Peter K. Young
A LACHLAN QUINN NOVEL
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The Keeper of the Dragon
Copyright © 2023 by Peter K. Young
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission.
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Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Cover Design Kat McGee (coversbykat.com)
NOVEMBER 2023 | 1st Edition
For Grace and Owen,
the lights of my life
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster... When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”
Erendriel, the Crown Prince of the Dökkálfar Sidhe, a seven-foot, stick-slender elf, stood with his vertical slitted amber eyes downcast in respect as his father, Comyn mac Gaibhne, ruler of the six Dökkálfar Forges, gingerly lowered himself onto the Black Iron Throne. The throne, crafted from an ancient meteorite, stood in the shadow of a massive anvil. The Dökkálfar were the makers of Sidhe society—the anvil and forge were their symbols.
The old Elf had suffered burns over fifty percent of his body in a long-ago accident when a chunk of ceiling ice plunged into molten copper he was pouring and exploded. The copper had been on the cusp of enchantment and the burns were beyond the ability of the healers. Pain still lingered and made him notoriously short-tempered. In a land of breathtakingly beautiful people, he was remarkably ugly.
The Throne Hall was dimly lit and comfortably enclosed by a thousand feet of limestone overhead—an underground river burbled from one side of the hall. One wall was decorated in Dökkálfar fashion, with hangings and ornately carved statues depicting the work of ancient smiths. A seething rainbow-colored mat of glow worms feeding on the fungi-laden rock covered the other two walls, giving the room a dim blue-green glow.
It was Midsummer Court, and the Exarchs of all six Dökkálfar Forges, along with their retainers, were in attendance, each one vying and scheming for leverage to push their Forges’ interests to the fore. The trilling of their voices echoed off the glowing limestone walls like the ringing of a hundred silver bells.
As always, the prince watched his father, looking for any sign of weakness. He didn’t expect to find any; the patriarch, known to all as “the Crooked One”, had ruled for centuries and had buried many a foe who mistook his infirmity for weakness.
“How goes your plan, O Prince,” sang the silky soft voice of Ilyrana, the Exarch of Forge Rbhus. Her deep violet feline eyes set in a coldly beautiful face held just the slightest hint of mockery. Her Forge was one of the richest and oldest. That fact granted her just enough leeway to push him and push him—she did.
The singing trills of the Dökkálfar lordlings ceased as all strained to hear how he would respond.
Erendriel struggled to hide the flash of hatred and resentment that welled up. He knew he must stride with care here. Son or no, his father would end him quickly if he thought his son’s plans would threaten the realm. He knew the six Exarchs listened avidly for the slightest hint of failure. To live at court was to live balanced on the edge of a sword.
His father had tasked him with finding a solution to a long-standing problem. The Dökkálfar Sidhe had power aplenty to run their factories. Thermal vents that reached deep into Alfheim’s mantle had provided cheap geothermal energy for eons. Their problem was finding the labor to work them—the chronic shortage of workers was a problem for all. The vast amount of magic in Alfheim twisted the DNA of all hominids, drastically lowering their birth rates. The Dökkálfar’s forges needed a constant influx of new workers, or the factories would soon stand idle. Since the only hominids left on Earth were homo sapiens, humans were the slaves who were the lifeblood of their economy.
Lately, a more serious shortage caused by the plague that was sweeping through the slave kennels and decimating the population had heightened the struggle. Unlike their ancestors’ advantages, with unlimited access to mundane Earth’s teeming population of hominids, in these last few decades replacements were increasingly difficult to acquire. Breeding was out as well. Any sort of human husbandry was strictly against the Accord. That was the law. Uonaidh, Queen of the Daoine, was insane in her fear that humans, who all knew bred like rabbits, would overwhelm Alfheim just as they had overwhelmed Earth and drove out the true race. The cursed Accord they’d been forced to sign was a constant thorn in the side of Dökkálfar, whose forges and factories needed laborers to work them.
All knew the dangers of breaking the Accord. The Daoine Sidhe would go to war at the slightest hint of any Dökkálfar breeding programs.
“My Lady Ilyrana, I admit we have suffered a temporary interruption in our supply chain out of Oldtown, but that was always a short-term solution—a stop-gap, really, but my original plan still unfolds. The Keeper did us a favor by removing the Leprechaun and the Druid. That has upset the status quo in Oldtown and troubles there always favor us. We are much closer to control there than ever before. The chaos coming from Opari’s Manna Surge can only help our efforts. You might recall that during the last surge, we had an influx of slaves from the three centuries of war on Earth. I predict we will be well placed to take advantage of the upcoming surge.”
“Unless the chaos spills over here, Prince,” someone else spoke up. “The Daoine must suspect nothing.”
“Hold,” his father demanded, “what are you talking about? You informed us the Keeper had gone to the Goddess.”
“His ward has taken over,” the prince said reluctantly. He silently cursed his careless tongue. He was allowing Ilyrana to get under his skin.
“We did not know that,” the patriarch rasped. “You left that out of your briefing. Who is this ward you speak of? I wasn’t aware the old human even had a mate.”
“The old Keeper’s ward is Lachlan Quinn,” sang the Ilyrana of House Rbhus.
The name Lachlan Quinn dropped into the Court like a stone in a still pool. The bell-like trill of voices stopped—then burst forth.
“The Shadow Walker!” someone shrieked from the group.
“Are you saying that the Grendel is Opari’s new keeper?” someone asked.
“Unfortunately, yes,” answered the Prince, “but he is gone now from the Murk. He has broken from the Vísdómur and walked away from his duties. He is damaged. A nithling. A poor substitute for the old Keeper and an unwilling substitute from all reports.”
“O Prince, you might remember,” Ilyrana spoke again. “Once there were seven Forges among the Dökkálfar folk. The Ashanti thought Lachlan Quinn a nithling as well. Do you remember, O Prince? They said so in this very court when they boasted about capturing him. They ignored my warning. I remind you that the Ashanti Forge is no more. That nithling - as you call him - slaughtered them all, root and branch, in a single winter’s night.”
A sudden silence blanketed the throne room. If one ever mentioned the fate of Ashanti in polite society, it was with hushed whispers. The Ashanti were the shame of the Dökkálfar. The ultimate black sheep. They had crossed into the Niflheimr Realm to strike a deal with the soul-eaters, Daemon-kind and broken the Sidhe’s biggest taboo. Most felt the Ashanti got what they deserved. Nobody said so, of course. Criminal or not, the Ashanti were Dökkálfar.
The Prince spoke again. “He is a broken vessel. The Troll Women used him until they broke him, then discarded him. He lasted longer than most.”
Muttered whispers filled the room.
The old patriarch motioned for quiet. He pointed to a group of Daoine healers who stood quietly watching.
“Healers, how goes your work?”
“The plague still rages among the round ears,” the lead physician answered. “We have finally discovered the cause and have successfully cured a portion of the sick ones. Unfortunately, the death rate has been horrific. Humans are such fragile creatures.”
“How bad?” the old Patriarch asked.
“We estimate that three-quarters of the population have died,” he sang sadly.
That statement utterly silenced the court.
Voices burst out. “Comyn mac Gaibhne, that is most dire. We must have replacements quickly. “
The patriarch nodded in agreement, then turned to the Prince.
“You have your task, my son. I hope, for our sake and yours, you succeed. But stay away from the boy.” The patriarch’s voice was the coldest iron. “We have enough problems without awakening the Vísdómur’s Grendel. Despite your words, I seriously doubt he is a nithling.”
