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Shadows on the Border

By A.L. Lester


Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.


Copyright 2019 A.L. Lester

ISBN 9781634868716

* * * *

Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

Image(s) used under a Standard Royalty-Free License.

All rights reserved.


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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

To the usual suspects. You know who you are.

* * * *

Shadows on the Border

By A.L. Lester

Prologue: Through the Shimmer

Fenn

The air was moist in Fenn’s nostrils and it smelled of unfamiliar chemicals. They had pushed through the Shimmer and were crouched on a firm surface, the fading remnants of kias twisting around them and leaving a lingering taste of iron on their tongue. The earth was cold and hard and wet underneath them and they pressed their palms down on to its steady familiarity and breathed deeply to ground themselves. The Shimmer was still there in their peripheral vision and they took reassurance from its presence.

They still had the bag with them, thank the Graces, slung across their body where they had arranged it for safe keeping. Fenn took additional reassurance from the heavy weight of it against their chest. Their gable-stone was on its thong around their neck, warm and familiar and inert. And Alaress was strapped across their back, securely fixed with leather sheath and straps. They had timed this arrival for the dead of night, in a place the Ternants had ascertained would be without people. Fenn had time to find somewhere secure to nest before daybreak and settle themselves to formulating the rhythm of their search.

* * * *

Chapter 1: Vagrant

Will

Reece wasn’t going to be here, but Sergeant William Grant was glumly going through the motions. Searching the empty munitions factory where the man had once worked was a very long shot. They had to check it out though and his team had drawn the short straw. The others had gone to visit the man’s mother again. Their murderer wouldn’t be there, either, but it had to be done. Procedure. Reece had gone to ground and they’d be lucky if they caught hair nor hide of him this side of the end of the world.

He sent Sedman and Triggs round to the front entrance with the big doors that opened on to the wharf and he took the side entrance. The brisk wind off the river cut through him like a knife, despite the early summer sun that had appeared as the smog dispersed. He was pleased to get into the shelter of the person-sized archway. The steel doorway was heavily chained and barred and he drew the keys he’d got from the owner out of his pocket and picked up the padlock. It hadn’t been opened recently. It was touched with rust and when he turned the key, the lock was stiff and solid under his fingers. No-one had entered this way recently.

The tumblers clicked round and he divested the heavy door of all its trappings and pushed it open. It swung easily despite the weight and clanged back against the unfinished brickwork inside. The noise filled the echoing stillness like a ringing bell.

No-one here. Nothing here, in fact. It was a large, high room with skylights—all the better to see to make the bullets to kill you with, he thought absently. The machinery had been taken out and sold, either to other companies or for scrap. It even smelled empty, if such a thing could be said.

At one end there was a huge archway set into the brickwork that let through to another section of the factory and then another he could see opened onto the wharf. At the other end was another person-sized door that he assumed led to offices or break rooms for the munitions workers. He meandered toward it in a desultory fashion. Reece wasn’t here, and he hadn’t ever been here. But. Procedure. Will went a lot on procedure these days. He found it combated the more esoteric parts of his job that came up from time to time.

The door was ajar, and he toed it open. There were a few sets of old overalls hanging on pegs along one wall, a couple of dusty chairs, and another pile of overalls or some-such in the corner.

It took him a moment to realize there was someone curled up in them. Damn it. He’d been hoping to get home at a reasonable time, not chase a murderer across the docks in his second-best boots.

“Oi!” he said, unenthusiastically. He was trying to cultivate a more policeman-like vocabulary.

Nothing happened, so he tried again, moving closer carefully. “Hey. Wake up!” He poked the body with his foot. He was half hoping the person was dead. However, at that point, the vagrant unfolded from the heap of dirty rags in a graceful roll of uncurling limbs. Will peddled backward, rapidly and unsteadily, and then found his feet again.

Instead of the unshaven face and dubious dental hygiene he was expecting, he was faced with a very tall, very cross looking blond-haired girl, holding a very long, very sharp looking knife in an impressively steady hand. Will went for his service revolver.

He’d left it at the station.

Luckily the girl seemed as surprised as he was, and they stared at each other, immobile.

Then he noticed that the face was heavier featured and the brows bushier than a woman would have. “You’re not a girl,” Will eventually concluded. And then realized he’d spoken aloud.

“No. I am not a girl,” the…person…replied.

It was a very long knife and the hand holding it was impressively steady. Will shifted on the balls of his feet a tiny amount, getting ready in case the chap came at him. In response, the knife was raised a little.

After another pause and some more eye contact, the light voice said, “Who are you? And what do you want of me?” He didn’t sound like a maniac, but Will didn’t like being questioned at knifepoint. He’d had a couple of go-rounds with German counter-intelligence before he’d invalided out in 1915 and hadn’t enjoyed it much back then, either.

“I’m a police officer. If you could put the knife down, sir. Please.”

Another speaking pause.

“A Police Officer? A Man of the Law?”

“Er, yes. I suppose. The knife, sir?”

“You are seeking a person in particular?”

Will looked at him. Really looked at him this time, both with his eyes and his othersense. And drew in a breath.

“Bloody hell,” he said, flatly. “You’re not human.”

It was a Creature! He could feel the same not-quite-normal tingle of power from it and now that he knew, even in the dim light of the warehouse he could see the slightly too-pale skin, the too-fine features under that silver-white hair. And the not-quite-right eyes. Something about their color and what looked like an inner eyelid that blinked across at reptilian intervals whilst the gaze stayed steadily on him, behind the equally steady knife.

