It’s the End of the World as We Know It.
“Have you seen Vel?” I asked my assistant as she buzzed past, wings whirring softly in the quiet space.
“No.” Sebille stopped in front of me and popped into full size, her expression perplexed. “I was just looking for Baca. One of the ceiling tiles is loose in the bookstore. I was going to have her fix it.”
I frowned, looking around the enormous, warehouse-like space of the artifact library. “I just realized I haven’t seen Mr. Wicked or Hobs either since dinner.”
Our gazes met and locked, alarm widening her iridescent green eyes and my blue ones in matching indications of concern. “What are they up to?” I asked, knowing it was a rhetorical question since nobody but the aforementioned little monsters knew the answer.
If my cat, Mr. Wicked, was missing, along with the brownie, Baca, and her constant companion, Hobs, that was concerning enough. If the newest member of our strange gang was missing too, things were almost guaranteed to get squiggy. Vel, our little demon dog, was a sweet but undisciplined disaster waiting to happen. We’d gotten her from the demonic plane, and I suspected she was just a puppy with massive powers she seemed to have little control over.
The front bell rang and a clear, worried voice called out. “Naida? Sebille? I need to talk to you.”
I looked at Sebille and she rolled her eyes. “What does she want now?”
Sebille didn’t usually react that way to our friend Lea, the earth witch who lived above the magical herbs shop next door. The sprite generally saved that level of derision for me. But Lea had been in something of a dither for the last couple of weeks. She’d read some signs in tea leaves or something. We assumed she was reading them wrong. But she was sure of her results. And they were bad. Really bad. Basically, she was predicting the end of the world.
Two brisk knocks on the dividing door between the store and the artifact library had me sighing. As much as I loved my friend, like Sebille, I was getting just a wee bit tired of the drama about the full moon. I mean, we had a full moon a dozen times a year, right? What made the current full moon so different?
I threw a wisp of my Keeper magic toward the door and it opened, revealing a harried, wild-eyed earth witch wearing pink and lace footie pajamas.
“Ah!” Sebille said, holding up her arms as if to ward off a boogie. “What are you wearing?”
Looking perplexed, Lea glanced down at her curvy form. “My PJs. Why? What’s wrong with them?”
“Other than the obvious?” Sebille asked.
“Says the woman who wears red and white striped footie PJs to bed all the time?” I said, in Lea’s defense. Not to mention the green and purple polka dot dress Sebille was currently wearing with black and red striped stockings and fire-engine-red shoes that matched her long, red hair. My assistant was the last person who should be picking on somebody else’s clothing choices.
“I wear them in the winter,” Sebille responded. “It’s only October. Way too early for the Full Monty, pajama-wise.”
Lea hurried over, the plastic bottoms of her footie feet scraping softly on the concrete. “My heat’s broken, and the shop is freezing.” She fluttered her hands dismissively. “That’s not important. I just read the tea leaves again.”
I didn’t look at Sebille. I didn’t want to see the face I knew she was making. “Oh?”
To be honest, I was with Sebille about the tea leaf overdose. Lea had just learned to read tea leaves, and she was seeing danger around every corner since starting. The whole thing had a “Chicken Little” feel to it. “I take it you saw something alarming?”
Sebille elbowed me in the side hard enough to make me grunt. She didn’t want me to encourage the witch. If she could communicate telepathically, she’d no doubt be telling me, “Shut it. The witch finds enough trouble without us encouraging her.”
I didn’t disagree.
Lea ran a hand through her long, light brown hair, her movements jerky and agitated. “Nothing new,” she responded. “Just the same death and destruction.”
“Can you give us anything to work with?” I asked. “Any detail at all?”
Lea shook her head, looking like she wanted to cry. “I’m getting the full moon, with a blood-red haze over it. And howling. Lots of howling. Then I get this feeling of death.” She shuddered, clearly affected by what she was seeing.
Even if it was all in her imagination.
