Skullhaven, formerly Springfield, was vampire territory.

After their grand entrance at the end of the Human/Fey Conflict, the local bloodsuckers either scared off or killed most of the human inhabitants of Skullhaven, claiming it for their own. Within days, the fourth largest city in New England was nothing more than a ghost town.

Now, the only day-walking residents were vamp slaves, soon to be slaves, and those beings too tough and stubborn to be run off.

At night, the maze of burned out and abandoned buildings became what many Agents called, accurately enough, The Vampire’s Playground. Here, their prey was set loose to run the city streets in a deadly game of cat and mouse.

All within the law, hopefully; vamps caught chasing human prey without a signed and notarized release form earned themselves an immediate death sentence. In any case, they weren’t lacking in volunteers. Death by vampire was the fastest growing, legalized form of suicide in the country.

It made me sick to my stomach just thinking about it. I loathed vampires. They were nothing but evil, lying parasites. I would gladly exterminate the lot of them if I could.

I drove up Carew Street, past several vamp-owned, slave-run businesses catering to the darker desires of flesh, blood, and soul. I found Liam’s street next to what had once been a hospital. Now it was a blackened husk; run by a Catholic organization before the Fall, it was unusable to the vampires. Dark holes in the tall building stared malevolently at me as I cruised past.

Liam’s house was a diamond in a pile of coal. The neighborhood was on the outskirts of Skullhaven and most of the original inhabitants had long since fled to safer pastures. Not a single living creature could be seen along the entire street, although I’m pretty sure several pairs of unfriendly eyes watched from neighboring houses. Paranoia and a localized form of xenophobia ran rampant in Skullhaven.

I got out of my car slowly, examining the neighborhood for any signs of trouble. Shimmering waves of heat radiated up from the broken pavement, and rusted out car chassis threatened bodily harm should anyone venture onto the overgrown lawns lining the street.

The blue and green split-level ranch in front of me was the only one not in need of a new coat of paint and a few passes with a lawn mower. The front windows shone from a recent cleaning and the flowerbeds showed no signs of needing to be weeded. I idly wondered if Mr. McAllister did the work himself or if he hired somebody to come in and do it for him. I didn’t want to know how much a cleaning service would charge to venture inside Skullhaven.

I stepped onto the front walkway with caution; anybody who dared live this close to Skullhaven and managed to prosper was no pushover. Without breaking stride, I mentally opened my Third Eye and took a look around using my newly spectroscopic vision to search for any wardings or other spells my approach might trigger.

The energy that makes up and surrounds all things became visible to my inner senses, almost like a hazy 3-D overlay. It allowed me to decipher any fluctuations in the natural rhythms. Everybody has the innate ability to use their sixth sense, or Third Eye as it’s more commonly called, to see energy, but becoming proficient in accurately identifying the subtle nuances of energy was difficult. Even after almost ten years in the Agency, I had yet to become more than mediocre at it.

An ugly, prickly black “keep away” spell was laid on the land, but it hadn’t activated upon my approach. Interesting. Did it only work on vamps? Or was there something else Mr. McAllister wanted kept away from his home?

The only other spell I could detect was a green and brown serpentine glyph entwined around the plants. I steered well clear of them. I’d be the butt of plenty of nasty jokes around the Agency if I accidentally brushed up against a plant that came to life and tried to kill me.

Keeping my Third Eye open, I ascended the front stairs, my other senses on heightened alert.

“Hello? This is Agent Alex Powers with the Vamyraset,” I called, knocking lightly on the door. At my touch, the door swung open and the stench of decay rolled over me like a punch in the face. I instinctively closed down my Third Eye before I looked at whatever had died. I didn’t need to see death in all its Technicolor glory. I was balancing on the edge enough as it was.

There, lying in the middle of the foyer, almost hidden in the shadow of an overturned armoire was a bloody, mess that had once been a living being. What species it was I couldn’t tell; the face had been ripped off entirely and the rest of the body was mutilated beyond recognition. Judging by the state of decay, he had been dead for less than three days.

            This is more like it. Dead bodies I know what to do with.

