I was walking to work, my usual mile and a half across the city to the little independent bookstore and stationary shop right in the middle of the business district when it hit me. That pain just below my kneecap, the one that told me I had been working my body too hard? I was too young to have it. For goodness sake –
“I’m in my mid twenties! You would think I have a few more years before my body begins to break down,” I cried, throwing one of the books onto a pile with less reverence than it deserved. I sank into my chair – green, wingback, probably older than me – and fought the urge to cover my face with my hands.
“I would think that rock climbing after a day of running a 5k and before that walking clear from one end of the city to the other would be enough to make even a small child wince in frustration. Especially during the height of summer,” a voice purred. I looked up and, sure enough, there was Magellan, sitting on top of one of the shelves, licking his paw with all the disdain cats are afforded.
Yes, my cat talks.
“Yeah, well, what do you know, being a centuries old Fae trapped in the body of your average house cat,” I snarked. Snark, in case you were wondering, comes as naturally to me as disdain to cats.
“I know I have more sense than you, dear Master,” Magellan grinned, showing his fangs. I grimaced back, my teeth nowhere near as impressive.
All in all, an average morning at The Book Shop.
I suppose introductions are in order. My name is Marsh. Marsh Seville. Yes, yes, one of those Sevilles, the ones that made it into the mainstream headlines and the arcane newspapers simultaneously, about the same thing (though with entirely different slants, true). I inherited the Austin branch of the family business three years ago and ever since, well, let’s just say Magellan is one of the more tame things that I’ve come across. See, The Book Shop isn’t just a book store. Sure, you can get your average vegan cookbook right next to the newest in spy thrillers, but mostly, it’s a front. I mean that literally. Through the back of the store is the only widely advertised entrance into the Underground. And not the subway system.
The Underground is what normal people, those not connected with magic and mayhem, call the abandoned series of tunnels and pipe works under the city. It’s what the magical community calls home. It’s a massive system, and no one has mapped it out in its entirety, though a few Gnome explorers have done quite well with some of the sectors. There are shops, bars, houses, banks, parks, even a few dens, all within walking distance of The Book Shop entrance. You could go your whole life in the Underground without ever coming up for air. As some of the inhabitants are more or less immortal, that’s saying something. Most of the magical community, though, has assimilated into the normal world with jobs, friends, entertainment, whatever you want to call it, all under heavy glamour, so The Book Shop gets a fair amount of traffic. I act as gatekeeper and occasionally toll collector (for the unregistered visitors).
I also turn away a lot of arcane reporters.
“Why is it that you insist on eating your breakfast here?” Magellan stretched and jumped down from the bookshelf, waving his tail. He was a fairly lithe cat, not inclined to heft as some cats were, with enough battle scars to annoy his vanity and mar the brown tabby patterns across his fur. His eyes were an unusual shade of blue, which he kept hidden behind a glamour most of the time. It was one of the few magics he could still perform as a cat and it saved a lot of questioning from the normals who walked into The Book Shop.
“Because The Shop is closer to the store than my place,” I said, pulling out a bowl and digging through the fridge for milk. “Because the fridge here has enough space for it and because I don’t usually feel hungry until about now.”
“So it has nothing to do with the fact that you usually sit around bored until near eleven?” Magellan sniffed, peering into the fridge to see if anything interesting was present. I closed it before he could point something out.
“No,” I imitated his sniff and poured myself a bowl of granola.
“Granola? What, you got tired of your usual cornflakes?” Magellan curled a lip in disdain at my breakfast choice. I usually responded in kind to his breakfast choice: mice. Apparently there was something about the Fae that made them only able to eat meat they had killed themselves. And as I wasn’t inclined to make Mage pasta, mice made up a good portion of his diet. Which he usually ate right in front of me. Cleaning the bones one by one. Dumb cat.
“They were out at the store,” I grumbled. “Leave a guy alone, alright. It’s just breakfast.”
“Unusually defensive, more ornery than usual and yet not as sincerely in a bad mood,” Mage followed me to my armchair and perched on one of the arms. He made a humming sound then lifted his head with sudden interest. “You met a girl!”
“What? No,” I hunched my shoulders.
“Yes, you did. One who likes granola, I would venture,” Mage grinned fiercely and I found myself wanting to disappear. “Hmm, yes, you did. You hid her scent well, but your behaviour gives everything away. Where was it? A bar? No, you wouldn’t go out to a bar. You’re not that socially inclined. A cafe, then. Ah… an open-mic night, wasn’t it?”
“How do you know about these things? You never leave The Shop for the normal world and you rarely spend any time in Underground,” I complained.
“I have more resources than you think,” Mage curled his tail neatly over his scarred paws. “Stop trying to change the subject. Open-mic night, girl, remember?” He paused then hissed in frustration, “Don’t tell me you used your Harping on her.”
“What? I would never do that,” I snapped.
Ah, yes, perhaps I forgot to mention the fact that I’m a Harper. Harpers are the rock musicians of the magical community. Sort of. We have the ability to use magic in just about any form, disregarding the limitations that many have, as long as we do the magic to music. A harp or lute works exceptionally well, but as we live in the modern world, I use a mandolin. It’s easier to carry around. Harpers are the unofficial journalists of the magical community, too, since many of our songs (we do actual music, too, not just the magical type) are based on events in the magical world.
What, you think I got the job at The Book Shop just because I’m a Seville? Think again. It takes a journalist to turn away a journalist.
“Oh, of course, your human sensibilities of right and wrong wouldn’t let you,” Mage rolled his eyes and jumped to the counter with the register. He settled down with his paws underneath him and stared at me in that very disconcerting way that cats do. “What is the point of being a Harper if you never do anything.”
“I do stuff,” I grumbled. At least Mage was off the girl. “Last week I had to break up a fight at the Richter’s bar out back. Took me halfway through a Toto tune to do it, too.”
“You poor human. How you suffer. Who was fighting? Werewolves? Trolls? I heard there were some Japanese mages out visiting for a business conference,” Mage practically preened, as though he knew the answer. Given that he seemed to know just about everything that went on in the first block of the Underground, not to mention all of Austin, I wouldn’t have been surprised. How he did it, given that he never left the shop was news to me.
“Pixies, alright,” I tossed my now-empty bowl of granola into the sink and winced when the bowl chipped. Mage just gave me a self-satisfied look and proceeded to groom his tail. “You’ve obviously never been in a fight with pixies. They’re fast! And when they get throwing sleeping dust around, you had better stay out of the way.”
“Pixies know better than to get into a fight with a full-fledged Fae,” Mage sniffed.
“A Fae stuck in the body of a cat,” I retorted. Mage bared his teeth and was about to hiss at me – generally a precursor to launching himself in my direction, claws at the ready – when the little bell over the door tinkled and someone walked in. Mage immediately became a complacent cat, his tail twitching mildly. I became a gracious owner and turned to the newcomer, only to falter. It was her.
“So this is your book shop,” she said, looking around. This was the girl I had met at open-mic night. She had sung while another girl played the cello. It was an unusual combination, but it worked. She was willowy and petite, all gymnast’s wiry build and light walk. Her hair was brown and wavy and hit her around her shoulders. She had a curious, slightly-rounded face and brown eyes. Let’s just say that when she sang “Smooth Criminal” back to back with “Habanera” from Carmen, I was hooked.
“Zoe,” I managed to splutter. She just smiled and tossed her hair.
“It’s nice,” she said, trailing her fingers along the spines of some of the older books. I watched, transfixed. “There are more books than I expected.”
“It’s because it’s an independent shop. I can stock whatever I want, so I stock… everything,” I said. Mage flicked his ear in my direction, a silent nice going, genius. I glared back. “So, um, you sang really well last night. The opera was, er, interesting.”
“I trained as an opera singer during my high-school years,” she said, turning to me with a smile.
“Oh, well, that explains it,” I smiled back, hoping I didn’t look as geeky as I felt. Zoe turned to examine more books with a shrug.
“My parents didn’t really want me to pursue the music career, so I went to college for business. Decent job prospects, but boring. Hence open-mic night,” she smiled. I turned to jello.
“Well, you know, whatever works.” Mage shot me a glance that was meant to curdle milk and leaped from the counter to go rub against Zoe’s legs. Apparently, I needed his supreme intervention before she ran from the shop in terror. Cats.
“Oh, she’s beautiful,” Zoe immediately crouched and started scratching Mage’s ears. He started purring, disregarding the ‘she’ comment quite nicely.
“He,” I said. “His name’s Magellan. I call him Mage.” I was going to add on some witty comment about book store owners and cats when the door opened again. I sighed quietly. One of my regulars, a troll with a half-decent glamour named Ruth, walked in, her Underground pass flashing visibly. No matter how many times I tell the passer-throughs, they never seem to understand that normals frequent the shop, too.
“Marsh,” Ruth nodded her head at me. I motioned her over to the counter and scanned her card, raising my eyebrows significantly at Zoe, who was taken up with Mage. Ruth looked over and sniffed the air pointedly before shrugging and turning back to me. “Glamour’s up,” she said, as if that would solve everything. I wanted to hide.
“Keep quiet,” I breathed. Louder, I said, “Your book is in the back. You know the spot.”
Ruth nodded and slipped through to the back entrance. Hopefully, Zoe wouldn’t notice that Ruth didn’t come out again. I went over to where she was still petting Mage (he was now on his back, paws in the air). “So… did you stop by on your way to work or –?” The door opened again, this time letting in a pair of naga, their glamours much better than Ruth’s. These two weren’t regulars, so I knew I would have to sell them a day pass, a much longer process than sending them to the back.
“Well,” Zoe stood and waved at me, “I’d better be going. You have a shop to run, and I have to get to work.”
“Oh, right, sure. Thanks for stopping by. It was good to see you again…” I hesitated. “Um, you wouldn’t want to go out and get dinner sometime? I know a great place over on -” I never got the chance to say where, because the door burst open again, setting my little bell to tinkling madly. Only, this time a grizzled man who seemed to be missing bits of his ear and nose, wearing some sort of combat leather jacket, a couple of belts strapped over his shoulders holding vials, knives, even an old Colt gun at his hip. This was Texas, and he still didn’t come anywhere near the cut for normal garb.
“Marsh, me boy! There’s a horde of golems on the loose and we’ve got to go hunt ‘em down!”
Readers, meet my Uncle Horace. He’s part of the reason why the Seville name is so infamous and draws so much unwanted attention from journalists looking for a laugh. He’s also the reason why I don’t go on dates much.
Well, I was pretty sure at that point that Zoe would want to have nothing more to do with me, my shop would have to be entrusted to one of my more incapable friends that pinch hits for me on occasion, and more than likely, I would stumble out of the Underground three or four days from now covered in scratches and bruises with Uncle Horace slapping my back and declaring it a roaring good time. So I was floored when Zoe just started laughing.
“Golems?” she said, looking over Uncle Horace and his bizarre costume with interest. I didn’t blame her. Not many people would go wandering about in a Texas summer in anything more than shorts and a t-shirt. Uncle Horace was wearing a full-blown leather jacket over long sleeved shirt combination, heavy pants and heavy boots. Frankly, the fact that he wasn’t melting into a puddle in my doorway was impressive.
“The stone beasties. Do what you tell ‘em until they’re released and then they cause all sorts of havoc,” Horace explained. Zoe being a normal obviously never crossed his mind.
“I think you mean gargoyles,” Zoe flicked her eyes my direction, laughing silently. She didn’t realise that he was related to me. Maybe if I could steer her out of the shop before my uncle got on one of his rants, I could salvage what was left of my dating life (which was not much at this point, as we hadn’t even gone on one).
“Do you want to exchange numbers or something?” I asked, surreptitiously stepping between Zoe and my uncle. “We could meet up after your work. The Shop closes at six…”
“Oh, sure,” Zoe pulled out her phone and typed something in. I gave her my number and she texted me. I was inches away from the door and wishing her a good day at wherever it was she worked when Uncle Horace poked his head over my shoulder.
“You don’t want to come help round up the golems? And I do mean golems, not gargoyles. Those are an entirely different kettle of kelpies,” Horace had his dead-serious face on and Zoe gave me a look, plainly asking what in the world I was doing with this guy. To be honest, I asked myself the same question. Frequently.
“She has to work,” I said through my teeth. I was trying to hold a smile, but I don’t think it worked.
“Sorry,” Zoe agreed. “Maybe another time. See you around, Marsh.”
“Have a good day!” I practically pulled the door closed behind her and rounded on Horace. “Seriously? You couldn’t have waited five minutes before running in here and spouting things about the magical community like some loon?”
Horace peered at me, then at the door where Zoe had just left. He raised his eyebrows. “She’s a normal?”
“Yes! Of course she’s a normal,” I threw up my hands. Mage chose this moment to intercede. He, at least, understands about Uncle Horace, having gotten involved in his messes more times than either of us care to count. Especially that one time with the crazy fire-breathing chickens.
“This is a book shop. Normals do tend to come in from time to time,” Mage flicked his tail and sauntered over to the check-out counter where the two naga had been hovering during this whole episode.
“I’ll deal with you in a minute.” I threw a glare towards Uncle Horace and hoped that he would just stay quiet, for once. The naga, after Horace, were easy to deal with. A couple of day passes, a couple drops of blood or strands of hair in the security system, just in case things went badly and needed investigating and off they went. I took in a long, deep breath in my diaphragm and held it for fifteen seconds before letting it out slowly. Then, I turned back to Uncle Horace. He was sitting in one of the chairs strewn about the shop, wearing a sheepish expression.
“Gosh, Marsh, I didnae mean to mess things up for you,” he twiddled his thumbs. It was an incongruous picture with the magical combat gear he was wearing, but it did the trick. All my anger deflated, leaving me tired and feeling mildly affectionate. He may be mostly insane, but he is family. Just about the only family I have left.
“You didn’t mess things up,” I assured him. “It’s just I could have used a warning before you burst in here. This shop may be mostly a front for the Underground, but it’s mine and spouting off about golems and kelpies doesn’t help business. I have enough problems with the trolls keeping quiet.”
“You have done a wonder with this place. In yer father’s time, this weren’t nothing but a hole in the wall. Drug lords and police kept dropping by, thinking something was up with all the people going in and not coming out.” Horace shook his head and laughed. “Those were some times, lad.”
“I’m sure,” I replied tersely. I hated it when Uncle Horace brought up ‘the good old days’ with my father. He was the one who had left me the shop and, while I was keen on The Book Shop, there were rather a lot of issues there. One of which being it was his fault that my family name was so notorious. Well, Uncle Horace didn’t help much. “Now what’s all this about golems?”
Horace perked up immediately, leaning forwards and setting his hands as if to tell a story. “I were wandering through the Northern Passage, over near that Tibetan satyr’s place, you know the one. I stopped in to bar across the way and was just about ter buy a round of drinks for the fellas, when all of a sudden, you couldn’t hear a thing over the ruckus outside. Well, it being me, I looked out the window and saw at least four golems, nasty looking things, all misshapen and twisted, running around tearing up whatever there was to tear up. You can be sure the people got off the street right quick. That Tibetan shop was closed in a trice. Asked around afterwards and apparently, that weren’t the first time they’ve been around. There’s a horde of them that’s been terrorising the streets, only them being stone and all, they’re awfully hard to deal with by magic.”
