I threw open the door. “Alfred. We need to move.”
“The Wild Hunt. They’re after us.” I took a deep breath, straightening my back. “Shit. I don’t know… what…” I noticed everyone was staring. I slowly turned.
The figure walked out of the woods, slowly, serenely, glowing a pale white as though they were reflecting the full moonlight, though the clouds and gibbous moon were not nearly bright enough for that. It was vaguely feminine. I realized, with a start, that it was Eric Grafsson. He walked through the luminescent moonlight, his head hung, a horn dangling from his fingers. I stepped cautiously towards the door, and Jack instantly stepped in front of me, opening the door, and keeping between me and the Huldr.
“Atina,” he said, softly, his voice carrying. “The condemned is with you?”
I looked over my shoulder. Alfred was standing right behind me, his seafoam green eyes narrowed, one hand resting on his sword. “Be careful, Atina.”
“I am not here to harm you,” said Eric, softly, dreamily. “Though I’d like to. You always mocked me, Atina. You thought I was a layabout. A fool. I remember how you patronized me. I dreamt of the power to make you regret it,” he said, taking another step towards us. Then he paused, as Alfred stepped forward, and shook his head. “But I still… respected you. You helped me, even if you thought me a fool. You were disgusted by me, but you were determined to help me anyway. It was more than you had to do. All I have to do is tell you that the hunt is on. But I wanted to do more. Because you had earned it.” He breathed in sharply. “It is hard. Hard to remember why I wanted that. But it’s important.”
I untensed slightly. “I’m glad to hear that. And I’m sorry I’m a bit of an asshole, Eric. I really do appreciate everything you’ve done for me.”
“Hollow words,” he said, with a cold smile. “First… You cannot hide from the Wild Hunt, for if we cannot keep you in sight, we will hunt down those who are innocent. Blood calls tonight. It is up to you whether it will be your blood or that of whoever crosses our path. This is a disaster.” He tapped the horn. “I have a small mercy for you, Ethniuson. In ten minutes, I will call the hunt on you. It is up to you whether you will lead a merry chase, or hide and allow doom to come to others. But you will have the choice. You are the only one we want. So long as you remain within sight, we will pursue you. If others interfere, or if you hide… Well, then, there are no guarantees.”
“Eric… God damn it, Eric, we had a solution,” I said, rubbing my forehead. “We found the Dean. We think. We can work this out, you… You don’t…”
“It is too late for that,” said Eric, softly. “The call has been made. By dawn, it will be decided. The heads of the kings and queens of Binghamton, or Alfred.”
“Why? God damn it, why?! We had two fucking months! I could’ve… I could’ve fixed all of this if you’d just waited another day!”
“Yes, and what would you have done with one more day?” said Eric, a sad smile on his face. “Perhaps contacted your dragon? Set one of your gods upon us? Told the Night Court all of our weaknesses? Tonight is Samhain. It is the death of summer, Atina LeRoux. You wanted an end of the games. Tonight, the Seelie drains from the world. Tonight there is nothing but the cold and the war and the violence, Atina. You wanted this.”
“That’s the Unseelie talking,” I said, feeling a little sick.
“Yes. We’re all Unseelie tonight. Almost all, at any rate. A meager handful held themselves back. Cowards. I’m no different, of course. I’ll call them, and leave you to your fate. My gift for your services rendered,” he snarled, teeth gritted. “Fight if you wish. You have proven how effortlessly you can kill, and you will have ample reason. No one would blame you, knight, for slaying those who come after you tonight. No one who has the strength to resist you, at any rate. Make orphans of a thousand children tonight, if you wish. After the sun rises, who will be able to claim it was not your right?”
“So we have to avoid them until dawn.” I let out a breath, and didn’t dare look at Alfred. “Ten minutes, Eric? Alright. Thank you. Seriously. Thank you for all of this.” I paused, and looked aside. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry is just a word. Sorrow is shown through a change in action. And we all know you will never change,” he said, and then turned from me, walking into the woods. “Do your best. For all the good it will do those who die,” he said.
