Chapter 1: Summer
For the longest time, human abundance was a wasting asset. For most of human existence, wealth has been measured in food. Being allowed to continue to live. Whether humans are agrarian or hunter-gatherers, food comes in waves. Now, as a species, we have discovered many fantastic ways to extend those waves, preserving the harvest, making it year round, so that there is always abundance. But for a very long time, when you were wealthy, that wealth would decrease in value the longer you held onto it. Unlike money, in that sense. So, when you found yourself with abundance… You threw a feast.
In this way, you turned a temporary surplus of food into social cachet. You invited everyone, friend and enemy, and gifted them lavishly. Everyone benefited. There’s a reason it’s called a festival. During the time of abundance, everyone benefits. It’s… right.
The best part of being a champion is in the feasts. When you set out on a great quest, a feast is thrown to see you off. To put warm food in your belly, to prepare you before the nightmare that lies ahead. Quests are hard work- take it from me- and they are often scarce on fresh, home-cooked food that does not result in a terrifying and vile fate, especially when one is dealing with the fae. And when you return home, a feast is thrown, because you have triumphed over the world once more, and because you are not dead yet.
In Li Fang Fen’s case, the feast was thus slightly inappropriate. But undead was close enough to alive for me. At any rate, despite being an ungodly early hour in the morning, we had all gathered to welcome her back to Binghamton. The fresh summer air was just beginning to warm up, and the rosy fingers of dawn were just stealing across the sky like an overly eager frat boy trying to cop a feel of the night. I stood in the back yard, along with those of us who were not forced to avoid the scorching rays of the sun. That meant me, Atina, the Half-Faced Man, Polly, Li Fang Fen’s two new guests, and Jenny.
I studied Jenny for a moment. The young woman had become a vampire in a case that Atina had taken on nine months previous. A case where I had been far less helpful than I’d wanted to be. I saved Atina’s life once, but there was at least two other assaults on her where I had been nowhere to be seen. She’d nearly been killed, her mind stolen, all to kill the young vampiric woman. Still, she’d survived. And Jenny had become a minor Mayan vampire-goddess of the sun. Among the privileges were being immune to the burning touch of the sun. You could really get ahead in this game, sometimes.
And then there was Polly. My eyes drifted to her momentarily, and then away. That was a number of difficult memories to confront, and this was a feast. No need to make things awkward.
“So, you’re a knife,” I said, a glass of champagne in one hand. Frankly, I thought it was infinitely too early in the morning to drink, but Atina had argued that we were still in the previous day’s night, according to the roman calendar. I was holding a glass and not drinking from it as a form of tacit disapproval. “That sounds… complex.” I frowned. “I’ve heard of Tsukumogami, we sometimes discuss them at the college, but I always suspected thought they were myths.”
“Ah, yeah.” The young Asian woman dropped her eyes. “I don’t really know much about any of it. There was… a lot of complex stuff. I don’t know how much I should talk about.” She swallowed, hard. “It’s, um.” She shifted uneasily. “Where’d Li Fang Fen go?”
“Inside,” said Atina. “She’s getting a private lapdance from the stripper.”
“I… thought that was a joke,” said the young woman-cum-knife in a very small voice.
“I never joke about strippers. That girl looked starved. She’s been wandering around the world like a vagabond for nearly a year, I don’t hear jack from her, then she’s on her way back after risking death and having all kinds of insane adventures- without me!” Atina sighed, hovering over the grill, with all the protectiveness of a mother phoenix. She was a territorial woman. That was something I appreciated about her. She chose what she would protect, and then refused to budge. That was the only reason that Jenny was still around. “And believe me, finding a stripper who’d do a gig at five AM was not easy. Thank god for poor college students.”
I nodded slowly, as I watched Atina. She was grateful Li Fang Fen was back. The Jiangshi had introduced Atina to this world, years back, and so far as I understood, was one of Atina’s best friends now. Nine months had been a hard time for Atina to know her friend was hurting, and she’d clung to every piece of news, scant though they were. I stepped away from the party, and into the house itself.
