"Turn here," the portly man said.
She did. "So you see him?" she said. She cast a glance at him through the rear view mirror and saw that his eyes were still closed. "Got anything?"
He raised up a finger to shush her and frowned, brow furrowing.
"I think. . . I. . . Yes! Left up ahead! Left!"
The limo squealed as she took sharp turn, nearly taking on two wheels.
"This thing doesn't exactly turn easy!" she said. "Give me a little warning!" She pulled down an alley way just barely big enough to squeeze into. Nobody followed them.
"I'm warning you now, squirt, I--" His eyes flew open. "Oh no."
"What?" She killed the engine and turned to face him. "Zeb? Zeb what--?"
The man unbuckled his seat and clamored out the door. Claire grit her teeth, grabbed her baton, and followed suit. If Zeb was moving fast, then that meant big trouble.
Zeb was standing in front of the car, favoring his left side. Claire absently noticed he'd forgotten his cane inside the limo.
"Zeb," she said, her voice low. "Is it-?"
There was a sudden gust of wind blown down the alley strong enough to kick up every leaf, can, and piece of trash towards the duo. It was hot, and it was damp, and it smelled like rotten meat.
Zeb held up his hand, palm out towards the alley.
"Come out, Talagon!" he said to the empty air. "I know you're here!"
To Claire, it looked as though the new man stepped out of nothing. There was no sign of any portal or spell, no puff of smoke or flash of light to signal his appearance, save for the slightest shimmer in the air. The newcomer was tall, thin, and would have been considered well dressed in the 1800s, with a high-waisted vest, a coat with tails, and a cravat. He smiled at the two mildly, and his slightly-curled blond hair was almost long enough to cover the tell-tale points of his ears.
"Very well, Zebulain," he said in an airy British accent. He opened his arms, as if gesturing to the alley around them. "You caught me."
He snapped his fingers, there was a flash of blinding light. Claire turned away, eyes closed, but was too slow to shut it out entirely, and her vision filled with dancing red spots. The force of the elf's blast of magic threw her back, and she landed roughly on the hood of the limo.
"Ugh," she said, sitting up. There was definitely a dent in the hood. She'd been lucky her head hadn't hit the windshield. Blearily, she checked her bracelet, a thick silver one carved with arcane runes, with a gem inlaid on top. A pang of relief flooded her chest; the bracelet seemed undamaged.
Zeb and Talagon stood a few feet away. An opalescent forcefield that looked for all the world like a giant soap bubble surrounded Zeb, ready to sheild him from any oncoming magical assaults. Talagon stood facing him, a swirling, inky darkness at his back and around his feet. The darkness branched out at his back like writhing tentacles, spreading across the alley on the ground and onto the sides of the buildings on either side of them. Claire wrinkled her nose. The air stank of necromancy and shadow magic.
"What was their plan, Zebulain?" Talagon said, projecting his voice. "The Order sends a crippled old man to stop me?"
Talagon drew back his arm and hurled a bold of dark, Aetheric energy. Zebulain raised his hand, as if hitting it away, and the bolt blasted off the side of the wall, taking out a chunk of concrete. Claire slid off the hood, trying to make herself seem less noticeable. Zeb needed his cane. If she could just get to it. . .
The two were sparring, now, with Talagon on the offensive. It was all Zeb could to to block his attacks. Talagon threw dark lightning, Zeb's forcefield expanded to absorb the blast. Talagon rained down dark fire, Zeb moved as though he were performing Tai-Chi and guided the fire away from himself, back towards the elf.
Claire tucked her baton into her inner-coat pocket and crept to the passenger side where Zeb had been seated. She tried to open the door, but it was jammed shut.
"Oh crabapples," she hissed, tugging on the door has hard as she could while trying not to be noticed. She was so focused on the door and getting the cane, she didn't see when Zeb's shield finally broke under a rain of burning hail. All she saw, out of the corner of her eye, was something being launched down down the alley and into a fire escape. She heard the crack and looked up in time to see Zeb's body fall from the elevated stairway onto the concrete.
