There was a cautious knock at the door but Elsie didn’t notice, sunken, as she was, deep in contemplation over the cryptic margin notes of her newest fairy textbook. But the soft rat-a-tat didn’t escape the notice of her hyperactive fuzzball, Archimedes. His little black kitten ears popped up over the edge of the cardboard box he’d been happily chasing his tail inside and were quickly followed by excited, moss-green eyes and a fuzzy feline smile.
“Door bang! Mum, Mum, did you hear! Did you? Door banged, door bang!” he squeaked enthusiastically, bounding across the floor.
Elsie’s trusted familiar, Faith, opened one eye from her spot on the sofa, coolly watching her son bound erratically towards the hallway. The kitten loved to jump, but each leap was still imperfect, carrying him upwards more than forwards and adding a slight clockwise spin each arc so that by the time he passed out of the room he was pogoing tail-first.
Elsie’s eyes still hadn’t left the thick vellum page and her frown of concentration was deep enough to wedge pennies in. She kept moving her right hand back and forth, shading a particular sentence from the reading lamp so that it was lit only by the candle burning in her left hand and watching the words morph form under different sources of illumination. She was mouthing the two variations to herself, trying to find the truth that lurked between the lines. Fairy texts, she swore, were worse than the ‘genius only’ section of Babel’s crossword compendium.
“Sweetie,” Faith purred, stretching out one paw to stab a claw into Elsie’s thigh. Her mistress jerked alert. “Visitor.” Wax dripped onto the page she’d been studying and Elsie hurried to wipe it off, set the candle down (she hadn’t noticed how close to her fingers it had burnt) and extricate herself from under the large book. Her legs screamed pins and needles as she stood up and limped crab-like after the kitten.
Archimedes was scrabbling up Elsie’s heavy-weather duffel coat where it hung on its hook by the front door to peer out of the window.
“It’s not Babel!” he mewled in loud disappointment. Babel always played with the kitten until he passed out with exhaustion. He said it was the only way to get any peace in the house.
“Not a Cobble or Pook-pook neither.” Poor Archimedes sounded so distressed. The Coblynau always bought him enchanted ping-pong balls, and the Puka were teaching him how to hunt and fight.
“Just some fat magic man,” he yelled back down the hall to where Elsie spasmed her legs with each step and Faith padded sedately towards him.
Archimedes suddenly found his claws repelled from the duffel coat and slithered, unable to find purchase down to the floor, where he caught a nasty electric shock from the radiator pipe.
“Mind your manners, child,” a disembodied voice whispered in his ear.
Archimedes shot off back down the hall, his tail bristled up like a toilet-brush, a wry laugh floating after him.
Elsie hauled open the door, already annoyed with her uninvited caller.
“Don’t hex my cat,” she grouched, arms crossed.
The fat magic man swept off his floppy hat and bowed, long and low, a wide smile on his face.
“I beg a thousand pardons, Lady Lake. I can be touchy about my weight, but I only tweaked your youngling in play. There was no disrespect intended.”
Elsie opened her mouth to complain; this was her home and her cat. It was her responsibility to discipline Archimedes for his rudeness and it was utterly unacceptable for a stranger to cast spells, however small, within her threshold without her permission and before even introducing himself!
Faith, however, cut her off before the rant could leave Elsie’s mouth.
“Telemachos,” she purred, “it’s been a long time. Feel free to tweak the kitten again, he’s been driving me crazy all afternoon.”
Noticing Elsie’s glare, Faith made the introduction.
“Mistress, this is Tel, The Last Trojan.”
That was a title which Elsie recognised and she tried to unknot her muscles, albeit with only partial success. Her arms now hung at her sides but her hands were still balled into fists and her jaw didn’t want to unclench.
“I suppose you’d better come in then,” she snapped out, stood back and waved him through.
“Too kind, dearest lady, too kind,” Tel’s voice boomed with a naturally smug hauteur. With a last flourish of his hat as it returned to atop his noble bonce, The Lost Trojan entered the house of Lady Lake.
