It was past what really should be bedtime. Shelley had to be up and out of the door in 5 hours, give or take. She hated overnight shifts. No amount of coffee could make them palatable, and 8am never came soon enough. But the pay was good. It paid the mortgage, kept her and Wuffle the Golden Retriever in food, treats, and whatever, with plenty spare for fun and savings.
She was desperately looking for jobs that had better hours but not too big of a pay cut. She did this daily, without much luck. She might just have to lower the bar again.
Thumping came from upstairs and, eyes never leaving the laptop, she called, “Wuffle, whatever you just did, you better fix it before I come up there!”
No reply from the dog, obviously, but she was entirely capable of handling both sides of the conversation. Lowering her voice into a gruff doggy tone, she replied, “Sorry. Can’t pick stuff up though. Didn’t grow thumbs yet.”
Shalley gave a theatrical sigh, “Fine. Just don’t do it again.”
The dog was something of an oaf, she knew. It was why she tried to ensure everything in the house was sturdy enough to take the weight of her clumsy companion, and ensured breakables were always secured out of reach. Not a foolproof system. If Wuffle got over exuberant—which, being a golden retriever, he did often—he could still damage things.
Shelley resigned herself to picking up whatever it was when she went to bed, and clicked open yet another job search site, hoping it would show her something other than the same 20 jobs that already appeared elsewhere.
There was a thumping sound upstairs, like footsteps, and Shelley jumped in her seat, “Wuffle what are you even doing right now??”
At her feet, Wuffle huffed in protest at being accused again. Shelley stared at him, realising she’d been able to hear his gentle snoring the whole time.
“Shit…” she whispered, aware that her loud shouts upstairs would have pretty well given away her position.
But that didn’t mean she couldn’t still give the intruder a surprise.
Placing the laptop on the coffee table, she moved, feet bare, over the carpet and into the kitchen.
She resisted a hiss as the cold tile hit the soles of her feet, and carefully pulled a large kitchen knife from the magnetic strip above the prep station.
Returning to the living room, she frowned. She had a lamp on a timer, ensuring that a light was kept on at night, saving her who knows how many accidental toe stubbings and clumsy trips. But now, it was dark up there.
She frowned and lowered her head, listening carefully.
There! The creak of a floorboard being stepped on.
Shelley retreated to the living room, looking between the upstairs and the front door.
She fumbled her phone out of her pocket and punched in 999, hesitating.
If it was nothing, then she would be wasting their time. Unintentionally, sure, but it would be humiliating as well as making her feel guilty. And she had no desire to draw any authoritative attention her way.
If she could just get a single glimpse of someone moving around up there, she would feel better about calling.
“Stay,” she whispered to Wuffle, who huffed once and sat, clearly not happy but obeying. He wasn’t a guard dog, he’d never had a mean moment in his life—and she’d had him since he was a puppy, abandoned at a rescue centre.
The carpet swished faintly as Shelley’s bare feet carefully trod, making as little noise as possible as she moved towards, and then up, the stairs.
She had already fixed the creaky boards here, so her movement was silent as she took each step carefully, straining her ears and eyes for anything.
She almost let out a scream as a low chuckle came her way, biting it back just in time.
She crouched, gripping her knife tightly in a sweaty palm, almost crawling up the stairs now.
“Sheeelleeeyyy…” a whispery voice floated down to her ears, followed by another chuckle.
That was enough for Shelley. She crept back downstairs, clipped Wuffle’s leash on, and headed to the front door.
She turned the key, opened the deadbolt, grabbed the handle, and pulled.
She pulled again, harder.
Aware she might wind up in a heap on the floor but doing it anyway, she raised one leg to brace herself against the wall beside the door and put everything she had into pulling it open.
Absolutely nothing. It didn’t even begin to budge.
Shelley heard the chuckle again. Much closer this time.
She whirled and saw a shadowed figure halfway down the stairs.
“You can’t get out,” it said.
The voice was mid-pitch, androgynous, and the shadow was similarly unhelpful.
Shelley realised it didn’t matter. She unfroze and sprinted with Wuffle through the living room, to the kitchen and the back door.
This one was as sturdy as the front door. And just as impossible to open.
Desperate, she grasped a stool from the counter and tried to use its metal base to break the window over the sink.
Nothing. Not a scratch on the window, and not even a judder reaching back to her hands. It was like the two never even connected.
Shelley began to panic. She was trapped. And not just by your average intruder.
“Oh dear,” the voice whispered, the shadowed shape appearing in the doorway, the bright kitchen lights unable to penetrate the shifting vapours. “Are you stuck? Maybe you should give up the human act and try again.
Shelley’s panic rose. How had she been found? She was so careful!
But if all bets were off, then why not do as the intruder suggested?
Shelley knelt and tied Wuffle out of the way, then stood, snarling.
The sneer of her lip cracked, and lines ran around and across her body. Skin and muscle and everything else that made up a human body fell away like cracked porcelain.
Freed from her human form, Shelley stretched, for the first time in a long time, up to her full height, and out to her full length.
She was green in colour, covered in thick fur that was as tough as scales. She smiled, showing her fangs, large green eyes flashing as she took a long sniff into her large nose.
Her head now brushed the ceiling, torso much longer than her powerful, if stubby, legs.
Her arms doubled in length, reaching out for the figure and grasping the shadows.
With a tearing sound, she ripped them away, dispelling the magic.
Standing before her was a middle-aged woman with flowing silver hair, dressed in a thick robe which covered skintight scaled armour, whose face shifted from one moment to the next, never settling.
“Right then,” the robed woman began. “Now we can both see each other, Shiellac of the Montesa tribe, do you know who I am?”
Shiellac nodded sulkily, “Ariosa.”
“I’m glad you remember. I was barely more than a toddler when you killed my father and ran.”
“That wasn’t meant to happen.”
“And yet, it did. You were careless in your criminal activities, and you killed someone. Now I’m here to make sure they can throw you in prison for it. And for everything else, all the petty crimes—those years really do add up.”
Shiellac scowled, “I’m going nowhere with you.”
Aliosa smiled, “Then you’d better get out of here fast, because there’s a team on the way.”
Shiellac looked between Ariosa, and the shielded door and window. Dispelling should work on these too…so what was Ariosa’s plan? Magic didn’t penetrate through Shellacc’s thick hide very easily, it took a bombardment to slow one of her tribe down, and that needed more than one sorcerer. The same went for traps. Bringing down Shiellac was not an easy task, and there was surely no way Ariosa could have planted enough—magical or physical—without her knowing.
Ariosa smiled and stayed where she was. Waiting.
Shiellac shuffled her feet, unnerved.
As she debated, she heard the above-human-hearing sonic soundwave of an approaching extraction team. If they got too close, she would be debilitated. There was nothing her fur could do about soundwaves.
The first pinpricks of pain began in her skull as she furiously tried to push her brain into a plan. Or anything at all.
“Oops, having trouble keeping coherent thought in there?” asked Ariosa. “Might be the confusion spell I placed on you while you were engrossed in your job hunting. I just triggered it. Have fun with that!”
The sonic sound of the extraction team was close now, and Ariosa grinned as Shiellac dropped to the floor in a heap.
She was gone from the house a moment later, taking a surprised and very confused Wuffle with her, the magic shielding dissipating just as the team arrived.
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