Phone. That had to be my phone waking me up. My hand swept across the nightstand until it found the vibrating hunk of silicone. “Hello?”
“Michelle, it’s Gordon from the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office. We need you to deal with some illegally bred magical creatures.” The sound of barking and shouting followed his voice.
“What are they?”
“We don’t know. I can tell you what they look like. Henry was one of the responding, and he’s never heard of these things. I think they’re new.”
“Ugh.” I rolled out of bed to start getting dressed. Henry was an old vampire. I’m not sure how old, but old enough for me to take his word on something like this. “Gordon, tell me what these things look like.”
“I’d say someone found the stupidest Chihuahua in the city and did something to give it wings and magic.”
“Great. How do I get there?” I wrote down the address and a few directions. “That’s the mayor’s place, isn’t it?”
“Yup, and he’s not happy.” Gordon hung up without saying good-bye, police etiquette at its finest.
I dropped the phone on the bed, glancing at the clock as I stumbled to the bathroom. Illegal magical creatures harassing the mayor at three in the morning wasn’t a great start to my day.
Twenty minutes after being rudely awakened, I was rolling down the road with black tea in my mug and a bagel in my hand. I turned the radio on a pop station and sang along for most of the forty-minute drive. The combination of music and caffeine would keep me awake.
The road was suddenly lined with cops, ambulances, and fire trucks. I kept rolling until I was in the driveway. They had left a spot for me, knowing I needed my car because I had extra supplies in the trunk. I pulled the duffel out of the passenger seat and slid out of the car. Yips, barks, and growls assaulted my ears.
It wasn’t hard to spot Gordon on the manicured lawn in front of the sprawling brick house with a man who had to be the mayor—bathrobes weren’t work attire. What Gordon lacked in height he gained in width; his shoulders deserved their own zip code. He was an ideal cop, a big, strong but not overly intimidating protector. The other man was chubby, with gray hair mussed from sleep and swaddled in a large terry bathrobe.
I started over to them only to hear barking right behind me. I ducked, running forward a few steps before looking up. He hadn’t been kidding. These things really did look like big Chihuahuas with wings emerging off their withers, and this one wasn’t neutered. As I watched, the critter charged an officer who whipped up a riot shield to block it from hitting him. The air sparkled around the Chihuahua as he passed right through the shield, raking nails on the dodging officer’s neck. No wonder they needed me.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” I politely interrupted when they didn’t see me approach, “but I’m here to help with the pest problem.”
Before Gordon had a chance to speak, the mayor demanded, “Are you the witch woman? What took you so long? These things have been here for three hours!”
“Sir, Miss Oaks was only called in sixty-eight minutes ago, and she had a forty-minute drive from her house. We weren’t called until these creatures”—he waved his hand at the circling, barking Chihuahuas—“had already failed to be rounded up by your security.”
I waited a fraction of a second before speaking, not wanting to give the rude man another chance to cause a problem. “I’m here now. I need to speak to Gordon, and then I’m going to get these things out of your way.” I stepped between the men and gently herded Gordon away, leaving the mayor looking speechless. Too bad. I couldn’t do my job with him scolding me.
Gordon rubbed his temples, looking tired and aggravated. Then again, Gordon usually looked tired and aggravated. I’d asked him once why he did the job if he hated it so much, and he had smiled, replying that the job wasn’t the problem; people were the problem.
“You’re lucky he won’t remember you, because he holds a grudge,” Gordon said.
I shrugged. In the future, I would be more careful, but he had noisier problems tonight.
“Jerry is in the ambulance over there.” He pointed to the one closest to the house. “He’s fine. You can go talk to him, but when he tried a few spells and got one into a spelled cage, it blasted its way out and he was burned.”
This was good news, though not for Jerry. The critters hadn’t removed the magic from the cage, just destroyed the object the magic was attached to and the spell as a result. I could spell the metal to prevent them from breaking the cages. If they’d undone the spells on the cages, it would have been more difficult to contain them. “How many of these pests are there?”
“Send someone over with two medium cages.”
Gordon walked away to start clearing out the excess personnel and find help for me. I set down my bag before walking to the ambulance. Jerry was a sight, covered in bandages and a bit scorched. Not that Jerry was the neatest person, but normally his rumpled uniform didn’t have charred portions and holes. His thin frame and pale complexion weren’t helped by his injuries.
“Jerry, you look terrible.”
