at last.
“Whenever he bloody wanted.”
“That all he asked from you?” Derek pressed.
Hannah shook her head. “About the only thing he didn’t ask me to do was kill. Everything else…yeah.”
“You still hooked?”
Hennah turned to James and nodded. “Yeah.”
“But you never look it,” Helena added.
“That’s because your brother deals it to me.”
“What?” Helena frowned. “You mean…you mean he sells mist?”
Hannah nodded. “And a lot of other things.”
“Why didn’t you come to us?” James asked.
Hannah turned to the man. “You really asking me that, James? Everyone knows how much you hate the stuff given what it did to your mother. If I’d told you, you’d have just dragged me over to Sarge and reported me.”
James moved to speak but fell silent.
“But Jacob found out?” Derek asked after a spell.
Hannah’s smile returned as she turned to her brother once more. “Yeah. He started buying me mist so I didn’t have to get from Lucas. Then he tried finding a way to wean me off without anyone knowing.” Then her smile faded, chased away by a haunting gaze.
“But Lucas found out,” she continued, “sent some people to kill him.”
“What?” Helena gasped.
Hannah nodded at her. “Jacob got away, then he went to see him.”
Smiling as her tears fell once more, Hannah nodded. “He made a bargain with your brother to work for him, but with the money he made going to my debts, less expenses and living allowances. He’s been selling your brother’s goods from the back of his store ever since.”
A heavy silence fell upon them all as Hannah crumpled in on herself.
“He’s not going to get away with this,” Helena said at last, banishing the silence. “Gods damn him! What in the world’s gotten into him?”
“It’s not like anyone can do anything about it, though, is it?”
“What do you mean?” Helena frowned at Hannah.
“Your family owns the peace-keepers in this city, with all the money you’ve been giving. No-one’s going to touch him.”
“Well, I’m going to bloody touch him!”
“Are you? What if your father tells you to leave it?”
Helena moved to speak, but could not.
“I’ll touch him,” James added when the silence returned.
“You?” Hannah began, turning to him, her mocking tone heard clearly by the others.
But as she saw the fire in his eyes, the mocking smile upon her lips faded to nothing.
“He’s going to answer for everything he’s done to you,” James added. “He’s going to answer for sending people to kill my father. And he’s going to answer for my father’s dog dying.” Then he turned to Helena. “And you’re helping me.”
It was not a question, and Helena knew it.
“You’re not killing my brother, James,” Helena replied, her voice firm.
“I don’t intend to.”
Helena stared hard at her friend a spell, then nodded at last. “Then, I’ll help you.”
“Good.” James nodded, then turned to Hannah. “Where will we find him?”
“He’s got a place near Wrexham Gardens.”
“I know the place,” Helena said, nodding at Hannah before turning to James. “I can lead us there.”
“Good.” Jaems nodded, then moved to rise.
“Wait, I’m coming with you,” Hannah added, then moved to rise, but her arms had too little strength in them to lift her up.
“You’re in no position to do anything, Hannah,” James replied. “Stay here and rest. We’ll be back for you.”
“No.” Hannah shook her head. “I want the bastards who killed Jacob. I want them all. I’m coming with you.”
“No. You can’t—”
“There’s something I need to get from my place, “Helena interjected. “She can rest till I get back, then we’ll see if she’s strong enough to come.”
James turned from one to the other, then nodded. “Okay.”
“Okay.” Helena nodded and rose. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
As Helena left, Hannah turned to the body of her brother once again, and as she did so, Derek nudged his son and gestured towards the body.
For a brief spell, young James was unsure what his father wanted, but as he followed his father’s gaze, he sighed and rose.
“I’ll go get something to cover Jacob up with. We’ll report everything when we’re done.”
Then, giving Horace one final glance, he headed deeper into the house.
Standing in the shadows, the three stared at the great gate of the large complex before them.
“So, his office is at the top, is it?” James whispered.
