Veiled Threat, page 1part #3 of Highland Magic Series
BOOK THREE OF THE HIGHLAND MAGIC SERIES
Copyright © 2016 Helen Harper
All rights reserved.
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The rusting Fiat which Speck had managed to procure smelled of fish. Not in a fresh by-the-sea-with-a-tang-of-salt-and-wind-blowing-in-your-hair fish smell. More like a vat of rotting carcasses left in the hot sun for several days, and with several human corpses thrown in for good measure, smell.
‘You’ll get used to it!’ he exclaimed cheerily, as we piled in and Lexie half retched. ‘Just wind down the windows. In any case, fish is remarkably good for you. All that Omega Three.’
Brochan, who looked even greener than his merman skin normally allowed, reached over and tried to open the grubby window on his side. Given that his large frame was already hunched because of the cramped conditions, it wasn’t a particularly easy manoeuvre. All the same, I craned my neck round and gazed hopefully at his contortions. The window didn’t budge.
‘Try your side, Tegs.’
I squeezed my hand down. With Lexie, Brochan and myself packed into the tiny back seat, it wasn’t easy to get the space that I needed. As soon as I tugged on the handle it came away in my hand. Shite.
I held it up. ‘No luck this side.’
‘I don’t think I can do this,’ Lexie said. ‘I can barely breathe.’ There was a wildness about her eyes and it looked as if full-blown hyperventilation wasn’t far off.
I patted her on the arm. ‘Don’t worry.’ I bent down and pulled out my trusty hot-pink window tool. Before Speck could protest, I smashed the back window. The tinkle of breaking glass was drowned out by his cry of anguish.
‘This car belongs to Tommy the Knock! He’ll kill me if I return it like this.’
‘He can bill me,’ I said.
Taylor glanced round from the front passenger seat, his white eyebrows rising. ‘And you’ll pay him with what, exactly?’
I grinned. I’d been waiting for him to bring that up. ‘You have all those winnings from the Games.’ I shrugged. ‘I’ll just use those.’
He muttered something under his breath about ungrateful Sidhe. My grin widened. ‘You auto know better than to rile me,’ I punned.
‘Tegs,’ Lexie said heavily. ‘It’s over a hundred miles to the Adair Clan Lands. If I have to put up with your jokes as well as this smell and these conditions, I will kill you.’
‘Don’t worry,’ said a muffled voice. Bob made his presence known and Brochan instantly sneezed into a spotted handkerchief. ‘I’ll do it for you.’ He pushed himself up onto her knee and held up his tiny hand. Lexie mimed a high-five.
‘Remind me again why we’re doing this? Why we’re not staying in Oban or, even better, moving back to Aberdeen?’ Lexie demanded.
‘Where’s your sense of adventure?’ I asked. ‘We’re going to reclaim my heritage, Lex. To right the wrongs of a generation and return Clan Adair to its formal glory.’
She blew out air through her pursed lips. ‘Hurrah. Wake me up when it’s over.’
Speck chose that moment to turn on the stereo. The car was so old that it actually took cassette tapes. As the booming tones of the Proclaimers deafened us, he turned round with a happy smile. ‘Chill. This will be fun. I made us a mix tape for the journey.’
Lexie linked her fingers. ‘Help me, Bob. Please. I’ll wish for anything. Just make this stop.’
Bob’s chirpy grin vanished. He jabbed a finger in my direction. ‘Gotta wait till she’s done with her other two wishes first.’ Both he and Lexie turned to me with palpable hope.
‘Nope,’ I said.
‘You promised, Uh Integrity!’ Bob whined, his voice rising to the sort of pitch that would soon only be audible to dogs. ‘Don’t forget you promised.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll make that next wish soon enough.’ As soon as I had figured out how to ask for something without bringing the sky crashing down on my head. I’d vowed to Bob that I would make my second wish within the next six months; the trouble was that genie wishes almost always had devastating consequences.
