Chapter 1: The Guild Rat
Tommy stepped off the private jet and almost instantly regretted it.
The air was thick and humid, slamming him right in the chest and stealing the air from his lungs. His slacks, blazer and long-sleeved shirt was too much here, too hot, too sticky.
Now he knew why the pilot had given him a funny smile and continued on once she'd learned of his destination.
"Alright. Best make the most of it," he said, thanking the crew member who handed him his suitcase and made his way to the main airport terminal.
It was barely summer, according to the weather reports, though it was destined to get much warmer soon. As unbearable as the thought was, he'd need to invest in more casual clothes.
Tommy went through customs, the process smooth and thankfully air conditioned once again. He pulled out his phone, opening the app for a taxi service and requested a car at the drop-off and pickup area, smiling with a nod when the car pulled up into a parallel parking space. "Thomas Pendragon?" he asked, stepping out to help with the suitcase.
"Yes, I am he. You are Michael?"
"Yes, sir. I will be your driver. I see you're staying at the Marquessa and the Serpent?" he said, slipping the suitcase into the boot and shut it, opening the door for Tommy.
"Yes, that is correct," he said, slipping into his seat and adjusting his blazer. It was a terrible choice of clothing here.
Michael returned to the driver's seat, turning up the aircon and glancing in the rearview mirror to make sure his passenger was buckled and safe. "It's a lovely place. The hotel is full of the Outer Souls, like elves, fae, shapeshifters. I've heard there are even a few human magic users around that area, sometimes."
"Yes, that is part of why I have chosen it," he admitted. It was part of his assignment, anyway.
Michael hummed, driving away from the airport with steady and measured movements. One of the better drivers Tommy had been with, truthfully.
"Ah. Well, enjoy the town around that area, as well. It's also known for the Outer Souls living there. Not many in this province, and they're a tight-knit group."
"Any covens or groups in the area?"
"Well," Michael started, turning onto the highway. "There are two major covens who are friendly rivals – I honestly forget their names – and then there are several elven tribes and clans out along the estuaries and into the hills. They don't always get along so well with the covens, but there's never been bad blood. That I know of, anyway. I'm just a normal, though," he chuckled.
Tommy nodded, humming his assent and turned his head to look out the window.
This province was considerably less green than his own, though still especially lush compared to the rest of the country. The only thing that gave away its lack of regular rainfall were the large number of succulent plants growing along the side of the road, and at the edges of sugar cane fields that rolled and stretched further than he could see.
Michael was pleasant enough company on the drive north to the hotel, eventually turning off the highway and onto a main road that travelled along the coast, expertly dodging large and deep potholes. He pointed out a few landmarks to Tommy, and a few local tidbits concerning the best places to eat and which places to avoid.
It was appreciated, though Tommy wasn't entirely sure it was necessary. He thanked Michael once they arrived at the hotel, wishing him well once his suitcase had been returned to him and opened the taxi app, giving him five stars for his service before tucking the device into a back pocket for later.
He checked into his room, finding the place... quaint. A little dated, like it had never left the nineties, if one was kind. But it was clean, and he couldn't really complain beyond that. It wasn't as if Tommy would be spending his days here; it was only a place to rest his head at night.
His next move would be to make his way to the town square and feel out the place. It was, as he had been told, quite literally a village, with some houses further out. The narrow beach roads were mostly dilapidated and abused, potholes dotting the tarmac like mines. Maybe it held some kind of charm, long ago. But not now, and certainly not to him.
The village was nestled between two larger towns, making almost everything easily accessible to the people who lived here.
"Afternoon, can I help you?" a woman's voice asked.
Tommy turned, blinking at her. "Perhaps, yes –"
"Oh, tourist, right? Need help figuring out where's what and how to get there. Or, you're from the Guild and here to investigate the missing magicbeasts, right?" she asked, raising a brow at him, placing a hand on her hip.
"Yes, I am here on Guild business. I have also just arrived today, so a brief tour would be greatly appreciated," he said.
"British, huh? Nice. Come with me. I'm Chikonde, I own and run the metaphysical and esoteric shop in town," she said, walking off with swaying hips. "Keep up! There's a lot of ground to cover and people to meet here. What's your name again?"
"Thomas Pendragon," he said, striding up to Chikonde and keeping pace with her. "You deal with all the Outer Souls then?"
"Most of them, and a few normals, too," she nodded. "But they don't really come to me. They go to Derek, the tattoo artist. He has a way of getting people comfortable enough to talk about anything, so if you're after information, he's the one you choose. But nothing is free or cheap from Derek, so just mind your options, alright?"
Tommy hummed, making mental notes of the shops and restaurants, who owned what and which races and cultures they belonged to, as Chikonde prattled them off. There were a handful of elves, even, though Chikonde only mentioned the estuary tribes down the rivers, and none in town.
"Anyway. I think that about covers your tour," she said, facing him and giving him a once-over for good measure, her dark skin gleaming in the sun. "So, if you need anything, just come around and ask. Like I said, Derek's a pretty good source of information too, if you can get him to talk for a fair trade."
