Chapter 9: Second Prize, Two Weeks in Philadelphia

The child looked up at her mother, and her grandmother stood further still behind. All three shared hair of the deepest black but few other things connected them, save for their mien of iron and blood. They were brutal women and heartless. And yet I saw on the girl’s cheek a single tear trailing down, a trace of salt, regret for what she had to do, for she would taste mortality but know all along that it was temporary.

The world was drawn in chiaroscuro, faint colors standing out against an endless blackness. Faces and figures that were more silhouette than form. The girl was white, her mother grey, her grandmother black.

“It is coming,” said the grandmother.

“The day we feared,” said the mother.

“Judgment Day,” said the girl, and the words twisted, resonated, warped, growing larger and larger, swelling across the world, and filling my head, and I struggled not to clutch at my ears, I struggled to stay still-

“Hush.”

Roy stood over me, looking down at me in the chiaroscuro blackness. He alone seemed to be drawn in light, brilliant and glowing as he glared down at me with disgust. I blinked, and the world shifted. Roy still stood over there, in my room, his arms crossed, his expression cold as stone. I reached up, and squeezed his elbow. His lips quirked slightly in a smile. “It’s been a while. Uh. Is something the matter?

“Yes. I have been… watching. Seeing the things that have happened around the world. It’s not a good time for humans, is it?”

“Well, there’s been a lot happening. Atlanteans, presidents, collusion…” I said, quirking a smile. He chuckled, and that made me feel much better, even though I suspected he was faking it. “What’s the matter?”

“You’ve been prophesying,” he said, his voice sharp, his eyes fixed on me. “That’s a dangerous drug.”

I stiffened slightly. “Just- the once-“

“Atina, you are very capable. You hold everything inside. You pay attention to the world, and you seek power with a fervor that I find downright erotic. You are reluctant to give away any advantage. It’s one of the things I find attractive.” He sighed. “But you’re only human.”

There were a handful of people who I respected enough to let that comment go unremarked upon. “You know, I looked up the statistics once, and only about two thirds of all murders are ever solved?”

“Atina.“

“And they’re on the high end of solved crimes. Certain kinds of murders get more attention, they get solved more, like cop killers. But even then, you have to wonder if maybe the police just will take any target that they can find. All of these deaths, and nobody cares, and they’ll just accept a scapegoat if they do care. Where’s the justice in that, Roy?”

He stared at me. “Are you asking Roy, the man, or the Dragon?” he asked, softly, and I felt a little shudder run down my spine.

“You know I don’t ask you to interfere.”

“Yes. I know you fear me. It’s one of your better traits.”

“Roy… I’ve got some idea of what you are. I have my suspicions, at least.”

“Really?” He chuckled. “Let’s hear them, then.”

“You’re a dragon. You’ve never said what that means, and there’s no specific agreement on it, but legends are pretty clear. Dragons are animals. Animals become demons. I still remember what you told me when you saved me, that you thought you’d… die. There’s some kind of agreement you made, and you seem pretty certain you’ll die if you break it. Something about not interfering. Am I correct?”

“Hrn,” he said, which was not really an answer.

“So… Yeah. I am scared of you. I’ve only ever seen you fight once, and you were terrifying. Awful. You’ve alluded to responsibility for all of this.” I looked to one side. “You play it up all the time. Acting like you’re a monster, some terrible, evil god, who’s just toying with me. It’s a pretty cheap show, Roy. You’re not evil at all, are you? Evil people don’t broadcast that they’re evil. Evil people don’t tear themselves apart inside over the evil they’ve done. They don’t care. If you were really evil, you wouldn’t be so guilty.”

“I don’t regret a thing I’ve ever done,” he said, his voice level.

“Yeah. That’s why you sometimes cry in your sleep.”

He didn’t react much. It was more like he crystallized, stiffening, his eyes widening, his nostrils flaring. “I don’t.”

“You’re not sure if you do.” I smiled halfheartedly. “You don’t. But you think you might.”

“Your arrogance is truly stunning,” said Roy, and there was just a hint of amusement there. “Of course, I could simply be leading you along. Simply playing at it.” His expression turned warm and gentle as he sat by my side, resting a hand on my knee. “I love you, Atina. More than the moon and the stars, more than anyone, anything, I have ever met.” His voice was soft, tender, every syllable filled with more love than I had ever heard from him. “You are the one thing in a lifetime longer than you can comprehend that has given me meaning. You are the one person I was searching for, the one reason I ever found to fight fate, the only thing that has ever given me a hope that this could all end in anything but darkness and oblivion. It’d be worth dying for you.”

