Authors: Brian Rathbone
Copyright © 2016 White Wolf Press, LLC
For Dad. You are missed.
Without connection, energy cannot flow. To be disconnected is to be lost.
—Gemino, sorcerer and artist
* * *
Cold fingers clutched a warm blade. Distorted shouts echoed through snowy fog. Danger was everywhere, but the lure of magic was irresistible. Whatever enchantment the dead man's knife possessed, it hadn't been enough to save him. It was, however, enough to lure Emmet Pickette from his bed and into the night—barefoot and in his pajamas.
Time stretched. Fat snowflakes hung nearly motionless, suspended in air. Halos around gas street lamps looked like unshaken snow globes. Wild and uncontrollable, elongation of time was a rare thing usually experienced in only fleeting glimpses. Emmet was different, had been all his life; people told his sister so. He experienced time differently than everyone else. Sometimes his life was almost normal—time seemingly passing at the same speed for him as it did for others, but when time compressed, it felt as if everything were happening at once. Memories of what people called "episodes" haunted him, but he was just an ordinary boy on the inside. In some ways, though, he felt incomplete. Always he'd yearned for something without understanding exactly what, knowing only that it would be magic. Like a scent on the wind, it would come to him. And on this night, he'd traced it to the source.
Removing the dagger from the dead man's icy grip gave Emmet chills, but he could not leave behind the magic he'd desired for so long. A lifetime of deprivation and anticipation ended when he pulled the knife free and gripped it for the first time. There was no sense of invincibility as he'd hoped, but finally holding an object with magical properties was exhilarating. Even unidentified and dormant, tangible magic still existed in the world. It validated things most considered myths and legends, and in some ways, Emmet's own existence.
Only minutes before, he'd been sleeping. The presence of magic had grown strong enough to draw him out from under warm blankets. His need deep and insistent, he'd risked Riette's wrath and slipped outside. Always he had known, had sensed magic on the breeze but never so nearby. He was dizzy with it. Never had he expected to find a dead man in the courtyard. The cause of death was not readily apparent, save a small hole in his heavy wool coat.
Running slender fingers along the dagger's rounded edge, Emmet wondered how he could have been fooled into thinking it was something so crude as a knife. Riette would not understand, and he could not explain it. Words were his enemy; those he did find caused no end of trouble. He was not supposed to make a spectacle of himself. He was to appear as normal as possible, lest the wrong people come looking for him.
Snowflakes gathered on the dead man. Voices drew nearer. Every shadow had the potential to hold the "wrong people." Emmet had seen them before. Shivering, he stashed the dull blade within the hem of his coat. Noises from behind elevated his senses. Snowflakes fell with increasing speed. While he considered every possible escape route, the courtyard closed in around him. If anyone saw him, Riette would find out and he'd be in trouble—again. Holding up his pajama bottoms to keep them well above the dusting of snow, Emmet padded barefoot along the covered walkway where he would not leave such distinct footprints. Those he'd left in the snow already made him feel vulnerable and foolish, but it was done.
Harsh voices grew louder. Shadows across the courtyard shifted. Emmet sprang like the Fae kind he so closely resembled. After slipping silently through the doorway, he was tempted to watch and see what happened next, but shuffling within the small apartment he shared with his sister urged him to move.
Darkness and the sound of Riette talking in her sleep greeted him. Guessing what was to come, Emmet slipped back into bed and tried to get some rest, but his imagination conjured frightening images and scenarios. Panic rose within him. An unstoppable wave, it made his heart race. No words could truly explain what he experienced when time compressed. His convincing his mouth to utter such words was even less likely. Images, sounds, and feelings assaulted him in a relentless deluge, making it feel as if someone had picked him up and hurled him through time. A barrage of thoughts and senses came in a single, overwhelming rush, stacked atop each other until whispering wind felt as if it might crush him.
Mom was gone.
Dad was gone.
It was too much. Only then did Emmet realize he was rocking violently, holding his ears. Heart and breath racing, his muscles trembled, the effects lingering like the last vestiges of nightmares. Doing as his mother had taught him, he took slow, deep breaths until the waves of energy grew larger and less frequent.
Time once again expanded, the world now moving with what seemed exaggerated slowness. From where his coat hung, the dagger called to him, promising to change everything, but he could not afford to be caught with it. Riette would not understand. He couldn't make her understand. Emmet Pickette was a boy lost in time, and he was afraid.
* * *
Riette Pickette woke with a start. Disturbing dreams lingered. Something had woken her, and she looked around, waiting for the shadows to move, but nothing did. Creeping to Emmet's room, she found him curled up beneath all his blankets, bathed in moonlight and the dull glow of street lamps streaming through the window. She'd never get back to sleep.
Her brother had been up late and would likely sleep for at least a few more hours. There was no need to check the cupboards to know precious few scraps remained. The thought of taking Emmet to the bakery again made her blush. While Baker Millman tolerated him well enough, Emmet was especially unpredictable in the bakery, surrounded by so many of his favorite things. Twice he'd been caught helping himself to whatever struck his fancy. No one had ever seen him go behind the counter and take a sweet roll, but there he would be, suddenly eating the very thing they had come to get. He had a certain knack.
Riette was grateful Baker Millman found Emmet's "tricks," as he called them, amusing. Others called it theft. The number of places Riette could shop was becoming limited. Provided she was by herself, most left her alone, but Emmet drew stares wherever he went. Recent sewing work left her with enough coin to keep them fed and housed, for which she was grateful. It had been, at times, a close thing.
Dressing quickly, Riette made the decision to slip out to the bakery while Emmet slept. It was something she felt guilty for doing, but her life no longer afforded her the luxuries it once had. Now she was lucky to make a few coppers here and there from folks who knew she did quality work at a cut-rate price. This was another reason the number of places she could shop was shrinking. It pained her to be an outcast among her own community, but mostly she just wanted to be ignored and left alone.
