Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty Nine

“It’s been a week,” Sir Philip said. “That’s seven full days since we got rid of Edragor.”

Gareth nodded, almost too exhausted to speak. “There’s no sign of either Kidder or the Orache Stone,” he said. “Which could be good news.”

“Tyler is about to have a nervous breakdown waiting for the challenge,” Sir Philip said. He looked up as Mortimer called out that dinner was ready. “We’re going to have to abandon the search, or at least scale it down. We can’t carry on like this.”

Gareth followed slowly into the kitchen. “Darren is on the point of collapse,” he said. He sat slowly at the table. “This looks good, Mortimer. Thank you.” He worked his shoulders. “And I’m back in the office from Monday. Everything’s back in place now.”

Sir Philip raised a sceptical eye. “Everything?”

“Okay, it’s still like a battlefield, the weavers are learning the new looms, which still glitch now and again, and the canteen is just microwaves and kettles, but the office is set up and Carli has a dozen new designs she’s working on.” Gareth took a spoonful of the soup and sighed. “This is amazing.”

“We’re trying to convince Darren to stand down for a whole week,” Sir Philip said, digging into his own bowl of soup. “They’re sending someone from Canterbury to cover.” He took a mouthful of soup and looked hard at Gareth. “You’re the one who makes the call on this.”

Gareth sighed. “I’m worried that I’m selfish,” he said. “I’m weary to the bone. I want to spend some time with Carli.” He stirred his soup slowly. “And Luke is setting me up for a role as assistant manager. Work is going to be crazy.”

“Luke thinks that Gareth is going to marry Carli and he can leave the mill to the two of them,” Bron said. “He thinks that they make a cute couple and they’ll look after the mill.”

“He’s not wrong,” Sir Philip said, grinning.

“I think that they make a charming couple,” Mortimer said as he brought over two mugs of tea.

“Are you joining us?” Sir Philip asked.

Mortimer shook his head. “I ate earlier,” he said. “And I’m not as active as you.”

“I think we have to call it,” Bron said. “We have to call off the search for now. We’ll keep an ear out, but we can’t keep chasing our tails like this.” He shrugged. “Brutally, if the Orache Stone has got its talons into Kidder, he’s lost to us already. And the longer he is bonded with the stone, the weaker he’ll get. If we keep our eyes and ears open for the sort of trouble that the transfer of power would cause.”

Sir Philip nodded sadly. “It’s war, Gareth, and we lose people,” he said, his brown eyes sympathetic. “I guess that you’re new to this.”

“You’ve come a long way, lad,” Bron said. “This is just another painful step.”

Gareth looked, unseeing, past the kitchen walls as Mortimer replaced the empty soup bowl with a heaped plate of sausage and mash. “I didn’t realise that I’d face this,” he said quietly. “I was just trying for a better job.” He managed a faint smile of thanks to Mortimer as he poured a generous lake of gravy over his dinner. “But I got the job and I got this.” He took a breath. “And I don’t regret a damned thing. It’s not easy…” He picked up his fork. “We call off the search. I’ll call Tyler after dinner.”

“He’ll have a fit,” Bron said. “But he can just deal with it. And it’s not like we don’t have enough to do.”

“That’s absolutely right,” Sir Philip said. “And it’s why Darren has been run so ragged. The echoes of death and magic are still bouncing around and causing trouble. We won’t exactly get bored.”

“We’ll call it,” Gareth said. “And watch our backs.”

******

Kidder licked his lips nervously as he walked slowly towards the solicitors.

“I could have got more money for you,” Yvonne said. “We could have taken over the pack.”

Kidder projected an image of Fang after he got the Orache Stone and piles of awkward paperwork. Yvonne understood images better. “A small lottery win as seed money works best,” he said. “We don’t want to have our pictures shared for publicity. We need to lay low for a bit.”

Yvonne responded with an image of Kidder, relaxed and happy, hanging around with Gareth, Sir Philip and Mortimer. “Just a little more comfortable,” it said.

“We’ll do this right,” Kidder said. He sighed mentally and smiled at Yvonne. “Sometimes I wish that I could give you a hug and let you know that it’s okay,” he said. “Take a moment.” He looked around at the crisp, autumn day with the bright, thin sunshine streaking across the pavement. “This is a good day.”

Yvonne responded with an image of the solicitor. Kidder always thought of lawyers as male and old. Caitlyn wasn’t much older than him and she was beautiful. She was also professional, icily competent and, according to the ring on her left hand, married. “You need to make a friend family,” it said.

“One step at a time,” Kidder said. He was on his way to sign the papers for his first property. Okay, he was living in a room as a lodger, but once he’d signed the papers he would be a landlord, owning a shabby, low cost flat on the edge of Shipley with a sitting tenant. With his under the table job working on a building site, he could start building up a bank balance and a life. “I’m not going to pursue friends,” he told Yvonne. “I’m going to see who I meet and look for good people. I want to find friends worth having.”

“Like Gareth and Bron?” Yvonne said.

“Yeah, like them,” Kidder said.

“You don’t think that you’ll find anyone as good as them,” Yvonne observed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Kidder said. “All I can do now is find my feet and work things out.” He paused. “And at least I have you.”

“You will always have me,” Yvonne said.

To be continued…

Watch out for Kidder’s return in Spellburned. Meanwhile, look out for the Prince and the Paladin, set in Leeds and following on from these events.

And you can read the whole story from the beginning here

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty Eight

Image from WikiCommons and in the Public Domain

Kidder could feel the Orache Stone echoing in his mind. “Don’t distract me, Yvonne,” he hissed mentally. “We need to stay alert.” He walked steadily behind Edragor as they crossed the car park and through the small side door.

“I need to be physically touching you,” Yvonne said. “I need to have a physical connection to make the bond. Then you can take over the pack.”

“I’m not taking over the pack,” Kidder said.

“You could if you wanted,” Yvonne muttered.

Kidder inwardly rolled his eyes as he paced along the corridor but outwardly he kept his composure, keeping all thoughts on the inside. “We need to make the link so that I get all the power, then we get out of here,” he said. “And we need to take down Edragor on the way.”

“You definitely need me for that,” Yvonne said smugly. “And I’ll be glad to help,” it added with an edge of malice.

Kidder didn’t answer immediately. Edragor was a problem that he didn’t know how to solve. His acolyte or assistant or sidekick, Dan, would be easier. They guy looked on the edge of a breakdown. Kidder had been silent when Dan had edged into the cellar and left extra food and drink for him, nervously pushed up against the bars before he scuttled away but had noted the fear in Dan’s eyes. He was probably as much a prisoner as Kidder. Edragor was another matter. “What are those things walking next to Edragor?” he asked Yvonne.

“I’m not sure,” Yvonne said hesitantly. “Remember, I’ve spent most of my time in a hole in the ground.” There was a pause. “But I know that they are death.”

Kidder felt a chill spilling through his chest. “They said that there were wraiths at Claire’s memorial,” he said. He stumbled a little over the stone floor.

Edragor looked over his shoulder. “I trust that you’re not reconsidering,” he said.

“No,” Kidder said. “I’m just out of practice with walking. I’ve been stuck in a cage.”

Edragor stopped and turned to him. “You understand the deal, don’t you?” he said. “You get the power to rule. In exchange, you help me with a few issues.” He leaned closer to Kidder. “But the Orache Stone will only work with you if I channel it correctly. Mark went mad trying. So did Fang – you remember how that worked out for you? You need my protection.”

“He’s lying,” Yvonne said into Kidder’s mind. “I mean, I feel bad about the madness but that’s nothing to do with him.” It paused. “They never talked to me.”

Kidder fought down the fear as he faced Edragor. “I understand. You connect me to the Orache Stone and then I get to show a few people how to lead a pack.”

“That’s right,” Edragor said. “And in return you help me out with a little power from that Orache Stone. It can cloud your mind and confuse you. I’ll ensure that you can channel things correctly. We can have little… talks and I’ll explain it all to you.” He tilted his head and looked at Kidder thoughtfully. “Though I’m sure that you’ll pick things up quickly enough. You seem like a bright young man.”

Kidder watched Dan flinch. “I look forward to them,” he lied. “I’m sure that I’ll learn a lot.”

Edragor studied Kidder for a moment before turning and continuing a stately place along the corridor. “Down these steps,” Edragor said. “We’re nearly there.”

“Those things are dark! Those things are dark!” Yvonne was almost vibrating with nerves as images of the shadows surrounding Edragor swirled into Kidder’s mind. “I don’t know what to do!”

“Calm down,” Kidder soothed. “They can’t hurt you, can they?”

“I don’t want to be dark!” Yvonne said, panic rolling from her in waves. “I want the crumpets!” A vivid image of buttered crumpets, hot tea, a soft chair and friends around the fireplace that Yvonne had taken from Kidder’s memories flew at Kidder.

“If you can’t be calm then there’s a risk that you can’t help me,” Kidder said as he reached the top of the steps. He floundered for a moment. You couldn’t tell a magical stone to count breaths as a calming technique. “Remember the quiet time afterwards. Concentrate on that.”

“I won’t help Edragor,” Yvonne said, its voice catching. “I’ll burn him first.”

Kidder’s heart almost broke at the fear lacing through the Orache Stone. “We deal with Edragor first, then the wraiths,” he said. “Because if Edragor goes then there’s a chance that the wraiths go as well, and at least he can’t summon more if he’s dead.” Kidder hesitated.

Yvonne read the hesitation perfectly. “I don’t want to kill anyone anymore either,” it said. “But we have to. We have to kill them or there will be more that become like Fang or Mark. You shouldn’t be driven to that.” It hesitated. “I don’t want you to be like that. And then someone else will be used up after.”

Kidder did all he could to send mental reassurance through to the Orache Stone. Yvonne was obviously feeling fragile. “Do you have any ideas about how to deal with Edragor?” he asked.

“I can’t face his magic head on,” Yvonne said. “But I can disrupt it.” There was a brief hesitation as Kidder reached the bottom of the stairs. “I may not be strong enough to disrupt Edragor’s magic unless we try something different.”

“You’re nervous,” Kidder said.

“You could destroy me,” Yvonne said.

Kidder’s instinctive reaction was complete revulsion at the idea. He struggled to work out the right words. “We’ve been friends together in a dark place,” he said. “I won’t do that.”

“You see the wraiths, if that’s the word, they’re dark energy. They’re bad and scary and evil and…”

“Yvonne!” Kidder cried. He tried a gentler mental connection. “We’re in this together. Tell me what you need.” He followed Edragor along the dark corridor.

“Once we’re linked, I can suck the power from the wraiths. You’ll have to give me some direction, but between us we should manage. Then you can use that power against Edragor to disrupt his energy.” Tension rang through Yvonne’s voice. “But when I’m taking in that power, I’m fragile. You’ll need to protect me or I’ll break.” The fear in its voice was heartbreaking. “You could destroy me.”

“No,” Kidder said. “But we’ll have to be quick. We make the link – and I have no idea how that will happen – then straight away we need to drag the power from the wraiths as quickly as possible. Edragor will be trying to stop us.” Kidder glanced over his shoulder at the man shuffling behind them. “I’m not sure about Dan.”

“He’s weaker than Edragor,” Yvonne said. “Oh! We’re here.”

