My life shattered, just like that.
Jack fell first. Collapsing to the ground, folding up into a heap. Atina followed her. I turned, just in time to feel Alfred’s blood splatter across my face and my tongue. It was rich, and sweet, and hot, fresh from the heart. I felt it drip down the back of my throat, as Alfred met my eyes. He smiled, and laughed once, soundlessly. Then the spear pulled back through his chest, and he fell, too.
The strange woman with the red hair was gone as I turned back and forth. My friends lying around me. I didn’t know if Atina was still alive. There was no way that Alfred could be. My head pounded. My heart raced. I stared up at Polly.
“If you think about it,” she said, smiling, dropping the Irish accent, “this was all pretty obvious.” She twirled the spear once. “Had to save my mom, after all. It’d be ingratitude if I let her die, now.”
“I’ll kill you,” I said, and I was surprised to realize it wasn’t heated. There was no vehemence or fury in the words. It was a simple statement of fact. She was alive, and that was wrong. I would correct things.
“Really? Why bother? He’s dead now. It won’t bring him back. What would Atina think?”
“She would cope,” I said, drawing the wooden sword. Images flashed in my head. Furious. Ecstatic. Taking her arm and twisting it until the bones snapped like sticks, wrenching her arm free from its socket. Taking the wooden sword and beating her face into a wretched pulp. Slamming her skull through the stone parapets, and leaving her to drown in the river.
Ah. There was the heat. The fury. I realized I was breathing hard, my body instinctively preparing for a fight, as I gasped for air. I slowed those breaths, and took my stance.
“It’s how it had to happen, Jenny,” said Polly, her voice cold. Colder than I’d ever heard from her. “You can’t fight fate.”
“What happened? Did you go Unseelie? What was it? Why did you do this?” I asked, my hands shivering.
“Why?” She smiled. “You really want to know?”
Her fist sank into my stomach. King Sidney had not been as strong as her. The blow threw me across the ground, tumbling and spinning.
I forced myself up, to my hands and knees, trembling. Alfred and Polly’s training had been good. They have trained me very well on how to fight. Unfortunately, the one thing they had not trained me was how to be beaten. I don’t think I’d ever experienced the pain I did now, gasping for air that would not come, my sternum throbbing, feeling cracked, beaten. Alfred had not trained me this way because he did not want to hurt me.
Polly’s motivations, I suspected, were not quite so compassionate.
I tried to get to my feet. Polly’s iron-shod boot slammed into my head, and bounced my cheek off of the stone parapet. I thought I felt something cracking, and blood seethed inside of me, repairing the wounds. I was healing. But the pain… That was intense.
“You really thought he’d love you, didn’t you?” Polly says, a bit surprised. “You really had the arrogance to think that you were worth loving? Flat-chested. Childish. Naïve. Frightened of everything. Little bitch that you are, did you think he ever saw you as anything but a damsel in distress, a victim? You have earned nothing, been given everything. You have never had to fight hard, have you?”
I reached out, blinded by tears. The words hurt, as they always did. Usually, they were said in my voice. They were the things I feared, the things that I did not share with others for fear that they would be confirmed. The words fell around me.
My hand wrapped around something metal. I opened my eyes, and through vision hazed by red tears of blood, I saw it. Alfred’s rapier, still clipped to Atina’s belt. And still steel.
I heard the rush of movement, and I spun, rising to my feet. Polly was fast, faster than I’d ever suspected. That kind of speed couldn’t allow her too much time to react. I felt a furious jerk on the sword as I was proven right. Polly was stuck in tableau over me, the steel rapier piercing her belly. She looked down, and then back up, meeting my eyes.
She kicked the rapier right at the base, snapping it in half, and then kicked me square between the legs.
There’s a unique pain to being kicked in the groin. It is different for women than men, but still crippling. Still intense. I gasped and panted as I curled up on the ground.
“You’ve put me in a real pickle here, and no mistake,” Polly said, and sighed. “You shouldn’t have seen that. Hell, I was going to play with you, but now, I’ve got to make sure you’re put out of the way. Really shouldn’t have done that.”
“”ts iron,” I gasped. “Can’t- You can’t-“
“Well, no, I can. I-“
I mastered the pain. The wooden sword swept through the air where Polly’s head had been a moment before, and she stepped back, snapping the wooden blade in half with another steel-toed kick. I was on my feet, stumbling away, a desperate hand plunging into my jacket. The cacao beans gleamed in the yellow glow of the streetlights as I held them up.
I didn’t mean to, but I hesitated. I thought, for a moment, of what I would be sacrificing. What I might be bringing into the world. But if it meant letting her get away, then what good was what I had? I raised them to my mouth.
But Polly, well, she never hesitated. The broken wooden sword plunged through my chest, into my heart. The cacao beans bounced, hit the parapet, and disappeared into the water, vanishing in the darkness below.
