The day was barely turning to dusk when Cat and Gran reached the clearing. It was a bit odd, Cat thought. She hadn’t seen this place in the daytime. Something about the bright light starting to turn misty and seeming to illuminate specks of dust in the air made Cat shiver, like it was a sign of magic. She turned to Gran and saw the grip on her cane had tightened.
“You don’t have to hide yourself, you know,” Gran said loudly. “As Guardian, I know everyone and everything within this circle.”
The specks of dust seemed to expand. When Cat blinked, almost a dozen people were standing in the clearing. People was the wrong word, since humans probably couldn’t come inside the circle. Most of them were in business attire, looking like they had been called from the office. The one sitting on the stump was wearing a ballgown, reminding Cat of Glenda from the Wizard of Oz film, except her dress was slightly more fitted than a poofy explosion of tulle.
“I have no need to hide myself,” the woman on the tree stump said coldly.
“What was it then? Feeling shy? Or testing to see if I’d notice?” Gran asked with arched eyebrows.
The woman didn’t reply. Cat studied her. If she didn’t have a look of pure disgust on her face, Cat might have thought she was beautiful in the old Hollywood kind of way. As if feeling Cat’s eyes on her, the woman turned to scowl at Cat.
“Cat, this is the Queen of the Fae,” Gran said. “Otherwise known as Tanya.”
The Queen stood at this, daggers in her eyes. Gran seemed to have touched a sore spot, Cat guessed. And on purpose, too, judging from Gran’s smirk.
“Oh, right, you really shouldn’t use the name of the Queen, though,” she added, as if in afterthought. “Although, I suppose since I’m the Guardian, it’s okay for me.”
“Did you call me here for this sad display of power?” the Queen asked scornfully.
“I called you here to do your job as Queen,” Gran retorted, giving her a look that reminded Cat of the one she would get when she’d mess up in training. “And keep your subjects in line.”
Something about the way Gran talked to her made Cat feel like the Queen was closer to being a teenager (or maybe even child) than a monarch.
“Whatever crime you think they may have committed—” the Queen began, her chin upturned in defiance.
“Tampering with the mind of a Guardian,” Gran interrupted. “And with the mind of a descendant of the Guardians. Opening the Portal without authorization. Letting a banned Mythic into the realm.”
She counted off her list as she held up her fingers slowly. Cat noticed the proud look on the Queen’s face fade into something else, a combination of shock and worry. She obviously had to answer to Gran’s authority, Cat thought.
“Did I miss something else?” Gran asked, glancing at Cat. “I mean, other than pissing me off, which is unfortunately not exactly a crime.”
“My subjects know the rules of the land,” the Queen began, her voice sounding less confident. “No one would dare—”
“Step forward, Rosaria,” Gran said, interrupting the Queen again. “Your Queen doesn’t seem to think you’re capable of this. Surely you’re itching to prove her wrong.”
A familiar face emerged from the crowd, and Cat resisted the urge to move close to Gran. Rosaria’s expression was closer to a smug cat than a trapped mouse.
“It’s good to see you again, Ms. Betty,” Rosaria said, the corners of her mouth turning up.
“I don’t see your friend here now,” Gran noted. “The one you sent to my house before. I’m guessing he really isn’t a fairy?”
“That’s hardly a guess,” Rosaria replied with a laugh. “One look could tell you that. And I’m pretty sure I already told you.”
“Yes, and I should take your words at face value,” Gran retorted. “I just want to see if you would lie in the presence of your Queen.”
“He isn’t a fairy,” Rosaria said, her eyes twinkling.
“Who was he then?” Gran asked. “A Mythic you mind controlled? An elf, perhaps, or maybe a selkie far from home?”
Rosaria studied Gran’s face for a moment. Cat saw a glint in her eyes, like she was goading over knowing something Gran didn’t.
“Oh, just someone who was itching to pay you and your granddaughter a visit,” she replied airily. “I couldn’t deny him that pleasure. But visiting you isn’t exactly a crime.”
“Rosaria!” the Queen snapped with a stamp of her foot.
The look on her face had returned to its usual sour expression. Cat guessed that she didn’t like not being a part of the conversation.
“Is the Guardian speaking the truth?” the Queen demanded. “What have you been doing?”
