Bloody little things have a sense of humor.
I dropped to the ground and rubbed my now-numb ankle. I couldn't believe I'd made such a newbie mistake. You don't step in faerie rings. Period. I kicked myself mentally. I wasn't at the top of my game. According to protocol, I should've alerted headquarters, made for the nearest base, and let them replace me with a fresh agent. One that hadn't been in the field for five days and counting.
I was tracking a rogue band that had escaped a reserve just outside London. One of the nicer ones, as far as faerie reserves go. Not one you'd expect stuff like this from. Some radical activist idiot had infiltrated the ranks and left a back door open, two plus two is four, home base sent me to nip this little thing in the bud before the media got wind of the affair.
Technically speaking, I'm the best agent on the force. I've paid through the nose to get here, too. Nobody should have to make the kinds of sacrifices I've made. You might say I sold my soul to the devil. But I'm the best.
I hadn't slept since I took the case. I was going on forty-eight hours without food. But I was hot on the trail.
The band I was tracking was a particularly dark one. They'd left an unmistakable trail of carnage and mayhem in their wake. Like I said, they had a sense of humor. A dark one. So tracking them wasn't exactly difficult. But catching them sure would be.
I stood up once I'd recovered some feeling in my foot. It would be weeks before I was a hundred percent.
True, I'd made a stupid mistake. But so had they. They were getting careless, which meant I really was getting close. It would've taken then five minutes to dissolve the ring, and they didn't make a habit of leaving rings just lying there, especially with someone on their tail. They were in a hurry.
The magic would dissolve on it's own within the next twenty-four hours, but when one can, one should keep to protocol. I reached into my small, streamlined pack for a strobe. Red for active. I turned on the flashing light and dropped it in the circle. The boys in the back room were particularly proud of their strobes. It'd taken years to develop one that didn't implode or disintegrate or turn into a swarm of butterflies, bats, biting flies, pterodactyls, et cetera upon touching the enchanted ground. Those had been some interesting missions.
I examined the state of my supposedly-magic-proof leggings and moccasins. Both had dissolved into nothing below my left ankle where I'd stepped in the ring. Lame. I had an extra set in my bag, but not the time to put them on. I tore off the other shoe and threw it into the circle, just to be spiteful. I was tired. And, besides, I'd look daft in just one shoe.
My long green split skirt was tattered, wet, and covered in mud, along with a thin film of a dry, glittery substance. I sneezed. Faerie dust. I love my job, I thought. What I didn't love, however, was the clown costume I had to wear to work. Culottes, hunter green, that had replaced the earlier model, an ankle-length skirt, when headquarters finally figured out that it was impossible to run in the stupid things. A flowing, blousey white top with a low collar, under a tight leather jerkin. A leather skull-cap of similar make completed the ensemble. I looked like a lunatic warrior princess that had taken a wrong turn, fallen out of a fantasy movie and landed in modern-day England.
The whole outfit was seeped in magic, mostly of the warding and protecting variety, and mostly of my own doing. The leatherwork was alive and crawling with faintly glowing letters, which only I and a few others could see. When I wasn't on a mission, I was on high demand at headquarters and the academy both for warding. Headquarters had even offered me a job as a mage, when I was fourteen. I had declined, wanting to get my full turn in the field before I retired to an office, but I knew that when I had served my turn running missions, I had a nice, long career as a mage (probably even Head Mage) to look forward to.
A funny thought occurred to me. It's a good thing there aren't any boys on the squad. As slow as things go at headquarters, it would take forever for them to design a uniform. And the mental image of a guy dressed like this? Too good. But there are no boys on the force. Girls between the ages of twelve and seventeen. Something about faeries and little girls; I'll retire next May. But you don't care about that. Back to the story.
I kept walking, watching my step, through the dark, dank forest, waving my slender, feminine sword through the undergrowth, half to clear myself a safe path, half out of boredom. Boredom in the field is a dangerous thing.
Slowly, the trees thinned and I came upon open wheat fields and pasture land. I allowed myself a smile at the simple beauty of the view. Up ahead and to my left was an old man driving a team of oxen, who were pulling an ancient-looking wheat binder. He wore a flimsy straw hat, which he tipped at me as I overtook him.
“Ho, there, girlie! What be a Fae Hunter doing out this far?” he called to me in a thick Irish brogue. There were deep lines in his leathery skin.
I put on my best dealing-with-regular-people face and replied, “Just chasing down a rebellious brownie that ran off from his assigned house.” The standard cover-story. Brownies were always running off. Of course, I hadn't been put on a mission like that since my first week on the force. But he didn't know that.
“A brownie, eh?” Just as he said the word brownie, the sun came out from behind the cloud. A stray sunbeam got caught on his hint of a smile and a bright, blue light reflected back out at me. My eyes got wide, and I stepped back a bit, feeling for my sword. I tried to keep my reaction cool, but he caught it anyway. A slow, malevolent smile spread across his face, revealing a mouthful of gemstone teeth. The straw hat became an intricate silver circlet, two emerald-eyed serpents devouring each other's tails. A symbol I'd only ever read about, seen lame pen-and-ink reproductions of. The symbol of the Unseelie court. The man's eyes began to change color wildly, like a kaleidoscope at hyper-speed. His face bubbled and swelled, the tan leather turning to milk-white satin, and became that of a young man. Only, he couldn't be a man. His face, his features. He was like a sculptor's masterpiece, a dream, an angel, or else all three at once. His hair, now jet black, flew up and grew longer, like it had a mind of it's own, and settled back down again just above his ears in jagged, razor-cut strands. The rags he wore for clothes became a pair of black breeches and a black tight-fitting shirt that came to a point on eat the waist and the wrists. There were laces at the v-shaped neckline, but they were undone, allowing the two sides of the collar to fall away from his perfect chest.