“I hear and obey, Father,” the prince carefully kept his expression bland and obedient. He bowed and walked out.
The Prince found the Patriarch of the Drygioni Brotherhood lounging in a chair in his suite. He still stung after his embarrassment at court. As usual, a cowl shrouded the Patriarch’s features. While the Prince had known him all his life, he still did not know his identity—the Brotherhood guarded its secrets well.
“Why have you asked me here, O Prince?” a sibilant hiss issued from the shadowed hood.
The Prince walked over to a sideboard, grabbed a dusty bottle and poured a measure of amber brandy into a thousand-year-old crystal glass.
“Two things. First, I would ask you once again to reconsider your refusal to pursue the elimination of Lachlan Quinn.”
“You waste my time, O Prince. As I told you that task, we will not do,” the being said firmly. “The Shadow Walker is on guard now and far too dangerous to rouse further. We tried once and failed. To try again is not good business. Were I you, I would do the same. I am not at all certain that the Vísdómur still do not have their hands on this boy’s shoulders. They take the long view and so should you. I would advise caution, but do what you will. We will not be a part of it. You have started on a path that has no return. Any path has unforeseen consequences, but I sense this one has more twists than most.”
The Prince clenched his teeth in frustration. Beings rarely told him no. He took a deep breath. He could not afford to offend this being. “As you wish. I will still need your Wraith for more tasks. She has proven to be singularly effective.”
“She will be at your disposal.”
“Done then. Safe journey, Patriarch.”
After the cowled figure left, the prince reviewed his planning, searching for flaws. It was a risky plan, to be sure, but time was running out. Lachlan Quinn’s actions forced his hand when he ruined years of work by ending the Leprechaun and the Druid.
He called out to the warrior orcs guarding his door, “Send in Venwraek.”
A tall Daoine Sidhe entered the room. Green eyes glittered with an anger that bordered on madness through a mass of keloid burn scarring that lined most of his face and throat.
“I heard the Shadow Walker mentioned,” he croaked hoarsely. “Heed my words, Dökkálfar; I remind you of our bargain. He is mine.”
“You and your brother had him once and failed,” the Prince said mildly. The Daoine was temperamental in the best of times, but the mention of the Shadow Walker turned him borderline insane.
“My brother, damn his soul, got careless and ruined everything.”
“Enough of that. Let us get back to my requirements. Have you set and loosed the hex?”
“Yes, Prince. The scroll is in shabby condition and the language is archaic, but I am working on deciphering it. I have mastered one spell—the hex trap. It is in place and being tripped as we speak.” “What of our allies?” The Prince’s lip curled in disgust. It still rankled that he’d had to go hat in hand to beg for their help. The rule should be that the Sidhe commanded—the lesser races obeyed. But he had no choice. He had to work behind the scenes with flawed tools.
“So far, they seem to cooperate, but Oldtown is a powder keg with the leprechaun and the druid gone. Now, back to our plan. Have you gained the shifter bitch’s whelp?”
“Soon. The wolves are in place.”
“She is the key to my vengeance.”
Northmarket District Oldtown
The assassin known as Wraith lurked in the shadows atop a roof just off Market Street in Oldtown. She appeared to be a teen in certain lights, mid-twenties in others. In reality, she had the talent to make herself appear any age. She’d had so many names she’d lost memory of her real one. She cared little what others called her, to her giving a being a name was an attempt to own them and the assassin had had many owners. The curse of her magic, the uncommon beauty of her elfin features and her huge lavender eyes had seen to that. They had all wanted to own her from her very first nanny who had stolen her from a long-forgotten home to a host of others all of whom wanted to “protect” her until they were prevailed upon by a being more powerful to sell her--until Master had seen her potential and purchased her at an Oldtown slave market when she was twelve years old.
Master had turned her into a killer without peer.
As she waited for her target, she absently played with the braid she had twisted into her long raven- black hair. She was uncharacteristically tense. This job felt rushed-- the planning slipshod., she never felt comfortable in the northern sector. It was too crowded. Too many beings, while it was easy to be invisible here, it was difficult to be unnoticed. To make matters worse, it was too close to the border of Lachlan Quinn’s world. She never took a contract in his world, there was always a risk of running into him. She had escaped him once; he thought her retired. She wanted to keep it that way.
She hated him. She had to force herself to stay away from him. All men fell at her feet—all men except him. All men and some women were bedazzled by her beauty—except him. Her slightest whims made all men easy fools—all men except him. And she’d found that men were liars and cheats—all men except him.
Master had trained her—taught her to wield all the tricks and artifice of a courtesan-crafter. Then to round out her training, placed her with a sadistic renegade shadow walker with one eye to learn the tricks of the assassin. Lachlan Quinn had “rescued” her and killed her Master with effortless ease. And she hated him for it. Debt made her feel helpless and she feared helplessness above all things.
She mentally shook herself, her target arrived; it was time for action.
The tall female who was the eldest of the Dragon’s Spawn emerged into out of an alley with three mountain troll enforcers as bodyguards. They were for show, the assassin knew, no being with any sense messed with a dragon shifter. The trolls fanned out and secured the street’s ends against any gawkers foolish enough to involve themselves in Dragon Bank business. she languidly took a seat across from the waiting Vampire.
The assassin took a couple of beats to admire the colorful silk robes the two women wore.
A fat grizzled dwarf wearing a stained leather apron appeared bearing a serving tray with two bone china cups and a teapot He placed the tray on the table with a grunt and returned with a platter of assorted pastries.
The vampire waved him away, leaned in and began to speak.
It was time.
She ran through a practiced breath exercise to center herself and muttered a prayer to her god as she had done a hundred times before. Good routines made for successful missions. She gingerly selected one of the carefully prepared shurikans from her pouch. She silently arose from her hiding spot, took a step and kicked over her water bottle. The sound was slight but enough to alert one of the vampire’s amazon bodyguards who looked up and spotted her. She instantly leaped to push the two diners apart only to take the hastily loosed star in her side. The amazon began convulsing immediately as the powerful toxin that coated the point took effect. She collapsed seconds later.
The assassin cursed softly. She’d been doing these sort of jobs for years and understood that mistakes happened. She planned for them, but that bit of poor housekeeping could well be her death. Her new client harshly punished failure. She considered tonguing aside the false tooth she’d had installed years ago and biting into the tiny glass vial it contained but instantly dismissed the thought. He held her son. Her mind shifted to her fallback plan. Like a wisp of smoke from a dying fire the assassin slid from the rooftop into the night.
Keeper House - Emory
Lachlan Quinn was feeling remarkably content. Lately, he’d been sleeping well. The night sweats and the sounds of the forsaken, sobbing children and wailing mothers that plagued his dreams for years were absent. His quest to fit in with regular people seemed to be succeeding.
A tall, lithe man, he appeared at first glance to be 25 years old, but a closer look would pick up a weariness behind his brilliant green eyes that belied his age. A thin white scar from his right eye to the bottom of his ear marred his craggy, model-handsome face. It wasn’t the face of a man who smiled often.
A small brown hob named Rufus Daylily interrupted his musings of hope and gratitude by tapping on the kitchen window. The twelve-inch being’s bright brown eyes peered in at him out from under an oversized wool cap the color of moss.
Quinn raised the window.
“Good morrow, Rufus Daylily,” he whistle-clicked in low alfar. “How goes your fall morning?”
“The Vísdómur send me with a message, master.” The small hob’s normally cheerful face was grave. To be the bearer of a message from beings that he considered goddesses was the task of a lifetime. “They wish to see you at evening’s moon-rise. They said you would know where.”