But it didn’t look like the Creature they had apprehended at St Katherine’s Dock a few months ago. It was beautiful, in a fey sort of way. The opposite of the twisted claws and muzzle he would have recognized first off. And that Creature’s energy had felt heavy. Greasy and oily on his tongue as he had touched it. This one felt brighter. Clean, like the edge of the knife it wielded. A tangle of music and light.

He shivered and withdrew his othersense, quickly shielding himself.

The Creature watched him curiously, head slightly tilted as if it was listening. “You work kias,” it said, eventually, knife still up.

“Kias?”

“From the Shimmer. You were touching me.”

Will didn’t say anything. What was there to say? All his personal experience and the experience of those who had taught him, told him that very shortly he would be having his throat ripped to shreds and his brain dissolved by this thing’s bare hands. And he didn’t think he stood much chance against the knife, either. But trying to take the knife was probably preferable to turning his back and running. He still had occasional nightmares about the corpses from their last big case, with their ripped-out throats. He silently cursed his own bright idea to comb the old factories in search of his errant wife murderer.

He shifted his weight very slightly again. If he was quick, he might be able to get under the knife and grab the thing’s arm. Its bones were thin and fine where they stuck out from the shirt arrangement it was wearing and there were no claws. It was worth a try.

Three breaths, a sideways feint, and he jumped forward. He grabbed for the thing’s knife arm, got his hand around it, swung and pushed…and found himself face down on the dirty floor, arms twisted up behind him, and the thing astride him. He kicked upward at its back in the approved fashion, to no avail. For such a willowy creature it was incredibly solid.

“I do not wish to hurt you,” it said in its musical voice, from above him.

“You are hurting me!” His face was grinding in the dirt and his right shoulder felt like it was dislocated. A distant part of him mourned his overcoat and the knees of his trousers. He’d fallen on his hat.

“I will let you go, and we will talk?” It eased the painful grip slightly.

The pain was making him pant and he was going to start to cough in a minute. He could feel it coming.

“Yes, yes, fine…” And there it was. He curled up and just rode it out until it was over, eyes watering, cough after cough racking through him, internally cursing his lungs, the war, gas, the collective Allied governments, and the rest of it. The thing could have started to eat him from the toes upward and he’d not have been able to twitch.

However, it didn’t take the opportunity to stab him or rip his throat out, which was what he’d been quietly dreading ever since he’d realized it wasn’t human. Instead, it knelt beside him on the floor and pulled him semi-upright, across its thighs and against its chest, with one of those thin arms holding him in place. By the time the coughing episode was over he was done in. He rested there for a bit, gasping like a fish freshly caught, while it made humming noises above him. It smelled odd. Like sand and the cacti they grew in the hot greenhouses at Kew.

Finally, he wiped the tears and snot off his face with the back of his hand and jerked away from it, so he was kneeling upright. From there, he pushed himself to his hands and knees and then to his feet, and leaned against the dirty brick wall, staring down at it. It stayed on the floor, looking up at him. Closer to it and in the better light near the open door, he could see why he’d mistaken it for a girl. It was willowy and fine-featured for a man and it had pale silver or white hair that it wore in a messy plaited tail that hung down its back. It was dressed in leathers of some kind, like tight motorcycling breeches, with a floating undershirt topped by a sleeveless jerkin, all dark colors that he couldn’t make out very well. Across it’s back was some sort of contraption of webbing that he supposed was to hold the long, wide-bladed knife that was lying on the floor beside it. It must have dropped it during their brief fight.

He wiped his sleeve across his nose and face—there was no hope for his overcoat—and they stared at each other again.

“My name is Fenn,” it said, finally. Another pause. And then, “I do not wish to fight.”

It appeared to be telling the truth. It could have taken him out without any trouble any time in the last ten or fifteen minutes and could probably still do so, given the state of his breathing and the fact that he couldn’t stay upright without bracing his hands either side of him against the scraping brickwork.

“Grant,” he said, finally. “Will Grant.” He was still breathing pretty hard.

There was another pause.

“I would put Alaress away.” It gestured to the knife on the ground. “Do not be alarmed.”

Will was about as alarmed as he could possibly be, so he just nodded, wincing at his jarred shoulder. “All right.”

It kept its eyes on him as it slowly bent to pick the knife up. Then, all in one movement, it shoved it in the webbing between its shoulder blades and stood upright again.

They regarded each other in silence.

It was probably as tall as he was, he thought, looking at it. Its eyes were a striking kind of light green, like beech leaves in the early spring, dimming a little when that second eyelid flicked across and back. It had high cheekbones and a heart-shaped face. He really couldn’t tell whether it was male or female. He supposed that didn’t really matter. It was a Creature.

“You are sick?” it asked eventually, head cocking to one side again in the same movement it had made before, like a dog listening to the post being pushed through the letterbox and trying to decide whether to bite the postman’s hand.

“Yes. No. Not any longer.” He floundered at the unexpected question.

It stared at him some more. “I have not met a human here yet,” it offered, eventually. “I have been looking for a safe nest.”

It looked to one side, through the door to his right. “Your friends come.” It twisted on its heel, stepped away from him in a curl of leather and linen, took two steps forward, and seemed to blur in his vision. He blinked. It wasn’t there.

By the time Sedman and Triggs came through the door, he had slid down the wall and was grasping his knees, breathing hard. He couldn’t remember exactly what had happened.

“I think I fell and hit my head,” he said. “Bloody lungs.”

They helped him up.

“Any sign of our Mister Reece?” asked Sedman.

“Not that I saw. What about you?”

“No. Nothing. Although, it looks like someone’s been kipping over here.” He gestured toward a pile of rags in the corner.

“Yes, it does, doesn’t it. Worth coming back tonight for a look.” He had himself upright now and was starting to feel better. He was covered in cooling sweat. Why had that been? He hadn’t been running. Had he? Perhaps he had been. He seemed to have wrenched his shoulder when he went down. He rolled it, meditatively.

