Guest Fiction: Tale of The Oak Leaf

Over the last few months, a Dutch Patreon patron of mine, and a long-time follower, worked on a bit of a story set in Hell’s Kitchen Sink, set in Binghamton, around the same time that Actus Deus is happening! I helped him out with some editing and making sure it fit the physics and realities of Hell’s Kitchen Sink! Check it out on his Deviantart, https://www.deviantart.com/zincwing, or read it right below the ‘read more’ link! It’s a thrilling thing to have someone interested enough to want to write stories in something I’ve done! I sincerely hope you enjoy.

Tale of the Oak Leaf

 

By Rob van den Berg

 

AKA Zincwing 

 

https://www.deviantart.com/zincwing

Dedicated to my grandfather, who helped inspire this story.

Chapter 1

 

“You’re going where?” the voice sounded.

 

“Binghamton. They want me for some sort of exchange project,” I replied.

 

“New York City is literally the place to be to study new and exciting things, and you’re going away?” The voice of my more-than-a-little-curious cousin sounded.

 

“Yep, apparently our new guests want to explore the land, so to speak. They asked me to document it all,” I had to explain.

 

“Really?” she asked.

 

“Really.” I replied.

 

“…You are barely out of college, Brianna. Why would anyone put you up for something this important?” 

 

“Maybe I impressed people, you know. My last paper did some stirring…” I said, trying to avoid suspicion.

 

“I have read that paper, you know. It was good, but not THAT good.” Typical critic.

 

“What can I say, maybe I was the best they had on short notice.” Don’t think she buys it.

 

“Every social psychologist in the world dreams about this opportunity. You think they couldn’t find anyone?” And she was right.

 

“Don’t ask me. When your old teacher wants to hire you for this for a large sum, you don’t ask questions.” I said, and it was the truth. Only difference is that it was not social psychology that I was talking about.

 

“Your old professor wanted you personally? Doesn’t that seem weird.”

 

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

 

“That’s what the Trojans said as well. I am telling you, something fishy is going on.”

 

“Have you actually been paying attention to our guests?” I kept trying to deflect suspicion. 

 

“… Not funny.”

 

“I know, Can’t always be succeeding at comedy.” At least I distracted her from asking further.

 

“How is that hobby of yours going anyway, Brianna?” my cousin asked.

 

“Can’t complain, earns me a little cash.”

 

“Really, maybe I should try.”

“I said, a little cash, don’t get your hopes up.” 

 

“How much do you consider little?”

 

“Don’t want to talk about it.”

 

“Not even to your cousin? I won’t tell anyone.”

 

“Especially not to my cousin, or did you forget how you tried to play cupid?”

 

“I was 11 years old then, you know!”

 

“Sure, but you are still a gossip at twice that age. Anyway, I am going to pack now.” 

 

“But I still have…”

 

“I need to prepare, trip starts tomorrow.”

 

“Bu-”

 

“*BEEP*”

 

“That seemed to go well.”

 

I turned around to his smiling face. “Charles, for someone who gets me out of trouble so often, you sure are eager for me to jump back in.”

 

“What can I say, I have to be careful not to make myself obsolete.” The smile grew even wider.

 

“Ha, if you weren’t so damn charming, you would need a savior yourself now, you know?” 

 

I looked him in the eye, and saw him bow. “It is good to have an audience which can appreciate your work, as I am sure you are aware,” he replied while turning back up.

 

I laughed. “We are not on a stage now, you know.”

 

“All the world’s a stage. I simply am aware of it.”

 

“Yeah.” I replied. “But now you are breaking the 4th wall.”

 

“Not more than you do by pointing it out.”

 

Both of us laughed. “Anyway.” I began. “Part of what she said is true, you know, they could find someone more experienced for this Binghamton conference.”

 

“Most wizards are too busy with their own projects to organize.”

 

“Doesn’t sound very academic.”

 

“If these weren’t wizards you would be right,” he replied seriously. “But few attempts have been made to organize such a conference. And those who did? Often were done so carefully and in secret that nothing interesting went on, with never more than half of the wizards showing up.”

 

“Are you saying you arranged a milk run from the professor for me? I know I’m new to this, but still…”

 

“This time might be different,” he said with a serious expression. “The arrival of the Atlanteans caused quite a stir, and even before that strange things went on.”

 

“Strange how?”

 

“Demons predicting the end of the world, magical things happening without anyone understanding why?”

 

“How are those things new?”

 

“You weren’t there yet, but before a few years ago, this did not happen often, like once every few decades.”

 

“So you are saying that the old guard of wizards is too careful to attend this conference, even though they are hoping for some breakthroughs.”

 

“Well, breakthrough is a strong word. More like we are attempting to communicate in a secret conference so that some of us might find the truth later.”

 

“And you think I have a chance to help in this? Months ago I didn’t even know wizards existed.”

 

“Maybe not, but it is a good opportunity to get into the whole thing. A lot of good wizards, both new and old are going now, so you might learn some things, and meet new people.”

 

“Sounds like you planned it out perfectly, that is new.”

 

“What can I say, sometimes I like to surprise.”

 

“This just means we are going to get into trouble, aren’t we?” I said smiling.

 

“That too.”

 

“Anyway, I am going to pack. We leave at 11:00 am tomorrow?”

 

“Yep, bring good shoes, and snacks.”

 

“I am going to make some bread in advance then. The classic food to give to begging fae.”

 

“Keep some for us, though.”

 

“You got it.” I said, and I walked to the kitchen.

 

Chapter 2

 

After some work in the kitchen and a good night’s rest, I prepared to leave the house with Charles, a few loafs of bread, and a large backpack. He had arranged transport to Binghamton in the form of the “Road to Somewhere” spell.

 

Despite the silly name, that spell was actually a very practical spell. It would allow you to walk a road for only about a half of the time it would take to travel normally, as long as it is connected by a well-travelled road. Also ideal if you want to avoid traffic, or customs agents, or other persons of authority who like search bags. (The latter are considered the bane of wizards everywhere.) It did require some preparation though, like a beacon placed close to the place you enter the road.

 

“So, where are we going?” I asked Charles.

 

“I will drive us to a small forest clearing half an hour or so from here, then we will start walking.”

 

“Alright, let’s get moving then.” With that we went downstairs from the apartment building.

 

“So, any new ideas for creative work coming up?” Charles asked when we stepped outside the building.

 

“Well, with this trip I will probably be inspired for something, so…” I replied while stepping into his car.

 

“Sure, but I know you, whatever tale you have in your head right now is probably worth telling,” Charles replied.

 

“Down boy, get in line.” I joked. “My cousin is also very curious, but that doesn’t mean I give her something unfinished.” Looking at Charles I continued: “Besides, the wait makes it more worthwhile, don’t you agree?”

 

“True, but it was worth a try.”

 

“Just get us there on time, I don’t want to miss anything of that conference.”

 

And with that, we started driving.

 

40 minutes later, at an abandoned clearing in a small forest…

 

“This seems to be the right place.” Charles said. He pointed to a tree stump that was prepared as a beacon.

 

“Lets get casting then.” I replied.

 

We cast the spell together. Charles took the hard part, and performed gestures and speech. I assisted by tapping a little tune on the tree stump, as well as helping in the chant.

 

After we had cast the spell, the surrounding bushes parted, revealing a gravel long gravel road surrounded by trees and bushes. Although it didn’t look like a portal, it still worked as one, and we knew the road would lead to the conference.

 

“Nice weather for a walk, wouldn’t you say.” Charles said, and we started walking.

