Author's Note: This was written in answer to a question that came in for the Facebook Q&A asking: "How old is Pritkin's house in Stratford? In the book he stated that he had owned it for over 100 years, but I wondered when the house was actually built and if someone had owned it before him." I started to answer it in the Q&A, but thought it deserved better. So here it is, and hope you enjoy.
The House at Cobb End
John had started out impressed. Not at the gilt edging on the book’s antique vellum pages or the hand carving on the heavy wood cover. But at the fact that, even though this was merely an estate agent’s manual, someone had lavished care into a spell that changed the usual listings into perfect three-dimensional representations of the properties on offer. Every time he turned a page, a new vista spiraled up into the dim office light, in a sparkle of distant sunshine and a cascade of carefully tended cobblestones.
Or, in this case, a spread of rolling hillside.
He sat up a bit straighter.
He’d been at this for over two hours, only to find his initial amusement fading as he discovered that all of the best places were already taken. And the remaining ones… Well, it might be charming to see bluebirds nesting in the thatch of a miniature roof, or to peer into a tiny cracked window and have one green eye and a strand of blond hair be reflected back at him. But it also meant that the houses in question would require extensive renovation, and he simply didn’t have the time.
It was also a factor that most of the available homes were in town, hidden from the usual occupants of Stratford-upon-Avon by clever spells and throngs of tourists. John didn’t like towns. John liked…well, he liked this.
Instead of covering only one page, as was the norm, this particular magical diorama had elbowed its way onto two. And thereby squeezed the small garret flat that had been occupying the other page into a third of its original space, leaving it sadly crumpled and annoyed looking. John didn’t care.
John cared about the rolling green grasses spilling across a partly wooded hillside. He cared about the ribbon of river, surging like a liquid bookmark down the center of the page. He cared about the house sitting in late medieval splendor on the crest of a hill, surrounded by trees and vines and acre upon acre of fine British farmland, without a single neighbor in sight.
It looked a little overgrown, but he could put up with that. For blessed country solitude, he could put up with a great deal. He looked at the clerk. “What about this one?”
A long beak of a nose peered around a tottering pile. “I thought you said
that you preferred a free-standing property.”
It took John a moment to notice that the tiny eyes above the beak were, incredibly, focused on the scrunched up flat in the corner, rather than on the gleaming vista doing the scrunching. “Not the garret,” he said impatiently. “The other one. The farmhouse.”
The small eyes widened. “The farm—oh no. No, that is not available.”
“Then why is the border green?” John indicated the discreet outline, which in this case was less of a rectangle and more of a rugged coastline, hedging the scene. “I thought that indicated—”
“I didn’t say it was let. I said it was unavailable.”
“Then why is it in the book?”
“Because it refuses to leave!” The clerk glared at the offending, cheerful scene. “We’ve tried excise spells, erasure spells, and half a dozen others to at least get it back in its proper place, but without effect. It’s one of the oldest properties listed, you see, owned by one of our first adjutants. And it would appear that the book equates age with importance.”
John wasn’t interested in the clerk’s struggles with his magical library. He was interested in the house. “I would like to tour this one.”
“It is not available.”
“Yes, so you said. My question was why?”
The sunlight leaking through the room’s old, leaded windows turned the clerk’s skin a sickly yellow. Or maybe it was always that way. John had never seen anyone who looked more like he’d spent the morning sucking on a lemon. “There have been...issues…in the past.”
“What kind of issues?”
“The kind of issues that make it off limits, Mr. Pritkin.” The voice was as emphatic as the book snapping shut in his face.
John had a vision of the clerk’s wispy gray mane bursting into flame like the wick of a particularly sallow candle. But he reigned in the impulse, and also swallowed the sharp comment that sprang to his lips. He was a desperate man and he was running out of time.
“I’m to be married in less than a month,” he said, trying to appeal to the blasted man’s sympathy, since camaraderie was getting him sod all.
“And my fiancé is not a war mage, nor a civilian aide, and will therefore not be permitted in barracks.”
“I should hope not!” The clerk looked appalled at the very thought. That was absurd, as there were a growing number of female members of the War Mage Corps, the body charged with protecting the magical community. However, that was over the protests of some of their male counterparts, less because of misogyny than the prevailing assumption that powerful female magic workers must be coven-trained. And the covens, especially those in Britain, had a long and bloody history with the Circle.
Of course, the fighting was long since over, but tensions remained, causing the female recruits no end of problems. John could sympathize. There were those who hadn’t wanted him in the barracks, either.
After all, at least the women were human.
“Then, as you can see, I need a house,” he soldiered on. “Within a month. Less, really, as there will doubtless be repairs to be made, and I will need to buy—”
“What you need is to look elsewhere.” The clerk shoved the massive book into the warded cabinet behind his desk.“ Or wait for Jenkins to vacate his cottage, as I said. The other property is not available, and therefore its state of repair is irrelevant.”
