The Investigators’ Club Episode 2

Oroitz and Flora (The Cult, Wednesday)

Where was I? I was tied to a chair. Oh God, what had happened? My memory of the past few hours was blank. The last thing I remembered was sitting down in my house to study the book some more. Somehow I was tied up and I must have done some magic to free myself, but it cost me my memory.

The smell of something burning reached my nose and I looked down to see two curls of smoke rising up from the ropes securing my legs. A sensation of heat from behind me informed me that I had set the ropes on my wrists on fire too. That was good, I guess.

In a moment my ropes fell to the ground, still smouldering. I stood up and tried to wrack my memory of what I’d been doing. The only thing that popped into my head was an image of myself driving a car with another man, but I didn’t recognise the man.

I was in a small room with two chairs. It looked abandoned and was lit by an electric camping lantern in the corner.

Automatic gunfire rattled through the building and I ducked instinctively. I reached into my coat but my gun wasn’t there, and someone had torn the armpit out. I peeked out the door but it didn’t look like there was anyone guarding me. They must have gone out to check out the gunfire. I moved towards the gunfire.

Don’t look at me like that. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

I walked forwards as slowly as I could. This building looked like it had been a school of some sort but it was long since abandoned. The gunfire stopped but I kept moving towards where I had heard it. Eventually I found two double doors that I could hear movement behind, horrible grows and whines.

Taking a few deep breaths to calm myself, I swung the door open and looked in.

The door opened just in time for me to see Flora drive a knife through a werewolf’s lower jaw. She wasn’t wearing the gas mask she usually wore and her lips were pulled back from her teeth. Her eyes glanced around wildly at the dozen other werewolves in the room, I realised it was a gymnasium.

Unfortunately that was the point that a man that I had recognised from my earlier memory of the car walked out of the crowd of werewolves and levelled a gun, my gun, at Flora. The instant before he fired I remembered everything.

***

I turned the word over in my head, slowly. “Karitzsha” I said it out loud. I’d pulled the word from my head and was just trying to get some sort of grasp on it. The language that makes up the Golden Book, the book that’s in my head, was never meant for a human being. That one word could mean “the old place”, or “famous battleground”, or “a time of remembrance”, or…

Some of these meanings would be more relevant than others, but they all had their place in the meaning of the page as a whole. From what I could tell this page was describing both a scene from the early history of the planet, and at the same time a spell that allows someone to view the past. The history part bored me but the spell was something I wanted. My own past is as much a mystery to me as anyone else. I’d been working on deciphering this spell for the past three years.

My concentration was broken when the phone rang. I rubbed my eyes and started looking around my apartment for where the phone could be. My apartment is at the best of times overrun with the papers that I put my observations about the Golden Book into.

I finally found my phone under a notebook that looked like a Mandelbrot fractal had thrown up on it. “Hello?”

“Do you know anything about something called Herveena?”

“Hello Flora.” Even if I hadn’t recognised her voice I would have known it was her. “It rings a bell. Give me a moment.” I set down my phone and riffled through a few of my notebooks. There is something of a pattern to how I place them, despite all appearances to the contrary. “Here it is.” I said. “Herveena, ancient amorphous being from outside of our universe. Causes spontaneous transformation in any beings that come near her.”

“Thanks.”

“What’s this for?”

There was a stretch of silence from Flora. “It’s a journal I found on a dead werewolf.”

“Did you kill him?”

“Yes. It was stalking some children in my neighbourhood. The children don’t know.”

“I’ll be there right away.”

“No thank you.” The words rushed out of her.

“Flora, you’re dealing with extra-dimensional entities. Your guns and kung fu aren’t going to work against them.”

“It’s Krav Maga.”

“That’s beside the point.”

Another pause. “A werewolf will kill before you have a chance to draw one of your circles.”

“Well, I guess we’ll have to work together.”

“Fine. Meet me at my place.” She hung up.

Grabbing my coat, I mentally bookmarked a few pages in the golden book that I might need and went out to my car. I drive a beat up old pickup truck. I don’t know why, it was the car I had keys to when I woke up in the university library five years ago.

Traffic was light so I made it to Flora’s apartment building in about half an hour. When I say Flora’s apartment building I mean it literally. She owns it and rents the other rooms out, the ones that she doesn’t use for storing books that is.

I rode the elevator up to the top floor and knocked on Flora’s door. While I was waiting the door across from me opened up and an absolute vision walked out. This wasn’t the graceful beauty that Miranda showed or the disturbingly inhuman beauty that I’d glimpsed in certain creatures from beyond. Quite simply, this woman looked like sex.

Her dark hair, her curving figure, the smouldering fire behind her eyes, all of it spoke of sweat between the sheets and red wine at inappropriate hours.

I swallowed.

“Hello.” I said.

“Well hello.” It seems redundant to note that her voice was a purr.

Thankfully Flora chose that moment to open the door. “Calla.” I heard from behind me.

“Hello Flora.” Said the woman, I assumed her name was Calla.

If it was possible, Flora was quieter than usual. “Going out?”

Calla nodded, “You should come with me sometime. All this prowling around at night, can’t be healthy to not take the occasional break.”

I managed to tear my eyes away from Calla and look at Flora. She was small, no more than five feet tall, but there was a certain stockiness in her build that suggested power. Her red eyes were turned towards the ground and she’d stood aside to let me into her apartment. I took one last look at Calla before going inside. She winked at me before the door closed. “She uh…” I cleared my throat, “she knows about what you do?”

Flora nodded. “She’s a succubus.”

“Oh,” it felt like someone had just dumped a bucket of ice over my head. I won’t say I didn’t need it. “Is that something we should worry about?”

“No. Most succubae don’t feed on people anymore. They just do porn.”

“Pardon?” Part of my brain couldn’t fit the idea of Flora knowing what porn was with what I knew about her. Being able to break down every handgun made in the last twenty years in under a minute I could believe, but porn? In her own weird way she seemed far to innocent for that.

She walked into the back of the apartment and seemed to expect me to follow. “Succubae feed on emotions directed at them. Usually just having people see them isn’t enough but when they’re on video and dozens and dozens of people are looking at them… um…” she waved her hands vaguely.

“I get it.” I said, desperate to change the topic. “What’s all of that?” I pointed to a table where a large variety of weapons and equipment had been laid out. There was some sort of assault riffle I couldn’t place, as well as a selection of grenades and knives.

“My equipment. If we’re going up against werewolves I want as much firepower as I can get.” She picked a small pistol off of the table and held it towards me. “Do you know how to shoot?”

I pulled back my jacket pocket to let her see the larger pistol I already wore on a shoulder rig. “Do you have any silver bullets in .45s?”

She shook her head. “Silver is a bad metal ballistic wise. I use modified rounds.” She grabbed a box of bullets off of the table. “Use these.”

I pushed back the box, “Later. Where’s this journal?”

She was moving more confidently, not tucking in her arms all the time, and she was meeting my eyes. She picked up a red journal from a table and handed it to me. I cracked it open and scanned the pages. “It mentions a location.” said Flora, “An old elementary school in the northern part of the city. Abandoned since the eighties.”

