Ten Years Ago
The forest gave off an oppressive aura. A chill breeze swept between the branches sending shivers down my spine. I ducked beneath the branches of a large pine before moving between a cluster of trees as we slowly made our way through the thicket. The musky scent of the woods permeated the air the deeper we went and, mixed with the copper scent of blood, stung the back of my throat.
We stopped next to a large tree to gather our bearings. Why would she come here? I turned towards the knight beside me. Like many of the Fae he was tall, but he managed to walk through the forest with graceful elegance. His ash-colored hair tied in a ponytail revealed slightly pointed ears, and his intricate silver armor shone like a beacon in the dark forest. Unlike mine, which, whilst simple and less ornate, let me blend in with the darkness around us. Two swords were sheathed across his back and a small dagger tied to his waist.
It had been years since I saw Galesh have so much as a paper cut. Yet, now the fae had blood dripping from his face and neck, marring his otherwise perfect complexion. But if there were one knight I would have to guard my back in this godforsaken forest, it would be him.
"Galesh, where did you last leave her?" I palmed the hilt of my sword, ready to draw it at the sign of any movement. "What the hell were you guys doing here?"
"We were following orders, Nathan," he answered softly, his gaze darting around. "She wanted to hunt a boar to clear her mind before the festival preparations started, and she knew you were called away by the Queen, so she brought a squad of knights." We stepped over a fallen log, careful not to make too much noise before he continued. "We came upon the tracks of a drake, and the Princess thought it would prove more of a challenge. During the middle of the hunt, about four miles from the base of the mountain, we were besieged by a squad from Summer and chased like dogs to this shit hole."
"Of course she did. Only she would do something as stupid as switch hunts from a boar to a drake." I frowned. Something about the story not making sense. Drakes were massive lizards about twelve feet tall at the shoulder and covered in thick scales with huge spiked tails coated in poison. Though they lacked the ability to fly like their wyvern cousin – and thank the gods they couldn't breathe fire or ice like a dragon – they were a savage breed requiring a full squad of knights to hunt.
Drakes were foul-tempered beasts and resistant to magic, not that it stopped moronic nobles from trying to tame them in the hopes of turning them into a cavalry force. I frowned as we moved again, recalling that drakes made their dens in caves and mountains. The peaks outside Fuar Dorcha, the capital of Winter, were perfect for them. The Queen had to keep sending out squads of knights to deal with them. How did Summer’s knights cross the border without raising any alarms? I turned to Galesh and looked him straight in the eyes. "But why would you abandon her?"
"I did not abandon her!" He glared at me. "Those bastards ran us down. Mihael and Blyte were the first to fall, shot down by arrows just as we made it to the entrance of the forest." His shoulders shook as he looked down. "We were being cut down one after the other, and our only choice was to go deeper. She ordered me to get help, and now here we are." A cohort of Winter's best would be here at any moment. Today I had been preparing for the Bicentennial Kinship Ball, where the monarchs and nobles of all four courts gathered to mingle and tried not to kill each other. Keyword being tried. It was Queen Mab's time to host, so preparations were already underway, even if the ball wasn't for another decade or so.
Since the point of the ball was to promote friendship between beings that hated each others’ guts, violence was forbidden. Not that it stopped any of the Fae from trying to pull one over on the hosting monarch. As a precaution, the host began preparing things a decade or two in advance.
Earlier today, the Queen summoned all her retainers to discuss the upcoming ball. She went into excruciating detail, explaining that if anything went wrong during the ball, heads would roll. At the end of the meeting, she handed a scroll to each captain with their individual assignments. As I was walking to the stables with my scroll in hand, I ran into a wounded Galesh. The fae was bleeding from half a dozen cuts and had branches in his hair.
"Crooked Man's Forest" and "princess in danger" were all he needed to say before I pulled the nearest knight and ordered a cohort to mount up before riding ahead with Galesh. The deeper we went, the harder it was to see where we were going. Even with my enhanced vision, I could only see five feet in front of me.
Eventually, we left the horses tied to a nearby tree as they wouldn’t be able to carry us any deeper; the foliage was just too thick. Lighting a torch wasn't an option. We were no longer in Winter’s lands, and the Crooked Man didn’t take kindly to fire in his forest.
"How much farther, Galesh?" I turned just in time to see a flash of steel before I felt a sharp, piercing pain in my side. A pained gasp escaped me as I looked to see my armor pierced by Galesh's dagger. The knight had a smirk on his face as he pulled the dagger out and stabbed me again.
