Oh shit oh shit oh shit… While most of my conscious mind was running through that amazingly useful assessment of the situation, Melvin was taunting Eyelids. “Heavens,” Melvin exclaimed. “What is a ruffian like you doing in a nice neighborhood like this?”
Mr. Eyelids’ eyes narrowed. “Banter while you can, familiar. You won’t be cutting me down by surprise today.”
Melvin sighed extravagantly. “Really? You want to see it coming? You know, you should really consider talking to someone about this bizarre fetish you have for getting chopped in half. It cannot be healthy.” I was slightly amazed that Melvin was acting so nonchalant — he’d bluffed his way through Mr. Eyelids’ horde before, but that had been when he’d cut down Eyelids by surprise. For that matter, all of Melvin’s encounters with the troll really had included an unhealthy (for Mr. Eyelids) amount of surprise.
“I’d love to rend you limb from limb,” Mr. Eyelids growled, “but my mistress desires you and your witch intact, so that we may follow your leylines through the wards you laid around the changeling’s home. Please, don’t surrender. There are more than enough of us here to take you both, and I would relish the excuse to bring you to Katherine in less than one complete piece.”
“What is he talking about?” I hissed to Melvin.
Melvin twitched, and I recalled too late that he was still probably compelled to answer me — even though I imagined he wanted to keep his attention on the horde surrounding us. “Leylines are the connections between people and other people, or things, or places,” he explained quickly. “If a line is strong enough, a fae can travel along it — it is how we ‘teleport’ about in this world. My oath and the years I’ve spent watching her while she was abroad have fashioned a strong one between myself and Megan. You most likely have one as well, from her years in love with you and your years as her friend.”
And from the piece of her soul that serves as the foundation of mine, I thought. “Right. Okay, so, this is bad then.” Go, mistress of the obvious.
Melvin snorted. “Yes. If we are delivered to Katherine, she could probably use those to pierce the obfuscations I have keeping other fae away from Megan’s home.”
Mr. Eyelids chuckled hatefully. “Thank you for confirming that,” he gloated.
Shit, shit, shit! I yelled at myself. But then I remembered something else, something Megan had told me. I leaned to the side so I had a clear view of Mr. Eyelids. “You’re welcome,” I said. Megan had warned me against saying I should thank Melvin, because implying I was in his debt and being in his debt were too close to being the same thing. “Although he only said that because I’d earlier told him to explain things to me — so apparently now you owe me.” I tried to think how I could use that. I wouldn’t be able to get anything major for it, I was sure. I blew out a breath and let my autopilot go. I may as well get something, though, and I figure this is probably about an even trade. “So you can tell me why Katherine didn’t just use her relationship with Megan to get around Melvin’s wards.”
Mr. Eyelids scowled at me. Maybe he thought I’d be too dumb to capitalize on his mistake. Maybe he’d thought I wouldn’t recognize it, and thought that taunting me would be worth the little bit of debt. Or maybe Mr. Eyelids’ thanks were canceled out by all the times Melvin had cut him in half, so he hadn’t expected to have anyone call him on it. In any case, he clearly didn’t like how I’d responded. Then again, he was disappointed when I wasn’t terrified of him this morning — and I’m way too close to dead right now. Compared to what Melvin was doing, the threat of physical violence is barely a blip on my inner freakoutometer. How fucked up was that?
“Katherine’s connection to the changeling is insufficient to the task,” Mr. Eyelids admitted. “Her hatred of you, on the other hand, provided more than enough of a line for us to follow.”
I straightened, then stepped once to the side so I didn’t have to be leaning sideways to talk to Mr. Eyelids. I was frowning. “But if my relationship is enough… I mean, that’s friendship on one side and love on the other. So how is Katherine’s different?” Other than the friendship being on Megan’s side, and the love on Katherine’s, in that case…
But what kind of person would ally with someone who wants to enslave someone they love? Katherine was working with Archarel. My mouth felt dry. She doesn’t love Megan, I realized. Holy fuck.
Mr. Eyelids looked discomforted, but tried to hide it by laughing again. “Now now,” he chided me, “I think we’re even and I’m not obliged to tell you anything.”
But I was done talking to him, anyway. Ignoring Mr. Eyelids’ attempt to cover up his own ignorance, I returned my attention to Melvin. “Melvin, can you use your line to Megan to get away from here?” I asked. We couldn’t just let them capture us, and that was the simplest way to get one of us clear. Plus, then Melvin could get John or Hans or someone and put together a rescue plan for me.
“No,” Melvin said. “They have us circled. The only line I have available is the one to you.” Then he jerked a thumb toward Mr. Eyelids. “And the one that’s been forming since I’ve been unfortunate enough to have to dispatch that oaf so often.”
I snorted. “I guess killing people does have the unfortunate side effect of leaving an impression,” I said wryly. I was almost surprised at how calm I sounded — but that was my autopilot for you. Always covering for me. Inside, I was scrambling for a way out of the situation we found ourselves in. If Melvin couldn’t go for help, then we were seriously screwed.