I shut the journal. “You see what education cutbacks lead to?”

Flora nodded, not giving any indication whether or not she got the joke. “The rest of the dead werewolf’s pack is holed up there. I should at least tell them that he’s dead.”

“But why are they hiding out in a school? I thought most werewolves lived like normal people most of the time.”

“They do. That’s why I wanted to bring all of this.” She gestured to the weapons. “We should check out that school tonight.”

I nodded, “You drive. I’ll read this thing on the way.”

***

Flora drove a giant black SUV that looked like it might be able to do double duty invading foreign countries, and she drove it much like you would expect her too. Always double checking before merging, always staying under the speed limit. Combine that with the late evening traffic and I had plenty of time to get through the journal before we got to the school.

The journal had belonged to the werewolf since before he had transformed, so I skipped the first part. It may sound callus of me but after you’ve read one newborn werewolf wondering what was happening to them and why, you’ve read them all. But the journal became interesting around the time that he had joined up with his current pack.

His new alpha was far into the occult. I didn’t know as much about werewolves as Flora, but I knew about the influence an alpha had over their subordinates. If the alpha was looking into the occult then the rest of his pack was probably doing likewise. The werewolf, his name was John for the record, had sketched a few symbols that, while basic, showed that he was into something real.

Eventually the name Herveena started appearing. John’s alpha, named Deimos, preached her as some werewolf goddess. He claimed that she had taken the form of the first wolf and had bitten the first of the humans, turning them into werewolves. I’ve run across more than a few cults in my job and aside from the werewolf stuff this was fairly standard. “Why was he stalking those kids?”

“Hmm?” Flora was hyper focused on the road and didn’t look over at me.

“When you killed him, you said he was stalking some kids. Why?”

Flora shrugged, “He was probably just hungry. A proper Alpha could have kept that in check… but that really wouldn’t make a difference to those children.”

I thought it over, “Thing is, when you have cults worshiping entities that reside outside of reality, most of them want to bring that entity into reality.”

“How would they do that?”

“Well… a sacrifice is always popular.”

The SUV lurched forwards. Flora started to weave through the traffic to a chorus of honking horns. I gripped my armrest and looked over at Flora, those red eyes looked like the coals of an abandoned fire.

We were at the school in less than a minute.

The car had barely stopped before Flora was out of the driver’s seat and had the trunk open. She’d packed her equipment in a large duffel bag and as I got to the back of the car she had it unzipped and was pulling on a gas mask.

“Why the gas mask?” I asked her.

“What?” It was a military issue gas mask so her voice was barely muffled.

“Why wear a gas mask? I get that you use it against vampires because that garlic gas of yours triggers an allergic reaction, but why now?”

She looked at me for a second. Red eyes staring out from behind the bulky featureless mask. In the dark, she wore all black. A dark outline against the night with only two red eyes staring back at me. Though I knew the girl behind the mask I had to suppress a shiver.

“I just like it.” she said.

I nodded and looked at the school as she started pulling her guns out of the bag. We’d parked a distance away but I could see it’s boarded up windows in the streetlamps. “If they’re doing a ritual it will require a lot of space. They’re probably using the Gym.”

Flora clipped a grenade to her belt and picked up her assault riffle, keeping the barrel pointed at the ground. “Check your gun.” she said.

“That’s not necesarry. I-”

“Check. Your. Gun.”

I stared into those red eyes for a moment and sighed, pulling my pistol out of its shoulder holster. “Look,” I pulled the clip out and showed it to her, “silver bullets. Just like you gave me.”

She cocked her head and looked at my gun. “Colt M1911.”

“I trust your judgement.”

“That’s an old gun.”

I put it back in its holster, “It’s what I have. We should get going. Your stopping that werewolf could have put off the ritual, but I doubt it. These things tend to be time sensitive.”

“If there is a ritual. We’re just guessing. Follow my lead.”

She crept forwards, rifle at the ready, and I followed while trying not to look like as big of a fool as I felt. Once we reached the door Flora pounded on it three times and stood back, her gun down.

“Not that I’d claim to know more about this than you, but are we honestly just walking up to the front door and knocking?”

“There’s etiquette. Especially with werewolves.”

The door creaked open and a man in a heavy brown overcoat stood in front of us. He sniffed the air, barely glancing at me, before fixating on Flora. “What do you want, half-breed?”

The butt of Flora’s riffle slammed into the man’s nose. It probably would have killed a human but it just knocked the werewolf off his feet and broke his nose. Flora reversed her grip on the riffle and aimed it at the werewolf’s head. “I am Flora Biancardi and I seek an audience with your Alpha.”

The werewolf leaned to his side and spat blood on the ground. “If it is your desire.” He picked himself up and gestured for us to follow. I let out a breath that I hadn’t known I was holding and entered the building after Flora.

I prefer my monsters more indefinable, with lingering horror and things not of mortal knowledge. Vampires, werewolves, succubae… far too visceral for my tastes.

The inside of the abandoned school looked about like you’d think it would. Empty cluttered floors with graffiti on the walls and old lockers hanging off of their hinges. It was all fairly typical for the city’s north side. Nobody really talks about it but just about everyone knows that it’s best to stay away from the north side. I get more than my share of business in this part of town.

Our guide led us through to a pair of double doors. There were outlines of dust from where letters used to spell out “Gymnasium” above it. He gestured for us to go through the door. Flora looked at him and said, “After you.” The werewolf shrugged and scratched at his head as he pushed the doors open. I wonder if he had fleas?

The gymnasium was full of werewolves, or that’s what I assumed. They were all in their human forms. Even though I didn’t have much experience with werewolves I could spot the Alpha right away. The way he stood near the center of the room, the way the other werewolves kept looking at him, the sheer confidence and magnetism, it was as easy as walking into a castle and guessing that the one wearing the crown was the king.

The Alpha, Deimos the journal had called him, turned towards us wearing the devil’s own grin. “Now what could you be doing here?” he had a southern drawl that sounded like smoky bars and aged scotch.

I remained silent, letting Flora handle things. She stepped forwards and said: “I killed one of your pack tonight.” That sent a stir through the crowd but Deimos didn’t react. “He was tracking-”

Deimos held up a hand, “I wasn’t talking to you. Oroitz, what are you doing here?”

It felt like there was a cockroach crawling through my brain. Images of Deimos, hunched over an ancient tome in some forgotten library, sitting in the passenger seat of a car that I was driving. I saw the two of us dressed like 1920′s gangsters, walking through an underground casino filled with monsters of a very literal variety, the crowd parted in front of us.

I’d stepped back without realising it, clutching my head and reeling. Flora looked at me with wide red eyes. Deimos’ smile didn’t leave his face. She turned towards him, pointing her gun. The entire pack of werewolves looked like it was about to surge towards her but Deimos stilled them with a gesture. “What did you do to him?” Flora said.

Deimos shrugged, “Nothing that I know of. Frankly, I’m as curious as you are.”

“Who are you?” I managed to say after a moment. Whatever those images were, they looked like they had stopped.

“What do you mean?…Are you saying you don’t know who I am?” His smile left his face for the first time since we’d entered the room. “All those years and you don’t remember me?”