 

“Don’t say it like that, you know that causes a downpour.” I replied

 

“Oh come on, I might be a supernatural creature, but that doesn’t mean I can change the weather.”

 

“Fae or not, you shouldn’t tempt fate like that.”

 

“Well I know Fate, not tempting her once in a while leaves her cranky.” Charles said.

 

“And because of that I should get wet?”

 

“She has always been forgiving to me.”

 

“I will ready my umbrella, and I still remember the last time we used this spell.”

 

“Like I said back then, this road has quirks. You just assumed it would never rain here.”

 

“Could have warned me.” 

 

“Experience is the better teaching tool in this regard, and I have to be responsible.”

 

I laughed. “Since when?”

 

“Since I met you, and saved your butt. After which you saw through me and eventually formed a pact with me.”

 

“Glad to know I am a good influence on you.”

 

“What can I say, you are just too charming when you fuss for me to not listen to you.”

 

“Good to know.”

 

An hour later…

 

“So, ready to admit you caused a rainstorm?” I said smugly.

 

“We found shelter in this small tavern right?” He replied. “Sounds like good fortune to me.”

 

“It will take us more time to travel like this right?” I asked.

 

“True, only walking hours count.” He replied. “And no,” He hastily added, “walking in circles indoors doesn’t count either.”

 

“I figured.” I replied. “Fae magic only allows for cheating if makes things more interesting, right? Sort of like physics, except instead of not able to reduce entropy, we cannot reduce the amount of interesting trouble.” I thought for a second and continued: “Except when you increase the amount of what you want to reduce somewhere else, which counts for both entropy and trouble.”

 

“Good analogy, I suppose, even though I know little of physics and engineering,” he replied rubbing his chin.

 

“You have been around long enough to see the entire Industrial Revolution, and never thought about learning what it is all about?” I asked smugly.

 

“Lack of math skills, and general interest. Also, us Fae don’t like industry that much.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yeah, cities are too crowded for us. And industry is not that good, the thought of doing the same thing over and over like a factory worker breaks my heart,” he replied looking sad.

 

“But otherwise someone would be doing something like that for even longer, like hours on a loom for a single rug.” I pointed out. “Besides, there are a lot of stories of magical pieces of clothing made by Fae right?”

 

“True, but those stories never use mass production. Every product of labor was made with care and love.” I raised an eyebrow. “Well, love most of the time, or passion of some sort at least,” he admitted. 

 

“Speaking about passion” I said looking outside, “Shouldn’t something interesting be happening now? This is still better than the stor-, I mean being alone.” I caught myself in time, before you know it the tavern could burn.

 

“Nice catch, you are getting the hang of it,” he complimented.

 

“I can learn.”

 

“I know, which is why I chose you, my love,” he said, looking me in the eye, holding my hand.

 

“But seriously, though, wouldn’t some random stranger be barging in right now with a mysterious cloak and a desperate plea for help.”

 

“It has happened, actually,” he replied smiling at some memory. “But never announced, you know, like you did now.”

 

“Yeah, which is why I did it, if we have to do some troubling quest or witness some great prank or tale, it should be a bit more original.”

 

“I thought I was the one who liked inviting trouble.” He laughed.

 

“Well, I try to keep Fate happy, like you said, after all, we did find shelter before it really started.”

 

We laughed together. “So, know anything that could keep us awake, while Fate is preparing her next big surprise?

 

“Well we could have a drink, after all, this is a tavern.” 

 

“No alcohol, I’m nervous enough as it is.”

 

“I will see if they have anything non-alcoholic.” And he left the table.

 

Looking around, I saw that the inn was surprisingly modern. The lamps were electric, the bar had a refrigerator behind the counter, and there was a small sign with a WIFI name and password written on it.

 

Wait. A WIFI, in the Fae realm? Charles told me that wireless communication (almost) never worked here. Curiously, I reached into my pocket, before realizing that must be a joke.

 

I looked at the bar, Charles was still waiting in line looking at signs of drinks. Seems even Fae like Dutch beer, because a Heineken sign was present. I smiled. The last time I was in a Fae realm, they mocked me for ordering a Baguette in an Irish inn. Seems only French Fae eat those. This time I wouldn’t fall for something like this trick.

 

A man, dressed like a waiter came to me. “So what can I do for you?” he asked.

 

“My boyfriend is already ordering for me,” I said, pointing at the line. “Though I would like to know when this storm would end.”

 

“Let me check the weather online,” he said reaching into his pocket, retrieving a smartphone. “Seems it will end in about five minutes,” he replied after a few taps on the screen.

 

“You sure?” I asked looking at his face, expecting a laugh but deciding to play along. No way he has internet here. He is just trying to fool-

 

“See for yourself,” He said, showing me the screen with a weather report. On it was indeed a small map showing the storm would pass in four minutes, but that wasn’t the weird part.

 

He had both WIFI, a mobile connection, and GPS on this phone, I saw in the top bar of the screen. Looking outside, I saw a car passing on a small road, different from when we arrived.

 

This is not a tavern on the road to somewhere anymore, this is just a highway motel. Looking at Charles still in line, I knew I had to get him out of there.

 

“Spilling the secrets of magic in public is a good way to get punished for a Fae,” he once told me. “Even by accident”, he later explained. Apparently it takes a lot of work to shove things under the rug, for which the offending Fae is punished, and it is considered sloppy, and bad for one’s reputation.

 

Looking at the waiter already passing to the next table, I walked to Charles. “Somethings happening Charles, I need your help outside.”

 

“Brianna, what is…” he answered.

 

“No time to explain, just follow me,” I said, probably sounding scared. Dragging him by the arm, the line closed up behind him.

 

“Now we have to wait even longer for a drink, what could be…” he muttered before I dragged him outside.

 

“Where are we?” he asked looking outside. 

 

“Better question, how did we get here.” I replied. “Did you get the spell right?” I whispered.

 

“That spell only opens a gate, it cannot malfunction to send us back,” he replied whispering. “Something weird is going…”

 

Suddenly there was a bright flash, and I fell unconscious.

 

One hour later, at the end of the Road to Somewhere…

 

When I woke up, I was next to a stone wall, with a small gate. “Charles?” I asked.

 

“Thank goodness, you are alright.” he said sounding relieved.

 

“What happened.”

 

“I don’t know how, but we suddenly got sent to a human motel, together with some other road users.” He looked at me seriously. “That flash was us getting pulled back by an emergency magic spell, normally reserved to stop Fae from revealing secrets.” Looking me in the eye, he continued. “It also knocked you out, after being questioned, I managed to carry you the rest of the way.”

 

“So how did the road suddenly send us out,” I asked. “Sounds like a dangerous trick.”

 

“I don’t know,” he said worriedly. “The road has quirks, it is true, but it would never malfunction in a way that risks exposure.”

 

I knew what he meant, Fae magic could not be used to expose its own existence to the world, spells used like that would always fail. However, it would never fail to prevent exposure, which was a good thing I suppose, because otherwise it would have been exposed long ago.

 

“So what is going on?” I asked.

 

“We do not know,” he admitted. “I heard of magic going weird, but this is worse than what I could imagine.” Looking me in the eye, he continued: “I was planning to use a voucher I got for this conference from the local courts to pay the drinks, if that had ended in the wrong hands, I would have gotten blamed for it. You might have saved me from a lot of punishment.”

 

I saw he did not look me in the eye. Normally he would handle dangerous situations with a bit of laughter, to see him so serious, it must be very bad. 

 

“Maybe we’ll find answers at the conference?” I said, trying to cheer him up.

 

“This is way beyond the two of us, let’s just stay out of trouble as much as we can while we’re there,” He said looking nervous.

