The Silver Stag – Yasmine Galenorn

I CREPT THROUGH the backyard, keeping a close watch on the thick copse of trees to the side of the property. The coyotes were thick around here, and plenty of cougars and bears frequented the area as well. I skirted my way around the hen house. I could hear chickens rattling around inside, uneasy when they should have been asleep. The urban farmers were my clients, and they had complained about some creature raiding their henhouse and asked me to look into it. They were shifters of some sort—I hadn’t asked what kind, because that would be rude. But they seemed more reticent than most of the shifters I was used to dealing with, and I suspected they were too afraid to take on the intruder themselves. I had been keeping watch most of the night, and was about to call it done when a figure slipped into the yard, creeping toward the hen house. I stayed close to the side of the shed, skirting around to where I could peek more clearly. A large man-sized creature was skulking near the door. I froze, resting my hand on the dagger that was strapped to my thigh. Easing back so the intruder wouldn’t see me, I leaned my head against the wall. Well, it wasn’t a coyote or fox, that was for sure. A gust of cool wind blew past me and I shivered, even through my leather jacket. Early April in the Seattle area was cool and wet.

At five A.M., we still had nearly an hour to go before sunrise, and the clouds were so thick I doubted they would burn off before noon, if then. The creature fumbled with the lock. Whatever it was, it showed no signs that it sensed my presence. I could move softly when I wanted and now I crept to the right of the shed, then paused. The ladder was leaning against the side of the building. It would be simple to climb up onto the roof and peek over the edge. I could gain an advantage from up above, I thought, maybe get the drop on him. Keeping my step light, I shimmied up the rungs, grateful that I had worn gloves as the aluminum of the ladder chilled me right through the material.

The roof of the shed was slanted with an incline toward the front. I squinted at the shingles, wondering whether they would hold me. There was no way to find out except to start climbing. Praying that I wouldn’t fall through, I slowly eased myself up the shingles toward the front of the rise. At the top, I cautiously leaned over the edge. Great. Just dandy. I found myself staring down at the head of a goblin. He reeked even from up here, and it was a wonder that I hadn’t smelled him before. I must be coming down with a cold, I thought.

Goblins were nasty, dangerous creatures. Wiry and tough, they stank to high heaven when you were close enough, and they were ravenous. They ate people. Dogs. Cats. Cows. Anything they could fit in their mouths was fair game. They preferred human flesh, though they’d settle for whatever they could catch. As long as it was raw and live on the hoof, they were happy. Seattle, along with the surrounding suburb communities, had laws in place prohibiting them from entering city limits, but that didn’t stop them, even though hunting season was wide open on them.

Truth was, the cops wouldn’t respond to calls about them, and chances were good the creatures would luck out and get away with whatever scheme they had going. So most of them thought it was worth the risk. This one’s luck, however, had just run out. Luckily, he hadn’t heard me yet. At least, I didn’t think it had. I eased my way to the very edge, staring down at him. He was intent on breaking the padlock. I quietly unfastened the snap holding my dagger peace-bound, to give myself easy access. I had learned the hard way not to jump off a building holding my blade. I still had the scar from that mistake right above my left knee.

I perched on the edge, waiting for the right moment. Then, taking a deep breath, I launched myself off of the roof, landing square atop the goblin, taking him down beneath me. The creature let out a nasty hiss and a string of obscenities, although I couldn’t understand him. But it was obvious he was cursing. “Would you speak to your mother like that?” I had knocked him down, and now I straddled him, trying to pin him between my knees. He might be tough and wiry, but I worked out six days a week, and I was Fae—which meant I had some extra strength going for me. I managed to hold him down and, in the dim light of the approaching dawn, I got a good look at him. Tufts of fur covered his head, patchy and rough like steel wool, and his face was a mass of wrinkles—common with goblins. His eyes were small but wide-set on his face, and he had yellow, sharp teeth. “You’re an ugly sucker, aren’t you? Even for a goblin.

” He struggled, managing to free one hand. As he lashed out, his claws dangerously nearing my face, I ducked back to dodge the attack. Enough. I drew my dagger. I couldn’t keep him down much longer and I was getting tired. As I raised my blade, he thrashed again, and this time he succeeded in slashing my arm. Luckily, my leather jacket took the brunt, and he ripped a hole in the material but not in my skin. “That’s going to cost me good money, you freak.” I raised my blade and his gaze met mine. For a moment he looked afraid, but then he snarled and I brought the blade down, throwing my weight behind it.

The tip of the dagger pierced his windpipe, sliding through to stick inside the ground below him. The goblin let out one last hiss, thrashed, and then lay still. “I didn’t charge enough for this gig,” I muttered to myself. Truth was, I hadn’t expected a goblin, so I had given the couple a low bid. I had thought I’d be facing a wild dog or a fox. So much for assumptions. Making certain he was dead, I took a picture before he started to bubble, then rolled over to spread out on the grass next to him, resting. The chill morning dew seeped through my jeans as I caught my breath, staring up into the sky. The faint hints of dawn were spreading across the eastern horizon, thin ribbons of red piercing the clouds, but they only heralded an incoming storm. At that moment, my cell phone rang.

