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The Fractured Grey
Though we are plunged into the blaring stream of life in the human, central realm, it is comfortingly quiet compared to the collected, piercing din of a thousand fey. I feel at once that we are the only alien creatures for miles, and that mortals surround us, not killer faeries.
I slip down from Nara’s back with the boy still in my arms.
“You can let me down,” he says.
“Oh,” I reply dumbly, and set him on the stone path.
Ah. Yes, I feel the pain. In my stomach. No, my side, though it is spreading over my torso fast. This is what happens when you oppose the Court of Logic. I sigh.
What did they put in you? Nara sniffs the wound tentatively.
“One of their tracking seeds, possibly,” the child answers. “A clever device. How is the pain?”
I pause to think. “A strange stab that is neither hot nor cold. It is bearable, I would say.”
“It’s definitely a seed. Can you feeling the pain growing? Or rather, spreading?”
“We need to get away from here. They will use it to find you – ergo, us. It will grow and grow until you are glowing with it. Even if you manage to evade them till then, it shall consume and kill you. We will have to snatch it out.”
“You mean tear it out. I know how it works. My chances are very slim.” I pass a hand over my face and look around.
I see bikes of all strange colours. They are unattractive to me, but I still find them fascinating. I have followed the evolutionary changes of humanity through the ages – just under six hundred years – and almost everything they have ever brought to life in some way has been, to me, a work of art. All that they create is a step forward or an improvement on its predecessor. And when you have spent just over half a millennia in a world which is constantly unchanging, it leaves much to the imagination; are we fey truly the higher beings? Or are these humans, my former kind, the more advanced?
But, perhaps these bikes are not part of their greater work. They are quite ugly, in fact.
I wander around the allotment of metal and iron things. The bikes have sheds, and beyond that a great stretching fence of cold, wiry steel. I touch it gingerly – and wince. There are no marks to speak of upon my fingertips, but if I left my hand there I should soon have painful welts.
The boy, startling me, says, “We’ll have to find you gloves. We’ll be going deep into iron territory.”
“Oh, yes?” I answer quietly, turning on him.
He looks impatient, and a flux of snow and ice bristle along his skin. I narrow my eyes. “You have no Winter power.”
“Correction. I have power. Not Winter’s, no, but I do.”
I grow angry with myself. What possessed me to even consider doing this? A boy, a boy the fey want! You never take from the fey. You never run from the fey. You never hide from the fey.
All things are impossible – and for the times that they are not? Well. You certainly never escape from the fey.
So far, we are invisible. That is enough to be positive about for the moment. Monarchs have a certain amount of influence over their fey; this includes the ability to strip a subject of their most basic of powers – concealment. The humans walking by are oblivious to our presence –
Not for long, Nara growls, interrupting my hopeful thinking stream. They will force Aureole to expose us. We must blend.
A little thrill tremors over my skin. A glamour? I have not used one for several years, and even then it was very fleeting. To see the face of my former self again, is a prospect both unsettling and exciting.
“They have a way of detecting me,” the boy states very emotionlessly. “Your Fire court, at least. And with that thing in you we are doubly at risk. We will have to do more than blend.”
I glance at my Winter Wolf. I am not sure what is more surprising; the boy’s ability to speak or the very mature manner in which he does it. He stands severely straight with a solemn expression, expectant. I fold my arms; then wince. The pain is bearable but it uncomfortable. I wonder how I will be able to walk without hunching over. “What do you suggest?”
“A haunt of sorts, behind iron, like I said. A lot of iron,” he adds importantly. “I don’t think they’ll see me too well past iron.”
I shake my head, at a loss. “In practice I am lost in this realm. Though I suppose there is iron almost anywhere, now…what about a car? No, we cannot reside in a car, we ourselves will suffocate.”
“Behind,” he insists. “Like a fence.”
I am suddenly irritated with him. He watches me as if this is a puzzle I must figure out alone, one he already knows the answer to. “Well, I simply do not know, there –“
Enough, the wolf barks, are you a fool? Glamour now and let’s be gone from here. We must stay on the move.
He lopes off, towards the bike shed, shaking his fur violently. With my peripheral, sharp vision I count two hundred and forty seven shards of ice flying from the spikey tips of his coat. They shatter almost noiselessly upon the concrete, creating a pretty mess of crystal-like splinters. It looks as if it has rained a light spray of jewels. I suppose, as I see this now, that I will never tire of the beauty of Winter. Only its darkness do I resent.