“What the hell do they want?” Quinn muttered. His excellent mood instantly evaporated. Whatever it was. It would not be good.
“No matter, Rufus Daylily,” he whistle-clicked. “Grateful I am for your service. Might be that I will be gone for a day or two. Would you tell Brownie Periwinkle or Mistress Sari if you see any outsiders creeping around Keeper House?” He reached into the cupboard over the refrigerator, fished out a small bag of M&M’s and tossed it to the being.
The brown hob caught the candy adroitly. The tiny being puffed up its chest, bowed and sang out, “I will do as you wish. Thank you, Master.” With a jaunty wave, the hob disappeared back into the Opari.
Quinn sighed and got back to his cooking. He wore a sand-colored t-shirt emblazoned with the words Devil Doc over a globe and anchor, faded jeans and well-worn Saucony running shoes. As he moved around the kitchen with a smooth, silent economy of movement, a wash of satisfaction filled him again. This was what a normal person did: fix breakfast for his family. He smiled, pleased at the thought.
In the last ten years, Lachlan Quinn had spent a lot of time figuring out how to think and act like a regular person. Given enough time, he hoped to turn into that person. He knew he was a sword trying to be a butter knife, no doubt an impossible task, but that didn’t stop him from trying. Regular people didn’t appreciate what a luxury boredom was.
So, this day, found him in the kitchen of Keeper House making waffles and scrambled eggs for two little girls coming off a weekend chocolate and popcorn binge with Sari and her cousins, nine of Opari’s Dryads. The noisy group had finished a Veronica Mars marathon and were now working their way through “The Gilmore Girls”. Cable television and movies-on-demand had hit the Opari Dryads like crack cocaine. They watched with utter fascination at what they were convinced was a magical window into the real world of the endlessly fascinating mundanes.
He frowned as his mind switched back to the Vísdómur, the three ancient troll women who had trained him down in the borderlands called the Murk. They were one more addition to a long line of beings that seemed to think they had a right to his time and attention. The last three months, the witches had attempted to drag him into Emory’s coven/shifter politics, with him kicking and screaming all the way.
His obsessive sense of responsibility had trapped him in Emory. Initially, he’d been on his way to a fishing vacation on the Big Hole River in Montana, planning to be there in time to catch the annual salmon fly hatch. He’d stopped in Emory, figuring he’d get his foster father’s bequest taken care of and be gone in a few days. The next thing he knew, things got complicated. Now he had an inheritance he didn’t want, a nine-year-old wolf-kin girl to take care of, and two covens of witches who seemed to think he should be available at their beck and call.
He shook his head; his new life was strange and felt out of control and if the years spent in the Murk had taught him anything, it had taught the importance of control.
Quit whining. He muttered to himself. Improvise, adapt and overcome.
Quinn turned his attention to fixing breakfast while his mind reviewed his to-do list. He needed to find time to keep his promise and teach his niece Charlie how to do the maradona spin so she could kick a girl named Ivy’s butt at soccer. He also needed to find a witch-crafter willing to help Katrinka, his ward, grow into her potential for working with the magic.
And always hovering at the edge of his conscientiousness was the nagging thought that the Dökkálfar were sure to send another Drygioni assassin after him, or far worse, after Charlie and Katrinka. His gut twisted with an unaccustomed emotion—vulnerability. Until Katrinka and Charlie, he had experienced nothing like it before. It was all he could do to stop himself from merging with the Other, crossing the Opari to Alfheim and slaughtering Erendriel, the Dökkálfar Crown Prince, and the Drygioni Brotherhood root and branch.
A strident voice interrupted his mental bitch-fest.
“That damnable creature is a positive menace. She needs to go. Right quick. My bed was soaking wet when I got in it last night. I had to sleep in a chair. You must do something about her.”
“Good morning to you, Mrs. Kangas-Chelan. Would you like a waffle?”
Katrinka’s aunt, Dorotea Kangas-Chelan, was an elderly wolf-kin with large green eyes and a runner’s leanness. For weeks, she had been in a running war with Mistress Periwinkle, the mistress of Keeper House’s brownies. She would never win, but that hadn’t stopped her from trying.
She stomped to the counter, grabbed the French Press, and poured a cup of his Blue Mountain coffee. When it came to his coffee and cooking, she had no problem adjusting to living there. Her problem came from the other adjustments that went with living at Keeper House—the Brownies who lived in the attic.
Quinn tried for reasonable. “Mistress Periwinkle and her family have cared for this house for centuries. I warned you not to mess with the cream and cookies that I had the girls set out. It’s a house tradition—a polite thank you. I did it every night as well, when I was their age.”
“Oh, piffle! Food left out attracts all sorts of vermin. You are far too lax about things. I’ve a good mind to leave and go back home. I know when I’m not welcome.”
She continued her rant, but Quinn tuned her out. He had heard it all before.
After Mrs. Kangas-Chelan shouldered her oversized purse and walked out, Quinn shook his head and returned to his list. He needed someone to properly invest all the money the old man had saddled him with. It didn’t belong to him, no matter what they’d told him, but now it was his responsibility—if or when the old man who was his foster father came back, he needed to look him in the eye and tell him he’d taken care of it. Also, he needed to get back to work. His tutors had taught him well—a man worked. Maybe Gus had something in the works.
He smiled. When he’d heard of the windfall, his best friend, Gus Hope, had immediately suggested they go shopping for a fishing boat. “A 19-foot Tracker Targa fishing boat would be perfect,” he said. “As an ‘investment,’“ he’d said.
Quinn turned back to his waffle-making.
“Katrinka and Charlie, get a move on,” he called up the stairs. “You’re gonna be late for school.”
After putting out the wild strawberries and blueberries he’d picked yesterday during his run in the Opari, he set the table with the two unicorn glasses, one pink and one green. The girls each had their favorite. He smiled to himself that the girls’ idea of cute unicorns was a far cry from the antisocial, homicidal creatures he’d run into during his time in the Murk.
The girls, as usual, were lollygagging up in Katrinka’s room. Annie, his newfound foster sister, had threatened him with a serious ass kicking if the pair were late for school one more time on his watch. The problem was that without her firm hand around, the girls had quickly figured out that he’d let them get away with murder.
Charlie, his nine-year-old niece, walked into the kitchen with a mulish expression he knew all too well. It was identical to her mother’s at that age. Katrinka, the little wolf shifter, who had become his ward, marched behind her, the same determined look on her little face.
“Uncle Lan, we’re not going to school anymore. We’re going to stay here at Keeper House and let the sprites and dryads teach us stuff. They said they would.”
Well, this was new.
“You have to go to school,” Quinn said reasonably. “If you don’t, the cops will come and haul you off to the slammer. And there ain’t no world-famous sour cream waffles for little girls in the slammer.”
“We don’t like school. Everybody’s mean to us. They’ve been making fun of my hair and the girls hate Trinka.”
“What was wrong with your hair? I thought I braided it pretty good.”
“Stupid Judy Jenkins said I looked like Billy Goat Gruff. Aunt Dorothea promised to braid it for me this morning, but she got mad at Mrs. Periwinkle and forgot.”
“Okay,” Quinn said, trying to stave off the inevitable. “I’ll call Susanne down at the Salon and see if she can do an emergency braiding.”
Who knew braiding hair was something an uncle had to master?
“K,” said Miss Pouty face, the drama queen.
Quinn breathed a sigh of relief. Tears from the various females in his life were like kryptonite. Unfortunately, these two were all aware of their superpowers and used them way too willy-nillyish to his way of thinking.
“We’re still not GOING,” she screeched.