“You’d need a full-blooded Fae to do the earth magic,” I agreed. “And they tend to stick to their own borders.”
“Excepting Mage here, of course,” Horace grimaced at the cat, who bared his teeth in return. No love lost there, that’s for sure.
“Yeah, well, Mage doesn’t have access to his whole range of powers at the moment. What, exactly, do you want me to do? I’m not a Fae.”
“Yer a Harper, lad. Harpers can do earth magic.” Uncle Horace did have a point. Technically speaking, Harpers can perform whatever type of magic they want, as long as they have the right musical channel. For me, I tend to associate different magic with different songs. For healing, use classical. For fire, use some of the louder 80s rock music. For water, bluegrass. Earth magic, though, is a tricky thing. It can take a bunch of different forms, such as growing things or moving earth or breaking stone, which means that the music genre I use for my earth magic has to be fairly versatile. I’ve tried putting some of the modern indie-slash-rock-slash-folk music to it and it just doesn’t stick nearly as well as I would like. I’ve been working with it, but with little success.
“Theoretically, Harpers can do earth magic,” I said. “I’ve just not had much luck with it.”
Horace folded his arms like a petulant child, simultaneously giving me a scolding look. “I saw you move a great bear of a rock three hundred feet with a flute.”
“That was at a wedding! I was mostly drunk and the bride and groom were ogres, which can be very motivating for a guy. It was a paid gig, too. Not too many of those recently.” I sighed and leaned back against the counter. “Look, even if I could pull off some earth magic on the scale you’d need, the golems aren’t just going to stand there and take it. They’re sentient. We’d need another way to subdue them.”
“That’s what I’m for,” Horace grinned.
“You’re kidding.” Mage jumped onto the counter next to me and curled his tail around his paws. “You’re a decent Hunter, for what that’s worth, but you can’t expect to go up against a crazed golem and win. They’re literally made of stone.”
I nodded. “Mage is right. But besides that, golems are made creatures. They shouldn’t be going off the reservation like that unless there’s someone directing them. Which begs the question, how did someone like that get golems? I thought their makings were strictly controlled.”
“Ach, I don’t know all that much about the beasties, to tell you the truth. Just that they’re right nasty when going on a rampage. You want answers about golems, you have to find someone who’s versed in the stuff. So, what do you say we pop on back to the Underground and ask around, eh?” Horace was sitting up at attention again, a puppy who was far too eager to get into trouble.
“I can’t,” I said flatly. Mage flicked his ears in my direction, as much surprise as he ever shows. I was tempted to shove him off the counter and decided against it. He might not have had much magic as a cat, but he did have claws. And teeth. “I have a shop to run. This is the only entrance to the Underground for sixty miles around and there are plenty of things that can’t be left in the mortal world at night. The Shop has to stay open.”
“Call that Casey creature you get to run nights for you sometimes,” Mage flicked his tail. I scowled at him.
“Casey is good at running nights because there are no normals,” I retorted. “Casey and normals don’t mix.”
“You’ve done it before,” Mage pointed out. I deepened my scowl. “Just call Casey.”
I huffed and muttered some unkind things about cats and Fae under my breath. Mage returned the sentiment by yawning widely and showing off his fangs. Killjoy. “Okay, fine. Fine. I’ll call Casey to see if she can run the shop for a couple of days. Happy?”
“You’re doing the right thing, lad,” Uncle Horace said. I said nothing, just pulled my phone out and dialled Casey.
“Hi, Casey? Yeah, it’s Marsh,” I tried to put some pep into my voice, but I think I just managed to sound more annoyed than usual. Casey, for her part, didn’t complain. “I’m going to need you to watch the Shop for a couple of days, is that alright? Yes, I said days. Yes, that means the book selling bit, too. Yes, you’ll get paid. The usual rate? Great.” I hung up and looked at the two staring at me with interest. “She’ll be here in half-an-hour.”
“You had better get packing,” Mage purred. “Three days at least, wandering the Underground you’ll need magical supplies as well as clothes and money.”
I looked around at Horace and hoped that he had a good answer for me. “Do you have any money changed? I only have a few mazuhmas left over from my last trip down there.”
To my great shock – not the sarcasm – Uncle Horace started rubbing the back of his neck. “Well, er, no not really. See, I used up the funds from my last job getting some new bolts for the crossbow, and then there was rent to pay and I used the last mazuhmas at the bar where I first saw the golems.”
This time, it was Mage who expressed his displeasure. He hissed and flicked his tail. “This is just some Hunt that you’ve gotten yourself on. What happened? You figure out you were dealing with something beyond your meagre ability and decided to drag Marsh into this?”
“So what if it’s a Hunt? That don’t change what need be done,” Horace snapped. If there was one thing I appreciated about Mage, he was very keen on people doing things openly. It was something to do with the whole Fae must tell the truth thing.
“It’s alright, Mage,” I muttered. “I said I’d help.”
“You’re going to get yourself killed,” Mage pointed out.
“It’ll be fun,” I managed a sort of smile. “I’ll get trampled on by golems and then torn to pieces by whatever carrion-eating nasty decides that I’m a decent snack. Or worse, someone will ask me to sing.”
Mage threw me a look and leaped from the counter to the top of one of the shelves, tucking his paws underneath him. “Then I’d better stay here and mind the shop with Casey.”
“She’d love the company.” I was being serious, as Casey, for some mysterious reason, actually liked Mage. As a witch with negligible power and no sorcery to speak of, I figured the Fae would get on her nerves, prodding her about being relatively useless in the magical world. But she liked him. And, even stranger, he liked her. I moved to grab my travel bag from where I kept it stowed in the back room and stuffed a few things from the shelves and cabinets into it. I grabbed my mandolin and slung the strap over my shoulder (no case needed, thanks to some benevolent elves) then pulled out a few hundred from the spare cash reserves I kept in a lock box.
“We’ll go to the exchange first,” I said, folding the cash into my pocket. “You can check the news on the bulletin board, see if there’s anything else about the golems.”
“Now we’re talking,” Horace grinned and pushed himself up from the chair. I heard a distinctive clanking from underneath his leather coat and hoped that the bolts for the crossbow he was carrying were of decent quality this time.
“Maybe. We still need to find someone who would know about the golems and their maker. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t heard of anything about a maker in this part of the Underground recently. Or ever.” I put a few picks for my mandolin into my pocket, just in case, and slipped my penny whistle into a side pocket on my pack. There were a few things out there immune to stringed Harping, so the penny whistle was a good thing to have.
“You might want to try the Scarlet Dragon,” Mage suggested from the top of his shelf. I looked up at him and raised my eyebrows. He flicked an ear. “It’s a good place to go for people who… need something.”
“Anyone in particular we should ask for? Maybe the creepy guy with half his moustache burned off,” I shook my head.
“No, lad, the cat has a point. The Scarlet Dragon is a good place to go. There are plenty of people that know things there,” Horace said. I raised my eyebrows higher and he hunched his shoulders. “Well, there may be the fact that I were kicked out of there a bit back. For, ah, causing a fight.”
“Great. Right. Of course the place I need to go is one you can’t go.” I frowned, mostly at myself. I was starting to sound like a stick in the mud. In this instance, I figured I was perfectly justified.
“Where are you going?” I turned to the door and saw Casey walking in. She looked exactly as she always did: eccentrically dressed in the euro-hippie-meets-Texas style that seemed to define the hedgewitch. Her short curly hair stuck up in every direction and she had some sort of glittery powder around her eyes that made them seem unnaturally large.
“Too many places,” I replied. “Thanks for coming on such short notice. I hope I didn’t pull you away from anything.”
She shrugged, “Just a couple of potions I was throwing together for this brownie that got into some weird toadstools. It’s nothing big, though, I put them on a long brew and they should be fine. If not, well, then I guess there’ll be a hole in my floor.”
I tried not to look alarmed, “Right, well, thanks all the same. I don’t know how long we’ll be gone, but Mage is going to stick around and help you out.”
Casey beamed, looking around for the cat before spotting him on the shelf. She waved, “Hi, Mage! Take out?”
“Those vegetarian dumplings are to die for,” Mage purred.
“And now I know why the cat likes you so much.” I slung the pack over my shoulder and looked at Uncle Horace. “Right, any chance that you want to turn back before this whole affair starts?”
“You are such a goody-two-shoes,” Casey rolled her eyes and sank into my chair, propping her feet on a stack of books. “Stop worrying about things for once and go have some fun. This place will still be here when you get back. And you might even have a good time.”
“We’ll see about that,” I muttered under my breath. I waved good-bye to Mage and Casey and slunk into the back room, feeling more and more put-upon by the minute. Uncle Horace, at least, was in pretty good spirits. He punched me lightly in the shoulder.
“This’ll be good for you. Get to practise your earth magic and the Underground will owe you. Who knows what the Fae would charge for such a service,” Horace grinned.
I sighed, “Probably my first born.” Horace gave me a look and I shook my head. “Never mind. Let’s get going.”
Now, the back of the Book Shop had two exits. One was the usual exit for the dumpster and the back alleyway where people who had cars could park. There were generally two cars there, one for the Indian restaurant next door and one for the haberdashery on the other side of the Shop. The second exit was through a wooden door that had come straight out of the dark ages. It was all twisted walnut and shoddy iron nails that had rusted over. In the centre was a single line burned into the wood with interconnecting circles overlapping the line. It was an old symbol, but one that everyone in the magical community recognised. It meant Deep, or Depth, and was the symbol one put on any entrance to the Underground, no matter where in the world you were.
The Underground, see, isn’t just a series of tunnels under one city. That’s just where the entrances are. The actual place is as vast as the world and crosses realms that don’t even exist in our reality. There are places, such as the Wild – Fae-territory – or the Forest – remember all those faerie tales of the enchanted forests – that don’t even always subscribe to the laws of physics. The Austin entrance to the Underground, unusually enough, looked more like a collection of gypsy tents and old world taverns and villages than a modern city like Austin. There were many levels and the whole place connected via these realms that crossed realities. It was hardly a surprise that the ancient symbol for Deep marked the entrance.
I put my hand on the symbol and drew my finger along the line from top to bottom, careful not to breathe on the door as I did so. Sometimes, the door was finicky and wanted more than just physical touch. It had tasted the blood of myself and others more than a few times. Today, though, it just shuddered and shimmered into nothingness. I looked at Horace, at the scarred face and the eager grin before pulling my mandolin tighter to my body.
“Right, then, let’s go,” I said, and we stepped through.
Walking into the Underground is like nothing you’ve ever experienced. Trust me. I’ve done it countless times and I still get shivers down my spine every time I walk through the door. For the first five steps or so, you’re in total darkness in a tunnel. The floor is uneven and it is very easy to slip as the stone has been worn perfectly smooth from countless people passing through. After that tunnel, it’s like you step through a veil into a world of light and colour. The tunnel opens into an enormous cavern and there are enough lights – fire, glow orbs, magical beings – to fend off the darkness. Buildings are hewn into the stone walls and floors, built out of discarded pallets, anchored into the wall with steel cables or made out of tents of countless different textiles. Then there are stalls set up where people sit and talk over a cup of coffee or look over the newest potion ingredient. Between the buildings are passages that lead to other parts of the Underground or absolutely nowhere.
Then, there are the people. Magical beings of all kinds live in the Austin branch of the Underground and even more pass through on their way to somewhere else. There are trolls like Ruth, either with or without glamour, naga, centaurs, satyrs, elves, faeries (not Fae, their more ancient cousins tend to stick to themselves), dryads, niolax (a cross between shadow-elves and something old), witches, sorcerers, wizards and creatures I couldn’t even begin to name. Some wear the glamours of the normal world, some don’t. In the blink of an eye, a person can see skin pebbled like pearls, made of the toughest hide imaginable, delicate and nearly translucent. There are eyes of all shapes and sizes and colours. And all of these different people talk in varying languages, sounds, cries and volumes.
Essentially, the Underground is chaos.
That is not to say I dislike the Underground. I really enjoy meeting the different people and seeing what there is to see, but I have this thing about chaos: it gets to me. Quite badly. I’ve been told by Mage that it has to do with me being an introvert and a Harper, though what Harping has to do with disliking crowds and preferring to stay home rather than going out with a gaggle of friends, I have no idea. Something about creativity and space or inner reflection or something along those lines. Frankly, I stop listening to Mage when he psychoanalyses me. He reads too many of our books.
Anyways, I digress. The Underground is a great place, but I prefer to keep my visits short. Usually, I’m exchanging money at the bank, which is very close to the entrance. Sometimes I come in for a meal or get some supplies. More frequently, however, I have been called in for Harping and whatever Uncle Horace has in mind.
We emerged into the Underground and almost immediately, I could tell something was… off. Everything looked the same. There was the same variety of people wandering about. The noises were similar. I took a closer look at one of the merchants selling all sorts of weapons and metal pieces before I realised what was wrong. The merchant selling weapons had a faintly-glowing barrier up around his wares to keep them from being stolen. He wore a thick leather belt with a curved scimitar on either hip. His eyes, slitted like a cat’s, darted around and his green tongue licked his lips nervously. He was afraid.
The more people I looked at, the more obvious the signs were. Weapons, common in this part of the Underground (it’s Texas, after all), were prevalent and worn openly. People didn’t stop to chat unless they could huddle with their backs against the walls, heads bent close together. Stalls kept magical barriers up to prevent theft and people moved quickly through the space, getting to wherever they were going as quickly as possible.
“Uncle Horace,” I said quietly, shifting the strap of my mandolin on my shoulder, “how long ago did you say the golem attack happened?”
“Two days,” he growled. “This ain’t right.”
“I agree.” I nudged him and motioned towards the bank. We needed to go there anyways and it might be a good place for some local gossip. “I’ll get the money, you ask around.”
Horace nodded and off we marched. The bank, oddly enough, wasn’t terribly busy. Usually you had to stand in line for more than twenty minutes just to get to a window, which meant another while to get whatever you wanted done. Today, there were a few guards, a wizard by the looks of the magical equipment and a surly man in old-style hunting clothes, a crossbow at his side that could have been anything from half-elf to Shadren. I hoped the former, because Shadren were tetchy to deal with at the best of times. There was one older woman with a babushka’s headscarf (probably concealing horns of some sort. I know the scarves were favoured with satyrs and old world witches) and a couple of goblins, showing more fang than glamour-convention usually called for.
I stepped up to the first empty window, one tended by a woman with blue skin and wide yellow eyes, and tried not to seem too freaked-out by the changes in the Underground. “I haven’t been to the Underground in a while,” I said, dropping my words to a whisper as I realised they echoed in the empty space. “I need to change some American dollars for mazumahs.”
“Current exchange rate is one ninety-seven per mazumah,” the woman spoke in a whisper also, the tiny scales that made up her blue skin rustling nervously. I winced at the exchange rate and forked over my cash. She said nothing, just counted and started pulling out the gold and bronze coins that made up the mazumah currency. Gold for one piece, bronze for half pieces. You could get quarter pieces, but the banks didn’t give them out.
“What’s going on?” I asked as she sorted through the coins and put them in a belt-pouch. “The Underground is more wary since I came here last.”