 

“That is not something I ever heard you say,” I said annoyed.

 

“Because we never had something so big and serious before,” he said. “I have caused my share of trouble, but magic suddenly failing like that?” He shook his head. “Let’s get to the hotel shall we?”

 

“Not afraid to step through this door?” I asked.

 

“Actually, I am,” he said nervously. “But staying might be just as dangerous with the road this unpredictable.”

 

“Just don’t kiss the earth to thank for a safe return when we step through, it would look weird,” I said.

 

“And suspicious,” he agreed, not even making a joke about Fate. And with that, we walked through the gate.

Chapter 3

 

10:30 am, start of the conference

 

“Glad we are still on time,” I said. “You know, I would have expected them to postpone the first day of this conference.”

 

“Well you know wizards…” Charles said.

 

“Never later or early?” I interrupted with a quip.

 

“Sometimes that’s true,” he admitted, and I was relieved that he was getting some of his old self back. “But wizard or not, this conference is about looking for answers to this. To break off at the first sign of trouble would be the opposite of what we want.”

 

“Also…” He continued, “I heard organizing this conference was a lot of work, and to change the schedule so late, well, it would have been hard.”

 

“I do hope enough people show up on time for everything, I still want to experience this,” I replied.

 

“Right, I understand.” he said. “I will stay close, just in case.”

 

“That I am actually glad of,” I replied. Somehow, despite all the trouble he has gotten us into, he was still the one I trusted the most to watch my back. Trying to cheer him up, I pointed it out: “No one I trust more than you to get us out of trouble, even if you got us into it most of the time.”

 

He laughed, and I felt better. “If I never learned how to get out of trouble, I wouldn’t be here now.” he said smiling.

 

“Anyway…” I continued, having succeeded in cheering him up. “What would be the best demonstration for us right now, the one about theoretical illusion based alteration or…”

 

2 Hours later…

 

“I cannot believe she actually pulled it off!” I said to Charles.

 

“I have to admit, it was a surprise even for me,” Charles admitted. “Even if it only held for little more than a minute.”

 

“And she was still coughing up owl feathers for two minutes later,” I said laughing. “Don’t know if that is actually a good or a bad result in this case.”

 

“Maybe both, it depends on the situation,” Charles pointed out. “Academically might mean she is closer to a bardic transformation spell to turn herself into an animal for a practical time. Practically, it means there are few situations right now where this is useful.”

 

“I think she spent a lot of time on it though. I could have sworn there was a dead rat coughed out between the feathers,” I answered. “Why would she would have that in her stomach, anyway? Was it an attempt to enhance the spell somehow, or just instincts taking over during a practice session?”

 

“You can sure stay observant for details while someone is putting up such a spectacle,” Charles said. “And that is a compliment.”

 

“Well, you know me, I got a mind for analyzing. It is why I got into Social Psychology,” I replied.

 

“And I am glad about it,” he said. “To be honest, there were a lot of people in my family that had a weird look on their face when I said I formed a pact with a social psychology student.”

 

“Even thought she was also a hobbyist writer and musician?” I asked.

 

“It did help, but some of those stares…”

 

“I understand though. Most Bards devote themselves to art and literature. It takes time to remove even an unwritten rule like that. As a social psychologist, I have learned to understand bias.” He looked at me sadly, and I continued. “However. Despite me being a mere social psychologist, I believe it actually gives me a good insight into this world. Cultural phenomena and social interaction go hand-in-hand. And I have every intention of pulling the stick out of the ass of anyone who thinks a social psychologist cannot be a Bard!”

 

Charles, applauded, smiling. “Ladies and Gentlemen…” he said just not loud enough for people to actually look up, “I present you the writer of the future, someone who not only understands what writing means to the world, but also what the world means to writing.”

 

We laughed out loud, I looked around to see if anyone was staring, but they didn’t. “Anyway,” I said, pointing at a sign hanging on a wall, “I need to go to the bathroom.” 

 

“I will wait here,” Charles replied.

 

15 minutes later…

 

Once I returned, Charles was talking to an old man in an expensive looking outfit,accompanied by three remarkably similarly looking security guards. There also was a woman close by, in an expensive looking business outfit, a guy with a sword standing beside her. The woman and Charles seem to be trying to reason with the guy.

 

“I demand that you arrest this thief who stole my heirloom!” the old man shouted. Charles seemed to be in trouble (again). I decided to eavesdrop. Going in without knowing what’s going on isn’t a good idea.

 

“It is not that simple, sir,” the woman said.

 

“I didn’t even come near your room,” Charles said.

 

“My security guard claims otherwise,” The old man replied.

 

“Your security guard is not employed by us, and as such must be considered an ordinary witness here,” the woman explained, trying to calm him down.

 

The old man grew even angrier.  “I am an important guest here, and I will not be stopped by an upstart lawyer trying to pull the wool over my eyes with technicalities! If you do not comply, I will go to the king and…”

 

“Hey what is going on here?” I interrupted, deciding to intervene.”What do you want with my boyfriend?” I added.

 

“Who are you?” The woman questioned.

 

“Brianna Donver, social psychologist,” I introduced myself, the woman lifting an eyebrow when I mentioned my profession.

 

“Atina Leroux, assistant organizer for this conference,” she replied.

 

 “And who are you to accuse my boyfriend!?” I said turning to look at the old man. 

 

The old man seemed taken aback, but quickly regained his composure. “I am the Count of Snow, one of the most esteemed members of the Winter Court, and I will have this scoundrel clapped in irons!”

 

The woman intervened. “Even so, sir, we have procedures for this…”

 

“Not again with your lawyer tricks Leroux, I demand that you arrest this scoundrel! I am an important man and I won’t be fooled like this.”

 

I thought for a moment. Even though they seem to be reluctant to arrest Charles, this guy does seem like a big deal. I have to intervene.

 

“Hey, buddy,” I said trying to stall him with a distraction. 

 

“You dare speak to me like…” the old man replied before I interrupted again.

 

“If you are such a noble, you should not demand proper procedure without adhering to it yourself,” I accused. “If your status allows you to demand respect from others, others can demand you to keep to your status!”

 

“Brianna, don’t get involved,” Charles said sternly. “I can clear this up myself with this Iron Knight.”

 

That did give me pause. The Iron Knight is one of the most accomplished fighters for the Summer Court. If he is involved, this Count must be important indeed. Looking at the swordsman, I saw he did carry an iron rapier. I looked at Charles. Despite trying not to show otherwise, he was scared. 

 

Screw not getting involved, if the Iron Knight was going to arrest my boyfriend, things are bad. They do not send the Summer king’s best knight otherwise. I was not going to just abandon him to an unknown fate.

 

I looked at the six people before me. There was no way I could stop them if they just took him away. I also saw signs of annoyance from the Count. I have to be careful to not anger him further, if I wanted to help Charles.

 

“Maybe the honored guest just misplaced his heirloom,” I suggested innocently, changing my tone. “Have you checked his room?” I added, trying to stall.

 

“Do you think me a fool!?” the Count replied angrily. “My guard here has been sworn to my service, and he is telling me that he saw your boyfriend come in to steal it!”

 

“Right, and when did he see him?” I asked. 

 

“One hour ago,” The guard replied for the king. “Look I don’t…”

 

“One hour?” I asked. “And you don’t think that is a bit long, to wait to sound the alarm?” I asked the guard. It wouldn’t help if I just told them where we were at the time, they would just take him away, and possibly me as well.

 

One of the guards stepped up to me angrily. “Hey lady, That boyfriend of yours just stepped in, knocked me out, and left me there. I am certain it was him.”