I pulled it out of my pocket as I rolled to a sitting position. Next to me, the goblin was beginning to bubble. I reached over to yank my dagger out of the creature’s neck before my blade got any messier than it already was, and wiped it quickly on the grass to remove most of the gunk. I scooted further away as nature began to take its course on the goblin as I answered my phone. “Hello? Do you realize what time it is?” I hadn’t glanced at the Caller ID, so I wasn’t sure who it was, but I didn’t care. If this were any normal morning, I’d still be in bed, asleep. Most of my work was done at night and I usually slept till noon. I just happened to have a job that kept me up till dawn. “Yes, I do realize what time it is. Did I wake you?” Damn it.

Ray Fontaine. Ray owned a bakery called A Touch of Honey, and he made the best bread in Seattle. He also happened to be my ex-boyfriend. Or rather, we had dated a few times. I had liked him enough that I broke it off before anything happened between us. Given my track record, he was a lucky man. “No, I’m finishing up a job. What do you need?” I shivered, suddenly cold. I slipped my finger through the ring attached to the back of my phone so I wouldn’t drop it, and scrambled to my feet. The goblin was dissolving, melting into a pile of bubbling sludge.

Within half an hour he would soak into the ground as if he had never existed. At least I wouldn’t have to clean up the mess. I started for the kitchen door to ask the O’Malleys for payment, then paused. Their lights were off, which meant they weren’t awake yet. Ray cleared his throat. “My shop was broken into. I thought maybe you could come take a look?” I blinked. “Why haven’t you called the cops?” “I did, but they took one look and said it wasn’t a human matter. They said it looked like some sort of Crypto attack. Ember, you’re the closest thing I know to a SubCult PI.

” The “SubCult” was a blanket term referring to the combined Fae courts, Shifter Alliance, and Vampire Nation. Most humans referred to all of us as Cryptos if they didn’t know what our heritage was, but it was better than the slang used among the holdouts who still wanted an all-human world. I let out a sigh. I had just finished one job, and I really didn’t feel like working another, but I felt like I owed Ray. I really didn’t want to see him, but it was the least I could do, given how hard he had taken it when I dumped him. “Lovely. All right, I’ll be down there in a while. I need to get my pay, then stop off for coffee and a bite to eat first.” “Don’t bother about breakfast. I’ve got fresh croissants, gouda, and coffee here.

” Finally, something to cadge a laugh out of me. “You always did know how to win me over.” And with that, I pocketed my cell phone, and knocked on the kitchen door. Ten minutes later, I had pounded long and hard enough that Mrs. O’Malley answered the door, squinting. She was in her bathrobe and seemed surprised to see me. “Oh, are you still here?” I blinked. “Of course I’m still here. I caught your chicken thief. Goblin.

” I held up my cell phone to show her the picture I had snapped. “No doubt about it. One dead goblin.” She stared at the picture, then started to shut the door on me. “Thanks. We appreciate it.” I stuck my foot in the door, wedging it open before she shut it all the way. “Hold on! You owe me for the rest of the job.” They had paid me half up front, with the promise of the rest of payment upon proof of job completion. A sly smile stole over her face.

“You can’t prove that you caught him on our land. That could be a picture of any goblin, anywhere. We won’t pay.” “What the fuck?” I stared at her, trying to comprehend what she was saying. “You’re actually trying to stiff me? Lady, take a good look. That’s your shed in the corner of the picture, and one fucking dead goblin. I came all the way over from Seattle to help you. I saved your scrawny-assed chickens. I undercharged you. I sat in your backyard all night guarding your stupid birds.

You are going to pay me for my work.” I glowered, leaning in. She wrinkled her nose, trying to stare me down. “We never promised.” “Like hell you didn’t.” I paused, irritated. I worked on a verbal contract for most small jobs and I stuck to my promises. Most of my customers stuck to theirs. This was an unwelcome surprise. “All right,” I said, turning back to the yard.

“You want to do this the hard way? I notice you have a sprinkler system out there.” I focused, searching through the moisture in the air until I touched on the lines running below the ground. Forcing as much energy as I could into my thoughts, I coaxed the water to pour through the system, faster and harder until there was a sudden pop. A geyser of water broke through the soil, gushing into the yard. “What did you do?” Mrs. O’Malley jumped, pushing past me into the yard. She flailed, glaring at me. “Make it stop.” “I guess your sprinkler pipe burst. Gee, I wonder what would happen if I found a water elemental to check out the pipes under your house? What if they all froze and then broke?” I probably wouldn’t go that far, but she didn’t have to know that.

The bluff worked. “All right, all right! I’ll pay you.” She started back inside. “I have to get my purse.” I pushed inside, close behind her, not about to give her the chance to slam the door on me. “Fine. Cash only, please.” WOODINVILLE WAS PART of the Greater Seattle metropolitan area. Northeast of Kirkland and south of Navane—the city of the Light Fae—for a long time it had flourished as a techie wonderland, but as the tech companies migrated to north Seattle proper, the Eastside eventually became a forested haven, a metropolis of suburbs. Oh, there was still plenty of crime—for one thing, it was easier to hide given the growth of the forests around and in the cities—but for the lower-income areas, it felt spacious and beautiful.

