Blood, Smoke and Mirrors (2010) (3 page)

BOOK: Blood, Smoke and Mirrors (2010)
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"Yeah, it's gonna be a real barrel of laughs," I muttered. My fingers itched to light up a cigarette, so I balled my hands into fists and stuffed them into my pockets. No point in being rude to the locals. Yet. "So I take it we're going in the mound. Whose is it?"

"The Underhill clan. They're good people. I have cousins here on my mother's side." She smiled at me, and then plopped down to walk at my side. I'd heard of them--despite the terribly unoriginal name, they had a good reputation for fairness, and more importantly, did not have a reputation for causing trouble in the human world. Some faeries, mostly the clanless ones, just can't seem to resist mischief making. A common activity is breaking human gadgets. Ever wonder why your car battery died for no apparent reason? Find your keys in places you
know
you did not leave them? You're not crazy, you just had the misfortune of being targeted by a faerie with nothing better to do with eternity.

"Am I the only candidate who's going to be at this meeting?"

"One other."

"Only one? That can't be good. Who is it?"

"Don't know. We'll find out soon enough." Portia shrugged.

Too soon, in my opinion. The base of the hill grew closer and closer with each step we took. My stomach dropped down somewhere between my knees and I swallowed hard. I had to be crazy to be doing this. For one, I was too young to be Titania. I wasn't even thirty yet. I didn't want to go into politics. This was just insanity.

There was no visible entrance, but I didn't expect to see one, not yet anyway. Portia and I continued on in silence until I felt her hand on my arm. Stopping in my tracks, I glanced over at her. She launched herself into the air once again and fluttered ahead of me. A low rumble like distant thunder emanated from the base of the hill, and the ground swelled and split. Dirt and uprooted chunks of sod tumbled up and away to reveal a large wooden door covered with intricate carvings of intertwined roots and vegetables. Decorative potatoes, who knew? With a graceful wave of her hand the door swung open, smooth and soundless, and Portia flew inside. I followed behind, struggling to keep my expression neutral and my nerves calm.

The smell of faerie magic almost overpowered me as I stepped through the doorway, so much so that it made my eyes water. Walking into the mound was like stepping into a cinnamon-roll factory set for high production. Portia led me down the hallway, a long corridor with walls of rough earth that were common for the inside of a mound. Tiny balls of light bobbed up and down near the ceiling as though floating in a lazy river, casting everything in a soft glow. I was a little unnerved by the quiet hush surrounding us, broken only by the soft whisper of her wings and the clomping of my heavy boots. Most faerie dwellings are constantly filled with noise--they really dislike silence. In addition to that we ought to have run into members of the Underhill clan by now.

"Where is everyone?" I whispered.

"Just wait."

Great
. It wasn't like Portia to be ominous, or quiet for that matter. A wave of nausea rolled through my stomach, and I did some mental bargaining with it to keep it steady. Losing my lunch in a strange clan's home would not be a polite way to introduce myself.

Finally we reached an enormous set of double doors, ridiculously large by faerie standards and even pushing the limits of human ones. They were covered in runes I couldn't read, but I knew this had to be their great hall. Portia fluttered behind me and hovered just over my right shoulder, placing her hand upon it and giving it an encouraging squeeze. The doors opened at a ponderous rate, revealing the room in slow degrees. My breath whooshed out of my lungs in astonishment, and I stood slack-jawed and gaped at the assembled faeries. The entire clan had turned out, as well as members of several others. I scanned the crowd for familiar faces and caught the eye of Tybalt, Portia's older brother, and he gave me a big grin. Good to know I had some people on my side.

I could barely make out the other end of the hall. Some days it sucks extra hard to be nearsighted, and it reminded me that I needed a new set of glasses. Squinting, I managed to spy three large chairs--no, thrones. The faeries had brought in their Council of Three to oversee the proceedings. The temptation to draw my sword and fall upon it suddenly seemed like an appealing idea. It would be quicker and far less painful than the fate that would await me when my stupid mouth said the wrong thing and pissed off their leaders.

