I swept the wooden sword down through the air. A bokken, Alfred had explained to me. I’d never been much interested in any media where they featured, so I didn’t know the name.
The April air divided around the blade as I brought it down, chilled from the night. The sun was rising, and with it, I felt the warmth, the heat beginning to bloom and bring with it life. Spring was on its way.
Without fatigue, without hunger, without thirst- I had a bottle of a very nice Type A+ sitting nearby, but I didn’t need to sip from it often- It was easy to keep going. This was not like poetry, which required constant mental effort and which fatigued even the undead. I could raise this sword, bring it down, repeat the effort over and over again. I could carve the motion into my muscle memory. I could not make Alfred take the easy way out, I could not help Atina’s anxiety and withdrawal, I could not find Jack’s memory, I could not do anything actually helpful, but I could swing the blade and let my mind wander.
I blinked, as the number hit me. I looked up, and saw the sun had risen high. How many hours had already passed me in silence?
“Well, hello.” The voice was that of a born snake-oil salesman. I turned, and faced the owner, knuckles white around the handle.
“Greetings, Coyote,” I said, my voice firm and carefully excised of any possible innuendo. The two of us stood in the basketball court. I found it a pleasant place to practice, and I was expecting Alfred for a training session tonight. Out of habit, I still brought a fresh set of clothing with me, and it sat with the blood. I didn’t need it. There wasn’t a drop of sweat on me from three hours hard work.
“Did the air do something? Do I need to give it a good talking to?” he asked, amused. “You can’t take the wind’s misdeeds personally. She does what she pleases.”
“I do not particularly wish to talk with you, Coyote. Please don’t attempt to seduce me.”
“What, not even a little? It’s good for boosting the ego, being seduced. And you could use a little ego.”
I turned the blade, and began to count out slashes to one side, imagining that his kneecaps lay at the end of the swing. “Do you think you’re funny?”
“No.” He grinned. He was handsome, but I knew so much better. “I know it.”
I paused for a moment. “Well, I suppose you are.” His smile brightened. ”But looks aren’t everything.”
He paused for a moment, and then guffawed explosively, slapping his knee as I continued to count out the slashes. “You know, I knew K’inich Ajaw. Fascinating God. He was mighty powerful, though the drinking of blood cold never suited him particularly well. He preferred it fresh, you see. He’d cut a man open and drink the blood off his own claws. Fierce bastard. Terror to his enemies, glory to his allies. No one dared to harm the friends of the vampire who could walk beneath the sun’s light. No one was safe from him, you see.”
“Indeed.” Sixty eight, sixty nine- I silently prayed Coyote was not keeping count. The lascivious grin spreading across his features suggested he was.
“Not like you. You’re soft. Soft as silk, if it’s not racist of me to say so.” He paused for a moment. ”Can I be racist?”
“What? But I’m Native American. I thought that was like… having an ace.”
“My understanding is that anyone can be a bigot, if they put their mind to it.” I swung again. ”But the mention of the word silk is not racist.” I frowned at him. ”You are making fun of me.”
“With you,” he said, winking. ”So. Soft as silk. Even all this swinging, and you’re not really a scary person. Look at you, delicate, pretty, soft-spoken. You’re never going to be much good at intimidating people. You’re no fearsome foe to your enemies.”
“I am sorry to disappoint you,” I said, bringing the bokken in an arc that could separate head from shoulders, my brain burning with anger and embarrassment. He had a point. Beating the air was a very different thing from doing it to a person.
“Disappointed? He was an ass. No sense of humor whatsoever. Swore a blood oath at anyone who didn’t take him completely seriously. He didn’t have a whole lot of friends to protect. Not like you. It’d be a waste for you to be more like him” Coyote smiled, and sat down, taking the bottle from my things. “Mind if I have a little of this Gatorade?”
“Feel free,” I said, letting my swing turn me to face him. Ninety-five. “It does not bother you that I stole the godhood from this land? I am not native to this country.”
