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The Fractured Grey
**Apologies guys for this being, yet again, a very rough draft. I've been so busy lately I'm afraid, but hope to get back on the ball soon. Enjoy.**
In the darkness, we dither undecidedly. The door closed without our knowing, and even as I tried to bash it with my elbow, and Nara scraped at it with his powerful Winter Ice claws, it would not budge.
“Best to keep on, I think,” Elian whispers, but his voice hisses loudly in the putrid air, echoing, as though we stand in an endless cavern.
“We were here before,” I realise suddenly, glancing at Nara. “Weren’t we? But it was not like this.”
Once, briefly, he agrees. I warned you – both of you. It is not as it once was, there are no law-keepers here, no one to traffic the safety of the paths…they are all but wild now. We will have to keep on our guard.
I lower to my knee with closed eyes, allowing myself a moment. I am sweating.
Logic is sweating the Winter from you. Cas. I feel his teeth graze my shoulder. On your feet.
Elian, with a tender touch, braces one small hand under my arm and eases me upright.
“Where to?” He murmurs.
I peer into the darkness, hardly recalling a moment I ever before felt so blind, so engulfed.
“On,” I say simply, tugging him into a steady pace, with Nara carefully staying close to my side. Our footsteps are a clattering din, echoing on and on, and I imagine that we are not on a path – but in a great expanse of cold, nightly desert. And with it, an alarming sense of danger. The very air is sinister.
I lead the shifter and wolf in a straight, purposeful direction, but in truth I have no idea if it is the right way. I only know that it is a way – and any way is better than no way. On unsure feet, lingering, waiting, we are easy prey.
“You’d best keep your councilman in mind,” Elian says, reading my mind. I cast him a quick look of irritation – can my thoughts never be my own? – and reply, “You know this?”
“Common sense, as the wolf would tell you. We’ll lose the way otherwise.”
He has the right of it.
I bite back a retort than I am at death’s door, watching our backs for danger and holding onto both of them, and at the same time I am also supposed to picture a faery I would heartily rather forget. I am Winter’s blade, still. I have endured worse and will endure worse.
When the first shriek comes, we hold perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe. Slowly, I untangle my fingers from Elian’s sweaty hand, and press it to my waist so that he understands. He grips my belt, I unsheathe my rapier, and Nara growls loud and warningly from the pit of his stomach.
Nothing happens for a time. We remain motionless but tense, waiting. The very thing my instincts tell me we must not do.
What do you smell? I allow my gaze to slide briefly over Nara. His lips are curled back from his teeth, a feral, petrifying sight. He snaps his jaws together, snarling to his right. A shadow skitters and yelps like a coyote.
Death, malice, ash and blood, he answers.
A shadow unfurls in the corner of my eyes. I swing round with impossible, crushing speed, but it eludes me, jumping from sight. The shifter boy clings to me, eyes wide, and whispers, “Shadows of things to come. Cas, they are not real.”
Nara rolls his broad, powerful shoulders, preparing to lunge, as something keens high and sharp from his right.
“No, don’t!” Elian cries, and I grab the Wolf’s scruff, the tenseness of his coiled body vibrating through my fingers. I drag him close, ignoring his savage, ragged snarling, and Elian puts a hand over my blade.
I try to pull it back but his little fingers wrap around the cold steel. “Careful! It will cut you.”
“You don’t need it, not for this part.” He shakes his head, almost breathless with fright. “They’re projections. Shadows of shadows. A clever trap, to lure wanders from the paths.” He eases my sabre sword back into its sheathe. “Some magic still reigns here, enough to keep the creatures at bay. So no more lunging, no more swords – just keep on. They can’t hurt us.”
“How do you know?” I demand.
“I don’t know. I just do.”
I allow some of the tension to leave my body for my stomach’s sake. Even I, now, as I look down, can see its deathly glow; it is burning me up from the inside. I will roast alive. But I need not have ever tensed for battle in the first place. I round on him angrily. “You should have mentioned his earlier, before Nara almost got himself dragged into a monster-infested abyss.”
“I didn’t know it then! I know it now. Besides, I can usually sense a consciousness, and I can always tell where it is. It isn’t here, it’s far, far ahead. That’s how I know these are only projections to scare us. Come on.” He slips his hand back into mine and pulls me along behind him.
I focus on Petyr, smiling wilily, his black eyes crisp and cold, and slivers of silver dancing through his hair. Gods, how many years has it been?
Nara answers, Not enough.
He may save my life – what will you say then?
Wolves say nothing to adders; we eat them. Grind their puny bodies in our teeth and spit their venom into the dirt.
