Authors: Sonya Clark
After the baroque phantasm of the Castle
of Midnight it was quite a surprise to find myself traveling rough country
roads that reminded me so much of home. Like waking from a dream that made no
sense, to once again be surrounded by the comforts of the mundane. We made our
way through the Land of Snows, southeast to the Sea of Nectar. The beautiful
Morrigan herself had given us a white horse to carry our supplies and
belongings. At first I believed my experience in the Alps would put me in good
stead to take on the cold, the wind and the snow, but I could not have been
more wrong. I have no doubt I would have perished in that frigid snow-covered
country if I had not my two companions and the supplies so generously given me
by the Morrigan and her courtiers. A long heavy coat of thick black fur kept me
protected from the cold and wind. My companions were more than generous with
their ability to create a warming fire out of only their will to have it so.
Called simply “The Carrig,” the village
was a crossroads of sorts, hosting Sidhe from both Winter and Spring. I say
“host” rather than “home” because of its rather odd flavor of seeming to be a
village of semi-permanent structures for a transient population. Having just
completed an engagement as a musician at one of the High Courts, it seemed just
as natural to Dougal to find himself here in this port town of tumble-down inns
and decadent brothels. The denizens of those inns and brothels were certainly
just as happy to enjoy his talents as the courtiers. McRary as well had no
trouble securing a term of employment as seanachai at one of the finer
establishments. Musicians and storytellers are greatly prized by all Sidhe,
respected as venerable members of their society. As I learned from observing
Dougal and McRary’s own ease with both noble courtiers and indecorous sailors,
the singular role of musicians and seanachai in Sidhe society allowed them to
move amongst all classes with equal facility. The divisions of class in
England, the caste system in India – there is no such thing among the Sidhe. In
fact, as I was to learn soon after our arrival in The Carrig, titles of
nobility were not restricted to those members of the four High Courts. Late one
evening excited word spread through the nameless inn where Dougal played his
cello for board and meals announcing the arrival of a ship in port. The Scarlet
Heart was so named after a jewel stolen from the treasure hoard of a fierce
dragon. Stolen by a pirate, who then presented the jewel to his High King, the
King of Summer, who in turn rewarded the pirate with a grand ship. The
buccaneer rewarded himself with the title of Pirate King, and I was soon to
- From the writings of Captain George
Judith closed the book gently. “A
pirate king brave enough to steal from a dragon. That would be a fascinating
man to meet.”
“Oh, he was,” George said. “A
better card player I’ve never encountered. He was quite the raconteur as well.”
“You two swap stories?”
“For hours. It’s in there, keep
“I will, don’t you worry. Right now
I need more coffee.”
They were seated in the anteroom to
Judith’s office, monitoring a goblin trap in the hall. Judith rose and made her
way to her inner office. “Want a fresh cup?”
George followed, carrying his empty
mug. “Believe I will.”
Re-caffeinated, Judith took a
moment to check her email while George gazed out the window behind her desk.
“The snow is heavier. Colder, too, than last night.”
“We’ve gotten more winter than the
last several years already. I hate to think what January and February will be
“It’s closer. Winter, I mean. Earth
and Winter, Midnight and North. I can feel it pressing against the edges of
this reality. If you stand perfectly still and listen to the snow, you can hear
the music from the Castle of Midnight. The Midwinter revels there are legendary.”
Judith paused. George’s tone
sounded a bit…off. He got that way sometimes when he visited and it always
worried her. Humans who stayed in Sideways too long didn’t have a good track
record of holding onto their sanity and George had been there far longer than
most. It seemed to be a peculiar kind of magic he was gifted with, the ability
to hold onto himself through decades of living in the Never Never. How long
that magic would hold out, no one knew. Not even George.
“How are you feeling? Do you need to
He came around to perch on the edge
of her desk. “I’m fine. Feeling a bit…stretched…between here and there,
perhaps. But fine.”
“Do you ever think about staying?
Here, I mean? I would think the aging process would continue naturally and you
don’t look a day over thirty-five. You’d still have a lot of years left.”
“I don’t know what would happen if
I stayed in one place or another. Well, I know if I didn’t visit this side I
probably would have gone mad long ago. It never occurred to me to want to stay
on this side, though.”
“You always enjoy learning what’s
new, what’s changed. I didn’t think I was going to get my tablet away from you
last night. Why not try an extended visit?”
He took her hand, rubbing his thumb
across her knuckles. “I’ve been there too long. It’s in my blood, Judith. I
think I would go mad here too, if I stayed too long.”