He shrugged, gesturing with the closed bottle. ”K’inich Ajaw would have hate it. Called it a betrayal. Part of why he’s an asshole. Me, I think that you’re trying to understand what the power is, and that’s what matters.”
“Is there a point to you approaching me, Coyote?” I asked, as I continued to swing.
“Yeah. There’s more important things than being good at killing. There’s keeping something alive.” He pointed at me. ”K’inich Ajaw wasn’t much of a god, but he was still a god. Not just one of the Undead. If you want to be strong like he was, you need what was his. His Mantle. His Divine Wisdom. They’ve been waiting, all this time, forgotten, but still there.” He took out a pouch, tucking the red bottle under his armpit.
“You had them?” I asked, incredulous. “How?”
“I’m a coyote. We’re known for our scavenging.” He shook the pouch, fishing around, and held out…
“That appears to be a meager handful of rabbit droppings.”
“So they may appear. But in fact, they are cacao beans, the-”
He paused, and lifted his hand to his face, sniffing them delicately, and licked one.
“My mistake.” He slid them back into the pouch, and produced another handful of identical brown lumps. “There are three parts to a God. There is their mind, their wisdom, their accumulated experience. that is their Divine Wisdom. There is their power, their connections, their capacity to change the world. That is their Mantle. And there is the last part. The empty thing, the vessel, into which these are poured.” He was quiet for a moment. ”But it’s not quite the right word, is it? Vessel. Vessels shape what’s poured into them. Whereas these…” He rattled the suspiciously dung-colored beans in one hand. ”These shape what they are poured into.”
I stared at them. ”I remember, Alfred said, if he died, and became… King Arthur, or whatever… he might not be himself anymore. Does this work like that?”
“More or less. It’s tricky to nail these things down. A hero is different from a god is different from a monster, and so on and so forth. But patterns emerge. Not laws, but…”
He nodded. “I’ve never seen someone fail to succumb to the Mantle and the Wisdom. The more desperate they are when they take the power, the more they need it, the more they want it, the quicker the change. Sooner or later, you’re more the god you’ve become than the man you were, but the more you need it, the more you give up, the quicker you’re… not you. Speeds up the inevitable, you might say.”
“Why are you giving this to me?” I asked, softly.
“Because maybe it’ll give you long enough to accomplish something. Sooner or later your back is against the wall, and you’re dead either way.” He tossed the beans into my gym bag. “Eat them when you’ve got absolutely no other choice.”
“Thank you, Coyote. Tell me… Would it be possible to bring someone back?”
“No one ever has. Even a powerful human is nothing compared to a god, Lost or otherwise. Keeping yourself intact in the face of the power of a god is an impossible task.” He cracked open the bottle, and raised an eyebrow. ”And even if you could… Alfred’s death is supposed to prepare him to protect something. Something important. Would you sacrifice that if it meant he got another fifty or sixty years before he died with you?”
“He doesn’t have to die. He could have his choice of pacts, and live forever.”
“A boy like that? He wouldn’t, trust me. I know his type. They die gloriously. They can’t help it. Some humans were just born to die.”
“Even if that were true, I don’t believe that such a sacrifice would be necessary. I don’t think that the world would make me choose between Alfred and the greater good. I do not believe the world could be so cruel.”
“Well,” said Coyote, and he chuckled as he lifted the bottle to his lips. “You’re dead wrong there.”
I watched with interest as he took a couple of sips. Then the signals from his tastebuds reached his brain. Cheeks still full, he stared down at the bottle, and then at me. I smiled, letting my sharp canines show. He turned, and spat blood across the tarmac, before glaring at me, mouth red.
“Not to your taste?” I asked, innocently.
“You’re sharper than you look,” he said, and chuckled, capping the bottle again. “That’s good. I hate seeing the underdog lose. Anyway, I’ll be honest. I don’t know how you’d bring him back.” He was quiet for a moment. ”I hope you do, though.”
