Subtle Year

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Chapter 3: The Murder Investigation

Lorian Serpent strolled through the halls of his castle. The Elegy Men stooped low into a bow. Without their invisible guises, they were very simple creatures. Tall, faceless and well dressed. He liked that they were so well dressed. He was the reason. Others who used them left them naked, or what was the Elegy version of naked. That was just weird. They were simply shadows of humans. They weren’t too good with guests. They were just used to killing every person who comes near the castle. More of them lined the castle corridors until he got to the main hall. The room was empty aside from his lone visitor. He hadn’t had a visitor in some time. Most of his friends were dead, in hiding or defectors. That’d be sad if he hadn’t been the one to kill most of them.

“Lorian,” the man nodded in greeting.

“Good afternoon, old friend,” Serpent greeted tactfully.

“I am no friend of yours, Serpent,” the man was not so civil.

“I apologise for your welcome from my men. We get so few guests,” Serpent gestured for his guest to sit down but he didn’t move. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“I’m here on business.”

“And here I am thinking you were visiting me out of the goodness of your heart,” Serpent sighed dramatically. “No matter, while you’re here would you like a drink?”

His guest kept his jaw clenched as Serpent walked swiftly to the drinks cabinet. He helped himself, the silence of his guest providing amble answer.

“A trio of our agents have disappeared; the Freedom House is worried.”

“The Freedom House is always worried. How is Abalone by the way?”

“Anxious.”

“When isn’t he?” Serpent poured himself a drink. “What are you here for then? It makes no difference to me if some of your agents disappear.”

“Their names were Athach Huntershine, Aleraw Boarpaladin and Enthnban Axeland.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know those names. I wouldn’t even like to pronounce them.”

Serpent sat down in his throne, not being one for understated arrogance and took a sip of his drink.

“They were hired to keep tabs on… well, on you,” the man admitted.

Serpent looked up at him, surprised by the admission and his guest was deadly serious. Although, he hadn’t known a time when his guest wasn’t. How boring.

“I’m offended; you all know I’m an ally now.”

“It’s not an offence, we sometimes keep tabs on some of Machiavellian’s troops. And as his only free general you must understand that we worry in case you… revert to your old ways.”

“Well, I’m sure your agents will turn up safe and sound,” he waved away the comment. “They probably just fell asleep with their phones turned off. It must be common with your agents.”

“They washed up on the river bed yesterday morning.”

“Oh, dear,” Serpent hid his smile as he took a sip of his drink. “What a shame.”

“You didn’t know what happened to them, then?”

Serpent bristled. Always with the accusations. He put his drink down and gave his visitor an exaggerated look of offence.

“I know, I made mistakes during the war. I was a monster; I’m not that man anymore. I have to live with what I did and I would appreciate it if you at the Freedom House would stop trying to see my dark side and understand that I’m a changed man.”

His visitor sighed, clearly unconvinced.

“We can’t stop ourselves from seeing your dark side, Lorian. You make it hard for us to forget.”

The man made no gesture but he did look straight at Serpent’s right hand. He put his glass down and flexed his hand compulsively. There were leather gloves on both his hands but the right one covered something very dark, very deadly.

“You mean this? My curse? I haven’t used this in years and I sorely regret ever using it. I doubt it even works, the know the instability of these things.”

“Be careful, Lorian. You do anything more than this and you won’t be able to turn back.”

Serpent smiled and gestured to the drinks cabinet.

“Are you sure you won’t stay for a drink?”

“I have places to be.”

“Ah, the fast-paced life of the Freedom House,” Serpent rolled his eyes. “Always have to be busy.”

“I have a train to Yorkshire in an hour, I have an important meeting,” his guest replied. “Somebody has to do the jobs that… allies don’t do.”

“You chose the job, you have to live with it,” Serpent said with a wave of his hand. “I hope your meeting goes well. We’ll have a drink another time.”

His guest kept a face like stone.

“We’ll see, Lorian.”

His guest bowed slightly and walked away. Serpent flexed the leather glove on his right hand again and smiled.


Flash still looked vaguely irritated when we got back into the car.

“So… Calypso,” I was at a loss for words.

“Annoying, isn’t she?”

“She’s certainly something.”

“I really did beat her senseless,” he insisted.

“Sure, you did.”

“What was that power?” I looked at him.

“Prehensile hair,” he replied. “It’s an interesting power. Extra arms, essentially, it must be useful but imagine never being able to cut your hair. I’ve heard rumours that it screams if she does cut it but I think she’s trying to make fun of me.”

“She seems to handle it alright,” I remarked.

“Yeah. That’s what’s so annoying,” he grumbled.

I was amazed. The sun was starting to streak through the clouds, yet I wasn’t tired. I’d read about that in two things. There was one saying that adrenalin could make your body feel boosted and then in one of Flash’s magic books it said that magic could keep your body rested for longer. I bet it was just adrenalin. Getting excited over nothing would do me no good.

“So, where are we going now?” I asked.

“Churchreach,” Flash replied simply.