You had best not say so to him.
He does not deserve the warning.
The shrieks are off-putting. I wince every time, imagining all manner of wild, unbound, unbent creatures. A hundred years is a long time to go without civilisation.
The door does not so much appear as smack us forthright in the face. Nara flinches, bending low to the ground, fuming at having been caught unawares. He barks in warning when I raise my hand and stroke the cool, rough concrete.
Elian breathes a heavy sigh of relief, squeezing my hand. “That was both agonizingly slow and wonderfully fast. I did expect – well, it doesn’t matter now.”
I glare at him. “What did you expect?”
“Nothing. Move. I need to draw.”
I hook my fingers lightly into the collar of his jacket while he works. When his small arm rises just above his head I take the chalk from his hand and continue the line straight up and along.
“My eyes are keener,” I say quietly in the dark. “You are like to draw us window, not a door.”
When it is done he says sharply, “The chalk.”
“And why should you have it?”
“It’s mine. Find your own.”
“You cannot manoeuvre the paths without a guide, so what is the point of the Opal Pen?”
“I had it on my person for a reason,” he snaps. “I don’t remember why but it’s important.”
“No. It is insurance that you will not run away.”
His mouth falls open. “Run away? Run where? To whom? I have nowhere. There’s a reason I chose you to get me out of that damned trial, a reason I’m with you now, trying to save you.”
I search for the deception, and find none. “Even so,” I place the chalk into my belt, “I will hold onto it for now.”
His little mouth mashes together, and a ripple of red flickers in the irises of his eyes. Warily, I take his hand and push against the door. As we cross the threshold, Nara says absently, We fey are sinister things, but we know our limits. What is more dangerous in this world, than a creature who doesn’t? Watch your back, Cas. I still do not like this. I like that snake Petyr even less. We will be indebted to him after this. I hope you have thought about that.
I note his words but am too distracted to truly register them. We stand in a hallway smelling of wood, soup, cotton and damp. The décor is simple but elegant; the floor is smooth, expensive dark wood, and a white fur rug runs over it up half the length of the hall; landscape portraits adorn the pastel yellow walls, and a grandfather clocks ticks loudly at the far end, to the left – but beyond it I hear a sudden crack, and a shuffling of footsteps.
“Elian, stand behind me,” I say, shutting the wall-door and putting a hand on Nara’s head. Be still, I am about to think, when my ear twitches. I gasp and duck, pushing Elian and Nara to the floor, as a scattering of iron spikes whistle through the air above. In less than a second I dash towards the source, pin him to the ground and secure my arm over his neck. The boy is young, a teenager, and he chokes, trying to kick out, but I mash my knee into his and break one of his legs. He tries to scream; I press my arm down harder, cutting off his air supply.
“I will break all of you, if you do not keep still,” I warn him. He face is contorted with agony, but he nods stiffly. There is a thump, and Nara snarls. A soft sound I would never have heard as a human reaches my ears, and I know that it is a faery. I seize the dagger from my belt, spin round and hurl it from my hand.
Petyr, standing half-way down the staircase formerly at my back, smiles wanly, and pulls my dagger from the wall. I see Nara has beaten me to him, in any case, but lies immobilized behind me, under a strange silvery net. I try to reach out to him with my mind, but fail. Something blocks us. Elian pulls me away from the teenage boy, a very odd expression on his face.
“Nothing ever changes,” Petyr says wryly, descending the stairs towards us slowly.
“Some welcoming,” I remark, gesturing to the boy still lying on the ground. “I’ve not come to fight.”
“No, but it is your nature to do so regardless, isn’t it?”
I narrow my eyes and open my mouth, but then a ripple of agony seizes me, and I wince, clutching Elian for support. “Take the net from Nara, Petyr. Now. We have to talk.”
“No.” He cups a hand over my stomach and I gasp. “No, I doubt there’s quite enough time for that, my dear.”
A slim, black-skinned woman appears, almost as tall as me, with a severe expression. She holds a knife, aiming it at Nara. Petyr holds me back as she lifts the strange net and he bounds away a few steps.
“In the kitchen,” he suggests, and she turns and leaves the room, but not before throwing me a curious glance.
“You are keeping humans.” It is not a question.
He inclines his head, gesturing to the teenage boy. “It was unfair of you to treat Red so.”
But he lifts my arm and hangs it around his neck, half-carrying me down the hallway and into homely-looking kitchen. The human woman is clearing the table in the centre of the room, careful to remove everything with even a hint of iron.
“You are helping me?” I ask Petyr suspiciously.