“Come on. Let’s move on. It’ll be dark soon.”

* * * *

Chapter 2: Home Visit

Will

Will’s rooms were always peaceful after the hurly-burly of a day at the Wapping police station and he relished the silence when he could get back to Great Portland Street and hole up at night. He took a long, luxurious bath to wash off the sweat of the day and put on his pajamas and dressing gown.

He was in the small galley kitchen of the flat breaking eggs for an omelet, when he heard a sharp tap on the door. He turned off the gas, put the pan to one side, and went to answer it.

A tall blonde girl stood on the step, in some sort of loose-fitting trouser-outfit.

No. Not a girl.

He remembered the day’s events in a sudden cascade and with reflex reaction went to slam the door. But the Creature was too swift for him and held it open with that surprising solidity, shoving in a foot and an elbow. It was very quick.

He opened his mouth to yell and it pressed a hand over his mouth, stepping forward right into his space and wrapping its arms around him.

“Do not shout, Will Grant,” it spoke, very quietly. “I only wish to talk.”

At the same time, it stepped right into his hallway and shoved the door shut behind it with a foot. How on earth had it got past the concierge?

Muhmph,” he said, pushing at it. It let him go and he retreated to the other side of the hall, staring. “Did you make me forget seeing you?” he blurted.

It blushed, of all things. A definite red flush over its high cheekbones. “I tried to smooth your memories out a little, to give me a chance to hide. I did not know if it would work. Did it?”

“Yes. Until just now. I think. I think I remember now.” He passed a hand over his face and glared at it. “What do you want? Why are you here? Not just here…but here? This side of the Border?”

That puzzled head-tilt again. “The Shimmer? You call the Shimmer, the Border? Yes?”

Will nodded.

“Let us sit? You need to sit? Because you are sick?” It phrased everything as a question, watching him curiously.

“I’m not sick,” he denied, quickly. “But yes, we can sit.” He gestured to the sitting room doorway. “Through there.” He wasn’t going to let it get behind him, especially with what he remembered about the knife on its back.

It walked slowly, clearly looking around with interest at the furnishings. In the sitting room, it walked to the low, dark walnut coffee table and folded itself down upon his late grandmother’s second-best Aubusson carpet with impossible grace. He stood, just looking at it. He wondered, if he was quick enough, if he could get to the telephone and get a message out. But by the time he’d gone through the operator and made her understand, it would all be over.

“What do you want?” He circled it carefully, keeping the heavy settee between them.

“Sit.” It looked at him, that second eyelid flicking across and back spookily. The eye looked a little milky with it closed, as if it was suffering from cataract. It was starting to sound slightly irritated. He didn’t want to irritate it.

He sat in one of the large leather club armchairs on the other side of the little table.

“I’m sat. What do you want?”

It seemed to take ages to parse conversation and spoke slowly.

“You said you are an Officer of the Law?” He could hear the capitalization.

“Yes. I’m a police detective.”

Another pause.

“I, too, am an Officer of the Law.” It blinked. “I seek one who has done a Wrong Thing.”

Will’s jaw dropped a little bit.

“Who…? What sort of wrong thing?”

“They came through the Shimmer, unsanctioned. They kill. Kill your kind, humans,” it clarified. “Most especially those that use kias.” Will was struck speechless. The Creature watched him calmly, looking around carefully from its seat on the carpet. “Do you live here alone, Will Grant?” it asked.

He flinched.

“There is no need to fear me,” it reiterated. “I seek one who has killed beyond the Shimmer and fled away through it. I need your help as an Officer of Law. I will not harm you.”

“What are you looking for?” Will asked. His voice wasn’t quite steady. “A monster?” and “How do you know my name?”

“We exchanged names earlier today. Perhaps you forgot that also? I am Fenn.” Again, that strange pause, as if it was translating in its head. “It is called a—” it paused, “…I cannot find the right word. You call it a Creature? Yes?” It looked politely inquiring.

“Are you reading my mind?” Will snapped.

It blushed. “Er. A little. Yes. To find the words. Only on the surface. I do not look underneath. It is a convenience. So we can talk to one another.” Will pushed his hands up through his still-damp hair and found himself pulling his knees up in front of him in a childish defensive pose. He wrapped his arms around his legs and continued to stare. The Creature—Fenn—continued to speak. “Please, Will Grant. I need help. I came through the Shimmer a week ago and I have been searching for the Creature I was…” that seeking pause “…tracking. It escaped from us in the Outlands and one had to come in pursuit. I was tasked to come after it.” Fenn passed his hands over his face and then looked straight at him again. “I am lost, and I am alone, and I cannot find the evil thing I was seeking, and I need your help.” He paused again and sniffed, delicately. “And, I am hungry.”

Will put his feet back on the carpet and put his elbows on his knees. “Hungry?”

“You were preparing food when I arrived. I can smell it.”

That, he could deal with. “I was making food. An omelet. Eggs. Do you want some?” He still eyed it warily.

“I am hungry.”

“Food, then. In the kitchen. It’s small. You can stay here.” He could maybe telephone from the hall while he was out of sight. Fenn got to his feet as gracefully as he’d sat and stood looking at him.

“You wish to call for help?” He squinted at him.

“I thought you weren’t reading my mind?”

“I couldn’t help it.” Again, that blush. “Your thought was very loud. Who do you wish to call?”

There was no point not saying it out loud if the stranger could read his thoughts. “A superior. Colleagues. They know about kias. Some of them work it.”

