Jack and I had been friends. I knew a little bit about him. I’d always thought of him as a man who’d been decent at heart, if a little bit too easily swayed by those around him, his environment. He tried to be all things to all people, and it made it difficult to tell whether the way he acted around me was who he truly was, or just another mask.
I am good at seeing through illusions. It’s one of those privileges of being the son of a Fairy Queen. I have a talent for judging people in a snap, and it has rarely served me poorly, though I have more often been hurt for being overly trusting than overly suspicious. When I looked at Jack, I saw nothing. It was as though he was hollow. Perhaps waiting for something to fill him.
“How was New York, Jack?”
“Profoundly terrifying,” he said. “Got my arm broken. Throat got crushed. Nose broken. And met some very powerful people.” He sighed as he stepped out of the window, his body becoming real. That was new.
I’d known a little about the power that Jack had gotten from Ailbe. The shapeshifting, the shadow-walking. I’d also known about the thing he hadn’t gotten. He couldn’t pass the threshold between mirror and reality. Neither could Ailbe. It had been something of a point of bitterness for her. They’d found ways to be intimate, in a manner of speaking. But it had always seemed a terribly melancholy fate. Ailbe was of the Winter Fae, and such fates were common for them, their own natures keeping them at arm’s length. Had Black discovered this new strength in New York? Or had it been something he could always do, a secret kept from her? Saved for a dramatic moment?
My hand rested on my sword. Jack stood in the shade of the large oak tree where I had parked my car. I stood in the sunlight. I didn’t relax. This would be an ideal moment for Jack to reveal some new surprise. I hadn’t become an iron knight and fought for my life so I could be murdered by some clever punk. “Where is Ailbe?”
“In the mirrors.” He smiled. “I could tell you exactly where she is. That’d be very fitting. I know what you heroes are like, now, Alfred. Marshalling your strength, going on a quest. Building up momentum. Each victory along the way makes you stronger. Like an avalanche, you gather force until your foe stands no chance. I could be obtuse, beat around the bush… But that’s your style, isn’t it?” He chuckled, wearing a dark mask of my face. “She is in the Salar de Uyuni. 20 degrees, seven minutes, fourty-two point seven seconds south; Sixty seven degrees, twenty three minutes, thirty eight point two seconds west.”
“Very sporting of you.”
“If you are not there in twenty four hours, I will kill her, and vanish so thoroughly that you never see me again.”
“Much less sporting. I’d be surprised if I could even find a flight to get there that quickly.”
“It’d be a great disappointment if the Iron Knight needed a plane to reach Bolivia overnight.” Jack Black grinned. “I understand, now. The reason you go through all the showmanship, all the bragging. All the play. It makes you stronger. The braggadocio, the arrogance, the confidence that you will win.” He raised his hands into the air, and took a deep breath. “It feels good, being the hero.”
I raised an eyebrow. “You’re not a hero, Jack.”
“Wrong. I’m not a good man.” He grins. “They’re not the same. That’s another thing I learned from my time in New York.” He bowed his head towards me. “I will see you soon, I think. You’re not the type to leave a maiden in distress.”
And then he was gone, vanishing in the shadows. I took a deep breath, and briefly considered slamming my broadsword into the trunk of the tree. But it would have been a pointless cruelty to the blade, and the tree. I opened the door of my Honda, and drove to Atina’s.
By the time I arrived, the party had mostly wound down. The few remaining people were gathered around the dining table. Li Fang Fen, Jack Knife, Jenny, and Atina. Atina had a laptop out, typing. She had her ‘lawyer’ face on. This was the expression she got when she was deeply focused on something she thought was impossibly important. Her lips grew tight, she clenched her jaw unconsciously, and generally projected an atmosphere of being on the verge of putting one of her fingers through the keyboard. The soft clicking of the keys filled the air like a woodpecker, a staccato beat interrupted from time to time as she thought.
She stopped for a moment, and grabbed a chunk of chicken, popping it into her mouth. She chewed for a few seconds, and then swallowed. “So-” She coughed, and gulped some water. “So. This Sister. She told you that heroes were-” She looked up, and there was a momentary guilty look on her face. “Alfred!”
