Wraith scanned the street from the alleyway. It was litter strewn and lined with buildings with boarded-up windows. The neighborhood was a poor one, filled with desperate souls who had few options and others who had moved in to prey on those people. Few cared, and fewer still did anything about it.
A pretty, young girl came around a far corner and into view. She was average height but slender, like most street kids. Unlike most street kids though, she was a fifty, or changeling; half mortal, half faerie. Wraith looked past the glamour that hid the girl’s true appearance from mortals. Her pale skin had a faint blue tint to it, particularly around her eyes and along her cheekbones. Her eyes were solid blue, the color of the deepest ocean, and her hair was a mix of blue and green shades.
“That’s her,” Wraith said.
“The nixie?” Con asked from behind her.
Wraith nodded and turned to her friends. “Her name is River. She’s been the property of the Purple Death for a year or so now.”
“Right,” Con said, his British accent drowning the t sound. “So there might be trouble. No worries, love. We got your back.” He nudged the tall, thin boy next to him. “Right, mate?”
Wraith looked at Geek. In contrast to Con’s pale skin, his was a warm brown. He wore thick glasses and a Green Lantern shirt that was a couple of sizes too big but just barely long enough. Despite his appearance, he was half troll. That meant he was stronger than ten Schwarzeneggers. But he had the gentlest soul Wraith had ever encountered.
“You sure you’re up for this?” she asked him.
Wraith could see the uncertainty in his dark eyes. She gave him a gentle smile. “It’s okay if you’re not.”
“No, I wanted to be here,” he said and pushed his glasses up higher on his nose.
“Brilliant,” Con said. “You have your word with her, and if anyone interrupts, I’ll give them a hot foot, or our man here can feed them their own teeth.”
Wraith rolled her eyes, turned around, and started walking toward River.
“What?” Con said as he and Geek followed.
Wraith kept scanning the area. This part of Houston was controlled by the Purple Death, a local but dangerous gang that had its hands in guns, drugs, and sex trafficking. A piece of Wraith hoped something would happen.
“Hi,” Wraith said when she got close enough. “River, right?”
The nixie girl looked around nervously. “Yeah, do I know you?”
“I’m Wraith,” she said and gestured to her friends. “These are my friends. The short one is Con, the tall guy is Geek.”
River looked from the boys to Wraith. “I, um, I don’t really do groups—”
“Bloody hell, love,” Con said. “We ain’t customers.”
“We’re here to get you out,” Wraith said. “We have a place where people like us can go.”
River looked very nervous. “What do you mean? I don’t—”
Wraith smiled. “Con and I are slingers. Geek is a fifty, like you.”
“Well, not like you,” he said through a nervous smile.
“You got a crush, mate?” Con asked in a whisper.
Geek elbowed him, almost knocking him into the street.
River’s eyes darted around. “I have a place.”
“You have a pimp and his gang,” Wraith said. “We can get you off the street. We’ll teach you how to take care of yourself.”
“I know you’re scared,” Wraith said. “You don’t know us. As far as you know, we could be another pimp. Or something worse.”
River’s silence confirmed this thought.
“I promise you we’re not,” Wraith said. “This is a real offer, and it comes from a magister of the Rogue Court. Her name is Brigid, and she wants to help.”
River’s eyes went hard. “Yeah? Well, where was she when my dad kicked me out? Where was she when I was starving and had to let some forty-year-old perv—?”
“There’re a lot of us out here, River,” Wraith said. “We’re getting to people as fast as we can.” She stepped close and looked the girl in the eye. “Trust me, I’ve been through some pretty horrible shit too. We all have. You’re not alone.”
“What’s your angle?” River said.
“I don’t like bullies,” Wraith said. “I do like knowing I did something to help make someone’s life a little better though.”
“Bullshit,” River said. “Nobody does nothing unless there’s something in it for them.”
“She does,” Geek said. “And we do.”
Wraith noticed River almost smile at Geek. “Look, you can come with us and get some clean clothes, something to eat, and a good night’s sleep. You won’t have to worry about someone stealing your stuff, or worse.” She looked around. “If you prefer this place, I’ll bring you back. I swear it on my name and my power.”
