Nose stuck in Callista’s desk draw, Leon yelled as he whacked his head on the overhang and toppled onto his backside. Saeth grinned at his colleague, several post-its clinging to his suit as he scrambled to his feet and kicked the drawer shut.
Callista’s heavy, booted stomping vibrated from the other side of the office, and Saeth dared not look in her direction. Leon’s terror as he scrambled back to his desk was too good to miss anyway. Storming up to him, Callista emerged from her biker jacket and helmet, chucking them into her desk chair.
In her first few years of biking, Callista had done away with her flowing, golden locks in favour of a crew cut. Her new haircut drew more attention to the sharp glint of her eyes, and the stony set of her lips which weren’t often known to enter smile territory.
Leon pretended to flinch as she aimed a faux kick at him.
“How many times do I have to tell you to keep out of my desk?” she snapped.
Leon cracked his winning smile, which would only go some way to cooling her temper.
“As many as it takes for you to start sharing,” Leon retorted. “Or at the very least tell me where you get all those awesome talismans. I have money, I’ll buy them off you.”
“Your money’s no good to me if I get cornered in a dark alley by a Vampire.”
“I’m beginning to sound like a broken record telling you how paranoid you are.”
“It’s called caution, Leon, and I wouldn’t expect you to understand the meaning of it.”
Saeth stifled a laugh, clapping a hand over his mouth for good measure. Leon didn’t adhere to many limitations, even if those limitations were to stop him getting killed. The office clown when he wasn’t immersed in his work, there was little he couldn’t be dared to try.
“You’ll pry my talismans for my cold, dead hands,” Callista said, marching over to her desk. She whipped a chain and padlock from her rucksack. “In the meantime, you can try your hand at picking the locks.”
Leon’s mouth fell open.
“Aw, come on Cal, that’s not fair!” He looked to Saeth, begging with his eyes. “Saeth, do a guy a favour?” he asked.
“Don’t drag me into this. I can pick locks, but not mend broken bones.”
“Come on, I’ve got talismans that can heal your stupid bones. Help me out.”
All three of them jumped as Mei’s office door flew open and their boss, red-faced and flustered, glared at them across the office.
“Keep it down you three-.”
Before she could finish her sentence, a woman pushed past her and made a beeline for them. Saeth sucked in an awkward breath. No older than forty, her hair was scraped up in a ponytail, yet still visibly askew. Her eyes and nose looked red raw from lengthy episodes of crying.
“Don’t, Mei. If you won’t help me, maybe they will!” she cried.
Callista took a step back as the woman named Julia approached them, trembling as she reached a tentative hand towards her.
“Please,” she sobbed. “My daughter is missing. Please, help me find her.”
“Julia.” Mei eased the desperate mother into her arms, eyes shining with tears. “You know I’ll do everything I can to help but neither me, nor my staff are qualified for this. This is something the Nexus-.”
“They’ve given up!” Julia wailed into her shoulder. “They won’t look for her anymore!”
Saeth leaned forwards, fingers intertwining. Mei was right, missing children weren’t their department, but if the Nexus had given up, didn’t they have a responsibility to help? He didn’t have any brothers or sisters, but if his dad went missing, he would pull out every stop to find him. Even if it meant asking the impossible of strangers.
“I’ll do it,” he said.
Mei’s sharp glare almost had him taking it back, but Julia’s blotched but delighted face emerged from her embrace.
“You will?” she stammered.
“No, he can’t. Saeth-.”
“Me too,” said Callista, planting her hands on her hips. “I’m in.”
“You’re not detectives,” Mei said.
“Thank Taurus for that,” Callista retorted. “I’d hate to beat through all that ridiculous red tape just to do my job.”
“Just let us see what we can do, Mei,” said Saeth. “Please?”
He tried not to look pleading, but Mei’s expression softened at the sight of him. Maybe they wouldn’t find anything, but trying and failing was better than not trying at all. If they gave this search an honest try, the might drudge up enough information to give the Nexus a reason to re-start their investigation.
With a sigh, a nod and a resigned look, Mei granted them her permission.
* * *
Mei half-heartedly encouraged them to withdraw their offer while Julia composed herself in her office. Saeth and Callista fought to take the job, and before long she gave in. The man hours weren’t entirely wasted, as Julia had already forced several bulging envelopes into Mei’s hands, despite her protests.