Faith watched Mistress and Tel drink their tea in silence. It was obvious to her that Tel was gathering his thoughts and impressions as he prepared to make his pitch. Telemachos had grown rounder since she’d last seen him, some five years ago, but didn’t appear noticeably older. He looked around forty, with thin, short, straw coloured tufts of unruly hair, calm eyes and a steady gaze, a pudgy, ruddy face, thick jowls and a couple of spare chins. He dressed smartly, in a well tailored charcoal suit, pale blue shirt in a duke of York cut, and an eye-catching bronze flecked waistcoat. He looked well, Faith mused; the mustard stains on his thigh the only blemish in his groomed and confident exterior. He’d brought a briefcase with him; a solid looking, ribbed, steel, security briefcase. Faith had always prided herself on being a cat with excellent instincts and she’d have bet her kitten on that briefcase containing bad news.
She checked on Archimedes, he’d gone back to chasing his tail in the cardboard box. He was a good boy; Mistress didn’t need the distraction right now.
Compared to Tel, Mistress looked downright tatty. White-blonde hair yanked back in a brutal pony-tail, thick rimmed reading glasses, no make-up, an old purple gig t-shirt for a poetry collective with half the logo peeled away and faded blue jeans ripped at the knees and shredded around the ankles from Archimedes’ affectionate attention, topped off with her oldest, filthiest robe. Mistress felt that the miasma of mess that adorned her outer garment gave it character: soil smears from grow-bags, oil smears from bike repairs, various rips and holes from summoning circles and spitting cauldrons, stains from a hundred practice potions, and spots of transmogrified material from when the robe once stopped a lovelorn wizard’s spell. It all represented a rich tapestry of the young witch’s experiences, but Faith was all too aware that to an untrained eye it just looked skanky.
Their visitor, Telemachos, The Last Trojan, could trace his paternal lineage back to Aeneas, a mortal son of Greek love goddess, Aphrodite and had inherited the mantle of the The Last Trojan: he was twice cursed and thrice blessed. Tel was also well known to be extremely superficial and had Faith been aware that he was coming to visit she would have counselled Mistress to tidy the house and dress-up for the occasion.
Mistress had been doing a lot of research into fairy protocol recently, with some friendly Puka ferrying rare tomes and scrolls back and forth from the unaffiliated Sidhe archives for her. Every surface was covered in them, and the kitchen stunk of diesel and ginger thanks to an unfortunate accident with a poultice she’d made for an injured Puka the night before.
At last Telemachos was ready to begin. He pulled the briefcase onto his lap and flipped it open, the ribbed metal top facing Elsie and concealing what lay within. He carefully removed a vial from its cushioned recess and passed it to Elsie.
“Lady Elspeth, can you identify what this is?” he asked, licking his chubby lips.
Elsie did, immediately, but took a few seconds to examine the sample in detail. The vial was cut from traditional crystal but stopped with a modern vacuum seal. The liquid inside was syrupy silver, like liquid chrome, shot through with microscopic glittering red fragments. There was a small bubble of greenish gas floating at the top which slid sluggishly through the silver as she inverted the vial.
“It’s dragon blood. Welsh Red to be precise. And,” she paused mind racing through the implications. Dragon blood was powerful, rare, incredibly expensive and a carefully controlled substance. This viscous liquid was the product of a serious crime.
“Extracted involuntarily,” Elsie finished.
“Quite, quite correct, Miss Lake” Tel agreed.
He spun the briefcase around to reveal another nineteen vials and the empty recess where the one in her hand had nestled. Elsie gasped in shock, Faith hissed, her hackles up and claws extended, and Archimedes stuck his head out his box, worried and mewling softly.
“That’s a lot of flood,” whispered Faith.
Flood is the slang term for dragon blood. It’s said to flood your system with everything good. It makes you faster, stronger, quicker to heal, and heightens vision, hearing and balance. It turns dreams into visions and vague plans into detailed schemes. It makes people smarter, more insightful, more determined and more creative. It is incredible stuff, but it only lasts for a while: about a week a vial. The amount Tel was carrying could make him a world-class player for five months. It was rocket fuel for an ambitious man. Or woman.
It was also impossible.
