Black. A whistle in an adjacent room startles Rein, and his chin slips underneath his hand. He is just able to catch himself before his face hits a hard, rough— “Table.”
The word croaks out of him. His mouth is dry, lips cracked. He raises his hand to his face. Everything is a blur of gray, but slowly blobs of color merge into vague shapes. The taste in his mouth gets an adjective here, too: “Bitter.”
Grey-Black. “I need a drink,” he says, wiping his eyes. Crust flakes off in large chunks.
“Tea still needs time to steep.”
“Very kind of you, Sofie,” Reins says. Sofie? His head turns too fast, and by the time the rest of him catches up, he’s already on the floor. White shoes appear. White shoes, a semi-white dress, only two streaks of red in the form of ribbons breaking the line. The Inspector tries his best to stand, but his legs go one way, his head another, and his eyes end up staring at the floor once more.
Weakly, he asks: “Steep? Tea?”
“Yes,” she says. “Steep, cook, brew—” Sofie’s voice pipes like a tit that found the sunflower seeds in the birdfeeder. “Boil!”
The hem of her dress cuts the air as she spins, spins, then settles to the ground in front of Rein. A pretty face, scratching at the mid-twenties, looks back. Young?
“Double, double toil and trouble,” she whispers. “Fire burn and caldron bubble.”
She’s wearing long gloves, white and black. Rein squints, his vision swinging back and forth. Black fingers press against his lips in a quick “Shhh.”
“Have you gone mad?”.
Her smile straightens. “No, but you’re drugged. Of course, you’re still boring.”
Two of the legs in the chair are loose, and it gives Rein poor support in his effort to stand. “I am a ranking member of the Princeps Inspectorum, and a lead investigator.”
Sofie stands, curtseys, and mouths, “boring,” with the white glove.
“I’ve been chased out of Liverpool in a bathtub.”
A look of consideration rolls across her features. “Sounds like the Rein I know; stupid, and—” The black hand dips, lowering itself to his face just as he reaches her midriff. “Boring.”
“Elves stir, and I fear something worse is about.”
“So you decided trespassing was a good idea, after what you tried? And since the former is illegal, I am well within my rights to bury you in my garden.”
Rein wrinkles his nose, unsure if that is true of English law. She continues while he ponders.
“You lured me in with the talk of ancient knowledge, then tried to bind my mind. You wanted to make me duller than you.”
Rein squints. “Well, obviously that did not work, so—”
“So it’s the intent,” she says. “If I am supposed to appreciate the lousy gifts, then I am within my rights to be peeved over betrayal.”
“You were far too concerned with quick progress,” Rein says. “And not enough with the dangers of consorting with ruinous powers.”
In the center of the room is a large pot. Rein watches Sofie tiptoe up to the edge and peak in. She speaks to him out of the side of her mouth. “That’s an excuse. You just didn’t like being bettered by a woman.”
Every so often she pokes and prods at the contents “Peas pottage hot?” She asks. “Or peas pottage cold?”
Sofie flashes a coy smile. “Peas pottage hot, “shoving a bowl filled with green mash into his hands.
When Rein thought it couldn’t get worse, she drops a spoon into the questionable concoction, and talks on and on again. “Or did you think I was going to make a stew out of you? That’d be a waste; no one to feed except my cats. And I love my cats.” Sofie splits a heft of dark bread and pushes it towards him. “So, elves?”
“Yes,” he says softly. “I’m investigating the appearance of two, though I am afraid I have lost their trail.” Rein then tries to lean in menacingly, but the only thing in danger are his clothes from the bowl. “I was driven from Liverpool before I could plan. The Forum Magicae is overrun.”
“By elves?” The sound of her spoon scraping is slightly more annoying than the smell of nine-day old legumes. “That’s nonsense.”
“No. Demons—” And when he sees Sofie about to laugh, he adds: “The ancient powers left between Construct and the ruins of creation.”
“You’re being awful…” Sofie stalls and uses spoon to spell out the next word. “Open.” The utensil bounces around the lip of the bowl as she drops it back in. “Don’t you want to know how I broke that curse of yours?”
Before he can answer, she adds: “I’m not going to tell you, of course.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he says with a sigh. “I need to investigate the prison at Tara, if I am to have any hope of tracking these elves.” This time the Inspector doesn’t embarrass himself as he comes closer. “No one knows their kind better than you. If we combine our skills and link our magics, I think we will have them.”
She balks. “You want me to do that with you? You’re mad.”
“There’s more,” Rein says. “I…well. May need some help recovering my assistant.”
