The Dresden Files: Portland

Side Job: Ransom

Karkana Chronicles: Twenty-Nine

January 20, 2014 (Monday)

Brianna and Joey are at their apartment. It’s the late afternoon when there’s a sudden knock on their front door. Brianna looks at the peephole to see a dapper looking gentleman in a suit on her doorstep. He evens carries a cane. She doesn’t recognize him at all.

“Okay, Joey. I don’t know who this joker is, so head’s up.” She opens the door slowly.

The man cocks his head. “Good afternoon. Are you Brianna Karkana?”

“I might be.”

“Yes.” He drawls slightly. “Well, I have a business proposition for you, if you are. Would you be so kind as to invite me in?”

“And you are?”

“Mr. Bradbury.”

Brianna doesn’t recognize his name, either. A quick glance at the man tells her nothing but that he is very confident. “Is this something that we can just discuss right here?”

“I would prefer not to discuss my business out on a stoop.” He sniffs.

“I would prefer not to invite people I don’t know into my home,” she counters.

“Well, that is very disappointing. Not for me, truly, but for Ms. Patel and Mr. Clive.” He turns to leave.

Brianna quickly calls out to him, “Mr. Bradbury.” He pauses, turning back to her. “Come inside my home.”

“Very good then.”

She holds out one of the amulets needed to pass through the wards on her apartment. The man nods at her, then take the amulet and enters. As he passes by, Brianna feels an indomitable presence, a supernatural weight, to him. Mr. Bradbury looks around the shabby apartment and Brianna offers him a chair.

“Thank you.” The man pulls out a handkerchief and brushes it off before sitting down.

Joey, who was kicking back on the couch, is watching the situation with a what the fuck is this? expression. Brianna resists an eye roll, then offers her ‘guest’ a drink.

“That would be wonderful, do you have any tea?”

She looks him up and down, then says “No.” She offers an expensive whiskey instead.

“Well, it’s a little early in the day, but why not?” He has a slight accent, American, but cultured.

Brianna pours a glass for all three of them, then sits down on the couch next to Joey.

“Well, this has been extremely pleasant, but I suppose we should get down to as they say ‘brass tacks.’ I have a proposition for you. It’s quite simple actually. I have something that you want and I can return it to you in exchange for you bringing me something that I want.”

“How does this tie into Ms. Patel and Mr. Clive?”

“Oh, as I said, it’s quite simple. I have something that you want: Ms. Patel and Mr. Clive.”

Brianna very carefully sets her glass down.

“Now, I have it on very good authority that you owe Ms. Patel a favor.”

“And who told you that?”

“Oh, I have it from Ms. Patel’s lips herself. She made a very interesting proposition to me. In return for their freedom, she would trade that favor to me. So my proposition is to use that favor to have you perform a service for me. In return, Ms. Patel and Mr. Clive are released unharmed and said favor is spent.”

Brianna’s expression isn’t particularly friendly. “So, if I get whatever you’re wanting and give it back to you, you’re going to release Ms. Patel and Mr. Clive unharmed?”

“That’s correct.”

“And let them go?”

“That’s correct.”

“And you’re swearing this on your Power, are you?”

“I will once I’m sure we have a deal. I can assure you my oath is binding.”

“No one has ever accused me of being a deal-breaker.” Her voice is crisp. “I honor my promises.”

“Well, good!” Mr. Bradbury folds his hands over his lap.

“What is it you need me to do?”

“What I wish you to do is return with me to the NeverNever and go into the domain of a rival. There, in that domain, is a shield embossed with the symbol of Chaos: eight intersecting arrows pointing in all directions.”

“And that’s it? Just pick up a shield and walk out?”

“Well, obviously the owner of the shield is not going to be giving it up easily.”

“Who’s the owner of the shield?”

He smiles. “Her name is Quillathrix.”

“Any pertinent information that I should know about Quillathrix? Is she fae … ?” Brianna trails off.

“Not pertinent.”