Saeth migrated over to Callista’s desk, still paranoid about desk thieves, to listen to Mei’s interview with Julia. Half of the recording consisted of Julia pleading desperately for help, and Mei reassuring her she would do all she could, but the useful nuggets of information were there. Julia had slipped them a tear-stained picture of her daughter, Samantha.
In the moments he spent analysing the picture, he could see the ten year old and her mother looked a lot alike; raven hair, freckles and a slightly upturned nose, her cheeks still chubby with youth. A long birthmark snaked up the side of her neck, looking a little like a nasty scar.
“Snatched walking home from school with a friend,” Callista mused, stopping the recorder.
“A human friend,” Saeth added. “A human friend who wasn’t taken. So, should we assume she was taken by supernaturals?”
“Maybe the Umbra Artis.”
The supernatural black market dealt in all manner of things. Spells, people, even souls. Rare powers were in high demand, but to buy the power, you would also need to buy the person. Kids were easy pickings. Young minds were malleable, and black market dealers were skilled at shaping them into ruthless, obedient soldiers to fight other people’s battles.
Julia had ruled out any personal conflicts and she wasn’t wealthy enough to supply a ransom. Power trafficking seemed the most likely explanation.
“Before we look into the Umbra Artis, we need to make sure we’re not looking for a dead body,” Callista muttered, solemn.
Saeth’s blood ran a little colder. He hated to think there were people out there cruel enough to steal and deal someone’s soul, least of all the soul of a child. But the Umbra Artis hadn’t become what it was without many a heartless criminal.
Callista nodded to the other side of the office. Only on person they knew could detect the souls of the dead.
“Go ask Toby,” she whispered.
Saeth did his best not to groan. Toby joined the Diamond Talisman as secretary a few months before. He had never met a Skellari before, but if they were all as strange as Toby, they made for one weird species. Skellari covens preferred their privacy, and tended to cordon themselves off from the rest of the world by living, quite literally, underground. Or in Toby’s case, an abandoned portion of the London Underground.
In a fit of teenage rebellion, Toby had applied for a job at DT. Given how little he spoke to anyone, Mei considered him a perfect candidate. Discretion came second nature to Toby as a consequence of his reluctance to speak. While Mei eventually convinced him to start taking phone calls, he still communicated mostly by e-mail. Even to them.
“Why me? You do it.”
“I can’t, he’s scared of me. Last time I pointed out a spelling error on his write ups he hid in the toilet for an hour.”
“You did call him a wet-wipe.”
“Well I couldn’t call him a wet blanket because he’s even wetter than that.”
Saeth stifled another chuckle and snatched up the photograph. Callista was right. They needed Toby’s help and he couldn’t do that from the inside of the gents.
Photo in hand, Saeth wound his way between the cubicles and perched himself on the desk of the spotty, eighteen year old secretary.
Toby stared at him with glassy eyes, a sandwich halfway to his mouth. In dire need of a cut, the teenager hid himself behind his ebony fringe. But Saeth suspected he preferred it that way.
“Are you busy?”
He didn’t reply, instead choosing to stare at Saeth, sandwich still poised. Saeth chewed his tongue, shifting a little on the edge of the desk
“Uh…me and Cal have a case and, uh…we wondered if you would do us a favour and check that our target isn’t…”
Saeth couldn’t bring himself to say the word “dead.” The idea of a ten year old having her life, or worse, her soul taken away from her while scared and alone made him want to hurl. Instead, he held out the photograph.
Toby stared at the photo for a moment, and shovelled the sandwich into his mouth. Wiping his hands on a napkin, he took the photo and retreated towards a door marked “storage closet.” Anyone who didn’t work there would never suspect that a spell circle was set up on the other side of the door.
Skellari were the only supernaturals with the power to interact with spirits: the souls still floating about on the astral plane waiting for their next body. If Samantha’s soul was on the astral plane, Toby would find it. He could only hope he didn’t.
“Alive,” was Toby’s response when he returned, thrusting the photo back at Saeth.
“Great, thanks Toby.”
He tried not to walk too fast away from the desk.
* * *
“You’re not allowed to tell Mei about this.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“I mean it, Saeth. You know how she feels about shady contacts.”