River swallowed, her eyes still frantically scanning the area. She leaned in close and spoke in a whisper, her voice shaking. “I can’t. If I leave, they’ll kill me.”
“No they won’t,” Wraith said. “I won’t let them.”
“What can you do?”
Wraith opened her mouth but was cut off.
“What the hell is this?” said a gruff voice from behind her.
Wraith turned to see a cocky young guy walking over. He was wearing a white tank top, and he was covered in tattoos that marked him as a Purple Death member.
“Ease off, mate,” Con said. “We’re having us a chat with the girl.”
“Yeah? Well you’re costing me money, mate,” the man said and pushed Con back against the wall.
“I’m sorry, D,” River said to the pimp. “It’s my fault. I—”
“I’ll deal with you later,” D said, pointing at River.
“Not going to happen,” Wraith said and stepped between River and D. “We’re leaving, and we’re taking her with us.”
D took a step forward. “Bitch, you ain’t—”
Geek grabbed D by his shirt, slammed him against the wall twice, and held him at eye level, almost a foot off the ground.
“That’s a very rude term,” Geek said and adjusted his glasses with his free hand. “You need to apologize.”
D sneered and moved one hand to his waistband. “Fu—”
Geek slammed him against the wall again. The pistol D was reaching for fell to the ground. Geek dropped him, picked up the gun, and looked the guy in the eye as he bent the barrel.
“What the hell are you?” D asked.
“We’re the ones taking River away,” Wraith said. “And I’ll be back for the other girls. All of them.”
“Best bring an army,” D spat. “You crossed the—”
“The Purple Death,” Wraith said. “Yeah, I know who you are. I’m Wraith, and I don’t need an army.” She reached into her jacket and pulled out her hand, fingers in a gun shape. She pointed at the front of a nearby abandoned car.
“You’re a crazy bit—”
“Bang,” Wraith said.
A ball of force hit the car, crushing in what was left of the front end, knocking it off its blocks, and sending it sliding ten feet down the road.
D stared at her with wide eyes.
“And I carry two,” she said, holding up her other hand.
D didn’t say anything.
“Bloody hell,” Con said through a laugh. “He’s gone and pissed his pants.”
Wraith glanced down at the growing wet spot in his jeans then back up at his face. “See you soon, snookums.” Then she turned and led River toward the nearest door-door, Con and Geek right behind her.
“Are you okay?” Geek asked when they reached the door to an old abandoned building.
Wraith reached into her bag, took out a doorknob, and stuck it in the spot where the original had been broken off.
“I thought you said you were taking me to the magister’s house,” River said, watching Wraith.
Wraith wove an entropic formula over the door frame. “Con, you want to explain it?”
“She can make magic doors,” Con said.
When the formula was complete, Wraith grabbed the handle and looked at Con. “That’s a vast oversimplification.”
“Am I wrong?”
Wraith opened her mouth to protest, then closed it. “That’s not the point,” she said after a moment and opened the door.
River stared with wide eyes.
“Come on,” Geek said. “It’s safe, I promise.”
They stepped out of a closet door, crossing nearly eight hundred miles, and into the foyer of Brigid’s home.
“Wow,” River said as she looked around.
The room was large enough to have been the lobby of an upscale hotel. The floors were parquet wood, with a large sunburst design at the center. The walls were old gray stone and extended to the open second story above them. Opposite the oak double doors—the entrance most people would use—was a large staircase that split and doubled back before leading to the second floor. And everywhere were plants of all kinds; small flowering bushes of every color, trees in large terra-cotta pots, and ivy wrapping up the columns and over the walls. It could’ve made the place look abandoned, as if nature had moved in to replace absent humans. But it didn’t; rather, it looked like the flora had been invited in as an honored guest.
“Welcome back, Wraith,” a very tall, strikingly beautiful woman with dark auburn hair said. She was dressed in a pristine white blouse and black maxi skirt.
“We have a new guest,” Wraith said.
“So I see,” Brigid said as she stepped to River. Every motion was graceful enough to make a prima ballerina envious. When she reached the nixie, she smiled bright and extended her hand. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, child.”