            My brain clicked into analytical work-mode instantly, noting and remembering the placement of every piece of furniture, blood spatter, and shard of broken glass.

The siren song of death pulled me across the threshold where I was immediately inundated with a barrage of sights and sounds – chaotic imprints of the moments before the death, and unexpectedly strong ones at that. Only extraordinarily high levels of chaotic activity could endure for more than a few hours after the event.

Even as I silently despised myself for it, I paused to savor the sights and smells of decomposition. Heightened demonic senses picked up subtle nuances I’d have missed before – the clear yellow drip of marrow from a cracked bone, dried and flaking away in the light breeze from the open door, and the odor of released bowels. I had once gagged at the smell; now I reveled in it.

There were no flies buzzing around the body, nor any other sign of insect activity, which struck me as odd.

What struck me as even more odd was the surprisingly small amount of blood. The average adult human-sized body contained about six quarts of blood. There was less than one here by my approximation. No obvious trail of blood led from another part of the house. It was possible the body had been dumped here after death.

As I struggled to pull on a pair of latex gloves without shredding them, Tommy’s admonition to call him if anything went wrong filtered through my brain. I reluctantly returned to my car and tried fishing my cell phone out of my pocket. My claws snagged the inner seam and ripped half the pocket off.

Grumbling in irritation, I pulled the phone out and flipped it open. I carefully punched in the numbers to Tommy’s office; I didn’t need to replace my phone because I’d ruined it with my claws.

“We’ve got a problem, Tommy,” I said as soon as he answered with his usual gruff hello. “I’m at McAllister’s house now. We have a dead body here.”

I listened to Tommy swear for a few moments before cutting in.

“The body is too disfigured for me to ID it visually. The only thing I can tell you is, whoever it is, they’ve been dead for only a couple of days and they’re not a vampire.” Despite popular myths, vampires only decayed to a pile of ash if their bodies were exposed to direct sunlight or fire.

The cloyingly sweet odor of decomposition was creeping out of the house toward my car. My nose twitched, searching for a stronger hint of it, like a child sniffing at the oven door for a whiff of chocolate cake.

I narrowed my eyes in thought, bringing up memories of past cases. The odor was of a body at least a week dead.

“Tommy, can you send a Breaker in with the investigation team? I think there might have been some sort of stasis spell laid over the body to keep it from decomposing.”

“I’ll have Vic tag along with the clean-up team, he’s the best Spell Breaker on-call today.” I could hear him taking a deep breath and I knew I wasn’t going to like his next words. “I don’t want you to go back inside the house until Vic does a check. Liam is dangerous and I wouldn’t put it past him to have set booby traps.”

I started to protest, but he cut me off.

“You’re a tough-ass bitch, Powers, but I think even you’d be hard pressed to stand up against some of his spells without Luka to back you up.” Some might have called it a low blow, but it was nothing more than the stark truth. I knew my limitations – magic was one of them.

Scuffing the toe of my boot in the grass, I scowled. Yes, it was for my own good. I knew that. With my lowered inhibitions it was probably for the good of everyone else involved as well, but I hated to have to wait to get inside a crime scene.

Part of it was pure childishness, I will admit, but I also wanted to go back in to catch another glimpse of the chaotic imprints. I might glean something from them to give me an idea of where to go next. It wasn’t anything admissible in court because it was too sporadic and hazy, but it was damned useful when I was stumped.

“All right, I’ll wait in my car until they get here,” I conceded, “but tell them to hurry their asses up. I don’t want to wait around all day for them.”

I hung up and sat on the hood of my car to wait for Vic and the rest of the cleanup team.

Twenty minutes later, the coroner’s white van and a grey SUV carrying the crime scene techs pulled into the driveway. The screeching of tires accompanied the arrival of a baby blue Corvette.

I smiled and rolled my eyes. I enjoyed working with Victor Hughes. He was smart, funny, and easy to relax around. It also helped that he was easy on the eyes. Unfortunately, I wasn’t Vic’s type, and neither were any other beings of the female persuasion.

