Authors: James Hunter
Tags: #Men&apos, #s Adventure Fiction, #Fantasy Action and Adventure, #Dark Fantasy, #Paranormal and Urban Fantasy, #Thrillers and Suspense Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mystery Supernatural Witches and Wizards, #Mage, #Warlock
I wove flows of air, small invisible braids of power that zigzagged through the trees in a spider web of force. Unaware, the she-devil flew headlong into the construct. Her right wing caught one of the thin lines and she tumbled towards the ground, her arms and legs flopping, before catching another line under her chin and flipping over backwards. Down she twirled, like a busted-up fighter jet, sprawling into the dark earth with a
, face skyward.
I didn’t give her a moment to recover, not a second. I rushed in, throwing myself on her, pressing my knees hard on her wings, wrapping my hands around her scrawny throat. Her skin was slack beneath my finger, like a turkey’s wattle. She snapped her beak with a sharp
and proceeded to squawk at me with harsh, frustrated fury. Harpies have some nasty tricks, but they’re not much of a physical threat. Get past their glamours, illusions, and mind-games and there really isn’t much to ‘em.
She struggled beneath me, but I had no problem holding her in place.
Something about this whole thing was off. Harpies are rarely seen by living folk. Generally, their kind won’t stray far from the forest, and because they’re beings made almost entirely of spirit, access to the inner regions of the Fae isn’t an easy thing to achieve. And the fact that this creature must’ve been stalking me through the subterranean tunnels, waiting for an opportunity to strike, seemed like too big of a coincidence to stomach. Someone—someone with access to the Vis—must’ve helped her get through. Nothing else fit.
“Why were you following me? Who brought you out of the forest?” I commanded, sure I was on the right track, sure this was no accidental encounter.
She squawked again and continued to resist, fighting wildly.
“I know you didn’t get into Thurak-Tir on your own. Someone brought you over. Who? Why?” A picture appeared in my mind: the harpy flying free, flashing me the bird. Ironic.
Fine, if she wanted to play it that way, I could too. Harpies can’t be killed—at least
don’t know how to do the deed—but they can be hurt. Melt their flesh away or carve them up like a Thanksgiving turkey? Nope, that won’t do it. They’re beings of spirit. This forest might have looked physical, but it was an illusion in its own way. We were deep in the spirit realm, and I was running around in my soul.
Look, Ma, no meat suit.
But there were ways to hurt a creature like this.
I opened my mind and pushed my awareness toward her. She struggled, trying to wall off her thoughts, but I was stronger and I had her number. I had it in spades …
I was in a smoky pool hall. Beer glasses clinked around me, while a piano man cranked out some gritty blues tunes from the stage. The bar stool beneath me creaked as I shifted my slight body. I was tired; it was ten already and I should’ve been in bed hours ago. Mama was gonna be pissed at Dad something fierce for keeping me out so late. I didn’t care though, it was Friday and I was out with Dad. He’d even let me have some beer for the first time. It didn’t taste good, not really—all bitter and kinda sour—but I drank a couple of big ol’ mouthfuls while he smiled. Just another one of the guys.
Now I felt kinda fuzzy around the edges and a little too warm, but in a pleasant sorta way, like being in front of a big fire during a cold spell. He was playing poker, beer in one hand, cards fanned out before him in the other. I’d watched him play often enough to know bad cards when I saw ‘em, but he was still betting, driving up the pot. He glanced back at me, offering me a look at his hand.
“What’d you say, boy?” he asked. The rest of the players eyed me for a tell, peering over their cards or beer mugs. Dad wasn’t a great gambler; I was already old enough to know that. He lost a lot more than he won. He and Mama were always fighting about the money. Not tonight though. Tonight, he was riding a lucky streak a mile wide and as long as a rainbow. “Take these jokers for a ride or what?” He flashed me a wink and a grin.
“Take ‘em, Pop,” I said.
He laughed and pushed his formidable stake of chips into the center. “You heard the boy. All in. He’s a poker prodigy, I tell ya’. Someday he’ll be taking y’ll to the cleaners too.” The warmth in my stomach flared bright, sending out a pulse of pure bliss. He was a hard man and spare with compliments.
