The lights were still on when I returned home, past ten. I wished Polly and Alfred a peaceful night together, and opened the door. Sitting in the living room, I saw Jack sitting on the chair, curled up, her arms around her legs, face buried between her knees. She appeared to be sleeping, and the pose almost made me wonder if she’d been waiting up for me. I considered, for a moment, picking her up and carrying her down to the bed. I decided to think better of it, less out of fear of her stabbing me in surprise, and more because I thought it would just weird her out. Instead, I lifted a blanket from the couch and draped it over her, and turned off the light, walking towards the kitchen to see if there was any pizza left in the fridge.
“Atina?” whispered a soft voice from behind me. I turned back. Jack’s soft eyes were wide, staring at me. I gave an apologetic smile.
“Did I wake you? Sorry about that.”
“It’s okay. I wanted to ask you a question.”
“Yeah? It isn’t about something I did while I was drunk, is it?” I asked, trying a little too hard to sound amused and cheerful. I hated being blackout drunk, not because I knew I’d do something wrong, but because I feared I would. The fact that the worst I’d done in the past was pass out on someone’s lawn did not ease this fear.
“Sort of.” She paused, just long enough for my brain to shift into overgear and produce nightmare scenarios.
“Yes?” I asked, partially to encourage her, mostly because my heart was beginning to race and fear had gripped my guts.
“Why do humans destroy themselves?”
I considered that question. “Is this about the drinking?”
“I guess. Partly. I knew a lot of humans who acted self-destructively. One of my owners took heroin. Another had sex with strangers, without protection.”
“God. You’re getting into a heavy question here, Jack. Why…” I was quiet for a moment. “Do you want to destroy yourself, Jack?”
She looked away. ”What’s wrong with that?”
“The thing is, in my experience, very few people want to die. Most of the time, they just want to stop hurting. Intoxicants, depressants, hallucinogens, stimulants. It’s all a way to stop hurting. The sign things are bad is that you don’t care if you die, because that’ll stop the hurting, too.”
She nodded softly. ”I want to stop hurting.”
“Being broken must have been hard-”
“Not my pain. That doesn’t matter. I want to stop hurting other people. I made them hurt themselves. I told them it was right. I knew better, and I could have helped them. But I told myself they deserved it, that they deserved to hurt, because they weren’t smart enough to see what it was doing to them. But you should be smarter.” She looked up at me, her expression nervous. “Polly called me. She told me you visited the hospital, today.”
“It was just the local clinic. They were being worryworts,” I said, shaking my head. ”And- the thing about that is, sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between self-destruction and pushing yourself for a reason. I drink because I need to relax, sometimes.”
“You’re pushing yourself very hard,” said Jack, still staring at me. “Why do you want to help people so badly that you hurt yourself?”
I sighed. ”Look, Jack. I care about people. Alfred, Polly, Li, the Half-Faced Man. You, too. My parents, my little brother. I care about all of them. And I hate seeing any of you hurt. Whereas… It’s not that I like to hurt myself. I just don’t care if I get hurt. I’m tough. I know how tough I am. I may get stressed out, frightened, angry, but I won’t break. I don’t break. So it only makes sense for me to be the one who worries about these things, if I can handle it.”
“I want to help,” said Jack, meeting my eyes. I stared levelly at her. After several long seconds, she looked away. ”God, it’s hard to stare like you do.”
“The key is to not feel anything. Jack, I’m here to help you. Come on.” I sat down on the floor, and patted it. “Meditation. I’m pretty sure of what you are, now. You’re a sword. It’s the kind of thing that fits with what I know of you. It’s the kind of story that fits. Broken sword, mistaken for a knife, pretty good story. Now, I need to ask you. Do you think a sword would be useful for what I’m dealing with?”
“No,” said Jack, in a rather small voice.
