It was times like this I wished Hallmark made a line of ‘So your supernatural daughter is going off to fight a supernatural war’ cards, because I certainly didn’t know how to say that to my father. Especially not over my cell phone, after I was already overseas.
‘So what are you doing in Britain again?’ My dad asked skeptically, as soon as I told him I’d landed safely.
For a split second I considered telling him the truth. But I didn’t want to give him a heart attack, especially so soon after he’d just been healed. So I took the coward’s way.
‘Oh, you know. Just doing some supernatural stuff. But safe stuff, of course. Safe, supernatural stuff.’
I’m not really lying, I consoled myself. I’ll be safe as houses with Blondie and Anyan.
And I knew I would be. Anyan was a fierce warrior – a barghest, with not only the ability to change shape between a sexy man and a fierce doggie, but also the ability to tap into two elements: earth and air. That made him super strong, as most of us could only tap into one. Mine was water, of course, since I’m half-selkie. Don’t club me because I’m beautiful.
Blondie, meanwhile, was something older and stronger than anyone else I knew. She was an Original, and I’d only recently learned what that really meant. Turns out she was one of the first humans to have access to magic, and she could use all magic in a way no other creature could. Even the Alfar, who could manipulate all four elements and were usually our (rather shitty) leaders, had their limitations. Blondie didn’t. But it was even more complicated than that, as Blondie was the reason we were all the way we were. She’d been conned into using an artifact – the horn of a really ancient magical creature – that hadn’t worked as it was intended. Instead of being the powerful weapon she’d been told it was, it had caused the Great Schism. That was when all the supernatural folk went from being like Blondie is, with access to all that power, and became as we are now: divided into different factions with different powers.
‘And who are you working for, exactly?’ my dad asked, still sounding skeptical.
‘Oh, just some powerful supernatural people. But they’re good. Definitely good. I think you’d like them.’
Oh, and ‘they’re’ under your feet, I considered adding.
For the creature who had sent us to Britain was the very same creature who lived beneath Rockabill. If Blondie was ancient, this thing was prehistoric. No, it was pre-humanic – it existed way before the Earth even looked the way it does now. Not biological in a sense that we understood, it did still have a body that lived underneath most of the Eastern Seaboard. But it was actually a being of pure Earth and Water. That didn’t mean it could just manipulate earth or water, as supes like me could. It meant it was Earth and Water – its parents were the actual elements that created our planet.
So it was big, and anything but bad. I’d been in its mind, and it was the closest thing to ‘good’ I could imagine. It was also as close to omniscient as we could hope for, under the circumstances. So if it said, ‘Go to Britain and start a war,’ we damned well knew we’d better get to Britain and start a war.
‘And you’ve got everything sorted for your visit? You have a ride and everything?’
‘Of course!’ I said, confidently.
I hope so, I thought, less confidently. I’d gotten through customs just fine, despite being nervous as shit. Now I was supposed to be meeting a contact, for whom I had a code word, but I’d walked out of Heathrow’s customs area to find myself alone. As for Anyan and Blondie, they were coming in on separate flights – all part of our attempt to sneak into the country. We were going in with our magic dampened, under assumed names, and alone. I was posing as a college student, which wasn’t much of a stretch.
‘Anyway, Dad,’ I said, trying to wrangle control of the conversation. ‘I’m fine and I’ll stay in touch. And you can always call my cell if you get worried. But what about you? Isn’t today your first day?’
‘Yup,’ he said. ‘I did all the other training already. Today Grizzie will work with me on all the coffee stuff. She’s determined to make a barista out of me.’
‘It’s easy, once you get the hang of it. And, hey, you can start drinking coffee again. Enjoy the fruits of your labors.’
My dad had only recently been healed of the heart defect that had made him an invalid for more than a decade. The supes had healed him, and glamoured the whole town and medical system to believe he’d always been healthy. But that had left him without his disability checks, and without a job. My leaving on the creature’s mission had actually worked out well, in that he’d been able to slot into my spot at Read It and Weep.
He was also getting back into doing all the stuff he’d once taken for granted. My dad used to love coffee, but for a very long time he’d only been able to drink the very watered down, mostly decaf version I’d made for him at home. But now he could go nuts, if he wanted.
‘Well, we all miss you, even if it is fun working in the bookstore,’ my dad said. ‘Grizzie and Tracy want you to know that you can come back any time, without me losing my job. With Tracy having the twins, she’ll mostly be at home. So they’ll need an extra set of hands.’
I grinned. What would happen when I returned had been a concern for me, and there it was – solved.
‘Tell them I love them. And I love you too, Dad. I’ll call you whenever I get a chance. Oh, hey, I think I see my ride.’