He gave half a grin. “Thanks, hon. I feel about the same.”
“Why are you still here?”
He winced as he shifted on the gurney. “’Cause I’m the only one who can tell you how those creations of Narzel are casting spells. They aren’t doing actual spells; it’s more like they’re bending things to their will. It looks like an aura of magic that helps them do what they want.”
I smothered a smile. Narzel was a trickster from human legends, known for playing tricks and making jokes that frustrated and angered most people. “Thanks, Jerry.” A lot of things had similar effects. Plants grew better when elves were in residence, and stuff didn’t clutter as much if a brownie was around. “Now, you let these paramedics take you to the hospital, okay? I’ll take care of those vermin.” I ruffled his hair, watching him relax as the paramedics closed the ambulance.
It was fortunate the road had a big grassy shoulder. Both sides of the pavement were lined with various emergency vehicles, except the part of the driveway occupied by my car. Even with the off-road space, there was only a lane and a half for traffic to pass through, but I doubted many cars would be traveling at this time of night. The entire scene suited the big colonial brick house; it looked to be holding court over a colorful herd of cars.
There were two main ways witches cast spells: I could directly manipulate the energy to set spells, or use runes. Runes were an ancient and powerful language witches used to shape magic while adding power. Directly building spells took more energy and focus, but was often faster and allowed witches to create spells without knowing how to form the construct using runes.
Back on the lawn, I pulled a fake steak and my oak wand out of the duffel. Runes would get in the way today because the spells were simple and limited in focus. I had just laid the first spell on the meat, one that wouldn’t let the critters leave a five foot area around the steak once they entered it, when Henry glided over carrying the two cages.
“I was the least likely to be injured by these things.” He flashed fangs as he smiled. “I also have the fastest reflexes of anyone here.”
“Are you sure you didn’t volunteer? You like this stuff; it’s why you became a cop.”
“I’ll never tell.”
I chuckled and started spelling the cages so creatures couldn’t get out. Then I put the last three spells on the plastic. One spell made the fake meat smell like hot cooking steak, a second spell stuck it to the ground, and the third one made it immune to harm.
Finishing the spells, I looked around, not seeing any of the little beasties. Even magically enhanced, it would take the smell a few minutes to filter around to the back of the house where I thought the barking was originating. Before long I heard a change in barking, and the entire pack charged around the side of the house. All eight of them were racing, little bodies straining with teeth snapping at each other and wings flapping furiously. Twice during their headlong race for the meat I saw the air sparkle right before one of them dropped back after being hit by magic.
“Brace yourself,” Henry warned me.
I nodded and settled in for the fight. The little things zoomed into the containment spell and went right for the meat. Henry and I rushed to action. We didn’t have long before they realized we were trapping them. All eight of them were in a wriggling group, snapping at each other and trying to drag the meat away.
I created a shield bubble around one of them and pushed it into the cage. Henry snagged one out of the air after it had been foolish enough to separate from the pack and thrust it into the other cage. Henry had just grabbed his second one when they realized what was going on and scattered. Five angry bodies rushed the containment spell. Four of them hurled themselves at it, but the last one turned to attack Henry’s back.
“No you don’t.” I slapped a shield bubble around it, rolling it into my cage. Two of mine down, two to go. I could feel the four loose critters pushing at the spell, but they weren’t even close to breaking through. I also held the shield bubbles on the two I’d put in the cage to keep them from escaping. Henry was fast enough that his wouldn’t escape, but I wasn’t going to bet on my reflexes.
Two of the beasties moved close enough together that I could grab both of them with a shield bubble and push them into the cage before dissolving all the shield bubbles and locking the cage.
“All done over here. Do you want me to take these to the car?” Henry asked.
“Sure,” I said, standing up. “These guys are ready to go.”
“I’ll have them out of here in a jiffy.” Henry scooped up one in each hand and glided off.
I unwound all the spells on the plastic meat, shoved it and my wand into my bag, and zipped it up. It struck me as odd that these things had found the mayor’s house. There weren’t a lot of houses around and certainly not homes of people who would create something like this. In fact, the nearest houses looked to be a quarter of a mile away in every direction. I sent out a pulse of energy, like a ripple in a pond, sensing nothing. Casual observation wouldn’t reveal the cause.
I tried to shake off the feeling that I might be missing something and scooped my duffel off the dew-laden grass.