“I have a price, make no mistake. But for now, yes, I will save your life.”
I hoist myself upon the table, alarmed by the sudden intensity of the pain.
“I think the faery paths kept you suspended,” Elian explains. “They’re much like the Otherworld. Funny, we probably could have stayed there a while longer.”
“So that’s how you found your way here.” Petyr looks down at me with amusement. “Been a while since anyone used them, you’re lucky to be here, I should think. Natasha, my bag.”
The woman nods and quickly marches from the room, giving Nara a wide berth.
If he botches this, I will kill him, the wolf promises me. I smile.
Petyr moves around me, and Elian takes my hand. I roll my head to the side to peer at him, curious.
“I can feel it. It’s almost at your heart,” he whispers. He casts the solitary faery a dark look. “I don’t trust that one. He has no allegiance.”
“The best place to stand, child,” Petyr smiles, returning to my sight with a small pot in his hand. His finger dips in and out, and I spy an amber-gold substance on the tip. It smells like…iron. I stare up at it warily, following it with my eyes as Petyr holds it over my torso.
He smears it around the wound on my stomach. I scream and immediately move to thrash; it feels as though my flesh is being eaten, as if I am a helpless slug under a mountain of salt. He holds me down and says, “It will pass. Bite through it.”
I hiss in fury and expel a wave of ice. He grits his teeth, bearing it, until the pain subsides a little, and I relax.
“Now, eat this.”
He hands me a lump of dough. I chew it and it tastes like sugar and rosemary, and something else I cannot place. All the while I stare at the ceiling, and count the cracks around the light bulb, the spider-webs lacing around the corners; anything to still my panicked mind. I have never had to remove a tracker, though I have placed more than a dozen in my time, upon various fey. I peer up at Petyr; The Old Fox, I used to call him. Daedalus was his former name, but that was during a period before me. He came from a time long before even Aureole and Odessa. He served the last Winter Queen, Beira. Lethal, ruthless, volatile days. Beira was a cold, ferocious force, and Petyr was the cunning drive behind her. He is the one true faery I would anticipate to entrap or deceive me, the only one I believe could ever outsmart Aureole.
I watch his handsome face warp under emotion; there is a true, unmasked warmth there when the human woman re-enters the room. I notice he does not wear a glamour around her. Though, in truth, he does not entirely need to. Once the Winter essence left him, a hundred years ago, and he became solitary, he looked less of an oddity. His eyes are a startling black, but not too conspicuous. His silver-and-soot hair is silky and beautiful, but he could pass for an aging man, comely man.
I smile at him, trying to distract myself as he begins digging through his bag. “What of your other boy? The human one? I broke his leg.”
Absently he answers, “Red? Oh, never fear, I always have some sort of indemnification. I learnt that trick from Aureole.”
He ignores my prodding. “You truly expect me to be unprepared?”
I finish the last of the dough, but it goes down with difficulty. I am not built to eat. “No, I suppose not. Though I would like to know how you guessed we were here. So quickly, too, I might add.”
“I heard you, of course.”
“Your human boy could not have.”
He looks at me with an unnerving intensity. “What do you suppose I’ve been doing the last century? Twiddling my thumbs? You were always a dim girl, Cas, but I never believed you to be entirely stupid. A solitary faery has no protection, no home, no one. We make our own.”
“I apologise. I did not know I hit a nerve.”
He inhales sharply, a small smile spreading, as he sees my face. “Ah. You are not so dim after all then.”
I curl my lip, just a little. “Coming from you, I will take it as a compliment. So you have been putting your cleverness to use.”
“Yes, but it has been a while since I stopped a tracker. What did it?”
“Hmmm. Tricky indeed. Gods, what did you do to them, then?”
“Stole him.” I jerk my head at Elian.
Petyr chuckles and shakes his head, his lips muttering something I cannot hear.
I blink rapidly. “Did you say something?”
He opens his mouth but I can barely see his face. I try to sit up but thump back down again. It is as though a mountain of lead is being injected into my veins. I moan something, unable to form words. The world spins into black.
I am lying on a mattress and it is uncomfortably warm. My eyes snap open, keen as ever, and absorb the details of the roof of the four-poster bed. Clearly, I am in a bedroom, but when I hear the steady, juicy sound of a human heart beat, the whispery warm breath, I sit up, flying from the covers. Natasha jumps up, raising her long fingers and saying in a soothing voice, “It’s ok, it’s ok. You’re safe. You’re fine.”
She hovers in front of a plush, pale cream chair, and I only notice then what she is. “You can See me.”