“Yeah. Even if I knew precisely who was responsible for this, what am I going to do, gut them?” I smiled apologetically. “I don’t use a sword, even symbolically. You can use a sword without hurting anyone. You can make men knights, you can make plowshares, you can cut the chains of slavery, you can end a fight without striking a blow with a sword. But if you try to write a brief or fill out a form with a sword, let me tell you from experience, people make a huge fuss about your handwriting.”
Jack looked down at her knees, without any laugh to tell me things were okay.
“But you know what does help? Having you here. Watching movies with you. Having you help me read through the endless, utterly tedious reams of documents. You’re helping.”
She looked me in the eye. ”You’re full of crap, Atina,” she said, somewhat miserably. “Anyone could do that. I’m capable of more, and we both know that means I need to do more.”
“And how do you want to help?” I asked, levelly. ”Ask yourself. Ask yourself what you really, truly want. What are you trying to have. I can’t tell you what’ll make you satisfied, not anymore. You became a person, and that means that you don’t get easy answers. You’re not just a sword anymore. The upside is that you don’t have to stand by when awful things happen. The price is that you can stand by.”
I crossed my legs, resting my hands on my knees. Jack finally sat, and mirrored my pose, her eyes down and to one side. “I want to protect you,” she said, softly. ”I want to protect Alfred. I want to protect Jenny and Polly.”
“Well, that’s a pretty silly wish. This is… nothing all that special. The vast majority of cases are like this, Jack. They’re important, but only to the people who are directly involved. This one hasn’t even gotten violent on me, because nobody particularly wants me to die, this time around.” I smiled. “I’m safe. The fact that I don’t need you to protect me is a good thing.” I was quiet for a moment. ”You know what drives me mad about this case is, it’s typical. I looked up the statistics. Murder is one of the most frequently solved crimes that gets brought to police investigation, and It’s still only about a 60% chance that it gets solved. Your odds are one in three that any given murder won’t be solved. That’s miserable odds. But things get better when the murder is personal, when there was a reason. That’s what will help. If I could find this phylactery he was working on, though… That’d be the most useful.”
“Phylactery?” asked Jack, curious.
“It’s a-” I paused. ”There’s a whole lecture about it. I was researching them on the ride back. Are you sure you want to hear?”
“I think so,” she said, nodding.
“Yes, damn it, Atina!” said Jack, and I was damned if I was going to let an opportunity like this slip past me. People got very snotty when I tried to educate them about things.
“Alright. The actual use of the term phylactery is recent. Gary Gygax made them back in the 70s. The origin of the phrase was a protective amulet, in Greek, most commonly used to refer to a Jewish tradition of containing pieces of the Torah in an amulet they wore.”
“So it only started being a thing in the 70s?”
“Well, the idea- store your soul somewhere safe?- That’s been around for a much longer time. Goes right back to the ancient Egyptians.” I rubbed my chin. ”If I could find it… And if it works, it’d solve this case like that. If I could find it.”
“You think I could recognize it on sight?” said Jack, her head tilted to one side. ”It’s an object with power. It can’t be that different from a Tsukumogami, can it?”
“Maybe.” I grinned. ”See? Talking things out helps. You’re more than just a sword, now, Jack. You’re a person. It comes with a much wider set of talents. Now.” I took a deep breath. ”Focus, and Ommmmmm…”
“Ommmm- Do we have to do this, Atina? The chanting part? The Atlanteans didn’t.”
“While you live in my house, you use my sacred syllables, young lady. Ommmmmm…”
There was something wrong. A crack. I saw it appear on her face, and slowly spread, reaching down. It spread out, even as I chanted. I tried to shout a warning, but the only thing that left my lips was ”Ommmm…”
The fracture lines spread lower. And as she opened her mouth, I could see them spreading across her tongue. ”Ommmm…”
I tried to warn her. I tried to tell her to stop, to take it easy. It came out ”Ommmmm…”
Jack smiled gently at me, and sang “Ommmmm…” as her body fell into shards like glass, like powder.
And then I was standing by a waterfall.