I like Atina’s house. It reminds me of churches I’ve seen, except without all of the taste and restraint. The holy bible wallpaper had a few scorch marks on it from where a vampire had nearly gotten his face seared off by righteous fire, but was otherwise still in good shape. For something that kitsch, it was surprisingly charming. I turned, and watched a young man with bleached blonde hair and enviable muscle tone stumble out of the door, pulling on a coat and waving dizzily to Li Fang Fen, who stood on the stairs to the second floor. The door shut behind him, and I raised an eyebrow at her. “You know, they’re not sex workers.”
“I didn’t have to pay him to have sex with me,” she said, and grinned. “How have you been, Bard?”
I winced. “I wish you wouldn’t use Atina’s little nicknames. They encourage her. Plus, I’m a Spellsword if I’m anything.” I lifted the broadsword at my side in its sheath, grinning. “So. How was New York City?”
“A fucking nightmare. I found out a lot. A lot of things that might be… useful.” She was silent for a moment. Her eyes were on me, and there was a tension there. I felt the same tension in my shoulders, sympathetic. The preparation for a fight. “A lot of strange questions. Things that made the world make less sense… and more.” Her fingers tightened slightly on the bannister. “Tell me, you got a chance to meet Jack Knife. What do you think of her?”
“Nice. Nervous. Withdrawn. She reminds me a little bit of Jenny. Great hair.”
“You do have a type.” She tapped one foot.
“What are you holding back, Fang Fen? What happened there?”
“A lot of things, Alfred. Some of them incredible. Some of them… A lot… Hell, too many of them, fucking awful. I learned some strange things.” She looked at me. “Alfred. Are you a Hero?”
I paused a moment. “Well, I’d like to think I’m a decent man, but it takes a pretty sizable quantity of narcissism to declare yourself a hero.”
“Come on. We both know what you’re like. The whole noble knight thing, taken to extremes. Your mother, the fairy queen. Your whole sword fetish thing. Hell, even the name.” She was quiet for a couple of seconds. “Are you King Arthur, Alfred?”
I tilted my head to the side, an eyebrow raised. “What the hell did you run into in New York City?”
“Gods,” she murmured softly.
“We’ve met gods. Jenny’s technically a goddess.”
“If…” She shook her head. “If there is some kind of sliding scale, some kind of vast arc of power, with me at the bottom, and Jenny on the top, I met something as far beyond Jenny as she is beyond me.” She was quiet for a second, looking haunted. “And there was another being, another order of magnitude beyond even that. And even she… Shit.” Fang Fen shook her head, rubbing her eyes. “It was fucking terrifying, Alfred-”
She stopped, and shook. I watched her. She was an Undead. A corpse brought back by her distance from her home land, a hundred years ago. She was dangerous and determined. And, at the moment, she was a lady in distress.
My arms went around her shoulders, and I gave her a bracing hug. I felt immediately exhausted as she preyed on my chi, but I’ve always prided myself on having masculinity to spare. After a couple of seconds, I let go of her. She smiled fragilely. “You’re back home, Fang Fen. Back where it’s safe. Anyone comes after you here, they’ll have to get through me. And if they manage that, then they’re in real trouble, because they’d have to deal with Atina.” I grinned. “Come on. Get some food to go with the Yang chi.”
She nodded, and then paused. “There’s one more thing, Alfred. Something I think is important. For you, especially. I ran into Jack Black while I was down there.”
I paused, and frowned. “How was Ailbe?”
She was silent for a few moments. “I didn’t see her.” She crossed her arms tightly. “That’s part of why I think it’s important. He had her blessing still, I’m sure. But… I don’t know if that means she’s safe.” She shivered. “I saw some terrible things in that place. I don’t know. He might have done… something… to her.”
I slowly nodded. “And he’s still loose.”
“And he’s still loose.”
“So someone needs to find him.” I sighed. “Well, shit.”
