Just Another Day of Mayhem

I don’t know how I end up in these situations.

      “This is ridiculous, Demi,” Taz muttered. “It’s never going to work.”

      I eyed the golden bars of the lift cage around us and clutched the wooden box tight to my chest. As the lift whisked us down toward the central atrium of Arcanium, headquarters of the FDPs, I gave him a warning look.

      We’ve been given an errand so we have to at least try.

      Despite being my best friend and mostly supportive, even when I did something dim, Taz had been surprisingly negative about our chances with this task. He pushed his honey-brown curls away from his forehead and glanced warily at the box in my arms. While he looked pink-cheeked and healthy from our quick dash into Faerie, I could only imagine how tangled my dark curls were. I didn’t need to see my face either to know my burning cheeks were bright red, but my appearance wasn’t our biggest problem right now.

      Nestled inside the box was a Lesser-Spotted Unspotted Red Shrieker Bat. He hadn’t made a single peep so far, or whatever noises random bats from Faerie made, but then we hadn’t done anything to aggravate him. Yet.

      Since being given the assignment to ‘go to Faerie and pick up a package’, we’d been told that the bats hated noise and there would be consequences if we upset him. I understood the aversion to sounds but, unlike the bat, I didn’t explode to ten times my normal size and eek noxious sleeping gases when I came across sounds I didn’t like. Not so far, anyway.

      “Maybe we can cover our faces,” Taz suggested. “Then we just set it off, put the whole atrium to sleep for a bit and slip through.”

      “No, he’d be traumatised! Poor Batty.”

      Taz’s turquoise eyes widened. “You named it? Orbs alive. Don’t go getting attached to it whatever you do. Leo is one thing, but I am not sharing this place with a sleep-inducing bat.”

      I bit my lips together to keep the ill-timed smile hidden as he mentioned my pet chameleon from Faerie.

      “Are you saying it’s you or the bat?” I asked. “Because so far, the bat grumbles less.”

     Taz stuck his tongue out at me but said nothing as the familiar hum of the atrium washed over us and the lift came to a halt. Through the golden bars of the cage, I could see it was as busy as ever. The box juddered against me. 

     “This isn’t going to work.” I conceded. “He’s already reacting.”

     Taz pulled the lift's grill partly open and poked his head out.

     “I’m not sure what we can do though,” he said.

     “Go ask someone to create a diversion, a quiet one.” I threw out the first idea that came to my mind. “If need be I’ll owe them a small favour.”

     Taz frowned back at me. A favour, even a small one, was binding. Whoever he chose could use it to get me to steal something for them, or hurt someone else. But it was all I could think of as the box began to shudder.

     “We need to get this done,” I muttered. “Go find someone. Otherwise you’ll have to distract everyone for nothing, and I bet you haven’t got the first idea what would work.”

     Taz pulled a face, indicating I was right. He darted out of the lift and across the heaving atrium toward Beryl Eastwick. She wouldn’t have been my first choice of fairies to ask, mainly because she would insist on knowing the whole story first and we didn’t have time to explain. One word from Taz and she frowned, ruffling a hand through her bright purple hair.

     I peeked at the box. The shaking had settled a little, as if Batty was getting used to the noise. Before I could attempt any crooning sounds in case that helped somehow, Taz returned.

     “Come on, quick.” He pulled the grill fully open for me. “I know which lift we need.”

     I clutched the box tight to my chest as he rushed toward a lift at the back of the atrium. I hurried after him, wondering exactly how much the favour was going to cost me as silence fell all around us.

     An off-key warbling filled the air, sounding a lot like Harvey Hutchinson singing one of the famous love ballads from Siren-Sing-Along. Even with the danger of the box in my arms, I risked a sideways peek.

     Harvey leapt onto the reception desk and moved onto reciting sonnets to a very red-faced Beryl. Call-Me-Henry, Arcanium’s Head Receptionist and Stationery Organisational Director, tried to grab Harvey’s ankles to pull him down. Undeterred, Harvey jumped to the floor, skidded to his knees at Beryl’s feet and went back to singing.

     Raucous laughter broke out, the booms rolling around the atrium like thunder.

     The box started to tremble. Taz was in the lift already as I launched myself toward him. The box sent vibrations through my entire body, accompanied by a high-pitched whine.

     “Don’t you dare!”

     Beryl’s irate voice jarred in my ears. I could only imagine how painful that would be to Batty and pushed past Taz to get to the back of the lift. While I cradled the box like a newborn, Taz faced Beryl.

     “Explain,” she growled at me, ignoring Taz’s attempts to shush her. “Explain to me why I had to draw attention to myself in front of Harvey of all people. He’ll be insufferable for weeks now.”

     “Please keep your voice down,” I begged. “We got given an errand and it needs to be quiet.”

