Daniel Stuessy had been called many things in his life, but ‘stupid’ was not often one of them — and for good reason. As soon as Abigail disappeared — and she literally disappeared, there one instant and gone the next — he started to break camp. Now that he knew where his ‘waking nightmares’ had been coming from, he had no intention of lingering about where a wandering faerie might hit upon him. Fortunately, Daniel believed in being prepared and was always ready to move.
His spare clothes and blankets — the little he wasn’t wearing against the cold — he lashed to the bottom of his backpack. Then he slung the pack over both shoulders and tightened the straps. The bedroll lashed to the bottom of it conveniently concealed his knife, sheathed at the small of his back. He crinkled shut the open end of the soda can containing Abigail’s share of potatoes and slipped them into a pocket for later. Then he kicked some dirt into his fire pit and walked away. It would have taken an experienced eye to divine that he had been there, after he’d left.
Daniel felt a tiny stir of regret as he left the sturdy bridge behind. Nightmares aside, it had been quiet, peaceful — no worse than field conditions he’d weathered before — and the ache in his joints told him to expect rain soon. The dull throb in a scar that had come with his purple heart suggested storms, later. Hopefully by then he’d have a new shelter, with people who weren’t in the know about the fae.
That caveat irked Daniel as he left the park. He’d never been one to think ignorance was worth the knowledge that could replace it, and he was of two minds about perpetuating the secret once he got to his cousin’s. Part of that, he knew, was that the idea of hiding behind civilians struck him as wrong. He wrestled with how to deal with that issue as he made his way through the city.
One of the things Daniel had been called — and often, in the last few months — was paranoid. This appellation was one that Daniel personally thought was undeserved. He wasn’t paranoid. He had simply been taught by the only two teachers that mattered in life: those who survived, and those who didn’t. Daniel had learned his lessons well, which was why he was still one of the former.
Well, that and a little luck, when it was a roll of the dice that determined who lived and who didn’t. And even then, Daniel preferred to load the dice if he could.
As a result, Daniel took a circuitous route through the city. Whenever he saw that his path would take him by a pile of trash, a curbside trash can, a culvert or anywhere else that an IED could be easily concealed, he changed his route. He stuck to the sides of buildings or fences when he could, anything that would provide concealment or cover if bullets flew. He preferred the narrower alleys over the wider streets, since it was easier to keep his back to a wall and harder for snipers to get a good angle. He would periodically — but without pattern — take a turn and then duck down in ambush in case anyone had been tailing him. And he frequently checked his surroundings — including up — for any movement, reflective glint, or tiny detail that seemed out of place.
But he wasn’t paranoid. Just well educated.
In light of his new knowledge of goblins — and the fact that they could be fuckin’ invisible! — Daniel changed some of his priorities. Deeper shadows that he might have otherwise been inclined to conceal himself in while watching out for pursuers, he avoided instead. Culverts he marked as a greater threat than he had before — they were perfect places for a fae to hide, being dark, shielded from the elements, and typically running under a road. Daniel knew from Abigail’s story that the fae had a thing for crossroads, and he reckoned it was because any intersection meant more traffic. And more traffic meant more opportunities for one of the buggers to spot suitable prey to stalk. For that reason, Daniel chose to stick to less populated alleys when he could, and to make doubly sure to avoid any culverts, street-side storm drains, and major intersections he spotted. For the smaller crossroads, he did what he could: cutting through parking lots and looping through alleys to avoid having to even approach the crosswalks, if at all possible.
There were upsides and downsides to this approach. The downside was that it took him nearly an hour to reach his first destination. The upside, in Daniel’s mind, was that he reached his destination at all: toward the end he was starting to get that twitchy feeling that he associated with life getting ready to drop another pop quiz on anyone who hadn’t been studying hard enough.
Those were always murder.
The building Daniel was aiming for was a corner gas station with an attached restaurant — some burger chain that was all over the place. It was uncomfortably close to a crossroads for Daniel’s taste, but it was also open — which meant it was populated by employees if nothing else.
Daniel took the gas station entrance since it was farthest from the road. The attendant behind the counter was a half-bald middle-aged man who gave him a disgusted look, which Daniel replied to with a friendly smile and a wave. Night manager, end of his shift; grumpy ass douche, Daniel decided. He put the man out of his mind and crossed through the convenience store portion of the station and into the restaurant.
The kid behind the counter there — and Christ, wasn’t it just kids everywhere these days? — looked a hell of a lot more nervous than the manager had. Daniel gave the kid the points for intelligence that he had neglected to award the other guy. “Hey, yeah,” Daniel said when he got to the counter. “I’ll have the dollar menu burger, right? And can I get some packets of salt with that?”