“It would be better if he didn’t die at all.”
“Wouldn’t it just?” He chuckled.
“Coyote… Would you like to meet Chaac? I’ll be seeing her in a couple of weeks. For tea.”
“Yeah?” He was quiet for a moment. ”Nah. I’m good. But hey, you ask her about K’inich. Ask her about the stories. There aren’t many people left in the world who knew him. Can’t hurt for there to be one more.” He set the bottle back in among my possessions, and flipped a lazy salute as I returned to my practicing, wandering off to wherever it was that he stayed in town. I knew it was not with Megan Smith, who had warned me quite enthusiastically about the dangers of lying down with dogs. I went through the katas, my head spinning with the thoughts.
“Jenny?” asked Alfred, his voice soft, a little worried. I turned. “Are you alright?”
“What?” I said, slightly bewildered. “Of course. I was just getting a little practice in on my katas while I waited for you,” I said, walking towards the bag. It was as I began to drink from the bottle of cool, rich blood that I realized night had fallen. The streetlights illuminated the basketball court. And, where I had been standing, the two small worn impressions where my small movements had created faint impressions in the tarmac. “Oh. I was… worried.”
Alfred smiled. ”Well, nothing like a bit of practice to calm your nerves, is there?”
“Just so.” I smiled softly. ”Do you think we could spar some?”
A month of sparring with Alfred, and I had still not landed a blow on him. We met once or twice a week, and he humiliated me with a complete lack of effort. He humiliated me WITH his complete lack of effort.
It’s something I began to understand. Alfred’s power over illusion is not spectacular; both the scale, duration, and reach of his illusions are fairly minor. But when you are fighting a man with a sword, and he splits into two, you have entered a very lethal game of chance. If you guess right, you continue the fight. If you guess wrong, you are spitted. I asked him, once, whether part of the power his mother had given him was the ability to control those illusions and himself at the same time. It wasn’t.
Alfred, though he loves to act like a fool, is extremely quick-witted. A good swordfighter has to be. I’d tried guessing his illusions by subtle cues of movement, his expression, determining which one was holding back. None of it had worked. I’d seen him beaten once, by a vampire with a talent for spotting thermal radiation. I’d brought a pair of infrared goggles with me, and they’d shown absolutely no difference. ‘Heat’s just another form of light’, he’d said, and he’d learned another trick.
As we sparred, he circled me. I’d seen him use multiple illusions, but I’d yet to force him to use more than one. It wasn’t unexpected. I’d been practicing for little over a month. He’d been practicing most of his life. I didn’t expect to attain mastery overnight.
It was still frustrating. And so, I’d put my imagination to work.
Alfred shifted. One of him stepped forward, rapier rising to stab while his broadsword moved up to ward my weapon. The other took three rapid steps to one side, forcing me to divide my attention. I had only one sword, though that wasn’t as big a handicap as the fact that I couldn’t fight two people at once in my head. I held out my left hand, and the sun appeared there.
Not a big sun, not a long-lasting sun, not a very hot sun even, but a very, ferociously bright sun. The sidestepping Alfred raised a hand to guard his eyes while the lunging one kept moving towards me. I spun, and threw the bokken overhand.
It passed through him as though he wasn’t even there, which was, of course, quite logical. I felt the tip of the rapier resting lightly against my side. I turned to glare at him, and saw him grinning as he blinked back tears.
“You can hurt your eyes like that, you know,” I said, chidingly.
“It was a very good trick. I’d been wondering how long it would take you to try that. I was able to lessen the impact somewhat with my own abilities, but it was still quite bright.” He chuckled and stepped back. ”It’s a useful tactic. Taking away someone’s senses when they’re relying on them is a powerful tactic. Just make sure you don’t let down your guard too much when you do.” He wiped his brow, and took a seat on the bench, sipping his drink. “You’re improving well.”
“Alfred… When did you start training with the sword?”