“You know… I could decapitate you. That kills just about everything, in supernatural terms. And it’s always notoriously good against vampires. Fire, that’s a reliable one. But I need you to realize, Jenny, you have been a thorn in my side. I thought that talking with Sidney, making him see how hopeless it was, that’d be a sure-fire way to get Alfred killed. He almost had them, but you just threw yourself in there.” She sighed. “Then I set up Alfred for the perfect noble death. The wild hunt is ready to harry him to his end, and heroic though he is, he cannot overcome their numbers. His trump card is in my possession,” she patted the scabbard. Had that been enough to protect her from the iron? “And who should come along but you.” She glared. “I told you to stay at Atina’s house. I told you that you would get hurt. But does anyone ever listen to me?”
She sighed, and turned towards the parapet, looking down at the inky water below. And I felt something very dark and terrible settle in my stomach like a lead brick.
“I think you need time to think about what you have done, Jenny. Goodbye.”
I tried to say something. To do something. Anything. But my traitor body stayed resolutely stiff as Polly gently squeezed my shoulder, and threw me over the parapet. I tumbled for a timeless moment and then landed, face-first, in the water. Then I sank.
The Chenango moves quickly, and carries a lot of mud. I sank right to the stony, silt-covered bottom. I felt the water rush around me. It was impossible to see more than a couple of inches in the rich muck of the river. At first, I began to panic about air, then I realized how foolish that was. Then I began to realize that I was trapped. No way to tell how much time was passing. Down here, at the bottom of the river, I might not even be able to tell when day came and went. Nothing but the sight of the silt beneath me. The silt, and the songs. It might be days before Atina and the others found me. Weeks.
They might never find me.
And with every moment, Alfred got a bit further away. I could bring him back. If I drank his blood, I could save him. I could give him the same gift I’d been given. He’d have an eternity to complain about the circumstances.
If I could only move.
The water flowed over me.
“I’m sorry,” said Alfred, tears in his eyes. He stood over me, blood-stained face. “I’m so sorry, my old friend. I’m sorry for this war. I’m sorry for this betrayal. I’m sorry for what I have done.” He stood up, slowly. “I am sorry for what I am going to do.”
I stared into the silt. What had that been? A memory? It didn’t sound like one. It had been… strange.
I was trapped.
I was trapped, by the wood in my heart.
I was trapped, by what a vampire is.
I was trapped, by my power.
I remembered when Alfred and I had chased a madman to the salt flats. I remember the darkness erupting, blossoming around Alfred. I remember trying, and failing, to hold it back. I remembered Alfred’s warm touch. I remembered the sword that Alfred had drawn, brilliant light that had driven back the dark. That shining sword. I had never been able to draw it afterwards. When I had asked Chaac, she shrugged. It didn’t sound like anything she knew about.
I felt the sun burn inside of me.
I had been in the darkness before.
A foolish girl held
The shining sun in her hands
The wood burned…
The stake erupts…
Damn it all to hell.
The water erupted. I flew from the icy water, and landed on the parapet. The shining sun floated in one hand, and then took shape. It was a sword, too bright to look at directly. It cast stark shadows in every direction.
A dark-haired, pale man looked up from Atina, whose pulse he was checking. “Oh. I must say, I didn’t see this coming.”
“You… You’re Prince Vassago.” I looked down. “Is Atina alright?”
“Well… I think she will be. I was going to take her and the tsukumogami home.” He pointed down the bridge. Towards the mountains, where the forest was thick. “She went that way.”
I took a deep breath. I felt the blood in the air. I could taste it. Alfred’s blood, so rich and warm and sweet, sweeter than anything I had ever tasted. The warmth of the man, his kindness. And I knew that where I found him, I would find Polly. And when I did, I would kill her.
The wings erupted from my shoulders, tearing my shirt, black and leathery. I took to the sky. Chaac had told me that such things were considered undignified, overly showy. But I needed to fly. I needed to find her. And I didn’t care what it would cost me. I didn’t care what I was giving up. I would give it all up gladly if I could make just this one thing right. I did not pay attention to the beauty of the city when seen from above. The rush of the cold November air. There was only the blood to be spilled.
I caught up with Polly as she entered the tree line. She carried Alfred’s corpse over one shoulder, for reasons I could not begin to imagine. The sun lay within my heart, beating, hidden, but ready to be revealed. I dropped without sound on her from above, but at the last moment, she threw herself to one side, landing and rolling, leaving Alfred’s body on the ground. And then I saw her eyes widen.
“Impossible,” she said.
I looked down. My torn and ragged shirt still showed the jagged length of wood, planted in my heart. I reached up, and pulled it out, blood staining the wood black in the dark forest. I looked up, and met Polly’s eyes, as she lifted the spear. This time, she did not look quite so confident. “I am going to kill you.”