“Even with all the danger over
His lips curved into a smile meant
to melt hearts, or at least lacy underthings. “Danger is a seductive mistress
who demands I pay her court.”
Judith snorted. “You sound like
Chet talking about Bettine.”
Laughing, he said, “Chet is a much
braver man than I.”
She swiveled her chair to take a
look at the falling snow. “What do you hear from the Valley Below?”
His tone sobered. “The vow remains.
The Bone Queen is not one to change her mind, especially in light of what
happened. How is Leoben? He seems to fancy your newest addition.”
Judith flicked her eyes to his,
right on the edge of anger. “
is fine and yes, he does seem fond of
Eve. I’m hoping that goes somewhere. She’d be good for him.”
“But would he be good for her?”
She held up her thumb and
forefinger an inch apart. “You’re this close. Step back.”
“My apologies. I meant no offense.”
Blowing out her breath, she waved a
hand. “I know. I’m just worried about him, that’s all. On the one hand I think
it’s good he’s casting magic again. But on the other, ugh.”
“You’re waiting for him to blow
She gave him another
glare and decided to change the subject. “Why don’t you tell me about
the pirate king?”
Ever the diplomat, George took the
hint graciously. “Indeed.” He sank into the padded leather chair opposite her
desk. “Now, where to start.”
Pete sank the blade into a Raider,
jerking it up to reach the heart. The Raider dropped to the ground, red
staining the snow around his lifeless form. Pulling Bloodsinger from the dead
body, he watched as the sword drank in the blood that clung to it. Breathing
heavily, his shoulder aching from a glancing wound, he turned to search for
He spotted her in time to see her
take a Raider’s head off clean with a smooth motion of her sword. Their eyes
met across the snow field, now littered with bodies and blood. A feral grin
creased her face, splotches of color high on her cheeks from exertion. Pete
rubbed sweat from his face and made his way toward her.
“Hell yeah, Valkyrie.” They
exchanged a fist bump, armor clinking.
The sound of a horse in the distance
drew their attention. One lone Raider, wounded and leaning in his saddle, fled
into the forest.
Sanngrid said, “Should we go after
Pete shook his head. “We’ll never
catch him on foot.”
“Do you think they recognized you?
How does that work here, having a price on your head?”
“The usual. Wanted posters.
Crystals with my face in them. Raiders are mercs, so yeah, they know what I
look like.” He found a patch of clean snow and picked up a handful to rub on
his face, then cupped a larger amount in both hands. It took only a hint of
magic to melt it, giving him water to drink.
Sanngrid gathered her own snow,
holding it out for him. “How much time do you think we have?”
“Not enough.” He melted the snow
for her, then got himself another double handful. “There are caves in the side
of the mountain. That’s where they’ll be. We get closer and this adrenaline
rush wears off I should be able to sense her.”
The feral grin returned. “This is
fun. We should raid Sideways more often.”
Pete managed a weak smile. “Freaking
maniac. Let’s go.”
Maura slammed the refrigerator
shut. “We’re out of turkey.”
“I’m sure ham or something else
would be fine.” Niall stood over the espresso machine, waiting for it to cycle.
“We’re out of all deli meats and
cheeses. You’re going to have to go into town. I can’t believe what piss-poor
shape that idiot left the kitchen in before she left.”
“Devin was probably just excited
about her vacation. Wasn’t she taking a cruise or something?”
“I don’t care what she had planned.
She was supposed to do her job before leaving. It’s not my job to run both the
infirmary and the kitchen.” She entered the small office in the back of the
kitchen, halting just inside the doorway. “Goddess, that desk is a mess. No
wonder she can’t do the ordering properly.”
Niall muttered something she chose
to ignore, too intent on being annoyed. Devin was always a bit too
lackadaisical in her work for Maura’s taste but it wasn’t her place to tell her
to shape up and do her damn job. But she would certainly be letting Chet know
the sorry state of the kitchen.
With a resigned sigh she sat and
began to paw through the mess on the desk for blank paper and a pen. She needed
to make a list for Niall, a long one. Deli meat and cheese for sandwiches,
sugar, flour, oranges. She might as well go through the fridge and pantry both.
The drift of paper across the desk
infuriated Maura. Old receipts, recipes, crumpled shopping lists, a cocktail
napkin from a bar in Wayfaring with a phone number scrawled in sloppy
Niall entered the office with an
espresso cup as an offering. She took it gratefully. “If I didn’t know Chet
better I’d wonder if Devin kept her job by staying on her back.”
He started. “Damn, you are mad. Is
it that bad?”
