This runs to 3800 words.
There was a man – a human man, a bog-standard boring kidnapping human, normal and plain as they came – picking up an unconscious dweomer child, and Kelkathian and Azdekious were doing nothing at all to stop him.
Indeed, they were riding along, Az tucked inside Junie’s backpack and Kel riding in her front shorts pocket.
There was another human – even more boring and standard than the first, including the fact that this one didn’t even have a shred of common sense – swearing at the first human, but the first one was doing his best to ignore him.
There had been a number of scenarios in Kel and Az’s planbook that ended like this, but none of them had been this positive.
The only problem was, as Kel saw it, that this human might not be a match for the first three teams of creeps that were after Junie, and he was, at the moment, their biggest, best defense for her.
Well, that and he’d been fine with the whole kidnapping idea, up until he found out that the kidnap victim just happened to be from Smokey Knoll. Kel couldn’t argue with the guy’s self-preservation instincts, but one had to question his moral choices.
“Hey! Tall person!” He might not be able to see gremlins. There were definitely humans who seemed to have an issue with their vision, especially when it came to the Small and Smaller Races. But if he could…
The man swallowed and stopped dead. “I am trying to take this child back to her family. I am going to take her back to the bus stop where she was grabbed—”
“Yeah, yeah, you said that already. Down here, human.” Kel waved. “I’m not big but your eyesight can’t be that bad.”
He squinted, sucked in breath, and stumbled. Kel noted that, though he nearly fell down, he never lost his grip on Junie. “Shit. Shit, look, I swear I didn’t know. Donnie, that idiot —”
“How was I supposed to know?” Donnie shouted from somewhere under the roof-lining of the van. “And who are you talking to?”
The human coughed. “Uh. One of the girl’s protectors. Good luck, Donnie.”
“Smart man.” Kel peered up at him. “So. You have a problem.”
“I, uh, I noticed that, yeah. I’m trying to fix that.” He was turning red. Kel always found it fascinating how humans did that.
“Not us. Not even her parents. Or the dragons that are her friends. Or her harpy babysitters. Those are problems. You have a more immediate issue.”
“…are you wearing mirrorshades?”
“Yep. Bodyguard duty.”
The man barely suppressed a snicker. “Right. Sorry. What’s the bigger problem than the dragons?”
“You’re team D. Which means teams A through C — which know what she is — are gunning for you now.”
“…oh.” Kel wasn’t entirely sure about human coloration, but suddenly-pale didn’t seem like a good sign. “Oh. Are, uh. Are these ‘teams’, are they, that is, um. Human?”
“Well.” Kel ticked them off on fingers. “The mirrorshades, we’re pretty sure they’re human. Team A. Team C, that’s a hunter. Could be human, could be a dweomer. Betting on human, though, or he’d have twigged what we were doin’ to him quicker. That leaves team B.” Kel shuddered melodramatically. “We’re not sure about him. But I’d stay away from any sweet old men if I were you.”
The human had regained some of his color. He looked down at Kel and twisted his lips up. “Look. I might be human, but one of the things I know about places like Smokey Knoll is that you avoid anything that looks sweet, or innocent, or innocuous. Like her.” He nodded at the unconscious girl in his arms. “So. I’ve got to get her to the bus stop and I’ve got to keep her away from several other creeps. I’ve got to avoid being eaten by any bodyguards who might not understand why I’m there. And I’ve got to do this all while knowing her parents might still kill me.”
Kel nodded sharply. “That’s about it.”
“Remind me to go into a better line of work if I survive this.”
This guy was starting to grow on Kel. “Good idea.”
Chelsea had been swearing for ten straight minutes. Ryan had been checking their equipment — still dead, of course — their visuals — still blank of anything except two very annoyed harpies — and, lacking anything else, his own pulse — still running high, but that was to be expected with Chelsea swearing up a storm and their target simply gone.