“But Jenkins isn’t moving until after—”
“Thank you, Mr. Pritkin.”
“Yes, but why is it un—”
“Thank you and good day.”
The last two words must have triggered some kind of spell he hadn’t detected. Because the next thing John knew, he was sitting in the cramped, wood-paneled hall outside the clerk’s office, being trampled by several more bright-eyed hopefuls on their way in. Good luck, he thought viciously, and swept off down the hall, wondering for the thousandth time what he was doing working with the damned Corps in the first place.
And then he remembered, when he almost ran the reason down.
Not that the man noticed. The slightly pudgy fellow coming out of the loo had hair the color and shape of a dandelion pouf, and blue eyes that couldn’t see his hand in front of his pleasant round face. At least not without his spectacles, which he appeared to have misplaced judging by the way he was assaulting some poor recruit.
“Benedict?” Jonas Marsden squinted at the young man. “Is that you?”
“Uh, yes sir.” The recruit looked a little startled that a brigadier general would even know who he was, much less bother to address him. Or maybe it had something to do with the fact that his superior was all of an inch from his nose.
“What are you doing with that?” Jonas demanded.
“With what, sir?”
“With that!” Jonas gestured at the straw boater the man had yet to remove.
“You…you mean my hat, sir?”
“No, I mean my hat. What are doing with my hat?”
The young man looked around for help, but everyone else had scattered to the four winds. Except for John, and it only seemed to make the man more nervous when he recognized him. Now he had the second-in-command of the Corps and its infamous half-demon adjutant both staring at him. “Er, well, actually, sir, it’s…well, in fact, you see, it’s my hat.”
The man sounded almost apologetic at having to point this out.
But Jonas wasn’t having it. “Then where is mine?” he demanded.
“I...I'm afraid I don’t really—”
“On the peg board behind you,” Pritkin said, less to be helpful than to hurry this along.
Not that it did, of course.
“Nonsense.” Jonas drew himself up. “I think I know where I left my own hat!” And onto the dandelion it went.
“On someone else’s head?” John asked, plucking a black bowler off a peg and tossing it to the young man. Who caught it and then just stood there, looking at it. John sighed.
Jonas turned that sharp blue squint on him. “John?”
“Yes, and I have a bone to pick with you.”
Jonas muttered something that sounded like ‘what a surprise,’ but John decided to let it go since he needed the man’s help. “I want you to talk to Edwards for me.”
“In allocation. He’s being a stubborn git—”
“Well it’s damned irritating! I was told—by you, I might add—that I was to be allowed Circle housing—”
“Well, of course. Working for us, even unofficially, tends to make a person enemies. Particularly with that nasty group of Velos demons you’ve been helping to round up--”
“Which is my point! But I’ve been here all morning and Edwards has been no bloody help at all. He found me three options, none of which are remotely suitable—”
“The first was a dump, the second far too small and the third still has a tenant--who intends to retain possession until at least the New Year.”
“Yes, well, that’s when assignments get changed around, you see,” Jonas said, eyes crossing as he squinted upwards.
“But that’s five months away and I need something today. And Edwards
won’t even show me the only property I really liked—nor so much as tell me why. Do you understand the problem now?”
“Yes,” Jonas said, taking the boater off his head and looking at it strangely. “This isn’t my hat.”
“Damn it, Jonas—”
“It’s him!” Jonas pointed at the confused young man, who had simply been standing there, cradling his superior’s lost bowler carefully in his hands. “He’s at it again!”
“But, sir...I didn’t…”
“Oh, for the love of—” John snatched the boater, stuck it on the recruit’s head, took the bowler from the idiot’s hands and stuck it on Jonas’s. “Now, will you please go talk to Edwards?”
“Of course, dear boy.” Jonas said, pushing flyaway golden hair under the old black brim, watching the recruit narrowly all the while. “No need to fret. This is a simple matter. Won’t take a moment.”
Chapter Two“That Edwards is a git,” Jonas puffed, slashing at the overgrown grasses with a cane.
“And you’re his superior,” John pointed out. “You could have simply ordered him to—”
Jonas made an irritated sound in his throat.
“You’re intimidated,” John accused.
“I am no such thing,” Jonas slashed a bit harder. He seemed to have some sort of vendetta against the grass. “But the man controls my housing, too, you know. And I very much like where I am at the moment.”
“As opposed to an attic garret?”
They topped the hill, which was steeper than it had looked in the housing office, Jonas puffing a little harder now. He saw John noticing and scowled. “It’s what happens when you get promoted. Too much demmed paperwork, not enough time in the field.”
“Well, you’re in a field now.”
