A shell, a knock, a pond
Lily had resolved not to speak to Gwen when they got home, but upon entering the house, she gasped.
“Gwen, look,” she said, and Gwen’s jaw dropped.
On the kitchen table, next to the corn dolly, a massive pile of gold and jewels had been left to glimmer in the afternoon light pouring through the windows.
Gwen approached the pile slowly. “That’s a hell of a compensation,” she said uneasily. “I wonder if it’s real?”
Lily picked up a piece of gold and bit it, like she’d seen in movies. To be honest, she had no idea how that was supposed to tell you if it was real, but her tooth left a dent in the gleaming metal, making her wonder if it was truly pure gold.
“It’s real,” Lily’s siren said, smiling. The two sirens had followed them to their house, offering to escort them all the way home. Gwen had found it ridiculous; they could find their way home without getting lost, she said. But the sirens insisted that, with the danger posed by the rogue valkyrie, it was a necessary courtesy to accompany the girls all the way home.
“You can have it appraised, I think you’ll find it’s worth a great deal. Olivia wasn’t sure it’d be enough,” Gwen’s siren said. “But please let us know if we can do more.”
“This – this’ll do for now,” Gwen said faintly. “Um, thank you.”
“Thank you,” Gwen’s siren said. She glanced at her sister, and the pair made their way to the front door.
“We’ll be leaving now,” she said. “We’ve been told our responsibilities end once you’re home safe and satisfied with the compensation for your help and trouble.”
“Oh, and there’s this!” Lily’s siren said. She held out a conch shell, small enough to fit in her hand and lustrous in the light.
Gwen took it. “What’s it for?”
“Commmunication,” the siren said. “Should either of you change your mind, speak into the shell opening. We’ll meet you at the well and escort you back to the goblin city, should you decide to help Olivia’s team with the investigation.”
“Or if you need help,” the other siren added. “Should you catch sight of the valkyrie again, or should she commit further murders here. We’d appreciate you calling in to let us know if she does.”
“Of course,” Gwen said warily. “Thank you.”
The sirens smiled, and slipped out of the door. Immediately, Lily found herself starting to miss them. While Gwen seemed relieved to see them gone, she’d rather liked the sirens.
“So,” Lily said, inspecting the treasure. “I guess we can probably chill out about paying for a plumbler, and – holy shit, is this a diamond?”
She held the glittering stone to the light. “Please tell me this is real.”
“Unfortunately, yes,” Gwen muttered through gritted teeth. “The bank will have a fit if we try to show them all this for appraisal. They’ll think we robbed a different bank.”
“We’ll tell them we found it the end of a rainbow,” Lily said. “This is amazing.”
Gwen called Don to apologise for not turning up to work, and Lily finally got around to making their breakfast. She couldn’t be bothered to make anything more complicated than two bowls of instant porridge, with plenty of brown sugar in hers.
She checked the fridge. The milk was sour. She frowned, annoyed, but not very surprised – of all the fairy-related incidents of the past few days, off milk was the least ominous.
Gwen swept all of the treasure into a large sack, resolving to keep it safe in her room until they could figure out what to do with it. “Maybe we can pawn it off,” she said. “Pawnshops don’t ask as many questions as banks. We might not get the full value of it, but it’s better than having police sniffing around because the bank thinks we’re thieves or black market dealers.”
“You don’t know a thing about the black market, do you?” Lily said.
Gwen raised her eyebrows at her. “And you do?”
She dragged the sack upstairs, struggling with the weight, Lily smirked and started eating her porridge.
Later that evening, the chill set in quickly, fogging up the windows. Before they became too misted over to see through, Lily saw frost creep over the roses’ blooms. “That’s not good.”
“You’re telling me,” Gwen said, frowning. “Don’t leave the house tonight. Especially if you see any more eyes. I don’t think it’s safe.”
The new bottle of milk Gwen had bought that afternoon was sour, too, Lily noticed while making tea. She shuddered. “Think we should call the sirens?”
“No,” Gwen said firmly. “It might be nothing. Just be cautious, we might be left alone.”
Later in bed, Lily heard something. A slow, hard, metallic-sounding tapping on her window. She froze.
The window was bolted, right? Her heart pounded.
The tapping continued. Lily dared peek out from under her duvet.
Two large, glowing globes of light stared into the window.
Lily sucked in a shuddering breath. She gathered up her duvet, and sprinted out of the room.
She crossed the corridor, bursting into Gwen’s room.
“Gwen!” she squeaked. “Gwen, wake up!”
Gwen grumbled and rolled over. “What is it?”
“Eyes,” Lily said, and she heard her voice crack. A sob threatened to burst from her throat. “Outside my window. I think it’s the valkyrie.”
Gwen swore, sitting up. “Your window’s locked?”
“Locked and warded and garlicked and everything,” Lily said shakily. “I’m scared, Gwen.”
Gwen motioned for Lily to come over, letting her scoot into the bed and burrow into her side. “You’re sure it was the valkyrie?”
“Same eyes as Sky,” Lily said. “That’s how Sky recognised her – the eyes. It’s her.”
Gwen swore again. “Shit,” she said. “Alright. You’re staying in here with me tonight.”
“You sure?” Lily asked. Gwen didn’t like sharing beds with other people, especially Lily. Lily kicked and clung and cuddled, she complained. Not that Gwen was much better; she slept perfectly still, but snored like a freight train.
“I’m very sure,” Gwen said. “This way, if that thing manages to get in, it’ll have to take on both of us. Best to stick together, alright?”