“Where is that?”

“Well, there are a group of sorcerers who believe their magic was a gift from god and, because not many of the others agreed with them, they withdrew to their own town and worshipped in their own way. We had a war a few years ago, and since then they haven’t really let people like us in their town,” Flash paused. “Except one man, Maven Abstruse-”

“Let me guess,” I stopped him. “We’re going to see him?”

“You just ruined a perfectly good story,” he grumbled. “But yes, we are going to see Maven. Luckily for you he isn’t as bad a Calypso. Plus, he’s not one of those religious types. For some reason anybody who follows a religion strongly dislikes me. Maven’s alright.”

“I’ll be the judge of that,” I decided. “So, what made you think my uncle was murdered?”

“I know who did it,” he shrugged.

A distinct feeling of horror rushed over me as I stared at Flash but he just chuckled slightly, shaking his head.

“Don’t worry; I’m far from friends with him.”

“Good… so, was he arrested?” I raised an eyebrow.

“No,” he sighed. “I couldn’t pin the crime on him because he’s an ally now.”

“Damn Democracy,” I muttered.

“Exactly,” he nodded, slightly amused. “He was a dangerous man during the war and Abalone, as great a man as he is, seems to think that that has all changed.”

“People never change.”

“That’s exactly what I said,” he shook his head. “Did they listen to me?”

“No?” I suggested.

“Of course, they didn’t,” he sighed again. “And I’m right so much of the time.”

“Someone thinks highly of themselves,” I noted.

“I am a very smart person.”

“Not to mention egotistical,” I mumbled.

“Heard that.”

“You were meant to,” I grinned. “How far away is Churchreach?”

“Far,” he told me. “I’m hoping you brought a book. I can’t bear small talk.”

“Do I look like a small talk girl?”

“I won’t answer that.”

I grumbled a curse and pulled out the book I’d been reading earlier. It was then that something hit me and I was confused.

“Wait a minute,” I felt my eyebrows crease. “How come magic is so random?”

“Eh,” Flash shrugged. “We have scientists working on that to this very day but we aren’t sure. There are people who believe magic choses a suitable person on the day they were born but, like the people of Churchreach, not many people agree. It’s a mystery.”

“Magic and mystery go hand in hand, don’t they?”

“Unfortunately, so.”

After a long while, I began to feel restless and exhausted. I put my feet up on the dashboard and stared out the window. I noticed that our surroundings seemed to get darker and duller. I checked my watch and sighed loudly.

“When you said it was far away you certainly weren’t kidding.”

“But,” Flash told me. “We’re here now.”

He turned into a sorry state of a village. The sky was blanketed with heavy grey clouds that seemed to threaten a downpour.

“You are kidding me?”

“I can only wish that I was,” he muttered.

I spotted at least ten churches. The streets were empty and I didn’t see any cars. Damn, this place is creepy.

“Where is everybody?”

“They hardly leave their houses,” he told me. “Their lives revolve around religion. There are a few representatives within the Freedom House but not many. Frankly, most of them scare me. It’s very easy to find a scapegoat for all that magic provides. These people chose god. It’s their choice, of course, and there’s no reason why some deity isn’t behind what we have. However, I simply don’t believe that any god would ever provide so much and then tell their creations to never enjoy themselves, just pray to them every day. I have an ego to surpass most and even I think that’s too much. I keep telling Maven that he should move up to our area, he’d get more business but he says no.”

“What kind of business would he get here?” I asked.

“He’s a book doctor.”

I pulled a face, glancing at him in confusion. I’d heard of the profession before, I just didn’t think it was something that still existed these days.

“He gets good business here,” he clearly guessed what I was thinking. “And these people wear out their bibles a lot, but that’s really the only business he gets.”

“And where we live would be better because?”

“More people,” he shrugged. “And I told him that more people mean more business but nobody listens to me, least of all Maven.”

“Do I detect a hint of sourness?” I raised my eyebrow.

“From me, most likely,” he nodded.

He came to the end of the road and he turned the Mercedes into a driveway. They were nice looking houses. Gothic in style but pleasant enough.

“Come on then,” he got out of the car.

I was feeling very tired now; hopefully I could sleep on the way back. When Flash offered me to join him, I didn’t expect him to keep me up all bloody night.

“Onyx,” Flash called. “Hurry up.”

I caught up with him as he opened the door, strolling in and gesturing for me to follow behind him.

“Why did you knock on Calypso but walk straight in here?” I asked.

“Because I like to make Calypso panic,” he replied with a chuckle. “You should try it sometime; it really is fun.”

“I’ll be sure to keep that in mind,” I muttered.

We walked down a hallway and I smelled coffee a distinct scent of coffee. I wasn’t a fan of coffee. I liked one from Starbucks that was loaded with cream and caramel and I didn’t mind iced coffee but I wasn’t a fan of the flavour in general. The smell was nice though. It was pleasant. A man appeared in the hallway and greeted Flash with a smile that showed he was both happy to see him but also slightly annoyed that he’d strolled right on in.

