“It was Nerzuul. He’s working for the Outsider.”
Julia felt as if all the breath had been knocked out of her. She listened to Annie talk, not really believing her own ears as they stood together in the Umbra beside the portal and her little packmate told them everything. She wanted to scream and cry. She’d been crying a lot lately. It was probably the pregnancy thing. Or maybe it was just years of frustration and suppression finally breaking loose.
How had this happened? How could she not have noticed? True, she’d been so busy and swept up in this new world of being queen. She’d let some things get slack – but surely her friends and family understood that! She only had so much time, and now she had to allocate so much of that elsewhere. But Sophie had been marked by the Outsider, unknowingly so back when they had asked for her helps against him, and Nerzuul had found someone he wanted to fight for and… How could she not have noticed?
She had a brief flash back to her visit in the Umbra back when they had been fighting Deucalion, when she had gone to the temple of the Lost. She remembered the vision she’d had, of Nahuel seated atop his brother’s chest, blood dripping from his mouth as he consumed Nerzuul’s heart. But she’d avoided that! They had broken the prophecy, the ties that bound Wendigo and them together. They didn’t want to fight and kill each other anymore. It was… not a possibility. She shook her head.
Their enemy had Sura. Their enemy had swept across the world, devastating caerns as the moles he had planted within their ranks over… who knew how long, probably years, finally acted. Their enemy had invaded their territory, raking through their things like it was all garbage. Their enemy had control over her friends, and he had taken Sura. And if Annie was right, if Nerzuul had told the truth, he’d taken someone from each of them, as hostages and bargaining chips to do… what? Keep them out of the way and ensure their obedience while he did whatever he was doing, out of fear he would hurt their loved ones? Or perhaps lure them into a trap, get them to behave rashly and take them out?
He’d taken someone from each of them-
Oh god. Jake.
She burst into the small palisade, breathing hard as she shifted forms back into her human shape. The guards immediately stood to attention, lifting their weapons as they recognised she was no invader. Annie was somewhere behind her, stopping outside the gates. There were nods and bows and murmurs of greeting, but she ignored them and headed into the small jail at almost a run.
The room stank of silver, runes up the walls and wards decorating the floor. It was as much to keep other people out as him in, but it couldn’t have been comfortable. She visited as much as she felt she could get away with, but it was hard to spend too much time in here when her skin prickled and her hackles seemed to always be on edge. He’d never complained though. When she’d asked, he’d said it was positively homely compared to the Pentex correctional facilities, and she’d believed him.
He was inside.
The relief was so great that everything went blurry and she thought she might pass out. She saw him rise to his feet, reaching up towards the bars as she wobbled and then withdrawing his hand with a hiss as the wards activated.
“Jules, are you OK?” His voice was loud in her ears, the worry clear. “I heard the fighting, but that was hours ago. They wouldn’t tell me what happened.”
“It’s fine.” She bent over, breathing hard. “I mean… it’s not, but… I’m fine. You’re safe, it’s OK.”
“Did you forget about me?” There was amusement and a hint of reproach in his voice.
“Yes.” She didn’t see the point in lying. “The caern was attacked, if I’d been any slower they would have killed it. Our territory has been smashed up, and they took Annie. He’s making his move now, and I’m running out of time. I had to-”
“It’s OK. Don’t push yourself, you look exhausted.” He waved a hand as she looked up at him. “What happened? Who attacked? Obviously not someone after me.”
“No.” She shook her head, still trying to catch her breath. “The Outsider, his forces are making a move. Gaia, they’ve destroyed so much already. And they’ve got Sura, and…” her voice cracked. “They took others, people we care about. I was afraid that they had-”
“Jules, I’m fine. Nobody’s been in here at all this afternoon, save you.” He leaned forward as close as he could, nose wrinkling a little at the silver laced through the bars. “But if they don’t have me, if it’s true, then they’ll have gone after someone more vulnerable.”
She stared up at him uncomprehendingly for a moment. Then it clicked.
“Oh god, Raven, mother, anyone, I have to go, I have to-”
“Call them first.” His voice was strong, commanding, breaking through the haze. “Don’t waste time running from one place to another. Find out who the likely person is, then go straight there as fast as you can. Get someone to help if you have to.”
She nodded. “OK. I’ll be back. I love you.”
“I know.” He smiled. “You came for me first.”
The apartment was dark. Of course it was dark, it was late at night. But it shouldn’t have been dark, her mother kept long hours just like she did. Lucille hadn’t mentioned anything about going out of town. But right now, standing on the sidewalk beside Annie’s car and staring up, Julia prayed that her mother had taken in impromptu trip, or decided to go out for a meal, something, anything.
The lift was agonisingly slow. It felt like she spent far too much time waiting in elevators, knowing something awful could be at the top. She’d done enough running today though, and it was tiring her out. She hadn’t eaten for a while, her legs and back ached and her stomach seemed incredibly heavy. Dammit, why was this machine so slow?
When the doors opened, she saw the mess. Had they attempted to send an individual to get her, a lone kidnapper? It would have been a foolish move on any supernatural creature’s part to underestimate Lucille, and by the damage in the hallway it was clear that there had been a struggle, that her mother had not gone easily. She could see scorch marks, smell the tang of burning and something else that she figured was maybe magic.
A quick search of the rooms showed that her mother was indeed gone. It appeared Lucille had been in the kitchen at the time – the fridge was open, its contents spilled across the floor and the light blinking plaintively. There was a mess of egg and flour and food on the counter, as if Lucille had been trying to make something and been interrupted. Or perhaps she’d used it as a weapon, an attempt to blind and distract her opponent? The second seemed more likely, her mother had never been much of a cook. Her stomach rumbled at the smells of the food and she felt a pang of guilt at her body’s loud announcement in the silence of the ravaged kitchen. There was broken glass everywhere, more scorch marks and several shattered kitchen cabinets. She found blood too, not human blood, thank goodness. The entire apartment had a strange scent to it. What had happened here?
She supposed it didn’t matter. Her mother was gone.
She stood in the broken kitchen, breathing deeply as she stared around. Her fists clenched tight by her side as she took it all in, burning it into her mind and letting it fill her with fury. Then she shut the fridge door and left.