It didn’t take me long to realize that I was heading back toward the house. As soon as I did, I was wracked by doubts. Was I actually feeling something, or just making it up? If I was homing in on something, was it just Hans’ wolf? It definitely wasn’t human, though that didn’t necessitate that it wasn’t a figment of my imagination. I almost decided to pick out a different thread and try again, but I stopped myself. Even if this led me straight to Hans, it would prove I was on the right track.
And besides, I ultimately reasoned, it made a certain amount of sense that there would be a fae near the house. I was a vampire. Supposedly that made me the strongest piece on my side of the board. Archarel would want to keep tabs on me.
Plus, Melvin didn’t seem to have much trouble slipping back into our world after dying, but from how John had described the last war I’d gotten the impression that mass emigration from faerieland was a bit more complicated to pull off — and Linda had said she and her witches kept a close eye on the ‘gate’ Archarel had used last time. So Archarel couldn’t have that many fae running around the city. And since the fae I’d accidentally secured a boon from were all agents of his that had been tracking Megan, it made a certain amount of sense that one of them would also be the one assigned to keep an eye on me.
I did start to get better at lining up the direction to travel, though. As my grip on the thread I was tracking got stronger it got easier to tell when something made it slip a little. After a couple blocks I didn’t have to go through the full production of turning circles with my eyes closed anymore: I could just keep focusing on the fae I was after, and as long as the connection kept getting stronger I knew I was going in the right direction. I would just check each corner when I came to an intersection, and whichever corner I could form the strongest connection at determined the way I would travel next.
Eventually, just a couple blocks from the house, I hit an intersection where my triangulation told me that I had to backtrack. I turned and started back the way I had come, and at the middle of the block I stopped and tested again. I hoped that the damn fae wasn’t in one of the houses I’d walked past. I wasn’t entirely sure how I’d get myself invited in… although, if it came right down to it, since I was a young vampire and well fed I could probably bull through the threshold without it taking too much out of me. Then again, I’d done a lot of running with time frozen in place, so I wasn’t entirely certain of the state of my reserves anymore — except that I still felt much more alive than dead.
Checking the strength of my connection at the middle of the block didn’t really help me determine much, other than that I was now closer than I had been from either end. I glanced around again to see if anyone was watching and then, relatively confident that no one was about to call the cops on me for being weird at night, I did the circle test so I could get a better idea of where to go.
The imaginary line ended up pointing toward the other side of the street. I looked, and felt like smacking myself on the head. Across the street was the entrance to a large public park — I vaguely remember Emma talking about going jogging there in the mornings after spending the night at Mr. Salvatore’s. Hadn’t she asked Hans if he’d join her, at some unspecified future date?
In any case, the park was a perfect place for fae to hide out. It was a large, open area of public land. There were no thresholds to keep them out. There was lots of space for them to lurk in or go to ground, or do whatever the hell it was that faeries did when they weren’t tormenting people. If I were spying on a vampire and needed a place to set up a base and couldn’t trick people into thinking I was one of them so I could get myself a house, then the park was where I’d set up base.
Or maybe I was just telling myself that because I wanted it to make sense. In any event, crossing the street and checking my connection confirmed it: The faerie whose thread I was holding was somewhere in there.
I walked through the park gates and started to look around. I hadn’t gotten out much in life, and that included not going for walks in the city parks. I knew that there were a lot of them, which, given that I now knew the city used to be home to an entire pack of werewolves, suddenly made more sense to me than it had before. Near the park entrance was a large parking lot. Past that were a few large stretches of grass, separated by paved paths. One of the fields had big shelters: just large roofs supported by four corner posts with concrete floors and no walls. One had a couple of goals on either side, for soccer or some sport that that I didn’t know the rules of and probably didn’t involve sex so I couldn’t ask Hans about them, either. And the field in the middle was just open. They all had a scattering of picnic tables around the edges, though the first one had a few inside the shelters, too.
Past the three fields, the flora abruptly rose up in a wall of trees. The paths that cut through the grassy expanse disappeared into the small forest: the park, it seemed, was longer than it was wide and continued farther than I could see.
I did my circle test from two corners of the parking lot, and then tried to guess where those two imaginary lines would intersect. At the far end of the middle field there was a large board with a map painted on it. Since I could see in the dark and had super vampire vision, I had no problem reading it from where I was. It looked like the park crossed a tributary of the major river that went through the city, and then widened significantly. The trails diverged further on the other side of the water, eventually reaching other picnic areas and park entrances.
If I had to guess from my mental triangle, the left path would take me closer to the fae I was after. I crossed the field and tried to keep my trepidation in check.
The fact was, the initial rush of having figured something out had faded. I knew what I had to do, but while my excitement and confidence over figuring that out had faded my anxiety remained, as always, a constant. I was getting nervous, and suddenly the idea of stalking a faerie into its home turf — which happened to be a deep, dark forest in the middle of the night — was starting to seem like a bad idea.