Bob subsided into a series of grumbles. With Lexie holding her nose, Brochan sitting with his arms folded, Taylor unfolding a newspaper to examine yesterday’s racing results, Speck humming wildly and Bob in a sulk, we set off.
Despite the fishy reek and the less-than-enthusiastic atmosphere, I felt a swirl of excitement in my belly. I’d never even seen my Clan Lands before, much less been able to claim ownership of them. After my father, Gale Adair, had supposedly murdered every member of my Clan – my mother included – the Lands were salted and confiscated. I’d hoped to win them back by beating all the other Sidhe competitors at the Games. I didn’t win but Byron Moncrieffe, who was the eventual victor, had asked for them on my behalf. That was after I’d stolen some of his magic and tried to explain to him what a prick his father really was. Byron didn’t believe me on that score but the fact that he’d given up his chance of avoiding an arranged marriage with Tipsania Scrymgeour so that I could get my land back had to mean something. And of course, I didn’t want him to marry Tipsania any more than he did.
I shook my head slightly. The thought of Byron might make my insides squeal and squirm but I couldn’t let myself worry about him now. Easier said than done though.
From the get-go, Speck drove like a demon. For all his concern about what Tommy the Knock might do if his rust bucket wasn’t returned in a decent state, he didn’t seem to care about the suspension. We flew down the road with every pothole and bump making its presence painfully known. Before too long we were out in the open countryside surrounded by snow-topped mountains and moors; faint tinges of heather indicated the start of spring.
Cold air blasted in from the broken window and I tilted up my chin, enjoying the brisk breeze. I had no idea what the future might hold but it wouldn’t be dull. I’d gone from accomplished thief to saviour of all the magic in the land to temporary mountain rescuer then competitive Sidhe; I certainly couldn’t claim boredom and monotony as companions. Unfortunately, danger and excitement weren’t usually good things either.
After a good thirty minutes, Speck muttered, ‘Something’s up ahead.’ He turned down the music and peered through the windscreen. I jerked out of my reverie.
Taylor put down his paper. ‘Is that a car?’
I twisted my head, trying to see. I caught sight of billowing black smoke and vicious flames on the side of the road in front of us as the screaming started. This was not good. Speck slammed on the brakes.
A woman, her clothes ripped and her face contorted in anguish, ran out in front of the Fiat. My anxiety rocketed tenfold. I tugged at the door, trying to open it. Curse this rusted piece of shite. Speck and Taylor were already out on the road and Lexie was trying to squeeze forward. With panic clogging my throat, I eventually shoved the door ajar with my elbow. I half fell, half ran out.
‘My children!’ she screamed. She pointed at the car. ‘They’re trapped inside. Help me! Save them!’
Children. My insi
‘Back seat?’ I yelled.
She covered her face in her hands and began gulping in air in huge ragged sobs. She was hyperventilating. Damn it.
I darted towards the back of the car where the fire was less intense. Even so, I had to shield my face and stay at least ten feet away. I wasn’t going to waste precious time and risk debilitating injury until I knew exactly where the kids were. I had to be smart if they were going to be saved. If only there wasn’t so much blasted smoke; it was next to impossible to see the vehicle’s interior. I needed to make a decision.
Was that a small shadow towards the right? I couldn’t tell. I tried to get nearer and it felt as if my very skin was being singed off. If those kids were still alive, they probably only had seconds.
Taylor appeared next to me. ‘This is not good,’ he muttered.
‘Bob!’ I yelled. I guessed he was going to get his heart’s desire sooner rather than later; this was no time to play scared. ‘I wish for the children in that car to get out safely!’
There was a flash of light and Bob appeared in front of me. ‘Uh Integrity,’ he said sadly. ‘I’d love to help you out. I’d love to say that your wish is my command.’
I flung up my arms. What the hell was wrong with him? ‘Then do it!’
He shook his head. ‘I can’t.’