I took a deep breath as he disappeared. Then I turned back towards the open glass door. “Momi. You keep the book. Regardless of what happens to us, you’ve got that. Please… If something happens, try to bring the Dean back. Jack, you stay with them. Keep them safe.”
“No,” said Jack, softly.
“Jack- You need to stay here, we don’t know if they’ll keep their word-“
“Don’t lie to me, Atina,” said Jack, not unkindly. “You know they’re safe here. You wouldn’t be leaving them with the book if you didn’t believe that. And I’m just a knife. I don’t think any of the people here would be much good at wielding me.”
“Jack, I don’t have time for this. I don’t want to bring you into a situation I know is going to be dangerous-“
“I can do more than cut!” yelled Jack, her fists balled up, her knuckles white. “I’m going to help!”
“… Well,” said Alfred, after a long, tense moment, smiling. “It would be rather redundant of me to try to persuade you to stay now, wouldn’t it?”
“Stuff it, Alfred. Come on, you two.”
I walked out into the night. The cold hit like a shovel, stealing the breath out of my lungs. It had dropped straight through fall, and into ‘depths of winter’, which was no joke in this latitude. I opened the car door, and slid the keys into the ignition as Jack and Alfred entered. I turned them, and the car made a chugging noise.
“You’re fucking with me. Jesus Christ, did the fairy fucks drop me into a horror film?” I asked, gritting my teeth, and turning the key again.
“The car’s frightened,” said Jack, softly.
I looked back at her, and then at the car’s dash. “It’s aware enough for that?”
“Dimly. It’s… intimidation. I can feel it, too. The night…” She looked out at the forest. “Can’t you feel the eyes?”
I couldn’t, but the statement was appropriately ominous that I began to shiver more violently. I balled my fingers into a fist, and then stopped. God help me, I was worried about abusing the car. Instead, I reached out, and stroked the dashboard. “It’s okay. It’s okay. We can outrun them. They’re fairies. They don’t have anything like your speed. We’ve got a nearly full tank of gas. I’ll take care of you. Be brave. I’m trying to do the same.” I let my hand slide down the dashboard, back to the keys, and turned it. The car’s engine started weak, then roared into life.
“Well, what do you know,” said Alfred, as I began driving.
“Seat-belts on. You know, my dad studied math in college?” I said, as I pulled down the driveway, the click of seatbelts filling the air.
“Oh?” said Alfred, an eyebrow raised.
“Yeah. Graduated with a philosophy degree, but he went to MIT. Guy was a genius. Way smarter than me, to be sure. Just, never found exactly what he wanted to do. He was an artist who loved science. So, he was always very serious about things like that. I used to love fiction, telling him about things, and he’d ask me if I was talking about the real universe, or the Marvel universe.”
“You were a Marvel fan?” He snorted, as a distant trumpet blast rocked through the air, heavy and intense, thrumming deep in the pit of my stomach. “Nerd.”
“Yes, thank you. So he’d always ask me that. And it annoyed me so much. I realized, after I spent a day in that mental institution, was that what he was really asking me is, do I understand the difference between what’s real, and what’s not. And that was what really mattered to him. Making sure I understood the difference between stories, and reality.”
“And now, I’m living in a story. I just soothed my car into starting. I’m fleeing the Wild Hunt. How do you stay sane in that kind of situation? What’s normal anymore?” My hands were shaking.
“And- I’m fine, Alfred, I’m fine, just- Oh.”
Alfred’s concern was not for me. At the moment, anyway. I saw the right-hand turn onto the main road. A troupe of fairies astride phantasmal white steeds stood there. Alfred was quickly studying his phone.
“I don’t think I can plow through them. Is straight a dead end?”
“The phone is loading!”
“What do you mean the phone is loading!”
I hit the accelerator, hard, and the car sped down the road, blowing past the fairies. They raised their spears in mock salute. I thought I recognized one of them as an ogre from the Summer Court. His face was silvery and pale in the faux moonlight. Then, as we sped past, they charged onto the road.
