Hunted by Fae Preview


25 years ago

The white-hot flame of raw power seared through every vein and nerve in her body, but nothing could be hot enough to purify her soul of the horror she was committing. Tears of pain and regret evaporated from her cheeks in wisps of steam. If they had only heeded her warnings. Seen the threat. They could have battled the forces of destruction together, preserved this precious Green World, and they wouldn’t be dying at her feet. 

Badb Catha looked down at her sisters’ faces twisted in silent screams. Anand and Macha lay side by side, backs arched in torture. Once the siblings had been so close, referred to by a single name, the Morrigna, the Great Queens. For thousands of years, the Morrigna fought to protect this new world against forces of evil and destruction. Whether they battled against men, or the evil Fomorians whose power rivaled their own; they kept the balance. Now she was draining them of their magical essence. For the world to be preserved, her family had to die. 

Part of her wished it wasn’t so, but the power she required had to be like her own. Another’s magic wouldn’t bend to her will as easily. Another Tuatha’s chaotic sea magic, for instance, would spread and squirm, rather than lance through obstruction. 

A choked gurgle percolated through the grimace her youngest sister, Macha, wore. Macha, whose only mistake had been her inability to pick a side between her warring siblings.

Mother Danu, what have I done? She prayed to the creator of her people, the Tuatha. The torment written in her sister’s sad blue eyes, the blood caking her strawberry hair, painted Badb Catha as a monster. For a fleeting second, Badb allowed her hands to dip, the torrent of magical power surging into them slowing to a trickle. 

Flashbacks of the prophecy she’d spoken at the end of the second Great War thousands of years ago replayed visions of rivers aflame, leagues of forests reduced to stubble, and skies choked with poison. That instant at Moytura, on that ancient Plain of Towers, her life had changed. The night she left her people forever, she’d made a sacred pledge to be the blade for the voiceless. She gritted her teeth and the bright filaments of magic she was draining from her kin flared. They made me betray them. Only I speak for this world now. 

“I’m sorry, my sisters. It’s the only way.” The words came out as a ragged gasp. “We’re all lost if I fail.” Her last word ended in a scream. One body, even that of a Tuatha, could only contain so much elemental power. This was akin to swallowing lightning. The strength drained from her legs. Her knees crashed to the earth, and her shoulders slumped.

Macha and Anand shrieked and writhed. Crackling white energy snapped and hissed along their bodies, on its way to their red-haired sister’s outstretched arms. 

Anand’s hand, contorted into a claw, clutched the hem of Badb’s black cloak. In her prime, Anand had led armies and mentored the greatest heroes of Inisfáil, now called Ireland. Cuchulain, Arthur, and many more owed their skill in battle to her. Rattling sounds tore from her chest, brown eyes rolled back, and she fell still. The Phantom Queen was dead.

A sob, wretched and thick with self-loathing, shook Badb. Unbidden memories flowed once more. This time, the two of them flapped over battlefields in the guise of great ravens, war frenzy coursing through their veins while their enemies fled before them. No army prevailed against the Morrigna. The last of Anand’s life force jabbed into Badb’s muscles like a million hot needles. She howled.

Macha flailed and smacked her palms against the ground. Badb turned her face away. She couldn’t bear to look at her. Macha was the gentlest of the three of them, and the most level-headed. She played war like a chess match. Analytical and cold but no less deadly. 

It would seem Macha had one last surprise in her. She swept her leg and knocked Badb the rest of the way flat on the earth, facing her. Her hands spasmed involuntarily, clutching handfuls of dirt. She dragged herself along on her stomach closer to Badb and seized her shoulder. 

“Look. At. Me.” Macha rasped, every word squeezed through her clenched jaw. “Face what you have done.”

Badb wrenched her head up. Blood poured from Macha’s nose and mouth, her strawberry head trembling with the effort of skewering Badb with her glare. Pangs of sadness wrapped Badb’s heart in an iron grip, squeezing a single sob that sent a wave along her entire body. It’ll all be worth it. It has to be.

“Sister, I—” No words could explain or offer comfort.

Macha only pulled her lips from her teeth and released a long groan. When it ended, the irises disappeared from Macha’s eyes while an invisible hand plucked her into the air. Arms and legs dangled beneath her cloak like a rag doll. Strawberry hair and dark blue cloth whipped around Macha as though blown by a vortex. 

Badb Catha was no stranger to the force seizing her dying sibling. A similar experience had set her on the path that led to this moment. An oracle gripped her sister. Soon, the Great Mother Danu would speak through Macha’s voice, portending what would come to pass. Would it foretell the success of Badb’s attempt to rescue the world from its oppressors, or would she be condemned? She dreaded the prophecy, yet it pumped more magical energy into her sister.  More power to drain from Macha now increased her chances for success.

Macha’s limbs jerked and stiffened, empty eyes fixated on Badb, and her full ruby lips drew into a slow smile. Despite her waning life, Macha’s voice carried through the entire Underworld and across the seas to the Undying Lands. 

“The prophecies of the Morrigna stand incomplete, sister. But two of the three were spoken at the close of the Second Battle of Moytura. One by Anand. One by you. The final echoes from my own lips today.” Macha paused and searched the skies. “Hear my words, Nuada my husband, wherever you are. Carry my oracle in your heart and stop this madness.” 

* * *

“The line of the High Kings of Innisfail,

 An unbroken chain.

The blood of Niall runs true.

A great shield in the West. 

Between a ring of fire and a grey sea, 

Where rivers meet stands a new Plain of Towers.

There, the last heir rises.

Sleeping giants wake.

When ancient enemies unite

 against the gathering storm,

Worlds split asunder,

The hooded crow defeated.”

* * *

 The irises flickered back to Macha’s eyes and her voice was now her own, soft and ragged. “And now I claim my right to lay a geis upon you. Badb Catha, Betrayer of the Tuatha, if this gateway opens, you will be blind to the line of kings. Even if the heir stands before you, you will not see them. With my last breath, I deny you the rest of my power and I send it to the heir of Niall. May you fall in battle.”

Badb felt the flow of magical energy from her sister cease like a door slammed shut. The air around Macha fell calm, and she plummeted to the earth with a dull thud. 


Badb’s face contorted in rage. She threw her head back and howled. Balled fists pummeled a nearby tree. Sharp pain lanced up her wrists and hot, sticky blood flowed from her knuckles. She let gravity carry her sliding down the trunk. How dare she! Spite had never been a quality of her youngest sister. Her little power play might ruin everything. 

Badb staggered back to her feet. Time was growing short. If she didn’t work the sorcery her sisters had paid for with their lives, she would have to choose between allowing the magic of all three Morrigna to burn away her life, or release it back to their inert forms. Her body spasmed, struggling to contain nearly the power of three in one vessel. Her anger felt as wild as the magic boiling beneath her skin. If she couldn’t stop this heir to Niall, murdering her sisters would count for nothing. Worse than that, both the Underworld and the Green World would die.

Badb bent forward, stamping the ground with her booted feet, pounding her fists against her thighs. With the outcome now uncertain, she could end this now. Pick up the bodies of Anand and Macha and take them to the Undying Lands. As long as Badb didn’t use their magical life force, they could be lowered into the Cauldron of Rebirth and wake with the new dawn. Her sisters would live again, and she could return to her exile.

Badb braced herself against a tree and scanned the Underworld landscape. This forest she stood in was once lush and bursting with color. Filled with chattering pixies and capering satyrs. Now the trees grew too far apart, twisted and leafless in a landscape painted in greyscale. Nothing more than the listless vegetation lived here anymore, yet nothing here died either. Everything just wound down and rotted without its connection to the Green World, and it was too damaged to sustain the connection that kept both vital. Two worlds depended on her.

Macha’s geis might slow Badb down. Now her attention would have to be divided between bringing the Fae to their new home and putting an end to this heir. She promised herself that hope remained. She would merely need more allies to hunt down and kill every last descendant of Niall in this new Plain of Towers, since she, herself, would be unable to discover them. 

The Fomorians ruled the human world now, pulling the levers of power in secrecy. The sour taste of disgust painted the back of her throat. In the past, she’d worked with one in particular, and he owed her. And there were other, even less savory allies she could draw upon. Some dark Fae, some even worse. Once she discovered where this new Plain of Towers lay, she’d summon them to purge it of every descendant of Niall. 

Her plan had to move forward and fast. Her body was failing under the strain of her forbidden sorcery. I must make the gateway, she told herself, geis be damned. 

Badb reached a shaking hand into the deep inner pocket of her black cloak and drew out a gleaming golden branch with metallic silver leaves. How she obtained it, perhaps an even bigger crime than murdering her family, for there was but a single Alheimurinn tree in all existence, and she held the last vestige of it. The magical tree had grown in the Dragon’s Spine mountain range in the Underworld but formed connections to all times and places, the only thing powerful enough for reestablishing travel between the worlds.

She levered herself to the earth on one knee, worked the little branch into the dry, cracked soil, and poured her stolen magic into it. All that energy draining from her felt like deflating a waterskin, the flames and pressure raging through her body calming as the branch soaked it up, growing to a towering height in seconds.

The tree pulsed with light, bark rippling. The trunk rocketed skyward, its flailing branches whistled. When the tree could stretch no more, it coiled itself into a circle. 

She sent her mind slithering down the roots of the tree. The jagged tips of roots wormed through stony soil. Deeper and deeper they grew and then whacked into a barrier. 

Badb felt the wall between worlds thickened, like the stone of a castle. Long ago, there were places in the Veil so thin even humans with no magical blood could pass through. Their folklore brimmed with stories of such travelers. But the Green World was too damaged for that now. The barrier had thickened like a callous everywhere. Not even one of the Tuatha had the strength to cut through it. But in this moment, Badb Catha was not one of the Tuatha. She was three.

She propelled all her powers, stolen and her own, along the roots against the barrier. Her teeth clenched with the effort. Sweat poured down her face. The harder she pushed, the more unyielding the wall became. She dug down, scraped up as much magic as she could, and hurled it full force down the roots like a battering ram. She staggered forward when the barrier broke. Too exhausted to catch herself, she tumbled to the ground and lifted her green eyes to drink in the beauty.

A surface appeared in the center of the tree, shimmering like a lake in the sun. Beyond it, tall pine trees and the full moon visible even through drizzle. The smile on her lips felt foreign. It had been long since she had experienced such joy. A blast of energy blew in from the Green World side, a cool breeze on a stifling day. All around her prone form, tiny blue flowers sprouted. The first new thing that had grown in the Underworld in decades. 

She lay for a moment, feeling life seep into the Underworld once more. She clambered into a crouch. Her knees shook and her head felt like it would split apart, but she had to step through, see the other side. It had been too long. 

Badb rested a pale hand on the warm golden bark. Its living energy pulsed as though a heart beat within it. With a deep breath, she lifted her black boot and emerged on the other side to a warm summer night. The beach of an island glistened in the moonlight where two great rivers flowed on either side. 

Badb laughed. Fortune had smiled on her, for she already stood in the place Macha’s prophecy foretold. A new Plain of Towers nestled in the shadow of a long-dormant volcano. Ring of fire. She’d bet a sea lapped a sandy shore to the west.

The twinkling orange lights in the distance would be beautiful if they didn’t signify a human city. She thought of the forest that gave its life in order for that place to exist. Razed to the ground. Nothing left. But this island had escaped that fate. It looked pristine. If humans lived here, they were far enough away they wouldn’t find her until it was too late. The perfect place to carve out a new home for her people.

With the last of her magic, she inhaled. Cool air flooded her lungs until she could draw no more and she released it. Breath poured out as a thick mist. It crawled and spread along the ground, thickening as it went. Thousands of years ago, the Tuatha had arrived at Innisfail in a mist with the goal to shape the world for the coming humans. Now Badb created a mist to form a new homeland for the Fae. A base from where they would annihilate humanity and reclaim what was theirs.

Badb looked back through the portal at a winged form flapping toward her. She held up her arm, and the crow flew through the portal to land. She ruffled the bird’s feathers. He croaked and ran his beak along her arm. His red eyes glittered.

“Fiach, my pet, our war begins.”




Harper O’Neill chewed absently on the fleshy pink eraser at the end of her pencil and smoothed a stray brown lock back into the end of her braid. Lukewarm air wafted from the vent above her desk, never hot enough to take the chill from an autumn day nor cool enough to wring the swelter from the swampy air in summer. For the fifth time in the same hour she checked the clock. Forty-five minutes and the tedium of her receptionist job would end and the guessing game she’d played every day for nearly ten years would begin. Which mother would greet her when she walked through the door at home. Would Eileen O’Neill be drunk and hopeless, drunk and obsessed, or drunk and frenetic?

Sandwiched between the mind-numbing boredom of office work and the gut-wrenching misery of her home life was Emilio. The cramped, smelly bus ride home every day marked a liminal state where she could lose herself in his bubbly optimism and life would feel a little less pointless. It had been the same way since they’d met in middle school. 

She rubbed a weary hand across her round face and balanced on tiptoes to check the waiting room for new patients to check in. This time of day, the office normally brimmed with the miserable and the indigent uncomfortably shifting around on the beige waiting room chairs that she swore only existed to motivate people never to be early for their appointments. Her brows edged closer to each other over her hazel eyes as she plopped back down to her seat. The past few weeks’ attendance in the mental health clinic had slowed to a trickle, something that hadn’t happened in the four years she’d worked here.