There was a shifty-looking woman with crazy raven-black hair scanning the concourse. And I mean she was shifty, for real. She was wearing a massive military-style trench coat that was moving oddly on her body, as if she had an extra something or other stashed on her back.
‘All right, hon. Call me soon. I love you.’
‘I love you too. Bye, Dad,’ I said, as the woman caught sight of me and gave me a small nod. She walked toward me and I flipped my phone shut. When she got close enough, I looked around furtively before skittering up to her.
‘Pachanga!’ I shouted, causing the crazy-haired woman to cringe. Maybe I was a little loud, but I was so relieved my ride had shown that I was a little slaphappy.
I also wasn’t entirely sure what ‘pachanga’ meant, although I knew it came from Dirty Dancing. So it was either a kind of dance or a euphemism for female genitalia. But it was now our chosen code word, with which I was supposed to identify my contact in London.
That very contact raised her coal-black eyes to mine.
‘Nobody puts Baby in a corner,’ she repeated, leaving me free to blurt out my next question.
‘Are you a selkie?’
The woman shook her head. Up close, she was totally emo: a huge fountain of dyed black hair spilled around her face and down her shoulders, in teased-out waves like David Bowie’s in Labyrinth. Her already dark eyes were rimmed with tons of black makeup, and she sported a lip ring and another in her nostril.
‘Sorry, no. I’m Magog, and I’m a raven. Not a selkie,’ she said, in a singsong accent I recognized as Welsh from watching Torchwood.
‘A raven?’ I asked, disappointed she wasn’t a selkie but excited to find out what a raven was. Meeting new supernaturals was what I liked best about my mother’s world, except for when they tried to kill me.
‘You’ll understand, later. Don’t want to frighten the humans,’ she rasped, twitching her lips at me. It wasn’t a smile, just a cynical twist of the lips that said, ‘Here’s where a normal person would smile, but I don’t do such things.’
‘Um, okay,’ I said, before realizing I’d not yet told Magog my name. Nor did I know who she was, besides a raven.
‘My name is Jane. And who are you, exactly?’
‘Your ride,’ she said, as I stared about, looking for some sign that I was really in another country. Unfortunately, Heathrow just looked like any airport in any city. ‘I’m one of your party’s contacts. I’ll take you to our safe house, and the barghest and Cyntaf will follow.’
I blinked, unsure who ‘cunt-uph’ was, exactly. But it sounded naughty.
‘Uh, cunt-uph?’ I hazarded.
‘Cyntaf. It’s Welsh for “the First”.’
‘Ah,’ I said. ‘You mean Blondie.’
‘Yes. That’s what we call her. The tattooed lady,’ I added, when it was obvious Magog still wasn’t comprehending. After a second, she gave that cynical little half-twist of her mouth again – her ‘not smile’.
‘Blondie, yes. That’s perfect. Blondie could—’
‘Party, I know,’ I said, with a sigh. ‘I’ve heard it before.’
‘Well, here she’s Cyntaf. If you’re set, let’s head out to the van.’
With that, Magog turned briskly on her heel, clearly intending me to follow. It was only then that I noticed how grotesquely the coat bulged up over her neck and shoulders as if she were a hunchback. My curiosity surged as I remembered what she was. Ravens, after all, had wings.
I couldn’t wait to see them.
‘Are we here?’ I asked.
Magog nodded, as silent as she’d been on the drive over, and I craned my head to get a better view of the building Magog had pointed to as we passed. But we were at an odd angle, parked well away from our destination despite there being room to park in front. Plus, the little white van we were driving had no windows in the back, and no matter how I moved around in my seat, I couldn’t see much. I finally gave up, suppressing a sigh as I turned to sit normally again.
To be honest, our drive through the night streets had been disappointing. I’d peered out of the windows, hoping for a glimpse of Big Ben, the London Eye, or Westminster, but we seemed to crawl along darkened suburban roads surrounding the airport for hours in inexplicably heavy traffic, getting no nearer to the city. Still, the views were interesting. The street signs were new, not to mention everyone was driving on the wrong side of the road, which freaked me out every time we turned. Plus, what with the steering wheel being on the right-hand side, I kept thinking small children and dogs were driving, or that cars were magically driving themselves while their human passengers sat with bored expressions. The houses were also definitely Not American: most seemed to be row houses, their front lawns paved to hold one of the tiny cars that seemed to be everywhere.
That said, the vast banality of the ’burbs – while not particularly inspiring – had given me an inkling of London’s size. I’d only been in a few ‘real’ cities in my life: Boston, Montreal, and Quebec. Chicago we’d only driven around, never even entering the city proper. After Rockabill, the cities I’d visited had seemed enormous. I realized now, however, that they were really baby cities, barely out of diapers. London must be a city, with a mass of people so huge I found it slightly terrifying.
