Moving towards the bridge, I was surprised at how hard it was. I was almost staggering, my steps awkward and irregular. It hurt to move. It hurt standing still too, but it wasn’t as noticeable when I wasn’t moving.
How many injuries did I have? I wasn’t sure, couldn’t even make a reasonable guess. The major ones had been mostly healed already, at least to the extent that I wasn’t likely to bleed out in the immediate future, but there were still plenty of small cuts, bruises, even a few cracked bones.
I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten most of them, exactly. I was trying not to think about it too hard. From what I could recall, I’d lost myself pretty badly on the way up here. About as far gone as I’d ever been. This situation was fucking with my ability to maintain control.
It was hard to say quite why the anger that had carried me this far was in the background again. Maybe I was just tired; not even the most bloodthirsty werewolf could keep going indefinitely, and at some point injuries and fatigue would bring you down. Maybe that part of me had recognized that we were at the point where rational thought and care would get us further than psychotic rage.
I stepped up and looked over the bridge. It was about a hundred feet across, maybe a little more. The stone was pale, almost luminescent in the moonlight, unmarked by any signs of having been worked with tools. It looked like it had been grown in that shape where it stood, a single arch of stone over the water. Considering where we were, maybe it was.
I was more concerned with the water. The water was dark, a deep, inky blackness that didn’t so much reflect the light as eat it. The surface was utterly calm, still and smooth as a pane of glass, but I didn’t for a moment imagine that it was empty. There might be Sidhe in there, or the nasty sort of mermaid. Maybe one of the more exotic water fae, a kelpie or a rusalka. Hell, for all I knew she might have a kraken in there.
All I could say for sure was that it would be bad.
I looked at the bridge, chewing my lip. It couldn’t be as easy, as simple as just walking across. The Sidhe didn’t work like that; there was always a trick, a catch, a sucker punch somewhere in the works. It was never as easy as it looked.
The hard part was figuring out where the trap was. Was it the bridge, an obvious answer to the problem meant to lure in the foolish and straightforward? Or perhaps this trap was meant to catch the paranoid, and the bridge actually was the safe way over. Perhaps this entire thing was an elaborate decoy, and the real entrance was somewhere completely different?
I growled. There was no way to guess, and I was wasting time standing here trying.
I stepped out onto the bridge, ready to dodge or fight at a moment’s notice, all my senses extended for any hint of trouble. I made it maybe ten feet out, and then the stone bucked under my feet, tossing me up and back.
I hit the dirt hard and rolled back to my feet, watching warily, but it looked like the bridge had gone back to being inanimate.
“Are you injured?” Kuzunoha asked.
“No,” I said, checking to make sure as I said it. Then I realized what had just happened and started to laugh. “Bloody hell,” I said. “I can’t believe she’s still using that.”
“What?” The kitsune sounded calm and patient. Snowflake, who echoed her mentally an instant later, did not.
“One of Scáthach’s most famous appearances is in the Cúchulainn stories. In them, she had a bridge that would throw anyone who tried to cross it back to the bank.”
So how do we get across? Snowflake asked, pacing back and forth restlessly by the edge of the water.
“In the story,” I said, “Cúchulainn crossed the water by jumping into the middle of the bridge, then jumping from there to the other side. It didn’t have time to throw him off.”
“I don’t know if you noticed, but that’s a bit of a long jump. Even for me,” Katsunaga said. He was flipping a small knife in his hand idly.
“Yeah,” I said, looking back at the bridge. “I know. Cúchulainn was maybe the strongest hero in Irish myth; I doubt any of us could match him. But looking at this, I think maybe we can fake it.”
Faking it, as it turned out, was easier said than done. When I tried walking above the bridge rather than on it, holding myself in the air with magic, it threw me off anyway. Jumping across in stages didn’t work. Having multiple people on the bridge at once didn’t confuse it; it could chuck all of us at once.
Eventually, after a couple of minutes of frustration, Katsunaga proposed another idea.
I stared at him. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“It might work,” he said defensively. “You never know.”
I continued to stare. “This,” I said, “is very much the kind of plan that Aiko would come up with. That’s not a compliment, by the way, if you were curious.”
“In fairness, her plans sound like mine, not the other way around. I taught her everything she knows.”
Yeah, not helping your case much, Snowflake said dryly.
I took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay,” I said. “You’re sure the rope will work out right? You’ve got the length worked out?”
“Yes,” he said. “Well, probably. Unless the distance here isn’t what it looks like. Which it probably isn’t since this is Faerie. But I can finagle it. Probably.”
“Still not inspiring great confidence,” I told him. “But I don’t have a better idea, so let’s do this.”
He grinned. “All right!” he said. “Come on, I think we’ve got a pretty good tree over here.”
