Episode 6: Victimize
No one said a word until they heard the door slam and the music coming through the floorboards above them. Snow was especially quiet, torn between offering concern for his injuries and remaining cautious. Even once Alistair had vanished upstairs, she still turned to the others -- Zacharriah in particular -- with a worried glance, chewing on her lip. "I think I see now why you wanted us to watch him. He really is a sociopath, isn't he?" She looked back towards the stairs. "I don't know how to react to him now..."
"What made you think he was joking in the first place?" Parker asked her, his eyebrow raised. Snow shot him a glare.
"Have you ever seen him with your Sight?" she asked incredulously in return. The other wizard crossed his arms and nodded emphatically.
"Damn right I have! And it doesn't bother me."
"And you still trust him?"
Parker scowled. "I said it before, and I'll say it again: Alistair has never steered me wrong. He's my friend, and con or not, I trust him. He hasn't lied to me yet."
Snow stared at him a moment longer, but simply sighed. "Okay," she said quietly. "I'll try to give him the benefit of the doubt, but I don't know how you could shake something so... never mind."
"Yes. Never mind." Parker nodded with confidence, but caught his grandfather giving him a disapproving glare. He may have fooled Snow, but it was clear that Old Zacharriah knew he'd been lying through his teeth. The young wizard shrugged. He would still stand by his friend.
The steps creaked and Guy came down in a towel, looking much less depressed and much more clean. "Hey, what's up? Did I miss anything important?"
"Only Alistair being Alistair," Parker told him. "But we've got bigger problems on our hands than that."
"Oh. You mean the skinwalker?" When everyone looked at him in shock, Guy shrugged. "I have better hearing in cheetah form. I heard you through the vents while I was on the roof."
"Well then, that saves us some trouble." Artemis pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose, then clapped his hands. "So we need to come up with some way to tell that you are you and not the creature. You heard all of ours then..."
"Mostly, but I was in the shower then, and I don't need them anyways." The were-cheetah smiled. "I can tell by your smell if there's something wrong."
"Eww..." Snow mumbled, but Guy continued.
"As for me and my tell, that's easy: I'm as much cat as I'm human. Give me some catnip or yarn, and it should be obvious if I'm not really me. I also have some scars on my belly, though those could probably be imitated..."
"It'll do." The Warden drew a long breath. "I'll go see if I can't find out more about our skinwalker and stop by tomorrow. With any luck, my research will at least get us a place we can start looking." With a confident smile, he turned on his heels and left.
Parker leaned towards Snow, unable to hide his smirk. "The White Council does research?"
Zacharriah snorted from his corner and rolled his eyes. "They think they do."
They didn't need to get a secret code for Lina. She was leaving.
With regret, she told everyone that her mother was calling her back to New Orleans, where the sparse family she still had needed her help. She exchanged farewells with Alistair, gave Snow a nod, told Parker he could have her garden, but he should at least share the catnip with Guy, and told the were-cheetah to behave himself and not destroy the rest of the plants. They all said their goodbyes, and the medium redressed Parker's wounds one last time, teasing him about taking better care of himself. She even made coffee and tea for everyone before she departed, but left before the bar opened. She promised to stop in if she was ever in the area again.
And then she was gone.
"Going to be strange, brewing my own tea again," Alistair mused over his cup. "And I'll have to get used to not sending patrons her way for her special drinks."
"At least I have the bar still covered," Parker said with a sigh. "I'm going to miss the help waiting tables. I can do one or the other, but not both. I may have to cut back on menu items too, since I'll be the only one in the kitchen."
"I can help," Snow offered. "I mean, I can waitress like I did that one night, seeing as it looks like I'm going to be around for a while. Don't know if I'll be able to keep pace with the drinking with the customers like Lina did though."
"You thought she was actually drinking?" Even though he was still unsure about her demeanor the day before, Alistair still gave Snow one of his playful smirks. "Goodness, aren't we a sheltered little princess! I don't drink, and even I knew what she was really doing with that beer chaser."