Feasts always happen before a quest.
“I’ll need to go talk with my mother.” I stepped to the door, and opened it. Standing right outside, his hand poised at the door, was a young man. I recognized him from the court. One of the couriers, the men of the Summer Court sent to deliver news and to call for those who were needed. I sighed. “Let me guess who sent you.”
He was a minor Eshu, as it turned out, one of the travelling message-carriers of the Yoruba. There were times when it was difficult to tell the difference between gods and the faeries. My mother, for example.
The Summer Court of Binghamton met within the Cutler Botanical Garden. Atina would be able to tell you more about it, and probably would wax eloquent about its history, its metaphysical meaning, and the appropriate way to hobble every fae within. I know this much: It is a small garden of modest means and transcendental beauty, and is thus perfect for representing Summer’s power in Binghamton. Summer in upstate New York, in the Northeast in general, is a brief affair, and beautiful and ferocious for that. The summer fits into a handful of months all the warmth and cheer that is missing from this city the other nine months of the year.
I have spent a fair amount of time among the fairies. All my life, which for a human still only qualifies for ‘a fair amount’. I know each of the courts, in terms more poetic than prosaic.
Fall is a conspiracy, full of strange creatures and fear. They delight in the morbid, the uncertain, questions and answers, and always more of the former than the latter. They stand removed from one another, in great circles, and their land is perpetually dark.
Winter is a lonely place. It’s rare that you see more than one Winter Fae at a time, except when they feast. It is easy to take the Winter Fae for a bunch of murderers and brigands- I know that Atina tries to avoid them because of the brutality of their contests. But winter often holds the finest feasts, when people howl into the night and warm each other through mutual passion. And no fae holds hospitality in such high esteem, and provides so well, as the Winter Fae. In the heart of winter, we all depend on each other. The Winter Fae respect that deeply. In many ways, they’re the place I love most. Familiar enough to be comfortable, exotic enough to be exciting.
Spring is full of layabouts and fools, who live their lives in gentle ease and plenty, forever relying on others to do real work, and creating art. Okay, that’s a little harsh, I had a major in stage work, but they’re still fairly insufferable. Perfume and sweet fruits fill their homes, and it just doesn’t feel as satisfying as the preserves and hardtack of a Winter Fae. This, I think, is the way of the courts. Opposites attract us far more than those who share nothing in common. After all, opposites are what complete us.
And last, Summer. The Summer Court is violence, and passion. The bright months when the crops are sown and soaking in the earth’s rich bounty and the rays of the sun. When the days are long and tempers run hot. When there’s nothing better to do, sometimes, than engage in some violence while conditions are ripe for it. Summer’s a great time to go to war, to get in a fight, to settle scores.
That’s why someone took a swing at me the moment I stepped into the Summer court. Eight feet tall, an ogre, he almost managed to hesitate when he saw who I was. I sidestepped the blow easily, and broke his nose in a genial way with the back of my hand. He stumbled back onto his ass, and flashed me a thumbs up, grinning.
Iron Knights are something of a bogeyman, among the Faerie courts. I am allowed to wear iron into the courts. I am one of two members of the courts of Binghamton who has that honor, that right, that terrible curse. There are Iron Knights who are terrors to their courts, who draw iron at the smallest insult, and inflict a gruesome death or a horrific maiming on those who they please. I am not one of those. I don’t draw iron except when there is no other choice. I offered the ogre a hand, and pulled him up to his feet, slapping him on the shoulder as I walked into the court.
People circulated freely. Nobles and commoner had an obvious divide, but not as sacrosanct as they might be in Fall, or Spring. Things mixed. There was too much chaos to avoid that. That was part of what I loved about the summer.
And there, defying that rule, standing alone in an open spot, stood my mother.
