DedicationTo the next generation:With faith and trust and fairy dust - I wish you all your own happy thoughts that you might fly.
One by one,
Two by two,
The Hardesty witches
Are traveling through.
With a storm of curses,
They call from their tomes;
They will drink your blood
And dine on your bones.
—Children’s jump rope rhyme, overheard in 1934 in Rhea Springs, Tennessee
“So what did you do, Mary Jo?” called Ben in his crisp British accent.
Mary Jo shut her car door and started toward us and toward the mountainous metal barn that Ben and I waited beside. She gave Ben a quelling frown, and waited to speak until she had come up to us.
She asked, “What do you mean, what did I do?”
It was a little chilly, made more so by a brisk wind that blew a bit of hair I’d failed to secure in my braid into my eyes. The Tri-Cities doesn’t cool off at night with quite the thoroughness that the Montana mountains I’d grown up with did, but night still usually kills the heat of day.
Ben bounced a little on his toes—a sign that he was ready and eager for violence. I could sense that his attention, like mine, was mostly on the barn, even though his eyes were on Mary Jo. “I killed Mercy three times in a single session of Pirate’s Booty the night before last. I think that’s why she woke me up to come out hunting tonight.” He glanced at me and raised an eyebrow in an open invitation to address the situation.
Okay, that’s not exactly what he said. As usual he spiced his language with profanity, but unless he spouted something truly amazing I mostly edited it out.
“You passed up the opportunity to gain a hundred Spanish doubloons in order to kill me that last time,” I told him unable, even days later to keep the indignation out of my voice. In the fierce high-seas computer-generated battles the werewolf pack delighted in, a hundred Spanish doubloons was a treasure trove of opportunity for more or better weapons, supplies, and ship repairs. Only a homicidal maniac would give up a hundred doubloons to kill someone.
Ben gave me a wicked grin, an expression mostly empty of the bitter edge all of his expressions had once contained. “I was merely staying in character. Sodding Bart enjoys killing more than money, love. That’s why his kill score is third on the board, just behind Captain Wolf and Lady Mockingbird.”
Captain Wolf Larsen, stolen from the titular character of Jack London’s The Sea Wolf, is the nom de guerre of my mate and the pack Alpha. Lady Mockingbird, who was up by fifteen kills on everybody, teaches high school chemistry in her alter ego as Auriele Zao. She is a scary, scary woman. I’ve been told her high school students think so, too.
Ben’s gaze, swinging back to Mary Jo, paused, on the dark maw that gaped in the front of the huge metal barn, the only building within a mile of where we stood.
It was either very late at night or very early in the morning, depending on which side of sleep you were. Dawn wasn’t yet a possibility, but the waxing moon was strong in the night sky. The entrance to the barn was big enough to drive a pair of school buses through at the same time, and at least some of the ambient light should have made its way into the building into the interior of the barn.
Ben considered the barn for a second or two, then turned a sharp grin on Mary Jo. “Mercy just confirmed why I’m here.What did you do to win the crappy job lottery?”
“Hey,” I said, “before you all feel too sorry for yourselves, remember I’m out here, too.”
“That’s because you’re in charge,” Mary Jo said, her voice distracted, her eyes on the barn. “Bosses need to jump in the outhouse with the grunts occasionally. It’s good for morale.”
Mary Jo wore a T-shirt that said Firefighters Like It HOT, the last word written in red and gold flames. The shirt was loose like the sleep pants she wore, but her clothes didn’t disguise her muscular warrior’s body.
She looked away from the barn, turning her attention to Ben. “Maybe I owe this . . . opportunity to the way I treated her before Adam put his foot down.” She tilted her head toward me, a gesture that, like Ben’s raised eyebrow, asked for my input. She didn’t meet my eyes as she once would have.
I was growing resigned to the way the pack dealt with me since my mate had declared me off-limits to anything but the utmost of respect on pain of death. By consensus, they mostly deferred to me, as if I were a wolf dominant to them.
It felt wrong and awkward, and it made the back of my neck itch. What did it say about me, I wondered, that I was more comfortable with all the snide comments and personal attacks than with gracious subservience?
“Wrong,” I told her.
I pointed at Ben. “Killing me instead of getting rich is bad. Consider yourself punished.”
I looked back at Mary Jo. “Ben is a simple problem with a simple solution. You are a stickier mess and this is not punishment. Or not really punishment. This”—I waved around us at the early-morning landscape—“is, so you quit apologizing about the past for something you meant wholeheartedly at the time. And would do again under the same circumstances. Your apology is suspect—and annoying.”
Ben made an amused sound, sounding relaxed and happy—but he was bouncing on the balls of his feet again. “That sounds about right, Mary Jo. If she were really getting back at you for all of the trouble you caused her—it might land you on the List of Mercy’s Epic Revenge. Like the Blue Dye Solution or the Chocolate Easter Bunny Incident. Getting called out at the butt-crack of dawn doesn’t make the grade.”
“So all I have to do is quit apologizing and you’ll stop calling me out at three in the morning to chase goblins or hunt down whatever that freak thing we killed last week was?” she asked skeptically.
“I can’t promise that,” I told her. Mary Jo was one of the few wolves I could count on not to increase the drama or violence of a situation. “But it will . . .” Must be truthful. I gave her a rueful shrug. “It might mean I stop calling you first.”