‘They’re already dead?’ Helplessness overtook me as I stared around. There had to be something we could do ‒ it couldn’t be over before we’d even started.
Brochan had given up attempting to reach the burning vehicle and was standing at the side of the road, chanting. No doubt he was trying to draw moisture from the air and bring about a rainstorm to douse the flames. Lexie was dashing round, doing what she could to peer inside the car.
‘Something’s wrong, Tegs,’ Taylor said, his voice preternaturally calm.
Bob snapped his fingers in front of my face. ‘The old man is right. Pay attention! I can’t save them because they aren’t there.’
I swung my gaze back towards him, confused. ‘Eh?’ Then my hackles began to rise. I looked at the children’s mother who had stumbled over to join us. She tilted her head towards me and dropped her hands. The tears which had been streaming down her face were gone and she was breathing normally. She shrugged. ‘Sorry. Not sorry.’
Realisation finally dawned. I was the worst kind of idiot. We all were. ‘It’s an ambush.’
And just like that, they were upon us.
It was a classic manoeuvre and one that all of us should have known better than to fall for. Draw the mark’s attention by creating a diversion: the car. Even better, make that diversion create its own real smokescreen with the fire and smoke which obscured a large part of the banking to the side of the road. Then, when your mark is at its most vulnerable, attack.
I counted six. They were dressed like the worst kind of stereotypes: in black from head to toe with balaclavas covering their faces. They ranged in build from slight and wiry to squat and heavy. From the bulges, I reckoned they comprised two women and four men.
They’d planned this attack carefully. The two largest immediately ran at Brochan. With his size, he’d be the target to worry about the most – at least in terms of physicality. One woman headed for Speck and another for Lexie. That left two others – not to mention the so-called mother still standing to the side. Shite, shite and double shite.
I thought quickly. I still had some Gift residue lingering inside me. Telling lies from truth, the Gift which I’d nabbed from Kirsty Kincaid, was useless here as was what little remained of Morna Carnegie’s magic that encouraged life from the ground. But I’d stolen from Byron too, even if I hadn’t meant to, and his Gift was telekinesis. I hoped there was enough of that strange magical juice left inside me to do what was necessary.
The group had chosen their spot well: we were smack-bang in the middle of a steep-walled valley that effectively blocked us off from any escape beyond the road. That could work in our favour though – if I could get this right.
I flung my gaze towards the car, willing it to move. The wind was blowing the flames and smoke away from us. I concentrated hard. There was a loud creak and the car juddered upwards. Imagining my body as a magnet, I pulled it towards me. There was a strange feeling in my stomach and I knew I’d have to make this good or I’d be calling on Bob again out of sheer desperation.
I could already feel the magic draining from me. ‘Come on,’ I said through gritted teeth but the car didn’t care that I was desperate.
Taylor, turning to the two men who were already upon us, did his best to shield me. ‘Whatever you’re going to do, Tegs, do it quickly.’
Sweat beaded my brow. ‘I’m trying.’
As I tugged hard at the magic, the car heaved itself over, tumbling with ungainly somersaults. One. Two. Three... Bugger. I was losing control. I screeched, grabbed Taylor’s arm and yanked him backwards out of the car’s path.
Brochan, Speck and Lexie sprinted towards us in the nick of time, skirting past the flames so closely that I was terrified their clothes would catch fire. I forced the car to halt, creating a fiery barrier between us and most of the ninja-esque goons. One slipped through, however, and was already squaring up to us.
‘We’ve got this!’ Lexie yelled at me.
Between the flames and the angle the car was lying at, I’d bought us some time. Brochan, Speck and Lexie were dealing with the sneaky wanker who had made it through and I knew I could trust them to hold their own. Right now, my pressing concern was the fake mother. I spun round.
She wasn’t Sidhe so at least I didn’t have to worry about any violent Gifts rearing up to bring us down. She was, however, standing spread-eagled, with a shiny dagger clutched in each hand. There wasn’t a scrap of emotion in her face; this wasn’t personal for her. Somehow that made it even worse.