“Not pertinent.” Brianna repeats, “Okay, am I going to have to go up against magic or is this going to be a physical situation?”

“You’re going to be in the NeverNever,” Mr. Bradbury comments dryly.

“I’ve never been to the NeverNever,” she rejoins, “although that may come as a surprise to you. I also don’t necessarily do well against magical things, I tend to just beat the shit out of people.”

“That’s what I’m counting on.”

Brianna makes a slightly frustrated noise. “And how am I supposed to get to and from the NeverNever?”

“I will take you there and I will give you the means to return to me.”

“How big is this shield?”

“Approximately two and half to three feet in diameter.”

“What can you tell me about her demesne? It’s not underwater is it?”

He smiles. “No. At least not last time I was there.”

“Do I need to bring anything in particular?” she presses. “From what I’ve heard about the NeverNever, sometimes you’re in Summer lands, but sometimes you’re close to Winter.”

“This is very much out of the domain of Winter, thank you.” Mr. Bradbury seems offended at the very thought.

“So, we’re in the Summer lands, then?”

“There are more realms than those of the Fae in the NeverNever.” His voice rises in agitation. Brianna’s notices that his eyes briefly flash red-gold.

“How much time do I have to prepare?”

“Prepare?”

“I’m getting precious little information about what I may encounter along the way. I may need to bring something like, I don’t know, a gun.”

Mr. Bradbury chuckles. “Yes, you may bring a gun.”

Brianna narrows her eyes. “I’m glad you find my personal safety such an amusing topic. If you want me to do this successfully, then information is valuable. Unless this is just some sort of exercise in futility you’re sending me on.”

“No, I very much want to have that shield. However, I can tell you that the idea of you approaching Quillathrix with a gun is a little ludicrous.”

“Well, if I do this right, I won’t be approaching her at all.”

“Very smart,” he nods.

“But is she really the only thing protecting this shield?”

“No, I can only assume that she has other guardians.” There’s a pause. “How long do you need to prepare?”

“Twenty four hours.”

“I can spare that.”

“Good. In twenty four hours, I will get your damn shield and you will let Nerise and Clive go. You will swear to this on your Power.”

“I swear to you on my Power.” Brianna feels a slight rumble beneath her feet at his words. Mr. Bradbury says he will return in twenty-four hours. Brianna sees him out, reclaims her amulet and shuts the door behind him.

Brianna turns to Joey. “What the hell was that? Did you get any vibes off him?”

“What am I? An antenna?”

“Oh, for god’s sake.” She rolls her eyes. “When he was throwing that hissy fit, his eyes flashed a different color. Something’s odd about that man.” Brianna wants to do research, especially of a supernatural nature, but she still is leery of being noticed while asking a lot of questions in that community. Joey agrees to ask around on her behalf, while Brianna goes to Powell’s to do research on the NeverNever.

Since the topic is so broad (and she has such little true information), she decides to focus on the nature of demesnes. The owner of a demesne has immense control of the physical aspects of it. In essence, it is their own little reality. Would she detect Brianna’s presence the moment she sets foot in the demesne? Only if she also has an intelligent Loci, or spirit, that controls the area. Theories vary on what would happen if the owner of a demesne dies or is killed.

Brianna attempts to research the chaos symbol and any known shields bearing that mark, but comes up with nothing.

She leaves Powell’s and begins gathering things for her trip into the NeverNever, from bottled water and small amounts of food, to holy water and cold iron. She decides not to bring a gun (especially based on Mr. Bradbury’s reaction), but more practical items such as binoculars, a first aid kit, a flashlight, and extra batteries.

Brianna calls Shawn on his cell phone. “Without getting into a lot of detail over a cell phone, I’m getting involved in a job that’s going to send me into the NeverNever.”

“Do you need some backup?”

“Unfortunately, this is a one-person ticket to and from.”

“I don’t like that.”

“No, it’s not my favorite situation, but it’s to get a couple of friends of mine out of a tight spot.”

“These friends of yours better be worth it.”

“Yeah, I think so. I also owe one of them a favor.”