“Talk to me, Alfred.”
“It’s calculating. Recalculating.”
“What do you mean it’s recalculating?”
“It’s recalculating! The damn thing is slow! I haven’t replaced it in six years!”
“Six years?! Alfred, I need to know if we’re about to run into a dead end!” I saw a T intersection ahead of us. “Left, or right?”
“It’s recalaculating! Wait- Damn it-“ He growled. “The screen turned off!”
“Jack! For fucks sakes! Give him my phone!”
“Okay, it’s- Oh, wait, Atina, you’ve got the fingerprint sensor on!”
“Swipe the goddamn thing up, and hit 0612!”
“It’s the damn PIN!” I swung right. I saw two roads to the right, one smaller, one larger. I took the larger one and prayed.
“Okay, ah… There we go.”
A new voice filled the air. Robotic, feminine, pleasant. “In… 100 meters… Make a U turn…”
“Son of a BITCH if you don’t get the phone working right now I’m going to smash it against the dashboard!”
Hot silence filled the air for a span of about five seconds as I tried to get control of my breathing. “Recalculating… Follow this road for … 5 miles… Then take a left on… Conklin Avenue.”
I could see more flurries of white features in the trees, keeping an easy pace with us. A car was faster than a horse, but in the night, with the headlights flickering the way they were, the heavy mist hanging over the ground, and the uncertainty, I was not able to make best use of it. The mist was gathering thicker by the second, and I could see the car’s lights flicker wildly. “Say something nice to the car, Alfred.”
To his credit, he didn’t argue. He simply rested his hand on the dashboard like a rider calming a frightened horse, and murmured something soft. The lights steadied, and the engine picked up a little bit.
“Living in a goddamn cuckoo clock,” I murmured, as we drove. Then the spear struck the car.
To its credit, the car took the majority of the impact. Our seatbelts jerked as the car slewed to one side, and the last I saw of the engine block, it was on the tip of the spear, disappearing off the side of the road. I tried to compensate without overcompensating, and failed miserably. We hit grass, the car jumped, and then it slammed into a tree, neatly bisecting the now-mostly-empty front engine compartment.
My whole body ached from the impact. I hadn’t been going more than thirty miles an hour, but that was enough. I groaned softly as I sat up, my head spinning. Focus. Needed to focus. I hurt, my chest felt like someone had tried to hang me and had missed horribly, and if I didn’t focus…
The seatbelt came apart around me. Jack grabbed my hand, and tugged on me. “Come on, Atina. Come on.” She looked around. Alfred was standing beside her, swords drawn. There were hoofbeats in the darkness. “Come on. We need to keep going.” Alfred was checking the smartphone. He pointed. “Six miles north, to Binghamton.”
“We’re never going to make that on foot,” I said, stumbling across the road.
“Don’t need to. We’re going to take a shortcut.” He pulled me up to my feet. “So, your dad. He studied at MIT?”
“Yeah. Always told me how he nearly failed out in his last year,” I said, holding on very tight to Jack and Alfred’s hands. I do not consider myself a good runner, but in times of terror and desperation, one finds oneself tapping into hidden reserves. I’d pay for that. As I ran, I grabbed for my phone, and remembered that the last time I’d seen it, it was in the car, just before we’d crashed. “Tried not to be like him, to study hard, to never let myself get behind on things. Hah! What a. Fucking. Joke.” Breath was getting short.
Alfred burst out of the tree line, into a wide field. A figure appeared, and before I could react, it threw itself at him from out of the grass. Arms went around his neck, red flying everywhere.
“Alfred!” shouted Polly, her eyes sparkling brilliantly, planting a firm kiss on his lips. She released him, landing on her feet. “Atina! What are you, mad? What are you doing out here? Don’t ye have any sense? It’s not a safe time out for mortals! Come on, you need to get back to your car!”