He led us over to a large conifer, well over a hundred feet tall, not far from the edge of the moat. I eyed it dubiously. “You really think this will bend that far?”
He nodded enthusiastically. “These things are more flexible than they look,” he said, producing ropes from pockets that shouldn’t have been anywhere near large enough to hold them. “Come on, dear, we’re going to need someone to watch our backs while we work this all out.”
Kuzunoha walked from the bridge over to stand next to us, holding her sword in one hand. It was hard to tell, between the darkness and how restrained her body language typically was, but I thought she was smiling indulgently, just a little bit.
“Right, then,” the other kitsune said, throwing one of the ropes up into the air. It was an unnaturally precise throw, the rope wrapping around the trunk of the tree and then falling back to earth. He snatched the other end out of the air as it fell and tugged on the rope, making sure it was secure, then turned to me. “Here’s yours,” he said.
I took the rope and waited as he tossed another two ropes up and around the tree, passing one off to Kyra and one to Snowflake. I could hear some fighting behind me as this went on, the roaring and screeching of the fae contrasted with the utter silence of the kitsune, but I didn’t pay too much attention. The fighting was Kuzunoha’s job right now, and on a job like this, you had to trust the people you were working with to do their jobs.
“Okay,” Katsunaga said. “Pull!”
I set my feet and started pulling down on my rope, hand over hand. It was hard, physically, but simple and repetitive, almost a meditative act. In some ways it almost reminded me of fighting up the mountain; there was the same element of action without thought.
The two canines pulled on their ropes as well, although they did it somewhat differently; both of them had their jaws clamped firmly on the material, and were simply walking away from the tree. It seemed like they should be tearing the ropes apart—I knew how sharp Snowflake’s teeth were, after all—but they weren’t. I guess kitsune can get ropes made from tougher stuff than hemp.
“Stop!” Katsunaga said, jolting me out of my reverie. I stopped pulling, holding the rope tightly instead, and he darted forward to look at the tree. It was bent almost double now, straining against the ropes. He nodded, apparently satisfied, and then jogged over to me. He grabbed the rope I was holding and wrapped the end around another tree, tying it firmly in place.
I let go carefully, half-expecting the tree to snap back upright, but it only groaned a little as the rope shifted. This gave me a moment to breathe, which I spent checking on the fighting.
Kuzunoha was standing alone on the path, her sword held neatly in front of her. Her skin glowed with a quiet silver radiance, not the blinding, burning light I’d seen earlier, but still noticeable.
All around her, scattered across the ground, were the pieces of those fae who had attempted to follow us up. All of them were dead now—none were even just dying, or near death. Most of the bodies burned with a quiet silvery fire from the touch of the iron.
It was hard to say just how many of them had died there. Enough.
I stood and waited as Katsunaga tied another rope to me, attaching me to the tree. There was plenty of room between us, more than two hundred feet of rope. I was holding onto another length of rope, one that was already tightly stretched between me and the trunk. It was a convoluted arrangement, but I trusted him when he said it would work out. It had already become very apparent that he was very, very good with ropes.
“You remember what to do?” the kitsune asked with a mad, devil-may-care grin. “Oh, who am I kidding, of course you do. Ready, set go!”
As he said “set,” he brought a knife down on the rope tied to another tree, the only thing anchoring my tree down. The tree instantly snapped back up to its full height. Thanks to the rope stretched taut between us, so did I. The rope almost pulled out of my grip, and it felt like it was going to pull my shoulders out of their sockets, but I managed to keep ahold of it.
The world blurred past me, and I realized that the tree was already almost back to its full height. I let go of the rope and continued rising, soaring up into the night.
Then the rope tied around me jerked tight, and I started to swing down in a long arc towards the castle. I started forcing magic into the air around me, slowing the fall, but the ground was still coming up fast. I could jump out of a plane without worrying a bit, but the centrifugal force here was still pretty damn considerable.
I slammed into the ground, hard enough to knock the wind out of me. Instants later, the ground moved under me, throwing me back into the air.
I hit stone rather than dirt, though, and knew I’d made it far enough; the bridge had thrown me to the other side of the moat, rather than back the way I’d come.
“Right, then,” Katsunaga shouted from the other side. “We’ll be right over. Hold your end tight.”
I pushed myself to my feet and braced myself to hold the rope steady. A few seconds later the kitsune jumped out onto the rope, ziplining across. He was holding onto the rope casually with one hand and a carabiner, while Snowflake dangled from his other hand.
I watched them come, and then realized we hadn’t exactly planned for what to do once it worked.
Katsunaga hit me in the chest, feet first, knocking me to the ground again. A second or two later, Snowflake landed on my chest, panting exuberantly. That was awesome! she exclaimed. Let’s do it again!
