The Bitter Seed of Magic
Spellcrackers.com : Book 3
Copyright © Suzanne McLeod 2011
SPOILER WARNING: This extract contains spoilers for the previous books. If you do not wish to be spoiled then I advise you not to read.
Curse: n. A magical imprecation that brings or causes great trouble or harm.
Curses are never good – and never more so when you end up trapped in the middle of one – like the droch guidhe, the curse that started eighty years ago.
Clíona, a powerful sidhe queen – one of the noble fae – fell in love with a human, and she chose to bear him a son. Like all mortal children born of sidhe and human, her son was human and therefore ill-suited for life in the Fair Lands. So although she loved him with all her heart, she left him with his father when she was forced to return to her throne, charging those lesser fae who lived in the humans’ world to watch over him and keep him safe.
Only the lesser fae didn’t watch him closely enough.
The vampires found him.
And they lured him to his death.
Distraught at losing her son, Clíona cut off the lesser fae from the Fair Lands and laid the droch guidhe on them, that they should also know the grief in her heart.
Faelings – the mortal children of lesser fae and humans – were (and still are) the first victims of the curse: easy pickings for the vampires through no fault of their own. Unwilling to see more of their mortal children die before their time, and hoping to deny the curse its prey, London’s lesser fae first chose to stop having children with humans, but as time moved on, it became clear that not only were no faelings being born, but since the curse had been laid, no full-blood fae children had been born either.
The curse had blighted the lesser fae’s fertility.
And while they might be nearly immortal, while they might be able to heal themselves of most injuries, they are the offspring of the Shining Times, born of magic and nature conjoined, and to survive, they must continually renew their connection to keep it strong, and that means they must procreate. For if the fae don’t procreate, then the magic doesn’t either, and if the magic fades, then it won’t be long before the fae follow it.
London’s lesser fae are dying – literally – to break the curse.
But now they think they’ve found another way.
I stood at the entrance to Dead Man’s Hole, the now disused mortuary under Tower Bridge, shivering as the chill March wind sliced through my leather jacket. The wind tossed the distant voices of tourists visiting the bridge with the angry cries of the seagulls, and brought me the wilder scent of the river. Weak sunlight flickered into the mortuary’s large cave-like interior, making its Victorian glazed-brick walls and curved ceiling waver with watery reflections. Before me, my shadow stretched thin across the rough concrete floor, only to fade as it reached the large white sand and salt circle drawn in the room’s centre. Inside the darkness of the circle lay the dead girl I’d come to see.
More than fifty humans a year lose their lives in the River Thames.
I wiped my damp palms down my jeans and walked into the mortuary, nodding at the female police constable standing watch on one side. The astringent scent of sage coated with something sweet and thick caught the back of my throat. I swallowed back a choking cough, and kept walking until I reached the edge of the circle. Flecks of rust-coloured bone and the dried-green of shredded yew patterned the sand and salt in intricate swirls like the ritual ashes scattered after a dwarf’s funeral pyre. The blood-spattered bone and yew meant the circle was consecrated to stop the dead from rising and hell-born visitors from appearing: standard police practice since the demon attack on London last Hallowe’en. And overkill in my opinion, considering it was now March, not October. But then, my opinion wasn’t one the police were usually interested in.
More than fifty humans a year lose their lives in the River Thames; around eighty per cent are suicides.
‘Stay outside the circle, Ms Taylor,’ the WPC said, her voice echoing the disapproval evident in her expression, her hand tightening around the extendable baton at her side. I quickly lifted my own hand in acknowledgement. She was a witch, and while I was no longer on the Witches’ Council’s hit list, witches still tend to get a little trigger-happy around me. The last thing I wanted was to give her an excuse to zap me with the Stun spell stored in the baton’s jade and silver tip.
Careful not to let my trainers scuff the sand circle I studied the dead girl staring sightlessly up at me from its centre. She was in her late teens, and Mediterranean ‘girl next door’ pretty: dark brown eyes, blue-black hair still wavy even while wet, and a dusting of freckles over her nose. More freckles dotted the dark skin of her shoulders, but where the spaghetti strap of her flowered sundress had slipped, the line of paler flesh it exposed suggested her colour was a result of sun or a sunbed, and not her natural skin tone.
More than fifty people a year lose their lives in the River Thames.
And none of them fae.