The rat-tat-tat of steady rain assaulted windows tiny enough to belong to a prison. Her thin lips pressed to an even thinner line. Nice work, Harper, left your umbrella again. How long have you lived in Portland? She resigned herself to a soaked mad dash to the bus stop. Her head dropped back against the back of her chair and she spun in a lazy circle. Dull white ceiling tiles wheeled over her head.

Halfway around her second circle, Harper spotted Candace behind her rifling through the filing cabinet while returning a client record, her pink lips silently mouthing letters of the alphabet while matching pink acrylic nails scrambled across rows of manila folders. Harper whipped the chair back around and organized the highlighters and papers on her desk. The click-clack of stilettos on tile announced the therapist’s arrival at the reception desk.

“That’s the third no-show today. Guess everything’s more important than taking care of your mental health,” Candace mused as she arrived at Harper’s desk. Her perfume cloyed. Like spicy cotton candy and Candace Brown marinated in it. “Before you go, can you call these three patients for me and reschedule them?”

“Sure thing.” Harper pulled the paper over next to the phone and a familiar name leapt out at her. Dull as it may be, her job had reunited her with her childhood friend, Abraham, and for that, she was thankful. He was due for therapy every Friday; she’d hoped she just missed him while downstairs filing. Her hand drifted to the jacket pocket where she kept the protein bars she had brought for him today. “It’s not like Abraham to miss.”

“I bet it’s Dust. One of Tim’s clients got hooked on that junk. It took him out fast.”

“Took him out? Like he’s dead?”

“No one knows. He was living in the tent city over off Burnside. Tim said he came in one day raving about weird black-haired teenagers. He left his jacket in the waiting room. There was a vial of Dust in his pocket. No one’s seen him since.”

“And you think Abraham’s on drugs.” Harper’s voice was flat. She couldn’t imagine her friend using drugs, much less a new and dangerous one. 

“Dunno. Either way it means a tiny paycheck for me.” Candace shrugged and minced back to her office. 

Right. Like your paycheck is the most important thing when people might be missing. 

Harper pulled the end of her nut-brown braid across her shoulder and twined the end around her fingers. The homeless may not have homes, but most of them had cell phones. She dialed Abraham’s first. No answer. None of the patients picked up and her concern grew. What were the odds of all five people missing her calls? 

The clock announced the end of her shift, and she forced the niggling worries back down. They had plenty of company in there. She tucked the bars meant for Abraham into her olive drab backpack, slung it over her shoulders, and stepped out of the building. Grey sidewalk matched the grey sky. The rain paused, but in its wake, the air hung around the city like a wet blanket. Leaves in shades of orange and brown slicked the sidewalk, and a steady stream of cars marked the start of rush hour.  

Throngs of pedestrians glued to the comforting glow of their phones herded by, oblivious to the cluster of homeless huddled under an awning. That was the problem with the city. No one saw or cared about the suffering around them. Most people bumbled mindlessly through the day-to-day blissfully unaware of how close most probably were from sleeping in an alley themselves. Perhaps selective blindness brought a sense of safety. But Harper knew full well how fragile stability was.  

After Harper’s father was murdered and her mom went on an involuntary trip to the psychiatric hospital, her mother had lost their house and they’d landed on the cold streets. Six months they slept on a concrete bed that seeped every ounce of warmth from Harper’s body while hunger coiled in her stomach like a wild beast. 

That was when she first met Abraham. Abraham had protected them, showed them the ropes, taught them the rules of the street. Like a high school basketball coach, he stayed near, correcting their behavior play by play so they wouldn’t be victimized. 

He’d say things to Harper like ‘Keep your head down, don’t get noticed, and never, ever stick your nose in stuff that ain’t your business. But if trouble comes your way, be ready to fight like hell.’ Wisdom she lived by with rare exception.

Child protective services put an end to their life on the streets and gave Harper an opportunity to put every one of Abraham’s lessons into action. After being passed around from foster home to foster home for thirteen months, she applied the ‘fight like hell’ part when her mother stabilized just enough for a trial run at reuniting. From that moment on, Harper managed her mother. She dumped the alcohol in the house before home visits, did well in school, kept the home clean herself, and CPS backed out of their lives. 

Still today, she applied the ‘keep your head down and not be noticed’ part. Harper was already quite average in many ways. Average height. Average build. Average looks. She was easy not to notice, and she strove to never make waves. Waves, good or bad, brought the system, and Harper had had enough of the system. On the streets with her unlikely mentor, Harper grew up early. She owed him, but more than that, she cared for him.

Abraham was a good man. Fought a war no one wanted to fight but, despite his service, life had thrown him to the gutter. The horrors of war in that distant jungle left him shattered. He could have become bitter or numb, but he hadn’t. Instead, Sergeant Wilkes defended a new country: the ranks of the down and out. Even though almost no one in this city noticed him, he was a hero to Harper. 

She drifted to a group of people she recognized as patients of the office, each of them wearing the same bone-weary sag to their eyes. They smiled gap-toothed grins at her approach. With a shimmy, the backpack slid from her shoulders. Harper scrabbled around the front pocket for the protein bars and sandwich she’d not eaten at lunch. 

“Here, guys. Stay safe out here tonight.”

A small Hispanic woman bobbed her head and smiled, passing some bars to each of her friends. “Thank you, sweetheart, and god bless.”

Harper grinned. God hadn’t seen fit to bless any of these people for a very long time. Grubby fingers tore open wrappers while Harper loped toward Burnside Avenue to catch the bus home.

A familiar shape leaned against the bus shelter, flipping through his smartphone. Emilio’s black slacks and tailored wool jacket clashed horribly with the blue streaks in his black hair. His usual electric blue mesh shirt and purple Dr. Martens boots better matched both his sweeping hair and his flamboyant personality. Even a paid internship at Erimus Pharmaceutical couldn’t tame him completely. In addition to his colorful hair, he sported a shiny bright purple tie no serious businessman would wear.

She raised her hand and waved to her best—well, only—friend. Emilio slipped his phone into his pocket and beamed so wide Harper couldn’t help but smile back despite the anxiety souring her stomach. While she had to hide under the cloak of being average in as many ways as she could, Emilio was a live wire. She lived vicariously through his harmless misadventures. 

“How’s working for the man?” Harper asked. 

“You’ll never believe what I scored from the marketing department!” Emilio’s eyes bugged above his grin and the words tumbled out of him, accompanied with exaggerated sweeps of his hands.

“Free samples?” 

“Oh. Ha. Ha.” Emilio waggled his head. Undeterred by her dry response, he pulled two brightly colored strips of fabric from his pocket. Smiling ear to ear, he handed the strips to her. 

Harper turned the pair of nylon admission bracelets in her hand and read aloud. “Mystic Island Admission. What’s this?”   

“Only the hottest ticket in town. Been sold out since they released tickets. Turns out Erimus is the main event sponsor. Marketing gave them to all the new interns! I bought us some matching accessories at lunch.” He jammed his hand into the messenger bag at his side. His massive collection of pins and buttons clacked together, another stubborn vestige of a less corporate life. He dug a crinkly purple bag out of the front pocket and ripped the contents free of tissue paper.

Harper wrung her hands and studied the constellation of ancient chewing gum dotting the sidewalk. She bit her bottom lip while her friend shoved the wrapping into a trash can.

“Check these out.” Emilio held up two intricate headbands, one black, one red. Each sported a single horn protruding from the middle flanked by soft velvety ears. Gems and flowers wove around the ears and horn and sparkled even in the overcast Pacific Northwest light. 

He thrust the red horn into Harper’s hand. The bauble dangled limply by her side while she watched Emilio slide the black headband over his blue-streaked hair. His fingers fumbled around by his left ear, eventually flipping a tiny switch along the edge. The horn sprang to life with pulsating multicolored lights. 

“These are so freaking cool. Watch,” he said as he gyrated and whirled around on the sidewalk to a beat only he could hear. He wheeled his arms and spun around like a wild man. The horn’s rainbow of lights blinked and swirled in time to his movements. 

“It changes the pattern as you move. Put yours on. Imagine, the entire island covered in gnomes, fairies, and vampires. But we will be fabulous unicorns.” Emilio swept his hand across himself like Vanna White revealing the solution to a word puzzle. The horn’s lights pulsated a slow blue like a heartbeat.

Harper glanced down at the glitzy contraption in her hands and sighed. Emilio’s dancing wound down like a mechanical toy and the joy melted from his face. 

“This is where you bail on me.”

“I don’t know, Emilio. It’s not really a good time. Mom’s a train wreck right now.” The bus announced its arrival with a squeal of brakes and flung its doors wide. 

Emilio swept the headband from his head and let his hand flop to his side. “Eileen’s always a train wreck. One night. She can take care of herself for one night.” His head hung as he stepped onto the bus and dropped into a seat. Harper slid in next to him. The usual mix of students, commuters, and the unfortunate packed the bus. All wore the same hunched back and tired droop to their features.

“It’s easy for you to just bop off to a party with a day’s notice. I’ve got responsibilities at home, you know that.” Harper’s words carried an edge. “You know how we both get this time of year.” Roughly a week would mark the tenth anniversary of her father’s murder. It had happened right in their old home. Her eyes focused on her scuffed black loafers, unable to bear the look of disappointment Emilio no doubt wore. She felt the pull of protecting her mother dragging her in one direction and the force of not disappointing Emilio jerking her in the other.    

“When do you get to live your own life?”

“I know, but she needs me.” Harper placed a hand on Emilio’s shoulder and finally meet his deep brown eyes. She managed a weak smile she hoped was reassuring. His lips were slightly down-turned, and he focused on the back of the seat in front of them. 

“I love your mom, too. But she’s smothering you.”

Harper hated the look on her friend’s face. “Let me see how she’s doing tonight and I’ll FaceTime you after dinner. I really do want to go.”

And she did. It had been months since she’d been able to just turn off her mind and cut loose, something she rarely allowed herself the freedom to do.

The change in Emilio was immediate. He clapped his hands and lifted his spine straight. “Awesome!” he said in a sing-song voice. “We can plan our outfits. I’ll help you with yours. This is the event of the season. You can’t just wear any old thing.” He waved his hand up and down, mock assessing her rather bland government job outfit, but his face tilted toward an unruly passenger.

A man in filthy, torn canvas pants staggered backward, almost running into Harper’s shoulder. 

“Hey! Watch—” Harper’s rebuke died on her lips. His mouth hung in an expression of blissful surprise matching the low bubbling laugh percolating from his chest while he pointed at an invisible something near the ceiling of the bus. A string of drool threatened to fall on Harper’s shoulder, so she nudged him with her foot across the aisle toward the rear steps. 

Other riders muttered to themselves and shifted in their seats to avoid eye contact. As the man clapped his hands in glee, Harper noticed a pale lavender powder around his nose.

Next to her, Emilio let out a hiss. “Dust head. Everyone knows if you do too much you go completely loopy.” He spiraled his hand around his ear and rolled his eyes.

“You do Dust? Don’t be stupid.” She knew Emilio dabbled in various substances, but Dust was raging through this city. No one knew what it did long term.

“You’re just hypersensitive because your mom’s a drunk,” he shot back with a dramatic shrug.

Harper’s eyes flashed. A hundred scathing retorts ran a race to her tongue. No one knew what they’d endured, not even her best friend. Not everyone came through adversity whole. Before she could respond, Emilio spread his hands. 

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”

A lump formed in Harper’s throat. “I shouldn’t have called you stupid.” She rested a hand on his knee just as the bus jerked to a stop where he usually exited. “Please, just stay away from Dust. I think it might kill people. A lot of clients at my job are missing.”

Emilio nodded and slid past her. “I promise I won’t become a hopeless drug addict. Talk to you after dinner.” With that, he bounded off the bus. 

Harper’s phone chimed. A text from her mom. The screen full of manic ramblings told her it would be a rough night. Harper clicked her phone off without reading it and focused her gaze where the intoxicated man had been. He must have got off the bus with Emilio. Seeing his bizarre behavior made her worry even more about Abraham. If he was on this stuff too, there was no telling what trouble he might stagger into.

The tent city where he lived most of the time was near the next stop. She decided to check on him. At least it would give her another hour before she had to go home. If she waited a little longer, her mother’s mania and the alcohol might make her pass out. Then there’d be no chance of any fireworks.




Nuada pulled his long black coat tight around him. The damp chill went straight for his bones, especially where the silver arm attached to his shoulder. He wondered why the cauldron revived him with it rather than the arm of flesh and blood the brilliant healer Miach had grown for him before their war with the Fomorians. Probably a sign he would not be High King for a third time, for no one blemished could sit on the throne. 

He feared at this point no one would take that throne ever again, Tuatha or human. Gazing out at the throngs of people bustling about the city hypnotized by tiny screens they clutched in their hands offered little hope of a savior. He found it impossible to imagine the heir of Niall he sought could be among them. They all acted like automata wound by an unseen hand, repeating the same motions over and over each day with no real thought behind their actions. All of them were shadows of the humanity he knew in Inisfáil, or as it was known now, Ireland.