I realised what the images were and cursed myself as an idiot. They were memories of my former life, before the book. Beyond my name and how to do magic they were the first that I’d ever had.

“Good God, you really found it didn’t you.” Deimos continued walking towards me as he spoke. “After all those years of searching, you finally found the golden book.”

I looked at this man that I had apparently known and for the first time wondered if I would like the person that I used to be. “You know about the book?”

Deimos nodded, “Complete knowledge of the magic that crafted the world, if the legends are true. Are they?”

Something about this felt familiar. I straightened my shoulders so I could shrug, “I don’t know. It’s a long book and exceedingly complex. I’ve barely scratched the surface.”

“And now you’re hunting my kind with a half vampire?” He looked back at Flora, “No offence my dear. I’m just calling you what you are.” He looked back at me and smiled his devil’s smile. “Please take her weapons away from her and put her with the other sacrifice.”

Flora’s gun blared and three of the werewolves dropped before Deimos’ words had registered. But there had to be fifty werewolves in that room and they started to transform the moment the first shots were fired. Deimos stood right in front of me and I saw dark grey fur start to grow across his body as his height seemed to double and his muscles bulged. The clothes that he had been wearing were torn to shreds and Deimos shuffled out of them as his muzzle lengthened and his lips pulled back to reveal very white and very sharp teeth.

What stood in front of me was to a werewolf what a werewolf was to a normal wolf. Fully half again the size of the wolves around him, he moved towards me with a primal grace. His grey eyes looked enraged but still held a spark of intellect.

A panicked thought jabbed at the base of my spine and I remembered that I was armed. I was so frantic in reaching for my gun that I tore the armpit out of my jacket but after a moment I had found it. I pulled it out while backing away from Deimos. I fired all seven rounds and by some miracle my shaking hands managed to make all seven find their target. Deimos barely flinched.

His clawed hand lashed out, clubbing me on the back of the head. I saw fireworks, and then black.

***

My vision blurred as I opened my eyes and my ears were ringing. Someone was talking to me but it seemed like they were doing it from very far away. I winced as things started jumping into focus. Deimos was sitting in a chair opposite me, a ratty old loveseat without cushions, I was sitting in what looked like the salvaged remains of one of the school’s desks. My hands were bound behind my back and my feet were bound to the chair.

“You awake?” Deimos said. He’d gotten a new pair of clothes from somewhere and reached into a pocket to pull out a pack of cigarettes. He offered me one and I shook my head. He shrugged and lit one for himself, taking a long drag before speaking again. “Those emergency transformations play hell on our clothes budget. We’ll have to raid another Goodwill soon.”

“Flora?” My throat felt dry and I wondered how long I had been out.

“Alive, for now. Half vampires are beyond rare. Her soul will fetch a large price.” He gestured with his cigarette. “That’s all this is Oroitz. I’m not some fool that wants to summon ancient gods into this world. Just a simple bargain for power. When John didn’t come back I thought that I would have to gut the sacrifice we have and call the whole thing off. Lucky for me you came along.”

“You want to sacrifice Flora? For power?”

Deimos looked at me for a long time, framed by smoke. “You really have changed. That’s what this game is about Ore. Grab as much power as you can before someone else does you in. Besides, I’d have to kill her. She killed one of my pack, that can’t stand.” He puffed on his cigarette again, “Some Alphas would, I think that’s what she was counting on. Many would consider it a courtesy for her to tell them about killing one of their own. I don’t.” There was a long pause, “I probably could have justified killing you too. But there’s old times to consider, even if you don’t remember. I might be able to help you with that.”

“I’m not sure that I want you to.”

He shrugged. “That’s fine too.” He stood up and brushed off his clothes. “The old you was my friend, but he was also kind of an asshole.” Still smoking his cigarette, he walked out of the room.

The first thing I did was try and get out of the chair. The ropes that secured my feet to the chair bit into my ankles and The ones binding my wrists together did likewise. I sighed and stretched my fingers out, and almost laughed. Deimos must not know how my magic worked, it must have been different before I found the book.

I turned through the book now. Flipping through page after page looking for something that might work in this situation. I finally stopped on a page meant to conjure fire. It was a complicated spell and required a lot of fine control, but because of that I was pretty sure that I could use it to set just my ropes on fire.

I had to take a few breaths to calm myself. I had to do this, for Flora. I moved my fingers, slowly tracing out the diagram. I usually made them bigger than this so I had to be careful to get all the little details sorted out. Eventually the thing started to take shape, I heard gunfire in the distance but didn’t let it ruin my concentration. I drew the last line and-

***

I start firing my gun, a compact Israeli assault riffle, before the werewolves start moving. For all the good it will do. Normally there are customs about this sort of thing, I should have known that these wolves had gone feral. Stupid.

I make sure to aim for the heart as the werewolves transform. A werewolf’s skull is too thick to reliably put a bullet through but silver can still find its way around their ribcages. Two more go down before the first werewolf reaches me. His teeth sink into my right arm and drag me to the ground. I grab my backup pistol, the big Desert Eagle that I normally carry, and fire two rounds into his brain. At this range and with that calibre it doesn’t matter how thick the werewolf’s skull is.

Those are the only shots I get off before a hand grabs onto my left arm and manages to pin it. I’d move my right arm to defend but right now it feels like it was run over by a truck. I look over at the werewolf that’s grabbed my arm and its the biggest one I’ve ever seen. This has to be Deimos, no alpha would be able to tolerate another wolf in their pack being that strong.

Deimos’ other hand comes down and grabs onto my gas mask. I struggle but he pulls it off, the straps cutting into my face before snapping. Something jumps down my throat like a cold electrical current and I start to thrash from side to side, screaming and swearing at the wolves around me as Deimos starts to drag me towards the back of the gym. He doesn’t seem to give any orders but when werewolves are like this they don’t really need words.

He swings open a door and suddenly I’m in a dusty room that I guess is an equipment locker. I’m tossed roughly to the floor and lay on the ground in pain for a moment before two other werewolves come in and start grabbing at my gear with their claws. They tear out the pockets on my clothes looking for things and I wonder why they don’t just strip my clothes off if they’re that worried. Deimos is probably too much of a southern gentleman to allow that.

After that the door slams shut I’m left lying on the floor. I check the wound on my arm. It’s not a full moon and I’m not close to dying so there’s no danger of my becoming a werewolf. Though I don’t know if that could happen. Vampires can’t become werewolves.

This wouldn’t have happened to my mother, or my father. My mother survived the fall of Rome and my father battled both Napoleon and the SS. My mother would have torn those werewolves to shreds and my father could have wiped this building from the map with a glance. Me? I’m the youngest and weakest member of an informal social club. Now Oroitz is probably dead because I pulled him into this.

To my left there’s a shuffling noise. I look and stop breathing for a second. There’s a little boy there. Small and curled in on himself with messy black hair. After a moment of thinking I say, “Hello.”

The boy doesn’t say anything.

I turn myself around to face him. It’s torture on my arm but I try not to let it show. “My name’s Flora. What’s yours?”