“Listen, I appreciate Mei wanting to keep her business nice and clean but this isn’t a normal case. I won’t tell her.”
Callista’s carefully plucked eyebrows un-furrowed. Their off-the-books visit to Croydon, in a south-western corner of London had Saeth tingling with excitement. Car fumes and the odd waft of suspicious smoke peppered the air, which was rich with the spicy aromas of far-flung cuisine. Overstocked bric-a-brac stores spilled their wares along the street edge, and the plethora of fast food restaurants and hairdressers had thrown open their doors in an open welcome to passing trade.
They wove around a small arm of pushchairs, driven by weary mothers, energy drink cans in hand.
“So, I get this guy is shady,” said Saeth. “But what exactly makes him so shady?”
Callista glanced over her shoulder, and leaned towards him.
“He’s ex-Umbra Artis,” she whispered.
His heart plummeted into his stomach.
“What?” he hissed.
“I know, I know,” she said, shaking her head.
“How the hell do you know a guy like that?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“Oh my days, Cal.”
“Listen, he doesn’t work in the black market anymore. He’s helped me out with a few cases, and he’s putting himself at risk by-.”
“Give it a rest, Cal. The number of people he’s probably hurt doing what he did…he’s no different than these bastards who took Samantha.”
“He’s trying to make amends.”
“That’s the least he can do.”
Saeth shoved his hands into his coat pockets, curling them into fists. Taking away people’s freedom, their lives, their souls…there was no excuse for it. Whatever this guy had done to make up for his behaviour probably wouldn’t even scratch the surface. How had Callista gotten involved with someone so evil?
Callista turned off through the doorway of a scruffy laundrette where an old man in an anorak and a farmer’s cap napped in one of the plastic chairs. Yet a keen eye open to observe them as they walked past. Saeth pulled up the collar on his coat. The last thing he needed was to have his face known to criminals.
She made for a door in the peeling far wall, and knocked on it. The door swept open. A large man with sharp eyes and heavy joules took up most of the doorway, sporting a beard which was in the middle of deciding its colour. Grey was winning. What Saeth could see of his face was creased with age and leathery from a life spent under the gaze of the sun.
Wordlessly, he jerked his chin towards the back room and stepped aside. Following Callista into the grubby kitchenette, Saeth’s skin began to crawl.
“Thought you were coming alone,” he said, once the door was closed. “Who’s this joker?”
“No-one,” said Saeth. His name and face in the hands of criminals didn’t bear thinking about.
Callista rolled her eyes.
“Just call him paranoid,” she said. “He’s my colleague. We’re both working on this case. Saeth, this is Patrick.”
Saeth scowled at her. Patrick raised an eyebrow, zeroing in on him.
“Strange name,” he said. “Cover for your real one?”
“Can’t say I need a cover name.”
“All right, stop it.” Callista folded her arms and planted her feet. “Pat, do us a favour, would you?”
Saeth tensed. He had never seen Callista throw a punch in her life, but Valkyrie covens stuck closely to their warrior roots. He had every suspicion she kicked the crap out of plenty of people in her spare time.
Patrick grunted and gestured to the kitchen table and chairs, waiting for them to sit before he did.
“What was it, this case?” Patrick asked, sliding a self-rolled cigarette out of his jacket. “Missing kid?”
“Ten years old, she’s got paralysis powers.”
“Pretty rare power,” he remarked. “Not like your usual jobs though. Isn’t the Nexus dealing with it?”
“They’ve given up. We think she was sold into the Umbra Artis, so I figured you would be our best bet. You still keep an eye on the black market?”
“Got to,” said Patrick, lighting up. “Need to make sure my name isn’t sitting on some bounty hunter’s platinum list.”
Platinum list? Saeth was tempted to ask, but said nothing.
“So you’d know if a Samantha Cleave has been trafficked through London?”
“I might. But if I did, I’d be needing some compensation. You might not be Nexus, but I’m still putting my neck on the chopping block for giving you this kind of info.”
“Oh come on Pat, it’s just a little girl.”
“Call me a monster but saving some kid isn’t going to feel so warm and fuzzy if it means getting my liver carved out this time next week. So, what’ll you give us?”
An angry retorted bubbled to his lips but Saeth managed a few steadying breaths to bring down his heart rate. He wasn’t worth the stress.
Callista met Pat’s gaze with a measure of sternness.