I looked up to see Gordon walking over in the dark. My eyes traveled the road, now nearly empty. One ambulance, the hazardous creatures truck, two patrol cars, and my car were the only vehicles left. The woods had resumed their dark and stately appearance, shadowing the world around them.
“What was the deal with those critters?” Gordon was human and had not a drop of magical talent. He was the sergeant in charge of magical responses because he was great at problem solving and getting different races to work together.
Some things were hard to explain to humans. Just because they lived in a world where everyone else was magical didn’t mean they really understood magic. “Think of it as an aura that extended a few inches around their body that allowed them to bend things to their will. They weren’t casting spells as Jerry or I would, but they were bending things to their will.”
“What do I tell animal control?” He looked frustrated.
“You’ve got what, a few fey and some elves working there?”
“Tell them they have magic and a bad temperament.” I looked him straight in the eyes.
“You’re serious?” His eyebrows climbed an inch.
“The fey can handle anything those stupid creatures dish out. We’ve sent more dangerous things to them, and they’ve been fine. I wouldn’t worry about it, but you might want better cages.”
He dropped his gaze. “You’re right. I just hate dealing with new species.” He stumbled over the last word, like he hated to apply that term to those vermin. I couldn’t blame him a bit. “I’ll see what I can find in the budget for cages. Paying the bill for an injured officer might persuade the bean counters.”
“Perhaps. I’m done here, so I’m heading out.” I did some quick math in my head. Cobb had hired me for fifty hours at the beginning of the year. “Middle-of-the-night emergency calls count for double time, so you have about six more hours of my time paid for.” I grabbed my damp duffel and headed to my car. I had other appointments to make.
“You bet. I never joke about my business.” I slid into the car and headed off.
I had an appointment in Forsyth later in the morning, but I couldn’t justify driving home for ten minutes before leaving again. I called the hedge-wizard in Forsyth and left a message, telling him I’d be early.
One of the problems with consulting in a variety of places was the travel time. I didn’t want to live in Atlanta, but the departments that needed me most and were most willing to pay were the ones near, but not in, the city. I compromised by living in Canton, forty minutes from the city, but driving a lot. I loved where I lived. It had a nice garden that flowed into an old forest to perform rituals in, and I never awakened to smog or traffic.
A billboard caught my eye. “Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Culture! Free the Trolls!” I turned my eyes back to the road, still chuckling. Not all races were treated equally; in fact, none of them were. Trolls ate other people, dead or alive. They had been moved to preserves, where they ate the newly dead and animals. Hardly a troll’s preferred diet, but the rest of the races had decided that this was the best for them, mostly because it was the only way to prevent their own extinction. A few nut jobs still thought that trolls should be free. The rest of us were happier not needing protection all the time and not having a relative with an obituary listing “Troll” as cause of death.
Two hours, a cup of tea, and a donut later, I rolled in to the Forsyth office at eight in the morning.
“Jones, I’m here.” I thumped down into the chair in front of his desk. Jones, the department’s hedge-wizard, was a round, bald, middle-aged man.
“Oh, hey, thanks for coming in early.”
“No problem, I had to rearrange my day.”
“Are you ready to look at the goods?”
“Sure.” I followed him back to the magical workroom. Forsyth had a small room devoted to dealing with magic objects. It was spelled to contain any magical accidents and kept the harmful stuff away from everyone.
He had promised that this would be worth my time and interesting enough for two cases. Laid out on the table was the better part of a kitchen’s worth of goods: a toaster, a coffee maker, a frying pan, and a full tea service.
“Where did you get this stuff?”
Jones rocked back on his heels, grinning. “Here and there. None of it is going to cling to your power or anything, so just humor me and sense them out.”
I glared at him. Most days this would be fun, but today it was just annoying. “You know I don’t like to work that way.” He kept grinning. “Fine, I’ll do this your way.”
I stretched out a tendril of power, letting it hover over the toaster. Not that I could get much information unless my power touched it, but I knew it had been spelled. Relaxing, my power touched the toaster. Ah, it caught fingers, but only when removing toast. It was a painful trick, though more mischievous than anything.
Moving to the coffee maker, I repeated the process. Someone had spelled the coffee maker to give people the flu.
The frying pan could heat itself, but only to one setting. Either the spell had been damaged or the caster just cooked on high. Annoying, but only dangerous to your dinner.