“They will want to hurt me?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure I don’t want to, yet.” Will wasn’t going to pull his punches. “One of our jobs is to deal with Creatures from the Outlands. That come from beyond the Border.”

Fenn looked at him again with that strange tilt of his head and this time he felt a sensation like someone tickling behind his ear, but inside his skull. “Call them, then. I can protect myself if needs be. And it will make you feel better. Call, then and we can eat your eggs while they come here.”

* * * *

Chapter 3: Will’s Flat

Alec

The telephone on his desk rang and Alec answered it automatically. “Wapping Police Station. Detective Inspector Carter speaking.” He dropped the official tone when he realized who it was. “What do you need, Grant? I thought you’d gone home for the night?”

He sat back in his chair, the stem of the phone in his hand, and listened with increasingly raised eyebrows. Grant wasn’t usually hysterical. He didn’t sound hysterical now. Just…tense. “I’ll collect Tyler and come over. A police officer from the Outlands, eh?”

Will sounded like he heard the sarcasm clearly despite the tinny telephone line and greeted it with a long-suffering sigh. “Just get here, Alec. I don’t think he’s dangerous. But I’m out of my depth. And bring that magician of yours.”

“He’s not my magician. But I’ll bring him. Give me an hour.” Alec hung up with alacrity. He hated the telephone, it was just another way for people to pester him.

* * * *

It was just under an hour by the time Alec hammered on the door of Grant’s flat. Will lived in a new building off Piccadilly, of all places. The man never spoke about coming from money or having any sort of private income—why should he, Alec supposed—but it was clear something more than a police detective’s weekly wage paid these sorts of bills.

Lew had been finishing up whatever he’d gone into the newspaper to do when Alec went to collect him. McGovern still had him working on the upcoming exposé of the Florish Gang, Alec thought. They had a sort of gentleman’s agreement that if what Lew was investigating for the paper came too close to Alec’s professional interests, they pretended the topic didn’t exist. They’d left Lew’s Triumph at the paper and come straight to Piccadilly in the little police Model-T Alec used.

Lew hadn’t been best pleased to be pulled out of the office, although his colleagues knew he consulted for the department. He’d told Alec a couple of weeks before that he was worried about people finding out they were friends. Alec couldn’t see the problem—they were friends, for goodness sake, everything else aside—but Lew was cautious. Alec supposed he was still getting to grips with living in a whole new century. It wasn’t a problem. He was happy to spend time with Lew whenever he could, whether it was because of work or well, just because.

When Will finally answered the door, it was clear that he had, indeed, intended to be off for the evening. He’d changed into slacks and a sweater. “Come in,” he said, quietly, stepping back to let them both pass. “He’s in here. She’s in here, I mean. I can’t tell whether it’s male or female.” He gestured to an open door at the end of the hallway.

Alec stepped through.

There was a girl with a sword standing by Will’s settee. The sword was more or less pointing at the floor. But still. It wasn’t what Alec expected when he visited his sergeant at home.

“What?” Alec said, intelligently, stepping back into Lew, who was close behind him.

“What?” Lew answered, reflexively, unable to see past Alec’s shoulder.

The girl raised the sword a bit. Alec stepped back further, and Lew slid round to stand beside him. Alec didn’t like that much. He’d rather be between a sword and Lew, even one held by a girl.

Will stepped forward beside them both and eyed them all cautiously. “Fenn, this is Detective Inspector Carter, and this is Mr. Tyler, who also works with us. Neither of them will hurt you. Please, put the long-knife down.” He glanced at Alec, who realized he had his hand on his Webley. He’d taken to wearing it all the time after the debacle at the tobacco warehouse. His superiors hadn’t said anything to him about it so far.

He could feel Lew starting to tingle with Pull beside him. He’d learned to notice that much in the previous few weeks, although most of this magical stuff still went over his head.

Will continued, “Please. Boss, Tyler, sit down. This is Fenn. He says he needs our help.”

The girl…person…Grant was right, Alec couldn’t tell whether they were male or female either…carefully put the sword down on the floor by the chair, although she didn’t put it back in what Alec assumed was its sheath, a mess of leather straps at her feet. She remained standing.

Alec took off his hat and coat without taking his eyes off her and threw them on the dining table. Lew followed his example.

“Tea?” Will asked, raising a brow at Alec, probably just to see him snort. It was a sort of running joke they used to defuse tension. “No, honestly, it’s no trouble, old chap!” Will used his politest drawing room voice.

“Thank you, no,” Alec replied automatically, and then mentally kicked himself for falling for it. He remained standing, trying to keep himself slightly in front of Lew.

Lew finally spoke. “What are you?” he said, staring at Fenn.

Fenn frowned. “What do you mean, what am I? I am an Officer of the Law.”

Lew frowned back. “No. I mean what species are you? Like, we’re human. What are you?” He paused. “We’ve never met anything from the Outlands that wasn’t trying to kill us.”

Fenn glared, clearly incensed. “I do not wish to kill you.” Something flickered across her eye. Christ. She had a third eyelid. Alec glanced at Will. What the hell had he gotten them into this time?

Lew looked at the Creature steadily. “I don’t think you do. But you’re different to the Creatures we know are on the other side of the Border. They’re hungry for energy and they kill to get it. They look nothing like you. They have wings for a start. So, what are you? And what are they? Is that what you’re hunting?”

That translucent eyelid flickered again as they all surveyed each other. Then the girl seemed to half-laugh, and sat, breaking the tension. The others slowly followed her to the worn leather chairs around the coffee table. She leaned forward, workmanlike, feet planted flat on the floor, elbows on her knees, head bent a little, and the plait of fair hair falling forward over her shoulder.