“Recover?” Slowly. “Recov—You killed him.” Her empty bowl clanks against his full one, as she slides it across the table towards him.
“These things happen in my line of work. Will you help me?”
Sofie pulls off the black glove and tosses it behind her. For a moment, she sits, tapping the table. Then her drumming slows, until there are several seconds between taps. One. Two. She stiffens and shifts her shoulders. “No.”
“More’s at stake than your anger at me,” he says.
“England? The world? Your Curators? That stupid hat you still wear?” she says. “Maybe things would be better with the elves in control.”
“Elves? You know full well they aren’t the little winged sprites that the English like to drool on about, when they aren’t chasing their milk maids or their cows. I can never tell the difference. But elves—” He is feeling the rant building in his bones and beating it down with a shimmy of his jowls. “They are a rigid people, with traditions and rules for every bit of nonsense that make the French court seem quaint. They are absolutely boring.”
Sofie smiles curtly. “What about wars? The diseases, the poverty?”
“We’d still have them,” he says. “Elves are a wondrous race. Their cruelty, their alien minds, are all wonders to behold. We’d be no more, or in fact less than blades of grass in their world.” Rein tries to lift his head here, to meet her gaze, but he is still too weak. “On a more practical side, they aren’t known to consort with greater spirits. They do not like to ally with beings of equal status either. Anything that they cannot control invites trouble, or chaos. Chaos goes against their nature.”
Sofie leans back into her chair, and Rein takes this as a cue to continue talking. “Therefore, It would be more likely that men are involved, somehow.”
“Who?” she asks. “And why?”
“Cultists?” Rein makes a movement with his hand, as if measuring the thought. “Most are nothing more than little twits who could never challenge the Curatorium, much less overrun it. Who then? Someone I don’t know? Or maybe someone we have merely forgotten about.”
“There are powers that have lived a long time in the void,” he adds. “And ancient exiles. I need to figure out what is at play here — who is working with whom, or this series of unfortunate events can be considered coincidence.”
“Not my circus,” she says. “Not my monkey.”
The woman’s raised eyebrow loads a memory into Rein’s pistol-like mind. And as most weapons of the time, it takes a while to prime. In these moments, he manages to stand, turn ninety degrees to one side, then look back at her dramatically. “Whatever knowledge you have scraped from the muck of your garden cannot compare to the library available to Artisans. You are just rummaging through the garbage left for the hogs.”
“Does this have a point, or is this a leadup to get me to read Radcliffe?”
“I know how to pass between worlds,” he says. “I know the song needed to enter the Fairhome, and from there, any door can be opened.”
There is a glint in her eyes. And Rein reaches for it. “I will give this to you, and more if you help me.”
“You are desperate,” she says in a quick exhale. “You drop promises like my brother does shoes. Why should I listen to you?”
“Because I will teach it to you, here,” he says, pushing the bowls to the side. “Now.”
Even in his weakened state, his mastery of the occult shows. Each word, each piece of the song rolls with power and force. But this is more than a simple spell. Here is a song, woven by the three races, that endures with them. There is no traditional Étincelle, a physical component touched by the mage’s understanding of magic, and connection with the immaterial. The Forme twists in the practitioner’s mind and requires more than Rein can summon. It is the barrier to entry; the lifeforce needed for men to cross over was meant to protect against random incursion. One aspect of the classical magical structure is present, and the Mort relieves the stress upon the Inspector, allowing him to crumple back into the chair.
All the while, Sofie looks upon down on him with one quizzical eyebrow. He can’t help but to search her features. Looking for a bit of familiarity. Friendliness. This leads to some mistakes in his retelling; which he is sure she catches. For his purposes, though, Rein is unsuccessful. The inspector collapses in mid repeat.
“It’s done, I’m done,” Rein whispers. “Do you have any brandy?”
“No. Do you have your assistant’s remains?”
Slowly, and with a fragility that for once hints at the Inspector’s true age, he passes the vial to Sofie. “Then our bargain—”
“I never agreed to anything,” she says.
The vial glows an unhealthy green between her fingers, and the light shining over her face makes Rein quail. He reaches, weakly, out to her hand, but is pushed away like a small child.
“Do you really think throwing a few mouldy phrases at me will do it?” Undertones of anger shatter an almost statuesque performance. “You’re still the same pompous, ignorant, selfish fool.” Her hands tremble as they reach out towards Rein, as if to strangle him, then withdraw halfway. “You abandoned me. You can’t mend that with a few words. I’ll decide when and if I trust you.”
