Chapter 1: No Prayer For The Dying
Chapter One - No Prayer For The Dying
It was the hawk again. Barred soft grey with a harsher brown back and fierce yellow eyes she twisted through the branches of a winter bare tree, her prey darting desperately in an attempt to outfly Death.
The hawk snatched the wren, crushing the life out of her with a single twitch of her powerful talons, driving them into the tiny bird’s body and splashing her blood across his eyes.
She banked her flight, and pierced him with her eyes as surely as the talons had pierced the heart of the wren still clutched tight in one foot. Her message was clear; she knew him, and she called -
Steve jerked upright, throat tight with fear, sheet wrapped sweat tight with damp around his hips where he must have been thrashing to escape the nightmare.
He leaned on his arms, dropped his head back and sighed, feeling the cold air from the room’s air-conditioner flow across his chest, curl around his ribs and begin to dry the terror induced wetness that ran from him in tiny rivulets. The dreams, again…he thought he’d be free of them now. Hadn’t had one for months so he’d thought, he’d hoped -
Ah. He’d forgotten about her; the little blonde with the big tits who wouldn’t leave him alone after the show. She’d trailed along back onto the bus, into the hotel, the bar…and no-one else would do for her, apparently. So he’d given in, brought her to his room, fucked her and rolled over to sleep with barely a word, hoping she’d be nothing more than a fading scent of cheap perfume on his sheets come the morning.
He closed his eyes, concentrated on keeping his breathing low and even, driving the fear away until he could think clearly. Her voice was suddenly irritating; she made his name sound like ‘Aaargh-eeeee?’
She touched his side and he flinched from her questing fingers; throwing the sheet back he stalked to the bathroom, ignoring the nervous twittering spilling random from her red-smeared mouth. He slammed the door behind him, turned on the light and stared at himself in the mirror; haunted eyes stared back, ringed with shadows and with the beginning of worry lines creasing the thinner skin at the corners. Dammit!
He opened the bathroom door, looked for the girl; she was still sitting on the edge of the bed, looking vacant.
“I need some time alone. Get your shit and clear off, alright?”
She opened her mouth to shriek and he simply shut the door on her, locking it securely and sitting on the lid of the toilet seat, waiting for the sound of the room door closing. He could sit here all night if he had to; had done so in the past, in fact.
He could hear banging and some high pitched cursing, the odd sob and whine, but eventually it all went quiet. He waited some more, trying to count the thin tracery of the veins on the back of his eyelids, lit as they were by the harsh overhead light; it wouldn’t be the first time one of the faceless groupies who hovered about the band had decided to try and wait him out.
They didn’t have the patience.
So when he finally cracked the bathroom door open and peered around, he wasn’t surprised - but was still relieved - to find the room empty. He just hoped that she hadn’t thought to empty his wallet on the way out; wouldn’t be the first time that had happened, either.
He couldn’t be bothered to check right now, just made his way back to the bed and rolled himself up in the sheets, burying his face in the pillow that smelt of sweat, sex, and groupie. He sighed, curling his body in an attempt to get comfortable but his mind wouldn’t be quiet. Why now? He’d told them he wasn’t interested…they’d fucked his life up quite enough, ta very much, and he wasn’t having anything to do with them anymore.
Since then there had been no more dreams, no more strange coincidences, no more of the sort of shit that had driven H away from them all. H, one of his oldest friends who’d sworn more than once whatever it is, Harry, we’ll get through it together…
And now they were back. Well, he’d warn the others in the morning; that is, unless they knew already, in which case he would be wasting his breath and they would all grouch at him over breakfast. When the dreams were this strong it was rare indeed that he was the only one to be touched by their effects.
He rolled over again, shoved his head under the pillow and fell into an uneasy, troubled sleep.
Bruce was happy.
Blinding show, everyone on a high, fans happy, crew happy, venue happy, band happy.
He sighed. And to make the evening absolutely perfect he’d picked up a nice young fan in the hotel bar. Harry had drawn the short straw, eventually - and rather grumpily, it had to be said - retiring to bed with the big breasted blonde groupie that had been dogging him all night. Janick had found himself a nice young lady and Davey had also retired rather cheerfully, having been seduced by an older redhead; Nicko had strolled off with a small group - God alone knew how he managed it - leaving Bruce with quite the most beautiful boy he’d seen in a long time.
Well, he said boy; the lad claimed to be twenty one and hey, if that was so then Bruce wasn’t going to question it. But there was a certain…agelessness about the boy’s face; it was as though depending on how the light fell across those enchantingly dark eyes he could have been anywhere between a very young fifteen or a well preserved fifty. His short hair curled close like the fleece of a young goat, a brown so dark it was almost black, and his skin had the olive cast of the Mediterranean; he’d tan beautifully.
Bruce grinned at himself in the mirror. One of the things he liked about visiting Paris: the locals were all gorgeous.
He was still chuckling to himself about this when he returned to the bedroom, pausing for a moment on the threshold to enjoy the view. Robin (that was his name, apparently) stretched on his stomach across the white bedsheets, nice round ass presented to Bruce’s view over long legs, not too hairy. Just…nice.