Not a real waterfall. You know those beautiful Japanese landscape paintings, the calligraphic style of black ink on mulberry paper? It was like that. A sweep of dramatic black lines landing in dozens of little spirals. But it moved, and the roar of it filled the air. A man knelt by the water, studying it with great interest, and I saw a hammer hanging from his waist. Delicate petals, like tiny teardrops in their stylized form, fell from a gloriously pink cherry blossom tree. They were the only color in this place, a monochrome wasteland of off-white like paper marred here and there with dramatic sweeps of midnight-blue ink.
I breathed in. This was the same thing that had happened before. I just had to stay calm, and let it happen. It had passed before. Pretend it wasn’t happening, and watch very closely.
He dipped his finger into the water, and watched as the petals slowly swept around them, an interested expression on his face. He turned towards me, and smiled. ”Good water, don’t you think, Atina? Atina?! ATINA!”
My eyes snapped open, and I tried to throw up. The lack of food meant that all that came up was a thin trace of burning acid. Jack was over me, her expression terrified, eyes wide, her fingers tight on my shoulder.
“Are you okay?” She asked, squeezing me. ”Can you see? How many fingers am I-”
“Three,” I said, taking a deep breath. ”Fine. I’m fine. What happened?”
“You just- sort of slumped over. Fell to one side. You looked like you were asleep, but after earlier today-”
“No, no. Just tired. Must have fallen asleep, it was so peaceful.” I smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry I worried you, Jack. I’m just fine. How are you feeling?”
“I… better. Maybe we shouldn’t-”
“No. We’ll do this again tomorrow.” I stood up. “But I think it’s a clear sign from my body that I should get some sleep. We’ll meditate together in the morning, alright?”
“Alright.” She opened her mouth, looking as though she wanted to say something, then closed it, pursing her lips.
“I’m okay,” I said soothingly. “Just a little overworked. I promise, if anything is wrong, I’ll let you know.”
As I lay in bed, I looked up LSD flashbacks on my phone. I’d always suspected Alfred sprinkled a little of the stuff in the Dreamwalk solution. The datura was bad enough that acid wouldn’t make things much worse. And apparently, acid flashbacks are a real thing. Short-term flashbacks happened in about 60% of the people who took it. Long-term or distressing flashback frequency was more like 5%.
But what was more important was that I could handle it. I had found myself in another dream, and I had not allowed it to overcome me. I could do this. I could keep it together. I could keep them from worrying about me.
In the morning, Jack and I did our meditations again. This time, I did not pass out, I did not experience any strange and twisted dreams. It could work. I could keep this all together.
“Do you mind if I come with you to the Summer Court?” asked Jack, a bit nervously.
I paused, and considered this. On the one hand, I could think of several ways it could go wrong, just off the top of my head. Bringing a broken sword spirit into a court full of conflict-happy fairies was a provocative move on at least three levels. On the other hand, it was the first time that Jack had asked to go somewhere with me, and the fairies would take any provocation. Might as well be a meaningful one.
“I’d love that.” I smiled, and patted Jack on the shoulder, before opening the door to the car.
The drive to the botanic garden wasn’t a long one, but it was just long enough for the conversation Jack had been hoping for. ”Atina. I’m not stupid. I heard about your behavior. You drank more than I’ve ever seen. Jenny says you were fine after visiting Earlen Wen. Then you’re out of sight for an hour, and suddenly, you’re home with a handle of tequila and a grudge against your own liver. What happened?”
I was quiet for a moment. Athena’s visit lingering on my memory. “If you knew the world was going to end… If someone you really, truly trusted told you that everything was going to end. How would you react?”
Jack Knife looked forward, her expression neutral. ”I guess I’d refuse to believe them.”
“That’s… not an answer I expected.”
“I mean, if the world’s going to end what can you do? That’s huge. And the world is full of people who don’t want it to end. You wouldn’t believe how hard New York City fought back against being ended, and it’s just a city. The world is so much bigger.” She shook her head. “If the world, if humans, were easy to kill, they would have died a very long time ago, Atina. And if it is going to end, well, why not enjoy yourself?”