The boy covers his face. At times like this I wish that I didn’t look like I did. That is to say, more like Dracula than most vampires I’ve met. After a moment I realise that the kid is crying.

I crawl over and put a hand on his shoulder. He looks up at me with teary eyes. “I want you to get to the back of this room and to get as flat on the floor as you can. Can you do that for me?”

The boy nods and says: “Evan.” I look at him for a moment before realising that he’s telling me his name. “Are they going to eat us?”

I shake my head. “No.” Maybe I’m not a vampire that’s seen empires rise and fall. Maybe I’m not one of the most powerful wizards that has ever lived. I’m not my parents, I don’t have a tomb of total magical lore in my head, I’m not a mermaid, and I can barely access my email.

But I can field strip an M16 blindfolded and know exactly how much force is necessary to shatter a vampire’s sternum. That has to count for something.

There wasn’t a click when the door was slammed shut behind me. There’s a lock on the door but I’m guessing they don’t have the key. They probably think that the forty five or so werewolves outside will be enough to keep me inside. I’m not so sure.

I put Evan as far away from the door as I can. Then I stand in front of the door and try to mentally reconstruct the room. I think about where my guns will be. They won’t be where they fell, that’s certain. There is also Oroitz’s gun to consider. If I were Deimos I’d keep one gun for myself and give the other two to people I could trust.

But there is something else to consider, will Deimos have any werewolves transformed? Werewolves are hard to control under the best of circumstances, even more so when they’re transformed. Deimos won’t leave them transformed.

I roll all of this around in my head and a plan starts to form. It’s not perfect, far from it, but I think I can make it work with a bit of luck. Even with only one working arm.

I open up my vest with my one good arm, lift up my shirt, and tear off the medical tape that covers my stomach. Underneath it there is a bag of ground up and dried flowers that have faded to a fairly uniform brown from their original purple.

Deimos really should have strip searched me.

I take one last look at Evan before placing the bag in my mouth and yanking the door open. While everyone is still reacting I bite down on the bag and get a good grip with my functioning hand before tearing the bag in half and letting the contents spill to the ground.

The werewolves flinch back before starting a full on retreat from the bag of dried aconitum. A small purple flower that also goes by the name of monkshood.

You may have heard of it as wolf’s bane.

I was right that the werewolves are untransformed, and as the plant’s effects drive them into a panic they probably won’t think to. I hear the sound of automatic gunfire, recognising it as my own gun, and hit the ground. Whoever Deimos gave it to is obviously inexperienced. He’s holding down the trigger and has completely lost control of the gun, spraying rounds everywhere and doing far more damage to the crowd of werewolves than to me.

Whoever got my pistol starts firing back, probably thinking that it’s me, and suddenly wolves are going down in the crossfire. I spot a small pile of my equipment in the corner and dash towards it. There are a few useless spare clips that I don’t have the pockets for anyways, a single grenade that I clip to my belt, and my knife.

A very large part of my plan involved my having a gun by now.

“STOP!” Deimos’ voice manages to cut through the chaos. I even catch myself standing still for a second. There’s a gap in the crowd and through it I see Deimos. That face that so recently looked like some combination of a high school football coach and a presidential candidate looks like a monster’s face now. Nothing about it has changed, but the eyes that look out at me have lost any trace of humanity.

The gap closes and the werewolves start to transform. At a glance I’d say that my chaos killed about twenty of them. That’s about twenty-five to thirty too few. I raise my knife up and relax into a crouch. I’m guessing that the two with guns killed each-other because I’m not being shot right now.

The werewolves charge forwards as a single tide of fur and fangs and claws.

As the first one reaches me I duck its claws and swipe my blade across its throat. It opens a gash that bright red blood pours through. I think about Evan cowering in the back of the storage room and I fly into them. Their claws rake at me and teeth bite at me as I twist limbs and stab my silver edged knife into hearts. Werewolves are deadly in close combat, but if you can get inside their reach and have a weapon that can kill them then its all over.

Body after body falls around me. But I’m leaking blood like a sieve. I stab up into the bottom of a werewolf’s jaw, impaling its brain, and I’m pretty sure I’m at my breaking point. That’s when I realise that there are no more around me.

I look up and I see that they’ve all retreated to the other side of the room. The ferocity of my defence combined with the still strong effects of the wolf’s bane must have scared them off temporarily. Then I see Deimos appear from inside the crowd and level Oroitz’s gun at me.

I can’t get out of the way before he fires.

It feels like a train hits me in the ribs. I fall to the side and hit the ground hard, just trying to focus on my breathing. Every breath hurts as I see Deimos walk towards me and aim his gun at my head. He shrugs and says “I guess the sacrifice is off.”

Oroitz comes out of nowhere and punches Deimos in the face. It’s amateurish and Oroitz probably hurt his hand as much as Deimos’ face. I feel like laughing and crying at the same time. Instead I pull myself to my feet.

Silver bullets are kind of useless against anything except werewolves. Even my specialised loads are pretty useless if you want to do something like, let’s say, get through a bullet proof vest.

I look at Oroitz and Deimos fighting. Neither of them look like they have any sort of training but Deimos’ pack is holding back. I nod as I understand. Oroitz had just challenged their Alpha. That Oroitz wasn’t a werewolf didn’t matter. If Deimos can’t defend himself, how can he defend the pack?

Then Deimos started to transform. His increasing strength sent Oroitz sprawling and I started running towards them. It’s unbelievably painful in my current state but I hold my knife above my head and charge.

Deimos’ hand stretches out and grabs at me, clutching my neck and lifting me from the ground. Without thinking I toss the knife to the ground next to Oroitz. He snatches it up and starts hacking away at Deimos with inexpert blows.

It’s pure luck that he manages to stab the knife into Deimos’ heart.

Deimos lets me go and stumbles backwards, his maw hanging open. I grab the grenade from where I had hung it on my belt. With a yell I shove it into Deimos’ mouth and jump away from him, grabbing Oroitz’s collar to help guide him towards the ground.

There’s a deep boom and a rush of air. I instantly pat myself down to look for shrapnel. Using only one hand and with my body in the state it was, I really couldn’t tell if I’d been hit. I chance to look up.

Deimos’ body had hits the ground without a head.

I smile before I faint.

***

Flora woke up when I placed her in her car seat. The police that had arrived on the scene were… alarmingly sympathetic. One big red headed police officer stood next to the car and looked down at Flora with a mixture of concern and fear, but hadn’t talked about arresting her either. “Hello Sergeant Cullings.”

Sergeant Cullings snorted, “Hello yourself. What the hell happened in there Flora?”

“Feral alpha, had to be put down. Did you find Evan?”

“The child? He’s on his way home to his mother.” Sergeant Cullings nodded, “Well, good night.”

“Wait-wait-wait,” I looked to both Flora and the Sergeant, “that’s it?”

Cullings glanced at me and raised an eyebrow, “I could arrest you if you want.”

“No! I mean…”

“Feral alpha, better for us all to have him put down.” As if this explained a damn thing he walked off.

I sat in the driver’s seat next to Flora and looked at her. “Cullings is a werewolf.” she said before I had a chance to ask her a question. “About a third of the police force is.”