The woman fumbled in her counting and hissed under her breath as she had to start over. Her hands shook and she finally set them on the counter, giving up on counting altogether. “You don’t know?”
I held up my hands in innocence and shook my head. “I’ve been out in the world for a while.”
Licking her lips with a slightly-forked tongue, the woman leaned forwards, eyes darting nervously back and forth. When she spoke, it was barely a breath and I had to lean in to hear. “Someone killed the First Minister.”
“What?” My exclamation was slightly too loud and echoed around the near-empty chamber. I gave the onlookers and apologetic wince and lowered my voice. “The First Minister. This is the First Minister of the Magic Council we’re talking about, right? The woman who was half-elf and a wicked powerful wizard to boot?”
The woman behind the banking window nodded. “No one knows how. They just arrived at her house one day and the whole place was torn to pieces, magical barriers included. She was trampled or crushed or beaten or something.”
I cursed under my breath. This was bad. Really, really bad. Rounding up some golems was nothing on the murder of the First Minister. The Magic Council was sort of the ruling body for the people of the magical community. There were representatives from nearly every race (I say nearly, but in reality, more like half) and you had to be a seriously powerful sort just to get considered for the position. The death of the First Minister was catastrophic and could sent the entire community into chaos. Electing a leader took a lot of petitioning and issues that had been squelched for centuries would come up again, meaning tensions would be running high everywhere. Not to mention the fact that no one knew how this happened.
The hairs on the back of my neck were standing straight up by the time I processed what the woman had told me. I was speechless and gratefully accepted my mazumahs without another word. Horace was waiting for me by the door and even he looked nervous, which was something, considering the Hunter was nearly impossible to faze. “You heard?” I asked. “The First Minister?”
“Not here, lad. The stone of an empty building has ears.” It was an old Underground saying, from the time when the magical community first started retreating from the normal world to the Underground. People who spoke in empty stone buildings thought they were safe, but agents of the enemy, whoever it was at any given time, often tracked by vibration and echoes in stone cracks. Empty stone, unlike in the normal world, echoed. The best way to keep a secret amongst people was to tell it in a crowded place. Horace and I pulled our respective weapons – he the gun and me my mandolin – and left the bank, moving towards one of the busier taverns in this part of the Underground.
We slipped in the door and I was thankful that it was still bustling. Sure, people were sticking to their own tables, but they were laughing and drinking and making just as much noise as ever. If there was a glance of nervousness every so often, well, then that was understandable. I picked out a table and Horace ordered a couple of mulled wines (the traditional drink of Underground taverns). He brought them back and I took the time to sip at mine before I spoke.
“You heard what happened?” I asked.
“Someone did for the First Minister,” Horace nodded, hiding his mouth over the top of his own mug. “A serious bit of bad magic, that.”
“How is what I want to know,” I muttered. “The woman I spoke with said that the entire house was torn to pieces. That means magical barriers of protection and the older works done when the Underground was built. Why didn’t the First Minister fight back?”
“She was a fair powerful creature, too,” Uncle Horace agreed. “One of those goblins was chattier than the other. Said something about threats to the Council just before the attacks. Saying there’d been too many restrictions to folk who could go and make a name for themselves. Then the First Minister made a speech or something about how the restrictions were for everyone’s safety and had been agreed on for centuries. Only, there are some of the community that remember back that far.”
“The advocates of the good old days,” I nodded into my mug. “The immortals.”
“Not all of ‘em are bad sorts, pushing for fewer restrictions,” Uncle Horace said. He was friends with a few, being a Hunter and ranging around a lot more than others. “Some just want more power, like they had when normals near worshiped them.”
“Oh, yes, times of chaos and fear,” I scoffed. Every magical history book I had ever read, no matter the perspective, came to the same conclusion about the time of the immortal rule: bad. This was mostly during the Dark Ages and just before. The fall of a lot of empires had to do with an immortal. (Except for the Han dynasty in China. That was just bad luck.) “So what do we do? Hunting down golems was dangerous enough to begin with. Now we have a huge amount of fear and potential terrorists on our hands. Really powerful terrorists.”
“But we can’t back down now!” Horace insisted. I was inclined to agree with him, no matter how much I feared for my hide. “Anything we can do to make things better for people is something we have to do. The other Hunters will have already been called in on the First Minister issue. There’s not a whole lot of protection for people right now.”
“I know. But if things are as bad as I think they are, we’re going to need some-” I never got a chance to say what we were going to need, because right then a very large, slightly clawed hand fell onto my shoulder.
“Here we have a Harper!” I turned and managed a weak smile to the woman – maybe a changeling? She looked at least part goblin or troll or something with big bones and a fierce set of teeth. I hadn’t even considered what walking into a tavern with my mandolin worn openly might mean, what with all the worry about the First Minister. When things were normal in the Underground, sure, I expected this sort of thing. Harpers were journalists, a means of spreading news and gathering information, not to mention entertainment. There weren’t a whole lot of us (most Harpers ended up in the normal music business, leaving the magic bit behind) and that meant that when we were around, people wanted us to play.
“Ah, yes, I was just leaving,” I said, standing and trying to push away from the table. The part-troll (just a guess) pushed me down and laughed.
“You haven’t even finished your wine. Come now, surely you can spare a bit for a Harping? That is what you do.” She had a gravelly voice and her hand was still on my shoulder, squeezing slightly. I’m not a terribly strong guy, no matter that I can run rather quickly, so a troll putting an ounce of effort into making my shoulder hurt, well, made my shoulder hurt.
“Maybe I have time for one song,” I smiled meekly.
The troll-woman turned to the rest of the tavern and held up her arms, grinning widely. “A Harper here to entertain us!”
For all that the Underground was currently in a state of turmoil, it sure could pretend otherwise. I was cheered until I stood on my bench and pulled my mandolin in front of me, checking the strings. I plucked a few notes. “Er, what do you want to hear?” I asked, tentatively strumming a few chords of “Thriller”.
“Shifter’s Folly,” one voice cried out, with cheers supporting it.
“Stevie Wonder!” another called, this time with more cheers. There were more songs and bands called out and I was about to launch into an instrumental rendition of “Livin Easy” by Joe Banamassa when a cool, feminine voice, with an accent that reminded a person of a lifetime wandering dusty roads and old world forests, cut through the crowd.
“How about ‘Fair Chance’?” she asked. The crowd immediately fell silent and turned to look at the woman who spoke. She had the dark hair and cunning eyes of a true gypsy, though she wore black skinny jeans and a dark, wine-red tunic shirt belted at the waist. There were bracelets all up one arm in various metals and I saw at least three earrings in her left ear.
“Now there’s one I haven’t done in a while,” I scratched the back of my neck uncomfortably. During my training with one of the Harpers in Austin, I had learned the song. It was old, really old. And it was generally unpopular because it was so dark. It was also the mark of passage from training to master Harper.
“It seems appropriate for the time,” the woman pushed herself away from where she was leaning against the bar and stalked towards me like a cat. I couldn’t place her accent, but I was fairly certain it was Eastern European of some sort, perhaps Czech or Lithuanian. The attitude in the bar became dark in an instant; those who had magical abilities, not just magical blood started giving off a very dark mood. I strummed a chord to cut through the tension and a few people relaxed their shoulders in relief. It wouldn’t do to have a fight just then. Still, there was only so much I could do without a proper Tuning (the actual term for the use of Harping in a specific magical outlet).
“Times are getting dark,” I agreed, nodding my head slowly. “Which is why something more cheerful might be… useful.”
By this time, she was standing just below my bench, looking up at me and showing slightly pointed teeth and gold-tinted eyes to go with her cat-like stalk. She was a shapeshifter, and a powerful one at that to draw so much attention with just a few words. “Are you afraid of facing the darkness, Harper?” she purred.
It was a challenge if I’d ever heard one. I plucked out the first three notes of “Fair Chance” and frowned. “I would rarely choose to fight darkness with darkness, shifter, but if that is the weapon you choose, then as you wish.”
Her eyes widened and her teeth flashed brighter. I pulled my pick out of my pocket and retuned my mandolin for the proper key, D minor. I started the opening notes and thumped the heel of my right foot on the bench to set the time. After the introduction, I began to chant the words, lowering my voice half-an-octave to fit with the song.
In a land by the sea, where anything could be, lived a boy almost a man, alone surrounded by friends, I began to weave the story of the creature known as Jester a normal who was taken from a fair as a child and experimented on by one of the magical community’s nightmares, the sorcerer and alchemist known as Puppetmaster. Jester was tortured and changed, his body becoming unfamiliar and powerful, magic force fed into him by the day. He eventually became strong enough to turn and kill the Puppetmaster, then ran away and became a lowly court jester in the home of the royal family of elves when the queen took pity on him. He fell in love with a maid in the royal household before growing insane with the magic forced into him and the perceived abuse at the hands of the royal family. He snapped and killed the royal family, taking control of the throne and keeping it with bloodshed. His beloved then died in childbirth, taking the child with her, and the Jester grew madder still, starting to see the hallucinations of Puppetmaster, his lover and a young girl he had once known and killed by accident. The elves then mounted a rebellion, their combined magic strong enough to subdue the Jester. He was tried for his crimes and sentenced to hanging, but when the time came, the rope slipped and he escaped. The song ends with him running off, just as mad as ever.
I let the last words fade away and slowed my fingers on the mandolin, keeping my eyes fixed on the woman. I hadn’t worked any other magic but a general Harping, which is meant to keep an audience captivated and make the music more vivid in a person’s mind, but she looked as though I had drugged her. Her eyes were dilated and her grin had turned sloppy as well as fierce. Once I stopped playing, the magic stopped, too and she blinked a few times, licking her lips as though granted a treat.
There was a smattering of applause, though most people in the tavern looked uncomfortable. I didn’t blame them. The story of Jester, while a very old song, was also based in history. Some say Jack the Ripper was really Jester after he escaped his noose. Others say that Jester still lived. Whatever the truth, it was a dark song and with what had happened to the First Minister, even I was getting the shivers down my spine. I saw some of the people start to mutter amongst themselves, shoulders hunched and looking as though they would much rather be elsewhere. The barkeep was glaring at me, likely for disrupting the pleasant mood. I nodded my head in his direction and started another song, this one just a simple and quick version of The Beatles’ “Revolution” with a bit of cheer strummed through it.
Shoulders relaxed and people started talking louder, some even with smiles on their faces. The woman standing before me was getting the cheer, because she smiled, but her eyes were sharp. I finished off the song with a flourish and climbed off the bench. Entertainment time was over. Now, I wanted answers.
“Who are you?” I demanded. The shifter slipped into a chair at our table and looked at Uncle Horace with interest.
“You are old for a Hunter,” she said mildly. Horace frowned and finished off the last of his mulled wine.
“And you’re pushy for a sabris,” he snapped. The woman narrowed her eyes and I had a sudden image of Mage putting his ears back and hissing.
“Sorry, a what?” I asked. “You’re not a shapeshifter?”
“Of course I am a shapeshifter,” she tossed her wild mane of dark hair. “I am a sabris shifter.”
I tried not to look too confused. Uncle Horace took pity on me and explained while tracing the wood grain of the table. “A sabris is a sort of panther-like creature. It is bred from shadows and silence, they say, and can walk the night without making a single sound. They were considered prized hunting cats for generations, but only extremely wealthy people could afford to buy them. Even catching them was nearly impossible. Once you earned the loyalty of a sabris, though, it was devoted for life. I thought they were extinct.”
She sniffed, “Not extinct. Just quiet.”
“’Bred from shadows and silence’?” I asked. “I’ve heard some strange ones, but that nearly takes the cake.”
“Are not Harpers sprung from the side of Apollo?” the sabris-shifter countered. I winced at that one.
“Fine. Alright, sabris, what’s your name?” I pushed my mug away from me, feeling put-out.
“Varean. I am here to ask your help, Harper.” She blinked those gold-tinged eyes and I felt a bite of pity. That made me annoyed, because I hadn’t been feeling at all sympathetic towards her and now I was all about helping.
“Stop messing with my emotions, Varean,” I snapped. “It’s not polite.”
“An empath, too,” Uncle Horace’s frown deepened. “Great.”
Varean held up her hands, her bracelets clinking. “I apologise,” she said. “It is not often a person can sense what I am doing. But I would expect no less from a true Harper. I would not have done it but to get you to listen.”
I sighed, “A true Harper. So, what, my playing ‘Fair Chance’ was proof that I’m a master Harper?”
“No, that much is obvious,” Varean shook her head. “I wanted to test your strength.”
“And you can do that by getting me to play.” I blinked and frowned, thinking, then rubbed the heel of my palms into my eyes. “It had nothing to do with ‘Fair Chance’. You wanted to see how I would make people react after the song. The cheer I put in to ‘Revolution’, that was your audition?”
“Not many Harpers can cheer a whole room,” Varean nodded her confirmation. Horace set his hands on the table and knit his fingers together, looking at Varean with a slightly curled lip.
“What, exactly, is it that you want Marsh to do?” he asked. I wanted to smack my uncle over the head. Varean knew my name, now, and that could be a very dangerous thing with an empath.
She looked around and licked her lips nervously, her sharpened teeth glinting in the light of the tavern. “I need your help to hunt down and kill the creature that killed the First Minister.”
Of course she did.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said flatly. Yes, I know, how eloquent. What a nice way to treat a lady who asked for your help. What about doing something good and being a hero for a change? Yeah right. “The entire Magic Council is going to be looking for whoever killed the First Minister. They have Hunters on their side and just about all the elves, I’m sure, considering the First Minister was one. I’m a Harper. On the scale from wimp to badass, we’re far closer to wimp. Trust me.”
Varean tossed her head and I would have sworn she was laughing had not the conversation been so serious. “Harpers are all the same,” she shook her head, still smiling. “They need so much convincing before they are willing to help. That is why you never hear about a Harper leading an army into battle or with great songs sung about them.”
“Probably because we’re the ones singing the songs,” I pointed out. “Besides, I already have a job.”
“Oh?” Varean raised an eyebrow and I wanted to bury my face in my mug. Even without her using her empath powers on me, she was difficult to ignore.
“I’m working with him,” I gestured to Horace, “to get rid of a horde of golems run amok.”
“Marsh…” Uncle Horace said, drawing out my name. I glared at him, knowing exactly what was coming. “You know, we can do both.”
“Really? Yes, let’s go galavanting off and find the person who murdered the First Minister. Because dealing with golems wasn’t hard enough,” I snapped.
“Actually, that is a good idea,” Varean piped up. I shifted my glare to her and was beginning to feel mighty outnumbered. “Whoever got golems to run ‘amok’ as you say would have been every powerful with earth magic.”
“Your point being?” I drawled in my best cowboy accent.
“Don’t you understand?” Varean asked, confused. I shook my head. “Whoever killed the First Minister must have been a user of earth magic. How else could the defences have been breached so easily?”
Horace let out a low whistle and nodded. “She’s right. Don’t give me that look, lad. You know your lore just as well as I do. What sort of magic are elves good at?”
“Fire and light and air, the incorporeal magics,” I rattled off. The teaching-songs had certainly drilled that into me. “The dark elves are better at manipulating shadows than light, hence their name, and have a better ability with fire, whereas the other elves are better with heat than straight fire, though they are capable in just about every branch of magic, not just those three.”