“Alright,” Lily said, sniffling a little. Gwen wrapped an arm around her, stroking her back.
“I’m sorry if I cling,” Lily said.
“It’s alright this time,” Gwen reassured her. “This time, it means nothing’s snatched you. Don’t worry about it.”
She lay down, facing away from Lily, and Lily curled up behind her back, hands fisted in the fabric of Gwen’s nightshirt. During the night she’d probably end up clinging to Gwen’s back like a koala, and Gwen would probably get annoyed.
She shut her eyes. If the valkyrie came into Gwen’s room, she’d have to prise Lily off Gwen somehow, and that wouldn’t be an easy feat.
The next morning, Lily was woken up by Gwen grumbling and disentangling Lily’s limbs from around her torso.
“You’re like a corpse in rigor mortis,” she complained. “Your arms just – snap back into position, whenever I try to move them. It’s so annoying.”
“I just like physical affection,” Lily wheedled. “I need to touch.”
“Well, I don’t,” Gwen grumbled. “Un-koala me, right now.”
Lily sighed and obliged, pulling away even though the morning air was chilly. Gwen got up to leave the room, and Lily tottered close after her.
Downstairs, Lily’s mouth fell open in shock.
The kitchen and living room was completely trashed. The table and chairs were upended, newspapers and magazines were shredded and strewn across the room, dishes that Lily had left overnight to dry were smashed on the tiles, and the fridge door hung open, food smeared around the inside like a grisly finger painting exercise. The cupboards were all blown open, food and dishes and cooking implements smashed or littered around the kitchen. Symbols had been written on the windows, in a dark red liquid that looked unnervingly like blood.
Gwen dragged her finger through it, and sniffed it. Then she tasted it. “Just raspberry jam,” she said. “Knew it wasn’t blood when I smelled it. Looks effective, though.”
Lily stared around, aghast. “Do you think the valkyrie did this? How?”
“I don’t know,” Gwen said. Her face was grim. “I think we need to call those sirens, though.”
First, the pair set about cleaning up the mess. Once the downstairs area was mostly tidy, Gwen set about re-fairyproofing the house, this time with stronger wards and charms. The iron crosses outside their doors had apparently proved effective in keeping the valkyrie from venturing upstairs, so Gwen dug out as much iron as they could find to lay in front of the house’s entry points, forming crude crosses with fireplace tools and crowbars.
While Gwen warded the house, Lily called Aunt June again.
She explained about the overflowing well, the sirens and the adventure in the fairy realm. The goblins, Sky, and the revelation that Sky was not only behind the valkyries, but one of them was the culprit behind the murders. The fact that the aforementioned valkyrie was apparently stalking their house, and that they weren’t safe.
When she finished, June swore.
“You two have gotten yourselves into a right pickle,” she said. “Well, I don’t recommend leaving the house by yourselves, that’s for sure. Certainly not at night. Did you say these goblins and sirens could help you?”
“They offered to,” Lily said. “The sirens left us a shell.”
“Ahh, yes, the selkies use those too,” June chuckled. “I think they picked it up from the sirens. Well, I think you should take them up on it. Fairy bargains shouldn’t be taken lightly, for starters. And second, I think you’ll need their protection. And they may well need you – they don’t ask for help lightly, either.”
“But it’ll be dangerous,” Lily said nervously. “Gwen said that even if the valkyrie doesn’t harm us while we’re investigating – the fairy world is bad for us, isn’t it?”
“It’s very bad for you,” June confirmed. “Something about their environment is uniquely toxic to humans – and not in ways you might be familiar with. Magic corruption. It can change your entire physiology – that’s how the vampires came about, remember.”
“I remember.” One of June’s earlier lessons had been about the dangers of the fairy world, and she’d used vampires as an example. They’d originally been human infants swapped for changelings, brought back to the fairy world to be raised there, loved and studied and pored over.
But the children had grown up sickly and in chronic pain. Their bodies changed, their minds changed. They developed an ability to use magic, but at great cost – the food and water of the fairy world was slowly poisoning them, and if they remained there, they’d die.
But they fared little better in the human world, either. They were subject to the same weaknesses as fairies were, like iron and rowan wood and salt and bright sunlight. And they couldn’t stomach human food, either. It transpired that the one thing they could consume was blood. And when that discovery was made, the vampires were very quickly condemned as monsters.
“You can survive without too much trauma, though,” June explained. “You simply need to be very careful and vigilant. Don’t touch fairy food or drink – if they’re aware of the risks then they shouldn’t offer it to you, but just in case, be careful. Don’t dance with them, don’t take their drugs, and don’t wear their jewellery. All those things can change you, corrupt you. You two are more resilient because of your witch heritage, but you should remain careful nonetheless.”
“What do we eat, then?” Lily asked.
“If they plan to host you in the fairy world, they should provide you with untainted human food,” June said. “If they don’t, demand to leave. Their sirens especially should be well aware of the risks their world poses to us, if there’s sirens then they should have made the goblins aware by now. If they want you to work with them, they must host you accordingly.”
“The two sirens actually live in the human world,” Lily remembered. “They – I think they’re Australian.”
“Then they definitely should have prepared the goblins for you by now. Australians, eh? Are they tanned?”
Lily thought back to the translucent hair and blue-green-pink iridescent scales. “Um, not really.” She wondered if sirens were all pale, like the two sisters, or if dark-skinned sirens existed. Possibly. And how did the sirens look when they were at home? Were they still pale and eerie, or did they take on more human appearances to blend in?