“Yeah,” Helena nodded, “I think so, but I’ve never been inside.”
“I have,” Hannah whispered.
“What, you’ve been inside?” James asked turning to her.
Hannah nodded. “Yeah. To his office.”
“Ah, okay,” James replied. Then his gaze softened. “How’re you feeling?”
Hannah turned to him, a slight smile upon her lips. “I’m done crying if that’s what you mean. Now, I just want those bastards dead.”
“We’re arresting them, Hannah,” James pointed out, “not butchering them.”
Hannah stared in silence at her friend as her gaze hardened, then she nodded.
“Yeah., right,” she added, then turned to the complex. “Anyway, I can be the guide in there.”
“How do we get past the gate, though?” Helena whispered.
It was a fair question, for it was a solid iron gate, one with only a slit at eye-level.
“Hrm,” James muttered, “I see what you mean about it being a solid gate.”
“Yeah,” Helena replied.
“I still think we should scale the wall,” Hannah replied.
“I’m not good at that sort of thing, Han—”
“No, I mean Helena and me. Then we can work our way to the gate, open it and let you in.”
“No.” Helena shook her head. “We don’t know their strength, and if we start a commotion, we’ll need James in that fight.”
“Yeah, no,” James added, “we can still pass through the gate.”
James turned to Helena. “I need you to trust me, okay?”
Helena frowned. “What’re you planning?”
Helena turned to Hannah, who shrugged.
Shrugging herself, she turned to James. “Alright, then.”
“Good.” James nodded. “Come with me. Hannah, you wait here with your bow ready. If anyone comes up behind us, take care of them.”
“Understood,” Hannah replied as she unhooked her bow from over her shoulder and notched it.
“Good.” James nodded, then stepped into the light and headed for the gate, Helena by his side.
“You knock,” he said as they went. “Keep them talking.”
Reaching the gate, Helena stood before the slit and pounded upon the gate.
“Open up!” she barked. “It’s the law!”
The covering behind the slit slid open.
“What do you want?” growled the face peering from the other side.
“Open up, I said!” she snapped.
“Piss off!” the voice threw back and closed the slit.
“I’m not bloody done with you, open the bloody door!”
“Piss off, woman! We’re not opening this for nobody!”
Through it all, James stood silent, and as the voices grew heated, he closed his eyes and whispered words of arcane. As the words left his lips, a small, soft light flickered into being behind the pair and floated towards the ground. As it floated, the shadows of the two peace-keepers moved lower and lower down the gate till it slipped beneath the gate. Then, the light stopped.
“Go, Horace,” James whispered. “Go now.”
“If you don’t—” Helena yelled, but her words were cut short by a startled yelp, followed swiftly by a deep and unsettling growl, then the sound of men facing their deepest nightmare and being felled by it.
“What the…?” she gasped, glancing about her, and as she noticed the light and their shadows, her blood ran cold as she turned to the man beside her.
“James, what did you do?”
“Da’ got Horace and the other one to hide in our shadows when you went home,” James replied as he placed a hand upon the gate where the lock would be. “Horace is in mine, the other one’s in Hannah’s. Horace is taking care of the guards for us, but we’ll need to hurry, don’t want him to draw too much attention.”
Helene stared at her friend with an ashen face as her mouth fell agape.
“There!” James gasped after a while, then began shouldering the gate. “We’re in!”
“So,” Lucas snarled, glaring at the two men standing on the other side of the grand mahogany desk behind which he sat, their heads bowed as he twirled a dagger in his hands, “tell me again how you not only lost my beast, but also one of my favourite spell-casters, and my personal peace-keeper?”
Raising his head, Richard cleared his throat. “Honest, M’lord, we came close, really close, but—”
“But Hannah betrayed you and it’s all her fault, right? And you can’t possibly be lying to me, right?”
Richard nodded at the man. “It’s the truth! All of it!”