“Correct,” Varean said. “Which means that the First Minister should have been able to counter whoever it was that came after her, except if they were using earth magic.”
She was right, curses. Earth magic and the more incorporeal magic were inherently opposite and it was extremely rare to find an elf capable of using earth magic for more than just growing flowers or vegetables. The Fae, on the other hand, were magically speaking, opposite the elves. They were good with all things corporeal – earth, water, healing – and had difficulty with the other elements. The two immortals were elementals at heart, but with enough wizarding capabilities to generalise their magics. If a Fae – or a wizard with wicked strong earth magic – went after the First Minister and was stronger than she was, then, well, the First Minister didn’t really stand a chance.
The finding someone stronger than the First Minister bit was what scared me. I mean, I’m a Harper. We’re pretty capable, but we don’t like throwing around that much magic.
I narrowed my eyes at Varean, “What interest do you have in this?”
Varean shivered and narrowed her eyes in return, “That’s none of your business, Harper.”
Uncle Horace set his mug on the table loud enough to make us both jump. “Enough,” he said. He looked at me and I sighed. “Marsh, I think we should do this. The Council could probably use all the help they can get.”
“They’re the most powerful creatures to come out of the magical world,” I pointed out, but at this point, I already knew that we were going to do this. “I doubt our efforts will mean all that much to them. And you do realise that this means we’re going to have to visit the Fae, right?”
Horace nodded. I threw up my hands in surrender and he replied by reaching across the table to ruffle my hair like I was a kid. “That’s the spirit! Come on, we have to go find The Scarlet Dragon.”
Varean rose when Horace did, “Why? What could possibly be there? It’s nothing but a dirty dance-house and tavern in the Hyperion quarter.”
“A little birdie,” I snickered at my name for Mage, “told us to start there. We’ll see what information we can gather and go from there.”
We were halfway out of the tavern when Varean caught up with us. If she had been shifted, her fur would have been bristling (I knew that look from when Mage threw it at me). “What about the Fae? Hmm? They use earth magic, you said so yourself. We can go there first.”
“First off, little sabris,” Uncle Horace pushed past her and started down the street, “the Fae are not the only ones who can use earth magic. Secondly, they don’t involve themselves in the affairs of the Council. If we need to, we’ll talk to them, but not until absolutely necessary.”
“Besides,” I added, “the Fae are touchy. Don’t mess with them unless you have to, that’s my advice.”
I followed after Uncle Horace, tucking my hands into my pockets, feeling the little flute I had stowed there. It was some comfort, as was the mandolin on my back, but things were still unsettling. Varean ran to catch up with us and planted herself in our path, eyes flashing, “You are making a mistake.”
“Will you hush down, girl?” Horace hissed between his teeth. Unlike in the tavern where people were talking and laughing and generally making enough noise to cover up our conversation, out in the Underground proper, people were quiet and keeping their heads down. Varean was making a scene. “Empty stone -”
“Has ears,” Varean rolled her eyes, but she stepped out of the way and lowered her voice. “I know. I still think you’re making a mistake.”
“Well, if we are, then it won’t be a big one,” I pointed out. “The Scarlet Dragon is about an hour’s walk from here, right? Well, Fae territory is not too far off from that point, if I’m remembering correctly. Hyperion quarter buts the Nothing Land between us and the Fae realm.”
This calmed the shifter down more and she ducked her head, at least attempting to blend in to the rest of the people around, the few of them that there were. “You have been to Fae territory before?”
I shuddered, “Yeah. Once. It’s not an experience I want to repeat any time soon.”
“What happened? I didn’t think the Fae were violent creatures.”
I thought of Mage and the way he would have happily stripped dead mice bones in front of me, sharpening his claws on my desk or launching himself at me when he was in a bad mood. “Not generally, no. They can be mean when they want to, but unlike the elves, the Fae don’t get involved in wars or battles unless directly threatened. However… they don’t have a very good grasp on what lesser beings can take and their realm lives on a different reality-plane. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about normals wandering into Fae woods and emerging a century later, addled and drunk but unharmed? Or about how people just seem to loose all will to move when listening to their music?”
“Magic protects us,” Varean shrugged off the danger with the sort of look that told me she had no idea what the Fae were capable of. It occurred to me that she was probably quite young for a shifter. Most of them managed to live a couple of centuries looking about twenty-five, but she could easily have been twenty-five. Granted, I wasn’t much older than she was. I had seen a whole lot of magic, though.
“Sort of,” I said. “It has to either work perfectly harmoniously with Fae magic or be completely opposite Fae magic. That’s why you don’t hear about wizards or sorcerers or witches who wander into Fae territory and return the same. Elves can jump in and out, but that’s about it.”
“So, we go mad?”
“No,” I shook my head. “Harpers are… unique. I can Tune a spell that will protect us from the major effects of the Fae, but we’ll still have to be wary. That’s why The Scarlet Dragon is a much better option. Someone there might know something that will send us in the right direction.”
“Will the two of you stop yammering?” Horace turned and hissed back at us. We had been keeping our voices down, but when you’re one of the few people talking in a giant stone chamber, noises tend to echo. “We don’t need no more attention drawn to us.”
I held up my hands and Varean ducked her head farther. Uncle Horace growled and shifted his leather jacket over his shoulders. I heard a mild metal clank and somehow, the idea that he was carrying an arsenal made me feel better. It shouldn’t have, because this was Uncle Horace, but it did. We walked the rest of the way to The Scarlet Dragon in silence.
The deeper into the Underground we went, the quieter things got. The few people that had been wandering around the area near the entrance dwindled away into just about nothing. The ones we did see were watching us from the shadows as much as we were watching them. Hyperion quarter was known for being sort of rough, but I had never had problems there before – not that I ventured deeply all that often. Today, I was nervous enough to pull out my flute and start whistling up some werelights to illuminate our way. There were lights about, but these kept a good seven foot radius around us perfectly lit.
The Scarlet Dragon was an old tavern that had been around for a very long time. You could tell by the way the door was sunk down from the walkway, the steps worn smooth over time. The door itself was made of poorly-fitted wood painted a garish red. The tavern was cut into the stone and it was of a type to have no windows. That didn’t stop light and sound from escaping through the door. After our nerve-wracking walk, the sound was almost inviting. I say almost because there were enough hisses and growls and shouts to mean that we were about to walk into some serious trouble.
For once, I took the lead. I stowed my flute in my pocket and the werelights extinguished. Then, taking a deep breath, I pushed through the door and into the hazy darkness that was The Scarlet Dragon. The room was as garishly coloured as the door with red, purple, orange, yellow and occasionally gold pieces of fabric were hung up around the room, catching the lantern light and casting dancing shadows. There were low tables and rugs all around; you had to sit on the floor or else not sit at all. The patrons were mostly male and mostly the thuggish, potentially thievish sort you find in, say, jails. I couldn’t tell all that many species from where I stood, but I definitely saw a few pointed ears and claws.
“Hello,” a low, sultry voice greeted my ears with an almost musical quality. I stepped away from the woman moving towards us, preferring to let Uncle Horace take the lead on that one. She was a dark, curvaceous woman, her green eyes practically shining in the half-light of the room. She wore a corset, very-nearly translucent skirt and not a whole lot else. For all that she looked to be about forty, she was, ahem, very attractive. Not that I was paying all that much attention, mind. I had Zoe to think about and the woman scared me as much as interested me. Nope, Uncle Horace could have her. “Welcome to the Scarlet Dragon…”
Only, I had forgotten that Uncle Horace wasn’t with us. He had been banned from The Scarlet Dragon and was waiting across the street at a food stall. That left Varean facing the woman and the result was quite loud.
“Varean!” the woman had the control not to shout, but it was a near thing. Her eyes flashed gold and I could tell that she was a second or two away from a full-blown shift. Turning into whatever beastie she was at that point would not have been good.
“Madame,” Varean bared her teeth, fangs as pointy as Mage’s when he was in a bad mood.
“I told you that you would never be welcomed back to our fold,” the woman hissed, her tongue forking between her teeth. I gulped and she cast her eyes at me, shifting fully human again. “You think you can run back here with… this as your way of apology?” This time she gestured at me. I began to feel mildly indignant.
“He is a Harper,” Varean said flatly. “And I don’t want back into ‘the fold.’ I want information.”
There was an immediate change in the woman. She straightened, relaxed, shot me a smile and turned around to lead us farther into the tavern. “In that case, why don’t you come have a drink? The show is about to start.”
After a minute or two of being seated at a table – far from the door, I noted – and being waited on by almost-too-attractive women, I got the impression that things were about to go badly for me. Music started playing (recorded music, not a band or Harper) and I leaned over to Varean, who was plainly sulking.
“Um… what’s about to happen here?” I whispered.
“Dancing,” Varean harrumphed. I raised my eyebrows and she continued, rolling her eyes. “Of the exotic kind.”
“Actually,” I said, my voice about three tones higher than usual, “I sort of figured that out. I meant what’s about to happen to us?”
“Well,” Varean didn’t bother lowering her voice. Thankfully, the music was being pumped through speakers loud enough to drown her out. “Whoever is dancing will dance. Then you’ll be asked to go up and play and afterwards, you’ll be taken to the back room where they can praise you. You’ll be drugged or tricked into a magical bargain to give your services to Madame and I’ll be either killed or thrown into the back alley.”
“Cheerful bunch, this,” I squeaked. Coughing slightly, I lowered my voice to avoid the attention of the rowdy looking trio next to us. “How are we meant to get any information, then?”
“Oh, you’ll want to talk to Madame.” Varean’s accent thickened when she got angry, I noted. It seemed she didn’t much care for this Madame. Not that I could blame her. “But you’ll have to pay dearly or coerce the information out of her.”
“Right,” I said, “great.” At this point, it was pretty impossible to ignore the dancers. There were two of them, complete opposites who somehow managed to look exactly alike, and they were certainly not shy. One sported horns that curled around her ears, her dark hair cropped short and hanging around her head like a halo of shadows. I knew that if she turned her eyes in my direction, they would likely be some shade of red, signature of niolax. The other was almost ephemeral, with white-blonde hair that hung down to her waist, a set of small wings that moved when she did and eyes black as night. A bird shifter of some sort who didn’t mind dancing half-shifted. I didn’t know all that much about shifters – excepting they came in just about every form – but I didn’t imagine that going through half a shift was terribly comfortable.
They moved very… sinuously. I could tell that the dance was meant to engage the entire room, but they eyes kept flicking to me. Instead of making me interested, all it did was confirm the idea of danger to my mind. Walking into the Scarlet Dragon had been the obvious choice. Mage was hardly ever wrong about things in the Underground, for all he stayed in the shop and that meant this was the place to be. The obvious choice was turning out to be rather a dangerous one.
I hoped Varean was as capable as she seemed, because otherwise, the investigation was going to be very short lived.
“What do you think of my dancers, Harper?” The Madame snuck up on me and put her hands on my shoulder. I jumped, as far as it was possible to jump while sitting, and scrambled to stand. Madame gave me a half-lidded look.
“They’re, uh, limber,” I said, doing my best not to sound terrified. Varean, thanks a lot, stayed exactly where she was, wearing a sneer.
“Yes,” Madame shrugged a shoulder, “but it is sometimes so hard to dance properly when the music is subpar. Recordings never do as well as live musicians.” She eyed me and I said nothing; even if Varean hadn’t warned me what was coming, Madame was hardly subtle. “Would you do a poor woman the honour of playing a song for us? It would be very good business.”
“Er,” was my intelligent reply. The two dancers had finished their song and come up behind me, the niolax resting her head on my shoulder and the other twining her arm through mine.
“Please, Harper? It would be so nice to dance to real music,” the shifter purred. I coughed uncomfortably. My track record of being intelligent and capable with women was exactly nil and the fact that they were half-naked didn’t help at all. Varean raised her eyebrow at me and nodded.
I didn’t care that she was meant to be taking her cues from me, I was just relieved that somebody was in control of the situation. “Alright,” I said. “If it matters that much.”
Madame grinned, her eyes flashing yellow, and clapped her hands together. “Wonderful! Oh, this means so much to me and the girls.” The two dancers hummed in agreement and pulled me over to the stage. I twisted my mandolin around and strummed a chord to make certain it was tuned when a thought struck me.
“Actually, I think I’ll play my flute instead,” I pulled the instrument out of my pocket and Madame blinked in mild confusion. “Think sinuous,” I said softly so only she could hear. She nodded – who was going to argue with a Harper about music – and I took my place on the edge of the stage. A few test notes, some tuning and I took a deep breath, hoping I was as capable as Varean believed. Because this was going to be tricky.
I started playing and the song was unrecognisable at first. The two dancers started moving, regardless, and only when “Trust in Me” from The Jungle Book was obvious did things get interesting. Tuning a whole group of people isn’t terribly hard. You can usually count on group psychology to get everyone doing exactly what you want. Tuning everyone in a group excepting two people is much, much harder. You have to focus on everyone but them, ignoring the pulsing presence in your music and play to a frequency that doesn’t affect them. When you’re trying to get people to do things like lay down arms or clean, it’s nearly impossible, because those Tunings are hard enough on group psychology. Putting a sleep, however, on everyone but a few is only relatively difficult.
The dancers were the first to drop off to sleep, being the most in tune with the music. A moment later and the rowdy crowd next to our table slept. By the time I finished playing the last flourish, the entire room was dead asleep and would be for hours, excepting Varean and Madame.
The moment the dancers had fallen asleep, Madame turned to attack and stop the music. Varean was intelligent enough to stop her. The two women lunged for one another, stumbling over resting bodies as they scrambled to fight. Varean shifted enough to gain claws and sharpened teeth and Madame grew scales and two wickedly long fangs that dripped with venom. I played a three-note trill over and over again, focusing on Madame’s rhythm. She fought me, pushing through my spell as though it were sludge. Eventually, her arms dropped from sheer exhaustion and her shift faded until she was leaning against a post, panting and fully human.
“Curse you, Harper,” she hissed. Varean growled low in her throat and Madame just looked at the girl as though she were a waste of time. “If you didn’t want to play, you could have said so.”
“And end up dead in the back? I don’t think so,” I stepped off the stage but kept my flute to hand. I was tired from the focus of Tuning twice in such a short amount of time and doubted I had more than a few bars of music in me, but that was enough.
Madame snorted, shaking her head, “You listen to Varean too much. I would never hold anyone against their will.”
“Right,” I said flatly. “Because everyone who works for you is so willing. Varean here wasn’t.”
“And now she doesn’t work for me,” Madame spat. Her strength was returning. She was throwing off my Tuning faster than I had expected. Time to get her talking.
“What do you know about a horde of golems running rampant around here?” I asked. Madame widened her eyes in surprise.
“You’re interested in golems? Those monsters have been wreaking havoc all over the Hyperion quarter and in the Deeps. Rumour is that they even crossed over to Fae territory,” Madame said. “I’d have paid you to get rid of the monsters. There was no need to Harp me.”
“It’s called Tuning,” I corrected absently. “What do you know about them? Where can I find them? Who is controlling them?”