“They are here,” he gasps. “The demons have followed me to Meath.”
“Good for you.” Then, softly: “I will think on it.” She moves towards the Inspector and places her hand upon his brow. “But tonight, sleep. Cadal nis.”
Rein leans back, eyebrow inching up quizzically. “What did you hope that would do?”
A serious glare from Sofie peels off into a laughter that seems to roll out in waves. She steps back and tilts her head. “Never can get the precise dosage right.”
“Dosage?” Rein wavers, wipes the sweat from his brow. “The peas?”
“Maybe,” she says.
Rein’s stomach twists, and clenches. His face and arms are now sticky with sweat. Sofie ignores his following howl of pain and pushes him aside, letting the Artisan to fall to the floor.
“Peas pottage puts you on the pot. For nine days long.”
Morning. Awful, bright, and Klere, arrives at the appropriate time; too damn early for Rein. The vagabond rays reach him under the table, playing off the colours of his last meal, as if such could be poetic. It’s not. And no inner narration can make what the Inspector did to his pants heroic.
There are spells, hacked together, for cleanliness. Incantations for health. Many of these are used by the orderly Cultist, to varying degrees of success. Yet these take life force to work the Forme, and the Inspector is rather dehydrated.
“Clean yourself up,” Sofie says, laying a bowl of water at his head. “I’m putting you and the cats out.”
“You are just going to cast me aside?” He looks to the door instinctively, seeing a trio of felines there pawing, rubbing on the trim. When they notice him, their mewing becomes a chorus, giving Rein a triumphant melody for his attempts at standing.
“Do you want your lackey back or not?” Sofi shifts her hips and walks towards the cats.
The front door swings open and the mewing stops, leaving Rein midway to standing without any accompaniment. His shoulders relax from relief, which nearly topples him. After a moment, he succeeds in lifting his head. She moves, and returns to rest against a windowsill with an eyebrow raised as if expecting what the Inspector may say next. But he remains quiet. This is the first time he has seen her, fully, in over fifty years. Like he, Sofie has not aged a day. Between the awe of seeing his former lover standing there ageless, and the fear of what this represents, he forgets where and when he is. “Would you care to dance?”
Sofie bounces forward in a laugh that is half scoffing and half surprise. “There’s a basket outside,” she says, amusement draining out of her face. “It’s a long walk to Teaghmorreagh.”
“Do not repeat that name,” he chides. “Call it Liathdruim, or Tara.”
Beyond the door, birds and a warm day preen, and as he makes his way past the threshold the Inspector turns to Sofie only to have her look away. On the doorstep there is a basket, partially harassed by the cats. When he bends down to pick it up, the door closes behind him. Locks bolt when he stands. Before him, the garden obscures the countryside like an open fan, but Rein is certain he has a full morning, and afternoon of walking. Southeast from here, and a castle marks the ascent. The same he saw from the road upon arriving near Lismullin.
Wind picks up after crossing over a narrow mound that separates Sofie’s land from another’s. The Inspector scratches his chin, searching the terrain now that there is plenty of light. Homegrown paths lead out and away. A few are promising.
Grass ripples, the smell of barley touches him, and he looks up and west to trace the direction of the wind. There, as he pauses, he can hear horses neighing. From the commotion he would say they are close, but he can see no stable or barn. Only Sofie’s cottage marks the land between here and perhaps the next mile.
Rein closes his eyes. Unseasonably warm air from the west caresses his hair, blowing a single strand across his nose. I need a haircut, he thinks, breaking his concentration. The Inspector huffs and blows the lock away from his face, then tries again. The quiet this time takes him. Smells of the fields, of tilled earth, of beats of labour, fade. The sound of horses, the whip of long grass and wheat, dies. A hum encroaches upon him. The Inspector pivots towards where he thinks the neighing might have come. The hum also retreats, replaced by splash of colour against the background of his shut eyelids. Rein reaches out, pushing in that direction with his will, his mind. The colours form a pattern, then a shape. He frowns.
“She’s cast an obscura,” he says. She’s etched it on the land itself. The significance hits him in the gut, so that the next statement, “and made it a permanent scar,” is hoarse, and lost.
He swallows. But she has not learned to hide everything.
It is hard for him to leave the shadow of the spell work. To abandon his assistant to her. But he does, even though this concern follows him to the next field and beyond, where he finally joins the path instead of trampling through a farmer’s livelihood.
“She’s grown,” he says. The ground is much firmer than the muddy hell it was the night before, but in the lower places there is still some treachery to be found. One such hole nearly takes his shoe. Rein shimmies his leg from the sting.