“Hmmm.” He considered the question. “Probably when I was around 8 or so. My mother got me a shortsword, and had me trained by one of the Sidhe.” He smiled, amused. ”She was quite an attractive woman. Utterly merciless. Never scarred me, because my mother had warned her against it. But she beat me black and blue from a young age.”
“You didn’t resent your mother for it?”
“Every day! I cried till I was red in the face. Then, when I was twelve…” He was quiet for a moment. Then he sighed. ”There was a thing, some maddened faerie. It had attacked two of my schoolmates. Left them in the hospital. A bestial creature. I went out into the woods to find it, against my father’s strict instructions to leave it to the local Iron Knight. I found it out there, and I nearly froze. Then I thought of my teacher, and I realized the thing in front of me was not nearly so dangerous, nor scary. And I spitted it on a length of steel.” He chuckled. ”I learned then both my talent, and my calling.”
“Since you were twelve,” I said, softly. ”Do you ever wish you had focused on something else?”
“Sometimes. But greatness… Well, greatness is only found in those who are broken. Most people sleepwalk through life. They pursue many things at once, and accomplish none of them. They stop when they reach obstacles, and rethink whether they want to do those things. Most people live simple, quiet, happy lives, where they find a little love, make a little money, bring a little joy into the world, and die, never having written their names in the history books.” He smiled. ”It is for such people that I always wished to fight. The great can defend themselves. If their life is shattered, they can rebuild it, piece by piece. The little deserve to be protected.”
I nodded quietly. “And you’re great?”
“My mother didn’t name me ‘Alfred’ for me to not be great.” He smiled. ”Atina is great, though she doesn’t think so. She views her failure to become a ’proper’ lawyer as a sign of her unworthiness. But we both know differently, don’t we? I’d say that you’re great, too, if those scuff marks are any sign.” He looked down at the court, and I felt a flush of embarrassment that I’d be hard-pressed to explain. ”But the great need people. Desperately so. That’s the other side of things. The great are broken, and depend on those around them to support them, to allow them to be great. One of the great, without the people who care for them, is nothing but useless.”
I nodded quietly. “What am I great at, Alfred?”
“That’s the trick. Being great isn’t just being talented. It is being driven. Talent can play a role, but it will never match the pure and desperate desire.”
“I think, on the whole, I would prefer not to be great,” I said, softly. ”I’d prefer to help.” I considered for a moment, and bit my lip. ”Alfred… When we faced Jack Black…”
Last summer, just before he had left, Alfred and I had embarked on a quest together. He had carried me on his shoulders through a place so cold that it made me feel the ice again. His warmth had been… intoxicating. And we had made a pact. Just for a little while. We’d fought something dark together, walked through the heart of Winter. I’d tasted adventure. Alongside him.
“We made a pact,” said Alfred, softly.
“We could make one again.”
“You remember what I told you about pacts. The danger of them. I gave up the pact when I promised Polly I would be with her,” he said. I looked aside.
“I know. I felt that. I want to make it again.”
“Really?” said Alfred, softly.
“It might help you. Give you the extra boost you need to survive.” I smiled wanly. ”At the very least, it would ensure you are never without a sword.”
He smiled. ”A handy technique, to be sure.”
I took a deep breath. “I want to make a pact with you, Alfred. I want to help you, in the ways that I can.”
“Even if it meant that I would spend the rest of my life with another woman?”
“Yes!” I said, glaring at him. “How long have you spent among fairies? I can love you without needing to be in a committed, intimate relationship with you! I can wish you to be a part of the world, even if you are not mine, Alfred! Get over yourself!”
He was quiet for a moment. Then he smiled. “That’s… a persuasive argument.” He tapped his fingers. Then he stepped towards me.
Alfred is very tall. I am not. As he approached me, I was reminded of a couple of things. First, while I am technically an incredibly powerful, even conceivably godlike vampire, he was the Iron Knight, and I was intimidated by him.