“She tells the truth, as always, Your Majesty,” Rosaria replied with a deep bow. “I’m afraid I’m quite guilty of the aforementioned crimes… and others that will occur later, I’m sure.”
“All of this for a local election?” the Queen asked, her face flushed. “You seek to destroy my reputation—the reputation of your brothers and sisters?”
Rosaria sighed and looked at Gran and Cat. It was like she was asking, “Can you believe her?” but Cat wasn’t sure why.
“Your Majesty,” she said slowly with a shake of her head. “As always, you lack vision.”
The Queen sputtered at this. Cat felt Gran’s hand on her elbow. Cat took a small step back. Something in the air seemed to have changed. The forest itself was holding its breath.
“I suppose it’s only natural,” Rosaria continued. “When you call yourself Queen, you tend to want only the biggest and flashiest of titles. But, for me, Mayor is enough.”
She had walked over to the stump and settled herself on it like she was assuming a throne.
“You see, I don’t need a grand title,” she said. “I only need control over a small area of land. This land.” She gestured around her. “All I need is control of this Portal to control the world.”
“Mayors can’t exactly confiscate land, though,” Cat said, intending for only Gran to hear her, but her voice came out louder than expected.
She had fallen asleep through most of her classes in school, so she wasn’t entirely certain about the rules of mayors though.
Rosaria glanced over, and Cat wished she could hide behind Gran.
“I can install council members,” Rosaria pointed out. “I can influence representatives, governors… Really, for someone with an infinite lifespan, I can take over this whole area in no time.”
“So you’re slowly taking over and then trying to seize my land?” Gran asked with a tsk. “It might have been a good strategy if you didn’t lay it all out for us. Really, it’s a lousy villain who explains their plan.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” the Queen replied, straightening herself up. “Now that we have your confession, the trial should proceed quite quickly, I believe. You’ll be lucky if you’re only banished. Seize her.”
Cat glanced around as the Queen spoke. None of the other fairies moved. It took the Queen about half a minute to realize no one was grabbing Rosaria.
“I said, seize her,” she repeated, looking at the other fairies expectantly. “That means you.”
“I told you, Your Majesty,” Rosaria said with a bemused smile. “You lack vision. And, honestly, you’re a little out of touch with the Council.”
The Queen looked around angrily.
“Well, it seems high time for a new Council then,” she said. “After I take care of you, of course.”
The air around the Queen swirled as she raised her hands. Cat could see light gather in her palms—
In a flash, Rosaria was on her feet and in front of the queen. The light faded. Something silver poked out of the queen’s back. Red began seeping through the dress. The Queen let out a sound somewhere between a gasp and a croak. Her legs seemed to collapse under her, and Cat watched her fall forward. Rosaria caught the Queen by her hair, holding her head up even as the Queen’s knees sunk onto the ground.
“Why bother with magic when a blade is faster?” Rosaria asked, slowly drawing out her dagger. “Lacking sight till the very end I see.”
The Queen’s eyes were wide and vacant. With a scoff, Rosaria let go of her hair, and the Queen slumped to the ground. The long, curved dagger in Rosaria’s hand dripped red, and Cat watched Rosaria bend down to wipe it on the Queen’s dress.
“It was time for a change in leadership anyway,” she noted, turning her attention to Gran. “I don’t suppose you’ll chalk this up to a transfer of powers and leave us alone?”
Gran’s cane shimmered and transformed into a sword.
“Oh, I think you and I both know that won’t happen,” she said. “But it was sweet of you to ask.”
“Gran,” Cat murmured, reaching for her headband. “What do we do now?”
Gran glanced at Cat, and Cat could see a trace of sadness in her eyes.
“I’m so sorry for bringing you along,” she said.
Cat reached for her headband with a shaky hand. She felt it transform into a dagger and tightened her grip around it.
“Nah, this’ll be fun,” she replied, taking a deep breath.
Three business suit-clad fairies stepped forward and extended their arms. The light began to gather in their palms. It quickly fizzled. The fairies gave each other a confused look.
“One of the perks of being a Guardian,” Gran noted wryly. “Magic used against us around the Portal just won’t work.”
“Too bad it doesn’t work against weapons,” Rosaria pointed out. “Our mutual friend reported that you could still bleed quite a bit here.”
“And I can make others bleed even more,” Gran retorted, taking a step forward. “Cat, be a dear and stay behind me. I don’t like sharing in fights.”