“Damn. Do they say ‘G’day’?”
“How disappointing. I always wanted to go to Australia.”
Lily glanced across at Gwen, who had finished warding the house and was now sitting in front of her on the righted table. “June, I think I’d better go. We should probably call the sirens, now.”
“Alright, then. Well, take care, both of you – keep an eye on each other, and don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”
Lily blinked. June had told them all sorts of stories about her doing wild and inadvisable things, like swimming with selkies in midwinter and teasing sharp-toothed kelpies on the off chance she’d be fast enough to run out of reach of their venomous bite.
“Or – yeah, I’m going to retract that. Don’t do anything I would do, either. Stay safe, girls!”
June made kissy noises and told her to send her love to Gwen, and then hung up. Lily put the phone back in the receiver, and looked at Gwen.
“She said that if the fairies were serious about having us in their world, that they’d prepare to stop us from getting – corrupted, or whatever,” Lily explained. “Especially with the sirens there, since they live in our world and know the risks.”
Gwen’s shoulders sagged. “Oh. That’s – that’s good.”
“Yeah. So if we’re careful, basically, we should be fine. Don’t eat their food or drink, don’t take their drugs, don’t dance with them, and don’t wear their jewellery.”
Gwen sighed. “Corruption or not, we don’t have much choice now. We can’t take on that valkyrie on our own, out here. We need their help as much as they need ours.”
She scrubbed a hand over her face. “We should pack. Clothes, and stuff.”
Lily nodded, and the pair went upstairs.
When Gwen had packed a duffel bag with clothes and essentials, and Lily had packed a veritable suitcase, they returned downstairs, and Lily picked up the shell.
She took a deep breath, holding it to her ear. All she could hear was a rhythmic rushing sound, like being deep underwater with waves crashing far above.
She cleared her throat, and spoke into the shell. “Hello?”
There was just noise for a few moments, and then a familiar voice sounded from the shell, clear and bright despite the rushing underwater sound. “Hello darl’! Is that you or your red-haired friend?”
“Cousin, actually,” Lily said. “And it’s me – the smaller one.”
“Of course. Did you change your minds?”
Lily glanced at Gwen. “Sort of. The valkyrie’s been stalking our house, and she trashed our living room last night – we don’t know how she even got in. So we think we might need your help.”
The bright voice turned grim. “Oh. That’s serious.”
“Yeah. At this point, I think we kind of have to accept your offer. We can’t really defend ourselves alone.”
“That’s true. Well, sit tight; my sister and I can come collect you this evening. Don’t leave the house, we’ll knock on your door. I don’t think its safe for you to try to go to the well by yourselves.”
“We appreciate that. We’ll see you soon?”
“Shouldn’t take long. Hang tight, darling.”
The voice disappeared, leaving just the rushing sound. Lily pocketed the shell.
“What did they say?” Gwen asked.
“I think my one answered,” Lily said. “They’re going to collect us. She said to stay in the house; they’ll come here to pick us up. She doesn’t think it’ll be safe for us to go out to the well by ourselves.”
Gwen’s jaw tightened. “Guess we can’t really disagree with that.”
It was a nerve-wracking afternoon while they waited for the sirens, and Lily jumped when a loud knock on the front door echoed through the house. And for perhaps the first time Lily had ever seen her do so, Gwen checked the peephole in the door before swinging it open.
Silver eyes glinting a little in the half-light, the two sirens stood in the door.
“Hello, darling,” the dark-haired one said. “I hear you two need an escort?”
“Thank you,” Gwen said gruffly. Lily struggled to pull their bags into the doorway, while Gwen turned off the electrics and checked the locks.
Her blonde siren picked up Lily’s suitcase, smiling. “My mum always said you shouldn’t pack what you can’t carry,” she said.
“Yeah, well, my mum said you should always pack the essentials,” Lily said. “As it turns out, for me anyway, I can’t always carry all my essentials.”
Her siren laughed. “Perhaps a good time to redefine ‘essentials’?” she teased.
Gwen locked the front door behind them, and the sirens led them in the forest, which was growing ever darker with each minute. Lily didn’t miss the way the sirens stared around intently, stepping carefully over the leaves and undergrowth.
Was that leftover half-light peeking through the trees and branches, or were they eyes? Lily shuddered, grabbing Gwen’s arm.
The sirens moved faster. “C’mon, quick,” the dark-haired siren said, hefting Gwen’s duffel bag. “It’s definitely not safe out here.”
A soft moan echoed in the trees behind them. Lily stiffened, and so did the sirens.
“Gonna really need you two to speed up,” the dark-haired siren said softly. “I don’t know what that was, but it didn’t sound like no joke.”
The pace increased to a half-run, Gwen tugging Lily’s hand as she struggled to keep up. The well dimly loomed in sight, light glinting off the rippling water even in the darkness.
“In you get,” the blonde siren said, helping Lily into the water. Gwen climbed in with her, and the sirens passed their bags over.
“Will our stuff get wet?” Lily asked, holding onto the handle of the suitcase as it floated in front of her.
Her siren chuckled. “It won’t be in the water very long,” she said. “Shouldn’t be too much chance of water seeping in. Let one of the goblins know if anything gets wet or ruined though, they have magic for that sort of thing.”
The dark haired siren climbed in, taking Gwen’s hand and pulling her under. Lily’s siren followed, floating in the water next to her. “Ready?”
Lily nodded, heart in her mouth again – she didn’t like the dark column of water beneath them. Her siren took her hand, and the pair went under.
