The barely risen sun made a valiant effort to slice through the gloom of the reluctantly departing night, and reach the clearing in the middle of the thick trees. A narrow gravel road emerged from one end, running though the clearing before disappearing out into the misty distance on the other side. A number of law enforcement vehicles were parked within the clearing, and a contingent of mixed species police officers checked themselves and their equipment as they readied themselves for action.
Leaning against a police car, a powerfully built dark-skinned sergeant watched with grim approval as the officers went about their routines quietly and efficiently. A variety of species that ranged from human and human shaped through an interesting spectrum of colouring, shape, number of limbs and/or appendages moved together with the ease of the well trained. All of them wore a protection vest with the word POLICE emblazoned on the back, and a thick, high collar strapped snugly around their neck. A thick leather vambrace circled the vulnerable pulse points on what passed for the wrists and femoral arteries of each particular species. Each officer also had a helmet on their head, a sword attached to the back of their protection vest, with an iron stake on their belt as well as the standard issue silver laced handcuffs and revolver loaded with bullets made from a silver casing packed with salt and iron filings.
The sergeant’s own protective vest and high collar were fastened securely in place. At the edge of his long sleeves, a hint of leather showed he also wore a vambrace on each wrist, and his powerful thighs were also wrapped to protect his femoral arteries. He looked around as a late model car emerged from the fog and pulled up close to him.
The human female driving the car switched off the engine before climbing out. Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, with worn in boots on her feet, thighs wrapped in the same leather vambraces as the sergeant, she also wore her protective vest already fastened in place, but with the collar still open. The only difference was that instead of the word POLICE emblazoned on the back of her vest, hers read CIVILIAN CONSULTANT.
She opened the back door, and pulled out and efficient looking sword. With the ease of practice, she slid it into the sheath in back of her protective vest, which was designed to hold it snugly out of the way until it should be needed. Then she reached into the car again, and straightened up to close the door, her leather vambraces and her helmet held in one hand.
Reaching into the front of the car, she snagged the large glass cup from the holder between the seats with her free hand. The liquid inside was a dark purple, and wisps of dangerous looking smoke escaped from the small circle in the centre of the lid. She hip-checked the door shut and walked towards the sergeant.
“Hey boss,” she greeted him as she handed over the cup.
“Hey Del.” He peeled off the lid and inhaled almost a third of the purple liquid in one swallow, making an almost pornographic sound of appreciation as it slid down his throat. “Everything in place?” “Almost.” He drained the rest of the liquid in one mouthful, put the empty cup down on the roof of his car next to his helmet and started checking her vest was secured properly.
Del rolled her eyes, but made no move to stop him. “Simon, I do know how to dress myself.”
“Just pander to my paranoia, okay?”
“Papa understands I choose to be here of my own free will. He won’t blame you if anything happens to me.”
“Your clan tattoo includes the word retribution, so pardon me for not wanting to take a chance on a master vampire coming after me.” Simon’s eyes lingered a moment on the dark lines inked into the side of her neck before the marks disappeared under the high, protective collar as he secured it around her throat. “Not to mention the mountain of paperwork I’d have to file if I let my civilian consultant get damaged.”
“I love you, too.”
“Shut up.” Simon took her left wrist in his surprisingly soft hands and began fastening the vambrace she handed him around that wrist. “Alex will be your back-up while you check around the house for spells. Make sure you—”
“Do as he tells you and don’t take any risks,” she chorused along with him.
He smacked her upside the head, carefully controlling the strength of the blow from a hand powerful enough to decapitate a human if used at full strength. He checked the vambrace was properly secured before starting work on her right wrist as he added, “Del, you have nothing to prove here. Those morons on the Mage Council might think the jackass they stuck us with is the bee’s knees and the cat’s pyjamas all rolled into one, but you’re the one with the flawless containment record.”
She grimaced at the reminder of the tag along the Council had politically pressured their boss into agreeing to. “The Council wants him in my job.”
“Yeah, and I want to win Big Wednesday while we’re at it. I’ve got Bruce on him, so he’ll make sure there’s no interference while you’re doing your thing.”
“How big is the pool on him belting the jackass?”
Her right vambrace fastened and checked, Simon dropped her wrist and gave her a stern look. “I know nothing whatsoever about any betting pool, which means I can’t tell you it had to be scrapped because everyone wanted to place their bet on the first minute after stand down.”
