Scene 184 – Aula

AULA

DEREK

This was not the first time I had been kidnapped.

The first time was actually when I was six. I don’t remember it very much, just that it had something to do with my mom’s work with Butler. I was treated pretty well, probably because Necessarius likes to carpet-bomb anyone who hurts children.

When I was thirteen, some of the first ghouls grabbed me. Some power play against Miss Nervi. I’m still not quite sure what that was all about, but Akane helped me get out while everyone was distracted.

Last year, the Princess of Killing Sparrow trapped me while I was on a hunt. Separated me from Akane, led me into a dead-end alley, and plucked me from the street as easily as if I was some green-eared slayer wannabe, not one of the best professionals in the business. The fey had a way of defying expectations, of catching even the most experienced people off their guard.

Therefore, when sleeping gas was pumped into the elevator, my first assumption was that it was the fey.

Waking up didn’t dissuade me of that opinion.

Wherever we were, it was dark, and I could hear the distant sound of dripping water. There was a small speaker in the corner near the ceiling, almost too small to see. I could feel Laura, tied to me back-to-back and still asleep. That suited me fine—while she tended to be the go-to girl for tactics and strategy, it’s hard to tell how someone will react to a kidnapping until it actually happens. Best for her to stay asleep while I figured a way out of this.

Because it was the fey again. I could feel the snake-shackles slithering around my wrists, ready to bite if I struggled too much. I had some pretty good anti-poison buffs, but not THAT good.

There was nothing to do but wait. If there was anyone around, they weren’t showing themselves, and my eyes were stubbornly refusing to adjust to the darkness.

We had to be cautious. These new fey…I didn’t know anything about them. Didn’t understand them. They had names, and clothes, and were recruiting—the fey, recruiting. It used to be, whenever someone begged them for help, they’d rob them blind under the pretense of a deal. This…was something new.

Laura moaned and started to stir. In turn, the living handcuffs started to tighten in preparation.

“Laura?” I asked gently. “Can you hear me?”

“Ugh…yes. What happened?”

“Sleep gas in the elevator. Do you remember?”

“No.” A pause. “Yes. Ow, my head…”

“Yeah, you get some pretty bad headaches the first few times. I need you to listen to me: Don’t move.”

“What does it matter? We’re tied—” She stopped suddenly. “Derek, what are we tied up with?”

“Just remain calm, and I’ll explain, I promise.”

Derek…”

I recognized the rising anger in her voice. Better than blind panic, but not by much. “We’ve been captured by the fey. Those are snake-shackles.”

“Actually, we prefer to call them serpentis vinclaque,” a gentle female voice corrected.

“Oh,” I said dryly. “Thanks. That’s very helpful.”

The lights came on. Just dim red nightlights, not enough to illuminate more than ten feet around us, but enough to see who was speaking.

A beautiful pale woman with pale-cropped black hair sat on a large and elegant seat, somewhere between an armchair and a throne. She was wearing a dark black dress that hugged her body tightly, with a long slit up the side of one leg. It was unadorned with any symbols of jewels that I could see, giving it a kind of quiet elegance. I was pretty sure it was a Chinese style, but I’m not exactly a fashion expert.

“Knight Derek,” the woman greeted me with a smile. “Dame Laura.”

“Describe her,” Laura hissed.

“Maiden cut. Black.”

“Maeve.”

The woman nodded. “I am Maeve, Princess of Wind and Frost, Maiden of the Unseelie court.”

“Nice,” Laura muttered. “Where’d you guys steal that from? Shakespeare? I’m pretty sure there’s no Maeve in Irish mythology.”

She cocked her head. “Is that really important right now?”

“No,” I cut in before Laura could respond. “It isn’t.” I shifted to the more polite mode of speech that the fey preferred. “Honored Maiden, it would please us greatly if you would educate us on why you have…invited us to your abode.”

“Oh, Derek, always so polite,” the fey said with a smile. “Unless your friends are in danger, of course.”

I felt Laura trying to struggle without making it obvious. That wouldn’t work. “You didn’t answer his question.”

