Prelude: Caspian

Normally, Caspian enjoyed tracking. He was good at it, after all, better than many of his Queen's Hunters, a skill he liked to keep to himself. And, indeed, in this hunting trip he had found three potential Wild Ones, one of them still a whelp. But he wasn't looking for the Wild Ones right now, he was looking for his Kept. And she was being unpleasantly difficult to find.

He tracked her scent through the woods, using Workings rather than the art and challenge of using only his senses because he was in a hurry. If another member of the Queen's court found her before he did, it would be the end of him. If an ashanevaei found her and, unlike the moron Aelfgar had kept him from eliminating, managed to hold on to her, it could also be his death. His Queen didn't have a lot of patience for failure.

Fortunately, he had no intention of failing. It had been long weeks of tracking, using his magic to evoke the memory of the land and trees, but the woods were thinning. Here, this was where she had left them, taking to this paved monkey path. Perhaps she had been lured by the lights ahead; on the horizon, the distinct gleam of electricity shone against the backdrop of twilight.

Shiny things. He smiled faintly at the memory; his puppy liked shiny things. He'd brought her back a string of blinking lights from one trip, stolen off the porch of a victim. Yes, this place with the blinking lights and the neon would have drawn her. He pushed the door open, by the handle; he may yet lay waste to this place, but he didn't need a repeat of the incident where his casual push had shattered the glass door of another establishment. These things could be so fragile, and it was a waste of time.

The place was nearly deserted when he entered; it must be close to closing time. He sniffed the air; she'd been here. The scent was faint, covered over with the stink of all these monkeys, nearly rancid with the oil and grease in the air. But she'd been here.

He raked his eyes over the people in the diner. No, none of them could be her, even Masked. She'd never gotten very good at changing her Mask, and these monkeys were all too big or too small. The woman behind the counter would be the one who knew what had happened. He approached, the snow falling from his boots garnering him a disdainful look from the man seated at the counter's end. That one would be the first to perish, then.

"I need information," Caspian declared.

"We all have needs, honey. You look, for instance, like you need a nice slice of pie. And me, on the other hand, I need to pay the rent."

He stared down his nose at her, setting his hands on the counter. "There was a girl here, perhaps eight weeks ago, perhaps less. She had travelled far alone, and would be hungry and tired."

She studied him, harder in her gaze than he'd expect from such a piece of lint. "Buy the pie," she answered firmly, "and I'll talk."

What did she think she was, to be making demands of him? So much for the friendly approach. At least he'd already picked a target. "Meentik kwxe," he snarled, casting a hand to his side and enveloping the man in a gout of flame.

The man screamed, and the woman swore and grabbed the fire extinguisher, spraying the charred victim down. "Damn," she muttered. "Not one of them, then. Fine."

Her lack of surprise was unusual, but not an insurmountable hurdle. Caspian plowed ahead, scowling. "Not one of who? Talk, woman." "If you fry me, or my building burns down, I can't explain, now can I?" she pointed out, and finished hosing down the thoroughly-dead man. "Your girl was here. Christmas night. About this tall, brown hair, looked like she didn't have a friend in the world."

"Then one of those that come through here sometimes, the old spirits, sat down and had a talk and some pie with her. It really is good pie."

"Old spirits?" Curiouser and curiouser; perhaps she'd encountered his like before.

"Like you, only generally less… violent. Ten minutes until the cops show up, hon. This one looked like a woman, and she talked sweet."

"A woman?" Not Aelfgar, then, or one of his other old adversaries. "Describe this woman."

"She's a tall blonde woman, muscular, strong lady. Strong jaw, you know, like the Wisconsonners."

"A name, did she give a name?"

"Greta, she said her name was."


"Greta, Greta Broadleaf. She's been coming by here for a long time."

"Broadleaf... of course, Aelfgar's involved. Which way did they go?"

"The Midnight Motel," the woman pointed across the street.

He'd get more information there, and hopefully before the "cops" arrived; he held a very slight preference for being on his way as quickly as possible, rather than needing to raze the town. Without another word, he spun and stalked out of the diner.

"Have a nice night," the woman called, as the door slammed behind him.


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