How to put this…
My grandfather on my mother’s side is said to be Balor, the one-eyed mad king. All of the Fomorians represent natural disasters, and Balor was among the greatest. In the days of the Tuatha dé Dannan, he was a war leader of terrifying skill. When people speak of a baleful gaze, they speak of him. He slew the leader of the Tuatha dé Dannan, and was slain in turn by his own grandson by my mother, a god I’ve never met. When he opened his eye, uncovering it from its seven veils, the land itself caught fire. He was a being of blight and drought. He represented the utter destruction of the summer turned feral, when the land itself burns. I do not know if that is the truth, or just a good story.
My mother didn’t fall far from the tree.
This is not to say she was not beautiful. There is beauty in deserts, even if it is stark. Her skin was pale, but sunbleached rather than sunstarved. Her hair was so blonde it was nearly platinum, and hung in delicate sheets around her shoulders. She was neither unusually thick nor thin, but there was a starvation to her that gave the impression of being underfed, a metaphysical hunger that infringed on her appearance. My mother, like my supposed grandfather, was a being of drought. A natural disaster. She was very like Jenny, in that they both stood on that strange precipice between mere monster, and minor goddess.
A heat shimmer surrounded her. It was from her that I’d gained my ability to manipulate illusions. Not natively, I should note- I had not inherited her magic. I was merely human. She had made a pact with me when I was just an infant, a disturbingly Acchilean allusion. It may seem strange that a goddess of summer, of natural disasters, would grant such gifts. Atina had once remarked that it seemed more like a gift one would receive from Winter, with their focus on obfuscation, or Fall, with their love of secrets. But mirages were a phenomenon of the Summer. That’s the thing about symbolism; It can many different ways.
I stood across from her. She was tall, nearly as tall as me or Atina, just shy of six feet. She stood alone, no fairy daring to come too close to her. She could easily be the Summer Queen of a court like Binghamton. But she had her own place to rule. It was rare I got to see her.
I threw my arms around my mother, and as she let out a cry at the indignity of it all, I lifted her, and spun her through the air. And though she protested, her embrace was no less fierce.
This was another important gift my mother had given me. A truth about the world. Among people- and that includes gods and monsters- the most powerful, the most fearsome, all desire one thing: A handful of people who love them without fear. Who do not flinch away from them, who show no sign of unease. If they can do this naturally, then so much the better. It is a strange thing, but those little challenges to their terror peel away some of the monster and reveal the person. It’s not the same as disrespect, but the two can be awfully difficult to tell apart.
“You shouldn’t do such things in front of the court,” Ethniu chastised me, but there was little force in it. “You are an Iron Knight, a creature of fear. You might be hurt if you do not exercise that fear, and then where would your poor mother be?”
I smiled. “I’ve missed you too, mother. It’s been, what, a good year and a half since we last met? I invited you to Christmas.”
“I know, dear. I’m sorry. Things have been… chaotic.”
She didn’t talk much with me. She didn’t explain much. This was only partially because she was a fairy. She had also dropped hints that there were reasons beyond simple drama for her to hide me from the truth. Things she wanted to keep me from being forced to confront. It was a frustrating barrier between the two of us.
“How is that girl? Polly, the fake Sidhe?”
“Fine, mother. We broke up.”
Ethniu tsked. “Really? I liked her. She had spirit, an appreciation for the old ways. Even if she seemed a little trashy with that dyed hair. What did you do?”
“I…” I frowned. “Mom, why did you marry my father?”
She looked a little surprised at this. Her eyes immediately darted around the party, but the others around us seemed content to give us our space. The goddess and the iron knight, two terrible creatures. She sighed. “Because he was special, in a way that is so rarely appreciated. Brief, there and then gone again, and leaving only you and memories.”
When I was a little boy, my father had taken me on a road trip to the California desert. We had spent a month there, from late February to mid March. We had camped in a canyon. It had been arid and dry when we arrived. The first rains started less than a few days after that, driven down from the pacific northwest, rolling around the great mountains of the Tehachapi range. We sheltered in the tent for a day, miserable and wet, while the water had pounded down constantly into the thirsty soil, threatening mud slides and flash floods.