The maiden smiled sweetly. “Isn’t it obvious? What possible reason could a beautiful young woman have for inviting a handsome young man to her home?”

“That doesn’t explain why I’m here.”

“Isn’t it obvious? What possible reason could a beautiful young woman have for inviting a beautiful young woman to her home?”

Laura groaned. “I hate the fey. I hate them so much.”

Maeve pouted. “Really, Laura, you were more polite last time we met. What changed?”

I felt my friend stiffen. “What? When did we meet?”

I narrowed my eyes. Laura had probably run into a few fey during the years she was gone, but there was only one recently. “The Princess of Killing Sparrow. When the burners attacked.”

“Wh—that was You?

“Is it really such a surprise?” the fey queried innocently. “We made no secret of the fact that we are the six survivors of the courts. I suppose—”

Lie.”

I blinked at Laura’s interruption. Wait, which part was—

Maeve’s naïve smile disappeared, and she closed her eyes with a sigh. “Gods of men and darkness, I can’t believe I managed to forget about your stupid power.” She rested her chin on her hand and glared at us. “I’m beginning to see why Greene hates you so much. Then again, she seems to hate everyone, so…”

“Wait,” I said slowly. “Which part was a lie?”

“When she said ‘we are the six survivors of the courts,’” Laura managed to say even as Maeve was opening her mouth to speak.

I gave the maiden a glare of my own. “You know, everyone always knew that whole ‘the fey never lie’ thing was a pile of crap, but I didn’t expect THAT to be a lie.”

The princess looked more bored, resigned to her web of lies falling apart around her, than actively angry. “Yes, yes, I’m a terrible person.” She grinned again. “Not that it matters. That little clue won’t lead you anywhere useful, I think. And I’ll still have my way with you, regardless.”

I swallowed, not seeing an easy way out of this. “Uh, look, if you want us that bad—”

“Oh, sweetie, I was joking about that part!” she cried with a laugh. “Sorry, sorry, I know rape jokes are an acquired taste.” She tapped her lips, looking thoughtful. “It’s the imbalance of power here, that’s the problem. Made the situation too serious. Next time—”

“Lady Maeve,” I managed through gritted teeth. “What do you want?”

She clapped her hands together. “Oh, that’s right, you’re still kidnapped! Scaoileadh.”

At her command, the living handcuffs hissed and untwisted themselves from our wrists and slithered away into the darkness.

Laura stepped up beside me, rubbing her wrists to improve circulation as she watched the maiden warily. “That’s quite the show of trust.”

There was something in Maeve’s eyes that I couldn’t quite identify. “Not really. Even unbound, you two are no match for this body.”

Ah. That was it.

The creature in front of me was not the giggling, girlish twit that we all knew the fey to be. Those things were dangerous and unpredictable, almost as likely to try and kiss you as they were to kill you, but that wasn’t this.

This was something quiet, and patient, with a depth of age and wisdom that I could only guess at. A careful, perfect power, like a coiled spring. Like all the predators in the world, staring down at me after having dragged me to their lair.

She reminded me of Elizabeth.

“What do you want?” I said quietly.

The barest ghost of a smile passed by Maeve’s face. “I want what is best for this city, Honored Paragon. Nothing more, nothing less.”

I narrowed my eyes, aiming my number one death glare at her. “Sending monsters to stalk the streets is for the best?

She didn’t flinch. “Of course it is. Iron must be put to the flame and the hammer to be strengthened and forged.”

Oh, goodie. Another social Darwinist. We always needed more of those running around.

“Of course,” Laura muttered. “I should have known.”

Maeve smiled. “You know, we used to make bets on whether or not you—and a couple other people—would figure it out without being told.” She sighed. “I guess this means I lost.”

I glanced at Laura, confused. “Wait, you knew?”

“No, I…” she paused, her brow furrowed. “I’ve been thinking for a while that the fey are too beneficial to the city.”

“Ask any changeling how beneficial—”

She shook her head. “That’s not what I mean. Like…with all the fey monsters. Most of them are edible. Do you know how hard it is to make something edible with the toy maker?”