“Though if I had studied only the old ways, and not spent so much time traveling and hunting Cultists, I would be just as knowledgeable.” Rein sighs. “I’ll note in my journal the time and place. It will be interesting to see how long it takes me to believe that.”
Rich farmland swallows the hill of Tara, and the approach is slow because of this. Within another two hours of navigating property lines, and other obstacles, Rein manages to ascend to the primary hill from which the area receives its name. Beyond, the land is flat, and on a clear day it would be easy to see all the way to Navan. Today is not such a day. The westward wind has shifted and blows from the opposite side. Rain threatens, but for now the sky is resigned to remain veiled and angry. Thunder bays in the distance.
To verify elves have broken free, he will need to find the signs of their passage. To and from, if the rumors are correct. And he doesn’t have to search far. The fruits of the craft are present everywhere. Rein kneels close to the ruins of an old church. “It’s so complex,” he says, referring to the spells woven by the Curators. I can feel the Construct’s power touching every blade of grass. He staggers. The influence of the ancient Artisans works on his nerves, as if trying to push him away.
Rein rolls and pops his neck. The power of the prison needles at his senses. And in this edge, where the instinct to leave is painful, he takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. The rush of forms, of lines, and the strength of this land’s connection to the Construct hits him like ice water. He gasps and forces in another hard breath, shutting his eyelids tighter.
Under an aura of power, thick and swirling with currents more dangerous than any tidal flow, he plunges mentally. Lines — and a leyline — ancient and skillfully made begat this sea of magic. And the approach is treacherous. Sweat rolls down his face, and the taste of blood is upon his lips. Rein breathes in slow, rhythmic huffs, hoping to ready himself for another push. But his body trembles, his bones ache, and there is a sound from outside that yanks him from his meditation.
“Horse,” he says weakly. A similar visual distortion as before, back in Sofie’s cottage, takes effect. He leans and looks towards the main road just as a blur of movement crests. There is a flash of light, a trail of vivid splotches, and a shape writhing like an oncoming thundercloud. Rein wipes his eyes, but even before she speaks, he recognizes Sofie. She rides sidesaddle, and splendidly so.
“Fool,” she says, the whip of her dress hiding and then revealing sunlight in a game of make-Rein-blink as she dismounts. “I’d ask if you could be any more reckless, but halfwits like you take that as a challenge.”
The Inspector spits on the end of his undershirt sleeve, and dabs again at his eyes. “My inspection requires haste.”
A lock of Sofie’s long black hair breaks free as she shakes her head. Rein can now see she is wearing a gray riding dress — the thundercloud from earlier — with a short jacket of military cut. Soft, rosy cheeks play against a muslin chemisette, and the edges of a man’s undershirt poke out. On her head is a top hat, and here he sees the storm touching her movements, as if she has ridden in with it.
“You could easily have been killed,” she growls. “Rushing in without knowing a damn thing about anything? So typical.”
A black strap hits him, which he can only guess are the reins. The Inspector steps back, narrowly missing a bell from the swinging leather. He opens his mouth to speak, but Sofie’s voice knifes his.
“I’ve been studying this area for nearly all my life. And you think you can just start digging without protection, or even a plan?”
A memory of an equally angry, younger Sofie surfaces. She had been his second choice for a dance that night, and it didn’t sit well. Rein temples his fingers. “There is no time for—”
“Choose your distraction: this, or a funeral. Even the lesser works of your Curators are protected,” she says. “What idiot would think their greatest wouldn’t be? The traps here will split your soul like an apricot.”
“If they yet function.”
She pushes past him, horse following. The look she throws at him as she does is contemptuous. Rein follows, and they move away from the church ruins and many of the other monuments, stopping only to tie the horse. Sofie takes them to a small patch of grassy land. There is nothing distinct about the area, and the signs Miss Van Couraden sees are not clear to Rein. But he waits, and in time she turns and addresses him in her usual manner.
“The Curators did not route every leyline directly to the Construct,” she says. “One remains here, and their spell work is lashed to it. I am told it touches the bigger work, so that if it is broken, they would know immediately. The flow of true magic is greatest here, and their control the weakest.”
“And you plan for me to use it how — as some sort of canal, or river?”
“Sometimes you prove to be less dim than I give you credit for,” she says. “Yes, you are going to sail around the battlements and hope for an easier landing.”