Atina did not really, truly trust anyone. I knew this. She came awfully close, but she always thought of people in terms of how she would destroy them if she needed to. It was one of her better traits, in my perspective, and no doubt one of the reasons why she had managed to live as long as she had in the supernatural world. She didn’t trust me. She didn’t trust Fang Fen. She didn’t trust anyone. I understood this, and so, it did not bother me. She was a good person trying to survive with no power but her wits, lost among the monsters. “Going over what happened in New York?”
“Yeah.” Atina sighed, and pressed her palms against her eyes, fingers pushing up through her hair. Then she slowly dragged her fingers down her face, till they covered her mouth, looking up at me, her expression grave. “I don’t know what the hell it all means. Whether it’s relevant to us, and if is, what we can even do. It’s…” She waved a hand through the air vaguely. “It’s an embuggerance.”
I nodded. “I need to find Jack Black.”
Jack Knife frowned. “That punk? He didn’t seem that tough. Dane kicked his ass twice.” I raised an eyebrow. She looked down, her cheeks coloring slightly, lips pressing together tight. “I mean…”
“I’m not worried about beating him. I need to find him before I can worry about that.” I took a seat at the table. “I hate to be a distraction, but-”
“No, seriously.” Atina typed something else on the laptop, then closed it. “This is all just… information. Nothing really that I can do about it right now. A hunt for a serial killer empowered by fairies and dark gods and stuff sounds like fun.”
“Dark gods?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.
“Long story. So, we need to find-”
“He told me where he’s keeping Ailbe.”
“Oh. That simplifies things.”
“It’s in the middle of the great salt flats of Bolivia, and I’ve got twenty four hours to get there.”
“Of course,” said Atina, rubbing her temple. “How silly of me not to see that coming.” I smiled, and she did too. “You need a favor.”
“I do. I’d owe you.”
“Yeah, as if I’m not already up to my eyeballs in debt to you.”
Li Fang Fen smiled. “It’s like you always say, isn’t it, Atina? Better to owe a friend than be owed by a friend?” She looked warmer. Happier. More cheerful. Being around Atina could do that to you. “But what kind of help can we offer? That is a rather long distance to go.” Her eyes grew distant for a moment. “There’s… Damn. She probably couldn’t have helped us even if she were here, but we met someone who could’ve crossed that distance in a moment.”
“There are ways,” I said. “Far Fae.”
“Far Fae,” said Atina, her eyes dull. I nodded. “The deepest reach of whatever insane seasonal symbolism realm that Fairies inhabit. A place where symbolism and meaning break down and which all but the most powerful fairies avoid. Where, I have been told, ‘Old Gods’ sometimes rest and wait, mouths open, for prey to walk into their gaping maws. The place from which no man returns.”
I frowned. “I haven’t heard that last one.”
“Oh, well then, let’s go for a Sunday stroll there.” She pressed her hand against her face. “Alfred, I’ll list the number of ways this could be a trap. First, it could be a lie to lure you away from where he’s really keeping her. Second, it could be an ambush. Third, the girl he’s holding hostage could be working with him. Fourth, he could be counting on something in the Far Fae to murder you. Fifth-“
“You know how I am, Atina. I can’t simply let this happen. It may be a trap. I doubt Black is that foolish, but he may decide to fulfill cliché.”
“You’re acting foolish.”
“Yes.” I smiled. “Marching into danger, heedless, seemingly ignorant of the consequences. I’m not the only one who’s done that.”
“Oh, great, you’re going to throw that in my face. I nearly died, you know.” She rattled her knuckles on the table, and looked at the three. “Fine. We go loaded for bear, then. I’ll call in favors, we’ll go in force, enough to make any trap think twice-“
“You can’t do that,” I said.
“What, you think he’ll rabbit?”
