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Monico Episode Twelve: Once Upon A Time

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  • Monico Episode Twelve: Once Upon A Time

    Episode Twelve:
    Once Upon A Time

    Disclaimer: Oz isn't mine, although everybody else is, and the universe in which they all live also belongs to people other than me. I'm writing for my own amusement, and make no profit from it.
    Feedback: Yes please, I welcome constructive comments.

    With thanks to Sue.

    Previously in Tales from the Monico:

    Oz: "So, if I can ask, why are you here?"
    Elli: "Mostly I'm waiting ? for it to be time to go back."

    A captive and concussed Oz wolfs out, and is attacked by Staunton's hired thugs.
    Staunton (absolutely awestruck): "It's a werewolf. An actual werewolf?! Do you have any idea how valuable a discovery like this could be?"

    Elli: "Have you ever killed anyone? ? I have ? Consciously. With these hands, and more than once. There's always guilt, and there's always regret, but sometimes you really don't have any other choice."

    Anouk: "You have a vampire stalking you."
    Oz: "Not just me."
    Anouk: "And you didn't think to tell me this before now?"
    Oz: "Well?he wasn't around before now."
    Anouk (with a big sigh): "Just when I thought I knew you."
    Oz: "You don't know everything about me."
    Anouk: "But I want to. I want you to talk to me, Oz."

    Oz: "This is my life. Sometimes it isn't so normal. Sometimes it's not all that safe ? sometimes I'm not all that safe. You might find it easier to walk away now."
    Anouk: "I don't want to walk away."


    In The Beginning?


    Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived in a castle in a faraway land. But to understand that story, you have to go back a lot further. You have to start at the beginning?




    He stood on a street corner of yet another city and stared blankly at the tide of humanity washing past him, thronging all around. Like ants, scurrying busily to further their meaningless and puny lives. So many humans, in so many cities: all around this world. His search was never ending. And yet his Mistress's patience was not without bounds, and the long years of searching had strained it to the limit.

    He felt close. This world was such an eminently suitable environment for his quarry to survive in and flourish, and to vanish beneath this?this avalanche of humanity covering the globe. So many thousands of cities, towns and villages, on every continent, and he would search every one if need be. It was his duty to both his Mistress and his Lord. He would willingly search for the rest of his existence, if so required.

    Here, in this city, he felt close. And yet he would not report this intuition to his Mistress. Not yet. He had felt close before, and had been wrong each time.

    The endless search continued.


    "Thomas Crockett," said Charlie. "We were thirteen, and he asked me to go to the pictures with him. We had a row about who was going to pay, and the film was really bad. Then we kissed, and it was like snogging a wet fish. And then we had another row." She grinned. "It was my shortest relationship ever."

    "You see," Emma rounded on David with glee. "It's like I said. You always remember your first kiss. It's only you that makes out you can't be specific."

    "I remember our first kiss," David smiled disarmingly at her, and she just about melted, returning the smile adoringly.

    It was very late, the caf? was closed with everything mostly cleared away, and, with the night's vampire watch having drawn a blank once again, the friends were just hanging around, chilling out together. And Emma, being Emma and having a remarkable knack for making any and every conversation girly regardless of the gender mix actually involved, had brought the subject around to the memorability, or otherwise, of first kisses.

    Patting her husband's knee, since she wasn't sitting close enough for any more physical contact than that, Emma turned back to Charlie. "And, speaking of relationships that last slightly longer than one date, how come you aren't seeing Mat tonight?"

    "He's at work." Charlie wrinkled her nose. "We have the perfect relationship right now: we never see each other."

    "Is it that bad?" David asked with a chuckle.

    "At the moment," Charlie rolled her eyes. "When I'm free he's working, and when he's free I'm in class."

    "His shifts will change," said Emma in her most reassuring tone.

    "I know," she agreed. "I suppose I just never pictured myself dating the police."

    "Just the one, surely," Emma pointed out at once.

    "Life is full of surprises," David remarked. "As these last few months demonstrate so beautifully. I never dreamt I'd one day count a werewolf, a telekinetic, and a person from another world among my friends. And I'm sure Elli never pictured herself getting exiled to a place like this, and Oz never imagined he'd turn into a werewolf, or get shot dead by a cop."

    Oz had been listening to the conversation in silent amusement up to that point, feeling no especial urge to join in. He leaned back in his chair. "Actually, after the first time I kinda figured anything was possible."

    Dumbfoundedness followed this statement. Which had kinda been the point of making it. Sometimes it was worth dropping a bombshell into conversation just to see the pattern of shockwaves rippling out from it.

    "You were shot before?" David asked, incredulous.

    "High school," Oz explained, remembering. Strange to think how long ago that had been, how much had happened since then. Pre-Scooby gang. Pre-werewolf. Before his world had turned upside down and inside out. So much had changed since that day.

    David rolled his eyes. "Figures."

    "I assume you didn't die that time, though," said Emma, pointedly.

    "Oh no," Oz assured her, indicating the arm that had been injured. "Did sling time."

    "Like I said," David firmly said, his point proved. "Full of surprises."

    With that settled, Emma was swift to get the conversation back onto her own chosen topic. "Oz, your turn. First kiss."

    Oz smiled lazily and sipped his drink. He had no intention of being drawn into this debate. "Oh, a gentleman never kisses and tells."

    "Yeah right," Emma scoffed. "You're only saying that 'cause David already did. In multiple detail. But I'll let you get away with it, just for being gentlemanly." She poked her tongue out at David with a teasing grin. "Elli's turn, then."

    Elli, it turned out, was half asleep and absolutely not listening to the conversation. She was leaning forward across the table, resting her chin on folded arms, but lifted her head very slightly on hearing her name and blinked blearily. "What?" she murmured.

    Charlie squinted at her. "Did you not sleep at all last night?"

    Elli yawned. "Not much, no. And I don't even have a good excuse for it."

    "You should probably give up on the coffee and turn in, then," Emma advised. "But you have to tell your first kiss, first. Would it have been Stephen?"

    Elli shook her head very sleepily, a dreamy smile spreading over her face. "No. Stephen was the first of many things, but not the first kiss. That was Arion."

    Emma's ears pricked up at once. "Now that sounds like a story. Tell us more ? who's Arion?"

    Elli yawned again. "At the time, he was the Crown Prince?"

    Everyone but Elli sat up a little straighter at that snippet of information, realising that they were into the rarely mentioned pre-this-world territory here.

    "Wow," Emma breathed. "You're serious? So if this Arion is a prince, are you, like, a princess in disguise, or something?"

    That woke Elli up, a little bit, at least. She snorted in amusement. "No, I'm really not." She pursed her lips and cocked her head to one side, considering the notion. "It's a nice idea, though."

    "An actual prince?" Emma seemed delighted by the romance of the mere word. "So, were you, like, engaged, or ? what's the word? Betrothed, or something?"

    Elli almost choked, and sat up a little straighter, stretching the kinks out of her spine cat-style. "No. We really, really weren't."

    "But still. I repeat. Wow. An actual prince?" To Emma, that was clearly the most exciting thing she'd heard in weeks. "Talk about friends in high places."

    "Status had nothing to do with it," Elli murmured absent-mindedly, lost in memories. "We were two scared kids who weren't sure we would live to see another day. Fear can do strange things to you." She glanced up to see everyone looking at her, and gave a wry smile. "Plus, obviously, teenage hormones."

    "So, you kissed a prince," said David, nodding sagely. "Impressive."

    "And if this Arion was a Crown Prince back then," Emma chipped in again. "What is he now?"

    "If he's still alive," Elli mused, fingering her necklace, her expression sombre now, and worried. "Then he's king in exile. But probably still not using that title ? not until it could be made official. And I'd have heard if that happened?" Then she looked around at them all, apparently only now realising just how much she'd let slip in that unguarded moment, and dryly murmured, "I really killed the mood there, didn't I?"

    "No," said Charlie, looking just as fascinated as Emma. "It's just?you never talk about where you come from."

    "That's a security thing," Elli calmly explained, now wide-awake and clearly not going to let any further information slip tonight.

    "Whose security?" Oz quietly asked.

    Elli looked him straight in the eye. "Everyone's."


  • #2

    Part One:


    "So there's no new news about Ed?" Anouk asked, tucking into her ice cream with a hearty appetite.

    "No sightings, no leads," Oz confirmed, leaning back in his chair in that quiet corner of the university canteen they'd secreted themselves away in for a cosy private lunch.

    She glanced up at him through long, dark lashes. "And Charlie thinks he's just waiting for everyone to relax so he can pounce and set the cat among the pigeons again?"

    He nodded. That was a fairly accurate summary of the state of play right now. "Pretty much."

    "Creepy," was her final assessment of the situation. "And it's your turn on patrol again tonight, isn't it?"

    Oz nodded again. If Ed was waiting for them to relax, he'd have a while to wait yet. They were all well and truly fired up for the slayage now, their determination not to get caught on the back foot again inspiring them to set up regular patrols of areas known, or suspected, to be centres of vampire activity in the city. San Francisco's vampire population was small bordering on tiny compared to, say, Sunnydale, but there were still plenty of them here ? just how many, patrols were starting to reveal.

    Anouk poked at the remains of her ice cream with the spoon for a moment, looking thoughtful. "You know if you need me to do more than cheerlead from the sidelines, I'm right there, right?"

    "Right." Oz nodded, and smiled. It was probably not the most politically correct urge he'd ever had, but if he had any say in the matter she wouldn't go within many miles of any vampires ever again, and he was just glad that she hadn't made a fuss and insisted on helping with the patrols so far. Once the adrenaline rush of her one real vampire battle had worn off and the fear kicked back in, she'd been more than happy to leave the world of the supernatural pretty much to him. But she kept repeating that offer to pitch in if need be, in spite of her fear, and that was something even the most protective part of him had to appreciate and admire. Even if he wasn't convinced she actually meant it.

    Anouk narrowed her eyes suspiciously. It was cute.

    "That was a 'right, but you've got it covered for now' right, wasn't it?" She gesticulated at him with her spoon. "Just as long as you know that I'm on to you, with that protective ivory tower thing. And because it's so chivalrous and all ? and because it still kind of freaks me out ? I'm willing to play along, for now. As long as you promise you'll let me know if things get bad. You might need the extra pair of hands some time."

    "Well, I'll bear that in mind," Oz told her. "If he ever turns up again."

    "'If' being the featured word there, sitting alongside an unspoken 'when'." Anouk scraped out the last drops of her ice cream and swallowed them hastily, glancing at her watch. "Okay, that's me done, and not before time because I'll be late if I don't go now, and I really don't want to have to explain to my dad that I was kicked off my course because I couldn't tell time."

    "No," Oz agreed as they stood to leave. "He probably wouldn't like that."

    "And since you're ditching me in favour of patrol tonight," smiling, Anouk gave him a peck on the cheek as a farewell. "I'll see you tomorrow."

    "See you tomorrow," he murmured as he watched her go, knowing that his dopiest smile was plastered all across his face and not caring who saw it.


    Heading out of the canteen in the direction of his own next class, Oz stopped dead in his tracks on seeing Professor Staunton in the corridor just ahead of him, talking to a woman. And, not that he considered himself overly judgemental or anything, but she didn't seem the sort of woman you'd expect to see hanging around a lab-bound, middle-aged scientist and mathematician like Staunton. 'Addams family' was the description that sprang instantly to mind. Very heavy on the Morticia sense of style: waist-length black hair as straight as if she'd ironed it or something, black make up against an almost vampirically pallid complexion, and swathed from head to foot in black clothing of the exotic and silken variety. And she was hanging very familiarly around Staunton, locked in what looked to be a pretty intense conversation. Weird.

    But not a mystery he felt inclined to investigate too closely. Uncomfortable with Staunton's scientific ambitions regarding matters lycanthropic, Oz had succeeded in not having to speak directly to the professor since their encounter the previous summer. Under the 'safety being better than sorry-ness' principle, any close contact was best avoided, although there were other ways of finding information?

    But avoidance wasn't so easy to manage in such close quarters as these. There were students crowding around behind him now, making retreat back into the canteen all but impossible, and the corridor was too narrow to slip past without being noticed. Too late, as well ? Staunton had already seen him, narrowing his eyes to stare intently for just a second before whispering something to his lady friend, who turned and gave Oz a curiously intense look that sent a shiver down his spine. That was even weirder.

    With a last backward glance at Oz, the woman then turned and walked in the opposite direction, while Staunton, on the other hand, headed straight for him.

    Oz started moving, hoping to simply pass the professor by without a word. No such luck, however. A crowd of students piling around a corner at the exact wrong moment forced both to pause, just as they came alongside one another.

    "Daniel Osbourne," said Staunton, very softly, standing just that bit too close for comfort. "I've heard all about you. A very gifted student, I'm told, but lacking in motivation. Perhaps a good thing, then, that you chose not to take any of my classes."

    He smiled, very thinly, but there was no humour in it whatsoever. And he was still watching Oz closely, his eyes fierce. It was unnerving.

    Not that Oz felt he had any real reason to worry. Not too much, anyway. Staunton was hardly likely to try anything in public, and even less likely to openly denounce him as a werewolf without first having hard scientific proof. His professional reputation was too important to him.

    But he knew. And knowing that, knowing that if he got the chance the professor would like nothing better than to dissect him, gave Oz the creeps. It was the way Staunton looked at him that did it, the way he was looking at him right now ? as if Oz were a particularly interesting specimen that he just hadn't had the chance to study yet.

    Thankfully, the crowd thinned sufficiently for Oz to move on once more. Mumbling the first excuse that came to mind, he hastily made his getaway.


    "Now, what did I say when we came on shift?" Mike groaned as a call came in sending him speeding across town with his partner to attend the scene of a violent incident, just as they'd allowed themselves to hope that a slow moment would give them time to stop for a food-and-coffee break.

    "You called it, all right," said Mat with a sigh. "Definitely going to be one of those nights."

    "More than definitely," Mike grumbled. "We're never getting our break tonight." An officer's work was never done?

    The incident, they very quickly realised on arrival, was one of those messy ones that were almost impossible to resolve. Witnesses claimed that an unnaturally large man, swathed head to foot in an all-concealing cloak, had taken an uncomfortable interest in a young blonde woman and, when her boyfriend objected, violence had ensued. Hurling the jealous boyfriend aside with what was described as scarily unnatural strength, the stranger had seized the woman, ripping at her clothing to tear a locket from around her neck. But then he'd tossed both her and the locket aside, muttering something about it being 'the wrong one' as he stalked off. 'Bizarre', was the word most of the witnesses used.

    And, although descriptions were given of his size, that cloak, and a large, distinctive medallion he wore around his neck, it seemed none of the witnesses had managed a clear look at the man himself. Not the slightest scrap of information on offer regarding just who exactly was hidden within the cloak.

    It was more than 'going to be one of those nights' ? it already was.


    "Got him!" David crowed triumphantly as the one vampire they'd encountered so far tonight crumbled into dust. "Now that's the way to do it."

    Feeling more than a little satisfied himself, Oz couldn't argue with that. The vampire had been so busy chowing down on its terrified victim it hadn't even noticed them until it was too late, despite the fact that creeping up quietly on an enemy was never going to be one of David's strong points. And taking vampires by surprise and dusting them before they could make a fuss and fight back was definitely the way to do it when you were just two fairly ordinary guys without any special strength or skill to call your own.

    The man who'd so narrowly avoided death by vampire stood and stared at them, wild-eyed, a hand clamped against his neck with blood trickling between his fingers. "I-I-I-I-I-I ?" he stuttered.

