Redcap Bound 5
Bria was revealed as a red-haired dark fae with chocolate skin, dark eyes, pointed teeth and curly hair the color of embers. She wasted no time saying, "If that is an invitation, then I accept."
"No!" Mira yelled. She jumped to her feet and was about to grab Bria again, but Bria stepped away and a trio of summer fae grabbed Mira to hold her back. "What are you doing?" She said to everyone around her. "She's mine! I caught her, so by rights I get to take her to the Duke!" She was getting more pissed off by the second, but she held back from doing anything more than struggle to get free of the ogre and two dryads. The ogre was strong, yet possibly matched by Mira's own strength, but the dryads, deceptively delicate-seeming folk, were strong as oaks. Mira had little chance of overcoming them all. "Less! Give her to me!"
"It seems to me," said a flame siren Less immediately recognized as Teara, "you no longer have her. This is Summer business now, unseelie. You should go home." Others muttered agreement.
"Shut it, Teara!" Less snapped. "I'm sorry, Mira, but this is bigger than both of us. Thank you for helping us apprehend this criminal, but I'm afraid that the Summer Court cannot afford to let information of the Ishtar Gate get out. Even into the safe-keeping of your Lord. You can tell him that Bria will learn to regret her actions."
The countess arrived and observed what was going on, but was silent.
"You're making a mistake," Mira warned.
"Jangles," Less singled out a dwarf with incredibly long arms and fingers. "Get your bottle."
The dwarf cleared his throat and said, "Ah... which bottle, precisely?"
Less regarded Bria with cold eyes. "The snow globe one."
Jangles smiled and reached into the hump on his back. He produce a snow globe roughly the size of a football complete with a little village and people. "This one then." He reach over and placed it in Less's waiting hands.
Rey moved to stand next to Mira. "What mistake is that?" she asked her friend softly. Drake remained where he was, his gaze going between Mira and Bria.
Mira struggled, but was only frustrated. "You'll never get anything useful out of her. She'll pretend to tell you everything you want to know, but it's all a waste of time! If Cassandra already gave her information about the Ishtar Gate, then Baron Carnifex will already be there!. You are letting the spy distract you from protecting your homes in the Fae Realm and Cassandra from defending her Gate."
"Untrue," Bria said reasonably. She was ironically, the one unseelie not currently being held. Then again, she wasn't trying to escape anymore. "I haven't had time to do any such thing. I've been with Cassandra the entire time."
The Countess asked Cassandra. "Is this true?" Cass reluctantly nodded. Dahlia looked from Bria to Mira. "Interesting. One of you is lying. Either of you might be trying to distract us for one reason or other. Yet one of you tried to warn me of an impending attack, and that same one of you is probably the worst liar I have ever witnessed. I might be tempted to believe the attack is real, however, the rumor itself might be a lie."
Mira frowned, trying to follow that. Was she really that bad of a liar? No, she told herself, the important part was, did the Duke lie to her and she repeat it as if it were the truth? Confused and concerned, she ceased her struggle and was still.
"Well," Dahlia said. "Perhaps some time on ice is in order. Master Seleman?"
Less' stare never left Bria as he held out his hand to receive the magic bottle from Jangle. He closed the distance to her in a couple of quick steps and raised the globe in both hands to touch it to her head.
"Mira," Rey says. "What will happen if you do not hand Bria over to the Duke right away?"
Mira looked defeated and might have said something, but what was happening to Bria snatched everyone's attetion.
At the last moment, Bria tried to duck and run away, but Less managed nonetheless to touch the globe to her bare shoulder. A whirlpool of blue and black formed. Bria screamed in terror as she felt it grip her body. Her body stretched and blurred as it was sucked into the whirlpool and her screams became more shrill. Her one flailing hand latched on to an unfortunate little hob named Happy who yelped as Bria dragged him in with her. In a second, both were gone. A cloud of glittery snow swirled in the globe and tiny representations of the globe's two newest residents cowered near the town post office, faces frozen in horror.
Mira stared at the bottle, but it was not fear on her face. That was not so true of most of the gathered fae who'd seen what happened.
"Lady Ishtar," the Countess addressed Cassandra. "We have reason to believe your Gate could come under attack now or very soon. I suggest that, if you value your gate, you find some way to protect it." Then she raised her voice so that all the assembled fae could hear. "I am issuing a Yellow Alert. Go about your business, but prepare for an imminent attack."
"Mira," Rey said. "What will happen to you?" she asked again.
Less gave the snow globe back to Jangles for safe-keeping. He would have to make it up to Happy with some good dreams, but Bria would have to cool her heels for a good long time before he even began to consider listening to her pleas.