“What if you knew you could save someone, but not everyone?”
“You do that all the time.”
I blinked. Then I felt the guilt in the pit of my stomach. ”That’s different.”
“Is it? Every time you work on one case, there’s another person in need who’s not getting helped. You can’t save everyone, Atina. The world’s too big for that. You have to be selfish about who you save, sometimes. You’ve got to make your heart small. How many people would you get to take with you?”
“So, five people. Who would you bring?”
The question whirled in my head. I deflected. ”I can’t take the offer, anyway. I need to help here.”
“Do you think you can do anything?” asked Jack, her voice suddenly cold, hard, her eyes on me. And I remembered myself. I came to a stop at the red light, and turned to meet her eyes.
“Yes. I can.”
She looked down quickly, her expression softening. ”Sorry.”
“No. Sometimes you need tough love. Sometimes you need to get angry at someone to stop being depressed. Rage gives you strength.”
She curled her arms around herself, lowering her head a bit more. ”You don’t hate me for doing that?”
“No. You’re trying to help. And I want you to help. Nothing there to be angry about.” The light turned green, and I drove.
The Cutler Botanic Garden. when I was just a child, my mother had brought me there occasionally. The memories were so distant that they were almost secondhand- memories of remembering the place more than anything, smears of color and distant impressions. One stuck out more than anything else. I had learned to make a corn husk doll there, turning the golden husk into a small but pretty doll. It was only years later that I’d learned the true significance.
The Iroquois had made corn husk dolls. Part of it was simple frugality; Children needed something to play with, and corn husks were handy. You used the husk and the silk to make a small, faceless doll.
There was a European belief, though, that mixed with it when the first settlers arrived. All things have a spirit. Even crops. When the crop was harvested, the spirit of that crop was left without a home. And so, it was tradition to create a corn husk doll, to hold the spirit of the corn, and to ensure that it had a place to live. I always loved how sentimental that act was.
I wondered where the doll was. I’d been a child when I’d made it. Unmindful. But it could have been a person, just like Jack. Just like every god damn egg in my ovaries, if I came right around to that. I smiled wryly at that thought as I pulled into the parking lot by the farmer’s market, and resolved not to worry too much about the lives that could have been, in favor of the lives that are. The Cutler Botanic Garden sat in full bloom, its various examples of prosaic life brilliant. And there, in the center, stood the Gazebo.
I’m a goddamn nerd, I’ll openly admit that. So I know the old and very famous story of Eric and the Gazebo. There’s a type of demon, known as a Glabrezu, which is notably powerful and dangerous. It’s perfectly reasonable to mistake a gazebo for a Glabrezu, if all you’ve got is the name, but the story’s funnier if the titular Eric comes across as a fool. And there, sitting in the shade of the dread gazebo, were Alfred and Polly.
Alfred sat in his silly looking LARPing chainmail, a comical foam arrangement which I had seen stop bullets and claws and no end of swords that by rights should have gutted him like a trout. Polly was carefully balancing her soccer ball on one fully extended ankle, shifting it ever so slightly to keep it upright. I knew from personal experience that the ball weighed somewhere north of a hundred pounds, and was almost entirely lead under that unassuming black and white surface. She’d chosen a sporty looking green blouse and green skirt. They were both scandalously short, and did absolutely nothing to keep her legs or midriff covered. She spotted me and grinned, rolling the ball up her leg and onto her lap with a skillful movement, and began waving. ”Oy! Atina! Oy!”
“Hello, Atina,” said Alfred, as I approached. He nodded to Jack. ”And it’s nice to see you out and about, Jack. Still a few minutes until noon. Ah, Jenny!”
I turned. Jenny was approaching from the pedestrian walkway, dressed in a delicate yellow sundress. I found that a bit on the nose, but it was a bright and sunny day, and it suited her. I noted that she was developing a fair tan. Considering the fact that it was barely April, this was a bit surprising. She smiled nervously. ”I’ve been practicing my powers a bit more, lately.”
