Rune and Janks looked at each other and then at the girl.
“You…,” Rune said, struggling to put words together. “How…?”
The girl pointed to a gap in the bricks where the ceiling joined the back wall, barely wide enough for a goblin to shimmy through. Beneath it, someone had piled rolled-up bedding to approximate the shape of a goblin-sized sleeper. She shrugged.
“This whole thing stinks,” Janks said. He stalked to the grate and gripped it with two huge hands—then lurched away with a gasp. “Crashing waves! It’s made of tupping iron!” He pulled off his shamlee cap, and his illusion of a human face dropped as grasped the sides of his head.
“Okay, okay,” Rune said. “Shake it off. Your magic’ll come back in a minute.”
“You think I don’t know how iron works?” the troll spat. “It’s just a bugger to have it ripped away like that!”
“We’ve got more important things to think about now.” He knelt in front of the girl. “These are your people?”
She nodded and pointed. “Lolly” she indicated the younger goblin, “Sketch, and Holda.” She faced Rune. “I’m Tinka.”
“It’s…good to meet you,” Rune said.
“So, you gonna get them out now?”
Rune studied the grate. It reached from floor to ceiling, with a padlock and chain that looked much older than the newfangled lock on the cellar door.
“Let me see that lockpick,” Rune said.
She handed it to Rune and then began to empty her pockets. Lolly reached her hands through the grate to receive her sister’s bounty: treats from the mission, a plastic water bottle, a bus pass, a paper bag of something that jingled like metal striking metal, and finally a fresh pair of little girl’s underwear she’d tucked inside her jacket.
“Holda can use the potty,” Tinka explained. “But she got scared the other night. Had an accident.” Rune spied the portable camping toilet in the corner.
“Stars above,” he muttered.
He tried to insert the jimmy without touching the lock itself, but with little luck. He tucked his hand inside his jacket sleeve, but that just made him clumsy. The iron of the lock grazed his skin, and he pulled his hand away as if he’d been burnt. In that fleeing second, the airy chaos was simply gone—and with it, all his magic. It was excruciating, not physically but psychologically, as if his tether to reality itself had been broken. He moaned and backed away, disoriented.
“Just shake it off,” Janks mocked.
Rune had a thought. “Tinka, you’re young. You have a little magic but not much, right? Could you…?” He offered her the jimmy. She took it and approached the lock. She grimaced when she touched it, but she held on and poked at the keyhole, getting more and more frustrated by the second. At last she turned away. “Jimmy’s too little,” she said. “And the iron’s too cold.”
“Somebody knew what they were doing,” Rune said.
“You ain’t kidding,” Janks said. He’d noticed a wooden bookshelf on the wall. Rune joined him and surveyed the titles on the spines: Grimm’s Fairy Tales he’d heard of, the other titles were new to him, but he could imagine their contents: The Invisible Commonwealth, The Fairy Mythology, and several volumes by someone named Paracelsus. There were old, musty volumes of folklore, alchemy, and Hermetic magic. There were also plastic binders with titles printed in black marker on the spines.
“Rune, heads up,” Janks said.
The elf’s head was still clearing up from the iron, or he’d have heard the car pull up in the driveway. Car doors opened and shut. A male voice shouted, “Marvin!” Then two pairs of feet hurried toward the cellar door.
“Hide,” Rune said. He darted to the lantern and flicked it off. The children in the cage wept and muttered.
Janks was gone in an instant, body shrank and twisted until it was the size and shape of a largish rat. Meanwhile, Tinka scurried into a tight corner behind a stack of plywood propped against a wall.
The cellar door creaked open. Beams of flashlights danced on the walls.
Rune pressed himself against the wall and summoned the airy chaos. Slowly it came to him, and he willed himself to be blanketed in a veil of invisibility. It was something he’d done a thousand times. He’d be safe, even in plain view, as long as he didn’t draw attention to himself.
“It doesn’t look like anybody’s been here,” a voice whispered. They were definitely in the cellar now, moving toward him.
“That don’t explain the door,” the other said. He entered the back section where Rune and Tinka were hiding. He was average height, maybe forty or fifty years old but in good shape. He moved like someone who’d been an athlete in his younger days. He took off his gloves and laid them on the table where the lamp was. He unzipped the front of his jacket and turned on the lamp. He was only a few feet from Rune, but his attention was on the grate.
“Boo!” he shouted. The children shrieked and backed away. The man laughed.
“Henry,” the other man scolded as he came into view. “That’s not going to accomplish anything.” This man—Marvin, apparently—was nearly identical to the first: a little pudgier and wearing glasses, but obviously Henry’s twin.
“Just having a little fun,” Henry said.
“We’re sitting on the greatest discovery in human history,” Marvin retorted. “You can have fun later.” He approached the grate and furrowed his brow. “Deutsch? Können Sie mich verstehen?”
“They ain’t gonna talk,” Henry said. “Even if you do find a language you both speak.”
“How many times do I have to tell you? They don’t have to talk, though that would make it easier. They just have to…be. Long enough for me to get a clear sense of what they are, where they came from.” He strode to the bookcase.
“Where they came from? You was there, same as me.”
“You drew that circle on the ground, did that mumbo-jumbo with the mirror and the stick and the barbed wire… damnedest thing I ever saw.”
“And soon….” Marvin stopped in mid-sentence and stood up straight.
“Something moved. Over there.” He pointed at the plywood where Tinka was hiding. Their backs were to Rune; he tensed his muscles.
Henry pulled a yellow and black snub-nosed handgun from his pocket. “Who’s there!”
Tinka gasped. Rune heard it, but he wasn’t sure the humans did.
Henry yanked down the plywood, and Tinka bolted. Lolly and the other children screamed. Tinka slipped past Henry, who leveled his weapon at her.
Rune gritted his teeth. Before the mortal could pull the trigger, Rune stepped out of his corner. “Hey!” He lowered into a fighting stance, ready to spring. Henry spun away from Tinka and aimed at Rune.
The children shouted, and then Marvinin shouted and stumbled toward the wall. Tinka had kicked him hard in the shin.
Rune lunged for Henry. Henry fired, and Rune’s whole body spasmed. The sensation was like having a painful leg cramp from head to toe. He fell to the floor, his muscles jerking. He felt the sting of two metal stingers in his belly.
“Where the hell did he come from?” Henry sputtered.
“Just secure him!” Marvin ordered. “We’ll sort it out later, once we’ve found that girl!”
The next thing he knew, iron chains rattled, the gate creaked open, and two pairs of rough hands carried him into the cage.