"Magic burns inside you now, as it always will. It's your blood, but though you can't help it, you'll have to
Alaister took his leave quietly, driving home through the inky, silent night. The drive calmed him to the point where he found himself half asleep at the wheel, but he managed to get home safe, trudge upstairs and flop into bed. In the morning he awoke again, bleary eyed and still half dressed, to a overcast Sunday. The churches hadn't let out yet, and he contemplated opening the store at noon.
Alaister lived and made his living in an old fashioned brick store front situated on the main street of a two stoplight town. It had two bay windows flanking a dark green door, a simple sign on the left window read "Hilda's Tea and Herb Shop" in gold calligraphy. Hilda was his Aunt, who had owned the shop and the apartment above it, and even though she had passed away two years ago, he never bothered changing the sign.
He forced himself out of bed, changed, and went to the kitchen. On his way past he ran his hands over the bindings of his books and realized that he was happy to be home. He pulled a few, on Werewolves and magic, to take down and read later.
He went to the kitchen, dug into a cupboard for a box of Cream of Wheat. Today he would do some research and think about what steps he could take next. He glanced at the list of things to do he kept posted on his refrigerator. Most of the items were internet orders for herbal tinctures and teas that he had to pack and ship.
He ate, carried the selected books down to the long, green marble counter. He looked around to make sure that the store was in order, then pushed up the shutters, flipped over the sign, and unlocked the door. Patchy daylight drifted in sluggishly as he settled down behind his counter. He sat on the tall stool for a long moment, breathing in the scent of green drying things, of herbs that mixed and blurred together.
His first customer was his cousin Connor, Captain of the Knights of the Sun. He was about the same height as Alaister, blonde instead of brunette, blue eyed instead of green. They once both wore the same plain, squarish nose except Connor had had his broken twice.
"Did you get to talk to Daria yet?" Alaister asked.
"Yeah. The creature sounds interesting in a sick and twisted kind of way." Connor also had the family talent of sarcasm.
"Do you think it's a Werewolf?"
"What else?" He leaned on the counter, shaking his head. "I really hate the rules that force the Knights to wait until something happens before we can strike out against their kind."
Alaister pulled a chair over for Connor, but he declined. "There's some wisdom in those same rules, though. Not all of their kind want to hurt humans."
Connor snorted. "They're all evil." This was the typical stance for a Knight of the Sun. They were a medieval order, dedicated to protecting humans against Werewolves, Vampires and magic. The part about magic was particularly uncomfortable for Alaister. His father had been a Knight. His mother was a mage, and the daughter of a powerful warlock. He lived his life in both worlds, was a credible mage and a decent warrior. He also was constantly trying to make sure that the left side of his genealogy didn't know what the right side was doing.
"Well," Connor said, "We'll be going on patrol tonight. Do you have any more of that goo?"
"Yeah. I'll go get it." The goo was a mixture he'd gotten out of a magic book, more chemistry than sorcery, that he made for the Knights to put on their weapons. It prevented cuts dealt to Werewolves and Vampires and other creatures allergic to silver or iron from sealing shut. The smallest cut could then turn deadly.
He went to the storage room in the back, were he kept unmixed herbs in dark jars in cool cupboards. On one gray blue painted door, the carved rose wood cross his Aunt had given him hung from two hooks. "We are gifted, you and I," she had said, holding the carved wood up to him. "We must not forget where these gifts come from. We must not abuse our powers."
He picked up two heavy canning jars filled with a smoky colored grease. Silver was in it, along with black cohosh, beeswax, wolf's bane, rust, valerian and rue.
"We really appreciate this." Connor said.
"I'm glad to help." Alaister said. He meant it, because it gave him a way to help his family with out having to go out and patrol. He was not afraid of patrolling, in fact he enjoyed wandering around at night, save for the fact he didn't want to get into a situation where he'd have to fight fellow mages. That, and because he didn't see the world as black and white, night and day like the Knights did.
His next customer was a bookish looking young thing, with brown hair and glasses. She approached the counter shyly, her smile awkward and well meaning.
"Can I help you?"
"I hear you sell a tea that's really good against headaches."
He nodded, then went to the shelves, looking for the sage colored boxes.
"Lots of pretty colors." she said, commenting on the different colored boxes that lined the shelves.
"It helps me keep track of what's what." He handed her the box, and smiled apologetically. "It's five dollars for twenty four tea bags. One of the ingredients is expensive."
"That's not bad." She sniffed the box, but couldn't detect anything but paper. Alaister always put the tea in a heavily waxed paper bag to keep it fresh.
"Do you have an incense burner?" He asked. "I have some lavender that my customers really like for headaches."
She looked at the glass jars with their neat, laser printed labels. He followed her gaze, secretly pleased with the labels and signs he had made for his business. He liked playing with the colors and the type styles, learning how to do different things on the computer.
