Walking through Faerie is a memorable experience. From what I understand, it’s one of the more hospitable-to-humans sections of the Otherside. But if so, I honestly don’t want to see the inhospitable places, because Faerie’s still really freaking weird.
Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. The clearing Aiko used for her gate was about ten yards away from a path—a standard clearing, about twenty feet across with a little stream running through it, the water of which glowed deep blue. Said path was little more than a game trail winding through the trees, except that the ground shone with a soft silver light where the nearly-full moon touched it. It wasn’t a reflection, either; the gravel and dirt actually glowed when struck by moonlight, while the rest of the path was pitch-dark. So there was a constant, slow dance of light and darkness on the path as tree branches, moving gently in the perfectly still air, alternately revealed and obscured the ground.
That, right there, would be creepy enough. But there were all kinds of other things, too, in case a traveler might not be unnerved already. The scents of pine and night-blooming flowers were thick in the air, and shifted every other step, which was normal enough…except there wasn’t a breeze to change. There was the occasional sound, somewhere off in the woods, of a wolf howling, which didn’t bother me, and also of animals whose cries I didn’t recognize and which I suspected had no names, which did. You could walk for ten minutes down that path and, looking back, see that you’d covered less than twenty feet—and then the very next step might move you several hundred yards.
It was mad and disturbing and disorienting, is what I’m saying. Adding to that was the fact that whenever the light of that too-bright moon touched me I felt the wolf inside me stirring, urging me to change and run down the Faerie path in a skin infinitely better suited to this world. I wanted to run, to hunt, to chase and kill and lap up the blood, and God help anyone who got in our way because they would most certainly need it.
That wasn’t too disturbing. Werewolves, and I am functionally identical to a werewolf in this regard, get that feeling every full moon night. But it wasn’t the full moon, not quite yet, and in any case it shouldn’t have felt that strong. I definitely shouldn’t have only been feeling it when I was in the moonlight; that kind of thing doesn’t really matter to a werewolf. If the moon is full, it makes no difference if it goes behind a cloud.
So what I’m getting at here is that, while Faerie was undoubtedly a magical wonderland of mystery and fascination, it wasn’t a very friendly wonderland. I suppose you could think of it as the geographic equivalent of straight habanero; it might taste delicious, but it wasn’t anyone’s idea of comfort food.
It was also the kind of place that was perfectly designed to trigger paranoia and the feeling that you’re being watched in pretty much everyone. I’d been in the Midnight portion of Faerie three times now, because Faerie’s pretty much the closest part of the Otherside to my world and therefore gets a lot of use for travel. Every time’s been slightly different, but the same underneath. Repetition hadn’t made it any easier to cope with.
So when, after about half an hour of walking, I started to feel twitchy and unnerved, I would have chalked it up to general paranoia and an eerie environment. Would have—but Loki had already warned me that there would be people looking to take me out. So rather than dismissing the feeling, I paid very close attention.
There was nothing there. I couldn’t detect a single thing with any of my senses, not so much as a twig out of place. And yet, in spite of everything logic and my senses were telling me, the sensation of being watched grew stronger rather than fading.
Nothing happened. Nothing happened while we ambled down the moonlit path, none of the three of us saying much. Nothing continued to happen as we turned off the path into the deep woods, where the trees overhead blocked out most of the light and we were forced to navigate in large part with senses other than vision. As we walked through the forest, occasionally laughing at each other when we stumbled, there was still nothing happening.
It could drive a guy crazy, all that nothing. Especially when, this whole time, I only grew more convinced that there was nothing there, and my instincts only grew more adamant that someone, or something, was watching us.
The waterfall was, as Aiko had promised, worth seeing. The moonlight glittered off the surface of the slow-moving water and the crystalline rocks, turning the whole world into a dazzling patchwork of constantly shifting light. The waterfall itself was nearly fifty feet tall, and so wide that the enormous pines didn’t meet above it.
It helped, of course, that while the river involved must have heard that water was supposed to flow downhill it was apparently something of a rebel, and firmly believed that Isaac Newton had missed a few things.
