Dr Bailey ran a small farm stay half an hour west of Dunn. Her two-story stone, wood and glass house overlooked a vast valley and the largest private lake in the area. I’d heard the house was impressive, but seeing it took my breath away. It was a modern marvel of architecture and held stark contrast to most of the other mansions in the area, which had been built during the 19th century.
I looked at Cory for the first time during the drive. His face was still hard as he glanced up at the house. I forced myself to speak, “What exactly are we dealing with?”
He looked at me with his wide green eyes, his olive skin a few shades paler than usual, mouth fixed in a thin line. I could have gotten lost in his eyes if his physical expression didn’t fix me to the present. “A black-eyed child.”
“A demon. I already explained this to you.”
“I want to know what it could do to us. Is it an actual baby monster, or is it just pretending to be a human child?”
“It’s a child. They avoid humans unless they need to feed and don’t live with them.” Cory pulled the thin red folder from the documents compartment beside my feet. “Some of their abandoned children don’t know any better.”
“Don’t know any better?”
“They’re scared and alone. Left vulnerable to the elements. They’ll feed on the life force of the humans who take them in without realising it. They have at or near human intelligence.”
“Can it choose not to feed on Dr Bailey?”
“No. It needs human life force to survive.” Cory looked away for a second, then fixed his eyes on mine. “We need to re-home it.”
“We need to convince Dr Bailey to give it up willingly. We can’t take her in a fight, and if it looks like the situation might head that way, we need to hope she lets us leave. She has over two lifetimes’ worth of experience on us. We can’t beat her in a fight.”
“They’d never find us, would they?” I suddenly felt the isolation of the farm press in on me.
“They’d never find enough evidence. She’d make it look like we’d run off together.” Cory said.
“Is that what you’d do if you had to kill someone in our position?” I asked.
“Yes. If she suspects for a second that we have any sexual attraction towards each other, she will use that to her advantage if things go south.”
“If she doesn’t kill us.” I wouldn’t deny that I was attracted to Cory, he’d read me the moment we met. Noticed the way I looked at him, the way my body reacted.
“Yes.” Cory left the car. He was halfway across the lawn in the time it took me to blink.
I scrambled out of the car after him, catching my foot and almost tripping as I exited. He looked back at me, the worry that had been on his face for a split second turning into an eye roll. How much of my feelings could he sense? The flush that spread over my face was scolding hot. He knew I was attracted to him and the exact buttons to press if need be. He’d know the moment something aroused or upset me.
A woman I assumed was Dr Bailey opened the door seconds before Cory’s outstretched knuckles tapped on the glass. She pointed her thumb at the video doorbell attached to the right door frame. “You look a little young to be offended by modern technology.”
I looked at the camera slot of the doorbell. How much surveillance did she have? Had she heard our conversation before? I knew it was naïve to assume she couldn’t have, but with the right spell she’d have heard. What kind of biological magic did she practice? I imagined my decaying corpse being devoured by flesh-eating scavengers under her control. They’d never find enough evidence.
“Is my doorbell really that offensive?”
I looked up at Bailey. She and Cory were looking at me like I’d grown a second head. Cory was inside the door; I’d went cross-eyed staring at her front porch. Bailey looked ready to slam the door in my face any second. She raised an eyebrow at me and smiled. The eye contact she made sent a simple message. She knew I feared her, so she assumed I wasn’t a threat. She moved to close the door, and I ran inside before it shut. I felt the door brush against the back of my body as I moved into the house, I couldn’t leave Cory alone. Bailey was a tall woman in her mid-sixties, she had neat, short brown hair, with an undercut. On a younger woman, I have considered it a lesbian haircut, on an older woman, it was experimental. She wore a baggy, silk button-down shirt and denim knee-length shorts. She led us to a modern living room with large open bifold doors that looked out onto her back deck and the valley below.
“Marco sent you.” She sat down in an armchair and looked out towards the small slither of the lake that could be seen from the chairs. I was almost visibly startled out of my skin when I saw a pale man that looked like an older version of Marco sitting in one armchair. His eyes fixed on the book sitting on the end table beside him, a book he’d never be able to pick up unless he was an exceptionally strong ghost. It had to be Marco’s brother, Bailey’s deceased husband. I glanced over at him as though I was just looking around the room. There was no need to give Bailey information she didn’t need. Did she even know he was there?
