“Sir!” The guard on duty outside the two-room suite in the Griffin Guardians HQ sprang to attention at Captain Gage’s approach. He snapped out a smart salute, but his hand fell when Gage didn’t march past but instead stood waiting in the corridor. “Sir…?” he repeated, uncertainly.
“As you were.” Gage jerked his head to one side, illustrating how he wanted the corporal—returned to his position in between the doors and not in front of one of them.
The guard took a quick glance at the sheet of parchment paper pinned to the board on the wall. “Captain, you’re not listed as—”
“Stand aside, Corporal.” Gage added a raised eyebrow to the emphasis he placed on the last word and the junior officer recoiled.
Some officers might have raised their voice, or tapped their uniform badges, drawing the corporal’s attention to the greater number of feathers displayed. That would have reminded the junior who was of a higher rank in the Griffin Guardians, the kingdom’s elite federal law enforcement agency that griffin shifters ran and dedicated their lives to.
Gage never wanted or needed to pull rank, either here inside the HQ or outside. His height and breadth, coupled with his implacable, unflinching manner did it for him. Now was no different—the corporal not only scuttled to one side, but opened the door for him and saluted again. Gage murmured his thanks. While he liked how the junior officer had assessed and regrouped, he didn’t like that a situation demanding such a response existed.
The list displayed outside in the corridor was a symbol of all that was going the wrong way in the Guardians, in Gage’s opinion. This bureaucratic keeping account of which griffin shifter was assigned to which aspect of which case in which room at which time was getting out of claw.
What had Colm said last week? “Pretty soon admin will be assigning us times for bathroom breaks, and probably make us sign in and out of the stall if we take a dump.” It had been a joke, but Gage hadn’t laughed. Not many of them had.
The two first lieutenants on duty in the observation room sprang to their feet, shooting puzzled looks at each other when Gage marched in, but both sat when Gage waved them down.
“Don’t worry. I’m not here to supervise how you’re implementing some new directive that came into force five minutes ago or check if you’re reaching your latest performance targets,” he told them, trying to sound lighter than he felt.
He made straight for the mirror-pane that divided this small room from the equally small but brighter room beyond.
It was a light-mirror, meaning that he couldn’t use it to see his reflection, but he wasn’t there to do that. He knew his uniform would be clean and crisp—Guardians’ uniforms were designed that way—just as his blond hair, short back and sides and longer on top, was regulation length and cut. He bet his face bore the same narrow-eyed, focused look it always did. What he wanted was to look through the light-mirror to its other side.
But what he didn’t expect was that the moment his gaze found the prisoner in the interrogation room, the prisoner would raise his head and stare back at him through the glass.
“The hells?” First Lieutenant Antonin exclaimed. His chair scraped on the floor behind him as he joined Gage. “He can’t see through the glass?”
“He’s a mage,” Gage reminded his fellow officers, spitting the words out. “Who knows what these magic users can do?” His revulsion left a sour taste in his mouth as he continued, “His powers have been dampened, yes?”
“As much as the regs allow, Sir.” First Lieutenant Sandrine joined them at the mirror, giving a choked-off exclamation when the prisoner sent a mocking finger-wave her way.
Gage swore. “This tricky bastard needs neutralizing, stat.”
“I’m afraid we can’t, Sir. Not until the request’s been approved and stamped by two duty officers and the prisoner’s been examined and cleared by the HQ physician.” Antonin tucked his chair back into the table.
“New regulations, Sir,” Sandrine added.
Both Antonin and Sandrine sounded apologetic, but it wasn’t their fault, nor were they telling Gage anything he didn’t know. Neither of those things made the information easier to hear, or the situation any easier to bear, however. Gage’s hand had formed into a fist, and he exhaled as he opened it flat again, wishing he could huff away all the irritation and frustration he was feeling as easily.
Few people could say, their hand on their heart, that they loved their job, and Gage would never say that either, because being a Griffin Guardian was more than a job to him. The corps was his life, and he took pride in the knowledge that he’d given the organization his all since joining the Guardians thirty years ago. That’s good…isn’t it? Laudable? Because lately he’d begun to feel that, well, perhaps it wasn’t.
He hauled in those stray thoughts. If he was feeling that there could perhaps be more to his life, it was because every moon-cycle seemed to bring with it new guidelines and directives, most of them aimed at giving what Gage still thought of as the lesser beings ‘representation’ or ‘a voice’ and making sure the higher beings—sorry, winged beings—didn’t abuse what was becoming increasingly seen as their position of privilege.
Gage wasn’t political or even very aware of interspecies politics. All he knew was that the new social climate made it increasingly hard for him to perform his duties, thanks to the ‘accountability’ and ‘visibility’ and every other hells-be-damned ‘ility’ the Equality Awareness Office dreamed up, and hamstrung the entire corps with, from its five-feathered general down to its lowliest private.
“Rules are one thing,” he muttered. He liked rules. Lived by rules. Wished all the species did, that they followed the same ones as the griffin kingdom did. The griffins’ codes of conduct and honor were revered throughout the plane, as was their ability to impose order, making them the natural choice for a federal law enforcement species. A mission undertaken is a mission accomplished. It was no coincidence that this was the Guardians’ motto. “Rules keep things safe.”