Daniel had lied about the five dollars he’d told Abigail he had — it was closer to four, after the change was added in. That was no real problem, but not having defenses was. It was a long walk to the library, and hours before it opened. Daniel didn’t know what other than salt could be used to cast a ward, but if it was all about symbolism and intent then he didn’t figure it really mattered. He’d make do with what he could until he had the opportunity to learn more at the library — and then to hit up his cousin for whatever supplies it turned out he really needed.
Daniel hadn’t been willing to take a handout from his brother-in-all-but-name for his own sake, but this was a different matter. He may have gotten a medical discharge, but as far as Daniel was concerned his oath to protect the citizens of his nation from all threats foreign and domestic was personal. It didn’t go away just because they’d taken his rifle and given him his papers. And I reckon you don’t get much more foreign than trans-dimensional elves, he thought with a dark chuckle.
Daniel paid for the burger, and waited at the counter while it was made. While he was waiting he surveyed the interior of the restaurant for threats and resources. The windows did jack shit to provide cover from the streets, but each table had a salt shaker next to a ketchup squirt bottle and a napkin dispenser. Well, win some; lose some.
When his food was up, Daniel took it to the table that looked like it had the most resources he could use — namely, salt. Even though it made his inner scholar — not paranoia — twitch, he sat with his back to the employee counter. It let Daniel obscure what he was doing from the kid’s sight.
He ate as quickly as possible. There wasn’t time to enjoy it, so he didn’t bother. He smoothed out the waxed burger wrapper, knowing it would make a better container than anything else he had on him. A second later the salt shaker’s top was unscrewed and its contents dumped out. He folded the wrapper around it and tucked it into his pocket. The unopened packets the kid had given him went into another. The salt shaker went back to its place beside the ketchup, and Daniel got up. “Thanks,” he called to the kid on his way out.
This time, Daniel took the restaurant entrance, by the street — because it was also the one closest to the back of the building. He felt that tick in the back of his spine as soon as he cleared the building — that tick that meant there was another lesson coming up, one more test to see if he would be a survivor until the next one. But that was okay. Daniel was used to the sensation, and he’d known ducking into the restaurant could only be a temporary reprieve from whatever had finally caught his trail and been following him for the last block to the gas station.
But that was okay, too: Daniel had been expecting it. For all that he would always consider Abigail an angel, she was also a civilian. She didn’t understand the kind of message she’d sent that Archarel douchebag when she’d spared Pips, and she probably didn’t even realize the kind of response it was going to get. Daniel, on the other hand, was far too familiar with the thought processes of fuckers like that.
If you go into some dictator’s petty little kingdom and do something to rock the status quo, then that jackass was going to rock you back, hard. Two things kept a shit like that in power. The status quo and fear, and Abigail had kicked those pillars over sideways the very instant she’d made herself scarier than him. Of course Archarel was going to have to send a message back — just like any other self-inflated warlord would. But with Emma, Hans, Fumiko and Megan all behind wards — and Abigail herself too fuckin’ scary to go after — Archarel didn’t have many options available. Since Abigail’s family — or at least her mom — didn’t know about the fae, they were off the table, too. The witch Linda was playing neutral and probably had more protection in place than any of them… And that meant that Daniel was the only logical choice for Archarel’s messengers to come after, at the moment.
He wasn’t exactly thrilled about that, but it was what it was. And in the end, he wasn’t upset with it, either. He had a message he wanted to pass along to Archarel himself, once Archarel’s messengers caught up to him. Which was going to be right soon.
Daniel ducked around behind the restaurant. There was a small lot back there, probably for employees and trucks that supplied either side of the gas station. There were also a couple of dumpsters, and a fence that shielded the streets from having to see any of it. There was also only one way in or out of the lot, which made it a perfect place for an ambush.
Daniel stuffed his hands in his pockets and wished he didn’t have to play the bait for this… But he’d be fucked if he led any psychopathic invisible fear-mongers back to his cousin’s place. Best to go ahead and get this shit out of the way now. At the end of the lot he turned around.
The attack had started.
He knew this because of the smell. Daniel had never had a keen nose — something he’d been thankful for, now and again, when other people were puking from the stench of death and rot. So when he noticed the smell, he knew it was the fae, trying to play on his fears. Sure enough, Brawn’s corpse was propped against the dumpster: the kid was still clutching his rifle and half his head was blown off. Flies buzzed on his brains — nice touch, that, Daniel thought. The way out of the alley was dark — too dark for him to see the street. And that had to be a trick of the fae, too.
Out of the darkness Mitch ran, screaming. Daniel twitched, but held back the urge to shout — to protest, to try to warn the apparition. Different war, he thought. Different damn decade, even. The MD-82 landmine popped, and the blast shredded Mitch. The real Mitch hadn’t lasted a second. This one hit the ground and crawled forward, dragging his useless legs behind him, reaching out to Daniel and begging for help.
