I don't know how long the flock chased me. It might've been forever. It felt like forever.
When we first started running, the dog had been behind me on those stubby legs of its, taking up the brunt of the Hitchcockian rage. Deservedly so. After we ran off the road, though, there'd been a yelp behind me, followed by a much deeper growl. And another, and then another.
I risked looking back just in time to see a writhing mass of shadow-crow on the ground explode as a ginormous, three-headed monster leapt out of the pile. It took all of three bounds for the dog to not only catch up with me, but to jump over my head and leave me in the dust.
The crows decided then that if they were going to go after a hellion, they may as well go for the small one with only one head.
I ran like a squirrel.
* * * * *
I didn't see the dip up ahead. I didn't see the sudden lack of ground. And I most certainly didn't see the small river at the bottom of the glen. I did, however, feel it all when I tripped and rolled bodily down.
The water was neither particularly cold nor deep, and the current was surprisingly weak. I swam to the surface without any problems and managed to suck in a lungful of air before ducking back down.
A shadow passed over the surface of the water, hung around for a few seconds, then left.
I waited a few more seconds before going up for another breath.
The birds were gone. I don't know if they thought I was still running and had flown on, or if they'd seen me fall into the water and figured it wasn't worth the wait, but there was neither tail nor feather of them.
I grinned. I couldn't help it.
I couldn't have been in for more than thirty seconds before something clawed at my leg. I kicked and my foot hit something fleshy. A hand grabbed onto my ankle. Another one grabbed onto my other ankle. Something else leapt partially out of the water and wrapped its arms around my neck. It dragged me down into the other waiting things. I flailed wildly, kicking and clawing and generally missing. I couldn't see anything through the bubbles and murk.
One of their arms got too close to my face. I latched on and bit until I could taste blood. A high-pitched keening cut through the water: the one I had was shrieking. Immediately, all of the other hands let me go. I spat out the one I had and made a mad scramble for the surface.
I'd just managed to get in another gulp of air before the creek itself decided to beat on me. The water rose up in a pillar, dragging me up with it and draining the creek by several inches. The water roared and churned and the grabby creatures were still screeching. Through the chaos, I could just barely make out the words.
You hurt my children.
The pillar fell, ramming me hard against the bank with a splat. The water held its shape for a long moment, making sure to press me deep into the mud before it finally melted away and returned to the creek proper.
I spluttered. I choked. I gagged and I cursed, and when I finally managed to sit up, I saw several fishy, slightly-humanoid heads grinning at me from the creek. Behind them was a figure of a woman composed entirely of water.
"What was that for?" I managed.
The water woman crossed her arms. You hurt my children.
"They started it!"
They only wanted to play.
"Drowning? Drowning is playing now?"
The water woman chose not to answer. Instead, she melted slowly back into the water proper, apparently satisfied with a job well done.
I dragged myself a few feet away from the bank and collapsed.
The message, I thought blearily. I stuck my hand into my pocket and pulled out the envelope. It was fine: totally and completely dry despite everything else on me being soaked through.
Well, that was okay, then.
The dog came crashing through the brush a few moments later, still a hippopotamus-sized, triple-headed monstrosity. The head on the right was looking up into the branches of trees, like it was wondering if there were anymore crows around. The one on the left was sniffing at the ground. The middle was looking at me, mouth agape in a dog smile. All three of his muzzles were soaked with blood. There was a black feather sticking out from between his teeth. All three heads were looking extremely satisfied with themselves.
I closed my eyes and let my head fall back onto the sparse grass.
"Wonderful," I said. "Perfect."
Less than a minute later, three large noses were wuffling all over me.
"Fine, fine! I'm getting up, cut it out."
A rock came flying out of nowhere and hit me in the shin. Another one came and hit the dog between the ears. It yelped and backed away,shaking all of its heads.
The fish kids were sticking partway out of the water and making gurgley sounds that obviously was their version of giggling. One of them picked up another rock and hurled it, this time hitting me in the arm.
Something utterly unsurprising happened just then. It started somewhere in my belly and crawled up my spine before resting comfortingly in the usual spot behind my eyes and just under my forehead.
I got pissed.
These little cretins had the gall to throw rocks at me. It wasn't even like I was loitering- I was on a mission, wasn't I? A mission from someone who could turn these guys into sashimi, and I couldn't even do anything about it because they were all hiding behind mommy.