“Be safe.”

“I’ll call you when I get back.”

They say their goodbyes and they hang up.

Brianna calls Sydney next to let her know that a job is sending her into the NeverNever. “I’ve been, so this may be interesting.” Brianna pauses, “So, if something happens and I have trouble getting back, is there a way that you can find me? I don’t know how this works.”

“Do you know where you’re going?”

“I know who lives there.”

“Well, any information you have will be helpful, but the NeverNever is as vast as the imagination.” Brianna makes a unhappy noise. She asks if she can stop by, so that they can talk more freely. Sydney agrees.

While at Sydney’s apartment, Brianna asks her if she’s heard of Quillathrix. The young woman hasn’t. Brianna also more details about how she might be located in the NeverNever if something goes wrong. Sydney says that if she wants to leave something personal behind, then it might help. The more personal the better. Otherwise it would be like trying to find the proverbial needle in the proverbial haystack.

Brianna is clearly displeased at the idea, but says “I’d rather be found, Sydney. And I trust you.” She pauses, “How about hair?”

“That would work very well.”

Brianna yanks out a few strands of blonde hair and hands them to Sydney. “I’ll let you know when I get back into town, and then you can just burn that. You can keep in touch with Joey, too.”

They say their goodbyes and Brianna heads back to the apartment. Joey is waiting for her, pacing.

“Hey, what’s up? I found out a little, not much.”

His expression is grim. “I found out a little, not much, but what I found out, I don’t like”

Brianna sighs. “You go first.”

“I didn’t find out anything about this Mr. Bradbury. Nobody had heard of him. But, I did come across somebody who had heard of Quillathrix. According to them,” he pauses briefly, shaking his head, “Hell, as much as I’ve seen it may even be true, Quillatrix is a dragon.”

“A dragon?” Brianna repeats, incredulously.

“That’s what they said.”

Brianna knows a little about dragons. They’re extremely rare and powerful supernatural beasts with alien and inscrutable motives. While they are ancient and immortal, they are not unslayable. “Well, that’s just swell,” she mutters. “I don’t even know what to do with that piece of information, except try not to run into her at all.” She paces a bit herself while sharing what she learned with Joey. “I left some of my hair with Sydney,” she adds, “If I don’t come back, I wanted to have a way from you to track me down.”

January 21, 2014 (Tuesday)

Brianna gets the rest of her duffle bag packed, then heads to Powell’s for one last chance to research dragons. She doesn’t learn anything new, however. Dragons are rare and haven’t been seen for a very long time. Dissatisfied, she heads back to the apartment to hang out with Joey while she waits.

Later that afternoon, a knock sounds on her front door. Slinging her duffle over her shoulder, she opens the door. It’s Mr. Bradbury, looking as dapper as ever.

“Ah, Ms. Karakana,” he says, “Or, may I call you Brianna?”

“Do you have a first name as well?”

“Mister.”

She pauses, trying to decide if he’s bullshitting her, then says “Brianna will be fine.”

“Very good. May I come in?”

Brianna hands him the amulet to get past her wards and Mr. Bradbury enters. Once again, she feels that supernatural pressure as he moves past her. She reclaims the amulet immediately.

“So, have you made your preparations?”

Watching his expression carefully, she replies, “As much as I can, I really don’t know if anything I have is going to do much good against a dragon.”

He cocks his head and smiles a little bit. “Well, I’m hoping that you will work something out.”

“I guess we’ll see. I have every expectation of succeeding.”

“I can tell you that Ms. Patel has every confidence in your abilities. Well, if you are ready, then so am I. Shall we?”

“Yes.”

He walks to her front door and opens it. Brianna feels almost a shifting in the air. When the door swings open, Brianna doesn’t see a view of Portland. Instead she sees the interior of a ski chalet. The faint smell of wood smoke wafts past her nose. “After you.”

Brianna nods at Joey, who is goggling at the view. “Sydney may be in touch. Catch you on the other side.” She steps on through.