Immediately, Lily knew something was wrong. Her siren pulled her a little way down at first, then her hand suddenly squeezed inhumanly tight, all but crushing Lily’s hand.
She heard a muffled, underwater screech, and then the siren’s hand was gone.
Her heart thudded, and she looked around wildly in the pitch-black water – which way was up? She couldn’t see. She was trapped.
She was going to drown down here. Her lungs burned.
Another hand took hers, six-fingered – was that her siren? She clung to it.
The water rushed past, and Lily gasped when her head broke the surface.
The face in front of her was not the blonde siren’s. The dark-haired siren stared at her. “Where’s Michelle?” she demanded in a panicked voice.
Lily opened and closed her mouth.
“Where’s my sister?” she asked.
“She let go,” Lily managed. “I don’t know what happened.”
The dark-haired siren let out a horrified cry. “Michelle!” she screeched, and she disappeared under the water.
Gwen stared at her now, floating silently in the water. They were back in the canal in the goblin city, Lily realised.
“What happened?” she asked.
“I said I don’t know,” Lily insisted. “I – she just let go. I think she screamed.”
Gwen swore. “You were down there too long, she said. She went back after to see if you two were okay, but I guess she only found you.”
Worry seized Lily’s chest. What had happened to her siren?
As if in answer, the water broke again, and Gwen’s siren emerged, howling. The blonde siren was clutched tight in her arms, and she was not moving. Her eyes were closed.
Gwen swam closer. “What’s wrong with her?” she demanded.
“Her fins,” the dark-haired siren wailed. “Her fins.”
Gwen swore again, and bodily hauled herself and her soaked duffel bag out of the water, climbing onto the walkway next to the canal. She motioned for the siren to swim over, and carefully lifted Michelle out of the water onto the stone.
As Michelle’s body emerged from the water, the problem with her tail became apparent. Lily’s mouth fell open.
It was like some huge taloned beast had mauled her. The soft scales had been shredded and ripped away around huge, deep wounds that revealed jaggedly torn red flesh and white bones. The gory details were covered up in red as Gwen pulled the siren from the canal, blood dripping into the water.
And her fins. The delicate translucent membranes of her caudal fins were totally shredded, leaving the bony support rays exposed, some of them broken.
Even if she survived the deep gash wounds and the blood loss, would she be able to swim again? Lily’s heart clenched.
“We’ll have to carry her,” Gwen said. “Can – do the wounds carry over to her legs?”
“Not exactly,” the dark-haired siren said, sniffling and scrubbing her face. “The wound – it’ll still be on her tail, and painful. But it won’t be visible if she changes into her legs.”
“Well, the first thing is to get her to change, then,” Gwen said. “So she stops losing blood. And I’m worried about causing more damage if we try to carry her like this.”
The siren nodded, hauling herself onto the walkway. She turned to pull Lily out as well, hands shaking as they gripped her arms.
She crawled over to her sister’s side, gently shaking her shoulders. “Michelle,” she called. “You with us? You need to wake up, Shell.”
Michelle groaned, clenching and unclenching her fists. “Hurts, Renee,” she said.
“I know, hon, I know,” Renee said, swallowing hard. “It must hurt a lot. But we need you to focus for a second, okay?”
“You need to change into your legs,” Gwen said sternly. “If you don’t change now, you might lose too much blood. You could die.”
Michelle groaned, pressing her hands to her eyes. “It’ll hurt,” she whimpered.
“It’ll hurt a lot more in a minute if you don’t change,” Gwen snapped.
Lily squeezed Gwen’s shoulder hard, a signal to shut up. “Michelle,” she said, feeling a bit strange to be using her siren’s name for the first time. “We know it’ll hurt, and I’m afraid it’ll hurt quite a lot. But it’s so we can help you faster. The sooner you do it, the sooner it’ll be over with and will stop hurting. Do you think you can do that for us?”
“Please, Shell, if you do it quickly then we can get you to the hospital faster,” Renee wheedled. “Then we can get you some pain relief, and it’ll stop hurting.”
Michelle glanced at Lily, silver eyes clouded with pain. She sucked in a deep breath, and nodded.
She let out a sob, and screwed her face into a grimace. Slowly, but surely, her tail started to change. In painful, tentative jolts and starts, it dissolved, becoming insubstantial and watery, before reforming into two legs, ugly dark bruises marking where the worst of the injuries had been.
Lily let out a sigh. “Well done, Michelle,” she said. “That’s probably the worst bit over with.”
“I’ll carry her,” Renee said. Her own tail had turned back into legs, and she crouched on them now, preparing to pick up her sister.
“You sure?” Gwen asked. “Do you want help?”
“I’ll be fine,” Renee said. “I’m stronger than you two put together. Besides, you two need to carry your bags. We’ll get to hospital faster this way.”
“What exactly is the hospital?” Lily asked. “Is it like our hospitals?”
“Similar,” Renee said. She picked Michelle up, carrying her bridal-style. The injured siren whimpered, curling into Renee’s side. Renee started walking, her pace as brisk as it had been in the forest. Michelle moaned with each step.
“There’s a hospital wing of sorts in the palace,” Renee explained. “We’ll go there – the goblin healer who works there is the best in the city. With any luck, she won’t be too busy.”
“Do they have doctors and nurses and stuff?” Lily asked, struggling to keep up again. She was starting to regret some of the ‘essentials’ in her suitcase.