A sudden desire for the emptiness of my ocean struck me, and I wondered how we’d be able to do anything covert, let alone start a war, in a place as tightly packed as London.
Magog and I sat in silence for about twenty minutes, unbroken except for my initial attempts at conversation – which were rejected – and then my occasional sleepy yawns. I tried to focus on what we were doing here, on what little Blondie had told us, but I found my thoughts continually reverting to happier things. Things with big noses, like Anyan Barghest, for example.
It was during one of these sleepy, Anyan-related reveries that I saw headlights pull up behind me. Magog perked up, peering carefully into her rearview mirror before she exhaled with relief.
‘It’s them. We can go in.’
Pushing open my car door I hopped out, then indulged myself in a long, hard stretch. I paused at the top of my stretch to take a deep breath. The air smelled of pollution, but also of water. I could smell river water, and ocean water, and rainwater. The air was saturated with moisture, bathing me in a delicious tingle of power. I closed my eyes to enjoy both that tingle and the ache in my limbs as I stretched, only to find Anyan had appeared and was watching me with a sensual little smile pursing his lips.
My belly burned with lust for that damned man, as my heart picked up its pace in my chest. Anyan and I had been friends, with the hint of something more on the horizon, when we’d both been attacked a couple of months back. I’d saved us, barely, but nearly killed myself doing so. When I’d woken up, everything was suddenly so intense between us. He’d watched me lie in a coma for a month, and had obviously come to some decisions about us on his own. But for me – the one sleeping – no time had passed at all since we’d exchanged those first tentative touches.
I’d woken up to him wanting me with a hunger I couldn’t help but match, but I also couldn’t entirely understand.
Having read way too much for my own good, I knew that a thousand motivations that had nothing to do with me could have created his sudden interest: my saving him, his seeing me almost die, my vulnerability in that coma.
But I didn’t want a man who thought he owed me, or wanted to save me. And even though all of Anyan’s actions toward me up to that point had been anything but paternalistic, I still worried. A worry compounded by the fact that, while I was still at the stage where I wasn’t sure if it was okay to touch him at all, let alone in public, in reality we’d already have had sex if we hadn’t been interrupted by Blondie. And we’d been interrupted to go to another country to start a war. One in which I was supposed to be some sort of Joan of Arc figure, hopefully minus the horribly painful death by burning.
To say we had some issues to work out was an understatement. But when Anyan looked like he did now, all rumpled and gorgeous in a pair of low-riding jeans, with his bright blue T-shirt making his iron-gray eyes extra cold and inscrutable, I knew the only thing I wanted more than world peace was for those cold gray eyes to warm when they met mine.
He held his hand out to me and I took it without thinking, moving closer to him as I did so.
‘Good flight?’ he murmured, brushing my hair back from my face. The gesture was ironic, considering his own curly black hair was sticking up like that of an electrocuted poodle. An adorable, electrocuted poodle.
‘Long,’ I answered. Before I could help myself, I said, ‘And I wish you were on it.’
‘Me too. I worried about you.’
‘It was fine. Easy. Magog was there soon after I got in,’ I said, gesturing toward the raven who was removing both my backpack, a big travel one I’d borrowed from Anyan, and her own to carry them toward the house.
‘Good,’ Anyan said, letting his finger trace down my jaw. I wanted to take it in my mouth, even as I wanted to ask him what he felt, even as I told myself to simmer down. We were sorting things out for ourselves and I needn’t rush things.
But I didn’t do or say anything. I just watched him watch me, wondering what he was thinking. And whether it involved the misuse of whipped toppings.
‘Come on, then,’ Magog rasped, from under the cold light of a streetlight. ‘Let’s not dawdle.’
Anyan picked up the pack he’d dropped, as well as another box laden with official-looking stickers. I grabbed that one from him under the auspices of being helpful, but it was really because I wanted it back. The box contained my labrys, my champion’s ax, and I’d missed it. I’d agreed it was better that Anyan bring it into the country as he was a real weapons expert, and would be able to convince any suspicious parties that his falsified credentials as a museum curator were actually real. But just because I knew it was better he carry the ax didn’t mean I’d liked being separated from it.
Once we had our stuff, we trudged up the sidewalk to the front door. I could feel a camouflaging glamour swirling around us: the first time I’d felt any magic from anyone since we landed. Even Blondie, who usually glowed like a sparkler, had kept all her power dampened. But now she was waiting for us under cover of glamour, Magog and another stranger waiting patiently beside her.