 

“After such a punch?” I asked. “That can cause memory loss, you know,” I had to think quickly, these guys were getting impatient.

 

One of the other guards stepped towards me. “I do not think you can just accuse our brother here of unprofessional behavior.” So they were brothers, good to know, maybe I can use it somehow. “And I think you should leave now, and stop wasting our time.” And the other guard who has not said nodded. Crap, I have to think of something quick, but what could…

 

“Shouldn’t you have that injury first looked at by a professional?” I asked suddenly, stating the first thing that came to mind.

 

“Eh, what?” the first guard suddenly asked. Charles also looked surprised, confused by what I was doing.

 

I tried to remember some neuropsychology. “Blunt impact trauma can have long term consequences, even though you are fine now, there might be lasting damage, unless you get proper treatment.” A bit of a bluff, again. I couldn’t judge such an injury without proper training and equipment I lacked. 

 

I quickly looked at the woman and the knight. They seemed to be on to me, but had not interfered yet. I did not think the count and his guards knew the difference between a social psychologist and someone qualified to examine head wounds. This gave me an opening.

 

I pointed to his hat. “Just remove that thing, and I can see how bad it is.”

 

“You will not remove my hat,” he suddenly shouted. That was a surprisingly quick reaction, maybe he was scared somehow? Better not mention it until I was certain though.

 

I pressed on, addressing his angry brother. “Surely you cannot leave your brother injured, there might be permanent consequences tomorrow, like blindness, deafness, paralysis…, and those are only the obvious ones.”

 

His brother hesitated, looking pale. Looking at the angry guard, he started talking. “Maybe she’s right? You might be in trouble.”

 

“You want me to be examined by the girlfriend of the one we are accusing?” he replied. “Surely you don’t think that is a good idea.” 

 

I had to press on, “Just one close look, and I will be out of here, promise,” I said. It was sink or swim now. 

 

“I don’t have to take treatment from someone I just met,” the angry guard said, taking a step towards me. Apparently he wouldn’t remove his hat voluntarily. I had to take it from him somehow. I raised my hands in surrender, “It won’t be treatment but diagnosis,” I clarified. “I won’t even touch your head I swear.”

 

He relaxed somewhat, apparently less suspicious. “Just go lady, I…” and at that point I quickly swiped his hat from his head. 

 

A sudden punch of said guard, and I fell on the ground. That hurt. “What do you think you are doing lady, just because you are a woman, doesn’t mean I won’t…” The knight suddenly said, until he saw the guard whose hat I removed.

 

Or rather, NOT saw the guard, for when I could see anything more than the stars from the concussion, I noticed that instead of the guard, the man wearing the uniform had a completely different face, not to mention a fox tail and matching ears. 


Also, no head wound, but that should have been obvious. 

 

“So I have been unmasked,” The fox man said smiling. 

 

All present quickly turned to the new face, except Charles, who immediately went to check on me. 

 

The knight addressed the fox fae. “So a trickster fox is trying to perform a heist, typical.”


“What have you done to my brother!?” one of the guards asked. 

 

“Oh, don’t worry.” the fox said smiling. “I just tied him up somewhere. You will surely find him… eventually.”

 

The fox pointed at the hat I was holding. “Shouldn’t have relied on my Japanese colleague’s spell. Then again, who can rely on a Japanese product?” He was smiling and joking, but why?

 

“You are under arrest.” the Iron Knight said angrily.

 

“Oh I know, I just had to say my lament about that oak leaf I bought” He said, pointing at the hat again. “Paid good for it too, such a shame.” Again, humor in the face of an impending arrest. He must be stalling…

 

I looked at his arms, they were moving, shaking. But not a nervous shake, he must have something under…

 

“Look out! He’s got some-” I shouted, after which he quickly threw something on the ground. There was a bright flash of light, and once it cleared, the fox was gone.

 

“-thing”, I finished my sentence and stood up. 

 

“Where did he go?” one of the guards asked.

 

“He escaped,” The Iron Knight said, annoyed. “I will search for him.” He pointed at the two guards, “Go look for your brother.” Despite not working for him, they seemed to obey quickly. The count was still in shock. The Iron Knight looked at Miss Leroux, “Atina, can you check the security cameras?” 

 

“I can,” the woman said, grabbing a portable radio. “Polly, are you still at the monitors? I am coming.”

 

The count looked shocked. “And what about…” 

 

The Iron Knight interrupted, “You report to the security office, sir. We will handle this.”

 

And with that, the Iron Knight, the count and his guards ran off.

 

“They just left us here.” I said annoyed.

 

“Not all of them.” Leroux corrected. She looked at me. “You might have just saved me a lot of work. Clearing up false charges in a fairy court is a pain in the butt.”

 

“Thank you,” I said, checking my head. “Blood, should get that checked.”

 

“Here is my card.” Leroux, said, giving Charles and me two small cards. “Call me when you are finished.”

 

“Alright.” I said with a throbbing headache. I looked at Charles. “I am probably fine though, most of the time this is nothing to worry about.”

 

Ms. Leroux looked at me, one eyebrow raised. 

 

“But blunt force trauma can still be a cause for brain damage,” I hastily added. “It is rare, but…”

 

“Let’s not tempt fate anymore today, shall we?” Charles interrupted, dragging me off. 

 

I put the hat in my bag, it might be important later. After that we were off to the first aid post.

 

Chapter 4

 

At a small first aid post…

 

“So she’s okay?” Charles asked the nurse.

 

“As far as we can see, you’re fine,” he replied. “It is good that you checked after that blow, a lot of people wouldn’t bother.” He continued with a small smile : “If they did, it would save the hospital a lot of grief.”

 

“Well, I heard something about that…” I replied vaguely. “That is not really my part of science though.”

 

“I understand,” he replied. “Do keep an eye out for additional symptoms, they may still occur. Also, someone came by while we were examining you, and paid the bill for the examination. Said he owed you that much for not preventing the injury.”

 

Sounds like an old-fashioned over-chivalrous piece of noble knight crap, most people I know are insured against these kind of things. I looked at Charles. He smiled. “Don’t look at me, I was here the whole time.” Of course it was that Iron Knight.

 

“Let’s just get back, shall we?” I told Charles. 

 

After we walked out, I talked to Charles. “Any news from our iron wielding knight friend?” 

 

“Other then the fact he paid the bill?” Charles replied. “No.”

 

“I’ll call Atina then, as promised.” I said, holding up her card.

 

“Are you sure you want to get involved?”

 

“I’m very sure I don’t want to get involved.” I replied annoyed. “But A, we are already involved, and B, I still have that scoundrels hat.” I took it out. “An oak leaf indeed, now I get it,” I said, taking a leaf out of the hat.

 

“How do you mean?” Charles asked. 

 

“It is an old Japanese legend.” I started explaining to Charles, putting the leaf back. “A Japanese fox spirit, they call it a kitsune….”

 

“I heard about them.” Charles interrupted. “But what does the leaf…” I looked at him annoyed. “Sorry, continue on,” he replied hastily.

 

“Anyway, there are many stories about those tricksters. I am no expert, but I heard they could disguise themselves as a human by putting a leaf on their head.” I looked at Charles. “Don’t know if the leaf was supposed to become invisible or something, but by taking it off we removed the disguise.”

 

“Maybe they just hide the leaf?” Charles suggested. 

 

“Possibly,” I replied. “That’s probably what happened now, too. Which is why he would not take his hat off.”

 

“How did you figure that one out, anyway?”