“What?”

“They’re used to hierarchal systems, have heightened senses, and can’t be killed by anything less than a silver bullet. They do well.”

I turned the key and started the car forwards. “Take me back to my apartment.” Flora said. “There’s an Alchemist there who will fix me up in exchange for next month’s rent.”

We drove in silence for a moment before I said, “Next time I have to stop a dimensional rift I’m taking you along. Then you can feel useless.”

“I killed Deimos.”

“I noticed.”

“He knew who you were.” The silence stretched on for another moment. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. It’s weird, but I don’t want to know anymore. I’ve just got this feeling that whoever the old Oroitz was… he might be better forgotten.”

“I don’t believe that, and you don’t know that.” I looked at her for a second. She was looking out the window at the city. “Maybe that Oroitz made some mistakes and kept some bad company, but I don’t believe that you were ever a bad man.”

I decided not to answer that. I just drove towards Flora’s home and tried to focus on the future.

Alan and Miranda (the Noble, Thursday)

To: 34kn397d98509@490fkpc48.com

 

From: parapsychotic56@gmail.com

 

Subject: Operation Cloud Breaker

 

Dear Chairman

 

I have reinforced all of your counter intrusion measures for the Argentina site. In addition I have installed seventeen layers of redundant wards. Further intrusion seems unlikely unless through mundane channels. Do not hesitate to contact me if there is a problem.

 

In regards to your other request, I have to again say no. She (NOT “the subject”, SHE) has never shown any sign of doing anything but wanting to help my “group” as you call it. Indeed, she has undertaken much of the kind of work that the Agency usually handles. I know personally that she has saved lives through her work and ANY possible data gained through study would NOT be enough to justify removing such a potential asset from the field.

 

Yours.

 

 

I sent the email and took a sip from my energy drink. These government jobs paid a good portion of my bills but every now and then they needed to be reminded that the whole world wasn’t actually out to get them.

I stood up from my chair and stretched. I was still in my bathrobe and the boxer shorts that I’d worn to bed last night. I scratched my three days’ beard growth and contemplated where in the city might serve breakfast at four pm, while chugging the rest of my energy drink. It’s called multi-tasking.

I was considering warming up some of last week’s frozen pizza when someone knocked at the door. I looked at the door with both suspicion and anger. The knock only came again.

Muttering about what I would do if this was someone sending me another damn video game cartridge that they were certain was haunted, I leaned up to the peep hole and took a look.

Miranda was outside my door.

I stumbled back from the door and ran my hand over a part of my hair that I knew was sticking up. Miranda was outside, this needed a plan. Pants, and a shirt, whatever plan I concocted would have to involve these two elements. I ran into my bedroom and dug through my clean-ish laundry pile.

“Alan?” Miranda said through the door, “Alan, are you home?”

“Be out in a minute!” I thought about tidying the room up quickly. Then I realised that I was not in fact a miracle worker and just resolved to keep her outside. I rushed to the door and opened it, shutting it behind me.

My apartment is ground level and looks onto a courtyard. Miranda stood there, her light blond hair shining in the afternoon sun, her denim jacket defying every expectation that goes with a denim jacket by hugging her frame. I didn’t notice anything else about her because at that point the sun really hit my pupils and I had to squint. “Hey Miranda!”

“Hey…” she looked at me for a moment, “are you going to let me in?”

“Oh… I was just going out.”

Her perfect crystal blue eyes looked down. “Without shoes?”

“Did I say I was going out? Because I meant that I was going back in. So… you could come in. Because I’m going back in.”

“Did you just wake up?”

I opened the door and fumbled for a light switch. “Me? No, I’ve been up since… six… in the morning.” Real smooth asshole. Why not tell her you were up late trying to actually enchant items in Skyrim, that would impress her.

If she was appalled by the state of my apartment she didn’t let it on. Instead she wandered over to my collection. “These are your souvenirs?”

“Uh, yeah.” I looked at my over-full junk shelf and realised that I’d meant to make a trip to IKEA the other day. Instead I spent the day cleaning out a possessed Counter-Strike server. You have not experienced surreal until a demon swears at you in leet speak.

She pointed to a jar, “Thats the demon hand that you showed us last week. That’s one of those hoods worn by that Babbage cult you and Oroitz broke up last year… what’s this?” she pointed towards a magazine. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my head.

“Don’t touch that!” I reached over and took the magazine from the shelf but she could still see the cover.

“Oh!” she looked like she was on the verge of laughter.

“It’s not like that! There was this eldritch video making its way around and I couldn’t destroy it so I had to put it somewhere it would be comfortable.”

Miranda didn’t stop smiling, “And you just happened to have that magazine lying around?”

I looked down at the cover and said the first thing that popped into my head, “I only read it for the articles.”

Her laughter was like a wind chime on a spring morning. I put down the magazine. She pointed to a framed bit of paper on the top shelf. “What’s that one?”

“That’s actually what started all of this.” It was a printout that read:

 

If any of this is actually happening to you, I can help.

 

Contact me at parapsychotic56@gmail.com

 

This is not a joke. I can help you.

 

“After I realised just how much of the supernatural was ending up online I started posting that in all sorts of places.”

“How did that turn out?”

“About how I expected. A few people who really needed my help and about a thousand trolls. Not actual ones just assholes on the internet.” I looked at the printout for a moment and said: “You want something to eat? There’s some frozen pizza…”

“No thanks. That actually kind of brings me to why I’m here.” She walked over to my computer and bent over to open up a web browser. I looked back at my shelf. “Have you ever heard of the Deciduous Court?” she asked.

“Sounds like a street in the suburbs. Wait,” I leant down next to her and looked at the website she had brought up, it was the exact one I was thinking of. It’s a small forum where, for the most part, people post horror stories. But its also one of the boards that I and one of my contemporaries frequent so every now and again something real turns up. I put Deciduous Court in to the search bar and it brought up a single post. I scanned through it, some lady was telling the story about how several of her friends and her husband had received emails inviting them to something called the Deciduous Court at a specific date and time. They’d laughed it off but when the date came they’d all vanished. “Right… I remember this one. I think its on my list of things to check out later.”

Miranda looked at me, “You heard about this and you put it aside for later?”

“Dou you know how many stories like this I come across per day? Even then only a fraction of them turn out to be true. So yes, I get to them when I get to them.”

“Sorry.” Miranda looked back at the screen. “The Deciduous Court is an old organisation. They’re also some of the biggest treaty violators out there.”

“That’s that treaty you talk about between humans and fairies, right?”

“And my people, and the elves, and the little folk. Think of the Deciduous Court as something like a fairy mafia.”

I rubbed my eyes, “I could have gotten a lot further in my life without hearing the words ‘fairy mafia’. So what, they’ve kidnapped these people and they’re holding them for ransom?”

“No, that would be protected under the treaty. They’re eating these people.”

“Jesus… where did you hear about them?”

“We’ve had a few run ins. They used to send enchanted letters but I haven’t heard from them for a few months. I guess this is what they’re up to now.”

I frowned. “If I could get my hands on one of those emails I could track whatever spells they’ve been using back to the caster.”

