Black & White Chapter 3: Winter

Atina’s a nerd.

That sounds like an insult, and in many senses it is, but it is her most stand-out feature, the source of both weakness and power. She is obsessive, introverted, given to self-loathing and depression at one moment, then manic wild energy at another. She’s able to keep focus through impossible tasks, make connections others don’t, and see things clearer than I can in many cases. She often sees the worst of people, and she helps them anyway. She sees how savage people can be, and she keeps helping them. And she gathers information like a crow gathers shiny things.

For example, did you know that Seneca Lake is the largest Finger Lake, and the deepest body of water contained entirely within New York State? I certainly didn’t, until Atina informed me of that fact. In my body of knowledge, my awareness is spectacular. If you have questions about European folklore and culture, I probably know more than Atina does. The same is true of swordfighting, and certain aspects of the fae. The thing is, outside of my areas of expertise, I know very little.

So Atina’s advantage is in being able to find information. She knows a little about a lot of subjects, which is all you need to start asking questions. Scarcely a week goes by without an email or a conversation full of questions. She uncovers unnerving amounts of information that way.

Atina doesn’t trust people. Not really. When she opens herself up, you can see her bracing herself for the stab. She expects it every time. I’m the opposite. I don’t expect the betrayals, save for those I consider bad people. This is because I rely on my reflexes, and she relies on her logic. She tries to make sure she won’t be crippled by betrayal while still allowing it to happen. I rely on being able to stop betrayal in the moment. It’s a useful combination of skills.

There are a handful of people she does trust. The Half-Faced Man is one of them, and I wish I could understand why.

Standing here, on the dock, a twelve pack of beers under one arm, staring out at the boat, I think I began to get it a little bit.

“Guinness! Poseur.”

The Half-Faced Man stood on the stern, grinning. I could see what he really looked like. The other people on the dock didn’t appear to be able to, just like they could not tell that the silly cosplay armor I wore was steel chainmail, and the two swords on my hip were true weapons. Their eyes glanced over it, and assumed. Fairies were good at forcing people to make assumptions.

He stood close to eight feet tall, skeletally thin. Every limb, every digit, had one more joint than a human should have. The effect was rather reminiscent of a cat, or an octopus, every movement flowing and smooth. His skin was blue, and a white mask hung over his face, featureless, gold eyes painted on where his should have been. It looked like porcelain, but I’d never seen it break. His teeth were sharp.

Perched atop his smooth skull was a classic yacht skipper’s hat, broad-brimmed and pleasant. He wore a light jacket around his shoulders, and a corn-cob pipe smoking in his mouth. Three fishing rods sat in a sconce on the deck. He gave me a broad, cheerful grin. “Ah, you brought beer. And stout! Please, come aboard.” I stepped up the gangplank onto the deck of the boat. Not large, but attractive nonetheless, clearly well cared for. I set down the beer, and the duffle bag containing my supplies.

I had always seen the Half-Faced Man in the context of the fairy courts, or when shit was hitting the fan. He was always a distant and terrifying figure there. Here, under the sunlight, in this simple, mundane setting…

He was still distant and terrifying, but I could get along with him, at least. I nodded. “I take it this is all necessary to the goal?”

“Completely,” he said, grave as the grave.

“Why the three fishing-”

Jenny stepped around the small cabin, dressed in a light T-shirt and a long skirt. Both were pale white, and with the golden sunset lighting up her hair, she looked uncharacteristically spectacular. It would be unfair to say that Jenny was not attractive. I was used to the flawless beauty of the Sidhe. Impossible women who were slightly too symmetrical, just a little bit too perfect. Jenny was attractive in an entirely human way, nothing spectacular or mind-bending about it. Soft brown hair. Warm brown eyes. It was the rare vampire who became less pale after their conversion, but Jenny had apparently taken to sunbathing on a constant basis. Lines of pale skin were visible along her shirt, tan-lines that made my pulse quicken slightly.

This was a woman several years younger than me whose boyfriend had died nine months ago, who I had barely spoken with in that time, who had the power of a goddess. I looked away sharply, turning my head towards the sparkling lake. The Half-Faced Man was grinning. “For fishing, of course.”

“Ah.”

The boat sat on the shining lake. We’d been sitting there for the better part of an hour. Jenny had never fished before. I, on the other hand, used to do it all the time with my father. It’s these little touches that make me distrust the Half-Faced Man. Nonetheless, as we cast out the lines, listening to the soft low buzz of the reel, it was comfortable. The Half-Faced Man opened a beer, and the pop-hiss was strangely comforting.