“I don’t know about who is controlling them, but the golems come out at night. They like causing damage. The more populated and built up the area, the better,” Madame rolled her shoulders. The Tuning was wearing off, which was not good. I could see yellow flashing in her eyes. She was regaining control of her shift. “They haven’t come too close to the Dragon, but certainly a couple streets away. Scared my girls some, too, them as were out to dinner. I’d do rather a lot to get them under control.”
“Well, thanks for the information,” I said, grabbing Varean’s arm and backing away. “We’ll be out of your hair. Your customers will wake in about an hour, no worse for wear.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Harper,” Madame smiled, revealing her fangs, dripping with venom. I swallowed nervously and kept backing away. “You see, as much as I would like to get rid of a menace, those golems are nothing compared to someone who attacks me in my own home.”
“Yes, well, I do apologise for that,” I tried to look apologetic. I think I managed mildly-terrified. “It wasn’t very gentlemanly of me, but I’m a Seville and no one ever said we were very gentlemanly.”
“Seville,” Madame hissed the word, her dislike of me growing exponentially. That’s the problem with my family name. Sometimes people get scared and leave me alone. Other times, not so much. This was one of those other times. Her fingers grew long, needle-like claws and I watched her stalk closer. “You dare bring that name in here? After what your family did?”
“Okay, first off, I had nothing to do with that,” I said, holding up my hands. “Secondly, there’s no harm done! Your customers will wake up with no memory and feeling quite thirsty. You can provide them drinks and… and you’re not buying this.”
“Not in the slightest,” Madame hissed, going full-on whatever it was she was (some sort of snake thing). She looked like a naga, her legs disappearing into a tail and the rest of her staying human, but no naga was ever given needle claws and teeth, not to mention hair that waved violently around her head.
“Great,” I muttered, “a gorgon.” At least she wasn’t Medusa, because the added curse of being turned to stone would have been rather unfortunate.
“Marsh,” Varean hissed, her own voice deepened and rumbling in her chest. I took my eye off the gorgon for a second to see that she, too, had shifted into a great black cat with powerful shoulders, claws the length of my fingers, ears laid flat against her head and a long tail. She looked like a panther with longer limbs, more lean muscle and a heck of a lot more pointy bits. “Time to go.”
“I’m right there with you.” I didn’t hesitate. I ran. I’m not very strong, but I sure can run. So when I decided to bolt, jumping over sleeping customers of The Scarlet Dragon, I bolted. I was just about out of magic and I didn’t have time to stop and perform anyways. That is one problem with Harping. It is awfully difficult to play music and run at the same time.
I made it to the door before Madame managed to get past Varean and lunge after me. She raked her claws at my back and hit my mandolin instead. The strings snapped, but the instrument had been given protective spells by elves, who were fairly serious about such things, and it held without a scratch. I yelped and shoved my way through the door, hearing Varean roar and slam her bulk against Madame. There was a hiss and a scream of pain and then Varean was tearing out the door behind me.
Madame was right on our tails and to say that she was not happy might have been an understatement. Deep claw marks were gouged across her scaly chest and her own claws dripped with blood. Her fangs were dropping poison which hissed as it struck the ground. Her face was twisted in fury. “You will die,” she snarled.
“Lady, seriously! You need to relax,” I backed away, bringing my flute to my mouth. She roared and threw herself in my direction, moving far more quickly than any snake has a right to. Except dragons. They can do whatever they want. Her poisonous fangs were about a foot away from my face, her claws gaining purchase by scratching at my arms, when she froze. Her eyes flicked back and forth in a panic and she fell back with a hiss. Madame’s glamour fell away and I saw a crossbow bolt protruding from her chest.
Uncle Horace stood there, calm as you please, crossbow pistol in one hand and another bolt in another. “Well, looks like you got yourself some girl trouble.”
“You could say that,” I said, checking myself over for any major injuries. I had some punctures on both my arms, but apart from stinging like you wouldn’t believe, they were fairly harmless. I would have to bandage them to keep from bleeding over everything, though. Otherwise, there was the damage to my mandolin strings and the general exhaustion that came from Harping on such a large scale. “Took you long enough,” I staggered over to Uncle Horace and slapped his shoulder with all the strength I had. I think he felt it. Maybe.
“Marsh,” Varean stumbled forwards, her hand pressed to her left shoulder and her eyes wide. She was still sprouting two very large, pointed black ears and a tail and her eyes weren’t quite human. She lifted her hand from her shoulder and gave me a grimace. “Ow,” she said.
I saw the puncture marks, then. They weren’t from claws but from fangs. And the fangs of a gorgon were most definitely poisonous. “Varean!” I shoved my flute into my pocket and managed to catch her before she fell on top of the dead Madame. It occurred to me in the back of my mind that we had just killed a member of the magical community and that the other Hunters would have to look into us once they found whoever it was that killed the First Minister. “She’s been poisoned.”
Uncle Horace knelt next to us and looked at the wound. He reached out to prod the bloody marks and Varean groaned, barely holding onto consciousness. “I don’t have the medicine for that,” he said, looking at me.
I shook my head, “Even if I weren’t just about tapped out – which I am – I don’t have the skills to perform a healing that complex. Gorgon poison is really deadly and moves through the bloodstream very quickly. It’ll take me at least an hour and a really large sandwich to get back to fighting fit.”
“Then we don’t have a choice, do we?” Uncle Horace asked. I winced and shook my head, knowing exactly what he was talking about. “Alright. Help me lift her.”
I got one of Varean’s arms over my shoulder and Horace took the other, lifting the shifter to her feet. For all that she was well-muscled, she felt light. Either women were somehow deceptive or the poison was doing its work already and Varean was burning energy trying to fight it. She couldn’t do that for long. “Let’s go,” I said and we started off at a half-run, moving as quickly as possible to the border of the Hyperion quarter.
The Scarlet Dragon was near the edge of the quarter and thankfully for us, no one stopped to ask where we were going. Actually, there was no one about at all. Not a single person had witnessed our fight with Madame and even the few people that had been wandering around despite the danger were completely gone. The closer we got to the border, the emptier things felt. Varean was gasping for breath by the time we made it to the border. There was a shimmering wall of light to stop us going any farther.
“This is new,” I said.
“We don’t have time to wonder what they did this for,” Horace bared his teeth at the wall. I knew what he was going to do and really, really hoped that it would work. If it didn’t, then things were going to go badly. He didn’t wait for permission, just forged ahead. I closed my eyes and held my breath.
The light didn’t sting or burn or fill my head with enough nonsense to make me go insane, as one would expect of the Fae. It just parted and let us past, which made absolutely no sense. That is, until the light turned alarm-red behind us and a screeching siren began to wail. “They know we’re here,” I said.
Uncle Horace held up his free hand, nodding to the figures emerging from the darkness beyond the wall of light. I copied him, making sure that Varean was still supported. “I’d say so, lad.”
“So, how do you want to play this?” I asked. “Beg for help or try and bargain with them?”
“Frankly, I don’t think they look in the mood for either.” Uncle Horace was, again, right. The Fae stalking towards us with all the immortal grace that magic gave their species did not look at all thrilled to see us. Their eyes, cat-pupiled and narrow, were glaring and I could see magic sparking at their fingertips. Even the stone beneath their feet seemed to tremble as they moved.
“Hi,” I said stupidly. “Nice light. Um, we were just attacked by a gorgon and our friend here is poisoned. Do you think you could help us?”
The three Fae looked at each other, telling each other without uttering a single word that we were all quite insane. I shifted my weight and Varean let out a low groan, her breath coming fast. Uncle Horace frowned and was about to say something very undiplomatic (I could tell by the look on his face). “Look,” I said, holding up my free hand, “we are unarmed. Actually, no, he’s armed, but we don’t mean you any harm.”
“Your weapons could not harm us, puny human,” the centre Fae – a bulky guy for the lean-limbed race – sneered at us. The one to his left, a woman who had three scars across her face, rolled her eyes. I recognised the expression from Mage; she was fed up with him and probably had been for some time.
“There are humans who could do battle with us, Taris,” she said. Then, looking us over, “I doubt these would even have the strength to battle with one of our weaker children.”
I nodded in agreement, “No. We really, really wouldn’t. We’re just trying to get our friend help. Maybe rest and recuperate. I need to put new strings on my mandolin and my uncle here is just trying to find the best pint of ale in the Underground. We have mazumahs, we can pay you.”
“A Harper, a Hunter and,” the female Fae sniffed, raising her eyebrows, “a feline shifter. Unusual company in these times.”
“She’s dying,” I pleaded. The silent Fae spoke up. He was shorter than his companions and instead of the dark hair the other two sported, this one bore hair of a bright, blood red. Even his eyes shone red and I got the impression that he wasn’t one to mess with.
“I smell the poison on her,” he said, his voice reminding me of knives on sharpening stones. “You will come with me.”
“But, Sir-” the female pleaded. The red-haired Fae shot her a look and she immediately silenced. Now there was power. This guy, I gathered, wasn’t some simple guard. He had been sent here especially for us. He gestured and turned, starting to walk away. Uncle Horace and I didn’t hesitate. Varean was becoming dangerously limp and her breath was shallow. We followed the Fae into the heart of a realm where the laws of nature as we understood them were quite absent. The Fae lived in a place that was pure, untamed magic, and too much of it could kill a person. Unlike the Fae, though, Uncle Horace, Varean and I weren’t immortal.
I swallowed my fear and kept walking, doing my best to ignore the way that purple-leaved trees began to sprout from the stone walls.
The red-haired Fae led us to a town of sorts in the middle of a stone forest. Trees sprouted out of the stone as easily as if it had been dirt. There was even undergrowth in shades that certainly didn’t come in normal forests, unless orange was normal on a fern. The Fae lived in huts made of large stone slabs that had probably been magicked into place. Varean was taken from Uncle Horace and I and into one of the huts. I made to follow when the red-haired Fae held out his hand to stop me.
“There is too much magic in a healing for humans to stand by and watch,” he said. All things considered, he was probably right. The Fae were in the heavyweight category when it came to magic and with them throwing a bunch around to heal Varean, Uncle Horace and I would probably be toast. Literally. “You will come with me.”
“And where be we going?” Horace demanded, setting his jaws. Just like him to beg for help then get snippy with our hosts. I nudged him in the ribs hard enough that he jerked and looked at me. I raised my eyes pointedly. Horace sighed. “I’d be mighty grateful for a bite to eat.”
“You will be fed,” the Fae said, turning and walking to another stone hut. I could see curious and hostile faces watching us from between trees, huts and perched on large rocks jutting out of the ground. Uncle Horace and I were taken into the hut and then told to wait. I immediately sat down on a plush cushion, finally feeling the adrenaline in my system wearing off.
I was out of magic. Well, I probably could have dredged some up if I tried really hard, but I was tired and not in the mood to try. I needed a nap and some food to be anywhere near fighting fit. Uncle Horace, for all that he hadn’t been wounded like Varean or myself – my arms were still bleeding, annoyingly enough, from where the gorgon’s claws punctured them – was looking worn. I had to remind myself that he was nearly sixty and we had probably walked the equivalent of five or six miles, on constant alert, one of them with a wounded woman being carried between us. Horace paced the small hut for a minute before he, too, sat on a cushion.
“Well, lad, this’ll be quite a mess,” he said. I nodded, pulling my mandolin off my back and wincing as the cut strings scratched me. I dug into my bag to pull out new strings, trying to get my fingers to cooperate. They wouldn’t even do that for me.
“It could be worse,” I muttered, trying to stay positive. Uncle Horace raised an eyebrow. “Mage could be here,” I said.
The Hunter laughed, the sound raspy and low but true. “That cat would be a big problem, that is true. Especially here.”
The door opened before I got a chance to reply and we were greeted by two new Fae and our red-haired friend. He gestured to the women beside him, both holding a basket. “These are Tagik and Lored,” he said, each one bowing her head in turn. “They will feed you and bind your wounds. If you are in need of anything else, you need only speak.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Uh, what’s your name?”
The Fae lowered his brow and frowned. “A deep question, Harper. I am called Hareityn by your people. Once you have eaten and rested, we will talk and you will tell us how three such oddly matched people came to be travelling together and wounded by a gorgon.”
“Right,” I smiled weakly. I didn’t really want the Fae to be digging into our mission. I knew that we could get some information from them that would help, but somehow being interrogated by beings of great power that could disintegrate you for giving an answer they didn’t like wasn’t very comforting.
Hareityn nodded gravely and left. Tagik knelt on the ground and opened her basket, revealing an assortment of fruits, vegetables, bread and cheeses. Lored opened her basket to reveal bandages and what looked like salves. Horace and I wasted no time – we went straight for the food, eating ravenously. Lored exchanged a look with Tagik, probably laughing at the humans, but I could care less. Only when I had wolfed down two pieces of bread and some cheese did Lored gesture to my arms.
“Oh, yeah,” I said, realising that they were still oozing blood. Obviously the gorgon’s claws hadn’t been as poisonous as her fangs, but they were doing some sort of damage. Lored cut away my ruined shirt sleeves and wiped the wounds clean, frowning at the blood that continued to drip out of the tiny holes. Feeling better with something in my stomach, I whistled a quick, three note trill and felt what little magic I had left burn through my system. The poison was gone, but suddenly I had a roaring headache, my stomach felt as empty as before and I was fairly certain I was going to black out. I did, too.
“Marsh, lad,” Uncle Horace shook me awake. It must have been a few minutes later, because Lored was just tying off the second bandage on my arms. “You overdid yourself.”
“Gee, I would never have guessed,” I grumbled, sitting up. “I need a proper rest before I can do anything at this point. And more food.”
“Eat, sleep, you will be safe,” Tagik nodded her head, her voice musical and bird-like. I wanted to listen to her forever and simultaneously clap my hands over my ears to block out the noise. The Fae were sometimes dangerous that way, their magic seeping into everything they did and were, including their voices. Some, like Hareityn, could obviously control it so a human wouldn’t implode at a turn, but Tagik was barely contained. No wonder she and Lored didn’t say much.
“Okay,” I murmured woozily. The two Fae exchanged a look and left the hut. Uncle Horace handed me some more food. I barely remember eating it before I fell asleep, but I must have, because the last thing I do remember was that the basket was empty and I finally felt full.
When I woke, it was full dark. I sat up and looked around, trying to adjust my eyes to see something I couldn’t see. Someone put a hand on my shoulder and I nearly jumped out of my skin. “Hush, lad, it’s just me,” Uncle Horace said in a low voice.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Why is it dark?”
Now, this may sound like a dumb question, but unlike in the normal world, the Underground never gets dark. This is because everyone who lives there has their own schedule and the lights are always on, be it flame, magic or some form of electricity stolen from the city above. If you want it dark, shutter your windows. For it to be full dark, especially in Fae territory, where things were pretty full up on magic, was very, very wrong.
“I don’t know,” Horace growled. “Lights went out about half hour ago. Tried raising a ruckus to see if anyone would come, but all I got were one of those two, Tagik or Lored don’t know which, popping her head in and shushing me. Whatever it is, it ain’t natural.”
I sat up and managed to reach for my mandolin without hurting myself. I was feeling better, almost normal. My mandolin’s strings were still broken, I realised, and reached instead for the flute in my pocket. It was harder to whistle up a light and ask questions, but at least I would be able to see. I blew a few notes, ending in a trill of the lowest note I could sustain. A werelight sprang into being, growing slowly and remaining dim so as not to hurt our eyes. Horace looked around and went to the door. He opened it and we were immediately greeted by hissing from the Fae waiting outside.