“Yes, but is it the right field?” Jonas asked, looking about. He’d dressed for the occasion, all country squire tweed except for the long silk aviator’s scarf blowing dramatically in the wind. Fair enough—he’d flown them around all morning looking for the right set of topographical features. But the aviator goggles and scarf, along with the fluffy dandelion on his head, did make him look slightly mad.
“I think so,” John said. “I didn’t get more than a glimpse in the office, but the river’s in the right place. And it was called Cobb End, and this is Cobb Hill…”
“Doesn’t necessarily follow, old boy.”
“I know that,” John said irritably. “But without an address, it’s the best I could do. And the damned man wouldn’t give me one!”
“Of course not,” Jonas said, like someone who already had a perfectly comfortable flat waiting for him. “It’s not only war mages who use protective housing, you know. What if one of our adjutants' went rogue and told someone the location? Can’t be too careful where families are concerned.”
Which was the point, Pritkin thought. He’d assumed that his on-again, off-again relationship with the Circle was in jeopardy when he’d decided to marry. He wouldn’t risk his fiancé’s life for a job, even if the Circle did know far too little about some of the things they hunted. They were just going to have to fend for self, however unfortunately that might play out--unless he found this house, of course.
Which, ironically, they were making as damned difficult as possible.
“We could get back in the air,” Jonas said, “take another look ‘round.” He sounded oddly hopeful. And adenoidal.
John slanted him a look. “You have hay fever?”
“No,” Jonas said stoutly.
“Your eyes are red and you’re breathing like a freight train.”
“My eyes are the same color they always are, and I’m breathing this way because you dragged me up this blasted hill! Now, is it here or not?”
“It’s here,” John said. He was sure of it. But the area was larger than he’d recalled, nothing but flowing green grasses and nodding wildflower heads, picture-postcard pretty under a gentle afternoon sun. And no damned help at all.
Not that he’d expected it to be easy. A portal system linked approved residential areas directly to HQ, as well as to popular areas around Britain, allowing people to enter and leave their homes without ever being seen in the vicinity. And the environs around them were heavily warded to prevent stray tourists from accidentally stumbling across them.
Of course, if one was outside the portal system, it worked rather well on mages, too, John thought, as a smug butterfly flitted past his nose.
And then he heard it.
“I don’t know why you can’t live in town with everyone else,” Jonas was
grumbling, poking at the air with his walking stick. “Nature!” It was disparaging.
“I like nature,” John murmured, tilting his head and trying to recapture that elusive sound, just a note on the wind.
“Yes, but does it like you?”
“Normally,” John said, wishing his friend would be quiet and let him concentrate. Instead, the impatient war mage released a torrent of cacophonous magic that assaulted John’s ears like nails down a blackboard, and sent the poor butterfly wheeling into the air. Damn it!
“You see?” Jonas gestured, as his reveal spell revealed exactly squat. “Nothing.”
“Perhaps we should split up,” John said tightly. “We’ll cover more ground that way.”
“And where would you suggest I go?”
“Back down,” he waved a hand. “Toward the river.”
“But you said it was at the top of the hill!”
“I may have been mistaken.”
“Do you mean to tell me I trudged all the way up here for--”
“You trudged up here because you wouldn’t order a certain officious clerk to do his job,” John reminded him, which won him a squinty-eyed glare. But it also resulted in his companion stomping back down the hill, in a manner that made it clear that he was unlikely to stomp back up again.
That was all right. If John was correct, this wasn’t a problem Jonas could solve.
He didn’t bother going any further, since it wouldn’t help. Instead he sat down, the rough bark of an old tree at his back, and closed his eyes. And listened.
He always found it odd when people talked about the quiet of nature; to him, it was louder than any town, with thousands of creatures chirping and buzzing and hissing and slithering and eating and mating on the hillside that was their world. To one with ears to hear, it was deafening. It was also irrelevant, at least to his current search, and after a few minutes John managed to filter it out.
There were human noises, too, the harsh shrill of a train's horn, the distant metallic snick-snick of some kind of farm equipment, and the sound of inventive cursing from Jonas. Who had reached the river again judging by the frenzied splashing. John smiled. And then he filtered that out, too.
For a while there was nothing else, just the wind in his ears and the smell of grass and good English earth in his nose. He extended his senses, not straining because this was not something force would help, but just mentally touring the area. Unlike Jonas’s attempt to bludgeon his way through the hillside’s defenses, John melted into them. This time, there was no painful flash to sear his mind, just the soft shushing of grass as his sense form waded through it, feeling it brush against him now, thigh high, a warm, dragging caress.
Before long, he was smelling honey. And then more than smelling; it was a taste, a burst of sunshine on his tongue. He licked his lips, enjoying the delicate flavor, smelling the clover that had fed the bees, feeling the warmth of the sun on their hive through long summer days. He chewed the comb until his jaw was stiff with it, until the wax softened in the heat of his mouth, until it released the last of its sweetness.
Until it came again, that single note on the breeze.