Daniel took a deep breath, then let it out. “Here’s the thing,” he said. He still hadn’t moved. “These visions? Not gonna do you any good. I was never afraid of my past. I’ve had plenty of time to come to terms with it. I was afraid I’d cracked, see, and afraid of what that might mean — if I ever flipped out and saw an enemy combatant, who was actually my family or a friend. But I know better, so you may as well lay off with the petty tricks so we can get down to serious business.”
Mitch hesitated — then melted away. Brawn did, too. Daniel thumbed open the wrapper of salt in his pocket. Go time, he thought. He wasn’t anywhere near as prepared as he would’ve liked — but wasn’t that always the case? There was no such thing, in Daniel’s mind, as overkill when it came to a fight. However much planning and firepower you could bring to bear, that’s what you used. He’d given Abigail a pretty bit about pulling punches — but that was because she was a civilian, and needed to hear it. In Daniel’s personal ‘The Art of War,’ winners didn’t pull punches. They pulled triggers.
The darkness at the end of the alley took on a semi-transparent quality, and out of it stepped a monster. It was big — easily a head and shoulders taller and twice as wide as Daniel himself. Troll, Daniel thought, and a big one, from Abigail’s descriptions. “I don’t suppose we can talk?” Daniel offered. “I’ve got a message for your boss, y’know.”
The troll strode slowly forward. “Archarel has a message to be delivered as well.” It rumbled. “A reminder of the price of interfering with his knights in his city. Your mangled remains.”
The troll loomed as it advanced. Its muscles flexed with every step and its lips bared tusked teeth in a snarling smile. It was trying to intimidate, and not doing too bad a job — except that Daniel didn’t intimidate easily. He was familiar with fear. He knew the difference between the kind that paralyzed a man and the kind that got his adrenaline pumping — the kind that thrill seekers chased, that wasn’t fear so much as excitement. And he knew how to shunt one into the other. Daniel felt his blood flowing, the adrenaline rising. It was like that when he fought. It was the only time he really felt alive, anymore. All his various aches seemed to fade. He might not be as spry as he once was, but for the next little bit, that wouldn’t matter.
“Well,” Daniel drawled. “I reckon I should be afraid. But you’re the empathy readin’ psycho, so tell me: am I?”
For just a second, the troll hesitated. That gave Daniel the time he needed to snap his hand out of his pocket. He cast salt in a line in front of himself. That’s a fuckin’ wall, buddy.
The troll stopped. Then it started to laugh: deep, rumbling guffaws. “A ward?” It chortled. “Here, with nothing to anchor it? Better warlocks than you have tried, little man. This won’t hold me back.”
Daniel rolled his eyes. “I don’t know,” Daniel said. “Try it. You might just be surprised how it turns out,” he added. He shifted back a step.
The troll stepped forward. It raised one massive arm and pressed a hand-like paw against the air. It leaned forward slightly, and barked with laughter. Christ, Daniel thought, It’s like I’m fighting a fuckin’ mime.
“No,” the troll said. “I can tear this down like…”
Daniel didn’t let him finish his thought. Instead, Daniel sprung forward. He crossed his own ward, but with the line of salt acting like a wall the troll didn’t have the room to grapple him. Better still: it already had its arm bent and out of place for throwing a fist or trying to block Daniel’s mad rush. Daniel was inside the troll’s reach before the brute could react. He grabbed the troll’s elbow with one hand and yanked down.
The troll instinctively tensed to keep Daniel from controlling its movements — but that was fine by him. The arm was like a post, and Daniel used it yank himself forward at the same time as he whipped his knife out from behind his back. The blade of Daniel’s trusty Gerber Mark II hit the troll under the chin — and angled up. As it punched through Daniel felt the familiar impact, then a rush of speed through the empty cavity of the mouth; then an impact again.
“Surprise,” Daniel growled. The tip of his knife was lodged in the roof of the troll’s mouth, and the fae gurgled an unintelligible howl — its tongue was stapled to the roof of its mouth as well, and trying to scream caused it to rip along the knife’s double edged blade. The troll stepped back and grabbed him: Daniel was thrown into the side of the dumpsters before he could leverage more strength behind the knife and punch its tip into the troll’s brain.
Daniel crashed into the dumpsters hard, but fortunately his backpack broke the impact — without breaking his back. He scrambled up and to the side just in time to avoid a vicious kick that actually lifted one of the metal bins a half inch. While the troll was pulling its leg back, Daniel rushed it again.
This time the fae grabbed for him, but Daniel moved in low. He ducked the snatching hand and thrust his knife up, between the troll’s legs. While yanking the blade free, Daniel pivoted and heaved up on with his own legs, rising from his crouch and ramming his shoulder into the monster’s mangled groin.