“I can’t help but note that we haven’t baited the hooks,” said Jenny.

“It’s not about catching the fish. It’s about fishing. No reason to spoil a perfectly lovely time out on the lake under the sun with some scaly thing trying to make off with good bait and making a terrible fuss.” He took another long pull off of the beer, and sighed. “It’s a beautiful day.”

I considered asking questions. But I wasn’t Atina. I could never quite manage to cut through the Half-Faced Man’s bullshit. “Yeah,” I said instead, deciding to enjoy the moment. I put a little trust in him. The boat rocked silently for another few minutes as I opened a beer. I offered one to Jenny, and she accepted. She winced a bit at the taste, but drank it anyway. That made me smile, and the three of us stared out at the lake as the water rippled beneath us.

“You ever think about who people really are?” asked The Half-Faced Man.

“A lot.”

“You’re surrounded by fairies and the dead, Alfred. Yet you take things at their face value. In doing that, you leave yourself vulnerable. Hidden gambits can strike at your heart.” The Half-Faced Man sipped at his beer again, and the silence reigned for a few seconds more. Finally, he sighed. “Why?”

I was silent for a moment, and thought about the question. The answer was easy, though.

“You treat someone a certain way, they start to behave that way. Treat someone like they’re better than everyone, they begin to think they’re better than everyone. Treat someone like a villain or a monster, then why shouldn’t they act that way? And if you treat someone like they’re a noble hero… Maybe they want to be that way.” I sipped my beer. “That’s the way I look at things. Better to treat someone like a friend and be wrong than treat them like an enemy and be right. At least till you have reason to stop trusting them.”

“So why do you treat me the way you do?”

There was a momentary awkward silence. I frowned. I was hardly subtle about it, was I? “Because,” I said, picking my words carefully. “I… don’t think… you give a shit about what people think of you.”

Jenny laughed hard, and looked embarrassed. “Sorry. That was just…” She smiled. “I miss seeing you in a good mood, Alfred.”

I was quiet for a few more seconds, as the sun rolled over us. The Half-Faced Man sighed. “What are you going to do when you find out that Jack Black has been fooling you?”

“Re-evaluate the situation.” I sipped the beer. “This isn’t the first time I’ve been fooled. You can’t go through the world assuming everything you know is wrong. That just paralyzes you. All you can do is act according to what you know, but not let it get in the way of seeing what’s really there.” I took a deep breath through my nose. “So maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you are trustworthy. Maybe you don’t have a hidden agenda.”

“Oh, no. I definitely have a hidden agenda.” The Half-Faced Man grinned. “But only the most skilled liars tell you that and then lie to your face, right?”

“You realize how utterly unsettling that is, right? The whole ‘knowing things’ trick?”

“How could I not?” The Half-Faced Man grinned, leaning over towards me. “You make it incredibly easy to mess with you.”

I stared at him for a few long seconds. I considered. Whether really, what the Half-Faced Man enjoyed doing was screwing with me. It almost made too much sense. That alone practically disqualified it as a theory, when it came to the fae. “You’re telling me this to put me off target too, aren’t you?”

“Yes.” The Half-Faced Man smiled. We watched as the sun slowly sank down behind the forest on the west bank of the lake. After a few minutes, the wind fell to nothing, and the full moon rose from the east bank, mirrored in the still lake below. “You are going somewhere very dangerous. I know the path. It is the Palace of Mirrors, a realm of the deepest Winter. It is the birthplace of all fetches. It is desolate. It is dangerous. It is the place closest to your destination. Once you are in, no artificial light can be used. If you do…” He was quiet for a few seconds. “Well, you will discover how fetches can be made.”

“No artificial light?” I asked, frowning. “Then how are-” I paused, and turned towards Jenny. “No.”

She raised an eyebrow. The Half-Faced Man chuckled. “Is it fear for her, or yourself, that motivates that?”

“I…” I shook my head. “You planned this.”

“Of course. Heroes must have the favor of divinities when they venture forward. And one divinity just wouldn’t do for this. And there’s not just that. When you reach the far end, you will need someone to open the way back for you, unless you want to become trapped in the Bolivian desert with scant supplies.” He smiled. “A perfect role for Jenny to play. Guiding light and a pathway home. Certainly playing to her strengths.”