Second, he had scars, here and there, barely visible, mostly healed, but nonetheless there. I’d never quite noticed them before.
Third, his lips were very soft, and warm, and suddenly, very close to mine.
“I’m not interrupting, am I?” said Polly, suddenly within arm’s reach.
Suddenly, with a speed that suggested one of Alfred’s unspoken powers was also teleportation, Alfred was out of arm’s reach. “Ah, Polly! Good to see you, we were just finishing up.”
“Hello, Polly,” I said, guilt and anger warring in the pit of my belly, and not appearing on my face. “I’ll leave the two of you to talk, I should return home.”
“Actually, I wanted to talk with ye.” Polly smiled, her Irish brogue thickening. She smiled pleasantly. “I’ll get her home.”
Alfred coughed. “Of course, darling.”
The moon hung over the horizon, a crescent. The two of us walked in silence for several long minutes. Polly gently bounced the soccer ball between her ankles, letting it hop from heel to heel, her eyes on her feet. The ball often looked as though it was about to roll off into the street and cause an accident, but somehow it never managed it. I walked quietly, the wooden sword slung over my shoulder in the scabbard Alfred had given me. We made our way along the sidewalk in a deepening silence. I considered apologizing for nearly kissing Alfred, and whether that would be giving away too much. I was distinctly not paying attention to Polly.
Alfred had taught me something about instincts. A bad fighter is one who makes decisions. When the brain starts to get involved in fighting, it’s lethal. There are too many possibilities. I had an unfortunate tendency to be that kind of fighter.
A good fighter is one who has reactions. Alfred was that kind of fighter. His mind was involved, but it made snap decisions, and most of the work was done by the body.
He’d told me about a third kind of fighter. One who doesn’t think at all, one whose actions are automatic. They were the most dangerous kind, because they shaved away all the tells, all the little hints, all the lag time. They didn’t tense themselves for a fight. They simply struck. These same tactics were anywhere from useless to actively detrimental in everyday life, but when it came to a fight, they were lethal.
Polly casually reached down, picking up a wooden stick from the ground, snapped it, and spun, slamming it into my chest. I felt the strength go out of my limbs as I sank to my knees, my gaze fixed forward. I felt the jagged wood in my chest, strangely warm, piercing my heart. A wooden stake. A vampire weakness. Atina had warned me that it was something I should watch out for, but we’d never actually tried it. I hadn’t been eager to get wood pounded into me.
I sincerely hoped that was not my last thought.
Polly dragged me off the sidewalk, into the woods, carrying me in silence for a couple of minutes, until we arrived at the edge of the river. It flowed quickly, engorged by the snowmelt and the spring rains. Another vampire myth came to mind, about running water. I was fairly sure that one wasn’t true, considering how many bridges I’d crossed. But when was the last time I’d gone for a swim?
And worse than that, paralyzed like this, I wouldn’t last long in the flow. How long would the water carry me? Would I float, skinny as I was? Or would I sink to the bottom? How long before I was discovered? The next town? A dam? Or would I make it to the open sea and sink forever-
“Uh, I’m not going to throw you in the river,” said Polly, her Irish brogue dropped. She rubbed the back of her head. “I just realized this might all seem a little threatening. I don’t want to hurt you or anything. I’m not much good at talking, and I just needed to… get some things off my chest.” She looked over at me, and had the decency to blush. “After I’ve finished talking, I’ll take that out. And if you tell Atina, and Alfred, and everyone else… I’ll understand.”
If I could, I would have rolled my eyes. The Fae. They couldn’t resist drama.
“So. Here’s the thing. I know you’re attracted to Alfred. That’s not weird, I know a lot of women are. The thing is, I know he’s attracted to you, too. Because you’re the kind of girl he likes, vulnerable, and yet really strong, and making him want to be his best. And the thing is, I really believe you could make a pact with him. That it’d work fine, because you’re the kind of person who could see someone you care about with someone else.” She was quiet for a moment. “But I’m not. I can’t stand seeing Alfred with someone else. That’s why I interrupted. And I’m sorry about that, Jenny, because you’re probably healthier for him. You’re… more human, for all that power. You’re what he deserves, y’know? But I’m what he’s got. He’s bound by fate to me, until it ends.”