“What kind of cash are we talking?” she asked.
“No.” Saeth sapped a hand down on the table. “No money, Cal. I won’t be a part of funding the Umbra Artis.”
“I told you, he isn’t a part of that anymore.”
“Nah, it’s OK Callie,” Pat said. He leaned forward with an unsettling grin on his face, revealing a set of surprisingly straight, white teeth. “I’ve got something else in mind.”
Saeth’s skin prickled as Pat fixed his eyes on him, and blew a plume of smoke into his face.
“You, kid.” Pat pointed his cigarette at Saeth. “If you want this intel, I want an investigation of mine in the kitty.”
“What? You want us to do work for you?”
“Nah, nah, nah, mate. You. One day, maybe tomorrow, maybe ten years from now, I’m going to ask you to do some investigation for me. Deal?”
Callista shot Saeth a warning look but he ignored her. The idea of doing this criminal any favours made him sick to his stomach. But if he didn’t make this sacrifice to find this girl, he was no better than Pat.
Saeth met his cold, all-seeing eyes. He was out of his depth. Pat wouldn’t have survived until now if he wasn’t a master manipulator. It was enough to make Saeth feel like a five year old again. But he had a responsibility.
“Deal,” he muttered.
“Saeth,” Callista muttered.
Pat’s eyebrows twitched towards his hairline, and stuck the cigarette between his lips before pulling a laptop out of a rucksack next to his chair.
“What the hell are you doing?” Callista whispered, as Pat typed away. “You don’t know what he’ll ask you to do.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“Samantha Cleave?” Pat said. “Yup, she went through the Umbra Artis. Sold to Trevor Stork three weeks ago.”
“Trevor Stork? You know where we can find him?”
“Listen,” Saeth said, through gritted teeth. “If you think you can wrangle another job out of me-.”
“Oh calm down, sunshine,” Pat said, taking another drag. “I’ve got one condition to handing over this intel. When you’re done with it, you wipe it out of your memories. I don’t care if you use a spell or a baseball bat, but I want it gone, got it?”
The two of them nodded. Snakes already writhing in his stomach, Saeth felt relieved there was nothing more he could owe this man.
“Right.” Pat swivelled the laptop around to face them on the table. “Here’s your man.”
* * *
“Looks quiet.” Through mist and tree branches, he couldn’t see a great deal. The car windows were beginning to steam up, but Saeth could just make out the outline of a crumbling castle. The turrets were long gone, walls half standing, yet the seven foot high fence around it seemed well maintained. The “danger” signs were overkill.
“I still can’t believe you,” Callista muttered.
“Will you drop it, Cal?” He had listened to the same lecture on their drive through two counties into the middle of nowhere and she still wasn’t done.
“You’re such a donut! What sort of moron agrees to work with an ex-criminal without knowing the conditions first?”
“Hey, you were the one who said he was a straight-up guy now, why are you so worried? Anyway, if we can get these kids back then it’ll be worth it.”
Samantha wasn’t the only child Trevor Stork had bought through the black market in the last few weeks. If Pat’s intel was right, they stood to reunite several more families. But his stomach still didn’t feel right since the deal he made, not that he would admit that to Callista.
“I can’t believe-.”
“I’m going to scout the place out,” said Saeth, flinging the door open.
Anything to stop her going on.
“Be careful,” she warned.
The biting air was heavy with the scent of pine, worlds away from the peppery atmosphere of their polluted capital city. He needed to get out into nature more.
Saeth put his hands in his pockets to protect them from the cold. If Trevor Stork worried about security as much as all the signs seemed to suggest, he needed to choose his most discrete shapes. Not too big, not too colourful. Turning into a parakeet would have to wait. His dad’s cats liked that.
The wind blew just in time. He shrank, catching the breeze in time to ride it as a tiny, horned beetle. He swayed back and forth in the air as he adjusted to flight, and seeing the world through multi-lens eyes. Though, he had to admit, it made seeing all that much easier, even if it did take some getting used to.
Saeth flitted over the fence. Littered with rubble, and devoid of life, the ruins looked deserted. Moss and ivy had begun to claim the ruins for themselves, suffocating every surface, reaching for the castle’s highest heights. It didn’t look as though anyone had stepped foot in the place for years, let alone house a whole collection of children. Had Pat sent them down the wrong path?