“Alex, darling! How are you?” Vic slammed the door to his car and strode over to me, hands extended. The crime scene techs waved to me from their windows, but stayed inside. They would remain in their vehicles until Vic gave them the all clear. Nobody wanted to be working in a house possibly booby trapped with spells.

Clasping hands, we kissed each other’s cheeks. Then, the formal greeting complete, Vic wrapped me in his long arms and swung me around in a bear hug. Big brown eyes crinkled with pleasure as he released me and looked me over from head to toe. “Love the pink hair, darling, much better than the green you had last time I saw you, but you’re looking a little peaky. Are you sure you’re getting enough rest and keeping yourself hydrated? And what did you do to your hand, young lady?”

If “peaky” was the only word he was using to describe how I looked, then I must not be as bad off as I imagined; Vic was an insufferable mother-hen. I kept telling him he needed to adopt a couple of rugrats, but he always refused, saying he didn’t want to be a single father who was never home. To which I’d invariable reply that he needed to find a man he could settle down with who wouldn’t mind staying home with the kids. He’d always laugh and change the subject.

“I’m doing good. It’s just been a very long, very weird day. How’ve you been? You look great! I haven’t seen you since the Belmont case.” The last time I’d seen him, we’d just finished chasing a night hag through the woods to her den. Three months later and I still had nightmares about the dead and dying children we found in there. If the horrified look I’d seen in his eyes as we stared around the room was any indication, I’d be willing to bet he did too.

I’d beheaded the bitch right then and there. Only after did we find out that she was a highly respected member of the Councilhall. The political repercussions were still being felt, but feeding on the innate potential of small children, and devouring them in the process, was grounds for immediate termination. And I was more than happy to be the one to play executioner.

I smiled up at Vic, shielding my eyes from the sun. He was a couple inches taller than me, with short dark hair that managed to look tousled no matter how much he combed it flat. He kept in shape without being too muscular and the dark blue shirt he wore clung to his torso just right, complimenting the black slacks that hugged his hips and thighs. As well as other areas he’d be shocked to know I stared at. Not that either of us were prudes, far from it, but he didn’t see women in a sexual manner and couldn’t wrap his brain around the fact that they might view him like that.

Vic was a witch – a follower of one of those New Age, Neo-Pagan religions that recognizes the sacredness of all living things and advocate harming none. Insisting the word witch is gender neutral, they maintain it can be applied to both males and females. Witches are not mages or sorcerers, their magic is more a manipulation of natural energies that’s subtle and largely invisible, but no less effective.

“I’ve been doing well.” Vic took my hand and walked toward the house with me. “I met somebody and we’ve been together for three months now. I’m not sure it’s love, but it’s certainly great lust.”

My appreciative laugh was cut short as we stepped onto the front stoop and Vic stiffened in alarm.

“What’s wrong?”

He didn’t answer. Dropping my hand, I sensed him opening his Third Eye just as I had done earlier. His eyes lost their focus and his face went slack. I watched him scan the yard and house and I knew he was able to identify the two spells I had sensed earlier. His eyes never quite looked directly at anything. It was more as if he were looking through things or around them. He slowly pushed the door open all the way with his foot and stared intently at the corpse.

“Did you enter the house at all?” His worried voice was distant, as if he were talking in his sleep.

“I just walked through the doorway. Not more than a foot past the threshold. Why? What’s in there?”

His eyes flicked over me and a shiver rippled through my body. I hate when people look at me with their Third Eye. It feels as if they were looking down into the very depths of my soul and seeing the darkness sleeping there.

“There’s a black curse hanging over the body.” He returned his gaze to the inside of the house and resumed his perusal of the hall. “It’s going to take me a few minutes to unravel it and learn what it was designed to do.”

I re-opened my Third Eye and looked back into the hallway, carefully keeping my eyes off the corpse. Now that I knew something was there, I could sense a large, black, vaguely person-shaped shadow shot through with streaks of gold glitter hanging about three inches over the body. I hadn’t noticed any curses when I looked in the room the first time. Only somebody who knew what to look for could see such a subtle weaving.