Every faction of magical society is governed by their own Council of Three. Witches, sorcerers, vampires, shapeshifters, everybody. Larger populations have more than one council, each in charge of a certain region. There's only one faerie Council of Three responsible for dealing with North America, and they were sitting in those chairs. Portia gave my shoulder a bump, and with my heart in my throat I made my way into the hall. The silence here was especially eerie, only the low whispered hush of wings and swishing of tails occupied the room. The sound of tails made me take a closer look at the assembled group. Faeries take the form of whatever they want, whenever they want. Not all prefer the delicate wings Portia sports. Some take on animal features, elemental or even demonic aspects. Whatever catches their fancy, really. I don't think anyone's ever seen the original form of a faerie, if the faeries even remember what they were at all.

I remembered not to stare at the council, which would have been really rude, and kept my gaze lowered to stare somewhere around their feet. They were dressed in their finest, glittering and shining bright enough to be their own light source. As I studied the latest in faerie formal footwear I noticed an additional, unexpected pair of shoes standing behind the council and off to the side: a scuffed pair of black combat boots. Despite my better judgment, my curiosity got the better of me and I let my gaze travel upwards. Black duster, black pants, black shirt--the man almost blended completely into the shadows around him, which normally would've hinted at a sorcerer, but I knew the faerie council wouldn't trust one to stand behind them within fireball range.

It had to be a guardian, and my heart sank as I realized it was Lex. There was a casual air about him as he stood with his hands in his coat pockets, and the rest of his appearance complemented his laid-back manner. Unlike last night, his shoulder-length light brown hair was unbound and extra stubble lined his jaw. Lex was watching me, and he gave me an encouraging smile. Flustered, I tore my gaze away, concentrating instead on the figure kneeling with its head bowed low in front of the trio of thrones.

The person's face was hidden by the hood of a long black cloak.
Yuck, must be a sorcerer
. Sorcerers tend to lean toward wardrobes befitting wizards in fantasy stories--long robes, pointy hats, gnarled wooden staffs topped with crystals and the like. Someone really needs to tell them that they are not Gandalf, and they need to join the twenty-first century with the rest of us. I noticed a slender man in a dark gray business suit standing behind the sorcerer, but I didn't recognize him either.

Once we reached the other candidate I knelt as well, trying to look as graceful as I could manage.

"Greetings, Catherine Marie Morrow," a voice in front of me intoned. I flinched at the sound of my True Name--usually I go by Catherine Baker. I've gone to great lengths to hide my True Name from the magical world, and here it was being shared in front of every damn faerie in the hemisphere. Great. My reaction was to be expected, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed the black-cloaked figure had flinched as well. I turned my head toward him as he looked toward me. I peered into the depths of that black hood and recognized him, much to my immediate shock, and my brain shut down as my mouth took over.

"Aw, hell no," I growled. Leaping to the side, I knocked him off his feet and pinned him to the floor, and the man glared up at me with a mix of shock and hatred. "'Lo, Dad."

I heard something like the rustling of a thousand wings at once and everything around me went black.

Chapter Three

Throughout my life there have been several times when I woke up and swore that my entire body hurt. Generally I knew the sources of the agonizing pain: moving furniture, an unusually brisk self-defense class, too much drinking. That pain was nothing compared to the complete and utter ache that dragged me back to consciousness, my mind kicking and screaming in protest the entire way.

I blinked my bleary eyes open and discovered a thick layer of blur covered everything above me. Concussion was my first thought, and I reached up to check the status of my broken head. My fingertips brushed my eyelashes and I realized my glasses were missing, which revealed the source of the blurriness. I fished around me for them but my hands found nothing but cool marble floor in my general vicinity. Slow and cautious I sat up, and the room did a lurching spin around me until it righted itself.