She truly appears to be in a very posh ski chalet. A window takes up one entire side of the room, framing a spectacular view of a mountain. Snow drifts down from the sky. Plush carpet lines the floor and huge wooden rafters span the ceiling. A fireplace burns merrily in front of a large circular couch.

On the couch sits Nerise Patel and Clive. Their faces reveal little, but Brianna doesn’t spot any obvious signs of a fight or mistreatment.

Mr. Bradbury comes in behind Brianna and shuts the door. He hands her back her apartment key and gestures to the couch. “Please, come. Sit.” He turns to a nearby wet bar. “May I pour you a libation?”

She agrees, asking for a whiskey, neat. Taking the drink, Brianna chooses to sit on the other side of Nerise, flanking her with Clive.

Mr. Bradbury sits opposite of Brianna. “So, I will let you finish your drink and then, you will be on your way.”

“Is this your demesnes or hers?”

“This is mine.” Brianna can sense an underlying possession behind his words. “I can give you this bit of advice. When you leave my domain, you will travel through the forest perilous. Don’t stray from the path.”

“Alright. Any advise you might have about where she would hide the shield? Anything applicable as to how I would get back?”

“Oh, you not straying from the path is very applicable to you getting back.”

Brianna poorly stifles a sigh.

“But, no, I do not know where in her domain the shield resides.”

“And you have a way to get me back here?”

Mr. Bradbury reaches into his vest pocket and flips something at the White Court Vampire. She catches it. It looks like a communion wafer, but embossed upon its surface is a single arrow. “Break that and you will return here.”

Brianna turns the wafer over in her hand several times, then tucks it away. “Do you think she’s going to be inclined to disguise the shield as something else? I can’t see through magic. I’m not a wizard.”

“I don’t pretend to know her mind.”

Frustrated, Brianna is done with this conversation. She turns instead and looks at Nerise. “Are you alright?”

“We are well,” Nerise replies calmly. “We are both ready to return home, but our host has been hospitable.”

“As hospitable as be held hostage can be,” Brianna mutters.

Mr. Bradbury interjects, his voice stiff. “Madame, you insult me. I am no kidnapper. I merely dealt with trespassers in a hospitable manner. I would have an apology.” His eyes flash red gold briefly and the flames of the fire flare up. The temperature raises noticeably.

“If trespassing is the reason why we are in this position, then I apologize.” Her voice is quite sincere.

Brianna senses a cooling of the room, both literally and figuratively. “I accept your apology,” Mr. Bradbury nods.

Brianna tips back the rest of her whiskey, grabs her dufflebag, then rises. “I’m ready to begin this journey.” Mr. Bradbury stands as well and leads her to the door. When he opens it, this time Brianna sees a path cutting through an old growth forest. She shoulders her pack and steps out onto the path. After a couple of steps, she hears the sound of a door closing behind her. She turns. There is no sign of Mr. Bradbury’s domain, just the surrounding trees and a path continuing on behind.

She moves quietly along the path. The sky is dark with the occasional flash of lightning, and the air around her feels electric. Brianna pulls out her cell phone, just to check. There’s no signal. The smell of earth, leaves, and the occasional whiff of ozone fills her nose.

Without any warning, Brianna suddenly finds herself enveloped in a sticky web that is trying to pull her off the path. She digs in her heels and uses her supernatural strength to pull away. Emerging out of the woods is an enormous pony-sized spider. Its hideous, human-like mouth speaks something in a language she doesn’t understand.

It’s quick, but Brianna is quicker. She moves into the spider’s path and attacks. Her punch doesn’t land, but the spider successfully bites her in return. Brianna can feel a burning coursing along her veins from its poison. Angry, she lashes out at the spider, feeding on the rage she invokes. The creature is frenzied, but still manages to bite her in return. Brianna hits and feeds again. The spider is clearly doing poorly and can’t seem to make contact. Brianna hauls back and punches one last time. She feeds deeply and heals her injuries with its death.