“I don’t like how she took off so
quick without making sure this kitchen could run without her for two weeks.
Just because we’re support staff doesn’t mean we half ass it.”
He rubbed her shoulder, fingers
seeking out knots of tension. “I’m sure she does the best she can.”
Maura let herself enjoy his touch
for a long moment. Finishing off the espresso, she opened a drawer to search
for a notepad. More junk. She continued down the desk’s column of drawers,
finding the third and last one empty.
Something glittery caught her eye
as she was about to close the drawer. Peering closer, she found a small black
jewel loose in the drawer. “Niall.”
She pointed at the object. “What
does that look like to you?”
He knelt, picking up the jewel and
holding it up between two fingers for them both to inspect. “Crap.”
“That looks a lot like the black
diamond they brought back from Frankfurt.”
“It feels bad, too. Dark magic.”
Maura launched from the chair and
ran into the kitchen proper. Niall followed. She brought a plastic bowl and
lid. He dropped the jewel in and she sealed the lid. She said, “Let’s go find
“Do you think Devin is working for
them, whoever they are?”
Maura answered with silence.
Eve reached for every ounce of
shielding ability she possessed, but it wasn’t enough. As if the images weren’t
bad enough, emotions and physical sensation poured from the manacles,
downloading directly into her nervous system.
Pete, being hung by his manacled
hands from a hook in a ceiling, toes barely touching the floor. Muscles
stretched almost unbearably taut, thirst cracking his lips. As bad as that was,
it seemed gentle compared to what followed. She felt it in her own back, every
crack of the whip against his bare flesh. Her own screaming mingled with his.
The cold touch of a female hand on
his face, nails raking his skin. “Leoben, my favorite pet. You must entertain
us.” But to this woman entertainment meant pain and she was very fond of it.
In some dim corner of her mind Eve
was aware of her true surroundings. She couldn’t shut off the horrors brought
on by the manacles but she was able to move, crawling slowly across the cold
The scene in her mind shifted. Pete
lay in a dank cell, too sick and wracked with pain to move, much less call on
magic. Sapped of his strength, his will nearly crushed, he was helpless and
alone. He shivered in the throes of fever, barely conscious but wishing for
Tears fell on the stone, some
landing on her hands as she struggled to crawl. What was this nightmare? What
had happened to Pete? Held captive, tortured, kept alive only to be hurt more
but why? Eve tried to manipulate the
manacles into telling her what she wanted to know. It gave her two images. One
of a Sidhe woman with a tangle of black curls and a face ruined by madness. The
other was of a human woman, blonde and blue-eyed like her sons.
The answers, at least some, fell
into place, sickening Eve. She reached a pair of long legs clad in dark pants.
He knelt, his light blue eyes so different from Pete’s but even so, there was
something familiar there. Throat sore from screaming, she whispered, “You’re
“Yes,” he said. “My name is Agnar.
His real name is Leoben.”
She coughed, trembling under
another onslaught from the manacles. “Agnar. How well do you know your
In an instant the ice in his eyes
dissolved into panic. Before he could move Eve lunged, grabbing both sides of
his face. She sent every last bit of energy she had into projecting the horrors
of the manacles into him.
He would know his brother now. It
was someone else’s turn to scream.
Bettine hovered above in a swirling
cascade of light. Diamonds clung to her form and dripped from her fingertips.
Her face, stripped of glamour, barely resembled her human form. Angular bone
structure had become knife edges, her lush mouth now a slash of red fury. Jade
eyes had darkened to black, glittering and hard. Small ears were now elongated
to elegant points at the top, sharp as the rest of her. Long manicured nails
now ended in serrated edges, slashing at his face.
The cut she opened on his cheek
burned, a heavy line of blood trailing from it. Chet whispered her name,
pleading. It satisfied her, so she opened another cut on the other side of his
Someone shook him, called his name.
Chet ignored them, tilting his face to look up at Bettine. He reached for her.
She met his hand with the blades of her fingernails, leaving trails of blood on
his flesh. He called out to her but she waved her hand, trapping the sound of
his voice in his throat.
Once again someone unseen shook
him. He tried to push them away. A burst of magic slashed across his awareness
and Chet woke, covered in nightmare gossamer.
“Help me get this stuff off of
him!” Maura knelt over him, Niall on the other side. They scraped the gossamer
away with their hands into a pile on the floor. Once it was all removed Maura
lit it on fire with a flick of Fae magic, as natural as breathing. It
disappeared into ash, the last vestiges of the nightmare going with it.