“And you agreed to this?” I asked Jenny, an eyebrow raised. She lowered her head, looking a little embarrassed.

“Chaac… thought it was a good idea. Atina agreed.” She took a sharp breath through her nose, and exhaled. “I have power. That demands that I help where I am able, doesn’t it?”

“I can do this without you,” I said. Not harshly, not proudly. Just a gentle offer. “You don’t have to come on this quest. It’s my duty, not yours.”

“I think that it is my duty. I simply haven’t been fulfilling it yet.” She smiled. “So. How do we enter this… Far Fae?”

I nodded. “Simple really. That’s rather the trick of jumping between worlds. It’s terribly easy once you know how to do it. It’s surviving on the other side that’s hard.” I looked up at The Half-Faced Man. “The Palace of Mirrors, you said?”

He nodded. “You know the way through?”

“Yeah.” I looked down at the mirror-smooth lake, and reached down into the duffel bag, gathering up a small handful of flower petals. I trailed them through my fingers, and let them drop slowly onto the water’s surface. As I did, I remembered the time I’d sat in a barber shop, watching two mirrors. They’d been slightly offset, one in front of me, one behind, creating a great tunnel carving upwards in both directions away from me, my head repeated time and again off into the distance.

I’d wondered if I saw something moving, at the very edge of that great arc.

Ripples ran out across the water. They stopped perhaps three feet from where the petals had fallen, gathering like a ridge, slowly swelling until there was a tiny crater in the water. It glowed, and I bowed my head to Jenny. “Ladies first.”

She lightly stepped onto the edge of the boat, and then hopped through. I followed.

Another fun fact about Seneca Lake. It’s fucking cold. As a hugely deep and energetic lake, it’s usually about the ambient temperature of upstate New York, which is just a hair above freezing, another reason this state is a fucking nightmare. That kind of cold grabs you, a palpable force, and squeezes you.

It wasn’t Seneca Lake that was making the cold. I opened my eyes, into the teeth of a full gale. It was pitch black, and the wind howled furiously. The cape I wore pulled free of my glamour, snapping and whipping through the air ferociously. Then the sun dawned.

Jenny was standing, her arms tightly wrapped around herself, her legs shaking. “Fuck me!” she shouted, over the wind. It had died off slightly as she’d summoned the small ball of sunlight in front of her, and was now merely loud rather than sanity-destroying. “How the fuck can it be so cold?! I’m dead, I’m not even supposed to feel cold anymore!”

I grabbed her arm, and pulled her along. The two of us moved towards a dark, glistening shape, standing tall. The wind died as we got closer, until it died entirely. The two of us leaned in the windbreak of a great mirror, perfectly reflective. My foot bumped into something on the snowy ground, dislodging a pack of clinging ice from it.

It was a hand. Blackened, gnarled, it rose into the air, wrapped tightly around a storm lantern’s handle, the lantern itself mostly rusted tatters. The shape of a body was barely visible in the snow. I stared down at it. “What in the hell…”

Jenny pointed at the mirror. “There’s no reflection of it.”

She was right. The blackened hand was not mirrored on the other side like Jenny, the light, or I.

“Well,” I said lightly. “That’s how Fetches are made.”

“God,” she whispered softly. Then she shook her head, arms around her. “Fuck. It’s so cold. How can it be so cold? Even the sun isn’t warming me up.”

“The cold is in your heart. Not the air. It’s spiritual, rather than physical. Loneliness” I frowned for a moment. It was cold, painfully so. But it didn’t seem to affect me like it did her, and underneath the glamour of a T-shirt and jeans, I was wearing several dozen pounds of heavy chainmail over cloth, nearly pressed against my bare skin. “Come on.” I turned around, and crouched down. “Climb on my back.”

She paused for a moment, but reluctantly put her arms around my shoulders. I stood, catching her knees, carrying her piggy-back style. She was light as a backpack, and cold as ice. I shuddered at the sudden icy chill running down my back. Then she sighed, a soft, grateful sound, and her arms tightened a bit more. “God. I thought I was going to die again.”

I didn’t feel quite as cold, then. I began to trudge along, following my instincts. The surroundings were dark, but some directions were darker than others. I marched towards them, walking among the great mirrors. From time to time, we saw other examples of those who had lost themselves here. None of them were pleasant. “I am finding myself increasingly glad to have a strong companion with me,” I said, smiling.

