If you ended up here before reading the earlier chapters, you can return to Chapter 1 here

 

Lin parked in front of the motel the police department used as a safe house. It was nothing fancy, just a cheap, two-story affair with maybe thirty rooms. While it wasn’t luxury, Lin had made sure the place was clean and secure. He owed Lacy that much for her help.

A full day had passed since the most recent attempt on Conryu’s life. The bomb techs were still searching the ruins of the bikers’ base and it looked like they’d need several more days before the excavators started to dig. How many times was he going to answer a call saying the boy had been attacked, show up, and scrape a bunch of idiot cultists off the ground? You’d think if Conryu laid out enough of them the rest would take a hint and find another target. Of course that would be rational behavior, not the sort of thing you thought of where zealots were involved.

In addition to the continued attacks, Lieutenant Smith of the bomb squad had announced an additional delay to the excavation of the flophouse. When he made that announcement Lin had feared Terra might turn him into a frog, assuming wizards could actually do that. When she’d calmed down he’d dropped her off at her car with a promise to call as soon as they got the all clear. Apparently unable to leave it alone for two or three days she’d called this morning and asked to take another look around.

Two uniformed officers, a big white guy and a skinny black guy, sat in cheap folding chairs on either side of the door to room 1B. They jumped to their feet the moment they recognized Lin.

He climbed out of his car, flashed his badge more out of habit than necessity, and knocked on the door. A moment later Lacy’s purple hair appeared in the gap in the doorway. “Hi, Detective.”

She closed the door, undid the safety chain, and opened it all the way. She had a cheap white motel robe tied around her. Poor girl looked exhausted. “Miss Winn, may I came in?”

“Always so polite.” She stepped aside. “Welcome to my humble home.”

Lin stepped inside and she closed the door behind him. Humble was certainly the word for her room. Single bed, nightstand, cheap tv on a cheaper table. If that bed felt as hard as it looked it was no wonder she had circles under her eyes.

“What brings you by?” Lacy asked.

“I’ve come to set you free.” He reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a plane ticket. “One way to Central City, as promised. Your information was a huge help. Consider your record clean. If you want to get dressed and pack I can take you to the airport.”

She hugged him. “That’s awesome, Detective. Just give me fifteen minutes.”

He left the room and she shut the door. From another pocket Lin removed a folded-over packet of papers. “You guys have been reassigned. Thanks for looking after her.”

The officers on duty each accepted a bundle. “Our pleasure, Detective,” the black officer said.

“Yeah, though many more days of this and I’d have gone into a coma,” the white officer added. “Not that the girl was any trouble, just the opposite, we hardly heard a peep out of her.”

Since Lin had been shot at and nearly roasted to death he wasn’t overly interested in their complaints. “I’m sure the duty officer will find something more exciting for you to do.”

The officers piled into their vehicle and left the parking lot. Lin watched them until they’d gone out of sight. Maybe he could coax someone into giving him a boring case once he’d tied this one up.

Lacy emerged from her room having exchanged her robe for ripped jeans and a tank top. A green army surplus bag dangled from her shoulder. She was awfully skinny. Maybe he should offer to stop at a diner on the way to the airport.

“All set?”

“Yup.”

Lin opened the passenger-side door for her. She smiled and shook her head before tossing her bag in the back seat and climbing in. Lin joined her and fired up the car. It was only fifteen minutes to the airport and they had plenty of time before Lacy’s flight took off.

“Do you want to stop for something to eat on the way?” he asked.

“That’s sweet, but I already had something this morning. You’ve been great and all, don’t think I don’t appreciate that, but I’m ready to blow this town.”

Lin smiled. “Fair enough. Want to hear how we found your bikers? They’re all dead so I can tell you.”

“Thanks anyway. It’s all above my pay grade. There is one thing I’m curious about. Did you ever catch up to my boss? That prick still owes me a week’s pay.”

“I’m afraid not. He probably spotted us at the cafe and took off. We have his picture out everywhere. It’s only a matter of time until we find him.”

“Maybe you could rough him up a little for me.”

Lin laughed. They spent the rest of the ride in amiable silence until he pulled up at the busy main gate. Lacy jumped out then reached back for her bag.

“Are you meeting someone in the capital?” Lin asked.

“I have a sister there. I’ll call her before my flight takes off. Thanks again, Detective.”

Lacy shut the car door, waved, and ran toward the terminal. Lin blew out a sigh, said a silent prayer that she’d be okay, and drove off to meet Terra at the biker’s house.

The crosstown journey took half an hour, not including the fifteen minutes he spent at a sandwich shop picking up two BLTs to share with Terra. As he drove he found himself wondering if the attractive lady wizard would like to join him for a more formal meal, dinner with a nice bottle of wine maybe.

When he arrived the techs were poking the pile of rubble with probes connected to a laptop. Terra stood by the curb beside her car, toe tapping and arms crossed. Maybe she was hungry. Free food always put people in a better mood.