“Really?” said Alfred, interested. “And it tans you?”
“Apparently. Have they announced the contest, yet?”
“There’s a few possibilities,” said Alfred. “Tournament of Champions is one possibility. A tournament between all comers, with the victor facing me. A marathon. I’ve even read about some cases being solved in a trial of sport.” He studied us. ”We should have enough for a basketball team, but if it’s football or baseball, we may be in trouble.”
“You think they’re going to avoid combat?” asked Jenny, her head tilted.
“Not to toot my own horn, but I have something of a reputation in trials of combat. There are very few people who could go the distance with me, let alone beat me.” He chuckled. “They’re going to try to gain advantage wherever they can find it.” He checked his watch. ”Well, the hour is upon us. Let us enter.”
He stood up, and closed his eyes as the five of us stood on the gazebo. There was a brief incantation, a timeless moment of warmth. Then, we stood in the Summer Court.
The Summer Court was set in a great open field. The sky above was blue and cloudless, which was damned unusual for Binghamton. The rolling hills surrounded us, but faded in the distance, leaving enough room for about a thousand acres of farmland, divided by a great and unbridged river which swept past with dizzying speed. Already, the land was tilled, the seeds planted. In Binghamton itself, this would be a dangerous move. But in the Summer Court, the weather never got too cold for corn.
Pavilions had been set up. Commoner and noble alike circulated, and while they recognized eachother’s ranks, they intermingled freely. Hierarchy was less a thing here. The Summer King stood, his skin black as soot, his violently red hair arrayed around his head, dancing among his people, noble and commoner alike. An ugly scar reached from his left brow down to the right side of his chin, the skin half-melted in a patch an inch wide, giving it that particularly unpleasant look of a burn victim, which didn’t apparently do anything to mar his cheerfulness.
He approached us, a brilliant smile on his face, his teeth shining like diamonds. “Alfred! Atina! Polly! And honored guests! Welcome!” He grabbed Alfred’s gauntleted hands, and grinned. There was a moment of straining bone and steel, Alfred matching him grip for grip, before the two released the handshake like fencers disengaging “Come! Eat! We have slain the fatted calf!”
“It is good to see you again, Sidney,” said Alfred, smiling. ”I am sorry I have not been to court recently.”
“Busy times! Don’t fear, my old friend. We will soon have this all sorted out.” He chuckled, and with that enigmatic comment, he returned to the crowd, leaving the five of us to stand awkwardly.
“Sounds like a bit of a nasty surprise they’ve got planned,” I said, frowning. “Do you suppose-”
“Friends!” bellowed a voice that shook the earth beneath our voice. Low, throaty, intense, but undeniably female. We turned. The Summer Queen stood at the bank of the river. Annis was a big woman in every sense of the world, towering over me and with the kind of body that inspired worship in prehistoric cultures, her substantial measure of bare skin tattooed with copper powder to give her ferocious blue tattoos across most of her body. She was an inveterate nudist, which Jack, Jenny, and I had a bit of trouble with, if I were to judge from who was unable to look directly at her..
Annis waited for a few moments as the conversations, meals, and fights died down, hands on her hips. She had that kind of way of talking that got people’s attention. She seemed almost to bloom under the collected stares of the full Summer Court.
“There is no doubt in the minds of the Summer Court. One of our own has been sorely misused. The Iron Knight, Alfred, is innocent!” she declared, in a voice that rocked the soil, and all around seemed to agree. “Yet the beasts of darkness believe him to be otherwise. They believe that there exists some force that could corrupt the Iron Knight of Binghamton. They demand a price be paid in blood, because that is what the dead crave most.”
“She’s not calling for a war, is she?” I asked, softly, under my breath, my brows furrowed.