Snow wrinkled her nose at him, a little less wary of him since yesterday, but nevertheless annoyed. "Okay then. What was she doing?"
"A little something I like to call the house brew," Parker told her, pulling out an empty bottle and setting on the counter. "Or, more literally, backwash brew."
"Any time Lina would drink with a customer, she'd immediately chase it with a feigned sip from an opaque beer bottle, like that one." Alistair pointed to the one Parker had pulled out. "Instead of sipping, she was spitting out the drink she'd taken into her mouth. Lina was on the wagon, as it were, so it was also a fair compromise for her to taste drinks without actually drinking them."
Snow nodded thoughtfully. "I think I could manage that."
"Great!" Parker grinned widely, sliding her the empty bottle. "Here's a gift for your first day of official employment. Just know we split all tips evenly."
"I can help too."
Guy looked over at the others with a simple smile, his hands folded behind his back. Parker raised an eyebrow.
"Can you cook?" the wizard asked. "Because I don't need another waiter, Alistair's got the floor, and bar tending... well..."
"I've done some dabbling with bar tending," Guy assured him, his smile becoming a toothy grin. "Can I show you?"
"Um..." Parker wasn't sure, but motioned him behind the bar to demonstrate. Before he could even ask him to fix a particular drink, Guy was off, picking up bottles, twirling them, setting up and juggling glasses and ice like he'd done so for years. It was a brief demonstration, but it left Parker scratching his head. "I said bar tending, not flair tending, but damn..."
"Where'd you learn to do that?" Snow asked. Guy only shrugged.
"Taught myself. Just for fun. I'm a bit of a Jack-of-all-trades."
"Cor," Alistair said in awe, chuckling and shaking his head before he drank more of his tea. "Guess we've got all the tasks covered, Parker. Shall we open for the day?"
The wizard smiled, grabbing an apron from the back and throwing it at Guy. "Let's make some money!"
The usual early patrons came in, settled at their usual tables, ordered their usual drinks. Snow wove her way around, taking orders as the crowd grew. Alistair went out front and drew in nearby wanderers, picked a few pockets while he was at it. Guy attracted more attention at the bar, spinning and mixing drinks on request. Meanwhile, Parker was able to spend more time in the kitchen, putting extra effort into the dishes he was sending out, occasionally stepping out front to check up on things. It was the busiest the Voodoo Queen had ever been.
Then, right at his usual time, Zacharriah made his appearance. Only, there was something off about him.
He was smiling.
Really, broadly smiling.
The old man slid up to his spot at the bar, turned to Guy and ordered a Blue Hawaiian. The were-cheetah happily obliged, but Parker was immediately on edge. He stared at his grandfather dumbstruck, not sure what to make of this new demeanor.
Snow saw the scene and wasn't sure whether to be worried or laugh, and either way, she couldn't resist remarking under her breath, "And he just proved he's gay..."
"So," Zacharriah said when he had his drink, turning towards his grandson. "How are things?"
At first, Parker only gaped like a fish, but he eventually found his voice. "How much have you had to drink?"
"This is my first drink."
"Why are you so suspicious? I'm just trying to know my grandson." The old man chuckled. "Why all the suspicion?"
Parker was wondering if now would be a good time to try that challenge response test they'd set up, but he was so thrown off guard he completely blanked and just blurted out the truth. "You're acting out of character. I'm not used to... not grumpy Zacharriah." A thought crossed his mind and he caught Guy's attention. "Voulez-vous s'il vous plaît renifler sa cul?" He hoped the Canadian spoke French.
"Pourquoi?" Guy asked with a tilt of his head, though he already seemed to be lifting his nose to sniff the air. "Quel est le problème?"
The wizard sent furtive glances towards Zacharriah, but before the were-cheetah was around the bar, the old man's usual surly expression returned. "Try it, furball," he said to Guy, sipping his drink.
Parker immediately relaxed. "Okay, that's better."
The were-cheetah shrugged and went back to his place. "He smells okay to me from here anyway."