“Epic,” she said with a wry glance at Ben. “Epic it is. I think I will probably quit apologizing.” Then she said, “I suppose I’ll find some other way to irritate you.”
Hah! I’d been right—her apologies had been suspect. I had always liked Mary Jo—even if the reverse was not true.
She looked at the barn again and sighed heavily. “Have you spotted the goblin in there?”
She didn’t bother trying to be quiet—none of us had been. Our prey could hear at least as well as any of us. If he was in there, he’d have heard us drive up. I was still learning about the goblins and what they could do, but I did know that much.
“No,” I said.
“Do you think he’s still in there?” she asked.
“He’s still in there,” I said. I held out my arm so they could see the hair rise as I moved it closer to the barn. “If he weren’t, there wouldn’t be so much magic surrounding it.”
Mary Jo grunted. “Is it my imagination, or is it too dark in the barn?”
“I think I remember this,” said Ben, thoughtfully, peering into the barn. His clear British accent had the weird effect of making everything he said sound a little more intelligent than it really was, an effect that he conscientiously—I was convinced—canceled by adding the kinds of words responsible for whole generations of people who knew what soap tasted like. “You know—the whole seeing-fuck-all-in-the-dark thing?”
“I never was human,” I told him. “I’ve always been able to see pretty well in the dark.” After I said it, I had a thought.
There was a faint chance that the goblin’s magic was affecting our eyesight rather than just spreading an illusion of darkness over the interior of the barn. I looked away from the barn to make sure my eyes were functioning as they should.
There was nothing but open fields around us, a couple of old wooden posts set into the ground as if they had once been part of a fence, and in the distance, a few miles away, I could see the new neighborhood of McMansion farmettes that I’d passed driving here.
Mesa, where we all now stood, was a little town of about five hundred people that was in real danger of being swallowed in the outward creep of Pasco, the largest of the Tri-Cities. It is flatter than most of the area around the Tri-Cities with an economy primarily based in growing dryland wheat, hay, and cattle.
The town name is pronounced Meesa, not Maysa—which, even after all the years I’ve lived in the Tri-Cities, still strikes me as wrong. With so many Hispanic people living here, you’d think we would be capable of pronouncing a Spanish word correctly instead of borrowing from the ridiculous dialogue of a Star Wars character, right? But Meesa it is.
“Cain’s hairy titties,” muttered Ben, joining me in my observation of the rural setting. “What hermit was so misguided in life that he was hanging around this peopleless landscape at the bell end of the night and happened to see a freaking goblin disappear into a hay barn? And for that matter, goblins are city denizens like me. What the shagging hell is it doing out here?”
“No one living was here when it came,” I told him in a sinister voice.
He gave me a look.
In a confidential whisper I said, “I talk to dead people.”
He scowled at me. I wasn’t lying but he knew me well enough to know that I was pulling his leg. He stared up at the barn with narrowed eyes. He snorted.
“Bollocks, Mercy. There’s cameras here.”
I don’t think he actually saw them—I hadn’t spotted any yet. But Ben was a computer nerd; when in doubt his brain focused on electronics.
“A surveillance system connected to the owner’s iPhone,” I confirmed, dropping my dramatic pose. “Apparently there was a party involving underage participants and several kegs of alcohol that ended up with a mess and several thousand dollars of damage. Thus the cameras and a motion sensor were installed. They made the farmer happy by interfering in two underage keggers, and tonight they alerted the owner of the barn that he had an uninvited guest. He called me.”
“And you called us,” said Mary Jo dryly. “Thank you for that.”
I grinned at her and gave her my best John Wayne impression. “It’s a dirty job, ma’am, but someone has to do it.”
“Where’s Adam?” asked Ben suddenly. “He wouldn’t send you out alone after a goblin, not even a half-arsed, hay-shagging knob who doesn’t know any better than to keep to the city like a civilized goblin.”
Like me, the whole pack had been learning about goblins, and gaining a new respect for them.
I shrugged. “He wasn’t home when the call came. Top-secret meetings. I left a message on his voicemail.”
“A meeting at this hour?” asked Mary Jo.
“Goes with his job,” I told her.
Adam, my mate, was not only the Alpha of our local werewolf pack, but he owned a security firm with two bases of operation that mostly did hush-hush government contracts. Meetings that went overnight were unusual—but not unheard of. The past month there had been seven of them.
He couldn’t tell me anything about the meetings—and that bothered him more than it bothered me. I didn’t need to know who or what he was securing for whom. I knew my husband. He would never do anything he considered immoral, and that was good enough for me. Danger was a given—but he was military trained and a werewolf. He was as capable of protecting himself as anyone I knew.
Yes, I was scared anyway. But he was scared about some of the things I got involved in, too. We’d both gone into this relationship, this marriage, with our eyes wide open.
As long as he didn’t want to keep secrets from me, I could deal with it when he had to.
“Ben had a good question,” Mary Jo told me. “Why is a goblin hiding out in a barn in Mesa?”
“Running from justice,” I said. “Probably. Do you remember all the headlines last week about the monster that killed that police officer out in Long Beach, California?”
“Goblin,” said Ben thoughtfully. “I remember. His face was plastered all over the news. Are we sure this is that goblin?”
I pulled out my cell phone and showed him the snapshot of the goblin’s face that the farmer’s camera had caught. The area around the front of the barn had been pretty well lit before the goblin destroyed the security light.