"Glasses," I demanded of no one in particular. One of those multicolored blobs in my field of vision had to be a person.

"Here," Lex said. My glasses were set into my outstretched hand and I put them on. He knelt at my side, and I glared at him. The hall had emptied out, leaving only the three Council members in front of me. Glancing behind me I saw both Portia and Tybalt, their faces grim, and that scared the hell out of me. Then I remembered why I'd been hit with the unholy huge whammy that knocked me out in the first place. I swore a vicious curse and leapt to my feet, rounding on my father who stood silently several feet away with the man in the charcoal suit standing behind him like a shadow. My hand went for the hilt of my sword, and I looked down in surprise when I didn't find it there. Before I could do anything further Lex grabbed my arms and dragged me backwards.

"Calm down," he warned.

"Lemme go!"

"Catherine, no," Portia snapped as she appeared in front of me. The fact that she actually used my first name gave me a moment of pause--Portia'd never done that in the entire time I've known her. I took a deep breath and unclenched my fists.

"Murderer!" I spat at him instead.

"I am not responsible for what happened to your mother," he replied calmly. It was the first time I'd heard my father's voice in eighteen years. Amazing how much he sounded the same.

"Don't give me that bullshit. You let your vamp buddies tear her apart like a pinata, you bastard."

The assembled faeries gasped at the language. Faeries don't swear, or at least they don't approve of the use of "oaths and curses" as they call them. I was too furious to care, and the angrier I am the more horrifying my language becomes. Lex gave my arms a squeeze in silent warning to control myself, but I continued to ignore him.

The memory was still so raw and painful, as though it had happened yesterday instead of over a decade ago. I could still see her broken body on the floor of our living room, her eyes wide and terrified, frozen forever, and still smell the awful stench of blood and death and worse. Fury burned inside me, and the floor beneath my feet trembled with it. There were no streetlights to attack here with my excess power, and that power was looking for somewhere else to escape.

"Lord and Lady, I will make you pay for what you've done." My voice was deadly calm, and as the words left my throat something around me seemed to pop. I knew what I'd done--I'd sworn a vow in a faerie mound, a kinslaying vow no less--and invoked my gods at the same time. I was far too angry to care.

The faeries, however, did care.

"ENOUGH!" The word boomed through the room like a crack of thunder. I felt everyone around me step away as I turned and gave my full attention to the speaker. I knew who she was, even though I'd never met her in person before: Cecelia of the Silver Crescent, a truly stunning sight to behold. A frost fairy like my cousins, she looked as though she had been created from silver and moonlight, with iridescent hair falling almost to the floor and wings that glowed with their own light. Large blue eyes stared at me, disapproving, and I had the good sense to feel guilty under her gaze.

"I think you have interrupted these proceedings quite enough, Mistress Morrow," Cecelia scolded, and I blushed redder than a genetically modified tomato. I would've said I was sorry, but I was certain that opening my mouth would get me zotted into unconsciousness again, and I wasn't sure I'd live through another blast. The faerie folded her silvery hands in her lap and leaned back into her seat, appearing relaxed and unaffected by the fact that I'd been ready to stab the face off my father's head just a few short moments ago.

"Both of you have come here to petition for the open position of liaison between the realm of the Faerie and the Midwestern region of the United States of the realm of Earth. The council will initiate the new liaison during your next full moon. You will be tested during this time to determine your adequacy for the position." Her blase tone did not make me feel more comfortable, and I was nervous about what they had in mind for testing. It was a good bet I wouldn't need my #2 pencils ready for it.

"Your first test begins now."

I opened my mouth to form the word "Now?" but the floor dropped out from under me and someone blacked the lights out again.