The weapon went through my armor like it wasn't even there – that wasn’t supposed to happen. My armor was bespelled to stop knives. As the dagger was plunged deeper into me, I tried to steady myself against a tree, coughing up mouthfuls of blood. I tried to speak, to call my magic to me, but through the blood loss and pain, it was no use. The pain was too much. The magic slipped through my fingers like dry sand. Galesh twisted the dagger before he leaned forward and whispered in my ear,
"The princess sends her love."
I looked out of the window, noticing how the grey clouds formed a dim atmosphere on the grounds. The satyr father and son duo ran through the rain, rejoicing in the cleansing the freshwater brought. The large windows of the inn gave the guests a great view whilst enjoying the comfort of chilling by the roaring fire, but it also meant I could see the mud that would be dragged in and require cleaning. Looking at my floors, I regretted not putting the 'wipe your feet if you have them' mat out.
It was a slow morning. The family of centaurs took to the woods at sunrise and wouldn't be back until lunch, which left me with plenty of time to catch up on work. I put one of my favorite records on and the soft tunes of Beirut played in the background as I turned to my current project: reorganizing the living room. I tapped my foot to the beat of the song as I tilted my head, thinking of the best way to improve my guest’s comfort. The fireplace sat in a cozy corner with two leather chairs and a small tea table, while on the other side of the room, a black leather couch lay behind an oak wood piano. A fine layer of dust covered the couch, and with winter around the corner, my guests would probably appreciate an extra seat next to the fireplace.
"That's it, I quit," said a frustrated voice behind me, followed by the absence of music.
I sighed and turned to the bane of my existence. Standing at five-foot-something, Lucas wasn't the first person you imagined as a mage in training. His shabby, short blonde hair and gray overalls made him an unexpected candidate. I sighed again, softly –he wouldn’t let me walk by until I heard whatever teenage ailment bothered him now. I could already feel the need for a soothing cup of hot tea.
I ignored him and looked about the living room again; the boy threatened to quit about three times a day since he’d started working at the Inn back in August. He’d lasted a month, which is more than could be said for the several others that came before him.
Maybe if I didn’t say anything, he would go away? Then I could finish with the living room and move onto the next chore on the list. I walked to the couch, considering if I moved it a little more to the right, the guests could have a nice view of the woods without getting baked in the afternoon sun…
"I mean it, Nathan. That beast almost killed me."
I rolled my eyes. Got to give the kid points for drama, at the very least. Still undecided as to how I wanted the room to look, I grabbed the back of the couch and frowned. Now I wondered if I moved it to the left, the guests would get nice and cozy by the fireplace at night when it gets cold. Decisions, decisions. Woods or Fireplace?
Lucas parked himself in front of me just as I was about to move the couch to the left. "Nathan, are you even listening?" He had a determined look on his face that told me, this time, he was trying to be serious. "That thing tried to kill me."
I looked dubiously towards said thing napping by the fireplace without a care in the world. "What did you do to her?"
Lucas threw his hands in the air with all the angst a teenage mage in training could muster. "You always take her side over mine."
I let go of the couch, accepting he wouldn't let me move it until I heard his side of the story. The sooner this was over, the sooner I could make some tea.
"Okay, you have my undivided attention. What happened?"
He took a deep and calming breath before looking at me. "I just got in from the college and was about to make myself something to eat before getting started on the lunch rush, and she just bolted at me and nearly took my whole damn leg off!" He glared at the aforementioned beast, who was busy kicking her paws at the air while making soft growly noises. "I told you that if I kept working here, you’d need to keep that demon chained. I'm a mage, for Merlin's sake!"
It was only then I noticed he was missing the bottom half of his pants, hanging in tatters, like a grass skirt around his calf. Today was Friday, so Lucas had probably come straight from his class at the college, which meant he stank of magic and other interesting things that usually set Sabine off.
I raised a finger at him. "You're not a mage … yet." I raised another finger, "Second, did you shower before coming to work?" I cut him off before he could answer. "Let me answer that for you; that would be a no. Because if you showered like you were supposed to, this wouldn't have happened." I pointed towards the fireplace. "You know Sabine is sensitive to magic, and she's not a demon, a thing or a beast. She's a beagle."
A look of resentment washed over his face. "So, it's my fault then?"
I sighed and pinched the bridge of my nose, thinking about every regretful decision that led me to this very moment, all for paying back a favour to Lucas's father, Cassius. He’d helped me out some time ago and now here was my comeuppance. His little bundle of joy got into trouble at school for unauthorized use of magic in the girls’ locker room, and he’d rung me asking if I had any jobs lying around to keep the kid busy.