There had been a camera when the goblin killed the cop, too. That video, grainy and indistinct, had been played over and over again on the news. The actual killing had been off-screen, but the goblin’s face and inhumanity had been unmistakable.
Mary Jo peered around Ben and I tilted the camera to him.
“Not a pretty face,” she observed. “What about glamour, though?”
Glamour was the magic the fae used to alter their appearance.
“Why would a fae want to look like someone who killed a member of law enforcement?” I asked. “That would be unholy dumb. It seems more reasonable to assume that this one is one of the goblins whose glamour isn’t as effortless, so when he doesn’t actively need to blend in, he resumes his normal appearance.”
The farmer who’d called me an hour or so ago had been apologetic. His son worked in the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office, and that was the law enforcement office he should have called.
“But I figure this creature didn’t seem to have had much trouble killing that policeman down in California, and my son is working tonight,” he’d said. “I thought I’d call you first and see if you might consider Mesa a part of the territory your pack protects.” He paused. “If you come out, I’ll have some explaining to do, but I expect that’s better than attending my son’s funeral.”
I’d decided then and there, without consulting my husband, that we did consider Mesa a part of our territory. If I continued this trend I was going to make us responsible for half the state.
But humans had very little chance against a goblin. I wasn’t about to sit by while people were thrown into a situation they weren’t equipped for when I was able to handle it safely. Mostly safely. Probably safely.
My eyes caught a movement in the cavernous darkness. Maybe if I changed to coyote I’d see better. Coyote eyes are good at seeing moving things in the dark. But I can’t talk while I’m a coyote, so I couldn’t relay intelligence to my allies. Taking the goblin on as a coyote would be even stupider than sending the human Franklin County Sheriff’s officers after it. The farmer had been right, a normal human stood no better chance than a coyote did against a goblin. Goblins might be considered among the less powerful of the fae . . . but that didn’t mean they were weak.
I patted the steel and silver weapon that hung at my hip for reassurance.
The first game of ISTDPB4 (Instant Spoils: The Dread Pirate’s Booty Four) that the pack had played right after we’d gotten back from Europe I had, totally uncharacteristically, won. Usually I was among the first to go—due to my special high-value target status as She Who Makes Treats As Soon As She Dies. But everyone had been treating me like a weakling after I got myself kidnapped by vampires. Irritated, I’d used dirty tricks to take out the usual winners and fought the rest to the bitter end.
Ben maintained that I’d won because they were all trying to coddle me. Honey said I was better at deviousness after being held by Bonarata, the vampire Machiavellian ruler of Europe. Po-tay-to, po-tah-to—both equally true. Adam said, with a sly smile, that the only reason anyone else ever won was because I didn’t usually try too hard, but this time I’d had something to prove. Ahem. It is only right and proper that one’s mate regards one with rosy glasses. Regardless, the next game, normalcy returned and they obliterated me in two rounds.
However, in honor of the occasion of my only win in three months, the pack formally presented me with a prize. Normally winners get fun things like foil-covered chocolate coins or kid-sized eyepatches. Once, at the end of a four-game winning spree, Auriele had received a Lego pirate ship complete with plastic Jolly Roger.
But I earned a cutlass, the real thing, steel-bladed and silver-hilted. As a bonus, I got a whole bunch of werewolves who fancied themselves experts, eager to teach me how to defend myself so that no stupid vampires would ever be able to kidnap me again.
I didn’t tell them that Excalibur herself would not have saved me from Bonarata. It is difficult to defend yourself when you are unconscious. Instead, I settled in and learned because next time I might have a chance to fight. My pack was thoroughly spooked at how easily the vampires had stolen me away—and I could feel their tension decreaseas my skill with the cutlass increased.That made me work even harder.
I had some experience with a katana, which helped more than I’d expected. Most of the wolves who tried to teach me were no better than I was once you made allowances for the advantages of speed and strength that being a werewolf bestowed. They still made good sparring partners. But a couple of wolves really knew how to use a blade. The best of those were our lone submissive wolf, Zack, and the one-legged Sherwood Post.
I carried the cutlass wherever I went. It made me feel better, and it made the pack feel better. I’d expected to have trouble with the police, but it seemed to make them feel better, too. Apparently if our pack was going to be protecting the humans in our territory from the fae, my carrying a sword made us look more like we were capable of doing our job.After the troll-bridge incident, we pack members had achieved brothers-in-arms status with most of the law enforcement types.
So I was armed with the cutlass and my favorite carry gun, but my growing respect for the capabilities of goblinkind left me with no illusions about my ability to take down a goblin. I was, when it came right down to it, not that much better off against the supernaturally gifted than a run-of-the-mill human was. Coyotes are not huge and powerful predators. Which was why Mary Jo and Ben, my werewolf minions, were with me.
“What are we going to do? Stand out here until the goblin gives up and runs out screaming, driven desperate by boredom?” asked Mary Jo after a bit.
I listened for sarcasm and didn’t hear any. That didn’t mean she didn’t feel it—just that she was being very careful. My mate had been very clear about putting the fear of God into the whole pack as far as I was concerned. I bit back a growl.
“We,” I told them, “are waiting for backup.” I looked at the sky worriedly. I had just opened my garage for business again two days ago, so I couldn’t afford to be late. “I hope, anyway.”
“Who else annoyed you enough to call?” Ben asked.
“He didn’t annoy me,” I told him, “but I figured that we might need an expert, so I contacted Larry.”