I thought back to when I was a kid, with the Monster Vines incident. Even simply trying to make crops grow faster could cause…problems. It WAS a bit odd that the fey went to the effort to make sure their monsters were edible.

I rallied and turned back to Maeve. “Okay, so you’re not as crazy as you like to pretend. Even I had figured that one out. But still, what’s the point? Why grab us?”

She shifted on her throne. “I needed to be able to speak to you two in private.”

Laura narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

The fey sighed. “Are you being deliberately obtuse, dearie? Because you two are some of the most important people in the city. You are powerful, intelligent individuals with connections to people like Artemis Butler and my own máthair. Not to mention that Elizabeth Greene chose you to be her opponents.”

Máthair‘ was Irish for ‘mother,’ if memory served. No prizes for guessing who that referred to: The Mother Monster. I had forgotten that the fey were the ones who had really popularized that whole thing.

My friend folded her arms over her chest. “Fine. This is the part where you offer us some wondrous new toys in exchange for doing something, right?”

Maeve smiled. “I’d like you to stop fighting Elizabeth.”

“Point of order, Honored Princess,” I piped up. “We already established that you’re not actually insane. You can stop pretending.”

But she just shook her head sadly. “I’m afraid I’m not joking, Honored Paragon. I think fighting the Honorless Blackguard is only going to end in tears for everyone.”

Wondering if the fey really was crazy after all, I turned to Laura for support, but she looked contemplative. “Do you mean no one should fight her, or just us specifically?”

That small, mischievous smile was back. “Just you.”

Laura nodded. “Ah…I suppose that makes sense.”

I closed my eyes. She always did this. “Would one of you two like to clue me in?”

“Elizabeth made us,” Laura said. “Chose us, gave us powers. She knows exactly what we are capable of. Letting warlords fight her instead will give us an edge.”

It didn’t take me long to find a problem in that. “But other people aren’t immune to infection. That’s why the Big Boss let us do all this in the first place, remember? Unless you forgot what happened to Zaphkiel.”

“She hasn’t been creating screamers since she was outed. Maybe she can’t, or won’t.”

Maeve coughed delicately, drawing attention back to herself. “Negative on both those counts, I’m afraid. The day after your little adventure in the sewers, she tried to sing at me. I detonated the homunculus before anything happened, of course, but the fact that she tried is enough.”

I suppressed a scowl. “Then sending warlords is suicide.”

“Not necessarily.” She shrugged. “The toy maker can do many things. Inducing deafness is simply enough.”

“So, what, that’s it? You kidnapped us to say all the warlords should go deaf?” Laura shook her head. “Yeah, I’m beginning to think that you might be a little crazy after all.”

The fey princess sighed again. “Maybe if you actually stopped and listened, you’d hear what else I have to say.”

There was a moment of silence.

“Oh!” Maeve said in surprise. “This is you listening! Okay, right, well the Composer is definitely the main one—”

“Wait,” I interrupted, as something dawned on me. “Just…wait. You said you strengthen the city with monsters. I don’t need the full details. Some are set up as food, some are used to point out weaknesses so that the cultures can get stronger, whatever, I get the gist.”

“Yes…” The black-haired woman cocked her head. “What’s your point?”

I gave her my steeliest glare. “Where do the changelings fit into all this?”

She blinked her black nighteyes. “I’m not sure I understand the question.”

“You kidnap people, buy slaves from the Nessians and the less scrupulous Satanists and Nosferatu. And then you torture them with the toy maker. What is the point?

The Princess of Wind and Frost gave me a very long look before answering.

“Does it matter?”

I sighed. “I suppose not.”

We both sprang into action at the same moment. She lunged towards my throat, but despite her near-supernatural speed, I had been anticipating that, and blocked her with a half-dome shield.

The fey bounced off with a giggle. “Oh, I knew this would be fun.”

She tried to dodge around the shield, but I just let it fade into mist, then immediately formed a new one on my arm, which I smashed into her face.

Maeve grinned, her teeth bloodied, and grabbed my arm. Of course. It took more than a blow to the head to slow down the fey.