It was as delicate and fleeting as a whisper, blown along like a leaf and as ephemeral as the air that carried it. But John had heard such songs before, and he knew the way of them. He waited until it was closer, a sweet chime, like the taste of honey distilled, but with a faint plaintive appeal underneath. And then he sang a single note back, not a word, not even a thought, more of a question mark in musical form—
And it had barely left his lips when a song, full-blown and loud, exploded around him in a cacophony of excitement. Little trills ran up and down his spine, into his ears, and across his tongue like small bursts of happiness. It warbled at him, so fast and so excited that he couldn’t keep up, much less find a break in which to—
He stumbled. Which was fairly surprising as he hadn’t realized that his body had been following the lead of his senses. Not until his shin barked up against something solid and unyielding, blocking his path.
It was a fence, old and weathered and draped in swathes of honeysuckle. Golden coin sunshine flickered down through the branches of several old apple trees, dappling the boards and the verge of a path leading up to them. It took him a disoriented moment to realize that he’d skirted half the hillside, ending up almost completely opposite from where he’d begun, where the grasses and genteel decay had hidden the little tableau.
Not that anyone would have expected to find a fence there, as it was busily guarding…absolutely nothing. At least, nothing that John could see, besides a tangled bit of undergrowth and a few more scraggly apple trees. But there was something there, nonetheless. Something glowering at him from the space between the trees. Something strong with resentment. Power. Anger. Challenge.
And underneath that, a great and powerful sadness, hopeless and dark, that hung in the air like a dirge.
“Any luck, then?”
John jumped slightly at the sound of Jonas’s voice carrying up the hill. It sounded like the braying of a donkey for a moment, as harsh and discordant as the magic the man had used a few moments ago. Until John’s ears adjusted back to human levels, and he swallowed and answered.
“Not yet. And you?”
“Nothing. John, are you sure—”
“No. Now that I think of it, I may have misremembered the area.”
“You misremembered?” John looked over the side of the hill, to see an outraged little war mage with wet trouser cuffs waving a grass-tipped cane. And spouting something John didn’t bother to listen to because he was busy listening to the fence, which was still burbling happily. It would be the easy part—or at least, it would be, if Jonas would ever shut up.
“Yes, I know. My apologies,” he yelled down, with no sincerity at all. “Do have a nice flight back.”
Jonas cut off mid-sentence to glare at him. “A nice flight.”
“Good day for it,” John grunted, tugging at a heavy stone that had been pushed up by one of the apple tree’s roots, shoving the fence slats out of place.
“You aren’t coming?”
“No. I thought I’d stay for a bit, go over it again. Best to be sure, you know.”
“You could make sure by coming back to the office and checking the book again,” Jonas said suspiciously.
Bollocks. “Yes, but that would require dealing with that benighted fool Edwards, and I find I’m no longer in the mood.”
That, at least, was true.
“No longer—” Jonas broke off with an oath. “And I wasn’t in the mood to go trudging ‘round the wilderness, either, before you dragged me out of my office!”
“We’re fifteen minutes from Stratford, not the middle of the Sahara. And it was the loo. You need to get a sight spell, Jonas.”
“What I need is to get my head examined. Every time I listen to you--”
“Yes, thank you for the help,” John said brightly.
Jonas didn’t bother to reply to that. John waited another moment, but he didn’t hear any more cursing. And when he crept quietly to the side of the hill again, his annoyed sometimes employer was nowhere in sight. John heaved a sigh of thanks, stripped off his coat and squatted down beside the fence. And got to work.
The problem wasn’t the fence itself, but the spell woven into it. It was a cloak designed to shield the property from intruders’ eyes and to raise an alarm at the presence of unwanted guests. It was fairly standard--at least for the Fey, which was who had set it up long ago.
John hadn’t been sure of that on hearing that first, elusive note. He’d known it was elemental magic—there was no misjudging that—but it could have been Druid. Should have been, really, because true Fey magic was rare on Earth these days. But then, Druid wasn’t all that common anymore, either, at least not in the Circle’s backyard.
But no, it was Fey, chiming away like strings of tiny bells all along the length of the fence. But also jangling, discordant, and off tune in a dozen places, and here and there making some truly frightening sounds. But not half so much as what was coming from the other side.
John blocked that out for the moment, and just listened to the fence for a while.
Unlike human magic, which decayed quickly after the death or departure of the spell caster, the Fey variety lived on. Literally, in this case, as it had bound itself to the flowers, the trees, the earth, drawing the strength to continue from their living energy. But without anyone to direct it, it gone a bit…off. Grown wild and cheeky over the centuries, but lonely, too, which was why it was so pathetically glad to have someone to talk to.
For his part, John was rather grateful it was here, since he was out of practice and the problem further in was intimidating the hell out of him. But this was a happy, silly little thing, and bound to wood, thankfully, which was always easy. Anything that had once been alive and growing was, the cells fusing with the magic like notes from an instrument accompanied by a human voice.