It seemed like an even worse idea when I stopped at the edge of the trees. Even with my vampire vision it seemed like I could barely see more than a few feet because there was just too much shrubbery and too many trees. Worse, with so many things for the wind to rustle my sense of hearing was worthless. Either I’d have to ignore it, or I’d be jumping at noises every few seconds. Plus, there was the fact that I was alone. I mean: I was getting back into scary movie opening scenes, here.
And did I really think I wouldn’t choke when I confronted the bastard I’d been hunting? The entire time I’d been watching his thread I’d been getting glimpses of sadistic glee. Remembering how casually the fae had talked about torturing me when they’d had me surrounded, before Melvin had chased them off, made me realize that whoever this was, he was going to be fucking scary.
And I have a history of not handling ‘scary’ well.
I shivered, which had nothing to do with the cold night air. I tried to pull myself together before I could psyche myself out. I had to do this. Not just to prove that I could, but so that I would have the energy to give Megan so she would have the energy to help Emma.
That settled it. I might have chickened out if I’d been doing this just for myself, but Emma was important. And Hans was important, and they both needed me to be able to take care of myself so I would stop over-relying on them.
Plus, the thought of the sick, evil fuck whose mind I’d been stealing glimpses of lurking in the woods — waiting — when Emma came by for one of her morning jogs made my stomach turn and my veins run cold. Oh, hell no, I thought in protest of the image. If I hadn’t had enough of a reason to hunt this bastard down and end him before, I realized, that thought gave me the only one I really needed.
I steeled myself and stepped under the trees. Despite knowing that I’d only freak myself out, I kept my ears open for any changes around me. I’d gotten used to being able to see in the dark, and having my visibility cut back by the trees reminded me of just how fucking scary it was to be somewhere that something could jump out at you. I tried to keep my focus on the connection I was following, too — that way, at least I’d know if whatever noise I heard was coming from the direction the faerie was in. I could ignore anything that came from somewhere else.
Unless, of course, he wasn’t the only faerie in the woods.
I swallowed. Oh, fuck me. Why did I have to wait until I’d already started down the path to think of that? In a panic, I lost my grip on the thread I was following. I almost started grabbing for others, just to see if any other fae were nearby — but there were too many strands and I hadn’t worked out how to separate them all and I was way too freaked to concentrate.
And then I heard something that cut through all of my own panicked processes.
A cry of fear, and someone moving through dead leaves and the clatter of something being knocked over and an inarticulate moan of fright and — oh my fucking god, that bastard fae had someone in his clutches!
A handful of thoughts hit me all at once. That explains the sadistic glee, was one of them. The whole time I’d been hunting him, he had been feeding. I have to do something was another, followed by: are you fucking crazy?! and but that person could be Emma, tomorrow! and then I realized that debating whether or not I would intervene was a moot exercise, because I’d already frozen time and charged down the path.
Running through the woods with time frozen was weird. And not just in a ‘hey, I’m casually breaking the laws of reality’ sort of weird. That resistance I felt when I approached people while time was frozen? Trees gave it off, too. Not anywhere near as strongly, but enough that I was grateful for the path. I suspected that if I’d actually been running through the woods themselves, then I wouldn’t have been able to move while keeping time still, and that would definitely have ended with my giving myself away as I crashed through the brush.
But as long as I stayed in the middle of the path I had enough distance from the trees on either side that I could run easily. On top of that, the path seemed to be taking me straight to my destination: I kept getting closer to the fae, and I held out hope that I wouldn’t have to detour into the actual forest, after all.
Then the trees gave way to a tiny clearing that approached a river. Or rather, the tributary that ran through the park. A sturdy wooden bridge — probably big enough for a car, though clearly intended for foot traffic — spanned the water. And as I started to cross it, my grip on the faerie’s thread peaked and then wavered.
I froze and turned.
Of course. Melvin had called Archarel’s fae a pack of goblins and trolls. Where better for a troll to live than under a bridge? I backtracked and turned. The bank down was steep, but flattened out well before the water’s edge. The river was probably low: it looked like it could be quite a bit higher. There wasn’t a proper path down, but I did see a way that looked a little more scalable than the rough embankment — and at the bottom of it I saw him.
He was big. Not quite as big as Hans, but he looked mean. He wore the guise of a grizzled, older man. He had grey and white hair that was wildly unkempt and wore a mix of dirty, matted clothing. He looked like the kind of person I would expect to see surge out from under a bridge to grab a passing jogger and haul her under to be butchered and eaten.
I took a risk and jumped down to the lower portion of the river bank where he was. I figured that even if I twisted my ankle or something, I’d just insta-heal thanks to vampire power. I’d probably burn through more life force healing scrapes and cuts and bruises if I tried to scramble down the riverbank in a more conventionally sensible manner.
I landed hard, slipped, but caught myself before I fell. My grip on time slipped for just a second when I landed, but I reasserted it almost instantly. When I looked at him, the fae had only been able to move enough to look at me — he hadn’t been able to do anything else before time had stopped again. He might not have even had time to realize what he was looking at, I thought grimly.
