By Peeler, Nicole
Orbit Copyright © 2012 Peeler, Nicole
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780316128117
It was times like this I wished Hallmark made a line of “So your supernatural daughter is going off to fight a supernatural war” cards, because I certainly didn’t know how to say that to my father. Especially not over my cell phone, after I was already overseas.
“So what are you doing in Britain again?” My dad asked skeptically, as soon as I told him I’d landed safely.
For a split second I considered telling him the truth. But I didn’t want to give him a heart attack, especially so soon after he’d just been healed. So I took the coward’s way.
“Oh, you know. Just doing some supernatural stuff. But safe stuff, of course. Safe, supernatural stuff.”
I’m not really lying, I consoled myself. I’ll be safe as houses with Blondie and Anyan.
And I knew I would be. Anyan was a fierce warrior—a barghest, with not only the ability to change shape between a sexy man and a fierce doggie, but also the ability to tap into two elements: earth and air. That made him super strong, as most of us could only tap into one. Mine was water, of course, since I’m half-selkie. Don’t club me because I’m beautiful.
Blondie, meanwhile, was something older and stronger than anyone else I knew. She was an Original, and I’d only recently learned what that really meant. Turns out she was one of the first humans to have access to magic, and she could use all magic in a way no other creature could. Even the Alfar, who could manipulate all four elements and were usually our (rather shitty) leaders, had their limitations. Blondie didn’t. But it was even more complicated than that, as Blondie was the reason we were all the way we were. She’d been conned into using an artifact—the horn of a really ancient magical creature—that hadn’t worked as it was intended. Instead of being the powerful weapon she’d been told it was, it had caused the Great Schism. That was when all the supernatural folk went from being like Blondie is, with access to all that power, and became as we are now: divided into different factions with different powers.
“And who are you working for, exactly?” my dad asked, still sounding skeptical.
“Oh, just some powerful supernatural people. But they’re good. Definitely good. I think you’d like them.”
Oh, and “they’re” under your feet, I considered adding.
For the creature who had sent us to Britain was the very same creature who lived beneath Rockabill. If Blondie was ancient, this thing was prehistoric. No, it was pre-humanic—it existed way before the Earth even looked the way it does now. Not biological in a sense that we understood, it did still have a body that lived underneath most of the Eastern Seaboard. But it was actually a being of pure Earth and Water. That didn’t mean it could just manipulate earth or water, as supes like me could. It meant it was Earth and Water—its parents were the actual elements that created our planet.
So it was big, and anything but bad. I’d been in its mind, and it was the closest thing to “good” I could imagine. It was also as close to omniscient as we could hope for, under the circumstances. So if it said, “go to Britain and start a war,” we damned well knew we’d better get to Britain and start a war.
“And you’ve got everything sorted for your visit? You have a ride and everything?”
“Of course!” I said, confidently.
I hope so, I thought, less confidently. I’d gotten through customs just fine, despite being nervous as shit. Now I was supposed to be meeting a contact, for whom I had a code word, but I’d walked out of Heathrow’s customs area to find myself alone. As for Anyan and Blondie, they were coming in on separate flights—all part of our attempt to sneak into the country. We were going in with our magic dampened, under assumed names, and alone. I was posing as a college student, which wasn’t much of a stretch.
“Anyway, Dad,” I said, trying to wrangle control of the conversation. “I’m fine and I’ll stay in touch. And you can always call my cell if you get worried. But what about you? Isn’t today your first day?”
“Yup,” he said. “I did all the other training already. Today Grizzie will work with me on all the coffee stuff. She’s determined to make a barista out of me.”
“It’s easy, once you get the hang of it. And, hey, you can start drinking coffee again. Enjoy the fruits of your labors.”
My dad had only recently been healed of the heart defect that had made him an invalid for more than a decade. The supes had healed him, and glamoured the whole town and medical system to believe he’d always been healthy. But that had left him without his disability checks, and without a job. My leaving on the creature’s mission had actually worked out well, in that he’d been able to slot into my spot at Read It and Weep.
He was also getting back into doing all the stuff he’d once taken for granted. My dad used to love coffee, but for a very long time he’d only been able to drink the very watered down, mostly decaf version I’d made for him at home. But now he could go nuts, if he wanted.
“Well, we all miss you, even if it is fun working in the bookstore,” my dad said. “Grizzie and Tracy want you to know that you can come back anytime, without me losing my job. With Tracy having the twins, she’ll mostly be at home. So they’ll need an extra set of hands.”
I grinned. What would happen when I returned had been a concern for me, and there it was—solved.
“Tell them I love them. And I love you too, Dad. I’ll call you whenever I get a chance. Oh, hey, I think I see my ride.”
There was a shifty looking woman with crazy raven-black hair scanning the concourse. And I mean she was shifty, for real. She was wearing a massive military-style trench coat that was moving oddly on her body, as if she had an extra something or other stashed on her back.
“All right, hon. Call me soon. I love you.”
“I love you too. Bye, Dad,” I said, as the woman caught sight of me and gave me a small nod. She walked towards me and I flipped my phone shut. When she got close enough, I looked around furtively before skittering up to her.
“Pachanga!” I shouted, causing the crazy-haired woman to cringe. Maybe I was a little loud, but I was so relieved my ride had shown that I was a little slaphappy.
I also wasn’t entirely sure what “pachanga” meant, although I knew it came from Dirty Dancing. So it was either a kind of dance or a euphemism for female genitalia. But it was now our chosen code word, with which I was supposed to identify my contact in London.