Brianna spins slowly around, looking for more threats. She spies eyes watching her from the trees. She stares back and points at the dead spider. “I’m not prey.” Her voice is icy. The eyes slowly withdraw.

The White Court vampire continues down the path, wary of other dangers. Eventually, Brianna finds herself at a large stone bridge spanning a river of brown sludge. Standing in front of the bridge is a strange figure. It stands about 13 feet tall, with rubbery muscles, warty skin, and a misshapen head. It stares at her with tiny, beady eyes. Brianna recognizes it as a bridge troll.

Brianna slowly retrieves a few iron nails and sticks them in her pocket. Then she strides purposefully towards the bridge and the troll.

He looks down at her and in a rumbly voice says, “Halt.”

Brianna stares up at him. “Yes?”

“This my bridge.”

“I’m sure it’s a very lovely bridge.”

“You won’t find out unless you pay toll.”

“What’s the toll to cross your bridge?”

The troll smiles broadly, showing crooked teeth. “What you got?”

She pulls open her duffle. “Well, I don’t know what kind of things you like. I’ve got some interesting food in here. When was the last time you ate?”

“Do you have a naughty child?”

“Mmm. No. I’m afraid not. I have a power bar.” She holds it up.

“Power bar?” It leans down and sniffs the proffered item. “Puny.”

“I’ve got a flashlight.” She pulls it out and turns it on. “Look at this. Makes light where ever you want. I bet you’d be the only one around that has one.”

“Bah. Puny.”

“Well, I wasn’t wanting to give this up quite so early, but I do have holy water.”

“Holy water.” It pauses. “How does water have holes?”

“Magic water,” Brianna clarifies. “It works very well against those who don’t like things of a spiritual nature. I’ve used it to kill ghouls. They didn’t like it much.”

“Oh. The water of the White God.”

“Yep. The water of the White God. In a jar.” She lightly shakes the container. “This is some pretty powerful stuff.”

The troll looks interested. “I will take your White God water.”

“In exchange for crossing this bridge … unharmed?”

“You will have safe passage across my bridge in exchange for the White God water,” it agrees. “Do we have an accord?”

“We have an accord.” She places the holy water in his outstretched hand.

Brianna crosses the bridge and continues down the path, leaving the troll far behind. Eventually she comes to an enormous wall made of thorns and vines. It stretches 15 feet high and blocks her path. The only option seems to be up.

Although she gets pierced a few time by thorns, Brianna manages to climb over without too much difficulty. She drops down on the other side. Looking around, she notices that she is no longer in a forest. The land is spring-like, lush and green. The skies are bright blue (although there is still no visible sun), and birds flitter from tree to tree. The path continues, leading towards a hill in the distance. At the top is a castle, seemingly a replica of the one at Disneyland.

Brianna is already tired of being in the Never Never. She trudges up the path, muttering to herself. As she gets closer to the castle, she sees that the path eventually leads to a gatehouse. It appears to be the only way inside the walls. Standing before the double doors are two figures that look like human-sized toy soldiers. At her approach, their heads swivel to face her and each draw a saber.

She slows down, trying to take in details of the situation. The soldiers appear to be made of wood, but their sabers definitely look to be real. Brianna tries to edge around the one on the left. The soldier’s saber flashes at her, but Brianna manages to dodge the blade. Brianna backs up. The creature follows, lunging again with its saber.

She punches at it, but misses. The solider reposts, hitting her, but the weapon bounces off her Kevlar. There is a flurry of exchanges, Brianna slamming into it with her fists and the creature cutting at her with its saber. However, the White Court vampire has difficulty getting through its defenses and takes more and more damage.

Finally, Brianna has no choice but to break away and retreat down the hill. The toy soldier doesn’t pursue. Panting and cursing to herself, Brianna slowly makes her way around the outer wall of the castle, looking for another way inside. She can’t see any other choice but climbing the wall.

She positions herself underneath a large window. Fishing around in her dufflebag, Brianna pulls out a length of rope and a small grapple. After two failed attempts, she finally hooks the grapple on the wall and tugs it tight. With a bit of a running start, Brianna barely manages to get up to the narrow ledge outside the window.