She was quiet for another few seconds. I really wished she could have just taken me out for a pint or something appropriately Irish instead of jamming a stake in my heart. If nothing else, this shirt was ruined.
“But I respect that you want to help him. And I respect what you are. You’re a lot like me, in a few ways. Alfred, he’s soft-hearted. He doesn’t want to kill anyone. He enjoys humiliating people, because a little humiliation can be good for the soul. He’ll wound someone’s pride. But the reason this is all such a mess is because no one actually expects that Alfred’s going to brutalize the people who oppose him. Atina’s the same way. She wants to save everyone, sometimes from themselves. And while that works out sometimes, well, sometimes it just doesn’t. Does it? And so they need us. The hatchetmen.”
She looked towards me. She met my eye, and her green eyes sparkled like a cat’s. I knew Polly wasn’t old. She was probably only a few years older than me. But she was intense. And I wondered if she was right. If, when it came down to it, I would hurt someone. If Atina hadn’t come out of Earlen Wen’s home, what would I have done?
With a disquieting little shock, I realized I probably would have torn the building open with my bare hands, and hurt anyone who hurt her. I might well have killed them. If it would help the people I cared about, I would hurt those I didn’t care about. Atina, Alfred, they cared about everyone. And I didn’t. People thought I was soft. Perhaps they were wrong. It was a disquieting revelation.
“Yeah. So. I want to ask you for your help. I can’t do this alone. I’m a great fighter, but that’s part of the problem. A lot of the Summer Court know me, respect me, fear me. I can’t bait them into a fight. I need a ringer. A dark horse. You’re strong. You can fight. You just need to learn how to win. So. What do you say?”
She reached down, and pulled the stake out. It came out smoothly, leaving a hole in my shirt, even as the flesh sealed shut, healed by the blood running in my veins.
It surprised both of us when I came up swinging. My fingers wrapped around Polly’s throat as I rose, grabbing her and bringing her in a single smooth arc, slamming her into the riverside soil hard enough to leave an impression. The stake came up, and the wrist holding it was intercepted by my free hand. I held her wrist tight enough to make the bones creak, my fingers pressed against her throat, just on the verge of compressing enough to make her pass out, as I met her eyes.
“The next time you want to have a damn heart-to-heart with me, Polly, do it without stabbing me in the fucking heart first.” My heart was racing. My fingers itched. I wanted to hurt her. Then she smiled.
“You’re a lot better fighting someone you don’t care about, aren’t you?” she said, her voice slightly ragged, from the pressure on her windpipe. I twisted her wrist, taking the stake from her, and threw it into the river. “That’s what I mean. The rest of them… The Half-Faced Man’s too neutral for this kind of thing, and he’s too weird. Li Fang Fen, she’s a softie when you get right down to it, and no good mixing it up hand to hand. Atina… Hah. When you look at our little circle of friends, you’re the only person who I could expect to really beat the hell out of someone. You’re the only other monster in our circle.”
“You’re not a monster, Polly,” I said, as I released her. “You’re overdramatic, and you might be a mild sadist, but you’re not a monster. And I do care about you. Otherwise I probably would’ve squeezed tighter.”
“Yeah?” she said, her head tilted. “What’s a monster to you, Jenny?”
“Someone who hurts others for no reason other than because they can. If you have a reason, I don’t believe you can be a monster.”
She chuckled. “Everyone has their reasons, Jenny.”
“Exactly. Monsters are made up.”
She was quiet for a second. “Do you really believe that?”
“Huh. Well, this is America. Everyone’s free to believe what they want, no matter how wrong it is.” Polly grinned. “Let’s see how you feel about that after you’ve broken someone’s bones.”