Determined to find something, he dove down into the depths of the castle’s only remaining tower, slipping between the rotting floorboards and broken beams. As the darkness consumed him, he sought a landing place and planted his fragile legs on a mossy stone. He needed a different form. Beetles were fun, but they couldn’t hear a darn thing. His form contorted, sprouting a tail and several whiskers. Mice never missed a trick.
He skittered downwards, clambering between stones, beams and at one point even a skeleton. The moist air was filled with the scents of moss, fungus and stagnant water. As well as…was that barbeque? His mouth began to water. On the way home, he had definitely earned himself some sticky ribs.
As he jumped and scurried downwards, light began to seep between the cracks in the stones, dousing the ruins in warm beams. Sounds began to drift up from the bowels of the castle. Sniffs, coughs and cries of pain.
Saeth stiffened, his tiny heart thrumming like the wings of a hummingbird. Finding a large enough crack to peer through, his breath left him at the sight. In its hey-dey, Saeth guessed the room used to be a dungeon, with chains still clinging stubbornly to the walls. Now, it looked like a training yard. Training dummies, some of them just t-shirts stuffed with straw on poles, stood at one end of the cobbled floor. Some charred, some missing limbs, but not one of them fully intact.
His stomach lurched as a bolt of lightning crashed into one of the dummies, obliterating the dummy into little more than a pile of splinters.
Saeth scurried to a wider crack, and his beady eyes widened. On the other side of the room stood a group of children, their postures rigid, as though they were standing to attention. Four hulking men stood around them, like dogs guarding sheep. The sleeves were rolled up on two of them, exposing their coven mark: a skull with an athamé stuck unceremoniously through an eye-socket.
A few choice curse words crossed Saeth’s mind, but he didn’t dare so much as squeak. He had expected danger, but this situation was potentially lethal.
A bald aggressor, at least six and a half feet tall with arms the size of tree trunks shoved a sandy haired boy forwards. Maybe seven or eight years old, the boy stumbled but caught himself before hitting the filthy cobbles. Hand trembling, the boy lifted his hand and fired another lightning bolt. The dummy exploded, scattering flaming straw.
Samantha. Was she among them?
Saeth searched the group for the raven-haired girl but found nothing. She had to be here somewhere. Despite his misgivings, the intel was correct. There were children here, so Samantha had to be among them. A door stood ajar behind the children and their chaperones. He needed to do some more digging.
He morphed back into a beetle, and crawled through the crack, hugging the shadows around the edge of the room. Slipping through the door, he landed behind the nearest pile of rubble, and transitioned back into a mouse. A voice reached him closer than he would have liked.
“Do as you’re told, girl. Or you’ll spend the night in the cellar with the rats.”
A voice that had suffered at the hands of too many cigarettes had Saeth poking his head above the rubble. The small, circular room was poorly lit with several torches, held in the original sconces. Three shadowy figures stood only a few feet away. A filthy man, sorting several facial cuts and teeth that had seen better days leaned on a cane fashioned from the twisted branch of a tree.
In his hand, he held the scruff of a girl. Raven-haired, blue-eyed and an unusual birthmark running up her neck.
The girl glared at her grizzled captor with more defiance than Saeth would have recommended.
“No,” she said, firmly. “I won’t do it.”
Opposite Samantha, the third figure trembled. Another girl, tears cascading down her face, red hair enflamed in the light, stood rooted to the spot as though too scared to move.
“You’re no good to us if you don’t use your powers, girl,” he said. “Do you need a reminder of what happens to little children who aren’t useful?”
Samantha’s defiance waved, and fear flitted across her features. She turned her gaze to the girl, an apology written into her expression.
The girl screwed up her eyes as Samantha reached out a hand and touched her face. She dropped like a stone, hitting the ground like a sack of potatoes, her eyes now wide with silent horror.
“Good.” The man let go of her collar, his eyes smiling when his lips wouldn’t.
Saeth swallowed a mouthful of horror at the terrified look on Samantha’s face.
* * *
Saeth flung the car door open so quickly, Callista jumped.
“You took your time,” she said. “Did you find anything?”
“Oh, yeah.” He got in and slammed the door shut. “A whole kids training camp run by power-mad thugs. We need to get them out of there right now.”