Macha had always told him he judged them too harshly. She had loved to call him a curmudgeon, pointing out the artists and visionaries among them. A familiar ache pulled his heart low. He missed her. With no throne and the Tuatha scattered through the three worlds, hope grew slim. Her entreaty to him, carried on the wings of a magical prophetic storm, was the sole reason he clung to this world. Protect the heir of Niall, and he dragged himself from lead to lead making good on his promise to grant her dying wish, but it got harder every year because, without Macha, life felt meaningless.  

Over a quarter-century had passed since her prophecy echoed in his mind on the night she died. Oracle or not, she’d want him to battle tyranny no matter who perpetrated it. Long ago he wouldn’t have needed her urging for that battle, but tens of thousands of years of the same repeating fight wore him thin. Perhaps he, too, was an automaton now.

Deeper than honoring his lost wife, the simmering desire for vengeance kept him dragging one foot in front of the next, plodding on this path searching for Badb Catha. And when he found her, she would pay for murdering his wife. Her own sister. He would relish every delicious moment of her death. Perhaps the silver arm wasn’t the only sign he was no longer fit for High Kingship.

He kept his head down against the putrid air of the city and walked swiftly up the street labeled ‘Burnside.’ The sun had slipped behind the clusters of square towers the humans jammed together and called a city. Years walking the earth in these times never took the shock out of seeing modern cities. They were like an unforgiving desert of flat stone. And they reeked of poison and rot.

Over a decade of false starts made him think the lead that brought him to this street would be just another dead end to add to his growing collection. That the information came from a phooka heightened the probability of a wild goose chase. Still, he had worked with this particular phooka before. The Fae had more or less delivered, and he’d mentioned seeing an all too familiar red-eyed crow in the tent city for three consecutive nights. Phooka are Fae. Fae cannot lie. In the tens of thousands of years Nuada walked the Green World, he had known only two red-eyed corvids. Both of them Badb’s pets. 

As if on cue, the squawk and din of a flock of crows swarmed overhead. Nuada craned his neck to peer into the sky. His long silver hair slipped from beneath his black coat and carpeted his back. There must have been hundreds of dark birds. Great clouds of them wheeled across the skies, banking and turning as though of a singular mind. Most were too small to be crows. Curiouser and curiouser. Crows, even Badb’s flock, didn’t play nice with other birds, and these, he decided, looked a little off.

A furry black shape bouncing toward him interrupted Nuada’s observations. A jet-black dog, roughly shaped like a German Shepherd, sauntered up the sidewalk. Quick intelligence emanated from the canine’s striking yellow eyes. The Phooka.

Nuada nodded toward him and they both meandered into the alley. Once out of sight of the pedestrians, the Phooka padded close to Nuada.

“You see the birds?” The Phooka swiveled his head side to side, likely in surveillance of the alley. A talking dog would definitely raise a few eyebrows in the human world.

“They were quite obvious.”

“They’re worse than birds. Sluagh. And they arrive first every night. After that, others come.”

Nuada narrowed his eyes at the Phooka. “Fae trapped here when the Veil between the worlds thickened and closed do visit human cities from time to time. Present company included. What’s so unusual about this?”

“Look, Silver Hand, I’m doing you a favor. There’s something happening here that shouldn’t be. You wanted to be alerted to strange goings on, consider yourself alerted.”

Nuada rested the flat of his boot against the grimy brick wall and leaned backward against it. Almost all phooka were aligned with the Unseelie Courts. While the Bright Court had no love of humanity, the Night Court loathed them. If anyone was in league with Badb, it would be the Unseelie. They’d helped her in the past. Yet here was the Phooka blowing the proverbial whistle. That is, if his intel panned out. 

“Strange goings on, as you so eloquently put it, are hardly evidence it involves Badb Catha. Yet you seem certain it’s her. Just how do you know that, I wonder?”

“You got pants under that dress?”

“It’s a coat,” Nuada said. “Meant to conceal this.” He pulled the hem aside to reveal an intricately carved scabbard with the radiant grip of a magical sword peeking out the top.

“Is that—”

“Ready to cut the malarkey?”

“You got any?”

“Any what?”

“Malarkey.” The Phooka licked his lips.

Nuada’s hand hovered over the sword and he leveled his gaze at the Phooka. 

The Fae reared up on his haunches and held his paws in front of him. “Great former king, I am but a lowly Fae unused to the highfalutin’ ways of the Tuatha. I’m merely here to humbly report my concerns. I leave any assessment of who is behind these nefarious goings on to your superior kingly awesomeness and lofty intellect.” The Phooka dropped back down, placed one paw in front of the next, and bowed his head to the ground, pointy ears brushing the concrete. His jaws pulled into a sideways dog smile while his yellow eyes narrowed to slits.

Classic Fae non-answer. They may not be able to lie, but they were still slippery. Phooka in particular. Nuada lacked the patience for Fae nonsense; he was here, he’d just have to keep one eye on the Phooka and the other on whatever came to this place tonight.

“Just what are we expecting to see in this den of human misery?” Nuada asked.

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise. You’ll be on the edge of your seat.” Black paws hovered at face level, framing the scene of tents at the end of the brick-lined alley. His voice dropped deep and garrulous. “In a world where the downtrodden languish in forgotten alleys. Where the earth has turned to stone and the air to poison. Where no one believes in monsters anymore. Something wakes. Shadows stir. A creature rare and dark from another world waits to strike. A shapeshifter and his sidekick are the only hope for—”

“After all these years—”

“All right, all right. You can have top billing.” The Phooka dropped his voice low again. “A musty has-been demigod needs the help of his wondrous, swashbuckling sidekick to remove the stick from his—”

Nuada sighed and rolled his eyes. “Just lead the way.”

“You’re right. We should grab front row seats and see for ourselves how this gripping horror show plays out.” A grey satchel appeared at the dog’s side. He reached a paw in and pulled out a bag of popcorn.

Nuada pushed off from the wall and swept a hand up the alleyway, inclining his head toward the tent city. The Phooka gripped the popcorn bag in his jaws and sauntered up the alley, bushy black tail bobbing merrily from side to side. Nuada had the sinking feeling he would regret granting this trickster an audience.




Harper’s black loafers clomped along the sidewalk toward the homeless encampment, splashing grimy water onto the hems of her plain navy slacks. The clammy autumn mist draped over her skin like a mask, pasting the wispy escapees of her braid to her cheeks. Rush-hour traffic filled the street with a cacophony of bleating horns and revving engines. People stuck in metal boxes going nowhere fast. 

Despite the clammy air, Harper loved fall. The trees lit the world on fire with a final passionate display before pulling on a snowy blanket where life paused and dreamed fertile spring fantasies. 

It was a time of year Harper’s own aspirations surfaced. Distant hopes of traveling the world away from the only city she’d called home beckoned. But Portland closed in around her like a cage. This was where her life crumbled beneath her feet and where year after year she barely hung on. The romantic idea of fleeing to a sunny beach in Cancun, spending a month in an ashram in Mumbai, or hitchhiking across Europe made her wonder who she would be in those wondrous places. Certainly not the exhausted, boring woman she was now. 

Reality dashed plans of adventure and discovery fast. Who would look after her mom while she chased dreams never meant for people like her?

Her shoulders ached from the weight of the backpack. She made a little hop and hoisted it into a higher position, feeling instant relief. Emilio always poked fun at her for the sheer amount of stuff she kept in there. He’d dramatically mime weightlifting moves whenever he handed her the bag. For added effect he’d belt out his best weightlifter grunt. She always laughed him off. Better to be prepared than up a creek without a paddle.

On their own, Harper’s feet slowed their rhythmic march toward her indigent friend’s home. A quick check of the seventeen more texts her mother had sent gave time for her mind to catch up with the growing sense of wrongness permeating the area. 

The shadowy maw of the back alley straddled two neatly defined worlds. Behind her a glimmering city of artsy prosperity. Ahead lay its shadow: a pocket of desperation where the forgotten languished in squalor. All the world had to offer them was a walking death. 

She peered down the alleyway. She’d visited this camp plenty of times. Her office managed several outreach services to the homeless, and Harper always volunteered her time to attend. This time, though, the encampment felt off in a way she couldn’t quite verbalize, but her heart shifted up a gear in response to the nebulous sense of discord. 

The stench of hot garbage assaulted her nose with its acrid mix of sour and rancid. Harper picked her way around some discarded chairs with her sleeve pulled over her mouth and nose. Nearly a hundred lost souls bivouacked among these buildings under tents, boxes, and tarps. That many people always made a fair amount of noise at dusk, bustling about, conversing, and cooking food over metal fire barrels.

The rasp of dry brick scraped under her hand resting on the corner of a red building. She turned her ear toward the camp. The only sounds she could discern came from the river of rush-hour traffic in the street behind. The tent city was as quiet as a graveyard. Not only that, but almost no one milled around the rows of improvised quarters. A thousand spiders raced up her spine. This was wrong. Very wrong. 

Harper stepped to the edge of the alleyway, keeping her shoulder pressed tight to the building. An exit back the way she’d come, one to the left to another alleyway, and plenty of cover to her right with rows of hulking dumpsters hugging the walls promised options should her expedition go sideways.

The blood rushing in her ears sounded like it was actually whispering ‘run, run, run’ with every thump of her heart. Right now, listening to her heart seemed like the wisest plan, but she had to find out if Abraham needed help. 

I’ll just do a quick walk-through and see if he’s here. Get out before it’s dark. She reached her arm around to the front pouch of her backpack. Short fingers scrabbled over the edges, seeking the zipper. Tooth by tooth, she dragged the zipper open, attempting to muffle the sound while she sought a weapon. 

In the wake of her family tragedy, self-defense became a warm blanket; she always carried something with her to fend off an attacker if escape failed. All part of the ‘fight like hell’ piece of Abraham’s sage advice all those years ago.

She chose a short black collapsible baton from the compartment stuffed with an assortment of small-scale weapons. Something she picked up after one of her self-defense classes that had quickly become a favorite. Easier to sneak into venues than a knife and less likely to backfire on you than pepper spray. Her fingers gripped the handle until her knuckles turned white.

A torrent of black wings and furious squawking erupted from a dumpster. She staggered back, yelping. The baton extended with a flick. The reflex that came from training coiled her in a defensive crouch, ready to strike out in any direction. Flapping wings fluttered at the corner of her eye. Crows. And something smaller, but just as inky black. They scattered upward to the tops of the building, their sharp squawks cursing her for the intrusion. 

Just a bunch of birds. You interrupted their fine dining at Chez Dumpster. Holy hell, Harper, you gotta chill. Or not. It’s too quiet. Wait, doesn’t the crap always hit the fan when someone says that in movies? 

A single black bird refused to join its cackling brethren. It perched on the dumpster rim, muttering and clacking its beak. Then the bird took two bounding hops around the rusty lip, twisting and cocking its head from side to side. She felt studied under scarlet eyes. 

Crows don’t have red eyes, do they?     

An icy wave washed over her. She whacked the side of the container with the baton. The clank made the bird take flight. “Go on. Get the hell out of here.” The crow ascended to the top of the building to join its brothers, oddly silent.

Harper tore her eyes from the murder of crows and stepped around the corner. A colorful group of tents and tarps fluttered in the breeze. The garish colors would have looked festive if the place wasn’t the last stop of the ones society had cast off.

Plastic shopping bags blew like tumbleweeds across this societal desert. A handful stuck to the shopping carts full of junk parked by some tents. Barrels usually simmering with cooking fires stood cold under scrubby trees. Only one cooked tonight. A single metal cylinder crackled and popped with flame. 

“That you making all that racket?” a deep and raspy voice said.

Harper started, pivoting toward the speaker. A tall, thin black man emerged from the tent next to the lit barrel. 

“Yeah, it was me. The crows scared the crap out of me. Sorry.” She gave a nervous laugh.

The man scanned her up and down. His hand swept over her sky-blue wool sweater and pressed slacks. “What you doing here, young miss?”

“Looking for a friend.” Harper sidled over to stand across the barrel from the man. He looked to be in his fifties with short, tightly curled grey hair. He wore a filthy orange sweatshirt, tattered jeans, and sneakers that appeared composed of duct tape.

“You don’t look like you got friends from ’round here.” 

“Do you know a guy named Abraham, a little taller than me, grey hair and a beard?” Harper’s hand hovered a couple inches over her head.

“Yeah, young miss, I know Abraham.”

“Is he here? Is he OK? I’m Harper, by the way.” She stuck out her hand.

“Dante.” He gripped her hand. “I seen him earlier today. Might still be in his tent. The green one on the far right along the back row. As for him bein’ OK, no, Harper, I don’t think he is.”

Harper’s stomach plummeted to her knees. “What happened to him?”

“Best you just turn ’round and take yourself outta here. It’s not safe in these parts.”

“Please. He’s my friend. Just tell me.”

Dante drew his head back like he needed that extra inch of distance to size her up. “Easier to show you. Follow me.”

He motioned her forward with a finger pressed to his lips. Harper fell into step behind him. The pair wove between a row of empty tents. The gravel crunched underfoot, too loud for the peculiar quiet. In moments, a grassy patch opened out between scrubby trees that clawed their way toward what little light fell between the buildings. 

Harper stifled a yelp at the scene before her. The handful of people in the clearing were each behaving very strangely. 