“But you don’t have a boat, so I fail to—”
“And then you go and say things like that.” A small bag that he missed earlier appears from under her arm. She tosses it down to the ground, near Rein’s feet. “I am going to armor you with protections and provide directions that even you can follow. With luck, you’ll get past the first defenses. It’s all up to you, after.”
“Wait,” Rein says. “Unless something’s changed, you have no connection to the Construct. How did you manage this?”
“You aren’t the only Artisan, you know?” The coy, disarming smile that stole his heart so long ago returns. “There have been other collaborations. Jealous?”
“No.” Yes. Fear and doubt unsettle him. He swallows. “I think I can manage my own protections well enough.”
“Like you did before? Another moment and you would have been feeding the grass.”
Rein crosses his arms. “You lack any sense of tact; that has always been your failing.” The Inspector straightens and picks at hairs on his jacket. “Your help has been most welcome, but I will take over.”
“And being a stubborn, obstinate mule every time you get your feelings hurt is yours. You asked for my help.”
“And you have provided it,” he says forcefully. Rein turns, as if to inspect the clearing. He nods, absently, then makes to craft a ward in the ground. Sofie, though, is quicker — and every time he bends over, she is there with her own implements.
“What are we, children?” he asks.
Yet she ignores the comment and continues her own work. Rein watches her move from Étincelle to Mort skillfully and can’t help but feel admiration for the breadth of her knowledge. And jealousy of her skill.
With the first set of wards in place, she curtseys to Rein and says: “The keel of your boat is laid, milord,” then cocks her head while rising. “But there’s more to do to make it sea-worthy. Why don’t you return to my house and get your friend? I will keep working here.”
“Higgins? He’s alive?”
She smiles. “By the time you get back, he should be fully brewed.”
There is a bounce in Rein’s step that wasn’t there a moment earlier. “Magnificent, I will just fetch the horse and—”
“No.” Her face and tone return to the stone she is apparently made of. “You will walk.”
“It will be evening then before I am back.”
And just as quickly as they came, the stony features leave. Again, there is an almost joyful pulse to her voice. “Till this evening, then, Mister De Rein.”
“I—” Rein, mouth open like a seal waiting for a fish, turns and storms away. Between the mound where the Stone of Destiny was moved after the 1798 Insurrection and the lip of land leading to the main road, a crash of thunder makes him lift his head to the sky.
“You better jesting.” One. He grimaces. Two, three, four drops of rain hit his face in quickening fashion.
“Oh, and Rein?”
He spins on his heels in a slow, grinding arc.
“There should be some parsnips I prepared earlier, bread, cheese — and can you be so kind as to bring brandy from the cellar? You and Higgins can carry it in a basket, you’ll find it near the fireplace.”
Rein snorts, then turns his attention back to the road. One foot in front of the other. One, two drops of rain against a dampening forehead. The ground travels by without notice while the droplets splatter. And the Inspector this time forgets the count of meters, or even miles. Or the unnatural length of the shadows that pass around him.
He also forgets that he can make an umbrella.
Of all the wonders in the halls of the Forum Magicae, few were greater, to Rein’s mind, than the knowledge kept in its archives. It was a place frequented by him and the other members of the Inspectorum Princeps. His lot had free rein — because to catch the enemy, you had to know their ways and magic. Upon reflection, this might now include him. Things change.
In reflection, specifically in the window of Sofie’s cottage, he sees a tired, young face: his own. A lamp spell gleams just behind him, illuminating the way, and sets his jaw and high cheekbones in eerie contrasting light.
Rein tilts his head, considering, hesitating. All those years tracking down the worst of the Cultists and I’ve never had a look at any of them. They were just jobs, challenges to overcome. Nor had he even spoken to the Necromancers who brought others, like Higgins on many occasions, back to life. They were a strange lot, and heretical.
Maybe the other Artisans thought the same of me. The door to her house is unlocked. At his feet a trio of cats wait expectantly, their meows the only sound other than his pacing. Rein pats his chest, where he keeps the few remaining pages of his grimoire. So, I am a heretic. The door to Sofie’s cottage creaks, opening. Night has made its home in the room, deep and unsettling.
“Am I even doing this for the Curatorium anymore?”
A thousand questions burble around in the back of his head. Stirring, bumbling — accompanied by many adverbs — but the eager cries of the felines and their obnoxious pacing dominate.
“All right, all right.” He throws his hands up. “House cats, fi. Where does she keep your dinner?”
On the table? No. On the stove, in the pantry? In the cupboards. Fish. He heard somewhere that cats like fish, and as luck would have it, Sofie was soaking some salted cod. Rein tosses the pan and its contents onto a counter top and returns to scour a cabinet.