Bruce began to crawl up the bed between those legs, pausing to kiss his way across the dimples this muscular youth had above his buttocks.
“Jesus, you’re magnificent…”
Robin hooded his eyes and reached for the ice bucket next to the bed, passing back a bottle of champagne to Bruce. He sat up and stared at it for a moment before an idea struck him; easing the cork from the bottle - no wasteful bang - he slopped a little along the smooth, firm back and passed the bottle back even as Robin giggled and squirmed.
“Hold still.” Bruce grinned, then lay back down and began to lap the champagne from the warm skin beneath him. Robin wriggled and squealed, and Bruce felt his cock practically vibrate as he sucked the bubbles from the boy’s back.
He crawled up to kiss him on the mouth, and they passed the bottle of champagne back and forth between them a few times, not bothering with a glass. Robin began to nip and kiss his way down Bruce’s throat, murmuring sweet nothings as he did so; Bruce shoved the bottle back into its bucket with a splash of melting ice and collapsed back onto the bed, moaning quietly.
He felt the head of his cock brush against a thick mat of curly hair, and frowned. Robin hadn’t had that hairy a chest, surely? He opened his eyes, looking down to where the young man was kissing and lapping at his nipples. Their eyes met, and the boy grinned; Bruce relaxed, reassured that he was right and must have been imagining things. Not that much hair, just an even sprinkle of dark curls outlining the muscles and petering away into a deliciously mysterious trail that caressed the full, heavy balls and very erect penis.
Another point nagged at him as soon as he closed his eyes. Teeth.
What of it? muttered another part of his mind, the bit that was just trying to enjoy itself.
They didn’t look right.
Look, the kid’s a metal fan and he’s gay; blimey, if he doesn’t have some fucking Issues then I don’t know who has - he’s probably had something weird done to them…no big deal…
That unsettling sensation of hair was joined by a whiff of body odour that was decidedly more barnyard than boudoir - but it was gone as soon as identified. Trying to relax, get back into the mood, Bruce reached down and smoothed his fingers through Robin’s thick curls. The boy licked along his shaft and swallowed down the head; Bruce gasped and pushed his other hand into the hair, using his grip to steady himself as Robin fucked him with his mouth. He was good, too, taking it all down, sucking and licking, caressing his balls…
He was almost lost to the sensation when his fingers - rubbing through the thick, curly hair - encountered something hard on the boy’s skull.
Robin did something spectacular with his tongue, applied pressure with his long fingernails just behind Bruce’s balls and the familiar sensation of orgasm began to twist along his body. He just had time to think before the white haze blanked all thought --
-- and he was gone, convulsing as he spent into the greedy warmth of Robin’s mouth. Blinking his eyes open as the glorious earthquake subsided to mere aftershock, he got the surprise of his life, and would have leapt from the bed in panic were it not for two factors.
One, his muscles were still twitching from the power of his orgasm and were thus useless; two - and most important - Robin was now holding the head of his still erect cock between gleaming…sharp…teeth. Through the grin he applied pressure with those teeth, and Bruce appreciated that they were indeed sharp enough that, should Robin or whoever he was wanted to, he could bite the top of his cock clean off. Not a very happy thought, and one that brought sweat of a quite different kind surging to the surface of his skin in a cold rush.
He rubbed his thumbs once more across the suspicious lumps under the mop of hair, almost unsurprised now to discover that they were unfolding into curled goat’s horns under his touch. The eyes that held him were still that marvellous dark brown, but were now flecked with gold and green and horizontally slotted like those of a goat or horse.
“Who…?” Bruce began, then swallowed hard before trying again. “What are you…please?”
The creature released his cock and sat up on its knees, pinning him with its strange gaze.
“You try and seduce Robin Goodfellow, and you know not who I am?”
Bruce’s brain spun frantically, suddenly realising that he did know that name. Should have recognised it as soon as the lovely boy spoke it in such a shy way, looking at him from under impossibly long lashes. Should have known it, but too blinded by lust for caution.
Robin Goodfellow, informed a small part of his mind from the back of his skull, behind all the bits gibbering with fear, is the old English name for Pan, God of the forest. Shakespeare, yes? You remember, all those dull lessons that you spent staring out of the classroom window. Should have paid attention.
Gives his name to the word panic…from the dissolute, insane revelry of his festivals, and the way those who attended them - or even saw him - were prone to losing their minds. Very old, capricious, dangerous. Shit.
Pan smiled, showing sharp white teeth.
“You know me now?”
Bruce nodded carefully.
“I’m supposed to give you a message. I was just going to scare you and pass it on, but you intrigue me, little man…”
The creature leaned forward and kissed him, gently at first then becoming more insistent. Despite himself, Bruce couldn’t help but respond; Pan really was one hell of a kisser, that was for sure, and the blowjob he’d just got was still soaking his system in lusty hormones.
Even so, when Pan drew back he had to stifle a scream. His body had changed; glossy little horns projected through his hair and his whole visage was far more…saturnine. A small goatee beard gleamed around that sensuous mouth, and his body had become far more heavy set and hairy. Not revoltingly hairy, simply more hair on his chest and abdomen, patterning the swarthy skin with tight dark curls.