A few hours ticked by with nothing unusual, Snow and Alistair taking breaks from their work to sit down for a moment. It was just then that the doors opened up again and in walked everyone's least favorite officer. Major Updike had more than his typical sneer on his face as he marched up to the bar; he was accompanied by three of his largest soldiers and his son, of all people. Walter looked far less meek than he had the last time they'd all seen him, and judging by his cocky expression, he and his dad were on the same side this time. Unaware of who the new arrivals were, Parker stepped out of the kitchen with a jovial grin.
"Welcome to the Voodoo Queen! Comment ça vaaaaahh shit." His smile immediately vanished as soon as he saw who it was, and he crossed his arms with a frown. "Haven't you harassed me enough for a few days? What do you want this time?"
With an arrogant smile, Major Updike turned and pointed towards Alistair. "Him."
The rogue raised an eyebrow but said nothing as he sipped his water. Parker was more than happy to speak for him anyway. "Him?" the wizard echoed. "What for?"
"On what grounds?"
As if he'd expected this, Major Updike reached into his pocket and pulled out a folded piece of paper. "Murder, for starters," he began. "Kidnapping, armed robbery, breaking and entering a private residence, injury of fort personnel, smuggling, unlawful entry to the fort..."
"Jaywalking," Alistair added under his breath, rolling his eyes and facing him. "And what makes you think I did any of this? Besides the fact that I'm a convenient culprit?"
Updike turned to his son. "Walter, is this the man who attacked you?"
The teen's smile actually looked wicked. "It is, Father," he said confidently, as if he'd been waiting for his cue. "You saw what he did to my chest. He almost killed me!"
Alistair narrowed his eyes and felt his hand tighten on the head of his cane. He bit his tongue. He almost wished he had killed the brat.
"So also attempted murder," the officer added to the list, looking at Parker again. "And if you want to keep your establishment, it would be in your best interest not to stop us from arresting him."
"Go ahead and take him," Zacharriah answered for him, much to both Alistair and Parker's annoyance.
"Grand-père!" the wizard said with a scowl. "That's my friend!"
The old man shrugged. Parker growled.
"You're going senile, old man."
Zacharriah growled right back, his voice low. "Know your role, child."
"Now hold on!" Alistair stayed in his seat, but watched the soldiers carefully. "Don't I even get any say in this? Where's your proof? Are you going solely on your son's word here? And what's with these kidnapping and murder accusations? Where in bloody hell did you come up with that one?" He played it off casually, though he knew at least the latter was partially true. "What happened to laws that protected people from tossers like you?"
Major Updike only sneered at him. "We are the law. My son's word is the only proof we need."
"C'est merde!" Parker stepped in front of the bar. He wouldn't be able to reach his bow if this got worse, but he noticed Snow retrieving her gun from behind the door and tucking it behind her. Magic wasn't an option against these men, and he hoped it wouldn't go further, but things were escalating quickly. "This is my bar, and in my bar, I need proof before you take one of my friends away!"
"No you don't." Updike sent his glare straight at him. "And I would watch my tongue if I were you. You're only making this worse for yourself and your precious bar. We're only here for the boy."
"Boy?" Alistair was having trouble keeping his own temper. "I'm twenty-six!"
"Child," Zacharriah muttered, taking a sip of his drink. "Go ahead and take him, officer."
Surprised, Major Updike nevertheless smiled at the old man's support.
"But know this," Zacharriah continued, Updike's smile quickly fading. "We will come to get him."
The scowl returned, but the major still motioned to his soldiers. "Men, you know what to do."
This was bad. This was very bad. Alistair was on his feet and quickly running through his options as the soldiers started towards him. He was just about to draw his sword to defend himself when there was a cacophony of noise from outside that stopped everyone in their tracks. The bar grew abruptly silent, but then there were sudden thuds on the roof. The growls of the monstrous vultures along with the snarls and bleats of even more creatures rang outside. Several patrons screamed and panic erupted instantly as they pointed fearfully at the horrifying beasts out the window. More minotaurs, bigger than the one they'd fought before, accompanied by what could only be described as deermen, and the distinct shadows of even more vultures in flight. And they were all marching straight for the bar.
