Olivia paused to admire the shiny new copper plaque on the office’s heavy wooden door. She had meant to buy one for a long time now—her business was well into its third year—but had never gotten around to it. It had taken a heated exchange with a centuries-old cursed portrait that had exploded out of its containment wards a few weeks prior—as well as one very broken door—for her to finally order the thing.

Knight Curse Breaking Agency

She had to admit, that was one catchy name. She still felt the same twitch in her heart as when she’d first filed her business with the York City Register. After one last proud look and a swipe of her sleeve to make the metal gleam even brighter in the fading light, Olivia raised her hand to the door handle.

A heavy sigh escaped her. She’d hoped for a quiet late afternoon to catch up on some over-due reports, but if the grunts and loud thumps coming from the other side of the door were any indication, she could kiss it goodbye.

As soon as she entered the room, Olivia understood her instinct hadn’t failed her and the grimoire they’d gone to retrieve the previous day had acted with a very suspicious calm.

Godwyn was now kneeling on the floor in the middle of the office, wrestling a floating gargantuan of a book into one of their silverstone cages. The book was having none of it and kept trying to escape out the window. Even though Godwyn kept a strong grip on it and pushed with all his might, the grimoire only hovered over the cage’s opening but refused to go in, lifting him off the floor with every jolt.

They must have been at it for a while now, because Olivia had rarely seen the well-put-together and wealthy Baron Godwyn de Mowbray, looking so disheveled. His normally flawless dark hair was tousled every which way, and his crisp shirt had long since come undone. Olivia even noticed his expensive tie lying discarded on a desk.

Meanwhile, their newest employee, Cornelius, sat cross-legged not far away, channeling his magic into the arcane circle around them, trying to weaken the artifact. He was also chanting under his breath, no doubt as a way to keep his concentration, because you couldn’t hear a single thing over the deafening rattling of the book.

In addition to trying to make a break for it, the artifact also desperately wanted to open and reveal its musty, crinkling pages. Being bound by thick steel chains severely impaired its endeavor, but the stubborn book compensated by shaking violently and making an absolute ruckus.

Perfectly confident that her employees had the situation well in hand, Olivia carefully sidestepped them to get to her private office at the back. Her assistant, Adeline, was sitting at her desk, calmly sipping a cup of tea and enjoying the wrestling match happening before her.

As usual, she was impeccably dressed in a grey pencil skirt and elegant silk blouse with a string of pearls around her neck. Her long auburn hair cascaded over one shoulder in gracious waves. She had accentuated the cat-eye shape of her eyes with dark eyeshadow and painted her lips her signature wine red shade.

Olivia couldn’t see them, but she knew Adeline was wearing her customary high heels. In all three years they had known each other, she had never seen the other woman wear anything else. Through icy rain or winter snow, she could be found prowling through the city streets as graceful as a panther in the deep forest.

“Have you managed to hear from Mr Mclaren?” Olivia asked her. “All the paperwork is prepared and ready to go, we only need his signature.”

Her secretary grimaced. “I left a message, but he hasn’t called back yet. I have a bad feeling about it.”

Olivia sighed. Getting new cases lately had proved to be an uphill battle. It seemed like every time she managed to sell their services to a prospective client, he ended up choosing one of their competitors at the very last minute.

It wasn’t the fact that cursed artifacts were rare. Oh no, the amount of them all over the country was astronomical. But most prospective clients preferred to choose a curse breaking firm that had been recommended to them and so most of the jobs were acquired by reputation and word of mouth.

Olivia had had a terribly difficult start when she first created her agency, with hardly any cases. But, after a few months, they'd carved out a small but loyal clientele, thanks in part to having the best completion rate of any agency in town. She still remembered the first year or so when they’d had to deal with the worst cases, the ones no other agency wanted. It had been challenging and quite dangerous at times, but at the end of the day, they got results, and results talked.

Or so she thought. She didn’t know why, but things seemed to have taken a turn for the worse in the past few months, with hardly any new cases. If she didn’t find a solution and quickly, they would have no choice but to close the business early next year. But Olivia was determined not to let that happen. They’d all worked tirelessly to get the business off the ground, she’d be damned if they let it fizzle and die now. It was time for a bold new tactic.

“I’ve got other news,” Adeline said, bringing her out of her bleak thoughts. “A Ministry official came by to see you this afternoon. Since you weren’t here, he said he would come back at six o’clock. Left his card.”

She handed Olivia a simple white calling card that read “Ryder Isaksson, Dark Artifacts Department, Scottish Arcane Ministry, Edinburgh Scotland”.

Curiosity and excitement mixed with wariness gripped her. Ministry officials could mean two very distinct things. Exciting new cases — since the Ministry tended to step in and take over if the situation was too dangerous for members of the public — or security inspections and delightful unannounced audits.

She wasn’t looking forward to playing Russian roulette, as she didn’t feel very lucky today.

“Isaksson…” Olivia frowned. “That’s strange, I’ve never heard this name before, and I know pretty much everyone who works at the Department. Did you recognize him?”

Behind her, Godwyn let out an impressive string of curses for a noble heir before yelling at Cornelius to help him with this “demonic mule of a book”.

“I’ve never seen him before, and I don’t recognize his name either,” Adeline responded. “When he came in, I was surprised to learn he worked for the Ministry with the way he was dressed. He looked more like a detective or former military than anything. Maybe even a private investigator.”

“I hope he was here to hire us for a new case and not for a security assessment. I still have a ton of paperwork left over to finish, and I’m not looking to add another five thousand pages to the list.”

“If that’s the case, I’ll distract him while you make a run for it out the window,” Adeline winked.