Looking through the glass, Brianna doesn’t see anyone inside the room. The window is locked, but she uses her supernatural strength to break it open. She carefully slides inside and pulls the rope up her behind her.

The room is completely empty. An arched doorway leads out. She tries to quietly move to the doorway. There are rooms to both her right and left and a door straight ahead. Brianna moves into the room on her right.

A saber suddenly sweeps at her head. Brianna’s armor manages to deflect some of the blow, but she grunts at the impact. It’s another of the human-sized toy soldiers. She seizes it by the head and uses her supernatural strength to snap its head from its body.The soldier drops to the ground, motionless. The room is empty, save for a door at the end. Brianna angrily stores the saber in her duffle. She is tired of this castle already.

She listens behind the door the toy soldier was guarding. She hears nothing, so opens it. Sunlight floods into the room as she overlooks the second level courtyard. Brianna hears the marching of wooden feet from somewhere in the courtyard. She shuts the door again, but is unable to bar it before it swings open revealing two wooden soliders, one behind the other.

Brianna reaches out and pulls the first solider’s head from its body with a splintering of wood. Its companion moves up and hits her with its blade. Furious, she beheads it as well. Dragging both bodies into the room, Brianna takes a moment to listen for anyone else approaching. She hears nothing, so she shuts the door.

She moves to the other door. Hearing nothing behind it, she looks out. It opens up into the same courtyard.

Brianna goes to the room on the left. Inside is a spiral staircase heading up and yet another connected room Based on what she could see of the castle outside, Brianna guesses there are likely four floors above her still. She decides to go up. She passes the third floor, stopping when the stairs end on a landing on the fourth floor. A long empty room stretches out to her right with several doors branching off of it. At the far end, a soldier stands motionless.

She uses her supernatural speed to rush at the soldier, beheading it before it has time to react. Brianna quietly opens door after door. The rooms are empty. Brianna shakes her head, puzzled. It’s as if no one lives here.

Brianna goes back down the stairs to the third floor. The landing opens into an empty room with an arched doorway along one wall. The doorway leads into a familiar-looking gallery-like room. At the end, a soldier stands.

Guessing that the third floor will be much like the fourth floor, Brianna goes back downstairs to the courtyard. She finds two doors, side-by-side, that lead into the central part of the castle. She opens the left-hand door. There is an arched doorway in the back corner. Sighing quietly to herself, Brianna continues to explore.

She goes through a series of doorways and empty rooms, moving deeper and deeper into the castle. Eventually, she comes upon a very long corridor. She hears the sounds of marching feet approaching, so closes the door and hides behind it.

The door slams open and a toy solider steps inside. She reaches out and rips its head from its body. Its companion manages to hit her with its saber, but Brianna makes quick work of as it as well.

Brianna resumes searching the castle. She finds a larger set of stairs heading up. She takes the stairs up to the sixth floor, where they open onto an arched doorway leading to the north. She tries to move quietly through the doorway, but isn’t particularly successful.

Brianna finds herself on a mezzanine overlooking what appears to be a throne room on the floor below. The throne itself is large, wooden, and ornately carved. The floor surrounding the throne is a large cache of gold and jewels. She can see other objects such as weapons, toys, and even mundane household items. Sitting on the throne is a little girl wearing a pair of red footed pajamas with a kitten embroidered on the breast. She has long, red curls and orange cat-like eyes.

The little girl looks up and in a lilting voice asks, “Won’t you come down and play with me?”

“I don’t really know a lot of games,” Brianna replies, not moving.

“You know how to break my toys.”

“I suppose I do.”

“Would you like me to come down?”

“It makes it hard to play if you’re up there.”

Brianna heads downstairs to the fifth floor, carefully approaching the girl’s throne. Being this close to the horde, the randomness of it all is even more apparent. Priceless artifacts are mixed in with worthless junk. Even in the midst of it all, Brianna manages to catch sight of the rim of a shield, arrows embossed upon its shiny surface.