He had a strange ability to look both young and old at the same time. He was all muscle but with a slenderness to him that suggested he was quick too. His eyes were a stormy grey colour and studied me with a strange look of distrust and dislike. He was bald headed, making his age even more ambiguous. His skin was a dark, chocolate colour which made the lightness of his eyes all the more noticeable. He was simply dressed in a grey shirt and a pair of well-fitting black trousers. He was relaxed, clearly not expecting to have company today.

“Who’s this?” he didn’t bother with a spoken greeting.

“Maven, Onyx, Onyx, Maven,” Flash gestured ridiculously between us.

“You’re an idiot, Flash.”

“I’m sure you’re right, but, why?” he looked confused.

“She’s a kid,” he looked to me again. “No offence.”

“I’m sixteen, I can legally pilot a glider,” I pointed out. “But, none taken.”

“Let me ask you a question,” he didn’t seem amused. “What do see when you look at Flash?”

“Err…” what should I say?

“I’ll tell you what you see,” he stood beside Flash. “This looks like a man who has worked hard and honestly his whole life. It’s that easy to fool people.”

“Hey! I have a high profile,” Flash looked offended.

“Since when?” he asked.

“Since when have I not?”

“Since we met and probably beforehand.”

“That’s a bit harsh, isn’t it?”

“Now, Onyx, right?” he blanked Flash.

“Yeah,” I nodded, unsure of what was to come.

“You seem like a sweet kid but do you really know what you’re getting into?”

I gulped; I don’t know how I should answer that. Of course, I had no idea what was to come, but I wanted to know. Was that such a bad thing?

“Maven,” Flash snapped, clearly noticing my discomfort. “She’s a smart girl. She knows what she’s doing.”

“Are you really sure about that?” he wasn’t convinced. “How old are you, kid?”

“Sixteen,” I replied.

“Sixteen,” he looked to Flash then turned to me again. “Really, you’re sixteen?”

“Yeah,” I put my hands on my hips.

Note to self: start wearing higher heels.

“Maven,” Flash caught his attention again. “I know what I’m doing.”

“Really? You forget that you’re not good with teens.”

“The jury is still out on that one,” he muttered.

“Not in my books. Anyone under the age of twenty should fear you.”

“I’m not that bad…”

“I’ve known you for two hundred years Flash. I remember things others have chosen to forget. I remember Sam.”

They both had a look of discomfort on their faces. They were a strange pair. We were invited to sit at a table and Maven grilled me with questions. Thankfully, it wasn’t just me that he decided to interview.

“Who else have you introduced her to?” Maven asked.

“Just Calypso,” Flash shrugged.

“Ooh,” he looked to me smiling slightly now. “What did you think of her?”

“Interesting,” I chose the safest word I could think of.

His smile stretched into a grin, clearly my safe summary was amusing. At least if he starts to like me, he may lay off me a little.

“Try having to put up with her for one hundred years,” he chuckled shortly. “Makes you wish someone would kill you…”

“Didn’t Grey actually ask you to do that once?” Flash asked.

“Yeah, I just said he could enjoy the silence in prison… he escaped, didn’t he?”

Flash nodded as he looked over to me. That was what the guy who attacked me was called. Did he mean Grey Withers?

“He attacked Onyx a few days ago…” he explained before pausing. “I actually hoped you knew something. Do you know anything?”

“Nah, I try to stay out of all that stuff these days. It’s better for my health,” he shook his head but looked concerned about what he was going to say next. “Although… I did get a visit from Lorian yesterday.”

Flash’s body language suddenly changed, he sat straighter and his jaw clenched. Whoever Lorian was, Flash didn’t like him in the slightest.

“Who is he?” I frowned.

“A murderous villain,” Flash replied slowly, hatred in his voice. “During the war, he was his masters most trusted general. He tortured and killed in order to squeeze the truth out of people. He has committed untold horrors to discover whatever information he could. He had a terrible power which meant that people stood no chance. He still uses it even now but he’s an ally, so he’s untouchable.”

“I didn’t think sorcerers would be so forgiving.”

“It depends who you speak to,” he muttered before glancing at Maven. “Why was he here?”

“He had a book that was close to disrepair. He wanted it fixing.”

“What did you say?”

“After some threats from me and simpering comments from him, I agreed to do the job. He claimed it was a very important and beloved anthology. I don’t care. Business is business at the end of the day,” Maven shrugged. “And also, it might be of some importance to you, I know you want to send him down.”

He stood up and went to one of the many book shelves in the room, easily finding what he was looking for without pausing for thought.

“I wonder if you’ve heard of the book,” he found it and pulled it off the shelf. “It’s called Black Hearts of Yore.”

Flash took it from him and studied it. It was a small black book with a gilded silver cross of the front cover. I’d seen it before, that’s why I was confused.

“What’s so important about an old poetry book about death?” I pulled a face.

“You know this book?” Maven turned to me, surprised.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “Callum had it in his study before he died.”

“What do you mean before he died?” Flash looked concerned.