The Teamor must be stopped, he thinks with a slam of the cupboard door. “I will deal with the rest later.” Pots rattle back an answer as Rein paws through the kitchen. “No, first— “Dishes, dishes, dishes, oh.
He made the mistake of leaving the fish unattended.
“And at least I’ll be left alone for a while.” Rein moves, then stops at a cellar door. “Probably bother me again when I’m on the chamber pot.”
He exhales. The kitchen is full of fragrance from the flowers Sofie must have cut from her garden earlier. Lavender, roses, flowering sweet peas. Though it is not yet full spring and nowhere near summer. “How did she grow them?” The answer is clearly: more magic.
Everywhere in this place she has woven spells, he suspects. The Inspector falls quiet, listening to the house groan, moan, and — Stumble?
Higgins. She must have prepared him, down in her cellar. Grizzly daydreams of witches, their brews, and the awful experiments tied to them in legend prick his mind, causing him to shiver. Rein places his hand on the iron latch of the cellar door. It opens with little effort, revealing a set of wooden stairs.
Shadows cascade on the stairwell walls unnaturally. Rein jerks back, laying his hand upon the door behind. He finds nothing, save the way open, which he promptly closes. Below, he can hear a moaning
“Hello,” Rein says shakily. “Higgins?”
After several moments a hoarse voice answers, and Rein’s chest heaves forward in a gasp. Twelve steps are conquered in a second and he is smacked with the view of an open laboratory. Light blast him in the face like a shot from a blunderbuss as it reflects off every vial, beaker and other glass instruments. The Inspector reels and rubs his eyes. When his sight adjusts, he is almost blinded a second time.
“Rotzak,” he cries. “Put some damn clothes on, will you?”
Upon an apparatus that looks more like a mold for lead sits a confused Higgins. He is wearing a lady’s bonnet and a scarf, but nothing else. There is a pair of pants in his left hand which he seems to be pondering over intensely. When Rein addresses him, he stands up and mumbles something intelligible.
“I have to do everything, naturally,” the Inspector sighs. Clothes in Higgins’ sizes are willed into being, as he taps the power of the Construct. In this moment, Higgins’ dreamlike stupor sharpens, and he leaps off the strange device where he’d been sitting. At first Rein takes it as recognition of the clothing he’d crafted, and a good, decent, Englishman’s — and his assistant is the only one he will admit to liking — preference for general modesty.
But then Higgins speaks: “You fool, they’ll see, they’ll know!”
Rein squints. “Who?”
The answer comes in a series of screams and screeches from upstairs. Higgins rushes past the Inspector to shut the door. His face is white, paler than pall, and he shrinks from Rein and contact.
“You’ve brought them here,” he says, taking the clothing offered. “This will be our tomb.”
Prowling noises from above join in with a haunting tone that envelops the cellar. The Inspector grabs Higgins by the shoulder but the assistant flinches from the touch and pushes him towards a desk.
“Put that chair against the door,” Rein says. The sounds of nails on tile, as if a large dog is walking on the floor above with unclipped nails, begins.
“Good, good,” Rein adds distractedly. “Now the sack of potatoes. And, Higgins? Could you—”
Cracking wood at the door gets them to quickly barricade it with an assortment of vegetables and small furniture. Higgins, his weight against the stacks, adds his howl to the chaos.
“Quick man, think. Can you still see to the other side? How many of them are there?”
The assistant bites his thumb as potatoes thump the floor. One. Two. “Enough.”
With his hand against the door, the Inspector can feel the tremble and bulging of the wood. His words flow between spell crafting and conversation. Finally, a mishmash of wards is linked together, and the door stops shaking. Rein looks to his assistant. “They will hold,” he says, his timbre rising. “The barrier must hold.”
“We can’t guard the walls, door, and the roof.”
“No,” Rein wheezes. The tone circling the cellar grows clearer, louder. Both recognize it for what it is: a chant. Higgins shimmies off the table to grab a small rod from a batch of hazel in the corner.
“Lord, should I fight or—? “
A clawed hand reaches through a gap in the door. The ground trembles, jostling both, but sending the Inspector to one knee.
“Keep quiet,” Higgins says.
Or is escape still an option? He doesn’t have a bucket. There are no windows here.
The start of a spell tears the Inspector’s attention from the door. He stares at his assistant as if a walrus just waddled up to him and asked for a cup of tea.
“Solna nea, Oran cruchaid, an beath.”