    Oz waited a moment to see if he'd manage to form a complete word, but then took pity on him as it became obvious that coherence any time soon was unlikely. "It's okay," he said, reaching out to have a look at the injury. It didn't look too bad ? they'd got there before the vampire had time for more than a few gulps. Nasty, but not serious. He'd have lost more blood if he was donating. "Don't say anything. Just go home. Now."

    "And you might want to think about sticking to well lit and better populated streets than this in future," David added, his tone probably a shade too bright and bubbly for the man's post-vamp-attack state of mind, judging by the way his eyes boggled still further. Without waiting to hear any more, he turned tail and ran.

    "You're welcome," David called after him, frowning. "Any time! Saving life without a word of thanks is our greatest pleasure!" He turned to Oz with an exaggerated sigh. "Gratitude is a wonderful thing, isn't it? Come on, Oz. Let's call it a night."


    "Quiet nights are what we live for, eh?" David leaned back with a hearty sigh in the van's front passenger seat as Oz pulled up as close to the caf? as it was possible to park.

    Switching the engine off and unbuckling his safety belt, Oz shot a quick sideways glance at him, quirking an eyebrow ever so slightly. "Oh, well, in this context, certainly."

    "In this context, yes," David was quick to agree, with a deep chuckle, as they exited the van and headed for the caf?. "A quiet patrol is a good patrol. Especially the part where we don't end up fighting for our lives, because that's the bit I'm really not so good at."

    "Oh, well, hey ? you must be doing something right," Oz pointed out as they pushed the caf? doors open, feeling moved to offer something in the way of encouragement. "You're not dead yet."

    "Oh, very comforting," David started to grumble in response, but then stopped dead in his tracks on seeing Elli, of all people, pottering around behind the counter getting everything tidied away ready to close for the night. "Hello?" He frowned in bemusement. "What's all this?"

    "I'm working," Elli very casually told him.

    "So I see." David looked even more puzzled. "I thought I had staff for that."

    "Shanei had to go home sick," said Elli. "And then there was a whole stampede of customers, and Emma looked like she might have a nervous breakdown or something. So I said I'd help."

    "Very noble, thank you," said David. "And where's Emma now?"

    Elli chortled softly. "Cleaning up the mini bombsite that is your kitchen."

    David promptly let out a little yelp of alarm at the thought of what a harassed Emma might have done to his kitchen, and rushed out back to see what she was doing. Chuckling to himself, Oz rounded the counter.

    "Need a hand?" he asked Elli, and she nodded vigorously.

    "Please. I don't actually know what I'm meant to be doing here. I've never closed up before, because of, you know, this not actually being my job. How was patrol?"

    "Quiet," he told her. "Just the one, and of a definite non-Ed variety."

    She nodded thoughtfully. "Quiet is good. Except that we're all left hanging still. Charlie was in earlier."

    That was kind of a leading statement. Bending to put a stack of plates away, Oz glanced up at her, eyebrow slightly raised to encourage her to continue.

    Yawning, Elli wiped down the counter. "She said that, knowing Ed, he might just as easily have got bored with us beating him every time and gone back to England without stopping to tell anyone."

    "But there's really no way of knowing." That was the main problem they were faced with.

    "No, there really isn't," she agreed. "So, we patrol."

    Oz nodded, straightening back up. "We patrol." Then he frowned as Elli yawned again, leaning heavily against the counter. She seemed tired pretty much most of the time just lately. "Still not sleeping?"

    "Who said I'm not sleeping?" she immediately countered, defensive.

    "You did," he very mildly pointed out. "A couple times recently."

    Defeated, she sighed and rolled her eyes. "Okay. You got me there. I did. And I'm not, no. Not well, anyway. I just don't know why, exactly." She turned to switch off the cappuccino machine. "But it's nothing. Honest."

    "Sounds pretty much like something to me," said Oz.

    She stood with her back to him for a moment longer, and then gave in, slowly turning to face him once more. "I don't know," she said, quietly. "I just feel really?" She stopped, looking frustrated, before trying again. "It all ? everything ? feels so?oppressive at the moment, like the walls are closing in. And it's worse when I try to sleep."

    "Well, maybe you're allergic to the city," Oz suggested, knowing that she found living in the city almost claustrophobic at times.

    A self-deprecating chuckle was her immediate response to that idea.

    "Yeah, maybe," she agreed. "Since I was neither born nor bred to live in a place like this, it does get wearing." She wrinkled her nose. "Maybe I should just take myself away for a few days. But I won't ask you to go with me this time, because, Anouk. I doubt she'd find it reassuring."

    But she still seemed unsettled, maybe unsatisfied with that explanation for her malaise, fiddling with her ring wearing a slightly troubled expression.

    "But?" Oz pressed, concerned.

    "But?I'm not sure." Letting go of the ring, she raised a hand to play with her necklace instead. "I've always had?forebodings, I suppose you'd call them, about bad things in the offing. And they've always been vague, but they often feel a bit like this. But right now I can't even work out if that's what this is, or if it is, what it's about. I can't sleep, I feel tense all the time, and I don't know why. It could be that something really terrible is about to happen, and I'm just not reading the signs right. Or it might be that I really do need to get away from the city for a while. Or it might be nothing at all, just me being paranoid. I honestly don't know. It drives me mad."

    She was babbling now, and wasn't usually so open about matters private, so Oz guessed she must be a lot more worried even than she was letting on. But forebodings and premonitions were not an arena he had any experience in, so the only reassurance he had to offer was of the purely practical variety, quickly putting together one of those soothing herbal teas she liked while she talked.

    "Thank you." She gave him a grateful smile, and a teasing wink. "But we're closed, you know." Then she leaned back on her heel slightly to see past him as the bell above the door tinkled to announce a new presence in the caf?. "We're closed," she called, still teasingly, and Oz turned to see a very weary looking Mike and Mat entering.

    "You can't be closed," Mat instantly protested, slumping onto a stool at the counter. "We need coffee."

    "Bad night?"

    "Weird night," he said. "And it isn't over yet."

    "Hence, coffee," said Oz, turning to make it.

    "Hence coffee," Mike nodded, glancing around the caf? with an expression of vague disappointment that Shanei was nowhere in sight.

    "But only because it's you," said Elli, going across to lock the door so that no more late night stragglers could find their way in. "And you'll have to ask to be let back out again, because we don't want any more after-hours customers, thank you very much."

    "Speaking of which," Mat swivelled on his stool to regard her critically as she returned to reclaim her tea. "Since when do you work here?"

    "I don't. I'm just very generous," she cheerfully told him.

    "And, speaking of being generous," Mike chipped in. "We've been looking into that professor you mentioned. He's keeping some strange company just lately. Strange for a scientist, that is."

    Oz and Elli looked at each other, having had this conversation once already today, shortly before Oz and David headed out on patrol.

    "Let me guess," said Elli. "Mary MacBride.

    Mike looked disappointed. "What was the point of asking us to look into it if you're going to already know everything we find out?"

    Elli chuckled. "Oz saw him talking to her this afternoon and did some asking around to find out who she was."

    "How much did you find out?" Mike looked at Oz, who could only shrug.

    "Pretty much just the name," he admitted.

    Mat raised an eyebrow. "Know who she is?"

    "No." He shook his head.

    "Who?" Elli asked, eyeing the officers curiously.

    "Your mysterious benefactor," Mat told them, with deep satisfaction. "Paying for the university's new science block. Family money, not earned, and she's got a clean record. I don't know if that helps with anything."

    Elli wrinkled her nose. "Not really. But we'll keep our eyes on them both and see if anything comes of it. Thanks."


    After helping to close the caf? for the night, Oz headed up to his room and dropped onto the bed with a weary sigh. But he sat still for only a moment before steeling himself to finish a task he'd been putting off for too long now.

    He pulled a wad of notepaper out of a drawer. The top sheet was covered in his own handwriting, and he sat reading the letter through yet again. It read badly, faltering and fumbling phrases cobbled together without actually managing to convey anything of what he needed to get across. Ripping the top sheet off, he screwed the paper into a tight little ball in his hand, and then tossed it at the bin. Bull's-eye.

    He'd been trying to write this letter ever since he'd so nearly changed while fighting a vampire the other week, in the same room as Anouk and a couple of his friends. It had so nearly been a horrifically bad moment, but as he'd come safely through it without any harm done, the temptation to just forget about it and move on was strong.

    Except that he couldn't keep burying his head in the sand like that. Not if he was serious about wanting to be able to live safely among?well, anyone, to be honest.

    That moment of almost changing had been a reminder, he told himself ? a reminder of just how much he still didn't know, of how flawed his 'cure' really was. Of course, he'd known that for a long time, and had learned to live with it, convincing himself that he could cope. He just had to keep his cool, avoid heated situations, and all would be good.

    Dangerous situations were proving hard to avoid, though, and having Anouk in his life now added a whole new layer of worry. Because Anouk was so sweet and warm-hearted, and innocent, and just thinking about her could brighten his day. But, on the flip side, the fonder he became of her, the more he was reminded of another girl who'd been sweet, warm-hearted and innocent. And more and more often just lately he found his thoughts being drawn back to those last days with Willow, and to the reasons he'd chosen to walk away from everything they'd had together.

    Had anything really changed? Or was he simply filling the Willow-shaped hole in his life with someone like her enough to remind him of how happy they'd been together, and yet at one and the same time entirely unlike her and completely unprepared for the dangers his life so often involved.

    He wanted so badly to just get on with his life, and being with Anouk felt good, reminded him of simpler days and of who he used to be, once upon a time. Allowed him to hope, even to believe, that he could be that person again in spite of it all. But?

    But there was a very big 'but' attached to that. A 'but' he was very afraid could bring the whole house of cards he'd built around himself here crashing down about his ears once again.

    He needed some real, solid advice, and there was only one person he could think of who might be able to give it to him: the same person who had worked so hard to help him achieve the level of control he had, imperfect as it was. But that letter was hard to write, after so many months had gone by, and so much had happened ? not least because he really didn't want to leave his life behind again, not after that had turned out so badly last time. And he half suspected, half feared, that might be exactly what he'd be advised to do.

    And, above all, writing the letter meant admitting failure, meant admitting just how flawed his supposed 'cure' had turned out to be, how hard it could be at times to maintain the level of control he needed, and owning up to all that was not easy to do. He'd left Master Sheng with such high hopes; only to have those hopes shattered so completely when he tried to pick up the threads of his old life.

    Oz sat on the edge of his bed and stared down at the carpet, mentally composing himself and searching for the right words, running through in his mind every element of what he needed to say. Then he picked up a pen and started writing.


    He cast aside a female who was, again, not his target, and allowed an exhalation of sheer exasperation to escape as more of these puny and wretched humans came scurrying to her defence. To her attempted defence, that was. He swatted them aside with ease and removed himself from the locale to regroup his thoughts in the temporary shelter he'd appropriated.

    Another failure.

    And yet he was close, he could sense it. His target was here, somewhere ? he was sure of that, more certain than he'd felt in years of searching city after continent after world.

    So near, and yet so far.

    All the reasons that made this an eminently suitable place for his quarry to live also made it the perfect place for her to disappear, to remain hidden from him. As close as he felt, he was unable to narrow the search any further. He was unable to home in on her, unable to hone his senses any to a finer point than they already had been, enhanced as they were to the utmost limit by his Mistress. It wasn't enough.

    Already he had been reduced to simply seizing and physically examining every likely female he saw, and that was drawing far more attention than he would like. Yet it must be done. The human attention was vexing, and at times perhaps a little distracting and time-consuming, but overall was of little concern to him. He would not dare come so close and then return to his Mistress empty handed.



    • #3

      After tossing and turning for hours, yet again, Elli finally gave up on trying to get a good night's sleep and instead whiled away the wee small hours working down in her studio and trying hard not to think too deeply about anything other than what she was doing.

      Working in the studio wasn't as relaxing as usual, though, and as morning dawned she made her way back upstairs to her apartment, as far from sleep as ever. She showered, dressed, and then drifted around, making a hot drink and breakfast, which remained un-drunk and un-eaten, tidying up areas that didn't need tidying, and further cluttering those that did. She finally came to a standstill, gazing into the darkest corner of a closet that was usually kept securely locked to protect the treasures within. Treasures, that was, to her ? that assortment of clothes, weapons and jewellery that were all she had left to remind her of the life she'd once lived, so, so far from here. Clothes she'd since grown out of in the years she'd spent here, weapons, jewellery ? and one solitary musical instrument.

      On a sudden whim, she pulled out the crouth, and sat cross-legged in an armchair with it lying across her lap, hands resting on the strings, ready to play.

      It came so naturally, picking out those old, old melodies she'd been taught so long ago, even having not touched the instrument for so long. She so rarely allowed herself to indulge in those memories, bittersweet and painful as they were, she'd almost forgotten how soothing it could be, just her and the music?

      And sleep came at last, but it was an uncomfortable and broken sleep, disturbed by those oppressive forebodings that just lately refused to go away, as well as tangled, crouth-related memories of long ago days?

      Alyn's warm smile as he taught her where to place her fingers to create the right notes; a rare moment of peace amid the chaos and turmoil their world had become. Laughing at her when the notes turned sour, and patiently showing her yet again how to do it right. A peaceful man ? a bard ? yet forced to live the life of a warrior. Their best archer, and he'd taught her that, too, patiently working to hone the skills she'd ? fortunately, as it turned out ? learnt as a child, in more peaceful days. One of her favourites, perhaps, of all the warriors that surrounded her now, protected her, trained and raised her?

      Alyn's gentle eyes turned to madness. Ensorcelled and enraged, his mortal strength preternaturally enhanced. Attacking blindly. They tried so hard to take him alive, to bind him while they sought a way to break the spell, to find a way, any way, to save him?

      But then he broke free, and there was no time left. He attacked, going for the kill, and there was no one else near enough to stop him in time. And Arion was defenceless and so important to them all, to the world, too important to lose?

      And then it was over. Alyn was dead, and the knife was in her hand. Bloody. And the horror had not yet even begun to sink in?

      She woke with a start, still sitting cross-legged in the armchair, hands resting on the crouth lying in her lap. Stiff, uncomfortable, and not the slightest bit rested by those scant few hours of disturbed and fitful sleep, the painful memories still vivid in her mind. There were very good reasons she so rarely allowed herself to play that instrument, yet she'd kept it and loved it, all those years, in memory of the gentle friend she'd been forced to kill, and mourned so deeply.

      Hot tears burned at the back of her eyes, and she fiercely blinked them back, angry at whatever fate had directed the course of her life thus far, through so much bloodshed and death, and then had finally brought her here, to this place, so very far from home and cut off from all contact with her people.

      But there was nothing she could do to change any of it, and the only way she knew how to deal was by simply getting on with things.

      She put the crouth away once more, out of sight, out of mind. Still caught up in a haze of memory, she allowed her hand to gently brush over the engraved hilt of her grandfather's sword before locking the door, but then, with an ease arising of too much practice, shut away memories both good and bad into a hidden and insulated corner of her mind where they could no longer hurt quite so much. That was how it had to be, for sanity's sake.

      But the uneasiness that had dogged her for days was not so easily denied. It pressed in on her, almost as if the walls themselves were contracting. She couldn't stand it any more. She needed to get out from these four walls, change the scenery, something ? anything.

      And then she was downstairs and out almost without being aware of the steps that took her that far, giving in to that sudden urge to be anywhere but here. Outside, she paused in the yard for a few minutes, soaking in the outdoor-ness of it and breathing deeply in what was as close to fresh air as any city in this world could muster. Being out in that tiny garden for even a few moments was far more refreshing than what little sleep she'd managed these last few days.