“We call them Carnas. The Wild Ones.” She raised her head and looked at Lew. “They drain kias—er, energy? And leave a body with…a soft brain? Yes? And they will also kill with claws and teeth. By ripping at the throat, usually.”

Lew flinched visibly, and Alec had to suppress an automatic desire to touch him. “Yes. That’s right,” he said.

“And you know this how, Lew Tyler?”

Alec interrupted. “Because his friend is in hospital, still, recovering from an attack. Two months ago.”

Fenn became motionless. “She lived?”

Lew spoke again. “She was strong. She turned the Pull back to herself, so it didn’t drain her. But she can no longer Work. It’s all gone. She can’t even feel the energy now.”

“You killed it?”

“No,” Will jumped in. “It escaped. And it’s gone to ground. We haven’t heard sight nor sound of it since. Or been able to track it.”

“And the Young?”

Alec didn’t understand. “What?”

“The Young? What of its Young?”

There was a flabbergasted pause where they all stared at Fenn. Then Alec spoke. “It was female? It had offspring?”

“Offspring. Yes. Or a clutch of eggs.”

* * * *

It hadn’t occurred to any of them that there may have been spawn involved. Lew spoke first. “Shit,” he said, pithily, rubbing his face on his hands. “I thought we were done with this until it popped up again. That we just had to practice, then catch it and kill it.”

Fenn looked at him, sadly. “No-one is ever done with this, Lewis Tyler,” she said, voice soft. “Tell me about your friend. What happened to her?”

Lew looked at her woodenly. “She Pulled energy back from the Creature when we were trying to kill it. We think it tried to Pull from her, but she managed to turn it around. And although it mauled her, she survived. She’s been in the hospital since, drifting in and out of consciousness. Her ability to Work is completely gone.” He blinked. He didn’t like to talk about it at all, even to Alec, although Alec knew he was there every day he could manage it. “Her body is healing, slowly. But her skill hasn’t come back.”

Fenn looked down at her hands and then back at Lew. “May I see her? I may be able to help. And I may be able to sense something about the Carnas—if there were eggs—if I touch her. Because she was so close to it.”

Lew glanced over to Alec. “Alec? What do you think?”

Alec had been quiet, watching them all and listening to the conversation with as blank a face as he could manage, thinking furiously. “How do we know you are what you say you are?” he asked finally. “You could be anyone for all we know.”

Fenn leveled an equally assessing stare back at him. “Your friend has touched my kias. He can tell you what I am and am not.” They looked at Grant. “Tell them what you felt, Will Grant.”

Alec looked at him too, arching one eyebrow in an excessive parody of patience. “We met down in the warehouses earlier today,” Grant said.

Alec felt his eyebrow rise even further, which should have been impossible. “And you didn’t think to report this when you came back in this afternoon?”

Grant coughed uncomfortably. “I didn’t remember.”

“I smoothed Will Grant’s memory of our encounter,” Fenn interjected. “He did not remember until I arrived here this evening.”

Alec eyed Fenn warily. “So, you could blank this meeting out of all of our minds when we’ve finished it?”

“No. No! It does not work like that.” Fenn seemed distressed. “It is hard to do and it is uncertain whether it will work. And not something I can do to more than one person at a time.” She grimaced. “I only did it to keep myself safe when I met with Will Grant by chance this morning. I have been seeking the Carnas for a few days now and have had no luck. When I realized he was a man of the law, I wanted to ask for his help. But I needed to make sure it was safe for me first.”

“And you think it’s safe for you now?” Alec felt his face set.

Fenn returned his steady gaze. “I have taken that risk, whether it is safe for me or unsafe. It is in your hands, Inspector Carter.” She drew a breath. “I am tasked with finding the Carnas and the young and bringing them home. I would like your help. And I may be able to help Mr. Tyler’s friend.” She turned toward Lew as he spoke.

“What do you mean?” Lew’s face was blank.

“I have a certain amount of skill at healing wounds made by kias. And helping repair damage to kias itself, come to that. If your friend is not recovering as she should, I may be able to correct what has gone wrong with her kias, if that is the cause of the problem.” Fenn raised a hand. “But I cannot say for sure until I see her.” Her eyes were kind on Lew, the nictitating membrane drawn all the way back. Was that a show of good faith? Allowing someone to see into his eyes properly? Alec wasn’t getting anything but a genuine feeling from Fenn. But he’d been wrong before. Occasionally.

Grant clearly couldn’t take his eyes off the strange person. He was transfixed. And Fenn kept flicking her eyes toward Grant, too, almost for reassurance. Alec supposed that Grant was the first person Fenn had met…perhaps she could read Grant better than the rest of them and was checking to see how he was responding to what they were saying.

Grant stepped forward, filling the conversational space. “That might be a help, Tyler. If we can get Miss Fonteyne back on her feet again and at the same time pinpoint where the Creature is?”

Lew was eyeing Fenn cautiously. “Yes. It would be helpful. But we only have your word on this.” He looked at Grant and Alec. “I want to check a few things, first.”

Alec looked back at him. “What sort of things?”

“I’ll tell you later.” Lew was inscrutable.

Fenn was watching all of them now, carefully. “I need your help,” she stated again. “I am not used to the territory here. I do not want to cause worry or damage to property. My Ternants…my Council…do not wish for me to cause distress or come to the notice of the people here. I am to carry out my task and either bring the Carnas and the eggs or young back to them or destroy them both, as quickly and quietly as possible. The Shimmer must hold. It must not be used by individuals for their own profit. The Ternants control the Carnas and use them to police the Shimmer.”

She looked around at them all. “I do not know how your world works. I do not know how you use kias. I am adrift here and I need your guidance.” She looked at Grant. “Teach me these things, Will Grant. Help me capture the Carnas and take the eggs back to the Ternants. Perhaps we can learn from each other?”