A young woman with red hair and unfocused eyes stroked the side of a small tree. Her mouth hung open, head tilting to the side. She bent forward from the waist and kissed the rough bark. Across from her, an old man slumped on the ground, rocking back and forth and laughing. He stuffed his face with handfuls of grass he yanked from the ground and smiled as though it were a lavish banquet. A group of younger people stood in a circle, admiring something that wasn’t there. Looks of complete awe made their grubby faces radiant. Harper and Dante hovered at the threshold of a magical world. Only they couldn’t behold the miracles. 

“What the hell are they doing?” Harper stepped back and something crunched beneath her feet. She lifted her shoe and peered at the ground beneath. Shards of glass from a small vial sparkled in the light. A purple residue with an opalescent sheen clung to the broken bits. Harper bent down to inspect and saw several empty vials scattered around the edges of the path.

“Dust,” Dante said and pointed at the pieces. “You breathe that junk in and go on a hell of a trip.” He jerked his thumb toward the clearing. “Been spreadin’ like wildfire ’round here.”

“How long do they stay like that?” 

“First few times, two hours, maybe three. Each time gets longer and longer until one day they go wandering off. Never come back.”

“Wandering off? Where?”

“Dunno. All I know is they use that junk long enough, when the Dark Boys come, they follow ’em. We don’t see ’em again.”

Harper swallowed hard. “Dark Boys?” A tremor in her voice.

“You don’t wanna know, Harper. This ain’t your fight.”

“But it is. I lived near here when I was homeless. Abraham helped me, and I have to help him now if he’s in trouble. Just tell me about the Dark Boys.” 

Dante pursed his lips and shrugged his shoulders. “Bunch of teen boys. They ain’t right. All of ’em got jet-black hair, look like brothers. They bring the Dust. About time for them now. Always show up as the sun’s goin’ down. Never speak, just smile and hand out vials. Then some of ’em follow the music.” Dante pointed at a cluster of hallucinating people.

Music. Drugs. Odd boys. Questions chased each other around and around. “If they end up disappearing, why does anyone take this stuff?” Harper asked. 

Dante chuckled. “Look around.” His hand swept over the camp. “For a few hours they bliss out and the world is beautiful. They forget they live here. For just a bit they ain’t worried about being too cold. Or wet. Or hungry. Don’t notice the rock that jabs into their back when they sleep. And the Dark Boys never ask for anything in return. For just a while, it’s a way out of this hell.”

They walked back toward Dante’s shelter. Looked like her arrival had interrupted his packing. He had a shopping cart filled with his possessions parked to the side of the burning barrel. 

“I’m gettin’ out of here tonight. I don’t want no part of them Dark Boys.” He tossed a pair of boots into the cart. 

Harper unslung her backpack and reached into the front pocket. She pulled out the last couple of protein bars and all the cash she had. She held it out to Dante. “It’s not much,” she said, “but it should get you out of the city.”

“I may be poor, but I don’t need no charity, Harper.”

“It’s not charity. You’ve been a wonderful tour guide.”

Dante smiled and accepted the gift. “This ain’t no place for you. You should leave before them Dark Boys come.”

Harper smiled at him and nodded. “I’ll be leaving soon. I need to find my friend. Be safe, Dante, this is no place for you either.”

With that, Dante pushed his cart up the alleyway. Harper watched him go for a moment and waved at him when he neared the mouth of the alley. He waved back and disappeared from sight behind the dumpster. 

Hues of deep orange and yellow seeped into the horizon. They always show up as the sun’s going down. If she could find Abraham before she ran into danger, she’d need to hurry. She held the baton in front of her like a shield and sidled toward her friend’s green tent. 

A tall man with long, straight silver hair leaned against the next building. He looked like he belonged here even less than she did. Long black coat hung all the way to the middle of his black motorcycle boots. Too new to mark him as a resident. A voluminous hood occluded most of his face. 

At his feet sat a jet-black dog. Not in itself unusual, but most dogs didn’t have bright yellow eyes. And most dogs didn’t drill into you with their eyes unless you had food, and she was fresh out. A crow fluttered overhead and she reflexively tracked it for a half second. When her eyes returned to the black dog, those unblinking golden eyes were still laser-focused on her. The hairs on the back of Harper’s neck prickled to attention. 

I don’t like the look of that guy or his creepy mutt. He might be the boss of the Dark Boys; he certainly dressed goth enough, and drug dealers often had vicious dogs as protection. Back the way you came. You don’t want to tangle with that creepy dog or his master.

Harper slunk back the way she came to circle around to Abraham’s tent the long way. She shot one more glance toward the man and his dog. It hadn’t moved. Still it sat. Golden eyes almost glowing in the twilight. She shuddered and slipped between a row of tents. 

There was Abraham. He stumbled around and around the base of a tree with his arms outstretched. Filthy overalls hung unbuckled around his waist. His long white beard hung crusted with Dust and vomit.

“Abraham!” Harper called to him. He laughed like a delighted child and continued his doddering revolution around the tree. She slid her baton into her front pocket and ran to him.

“Abraham. It’s me, Harper.” She stepped in front of him, placed her hands on his shoulders, and turned him toward her. “Abraham, remember me?” He looked right through her and kept reaching for the base of the tree. She gently shook his shoulders and looked into his brown eyes. “Abraham. Abraham. Snap out of it.” But it was useless. Abraham’s body was there, but his mind was in Neverland. 

Harper gripped his sleeve and pulled him toward the exit. To her surprise, he shuffled along beside her, all the while reaching back for the base of the tree. If she could just get him to the street, she could call for help. That plan evaporated as soon as it formed.

Abraham jerked violently from her grip while a low moan oozed from his slack jaw. She caught his hand again. He wrenched it away and uttered another wavering moan. Abraham staggered away from Harper but not back to the tree that contained his invisible friend; instead, toward the back of the camp. The entire area sprang to a shambling kind of life. Streams of shuffling feet from every direction flowed in the same direction like a river of moaning bodies. Harper pursued, hoping to catch Abraham again.

As she emerged from between two of the tents at the outer edge of the camp, her blood ran cold. She stopped in her tracks, grabbed her baton, and darted behind a red tent. 

Several pale forms with stringy black hair melted out of the opposite end of the alley. They didn’t walk so much as glide like they were on an invisible conveyor belt. 

The Dark Boys. She clapped her other hand over her mouth to stifle a terrified scream. Her breath came in shallow, shuddering gasps between her fingers. The strength drained from her legs, and she slid to the ground.




The settlement the Phooka had guided him to stretched through the entire clearing between the towering buildings. A tent shanty made of cardboard, remnants of plastic tarps, and bits of anything that would keep out the rain or offer the slightest barrier against the cold. Row upon row of them crammed together as tight as possible. Nuada had never witnessed the level of debasement that stretched before him. What High King would allow so many of his subjects to descend to this hopeless condition?   

The squalor saddened him, but so did the behavior of the residents. Most of them wore the empty bliss and unfocused stare of the glamoured. Each bopped along in their own little world, seeing and feeling things that were never physically there. That took a lot of energy. Whatever Fae or group of Fae who maintained it must have power to rival a Tuatha.

He swiveled his head, silver hair slipping like mercury over his shoulders. Blue eyes probed every hidden crevice, each patch of shadow, revealing nothing. He expected to find some of the Fae gentry, elves, perhaps, weaving their glamour over these poor folk. But why? No gentry would ever deign to waste their abilities on the ill and broken. And yet the glamoured humans stumbled about, all the same victims of an age-old Fae spell. Could the gentry have developed the skill to hide themselves from him in his long absence?

He let his eyes drift shut and sent filaments of awareness winding through the clearing. Wisps of magic curled around corners and slithered along branches, seeking the jolt of electricity that would reveal the Fae casting the glamour. But all he felt was the flat pulse of human life. Other than himself and the Phooka, there were no other magical beings here, and that made absolutely no sense. 

The Phooka was right. Something nefarious was happening in this sad, forgotten alley. 

While the shapeshifter sniffed the ground around a blue tarp, Nuada spent several minutes observing the glamoured people. They mooned about, gaping and laughing at nothing as all humans under this enchantment did.

He was about to suggest there was nothing more to see in this place when, out of the corner of his eye, Nuada spotted something out of place. He watched the girl sneak between rows of tents. She was a little short with an athletic build. She moved with the efficiency of a martial artist, but Nuada was certain she’d seen no war. Simple clean clothes in shades of blue told him she was no resident. The young woman had chosen the wrong time and place to go wandering.

Humans were like that. Even when the first of their kind arrived at Inisfáil, they’d blundered along. The Milesians stuck their nose in the negotiations of Tuatha kings, arrogantly rebuffed the requests of sovereign goddesses, and picked a fight with Badb Catha that set humanity on a trajectory to face her in battle at some point in the future. If the Phooka was correct, that time may be upon them. 

Under the golden boughs of apple trees in the Undying Lands, he’d heard Macha’s prophecy spoken. Nuada had spent every waking moment since seeking the heir she spoke of and listening for tides of war. His last promise to his love had brought him to this desolate place and to the new low of having to place his trust in a trickster. 

From across the sea of shabby tents, the Phooka stared, transfixed by a brown-haired human. Amber eyes bored into the girl in a very un-doglike manner, almost like he knew her. That will be our next topic of discussion once this little diversion ends. I don’t trust that beast. 

When the girl disappeared from his line of sight, the Phooka ducked behind piles of refuse, nose to the ground. Nuada continued his surveillance of the alley. Row upon row of avian shapes of the Sluagh with their crow friends dotted every building and treetop. They unsettled him. The Sluagh burgeoned when the Veil between worlds thickened and they collected where large quantities of humans lived: cities. 

Nuada shuddered. The sound of paws beating the earth pulled his eyes back from the skyscrapers. The Phooka galloped toward him. His shaggy fur bounced in time to his flying feet and he skidded to a halt in front of Nuada.

“They’re here.” He panted with wide eyes. The Phooka spun on his back legs and rocketed back the way he had come. Droplets of drool flew off his lolling pink tongue.

Nuada loped after him, dropping to a crouch where the dog had stopped behind a large orange tent. A prickle on the back of his neck confirmed the Fae had arrived. They peered around the edge of the tent. A group of dark-haired boys drifted through the hallucinating residents of the encampment. Droplets of water coursed over their wiry bodies even though the rain had stopped minutes ago. “Kelpies,” Nuada whispered with a shudder. 

Kelpies lived in riparian waterways where few humans lived. They avoided cities this large. Whatever they were here for had to be big to make them endure the urban pollution. Nuada hoped to spy on the Fae, but the innocent girl’s arrival meant divided attention. Duty commanded him to protect her. She hid behind a row of tents. Safe. At least for now.

Nuada’s foot tapped the shaggy dog on the flank. “If you are going to wear the shape of a dog, at least have the skill to act the part,” he whispered. 

His companion ignored the remark. He leaned forward over his lanky front legs, tail bobbing side to side like a metronome. The Phooka’s attention locked on to the brown-haired girl again. Nuada kicked his flank a little harder.

The Phooka narrowed his eyes and let out a low rumble. “I’m behaving precisely like a proper canine. Have you ever been a dog, great and glorious former king?” 


The Phooka sat on one of his haunches with his leg slung over his head and licked his bottom to make a point about his expertise. He offered a canine smile and licked his lips. “Then don’t criticize.”

Nuada wrinkled the bridge of his nose and drew back. “Care to explain why you are acting like a besotted fool?” He inclined his head toward the woman.

“Just looking out for someone who clearly straggled into the wrong situation.”

Evasive as ever. Answers from the Phooka would prove elusive, and they had bigger problems. “Let’s not forget why you called me here.” Nuada gestured toward the kelpies. Their grisly ear-to-ear smiles never dropped or increased. The Fae nodded their dripping heads while surrounded by the slack jaws and reaching arms of desperate people.

“That’s right! On the case.” The dog put his nose to the ground and walked in circles, sniffing the earth. 

Nuada ignored the Phooka’s antics. He wanted to get a closer look at the Fae. He motioned the Phooka to follow. The pair slid around the tents toward where the girl still hid. The golden eyes of the dog wandered to her. 

Two rows of tents separated them from the kelpies. Nuada squinted to make out their actions. They pressed vials of something into outstretched hands. Kelpies shouldn’t be interested in these sad souls, and they never handed out gifts. The Phooka was right; something deeply strange was underway here. He needed to get one of those vials if he had any chance of figuring out if this had anything to do with Macha’s dying words.

“Bloody kelpies. Awful blighters. I can take them. You get to handle what’s coming behind them,” the dog whispered.

Nuada made silent accounts of terrain, exits, and sight lines. This was a terrible place for a battle. Too many obstacles and innocents. “Now is not the time,” he said, laying a hand on the Phooka’s neck to stop his advance. “A clash could harm these people. Besides, if you think Badb has something to do with this, we need to discover their destination.” 

“You never let me have any fun. Can’t we kill four and persuade the fifth to share some information with us? I can be very motivational.” The Phooka made an approximate fist with one paw and slammed it against the pad of the other.

Nuada pointed at the lines of black birds perched overhead in the trees and buildings. “We have other company. Sluagh.”

A ripple moved through the dog’s shiny fur. “Ugh. Bloody scavengers. They’re probably just here to drain the kelpies’ rejects.”

“Of that, you cannot be sure. Regardless, a fight may not end in our favor. For now, we observe and follow. Nothing more.” 

