Rune followed, leaping rooftop to rooftop, while Janks followed the girl on the ground. The troll kept his distance, waiting for Rune to make his move. Their quarry was in a hurry and obviously nervous. She kept looking over her shoulder, which forced Janks to turn away or duck into a doorway.
Rune hurried ahead and leaned over the wet, slushy roof a couple of buildings ahead. He caught Janks’s eye and nodded. All he had to do was drop…
A bus pulled up to the curb, and the girl jumped on.
Rune’s stomach churned. But Janks thought fast. He sprinted forward, waving for the driver to wait. The troll looked up a Rune and rolled his eyes before boarding the bus himself.
There was nothing for it but to follow them. The bus turned south onto Baxter, past Cave Hill Cemetery, and then made a slight left onto Bardstown. Through the windows, Rune saw the girl sitting by herself near the back, her arms crossed, her eyes frantic. Janks sat behind the driver and pretended to doze. The bus was nearly empty otherwise, but there were still too many mortal eyes to try anything.
She got off along a stretch of shops and restaurants not too far from Madam Samarra’s. Janks followed as she headed for the back streets.
Rune leaped two rooftops at a time to head her off. Now they were in a residential neighborhood of older houses, modest but mostly well-kept. Christmas lights draped porches and shrubbery, and inflatable holiday characters graced snow-covered lawns. Rune recognized the scene with the baby; the Colemans had that one. He wasn’t sure how this peaceful tableau jibed with the wooden soldiers and candy canes and fat, bearded men, but he was bound to figure it out eventually.
The girl came closer. The street was empty, so Rune took a chance. Drawing the airy chaos around him, he flung himself from the roof to the sidewalk in front of her.
“Cahó!” she yelped. She jumped back; the knife in her hand appeared as if out of nowhere. “Nee covóot mii, cohsh! Cwan mii dii haam cot!” She spoke Riverspeak, a creole language from the other side. Don’t touch me, cousin. I’ll hurt you good.
Janks broke into a run. She heard his ponderous steps and shifted her body to keep both of her pursuers in sight.
Rune held up a hand, and the troll held back. He took a tentative step forward, and the girl slashed at him. The serrated blade of her weapon, a steak knife, reflected the multicolored holiday lights.
“Nee cwan os dii haam,” he said. We’re not going to hurt you. He allowed his magic to heighten his senses as he had at the mission. He took in her every subtle movement, every shift of her weight, every glance of her eyes.
Those eyes were big and bright and worried. Streaks of tears etched cracks across her dirty cheeks.
Rune continued in Riverspeak. “My name is Rune. That’s Janks.” He extended his hand. The girl flinched. “You’re in some kind of trouble?”
She put away her knife, resting her hand in the pocked of her fleece jacket. Now that Rune had a good look, it was way too big for the child, reaching almost to her knees, and covered in dust and grime.
“What’s your name?”
And then she wasn’t there.
Janks cursed, but Rune spun around, ramping up his magical senses. “Not possible,” he muttered.
“B’the depths, where is she?” Janks said.
“Quiet,” Rune hissed. She had to be close by. If he could hear her footfalls, her breathing, catch a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye, even in the darkness…. He took a deep breath.
Something moved at the top of a driveway: a small, dingy form hiding behind a white van. Rune was after her in a flash with Janks lumbering close behind.
He slapped his hand over her wrist before she knew he was there. She didn’t yell or scream, but she hissed and glared at him and called him several unflattering names in her native tongue.
In her hand was a small metal box with a crank on one side and a hodgepodge of gears beneath a glass panel on the other.
“The indifference engine?” Janks said, finally catching up.
Rune nodded. “It let her pass beneath our notice, but only for a couple of seconds.” He dropped to one knee to look the girl in the eye. “I don’t know who you are, but if you’re in trouble, my friend and I will help.”
“Uh, Rune,” Janks said in English. “I ain’t exactly sure that’s what I signed on for.”
Rune shushed him and kept his eyes focused on the girl.
“You can trust us, cohsh. Alright?”
She pulled her hand away, and Rune let her. Slipping the indifference engine back into her pocket, she motioned for them to follow.
Behind the dark and shuttered house was a cellar door locked with a bright, new stainless steel padlock. The girl reached inside her jacket and drew out a thin metal bar, which she inserted in the keyhole and jiggled around until the lock snapped.
She set her finger to her lips and warned Rune and Janks with her eyes. The message was clear enough: keep quiet.
They descended the rough cement steps into a dark, musty cellar. The girl scampered ahead. Rune and Janks followed, knocking cobwebs out of their way. They moved in utter silence…which only highlighted the sounds of whimpering that assaulted upon Rune’s elvish ears. His heart pounded as he navigated the pipes and the junk.
“Oh,” Janks groaned. “That ain’t right….”
“What? You sensing something?”
“Uh huh. Nothing good.”
The girl flipped on a battery-powered camping lantern. In the blue-white light, the metal grate at the back of the room leaped suddenly into view—and the children locked behind it. There was another goblin girl, much younger than the first, and a half-elven boy holding a toddler, a girl whose big frame and stout facial features marked her as a dwarf.
“Tinka!” the little goblin girl squealed, but the boy quickly hushed her.
Rune and Janks stood there, nonplussed.
Finally, the troll spoke. “Crashing waves,” he muttered. “What kind of monster puts kids in a cage?”