I was never much of a hotshot, before or after the fall, but if there's one thing I'm good at, it's plagues. And right then, I knew exactly which plague to use.
I cupped my hands and called up the familiar trickle of power and let it pour into my palms. When I was done, I had in my hands a smoking ball of red fire roughly the size of a charcoal briquette.
"Hey," I said. "Catch."
I hurled the plague into the water and waited.
There was a small splash when it hit. Slowly, tendrils of red flowed out from where the plague had landed. The fish kids all crowded around, trying to figure out what I’d done. The dog whimpered and eyed the creek nervously.
"Hang on," I said. "Wait."
The red spot grew. One of the fish kids made that shrieking noise again, apparently calling for its mom. The river woman rose up out of the water again, and all the fish kids hid behind her, away from the red.
What is this? she said. Shots of scarlet were crawling up her side from where she and the water merged.
By then, the red had taken up several feet of water and was still going strong. Soon, the whole section of river was red. Several humanoid-fishy things crawled onto the bank, coughing up blood that wasn't theirs.
I gave a bow and left the river lady -now a rich shade of red, all the way through- to hover over the fish kids.
* * * * *
The dog and I made our way blindly through the woods, not even trying to be discreet about it. I tried to get him to go ahead of me to clear the path, but now that he was still giant sized I found it a lot harder to boss him around. Branches broke, clothes were snagged, skin was scraped and cursing was had.
We'd been going just long enough for me to start thinking about maybe taking a break when I heard the sound of someone cursing louder than I was. I couldn't make out any individual words or anything, but there was definitely an expletive vibe. For lack of anything better to do, I went to investigate.
There was a road. It wasn't anywhere as big as the one we'd been on earlier, but the fact that it was relatively clean and free of brush was enough to make me want fall down and kiss the dirt.
The swearing was coming from a shriveled up raisin of a man a few feet away. Hanging across his back on a tether a was a heavy looking metal rod. On top of his head, tucked between his two pointed ears, was a bright, red hat, which meant that he was instantly filed away in my head as 'Red'. He was hunched over something, and apparently whatever it was was giving him enough trouble that he felt the need to alert the universe at large of his dissatisfaction.
Oh good, I thought. A local.
I left the bushes and went to talk to him.
He swiped his hat off his head and put it with whatever he was looking at.
"Excuse me," I said once I was right behind him. "I don't mean to interrupt, and I'm not trying to be rude, but we're a little lost and- What the hell are you doing with that rabbit?"
He shot up, clutching the hat to his chest. He was several inches shorter than I was, which just gave me all kinds of an ego boost. He glared at me with beady red eyes. At his feet was a very dead rabbit, sliced open and oozing.
"What?" he snapped. "Get away!" He put the hat back onto his head and brought out the pike.
"I just need directions-"
The dog padded up beside me. All three of its heads were watching the old man intently.
"What is that? Who are you?" Red brandished his pike at us. "Who sent you?"
It was almost funny. The guy looked like a mix between the guys you see shouting from their rocking chairs, telling kids to get off their lawns and a really skinny garden gnome. The pike probably weighed more than he did.
"Listen, Shorty, just tell me where Titania is and-"
Huh. For a second I'd forgotten I was in Faerie. "What's in it for me?"
I knew I didn't have anything he'd want to trade for, so I tackled him and stole his hat.
"Augh!" I said. "It's wet!"
The hat squelched in my hand. It was soaked in blood. Presumably the rabbit's.
"Give it back!"
I dangled the hat just out of his reach. "Tell me or I'll torch it."
I nodded towards the dog, who was still staring at Red. “You know what that is? Do you not see the three heads, or the glowing eyes?" I pointed at a tree nearby. "Dammit."
The tree promptly burst into flame.
"There? See? Now just tell me where Titania's at."
The hellhound gave off a low growl.
"Get that thing to stop looking at me."
I watched the dog. It was crouching, and all three of its heads were baring their teeth. The bushes behind Red began to rustle.
"Uh. I'd move if I were you."
The noise the hellhound made then couldn't in all honesty be considered a bark. Barks are the noises regular dogs make when they're angry or excited or just feeling vocal. The hell hound roared, and something in the bushes behind Red roared back.
Red moved out of the way just as an animal roughly half the dog's size leapt out of the brush.