Kidder had been too caught up in their mental discussion to pay attention to his surroundings. Now, looking around, his heart sank. A pale body was stretched out on a table on one side of the room. The Orache Stone – Yvonne – was on a plinth on the other side. Elaborate magical circles had been chalked around each and candles and incense were placed at strategic points.

“Is that Claire?” Kidder asked.

“Mark was so insistent,” Edragor said. “After some thought, it seemed only right that I upheld my side of the bargain and brought Claire back.”

Kidder felt sick. He waited at the entrance to the room. “Can I just cross the circles?” he asked doubtfully.

“One moment,” Edragor said, checking the room and murmuring a few Latin words. A brief mist fell from the ceiling and washed through the room, leaving the wraiths scattering and pressed against the walls. Edragor nodded in satisfaction. “Good, the room is ready.” He carefully stepped through a gap in the chalked circle. “Step through here, and here only,” he said. “Stand there, next to the Orache Stone.”

Kidder followed his directions and stood, expressionless, next to the plinth. He could feel the nerves in Yvonne and he fought to keep his breathing even. He couldn’t let Edragor guess that anything was wrong, but a little tension would be normal. He was about to make a connection with a powerful magical artifact that could potentially destroy him. It was entirely reasonable that his shoulders were so racked with tension.

Kidder willed himself to stay calm. He remembered what had happened to Mark and Fang, but they hadn’t been sane to start with and at least Yvonne was talking to him. The Orache Stone had sounded brittle with nerves. Once the connection was made, though, he could direct Yvonne to pull the energy from the wraiths while he shifted and lunged at Edragor. It was risky – the dark mage was dangerous, but he didn’t have many choices. As for Dan, Kidder didn’t think that he would be a problem. From the look in his eye, he was halfway to bolting anyway.

Kidder stood obediently in the triangle Dan chalked around him and watched as the wraiths pressed back against the cellar walls. Whatever Edragor was chanting was making them unsettled. Kidder glanced over at the Orache Stone. Edragor had recast the stone and a strange glamour hung over Yvonne, giving it a mysterious, ancient look. As the chant grew higher, Kidder could feel something tugging, but he pushed it away. Edragor needed him to agree to the sorcerer’s control, he realised. While Kidder stood passively in that chalked triangle, the link was being made but his mind was still completely under control.

Edragor picked the Orache Stone up reverently, then passed it over to Kidder. A leather thong was passed repeatedly through incense smoke, this time with Dan chanting carefully, before the thong was passed to Kidder to thread through Yvonne’s new mounting. Kidder impassively slid the cord through the hoop and then hung it around his neck. Edragor lifted his hands, snapped out Latin phrases and the connection between Kidder and Yvonne clicked.

Kidder didn’t have time to shift. Instead he sprinted into Edragor, shoulder charging him to the ground.

“Watch the circle!” Dan cried.

They are so dark!” Yvonne cried as the wraiths started to twist.

Edragor snarled as he pointed a finger at Kidder. “You will burn!

Kidder kicked him hard in the ribs, rolling him over on the hard stone floor. “Bastard!”

Watch the circle!” Dan repeated, looking around anxiously. “It keeps out the wraiths!”

Edragor grimaced as he reached for Yvonne’s plinth. “There’s more than one way to break a circle.” He winced in pain as he pushed the stand over. It rocked slowly then fell across the chalked lines of the circle. “Get him!”

Dan screamed as the wraiths started advancing. He snatched up an athame from the altar and held it, trembling, in front of him.

“Too much power! Too much power!” Yvonne was practically singing as it called out, frantic.

Kidder glanced at the advancing wraiths. They were reduced, but still dark and their touch would be death. “Dump it on Edragor then pull more out of the wraiths,” he yelled, aiming another swinging kick at Edragor’s ribs.

“Hold on!” Yvonne screamed.

Dan fell to his knees and howled, holding his head as Kidder felt a wave of power breaking over the room and washing through him.

“You can’t kill me!” Edragor cried, struggling back to his feet.

The wraiths were edging closer. “Drain the power, Yvonne!” Kidder yelled.

Incredulity flashed across Edragor’s face but he held out a shaking hand and pointed at Kidder. “You will obey me!”

“His power is unstable!” Yvonne called out. “It’s going wrong.”

“Pull up the power,” Kidder snapped, struggling out of his clothes.

The wraiths flickered and writhed but they were inching closer. “Edragor’s holding power,” Dan yelled. “He stores it somehow and I can feel it splitting.”

“There’s too much death!” Yvonne sounded almost hysterical.

“Hold on!” Kidder yelled, starting to shift.

“That dark man, his power is building!” Yvonne yelled. “I’m taking power.”

As his jaw elongated to a wolfish snout, Kidder mentally cried to Yvonne. “Protect yourself.” As he flowed into his wolf form he raced towards Edragor, snarling.

The door crashed open. Edragor flinched and Kidder’s jaws missed his throat, closing instead around his shoulder. It didn’t matter. He sank his fangs in deep and shook the dark magician like a rag doll.

“Kidder!” Yvonne cried. “It’s out of balance!”

Kidder could feel it. The magic seemed to be bouncing around the room as, to Kidder’s relief, Steve, Sir Dylan and Sir Philip stormed in. Their swords that swept through the wraiths, leaving shimmering trails of magic in their wake.

Gareth followed with Tyler close beside him and Darren behind, covering the rear with sword and gun. “Kidder, you’re safe!”

“I can’t hold it!” Yvonne cried.

Steve swore wildly. “Everyone down,” he snapped. “It’s going wild.” He flung himself down next to the cowering Dan.

Most of the wraiths had been cut down and the few remnants were flickering as they backed away from the intruders. “Edragor!” Yvonne screams and a shock wave of magic runs through the room.

Kidder howled as the shock forced him back to human form, dazed and clutching at Yvonne. He could feel the hysteria running through her as even his untrained senses overloaded with fractured magic. Running at instinct, he channelled it all at Edragor.

Edragor stared at Kidder wildly. “That stone is mine!” he said. “Give it to me.”

“Don’t let him touch me!” Yvonne cried.

Kidder scrabbled back away from him and swore.

“Watch the wraiths!” Dan yelled.

Kidder couldn’t turn to watch the wraiths. Instead he was transfixed, staring at Edragor. As the man reached out towards the Orache Stone, the edges of his fingers were turning black and cracking. Under Kidder’s horrified gaze, the stain spread across Edragor’s hand and up his sleeve. Cracks followed and then the hand started to flake, tiny fragments of dust and ash at first but then larger chunks. Edragor was crumbling to dust.

“Everybody stay down!” Steve yelled.

“Too much power!” Yvonne cried, almost vibrating against Kidder’s chest.

Edragor exploded.

Kidder forced himself to his feet and looked around. Fine, dark dust covered everything. Steve was carefully dousing candles while Darren poured water over the incense. Yvonne was almost trembling in its setting. The wraiths had disappeared and only the dusty remnants of chalked sigils and the remains of Claire on the nearby table together with the puddle of dusty clothes on the floor were evidence that Edragor had ever existed. Dan was still huddled on the floor, rocking and sobbing in shock.

“It’s good to see you,” Gareth said. “We were looking everywhere for you. Are you okay?”

“I’m unhurt,” Kidder said, stroking Yvonne in an attempt to soothe it. “How did you find us? Edragor said that you were blocked.”

Gareth grinned. “I’m not an expert,” he said. “But Steve is.”

“Dan was the one who found this place,” Kidder said. “I wondered at the time. I mean, why pick the mill where all your enemies are based?” He crouched down next to Dan. “Did you pick this place on purpose? Did you want us to be found?”

Dan caught his breath and nodded. “I’m sorry.”

Gareth put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he said. “We’ll have a long talk later, but thank you for making it easier for us.” He stood and turned to Kidder. “Now we need to destroy the Orache Stone.”

Kidder could feel the fear and heartbreak pouring out of Yvonne. “No,” he said.

Gareth took a wary step closer. “You know what it did to Mike and Fang,” he said. “But it’s weakened now.” He stretched out a hand. “Give it to me.”

Kidder stared into his steady gaze and took a step back, flicking his eyes around the room at the men advancing. “I will never give it up.” Summoning the extra energy from Yvonne and some instinct he didn’t know he had, a sheet of flame shot between him and Gareth. When it fell, Kidder was gone.

Gareth looked around the wrecked cellar. “That could have gone better,” he said.

You can read the story from the beginning here

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty Seven

The Orache Stone whispered softly to Kidder. “You would dominate all around you,” it said. “They would kneel at your feet, obey your every whim.”

“I don’t want that,” Kidder said, reacting before he could stop himself. The thought of his friends kneeling in front of him made him feel queasy. A sisterly hug from Carli or a fatherly clasp of his shoulder from Bron would mean far more.

“You wouldn’t?” The seductive tones of the Orache Stone were suddenly more surprised than seductive.

“You got it right the first time,” Kidder said. “I should be helping. But I don’t want to tell people what to do. What if I get it wrong?”

“How could you get it wrong with me leading you?” The Orache Stone whispered.

Kidder regretted letting his guard down. “Well, what do you know about looking after people?” he asked.

“I give them power,” the Orache Stone said. “I can give glory.”

“But that’s not really looking after people,” Kidder said. “It means cheering people up and making them happy as well as protecting them.”

“But isn’t being powerful the same as being happy?” the Orache Stone whispered. “Think about when you were last truly happy.”

Kidder fought to keep his face blank and his posture still, but a brief wave of longing ran through him at a memory. Gareth and Bron had been arguing about how to play cards after Darren had beaten them in a game of Old Maid. Mortimer had brought in a tray with all the good things on it and Carli had started pouring the tea. Sir Philip and Jasmine laughed at the argument as a fire flickered in the hearth. There had been a sense of deep friendship around the warm room and even Mortimer had been relaxed as they had tucked into miniature bacon and egg pies with crumpets and warm apple cake and custard to follow.

“That does not look familiar,” the Orache Stone said.

Kidder felt the echo of the stone’s emotion. He’d known it too much as a young stray. It was lonely and hurting and rejected and yearning for that feeling of belonging. “Are you a person?” he asked.

“I’m a stone,” it replied condescendingly.

“Not really,” Kidder said. “I mean, I suppose your in a stone or part of a stone or from a stone, but you’re not just a stone, are you? You have feelings.”

“No!” the Orache Stone snapped.

“I think I’ll call you Yvonne,” Kidder said. “So, Yvonne, what do you want?”

“No!” Yvonne said. “You can’t ask questions like that.”

“Why not?” Kidder asked. “I’m being reasonable. You’re trying to take me over. If you do that, then I’ll go mad and die. Why? And what do you get out of it?”

“Shut up!” Yvonne snapped back. “Stop it!”

“You’re like a stalker, aren’t you? Kidder said. “You need to control your owner. You need to be needed. You give all that power just to try and take a person over.”

“No!” Yvonne said. There was a long, strained silence broken only by the pattering of rain on the tiny cellar window. “What is the choice?”

“What do you want?” Kidder asked. The conversation was a mistake, but it was also fascinating.

“You should want me,” Yvonne said slowly.

“But you saw my happiest memory,” Kidder said. “Do you want that? That friendship?”

“It is a sort of desire,” Yvonne said. “The desire to be kind with each other.” There was confusion in its voice. “But where is the power? How can I belong without power?”

“So you trade power in return for being needed,” Kidder said. “But you kill those who have you. Mark’s dead, isn’t he?”