“And what in the world possessed you into thinking you could barge into Derek Pritchard’s house? Hrm? What if my sister and that fat bastard had arrived sooner than they did?”
“Hannah and her brother were meant to keep them busy, too?” Malcolm muttered, his head bowed still.
“Oh, so that’s also Hannah’s fault, is it?”
The young rogue fell silent.
Lucas glared at the men a spell longer, then sighed and tossed the dagger in his hand onto the table.
“Get out of my sight.” He muttered, shaking his head at the pair.
The men bowed and turned to leave.
“She was my bloody wife, you know,” Malcolm muttered as he went.
“What did you say?” Lucas seethed as Richard held his son a heartfelt glare.
The men kept walking.
“What did you say?” Lucas repeated, rising as he picked up the dagger once more, then began making his way around his desk, dragging the dagger’s tip across his desk as he went.
“What did you say, Malcolm?” Lucas asked as he walked free of his desk.
The men turned, and as they did, Richard flashed his most winning smile as he stepped between the pair.
“M’lord, please. The boy’s a little upset his wife’s dead, and—”
“M’lord, please, he—”
“I said move,” Lucas repeated as he stood before the man.
“But, M’lord, he—”
“M’lord!” came a cry as the door swung open.
“What is it?” Lucas said, his brow furrowed deep as he turned to the man hurrying in.
“We’ve got intruders! We’ve got to get you out of here!”
“Intruders?” Lucas frowned. “Who?”
“Your sister, M’lord,” the man replied, “and that James Pritchard. Hannah’s with them, too.”
Lucas’s frown deepened. “And you want me to run from—”
“They’ve got two freybugs with them, M’lord!”
“Two?” Richard and Malcolm cried as one.
Lucas glanced into the ether, then turned to the men. “Are you sure Horace was dead when you left?”
The two men exchanged glances.
“He wasn’t moving,” Richard replied.
“And I got him good,” Malcolm added.
“But you never made sure?”
Once again, the two men turned to one another, then turned to their lord and shook their heads.
Snarling, Lucas shook his head and turned to the door. “Let’s just get out of here.”
Racing through the complex, James couldn’t help but marvel at the creatures charging forth before them. It was Horace, especially, that held his attention, for this was not the Horace he knew. No, this Horace was stronger, faster, and with taste for blood that was frightful. And then, there was the ease with which he was darting between shadows, his paws making nary a sound as he pounced onto any surface covered in shadow, and sometimes sinking into the shadow to leap out from another part of that shadow, other times simply leaping off the shadow onto its next prey. As he watched the beasts battle their foes for them, James knew facing with even one of these creatures was something well beyond him.
“Which way now?” he called out as he called forth an ice lance to hurl it at an archer in the back line of their enemy.
“At the top of those stairs we take the left corridor!” Hannah yelled back as she notched another arrow. “We need to get to the end of that corridor!”
“Right!” he yelled as Hannah’s arrow flew over the freybugs into the enemy’s back line.
“Will he still be in his office, though?” Helena called out from the rear as she sliced through the defences of one of the men trying to sneak up behind them, ending his life as he crumpled to the floor.
“What do you mean?” James asked.
“By now, he’ll know who’s after him. If it were you, would you stay?”
James turned to the freybugs once more. No, he wouldn’t.
“I think there’s another way out, but it’s down that corridor.”
“Okay,” James nodded, turning to the rear as he called forth another ball of flames. “Helena?”
“Go!” Helena cried as she squared up against another foe.
But there were more coming up behind them, far more than Helena could handle alone.
“Horace!” James yelled. “To Helena!”
“What? No! I don’t need—”
“Hannah! Go!” James continued as he lobbed his spell at the enemy’s back line.
“Right! Beast, with me!”
And on did the three push forward, the carnage wrought by the fell beasts shaking the resolve of their enemy greatly as they cut a bloody swathe through their enemy’s ranks. Be it vengeance or justice, they would not be denied. They would reach their goal, they would reach the man named Lucas and make him answer for his sins, one way or the other.