     Beryl folded her arms. “I won’t tell anyone, but you need to explain right-”

     “Keep your voice down!” Taz shouted.

     I held the box with shaking fingers as the lid lifted.

     A huge pair of murky hazel eyes blinked up at me. The bat was literally all eyes, ears and dark red wings, the furry head and the body miniscule in comparison. I winced, only able to imagine the torment big sounds would cause those ears.

     “What is it?” Beryl whispered.

     “A Lesser-Spotted Unspotted Red Shrieker bat, and he hates loud noises.”

     I risked the softest tip of my finger between the enormous ears.

     “She’s named it and everything.” Taz scoffed. “If it gets upset, it apparently gasses everyone to sleep, so yeah keep the voice down until it’s gone. Asking you to create a diversion was the only way I could think of to get across the atrium without the normal chaos.”

     Beryl opened her mouth. Hesitated. Then she nodded and took a reluctant step back.

     The crowd noise grew around us again and Batty shrank into the box with a whine that was almost too high to hear. A hint of dark brown haziness clung to his fur.

     “He’s starting to smoke,” I hissed.

     As Taz slid the grill gate shut with a clang and started punching random buttons on the lift’s panel, Beryl ran back across the atrium.

     “I have an announcement.” Her voice lifted above the crowd noise. “OI.”

     The atrium fell silent once more as Beryl started telling everyone that she was offering a tiny favour to anyone who managed to catch Harvey and get him to apologise.

     I'd no doubt pay for this later, but as the lift shot sideways into the dimly lit brick shute, I was just glad of the quiet. I’d never noticed this particular lift before either, tucked at the very back of the atrium. That could only mean we were destined somewhere normal FDPs and mentees weren’t allowed to go.

     “Okay, little one,” I whispered to Batty. “All the nasty noises are gone now.”

     Taz stared at me like I was crazy, but the vibrations began to slow. When Batty blinked, I blinked back, hoping it would at least hold his attention.

     “Don’t get too attached to him,” Taz warned. “I’ve heard what happens to animals who end up in quarantine here, but the last thing we need is you adopting another pet.”

     I frowned. That had been worrying me during snatched moments of thought between the general panic of getting through the errand unscathed. Everyone knew the rumours around quarantine at Arcanium, and what happened to the animals from Faerie that were ‘studied’.

     A quarantine place for magic creatures on a floor so protected it needs its own lift code.

     I tried to settle the sinking sensation in my gut as I shut the box’s lid. At least Batty was calmer now.

     The lift came to a stop and Taz and I peered through the grill, heads side by side. The corridor in front of us didn’t look like standard Arcanium decor. Bare wooden floorboards ran the length of the hall instead of the usual blue carpet. The walls were painted pale green instead of panelled with wood, and there was a complete absence of any doors. 

     Taz reached through and tapped an old fashioned brass bell hanging on the wall.

     Seconds of silence passed. Then a distant clanging started up. Taz nudged my elbow as a tall, broad woman came into view, puffing toward us with rigorous elbows swinging.

     “They sent mentees?” She asked with a shake of her blonde head. “Figures. Come on then, you’ll have to do.”

     She stopped in front of the lift and pressed a small button on the wall before striding off again. I glanced at Taz as he slid the grill open and we started down the hall.

     “Stick close to me,” he muttered.

     I rolled my eyes at that. After the battle with the Forgotten a few weeks back, then a couple of ‘heated debates’ I’d gotten into with the haughtier Fae in training classes, he seemed to have taken on a determined mission to look out for me. Sweet, but I could handle myself.

     We hurried along the hall, our elbows knocking as we both tried to be the one in front of the other. The woman turned right at the end and came to an abrupt halt outside a metal door.

     “Right, I’m Simone. Who are you?” she asked.

     Taz blinked while I tried to rein in my smirking. Even though he hated the fact his family was Fae royalty, he couldn’t fathom the idea that someone didn’t recognise him.

     “I’m Demi,” I said. “This is Taz. But I’m not sure if I want anything in this box being studied like a lab rat.”

     The woman flicked a look over me as Taz groaned under his breath. Thoughts of what could happen almost sent me screaming back to the lift. I’d done so much when Leo first came through from Faerie to keep him safe away from quarantine, now here I was again with another animal.

     Can I really let anything bad happen to Batty just because I’ve been told to?

     “We’ve heard about what happens to the creatures who get put into quarantine,” Taz added.

     Even when he was adamant I was crazy for challenging this, he was still backing me unasked. I ignored the flutter of delight in my gut at the unerring show of friendship and clutched my hands tighter around the box.

     Simone raised an eyebrow at Taz. Even though he was fairly broad and athletic at sixteen, she looked like she could lift him over one shoulder and chuck him the length of the hall.