      Making a mental note to camp out in the yard if she couldn't sleep again that night, see if that helped, she headed for the caf? in search of some company as a potential cure for her uneasiness. Entering through the back door, she headed along the passageway leading to the caf?.

      She wasn't even half way when it struck, almost like a physical blow, rendering her breathless with the intensity of it. Danger ahead!

      Gasping for breath, so fierce and sudden was that unexpected sensation, she leaned against the wall feeling queasy, the danger sense trickling like ice down her spine. She hadn't had a warning that strong in all the years she'd been in this world. Before that, even ? not since that night she'd been woken by it just in time to prevent Alyn's mindless assassination of Arion.

      The uneasiness and oppression of recent days and weeks might have been vague and difficult to interpret, but that danger sense was something entirely different, impossible to ignore. Shivering, and feeling horribly alone here in this alien world in a way she hadn't felt in years now, she forced herself to gather her wits about her again. The caf? was a no-no, obviously, but she needed to find out why, and what was wrong. Steeling herself, she headed instead for the kitchen. Oz was there, putting together a light salad, and she could have collapsed with relief that it was him and not anyone else.

      He glanced up at her as she entered, a mild query in his eyes when her saw her anxiety. "Something wrong?"

      That was a good question. Even she didn't really know what was wrong, other than this insane danger sense that was almost suffocating her.

      "You'll think I've lost my mind," she murmured, uneasily.

      "Oh, I already know that," Oz calmly told her, concentrating on what he was doing.

      She could feel herself relaxing at once: reassured, in spite of everything, by his ever calming presence, and soothed by his casual humour. That was no doubt what he'd intended. But that danger sense was still there, sharp, pressing down so strongly she could barely breathe. It had to be investigated, and yet she didn't dare go into the caf?. Unlike that awful attempted assassination, this warning was for her specifically. That much she knew. But what to do about it?

      She'd carried this burden alone for so long. But maybe sometimes there came a time when you had to decide who you trusted.

      Oz glanced up at her again, his manner entirely unruffled but with just a hint of concern in his eyes. And the decision was made.

      "Oz, I need you to ask you to do something for me," Elli slowly told him.

      The answer came instantly. "Of course," he nodded, giving her his full attention now.

      She let out a deep breath. "I need you to go into the caf? and take a look around. But don't be obvious about it. And then come back out here and tell me what you saw. Please."

      His brow furrowed slightly, since, obviously, he had no way of knowing what was wrong or why she was asking. Yet he complied without question or hesitation, and she loved him for it. Picking up the plate of quiche and salad he'd been preparing, he headed out into the caf?.

      While Oz was gone, Elli paced nervously, her mind racing through a dozen different worse case scenarios at the same time as trying to convince herself that it was nothing to worry about. A false alarm. But she couldn't forget or disregard that sense of foreboding she'd had hanging over her as a constant presence recently, and couldn't help but be afraid of what it meant. A danger sense as strong as this never struck without good reason. Whatever that reason was, it had to be bad.

      Oz returned just a few minutes later with a tray of dirty dishes and a thoughtful expression. He turned enquiring eyes in her direction. "Okay, so. Seven feet plus tall, bulky, big old cloak with the, uh, hood hiding the face. And some kind of?a medallion, I guess, around the neck. Large. Interesting design. Mean anything?"

      Listening him running off that list of vague yet distinguishing features felt almost like a knife twisting in her gut: a knife made out of ice, freezing her from the inside out. Her hand automatically rose to touch the pendant at her neck in a habitual gesture she'd never managed to break herself of, and was grateful no one had ever commented on?

      "Damn," she breathed, her worst fears confirmed. "They've found me."

      Oz looked at her with a question in his eyes, and the question was: how did you know? But he didn't verbalise it. Apparently deciding to let health and safety regulations be hanged, he pulled himself up onto a work surface and sat watching her quietly, waiting patiently for her to explain. And explain she was going to have to, sooner or later and in part at least, and not least because she owed him that much. But first, she also needed desperately to find out more.

      Composing herself, Elli drew in a deep breath, and looked him straight in the eyes. "What was it doing?"

      He cocked an eyebrow, just a little. "Mostly just standing there, being conspicuous. And, if I'm any judge of body language, kinda pissed at the world."

      "But there's just the one? And, it isn't attacking anyone?" she anxiously pressed for more information. "Or?showing any signs of coming out here?"

      The eyebrow rose a little higher. "You think he might?"

      "If it knows I'm here?"

      And therein lay the crux of the matter. Because she knew what she should do: run, as far and as fast as possible, before it realised it had hit on the exact right place at last. It couldn't be allowed to so much as see her.

      But what if it already knew she was here? What if it was simply waiting for backup? It might already be too late to escape. And even if she did get away ? what might that mean for the friends she'd made here? If it really was on her trail, if its presence here wasn't merely random, it could be dangerous for them if she simply ran and abandoned them to their fate.

      She was too afraid for them to risk that, and yet her duty and first loyalty were to a far greater cause, and she couldn't allow herself to be distracted from that. She couldn't allow it to see her, or, worse, to send word to its Mistress that it had located her. That would have such devastating consequences both for her world and this.

      So, did it know she was here, or not? That was the question she so desperately needed to be answered.

      And then again came that tiny voice from somewhere deep inside, telling her that sometimes you had to make a decision: who do you trust? She'd been told, warned, to keep her distance from the people in this world as far as possible, to tell the whole truth to no one, that it wasn't safe, that secrecy was vital. But the comrades who'd given those orders weren't here. She was on her own. She'd been alone here for a long time now, and just as she had learned to survive in this world on her own, so she would have to get through this situation on her own, trusting in her own judgements and instincts.

      But maybe she didn't have to be so entirely alone, whatever her orders had been. Oz was still watching her closely, waiting for an explanation with just a hint of worry in his eyes. He was the person she'd learned to trust most in the life she'd built here. And he was here right now, where those comrades of the past weren't.

      "Here's a question," she murmured, mostly to herself. "How do you decide what's the right thing to do?"

      Keeping her secret may have been an explicit order, but, on the other hand, a good soldier made use of all available resources, surely. If she was going to get through this, keeping herself and everyone she cared about intact, not to mention both their worlds, she was going to need help.

      Elli looked at Oz, decision made again. "Okay, friend. It's your turn."

      "My turn what?" he asked, still calmly waiting for her to explain what was going on.

      "To be the advice giver," she told him. "Dishing out badly needed pearls of bystandorial wisdom from the vantage point of being totally objective?and not having the faintest idea what I'm talking about," she finished with a sigh. She was rambling, and she knew it. Five years of readiness, days if not weeks of forebodings, and this thing still managed to catch her off guard.

      But one of Oz's best features was his ability to focus. "So this guy in the hood?"

      "Is looking for me." The words were said. "And I can't let it see me."

      Oz frowned, just a little. "So?what happens if he does?"

      'What if?', and not 'why?' Another reason to appreciate Oz. But it was still a question that would take more time to answer in full than they had right now. So maybe the question should now be: how much did he trust her?

      "Let's just say that I really don't want our civil war spilling over onto your soil," she grimly told him. "Right now, I need to know what it's doing here. And, more importantly, I need to know if it actually knows I'm here, if it's looking for me here specifically, or if it's just really, really phenomenally bad luck that brought it to this of all places."

      Oz looked at her for a moment, impassive, but then nodded and stood up. Another decision made, but by him this time. "I can follow him. See where he goes."

      That was exactly what she wanted ? what she needed. And yet now it had been said, the thought of it scared her.

      "That could be dangerous." She could hear the doubt in her own voice; reluctant to let him take on that burden for her sake, no matter how much she needed the support. Knowing what that thing was capable of?"It's dangerous."

      A smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. "Oh, I can do stealthy," he reminded her in his most reassuring tone.

      That willingness to help, no matter what, gave her a warm glow deep inside that helped dispel at least a part of her uneasiness. As fond as she was of her other friends here, it was Oz's deep and loyal friendship she felt the most grateful for, knowing that she could rely on him to support and ? to some extent at least ? to understand her, the way none of the others really could. He was easily the most important person in the life she'd built here.

      And Elli couldn't help but smile back, in spite of that anxiety still gnawing away in the pit of her stomach.

      "I am really glad that I met you." The future was looking so murky right now; it suddenly felt vitally important to say that, just in case this didn't work out okay. "And not just because you're willing to stalk my enemies for me without hardly any reason why."

      Oz smiled again, nodded, and then took off.


      Oz reached the caf? just in time to witness the tail end of a Mystery-Hooded-Guy disturbance. Having created a scene of mayhem and havoc Hood was making a sharp exit, so Oz hastened to follow, much to David's obvious dismay. But there wasn't time to explain why he was dashing off mid-shift like this. That would have to wait till later. Having agreed to play the part of Covert Secret Ops Guy, he didn't want to lose his target before he'd even set foot out of the building.

      As for the actual tailing?well, Oz had seen enough spy films to know how that worked. No rushing, and no hiding behind handy lampposts or flattening yourself to the nearest wall whenever your target stopped. You just strolled along behind, not too fast, not too slow, and acted casual. Most importantly, you didn't stop immediately just because he did, instead wandering on a bit further before finding a reason to pause and wait for him to start moving again. And, thus, stalking anonymity was maintained.

      Not that discretion actually seemed all that important, given Hood's total disregard for the not insignificant attention he seemed to be attracting from all quarters. That attention was hardly surprising, given how distinctive his appearance was even without the face being in any way visible. Yet he seemed oblivious to the pointing and staring, striding along purposefully and eyeing all around him, whether they noticed him or not, with a baleful intensity that was apparent even from a back view.

      And then, very abruptly, he stopped dead and spun around on his heel to glare facelessly back in the direction he'd come from.

      Oz felt his heart leap into his throat, but forced himself not to react, wandering a few paces onward as nonchalantly as he could manage under the circumstances, before pausing to study the window display of the next store he came to. A ladies fashion boutique, as it turned out. Not unlike the one Emma worked at, it was not the kind of store he generally tended to spend time browsing, and therefore probably not the most ideal place he could have chosen for a discreet pause. But waiting there allowed him to at least keep a sharp but discreet eye on Hood, who was giving off waves of frustration as he glowered down the street toward the Monico.

      Or at least gave the distinct impression of glowering. No features were actually visible, but the shadowy depths beneath that enormous hood were surprisingly expressive.

      The expression they were conveying with enormous clarity right now was 'pissed off'. There was no way that could be good. Maybe he did know he was close to his target, after all. It was a worrying thought, especially allied to the fact of how little Oz actually knew about what Elli was doing here, and why Hood might be searching for her. For that matter, he only had her word to go on that it was her Hood was looking for at all?

      He had no time to ponder the matter in depth, though, as Hood started moving once more, every bit as abruptly as he had stopped. The whys and wherefores could wait ? keeping his target in sight without being spotted and landing himself in trouble for it had to be the priority for now. Not quite as easy as it looked in the films.

      The route Hood took was?not so much a route. 'Random' was probably as good a word for his movements as any. A fairly purposeful random, but random nonetheless: like he had no real idea where he was going. He definitely didn't seem to want to wander too far from the vicinity of the Monico, though, whether his wandering was actually centred on the caf? or not. He circled vaguely around and around the block in ever-widening spirals, still giving off those waves of frustration, and still glowering facelessly at every soul he passed. Trailing along behind being as inconspicuous as he knew how, Oz had to wonder again just exactly what he thought he was doing, stalking this guy ? this thing, since it definitely wasn't human ? for no better reason than that Elli had asked him to.

      But that was kind of the point. He was doing it because Elli had asked him, simple as that, and because she was scared of this thing, for whatever reason he had yet to find out. Because he'd never seen her scared like that before, and it was worrying, and if this was what it took to help with that, he was willing to do it and ask questions later.

      And then all at once Hood broke out of his pattern of random wandering, accosting a group of teenage girls with an unexpected explosion of violence, and things got a whole lot clearer. Something major was going on, it was bad, and it needed to be sorted out.

      It turned out Hood was as powerful ? and dangerous ? as he was large and mysterious. Giving up on stealthy, since unsuspecting and vulnerable people were now being attacked for no apparent reason, Oz waded into the fracas without giving any real thought to how sensible that might not be, or to whether or not he had any actual chance of saving anyone from the giant. Not that he was alone in that. Various other passers by also got involved, like so many would-be Good Samaritans. They, like he, were simply tossed to one side with remarkable ease for their trouble, to lie in bruised and winded heaps and gaze at one another in bewilderment.

      With a growing crowd of stunned onlookers, and clearly satisfied that he wasn't going to find what he was looking for here, Hood apparently came to the conclusion that discretion might be the better part of valour after all. He glared around at them all from the shadowy depths beneath that all-concealing hood ? and then dematerialised without any ceremony whatsoever, leaving behind him a street full of confused bystanders gaping in shock.



      • #4

        Part Two:


        "What the hell's going on?" was the first thing a highly harassed looking David said when Oz finally made it back to the Monico.

        "Honestly?" Oz sat down at the counter with a weary sigh. There'd been some tidying up going on while he was out, it seemed, with all traces of the mayhem Hood had left in his wake carefully cleared away. "No clue."

        "Except that's not completely true, is it? I know you know more than I do, as usual." David waved his hands around in frustration. "I've got giants accosting my customers, you running off after them without a word, something's weird going on with Elli..."

        "She mentioned that?" Puzzled, Oz frowned, just a little. David's indignation was going to have to take second place to getting to the bottom of whatever was going on, for the time being at least.

        "Mentioned what?" David looked even more aggrieved. "Do I look like a man who has any idea what's going on? She came in here looking all worried and shifty, helped pour oil on the troubled waters of disgruntled customers ? rightfully disgruntled customers, I might add ? picked up a few broken plates, and then disappeared out back again. And the whole time barely said two words to me beyond 'sorry'. As if it was all her fault. Which, I would have thought, not so much, seeing as she wasn't here when it all kicked off. But now I'm not so sure." Calming down a little now he'd got that rant off his chest, David sighed. "Oz, what's going on?"

        And that, of course, was the million-dollar question, wasn't it?

        Oz looked helplessly at David for a moment, unable to come up with anything useful or suitably conciliatory to say. Because, whatever David might think, he really didn't know what was going on. And it was time to change that.

        He stood up again. "I'll see if I can find out."


        Leaving David to stew in his continued ignorance, Oz headed out through the back corridors of the Monico and across the yard to Elli's studio. It was unlocked, as ever. He tapped gently on the door, and then pushed it open without waiting for a reply.

        Elli was sitting on the edge of one of her worktables, hands flat on the surface beside her and head bent, staring disconsolately down at the floor. She glanced up sharply as he entered and, relief flashing through her eyes, looked him up and down a couple times as if to check all limbs were present and correct and that there was no visible sign of damage.

        "You walked out in the middle of your shift," she said at length.

        "You asked me to," Oz pointed out, reasonably enough he thought. He crossed the space between them in a few swift but casual strides to lean against the table alongside her.

        "I didn't even think?" she admitted in a low voice, and returned her gaze to the floor, a curtain of dark blonde hair falling forward to hide her face. "And this is the bit where you ask me why, isn't it?"

        "Would be kinda nice to know," he acknowledged, still keeping his tone very mild, instinct telling him to play this cool.

        She didn't respond at first, gazing down in the direction of her own feet. Then she looked sideways at him, all business-like all of a sudden. "You followed it?"