“Not. Not gonna.” I took a deep breath, letting my heart rate slow. “Gotta keep together. You okay?”
“Yeah.” She smiled. “Come on, have you ever known a more Seelie fae than me, Atina?”
“No, you pretty much take the cake.” I smiled. “She’s still Seelie, Alfred?”
“Emphatically,” he said, smiling as he kept walking. I tried to figure out what we were moving towards. The sound of hoofbeats was getting louder.
“Alfred, not to rush you, but-“
“We’re here,” he said, stopping abruptly.
It was an old swimming hole. Not a big one, and almost certainly not deep. Not apparently deep, anyway.
There’s something threatening about the water at night. The way it turns into inky black. The way that you can never tell how deep it is, because it swallows the light whole. The subtle ripples which are never entirely clear on whether they were caused by fish, by the disturbance of swamp gas, by the ripple of the wind, or by something very distinctively else. This pond was tiny. But in sheer menace it might as well have been a raging T-rex.
Still, it must be said of the three fairies riding us down that they represented a much more concrete danger. They closed, spears at the ready, but cautious, cantering. This was because Polly was smiling.
“I can open a path, Polly,” said Alfred. “It will be dangerous in there.”
I noted more white lights flashing through the darkness ahead of us, and on all sides. “More dangerous than it is out here?”
“Potentially very, yes,” said Alfred, swallowing hard. “Do you have any artificial lights?”
“Not without my phone.”
“Good. We are going to the Palace of Mirrors.”
“The Palace of Mirrors?” said Polly, turning her head at this.
“The one you and Jenny went through?” asked Jack.
“The incredibly lethal place in the deepest reaches of Winter, where all who enter with unnatural light have their souls torn from their bodies, and are turned into fetches?” I asked.
“Well, I don’t know whether you can actually be made into a fetch at your age. More likely, your reflection is just consumed by the mirrors, killing you, and leaving your body to decay in the cold.” Alfred smiled as he reached into his chainmail, withdrawing a handful of petals, and sprinkling the dried flowers on the water. It began to swirl, and the flower petals formed themselves into a ring, the water within slightly concave. Those lights were coming closer. “And my, but the lights on that lot seem rather artificial, don’t they?”
Polly’s soccer-ball sang out, spinning and twirling. It slammed into the jaw of the nearest fairy, rebounding off and sending him tumbling to the ground, his body twitching a bit. It landed on her knee, where she caught it easily. I felt the impact from where I was standing. “Who else wants a taste, ye skids, huh?!”
Unfortunately for us, it seems the answer was ‘everyone’. They closed in. Polly kicked again, and this shot bounced off an upraised arm. The nasty crack and the way the fairy screamed and clutched at his wrist as he fell from his mount made it clear she’d struck a telling blow, but it had also sent the soccer ball spiraling into the darkness past the closing ring of fairies, and the spears were beginning to fly. I saw one strike Polly’s thigh, and she let out a terrible scream of pain, gritting her teeth, blood trickling down her thigh.
I was never great at dodgeball, but panic gave me skills I never knew I had, and I sidestepped a falling spear. It sank into the ground, pale white fading from it until it was just a length of shuddering wood, tipped with a stone wedge. “Alfred!”
“It’s open! Atina, you first!”
I grabbed Jack with one hand, Alfred with the other, throwing myself at the water. The addition of the small crater surrounded by flower petals did not make it any more comforting. Neither did hitting the ice-cold water.
A moment’s timeless discomfort, and then I was through, into the other side. I gasped out, and the cold scorched my lungs. It bit like hell, my whole body shaking violently as the cold seized hold of my lungs and wrung every last drop of air out of them. It was a long moment before I could breathe again.
Jack was clinging to my side. She was shaking, her eyes dull, and empty. “’tina,” she murmured, a nickname that I thought had died forever after I left High School. “’s’cold.”
“Y’don’t say.” I looked around. It was dark. There was no moon, here. “Alfred?” His mailed hand squeezed mine.