It looked like the result of an unholy union between a hyena, a lion, and a dingo. Its face and head were definitely feline save for a long, canine snout, with a black, lion-y mane to go with it. The body was slightly hunched and thick with muscle, and its fur was sand-colored with black spots.
"Friend of yours?"
The hyena animal started to yap. It got several other yaps in return.
"No," said Red. He'd gone very pale.
More hyena heads popped out of the brush. The dog on our side began to growl and, as one, the others giggled back. I was hit by a sudden onslaught of deja vu.
"Oh, Shit." I grabbed Red's shoulder and whipped him around.
"You want your hat back? Come on. Dog!" I barked. "Stay."
I scrambled onto the dog's back and hefted Red up behind me. There were now four hyena-dogs steadily slinking towards us. I kicked the dog's side. "Okay, you can go now- come on!"
For a split second, I was afraid the dog would actually charge. Then, thankfully, it turned around and bolted.
Or rather, the dog ran. Red and I just clung to its back for dear life and tried not to die.
The trees might as well've not been there for all the attention the dog gave them. He ran at an even stride, leaping and dodging nimbly aside when the occasion called for it. I'm pretty sure we actually went through the trees a couple of times. The whole time all I could think was:
Oh. So this is how he gets around so fast.
We crashed through the brush and into a clearing full of people.
There were lanterns strung in the trees, fancily dressed people with fox tails looking shocked, regular foxes who were likewise looking shocked. People shouted and got out of the way, only to start shouting again as the horde of hyena-things came in behind us.
A group of small foxes with several tails each all began to scream. The air around them went fuzzy and thick,and everything in the clearing seemed to slow down.
Everything else, that is. The dog kept on going, and before I had enough time to question anything, we were through the clearing and back into the forest proper.
I got an idea.
"Dammit!" I shouted. "Dammit dammit dammit dammit-"
The woods around us burst into flame without the dog missing a beat. I'm not sure if that meant the dammit thing was involuntary, or if it required so little effort that the dog didn't notice, but either way we were still moving ahead.
The hyena-dogs that were still following us howled. I took it as a good sign.
The forest broke suddenly. It went from 'tree, tree, and more tree' straight into 'treeless, cliff ridden mountainside.' There was a ledge up ahead and a dead drop below.
"No wait don't-"
The dog leapt off the edge of the cliff.
I screamed. Red screamed. We all fell a good fifty feet- at least. There was a horrible moment of pressure when we hit the ground where Red and I were pressed hard against the dog's back. The moment quickly passed. The dog hit the ground running like it was nothing, and kept on running for another twenty minutes.
By the time it stopped running, we were a long way away from the hyena-lion-dogs, from the road, and from the forest itself. We were in the middle of unblemished hillside, waist deep in dry, yellow grass.
The dog first slowed to a trot, then to a walk. After which, it simply dropped, spilling both of us into the grass. For a brief moment, both Red and I were squashed under the weight of dog. Then the weight was gone and, sitting partially between us both, a head on my leg and a rump on his, was the puppy, now sound asleep.
I scooped up the dog and cradled it one handed. With my other, I gave Red a thumbs up.
"See? Wasn't nearly so bad, was it?"
He glared. "I hate you."
"Come on, Shorty. I just totally saved your life."
"You did not."
"I did so! Those hyena-dog-lion-things-"
"Crocotta," he said, getting to his feet.
"Whatever. They were totally going to eat you. If I hadn't come along, you'dve still been playing with your rabbit. You'dve never seen them coming."
"You don't know if that's true."
"Can you say it's not? Besides," I pulled the hat out of my now thoroughly-stained pocket. "I still have your hat."
He unslung the stick from his back. "I have a pike."
I held up the dog. "I have a hell hound."
"Oh come on, just take me to Titania! I promise I'll give you the hat back. It'll be- what? An hour of your time?" A thought occurred. "And think of it, you'll be helping an emissary from hell. That's like- like Satan owes you. Eh? Eh?"
He paced around his his metal shoes and grumbled to himself under his breath.
I could tell he wasn't buying it, but he still said, "Fine!"
"Yeah. Fine. Just- hurry up. If anything happens to that hat-"
"It's fine, I promise."
He snorted. Without another word, he turned and headed off purposely in another direction. I tucked the hat away, checked on Hastofur's message, and then followed.
* * * *
So we walked.