"I think I'll head that way, soon enough. Where can I find him?"
"He runs Siren Sigil Tattoos," she said, jerking her thumb over her shoulder. "Good luck," she laughed, turning and making her way to her own shop with the same self-assured sway in her step.
Tommy shook his head, walking into the parlour. It was clean, the acrid smell of sterilized equipment and floors striking his sinuses. The décor was somewhat contemporary, with a mix of ocean and forest imagery.
"Welcome, what can I do for you?" a young man asked, wiping down the counter with an antiseptic.
"I'm looking for Derek," he said, moving over.
"You've got the good fortune to be looking right at him," Derek grinned, flashing too-white teeth and sharp canines. "Who are you and what can I do? I do all piercings and tattoos, and if you'd prefer someone else, Moira should be coming in about half an hour from now."
"I'm Thomas Pendragon, from the Celestial Torc Guild –"
"Oh," Derek smiled, leaning on the counter with a smirk. "A guild rat. Come to investigate the disappearances of endangered and other magical creatures?"
Thomas bristled, his fingers feeling cool with the air swirling around them. Keep it together, keep it under control, he told himself, taking a slow breath and feeling the breeze ebb and dissipate. "Yes, I am here to investigate the disappearances. I have heard that you may be the one with the most information on the matter."
"Chikonde found you, huh?" he guessed, straightening. "Well, she's not wrong. And I should hope that I know about it, since I'm the only elf around here. But I wouldn't say I have the most info on it."
Tommy blinked, frowning. "You're an elf."
"Yes, I know. Surprising. No flowy robes or cryptic speeches. Instead I run a tattoo parlour. They're imbued with magic, you know. All custom made for the client. The tattoos, and the piercings. We can do plain pieces too, if you'd prefer."
"I'm not interested in your merchandise. Tell me about the disappearances."
"Suit yourself, Pendragon," he shrugged, a sly little grin on his lips. "We have a few local spirits and animals that are usually around more often than not, and about a month ago they all started vanishing. Not the, 'they're migrating' vanish, the, 'was disturbed halfway through something' vanish. I might be terrible at nature and animal communication, but I can still tell when something's been disturbed. I thought maybe it was a predator at first, but then we'd have sightings of it within a week. We're small, and as you can see, we're nestled in a conservation area."
"Indeed. That would've been my first guess," he replied. No predator…. Interesting.
Derek nodded, tucking his messy hair behind a pointed ear only for it to fall forwards again. "Yeah. One of the people from the town over got caught in a trap about a week after I first noticed the disappearances, so that's when we figured we'd call you in."
"I see," Thomas nodded.
"Well, by you, I mean your guild, but that's just because you were the first to respond. If you're going to ask for the location to the disappearances, I'll have to say that it would be best if you wait for morning. Leaving now will mean we arrive at dusk, and that won't help you look for anything," Derek added, offering him a toothy grin. "Have a look around the rest of the town, though. I'm sure there's a board somewhere with all the missing creatures around here. I've heard some were exotic pets, too. Expensive to get licenses for, and to keep happy in a rather hot and humid place."
"I will look into it, thank you, Derek," he said.
"You're welcome. And if you ever change your mind about tattoos or piercings, let me know," he smirked, waving over his shoulder as he disappeared to the back, throwing the rag he'd used onto his shoulder.
"So, what's he like?" Elaine asked, helping Chikonde prepare the shop for opening the following morning.
"Who, the Guilder? Dry as desert sand. Probably too many sticks up his ass, too," Chikonde shrugged.
"Yeah, okay, but what did he look like?"
Chikonde sighed, turning to her. "Like a guy."
"Yes, obviously, but handsome? Ugly?" she asked, a playful smirk tugging at her lips.
"Hey now, you're asking me the wrong questions here. I can't tell if guys are attractive or not. That girl, however..." she trailed, smiling wistfully as a group of tourists walked by, Elaine quickly picking out the curvy, bronze-tanned and bikini-clad girl Chikonde was talking about.
"Yeah, I'll admit, she's gorgeous," Elaine laughed, shaking her head. "Go ask her out."
"No. She's got a boyfriend," she pouted, shaking her head and adjusted the jewellery stand. "Besides, a summer fling of a week is way too short, even for me. Do we have any incense we need to order?"
"Yeah, we're a little short on dragon's blood, sage, and vanilla. Natasha came by yesterday asking if we could get lotus for her, but in cones instead."
"Alright. I'll go put that order through, will you –"
"Open up? Sure," Elaine smiled, leaving the tarot and oracle decks behind to grab the keys from the counter and unlocked the doors, pushing them wide open.
She turned back and rifled through their incense for something to burn while they waited for customers, humming softly to herself as she picked out a Japanese-range incense from behind the counter. It was light and fresh, just the thing she felt was perfect for the day, switching on the overhead fan to circulate it once it was lit.
"Good morning," Elaine greeted, looking up when she heard someone enter, scratching around for matches. "I'll be with you in a moment! What can I help you with?"