“Strong.” She snorted softly. I paused for a moment, kicking the snow off my boots.

“You don’t think you’re strong, Jenny?”

“I…” she was quiet for a moment. “I didn’t earn any of this power, Alfred. I’m a useless person who got in over her head, and who got incredibly lucky. Now, I’ve got the powers of a sun god, without any idea of how to use them. Most days, I’m a danger to the vast majority of my peers, either because of the constant thirst for blood, or because I create sunlight. It feels like I’m not in either world, human, or undead. That’s part of why I came back to school so early. Being around my family… They could tell I’d changed, and I couldn’t even think of how to begin to tell them.” Her arms tightened a little more around me.

“I-”

“And then there’s you! I remember the first time I saw you fight. I thought you were this silly crazy guy that Atina hung out with. Then I saw you move, and it was like watching…” She shook her head. “It was amazing. Watching you fighting for Atina’s life, for my life, with everything you had. You sliced a man’s hand off, and you laughed. I thought to myself, it should have been terrifying, like you were a lunatic, but it was the most wonderful thing I’d ever seen, someone who cared so much and could do so much and who was fighting to save my life. I started reading the case files, and I learned more about who you are, and I felt…” Her arms tightened a little more around my shoulders. “Safe. You just seemed like you were born for this world. I just stumbled into it. Atina, Fang Fen, even Polly, they’re all kind of scared of what this world holds, but it’s like you just keep growing bigger the more you face it.”

I was quiet for another few seconds, as I started walking again. Then I sighed. “I’m not really any different from you. My power is borrowed. Gifted. I didn’t earn it. My mother made a pact with me when I was a child. I’ve spent decades trying to, I’ll spend decades more doing the same, but it’ll always be something I was given. I was given every advantage in this. I was born to a mother who did everything to make my life easy, to make sure I could handle myself, to make sure-” I bit off angry words. “That I’d succeed. I was privileged. And yet I still can’t help. There’s so much I can’t do, despite what I’ve been given. Look at this place. I’d have been fucked if I’d gone here without you.”

“I thought you said I didn’t need to come.”

“Yeah. I was wrong.” I stared into the wind. “And you’re a decent person. You’re strong, you’ve been working to make the world a better place. Atina keeps me up to date on what you’re doing with the money you inherited from Hun-Came and the other Camazotz.”

“It’s not that much I’m doing. I’m just telling other people to use it wisely. That’s… worthless. I couldn’t even avenge Tony.”

“You forgave people who had done you a grievous harm. You stopped a cycle of vengeance in its tracks. Do you know how much strength that takes? You’re a goddess, now. You’ll grow into your power. I know you’ll be magnificent. If I can say that I was able to play a part in that, keep you alive and safe… Well. That’s not a bad bragging point.”

“You don’t brag,” she said softly. “And I guess we both feel a little powerless. She sighed, and leaned back slightly, She let out a soft gasp. “Wow.”

I looked up, too. The wind had died entirely now, the world going pleasantly still. High overhead, an aurora was becoming visible. Waves of radiance arced and hummed through the sky, so powerful I almost fancied I could hear them.

Aurora Borealis are often described as a kind of pale fire. It’s easy to understand why, when you see them. They have the same strange, sinuous grace of firelight, the same habit of tapering off at the top, the same nimbus of light. They also reminded me of waves, swaying from side to side slowly, flowing together, or a river, bursting its banks and whipping across a plain, swinging furiously along one path and another.

“That’s the winter,” I murmured softly. “Stark. Dangerous. It kills things. But we always seem to be at our best when we are threatened. In the winter, people huddle together for warmth. In the winter, we feast to scream into the night. To say we won’t give up. We’re not made for the winter. But we brave it anyway. And we can see how beautiful it is. All the more so because it reminds us that we’re alive.” I smiled. “So to speak.”

“Yeah, those jokes never get old.” She leaned forward against me, and I was aware of her forehead resting against the crown of my head. “What’s it like, to make a pact?”

“It’s…” I was quiet for a moment. “Intimacy is involved.”

“… You said your first pact was with your mother, right?”

“Not that way. I mean, very much that way, with every woman I’ve ever made a pact with except my mother, but…” I sighed. “It’s a thing of love, always, I think. Even the worst connections are born out of love. You have to recognize something that you are missing, some part of you that is not whole. Then you find it in someone else. I’ve heard theories, but in the case of the undead, faeries, demons, this is always a feeding of some kind. Drinking a lick of their blood. Tasting their skin. Sipping their chi. Listening to a story from them. Falling in love. Both parties have to want it. If they do, then…” I snapped my fingers. The click echoed through the night.”The two of you are connected.”