I looked aside. “Don’t do that. It’s cruel.”

“That’s another thing I find interesting about you. You think that was the lie.” He chuckled, and stood up. “Come downstairs. I made breakfast.”

For the first time, my sense of smell engaged with my brain. The rich smell of olive oil and crepes filled the air. “You’re just trying to bribe your way out of an awkward conversation,” I said, but I climbed out of bed anyway, still wearing my clothes from last night.

I hadn’t been drinking. I didn’t have a physiological problem with that; I’d never experienced withdrawal symptoms after stopping drinking. That might change over time, but for now, I was pretty confident that the thing that kept me drinking was my head, rather than my body. No shakes, no inability to think. Just, from time to time, I would think, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to have a drink, and not worry about all of this.’ And then I’d say ‘But you’re not drinking right now. Maybe after the case.’ I wanted it. But I didn’t need it.

Instead, I was meditating. Drifting into that strange state I had found while trying to help Jack, and letting myself immerse in…

That was the question, wasn’t it. What did the dream mean? As I sat down at the table with Roy and Jack, Jack already tucking hungrily into one of the crepes, I took out my notebook, and began to scribble down the details I could remember. Triumivrates, varied shades, judgm-

“Atina? You’ve been sitting there for five minutes,” said Jack.”

I looked up. Roy and Jack were both staring at me. The words still echoed in my head. Judgment Day. What an odd choice of phrase. I smiled. “It’s alright.”

“She’s damaged herself,” said Roy, his voice soft, his expression firm. “Drunk too deep. The psychometry won’t stop, will it, Atina?”

“I can control it,” I said, and felt incredibly stupid. “It’s only hitting when I invite it in. There’s a little psychological trauma, that’s all. I can control it.”

“You need to stop,” said Roy. Jack’s gaze passed between the two of us, bewildered. Roy turned his head towards her, and she recoiled slightly. “I task you, object. You have been given a human soul, and inhuman power. Protect her. Stay by her side.”

“What?” said Jack, her eyes widening. “I- I can’t-“

“You are a knife, and you are a person. If you cannot protect the one who shelters you, you will never be whole. You have the power. You need only the will. Find it, or be satisfied with being broken.” Roy stood up. “The Dreamwalk. You don’t know how it works, do you?”

“It’s psychometry. Magical bullshit. I wasn’t entirely clear that there is a way it works.”

“Magic is thematic. Your friend uses lysergic acid in that potion. It can be released days, weeks, even months after the original experience. Your body will cleanse it from your system by midwinter, but not before then. And while you are experiencing those flashbacks, I cannot be around you. The things you are seeing are bad enough, scarring enough, harsh enough without seeing my past.”

“You think I wouldn’t respect you if I knew the truth?” I asked, slightly stunned. This was more forthright than I’d ever seen him be about any supernatural matter.

“I think if you experienced a fraction of what my true nature is, you would die.” He stood up. “I cannot protect you, because of what you’ve done, you stupid, stupid girl.” He gritted his teeth. “How can you expect me to protect you if you do not trust me!? I risk everything that I am-”

“Because I don’t want you to protect me!” I said, suddenly heated, glaring at him. “I never asked you to risk your life for me! I told you not to do it when I thought you were just a human, and I’ve never once asked you for help!”

“But I want to,” he said, and stood up. “I will go. Be careful.”

I watched as he walked past me, towards the door, Jack sitting with both of her hands in her lap, staring down at her food like a child when mom and dad fight at the table. I could have let him go. I had pride to spare, I could have let him walk away and not bat an eye. But I had too much pride for that. If I did, I wouldn’t be the better person, and I loved being the better person.

“I’m not mad at you,” I said, softly, and I heard him stop. “I’m sorry I’m acting in such a risky way. I’m sorry I’m putting this pressure on you. But I’m not going to die. I promise.”

“That’s a promise you can’t keep,” he said, softly.

“Not going to die before you get back, then. I may take risks, but I’m tough, alright? I won’t get myself in over my head. I’ll make sure I survive. Above all else, I’ll live through this. I want you to come back. I don’t want this to be one of those horrible stupid tragic things where we go our separate ways angry and we’re both too proud to apologize, and something horrible happens and it makes us guilty. I’m sorry I did this, that I put you in this position, but I need to try to solve this. It’s intuition, you know? And if I can find a few more clues… I can solve this. I just need to do everything I can. And when it’s over, I need you to be there, to support me, to be by my side. To help me put myself back together.”

“How dare you?” he asked, his voice cold, outraged. “How dare you?” He turned, and I cringed back from his ferocious expression. “How dare you think you can be the reasonable one?”