That very contact raised her coal-black eyes to mine. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner,” she repeated, leaving me free to blurt out my next question.
“Are you a selkie?”
The woman shook her head. Up close, she was totally emo: a huge fountain of dyed black hair spilled around her face and down her shoulders, in teased-out waves like David Bowie’s in Labyrinth. Her already dark eyes were rimmed with tons of black makeup, and she sported a lip ring and another in her nostril.
“Sorry, no. I’m Magog, and I’m a raven. Not a selkie.” she said, in a singsong accent I recognized as Welsh from watching Torchwood.
“A raven?” I asked, disappointed she wasn’t a selkie but excited to find out what a raven was. Meeting new supernaturals was what I liked best about my mother’s world, except for when they tried to kill me.
“You’ll understand, later. Don’t want to frighten the humans,” she rasped, twitching her lips at me. It wasn’t a smile, just a cynical twist of the lips that said, “Here’s where a normal person would smile, but I don’t do such things.”
“Um, okay,” I said, before realizing I’d not yet told Magog my name. Nor did I know who she was, besides a raven.
“My name is Jane. And who are you, exactly?”
“Your ride,” she said, as I stared about, looking for some sign that I was really in another country. Unfortunately, Heathrow just looked like any airport in any city. “I’m one of your party’s contacts. I’ll take you to our safe house, and the barghest and Cyntaf will follow.”
I blinked, unsure who “cunt-uph” was, exactly. But it sounded naughty.
“Uh, cunt-uph?” I hazarded.
“Cyntaf. It’s Welsh for ‘the First.’ ”
“Ah,” I said. “You mean Blondie.”
“Yes. That’s what we call her. The tattooed lady,” I added, when it was obvious Magog still wasn’t comprehending. After a second, she gave that cynical little half-twist of her mouth again—her “not smile.”
“Blondie, yes. That’s perfect. Blondie could…”
“Party, I know,” I said, with a sigh. “I’ve heard it before.”
“Well, here she’s Cyntaf. If you’re set, let’s head out to the van.”
With that, Magog turned briskly on her heel, clearly intending me to follow. It was only then that I noticed how grotesquely the coat bulged up over her neck and shoulders as if she were a hunchback. My curiosity surged as I remembered what she was. Ravens, after all, had wings.
I couldn’t wait to see them.
“Are we here?” I asked.
Magog nodded, as silent as she’d been on the drive over, and I craned my head to get a better view of the building Magog had pointed to as we passed. But we were at an odd angle, parked well away from our destination despite there being room to park in front. Plus, the little white van we were driving had no windows in the back, and no matter how I moved around in my seat, I couldn’t see much. I finally gave up, suppressing a sigh as I turned to sit normally again.
To be honest, our drive through the night streets had been disappointing. I’d peered out of the windows, hoping for a glimpse of Big Ben, the London Eye, or Westminster, but we seemed to crawl along darkened suburban roads surrounding the airport for hours in inexplicably heavy traffic, getting no nearer to the city. Still, the views were interesting. The street signs were new, not to mention everyone was driving on the wrong side of the road, which freaked me out every time we turned. Plus, what with the steering wheel being on the right hand side, I kept thinking small children and dogs were driving, or that cars were magically driving themselves while their human passengers sat with bored expressions. The houses were also definitely Not American: most seemed to be row houses, their front lawns paved to hold one of the tiny cars that seemed to be everywhere.
That said, the vast banality of the ’burbs—while not particularly inspiring—had given me an inkling of London’s size. I’d only been in a few “real” cities in my life: Boston, Montreal, and Quebec. Chicago we’d only driven around, never even entering the city proper. After Rockabill, the cities I’d visited had seemed enormous. I realized now, however, that they were really baby cities, barely out of diapers. London must be a city, with a mass of people so huge I found it slightly terrifying.
A sudden desire for the emptiness of my ocean struck me, and I wondered how we’d be able to do anything covert, let alone start a war, in a place as tightly packed as London.
Magog and I sat in silence for about twenty minutes, unbroken except for my initial attempts at conversation—which were rejected—and then my occasional sleepy yawns. I tried to focus on what we were doing here, on what little Blondie had told us, but I found my thoughts continually reverting to happier things. Things with big noses, like Anyan Barghest, for example.
It was during one of these sleepy, Anyan-related reveries that I saw headlights pull up behind me. Magog perked up, peering carefully into her rearview mirror before she exhaled with relief.
“It’s them. We can go in.”
Pushing open my car door I hopped out, then indulged myself in a long, hard stretch. I paused at the top of my stretch to take a deep breath. The air smelled of pollution, but also of water. I could smell river water, and ocean water, and rainwater. The air was saturated with moisture, bathing me in a delicious tingle of power. I closed my eyes to enjoy both that tingle and the ache in my limbs as I stretched, only to find Anyan had appeared and was watching me with a sensual little smile pursing his lips.
My belly burned with lust for that damned man, as my heart picked up its pace in my chest. Anyan and I had been friends, with the hint of something more on the horizon, when we’d both been attacked a couple of months back. I’d saved us, barely, but nearly killed myself doing so. When I’d woken up, everything was suddenly so intense between us. He’d watched me lie in a coma for a month, and had obviously come to some decisions about us on his own. But for me—the one sleeping—no time had passed at all since we’d exchanged those first tentative touches.
I’d woken up to him wanting me with a hunger I couldn’t help but match, but I also couldn’t entirely understand.
Having read way too much for my own good, I knew that a thousand motivations that had nothing to do with me could have created his sudden interest: my saving him, his seeing me almost die, my vulnerability in that coma.