We spent nearly an hour there, I think, though the moon never moved and of course no mortal timekeeping device would work in Faerie. It was…cathartic, perhaps, would be the best word. For that one hour, it didn’t matter that Loki was far from the only deity taking an unhealthy interest in my life. It didn’t matter that several of my friends had died, and most of the ones who were left were very nearly as frightened of me as for me. It didn’t matter that I had cost Snowflake her eye, and Aiko her home, and Enrico his life.
It was nice, to forget all that for a little while.
“So I guess you probably need to be leaving,” Aiko said. “Work to do and all that.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, perhaps somewhat reluctantly. We were currently walking on another path, one which was at roughly right angles with the last, having just exchanged forest for rolling hills covered in what I knew would be razor-sharp grass. It might have made more sense to leave by the same way we left, except that apparently it was a really bad idea to retrace your steps on the Otherside, and in Faerie in particular. When Aiko said that, I didn’t ask why. Granted, it’s entirely possible she’s just screwing with me, but I don’t see a need to test that hypothesis.
“‘Kay. There should be somewhere up here to stop and make a gate for you.”
Aiko kept talking after that, but I missed whatever it was she said, because Snowflake had stopped dead still in the path. She was a perfect picture of whatever the opposite of relaxation is in a canine—ears laid back, hackles up, teeth bared and growling softly. At the same time, I got a sudden surge of alarm from her mentally, a spike of emotion without words attached.
You don’t survive as many assassination attempts as I have by being complacent, slow to react, or indecisive. The instant I felt that first rush of alarm, I froze as well, throwing out one arm to stop Aiko, and gathered magic to myself.
In the very next instant, with only the gentlest whir of motion, an arrow slammed down into the path directly in front of us.
It was dramatic looking, a long black shaft tipped with a very sharp-looking broadhead. The fletching was more black, natural feathers if I was any judge. I couldn’t tell, in the dark, what metal the arrowhead was made of, but it sure as heck wasn’t steel.
It was sleek and deadly and it slammed into the ground at an oblique angle exactly where I would have been standing if we hadn’t stopped.
We all stared for just an instant at how close that had been. Then, after the briefest of hesitations, I burst into action. I called Tyrfing and unsheathed it in the same motion, thickened the air around us as much as I possibly could, and extended tendrils of my less mundane senses out into the air perhaps twenty feet in every direction.
Like I said. If you’re indecisive in the face of danger, you tend to come down with a nasty case of dead.
There was a brief pause. Then a male voice spoke. You notice I don’t say it was a man’s voice, because I wasn’t sure that it was. It was loud, but oddly sourceless, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and beyond a vague impression that the speaker was standing to our left—the same direction the arrow had come from—I couldn’t have said where he was.
“Lucky timing,” he said, his voice thick with an accent I couldn’t quite place. Irish, perhaps. “Wonder how much luck you have left?”
As he finished speaking, I felt something stir the air—in the opposite direction as the voice had come from. The arrow was, of course, perfectly aimed, and it had too much momentum to be slowed more than slightly by my pathetic shield of air.
Human reflexes couldn’t have pulled it off. Werewolf reflexes couldn’t either, and in any case a werewolf shouldn’t be fast enough.
But somehow, just as the arrowhead punched through, I reached out with Tyrfing, feeling as though I were moving through molasses, and swatted it away. It felt easy as breathing, almost casual. Moving as slowly as I felt, it flew to the side and embedded itself somewhere in the grass.
There was another pause. “Well, well,” the voice said, coming from somewhere behind us this time. Aiko tensed, just now registering what had happened. Snowflake was snarling quietly in her throat. “Maybe not all luck, at that. How many can you do, then?”
That was all the warning we had. It was enough. The first arrow, coming from directly behind us where the voice had been, was never a threat. Snowflake, demonstrating skills honed in combat and long hours of Frisbee, managed to jump and, incredibly, catch the shaft of the arrow in her mouth. The second, launched almost simultaneously from the opposite direction, I batted aside as I had the first. The third, which came once again from the right-hand side of the path, I just barely managed to slip aside from. It sliced through the shadowstuff of my cloak, but skipped off the armor underneath, and the shadows merged again almost instantaneously. The fourth I simply ducked away from, and it flew on past me.
“Promising!” the mysterious voice shouted, from somewhere above and behind us—in a tree, most likely. “You’re too good not to fight. I’ll be seeing you later, Wolf!”