“He didn’t really want me,” Yvonne said bitterly. “He wanted little power, just for his wife.”

“I don’t want you,” Kidder said. “I don’t want to go mad and die.”

“And you don’t want power,” Yvonne said, her tone overflowing with confusion.

“Not like that,” Kidder said. “I want family.”

“I can’t have a family,” Yvonne whispered. “But I can have obsession.” Kidder flinched as the full force of the stone’s power hit him. “You should be obsessed with me.”

“No,” Kidder gasped. “I won’t. I want friends.”

The silence was louder now, the tapping of the raindrops on the small pane of glass echoed around the cellar like a soldier’s drum. “There is no such thing as friends,” Yvonne said, its voice thick with emotion. “There are allies and enemies.”

Kidder went to fur to get a clearer sense of the sounds. “Are you crying?” he asked incredulously.

“That room,” Yvonne said. “Those people. That kindness. I want it. How do I make that happen for me?”

“You can’t force it,” Kidder said. “You can’t force people to like you or love you. And it’s not always like that.” He frowned. “You can read my mind?”

“At least the surface of it,” Yvonne said. “I can manage to see images.” There was a slight pause. “I can look deeper if I have to but…”

“It wouldn’t feel good, would it?” Kidder said. “If you forced deeper then we couldn’t talk like this.” Again he flinched at the pang of emotion surging from the stone. “Does anyone talk to you?” He waited for Yvonne’s answer, but after a long, uncomfortable silence, shrugged. “I’ll show you the harder bits.”

Kidder could sense the unease as he tried to remember the awkward parts of living with a paladin and a brownie. He remembered Mortimer having a screaming fit because the chimney in the living room had become blocked and then dislodged with soot all over the newly cleaned carpet. He remembered the fear as Sir Philip had been carried in after a bad fight and how he and Jasmine had spent most of the night checking on him. He remembered the worry as Darren had been swaying with exhaustion as he drove out another dark spirit. He remembered the argument with Rhys, the nerves of trying to fit in with the people at the mill and the terror of being rejected and thrown out like he had been before.

“You could force them to like you,” Yvonne said softly.

“No,” Kidder said. “I could perhaps make them respect me. I could certainly make them fear me. I couldn’t get friends by power.”

“Why did you call me Yvonne?” it asked.

Kidder grinned. “I’ve always liked the name,” he said. “But I don’t know anyone called that.”

“It’s the name of a female,” Yvonne said. “Do you desire a female?”

Kidder blushed to the roots of his hair. “Well, yes, but you can’t force it,” he said. “I mean, if it’s going to be worth it. You need to be something more. Do you know how Mark felt about Claire?”

Yvonne sighed. “I could see quite a lot of his love for Claire,” it said. “It was desperation. He felt that she made him safe and kept him on the right path. He feared that without her, he would be nothing. He was not wrong.”

“I don’t want that,” Kidder said. “But sometimes when I see Carli and Gareth together, and they seem so relaxed and working it all out. Or I see Darren and Jasmine and she just glows with happiness when Darren walks in. I’d like that.” He looked directly at the stone on its plinth. “You can’t force that.”

“I’m sure that there are ways,” Yvonne said. “So you like the name Yvonne?”

“Yes, I’ve always liked the name,” Kidder said. “And you can’t force me to like you.” He flinched back as pain spiked from the stone. “But you could be a friend.”

“Is this manipulation?” Yvonne asked.

“Probably,” Kidder said. “I don’t know. Do you like Edragor? He’s the one who really wants your power. Perhaps you should link to him.”

“He’s too scared of me,” Yvonne said scornfully. “He would use others like a tool.” It paused for a moment. “My owners have done bad things,” it whispered.

“Yes,” Kidder said. “You were with Fang when he left me for dead.” There was another long silence.

“I’m sorry,” Yvonne said.

“It’s okay,” Kidder said. “It wasn’t really you. To be fair, it wasn’t really Fang either. It was the whole mess of how you were together.”

“I remember,” Yvonne said, its voice barely above a breath. “It must have hurt.”

“Yeah,” Kidder said with a grimace. “But that’s when I ended up with the paladin and my friends.”

“But you were friends with Fang,” Yvonne said slowly. “And he knew that you should be protected. Fang knew that you wanted to do the right thing.” It paused. “And the fear of being attacked, the fear of being weak drove him to attack you.”

“I don’t want that,” Kidder said.

“Edragor wants bad things,” Yvonne said, its voice still a soft whisper. “He wants power and is indifferent to others. He doesn’t crave friendship.”

“He seems half mad already,” Kidder said.

“It’s a different type of madness,” Yvonne said. “They have all been mad, in their ways,” she added softly. “Right from the start. There was a madness craving power. That’s what I remember at the start. The hunger for power was a desperation.” Its voice rang with sorrow. “Fang was mad. His mind was wandering through drink and other things. He was desperate and feared being challenged.”

“I remember,” Kidder said.

“Mark was already deep in his madness,” Yvonne continued. “His madness was his obsession with Claire and his fear of failing and being a monster. He was far gone before I even touched him.”

“He had good friends and a loyal pack,” Kidder said. “He should have trusted them.”

“He feared them,” Yvonne said sadly. Her tone changed. “But your fear is different.”

Kidder shook his head. The conversation was spiralling in directions he couldn’t expect. “Are you manipulating me?” he asked.

“I don’t know how,” Yvonne said. “Please…”

Kidder could feel the ache of loneliness in its voice. “If you promise something, will you stick to it?” he asked.

“I was made by the elfen,” Yvonne said. “I have to keep my word.”

“Are you as tricky as the elfen?” Kidder asked. “If you give your word, will you keep to the spirit of it, the intention of the words? Or will you twist it?”

Yvonne hesitated. “If you promise me something, will you keep your word?” it asked. “You’re a werewolf. You could lie.”

“Trust is hard,” Kidder said. “You can’t force it. But why don’t we try. Let’s make a deal.”

You can read the story from the beginning here

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty Six

“It could be worse,” Carli said, patting her uncle’s arm.

Luke stared at her and then looked back to the smoke filled building. “I suppose so,” he said.

“No-one got hurt,” Carli said. “The fire alarm worked, everyone shut down and got out and it was all quickly contained.” She glanced across to Gareth who was sweating and smoke stained.

Gareth coughed as he came over. “Everyone got out fine,” he said. “And it’s only the stuff in the stores that got burned.”

“This could ruin us,” Luke said quietly.

“No!” Carli cried. “It’s just a little fire. The building is still here.”

Luke shook his head. “We’re going to have to get rid of almost all the stock,” he said. “We’ll have to dump it all. The stuff that isn’t burned or soaked from the sprinklers and fire fighters will stink of smoke. We’re talking a loss of thousands. The stores will have to be completely refitted.” He sighed. “And if it’s to go again then the whole place will need to be rewired.”

“At least it was only the stock areas that got soaked,” Gareth said. “That and the knitwear looms. And what about insurance? You must have that.”

“That’s something,” Luke said. “It’ll cover the lost stock. But I only got the basics. It won’t cover lost time and it won’t cover the rewiring.”

Gareth slowly walked over to Carli and hugged her. She sagged a little and leaned against him. “It’s okay,” he said. He took a deep breath and looked around. “This is salvageable. We just need to be methodical about it.” He looked around and started giving orders. “Jed, Syed, Jasmine, I want you to start getting all the electronics out of there. It’s going to be damp and smoky so the quicker that they’re out of there, the better for them. Label each computer, printer, scanner, whatever, tape the wires to the item and get them over to the old drying shed. Keith!” Gareth looked around for the boggart normally found in on the weaving floor. “Keith, find some trollies for the office stuff, then we’ll need your help checking over the machines. Most of the sewing room should be fine but we need to check.”

“Gotcha,” Keith said before loping off towards the sheds, closely followed by Jasmine, Syed and Jed.

Gareth looked down at Carli. “Go to the warehouse, pick up a load of boxes and start packing up your office. Take photos as you go for the insurance, just in case,” he said. “Pat from the canteen should be able to help you.” He gave her shoulders a quick squeeze and then gave her a little push towards Pat. “Load up your car and mine and you can start working from the cottage,” he added. “The work isn’t going to stop.” Gareth moved Luke a little away from the rest of the workers who were milling around. “The electrics are toast,” he said. “All the wiring is fried. We’ve got a few working electric outlets in the old sheds and that’s it. We’ll need to check and see what’s survived. The computers had surge protectors, but I’m not sure about the new looms. Their computer parts are probably fried as well.” He watched Luke go pale. “It’s okay. That will be covered by the insurance and we can take the opportunity to upgrade,” Gareth said. “And we still have the old looms that we were using for the blankets for the special orders. They can run on generators and I know for a fact that you’ve got a couple of those stashed away in the sheds.”

Luke nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “And we’ll get the night shift working if nothing else,” he said.

“We need to get a price for washing, drying and folding all the smoke damaged stock,” Gareth said. “If we sell it off at a bit over cost, we’ll at least keep the cash flow.”

“You’ve been paying attention in those classes,” Luke said. Colour was returning to his face as he started to pace. “The dyes were in the storerooms along with most of the yarn.”

“It won’t take long to order replacement stock in,” Gareth said. “Besides, we need to be methodical.” He looked around. “Get in touch with the insurers. You need to know what we can do and when. If we take pictures as we go, we can get the building empty.” Gareth waved a hand. “There’s plenty of people here right now who need to keep busy until they’ve had a chance for the adrenalin to wear off. We need to get as much cleared out, dried off and into the sheds as we can.” Gareth took Luke’s arm and lowered his voice. “The night shift, those workers on that particular loom? They’re brownies. If you want the best cleaning job you’ve ever had, they’ll get you the best contacts and the best price. It won’t be cheap, but it will be worth every penny. Trust me.”

Luke looked at Gareth for a long time. “Since you came with your new ideas, business has soared,” he said. “And with Carli’s designs, the money is rolling in. On the other hand we’ve got werewolves, brownies, goblins, boggarts and the fair folk all over the place and some strange stuff happening.” He shook his head. “I know that the electrical short was overdue, and it could have been a lot worse, and that the deal with these other types could save our bacon, but it’s not canny.” Luke shuddered. “And still no sign of Kidder?”

Gareth shook his head. “We’ve got people out looking but there’s been no sign,” he said. “The main hope that we have now is a magic ritual, believe it or not.”

Luke stared at him. “I’ve heard everything now,” he said. He looked at the people milling around. “I suppose I do believe it because with everything else…” He pursed his lips and nodded to himself. “You get everyone moving. You’ve got a way with you. We’ll need the room with the old looms sorted, the other old looms brought out of storage and put roughly in the right places. Vince can sort out the generators and Carli can sort out some extra patterns for the blankets. They’ll keep the lights on for a week or two.” He nodded. “We can do a fire sale on the internet and keep people busy there.”

“Your office and the archives need to be packed up,” Gareth said. “You should supervise that, with all the confidential stuff.”

“We need to get everything out,” Luke said. His gaze roamed over the old mill building. “Like I said, you and Carli have changed everything…” He turned suddenly to Gareth. “Are you two getting on okay?”

Gareth was thrown by the change of subject. “Yes, we’re fine,” he said. “I mean, we’re doing okay.”

“And you’re looking after her?” Luke said. “After she got stalked by that werewolf, well, we were all worried. It’s better that she’s safe up here.”