“Keep pushing!” James roared as they reached the stairs, calling forth a blade of wind to slice through the torches lining the stairs and grow the shadows before them. “Keep pushing!”
They would reach their goal, one way or the other.
“This way, M’lord!”
Panting, Lucas raced after his men. The sound of battle wasn’t as loud now, thank the gods, and soon they would be outside.
Racing on, he glanced behind him, and as his gaze fell upon the two hurrying directly behind him, he felt his lips curl into a snarl. It was because of their incompetence that all this was happening. By rights, he should be slitting their throats. By rights, he should be watching their blood run before him. But if they were caught, those two would be good for bartering. And so, he gritted his teeth and raced forth, his lungs aflame as he forced himself on.
“Almost there, M’lord!”
“About…bloody…time!” Lucas panted as he watched the guard in the distance at the end of the tunnel begin turning the rusted wheel attached to the side of the tunnel, and as he raced on, a wave of pure joy washed over him as the far wall of the tunnel began to part open. Forcing his feet moving, he stumbled at last out of the tunnel and into the street beyond, the elated man falling to his knees as he wheezed and coughed.
“Seal it!” said the guard who’d led them all to safety as the other guards fell out into the street.
Grunting, three of the guards wandered over to the barrels piled to the side of the open tunnel and as one, they heaved and pulled the barrels aside to reveal another wheel. Then one of the men stepped forth to close the tunnel. As the man steadied himself for the task, an arrow flew out of the tunnel, burying itself deep in the man’s neck and sending him crashing to the cobbled street.
“Get back!” Lucas barked. “Archers!”
At his command, the two guards accompanying him with bows stepped forth and began firing arrows blindly down the tunnel as fast as they could.
“Close it!” Lucas ordered. “Hurry!”
In response, a guard leapt to his feet and hurried to the wheel and, gritting his teeth, began turning it. At first, the tunnel’s walls remained unmoving, but soon, it begam to slowly close, and as it did so, Lucas grinned and turned to the tunnel. It was over, he’d won. Soon, the doors would close, and he would instruct his men to jam the wheel to ensure the door couldn’t be opened from the other side. It was over.
As his smirk returned, Lucas began to rise, but just as the door was about to close, he glanced at the floor and noticed the shadow of his archers stretching past the tunnel door and blending with the shadows within the tunnel, and with that realisation came another that chilled him to his core.
“Get away from—”
But it was too late, for as he spoke, the men’s shadows came alive as fell beasts leapt forth and pounced on them, their jaws seeking the men’s flesh, and with them, all hells broke loose.
“Stand your ground!” Lucas roared, leaping to his feet. “Stand your ground, gods damn you!”
But it was no use, his men’s resolve was broken, with some cowering and others swinging wildly at the beasts. Then the tunnel wall began to open once again.
“Oh, bugger this,” he muttered and turned on his heel.
But as he made to race forth, a wind vine latched about his feet and pulled them out from under him, sending him crashing onto the cobbled street.
Dazed, he looked about him, and it was then he noticed the two rogues racing away in the distance.
“Richard! Malcolm! Get back here!”
The men raced on.
“Get back here, damn you!”
As he moved to yell once more, a loud bark rang out as one of the beasts raced past him, charging at the pair escaping, and as Lucas watched the beast run down Malcolm, he watched, too, as an arrow flew overhead, striking Richard between his shoulder blades and bringing him low.
“Oi!” Lucas heard James yell.
“What?” Hannah yelled back. “They were resisting arrest!”
“Hello, Lucas,” came a voice from behind him as the wind vine about his ankle faded to nothing.
Tensing, Lucas gritted his teeth, then, sighing, he shook his head, stood and breathed deep.
“I suppose this is where you give the how could you speech, eh, Helena?” he said, forcing a smile to his lips as he spun about.