The boy and I watch Nara shift forms. It is a few seconds at most. He continues to shake, as if to shake the very skin from himself. The colour blurs first; lilac-silver to dark tan. He is an explosion of burnished copper and shadowy cocoa. He shrinks from his monstrous size to a reasonable height at my thigh, with thinner legs and a smaller head. He snaps his jaws, rakes the ground with his new claws. To the world, he is an ordinary hound.
I nod briskly and give a little quiver. The quiver pauses the tingle of Winter’s touch upon me. The snow, the ice – I pull it back into my skin, beneath it, hidden. The blossoming frost is unwilling to leave the cold stone around my feet, but it comes as a faithful dog to its master. I close my eyes and feel the Winter lie dormant as my very own veil of sorts settles over me. My snow-gold hair is darkened to its former, plain shade of straw; the cold, wild curls become looser, lighter. My skin is stripped of its alabaster perfection. I look down at my hand. It is fair with sun-brown freckles. The nails are short and healthy and free of any glimmer of ice.
My body trembles, and I know it is over. The feeling of a glamour is far from weightless. In this world of iron, smoke, alcohol and factory and car fumes, combined with the sensation of a thick, itchy, greasy, uncomfortable sheet over tender skin, the glamour is almost unbearable. I sigh and stretch for some relief.
“Your eyes,” the child remarks. I blink. Ah. I wave my hand at the wall of a building. The ice complies quickly, abidingly, and a long, mirror-like oval manifests upon the stone. It is not as effective but provides a well enough reflection. I concentrate on taming my eyes to an inconspicuous grey. When it is done, I check the rest of me for imperfections. My lips are normal, a pretty coral blush, free of any sign of something that has been frozen too long. I am perhaps too tall, too bony, my cheekbones too sharp and prominent; but humans come in all shapes and sizes and preferences, especially these days, and I should not stand out too much.
“Done,” I announce, satisfied, and wave the ice mirror away.
“Clothes. They’re very outlandish. Sha’n’t you want to change them?”
“I sha’n’t,” I say tetchily. “I am glamouring enough, I am glamouring this wound and its blood. Aren’t you?”
“I don’t need one.”
“Yes, you – “
“I don’t need one because I can do this.” He stands very still and shuts his eyes. A moment later he ripples and blurs, his skin literally swells and shrinks, skittering this way and that; until he is a human boy. His nose, eyes and ears are smaller and imperfect – blemished – skin darker, and hair less mesmeric. I no longer am compelled to become lost within the black depths of his eyes. It is more than a glamour, an illusion. It is a physical change. A slight one perhaps any fey can do. But he is not any fey.
“You are a shifter.”
He nods. “I am.”
“Are you a faery?”
“That explains much. I did not think there were many faery shifters left.”
“So you are a natural born shifter. What is your base form?”
“I don’t have one. I think I don’t have one. I’m not sure. But, I quite like being a little boy. You are ignored and tended to at all the right moments. No one suspects a child.”
I scoff. “Unless you are on trial for murder. Why did you kill –“
Need I continue to remind everyone that time is against us?
Nara trots, tail wagging, past the bike shed towards the path and road beyond. He sits enclosed between the two parallel buildings, where people walk past and scowl at the dog off without a master. I approach him nervously. People frighten me in a way. They are different, stupid in some ways, ignorant of what lies beyond them – but they are advanced. They change, they age, they grow, they die. They build machines to do their bidding, there are whole factories of machines for all sorts of purposes; to make toothpaste, to package food, to make weapons. They engineer these noisy, bulking, poisonous cars to cart them from one destination to another. They dye their hair and pierce their bodies – they acquire these heavenly things called spray tans, which alter skin from pale to radiant in minutes.
They communicate with phones, with the help of satellites in outer space. I remember a Moon Fey from Night telling me once of a time when he and his mate had snuck, unlawfully, from our home in the Otherworld to here, the mortal plane. They were drawn in by the odd mechanics, and had tried to pull one of them apart. They almost died trying. The iron and strange, electrical devices were too unnatural for them.
I place my hands awkwardly on my stomach. The pain is intensifying.
“I have a very good sense of direction. This way.” The boy toddles off along the pavement decisively, as if we lesser beings must trot after him. Nara rolls his newly amber eyes at me and we follow at a slower pace; I cannot walk so quickly, every footfall is a violent twist in my wound.
If I die, interrogate him as only you can. Find out what hold he has over me. Find out why a shifter can read and invade minds. Find out how and why he killed the Queen of Tides. Do this for me, Nara, old friend.