But I didn’t want a man who thought he owed me, or wanted to save me. And even though all of Anyan’s actions towards me up to that point had been anything but paternalistic, I still worried. A worry compounded by the fact that, while I was still at the stage where I wasn’t sure if it was okay to touch him at all, let alone in public, in reality we’d already have had sex if we hadn’t been interrupted by Blondie. And we’d been interrupted to go to another country, to start a war. One in which I was supposed to be some sort of Joan of Arc figure, hopefully minus the horribly painful death by burning.
To say we had some issues to work out was an understatement. But when Anyan looked like he did now, all rumpled and gorgeous in a pair of low-riding jeans, with his bright blue T-shirt making his iron-grey eyes extra cold and inscrutable, I knew the only thing I wanted more than world peace was for those cold grey eyes to warm when they met mine.
He held his hand out to me and I took it without thinking, moving closer to him as I did so.
“Good flight?” he murmured, brushing my hair back from my face. The gesture was ironic, considering his own curly black hair was sticking up like that of an electrocuted poodle. An adorable, electrocuted poodle.
“Long,” I answered. Before I could help myself, I said, “And I wish you were on it.”
“Me too. I worried about you.”
“It was fine. Easy. Magog was there soon after I got in,” I said, gesturing towards the raven who was removing both my backpack, a big travel one I’d borrowed from Anyan, and her own to carry them towards the house.
“Good,” Anyan said, letting his finger trace down my jaw. I wanted to take it in my mouth, even as I wanted to ask him what he felt, even as I told myself to simmer down. We were sorting things out for ourselves and I needn’t rush things.
But I didn’t do or say anything. I just watched him watch me, wondering what he was thinking. And whether it involved the misuse of whipped toppings.
“Come on, then,” Magog rasped, from under the cold light of a streetlight. “Let’s not dawdle.”
Anyan picked up the pack he’d dropped, as well as another box, laden with official looking stickers. I grabbed that one from him under the auspices of being helpful, but it was really because I wanted it back. The box contained my labrys, my champion’s ax, and I’d missed it. I’d agreed it was better that Anyan bring it into the country as he was a real weapons expert, and would be able to convince any suspicious parties that his falsified credentials as a museum curator were actually real. But just because I knew it was better he carry the ax didn’t mean I’d liked being separated from it.
Once we had our stuff, we trudged up the sidewalk to the front door. I could feel a camouflaging glamour swirling around us: the first time I’d felt any magic from anyone since we landed. Even Blondie, who usually glowed like a sparkler, had kept all her power dampened. But now she was waiting for us under cover of glamour, Magog and another stranger waiting patiently beside her.
When we got close enough to greet each other, I noticed that Blondie looked no worse for wear after her transatlantic flight. Even her pink Mohawk was perfectly spiky, and her oversized jeans and tight maroon long-sleeved T-shirt looked fresh. I felt like I’d been rolled around by hobos on a sidewalk somewhere, and wondered how she did it.
That said, my attention was quickly pulled from the Original to our newest addition. He was huge, first of all. He towered even over Anyan, and was nearly as big as the spriggan, Fugwat, although not as wide.
He was also a curious shade of grey and bald as a bowling pin. I could see black lines covering his skin, more like striations than tattoos, even over his face and down his neck. His eyes were the same shade of grey as his skin, and his features were small and stubby in his big head.
All in all he was massive and terrifying, like the Devil’s bouncer. I was glad he was, at least ostensibly, on our side.
“That’s Gog Coblynau,” Magog said, “And he’s mine.” As a student of mythology gone a bit obsessive about the subject when I learned of my mother’s world, I recognized the word “coblynau.” In human myths, they were Welsh mining spirits or gnomes. I figured that meant, in supe terms, that Gog was an Earth elemental. Come to think of it, he did look a bit like something you’d find in a mine.
I nodded, acknowledging Magog’s words and her claim. She could have Gog. I wanted a coffee.
Gog laid a hand on the door, and I watched, fascinated, as the wood stretched and reformed itself to open a passage without actually unlocking the door. As he did so, the black striations spraddled across the back of his head—more like tattoos than veins, but not quite either—glowed a dull black, casting his grey skin in an eerie pallor.
When there was space enough for us to enter, he motioned us through.
Once inside the house’s slim, long hallway, I peered around. There was a small room to my right that was clearly a living room, and then a small kitchen behind it. A tiny, steep staircase was in front of me to my left, leading to what I assumed were two bedrooms the same size as the living room and the kitchen. Everything was painted cream, and I recognized most of the furniture as Ikea.
I was also pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be there, not least because Gog and Magog were doing the same thing I was—peering about like they’d never seen the place.
My suspicions were confirmed when I felt a sweep of power from Blondie, testing for other forms of life. When she found nothing, she nodded to Magog, who reached into her coat’s massive pocket and pulled out a coal-black rock that was big enough she handled it with two hands. She laid the rock on the shelf of the radiator by the front door, touching it lightly as she squatted down to murmur to it, imbuing it with the power of her breath. Nearly all winged things were Air elementals, and Magog’s whispers were laced with a strength that made me shiver.
As soon as she was done, I felt a whoosh of power emanate from the stone, and then the street noise disappeared entirely. Then Magog took off, moving around the tiny house quickly, as if scouting.
“A shield, called a nullifier,” Gog said, his voice as gravelly as his skin. Magog, already done looking around the downstairs rooms, whooshed past us as she headed upstairs. “We use them to make safe houses. If anyone is nearby, this house looks like a dead zone, even if we’re using our power.”