Callista stared at him. Whatever she had eaten had smudged her lipstick a little.
“Are you telling me you want us to go in there and fight some bad guys?” she asked.
“You’re a Valkyrie aren’t you? I thought you guys did that all the time.”
“You aren’t serious. Do you know anything about Valkyrie culture?”
“Not much. Just figured they were all as bad-ass as you.”
That appeased her a little, and the smallest smile played at the corners of her lips.
“We’re not police, Saeth. We aren’t qualified to handle a situation like this. We need to call the Nexus and get them over here,” she said.
He groaned, rubbing his forehead with his hand. Those poor kids had suffered down there long enough, it wasn’t right to leave them. What had happened to them would scar them for life. But the regime was designed to bring out the worst in them. He had no doubt Samantha would go down fighting. A strong kid, defiant, even after three weeks in that place.
But he couldn’t disagree with Callista. They were outnumbered and less ruthless than their opponents. The urge to gift them all a nice, hard punch was strong, but he suspected those thugs might even go as far as taking his soul. They were Umbra Artis after all.
“Damn.” Callista shook her phone, frowning at it. “No signal.”
“What a shame.”
“No, Saeth. We can’t get into a fight with these people.”
“We don’t have to, look.” Saeth pointed at the sky, ablaze with sunset colours. “Pretty soon they’re going to have to sleep. If you set up a teleportation circle to the Nexus out here, I can sneak them out and we can get them to safety. Nice and easy.”
“It sounds easy, but what if something goes wrong?”
“Then you use the portal to go and get the Nexus. It’ll be fine, come on.”
Callista grasped her chin with her fingers, as if holding onto it for dear life. The conflict was clear on her face.
“All right,” she said, after several moments of contemplation. “Just don’t die on my watch, OK? Mei will kill me.”
* * *
Saeth snuck his way back down into the castle’s depths before the sun disappeared. He stuck to his mouse form. There were rats down here, one little mouse wouldn’t draw much attention. Saeth soon learned, after following the children as they were shepherded from place to place, that the castle housed a sizable underground system in which the traffickers had made themselves a permanent home. Once power practice finished, the thugs strapped leather bracelets imbued with amethyst talismans to the wrist of each child.
He had mumbled a few expletives which came out as a disgruntled squeak. Amethyst talismans were the only thing known to the supernatural world that could block the use of a supernatural’s powers. Using them on anyone other than yourself was a breach of Aegis law, and punishable by imprisonment. Although, after everything he had seen, Saeth doubted the traffickers’ amethyst usage was a priority on their extensive list of crimes.
He crouched behind a wooden bucket in the makeshift canteen, watching the children eat a bowl of what he hoped was stew, but that seemed doubtful considering the dishwater colour and distasteful aroma. No sign of that barbecue anywhere.
As soon as they were finished, their chaperones herded them into the only dungeon with the door still on the hinges and a working lock. Finding a nook in the wall in which to conceal himself, Saeth watched as the bald thug pocketed the key and strode away down the hallway, shining an electric torch ahead of him.
Good, no guards.
That removed a significant problem, but he still had to work out how he would traverse the labyrinth without any light, especially with several children in tow.
One problem at a time, Saeth.
Once the light had disappeared completely, he skittered across the hallway and shimmied under the door. Whispers and shuffles met him once inside, the children muttered to each other around the light of a tiny electric torch. Huddled together, each looked as desperate to stay in the torch’s rays as the next. Saeth’s heart sank at the sight of the children clinging to their only shred of security. That ended now.
With little thought, Saeth shifted into his human form.
“Don’t scream,” he said, hoping to stem the Mexican wave of gasps. “I’m here to help you.”
“Did you come to save us?” The sandy-haired boy he recognised from earlier gazed up at him with eye-watering hope.
“Yeah, I did. Samantha’s mum sent me to come and get you.”
“My mum?” Samantha’s voice broke, though he couldn’t see her face in the darkness.
“Hold tight, guys. Just give me a sec, I’ll get you out of here. Can you shine that torch onto the lock over here?”
They all scrambled to his side, the beam of light falling to the lock. Saeth slid his lock-picks out of his coat pocket and got to work. His dad wouldn’t be at all proud if he knew about this skill, one that an old school friend had taught him years before he was imprisoned for burglary. But it had proved useful in a few tight situations.