The truth is, what followed was dull. Months of maneuvering, of offering wagers and carefully calculated insults. I didn’t have much to do with that. Polly engaged in perhaps a third of the fights. The rest were up to me. As an undead, I had the right to participate in the gauntlet- everyone did- but my presence was, itself, an insult, a crossing of lines, and there was no shortage of fae willing to show me the error of my ways.
“Please,” said the young blonde woman, her pointed ears framing her nordic features, her sword lying in two pieces on the ground, her hands up, her leg twisted at an unnatural angle. “Please, I’ll surrender, please!”
Alfred’s training continued. He didn’t see the fights. Most of those were private, without onlookers. Both to preserve the dignity of both sides, and because the fae liked doing such fights without observation. It allowed them to let out their true sadism. They could do whatever they liked, with only a handful of witnesses. There were even a number of fights that were duels, just me and them, and they always tried to cheat when they thought they could get away with it.
“Yeah? Think you’re hard?” said the ogress, her arm hanging to the side, shoulder dislocated. She winced, wavering on her feet, warty skin pale from pain. “I’ve eaten little girls like you for breakfast.” She took a step back as I approached her, eyes widening a bit.
It was a lesson that Polly was giving me, I realized, about three fights in. Alfred had taught me how to be strong. Polly was teaching me how to be hard. A lot of the fae would feign weakness, begin crying, sobbing, begging for mercy, before trying to stab me. Quite a lot of them brought wooden stakes to the fight, or chose wooded areas. I wasn’t sure if Polly had told them about it, but I doubted it. More likely, they just knew what vampires were weak to. And they weren’t shy about using it.
“I am beaten.” The slender red-haired man with the ash-black skin stood across from me, the broken stump of his kendo sword hanging from his hand, two of his fingers red and swollen where they had been broken. “My father would be embarrassed to hear about this,” he said, a grimace on his face. “But you have my respect.” He raised his sword into the air, then dropped it at his feet, bowing his head. “I cede my right to the Gauntlet.”
Alfred’s training had punished me in a way. By fighting to the first blow, I’d been at a terrible disadvantage. I could take pain. I could take harm. I was stronger, much stronger, than I thought. By making the fights so brief, he kept me from taking advantage of my naturally greater strength, and endurance. Training me to shore up my weaknesses.
“Bitch!” screamed the dark elf, her muscles bulging as she swung the titanium crowbar. I caught it on my wrist, and it snapped clean in half, the metal finally giving way after too many blows. She looked up at me, teeth gritted in defiance, as I picked up the broken end of the bar, spinning it in one hand.
Polly’s training was punishing in a different way. I did not feel pleasure in the hurting. I stopped it the moment they surrendered. I did not go further. That was often far enough. The Fae were stubborn, and prideful. Less so after I was finished. I did not enjoy hurting them. And I saw the guilt in Alfred’s face when we trained. He didn’t ask me about them. But I knew he didn’t like me fighting. He still thought of me as someone delicate, fragile, vulnerable. Psychologically, if not physically. And I wonder what it meant that the nightmares had stopped after the first few fights.
“Pretty good. We’ve gotten it down to about 10 competitors, including you and me. The rest are either all too wary, or too proud, to accept the fight. From here…” Polly took a pull on her beer. “It’s up to Alfred.”
“Yeah.” I was quiet for a moment, holding my strawberry daiquiri. It was nonalcoholic, but extremely tasty. “Has Atina passed out any more?”
“Once or twice. She said it’s just overwork. She’s stopped drinking on her own, I know. Been healthier, bicycling again now that the weather’s good. I think she’s feeling a bit calmer. Just a bit of Seasonal Affective Disorder that was hitting her before.”
“She always says it’s nothing. She doesn’t share,” I said, glumly. There was no alcohol in the strawberry daiquiri, but I was feeling uninhibited nonetheless. “She just goes ahead and assumes everyone is on board.”