“Yes, you said.”
She lunged. It was fast, but not as fast, this time. I caught the spear on the blade of sunlight. Polly raised an arm to cover her eyes, wincing, and my knee landed solidly in her ribcage. She spun back, gasping, and glared at me accusingly.
“You’re faster. How? I knocked the beans out of your hand.”
“I don’t know,” I said, slowly circling her. Keeping aware of Alfred, where he was. All I needed was the chance to get to him. “Why? You’ve been our friend for years, Polly. My friend. Why now?”
“The time was right,” she said. She didn’t sneer. Her expression was cold, stern. “It was the time for Alfred to die.” There was something else. Her accent was shifting again. Not to her comedic Irish parody. This was smooth and lyrical and terrible. “All heroes die. All warriors die. All men die. They are good for little else, sometimes. He had reached the end of his life, and his only hope was that his death might do some good. But he just did not have the dignity necessary to die. And so I had to step in.”
“Kill him? You could do that, after all the time we’d spent together? What happened to you?”
She sighed. “Now? In a fight for life and death? There’s no time left for questions.”
“It’ll put off me ripping your head off your neck a little bit longer.”
She considered that for a moment, and I saw the uncertainty in her eyes. She was stalling. And I didn’t care. I needed to know.
“Simple enough. I hid who I was. I’m good at pretending to be what I’m not. I fooled you.” She stepped sideways, towards Alfred. I stepped with her. “I want you to understand. I didn’t leave Atina and Jack alive because of some sympathy for them. I felt nothing for them. I felt nothing for you. I felt nothing for Alfred. It was all just a role to be played. And tonight is Samhain. A night for masks to be removed. A time when people reveal who they truly are.” She smiled. “My night.”
“Indeed. You may come to regret it.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” She turned, and swung at Alfred. I lunged for her. The blade reversed its course very suddenly as her smile spread wide. I saw it flash in the light of my sword and disappear under my chin. “I like my odds.”
The man chuckled. He was a bear of a man. His armor, his hair, his skin, his eyes, all were green. Like he had fallen asleep for a thousand years and awoken covered in a mat of moss. He sat with the axe resting on his knee. “You did well. Sorry about the nick on your throat, but, well, you DID accept a gift from my wife.” He looked up, a grin spreading across his lips. “Tell me. Would you like to know how I did it? You never know when a trick like that might come in handy.”
I felt the cut. The sharp pain. I saw the world twirl serenely around, and felt nothing below the neck. Only the slow, lazy tumble. Then a hand caught my hair, and jerkily, clumsily, but definitively, it slammed my head back down, onto my neck. I realized, as the warmth flared back through my body, that it had been my hand. Blood sealed the wound as quickly as it had been made.
Polly stood, staring at me, her expression somewhere between shock and boiling rage. “That’s hardly fair.”
I darted forward, slipping effortlessly past her next slash, and grabbed her by the throat. She was as light as a paper doll as I slammed her into the tree. She tried to lift the spear, but in these close quarters, its reach was a disadvantage. I pulled her towards me, and then slammed her back into the bark hard enough to crack the tree’s bole. This time, the spear dropped from her fingers.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it was what must be done.”
She glared at me. My fingers tightened.
“It doesn’t really matter, does it?” I said, softly. “No reason would ever be good enough for this betrayal. No reason would ever save your life.” My fingers tightened. “Let me teach you what Lady Ann Willing taught me. How to take someone’s head off, and make sure that it stays off.” My fingers tightened. I saw Polly’s face pass through red, into purple, and my fingers tightened. “I want you to know, I won’t think of you at all after I do this.”
The spear sunk into my wrist. A steel blade on the end of a long shaft of ash wood pinned my arm to the tree. Polly pulled free, gasping for air, rubbing her throat. A second spear slammed into the center of my back, pinning me against the tree, slicing neatly through my spine, blood dripping down the blade. My body from the waist down went numb.
“Foolish, daughter. To have such trouble with a mere blood-drinking corpse.”
“Now, daughter, be kind to granddaughter. She’s doing her best.”
I looked over my shoulder. The two figures that appeared out of the darkness. Both were unfamiliar at first, but memory tweaked a neuron. The older of the two, the bald woman, was someone I’d seen months ago. The fae, Eshu, who had fought at the tournament and given Alfred the best run for his money. The other was The Morrigan.
“As though you are one to talk, mother” said The Morrigan, her hood pulled low over her eyes. “You look absurd. A mish-mash of borrowed lies.”
“Oh, such a kill-joy. I had a lot of fun picking these things out,” said… Well. The Morrigan. Eshu. Her voice tilting towards the same lyrical accent as the other two.