And he had the hind legs of a goat. Well, probably not exactly like a goat, if you wanted to go into the strictest details of comparative anatomy, but close enough. Where he had one leg dropped behind him Bruce could just see over Pan’s hip to spy a small tail flicking to and fro - presumably in amusement, if the expression on his face was anything to go by.
But when Bruce’s gaze reluctantly travelled down the length of that muscular body, he realised that he could be in for a very bad night. He’d thought the lad was well hung but this…
It was going to split him in two.
Pan leaned in again, flicked his tongue across Bruce’s collarbone; he made a crooning, rumbling noise in his throat and nuzzled against Bruce’s shoulder, almost appearing affectionate. Bruce began to respond in kind, tentatively smoothing his hand across the dark skin, searching his fingertips through the curls and even - although only briefly - exploring the altered textures of Pan’s bestial half.
The God sighed and rolled over on his flank, watching as Bruce made his discoveries by touch. He reached out one large hand, stroked gently through Bruce’s hair; his eyes were hooded, and he appeared to be relaxed and enjoying himself immensely.
Bruce made his move.
He grabbed Pan’s testicles and twisted, hard. As the creature roared and curled up Bruce sprang from the bed and made for the door. Once he was out he was sure he would be fine - all he had to do was get to one of the other rooms on his floor. When the noise started people would come out of their rooms and after all the trouble he’d gone to to hide his identity, Pan was hardly likely to come after him, was he?
He had just got a grip on the door when a huge fist punched it out of his grasp, slamming it shut the bare inch it had begun to open and splitting the frame.
Pan glared for a moment, then backhanded Bruce hard enough to send him spinning across the room.
“Stupid, stupid little man. I could have made it enjoyable for you…once, long ago, women and men used to come to the greenwood, searching out Robin Goodfellow to beg him to - as you would say - rock their world. And do you know what, stupid man?”
Pan picked a stunned Bruce up by the scruff of the neck and threw him across the room to bounce from the opposite wall, scattering possessions and smashing a picture on the way.
“If they asked me nicely enough, I would indulge them. And some went mad, after, because the pleasure I gave them could never, ever be found again in the mortal realm.”
Bruce tried to rise, only succeeded in scrabbling hands and feet uselessly against the floor while his blurred vision watched the cloven hooves approach across the carpet. Shiny, they were; neat, like the foot of a deer, not splayed like those of a cow. The feet stopped, and Pan kicked him - hard - over toward the bed, then reached down and wrapped Bruce’s hair around his fist, lifting him up by it and ignoring his captive’s yelp of pain.
“However,” and the voice had dropped from a snarl to a dangerous croon, “those that displeased me…well.”
Bruce felt himself being turned over, and a hard hand urged him up on to his knees. He tried to wriggle, to escape, but Pan had beaten him so soundly his head was still spinning. He knew what was coming now, and quietly cursed himself; he couldn’t just have taken it, could he? Oh no, he had to fight…
Damn Harry! Him and his bloody dreams!
“Brace for impact, Bruce,” chuckled a deep voice in his ear, and there was pain.
He was back in the forest, lost in a wilderness of briar and scrub, tripped and hampered by saplings as he tried to find the path again amongst the ancient oaks. Deer scattered, nameless tiny things scuttled away in the undergrowth and once he thought he even caught a glimpse of a boar; wild things from long ago.
Primeval forest, then, but undeniably English.
He fought his way through to a glade with a small pond; a stag lifted his head, watched the intruder warily but without fear. Steve dropped to his knees, panting with exertion and fright, and when he blinked to clear the sweat from his eyes the stag was gone.
The figure that had replaced it was a strange amalgam of man and beast: broad chest, with a deerskin thrown loosely across titanic shoulders, narrow hips that shaded into the powerful haunches and strong hind legs of the noble stag. The head lifted. Eyes as deep as the ancient forest regarded him closely. The magnificent antlers flashed in the moonlight, and he caught his breath in fear: a warning.
Cernunnos only ever appeared as a warning…
Steve jerked awake with a cry, drenched in cold sweat for the second time in one night. This time he didn’t take the time to catch his breath. He shot out of bed - stumbling across the bunched sheets - and flung on a robe. He didn’t even slow to grab his room key, just hurled himself into the corridor, allowing the door to his room to swing loosely behind him. He was sure that once his eyes had adjusted to the harsh glare of the overheads he would see who -
Ah, shit. Bruce’s door hung at a slight angle, frame cracked and subtly splintered as though it had been slammed several times with inhuman force. Which, he reflected gloomily as he carefully approached it, was probably the case.
Dammit! The fucking Fae always did this to him! Did they think that by intimidating and frightening his friends they were going to get him on their side? He’d been through this again and again and…
“Come in, Harry,” mumbled Bruce from inside the room. Steve winced. His friend sounded…pained, at best.
Dreading what he was going to see Steve inched the door open and slipped inside.