        Kind of a tangent away from the explanation he'd been hoping for, but still. Oz nodded, willing to present his side of the de-brief before getting into any serious question asking of his own.

        "And it didn't see you?"

        That one was tougher to answer. Hood had certainly caught a glimpse of him while hurling him to the ground in the midst of that brawl, but?

        "He didn't see me following, no."

        She narrowed her eyes, reading between the lines of that bland statement at once, as he'd pretty much known she would. "What happened?"

        As Oz quickly summarised his Covert Secret Ops experience, Elli's gaze returned to her feet once more and her posture grew ever more tense.

        "I hate this," she whispered as he finished recounting the tale. Her hand rose to play with the pendant at her neck, as always when she was stressed. "I hate having to ask you to do my dirty work. Are you sure no one was badly hurt?"

        "Mostly bruising," Oz confirmed, and she bit her lip as he continued. "Couple minor fractures, very little blood." He'd waited at the scene long enough to be sure of that and had then made a discreet getaway before non-M&M-variety police could arrive with awkward questions.

        "It disappeared?" She was very thoughtful now. He could almost see the cogs whirring behind her eyes, trying to work out what the next move should be. "That's not a thing they usually can do. So she's juiced it up more than a bit." She looked him in the eyes again, worried. "There's no way that can be a good thing, is there?"

        And that, Oz decided, was probably as good a cue as any to circle back around to the whole 'what's going on?' conundrum. "Couldn't say," he pointed out. "Still kind of in the dark here."

        "I know, I'm sorry," she told him. "I saw the mess that thing made in the caf? ? on a scale of one to ten, how pissed off would you say David was?"

        And that was kind of a detour away from explaining, yet again. "Random destruction never goes over all that well, but I think his mood has more to do with the not understanding," he replied, allowing a slightly more pointed note to edge into his voice now.

        She fixed those vivid eyes of hers on him, her expression grim, and he'd never been more aware of her otherworldliness than he was right now. "This is hard," she said, very quietly. "Please ? let me take my time." But then she let out an exasperated sigh and wearily ran her hands across her face. "Except that there might not be time to take. Oz, I honestly don't know what to do for the best. Every instinct I have is screaming at me to cut and run before it can come back and corner me completely."

        "But here you still are," he noted. She'd had plenty of time to make good her escape while he was out trailing around after Hood.

        "Here I still am," she agreed. "Sitting here wasting time. I got worried. Worried about you, about David and Emma, and everyone?and I'm selfish. I don't want to just up sticks and leave. Not again, not unless I have to. And I'm not even sure anymore which would be safest to do."

        That wasn't an issue Oz felt especially qualified to advise her on, given how little she'd told him as yet.

        "The thing I followed, Hood," he said, reaching the conclusion that if he just talked through the problem based on what he did already know, she might let slip some enlightening information along the way. Asking questions wasn't working out. "Kinda seemed like it knew it was onto something. Knew it was close. Just circled, round and round the block."

        "That definitely isn't a good sign," Elli murmured. "It might be able to sense that I'm somewhere near, in which case it'll just keep looking until it finds me. In which case me not being here to find would definitely be the best way to go. Or it already knows exactly where I am and is just waiting for reinforcements. In which case, again, not being here when they arrive is essential. But more problematic."

        "Problematic?" Oz raised an eyebrow quizzically.

        "Problematic because I don't want to leave anyone in danger if a whole army of Morruthi, or worse, does descend on you all."

        Oz frowned. Finally she was letting snippets of information slip, and he still didn't understand. "An army of what?"

        "Morruthi," she repeated, as though it were obvious. "That's what it is."

        "'It' being Hood?" It was important to be absolutely clear.

        "Hood," she nodded. "Though that's probably not what it calls itself. It is one of the Morruthi. A super-juiced-up one, apparently, at that."

        Whatever the Morruthi might be. A little of his frustration at her equivocation was evidently beginning to show on his face as, after a short pause, Elli went on to offer a little more detail.

        "It is a servant of the dark one," she told him. "An unmade thing. No heart, no soul, no conscience. It knows only its Master's absolute will. Or Mistress, in this case. Powerful, deadly, and very hard to destroy."

        "And that's why you were sent here?" he surmised. "To hide from it?"

        Elli shook her head and sighed. "Not really. But kind of. It is far more complicated than that."

        "Most things are," Oz agreed.

        Elli pulled a face. "Aren't they just?"

        Oz looked at her for a moment. "Here's a thought," he said, very slowly, wondering even as he spoke just exactly what he was getting himself into. "If you leave now, and supposing that Hood is tracking you ? if he already tracked you as close as this. Well, he'll catch up eventually." The unhappy look on her face told him that she'd thought of that one herself. Undeterred, he pressed on. "Might be better facing him now. At least here, you know you aren't on your own."

        The offer was made, the words were said, and hung between them silently for a long moment. Elli bit her lip.

        "I can't ask that," she insisted, her voice low. "I can't ask you, any of you ?"

        "If the army's already coming, then it's already too late," Oz pointed out. "I'd kinda prefer to face it with you and know why, than without and not. And I'm guessing the others would, too."


        "So, like, a-a hunter?" There was an almost shrill note in Emma's voice.

        "Like the one that came after Oz that time?" David added.

        "Worse," said Elli, uncomfortably. "Much worse, if it's what I think it is."

        "And he's looking for you?" Emma pressed, her alarm levels rising audibly. Not quite panic, not yet, but definitely edging in that direction.

        Elli nodded.

        "He was in the caf?," said David, remembering. "Right there in front of me. He attacked my customers. And he could have?what could have happened?"

        Elli bit her lip and glanced at Oz, who stood beside her in silent support. "I'm sorry." It was all she could say. This was absolutely the last thing she'd wanted to happen.

        "But why?" Emma wanted to know. "Why is he after you?"

        Elli hesitated. "It's a long story."

        "But one you are going to tell," Emma insisted. "You owe us that. You bring this dangerous thing into our lives and expect us to fight it ?"

        "I don't expect you to fight it," Elli snapped. They wouldn't stand a chance, and the thought of it terrified her. "I don't want you anywhere near it?" She stopped, made herself calm down before continuing. "This was a bad idea. I should just go ?"

        But Emma moved to block her way to the door.

        "You would as well, wouldn't you? I bet you've even got a bag packed ready."

        "I've always got a bag packed," said Elli. If the summons came, there might not be time to pack. She had to always be ready to leave at a moment's notice. Being as involved in life here as she was?she was already pushing that to the limits.

        "But you don't get to do that, okay?" Emma angrily insisted. "You don't get to just run away and leave us to never know. What if he comes after you and you're alone and you die?"

        That?was a very definite possibility. But then, it always had been: it had just been a considerably more remote possibility, more hypothetical than actual, before today. "You'd be out of the firing line," Elli told her.

        "But what if he'd already killed us because he found out you'd been here?"

        In the silence that followed, Emma's words hung in the air. Stay or leave, there was nothing Elli could do to guarantee their safety now, and yet it wasn't their fight. That was the part that was eating her up inside most right now.

        "We'll wait till Charlie gets here," David quietly said. "And then decide what to do ? together. Okay?"

        Grateful, Elli nodded again.

        "And then when this is all over," said Emma. "You've got some explaining to do."


        "So what's the what?" Charlie asked anxiously as she entered Elli's studio to find she was the last to arrive. Which meant she was also the last one to learn the meaning of the summons. "Is it Ed? Did he show up again?"

        "No," a very subdued but determined-looking Elli told her. "This is a me crisis."

        "Oh, good," deeply relieved, Charlie dropped onto a handy chair. And then she saw the way everyone was looking at her, and realised how that had sounded. "I mean that it isn't my problem, for once. What's going on?"

        "Elli has a war chasing her," an unhappy looking Emma told her, very bluntly.

        Charlie felt herself gaping in bewilderment. Whatever she'd been expecting to hear, that wasn't it. "She has a?what whatting ? what?" Coherence appeared to have abandoned her.

        "'War', 'chasing' and 'her'," David helpfully reiterated.

        It didn't sound any better second time around. Charlie blinked. "Bloody hell."


        "If we could find out for sure if it's still in the city, where it is, that would be a good start." Elli sounded more confident, more like her usual self, now the decision to stand her ground here for better or for worse had been definitively made. "Because if it's already been and gone, then I'm worrying about nothing."

        "You might be anyway. You don't even know for sure it's the thing you think it is," Emma pointed out. "You haven't seen it."

        "I'm sure." Elli's tone was flat, no room for argument. "The description fits, and I don't get warnings like that for no reason."

        "But what you don't know is if it's operating alone, or just as the advance guard of an invasion." David frowned, looking worried as he ran through the checklist of things they didn't know. "Or whether it's here for a reason ? like, because it knows you're here somewhere and just hasn't worked out exactly where yet ? or if San Francisco just happened to be next on its hit list."

        Elli gave him a wan smile. "Be good to find out, wouldn't it?" She turned to Charlie. "We were due for patrol tonight."

        Charlie nodded, full of good-natured supportiveness. "Easy enough to add Hood-watch to the to-do list. Unless you meant that you don't want to risk going out and being seen?" She frowned, suddenly unsure. "Is that what you meant? Are we going, staying, or doing what?"

        Elli pulled a face. "I probably shouldn't. But I'll go mad if I have to hang around here waiting for everyone else to do this for me, even if there was anyone else who could put a positive ID on this thing. Just have to risk it."

        Oz leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. "I could go with," he offered. He'd seen this thing in action, and two women ? capable as they were ? going looking for it alone and on foot didn't seem like the safest possible option. "Take the van."

        Charlie nodded her approval of this suggestion to him, and glanced back at Elli. "That would give you more cover than if were out on foot."

        "It would," she agreed, nodding gratitude to Oz. "Thanks. But I thought you had a date."

        He did, he belatedly remembered with a twinge of guilt, kind of, it was true. Plans to hang out that evening, anyway, if not to actually go anyplace special. "I can see Anouk before," he suggested, hoping a balance could be struck here. "She'll understand."

        Elli didn't look convinced, but Charlie was clearly thinking along more practical Hood-hunt lines. "And while you do that, I can try asking Norm if he's heard anything," she suggested.

        David's ears pricked up at once. "Norm the demon? Can I come?" he enthused. "I've never met a tame demon."

        Charlie rolled her eyes. "He isn't tame. He's non-violent, mostly, and useful to know, also mostly, but what he isn't is tame."

        "Whatever," David blithely dismissed her qualification of his description. "I still want to meet a demon called Norm."

        "Whatever floats your boat," Charlie shrugged. "I don't know what you're expecting, though. Norm blends in really well ? except for the, uh, diet of worms, of course."

        "The what of what?" David looked suspicious now.

        "He eats insects," Charlie cheerfully told him. "Which, compared to the blood and guts of most demonic diets, is practically civilised. Getting back to the point, if we do come across this Morruth thing, what do we do?"

        "Avoid it," Elli instantly told her. "Hide. Or, failing that, hit it. Hard. On the head. They're tough to destroy, but they can be knocked out, if you hit them hard enough." She frowned, deep in thought. "The tranquilliser gun might be useful, too. Remember it can teleport, apparently. Don't let it, especially if it recognises me. If it is here alone, the last thing we want it to do is call for backup."

        "You still haven't told us why it's looking for you," Emma pointed out, suspicious, and still deeply unhappy about this new danger. "Why there could be an army sent after you. What's so special about you that they ? whoever
        are ? want you so bad?"

        And that was another of those million dollar questions, right there. You could have heard a pin drop as every eye in the room turned to Elli. Why she was here was the one question she'd always refused to answer, ever since the truth of her origins had been revealed.

        "It isn't about me," she said, very quietly, her hand rising to play with her pendant once again. "It was never about me."

        Emma frowned, confused. "But I thought?you said you'd come here for protection."

        Elli nodded, not meeting anyone's eyes. She looked pale, and very, very weary, backed into a corner with no place to hide, metaphorically speaking. "I never said it was for my protection."

        "Something you have," Oz guessed, or maybe realised, very suddenly. "Something you brought here with you."

        During the moment of absolute silence that followed, the very wry little half-smile Elli turned in his direction told him he'd hit on the truth. "Bingo," she murmured, meeting his eyes with a tiny nod. "A kewpie doll for the man in green."

        "Something you brought here?" Emma echoed, faintly. "Something like what?"

        "Something like, can we please talk about this later?" Elli looked pleadingly around at them all. "If and when we're sure we aren't in any immediate danger? Please."


        "Patrol two nights in a row," Anouk observed in a worryingly neutral tone as they walked toward the Monico in the dusky half-light of early evening. "Just how bad is this new crisis that you're pulling extra duty?"

        "Well?" Oz hesitated slightly. He'd told Anouk as much as he could without alarming her to explain why he needed to go out again tonight, but there was so much she still didn't understand about the world he inhabited. "Well, that's kinda what we're hoping to find out."

        Anouk looked pensive. "You will tell me, won't you? If it's bad? I don't want to open the paper tomorrow and find your name attached to a grisly murder headline. Let me be prepared, at least. Or, if there's anything I can do without getting in everyone's way and us all ending up dead, that would be better still."

        Complicated. Life was getting way too complicated, and he wasn't sure what to do about it. Complication was something he'd promised himself he'd avoid, for safety's sake. And yet here he was again, trying to balance up too many conflicting priorities, trying to be too many different people, perhaps, and not willing to let go of any of them.

        There was the pressing need to keep himself safe to be around other people. That one wasn't getting any easier with time and practice. There was also the responsibility he had to his friends, their enemies being his enemies, so to speak. They'd do the same for him, if need be ? had done, truth be told. And there was the need to keep the streets of San Francisco as safe from evil of the demonic variety as possible, and there didn't seem to be too many other people out there stepping up to that one.

        And then there was Anouk; both of them still trying to figure out how that one should work. Him wanting her to remain safe, first and foremost, and hating the thought of her innocence being stripped away, a piece at a time, the deeper she was immersed in his world. And her a little scared still, confused and bewildered by the world he inhabited that she knew so little of, curious, and keen to do what she could, for his sake mostly, and yet not really wanting to delve too deep. And at one and the same time knowing, both of them, that if she was going to be in his life in any meaningful way then she needed to be in it, not just on the edges of it. And vice versa. Wouldn't be fair to either of them. If this was going to work they needed to become part of one another's lives in a very real way. And, circumstances being what they were, that was the hardest balance of all to try to strike.

        He smiled at her, hoping to convey reassurance. "Well, we'll try to, uh, figure out what we're dealing with before we send up the bat signal, okay? Might be worrying about nothing."

        She didn't look convinced. "Or it might be a really big, bad something."

        He couldn't deny that. Elli was seriously freaking about this, and that had to be a bad sign.

        "Thought so," Anouk continued, reacting apparently to the look on his face. She sighed, and wrinkled her nose. "You're going to cancel Friday night as well, aren't you?"

        "No, no," Oz automatically insisted. Except, of course, that if an army of Hood-like demons did invade the world, things might get a bit awkward in the dating stakes. "I've got the tickets. This'll be over by then."

        Anouk put an arm out to stop him pushing the door open as they reached the caf?. She looked very serious and anxious, and he knew it wasn't really the date she was worried about. "You hope."

        He couldn't deny that. "I hope."

        Shanei was behind the counter serving a customer as they entered, and she spared them only the briefest of nods as they passed her on their way out back. If she was curious about the meaning of the councils of war they held on occasion, she had enough sense not to ask about it. It must be nice, Oz reflected as he and Anouk headed on through to the little lounge room behind the caf? where the others were waiting, to have the luxury of being able to live in ignorance like that.