“The goblin king,” Mary Jo said, a little awe in her voice. It might have been horror rather than awe, but I took the optimistic view. “You called the king of the goblins in the middle of the night. What did he do to you?”
Larry had moved to the Tri-Cities a couple of years ago because, he said, matters were getting interesting here. Common lore said that goblins ran from trouble, but you couldn’t prove it by Larry. I wasn’t really sure if he was the ruler of all the goblins or just the ones in the Tri-Cities—he tended to be vague about specifics in the way of most of the more powerful fae I’d dealt with. The only thing that Larry had said in my hearing about his rank was that goblins didn’t use the term “king.”
“Fucking goblin problem,” said Ben good-humoredly before I could answer Mary Jo. “Who else should she have called, the elephant-shagging king of the expletive-deleted goblins?” That last sentence was about four words longer and he didn’t actually say “expletive-deleted.”
“To be fair,” Larry answered mildly from just on the far side of my car, “I was still up. I tend to be nocturnal.”
I hadn’t heard a vehicle drive up, nor had I seen or heard where he came from. I’d have felt stupid for not being more alert, but Ben and Mary Jo both subtly stiffened because Larry had taken them by surprise, too. None of us were crippled with mere human senses. He shouldn’t have been able to approach us without someone detecting him.
With the darkness hiding the unreal color of his eyes and gloves on his hands, he could easily have passed for human. I couldn’t tell if he was actively trying or if it was just an effect of the night.
He wore his medium-brown hair in a cut that even I recognized as expensive. His jeans looked too tight for hand-to-hand fighting except that they stretched easily as he moved. His shirt was a black tee that fit like a second skin.
He stopped on his brisk journey to close the distance between us as he passed my car, an old Jetta that had been well-used before the twenty-first century dawned. It was my chosen replacement for my obliterated Rabbit and it had proved to be a challenging project, one I was nowhere near completing.
Larry examined the Jetta mutely for a moment, then said, “Are you sure this is legal to drive?”
“All the lights work,” I told him.
My Vanagon, which was otherwise in showroom condition despite its age, had a coolant leak somewhere.With a radiator in the front and the engine in the rear of the fifteen-foot-long van, finding a leak that was probably a pinhole was a long and frustrating process. Adam had taken the new SUV that had replaced the SUV the vampires had smooshed with a semi. That had left only the Jetta to take me goblin-hunting.
I’d had to jury-rig the left rear turn signal with wires that ran out the trunk to the light that was held on with zip-ties. Then I’d crossed my fingers and headed out.
I was hopeful it would make it home as well. In case it didn’t, I’d thrown my mobile tool kit into the backseat—or rather into the space where the backseat would someday be.
“Princess,” said Larry, doubtfully, “I think you have your work cut out for you. This car looks older than Zee.” But his eyes had released my car and traveled to the barn. When he moved, he didn’t hesitate, walking past me and the werewolves and into the doorway of the barn, where he stopped.
“Hey, you!” he called, standing on the edge between night-dark and lightless dark. The white toes of his New Balance tennis shoes were cut off from my vision as thoroughly as if they had been taken off with an axe.
Larry waited, his body intent, but no one answered him. He said something else—this time in a language with tongue clicks and a couple of odd sounds I’m not sure a human mouth could make.He wasn’t particularly loud, but whatever he said was effective.
“No!” shouted a squeaky male voice from inside the barn. “Sanctuary. I claim sanctuary from this wonderous and glorious city said to be safe for fae and foe alike. Grant this me, dear my lord. An it is granted, I will happily emerge into thy keeping, great one.”
I didn’t know how old goblins got. I didn’t know if they were one of the immortal, or nearly immortal fae. I’d given back the only trustworthy book that recorded what the different kinds of fae were like before I’d known exactly how much I was going to need that knowledge.
I’d gotten the impression that the goblins were one of the shorter-lived races of the fae, but there was something about the way the voice in the darkness put together sentences and ideas that indicated that my memory or my interpretation might have been wrong. It was possible that shorter-lived meant something different to the fae woman who had written the book than it did to me. Or maybe our fugitive spent too much time at summer Shakespeare festivals.
Larry turned his body to me without taking his gaze away from the interior of the barn. “Do you know what he is running from?”
“Last week a goblin killed a police officer in California. The video of the incident was all over the news,” I began, but paused when Larry glanced my way for a hairsbreadth. Long enough for me to see the odd expression on his face.
“And people say humans don’t have magic,” he muttered, once again facing our fugitive. He made a circling gesture with one hand. “Never mind.Go on.”
“He has a pretty distinctive scar,” I told him, gesturing at the scar on my own right cheek. “His is a lot bigger. A goblin with that scar killed the police officer in LA who was trying to arrest him. The police have a manhunt”—I cleared my throat and corrected myself—“a goblin hunt aimed at him.”
Larry muttered something to himself in that other language. Then he called out, “Apparently you have an affinity for getting caught on camera. Careless of you to allow a mindless human device to record you doing murder. And you let it catch you murdering a knight of the human law, no less.”
He emphasized some of the words oddly, leading me to suspect that there were several deadly insults buried in Larry’s comments. I knew that getting caught was very poorly thought of in the goblin culture—but I hadn’t known that getting caught by technology was viewed as even worse. I found it reassuring that, apparently, even to the goblins, killing a police officer was a bad thing, too.