     “Emil didn’t clue you in, I’m guessing.” She snorted. “Very well. Come and see the horrors we’re subjecting the rejects to that dared wander in from Faerie.”

Part Two

 

     Simone tapped a few buttons on a keypad and the door slid open.

     A whirlwind of voices and animals calling to each other blasted out. The hooting of birds echoed, along with rumbling growls that sounded feline. The noises merged together but the one gift I’d been born with, the ability to mimic any sound, also meant I had an affinity for distinguishing it. Brilliant for isolating where predators were, awful in busy situations with all the layers jabbing and grating until I wanted to tear my skin clean off. This noise though, it wasn’t filled with the agony I’d been expecting. The hoots were swooping and free, the growls playful.

     They don’t sound stressed at all. It’s like they’re all playing.

     We followed Simone into a vast hangar-like room much like the Ogle, except where the Ogle had rows of screens for viewing all the different realms of Faerie, this place looked like Faerie’s most utopian zoo.

     “Welcome to Quarantine,” Simone said with a startling grin. “Arcanium’s best kept secret.”

     I stared around at the expanse stretching ahead of us, so far that I guessed it had to extend right into Faerie. We stood on a viewing platform raised above the rest of the room, but other than the wood beneath our feet, everything was laid to jewel-green grass. Pools of water caught the sunlight shining above us, some fenced and others open. I lifted my face to a warm breeze.

     “This is a safe space,” Simone continued. “We bring animals here that can’t care for themselves, or wouldn’t survive out in Faerie. Yes, we study them, but not in the way the rumours would have you believe.”

     Taz had his arms folded, reluctance scrawled right through his explosion of freckles.

     “Where did the rumours come from then?” he asked.

     “From us, of course. Do you really think we need every new mentee and pet-hunter coming up here to gawk at all the different animals? It’d be a complete bearpit of people. Yuck. No, we aim to keep the animals as undisturbed as possible.”

     Taz frowned around at the vastness, but now I had questions burning holes in my brain.

     “How does it work though?” I asked. “Is this Faerie, like is the door a skip-way? It’s too big to be inside Arcanium properly surely. How many people work here? What animals do you have?”

     My cheeks burned at how eager I sounded, and I caught Taz rolling his eyes.

     “You’re keen, I’ll give you that.” Simone almost sounded pleased. “This is technically Faerie but under Arcanium conditions and control. We have about thirty full-time staff, and at the moment sixty-three animals in our care. Some can be rehabilitated, but we tend to have forty or so that call this their home. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that this place is to be kept secret, even from Arcanium regulars.”

     I nodded and nudged Taz’s arm so that he showed his agreement too. If this was legit, Simone might even be able to tell me some things about Leo. Considering he was a Faerie escapee, I couldn’t yet be sure he wouldn’t one day start breathing fire or turning people into llamas or something.

     “Let’s have a look at him then.” Simone held her hands out to me, and a placating smile stretched across her face when I hesitated. “It’s not my first time handling a Shrieker bat, don’t worry.”

     I forced my fingers to unclench so that Simone could slide the box away from me. She settled it against her chest and flipped the lid.

     “Hello, beautiful,” she said softly. “Welcome home.”

     Batty looked up at her with his enormous eyes, blinking at her. She blinked back and it took me a moment to realise she was communicating with him.

     I bit my lip as she closed the lid again and looked back at us, specifically me.

     “At least he’s back in safe hands now, thank you,” she said.

     I frowned. “He wasn’t before?”

     “No.” Her expression darkened. “No doubt you remember the Forgotten invading a few weeks back?”

     Yeah, I might have some recollection of it.

     I didn’t bother explaining to her that we’d been right in the thick of it, knowing that her mind was only for the animals as she continued speaking.

     “Well, a team of them were given exact instructions on how to get up here, no doubt by that woman who was here pretending to be our librarian. They could have taken any of the animals, but they went straight for these little guys. They only managed to get him luckily, and a pack of our frost cats, but not any of the other bats. We think they were after his lulling abilities. Shrieker bats are rare and almost impossible to find, let alone catch.”

     I scowled. “That’s horrible.”

     “Yes, and while we found him, we’ve not been able to locate any of the frost cats they stole yet. We have a lead to some elite Fae stronghold, but nothing concrete. Still, at least this guy is home now. We should get you back where you belong too.”

     Despite the clear dismissal, I didn’t want to leave yet. Taz slid his arm through mine as if he could see the excuses to stay bubbling up in my brain. Simone didn’t comment on the action, but my flaming cheeks had a lot to say about it. The moment we were back in the corridor heading toward the lift, I shook him off.

     “Thank you again,” Simone said. “Just press the button for the atrium once the grill is shut.”