The Phooka didn’t answer. He prowled closer to where the girl crouched. Eyes like saucers and a shaking hand signified her terror at seeing Fae for the first time. The kelpies hadn’t bothered to glamour themselves, but he supposed they wanted to be seen handing out their treasures. Poor girl. Today she learned monsters existed. 

Nuada crouched low and crept up next to his friend, grabbing his bushy tail. “Sit. Stay,” he whispered. 

The Phooka’s lips curled, showing a row of sharp white teeth. A low growl rumbled, but he sat. And stayed, even if his tail lashed from side to side and his muscles tensed, ready to spring into action. Pointed ears twitched rapidly in all directions. 

“You know something, Phooka.” Nuada jerked his chin toward the young woman. “Does she have something to do with all this? You’ve obviously seen her before.” 

The Phooka didn’t answer and Nuada had no more time to press him about the issue because the ‘something rare and dark from another world’ the Phooka spoke of entered. The ethereal strains of a harp emanated from the back of the camp, playing a song that was old when humanity cowered in caves from the dark outside. Soft and melodic notes created a counterpoint to the jagged honking horns in the distance. 

Only one creature played that exquisitely or knew such songs from eons past. From where the kelpies had emerged, an impossible creature stepped into view. Hunched and black, it towered over both Fae and human. Where eyes should be, balls of fire flickered and sent tongues of flame licking the top of its forehead. One thick clawed hand braced a golden harp to a hairy shoulder while the other plucked the strings with a softness at odds with its grotesque appearance. 

Nuada traced symbols in the air, flicking his fingers first toward his ears, then to the Phooka, and finally across the asphalt to the girl. The simple air spell would cancel out some of the effects of the Aillen’s tune, at least for a few minutes. He felt a pang of regret it wouldn’t work on the already glamoured.

The Aillen lived only in the Underworld. He could walk in the Green World for only three nights of the year, and tonight wasn’t one of them. The ancient monster had slain kings and heroes, and the music it played turned the mind to a slave, especially if the mind was already weakened by glamour. Yet here it was, in the Green World. Precisely where it was impossible to be.




Harper registered five of them. At first glance they might be a pack of teen boys, common for the city, but they were far from normal. Each looked to be around thirteen years old, clothed in identical dingy grey clothes, and all with the same shoulder-length jet-black hair. Their dress and hairstyle weren’t the only similarities. Each of the boys had nearly identical features.

Their creepiness didn’t end there. October in Portland meant the chill closed in even before the sun sank, yet none of them wore shoes. The glass, stones, and other detritus should be slicing through their skin, yet they remained uninjured. But, Harper thought, the most disturbing thing of all were the eyes. No pupil. No iris. Just inky black pools stretching corner to corner, with a dull grey glint, almost like a cataract but more metallic, floating like a haze across each malevolent stare.  

They’re just teenagers. Contacts. Their eyes look like that because of those ridiculous contact lenses that make your eyes look red or glow. These just happen to be black. And cover the whites of their eyes, too. They make those, right?

Her body contradicted the narrative her mind brewed up. Quaking hands and palpitating heart banished any hope of convincing herself these were normal children. And some nebulous terror simmered below the membrane between her conscious thoughts and the vast unconscious, building pressure with each passing second.

Wait. Didn’t the rain end a couple hours ago? Why are they wet? 

The Dark Boys weren’t merely damp. No. Every single one of them dripped, soaking wet, complete with tangles of aquatic weed twined in their locks, like they’d gone for a dip in the icy Willamette River only seconds before. Fully clothed. On a cloudy fifty-two-degree day. 

Another shove from her unconscious mind sent a wave of dizziness rippling through her. “They’ll have pointed teeth,” Harper whispered under her breath. 

At the appearance of the Dark Boys, the Dust affected had shambled toward them. Now they arrived, moaning, with upturned palms. The boys passed wicked smiles between them. Each curved grin revealed a line of yellowing, pointed teeth, almost more than should fit in a child’s mouth. Harper recoiled.

How did I know they’d have pointed teeth? No fucking way I could know that. I’m just hyped up. Imagining things. No. I know that’s not true. I knew about the teeth before I saw them. Gotta be a lucky guess. Or I’m going nuts and will end up in the funny farm like Mom.

Harper shook all over and her vision narrowed, darkening around the edges so only the Dark Boys registered, retreating down the long tunnel of her fading vision. She dropped her head between her knees, partly to remain out of the sight of the boys and partly because she was sliding into unconsciousness. A familiar terror she still couldn’t place sent icy tentacles through her thoughts. 

A pair of the boys were visible from her vantage point near the ground. In unison, they each lifted a hand and slowly gestured the people forward. Their pointy smiles never slipped and did not reach their eyes. 

That was when the music started. The dulcet tones of a harp came from behind the Dark Boys. She could only see the shadow of the musician hunched over his harp. He stretched tall with a bald head, but it was the claws at the end of his thick fingers that dried her throat. A handful of the residents harkened to the song. Heads floated up, jaws hung, and eyes fixed on the harpist. The others remained riveted on the Dark Boys.

The shadow turned and moved away from the camp. The gentle thrum of the harp receded with him. About a dozen of the homeless lurched along in the musician’s wake as though he were the Pied Piper. Abraham was among them. Harper’s mind screamed at her to stop them, leap between the people and the musician and save them all. But her feet had grown roots. She froze in terror, just the way she had on the night her father died. 

As the harpist and his procession exited the area, the Dark Boys drew out more handfuls of tiny glass vials and glided through the camp. They said nothing, their frozen smiles never slipping as watery hands dropped corked bottles into outstretched fingers. 

They were almost on her. She forced her immobility to break, something years of self-defense classes had drilled into her, and scrambled to her feet. Her toe caught the edge of a tent and tore up a stake. The fabric shook and one side collapsed when it dragged behind her while she hopped and staggered into the open. A pair of crows lit on the ground in front of her, cawing and flapping their wings.

“Shhhh!” Harper flailed the baton at the birds. That only made them hop back and squawk louder.

The commotion drew the attention of the visitors. Gleaming grey eyes shot her direction, the first quick movement the teens had made. Two of them broke toward her, as fast as a striking snake, while the crows fluttered out of the way. 

Oh crap. Crap. Crap. What the hell do I do? 

Her arm shot out in an involuntary move of protection as the Dark Boys dripped in front of her. A cold, wet hand pressed a glass vial into her hand. Her fingers closed around it in reflex. The Dark Boy inclined his smiling head and glided past. 

He took just two steps, then paused. His head swiveled back toward her. She gazed into the dull glint of his eyes and a magnetism lured her, promising the obliteration of all fear and pain. So beautiful. So full of joy. She couldn’t help but dive into those black pools. 

Harper’s body warmed and a sensation of buoyancy surrounded every limb, like floating in a bubbling hot tub. For the first time since her dad died, all her cares melted away, replaced by a soporific peacefulness. Gone was the emptiness Gerald O’Neill left with his passing. Gone were the scars of her tumultuous childhood. Gone was her guilt at her daily failure to save her mother. In its place, feelings of a joy so deep she wanted to weep, and the euphoric sense that everything was perfect just the way it was.

Why was I so scared? They’re here to help me. Take away all my pain. 

She stood and held her hand out to the boy. She’d follow him anywhere if only she could keep the tranquility of this moment.

“Niall,” the dark boy hissed. Rivulets of water coursed down the hand reaching for her. 

It sounded like he said ‘knee all’ to Harper. She giggled. Knee all was a very odd thing to say. Knee all. Kneel? Was the beautiful boy wanting her to kneel? She dropped to the ground to comply. Wait. That’s not it at all. My name. He said my name.  

“My name’s O’Neill,” Harper heard herself say in a dreamy voice. They knew her by name and wanted her to go with them. Profound joy flooded her at the thought. Her fingertips hovered inches from the bone-white hand of the Dark Boy. Inches away from everlasting happiness.

And then the slavering jaws of the black dog snapped closed, but he missed the outstretched hand of the boy. The Dark Boy’s pale fingers whipped back, and he fled toward his companions. 

“No!” Harper shouted. The goddamned mutt had ruined her only chance for happiness.

The golden-eyed dog gnashed its teeth and snarled. The Dark Boys ran, and the dog bounded after. He caught up with them in a flash and tore into the nearest one. The boy didn’t even have time to scream before he lay scattered in pieces. His friends streaked away, following the strange musician. Strings of dog drool spattered the ground behind the retreating teens. 

With their departure, the gut-wrenching sense of fear roared back into Harper’s mind. She staggered back, clutching her chest. In the elation’s shadow, her grief felt as deep as a canyon.

The black dog pursued its prey, followed by the silver-haired man. She swore she saw him draw a sword.

Harper teetered close to a mental breaking point. The yearning for escape expanded like a balloon, crowding out any other thought. She dropped the vial and sprinted back down the alleyway. At full speed, she burst out onto the sidewalk on Burnside and didn’t stop running until she got to the bus stop.




Nuada drew the shorter of the two swords hidden beneath his long coat, cursing silently to himself. This was supposed to be a mission to simply observe and discover. The girl’s rash move had changed all that, so he raced to aid the Phooka whose jaws were clamped around one of the kelpies. 

Blood dripped down the shapeshifter’s maw while he planted his canine paws and lashed his head from side to side. The kelpie’s face creased with pain, but he scraped up the strength to lift his free hand and blast a ball of shining energy at his attacker. The Phooka’s jaw snapped open when the magic slammed into his chest. End over end, he tumbled from the force of the blast. The impact of his rump smacking the ground elicited a cry, half yelp, half whine.

The motion sent the cloud of black birds rocketing from their perches like they shared a single mind. The cawing of crows mixed with the guttural sounds from the Sluagh.

The black avian cloud dove toward the ground and banked up between Nuada and the injured kelpie. The birds sliced the air above him, blowing his hood back and revealing his shining silver hair. He snatched the hood back down over his face. If Badb truly was behind this, she could see through the eyes of her crow minions, and he needed to keep his return a secret. 

The distraction from the flock gave the injured kelpie just enough time to limp toward his departing friends. Just like them to leave one of their own to face death alone. The creature cradled his right arm and disappeared up the alley toward the fading tones of the harp. Odd that the usually bellicose kelpies and the usually murderous Aillen chose not to fight. Either they had orders, or they’d wandered the city long enough to be weakened from the iron that surrounded them. The Phooka must have lived here long indeed if he could tolerate his surroundings this well.

The Phooka pulled himself to his feet and shook his head. With a baying howl, he leveled his head and charged for the retreating Fae. 

“Heel!” Nuada sheathed his sword and scanned the ground where the girl had fallen under the glamour. The shapeshifter might not be ready to let his quarry escape, but now was not the time to bring any further attention to themselves. They were two against an untold number of foes. Light on information and devoid of allies.

The dog careened to a halt and growled. The Phooka lifted one paw and used the other to mash it into a good approximation of a middle finger. But he did saunter back to where Nuada crouched, turning the vial of opalescent power over in his gloved, clockwork hand.

Nuada craned his neck up at the sky. In wartime, clouds of crows and Sluagh swarmed battlefields. Both were scavengers. The crows came for the meat; the Sluagh, the souls. He scowled. The Fae, even kelpies, viewed the Sluagh as something akin to maggots. Necessary, but repugnant. On their end, the Sluagh believed the Fae to be hedonistic fools. Both gave the other a wide berth, and yet what Nuada had just seen was a coordinated intervention. 

To force groups who despised each other under normal circumstances to join was no minor feat. For that to happen, someone powerful held the reins. Someone strong enough to summon the Aillen across an impermeable Veil. 

The former king’s eyes slid to the shapeshifter and narrowed. Where did the Phooka’s allegiance lie? Yes, he’d attacked the kelpies, presumably to rescue the young woman. He’d recognized her. Nuada was sure of it. 

“Why did you let them get away?” The Phooka rolled his eyes like a grounded teenager.

“You were right. There are indeed things here that shouldn’t be.”

“Say that again?”

“There are—”

“Not that part. The first bit about me being right. It’s my favorite song.” A black paw cupped the Fae’s pointed ear.

Nuada sighed. “Battling the Aillen would only result in collateral damage to these wretched souls, and thanks to your guardian angel routine, we probably lost any hope of remaining undetected from whoever is pulling its strings.”

“I’m just here to protect and serve.” A shining halo materialized over the Phooka’s head while his lips pulled into a beatific smile. “Wait. That’s the police.” The Phooka shuddered.

The Fae played the Good Samaritan, but Nuada knew it was disingenuous. He hadn’t lifted a finger to save the unfortunate, just the girl. Nuada wanted to know why. But getting the truth out of the Phooka was about as likely as a troll dancing the ballet.  

“There’s something you’re hiding from me, Phooka. Like why you’re so sure Badb Catha is behind this.” Nuada studied the glass tube of purple Dust the girl had dropped in her retreat. “And you knew that girl, but I have not the time to torture an answer out of you tonight.” He gestured toward where the kelpies disappeared with their victims. “We need to follow them. Hopefully, they will lead us to whoever made this stuff.” Nuada held the vial up to his face and peered at it while he strode toward the retreating party of Fae and humans.

“Well. Um. You see, I have another engagement tonight.” The Phooka’s yellow eyes drifted in the direction the girl had fled and his paw tips tapped together.

“You are going to follow her.”

“That kelpie seemed pretty interested in her. With you gallivanting off to tilt at windmills, I think I’d best follow her and ensure her safety. It’s my civic duty as a long-time resident of this city.”