“I’m here. Polly?”
Oy.” She groaned. “What a headache. Everyone okay?” She shook something in the darkness. My vision was beginning, slowly- torturously slowly- to adjust. It had gone from pure blackness to dim silhouettes. She was carrying something…
“Did you take one of their spears?” I said, a bit surprised. “I didn’t know you even knew how to use a spear.”
“Well, blimey, Atina, I may be a rank amateur but I’ll try my best. Remind me, you stick the pointy end in the enemy, right?” Polly rolled her eyes as she reached out with the spear, tapping it against one of the shadows. There was a glassy clink.
“Give it a moment,” said Alfred, pulling Polly close against his side. It was bitterly cold here, and none of us were dressed appropriately for the weather. Polly was shaking, very possibly from bloodloss. Jack huddled next to me, bent forward. “Keep close. The cold here is killer.”
“Where are we trying to get to?” I asked, shaking and shivering a bit.
“I’m… not sure, honestly. I’m relying on you, here. I don’t think we can stay here until morning, this cold’d kill us long before, to say nothing of the Hunt turning on innocents.” Alfred’s teeth were chattering. “It’s… hah. Wow. It’s really beautiful here, isn’t it…?”
“Me?” I said. “Why are you… Oh.” My head tilted up.
I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights. I’m not sure why, exactly, I want to see them myself, why a picture wouldn’t do the job, but there are certain things you have to see with your own eyes. There’s a human need for holiness, for sacred places. I’m not a person given to gods or belief or worship, but I still find those little holy moments amazing. The moment that you know almost no one else will ever share, the place you know almost no one else will ever see. Deserts are full of them, forests too. The wide open plains have them. And the Northern Lights are as holy as you get.
Above us, great ribbons of color painted the sky. I knew a bit about auroras. There are three colors, red, blue, and green. Green is by far the most common. Tonight, all three danced in the sky above the Winter Palace. The light was almost bright enough to just barely illuminate the ground. They danced and twirled through the air, looping and tangling as they never could on Earth, and the sight took my breath away. In the utter silence of the Palace of Mirrors, they were beautiful, and entrancing, and…
I stumbled slightly. Jack slumped against my shoulder, snoring softly. Alfred and Polly were leaning against one another, their eyes heavy. “You guys feel… warmer?” I asked.
“Yeah. ‘snice,” said Polly, nuzzling into Alfred’s shoulder softly. I could see the blood dripping down her thigh in the glittering fairy lights of the aurora.
“Gotta go,” said Alfred. “’mportant we get out there. Don’t want… Wild Hunt getting bored. Just… Maybe… a little… nap…” He and Polly sank down as one.
“Shouldn’t nap here,” I muttered. “’sno. Fall ‘leep here, y’l… never… wake up…”
I breathed in, sharply. It was a technique I’d learned. I’d been drunk many times. You could hold it together. You just had to focus. Something was happening, and I couldn’t tell exactly what. It wasn’t good. I dragged them towards one of the mirrors, huddling in the wind shadow, avoiding the cold.
“You ran a merry chase,” said a low, cheerful voice.
He stepped out from behind one of the mirrors, outlined by the auroras. He smiled pleasantly, his horns smoothly waxed, his beard immaculately trimmed, wearing a jacket. “King Denise,” I slurred. “You not fallen for this?”
“I am the King of Winter. I do not need to be Unseelie to do what needs to be done.”
“Hadda… Hadda proof. Hadda thing we needed. He didn doot.” My limbs felt so heavy.
“Yes? I’m sure you’d say that. I’m sorry, Atina. You and your friends will be spared. Alfred is going to die here, in the cold. Alone. Saving you is the only mercy I can afford him.”
“Nn,” I murmured. I could feel the world cracking around the edges. The Dreamwalk. The worst possible moment. I reached out. My fingers touched Jack’s hand. It was cold.