"Men! Outside! Arms at the ready!" Updike barked to his soldiers, drawing his gun before turning to his son. "Walter, stay inside. Hide if you have to."
"But..." He didn't get a chance to say more, his father hurrying out with his men. "What if they come inside...?"
"Here." Despite how angry he was with the teen, Alistair knew an opportunity when he saw it. He gave Walter one of his daggers. "For protection."
"I-I don't know how to use this!" the boy stammered, staring fearfully at him. The conman couldn't resist a smirk.
"You'll learn fast."
There was crash as one of the soldiers came flying through the front window, rammed by one of the deermen, the beast's antlers tearing through his chest and neck. The creature let out a triumphant cry, only to be caught at the throat by Guy, the were-cheetah transforming as he leapt over the counter and pounced. The big cat was relentless, ripping the deer's head off before it even realized what had happened.
From there, the fight was on!
Zacharriah slammed the remnants of his drink down and drew his sidearm. He moved fluidly past patrons who were still fleeing to the back, kicked down the door and pushed through Major Updike and his remaining two soldiers. Eyes narrowed, he stepped out into the street, aimed his gun at the biggest, meanest looking minotaur and fired a single, decisive shot. The bullet flew through the air with unnatural speed and hit its mark with explosive force, utterly destroying the horn on the left side of the minotaur's head. The beast roared with fury.
"Whoa..." Walter said with awe, curiously creeping out the open doorway to get a better look at the spectacle. His father whirled around.
"Get back inside, boy! That's an order!"
But he was too late. The angry minotaur made a motion with his hands and the vultures moved in. Two swooped in on Updike and his soldiers, and despite their efforts one got through, clamping down on Walter's shoulders and lifting him into the air. The teen screamed and tried to stab it with his dagger, but to no avail. Updike fired at the monstrous bird himself, but it was too fast and soon well out of his range.
Another vulture dove in on Zacharriah, and the old man was ready for him. His hand tightened on his gun and he carefully aimed, but then he stopped. With a knowing glint in his eye, he turned back towards the bar, lowering his weapon. He seemed to be staring straight back into the building as he smiled, seconds before the vulture snatched him up and flew off into the sky.
Parker had retrieved his bow moments before it happened. "Grand-père!"
"Damn it!" Snow was volleying spells through the window and had just finished freezing a deerman. More of them were attacking Guy, but the cheetah more than easily dodged their assault. The vultures continued diving in on the soldiers while the minotaurs finally rushed in. The leader landed a solid kick on Updike's jaw with a bloody crack, and his allies bashed the soldiers around with monstrous force. One minotaur rushed Guy and slammed him against the brick wall of the bar's exterior.
In all the chaos, Alistair finally escaped the bar and joined the fray. Snow and Parker could hit things at range, but he needed (and preferred) to get up close and personal with his targets. He left the cane sheath of his sword in the bar and tore through the first minotaurs he crossed, slicing gracefully through the necks of two in one dance-like motion. As soon as the corpses hit the ground, the ectoplasmic spell around them deteriorated, revealing skinless human bodies. The siren frowned and cursed. The calling card was unmistakeable.
Another deerman tried to get into the bar, but Guy slashed at it with his claws and tore it to shreds. Parker put his focus on the one-horned minotaur and fired a crackling arrow into his shoulder. It sparked with electricity and the beast cried out. The wizard prepared to fire another shot, but a vulture moved in, lifting the minotaur into the air. They were starting a retreat.
"Follow them!" Updike barked, biting back the pain in his jaw. His soldiers didn't question him and hurried to follow the fleeing vultures and their loads. That left one of each creature to contend with.
The remaining vulture swooped in on Alistair and caught him by the shoulders, but the conman ducked out of the way just enough that the grip was loose and he was dropped, leaving nasty scratches in his skin. A terrifying realization struck him as he landed on the ground: whoever was controlling the vultures wasn't attacking to kill. They were trying to take him too. Alistair didn't have much time to process the thought as the final minotaur ran towards him, too swift for him to react. The monster cracked him hard on the side of his head, and everything first went white, then pitch black as he twisted and fell to the ground. The last thing he heard was the minotaur roaring triumphantly before he fell unconscious.