“Well, it was gone…” I trailed off as I realised what must have happened.

“How do you know it was gone?” he asked.

“It was always on Callum’s desk,” I explained. “And on the day of the funeral it wasn’t.”

“Could you recognise the specific copy he had?” Maven gestured to the book.

“Yeah, easily,” I held out my hand for the book.

He passed it to me and I flicked to the only page that had a love poem on it. I frowned as I found a missing page. That was where the poem was meant to be, but it was torn out.

“One thing’s for certain, this guy didn’t care too much about his ‘beloved’ book,” I gestured to the torn page. “I can’t say for definite that this is Callum’s copy, but I’ve never seen another. The cross on the front was added by the author for my grandmother, apparently. I can’t imagine it was added to general release, if there was one.”

Thinking of Callum suddenly remembered the letter Flash had given me earlier. I pulled it out as Flash and Maven deliberated what to do.

Onyx, I know you’re confused. I left you my mansion and I left you a lot more. You need to listen to me. Someone very dangerous is after you. Beware of Bunny-Ears, if you see him, run. Trust me. Look after yourself, Onyx. This life may just suit you.

Well, that left me with more questions than before. Who was Bunny-Ears? Why couldn’t Callum have just given me a name? He must have known I’d get wrapped up in all this.

“This isn’t good,” Flash fretted. “Serpent must be after something, and this book must be the main reason he killed Callum.”

“That’s who killed Callum?” I asked, looking up from the letter.

“That’s him,” he nodded. “Serpent’s a murderous retch and well… a serpent.”

“Fitting,” I muttered.

“Some might say a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Maven remarked. “I guess you want the boys down at the Freedom House to have a look at this?”

“It would help the investigation,” Flash looked concerned. “But it may be best if you come too if Serpent realises that you gave us the book you may be in danger.”

“I’ve knocked that guy unconscious before,” Maven shot back.

“Even so,” Flash chuckled slightly. “He’s going to want to repay that favour.”

“You sound like a girl,” he smirked. “Alright, I’ll come.”

So, they’re both around four-hundred years old and express their friendship in a typical, twenty-first century, restrained emotions manner. Excellent. In my pocket, my phone suddenly rang. Seeing that it was Danyal I sighed and answered.

“What a rarity,” I remarked. “What’s up, Dan?”

“There’s someone asking for you,” he sounded uncomfortable. “I’m not sure what to say.”

“What does this guy look like?” I frowned.

He described that man, Grey Withers and I felt my stomach turn to ice. He’d escaped and was now after me. Whoever he was working for was resilient.

“Just say I’m out, if he asks where say you don’t know,” I was hardly skilled in crafting a lie. “I’m not answering my phone so you can’t check.”

“Is something going on, Onyx?” he sounded concerned.

For all his faults, Dan was a good brother who protected his little sister. I didn’t want to worry him any more than I had to.

“It’s nothing, just James’ uncle or something.”

James was my ex-boyfriend who I didn’t end on the best of terms with. Dan had never liked him and so was very happy when I ended things with him. Even if the story of his… romantic failures made Dan roll about on the floor laughing when I told him about it. It’s funny for him but I will never be able to listen to that song in the same way again.

“Say no more, I’ll get rid of him,” thankfully, Dan bought it. “See you later, Onyx.”

“Thanks, Dan,” I sighed. “I’ll see you later.”

“Who was that?” Flash looked concerned as a put my phone down.

“My brother,” I looked at him, frowning. “Grey Withers was at my house, looking for me.”

“Oh, hell,” he muttered. “We’d better be getting back up to the Freedom House.”

“The journey from hell,” Maven grumbled.

“Flash, he was at my house,” I folded my arms across my stomach as he headed out to the car. “He could have hurt my brother.”

“I know, Onyx,” he sighed. “Look, if he wanted to hurt your family, he would have done it by now. It hasn’t reached those extremes and I promise you, it won’t reach that point.”

“He killed my uncle.”

“And he’s going to pay for that,” he placed a hand on my shoulder. “I promise. Come on, the sooner we get back to the Freedom House, the sooner we’ll be safe.”

“Okay. Thank you, Flash.”

Maven and Flash talked in the front of the car about what they thought that Lorian Serpent guy was going to do while I lay in the back, dozing. My sleepiness was really kicking in now and I couldn’t wait to get home and crawl into bed. Flash turned on the radio and started humming along to a song by Take That or something. Catchy tune but not enough to keep me awake.

I kept slipping in and out of sleep. I was enjoying my sleep and then about ten minutes later I got pulled out if it. I kept hearing a strange whispery sound in my ear. It wasn’t words or anything, just unintelligible whispers. Damn, car engine. I sat up and looked out the window, giving up on rest. It was mid-afternoon again now and I knew where we were. My town was only just down the road… as if reading my mind Flash actually turned in the direction of the town. We went past my school and I saw the clone version of me. She was outside with a few friends by the gates. It was rare that I did that, I usually went to the library with Connie. We weren’t really well liked. I didn’t like the clone, we were identical and she was living my life.