Eventually the dog woke up, meaning I didn't have to carry it anymore. Which was fine by me: for something so small, it was surprisingly heavy.
After a few hundred feet, the tall, dry grass broke into short, green grass. I didn't think anything of it. Then the short, green grass lead into sparse, sandy flatland. A bit odd, but I put it down to weird geological stuff. Then, after only a few yards, the sand turned into snow and I knew something was up. I stopped and turned and saw that there was no sand or grass behind us, only snow.
Red didn't seem bothered by any of this. He just kept on trudging ahead.
"Hey," I said.
"Yes?" He didn't stop. "What?"
"Is there- ah. Is there supposed to be snow here?"
He snorted. "Why wouldn't there be?"
"No reason. No reason."
I hurried to catch up.
The snow didn't last long and led us into a marsh with different colored waters. Some places, the water was red, other places it was purple, others it was orange, or unnaturally bright blue- and so on. I stopped once to get a better look at the water.
"Don't," Red said.
"Drink it. Touch it. Whatever you were going to do." He hadn't stopped walking.
"Fine, then. Go drink and see what happens.”
I hopped away from the water.
After that was the snow again. Then an extended detour through a tropical rain forest which lead us into the middle of an arid desert. Most of the places didn’t last very long- just a few hundred feet before we snapped back into the grasslands. Red didn’t seem to find any of this odd, so I decided to play it cool and not mention it.
Only one thing of any interest happened along the way.
"Is he going to be okay?" I said.
"I don't know," he said. "It depends how much he drank."
The dog was splayed out on the ground between us. Its fur was wet and tinged with green, and its belly was swollen.
"This is your fault," Red said. "I told you-"
"Yeah, yeah." I nudged the dog with my still-damp sneaker. It made a sound halfway between a sigh and halfway between a groan.
We were back in the marshy area, and I'd just got done fishing the dog out of one of the ponds. It had run off ahead of us, started drinking, and then had fallen into the water. Now it was lying on the road, refusing to move.
"I think he'll be fine," I said. "He's just tired."
Red sniffed. "He's drunk."
The dog chose just then to hiccup. Smoke trickled out of the sides of its mouth.
"Okay, maybe he is. Let's just let him sleep it off-"
"Pick up the damn dog and quit wasting my time."
I grumbled and hefted up the dog. "He's heavier now."
"Of course he is, he's full of booze. Quit complaining and keep up."
We continued on.
* * * * *
“There it is,” he said. “Now give me my hat back.”
“That's Titania's castle?”
“One of them, yes. The hat. Give it.”
We were in a clearing on top of a particularly large hill that overlooked a shallow valley. Smack dab in the middle of the valley was Titania's castle in all its glory.
About a hundred and fifty, maybe fifty-five years ago, I worked for a well to do magician in England. He was a paranoid old fart (admittedly, I might’ve had something to do with that), and when I wasn’t running around doing errands for him, I was charged with spying on his wife.
As such, along with spending hours upon hours of watching her chatter with church people, bossing around the maids, having sex with the gardener, and going to novel reading parties with her lady friends, I also got to listen to her read the sprogs stories. Just about all of them involved good little boys and girls who dies horribly tragic and very innocent deaths while everyone around them lamented the loss. The ones that didn't were the more gruesome sorts of fairytales where everybody dies or gets turned into bears and has to learn lessons and shite. One of the staples of the fairytales was castles. Lots and lots of description devoted solely to the towers and turrets and arches and ivy covered walls and stained glass windows with balconies and royal staircases and banners and flags all that jazz.
This castle was not like those castles.
This castle was a low slab of gray cutting into the hillside. It was the sort of castle people used when they were expecting an army or three to come tromping over their land. If someone less royal and more militant had been living inside, it would have been called a fortress. There was all of two guards out front: big, hulking guys in shiny black armor who were practically radiating 'don't fuck with'.
The front way was out, then. They'd squash us like bugs.
"Okay," I said to nobody in particular. "There are two guards that I can see, and probably more inside. They probably aren’t expecting anyone to actually break in, though, so they’re probably not too focused on the job. After all- who’d be stupid enough to break into Titania's place? Maybe there's a ventilation system of a laundry chute we can crawl through-“
“Or you can just go through the front.”
“What?” I turned to look at Red.
He was sitting cross-legged on a moss-coated log, his hands on his lap. The dog was on the ground beside him, splayed out on its side and hiccuping licks of flame.