He cleared his throat, feeling a little strange. How long had it been since he sang a song for something important, for something other than calling the woolen fibers in his socks to knit back together? He couldn’t remember. Of course, he’d sung spells frequently as a boy, taught by the Fey who’d come to look him over because any Fey blood gives a claim. One negated, in his part, by the demon blood no Fey line would have.
But they had been beautiful, those laughing faces, so unlike any he’d expected. Stories were told of them, dread stories of deceit and treachery and murder. And some of those stories were true. But they left out the dancing and the laughter and the generosity of creatures who had spent a summer with him, singing to him, teaching him, even though one look had told them they wouldn’t be taking him home.
They’d been regretful, because he picked up the old ways so easily, astounding the Druids he met thereafter, whose magic had once derived from the same source. He’d been good at theirs, as well, since it was merely a mixture of two he already knew, two different strands of his heritage. But it had surprised them, since almost all of their adepts were women.
John had often wondered about that. It wasn’t that men couldn’t do the spells—the difference between humans was, after all, fairly small, and in any case, it had never prevented male Fey from mastering their magic. It had never prevented him, and his Fey blood was miniscule. But most men could not. The Corps could not, leading to their contempt and fear of a magic they didn’t understand, a magic that whispered instead of roared.
John eyed the fence.
And then he sang to it, in the old language, because he’d never spell-sung in any other. Sang the songs the golden ones had taught him, some of the words of which he didn’t even understand. But he knew most of them, and he felt the rest in his bones. And it seemed that he hadn’t lost the knack, after all, because all the broken pieces of the fence happily listened when he sang about getting in line, coming back to true, behaving themselves. And soon it was all nice and solid again, with a tinkling melody twining merrily about the posts.
John patted it absently. So much for the easy part.
A gate in the fence opened effortlessly under his hand, but he didn’t walk through, unsure if he wanted to open this particular can of worms. If the situation was what he thought it was, it could be dangerous—would be, really—and he didn’t owe the house, or its owner, anything. This wasn’t his business, he told himself; wasn’t his problem.
Just like a half-wild demon child hadn’t been the Fey’s.
Yet they had stayed, and helped him, and taught him the magic that had saved his neck more than once. And whatever Fey blood was coursing through his veins wouldn’t let him leave with that debt unpaid. At least, he assumed that was why his feet were carrying him up a winding garden path that materialized like mist as he trod on it. He certainly hadn’t told them to do it, he thought testily, and then he saw the house.
And suffice it to say, the estate agent’s book had been somewhat…out of date.
What emerged from the mist was a queer, lopsided thing, late medieval by the look of it. Two story, with wattle and daub walls and heavy shutters closed against the sun. And it was completely overrun with plant life.
Grass had turned the sloping roof into a recreation of Jonas’ hairstyle, only in green. Heavy vines had eaten into the walls, to the point that it looked like the house had veins coursing under its skin. And, most disturbingly, a forest of half-dead apple trees had crowded next to the foundation, so numerous that their almost bare branches still managed to block most of the sun. Yet they were strangely orderly, like parishioners in a church.
Or mourners at a funeral, John thought grimly.
He moved cautiously forward.
The place was utterly, deathly quiet. No birds called, no small animals scurried for cover; even the burbling fence was no longer audible. It was like stepping into an alien world, and not one happy to see him. John had the distinct impression that the door would have been locked against him, if an apple tree’s roots hadn’t propped it into a perpetually open position. He edged around the frame, careful not to touch it, careful not to touch anything.
It was dark inside, to the point that he could make out little past the swirling motes of dust disturbed by his careful entry. He started to call light to him, but some instinct told him that it would be a very bad idea. There was magic here already, magic in droves, tingling through the soles of his feet, crawling over his skin, boiling in the very air before his face, like an unseen, potent liquor that he drew into his lungs with every breath. He almost immediately felt giddy with it, reckless.
And that, he thought vaguely, would be an even worse idea.
He forced himself to get a grip and to look around. And after a moment, that became easier as his vision adjusted. There was light, and not only from the door. A few stray rays had somehow made it through the undergrowth and shutters both, spearing the darkness here and there in crisscrossing beams. It was enough.
It was more than enough, he thought in wonder, staring at huge old vines, some bigger around than his leg, that tangled on the walls and drooped down from the ceiling, and at the forest of roots sprouting up from between the floorboards, threatening to trip him with every step. Together, they’d pulled the room, which had once been a kitchen judging from the fireplace and shattered pots, so out of whack that it looked almost round. That was odd, but not particularly disturbing.
No, the disturbing part was welded to the middle of the kitchen floor.