“That feeling doesn’t last for long,” Flash must have glanced back at me in the rear-view mirror and noticed the look on my face. “She’ll be a mirror image of you.”

“Good,” I breathed.

Then, suddenly there was a great noise and the car was blown sky high. There was no time to react as the car carved through the air. It was like zero gravity for that split second and I remembered the spiel Flash had given me about the Mercedes just at the right moment, but then we came to a crash landing.

“Ow,” I groaned after a long few moments of dullness.

I’d hit my head on the window when we landed. I put my hand to my forehead then pulled it away quickly as pain responded to my touch. My hand was hot and sticky with blood. Maximum safety my arse, it still bloody hurt. Flash and Maven were unconscious in the front seat… great. Especially seen as we landed upside down, what should I do now? I’d never been in a car crash before. Movies told me that cars blew up after they crashed but we weren’t dead or on fire so that wasn’t true. School had prepared me for all the wrong things.

“I have to do everything myself,” a man outside of the car muttered.

A foot kicked in the window and glass rained all over me. Why did they kick in my window? Surely, whoever was out there knew Flash and Maven were in the front seat. What could be gained by coming in this way?

“You!” the voice outside snapped. “Make yourself useful and check she’s in there.”

“Yes sir,” a familiar voice obeyed.

Oh, hell… they were after me. Grey Withers scrambled in the window and grinned that rotting smile, despite the fact that he could barely fit through the window.

“She’s in ’ere!” he called outside before trying to squeeze further inside. “Come ’ere, kid.”

He reached towards me and I cried out as I tried to dodge his grasp. I desperately kicked at the window behind me to make the glass shatter, the shards thankfully missing me.

“Don’t let her get away, you fool,” the man outside hissed.

“Yes, sir,” Grey muttered indignantly.

I scrambled out the car, hissing in pain as the shards of glass pierced my knees but I got up without a second thought and began to run.

“Must I do everything?” the man sighed, his footsteps following me.

He was really fast, I could never out run him. I’d never been big on running or sport in general. The daft kits and shared resources from school put me off entirely. But I could hide from him. I veered sharply into an alley way and threw myself behind the nearest set of bins that I could hide behind. It stank and the air around me was warm but I was hidden. I could see a slight bit of the alley ahead of me but not enough to know if the man was there yet.

However, his arrival was impossible to miss and I took in his appearance. I wished I could say that the bad guy who was after me was as ugly as he was fiendish, but unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Just the sight of him was seductive. He had the kind of face that would stop someone in their tracks, every woman who had the ability to notice a man would be taken aback by him. His eyes were the first thing that a person would notice. They were a sharp, glittering, emerald green that stood out against his pale skin. His thick hair was lustrous and midnight black, contrasting his eyes and skin but looking prefect with his suit. It was traditional, charcoal black three-piece suit that appeared to be expensively tailored. It fitted his slender yet filled out frame to perfection and he definitely knew it. Rather than a crisp white shirt, he wore a concrete grey one and had a tie around his neck. Unlike my first meeting with Flash, this man’s tie was straight.

There was only one thing about him that wasn’t handsome in that menacing sort of way. That was his ears. There were noticeably deformed or anything but they were just slightly pointed. Like a pixie or an elf or a… or a bunny. The man Callum had warned me about. Bunny-Ears. Oh, you must be joking.

“Let’s see, if I was a scared child, where would I hide?” his voice was mocking but dangerous.

He didn’t speak at all like Flash. Flash had a warmth to his voice that wasn’t absent even when he was annoyed or angry, not that I think I’ve seen him angry since we met. This man had a voice that had a slight huskiness to it as well a power that was provided just in case his body language didn’t make it obvious. He was educated definitely, but, to his credit, there wasn’t a resonance of upper class arrogance to that tone.

He looked the alleyway up and down, his face unreadable. I had hidden in a panic and I don’t think I had concealed myself at all decently. If he was nearly as smart as I had been led to believe he was, then I was dead.

“I won’t hurt you,” he chuckled, clearly aware I was definitely here. “All I want is the key. If I’d wanted to be the bad guy, I would have killed your family while I had the chance. Come on out Onyx, you’ll make this much easier on yourself. I promise you, you’ll find me far more agreeable if you work with me.”

Don’t move, don’t move. I knew this guy would kill me if given the chance. Lorian Serpent sighed and pulled a slim gun from his inside suit pocket. I felt my eyes widen in shock and I held my breath, desperate for this situation to end.

“I’ll give you three seconds to come out or I’ll have to pry the key from your cold, dead body. I assure you, it won’t put me out in any way.”

I had to move. I couldn’t bank on the chance that he was bluffing. The sincerity in his voice certainly convinced me that his gun was loaded and he knew full where I was. I slowly crept from my hiding place and stood up, trying to look at least slightly confident. I doubt it worked. The second his eyes landed on me, I felt pain. It was intense. It wasn’t necessarily debilitating and if I endeavoured I could ignore it, but that was a difficult task.