The harpy wailed and shrieked, her thrashing growing wilder with every second, but I didn’t yield—not an inch. Harpies were emotion-leeches, sustaining themselves off feelings, and for them, the darker the better. Sorrow, hate, rage, regret. A banquet buffet, each with their own flavor. And the thing that hurt them the most? Happy thoughts. That’s right, Tinker Bell, happy thoughts—like friggin’ harpy arsenic.
“Wanna talk yet?” I asked. She shook her head and sent me another image. Me flat on my back, her straddling my center while she tore into my chest and throat with her cutting beak, great gobs of blood and gore staining her purpled skin and angelic wings.
“I don’t think so, sweetheart. You aren’t going anywhere, and I can play this game for a good long while yet. Maybe I’m not Mr. Rogers, but I’ve got enough good memories to do you in, I’d wager.” Her thrashing slowed, her sharp eyes locked onto my face. Was I bluffing? She wasn’t sure.
At last, her thrashing ceased altogether. Whatever she saw in me convinced her to give up. She sent me a new image: me letting her go, backing away, while she fled further into the dark woods, safe from me and my bright, sparkly memories.
I nodded. “Just tell me who brought you over and why.”
She seemed reluctant, but eventually, something inside her broke. A face floated into my thoughts. Round cheeks unevenly covered with rough stubble, a double chin, a balding head, and a set of broad square glasses like the ones they issued back in boot camp. We called them BCGs—birth control glasses. Guy looked like he might’ve lived at home in his parents’ basement. Unfortunately, the face meant nothing to me; I’d sure as shit never seen him before. No idea no impact, but presumably, this was the joker responsible for bringing beak-maw into Thurak-Tir.
The face faded, replaced by a figure I knew well. Ben.
The harpy lurked in the shadowy ice tunnels, hiding, waiting, launching herself at Ben. At least, that’d been the plan. He’d been the target, not me.
“Why’d you attack me then?”
I saw through her eyes. She clung to the walls, slinking from shadow to shadow in her spirit form, tracking Ben and me as we trekked through the passageways, patient, hungry, waiting. Waiting for the gnomes to separate us, waiting for the most opportune moment to strike at the target, to incapacitate him—like maybe when Ben stumbled upon the body of his grandson. Terrible grief can effectively eliminate the mental barriers most magi instinctively keep in place.
From her vantage point, concealed amongst the shadows, I witnessed the thickset ice gnomes spring the ambush, just as she knew they would. The gnomes focused their efforts on me, forcing Ben to flee down a connecting tunnel way, all according to plan. But as Ben turned, he simply disappeared, vanishing into the air as though he never was.
Rage filled me, a hot-burning coal in my belly—the harpy’s hate at being denied prey. She’d been promised a meal by the mage in the glasses and more victims to come, if she was successful. But now, the target was gone, vanished, yet her hunger remained. A dull throb in her middle demanding to be filled. So she whirled and followed me instead. She would eat, would have her fill.
. None of this made a lick of sense. If someone wanted to off Ben, there were about a gajillion better ways to go about it than this elaborate scheme. Why not just have the gnomes take him out? Shit, if this guy was good enough to get a harpy into the Thurak-Tir, he probably could’ve contracted a demon to do a hit job. So why a harpy? Sure, they had their tricks, but they were better at prolonging suffering than killing outright. Whoever was running this thing had kidnapped a member of Ben’s family and had hired a harpy to make him suffer. This was about revenge, had to be. I needed to get Ben back to find answers.
I wove a set of muddy restraints into place, securing her while I eased up and scuttled away to a safer distance.
“All right, I’m gonna let you go now, okay?”
She squawked in response, dark eyes rolling in her head.
“Now you better leave me and my friend be,
? ‘Cause I swear if you come back at me, I’m gonna pin you down and think about my wedding day, the birth of my children, and the day I got back from Nam. So many glittering unicorns and jolly rainbows your head’ll explode.”
She nodded and twitched. I backed away further, releasing her bonds while I faded away, back toward my body. She scrambled onto her feet and hands, loping along like a dog for a few steps before bounding into the air and taking flight. True to her word, she flipped me the bird before I faded completely. I swear, I get less respect than a half-crazy, dirt-caked, hobo … wait a minute, I guess that kinda describes my life pretty well. Ugh.