"Son of a bitch!" Snow prepared another spell, but was caught off guard when the last deerman jumped through the shattered window and rammed her in the side. She screamed in agony, antlers cutting deep into her skin, and turned her spell on him, thankfully killing the monster instantly. She shoved the corpse off of her, only for it to fall into a dozen haphazard chunks of meat. Snow's face turned green. "Eww... eww eww eww eww!"
Meanwhile, the minotaur had stopped to tend to his prize. He picked up Alistair's motionless body and looked up to the sky. With what could only be described as a grin, he offered him up to the vulture circling above. The bird rasped and swooped in, but Guy was back on his feet and leapt in its path, tackling the last vulture and ripping its throat out. The minotaur roared in frustration and quickly turned to leave on foot, Alistair still in his grasp.
"Pas si vite!" Parker was already furious and didn't hold anything back, his eyes turning black as he raised his hand. The minotaur stopped dead in his tracks, bringing one hand to his throat and gasping for breath as the wizard drew the air out of his lungs. Parker held him there, focused, until at last the minotaur dropped Alistair, then fell down dead on the ground beside him. Only once he was certain all of the monsters were gone did the wizard hurry out to check on his friend.
"Damn it, Alistair," Park muttered, healing what wounds he could with his magic. He was still unconscious, and there was no telling how long it would be until he woke. Carefully, he picked him up to at least bring him inside, but was stopped by Major Updike, who stood in his path.
"I'll make a deal with you," the officer said, though it clearly pained him to do so. "If you can get my son back, I'll forget about this idiot." He cast a disdainful glance at Alistair.
Parker drew a sharp breath, but nodded. "I'll do what I can."
"Good." Major Updike wiped the blood from his jaw. "And I'll search without you, in case you screw this up." Without another word, he trekked off towards the fort to start his own search party. Parker was too drained to argue with him and sighed, heading back for the bar.
"Looks like all the customers got out alright," Snow told him as she dragged herself to her feet. "I bet the back door is busted from their exit. How much you want to bet that we were the intended targets?" She propped her hands on her hips and winced in unexpected pain. "And where do you keep your first aid kit."
"Here, sweetie." Parker adjusted his hold on Alistair to place his hand over Snow's wounds, closing them up for her. "And considering they took Zacharriah and almost took Alistair, I'd say you've hit the nail on the head, though it's weird they went after Alistair and not one of us. Grand-père I get: he's got some powerful forces backing him, but Alistair's not even a wizard and barely a magical talent. You'd think we'd be bigger targets for a hungry skinwalker." Parker groaned and set his unconscious friend on the bar, then ran his fingers through his hair. "God, I hope they don't hunt Lina down."
"She was probably plenty far off before they got here," Snow tried to assure him. "And who knows? Maybe we would have been attacked if we hadn't stayed inside and fired our spells." She looked down at Alistair and chewed on her lip. "Why don't you take him up to his room instead of just laying him there?"
The other wizard winced and brought a hand to his chest. "Still sore."
Snow didn't believe him and rolled her eyes. "You have magic, dumb-ass." She waved her wand and conjured up one of her bubbles, encasing Alistair and following him to the foot of the steps while she floated him up to his room.
Once her back was to him, Parker turned to Guy and gave him half a smirk, waiting for the cheetah to transform back into human behind the bar. "C'était facile."
Guy smiled back, but didn't seem to know what he was talking about and shrugged while he slipped on an apron to cover himself. "Anyone want a drink?"
Snow and Parker agreed in unison, and just as he began mixing drinks for them, a familiar voice came from the entrance, letting out an exasperated sigh.
"Really guys?" Artemis asked, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I've only been gone a day! Tell me there were no witnesses..."
"Uh, Artie? Last I checked, humans seeing magic doesn't break any rules." Snow gave Guy a grateful nod as he slid her drink to her. "For as long as I can remember, it's only been discouraged."