“Very good,” he was taunting again. “Now, I’ve tried using words, I meant what I said but you wouldn’t listen. I gave you your chance and I’m not a merciful man. If violence is all you will listen to, then I will use violence. You could get in my way, Little Miss Brooks. I can get rid of you, just like I did your uncle.”

I tried backing away but he grabbed me by the arm, throwing me to the floor and pointing his shining, silver gun at me. He was tall and towered over me when I was stood normally, on the floor like this he was terrifying. Oh my god, he’s going to do it. He’s going to kill me. I have to think my way out of this, I have to stop him.

“If you kill me, how do you expect to get away with it?” my breath came out shallow and filled with panic. “Flash and Maven were in that car, they’ll be nearby. They’ll know it was you. The entire Freedom House will know. Flash will have the chance to arrest you. Do you think you’ll have enough time to do whatever your plan is before he catches you? Because I certainly don’t.”

For a moment, Serpent paused, his finger on the trigger and his glittering eyes showing deep and intense thought. Please say I’d done it. Please say he isn’t going to kill me. I’m too young to die.

“It’s a shame you chose to side the Freedom House, something like you could have done well in this world. In my world,” he didn’t look at all bothered as he tucked away the gun. “I’ll let you live, for now. But I’ll get what I want. Keep that key safe.”

I let out a sigh of relief as he began to walk away but I felt a weight in my chest at his mention of Callum that allowed me to find my voice.

“Callum’s death,” I spoke up, the footsteps stopping for a moment. “Was it… was it painful?”

“The gun would have been an act of mercy, child,” he replied in a slow, deliberate voice before he continued on his way, not bothering to look back.

My heart was pounding so loudly in my chest and I felt sick to the stomach. Flash was right, this was a dangerous life.

I slowly got back onto my feet not feeling any better but aware that I had to find Flash. If I was lucky he’d be waiting for me with Maven and he’d laugh at me when he saw the state I was in. I headed back to the Mercedes and nobody was there.

“Oh, for god’s sake,” I muttered. “Where is he?”

I knelt down on the floor despite the shattered glass and checked to see if they were still unconscious, nope. They were gone. Maybe they had gone looking for me and I should stay here.

It was then that police sirens pierced the air, they were obviously heading for here so I ran for it. My head ached from the crash and I was riddled with cuts and bruises too.

“Onyx, right?” a gruff voice spoke behind me.

I slowly turned around, warily studying the man nearby. He was hard to describe, he was tough looking and had been through a fair number of fights in his lifetime. That was not entirely comforting.

“That’s me,” I wasn’t too comfortable.

“Blackguard sent me looking for you,” he didn’t look impressed. “He said he needed to talk to Abalone and you’d understand.”

“And you are?” I frowned, he wasn’t exactly someone I’d generally trust.

“That doesn’t matter. You’re either coming or not.”

The street disappeared around us before I could even blink and suddenly I was stood in a large hospital ward, the guy long gone. I assumed he was the teleporter that Flash had mentioned in passing. A man of few words who got the job done. Refreshing.

The Professor came to have a look at me soon after spotting me. The Professor seemed nice, if not slightly cantankerous. He didn’t appear to be the biggest fan of Flash but he was one of the few sorcerers who’d treated me with any sort of kindness outside of Flash himself. He out my cuts and bruises and told me I’d be totally healed in a day or so. My head healed immediately and the pain was eased almost as quickly.

“Who attacked you?” he asked.

“Lorian Serpent,” I replied.

“That snake in a grass,” he sneered slightly but seemed to naturally trust me, which I was flattered by. “Nobody thinks he should be classed as an ally but that’s the problem with having such a trusting Grand High Sorcerer. We must forgive and forget, even if the actions of the Generals are unforgivable.”

“Does it have many problems?” I frowned.

“There were two other contenders aside from Abalone. One was Vice Ludwhig who I imagine you’ve met. He’s a highly strung young man, easily stressed but highly intimidating. He was popular, but not to the degree of Abalone. The more unpopular contender now resides in London and schemes against every policy Abalone brings in. There are no problems, not in comparison to how things could be.”

“Yeah, Vice Ludwhig isn’t fond of me,” I muttered.

“Don’t take it to heart. He’s not fond of anyone.”

He soon told me I was fine to go and wished me luck in dealing with Serpent. Sounds like we need it. I went off and tried to find Flash.

Instead, I ended up getting lost…

Eventually, I entered the oval hall where the three vices and a man who I guessed was Abalone Jacobson was talking with Flash and Maven. They both looked a mess. Flash had lost his hat and his suit was torn in many places. The pair had been in a car crash but didn’t look too badly off for it.

“Onyx,” Flash sighed with relief. “Thank god you’re okay. What happened to you? You vanished, I was worried.”

“I got attacked,” I explained slowly.

For a moment he was silent, a look that was dangerously close to anger crossing his face before he slowly spoke again.

“Who attacked you?”

“The same man who killed my uncle. It was Serpent.”