The next morning, my father had woken me up at the crack of dawn. The two of us stepped out, and the world was transformed. The plants, dusty and colorless the day before, were rich with flowers and new growth. Every animal was out, from the smallest lizards to great snakes and boars and bears and more besides. It was a riot of energy and beauty, quite unlike anything I’d ever seen before. And by the end of the month, things were already returning to quiescence, the color disappearing from the world.
“This is what your mother is like, son,” said my dad. “She may seem harsh, and like she doesn’t care. There may be times when you wonder whether she loves me, or even you. She grew up without love, without anything, and is very, very lonely. But when she’s fed…” He waved his hand around, and smiled. I’d never doubted my mother since that day. Even when she gave me the harsh quests, even when she demanded the best of me. I never forgot the spectacular beauty of the desert in bloom. I shook my head, and returned to the present. I stared into my mother’s seafoam-green eyes. It was one of the traits we shared.
“Polly broke up with me.”
“Really? An interesting stratagem. A fine way to win the heart of a careless playboy.”
My lips twisted. It wasn’t like I was proud of breaking people’s hearts. I wanted to be gentle with them. That’s why I broke up, when the emotions were still warm. It was bittersweet, but better that than blasé, among the fae. Breaking off a relationship while it was still fresh and exciting was a sign of respect for them, not letting the memories become tainted by banality. “Polly didn’t do it to make me jealous. She told me… that I was too big. That my story was too big, that she’d never be able to live up to who I was.” I shook my head. “I see it in Atina sometimes, too. That sense. That being around me makes them… less.”
“You are destined for great things, my son. If I could have protected you from that curse, I would have. As it stands, I am only strong enough to prepare you.”
I stared at her for a few seconds. It was the question that always lingered with me. Was she really a goddess, rather than just a faerie? There were rumors that deities existed among the schools of wizardry I knew of. There were even those who claimed to have met them. The consensus was that a few very old, very powerful demons, fae, undead, were able to pass themselves off as gods. That was what I’d always assumed of things like Jenny. Like my mother. But then, I’d believed that Tsukumogami were myths, too. “You called me here about Jack Black.”
“Yes. The impetuous boy.”
I’d known Jack. The two of us had, in fact, gone to school at about the same time. He’d been a friend, really, someone I trusted. A good person, if a bit of a social chameleon. He’d always blended in seamlessly with his surroundings, and he’d taken to the supernatural as readily as the mundane after meeting Ailbe. It had been In his senior year when he’d met the girl in the mirror. Alone out of a thousand people at the party, he’d noticed the reflection of a girl who wasn’t there in the real world, at the stroke of midnight.
Ailbe was not even close to a goddess. So far as I knew, she was strong, but no more than one would expect of a fae a few hundred years old. She was, however, a friend of my mother’s. “What do you wish me to do, my lady?” I asked, bowing at the waist, transitioning from son to knight in a single smooth shift of mental gears.
“Discover what has happened to Ailbe. Find the wizard Jack Black. If she is well, detain him. If she is abused, punish him. If she is dead… Execute him.”
There were those in the world with mercy. Tremendous amounts of it. In her own way, the goddess of the fallow drought was among them. She did not want to hurt anyone. She simply distributed that scant mercy where it was best served. I, for certain people, had absolutely no mercy at all.
It was not that Ailbe was a woman. I like to think of myself as chivalrous, but ‘woman’ is not the same as weak, and ‘man’ is not the same as strong. I live in a world of stories, where so often symbolism seems iron-clad, but stories are also things of subversion. Anyone who is a slave to stereotype dies quickly, when people figure them out.
No, the merciless quality was that I’d known Ailbe’s feelings towards Jack Black. She had loved him, in the fervent way that my mother had loved my father. He had provided what she’d needed most desperately, love, support, a strong figure on which to rely. She loved him, and he had behaved as though he loved her. Perhaps he did. Perhaps it had been a lie. Regardless, the harm he had done to her would be the harm done to him. That was not merciful, but it was right.