“No. That’d be lunacy. The Undead have always been the dominant force in Binghamton, and the other three courts wouldn’t join if Summer started this war. It’d be suicide,” said Alfred, looking equally perplexed. “They wouldn’t risk that for anyone.”
“The Undead have set their trap with the expectation that we will be predictable. After all, we Fae are creatures of stories, are we not? And everyone believes they know which way a story will go.” The rumbles of the crowd grew a bit louder at this. “But stories are clever. They are not stagnant, like corpses. Stories evolve. We change. We subvert expectation.”
“Who’s that?” said Polly, frowning, narrowing her eyes.
“Who?” I asked, turning my head.
“There, with Alfred’s mom.”
I scanned the crowd. It wasn’t hard to spot them. In a field where everyone mixed, they stood apart, surrounded by a moat of untouched space where no one seemed eager to tread. One was Alfred’s mother. I had never met Ethniu before, but she was the kind of woman you would recognize instantly from descriptions. Tall, nearly as tall as me, pale skin, hair so blonde it was almost silver. She was flanked by a woman with pale skin and hair black as pitch, who wore a cloak of crow feathers and a hood that covered her eyes. On her other side was Megan Smith, a white buffalo hide draped over her shoulders, a pipe between her fingers. And behind them…
“We have consulted with great powers,” said Annis. ”And we have been the recipients of a gift. Please, Athena, share with us your solution.”
Athena stepped forward. Pallas Athena, Bright-Eyed Athena, the Gorgoneion on her arm covered with a sheet of canvas. She wore a helmet and a linen robe, and she stood tall. Though she was several inches shorter than me, I felt as though I had to crane my neck up to look at her.
”There are two ways that a hero’s story may end,” she said. Her voice was soft, and rang in the silence. “This is the most basic rule of a story. In a tragedy, the story ends in a funeral. In a comedy, it ends in a wedding. But either way, it is an ending. The contest to prove the innocence or guilt of Alfred Ethniuson, Iron Knight of Binghamton, shall be a Gauntlet to the Pinking, Open to the Masses and Closed to the Unwilling, with a Prize of Weal or Woe. And should the Night Court of Binghamton not accept this outcome, I shall Smite them.”
I blinked. Alfred blinked. Hell, Polly blinked. Jenny looked between us, looking for an explanation, and I was the one to provide it. “That was a lot of jargon. You’re going to be fighting someone who’ll decide whether you’re executed, or-”
“Or I marry them,” said Alfred. “The Pinking means that victory will be decided by whoever manages to remove a part of their opponent’s body first. A lock of hair, a piece of skin, a nail, or blood. The Weal or Woe means that I will either be executed by them, or bound to marry them. The ‘Open to the Masses and Closed to the Unwilling’ means that anyone can participate, but only those who have entered the Gauntlet can know the list of others. And the Gauntlet…” He sighed. “That means that I will be required to compete until I lose, or defeat all comers. An endurance test.”
“Alfred, I’m pretty sure I’ve read about this,” I said. “Aren’t Gauntlets rather rare?”
“Because of their tendency to depopulate entire Summer Courts? My understanding is that you get a choice to execute those who compete, as well. To say nothing of those willing to thin out the ranks of their competitors to get their own chance.”
“Somehow,” said Alfred, looking around the crowd, “I think that the Summer Court will find a way to work together. To save me,” he said, with unusual bitterness.
“Alfred,” said Polly, softly, looking across the crowd. “Is this the worst way that this could end?”
“Dean Morton’s death gone unpunished? A threat against the Night Court hanging? This won’t fix anything,” said Alfred.
I had to admit, I didn’t entirely agree. This was an out. A way to save Alfred. It might mean marrying someone he didn’t want to, but people had entered loveless marriages for reasons far less important than survival.
Ethniu’s voice was soft, gentle, ringing like a bell. She stood, her arms folded, her demeanor cold as ice, and her eyes steady.
“Ethniu,” said Alfred. And I saw the heartbreak in Ethniu’s expression, the ice breaking as she looked down and to one side.
