*For the previous chapters, please go here. These are posted first draft, as the brain dictates to the fingers which are remarkably stupid. Also there will be inconsistencies because until September or so, the timing on these is wonky, and I’ll forget stuff between posts. Eventually it will be cleaned up and fixed just before page is made secret/taken down and the book is published. At that time I will take lists of typos or volunteers to proof read. For now, it’s written in a hurry, usually an hour before it goes up. And, let me remind you, it’s free – SAH*
Illusion and Fear
Well, he had the measure of Albinia Blackley. Or at least he thought he did.
Michael knew she’d dropped out of a window without knowing that someone had used magic, so it landed in another universe, and to far up to be survivable. She’d dropped into his boat in fine and combative mood. She’d also leapt up to save him from a smog fetch. And she’d stood up to her formidable father.
Not counting the fact he found her quite distractingly pretty, while realizing she was probably not pretty by most other people’s perspective, and certainly not pretty as other people he’d heard referred to as “pretty” at parties, and by Caroline, his twin, when she was telling him about other girls, he knew she was going to be a handful. Impulsive, decided, brave, but a little too foolhardy.
He had not realized she also had a heart soft as butter. But whoever had set this distracting path knew. Oh, they knew. If he remembered — and he had the haziest of memories, magical paths not having figured large in his education, since he’d always thought himself too sensible to walk one — the magical path latched onto whoever the walker was. It felt out the walker’s strength’s and weaknesses. And it–
He barely grabbed Albinia’s ankle, before she stepped off the dark path towards the sound of the crying baby. And she fought him, but he pulled her up by main force, and held her against him, while she fought like a trapped cat.
His brother had once said that Caroline was fine in a fight because was used to fighting with her brothers. Much less a girl with so many brothers. “No,” he shouted. “I beg you, only listen to me. And then if you still think it’s a good idea, I’ll let you go.”
This was another way in which she was unusual. At his words, she stopped completely, and sullenly stepped back, pulling his arms from her and glaring. Then she crossed her arms, tapped her foot and said, “Very well. Tell me.”
“I don’t think that’s a real baby.”
“Oh, and why not?”
“Because Ive read somewhere that haunts that imitate a crying baby are some of the most evil yet.”
“But what if it is a real baby?” she asked. “And what if it is in peril?”
He thought on it. We were supposed to save those who needed saving, or at least help those who needed helping, after all, and the fact was that ignoring a baby was probably pretty awful. Good people protected babies after all.
“I don’t know. Let’s think on it. But please, do not step off the path. I have an idea once we do, we’ll never find it again.”
She smiled. It wasn’t a nice smile. “So, we’re supposed to help whomever we find without ever leaving the path? I must beg your pardon, Milord, but you must be daft.”
“Michael,” he said. “Not Milord.” It was almost a reflex. “No one calls me milord, or lord, except the servants. Please stop it. And stop glowering. It is distracting. You are right that staying on te path always must be impossible. However, when we go from the path, we must make sure we can come back somehow. I’ll think about it. Meanwhile, on this baby–“
The crying had grown more desperate. “The poor thing is going to die before we get to him, if we’re waiting for you to think about things, milord. I know how it is. When my brothers thought about things, they never happened.”
“The other thing you should know,” he said, noting the Milord and deciding not to fight that battle right then. “Is that the path will adapt and change in order to …. To present a unique challenge to the people walking it. It will target people’s weaknesses.”
“Like your tendency to overthink.”
“Or your tendency to jump into things without thinking.”
She glared at him, and he didn’t glare back. Instead, he put his hand on her harm. “Bickering doesn’t help. But both of us are surely trained in scrying. Maybe it won’t work here, but there’s a chance it will too. I suggest we far see what that baby is, and decide what to do after, shall we?”
“We don’t have anything reflexive to scry upon,” she said, as though reluctant to concede
“We will.” He was already on his knees, feeling around for a smooth rock of likely size. He found one, set it right in front of him, and said, “Now, Miss Blackley, if you’ll give me some of the water we brought. A very little will do.”
She passed him a flask, and a very little did. A mere film of water on the rock. He handed the bottle back, and said the right incantation, then aimed the vision at where the screams came from.
It was the most beautiful baby he’d ever beheld. Something out of a fairytale. And fairytale was appropriate, since the child — rosy pink, with huge blue eyes, and pretty blond hair– had pointy teeth and pointy ears.
“It is a baby,” Albinia said.
“It is a baby placed carefully on a tree stump which is covered in something downy, yes. He doesn’t appear to be in any danger, and despite the crying sounds, he’s smiling and kicking his legs. He’s also an elf, and judging from the teeth, not all that young.” He aimed the vision around the stump.
All around the front, where Albinia would have run through, there was a pit dug, and beneath sharpened stakes. He heard her gasp.
Then he aimed the vision behind the stump, where he saw several pairs of eyes. Not animal or human eyes.
“It is a trap,” she said abashed.
“Indeed, Miss Blackley,” he said, as the crying cut off suddenly, and the scrying rock showed only a smattering of lights, and a sound of laughter and scurrying feet echoed off the path.
“But if it had been a baby,” she said.
“We should have found a way to rescue him, yes,” he sighed. “However, for now, I suggest one of us make a magelight, if we can, and we proceed down the path.”
Albinia, strangely subdued, made a magelight, and they walked a while in silence.
“I think,” he said. “That if we stray off the path we must make a way to come back to it after. But not bread crumbs. Those have a very bad history of not working.”
She didn’t say anything. Except, “What is that?” As she pointed a finger ahead.
And there, glowing in the light of their magelight, trundling down towards them at speed, was something that froze his blood in his veins. It was large, brass-colored, had multiple arms, and had almost killed him last time: It was nothing other than the hair cutter and shaver he had invented and which had had to be destroyed with a shotgun.
He had no shotgun, and the thing didn’t appear destroyed, as it approached at a rapid pace.
He did the only thing he could think of, and stepped in front of Albinia. Not that it made any difference, as the machine had knives and scissors enough for both of them.