“Do I believe me now?” Flash glanced to Abalone and his Vices.

Abalone was an older looking man. He was a fair bit older looking than Flash. If Flash was four-hundred, then Abalone must be around six-hundred. At least, that was what I imagined. I had no idea how you’d gauge age when magic was involved though. I was bad enough with ordinary people. I’d have said that maybe Serpent was the same age as Flash… ish, but I had no actual idea.

“The girl might not be right,” Vice Ludwhig whispered to Abalone in a tone loud enough for me to hear.

“I think I know who attacked me,” I bristled.

“Onyx,” Flash spoke lowly. “Leave it.”

“She hasn’t changed her name yet?” Ludwhig caught onto Flash whether he liked it or not. “We thought we were clear with our instructions.”

“You were clear,” Flash assured him.

“Then why hasn’t she changed it?”

“Dude, I’m right here!” I spoke before I could help myself.

“How did you just address me?” he glowered at me.

“You really need to get out more.”

“You were told to change your name,” he said through gritted teeth.

“I’ve been busy!”

“Our instructions were clear,” he growled.

“Leave it be, Vice Ludwhig,” Abalone instructed.

“But-”

“Leave it,” he looked firmly at him.

He folded his arms like an annoyed school child but fell silent obediently. Aw, what a good boy. I smirked over at him smugly and he glared angrily at me, still not saying another word.

“Now, Detective Blackguard…” he looked at Flash. “I believe we owe you an apology for not listening to your warnings, and I offer my deepest condolences to you, Miss Brooks, as I know that your altercation could have been avoided.”

“Thank you, your grandness,” Flash spoke with that same confidence he addressed everyone with.

“Now, what is Serpent up to?” he looked at us expectantly.

Flash looked at me and I looked at him, neither of us entirely sure what to say.

“Well…” I chewed my lip.

“I’ll admit we’re not all that sure,” Flash was deciding how to put it. “But we do have a lot of evidence.”

“We do?” I raised my eyebrow.

“I think,” he didn’t look too sure. “We have a certain amount of evidence that, if given time, we could thread together to create an elaborate tapestry that would form Serpent’s plan.”

“Do continue, Blackguard,” Vice St Alde, the one in his thirties, prompted.

“That’s just what I was planning. Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “Well, we know Serpent killed Onyx’s uncle Callum and then sent Grey Withers after Onyx asking her for a key. But she doesn’t have a key of any sort.”

“You don’t?” Abalone looked at me.

“Afraid not,” I shook my head.

“We aren’t strictly sure where the key would go, but I suppose it would be somewhere on Callum’s property,” Flash added.

“How did you come to that conclusion?” Vice Waltham asked.

“Process of elimination,” he shrugged. “Serpent must have killed Callum, assuming he had the key but when he realised he didn’t, he sent one of his lackey’s after his favourite niece, Onyx. Now the key opens something on the property-”

“Which I now own,” I pointed out.

“You do?” everyone looked at me.

“He left it me in his will,” I shrugged before my eyebrows furrowed. “You were there!”

Flash paused for a second, clearly remembering that he was indeed at the reading of my uncle’s will.

“So, I was,” he mused.

“So, you were.”

“Let me rephrase the plan,” Flash sighed. “Serpent killed Callum assuming he had the key, but when he realised he didn’t, he sent one of his lackey’s after Onyx. The key opens something on the property which was left to Onyx in Callum’s will so that must be why he went after her… unless…”

“Unless what?” Maven folded his arms.

“Callum could have known that he was going to be murdered as soon as he first encountered Serpent, ten years ago, so he hid the key in the safest place possible and created a series of clues that would lead us to where the key was being kept safe.”

“What clues?” Ludwhig pressed.

“And where was it hidden?” I frowned.

“I’m getting there,” Flash waved us away. “Serpent found out where the key was via the clues after he murdered Callum, but when he sent Grey after it he didn’t tell him that when he attacked Onyx, the key was right under his nose.”

“You still haven’t told us what the clues are,” Vice Ludwhig snapped.

“I said I’m getting there,” Flash sounded annoyed.

“Well, get on with it,” I sighed.

“I’ve lost where I was…”

“The key was right under Grey’s nose,” Maven prompted.

“Ah, yes. So Grey left empty handed and the key was safe. Lorian had nearly destroyed the biggest clue to not only the keys location but to the location of the lock so he took a big risk by giving it to Maven to fix. He was keeping an eye on Maven just in case we arrived. When we did, he panicked, and when we left with Maven, he didn’t know where to turn. Maven, when you get home your house and office will be trashed. Serpent wanted to get rid of us quietly but obviously he ran out of ideas and crashed the car because he wanted to save the key and the book,” Flash turned to Maven. “Please say you still have the book.”

Maven rolled his eyes as he took it from his pocket and handed it over to Flash without a word. Clearly Flash was prone to going off on one.

“This book holds a clue to where the key is. Onyx was the one that showed it to me.”

“Black Hearts of Yore,” Abalone read the title. “It doesn’t sound like the kind of book Callum would have.”