“Not exactly,” Renee said. “We just call them all healers here. And there’s no hierarchy like with nurses and doctors – they’re all healers, who all work according to their skills and specialties. Some of them are better than others, but none are considered higher-up or anything. A healer might perform surgery and then clean bedpans and feed patients in the same day.”
“There seems to be a lot of parallels between your world and ours,” Gwen murmured.
Renee smiled faintly. “There are,” she said. “That’s because sometimes we might borrow things from your world. In the same way, though you’re not aware of it, you’ve borrowed things from ours. Our worlds are not as separate as they might seem to you.”
The journey to the palace was swift and hurried this time, spurred on by Michelle’s groans of pain. They didn’t pass anyone this time, though the huge beasts at the palace gate stared at them with a look of surprise as Renee strode past.
They didn’t pass through the throne room this time; they walked through winding corridors that Lily knew she’d forget as soon as they passed them. She had no idea how to keep track of her sense of direction in the rabbit-warren layout of the dark palace.
They eventually entered a chamber that looked somewhere between an emergency-room waiting room and a church, though the wooden pew-like seats were empty.
Renee gently deposited Michelle onto one of the seats, and walked up to the wall where a window covered by a beautifully carved lattice partly hid the white-coated goblin sitting behind it.
“Hello?” Renee said. “I have an emergency with my sister – she’s been mauled by something. She’s lost a lot of blood. Is Viola free?”
The goblin glanced through the lattice, looking at Michelle. “She’s not busy right now,” he said. “How badly mauled was your sister? Is that her sitting there?”
“Yes – her tail was mauled, so we got her to change to her legs,” Renee explained. “She’s very badly mauled. I don’t think she’ll be able to swim again if Viola doesn’t see her soon.”
“I’ll send a couple of healers in to bring her through,” the goblin said. “She’ll have to change back into her tail for Viola to treat her, though.”
“We know. Thank you.”
A pair of dark, insubstantial shadowy figures emerged from a door in the other wall. Lily shuddered to see them – the only solid part of their smoke-like bodies was their glowing green eyes.
They pushed a trolley over to Michelle, gently lifting her onto it, and wheeled her through the door. Renee motioned for the girls to follow.
The shadow creatures wheeled Michelle through a corridor, past curtained-off wards and other white-coated goblins. They stopped in front of a curtain, one of the figures pulling it back to let the other wheel Michelle through. Inside was a bed and chairs, much like a human hospital, but for the stone walls and gothic style of the furniture. Creeping plants wound up the side of the wall’s stones.
The creatures stopped the trolley next to the bed. “We won’t move her until Viola has seen to her,” one of them said in a hissing, whispering echo. “Once Viola has seen to her wounds and stabilised her, we’ll move her to the bed.”
“We’ll go find her now,” the other creature said. “Don’t let her change back into her tail until we return.”
The pair left, and the creeping feeling down the back of Lily’s neck eased.
“Ghouls,” Renee explained. “They all look like that. Don’t worry if they make you uneasy – they feed on negative emotions. They make excellent healers though, weirdly enough.”
“So if vampires feed on blood, and those things feed on negative emotions,” Gwen said, “What do you and the goblins feed on?”
Renee laughed. “We eat food,” she snorted. “Lots of seafood, obviously, because we live near the beach. And I love Tim Tams.”
“And goblins?” Lily asked. “Do they like Tim Tams?”
“No,” Renee said. “They don’t eat food in the way we do. They feed on fear.”
The curtain was pulled back, and the ashy-brown haired goblin in the white coat from the day before strode through, followed by the two ghouls.
“Alright,” she said, stopping by the trolley and leaning over Michelle. “What have we here?”
Renee swallowed. “She was mauled,” she said. “We don’t know what by, but it hurt her pretty bad.”
“Can she change back into her tail?” Viola asked. “That would make things much easier.”
Renee squeezed her sister’s hand. “Shell,” she said. “Could you change back for us?”
Michelle groaned. “S’gonna hurt,” she mumbled.
“Wait a moment, then,” Viola said. “We can put you on an IV, get some pain relief into you. It won’t numb your legs, so you’ll be able to change into your tail, and it’ll make it hurt less so it’s easier to change.”
Michelle nodded, and the ghouls pulled a drip stand across, a bag of clear liquid attached to it. Lily looked away as they inserted a cannula into Michelle’s arm and connected the drip.
“How much blood did she lose?” Viola asked as one of the ghouls carefully injected another liquid into the access port on the cannula.
“We’re not sure, because she lost most of it underwater,” Renee explained. “She was bleeding a lot when we got her out of the water, though. I’m worried she lost a lot of blood.”
“We’ll piggyback a blood transfusion onto her IV, then,” Viola said, glancing to one of the ghouls, who disappeared through the curtain.
By the time the ghoul had returned with bags full of red liquid, Michelle didn’t look as clammy and pale, relaxing as the pain relief – some sort of painkiller, Lily decided – took effect.
“All this magic, and you still use scientific modern medicine,” Gwen observed. Viola smiled.
“We use both together,” she said. “You haven’t seen the magic yet.”
She turned back to Michelle. “Do you think you can change back for us now?” she asked.
Michelle nodded, grimacing as her legs dissolved into water again. She let out a sob and looked away when her tail – her poor, ruined tail – emerged, starting to bleed again.
Viola frowned. “This is really bad,” she said. “You said you didn’t see what she was mauled by?”
“We can guess,” Gwen said darkly. Viola’s lips pressed into a thin line, her frown showing she knew exactly what Gwen meant.