“Look, Lea…” I began.
The bell on the front door clanged again. Hippopotamus halitosis! “Did somebody replace the front door with a revolving one?”
Lea frowned. “It wasn’t locked when I came inside. In fact, the knob is kind of kluge.”
“Kluge how,” I asked, heading for the front of the building. I tugged the dividing door open and found a man with broad shoulders and mahogany-brown hair standing by the front door. He was staring down at something in his big hand.
“Kluge like that,” Lea said. She nodded toward the doorknob in my boyfriend Grym’s palm.
He looked up, an apology in his dark caramel gaze. “I’m really sorry, Naida. It just came off in my hand.” It might have been the result of his gargoyle DNA. Or the door might have been compromised already, as Lea suggested.
Panic swirled through me. Had Croakies been broken into?
I looked at Sebille. “I need to do a quick read of the whole place.”
She nodded. “I’ll make tea.”
Tea would fix everything. Well, not everything. “We might need cookies too.”
The sprite nodded.
Grym turned back to the door and tried to stick the handle back into it. “Where’s Baca? She can fix this in no time.”
The brownie was becoming indispensable.
I closed my eyes and lifted my hands, palms up. Tugging power from my core, I released it in dual waves of silvery energy that spread throughout the bookstore and then moved into the much larger artifact library at the back. As it moved through the building, I mentally inventoried every magical book and artifact, finding nothing out of place or missing.
Opening my eyes, I shook my head. “I don’t know where Baca is,” I said, belatedly answering Grym’s question. “I can’t find any of them.” Noting Grym’s dour expression, I realized he hadn’t just come to Croakies to say hey. “What’s wrong?”
Grym was a detective with the Enchanted Police. I gathered from his manner that he had business of a police nature to share with us. I also guessed it wasn’t good news.
He motioned toward the table by the bookshelves. “You might want to sit down.” He took the tea Sebille offered him and nodded at Lea. “All of you.”
Panic swirled in my chest, making my heart flutter with concern. “What’s wrong?” I repeated, my tone going slightly shrill. “The kids are okay, right? You’re not here to tell us something’s happened to them?” Suddenly the idea that I hadn’t seen them since dinner took on a sinister feel.
My question was based on recent experience. There had been a whole Pied Piper thing that still gave me nightmares. The sight of all of my friends and loved ones being marched away to almost certain death had left me scarred.
Grym gave me an apologetic look. “No. This isn’t about them. But…” He stared into his teacup and sighed. “You might want to keep them close for a bit.”
“Why?” Lea asked. She glanced toward the door, and I didn’t need to read her mind to know she was thinking about her little cat, Hex, alone in her apartment next door.
Grym set the tea down on the table and shoved his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “You remember Rhonda across the street?”
I nodded. “The banshee.” I’d only met Rhonda a couple of times, but both times had been memorable. She’d joined us for a pretty chaotic Christmas party where someone had spelled the cookies to mix up our bodies with our spirits. I would never forget the experience, having spent way too much time as a frog, craving bugs. I shuddered at the memory. The second time, we’d been battling a building-sized snake, and she’d screamed the monster to sleep for us. “I haven’t seen her for a while.” Even as I spoke the words, I knew what he was going to say.
“Well, she…” his brows lowered as he seemed to be struggling with the right words. “Somebody…” He shook his head. “She’s dead.”
“Oh!” Lea said, shuddering violently. She looked at Sebille and me. “See! I told you. Somebody’s already been killed! I was right.”
I held up a hand for her to calm down. “How did she die?” I asked Grym.
He winced. “I don’t really want to…”
Sebille, Lea, and I all gave him the stink eye.
“You can’t come in here and tell us Rhonda’s dead and then not tell us what happened,” Sebille said.
“She’s right,” I told him.
“Was she murdered?” Lea asked, looking as if she’d just eaten a bug.
“Yes,” he finally said. “She was killed. Somebody, or something, chewed on her.”