I stepped back automatically as he stalked towards me, his shoulders up. Then I mentally rewound through what he just said. “Is that your way of saying that you’re not going to leave me forever?” I asked, just a little meekly.

“I intend to enjoy your presence as long as I can,” said Roy, softly, his tone dropping, his hand resting on my cheek. “Your pride, your arrogance, your overweening confidence. These are the things I love most about you. Don’t give them up. Hold on to them tight, in the face of greatest adversity. Without arrogance in the face of the irresistible, where would humans be?” He stood on his tiptoes, and planted a soft kiss on my lips, the taste lingering for a few seconds. My head spun. “Be careful. The dreamwalk is magic. Its last manifestation will be strongest, and it will be vindictively timed. Magic is dramatic.” He gave Jack a look. “Do you know what will happen, if she is harmed and you could have done something to protect her?”

She quaked a little. “What?”

“You will never be able to forgive yourself. I wouldn’t have to do a thing.” He chuckled softly. “I’ll be back, just in the nick of time.” And then, he walked out the door.

I sank down into the chair. Roy was always an intense experience.

“Atina… What was that about?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Really?”

“Well, don’t tell anyone about it. It’d make life… even more complicated than it already is.” I smiled softly. “I’ll be alright. I’m pretty good at measuring my chances. A little paranoia can go a long way.”

Jack bit her lip. “And the visions?”

“I’ll try to cut back on them, too,” I said, and hoped I was telling the truth. I checked my watch. “Shit. Time to get to the Summer Court.” I wolfed down the crepes, which proved to be a terrible mistake. They were delicious, and I barely got a chance to enjoy them. It’d be a while before Roy would cook for me again. That thought was rather disappointing, but I didn’t have the time to worry about that.

The funny thing was, the whole ‘it’ll incapacitate you at the worst time’ thing wasn’t all that worrying. By and large, I wasn’t usually in situations where it made much of a difference whether I was conscious or not. I worked with a society, the demons of Binghamton, where prophetic visions were a recognized part of the landscape. I didn’t have to worry about looking insane to people, just irresponsible. And as for a fight, well. I’d never been the one defending people in the Summer Court. That was Alfred’s place.

I was the first one to arrive, Jack in tow. It was a beautiful sunny day, late June, the summer solstice, and the sun was high. It wasn’t yet late enough in summer for the heat to become oppressive, and the memorial garden was in full bloom, brilliant and sunny. We stood in the parking lot, Jack dressed up in a pair of ripped jeans and a hoodie, the hood tugged over her head.

Li Fang Fen arrived shortly after, stepping out of her car with her parasol, dressed in a light orange miniskirt and a lacy top which fit like they had been custom-made. She wore a pair of purple-tinted sunglasses, and approached me with a smile. I smiled back. “You here to watch?”

“Well, I do appreciate all that youthful energy. I don’t usually get an excuse to hang out with the Fae. They make me feel like a young woman again, sometimes.” She sighed, looking back towards the car. “I’d love to bring my gun along, but I suspect they might frown on that. Officially, I’m here to act as witness and make sure that the trial is conducted fairly, and that all the oaths are upheld. Apparently, they have a few conditions. Ethniu will be required to swear to cut off ties if her son violates the rules, and the same is true for any other member of the Binghamton Fairy Courts.” She frowned. “Any progress?”

“Meeting with Ann Willing next week. Tadodaho’s going to be there, too. Those two weren’t too hard to figure out. Hoping to press them more about the phylactery.” I sighed. “It’d be so nice if he wasn’t dead. Still working on figuring out the last three.”

“Yeah. But if he isn’t? What do we do if worst comes to worst, here, Atina? It’s been a while since there was a real war in the supernatural world. The Undead have long memories, and sometimes that just means there’s a lot of room for grudges to build up.”

“I don’t know. Fuck, when did I become the one who has to figure out all of this stuff? Who even wants this to get worse?”

“It’s not so much that anyone wants it to get worse. But…”

“It’s like there’s something in the air,” said the Half-Faced Man, stepping out from between two cars which were not nearly tall enough to hide him. “Wars, so often, are an accumulation of grudges. A thousand little things. You can foil a dozen destabilizing events, but sooner or later… Well, if people want a war, they’ll have it. If not for one reason, then another.”

“Have either of you met anyone who wants a war?” I asked. Neither of them answered. “I just can’t believe people will turn on each other like that. They should be coming together.”

“And if that was the purpose of all of this?” asked Li, softly.

“What?”

“Forget it.”

“Oh, please, Li, you know me better than that. Tell me.”

She sighed, and leaned back. “There are some who think you’re behind this.”