“What do I need to know about this quest, my lady?”
“Threes will rule. Three calls for aid, three maidens fair, three fights with a foe in dark places. I would recommend you not approach them in that order. For proper pacing, if nothing else. School starts again in only a handful of weeks, doesn’t it?”
I shook my head. The shift in questions was a bit surprising. “Yes?”
“Keep an eye on the children, won’t you? Steer them right.” she sighed softly. “Why do the stories today all have to be so terribly complicated?”
“Too many of them,” I said, “and made by people who are too clever. It’s the way of humans to always make things more complex, until things just… fall apart.” I was quiet for a few seconds. “You’ve told me before about the scale of the world. You told me stories about Balor. But all the old gods, all of the titans of myth… They disappeared. The world grew too small for them. That’s what the religious think, among wizards.” I tapped my fingers on the hilt of my broadsword. “What’s the truth, mom?”
She smiled. “The truth is something we each hold. You’ve heard my stories. I believe every one of them is true. And perhaps you will even agree, someday.”
My fingers tightened around the sword, and I bowed. “I will find them, and I will render what judgment I must.” I stood up straight. “And I love you, mom.” I put an arm around her shoulder, and kissed her cheek. She sighed, but when I turned away from her, I could see the smile that spread across her face from the corner of my eye. That made me warm down to my heart. “In that case, I feel I should go, and make my first call for aid.” I smiled, and rested my forehead against my mother’s for a moment. Then, I turned to go.
As I walked through the crowds, I was struck with a strange melancholy. Summer was dying. The fights, the conflicts between individuals were growing slower. The dancing had become sedate and lazy in the brutal late days of August. It was a reminder that things were going to change once again.
My mother told me, when I was very young, that someday, I would be a symbol of hope. Someday, when the world cried out in pain, when darkness fell, I would be needed. On that day, I would bring hope back to those who had none. When the world was on its knees, I would be there to raise it up again. She had given me a share of her power, making a pact with me, instructing me to be good, true, a hero. She had helped me become a Champion of this place, to bring justice for those who were too weak to purchase it themselves. She had promised me that my name would echo through history.
I didn’t want any of it.
That is not to say that I thought the burden too great, or unfair. Perhaps it was my upbringing, perhaps it is in my nature, but if the world needs me as a hero, then I would embrace that eagerly. I couldn’t deny the glory, the rush of excitement that came with saving others.
But the cost of being a hero was the despair that came first. The breaking of good men, the crushing of good dreams. If being a hero meant that Li Fang Fen were to see her way lost, her trust for humanity and its ability to live in harmony with the supernatural shattered… If being a hero meant that Atina would find the law giving way, torn apart under the strain and weight of the world… If being a hero meant that Polly was right, and that my life was too big, too important to be shared with her…
I’d rather mean nothing than ask that sacrifice of others. If I could find a way to break that destiny, to see it fade away, it would be a better fate than becoming the world’s savior ever could be. Heroes saved the world from the brink. I would much rather stop it from ever reaching that point in the first place.
As I stepped out into the warm summer morning, I felt gloomy inside. There was another side to it. As the world had grown more unpredictable, and more chaotic, I had been struck by the enormity of it all. Perhaps I didn’t matter at all. Perhaps the world was going to go to hell, and there was nothing that I could do to save it. The nature of the universe was entropic; Things fall apart, the center cannot hold. The winter might come, and never end. Not simply a change, but a true end, bringing it all to a close.
I shook my head. Now was not a time for melancholy and doubts. I had a quest in front of me. An innocent fae woman to save, a base villain to apprehend. Justice to mete out, whatever that might mean. I walked towards the car. The feast at Atina’s home would be over by now, I knew. The quest had begun, and the time for comfort and joy was done.
I stared into the window of my car. My own expression was reflected back in it. Blue eyes shone.
“Well, Jack, you’re certainly going to make this quest short.” I drew my blade. He just smiled back.
“You know me, Alfred. I always was avant-garde.”