 

“I didn’t actually,” I replied. “I was just stalling, but when he started to get protective about his hat in that panic, I knew he was hiding something,” I explained. “Also, I know you, and I know you wouldn’t be greedy enough to just steal something like that, especially when we are supposed to attend a conference.”

 

“No matter how long I will know you…” Charles said. “I don’t think I will ever get used to you seeing through tricks.”

 

“Isn’t that why you keep me around?” I replied half-jokingly. “Because I continue to surprise you. Because I don’t need magic or even technology to perform my miracles, I just need to pay attention.”

 

I looked him in the eye. “Which is how we ended up together, remember?” 

 

“I could never forget, even if you did not remind me every week.” He smiled, and I laughed.

 

I took out my phone and the card, and called the lawyer.

 

Half an hour later, at a secluded table at a nearby cafe…

 

“So you have no idea who he is?” I asked the lawyer Atina Leroux.

 

“No, but we are pretty sure he was not after you or Charles,” she replied. 

 

“How so?” I asked. Even though I already suspected that. Charles had no idea who he even was.

 

“We found the missing guard, tied up as that scoundrel said,” she replied. “Seems he accused your boyfriend as a distraction in a plan to steal something else.”

 

That does make sense, I thought. If he just wanted the single thing he stole, he would have fled already.

 

“Not wanting to get involved, really,” Charles noted sarcastically.

 

“Just satisfying my innate curiosity here, I wouldn’t go snooping, even if she asked,” I snapped.

 

“I won’t ask,” Ms. Leroux replied.

 

“Good, because that is not why I am here, Ms Leroux,” I replied. “And I missed too much of the conference already.”

 

“I understand, and please, call me Atina.” She smiled, and I could see sincerity in her eyes.

 

“Thank you,” I replied.

 

“So what was the thief, correction: is the thief after?” I asked.

 

“Seems like he felt the need to explain the reasons for his plan to his captive.” Atina explained. I withheld the urge to roll my eyes. “He was after three separate baubles, that he believed were part of a key to some magic vault.”

 

“So do you believe this to be true?” I asked curiously. Although it seems over-the-top, some Fae do like to brag in a dramatic way, so it is possible.

 

“I do not know. The fairy noble courts’ archives have no such story in their books.” She continued: “However, without the part that the thief did manage to steal, we cannot be certain.”

 

“What puzzles us the most is how he replaced the guard without even his brothers noticing.” she continued. “These three brothers were using spells to see through illusions.” Interesting, so that leaf somehow fooled them.

 

“Well, I do know how he disguised himself,” I explained. I showed her the oak leaf. “Seems like this oak leaf contained the disguise spell. It comes from some old Japanese folklore from a fox creature called a kitsune.”

 

“I am no wizard, but I could have someone check that,” Atina said, taking the leaf from me. I did not object, though I had hoped to keep it for my wizard studies. 

 

Looking at me, Atina smiled. Seemed my disappointment was written on my face. “I think I can arrange you getting the leaf back as a finders fee.”

 

“Thank you.” I replied. This could really help my studies, I thought.

 

Suddenly that Iron Knight showed up. “Having fun Atina?” he asked casually. “You shouldn’t get her involved you know,” he said sternly.

 

“Don’t worry,” Atina and I said at the same time. And both Charles and the Iron knight looked at us suspiciously.

 

“Anyway,” the Iron Knight said, taking the leaf. “I do detect a good disguise spell from this, though it is unfamiliar, like foreign.”

 

“Mr…” I interrupted.

 

“Please, call me Alfred.” He smiled. Seems the two were a lot alike sometimes. 

 

“Alfred, I believe our red-tailed friend bought this from a Japanese kitsune,” I explained.

 

“Strange.” He remarked. “Usually Fae make their own disguises.” Interesting, I thought, but no use speculating right now.

 

“The weird part is, that, foreign as it is, the magic from this leaf should have been easily detected, even if he came in as a guard,” Alfred said. “How did he get it?” He looked deep in thought.

 

Something occurred to me then. “I think I got an idea,” I said. I cast a simple detection spell. Indeed, the disguise, though good and unfamiliar, was visible as a strange multi-colored light even to my novice eyes.

 

I took the hat, and put it on. The magic light faded immediately. Putting my theory into test, I removed it, after which the light became visible again. Holding the hat halfway between leaf and my face, the light faded again.

 

Alfred looked at me puzzled. “Obvious in retrospect,” I explained. “The hat blocks detection spells.” I tossed the hat to him.

 

Alfred cast his own spell on it. Then he looked even more confused. “What is so strange about that?” I asked.

 

Alfred looked worried. “I do know of anti-detection magic,” he explained. “But, they interfere with illusion spells,” he continued. Makes sense I suppose it would be like projecting an image without emitting light: impossible.

 

Curious, I considered the options. “Maybe it was not actually an illusion.” I continued. Looking at the leaf again, I tried to identify what kind of spell was used. Try as I might, I could not determine how it worked.

 

“What do you think?” The knight asked curiously.

 

I explained my logic: “If an illusion would not work, could it be some sort of shape-shifting? You know, like that owl at the conference?” He looked at the leaf again, and I noticed his own detection magic. “I think you are right.” He replied once he was done.

 

“It will not work for a human, though,” he explained. Darn it, I hoped to use it myself. “However, it could disguise a fae, but only one who is inherently capable of such things, that kind of magic is usually, well, far beyond most fae around here.”

 

“He did talk about Japan,” I remarked. 

 

“So the story about buying from a colleague was actually true,” he replied. “Unfortunately, I don’t know many fae with foreign connections, and those who do would never help this fox anyway.” I saw a seriousness at his face, and decided not to make him angry by questioning him. It is obviously personal to him.

 

“Anyway,” I said looking at the time. “Charles and I have to go, or we miss the Atlantean delegates’ speech. I don’t want to miss a speech.” I went to the counter to pay for my drinks, and left.

 

“You have fun.” Alfred called out. Charles started looking possessive, and put an arm around me.  “Don’t worry, I much prefer a charming rogue then a knight in shining armor.” I whispered to Charles. And with that, we went back to the conference.

Chapter 5

 

The next day at the conference, at around 4 PM.

 

“Well, I have to admit, you were right that attending the conference would be educational,” I said to Charles, patting him on the back.

 

“Uh yeah…” he said, looking nervous.

 

“What is wrong Charles?” I asked. “You are safe now, you know.”

 

“It’s nothing, I am just not used to being saved like that, especially not twice on the same day.” I looked in his eyes, there was definitely more going on. He had been nervous all day long.

 

“You seem even more nervous then the first time. I think you should be getting calmer, especially since that was yesterday,” I inquired.

 

“Well, there is an old fae saying, Some say it comes from creatures that are even more powerful than fae, demons and undead combined,” Charles replied, and still looked nervous.

 

“I did not know the supernatural had their own supernatural,” I replied.

 

“Apparently there were some creatures that called themselves gods, but it was from way before my time…” Charles looked around, like he was expecting an attack.

 

“Now is not the time to be superstitious, just what is this saying…”

 

Charles looked me in the eye. “The rule of threes; things can happen once, things can happen thrice, but never twice.” 

 

“You think we will get in trouble again.” I shook my head. “Even if that saying was true, which I doubt, considering its origins-”

 

“I did not believe any of it until those Atlanteans showed up,” he replied. I looked at him. “Apparently they had the same gods, and still have, in a reverse relationship of master/servant.”

 

I heard about that, seems they did not use technology, but could use some sort of supernatural religion as the same thing. I asked Charles once if that means if the fae could go public one day, and he said that was beyond him to know or decide.

 

“Anyway, you don’t need to worry.” I tried to reassure him. “Weird as that fox was, he could not possibly be related to that road incident.”