For a second, there was nothing. No noise. No breath. She thought later that her heart might've stopped beating. Then, she heard Talagon laugh-- the elfin laugh all his kind had that usually brought to mind golden sunsets and bells, but from him only made her think of psychiatric wards and rotting cloth. She turned and saw Talagon striding towards Zeb's body, his hand out like he was about to do more to him.
The world rushed back to motion.
"Get away from him!" Claire shrieked. She ran between the two men and faced Talagon head on.
"Who are you?" said Talagon.
She tried desperately to remember her training. "Talagon Othelriel, former Lord of the Sidhe Courts, by command of the Order Arcane, you are under arrest for--"
He was frowning at her, head tilted. "You smell. . . odd," he said, wrinkling his nose. "There's something wrong with your magic."
"You are charged with--"
"Clarion," he said, snapping his fingers like he'd just remembered. "Clarion Ngwenya! The Jinx. I've heard about you."
"You're under arrest," she said again, her voice shaking.
"Here I am," he said. "So tell me, what do you intend to do?" He took a step forward.
Claire felt fear rising in her chest. Zeb was hurt. If he was alive, he'd heal, but he wasn't getting up any time soon, and his cane-- his focus-- was still stuck in the limo. She'd never done this before on her own, and now their lives were depending on her--
The gem on her bracelet burned a vibrant red, growing warmer by the second. She covered the bracelet with her other hand and turned partly away from Talagon. "Stay back!" she said, an edge of panic in her voice.
Talagon grinned, seeming to enjoy her fear.
"Or what, jinx child?" Shadows gathered at his back. These ones were not just strange, swirling tendrils, but creature made of darkness. The crawled out of his back and stood along side him, mouths open, their silhouetted teeth large and sharp.
Somewhere behind her, Zebulain groaned. Relief blossomed her chest. Still alive then.
"I said you're under arrest," Claire said again, voice bolder. She produced her baton from her pocket and held it up like Zeb had trained her to do.
Talagon stopped mid-stride.
"Is that. . . Is that an anime thing?" he said.
Claire looked at her wand. It looked like it was made of hard plastic. It was long, pink, and topped with two inward-facing gold spirals that formed the shape of a heart. On top of the heart was a crown. Below the heart was a gold bow. In short, it was a replica Spiral Heart Moon Rod from Sailor Moon that she had gotten online when she was twelve.
"That is!" said Talagon. He sounded excited. "That's an anime thing! I can't believe it! That's so pathetic. That's so. . . nerdy."
"Shut up!" Claire said.
Then Talagon pointed at her and snapped his fingers. The shadow monsters sprang towards her.
Claire yelped and threw her hands up, shielding her face. With a brief direction of will, the ambient power that had been burning through the gem in bracelet broke free. Without a focus, as had happened so many times before, the magic would have gone wild. It would have destroyed anything, or created anything. It could have blasted anything in front of her and reduced it all to ash, or it could have turned her purple polkadot, or it could have caused an earthquake. It could have set fires ten miles away, or it could have extinguished the lives of every insect within city limits. The possibilities, horrifying and unknown, were endless.
But she had a focus. Instead of spraying out in a wild burst, the power coursed through the wand in her hand, and waves of twisting, pale pink light shot out of the crown, enveloping the oncoming shadows. There was a brief moment where the shadow creatures' silhouetted jaws opened to scream in shock and terror, screams that had no voice but drilled their way directly into Claire's mind, but it was only for a second, maybe half of one. The light tore through the shadows and began to take form a few feet before reaching Talagon.
Through the chaos, Claire could see Talagon looking at her and her light, mouth agape, eyes wide, as the light barreled directly towards him. He closed his eyes and flinched-- something she'd never seen any elf do before-- and he waited for the devastating light.
What he got were bubbles.
Hundreds upon hundreds of glistening, soapy bubbles, tinged slightly pink. The smallest was the size of a pea. The largest were big enough to fit a basketball inside. They surrounded the elf harmlessly. Some popped. Some stuck to his clothes. Some collided into each other and formed larger bubbles, then popped from the stress.