“I must say,” said the Half-Faced Man, before taking a sip of his stout. “It’s definitely a habit of hers to take everything upon her own shoulders. But is that so odd? She has an inferiority complex a mile wide.”
“Her?” said Polly, an eyebrow raised. “The daft woman’s always confident. She walks into the damn fairy courts without a care!”
“Yes. That’s a part of it. Showing she’s not afraid, which is the surest sign that she is. Atina’s terrified of the supernatural, because she’s helpless against it. If things come down to a fight, she’s completely vulnerable. She was never afraid of violence before she entered this world.” The Half-Faced Man smiled at me, needle teeth set in a blue mouth as he leaned on one sinuous arm. “You remember how you felt, when I directed you to her home? Lost, afraid, unsure, helpless to stop the monsters who pursued you?”
“But she’s not helpless,” I said, looking down at my drink. “She’s got us.”
“Yes. And she hates that. She hates having to depend on others, if you hadn’t noticed already. So she does everything she can to protect us, where she can. It’s her way of coping. No one ever said it was healthy, but you two are the same way. We all of us are ashamed of our weakness, and so we rely on our strengths to support us.” He took another sip. “Atina is afraid that the world is going to end.”
“That?” I frowned. “Megan said the same to me. What of it?”
“She’s been offered an out. A safe place, so far as there is such a thing. She’s being asked to go there, to protect the people she cares about. And she’s torn between the eternal conundrum: Sacrifice to protect a few, or risk everyone.”
“And which do ye think she should do?” asked Polly, her head tilted, beer sitting forgotten in front of her.
“Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s never just one threat. If you sacrifice, they win by attrition. If you risk everything, eventually, you lose.” The Half-Faced Man stared down into his drink. “We live in an entropic universe. Eventually, all the suns will go out. In the long run, we’re all dead.”
I sipped my strawberry daiquiri, and considered that. “So why do you keep going?”
“Because I am old, and certain, and set in my ways. And the young are vital, and headstrong, and ignorant. They still believe they can save the world, that we will find a way to make new stars.” He smiled. “Atina hurts, she hides her secrets, because she thinks there’s something she can do. That she can handle this.”
I nodded quietly. “And do you think we can stop the inevitable?”
“You’re the one who can summon a sun, Jenny.” He grinned like an anglerfish. “You tell me.”
I nodded quietly.
My last training session with Alfred was Tuesday, the 20th of June. The summer hung heavy and thick in the air, the air hot and yet pleasant. It was 8 PM, and we were still an hour from sunset. We sat side by side at the basketball court, watching a group of teenagers playing. Golden light filled the court like honey, rich and warm and comforting. We had elected to skip the training for today.
“Do you think I can win?” asked Alfred, his tone neutral.
“No. I think that the first pretty face that pouts at you, you’ll surrender and become a fairy’s love slave,” I said, and smiled. “You’ll be fine, if you fight them like you fight me. Your story’s not going to end here.”
“No, I suppose not. It’s nice to hear you say that, though.” He smiled. “I suppose I should get a good night’s sleep, shouldn’t I?”
“Jenny…” He paused for a moment. “I know what you and Polly have been doing.”
I sat quietly, watching the two teams play.
I swallowed. “I’m not a very nice person.”
“You’re helping me. And you’re not killing them. That’s quite nice. Many of them would not be so merciful if they got ahold of you. The fae are not evil, but many of them can be… nasty, when they’re challenged.” He rested a hand on my shoulder, and squeezed it softly. “Are you alright?”
“I am not fragile, you know,” I said, a little quicker than I should.
“No. I’ve never thought that.” He smiled. “But it still hurts, hurting other people. Even the ones you don’t care about.”
I didn’t answer him, not least because I was not nearly so cold as I may have claimed.
“Thank you, Jenny. I’ll win. Don’t worry.” He smiled. And despite my protests, he walked me home.