I held it together. I fucking held it together. In the face of the drunkenness and the shattering perspectives, I held it together. I forced the cracked edges of the world to connect as the adrenaline surged inside of me, like a hot pot of coffee. I was shaking uncontrollably, but I could see it, behind King Dionysio. The glow of the sun.
“I’m sorry about this, Miss LeRoux. We couldn’t take the chance that you would strike first. We had to finish this.” He crouched down, and put his hand on my shoulder. “Here. Let’s get you out of heCRAZY BIT-“
The curse came as my forehead crashed into his. Headbutting a Satyr was a foolish move, and my skull ached where the bases of the horn struck my forehead, but he reeled back. The curse ended as my fist came up, Jack’s knife clutched in it. The black and red handle cracked into his jaw, sending him reeling.
Jack had told me a little bit about what she could do. The pact she made gave people superhuman strength and endurance, but it did so by letting them ignore their own limits. That was fine.
Polly went over one shoulder. Alfred over the other. They were heavy. Both of them were practically pure muscle, and my legs teetered slightly as I stood up, reminding me that alcohol was still severely impairing my inner ear. Even unconscious, Polly’s fingers were locked in a death grip around the spear. I stumbled forward as I heard the Winter King coming to his feet, groaning and cursing. I tripped, and my forehead met the mirror as I tumbled.
Cold water ran down my nose. I lashed out, struggling, kicking. My feet touched silt. I pushed forward up the slope, and emerged from the water, cold air slapping me in the face.
I collapsed onto the muddy riverside, breathing hard. I could hear the others coming to, groggy, dazed from the fading intoxication. It wasn’t real alcohol. My arms and legs were aching, my whole body feeling as though I’d dragged it through a storm of broken glass. A white light suffused us, and I looked up.
King Baynson stood over me, his expression stern, his white spear held before him. “You led a merry chase.”
I scrambled to my feet. Alfred and Polly did the same. The Wild Hunt made a semicircle at the river’s edge, and I could see King Dionysio coming out of the water.
“Well done,” said King Dionysio. “But ultimately, hopeless. You fought as well as you could. Now, Alfred, which will you choose? Will you die for the good of all? Or will you insist on fighting on? You are the greatest warrior in this city. But you cannot fight all of us. You knew from the day you picked up that scabbard, that you were doomed. Die with grace.”
Alfred let his eyes run over his friends. He was a really handsome guy, I realized. Standing under the gibbous moon, dripping with water and mud and frost, he still cut the figure of the classical knight. He took hold of the scabbard, and held it back, to Polly. She took it, and the bleeding in her thigh stopped almost immediately, flush returning to her cheeks as she stood up straight. He unclipped the scabbard of his rapier, and held it out to me. “Please, Atina.”
“Alfred… You don’t- God damn it!” I gritted my teeth. “This doesn’t have to end so stupidly!”
“In the end, sometimes, all the peaceful intentions and reconciliation in the world cannot succeed. In those times, there is only violence.” He held his hand out to Jack. “Jack. Would you like to help me save some poor fools from a gruesome death?”
Jack was quiet for a moment. Then she reached out, and took Alfred’s hand.
The switchblade flashed in his left hand, the broadsword in his right. He smiled in the moonlight, a warm, gentle smile. “My friends. I could not dream of killing you. But a little judicious behavior correction… Well, what is that between friends?”
The blade flashed out, and sank into the chest of King Baynson’s mount. It let out a scream that made me feel incredibly guilty, but then vanished in a flash of light, sending Baynson tumbling down. His fall, as well as his face, were broken by Alfred’s gauntlet, knocking the Unseelie king out. I didn’t see more, because Polly hit me laterally, dragging me away from the fight.
“He’s doing this to save us, damn it! That bunch is mad with terror and violence, if we don’t get out of here, they’re going to turn on us, next! We’ve got to get away, before they kill us, too.”
“We can’t just leave him! We-… Jesus-“
Polly grunted as I dug in my heels, pulling me with all of her considerable strength as my shoes tore muddy tracks in the grass. “He can’t fight them all!”