I shut down my Third Eye and waited patiently for Vic to finish his examination of the room. His eyes closed and his head drooped down to rest on his chest. When he opened them again, his eyes had refocused, but his gaze still looked distant.

“That is one of the most complex spells I have ever seen.” His voice held a mixture of awe and trepidation. “I think I’ve got it unraveled enough to neutralize it, but I don’t fully understand its purpose. Thankfully, it’s directed toward the body and won’t affect anyone else.”

He looked tired already and he hadn’t even begun the hard part yet. Breaking even a minor spell required massive amounts of concentration and willpower. Breaking this one would practically sap him dry.

“The sorcerer or mage who did this is good. I’m almost positive the curse was cast before the person died. I would say it’s at least six months old.” He scratched his chin, aggravation and confusion written all over his face.

“That doesn’t make any sense. I’m not exactly an honors student when it comes to spellwork, but don’t spells cast on living things break after death?” I was missing Luka’s expertise right about then. He’d have dragged Vic off to the side and the two of them would have spent hours debating the intricacies of the spell, all the while translating their conversation into layman’s terms for me so I didn’t feel like a complete loser.

“They should,” he agreed. He dug his long fingers through his hair, pulling his head back, then trailed down to his shoulders. His hands clasped together behind his neck and he rolled his head, working out the knots.

“From what we’ve deduced, spells cast on living beings are somehow attached to that being’s life force or soul. Once the link to the soul is gone, the spell has nothing with which to hold itself together and just dissipates. I’ve never heard of a spell being attached to something other than its intended target and still affecting just them, but it is theoretically possible, I guess.”

“What about the spell to keep the scent of decay inside the house? Is there enough of a residue left for you to trace?”

“There’s just the faintest trace of the barrier spell. It was strong enough to last at least a week and yet fragile enough to disappear almost completely once broken. I don’t think the person who cast the stasis spell was the same person who cast the curse. The feel of the energy isn’t the same.”

The Universe was conspiring against me, I just knew it. Why else would I be given a case where nothing followed the pre-ordained rules?

 

~*~*~*~*~*~

 

Almost an hour later, a blinding flash of light and a loud crack announced that Vic had managed to break the curse.

He stumbled out of the house, face pale and haggard, his hair clinging to his face in soggy clumps and his shirt covered in sweat. He gave the techs the all clear signal, then slowly made his way back to his car.

I climbed out of my own car and followed him over, opening the driver’s side door for him.

“What’s the word? Any ideas on that curse?”

He was exhausted, both physically and mentally, but I needed some information to go on. Diving head first into a case like this without any solid information was never a good idea.

“There’s not much I can tell you. I’m completely baffled by it. I need to do some research and get back to you.” Shaking his head, Vic climbed inside his car and shut the door. “From what I could decipher, some of the elements of the curse shouldn’t have been used together. Normally, they cancel each other out when mixed together, but this spell intertwined them seamlessly without disrupting anything.”

Leaning his head back against the seat, he closed his eyes and blew out a large breath of air.

“I’ll give you a call tomorrow to let you know if I find out anything else,” he said. “In the meantime, young lady, I want you to promise me you’ll watch yourself.”

I rolled my eyes, but nodded.

“I’ll be careful and not play around with anything that could go kablooey.” I stuck my head through the open window and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll probably be out of the office for most of the day, so call my cell phone. I’m heading over to the morgue first thing in the morning, then I have a meeting at noon.” Tommy hadn’t said not to talk about my case, but my gut said this one needed to be kept quiet.

“You’ve got it.” He started the engine and gave me a weary wave goodbye. “I’ll be talking to you tomorrow, then.”

I headed back to the house and peeked inside. Four techs were busy dusting for prints and taking readings on machines that looked better suited to a science fiction movie. One, a petite blonde, was hunched over the body taking samples of the fluids beginning to leak from the bloated corpse. It no longer looked fresh. I upped my calculated time of death by at least three or four days. This body had lain here for more than a week before I found it.

After waiting for the go-ahead from the techs, I did my own bit of investigating.