She picked up one jar lid, and sniffed, then another. He gave her some space, studying his shelves to see what he needed. He was almost out of cayenne cooking oil, and was getting low on the lemon verbena. Careless, he thought, because it took time to make the oils right. He liked to put them in the window, let the sun do the work. He also had an anti-burning spell that he liked to put in them, and if he didn't have the ingredients...
There was a rustle of paper. She was standing by him, lavender incense in a long, slender paper bag. She stopped to pick up one of the cheap stick incense burners. He also kept in stock a few fancier ones, inlaid with mother of pearl, or carved, but mostly he sold the plain dollar ones. Sometimes people came back and bought the nicer ones, after they became addicted to incense, but not often. People generally just make do, he thought as he smiled and wrote her order up on a pad. She was studying him now, her eyes seeming to bore into him.
"Is something wrong?" He asked, then scribbled in a margin, trying to get a little more life out of the pen.
She acted as if he'd startled her. "No." she smiled, but it was quick and slippery, like a flash of sun on fish scales. "You look tired."
"Nothing some sleep won't cure." He smiled, attempted to put on the charm. "Are you sure there isn't anything else I can interest you in?"
She looked at him again, her head tilted, so she was studying him out of the corner of her eye. "Nope." She scooped up her change and the brown paper bag with the name of his store carefully rubber stamped on it, and left.
He stood there a long moment. Something about that young woman didn't feel right. He shrugged. He had a stack of things to do, and if today went well, he'd be interrupted constantly. He picked up a book, and got started.
Andromeda wasted a good half an hour of what should have been a pleasant drive fuming over Alaister. "I can't believe you're still hung up on that stupid man." she muttered as she fiddled with the radio. Even her overnight stay at Vera's hadn't calmed her down. No, he wasn't stupid, she admitted. That was the problem, or at least something that made the solution harder. The few short weeks they'd spent together had convinced her that he was the closest thing to perfect there was. Oh, he had flaws, plenty of them. But they weren't bad flaws. If he had some nasty ones, she could hold them up to herself, go, "See? Better off with out him." and walk away, her conscious clear, her emotions appeased.
But she couldn't. He'd really gotten to her, and there hadn't been any one else since. Instead of telling him, she walked away, because she didn't want to see him die. Couldn't stand it if something followed her home and hurt him. That almost happened, once. And Andromeda was very good at taking hints from the powers that be.
"Great." She glanced around, then merged. "I've got a murder to solve, and a knight errant running around with a bruised chivalry bone. Oh, goody. This is going to be a wonderful next couple of weeks."
She could hear the phone ring in her purse. She looked around again, then pulled off onto the burm, wincing as something crackled under her tire.
"Andromeda Pendragon, at your service."
"We got your report. What do you need?" The voice was slightly nasal, but edged, business like. Andromeda wasn't sure of the sex, but was leaning toward female.
"How about a password?"
The voice...a woman, definitely, recited a series of numbers. Andromeda closed her eyes and envisioned the lines of numbers she had forced herself to memorize. The woman was saying them backwards from the way she memorized them, which was correct.
"I appreciate that." Andromeda said. "I'm a bit paranoid. I need someone to break into the local police and coroner computer files, so I can have a report on their findings. I'd like to see what the coroner makes of the wounds. I also need any reports that some one might have filed on unrest between Vampires and Werewolves, as well as mundane reports on animal attacks in this area." These were things that she herself had all the passwords and codes to do, but she didn't want Balance to know that. True, they were her employers, the "good guys", but Andromeda believed in gathering a few aces and keeping them firmly up her sleeve. It was something her mentor, Grigori had taught her.
"Alright. We'll send them to your computer as soon as possible. It's Sunday, though, and the coroner might not even look at the body today."
"Understood." Andromeda said. "Thank you for the help."
"It's okay." The voice finally warmed up. "I hope you'll get to salvage some of your day."
Not very likely, she thought, dialing another number.
She might as well, since she was parked.
"Mark? It's Andromeda. I hope this isn't a bad time."
"Not at all. What's wrong?"
Briefly, she told him about last night. "I'm sorry to just plunge into things before being officially introduced around."
"Not at all." Mark's voice was smooth, and warm. Andromeda, who never knew her parents, remembered that voice from her youth. Balance had taken her from the orphanage, but it was Grigori who had raised her. Mark, Grigori's pupil of the time, was a shadowy figure in her memories, a sometimes baby sitter, a quiet voice reading bed time stories. Tom Marsden, who was now one of the top officials of Balance Head Quarters, was another one of these remembered men, the one who took her to the doctor and held her after she got her shots.
"I'll find out everything I can, and send you a report ASAP." she said, a feeling of loyalty overwhelming her. With