Blood drips from a puncture wound on Higgins’ hand, onto the hazel rod. And wherever the ichor touches, a brilliant white light erupts. “Stand back.”
The door shatters. Chairs scrape and scuff as a terrible force pushes inward.
“Have you gone mad?” Rein barks. “I’ve never heard of this spell.”
“It is remembered only by the dead.”
Arms now crawl over the refuse. Things that pass for hands, and hands that are so shriveled they might as well be claws, threaten to overrun them. A solitary potato sack still lying on the side is rent open.
“Solna nea, Oran cruchaid, an beath.”
The hand movements, the repeated intervals of foot positioning. The strange, primitive words. They all come together to make Higgins look as if he is practicing some new sort of interpretive dance, instead of a spell. Even as vegetables spill out one by one.
“Solna nea, Oran cruchaid, an beath.” The flames brighten, swirl in deadly arcs ahead of his wand.
Yet the terrors barely relent, keeping only out of range of the light’s tendrils. The Inspector is forced to huddle against his friend, as their boots crunch over broken refuse. Up. Echoing on wooden stairs. Up, through the door. Even as the unearthly chanting seeks to wrap around them like a blanket. Up, up. As glints of teeth and appendages alternate between smoke and solid form.
“This spell won’t last forever, and then what?” Higgins whispers and turns his head only slightly. “Will our souls be devoured right as we reach the commons of Lismullin?”
“We’ll make for Tara,” Rein says, taking control. “Sofie is there, and she can aid us.”
A hoarse laugh is the response, but the Inspector continues, pressing his face close to the right ear of his assistant. “We’ll make for her stable and steal a horse or two. That should give us time.”
“We’re relying on the charity of your former lovers to save our skins?” Higgins’ guts growl, as if he’s summoning something other than courage.
“Let’s press forward to the stables, by God,” Higgins bellows.
Up the last of the stairs, Rein’s friend pushes bravely, fiercely. Through the threshold, into the main hall where the stars can reach him. Higgins’ nerves appear to waver with each step.
“What would your Sir Author Wellesley do?” Rein says. “Think of him.”
“He’d run off to his tent and drink coffee,” Higgins answers. “And let you die for him.”
“Maybe you should think of Lord Nelson.”
Night air, and the moon lies behind a twisting line of smoke and terror. Higgins drives into it, at times growling, at times screaming. The chanting is joined now with a mad sort of chattering that threatens to swallow them whole. Trees, flowers, and shrubbery all look alike in the gloom. And feel so. Every scrape of a branch, each tickle from a leaf, invokes shouting and cursing from the two. Until it seems like there is little more of either to give.
Rein strays too far from the protective light, and one of the shriveled beings takes a swipe at his exposed leg. He cries out, calling for his friend, who reaches back. Together, moving as one, they enter the garden’s middle yard.
“Hold!” The Inspector kneels. Blisters mark the wound. Rein leans on his assistant, searching for the path to the stables, returning to the light each time.
“Damn,” he gasps. He lowers his head, and whispers into his friend’s ear. “The path is here; I will steer us.”
The aura holding the tide back buckles. Higgins shrinks further as Rein grits his teeth. But the creatures are still testing the barrier. And the creatures now are testing both their spirits. Using his assistant like a crutch, Rein urges his assistant along.
Demonic things leer from an oak’s branches. Eyes, lighting up like twisted stars amidst the foliage. The two partners pass warily, the glow from Higgins’ makeshift wand flooding the lower leaves, making the whole thing appear alien. From here Rein pushes his friend right, left. To a wall. Against a small iron gate, and beyond. The creatures chant, the creatures chatter. Yet no attempts are made against the spell again. Together they inch towards the stable.
“They’ll be upon us as soon as we mount,” Higgins says.
“That can be taken so many ways,” Rein says in a pained laugh, reaching for where the door should be. Wood. Wood. Wood. Aha. A slight smile teases his lips, as he lays his hand on an iron latch. “Take it slowly.”
“The spell is nearly out,” Higgins retorts.
Double wide doors open, and their light floods. Four stalls, three of them empty. Panicked neighs come from the fourth, but luckily none of the creatures have made a move for it.
Rein shuts the way quickly, letting the shadow of his assistant disappear towards the stall with the horse, while he ponders the fragile boards that mark their only egress from this place. “Those things could move through the door, I’d wager, without taking it down.”
A grunt from behind could be acknowledgement, or Higgins’ attempts to calm the beast. Rein turns in time to see him struggle with a saddle. “Why do they wait?”