“This discussion is far from over.” Nuada had great reservations about placing the young woman’s fate in the hands of the likely duplicitous Fae, but something terrible was happening here, and he had to stop it. Besides, he reasoned, if the Phooka had any intent to harm the girl he could have done so already.

“Your kelpies are escaping you.” The Phooka flicked his furry head.

“If that girl comes to any harm . . .”

“Yeah, yeah. You’ll chop off my head with your fancy sword. I want her in one piece as much as you do.”

The dog shape shimmered and rippled until only a transparent cloud remained. The shapeless mist roiled and shrank. As it thickened, it pulled into the shape of a black raven. The amber-eyed bird hovered at eye level to Nuada. “You know how to find me.” With that, the Phooka shot up high over the alley.

The sun had sunk behind the mountains around the city a half hour before. The sky held soupy clouds painted in the deep reds and oranges of the last slivers of the day. Just enough light remained to show the shadowy silhouette of the retreating kelpies. Like an otherworld parade, their motley crew of indigent shuffled along in tow, slowing their supernatural shepherds. With a resigned sigh, Nuada jogged forward. His black boots made no sound on the ground. 

Nuada closed his eyes for an instant and felt the warm glow of his magic flowing over him. He brought his cupped hands over his head as though dousing himself with water. They continued their path along the back of his head and by the time they dropped to his sides he was invisible from human and kelpie alike. Tuatha magic was stronger than Fae magic; he was certain they couldn’t see through the spell. He sprinted to catch up. 

He pursued the kelpies through the city, keeping a safe distance. He was invisible but not undetectable to the Aillen. Better to be cautious. Kelpies had a keen sense of smell, and he was sure he smelled very different than the dozen indigent humans they herded through the streets. 

The group headed straight for the Willamette River where the dripping boys resumed their large black horse shape and slipped into the water. The humans scrambled onto their backs, two or three on each one. The hulking Aillen slipped into the water beside the horses, the water steaming and bubbling where it touched his skin.

Once in the water, the kelpies swam impossibly fast. Nuada sprinted at supernatural speed along the banks of the river, barely keeping pace with the creatures. Soon the kelpies joined a stream of other leathery-skinned water horses returning from their own kidnapping missions. Dozens of them churned the water. Each carried a burden of slack-jawed humans. 

After a few minutes, the creatures banked and swam across the water, heading straight toward a vast, mist-shrouded island. Across the water, Nuada could just make out the kelpies melting back into teen boys. 

They guided their shuffling prey into the mist. A mist so thick and unmoving that he knew immediately magic had spun it up. He closed his eyes and projected his senses. The mist had the silky feel of Tuatha magic. As it existed in a between state—not quite water, not quite air—mist magic was the best way to hide something as huge as an entire island. And to change it as the Tuatha had done to Ireland eons ago. Within the Phooka’s web of deception might lie a grain of truth, because only a handful of his people possessed this sorcery, and Badb Catha was one of them. 

Even from across the river, magic whispered to Nuada’s unconscious that he really didn’t want to be here right now. The warding spells pushed a sense of unease outward in waves. Probably enough to keep any humans from even thinking about visiting that island. He could likely force his way past the wards and enter anyway, but every Fae or Tuatha in a hundred miles would know he was there. For tonight at least, this was the end of the road. 

His fist clenched at his side. Frustration simmered in his heart, though at least he knew more than he did weeks ago. They were bringing the addicted to this island, but for what purpose? And how did this drug work without the proximity of a powerful Fae to hold the glamour? Every answer led to more questions. None of this made the tiniest bit of sense. He inhaled a bone-weary sigh. 

“Macha, my love, we should be walking beneath the golden trees and smelling the honey-sweet air of the Undying Lands together. For eternity. You set me on this path to save humanity, but, Mother Danu, I am just so tired.” This world felt tired too, threadbare souls in a threadbare land. His throat felt achy and raw. Self-pity was new to him. Perhaps it was the natural result of ages of loss grinding down the best parts of him, like waves wear down the very rocks. 

Another deep sigh anchored him in the present. Nuada’s fingers found the vial of Dust the brown-haired girl had dropped in the homeless camp. Pursuit was a dead end for now, but the contents of the tiny bottle might present a fresh lead. He would discover what the Phooka knew about the woman later, but the kelpies had led him close to an old acquaintance. One who might know something about the iridescent lavender powder. 

When the gateways to the Underworld had closed because of the environmental devastation of the industrial age, a handful of its denizens had been trapped in the human world. Some adjusted better than others. None thrived like Heironymous. And he had eyes everywhere.




Harper hunkered down in the back of the bus, shoulders braced almost to her ears and her olive drab backpack clutched to her chest like it could shield her from the nightmare she had just witnessed. She felt fuzzy and disconnected, like the few times she had woken with a hangover. Broken images, some banal, others surreal, scattered through her mind as though her memory of the events had been smashed by a hurricane. Try as she might, she couldn’t arrange them into a coherent narrative. 

Wide hazel eyes flicked over the packed bus, searching for Dark Boys or anything else out of the ordinary. Her shoulders dropped two notches when her surveillance revealed merely the usual gaggle of commuters and students. The side-to-side sway of the bus and the familiar rumble of its engines soothed her like pulling on a favorite sweatshirt and enjoying a mug of hot chocolate.

Her body may have cancelled the defcon five, but her mind fast forwarded through fragments of events in the alley over and over, desperately searching for an escape hatch to normalcy. Pale fingers fiddled with the zipper on the front of the pack and her muddy loafers tapped out a fast beat against the wall of the bus.

She shifted in her seat and rested her forehead against the smooth, cool window. How did I know they’d have pointed teeth? The bit of foreknowledge pinched like a splinter, becoming ever more insistent as it worked its way down under the skin. The deeper it burrowed, the more her mind picked at it.  

She lifted her head from the window, scanned the passengers again, and rubbed her face with the flats of her hands. Stress. That had to be it. I psyched myself out back there. Like when I was a kid and thought monsters lived in the closet, but only when the lights were out. 

She shifted her legs so one ankle rested on a knee, and her foot jounced up and down. Didn’t I watch an episode of 20/20 with Mom that said a lot of drug cartels were family businesses? Harper let out a sigh that skimmed part of the muscle tension from the surface. That had to be it. She repeated the story to herself like praying the rosary. Stress and seeing twins, well, quintuplets, helping in the family drug business. That was the ticket. Sure.

But they were wringing wet. Not just a little moist but soaked through and they never dried. She dropped her leg back down, resuming her previous posture and leaning her head back on the window so the streetlights streaked by. They probably just got way wetter in the rain than I did. That had to be it. That was why I thought they dripped. Her skittish brain was close to buying the improbable drenched quintuplet theory until she remembered the pointed teeth. Her shoulders rose and her heart hammered once more.

Because the world had shifted under her feet so many times in her brief life, Harper had developed a few tools for coping. By far the one she was best at and used most frequently was stuffing. As a kid she envisioned a giant Mickey Mouse hand grabbing whatever she couldn’t or wouldn’t deal with and cramming it deep down an unconscious well. When it got full and the contents threatened to pour out the top, the hand just shoved harder and snapped the lid back on real fast. Once the lid was on, it trapped all those nasty things safe and sound and away from everyday thoughts. But this time the nasty things had actual pointy teeth, and the lid had peeled back for just a moment. Pandora’s box had been opened, demons had rushed out, and they refused to climb back in.

The clatter of the bus grinding to a halt a block from her house pulled her out of rumination. She scurried off the bus and into the brisk night air. Icy fingers found her defense baton in her pocket while she scanned the street for evidence they had followed her. Only streetlamps, cars, and the strip mall where the bus stopped occupied the night. Two other passengers exited with her, the same ones every day. 

Satisfied the sidewalk was safe, she yanked the hem of her sweatshirt back over her waistband and hustled for home. Drizzle quickly soaked through the thin pants. She increased her pace despite her dread of the condition she would find her mother in. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Gresham brimmed with rows of modest suburban homes like any other lower middle–class neighborhood in the country. Harper and her mother lived on the corner in the shabbiest house. The single-level ranch home had been unceremoniously plopped too close to the sidewalk by someone Harper swore was intoxicated. Instead of the front door opening up to either cross street, the house faced the corner. 

Staff at the agency that child welfare had referred them to when they closed their case helped the O’Neill family first rent the structure, then get a mortgage once it seemed like her mom was healthy enough to return to her lucrative marketing career. That hadn’t happened and her mother’s meager disability payments weren’t enough to pay for their home. So, at fourteen, Abraham helped Harper buy a fake ID listing her age as the sixteen required to work without parental permission. Within a week she found two part-time jobs, one pumping gas, the other at a Subway, to pay for what she jokingly referred to as Castle O’Neill.

Originally white, years of neglect left the little building with marbled gray streaks. Lawn more weed than grass and wet leaves gave the yard a sickly yellow hue. Working full time, household chores, and managing her mother left no time for home improvements.

Harper ignored the buckling sidewalk that led to the front door in favor of tromping through the grass to the side entrance. Damp earth squelched beneath her loafers, mud caking the edges around the soles. A flutter of movement from the skeletal tree on the corner caught her eye and she flicked the baton. Just a crow settling in for the night. 

Harper dragged the bottoms of her shoes across the concrete step and vigorously wiped her feet on the doormat. She slid her key into the lock and paused. She took in a deep breath, thrust her anxiety back down in her interior well, and steeled herself.

The door creaked open to reveal a cramped living room that no home decorator had touched since 1976. A mustard-yellow couch, far too big for the space, perched on rust-colored shag carpet. Wooden shelves crammed with useless knickknacks loomed from all four walls. 

Eileen O’Neill had spent thousands of dollars over the years on her resin treasures. When in the grip of mania, she convinced herself the tacky collectibles would be worth a fortune someday and Harper could use them for college money. They came from the illustrious Franklin Mint, after all. Her mom had the same idea about the small army of Beanie Babies locked in their acrylic prisons lining the bathroom shelves. Their worthless, beady black eyes ogled Harper every time she took a shower. Daily, the tie-dyed peace bear reminded her that finishing college was probably forever off the table. 

When her mania flowered, Eileen O’Neill spent money like she had when she made six figures. That meant Harper had to get creative. Before she was old enough for her own bank account, she had hidden the money from her jobs in a Tupperware container she buried in the yard. When a bill was due, she dug up the container, took the cash to the post office, and bought a money order. Let her mom spend her tiny disability check on kitsch if it made her happy for a minute; Harper would make sure they were never homeless again. 

She dropped her bag on the couch and padded into the tiny eat-in kitchen. No sign of her mom, but the bottle of Nikolai vodka half full on the counter told her what to expect. She felt heavy. No matter how good she thought she was at finding the hiding places and dumping the contents down the drain, there always seemed to be another. It was like an endless, demented Easter egg hunt. 

“Mom, I’m home,” Harper called and tipped the contents of a little plastic pill box labelled ‘Friday evening’ into her hand. No answer, but scraping and rustling emanated from the spare room. Harper groaned and rolled her eyes. She referred to this room as her mother’s war room. With a shrug and a sigh, she marched down the hall toward another probable battle. Avoidance may have served better, but Eileen had to take her medications. Retreat was not an option.

The door creaked open on an all too familiar scene. Just like Seinfeld reruns, it had replayed frequently through the fifteen years since her father’s murder. 

Her mother bent over a spray of photographs and post-it notes. One hand scanned down the long tail of a printed newspaper article while the other scribbled across a page like she was fencing with it, not writing on it. Tongue clamped between her lips as if it had tried to escape. Her bottle-blonde head snapped back and forth between pages, pausing just long enough to take a drink of the glass of clear liquid Harper presumed to be vodka. 

Eileen O’Neill had never accepted that her husband’s murder remained unsolved. Harper had been very young when Eileen resolved to crack the case on her own. Bumbling cops be damned. Her extensive research spilled over every wall of the room, even the closet door. Newspaper clippings, photographs, and scrawled messages caught in a web of colored string and rainbow push pins. Harper tried to make sense of it years ago, but she’d need a Rosetta Stone to interpret the secret language of connections plastered to these walls.

Her back to the door, Eileen lurched, swaying, to her feet with a picture and sticky note in one hand. Her other hand reached out to steady herself against the heavy oak table. She added the picture to a cluster of newspaper clippings. She was out of space on the giant corkboard she’d hung over the previous layer of evidence, so she just pressed it into the only millimeter of putrid green wall peeking out between pictures. Harper set the handful of pills on the table. “Mom . . .”

When you imprisoned all your internal demons in a well, there was just one problem. They reached the top when the well got too full and organized a rebellion against the lid. A little help from the outside would be all they needed to take out the exhausted guard and mount a full-scale attack against the cap on the well. Eventually, they always won. The lid clattered under the strain of the day. Harper drew in a deep breath and shoved against it with all her remaining internal strength.

“Harper! You’re home. I’ve made a breakthrough. There was a similar case in Vancouver five years ago, only it was the wife who went missing. They found her in a cult up there in Canada. Police hit all the same roadblocks—” 

“Mom. Please, not again. You have to let this go.” She reached a reassuring hand forward. If she couldn’t get this under control now, her mother would be in here for days feeding her conspiracy theories, not eating, not sleeping. Without a fast course correction, Mystic Island was out. The ensuing guilt stung. It was selfish to want to attend a party while her only family needed her.