John approached cautiously, awe and fear and shock running in equal parts through his veins, despite the fact that he’d known what he would find. Known what had to be here to explain the surfeit of magic that had no place to go, and no way to die. He knelt on what remained of the floorboards, which had once been oak but which were now…something Other.
He didn’t touch it. The very idea made his skin crawl, although he’d technically seen worse. At least, he’d seen things that were supposed to be worse, although at this very moment and at this very time, he couldn’t actually think of any. Because blood and gore and even death were natural, and there was nothing natural about this.
What lay in the darkness under its shroud of leaves was in the shape of a man. It wasn’t one—it never had been—although at one time it had been flesh and bone instead of wood, and muscle and sinew instead of ropy vines, although a casual onlooker might be forgiven for not noticing the change. The oak had pushed up from the floor in an exact replica of once noble features; the tiny vines spreading around it perfectly mimicked flowing hair. Even the pattern--ironically leaves and vines--on a long dissolved coat had been scrupulously reproduced, as if carved by a loving hand out of wood.
But no sculptor had done this. There were no chisel marks on this masterpiece, and even the greatest of sculptors can’t make the rings and swirls in wood conform to their vision. A living being had lain here once, who knew how many centuries ago, in exactly this manner.
And unless John was very much mistaken, he lay here still.
“What the hell is that?”
John jumped and spun, his heart in his throat and a gun in his hand. Which he lowered when he recognized the distinctive silhouette in the doorway. “Damn it, Jonas!” he holstered his weapon. “I thought you’d gone.”
“Obviously.” The word was dry. “And you did not answer my question.”
“It’s not easy to answer.”
“Try.” And the voice was no longer that of his slightly eccentric friend, but of a senior war mage with the authority to make John’s life a living hell if he didn’t like the answer. And he wasn’t going to. Hell, John didn’t like it himself.
“It’s a Fey,” he admitted.
“That is a Fey?”
“Well, it was. Or, rather, it is.”
Jonas just looked at him.
“It’s not dead…exactly,” John explained. Badly. But he was still fairly shaken, and this wasn’t the sort of thing that English was equipped to handle. Or any other spoken language, for that matter. It wasn’t even something the Fey discussed; it was simple felt.
But he didn’t think that telling Jonas to get in touch with his feelings was a great idea.
“And how does one not die exactly?” his superior asked, predictably.
“One is Fey.”
Jonas scowled. “That’s less than helpful, John!”
And yes it was, but the magic in the air was swirling about, making it hard to think, even about much less difficult subjects. Probably in response to the emotions emanating from one very unhappy war mage. “You mustn’t use magic in here,” John cautioned. “It…wouldn’t be the best idea.”
“And why not?” Jonas demanded, but he reigned in the anger radiating off him, and the power using it as a conduit. And as soon as he did, the room quieted. Slightly. John had the feeling it was never truly still.
But then, how could it be?
He licked his lips and tried again. “The Fey don’t live as we do, therefore it should come as no surprise that they don’t die as we do, either.”
“Following you so far,” Jonas said, his eyes moving from the not-corpse on the floor to the walls and vine-draped ceiling and back again.
“They don’t have a spirit as we understand it. Or rather, they do, but it is fused with their bodies, indistinguishable from them in life, and accompanying them in death.”
“I thought you said they don’t die,” Jonas said, edging a little closer, even while his eyes continued to flick around nervously.
John really couldn’t blame them.
“They don’t die as we do. It is more of a…a merging with their world. Their bodies are reabsorbed, and so is their spirit. The prevailing belief is that, just as the bodies rejoin the soil whence they sprang, to be reformed into something new—to be reborn, as it were—the soul does as well.”
“Because it does not leave the body.”
“And this…” Jonas paused, searching for the right word. He didn’t find it. “This is what results?”
“Not in Faerie, no. But this Fey died on earth. But for some reason, no one returned to look for him.”
“And that is unusual?”
“Very. The Fey always retrieve their dead. Even in time of war, they make provision for it. Particularly when that Fey is outside their world.”
“And if they do not?” Jonas asked, kneeling on the other side of the creature, fascination and repulsion warring on his face.
“This,” John said simply. “Or so it would seem.” He felt like pointing out that he was hardly an expert on the subject, but it didn’t seem like a good time.
“And what precisely is this?”
“I can only guess, based on what you see. He should have been returned to Faerie, where his spirit and body would have been reabsorbed by the world that gave him life, to someday live again. But that didn’t happen. And when it did not…”
“He tried to merge with our world,” Jonas said, catching up.
Sometimes John forgot how very quick the man could be. “Yes.”
Jonas surveyed the scene in front of him. “I take it that was not a great success.”
“I don’t understand it,” John said, frowning. “The Fey have a great deal of facility with nature, more in their own world, of course, but it should have been possible—”
He cut off at a warbling cry, which he belatedly recognized as from the fence outside. It cut through the deadly quiet like the alarm it was, but before he or Jonas could react, there were new silhouettes in the doorway. Familiar ones.