“You’re a messenger, right? Then why not go through the front?”
I stared. “What?” He was saying words, but I just couldn't make sense of them.
He rolled his eyes and got up.
"Demons," he said. "You're all so single minded. You don't have to take the sneaky way for everything you do. Come on." He hefted himself off the log. "The sooner you're done, the sooner I can leave."
I blinked a couple of times, trying to wrap my head around it. Going through the front would never have occurred to me.
"Thank you," I said sweetly.
"Póg mo thóin," he muttered under his breath.
"What was that?"
The ground was suddenly swept out from under us. We were both pulled into the air by our ankles, apparently by nothing. Red's tether and stick fell to the ground with a thud, just barely missing the dog.
The bushes behind us rustled. I wriggled and squirmed to get a look.
A very tall and lanky man crashed through the brush, looking like something the dog dragged in. His hair was a haphazard, greasy mess. I'm pretty sure there were a few strands of gray amidst the black that hadn't been there this morning. His clothes were ragged around the edges- mud soaked in some places, scorched in others. If his eyes were anymore sunken, they'd be embedded into the front of his brain.
"Hiya, boss," I said, giving a little wave. "Long time to see."
He shook his fist, and both Red and I were rattled in midair.
"You," he hissed. "Do you know how much trouble you've caused? Do you know how much work I've had to do cleaning up your messes?" His eyes, usually a plain shade of brown, were giving off green sparks.
"All right, I can see you're upset-"
"Upset? No. Upset isn't nearly a strong enough word. I told you not to use my portal. I told you not to go to Faerie. I told you-" He caught site of the dog.
"What did you do?" He went over and knelt down by the mongrel.
"He's fine," I said. "Just tired. He's had a long day."
He gingerly lifted the dog up.
"He's drunk! You got my dog drunk?"
"Yeah, well. After the day he's had, he probably needed a drink."
I cleared my throat and tried reasoning with him.
He scowled. "Why do you insist on calling me by that ridiculous-"
"How long have you known me?"
He didn't hesitate. "Five years six months three days and seventeen hours."
I paused for a moment. "Uh. Okay. Right. And in that time, have I ever lied to you?"
"Come on, I've saved your life how many times now? And after all my years of loyal service-"
"You still don't trust me?"
He seemed to give it some thought.
"Not even slightly."
I sighed. "Ah well, worth a shot."
I pulled Red's hat out of my pocket and threw it at him.
It landed with a splat right on the side of his face. He flinched and turned away. With his concentration blown, there was nothing holding the spell together. It unraveled and Red and I both fell to the ground.
Bossman had taken the hat and was now trying to squeeze it dry with one hand while trying to wipe his eyes with his other.
Red looked like he was going to apoplexy. "My hat!" he shrieked. He kicked Bossman in the shins with his metal shoes and sent him sprawling to the ground. They both started scuffling; Bossman because he was still blind and flailing wildly at anything coming at him, and Red because he was trying to mop up the blood on Bossman's eyes with the hat, which meant he only wound up smearing it around.
I watched them for a few seconds before casually going over to pick up Red's pike. Whistling a commercial jingle to myself and spinning the stick in my hands like a baton, I headed down the hillside towards Titania's castle.
* * * * *
"Hi," I said. "I'm here to see Titania."
The two guards eyed me. Or I assumed they did. I couldn't actually see their faces, covered as they were by medieval looking visors, but their helmets were turned in my direction, so it was probably a safe bet.
The guard on the left loomed, hand on the hilt of his sword. It took me a moment to realize the pike was making them nervous. I tossed it aside and brought out the envelope.
"It's a delivery," I said. "A message."
"From who?" His voice was tinny and echoed inside the helmet.
I snapped my mouth shut before the geas took over. "Hell," I managed, fighting back a spew of word-vomit that would probably get my head lopped off. "I'm a- an emissary from hell."
The left one took the envelope. "Your master sent you?"
"Yeah, sure. Let's go with that."
He lifted up the visor to sniff the envelope, then nodded to his partner. “Smells like hell, alright.” He gave it back. “You came all the way here for nothing. She’s not in.”
“What? Where did she go?”
“She’s in another castle. The little one she uses for parties.”
"Do you know when she'll get back?"
He shrugged. "Could be in a few hours, could be a few days."
There was a loud crack and a flash of green light from the hillside. I winced. "Can I go inside and wait for her, then?"
