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Chapter 4 Abduction

ARTEMIS'S main problem was one of location - how to locate a leprechaun. This was one sly bunch of fairies, hanging around for God knows how many millennia and still not one photo, not one frame of video. Not even a Loch-Ness-type hoax. They weren't exactly a sociable group. And they were smart too. No one had ever got his hands on fairy gold. But no one had ever had access to the Book either. And puzzles were so simple when you had the key.

 

Artemis had summoned the Butlers to his study, and spoke to them now from behind a mini-lectern.

 

'There are certain rituals every fairy must complete to renew his magic,' explained Artemis.

 

Butler and Juliet nodded, as though this were a normal briefing.

 

Artemis flicked through his hard copy of the Book and selected a passage.

 

'From the earth thine power flows,

Given through courtesy, so thanks are owed.

Pluck thou the magick seed,

Where full moon, ancient oak and twisted water meet.

And bury it far from where it was found,

So return your gift into the ground.'

 

Artemis closed the text. 'Do you see?'

 

Butler and Juliet kept nodding, while still looking thoroughly mystified.

 

Artemis sighed. 'The leprechaun is bound by certain rituals. Very specific rituals, I might add. We can use them to track one down.'

 

Juliet raised a hand, even though she herself was four years Artemis's senior.

 

'Yes?'

 

'Well, the thing is, Artemis,' she said hesitantly, twisting a strand of blonde hair in a way that several of the local louts considered extremely attractive. 'The bit about leprechauns.'

 

Artemis frowned. It was a bad sign. 'Your point, Juliet?'

 

'Well, leprechauns. You know they're not real, don't you?'

 

Butler winced. It was his fault really. He'd never got around to filling in his sister on the mission parameters.

 

Artemis scowled reprovingly at him.

 

'Butler hasn't already talked to you about this?'

 

'No. Was he supposed to?'

 

'Yes, he certainly was. Perhaps he thought you'd laugh at him.'

 

Butler squirmed. That was exactly what he'd thought. Juliet was the only person alive who laughed at him with embarrassing regularity. Most other people did it once. Just once.

 

Artemis cleared his throat. 'Let us proceed under the assumption that the fairy folk do exist and that I am not a gibbering moron.'

 

Butler nodded weakly. Juliet was unconvinced.

 

'Very well. Now, as I was saying, the People have to fulfil a specific ritual to renew their powers. According to my interpretation, they must pick a seed from an ancient oak tree by the bend in a river. And they must do this during the full moon.'

 

The light began to dawn in Butler's eyes. 'So all we have to do ...'

 

'Is run a cross-reference through the weather satellites, which I already have. Believe it or not, there aren't that many ancient oaks left, if you take ancient to be a hundred years plus. When you factor in the river bend and full moon, there are precisely one hundred and twenty-nine sites to be surveyed in this country.'

 

Butler grinned. Stakeout. Now the Master was talking his language.

 

'There are preparations to be made for our guest's arrival,' said Artemis, handing a typewritten sheet of A4 to Juliet. 'These alterations must be made to the cellar. See to it, Juliet. To the letter.'

 

'Yes, Arty.'

 

Artemis frowned, but only slightly. For reasons that he couldn't quite fathom, he didn't mind terribly when Juliet called him by the pet name his mother had for him.

 

Butler scratched his chin thoughtfully. Artemis noticed the gesture.

 

'Query?'

 

'Well, Artemis. The sprite in Ho Chi Minh City

 

Artemis nodded. 'I know. Why didn't we simply abduct her?'

 

'Yes, sir.'

 

'According to Chi Lun's Almanac of the People, a seventh-century manuscript recovered from the lost city of Sh'shamo: "Once a fairy has taken spirits with the Mud People" - that's us, by the way - "they are forever dead to their brothers and sisters." So there was no guarantee that that particular fairy was worth even an ounce of gold. No, my old friend, we need fresh blood. All clear?'

 

Butler nodded.