“Bollocks!” John threw himself at his superior, tackling him and rolling both of them through a connecting door--right before a wave of venom slashed through the space where they’d been standing.
“What are you doing?” Jonas spluttered. “We have to fight, man!”
“Those are Velos!”
“I know what they are!”
“Then stay the hell down,” John hissed, pushing the man behind the flood of roots gushing down some stairs. “And don’t raise a shield,” he added, as he felt Jonas’ power gather in the air once more.
“What the—have you gone mad?”
“Velos’ venom eats through shields,” John explained curtly, as all hell broke loose next door. “And anything else it comes in contact with. Shields won’t help you.”
“Then what do you suggest we do?” Jonas demanded, getting back to his feet and trying to peer over John’s shoulder.
“Nothing? And how is—” Jonas cut off, having finally managed to maneuver into a view of the vine-draped door. And of the kitchen beyond, where half a dozen Velos were making the acquaintance of an ancient, infuriated Fey.
“Well,” Jonas said, watching as the room came alive, and the Velos came apart. Vines surged down from the ceiling like boa constrictors, grabbing two of the more or less man-shaped Velos and squeezing for all they were worth. Another surged out from a wall and grabbed a third demon’s legs, and then went wild, thrashing him back and forth across the room, slamming him between the rock-covered face of the fireplace and the old, hard wood of the opposite wall, over and over and over again.
The other three had already realized that their would-be ambush of the mages had gone somehow, hideously wrong, and were trying to get back out the door. Only to be met with a positive hail of apples from the trees outside, causing them to slip and slide and duck and fall, straight into the embrace of the roots reaching out from the floor. Roots that wrapped them up like mummies, or more correctly, like victims in a spider’s web. And then the roots pulled their thrashing prey down, down, down, churning up the broken boards and the underlying soil until not even the creatures’ grasping hands were visible any longer.
And suddenly, all was still again.
John had been watching the show the roots had put on, and so hadn’t seen the fate of the other three demons. But they weren’t there when he glanced around the room. Only a single shoe was left, sitting atop a gnarled old root like a trophy.
“Yes. Yes indeed,” Jonas said, apropos of nothing. But then, John didn’t have anything more eloquent to offer himself. He sat down on a step, pulled a flask out of his coat and belted back a long one. Then he handed it to Jonas.
“Always carry my own, old boy,” Jonas said, pulling a bottle out of his sock.
For a while, they just sat, letting the alcohol sooth jangled nerves and blur memories that were too new and too stark to process. But before long, Jonas got around to the point. “We can’t simply leave it. It’s an ambush waiting to happen for anyone who wanders in here. And sooner or later, someone will.”
“I’ve no intention of leaving it,” John said, draining his flask. Because he needed it. And because this might be one of those things that was easier when drunk off his ass.
He made his way into the next room.
The Fey was still there, of course. And still as intimidating as hell. But for some reason, despite the scene that he’d just witnessed, John didn’t find it as terrible as before. Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe just the time he’d had to adjust, but all he could see now was a being stranded far from hearth and home, with no hope of getting back.
Forgotten, by friends and foes alike. Left to molder here, on distant shores. Left to rot.
He didn’t blame it for being angry, this solitary trapped soul. Didn’t blame it for anything. He just wanted to help.
“To get you home,” he murmured, and something in the air shifted.
John sat down, and then glanced up at Jonas. “You should go. In case this goes wrong.”
Jonas regarded him for a moment, and then perched his plump bottom on a conveniently bench-shaped root. He didn’t say anything, and John gave up. It wasn’t like the cat wasn’t already very much out of the bag.
He turned his attention to the Fey.
Like the fence, its magic carried a song, one John had been determinedly blocking out. He let it flow over him now, and for one, brief moment, he panicked. It was so dense and layered, with notes piling on top of notes and chords resonating off every surface. And the rich and varied and impossibly complex melody was made infinitely more so by all the other songs running through it: the sweet trills of air, the surging lilt of river, the chorus of plants, the deep boom of earth.
John had no idea how to start singing with it at all.
So he just sat there for a while, feeling overwhelmed and dizzy and quite, quite useless. As it must have sat, possibly for centuries. Alone and running wild, like an untended vine—
He stopped in sudden comprehension. It was like a vine. It was exactly like one, in fact, or like the fence outside, which had twined around any and every source of life that it could find, melding its song with the strange melodies of this new world. But unlike the fence, the Fey hadn’t fully committed, hadn’t fully surrendered. It had taken enough energy to retain consciousness, to retain memory, to remain. But not enough to become one with this strange new world.
Not enough to live again.
But time had done what it wouldn’t. As its real body decayed, it stubbornly built another out of whatever was available, and in doing so, fused with the earth and the wood and the house itself. It was the same way rocks and grass and weeds in a long overgrown stone wall come together, into one, almost symbiotic whole.