“Some?”

“Nobody important. So far, anyway. But you’ve always worked hard to get people to get along in this town. You’re not shy about talking about how much people can improve the world. So, some of the younger undead, they’re asking themselves, well, what would she do for her ideals? Dean Morton was a real classic conservative undead, and he had a lot of hooks in everything. He liked keeping things the way they were. You make deals, get favors, and you bring people together. Bind them with laws and contracts and favors. And you’ve never been shy about the fact that you’re not afraid to break promises to do what you think is right.” She looked to the side. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not like you’re wrong. I want people to get along. I’d really like everyone to not die.” I sighed. “But seriously, they think that? I’m human. If someone got pissed off, all they’d have to do is shoot me.”

“Of course. Someone tried that, in fact. A whole supernatural hit squad tried to off you, and you walked away.” Li looked up, and the question was there in her expression, even if she’d never say it out loud.

“There’s a very good reason why I can’t talk about that.”

“I know that. I’ve always respected your privacy.” Li sighed. “It’s just a shitfest. It’s something in the air, it’s change and uncertainty and violence.   This city’s political climate was stable for close to 200 years, until you showed up, and within a couple of years, it’s been completely upended. Two of the most lethal people in this city are tied close to you. Everyone’s afraid of Jenny, and everyone’s afraid of Alfred, because they’re built to kill their fellows, and not everyone has spent the time around them personally to realize they’re not all that scary.”

I leaned back. “Funny thing. We need a common enemy. Someone responsible for all of this, someone to pin the blame on, so all the aggrieved parties can get together and point the finger.” I sighed. “You ever convicted someone who wasn’t guilty, Li?”

“God. I hope not.”

“Me too.” I looked up. “Hey, speaking of our killers…”

Jenny and Polly walked up towards us, talking softly. As they approached, Jenny spotted us, and waved, smiling, the two of them moving a bit quicker. Jenny had chosen a light t-shirt and a pair of jeans, while Polly had gone for an old soccer jersey, shorts, and a pair of cleats, bouncing the soccer ball between her heels.

I noted that every one of us seemed to have chosen clothing that we could fight in, save for me. I was dressed in my usual formal choice, a dark green skirtsuit I was bound to regret as the day went on, since it absorbed sunlight like a solar panel and breathed like a wetsuit. It was about the image, though. The skirt, in this case, was less about appealing to patronizing judges, and more about providing as much air circulation as I could. “Did you bring the drinks?”

Polly smiled, holding up a large duffel bag full of water bottles. “Brought some beers, too.” She waved the cooler invitingly.

“I’m good,” I said, and smiled. “But the rest of you can feel free to indulge. Where’s the man of the hour?”

“Said he wanted to get here early. I think he’s already in there. He was pacing last night until ten, then he just passed out. Our lad sprang out of bed this morning, and all the shakes were gone. He was out of the house by dawn, to set up the field.” Polly took out one of the bottles of beer, popped the cap off with a thumb, and drank it down. Then she threw it down on the ground, and it shattered quite satisfactorily.

“Oh, for goodness sakes,” said Li, glowering. “I’ll clean that up. The rest of you, get in there and check on things.”

The Summer Court was bustling. Spring Court fairies were selling wares, running concession stands, walking arm in arm with those humans who were in the know on the subject. Fall Court fairies preferred talk. Some gossiped, sharing juicy tidbits- or at least those they thought of as juicy- while others preferred to listen and absorb information. And among them all, the Summer Court fairies walked, cheerful, and for a single day, not violent.

It was a common tradition. The Summer Court was the court of violence, and those visiting it were expected to be able to defend themselves. Most fairies simply didn’t want to have to deal with that. But during a trial, all were welcome, and no violence was tolerated outside of the ring. It meant that it was a chance for secrets to spread, for goods to be traded, and for everyone to see Summer Court justice. It did people’s hearts good to see a little violence meted out against the supposedly deserving, and to remind everyone why it wasn’t wise to cross the Summer Court. The other courts looked on it as a good chance to trade.

And today was Midsummer. A day with some real power to it. The rest of our group walked towards the standings board, I walked towards the ring. Set at the edge of the endless corn, it had been cut down, stalk by stalk, the roots torn out. The ring itself was nearly a hundred feet across, though a boundary had been marked with stakes and twine at the fifty-foot mark. Stands were arranged between the stakes and the corn. And there, standing in the middle, cutting down the last few stalks, was…

“You know, I’m fairly certain that the rules state that this is done by a neutral party,” I said, an eyebrow raised as I studied Alfred, chopping the stalks in his full chainmail, sweat on his brow.