“I’ll always look after,” Gareth said. He looked over towards Carli as she and Pam discussed their plans and his heart warmed a little. “I’ll always be there for her.” He shook his head. “But what were you saying about getting everything out?”

“That mill hasn’t had a proper clear out since 1902,” Luke said. “There may not be attics, but there are cellars that have been locked up since I was a lad and there are all sorts of junk stuffed into the corners. It’s like the dyes, remember, those months ago? Everything has been just stacked and dumped and shoved to one side. We’re going to empty the mill, give it a good fettling and get everything set out. Besides, I don’t want to wait until there’s another accident.”

Gareth stared at Luke and turned back to the mill. “That’s big job,” he said quietly. The mill was massive and less than a quarter was in use.

Luke nodded. “But it’s overdue, lad, and now’s the chance.” He nodded to the rest of the staff. “Keep them busy today and they can have tomorrow off. You, Carli and me are going to sit down at my house tomorrow and work out what happens next. I’ll call Syed in as well, and Keith.” He nodded to himself. “I’m getting too old for this game, but you and Carli can make the difference. It’s not winding down anymore.”

It was Bron that replied. “It sounds like you have a lot of plans in mind,” he said. “Plans which could use an assistant manager.”

Luke frowned. “Yes, an assistant manager would be very welcome but it’s not going to be you, lad, not with your second job,” he said. “Just get everyone moving and send some boxes up to my office.”

“I’ll get on it,” Bron said.

“Hang on a minute,” Luke said. “This magical ritual thing – will you need space for it?”

Bron nodded. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But there’ll be a lot of people standing around and doing what they do. Why?”

“Kidder’s one of ours,” Luke said. He nodded at the mill. “And there is a lot of empty floor space in there, in an empty building, and it will all be nice and clean. Don’t make too much mess, just get Kidder back to us. I’ll make sure that you have the keys and the alarm codes.”

Bron swallowed a lump in his throat. “Thank you, sir, it’s a help.”

Luke grunted. “Glad to hear it. Now let’s get moving.”

*****

Dan jumped as Edragor shut the door to his office. “I didn’t hear you come in, my lord,” he said.

“I know,” Edragor said smoothly. “You were deep in thought.”

“I’ve been researching a suitable subject for your… experiments,” Dan said. “But I’m struggling a little. Any subject will have some damage. I’m not sure how to prioritise.” He looked briefly up at Edragor. “If we could consider the sort of damage that would be unimportant to a resurrected subject then I could refine my search.” Dan felt his gut heave at the thought of it.

“That’s a valid point,” Edragor said. “For the Halloween project, I think we should use Claire. That will give us a baseline. Mark is unlikely to last the night, so we don’t need to worry about him.”

Dan tried to stifle his sigh of relief. “And you asked me to look for a suitable place to perform the rituals,” he said.

“Yes, of course,” Edragor said, pacing around Dan’s small, paper-strewn office. “The space here is a little limited, especially as there will be two rituals with different requirements to run in sequence. Besides, I know that they will be on the watch for magical influences so I don’t want to lead any hostile onlooker to our home. Have you found somewhere useful?”

Dan grinned. “I’ve found the perfect place,” he said. “Kidder was working at a place called Ossett Mills, not far from here. Yesterday there was a small electrical fire and the mill was evacuated and closed until all the electrics can be checked. The place will empty.”

“How bad was the fire?” Edragor asked.

“Not too bad,” Dan said. “But they’ve cleared the entire building. We would be undisturbed. And it’s not even in the main buildings,” he added. “There are some cellars that haven’t been disturbed in years. They’re empty, they’re not part of the alarm system, and because the building was in use, the cellars are in pretty good shape.” He risked a glance at Edragor’s face before looking quickly back to his computer. “And Kidder may appreciate it.”

Edragor reached out and caught Dan’s chin in his thin fingers. “Look at me, Dan,” he said. “You should be comfortable when you look me in the eye.”

Dan stared helplessly into Edragor’s hypnotic gaze. “I’m sorry, sir,” he said.

Edragor smiled a thin smile. “You are still too tender hearted,” he said. “You can’t bear the thought of pain to our… subjects.” He wagged an indulgent finger at Dan. “We’ll practice on Claire straight after we link Kidder to the Orache Stone. We can collect data then.” He frowned. “And perhaps we can do some small tests on cats or dogs, to see how they react after being killed by drugs and then revived.” He patted Dan’s cheek. “That makes a lot of sense. Start making the preparations for the ritual. I’ll go and inform Kidder of the good news.”

Dan watched him go. He’d found out about the fire and the cellars from a delivery guy who was hanging around Dan’s favourite coffee shop. According to the delivery guy, though, the mill was far from empty. There were electricians around all day and patrols at night. All the alarms and cameras were functional. Dan may not be able to stop Edragor, but he may be able to catch the attention of those who could.

You can read the story from the beginning here

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty Four

Sir Philip limped back into the house. “That was a bit of a challenge,” he said as Mortimer opened the door to him. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance of a cup of tea.”

Mortimer stared for a moment at Sir Philip. “What happened?” he asked as he looked over Sir Philip who was covered with leaves, mud and what looked like traces of blood. He shook his head. “Never mind that, sir, but come in and I will start a bath before making tea.” Mortimer shut and locked the door once they were inside.

“There was some sort of rogue spirit in the trees,” Sir Philip said. “I wish I had the knack of a priest or a paladin, but I managed to drive it back. The playground should be safe for at least a week or two.” He sighed and leaned against the kitchen doorframe. “I’ll just get a quick shower and I’ll be straight down.” He managed his charming smile. “I’d be grateful if you could make me something to eat – anything hot would do, or even a sandwich.”

Mortimer frowned. “A bath would be better for you sir,” he grumbled. “But I’ll make sure that you have something good waiting for you when you come down.”

“Thank you,” Sir Philip said. “I won’t be long.”

Mortimer rushed into the kitchen, shaking his head. The Knight Templar looked almost ready to break. At least he could do better than a sandwich. He looked up as he heard the front door.

“It’s okay, it’s me,” Gareth called out.

Mortimer heard the door lock and smiled as Gareth came in. The smile faded as he took in the scratches down Gareth’s face. “Sir! What happened?”

“It was just one Gabble Ratchett but it got stuck under a car,” Gareth said wearily. “It was far more effort than it deserved.”

Mortimer looked confused. “What’s a Gabble Ratchett?”

“They’re nasty packets of malevolent energy,” Gareth said, easing himself out of his jacket. “If they’re summoned by someone then they usually turn up in a pack, but this just manifested as a single creature. I suppose it’s just one of the side effects of Edragor throwing all this dark magic around. They’re not strong but they can be nasty and I couldn’t leave it. Didn’t Kidder tell you? I sent him ahead.”

“Kidder isn’t home,” Mortimer said. “But Sir Philip is here. He had a problem with some trees.”

Gareth ran a weary hand over his face. “Kidder said something about calling in to see Jasmine and Darren, but I thought that was tomorrow.”

Sir Philip appeared in the doorway. “What’s happening?”

“I was just wondering if Kidder was home,” Gareth said.

“You look like you’ve been in a fight,” Bron added. “You need to sit down before you fall down.” He looked at Mortimer. “We can sit in the kitchen until food’s ready, can’t we?”

“I insist, sir!” Mortimer said. “I’ve already got a pan of soup on the stove – home made and not some of this shop bought rubbish! It’s ready to serve if you’ll just sit. And while you get that inside you, I’ll get something together for a main course.”

Sir Philip sank gratefully down into a kitchen chair and Gareth joined him after a quick wash of his hands and face. Cleaning off the dirt had brought the scratches and scrapes into clearer relief on both of them. “We can’t keep going on like this,” Sir Philip said. “I’m exhausted.”

“I’m going to book time off work,” Gareth said. “Luke won’t like it, but I’ve earned it and there’s enough set up at work to keep going for a while.”

Bron watched Mortimer set a steaming bowl of soup in front of them and a heaped plate of rolls in the centre of the table. “Thank you,” he said. “That looks just what need.”

“Are you joining us?” Sir Philip asked.

Mortimer shook his head. “I’m not that hungry. I’ll share the main course,” he said.

Sir Philip bent his head and said Grace before taking a spoonful of the soup. “This is good,” he said.

“It is indeed!” Bron said with enthusiasm. “You’re a great cook.”

Mortimer glowed with happiness as he laid some cold cooked potatoes into the frying pan. “I’m happy to be of use,” he said. He cast a worried glance over his shoulder as he took in the weariness of the men behind him. “I wish I could do more.” He laid strips of bacon onto the hot griddle and smiled at their sizzle. “I’ve just got some cake for dessert,” he said. “But I could make some custard to go with it.”

Sir Philip broke one of the fresh rolls and took a hearty bite. “Normally I’d say that we wouldn’t need it,” he said. “But I think we’re using up the calories.”

Gareth swallowed the last spoonful of warmed ginger cake with custard and sighed. “That was just what we needed,” he said.

“It absolutely was,” Sir Philip agreed, leaning back in the kitchen chair. He sagged wearily but then straightened a little as he heard the front door unlock.

“It’s just me,” Darren called out as he walked into the kitchen and sank down into a spare chair. “I’ve been sorting out a shade just outside Ilkley.” He looked over at Mortimer. “Any food left.”

“Of course,” Mortimer said, offended at the lack of faith.

“Where’s Kidder?” Bron asked. “I thought he was meeting you?”

“I haven’t seen him,” Darren said. “We’re supposed to be meeting up tomorrow for werewolf stuff with him and Jasmine, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to make time.”

“Kidder was supposed to come home ahead of me while I dealt with a Gabble Ratchet,” Gareth said as a chill settled in his stomach.

Sir Philip frowned and pulled out his mobile phone. “He’s really not much more than a pup,” he said. “But he could overestimate his ability.”

“He can stand up for himself if he has to,” Bron said. “But you’re right, he’s not a full wolf yet.”

“The phone’s going to voicemail,” Sir Philip said. “It’s switched off.”

“I’ll get on the laptop,” Gareth said. “It’s easier to track the phone from there.”

“I’ll ring Tyler,” Darren said, ignoring the bowl of soup in front of him. “With all this dark stuff going on, he could have been taken.”

Sir Philip pushed himself to his feet. “Once you’ve checked the laptop, we can retrace his likely route,” he said. He looked at Mortimer. “You need to hold the fort here. Take phone messages, keep the place warm and ready. I’ll call Rhys and see if he can spare anyone.”

“You know that they’re stretched looking for Mark,” Gareth said as he strode into the study to fire up the new laptop. “But I think that he won’t begrudge help.”

Darren followed them, phone in hand. “And I get Jasmine,” he said.

Bron looked up from the laptop. “There’s no trace of the phone after he crossed the park,” he said and then hesitated. “I’m remembering the old days. The Orache Stone wears out its owner quickly. Mark would be at the end of his usefulness by now.” He took a deep breath. “If Edragor is using a werewolf as a proxy to use the Orache Stone without getting damaged himself then he may be looking for another werewolf.” There was a long silence before Bron continued. “Kidder would be a good target on the outside. He’s young, impressionable and he’s a stray without a pack to come looking for him.”

Mortimer clutched at Bron’s arm. “But sir, we’re his pack,” he said.