I waited, but it appeared he was gone. Tyrfing dropped from my hand. I hadn’t felt it in the press of the moment, but the magic—not to mention the incredible, impossible speed—had taken a toll. I was suddenly, staggeringly tired. I don’t mean that figuratively; I literally staggered to the side and then dropped to the ground.
WINTER! Snowflake shouted, her mental voice panicky, horrorstruck. I turned, terrified to think of what I might see, and looked at her.
I was not disappointed.
Snowflake was unharmed—like me, she’d managed to somehow avoid every bolt. Aiko was not as lucky. A black-fledged arrow was sticking out of her abdomen. As I watched, the kitsune crumpled to the earth, her expression a horrific blend of shock and agony.
I crossed the distance between us very, very quickly. “Don’t move,” I said quickly, using a pocketknife to cut away her shirt so that I could examine the wound. Hopefully it wasn’t as bad as it looked.
The good news is, it wasn’t. The bad news is, that was because it was worse. The arrow, still in the wound, had acted as a plug. Otherwise the blood would already be starting to pool around her. The arrow had punched halfway through her abdomen, just to the left of her navel.
My heart sank when I saw that. It had punctured the small intestine—there wasn’t really any doubt of that. It was the kind of wound that, while it might take its painful time about it, was consistently lethal. A werewolf under the full moon, or with the support of a pack, could survive it. A normal person who got modern medical care—promptly—might have a chance. But I don’t know that I would bet on it.
Aiko was not a werewolf. As a kitsune, she was stronger and tougher than most women her size, and possessed of inhuman stamina and grace. But underneath she was as fragile as anyone else.
“We have to get you to a doctor,” I said immediately. “How—”
She cut me off, lifting one hand to rest on mine. When she spoke, her voice was so weak that a human wouldn’t have heard a thing.
But I am not a human. And, for better or worse, I heard her. “Don’t bother,” she said. “Poison,” she said. And then, heartrendingly, “Don’t beat yourself up about it.”
And then her eyes slipped closed. A spasm of pain went through her body, and her hand slipped off of mine.
I stared for a moment. No, I thought. Not you too. It took me a second to realize that I’d spoken aloud. “No,” I repeated, standing up. I glanced at my pocketknife, and something occurred to me. Something very, very bad.
Winter, Snowflake said, sounding sad and lonely and terrified. Winter, I don’t think this is—
I tuned her out. I stood, took a few steps away, and dragged the knife across my hand, where I wasn’t wearing any armor. I felt the pain, but it seemed to come from very far away, and my awareness of it was more rational than visceral. The blood covered the blade, ran down my hand, dripped from my fingers to the ground.
“Twilight,” I said, sliding life and magic into the words. My voice was shaking and unsteady, but for all that it was deep and full of power, and in it I could hear the screaming blizzard winds, the howling of wolves, the rumble of stone breaking in the deep cold.
In the mortal world, there likely wouldn’t have been any outward sign of what was happening. But this was the Otherside, where nothing was what it seemed and everything seemed what it was, and the power and the fury in my voice evoked power and fury in the world around me. The sky overhead boiled with newborn storm clouds, in which lightning crawled and thunder roared an answer to my voice. The trees shook with sudden wind, and even the earth seemed to tremble.
Was it real, or in my head? It was hard to say, on the Otherside, quite what the difference was.
“Lady of the air, hear me,” I continued, louder now. The boom of thunder followed on the end of the words. “Mistress of the whirlwind, listen to me.” Boom! “Sylph of the Twilight Court, come to me!” I finished in a shout. The magic poured out of me in a rush, leaving me almost too tired to stand, and half a dozen lightning bolts crashed down at once, blinding and deafening me. Snowflake whined, sounding somewhere between awe and horror.
I felt it, when she came. There was a sudden twist of power in the air around me, something that wasn’t quite magic like I used, smelling of moving air and ozone. A moment later, a buzzing androgynous voice spoke behind me. “It was not necessary to shout.”
I turned, bowing my head. “It seemed prudent.” Looking up, I saw that it was indeed the same sylph I’d met before. She was naked, clearly displaying the total absence of any distinguishing sexual characteristics, although I knew this sylph was female. She had metallic silver skin that shone brightly in the moonlight, huge emerald-green compound eyes, and translucent insect wings ten feet across. “You owe me,” I said.