He wasn’t going to ask if she had magic that let her do that. Not yet. It might go on the list eventually — like Chelsea had said, they were into the “red covers” now, which apparently meant off the map and into the “here be dragons” part.
Ryan’s gran had warned him about those parts of the map — in Gran’s place, she’d been being literal. “Don’t go to Seventh Street, that’s where the witches live.” “There’s dragons down in the subways, so always take some rue and some comfrey with you when you take the Metro.” It had turned out that the witches on Seventh weren’t remotely human — elkin, they called themselves, but they were anomalous individuals to the home office and, living down in the numbered streets, hadn’t managed legal representation to challenge the label. The dragons in the sewer were a non-sentient — according to home office, who hadn’t had to cage them — being that was not, technically speaking, a dragon, but you couldn’t fault Gran for the assessment.
After the dragon-things, Ryan had started writing down everything he could remember of his Gran’s cautionary tales.
In code. In a locked notebook. That was locked in a hidden case. The home office —
Well, if Chelsea was talking about the Red Covers, maybe the home office was more understanding about folk tales than he’d thought.
They would not, however, be understanding about missing the target another time. Ryan sighed and checked the visuals one more time.
“Chelsea? Chels. Ma’am. You’ve got to see this.”
Orin was in something a few steps beyond a foul mood. He had been dive-bombed by harpy chicks, stabbed by pixies, and farted on by a centaur foal, and all that in the half an hour he had taken trying to leave the neighborhood nearest Smokey Knoll.
The nonhumans didn’t usually let their children out of the village without an adult escort, but Orin had a feeling what was going on. He’d already been suspecting gremlins when his equipment started failing… and gremlins probably counted as adult supervision when your kid had wings or hooves.
Orin looked at the thing in front of him now. He didn’t like using words like thing; get to thinking about your prey as non-people and you forget they thought like people — more or less. But this… well, it was outside his vocabulary of monsters. And if this was the juvenile, he really had to get out of the area before the adult showed up.
He held up both hands and spoke carefully and clearly. “I’m leaving. I’m just trying to get to West Ave. Leaving Smokey Knoll.”
The thing growled deep in its throat. It was asymmetrical! Living beings just weren’t. Was it wrong? Like, sick or damaged somehow?
It didn’t matter. It was moving towards Orin threateningly. He didn’t dare attack it if it was a juvenile. He didn’t dare let it attack him. Orin repeated himself. “I’m just trying to leave.”
The thing cut off in mid-growl. It turned, facing more or less where Orin had been trying to go, and snorted.
“Well, shit,” Orin muttered, as the thing lumbered off down his escape route.
“Well.” Kel shifted position on Junie’s backpack strap. “I see the mirrorshades and the creepshow, but not the … oooh.” The echoing bellow of an upset juvenile troll cut through the air. “I wonder what got Little Junior upset. Well, he’s harmless to … uh. Me and Az, and Junie. He loves Junie.”
The human coughed. “Junie?” He looked down at the girl and the gremlin he was carrying. “Is this…”
“Yeah. The darling of large parts of Smokey Knoll. Relax, relax,” Kel scolded. “You didn’t know, and Az and I are gonna do our best to keep you alive.”
“Toads are alive,” he muttered. Kel snorted.
“Nobody in Smokey Knoll would turn you into a toad. Well… nobody you’re going to run into in this situation. Hrrm. You see the people in the expensive sedan looking upset?” Kel gestured, because even with binoculars, nobody would see a gremlin gesture at 200 feet.
The human had to be more surreptitious, but he was. “Yep. Those your team A?”
“Yeah. I think they’re working for one of the big paramilitary groups. And Junie might not be powerful now… but she’s still a little-thing and they like to get them little and…”
The human swallowed. “Yeah. I get it. Creepy bastards with back up.”
“On the plus side, they have no functioning tech more impressive than a stick and, if I really wanted to, I could make their sticks stop working.” Kel grinned. “Az and me are good.”