“Damn right,” Bron said. “I could be wrong, but let’s get moving, and the quicker the better. If I’m right and Kidder gets caught up in the Orache Stone then he’s finished.”

*******

The cold didn’t affect Kidder so much but the dark was wearing him down. He lapped thirstily at the water dish and then took a few mouthfuls of kibble. There wasn’t much he could do in fur while he was kept in this cage. He jumped easily onto the bed and circled a few times before laying down with his head on his paws, pointedly away from the Orache Stone on the stand in the corner.

He could feel it calling to him. The insidious tug of desire. He could hear it whispering to him. Kidder tried to push his paws over his ears, but it didn’t help. Images of power seeped into his mind. He was a pack leader, gathering strays and sheltering them. He was surrounded by dozens of strong, young fighters with gleaming fur and sharp jaws. Someone soft and feminine was at his side, nuzzling up to him as the huge pack gathered for the feast, well fed and housed in warm, safe dens. He could do so much. He wouldn’t be chasing a dead woman like Mark. He could take this inexhaustible power and use it for all the right reasons. He could save so many.

Kidder whimpered and clutched his paws tighter over his head.

You can read the story from the beginning here

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty Three

Gareth grunted with effort as he lifted his corner of the machine piece. “Here?” he asked as he looked at the new weaver. He still wasn’t used to being used as muscle. All the training had bulked him out, though, and he was now called to help move heavy things.

Dawn frowned and looked between the end of the loom and the window. “I’m not sure,” she said.

Gareth stared at the brownie in frustration. “Most of the year you’ll be working in the dark,” he said. “You’ll be doing the night shift. The window doesn’t matter. You’ll be using lights.”

Dawn considered that morsel of information and then looked up. “The lights are wrong,” she said.

“Of course the bloody lights are wrong,” Vince said. The goblin glared as he stalked across the floor. “Just put the damned loom somewhere and we can sort out the lights around it. You brownies are all the same.”

“If you mean we want things done right, then yes!” Dawn said. She looked over to the door. “I don’t want a draught.”

Gareth leant against the loom and caught Kidder’s eye. The young werewolf was trying not to laugh. “I’ll just take five minutes,” Gareth said.

“No!” Dawn said. “We’re going to get it right now. Do you know how long it can take to dress a loom? We can’t be wasting time.”

“You are wasting time, you daft biddy,” Vince said. “This should have been set up hours ago but you keep messing us around. Get that broomstick out of your fat backside and get on with it.”

Jed, also recruited to help lift the loom leant close to Gareth. “How many humans are there here?” he asked.

“It’s not ‘human’, it’s ‘non-normal’ and it’s just you and me,” Gareth said. “Technically we’re normals.” He thought for a moment. “For a given definition of normal.”

Jed shook his head. “Because it sounds like my mum and dad arguing when they move furniture.”

“It’s the air that worries me,” Dawn said. “I don’t want dust collecting and making a fire risk.”

Vince snorted. “All the weavers and crew are brownies,” he said. “There’s more chance of me getting lucky with…”

Dawn held up an imperious hand. “Don’t you dare finish that sentence, young man,” she said. “There’s a lady present.”

Vince looked her slowly up and down. “No,” was all he said but Dawn flushed red with anger.

Gareth stepped quickly between them. “Please, we need to get this sorted out now,” he said. “I’ve got duties out there, and I know that the sooner we have the old looms in place, the sooner we can start.” He looked between the two adversaries. “You know how bad it’s been.”

“He’s been working around the clock,” Kidder added. “It’s been scary.”

Dawn glared at Vince and then sniffed. She looked around again and nodded. “I need the main housing here,” she said, pulling some chalk out of her pocket and marking the stone floor. “But the lights will need to be moved.”

Vince looked thoughtfully at Gareth. “Was it you or Bron that helped out my brother-in-law at the garage?” he asked. “Because that was bad. You were with Sir Philip, weren’t you?”

“It was Bron,” Gareth said. “But he told me about it. Sir Philip has been a real help.”

Vince pursed his lips and then nodded. “I can get the lights sorted out, no problem,” he said. He looked over at Dawn. “Once the machine is in position, mark where you need extra lighting. And I’ll bring over some lamps to keep you going while you get it all threaded up.”

“Thank you,” Dawn said. “Getting the loom dressed is going to be something of a challenge. The pattern is…” she hunted for a tactful description. “The pattern is very lively. I don’t know why they didn’t stick to a traditional cream or a nice soft green.”

“I like a bit of colour,” Vince said, rubbing a hand down his greasy overalls. “A bright pink would be nice.” He looked around the astonished expressions. “What? I like pink. But a blanket has to be plain or the pattern keeps you awake.”

“Well, we’re not being paid to use them,” Dawn said. “And that’s just as well. Anyway, I’ve got some snacks in the meeting room. When you’ve moved the loom, come down and I’ll make some tea.”

Vince rubbed his hands together as Dawn stalked out. “At least we get a good feed out of that,” he said gleefully. “Now let’s get this machine in place.” He patted the cast iron affectionately. “They don’t make them like this anymore.”

“And there’s a reason for that,” Gareth said as he took his corner.

Jed grunted with effort as they shifted the pieces of the loom into place. “How old is this loom? It looks older than me.”

“And the rest,” Vince said as he deftly connected the pulleys. “This is probably about a hundred years old, or maybe a little more.” He slotted a shaft in place and pulled out a spanner to tighten the nut. “The target audience is elfen, though, and they’re not good with modern stuff. Most of them can’t deal with cars, never mind computers or smart phones.” He checked the sit of the bolt and moved on. “Can you move that a smidgeon to the right, your other right, that’s it.” He fitted another bolt. “From what I’ve heard, you have the deal because it’s older stuff. It’s 100% woollen blankets, made on old looms, dyed in stupid patterns and brownie made.”

“It’s not that our day crew can’t handle it,” Gareth said. “But it sealed the deal.” Luke had been grumbling about it all week. “And with it being strictly at night, it makes the best use of the space.”

Jed grinned. “It doesn’t put too much load on the electrics,” he said. “I heard Luke swearing about how much rewiring would cost and how with the extra machines, because of the extra demand, he can’t get out of it.”

“So running this at night spreads the electrical load,” Gareth said. He checked the machine. “Is that it?”

Vince nodded. “It’s in place now. Me and my boys will get it running by the end of the week,” he said. “Now, let’s get down to those snacks.”

Jed looked at Gareth as they straightened and dusted down their clothes. “Are the snacks that good?” he asked.

Kidder grabbed Jed’s arm. “They’re better than good. You like Mortimer’s cooking, don’t you?” he said.

Jed nodded. “It’s amazing,” he said. “Food fit for the gods. It’s why I keep bringing the beer around and scrounging dinner.”

“Mortimer is only a beginner compared to Dawn,” Kidder said. “Don’t keep her waiting!”

*****

Kidder forced himself to open his heavy eyes. What had happened? He rolled over and pushed himself to his knees, shivering. He was in a cage in the centre of what felt like a cellar. Cold radiated from the stone floor and into his bones. He staggered to his feet and groaned. His clothes were missing and the cool, damp air sucked the heat from him. He grabbed hold of the bars and forced himself to stay upright. He had been late leaving the mill as he had stayed behind to help Dawn move in the threads she needed. She had given him a large paper bag full of snacks and told him to be careful and go straight home. Kidder felt himself sway and leant against the bars. He had been cutting across a park when everything had gone fuzzy.

As Kidder’s wits returned, he looked around as much of the cage as he could see in the dim light. There was a narrow cot on one side, a lidded bucket in a corner and a silicon dog bowl of water was placed next to a silicon dog bowl of kibble. After all the snacks he had devoured earlier, Kidder wasn’t hungry but his mouth felt dry and dusty. Without thinking, Kidder went to fur and trotted over to lap thirstily at the water, glad of his wolf shape as it kept out the cold. The water was cool and refreshing and he drank eagerly.

“Hello, Kidder,” a voice said behind him. “Don’t worry about changing.”

Kidder turned around and padded towards the voice. A door had opened in the corner and light spilled in, showing a dusty room with boxes stacked in corners. The tall, cadaverous figure facing him was unnerving.

“My name is Edragor,” the figure said. “You need to eat and drink and build up your strength.”

Kidder tried to shift back from fur but he couldn’t shake his wolf shape.

“I’m sorry to be deceptive,” Edragor said. “But I put a little something in your water. For now, you’ll stay in wolf form.” He smiled thinly. “You have a little less impulse control and logic in that shape. Don’t worry too much. It’s just a way of making sure that we become friends.”

Kidder felt his lips lifting in a snarl as he backed away from the figure.

“You won’t be able to stay away from the water,” Edragor said. “I did mention about the lack of impulse control, didn’t I? But I’ll look after you. Don’t you worry about a thing.”

You can find the story from the beginning here

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty Two

Dan paused at the entrance to the cold room. He hadn’t signed up for this. He’d been fascinated and desperate and perhaps this magic would give him the status that he had craved as a seventeen year old, scrawny, hopeless kid. He never thought that those vague pamphlets would lead him here, looking at a dead woman on a chilled slab with a husk of a man slumped next to her. The withered remains of a wedding bouquet lay on the bed between them. There was such a depth of sorrow here, he could hardly bear it. He jumped as his boss spoke.

“We need a replacement for Mark,” Edragor said. “There’s nothing left of him. He’ll be dead before the next full moon.” He looked thoughtful. “I can dispose of him easily enough, but I may try reanimating Claire. The enchantments I put in place have kept her in perfect condition.”

Dan kept his face blank but he noted the casual way Edragor claimed the enchantments. Dan had been the one to cast them, siphoning the energy from Mark under Edragor’s direction, using spells and enchantments that he had developed but that Edragor knew nothing about. “Won’t it be tricky with all the cancer?” he asked. His research and experiments had been clear – cancer was one place the magic couldn’t go.

Edragor’s mouth twisted. “You’re right,” he said. “We’ll have to dispose of both of them. It’s more important, however, that we find a new keeper of the Orache Stone. I can’t risk it calling to any of our brethren here.” He smiled thinly at Dan. “You are all far too valuable to me. Besides, it seems to call to werewolves.”

“Getting hold of a willing werewolf could be a problem,” Dan said. “Perhaps we could get hold of a stray?”

Edragor tapped his finger against his chin thoughtfully. “That has possibilities, as long as they’re not too degraded. A creature with enough bodily strength to hold the Orache Stone for some time but perhaps not too intelligent,” he said. “We could use someone with a grudge. They would be easy to manipulate.”

“I suppose so,” Dan said, his eyes drawn back to Mark, silent and still next to the remains of Claire.

“You mustn’t get too attached to them,” Edragor said. “I’ve already had to teach you that with the rats.”

“I suppose so,” Dan said. Some of the experiments with the rats had been… He pushed the thoughts back. He could simulate most of it on his computer these days. “But where are you going to find a stray?”

Edragor’s smile widened. “I think I may have a good candidate,” he said. “It’s a tactic not without risk, but I think worth taking a chance.”

“Are you sure that they’ll take the Orache Stone?” Dan asked.

“I don’t think many could resist it,” Edragor said. “That’s why access to here is so limited. I can’t risk too many people close to the thing.” He looked hungrily over to the stone in Mark’s hands. “The power is amazing…” His fingers clenched on the doorframe for a moment before he took a deep breath. “We are getting closer to controlling the dead. We should have a practice run on Halloween before the full attempt on the eve of the Winter Solstice.” His fingers tapped on the frame of the door. “I’ll arrange for some fresh bodies for Halloween.”