“Put the light out, fool Harper,” Hareityn snarled, lunging inside. I lowered the flute and the light died.
“What’s going on?” I demanded.
“A healing to save your companion’s life. The poison was deep in her blood and much magic is being taken to heal her. To take any away and distract the spell keepers would be fatal to her.”
“Can we see her?” I asked. “Bring a torch or something, maybe.”
Hareityn said something quick and unintelligible and a few moments later, an old miner’s lantern was brought. The candlelight was barely bright enough to illuminate the few feet around us, but at least we could see. Being caught in the unlit Underground without a way to see was as close to suicide as a body could come.
“Where is Varean?” I asked. Uncle Horace came to stand by my shoulder. Hareityn bared his teeth, revealing very sharp fangs. I swallowed but held my ground. My experience with Mage had taught me that if I kept my stance, he would back down on most things. It looked like Mage was true to his kind. Hareityn closed his mouth and sighed.
“She is lucky to have such devotion. Come, I will take you to her. Then we will ask questions.” Hareityn turned and stalked out of the stone hut. Uncle Horace and I followed the Fae through their village and trees, ignoring the many eyes that watched us as we walked by. One thing you should note about the Fae: like cats, their eyes glow in the dark. Horace and I drew closer together until our arms were almost touching, our subconsciousnesses reasoning that if we stayed in the circle of light cast by the lamp, we would be safe. Times of danger makes fools of us all, I suppose.
Hareityn brought us to a clearing that was illuminated by a circle of torches, enough that we could see exactly what was happening. The clearing was perfectly circular and trees were spaced evenly around the circle, with a gap of about three feet between each tree. A Fae sat in each gap, legs crossed and arms held out, arms up. Their eyes were closed and they all looked as though they were concentrating fiercely. Some even twitched an ear or a lip as they worked. In their hands, streamers of magic seemed to take shape, moving towards a flat figure in the centre of the clearing. Varean lay on her back, her arms at her sides, her eyes wide open, though I doubted if she actually saw anything. Her skin rippled with a barely-controlled shift, patches of fur appearing in one place just to vanish and appear in another. Her eyes changed colour almost constantly and the nubs of ears appeared on her head for a brief moment before disappearing. The Fae magic streamed over and around her, but couldn’t seem to get close enough to touch.
I looked at Hareityn and he spoke, softly, “The gorgon magic is strong, which is why they were nearly wiped out during the Grecian era. Fighting the poison is difficult. It fights back. Some try to distract it, let other in, but it is clever. It knows Fae-touch.”
“Can anything be done?” Uncle Horace asked, his voice taking on a slight quiver. I looked at him in surprise.
“Working more Fae magic is dangerous,” Hareityn sounded grave. “It knows Fae-touch and will kill its victim instead of eating her slowly.”
I winced at the description and fingered my flute in my pocket. “What about Harping?”
Horace growled in his throat and put a hand on my shoulder, “You can’t. You’re not a healer, lad.”
“But I am a very good distraction. I even got a full rest and a meal. I’m fine,” I assured Horace. Hareityn said nothing for a moment, then pursed his lips and looked at the scene in the clearing. A slightly silver light was beginning to form around Varean. The gorgon magic was manifesting itself.
“If you can distract it, do so. Our healers can do nothing otherwise,” the Fae said, his blood-red eyes fixed on Varean. I pulled out my flute and tried to think of some song that would distract the magic of a gorgon’s poison long enough for Fae healers to get in and heal Varean without actually disrupting the healing. Sheesh, they don’t ask for much, do they?
I closed my eyes and put the flute to my lips. It had a higher range than what this song usually called for, but as my mandolin was still out of commission, it was what I had. I took a deep breath, filled my lungs, and began to play “Telegraph Road” by Dire Straits. The moment the first notes hit the air, I could tell that the Fae were affected by it. They winced and their magic flickered for a moment while the silver magic grew brighter. I took the song down half a step and the situation reversed.
The silver magic recoiled from me and hunkered down on Varean. I stepped around Fae and into the clearing, careful to avoid the streamers of magic. The Fae magic streamed around me and the gorgon’s magic twisted, taking on a physical shape. I played louder and the thing hissed at me, striking with a cobra’s head. Great, I thought, still holding the Tuning and playing the song. Of course it had to be a snake.
The magic-snake lunged towards me again but couldn’t get close enough to strike, mostly because I was sure to keep moving, but also because my own brand of Harper magic was keeping me safe. I reached a chorus and the snake writhed in pain at my song, but it did not die. Without using such a focused piece of magic, I could play the whole ten minute song, no problem. With magic, I was getting drained very quickly. This was far more complicated music than putting some people in a tavern to sleep. My eyes were getting blurry and I shook my head, forcing my lungs to keep putting out air, my fingers to keep playing and my magic to keep flowing.
The snake struck again, silver fangs blurring. It lunged for my flute this time and I nearly lost the thread of the magic. For a moment, everything went sideways and I found myself on the ground, sitting with my legs folded and the flute still playing. The snake wove before me like a snake for a charmer, but it was the one trying to do the charming, not the other way around. That, frankly, made me mad.
I narrowed my eyes. I was the Harper, curses. I was the one wielding the magic. I was the one whose father had been known as the modern-day Pied Piper. I was a Seville and I’d be twice a fool if I let a stupid snake made out of some dead-creature’s magic charm me. I was angry and the snake was going to feel my anger. I didn’t even realise that my Tuning had changed from mere distraction to a killing song, nor did I realise that I had switched songs to the darker, more malignant Confutatis from Mozart’s Requiem until the snake fell to the ground in coils, silver magic churning violently in its scales. I bore down with my will and the snake let out a cry that sounded more like a woman screaming in fury, but it was unable to move. I played the final note of the Confutatis and held it, breathing circularly until the snake broke apart, silver magic disappearing into wisps and finally into nothing.
I released the note and lowered my flute. I heard a ringing in my ear that came from pushing farther than I ought and blinked, trying to focus as the world spun around me. A hand rest on my head for a moment and a rush of energy filled me, enough so that I felt almost too-full of life. I looked up and saw Hareityn looking down at me, a closed expression on his face.
“Varean?” I gasped out, my throat raw from my playing.
“Alive. Healed. She sleeps,” Hareityn answered. I nodded and went back to staring at a tree, the world starting to spin again. Whatever Hareityn did, it was temporary and fading fast. I wasn’t about to keel over, dead, but I probably could use another good meal and maybe a quick nap. Using that much magic twice in one day had worn me out.
“Marsh, lad, come on,” Uncle Horace lifted me from where I sat, putting my arm over his shoulder. “Let’s get you back to the hut where you can sleep.”
“Okay,” I mumbled.
“Harper,” Hareityn called after us. I looked back at him, my body already using the energy he gave to fill my depleted stores. “Piper blood runs through your veins.”
I scowled, but said nothing to the Fae, instead turning to go with Uncle Horace. He said nothing for a bit. “Uncle Horace?”
“Yes, lad?” he said, sounding weary.
“I think I might have overdone it a bit.”
“I think you might have,” he agreed. I nodded and said nothing more, collapsing on the pillows in the stone hut and falling asleep as soon as my eyes were closed. To think my day had started out so normally.
I woke up to one of the most annoying sounds I have ever come across: the opening riff to “Bad to the Bone” done out of tune through speakers that aren’t adequate to capture the song. It was my ring tone and for all I tried my darnedest, I couldn’t figure out how to change the thing. I was pretty sure that Mage had magicked my phone to always make that noise.
“Mmm hello?” I asked, still groggy, my mind not quite coherent.
“Oh, hi,” a female voice, musical and soft with no hint of hidden danger or magic spoke. I felt a fluttering in my stomach. “It’s Zoe, from, you know, open mic night?”
“Zoe!” I sat up, my brain starting to fire again. “How are you?”
“Just getting ready to head to work,” Zoe said. It sounded like she was in a coffee shop. “I was stopping by Coffee Joe’s and wondered if you wanted anything? I’m partial to the mango smoothies.”
I looked around, recognising the stone hut. The events of the past day – was it really only a day – came back to me. I was in Fae territory, for who knows how long, with my Uncle Horace and a shapeshifter was was grumpy at a good time, and had nearly just been killed. Frankly, I could do with a smoothie.
“I would love a smoothie,” I admitted, rubbing my eyes. “But I’m out of town. I got called in to an auction in… Oklahoma. You know, rare books and that sort of thing. I have someone watching the shop.”
“Oh,” Zoe sounded disappointed. “Alright then. Rare book auctions, wow. Those must be exciting.” She had perked up again, was more playful. I might actually have a chance with this girl if I could ever get back to Austin and sit down with her. Without my Uncle Horace or Mage anywhere near me.
“They’re thrilling,” I said sarcastically, thinking of the murder of the First Minister, the fight at The Scarlet Dragon, dealing with the Fae. “A bunch of rich people bidding on overpriced books that I can only dream of getting my hands on. I’m here for a client.”
“Gosh, your day might be more boring than mine,” Zoe chuckled. “I’m off to go listen to a board of director’s meeting and take notes. That’s what junior staff do at large firms.”
“At least you probably get a good catered lunch,” I held my hand to my stomach. I was starving. “Hey, I’d love to talk a while longer, but my client is calling. We’ll get together when I get back.”
“Sure thing,” Zoe agreed. “Bye, Marsh.”
“Bye,” I said, though the line was already dead. I stared at the phone and wanted to throw it across the room. Of all the times to get a reminder that there was a world outside of the stupid Underground, this was not the best. The Fae were being cooperative at the moment, but you never knew how long that would last. I might not even get out of their territory in this century (even though messing with the timeline was technically against the laws of the Magic Council). I was chasing down a horde of golems, then I was meant to find whoever killed the First Minister. I might end up dead or insane or worse. And here I was making plans with Zoe.
I was, however, impressed that I had such good reception in Fae territory.
“You are awake.” I jumped at the noise and turned, ready to scream in horror at whoever was trying to attack me. I saw Hareityn standing in the door, cool as you please, his red eyes fairly glowing in the dark. I wasn’t sure if he had been there for my conversation with Zoe, and I really didn’t want to know. My plans were none of his business. “Come, we will discuss your plans and purpose for being here.”
I groaned and stood, feeling extremely sore from my magic use the day before. I’ve known wizards who can pull out tornados and lightning with a wave of their hand and then go off to run a marathon, magically speaking. I’m not one of them. I had been throwing around an awful lot of magic for me and doing some pretty intricate stuff at the same time. I was sore, hungry and really not in the mood to play games with the Fae so they would help us and actually let us out of their territory. I also didn’t have much of a choice.
“Is there any chance I can get something to eat?” I asked, feeling the flute in my pocket. That made me feel marginally better, but not much. I was really a stringed instrument sort of guy and my mandolin hadn’t been fixed, yet.
“You will find food in the Questioning,” Hareityn answered. He turned and left the stone hut. I, naturally, followed. I was led through the clearing past the place where the healing of Varean had taken place. I looked around and saw that there were scorch marks on the ground, pushing all the way through the undergrowth until it was nothing but bare stone. I shivered.
Hareityn pushed on, saying nothing and moving with that otherworldly grace the Fae and their cousins, the elves, claim. It was predatory and magical at the same time. We finally came to a clearing much like the others, excepting this was much larger and housed a good number of Fae. Actually, the entire clearing was filled with Fae who were sitting on the ground or perched in trees or standing at the outskirts. The corner closest to us was relatively clear of people and I realised that was only because the Fae were giving Varean and Uncle Horace a wide berth. I sat with them, at Hareityn’s behest, and found a basket of fruit sitting before my spot. I dove right in, snatching up something that looked like a mango.
“You feeling better?” I asked around a mouthful of the fruit. Varean looked at me and nodded, though there was an obvious tension in her throat.
“What is this?” she breathed to me. Uncle Horace shifted and tightened his jacket around him. Probably to keep his weapons closer to hand.
“This is a Fae Questioning,” he said, his voice no lower than usual and, as a result, carrying through the clearing. I winced. “They do this to all unknown visitors to their territory. Ask them their purpose and their plans and determine if they are worthy of carrying them out.”
“If we did not do this,” a grizzled voice said, containing a wry musicality and deep humour, “then we would be overrun with foolish people trying to tap into our magic. And this way, the rest of the Underground can be free of those who are crazy enough to step into our territory. The ones who are worthy… well, there aren’t many of those about.”
The speaker was an old Fae who sat slouched over at the front of the crowd. She was wrinkled and leaned on a gnarled stick to hold her up. Her hair and eyes were as vivid a red as Hareityn and her teeth were all sharpened needles. This was the matriarch.
“If we hadn’t come here, our companion would have died,” Uncle Horace retorted. I swallowed the last of my fruit and put a hand on Horace’s shoulder.
“How about I do the talking?” I suggested.
“Let the Hunter speak,” the matriarch waved a hand casually. Several Fae in the vicinity moved away from her gesturing. If she had as much power in her hand as their winces seemed to suggest, then if we stepped one toe out of line, we were dead. Uncle Horace wasn’t my first choice for diplomacy. “He has such fire in him.”
“That fire will get us where we need to be,” Horace grumbled. I bit my lip to keep from saying something. “With your leave, we will return to our path.”
“Your path requires a sabris shifter and a descendent of the Piper at your side? You have chosen dangerous companions for your journey. What do you think you are doing?” the matriarch bared her teeth in a grin at Varean and myself. I swallowed nervously.
“Hunting golems,” Uncle Horace snapped. “There be a hoard of them gone wild hereabouts. I don’t have magic and don’t know no wizard who can do earth magic.”
“Which explains the Harper,” the matriarch nodded. Her eyes glinted in the light, shining like liquid blood. “But not the shifter.”
“She’s along for the ride,” Horace said.
He flicked his gaze to me and I did my best not to flinch when the matriarch cried, “Liar!” Her voice filled the clearing, carrying enough magic in it that the very trees shook with the force of her declaration. She laughed as the other Fae – excepting Hareityn – shifted uncomfortably. “Don’t play games with me, Hunter. I have been around since the time before the Darkening. You are not experienced enough to lie to the Fae. Why do you travel with the shifter?”
“She wanted Marsh to help her. She needed earth magic, too, to combat whoever it was set the trap for the First Minister,” Horace said. He clamped his jaw shut and glared at the matriarch. I gathered she had pulled the words from him. The Fae were notorious for the truth, often pulling it from their ‘guests’ with magic if they wanted to know or were just bored.
The matriarch cackled and leaned more heavily on her staff as though she were about to fall over at any moment. Varean curled her lips, revealing teeth that were pointed when they shouldn’t be. I imagined that if I looked into her eyes, they would be the golden colour of her shift. Even Uncle Horace seemed unnerved by the matriarch. I wanted very badly to get out of there, but there wasn’t a whole lot I could do. The Fae wouldn’t let us leave unless we had permission.
Finally, the matriarch stopped her laughing and opened her eyes to stare at us, a jester’s grin on her features. “You three… mortals… wish to take on the murderer of the First Minister?” she said breathlessly.