“… Do you want to make a pact with me?”

I looked over my shoulder, frowning. Jenny blushed. “Not- like that. Not for those reasons. I mean… it would help, wouldn’t it? You. And me. I could help you, even if I wasn’t… exactly helping you.”

“The offer’s flattering. But…” I turned back towards the mirrors.

“Polly.”

“Not exactly. Polly made her decision. I disagree, but I respected it. I…” I stared forward. My eyes stung. “Every relationship I’d ever had was… complicated, and straightforward, at the same time. Since I was eighteen, and mastered my mother’s power, fae women had wanted me. Had offered seduction and domesticity and simple love, because they wanted to make themselves a part of my story. To take power from the story that surrounded me.”

“You make it sound so… mercenary.”

“It is. Love doesn’t have to be healthy, or selfless. Often, it is deeply selfish. For it to be selfless, you would have to believe you get nothing out of it, and I have never found a person yet who is like that. No, oftentimes the connections can be as tainted, broken, and screwed up as any human connection. Sometimes, though…”

“Polly.”

“Yeah.”

“What made her so special?”

“I suppose it was the end. With the others, I could sense that it was over. They had had their fill, but by their natures, they didn’t want to let go. I was a meal, and they were inclined to linger. I ended it because I thought it was kinder. Polly… We could have been together for longer than I’d been with any woman, and never grown bored with each other. She was passionate, and terribly human. It was a good thing. But she ended it, because she thought that I was… too big for her. Too big a story. She didn’t think she could make it work. And she chose to leave. And it hurt.”

Jenny was silent. I reached up for a moment, wiping my eyes and hiding it by pretending I was brushing frost away from my face. I moved my hand back down to her knee, and continued.

“I had hurt her, because of my story, and I realized that it was miserable. She had tried to do the right thing, to let me down easily, and it eats away at me inside, and I’m starting to wonder how many people I’ve done it too, how many decent women who feel as though I’ve toyed with them, and the idea of it is…” I swallowed hard. “It makes me sick with myself.”

“I think that’s a sign you’re a good person.” She leaned slightly to the side, shifting, and watched as we passed a pair of individuals, lying together on the ground, blackened frostbitten bodies hanging against the ground, one sheltering the other. The one sheltered by the other still cast a reflection. “There was a lot to that story that Li Fang Fen told. All of the immortals I meet are so filled with… regret.”

“Oh?”

“Love. It feels like they’re all so angry that they fell in love, so terrified of betraying their one true love, and when they die, the immortal is left bereft forever. Fang Fen, Lady Ann Willing, it’s like you can’t go for a hundred years without some sort of tragedy, and I miss Tony, but I wonder if I’m supposed to miss him forever, and if it would betray him, maybe even destroy him, if I ever forgot about him, if I stop hurting for a moment-”

The words ended, cut off, as she breathed in sharply. Then she shook her head.

“It’s too much. I’m terrified I’m going to betray him. You know?”

“Very well. I feel the same way about Polly. Whether I should keep waiting for her to decide she’s strong enough, or move on, it’s hard. But…” I took a deep breath. “If Tony’s spirit is out there, would he want you to suffer and be lonely in his memory?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because anyone who would rather you suffer than move on is not worth suffering for. You can’t torture yourself for the sake of those you love. It won’t make them happy, and it won’t make you a better person. All you can do is keep them in your heart, and not let them fade away. You can remember the good without being tortured by the bad.”

She was quiet for a few seconds. “I remember the two of you telling me that, too. That love had to be held onto hard while it was there, and then let go once it was gone. But you’re still holding on.”

“Always easier to give good advice than to take it, isn’t it?” I smiled. ” The love thing is important. That’s the key to multiple pacts.”

“Uh? Oh, that’s right, I remember reading in Atina’s case files. It’s rare for a wizard to have pacts with more than one entity, isn’t it?”

“It is. And it really comes down to the same problem of jealousy. When you make a pact with two people…” I paused for a moment. “Connections with others are what make up your soul. They pull you in one direction or another, but gently. If you pull too far, the connection breaks, but that is all. But a pact- That’s something violent, and terrible. A hook into your soul, the most powerful kind of love there is. And if you’re pulled in two different directions…”

“Ripped in half,” she murmured softly.