There was no way to separate them. Not after so long. There was no way to send him home.
And what was left of the Fey knew that, John realized, as acknowledgment thrummed through the melody, dark and dense and hopeless. It had always known. The reason it hadn’t released into the earth was less about ability than stubbornness, refusing to accept this new world, refusing to let go and discover what it might offer because it was too busy remembering all that it had left behind.
John knew the feeling.
But it was listening now, for whatever reason. Possibly because it was tired of this, too. Or possibly because it had recognized something in this strange visitor that felt eerily familiar.
And so he sang, not with it, because that was far beyond his gifts. But to it. And the subject wasn’t the Fey and his circumstances, because John didn’t know anything about those. But rather the only thing he did know that might be relevant.
He sang about himself.
He sang about being lost, too, for most of his life: Fey but not, human but not, demon but not. He sang about being an odd fusion of all three, and of therefore fitting in nowhere. About being rejected by his birth family, by his Fey visitors, by everyone but his demon father, who only accepted him in order to use him.
And the Fey was listening. He had been rejected, too. John couldn’t understand all of it, or even most of it, but he had been young, hotheaded, reckless, and he had done something…the song became so loud, so discordant here, that John was forced to block it out for a time. And when he listened again, it was quieter. Exiled, unwanted, anathema.
John understood this.
And so he sang to it the rest of the story, because his was not yet done. He sang of finding a place in a world, one that wasn’t his, no, not entirely. But one he hoped would someday become his. He sang about letting go of old dreams and dead hopes, of disappointments and failures, and of looking to the future with, if not optimism, not yet, then something edging cautiously up to it.
He sang about not going home, but making one.
And then he opened his eyes.
John flipped over another page, and was confronted with another derelict cottage, this one wedged between a bakery and a greengrocers. It was advertised as “picturesque ambiance,” which apparently was estate agent-ese for cracks in the walls and stains on the ceiling. He leaned forward. He was fairly sure he smelled mildew.
And then something obscured the sad little sight, something big and legal-looking that half disappeared into the flat before him. He looked up, confused, only to get a face full of dandelion fluff. “Sorry,” Jonas said, shuffling back a step.“Demmed cramped in here.”
“The corridor is more spacious,” Edwards noted acidly.
“Good point,” Jonas said, and pulled John out the door.
The corridor was not, in fact, more spacious, being one of the older parts of the rabbit warren of tiny halls that connected the various areas of HQ. Most were narrow and all were higgledy piggledy, with this particular bit also boasting a sloping ceiling that made it impossible to stand up straight. But right then, John didn’t care.
“What is this?” he demanded, thrusting the paper at Jonas.
Jonas rocked back on his heels, looking pleased—until he bumped his head. He glanced up at the ceiling resentfully, and then back at John. “Well, what does it look like?”
“It looks like a deed.”
“And so it is.” Jonas smiled beneficently.
“To what?” John asked suspiciously.
“Well, what do you think? We can’t put just anyone in a haunted house—”
“It isn’t haunted. It was never haunted.”
“—and in any case, you did clean it up, so to speak. Although I must say, you’re still going to have some work ahead of you. The, er, former tenant may be gone, but there’s no proper kitchen or bath, and those vines—”
“—may be better in the not-attacking-anyone sense of the word, but they’re still wafting about in a way that makes a man nervous—”
“—and then there’s the fact that you were owed a commission for cleaning out the rest of those nasty Velos, and the Corps would vastly prefer to pay in the form of a dilapidated property no one else will touch with a ten foot pole than to have to actually pony up—”
“Hm?” The almost shout seemed to finally get through, and his superior blinked at him myopically. “What’s that?”
“Are you trying to tell me that I now own Cobb End?”
“Well, yes, of course. What else have we been talking about?”
“I’m…never quite sure,” John admitted, feeling stunned and a little giddy.
He’d been avoiding Jonas since that night, when he’d opened his eyes on starlight glimmering through windows that were no longer clogged with vines, but open and clear. Like the walls and ceiling. And the floor, where he had found himself staring at bare boards as whole and smooth as they had been when some hand planed them long ago. There had followed an almost entirely silent flight home, each man lost in his thoughts. Thoughts which John had assumed must have included some deductive reasoning on Jonas’s part about a mage who were part Fey, part demon and in possession of magic he never should have had.
He had been braced for an inconvenient revelation, or at least a quick ouster from the service.
He certainly hadn’t expected a gift.
He looked up to find the man watching him, blue eyes keener than he normally allowed. “I thought it was fitting,” he said simply. And then he was off, in a bustle of tweed and a waft of fluff, leaving John staring down at his own name in someone’s cramped handwriting.
And what do you know, he thought, feeling a grin breaking out across his face.
He had a house.