He stared. There was a solid few seconds of silence that stretched endlessly between them. Then, Talagon laughed.
"Bubbles?" he said.
"Shut up!" Claire said, face burning.
"Bubbles!" he said again. He held his hand out to catch a few. "To think I was afraid for a moment there, jinx!"
"Shut up!" Claire said again, whipping her baton forward, shaking it and trying to get it to do something useful.
A beam of pink and gold light spilled out. Talagon raised his arms and called up a towering wall of darkness to protect him. When the pink light ceased a moment later, he lowered his wall and laughed some more.
"Oh ye gods!"
Everywhere the beam of light had touched was now covered in stickers. Layered with stickers. Carpeted, cocooned, and engulfed by stickers. Bright, cheerful stickers of pink hearts and cute animal faces and glittering seashells covered a good chunk of the alley now. Stylized flowers, unicorns, rainbows, dolphins-- there was nothing that would be out of place in a Lisa Frank binder.
Talagon started towards her again, casually and slow. He sauntered. "Jinx," he said, as though he were sharing a secret. "You're becoming more entertaining by the second."
His eyes glinted, and Claire suddenly remembered the old stories about the Sidhe. How they'd steal away people they found interesting. Children. Artists. Musicians.
He came closer. Five feet away. Three feet. Then, he was within arm's reach. He eyed her in a way that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand straight up.
"What's the matter, child?" he said. "Suddenly shy?" He reached out like he was going to touch her.
Claire closed her eyes and held the wand two-handed. "Moon Spiral Heart Attack!" she hollered, hitting him upside the head. There was a heavy thunk, much louder than any plastic toy could produce, but the correct sound for a plastic toy that had been reconfigured to have iron and silver painted pink and gold. There was a crack as Talagon's nose broke and began gushing scarlet-and-silver blood.
Talagon screamed in pain. His skin burned and peeled where the wand had touched him, and any protective magics he had dispelled.
"What?" he screeched, backing away and shielding himself with his arms.
"Eat iron, elf!"
She followed him, thwacking him furiously with the wand.
"Stop resisting!" she shouted, giddy with fear and adrenaline. She couldn't help herself. It was working! He was on the run! He was--
With a piercing cry that shattered windows, lamp lights, and the limousine's windshield, Talagon stepped backwards into thin air, with only a slight haze in the air to show his passing.
--on the run.
Claire stood, waiting. Her heart was pounding, her ears were full of the sound of rushing blood. She couldn't feel out timelines and anomalies like Zeb could. She had no idea if Talagon was truly gone, or if he was there, invisible, waiting for her to let her guard down.
There was a groan from behind her.
Cautiously, she went to Zeb.
The old man was struggling to his feet, leaning heavily against the wall.
"Zeb!" she said, going to help him up. "Did you see that?"
"Part," he grunted. "Auugh. My back. . . "
"I scared him off," she said. "I beat up an elf."
"I saw, kiddo. Got him right in the schnoz Good work. But. . . bubbles? Really?
"I was going for fire," she said, tucking under his arm and taking his weight on her shoulder. "Big spurts of hellfire. Bubbles just sorta happened. Where'd he go?"
"Back to the 2000s, I'd wager."
"Do you think we stopped him from changing the future?" Claire said, leading him to the car.
Zeb closed his eyes for a moment, leaning against the vehicle. "Well, the timelines seem fine, and no big-wig political magicians from back home are telepathically yelling my ears off, so I'm guessing we stopped him."
"Zeb," she said, suddenly exhausted. "Let's go home. This time period sucks."
"Agreed," Zeb said. "Wait a sec." He touched the passenger door of the limousine and it crumpled inward like tissue paper, shrinking in on itself until it was a molten blob of metal the size of his fist. He grabbed his cane.
"Last time I ever use a company car," he grumbled. "None of those office types have any idea about practicality. It's all image image image. . ."
He used the cane to point at the wall across from them, and a violet portal opened up. It moved like turbulent water and emanated purple light.
Together, the two walked through, and vanished.
The alley was quiet.