The troll screamed and doubled over, grabbing for Daniel as it did. Daniel slammed his knife into the side of the troll’s knee and threw himself to the opposite side, but the troll caught him by the arm and shoved him away again. Daniel’s knife tore free of the troll’s knee — but also of Daniel’s grasp. It clattered to the pavement.
The troll lunged forward a step, blocking Daniel from retrieving his weapon. Daniel scrambled back. His heart was pounding now — he felt a little light-headed. Too much adrenaline. His body felt warm. He knew that each of those warm spots would turn stiff and bruised once his combat high wore off. That was just how it worked for him.
“We could’ve just talked,” Daniel pointed out. The troll gave an unintelligible reply, and Daniel responded with a feral grin. “Look on the bright side,” he taunted. “Forked tongues are scarier.”
Enraged, the fae lunged at Daniel. He twisted aside — but he was too slow to dodge. Or he would have been, but the troll’s mangled knee twisted from the shifting momentum of the weight on top of it. The troll shrieked and slammed into the ground.
This time Daniel kicked it. In the side of the head. With steel toed boots.
The crack was audible. The troll’s head snapped sideways and it slumped to the ground again before trying to rise — so Daniel kicked it again. This time in its face. “So, that message,” Daniel said. “The one I had for Archarel.” He started walking around the fae’s prone body, but paused when the troll tried to push itself up again.
Daniel sighed and shook his head to himself. Damn stubborn for a mime, though. He paused to heel stomp the troll’s hand and then plant another kick in its ribs. When it collapsed again, Daniel resumed skirting around it. He picked up his knife, then advanced on his prone opponent. Even lying down, the damn thing was nearly a third as tall as he was!
“It goes about like this,” Daniel said. He noticed the troll had tensed up its arms — gatherin’ itself to lunge at me, as if I’d be that overconfident — so he skipped back a step and slashed through the back of the troll’s ankle on its good leg, severing the tendons there. The troll howled and thrashed, but Daniel skipped out of its reach and waited for its fit to pass.
“Hey now,” Daniel protested. “Pay attention here. This is important, and I’m expecting you to deliver it word for word, buddy.” In its thrashing, the fae had managed to roll over on its side. It glared at Daniel and this time he didn’t smile back. He kept his face expressionless and his voice cold. “This is something your boss needs to know. You tell your boss, from me, that I know how you fae folk are stymied by belief here in this world. And I believe that if he thinks he can afford to start a war with that nice young vampire miss before he finishes the one his boy started with me, then he’s a fuckin’ suicidal dumbass.” Now Daniel smiled. “Oh, and also? Go to hell.”
Daniel lunged forward. The troll swung at him, but not fast enough or hard enough. Daniel’s knife punched into the troll’s eye just before its massive fist clobbered Daniel, knocking him down again. For the second time, Daniel lost his knife. This time, however, its blade had reached the troll’s brain. The fae seemed to swell for a second — but only because its entire body burst into dark mist, then collapsed along the ground and flowed away to the shadows. Daniel’s knife clattered to the pavement.
Daniel dragged himself back a step and slumped against the side of one of the dumpsters. All of his adrenaline? Gone. He ached fucking everywhere.
At the same time the gas station’s back door burst open as though whoever was on the other side had been trying to force it. Must’ve been something the troll did, Daniel decided. He wouldn’t want a disbeliever to interrupt our little scuffle.
The middle-aged manager stumbled into the lot with a curse. When he saw Daniel, he cursed louder. “You? Figures! If you’re going to root in the trash do it somewhere else you goddamn leech!”
Daniel bobbed his head. “Yes sir, sorry sir,” he said. Don’t need him deciding to go inside for a fuckin’ baseball bat. He scrambled forward as quickly as his sore limbs would take him. He stumbled — for real, but he managed to use it to scoop up his knife. The manager didn’t seem to notice. Daniel turned to face him — he tucked his knife into its sheath while backing away. “Sorry,” he babbled. “Really. Sorry.”
The manager scowled, not sure if Daniel was appropriately cowed or secretly mocking him. Once he was satisfied that the damn bum was moving off, though, he turned around and stalked back into the gas station. “Fucking vultures. They’re a goddamn drain on society.” He turned to shout “And get a job, you damn leech!” before the door slammed shut behind him.
Daniel just grinned. The expression was feral. “Got one,” he muttered back. “It just doesn’t pay — especially if you’re the other guy.” Then he turned and limped out to the sidewalk. As he made his slow way toward the library, the rains started. Daniel ignored them. If he was going to do his job, then he had a date to keep. Preferably with as many librarians as he could recruit.
And when we’re done, Daniel thought to himself, Archarel’s next goon isn’t going to know what hit him.