“They say it can be done by any volunteer from the Fae. I decided to help out.” He smiled. “All part of my plan.”

“What, getting exhausted and sweaty before you fight?”

“A brilliant plan.” He winked, and rubbed the sweat from his eyes. “How is everyone?”

“Fine.” I looked to one side. “Nervous. This is going to be a hell of a fight for you. Ten people, and they’re the ones who couldn’t be eliminated otherwise. Do you have the order?”

“Yes. The first six are… Well, all fairly straightforward. Women from around Binghamton. Mostly good fighters, but nowhere near as good as me. Most are, frankly, beneath my skills, but I’ll strive to finish the fights quickly. Seventh fighter is the only one who I don’t recognize. Eighth is Polly. Ninth is Jenny. And tenth is against Queen Aniss herself.” He sighed. “Ever heard of ‘Eshu’?”

I frowned. “Yeah. Yoruba god, god of the crossroads, travelers, that kind of thing, plays a role in most of the African Diaspora’s religions. Sounds like a fake name, honestly.”

“Aren’t they all?” said a cheerful voice from behind us. We turned.

She was an old woman. Very old. ‘Wrinkled apple’ is the term that jumps unkindly to mind. Her head was shaved, revealing an incongruously smooth scalp. A straw cape hung over her shoulders, revealing her stomach, which was a mass of scars. A light spear rested in the crook of her arm. She grinned, a mouth full of shining white teeth gleaming. Her accent had been difficult to place, not that I had much of a knowledge of African accents at the best of times. Her ear lobes had been stretched out, presumably by the sizable chunks of ivory tusk piercing each one.

“Eshu?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.

“That’s me.”

“And what kind of fairy are you?”

“The fighting kind.” She winked. “Been hired. Lady with golden hair said her son had gotten himself in bad trouble. Offered a favor to make sure that he didn’t get murdered or married to the wrong kind.” She reached up, patting him on the shoulder lightly. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall, and had to stand on her tiptoes to reach. “You just make it through the first six rounds, then you and I, we’ll have a fun little time of it. Lots of experience, you know? Had a lot of husbands, and they all lived a long time.” She paused, and looked around the empty ring. Her eyes settled on one particular spot of empty air, and a smile spread across her lips. “Ahahah. Funny boy.”

“Hmmm. Any possibility she really is a goddess?” I asked, softly, as she walked away.

“I doubt anyone would allow a goddess to enter a contest like this so brazenly,” Alfred said, in the Lawyer tone of voice. It’s a special one, taught only to the chosen few who pass the bar, and its subharmonics speak of a complete refusal to accept blame if the wisdom being given is either heeded, or ignored. It practically radiates ‘Don’t sue me for malpractice’.

“And if she is, what will you do?”

“Scream. Die, maybe. It’d be up to her. There’s no way I can handle a goddess in a straight-up fight.”

“Really? I thought you’ve been fighting Jenny.”

“Well… She hardly counts,” he said, a frown crossing his lips as he furrowed his brow. “Ah. There are the others. You should join them. Don’t worry, one way or another, this won’t take long.” He smiled, and walked into the center of the arena, as I went to join the others. On the way, I was intercepted.

“Atina,” said Athena, giving me a pleasant smile. She was dressed in her peplos. Fundamentally, it was a single tube of white linen, belted at the waist and pinned at the shoulders. She wore it well, and without her helmet, or the Gorgoneion. They’d probably be looked upon as aggressive on a day like this. She waved her hand. “I wondered if you would join me at my private booth. You are, of course, free to join your friends.”

I considered that question. It was the kind of soft, fluffy pink offer that had razors in it. “I had some questions for you, actually.”

“Lovely. And I have some for you.” She smiled, and waved a hand before her. Her own private pavilion was a small and tasteful white silk affair, a pair of muscular men dressed only in loincloths, waving large palm fronds towards a pair of chairs.

“You know, I always thought of you as a virgin goddess. I wouldn’t have thought you’d go in for the whole muscular boy toy thing,” I said. I wasn’t sure what was wrong with me. That was not the sort of thing you said to a touchy virgin goddess. But to my surprise, she merely laughed. “Sorry. That was… uh, kind of disrespectful of me.”

“There is a subtle difference between what you did, and disrespect. If I were a hypocrite, if I did indeed keep them around for base sexual desires, then pointing out my hypocrisy would be a… vexing thing. I would like to think I am above such minor slights, but I can appreciate absurdity. When one’s expectations and one’s reality are at odds, it is right to point it out. That’s the very nature of humor. As it happens, these two are Myrmidons. Demons, of a very specific type. Ants, making them impossibly loyal, and very simple. They’re also entirely sexless. Feel free to peek.”