Grant looked at Alec, who looked at Lew. Lew looked back for a moment, biting his lip, and then nodded. Alec turned to Grant and included Fenn in the look. “Very well. We’ll make inquiries about taking you to see Miss Fonteyne. It depends upon her health, which is frail. Until then, you stay with Detective Sergeant Grant. Yes?”

Fenn blinked her third eyelid. “Yes. Very well.” She looked at Grant. “If that is agreeable to you, Will Grant?”

Grant glared at Alec. “Very well. We can try and search some more of the docks, if that’s where you think the eggs might be. And I can keep an eye open for Reece at the same time.” He glared at Fenn as well. “Unless I already found him, and you erased my memory?”

Fenn did that rueful half smile again. “No. I did not. You appeared to be searching for something when we met. I thought you were looking for the eggs.” She reached down to the sword-harness on the floor. “Let us begin again.”

* * * *

Chapter 4: Awakening

Shivering and clammy, the Carnas awoke in the darkness. It couldn’t move. It was curled into a tight, damp ball, covered in a sheen of freezing damp.

Its eyes were closed. It opened them. It was in a place of total darkness. It shut them again.

Its body was reassuringly cold, wings folded tight against its back. It was wedged in a corner or hole somewhere. It could feel the walls pressing against it. When it was threatened its instinct was to hide.

Its body hurt. There had been fire. It had been trying to return to its home in the Outlands. It was lost.

It was a young female. She had ridden the waves of energy in the way of her kind when she had felt a strong Source pass by. And she had been jettisoned into this wet, energy-less place where she couldn’t sustain herself and couldn’t gather enough energy to travel home.

She had found a small Source to sustain her in the crypt of the hospital…but she had been driven out and been forced to use her meager energy to locate more, a self-defeating cycle. She’d been surprised, in the animalistic, instinctive way she could experience surprise, that there were a handful of Sources here strong enough to Pull from. There was enough potential for her to become energized enough to get home if she could take their kias from them.

She had harvested from some Sources that she had tracked across the landscape. A populated place that was difficult to navigate, outside her experience. There were lots of Sources, but none of them were very charged with the large quantity of kias she needed. She had taken what she could find and moved forward, tracking the strong Sources she could taste, all gathered in one place.

They had been using their kias. She was hungry. She had been incautious in her approach and had paid the price. She had leaped at the strongest Worker and thought to pull her kias from her, but the Source had fought back. The Lurker had tasted her blood and started pulling the heady strength of her kias. But the Source had twisted and turned and fought and somehow Pulled her energy back and that of the Lurker as well. Another Source had thrown fire. The Lurker feared fire.

She had to retreat, weakened and burned.

And then, in the depths of the weakness, the time had come for her clutch to arrive.

It was her first clutch, but generations of primal instinct drove her. She found a nest. Two eggs came. She ate one, driven by her instinct, expediency, and the desire to survive. Then she curled her hurt body around the remaining egg and slept.

Whatever woke her had gone. She had no idea how much time had passed. Time was not a concept the Creatures were equipped to deal with. They mapped the paths of energy and followed them as their needs dictated. They could be nudged in the right direction by experienced energy workers. But they owed no loyalty and were essentially wild animals. Their driving force was the need to survive and to survive, they needed kias.

Blinking in the dark, she sniffed the egg and ran clawed paws over it. It was intact. The Young was growing inside. She could feel the glimmer of energy already. She ignored the shattered remains of the other shell on the floor, the sharp edges digging through her leathery skin.

She raised herself to a crouch and scented the air. There was a trace of kias. A Working had happened and close by. She needed to eat.

She left her egg in the way of her kind, tucked away under the rags she had been sleeping on, and she departed, seeking to feed.

* * * *

Chapter 5: Three Men in a Boat

Lew

Lew’s plan was to talk to Kelly. After they left the flat, he had Alec drop him back at the paper to collect his ‘cycle and had made tracks for Camden.

He’d been going regularly over the winter and spring and now that summer was coming, there was no doubt that Kelly was very sick. The little terraced house still smelled of baking and early hollyhocks were now nodding in the tiny front garden. The rose still rambled round the door.

But inside, the old man was failing.

Mrs. Finn had moved his bed down into the front parlor as he was finding it impossible to manage the stairs. He lay in state, propped up on immaculate white pillows, the curtains drawn back as far as possible so that he could watch the comings and goings on the street. The fire was lit, despite the mildness of the day.

Lew chapped on the door, head around it, cap in hand.

Mr. Kelly. Mrs. Finn said you might appreciate a visitor?”

“Come in, lad, come in. How are you? Have a seat.” He gestured to the wing chair drawn up close to the bed. Lew sat as he was bid.

“How are you? Do you need anything?” Mrs. Finn had said it was just age, nothing to be done, but he had to ask.

“No, lad, no. I’m settled here. Vicky’s keeping me right, aren’t you, Vick?”

“Yes, Dad, we’re doing all right.” She put the tea things down on a small side-table. “Here you are, Mr. Tyler. Give it a minute or two to steep.” She paused. “You can bring the tea things back to me in the kitchen before you leave.” A meaningful look.

“I will, Mrs. Finn. I don’t want to make more work for you.”

“Thank you. And you, Dad, drink up. You need to keep drinking.”

“Yes, Vicky. I will.” Kelly’s tone was suspiciously mild. “Thanks, lovey. I’m fine. Go on, go on.” He made shushing motions with his hands as she retreated. “She’s a good girl,” he turned to Lew. “But she does fuss. I could never abide fussing women and I won’t change now.”