The room was a half-lit mess, smashed furniture and dented walls illuminated only by a single lamp which had lost its shade but not, incredibly, its bulb. Quite how this much destruction could have been achieved without waking the whole hotel would have been a bit of a mystery had it not, of course, happened before. They had a habit of keeping things secret until after their departure, then leaving Harry and the others to try and explain as best they could.
This had been a doozy, though.
“Who was it?” he asked, finally catching sight of Bruce perched uncomfortably on the edge of the bed, keeping his weight forward. Oh no…
His face was a mass of bruises, one eye almost swollen shut. There was blood on the bed, and a smell of sex in the air; from what he could see Steve could guess what had happened here. Well, pretty much. The hoofprints in the carpet and on the walls were something unusual; normally they kept physical evidence of themselves to an absolute minimum. It was possible that Bruce had enraged one, of course, in which case he was lucky to be alive. Steve winced. Damn.
Bruce swallowed hard, poking gingerly at some badly bruised scratches around his throat that were starting to swell.
“He said he was called Pan.”
“He also said,” added Bruce, still not looking at his friend, “that he had a message for you. He said: ‘tell the Prophet that we are tired of waiting.’”
Steve hissed out a long breath and leaned on the cracked doorframe. Tired of waiting. Oh, fucking marvellous.
Bruce looked up, and there was defeat in his expression. “No more, Harry. I’ll finish this tour, and that’s it. I can’t do this anymore, never knowing what nightmares are going to come crashing through the door from some fucking hyperspace junction inside that fucked up head of yours.”
“No. No more, Harry. Go away, now; I’ll get Rod to call the lawyers in the morning. You’ve got me for this tour and then…” he huffed out a long stream of air, shook his head and turned to stare vacantly out of the window at the vista of streetlights.
“Then, mate, you’re on your bloody own.”
Chapter 2: Moonchild
“Aye, well. He’s the one, alright. He’ll be the one to take them all home, you mark my words. He’ll reopen the door that they locked, he will.”
Chapter Two - Moonchild
“He’s got the Sight, you can see it…”
“Aye, well. He’s the one, alright. He’ll be the one to take them all home, you mark my words. He’ll reopen the door that they locked, he will.”
“What’s she on about? Isn’t it about time that we put her in a home, or something?”
Ignoring the bickering of her daughter and son in law the old lady rocked her newborn grandson in her arms, and smiled at him. He was the one, right enough. She knew it, and the news of his arrival had rocketed through the Fae tribes the very moment he made his entrance. She knew his life would be hard and filled with sorrow but…
One day, when the time was right, he would lead them all home. Whether he wanted to or not.
June, 1999. Essex.
The house was in darkness as Bruce pulled up the long driveway, and no cars were parked in front of the neatly kept lawns on the white gravel that gleamed faintly in the moonlight.
The cream Jaguar rolled to a smooth halt, and Bruce took a moment to check the phase of the moon before he tried the front door; it had become a habit for him. Always check the phase of the moon before venturing into wildest Essex…
Midsummer and a full moon. Oh dear oh dear oh dear.
He wondered about the alignment of the planets, and if it would have any effect on the visitors plagueing his old friend; then he also realised that he was stalling, and if he wanted to cross the damn threshold before daylight he’d better get moving. Scared? You fucking bet. He’d been free of all this crap for six years and to be quite honest was not relishing getting back into it.
He hunched his shoulders protectively as he unlocked the door, ducked through as quietly as he could; the house seemed to hold its breath for a moment, and then the shuffling, whickering noises began again. It sounded as though a million tiny mice were having a party in the walls; whiffs of summery odours drifted to his nose as he carefully and slowly walked down the corridors, treading heavily. The last thing he wanted to do was startle any of the revellers - these tiny partiers frequently had bigger guardians around who reacted rather nastily when disturbed.
Something buzzed around his ears then shot off down the corridor with a ‘zip’ noise, and a light finally began to glow in the main living room, off to his right. He cursed under his breath; now he would have to go and say hello to whatever awaited him. He’d been spotted and identified, and it didn’t do to keep one’s hosts waiting.
The voice was deeper and rougher than he remembered; reaching up to scratch nervously at the back of his head (and remembering that the last time he’d been in this house his hair had been considerably longer, although no less damp with nervous sweat) he carefully pushed the door open and stepped through.
The lounge looked as though a bomb had hit it, and smelled like a distillery.
“Shitfire, Arry…what happened?”
The figure sprawled on the sofa made a motion that might have been a shrug. Bruce walked to one of the chairs, put his flight case down; then, remembering what the visitors to the house were likely to be whipped back around and shook a finger sternly at the small, grey skinned goblin that was trying to peek inside.
It fled with a shriek and he sat down carefully, taking his cap off and turning it around and around in restless fingers. Any thoughts of how to begin the conversation had just been blown out of the water; ‘how are you’ seemed a bit foolish, as the man before him looked like shit.