Knowing her secretary, this wasn’t an empty joke.

With her seductive looks and sharp wit, she had been known to get them out of some tough situations. Distracting a client, charming an official out of some classified information, or even gaining them entry into restricted places. Her secretary could have a very successful career as a spy if she ever quit the agency.

“Do you mind asking around to see what you can figure out about him?” Olivia asked her.

“As if I needed asking.”

Olivia smiled at her secretary’s tart response and headed to her office just as a loud, victorious shout sounded behind her.

First order of business: change Mr Mclaren’s mind. She picked up her phone with the firm intention of telling him all about the many merits of her agency.

 

*****

 

Olivia snapped the telephone receiver back into its stand and groaned, rubbing her temples.

Her valiant efforts to change Mclaren’s mind had been a big waste of time. He himself admitted being impressed by their success rates and thought they might be the better choice since they’d already dealt with a similar artifact a few months ago. But the Dryden Agency had been recommended to them by a long-time friend of the family, and he played golf every Sunday with the owner’s father.

Apparently, golf ranked higher than common sense.

Maybe she should talk to Adeline about opening a ladies’ club as a side business. All the most influential women of society would come to their soirées and discuss their various business interests and political opinions over games of whist. She could rival golf courts with gambling tables and get the name of the agency out there.

Her secretary would love it.

Olivia checked the time, and seeing it was nearing her meeting with the mysterious Ministry official, she decided to indulge in a little survey of her competition. She pulled out her newest issue of the Cursed Herald from under a thick pile of paperwork —managing to catch her teacup before she sent it flying out in the process — and leaned back in her chair, her feet propped up on a corner of her desk.

As the magazine of choice for anyone in the curse breaking field, it listed the most notorious or peculiar jobs done by curse breakers. She herself had had a few jobs featured in the magazine, which she was immensely proud of.

It certainly hadn’t been easy, as the curse breaking community could turn very competitive. Also arguably, a tad bloodthirsty when it came to who would get the most unusual and exciting cases. All in good sport, of course.

Case in point, every year, the Cursed Herald organized a competition for the most exceptional job accomplished. And every curse breaking agency in the country fought tooth and nail to get to the podium. No one would sabotage or steal a job from another agency, but short of that, curse breakers were a ruthless lot.

Winning that competition would be the perfect answer to all their problems. It would propel them among the top agencies in the country, guaranteeing them a lifelong supply of cases. All that was left to do, was find the craziest, most impossible job and impress her colleagues.

A satisfied smile grew on her face as she flipped through the pages of the magazine. So far, she hadn’t read about any job worthy of the title. Which meant she still had an opportunity to blow the socks off her colleagues and get her firm the recognition it deserved.

She couldn’t wait.

“Cornelius, watch out, the lock is breaking!”

Olivia barely had time to sigh before she heard pandemonium ensue once again in the other room.

She started to rise from her seat, but when she heard a shouted volley of orders, she decided to leave the crisis in the capable hands of her staff. She desperately needed to go through the paperwork she had managed to accumulate over the last week.

Bringing the heavy piles in front of her, she critically examined their height. She didn’t know how, but she was certain the reports and various accounts had somehow managed to multiply during the night. And how it was possible to have so many forms to fill out with so few cases, she had no idea.

She tried to tune out the sounds coming from the epic battle next door and reached for the first folder.

“In position!” She heard someone shout.

Olivia froze.

She clearly recognized Godwyn’s voice, but that’s when she realized… The person who had been issuing orders moments earlier wasn’t him. In fact, she didn’t know his voice at all.

Olivia leaped out of her chair, taking off at a run toward the other room. She flung the door open and skidded to a halt, her eyes growing wide.

A huge beast of a man, with disheveled dark blond hair and large shoulders, stood on top of one of their desks.

Someone nearby yelled “Go!” and that spurred the giant into action. He flexed his knees, biceps bulging under his shirt, and launched himself into the air to tackle the flying grimoire. The force of his momentum swung them wildly to the side, but the book held on, making them almost reach the ceiling.

Godwyn and Cornelius each had a deathly grip on a length of chains tied to it and were groaning and cursing, trying to bring both book and stranger back down. Her secretary, Adeline, stared from across the room with her mouth gaping open, clutching a long, black jacket to her chest.

The book made a solid effort to try and knock the stranger off, swinging them both from side to side like a dog protecting his bone.

“Come on, gentlemen, just a little more!” The mysterious man bellowed, unperturbed to be swung all over the place.

His battle cry took Olivia out of her shock, and she ran up to their group, grabbed a free length of chain, and started pulling with all her might.

Inch by agonizing inch, they managed to subdue the grimoire and lower it down to the ground. When the stranger’s feet hit the floor, he wrestled the book into the open steel cage, arm muscles bulging with the effort.

After what felt like hours, they finally shoved the grimoire inside, and Godwyn rushed to latch the cage’s lock. He leaned his body against a wall, and slid down to the floor, exhausted. Olivia wiped the sweat off her brow, and as they all tried to get their breaths back, looked around her.

The office was in complete chaos. It was like a small tornado had been let loose inside. Papers that had been flying all around them were slowly falling back down, and after the book’s loud uproar, the sudden silence felt deafening.

The stranger jumped to his feet in a single movement and grinned, with only the slightest flush to his cheeks. “Well, that was one feisty, old book, wasn’t it?”

They all stared at him in disbelief, still attempting to slow down their frantic breathing. The crazy man wasn’t even winded as he turned to Olivia.

“Ah, Ms Knight, I believe we have an appointment,” he said and extended one arm in the direction of her private office. “Shall we?”

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