The dead girl didn’t look like any sort of fae. The suntan was the obvious giveaway; only human DNA produces melanin. As a sidhe fae, I could lie naked in the middle of the Sahara for a week and the dark-honey shade of my skin would never change, the blood-amber colour of my hair would never lighten, and even the sunburn would be nothing more than a rosy blush thanks to my fast-healing fae metabolism. But Hugh – Detective Sergeant Hugh Munro of the Metropolitan Police’s Magic and Murder squad – wouldn’t have called me in to look at the body if this was just an ordinary human death.
And the witches wouldn’t have put her in a consecrated circle.
So either she wasn’t all human, or—
Dread constricted my throat. I didn’t want this to be real. I didn’t want to think about what this girl’s death might herald. The droch guidhe that afflicted London’s fae had already mutated in the past by blighting their fertility, and now it looked like it might be mutating again. And if it was, was this girl’s death my fault? Had I somehow caused it by not doing what the fae wanted – by not having the child they wanted? A child they thought would crack the curse – despite there being no reason other than I was sidhe. Guilt at my continued refusal stabbed at me, but it was too life-altering a decision to say yes to without some sort of guarantee . . . and without knowing the magical consequences for the baby, the one innocent I should protect above all others . . .
I touched the gold pentacle where it burned reassuringly against my sternum, then shoved my fears away into the locked box in my mind.
Right now, none of that mattered.
What mattered was finding out if this girl’s death was a random death – a human death – or not.
I flipped the metaphysical switch inside me and looked, checking for magic. The circle glowed like a ring of blood-red neon shot with bright stars, the Stun spell in the WPC’s baton winked like an iridescent green firefly in my peripheral vision—
—and the girl’s body disappeared beneath a binding of dirty-white ropes. I frowned, narrowing my eyes to get a better look. There was nothing neat about the spell trussing her up in a lumpy cocoon; it looked as if someone had gone crazy and sprayed her with a dozen cans of magical silly string. So whoever had tagged the girl was an amateur – or wanted the police to think they were – or they’d been in a hurry . . .
Whatever the answer, the girl was still dead.
Detached sadness at the waste of life rippled over me. I hadn’t known the girl, she wasn’t a friend I’d loved and lost . . . I clutched the gold pentacle – [....] gold pentacle – as the memory of [....] sacrificing [....] for me at Hallowe’en rose like some malevolent leviathan, eager to consume me— The box in my mind snapped shut again and the sadness drained away, leaving me numb and empty.
The mortuary and the dead girl came back into focus.
The silly string wrapping the girl’s body blurred for a second. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, wondering if I’d imagined it, then crouched and looked closer. The string blurred again, near her head, and as I followed the lumpy line of the cocoon towards her hands, it shimmered like hot air in a heatwave. There was another spell—
‘Genny.’ Hugh’s deep voice behind me made me start. I turned as I straightened and looked up at him. At just over seven foot tall – small for a mountain troll; usually they average around eight feet – he towered over my own five-foot-five. Concern creased his ruddy face, and anxious dust puffed from his head ridge to settle like pink icing sugar on his neatly trimmed black hair and pressed white shirt. Hugh always looked like he was still in uniform, even after four years as a plainclothes detective. Or nearly always. Memory flashed me a disturbing picture of the only time I’d seen him look less than smartly turned out . . . his rough hewn body nude and gleaming like polished red granite, white silicate blood streaming from the vampire bites in his neck and shoulder. He’d been forced to fight for his life, and for the lives of his friends and colleagues. And for me. He’d won, but it had taken six solid months of being buried and baked in his home earth, in the Cairngorms, to heal his injuries. And his mind.
Trolls are deeply pacifist at heart; killing doesn’t come easy to them.
He’d only been back on active duty for a couple of weeks.
‘Are you all right, Genny?’
‘You’re crying,’ he rumbled softly.
Was I? I touched my face, frowning as I realised my cheeks were wet, and swiped the tears away. Damn. I hated when that happened; like some part of me was reacting independently to the rest of me. It was occurring more and more often.
Sympathy softened the grey-cloud colour of Hugh’s eyes. ‘I’m sorry, I should have know this would upset you, finding someone in the river after what happened on All Hallows’ Eve—’
‘I’m fine.’ I blinked and looked up at Hugh. This wasn’t the time or place to talk about then . . . about [....]. ‘Really, I’m fine,’ I said again, firmly. ‘Ignore it; I do.’
‘I can’t ignore it, Genny.’ He laid his large hand gently on my shoulder. ‘I was wrong to contact you. If the victim’s not human, then this should be the fae’s business to deal with, not yours.’