"I believe that this store deals with almost all the Outer Souls in this area. I'm also looking for someone who knows the area, and specifically where most Outer Souls are likely to gather here," the man said, sandy hair a little dishevelled, the ends sticking to his skin. Hopefully he'd learn soon enough that suits and long sleeves weren't the best idea at the coast.
"Oh, well, that depends on whether they're solitaries, groups or covens," she said, giving up on matches and stepped out from behind the counter, tapping the box against her palm. "Solitaries will probably stick to their homes, and the groups have designated spots either on the beach, out in the cane fields, or out in the reserve. Those tend to be the open gatherings, though…. They prefer to use each other's' houses. Covens are the most territorial here. You'll be looking for the Twilight Twenty and the Empress Church. Oh, and I'm Elaine, by the way," she smiled, offering her hand to him.
"Thomas, of the Celestial Torc Guild," he replied, taking her hand.
"Nice to meet you, Thomas," Elaine smiled, gesturing at the shop. "You're welcome to hang around here, and browse. We should have a few more customers coming through in an hour or so."
He nodded slowly. "Have there been any unusual purchases of late?"
"No, not really. Individually, most purchases have been the usual. But if there's a new group, or members of a coven are working together to get up to something not entirely legal, it's hard to tell. The combinations of herbs, resins, powders, sigils, enchantments and more that we sell, could be combined in any number of ways to create almost any kind of spell. And that's entirely disregarding what they might craft on their own."
He looked over at her in time to see her with a triumphant grin, a leather pouch in his hand. "You sound like you've got a fair bit of experience under your belt."
Elaine blushed, shaking her head as she set the incense in a censer and struck a match. "No, I just dabble, mostly. I prefer my cards and divination to actually casting spells and working magic. I can do it, but I find it to be a whole lot of work that doesn't always work out for me," she chuckled. "I do research a lot, though, so I try to offer as much advice to people who come through as I can."
"Based only on research."
"Yes, and opinion based on research. You'd be surprised with how far that gets you," she added, a challenging sparkle in her eye.
Thomas nodded, a grin tugging at his lips. "When you say it like that, I can believe it might work."
"It does," she laughed, fidgeting with a few items.
Time trickled by, with Chikonde popping her head out the back to greet Thomas before heading back for stock take, and Elaine was quickly swept up with customers asking for incense, or advice on spells, or special orders. Every so often, one would come in and speak to her in hushed tones, Elaine's smile soft and patient as she nodded, marking down a date in a notebook.
It took him a while to realize she was probably booking dates for readings, though which cards she used and how she did it, he'd ask another time.
Interviewing the locals who passed through proved to be both time consuming and frustrating, most looking for the latest gossip, others not offering up much that was helpful. Tommy was quickly realizing he might need to find himself an animal mage to help track down the magicbeasts, or at least an elf. But Derek said he was bad at working with nature, remember? You might need to look elsewhere, he reminded himself, nodding as he eyed a necklace with an iron disk, several sigils of protection against the Fair Folk inscribed along its surface.
"If you need anything specific, we can have it made, or order it for you," Elaine said, coming up behind him when traffic in the shop lulled again.
"Oh, no, thank you. I simply find your shop rather…"
She smiled when they spoke at the same time. "Yeah, I suppose so. It's a little harder to find anything magical this side of the world; there's still a lot of stigma about us Outer Souls here. Or at least, there is, concerning the humans who are witches and the like."
"I see. This is considerably different to Europe," he nodded.
"And even more so to America. I've heard that the Outer Souls are many more there, and more open about their practices," Elaine smiled. "It would've been nice to have a few larger groups here that weren't covens with specific practices, but I suppose that'll come with time."
"It usually does," Tommy nodded, returning the amulet to its original place. "Thank you for your assistance, Elaine, but I now need to go to the sites where the magicbeasts were taken, and see what clues I can find there before I ask more questions."
"Sure, of course. Derek knows the spots quite well, so taking him along should help somewhat. And if he's asking for a favour, say that I asked him to help you," she smirked briefly, smoothing out a clothing item on a rail.
He raised a brow, facing her more fully even as she turned away to the next shelf, refolding a tablecloth. "Doesn't that put more favours on you?"
"No. Derek and I trade in favours, and he owes me one or two more than I owe him. I take it Chikonde told you he's a little shady," she laughed. "Go. As long as you know he's of the questionable sort and you treat him accordingly, you'll be fine. Most of the time he's all bark and soft bite, anyway," she added over her shoulder.
"Very well… thanks again, Elaine."
"No problem! If you need anything, you know where to find me," she smiled, waving him out as he left.
Derek looked smug to see him again, the loud buzzing of a tattoo gun filling the small space today. The elf had looked a little less thrilled to have a potential favour cut out, but left the shop in his assistant's hands and offered to take him to the reserve and the areas he'd found the traps and disturbances. On the way, he offered little more insight into the matter, adding that a few of the people who owned the more exotic magicbeasts were less likely to talk to a Guilder about them.
Tommy almost instantly regretted Derek's grin when he offered to look into it, agreeing reluctantly as they drove past rolling sugarcane fields and into thickly wooded areas before the reserve came into view.