Shattered knickknacks and upended furniture graced nearly every room on the first floor. From the direction of blood spatters, skid marks, and impact marks on the walls, I determined that the path of destruction started in the kitchen at the back of the house and progressed very quickly to the front hallway.

It was my guess that somebody was trying to get away, probably the corpse, and was pursued with both magical and non-magical weapons; I noted several small holes in the kitchen floor that looked very much like bullet holes.

Trying to re-enact the scene in my head, I pictured two individuals meeting over coffee in the kitchen to discuss business. Two chipped and stained ceramic mugs lay overturned on the aged Formica table. One had held black coffee, the other had been overwhelmed by hazelnut creamer. A sticky, dried puddle of java suggested both cups were around half full when the battle had started. No trail of ants led up to the sweetened mess; the stasis spell must have extended over the entire house.

A heat trail scorched the top of the table from black coffee drinker to Hazelnut. The opening attack. Tiny burn marks scattered over Hazelnut’s end of the table and the floor under the chair-turned-kindling told me Hazelnut had been expecting the attack. He’d shielded himself, sending the miniature fireball into a shower of nearly harmless sparks.

A small pool of blood and numerous tiny speckles smeared black’s edge. Hazelnut’s retort hadn’t missed, but it wasn’t a lethal shot. More likely a warning – “Leave now or die.”

Was the hazelnut coffee drinker Liam? It was plausible. His chair had been to the wall, no chance of anyone sneaking up from behind. And he was a strong enough mage that having his back to the wall wasn’t an encumbrance. He didn’t care about needing an easy escape if things went bad.

The fight had continued for quite a while in the kitchen. Very little was left intact. Cabinet doors hung lazily from their hinges, splintered and cracked. The refrigerator door had a blackened, condiment-spewing hole blasted through it. Even the sink faucet was twisted and unrecognizable. My limited grasp of magical knowledge pointed toward some sort of magnetic distortion spell – a very advanced working.

At some point, somebody had gotten desperate and pulled a gun. I counted five bullet holes in the floor and what looked like two through the small window over the sink. Using a gun in a magic fight wasn’t as inane as it might seem; it was usually unexpected and nothing but the strongest of shield spells could stop a bullet due to its tiny size and incredible speed.

From the kitchen, one of the two combatants was flung with great force into the far wall of the living room, as evidenced by the man-sized dent in the right portion of it.

Absolutely nothing in this room had been spared. Electronics had been flung about the room haphazardly. Curtains hung raggedly from their moorings. Shredded couch and chair upholstery exploded with yellow-orange foam. Glass crunched beneath my feet with every step I took.

Into the hall next. The fight was winding down. The destruction was limited to the overturned armoire and the dead body. Whoever had won had covered their tracks and fled.

The question I needed answered was: who had won? Was it Liam or his guest? The loser was too disfigured for anything but a DNA scan to provide the answer.

The one thing I did know was that there was nowhere near enough blood in the entire downstairs to account for the missing quarts of blood. Nothing suggested that more than two people had been involved in the fight, but I wasn’t ruling out the possibility that it had been a dump job.

Leaving the house in the competent hands of the tech crew, I set off to return to the office. I wanted to tap my network of sources and see what they had to say about the situation. I didn’t believe it possible that the most well-known and most powerful mage in the city could disappear without anybody knowing about it. Those calls would have to wait until morning though; it was already almost five o’clock and I was going to have a mountain of paperwork to file because of this fiasco. Not to mention the unfinished report still sitting on my desk. Tommy might seem like a laid-back kind of boss, but he was a stickler for paperwork.

The twenty minute drive back to the Agency was spent trying to sort things out in my head. Was Liam working with the person or people involved? Had he murdered the good Father and stolen his soul? Or was Liam completely innocent and not involved in this mess at all?

It couldn’t be coincidence that the one person most likely to know what was going on had suddenly disappeared, leaving a dead body behind at his house. If the body in question wasn’t his, that is.

Not even a trickle of a clue had penetrated my brain by the time I turned into the Agency’s parking garage.

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