I took a deep breath. I couldn’t feel my body below the waist. My left hand was useless. But… That was the funny thing, wasn’t it? I was a being of themes, now. I did not need nerves to move. I did not need veins to pump my blood. All I needed was will. That was the lesson of my hallucination. The fingers of my left hand curled.
“Please take this seriously,” said Polly, rubbing her throat. “She’s stronger than she look OUT!”
The tree moved with a serene grace through the air, and deceptive force. Polly and Eshu dodged over and under, respectively. The Morrigan took it full in the face, and was sent rolling across the ground. Somehow, the clumsy roll ended with her on her feet, two spears in hand. She tossed one to Eshu, the red ruff below the blade glittering. I waved my arm, feeling returning as I stretched my fingers, the burning blade of sunlight appearing. The Morrigan sighed. “Fine. Chop her to pieces. We will dispose of her at our leisure.”
The three of them descended. It reminded me, more than anything, of being attacked by a flock of birds. They were fast, moving with flowing grace. Three spears swept through the air, and it seemed like they never got in the way of each other. I swept the sword through the arcs and blocks that Alfred had taught me, and it was everything I could do simply to keep up with those blows. I had to focus everything, everything I had, simply on keeping them from carving me apart. And still, their blows would get through occasionally, bleeding me, cutting at me.
But that didn’t matter, I realized. The blows healed seconds later. And I wasn’t aware of any thirst for blood. It was as though the traces on my lips had been… enough. Enough to do this. Enough for everything. I kept fighting.
“Love,” said Eshu, as she stabbed the spear. “Always the cause of tragedy. The greatest geas. Pushing you to keep fighting.”
“You have lost, and you do not yet know it,” said The Morrigan.
“Would one of you kill her?” asked Polly, angrily, as she swept the spear.
Less and less blows were landing on me. I was speeding up. And then, as the Morrigan pulled back, and Eshu leapt forward, I saw an opening. Polly was moving to one side, to catch me. My blade flickered out, and opened a line on her cheek. She hissed, and stabbed at me. I swept the spearhead aside, and leaned my head to one side, letting Eshu’s spear narrowly miss opening my throat.
The sky was growing brighter.
“Retreat,” said The Morrigan. “Polly. Take him. Get away. We will keep her busy.”
“She’s getting faster,” growled Polly. “What is she?”
“Only a corpse which has forgotten it is dead,” said The Morrigan. She and Eshu struck again and again, blades twirling through the air. They were fast. I could not break through. I saw Polly turn, and run. Eshu and The Morrigan were fighting with everything they had to hold me back for just a few precious seconds more.
The light of dawn peaked over the mountain, and swept across us. Golden light ran through my hair, and scintillated on my skin.
And then, it was as though the two of them were moving in slow motion. I seized Eshu’s spear by the head, pulling her forward. She let out a shocked gasp as she was pulled off balance, stumbling forward, and my forehead slammed into hers, sending her bleeding to the ground. I swept her spear in an arc, shattering the haft on The Morrigan’s chin with enough force to send her halfway through an oak. I leapt, and seized Polly by the back of her shirt, hauling her into the air.
Then, I looked down at Alfred, and back up at her as she struggled and hissed in my grasp. “You don’t matter,” I said, softly, and dropped her to the ground. She scrambled back, and I let her flee, my eyes staying on her until she fetched up against a tree, breathing hard. “How long were you a goddess?”
“Since I was born.”
“All of that time, and I beat you,” I said, softly, calmly. I looked over my shoulder. Eshu was lying out cold on the floor, and The Morrigan was still trying to extricate herself from the oak tree. I turned my head back towards her. “And you just don’t matter to me. I don’t have to kill you. You’re beneath me, Polly, or Morrigan, or whatever you call yourself.” I stood up.
I wondered, for a moment, whether I would be able to do it. Whether I had given up the creativity that would let me make Alfred become a Camazotz. I crouched down beside him, as Polly shook on the ground, and gently lifted his head. His expression was peaceful, warm, gentle. I softly tugged down the collar of his shirt, and leaned in. I bit, gently.
And the blood didn’t spill.
I pulled, hard, sucking at his neck. I could feel the blood flowing sluggishly through the artery, past my teeth. But it wouldn’t fill my mouth.
My eyes dropped to his side. To the scabbard, clipped there. His heart was still beating. He was still alive.
“Arthur didn’t die before he went to Avalon,” said Polly, scornfully.
Something hit the back of my head impossibly hard. I felt a haze filling it, as the world went black around the edges. A wave of icy cold ran through me.
“Toss her in the river,” said someone, from far away, voice distorted by the distance and the impending unconsciousness. I could see the three Morrigans gathering. And someone else. “She won’t remember a thing. Good job, Polly. I’m proud of you.”
The last thing I remembered before I passed out was my head landing against Alfred’s chest. He was so warm.