“No, no—I killed none,” our prey squeaked. “No child of humankind died at my causing, great one. No. No murderer I. I killed nary a one. Not knight nor even child. Not a wee boy with blinky shoes.Not me. I would never so defy the Gray Lords, great one. No more would I ever defy thy commands.”
That gave me pause.
As a matter of course, werewolves don’t lie because most werewolves can tell if someone is lying. I was raised by werewolves, and although I am not one, apparently a coyote can tell if someone is lying, too. I only lie when I think I can get away with it.
But the fae don’t lie because they cannot lie. They can twist the truth until it is a Gordian knot, but they cannot lie.
Still, that goblin’s words seemed oddly specific for someone who hadn’t killed a policeman or, apparently, a child with blinky shoes.But he wasn’t guilty because he said so.Maybe, I thought, he’d been a witness. But his words sounded like a lie to me. Not even a good lie.
Both the werewolves relaxed, a subtle softening of their stances. He wasn’t guilty because he said so. And unlike human criminals, that was actually a true thing, no matter how much it sounded like a lie.
Mary Jo turned to me. “Do we need to offer this goblin sanctuary? If the humans are going after him just because he is a goblin . . . isn’t that what our claiming dominion over the Tri-Cities is all about?”
“No, love,” Ben said in a mock-sorrowful tone designed—as Mary Jo’s had not been—to carry to the goblin hidden in the barn. “Not our thing at all.We keep people safe—but sanctuary is a whole different level of stupid.”
I was still trying to figure out how the goblin was being so specific if he had not killed the police officer and, apparently, a child. Goblins have glamour. Maybe another goblin—or one of the fae—had been trying to frame this one?
Larry’s mouth twisted in a grimace. “At least tell me that you didn’t get caught on camera killing the child,” he said in a resigned voice.
I frowned at Larry. First, because he sounded as if getting caught on camera had been worse than killing the child. But mostly I frowned at him because he sounded as if he knew that the goblin was guilty. But the goblin couldn’t lie.
“No, not I,” said the voice inside the barn earnestly. “I killed not the wee boy with his two sweet blue eyes. Eyes like a robin’s egg so round and innocent and tasty they were. Nor killed I the fierce-voiced police officer who came to stop me.”
Mary Jo and Ben looked as perplexed as I felt.
“I am innocent,” wailed the goblin in the barn. “Innocent and they will harm me if you do not protect me from the humans.”
“The fae are part of the bargain we made,” I said slowly. Did we owe the goblin sanctuary? I might have to go read the whole stupid document we’d signed again. At this rate, I’d have it memorized by Christmas.
“And goblins are fae,” said Mary Jo. Larry snorted. Mary Jo continued, “At least in so much that they have glamour and they are forced to tell the truth.” But her voice was hesitant.
“We are a part of that ancient bargain,” agreed Larry, frowning at the barn. “Yes. If the powers that be hear us lie, a terrible and mortal fate comes to us, as to all fae. Those greater in power may fight off their fate for a time, but for the lesser fae, like goblins, we die the moment a lie, knowingly spoken, leaves our lips.”
“That means we do need to protect him,” said Mary Jo without enthusiasm. She looked at me and then away, careful not to express in any other way that she held me responsible for the pickle the pack was in. But then she straightened her shoulders, lifted her chin, and said, firmly, with an undertone of satisfaction I don’t think she intended me to hear, “We protect the innocent.”
She wasn’t the only wolf who was finding . . . solace in their new role as heroes that had replaced their old role of being monsters. The whole demeanor of our pack had been lightening up since my rash declaration on the Cable Bridge.
The old Cable Bridge. The new Cable Bridge was a year out, at least. Engineers were having trouble trusting the site after one of the Gray Lords of the fae had opened up the earth there and let it swallow the old bridge. The fae had offered to build another bridge, but so far the city planners were smart enough not to take them up on that offer. I think it was the no-steel part that bothered them, but I was pretty sure taking gifts from the fae would have been the bigger problem.
Ben sighed—he had obviously been looking forward to a fight. “It’s not what we signed on for—but I guess it’s what we have to do since he’s innocent.”
Ben hadn’t noticed exactly what Larry had said, not the way I had. Maybe I was paranoid, or maybe I’d just been spending too much time with the fae lately.
“I be innocent,” said the fugitive goblin, sounding as though he was approaching the opening of the barn. His voice was fervent as he repeated, “I be innocent.”
Larry rubbed his face, looked at me, and sighed, a sound more heartfelt than Ben’s had been. “I am about to reveal something . . . Mercy, this cannot get back to the fae.”
“The not-goblin fae,” I clarified.
He nodded. “Yes, those folk.”
“Okay,” I told him. “We don’t owe it to the other fae to give them goblin secrets.”
“Swear to it,” he said seriously. “This goes beyond me. This is for the safety of me and mine. Swear you will tell no one what I do here.”
“No, great one,” said the voice in the barn, his voice low and solemn. “No. Betraying our secrets is not worth my unworthy death, no it isn’t. I should leave, a small and unimportant child, I. My fate is not worth betraying a great secret to such as these.”
“Silence!” roared Larry in a very un-Larrylike voice. “Thou hast caused enough trouble for our kind. Thou hast no voice in what I choose to do.”
“Everything I know,” I warned him, “Adam knows. Everything Adam knows Bran knows.”