The guard shook his- er- helmet.
"Her highness doesn't allow visitors to enter while she's away. If you like, I can give it to her when she gets back."
I frowned. "I'm not sure. I think I'm supposed to see she gets it personally-" There was another flash of green light.
I turned and saw Bossman heading down the hill at a dead run.
"Fine," I said, shoving the envelope back into his gauntlet. "Take it. Don't let anyone but Titania open it."
"Who's that?" he said, nodding towards the hill.
"My other boss. He doesn't like me moonlighting."
The guard saluted. "I'll go put this in her office. Good luck, then."
"Thanks," I said.
He turned to go inside, and the other, silent guard sidled into the middle to block off the door. He paid no attention to me and kept staring ahead.
Well, I thought. Another job well done. I tucked my hands into my pockets and went to go calm Bossman down.
I was halfway up the hill and thinking about what I was going to say when the ground shook and a gust of hot wind knocked me to the ground.
I groaned and sat up.
The castle was smoking. By the looks of it, a good chunk of the top had been blown. Debris was raining down. Dozens of the armored guards were filing out of the doors, looking like organized cockroaches on the move.
I turned tail and ran.
"Faust!" I shouted.
He'd stopped running and was now standing stock-still, staring dumbly at the castle, mouth agape. I grabbed his wrist and tugged.
"Snap out of it, Faust! We need to get out of here."
"The- you just- it's. . ."
The soldier guys were heading our way. I didn't know what else to do, so pulled his arm down and bit his wrist.
"Ow!" He pulled his arm away.
I tried to ignore the taste of dry rabbit blood and pointed to the soldiers. "We need to go."
That seemed to wake him up a bit. "Yes. Right." He turned and tromped up the hill, back towards the clearing.
"What are you-?"
"I'm not leaving Chauncey."
I swore and followed him.
By the time I caught up, he'd already picked up the still-drowsing dog and was tugging at his shirt collar with his free hand.
"What happened to Red?" I said.
He pulled out a silver chain I hadn't seen before. Clipped to the end of the chain was what looked like a regular playing card. Ace of clubs.
"Your friend? He ran off, shouting something about needing more blood. Get over here. Grab onto my sleeve."
With a sigh, bossman tore the card into two pieces, and the world began to spin. It span and span and turned into one big, green blur and I'm pretty sure the ground vanished and for a just split second I though I saw my organs actually hovering next to me-
-And then we were home. Standing in the middle of his study, surrounded by all the wizardly clutter and glowing jars of stuff anyone could want.
I stopped digging my nails into bossman's arm and went for the door. He was less than half a second behind me, having taken the time out to place the sleeping dog on the floor. We both ran for the exit, shoving each other out of the way and practically falling into the hall. He made it to the bathroom first, so I had to settle for throwing up inside the ficus planter.
"What did you do?" I said once I'd finished. "What kind of spell was that?"
He stepped out of the bathroom a second later, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He was either glaring at me or squinting in pain from the headache we were sharing.
"An improvised one," he said. "No safeguards, nothing to stop travel sickness-"
"I never use those things and I never wind up like this! Ugh. It feels like my stomach's digesting my brain."
"Yes, well, that's what you get."
He waved a hand. "For everything. For using my portal, for blowing up a castle. Wasting my time." He groaned and headed for the kitchen. "Water," he said.
"Good idea." We both shambled into the kitchen, again trying to beat one another to the good cups. He won by virtue of being able to reach them first.
"How did you find me so fast?" I said, waiting for my turn at the refrigerator's water dispenser.
"Fast? I've been looking for you all week." He finished pouring and took a swig. I nimbly stepped in and started filling mine.
"Don't think," he said, once he'd finished. "That I haven't heard what you've been up to. Everywhere I went, people were talking about the demon wreaking havoc on the Seelie."
"Hey, I've been a perfect saint-"
"I just saw you blow up Titania's palace!"
"Besides that, I mean."
"You murdered a crow spirit!"
"That was the dog."
"You set a horde of crocotta on a kitsune wedding."
"You set fire to the-"
"Contaminated a river, upset the naiad and tortured her children-"
"Hey, they started that fight."
He stared at me. Not the regular, shocked kind of stare, but an appalled sort that said, quite plainly, that I was scum. "They were children. It took me hours to undo that curse. They were crying."