“Stop it!” Mr. Eyelids shrieked, yanking my attention back to him. “Stop acting like I’m not even here! You belong to us, now, so pay us our due respect as your captors!”
“Oh, hardly,” Melvin answered. “We’ve just been standing around talking, or haven’t you noticed that? I’m afraid that if you wish to make a claim on me, it won’t be without a fight.” I could hear him smile. “And I fully intend to fight to the death.”
Well, that was one of us free, then. How long would it take for Melvin to come back and get help if he forced them to kill him?
Would I be able to hold it together that long?
“Oh, we’ll keep you alive,” Mr. Eyelids snarled. He gestured imperiously toward Melvin. “Seize him!”
Shit! I didn’t have a plan. I needed more time! I…
I froze time. Sometimes I’m an idiot. I had all the time in the world.
I ducked under Melvin’s arm and walked into the middle of the alley so I could get a better look at what was going on. Mr. Eyelids and everyone else was frozen in place. Mr. Eyelids was still gesturing, and the two fae that flanked him to either side were already starting to shift forward. I looked for a way around them. If Melvin couldn’t escape, maybe I could.
Actually, I could just kill Melvin, to make sure Eyelids didn’t capture him, and then freeze time and run away myself, couldn’t I?
As I looked around, I was forced to conclude that I couldn’t. My movement was still limited: it got harder to move the closer I got to another living being, and, like Melvin had said: Mr. Eyelids’ horde had us surrounded. There were even winged gargoyle things lining the wall at the back of the alley. I wouldn’t be able to force my way past them while time was frozen.
Frustrated, I growled and started to pace. I was tired, and angry, and fuck I was hungry! I was sick of all this fae political bullshit. All I really wanted to do was sink my fangs into someone and enjoy the rush, but noooo, Mr. Fucking Eyelids had to interrupt my alone time with Melvin before I could even get around to asking for a bite.
Not that I really cared about asking, anymore. But at this point, I was starting to feel more pissed than hungry. And not just with Mr. Eyelids, but with myself. Why the hell didn’t I drink the fuck out of Megan before leaving? I wondered. I knew the answer, but it was stupid. Who cared where she had to recharge from?
Finally, I threw up my hands and pivoted back toward Mr. Eyelids. He was still frozen in place. I was still fucking pissed. In fact, I was pissed enough that I was starting to think Melvin’s ‘fight to the death’ idea sounded pretty damn good. I was a supernatural badass, after all. I could probably kill a whole fuckton of Eyelids’ horde, and maybe grab a snack or two along the way.
I closed my eyes. I didn’t really know a lot about fighting, since I’ve always been too chicken-shit to stand up for myself, but I did know a little. It was impossible to be friends with Fumiko without learning something. I looked around the alley for a weapon, but didn’t find much other than rubble. Just my luck: a fucking clean alley. Why does Megan have to live in a nice neighborhood?
So, if I was going to fight it was going to be tooth and nail. I grinned, baring my fangs. Actually, that suits me just fine. I walked up to Mr. Eyelids. What all had Fumiko said about how to throw a punch? I did my best to remember.
Curl your fingers in tight against your palm, thumb on the outside. Make the fist as tight as you can. Pull your arm back so your fist is in line with your hip, wrist facing up. Throw it forward; snap your wrist around at the last second. That last bit was supposed to add force by introducing torque or something… I didn’t really remember it all that well. But I did remember one other thing. Don’t aim to hit your opponent. Aim to hit a couple inches on the other side of them.
I took a couple practice half punches, just to see if it felt like I was doing it right. Then I squared off against Mr. Eyelids. I kind of wanted to punch him in the head, but he was too damn tall, even though he seemed thinner than I remembered. I picked a spot slightly behind the center of his chest to aim for. Then I took a few more practice swings, until I was pretty confident I knew exactly where my fist would start feeling that weird resistance living things gave off when I approached them while time was stopped.
Then I threw my punch. At the last possible second, I let time resume. Just before striking Mr. Eyelids, I snapped my wrist around.
He didn’t stand a fucking chance.
One second, I was throwing my fist forward. The next, it hit Mr. Eyelids’ chest. But I wasn’t aiming for the fae’s chest, and I’d apparently miscalculated exactly how strong I was. Eyelids’ chest caved in. My fist kept going. It was kind of like punching a really thick mound of gelatin. With, I don’t know, some sort of candied skeleton to give it shape.
In any case, Mr. Eyelids ribs’ shattered. His flesh tore. And maybe it was just because his body wasn’t really real, and was shaped by expectations — coupled with the fact that the only violence I’m really familiar with comes from anime and manga — but my fist cracked his spine and punched through his torso. I wrenched my hand free while he was still dissolving and froze time again.
I giggled. I was giddy. I looked at the rapidly unraveling mass of shadows that used to be Mr. Eyelids — now flash frozen in time — and laughed. I’d lived my entire life being afraid of some sort of horrible, violent end — and now I was that end. The rush was incredible. I wanted to kill someone else.