Finally, I investigated the tea set. This was a different level of sophistication. Each piece of the set had a different talent. If you added sugar from the sugar cup to a drink, it made the drinker more willing to believe your words. Adding milk would encourage strength of will, and the honeypot inspired romance. If you were brave enough to add lemon, the tea would be dosed with bitterness. Each of the teacups had a different talent, bringing joy, sorrow, sympathy, and anger.
I reeled my power back in. “Okay, I played the game. The toaster grabs fingers, the coffee maker gives you the flu, the pan heats itself, and the tea set induces emotions. Where did you find them?”
“You felt more than that, didn’t you?”
“Yes, I did, but I’ve been up since three, Jones. I can’t do games today.” Sighing, I plopped down in the chair sitting beside the table. The room looked a lot like a chemistry lab, with tables lining the walls and cabinets overflowing with supplies. There were several types of fire extinguishers, a safety shower, an eyewash, and a giant first aid kit strapped to a wall.
“Sorry.” He settled into the chair next to mine. “We’ve been collecting these from across the county. Some old lady died, natural causes, and her kids held a yard sale to get rid of her stuff. Apparently, the old lady was a bit of a tinkerer and hedge-witch. I don’t think we’ve gotten everything, but with her dead and her kids ignorant of the old woman’s hobby, we didn’t have a crime that anyone was willing to prosecute. I just need to find the stuff she charmed.”
Items like this were tricky. I could undo or cleanse most of these spells, but it would be hard to be sure they were clean. “I can fix these, but I would still send them through the plasma gun. If you atomize these things, nothing will survive. It’s not like the department can make much money selling them.”
“Nope, but it sure costs money to send things through the gun.” He sighed, his bushy brows scrunching. “I think we still have some of the free space they gave us left, but I hate to use it for these. Would the crusher be good enough?”
I mentally slapped myself. The lack of sleep was showing. None of these had the tenacity or danger that would require the plasma gun. The crusher would be fine and much more affordable for the department. They needed to save that free space for something really dangerous. “I don’t know what I was thinking. Send them to the crusher.”
“All right. I’m going to go do paperwork while you deal with this.”
I waved my acknowledgment as he left. Removing magic was tricky. There were several ways to do it, each with different risks and benefits. You could unknit the spells, overload them with energy, or rip the magic off the object. None of these spells had seemed powerful, but I was going to check them more closely before I tried to remove the magic. I really wasn’t in a good frame of mind to delicately unknit the spells; I was just going to yank them apart and disperse the energy.
It took two hours because some of them had been stubborn, but by nine thirty all the spells had been removed. I handed Jones my notes as I left. It was an hour drive home, where I could grab some lunch, nap and then clear up some paper work before heading to bed early if nothing else came up.
I kept switching the music, but I could feel my eyes falling closed and my body relaxing into sleep when I neared the thirty-minute mark. Four hours of sleep just wasn’t enough. I’d been up and moving for six hours now and was ready for a rest. A trip that usually took two hours lasted nearly three.
After coasting into my parking spot, I sat for a moment, letting the tranquility of the house soak into me. The land was covered with elegant decorations and charming gardens that begged to be explored. The house—more of a lodge, really—was built of rough-hewn logs. Two wings sheltered the sides of the covered porch, protecting it from the weather. It was four steps up to the porch and eight feet to the oak door.
It wasn’t my house. It was owned by a brownie couple who maintained it and rented out suites. There were a few long-term renters like me, but it also functioned as a bed-and-breakfast to people and magical creatures passing through. A renter, like myself, was entitled to two meals a day, which made up for the microscopic kitchen. Being something of an indifferent or terrible cook, those kept me from eating fast food every day.
I walked inside, barely pausing to wipe my feet on the mat. I swung to the right and stumbled into the dining room. Hardly looking at the long table or who might be at it, I made a beeline for the tea and slurped down half a mug. The hot, caffeinated beverage forced my eyes open and gave my movement some energy. While topping off my mug, I looked around and saw two unicorns, a dwarf, and five shifters. I forked out a salad at the buffet and joined the group.
“I don’t understand why President Ederin hasn’t put a stop to these reparations lawsuits. The humans have been free and mostly equal for the past three hundred years. There isn’t a human alive that remembers slavery.” The dwarf finished with a flourish of his fork.