The dragons keep supply low to keep prices sky-high. There are only eight bands of dragons around the world, and each band releases no more than a dozen vials a year on the black market. Trading in Flood is strictly prohibited by all the magical authorities, the Covens, Councils, Courts, Cabals, Cartels and Clans, but there’s still huge demand among the wealthier freelance and renegades.
Someone could gather a stash the size of Tel’s in just a few months by buying every vial released by every band, but calculating the cost of pulling such a stunt made Elsie feel light-headed. But that wasn’t what had been done here.
Every band of dragons is distinguishable by the colour of their scales when they take their ancestral form, and that colour transfers into the glittering flecks in their blood. All dragon blood is silver, but Chinese Green dragon blood has green flecks, Russian White has white flecks, etc. Every vial in Tel’s case had the distinctive crimson flecks of the Welsh Reds.
What was really making Elsie nervous was the tiny bubble of snot coloured gas at the top of each vial. When a dragon voluntarily donates blood for sale they do so by crying a blood-tear. Each tear is contained in a natural membrane which seals the precious substance against exposure to air, in which it quickly reacts and burns. When flood is extracted against a dragon’s will there’s no membrane present and the shortest microsecond of exposure will start the blood fizzing, giving off the snot coloured gas.
Dragon blood is so potent because the line of dragons runs back to the original Becoming, and their auras remain forever tethered to the Infinite; they are a form of magic incarnate. If they choose to exert their real strength (something that hasn’t been done in recorded history), dragons are phenomenally powerful and nobody could ever take flood involuntarily from an adult dragon, except the dragon band’s alpha male. As one alpha weakens the next generation of males will fight him, and each other, for leadership of the band. The victorious new alpha will forcefully take trophy blood from his defeated peers before destroying them. Only after these once-a-generation massacres do dragon bands release a large batch of flood, using the financial windfall of its sale to establish and invest in the new alpha male’s regime.
The case of vials in Tel’s lap could only be from a regime-change massacre. But the Welsh Red alpha was still young and healthy, having only ascended to the Welsh throne a couple of years before. Elsie had met him. His children were barely toddlers, nowhere near ready to challenge for supremacy.
Faith hissed again. This didn’t add up. This didn’t bode well.
Tel cleared his throat. It was time for the pitch.
“Lady Elspeth,” he said. “I have a proposition, as you can see. I have come into possession of a goodly quantity of flood.”
He licked his chubby lips again. Faith could taste the pheromones. Tel was very, very nervous.
“I am no expert in the subject, but I have reason to believe that each of these vials has an illicit auction value of around fifty thousand pounds.”
Elsie didn’t know the precise numbers, but Faith gave her a tiny nod.
“I have ingested a miniscule amount myself,” Tel pointed towards one vial which was a fraction emptier than the others, “and had a series of strange dreams, amongst which your face recurred with great regularity.”
Tel was breathing fast, almost panting now.
“I need to sell these vials. Quickly. I have debtors who demand to be paid but I need the sale to be untraceable to me. They must never link it to me.”
Tel was jabbing his finger to articulate his sentences with urgency, bordering on panic.
“I know you need the money,” he blurted.
This got a raised eyebrow from Elsie.
“I know you’ve got the contacts,” his tone had turned pleading.
“And I know that you can be trusted,” with this last he smiled.
The question hung in the air.
“How did you get the flood?” Lady Elspeth asked.
“I can only divulge that information if you agree to be my agent in this sale,” was Telemachos’ well rehearsed response.
“Do you know how this flood was extracted?” She asked.
“I can only divulge that inf...,” he started to repeat.
“Skip it,” she interrupted, thinking hard.
“Ten percent,” he offered.
“Fifty,” she replied.
“Twenty,” he compromised.
“Fifty or leave now.” Her tone was hard.
“Fifty it is,” a big grin on his face.
Tel leant over to shake hands, but Elsie didn’t move.
“You can trust me, but can I trust you?” She looked him dead in the eye.
“Twice cursed, thrice blessed. I’m a man of my word.” The cockiness was back in his voice.
That got a nod from Faith. He was a man of his word alright. Elsie shook the man’s hand.