“Ma-magister,” River said and bowed.
“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” Brigid said and lifted the girl’s chin with two fingers. “You’re a guest in my home. You have nothing to be nervous about.”
“Thank you,” River said.
“Did you explain the rules?” Brigid asked Wraith.
“We didn’t have time,” Wraith said. “There was—”
“Rules?” River asked, her guard clearly going up as she took a step back.
“No, no,” Brigid said. “Nothing so bad as you imagine. You’re free to come and go as you like, you have my word. This is a home, not a prison.”
“Do, uh, do you live here too?” River asked Geek.
He blushed a little as he nodded and smiled. “Yeah, Con and I share a room.”
“And like everyone here,” Brigid said, “they help out.”
“Help out?” River asked skeptically.
“Geek and Con here help Wraith teach others how to use their abilities.” She gave Con a sideways glance. “Safely and properly.”
“I said I was sorry, didn’t I?” Con said. “I got the bleeding fire out before it did any real damage.”
“Fire?” Wraith asked.
“It was when you were gone,” Geek said.
Wraith shrugged. “I still have you beat. I think I blew up some buildings once.”
River looked at her with huge eyes.
Brigid cleared her throat.
“Sorry,” Geek, Con, and Wraith said in unison.
“You’re part nixie, right?” Brigid asked River.
River nodded. “I think so. I didn’t know my mom. My dad is a mortal. He’s the one who raised me.” She shrugged. “Until I started looking like this, anyway. That’s when he started drinking a lot and kicked me out.”
“Well,” Brigid said. “We have a pond that could use tending. I think that would be a perfect job for you.”
“A pond?” River asked, her features softening as she tried to hide a smile.
“More like a small lake,” Con said.
“That sounds wonderful,” River said.
“Excellent,” Brigid said. “We don’t wait on you, so if you’re hungry, you have free access to the kitchen. But I insist you treat everyone here with respect and courtesy. And—”
“Why are you doing this?” River asked.
Wraith stepped over. “This isn’t about anyone saying you can’t cut it on your own,” she said. “You obviously can. But you shouldn’t have to. I’ve been out there too, and I know what it’s like. No one should be on the street. No one. Life is hard enough already.”
“And if it helps,” Brigid said, “I do get something out this. I get the satisfaction of knowing one less child is hungry, scared, or being preyed upon.”
River nodded. “And I can leave anytime I want?”
“Thrice promised and bound,” Brigid said and gave a slight bow.
River worried her lower lip for a second, then she flung her arms around Brigid and hugged her tight. “Thank you,” she said.
Brigid stroked her hair and held her for a long moment.
River stepped back and wiped her eyes.
“Is there anything you left behind that you want me to get for you?” Wraith asked.
River shook her head. “I don’t want anything from that life.”
“If you change your mind, let me know,” Wraith said.
“Thank you,” River said to Wraith, then looked to Con, Geek, and Brigid in turn. “All of you.”
“Come on,” Geek said. “We’ll take you to your room.”
He and Con led River up the stairs.
“You best stay close, love,” Con said. “The bleeding halls shift around on you here.”
“Really?” River asked as they vanished up the stairs.
“I wish I could’ve gotten her out sooner,” Wraith said quietly.
“She’s out now,” Brigid said. “Focus on that.”
“There are others,” Wraith said.
Brigid’s smile faded, and she sighed. “I’m afraid there always are. All we can do is what we can do. Every candle, no matter how small, holds back some of the darkness.”
Wraith nodded. She knew the wisdom of the words but struggled for it to be enough.
“How are you doing?” Brigid asked. “You look like you’re sleeping and eating.”
Wraith arched an eyebrow. “Are you saying I’m getting fat?”
Brigid laughed. “I’m saying you’re looking healthy, and happier than I’ve ever seen you.”
Wraith smiled and thought of her secret friend and all their visits. “I’m doing good. All this is helping; feeling like I’m making a difference.”
“You’re doing good work, Wraith.”
“Lots more to do,” Wraith said and turned to go.
“Do you have a moment?” Brigid asked.
“Sure, what’s up?”
“I have a favor to ask of you.”