"And how do you explain the bodies all over the place out there?" He made a wide motion out the door.
"What bodies?" Parker asked, burying them all in the ground with a wave of his hand. "I see no bodies. And while I'm at it..." He waved his hand towards the broken window, the glass flying back and reassembling until it looked like it had never been shattered. The wizard nodded with satisfaction. "There. Problem solved."
Artemis gave up and shook his head. He sat down at the bar and removed his glasses, rubbing his head. "Got anything back there you're willing to share?"
"Beer?" Parker offered, trying to hide his smirk as he pulled a bottle out from under the counter. "Not a cold one, but if you don't mind something room temperature..."
"Anything. I don't care. It's been a day already, and it isn't even dinner yet."
Parker slid him the bottle, watching intently as the Warden downed a gulp, grimaced, then went back to rubbing his head. Snow couldn't figure out why he was fighting a grin when it finally hit her. She pointed at the bottle, one eyebrow raised. "Is that...?"
"House brew," Parker told her, finally grinning. Snow had to cover her mouth to keep from giggling at what Artemis had just drank, but thankfully for both of them, the other wizard was too distracted to notice.
"Things are not going well for me," he groaned, taking another gulp of the drink. "Due to limited resources, the White Council wants to see how I handle this skinwalker."
"Oh?" Parker asked cheerfully. "Well lucky you! Have fun with that."
Artemis lifted his head and looked at him with surprise. "That wasn't exactly the response I was expecting."
"If you were expecting me to offer my services, maybe you shouldn't be drinking that." The Cajun folded his arms. "They want to see how you handle things, then you had better handle them. That's your problem, not mine."
Despite agreeing with Parker somewhat, Snow shook her head and tapped his shoulder. "Aren't you forgetting something? Or rather, someone?"
"I know." He frowned, remembering just before she mentioned it. Reluctantly, Parker explained to Artemis. "Zacharriah's been abducted, and so has a teenaged boy. Alistair almost was, but we managed to keep him from being taken, if not hurt. He's unconscious upstairs. I don't know how long he'll be out." Parker sighed. "Icing on this cake? The father of the abducted teen is a major, and a major pain in my ass. He was trying to arrest Alistair for a laundry list of random charges before the monsters showed up, and I'm willing to bet he was going to use the fact that I let him live here as justification to seize the bar from me. His threat wasn't particularly subtle."
"All the more reason for you to help me then." Artemis finished off the bottle, gave it a confused look but didn't comment on the strange taste, then gave them a weary smile. "Would it help if I asked nicely for you to at least go with me to check this out? I know I can't do this on my own."
Snow stared at him. "You figured out where they are?"
Artemis nodded. "It's roughly six hours from here on foot, and that's how we'll have to go. Tell you what, one thing I miss about Philadelphia is being able to drive from place to place."
"Welcome to the Outlander life," Parker drawled. "We'll start getting camping gear together. We'll go when Alistair wakes up. He can help too, since rescuing this kid is going to get his ass off the hook too."
"I'll help too," Guy offered quietly. "I like having you as friends."
"You know I won't abandon you, Artie," Snow said with a light smile. "Annoying as you are, I was sent here to check things out too. Just point us in the right direction."
Artemis nodded again. "Then as soon as everyone's ready, we'll head out to Boonsboro."
Drip... drip... drip...
The cold darkness was barely lit by a few scattered lanterns, casting dim light on the two captives. Despite the stone bars that kept either of them from leaving their prison, their abductors had nevertheless bound their hands and ankles securely with rope. Zacharriah's bonds were extra tight; they weren't taking any chances with him. Walter was bound behind him, shivering and sniffling, trying and failing not to cry from fear. Stoic as ever, Zacharriah only waited.
Footsteps. In the shadows just beyond the light, the vague form of a figure appeared. He watched them briefly before letting out a low, raspy chuckle. "My oh my. Haven't we caught quite the prize?"
Zacharriah turned towards the voice. He said nothing, but a glint came to his eye.
And he smiled.