“Yes!” Hissed Telemachos, pumping her hand wildly. “Not exactly richer than Croesus, but three-hundred thou each should put our troubles to rest.”
Elsie could feel knots in her stomach clenching and writhing. She knew she was taking a massive gamble and jumping into a dangerous mess without sufficient information, but with her ex-Coven threatening to repossess her body and mana, she didn’t have a lot of other option: Tel was right, she badly needed the money.
Still, she couldn’t find it within herself to match Tel’s level of enthusiasm. Something dark lay behind those glittering vials.
“We have a deal. I’ll find you a buyer. Or several buyers.” She gave him a thin smile.
“Thank-you, Lady Elspeth, you won’t regret this.” To Elsie’s eye, Tel’s broad smile had a garish, predatory air.
“We’ll see about that. Now, you owe me some answers.” Her gaze was strong and forceful.
“Of course, most honourable Lady, of course: we are partners now and what I know, you shall know.” Tel was so relieved, he was gushing.
“Seven questions, answered fully without lies, omissions or obfuscation. Agreed?” This was a charm Elsie had learnt from an Icelandic genie that had proven most useful when dealing with demons, fairies and other tricksy critters. Telemachos seemed to fall under that heading.
As Tel leaned over to shake Elsie’s hand for the second time in two minutes, she muttered under her breath.
“Deal,” said Tel.
“Sannleikur þokki,” murmured Elsie, holding the charm’s signature ideogram in her mind’s eye. If Tel now tried to lie, omit, or obfuscate the truth he’d receive a strong electric shock to the gonads. It really was a most effective little charm and she wrote herself a mental memo to send Gylfi another thank-you gift.
“One: How did you get the flood?” Elsie’s mouth was dry.
“I found this briefcase with these vials all inside, in a sideways salon I operate.” Tel hesitated, unsure whether to continue.
A sideways salon, often called a ref-room (refraction room), or a split space is a kind of magical cloaking device. Objects, usually made of crystal or glass, are charmed and keyed into the room surrounding them. When guests touch the key nothing around them seems to change but to anyone else in the room they’ll have vanished. The sideways-guest has become a ghost in that room, able to walk through objects and people with no more resistance than mist. If they try to leave the room they’ll fail, yanked up short by the spell’s boundary. The guest must touch the key again to return to their normal, corporeal form.
Tel chose to say no more and then shrieked as the truth charm generated a fierce zap to his sensitive trouser snake.
“Don’t omit,” was all Elsie said.
Tel continued, quickly. “I’d hired the salon out the previous day to a gentleman I’ve always known as Sycamore. He’s an incubus. He’s rented from me before as a place to feed without making a traceable mess and I was going in to clean up again, presuming the demon gone. I found the briefcase in the normal room, not in the split space, but I didn’t open it immediately. In the split space I found bodies, about a dozen bodies. But Sycamore hadn’t been feeding, they weren’t mortal men’s bodies. They were vampire. A dozen beheaded vampires. I was scared. I looked in the briefcase and found the flood. I panicked, took it and ran.”
Tel finished. There was another fizzing sound and he shrieked again.
“But I didn’t lie! Miss Lake, this is no way to treat a partner!” Tel whined.
“Think carefully, Telemachos. What did you chose to not tell me?” she asked.
Tel paused for a few second and then realised. “I took the salon key as I left because I didn’t want anyone else to find the bodies. I didn’t want to tell you because I am ashamed: I’ve left them trapped there forever.”
“Very good,” soothed Elsie, “you’ve done well. Talking in truths does not come easily to many.”
“It is not a profitable trait in the circles with which I move,” Tel croaked.
There were a number of key facts and questions raised from Tel’s story which Elsie systematically filed away in her mind.
Succubi and incubi are demons that feed on sexual energy, killing their prey in the process. Succubi take female form, and incubi look like men. Traditionally an incubi would feed on women, but Tel had implied that Sycamore usually fed on men. Elsie had never before met an Ink Sucker (the slang term for a gay incubus) but they were said to be more forward thinking than most demon folk.
Telemachos willingly rents a sideways salon for an incubus to feed in. This shone a light on the sort of gory depths her new partner was happy to plumb for a profit.