Cat hated to be the bearer of bad news, but she felt the need to remind Gran that there were, like, ten fairies, all with identical long, curved daggers, and only two of them.
She felt a rush of wind ruffle her hair. A figure flew past her, knocking one fairy off her feet and sending another flying into the air. It was Ms. Peregrine, Cat realized, her heart skipping a beat. Ms. Peregrine grabbed the dagger from a nearby fairy and thrust it into its owner’s belly before throwing a glance towards Cat and Gran.
“Two miles is a good distance apparently,” Ms. Peregrine noted, inclining her head at the fallen fairy. “I’d say he didn’t sense me coming.”
“Jules,” Gran said in a chiding voice.
“Sorry, Betty, I’m an awful listener,” Ms. Peregrine replied with a shrug.
Cat felt her grip on her dagger steady. The other Tennials were there in a moment, dodging the daggers of the fairies and producing weapons of their own. She could have sworn Anne had a rapier and Dr. Williams had a scalpel.
Rosaria stumbled back, obviously realizing the odds were slowly tilting away from her favor. She began to shimmer.
“Gran!” Cat called.
“I forbid that any Mythic leave this place without my permission!” Gran boomed.
Rosaria looked like she had been slapped across the face. She held her dagger up towards Gran with a smirk.
“Well, then, I suppose I’ll have to just finish you off,” she retorted.
In a flash, she lunged across the clearing towards Gran. Gran caught her dagger with her sword, and the sound of metal against metal rang in Cat’s ears.
Rosaria aimed a kick at Gran as she swung her dagger at Cat. Cat caught the blade in her own dagger. She saw Gran’s sword swing at Rosaria’s head. Rosaria jumped back, lifting her dagger in time to block Gran’s next strike. Cat rushed forward, but Rosaria had the longer blade. She swung at Cat, and Cat ducked, allowing her body to tumble to the ground. She rolled, coming to stand behind Rosaria. Her dagger sliced Rosaria’s shoulder. The fairy turned, smacking Cat’s head with the hilt of her dagger. Cat stumbled back. The fairy had a bemused smile on her face as she produced another dagger from the air. Cat felt her body react instantly, blocking each strike and looking for an opening. Rosaria moved at a lightning speed, shifting her focus from Gran to Cat back to Gran without letting her guard down.
Rosaria’s face was dotted with sweat. Cat noticed her movements were slowing.
“Two against one isn’t exactly fair, is it?” she asked, rolling away as Gran’s blade crashed into her dagger.
“Oh, why didn’t you say anything earlier?” Gran asked with feigned shock. “It’s a bit late for that now, isn’t it?”
“It’s a shame my friend wasn’t here to even the odds,” Rosaria said, stepping back from Gran and Cat.
“Yes, I’m sure I’d love going another round with him,” Gran replied. “I can watch him run away from me in that adorable clip-on tie and button-up shirt he borrowed from his dad. Very intimidating.”
Rosaria was panting, and she glanced up towards the sky. Cat wondered if she was just trying to kill time.
“It’s too bad he had another appointment and couldn’t come,” Rosaria continued. “But, you see, he had to go see her today, before she goes back home.”
Cat’s heart skipped a beat. She couldn’t mean Mom, she told herself. But Rosaria had a glint in her eyes that suggested that was exactly who she was talking about.
“I’m sure he’s there now,” Rosaria continued, her voice sounding triumphant. “Making himself comfortable until the sunset. That’s when the fun will really begin.”
Gran moved in the direction of the house. Cat saw Rosaria adjust the grip on her dagger.
“Gran!” she yelled.
Rosaria threw her dagger at Gran, and Cat felt a rush of wind as she threw her dagger towards Rosaria. The soft thump of the blade hitting flesh told Cat hers had hit her mark. Rosaria gasped and glanced down at the golden hilt protruding from her chest. She fell to her knees and slumped over. Cat watched her face slowly sink into the ground, like she was collapsing into a pillow after a long day.
Cat turned her attention to Gran. She was holding someone in her arms. Cat ran over.
Ms. Peregrine’s face was paler than usual. Gran gripped a dagger in Ms. Peregrine’s back, looking at it carefully.
“If I remove it, it might hurt more,” she fretted.
For the first time, Gran sounded scared and uncertain. Her hand shook as it hovered over the dagger in Ms. Peregrine’s body. She glanced up at Cat, who had no idea what she should say.