It is not a question of what is in front of her face; the glamour which hides my faery form. Her almond eyes are solemn and intense. “Yes.”
Briefly, I prod my stomach with my fingers. Tracker free, it would seem. There is certainly none of the pain there was. “Interesting. I have never met one of your kind before.”
She shrugs. “We’re not really a different species.”
“Rare, though. Faeries used to gouge the eyes out of ones who could truly See, or at the very least keep them as playthings. How many more of you are there?”
She appraises me guardedly. “A few.”
“Red is one, too.”
“Just a boy.”
“I could have killed him, but I chose not to,” I offer. The statement seems to bother her, however, and her mouth clamps shut angrily. I leave her to stew a moment, reaching out for Nara internally.
Is Petyr still alive? I ask wryly.
Only so long as you are. I feel a surge of warmth and happiness flow through me from him; he is relieved. I realise I must have slept a long time. How do you feel?
A little tender, but otherwise fine. I am surprised he was able to get it out. I confess, I did not expect it to work.
There were complications, he admits. He used the only sure things to thwart the device; iron and something he himself mixed from particles of a faery rath, an odd sort of powder. The paste he initially smeared over your wound had elements of both, which is why it hurt so much. I suspect there was also more iron in use than he led us to believe.
Probably. It would explain the extreme pain when he administered it. At least it is gone now.
Not quite…you bled for a long time, Cas. Neither Petyr, with his strange potions, nor Elian, with his mind tricks, could locate the tracker. It had spread too deeply. They couldn’t get a grip of it. Elian described it as trying to grab a handful of wet sand. And so, they had to make a choice. Keep trying, and risk you bleeding to death – or deactivate it, and seal you up.
“What does that mean?” I demand aloud and internally. Natasha watches me sharply.
That it lies dormant within you, harmless. We won’t be found and it will not kill you.
It is a poison and has done some damage. You will be vulnerable to future attack, especially from Logic.
Difficult to tell, at this stage. And there is more.
I sigh. How much more?
Come downstairs. We’ve been waiting two days for you.
“I was asleep for two days.” I gape. I do not remember even having slept so long in my human years. Natasha looks unconcerned. She points at the foot of the bed. “Clothes. You still don’t look very ordinary.”
“I cannot wear human cloth.”
“No, but Petyr made these. That’s what he does.”
“What do you mean, ‘That’s what he does’?”
She frowns, impatient. “It’s his thing. He helps fey – solitary, Iron, Banished – blend in with the humans. I thought you knew that? Didn’t you work with him, or something? On the council? When he belonged to Winter?”
I purse my lips, considering. There may be a way to regain the upper hand yet. The ripped corset and gauze skirt are not worth keeping, blood and stained and conspicuous as they are. I kick off the slippers and begin stripping.
Natasha’s eyes widen and little and she averts her gaze pointedly. I smirk. “What is it? Am I so hideous?” I toss away the ruined clothes, placing a hand on my naked hip. “You See through my glamour. You See my true form. Tell me, am I so revolting?”
She glares at the floor and crosses her arms, tensing. It is all I need. I roll my shoulders with a smile and begin to pull on the underwear on the bed. My hands run over the soft, heavenly white shirt, and I give the fabric a gentle press. Ice particles seep into my fingers; I am pleasantly surprised. I slip it over my head. The trousers are pale grey and hug my thighs and ankles, but I like the lightness of them, and the familiar touch of Winter woven into the material. As I shrug into the sky-blue cardigan, I answer the human woman’s initial question, “Sometimes we were allies. Although most of the time it felt as though he worked against me. How do you know so much?”
And then I see it; in her lips, in the slight dimpling of her cheeks, the sparkling whites of her eyes.
I say loudly, “Does Aureole know of your weak spot?”
Petyr steps into the room, mouth thinning.
I tune into Nara. Has Petyr made mention of his price for his efforts?
No. But he has been curious of Elian. The boy doesn’t trust him, and I don’t believe we should either. Cas. Whatever he asks of us, we cannot pay it.
Don’t worry, my friend. I will play him at his own game.
I smile evilly. “She is wickedly jealous, Petyr. And the fact that your girl can see the fey…Aureole would cut out her heart if she knew.”
“Natasha, downstairs,” Petyr snaps.
Shock clouds her face momentarily, before a deep scowl settles. “But –”
“Now.” He does not even look at her. His eyes are stormy, black slits.
She storms from the room, and he slams the door shut behind her. “What are you doing?”
“Protecting myself,” I snap, rising my temper to meet his. “You have a price. Just how high is it, Petyr? I am not willing to risk more than I have already.”