“Charlie, we don’t have time for this...” He tried to preempt her.
Molly, Charlie’s golden retriever, perked her ears.
“You’re not the boss of us. We’re not going anywhere. And besides, we want waffles, not stupid oatmeal.”
“That’s what I was fixing,” he answered with equal volume. “But now maybe I’ll change my mind. Maybe now you’ll have cold, sticky gruel!”
“Oh no,” Charlie squealed, “Trinka, he’s a monster. Run for your life.”
What had begun as a sort of play relief from the traumatic kidnapping the girls went through weeks ago had developed into a morning game when he was babysitting.
Thus, the tardy slips.
Quinn roared... “I think I will have me a couple of little girls for my breakfast.”
He lunged for Katrinka, but she was too quick.
“Save me, save me, Charlie,” she squealed. “Oh, won’t someone save me?”
Both girls dashed out the sliding patio doors and into the yard, with Molly barking joyfully behind them.
Quinn, monster-hulking, arms outstretched, raced after them.
Molly’s barking changed as she ran around the corner of the house.
A small boy with a spectacular black eye stood at the front door.
“What are you doing here?” Katrinka demanded.
The girls, noses in the air, brushed by him and went into the house, slamming the door behind them and leaving both males on the porch, mouths agape, looking at each other.
Quinn shook himself, straightened up and stuck out his hand. “I’m Lachlan. Who might you be?”
The boy eyed the door and shook Quinn’s hand. “I’m Tommy Anders. I know your daughters from school. I live on the farm down the road.”
“My nieces,” Quinn corrected. “What happened to your eye?”
The eye was epic. He looked like a gap-toothed boy in a Norman Rockwell painting.
“Trinka don’t like nobody making fun of Charlie’s name. She especially don’t like nobody calling her Chuckie. She punched me right in the eye. My Mom says I gotta say I’m sorry.”
“Okaayy,” Quinn said. “Why didn’t you just wait till you got to school?”
The boy looked at him like he was an idiot. “They always got girls hanging around ‘em. You never talk to girls in groups.”
Words of wisdom, Quinn thought.
“Want some waffles?”
“You make waffles?” He asked, doubt clear on his face.
“Not to brag, but I make the world’s greatest waffles. Today, I got fresh blueberries and strawberries to put in them. People come from all around, even as far away as Bulgaria, to taste my waffles.”
Quinn motioned him into the house. “Girls, we have a guest for breakfast. Set the fine china.”
Tommy got a cool reception in the kitchen, but he didn’t seem all that concerned. He looked at Charlie.
“I’m sorry I made fun of your name. Where’d you learn to fight like that, Trinka? You guys shouldn’t pay no attention to that dumb Judy and her friends. She’s stupid.”
Apparently, Mr. Tommy Anders had no problem talking to girls in pairs.
“I warned him,” Katrinka piped up. “Twice!” She waved two fingers, proclaiming her innocence.
Charlie nodded earnestly in agreement.
Quinn gave Katrinka a reassuring smile. He worried about her. In the space of a couple of months, she had lost her mother, been kidnapped, and moved into a new home life. Anna had been working with her, but she still seemed too quiet for an obviously bright nine-year-old.
“You know Katrinka, violence is not an attractive trait in young ladies,” Quinn said.
“Bet nobody’s ever gonna ever call her names again. I sure ain’t. Anyway, I’m sorry, you guys. I missed the bus. Can I ride with you to school?” asked Mr. Suave.
“Sure. Come on, eat up and quit messing around. Charlie, we’ll stop at the beauty salon for your braid. Hurry, I don’t need to explain why you’re late again to your mom.”
On the surface, Emory, Washington, looked like every other small town in America, but things were more complicated underneath. It was founded by George Emory, a prospector who had struck it rich in the Virginia City gold rush. He sold his claim and journeyed back to New York to play among the rich folk. George showed up later in Seattle in the 188os with a high-society wife named Adelia. He looked around for a while, made some investments and immediately set to work building a town at the mouth of the Robe Valley. There was money to be made in the logging business, and there were rumors of gold up the valley at a place called Monte Cristo.
His wife, Ada, was the one who stirred in the oddness. Like a lot of Victorian women, she was wild for the occult. Under her sponsorship, the town soon attracted all manner of astrologers, palm readers and fortune tellers. Among them was a certain Abigail Goodfellow, late of Lily Dale, NY. Unlike the other faux spiritualists, Abigail was the real deal, a 12th-circle witch crafter. She came to town to check on a rumor of the magic. She immediately felt the effects of the Opari Thinning — a rent in the fabric of reality that leaked an unimaginable amount of magic or spirit power, as it was then called.
Abigail immediately sent word back to her sisters. No one noticed when actual witches started trickling in soon after.
No one thought to ask permission from the people who called themselves the Kin—shapeshifters and other magic-blasted creatures who had fled the lands of the Fae and had been peacefully coexisting with the First Nation Folk for thousands of years.
The Hair Hut was an upscale beauty salon in Emory’s crafter neighborhood. Suzanne Malone, the owner, was an eighth-circle crafter who presided over three other ranked crafter-stylists. According to his friend Gus, her shop had a reputation as one of the premier beauty salons in the northwest. Her clients came all the way from Seattle for her services.
Quinn figured he could beg one of the stylists to do up Charlie’s braid and nip Katrinka’s career as an MMA fighter in the bud.
As they pulled up to the shop, Tommy took one look and announced that he would wait in the truck.
When the trio walked inside, the glyphs the Troll Women had burned into Quinn’s back prickled at the swirling of magic of the stylists as they dove in and out of the Flow, plying their craft.
All conversation stopped. The patrons and stylists eyed Quinn and the girls.
Quinn, with his brilliant green eyes, scarred face and lean, hard-muscled body, tended to get noticed.
“Well, if it isn’t Lachlan Quinn, come to get a makeover. Hello girls. Charlie, what on earth have you done to your hair?”
Charlie immediately threw him under the bus. She jerked her thumb over to Quinn. “He braided it.”
“Slow your roll, Charlie. Suzy, can you fix her a braid? Her mom’s down in Portland at a conference, so I got prisoner duty. My efforts have drawn some criticism. I thought I did pretty good.”
“Yeah, except you don’t know the difference between a braid and a knot. Come on honey, hop up here and we’ll fix you right up.”
Quinn steeled himself.
“Uh, Judy, I wonder if I could ask a favor.”
“Sure, Lan, what do you need?”
“Could you show me how to do that? Just in case her mom has to leave again.”
“Oh, aren’t you sweet? Look, ladies, Lachlan here wants to learn how to braid hair. Charlie, don’t you have the best uncle in the entire world?”
Charlie rolled her eyes.
“Lan, come on back here and I’ll show you how to do a Dutch Braid. It’s so easy. I bet even you could do it.”
“Oh Lannie,” a voice he recognized as Julie Blackman’s called out from the back, “when you finish with her, could you come back and do me?”
The whole place dissolved in laughter.
Quinn thought Tommie’s comments on avoiding interactions with females in a group were proving pure truth.
Quinn stood behind Charlie, trying to master the braiding while trying to ignore Charlie’s yelping like she was being tortured in a North Korean prison, when two six-foot tall grim-faced Amazons walked in.
The laughing and chattering in the shop ceased.
Quinn moved from behind Charlie to face them. The two had their elaborate clan braids shorn and gray ash dusted their brows.
Quinn thumped his right hand and arm on his chest.
“I see you, sister warriors,” he said in ancient Scythian. “Let us step out and talk under Father Sun.”