The fae holding Mira set her down as the rest of the fae party began to disperse. Even the countess turned and left.
"I don't know," Mira admitted. "Maybe nothing. Maybe something if the Duke finds out I had Bria in my hands but let her be taken by the Summer Court instead. It all depends on if he thinks I tried hard enough to stop the Baron from instigating a war that he'd inevitably be forced to take part in. I thought if I had brought him Bria then he'd ease up on me, stop making me do things and leave me alone. No he has no reason to."
"Well," Rey said thoughtfully. "Getting a hold of Bria might not have been enough to prevent the war. If you were able to discover, through helping Cassandra, what the Baron was up to, that might be even more valuable than simply bringing her to him."
Cassandra was still there, and still fuming. Hearing her name, she said, "The Gate will not open for anyone but me, but I would rather not be overconfident in my connection to the gate. Who knows what magic the Baron can bring against it?" She was looking at Mira. "Is it possible to sever a gate keeper's connection to a gate and give it to someone else?"
Mira shrugged. "Easier, I think, just to kill the gate keeper than to perform the magic necessary. But magic is all about loopholes and exceptions. If there is a way, the Baron's people will find it and put it to use in his favor."
"If Baron Carnifax had wanted control of the gate, he would have sent an assassin instead of Bria as Annabeth," said Less. "What exactly did she ask you to do concerning the gate, Cassandra?"
"She wanted me to let her friends use it. Now I see her 'friends' would have been Carnifex's minions," Cass said. "They will find out that I don't leave my Gate unguarded, but I need to get there soon."
Mira took Rey's advice. "I would like to help you, if you'll accept it."
"In exchange for what?"
"If my Duke asks for verification, tell him I helped you defend against an attempt by the Baron to make an unauthorized attack," Mira said.
Cass nodded. "Done. I appreciate that."
"I will also help defend the gate," said Less. He felt he was bound by duty to do so, but the Guardian just waited expectantly. "Uh...if you help me reduce prejudice and bigotry between the Fae Courts."
She looked a little mystified by that, but said, "I'll do what I can."
"You have my assistance as well," Rey said. Cassandra may hold the Ishtar Gate in her own name, but she was Seelie.
She smiled in gratitude. "Please, let me take you in my car."
She guided the group through the lot toward the back. People were already clearing out, but they were able to dodge the cars and waste very little time getting to Cass's blue sedan. After they piled in, she sped off, heading for downtown Mythic.
"Can I help alert your gate security while you drive?" Less asked.
Rey bit back a smile. Trust Less to use an offer to help as a way to gain information about someone they normally wouldn't be able to get.
Cass shook her head. "There is someone who could be alerted, but they are not to accept or trust calls from any but my phone, and Bria must have swapped that out with a dummy. It doesn't even work. It may be a little tricky getting close to my Gate."
Cassandra drove until they reached about a mile northwest of downtown Mythic City. Turning south past a cemetery, she drove at a hurried pace through a residential area filled with older, medium density housing. Some of the houses were of the southwest ranch style but there was a disorderly mix of styles present. She pulled into the gravel drive of an older two story home. There was already one car here; a late model black corvette. She ignored it though, and continued to the side door, keys in hand.
"Wait, let me open the door," said Less, hurrying onto the porch. "The Baron could have sent agents to wait for you to come back."
Cass hesitated at the door, the thought worrying her. "It's okay," she told him. "I got this." She put the key in and turned the knob. "That's odd," she said tensely. "It wasn't locked." She turned to her right and pointed to a hanging pot. "There is supposed to be a choke-vine in there, but it's empty now. It is supposed to strangle anyone attempting to open the door without the proper key."
Mira pointed out the obvious. "It seems to have met its match."
"Who in the unseelie court has the ability to overcome a choke-vine plant?" Cass said.
Mira responded, "First, you mean the Baron's court. The Duke isn't involved in this so you shouldn't lump us all together. Second, plenty of us can handle that. We just kill it first. Is it shriveled up or is it gone?"
Cass checked by hopping so that she could see over the rim. "Shriveled."
Mira said, "Someone very adept with Unseelie Magic can cause a living thing to shrivel and die, even a choke vine if they are strong enough."
"Could Bria have switched out your key was well?" Rey asked. Whoever penetrated the house obviously had a key to open the door, and if it were Rey attempting something like this, she'd never come alone. Bria probably reported what security she saw to the Baron.
Cassandra said, "Possibly."