“He’s doing a really good job of it!”
“What?” Polly turned, and her eyes widened. “Fuck me.”
Alfred stood in a clear space, perhaps fifteen feet across, his blades extended. More fairies were arriving all the time, and stopping at that edge. Several unconscious, dazed, or generally mauled fairies marked the point. Even as we watched, one of the fairies took a step past the edge. Alfred’s boot slammed into his face, and there was quite an unpleasant crack as he keeled over backwards, landing on one of his fellows.
Alfred was an amazing fighter at the best of times. Jack had, from what I’d been told, turned an incompetent teenage boy into a force of nature. She’d torn her users apart, made them push themselves past their point of endurance. She’d turned them into tigers, from what I’d heard. I was already feeling the ache of lifting over five hundred pounds of knight, redcap, and gear. The thing is, most people who’d ever used her didn’t REALLY know their limits. They didn’t understand what their bodies were capable of, so they pushed themselves too far, wound up hurting themselves.
Alfred knew precisely what he was capable of. She just removed the things that held him back. Even as the fairies raised their spears, he launched himself into their ranks. Like a cannonball, he slammed into them, and sent them spiraling through the air.
“He can’t beat them all,” said Polly, but there was a distinct note of uncertainty as one of the Unseelie riders flew through the air, followed shortly by his spectral horse, splatting into the mud. Her mouth was slightly parted as she stared. “He’s slowing down.”
It was true. Moment by moment, his movements were slowing. He wasn’t going to be able to keep this up forever, and he was beginning to get sloppy. A spear slammed through his shoulder, and though he barely slowed, I could see the blood trailing down his skin. He’d given up the scabbard’s protection, given it to Polly to protect her. I began to pull. “We can help him.”
“We can’t, damn it. We can only get ourselves killed.” She held me tight, with one arm, gripping one of the slender maples with the other, as I strained to pull free of her grasp, my shoulder burning with the exertion. “What do you think you can do, Atina?!”
I sagged slightly, as another spear swept across Alfred’s side, tearing open the mail. The cut was small, but they were accumulating. I could see the desperate fury on his face. He could have beaten them all, if he was ready to kill them. But he would sooner die, and he was the kind of man who’d make good on that statement.
“There’s got to be something we can do,” I said.
“Dawn’s hours away.”
“Dawn would end it?” asked a soft, familiar voice. The two of us turned. Jenny stood there. She wasn’t breathing hard, but her expression more than made up for that. She placed her fingertips together, and then drew them apart, and a blinding ball of light filled the space between her palms. I looked away, eyes dazzled, as it sailed into the melee, and flashed.
When the light cleared, the only fae still standing was King Dionysio. He blinked, staring around. “What-“
“Dawn’s light,” said Jenny.
“That… It’s 3 AM!”
“Still the first sunlight of the day,” she said, looking around. The glow was fading from the Unseelie fae, as they lay groaning. “Do you wish to press this, or do you wish to trust that Atina will find a way to get you out of the mess that you have made for yourself?” she asked, softly.
King Dionysio opened his mouth. His eyes dropped to Jenny’s hand, which was curling into a small and yet exceedingly hard looking fist. He slowly closed his mouth, and sighed. “If I may say one thing in our defense.”
“You may not. Go the hell away,” she said. And King Dionysio nodded quietly as Jenny and Alfred walked towards us.
“I could have taken them,” said Alfred, stretching, rubbing his arm where the spear had hit him but not broken through his mail. “I hadn’t even started to use my illusions, you know.”
“I am sure you could,” said Jenny, smiling a bit as the two of them walked towards us. Polly threw her arms around Alfred, squeezing him tight, and the four of us made our way back to the street. We were, I could see, very close to Tompkins Bridge, right by downtown Binghamton.
“Lucky you were here,” said Alfred. “I trusted Atina to know the right way, but still, I was a bit worried. Things could have gotten very messy if you weren’t there.” Jack had reappeared, under one arm, supporting him.