        "Have you ever seen a Norm-demon?" David asked the moment they walked into the room.

        Oz shook his head, no. "Couldn't say." He had no idea what kind of demon Charlie's contact Norm actually was.

        "He looks so almost-human he could walk down the street without anyone even screaming, almost," David continued cheerfully. He'd obviously enjoyed his little fact-finding trip with Charlie. "He's a biker!"

        "That's how we met," Charlie interjected. "The bikes."

        "A demon biker," David continued without breaking stride. "Huge and muscle-y, and all about the tattoos and the leather and the beer, and looking like he could snap you in half with his pinkie. And then he opens his mouth to talk, and bang! goes the first impression. Turns out he's a nature lover. A demon in love with birds and flowers. And he eats bugs!"

        "Elli has friends in high places," Charlie observed. "I have friends in low places. Norm didn't know much but he'd heard a few rumours. Something big and strong and new in town that's got all the local demons confounded. He had some ideas about where it might be camping, so if you're good to go we can check them out."

        They'd been waiting for him for a while, he guessed, judging by the way Elli was pacing the room, full of pent-up nervous energy. Having been pretty much cooped up in here all day, she had to be just about stir crazy by now.

        "I'm good," he confirmed, and Anouk squeezed his hand.

        "Be careful," she murmured.


        On their way out to the van, they met Mike and Mat heading in the opposite direction. While Mat and Charlie greeted one another with the delighted enthusiasm of a couple that'd not had the chance for much quality time of late, Mike had a warning to deliver, alongside a plaintive query about what was going on.

        They were up to their eyes, he told them, investigating a string of bizarre attacks by a mysterious hooded man, unnaturally tall, and had come to the conclusion that there was some kind of supernatural element attached. The biggest problem with that being that it really wasn't a conclusion they could report back to their seniors.

        A series of attacks, all involving young women, the majority of them in this district?it wasn't much of a leap to assume that Hood was responsible. Searching for Elli, and getting way too close if he was centring his search so locally.

        As a rule, when with a group Oz tended to sit back and allow others to carry the conversation. Here, though, Mat and Charlie were pretty much otherwise occupied for the moment, and judging by the way Elli's expression had closed down on hearing Mike's description of the attacks, she wasn't going to be offering much in the way of detailed explanation any time soon. So it fell to him to make vague excuses to Mike and point him in the direction of David and Emma for a fuller story.

        And then all that remained was to prise Charlie away from Mat and head out on their Hood-hunt patrol.



        • #5

          "What the hell is going on in there?"

          The rhetorical question was from Charlie, hissed under her breath as they crouched outside the second of the disused buildings Norm had suggested as a possible Hood hideout. This one, an old warehouse of some kind, was already way more promising than the last had been, judging by the loud sounds of violence-about-to-ensue coming from inside indicating that it wasn't quite as disused as it looked. Promising, but still not necessarily Hood. There were lots of demonic things ? lots of humans, too, come to that ? just as likely to be in there raising hell with each other.

          Elli raised an eyebrow and nodded toward the unsealed entrance nearby. "Let's find out," she murmured and, hefting her weapons, led the way inside.

          Tightening his grip on the tranquilliser gun, and wondering if this was such a good idea, Oz went in after her, with Charlie close behind. They followed the sounds of shouting and breaking furniture, and finally peered cautiously through a broken internal window to see Hood facing off with a pack of vampires surrounding him.

          Oz caught Elli's eye, leaving his query unvoiced. Very pale and tense, she gave a tight little nod to indicate that, yes, it was indeed exactly who she'd thought it was based on his description and, yes, this was just as bad as she'd feared it could be.

          But not a worst-case scenario. Not yet. The worst-case scenario would be a whole army of Hoods descending on the city. They were a ways off that yet, hopefully. Although from what Oz had seen, and judging by Elli's reaction to him, this one alone was capable of more than enough destruction to be worrying about for the time being.

          Right now, though, the vampires were doing all the shouting, and all the throwing around of the contents of the room, and generally going all out to be as intimidating as they could manage. Hood was just standing there, unmoved and clearly unimpressed. The general gist of the blazing, yet oddly one-sided argument was that the vampires objected to Hood setting up his headquarters here, since they had a mind to turn this derelict building into a nest of their own, and weren't too happy about his presence in the neighbourhood in general. Clearly believing him to be no match for their vampire strength and speed, they were taunting him about his quest: about his tactics and the way he was drawing attention to himself, about his unknown origins?

          "My patience grows thin," Hood announced at length in leaden tones, his voice deep and gravely.

          "So give up and go home," jeered the tallest of the vampires. "You catch a break, we score us a sweet crib: everyone wins."

          The shadowy depths of Hood's hood turned in his direction, impassive and glowering in that weird, faceless way it had. "There shall be but one winner. My target is close by. I shall not leave this place until it is secured. My Mistress requires this."

          Still laughing, the tall vampire turned to the others. "Guys, I don't think the message is getting through, somehow."

          The other vampires jeered, hooting and catcalling for the tall one to teach this out-of-towner a lesson. Hood didn't react, still regarding them as impassively as ever. Then the tall vampire rushed at him in a sudden blur of very violent movement. But before so much as a blow could connect, Hood had seized him in one massive hand and ripped his head clean off his shoulders with the other, almost before the other vampires had time to blink, never mind move.

          Oz inhaled sharply, and just behind him heard Charlie's equally shocked little exhalation. Elli, on the other hand, seemed to hardly be breathing at all, gazing through the cracked glass as if turned to stone.

          After a second of stunned disbelief, the vampires reacted to their leader's demise with more violence, and yet their mass assault on Hood made about as much impression as a bunch of fleas trying to head-butt an elephant. The ease with which Hood took them out was breathtaking and terrifying, and ended with just one short, stocky vampire gaping at the dusty space where his friends had been just seconds earlier, and back-peddling at speed.

          "Hey, hey, hey," he blustered. "Hey, I don't want any trouble, dude. No trouble. Hey, I could help you! Join your team, man, track down this chick you're looking for, whatever, if you ?"

          "I require no help," Hood intoned, his deep voice now laden with scorn. "My prey will be located soon enough. I require only the absence of distraction."

          At that, the stocky vampire made a break for it, with that tremendous burst of speed that so many of his kind were capable of. And Hood strode casually after it in long, measured strides that seemed to simply eat up the distance between them. And both were heading their way.

          In a sudden burst of panic all their own, Oz and the girls hastily ? and as silently as they could manage ? retreated back down the corridor and around the corner in search of hiding places, awed, and not a little terrified, by that incredible display of brute strength and implacable power. Taking refuge behind some kind of cupboard just on the corner, Oz flattened himself against the wall, heart pounding, clutching nervously at the tranq gun in his hand. By peering very cautiously he could just about make out the door they'd so recently been standing alongside. It burst open, just as a strangled cry rang out?

          And then Hood stepped out into the hallway, a cloud of dust wafting around him. He stood there for a moment, huge and menacing, the dark space beneath his hood turning to gaze down the corridor in both directions as though he knew there was someone else here. Oz pulled his head back, and pressed himself even harder against the wall while trying not to even breathe in case Hood could hear it. Too close. Way, way too close.

          And then came the sound of heavy footfalls, moving toward him and growing closer by the second, and his hiding place wasn't good enough. A few more paces and Hood couldn't help but see him, if he hadn't already, and although the girls were better hidden than he was, they'd be next.

          Remaining calm under pressure was pretty much Oz's trademark. Possibly there weren't too many people realised that it wasn't quite as easy as it probably seemed. Especially not when you had something this lethal bearing down on you. He waited for a scant few seconds that felt closer to eternity, hearing, feeling this thing moving ever closer, one heavy, measured pace at a time, unhurried and implacable. And then it was standing right in front of him, hood to face. And even as Oz shouldered the tranq gun and fired, the thought right at the forefront of his mind wasn't his own impending doom, but how weird it was that even at this close range he still couldn't make out any features beneath the hood, only shadows.

          The tranq dart had absolutely no impact on Hood whatsoever.

          His focus snapping back to the immediate fact of just how much danger he was in right now, Oz backed off as fast as he could without falling over his own feet and, as Hood continued to slowly but surely advance toward him, he fired again. This time Hood wobbled, ever so slightly, as more of the powerful sedative entered his system. And then his attention was diverted away from Oz by a sudden movement behind and to the side of him, and he swung, automatically, only to very slightly check his blow when he very obviously recognised the person charging at him with a heavy axe in her hand.

          In the same moment that Hood pulled his punch, Elli ducked beneath his massive arm and swung hard, reaching upward to bludgeon him across the back of the neck with the axe handle. Hood wobbled again, and half turned, his entire attention now focused on her as she dodged out of his reach once more. Thus ignored, Oz fired a third shot, and a fourth, and finally Hood went crashing to the ground, insensible.

          Oz let out a breath that felt as though it had been held for about a year, and looked across at Elli as he slowly lowered the gun. Standing over the fallen Hood, she looked back at him with fierce, worried eyes.

          "How many shots does that thing hold?" she asked, nodding toward the gun, practical as ever.

          Good question. "Not enough for another round like that," Oz grimly told her.

          "I couldn't hold it." Charlie reappeared from her own hiding place, looking shocked and scared. "I tried. Couldn't touch it."

          "It's very powerful," Elli murmured, staring down at Hood. She glanced across at Charlie. "Could you go get those chains from the van? We'll need to secure it, preferably before it wakes up."

          "Will chains hold it?" Charlie asked, very doubtfully, as Oz handed her the keys.

          Elli met her eyes. "We'll find out."


          Inside the murky depths of Hood's hood there was?nothing. With the hood pulled down there was just nothing there ? you could wave a hand clean through the space where the head should be. And then with the hood pulled back up, the shape could be felt of the missing head beneath?

          It ranked right up there as one of the creepiest things Oz had ever encountered.

          Charlie returned hauling the lengths of very hefty chain Oz had once used to secure his wolf-self just as he and Elli managed to drag the weighty mass that was Hood back into the middle of the spacious room he'd been using as a hideout. There wasn't that much evidence of habitation here, though, which was probably why the vampires had assumed the place was unused until Hood appeared to reclaim his hideout. He obviously travelled light.

          While Oz and Charlie set about chaining Hood as securely as they could possibly manage, fearful all the time of his waking up before they were finished, Elli produced chalk and a handful of tiny gemstones, or charms, from a pocket. With the chalk she drew a wide circle all around the Morruth, before very carefully laying out the charms at regular intervals around it.

          Oz exchanged worried glances with Charlie, and then concentrated once more on making sure Hood was as secure as they could possibly get him. Charlie kept glancing back at Elli, however, and at length could contain herself no longer.

          "What are you doing?" There was a nervous tremor in her voice, and it was hardly surprising.

          "Setting wards." Elli sounded distant, distracted, and yet also very brisk in contrast to Charlie's unease. She was far more comfortable taking action than not.

          "I thought you didn't like to do?that kind of thing, the magics, if you could help it?" Charlie pointed out, snapping a padlock into place.

          "I don't," Elli agreed, easily enough. "Not here. But this is necessary. It'll help contain it, and also bind its powers, stop it sending messages back to its Mistress, or teleporting, or using any other little tricks she might have given it to get free and kill us all. Besides." She straightened up. "Mostly what I don't like to do is the magic you find here, in this world, in books. It isn't mine; it draws on outside forces, and those are alien to me. Does that make sense? This is different; it comes from inside me. It's cleaner, easier." She shrugged. "And it is necessary. Have you finished that?"

          With Hood as secured as they could get him, Oz and Charlie nodded that yes, they were finished, and stepped out of the circle. As soon as they were clear, Elli bent to place the last charm in place, and then straightened up once more.

          "Okay," she said. "Don't step inside the circle."

          "Don't step inside the circle," Charlie nodded. "Got it. And, okay. We have a prisoner. A big, strong and scary prisoner who could completely rip us to bits with his bare hands if he gets free. What the hell do we do now?"


          "The chains are pretty sturdy, right?" Charlie couldn't keep her eyes off the tightly bound figure of their terrifying, but thankfully still unconscious prisoner, slumped into the rickety straight-backed chair they'd tied him to that was just barely holding his weight.

          "They held me," said Oz, and his tone was confident enough that it took her a moment to realise that what he'd said wasn't necessarily an assurance that chains strong enough to secure a werewolf would be able to contain Hood. He'd ripped through those vampires as though they were made of paper.

          "They'll have to do." Elli still sounded distant. She was staring fixedly at their prisoner, a faraway look in her eyes.

          "So what are we going to do with it?" As far as Charlie could see having prisoners of any kind, but especially one as powerful and dangerous as this, created far more problems than it solved. "I mean we can't keep it locked up like this forever."

          "No," a leaden, despondent note crept into Elli's voice now. "But there's stuff I need to find out."


          "I need to know why it came here," said Elli. "If it was following an actual trail, or just a search grid. I need to know if it really is as alone as it looks, or working as part of a team. If it told anyone it suspected I was here. And I also need to know if anyone knows where it is, if they're likely to come looking if it doesn't report in."

          And Charlie had already been horribly worried about this entire situation even before thinking about any of that.

          "And then what?" she murmured, almost afraid of what the answer would be.

          Elli sighed, still gazing at Hood's slumped and bound figure.

          "What do you want me to do?" she asked, very quietly. "Slap its wrists and let it go?"

          In the silence that followed, Charlie looked at Oz. He seemed, on the surface of it at least, serenely untroubled, but there was worry in his eyes. Elli glanced at him, and then looked back at Charlie.

          "Charlie, can I ask you to do something for me?"

          Charlie drew in a deep breath. She didn't like this one little bit. But she was already committed. There was no backing out now, just because things were getting even more dangerous and complicated than they already had been. She nodded. "Okay."

          "I need you to pop back to my place," Elli glanced at Oz again as she spoke, as though asking a silent question, and in response he pulled out the keys to his van and handed them over to Charlie again. "And pick up a couple of things."


          "You really think you'll be able to get anything out of him?" Oz asked, very quietly, once Charlie had gone.

          "I know how," Elli murmured unhappily. "I'd rather not, but I think I might have to."

          Oz didn't particularly want to think about what that statement might mean. There were rules, weren't there, about the treatment of prisoners??

          Elli turned to him, looking worried. "If it gets free," she said, very slowly, as though thinking aloud. "You'll need to know?it is hard to kill. That's part of what makes them such a formidable enemy."

          That, and the incredible strength, speed and sheer implacability. Oz had already figured that part for himself.

          "I'm not even sure weapons forged in this world would be able to?But there are weak spots," Elli continued. "Although when I say weak, I mean relative to the rest of it. You have to aim for the medallion, right in the centre, and smash it. It's hard to reach, hard to damage, and they're good at defending it. But the medallion is the source of the power its Mistress has invested in it, and with that broken, it'll be weakened. Then aim for the back of the neck with something sharp, and take the head right off. It's the only way to destroy them."

          "There isn't a head," Oz pointed out.

          "Well, there isn't," agreed Elli. "But there is. And it's the only way. It mustn't get out of the circle. Outside of the wards, it'll be able to use its full powers, and we really don't want that."

          No. He had to agree with her there. They really didn't.

          Aim for the medallion and smash it?Oz thought back to the fight a little earlier. "You didn't even try," he observed out loud without really meaning to. "Before. You weren't trying to kill it."

          Elli gave him a look that said, louder than words, you notice too much. "I ? I didn't want it dead," she admitted, subdued. "And not just because of the security interrogation thing. I wanted to know?"

