Juniper took a breath and centered herself. The well of power was there, eager to play. It wanted a job to do, and Juniper taught it to do exciting things. It jumped to do her bidding with the subtly of a runaway train, and she had to coax it to pay attention. She wanted to show it something intricate, but it fought to run wild, showing her images of monsters and crazy carnivorous plants. She ignored the suggestions and waited like a patient teacher, slowly building a matrix to contain the energy. A staff rose from the tree’s heart like an exotic stalk, formed of oak heartwood. Amber “fuel cells” twined over the wood, sinking deep to form beautiful designs in the wood. The cells hardened, accepting a carbon infusion that made the staff and three times harder than steel, nearly unbreakable.
Juniper gently grasped the staff and detached it from the tree’s heart. When not in use, it would appear to be ordinary wood with dull brown markings; no sense advertising its value. Not that just anyone could use it: only someone who could harness the power of the Bramble Burn could wield the staff.
She was lightheaded when she finished, so she sat down and ate the cinnamon rolls and bacon Karl had packed for her. She admired the staff, stroking the smooth surface. She’d need to make a sheath so she could ride with it, something that would attach to the saddle. It would be awkward, but she couldn’t leave it lying around. Besides, the staff wasn’t just a tool, it was a weapon, and she needed all the help she could get.
She was ready to head to the station when a tree sensed a disturbance. She looked out the one-way glass by the door and frowned. Why was there an elf on her doorstep?
She stepped outside, leading a saddled Twix, and cautiously looked him over. He was late teens and lean, with short dark hair. His worn t-shirt and jeans were clean and he had sneakers. He was armed with twin machetes, a cheap but effective weapon, and very necessary in this neighborhood. If he had a gun, it wasn’t in plain sight. Tucked in waistband, maybe?
“What do you want?” She saw no reason to be friendly yet.
“My name is Grigori. I’m looking for a job. I heard you might need protection.”
“Is this a shakedown?” she demanded, temper rising. She wasn’t paying the local gangs a dime, and they would regret asking.
“No! I’m looking for honest work.” He glanced at the park. “You’ve got a lot of heavy lifting to do.” He looked her over quickly, as if gauging her strength. “I’m not afraid of dirty jobs.”
She pondered him. Up close, she could tell he was only half-elf; his shoulders promised to be too wide and he was a hair short for an elf. Also, his ears were pointy, but he had broad features, attractive, but not pretty. “You want to work in Bramble Burn.” Times were hard, true, but was he crazy? Her eyes narrowed. Maybe he was a felon or a user and couldn’t find work. “Are you high?”
“I don’t use.” A muscle jumped in his jaw. “I’m clean.”
She gestured with her staff. “I don’t have any money.”
He nodded to the junk cars. “You have a lot of scrap metal there. I know a guy. What if I can sell it for you, get it towed? Would you split the money?”
She raised a brow. If he could do it, it would save her a lot of trouble and make her some badly needed cash. “Maybe. You got any references? How did you hear about me, anyway?”
He shifted. “My mother heard about it at salon where she works. You can ask her boss about me; I’ve done some odd jobs for her…look out!”
She spun to see what put the look of panic on his face and cried out as Twix shied and knocked her over. She rolled with the impact so she wouldn’t land on her staff and hissed as broken glass cut her shoulder. This was no place to roll in the clover.
Twix screamed in anger, twisting as he tried to throw off the huge saber tooth housecat clinging to his rump. Before she could rise to help, an orange striped tabby jumped for her ankle, jaws gaping. A machete swished, and the cat fell on her leg, spurting blood.
Juniper swore and scrambled up, ready to beat a cat to death with her staff, but Grigori stabbed the last one with a lightning fast thrust. A frantic glance showed Twix stomping the one who’d played cowboy to paste. Warm, wet blood soaked through her boot and jeans as she surveyed the five dead mutant cats, each as big as a bobcat. She shuddered, knowing it had been close.
Grigori wiped his machetes on a corpse, looking smug. “That could have been bad.”
Her eyes narrowed as she considered whether he might have sicced the cats on her to prove a point, but she couldn’t see how. He looked like a typical cocky teen, proud of his prowess.
Unfortunately, the incidence had proved a point. “You’re likely to see a lot of more of that and very little money, working for me. But you’re hired.” She checked Twix and decided it would be best to treat his cuts at the station. It was best not to ride him now, when he was hurting, or she’d risk worsening the injury. She started walking. “I can always fire you if you annoy me.”
“What about the bodies? They’ll attract scavengers,” Grigori pointed out.
“Ugh, right! Just a minute.” She was exhausted, but her “employee” could use a demonstration that she wasn’t a complete dud. The staff helped a lot, and the amber glowed as she told the oak to pull last night’s bodies into the ground for compost, as well as today’s fresh kill.
Grigori took a respectful step back, warily watching the ground.
She smirked, feeling better, and led Twix away.