“Remind me not to piss you two off… again.”
“Oh, I don’t think you’ll need any reminding if you get out of this. Of course, we fried the kid’s cell phone, too. That was a mistake.”
“Oh, good to know I’m not the only one who screwed up.” He made a face. “What’s this creepshow?”
“You see that old man there? The bird-watcher with the binoculars and the breadcrumbs?”
“Him? I’ve seen him all over town.”
“Yeah, well, normal kids work too, it’s just the fancy ones like Junie are a delicacy.”
“Are a…” He swallowed. “Right. Anyone notice if I put a bullet through his brain?”
“Probably your authorities. Unless we vanished the body… but we try not to do that too much. Has consequences.”
“I do not want to know how gremlins vanish bodies,” he muttered. “Okay, so I have to get past the sedan and the… shit, I think the sedan saw me.” The two in mirrorshades were getting out of their useless car and heading their way. “This is going to get messy.”
Privately, Kel was inclined to agree with him. “Az!” Gremlins had very good hearing, when they wanted to. “Trouble!”
“What are they going to do, hit him with sticks?” Az’s return hiss was almost a cackle. “They’ve got nothing.”
“They’ve got two big folk to our one big folk, one unconscious child, and us. That’s not good odds, Az. And the creep is still over there.”
As if he’d heard Kel, the creep looked up, binoculars pointed straight at Junie. Kel swore. “We could really use the cavalry.”
A repeating bellow was echoing over Smokey Knoll. Ryan’s field book said it was probably a juvenile troll.
He didn’t know whether to be more worried about that or the man in Very Ordinary Clothes carrying their target — their unconscious — target directly into the probable path of the juvenile troll.
Then again, there was the dark cloud growing over Smokey Knoll. That looked really worrisome, too.
At the moment, however, Ryan’s attention was utterly and completely held by the petite flying person aiming a small spear at his nose. Her — he was assuming her, and let Chelsea ream him out later — voice was a chipper, happy squeak that he could barely hear.
“I’m looking for my friend! She’s… she’s a tallfolk, but short for tallfolk, and she’s got brownlike hair and she went missing about when you showed up.” The thing had pink hair and, more importantly for Ryan right now, the tip of the spear was pink. Glistening, sickly-sweet pink.
Ryan swallowed very carefully. If he breathed heavily, he might be able to blow her away. Then again, if he breathed too heavily, she might jab that pink spear at his nose, and Ryan didn’t know what that would do.
He made a mental note to look up pixie weapons later. If he was a very small creature with a very large temper — which this thing apparently had, even if their species as a whole did not — he would be carrying the deadliest poisons he could get his tiny hands on, or maybe neurotoxins, paralytics, acids… the list went on, none of which he wanted poking into his face.
“If you will look to my left,” he said, very carefully and very slowly, “you might see a tallfolk, ah, a human—” probably “—carrying the young lady that is probably the one you are looking for.”
The pixie flew even closer to him. She was holding the spear with a great deal of professional skill, for all that she could fit in his cupped hands. Ryan held very, very still.
With a whoop that threatened to break glass, she darted away. “Junie! Junie, Junie what are you doing to her?”
The cloud was getting closer. Ryan glanced at Chelsea. “Walk to a safe bus stop, send a tow for the car tomorrow?”
“We can’t just…” She frowned and looked at the cloud. “Yes. Walk fast, Junior. If you want to live to go on another mission.”
Ryan glanced up the hill into Smokey Knoll. He swallowed once, and turned around and started walking — quickly — before he snapped out a “yes, ma’am.”
Chelsea was shorter than him. He made sure she didn’t fall behind.
Kel whooped happily as the mirrorshades ran off. “That’s two down! Now all we have left is… oh.”
“Yeah, oh. That doesn’t look good.” The cloud on the horizon had settled itself into the shape of millions of insects — or very angry pixies — swarming towards the bus stop. “I don’t suppose they’re here to eat the last of your baddies, are they?”