Old friend, yourself, he snorts. You are not so far behind me. And you won’t die, stupid girl. You have more chance of being caught first.
That isn’t very reassuring, I say smartly.
Since when have I measured reassurance above practicality?
I shake my head. People stare at my limping, and the garments which hang over my tall form. I forgot that the colour warps from silver to black every time I take a step. The skirt is layered with jagged edging, with an outer layer of elegant gauzy material as soft as spider’s silk; the corset is one-shouldered, shimmering with clinging teardrops of ice – those I did make sure to be included in my guise – and lightly armoured with dragonscale. My slippers are translucent, and if they were not distorting with dark grey every so often they would appear to be glass. In fact they are constructed from a rare sort of Ice, from Winter, infused with Water, from Tides, to create a neutral and solid hard pair of shoes which will never melt or shatter, no matter the environment. I have found them to be thoroughly expedient over the years.
The rapier on my belt is far from normal. The hilt is ice and pearl, and I can only dull its eerie glow; I cannot, as I have found, glamour it. People give me odd looks, and I brace for any reaction. But no one does anything other than stare a few seconds.
“Where are we going?” I ask loudly.
Elian throws me a look, to show that he is annoyed. “Where we can’t easily be found. Are you incapable of staying quiet? Do you want to attract attention from every Tom, Dick and Harry?”
“Who are they?” I mouth to Nara. He snorts indecisively, as if it does not matter, and this boy is an irritating lout. I smirk.
“Should we not know one another’s names then?”
“I’m Elian. You’re Cas, that’s your guard dog.”
Nara growls. I pinch my face as a wave of pain ripples over me. “He is not a dog, there are no faery dogs. And I am in a degree of pain. Not to mention the seed in my side, which we all know constitutes the legion of fey that must be catching us up by now. Wherever we are headed, we must go with haste. Can you run very fast?”
“Not as you do, no. I realise this is problematic.”
He turns around, his darling chestnut-brown hair bobbing in the breeze. He continues walking backwards, perfectly naturally, weaving through any humans coming towards us.
“You’ll have to carry me,” he says heavily.
“Not so much, now that you have that thing in you. Are you sure?”
I consider the pain, then, with a brisk nod, reach for him. “I can stand it, for now. You know where we are going?”
“I will do, yes,” he replies, crawling over my shoulder to cling to my back. His small, mildly warm hands clasp at my throat, and I hold them for added security; I shall be running very rapidly indeed.
“Ready?” I mutter.
“Ready,” he chimes back.
Nara leads the way through the throng. I bend low and after a few seconds, when I am sure that Elian will not fly from my back, I drop my arms and arc them through the air as I run, pressing my fingers together tightly, like blades slicing the wind. The humans do not see us. They will have, unfortunately, seen the dramatic transition from casual strolling to nothingness – we simply were gone. I dash along the streets with Nara at my side, mentally counting how many people there must have been to witness this. Five or six, maybe, if they did not blink. Not enough to cause a stir.
“Where are we going?” I mumble, craning my neck a little so that Elian can hear my words.
“Oh, here and there,” he says rather noisily into my neck, lest the wind steal his speech. “I like this way, though, it feels right. You can see more than me though, how’s the scenery?”
“Positively awful,” I say, coughing for effect. It is true that this area is very much creeping into the bottom of human society’s hierarchy of bourgeoisie and, to put it bluntly, filth. The stench of rust, iron, fumes and smoke is almost overpowering. The buildings are monotone and crushed together, the cars beat up and the people growing sparser and sparser. We are in housing territory.
“Excellent, we’ll be close then,” he shouts into my ear.
“Close to what?”
“I don’t know yet.”
Talking becomes difficult so I do not reply. I slow after a minute, the burn intensifying around my lower abdomen.
We have covered several leagues, perhaps six, when I stop, abruptly, at a corner, and tumble as quickly as I can into a passage between two grotty-looking buildings.
Elian slips from my back while I double over, panting, staggering, blind with pain.
“Oh dear. You’re pale. I think your glamour is dropping.” He draws my hair from my face, and his own suddenly appears an inch from mine. “There’s nothing for it, then. We’ll have to get it out of you now.”
Nara pads into view, shaking his triangular head. With what? You will not touch her.
“Careful now, dog, I might steal your soul, too,” the boy says, and turns to me. A terrible, snarling sound erupts from Nara’s jaws, and I throw my hand out warningly.