“Here’s hoping Sky didn’t equip her valkyries with poison claws, as well as life-stealing,” she murmured.
She cracked her knuckles, taking in a deep breath. “This is going to hurt, even with the pain relief,” she warned Michelle. “Try to lie still. This might take some time.”
She peered intently over Michelle’s tail, hovering her hands over the jagged wounds. Though she didn’t seem to be doing anything, Michelle screwed up her face and whimpered. Renee squeezed her hand.
“What’s she doing to her?” Gwen asked.
“You know how different goblins have different specialised magical abilities?” Renee said. “Viola’s ability is healing. She can see through tissue and bone, see how far damage extends and what needs to be fixed. And… she fixes it. She pulls the tissue back together, closes up wounds.”
“The damage goes deep into the flesh, beyond just superficial injury,” Viola said, brows knitted. “I’m working from the inside out, fixing the deep tissue that you can’t see. So it won’t look exciting for a while.”
The ghouls monitored Michelle’s drip levels, while Viola frowned and hummed and pored over Michelle’s tail. And Lily watched, fascinated, until the gashes began to visibly close up, red seams bare of scales being the only sign of any injury. The bleeding stopped, and Michelle didn’t look so distressed anymore.
Viola moved down the tail, closing up wounds as she went, and when she started work on Michelle’s shredded caudal fins, Lily’s mouth fell open.
As her hand moved down the length of the fins, broken rays straightened and translucent tissue regrew in its wake, restoring Michelle’s caudal fins.
“Enough magic for you?” Viola asked Gwen teasingly. Gwen frowned.
Michelle sat up once Viola was done, flexing her fins cautiously. “Still hurts a bit,” she said.
“It will for a while,” Viola said. “I couldn’t heal it completely – mostly just put tissues back in place and closed up the wounds so they can heal properly by themselves. There’s still lots of tissue trauma that needs to heal, so you shouldn’t try to walk or swim for a week or so. Someone will give you a wheelchair once you’re ready to be discharged.”
Michelle nodded, looking relieved. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you so much.”
Viola smiled and stood up straight, flexing her hands slightly. “And as for you two,” she said, turning to the girls. “I assume since you’re here with the sirens, that you changed your minds on our offer.”
“So to speak,” Gwen said through gritted teeth. “Less of a change of mind, and more a case of unfortunate necessity. I think it was that valkyrie that mauled Michelle, because she’s been stalking our house since we came back. She must have pounced on us when we were getting to the well; it’s lucky that she didn’t attack us before we reached it. We can’t keep safe by ourselves, simply. So we’re accepting your offer because we need your help as much as you need ours.”
Viola’s smile disappeared. “She followed you to your house?”
“We believe so. Lily saw her from the window last night, and she trashed our living room.”
Viola nodded seriously. “We’ll have to tell Olivia,” she said. “Her taking an interest in you and stalking you – we never imagined that would happen.”
“How did she get into our world?” Lily asked. “She attacked Michelle, but she didn’t follow us through the well.”
“We’re not sure, but Sky has her own methods for travelling between the worlds,” Viola said. “So its possible her valkyries travel the same way.”
She motioned for the girls to follow her. Lily glanced back at Renee and Michelle, who gave them soft smiles as they left. She hoped they would see the sirens again.
Viola led them out of the hospital wing and down corridors that continued to confuse Lily, until they stepped into a room similar to the drawing room from the day before.
“Olivia,” she said. “The human girls are back.”
Olivia, the goblin with pale blonde hair pulled into a bun, looked up from a desk in the room. The white-blonde young goblin was lying on a settee across from her, and she sat up and looked at them with sharp interest, despite being hooked up to a drip similar to the one Michelle had been attached to.
“So they are,” Olivia said, a faint note of surprise in her voice. “Where are the sirens?”
“One of them was badly injured trying to bring them here,” Viola said. “They’re here because it seems the valkyrie has begun stalking their house. When the sirens arrived to escort them, the valkyrie attacked and hurt one of them. The sirens are still in the hospital wing.”
Olivia groaned and shook her head. “Their broodmother is going to have our heads,” she said darkly.
“Their broodmother is not their keeper, they chose to escort the humans,” Viola said with a faint smile. She crossed the room to Olivia, gently caressing her shoulder. Olivia smiled and squeezed Viola’s hand.
“And how’s Ursula feeling?” Viola asked, turning her head to look at the young goblin.
“Fine!” Ursula piped up. “The medicine’s working.”
“Good, but you can’t have that drip in too long,” Viola cautioned. “We’ll have to take it out in a couple of hours, or you run risk of addiction.”
“I know,” Ursula grumbled. “How long does it last after the drip gets taken out?”
“I told you, the effects stick around for about twenty four hours. If we keep you on for three hours in the evening, then you should be able to sleep fine at night, and not feel too bad until the next evening, when we’ll put you back on the drip.”
Ursula nodded, then beamed at Gwen and Lily. “The joys of antennae development,” she said.
Olivia looked up and turned to the girls. “Sorry, how rude,” she said. “Thank you for coming back. We didn’t really acquaint ourselves properly, did we?”
“Not so much,” Gwen said drily. “I think you were a bit busy accusing us of murder. My name is Gwen, and this is my cousin, Lily.”
Ursula smiled, and Olivia raised an eyebrow. “Well,” she said. “We’d best introduce ourselves, then.”
She gestured to Viola. “My wife, Viola, one of the healers in the hospital wing – one of the best healers. She’s part of the investigative team for forensic purposes. She’s been studying the victims’ bodies.”