Follow the Leader
It felt damn good to be back in the ol’ meat sack, though there were a hundred different aches and pains, plus my arms and legs felt surprisingly cold and my face oddly numb. Walking around in the spirit, wearing nothing but your soul, is hazardous business. Though we often think of ourselves in terms of our flesh, the truth is, we are not bodies with souls, we are souls with bodies. The soul is the real you, the essence, and without it the body won’t live long, at least not without extraordinary life support measures.
All right, business time. My mind was already open and the weaves for my compulsion construct were already half formed. It took just a thought to finish the working and force it into place with a shove of will. At first, the gnome struggled as the foreign presence invaded his thoughts, legs and arms jerking against his restraints. This was almost exactly what the harpy had done to me, so I could sympathize. After a moment or two, his thrashing subsided and his body went limp against the wall, almost as though he’d fallen into a deep sleep.
I dissolved the icy manacles holding him in place. He dropped to his compact legs with a
, swaying gently, looking up at me with glassy eyes. He jabbered at me, and though I still couldn’t understand the words, I knew the general gist:
What do you want? How can I help? Anything, please.
Not all compulsions achieve the same effect or go about using the same method. This one created a sense of adoration within the victim. Underneath, the subconscious might struggle, might resist, but on the surface? They became devotees, fangirls or boys in the worst possible way, willing to do anything. Like I said, compulsions are bad, and they’re illegal for a damn good reason.
Okay, so I had myself a gibbering gnome tour guide, but now the question was where should I have him take me? Maybe he could help me find Ben—poor shmuck was lost down here somewhere, stumbling around alone in the dark. It’s not like I could call him; cell phone reception doesn’t work so well out in the far-flung reaches of the Outworld, so we’d have to search for him the hard way. Who knows how long that’d take, not to mention there could be a bajillion piss-head gnomes to go through. Better to just go for the kid.
From me behind me, I heard the distant warble of a Gnomish hunting party.
Yeah, the boy. Ben would want me to go after the kid—at least, if I were in his place, that’s what I would want—and really, Ben would probably turn up there anyway. Guy was twice the mage I was, at least where subtle workings like tracking constructs or illusions were concerned. He’d have some trick up his sleeve, some way to find the kid.
So I put Ben out of mind. “Stumpy, take me to the kid, and I want the most direct route
I don’t wanna run into any of your buddies. Understand?”
The gnome nodded enthusiastically, bending his whole body doing so, before turning and waddling down the passage he’d originally come from. The tunnel slopped gently up for fifty or sixty yards, the footing slick and treacherous before banking left and curling down for fifty more. At the bottom, the path leveled out and split into a fork, one branch leading right and up, the other a sharp switchback, zigzagging back and down. Of course, the gnome took the switchback without hesitation, leading us deeper into the subterranean heart.
Another fifteen minutes—and what seemed like twenty turns later—brought us to a dark, narrow tunnel dead-ending at a massive chamber, brimming with energy and power. Even though the chamber was still a good forty feet off, I could feel Vis practically oozing from the walls. Awesome.
Again I heard the distant echoing chatter of the hunting party, closer now, though still a little ways off.
“You follow my lead, Stumpy,” I said to the gnome as I crept forward. Couldn’t linger here long, but neither did I want to charge into the highly suspect chamber, which would probably turn out to be the supernatural equivalent of an anti-tank mine.
Slowly, slowly I skulked forward, drawing near. The chamber was like something out of an
flick—the originals, mind you, not that terrible
one. Thick slabs of cut ice fashioned into massive bricks, thin columns of lacy frost, carved with wintery scenes from a thousand different nightmares. In one, gnomes pulled a man limb from limb, a scream permanently etched onto the victim’s face. In another, an old man with a twisting beard and a wickedly point shepherd’s crook decapitated a terrified woman.
Someone had also been doing some serious renovating.
At the far end of the ornate room stood a pair of massive figures, statue-still, flanking a high-tech metal door, with a cardkey reader set into a stone panel. They were stag headed creatures, complete with colossal pointed antlers, torsos of solid granite, and limbs made entirely of old roots and knobby tree branches. Spriggans—ancient beasts of the Endless Wood, low fae of the Summerlands, and treasure guardians. Nasty-looking critters and tougher than a building full of MMA fighters. The hell were a pair of Summer Fae doing down here? Well, guarding something obviously. I bet they were pissed, enthralled and stuck in some frozen cavern to guard beings of Winter. Talk about a slap in the face.