Chet wiped his face with his hands,
slowly taking in his surroundings. He sat on the floor against the door of his
office, facing a goblin trap in the middle of the Archives floor. Bettine was
nowhere to be seen. She’d left him, probably bored, not caring if it made him
vulnerable. He kept his face covered for a moment longer, not wanting to see
the look on the others’ faces.
Maura said, “Are you okay?”
Chet shivered, willing himself to
not check for cuts on his face and hands. “Yeah. Yes, I’m fine. Is something
up?” He tried to be nonchalant about the nightmare, hoping they would follow
his lead and not ask questions.
Niall seemed inclined to do him the
courtesy. “We found something in Devin’s office in the kitchen. In the desk.”
“What is it?” Chet remained seated
on the floor, not sure how steady he would be if he tried to stand.
Niall handed him a small plastic
box. Chet opened it, fingers fumbling a bit. He stared at the black diamond for
a long moment before swearing.
Maura said, “It’s like the one you
brought back from Frankfurt, isn’t it?”
Chet closed the box. “We’ll need
someone else to verify but yeah, looks like it.”
“So is Devin a spy or what?” Niall
said. “Why the hell would she have this in her desk?”
“Judith and I have had our
suspicions that whoever those people are, they might have a spy close to us,
maybe in town, but we weren’t sure if they’d gone as far as getting someone on
“It would explain her erratic
behavior in the last few weeks,” Maura said. “And why she left for the holidays
without doing her job. She’s probably not coming back.”
Chet handed the box to Niall and
said, “Okay, let’s go talk to Judith.” He tried to climb to his feet but his
knees gave out and he slid back to the floor. “Okay, let’s just sit here for a
Niall pretended there was something
fascinating on the far wall but Maura would not let it pass. “Where is she?”
It was no use pretending she meant
Devin. He shrugged. “She got bored. You know how she is.”
“Yes, I do, and so do you.”
Niall said in a low voice, “Maura,
Chet closed his eyes, leaning his
head against the door. He didn’t need Maura or anyone else to tell him what
Bettine was like, or that he was a fool for putting up with her. He knew that
all too well. Right now he much preferred dealing with the goblin problem and
the possible spy problem over his relationship problems.
Screams pierced the frigid night.
Pete lost his footing in the snow, throwing up a hand to catch himself on the
stone wall. He wasn’t sure but it sounded like Eve. Behind him, Sanngrid swore
in a language he didn’t recognize. Withdrawing his Desert Eagle from a holster,
he made a note to thank Rowdon for the cold iron bullets in the clip. He had a
feeling he’d need every last one of them.
He made eye contact with Sanngrid
and she nodded. They sped up, racing through the snow-filled tunnel. Soon the
ground cleared as they neared a cave deep within the mountain. Another scream
sounded, this time in a masculine voice.
“I hope she’s fighting back,” said
“And that she’s up to fighting her
way out with us,” Pete replied.
They reached a curve in the tunnel,
light around the bend indicating the cave. Pete took the left side, Sanngrid on
the right, both with weapons in each hand. Sanngrid held up three fingers for
Pete reached out with his senses to
gauge how much power was in the cave. Two low-level magicians, Crantz probably
one of them.
Sanngrid flashed two fingers.
Eve, her presence clear and bright
in his awareness. And fighting, hard.
The countdown came down to one,
Sanngrid using her middle finger and grinning.
Another energy signature announced
itself, one Pete never thought he’d feel again. Never wanted to feel again. He
froze as Sanngrid stalked to the cave entrance, guns drawn. “Oh no, no, no.
This is not happening.”
The crack of a bullet exploded in
the cave, followed by more screams. Sanngrid fired again, the sound finally
spurring Pete into action. He ran to her side, searching the cave for Eve.
She crouched on the ground, a woman
with acid green hair holding a knife to her throat. Crantz lay several feet
away, clutching his bleeding leg. Sanngrid raised one gun to the tall man in
the middle of the room, aiming at center mass.
Pete met the man’s eyes, shock
blooming through him in a wave that threatened to send him to his knees. He
shook his head, not wanting to believe it. Movement caught his attention in the
corner of his eye. He reached out, snatching the gun from Sanngrid before she
had time to fire.
“What the hell?” she said.
The taller man approached, his face
a mask. Pete stood his ground, hands at his sides.
“Leoben,” Agnar said, voice
choking. “Little brother.”
Pete let himself be drawn into his
brother’s embrace, guns clattering to the stone floor. Sanngrid stepped back,
muttering again in another language. Over his brother’s shoulder he saw Eve,
tears slipping down her cheeks.