“No, thank you. I got over that urge with a friend’s Ken doll at the age of 6.” I sat down in one of the two chairs, and I have to be honest, the ancient Greek answer to the rotary fan was quite enjoyable. I looked out at the field. Alfred stood across from his first opponent. I recognized her as a duelist, one of the better ones in the city. She had offered to provide me with lessons at one point. I couldn’t remember what kind of fairy she was, but her hair was a rich, Teutonic blonde.  Alfred bowed his head to her, and then began to pull off his chainmail gloves, tossing them to the ground. He did the same with his hauberk. When his pants came off, I covered my face. “Oh, dear god. What is he doing?”

“Hmmm. Cunning,” said Athena, begrudging respect in her voice. “The battle did not specify a limit on what equipment could be brought in. Removing his armor allows him to move more freely.”

I slipped my hand down. Alfred, even if he was not gifted with natural good looks and a stunning set of genes, would be suited to nudity. He spent most of each day lugging around 40 pounds of chainmail to every occasion, and all but the most stubborn deformities will be forgiven by that kind of body. He could have served as an anatomy model, and if it weren’t for his disinterest in Spring fairy women, I’m sure he would be in endless demand. The fairy woman across him was having a great deal of difficulty looking directly at him as he squared off with rapier and broadsword. “I don’t think he’s doing it for the mobility advantage.”

“Really? I suppose it does help to keep anyone from attempting to kill him and pass it off as an accident, to avoid reprisals-“ began Athena.

“I think he’s doing it as a distraction. Most of the fairies here are from countries that are a lot colder, and a lot more modest, than Greece.”

“So he’s… Oh.” To my great shock, but complete lack of surprise, the Virgin Goddess blushed.

Alfred stepped forward with a single sharp thrust and my mind immediately tried to pull back that particular metaphor and failed miserably. The blonde duelist let out a gasp, and tried to sidestep the blow, striking at Alfred. He caught it on the broadsword, and smiled, holding up his other hand. Something golden and gossamer dangled from it.

“The first match goes to Alfred Ethniuson, the Iron Knight!” roared King Sidney, to the cheers of all.

“Well. I suppose a hero must take every advantage,” Athena said, and sighed softly. “Have you thought about who you would bring?”

“No. Not yet. Still researching this case. I’ve got faith in your ability to find me if things go south early.”

“You should not. There is only one entrance to Avalon, and it is in England. If things go bad suddenly, many people who I wish dearly to see live will die.” Athena watched as the second woman entered the ring. Alfred repeated his movements. This one was less easily embarrassed, and caught the first blow, only for the second to sweep through her hair, leaving her blinking and stunned as King Sidney roared another victory. “You are attempting to repair a sand castle as the tide is coming in.”

“Judgment Day is coming, is it?”

She really was a very good poker player. She didn’t react, simply smiling at me. “Interesting that you know that. The only person I know who might have said it that way would not have said it to you. Which means you have access to… other sources.” She tapped her knee. “It doesn’t matter. Fate is a thing that is common in the myths of all societies. Do you know what the word Apocalypse means?”

“An uncovering.” She gave me a surprised look. “I’d be very embarrassed to tell you how I know that.” It had been from a game. You’d be amazed the things you learn from impossibly nerdy tabletop game designers. “Every religion has its myth about the end of the world. Science, too. Novas wiping out the earth, or the Big Crunch consuming the universe, or heat death as entropy prevents anything from ever being ordered again. Everyone knows we’re eventually going to die.”

“The magic is coming back,” said Athena, softly. “All the old gods, the monsters. They’re coming back, because of that man. We built a bulwark between mankind and gods, to protect both sides, and he’s shattering it, because he believes that we can live in peace. But fences make good neighbors.”

We watched as the third fairy approached Alfred. A petite woman with pale green skin and sharp teeth, she stood barely three feet tall. She made it nearly four moves into Alfred’s well-practiced kata before she was defeated, the tiniest bead of green blood appearing on one arm, a cut so fine it wouldn’t even scar.

“You know, I’ve heard Megan talk about this man. The guy who broke the City upstate, right?”

“Zion. And the man who broke Paradise. Twice, now, he has, for the best of reasons, with the best of intentions, destroyed one of the seals that kept the world of man and the world of gods apart.” She was quiet for a moment as the fourth fairy approached.

“What’s his name?” I asked, as Alfred moved. Five moves, this time, and she stumbled back, a lock of her hair in his hand. He was slowing, imperceptibly, but not enough for her to have a chance.