Quinn led them out to the sidewalk. The two little girls followed and held his hands, staring big-eyed at the Amazons.
“I see you, brother warrior,” the eldest said. “We have come here to deliver a message from our Mistress. She says: Please attend me as soon as you can. It is important. As a boon.”
Quinn nodded. “I see you mourn. I am sorry for your loss.”
“Our sister was struck down during an assassination attempt on our Mistress. We fear she is soon to climb the mountain. The Mistress asked us to show you this.” The younger of the two reached into a leather pouch that hung from her belt and gingerly retrieved a scrap of bloody cloth. She handed it to Quinn.
Quinn opened the cloth and saw a black throwing star, a shuriken, with a dwarven maker’s mark embossed into the center.
Unconsciously, he rubbed the thin white scar on his face.
The two amazons quickly stepped back at the sudden ice in his eyes.
Quinn noticed their reaction and quickly brought himself under control. He waved a silent apology. He sniffed the blade.
“Poisoned,” he muttered. “Probably a paralytic. She likes to use Grass snake venom. Is the wound bright blue?”
Wide-eyed, they nodded.
“Does your sister shelter in the Vampire’s yurt”?”
“Get you back to her side, my sisters. Keep her warm. If she hasn’t yet passed over the mountains, you have a sliver of a chance to save her. See Edie the Healer. Tell her you need the antidote for grass snake venom. She will know what to do.”
“Thank you, Brother.”
A black Ford F-150 driven by Kirk Falstad, the big Ursa- -shifter he’d met while rescuing Niamh, pulled up. He gave Quinn a nod. The two women bowed respectfully, got in the truck, and rode off.
Their mistress was the vampire Luciana Marinus. She was a complicated woman; one he was ill-equipped to deal with. The only time he talked with her, he’d broken into her bedroom and threatened her. She ruled her sector of Oldtown’s underworld with a deft touch. She could give Machiavelli pointers in politics. Chances were she might have. Centuries earlier, she’d cut her teeth on the complicated machinations of the medieval Italian city-states. He sighed and hustled the kids into his truck. He’d get the girls to school and then he had some arrangements to make.
That evening, after Quinn finished his preparations for the trip, he walked out behind Keeper House to the center of the fairy circle mediation maze and built a small campfire. He put a small iron teakettle on to boil and waited patiently for the troll women to arrive. During his time with them in the Murk, one of his evening camp duties was to build a fire and prepare their tea.
The Three appeared in the center of the maze at twilight.
Quinn regarded them sourly. He had spent enough years with them that the oddness of their creased and wrinkled ancient faces didn’t register. What did register was the unsettling, implacable power their presence exuded.
Malak the Seer was the eldest. The twelve troll clans called her The Grandmother. She was the one that the mothers prayed to in times of trouble. She had the fey skills of sorcery and foretelling.
Vuza the Warrior was the second of the three. Her lithe and muscular body had horrific scars. The scars that marred her face should have made her face unsettling, except for her beautiful blue-green eyes, which held a childlike innocence. Quinn often wondered what she had looked like before, whatever horrific torture she had endured. She was mute. Her tongue had been torn out. She was the one Quinn interacted most with as she had developed and honed his combat skill sets. The Amazon warrior moieties worshiped her as their patron goddess. She was the most empathetic of the three, which explained why she was a genius when it came to tactics and strategy.
Zeba, the Healer, was the third member of the triad. She was the most ruthless of the three. Quinn always thought her the youngest of the three, probably because she had a sense of humor that was utterly lacking in the other two. She thought his missteps, woundings and deaths hilarious and endlessly entertained herself with stories of his ineptitude as she revived and healed him. Her healings were as painful as the woundings.
The three squatted around the small fire, sipping their tea. As usual, he felt naked under the gaze of their black, unfathomable eyes.
Malak the Seer broke the silence.
“Boy, I would have my sister exorcise the Grendel-twinning you have awakened. It is flawed and dangerous.”
The Other snarled inside Quinn’s head.
“Not going to happen, Mistress. Why do you three come here?”
“We need you to do two tasks for us.”
“I don’t work for you anymore.”
The Healer Zeba’s laughter sounded like tinkling bells. “You will never be free of us, boy. You are part of us, so quit this foolishness and listen. This is important. Time is short.”
The Seer spoke, “We need you to recover a scroll that was stolen from Keeper House. Recover it and bring it to us.”
“What’s in it?”
“It is a grimoire of sorts. The ancient people of your world named it The Grisa Rune, gray grimoire. It was what the Druid sought from you. The scroll is a listing of ancient spells—blood-craft. We think it is semi-sentient. The old man insisted it would be safe in Keeper House. It would have had you not invited a thief to live there.”
That statement shocked him. His mind raced ahead. That explained his weird feelings of uneasiness of late. Dorotea Kangas-Chelan, who was supposedly so interested in her niece’s welfare that she had moved in, had been oddly uninterested and detached afterward. The brownies must have had their suspicions. Quinn’s gut clenched at his blind stupidity.
He shook himself. Pay attention. It didn’t do to let his attention wander when he was with these three.
“You want me to recover a scroll I’ve never laid eyes on, and all we know about its location is that it’s somewhere in the four realms?”
“We know the scroll is in Oldtown. A renegade Daoine named Venwraek has it. We know he has already used one of the old spells. If he can unravel the others, the Goddess only knows what chaos he will unleash, especially with the manna surge coming. Remember, you must take care; you have no defense against the old magic.”
“So, no stomping around heedlessly, as is your usual want. Use some subtlety for once. And try not to burn down Oldtown in the process.” The Zeba said tartly.
Vuza had been eyeing him intently. She signed, her nimble hands conveyed her disapproval. “You have been skipping the meditation practices we taught you. Your fitness will soon suffer. See that you resume them.”
Quinn sighed and signed back, “Yes mistress, I will do as you wish.” Lately, he had been busy. It was easy to skip them, but he had learned the hard way that when Vuza gave an order, it was best to obey.
The three disappeared. Not without a last mocking finger-wagging from Zeba.
Quinn didn’t question the mission the troll women assigned him. He knew it would do no good and there was also the matter of a debt owed.
The day, which started off well, had gone to hell fast.
Little Wolf Creek, Winthrop, WA
Niamh Harpe, a lithe six-foot blond blue-eyed panther shifter, looked like she could grace the cover of Vogue. Instead, she wore a pair of well-worn grey Carhartt bib overalls and a sweatshirt with the University of Washington on the front.
Niamh was in her workshop using a spoon gouge to carve out the undercuts that would outline the forest in the bottom corner of the massive cedar plank mural. She had harvested the plank from a windblown cedar she had come upon on one of her biweekly hunts. Her carving was a labor of love, a nice transition from her regular job as the lead investigator/enforcer for the Kin Council, the organization that governed all species of shifter-kin from California to Alaska.
Jeffery, the little boy she had rescued from Dökkálfar slavers, watched with fascinated eyes as she switched gouges and carved out tiny trees in the forest along the edge. The seven-year-old’s time as a slave had dampened his natural exuberance, but some healing from Anna, the hedge witch, had gone a long way toward repairing his psyche. He was still hyper-alert to disapproval, but this morning, he had been brave enough to say he didn’t like sunny side up eggs.
A major win.
Niamh could tell he was dying to ask a million questions, but Jeffery was a rule follower; slaves knew all about the harsh punishment that followed rule-breaking. Niamh had asked him to keep quiet while she was working, so he just watched.