She inclined her head very slightly. “That is correct,” she said, emotionless and inhuman.
I indicated Aiko, who appeared to still be conscious, and in a lot of pain. “This kitsune requires medical assistance,” I said carefully. I was playing with fire here—or, more accurately, lightning. “Save her, without significantly or permanently altering her mind or soul, and we are even.”
The sylph cocked her head sideways, further than a human spine could bend, and turned those huge gemlike eyes on Aiko. Snowflake, still too terrified for words, was trying to hide inside my cloak, and whimpering. “I have halted the progression of the taint in her blood,” the sylph said after a moment.
“Not good enough,” I said immediately. “The poison needs must be removed permanently, and she requires attention for the mechanical injury as well.”
There was a pause, during which the only sounds were Snowflake whimpering, a sort of buzzing noise from the sylph, and the hallucinatory sound of rushing winds that seemed to affect me whenever I was close to her. “I can provide transport to a location in which this assistance will be rendered,” she said after a moment. “And will also arrange payment for said assistance. Will this be sufficient?”
I bowed my head again. “I believe so.”
There was another pause. “This action is of greater than sufficient value to balance my debt.”
“I will owe you one favor of your choice,” I said, “of comparable value.”
Pause. “This is acceptable.” The sylph turned and, with a wave of one silver-skinned clawlike hand, opened another gate amid the reek of wind and ozone. She produced as well a glowing green jewel of some kind, inscribed with runes. “Give this to the female you encounter there. It will serve as payment in full for required healing. Inform her also that a large dose of deathstalker venom is present in the kitsune.”
I took it, wincing slightly at the electric shock that went through my body when it touched my skin. Then, carefully not saying “thank you” or anything like it—acknowledgment of debt is a very bad idea when dealing with the fae—I turned to leave. I picked Aiko up, very careful not to jostle the arrow still sticking out of her abdomen more than absolutely necessary. Then I carried her through the gate, Snowflake tight on my heels.
I can only imagine how horrible that transition must have been for Aiko, given that she was already seriously injured and poisoned. For me, and also for Snowflake, it was bad enough. Worse, by far, than that between Colorado and Faerie.
I managed not to drop Aiko or otherwise make her condition any worse, which I felt was a sizable accomplishment all on its own. I managed further to not puke all over myself, which seemed like dedication above and beyond the call of duty. Other than that, the less said about that gate the better.
Usually the first sensory data I receive after a gate is olfactory in nature. That’s how my brain works, plain and simple. This time, it was auditory.
“Gibberish gabble babble gobbledygook!” a woman said loudly, sounding very not happy. Or, at least, that’s what it sounded like to me. I expect that if I spoke whatever language it was she was using it would have been a perfectly coherent and eloquent complaint.
I opened my eyes to the painful glare of a dimly lit, windowless room. The woman berating me was…visually striking, you might say. She was maybe all of five feet tall, looked like she’d read the chapter on anorexia and thought that it sounded like a marvelous idea, except maybe a bit underachieving, and had skin several tones darker than you typically saw in Colorado, or probably most other places outside Africa, and redder than any skin I could remember seeing in my life.
“I’m sorry,” I said carefully. “I don’t understand you.”
She switched to English midtirade. Literally, I mean; it sounded like she didn’t bother to finish her sentence first. “—fucking floor! I mean God is it too much to ask that you have a little respect and I tell you that’s what’s wrong with the youth of today is they don’t have any damned respect and you can’t even be bothered to keep your fucking blood off my floor I say—”
Okay. Eloquent may have been an overstatement.
As it didn’t appear that she intended to pause, or for that matter breathe, for quite a while, I interrupted her. “I’m sorry,” I said, holding Aiko out in front of me. “But my friend here needs help.”
She broke off to glare at me, pulling herself up to her full, unintimidating height. “Do I look like a doctor?” she demanded, attempting to look down her longish nose at me.
I glanced over the scrubs, lab coat, and stethoscope. “Well, yes,” I said. Not the most typical doctor, perhaps—the scrubs had been cut off, with slightly disturbing precision, to make a pair of shorts, which didn’t even come as low as the hem of the lab coat—but still definitely doctoral.
