I didn’t know what to expect, so I was expecting anything. I got it, too.
The shadows roiled and flickered, disgorging hunch-backed monstrosities with horns and wings and… no two of them were alike. Some were tall. Many were short. Some had gnarled skin like tree bark, some had scales; some a warty leather hide. They were all vaguely humanoid, with beady eyes that glittered in the night.
My terror spiked. That was good, right? They had to like that. The bigger ones shambled forward, circling the edge of the light coming from the corner lamp. I swallowed. I didn’t see intelligence in those eyes – just cruelty. I tried to drag myself toward the light. The monsters didn’t seem to like it, and Hans had said to stay somewhere lit. Maybe if I was scared enough and the light was bright enough they’d be sated enough not to drag me into the dark with them.
A little one skittered forward. I shrieked, but it skidded to a halt before it could be fully illuminated. It looked at me with a huge, stupid grin and it’s tongue flopped out. It was drooling. A bigger goblin smacked it aside.
Oh god, this had been a mistake. I knew how horrifying the unknown could be. I’ve known my whole life. Why had I called them out? I was sobbing when I reached the light post. The monsters were between myself and Megan’s car – but even if they weren’t, I couldn’t make a run for it. My ankle refused to support my weight anymore. My only hope was for Hans to get here before the fae got up the courage to grab me.
It wasn’t a reassuring hope. I squeezed my eyes shut. I’d agreed to trade myself for Megan, hadn’t I? If I was carried off, Mr. Salvatore would think Megan was gone, too. I was prepared for the worst.
I wasn’t prepared for a gravelly voice to croon “Oh, she won’t look. Look, girlie! It’s better if you look.”
Then another one rasped, “Nooooo… It’s better if she has to imagine. How close am I?” it called to me. “I’m coming to eat your toes,” it teased, “each little one.”
I whimpered and hugged the post tight. The monsters giggled and laughed among themselves. I couldn’t tell how close they were. I didn’t want to know.
“String her fingers on a necklace,” another one suggested.
“String a harp with her sinew,” came another voice.
“Well, I’m just going to cut out her eyelids and make her watch,” the first voice grumbled to a chorus of disappointed groans.
I opened my eyes and muffled a shriek.
The monsters hadn’t actually come closer.
They hooted with laughter. One, a particularly big one, smiled at me. “Here, girlie,” it cooed. It was the one that wanted to cut out my eyelids. “It will be worse if you make me come and get you, you know.” Its eyes glittered. “Worse for you, anyway.”
I wished I hadn’t called them. It was too late for that, but I wished I hadn’t called them.
Then the back door of Megan’s car popped open and a man stepped out. A tall, dapper man in an old fashioned suit with coat tails, wearing polished boots and a battered top hat that was stained rusty red. He carried a cane with a silver knob in one hand – his other hand was bandaged.
“I say!” he said in an overly sophisticated British accent. “Physical mutilation and vague threats? Now that’s just sad.” Mr. Tophat clucked his tongue disapprovingly. “No wonder you underachievers must scavenge about in a neighborhood like this.”
The goblin I only knew as ‘Eyelids’ turned and snarled at Mr. Tophat. “She’s ours,” Eyelids snapped.
“Oh?” Asked Mr. Tophat. “Indeed?” He stepped forward, and the other monsters scattered to let him pass. “I fear I must contradict you, good sir. As you can plainly see, that is her conveyance I have forthwith departed. Ergo, et cetera, and all that jolliness: she is plainly my traveling companion. Moreover,” Mr. Tophat added with a casual wave of his bandaged hand, “there is indeed a small matter between us for which I do owe her a certain excessive recompense. Therefore, to put it in terms even your simple mind might comprehend, if there are no objections…” Mr. Tophat bowed deeply to Eyelids and flourished his cane in a wide gesture that left its tip pointing at me. Still bowing, Mr. Tophat tilted his head back to stare Eyelids in the face. “…I call dibs,” he concluded.
“Mine!” Eyelids screamed in protest. His jaw unhinged impossibly wide as he shrieked, and he gathered himself to pounce.
I didn’t know if Eyelids meant to leap at me or to strike Mr. Tophat – Eyelids never got further than that.
Mr. Tophat snapped upright faster than I could follow. Wood clattered on the pavement, leaving the hilt of a sword in Mr. Tophat’s hand – and the length of its blade hewn halfway through Eyelids’ torso.
Mr. Tophat pivoted and heaved with his shoulder, wrenching his sword the rest of the way through Eyelids’ frame. Eyelids’ body hit the ground in two wet chunks that dissolved into rivulets of darkness, fleeing for the deeper shadows of the alleys as I watched.
Mr. Tophat idly twirled his sword. He set its tip against the ground and leaned on it as though it were still the cane it had been sheathed in. “I’ll take that as a ‘no, no objections,’ then, shall I?”
I don’t know who he was talking to – the other goblins had scattered. Maybe he was talking to himself. Maybe he was talking to me.
“I’m not yours,” I said weakly. I wanted to kick myself. I should have been showering him with thanks – if he left those others might come back.
Mr. Tophat turned and smiled at me. He twirled his sword like a cane and sauntered up to me like a gentleman showing off on the promenade. “No,” he agreed. “Not yet.”