In the three weeks since his rescue, she had worked out a mutual fostering system with Anna, the Opari Hedge Witch down in Emory. Jeffery stayed with her when she was not on assignment and with Anna when she was gone. Most of the other fourteen rescued children, including Jeffery’s sister, were with families in Oldtown. The remaining mundane children kidnapped from Seattle were spell-secreted and returned to their families — traumatized, but far better off than they would have been as slaves for the Dökkálfar in Alfheim.
A vehicle crunching on the gravel road outside the shop interrupted her work. She looked out and recognized it as her grandfather’s truck.
“Damn, what does he want?”
Niamh sighed and put her knives and gouges away on the shelves, away from curious fingers.
“Come on, Jeffery, let’s go greet my grandfather.”
Niamh’s grandfather, Selwyn Harpe, was a panther shifter in his seventies who looked to be in his forties. A fit man with white hair trimmed short, he had clear gray eyes set deep within their sockets. A scar stretched from the top of the right cheek to the edge of his lips gave him a sardonic grin that was unsettling. According to family legend, the scar was a memento from a hunter’s lucky shot during Selwyn’s first adolescent shift. The bullet left a mark stretching across his right cheekbone. The shooter hadn’t survived to tender an apology. These days, he showed his alpha predator nature by ruling the Kin Council, the body that governed all shifter-kin on the West Coast.
Niamh watched, stone-faced, as he got out of the truck, looked around, spread his arms and breathed deeply.
“Singer and Song bless you, granddaughter.”
“And you as well, grandfather,” she replied.
“This is a fine place. Your mother would be proud of how well you’ve kept it up. I see you’ve added on as well.”
“What do you want, grandfather? I’m sure you didn’t drive four hours from Bellingham to Winthrop to admire the home place of a woman you absolutely hated when she was alive.”
“I will admit that I would have chosen a different mate for your father, but it all worked out in the end. You’ve turned out to be an excellent addition to the family line. Granddaughter, you need to move to Bellingham and stop this foolishness of living way out here. You need to get rid of the boy; no good can come of you saddling yourself with a mundane.”
“Not going to happen, grandfather.”
Niamh kept a firm grasp on her temper. To allow herself to be baited by the old man was to lose.
He shifted the conversation abruptly.
“What did you make of the Keeper’s boy?”
She laughed. “Well, Lachlan is no longer the Keeper’s boy. He is the Keeper. If I had to choose one word to describe him, I’d pick impressive—and I imagine the witches are no happier than you are of that fact.”
The old man gave her a sour look. “I should never have let the old man talk me into letting you spend time with those women. You forget your place with your own kind. But never mind that. I tasked you with forming a judgment about him. Tell me.”
“Well, I can say that he will be just as much a pain in the ass for you as he is for the witches. Lachlan Quinn goes his own way and does what he thinks is right.”
“Is he damaged? Althea told me she thought him unsuitable.
Niamh smiled. “You and Althea are peas in a pod. What you two want is someone you can manipulate to your own ends. That person is not Lachlan. Grandfather, you and I don’t get along, but we serve the Kin. Do not think about moving against Lachlan. Do not threaten him. I’m warning you for your own good. I saw him take down two adult Sidhe warriors in the blink of an eye.”
He scoffed. “You imagine things, girl. I will do what I must to protect the Kin community.”
He paused and scowled at Jeffery, who was peering at him.
The small boy ducked his head and quickly moved behind Niamh.
“I’ve informed Mina about what I’m going to have you do next. I have agreed to pair you with one of Althea’s guardians, Katherine Keenan. I think you know her well.”
Niamh nodded. She knew Katie very well. As a teenager, she spent summers with her and her sisters when Anna, the Hedge Witch, tutored her. She didn’t mention that half of the time had been spent with the two of them, hating each other and fighting over Lachlan Quinn.
“Anyway, I’ve gotten word that some beings are soul-raping and killing young half-blood females in Oldtown. Rumors suggest the Kin are involved. Our people are allowed to move freely down there only grudgingly. If it leaks out that one of the Kin Clans has gone feral, all my hard work building bridges will go for nothing. Find out and stop it. This time, maybe you can do it with some semblance of competence, unlike last time when you allowed yourself to be captured like the greenest kit.”
The old man glared again at Jeffery, who was peeking at him from the safety of her back. He despised mundanes with a passion, always had.
Niamh waited silently for him to continue. The old man was a master manipulator. She was careful to keep her resentment at his tone from boiling over. The old man knew she did not do well with authority figures. She wondered why he was taking this tone rather than his usual one of reasonable persuasiveness.
He continued, “I want you to get close to this Lachlan Quinn. Make up to him. We may need him down the trail.”
“You want me to make up to him?” Niamh was enjoying this. The old man was unsettled. Sweet Mother, he’s spooked at something. “What’s going on?”
He glared at her. “First of all, we have a mess going on in Oldtown. Next, something or someone stirs up the various Kin Clans. The new Alpha of the Chelan Pack is a perfect example. He is pushing hard for us to move against the Emory Witches and this new Keeper to recover the lands bordering the Opari. There are plenty of reasons to be spooked. Anyway, that is not your business. Just do your job in Oldtown without arguing, granddaughter.”
He glared at the little boy again, turned, got into his truck, and drove off.
“I thought grandpas were supposed to be nice. Trudy was always going on and on about her Grandpa and how he told her stories,” Jeffery said. “I don’t like him. He’s scary.”
Niamh hugged him. “I don’t care for him much either. Get changed and gather your stuff. Vacation’s over. I must get you back to Anna’s. If you hurry, we have time to stop at Sheri’s in Winthrop for some cinnamon rolls and cocoa.”
The Shambles District-Oldtown
The were-hyena clan typically hunted during the in-between time, what the dwarves called the intempesta nox, the dead of night. This night, they hunted in the Shambles District. The rank blood smells of the slaughterhouses and rot smells of the renderer’s vats were baked into the very walls and misted the air. The slaughterhouse slaves were snug in their kennels. It was still too early for the thieves sentenced to the road crews to sweep and sluice water from the aqueduct to clean the streets. The cobblestone lanes were deserted except for the occasional reveler who took a shortcut through the district from the taverns to the bawdy houses located a couple of blocks over in the equally ancient red-light district.
They stalked two females, one human, blond, tall and slender, the other shorter with green hair, which marked her as a sylvan half-blood. The females stumbled along Butcher’s Lane, singing and giggling, obviously well into their cups. They had obviously gotten turned around somehow and wandered away from the safety of the well-patrolled tavern district into a place where they had no business being at this time of night.
The females radiated an air of vulnerability.
A whisper of paws scraping on stone was the only sound the clan made as they shifted into their anima-shapes. The Clan Queen guided the hunt with hand signals. Clan discipline was tight—it had to be because the vulnerability of the prey acted like an aphrodisiac, inflaming their bloodlust. The queen’s finger signaled the hunt’s start. The group drifted silently toward the girls. Another signal and the low-ranked males spread out to the flanks, ensuring the prey had no escape. The Clan Queen and three elder females took up the center.
“These fucking high heels are a terrible choice for combat,” Niamh whispered to her companion. “How the hell do you wear these things?
“Bitch, you better not scuff them,” Katherine Keenan whispered. “They’re my favorite Louboutins. I will murder you if you ruin them. I can’t believe I let you talk me into letting you borrow them.”
“My boots didn’t match this stupid dress.” Niamh cursed again. Walking on cobblestones in the goddess-damned high heels was killing her feet. She briefly entertained herself with the thought of jumping on a plane after this was all over and flying to New York and having a talk with Christian Louboutin. Maybe make him wear the fucking shoes for a week and see how he liked it.