“I am sorry, son. I am doing this for your own good.”
“Is that what your father said to you, when he locked you in Tur Mor?” Alfred asked.
“Of course not. He told me he was doing it for his own good,” said Ethniu. She looked as though she wanted to say more, but was unsure how to. In her place, Athena stepped forward.
“Hello, Alfred Ethniuson,” she said, her expression completely calm. And then, just as Alfred was visibly weighing whether to bow, she lowered herself to one knee. ”It is a pleasure to meet one of your caliber. I have heard of your heroism.”
“I appreciate the thought, Pallas Athena,” stated Alfred, slightly stunned. ”But I must confess, I am surprised to see you here. Or that you are, indeed, real.”
“Were I to have the choice, Alfred, I would allow you to die,” said Athena, softly. ”Your legend could be great. it does not deserve to be cut short so quickly, and death holds little threat for a bergentrückung. But a mother’s love and a friend’s desperation has forced my hand.” She nodded towards me. Alfred turned to stare at me.
“I didn’t do this, Alfred,” I said, apologetically, trying not to look at Athena. ”But…”
“It is a plea bargain,” said Alfred, firmly. ”Accepting a lesser sentence. You think it’s a good idea.” He shook his head. ”I will not surrender. I will fight with everything that I have. If I fail, I will accept that fate. But I will not simply give up.”
“I know, son,” said Ethniu, nodding. ”I do not wish to be without you. That is all. Please, do not hate me for this.”
This gave Alfred pause for a moment. Then he stepped forward, and even as Ethniu let out an indignant ‘oh!’, his arms went around her shoulders, squeezing her tight. He planted a kiss on her forehead, giving her a tender embrace. ”Of course not, mother,” he whispered, softly.
“Atina,” said Athena. “A moment of your time.” She crooked a finger, and I followed. Jack moved to join me, and Athena held up a hand. ”My apologies, Jack Knife, and I mean no disrespect, but this is a private matter.”
Jack looked at me. I smiled. “It’ll be fine. I’ll be back in a little while.”
Athena led me along for some time, as the two of us made our way down the river. We were joined by the dark-haired woman, and Megan Smith. “So,” said Athena, as we stopped, her eyes turned out towards the far side of the river. “Have you thought about who you will bring with you?”
“I haven’t decided whether I’m going to come to Avalon,” I said. “Even if everyone accepts this, the city’s going to be in chaos-”
“Unless we are impossibly lucky,” said the dark-haired woman, ”this city and this world will be dead by New Year’s.”
I blinked. My stomach went cold. ”How do you know?”
“She is the Morrigan,” said Megan, apologetically. “She knows when things die. She’s quite skilled at it. Things do not look good, Atina. The world teeters on the brink.”
“A variety of ways,” said Athena. ”An encroachment by a Lost God. A crusade led by those Gods who believe that humanity must be brought to heel. A nuclear engagement in the Middle East growing worse. A super-plague created by human artifice. I am afraid that the world is throwing itself headlong towards oblivion. I can’t promise that it will even last until the end of the year, but it will surely not last long past that.”
“How many times can heroes arise?” asked the Morrigan, softly. ”How many times can the impossible be done, how many times can humanity deny its fate? There is only so much that can be done, by mortal and god, to stave off the inevitable.”
“How about a dragon?” I asked, softly.
Athena had to be good a poker player. She didn’t even move. Her expression didn’t betray anything, even as Megan frowned and The Morrigan snorted. Of course, that kind of freezing was its own betrayal.
“What about a dragon?” asked Athena, her tone level.
“Could a dragon do something?”
“There’s no such thing as dragons,” said the Morrigan.
“Not anymore,” said Athena.
“Of course,” said Megan, her tone sharp, ”if there were something that could be done, a dragon would be able to do it.”
“Don’t tell me you believe those old stories,” said The Morrigan, glaring . ”Dragons and Chaos and the Brother and all of that.”