“Wish is a strong word,” I muttered, unable to keep from snarking. I immediately felt a shock go up my spine, locking my jaw together. Hareityn pointed in my direction, his eyes narrowed.
“The matriarch has chosen a speaker,” he hissed.
“Oh, enough, Hareityn,” the matriarch rolled her eyes. “You younglings are so serious! Taking offence at everything and imagining danger where none exists. Another few centuries under your skin and you will not be so hasty.”
“Grandmother-” Hareityn protested and the matriarch shook her head. My jaw was released and, while Hareityn tried to speak, it was obvious that he could not.
“What makes you think that you can possibly go after such a one as did for the First Minister?” the matriarch asked. I said nothing, not wanting my fears to keep us from getting out of there.
“The Council is afraid,” Varean snapped, her own restraint apparently worn thin. “They send out their Hunters to find this person and look in all the wrong places. They do not want a war within the magical community.”
“And rightly so, shifter,” the matriarch said. “A war in the magical community would serve no one. There are too many slights that have been festering under the current regime. That is still no reason why the Council would send Hunters purposefully astray.”
“And if they don’t know that they’re wrong? Or they’re choosing to ignore the obvious? I notice they haven’t come asking you for help,” Varean spit. The matriarch fit Varean with a glare that could curdle fresh milk and the shifter was silent – likely not by choice.
“That is enough lip from you,” the matriarch said. She drew her tongue over her needle teeth and looked at Horace and me. “They do not ask for our help, that is true. We have been on the Council for many years, but also apart from it. They fear to get us involved, for we are dangerous when roused. They also fear that we had something to do with the death of the First Minister due to a desire to turn the tables. However, that does not answer my original question. What makes you think you can do anything against such a foe?” The matriarch pointed at me and I knew it was my turn to talk. I swallowed nervously.
“Well, I was originally just going to go after the golems,” I said. I wished very badly I had my mandolin with me. “Then the shifter came and she asked for my help.” I shrugged, my words failing.
“You are doing this simply because she asked for your help? You must be very close to go on such a quest,” the matriarch raised her eyebrows.
“Er, no. We only met yesterday,” I said. “Just before we got attacked by the gorgon and came here.”
“Interesting.” She rolled the word around in her mouth before letting it drop like lead. My stomach dropped and I had a very bad feeling that we weren’t going to get out of here. I hoped Mage would mind the shop if Casey had to go anywhere. Maybe the cat could make some sort of bargain with the Fae to have my body properly buried. “You are no knight, no crusader or hero to go and leap at a person’s cry for help. I know your blood, Harper. You are Seville, though that name is only a front for the truth that lies in your past. Your father and his father and his father before that, all the way back to the first, they would not have done anything for less than a thousand weight of gold. Yet here you are…”
“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” I grumbled. The matriarch leaned forwards so swiftly that her bones seemed to turn to liquid for a moment.
“It has everything to do with this!” she cried, grinning madly. “You think you can escape your past? You even think that you can fight it. You brought your shifter here and battled with gorgon poison because she asked you for help. But I was there, Harper. I saw what you did to the magic you fought. There is Piper blood in your veins and it just wants to come out and sing.”
I looked away, hunching my shoulders. The flute felt like a weight at my side, pulsating with some terrible purpose of its own. It was nothing more than a tool, but it suddenly seemed to be singing a song, Harping to me. I really wanted my mandolin.
The matriarch leaned back and relaxed her shoulders, looking for all the world like an old woman at rest but for her teeth, her eyes and her hair. She took in a deep breath and spoke. “I know my kin would like to see you trapped here for daring to impose on us and call us into the affairs of the outside world. I know others of my people who would like very much to make you go insane. It has been an age since we last had mortals to play with. I, however, have a different purpose in mind. I want to know what you will do, Harper, on your grand quest to save the magical community. So we will let you go.”
There was a rush of whispers amongst the Fae, musical enough to sound like wind through the leaves. The matriarch held up a hand and everything fell silent. “As I say, so it is. You may go. I will even give you a boon for helping to save our healers when the gorgon magic manifested.”
“Thank,” I started, and then everything vanished in a flash of white. A moment later, my head reeling, the world turned dark again. I groaned and fell to my knees. My back felt heavy and I reached around to touch the neck of my mandolin. It had been strung, too, and my fingers plucked a chord on the instrument, sounding clear and strong. My sight returned with white blotches and I looked around. Uncle Horace was on his back next to me, groaning and pressing his hand to his head. Varean was nearby, heaving and leaning against a stone wall as she was sick. We were in a cavern, part of the Underground, that much was clear. There were no people or structures immediately around us, but there was light and noise coming from the end of our cavern.
“Where are we?” I croaked.
“Wherever those things decided to put us,” Uncle Horace rolled over and clambered to his feet. “Have I mentioned I hate the Fae?”
“I know this place,” Varean said, wiping her mouth with the back of her sleeve. “This is an alcove off of the West Patten District. The Chinese Underground.”
“China, great,” I muttered. I knew the Underground could jump you from place to place in the blink of an eye, but I did not know of any route that led from Austin to China. It was going to take a while to get home.
“Is that screaming?” Uncle Horace asked. I sighed and pushed myself to my feet, staggering from the alcove and into the main cavern. The walls were massively tall, disappearing into the darkness beyond the lights’ reach. The style of the district was much like an Italian villa and town, sometime about the height of the Renaissance. But that wasn’t the interesting bit. The interesting bit was that all the people were running, throwing off magic if they were able or just getting out of dodge. Behind them was a hoard of stone monsters, some looking just like people, others grotesque in their mien.
“We found the golems,” I squeaked.
“When the Fae mentioned a boon,” Uncle Horace pulled out a very large gun from his coat, some sort of sawed off rifle, “I didn’t exactly hope they would drop us right in the middle of the golem horde.”
“Don’t forget to mention the bit about being in China,” I grumbled, pulling my mandolin around so I could play. The strings, whatever they were, weren’t nylon. They felt more like a very stiff natural fibre, but people didn’t normally string mandolins with cat gut and they certainly didn’t string them with grass or hair. Unless… I plucked a G randomly and felt the magic thrumming along the string. I made a face, “Unicorn hair. They strung my mandolin with unicorn hair.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” Varean asked, her eyes bright gold. “Unicorn hair is very strong. Conducts magic.”
“Sure, but it can’t hold a tune to save your life,” I said, moving to the fight. I turned towards the nearest golem and plucked a chord. The stone creature halted, startled, for a moment, but that was about all. I hate earth magic. It’s so hard for me to get a hold of.
“Try classical!” Uncle Horace shouted over the roar of his shotgun, aiming for the grotesque head of a misshapen golem. I sighed and started with Carmina Burana. It seemed dramatic enough, but though it slowed the golems down and, in two cases, froze them completely, it didn’t do the trick.
“Does something seem wrong with these golems?” I asked, switching to a lively Irish jig. The golems responded by moving forwards again. Vines sprang from the ground and wrapped themselves around the legs of the golems, causing the stone creatures to fall flat, growling and roaring in frustration. Closer, but not quite. I ran through the repertoire of songs in my head and was quickly trying to come up with something to replace the Irish jig. Varean charged past me, full-sabris, and leaped at a golem who was disentangling itself from my vines.
The creature roared as Varean’s claws dug into it, scraping away chunks of dirt in large gouges. I heard the bellow of Uncle Horace’s rifle and hoped he had enough bullets, because I was coming up empty. I closed my eyes, my fingers playing the jig automatically while I tried to think about what sort of music would work well with earth magic. Earth was dark and deep. It housed the Underground in long-lived stone. It held thousands of pieces of plants, insects, the bones of people and animals long gone. Bones. Death. Earth wasn’t dead, but it held the dead. And what went with death? I opened my eyes and bared my teeth at an approaching golem. Then, I started to play a funeral dirge.
The song was slow and solemn and in one of the more annoying diminished keys. I wasn’t even sure I had remembered how to play it until my fingers started plucking out the notes. The golem, barely a few feet away from me, let out a mournful cry and started, very slowly, to crumble into dust. I saw, now, that these golems didn’t look like the humanoid creatures I had been taught about. They had two legs and two arms and were human-like, but they were grotesque, misshapen and almost half-finished.
The other golems began to fall to dust as well, being caught up in my dirge. The more the Harping affected them, the more I could feel it pulling out of me. I hadn’t rested enough. The sleep in Fae territory and all the extra food helped restore a lot of my magic, but it wasn’t enough. I had pushed myself pretty far in the last couple of days, especially with that gorgon magic. The unicorn hair on my mandolin helped, conducting my magic and amplifying it almost as good as a tube amp, but it wasn’t enough. The song changed keys, almost without my say-so, going darker and less mournful, more… angry. The golems were still falling to dust, but now their mournful groans turned to screams of pain. And it felt good.
I kept playing, my fingers plucking the unicorn-hair strings with more force than strictly necessary. The golems before Uncle Horace fell to the ground, melting into mud, their wails fuelling me as I directed my attack towards the two that Varean was holding at bay. She swiped a paw at the larger one and it just disintegrated, blowing away on the air. I didn’t stop playing until the last piece of the last golem was gone. Even then, I could feel the desire to keep going, to see if I could take the pieces of what I had destroyed and put it to some other, more interesting use.
I took great, gulping breaths and forced my fingers to play a lighter piece, a variation on one of the musical theatre songs from this century. Slips of magic rose from the ground in muddy brown streaks. I called them towards me and they came, sinking into my skin until I felt almost at my normal levels of energy again. The darker, angrier pieces of my mind sank away behind the barriers I kept up and I sat down on a convenient piece of stone.
“Well,” Uncle Horace said, his mouth wry, “I can tell that your control is top notch. Well done, turning all the evidence into dust and eating up the rest of it.”
The words stung, but they hit the mark, and the quiet satisfaction I had been feeling from successfully defeating a horde of golems and keeping my… genetic predisposition towards the darker things under control – they vanished. I grimaced. “Sorry,” I muttered. “Apparently I wasn’t at full strength and taking the golems’ magic seemed like the best way to keep from…”
“That may be so, lad. But now we have nothing. Not even enough for a tracking spell,” Uncle Horace dismissed my excuse. I ducked my head and tried not to feel embarrassed. He was right, though. Excuses weren’t wanted. Only results. I had learned that lesson – or thought I had – under much harsher circumstances long ago. I knew that Uncle Horace wasn’t really angry with me, but it was bad enough that he was disappointed. Anger I could take from other people, even him. Disappointment was an entirely different story.
“I don’t understand,” Varean walked over, looking rather the worse for wear. I couldn’t blame her. Just yesterday she was dying from gorgon poisoning and being saved by Fae magic. She was covered in dirt and still had ears sticking up from her hair, her skin was pale and she looked like she could use a decent meal and some sleep. I understood the sentiment. “Isn’t this what we wanted?”
“Lad?” Uncle Horace raised his eyebrows pointedly. “Hows about you explain this?”
I scowled. Again, he was right. Curses, it was easier, sometimes, when he was just my crazy uncle. “You know I’m a Seville, right?”
“Is that to be significant?” Varean asked, sitting on the ground in front of me, her accent thickening with drowsiness.
“Ah, right. Okay, I’ll go back a bit farther,” I rubbed the back of my neck and winced. I must have pulled something. “You know the story of the Pied Piper?”
Varean nodded, “He was called in to help rid a town of rats and he Harped the rats out of town, leading them to their death. The townspeople refused to pay him, claiming he was a dangerous magician. He Harped their children out of town and demanded payment. Some versions of the story end with him getting paid. Some don’t.”
I winced, “He did get paid, eventually. The townspeople refused at first, but after their children were Harped to their deaths, just like the rats, they paid him just to get far, far away… The Pied Piper was my great-great-great, ah, great, I think, grandfather.”
“You are not a bad person,” Varean furrowed her brows and I wanted to crawl into a hole. She didn’t understand. She thought, kindly, that my great-grandfather’s actions didn’t make me a bad person.
“That’s not quite how it works,” I said. “Pipers are a particular kind of Harper. Stronger, more flexible, but our specialties lie in the darker musics and the magic that comes along with them. Many times, Pipers have been noted as either Friends of Death or Death’s Horsemen. It’s a genetic heritage, passed on through the male line – though once there was a female Piper. She was involved heavily in the Reign of Terror in France.”
The shifter blinked, taking in this new information. Her eyes flashed golden for a moment and I saw her ears prick up. Then, she frowned. “But you do not… act like this Piper.”
“My father was a Piper,” I said, thinking of the clarinet locked in my basement. “He took my great-grandfather’s heritage to heart and grew darker every day he used his magic. He got involved, heavily, with the mafia gangs in New York, thinking that he could make them pay as easily as the Pied Piper had. Things didn’t end well for him.”
“Oh, yes, I read about that,” Varean looked astonished. “They had to call in a group of Hunters. I heard that they nearly levelled New York.”
“Yes, well, like I said. It didn’t end well,” I grumbled. “Anyways, Varean, the point is that Piping is in the blood. The more I use the darker musics of my Harping – any minor or diminished key can set it off – or the more drained of my reserves of magic I get, the more it influences me. Which is why our line of evidence has vanished.”
“The golems. You were going to use them to lead us back to whoever made them,” Varean nodded her understanding. She sighed. “It is not your fault.”
“That’s very magnanimous of you,” I muttered.
“We still have the problem of how to find the maker,” Uncle Horace said. I rubbed my neck, wincing again as I rubbed my sore muscles.
“They looked so strange,” I said. “The golems. They were misshapen, almost.”
“They’re golems,” Varean said. “Is that not what they are?”
“That’s gargoyles,” Horace pointed out. He nodded, “No, Marsh is right. Them golems were awfully strange. Like their maker didn’t take enough time on ‘em.”
“How are golems made?” I asked. I felt I should know, but I didn’t know anything more than they were made and they used a great deal of earth magic.
“Ah, well, there’s the rub. Originally, only Jewish rabbis had the secret of golem-making. They’re not intelligent creatures. They were meant to guard and later occasionally to deliver the odd message or run the odd errand. They’re fair strong, being made of stone, but they’re not the best at intelligent fighting.”
“That’s all well and good,” I said, “But how are they made?”
“I would gather something like that,” Varean said, voice two tones higher than usual. I looked where she was pointing and saw a figure standing over a lump of dirt. He – I think it was a he – was muttering and waving his hands over the dirt. I could practically feel the magic in the air, moving towards him. Earth magic, with nothing else to dilute it. The figure raised his voice and his arms at the same time. I finally understood what he was saying and swallowed nervously.
He was saying “animate” over and over and over again, and with each raising of his hand, the lump of dirt – and others starting to form around the first – began to writhe and grow.
Uncle Horace was the first to react. He reached into his large coat, fumbled around for about a second, then threw a sort of shiny blur towards the assailant. I had thought that – whatever he threw – would miss, considering distance and a whole lot of other factors. Someone must have stepped in, though, or it was just Uncle Horace’s particular brand of magic in a world full of the real thing, because his projectile hit the assailant in the forehead. The object fell to the ground and I saw that it was a small glass bottle, almost a flask. Certainly not the most aerodynamic of objects; I was impressed. I was even more impressed when our assailant paused in his chanting and started falling to the ground. The half-formed golems crumbled back into dirt.