Steve stared at him blankly, eyes dull with grief and whiskey. He looked as though it had been a week since he’d shaved, and God alone knew how long it had been since he’d taken a bath. The whispering began again on the cusp of hearing, and figures flitted amongst the shadows. Bruce had to resist the urge to look nervously over his shoulder; he had no idea what form most of the visitors were wearing and that was just fine by him. Not all the ‘faeries’ were gossamer winged, pretty little things; some of them had faces only a mother could love - and of course, some had no mothers...and some no faces.
A fresh bottle appeared in Harry’s hands, and he unscrewed the top methodically - flicking it in the general direction of the fireplace - and took a swig.
“How’d you get in?”
The voice was only slightly slurred, and Bruce found himself absolutely confounded anew. This was the man with the vision? The one who’d kept pushing for all those years, ignoring the worst that the Otherworld could throw at him to make the music work? The brilliant - if somewhat driven - man who’d held such a disparate bunch of musicians together for so long, created some of the most blinding metal on the planet and stood with a foot in two worlds?
This drunken wreck? Fuck.
“Borrowed Davey’s key.”
Steve shrugged, and his gaze wandered slowly off and began to bump around the grubby furniture. Bruce took a deep breath and tried again.
“Steve. Harry. What happened?”
And a wolfish smile spread across Steve’s face, all the more terrible for its despair.
“No more music, Bruce. No more Maiden. The fans don’t know yet…”
“Nobody knows yet, mate. Or it would be a posse of fucking lawyers here and not me; what do you mean, no more Maiden? Are you crazy?”
Steve took a long, long drink, spilling a quantity of the whiskey down his shirt. A tiny, glowing light settled there, apparently drinking it; Bruce watched fascinated as it rose and wobbled away unsteadily, finally crashing into the wall behind the sofa and sliding to the floor. After so many years of denying them and chasing them from him with everything he possessed it now seemed that something had broken the strongest man he’d ever known; he’d given up, and the strange little lives that clustered around him wherever he went had moved in.
With a vengeance, judging from appearances.
“You heard what happened to Blaze?”
Bruce sighed, swatted the small goblin away from his bag with his cap and hoped like hell it didn’t bring its mum to complain. Not being too au fait with the growth patterns of goblins he had no idea how old this one was, but it behaved like a naughty child so...
He forced his mind to coherence.
“Yeah, I heard. I heard he was in hospital, and I heard why; after what happened to Paul and I it wasn’t hard to figure out the rest. I also heard that you’d holed up here and weren’t talking to anyone.”
“So,” and Steve’s bloodshot eyes weaved an unsteady track back to Bruce’s, “you thought you’d come and see if you could…what…help me?”
Bruce shrugged, growing more uneasy by the minute. Something - beyond the obvious, that is - was very, very wrong here. Dreadful as what happened to Blaze had been, Harry had pushed through such things before. Which meant that something else was bothering him. Something really bad.
Really very bad indeed.
September, 1980. Frankfurt.
“Piss stop. Come on guys, pull this fucking thing over, I’m busting for a leak…”
The green bus rumbled to a halt on the road outside Frankfurt; they’d barely begun and here was Paul, whingeing like a trooper and already getting on Steve’s nerves. Dortmund was hours away yet; if it went on like this he was going to kick someone’s bloody head in by the time they got there.
Still, while they were stopped…
The lads stood in a line by the hedge, emptying the residue of last night’s beer and this morning’s coffee into the greenery. Steve had finished, zipped his jeans and was turning to board the bus when Paul’s voice interrupted him; for some reason the vocalist sounded strained. Well, more strained than the hangover he’d woken up with this morning would warrant, anyway; maybe one of the girls had given him a dose and he was peeing pus? That could be good for a laugh or three.
“Harry! Fucking hell, Harry come back here.”
He wandered back across, curious.
“You’ve pissed on your boots, mate.”
Paul ignored him.
“What,” his voice quavered, “the fuck is that?”
Steve followed his friend’s rather wild stare into the riotous scramble of the hedge, bright with autumnal colour. Once he’d got his eye in - and managed to separate the different shades of green and gold and brown of foliage - he saw what had startled Paul so. To him it was nothing unusual; he’d been seeing strange little creatures all his life and had long ago decided that he was either (a) mad or (b) weird or possibly even (c) losing his fucking mind completely. None of the three options had ever been terribly comforting so on the whole he had stuck with (d), which was to ignore the whole thing as completely as possible.
This was the first time someone else had been able to see them too, although his grandma had had an old journal full of careful line drawings which she’d left to him in her will. He’d learnt a lot from it, then firmly put it all to the back of his mind to concentrate on football and, of course, music; on the whole he found the harder he worked on sane, normal mundane things the less the weird little creatures bothered him. In fact, he’d even begun to believe lately that the whole thing had been a childish fantasy, and never really real at all.
Well, the little brownish grey goblin currently watching them with interest and picking its nose seemed real enough. And Paul could see it too.
“Look, get back on the bus, alright?” please please just shut up about it and ignore it.
“Harry. Mate. Can you see it?”
Steve scratched his head and worried about the answer. The last thing he wanted to do was drag all this supernatural shit up in the middle of a foreign fucking country when they were supposed to be concentrating on their music.
He finally met Paul’s extremely worried expression and sighed.