As Brianna approaches, the girl settles herself more comfortably into her throne. The White Court vampire can tell that even as a glamour is covering her true form, the childlike behavior is also an affectation.

“Who are you?” the girl asks.

“My name is Brianna.”

“Why did you break my toys?”

“They were coming after me with very sharp pointy things.”

“But you were coming into my house.”

“It’s a very empty house,” Brianna comments.

“But it’s mine.” Her words are suddenly full of a powerful sense of possession. “So why are you here? Did you come to play with me?”

“What sort of games to you like to play?” Brianna asks, slowly.

“Hide and seek. Chase.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t surprise me.” Brianna’s voice is darkly amused. “I didn’t think it was going to be skipping rope, no matter what your glamour is.”

“Did you come to play with me?” The girl’s eyes are intense and very disconcerting.

“We might be able to play a game. It depends on the stakes, I suppose.”

“Why did you come, if not to play a game?”

“What game should we play then?”

The little girl pauses, thinking. “We shall play Truth or Dare.”

Brianna blinks and the girl smiles, cat-like. “How does one win this game?” Brianna asks.

“If you answer truth, but get caught in a lie, you lose.” Her voice is eerily intense.

“So, we’re just playing until one of use loses?”

“Isn’t that what games are?”

“How does one get caught out in a lie, exactly? We don’t particularly know each other.”

“How does anyone get caught in a lie?” the girl replies. “When the truth is obvious, lie.” She pauses. “Will you take truth or will you take dare?”

Brianna thinks about her options, but clearly too long, because the girl pronounces, “Then you take truth. Why are you here?”

“To repay a favor,” Brianna replies, calmly.

The girl makes a slightly displeased sound, but says “Very well. I’ll take truth.”

Brianna can’t help but ask, “Do you really live here by yourself?”

“Yes.”

“It seems awfully lonely.”

“Truth or dare?”

“Let’s try dare, I suppose.”

Her child’s face brightens. “Good. I dare you to break my new toy.” Brianna suddenly hears a rumbling behind her. She spins to see a seven-foot tall toy soldier approaching.

“Well, that wasn’t very nice,” Brianna remarks to the girl, but she moves to engage the creature. The White Court Vampire grapples one of the soldier’s legs, but isn’t able to break it. The enormous toy soldier swings an arm at her, but misses as Brianna jumps back.

The two exchange swings for a while, but neither manages to connect. Finally, the soldier manages to swipe at her with one fist. Her armor takes most of the blow, but it still hurts. Brianna manages to grapple it again, but still cannot break its wooden leg.

Suddenly, the girl speaks up. “This is boring.” Brianna finds herself sprawled on the floor as the soldier disappears. “You tried, I guess you did the dare.” She stares at Brianna. “I’ll take the dare.” She taps her foot against the throne, waiting.

“I dare you to show me your true form.”

The girl pouts. “If you didn’t want to play, just say so.”

“That was a no? I won?”

“Well, if I took your dare, you would die and the game would be over. Or I don’t take the dare and I lose and the game is over. So, I suppose I lose.” She looks very cross.

“Well, alright then,” Brianna says, slowly. “Then do I get a boon or a prize or something for winning.”

The girl looks at her slyly. “Is that what you came for? A boon?”

“Or a prize, or something. You’ve got a lot of stuff laying around here.”

“It’s mine,” she says, her voice caressing the words.

Brianna looks at her squarely, “Did I just win, or what? I wouldn’t think you’d go back on your word.”

“I never said I would give you a prize. I’m not going back on my word!”

“So, you don’t have rewards for people who win your games? Huh. That’s just not how they play them back where I come from.”

The girl looks sideways at her again. “What is it you want?”

Brianna points at the shield. “That.”

“My shield? I like my shield. I like all of my things.”

“That, I can understand. I am well known to guard what is mine.”

The little girl suddenly narrows her eyes, suspicious. “Did somebody named Bradbury send you?”