Mira shrugged, "Unnecessary. If they had your key, there'd be no reason for the choke-vine to be dead since you said it only attacks people without the proper key. It looks to me like someone killed your plant and simply picked the lock." Mira opened the door and looked to Less, Cass, and Rey. "After you."
The little kitchen they saw beyond the open door was empty, but they couldn't see inside the rest of the house from here.
Rey stayed back, allowing Cass to enter first. It was her place, Rey thought. She knows what's there.
Less drew his sword and entered to look down the hallway. Judging from the front door, Cassandra's security had been completely dismantled so there was nothing to worry about from that front. He heard Mira follow behind him.
He stepped first into the kitchen and then looked to his left. There was an odd moaning coming from the dining room, and since that was only a few steps away, he entered that, too. It was there he witnessed Cassandra's real security measures.
Standing silently amidst a broken table a piles of broken, stone-like clay blocks were three mute guardians. They resembled huge human males sporting some kind of headdresses and decorative collars carved or shaped from the baked clay that composed them. Behind them swirled a vine vortex that twisted and moved in on itself in a never-ending whirlpool of living thorns. The dining room and what looked like an adjacent bedroom were warped, as if reality itself had reshaped itself to accommodate them. It was definitely much bigger inside this house than it appeared.
Cassandra stepped around them and inspected the immobile guardians, noting scorch marks and claw marks here and there.
"One of my guardians was destroyed, but this gate operates by my will alone," Cass said. "It will not open without my command. That's something I didn't mention to Bria."
"If they had been able to sever your connection to the gate?"
"Easier, I think, to kill me than do that," Cassandra said. She raised her voice. "Aurora?" She called several times but never received an answer.
There was a cell phone sitting neatly on the center of the coffee table in the living room however. Cass glanced at it but ran upstairs looking for this Aurora.
"You keep the ShadowGate in your dining room?" puzzled Less. He dragged his attention away from the swirling torment to reality. He really wanted a look at the phone - they were an intelligence gold mine - but he couldn't let Cassandra go off alone when she alone could control the gate. He rushed up the stairs after her.
"Aurora!" Cass called but after looking in all three bedrooms plus a spacious bathroom, it was obvious she was gone.
She answered Less while she thought about what might have happened to her witch. "Not exactly. It's in a grandfather clock, but over some years of work I widened the outer portion of it. It then took over my bedroom, so I removed part of the wall that blocked it off from the dining room. In so doing I discovered some problems with the gate, chief of which was that it could be used by the Goblin King and his minions. So, I found a way to bind it to my will alone so that now, only those I grant permission to can pass the gate. That is the secret of my gate and the reason I hold the gate personally rather than in the name of our Fief. "More important right now is the whereabouts of my witch."
Mira asked, "What do you mean by 'your witch'?"
"She's important to me," Cass said, worry on her face. "She's the cornerstone of the circle of witches that venerates me as an avatar of Ishtar herself. She is my strongest ally."
Mira knew all that and it didn't really explain what she wanted to know. Did Cassandra feel she owned Aurora somehow? Or was it a figure of speech? She decided perhaps now wasn't the time to press the issue.
"So, the Baron's agents broke in here and found that they couldn't open the gate without you," summarized Less. "They took Aurora to force you to do what they want. I expect that cell phone downstairs will be ringing soon."
Cass nodded and right on cue, they heard the phone ringing loudly. Less suggested she put the phone on speaker so they could all hear.
She did, put it back on the table and said, "Hello?"
"Miss MacArthur." The voice was harsh and raspy. Cass flinched. No one had used her actual last name in some time. "By now you realize your friend is with us, where she will remain forever. Unless, of course, you agree to a simple request, one you have unkindly turned down in the past."
Cass waited for him to continue.
"What we want is simple. Allow one of ours to access your gate. Permit it and your pet will be released. Refuse and she remains ours until we have taken everything of worth from her and disposed of the rest, including her life."
"It sounds as though you have made up your mind. Are you certain we cannot discuss these terms?" Cass asked.
"We gave you that chance already. You turned us down, so steps were taken."
"By steps, you refer to sending someone to impersonate my friend and kidnap another friend. Had I known you would turn out to be so resourceful I might have reconsidered my initial refusal," Cass said. She was stalling, keeping them on the line now and she looked around at Less, Rey, and Mira for advice.
"Tell them you want to talk to Aurra," Rey mouthed, her mind working on a way to find out where the caller was calling from. If only she had some way to track down that voice.
The voice over the phone said, "We will be in contact regarding who you will allow to use the gate."
Cass nodded, then said, "Wait. I'm not agreeing to anything unless you give me proof that you still have Aurra and she is alive."
