In the warm afternoon light, a lone swing rocked back and forth in a steady rhythm, its chains groaning a mournful dirge despite the fact no one sat upon it. It hadn’t faltered once in the hour since the child vanished. The fifth to disappear in three weeks. Each one taken in front of at least a dozen witnesses who couldn’t recall a single thing later—no details of when they’d last seen the child, nothing about any strangers hanging around. They didn’t even recollect hearing a scream of protest. In this case, every student and teacher on the playground had been distracted at the same exact moment, but no one could remember by what when asked.
Police and technicians swarmed the steps of New Hope Elementary and the courtyard in front. All of them instinctively avoided the playground and the magic at work there. All except the figure that stood in the far corner by the rusty swing set, hands in her pockets as the late-October wind whipped around her, snatching at her clothes and carrying the scent of burning leaves. Her hair was short but still long enough for her to catch an occasional glimpse of the royal-blue streaks among the black as it blew into her face. She tucked an errant strand behind one ear, but doubted it would stay put for long.
A Realm Walker, an officer for the Agency, Juliana Norris was here because the first policeman on the scene had called her directly. This wasn’t the Agency’s investigation. Not yet, anyway. Her involvement was strictly advisory until the commissioner climbed down from his shiny pedestal long enough to admit local law enforcement wasn’t up to doing the job on their own. While the victims thus far had been Altered, the perp hadn’t been identified. Since it was possible a human was behind this, Commissioner Phipps claimed jurisdiction. No one high enough at the Agency cared enough to contradict him. Yet.
Her phone vibrated at her hip. She glanced at the screen as she pulled it out—Ben Nichols, her boss. The initial kidnappings had garnered so much attention in the Altered community he’d been forced to cut her suspension short by a week—an action he hadn’t been happy to take at all. A fact he reminded her of every day.
“Norris,” she answered and braced herself for another reprimand.
“You haven’t filed a report. What’s your status?”
The clipped tone of his voice exhausted her. She was tired of the daily conflict. “I haven’t filed a report because there is nothing to report. We know nothing further than we did before.”
“I took you off suspension to get results, Norris. So far I’m not impressed.”
“No, you took me off suspension because you didn’t want to get shredded by the press for keeping the Walker with the best record out of the game while the Thief does his hunting. You know I’m the most likely to find him.”
There was a stretch of silence. “I know you are. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
He hung up and she slipped her phone back into her pocket. Her insistence she was the best Walker for the job had nothing to do with arrogance and everything to do with her particular blend of talents.
She possessed a gift that enabled her to see the unique signature of any living being. A signature was a spectrum of colors that told her exactly what type of creature an individual was, no matter how artfully they might try to hide it. She could also see the signature of a spell cast on anyone, or anything, other than herself. Whether the gift came from her father, the dark fae god of death, or the mage mother she couldn’t remember, was anyone’s guess.
Activating her gift made her eyes glow several shades brighter than their normal emerald, so she kept them hidden behind a pair of dark glasses. She studied the muddy brown of the stasis spell used on the swing. This particular shade of brown marked it wild magic. Dangerous magic. It also meant that whatever cast the spell wasn’t using his own power. Wild magic belonged to no one; it simply existed. And its signature was strong enough she hadn’t been able to get a read yet on what was doing the casting. It could be a mage, a fae, a god or anything else with any kind of magic ability. Which narrowed the suspect list down to about nine-tenths of the Altered community.
What she did know was the magic took great power or skill to wield. While it was better for everyone if they did, power and skill didn’t necessarily go hand in hand. Maybe luck would be with them for once and one of the bastard’s spells would backfire and fry him.