“You sound just like the useless police today!” she slurred. 

“God, Mom, why did you go to the police again?” 

The hall was rented. The music queued. And they began a well-rehearsed dance.

Eileen took a drink, slamming the empty glass on the table. Droplets of vodka soaked into a pile of adjacent newspaper clippings. “Damn straight I went to the cops. This is a new direction for the investigation. I found fresh evidence in places they’d never dream of looking! And how did those donut-swilling fat pigs react?! Told me I should let it go. You’re just as bad as they are!” 

Harper’s head bowed, and she rubbed her forehead with her hand. Her spine slumped. Years of pressure managing the alcoholism and delusions. The surreal fear of the tent city. Emilio’s words about living her life. All of it kindling to the rage that surged beneath her skin. She was on fire. The lid blew off, and her demons rampaged. 

“Yes, Mom. Let it go. Let it the hell go. He’s dead, and he’s not coming back. He’s not in goddamn Canada. He doesn’t have amnesia in Iowa. He’s not working for the bloody secret service. He was just murdered and we’ll never know who or why.” 

“How dare—”

She jabbed her hand around the room. “This. This is fucking crazy. The police know it, and I know it too!” 

Her mother’s bright red face shifted toward purple. “What’s fucking crazy is how easily you forgot about him!” she shrieked and hurled the empty glass straight at Harper’s face. It exploded against the doorframe. At the same time broken glass showered her daughter, Mrs. O’Neill toppled to the brown carpet and sobbed.

The storm was past. Harper should go comfort her mother. But that’s not what those neglected parts of her wanted. Mean and horrible thoughts vied for expression. Monstrous accusations clambered up from the bottom of the well. The shattered glass in her hair shredded the rest of the filter between those darkest thoughts and her voice. She surrendered to the tempest and reveled in the sensation of being powerful.

“Forgot him?! I think about him every damn day. And you know what else I think every miserable day in this hell you created for me? The wrong fucking parent died.” 

Her mother’s face froze in an expression half pain, half shock, head shaking from side to side in slow motion. Silent sobs hitched in her chest and a single tear rolled down her cheek below wide eyes. Harper had screamed at her mother plenty over the years, but she rarely said anything terrible, and this went far past terrible. Seconds ticked by with the two of them frozen in place just staring at each other. The adrenaline-soaked strength and vicious words that went for the jugular demanded a heavy price. Guilt and regret joined the cadre of inner demons every time, stealing from the happiness of each subsequent moment.

“I—I didn’t mean that, Mom.” Harper’s voice now small. Tears of her own ran down her cheeks.

“I know, honey, but I need you to leave now.” Eileen ran a shaking hand through her tangled hair.

“Mom, I—” 

“Get out! Get out! Get out!” Eileen pounded the carpet with her fist.

Harper turned on her heels and half ran, half stumbled down the hallway. Tears streamed behind her. She clomped down the stairs to her basement bedroom. Her back crashed up against the slammed door, sending her sliding to the floor. Her head fell onto her knees. Harper spent several minutes hugging her legs while sobs rocked her body. She felt small and helpless, like when she was a child trying to save them both from the abyss. 

Her stomach twisted and a burning sensation filled the back of her throat. She raced for her tiny bathroom, bent her head over cold porcelain, and vomited. She reminded herself again that her mother had been right next to him when he died. 

How do you come back from that? God, I’m a terrible daughter. Pretty bad friend too. She’d failed to help Abraham, and Emilio would be crushed when she told him she’d have to manage her mother all weekend.




At the far side of her basement room, Harper kicked, punched, and body-slammed the heavy bag dangling from the rafters. She practiced roundhouse kicks until her legs solidified like concrete. Only when her muscles spasmed and her untaped hands felt tender did she drop into the purple beanbag chair on the other side of the room. 

She practiced pain as a tool to stuff her feelings like ancient philosophers practiced alchemy. In sufficient quantity, pain short-circuited her brain, and for a few blissful hours her inner demons slept. Physical suffering, after all, was simpler. Some ibuprofen and time provided a predictable, well-defined end to physical aches. In contrast, mental anguish dragged on and on for months. Years. Therapy. Medication. Distraction. Nothing gave reliable relief, but the sharp slice of scissors always did.

She ran a hand along the neat parallel scars on her upper thighs. Before she enrolled in self-defense classes, she’d used less healthy methods to summon enough hurt to keep the lid on all the things she had no solutions for. 

Harper felt drained. With every surrender to rage came a hangover. Not the kind her mother used to have, but a crash, nonetheless. Listless, she draped across her beanbag chair like it was a life raft and she drifted on a black sea. She rested there for several minutes, enjoying the temporary relief. The vinyl creaked when she levered herself upright. 

Harper rubbed her face between her hands. She felt lighter. That was the only silver lining when the internal dam crumbled and unwanted feelings rampaged. The pressure disappeared when the well was empty. At least for a while. Her stomach growled. It was empty too.

Leaden legs levered her up the basement steps. At the top, she paused and listened like a deer stilling itself to scan for danger. Silence. Her mom had probably passed out. Harper slinked lightly through the living room. Eileen sprawled unconscious over the couch, half on and half off, her pink robe crumpled underneath her. 

Guilt flooded Harper. The first new resident of the internal well. It would have company soon, because it was almost time to disappoint her best friend. After tonight, now was not the time to be away from the house any more than necessary. 

Harper smiled at her slumbering mother, eased her leg back onto the couch, slid a pillow underneath her head, and pulled a colorful crocheted blanket up to her chin. She made some sandwiches in the kitchen and left one for her mom on the coffee table along with a small dish containing her night meds. 

Harper slipped off her loafers and pulled on navy blue sweatpants and a black T-shirt with the Stranger Things cast drawn as cats emblazoned on the front. Sandwiches in hand, Harper flopped back on her bed and flicked on the tiny TV perched on a ramshackle chest of drawers. 

KATU’s plug for their nighttime news promised the heartwarming story of a local woman turning one hundred. Terrible things were happening in this city, and the anchors covered an elderly woman’s party. People were missing, but no one cared because they were the wrong people. The thought rebooted her replay of the evening’s events. Her toes wormed into the cream-colored shag carpet.

The chime of her laptop saved her from the reruns of her harrowing evening. She closed her eyes and furrowed her brow. Best break the news fast. She flipped the laptop open and moved into a more comfortable position on her bed. The screen filled with Emilio decked out in his fabulous black unicorn horn. Furry boots, mesh shirts, and other elements of rave clothing lay haphazardly over the closet door in the background. The slightly auto-tuned voice of Kylie Minogue warbled in the background. 

“Hey Emilio,” Harper said. She clicked the remote to silence the TV. 

“Hey girl. So I think I’ll go with a moody emo look for my unicorn costume. Maybe a saddle that shouts ‘I’m up for anything.’ How much is a saddle?” Stream of consciousness babbling betrayed his excitement about the festival. Harper’s feet continued to worry the carpet filaments. 

“I don’t think unicorns have saddles and do you really want to be ridden by a virgin, anyway?” 

Emilio laughed. “Fair point. Nix the saddle. I’m thinking fiery beast unicorn for you. We can get some red hair extensions.” He ducked out of view for a split second, popping back up with something red and fuzzy clutched in his hand. “I have these fur leg warmers you can borrow that match your red vinyl skirt. Saddle for you. Virgins are definitely more your speed.” 

Harper dropped her head. “I don’t know, Emilio. She’s worse than I thought. She threw a glass at me this time.”

“Shit. You need me to come over?” Emilio’s joyful expression melted, replaced by the creased brow of concern.

“No, but you have to find someone else for tomorrow. After the day I just had . . .” She forced herself to look at the screen and absorb Emilio’s crestfallen face. 

He picked up his laptop and stretched out on his bed. In the background she heard the rolling music of his roommates chatting in Spanish. Emilio’s artwork lay strewn over the nightstand. Howling werewolves and bloody vampires drawn in heavy black lines. He was good but had chosen the sensible route of a degree in biochemistry rather than walk the starving artist’s path.

“It’s one evening,” he said and threw up his hands. “You cancel everything.”

“I want to go. I do. What if something happens to her while I’m gone?” Harper didn’t mention her fears about the other events of the evening. 

“You can’t babysit her all the time. You have to start living your own life. Just dump out all her booze. She’ll be safe for a few hours if she’s not drunk.” 

“You really don’t get it, do you? She went through hell—”

“And so have you. You’ll be forty and still working a shit job and saving her from herself. I’ve stood by you too. Don’t you owe me?”

Tears threatened to well up again, so she closed her eyes.

“You know there will be a lot of drugs there,” Emilio said. “Who will make sure I get home OK?” Emilio’s face pulled into a grin and he winked.

He was playing dirty. He may act coy, but he knew which buttons to push. Besides, Mystic Island sounded amazing, and after today she needed to cut loose a little, even if part of her said the safest place to be was locked down in her house away from alleyways and strange dogs.

“Ok. You win. I’ll go.” She threw up her hands in mock surrender.

Emilio let out a loud whoop and chattered on and on about outfits and bands. Harper’s mind drifted back to her experience in the tent city earlier. 

“Just promise me, no Dust.” 

Emilio opened his mouth, and judging by the know-it-all look on his face, he was about to protest. Harper didn’t give him the chance.

“I saw some strange things today.” Harper spent the next several minutes telling Emilio about the events at the homeless camp. Although she shared that the Dark Boys were odd and the man and his dog looked out of place, she left out the more supernatural bits. No need to make Emilio certain she was just as crazy as her mother. 

When she finished, Emilio paused. His normally flamboyant gestures and speech became very serious. “What’s wrong with you? You can’t just walk into these places by yourself.”

“I had to find out what happened to Abraham.”

“Call the police then, but don’t go gallivanting around back alleys alone. You could be killed.”

“Cops don’t give two craps about Abraham. Or my dad.” A little jab of anger made her pulse quicken.

Emilio sighed. “Promise me you won’t go in there alone again. It’s reckless.”

Harper didn’t think she’d have the courage to go back there again, regardless of Emilio’s protests. She thought of Abraham and her throat constricted. “I’ll be careful.”

“Sure you will. Anyhoo, I have a shift at the bookshop in the morning. We can head to Mystic after that. We’ll miss a few of the early events but beat the rush.” He blew her a dramatic kiss.

Harper smiled, wished Emilio a goodnight, and closed her laptop. She let her head fall back against her headboard. She was still wired, and a torrent of emotions warred for supremacy in her heart, including guilt about fleeing, leaving Abraham to his fate. She was sure he’d left with the teenagers, but the rest of the memory remained stubbornly just out of reach. She dialed her work’s hotline number to get him some help and felt only a little relieved when they agreed to send someone to check for him in the morning. She vowed to as well, once she got her mother stable again.

She completed her nightly routine and crept silently up into the living room to check on her mother again. With relief, she noted her mother had eaten the sandwich and swallowed her pills. Eileen snored softly on the couch. 

As Harper rinsed her dish in the sink, the bottle of vodka beckoned from its seat on the counter. There was enough in it to get her to sleep more easily tonight. The bottle felt heavy and cold in her hand. She tipped it to her lips and took a few quick gulps. Fire flamed down her throat. She bent over the sink and stifled her coughing. A couple more quick pulls and she hid the bottle behind the refrigerator, just in case she needed more to fall asleep. 

Is this how Mom started?




With his speed-enchanted feet, it took Nuada just a few minutes to arrive at Heironymous’s home in Forest Park. He slowed to a walk as he neared the old stone ruins that marked the entrance to the establishment the eccentric Fae ran. The humans called it the Witch’s Castle; to them, it looked like the ancient ruins of a stone house with no roof. 

Every day, herds of them walked the path from the parking area to the ruin. They’d snap a few pictures and then move on to the next thing. A handful lingered longer to make a more lasting impression, evidenced by painted names, mushrooms, and other bright splashes of color coexisting with thick carpets of moss on the walls. 

Nuada circled around the back of the structure where a flight of cold rock steps ascended, blocked by a fallen tree. The magical entrance nestled just beyond the trunk. He reached to his side to keep the longest of his swords from hitting the stone while he crouched and slid under the trunk.  

An unremarkable arched doorway spread before him, spattered with the lacy shadows of trees. With his silver hand he tugged on the end of each finger of his glove. When it was free, he stuffed it into his pocket. He drew out a long dagger and jabbed the tip of his finger. A pair of crimson drops splattered on the threshold of the door, spreading out quickly on the drizzle-dampened stone. 

The building accepted the offering. Within moments, a blinding light filled the arched gateway and coalesced into a shining blue door with a golden doorknob. Nuada stepped through into a vestibule, the roar of a crowded inn emanating from beneath. The acrid scent of alcohol and the warm smells of cooking wafted out. His stomach growled. Lively strains of fiddle accompanied by the pounding feet of dancers promised a bustling night at the lodge. 

Two hulking river trolls jostled into his path. They towered over him, greasy black hair hanging down over long pointed noses. 

“Good evening, gentlemen. I seek an audience with the proprietor.” 

“Give weapons. None allowed inside.” The heaviest of the two thrust out a grubby grey hand. Nuada dutifully handed over a pair of long daggers, his everyday sword, several throwing knives, and a slingshot. He smiled, inclined his head, and stepped forward, heading past the pair. 