“We don’t have long,” Dan said quietly. “And I’m not sure about all of the wards.”

Edragor waved a dismissive hand. “The power we can channel will hold anything,” he said. “You concentrate on those wards and I’ll sort out the new Orache Stone holder and I’ll keep a watch on the morgues for good candidates.” He turned and strode away.

Dan shivered from more than the cold from the room. He didn’t want to do this but he had seen what Edragor had done to those who had tried to leave before. For a moment he leaned against the door, exhausted, before pushing himself away and dragging himself back to his computer. At least for now he could stick to the simulations.

*****

Lord Marius paced in his council chamber. As it reflected his mood, it currently looked like a Victorian gentleman’s club that had just been raided. Persian rugs were bundled in corners away from the gleaming parquet flooring and several of the rich leather chairs were upturned. A long scratch ran along the polished mahogany table and the picture of Queen Victoria was crooked over the cold fireplace. “This is insupportable!”

Phil lounged on one of the surviving armchairs. “We need to find Mark.”

“And none of the sorcerers are getting through,” Steve said as he stood near the fireplace. “Edragor was always tricky. Now he has the stone and it’s impossible.” He looked over to where Bron was sitting. “But I don’t think Bron would make a good tether.”

“I’m glad to hear that,” Bron said.

Lord Marius shot a speculative glance at him. “We could conjure your spirit into a gem and use that as a tether.”

“No you couldn’t,” Bron said flatly.

“We could get you to try scrying,” Steve said.

“Nope, I’m not doing that either,” Bron said. “That last thing a paladin needs is to open themselves up to influences. It makes you easier to attack.”

“That is true,” Lord Marius said. He frowned. “How about other things that were buried with you? We could go back to your grave and look. That would have to be worth an attempt.”

“If anything’s survived,” Steve said doubtfully. “And if someone took the Orache Stone then they may have already taken whatever else survived.”

“That’s true,” Phil said. “I’ve heard a lot of people talking about finding stuff in fields and selling them online. And if it was one of the strays from Otley, they would have sold anything as quickly as possible.” He looked at Bron. “Can you remember what you were buried with?”

Bron stared at him. “I wasn’t there, at least, not in spirit,” he said. He nodded at Lord Marius. “His lordship might remember, though.”

“It was a few centuries ago,” Lord Marius said, frowning. “It’s hard to think that far back. It was a good funeral feast, Bron, and you would have been comforted by how many missed you.”

Bron shrugged. “It seems like only a few months ago to me,” he said with uncharacteristic softness. “I still miss them.”

“I know an archaeology student,” Phil said. “If you can show us the barrow, they can have a look through and perhaps find something.”

“I know where it is,” Gareth said. “But it’s too late to start out now.”

Phil shook his head. “It freaks me out every time,” he said.

“We’re going to have to go at night,” Steve said. “There are laws about digging up ancient burials.”

“I should hope so,” Bron said. “There’s an evil in grave robbing.”

“I can make some sort of glamour so no-one spots us,” Steve said. “But we had better go when it’s quiet.”

“I’m not sure that the archaeology student will understand,” Phil said. “I’ll have to have a word.”

“Let me speak to them,” Lord Marius said. “I have a way with words.”

“You can’t just threaten them,” Bron said.

“No such thing,” Lord Marius said. “But I can promise them a place on some very promising excavations. I have a few contacts.”

Bron looked at him suspiciously but nodded. “And while you are not threatening someone or making them risk their future, I’ll have a word with Fang’s old friends at the Iron Sickle,” he said. “There may be some offerings that they haven’t sold yet which we could use.” He frowned. “Does the effect wear off if they’re kept jumbled up with stuff?”

“Normally yes,” Steve said. “But this is the Orache Stone. Its effects are not going to fade easily.”

“Good,” Lord Marius said. “Phil, you may take me to this student now.” He frowned. “We can’t delay until Halloween. We can’t risk the potential influences.”

“The sooner we start, the sooner we finish,” Bron said, standing. “I’ll get back to the Iron Sickle now.”

“And I’ll get back to my work,” Steve said. “We can’t risk mistakes and we’ve no time to lose.”

You can read the story from the beginning here

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty One

Gareth flew across the room and landed hard against the wall, wheezing as he slid down to the floor. He pushed himself to his feet and charged back to the fight. Beside him, Tyler snapped at a ghostly leg. He had gone to fur early on and was now snarling at the shapes forming around the central figure. Gareth body slammed into a disturbingly solid ghost before it could land on Tyler’s back then kicked out hard at the figure advancing on Darren. It barely staggered. Vaguely aware of Tyler’s growls and an unearthly shriek behind him, Gareth punched into the figure’s head and it reeled away, collapsing onto a display cabinet before fading away.

“Relinque hoc loco et numquam redire!” snapped Darren as he made the sign of the cross over the small statuette. “Relinque!”

There was a loud crack, a sharp smell of sulphur and then silence. Gareth looked around cautiously as he picked himself up and dusted himself down. Tyler got out of fur and reached for his trousers. “That was bad,” Tyler said.

Darren held up his hand and then prayed quietly for a few moments before turning around, relief on his sweat-streaked face. “That was tough,” he said. “You can come out now, Mrs Beasley.”

A thin faced woman crept into the shattered living room. “Thank you, vicar,” she said, looking around. “Is everything alright?”

Darren nodded. “There’s no trace of anything left in the statuette,” he said. “And if there was anything else affected in your collection, it would have shown. You can continue with your display.”

Mrs Beasley looked around her tiny collection and then back at the prize exhibit of a small Roman statue. “Actually, I think I may take up gardening,” she said. “How much do I owe you for this?”

Darren wearily shook his head. “Please, just remember me in your prayers, and if you have anything to give, please give it to a good charity.” He swayed slightly and Tyler quickly grabbed his shoulder.

“I’ll call in next week, if that’s convenient,” Gareth said. “I’ll just quickly check that things are staying quiet. And you have my phone number if anything else happens.” He looked with concern at Darren’s pale face. “We had better be going.”

He helped Tyler guide Darren out to the Range Rover and took the keys from Darren’s unresisting hand. “We need to get back,” Gareth said. “And Darren needs some decent food.”

“I’m fine,” Darren said, sagging into the passenger seat.

“I’ll get back to Lady Mary and give a report,” Tyler said. “She’s been dealing with her own problems up on the moors so she’ll be grateful that you’ve handled this.” He ran a weary hand over his face. “We can’t go on like this.”

Gareth glanced at Darren who looked ready to drop from exhaustion. “We should meet up later. We’re just reacting at the moment. We need to get ahead of things.”

Tyler nodded, exhausted. “But getting ahead of things means getting a breathing space to make plans.” He held up a hand. “I’ll talk later.”

*****

Jasmine sat next to Darren, a frown on her lovely face as she watched him devour a large vegetarian curry with a huge baked potato. “You can go on like this, love,” she said. “It’s relentless.”

Darren chewed around a mouthful before answering. “There aren’t many options,” he said. “It’s the damned Orache Stone. It’s stirring things up.” He shovelled in another mouthful of baked potato. “And it’s stirring up the bad stuff. I can’t turn my back.”

Gareth nodded wearily. “It’s bad,” he said. “I have bruises on my bruises, but we can’t let innocent people get hurt.”

“Was Bron there?” Kidder asked.

Gareth shook his head. “He thinks I need to get some practice on my own,” he said.

“The lad did pretty well,” Bron said. “Once he learns how to not get hit, he’ll be fine.”

“And you’re so good at that,” Gareth said with a tired grin as he took a forkful of the curry. “Don’t think I haven’t seen the evidence of your fights.”

“That’s different,” Bron said. “I have evidence of mighty battles. You wait until you catch up.”

“I’m not in a hurry,” Gareth said.

“And that’s just as well,” Bron retorted.

Darren managed to hide his own grin but looked around the room. For once, everyone was home. Mortimer was bringing in extra curry and a pile of naan bread. Kidder was sitting next to Gareth at the table, slowly eating his own portion and looking concerned. He’d been caught up in a few scraps and Darren was worried about the young werewolf getting in over his head. Sir Philip was sat at Darren’s right, keeping his own counsel. There were some nasty scratches on the handsome face and Sir Philip was sticking to using his left hand after an unpleasant dislocation damaged his right shoulder. Both Jasmine and Carli had come to visit, and while Carli had the sense to keep out of trouble, Darren’s heart twisted with worry at the thought of Jasmine getting caught up. Jasmine was a werewolf and could look after herself, but she was so dear to him. He couldn’t bear the thought of her getting hurt. He turned as there was a knock at the door. “Please, not another incident.”

“I’ll go,” Mortimer said, placing the platters on the table and hurrying out.

“I’ve been in touch with Lincoln,” Sir Philip said. “They haven’t much to give but they’re sending what they have.” He hesitated. “And they’re talking about sending in regulars.”

“The last thing we need is squaddies freaking out in the middle of a scrap,” Darren said wearily. “I don’t have the time to get them through it.”

“We didn’t get much help, did we?” Sir Philip said, looking Darren in the eye. “We didn’t have a choice. We managed.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Darren said. “I know a few who didn’t manage at all. We shouldn’t risk people breaking as part of a numbers game.”

“It’s Lady Mary and Tyler,” Mortimer said. With a sudden burst of courage, he turned to Lady Mary. “Please join us in the dining room. It’s imperative that Sir Philip and Darren have something to eat. And I can offer you something if you wish.”

Lady Mary managed a weary smile. “A small portion of whatever you are serving would be wonderful. It smells delicious.” She sank down wearily at the end of the table. “And if you have some tea, that would be lovely.”

Tyler caught Mortimer’s eye. “And I know what a good cook you are,” he said. “So pile my plate high.” He sat next to Lady Mary and for a brief moment she laid her head on his shoulder before sitting straight.

“It’s not often a Prince comes to a Paladin’s home,” Darren said. “But these are difficult times.”

Lady Mary nodded. “Spirits of all sorts have been creeping out of the strangest places,” she said. “The big museums know how to police their own, but the items that have been so inoffensive in small collections are suddenly becoming animated.”

Tyler grinned wolfishly as Mortimer put a large plate in front of him. “Thank you! Lord Marius wants to call a meeting to discuss the matter. He’s taking this pretty seriously.”

Lady Mary picked up a fork as a plate was placed in front of her and smiled her thanks at Mortimer, who blushed. “Just because the situation is desperate doesn’t mean that politics aren’t involved.” She took a small forkful and smiled in pleasure. “This is excellent, thank you.” She looked around the table. “The worst of the effects is being felt here. The Orache Stone is tethered to this area. Unfortunately, it’s spreading and Lord Marius desires to take action.”

“He’s taking action,” Sir Philip said. “He hasn’t got a choice. I had a quick call with Sir Dylan last night. Leeds, especially in the North West of the city, is feeling the effects.” He looked around the table. “And so is Lord Richard, towards the West. He’s had enough to deal with, though as the area is mostly sheep, he’s had a slightly quieter time.”

“The paladin there has a good grasp of magic,” Tyler said. “So it’s not so bad.”

“I was talking to Zahra yesterday,” Jasmine said. She glanced at Darren. “I know her from before I got to York and we’ve kept in touch. Bradford is getting hit as well, but it’s being kept down, at least for now.”