“I didn’t hurt anyone, did I?” the knife asked, nervously.
“Well, we probably hurt a few people. Nothing they can’t fix, though. A few scars never did anyone any lasting harm, just look at me.” He chuckled. His smile, of course, was immaculate. He was still bleeding, but the cuts were shallow, and few. Polly helped him out of his armor, and carried it down to the water, washing it in the river quickly, rinsing off the blood, as Jenny wrapped a bit of cloth bandage around his shoulder, and taped some more to his side, absorbing the blood. “What do you know? We made it through. Beat the Wild Hunt.”
“I sort of cheated,” said Jenny, apologetically.
“It’s not cheating if you’re following the rules, no matter how much people feel it’s not fair.” I said. “It’s lawyering.” I smiled. “I can’t believe we made it. I’m going to get in touch with Momi. Talk with the Fairy Courts. They might have to take it on the chin about the gauntlet, but we’ve still got a couple of months until the actual due date. Just because they jumped the gun with this doesn’t mean we can’t all come out of this.” I laughed softly as Polly walked back up, the four of us stumbling along. “We made it through this all. Beat the odds.”
“Beat fate,” said Polly, grinning, as she slung the drying chainmail over her shoulder, leaning heavily on the spear she’d stolen to keep her upright. “You need the scabbard back, Alfred?”
“Not yet. These wounds aren’t too bad, and I’m a bit worried about your thigh. You took a real bad cut there. Hold onto it until we can get it looked at by a proper doctor, what do you say?” He smiled cheerfully as he slung his arm around her shoulder. “Besides, being doted on by young women has its advantages.” He tensed, but none of us had the energy to slug him for the remark. “Where are the others?”
“When the Hunt started, the Half-Faced Man and Polly felt it,” said Jenny. “Polly, the half-Faced Man, and Li went south. Polly told me to stay in town, so I could get in touch with you if you made it here. I was worried, but she made the right call.” She smiled apologetically at Polly. “I’m sorry for what I said.”
“Least said, soonest mended,” said Polly, dropping back into her bad Irish, a sure sign that everything was safe once again. “Least said, soonest mended. Come on.”
The five of us walked through the cold night air through town. Halloween decorations filled the streets. There weren’t any kids left on the streets, but occasionally, we saw teenagers laughing and running along, dressed in costumes, no doubt up to mischief. A handful of people were walking home from their parties, visibly drunk past the point of being able to stand up properly. We fit in well. Our breath fogged the chilly hair as we climbed the bridge, heading back towards my home. The Chenango rolled along underneath.
“Incredible that we made it through it all. I don’t think someone’s survived a Fairy Gauntlet in centuries. All we need to do is figure out the rest of this mess, and we’re laughing,” said Alfred, and chuckled. “Lucky they didn’t send the Iron Knave at me.” I frowned, and looked ahead. Someone was approaching us. Red hair hung around their features, green eyes sparkling. This was all the more odd considering she was black. She walked through the center of our group, and the others seemed to flow unconsciously around her. I stopped dead, as she met my eyes.
“You alright, Atina?” asked Jack, distantly, turning back to face me. Then she focused on the red-haired woman. “Hey. Don’t I know you?”
“Atina?” said Jenny, turning towards me as well. Alfred did the same.
“I’m really sorry about this,” said the red-haired woman, softly, her voice gentle. “Sometimes, you just can’t win.”
I felt the world shattering around me. The cracks yawning open in the world. I saw Jack’s eyes roll up as she collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut, simply folding up on the ground. Jenny stepped towards her as Polly turned. She dropped the chainmail easily, lifting the spear, suddenly and obviously unbothered by the wound in her leg. She spun the spear once, and I saw as her hair crackled and burned, like a fire, flaring brilliantly red for a moment, then brown, and then turning to a sooty, ashy black, hanging across her face.
And I saw the look of shock and betrayal on Alfred’s face, as she rammed the spear through his back, and out through his chest, right through his heart.
Then I fell into the madness.