I blanched. So, he had been talking to me. And worse, now that he was closer I could see that he wasn’t human. His pupils were slit like a cat’s and his ears – well, they weren’t huge like anime elf ears, but they were big, and lobeless, and curved up to points under the brim of his top hat.
Fae. He was one of them. And he’d gotten out of the back seat of Megan’s car. Had he been there the whole time?!
His eyes sparkled and he smiled broadly. He took a deep breath through his nose and let it out with a happy sigh. “Ah,” he said. “There it is. The realization that you are not, in fact, saved.” He smiled at me. “It’s like someone just put sprinkles on my favorite ice-cream.”
I forced myself to stare up at him, but couldn’t stop myself from gulping. “I’m not yours,” I managed to protest again.
Mr. Tophat waved his bandaged hand dismissively. “A mere formality, my lollipop. You did call out to a fae at a crossroads under the midnight moon in hopes of receiving a boon. By tradition, we duel for it. If you win, it’s yours.” He crouched down beside me. “And when you lose you’ll be mine, sugarplum, for a year and a day.”
I stared at him. “I don’t want to fight,” I squeaked. He’d cut a troll in half with one blow! Well, maybe one and a half. But I couldn’t even stand upright!
Mr. Tophat propped his elbows on his knees and his chin in his palms. The sword had somehow turned into a cane again. “Oh, I should imagine not,” he agreed. “You’re in no condition to do battle. Particularly since I, as challenged, would have chosen blades – which you have an appalling lack of. But, since I would much rather have you intact than limbless, I will accept your surrender with all due graciousness.” He tilted his head and considered me. “Besides,” he said, “I am not like those crass, low-brow goblins who would have torn you asunder and gorged on the fear of pain and death. A delicacy such as yourself should be savored, my dear muffin.” He paused in consideration. “I suppose in my youth I may have gobbled you up with such greedy abandon. But now? My tastes are more refined, my strudel, and without your arms and legs there would be so many fewer ways I could bind you to the bed.”
I stared at him and my jaw trembled. My heart was pounding, but there wasn’t a drop of blood in my face. I was too terrified to say anything.
Mr. Tophat sighed happily again. “Ah, there it is,” he purred. “You see, my sugared strawberry, I know you. And all the things you are really afraid of.” He leaned in close and cupped my chin. His thumb brushed my cheek. “I think you’ll find myself a more fitting wolf than that cur you dallied with yestereve.”
I tried to pull back. “You can’t do this,” I blurted. Keep him talking. Hans is on his way. “You owe me! You said as much!”
Mr. Tophat let me go and laughed. “Oh, my, yes.” He held his bandaged hand up. His fingers flexed stiffly. “For this, caramel drop.” His eyes narrowed to slits and his smile grew crueler. “I will admit that the first time you ran it over with a chair it was my own fault for being caught off guard. But why should I have been expected to think you would come back and do it twice more? That, candy cane, was purely gratuitous.”
He tilted his head. “Now, if you please, admit your defeat so I may carry you off before those scallywags regroup and return.”
I almost did. The thought that Necklace and Harp and maybe even another Eyelids might come back was almost enough to undo me. But… how long had Mr. Tophat been shadowing me? How much of my lifetime of fear could be laid at his feet? I felt a sudden surge of anger. Those fears crippled me. They made me depend on Megan, and had driven her away. How might our lives have been different if I hadn’t been a neurotic freak?
“Fuck that,” I snarled, and Mr. Tophat actually sat back in surprise. “You’ve ruined my life with anxiety and fed off it every step of the way. You owe me.”
Mr. Tophat blinked at me. Then he started to laugh. “My dear snicker doodle, that is nearly almost remotely true. But I assure you, your fears and traumas are no doing of mine. And while I may have had a taste of the emotions they bring out in you – why, for one such as myself that is no more a crime than if you were to linger outside a baker’s window while the pies were cooling. Nay, I am neither thief nor poacher nor saboteur – but when the baker gambles her wares on a losing hand, of course I will join the table.” He laughed again. “Now yield,” Mr. Tophat insisted.
I fought the urge to hyperventilate. I was a freak, then – if I could trust Mr. Tophat not to lie about it. Could fae lie? I thought I’d read some story once where they couldn’t. But weren’t they supposed to be tricky? Why hadn’t I grilled Hans about it while I’d had the chance?!
“No,” I said. This made three times Mr. Tophat had tried to make me surrender myself to him. All I actually knew about the fae was that they could feed on emotions and that their presence in this world was tentative. If they could be driven off by disbelief… I was starting to suspect that Mr. Tophat might not even be able to carry me off without my consent.
Mr. Tophat sighed theatrically. “Ah well,” he said as he stood. “You always were an ornery popcorn puff. Perhaps you’ll see reason before you’ve lost more than a hand or two.” He stood and smiled. “I choose blades, of course.”
“No!” I shrieked in flat panic. I pulled myself upright, clinging to the street lamp for support.
Mr. Tophat froze, sword already in hand and raised to strike. “Then you yield?” He asked. “For otherwise I must protest that this incessant waffling is most unseemly, even coming from as flaky a piece of baklava as yourself.”
“No,” I said again. “I wanted to talk. You’re the one insisting on this duel bullshit.”
Mr. Tophat arched an eyebrow. “Yes. So?”
“So, as challenged, the choice of weapons is mine,” I blurted out. That was how it worked, right?
Shit, was I actually committing myself to a duel?