Larry nodded.“Yes, yes, of course. Such is the way of mates. And Bran Cornick, too. The Marrok keeps secrets that make this seem small—unless, I suppose, you are a goblin.”
“I will tell no one else,” I told him. I looked at Ben and Mary Jo.
“I swear to keep this secret,” Mary Jo said.
Ben said, “If it’s not something that will harm people I care about, I will keep your secret.”
Larry looked at us, all three of us, and sighed. “There was a day when I’d have bound you to silence and you would not have been able to speak, you know.”
Yes, I thought, too much time with the fae. Or maybe just Larry. “There was a day when” didn’t really mean he’d lost that power, though I knew that many fae held a lot less power than they had once had. I thought about keeping my observation to myself. But if we were to share secrets, it would be best to establish an honesty baseline.
“I suspect you could do that on this day, too,” I told him, and the look on his face told me that it was true—and that he was pleased I had caught him.
“So why don’t you?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “I am a romantic and an optimist, Mercy Hauptman. I think that my relationship with you and yours, right here and right now, might be the reason my people survive the next hundred years. If I betrayed your trust—the trust that led you to call me to deal with one of my own—if I betrayed that trust, then I would wipe away any chance of real friendship between us, yes?”
“Yes,” growled Ben, not waiting for me.
“Good enough,” Larry said. “So I will trust that you three will understand the gravity of what I show you—that you will understand the consequences to my people and to your people, as well as all the humans on this planet if the fae know what a very few of my people can do. And I trust you will tell no one except for Adam, and that he will only tell Bran Cornick, who will tell no one.” He sighed again. “Unless he thinks it will benefit the werewolves. Ah, well.”
He turned to the barn and spat out magic in a series of vocalizations that had nothing to do with language—and everything to do with communicating with the ground I stood on and the air I breathed. The noise he made hurt my ears, pleased my eyes with flashes of brilliant lights that were somehow still sound, and made my muscles turn to water.
Magic and I have a complicated relationship, but this was a new reaction.
I sat down on the ground so that I didn’t fall. Ben—who was apparently not affected at all—knelt beside me. “Mercy?”
I shook my head, my attention on the barn where the unnatural shadows receded into normal darkness. Maybe a human might not have been able to tell the difference, but I could.
Larry dusted his hands together and said, in a voice I hardly recognized as his, because I’d never heard him sound so threatening, “Now, you rotting piece of putrid meat, now tell these good people how you didn’t kill that police officer, how you didn’t kill the wee boy with blinky shoes. Let the Powers take you and save us all some effort.”
I let Ben help me back to my feet.
“But they sparkled like stars,” said the voice in the barn, markedly smaller than it had been before. “How could I not dine upon that, great one. How could I let a human, a human, take me captive? How could I suffer that he touch me, who was once first of thirty?”
“He lied,” said Ben softly. “He is a goblin, is fae, is bound by your contract—and still he was able to lie.”
Larry nodded. “He hid behind a veil of magic so as not to trigger the curse of the bargain we made—that magic is a version of glamour that the other fae do not have. Yet. A secret that we have held . . .” He sighed and shook his head. “Forever. Until this driveling fool, so stupid he could not avoid a camera, tried to take advantage of my allies.”
I was silent because I was too busy putting this together with something I’d heard. There had been a fae who had betrayed a bargain she had made with Bran a few years ago. He had trusted her to keep the peace when representatives of the European werewolves had come to Seattle to be told that the Marrok intended to clue the humans in that there were werewolves in the world. She had lied to him. It had always bothered me that that fae could lie—even though Bran said she’d paid for those lies in the end.
I wondered if that fae, the one from Seattle, had known the goblin’s secrets or had invented her own. If one fae could lie . . .
“Much better that they, too, believe that they cannot,” murmured Larry to me, though I don’t think I said anything out loud.
“So why now?” asked Mary Jo suspiciously. “That . . .” She hastily changed the word she was going to use.“That goblin in there is right. He isn’t worth giving up a secret this big.”
Larry shook his head. “We are an odd bunch, we goblins,” he told her. “So little power compared to the rest of the fae. And yet some of us have gifts they would envy if they knew. I can sometimes sense important events in time.” He looked at me. “I think that it is going to be important that you know that this goblin could lie to you. I don’t know why or when. I don’t know that it will be important to me. But I do think that your trust in me, Mercy, in my people, might be the saving of us all. And if I give you my people’s most closely guarded secret, I believe you will remember that.”
I blinked at him.
He flashed me a smile full of teeth and then looked at the wolves. “Want to join me in the hunt?”
“Absolutely,” said Ben with an eager breath.
“That’s what we’re here for,” agreed Mary Jo. She sounded more resigned than excited, but I could feel her intensity.
Larry glanced at me.
“I know,” I said, resigned. “I’m not up to his weight. How about I guard the door in case you let him get by you.”
“We won’t let him get by us,” said Mary Jo, stung.
Ben grunted. “Now you’ve screwed the pooch,” he told her. “Never tempt fate.”
No one felt like waiting around for the ten or fifteen minutes it would take for the werewolves to change, so all of them were in human form when they entered the barn.I could see them moving in a cautious triangle until darkness obscured them from my sight.
I unsheathed my cutlass and listened to the doomed goblin scream my name. There were some downsides to being called Mercy. First, I was really tired of that Shakespeare monologue. Everyone I’d ever dated, not excepting Adam, quoted it to me at some point.Did they think I’d never heard it before? Second, it sometimes left me standing in the dark, listening to someone being killed while they cry out to me.