“I was hoping that you could.” She pulled a small USB drive out of her jeans. “The woman that posted that story got in contact with me.” She said as she slipped the drive into my hand.

I realised that we’d both been leaning over my computer during all of this so I dug the spare rolling chair out of my storage room for Miranda. It was dusty but she didn’t seem to mind. I plugged in the USB drive and flicked through its contents. The only thing on it was a word document that turned out to contain the husband’s email address and password. “Did you tell the woman that you couldn’t get her husband back?”

Miranda was quiet for a long time. “She knows. She just wants us to stop this from happening to anyone else.”

I stopped as the email came up. “What do you mean ‘we’?”

“You and me.”

“Nononononono. Hell no.”

Miranda glared at me.

“Look, this is clearly one of your cases. It’s all fairy politics and treaty violations and kidnapped people going into the fairy realm. I’m about weird internet shit.”

She leaned towards me. If those eyes of her hadn’t been so intense my gaze might have strayed.

“Look, I’d be a liability to you in the field. I can’t fight, I work the computer. That’s it.”

She kept glaring at me, but I turned away from her and scrolled through the guy’s email account. “Here’s the email. I’m going to trace it back to the caster, but there is literally nothing you can say to get me to come with you.”

***

“God damn it.” I said as I sat down in the passenger seat of Miranda’s car. She drove a bright blue vintage Mustang.

My car had gone into and then ceased production the week before the Soviet Union fell. Its continued ability to function despite being made of decommissioned tanks and kitchenware is a miracle yet to be explained by either science or magic.

“Look, that email means that they have someone spinning the same magic you do.” said Miranda.

“I know.” I squinted up at the sun. I think vampires have the right idea. That crap’s just too bright to function in.

“If they throw that magic at me, I’ll need you to counter it.”

“I know.”

“Do you have that tracking spell ready?”

“Yeah…” I pulled out the cell phone whose warranty I had voided within a week of owning it. I opened up the map function and wrote down a series of numbers and letters that I’d copied off of my computer screen and onto a post-it note just a few minutes ago. The map screen glitched for a second and then a route appeared. “Okay… you’ll want to take the highway.”

I took my turn to glare at Miranda as she turned the key and started driving. “Did you give my email out somewhere?”

“Hmm? Do I want to take the highway going north or south?”

“North. Did you give out my email address? I’ve been getting a lot of weird emails lately.”

“Why would you think it was me? You just finished telling me that you put your address all over the internet.”

I looked back at my phone, “I was just asking.”

We followed the highway until I told her to turn off and we ended up winding through the city. My phone periodically beeped and pointed out nearby wifi networks, marking the ones that it found suspicious based on parameters that I’d programmed into it.

“Left up here.” I said

Miranda did so and suddenly screeched to a halt. In front of us was an empty road that ended in the bay. I glanced down at my phone and said, “Yep. Whoever it is, they’re in the middle of the bay. Well… guess this is where I get off.”

“We’ll have to get my boat.”

I looked at her. “Your what?”

***

“Why?” I looked at her boat. I don’t know much about boats, but this one looked nice. I could picture people, not me, going out for a day and having fun fishing on this boat. “Why on Earth would you have a boat?”

“I like the ocean.”

“You can breath underwater!”

“I like to go out on the ocean with other people.”

I shrugged and jumped into the boat. It rocked a bit and I had to grip the side to keep from falling. I gave Miranda a look as she climbed in after me and walked up to the… wheel. I guess? The boat steering wheel? Whatever it’s called.

The motor chugged to life and thick diesel fumes started to fill the air. I sat down and dug out my phone again, firing up my tracking spell. “Could you untie those lines?” Miranda asked.

I looked at the complicated knots securing us to the dock, “Probably not.” Miranda muttered under her breath as she went over to the ropes and soon we were a drift in the sea.

I could have been hunting down a rogue eldritch horror that was seeking to devour the souls of college students through their IP addresses. It would have been preferable to being on that damn boat. It was constantly rocking and I’m not sure why Miranda liked the ocean so much. It was cold and it smelled like oil and dead fish.

I looked ahead, we should have been close to where the spell caster was. There was something there but… I couldn’t describe it. Literally, whenever I thought about what I was seeing my mind would just focus on something else. The sun reflected in the water, how much I was looking forwards to Doctor Who premiering on Saturday, the way the small of Miranda’s back met her…

I slapped myself. I’d encountered this kind of thing before. Whatever was in front of us was messing with my mind. I tapped Miranda on the shoulder and yelled over the sound of the engine, “What’s in front of us!?”

The question seemed to focus Miranda and she cut the engine, letting us drift. She squinted for a moment then went over to the side of the boat, making some broad gestures with her hands. A wall of water jumped up and stood still, making a window in front of us.

I actually laughed when I saw what was on the other side. It was a big wooden ship. It could have been plucked out of a pirate movie. “Why?” I said with my hands held wide. “What is that even doing there?”

Miranda was rubbing her chin, she didn’t look like she found this as funny as I did. “That’s one of the Marquis of Avalon’s ships.”

“But why is it made of wood?”

“That’s living wood from Avalon. Fairies can’t touch iron and this is twice as tough.”

I looked at the ship again. “So, what’s the plan here? Board ‘er and sink ‘er?” I said in my best pirate voice.

“Close, I’m going up there. You just need to stay here and notice if they’re using any of that computer magic on me.”

My phone beeped. “Speak of the devil.” I looked down and saw that we’d come into range of somebody’s wifi network. “Right, this stuff usually doesn’t have much effect on things that aren’t transferred through the internet. But I can probably gum things up if they throw any mind control whammy at you.”

“Right,” she said as she started to boat’s engine again. I don’t know whether fairies are just too proud to post sentries or if they figured that the spell they had protecting them from casual observation was enough. Either way I was thankful that nobody had seen us come up. Miranda flipped up a hatch that was in the center of the deck and grabbed a rope that she tied into a lasso. “If I’m not back in ten minutes take the boat back to shore and get Flora and Oroitz.” She threw the rope up and it wrapped around one of the railing things that go around the deck. You know what I’m talking about? People lean against them in movies and have significant conversations. She started climbing up the rope and I  sat down on the boat and pulled out my phone.

After Miranda disappeared over the side of the railings things got quiet. I sat there and tried not to worry about Miranda.

My phone beeped that I was getting a text message. I looked down at it and saw:

 

Your friend didn’t make it very far.

 

There was only an anonymous phone number to show where it had come from. I swallowed, my mouth suddenly going dry, and typed back:

 

Who is this?

 

If you hurry you might be able to save her.

 

I looked up at the rope, and back at the wheel. After glancing between the two for a second I walked up to the rope and said: “Fuck me.”

The rope dug into my skin as I climbed. I tried not to think about it as I braced myself against the side of the boat but the muscles in my arms started to burn after a few feet. I gritted my teeth and pushed through.

Somehow, finally, I made it up to the top of the boat and fell onto the deck while taking deep breaths with lungs that felt like they were filled with crushed glass. My phone beeped and I dug into my pocket and pulled it out.

 

Also, if you look on the back of your phone it says gullible.