I munched down a bite of lettuce. President Ederin was a bit of a mystery, but that was true of all dragons. To be fair to the humans, there wasn’t a country in the world that was ruled by them, or viewed them as equals. Every country was ruled by dragons, vampires, witches, elves, dwarves, dark elves, orcs, fey, shifters, goblins, or giants. As for the humans, they were short lived and had been enslaved, but equality was a relative term. Yes, they had all the same rights, but they didn’t have magic. They tried to compensate with technology and innovation. Regardless of their legal state, they were still the dumb younger race to most of the world.
“You know dragons see time differently. Ederin is old, even for that exceptionally long-lived race. He has a soft spot for hopeless causes and new races. Why do you think he agreed to rule this land for the humans and others? No one else who was here wanted to, and they needed protection.” The unicorn with the longer horn snorted into his oats. Unicorns couldn’t speak with words, but they did speak mind to mind with anyone they pleased.
Deciding this was a great time to shift the conversation I interrupted, “How long are all of you here for? I’m Michelle, by the way.”
The smaller unicorn, who looked pregnant, nodded her understanding. The first unicorn answered, “I’m Enethre. This is Elise. We came to make arrangements to stay here next week. Elise is close to term. We are staying close because we do not want to be caught without shelter when the time comes.” He gently nuzzled his wife.
After a stare down between two of the men, the older one spoke. “We are of the Manachar pack.” From their interaction, I gathered they were werewolves because few other groups had dominance struggles, or were so pack oriented. “We are staying here for a few days but are waiting for the right time to perform a ritual.” Werewolves were a secretive bunch, but from the group dynamics I could lay my money on an alpha trial, coming-of-age ritual, or mating call.
The dwarf pulled a bread crumb from his beard. “Well, I’m staying here while I attend a conference in Kennesaw about smelting. I am called Aksi. How ’bout you, lass?”
I quickly swallowed my mouthful of food. “I live here, but if you’re asking what I do, I’m a witch. I work with the police to provide magical assistance.” Now, we were in danger of straying into territory that I didn’t want to explore. “I saw a ‘Free the Trolls’ billboard today. Do any of you know what group is behind it? I thought the movement had died out a few years ago when a few members of the last group—I think it was Trolls Today—tried to live with them and were eaten.”
With a glance at the first werewolf who had spoken, one of the other wolves commented. “I heard it’s a group of humans. HATE, Humans Against Troll Enclosures. Apparently, the past seven years has been enough time for them to forget why trolls are in the preserves to begin with.”
“I don’t want them to do anything stupid. There’s a preserve in Forsyth that I’d rather not have to visit,” I said.
“Lass, I still remember when my fifth cousin, Tharish, was eaten by a troll. I have no sympathy for those beasts, but I haven’t heard that this new group would use illegal means to free the trolls.” Aksi stuffed the last of a cranberry muffin in his mouth, brushing crumbs off his beard as he chewed.
“It is not unknown for one of their kind to eat one of ours. We find the world to be less dangerous for the young with the trolls removed from society.”
Enethre had a valid point; unicorns were fragile until they hit puberty, and even then they weren’t the sturdiest things around. I finished off my salad and grabbed a muffin off the buffet. I hadn’t realized they were there until I saw Aksi finish his.
“I would worry less about the trolls, young one. I heard someone has a few of us more magical creatures and was experimenting.”
“Really? Did any of these experiments use mundane creatures as well?” Another reason I liked this place, good information was easy to find.
“The earth has whispered such things to me. I have also heard that this individual resides at the southern edge of Cherokee County.”
I gave him a half bow, the best I could do at the table. Unicorns rarely give out information. This person must have harmed a unicorn for them to help me. “I have heard, and I will investigate.”
Enethre dipped his head in acknowledgment; they weren’t the traditional words, but the meaning was conveyed.
I caught myself yawning and realized I was past due for a nap. I excused myself from the table and headed to my room. I loved being on the ground floor, especially the last room on the hall. I didn’t have anyone to my left, and the world was to my right. I even had a nice door at the end of the hall that spilled into the most beautifully canopied garden that was perfect for my ceremonies and rituals. No one else spent as much time in that garden as I did, and I loved that it was mine; I even had a small altar.
I let myself into my room, dumping my purse on the counter before heading back to my bedroom. The apartment was small, with a tiny kitchen and dining room to the left of the door, and the living room straight ahead. To the right of the door was a coat closet, and just past that was the door to my bedroom. I pried off my shoes and slipped under the covers without undressing.
Copyright © 2014 N. E Conneely