I waited for a heartbeat before swallowing and looking at Uncle Horace, “Nice shot.”
“Bottle better not be cracked,” he grumbled, shoving his hands in his pockets and trudging over to where the man lay unconscious. “There’s still a goodly amount of drink in that.”
Varean just looked at me for a moment, telling me silently that I had a strange uncle – yes, I know, thank you – before she followed Horace. I sighed, slung my mandolin over my back and followed, thinking that I was tired, that this whole mess was a lot more messy than I had hoped, that I could be back in Texas and drinking a smoothie with a very nice girl instead of in China with a rather testy one.
The three of us looked down on our golem-maker in silence. He was a satyr. Or, well, I think he was a satyr. He might have been a dryad or some other form of nature spirit. There are a lot of them from a lot of different backgrounds and many of them look alike. As I saw goat hooves, I figured satyr. That explained the earth magic. It didn’t explain what he was doing using serious animating power to cause what amounted to minor disturbances and vandalism. And what he had to do with the death of the First Minister.
“So,” I finally said, watching him for a moment. “This is good news, right?”
“Have ye ever interrogated someone, lad?” Uncle Horace asked. I figured he would know, considering most of my ‘adventures’ happened under his watch (and at his behest). I answered anyways.
“Nope, but I have had a few angry customers,” I put as much cheer into my voice as I could and got an eye-roll from him. Well, at least he wasn’t disappointed with me anymore. Now, he was probably in the annoyed category.
“This can’t be the person who killed the First Minister,” Varean growled, putting her hands on her hips. Uncle Horace and I raised our eyebrows. Varean hissed, “He’s… he’s… the person who killed the First Minister would have better sense than to get knocked out by a bottle of whisky.”
“Bourbon, but still,” Uncle Horace said. He reached down and picked up the bottle, stuffing it back into its proper spot in the many depths of his coat. “No, you have a point, lass. He went down awfully easy. And then there’s the fact that satyrs don’t tend to act alone. They’re historically the servants of Pan, but with the global economy, they’ll take orders – and a paycheque – from near abouts anyone. Never known one of them to start a company.”
“Well, there was that one time, with the delivery service,” I reminded him.
“Oh, yeah, what happened to that?”
“Vampires on bicycles took over, I think.” I shrugged. The satyr began to stir and I started to reach for my mandolin to place a binding spell on him. Varean put a hand on my arm.
“Let one of us,” she said, her voice soft but holding hints of fear that I had hoped I would never hear from anyone in regards to me. “You should rest a while. Take time to… well, you know.”
“Get control of my darker urges? Push back those pesky genetic predispositions towards death and mayhem?” I bit drily. “I’m not a monster, Varean.”
“Marsh,” Uncle Horace said. I sighed and shrugged. They could bind the satyr on their own. I was tired, but I also wasn’t about to lose my head and start calling red ants to come and eat the guy alive if he didn’t answer my questions. Hmm, come to think of it, having such thoughts was usually not a good idea. Maybe they were right. I did need a break.
“You cannot hold me,” the satyr screamed. As far as first words go after being knocked unconscious, I was surprised. Usually, people were slightly less coherent. “I will summon an army and you will be swallowed by the very stone upon which you walk!”
Varean hissed, her teeth elongating. Uncle Horace pulled out a wicked-looking knife. I rolled my eyes, crouched down in front of the satyr and let out a small sigh of exasperation. “Look, I know that you think you’re doing pretty well. You got a whole slew of golems to wreak havoc and it took a while for people to catch up to you. We only managed to knock you out, you might think, because my uncle has a superior throwing arm. Now, I would like you, while you’re gloating quietly, to consider something. I am a Harper. Not only that, but I am a Piper. I’ve had a bad couple of days dealing with gorgons, Fae, shifters of many different varieties, and destroying the last horde of stone beasties you threw at us. I’m tired, I’m hungry and I am missing a potentially fantastic date with a nice girl. Think about that and tell me just how cooperative you feel, hmm?”
The satyr had stared at me, open-mouthed, during my speech. He wasn’t tied up and, considering how nimble goats were on rock, could probably have outrun me, though maybe not Varean. He hadn’t moved. He swallowed, “A Piper?”
“Descended from the Pied Piper himself,” I growled. “Trust me, this Friend of Death ain’t feeling very generous today.”
“W-what do you want to know?” the satyr asked, growing pale.
I stood up and gestured grandly to Uncle Horace. “What was that about interrogations?”
Uncle Horace took over the interrogation at that point and I stood by, feeling as though I had eaten a bad fruit. I blame that magic. I don’t normally eat other people’s magic (actually, I avoid it whenever possible and have only done it twice before, both time with bad results). It was giving me a headache and I will freely admit that I scowled my pains out on the satyr, who was cowering and trembling every time he shot a glance at me.
“So, who’re ye working for?” Uncle Horace asked, reaching into his pockets to pull out a corkscrew of all things, with which he started cleaning his fingernails.
“W-what? I’m n-not-” the satyr started. Varean growled and bared her fangs. I coughed into my fist, eyebrows raised. “There’s a… I… I can’t tell you!”
I started humming a tuneless song and the satyr practically screamed, breaking down into sobs and wailing. Uncle Horace shot me a look and I shrugged. “Who’re ye working for?” Uncle Horace repeated.
The satyr shook his head, dripping tears and trying to remain coherent, “I can’t t-tell you. I w-was magicked not to.”
“What can you tell us?” Varean rolled her eyes, exasperated.
“H-he wants to change the order of things. Things aren’t right, he says, us hiding in the Underground,” the satyr hiccoughed, but as I made no more threatening motions, he didn’t seem to be on the verge of a complete mental breakdown. “Says that we need to take our rightful place. People used to be afraid of us… Satyrs used to be the messengers of the gods.”
“That was a long time ago,” Uncle Horace growled. “Things are different, now. The normal world has overtaken us. But there are plenty o’ magic folk that live in the normal world. Them that only visit the Underground.”
The satyr shook his head, not necessarily in agreement or disagreement, just in despair. “I don’t know! He was so persuasive, so easy to follow. It made so much sense…”
“Where can we find him?” Uncle Horace barked. The satyr shook his head, trying to speak. All he managed was a croak before choking up. Whoever this person was, he had magicked the satyr well. I doubted that we would get anything more out of the poor creature.
Varean hissed, the sound swallowed in the back of her throat. “This satyr is useless. Let him loose.”
“And have him off sending more golems after people?” I asked. I shook my head. “No, we have to take him to the local Hunters.”
“Who are probably off searching for him that did for the First Minister,” Uncle Horace said. He let out a deep breath and scratched his beard. “Least we can do is bind him and keep him in lockup until things smooth over.”
I didn’t want to be the one to say, until they don’t, but I was definitely thinking it. In the end, Uncle Horace pulled out a bit of rope (I swear, he has everything in his coat) and tied the satyr. Tripping and dragging our feet, we led the prisoner to one of the local guardhouses. There were no Hunters, but there was a young guardswoman on duty, clutching her staff as if it were a lifeline.
“Right, this here satyr has been calling up golems and setting ‘em at people,” Uncle Horace said.
“Can no take,” she replied. Great, I thought, the only guardswoman we have was one who probably didn’t speak English and was determined to do as she was ordered. A great combination. “Must Hunter.”
“I am a Hunter, ye dumb lass,” Uncle Horace practically shouted. He grumbled and dug into yet another pocket, pulling out a silver insignia that identified him as a Hunter. Really, the coat and many weapons should have told the guardswoman that, but you can never tell these days.
“Good good,” she nodded, pleased with the insignia. “What want?”
“Prisoner,” Uncle Horace pointed to the satyr, who had started crying again at the thought of being locked up for who knows how long. “Been setting golems at people?”
“Prisoner golem, good good,” the guardswoman took the rope that was tied to hobble the satyr’s hands and nodded vigorously. I waited until she had turned to walk him back to the lockup before putting my hands into my pockets.
“So, who here thinks that she’ll write this up as if he were the golem?” I asked. Varean held up her hand and Uncle Horace elbowed her in the side.
“She’s doin’ her job, leave her be,” he growled, though half-heartedly. He was probably thinking the same thing we were.
“Well, we’re in China. We have no idea where our quarry is and no idea how to get back to the Austin Underground without some travelling in the normal world, none of us has our passport and I am just about starving,” I said.
“I also am hungry and need rest,” Varean said, though I gathered that admitting weakness was, for her, difficult. “I have no shifted so much for a very long time and it takes more effort the more times I only shift partways.”
“Not to mention the Fae only fed us fruit,” Uncle Horace said.
“Right, so the Chinese Underground. What sort of food do you think they’ve got?” I still had my pack and all our money, so we could afford to take a rest.
“I think there’s Italian, but it might be Greek,” Varean said, sniffing the air. Uncle Horace grinned, I nodded and the three of us turned to go find something to eat and try and figure out what was next. Before whatever was next found us.
The restaurant that Varean had sniffed out was a sort of Italian-Greek fusion thing run by a couple of very pleasant trolls who could do wonders with spaghetti. I wolfed down a good portion of mine before we even got into our dinner conversation. As I ate, the residual effects of the magic I had consumed wore off and I was feeling distinctly un-Piperish. I sat back with an empty plate and held up my hand for another. I would think about dessert in a while.
“So,” I said, stretching while I waited for the food. “Varean, we never really did get into why you’re so interested in the First Minister’s death. I mean, you’re no Hunter.”
“The Hunters are busy,” Varean said around a breadstick. “We discussed this.”
“Yes,” I nodded, “we danced around the issue and then Uncle Horace coerced me into going along with this because it was nice and we could go after golems and the murderer of the First Minister at the same time. However, we never asked why you wanted to be involved. A shifter. With no apparent connection to one of the most powerful people on the Magic Council.”
“It is none of your business,” Varean growled.
“It is if we might get some help from your quarter apart from your obvious talents at fighting,” I countered. Uncle Horace drank the last of his mead and set his mug on the table with a loud clunk. Varean jumped, looking at him like a cat with a floofed-out tail.
“Can you offer help?” Uncle Horace asked. “A’cause we ain’t got a single clue that’ll lead us to wherever this person is hiding. The satyr’s been magicked to say nothin and Marsh here ate up all the rest of our evidence.”
“I do apologise for that,” I muttered. Uncle Horace shook his head.
“It’s over and done, lad, but we have nothing. So we can either give up or look for help elsewhere,” Uncle Horace stared into the dregs of his mug, his shoulders hunched. I knew that he was getting old to be a Hunter. He was probably one of the oldest in the organisation, which depended on strength and speed and quickness of mind, not things that are often found in ageing populations. He was likely feeling pretty useless not having been called out the moment the other Hunters were sent to catch the murderer. Our situation was definitely not helping.
Varean growled under her breath and tore another breadstick to pieces. “I could be killed if I go back there.”
“Back where?” I asked, trying to sound sympathetic.
Varean shook her head, pressing her lips together. For all that she acted angry and ferocious nearly all the time, I could tell that this bothered her. A lot. “I was… I was the First Minister’s guard.”
“Oh,” was all that Uncle Horace could manage. I couldn’t even manage that, busy as I was with picking up my jaw from the table. She had been the guard to the First Minister? And she was out here with us? There was a serious disconnect with that and my brain was having trouble processing it.
The trolls picked that moment to bring more food and mead, which we quietly thanked them for. I picked heartlessly at my plate of spaghetti, my appetite lost to shock.
“I assume that you are on a list of suspects,” Uncle Horace said softly, catching Varean’s gaze and keeping it, challenging her silently to lie to him.
Varean nodded. “I am. I was just down the street picking up food for breakfast when she was… when she died.” There was a catch of grief in her voice. I doubted that her story would hold merit for the Hunters who were desperate to catch this person, but I believed her.
“Why didn’t you tell us?” I asked quietly.
“I am a fugitive. I did not know I could trust you,” she hissed, her anger back in place.
“Oh, yeah, cause walking up to us in a tavern and asking for our help wasn’t a sign of trust,” I snorted sarcastically.
“Lad,” Horace said flatly. “Enough. We all have our secrets.”
I hunched my shoulders and nodded at the truth of his words.
“So,” Uncle Horace continued, sipping at his mead again. “Is there anything you can do to help us?”
“I… maybe,” Varean grumbled under her breath. “You won’t like them, but I know some people who can get us to the First Minister’s house without being seen or caught. There may be something there we can work with.”
“We’re in China. We can’t get back to Austin without either travelling overland or going back to the Fae,” I pointed out. I stabbed my fork into the spaghetti and considered, “Well, I suppose we could go to the dragons, if we could even find them. They’re said to be able to transport people. Or the elves, though I don’t think you should show your face there, Varean, as they’ll likely skin you alive before turning you in to the Hunters.”
“Cheerful thought, but no. These people have means of travelling between Underground hubs without going overland or resorting to the Fae. They are here in China,” Varean said. I shovelled more pasta into my mouth, catching the look on Uncle Horace’s face and knowing exactly what was coming. There would be no chance of dessert.
“Let’s go,” he said, rising and throwing some money on the table. I took another hurried bite and followed him, slinging my mandolin back onto my shoulders and waving a thank you to the trolls. Varean ducked her head and hunched her shoulders and said nothing, though she took the lead as we walked out of the restaurant.
After the golem attack of earlier, I half-expected the Chinese Underground to go quiet for the evening (morning? I wasn’t sure anymore), but there were people bustling around as if nothing had happened. In fact, it was exactly as though nothing had happened. I didn’t even overhear any conversation about the attack. How strange.
Varean led us through the tunnels and alleys without hesitation, though she grew increasingly taciturn and jumpy the closer we got to wherever it was she was taking us. I wondered who she possibly could know in China, let alone who could travel between Underground hubs. It was dangerous if a person didn’t do it right.
“Here we are,” she said at last, gesturing to a building built into the stone. The door was bright purple and I felt wards and spells of all kinds in the rock beside the door. Other than that, there were no markings, no signs, no indications whatsoever of what lay behind the door. I slipped my hand into my pocket and clutched my flute, just in case.
Varean stepped up to the door and knocked three times, almost politely. She looked positively morose doing it, too. The door swung open and the light coming from inside was so bright in contrast to the shadows of the Underground that I winced and had to look away. When my eyes adjusted, I saw a woman standing in the door, built like a rock, hair dark and wild and, combined with her leather trousers, jacket and black shirt, made her look positively rakish. She took one look at Varean and let out a cry of joy, “Varean! You should have phoned ahead! I would have told your father you were coming!”
“Hello, Mother,” Varean sounded like a sullen teenager.
“Um, what?” I asked. The tall, large woman looked at me, saw that I was with Varean and grinned widely.
“Guests! Hello, hello, come in!” She stepped aside to let us into the brightly lit room. “I am Raitira, Varean’s mother. I run the Chinese branch of the Sevran.”
Oh, good. The Underground’s version of the mafia.
“Mother,” Varean snarled, once the door was closed, “don’t just shout out that you run the Sevran.”
“Why not? These are your guests, and if you bring them here, they know such things,” Raitira shrugged. She gestured us towards a table and some chairs and practically forced us to sit. Actually, she did push Uncle Horace into his chair, but that was only because he was hesitating at sitting so close to the woman.