 

There was a sound of splintering wood off to my left. I rolled over and looked at the humanoid form rising through the deck. It looked like a six foot tall unpainted ventriloquist’s dummy. I realised that I should have asked Miranda exactly what she meant by “living wood.”

I scrambled to my feet, a fresh surge of adrenaline giving me enough energy to move. The thing behind me was faster, it hit me hard across my back and I fell to the deck. I held on tight to my phone and gripped it in both hands. I looked at my phone and clicked on a tab that had a picture of a cartoon bomb on it and the phone started to heat up.

The wooden man lurched towards me like it was being guided by a puppeteer with palsy. I tossed the phone at it and ducked my head. A wash of heat ran over me and for a second everything was still. With a cough I stood back up and looked at where the wooden man had been standing. There were two blackened stumps standing in the middle of a scorched circle, but that was all.

“That was amazing!” I turned around to see who had spoken. She didn’t look like a fairy noble. She was wearing jeans and a halter top for crying out loud. But at the same time I could tell that she wasn’t human. Fairies have this sort of too perfect quality to their looks, also she was slightly green. When she pulled out her own cell phone I could guess who she was.

“You’re the one that was texting me.”

“That’s right. I sent the emails too! I’ve just been waiting to meet you for so long…”

If I could tell my thirteen year old self that one day a woman would give him a look like the one I was getting now and the only thing he would feel in return was complete terror he would laugh at me. “T-that’s nice. I was with here with someone else…”

The fairy made a dismissive motion, “Oh her… she was boring. I threw her down into the hold with the rest of the wooden men.”

Another cracking noise came from behind me, followed by several more. I turned around, slowly. There were five more of the wooden men behind me. I swallowed and turned back to the fairy. She was right in front of me, smiling as she reached out and stroked my chin. I flinched back and landed in the arms of the wooden men. Within a second they had their arms wrapped around my neck and had forced me to the ground.

The fairy walked forwards, rolling her hips as she did. She leaned down and whispered, “I’m going to keep you for a long time.” Then she leaned forwards and kissed me. I fell asleep almost as soon as her lips touched mine.

***

I woke up very suddenly in the bottom of the ship. Manacles made of wood bit into my wrists as I hung from the ceiling. The strangest thing was that across from me, in this ship that looked like it would be more at home with an abacus, was a computer. Well, it wasn’t exactly shocking. I figured that the fairy upstairs was the spell caster.

I sighed and spun a bit, and was shocked when Miranda swung into view. The wooden men had split her lip and blackened both her eyes. She had also transformed, apparently while wearing her clothes as she still wore a shirt and the waist of her jeans was still on the top of her tail, forming a sort of ragged edged skirt. I guess she’d exploded out of it somehow.

She looked at me with an almost exasperated expression. “So what I said about you going back to shore and getting Oroitz and Flora…”

“Yeah, I don’t think I’m going to be able to manage it.” I tested my manacles but they seemed to be pretty solid, probably made out of that same living wood. Maybe I could get a desk made of this stuff… “What happened?”

“We weren’t as unnoticed as we thought. As soon as I stepped on the deck the boards opened underneath me and I fell to the bottom of the boat. I was surrounded by those wooden things that dropped you in but the water’s about a foot deep down there so I was actually doing pretty well as long as I could keep moving.” She flicked her tail a bit, “Then the bitch threw some form of my own transformation spell at me. Did it get by you?”

“Uh… that was probably after she lured me on board and knocked me out…”

Miranda gave me another look, “After the wooden men worked me over for a bit they dumped me in here with you. I haven’t been able to change back because this room is so dry.”

I hanged there for a moment. “Makes sense. You’d want to keep your computer in the driest place possible. And your captured mermaids, I guess.”

Miranda was quiet.

“What’s she going to do to us?” I asked.

“Me, she’s probably going to eat. Mermaid’s tail is a particular delicacy among the fair folk, and because I am technically fair folk it isn’t even a treaty violation. The only reason I’m still alive is that they prefer it fresh. As for you… the fact that you’re alive means she probably has something special planned for you.”

“Yeah I… think she’s kind of… ‘in to’ me.”

Miranda gave me a look. “You’d better hope not.”

“What? Why?”

“Trust me. If that’s the case you’ll wish all she wanted to do was cut you in half and eat your tail.”

I looked over at the computer. If I could just get to it I could end this. As it was I was useless. “Listen Miranda…”

“Yes?”

“There’s something that I-”

“Dear God Alan, don’t. Just not right now ok?”

“It’s kind of important…”

Miranda glared at me, “Look Alan, I know. You like me, I’ve noticed, you aren’t exactly subtle. Just please, now is not the God damned time.”

We listened to the creaking of the ship for a moment and I said, “I was going to say that I could try to conjure some fire.”

Miranda looked down and blushed.

“I can’t normally do it without a computer but with this room so dry and made of wood it probably wouldn’t take much.”

“Sorry.”

“I mean if you want to talk about that stuff later I guess we could. You seem to have some strong feelings about it.”

“Look, I said I was sorry. I thought you were…”

I closed my eyes, “What I am is concentrating.” I’d memorized the spell for fire after last week’s ice demon incident and now I was concentrating on it, starting to chant it under my breath. I hadn’t tried to do this in years. Fire, I thought, I need fire.

Footsteps started down the hall. I tried to concentrate harder. The door creaked open and I heard the footsteps enter the room.

I chanted the spell faster and faster.

“Well,” said the fairy, “don’t you two make a lovely couple.”

Miranda made an exasperated noise. “Don’t even start…”

The fairy laughed, a deep throaty thing. “Sounds like I hit a nerve. Well, either way it doesn’t matter. You see, I just realised that I can’t eat any of the bodies I’ve collected in my time here, that would be cutting into profits, but nobody knows I have you.”

In a panic I realised that I’d been chanting the computer code, not the spell. I froze and stopped chanting the spell altogether. I opened my eyes and saw the fairy advancing on Miranda with her mouth open. The fairy’s teeth were too sharp and too long.

I chanted the spell again under my breath then swore as I realised it was the computer code again.

Across the room the computer’s hard drive made a familiar whining noise.

There was a metallic bang as the computer exploded, blowing a hole in the boat. We were above the water line but Miranda seized the opportunity before the debris had settled. Water rushed in the hole and shards of ice flew out of it, sticking into the fairy. The fairy screamed and fell to the deck as two larger shards of ice flew from the water and smashed against the wooden chains that held us to the ceiling. I don’t know how strong the living wood really was but Miranda’s ice chipped it in two.

My legs gave out as I hit the ground and I fell flat on my back. Of course, having legs I had an advantage over Miranda. I rolled to my feet and bent down to pick her up. Thing about mermaids’ tails, there’s quite a bit of muscle in there and muscle is a lot heavier than fat. I kind of had to drag her by the armpits.

As I started dragging her towards the hole something grabbed my leg and I fell, dropping Miranda. I looked back and saw the fairy, three icicles sticking out of her chest, grabbing onto my leg with her teeth bared. “Mine!” she screamed.

The amount of water Miranda had drawn into the room wasn’t enough to drown out the flames from my exploding the computer and I felt the heat from them creep closer as I kicked at the fairy’s face. But she held on and sunk her nails into my leg.