 

He looked at me confused. I tried to explain. “Those were just two completely separate incidents on the same day, so nothing has happened twice. Just two single events which happened to involve you getting into danger with the law.” Ok, that sounded wrong.

 

I continued: “I could understand your superstition if the fox could somehow be behind that incident, or if there was some connection between you and the fox or some other being involved, but this is just paranoia.”

 

“I guess…” He did not seem convinced. I decided to try a different tactic. 

 

“How about we go look at the Atlanteans and ask them for souvenirs? If I don’t bring anything back to show to my family, they will get suspicious, and more importantly, angry as hell.”

 

He laughed, and I could tell he agreed at some level. No matter how much danger he was in, he isn’t the guy to make his lady’s family get angry at her.

 

Suddenly there was a flash of light, and the room was on fire. Multiple small winged creatures showed up, armed with small clubs and shields. They started tearing the place apart by attacking the furniture.

 

“Look out!” someone shouted, although he could not get more out, because one of the creatures started swinging at him.

 

“Gremlins!” another one shouted, before he tripped over his own bootstraps, tied together.

 

I looked around, although the situation was chaotic, the people in this room were already fighting back. Charles was busy keeping creatures off bay. However, the fire was still growing. I tried to take the fire extinguisher, but was stopped by two of these creatures.


Not bothering to try attacking with magic, I used it instead to grab the extinguisher, predictably they started attacking, but I just smashed the butt of the extinguisher into one, after which I sprayed the other in the face, disabling them both.

 

After that, I turned my attention towards the fire. Again, I started spraying, however, the fire continued to grow undeterred.

 

Throwing the damn extinguisher away, I saw that it was useless. This fire could probably only be extinguished by magic. “Charles,” I shouted; “the fire!” to which he immediately came to me.

 

“The creatures are not the problem here.” I explained quickly. “But this fire has us cut off, and the extinguisher does not work.” 

 

“I will try something.” He said, and he started casting a spell, I believed it to be some form of cold wind magic, but that was not important. I had to hold these gremlins off.

 

Several creatures dived at us. Using magic this time, I casted some telekinetic punches, the only combat spell I had learned. Some did drop from the blasts, but the remaining dove straight at Charles, where I could not hit them without risking hitting him as well.

 

I saw a large knife in one creatures hand, poised to strike. Fearing the worst, I cast the biggest punch I ever did, and launched it straight at the creatures. 

 

The creatures fell down. Unfortunately, so did Charles, and the fire was still growing. I started dragging him away, calling for help.

 

Suddenly I sensed some weird and powerful magic, and the fire was gone, as well as the creatures. Looking behind me, I saw that iron knight, Alfred. 

 

“Calm down, you are safe now,” Alfred told the attendees. Looking at Charles, he called one of the female guards. “Polly, please help me move this man.”

 

“Aye sir.” the female guard said. 

 

“I have to-” I started, but the knight shushed me. “You are exhausted from casting, you are in no shape to help. Atina, please get her something to eat.”

 

“I will,” The woman said. Seeing that Charles was in capable hands, I followed.

 

10 minutes later, in the conference hall.

 

“So you were saying there was no attack at all!?” I exclaimed.

 

Atina replied: “There were only a few illusions to sow confusion while he took the second piece he was after. Even the fire was an illusion.”

 

“So t-then,” I started stuttering. “I was the one that knocked Charles out.” Even though I had tried to save him, it seems I only made things worse.

 

“I am afraid so, but he will make a full recovery, Alfred assures me,” She said, pointing towards an earpiece.

 

“I want to rip the tail of that fox now!” I replied angrily. 

 

“I understand your feelings,” Atina said patiently. “But don’t worry, we will catch him.”

 

I looked her in the eye. “Are you sure you are up to the task, he just took out an entire room of spellcasters.”

 

“Except he didn’t,” A voice behind me said. Turning around, I saw the Iron Knight standing there.”

 

“The fox used an illusion device, a very old one.” The knight explained. “It seems our fox might indeed be young, as our investigation shows, but he has access to some old tricks made by others.” Looking me in the eye, he continued. “In a straight fight, he is no match.”

 

“I want to help!” I exclaimed. 

 

“I am afraid I cannot allow that,” The woman said. “I cannot risk a guest being hurt, and that Fae Charles of yours looks protective.”

 

“He is hurt because of me. I should be lying there in the sick ward,” I replied angrily.

 

“As a lawyer, I can honestly say you should not blame yourself, I have seen too many clients blaming themselves in a way.”

 

“This isn’t a courtroom!” I shouted angrily.

 

She nodded. “I know. But the fox will not strike again so soon, and we will be ready this time.” Giving me some small pieces of paper she said: “Go to the bar, and get a few drinks, you need to rest, miss.” 

 

Although I was suspicious, I saw the logic there, and took the coupons. With that, I went to the bar.

Chapter 6

 

That evening, at a bar in Binghamton.

 

So here I was, drowning my sorrows in a drink. Normally I detest the activity, having seen what it does. I should see a therapist, but unfortunately I cannot share in detail my secrets to a medical professional without ending in a psychiatric institution, or getting heavy medication prescribed. Not to mention that I am not allowed to mention those things, or the Fae Courts would be very mad.

 

Of course, I do not have anything against psychiatry. They can do very good work. It’s just a shame that even they can sometimes be a bit clueless about it all. One of my friends ended up with the FBI and told me rumors about a case from the FBI over one of their own agents. Someone who was diagnosed with schizophrenia, prescribed meds, resigned, and went on some sort of rampage. Strangest thing was they had still not managed to catch the guy, apparently.

 

I laughed. Not too long ago, shortly after I first met with Charles, I questioned my sanity every day. I am no therapist, but I knew enough about the brain to know how much it can screw with you. I saw through Charles trickery that day, when he tried to make me forget.

 

I took a sip. Can’t drink too much, can’t afford to spill any secrets. I’ve never been one for heavy drinking, but I just need a distraction.

 

Now where was I? Oh yes, Charles. I saw through him. He was fascinated with me. He told me of magic, and showed me it exists. I would not believe it otherwise. The first few weeks were a shock every morning. Each day, I questioned my sanity. However, Charles would not let me go and forget, he was there for me. Eventually we started dating, and we made a Pact.

 

I took another sip. I didn’t think Charles would blame me for punching him, but I sure felt bad about it.

 

“Excuse me, my lady?” a voice sounded behind me. I turned around. A man was there, wearing a long coat. “Is this seat taken?”

 

I sighed. Even with alcohol, I couldn’t escape my own perception. One more thing for the pile of self-knowledge, for what good it does.

 

I turned around. “I am in a relationship now, but since you are obviously sent by that lawyer, I have no choice but to suffer your company, aren’t I?”

 

He raised an eyebrow. “How do you know I was sent by that lawyer? I might be unrelated to her entirely.”

 

I looked him in the eye. “First clue, you walk up to me, while there are other women around here, who are better targets.” 

 

“Surely you don’t think so low of yourself that…”

 

“I am not finished.” I said, raising my hand. “Second clue, you said “my lady” not really a good way for a pickup line in a bar. Thirdly, you called her ‘her’ which means you know her gender.” He started smiling at me. I continued undisturbed: “And by the way, you called her that on purpose, for that one was just too simple a slip-up for anyone in the things we do.” He smiled again. I resisted the urge to hit him. “That leads me towards one of two probable conclusions, you are testing my sense of attention for some weird thing, hopefully not anything starting with the letters P A C”  I growled that last letter a little bit, encouraged by the alcohol. “Or otherwise you are trying to cheer me up by making me feel better about my sense of attention, which you should know, is not working.”