“Let me see,” someone said.
It was Nurse Carroll, Cat thought, moving aside.
“We need to get her to the library,” Nurse Carroll said. “I have some medical supplies we can use there.”
He scooped her into his arms. Cat looked around. The bodies of fairies were scattered around the clearing. The vampires looked pretty bad, with cuts and ripped clothes, but she felt relieved that they were all alive.
Rosaria was laying face-down on the ground. Cat couldn’t see her blade. It was too short to have gone all the way through, but she had the sinking feeling it was still embedded in the fairy’s chest. She felt her lunch crawl up her throat and tried to look away from the body, searching for any sign of movement. Any sign of life. The air around her was still, like the area had lost the ability to breathe again.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up to meet Gran’s eyes.
“Did I…” Cat began, her voice faltering as she glanced over towards Rosaria again. “Did I just kill someone?”
Gran wordlessly moved away from her. She used her foot to kick Rosaria over and listened to her chest for a moment. Then, she pulled the dagger from Rosaria’s body and dug it into her chest five times. Cat flinched at every sound the blade made as it sunk into flesh.
“No,” Gran said firmly. “I’m pretty sure I just did.”
She wiped the blade on her overalls and handed it back to Cat, who decided to hold it rather than put it back on her hair.
“You’re too young to worry about getting blood on your hands,” Gran said, looking Cat in the eye.
Cat wrapped her arms around Gran and pulled her in close. Gran seemed to melt into her embrace. She felt wrinkled hands wrap around her and stroke her hair softly.
“I hate to interrupt,” Dr. Williams said dryly. “But we need to get Ms. Peregrine back soon. Are you coming or staying?”
Cat could see Gran’s eyes flick between Ms. Peregrine and the direction of the house.
“He can’t get through the protective circle,” Cat said. “Right?”
“Then I’m sure it’s fine,” Cat continued. “You go with them. I’ll go check on Mom. Besides, you need to clean the blood off of yourself, or you’ll give her a heart attack.”
“I’ll go with her,” Anne offered.
Cat looked over. Anne’s hair was disheveled, and her university hoodie had a slash through the middle. She tied her hair into a ponytail, like that fixed everything.
With a sigh, Gran nodded slowly.
“I’ll just make sure Jules is okay,” she said. “And then I’ll head right over. If anything looks suspicious, lock all the doors and hide in the study.”
The vampires turned to go. Cat heard a thunk as the group stumbled back a few steps.
“Oops,” Gran said. “I permit you all to leave this place.”
Dr. Williams touched his temple lightly, like he had walked into a brick wall. With a huff, he walked out of the clearing, followed by Gran, Dr. Austen, and Nurse Carroll carrying Ms. Peregrine. Cat watched them leave and was tempted to call Gran back.
Anne gave her a curious look.
“Are you worried?” she asked.
“No,” Cat replied quickly. “I just… I mean, we just fought fairies. Excuse me for worrying about something else waiting around the corner to off us.”
“Just stay close to me,” Anne replied with a confident smile. “I’ll keep you safe.”
Cat felt her cheeks flush. She heard a twig snap and gripped her dagger tightly. A familiar figure stumbled into the clearing. Though she had swapped her diner uniform for shorts, hiking boots, and a gray t-shirt, Cat immediately recognized the red eyes and pale hair.
“I saw a cloud,” Bree said, looking around. “A big one.”
Cat watched her expression as she surveyed the fairies laying on the ground. Her eyes seemed to widen slightly, but Cat saw no other change. Probably because she had expected death, she reasoned.
“I suppose that explains it,” she continued, blinking away the look of surprise from her face. “Is Ms. Betty alright?”
“She’s fine,” Anne replied. “She just followed the other Tennials—I mean…” She swore. “I guess the name finally got stuck in my head.” She sighed. “She’s with the other vampires right now.”
“Chasing down another fairy?” Bree asked.
“No,” Cat replied.
“Did someone get away?” Bree asked. “Or did the fight start at your home?”
“There wasn’t any fighting at my house,” Cat corrected. “We came here.”
Bree’s eyes widened, and the look of concern reappeared on her face.
“Then you have another cloud of death to worry about,” she said slowly. “There was one over Ms. Betty’s house.”
Cat felt her legs turn to jelly.