The medieval lock proved easier than the ones he had encountered, and before long, the door clicked open.
“Right, let’s get those amethysts off,” said Saeth, in a hushed tone.
Back in its pocket went the lock picks, and out of another withdrew a small pair of nail scissors that Callista insisted he take with him in case he needed to defend himself. He couldn’t figure how she thought a little pair of scissors could compare to his trusty pouch of talismans. He just hoped he wouldn’t have to use them.
Little by little, he cut away the leather bracelets. While he didn’t like the idea of the children having to use their powers to defend themselves, his had their limits.
“Listen up,” he muttered, stowing the scissors away. “Do any of you know the way out?”
“I remember how we came in,” volunteered the sandy-haired boy.
“Great, what’s your name?”
“Great, Cole. I need you to lead us out, OK? I’ll be right next to you. We all have to be really quiet. If they hear us, they’ll throw us back in here. OK?”
Several affirmative murmurs emerged from the darkness, and Saeth took up the torch, leading the way out of the cell. Cole stayed pressed to his side as they snuck down the corridors, clinging to his sleeve.
The old castle corridors were in a state. Some had caved in, some were flooded, and others hid fresh rat carcasses in the shadows, that he slipped on more times than was amusing.
“Are you sure this is the right way, Cole?” Saeth asked. He was beginning to regret putting his trust in the young boy. He might have meant well, but taking a wrong turn could cost them everything.
“I’m sure, they brought me down this way yesterday.” Cole sounded almost insulted by the question.
“Is it much further?”
“Hey! The kids are gone!”
The low bellow sent Saeth’s stomach rolling. He had hoped for more time than this.
“Come on, we’ve got to go right now,” he said.
They dashed down the hallways, Cole dragging Saeth along as he ran for his freedom. Saeth stopped abruptly at the sight of a stone wall blocking their path. They had come the wrong way.
Cole clambered up a ladder hidden in the shadows and pushed away the trapdoor. Young moonlight lit up the ladder like a stairway to heaven.
“There they are!”
Thundering footsteps at the end of the hallway had his heart stopping for a beat or two. Saeth ushered the children up the ladder as the thugs descended upon them. He turned to them, fists clenched. He had to buy them some time.
Saeth began to shift, his body growing, muscles expanding and black hair sprouted along his arms. The thugs stopped dead, open-mouthed at the sight of the silverback where Saeth had just stood. He roared, sending two of the thugs scrambling back the way they came, but the four others stood firm.
“Get out of the way shapeshifter,” the bald thug warned. “Those kids are ours.”
Saeth growled, but the men didn’t budge. Though he sorely wanted to, he couldn’t bring himself to strike them, and somehow they knew it. Either that, or they were prepared to test him. The bald thug drew an athamé from his belt, an orange gem glinting in the blade. They were ready to fight dirty. He might not want to hurt them, but he could give them something to think about.
He slammed a giant fist against the ceiling, and it buckled, rocks cascading down on them.
“It’s coming down, get out of the way!”
Saeth took a few steps back and launched another fist at the ceiling. That did it. Stones and soil rained down from the ceiling, flooding the corridor with debris and soil. The bald thug lunged forwards and slipped out of the way of the avalanche, slashing Saeth’s arm as he passed.
Saeth roared again, clutching the wound that sizzled and bubbled as though on fire. Such was the power of the Cinnabar crystal embedded in the blade. The thug scrambled up the ladder and into the night.
Overcome with pain, Saeth shrank back into his human form.
“Bastard,” he muttered, and dashed to the ladder.
He stumbled out onto grass littered with pine needles at the edge of the forest, and beginning to crisp with frost. The castle was several hundred yards away, just visible in the moonlight.
Several screams cut through the night air. Biting his lip to distract himself from the pain, Saeth searched for their owners. Dozens of yards ahead, the bald thug had seized Samantha by her hair and held the athamé to her throat.
“Listen to me you ungrateful little maggots!” he bellowed. “If you don’t march yourselves back down to your cell right now, I’m opening her throat, got it?”
Saeth acted with only a nanosecond of thought. Transforming into a hawk, he took to the skies and swooped down, sinking his talons into the thug’s hand. With an ear-splitting bellow, the thug dropped the athamé. Saeth spun around to dive-bomb him again, but Samantha was too quick. She slapped a hand to the thug’s cheek and he dropped, heavy as a bag of rocks, onto the freezing ground.
