Enjoy this preview of Chapter 1 from our work-in-progress novel, Changeling Justice:
“Don’t lose him! The Transmute Spell is nearly worn off.”
Ember wordlessly obeyed the directive from her new partner and kept running as fast as her short legs could carry her. She feared losing the suspect they pursued—or maybe worse, catching up to him after the spell wore off.
She tried to will the rush of adrenaline to give her lungs greater capacity, her legs greater span—even as a small part of her mind screamed at her, warned her of the menace she knowingly ran towards. Bloody Changelings. Why are they always so fast, even in human form?
The Transmute Spell could only block a Changeling from shifting for a short time. Even such a spell cast from someone as powerful as The Legend—as her partner tolerated being called—even that would only briefly contain a Changeling as aggressive as the one they chased. If this one was allowed to shift into his animal form, there was nothing stopping the beast from tearing both Investigators to pieces.
Ember inwardly shuddered at the thought.
She watched her partner race past her. Wallace Livingston may have been 174 years old, but the Senior Investigator had no trouble outpacing younger Investigators. Especially when it came to catching criminals. There’s a reason they call him The Legend.
The dark trench coat flew ahead like the wings of a demon. His wide-brim hat sheltered his face from view and from the light English rain that drizzled down, shrouding the night sky and making the stone pavers dangerously slick to run on.
The flying coat crossed between two pillars abutting a wrought iron fence enveloping the Blackburn Old Cemetery. “Go left!” Wallace ordered.
Before Ember could acknowledge, the coat, hat, and the man within, all disappeared between headstones into the cemetery.
Ember’s lungs burned. Her blonde locks were plastered against her face and neck. After the long chase through the evening mist, there was no way of knowing whether it was rain or sweat condensing down her back. It’s not enough that the bloody Changeling makes us chase him. At night. In the rain. Now through a cemetery, too?
Into the poorly-lit graveyard, Ember pursued her quarry. Despite knowing that the Changeling was guilty, they would continue referring to him as a suspect until a confession was given or extracted. This suspect was guilty of breaking one of the oldest of the Old Laws; he was accused of shifting into his animal form in the presence of NonDruw—in front of non-magic humans.
Wallace and Ember had cleaned up the aftermath, though it wasn’t easy. It was one of their first cases together as partners, and no small case at that. They had to track down each of the NonDruw who witnessed the Changeling’s crime, interrogate them, and then give them each a Memory Wash before setting them free. It was an exhausting task, and they had to be thorough about it. It was for everyone’s benefit that nobody would remember the events but for the Investigators assigned to the case.
It was then for the Druw High Council at Malvern Hills to decide what Brevar’s punishment would be. If the suspect was particularly lucky, he might get lifelong imprisonment. If he attempted to harm either her or Wallace, the Changeling would likely be executed. But there were worse punishments than dying.
As harsh as the sentence would be, the Changeling’s action was inexcusable. Their kind—the Druw—were so few and spread so thin around the world, far outnumbered by NonDruw. The only thing that kept them safe—kept them alive—was by remaining hidden.
Ember’s flat-sole shoes slapped against wet pavers lining the path weaving through the cemetery. Three times, she slipped but caught herself. She wasn’t so lucky the fourth time, as she stubbed her toe against an uneven stone and momentarily went airborne—for all of one second.
“Bugger!” Ember hissed. She reached down and touched her elbow where it had connected with the soggy earth. At least nothing’s broken.
An aged lamppost illuminated the headstone in front of her. She gripped the stone and used it to pull herself up out of the muddy turf. Typical for me to trip where there’s actually some form of light.
Her thumb ran across the markings etched into her borrowed handhold:
Frederick Kempster, 1862-1942
Ember spoke to the stone as she found her footing. “Quite sorry for disturbing you, Mister Kempster, but I don’t suppose you’ve seen a wayward Changeling running through your graveyard, perchance?”
She stood up beneath the lamp and peered into the night, letting the light bathe her back as her eyes adjusted. “Barring that, if you would have a torch I could borrow, that would be brilliant.”
Movement in her periphery caught her attention. If she wasn’t so soaked, the hairs on the back of her neck would have surely stood. Mustering what confidence she could, Ember said, “Hold it! You, there!”
A sharply-dressed man stepped out from behind an old oak tree. He wore a dark suit and a thin, black tie over a white collared shirt. Ember blinked as her head tilted back to look upon the man’s towering figure. She never knew someone could be so tall. Good God, he’s nearly three feet taller than me! This one must be approaching eight feet!
The giant of a man seemed as surprised to see her as she was to see him. She could sense that he wasn’t a Druw, but he didn’t quite feel like a NonDruw, either. Ember’s voice was lost for a moment, and she realized her mouth was agape.
“I am sorry if I startled you, Miss,” the towering man said. “I could not help but overhear you talking. I admit I did not expect anyone to see me tonight.” The man adjusted his tie and furrowed his brow. “You do see me, Miss?”
A dozen questions ran through Ember’s head. What is this man doing wandering a cemetery at night? Where is his peculiar accent from? And what kind of absurd riddle is he telling?
There was no time for any of that, not now. “I’m looking for a man, a tall man—well, not as tall as you. He ran through here just a moment ago. I don’t suppose you saw him?”
“Why, indeed I did!” The man sounded amused. “Is he some sort of a criminal, I suppose?”
Ember tried to maintain patience with the stranger, but she knew the Transmute Spell was growing weaker by the minute. “Yes, yes. I’m a member of law enforcement. Now, which way did he run, if you please?”