“Is it real?” asked the frontman, face pale with worry.
Nice as it would be to lie...it wouldn’t help. Paul was already having a few difficulties with the pace, and if he thought the booze and occasional experimentation with drugs was screwing with his head this badly he might decide to just pack up and head back to England - and what of Maiden then? No, he was going to have to come clean, tell him everything. Otherwise he might just as well go back to the draughtsman’s office where he would steadily go crazy with the nine-to-five grind of normal mundanity, and give all this up as just a dream.
No chance. He just had to hope that Paul could cope with the truth, was all.
He looked into his friend’s eyes and nodded slowly.
“Yeah. It’s real.”
August, 1987. London.
“Don’t give me that shit again. I’m going to find out about it - this is getting fucking silly. And all the bad fucking feelings in the world ain’t going to stop me - you want to see an end to it as well, don’t you?”
Bruce hissed through his teeth and pushed his fringe back from his forehead with an exasperated sigh. No good; when Harry decided he was going to throw himself into a new project no-one was going to stop him. And although he’d managed to stop any word of the ‘odd’ goings-on around the Maiden camp from leaking out into the wider world of music or - God forbid - the press, it still added an extra level of stress to touring. Trying to explain exactly who was trashing hotel rooms or molesting the cleaning staff or fiddling with the electrics or doing any one of a million and one irritating things to distract them all was indeed a nightmare; but Bruce was terribly afraid of how much worse it could be. There were monsters out there in the night, and he had absolutely no intention of letting Steve lure them an inch closer than was absolutely necessary.
Bruce followed his friend, trying to think of another argument that might persuade him to abandon this project.
“You said that when you ignore them they go away for a bit. So why tempt them in?”
Steve stopped walking, and Bruce almost ran directly into the back of him. They were making their way through the crowds toward the massive Victorian train station of Saint Pancras, and the new home of the British Library. Harry had, somehow, obtained a reading pass; he’d come up with a plan to find out what the fuck was going on once and for all and see if there was a way to stop it. Dave was already there, an enthusiastic helper; he’d developed a fascination for magic - real magic, not the stuff you saw on stage - and was convinced that between them they could not only figure out why Steve was the centre of so much activity but how to stop it. Permanently.
Bruce had a very, very bad feeling about it.
“I have to find out. Recently they’ve been muttering about a prophecy - and I want to know what they’re on about.”
Bruce threw up his hands. “So ask them!”
Steve turned with a wry smile. “Right, yes. Speak goblin, do you? Or any of the other squeaks and hoots they use to communicate?”
“Ask one of the others.”
“Bruce, I’ve been doing that all my life and never yet got a straight answer. Except I’ve been called ‘The Prophet’ a time or two.”
“Fuck’s sake Steve, that’s a bit needlessly messianic isn’t it?”
He gave a harsh bark of laughter and strode off again. Bruce closed his eyes, lifted his face to the sky and spread his arms wide in silent entreaty; there had to be easier bands to be in. He bet Judas Priest didn’t have this trouble. Ever.
“Hey! Wait up!”
But then again, life was certainly never dull. And although he had a really really bad feeling about what they might discover in the dusty archives he sure as Hell didn’t want to miss a minute of it.
Chapter 3: The Edge Of Darkness
It wasn’t perfect, but it would just have to be enough; after all, one of them losing their mind per night was quite enough.
The Edge Of Darkness
Sitting in the darkness of the nameless bar - he assumed it had a name but not only was it in German but they’d been thirsty after the show and thus in a hurry - Steve tapped his fingers on the sticky table top, and watched Paul’s face closely. Since the incident with the goblin earlier that morning - much, much earlier - Paul had been avoiding him. He’d turfed Dave out of his seat behind the driver and sent him to the back of the bus to sit next to Steve; Dave had muttered good-naturedly about frontmen getting too big for their boots, and gently needled Steve about an imaginary lover’s tiff the pair might have had.
Harry had ignored him, and eventually Dave had just curled up against his side and gone to sleep.
He’d rested his head atop Dave’s then and just stared at Paul’s stiff shoulders and lowered head for the rest of the journey, wondering how the hell he was going to explain it all. He hadn’t to tell anyone else, exactly; Dennis had never seen anything, Dave had always shrugged and cheerfully taken Harry’s explanation for anything odd that happened and Clive had never seen anything either. Or if he had he’d never mentioned it...
Paul was sitting back, swinging the rickety bar chair back on two legs in order to get a better look at the bums of a couple of girls currently leaning on the bar; he still hadn’t spoken to Steve, not one word. Preparing for the gig, playing, after...in fact, if it hadn’t been for Dave’s insistence that they all go drinking together post gig he was pretty sure that Paul would still be avoiding him. He sure as hell hadn’t spoken to him since they’d entered this grotty little bierkeller, just sunk a couple of pints without a word and chased them with whiskey, apparently hell bent on going on another one of his notorious benders.