I was silent for a moment or two. I wanted her help. Atina commanded some truly terrifying allies when she needed to. She collected favors and favor like other people horde money, or Star Wars collectibles, or hats. She sought power in the most circumspect ways, refusing it personally, but happy to bend the powerful to do what she desired. And they did, because she helped them in turn. Because they trusted her judgment. It was a great power. If she could, she would make it easy.
But heroes, grew greater through adversity. It was in facing the darkness alone that you became strong. Companions could help you along the way, they could solve the challenges you could not, but when you came right down to it, stories always came down to two people, facing one another in the darkness.
“This is something I have to do myself. Call it a matter of honor.” I smiled. “Don’t worry, Atina. I wouldn’t die so easily.”
“He was stronger than he had been,” murmured Li Fang Fen. “Twice, Dane caught him by surprise, but whatever happened to him… He was being called a hero. Someone blessed with good luck. He managed to escape us time and again. Please, don’t underestimate him.”
I was quiet for a moment. Li Fang Fen was at least peers with some of the stronger beings I’d ever fought. It was a bit frightening that she was this concerned about the young man. And he had been the least of the threats that she had faced in New York. Atina broke the silence, standing up. “I’m going to call the Half-Faced Man.” She saw the expression of my face. “Look, you’re trying to find secret knowledge and find the right way through. You’re going to need the help of the Half-Faced Man.”
Despite my nature, I don’t like secrets. Perhaps because of my nature. Nobody hates a secret more than the person who relies on them for their life. The Half-Faced Man was… strange. Disturbing. Full of terrible secrets. I knew a handful of them, and they were enough to make me wary of them. There are two members of the Courts allowed, by their lieges, to carry iron weapons and use them on other fae. I was one. The other was a secret position, for certain reasons. I carried my sword openly, they carried theirs secretly. Not least because they needed to be in a position to kill me if necessary.
The Half-Faced Man carried iron openly. And no one rebuked him. No one tried to stop him. I didn’t know whether he had the right, or nobody dared say he didn’t. It was ambiguous, like every fucking thing about him. Where Jack Black was hollow, the Half-Faced Man was opaque.
Give me black over gray any day; It stands out better against the white.
But Atina thought that she was gray too, even if she was wrong about that, and she appreciated the Half Faced Man’s ambiguities. I thought perhaps they represented a challenge to her intellect that she enjoyed. And he was reliable where she was concerned.
I wasn’t sure which would be more difficult to handle. Being betrayed would be terrible and make my quest more difficult. But being proven wrong about someone could wound your entire view of the world.
Jenny and Li Fang Fen stood up, clearing the table. That left me alone with Jack Knife.
I had heard a little bit about her. Li Fang Fen had given the broad strokes of her past. A serial killer. A broken blade. A young woman who had been abused and who had abused in turn. A project. A sword. A damsel in distress.
“Do you want me to come with you?” she asked, her eyes meeting me. They were dull, a little lifeless. Her expression was that of a whipped dog with its tail between its legs. Knowing it could not perform what was asked of it, knowing it would be punished for being a broken creature. Learned helplessness.
“Do you want to come with me?” I asked.
“No. But since when does what I want matter?” She crossed her arms. She was small, not in the way of someone young- Though she was perhaps the same age as Jenny, maybe a little younger than Li Fang Fen-
I paused a moment. She was a blade. Despite her appearance, she’d killed more people than any serial killer in history. She was older than Li Fang Fen by who knew how many years. She was-
Still a lonely person, wrestling with who they were. I felt a great sympathy for her. “I think it started to matter when you came here. What is bothering you?”
She crossed her arms tighter across her chest. “A lot of things. Being here is strange. Being around these people is stranger. Not knowing what I’m supposed to do is fucking awful. And I don’t know what I’m even supposed to be trying to do. Do I need to regain my killer instinct? Do I need to change who I am? Do I need to find a worthy wielder? Do I need to solve the mysteries of my past? All my life, I thought I had no free will, that I was just doing what my maker and my wielder had wanted, and now it turns out that I spent my entire life defying my purpose to do horrible things, that I’m responsible for everyone I killed-“
I reached out, and rested a hand on her shoulder. The sobs racked her for several minutes, but they died out slowly. “The good news,” I said, “is that I doubt that you have to decide any time soon. I’m sure it will make for a gripping story, and finding who you are can be truly empowering. But from what I’ve heard, you’ve had a terrible experience, and coming to terms with it takes highest priority. Would you like to talk about it?”