Despite myself, I had to smile. It was good to see her back to her usual self. Very good.
Kuzunoha followed a few seconds later with Kyra, although she dismounted the rope much more gracefully. I suspected the other kitsune could have done the same—he was at least as agile as Aiko, after all—but he was the sort to enjoy doing it the way he had.
She really did take after her father.
“Great times,” Katsunaga said, grinning like a loon. “Much more fun than just flying across.”
I stared at him. “You could have just flown?”
“Sure. But how boring would that be?” He grinned at me some more, then cut the rope away where it was tied around me. He rolled it between his fingers and it burst into flame, bright and fierce. He dropped it, and we walked into the castle as the fire spread up the rope to the tree behind us.
The courtyard of the castle was broad and open, but sterile, totally lacking in life. The ground was a single sheet of black marble, utterly dark. There was a large fountain in the center of the yard, and the water sparkled in the moonlight, but it didn’t make a sound as it fell back into the pool.
There were several doors opening off the courtyard. In addition to the massive doors of the main entrance, oak bound with silver, there were smaller entrances scattered around. Some were on upper levels; about half of those had stairs leading up to them, but the other half opened into thin air.
“Which way?” I asked, looking warily around. I was anticipating an army to boil out and fall on us at any moment, but it appeared the quiet would last at least a little longer.
“They will be keeping her below,” Kuzunoha said quietly. “And not through the main entrance. That isn’t the Queen’s style; she prefers to keep the ugliness hidden beneath a veneer of deceptive beauty.” She turned slowly, and then pointed at one of the other doors. “There,” she said.
“Okay,” I said, starting in that direction. “Are you guessing here, or do you have a way of knowing? I’ll go with it either way, but I’d like to know where we stand.”
“Some of both,” she said, following close behind me. I got the impression that she wanted to push me out of the way and move faster, but even now, she had too much ingrained poise and decorum for that.
The door opened easily and we moved inside, into a narrow hallway with a high, arched ceiling. Everything was constructed of that same black marble, and the hall was completely unlit. Kuzunoha fixed that easily enough, emitting more of that pure silver light until I was more likely to be squinting against the brightness than the dark.
In truth, I was just as glad for the darkness. It kept me from seeing anything of the castle beyond what was right in front of me, and I had the strong suspicion that that was a good thing.
I wasn’t sure whether it was luck or some sort of kitsune magic, but Kuzunoha managed to lead us straight to a staircase leading down. There wasn’t much point in asking, really. I had a hard enough time understanding how Aiko did some of the things she did.
The stairs led straight down, unpleasantly steep. I ended up carrying Kyra, while Katsunaga carried Snowflake down, since going down steep stairs with four legs isn’t actually very much fun. It felt like it went on for an impossibly long time, and I started counting the steps just out of curiosity.
By the time we hit the bottom, I was at four thousand. The risers were a uniform eight inches in height, which meant that we’d gone down about three thousand feet since entering the castle. We had to be down near the water level by now, the whole weight of the mountain hanging over our head.
We finally reached the bottom, and I set Kyra down, groaning a little. I was strong, but it had been a long climb down. Kyra wasn’t a lightweight, especially in armor, and I’d already taken a beating tonight.
The hallway at the bottom was larger, wide enough that we could all walk abreast and still have enough room for a car on either side. The ceiling was a high arch, twenty feet over my head. It was hard to see much more than that, since we were still dependent upon Kuzunoha for light; unsurprisingly enough, the Maiden of the Midnight Court wasn’t given to much lighting within her fortress.
The hall was built to the same scale as the staircase, ridiculously unnecessary. We walked for a while, and then we started running instead, and then we went back to walking when it became clear that I wasn’t up to another prolonged sprint, and still it stretched out of sight in front of us.
Finally, after a solid twenty minutes of walking, we reached a door. It was a huge piece of what I was willing to bet was solid silver, and the lock on it was a piece of black iron easily the side of my head. There were two guards outside, Sidhe warriors dressed in fine crystal armor. It was a pretty respectable set of defenses.
Or, at least, it used to be. Now the Sidhe were lying on the ground in pools of their own blood, throats slit neatly from ear to ear. The door hung open a few inches, not wide enough to see inside, but more than wide enough to make it clear that it wasn’t locked.
“Well, that’s ominous,” Katsunaga said lightly. Then, before I could respond, he darted forward and pushed the door the rest of the way open, heedless of the body he stepped on as he passed.
I opened my mouth to rebuke him for being so hasty, then stopped and stood there like an idiot when I got a glimpse inside the room.
Aiko was in there, all right. But she wasn’t alone.