“They’re no more my baddies than they are — uh. Kid’s waking up. Be very careful, mister, and whatever you do, no sudden moves.”
“She’s…” he stopped whatever he was going to say. “Right. Uh. Pink things.”
“Pink… oh.” Flying towards them was a small team of angry pixies. “Same goes for them only twice.” Kel stood up as tall as possible on the backpack strap and waved both arms wildly. “Same team, same team!” For once, the gremlin wished to be larger. “Same team.”
“Same team,” the human echoed. “Easy, easy, I’m on your side. I am..” he swallowed as one of the little pink pixies — taller than a gremlin, sure, but delicate and flighty and ethereal, everything gremlins really weren’t — the little thing hoovered in the air near his nose. “I am taking Junie to her family. Can you contact her family? She is unconscious and she is in danger.”
“He’s on our side,” Kel confirmed. The pixy barely glanced down, but that wasn’t surprising. Its spear pulled back a little bit; it had heard. “Junie’s been drugged, and I don’t know what will happen when she wakes up — which is going to be soon. What happened to the harpy team? Haven’t seen them around.”
“They were on Teams A and B for a bit, but they started getting sick. Medula fell out of the air.” The pixie tittered. Pixies were not known for their empathy. “So they had to head off. Something’s drugged them or something.” It was still looking directly at the human. “The others have been doing what they can, but there’s a lot of funny-headedness going around. Anything bigger than us isn’t happy.”
Kel’s gaze was pulled towards the dark cloud of bugs. “Yeah. That’s some really nasty mojo going on. And Junie…”
“I think she’s waking up.” The human shifted uncomfortably. “Should I set her down?”
At some point, this guy was going to figure out that Kel and Az were using him as legs. “No, no. Not until her eyes are open and she’s making words. Any word on the cavalry?” Where was everyone?”
“Green team couldn’t get any answer. And brown team couldn’t make their selves understood.” The pixie clucked in frustration. “This wouldn’t happen if…”
“Shht, shhht,” Kel hissed. “And if the sky were pink what would the flowers look like? We’ve got what we’ve got and that’s that.”
“Well, what we’ve got is this… guy. This guy-thing doing this.” The pixy gestured backwards angrily at the cloud of bugs coming closer and closer.
“Wait.” The human crouched down carefully. “I’ve got an idea.” He looked up at the pixy. “You should go find an adult person big enough to carry Junie and legally or morally responsible for her. Parent, parent-of-blessings, whatever. Someone that can get her home. And you should go now.”
Kel frowned at the human. Blessings-parent? Most of the experience the gremlins had with humans was in annoying their technology, but didn’t they normally say godparent? Blessings-parents, that was… well, it was a centaur word, as far as Kel knew.
Also, what was he up to?
The pixy was frowning, too — glaring, really. “What are you to tell me what to do?”
“Look, if I do this right, it’s doing to disrupt all magic in a small radius. If there’s any magic in your flight….”
“Right, looking for Junie’s family or the Smiths.” The pixy took off in a flutter of wings.
“”Right. So, I’m going to need you and your partner to distract any humans with tech, and keep Junie calm if you can. This is gonna take — well, hopefully not too long.” From his pockets, the human pulled a few things. Kel recognized a packet of salt, a candle stub, a small bamboo fan. “Don’t suppose there’s water in her bag?”
“Az,” Kel hissed. A moment later, the shorter gremlin emerged, hauling a short bottle of water — short for a human’s hand, at least. Az was wrapped around it like a cozy.
“Thank you.” He scattered the salt in a circle and, much to Kel’s surprise, added pepper. Then he put the water bottle to one side of him and the candle to the other. A flick of a bic lighter and the candle was burning. Three pebbles went directly behind him.
“What are you doing, human?” Kel wanted to jump up and down. “We should be running.”
“I can’t outrun that, not carrying her and maybe not on my own. You and your partner are welcome to try if you want, but leave now.”