A Touch of Honey was located on the Redmond-Woodinville Road NE, on the border between Redmond and Woodinville. As I eased into an empty parking spot a few spots down from the bakery, I leaned back in my seat. I was so tired that I could barely keep my eyes open, but I had promised Ray, and I kept my promises. I slipped out of the driver’s seat of my eight-year-old Subaru Outback and headed into the bakery, where Ray was busy behind the counter. He looked up as I entered and waved. “You look like hell,” he said. “You’re covered with dried mud.” He paused, then grimaced. “Is that blood?” I glanced down at my shirt where the goblin had bled on me. One more for the rag bag.

“I took down a goblin this morning. That’s enough work for one day.” “Nasty business, those little freaks.” Ray was all too acquainted with goblins. He had a long scar on his leg from where one had tried to take a bite out of him when he interrupted me on a job and my target had turned on him. It was at that point that I had decided our relationship had run its course. Before he got himself killed, I broke it off. I couldn’t face another heartbreak. I had already lost two loves and I felt like I was under a curse. “There’s been an upsurge in their numbers lately.

They always think they’ll beat the odds, and the cops are paying less and less attention to them.” Tired of thinking about goblins, I changed the subject. “You said you have croissants and gouda? And caffeine?” “Rolls are hot out of the oven. The cheese is fresh and creamy. And the coffee’s hot and strong.” The bakery was overflowing with a warm, yeasty scent that sent my salivary glands into overdrive. My stomach rumbled, demanding food. As Ray fixed a tray, I headed over to the coffee pot and poured myself a cup of coffee. I preferred espresso, but caffeine was caffeine and I sorely needed my fix. And Ray bought quality coffee—Caribbean Dark Roast from the islands.

Adding cream and three sugars, I sat down at one of the tables. The bakery was fair size, with four tables, each seating three people. The counter display case was filled with cookies and breads, and I suddenly felt weak-kneed. I needed food and I needed it now. As if he had read my mind, Ray returned with a tray filled with warm croissants and a small wheel of cheese. The flesh was a creamy yellow, and my guess was that he had bought it off one of the local farmers who sold homemade cheese at the farmers market. I glanced around. The bakery seemed unusually empty. “I don’t see any of your regulars in here,” I said, slicing a thick wedge of cheese off the wheel. I placed it on the plate, and then broke open one of the croissants, inhaling deeply as the warm rush of yeast filled my lungs.

“The regular city crew that normally comes in every morning is apparently filling potholes on the other side of town. I don’t see them until afternoon now. Otherwise, yeah, it’s been a quiet morning. Then again, the rush usually doesn’t start until around seven-thirty or eight.” Sure enough, even as he spoke, the bells jingled as the door opened and two women entered the shop. I gauged them as both human. Ray excused himself to wait on them, and I busied myself with my croissants and cheese. I mulled over my schedule, pulling out my day planner to check what was on the agenda for the day. I was scheduled to make a run over to Wesley’s Blades to have him sharpen my dagger. I needed to go grocery shopping unless I wanted to eat cardboard for dinner.

Ray returned to the table, pulling out the chair next to me. Flipping it around, he straddled it and leaned his elbows on the back. He was a tall man, with soft black hair that waved down to his neck. He was also as human as they came. He handed me a hundred and fifty dollars. “Will this cover the bill for looking over my storeroom?” I pocketed fifty and handed him back the rest. “You get the friends and family discount.” I suddenly felt awkward. Ray and I hadn’t talked much since we broke up, at least no more than polite formalities. I shifted in my seat.

He seemed to feel it too. “So, are you seeing anybody?” At least that was an easy answer. I shook my head. “No. I think I’m better off on my own.” I met his gaze, searching for any signs that he was still angry. “I wish I could tell you why I broke up with you, but Ray, it wasn’t you. At least, not in the way you think.” He gave me a rueful smile. “After you dumped me, I was really angry.

I never wanted to see you again. Then Angel told me about Robert, and about Leland. Anyway, I understand. Thank you, for looking after me.” He lingered over the words, then shrugged. “I’m still game, if you are. I’ll take my chances.” I gave him a long look. “Ray, don’t do this.” “But we were—” “Look, it’s done.

Over. Angel told you about Robert and Leland because she’s my best friend and she knew it hurt me to push you away. Please, don’t make it harder than it already has been.” He let out what sounded like a cross between a sigh and a huff. “Okay. But don’t be mad at Angel for telling me.” “I’m not. I’m glad she told you about them. I don’t want you to hate me.” With a sigh, I pushed back my chair.

The last thing I wanted to do was get into a discussion of my tangled mess of a love life and I wasn’t about to open the door to Ray again. “Okay, let me look at your storeroom.” Ray frowned, looking like he was going to argue, but then he shrugged and led me into the back. After he unlocked the door, I saw that the entire room had been trashed. Flour bags were ripped to pieces, honey jars had been tipped over and smashed and two of the bigger buckets of honey had been slashed. Nothing had been spared. “Holy crap. Who did you piss off?

.

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