     She didn’t follow us down the hall but I turned back and waved before following Taz toward the lift.

     "Come on,” he called back. “Mission accomplished.”

     I stepped into the lift beside him and frowned as he shut the grill.

     “So, what am I going to owe Beryl?” I asked.

     I wanted to know and prepare before she inevitably came to claim it. I’d told Taz a small favour, but Beryl might have asked for something already that Taz had agreed on my behalf.

     He tapped the button for the atrium and shrugged as the lift started climbing.

     “Nothing. I told her it was important and that you’d offered a small favour. She said not to worry about it and ran straight for the reception desk.”

     I sucked in a surprised breath, tapping my toes to get the residual jitteriness out.

     “So I don’t owe her anything?” It sounded too good to be true. “I’ll probably need to do something though, after she covered for us. Not sure what though.”

     Taz started laughing. “You’ll think of something. Your mind doesn’t tick like most Fae and fairy brains do.”

     I wasn’t sure if that was a compliment, but the lift stopped at the atrium before I could challenge it. Taz opened the grill and we stepped out to find Beryl pacing up and down.

     “I’d like an explanation now,” she said, arms folded.

     I nodded. “We got given an errand. I can’t explain any more than that, but we had to get Batty through the atrium without him exploding and sending everyone to sleep. Thank you though.”

     “It’s okay.” She sighed. “I figured you wouldn’t ask without a reason, but how well can you really know people? I had to check. I still owe a tiny favour to someone if they can get Harvey to apologise, but I doubt he ever will.”

     Taz grinned. “Well, fair warning then, he’s planning to serenade you at the Christmas dinner as he didn’t get picked in the lottery.”

     Ah, the Christmas lottery. It still gave me itchy feelings just thinking about it. As the festive holidays were really busy for Arcanium, the director, Queenie, had set up a lottery to decide who got to go home over Christmas and who had to stay and work. Great in theory, but those who got picked to go home became the target of fake niceties and pleas from people who wanted to trade for them.

     I didn’t want to go home and neither did Taz, so we didn’t care much. Until we got picked. So now I had people coming up to me pretending to be nice, or hounding me with offers for it. Taz insisted we needed to hold out for something really worthwhile, but I didn’t care.

     The idea hit me so fast I gasped. Taz and Beryl looked at me in alarm, Taz no doubt agonising that I'd left something upstairs so I could go back to get it and see all the animals again, but I couldn’t help beaming at the thought.

     “Take my Christmas pass, Beryl,” I offered. “I don’t want to go home, but I know you don’t get to see your family often.”

     I’d seen how upset the sisters were when Meryl got a pass but Beryl and Cheryl hadn’t. The three of them did everything together.

     Taz slung an arm around my shoulders, making my face go bright red.

     “Tell Cheryl she can have mine then,” he said. “Hutch is convinced she fancies him, and he’s planning to play the accordion as accompaniment to Harvey’s serenade.”

     Beryl stared from Taz to me, her mouth dropping open.

     “Just like that? You could get something huge in exchange for them if you hold out.”

     I nodded. “True, but you helped us without asking for trades or favours. Like friends do. This is the least we can do in return.”

     Beryl actually smiled. I was so used to her being either mocking, amused or aloof and indifferent, but even her eyes were shining with delight.

     “Thank you, that’s so kind. I’ll go tell the others, they’ll be so happy. And Hutch and Harvey will be disappointed, even better!”

     She strode off and I couldn’t help laughing. I’d have to fight the urge to find a way up to the Quarantine floor to explore, but at least Batty was home now, and Taz and I would get to stay here over Christmas too.

     “I feel strangely positive about getting nothing,” Taz said as we walked toward one of the normal lifts. “I thought a lot over the past few days about what I’d be willing to trade my pass for.”

     I shrugged as we got into the nearest lift and he pushed the button for the residents’ floor.

     “I didn’t think of it at all,” I admitted.

     Taz threw me a knowing look. “Because you’re odd, Sparky.”

     “Thanks, I think.” I shoved him as he started laughing. “Still, all in a day’s work.”

     “What’ll it be next? I almost dread to think,” he said.

     I smiled at the thought but didn’t answer, my mind wandering far away.

It had been a normal Arcanium day of utter random mayhem. I thought of Beryl, Meryl and Cheryl, happy to be going home for Christmas, while Taz and I had no desire except to stay. I would have to go home at the beginning of November for the mentee break, but that was still two weeks away yet. Until then, I could be here and happy.

     I can’t imagine home being anywhere else but here now.

IF YOU WANT TO FIND OUT WHAT HAPPENS AFTER THE MENTEE BREAK, THE PROBLEM WITH FAE (ARCANIUM SERIES BOOK #2), WILL BE OUT IN MAY 2022!