“I’m so sorry about Captain Colm, Sir,” Sandrine said, perhaps catching Gage’s last words.
Gage gave her a brusque nod in acknowledgment. He was sorry too. He’d had Colm as partner for the last ten years of his three decades in the Griffin Guardians, and they worked together well. Colm was as reliable and committed to getting the job done as Gage could want. There were always risks, in the job they did, of course, but to think that that contemptuous bastard sitting there—
“It was an accident. And I have no idea why he was chasing me. Why either of them were, these winged shifter beasts, whatever they were. Dragons, right?”
The mage’s voice held defiance and there was triumph in the gaze he leveled at Gage through the glass as he spoke. But when he added a derisive kiss to the end of his sentence, Gage was out of the observation room and into the one next door almost before he was aware of moving or that he’d had all he could take. He had an assignment and he would do what it took to see it through. That was the way he operated. How he saw the world.
“Out,” he ordered the second lieutenant in the interrogation room before the officer had gotten out the S of Sir. “Now!” he snapped. He rounded on the prisoner the second the door was closed, his eyes narrowed. “So. It’s just you and me now, scum.”
“I’m a mage,” the prisoner snarked. “Which means that I’m—”
“Oh, excuse me. Mage scum,” Gage snapped. “A mage scum con artist who used his ‘magic’ to rob money-vaults and businesses, having found a way around the thief protections. One who I came to question, which, for the record, is why you tried to run, and in your escape, you injured my partner.” He let the fury he felt show.
“What? I did that? Well, that was wrong of me. I made a mistake there.” The mage looked down at the desk in front of him for a few seconds. When he looked up again, his eyes grew darker as he turned his head slowly toward Gage. By the time he stared full force at him, his eyes were completely black, with no white to them at all. The effect was unnerving and the revealed strength of his powers worrying. Gage braced himself.
“Because I was aiming for the both of you.” The mage got to his feet, his movements swift and jerky. Snakelike, almost. “You’re stronger than your partner, though. Colm, wasn’t it? Or isn’t it, if he’s still alive? Pity. A two-for-one hit-and-destroy would have saved me time and effort.”
“Like you’ve saved us time and effort?” Gage kept his voice quiet when he wanted to yell at this piece of troll shit. “By confessing?” He smirked.
“Oh, if only anyone had witnessed it, either visually or audibly.” The mage pulled a pitying face. “If only the mirror-glass hadn’t silvered, and the listening holes hadn’t all blocked.” He gave Gage time to take in his meaning.
What—? Gage took his eyes off the prisoner to throw a glance at the light-mirror and the conduit holes below it.
“Because without a record of this, it’s like I was never here, griffin. And that being the case, I think I’ll be off.” The mage moved.
Instantly, Gage took a step forward to block him. “Oh, we just let you walk out of here, do we?” he scoffed.
The mage shrugged, as if he didn’t care, then brought his hands up at lightning speed and weaved his fingers in a quick, complex pattern. “A state of balance or a lack of motion,” he began, his voice low, and his eyes glowing a molten silver. Before Gage understood or could make him cease, he continued, his volume getting louder with each word, “A slowing or stoppage of a flow.”
He brought his hands together on the last word, the clap loud, and the stasis spell he’d cast hit Gage like a punch to the stomach. It didn’t have him staggering backward or knock him onto his ass like a physical blow would, though. Instead, it trapped him in place, unable to move. With a caw of triumph, the prisoner thumbed his nose at Gage, opened the door and walked out.
No. No no no! We should have neutered him, regulations be damned! Gage heaved in a breath, fighting with all his strength. That troll-dung mage had said Gage was stronger than his partner, which was true, but not true enough. Gage was stronger than any Griffin Guardian currently in the corps or in its records. He trained and honed the strength and resistance in his muscles and sinews and mind and spirit, increasing year-on-year what he could battle—and defeat.
Fighting the spell cast on him was like pulling himself along a too-narrow corridor whose walls were lined with broken glass, but he ignored the jagged shards ripping into him and actually—he saw, glancing down—rending his uniform and cutting his flesh. The pain barely registered and any spots of blood staining the gray tunic and pants vanished, just as rips in the fabric disappeared.
With one final almighty heave Gage was free. Panting, he shook off the remains of the stasis bind to hurl himself to the door. The mage was at the end of the corridor by now, and there was enough of his residual power left dusted on Gage for Gage to see the outline of the shield spell the prisoner had cloaked himself in.
The pull of the magic used snapped from its victim to its caster, the rogue mage who stopped in his tracks and turned around. The drop of the prisoner’s jaw on seeing Gage free was the only amusing thing about the situation. The mage whipped around again and broke into a run.
“Stop!” Gage yelled, and the command in his voice had everyone freezing…everyone except the one he wanted to, the one who was making for the large window at the end of the corridor.
The mage ran faster, gathering speed and power. If that didn’t give a hint about his escape plan, the hissed incantation and his hand outstretched toward the window did. A crack and the glass was gone. It hadn’t shattered, but vanished, leaving the window frame gaping empty. The mage had already demonstrated an affinity with glass, but Gage had no intention of letting the bastard use it as an exit route. He sped up too.
“Captain, you can’t!” Second Lieutenant Ralnd yelled behind him.
Oh, but Gage could. This was his case and he was doing whatever it took to close it.
Whatever it took.