“Hush, Nara, if he means to kill me I will know,” I pant, feeling faint.
“Now you’re almost glowing. Oh, do hurry up.”
I twist round to look at him suspiciously. “What do you mean to remove the seed with?”
He shrugs. “Not sure yet, but I’ll give it a fair go. Hand me that dagger of yours.”
I quirk an eyebrow. He waves his hand at me. “Go on, I shan’t be using it to kill you. But it’s a thing of elemental magic, no? That’ll triumph the tracker.”
I grudgingly realise the logic of his words, and hand over my precious, deadly weapon.
Elian darts a look at the passing bystanders. “Let’s go.”
We retreat further into the passage, at which point the child spots a door and viciously kicks it down.
“Excellent timing,” he announces. “I doubt we could have found a more opportune place. In we go, then.”
Cupping my stomach, biting back the urge to groan, I stumble in after him. Nara scouts the place in seconds, hastily, roughly, with no desire to leave me alone with Elian for longer than necessary.
“Another bike shed,” I remark gloomily, in a breathy whisper.
“No, I think it’s one of those garages, or store cupboards – both, perhaps. Very cramped. But there’s a table, see here.”
Elian gestures to the old chest of drawers at the back of the room. We step over a good deal of junk – lawnmowers, bikes, scooters, car parts, electronic pieces; a torture chamber of reeking iron – to get to it, and when we do it is horribly cluttered and too small for my length besides.
He yanks away the dusty, colourless tapestry draped over it, sending pots and tins of pain and other useless things flying across the floor loudly.
“How abandoned do you suppose this place is?” I ask quietly, roaming my eyes over the ceiling.
“We won’t be long, in any case. Lie down.”
Awkwardly, I spread myself over the chest. My protruding shoulder blades dig painfully into the wood; my stomach is a concave of faery-spun, illusion silk, now very much stained with my blood. Elian rips the material with the dagger and looks at the open wound. I stare firmly at the ceiling.
“Oh,” he says, after a few moments.
“Oh? What is ‘oh’?” I reply warily.
“I didn’t think it was quite so deep. I can’t even see it, you know.”
“So I’m not sure what to do.”
I blink rapidly. “Have you not done this before?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” His little face is pinched with doubt. “I don’t remember. Could have.”
I exhale sharply, sitting upright. “Give me the knife.”
“Absolutely not!” Elian holds the knife away from me, appalled. “Do you know the damage you could do?”
I retort, “Do you? You do not even remember if you might have done this before.”
“I remember little but I’ve still bested an entire race of fey, so far,” he points out, his lip curling. “That’s better than you, and you have all your memories.”
I exchange a look with Nara. I open my mouth but think better of it, shaking my head. “We have no time for this.”
“Oh! Wait. Lie down, again, I have another idea.”
I am wary. “What?”
“You’re tough to break down, but if you lower your barriers I can destroy it internally. Possibly.”
He bites his lip doubtfully. “Perhaps. Dog, what is your opinion?”
Nara’s head whips round. For a brief moment he bows his snout to the ground, staring at Elian, grumbling low in the back of his throat; and lets slip his clever glamour; the full monstrousness of his true face is revealed, as his voice booms in our heads. My opinion is that we shall all be slaughtered if you do not remove this piece of faery technology. I have been alive longer than both of you but I do not understand the device, and hope to never do. Get it out of her, or I shall rip your own stomach open and throw you into the street.
“Well, I do believe I was only asking. Right, then, best do as the mutt commands,” Elian states brightly and fingers the skin of my stomach. I howl with the pain, torn with dread because I know he is not yet near the wound. “Pity we don’t have a dagger of Logic. Fighting ‘like with like’, and all that.”
I hiss. “Elian. Please, get on with it.”
He sets down the dagger. “Perhaps not. Close your eyes and let me in. Not as you did before. That was some intense shielding, I couldn’t break down your barriers all the way, even as I managed to influence you a little. Lay them down completely.”
Alarmed, I prop myself up upon my elbows. “Why?”
He pats my head as if I am the child. “Lie down now. It will be cleaner, I think.”
His eyes glaze over as he stares at me, and I feel the intriguing prickle of his consciousness brush mine. I lie back and breathe unsteadily.
“You’re focusing on keeping me out still. Stop it, we don’t have the time, Cas.”
Nara growls and draws nearer, but I nod and concentrate on steadying my breathing. The steady sound of traffic in the distance is distracting, but I try to clear my thoughts when Elian presses harder against my mind.