She did, as it turned out. The whole thing laid out, her experiences there. The things she’d seen and not seen. Monsters, gods, and things that those words couldn’t even describe. And her own failure. Her face was gray, but she seemed a little bit less teary as she finished. “So… In the end, I couldn’t even…” She shook her head, red hair flying. “I wasn’t even strong enough to protect the person who was wielding me.”
“I’ve heard it said, sometimes, that all a sword can do is not break. The rest is up to the wielder-“
“I don’t want to be just a sword!”
There was a little silence in the room. I smiled. “I’m happy to hear that. You’re a person. And no person deserves to be treated like just an object.”
She stared down at her knees. “I wanted to ask. Why don’t you want Atina to help you?” She looked up, her expression sharp, her eyes flashing. “Do you not trust her? Is she not trustworthy?”
I barked out a laugh, and she frowned. After a moment, I sighed. “God. She’d say not at all. She’d insist up and down that she’s a liar, that she’s paid to twist the truth, that there are many awful things she could do. She’d remind you that you shouldn’t rely on her advice alone. That’s what makes a person trustworthy. Anyone can say they’re trustworthy.” I paused for a moment. “Mind you, a clever liar will also tell you that they’re a liar, because people trust that. But once you get that deep, how can you trust anyone?”
“Yeah,” said the young woman, her arms crossed.
“You were hurt by people.”
“Or I hurt them,” she said softly. “Do you know what it’s like, to live your life, believing in something, and then to have all of the tables just… turned on you? To realize that you were wrong, wrong about everything, and to not know how you can ever make things right?”
My jaw clenched for a moment. I opened and closed my mouth, and took a deep breath. “Intimately, I am sorry to say.”
“Oh.” She looked down, a little petulant frown on her face. “That’s great. I can’t even enjoy my pain being unique.”
“Unique pain would be a terrible burden. In sharing things, you can see how others have overcome their problems, and how they’ve failed to do so.” I was quiet for a moment. “It feels very strange to be giving life advice to someone who is at least a century older than I am.”
“If it helps, you’ve been a person for all your life, and I’m only just starting to understand it.” I nodded. “So… you’re not angry, that I can’t help you fight?”
“We each of us have our place in the world. Many of us cannot fight, because we are not strong enough, or sometimes, because we are too strong. And that’s good. Violence is a terrible thing. It doesn’t answer many questions, it doesn’t improve anyone’s lives.”
Jack Knife was silent for a long few seconds. “But it makes everyone respect you. I can see the way the others trust you. They way they defer to you. Because you use violence.”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “But only partly. They’re that way because I do not use violence except as an answer to violence. That is its greatest use, after all.”
She nodded slowly. “I don’t think I’m able to do that. I don’t know if I could ever… kill anyone, again.” She looked down at herself. “I’m a knife. And I can’t kill people. Is there anything more useless?”
“A hero without an apocalypse. There are many things a knife can do. There’s only one thing a hero can do.”
Her words had shaken me. The scale of forces they’d spoken of. Gods, and greater beings than that. The scale of violence. The stakes. The entire city of Manhattan could have been wiped out in a spasm of violence, and I had been up here, engaged in the little games. It made me wonder. Had I missed some sign? Some omen telling me I was needed there? It sounded like the scale of catastrophe that called for my intervention.
Or was there a different answer?
What if my mother had been wrong all along? What if I was nothing special, no hero, no champion, nothing special?
What if I was simply me?
The idea was simultaneously freeing, and depressing. On the one hand, it meant that my presence would not necessarily bring disaster on those around me. On the other hand, the world was sounding less stable all the time, and the idea of being powerless in the face of all of that was frightening.