This one deserved what was about to happen to him, but I still tried to tune out the noises in the barn.
“She said, she promised I could come here for safety,” cried the goblin frantically before it shrieked—a noise that ceased in the middle of a crescendo. “She promised.”
She who? I thought.
I didn’t have time to wonder about it because his words were followed by a wave of magic that weakened my knees. The ground rumbled and shook as chaff and dust billowed out of the barn. Four-foot-by-eight-foot bales of hay crowded out of the entrance to the barn like some giant child’s blocks knocked over by a careless blow. The ground vibrated under my feet as they continued to fall for a few seconds more.
I didn’t think even a thousand-pound bale would kill a werewolf—and I hadn’t felt the hit from the pack bonds that would tell me if someone was dead or (less reliably) badly injured. But those bales had been stacked pretty high.
I started toward the barn, but stopped when the fugitive goblin emerged from the barn, crawling over a bale. He wasn’t running, but moving silently, his attention behind him. He was taller than Larry, his build nearly human, but his bare feet were oddly formed—more like a dog’s feet than a human’s, with long toes unshielded by sock or shoe. If he was using glamour, he wasn’t using it to try to look human despite the sweatpants he wore.
I took the cutlass in my left hand and drew my Sig with my right. The practical part of me knew that I should just shoot, but shooting someone in the back who had not (yet) tried to hurt me seemed wrong.
I could hear Ben, now, swearing a blue streak in between coughs. He didn’t sound hurt—just angry. A small part of me listened for Mary Jo or Larry, but the rest of me was focused on the goblin.
This goblin killed a child, I reminded myself grimly, raising my arm.
I don’t know if I would have shot him in the back or not because he turned his head and noticed me, spinning gracefully around to face me.
He hesitated and I shot him twice in the body and once in the head. The body shots made him flinch but there were no wounds in his chest where I shot him. Maybe I should have brought the .44 magnum—but then I couldn’t have shot one-handed with any degree of accuracy. The third bullet, aimed at his forehead, bounced off some sort of invisible shield and zinged off on a different trajectory.
He dropped his head a little, like a bull getting ready to charge, and laughed. “Little coyote. I was the leader of thirty. Do you think you and your toy can stop—”
I shot him again. Twice. The first hit him just left of the center of his chest instead of bouncing off, so whatever magic he’d worked required effort rather than being an impenetrable shield he could keep up forever. But the second shot that should have hit him in the same place missed him entirely.
He didn’t dodge the bullet. Bullets are very fast. He was just faster than I was. Between the time it took me to reacquire the target and pull the trigger, he moved out of the path of my aim and charged at me.
I dropped my gun—not by choice—rolled out of the way, and tried to nail him with the cutlass at the same time. I succeeded at the first two, but my left hand is not as quick as my right.He had no trouble sliding away from my blade, even putting in an unnecessary somersault in the air and landing on his feet like a performer in Cirque du Soleil.
It might have given him the opportunity to show off, but my cutlass swipe did keep him far enough away from me that I could roll back to my feet.
I have speed. It is my best superpower. I am as quick as the werewolves, probably as fast as the vampires. I was not as fast as that goblin was. It was a good thing, then, that I didn’t have to defeat him. All I had to do was keep him from escaping until the others emerged from the barn.
Unhappily for me, from the sounds I was hearing from the barn, it might take a while for my compatriots to fight their way free of the hay. Mary Jo and Larry were alive, I’d heard their voices, so that was something.
The goblin smiled at me. “Ah, it has teeth, does it?” He displayed his own, sharper and greener than human teeth. “That’s fine. I like a bite or two with my dinner.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as he made a little throwing gesture toward me. Magic, I thought, though I couldn’t tell what it had done. I couldn’t afford to worry about it either, because smiling broadly, he whipped out a long copper knife, maybe two thirds the length of my cutlass, and struck.
I met his blade—his attack had been ludicrously forthright and slow, especially given the speed he’d already demonstrated. Almost, I thought, as though whatever magic he’d thrown at me should have taken care of the need to pay attention to my blade.
Steel bit into the copper as I absorbed the interesting and surprising news that, for once, my weird semi-immunity to magic seemed to have (finally) worked on something that was really trying to hurt me.
The impact of the blades made him hiss in what sounded like surprise. But he didn’t hesitate, changing his trajectory and his weapon in midattack. He opened his mouth and lunged for my throat with his big, sharp teeth.
Not for nothing had I endured a month of pirate-loving, self-styled-expert werewolves determined that I would wield the blade as well as any aspirant to Anne Bonny’s title of Pirate Queen ever had.
I freed my blade from the weak final throes of his knife attack and backhanded him with the cross guard in the same motion. Sadly, the cross guard was silver (because werewolves) and not iron like the blade. Cold iron, even in the form of steel, would have gotten his attention.
My blow knocked him back, but he grabbed me by the shoulder and knee and took me down to the ground.
Down to the ground is bad when you are dealing with humans. When dealing with creatures of preternatural strength, it is deadly. I managed, somehow, to bring up the cutlass between us without cutting myself. The flat side of it pressed against me from hip to opposite shoulder. Which meant it did the same thing to him in reverse.
Iron is a problem for most fae to one degree or another, but it varies. The goblin screeched, a sound that made my ears ring, and the smell of scorched flesh abruptly hit my nose.