“Yes,” Cory said. “I’m Cory Corvin, and this is my associate Dexter Lacy. We reps-”
“I know you’re working for Dunn based on his surname.” She pointed a short, carefully manicured nail at me.
“We’ve had a report that you are in possession of a forbidden creature.”
“Neither of you are the normal team for this, are you?” Bailey said.
“Dexter is being trained, and I have the skill for this position.” The word ‘skill’ shot out of his mouth like a bullet but somehow managed not to sound rude.
“I see.” She poured herself a glass of dark liquor from a crystal decanter on the table under the large television.
“Isn’t it dangerous to drink from leaded crystal?” The words left my mouth before I could stop them.
She fixed me with her stern blue gaze. “It was rude of me not to pour you some.”
I watched as she poured a shot into another glass for me. She looked at Cory, who shook his head. I had the feeling no wasn’t an option for me. I looked down at the glass of brown liquid and tried to keep my expression neutral as I followed her nod and picked up the glass. She poured herself another glass, met my eyes again and slowly raised the glass to her mouth.
I took a deep breath and followed suit. Someone had to do this, right? I closed my eyes and poured the glass down my throat; I gagged as the bitter liquid hit my tongue and burnt my throat. Only about a quarter of it leaked from my mouth down my chin and neck before I could force my mouth closed. I closed my eyes and swallowed, my face burning as two tears fell from my watery eyes. I couldn’t even look at Cory, God, that was embarrassing. I was gagging on hard liquor like an inexperienced teenager. I kept my eyes closed to steady myself as the buzz of the alcohol hit me. Bailey chuckled as she placed the lid back on the glass decanter and gave Cory a satisfied look. Thankfully, Cory and Bailey were focused on each other when I noticed the ghost still sitting in the chair. My eyes widened, and I gawked at him as I took the sight in.
That wasn’t alcohol!
What had she given me?
Was it just flavour and the placebo effect, or was it some kind of potion? It had to be some ploy to lull Cory into a false sense of security. Would a normal mage try to use their magic if they thought they’d drunk alcohol? Gran told me it could be deadly to use magic with alcohol or drugs in your system. Mages didn’t even take allergy pills or basic pain relief, only specially formulated potions. No mage would try and realise she’d tricked them at risk of having an aneurysm. They would also assume she, an older woman, was at a disadvantage. I had to warn Cory not to try anything. I hoped he wouldn’t attempt to hurt who he perceived as a helpless and older woman to abduct a child. Cory had to know something was up based on my body’s physical responses; he used it to basically read my mind. Why would he stop now?
Were we technically trying to abduct a child? My stomach curled as the realisation set in. Yes, we were.
“What’s so interesting about my bookshelf?” Bailey said.
“I like books,” I replied.
“Let’s cut the bullshit.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re here for Thomas.”
“We have been asked to re-home him,” Cory responded.
“Re-home! He isn’t an unwanted dog. He has the intelligence of a human child two years older than he appears.”
“If I’m right about my assessment, he’s feeding off your life force.”
“It’s worth it to give a lost child a safe home. I’ve lived a long life.”
“I’m trying to save you.”
“I don’t need some kid puppet of the Agency playing hero. Not everyone wants to be saved.”
Cory blinked rapidly as though this information was hard to take in. “I can’t leave here without him. It’s been reported someone else will come.”
“And you can’t leave here with him either,” Bailey said.
“Where is the boy? If you don’t give him up willingly, I will use force to retrieve him. You are now a criminal keeping an illegal creature against the will of Nate Island.”
“Force.” Bailey raised an eyebrow and chuckled.
I had to warn Cory not to push it. Surely, he knew she wouldn’t make herself vulnerable like she’d pretended. I had to force myself not to shake as the look she gave Cory darkened.