“Destiny is when Fate takes an interest,” said Megan, in the unmistakable tones of one quoting. “And Luck is when Chaos takes an interest.”
“Dragons are gone,” said Athena, firmly. ”They were never capable of hiding themselves. They were never subtle. The world is better for them being gone. And we must focus on preserving what is good about it.” She turned towards me, and sighed. ”I stepped forward to help you, Atina. To put an end to this case, to save your friend from his destiny, in order that I could preserve you. Please.”
I felt my stomach twist. ”I can’t just leave people to their fate.”
Athena opened her mouth, clearly ready to argue. Then, to my very great surprise, she sighed. ”Very well. My invitation remains open. And I will visit again. I will help you, where I can, with this case, as my duties will allow me to. In exchange…” Athena was quiet for a moment. ”Swear to me, that when this case is ended, through either vindication, or conviction, that you will come with me to Avalon.”
“I can’t do that,” I said, softly. ”I can’t lie to you. You know I won’t.”
“I suspected,” she said, and sighed. ”And I understand. It is hard to let go.”
“I don’t want to be a corn husk doll. A living reminder of all that’s been taken from me,” I said. “I need to fight.”
“I would not be who I am if I did not respect that,” said Athena, and she smiled. ”I will help you, nonetheless.” Then she snapped her fingers, and she and the Morrigan were gone, leaving only Megan.
“Is the world doomed?” I asked her.
“How do you know?”
“Everything dies, Atina. If we survive this, then we shall die another time. Even Gods die. Even worlds die.” She smiled, wryly. ”This world, too, shall pass. Sometimes, all we can hope for is that something new will arrive after it.”
“Cut our losses?” I asked, softly.
“Yes.” She reached out, and squeezed my shoulder. ”Sometimes, all you can do for the people you love is survive. Meet me for some tea some time.” Then she was gone, too.
We met together outside the gazebo, the five of us sitting in the cool March air.
“So,” I said, for lack of anything better to do. ”Just under three months until the Gauntlet. What can we do in the meantime?”
“You don’t think I should surrender?” asked Alfred, wryly. ”Give up? It’d mean survival.”
“You were right,” I said, softly. I saw the look Alfred and Polly gave me. ”What?”
“Are you sure you’re okay, Atina?” asked Jenny “You just said Alfred was right.”
“Well, he is, wisenheimers,” I said, a slight grin creasing my cheeks. ”But mostly, I’m angry. We can solve this. I’ve got ideas. Leads. But I’m not sure how long they’ll take to pay off, and this kind of contest is way outside of my bailiwick. If you’re fighting who-knows-how-many pissed off Fairies who all just need to cut a piece of you off to win, without any chance to rest…”
“Yes,” said Alfred. “I pride myself on my stamina, but I am forced to confess, even I may be taxed by that many women.”
“I had an idea,” said Polly, softly. We all turned. She’d been quite quiet since- Well, if I was honest, since getting back from England with Alfred. She flushed. ”Ye don’t have to look so bloody shocked, I’m nae moron.” Her accent seemed more pronounced as she became defensive.
“Go ahead,” said Jenny, softly.
“Well. The only people who know who’s going to compete are those who are already competing. So, we can’t just threaten and intimidate people into dropping their names from the contest,” said Polly. ”Unless… of course, some clever jane were to join the contest, with the intention of surrendering or throwing to Alfred when she faces him.”
“That is… a solid idea,” I said, an eyebrow raised. ”It wouldn’t be easy. We’d need to find ways to cajole the other competitors into duels beforehand, or otherwise bribe them into swearing to surrender.”
“Well, that’d be something you’d be good at,” said Polly, smiling. ”I get the much simpler and much more entertaining job of beating them into the ground.”
“It could work,” said Alfred, softly. ”We could eliminate many, perhaps all of the competitors.” He frowned. “You aren’t going to hurt them too badly, are you, Polly?”
“I’ll just muss their hair,” she said, with a sweet smile on her lips.