I was hopeful for a moment, but there was no flash fire. All the blade did was singe him a bit.
My martial arts instructor, my human one, recommends against going for a man’s testicles under most circumstances, despite the advice of movies and novels. Most men over the age of puberty have a lifetime of protecting that area, so it is difficult to get a clean shot.And if you don’t nail the man hard enough to incapacitate him, all you’ve done is really tick him off.
The same thing, evidently, is true of goblins and steel.
“Thou wilst die,” he growled at me, pinning me with one arm and lifting the battered knife he still held with the other. Expecting, as most reasonable homicidal goblins would, that since I was not strong enough to break free, I would have to just lie there and die.
I shifted to coyote and, while he struggled to parse just what had happened, I wiggled out of his hold, leaving my clothing behind but not my weapon. A little foolishly (I was told later) I snagged the cutlass in my teeth as I ran.
I grabbed it by the hilt. No one outside of those cheesy old movies or computer games would really grab the blade itself unless they were very, very certain that the blade was a dull movie prop.
I dashed to the barn, putting a hay bale to my back. Then I regained my human form and, naked, took the cutlass in my right hand and faced the goblin. He’d regained his feet while I’d run. He snarled something uncomplimentary and bounded toward me, the battered copper blade raised high.
I raised my blade to a guard position—and then Larry jumped over my head and landed light-footed on the ground about six feet in front of me. Which put him directly in the path of the charging goblin. He had no weapon that I could see.
“Mine,” Larry said in a voice so power-laden it could have belonged to the Marrok.
Before the other goblin could do more than slow his charge, his scarred face blank with horror, Larry reached out, grabbed the goblin by shoulder and leg—a move very like what the goblin had used on me, but even more effective. And brutal. The goblin king used the other’s forward momentum to swing him high—and jerk his shoulders and legs in the opposite direction that they go.
It was a move requiring skill and strength that I wasn’t sure any of the werewolves could have duplicated. In one move, Larry broke the other goblin’s back and dislocated his hip with a twin pop that sounded like a pair of guns going off.
He dropped the goblin on the ground and let him writhe for a moment. Then, with a snake-quick movement, he stopped the screaming by breaking the downed goblin’s neck.
“Well, fuck,” said Ben from on top of the hay bale behind me. “Larry, you wanker, stealing all the fun.”
I twisted to look. Mary Jo and Ben were both standing on top of the bale that Larry had jumped from. Mary Jo had a cut on her ribs and blood on one hip, though the wound that had come from had already healed over.
A slice on Ben’s cheekbone was fading, but his shirt flapped loosely from the top of his shoulder to the bottom seam. There was a piece of muscle missing from his pectoral. The skin had settled over the top of the injury, but I knew that it would take a few days for the muscle to fill in.
I turned my attention back to the most dangerous of us here.
Larry was, as far as I could see, unharmed.
“So that’s done,” Larry told me cheerfully, as if he hadn’t just brutally killed someone, shedding that aura of power he’d gathered so easily it was disconcerting. Bran, the Marrok, could do that, too.
Larry stared down at the body a moment, frowned, then pulled a long-bladed bronze knife from somewhere on his person. He grabbed the goblin by his hair and sliced the head off the body. It seemed like overkill. Maybe, I thought, Larry needed to make sure that the other goblin was dead.
The knife must have been extra sharp because he looked like he didn’t make any more effort than someone cutting up a watermelon. He dropped the head on the ground, cleaned off his knife, then pointed it at the head.
To me he said, “Take that to your human law enforcement. Tell them that the goblin king showed up and brought justice for their lost child and the guardian who gave his life so valiantly. Tell them that I regret that I could not do more than ensure that this one will do no more harm.”
“I thought you didn’t call yourself the goblin king,” I said.
He shrugged and sheathed his knife through an opening in his pantleg—it looked like a dangerous way to sheathe something that sharp. “Good publicity is good publicity. It was recently pointed out to me that I am what I am; it doesn’t matter what title someone outside our community tapes to my forehead, eh? The goblin king is something humans know about.”
“You are coming out to the public, then, mate?” Ben asked.
Larry grinned—and it looked right except for the seriousness of his eyes. “We are already out to the public, dude.” The stronger than normal emphasis on the “dude” made me think it was an answer to Ben’s “mate.” “But, yes. We are going to do some publicity work for ourselves here. Make ourselves a Power with allies—and then we are not so likely to end up food for the Gray Lords. Speaking of food . . .”
Unconcerned by the gore, he picked the body up, sans head, and slung it over his shoulder. The dislocated leg flopped, and the broken back made the body move oddly.
“I’d leave you the body, too,” he told me, “but I’d have to explain to the missus that I went hunting and didn’t bring back food for the family. The head should be enough to ID him.”
He glanced again at the disembodied head, a shadow of regret on his face. I wondered if he had known the other goblin, or if he was just regretting the necessity of killing one of his own.
He looked up and saw that I was watching, then muttered, “The eyes are the best part.”
I stared at him.
He saluted me with his serious-eyed grin, took a step back, and disappeared—gone from sight and sound.
Ben said, “Huh.” After a moment, when the scent of the goblin king faded into nothing, he said. “Well, sod off then, and bon appétit.”
“He might have been joking,” I said without conviction. I liked Larry, but that didn’t mean I understood him.