The remaining water in the room rushed by me and formed a circle around Miranda. There was a flash of light as it flowed in and covered her tail. Miranda stood up, having changed her tail into legs. She celebrated her newly minted legs by kicking the fairy in the jaw. She let go of my leg and slumped to the deck.

I got up and scrambled towards the hole in the side of the ship, but Miranda’s hand grabbed my shoulder. “Back to my boat!”

I gestured madly at the hole in the wall, “It’s right there!”

She didn’t say another word, just dragged me away from the hole and into the ship. We ran through the bottom part of the ship and up a series of ladders. Smoke was starting to fill the ship and we had to cover our mouths until we got outside.

There had to be a dozen of the wooden men waiting for us up there. “I just want to point out that the hole was right there.”

The wooden men stood still but it was like looking at a gun sitting on a tabletop. Just because it wasn’t moving didn’t mean it wasn’t dangerous. “I’m sorry,” said Miranda, “I should have let you swim for it.”

The wooden men twitched and I could hear footsteps on the deck behind us. I  looked back and saw the fairy. Her skin was scorched and blistered and most of her greenish hair was gone. “Bad,” her voice sounded like gravel being crushed, “you need to be punished.”

Miranda made a sweeping upwards gesture with her hands and a wave came out of nowhere and smacked into the side of the ship. I would have fallen if Miranda hadn’t held out her hand. There was a sort of lurch and some part of my mind realised that the ship was sinking. That wave must have hit the part of the ship where I’d blown a hole in it.

The wooden men rushed forwards and I backed into the railing. This proved to be a bad move as one of the wooden men pushed me.

There was a moment of weightlessness as I flew through the air. Then hitting the water felt like hitting concrete.

I thrashed around as I sunk. You never realised how heavy your clothes are until they’re dragging you down into the water. Now I know why Miranda always strips before swimming.

Not that I’ve been overly concerned with looking for a reason before.

My lungs started to burn but I couldn’t figure out which way was up. I let my I swung my hands around and kicked out, trying to find some purchase in the water. But It felt like I was still going down. Things were getting blacker and the water was crushing in on me.

There was a flash of light above me.

A strong hand grabbed me by my shirt’s collar. Suddenly I was going upwards and there was a tail next to me, bright blue and kicking against the water. In a few seconds I was bobbing in the water next to Miranda’s boat, grabbing at the side to try and climb aboard. Miranda gave me a push from behind and I fell onto her boat, coughing up seawater.

I looked back at the fairy’s boat and saw that only a bit of it was above the waves. The wooden men were standing on the deck, apparently unconcerned that they were about to sink to the bottom of the bay. I didn’t see the fairy anywhere.

I turned back to ask Miranda what had happened. There was another mermaid in the water in front of her. In fact, one by one more and more merfolk popped out of the water behind the first. None of them looked very happy to see Miranda. For her part Miranda kept her head down and didn’t look at them. A column of water rose up around Miranda and lifted her from the water, dumping her into the boat. I couldn’t tell whether it was her doing or the merfolks’. After she was in the boat they sunk back into the water, one by one.

I looked at Miranda and she was crying. “Get me out of here. Please.” she said.

I wondered what had just happened but kept my mouth shut. Instead I went to the front of the boat where she had left her keys and started the engine to take us home.

***

She didn’t talk about what had happened until we reached the car. “That fairy went back to her realm. She failed the Deciduous Court, so we won’t have to worry about her.”

I nodded, letting her talk.

“I don’t…” She stopped before she could turn the key in her car and said: “I’m not allowed in the ocean.”

“Why?”

She shook her head and started driving. “It’s personal. But I can’t go back. The only reason they didn’t kill me is because they knew I was saving you.”

We drove back to my apartment in silence.

“Listen…” I said once we got back to my place. “I don’t… I wouldn’t…” I looked over at her.

The swelling around her eye and lip seemed to have gone down. The last time I’d been punched in the face I’d spent a week as a bloody, puffy mass. Her eyes were still that crystal blue and her hair, wet and plastered to the back of her neck, was still a bright gold. “I’ll see you on Saturday.” I said.

I left her car and walked into my house like a sleepwalker.

After a few hours with a saw I had the remains of the wooden cuffs off and had put them on my shelf.

I sat back in my rolling chair, looked at the cuffs for a moment, then spun around and turned on my computer.

***

Flora’s Apartment (Saturday)

Flora considered her situation. At this point, any misstep would cost her. But at the same time she had secured a tactical advantage and all she had to do was take that advantage…

“I want…” she said slowly, “to put a hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue.” There was a series of groans from around the table as she gave Oroitz the money and put the bright red piece down on the board.

“That’s it.” said Alan. “That’s the game. We are all defeated and shall suffer under the reign of Empress Flora, brutal tyrant that she is.”

Flora smiled and passed him the dice. “How was your week?”

Alan looked at her with raised eyebrows, “Oh not so bad, right Miranda?”

Miranda nodded and sipped her wine.

“Had to deal with a rogue fairy noble but it turned out all right.” Alan continued.

Miranda stood up, “I’m going to make some more popcorn. Does anyone want some?”

“I do.” said Oroitz.

Flora nodded and Miranda got up as Alan rolled the dice and moved his thimble down the board. “How was your week, Flora?”

She glanced at Oroitz and said: “Werewolves.”

Alan frowned as he landed on a “Go to Jail” space. “That’s rough. They beat you up a bit?” He pointed at the few bandages that Flora still wore.

“They bit me a few times. An alchemist that lives in the building took care of it.”

“That’s good. It would be weird if you were a half vampire half werewolf. Or quarter vampire… quarter human… half… how would that even work?”

Oroitz took the dice from Alan. “We do not have to find out.” he said while taking his turn.

“Flora?” Miranda called from the other room, “Where’s your salt?”

“Coming.” Flora got out of her chair and went to her kitchen. Like most of her house it was incredibly clean and had weapons hidden throughout. Miranda was looking in one of the cupboards. Flora walked over to the stove and snatched the salt from off of it.

“Oh.” said Miranda, “Thank you.” She took the salt and started pouring it over the popcorn.

“What happened with you and Alan?”

“Nothing.” Miranda set the salt down a bit too hard. “What did he tell you?”

“I haven’t spoken to him since last Saturday. But you haven’t spoken to him all night. I don’t like it when we fight. You three are the only people I really know…” She looked at the floor, rubbing an invisible speck of dust off of it with her foot.

“Look, Flora…” Miranda bit her lip and said, “It’s just some personal stuff. It’ll get sorted out.”

“I guess.” She pointed at the other room. “The others are waiting for their popcorn.”

When they got back to the room they could see that the game had been abandoned as Oroitz had his hands up in his “story teller” pose.

“I was bound to a chair, no memory of where I was or how I had got there. Suddenly, I smelt something burning…”

Flora sat opposite him and munched on the popcorn. She glanced over at Alan and Miranda, seeing their eyes meet for a fraction of a second before they both decided to focus on Oroitz. Flora shook her head. She’d never understand people. Monsters were more her speed.

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