He was not prepared for the fist that crashed into his gut, forcing all air from his lungs and sending him to his knees, nor was he prepared for the boot that slammed into his face and pinned him by the neck to the cobbled street.
“No, Lucas,” Helena seethed as she glared at her brother, “no speeches, but I am arresting you for—”
“Oh, don’t be so stupid!” Lucas said through gritted teeth, “You’ll never hold me. You really think Father will allow his only son to rot in a peace-keeper jail? Get your blasted foot off me already!”
Helena leant on her foot, forcing a pained gurgle from her brother.
“I don’t care if I have to guard your jail myself, Lucas,” she seethed, “you will pay for what you did!”
“Get…off me! I…can’t breathe!”
Helena glared at her brother a spell, then moved her boot from his throat to his chest before leaning upon it even more.
“I just have one question for you,” she added. “Why? Why do all this? Why all this…evil!”
The pinned man grinned. “Why not? The peace-keepers are in our pockets, this city is ours! Do you not realise the freedom we have? I can do anything to anyone, and there’s nothing anyone can do about it!”
“There’s something I can do about it!”
“Ha!” Lucas cried as his grin widened. “Father has you under his thumb!” Then as the others wandered into view, his gaze wandered to Hannah’s face and his grin turned to a snarl.
“And as for you…” he seethed. “I’m going to enjoy slitting your throat!”
“Be quiet!” Helena barked before ramming the heel of her boot into her brother’s gut.
“I also have a question for you,” James added. “Where did you get the freybug from?”
Fighting for breath, Lucas turned to the man as a deep smirk parted his lips.
“Wouldn’t you like to know…” he said at last.
“I do, actually, yes.” James nodded. “Hannah said you’ve been using it to kill off rival merchants. Did an ally merchant give it to you?
“Heh, ally merchant,” Lucas replied, his smirk deepening. “Do you really think I’d ever form an alliance with any of these cretins?”
Lucas remained silent, his smirk firmly in place.
“Lucas…” Helena snarled. “Don’t make me make you?”
“Make me?” Lucas chuckled. “Since when can you make me do anything?”
The pinned man chuckled once more, then stared at his sister a spell.
“You want to know that badly, do you?” he said at last. “Fine, I’ll tell you. Mother gave it to me.”
“What?” James gasped as Hannah stared at the man in stunned silence.
“You liar!” Helena roared, stomping on her brother’s chest. “Tell me the truth!”
“That is the truth!” Lucas gasped. “Mother’s not like you or Father! You’re both too stupid to see what’s right in front of you! You with your stupid need to go traipsing all over the place like some demented crusader, and him acting all high and mighty prattling on about not abusing our status. Abusing our status? What rot! No, Mother opened my eyes to what we have in our hands right here. She gifted me that beast, and with it, I’ve been killing of her and Father’s rivals. She arranges for them to pass close enough by, and I do the rest. In exchange, I get to do whatever I wish!”
“No…” Helena shook her head. “No, you’re lying!”
“Heh, am I?”
“Are you sure it’s a lie, though?”
“Stop. Lying!” she thundered, stomping on him with all her might.
“Helena!” James cried. “You’ll kill him!”
“Maybe she should…”
“Hannah!” James snapped.
“Well, why not?” Hannah threw back, spinning to face James square. “Do you really see him spending any real time in jail? And, you heard him yourself, he’s going to kill me when he’s free.”
“He’s not going to kill you, Hannah.” James smiled.
“Why, you’re going to protect me? You’re going to be by my side every single moment of every single day? Hunh?”
“He can’t kill you if you leave the city,” Helena said, “go somewhere safe.”
“Where?” Hannah demanded. “This city’s all I’ve ever known. Where am I going to bloody go? Where exactly is my sorry, mist-hooked arse is going to go, Helena?”
Helena and James exchanged glances, but they said nary a word.
Just then, the freybug that was once in Hannah’s shadow wandered over, its lips dripping with blood, and as it sat beside Hannah, James gasped as his eyes grew wide.