Saeth landed, transforming back into human form.
“Samantha, are you OK?” he asked.
“Yeah.” The girl stared at the paralysed man, eyes wide with what she had done.
Saeth breathed a sigh of relief, surveying her just to be sure. She didn’t look injured, but every young face his gaze fell on was stricken with fear. He poked the cut on his arm, and winced. He’d live, and he still had a job to do.
“Come on, let’s get out of here before anything else happens,” he said.
Walking out of the elevator into the Diamond Talisman office was a great relief for Saeth. He had never looked over his shoulder so many times in one journey to work before. Part of him was worried the Nexus would be there, hoping to question him about the abundance of children who had walked into their London branch through a portal conjured by an unknown Valkyrie. Another part of him worried that the Umbra Artis followed him after the arrest of the bald thug, Trevor Stork, and his cronies. After digging them out of the castle ruins, of course.
He hadn’t slept that night. He remembered too much. The weapons, the Umbra Artis thugs, and the scared faces of the children he had watched disappear through the portal. Regardless of what he had seen, or what might come for him, Saeth comforted himself with the warmth that he had helped save a group of kids from turning into monsters.
“Saeth.” Mei’s head poked out of her office the moment he walked past. “A moment, please.”
“In here. Right now.”
Saeth sighed, and trudged into the office. Callista was already sat on one of the sofas, knees together, hands clasped with white-knuckle tightness. He swallowed with difficulty. He didn’t remember a time when Callista looked so nervous.
“Sit,” Mei instructed.
He sat next to Callista, while Mei perched on the arm of the opposite sofa, arms folded. Her expression looked neutral, but the fury brewing behind it permeated the atmosphere.
“Explain yourselves,” she said. “What were you thinking charging into a black market operation?”
“Saeth made me.”
“You are both equally responsible!” Mei snapped. “You are not Nexus agents, you could have gotten yourselves killed, or Aries forbid, those poor kids!”
“I wouldn’t have let anything happen to them,” said Saeth.
“But you’re OK putting yourself in danger? What would happen to your dad if you had gotten killed yesterday?”
Saeth swallowed at the lump in his throat, but it stayed lodged there. She was right, even if he couldn’t quite admit it. Mei rubbed her forehead with both hands, a headache on its way.
“Julia has been calling all morning to thank you for what you’ve done, but the Nexus are still trying to find out who you both were from her and the kids. They’re keeping quiet, just like you told them to, but you will have to answer to them if they figure out you were involved.”
“So, you’re not going to turn us in?” Callista asked.
“Of course not. If they show up here, it’s your problem, but I’m not going to throw you to the wolves. You know how they feel about vigilantes.”
Saeth and Callista exchanged awkward glances. The Nexus came down hard on anyone who took the law into their own hands. The exposure threat to humans was too great. If they were caught, jail time was as good as guaranteed.
Mei leaned forwards, glaring at them through her square spectacles.
“I let you two pursue this because I trusted you, and it is clear I shouldn’t have. You were reckless, and you are both staying in this office until I decide otherwise. No more cases, just paperwork, until I decide you’ve learned your lesson.”
“What?” Saeth and Callista exclaimed simultaneously.
“Come on, Mei, we-,” Saeth began.
“If you have a problem with that, you can leave.”
The look on her face told them she was serious, and they nodded their agreement.
“Now get out of my office and if I hear you doing anything so reckless again, you’re fired. Have I made myself clear?”
They nodded again, too disappointed for words, and shuffled out of the office, heads bowed. Saeth sunk into his desk chair, miserable. The gravity of his actions crushed him for the first time. He had done the right thing, there was no doubt in his mind. But maybe, just maybe, he shouldn’t have been so reckless. For the kids’ sake, for Mei’s sake and for his dad’s.
Saeth allowed himself a secret smile. While he had put himself in danger, several children were now out of danger for what he and Callista had dared to do. No matter how much paperwork Mei gave him, he would always carry a feeling of having done something right in the world.
The elevator doors opened, and Leon charged into the office, skidding to a stop between their two desks, delight plastered all over his face.
“You guys are rockstars! Holy mother, I can’t believe you took on the Umbra Artis and won!”
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