I tucked my hands into my pockets and examined my feet. "Yeah, well, they got grabby."
"You-" He stopped and rubbed his temples. "I can't even look at you right now. It's making me sick."
"You sure that's not just your spell?"
He scowled and headed for the livingroom.
"What?" I said. "Now you're gonna give me the silent treatment?"
He didn't answer.
"Oh come on. I've done things way worse-"
The door closed behind him, leaving me alone.
* * * * *
There was a message from Hastofur taped to the front door the next morning. It said to meet him at a restaurant downtown, on time and by myself. I didn't bother wondering how he knew I was back.
I approached the restaurant nervously. It didn't matter that it was on a busy street, or that it was the middle of the lunch rush.
He was outside at one of the patio tables, sitting beneath the shade of a large umbrella and reading a newspaper. Every so often, he'd chuckle to himself and pick at the food sitting across from him.
"Ahem," I said, once I was close enough.
He looked up. "Bri," he said cheerfully. "Good to see you, good to see you." He snapped one of his biscottis in half and popped part into his mouth. There was a loud crunch.
"You too, Has."
"Speak up now," he said through a mouth full of crumbs. "Can't hear you."
I cleared my throat. "Good to see you too, Has."
He gestured to the seat across from him. "Sit down, sit. Relax. You look terrible. Trouble sleeping last night?" He took a sip of his drink.
I nodded my head stiffly.
He made an amused 'hmm' noise and set the drink down. There was a bit of red on his lip that he dabbed away with a napkin. I'd seen enough of it the past day- week- whatever- to have a good guess as to what it was.
"Bri," he said. "I believe you have something of mine. I can smell it on you."
I took the necklace from my pocket and, almost gratefully, set it on the table. He took it, examined it for a moment, then nodded.
"Hear you had a busy week yesterday," he said, tucking the charm into his shirt pocket.
"Kinda, yeah. Uh, Hastofur? Pardon my asking, but what, exactly, was the message I delivered?"
"A declaration of war."
"Ah. Okay, then. From. . . you?"
"From 'hell', as far as anyone knows." He grinned, displaying row upon row of sharp teeth. "I hear you caused quite a stir. Excellent."
I thought about everything I'd done the other day, and how it would look to anyone on the outside. It occurred to me that I might be a terrorist.
He just looked at me. "Khoress said you were going soft."
"Khoress is the physical manifestation of illicit sex and animalistic lust."
"True. But I don't see how that's relevant to the topic at hand."
"Oh," I said. "Sorry. I thought we were just pointing out random facts about Khoress."
He stretched and scooted his chair back. "Come," he said. "Tell me what happened." He stood up.
I stood up as well and caught a glimpse of the inside of his cup. Yep, it was blood.
"Hey, whose blood was that?"
Hastofur smiled mildly. "Your priest friend's."
It took a moment for that to sink in.
"You heard me."
Slowly, I took the cup. "You killed Riley?"
"Messily." I could hear the smile in his voice.
"Oh." I stared at the cup. There was still a little bit of blood pooled at the bottom. There was a ring of pink on the inside where it had been sitting before I'd disturbed it.
"Yes," said Hastofur.
I watched a drop fall from the cup onto the pavement. "I didn't say anything."
"You were wondering if it was your fault. It was."
"No, I wasn't." Another drop joined its fellow on the ground.
"He was just a human," said Hastofur.
"Right," I said. It was such a plain little cup. Cheap porcelain. Little squiggly blue lines to make it look nice. There was a chip in the handle. "Human."
"You're going soft, Bri."
There was the strangest feeling in my stomach, weighing down on me and making me want to run and hide. I did not know it. I did not like it, and I wished it would go away.
"Glad to hear it."
"Just a human," I said. Just a stupid little cup. "Old, too."
"He would have died soon anyways," said Hastofur.
"Right," I said. "They do that. Die. They die a lot."
"Good," he said, plucking the cup from my hands. "Then we can get to business." He tossed the cup and turned without waiting to see where it landed. I watched it fall to the pavement. I watched it shatter, scattering bits of porcelain and Riley everywhere.
"Bri?" he said. "You coming?"
"Oh. Yeah. Right." I hurried to catch up.
There was business to do, after all. I may have finished the favor, but I still owed Hastofur more.
I looked down at my hand where a bit of Riley's blood had stained my fingers. I owed Hastofur a lot more.