          Oz stayed quiet as she looked back at Hood for a very long moment before continuing, her voice so low he could barely hear the words. "It might know: how the war is going, if any of the people I knew are still alive?"

          If there was any chance of her ever being called back home. The words she hadn't voiced aloud hung silently in the air, palpable. Realising that this dangerous and unwelcome arrival was nevertheless probably the first contact she'd had with the homeland she missed so much in all the years of her exile, Oz wondered if there was anything at all he could possibly say in response that wouldn't just sound trite. And then a faint stirring from the centre of the circle drew both his attention and his amazement.

          "That's some constitution," he nervously noted, alarmed to think that four hefty doses of such a strong sedative could be wearing off already.

          "It's very powerful," said Elli. "I think I mentioned that."

          Hood went from that faint stirring to completely awake far too rapidly for Oz's liking. They watched nervously and guardedly, holding at the ready weapons that would more than likely be of little use anyway as the prisoner tested his bonds and growled with frustration. The chains held ? for now.

          And then the attention of the faceless shadows beneath the hood focused on Elli, and Hood became completely still for a very long moment.

          "Lady Eleris of Alvrestyn," he announced at length, voice like a death knell. "I have wasted many years of my existence and of my Mistress's most precious time searching a multitude of dimensional planes for you."

          Elli met the eyeless gaze full on, face set in a mask of grim determination and voice unwavering. "Perhaps if you were more efficient your time could have been better spent."

          "And here you have been, all this time?"

          "I am really not going to tell you that," she replied, flatly.

          "Yet I have found you at last." There was now a note of satisfaction in the deep, booming voice.

          "No, I have found you," Elli corrected him. "Your search is over and you have failed. Your Mistress will never know where I am, and will never be allowed to have it. You must know that."

          "Why do you resist?" Hood pressed. "You only delay the inevitable. Strike me down and more will follow. You cannot win."

          "I already have," she countered. "See you, see me: spot the winner."

          "Why continue to hide?" Hood persisted. "And here?" There was scorn in his tone now as he glanced around their shabby surroundings. "The blood of the immortals flows through your veins. You could remove yourself from this humdrum existence in a heartbeat."

          Blood of the immortals? That was?interesting, and kind of weird, if it was true. But since now was so clearly an inappropriate moment to comment, Oz simply filed the information away for future reference and maintained his watchful stance.

          "Perhaps," was Elli's very neutral response. Feeling her growing ever more tense, Oz moved a little closer to stand at her shoulder in a silent gesture of support. Hood's intense gaze was transferred to him for a moment, and then flicked back away again, leaving the distinct impression that the Morruth was entirely unimpressed. Male pride kind of objected to that, but was instantly overruled by common sense. Right now his job was to keep quiet, stay alert, and not get distracted.

          "Your allies are dead," said Hood. "Every one of them. It is over. Give in."

          Elli's eyes grew very wide, and her face very pale, but the determined set to her features didn't so much as flicker. She stared straight into the featureless depths beneath the hood for a long, long moment, and then shook her head. "You don't know that," she protested. "You don't know that any more than I do."

          Except that at this stage, Oz was no longer sure who knew what about anything. Did Hood actually know what was going on back in their homeland, or not? And could Elli know for sure whether he genuinely knew anything, or not? Hood wanted to persuade her to give up and there wasn't much doubt he'd say just about anything to achieve that, whether true or not, while she wanted to believe he'd have news of home at the same time as not being prepared to believe anything he told her?

          Then Elli stepped inside the circle, stepped right up to the bound figure of their prisoner, who strained against his bonds as she placed her hands on either side of his head, still staring fixedly into the shadows that had no face within.

          And she'd said not to step inside the circle, but without offering any specific details, so Oz had no idea whether her being in there was a good thing or a bad thing, and still less what he could possibly do if it turned out to be on the negative side. Being prepared for just about any eventuality looked like his best bet. Tightening his grip on the axe he was holding, he waited to see what would happen.

          For a very long and tense few minutes nothing happened at all. And then the door behind them opened with a loud clatter. Distracted, Elli's hands dropped as she glanced back to see who it was. And Hood took advantage of that distraction, rocking forward in the chair to hurl his still tightly bound body at her.



          • #6

            Part Three:


            Seeing the danger, Oz darted forward even as Elli dodged and Hood missed completely, falling forward on his non-existent face, still tightly bound to the chair. As Elli skipped backward out of the circle, Oz caught her arm to pull her out of harm's way before glancing across to see the newcomers hovering in the doorway. Wolf-nose could be almost as good as having eyes in the back of his head at times like this: it had already told him that it was Charlie come back, and that David and Emma were both with her.

            He returned his attention to Hood's furious attempts at breaking free. Although the chair he was chained to prevented him rolling out of the circle, even after his efforts had shattered it completely as he struggled in vain to get upright once more, he strained against the chains in a worrying fashion.

            "Oh God." Moving a little closer, but not too close, Emma moaned fearfully, while David sounded well and truly awed.

            "That's him, isn't it? It is. Is that him?"

            Elli ignored them completely, and her attitude was despondent, almost desolate.

            "It doesn't know anything," she said, forlorn. "It is almost as far and as long removed from home as I am."

            "But is it alone?" Charlie anxiously asked, moving to stand alongside them carrying the elegant sword and ornate, long-bladed dagger Elli had asked her to bring from the locked wardrobe in her apartment. "Will anyone come after it?"

            "Yes," growled Hood, still struggling to get back to something approaching an upright position. "A legion shall follow me, and ?"

            "No," Elli flatly contradicted him. "It's alone. It has been alone almost as long as I have?"

            "So that means we're safe?" Emma hopefully asked, gazing wide-eyed at the imprisoned Hood.

            Elli shook her head, apologetic and sad. "Not yet."

            "No problem finding these." Charlie held out the weapons, and Elli gratefully took them from her. "I locked everything up again after." She glanced at Hood. "So, unless of course you were just getting me out of the way, do you actually need them? Or did you just want to have them?"

            "I wanted to have them," said Elli. "And probably will need them."

            David frowned. "I thought you said the sword wasn't magic."

            "It isn't." She could be maddeningly vague at times.

            "Does it have a name?" asked Emma, curiously. "Like?Excalibur, or something?"

            "It's not really common practice where I come from to give names to weapons," said Elli. "A sword is just a sword. This one is mine."

            "So why is it so important?" David pressed.

            "It isn't," she repeated, frustrated. After?whatever it was she'd done to Hood ? delving into his mind, perhaps? Was that possible? ? Elli seemed kind of agitated, as well as dejected. She might have learned whatever it was she wanted to know, but it had had an effect on her. She'd said she didn't want to do it. Oz wished he knew exactly what she'd done, what she'd found out ? at least then he could be sure exactly how much he should be worrying.

            Hood started to laugh. "And this is the fearsome army with which you will face the might of the Morgh D?l as it rains down upon this feeble world?"

            "The might of the what?" David looked nervous.

            "That isn't going to happen," Elli insisted, turning back to face the Morruth, and agitated she might be, but there could be no denying her determination.

            Hood struggled against his bonds again, and, ominously, the chains were starting to show signs of stress. "You cannot hold me forever. My Mistress will have the Firststone, and my Lord will be restored."

            "The what-stone?" Emma queried.

            "Later, Em," Elli insisted.

            Hood chuckled, and it was a terrible sound. "And your companions don't even know what it is you have brought among them. Tell me, will they still stand at your side when the armies of the Morgh D?l follow my path and tear their world to shreds?"

            "Be quiet," Elli shot at him, fiercely.

            "How big an army?" David tremulously queried, and Elli shot him a glance edged with frustration.

            Oz was getting more worried by the minute now. On the one hand, the others being here was good support ? more to fight this thing and keep it off the streets, if it came to that. They could only hope it wouldn't since, if the vampires were anything to go by, the more people they had here to fight would just mean more corpses in the morning. And, on the other hand, they were proving more of a distraction than a support right at this moment, and the situation was too finely balanced for that to be anything but bad. There were just too many conflicting outlooks and agendas in the room right now, with Elli caught in the middle trying to keep them all together, and she clearly wasn't in the right frame of mind for that kind of juggling act.

            "That isn't going to happen," she repeated, sharply. "No one knows it is here, and there won't be any messages home calling for backup. I won't allow it."

            "And this dangerous thing you've brought into our lives?" Emma's voice was equally sharp, edged with anger.

            "It isn't dangerous," Elli insisted. "Not while it's with me. That's the whole point?"

            "But he said ?" Emma began to argue, and Oz decided that enough was enough.

            "Hey." He put enough force into his voice to be sure that everyone heard and shut up. Not a tactic he played all that often, but it tended to work, and did again now. Everyone fell silent and gave him their attention, even Hood, which was kind of amusing. "This isn't the best time," he pointed out. "Room's kind of crowded."

            The room was actually fairly huge, and the six of them were a long way from crowding it, but they all seemed to take the point.

            Elli nodded her gratitude to him, and addressed Emma again, but more calmly this time. "I will answer your questions, Emma, but later. Right now, I need to finish this."

            Emma seemed unconvinced, while David looked torn over what to do, but Charlie seemed to understand. "We'll wait for you back at the caf?," she said, pulling at both their arms. "As long as you're sure you don't need us here?"

            "Puny humans," Hood contemptuously spat. "You truly believe that any of you could stand against me?"

            He was roundly ignored by them all.

            Elli looked at Oz. "It'll be better for you all to be as far away from here as possible."

            It probably would be, but?Oz shook his head. There was no way he was leaving her alone with this thing. Might as well see it through now he'd come this far.

            "I'm staying," he said, very firmly, and, looking into his eyes just a moment longer, she didn't argue any further. She handed him the dagger, which he tucked into his belt, and then turned back to the others.

            "We've got it," she said. "Thanks."

            Charlie nodded, and they headed for the door once again. Halfway there, David paused and called back to Oz.

            "Anouk went home," he said, and Oz realised that he hadn't thought to ask. "We were making her nervous, apparently. She wants you to call her later, and let her know if you survived."


            "And then there were but two," the Morruth observed once the others had gone. "Tell me truly, my lady ? do you really believe you can defeat me?"

            "I've encountered your kind before," Elli told it, taking care to keep her tone as cool as ice to mask her intense inner turmoil. She had fought ? and even destroyed ? its kind before, but under massively different circumstances. She was already so tightly wound she felt she might snap at any moment: so many conflicting priorities jostling for her attention, and she couldn't gather her thoughts enough to decide her next move. Not with this thing so close, taunting her with its smug implacability and confidence in its own power, even while bound and contained.

            It felt as though there was a steel band around her chest ? the forebodings that had plagued her for so long back with a vengeance, warning that this was a crossroads. It could still go either way. So very finely balanced, and had to be so carefully played, yet she couldn't think clearly. Delving into the Morruth's mind like that?she felt dirty. Tainted by its touch. She needed to purge all that from her mind before she could think clearly to take any further action.

            She turned to Oz, her need for breathing space warring with her anxiety. "Ever fancied yourself as a jailer?"

            "Not really," he replied, but she could see in his eyes that he understood what she was asking.

            "Feel like trying the career on for size for a few moments?" She knew, deep in her gut, that the next move belonged to the Morruth, and that it wouldn't take it while she was in the room. And she needed to be able to breath freely for a moment, to cleanse her mind of it's influence, gather her thoughts and steel her nerves for what was still to come.

            Oz hesitated for the barest fraction of a second. "I'm willing to try most things once," he said, and she could only trust that he'd be able to cope with the Morruth alone. It would only be a few minutes?

            "I just need a moment," she assured him, worrying. "I'll be right outside."

            "Oh, fear not," said the Morruth, the featureless shadows that took the place of its face focusing intently on Oz now. "The boy and I have much to discuss."

            "Don't listen to it," Elli told Oz, urgently, her tension cranking up another notch. Leaving him alone with this thing was a risk. A calculated risk: one that she almost hated herself for taking, and could only hope he'd understand. "And be careful."

            Oz nodded and hefted the axe he was holding, since the tranq gun was now rendered all but useless ? there weren't enough shots left to take the creature down again. And even if there were, they'd already played that card, and the game had moved on to higher stakes now. Weakening it with the dose or two they had left might be useful, but since he didn't have enough hands to operate both weapons at the same time, he'd opted for the weapon that felt most useful in terms of prospective battle.

            Oz was giving every appearance of unruffled calm, which was always reassuring even when you could read him well enough to see the deep anxiety simmering away beneath the surface. Holding the eye contact, Elli took a deep breath and nodded. He nodded back. Then, tightening her grip on her grandfather's sword, she walked out of the room in a few swift strides, not turning around.

            As soon as she was out of sight she stopped and let herself slump against the wall, drawing in long, shuddering breaths. It was here, and it had to be dealt with, and it had been so long.

            Back pressed against the wall, she slowly slid down it, using the sword to support herself and resting her chin against the pommel. So very many years, so very far from home, and so very far from over even now?


            Still half-sitting, half-kneeling in the remains of the chair he'd been chained to, Hood struggled some more against his bonds, and they were definitely beginning to show signs of strain. How much longer they'd hold? Anyone's guess. It was?well; it was going way beyond worrying now. The word 'dire' came to mind.

            The shadows beneath Hood's hood focused on Oz once more, and it took just about all his self-control not to take an involuntary step backward. As it was, his grip on the axe handle tightened reflexively.

            "You have allied yourself unwisely, boy," said Hood.

            Clutching the axe tightly, Oz said nothing.

            "Release me," Hood continued, his tone as flat and uninviting as ever. "Deliver Lady Eleris to me, and my Mistress will reward you handsomely."

            So much for 'I require no help', but Hood's circumstances had changed considerably since then, and he was clearly something of an opportunist. Stoic silence was definitely the way to go here, and the vague promise of reward was a whole lot easier to resist than Hood probably realised. Even if he had been prepared to betray a good friend, if there was one thing Oz was certain of in all this confusion, it was that no promise made by a bad guy bargaining for his freedom could ever be trusted.

            Hood kept talking, kept trying to convince him to switch sides and help him escape, and Oz was pretty sure he wasn't naturally that verbose or inclined to cooperate. He had to be trying to distract him ? and as soon as he'd worked that much out, he also realised why.

            The chains were loosening. Hood was all but free.

            Oz drew in a deep breath, and very subtly prepared himself to fight. No point tipping Hood off that he knew he was about to break free, but not letting him escape the bounds of the wards Elli had set up was pretty much crucial here. No telling how much worse things might get if that happened.

            Everything seemed to happen pretty quickly after that. In a sudden surge of movement, Hood was on his feet, the chains snapping and falling to the ground around him and Oz, feeling massively inadequate for the task at hand, charged at him, axe in hand.

            Whatever the rules might be about the treatment of prisoners, even if they were non-human, hugely dangerous and currently trying to escape, there could be no two ways about this. Going for the kill was the only option, however much of a faint hope it actually seemed right now. The moment Hood stepped outside of the wards, his powers would no longer be bound by them and not only would he be free to wreak all kinds of destruction in his attempt to get hold of Elli and whatever it was she was keeping from him, he'd also be able to summon who knew what kind of backup.

            That couldn't be allowed to happen.

            Oz got to Hood before he could step outside the circle, and swung the axe hard at the medallion. Somewhere at the back of his mind surprise registered that he had a clear shot at it, Hood making no attempt to block. And then the axe simply bounced off without leaving so much as a scratch.