“Katie, give ‘em a higher dose of helplessness.”
Katherine obediently muttered a cantrip to send an increasing aura of vulnerability.
She whispered, “They are close to breaking.”
Niamh turned her head slightly to watch the Clan Queen’s finger signals.
“Okay. They are spreading out. You take the ones on the left. I’ll take the right.”
“I hope your guy Kirk is back there somewhere or it’s going to be a bit hot here.”
The clan surged forward with high-pitched yips. The two girls looked back and froze. Then they screamed in panic and ran—one to the left and one to the right.
The screams crumbled the last bit of pack discipline. The clan bolted to attack.
At the rear of the pack, three high-ranked females stood with the Queen. She held a fat egg-shaped amulet aloft in her hand and spoke the wyrd they had taught her.
The amulet gave off a soft yellow glow as it activated.
A rumbling growl sounded from behind them. She turned to see a twelve-foot snarling grizzly bear racing toward them. The queen’s last thought before the bear hit was, “I should have known it was too good to be true—easy money is never easy.”
Up ahead, the tables had turned as well. The males on the right slammed to a panicked halt. Mouths gaped in terrified whines. A snarling green-eyed panther crouched in front of them.
The first two males died instantly. Their throats torn open. The following two suffered snapped necks from two whisper-fast blows from her paws.
The group on the left ran into an expanding globe of witch-fire as hot as the surface of the sun. A snarling female and three males burst into greenish flames so hot that the cobblestones underneath them crackled and slagged.
The lone surviving female still alive from the were-grizzly’s attack snatched up the amulet from her fallen queen in her jaws and ran, only to find herself flattened by a huge weight landing on her back. The last thing she felt was the bear’s jaws snapping shut on her neck,
“I clearly said we needed one of them alive.” Niamh Harpe grumped. “Sweet Mother of All, Kirk, I said subdue the Queen, not end her.”
Kirk Falstad, the big Ursa-shifter she had hired to help her trap the Crocuta-shifters, shrugged unrepentantly. “I musta slipped. Anyway, you or your pet witch coulda’ kept one alive. At least they won’t be killing any more girls.”
“Listen up, shifter,” Katherine Keenan hissed. “I am nobody’s pet. If you want to keep that tongue of yours attached, you will be more respectful.”
“You got it, Red,” the big man said amiably. “At least we got this. Whatever it is.” He held up the glittering egg-shaped ornament.
“Okay, at least we got that. What do you think it is, Katie?”
“Sweet Mother, I think it’s a Daoine Sidhe mind recorder. It’s spelled to record real-time experiences, complete with a full range of sensory inputs and emotions. Those fuckers were making snuff films. They’re recording the last emotions of the victims so they can be played back and broadcast by an esper-fae.”
“Oh fuck, if the Sidhe are involved in this. Things just got a thousand times worse,” said Niamh. “Okay, Kirk, you’re off the hook. Apparently, it’s true that even a blind squirrel finds a nut occasionally. Let’s get out of here; these heels are killing my feet.” She pulled off the shoes and walked bare-footed. “Next time, Katie, instead of drunk party girls, I vote we be college girls out for a midnight jog.”
She handed them to Katherine, who examined them with a frown. “Dammit, you scuffed one.”
“I’m starving,” rumbled Kirk. “I could eat me one of the Raven’s sixteen-ounce rib-eyes. Let’s stop there on the way out of town. Harpe, you’re buyin’.”
Katherine pointed to the amulet hanging from Kirk’s fist. “We need to take that disgusting thing back to Emory. One of the aunties can help us figure out who its owner is, or at least where it’s been.”
The three walked away, ignoring the bodies left behind in the street. The street cleaners would come on shift soon. They would take care of things. Life was cheap in Oldtown. They would sell the corpses for a few coppers, and the bodies would end up in a renderer’s vat by midmorning. The only sounds in the lane were the hissing and crackling of the cooling cobblestones.
Oldtown didn’t waste resources on jails. Criminals got slavery or death.
Fremont Neighborhood, Seattle
Elisabeth Van Horn of Seattle’s Van Horn Coven knew very well that she was like the lone dandelion growing in a garden full of roses and lilies. She was okay with that. The witch-crafters of her coven were all lawyers, politicians and judges with powerful type-A personalities. They didn’t understand her. She knew she had her quirks. But that didn’t stop them from taking full advantage of her gifts. She was okay with that as well. She didn’t mind plying her craft for the family’s benefit as long as they indulged her hobbies and left her alone. They stood by the unwritten agreement—mostly. Her only issue came when events incited their paranoia. They became overprotective and that was a pain.
She wasn’t a sophisticated seer like her sister Cassandra or a beautiful genius lawyer like Emily. Tall and awkward, Elisabeth had an unfortunate sense of humor that came out at the most inopportune times. Two attributes defined her. She was the most gifted harmonizer anyone had seen in decades and she was smart - genius-level smart. As a result, the Aunties who governed her coven had allowed her to go her own way and indulge the insatiable curiosity that ruled her life absolute. That curiosity was why she had spent twelve years matriculating at the University of Washington. When she finished one major, she went on to another. She had degrees in mathematics, industrial design, philosophy, psychology and history.
Along the way, she rose to a twelfth-circle adept specializing in the weft and warp of the exotic patterns of magical wards and hexes. Her coven’s clients paid good money to have powerful hexes entangled into their contracts and wills. The consequences of breaking one of Elisabeth Van Horn’s warded contracts were severe.
On the third Monday in September, a dreary rainy day in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle, Elisabeth’s well-ordered life took an unexpected turn.
The day had started well. After bustling around her morning routine, making sure her craftsman-style house was spotless and in that perfect mix of order and chaos that is the razor-thin perfection of Feng Shui, she spent the balance of the morning editing her latest passion—a historical romance she was writing for fun, which featured the adventures of a young Victorian woman named Molly Quirk. She hoped to read a chapter to a writer’s group she’d discovered that met weekly at the Phinney Ridge Neighborhood Center.
Emily thought her manuscript “a bit lurid,” but Elisabeth discounted her opinion. What did she know? Emily was one of those people with so much romance in her life that there was no room for any in her soul.
She was jarred out of Grammarly’s punctuation hints when her grandmother’s raven, Nevermore, came rocketing from wherever it was hiding from her cat, Button’s relentless stalking. The big ebony feathered bird perched on the cherry hat stand an antique dealer had assured her had once belonged to Grover Cleveland and began cawing, “Trouble is coming—trouble is coming.”
Next, the oven timer began its annoying beeping, indicating that the treats she was baking for the meeting were done.
And someone came pounding on her front door.
The male who stood in the doorway was easily the most gorgeous man Elisabeth had ever seen. Rumpled blue-black hair barely covering peaked ears, brilliant feline-shaped sapphire blue eyes—tall, well over six feet, with broad shoulders that narrowed to a trim waist. He wore a flawless charcoal suit and brilliant white shirt with no tie to hide the thick, tanned column of his neck. His voice matched his appearance. She searched for a descriptor and settled on euphonious.
An asrai-halfling—a half-blood wood elf.
On her front porch.
Stunned, Elisabeth realized she had gotten so lost in looking at him and listening to that melodious voice that she missed what he had said.
“My Mistress would like a moment of your time. We understand you are the Van Horn’s Hexer.”
Alarm flared. She felt the hair on the back of her neck stand up. That she was the Van Horn Coven’s Hexer was a closely guarded secret.
This was trouble, but sudden curiosity overcame her alarm.
“Very well, please come in.”