I nodded as if I understood, wondering what we would do now.
“You settle yourselves,” Magog said, her footsteps pounding on the stairs as she dashed down from her second story investigations. “Clean up, do whatever, but try to disturb as little as possible. I’ll pop over to the shops for supplies. There’s a double bedroom, a single, and the couch in the lounge folds out to a double, I’m pretty sure. Feel free to claim which room you’d like, but leave a double for Gog and me.”
With that the raven was off, but only after Gog had reopened the door in his odd way. It was only then I noticed the alarm system installed next to the front door. It was blinking away in safe mode, content that no one had gotten in on its watch since the door had never, technically, been opened.
“You and Magog take the double upstairs. Blondie can have the single. Jane and I will take the lounge,” Anyan said to Gog, after which Anyan shot me a look as if to ask if that was all right. I smiled my acquiescence, hoping I didn’t look like a girl who’d won the lottery.
“That works,” Gog rumbled, shouldering his and Magog’s packs.
“Um, Gog?” I asked, despite the fact I probably didn’t want to know the answer. “Are we supposed to be here?”
The grey man turned to me, his brows furrowed.
“Are we… guests?” I asked. “Or did we break in.”
Gog smiled, a real smile unlike Magog’s, and I saw that he was missing his bottom front teeth.
“Oh, we’re not guests, Miss. We definitely broke in.”
I squelched my alarm at the alacrity with which he said that we were committing what had to be felony, even in Europe.
“How did you find it?” Anyan asked, casually.
“Facebook,” Gog said. “You’d be amazed at what people put on their walls. This young couple is enjoying a weekend in Amsterdam. It was very nice of ’em to let us know exact dates, don’t you think?”
I shook my head, very glad that for all intents and purposes, I lived in 1996. Having no friends, I’d never been up on social networking.
And now I had no inclination to start.
What is a lounge?” I asked, turning to Anyan. “I like the sound of it. I’m hoping for something in purple velvet, personally.”
Sorry to crush your dreams, but the lounge is that room,” Anyan said, pointing to his right. “ ‘Lounge’ is just British for living room.”
“Oh,” I said, trying not to sound disappointed as I schlepped my backpack into the decidedly non-purple and non-velvety “lounge.” I left the pack near the wall by the door, but took my labrys case with me. I sat down on the couch, and set the case on the brass-and-glass coffee table. Tearing through the various pieces of official-looking tape keeping it shut, I finally pried it open.
The ax didn’t look like much: rough-hewn, double-headed, and not at all fancy. But I felt a sense of peace as I touched the handle, caressing the old wood with a gentle touch. It glowed faintly, just for a second, as my skin made contact and I felt an answering spark of power deep in my chest.
Content that it was unharmed after its long journey, I shut the case again and stood up.
“I need a shower,” I said. “Really badly.”
Anyan nodded from where he stood rooting around in the large backpack he’d brought.
“Me too. It’s probably upstairs.” Then he looked up to meet my eyes and I flushed at the heat I saw in them.
“It’s probably not the best idea, under the circumstances,” he said, moving towards me. I didn’t know whether to back up or launch myself at him. “But I love the idea of conserving water…”
“Going green, are we?” I said lightly, despite the tension in my belly.
“Yes, obviously, and so showering with you would really be the right thing to do. To reduce my carbon footprint, and all.” His voice was getting growlier by the second, and my lady Jane growled back in sympathy. He was close to me now, his big body dwarfing mine. For a second I imagined climbing up him like he was a vine, then I reimagined that scenario with both of us naked, and then I shivered.
“And I do have a terribly difficult time washing my own back,” I said. “I always miss places. End up smelling like a goat…”
He chuckled as he stepped so close to me that the tips of our shoes touched.
“I can always count on you to say something sexy,” he said.
I blushed. “I know. I’m very smooth.”
“You are smooth,” he murmured, leaning down to brush his lips against my forehead. “Smooth and soft and warm. I could touch you forever…”
And with that his lips found mine. The kiss was gentle, but his lips moved against mine with an authority that made my own knees weak. When he pulled away I whined, till he nuzzled away my protests with that big, crooked nose.
“Jane, we should talk,” he said, his voice dark with lust.
“Hmm?” I said, dreamily, rubbing against him like an overzealous cat and not caring one bit.
“We should talk,” he repeated, his voice slightly strained. “I think we need to…”
“Get a room?” said a new voice: one that didn’t belong to any of the people I knew were in that house.
Anyan and I raised shields, looking towards the door to the lounge. There stood a little being, no taller than three feet, which looked like the classical incarnation of a cauldron-stirring, Shakespearean witch. Its skin was a crazy mottling of blue and purple, with hair that streamed up in haylike stalks like a homemade Troll doll. It was bent, wizened, and its nose tapered in front of it like a lewd, homegrown carrot. Its clawlike blue hands clutched a walking stick and its beady yellow eyes flicked across my skin in a way that made me feel even dirtier than I did after the long flight.
“Hiral,” Anyan said, greeting the little creature in an exasperated voice.
“How did you get in here?” I demanded, stepping away from Anyan and getting ready to make a mage ball.
“I was invited,” the creature said, “despite the cold greeting I’m currently enjoying. And there’s not a door in this kingdom that can keep me out, pet,” Hiral responded in a voice that was squeaky and unpleasant, before stumping painfully into the room. On further consideration, something about the little creature’s voice and mannerisms told me that it was male, although I wasn’t entirely sure until he paused to give his balls a bold and thorough scratching. After which, he looked around until his eyes lit on the beanbag propped in the corner of the lounge.