            And there was only a fraction of a second for the horror of that failure to sink in before a powerful blow connected with Oz's chin, setting stars dancing in front of his eyes and knocking him right off his feet. Hitting the floor hard, he felt, rather than heard, a movement behind him, and sheer instinct was all that saved him, rolling aside in time to avoid a second blow that landed right where he'd been lying, powerful enough to crack the floor tile.

            Hood seemed pretty keen to finish him off ? but they were both of them still inside the circle, which meant that the more-mystical-less-muscle-based of Hood's powers were still bound. Oz felt strangely pleased about that, in that quiet place at the back of his mind. And then he registered, dimly, that Hood's attention had fairly abruptly left him once more. Pushing himself to a sitting position feeling kind of dazed, he saw that Elli was back, sword in hand, standing off with her enemy. They were circling one another warily; Hood trying to edge his way out of the circle, Elli moving each time to block his route, neither of them sparing Oz so much as a glance.

            Which gave him the chance to?do what exactly? Escape? Hide? Try another completely useless attack with an axe that couldn't touch the creature??

            And then he remembered the dagger Elli had given him, that she'd had Charlie bring, for a reason ? because weapons forged in this world mightn't have any effect on the Morruth, she'd thought, but the dagger and sword hadn't been forged in this world, had they?

            Shaking his head in an attempt to clear the fuzziness, he pulled the dagger out, cautiously struggled back to his feet and studied the standoff carefully, waiting for an opening. Hood was ignoring him completely, clearly not regarding him as any kind of threat, but he was pretty sure Elli was very much aware of where he was and what he was doing, even if she hadn't so much as glanced in his direction. Another feint, and she'd drawn Hood into a position and pose that gave Oz a clear strike, and he took it without hesitation, swiping at the medallion with the dagger as hard as he possibly could.

            The medallion cracked, but didn't break, and Hood's attention snapped back to him, registering him as a threat once more. Oz tensed and ducked, catching a glancing blow that sent him reeling but avoiding the worst of it, if only narrowly. Seeing his danger, Elli promptly moved to draw Hood's attention back to herself. But she didn't move quite fast enough this time. Hood's powerful arm whipped out, catching hold of her by the neck.

            Except ? no. He didn't have her by the neck. He'd caught at her necklace, that simple and very old-looking pendant she always wore. And, since the pendant was suspended from such a delicate gold chain, it should have snapped at once. But it didn't. Sparks flew, Hood's grip tightened, and that delicate gold chain, stubbornly refusing to break, dug into Elli's neck until she was half-choked. She was kicking at Hood's legs and hammering on his arm with fist and sword handle, slashing at him with the blade ? and, it being an otherworldly weapon, inflicting damage ? but still he maintained his grip.

            Then Oz dived forward and struck at the medallion again, as hard as he could. And this time it shattered, with a backlash of energy that kicked back through the dagger, ran right down his arm, and almost knocked him off his feet once more.

            Hood staggered, and dropped Elli, who didn't hesitate for so much as a second to catch her breath. In one decisive, flowing movement, she brought her sword around, striking the back of Hood's neck, and took the non-existent 'head' clean off.

            Hood collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. For a moment the shape of his body was visible beneath the cloak, and then the figure folded inward, leaving only the crumpled robes and shattered remains of the medallion as evidence that he'd ever been there.

            Wheezing a little, having been half-throttled, Elli sank to the ground in a heap. Oz stood for a moment. He wanted to say something, but the words just wouldn't come, as the reaction to the intense action of the last few minutes caught up with him and a dozen hurts started to make their presence felt. His legs protesting that they weren't sure they could hold him upright for much longer, he settled for sitting down on the ground next to Elli, still clutching the dagger tightly in fingers that tingled and prickled from the discharge of energy given off by the shattered medallion.

            Elli was trembling with reaction all her own. Oz put an arm around her in an attempt at comfort, feeling her heart racing. She rested her head against his shoulder, just for a moment, silently accepting that support. Then she pulled away, and started to very determinedly wipe her sword on her shirt. She looked at him then, for the first time, and frowned.

            "You're bleeding."

            He was? Oz put a hand to his aching jaw where Hood had hit him, and, sure enough, it came away bloody.

            "So are you," he pointed out. She had a ring of dark bruises and welts already coming out around her neck where Hood had yanked at her necklace, blood trickling where the apparently not-so-fragile chain had cut into the skin. And it seemed like such a delicate chain ? it should have broken?

            "Well, if it's a competition," she told him. "You'll win." Looking concerned, and upset, and a little guilty, she gently touched his chin, examining the wound. "Might need a stitch or two."

            The adrenaline high of fight-for-your-life battle and imminent danger was gone, leaving behind an odd kind of sourness and clarity. Oz looked at the crumpled robes that had once been Hood.

            "We killed him."

            "Yes," said Elli. "We did."

            There was a lot more he wanted to say, but he wasn't sure how. He'd known this was coming from the moment Hood was captured, even if he hadn't allowed himself to think that far ahead. A monster it might have been, and they'd killed it in battle rather than a more cold-blooded execution, but it occurred to him now that by leaving the room she'd deliberately set that battle up?

            Elli looked at her feet. "Oz, this is who I am."

            He remembered the name Hood had used. "Lady Eleris of Alvrestyn."

            "Eleris Talvalin," she said. "Once of Alvrestyn. Dispossessed, landless, outlaw and exile. And also a soldier in a very bloody war, and sometimes, in war, people have to die."

            Oz looked at her, worried.

            Elli sighed. "Just because I'm living in comfort and luxury here while my friends and allies continue to fight and die in another world doesn't make my mission any less important." She sounded fierce, and angry, yet at the same time almost pleading, wanting him to understand. "I came here to do a job, and that job was to not allow the Firststone to fall into enemy hands. No matter what it takes."


            After that first exchange of words, they both sat in silence for what felt like a tremendously long time, although it was probably only a few minutes, taking stock and catching their breath after the whirlwind of action the Morruth's escape attempt had thrown them into.

            Elli felt drained, completely and utterly drained, after the deep unease and chronic insomnia of recent days and weeks followed by such intense emotion and action, not to mention the energy she'd invested in containing the Morruth and searching its mind, plus her anxiety about getting the others involved in this. She wasn't sure she'd be able to find the words to apologise to them for the danger she'd brought to their doorstep, or to thank them for standing by her ? Oz especially ? and yet she felt somehow as though the worst was still to come.

            Explanation ? full and frank explanation ? was necessary now, no escaping that. She owed it to them. But she'd kept her secret safe for so long?

            One thing at a time. Remembering with regret that Charlie had taken the van, and that therefore they'd have to make their way home on foot, she looked back at the Morruth's remains. "I'll need to dispose of those, I suppose," she murmured, more to herself than to Oz. They'd have to be disposed of safely, just in case they could be traced, somehow.

            Almost as if he'd been waiting for her cue to move, Oz clambered stiffly to his feet and took Elli's hands to pull her to hers. She came upright very close, seeing the turmoil of mixed emotions in his eyes. Caused by her. By her and the danger she'd brought into his life, which he'd taken on so willingly for her sake.

            Not trusting herself to speak, she squeezed his hands in gratitude, and he nodded, understanding. Then, straight back to business because that was how it had to be, she turned to gather up the charms she'd set as wards while Oz collected the fragments of the medallion and wrapped them in the cloak, without a word of question as to why. It seemed he was willing to let her take her own time about that, instead asking about the sword, and the dagger she'd given him, and why they'd been effective against the Morruth where other weapons failed.

            "There's a special element that goes into the making of certain weapons back home," she explained, absent-mindedly. It was something she'd always taken for granted without enquiring too deeply. "I can't give you any more details than that, because ? not a blacksmith."

            Carrying all their stuff ? tranquilliser gun, sword and axe, especially ? back home through the streets could be interesting, she ruefully realised. Hopefully it was late enough that they'd be able to get away with it, if they could just avoid getting arrested for carrying lethal weapons.

            And then, when they had everything and were ready to go, Oz glanced at her with one eyebrow raised slightly.

            "'Blood of the immortals?'" he said, his tone quizzical.

            Of course, he would have picked up on that, knowing as much as he did. Bone weary, she gave him her most withering look, secure in the knowledge that he wouldn't take offence. "Don't start."

            But she instantly regretted that flippancy. It wasn't fair, and she knew it. Oz had been through a lot today for her sake. He deserved to have his questions answered, however hard it might be to find the words to explain.

            You could remove yourself from this humdrum existence in a heartbeat, Hood had said. And maybe it was true. She held within her the power to return home, she knew that. It was a part of what made her exile so hard, knowing that she had the ability to end it at any moment, if only she could unlock and direct that power, if only she could be sure it was the right thing to do?

            "My mother's people are immortal," she quietly began. "In the truest sense of the word. But my father was very mortal." Mortal enough to deny her the opportunity to ever meet him. "From him, I inherited the ability to die."



            • #7

              They made their way on foot back to the Monico, more or less in silence. Elli wasn't at her most talkative ever, and Oz saw no reason to push for any more detail than she was willing to give at this stage. There'd be a barrage of questions for them both to face when they got back, so there didn't seem much point in making her go through the story twice.

              The caf? was all lit up when they reached it, despite the lateness of the hour. David, Emma, and Charlie ? they were all there, waiting, like so many bundles of nerves, and about as highly caffeinated as it was possible to be and ever get to sleep again, judging by the number of empty coffee mugs scattered across the surface of the table they were gathered around. It was the table closest to the counter, presumably for ease of refill.

              "You're both still alive, then," said Emma as they entered, while David and Charlie both spoke up at the same time, with variations on the 'what happened?' theme.

              "It's over." Elli sank onto a stool at the counter, placing weapons down alongside her and avoiding all eye contact.

              "So we're safe now?" Emma pressed, and then frowned as she noticed the bruising around Elli's neck, and the bloody cloth Oz had pressed to his chin with his free hand, the other still clutching the bundle of coarse fabric that had once been Hood's cloak, the remains of the medallion securely wrapped inside. Setting it down on a handy table, he took the cloth away from his chin to see if it had stopped bleeding yet. Almost.

              "It's over," Elli repeated, as Emma looked back and fore between the two of them, as though trying to decide which needed Florence Nightingale-ing the most. Settling on Oz as both the one currently bleeding most and the one she wasn't actively annoyed with right now for keeping dangerous secrets, she bustled off to fetch the first aid box and then returned to fuss over his war wounds. Tired and aching, he sat heavily on the nearest chair and let her get on with it, pulling the dagger out of his belt and placing it on the table beside him.

              "But what happened?" David repeated, urgently. "What did you do? What did it do?"

              "And why?" Emma added, firmly, applying a large band-aid to Oz's chin. "Don't forget why ? that's the bit I'm interested in most, after the 'are we safe now?' question."

              Elli studied the counter for a moment. "What happened?" she said, with a little shrug. "It tried to escape, and we destroyed it."

              "Just like that?" Charlie sounded awed, no doubt remembering how hard it had been to capture Hood in the first place.

              "Almost not quite," said Oz, indicating his bruised jaw, and found that speaking was increasingly getting so that it kind of hurt, so he guessed it was probably a bit swollen, too. Emma had brought him some ice wrapped in a towel, and he gingerly held it against the bruise while she turned her attention to Elli, looking anxious.

              "So it's gone and we're safe? You're sure?"

              "I think so," said Elli.

              "You think?" Emma's eyes went wide with renewed alarm.

              "It's definitely gone," Elli clarified. "It was definitely alone, and it definitely hadn't told anyone where it was. How safe we are?depends how closely she keeps tabs on her Morruthi. She'll know it was destroyed ? she'll have felt it. I don't know if she can trace that?"

              "So you aren't sure," Emma sighed nervously.

              "She?" Charlie put in.

              "She?" Elli looked down at the counter again, absently tracing a pattern in spilled sugar with a fingertip and letting her hair fall forward to hide her face.

              "Elli, please," Emma managed to sound both cross and pleading at the same time. "I really want to understand what's going on with you. We all do. But how can we if you won't tell us anything? You're worse than Oz, and I never thought that was possible."

              Oz had to raise an eyebrow at that, just a tiny bit. But it was fair enough; he had to admit that to himself. He was closemouthed.

              "It's a really long story," Elli began, still looking at her fingers instead of them.

              "We're all listening," said David. "And the amount of coffee we've had ? not gonna be sleeping any time soon."

              Elli took a few long breaths before raising her eyes to look at them.

              "Once upon a time," she began, her voice very quiet as she launched straight into the 'very long story' without any further prevarication. "There was a little girl who lived in a castle in a faraway land. But to understand that story, you need to go back a lot further. You have to start at the beginning." She looked troubled, as though unsure exactly where that beginning actually was.

              "So start at the beginning," said Emma. "We're all listening."

              "You want a history lesson?" There was a hint of anger, or maybe frustration, in Elli's voice now. "Okay then. Once upon a time there was a world, and that world was a long way from here ? or possibly very close, depending on your dimensional perspective. And in that world a war broke out. There were lots of reasons for that war, that are far too complicated to go into right now, but those reasons all link back to one root cause. The Morgh D?l."

              "The morgue what?" David wrinkled his nose.

              "That thing ? Hood ? it used that name," said Charlie, frowning. "It said the armies of the Morgue Thingy would follow it here."

              Elli snorted bitterly. "I'm sure it would've liked to think so."

              "Is there an army of those things?" asked Emma, nervous again.

              Elli hesitated slightly. "There is. It isn't a big army, though ? they are hard to make. But it doesn't need to be big?"

              No. Oz shifted position uncomfortably as he remembered the ease with which Hood had taken out the vampires, remembered how hard it had been to take him down, even with his powers bound, how hard he had hit?no. An army of creatures like him wouldn't need to be big to be deadly.

              "My homeworld is called Daranor," Elli said, apparently deciding to go for information overload as she continued. "My grandfather was the provincial overlord of a region called Alvrestyn." When Emma made impressed noises at that, she smiled sadly. "It's all gone now."

              She fell silent, eyes cast down to the floor at her feet. While the others looked at one another, still not much the wiser, Oz decided it was his turn to prompt.

              "Tell us about the Morgh D?l," he quietly suggested, inwardly pleased with himself for managing to say the name.

              "The Morgh D?l is an ancient, ancient evil," she explained. "Centuries ago all the peoples rose up and defeated him and he was cast down, we thought forever. And life went on, as it does. His followers fled, years went by, people forgot?"

              She hesitated again, frowning. "When I was a little girl, there were rumours. Whispers. I was only a child, and everyone was careful not to talk about it if they knew I was there. But I was very good at not letting them know I was there. They said that the followers of the Morgh D?l had returned, that they were growing in number every day, that they were trying to raise him again?blood rituals and sacrifice, and fear. We had a good king, but?"

              Another pause, and she was still frowning slightly. "He'd re-married," she went on, slowly, as though trying to piece together childhood memories long suppressed to form a coherent tale. "And the rumours got worse. They said she was an enchantress, a priestess of the Morgh D?l; that she'd poisoned the old queen and bewitched the king. Tainted magics, bad feeling and uneasiness ? I remember my grandfather and my aunts tried to shield me from it. I was old enough to hear the talk, but too young to really understand it."

              "It sounds like a fairytale," Emma murmured.

              "Some fairytale." There was a note of bitterness in Elli's voice. "There's no happy ending anywhere in sight."

              David leaned forward, fascinated. "So then this war started?"

              Elli bit her lip. "For me, it started the day I?" She stopped again, and steadied herself before continuing, very bluntly. "When I woke up that morning I was still a little girl, heir to my grandfather's title and land, spoilt and petted by the entire household. By nightfall I was an outlaw."