“What an odd question,” Brianna replies, “That’s so very specific.”

“He did! That weasel!” The girl thinks for a moment, then says “I will give you the shield, if I have your oath to give Bradbury something further.”

“I have to be careful of that. Are you wanting me to to take him something that will be dangerous?”

The girl only repeats her words, adding “and you must place it in his hand.”

Brianna looks squarely at her. “The lives of two of my friends hangs in the balance. I can’t do anything that will jeopardize their safety.”

She sticks out her bottom lip and her orange eyes start to smolder. Suddenly, it’s very easy to see the dragon behind the facade. “Then I will take your dare,” she hisses.

Brianna explodes into action as the dragon begins to take form. Even though it’s not even fully formed, Brianna can feel pain as the very foundations of her mind begin to shake. She dives for the shield. As soon as her fingers close around its edge, Brianna reaches into her pocket and breaks the wafer.

In the blink of an eye, Brianna is lying on the floor of the ski chalet, her hands clutching the shield. Her mind still echoes with the lingering nightmare of even the barest glimpse of a true dragon.

Nerise and Clive stare at her, but Mr. Bradbury looks nonplussed. “Ah, Ms. Karkana. How nice of you to join us.”

Brianna is still a bit wild-eyed, but rises. “Here’s your shield.”

He smiles and takes it. “Hmm. Still warm.” He sets the shield down beside him, placing a protective hand over it. “I had a feeling that making that arrangement with Ms. Patel would be lucrative.” He nods, “Very good. As I am a being of my word, the three of you are free to go.”

Brianna looks at Nerise and Clive. “How did you get here originally? Can we leave the same way?”

Mr. Bradbury points, “The door is over there.”

Brianna moves and opens it. She is looking into her apartment again. Joey is laying on the couch. He looks up at her, bleary-eyed. “Is that wood smoke?” he asks?

“I’ll explain later,” she replies, opening the door wide and allowing the other two vampires to leave step through first. Brianna follows close behind and shuts the door. She pauses for a split second, then opens the door again to see the streets of Portland. “Fucking creepy,” she hisses, then slams the door shut once more and locks it. “I need a drink.” She heads for the kitchen to pour herself some whiskey. “Remind me never to try and look at a real dragon,” she comments to the room in general. She offers her guests a drink.

“That would be delightful, thank you.” Nerise replies, her voice as unreadable and polite as ever.

“Well, welcome to our home,” Brianna says, as she gets out what passes for the good glasses. She sets down their drinks. “It feels like there’s a story behind how you came to be where you were.”

Clive only blinks, while Nerise comments, “There’s very little to tell. When the events of New Year’s Eve occurred, Clive and I felt the need to make a expeditious retreat. So, we stepped from Nirvana into the Never Never, apparently into the domain of Mr. Bradbury. As we were trespassers in his domain, we were forced to partake of his hospitality and be his hostages.”

“I see.”

“In an effort to protect our lives, for which I will not apologize, I traded my favor.”

“Oh,” Brianna comments , “No apology necessary. That’s not why I was asking that question. When I told you I would do anything I could to help, I was being serious. It wasn’t just because a favor was involved. Although, I must say I am glad that debt between us is resolved.”

Nerise only smiles, a shadow of the little girl’s smile curling around her lips.

“So, where do you go from here?”

“I regroup. I rebuild. And I get bloody satisfaction.”

“Good.” Brianna’s expression is purely Karanna, her eyes turning a slight sliver.

“Then I can count on you?”

“Yes.”

“Good. I will be in contact.”

Brianna comments that she still has someone at Nirvana willing to feed her information.

“Use them.” Nerise informs Brianna that Clive’s number is secure if she needs to contact them.

“I’m sorry that the events of that night did not go differently.” Brianna shifts slightly. “i don’t like to lose a fight.”

“Neither do I.”

Clive speaks up for the first time that evening. “It is as they say, a lost battle, but the war is not over.”

A grim-faced Brianna raises her glass to Clive, then tosses back the rest of her whiskey.

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