“I know where you can go!” he said, turning to Hannah.
“They can’t stay here either, can they?” he continued, nodding at the beast. “They need to leave here and go somewhere far away, right?”
“James, what’re you—” Helena began.
“That elf, remember?” James interjected, turning to Helena. “Where he stays, they offer people Sanctuary! Hannah can go stay there! No-one can get to her there, not even your family!”
“Wait,” Hannah replied, “is this the elf that gave us those thing to catch the freybug in the first place?”
“Why in the bloody world would he take me in?” Hannah cried. “I don’t know any bloody magic!”
James shook his head to the woman. “Doesn’t matter. They’ll never turn you away now that your life’s in danger, and even if they decide to, they certainly won’t turn down a chance to own two freybugs!”
“You’re not giving my beast away!” Lucas snapped.
“Shut up, Lucas!” Helena snarled, stomping on him once more.
“Who in their right minds would want these things, though?” Helena added.
“They would!” Jaems replied, then turned to Hannah. “Trust me, they’ll take you!”
Hannah lowered her gaze and pondered her friend’s words, then shook her head.
“No,” she said, “I don’t even know where this place is.”
“Then, I’ll go with you. And I’m sure Da’ll love to come, gives him a chance to say goodbye to Horace properly. We’ll keep you company, keep you safe.”
Biting her lower lip, Hannah turned to Helena, who shrugged and smiled.
“Never known James to have a bad idea. I mean, even the shite ones don’t turn out all that bad, so…”
Helena grinned and shrugged once more. “Why not?”
Hannah turned to the ether a spell, biting her lower lip once more, till at last, she shrugged and turned to her friends. “Bugger it, why not.”
“Excellent!” Helena grinned, then turned to her brother, her grin fading rapidly.
“As for you,” she snarled, reaching into her pocket, “if you think you’re getting away with this, you’re sorely bloody mistaken.”
As she spoke, she pulled free a small smooth stone, one with a soft glow about it, before holding it aloft for her brother to see, and as Lucas laid eyes upon it, he gasped.
“No,” he said, his eyes growing wide.
“Yes.” Helena nodded, a deep sneer upon her lips.
“No! No!” Lucas cried as he writhed.
“Enough!” Helena barked, stomping on his gut with enough force to send the wind out of his lungs and reduce him to a coughing mess.
“Best you all head out tonight,” she added, turning to the others.
“Tonight?” Hannah cried.
Helena nodded. “Just in case.”
“I agree,” James nodded, “best not to tempt fate.”
“Yeah,” Helena said, then turned to the stone in her hand. “I’ll make a clone for you to take with you, James. If on your return, nothing’s changed, you’re free to use it any way you wish.”
James frowned. “Are you sure about that?”
Helena nodded. “I can’t condone what my brother did, and if Father would rather cover it up than deal with it, I won’t be able to condone that either.”
James stared hard at his friend, then nodded. “Alright.”
“Good.” Helena nodded, then sighed. “But first, help me get him into a cell.”
“Of course,” James replied, and began whispering words of arcane. As he did so, wind vines as thick as an ogre’s fist came to life before him before snaking forth and binding their prisoner from head to foot, leaving him floating a little above the ground.
“Let’s go, then,” James added, and called forth a smaller vine, attaching one end to Lucas’s bonds and the other about his waist, then moved to step forth.
“Helena, James,” Hannah said, stopping the man and bringing his gaze to hers. “Thank you.”
“Oh, don’t thank me yet,” James grinned, “we’re not at the Shimmering Tower yet.”
“Is that what it’s called?”
“Mhm.” James nodded.
“Shimmering Tower…” Hannah mused, then shrugged. “Let’s go see what it’s like, then.”
“Yeah, lets,” Helena added, then stepped forth,
And as the others fell in step beside her, the freybugs stepped into their shadows and sank out of sight.