She gave a loud battle cry and leapt in our direction. Although Taylor tried to act as cover once more, it was clear that it was me she was interested in. She lashed out with one blade, slashing it against his arm, and then kicked him in the chest so he staggered backwards. As he gasped in pain, she continued her advance.
‘Fucking Sidhe,’ she hissed. ‘You’re all as bad as each other.’ She lunged with her dagger again.
I held up my hands. ‘Can we at least talk about this? I’m assuming you’ve been paid to attack us. How about we double that payment?’
She ignored me and swiped through the air. Taylor groaned and tried to get up but I spat out an instruction for him to stay down. He wasn’t as nimble as he used to be and this would be easier without me having to worry about him. I danced to the side, avoiding yet another blow.
‘We were told you didn’t like to fight much,’ the woman said with a cold smile. ‘Perhaps you should revise your position.’ From the expression in her eyes, I knew at least some of her buddies had managed to get round the burning car and were now at my back. That had been far too fast. These bastards were chillingly good.
There was a shriek from the far side of the car. Lexie ‒ she was in trouble. Speck cried out and ran to her side but she pushed him off and gestured frantically at the ninja who was now taking on Brochan. Taylor was on the ground and bleeding. I could hear blood pounding in my ears and the continued roar of fire from the car. Even with the trickle of telekinesis which remained inside me, we were no match for this bunch: they were too strong and too determined. It was time for that last resort. Again.
‘Bob! I wish...’
A huge hand appeared from behind and clamped over my mouth, followed by a tree trunk of an arm that encircled my chest and squeezed my ribs until it was painful to breathe.
Floating in front of my face, Bob shouted, ‘You have to say the words!’
I bit down hard on the fleshy part of my captor’s palm. He yelled but he didn’t let go.
Bob threw himself forward, kicking and tugging. ‘Let her go! Let Uh Integrity go!’
‘Tegs!’ Taylor shouted.
I caught a glimpse of one of the attackers punching him in the side of the head and he collapsed like a sack of potatoes. Rage unfurled inside me and I kicked violently upwards in a bid to free myself. The woman was right: I abhor violence but dare to hurt one of mine and my rage is incandescent.
Anger wasn’t going to help me, though. The grip round my throat tightened until my eyeballs bulged. The man fumbled at his side with his free hand and thrust a black object in my face. Gun, I thought dimly. That’s a gun.
‘You’re not all that good after all,’ he sneered. ‘Say ta-ta.’
I couldn’t believe it had come to this. After everything I’d been through and all my recent successes, I was going to end up as a corpse at the side of a quiet country road. Sorry, Dad. I tried.
There was a crunch of footsteps. A pair of booted feet halted by my side and a balaclava-covered face peered down. ‘Integrity? Is that you?’ a female voice asked.
I opened my mouth to speak but managed little more than a grunt. The figure gestured towards my captor and he released me. ‘What gives?’ he grunted as I rolled and coughed, my eyes streaming.
The woman muttered something in response. I tried to lift my head but the effort seemed too great. There was a loud curse and then I was hauled up by my armpits. The speaker pulled off her balaclava and I stared into a pair of arresting cat-like eyes. I half grimaced, half smiled. ‘Chandra. Long time no see.’
It took us some time to re-group. With a series of malevolent glares, Brochan helped bring the fire under control while Taylor had his wounds tended. Lexie and Speck stood, arms crossed, both looking considerably worse for wear. Even Bob was in a huff and stayed as far away from Chandra’s gang as possible.
I took a swig of water, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand and threw my one-time nemesis a suspicious look. ‘So you’re an assassin now?’ I asked, unable to keep the sneer out of my tone.
HELEN HARPER SERIES:
Other author's books:
- BloodfireBloodmagicVeiled ThreatCorrigan RageSlouch WitchNight TerrorsCorrigan MagicVigilante Vampire
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