 

This time he did not smile. Instead, he sat next to me and ordered a drink. “There is a third option,” he said. 

 

“Yes, both.” I told him bluntly, not amused. “But you are the Half-faced man, which means you mean something else, for you’re smart enough to know that I already know that.”

 

He looked at me, raising an eyebrow. Although I doubt he is surprised, he is probably waiting for me to explain myself. 

 

I sighed. “The whole time I talked, you did not blink.” I said, explaining, checking if no one is listening. That means you either do not have to blink, and are undead. Or are wearing a mask with an illusion on top of it, as normally disguising a fae does not require the face.” I looked him in the eye. “An undead would not be interested in me, just because I can notice things. Also, they do not just go cheer someone up when they do not have to, and favors of them like this do not come cheap. And Charles has family here, which means I know some of the more important people here. So yes, I know who you are.”

 

I looked at him. He paid and went to leave. I paid my bill and went after him. Frustrating discussion is better than drinking your sorrows alone.

 

“Wait up!” I called from behind him.

 

He looked to me. “I thought you were going to stay,” he said.

 

“Yeah, well I rather talk with someone then drink alone,” I replied. “And you are the only one right now I can talk to about this.”

 

“I see,” he replied. “Charles is lucky to have a lady who is as fascinating as you are.” 

 

“Not lucky enough, he lies unconscious, remember?” I was annoyed at him, and he was sent to deal with my frustrations anyway, so he could surely take a little bluntness.

 

“I am sure he will be alright when he wakes up, you know that,” he replied, raising his hands in an attempt to calm me down. At these moments I wished I couldn’t read body language, seeing how people are trying to manipulate you can be very annoying, especially since it never works if you know it.

 

“But will I be okay?” I shouted at him. “He was protecting me, and I shot him in the back, to get something off him that wasn’t even there.”

 

“You did not know it was an illusion,” he said with a soothing tone. How I wished to punch him in the face right now. “And yes,” he said “I am trying to calm you down right now, you know that, and that is why you are angry.” He looked at me, thankfully not smiling anymore. “You are not the only one who can pay attention. Yes, I was sent to that bar to calm you down, and to stop you from getting more involved. Yes, I’m trying to find arguments to calm you down and yes, I am trying to win your trust.” 

 

Finally, some honesty, though I was suspicious about him using “am” instead of “was”. He looked at me. “Can you honestly blame me?” he asked rhetorically, “for trying to calm you down to help a friend? Just because I am invested in you calming down, does that make me a cheat or a liar?”

 

I looked at him again. He was not impressed. “I know Charles, he grew up around here,” he continued. “He would not like it if his girlfriend was feeling pity for him. In fact, he would be very angry at himself and disappointed in you, which is not something either of you deserve. The blame lies with the fox.”

 

“Alright then, mask man,” I said. “You say to hold back and wait for the pros to catch our red-tailed buddy?”

 

“Unfortunately, no.” I looked at him. “I am sorry, but I do not think he can be caught that easily.”

 

“Why is that?” I asked annoyed.

 

“He already succeeded twice, even though we were on to him the second time,” He replied. “I do not expect him to fail just because security has tightened.”

 

“Do you know something I do not?” I asked curiously, though still annoyed.

 

He started talking again. “The Fae, they thrive on expectations. It’s a story all the time for them. And no one expects a story to just end like that because they added some guards. If anything, it will make our adversary more likely to succeed.”

 

“Stories aren’t always that predictable you know,” I replied.

 

“True. There is much power in subverting expectations. It’s a beautiful art, that I personally find very useful and fun.” He smiled at some thought, and then continued. “However, it should not break the story. It should make things more interesting, not less. Guarding is not exciting.”

 

“You are saying if it doesn’t make things interesting, the unexpected will not work?” I asked.

 

“With the Fae, no.” He smiled apologetically as he said that.

 

“Charles said the same thing more times then I can count,” I replied.

 

“In any case, I do hope you are not planning to stand around guarding now. Or worse, chase the tail of that fox.”

 

“In this case I think I should listen to you and Charles. He would not want me to get involved.”

 

“It’s rare to meet a mortal that knows her limits. Just promise me that you won’t stand guard or chase the fox,” he said.

 

“I promise I will not chase the fox or stand guard,” I replied. Even though I wanted to strangle him with his own red tail.

 

“Good,” He said. “It wouldn’t have worked anyway.”

 

“Which is why I made that promise,” I replied. “I think I should get back to my hotel now.” I added.

 

“Maybe I…” 

 

If you think I need an escort or a place to stay or something else like that from you, I would have to refer you to an actual therapist,” I threatened. What is it with these Fae and being over-chivalrous?

 

“Maybe I should just leave you alone,” He finished. Though I doubt he actually meant to say that. And with that I walked away.

 

Chapter 7

 

The next day at 11 am, at a bookstore near the conference hall…

 

So here I was, worrying about Charles. I tried to attend the conference, but left after little more than an hour. It just hurt too much. Besides, it was far less interesting without Charles.

 

I looked at the bookcase. Nothing useful here. Not too surprising, these kind of advanced books are either already in my possession, or are only available for order, because only specialists would understand and need them.

 

I looked at the other bookcases. Maybe I am going at it the wrong way. Maybe I should do something for Charles to make it up to him.

 

No, I wasn’t planning on taking revenge, or catching the fox. I should do something to make it up to him, make him a nice meal or something. I thought while looking at cook books.

 

I sighed. Charles would call it a cliche, and he would be right. I need to do something more creative, like a song.

 

I did not bring my guitar, too much baggage. However, I could still write something, a poem maybe. At least I won’t come empty handed.

 

I walked away, and am sitting on a bench. Unfortunately I don’t feel very inspired now. Sad writers don’t make good pieces for cheering people up. Most of my mind is still at the conference, where Charles and I wanted to go to so badly. 

 

I took the brochure I got of the conference. Why did it have to go wrong? Why did that fox have to show up then? I almost tore it to pieces, but I knew that wouldn’t solve anything. Also, I still had hope that Charles would wake up before the end of the conference.

 

I looked at the brochure again, trying to confront my own feelings head-on. I had marked the places Charles and I went with a pen. I saw my memories in front of me, my steps traced on the paper, the owl lady, the toilet, the arrest I prevented…

 

Wait a minute. 

 

I looked at the map, the memory of the failed arrest played out in my mind. The fox went east on this map, while the nearest exit was west. To go to the exit in the east would lead him straight past the security post, which would be foolish. The one in the west, I saw, had almost no security.

 

The fox had planned everything ahead, he should have known the best escape route. So why would he…

 

In the east there was a large pillar between the booths. Of course, there are pillars everywhere, that roof doesn’t float in the air, however, this one was larger. 

 

I considered the implications. Of course, there was no guarantee that the fox was there, there could just be some cables or something in there which need space. But at this point hope was just too strong to ignore.

 

I pulled out my smartphone. Going online, I looked for a map of the previous conferences held in the same hall. As I hoped, the same pillar was nowhere to be found at the time.

 

That fox had created his own foxhole in advance, with us fumbling around him.

 

I thought about my promise. I would not chase the fox. I could just tip that lawyer, but would she listen, or approve? Could that pillar even be opened easily? And would the fox not notice them in advance and escape?

 

Unless… he was away, somehow. 

 

I thought about my promise, I would not chase the fox, or stand guard. However, laying a trap does not count as either, at least not strictly speaking.

 

I looked at my smartphone. A small model with a dark color, it would be easy to hide in a potted plant or something with the camera pointed at the pillar. 