She was going to kill us.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her desk. On the edge of the desk was a spiral-bound notebook. The sharp end of the metal spiral was poking from the bottom. I backed towards the desk with fear; I didn’t have to fake it as Cory and Bailey circled each other, each sizing up the threat before them. Cory’s left hand was at the top of his right glove, ready to pull the glove from his hand. Bailey pulled a small vial of bright pink liquid from her pocket. I pressed my right index finger into the sharp piece of wire behind my back. I used my thumb to push it into my flesh and didn’t stop pushing against it until it was firmly wedged in my finger, and I felt the first drops of blood run down my finger. I had a few seconds before the blood and biological magic users noticed. I started drawing the same sigil I used to control Alissa Thornton. Magic required concentration, and someone couldn’t do it if their eardrums had burst. I hoped Cory would forgive me for doing it to him a second time.
“Leave, or I activate the poison in your fuck toy’s stomach,” Bailey demanded.
I almost lost focus on the shape I’d started drawing on the desk. She’d drunk the same liquid I had and could use that connection to do what she wanted. She could use the right spell to turn the contents of my stomach into poison.
Cory didn’t say anything, only looked at her. Were they too focused on me to see or smell the blood? Maybe they didn’t see me as a threat? Fuck that. I closed my eyes to focus my will power into the spell. I didn’t have the same connection to this ghost as Alissa, but I’d manage.
“Dex,” Cory’s voice was sharp. “What you’re about to do will kill you.”
“It wasn’t alcohol,” I remarked.
“The only thing that ghost is going to do is attack you to get to the life energy you tempted it with,” Cory said.
My hand went limp, and I pulled away from the desk as though it had burnt me.
“Don’t fuck with magic you don’t understand,” Cory spoke through clenched teeth. He looked at the sigil and waved a finger. The blood moved as though a breeze had hit it, drops blowing across the dark, wooden desk destroying what I’d drawn.
A part of me I didn’t even realise was there wanted to cry, I’d never seen him this angry before. Especially not at me. It hurt worse than a slap across the face. Why the hell did I care so deeply about what this guy thought of me? There was a chance he was the Templar who’d hurt Eli, The White Count.
I barely had time to scream before the child was in front of me; it’s pure black eyes focused on mine.
“Are you bleeding?” Thomas spoke with a voice that sent shivers down my spine. It sounded like a child’s voice but was closely followed, almost to the point of overlap by a loud, deep echo that said the same words as him.
I let out a sob at that. This thing was going to eat me!
“Tom, could you please leave my friend alone?” Cory said.
“Okay.” Thomas stepped back and gave me a sharp look.
I swallowed and relaxed slightly as the thing… boy backed away. He kept looking at me, as though it was my fault his mother was upset.
Cory looked back at Bailey. “Do we really have to do this Liv?”
“He’s only a child.” Bailey fell into her chair, all the strength fading from her body as she held her head in her hands and started crying.
“I know.” Cory walked over to her and placed a hand on her shoulder.
“You know her.” The accusation left my mouth without permission as I looked between him and Bailey.
“Yes,” Cory said. “She’s a friend of Irene.”
“Marco is going to keep escalating this, isn’t he?” Bailey said.
“Unfortunately. I can’t guarantee that the next person who comes after him will be as lenient as I plan to be.” Cory knelt down beside her.
“He’ll be looked after?” Liv wiped her tears from her eyes with the back of her pastel pink sleeve.
Cory looked over at Thomas. “Would you like to live with other boys and girls like you?”
Thomas stopped staring daggers at me and looked at Cory. “Will Liv come and visit?”
I noticed that Cory couldn’t meet either of Liv or Thomas’ eyes as he said the simple word. I looked down to where I’d been rubbing my bloody finger against the side of my suit pants.
The boy gave Cory a smile that transformed his cold, dark eyes into something almost comfortable to look at. I stood shocked as Cory took Thomas’ arm and led him from the house towards the car.
Bailey’s eyes narrowed as she took a step towards me. “One day soon, all of this is going to fall apart. Whose side are you going to be on?”
I looked down at my shoes and bloody grey pant leg. “I don’t know.”
“There are several sides to everything. Remember that while you’re stewing over your guilt.”
I nodded and quickly left the house without looking back at her before she changed her mind about burying Cory and me in her flower bed.
Soon? It would be decades before anyone in my generation would be powerful enough to defeat magic users like Liv Bailey. What part could we play? The established order would use people like us as disposable pawns.