After lighting a lantern, Riette looked back to make sure she hadn't woken Emmet. He did not appear in his bedroom doorway, and Riette heard nothing. When she turned back, the light reflected from faint footprints along the tile floor, visible only when she held the lantern at a certain angle. Riette's blood went cold. The footprints were from small, bare feet and led all the way to the front door. To her knowledge, Emmet had not been outside all day and had been wearing thick socks before finally going to bed. Winter was not yet finished with them, and the evening air bore a chill. Her mind racing, considering all the ways Emmet could have gotten into trouble while she slept, Riette accepted the fact that she might never know. Rarely did her brother answer a direct question, and even less often were his answers helpful. She loved her little brother, but he did make her life a challenge. She pushed thoughts of her parents aside. That line of thinking usually led to tears and solved nothing. Better to go to the bakery before Emmet awoke and avoid any more trouble.
After closing the door silently behind herself and easing the lock into place, Riette walked the cobbled streets of Sparrowport, her breath visible in the chill air. Her guard up, Riette heard the men before she saw them. They were close by—too close. She would not be alone in rising early, but most who did lived in the merchant district. Folks in the residential district tended to rise with the sun. Keeping to the shadows, Riette approached the intersection closest to where the men currently stood talking beneath a streetlight. For a moment she stood still, listening. The fact that these men stood in the light and were well dressed did not speak of danger, but Riette had a bad feeling in her gut.
The two men stopped talking and walked back into the courtyard her apartment shared with a dozen others. One of the men spoke, his voice clearly audible. It was the magistrate. She recognized his voice from when he had scolded her and her brother. No matter that she'd offered to pay for anything Emmet had taken, some could not find forgiveness in their hearts. Riette was not perfect, but she felt sorry for those who couldn't recognize how special and harmless Emmet truly was. No matter what mischief he'd ever gotten into, he'd never hurt anyone.
Sparrowport's merchant district exuded an aroma that drew Riette on; even at night, when the shops were closed, the fragrance lingered. There was something magical about the mixture of the fires burning at the bakery and the smithy, the baked goods, and the tangy sea air. Historic architecture lent to a feeling of timelessness, as if Sparrowport had always been there in that state while the world around it continued to change.
Riette's stomach rumbled by the time she reached the bakery, but she couldn't help sneaking a look into the smithy as she passed. It was dark, the coals in the forge still banked for the night. In some ways, Riette was relieved. Next door, Baker Millman worked hard while most slept. Three loaves of bread waited in the day-old bread bin, which was where Riette usually shopped. On that day, though, she also hoped to get something fresh. Without saying a word, she watched the baker work, hoping to see sweet rolls emerge from the ovens.
"Can I get you anything else?" Baker Millman asked, obviously not expecting her to ask for anything. She rarely did.
"Do you have any sweet rolls coming out soon?"
"They'll be a little while longer," he said. "And they have to cool before I can ice them."
"I see. Thank you. This will be all, then. I must be going."
The man gave a knowing nod, having no doubt noticed Emmet's absence and the early hour of her visit. A moment later, the door opened and Brick walked in, making the bakery suddenly appear much smaller. Dear, sweet, persistent Brick.
He grinned at her and leaned on the counter. "Morning, Millman."
The baker grunted and tossed two wax-wrapped packages on the counter. "That hinge is coming loose again."
"Again?" Brick sighed. Sometimes Riette wondered if he really wanted to be a smith. "I'll come back later with a bigger hammer."
Baker Millman waved him off and went back to work pulling, among other things, sweet rolls from the ovens.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" Brick asked Riette without waiting an instant. "Didn't you hear what happened up your way last night?"
"No. What?" she asked, her bad feeling growing worse.
"Someone was killed not far from your place, and people were seen snooping around. I think it's the Zjhon, but I'm not allowed to investigate any further. Father told me to stay out of it. He's afraid I'll get myself killed. If there really are Zjhon sneaking around killing people . . ." his thick brow furrowed. "Where's Emmet?"
"I have to go," Riette said.
"Here. I'll go with you."
Before she could say no, Baker Millman interrupted. "Just one more minute," he said, working with icing on rolls not yet at the right temperature. But he was determined. A moment later, he handed Riette a wrapped package with two sweet rolls that warmed her hands through the paper. After paying Baker Millman and settling the purchases in her bag, Riette turned to leave.
Brick followed. She held a hand up to his chest to stop him. Physical contact always worked to his advantage; he was so strong and handsome. "Stay here," she said, knowing her face was flushed. "Do as your father says. He's right."
Brick's expression soured. "You let me know if you need anything," he said, now resigned to going back to work at the forge instead of out adventuring and battling the Zjhon.
"Good morning, my little Ri Ri," Joren called from within the smithy.
Waving in return, Riette hurried on. Part of her regretted telling Brick not to come, but a bigger part knew he stuck out anywhere but at the forge, and she didn't want to be noticed. If a man truly had been killed, there would be questions, and she didn't want any of those questions coming back to Emmet, who was poorly prepared to answer them.
The thought slammed into Riette like a hammer. Emmet was in no way capable of killing anyone; he'd never been anything but peaceful and sweet with the exception of his ill-timed outbursts. What connection could he possibly have to this? And if the Zjhon truly were here, looking for people, then the war was perhaps not so far away after all. Riette quickened her step.
When she turned the last corner, she wasn't truly surprised to see the magistrate and a few others still looking about, though she had hoped to avoid them. Had she known they would be at that spot, she would have come in a different way. It was the very reason she and Emmet lived where they did: multiple points of egress.