 

'Good. Now, there are several items you will need to procure for our moonlight jaunts.'

 

Butler scanned the sheet: basic field equipment, a few eyebrow raisers, nothing too puzzling until ...

 

'Sunglasses? At night?'

 

When Artemis smiled, as he did now, one almost expected vampire fangs to sprout from his gums. 'Yes, Butler. Sunglasses. Trust me.' And Butler did. Implicitly.

 

Holly activated the thermal coil in her suit and climbed to 4,000 metres. The Hummingbird wings were top of the range. The battery readout showed four red bars - more than enough for a quick jaunt through mainland Europe and across the British Isles. Of course, the regulations said always travel over water if possible, but Holly could never resist knocking the snowcap from the highest alp on her way past.

 

The suit protected Holly from the worst of the elements, but she could still feel the chill sinking into her bones. The moon seemed huge from this altitude, the craters on its surface easily distinguishable. Tonight it was a perfect sphere. A magical full moon. Immigration would have their hands full, as thousands of surface-sick fairies were drawn irresistibly overground. A large percentage would make it, probably causing mayhem in their revelry. The earth's mantle was riddled with illegal tunnels and it was impossible to police them all.

 

Holly followed the Italian coast up to Monaco and from there across the Alps to France. She loved flying, all fairies did. According to the Book, they had once been equipped with wings of their own, but evolution had stripped them of this power. All but the sprites. One school of thought believed that the People were descended from airborne dinosaurs. Possibly pterodactyls. Much of the upper-body skeletal structure was the same. This theory would certainly explain the tiny nub of bone on each shoulder blade.

 

Holly toyed with the idea of visiting Disneyland Paris. The LEP had several undercover operatives stationed there, most of them working in the Snow White exhibit. It was one of the few places on earth that the People could pass unnoticed. But if some tourist got a photo of her and it ended up on the Internet, Root would have her badge for sure. With a sigh of regret, she passed over the shower of multicoloured fireworks below.

 

Once over the Channel, Holly flew low, skipping over the white-crested waves. She called out to the dolphins and they rose to the surface, leaping from the water to match her pace. She could see the pollution in them, bleaching their skin white and causing red sores on their backs. And although she smiled, her heart was breaking. Mud People had a lot to answer for.

 

Finally the coast loomed ahead of her. The old country. Eiriu, the land where time began. The most magical place on the planet. It was here, 10,000 years ago, that the ancient fairy race, the De Danann, had battled against the demon Fomorians, carving the famous Giant's Causeway with the strength of their magical blasts. It was here that the Lia Fáil stood, the rock at the centre of the universe, where the fairy kings and later the human Ard Rí were crowned. And it was also here, unfortunately, that the Mud People were most in tune with magic, which resulted in a far higher People-sighting rate than you got anywhere else on the planet. Thankfully the rest of the world assumed that the Irish were crazy, a theory that the Irish themselves did nothing to debunk. They had somehow got it into their heads that each fairy lugged around a pot of gold with them wherever they went. While it was true that LEP had a ransom fund, because of its officers' high-risk occupation, no human had ever taken a chunk of it yet. This didn't stop the Irish population in general from skulking around rainbows, hoping to win the supernatural lottery.

 

But in spite of all that, if there was one race the People felt an affinity for it was the Irish. Perhaps it was their eccentricity, perhaps their dedication to the craic, as they called it. And if the People were actually related to humans, as another theory had it, odds on it was the Emerald Isle where it started.

 

Holly punched up a map on her wrist locator and set it to sweep for magical hotspots. The best site would obviously be Tara, near the Lia Fáil, but on a night like tonight, every traditionalist fairy with an overground pass would be dancing around the holy scene, so best to give it a miss.

 

There was a secondary site not far from here, just off the south-east coast. Easy access from the air, but remote and desolate for land-bound humans. Holly reined in the throttle and descended to eighty metres. She skipped over a bristling evergreen forest, emerging in a moonlit meadow. A silver thread of river bisected the field and there, nestling in the fold of a meander loop, was the proud oak.