Kel frowned. “No. She’s our responsibility.”
“And because of my partner’s idiocy, she’s my responsibility, too. So let me work.”
Kel looked at the cloud. It would be on them soon. “Right.”
The human began muttering things under his breath. Some of it was Latin, Kel thought. Parts sounded like Low Ogre or Simplified Dragon. One part sounded like High Troll.
Kel watched him. The power was crackling off of him, crackling, sparking, rising, and… connecting. Slowly, far too slowly for Kel’s comfort, the lines of power began to touch the salt and fuse to it.
The bug-cloud was close enough that they could hear it, a steady, malevolent buzz. The power weaving into the salt formed a ring and began lifting up, surrounding them. The buzzing grew closer, setting Kel’s jaw on edge.
“Hey!” The policeman seemed to notice them before he noticed the bugs. Or maybe he thought the human was making the bug cloud. “You can’t…”
Belts were hard, but they counted as technology. Kel fried his with a sharp glance and a moment of hard concentration that caught his radio and his cell phone in the blast.
The cloud was resolving into millions of individual bugs. Not bugs, bees, and wasps and hornets. Kel dove into the bag, head out in case the policeman wasn’t deterred.
The human shouted a final word — it had to be Latin, Kel was pretty sure — and the sparkling ring of light closed in a dome over their heads. He sagged a little, just as Junie opened her eyes.
Kel was still holding a tight breath. Those bees… they could easily kill a gremlin. That many bees, they could easily kill a small human, maybe a large one. The cloud of bugs was heading straight for them.
“Hey, hey, let me go.” Junie was wriggling violently in the human’s arms now. Kel tensed. She had a habit of getting… explosive… when she got too stressed, and then passing out and forgetting the whole thing. It was a third of why the gremlins had been assigned to watch her; nothing fazed a gremlin.
But right now exploding could hurt Junie badly. Kel couldn’t look away from the bees. There was this thin line of salt between the threat and them. there was… Kel took a breath. “Junie, honey. This human is a friend. He’s taking you back to your parents.”
“Let me go… Kelkathian? Azdekious?” Junie’s voice went quiet. “That’s a lot of bugs.”
The bugs hit the edge of the salt line and broke over the shield, hitting it like a windshield, scattering around it, flying over it. For a moment, their little group was surrounded on all sides by stinging insects… but none came inside the shield.
The human let out a breath. “Hi,” he said ruefully to Junie. “I’m the cavalry.”
Around them, half of the bugs vanished. A third of them fell to the ground, confused or stunned. The rest of them flew off aimlessly. Whatever magic had been guiding or summoning them had been broken.
Kel sniffed the air. The distinctive sulfur smell that always heralded a Junie-attack was slowly dissipating. But… Kel studied Junie. There had been no attack.
A flap of dragon wings and a dragon-trumpet announced that one of the Smiths would soon be here — Cxaidin, from the sound of it. Kel looked up at the… at the would-be kidnapper. “You…” Kel took a breath. “You’re not a human.”
The… the would-be kidnapper… smirked. He looked, Kel thought, justifiably tired. “You’re the only one who said I was.”
“But…” Kel flapped hands at the place they sat, between Smokey Knoll and the human world. Junie peered at her, looking mostly perplexed and a little lost.
The not-a-human shrugged, still smiling. “Some of us find places like Smokey Knoll, I guess. Some of us aren’t so lucky.” Deliberately, he leaned to one side and broke the salt circle. “The dragon’s your friend, right?”
Kel felt as stunned as the bees on the ground still looked. “Uh… yeah. Cxaidin Smith. Junie’s god-father.”
“Safe travels, gremlins. Junie.” He helped the girl to her feet with a gentle thump. “Thanks for giving me a chance.”
Cxaidin landed with a dragon-snort, eating all of Kel’s attention for a moment. By the time the gremlin turned around, the not-human was gone.
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