Thankfully this time I was conscious, though the landing might have been more enjoyable if I had been unable to feel it. The breath whooshed out of my lungs as I hit solid ground with a very painful thud. Looking up, I expected to see light shining through the trapdoor that attacked me, but only saw more darkness. I reached down and unsnapped one of the pockets of my cargo pants, blindly grabbing a large hunk of crystal and pulling it free. Holding the lump in my hand, I spoke the incantation to activate the spell stored within it.

The crystal began to glow with a bright white light, surrounding me in a circle of illumination. Sadly there was nothing to see--no walls, no ceiling, no people--just more darkness outside my globe of visibility. I almost called out to ask if anyone was there, but I bit my tongue and decided against it. If there was anyone out there in the black, they probably weren't about to come to my rescue, and were much more likely to try to kill me instead. Holding the crystal aloft, I took a few hesitant steps forward. The floor was rough earth, not the pristine marble of the great hall. Roots from indeterminate plants poked through here and there, and I eyed them, half expecting them to leap to life and attempt to strangle me. When the plants did not become homicidal I continued to walk forward, hoping to reach a wall, or better yet a door.

The silence was eerie, even more so than it had been since first I entered the mound. Tilting my head to the side, I paused and sniffed the air, but everything still reeked of cinnamon and was of no help at all. With a disappointed frown I went back to my slow, cautious walk. Maybe this wouldn't be as difficult as I first thought. Maybe this was just a test to see if I could get myself out of wherever I was, which should be easy enough. All I had to do was leave the faerie realm, and I had the materials to do that on me. I just needed the mirror in my compact and my--

Panicked, I grabbed for my dagger and discovered it was missing, as well as my sword.

"Damn it," I cursed under my breath. Well, I would have to find another way to cut myself then. Something in my many pockets ought to be able to do it.

A slithering, skittering noise interrupted my internal cataloging of my equipment. The strange sound was unfamiliar and startled the hell out of me after all that heavy silence. Whirling around, I searched the darkness, but saw nothing. Nervous, I licked my lips, waving the light around and trying to find the source of the noise, but the darkness remained cold and unmoving. Then again, maybe I wasn't supposed to just find my way out. Maybe I was supposed to find my way out alive after whatever slimy monster out there tried to bite my head off.

I balanced the crystal on the brim of my top hat, giving it a sort of magical coal miner's helmet effect. Centering myself with a deep breath, I felt my shields snap into place with an electric sizzle and a spark of multicolored light. Feeling more secure, I dug through my pockets and produced a matchbook. After a few attempts I managed to get one lit, and I turned myself toward the south (thanks to my magician built-in sense of direction).

"Light that warms and nurtures life,

Pierce the darkness like a knife.

Drive back this black unnatural sea,

As I will, so mote it be."

A ball of fire appeared in front of me, growing from the tiny flame at the end of the match into a small sun the size of a basketball that hovered in front of me. Now that I had a decent light source I extinguished the crystal atop my hat and popped it back into its pocket. The warmth of the flames soothed me, and thanks to its light I was finally able to see the room I had dropped into. Like the floor, the walls were rough earth, and the ceiling stretched high above my head. I didn't see my father, which was good because I might've accidentally hurled the ball of fire in front of me in his general direction. He must have been sent to another room, or perhaps a different test. I turned around to examine the rest of my temporary prison, and saw an enormous golden eye staring at me, less than ten feet away from where I stood.

I did what any sensible witch would do in my circumstance. I screamed like a scared little girl.

The eye blinked. Once, twice, and then shifted as the dragon turned its head toward me, regarding me with both golden eyes. "I could have eaten you, you know."

I nodded numbly and stammered, "Thank you for not doing that." I knew dragons existed in Faerie, though I'd never seen one before. Dragons are reclusive as a rule and tend to guard their privacy ferociously, so only the overly brave or overly stupid seek them out on purpose. The creature was huge, taking up a good portion of the room with its bulk. Black scales covered its body, and leathery wings were folded against its back. Smoke puffed out of its nostrils for a moment, and my stomach leapt in panic.

"I only eat virgins though."