“Silas Nash.”

I watched as King Sidney declared the victory. The crowd was growing bloodthirsty. These were supposed to be some of the best warriors in the city, and Alfred was humiliating them effortlessly. Even with Jenny and Polly thinning their ranks, these had been the most determined, the ones that they had been unable to bait, who they hadn’t been certain they could beat. “It’s a hell of an ominous name. What is he?”

“Nothing. No one. Son of no great sire, heir to no great destiny. Just a man with too much power.”

“And that plan of his, breaking down the walls? Humans and gods lived together before, right?”

“When humans were much, much weaker, and much, much fewer. When they had not grown proud. If a third city falls, Gods will once again be able to manifest their full Mantle on the Earth. Not for a moment, not in brief spurts, not in desperate moments. Gods will walk the earth in truth. Tell me, Atina. When the walls come down, and you face your gods, and your gods face you, what do you think will happen? When gods demand fealty, and men demand an explanation? What always happens when men face their gods?”

I watched as the fifth fairy woman was defeated summarily. Alfred gleamed in the sunlight, sweat shining on his brow. “Judgment Day.”

“It will come, regardless of our actions. You have a classical education. You know the Greek view on Fate. It will make itself known, regardless of whether you fight it or not. You cannot fight Fate. All you can do is understand it, and try to avoid it. That is why Silas Nash is a fool. He believes that it will be a good thing, for the world of the supernatural and humans to mix. That we can all get along. He faces Fate headlong, and believes that by doing so he can overcome it. And what does your experience tell you? This world, too, shall pass.”

“I guess I’m not ready to accept that,” I said, softly, as the sixth woman reached the end of Alfred’s kata, and was defeated by the last stroke.

“Of course. Everyone here is so… so, so young. Even Tadodaho, that old ghost. He isn’t even a millennia old, you know? And he’s the oldest of these striplings. And I…” She was quiet for a moment. “I’ve seen so many heroes die, standing in the path of fate. They didn’t understand. So many brave and noble people. So many that I could have…” She left the words unsaid, and I was left to wonder as Eshu stepped onto the field.

I knew Alfred’s kata fairly well. He practiced it from time to time. It was a fairly straightforward series of actions. The movements he’d memorized over close to two decades of fighting.

First, his blades came up as he thrust forward. A simple defense, but in the context of his movements, it forced his opponent to move. His focus was entirely on protecting himself, but with the swords, even that movement could strike true, as he had with his first opponent.

Eshu smiled, stepping backwards in time with his movements, her spear out and drawn, ready to counter any advance.

Next, he turned sharply. The broadsword came into sharp relief, as he swept it in a shining arc through the air, the rapier held back as far as his arm could extend, his upper body formed into a pure extension, risking everything on the strike.

Eshu’s spear caught it, and she grinned, lunging forward.

The third movement was the parry. The rapier appeared in a glimmer, Alfred’s entire stance changing in a movement, catching the spear just at the tip, and flicking it aside. That was the plan, anyway. It had worked on many of the other women, the illusion of a full committed strike vanishing.

Eshu did not fall for it. The spear spun easily in her hand, and she swept forward, stabbing the spear towards his cheek, deflecting his parry effortlessly.

Alfred’s image flickered like a mirage and disappeared, Alfred himself appearing a half dozen feet to the right, ducked low and coming back up in a prepared movement, fleeing from her.

Eshu was already pursuing him when my eyes flickered back to her. She seemed to have no difficulties in following Alfred’s illusions. She dashed through the mirage, and Alfred barely avoided the next blow by catching the spearhead on his rapier, the force of the blow sending him in a circle.

Alfred spun into it, bringing both arms around in a gleaming arc, that landed firmly in the shaft of the spear, leaving two small nicks, and accomplishing little else.

Eshu smiled up at him.

One of those arms shifted, reappeared, and the rapier thrust forth, the illusion providing a perfect feint.

Eshu vanished, entirely.

Alfred was left standing, looking sharply around, both blades up. The entire audience watched in rapt silence, and I frowned. I knew a little about what Alfred had told me about illusions. Being able to create an illusion was different from being able to recognize one. Illusions were about fooling the senses. They were also, by necessity, difficult. It was one thing, for example, to make yourself merely transparent. That was why Alfred had trimmed the grounds so thoroughly. Leaving nothing but the bare earth, disturbed dust rising up from the fight hiding any caused by true movements.

The dust slowly settled.

There was still no sign of movement.

Alfred turned a slow circle, both swords raised.

“You’re good, boy. Skilled. But I’m better. And I’ve been hired. You should be glad this is your end. There’s much worse that could have happened than not being a hero.”