But then, I knew that.

As she grabbed my arm, I took advantage of the motion to pull her into a wrestling hold, twisting her arm behind her and snapping it with a loud crack. She hissed and came at me with the other arm, but I stomped on her ankle, breaking it as well.

If Maeve were a normal warlord—silver and gold, even a baseline—I wouldn’t have been able to disable her so easily. Most warlords improved every aspect of their bodies to superhuman levels. True, they improved some parts more than others, but they would never consider weakening their bones in order to lighten their bodies and make themselves faster. It would leave them too vulnerable.

But the fey didn’t care about their bodies.

As I grabbed Maeve’s chin, she grinned up at me, mischief dancing in her eyes.

“Later, Huntsman.”

I snapped her neck and let her flop to the ground.

Finally, I let myself start to breathe. I had to sit down—a few yards away from the corpse, steaming with industrial-grade acid—to get my wind back.

I think I had managed to convince the fey that it had been easy for me to kill her, but it hadn’t been, not really. Sure, I was an extremely healthy baseline, on par with some of the strongest, fastest, toughest baseline humans on the planet. Add the power package and my shields on top of that, and I could could confidently fight anyone in the city.

But I WAS still baseline. Mostly, anyway. Being strong enough to be a world-class wrestler only meant so much when fighting someone strong enough to be on those shows where guys drag eighteen-wheeler trucks through the snow.

So, I needed every advantage I could get. If she thought I was stronger than I was, that might make her hesitate next time.

“Was that really necessary?” Laura asked as she trotted over, her face fixed in her usual scowl. “We were in the middle of an important discussion. Did you really have to do all this now, before we got all the information she had?”

I closed my eyes and leaned back against the wall—which was concrete, with water dripping down from somewhere above. Probably in the sewers, then. “Yes, it was. I was making a point.”

“By killing someone?”

“By killing a homunculus. It’s just a poke in the eye to the fey, and you know it. But they apparently respect our opinions, so maybe it will help.”

There was a moment’s silence, before I felt her lay herself across my lap.

My eyes snapped open, and I looked down to see her staring up at me like a cat waiting for a belly rub. “What the—”

“Because I felt like it,” she answered. She closed her eyes. “That’s all.”

“Oh,” I muttered. “Okay.”

“Though I’ll admit, you might have a point about the fey respecting our opinions.”

“Hm?”

“Did you notice how she didn’t attack me? And when she tried to dodge your shield, she went the opposite direction I was in.”

It hadn’t occurred to me at the time, but she was right. That would have been the perfect opportunity for the fey to take her hostage. Why hadn’t she?

“Maybe she was worried about what I’d do?” I mused. “I mean, last time I thought a friend was in danger was…” Lizzy. Okay, she didn’t count but…actually, I couldn’t remember the last time one of my friends had been kidnapped.

“Seena,” Laura supplied. “She mentioned you helped her out with a couple demons a year or two ago.”

“Oh, that’s right. I had forgotten.” But yeah, if Maeve knew about that little incident, she’d have a good reason not to want to hurt Laura in my presence.

Then I groaned.

Laura cracked an eye open. “What? What is it?”

“After I rescued her,” I muttered. “She got all clingy and tried to take me back to her place.”

My friend shifted on my lap a little. “Well, yeah. Even I knew that one.” She shrugged, her eyes closed once again. “Though she says she’s mostly over it these days. So I guess that’s one less to worry about.”

I grumbled but didn’t say anything on the matter. Instead, I turned back to the reason we had been waiting in the first place. “It looks like the homunculus has stopped smoking. It’s probably a good idea to leave now.”

“Uhn. If you think we can.”

I adjusted myself slightly. “What do you mean?”

She looked up at me wryly. “Now we don’t have a guide to get out.”

Oh. Right. That. Trapped in some fey corner of the sewers, with no maps, and my terrible sense of direction.

Yeah, this was going to be fun.

Behind the Scenes (scene 184)

This one has been a long time coming, but I’m still not entirely comfortable with it.

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