I stared at the dragon in disbelief, feeling the inexplicable urge to defend my past sexual history. My mouth worked as I struggled to find an appropriate response, and I thought I saw a glint of humor in its golden gaze.

"Oh," I managed. "Why am I here?"

"Because you wish to be Titania."

"Well, yes, I mean why am I here in this room?"

"Because you wish to be Titania."

"Right..." I suppose I should have expected that and just been grateful it wasn't picking bits of Catherine out of its teeth. Turning around, I surveyed the room again, seeing no obvious exit or entrance. "How did you get in here?"

"The same way you did." The dragon laid its head upon the ground, its tail swishing forward to cover its nose, reminding me of a dog curling up against the cold. I couldn't imagine why the council would have abducted a dragon to stick in the room with me if it had no intention of eating me, and no intention of helping me either.

"Can you leave?" I asked, curious. Dragons were magical beings, but I really didn't know the extent of their magical abilities. Maybe it couldn't teleport, as faeries could, and relied on those leathery wings for transportation when faeries used theirs more as a fashion statement.

"No." It sighed and smoke puffed out from its snout in a great huff, which made me jump. "And I'm missing
Jeopardy!
. It's celebrity week, you know."

"Yeah, Sean Connery's on today too." The absurdity of that statement hit me for a moment and I shook my head. My day was just getting more bizarre by the moment. "Would you like me to help you leave?"

The dragon raised a brow, its expression quizzical. "Can you do that?"

"Umm...maybe?" I guessed. Could I? Sure, I could get myself out of the room by returning home, but I couldn't bring the dragon into my apartment. Aside from the obvious fact that it was bigger than my entire apartment building, dragons are very specifically forbidden from traveling into the human world and have been for several centuries. That's why dragons are known to hoard human loot stolen by other faeries. I couldn't leave the dragon here alone in good conscience, not after it'd been nice enough not to eat me or roast me to a toasty Cat crisp. There had to be a way to do it.

I could try opening a portal to elsewhere in Faerie. I'd never tried anything like it before, but I figured it was hypothetically possible. On Earth you couldn't use a mirror to go from one place to another, only from Earth to another world. There weren't any concrete answers as to why that was, but the general thinking was that Earth simply doesn't have the magic in it to support that sort of travel anymore. Centuries ago a magician didn't even need a pre-made portal like a mirror to world walk, they could use almost anything as a gateway, especially mist or water. Faerie didn't suffer from that problem though; Faerie
was
magic. I should be able to get us from the room to somewhere safer, somewhere I was very familiar with. It was worth a shot, if nothing else.

"Where would you like to go?" I asked after a few minutes. "Does it matter to you if you end up somewhere else in Faerie?"

It shrugged its scaly shoulders. "I can get home from anywhere after I'm out of here."

"Right then. Not a problem." I rubbed my hands together, but then paused. "Well, one more question: Can you shrink? Change your shape at all?"

"No." I could have sworn it frowned at me.

"Bugger," I muttered. "No worries, still doable. Just a li'l more difficult." I did my best to sound much more confident than I felt, because honestly I wasn't sure I could pull this sort of magic off. To get the dragon through the portal I'd have to stretch the edges of the gateway. It was possible in theory, but I'd never attempted anything like it before. I could stretch the glass to fit myself no problem, just needed a bit of blood, but the dragon was huge.

Shaking the doubt off, I squared my shoulders and dropped my shields. As hoped, the dragon stayed where it was and did not attempt to eat me while I was vulnerable. Like it said, it could have eaten me when I first appeared and was stumbling around in the dark, so I just had to trust it wasn't hostile toward me. Digging into the recesses of my memory, I recalled that despite the stories, dragons didn't really eat people, and preferred livestock. Hey, unless you're Hannibal Lecter, wouldn't you pick a steak over the guy down the street?

BOOK: Blood, Smoke and Mirrors (2010)
5.21Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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