Like they needed this, on top of everything else. It was becoming clearer by the day that Dennis’ style of playing was becoming incompatible with theirs; he was muttering about leaving the band and Steve had already made a couple of phone calls back to the UK to try and arrange a replacement, a talented youngster called Adrian Smith, or H, whose own band wasn’t doing quite so well at the moment. The word was that he was available, but at this rate the poor bastard would be walking into a warzone, if he agreed to come at all.
Steve leaned forward, putting his elbows squarely in a puddle of spilt beer.
“Paul. Talk to me.”
A sideways glance, an acknowledgement - however reluctant - of Steve’s existence. He let the chair drop to all four legs with a bang and stared at Steve with heavy lidded eyes, speculative gaze sizing up the man across the table from him.
“I dunno. What you going to tell me? Fucking fairy stories?”
Steve hissed through his teeth. “Of course not. But you were pretty freaked out -”
Paul thumped his bottle on the table. “Dave mate, your round.”
“The fuck it is!”
The other two men glared at him and the blonde waved his hands in the air. “Fine, fine. I’d better go and see what Dennis and Clive are up to, anyway...oh yeah. Cash please - I’m out.”
Muttering under his breath about short armed guitarists - with long pockets - Steve rummaged in his jacket and came up with a few banknotes, which he passed across. Dave flicked through them with a grin.
“Beer,” grumbled Paul, “now.”
Davey laughed and headed to the bar, throwing a quick nazi salute at Paul behind his back. Steve grinned; Dave, always the comedian. God alone knows what touring would be like without his perennially cheerful presence - harder, probably. And fraught with even more rows.
“So,” said Paul.
Steve sighed. “They’ve always been there.”
“Little fucking green men? Come on, ‘Arry...”
Steve shook his head. “All sorts. No-one else has seen ‘em before now. I thought it was just me.”
He avoided meeting Paul’s eye, keeping his gaze fixed just over his right shoulder and apparently watching Dave getting beer and chatting up girls at the bar.
“So...what are they?”
“What? Fuck’s sake mate, talk fucking English will yer? They’re what?”
Steve sighed - again, he seemed to be doing a lot of that tonight - and finally turned to look Paul straight in the eye. “Fae. You could call ‘em fairies, I guess -”
“That fucking thing I saw earlier, that was no fucking flower fairy.”
“No. That was a goblin.”
Paul blinked at him, then let out a sharp laugh. “Right. Okay then, one question - they dangerous?”
Steve shook his head firmly. Well, they’d never done him any harm, had they? Kept an eye on him, in fact.
“Nah mate. No way.”
Paul grunted, swinging his attention back to the form of their blonde guitarist weaving his way back across the smoky dancefloor, hands full of beers and being followed by three blonde girls who giggled and eyed up the three young men with something akin to hunger. He grinned and waved, then angled his head to eye Steve speculatively.
“You’d better be right.”
“I am. Don’t worry about it.”
He just hoped he was.
June, 1999. Essex.
Bruce, although still reeling mentally from all the night’s revelations, had finally managed to talk Steve into taking a hot shower and going to bed; it hadn’t been easy, what with the tears and the drunken rambling. The final revelation - dragged out with much urging and, in the end, a certain amount of bullying - had shocked the life out of Bruce and devastated Steve; oh yes, and to add to the frustrations of the night the little goblin that appeared to have adopted him had kept trying to get into his bag, wailing miserably every time it was shooed off.
Eventually Bruce had given in and let it stay. It seemed easier.
So with Steve now snoring ferociously in his own bed he had decided to take a stroll on the lawn, have a beer and a bit of a think in the moonlight; surprising how quickly you got used to all the impossibilities wandering around the place. They ignored him for the most part; the last he’d heard from the goblin in the flight case was snoring so at least he didn’t have the little beast following him at the moment. Glowing lights danced amongst the roses, fluttering wings disturbed the insects and tiny voices piped obscenities evilly at each other in the bushes. Bruce shook his head with a wry smile, taking another pull at his beer; he’d been pretty disturbed to discover what complete savages the little light-winged creatures were, which Harry had found pretty amusing at the time.
“Not a good night for roaming,” rumbled a dark brown voice from behind him, “not for your kind, anyway.”
Bruce yelped, spinning on his heel and spilling a quantity of beer down himself. At first he didn’t see who (or, indeed, what) had spoken, then a familiar form became apparent leaning on a nearby tree. It was like one of those odd optical illusions; one minute tree, the next minute creature and tree - even though the menacing shape had obviously been there the whole time. Bruce grumbled wordlessly, turning away; he’d met this one before, and the circumstances...had not been of the happiest; the last thing he needed was Pan screwing with his mind after everything else he’d been through this evening.
A breath of air and the beast was suddenly standing in front of him, muscular arms folded over impressive chest, wicked glint in the slotted eyes and a sparkle of teeth hidden in the half-smile.
“No greeting for me?”
Bruce gave a hard, false smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Good morrow to you, my lord Pan. Be you well on this fine night?”
The expression turned cold, forbidding, and Pan scowled. “Mock me not, mortal.”