“She’s just worried about you,” Lew said.

“I know, I know. Worrying don’t change nothing, though. I’ve had a good run.” He gestured to the teapot. “Go on, pour us a cup. Is this a social visit? Or are you trying to squeeze all the information you can out of me before I go?” He smiled at Lew, unrepentant at Lew’s grimace.

“You know it’s not that.” Lew had been coming regularly over the last couple of months. It was a relief to be able to talk to someone who understood both the matter of the Border and Lew’s origins. He could talk to Alec and Grant of course. But Alec and he were feeling their way and he didn’t want to burden either of them. Putting Grant in that position felt wrong as well. Alec was his superior officer and it felt wrong talking to Grant about things he wasn’t discussing with Alec. And Mira was struggling with her own health and position in their new-to-them world.

Lew had the feeling with Alec and Grant that anything he told them about the future might hurt them, or change things. Kelly was discreet, he understood the Border, and he wasn’t going to be around that much longer. It was a cliché that dead men tell no tales, but Lew was taking comfort in it.

“I hadn’t seen you for a while. I had a spare afternoon, so I thought I’d come and have some of Mrs. Finn’s cake.” He was pouring the tea from the fat brown teapot into the china cups with the little pink roses round the rim as he spoke. One of the saucers had a tiny crack he noticed, absently running his thumb over it as he handed it to the old man in the bed. “Do you want some?” He gestured to the seedy cake she had sent in on a plate.

“Not now, lad, thank you. I’ll have the tea first. You help yourself though, don’t stand on ceremony.”

Lew cut himself a reasonable sized slice. Mrs. Finn’s cake was a big plus in his ‘reasons to stay in the past’ column. Which brought him up short. Because he wasn’t aware that he had a ‘reasons to stay in the past’ column.

He laid the slice of cake on his plate and sat back in his chair with his tea cup. “How have you been then, sir?” He couldn’t get out of the habit of calling the elderly man the honorific.

“Not so bad, not so bad. Just lazing here, thinking about things, you know? I get tired easily. Vicky’s been keeping her little ones away from me, so I can rest. I like to see them, though. And I can see what’s going on in the street from here.” He gestured to the window and looked at Lew full on for the first time. “It won’t be long, now, though. I’m tired, Lewis. I miss my own Vicky, young Vicky’s mother. What do you need from me? You’re a good lad, I know you’d come and sit with me anyway. But you need my help, don’t you? What can I do?”

His eyes were rheumy and kind in his thin face, over his full white beard. He looked, Lew thought, like a wizard should look, if he was going to use Alec’s ridiculously clichéd language. But he was no oracle. He had helped Lew, a lot, in his search for Mira. But there were almost as many gaps in his knowledge as there were in Lew’s.

“I don’t want to tire you out,” Lew prevaricated. “I can read to you, if you like?” He reached for the small volume of Three Men in a Boat on the nightstand. “Are you reading this one?”

“Yes, it’s an old favorite. But talk to me, instead. One of the kiddies will read to me later.” He put a gnarled hand on Lew’s arm. “Tell me about the future, Lewis. Tell me about your life in the future.”

Lew swallowed. He hadn’t told anyone much of anything, really. Just a bit in passing, here and there. He’d tried to avoid anything that would change things. “Yes, okay. But first, tell me the names of the other people who worked with Mr. Bartlett? Something has happened. Something’s come through the Border and I think it may have woken the Creature.”

Kelly’s watery eyes sharpened. “What do you mean, ‘something’s come through?’” he snapped. “Another Creature?”

“No. A person. I don’t know how to describe her.” He paused. “Grant met her, when he was down at the waterfront looking for a stray murderer.” He ran a hand through his hair. “A sort of police officer or soldier, she says she is. And she’s looking for the Creature. Or the Creature’s eggs.”

“Eggs!” The old man was startled. “I’ve never heard of that. I’ve never heard of anything coming through that wasn’t either human—come back from traveling, like you—or evil, like the Creatures.” He struggled to push himself up. “Find me my trousers! I need to come and meet her. It’s a woman, you say?”

Lew paused and thought a moment. “I’m not sure it’s a woman. I can’t tell. Carter thinks she’s a woman.” He put a hand on Kelly. “It’s fine. Please. Don’t get up. I’ll bring her to meet you, if you like. She doesn’t feel dangerous. Very powerful. But not dangerous. Grant agrees.” He relaxed back in his chair again as Kelly settled against the pillows. “She’s got long hair and at first impression, she looks like a woman. But I’m not sure. It hasn’t come up.”

Kelly stared at him. “Was that what you came to talk to me about?”

“Not really. Like I said. I came because I had a free afternoon. And I thought if I got the names of the rest of your group, I could maybe do a bit of tracking down and see if I could find them. But it’s not important. I can tell you about the future if you like.”

The old man settled back against his pillows. It took a moment…a toss-up whether he’d become agitated again. Finally, he took a breath. “The names, first,” he said. “I don’t want to forget.”

Lew wrote them down. Bartlett. Grant. Bradshaw. Soames. Kendal. Robbins. De La Conte. Fortescue. “That’s all…there were one or two more, if they come to me, I’ll have Vicky send a message. Grant went through and didn’t come back. With either Kendal or Robbins. The rest of them, they were killed. All of them, I think. By a Creature. I read about it in the paper.” He chewed his bottom lip thoughtfully. “You’re after the children, are you? Or grandchildren, by now. Like Sergeant Grant? You’re hoping they’ll be able to Work?”

Lew nodded. “Inspector Carter was hoping. But I suppose they’ll be difficult to track down.”