“They have their own systems in Bradford,” Darren said. “They may be willing to help us, but I don’t know if they’ll have the people.”

“How much is the Orache Stone and how much is Edragor?” Darren asked. “I’ve heard too much about that freak to be comfortable about all this.”

“I’ve not had all the information yet,” Lady Mary said, a brief flash of irritation crossing her face. “Edragor has some power, but not as much as he would like. But he’s a slimy toad. He’ll burn Mark out and leave him a husk, then hand the Orache Stone over to another stooge.” She frowned at the fragrant curry. “Edragor unfortunately has a lot of knowledge. The consequences could be problematic.”

“Lord Marius is having fits about it,” Darren said. “And he’s having trouble holding everyone together. They can’t find either the stone or Edragor and a lot of his court are talking about a Wild Hunt.”

“You can’t have a Wild Hunt in a city,” Sir Philip said. “It could be lethal.”

“What’s a Wild Hunt?” Carli asked timidly.

Darren ran a tired hand over his face. “The local prince summons every non-normal to ride with them in a chase around their domain,” he said. “Some princes summon them regularly and they don’t do too much damage in the country.”

“As long as they stay under the control of the prince,” Sir Philip said. “And stick to the wilder areas. The non-normals can get caught up in a kind of madness. Anyone not part of the Wild Hunt can get hunted – that is, literally hunted and torn to pieces. It can get ugly very fast.”

“But it’s not a bad way of flushing out enemies,” Lady Mary said. “I’ve taken part in a few in my time.” Her mouth twisted with distaste. “They are a blunt instrument. But if we can’t find the Orache Stone or Edragor, we’re out of options.” She exchanged a worried glance with Tyler. “The Wild Hunt should be here, as the Orache Stone is tethered to this location, but it could easily cross into Lord Marius’ domain, and then things could get tricky.”

“What about Mark?” Kidder asked quietly. “Can he be saved?”

There was a silence and then Bron reached over and put a sympathetic hand on the young werewolf’s shoulder. “Mark has gone,” Bron said. “At least, the bit that was Mark. It’s my guess it went a little while ago and he was just treading water as his wife died. The Orache Stone will have taken all that’s left. He may have already been replaced.”

“There has to be a better way of finding the Orache Stone,” Sir Philip said. “Wild Hunts are dangerous and unstable.”

Lady Mary nodded. “I agree,” she said. “But our contacts within the police have found nothing and any attempt at magical tracing has hit the wards. Even Steve Adderson can’t get past them.” She sighed and put her fork down on her plate. “Mark wouldn’t have realised, but Edragor did. Anything that could be used to trace Mark using magic has been removed from the pack buildings. Rhys is furious as there’s a lot of documents missing and it’s added legal complications to everything else.”

Gareth frowned. “You need a link to Mark or the Orache Stone?” he asked. “If you could find something like that, you could punch through the wards?”

“Steve Adderson could,” Lady Mary said. “It would be a struggle for anyone else, even with the links. But all trace of Mark has gone and what could we use for the Orache Stone? Everything connected with that has vanished.”

“Not exactly,” Gareth said. “Bron shared a grave with it for a few thousand years. Perhaps Steve could do something with that.”

“I’m not sure that I’m going to enjoy this,” Bron said.

You can read the story from the beginning here

Invitation Accepted Chapter Twenty

Luke wasn’t exactly sure what had been happening in the non-normal community. All he knew was that Gareth was turning up at his desk with more bruises than usual, Rhys had disappeared and that Surjit had very reasonably handed in her notice. Now he was faced with a smooth talking businessman who he suspected knew more than he should about practically everything and had an uneasy feeling that he was coming a serious second in negotiations.

“Are you sure that these will sell?” Luke asked sceptically. He looked down at the crazed patterns. It looked like a colourblind hippy had taken a wild trip and vomited random colours over the board.

“Trust me,” Steve said. “If you can deliver the blankets in these colourways, I’ll want 500 up front and options on another 500 by Christmas. And if you can provide a few different colourways in similar styles, I’d like to take an option on those as well.”

Luke ran a hand over his thinning hair. “I thought that the Fair Folk would like all soft colours and greens and natural shades,” he said plaintively.

“Why?” Steve said in bewilderment. “Oh, they’re not like the stories.” He thought for a moment. “Well, they’re not like the nice stories. And these days they’re very rarely like the bad stories.” Steve thought for a moment. “Especially if they’re worried about being caught. Listen, it’s a good deal, and if you keep it exclusive then I’m happy to keep the price up.”

Luke looked again at the eye-jarring colours. “I’ll keep it exclusive,” he said. It was the sort of blanket that he couldn’t even donate. He’d get blacklisted by homeless shelters.

“Try it in monochrome,” Steve said. “I don’t need to have that tied into the exclusivity clause.”

Luke frowned as he checked over the pattern. “Yes, that would work,” he said. Years of working with textiles had honed his instincts. “I can see it with scarves, sweaters and skirts,” he said. “In fact, there are a few different garments that could work. I can get some samples ready for you if you like?”

Steve looked at the discordant design. “I can’t see it myself, but I’ll take your word for it,” he said. “By the way, if you’re looking for a new receptionist, I know someone who’s looking for a job.”

Luke felt a shiver of unease. “Are they like Rhys?” he asked.

Steve grinned. “Yes, she’s a werewolf, but she’s not likely to cause any trouble. Her boyfriend’s moved to Leeds and she’s looking for a job so she can join him. She’s a sweet kid, and no trouble at all.”

“What sort of experience does she have?” Luke asked. On the one hand, this meant that he wouldn’t have to go through the tedious and nerve wracking process of posting job adverts and interviewing. On the other hand, things were weird enough. “And is she, well, safe, you know?”

“She’s fine,” Steve said. “And Kidder hasn’t been a problem, has he?”

Luke had to admit that Kidder was turning out to be one of the best employees he’d had. He kept his head down, did his work and was no trouble. He’d been talking about organising a work’s football team, but that wasn’t the worst thing he could do. “Is she a bit older?” Luke asked cautiously. “It’s just that my sales staff can be a bit rowdy and I don’t want someone who gets upset.” Surjit had told them where to go when they started messing around. She’d also included a few explicit directions for good measure.

“Jasmine is fine,” Steve said. “She can be a bit shy, but she’s devoted to her boyfriend and probably won’t notice anything.”

Luke frowned. “Her boyfriend won’t make trouble, will he?” he asked. “He’s not likely to throw his weight around?”

Steve shook his head. “He’s a minister. He may have a bit of a sharp tongue, but he’s not the jealous type.”

Luke shrugged. He couldn’t imagine a werewolf being the girlfriend of a minister, but he wasn’t going to argue. He needed a receptionist. And how much trouble could she cause? “When can she start?”

*******

Bron paused, panting at the gate. “That was a good run,” he said.

Gareth nodded. “I’m still getting used to it,” he said, fighting to catch his breath. He started stretching out as Bron hung around in the back of his mind. “But it’s good.”

Bron observed as Gareth went through the cooling down exercises. “There is so much knowledge now,” he said. “And we’re doing much better. Besides, it’s good that we exercise. Mortimer feeds us very well and we could end up fat.”

Gareth chuckled as he stretched his hamstring. “We’re putting on muscle, not weight,” he said. He kept the stretch going but his focus shifted. “That’s a new car in the drive.”

“Keep the warm down going,” Bron said. “And keep alert.”

Gareth nodded. “It’s a fancy car,” he said, changing legs. “It must have cost a fortune when it was new.”

“That was a while ago,” Bron said as he looked at its battered condition.

“The plates say that it’s a year old,” Gareth said.

“Then either the owner is a careless driver or it’s seen some action,” Bron said. “It’s even more battered than your car. That dent in the side looks like it was hit by a boggart.”

“Well spotted,” a voice said from behind them. “That’s exactly what happened. I’m Darren King and I was told that I could stay here. I’m an exorcist.”

Bron turned slowly before starting the quad stretch. “Nice to meet you,” he said. “I didn’t hear anything. But you’re welcome of course.” He noted the hard muscles, cold eyes and assured balance of the man facing him. “There’s room for all of us.”

“You need to start checking your emails,” Darren said. “Not that would have made much difference. Lincoln aren’t good at sharing information and neither is York. I believe that there’s trouble around here. While the non-normals of Leeds are having fits, I’ve heard that the real action is around here.”

Gareth looked Darren over. He looked more like a movie star in a battered leather jacket, faded t-shirt and supermarket jeans than an exorcist. “Do you have any sort of identification?” he asked. “And just for the record – you’re not going to exorcise me.”

“That didn’t sound like a question,” Darren said, pulling a card holder from his jacket pocket and flipping it open. “I have a duty to my calling and to protect the world. If you have spirit inside you, I have to ask questions.”

“It’s okay,” Sir Philip came out from behind Darren and grinned. “I know Darren from way back. And he’s come here because he’s helping police the threat from the Orache Stone and he’s from out of town.”

“I shouldn’t be here for too long,” Darren said. “I’m being translated.” He sighed as he took in Gareth’s confused look. “I’m a minister. I have a parish. But with things going so crazy here, I’m getting moved from York to Leeds. Being translated means being moved on from a parish.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Bron muttered. “You’re still not exorcising me. And now that we’ve got that sorted out, what’s for dinner?” He strode past Darren and into the house. “Something smells good.”

*******

Gareth stuck his head into Carli’s office. “Are you ready to leave?” he asked.

“Just a second,” Carli said, grabbing up her bag. The rain rattled against the windows and she shivered. “Are you sure that you still want to go out?”

“I have been wanting a date for weeks,” Gareth said. “And so far we’ve been interrupted every time. Besides, I’m not taking you home to the madhouse.”

“Of course, you have a new guest,” Carli said. “What’s he like?”

“Bron respects him,” Gareth said. “Kidder and Mortimer are both terrified of him, though they’re starting to relax a bit. He brought his girlfriend around last week and I think she and Kidder sort of knew each other and that helped.”

“He must be terrifying if he’s got Bron’s respect,” Carli said. “How did he manage that?”

“Bron and Darren did a little sparring – which I stayed well out of!” Gareth said. He terrified the life out of me and kept up with Bron without much trouble.”

“That’s scary,” Carli said. She looked at the rain scything down in the car park. “We could get a takeaway and go to my place.”

Gareth felt temptation wash over him but fought it back. “No, I’m determined that for once we are going to go somewhere nice,” he said. “It’s about time I treated you to a meal.” He grinned down at Carli. “But we can still go to your place afterwards.”

She smiled back. “It’s a deal,” she said. “Come on.”

Talk turned to work matters as they walked down the stairs together. “The monochrome sounds like it could work,” Gareth said. “And I can think of a few places we could advertise, especially some of the more obscure websites.”

“You could just pass on the details to the sales team,” Carli said. “They’d appreciate the challenge. The trouble is that the monochrome isn’t straightforward from my side. It’s not just like adding black or white to a shade to get gradients. It’s more about getting subtle differences…” she trailed off as she heard Jed yell. “Oh no!”

Gareth raced ahead, flying around the last corner and landing ready to take on whatever had attacked Jed, stumbling to a halt at the unexpected scene. The new receptionist had Jed in an arm lock, twisting firmly against the joint. She was young, tall, slim, blonde and impossibly beautiful. She was also handling the bulk of Jed like an expert. “Try putting your hand on me again,” she said, twisting Jed’s wrist a little for emphasis. “And I’ll rip it off.”