When we got close enough to greet each other, I noticed that Blondie looked no worse for wear after her transatlantic flight. Even her pink Mohawk was perfectly spiky, and her oversized jeans and tight, maroon long-sleeved T-shirt looked fresh. I felt like I’d been rolled around by hobos on a sidewalk somewhere, and wondered how she did it.
That said, my attention was quickly pulled from the Original to our newest addition. He was huge, first of all. He towered even over Anyan, and was nearly as big as the spriggan, Fugwat, although not as wide.
He was also a curious shade of gray and bald as a bowling pin. I could see black lines covering his skin, more like striations than tattoos, even over his face and down his neck. His eyes were the same shade of gray as his skin, and his features were small and stubby in his big head.
All in all he was massive and terrifying, like the Devil’s bouncer. I was glad he was, at least ostensibly, on our side.
‘That’s Gog Coblynau,’ Magog said. ‘And he’s mine.’ As a student of mythology gone a bit obsessive about the subject when I learned of my mother’s world, I recognized the word ‘coblynau’. In human myths, they were Welsh mining spirits or gnomes. I figured that meant, in supe terms, that Gog was an Earth elemental. Come to think of it, he did look a bit like something you’d find in a mine.
I nodded, acknowledging Magog’s words and her claim. She could have Gog. I wanted a coffee.
Gog laid a hand on the door, and I watched, fascinated, as the wood stretched and reformed itself to open a passage without actually unlocking the door. As he did so, the black striations spraddled across the back of his head glowed a dull black, casting his gray skin in an eerie pallor.
When there was space enough for us to enter, he motioned us through.
Once inside the house’s slim, long hallway, I peered around. There was a small room to my right that was clearly a living room, and then a small kitchen behind it. A tiny, steep staircase was in front of me to my left, leading to what I assumed were two bedrooms the same size as the living room and the kitchen. Everything was painted cream, and I recognized most of the furniture as Ikea.
I was also pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be there, not least because Gog and Magog were doing the same thing I was – peering about like they’d never seen the place.
My suspicions were confirmed when I felt a sweep of power from Blondie, testing for other forms of life. When she found nothing, she nodded to Magog, who reached into her coat’s massive pocket and pulled out a coal-black rock that was so big she handled it with two hands. She laid the rock on the shelf of the radiator by the front door, touching it lightly as she squatted down to murmur to it, imbuing it with the power of her breath. Nearly all winged things were Air elementals, and Magog’s whispers were laced with a strength that made me shiver.
As soon as she was done, I felt a whoosh of power emanate from the stone, and then the street noise disappeared entirely. Then Magog took off, moving around the tiny house quickly, as if scouting.
‘A shield, called a nullifier,’ Gog said, his voice as gravelly as his skin. Magog, already done looking around the downstairs rooms, whooshed past us as she headed upstairs. ‘We use them to make safe houses. If anyone is nearby, this house looks like a dead zone, even if we’re using our power.’
I nodded as if I understood, wondering what we would do now.
‘You settle yourselves,’ Magog said, her footsteps pounding on the stairs as she dashed down from her second-story investigations. ‘Clean up, do whatever, but try to disturb as little as possible. I’ll pop over to the shops for supplies. There’s a double bedroom, a single, and the couch in the lounge folds out to a double, I’m pretty sure. Feel free to claim which room you’d like, but leave a double for Gog and me.’
With that the raven was off, but only after Gog had reopened the door in his odd way. It was only then I noticed the alarm system installed next to the front door. It was blinking away in safe mode, content that no one had gotten in on its watch since the door had never, technically, been opened.
‘You and Magog take the double upstairs. Blondie can have the single. Jane and I will take the lounge,’ Anyan said to Gog, after which Anyan shot me a look as if to ask if that was all right. I smiled my acquiescence, hoping I didn’t look like a girl who’d won the lottery.
‘That works,’ Gog rumbled, shouldering his and Magog’s packs.
‘Um, Gog?’ I asked, despite the fact I probably didn’t want to know the answer. ‘Are we supposed to be here?’
The gray man turned to me, his brows furrowed.
‘Are we . . . guests?’ I asked. ‘Or did we break in?’
Gog smiled, a real smile unlike Magog’s, and I saw that he was missing his bottom front teeth.
‘Oh, we’re not guests, Miss. We definitely broke in?’
I squelched my alarm at the alacrity with which he said that we were committing what had to be felony, even in Europe.
‘How did you find it?’ Anyan asked, casually.
‘Facebook,’ Gog said. ‘You’d be amazed at what people put on their walls. This young couple is enjoying a weekend in Amsterdam. It was very nice of ’em to let us know exact dates, don’t you think?’
I shook my head, very glad that for all intents and purposes, I lived in 1996. Having no friends, I’d never been up on social networking.
And now I had no inclination to start.