‘We’ve been over this, Hugh.’ I patted his hand on my shoulder, taking comfort from the warm grittiness of his skin under my palm. ‘I have to find a way to crack the curse, so there’s no way I can walk away from this, even if I wanted to.’ Which part of me did: the scared part, that after five months of fruitless searching for an answer – one that didn’t involve me getting pregnant – now wanted nothing more than to hide away and pretend I’d never heard of any fertility curse. ‘And you were right to call me. The girl’s body is tagged with some sort of Glamour spell.’
His concerned expression changed to one of disappointment and his fingers twitched with determination before he carefully removed his hand from under mine. Hugh is impervious to magic – actually, trolls are impervious to a lot of things – but the whole ‘not affected by magic’ also means they can’t see it or sense it either.
‘She didn’t tell you,’ I stated. She was Detective Inspector Helen Crane, Hugh’s boss – and my own personal nemesis. She was also a powerful bitch – sorry, witch – so she had to have seen both the spells.
‘No, but I suspected as much.’ His massive shoulders shifted in a frustrated shrug.
Mentally I winced; looked like the communication problem Hugh was having with DI Crane wasn’t getting any better, and it probably wasn’t helped by his decision to keep me informed about any deaths involving magic; something DI Crane had refused to do. She knew all about the curse, and she had a vested interest in cracking it, but she’d decided she’d rather cut her nose off than even try to work with me.
Hugh indicated the dead girl. ‘What can you tell me about the Glamour spell?’
‘Well . . . it’s smothered beneath the other spell, the one that binds her, and since she’s dead and the Glamour is still in operation, I’d say it’s probably some sort of Cosmetic or Disguise spell, and not an assumed projection which would’ve dissipated at the point of unconsciousness.’ I pursed my lips. ‘Quite what it’s hiding though, I won’t know until I remove it.’
The WPC made a noise like her broomstick had poked her, reminding me she was listening. ‘I can’t let Ms Taylor interfere with the evidence, Sarge,’ she said. ‘You told me you only wanted her to check things out.’
‘Ms Taylor being here is my responsibility, not yours, Constable Martin.’
‘I know the way things stand, Sarge, but—’
‘But I am still your superior officer, Constable,’ he rumbled warningly. ‘At least, I am right now,’ he added, a little ruefully.
‘And I want you to stay that way, Sarge,’ she said, throwing me a half-disapproving, half-entreating glare.
I gave her my best poker-face back. Hugh might look like he was only a few years older than my own twenty-five – especially since his recent ‘bury and bake’ session – but he was nearing seventy, and as he’d already pointed out to me on several occasions, he was certainly old enough to make his own career decisions without my advice.
‘I want to stay your boss too, Mary,’ Hugh told her calmly, as if having me here wasn’t going to get him hauled over his boss’s witch-fired coals. ‘But we have a duty to this poor girl and Ms Taylor can help us do that.’ He turned back to me. ‘Can you tell what the victim is under the spell?’
‘I can definitely tell you she’s not fae,’ I said, ‘otherwise the body would have faded after death.’
‘I know that, Genny,’ he said, thin fissures of exasperation bracketing his mouth. ‘Is she faeling?’
I waved a hand in frustration. ‘She’s been in the Thames, Hugh. Whatever the Glamour spell is, it’s bespoke, made-to-measure magic that’s survived being in fast-running water, which not only means it’s expensive, but that she could be anything from a Beater goblin to a mega-rich “It” girl sneaking out in disguise.’ I was crossing my fingers for the latter, going by the out-of-season tan, but something told me I wasn’t going to be that lucky.
It wasn’t a premonition – I don’t get those; just the knowledge that four weeks previously the badly decomposed body of a faeling had been pulled out of the river and an inexplicable administrative error had meant the body had ended up languishing in the standard human morgue as a Jane Doe over the weekend before someone had discovered she wasn’t fully human, by which time only fragments of some unidentifiable spell remained. Or so I’d been told. I’d never got to see for myself.
Not like now.
Still, if this girl was faeling, at least she didn’t appear to have been in the water long. Then I realised what was nagging at me. My own inner radar should’ve been telling me what species the girl was – it’s normally pretty good at that—
I looked up at Hugh. ‘I really need to remove the spell to tell what she is.’
‘Which Ms Taylor is not authorised to do.’ DI Helen Crane’s commanding voice cut in loudly before he could reply.
My heart sank. Just what we didn’t need.
The Witch-bitch herself had arrived.