A few minutes pass. Elian’s voice comes gently. “Cas?”
“It’s not working, I can’t get in, not that far. Something else is blocking you.”
“It could be Nara’s connection, but I doubt it. Most likely it will be the strength of the tracker. Logic are the top dogs, after all.”
My eyes flutter open. Nara’s icy tongue runs over my cheek. I smile sadly and push off from the chest. Elian stares crossly at my stomach.
“This doesn’t feel right. This isn’t supposed to happen.”
I look between them numbly. I know not what I should say.
Is that it? Nara demands, growly savagely. We failed?
“Maybe not. I can run. I can run to Petyr.” I shrug.
“A former Winter councilman. He is solitary these days, though he may help.”
“You’ll die before you get there, probably,” Elian says.
“Then you may as well try with the knife.”
He takes my place on the chest, perching his elbows on his knees with his chin in his hands. His face is pouted in such a manner that is so familiar to me, I smile.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” he repeats in a mutter.
“No. Why did you kill Tides?”
His eyes bore into me, and he straightens, quite alert. He looks almost surprised. “I didn’t.”
A shudder of pain grips me. I sigh and sag to the ground, trying to keep the agony from my face. But Nara comes anyway, whining and nuzzling my cheek. I lean on him for strength.
“Then why do they want you? The fey?”
“Much of the Seelie regents know I never killed Spring or Tides, but they want me because they know I could stop the thing which is killing them.”
I gape a little. “So what is it?”
“I don’t know,” he says, a little irritably, “I forgot, didn’t I? It’s not so easy, you know. I didn’t know half the things I can do, before. And still I probably have much to learn of myself. Oh!”
He stands and begins patting himself down. I realise he is dressed rather oddly; brown, corduroy trousers, a thin multi-coloured jumper and coarse tweed jacket. His dark, earth-dark boots tie high beyond his ankles, and the laces look complicated. Grinning, he dramatically pulls his hand from a pocket inside of the jacket and says, “Ta-daa!”
I peer at the cylindrical object in his hand, unimpressed. “A pen?”
“An Opal Pen.”
Nara sniffs it and snarls. His deep voice vibrates around the room. I know what it is, abomination-that-is-not-fey, and you are foolish to hold it in your hand.
Why, what is it?
Elian looks exasperated. “A way to save your life.”
It is an ancient faery chalk, taken from remnants of an Unseelie ráth, he grumbles. Not to be tampered with.
Despite myself, I am curious; my hand reaches out for it. Elian steps back. “He is right; but only half-right. It’s dangerous if you don’t know how to use it. I do…well, I did.”
The Winter Wolf snarls and prowls around me. The faery paths are not what they once were, stupid boy. They have been unused for over one-hundred-and-fifty-years. All manner of things walk them now.
“All the better, then, that we have a guard dog to protect us,” Elian says brightly, marching around the chest to the opposite wall. He glances round and frowns, seeing me still slouched on the ground. “You’re going to bleed to death. Come on. I’ll draw, you push – since you know where we’re going.”
I look to Nara and run my hands through his ice-stiff fur. Petyr?
The adder king? Why not? We trade one nest of vipers for another often enough.
Don’t be sour.
He grunts and trots towards the boy. I will strand you on the paths if you are leading us astray.
Elian rolls his eyes and puts the chalk to the wall, drawing the outline door well below my tall height of seventy-two inches. I struggle to my feet, pausing when I feel a lurch in my stomach.
“I told you. Cas, it’s only going to get worse. Come on.”
I approach the wall dubiously, on shaky legs.
“You’ll have to crouch,” he suggests, taking in my size.
“I shall have to crawl.” I sigh and place a hand over the space he drawn around. The white outlines smell faintly of ash. “And I just push?”
“Well, no, you have to imagine the destination, obviously.”
“Oh, obviously,” I mutter, imagining the sly fox-faced man with the salt-and-pepper hair.
Keep hold of his hand, Cas. He isn’t fey, he’ll be lost on the paths.
I hold a finger up for them to be quiet and patient. Then, when the image is set in my mind, I grip Elian’s hand tight in one hand and push with the other. The concrete swings open ordinarily, like any wooden door, but only blackness lies beyond. It is not like with the veil; there are no bursting streaks of light, no binding silver. It is an uncertain abyss which lies before us, and as I make sure to wind my fingers into Nara’s cold, thick fur, stepping into the dark, I have a terrible, gripping sense that we are not alone.
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