“Ah, perfect,” he said throwing his staff on the beanbag before settling himself down with a long sigh. “Yes, this will do.”
Then he looked from Anyan to me, his yellow eyes twinkling. When he smiled his teeth were long, crooked, and black with rot.
Anyan looked at Hiral for a long minute, but the little creature just kept grinning at him. His smile wavered, however, when Anyan strode forward purposefully. Causing Hiral to squawk like a chicken, Anyan picked up the beanbag, Hiral and all, and carried it into the kitchen. He set it in an out of the way corner, tucked behind the table.
“Perfect,” said the barghest, dusting off his hands. He turned on his heel to stride back into the lounge, closing the pocket doors that divided our room from the kitchen with a definitive clink.
“The lounge is ours,” Anyan said, in a faux-evil prince voice that made me giggle.
“That it is. But we have to clean up and we have to be ready to talk to Blondie. So anything else will have to wait.” I said, albeit regretfully, as I moved towards my suitcase to dig out my toiletries and something comfortable to wear.
“You’re right. Good idea,” Anyan said, following my lead and opening his own backpack. But he didn’t sound like he believed what he was saying. To be honest, I didn’t believe what I was saying. Part of me was sick of waiting, while another part wanted to figure out just what I wanted from the word “wait.”
The truth was that I’d been relieved when Hiral had shown up. Redefining “coitus interruptus” had been the running joke of my time with Anyan in Rockabill, before and after I’d been attacked. We’d finally get a chance to have some alone time and something or someone would interrupt. It was like all the forces of the universe had conspired together in a massive cock-blocking scheme. It had sucked, yes, but it had also meant that Anyan and I were sort of permanently, deliciously stalled between desire and consummation. I found myself terrified at the idea that we might now have the chance to dive into something.
For as much as I wanted Anyan, I knew that we did, indeed, need to talk. The last year of my life had been crazy, and I’d gone from being a cautious person to living like life was a swimming pool and I was in a belly-flop contest. I had no regrets, but Anyan was different.
There were things I wanted to say to him, before we plunged into any metaphorical deep ends.
I just had to figure out what those things were.
I nibbled on a biscuit, watching Gog’s large grey form bustle about preparing a pot of tea. The rest of us were sitting around the small kitchen table of the house we’d commandeered. Blondie sat across from me with Hiral at her side—the two seemed to be very close chums, something I couldn’t understand since the little creature had gotten no less unpleasant since he’d arrived. It turns out Hiral was a gwyllion, which was a type of mischievous spirit in Welsh mythology. The reputation for mischief was well earned, I’d realized, as I’d watched in horror as Hiral licked every single chip from a bag of “crisps,” putting them back into the bag as he did so.
I planned on throwing that bag out before we left, feeling sorry for the poor humans whose house we’d already misappropriated.
Magog had taken the head of the table to my right, leaving the left for Gog as Anyan sat with me on my side. Both the barghest’s and my heads were wet, although we hadn’t “conserved” any “water.” Still, it felt good to have changed into comfies, and Blondie and Anyan had done the same. Hiral, however, had already been dressed in what appeared to be a burlap sack, and Gog and Magog were wearing everything they’d come in with, including their coats.
I wonder if they ever relaxed, those two.
Once Gog had placed the teapot on the table and settled his big bulk in his chair, I turned to Blondie.
“So what, exactly, is going on?” I asked, relieved finally to have the chance to get some answers.
Blondie turned to me, placing her hand on mine.
“All of this involves the Red and the White.”
I cast a querulous gaze down at our hands, before raising my eyes to meet hers. She obviously thought I might flip out when she’d said that, but I was clueless.
“The Red and the White? Isn’t that a novel by Stendhal?”
Everyone looked at me like I was smoking the rock right there at the table, except for Anyan. He gave me the look he gives me when he realizes there is something important I don’t know, and that he probably should have told me.
I sighed, but it was more tired than frustrated. The fact was that I’d had to pack a lifetime’s learning into less than a year when it came to my supernatural heritage. Gaps in my knowledge were more like crevasses, but that was only to be expected.
“You’ve really never heard of the Red or White?” Blondie asked, making a cat anus face.
I flailed my hands at her, impatient. I hoped I hadn’t been dragged halfway across the world—and out of Anyan’s bed—for vague premonitions of dread. “Why would I say I’d never heard of them if I had?”
“Yes. Well. Think Lord of the Rings’s Ring Wraiths.”
“Now think Ring Wraiths with death-rays for eyes and the ability to shoot nuclear warheads out of their wazoo.”
Magog’s coat stirred as she shifted, her rough voice interrupting Blondie.
“Making light of this situation isn’t helping, Cyntaf. She needs the facts.”
“Magog’s right,” Anyan seconded.
Blondie shrugged, changing track.
“The Red and White are children of original Great Elementals, just like the creature underneath Rockabill.”
“They’re also Earth and Water?” I asked, confused. How could creatures that were kin to the gentle being under Rockabill be monsters out of legend?
Blondie shook her head, snorting a humorless laugh.
“No. All of Earth and Water’s children ran the gamut from harmless and gentle to powerful and gentle. Fire, as I’m sure you know from the creature, spawned all sorts of evil creatures on its own. Air, meanwhile, did not have many children: she was never as… together, shall we say, as the other Elementals. She was also powerful and distant, which made her very attractive to a being as covetous as Fire.”
I frowned. Fire was, from all accounts, a nasty piece of work. Something told me it wouldn’t be pleasant to be coveted by Fire.
“When Air resisted Fire’s advances, Fire grew enraged. Fire raped Air, and from that union spawned two creatures,” Blondie said.