It just so happened my last kitchen boy quit after a near-death experience with my cook for screwing up a guest's order – who knew minotaurs were allergic to peanuts? Lucas was a hard worker, no doubt, but his constant insistence on quitting was draining.
"Lucas, how about you take the rest of the day off and come back tomorrow?"
Lucas crossed his arms over his chest and lifted his chin defiantly.
"I don't need to be in a place where a dog is more appreciated than me." He spun on his heel and slammed the door on the way out.
Sabine looked up from her spot and wagged her tail at me.
I sighed. "You see what you did? Now what am I going to tell Julia?"
"Tell Julia what?"
I cringed before turning around to look at the suspicious dryad. "Er, hey Julia, did you do something new with your hair? I have to say it looks great."
She stood in the middle of the room and arched an eyebrow at me. "Don't bullshit me, Nathan, what did you do?"
Of average height and slim build, Julia looked more like a college student than a dryad. She still managed to scare the bejeezus out of me, though, not that I would ever tell her that. Today she wore her hair in a tight ponytail which highlighted her sharp eyes and made her look quite severe.
I took a deep breath and tried to think quickly the best way to explain what just happened. "Sabine fired Lucas. I tried to stop her but she wouldn't listen to reason."
Sabine whined behind me.
Julia’s eyes swirled and shifted, glowing like liquid steel. She walked towards me, poking my chest with her finger. "What do you mean Sabine fired him? Wait, don't answer that." She pinched her nose in frustration and growled. "What the hell am I going to do now? Lunch is in two hours!"
I gave her my best smile. "I’m sure you’ll figure it out. You always do."
She rolled her eyes at me in exasperation. "How in Pan's ass do you stay in business?"
I smiled at her and nodded towards the outside. "Where else in the world could you see something like that?" The satyr family were playing a mud version of a snowball fight, laughing like idiots. One of the mud balls missed the kid and splattered onto one of the windows. I frowned. That would need a good scrubbing. "Tír na nÓg is the only inn for supernatural folks, where people feel safe enough to—"
"Be their true selves," she finished and rolled her eyes. I could practically see her counting to ten. "I didn’t ask for the sales pitch. Get your ass in the kitchen."
I took a couple of steps back from her. "Wait, what?"
She crossed her arms over her chest and gave me the stink eye. "You didn’t stop Lucas from quitting, so until you can replace him, guess what?" She reached over and poked me on the shoulder. "Tag, you're it."
By the time I finished, it was almost midnight. Julia couldn't stand my incompetence for more than a couple of minutes before grumpily kicking me out of the kitchen, muttering she was faster by herself.
Unfortunately, my day didn't stop there. One of the joys of running an inn for things that go bump in the night was that there was always something to do. Most of my afternoon was spent replacing the attic window, which managed to stay relatively intact despite boasting three arrows, courtesy of the centaurs and their ‘target practice’. Xaris, the dragon who permanently rented the attic, was not amused. I had to spend the rest of the afternoon convincing him centaurs leave a bad taste in your mouth.
After that, I’d made my way back towards the living room, where the couch still sat at an awkward angle next to the piano. The fireplace crackled with faint dying flames still warming the room. I stood by the entrance and gave the living room a cursory glance. The record player stood to my left on top of an eighteenth-century oak table Xaris gifted the inn to commemorate his fifth year staying here.
I smiled, remembering the dragon making a whole show of it, and how it was our honor to receive a part of his hoard. To my right stood a worn bookshelf. I’d bagged it for an absolute steal after a local bookstore closed and sold their furniture. A wine-colored rug covered the wooden floors; it was one of Sabine’s favorite spots as she loved to roll around in it. Across from me were a pair of wooden double doors with circular windows in the middle. It had taken a bit of elbow grease, but the mud had finally come off.
The windows gave a clear view of the woods, and it was never difficult to see what inspired Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ on nights like this. I could imagine the Fair Folk dancing between the silver light and the shadows cast by the moonlight shining through the trees.
I started moving the couch towards the doors when the front desk bell rang, announcing the arrival of a new guest. I sighed, letting go of the couch before making my way to the reception hall.
The hall was at the heart of the inn, an open space that connected the downstairs to the upper parts through a wooden staircase. Snuggled between the entrance to the living and dining rooms was my little piece of the kingdom. A dark cherry wood desk sat perfectly in the corner. It had taken me more than two weeks to find it. Funds were tight at the beginning, but it was worth it. The large table and chairs were collecting a fine layer of dust, needing to be cleaned tomorrow. It was rarely used unless we had a big party or a formal gathering. Most guests like to take their meals in their rooms or the upstairs balcony. There was no better spot for going through paperwork and enjoying a cup of peppermint tea.