Rough hands seized his shoulders. “Must give all weapons.” Nuada’s eyes dropped to the long sword in the ornate scabbard at his hip. The very one the trolls were staring at. “You get back when leave.” 

Nuada pulled his head back to put a little distance between himself and the fetid rotting fish smell roiling from the trolls’ open mouths. 

“I am sorry, gentlemen, but this particular sword stays with me. Rest assured, it has not left the scabbard in a thousand years.”

“No go in then. Bye.” Rough hands swung him halfway round. He felt a powerful shove on the small of his back. He dug his heels in, swung around, and dove between the bowed legs of the smaller troll, then felt a calloused hand pluck him up by the scruff of his neck. Black boots swung a foot from the landing. This was going to escalate quickly. Nuada’s silver hand clamped over his captor’s wrist and squeezed. The grey-skinned lummox let out a yelp and released him.

“This weapon is far too dangerous to be left anywhere but at my side. I promise to use it against none inside.” His reasoning fell on deaf ears. Both trolls clenched their fists and bared their teeth. Slimy dollops of green spittle dangled from thick lips, whipping toward Nuada with every labored breath. 

“Glawd. Brax. That’s enough. Let him keep the sword. He will not be drawing the Sword of Light against anyone in my humble lodge tonight.” The voice was resonant with a slightly arrogant edge. Glawd and Brax lowered their eyes to the floor and stepped aside to allow their master up the stairs.

“Hello, Heironymous.” Nuada greeted his old acquaintance, sliding gingerly past the strings of drool. The trolls screwed up their mouths to the side and scratched their low, sloping foreheads, confused by their master breaking the only rule they enforced in this place.

“Nuada Silver Hand, I thought you’d decided not to return from the Undying Lands.” Heironymous clapped Nuada on the back with a fur-tufted brown hand. “Brax, Glawd, you should be bowing before the king of the Tuatha de Danann.”  The troll brothers made a sloppy bow and resumed their slumped postures at the door. Heironymous beckoned Nuada to follow him down the stairs. “To what do I owe the honor?”

“Former king. I have sought you out because I believe you are the only one who can help me with this.” He paused and drew out the glass vial with the lavender powder. It shimmered with an opalescent sheen in the light of the torches dotting the stairwell’s walls. He placed it into Heironymous’s outstretched hand. The ogre’s lace cuffs framed the vial in his wide palm. 

Great twisting horns swept along neatly combed hair. Heironymous was small for an ogre, barely eight feet tall. What he lacked in size he more than made up for in his passion for knowledge. Deep below the pub, the ogre hoarded a collection of tomes vast enough to make the best Green World universities seem like the Lower Po-Dunk Public Library.

“You managed to procure a sample of Dust.” Heironymous slipped on a monocle with his free hand and held the vial up to his large red eyes. “How did you swipe it from the kelpies without being noticed? You don’t exactly scream human.” 

“Mostly blind luck. Someone dropped it. I’m guessing you have a Fae in your employ who can help me figure out what the substance is and where it came from.” 

“That I do.” A slow smile spread across Heironymous’s broad mouth, revealing the full length of the two tusks that jutted upward between his lips. Nuada prepared himself for the ogre’s next move. Nothing came free in Fae society. Even the simple human custom of showing gratitude could trigger a debt. “We merely need to settle on a price for my assistance.” Heironymous leaned in to Nuada so he could hear his words above the growing din of the nightly revels.

“That discussion is best held in private. It would be unfortunate for your patrons to discover just how you acquired this magnificent lodge. Some of them might use that knowledge in a most unsavory manner.” Nuada’s blue eyes sparkled. 

“I see. So that’s how you’re going to be.” Heironymous’s hand snapped around the vial and he drew himself up straight. The smile slid from his face. It was immediately replaced with another: the practiced smile of a welcoming host. Thick claws on each furred finger contradicted the rich embroidered purple velvet of his sleeve. A thick oak door flew open to reveal the bacchanalian revels within. “I’ll have a room prepared for us.” He bellowed over the roar of music and crowd. “Until then, please enjoy the pleasures of Fogradh Lodge.”

With a curt bow, Heironymous disappeared into the throng. Nuada scanned the majestic hall with wonder. The last time he was a guest, this lodge of exiles was new. Barely a stage and a few tables. Banishment served Heironymous well. He had channeled his longing for home into a glimmering inn that rivaled the best of the Faerie Courts. Nuada felt the tightness in his heart easing with the dizzying fiddle reels, the refined scent of Faerie food, and the twilight glow of the lodge. 

He wove his way through Fae of all shapes and sizes. Tiny sprites with gossamer wings tittered at the bawdy jokes of wiry goblins. A pair of ethereal sylphs draped in diaphanous spidersilk gowns were bent in concentration over a game of fidchell with a tall, blond elven man. 

Nuada found a place at the sweeping mahogany bar. Rows of brightly colored liquor bottles were lit from beneath by banks of glowing shelf mushrooms. He raised his slim-fingered hand to the white-furred faun working the bar. 

“What’ll it be, elf?” the faun said. Nuada did not correct him.

“Honeysuckle mead and whatever the special is.” He dug into his pocket and sprinkled a handful of gold coins into the upturned palm of the Fae. “If my meal arrives in less than five minutes, keep the change.” 

“Coming right up, my lord.” The little faun beamed at the pile of gold. It was at least twice what the meal was worth and repayment of the boon simple enough. His mead had already arrived by the time the faun had minced off to the kitchen, placed onto the bar by a swarthy redcap. He took a sip. It was sweet and warm on his tongue. He savored the syrupy drink and swiveled the stool to survey the club.

Species who would not normally get along, some from warring Courts, chattered and laughed together, tapping claw and hoof to the reel drifting from the next room. Nuada smiled and took a long sip of his mead. Heironymous had achieved what even the Tuatha could not; he’d created a place of peace. 

Nuada supposed the task was easy given their circumstances, trapped here with no way back to the Underworld, eager for a slice of home. Many were solitary Fae who preferred the Green World to the ephemeral lands of the Underworld. But some appeared to be Underworld dwellers long trapped here with the thickening of the Veil between the worlds. From their lack of scarring, these had been here before the Veil became unstable. Their brethren who chose to stay in the Underworld, on the other hand, were prisoners of a world winding down. Nuada wondered if any of them would be recognizable as Fae anymore.  

“The special, my lord.” The faun spread out three plates of food before him. Pancakes that smelled of lavender, drizzled with honey, piled high on the biggest plate, heaped with exotic fruits and nuts that spilled over into a sweet custard. A plate of salted meats completed his meal. 

“Thank you, more mead when you have the chance.” He slid coins across the smooth bar to the faun then swiveled partway around on the stool and continued to enjoy the beauty of the place. Macha would have loved this lodge with its blend of the wild and the sophisticated.

Instead of pillars, vast living ginkgo trees supported the lodge. Their golden leaves caught the warm reddish light of the teardrop lanterns dangling from every branch. Treasures Heironymous, as the former leader of the Elven Elysium, smuggled from the Unseelie Court crammed rows of ornate silver shelves, no doubt stolen from the nobility before Heironymous fled for his life. Paintings of the Underworld, goblets, small sculptures, and more adorned the longest wall. Nuada understood why Fogradh had grown so; to many, this was a museum filled with the lost treasures of the Sidhe. 

He felt certain Badb Catha was on that misty island planning an assault on humanity. On which side would the patrons of the Fogradh Lodge fight in the coming war? Would they unite under Heironymous or splinter into factions, each choosing their own allegiance?

Nuada had just finished his meal when a frog-legged nixie sloshed to his side. “Heironymous sent me,” she croaked. “Twitch has discovered something.” Thin membranes flickered across her green eyes. She beckoned Nuada to follow her.

The green-haired nixie’s feet slapped along ahead of him. She guided him to the back of the farthest kitchen through rows of gnomes baking and marinating every kind of delectable Faerie food imaginable. Rows of torches and glowing shelf mushrooms lit the stairwell that wound deeper and deeper down into the earth.

A long hallway emptied them out into another room supported by more golden-leaved trees and lanterns. Nuada grinned. He was tens of thousands of years old and had seen wonders in all three worlds. These ornately carved shelves filled with books were a marvel to rival the forests of the Undying Lands. The rows of volumes stretched as far as the eye could see. Puffy quilted leather chairs flanked oblong tables with woodland scenes carved around the edges. Tiny green-skinned pixies flitted here and there, replacing and reorganizing books, straightening mahogany-toned furniture, and tittering between themselves. 

The nixie opened another oak door and flipped a webbed hand to usher Nuada inside. He stepped into a wide laboratory. Heironymous bent over a broad table next to a wiry brown goblin with a puff of black hair that made his head look like a perfect sphere. Glass bulbs of liquid in every color bubbled under flames. Golden instruments, potion bottles, and books littered the rest of the table. One element stuck out. To Nuada’s surprise, several pieces of human electronic lab equipment plugged into a wall of batteries lined a long shelf. He suspected the purpose of this lab was to create chemical ways of comforting the vagabonds and exiles who frequented his establishment. Even a Fomorian would be envious of the possibility of profit.

“Twitch has already made some fascinating discoveries about the Dust you brought us.”

Nuada stepped around the table to join the pair. The goblin fiddled with rows of tubes in silver frames. Wide yellow eyes blinked rapidly while he furiously stirred some Dust dissolved in a clear liquid. Like a hummingbird, Twitch squeezed a single droplet of the mixture into each tube. The goblin kept screwing up his face and rubbing his long nose. He certainly earned his name. 

“What did you find?” Nuada asked.

“Before we come to that, the information I can reveal to you is of surpassing value. We must revisit the unfortunate ugliness of settling on a price,” Heironymous said. His voice was unctuous. 

Nuada lifted a gloved silver hand toward the ogre and wagged his finger back and forth. “I don’t think there will be any price for this little favor. I always heard ogre memories were famously long, but it seems your memory matches your stature. How quickly you forget your debt to me.”

Heironymous arched a shaggy eyebrow. “I had hoped you forgot about that.”

“Forgot rescuing you from the King of Air and Darkness all those years ago? No. I still have a scar as a souvenir. Give me the full information I seek about the Dust and I consider us even.”

Heironymous sighed. “Done. Twitch, tell him what you’ve discovered. All of it.”

“Many things. Curious. Terrible. Yes, terribly curious and curiously terrible.” The words tumbled out in a high cracking falsetto. Long fingers flew across the vials, administering different colored drops into them. Some changed color, or a tiny billow of smoke burst up. Others did nothing at all.

“I need specifics. What does this drug do, and can you tell me how it was made?” Nuada said.

“Clever, clever, clever.” Twitch skittered over to a microscope with a dropper filled with the smoking mixture. A single drop dripped onto a slide. He pulled on a pair of gloves and whipped the knobs back and forth, muttering to himself. “The binding agent is human design.”

“Are you saying that Dust is a human drug?” Nuada said.

“Oh no. Glamour. Sparkly purple. Bends the will. Brings the visions.” He dipped a claw into the remaining residue of the glass vial. He brought it up to a long nostril, inhaled sharply, and wiped his hands on the gray apron he wore. “Highly addictive.” The goblin tittered and scampered back to a second row of vials. His tongue pinched between his lips while he dropped more samples of Dust into the vials. “Incomplete. Spell not done. Couldn’t be done. Need a better binder. Still need Fae close by to make user do things. See what you want them to.”

“Incomplete?” Heironymous asked. He bent forward to look at the tubes, hands clasped behind his back.

“When the kelpies came they brought the Aillen. His music drew many of the people in the tent city. Would that possibly complete the effect?”

“The Aillen? Here?” Heironymous’s eyes were wide. Nuada nodded and held up a hand to pause his friend’s next question.

“Fae music like glamour. Possible. Can’t say for sure.” Twitch dipped his claw back in the vial and snorted more up his pointy nose.

Nuada turned toward the goblin. “You said it is of human origin.” 

“Yes and no. Some human, some Fae. Both.”

“How can that be?”

“Humans make chemicals. Make potent and long lasting. Chemicals in this the best of the best. Only one place for that.”

“Erimus Pharmaceutical,” Heironymous said. The goblin tapped his nose and nodded. 

“Breas. The Phooka may be on to something,” Nuada said. His silver hand clenched and he ground his teeth. He had never forgiven Breas for the torture he put the Tuatha through during his brief reign as king. He felt the gears and springs working his clenching fist. If he hadn’t lost his flesh and blood hand in the First Battle of Moytura, he would have remained High King, and the half-Fomorian would have never taken the throne. Years of suffering and pain avoided, for Breas proved himself a tyrant. 

Nuada’s mind drifted to the young girl. Badb. Breas. What promised to be a dead end turned out to be big. He needed to get back to the Phooka and extricate the girl from the mess she’d stumbled into. After that, he had a date with Erimus Pharmaceutical. If it involved Breas, things had just gone pear-shaped.

“Be careful who you call friend, Silver Hand,” Heironymous said as though reading Nuada’s mind. “I’ve had dealings with the Phooka. He is not to be trusted.”

“He led me to this city, right when this all started.”

“Yes. But how did he procure that knowledge?”  

Nuada recalled how the Phooka had responded to the young woman in the alley. Heironymous was right. The Phooka may be useful, but untrustworthy. What did the Phooka want with that girl?


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