 

Holly checked her locator for life forms. Once she judged the cow two fields over not to be a threat, she cut her engines and glided to the foot of the mighty tree.

 

Four months of stakeout. Even Butler, the consummate professional, was beginning to dread the long nights of damp and insect bites. Thankfully, the moon was not full every night.

 

It was always the same. They would crouch in their foil-lined hide in complete silence, Butler repeatedly checking his equipment, while Artemis stared unblinking through the eye of the scope. At times like these, nature seemed deafening in their confined space. Butler longed to whistle, to make conversation, anything to break the unnatural silence. But Artemis's concentration was absolute. He would brook no interference or lapse of focus. This was business.

 

Tonight they were in the south-east. The most inaccessible site yet. Butler had been forced to make three trips to the jeep in order to hump the equipment across a stile, a bog and two fields. His boots and trousers were ruined. And now he would have to sit in the hide with ditchwater soaking into the seat of his trousers. Artemis had somehow contrived to remain spotless.

 

The hide was ingenious in design and interest had already been expressed in the manufacturing rights mostly by military representatives - but Artemis had resolved to sell the patent to a sporting-goods multinational. It was constructed of an elasticated foil polymer on a multi-hinged fibreglass skeleton. The foil, similar to that used by NASA, trapped the heat inside the structure while preventing the camouflaged outside surface from overheating. This ensured that any animals sensitive to heat would be unaware of its presence. The hinges meant that the hide would move almost like a liquid, filling whatever depression it was dropped into. Instant shelter and vantage point. You simply placed the Velcroed bag in a hole and pulled the string.

 

But all the cleverness in the world couldn't improve the atmosphere. Something was troubling Artemis. It was plain in the web of premature lines that spread from the corners of his deep-blue eyes.

 

After several nights of fruitless surveillance, Butler plucked up enough courage to ask ...

 

'Artemis,' he began hesitantly, 'I realize it's not my place, but I know there's something wrong. And if there's anything I can do to help ...'

 

Artemis didn't speak for several moments. And for those few moments, Butler saw the face of a young boy. The boy Artemis might have been.

 

'It's my mother, Butler,' he said at last. 'I'm beginning to wonder if she'll ever -'

 

Then the proximity alarm flashed red.

 

Holly hooked the wings over a low branch, unstrapping the helmet to give her ears some air. You had to be careful with elfin ears - a few hours in the helmet and they started to flake. She gave the tips a massage. No dry skin there. That was because she had a daily moisturizing regime, not like some of the male LEP officers. When they took off their helmets, you'd swear it had just started to snow.

 

Holly paused for a minute to admire the view. Ireland certainly was picturesque. Even the Mud People hadn't been able to destroy that. Not yet anyway ... Give them another century or two. The river was folding gently before her like a silver snake, hissing as the water tumbled across a stony bed. The oak tree crackled overhead, its branches rasping together in the bracing breeze.

 

Now, to work. She could do the tourist thing all night once her business was complete. A seed. She needed a seed. Holly bent to the ground, brushing the dried leaves and twigs from the clay's surface. Her fingers closed around a smooth acorn. That wasn't hard now, was it? she thought. All that remained for her to do was plant it somewhere else and her powers would come rushing back.

 

Butler checked the porta-radar, muting the volume in case the equipment betrayed their position. The red arm swept the screen with agonizing lethargy, and then ... Flash! An upright figure by the tree. Too small for an adult, the wrong proportions for a child. He gave Artemis the thumbs-up. Possible match.

 

Artemis nodded, strapping the mirrored sunglasses across his brow. Butler followed his lead, popping the cap on his weapon's starlight scope. This was no ordinary dart rifle. It had been specially tooled for a Kenyan ivory hunter and had the range and rapid-fire capacity of a Kalashnikov. Butler had picked it up for a song from a government official after the ivory poacher's execution.