Sabine was lying down on her bed next to the stairs. The word 'manager' was embroidered on the side of the bed – the guests thought it was cute.
A young man was standing at the desk. He was in his mid-twenties with light brown hair, and his skin had a ruddy tone from spending too much time in the sun. Wearing a tattered jacket with a black shirt and blue jeans that had seen better days, he looked rather worse for wear. Even his shoes looked like they were about to fall apart.
I mentally checked the protective wards. The familiar tingle at the back of my neck gave me a brief pause of relief.
"Welcome to Tír na nÓg. I’m Nathan. How can I help you?" I smiled, extending my hand.
He hesitated before slowly shaking it. "I heard this is a safe place. Is that true?"
I gave him a reassuring smile. "As long as guests abide by the inn's laws, it's the safest place in Portland. They have our full protection."
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he let go of my hand. "What laws?"
I pointed to a small plaque on the wall next to the stairs where a cartoon version of Sabine was reading the text:
"Come in peace. Do not harm the other guests. Don't run out on your bill. Be courteous to the staff."
Normally guests came to the inn for one of three reasons. Some wanted to escape the mortals oblivious to the darker side of the world and let their supernatural side shine. Some needed a quiet place to rest. Others were running from something big and bad.
The kid wet his chapped lips before nodding to himself as if he was coming to a decision. "How much for a room?"
I took another look at the prospective guest standing in front of me. He didn't have any luggage to speak of except for a small black leather hip pouch that was in pristine condition, unlike the rest of him. The only jewelry he had on was a small silver ring with a dark blue gem with a faint glow of magic. Now that was odd. Jewelry was usually the first thing to be sold or pawned when someone’s this down on their luck. There was a slight tangy, sweet smell wafting from him, reminiscent of when Sabine thought it was a good idea to go dumpster diving. Even if he didn’t have the money for a room, I’d at least offer him a shower. Then again, with supernatural folk, appearances are most definitely deceiving. He could be a thousand-year-old prince with more money than I make in a year just sitting in his pocket.
"It's five gold pieces a night. You can pay upfront if you know how long your stay is going to be. If not, then we collect weekly payments on Sundays." I stood behind the front desk. "Do you know how long you’ll be staying with us?"
Gold was the universal currency of the supernatural world – empires rose and fell every other century, but gold would never devalue. Each piece was the size of a Girl Scout cookie and would go for about $100 dollars each. I didn't think the kid had that much money. Which meant I was surprised when he pulled out thirty-five gold pieces from his hip pouch and laid them down on the counter.
I nodded and pulled out the registration form. "Please sign your name on the bottom." He gave me that same deer in headlights look from before. "Don't worry. It's not a magical contract. Just your consent of the inn's laws."
He signed his name. I smiled and took the form back before grabbing one of the keys from inside the desk. "Okay, Mr…" I looked at the flowing cursive writing. "Roel. Please follow me."
Sabine stood up from her bed and shook herself off before bolting for the stairs. Welcoming a new guest was one of her favorite things to do.
As we walked to his room on the second floor, I tried to get a feel for the kid. He didn't have any of the usual smells of a shifter (although it would be difficult to tell considering the only thing I could smell at the moment was garbage) or the unnatural stillness of the undead. He sure as hell wasn't any type of Fae, which my wards would have warned me against.
He did have magic, though. I could sense that much, just not what flavor. The only vibe I got off this kid was that he needed somewhere safe to crash.
I let my magic gather around my thumb and traced a small symbol: two white parallel lines inside a circle at the base of the key. All the keys had different runes that needed to be drawn by me to allow the doors to open. An extra safety measure the guests appreciated, no one but myself and the guest could use the key to access the room. We arrived at his room, where Sabine, as expected, was already waiting impatiently outside the reddish-brown door.
The door opened to reveal a large sandalwood bed in the center of the room, dark blue linens adorning it. A small nightstand stood on either side, both with brass candle holders. At the foot of the bed stood a soft blue lounging chair positioned on woolen grey carpet. Opposite the bed, two large doors lead to a marble-tiled bathroom and walk-in closet. Two arched windows gave a perfect view of the woods outside, while a wooden door led to the second-floor balcony.
I turned towards the kid, and the look of relief in his eyes as I handed him the key made me happy. At least here, he could sleep knowing he would be safe. "Here you go, Mr. Roel. Breakfast is at seven, lunch at noon, and dinner just after sunset. You need anything, call me. The number is next to the phone. Have a good night."