She sniffed. “Well there’s that at least. I suppose you’re expecting me to work pro bono?”
“Actually,” I said, shifting Aiko around so that I could dig in my cloak for the gem, “no. I was told to offer this as payment.” And yeah, my arm was starting to get tired by then, but there was no way I was admitting that.
The black woman glared at me, then leaned forward to examine the stone. “Well that’s bloody good enough,” she said, standing up and snatching the emerald off my palm. She immediately made it disappear into the pocket of her lab coat, where it didn’t make any kind of bulge even though it really should have. “Well what are you standing there for you fucking idiot?” she demanded of me, turning around. “Follow me stupid and make it bloody snappy unless you want whatserface there to die you moron.”
I followed her, not bothering to respond to the torrent of abuse, through a small door into what looked like a crypt. I mean, it seriously looked like a crypt; the stone walls were carved with intricate designs that made me think of hieroglyphics, and arched neatly into the vaulted ceiling overhead. This impression was only reinforced by the marble slab in the middle of the room. The world around us still had the peculiar intensity of the Otherside, but this domain seemed to be lacking the arbitrary quality that made Faerie truly frightening.
“Watcha waiting for hurry up and put ‘er ‘ere,” the doctor demanded snappishly, stopping next to the slab and pulling on a pair of latex gloves. Where she got the gloves from, I was not prepared to speculate on. “Careful now watch what you’re doing you fucking moron haven’t you ever heard of proper fucking handling I mean really now!”
“Have you ever heard of using commas?” I wondered, gently setting Aiko on the slab. “I mean, I’m not an expert here, but most people seem to understand language better if you occasionally pause to distinguish separate clauses, right?”
She sniffed again, casually displacing me at Aiko’s side. “I don’t have the bloody time. Magic?”
“You heard me!” she shrilled, causing Snowflake to wince. “I said, what bloody kind of magic am I bloody looking at here I mean God come on already hurry it up why don’t we!”
“Oh. She’s a fullblooded kitsune. I’m mostly a werewolf, and we were transported here by a sylph.” I remembered something. “Oh, and she said to tell you that the arrow was poisoned with deathstalker venom.”
She paused. “Well now,” she said, sounding almost sane, “that’s interesting. Deathstalker, eh? Good bloody thing you came here. But what I meant was, what kind of magic is this arrow? Don’t bother answering, Wolf,” she said, examining the arrow.
I paused. “How do you know my name?”
“Well some kind of bloody goddess I’d be if I didn’t now wouldn’t I!” she exclaimed. “I mean, really who doesn’t know your bloody name. What’d you poor bastards do to piss off the faeries?”
“You mean that’s a fae arrow?” I asked, electing not to pursue the rest of what she’d said. I just knew that wouldn’t get me anywhere useful.
“Definitely,” she confirmed, producing unpleasant-looking metal tools from somewhere. “Midnight Court Sidhe, no doubt about it. Not that it matters mind you, I was just making a little bloody conversation, not that you’d know what that means eh?” She paused and turned to look at me. Her jet-black eyes were bright, burning with some emotion I didn’t recognize, and when I looked into them, I could smell her power. It smelled of sand, hot wind off the desert like the stinking breath of some great predator, the scents of blood and poison and life and death and everything in between. And it smelled strong.
“You can’t help from here,” she said, her voice sounding for the first time almost normal. “And you don’t want to see some of the things I’m going to have to do.”
I swallowed. “Do you mind if I sleep?” I asked diffidently, nodding to the corner of the room.
She snorted, and it was probably my imagination that said that her breath didn’t smell human. Right. I believed that. “No hairs off my back. Just don’t blame me if you have nightmares, eh?” She turned back to the slab, humming something under her breath.
“Doctor?” I said softly. She didn’t turn, but she did pause in her motion. “I understand that sometimes accidents happen. But if something should…happen to her, and I think that you didn’t do everything in your power to save her…I’ll be upset.”
She snorted loudly. “You think I bloody care?”
“I think,” I said slowly, “that if you’ve heard all that much about me, maybe you should.” I turned and, staggering very slightly from sheer fatigue, walked to the corner to sleep. Snowflake followed, keeping her good eye turned toward the room.