The elf stepped aside. The women who followed him were equally exotic. Two exquisite beauties with long ebony hair and slanted, intelligent yellow eyes. They were similar enough to be sisters. The main difference between them was the color of their elaborate silk cheongsams. One wore scarlet, the other emerald green.
Something about them rang warning bells. The presence of the elf told her they were from Oldtown. The women had an aura, a presence that she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
“Hello, Elisabeth Van Horn,” the scarlet-clad woman’s greeting contained the faintest trace of an accent.
Nevermore kept chanting the warning, “Trouble is near—trouble is here.” Elisabeth waved her hand to silence the bird.
“N’in hao,” she said politely.
The eldest of the two’s eyebrows rose. “Nǐ shuō pǔtōnghuà?” (You speak Mandarin?)
“A bit,” Elisabeth answered. “I speak seven languages fluently. Unfortunately, my Mandarin is too rusty to carry on a long conversation.”
“Very interesting. My information about you didn’t include that little tidbit.” She shot a glare at the elf.
The handsome halfling shrugged.
The other woman had a distracted look that morphed into alarm. She shouted. “Jiějiě wéixiǎn láile”, (elder sister danger). She stepped back to the door, tried to open it and cursed when she couldn’t.
“You will be perfectly safe as long as you do no harm,” Elisabeth said cheerfully.
The scarlet-clad woman stared at Elisabeth for a long moment, then nodded and smiled.
Elisabeth spoke again. “Ladies, please have a seat. I’ll put the kettle on. May I offer you some tea? I rarely have guests, but I have some Gyokuro Tea that my sister picked up in Hong Kong. I think you’ll find it refreshing with some blueberry tarts that just came out of the oven.”
“Yes, please,” the woman said with a smile. “It had been a long time since I’ve tasted the Gyokuro.”
Elisabeth looked a question at the other woman and elf. They waved her off with a polite smile.
After the tea was steeped and poured, the woman took an appreciative sip. “Most excellent. You do well for yourself. This is a rare blend.”
“Thank you. I’ll put some up for you to take with you.”
“You must be wondering why I wanted to meet with you.”
“Yes,” Elisabeth said. “I was wondering. Usually, people who want to meet me call first. As far as I know, we’ve never met. I’m just an ordinary research librarian. Do you need some research done?”
“You are too modest. I am told that you are anything but ordinary. You hold two doctorates, and as far as we can tell, you hold advanced status as a high circle witch-crafter. Interestingly, everyone we talked to has had a different idea of your profession. But we’re quite certain you are the expert Hexer that the Van Horns are so proud of.”
“I get curious about things,” Elisabeth felt, not for the first time, a stab of regret. The University of Washington campus was what she imagined that heaven would be like. Whenever she picked up a university class catalog, she saw something interesting she had to look into. She would still be there if Auntie Mary hadn’t demanded she come home.
The dragon woman spoke again, “Many years ago, my grandfather came from China. He was able to leverage his connections with the community in Oldtown as well as this realm to make a success of himself and provide a good living for his family.”
“What is your grandfather’s name?”
Wowzers. The Bailong Shifter. The white dragon banker of Oldtown. That meant that this woman was probably Pang Guang. The eldest of the sisters who ran the bank’s loan operation. She had hexed some contracts for them. Elisabeth swallowed an overwhelming impulse to bombard her with questions.
“This is my younger sister Daiyu and I am Guang.” she paused long enough to shoot a questioning look. “Ah, I can see by your face that you recognize our family name. That simplifies things. We are here because our grandfather has need of your unique services.”
“Oh, what is the nature of your problem?”
“We have a hex that we need unraveled. We will meet whatever price you choose. What say you?”
The exotically beautiful dragon shifter sat back and silently awaited her response.
“I have heard of your bank. You have a renowned master of the art in place. Why do you need me?”
“She met with an unfortunate accident and has passed over. None of her apprentices have been able to unravel the hex.”
A random thought came and set fire to Elisabeth’s imagination. This situation was not unlike one of her sister Emily’s stories. She was the one who always had exciting adventures, meeting odd characters in shady places or having wild affairs with mysterious men in exotic locales. While Elisabeth, the stay-at-home sister, was left to ooh and ahh at all the dramatic spots.
Now, it was her turn. Fate had offered the opportunity of an actual adventure. Wild buffalo couldn’t have dragged her back to her routine. Now, the humdrum ordinariness of her life seemed unbearable; danger and maybe romance lurked just around the corner. Heck yes. She resisted the impulse to do a fist bump with the two dragon women.
“You betcha,” she said with shining eyes. Elisabeth jumped up, hurried into the kitchen and hastily scribbled a note telling her sisters of her decision. She pinned it to her bulletin board, muttered a cantrip, and watched as it instantly disappeared, wending its way through the aether to attach itself to their boards. She smiled. The method was enough to notify them but not fast enough for them to stop her. She coaxed Buttons into her carrier, hurriedly packed a change of clothes in a backpack, slung it over her shoulder, called for Nevermore and she was ready.
“I suggest you leave your pets here.”
Elisabeth looked at her and shook her head. “They are not pets.”
The woman gave her a puzzled glance but nodded her acceptance.
The strange group got some curious glances, but Fremont was known for its quirky inhabitants, so they were mostly ignored. When they neared one of Fremont’s landmarks, an imposing statue of Lenin with its blood-red hand, the eldest dragon sister halted them. She glanced to ensure no one was watching, then led them behind the statue to a glyph burned in the sidewalk.
She held her hand out.
“Grab my hand and don’t let go.”
Elisabeth grabbed the hand, took a step, and stood on a cobblestone street, staring wide-eyed at a scene from a fairy tale.
“Welcome to Oldtown,” the youngest murmured.
A mélange of smells hit immediately. The air was smogged with coal smoke, horse manure and unwashed humanity. The cacophony of bickering, shouting voices sounded from what looked like a giant street fair just down the cobblestone street. At the sound of a throat clearing, she glanced to the side and saw that a shiny black carriage hitched to two magnificent white horses awaited. A massive, uniformed troll stood at attention, holding a door open.
Oh My GOD, is that an actual troll?
A crowd of curious beings stood watching them—trolls, dwarves, a motley collection of half-blood sprites, and a score of half-starved-looking children of all races.
Elisabeth nervously eyed a particularly evil-looking one-eyed dwarf in a blackened leather apron who glared at them from among the onlookers. She muttered a cantrip and fingered a woven amulet that hung around her neck. The ward flared around her, then subsided. Her eyes brightened as she turned her attention to the carriage.
“Seriously? A horse-drawn carriage.” Her face broke into a huge smile. She was going on an actual carriage ride - with the clip-clop sound of a horse’s hooves. No doubt, a handsome but grouchy Mr. Darcy would meet her at their destination.
Could this adventure get any better?
She didn’t think so.
The tall woman looked amused at her reaction. “Have you ever been to Oldtown?”
“Mistress, the only places I’ve visited in person are classrooms and home. I know about Oldtown, but knowing is not the same as actually being here.”
“This neighborhood is called Northmarket,” Daiyu said. “Oldtown has five markets. This is the smallest; the largest is at the city’s center. That’s where the bank is and that’s where we’re going.”
Elisabeth nodded and absently stroked Nevermore’s neck. He ruffled his feathers and whispered in her mind.
“Danger is near—we shouldn’t be here.”
Elisabeth listened delightedly to horses’ hooves clip-clopping on Oldtown’s cobblestone streets. Nevermore, paranoid as always in all this strangeness, flew overhead, giving her a running mental commentary on the city and its inhabitants.