My mind spun with the implications of Blondie’s words. I’d been so close to the being living under Rockabill; I’d shared its mind. I understood how it wasn’t like us. It wasn’t a creature of genes and DNA. It was as much spirit as substance, and its spirit was that of its parents.
“The creature under Rockabill,” I said, trying to articulate what I knew to be true, “it was born of Earth and Water. It was born of love and union. It’s because of that it was good. So to be born of Fire and Air, and born of violence…”
“The Red and the White weren’t beings you’d invite over for tea,” Hiral squeaked, sloshing his own cup in the air and causing it to spill. Blondie absentmindedly mopped up his mess with her napkin.
“Wait,” I said, finally catching up with what Blondie had been leading me towards, “the Red and the White are those creatures? That came from Fire’s raping Air?”
Blondie nodded grimly. “To our people, the children of Fire and Air were known as the Red Queen and White King. Begat in violence, they reveled in their birthright.”
“So what did they do?”
“They did everything hellish that you could ever imagine,” Blondie said, her voice sad. “From the moment they were born they were bent on destruction.”
“So where are they now? What happened to them?”
“They were destroyed, many times over. But each time, they’d rise again. This cycle repeated itself, for countless centuries. At first, there were enough of the children of the other Great Elementals to take them on. As that generation died out, however, it was up to those that remained—first those of us who had powers, pre-Schism, like me. What you call ‘Originals’ nowadays. Then Alfar and their armies.”
“That was till Cyntaf,” interrupted Gog, his low voice thick with admiration as he stared at Blondie adoringly. I noticed she flinched under his gaze.
“What did she do?” I asked the coblynau.
He turned his grey face towards me, his striations pulsing as he began talking, a physical manifestation of the excitement I could hear in his voice.
“She destroyed ’em, she did. For good. We’ve not heard a peep from ’em since she battled ’em, as our champion.”
My ears perked up at the word “champion,” and I looked enquiringly at Blondie. But I wasn’t the only one.
“Wait, that was you?” Anyan asked.
Blondie nodded and Anyan studied her for a moment. “This is all starting to make sense,” he said, eventually.
“What makes sense?” I asked, utterly confused.
Blondie thought for a moment, then sighed. “This is silly. There’s an easier way to do this.”
The Original stood and turned her back to us, only to strip off the tight, long-sleeved black T-shirt she now wore. Descending from her shoulder blades like trailing wings or drooping vines were two tattooed dragons: the left one white, the right one red.
I stood, moving toward her as I knew what to do. I indicated the others should follow my lead. When I was behind Blondie and close enough to touch, I raised my fingers to her inked skin.
It was time for a little show and tell.
My raised fingers made contact with the warm skin of Blondie’s back, and then I was no longer Jane True.
Standing in a field, the bodies of the fallen all around me. I saw the corpse of the power-mad idiot who’d let himself be seduced by the voices, and had released the Red and White from their slumber.
But his death gave me no pleasure, for now only one thing mattered: stopping the monsters.
I can’t do this, I told the voice in my mind.
[You have to,] the creature responded, its voice as calm and loving as possible.
They are too strong, I said, even my mental voice weary.
[Yes. They are. But I will help. My cousins must be stopped, and hopefully for good, this time.]
The creature’s voice went silent, but I still felt its presence in my mind. My head turned without my willing it, and I knew it was using my eyes to scan the ground in front of me. My gaze lit on the rough-hewn, double-headed ax of a dead goblin.
[That will do,] the creature said. [Pick it up.]
I did as the creature asked, bending down to pick up the labrys. As my fingers made contact with the smooth wood of the haft, I felt a burst of power so strong as to be painful surge through my body.
[Steady now,] the creature said. [This will hurt.]
The power grew, screaming out of me with my own cries of pain. My hands, controlled by the creature, gripped the labrys. It burned with power: power that I fed from a source I couldn’t understand—a mixture of the creature’s power and its connection to water and earth.
[Water and Earth to fight Air and Fire,] said that voice in my head when the pain finally began to recede. [A weapon for a champion. In this battle: that champion is you, my child.]
The weapon was light in my hand, and I felt it was a part of me. I swung it, experimentally, and it sizzled through the air, glowing with power. Knowledge also became mine: knowledge of weak points, places that were vulnerable, and how those vulnerabilities could be exploited.
Hmmm… I thought, putting it all together. We’ve chopped them up before, but we’ve never done it quite so… thoroughly.
[The weapon will indeed make you thorough. We already know dissecting the beasts is not enough to contain the enemy,] the creature warned. [They have learned to call too effectively, and too many are willing to risk themselves putting my cousins together for the power they offer. We must make their inevitable destruction more permanent.]
I nodded, understanding. Nothing could kill the children of Air and Fire. But that just meant we had to be ever more creative in our approach.
Hefting my axe, I strode forward. I could see both the King and Queen—Red and White—at opposite ends of the battlefield. Siblings and lovers, they used humans and supernaturals alike to stage their deadly games of chess. Creating strife, fueling wars, whispering in dark voices of plots despicable and weapons obscene, the spawn of violence begat the violence that was their nature. Always on opposite sides of the battle, they would come together at the end to fuck over the carnage they’d inspired.
Let’s see how powerful they are without a torso, I mused, feeling my labrys pulse with my own strength, my own determination. Then I cut to the left, towards the King. He was the weaker of the two, and I’d seen the Queen tear one of my best friends apart with her bare hands.
I was saving her for dessert.