He stood by the door for a good twenty seconds before Sabine let out a small bark of annoyance and sat in the middle of the room, giving the new guest a look. Roel looked at me.
I shrugged. "She won’t feel her job is done until you step inside."
He chuckled a little, then caught himself and stopped. He walked inside, passing by Sabine and sat on the bed. My little manager gave him a nod before she sneezed in his general direction and walked out of the room.
I waved at the kid and smiled. "You have a good night." I closed the door and turned to Sabine, who was giving me the stink eye.
"What?" She looked at the door, sneezed again then looked back at me.
I looked at her, annoyed, as we walked downstairs. "Don't be a busybody. His business is none of our business."
She whined before lying down on her bed.
I ran my hand through my hair, a dark strand falling next to her paws. I still wasn’t used to how short it was now. "No, I'm not making things hard on you. If he feels up to it, he will let us know. If not, then we'll deal with whatever it is when it comes knocking."
She gave me a small growl of acceptance before laying on her back. I laughed and knelt to give her a belly rub. "Now you're just being a spoiled brat."
After Sabine got her fill, she dashed towards the kitchen, probably to beg for some treats off Julia. I walked back towards the couch. "Okay, time to get you out of the way."
I bent over to grab the couch, about to move it, when a knock on the door stopped me. I laid my head on the armrest and rolled my eyes. "You gotta be kidding me." I gave the couch a glare, mumbling, "This isn't over," and made my way towards the door.
I looked through the peephole of the large oak door to see a tall woman standing on my porch. She was probably in her mid-thirties with piercing dark brown eyes with bags beneath them and dark curly hair that fell just below her neck. She was wearing a dark blue pant suit. The glint of a gun could be seen beneath her jacket.
I opened the door and put on my most charming voice. She was either a cop or someone ready to make trouble. Or even worse, a door-to-door salesman, although I dismissed that idea given the hour and the gun. "Good evening, Miss, how can I help you?"
"Nathaniel Mercer?" she asked in a stern tone.
From the way she carried herself and spoke, she was definitely a cop. I extended my senses around her and found she was a vanilla human … lucky me. "Nathan, please. Nathaniel makes me sound like a grumpy old man."
The joke bounced off her like dry peas on a wall. She pulled up her credentials confirming my cop suspicion. "I'm Detective Garcia, Portland PD. Can we speak for a moment?"
A shiver ran down my spine. I ran a mental note of my guests; none of them were of the violent variety – well, except for the dragon in the attic and maybe Roel. But the kid was too new for me to get a read on. I was apprehensive, concerned that I was in for a world of trouble. What could my guests have done?
I stepped outside, closing the door behind me, and motioned to a couple of chairs on the porch. "Sure, Detective. I hope it's okay that we talk outside. As you can see, I run an inn and don't want my guests feeling uncomfortable. I hope you understand."
The inn sat in the middle of a five hundred acre property west of the Willamette River. It gave enough privacy to my less-than-human guests to shed their disguises while being relatively close to civilization for a nice cup of coffee.
The cool night breeze swept through the front porch, carrying the musky scent of the woods with the undertones of the sweet citrusy red verbena and St. John’s wort circling the whole property. Several chairs sat around an ash wooden table. It was a particularly favorite spot of the guests, who liked to sit around amongst nature and drink a glass of iced tea. A half-filled ashtray told me Xaris had been sitting here recently. That dragon enjoyed his cigars a little too much for my liking – not that he’d be too put out if he burned the place down. Being fireproof had its perks. A blue sedan parked next to my truck caught the corner of my eye; must be the detectives.
She gave me a stiff nod before following to the table. I pulled out a chair for her, but she shook her head. "No, thank you. How long have you known Lucas Gray?"
I frowned at her, a bad feeling slowly creeping up my spine. "His dad and I have been friends for years. I have known Lucas since he was in grade school. Why? Has he done something?"
She took out a little notepad and began writing on it. "Was he having trouble at school? History of bullying? Anyone that might want to hurt him?"
What the hell? Did something happen to the kid? Shit. Cassius is going to kill me.
"No, not at all. He started going to college this year, and his dad asked me to look out for him. So, I gave him a job in the kitchen, helping with the meals. He's new to town, so he mostly spends his time here or at school. Detective, what is this about? Is Lucas okay?"
She took a few notes before putting the notebook away. "Mr. Mercer, I'm sorry to say this but we found Lucas floating beneath the Hawthorne Bridge. Paramedics at the scene tried everything they could. I’m sorry."