The dozen beheaded vampires sounded like a whole nest. Which nest? Who had killed them and why? Was the flood the bait to draw them in for slaughtering, or had this been a trade gone wrong? Was Sycamore the seller? What had happened to Sycamore? How had the flood been left behind?
One final issue nagged at Elsie, like spinach caught between her teeth. Why were the vampires beheaded? It wouldn’t actually kill them; just cause them excruciating, unending pain. And how exactly do you go about beheading a dozen vampires?
Elsie was one question in and her head felt light already. The thought of another six questions, each opening a new chasm of ignorance, left her reeling with cerebral vertigo. Looking at Tel and thinking of the murders he’d been a knowing accessory to made her want to scoop his eyes out with her tea spoon.
“I need some fresh air,” Elsie muttered, reaching for her cigarettes.
She took the vial of Welsh Red dragon blood with her, spinning it through her fingers the way her rockstar idol, Chad Smith, spun his drumsticks.
Tel opened his mouth to demand she stop juggling the merchandise, but Faith leaned forward, ears flat against her head and hissed at him, hard. Telemachos shut his mouth.
“Let her go, fat boy. Your putrid past has given the fair Lady ethical indigestion. Archie, keep Mistress company. This dog-spawn and your mother need to have words too hot for your sweet, young ears.”
Faith smiled wide and Telemachos became intensely aware how sharp her teeth looked. He’d forgotten what a terrifying little hell-cat she could be.
Archie bounded towards the garden after Elsie, giggling into his whiskers. He loved it when his Mum let her scary side out, unless it was aimed at him!
Elsie was numb to the conversation, too busy imagining the soul-rending pain of death by demonic sexual consumption: the screaming nerves and tortured visions, the sensory addiction and guilt-love death-wish forced upon the Incubus victim’s shattering mind.
She inadvertently slammed the back door in Archimedes’ face but the kitten’s quick reflexes steered him straight through the cat flap, bare inches behind her heels.
Elsie stomped down the winding garden path, past her personal stone-circle and fairy-rings, under her angel-arch and onto the dainty bridge that spanned the creek at the bottom of the garden. She shoved the cigarette between her lips, sparked it up and sucked it down to the very bottom of her lungs. She held it deep, held it inside, held it some more, and then letting the burning smoke whistle out in a trembling whoosh, let her strangle-hold on righteous fury go.
Elsie’s strongest elemental magic had always been water work and with barely a coherent thought she summoned a pillar of splashing water to leap up from the creek and bath her left hand, which cupped the vial of flood gently. Contact with wild water always soothed her spirit and calmed tumultuous thoughts. It was, she mused, inordinately tempting to drop the vial into the creek, but she’d made a promise to Telemachos. She now had a contract to honour, whatever shade of shit her new business partner was made from.
Archie had climbed up onto the bridge’s rail, so Elsie returned the cigarette to her mouth and used her empty right hand to rub the little guy’s ears, the leaping pillar of water still massaging her left hand.
He’d grow into such a handsome cat, Elsie mused, and he’d make someone a brilliant familiar with Faith to raise and teach him. Elsie was lucky to have such an experienced familiar. If there was a way out of her current mess with the Coven, Faith would find it for her. If there was a clean way out of this new mess with Telemachos, Faith would steer her towards it. If Elsie ever slumped into despondency, Faith would get her moving again. It struck Elspeth, at that moment, quite how dependant on her family familiar she’d become and a shiver of dread passed through her at the thought of life without Faith.
Such were Elsie’s wandering thoughts when her house, rather inexplicably, blew-up.
Of course, Elsie knew nothing about that for the next twelve hours as a lump of brickwork, which had for so many years supported her kitchen wall, attempted to drive itself through the side of her head.
The vial of flood was thrown from her hand, into the creek. Archie was swept from the rail, paws flailing as he too splashed into the creek. Elsie hit the deck on the bridge hard, blood slick across her face and eyes rolled back in her head.
Faith, her beloved family familiar, her guardian, mentor and friend, had still been inside the house. And now Faith was dead.