I, Jane True, came back to myself with a gasp. Crowded around me, all with a hand on Blondie’s bare back, the others also came to themselves one at a time.
“Bloody hell,” rasped Magog. “You took on the Red and the White single handedly?”
“Hardly,” Blondie said. “I had help.”
“The labrys was yours,” I interrupted, feeling like a thief.
“It was,” Blondie said. “But I gave it up centuries ago, and gladly. You are its champion now, Jane.”
“I don’t understand,” I said. “You just gave it up?”
“It’s got a life of its own, in many ways. You’ll see. When I needed it, and it thought I was what it needed, it was there for me. Then, one day, it wasn’t. The Red and the White had been defeated for so long, they’d become only stories to frighten children. I guess the labrys thought its time was over. Now that it knows its not, I guess it needed a new champion.”
“But why?” I begged, suddenly seeing an out… and it was an out I desperately wanted. “Why can’t I give it back to you? Why can’t you be the champion again?”
Throughout my pleading, Blondie had been patiently shaking her head. “Not how it works, Jane. It chose you. Which tells me that this war doesn’t need me, at least not in that capacity. Besides, it’s not mine to give away or to take. It’s the creature’s, and he gave it to you.”
I started to argue with her, ready to remind her that the idea of me with an ax, fighting the forces of evil, was patently ridiculous. It was like arming a wiener dog with lasers. Before I could start, however, Anyan’s elbow nudged me in the ribs. Only then did I look around to see Gog, Magog, and Hiral staring at me with rapt attention.
“So the stories are true,” Gog rumbled. “Another champion has arisen.” The coblynau gave me a speculative stare, his striations pulsing darkly.
Then he stood up and bowed.
And then Magog followed him.
I stared at their bent heads, horrified.
“What are you doing? Get up!” I demanded. The sight of them genuflecting before me was terrifying.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” Magog rasped. “You are in our stories. You have been foretold.”
Panicking, I looked to Blondie for help. The Original merely shrugged.
“It was pretty obvious that someone, sometime, would manage to cobble together the Red and the White. And at that point we’d need a new champion. It wasn’t exactly divination to put that together,” she said.
“Wait,” I said, Gog and Magog’s strange behavior abruptly forgotten, “what do you mean by cobbled together?”
Blondie began talking as Gog and Magog took their seats again, exchanging long looks with each other.
“You already know, Jane, how there are relics of dead Elemental beings that have enormous power.”
I nodded, remembering what I’d seen in Blondie’s tattoo of the Great Schism—the moment when the humans originally gifted or mutated with the ability to use some of the elemental forces around them had been split up into the factions we now knew. She’d used the horn of a dead Fire elemental, the fossil of a being that had been pure elemental force.
“Yes, I know their bits can pack a punch. But you said cobbled together. Are you saying that if we put together enough parts of those creatures, they’d live again?” I hazarded.
“In the case of the Red and the White, yes. Think about it,” Blondie said, wearily. “Those creatures were not… us. They’re not necessarily organic. They’re born of the powers that shaped life; that shaped our planet. And they’re elementals. Does fire ever truly die? Can you kill a breeze?”
“So is it just the Red and the White, or can all remains come alive again?” I asked, horrified. Because if so, we were fucked. Our every waking minute would be spent on an endless hunt: Jarl and Morrigan trying to uncover and awaken various bits of dead things, while we tried to stop them.
“Thankfully, it’s just the Red and the White,” Blondie said, much to my relief. “Most are really dead. For the children of Earth and Water, death was always final, even if their remains carried power. As for Fire, eventually even the fiercest blaze can be tamped out.”
“What about Air?” Anyan asked.
“That’s where it gets tricky. The bad news is: it’s impossible to kill Air’s children. The good news is: it doesn’t matter. They all sort of dissolved of themselves, eventually, joining their mother in the wind.”
What Blondie said was sad, but also poetic and rather beautiful, and I could see we all thought it so. Except for Hiral.
“Don’t look relieved,” the little creature squeaked in his horrible voice, his long nose bobbing obscenely. “What Cyntaf is about to say is, ‘Well, almost all.’ She likes to do that, you know.”
Blondie gave Hiral a dirty look, to which he responded with a backwards peace sign, his long, blue-clawed fingers almost as long as his forearms.
“Well,” Blondie said, her voice laced with sarcasm, “almost all, indeed, when it comes to the Red and the White.” Then her tone grew serious again. “They’d be destroyed, but—like air feeding a fire—they would rekindle. So we tried imprisoning them. Always, inevitably, they got free. Usually by convincing some human or supernatural to help them. Even the few times we’d managed to sort of chop them up, before I had the weapon, they just dissolved and reformed somewhere else in a few decades time,” Blondie said.
“Cyntaf, we don’t understand,” Magog rasped, interrupting Blondie. “Our legends say you destroyed them, as the champion…”
“The legends lie. I didn’t destroy them,” Blondie corrected. “The labrys just gave me the power to chop them up into so many pieces, so quickly, that parts of them were like slurry.”
I grimaced at that image, imagining a Slurpee of Evil.
“So why innit that destroyed? It sounds destroyed to me,” Gog said.
Blondie shrugged. “The ax was the most effective weapon we’d ever used, but still there were parts that wouldn’t be… slurried. And even some of the destroyed parts kept coming back together, like in a modern-day horror film. Something about the ax kept them bound to that cut up form. So we divided them up and hid the pieces, as far and as wide as possible.”
“What happens if they get put back together?” I asked.