The reason most people sought power, ultimately, was out of fear. Power meant the ability to survive catastrophe. To survive famine, war, conquest… I swallowed. Humans wanted to live a life free from threats. They wanted certainty. So few achieved it, and the more power you gained, the more you realized your helplessness. You could never be truly strong enough to escape death.
I straightened my back. I did not seek power for the sake of my happiness and comfort. I sought it for the sake of those around me. To be strong for those I cared for. If I was not a great hero waiting to happen, I would settle for being a good man to my friends. If I could not save the world, I would save whoever I could.
“What are you thinking?” asked Jack Knife.
“Mmm. Ridiculous thoughts.” I gave her a smile. “I have a bad habit of drama. Thinking in grand terms when what matters is the small details. I don’t know how much help I can offer you in discussing what you are, but I know two good swords. I’m sure that I could tell you what I find most trustworthy about them.”
She nodded, and then frowned. “Do you know what Tsukumogami are?”
“I… suppose I have an idea. They are theory more than fact, nowadays. The term refers to any nonsapient object which is imbued with power by a connection with a human, and thus becomes a sapient being. There are three broad varieties, depending on the source. The first are Artifacts. These tend to be children of many fathers. Great and famous items which are beloved by many people wind up turned into Artifacts. Though nowadays…” I shrugged. “With forgeries, carbon dating, museums- It’s rare that there are any Artifacts left in view. They’re often locked behind glass cases, or fakes are put in their place in museums, so people cannot handle them, admire them. Ironically, that kills their soul, like locking a human in a glass cage.”
“It’s a theory. To explain why something like the Mona Lisa or the Shroud of Turin are not more overly, obviously magical. Only a theory.” I was quiet for a moment. “But I agree, it’s sad. The next are Heirlooms. These are objects that were owned by a single family. Artifacts often have a personality shaped by the expectations of many, like a celebrity. Heirlooms are more like a member of the family. Over the course of generations, they take in enough energy to awaken, and become a living being. Often one reminiscent of members of that family.”
She nodded softly. “And you said there was a third?”
“Yes, though I would hesitate to bring it up. It’s more of a theory than anything else. Supposedly, a single human could bring a tool to life.” I chuckled. “It would be strange, though. Normally, Tsukumogami take a hundred years to form. Even in the most spectacular circumstances, it takes a very long time to make one.”
She frowned. “Pacts… Something… I thought pacts extended a human’s life?”
“Oh, they do.” I smiled softly. “Unfortunately, they also taint the ability to make a Tsukumogami. Wizards who have made pacts with the dead, the fae, or demons… Well, that’s one theory for why their tools don’t become Tsukumogami. There is far more speculation than recorded evidence on these subjects. The third kind is called a Memento. They tend to have a personality that reflects their maker, more of a complement to them than a copy. Passive where their maker is aggressive, thoughtful where their maker is impulsive.”
She nodded slowly. “It sounds like you’ve thought a lot about this.”
“I always liked the idea. There is a strange kind of romance to the idea of a man fighting with weapon in hand, a bond between the two linking them almost as closer as lovers.”
There was a slightly strange, dreamy look on Jack Knife’s face as she stared down at the table. I grinned.
“Who knows. Perhaps someday you’ll find your hero who knows how to make you feel right.”
Both of us sat up straight quickly. I looked over my shoulder, where Atina stood.
“I got in touch with The Half-Faced Man. He said he’ll meet you tonight, at Seneca Lake, Watkin’s Glenn, at seven PM, in the Village Marina.”
I paused a moment. “Will he wear a yellow baseball cap so I know it’s him?”
Atina rolled her eyes, but she smiled, so I counted it as a victory. “He also said to bring beer.”
“Those were his exact words. ‘No pale ales, stout if you can get it’.”
“Because why eat bread when you can drink it.” I sighed. “Alright. I got it. I’ll get ready.”
“Cool. I need to pick up some things to help him out with this anyway.” She checked a small notepad, and frowned. “That, or he’s getting me to go grocery shopping for him.”
I stepped out of the door, and into the mid-day sun. I got into the Honda, and drove two blocks, before stopping short at a stop sign. I parked the car, and stepped out. “Roy?”