I’m not sure what warned him. I couldn’t have made it out. After the fact, he told me that it was just a prickling of the hairs on the back of his neck. Whatever it was, he swept the sword up, and there was a clashing sound. The dust didn’t move, but he stood, his heels dug in, teeth bared, arm straining against the invisible edge.

“She’s flying,” I whispered softly. “That bitch, how is she flying?!”

“She is not using a human shape to do so,” said Athena, softly. “Impressive, that boy. He has not assumed his heroic destiny, and yet…” She rubbed her chin. “This is the thing that is causing all the trouble. When humans can defy gods, what stability is there?” She looked across at me. “You understand hierarchy. Humans need hierarchies. They need kings, and gods, and masters. They need to know that there is some plan. What humans crave, most of all, is stability.”

I watched, troubled. I didn’t answer her, partly because it was a hard point to argue, but since that had never stopped me before, it was mostly because I was watching the fight. Alfred vanished, and dozens of doppelgangers appeared, sprinting in different directions. It was more than I’d ever seen him use before, and I knew that the effort of maintaining them had to be terribly mentally draining. Invisible talons swiped through one and another, making them shimmer and vanish, three lines parting them like a cloud.

Finally, Eshu appeared again, when there was one Alfred left. She fell upon him, spear held close, thrust out to slash at his cheek.

The real Alfred appeared, behind her, breathing hard, as the last doppelganger disappeared. He held a single black feather. Eshu’s eyes widened a bit, and she stood up, frowning. Then, she bowed.

“Well done. But you’ll regret this, I fear. Still, very well done.”

The eighth fight was declared, and Polly walked into the center of the ring, squaring off against Alfred. The next five minutes were spent with her practicing bouncing her soccer ball on her head, trying to beat her own record, while Alfred sat and rested. The crowd grew increasingly annoyed, boos filling the air, until finally the King declared a victory by time out. As Jenny entered the ring, grumbles of discontent filled the air. They silenced as Jenny drew her wooden sword, raising it into a fighting stance.

“Oh, shit,” I murmured.

“I could fight you,” said Jenny, her voice carrying across the corn field.

“Yes,” replied Alfred. His voice was soft, but something about his words echoed.

“I could beat you. You are tired. This is not training. I could use my full strength, without fear.”

“Yes. You very possibly could.” He took a step towards her. She took a step back. He stepped forward again. “But why would you?”

“It would save your life.”

“It would make life a misery,” he said, circling, slowly, forcing her to turn to face him.

“It doesn’t have to. I could fake it. I could… do all sorts of things. Why. Why are you doing this, Alfred? Why are you accepting this madness? You’re going to die! You’re going to leave Polly behind! You’re going to break Atina’s heart! You’re going to abandon us! You’re so calm about it all! Why won’t you accept this one thing I can do for you?!”

“I have my reasons.” He lunged toward her. Jenny took a final step backwards, cool, calm, confident. This grace disappeared as she tripped. A corn stalk appeared, the illusion dissipating as Alfred lunged towards her. He’d had to have hidden it during every previous fight. Even during the fight with the Eshu.

Alfred’s knees hit the ground, his arms around Jenny, gripping her tight, keeping her from falling on her ass.

“You’ll just have to trust me,” said Alfred, softly.

Jenny pulled herself free of his arms, and ran, crying, from the field.

“It’s all just the same clichés,” said Athena, softly, even as the crowd cheered, and Alfred stood up, his expression empty and pained. “The same stories, repeated until they’re chewed free of any scrap of flavor or texture. Doesn’t it ever make you sick?”

“It matters to them.”

“Because they are frogs in wells,” said Athena, shaking her head. “The contest is won.” Queen Aniss stepped onto the field. Alfred faced off against her. Athena stood up, and walked away. “Everything is going the way I thought it would.”

“What?” I turned my head to follow her. There was a nasty cracking sound, like a gauntlet breaking a nose, and the King declared Alfred’s victory. “What do you mean?”

“Stubborn pride will drive you to this end. If you wish for Alfred to survive, bring him to Avalon with you. Do not fall to another boring, stupid cliché. It will save him, and you.” She smiled sadly at me over her shoulder. “Save what you can, Atina. You will learn that the times when you can even do that are precious, and few.”

And with that, she walked off into the fair, leaving me standing behind. Alfred stepped up behind me, and grabbed my shoulder. “Atina. I need a drink. I hate to ask-“

“No. I need one too. Just the two of us.” We walked away from the field, leaving the others behind without a word. And they let us go.

One thought on “Chapter 9: Second Prize, Two Weeks in Philadelphia

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