“Exactly. Imagine that you were asked to choose between your parents and your one true love. For a normal human who loved them both, the conflict would be excruciating. It would likely only be settled by deciding against whichever one of the two had forced that confrontation. And for someone who has two hooks in their heart…”

“Ripped in half.”

“Yeah.” I frowned into the darkness. “Do you see that?”

She frowned, looking into the darkness ahead. Outside of the sphere of sunlight, the eerie green of the auroras lit up the night. Most of the night.

A great sheet of black ice stood there. Blacker than the rest. I narrowed my eyes, and could see a figure in the darkness, a subtle texturing of the night. “There it is. The one we’re looking for.”

“You’re sure?” she asked, softly.

“Yeah.” I stepped closer. “I’m going to go through. if I’m not back in ten minutes, something’s probably gone terribly wrong.” I set the duffel bag down as she let go of my back, and took out a small bundle of flowers. “Use this. Sprinkle some on the ground, and imagine you’re looking into a mirror with a mirror behind you. That sequence of infinite regression. That mental image will pull you back into the real world. Don’t use it on that mirror.” I paused for a moment, and saw she was shivering. I pulled off my cloak, and threw it around her shoulders. The shivering stopped almost immediately. Then I turned towards the mirror. I placed the flowers on it, and remembered that barbershop again. The ripples spread out across its surface. A vast plane, white turned gray-black in the dark, was visible beyond. A simple mirror sat on the cracked surface of the endless flats.

“Alfred.”

I turned back, and frowned. “What’s the matter?”

“Don’t say ‘If you’re not back’. Don’t make those plans for your own death.” She clung to the cloak tightly, pulling it around her slender body, her warm brown eyes focused on me. “You’re a goddamn hero, Alfred, you’re a white knight and you make it work, so don’t you dare give despair a chance to blossom. I want you to be the hero I remember. Man the fuck up, stop weeping over the harm you’ve done, and step forward with confidence.”

I was silent for a moment. Then a fierce grin spread across my lips, and I drew my broadsword. “Tally-fucking-ho.”

She was right, damn it. To hell with concerns, to hell with regrets, to hell with the ambiguity and the fear and the pain and the shades of gray. I chose to take the world in black and white.

I stepped into the salt flats. The way closed behind me, and I took a deep breath. It wasn’t like the seaside. This salt lay inert in the ground. The air was spectacularly dry, and the sky impossibly clear. A great arc of stars spread above my head, shining bright. The full moon hung high in the sky. Off to the east, I could see a great set of thunderclouds. They flashed, and the boom stretched out in a rolling rumble that covered the world. I looked down at the mirror. It had been the path through into this place. I bent forward, and saw a delicate circle inscribed around it, three feet across. I stood inside the circle.

“Ailbe?”

Her face was visible in the mirror. She turned towards me, and her eyes widened. “Alfred! You came.” She shook slightly. Her skin was pale as milk, her hair the white of fresh-driven snow, hanging across her face. Her eyes were white pupils rimmed with blue surrounded by the whites of her eyes. It was like looking at a picture whose contrasts had been stretched into oblivion, only the suggestion of features.

“Yes. where’s Jack?”

“You’ve got to go, Alfred. He’s gone mad. He wants to try to force you-” She stopped short. “He made a very bad decision, Alfred. You should go. Leave him. I don’t believe he’ll hurt me. Just go through the mirror again, before he gets here.”

I stared out into the darkness. I looked back down at Ailbe’s eyes. I wondered. Had they always been that shade of deepest blue?

“I had a prophecy made. Three calls for help, three fair maidens, three enemies in the darkness…” I stared down at the mirror. My hand rested on the broadsword. “It’s-”

I didn’t finish the quip. I lashed out, fast as a snake. The broadsword streaked down towards the mirror.

A shadowy hand wrapped around my wrist, arresting its motion.

Ailbe stared up, her eyes wide in horror, from the mirror.

The hand emerged from my own shadow. Jack’s smiling face appeared. “Don’t get me wrong,” he murmured. “You coming all this way and murdering the woman you came to save in a fit of paranoia would have been fucking priceless. But that’s not the way I want this to play out. You don’t get off that easy.”

Then he slammed me down into the ground and fell upon me, howling like a wild animal. And then it was just salt and wounds.

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