“That’s the thing,” Blondie said. “I don’t think they can be. There was enough that we really did destroy, and that couldn’t reform. I don’t know how they can be put back together. But someone’s looking for those pieces, anyway. And the pieces like to help.”
“Help?” Anyan asked.
“Yes. That’s the problem with the Red and the White. Well, that’s the other problem besides the fact they’re pure evil and they enjoy bloodshed and carnage—even cut up they can still speak to people. It’s like they send off vibes that make people want to help them, oftentimes without knowing what they’re doing or why.”
“So you cut them up a while ago, but they’ve still been able to get people to do stuff for them?” I asked.
“Exactly. I cut them up nearly four centuries ago. But they’ve still been responsible for most of the greatest atrocities in human and supernatural history. One or the other has a body part that’s found, and it starts whispering, and next thing you know some human or supernatural has gone batshit and started a war.”
“Does that explain Hitler?” I asked, wondering at the historical implications of Blondie’s words.
“No, unfortunately. That was pure human crazy.”
“So whom did the creature send you to?” Anyan asked, interrupting me before I could start listing historical maniacs to see if they were evil supernaturally or au naturel.
“The contact I was sent to by the creature was a museum curator. A mortal. His specialty is relics.”
“I’m assuming you mean the body parts of purported saints, and not supernatural relics?” Anyan asked.
“Yes, human saints,” Blondie replied. “He told me how he’d been interested in them for years, but it wasn’t until he found a certain relic—a hand that was supposed to be some woman martyred in the fourth century—that relics became an obsession. And not just any relics.”
“Let me guess,” Anyan said. “He suddenly discovered he had a burning desire to collect everything he could find of that particular saint.”
“Bingo,” said the Original. “Even though it wasn’t a particularly important saint, nor was there any reason to put it together, he just suddenly really wanted to do so.”
“It’s funny how such whims ripen, when the Red and the White are involved,” Hiral squeaked. I noticed with irritation that he’d eaten the entire plate of cookies.
“So where are all the relics he found?” Gog asked. A question to which I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answer.
“One day a few months back, a beautiful blonde woman arrived at his door. He described her as a shorter version of ‘that pretty elf queen from the Lord of the Rings.’ ”
I groaned. That was almost definitely Morrigan: she of the beauty and the evil.
Blondie’s eyes flicked to mine, acknowledging my guess as to this mysterious stranger, before she continued: “She expressed a desire to own his relics, and suddenly he realized he no longer wanted them. After years of tracking them down obsessively—even mortgaging his home to pay for some—he suddenly couldn’t care less about them.”
“He sold them to her?” Anyan asked, with a distinct growl backing his words.
“Yes. For quite a nice sum, actually. He was no longer in the hole,” said Blondie.
“So we assume the bad guys have at least most of one of the sets of relics?” I said.
“At least,” replied Blondie. “But I’m afraid he had the complete set, or near it. Otherwise why would he feel he could give it up? I don’t think the relics would let go of a human who’d done such a good job finding them to start with. Not unless they had reason to.”
“Why are Morrigan and Jarl doing this?” Anyan asked. “They already have power, and could get more if they wanted it. They can’t think they’ll be able to control the Red and the White if they’re awakened.”
Blondie shrugged. “Who knows what they think. Remember, the Red and the White are masters of seduction. We don’t even know how they do it—do they promise things, or just plant a seed in the mind? And we know so little about Morrigan, especially. She was just a typical Alfar monarch, until the day she killed Orin.
“The fact is that throughout history people have been willing to fight and die for the Red and the White, including people who should have known better. My guess would be they don’t plan on actually resurrecting the Red and the White. Maybe they think they can just use the relics to amplify their power. But we can assume that no matter what Morrigan and Jarl think they’re planning, the Red and the White are planning something completely different, and using the Alfar to get it.”
“So where does this leave us?” I asked.
“Well, we know what they’re looking for. We know we’re behind. That said, I think I have a place to start—a source at the British Museum. But that can wait until tomorrow,” said Blondie.
“We know our mission, then,” Anyan said. “We have to stop Morrigan and Jarl from getting any more relics. And we’ve got to try to get back what they do have.”
Blondie nodded, but Gog looked pensive.
“How do we even know the relics can be used?” asked the coblynau. “You said parts was destroyed. How can they be put back together with parts missing?”
Blondie frowned. “People do it all the time,” she said, gesturing towards the Ikea furniture. “And besides, even if the Red and the White can’t be resurrected in their entirety, that doesn’t mean some of that power can’t be channeled. Even a little bit of their strength would make a formidable enemy nearly impossible to beat.”
“So what exactly can the Red and the White do?” I asked. “And what of their powers do you think Morrigan and Jarl might be able to control if they put enough of them together?”
“They could shapeshift,” Blondie said. “But they nearly always chose the form of a dragon. They have huge Elemental control over Air and Fire, obviously. They are Air and Fire. They’re also really seductive. There’s something about them that gets under the skin. It’s like a form of hypnosis.
“As for what Morrigan and Jarl will be able to do with those parts, who knows. But obviously those parts have power, still, if they’re working their magic on people like that curator. I’m thinking Morrigan and Jarl will be able to glean quite a bit of power from those pieces, even if they’re not able to resurrect the Red and the White entirely.”
“Great,” I said, before looking around at everyone. “So to summarize, the Red and the White, forces of ultimate evil we thought were destroyed, might manage to resurrect themselves. Even if they don’t manage that, their bones might still be used for unspeakable violence. And we have to stop that from happening.” Continues...
Excerpted from Tempest's Fury by Peeler, Nicole Copyright © 2012 by Peeler, Nicole. Excerpted by permission.
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