She nodded across to Ursula. “My daughter, Ursula. Not officially a part of the team, but Viola’s been treating her around the clock while her antennae develop, so it’s just made sense to keep her with us.”
“I’m the mascot,” Ursula piped up.
“Where are the others?” Gwen asked. “There was six of you.”
“Flyn, Tamora, and Miranda,” Olivia said. “They’re taking care of their own affairs until we work out what to do next. Flyn was the boy with the clipboard, he’s our scribe – he records every detail of the investigation, so we can go back over his notes and analyse them. He was a court recorder who came highly recommended, so that’s why we took him on.”
“His sister was killed by the valkyrie, so he’s kind of on edge,” Ursula said. “He’s very nice, though.”
“Tamora’s normal job is as a guard in the palace, but we’ve had her on as a bodyguard of sorts for the investigation,” Olivia continued. “She’s the one who’ll be keeping us, and therefore you, safe.”
“She’s a bit grumpy but she has a huge pet moth,” Ursula added. “It likes pats. Only lets Tamora ride it, though.”
“Miranda, as you might have seen, is our method of transport,” Olivia said. “She’s actually not a palace employee. She’s a petty criminal who we can’t seem to keep in prison, due to her unique ability, so we offered to take her off bounty lists and pay her well in exchange for her services for the investigation. Keeping her in service keeps her out of crime, so it’s a win-win.”
“She was arrested for stealing elven silver,” Ursula said gleefully. “Elves keep their treasure heavily guarded, it’s supposed to be impossible to steal. But she did it by zapping straight through their defences into the vaults, and back out again.”
“And I’m one of the Monarchy’s servicewomen,” Olivia said. “Perhaps equivalent to your police, but I report straight to the King and Queen. I oversee law and order in the court and the city, and to an extent the entire Unseelie Court – though I have subordinates and colleagues who deal directly with other areas of the Court and report back to me. Sycorax asked me to set up the investigation once it became clear the murders were becoming a real problem.”
“Ta-da!” Ursula said, splaying her arms and waving her fingers. “Our merry band of misfits.”
Gwen raised her eyebrows, but Lily smiled. She decided she liked Ursula. She crossed the room to a couch facing Ursula’s settee, sitting down.
“Where do the sirens fit in?” Lily asked.
“They’re not technically part of the team,” Viola said. “We contract them for anything related to your world, and in your case it seemed appropriate to employ them to apprehend you.”
Lily’s stomach sank. She hadn’t even asked Renee how her baby was.
“Maybe we could employ them for the team?” Ursula asked. “Extra security, and that. Besides, they know better how to take care of humans than we do.”
“That’s a good point,” Viola said, eyes sliding towards Lily. “We know, basically, that humans are vulnerable in our world. But we’re not well educated on the details of keeping humans from harm or corruption here. The sirens would be useful for that.”
“Yeah, the Seelie Court will have our heads if we accidentally create more vampires,” Ursula said.
Olivia’s eyes settled on Gwen’s duffel bag. “Oh goodness, you two haven’t even been settled in yet,” she said. “We actually had rooms set up for you – in case you changed your minds. We can take you to them now, if you like.”
“I’ll take them!” Ursula sang, springing up from the settee.
“Are you sure?” Viola asked. “You’re still attached to that drip. Don’t you think you should rest?”
“This thing has wheels, doesn’t it?” Ursula asked, tapping the drip stand. “I’ll be fine. Besides, we’re not going far. I won’t pass out just from walking through the palace a bit.”
“Alright, if you insist,” Viola said, chewing her lip. “Come straight back once the humans are settled in, though.”
Ursula grinned, and dragged her drip across the room, leading the girls back into the corridors. “You’re in the private wing of the palace, with us,” she explained. “Mother thought it’d be best to have you both close by, if you’re helping us with the investigation.”
“Which mother? Olivia?” Gwen asked.
Ursula laughed. “Only Olivia’s my mother,” she explained. “Viola’s not related to me. My mother had me with a male goblin, and they separated when I was young. I still see my father pretty often, though. When I was still a child, she met Viola and they got married. So she’s sort of a third parent, really.”
“Do just you and your mum and Viola live in the palace?” Lily asked.
“None of us do, actually,” Ursula said. “We live in the city. But since the investigation started, the team has been based in the palace, for simplicity’s sake. Also for safety.”
Lily scratched her head. “Um,” she said. “Do you guys really feed on fear?”
Ursula turned to look at her. Her eyes were orange and purple.
She smiled. “We do,” she said. “In a way, the concerns about the murders have been good, because there’s been plenty of fear to go around. But things can’t always function well with so much fear.”
She turned away, looking forward again. “A little fear is good,” she said. “I’m sure you’ve heard about our history; maintaining fear sustains us, our way of life. But too much is poor for our society. So we can’t let problems like the valkyrie get too serious.”
“So you can be tyrants and oppressors and feed on the fear of the societies you subdue, but god forbid someone start picking off your own people,” Gwen muttered.
Ursula smiled again. “You can believe that if you want,” she said. “You’re simply delicious, by the way.”
Gwen bristled, and Lily had to stifle a laugh. However, she couldn’t tell for the life of her if Ursula had been joking or not.
Ursula led them to a sheltered wing of the palace, quiet and full of closed doors. She took them to a corridor lined with several identical doors.
“These are our apartments,” she said. “Mother, Viola and I are the last door down the end, if you need us. This one is yours.”