“All of them except me and Robbins were toffs. Or at least, had enough money not to have to work for a living. Robbins worked in a bank or something, I think. He was a bit older than me, though. Kendal…he was younger. I think Robbins went with Grant. Kendal stopped coming. He was frightened. And bloody right, he was.”

Lew said, “That’s great. Thank you. I’ll see what I can find out. I wondered if I could track them with the map trick you showed me. But that would only be successful if they were Working, wouldn’t it?”

“Probably…unless they were very strong. How do you know none of this, Lewis? Didn’t your parents teach you?”

Lew dropped his eyes to his hands and reached for his cake. “Not really. They died when I was thirteen. I was self-taught after that. So was Mira. We’ve been lucky not to have killed ourselves.” He grimaced. “Anyway. What do you want to know from me?” He smiled up again. “Ask away. But you have to promise not to tell anyone anything.”

Kelly looked at him. “I want to keep my girls safe, that’s all. Do the best I can for them. I reckoned you might be able to help me with that. You said the War hadn’t been worth it, before, a while back. What did you mean?”

Lew looked at him for a moment. “That’s what I was afraid you were going to ask.” He paused and looked down briefly. “There’s another one coming. And it’s going to be worse.”

Kelly looked at him, disbelieving. “Worse than that lot that’s just gone? Not possible.”

“Oh, possible.” He sighed. “There’s a leader coming, in Germany. And it’s going to be awful. They’re going to have extermination camps for people they don’t like; and bomb cities from the sky. We are too. Huge swathes of cities, burned down, reduced to rubble. If I was to give you advice about how to keep them safe, I’d get them to move to the country. Before 1939. That’s when it’s coming, 1939. For six years. And Japan is going to attack America. It’s going to be a huge world war.”

Kelly stared at him. “You’re serious?”

“As the grave.”

The old man turned his head away and stared out of the window for a while. “Surely there must be some good things coming?” he asked, without looking at Lew. “It can’t all have been for nothing? Three of Vicky’s brothers died in France.”

“It changes. Quite a lot after about 1950. Televisions in the home—like the cinema, but on small screens. Everyone has a telephone. Mobile phones that you can put in your pocket and carry around, without a cable. Electric heating in everyone’s house. Indoor plumbing everywhere. Baths in the house. Hot water. A minimum wage, although it’s not working very well.” He drew a breath. “There are machines to do washing, cleaning, getting things dry. All those things Mrs. Finn spends so much time on. Families are smaller, too.”

Kelly looked at him sharply, again. “Oh, right. Have you got any brothers and sisters, then?”

“No. No-one except Mira, now. And she’s a foster-sister. Not by blood.”

“So why do you want to go back? That’s what you’re trying to do, aren’t you? You want to catch the Creature, where-ever it’s gone to ground, and then take yourself back to your own time.” His gaze was astute. “What are you going back for, Lewis? Have you asked yourself that?” He blinked. “I’m getting tired. I’m sorry. Will you read to me for a bit after all?”

Lew read about boating on the Thames until the light grew dim and Mrs. Finn came in to light the gas mantle.

“He’s asleep,” she said, fondly, looking over at her father. “Did he stay awake long?”

“Yes,” Lew answered. “We talked for quite a while. I might bring a friend to visit him at some point, if that would be alright. Erm.” He paused. “A friend who knows about the Border.”

Mrs. Finn looked at him. “If you trust them, then I do,” she said, finally. “It’ll have to be soon, though. He’s fading. I expect you see a difference from last week when you came.” It wasn’t quite a question, but Lew treated it as such, there in the warm, dim room with the dying man. Mrs. Finn hadn’t liked him much when they’d first met. She’d guessed that he’d bring trouble for them and she’d been right. They’d been lucky to walk away from the battle with the Creature before Christmas. And Lew suspected she still begrudged him the destruction of her best hat, although he’d offered to replace it.

They’d reached an accommodation now, though—he thought they were friends. “Yes. He’s frailer,” he said, finally. “Do you need anything? Can I do anything for you?” He didn’t want to prick her pride, but he had to ask. “Is Ted back to work again?”

“Yes. We’re managing.” She wiped her hands on her apron, a habitual gesture. “He’s got steady work on the market now. And Nancy is going to be leaving school next month, she’s fourteen. My sister Laurie has got her a job at the bakery down in Kentish Town. That’ll help.” She collected up the tea things and put them on the tray as she spoke. “Come on into the kitchen. He’ll sleep ‘til tea-time now.”

* * * *

She poured him another cup of freshly made tea from the fat, brown teapot and he sat at her scrubbed kitchen table and cupped the enamel mug in hands. Mugs in the kitchen. China in the parlor. “How are you, Mrs. Finn? How is he?”

“He’s dreaming,” she said. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“Dreaming?”

“I think he’s dreaming of the Creature. He talks in his sleep. It’s only started since the weekend.” She paused. “I wanted to ask you. Do you think it’s coming back?” She wouldn’t meet his eye. “I heard you saying there was a person come through. Have they brought one with them?”

It was a valid question, Lew thought. He let the silence ride, thinking it all through. “No,” he said, finally. “No, I don’t think she has. She feels safe. Very powerful, but not evil. Not that greasy, oily, sick feeling the Creature gave me.” He pondered. “I wonder, though. I wonder if the Creature can feel how powerful Fenn—she’s called Fenn—is. I wonder if it’s woken up again and that’s what Mr. Kelly is picking up?”

Mrs. Finn stood and moved toward the sink, always happiest when she was bustling around. “That might do it, mightn’t it?” She plonked her mug into the sink and started to wash up the china she’d brought through from the parlor. “If he can feel it, it can probably feel him. I don’t want it here, Mr. Tyler. You must find it. Dad’s too weak to do anything, now.”


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