“Heh.” She couldn’t hold back a snigger at that information, and settled the helmet comfortably over her ponytail before lifting her chin so he could secure the strap. A part of her almost felt sorry for the Council representative, because she knew from bitter personal experience what it was like to have people judge you on your family line and your connections instead of who you were as a person. But only almost, because as a person he was an arrogant, entitled jackass who had made no secret of his contempt for Del.
By now, the officers had completed their preparations and stood ready to go. Simon took a couple of steps back from Del, and dropped his chin to his chest before twisting his head from side to side with a crunchy squishing sound. When he lifted his head again, all his skin had been replaced by black iridescent scales. He now had a ridged brow, slit pupils in the middle of glowing yellow eyes, and his nose and mouth had morphed into a short snout with long, sharp incisors protruding outside his lips, and short, curved claws where his fingernails had been. “Right. Time to get this show on the road.”
He reached for his helmet, and she left him to strap it on while she walked over to exchange a quick greeting with the ex-SAS human assigned as her escort.
The mage stood a short distance away, his nominated guardian looming beside him. Known as Bruce because no-one outside his species had a throat capable of producing the noise that was his given name, he was a stolid presence formed from a lighter grey granite rock than typical of his species, with the crystals embedded in his skin glinted in the sparse light. In spite of their intimidating appearance, Phanerites preferred conflict resolution to fighting, with self-control highly valued in their society. This made Bruce the squad member least likely to lose his temper with the mage, a major factor in Simon assigning him to guard duty, but as the aborted betting pool recognised even he had his limits.
Simon made a rumbling noise that was surprisingly quiet for the way it echoed through your bones and everyone focused their attention on him.
“Okay people,” Simon began. “You all know what we’re here for, and that’s to rescue as many of the illegally turned fledges as we can. Alex and Del will go first to check for booby traps. We’ll set up a perimeter around the clearing where the den is, then Alex and Del will clear the entry to the house after which we will visit the wrath of the righteous upon those therein who so richly deserve it.
“Bruce is in charge of Mage First Class Hamilton. We’ll be outside the white noise shield once we hit the trees, so now is the time to switch on your personal shields.”
A pause filled with the rustle of movement while everyone did so. Out of the corner of her eye, Del could see the mage glaring at Simon hard enough to make her glad setting someone on fire with your mind wasn’t possible outside implausible novels. The mage jostled as Bruce reached over to turn his shield on, and the glare switched to him. In return, a blank faced Bruce radiated an impressive aura of ‘rack off and die’ back at the mage, and somehow managed to loom even more without moving a muscle.
“New fledges are always unpredictable, especially those turned against their will. Don’t let your sympathy for their situation lower your guard, because they will take you out given half the chance. So subdue and secure, don’t take chances and make sure you walk away from this in the same corporeal state you’re in right now. Got that?”
“Got it, boss!” came the chorus.
Simon nodded, pleased with the response. “All right people, you know your places so get out there!”
With the exception of Mage First Class Hamilton, each of the group ran a hand over her helmet as they passed her on their way to wait for her at the edge of the trees, with Alex the last to complete the ritual.
Del closed her eyes and took a deep, centering breath. Exhaling, she let her mind reach out and sorted through the vague staticky hum the universe produced in this clearing. The trust of her friends burned bright and clear, washing over and diluting the complicated tangle of anger, envy and longing that was the Mage with them. She familiarised herself with how the hum sounded now, clear of the dissonance that any created magic would produce and set that hum as the background level in her mind.
Opening her eyes, Del nodded to Alex and she shivered as the began walking into the trees, wet tendrils of fog caressed her face like ghostly fingers. She followed carefully after Alex, trusting him to guide her as she concentrated on listening for the dissonance that would warn of danger. Ten minutes was the time allocated to walk from their command spot to the edge of the next clearing, which surrounded the old farmhouse that was now the illicit vampire den they were here to raid.
Time lost all meaning in the eerie underbrush and if Del couldn’t hear the clear hum of the natural magic of the trees, she would have sworn a time dilation spell was in place in these woods. Still, relief fluttered through her bones as she and Alex reached the edge of the clearing, flattening themselves behind a tree each on the edge of this second clearing. Simon came to lurk behind the tree on her other side and the rest of the team dispersed around the clearing. They were too close to the den to risk talking now, even with the personal white noise shields each of them carried, and a series of coded clicks came through the head sets in their helmets as each of the team confirmed they were now in their designated place. When the last confirmation came, Simon signalled to them to move out and they cautiously emerged from the trees into the clearing.
And for Del, nothing would ever be the same again.