“I agree,” Flash admitted.

“My grandmother was the one who owned it,” I explained. “Callum adored her.”

“Onyx, you mentioned the key without even realising it.”

“I did?” I was surprised.

“Callum was an incredibly smart man, believe it or not, so he knew that the clue had to be simple. He had this book on his desk for years and nobody ever noticed it. The key is pride of place, right on the front cover,” Flash turned to me and I finally understood it.

“My necklace,” I breathed, closing my hand around the pendant that hung around my neck.

“You said this was the only copy. That necklace around your neck is one of a kind,” he was obviously very proud of himself.

I don’t understand it. Why would Callum give me such an important key? He must have known that it was safer with dad, so why did he give it to me? What would Callum have been thinking to give it to me? What did it unlock? All this talk of a key and we had no idea what the location was. The mansion was huge, not to mention the land around it.

“He left both the key and the location to you,” Flash spoke gravely. “He was a smart man.”

“How was he a smart man? He gave something that a tyrannical villain wants to a child,” Vice Ludwhig sneered.

I felt myself bristling again. He was so someone who had been given too much power in his lifetime. The Professor had mentioned that Ludwhig was highly strung and intimidating. He didn’t mention that he was also ill-mannered too, although I think he was hinting at it.

“Nobody would think to look for a key on a sixteen-year-old girl,” Flash spoke before I could.

“But they did find it on me,” I reminded them in a low voice.

I didn’t like the silence that followed but I knew it was needed. The man had nearly killed me for the necklace that hung around my neck. That said it all.

“Well, on that sombre note, I’ll have to take my leave. I have a meeting,” Vice Ludwhig spoke again.

He strolled from the room without another word. That’s odd. Who on earth would he have a meeting with without the others?

That night, Flash used a rent-a-car to drop me off at home. He was silent for most of the journey and I didn’t want to break it. He seemed to be deep in thought, there was a lot going through his mind. That had been evident since Serpent had been identified as the person who was definitely behind this. I couldn’t match him, so I decided not to speak.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked eventually.

“I’m fine,” I assured him.

“You were attacked by one of the most feared men to ever exist,” he looked at me. “It’s okay not to be okay, Onyx.”

“I managed to talk myself out of the situation. I mean it, I’m alright.”

“I should have been there,” he shook his head. “Serpent wouldn’t have dared touch you if I was there.”

“I’m fine,” I promised. “Don’t worry, Flash.”

“I have to worry,” he pulled up outside my dark house. “He knows who you are and he could hurt anyone to get to you. It’s not beyond him, not at all.”

“Look, Flash, I know there is no way that we should trust him but he said he wouldn’t hurt my family and he had Danyal cornered in the house on his own, he won’t touch them.”

“Even so,” he sighed. “I think you should think more about changing your name. Serpent kills for fun and if he has to kill someone to get to you, he will. That goes for most villains out there. There are just as many bad sorcerers as there are bad people.”

“I’ll start thinking about it,” I nodded. “I promise.”

“You have another option, you know?”

“And that is?” I raised my eyebrow.

“You go inside and go to school tomorrow. Pretend this never happened and go on with your ordinary life. You’ve seen too much to be able to forget, but there are people out there who know and simply carry on with their lives. You’ve got a lot going for you, you know?”

“Flash, I can’t,” I shook my head. “I still have this key, don’t I? I’m involved in this. I can’t just pretend that it isn’t happening.”

“Well… it’s your choice, Onyx. I just know that this won’t be a one-time thing. The likelihood is that someone will attack you again, and I might not be there that time, either.”

“This may surprise you, Flash, but I can actually look after myself. I know this magic stuff is on another level but I’m a quick learner. If it’s sink or swim, I’m just going to have to learn to swim, aren’t I? I can handle it.”

For a moment he was quiet, smiling slightly. I wasn’t sure if he was amused by what I’d said or whether he was just exasperated. With Flash, it was difficult to tell.

“I know you can, Onyx,” he spoke eventually. “Like I say, it’s your choice. I’ll pick you up in the morning, alright?”

“Alright,” I nodded slowly.

He opened the door to the house for me, since I was hardly able to climb the tree right now and I snuck up the stairs to my room. My clone was lay there, faking sleep. She spotted me and promptly got out of the bed.

“You look rough,” she frowned. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” I nodded.

It was weirdly comforting to talk to myself but not myself. I suppose it was something I’d start to get used to as time went on. I understood why Flash was concerned. I had been so terrified when Serpent had attacked me but I had survived it. Didn’t that count?

“I was wondering when you were going to get back,” the clone interrupted my thoughts.

“Well, I’m back now so you can do the thing you do when I’m here while I go to bed,” I gestured uselessly.

“Can do,” she nodded and then disappeared like a mist.

Memories flooded into my brain along with what seemed like a mini instruction video that showed me how to work the clone. I ignored it and crawled into bed, only bothering to kick off my shoes. I usually struggle getting to sleep but on this occasion, I drifted right off.

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