Bron woke up, stretched and grinned. “I’m glad that someone’s teaching you how to behave,” he told Jed.

“Let me go!” Jed yelped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“My boyfriend will be picking me up soon, and you’ll see that he’s real if you stick around,” the blonde said. “But it doesn’t matter if he’s real or not. If I say don’t touch, you keep your hands to yourself – understand?”

“Yes! Yes! I’m sorry!” Jed cried, collapsing on the floor as the new receptionist released his hold.

“Hi Jasmine,” Carli said. “I’m sorry about Jed, but most of the guys here are okay. This is my boyfriend, Gareth. Gareth, this is the new receptionist, Jasmine Tait.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Gareth said, politely shaking Jasmine’s hand. He looked at Jed who was slowly picking himself up from the floor. “I’d ask if you were okay, but you seem to have it handled.”

“Are you sure that your boyfriend is picking you up?” Jed asked. Genuine admiration glowed in his eyes.

“Yes I am,” a voice said from the door.

“Hi Darren,” Gareth said, somehow unsurprised. “You didn’t tell me that Jasmine was working here.”

“You didn’t ask,” Darren said. His attention was all on Jasmine as he strode over to her.

“Carli, this is Darren, our new housemate,” Gareth said. “Darren, this is Carli, the genius designer here.” He watched the polite introductions and gave into the inevitable. “Why don’t we all go back to my place? Mortimer would love to make something substantial.”

Jasmine looked up at Darren, her face shining with love. “That would be wonderful. I’d love to see where you’ll be staying.”

Carli looked out of the window at the worsening weather. “And it’s definitely a night for staying in,” she said.

Gareth looked at Jed, standing forlorn and lonely. What the heck, he’d survived an attack by werewolves, seen the Orache Stone in action, at least from a distance, and was about to start selling to elfen. “If you keep your hands to yourself, you can come along,” Gareth said. “The food’s good and there’s plenty of it. The company…”

“Are they all as crazy as you?” Jed asked.

Gareth shrugged. “They’re possibly crazier,” he said.

Jed grinned. “I’m in,” he said. He watched as Jasmine scampered over to Darren’s battered Range Rover. “Does she have a sister?”

The story from the beginning can be read here.

Invitation Accepted: Chapter Nineteen

Image from Unsplash, taken by Daniel Mirlea

“So how did you end up on the naughty table?” the boggart asked. “I’m Phil Neston, by the way, and I’m sort of a representative for the local boggarts.”

“I’m Gareth Peterson,” Gareth said. “I’m the paladin from Otley.

“And I’m Bron,” Bron added. “And I may be the reason we’re in the corner.” Phil blinked slowly at the dual voices and then shrugged.

“Not because he’s an ancient bronze age warrior whose spirit was called into me,” Gareth said. “But because he needs to be kept calm if Mark turns up.”

The third man, hard faced and hard muscled, raised an eyebrow. “Won’t Mark be here?” he asked. “I’m Ian Tait, by the way, the leader of a sub pack in York and here to represent Kieran from the overpack. I’m probably in the corner because I summoned a demon once and it still makes people twitchy.”

“You don’t make a habit of it, do you?” Bron said, looking at him thoughtfully.

Ian grimaced. “It was only once and that was by accident.” He waved a dismissive hand. “But what’s all this about Mark?”

Gareth answered. “Mark’s gone missing,” he said, picking his words with care. “And he needs to answer a few questions about how Violet died, and the whereabouts of the Orache Stone.”

Phil raised an eyebrow. “It’s pretty cut and dried from what I heard. Lord Marius has a lot of questions. Anyway, the point is that Mark’s missing.”

“Bron was close to Violet, years ago,” Gareth continued. “So he’s upset about her death. And he was the one who dealt with the Orache Stone the first time around.”

“I was talking with Steve about that,” Ian said. “We were kicking some ideas about getting it destroyed.”

“I didn’t know that werewolves did magic,” Bron said, looking Ian up and down.

“Most of us don’t,” Ian said. “I’m also a qualified plumber and there’s not many werewolves in that trade either.” He held Bron’s gaze. “But I’ve done my penance and me and Steve were talking about some work arounds. It’s elfen magic, from the sound of it.”

Bron nodded. “But it’s elfen magic that called to werewolves, bedded into the hills near Ilkley and seriously nasty. It drives the owner mad.”

“And Mark was…” Phil looked around the huge marquee filled with sharp eared werewolves. “Mark was already being driven mad with grief.”

“I’m sure I’ll listen closely to his excuses,” Bron said, icy sarcasm dripping from every word.

“So if Mark turns up, Bron needs to keep cool,” Gareth said.

“And I suppose that’s why we’re next to you both,” Phil said. “Just in case Mark turns up.”

“This isn’t the time or place,” Ian said. “But perhaps we can have a talk afterwards. I’d be interested in your experiences. Steve said that he couldn’t contain it.”

Bron nodded. “Sure, but hang on, it’s the toast.” He raised his glass of whiskey and water.

Rhys stood on the dais, a glass in hand, his eyes shadowed as he reached the end of the eulogy. “To Claire,” he said, raising his glass and then swallowing the drink.

“To Claire,” the room responded.

Rhys looked around. “And that’s the end of the formalities,” he said. “Now it’s time to eat, drink, remember Claire, remember old friends and family and come together. The buffet is open at the back.”

“Not so fast,” Mark stepped into the marquee, followed by three strangers.  “Rhys, get out. I’m exiling you from the pack.”

Gareth could feel the tension racing around the space. “What’s going on?” he murmured to Phil.

“Rhys has been running the pack unofficially for the last two years,” Phil murmured back. “Mark now sees him as a threat.” He grimaced. “Mark owes Rhys everything and Rhys has been nothing but loyal. It shows what the Orache Stone can do to you.”

“It’s not the effect of the Orache Stone,” Bron said as he stood. “He was heading down this path long before he got hold of that. No, this is Mark – a mad dog without a leash.”

“That could have been put better,” Ian said. He glanced around the tent and was unnerved to see that a lot of the werewolves agreeing with Bron. “Who are the goons with him?”

“I think one of them is a mad magician called Edragor,” Phil said. He caught hold of Bron’s arm. “This is a challenge that Rhys needs to answer. If there’s anything left of Mark afterwards, I’ll give it to you to play with.”

“Seems fair,” Bron growled. “Rhys seems halfway decent and the pack doesn’t deserve turmoil. And Mark waited until Violet was weakened before he attacked.”

“This Edragor,” Ian murmured. “I think I’ve heard the name. But there’s something going on…”

“I’m going nowhere,” Rhys said. “You owe me.”

“I said, get out, pup,” Mark said. He looked around the tent. “I’ve got plans, big plans, and the power to put them into practice. Claire will be back any day now, and between us, we’ll put things right.” He turned to Lord Marius. “And why are the werewolves always knocked back? Why aren’t there any werewolf princes? We need to know our worth.”

Lord Marius stood and put a little space between him and Rhys. “A prince isn’t an easy position,” he said. “And a few centuries of experience help. Werewolves don’t live long enough.”

“But you’re not a proper prince, are you?” Mark said. “You have no real authority in this tent. It’s just the pack, and I say that Rhys goes.” He glared around the tent. “Throw him out,” he snapped at the nearest men.

A shudder ran through Ian. He turned and grabbed Stella. “Get the women and cubs out of here now,” he said desperately. “Quickly! And you can help her.” He grabbed a gangling werewolf teenager and thrust him towards Stella. “Get the cubs and women out of here and get them somewhere safe!”

“What do you mean, Claire will be back?” Rhys said. “Mark, I’m sorry, but she’s gone.”

“Edragor, what is the meaning of this?” Lord Marius said sharply. “I do not permit necromancy.”

Edragor stepped forward, a mocking smile on his thin lips. “You are not the true prince,” he said. He looked around the marquee. “How many here have as good a claim as you? And no-one can interfere with pack matters.”

Ian stepped forward. “You’ve brought wraiths with you! Everyone – keep back!”

“Wraiths?” Gareth looked at Ian who was kicking the legs off a chair. “What the hell?”

“Don’t touch them,” Phil said, picking up a trestle table and hefting it carefully. “And don’t let them touch you. They drain your life force.”

“Edragor!” roared Lord Marius. “How dare you!”

“This is my hall, Lord Marius,” Mark said. “And I say get out.” He looked at the surrounding werewolves. “Throw them all out. Throw everyone out that isn’t one of that pack. And that includes Rhys.”

“No,” an older werewolf said, staring straight back at Mark.

Gareth felt himself pushed out of the way as Bron took over. “You’re not ready for this,” Bron said, glancing around and picking up a chair. Gareth watched helplessly as Phil hurled the table at the figures behind Edragor. It caught one of them on the arm and, to Gareth’s horrified shock, it crumbled to ash. Screams rang around the marquee as the few remaining cubs and women were hustled out of the back. The old werewolf snapped out orders to fetch scaffolding poles as tables and chairs were grabbed for shields.

“Your call,” Steve yelled over to Ian. “You know this stuff best.” Ian grimaced and nodded, holding up a hand. Gareth, helpless as Bron advanced with the chair, watched Steve throw a rope of sparkling green magic. It arched across the space over the heads of the werewolves, twisting and splitting as it writhed towards Ian. Ian caught it and swore as he shuddered, trying to control it.

“I’ve got it!” Ian yelled, hauling the green energy into his grasp.

Mark snarled and went to fur, diving at Rhys. Rhys stayed out of fur for a moment, grabbing Mark and using his momentum to run him head first into the edge of the dais. Mark howled and struggled as Rhys kicked him hard in the ribs. “Get rid of Edragor!” Rhys yelled.

“My pleasure,” Lord Marius snarled, advancing on Edragor.

Ian wrapped the power around his fist and then whirled his arm around, flinging the energy out towards the wraiths like a whip. “They’re tough!” he yelled.

Rhys went to fur and lunged in, fangs bared as Mark yowled, twisting away. He was trying to change back from fur but Rhys was going in hard. “Don’t let him use the Orache Stone,” Steve called. “I’m pulling more power, Ian. Brace!”

Ian caught the ball of green light in his free hand and seemed to feed it into the existing store, flicking the power out again and again to lash against the wraiths. Bron stalked closer to the whirling, snapping ball of fur. “I’m waiting, Mark,” he snarled.

The wolf flinched and fought to break free. As Phil threw another table at the fading wraiths, Lord Marius stepped closer to Edragor and snapped out a flash of blue light. Edragor deflected it into the wall of the marquee and flames shot up over the canvas.

“Everyone out!” Phil yelled. “Rhys, you need to get your people out of here. Ian – how are you doing?”

Ian was muttering under his breath, before yelling. “Discedite tenebris!” More energy shot from his hands and wreathed the wraiths in green fire. He sagged as they crumbled into shadows and slipped out through the flames. Phil picked Ian up bodily and raced towards the back exit. “Bron, Marius, get out of here.”

Gareth felt Bron’s hesitation, then saw Edragor reach out and grab a wolf by the scruff, then vanish. Lord Marius vanished after him and then it was him following Steve out of the tent as extinguishers hissed against the flames. “I’ll get him next time,” said Bron.

You can read the story from the beginning here.