“How much do you think I’m risking?” he hisses. “Taking you in, saving your life? If even one of the many fey after you finds you here, it has all been for nothing. I will be dead, Natasha will be dead, and so will all the others that I care about.”
My lips twitch darkly, and I take a seat. “Gods, Petyr. You never let yourself have a weakness before, not ever.”
“But the fey do not. Why did you?”
“Age takes its toll, Cas. I hope you live long enough to realise it.” He wipes a hand over his mouth. “Be sure to not threaten me again. I warned you. I always have an insurance policy. Should you make me your enemy you will regret it.”
I lunge for him. He is slow to react, and I have his face pressed against the wall in half a second.
“You are weak,” I hiss into his ear. “You always were. A champion of politics, perhaps, but you were never a soldier. You will aid us in whatever we need. And if Aureole should find us, I will make sure that she finds your little seer-human as well.”
I step back, leaving him pricked with ice. He eyes me with true hate. “Do not think to bargain with the Winter Queen. I see that look. I have wounded your pride, I have bashed your ridiculous ego. Well, re-think your situation, Petyr. You left us, you left her. You relinquished your Ice for Solidarity. She will not be won over should you decide to sell me out. Your Natasha will still be taken.”
He shakes his head, slowly, those venomous black eyes never leaving mine. “You could have had an ally in me. You stupid, stupid girl.”
“I could never have trusted you. There is too much at stake.”
“What?” He snaps. His hate slips long enough for intrigue to seize him. “What is it that has the courts in upheaval? The boy? He isn’t what killed Tides. Or Fintan.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m far older than you, Cas.”
“That is not an answer.”
I grind my teeth. He smiles slyly. “And this is what it comes to. You think you’ve trapped me? Outsmarted me? This is the trap. I will give you what you need to survive and elude the queen – thus, protecting my own interests. But no more than that. Unless you give me what I want.”
“And what is that?”
He presses his fingertips together and closes his eyes. The room is frigid with my cold temper, but he does not seem to notice. Quietly, after a few moments, he says, “That boy is something I’ve not seen in my lifetime. He doesn’t appear to know quite what he is. But his power is immense, and the full capacity of his abilities is yet to be revealed…he could be an invaluable asset to me.”
“Providing the fourteen feuding courts do not catch you.” I snort. “He is not for sale, Petyr, I must keep him safe.”
“You are welcome to – here. I can make use of him, while you all remain hidden. As Natasha said, my sole talent here is blending, and helping others to do the same.”
For reasons I cannot fathom, that thought disturbs me. I run my tongue along my teeth, glowering at him. He has put me in an impossible position.
“Why did you steal him?” Petyr spreads his hands. “You said before, that you took him. Why? What convinced you? Why you?”
“You know of Elian’s gifts,” I mutter airily. “The courts were seconds from coming to blows. I was preventing a war.”
“You postponed war. You never prevented it. Some secret is brewing, and you have no idea what’s coming.”
I jerk my head up, alert, recalling Jacinda. “You have no idea what’s coming,” she had whispered.
“My own mad sister said the very same.” I ball my fists. “A secret is brewing – how much of that secret do you know?”
He grins slyly. “Our deal first, dear Cas. Shall we shake upon it?”
He extends his hand.
I bark a humourless laugh. “I knew I would be stepping into a bed of weeds with you. At your own peril, proceed. Nara will rip your head off should you deceive us.”
“My very name once meant deception.” He shows his teeth but there is no hint of his devious smile now. “But now we all of us sit in a hornet’s nest, unsure of our next step. Every direction is fraught with death, destruction and immense, unimaginable agony. The time for deception is now. Make no mistake, you won’t have a friend in the world from here on. You’ve taken this child for something more than material or personal gain, and that makes you dangerous to everyone. They can anticipate a greedy faery, they can strike down an ambitious usurper. You are something else. Aren’t you?”
I say nothing.
Petyr turns around and walks to the door. He hovers with one foot in, one foot out – something I do not miss.
“Are you a threat to me?” I ask angrily, sending a cold mist rising at his ankles.
He swivels his head slightly and says, “You were right not to trust me. Maybe there’s hope for you yet. But I warn you now – if I feel that Natasha, or anyone else I care about, is in danger, you will find yourself with even less friends than you began with. Then I will be a threat to you. And right now, Cas, everyone is your enemy. You would do well to start building up your resource of allies.”
I shake my head, allowing a small snort. “If everyone is my enemy, how am I to find friends then?”
“The trick isn’t to find friends; it’s to find a way of turning your enemies into friends.”
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