 

They crept into the night with practised silence. The diminutive figure before them unhooked a contraption from around its shoulders and lifted a full-face helmet from a definitely non-human head. Butler wrapped the rifle strap twice around his wrist, pulling the stock into his shoulder. He activated the scope and a red dot appeared in the centre of the figure's back. Artemis nodded and his manservant squeezed the trigger.

 

In spite of a million to one odds, it was at that precise moment that the figure bent low to the earth.

 

Something whizzed over Holly's head, something that glinted in the starlight. Holly had enough on-the-job experience to realize that she was under fire, and immediately curled her elfin frame into a ball, minimizing the target.

 

She drew her pistol, rolling towards the shelter of the tree trunk. Her brain scrambled for possibilities. Who could be shooting at her and why?

 

Something was waiting beside the tree. Something roughly the size of a mountain, but considerably more mobile.

 

'Nice pea-shooter,' grinned the figure, smothering Holly's gun hand in a turnip-sized fist.

 

Holly managed to extricate her fingers a nanosecond before they snapped like brittle spaghetti.

 

'I don't suppose you would consider peaceful surrender?' said a cold voice behind her.

 

Holly turned, elbows raised for combat.

 

'No,' sighed the boy melodramatically. 'I suppose not.'

 

Holly put on her best brave face.

 

'Stay back, human. You don't know what you're dealing with.'

 

The boy laughed. 'I believe, fairy, that you are the one unfamiliar with the facts.'

 

Fairy? He knew she was a fairy.

 

'I have magic mud-worm. Enough to turn you and your gorilla into pig droppings.'

 

The boy took a step closer. 'Brave words, miss. But lies nonetheless. If, as you say, you had magic, you would have no doubt used it by now. No, I suspect that you have gone too long without the Ritual and you are here to replenish your powers.'

 

Holly was dumbfounded. There was a human before her, casually spouting sacred secrets. This was disastrous. Catastrophic. It could mean the end of generations of peace. If the humans were aware of a fairy subculture, it was only a matter of time before the two species went to war. She must do something, and there was only one weapon left in her arsenal.

 

The mesmer is the lowest form of magic and requires only a trickle of power. There are even certain humans with a bent for the talent. It is within the ability of even the most drained fairy to put a complete mind kibosh on any human alive.

 

Holly summoned the final dribble of magic from the base of her skull.

 

'Human,' she intoned, her voice suddenly resonating with bass tones, 'your will is mine.'

 

Artemis smiled, safe behind his mirrored lenses. 'I doubt it,' he said, and nodded curtly.

 

Holly felt the dart puncture the suit's toughened material, depositing its load of curare and succinylcholine chloride-based tranquillizer into her shoulder. The world instantly dissolved into a series of technicoloured bubbles and, try as she might, Holly couldn't seem to hold on to more than one thought. And that thought was: how did they know? It spiralled around her head as she sank into unconsciousness. How did they know? How did they know? How did they ...

 

Artemis saw the pain in the creature's eyes as the hollow hypodermic plunged into her body. And for a moment he experienced misgivings. A female. He hadn't expected that. A female, like Juliet, or Mother. Then the moment passed and he was himself again.

 

'Good shooting,' he said, bending to study their prisoner. Definitely a girl. Pretty too. In a pointy sort of way.

 

'Sir?'

 

'Hmm?'

 

Butler was pointing to the creature's helmet. It was half-buried in a drift of leaves where the fairy had dropped it. A buzzing noise was coming from the crown.

 

Artemis picked up the contraption by the straps, searching for the source.

 

'Ah, here we are.' He plucked the viewcam from its slot, careful to point the lens away from him.'Fairy technology. Most impressive,' he muttered, popping the battery from its groove. The camera whined and died. 'Nuclear power source, if I'm not mistaken. We must be careful not to underestimate our opponents.'

 

Butler nodded, sliding their captive into an oversized duffel bag. Something else to be lugged across two fields, a bog and a stile.



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