I turned to one of the fae that had started forward at Mr. Eyelids’ command and repeated the process. It died just as easily. I almost didn’t freeze time before laughing in its face, but I didn’t want the remaining ones to run away while I was distracted. With time frozen again I turned and approached the other fae who had been rushing toward Melvin and I at Eyelids’ command.
This one was shorter than Eyelids or the other fae had been. He was some sort of goblin, I guessed. Whatever: all I really cared about was that I was going to get to punch someone in the head after all. And the funny thing was? He still hadn’t taken an entire step forward when I caved in his skull.
With time frozen once more, I laughed and stepped back to survey what I’d done. Mr. Eyelids was still dissolving away. So was the second fae. The third was the most intact, and his head was caved in and just starting to swing backward: I suspected he was going to flip over backwards because I’d reversed the momentum of the top half of his body, if he didn’t unravel entirely before then.
In real time, it had been just a couple seconds. I couldn’t actually get to more of the fae, because the corpses of the three I’d killed hadn’t finished bursting apart into shadowy mist to let me pass. But that was just as well. I’d felt exhilarated while dropping each of them, but now my lip twitched in a half snarl. It was getting harder to keep my hold on the stillness of time: I was using up energy fast, and I’d been too hungry to start with. I wouldn’t be able to keep this up, and it would have been bad if I’d been in the middle of the horde when I finally lost my grip on time.
I wasn’t sure, but I suspected that if I pushed myself too far and used up all the energy I had available, well… I would probably go dormant to preserve the little scrap of soul that formed the core of my unlife. I was already experienced with my powers cutting out as my energy diminished: I hadn’t been able to heal from the sun’s burns this morning until I’d been replenished by Melvin’s blood. So even if I didn’t go dormant from it, eventually I wouldn’t be able to stop time anymore.
I took a few steps back and reluctantly let time resume its flow. I was still riding the power high while the bodies of Mr. Eyelids and his overeager companions collapsed into black mist and faded away. I was aware that I couldn’t take them all on, but I didn’t care anymore. Actually, I had a plan.
“I’m afraid that I must take exception,” I said. I wasn’t afraid, thanks to my blood lust, and that suited me perfectly. As far as the fae were concerned, I had teleported past Melvin and made three of them explode without moving — if any of them had been particularly perceptive, they might have seen me flickering in and out of time when I actually landed my punches, but I doubted any had been paying close enough attention to catch me at it. I smiled, making sure the fae in front of me — the bulk of the horde — got a very good look at my fangs. The fae can be bluffed. My mortal self had bluffed Melvin, and I hadn’t been able to conceal my fear, then.
“As you can plainly see,” I continued while raking the crowd with my gaze, “I have prior claim on Melvin, here. So if anyone wishes to seize him, they will have to go through me, first.” None of the fae would meet my eyes. “What,” I asked, “no takers?” I laughed, feeling the giddy rush of a power high again. “I suppose that’s just as well,” I concluded. “After all,” I added as a less than subtle reminder that I could permanently end them, “I bite.”
I strode forward, and the horde hastily backed away from me. I held in my laughter at that. Instead, I gestured for Melvin to follow me. I didn’t look to see if he did: I didn’t want to split my focus from intimidating the fae in front of me. I forced them into the street, which gave them more room to spread out and back away from me. The ominous cloud that had lingered behind them began to coalesce as more fae took shape in the night — but those ones also kept their distance.
I continued to walk, but they continued to keep pace — well out of reach — maintaining the ring around Melvin and I.
Finally, I stopped. I turned slowly, surveying the circle of fae. It was clear that some of them were trying to rebuild their courage. Perhaps if enough of them did, they would try to rush us from all sides. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the strength to screw with time anymore. More fortunately, they’d waited too long. Now I was finally in position to break them.
I finished my full circle and then spoke loudly into the night. “Well, look at this!” I declared. “I find myself beset upon by fae, at a crossroads, at midnight.” I wasn’t sure if it actually was midnight, but I figured it was near enough.
The fae in the ring shifted uneasily. Some looked at their fellows, trying to figure out what I was up to. Some of the more cowardly ones started to back away.
I turned to Melvin, as though I weren’t paying the horde any attention at all. “I suppose this means that any fae who challenge me must do so with my choice of weapons, and that when I defeat them they will owe me a boon for the arrogance they showed in attacking,” I said casually.
Melvin was quick enough on his feet to see what I was doing. “Indeed,” he agreed. “That is the tradition.” He shook his head sadly. “You’ll choose fangs, I presume? Poor bastards,” he mused. More of the horde began to melt away.
“Of course,” I agreed cheerfully as even more of the fae around us abandoned the horde. “And the best part is, even if they realize they can’t win and they yield — or if I am forced to kill them to win — I can demand their life’s blood as the boon owed.” It was hard to resist laughing. Even though our conversation was for the benefit of the fae around us, I found myself almost wanting one or two to step forward.
“Yes, you could,” Melvin began to agree — but then he stopped. There was no need to continue.
The horde had fled. Melvin and I stood in the middle of the intersection where I’d stopped to make our stand: alone with each other once again.
And I was starving for a drink.