He parked behind her and got out, paper bags in one hand and bottles of water in the other. “Morning. Have you been waiting long?”

“No. What’s in the bag?”

“Lunch. You hungry?” Lin offered her a bag and bottle.

“Thank you.” She opened the bag and smiled. “I love BLTs. How did you know?”

Lin hadn’t had a clue, instead acting on the assumption that everyone loved bacon. “I am a detective. What news from the world of magic?”

“Nothing beyond my boss wanting me to recover the artifacts as quickly as possible and track Mercia while I’m at it.”

“Any luck?” Lin dug in to his sandwich.

“No on both counts. What about you?”

“I actually had a good morning. I took our witness to the airport.” He smiled and shook his head. “I’d never heard someone her age use the expression ‘above my pay grade’ before.”

Terra dropped her sandwich. “Are you certain that’s the exact expression she used?”

“Yeah, why?” Lin took a drink to moisten his suddenly dry throat.

“Mercia used that same expression all the time. Especially when she was bitter about her position in the Department.”

“You don’t think…?”

“I do think.” Terra dug the now-familiar glasses out of her gray robe and slipped them on. “She rode with you this morning?”

“Yeah, like an hour ago.”

Terra marched back to his car, muttering as she went. She stopped beside the passenger-side door and scowled. “There are remnants of illusion magic present on the seat and in the air.”

Lin had lost his appetite. “Was it Mercia?”

“No way to know for sure, but I’d bet a month’s pay it was.” Terra slammed her fist on the roof. “Damn it all to hell! She was right in front of us and I missed it.”

* * *

Lady Raven jogged into the airport, eager to get out of the detective’s sight. She’d enjoyed the Lacy Winn persona, but her usefulness had ended. The cops had been kind enough to deal with all her loose ends and the Skulls had placed the shadow gems where she’d instructed. Now the only living person that knew where they’d been hidden was her and she had no intention of telling anyone.

Hundreds of people ran from gate to baggage claim through security and to the crappy restaurants. None of them had a clue how the world would change and all thanks to her. She’d worked for months under the noses of her so-called superiors at the Department of Magic and they had never guessed. It would be sweet indeed when they finally learned who had brought about their downfall.

Only her failure to deal with Conryu Koda left a bitter taste on her mouth. Lady Raven swallowed a curse. After the zealots had failed and Shizuku Kane had banished her demons she’d severed the connection between the mirror and the wind spirit. Fortunately that attempt hadn’t required her to expend any Society resources, just a group of worthless, deluded men and a little of her personal magic. She wouldn’t be mentioning the little episode to the Hierarchs when she next spoke to them.

Yes, it would certainly be wise to keep this most recent failure to herself, especially since they essentially ordered her not to even make the attempt in the first place.

Lady Raven made her way to the help desk. Though she doubted it would do anything to improve her mood she decided to make a petty, almost childish gesture. Even wizards got to act childishly once in a while. “Excuse me.”

A middle-aged woman with curly brown hair looked up at her with a flat, bored expression. “Can I help you?”

“Would it be possible for me to leave a message for a friend here? He forgot his ticket.”

“Sure.” She handed Lady Raven a blank envelope and a pen. “Write it on here and I’ll log it into the system. If he checks at any of the stations someone will tell him we have it.”

“Thanks so much.” She jotted a quick note on the inside of the envelope, wrote “Detective Chang” on the front, and sealed the ticket inside. “I can’t thank you enough.”

The woman accepted the envelope with a disinterested grunt then set to typing on her terminal. Lady Raven left her to it and headed for the ladies’ room.

The stall farthest from the door was empty. Inside, she released her youthful illusion and changed into a black dress. A less elaborate spell altered her hair and face enough that no one would recognize her as either Mercia or Lacy. That done Lady Raven headed to the front of the airport where the taxis waited. She’d be long gone before the good detective even considered looking for her, assuming he ever did.

An hour and a half later found her once more standing in a spell circle wearing her raven mask and facing the Hierarchs. She couldn’t judge their emotions behind the masks, but none of them looked angry. That was enough for Lady Raven.

“I trust you’ve cleaned up your mess,” Lady Tiger said.

They didn’t seem to know about her most recent failed attempt to kill the boy. Thank heaven for that. “Yes, I’m now the only living person who knows where the shadow gems are hidden. We can activate them whenever you wish.”

“You know better,” Lady Wolf said. “We can’t activate them until the floating island returns.”

She had in fact only suspected that. Despite her efforts in enchanting the gems she hadn’t developed the spell, only cast it. “What of me? Do the Hierarchs have a task for me in the meantime?”

“You will tend the gems,” Lady Lion said. “Watch over them and deploy defenses. We have come too far to risk failure now.”

“I assure you the gems—”

“You will guard them,” Lady Dragon said. “And you will not fail us in this.”

She found her throat had gone dry. “As you command, I obey.”

“Yes.” Lady Dragon severed the connection, leaving Mercia trembling all over.

 

I hope you enjoyed reading Chapter 20. Click here to read Chapter 21

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