“Might be tactical,” Higgins says. “Testing our defenses, waiting for us to weaken. They have time, all the time of eternity.”
“Or maybe…” Rein cuts himself short. A heroic image of him staying behind to allow Higgins to escape rises, them fast sinks to the pit of his stomach. He grimaces.
“Or maybe what?”
“Nothing.” His friend mounts the horse in one fluid motion, and Rein can’t help looking on, impressed. Higgins leans over, offering him his hand. Shame thickens Rein’s Dutch accent and slows “Just a foolish idea,” into a slough.
Wood bends and cracks, mixing with the otherworldly chaos of voices outside, as the Inspector swings up behind his friend. The horse fights the reins, refusing to leave the stall.
“Get us to the door,” Rein says. “When I throw the latch, sally forth.”
Higgins leans to the side, pressing with his legs and putting the horse on the bit. The ears of the creature swivel rapidly, but he moves. Rein reaches back and snags the handle of a broken pitchfork from the side, watching the tail of the clamp down.
“The beast is tense,” he says. “Should I say a word to call him?”
The door looms. Hay and excrement are tossed in the air by nervous pawing, but Higgins presses, “Don’t you dare. You just throw the latch and hook the door. Take the rod from me.”
Rein leans forward, pressing both the rod and the broken half together in precarious balance. “Well, on my count.”
“One.” He struggles to loosen the lock as the wood buckles. “Two—”
With a heave that almost throws him, the lock is loosened. Rein reaches forward once more as the count passes beyond three. He wiggles the wood between the cracks of the two doors, but it’s the demonic creatures, batting, driving inward, that really help open the way further. And with a shrill cry of “three” at his back, Higgins urges the horse forward.
“Watch your hat!”
Rein lurches as the horse charges into the night. The terrors part as if hit by an unseen wind. Thralls, human slaves. Surrounded by the formless creatures. Spirits, wanton things.
As the horse gallops past, a queasy feeling stirs the Inspector’s stomach, and it has nothing to do with the jerky movement of their ride through the country. They could have us, yet don’t.
A fence appears out of the night, and Rein falls forward during the lunge, pushing Higgins against the beast’s head. “What the devil? I don’t remember there—” Stars. Wait, is that Cepheus? “We’re going north! Change to south by southwest.”
Their turn is wide, and laborious. Yet in the arc the Inspector can see the twisted forms of these demons, these spirits, waiting. “They’re just —“The last spark of the spell’s light glints off a row of steel buttons in the crowd. Fine lines. Tall hat, but—no, it can’t be. Chancy?
“We’re being herded.”
DEFENSEMAN NO. 9
(The Hockey Gods Series #4)
by Xavier Neal
Release Date: December 3rd
FREE in Kindle Unlimited!
Once upon a time, the Vlasta Vipers hockey team was so incredible — on and off the ice — they were almost mythical.
Back then, they were the undefeated conquerors of the rink.
Coveted prizes for Puck Bunnies.
Their reputation was ironclad until the wrong skates landed on the wrong feet.
Wanted titles suddenly became dreams instead of reality, while the spotlight only seemed to capture their continued failures.
Puck Bunnies…well, they never stopped treasuring that particular stick no matter what the rankings were.
It took several years, a new no nonsense head coach, and a group of players willing to work harder than they could even comprehend to grab back the notoriety.
But they did.
And just because it’s summer doesn’t mean the city is done watching or caring about them.
Hugo Rhinehart, the team’s most famous defenseman – due to his enormous size and impressively stoic nature – is very aware of this, thanks to tickets to see him play in the volunteer league being repeatedly sold out.
As long as the attention is focused on his performance and not who he’s sleeping with, he’ll be fine.
As long as the crowd is more concerned about his hockey crew’s off-season shenanigans and not about the overdramatic ones of his best friend-turned boyfriend, he’ll cope.
As long as the gossip is about who he physically hurt in his jersey and not who’s emotionally hurting him, he’ll survive.
Will this big burly defenseman be able to defend his hard-earned position in both sports and romance, or will he have to give up the love of the game to keep the love of his life?
About the Author:
Xavier Neal is a best-selling romance author who enjoys hopping from sub genre to sub genre like a game of Hopscotch she can’t resist.
In between writing, she loves to read (everything from romance to self improvement books), watch movies (old and new), eat too much Tex-Mex (her Chuy’s t-shirt collection is out of control), and watch AHL hockey games LIVE (preferably against the glass whenever possible).
She currently resides happily in Texas with her bearded husband “Lumberjack”.