I, on the other hand, took a better look at the faerie I was planning to tangle with. Since his face was turned toward me, I could see his expression — which I hadn’t been able to see from above. His eyes were wide, and more than a little crazed. He was staring straight at me. He was on all fours, and it looked like he was running toward me — though how he’d known I was coming when I’d frozen time to get here I couldn’t begin to guess. Except that was enough of an incongruity for me to look at him again.
And then it clicked. The eyes. Wide in surprise, yes. Crazed? Yes. From fear. I swallowed. Yes, he looked like the kind of person you expected to find under a bridge. The kind of person who had always scared me because I was afraid of everyone, and of desperate people more than most. But he was just a human, and terrified, and not running toward me. He was running away from someone else. I looked up from him, and saw what was under the bridge.
I froze. On one level, I wanted to scream and run. On another, I couldn’t look away.
The homeless man had clearly taken shelter under this bridge. There was a backpack and a pile of tattered, filthy blankets laid out like a bedroll. The backpack was open and its contents scattered — that had probably been the source of the clattering I’d heard. And all around the shoddy, makeshift campsite there were corpses.
Lots of the corpses belonged to people in military uniform: the sandy brown camouflage you see on desert soldiers, but there were also a couple of corpses in some other, civilian outfit. Those wore brown slacks and an off yellow polo shirt with a logo on the left breast. All of them were riddled with bullet holes, or ripped open from shrapnel, or missing limbs or… it was horrific.
I wanted to puke.
I wanted to cry.
The only reason I didn’t do either was that I had resumed my grasp on my connection to the fae. It was a very tentative grasp, because being surprised by the homeless guy meant I wasn’t really focusing on the faerie — but it was enough to let me know that the faerie I was hunting and the bodies I was seeing were related. I focused harder, and the bodies seemed to fade, becoming translucent.
They were glamours, I realized. Psychic props, like Melvin’s sword — or his clothes. The bodies were just entities that the faerie had created for the sole purpose of terrifying the homeless man who I had at first mistaken for the monster I was hunting.
And that? That made me want to kill the fucker who’d made them. Anger and outrage surged through me. Fury cleansed me of doubts and reservations. I’d spent most of my life being afraid, and while I thought I could blame the fae for keeping me on that path, I also recognized that on at least some level those fears were self-inflicted: the product of my overactive imagination. But this? This was fucking wrong. This was something sick and twisted and cruel beyond reason.
I could only imagine what had driven the man in front of me to homelessness, but I had a strong suspicion that the faces on all those illusionary corpses — and the injuries — had belonged to real people. Probably people the man had known. Possibly people he had seen die.
I stepped past the homeless man and maintained my focus on the leyline connecting me to the faerie who was tormenting him. The bodies didn’t exist for me as anything more than shadowy phantasms now, a fact I was grateful for as I stepped among them. I kept looking around, and then I spotted the faerie.
He was smaller than I’d expected — one of the goblins that had attacked Mr. Salvatore rather than one of the trolls. He had bent, gnarled limbs and a hook nose, warty green skin and what looked like stubs of wings sprouting from his back. His eyes were black slits with red, glowing pupils. There was a faint quality of shadow and phantasm to him, as well, not unlike what his illusions had been reduced to. I guessed that was because he was supposed to be invisible right now, but since my grip on his thread was letting me see through his illusions his invisibility was just another hazy semi-phantasm to me.
I forced my way toward him, gritting my teeth against the resistance that tried to hold me back. I was going to get as close as I could — there was no way I was letting this sadistic, demented fucker have a chance to run. Not that he could actually hide from me, given that I could track him magically, but still: I wasn’t about to risk him screwing with someone else before I caught up to him again, if he managed to escape tonight.
My fangs were out: not on purpose, but just because I was that furious. I held onto the fury and outrage, just to make sure that my anxieties wouldn’t get a foothold on me before it was too late. I didn’t care if I freaked out so badly I puked when this was done — I was going to get it done, first.
I was guessing that the homeless guy was a veteran. I remembered Hans’ outraged anger over the fact that Mr. Salvatore’s blood addiction had been exacerbated by his service in the war against the fae, and I felt something similar. This goblin was preying on the worst memories of someone who had been broken trying to make the world a safer place for people like me, people who were too fucking helpless to face down the dangers and monsters of the mundane world themselves. Yes, military personnel terrified me because they were trained to execute violence on a level that was, frankly, terrifying — but I’d still always been profoundly grateful that there were men and women like that on my side, protecting me from the men and women like that who weren’t. Well, now he had a monster he couldn’t face, and I was going to protect him.
My fingers were only inches from the goblin’s neck when I couldn’t push them forward any more. The tension when I tried was so strong it actually hurt and my hands trembled slightly without moving so much as a sliver forward. Part of me was so angry that I wanted to keep pushing anyway; to grab ahold of this goblin and tear off a limb or two before I even let time start again.
But just killing him wouldn’t fix it. Just killing him wouldn’t do a damn thing to keep him from coming back. And wearing myself out before I even got my hands on him was just stupid. So instead I gathered up all of my determination, outrage and fury, and then I unstopped time…
…and then I lunged.