 

I smiled, because I had a plan.

 

The conference hall at 1 pm…

 

I entered the conference again. Luckily, the fox had not yet stolen the third piece. If he had, there would be a lot more guards running around.

 

I considered the pillar, could he observe his surroundings from inside? Probably, it would be strange for a man to step out of a pillar anyway, so he would need to wait until it is safe. That would mean that he would spot me in advance, and surely keep an eye on anything I do.

 

Unless he was away, I thought again. 

 

If he stepped out of the pillar, people would see it. He would need a distraction of some sort to sneak out, which he presumably cannot do from inside. But sneaking in would still be possible. 

 

So he waits outside to strike, strikes, and sneaks in. Very clever.

 

I looked at the potted plants. There was one with plenty of leaves for shade. My black phone would probably not be noticed there.

 

I decided to just go for it. It is not like I put myself in danger anyway. I turned on the camera and hid the phone.

 

Looking at the brochure, I picked out a good presentation, I could take notes to at least have something to show to Charles out in the meantime, and I could not stick around here anyway. Now I could only wait.

 

50 minutes later, after the presentation…

 

I was writing in my notebook: “So no owl ladies coughing up feathers this time, but the idea of interference between communication spells is fascinating. These spells don’t happen often enough for it to happen often, but it could explain a little bit about their (lack of) reliability.”

 

I smiled, a possible explanation for interference in communication. Doesn’t solve all the weird things Charles told me about, but it is good people are working on it.

I looked at the time. I hope the fox strikes soon. I was getting nervous. Maybe I should visit Charles in the meantime…

 

Suddenly, a lot of shouting was heard, and the guards where running everywhere. The fox had struck again.

 

I considered my options. Retrieving the phone later undetected would be hard with the fox looking from inside the pillar. Getting the guards to go along would also be a challenge, considering they had been duped three times now.

 

I thought about Charles. I could not look immediately anyway. A visit to him would be the perfect detour.

 

And with that, I walked to first aid post they had set up.

 

At the first aid post…

 

I entered the room, Charles had just woken up. He was talking to the nurse: “So can you please call Brianna here, she must be worried sick,” he exclaimed.

 

“Not anymore!” I shouted.

 

“Brianna!” He exclaimed happily, and we kissed. 

 

“I was just about to send John to call you,” the Fae nurse said, pointing towards his assistant.

 

Good thing I am here already, I thought. I had forgotten the silent mode, if that phone rang…

 

I smiled. “No need for that now.” Looking at Charles, I continued. “Can you go with me, or…” I turned my head towards the nurse.

 

The nurse smiled. “He is fine, apart from a headache.”

 

“Next lesson, pulling punches,” Charles exclaimed. “Because apparently, you learned too fast.”

 

“Sorry,” I exclaimed. I could not think of other words.

 

“Don’t feel bad,” He reassured me. “You couldn’t have known.”

 

I smiled, I should have known he wouldn’t blame me.

 

“Did they catch the fox?” he asked.

 

“They did not, in fact, he struck again.” 

 

“If I ever catch that red tailed piece of shit, I…” Charles proclaimed angrily.

 

I nodded. “I feel a lot safer however, if you come with me now,” I said. Not a lie, actually, having him with me would make retrieving the camera safer. 

 

“Oh right,” he exclaimed. Between protecting me and revenge, he would always choose the former. Which is why I am glad of the trap. Getting out of bed, he went with me.

 

We talked in the hallway about the theft, I had not revealed my trap yet.

 

“So he fooled us again!?” 

 

“For now, yes,” I said. “But I know a way to maybe catch him.” Seeing him looking suspicious, I hastily added. “Your friends made me promise not to chase him, or stand guard, and I am keeping that promise, don’t worry.”

 

He looked relieved. “I might however, have sorta…” I continued.

 

He looked curious, but suspicious. “I think I found his hiding spot, and I placed my camera there…” I said quickly, hoping he would not be angry.

 

“You did?” He asked surprised. “Did you record anything?” 

 

“Maybe…” I answered, relieved that he was not angry. “I need to retrieve my phone first.” Having walked back to the conference, it was still underway. Apparently the conference was still more important than the stolen bauble. 

 

Walking towards the potted plant, I picked up my phone. All that was left was to view the recording.

 

“Now we just have to view hours of video,” he said.

 

“Charles, you really should brush up on your knowledge of technology.” I rolled my eyes. “I can just fast forward, and… bingo.”

 

With Charles looking over my shoulder, I looked at the screen. The fox was visible. Slipping out of the crowd, he walked right through the white pillar.

 

“Well, now we know where he was.” Fast forwarding to make sure he did not leave, I checked the rest of the footage. “And he is still there,” I said happily. “I will call Atina, you keep an eye on that pil…”

 

“Well played.” A voice sounded from beside us. Suddenly the fox made a break for the exit. However, this time Charles was already in pursuit. 

 

I resisted the urge to chase. Charles was faster anyway, and I had promised not to chase after him. I knew Fae took such promises very seriously. (And even more importantly, literally.)

 

Suddenly a loud crash sounded ahead. “Goal!” was heard. What that meant I had no idea, but I did see the fox lying down, and getting tied up by a young lady.

 

“Told you we should keep an eye on those two.” The voice of the Half-faced man sounded behind me. 

 

I turned around. Atina, Alfred and the Half-faced Man stood there. “I thought I told you to keep her out of trouble,” she replied angrily.

 

“True, I told her not to guard or give chase.”

 

“I made no promise about laying traps though,” I said smugly.

 

The woman sighed, and glared at the masked man.

 

“Indeed she didn’t,” the man replied smiling. “There is power in that you know, subverting expectations.”

 

I laughed. Charles went back. “Sorry I could not catch him for you,” he said sheepishly. “I know you wanted his tail.”

 

“Never mind that,” I replied. “Fur is getting out of fashion soon anyway.” And we laughed.

 

The Half-faced man pointed to me. “We should give her a reward for that, you know.”

 

“You mean, besides the oak leaf?” I asked. 

 

“That was for helping once, you helped twice.” Charles said. 

 

“We had actually just put out a bounty,” the Iron Knight said. “We know now the vault is real, and full of stolen goods,” He added, taking the key. “You get to pick one, no strings attached.”

 

“Now that is good to hear.” I looked at Charles. “You can pick for me.”

 

“What, really?” he exclaimed.

 

“I wouldn’t know the value of those pieces anyway.” I responded. 

 

The Iron Knight took the key, and with a few words, a portal to a cave opened.

 

20 Minutes later…

 

“You are kidding!” I exclaimed.

 

“I am not, that was the cavalry saber used by General William Sherman.” I looked at him astonished. “I should know, I have seen it before.” He continued.

 

“And you passed up on that!?” 

 

“It is not as good as your price though.” Besides, I know you don’t like fighting.

 

“That is true.” I said. “So what is my price?”

 

“Oh, you know, Just the translation key of the Voynich Manuscript.”

 

“You got the…”

 

“No, you got the translation key.” He exclaimed. “There are spells and histories in there that have been lost to history, ever since we lost parts of that key.”

 

“That Iron Knight must be so jealous now.” I laughed.

 

“He is a man of his word though,” Charles said seriously. “Though he did offer me a favor for me to share any information on King Arthur that I might uncover.”

 

“Well, good to look out for, I guess.” 

 

“Can’t wait to read it then?” He asked.

 

“I can wait, actually,” I responded. 

 

“What, but it is the greatest find in…”

 

“True, but first we have a last conference booth to visit,” I said. “Greatness can wait, this conference can not.”

 

And with that, we walked off.

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