He turned, his eyes widening in surprise. There was a guilty expression on his face. “Ah. Alfred?” He spoke in that peculiar quick southern accent of his, smiling pleasantly. A lot of people would mistake it for southern, anyway. Those who hadn’t heard Old English spoken by those who were familiar with it. His hair was messy, dark, his features neither unusually handsome nor ugly. He wore a light shirt, and seemed slightly guilty at my sudden appearance.
“Yes.” I let the smile fade from my lips. “I know, Roy.”
He went very still. “Oh?”
“Yes. And I’m glad, Atina needs a boyfriend. I approve entirely.” He relaxed, and smiled. “And how lucky of her to find a dragon.”
There was a moment’s silence. His eyes met mine, and something deeply unsettling happened. Roy did not change one bit. He did not grow scales, nor claws, nor terrible glowing golden eyes. But his face changed, going from uncertain and cheerful to cold as ice, his lips drawn into a tight line. He judged me for a moment, his eyes dropping to my hand, resting on the broadsword. “It wouldn’t help you against me.”
“Knights and dragons,” I said, smiling cheerfully. It hadn’t been a shot in the dark. I knew about Atina’s little secret ‘visions’ during the times I’d taken her on Dreamwalks. She talked more than she thought she did. I had talked with the Half Faced Man in the wake of the attack on Atina that terrible night.
And I could taste it on him.
“Yes. Knights and dragons. You would be the fifth Berguntrückung to attempt to slay me.” His eyes were very steady, and so utterly unafraid. In most people, even among the most powerful, there is a hint of fear, a hint of uncertainty. They know enough about stories to know that overconfidence is the surest killer. Roy was either so utterly certain in his abilities that failure was not even a possibility, or so mad that he never considered it. I was inclined to think it was the former. “Is this how your story ends?”
“I just wanted to thank you. You saved Atina, when I could not. You protected her from things that could have killed me.” I bowed firmly at the waist, lowering my eyes from his for nearly a full three seconds, before standing up straight.
“Is this the part where you tell me that if I ever hurt her, if I ever leave her, you will wreak a terrible vengeance against me?”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “For three reasons. First, it is a terrible cliche, and meaningless in this case. I couldn’t call down retribution on you. Let’s not pretend otherwise. Second, Atina does not need me to protect her in emotional matters. If anything, she needs a little less protection from those around her. And third, I do not believe that you would ever do it.”
“Do you dare to impugne-” he began, and then stopped, his eyes hard. “You see a little too much. Perhaps someone should put out your eyes.”
I smiled. “Traditionally a blind swordsman is the most dangerous kind. But I have this to say. I know what Atina is like. She crosses lines. She leads others to cross lines.” I became aware of an incredible tension in Roy, a slight flaring of the nostrils, a tensing of the muscles. “For the best of reasons. I wouldn’t impugn the woman you love. But someday, you’re going to do something for her sake, and on that day, we both know the punishment that your vows will bring upon you.”
He was silent.
“On that day,” I said, “I’ll fight for you.” I reached out, and clapped him on the shoulder. “The world would be a cheaper, less worthy place without you in it.”
He didn’t react to the firm pat on the shoulder. He was like a block of iridium, bending the world with his mere presence. Like a black hole bent space and time, his presence bent stories. Finally, he breathed in, and out. “You are a hero.”
“It was not a compliment.” He shook his head. ” I hate heroes. They are the death of my kind. ”
“Yes. I prefer champion, myself. It has a more noble cast, I think.”
“It doesn’t matter either way, I suppose. Now there is one Dragon left. Very soon, there will be none.”
“Well, perhaps more dragons will find their way into the world. You and Atina are playing safe, right?” The look he gave me could have flayed the meat off my bones. If it weren’t for Atina, I suspect it would have. I smiled anyway, and did not dare let fear show. “I’m glad that you’re there for Atina. I think that she needs something like you.”
I laughed, and shook my head. “No, no.”
I turned my back on him, and walked back to the car. As I drove away, he was still standing there. I didn’t breathe normally until I was out of sight of him again.