Her head bowed to the winter wind, Mona strode across the parking lot to the mall, her concern and curiosity about Raine now verging on dread. Since the frantic call from her normally unflappable friend, the scenarios flitting through her mind kept getting worse. Had she been mugged? Detained by mall security? Why? Raine had given no explanation, only saying she needed Mona's help now. Even if they didn't see each other much these days, their best friend bond was unshakeable.
The wind slid under her collar and raised goose bumps along her back. Fuck-a-duck, it was cold! As soon as she finished her training she planned to move someplace warm and get out of Buffalo. Not somewhere too far south though—her light skin sunburned far too easily to be out in the sun all the time.
Avoiding the revolving door out of habit—she felt trapped when she was neither in nor out—she yanked open the side door, thankful to be out of the frigid temperatures. All elves had their quirks, but she knew she had a few more than most. Growing up outside the Folk enclaves, where she might have learned about magic a lot earlier, hadn’t helped.
Mona looked around, expecting to see the management office since she’d been directed to use this entrance. Instead she spotted Raine on a bench at the far end of the hall. Mona was relieved for a split second—until she took in her usually tidy friend’s unkempt appearance. Poorly dressed for the winter, she had no coat and wore open toed shoes and a loose, cap-sleeved sweater over a lightweight dress. Huddled over, legs and arms crossed, the thin sweater tented her body. If Mona hadn’t known the woman, she would have avoided her, and not just because she could see the glow of evil intent surrounding her, but because Raine looked as if she’d been living in her clothes.
As she came closer, Mona concentrated on reading the magic, a bit difficult in the florescent lights. Definitely a spell had been placed on Raine. And in her. Twisted, violent sigils, showing the intent of the spellcaster, controlled the power runes at the base of the working. Mona would have cringed if she hadn’t been stuck dumb by shock.
Oh no, oh no, this was all so wrong. Raine was mortal—aware there were Folk, but mortal. And mortal or not, no one should have a working like this on them, complicated with many intricate mini-spells encapsulated in the larger one. Mona was very, very thankful that Raine had called her. If anyone who created spells, and not just saw them, like she did, had touched the working it would have been a disaster. Even now she worried that Raine’s actions may have triggered the warning beacon placed at critical junctures of the spell.
The magic in Raine would slowly kill her, Mona could see that much. Mona sucked in her breath at the shock. A world without Raine, no matter how infrequently they saw each other, was unthinkable. But what, if anything, Mona could do about it was unclear. She had to be able to do something. She was in training to be a Warder, to protect Folk and humans from misused magic. Even before her training a spell like the one Raine displayed would have drawn her to attempt to fix it; the need was part of why she'd been called to train. Mona took a deep breath; she needed to be calm. The working would shift, speed up, if Raine got overly upset.
“Raine?” she said once she was sure she could keep her anxiety out of her voice.
Raine jumped up. Standing, the heavily pregnant bulge of her belly became apparent. But last time Mona saw Raine, six months ago before her training had become so hectic, Raine was just starting to date someone and had reiterated she was not doing the baby thing until she had a ring on her finger. What had happened? Now that Mona saw the growing baby, the spell was even more sinister, tied up in the tiny person inside her friend. Whoever set the spell either hadn’t known about the pregnancy or, worse yet, did.
“Mona!” Raine slapped her hand to her chest, hysteria lacing her voice. “You scared the crap out of me!”
“Raine, you okay?” Because, shit, this looked bad. Really bad. She couldn’t believe it, but she actually wished her mentor, Smythe, was here to help her figure out how to deal with a spell of this complexity and magnitude. The old coot’s pedantic lecturing when they were working was beyond annoying, but she’d put it up with it in a heartbeat if he could help.
“Yeah,” Raine said. She took several deep breaths. “I will be. Shit, no one’s snuck up on me that bad in ages.”
“Let’s go in,” Mona said. “Can I get you something to eat?” Cracked acorns that spell was convoluted! Nothing like the clear, linear ones with simple branches she’d seen before, this one looped and twisted like a tangle of yarn.
“I—” Raine jumped at the noise of the revolving door screeching.
They turned as a man in tan slacks and an unbuttoned blue blazer headed their way. In Mona’s eyes he glowed with the same tainted residual as Raine. His spell was new and strong enough that she could almost make out the working despite the distance. Mona's read of his Folk abilities made clear he was a shifter, although he wasn't what the Weres called “strong,” and didn't have the balance of elf and human blood needed to shift at any time. Which was good, because the last thing they needed was for him to transform in the middle of the mall. And he definitely had weak magical resistance given the spell compelling him to act looked to be lightly set. Lightly set or not, the compulsion rune on the top layer honed in on them.