The oxen writhed and became fae horses, midnight-black velvet with red eyes. If you closed one eye, or squinted at them, or looked out of the corner of your eyes, they could look like a griffon or a phooka or a lizard or an owl or a toad or a kitten. They whinnied and reared, sensing their master's channeled intensity.
All of my years of training, every novice-level magic class, every lecture I'd ever heard told me not to do what I was about to do, but I did it anyway. I had to. I looked into his eyes, which had finally settled on a light, shimmering silver. And he held me in a vice grip. I felt like a field mouse held trapped in the gaze of a cobra, a rabbit trembling, motionless, before a hawk. I could hear his demon whispers inside my head. I screwed my eyes shut and reached for my communicator.
“Home? Home base, this is Ophelia to home base, I.D. number 4192514. Do you copy?” I sobbed, “I need immediate backup. Code Red. Repeat, Code Red.” There was static on the line, and the device began to fizzle and pop. With a flick of his wrist, he sent it flying down the road. It bounced twice, and shattered to pieces on the hard-baked earth.
Silly human, he whispered and screeched and crooned inside my head. Nobody's coming to help you.
I tried to reply, but my tongue got in the way and the words tripped out of my mouth in a mumble.
What was that? He grinned, enjoying my misery.
I took a deep breath and rallied my strength. “But I was...chasing a...”
A what? A little, mischievous band of spritelings? Of course you were. Because I allowed you to think you were. His voice was honey-sweet in my mind, as if he were speaking to a small child.
“Who-who are...you?” I gasped.
Prince blah blah blah of the blah blah Unseelie blah blah blah...does it really matter? He snickered.
Prince! Impossible. I reached for my sword.
Oh, please don't. Don't make this hard on yourself, you won't- his voice trailed off.
Disregarding him, I wielded the sword, stumbling, tears blurring my vision, coaxing my feet into some semblance of a battle stance.
He sighed and rolled his eyes. With a snap of his fingers, he persuaded my faithful sword to morph in to a silver, emerald-eyed snake, which I found myself holding by the tail. It whipped it's head around and bit me on my wrist. Liquid fire shot through my veins. I gave a burbling cry of pain.
Gasping, summoning everything I had left, I spat out a string of words, the strongest magic I knew. I had been warned against ever using them, promised they could kill me, told to save them for the absolute extremity. They bit and stung in my throat and made little blisters on my tongue and the insides of my cheeks and the roof of my mouth. The words dripped off my tongue and took shape on the air, conjoining to become a golden arrow that dripped poison like nectar from it's head. I touched the fletching with my fingertips, stroking it, begging it to fly true, then said the final, guttural word that set it flying. The magic would've killed a weaker person.
But he laughed. A laugh that filled the air like bells and drums and broke my heart into a million little pieces, and the laugh became a blue-and-silver-and-black flame that engulfed my puny, pathetic little arrow, that had seemed so powerful only a heartbeat before. And the fire burned my arrow to ashes, and the fire and the ashes became a swarm of horseflies with onyx eyes and wings that crowded about my ankles and the hem of my skirts and crowded each other to bite me.
He strode towards me and grabbed hold of my wrist. I didn't have the strength left to fight him off, nor to fight the wave of desperate longing for him, for his arms to hold me, that washed over me, as if I was nothing. This was a magic entirely new to me, and I had no knowledge of how to defend myself against it. This was his doing.
He touched my cheek, softly, almost tenderly, and ran one finger down the side of my face, tracing my jawline. It was like fire and ice, burning and freezing an angry welt on my face, that smoothed over into a shint, white scar in seconds. Silent tears streamed down my face, salt screaming in the still-healing wound, bathing his hand.
I collapsed into his arms, and he kissed me.
And I felt everything, my very life, the blood in my veins, slipping away from me. My heart, my mind, my soul, hopes, dreams, fears, past, present, future. Everything about me, ebbing away like the tide. Hungrily, greedily, gluttonously, he consumed me, and then I was no more.
Wheeling high overhead, I hung my head in disappointment. I dropped to earth to rest on a fence post. Ever since I had first smelled the stench, heard the song, of death hanging about the girl earlier that day, I had been following her, hoping for a good meal whenever she met her demise. Don't hate me for it, it's just my job. I'm a vulture. It's what I do.
Of course I was disappointed when I saw that all that greedy princeling left behind was a smoldering pile of glittery dust. Cheeky thing, to steal another's meal. I watched him wipe his mouth daintily. He ran his tongue over his gaudy teeth, and the glittering gems were transformed into a bleach-white Hollywood-perfect smile. He gave his clothing a reproachful look, and it obligingly morphed into an expensive suit; black slacks, white shirt, black jacket, black tie. He lifted the circlet from his head and flipped it over his wrist, where it quickly shrank into an unassuming Rolex. A wink turned the high-strung, flighty fae horses into a sleek, black sports car, which rumbled to life and purred like a kitten when he smiled at it. He straightened his tie (which caught and refracted the light suspiciously like diamonds, or faerie dust) got into the car, and drove away.
Meanwhile, a little ways off, in the wheat field, a little, mischievous band of spritelings danced in a ring.