There was a pause and the sound of bells chiming the hours. Then Aurra's voice was heard. "Lady Ishtar? Cass, they have me in the basement of a--"
There was a smack and a yelp as they shut her up. They could hear a sinister threat against her life should she attempt to say anything the didn't tell her to say again. There was a creaking sound like leather tightening, and Aurra cried out in pain, then was muffled so her response was incoherent. It sounded like something got stuffed into her mouth.
"You've heard enough," said the voice. "We'll send our man over. You'll allow him through and he will tell you where you can find your pet witch."
"I mean," Cass hurried to say, "your attack here earlier tonight has damaged the Gate. I have to make some repairs before anyone can safely use it again. Otherwise anyone who goes through stands the risk of being shredded by my Thorn Wards."
There was a pause on the other end of the line.
"Two hours," Cass begged. "Give me two hours and I'll let whatever person you send through. Just promise me you'll leave Aurra unharmed."
"You have two hours." The phone clicked.
"Does anyone recognize those bells?" Rey asks. If they knew where the bells were, it would greatly reduce the area they had to search.
"What bells?" Mira asked, having completely missed hearing any bells at all.
But Less had heard them, and knew them. Those were church bells. Specifically, it was the sound of St. Christopher's Cathedral near downtown Mythic City. Wherever they were, they must be very close for the phone to have picked them up.
"Aurra said she was in a basement," said Less. "Those bells were St. Christopher's. That's where they must be keeping her, or at least very close by. And not far from here!"
Cass said, "Good work! May I ask all of you for help? It would mean a lot to me if you could rescue Aurra. I have no illusions as to her safety; if they get what they want here, they'll do it again in the future. Maybe it will be Aurra again, or maybe they'll kill or maim her in some way and use someone else next time. I'll remain here to work on a little trick, one that will make it seem like I sent their man through, but will in fact shred him like a garbage disposal. But before I do that, I have to know Aurra is safe."
Less didn't like that Cassandra would be left alone. The kidnapping was ample coersion but the Baron had to assume a rescue would be attempted. "Of course I will help, but will your statue defenders be enough to protect you and the Gate while we're gone?"
Rey had no illusions as to Cassandra's ability to defend herself. The Lady Ishtar had fought the Sidhe Lord named the Goblin King and won. In a place she claimed as her own, the Lady Ishtar would have the greatest advantage, not the least of which would be the ability to draw on the power of the ShadowGate itself. Rey wondered if Less knew that little bit of information - it wasn't something bandied about over cups of tea.
Cass smiled at Less. "You are a fine gentleman, Mr. Seleman. But yes, I feel I can withstand whatever that Carnifex and his cronies might try, even if distracted with planning my own little ambush in the Gate. I have more witches I'll summon momentarily for extra eyes."
"Okay then," Mira said a little eagerly. "Let's kick some unseelie as and get Aurra back here safe and sound. Besides, I have some suggestion-card ideas for her club."
"The Baron is likely watching this house," said Less. "I would suggest we leave separately and as stealthily as possible and regroup at the cathedral so that we are not expected."
"I need to go get my car anyway," Rey replied. "And change clothes." She looks at Mira and her dress, knowing her friend was going to be unhappy about the damage to it, if she wasn't already. "Mira, if you give me the dress tomorrow or the day after, I'll fix it. I still have the fabric I used, so it shouldn't be too difficult to do."
Mira looked relieved.
Cassandra was sympathetic. "If you like, you can borrow my car. Also, there are some extra clothes you can change into in the upstairs master bedroom. The stairs are just through there and then it's the first bedroom on the left."
Mira nodded. "I'd like to take you up on that offer, Lady Cassandra." To her friends she added, "I think I know that church, too. They used to serve free evening meals there for the poor and homeless."
Cass said, "They still do."
Less was immediately intrigued. "That sounds like a very good way to get close. Dress as the less fortunate and show up looking for something to eat."
"Could you drop me off at the drive-in?" Rey asks. "I'll meet you and Mira at the cathedral as soon as I can."
Mira headed upstairs, found somethings that sort of fit if she rolled up the shirtsleeves. The pants would have been too long, too, but she'd found an old skirt made of material used for blue jeans. The clothes in themselves didn't make her look like one of the less fortunate, but the fact her hair was still a mess and her face smudged with from the recent fight with Bria helped.
Taking Cass's car, they dropped Rey off back across town at the drive-in, then headed back toward downtown after Less ditched his tuxedo. The running back and forth across town ate grievously into their two-hour window, but it virtually guaranteed that any watchers should be thrown off their immediate scent.