She opened the second door in the corridor, leading the girls into a huge bedchamber with two beds, and small arched windows in the wall opposite the apartment’s entrance. She passed her hand over a large black gemstone set into the wall, and several orbs set into the ceiling lit up with a warm glow, illuminating the room and everything inside.
Through another door Lily could see a bathing room, and another led to what seemed to be a living area with comfortable chairs and books lining the walls.
A huge floor-to-ceiling window in the living area revealed a small stone courtyard, with a pond in the centre. Lily could see eerie glowing creatures winding lazily beneath the water’s surface; magic fish, or something else?
“Do you think this will be suitable for you?” Ursula asked.
“Absolutely,” Lily said, nodding her head enthusiastically. Ursula had called it an apartment, but the rooms felt regal, with high, domed ceilings and silver details glinting in the vaulting. The arched windows had no glass, allowing a soft breeze to lift the light translucent curtains, and the stone floors were covered with large, soft rugs inlaid with rich colours and patterns. They reminded Lily of Persian rugs, but the patterns were entirely unfamiliar to her.
The furniture was black leather, matching the dark walls and décor, and the beds had elaborately carved ebony headboards. Along with multitudes of pillows and blankets, they were each overlaid with a skin from a dark-furred animal Lily could not recognise.
Gwen grimaced, stroking the fur on the closest bed. “This is all a bit much for us. We’re not royalty or nobility.”
“You’re guests,” Ursula said, mismatched eyes glinting. “Surely you’ve heard of fairy hospitality.”
“I’ve heard it can be dangerous,” Gwen growled. “Besides, why isn’t there a kitchen in here? Or a laundry?”
“You forget you’re in a goblin palace,” Ursula laughed. “We don’t eat food the way you do. We can, however, have servants arranged to bring you food while you’re here. As for laundry, there is a basket in the bathing room – you can leave soiled clothes there for the servants to launder.”
“No,” Gwen growled. “We don’t want your servants in charge of our food and clothes. Contamination, remember?”
Ursula’s smile disappeared. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Like Viola said, we’re not up to speed on everything. We can talk to the sirens, though. They might be able to help us sort something out.”
Gwen huffed out hard through her nose.
Lily wondered if Ursula had not been teasing, and if perhaps this whole time, Gwen had been very scared.
“It’ll do for now,” she muttered. “Until proper solutions can be arranged. We can sleep in here, that’s enough.”
Ursula nodded. “Alright,” she said. “I’ll – um, I’ll let you two unpack, settle in.”
“Thank you,” Gwen said icily. Ursula left the apartment, glancing back as she pulled her drip stand through the door behind her.
“Do you need to be so rude?” Lily asked, pulling her suitcase to the bed closest to the window. “She was trying to be helpful.”
“She’s also a sly parasite, same as the rest of them,” Gwen growled. “They’re all creepy. The sooner we stop that valkyrie, the sooner we get out of here and get back home, and I can’t wait.”
Lily didn’t respond. Secretly, she kind of loved the palace with its grand, foreboding aura. It was all so much to absorb and marvel over, and she felt like she could have spent hours just in the bedroom learning all of the details. She hoped that they wouldn’t have all their time taken up with chasing the valkyrie; it would be nice to stop and explore, sometimes.
“Think we can use the wardrobe?” she asked.
Gwen snorted. “I don’t think it’ll be a problem if we just put our clothes in it,” she said. “I’m more worried about their own clothes – how they’re made, what they’re made with. And how they’re cleaned, which is why I don’t want them cleaning our clothes.”
She sheepishly pulled a damp box of washing powder out of her duffel bag. “I was hoping there’d at least be a laundry tub,” she said.
Lily shrugged, opening her suitcase.
Fortunately, somehow, the water hadn’t leaked too much into it, and most of her things had survived. She shook out damp clothes and hung them in the huge ebony wardrobe, leaving the doors open in the hope that the air would dry them out a bit.
Gwen huffed and threw herself onto the bed, brooding. Lily knew she’d sulk for a while, but she’d probably calm down if she let her have time to be grumpy for a bit. Gwen usually came around.
“Just gonna explore in here a bit,” she said. “I want to check out the courtyard.”
“Have fun,” Gwen grumbled.
Lily walked into the living room, marvelling at the books. It was a veritable library; every wall was lined with shelves, which in turn were lined with books of every size and topic, leather spines an array of browns, greens, burgundy and black. A wrought-iron table with glass set in the middle stood between two leather wingback chairs, an inviting sight for anyone. Lily hadn’t picked up a book in ages, but she resolved to pick a book to read, if they had time.
She pulled aside the delicate fabric of the curtain across the huge window, stepping through.
The courtyard was large, dark stones overgrown with vines and creepers, dark green leaves and heavy, hanging white blooms that seemed to glow faintly. Even at night, the courtyard was bright; Lily looked up, remembering the four moons. One of them was full, another was gibbous, the third was half-full, and the fourth was a sickle slice. Together, they lit up the courtyard brighter than the single moon back home ever could have done.
Moonlight glittered off the water in the pond, and Lily stepped closer to see what swam in it.
There were fish, swimming slow circles in the pond, but they weren’t glowing. Their scales reflected light from the jellyfish that drifted with them, pale luminescent creatures with rainbow lights blinking up their sides.
Wrought-iron bench seats were placed along the walls of the courtyard, so Lily sat down, watching the creatures in the pond.
Gwen could brood in the bedroom all she wanted, but Lily felt more alive than she had in a year.