              Hushed silence followed. Elli's story seemed to have them all spellbound.

              "I was twelve," she softly explained, eyes cast down toward her feet. The words were flowing more freely now, as though it came as some kind of a relief to her, to get all this out into the open after so many years of enforced silence. "My grandfather hired the best tutors in the land to teach me, and I never minded them. I hated to be cooped up inside like that. I always wanted to be out, in the air. I would sneak away, any chance I got. I did that day. I went into the forest, to the sacred grove. All the animals came to me. It was so peaceful?"

              She paused, remembering, and her voice became very quiet again as she continued. "And then it hit me so hard I almost threw up. A warning, like today?but I didn't know what it was. When I realised how late it was, I thought I would get into trouble for missing dinner. I ran all the way home. But before I was even halfway there, I knew that what was wrong was much bigger. I could feel it?"

              She stopped yet again, and there was a haunted look in her eyes. Whatever she'd found when she got home that day had been pretty horrific, that much was obvious, and the implication was fairly clear. It's all gone now. She didn't need to go into detail, and didn't, clamming right up again, still without having given any real details of why she'd left her world or why Hood had been searching for her.

              After waiting a moment to see if she'd go on again, David piped up. "I'm sorry?I still don't understand. I mean, I understand what you've said, I-I don't understand what you must've been through?I'm sorry?" he faltered, glanced at Emma, who nodded firmly for him to continue, and then plunged onward. "What I still don't understand is the coming here and being chased by deadly demons thing."

              "Morruth," Elli murmured.

              "What?" David looked nonplussed.

              She glanced up at him. "It wasn't a demon. It was a Morruth. Not the same thing at all. A Morruth is ?"

              "Off-topic," said Emma, firmly.

              Elli nodded, apologetically. "Off-topic. I know. I?I sidetrack when I want to avoid a subject. It's?defensive habit." She sighed. "I'm getting to why I'm here, and why the Morruth. I told you it was a long story."

              "We're listening," said Charlie. "Still."

              Elli drew in a deep breath, and then ploughed on. "The Morgh D?l's power came from?no," she shook her head. "That really would make the story too long. It was ? his power was housed in a device called the Tryforn, a-a kind of a trident, inlaid with three very special stones. Those stones were the source of his power. When he was defeated, the Tryforn was broken up. It ? the legend says that the stones couldn't be destroyed; no one could find a way to do it. So they were scattered, all across the land. And the centuries went by, and the stones were lost."

              "Your necklace," Oz quietly said, the last piece of the puzzle falling into place ? for him, at least, having witnessed the light show when Hood tried to take it from her. Elli's hand instantly shot up to the pendant at her neck, as always when she was under pressure, confirming that that was the thing she'd brought here to protect.

              "The necklace?" Emma breathed, moving to get a closer look. "That necklace? That's the thing it was looking for? But it's so?it's just a stone."

              "Yes," said Elli. "It's just a stone. It's the Firststone, one of the three."

              Charlie frowned. "They gave it to you to protect? When you were ? how old?" Disbelief filled her voice.

              Elli shook her head. "They didn't. It belonged to me ? a family thing. My grandmother wore it on her wedding day, and then later it was mine. And no one knew, then, what it really was. I was wearing it that day?" Her voice shook a little and trailed off again, just for a moment, but then she caught herself with a little shake as if to chase away bad memories, and carried on. "Someone else might have taken it, later. But at first Tol was the only one who knew what it was. He took me to see the Seer, and he was all about signs and auguries. Never missed a chance to be vague, or, better yet, cryptic."

              A wry smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. "The Seer cast a spell," she explained. "On me ? on us: it and me. A binding spell. I can't use the stone and no one else can take it from me. I'm sure at the time it seemed the best option."

              Another silence followed, as everyone caught their breath following this flood of information, and tried to process.

              "Okay," said Emma at last, frowning in concentration. "I read Lord of the Rings. This Morgue Dool thing ? can't it tell where all those stones are?"

              Elli shook her head. "This isn't about the Morgh D?l. Not in that way ? it's his followers. They want to find the three stones, and use them to restore him. And they're bad enough on their own ? if they bring him back?" She let their imaginations fill in the rest of that sentence. "No one knew where any of the stones were. They've been lost for centuries. And then Tol recognised the Firststone, and that I had it. And now it's bound to me."

              Tol recognised?and that was a whole host of new questions, right there, in Oz's mind at least. But that was a completely new can of worms that Elli probably wouldn't want opened. Not tonight, anyway.

              "It's completely dormant," she was telling Emma, reassuringly. "For as long as I have it. That was the whole point of the Seer's spell. It was meant as a safeguard."

              "Hasn't anyone ever tried to take it?" David asked, and Elli hesitated, fingertips brushing at the bruises around her neck.

              "They've tried," she murmured. "Didn't work out well for either of us."

              And then, all at once, she all but broke down. Unshed tears sparkled in her eyes as she pressed a hand to her mouth, and half turned away, brushing away all attempts at sympathy until she had full control once more.

              "You've got no idea," she said, her voice low, not meeting anyone's eyes. "You've got no idea what it was like, how dangerous ? once the queen took control?Cloaked riders roaming the land, priests of the Morgh D?l demanding tribute or sacrifice?no one absolutely sure who to trust. Treachery and betrayal and sorcery, and fear, everywhere, all the time?"

              She straightened up with a little half-shrug of the shoulders, unhappiness giving way to anger, edged with determination to make them understand why. "Desperate people with no place left to turn can be persuaded to do almost anything. Sacrifice the odd son or daughter here and there, because ? better one than all, right?"

              "But no one would?" Emma protested, dismayed.

              "Wouldn't they?" Elli met her eyes, fierce. "You can't know that, Em, unless you've lived it. Imagine how you'd feel, how you might act, if you had David ? sorry, David ? and your parents in front of you with a gun to each of their heads, and the trigger was about to be pulled, and you knew that if you could only bring yourself to sacrifice one then the other two might live. Would you do it? Could you do it?"

              Emma looked appalled at the very idea, and David swallowed hard.

              "And now add a fourth person to the mix," Elli went on, a little calmer once more. "Someone else's husband, or parent, or child. Would you be willing to sacrifice them, betray them, to save your own??"

              The sheer impossibility of answering that question silenced Emma ? and the rest of them, too, it seemed.

              "That's why they sent you away," said Oz, at length.

              "Mireya's people had got too close too many times," Elli confirmed with a little nod. "It was Tolmai's idea. He said that we had no way to guarantee we'd find the other two stones first, or to keep her people from finding them. They were tearing the land apart searching, for them and for me. Because we had the Firststone, I had the Firststone. And if we really wanted to prevent her restoring the Morgh D?l, then all we had to do was find a way to make sure she never got her hands on it. She needs all three."

              "But why send you?" asked Charlie. "Why not just the stone?"

              "Wouldn't be safe," Oz quietly pointed out. He looked at Elli. "Would it?"

              She shook her head. "It has to stay with me. Seer's spell - remember? Besides, you can't just randomly drop a source of ancient evil power through a dimensional portal, can you? No telling who might find it."

              "So they sent you with it." Emma's annoyance was completely gone now, replaced by sympathy and sheer fascination.

              "And that's the bit that really bites," Elli admitted. "Being sent away?but I've followed my orders and kept the Firststone here, hidden, even for all this time and the not knowing. Some orders are too important not to follow."

              "But what if you died?" Emma asked. "Or got killed, or something? What would happen to it then?"

              "Not anxious to find out," said Elli with a wry smile. "But if that happened ? it really wouldn't be my problem anymore."

              "And this thing they sent after you?" David queried. "Should we be expecting more little visits from the homeworld?"

              Elli chewed on her lip for a moment before answering. "I was meant to be well hidden, because ? there's a lot of dimensions out there. Needle in haystack kind of deal. But Mireya is very stubborn, and she wants the stone really badly. It wouldn't have been the only one she sent looking for me, but she couldn't spare that many, I don't think. It would dilute her power too much."

              There was a pause as they all turned the implications over in their minds a few times. No telling how many agents of the Morgh D?l might be out there, combing through that haystack in search of the ever elusive needle they had living among them. It was a sobering thought.

              "If that thing hadn't turned up here today," said Emma. Glancing at her watch, she frowned and amended that. "Yesterday. Would you have ever told us any of this?"

              "No," Elli replied, without a hint of regret. "You were better off not knowing."


              Tired and sore though Oz was, he was also way too wired after the events of the day for sleep to be anywhere on the immediate agenda.

              The post-Hood de-brief had broken up: David and Emma had gone to bed, Charlie had taken herself off to see Mat, and Elli had disappeared out back, but he found he still couldn't settle. Also, there was the question of Anouk wanting him to check in when it was all over. Which it now was, and he'd got as far as picking the phone up a couple times, but calling her at this time of night just to say 'I'm still alive' seemed?lame. Plus, he kind of wanted to see her, not just talk to her, to put it all behind him and remind himself that his life could also be normal.

              But instead of going straight to Anouk's, he found himself heading out back, where Elli was in her studio, door wide open, painting.

              "I'm beyond tired," she wearily admitted when he asked. "We're into that fuzzy place on the other side." And yet she was here, keeping busy, instead of sleeping the stress away. "Thank you," she added, suddenly. "I should have said that before. I couldn't have got through today ? yesterday ? without you."

              He appreciated the sentiment. He really did. But being thanked, for just about anything, was?he never knew quite how to respond.

              Elli saved him the trouble of coming up with a reply. "Are you going out?" she asked, looking at the van's keys in his hand. "I thought everyone would be asleep by now."

              "Anouk," he said by way of response, and she nodded, understanding, but then glanced at the clock.

              "Late to go calling. Very late."

              Oz shrugged. "Anouk," he repeated. That pretty much said it all.

              "You should go then," with a wobbly little half-smile, Elli returned her attention to her canvas. "The night isn't getting any younger."

              That was definitely true, and yet he found himself continuing to hover, uncertain what to do. On the one hand there was Anouk, no doubt worrying all alone at home, and he wanted to see her. But on the other there was Elli, who was good at seeming okay yet was clearly homesick and hurting under the surface, and he felt strangely unwilling to leave her alone like that.

              She glanced up at him, and smiled again, a bit more convincingly. "I'm okay, honest: tougher than I look. It's just been a really bad day. Days. Go be with your girl."

              He nodded, and turned, headed out, but as his hand touched the door to pull it open, Elli spoke again, very softly.

              "Maybe they are all dead," she said, her voice low. "And that's why they don't send for me."

              Oz let his hand drop, and turned to face her again. "If they are?what would that mean for you?"

              She had her eyes fixed on the canvas in front of her, not meeting his eyes. "If they are all gone, then it is more important than ever that I stay." She sounded resigned ? unhappy, but resigned ? to the prospect.

              "What would you do?" he asked, curious. "If you were stuck here forever?"

              Elli shrugged, unhappily. "I don't know. Just keep going, I suppose." Then she gave a rueful little chuckle. "Maybe I could found a monastic order dedicated to the concealment of the stone?"

              Oz hated seeing her miserable. "Well, that's a plan," he said, trying to encourage her attempt at lightening the mood.

              "Not a very good plan."

              "Still a plan."


              Completely unable to get so much as a wink of sleep until she knew how things had gone with this new crisis Oz had gone off to deal with last night, Anouk looked at the clock yet again. The hands seemed to be crawling around the face at a snail's pace. She couldn't remember the last time a night had gone so slowly. But, of course, she didn't usually spend her nights sitting around worrying whether or not her boyfriend had got himself killed fighting demons?

              She definitely wasn't going to get any sleep until he called. He would call, wouldn't he?

              She was too nervous to sleep: afraid for Oz about whatever it was he'd gotten involved in now that she hadn't really understood; afraid of what it meant for them as a couple that he was so deeply enmeshed in that strange other world; afraid of what it meant for them that she didn't think she'd ever be able to embrace that side of him as fully as she probably needed to?

              And then she almost jumped out of her skin at the sharp crack of something hitting the window.

              Anouk panicked, just for a second, and then as another stone rattled against her window told herself to get a grip and went to have a look. It was Oz, alive and in one piece, and she rushed downstairs to let him in.

              Alive and in one piece?but sporting war wounds, purpling bruises livid against his pale skin and a bandage covering a gash along his jaw. Up in the safety of her room, they lounged together on the bed while she fussed over his injuries and he brushed them off as nothing. Cuts and bruises aside, he was fine, and she asked after the others and was assured that they were fine too, and that the danger was over, and that was all she cared about.

              And it occurred to her that she should probably ask for details about what had actually happened?

              But she didn't want to know. She didn't want to know any more than she already did. Because she knew, deep down, that she was never going to be as okay with it as she wanted to be, as she needed to be, any more than he could give any of it up, or stop being a werewolf, and she didn't want to think about what that meant.

              So they talked about other things, about class, and homework, and their plans for Friday night. Normal things. And she could feel his need for that normal-ness, and for release after whatever had happened that she'd never really know about, as intense as her own need to prove that, away from that 'other' world she'd never really be a part of, he was still hers. And then he leant across and kissed her, and she stopped thinking about anything else at all?


              There hadn't been a whole lot of sleep after she'd gone to Mat's when it was all over, wanting to fill him in on everything that happened, and also just to be with him.

              After being treated to a lazy breakfast in bed, followed by energetic afters, Charlie headed back to her dorm to change before class. And maybe to shower again, and make more coffee, lots more coffee, if she wanted to not doze off in class?

              The need for sleep was winning, though. Once in her room, all good intentions faded and she flopped onto the bed ? just for a moment, she told herself.

              She'd barely had time to close her eyes before a banging at the door jolted her awake again.

              It was Sook.

              "I saw your light come on?where the hell have you been?" She threw her arms around Charlie's neck and hugged her. "I was worried sick!"

              There'd been another murder on campus, she explained, same MO as the last, and police were talking about a serial killer?



              • #8



                Always a crisis, it seemed just lately.

                Charlie's latest potentially Ed-related bad news had provided a welcome distraction from everything the Morruth's appearance had stirred up. It had been another busy day. But night only brought still more restlessness, and dreams she hadn't had in years: memories long repressed of horrors past.

                Jolting awake, again, with her breath catching in her throat and images of blood and carnage fresh in her mind, Elli wondered unhappily if she'd ever sleep properly, or dream of happier days, again.


                Oz was woken by a noise downstairs in the caf?, and a glance at the clock confirmed that it wasn't David getting an early start. Not this early.

                Creeping downstairs to investigate, he found Elli in the kitchen, staring blankly into the open fridge. He watched her for a moment, trying to decide how to play this.

                "Caf?'s closed," he quietly pointed out, at length.

                Judging by the way she jumped, she hadn't heard him approach, and that wasn't normal ? she was usually more completely aware of her surroundings than just about anyone he'd ever met.

                "Stealing, not buying," she said, turning around, composure instantly recovered. "Milk." She held out the bottle as evidence.

                Not in the mood to go along with the diversionary tactic, Oz frowned, noting how pale she was, dark shadows beneath red-rimmed eyes. "Still not sleeping?"

                She shrugged. "Different reasons tonight."

                So: clearly not in the mood for sharing.

                "I was thinking I might take myself out of town for a few days," she added. "Maybe over the weekend. I need to not be in the city right now."

                Oz nodded. "Van can be free, if you want," he offered.

                She smiled gratefully. "Thanks, but no ? you'll probably need it yourself. I'll make my own way. Just like I always have."


                ? J. Browning, December 2005

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