If the tall stranger was at all troubled by Ember’s brusque tone, he didn’t let on. “The gentleman is no longer running, Miss. He is crouched, hiding behind the big, headless angel statue.” The man clicked his tongue and shook his head as he pointed up the wet path. “Such a desecration, and in a sacred place, no less. So little respect.”
“Brilliant!” Ember resumed running up the path, only belatedly remembering to thank the odd stranger.
The statue was easy enough to find, even in the dim light provided by the sparsely-placed lampposts. The granite angel’s wings were wide and proud—and its head was indeed missing. Some part of Ember’s subconscious thought that the decapitation may have been intentional, as though by design. Macabre design that would be.
She carefully picked her way through the grounds between grave markers, attempting to remain stealthy. The dampness of the night made the grass spongy and her shoes made audible squishing noises.
“I think he hears you, Miss.” It was the giant of a man, leaning down as he spoke to her.
Ember caught the exclamation in her throat before it could betray her position. She whispered, “What the bloody hell! How did you sneak up on me?”
The man shrugged apologetically and then waved one of his dinnerplate-size hands toward the beheaded statue. “I believe your quarry is meaning to ambush you, Miss. Your partner is not far off; perhaps he could be of assistance?”
“How do you know that?” Ember whispered into the drizzling rain. She swept clinging, soaked hair from her face and peered into the night, trying to see what the tall stranger was seeing. She saw only more grave markers, statues, and mature trees.
“Your partner is behind the shrubs, over there.” A large hand gestured. “He is making his way here as we speak. Begging your pardon, but your partner moves quickly and gracefully, Miss.”
Ember grumbled beneath her breath, but then she saw it, saw the movement—the shape of a man wearing a wide-brim hat and a trench coat picking his way through the shrubs. She knew she couldn’t take the Changeling on her own, so she had to take action—and quickly. She had to warn Wallace, to alert him.
Ember stayed crouched, cupped her muddy hands to the side of her mouth and shouted, “Brevar! We know you are behind the headless angel statue! We have you surrounded!”
She was answered with a throaty, deep roar from behind the winged, granite figure. The Changeling was transforming—the Transmute Spell had worn off. A huge silhouette stepped out from hiding and began lumbering on four legs, away from Ember’s position.
“He’s shifting, Wallace!”
Ember chased after the roaring creature, unsure what she could possibly do if she caught up with it, but unwilling to let her partner face this Changeling alone. The beast moved too quickly though, and its roaring form ran toward the shrubs—straight for Wallace. Oh no! I’ve just gotten The Legend killed.
“Head’s up! He’s coming your way!” Ember yelled desperately as she ran, slipping on the wet grass and mud.
Another angry roar rang out through the cemetery, followed by a brief flash of yellow light.
Ember charged into the shrubs to find Wallace, bent over and panting to catch his breath. Before them was a humongous polar bear, wrapped tightly in a shiny, gold Containment Net. The net glowed, writhing and moving as though alive. Wallace’s net shrunk itself around the body of the bear, unbreakable and secure.
The bear gave one more roar, though this time it sounded like one of frustration.
Wallace stepped over to the trapped bear, clapped his hands together once, and then uttered “Sleep.” The moment his hand touched the beast, the bear went silent. Its head dropped and it stopped struggling.
Ember looked at Wallace with admiration. Indeed, there’s a reason they call him “The Legend”.
Her partner returned the gaze, though he frowned at the mud and grass smeared on her knees and arms. “Excellent work, Ember. But…are you alright?”
Ember shrugged self-consciously and looked down at her messy clothes. “Nothing’s broken.”
A gasping voice from above and behind made Ember turn. It was the tall stranger.
“My word!” The well-dressed giant looked with wonder at the netted polar bear. “A real Changeling, could it be? That would make you both…Malverns, wouldn’t it? How delightful! I had heard stories during my time, but I always dismissed them as mythology. My word!”
It was a pity this helpful stranger would enjoy his discovery for only a moment longer. Ember knew Wallace would make her cast a Memory Wash upon this NonDruw. The three Druw would return to obscurity and the NonDruw would be back to…wandering through the cemetery or whatever it was that he was doing when she found him.
Ember looked up at the awe-struck man. “Yeah, so…about this bear.”
“Ember…who are you talking to?” Wallace said between breaths.
Ember felt her neck and cheeks grow heated as she began to explain. “Wallace, I’m so sorry, I know I bumbled this. This fellow—I know I should not have allowed a NonDruw to get involved—but you see, he knew Brevar was waiting for me.”
“Ember. Who. Are you. Talking to?” Wallace’s voice was calm and firm between deep breaths. His words held no mirth. It made Ember feel uneasy.
“Um, well, yes,” Ember turned back to the stranger, “I suppose I never caught your name.”
“Ah, yes. I am Fred, Fred Kempster. At your service.” The towering man placed a hand on his stomach and bowed.
Ember looked back at Wallace sheepishly. “As I said, Fred helped me—helped us, Wallace.”
Wallace shook his head, his focus never leaving her. “Ember, when you slipped, did you hit your head? Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Why do you keep asking me that? Of course I’m alright!”
Ember looked back at Fred. “Not that you’ll remember this conversation in a few minutes, but if you wouldn’t mind telling Wallace what you told me, that might be helpful.”
The tall man looked down at Ember, his expression transforming from excitement to something resembling sadness. “Miss, I do not believe your friend can see me.”
“What the bloody hell are you going on about? He would have to be blind not to see you!” Ember waved her hands with exasperation.
Fred sighed and shook his head. He said, “Until you, I have not known a living person who could see me, much less speak with me.”
Cold realization seeped into Ember’s consciousness just as Frederick Kempster fed her the explanation.
“Dear Miss, that was my headstone you read from.”