Bruce shook his head. He knew what he was doing was dangerous, but he was tired, a bit jetlagged and to be quite frank more than a bit pissed off with the way this evening was turning out; so instead of doing the sensible thing and apologising to the formidable creature before him he just shrugged and took a step closer. Tipping his head up to stare into the eyes of the demi-God he took another swig from the bottle and swallowed deliberately before answering, taking the time to lick his lips and show Pan that he was going to reply in his own good time, thank you very much.
Pan blinked for a second, taken aback, then roared with laughter. “Ah! So brave, now...not as you were before, timid thing.”
“Hardly timid. Made your nuts sting, didn’t I?”
Pan wagged a finger in his face playfully. “Aye, that you did. For which I chastised you mightily.”
Bruce cocked an eyebrow. “Yeah, I remember.” He pushed the memories of pain and fear away for a moment, tried to focus on the here and now. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
Pan shrugged, lifting his gaze over Bruce’s head to stare at the house. “Watching the Prophet. He may attempt self-harm; that we cannot allow. So various of us higher beings take our turn here...” and Pan sighed, a melancholy sound.
“Higher beings?” Bruce asked, a smile lurking deep in the tone. Pan tilted his head and smiled slyly.
“Aye. Pretentious, is it not? But your language has its limitations, and so we must make the best of it.” He reached out one thickly muscled arm and touched Bruce’s head with surprisingly gentle, deft fingers, feeling the short hair with a smile; fighting the urge to flinch Bruce stood there and bore the contact patiently, swigging from his beer with feigned bravado and watching Pan closely. One wrong move and he was out of here as fast as his feet would carry him.
“You have changed,” chuckled the beast softly. “I can smell your fear -”
Pan inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. “And yet you stand for me, brave as a lion. Perhaps you have memories of our tryst that are not totally abhorrent?”
Bruce laughed. “Yeah, well. Maybe.”
A good fuck would certainly help him sleep...and the memory of that huge cock made his mouth water.
Pan’s nostrils flared and he stepped a little closer, separated from Bruce now by just the barest slip of air. The moon chose that moment to slide into the concealment of cloud, and in the sudden darkness Bruce thought he could feel the vibrations of Pan’s heart, beating so close to his own. He could smell him, all musk and male perfume, fresh sweat and sweet, summery outdoor odours, sex and heat and desire.
“Perhaps we could -” he rumbled silkily, before stopping abruptly and staring over Bruce’s shoulders.
Bruce turned, trying to see what had attracted Pan’s attention but before his senses could detect anything the creature had dragged him closer to the wall of the house, hiding them in its shadow. His large, calloused hand was slapped unceremoniously across Bruce’s mouth and he suddenly found himself pulled into Pan’s warm, semi human body. Despite his initial panic reaction he held still; something about the way Pan was almost trembling made Bruce a little nervous; this was a horrendously powerful being, and he was...afraid of something. And if whatever it was made a God afraid, then what could it do to him?
“You need to get inside,” rumbled the God quietly, the vibrations of the words seeming to roll into Bruce’s body from every direction, “now.”
He carefully removed his hand from over Bruce’s mouth, and the frontman licked his lips; almost as an aside he noted the taste of Pan’s sweat and skin, an almost sweet mix that made his balls tighten with anticipation even as he tried to think of the closest entrance to the house.
He saw the shaggy head tilt toward him; the word was perhaps unfamiliar.
“The glass thing on the side of the house,” clarified Bruce.
“Ah. Hold tight -”
And they were there, moved through fifty yards of space without, apparently, moving a muscle. Bruce hiccuped; his head and stomach had both spun and dropped queasily in that split second of time when they were neither here nor there and he decided that he really, really didn’t want to know anything about the exact mechanics of that movement. Pan released him carefully and stepped aside, his neat black hooves making a muffled crunch on the gravel.
“Go inside. You will be safe inside.”
Bruce reached out and angled his hand to glide carefully over Pan’s hip; the coat was smoother than he remembered, silky to the touch. The tail twitched with apparent surprise, and the God glanced over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow.
“Wait with me?” asked Bruce, not entirely sure that he could believe the words coming out of his mouth. Then again, he’d had a long and upsetting day and, although their last tryst hadn’t been much fun for him Pan was a familiar figure; the only other person he knew here was upstairs asleep and after what he’d told him earlier Bruce wasn’t so sure he knew him anymore. In short, he was feeling lonely and lost and in circumstances like those we have a tendency to reach for the familiar, to surround ourselves with what we know in order to create a sense of security, however false that may be in the long term.
“I...do not like to go inside,” replied Pan, reluctantly. Bruce stifled a grin.
“It’s all glass. So you can see out all around you. It’s like being outside...inside.”
Another sound drifted across the moonlit lawn to them, the distant baying of hounds and the wild ring of a horn. Pan lifted his head, sniffed the air and frowned.
Grabbing his hand, Bruce turned and began to crunch across the gravel toward the big sliding doors into the conservatory. A moments hesitation and Pan followed; sneaking in and manouevering Pan behind him Bruce slid the doors quietly closed. It was then that he noticed the silence; all the tiny noises of the otherwordly visitors had fallen quiet. He turned to Pan with a raised eyebrow, and the God stepped back into the inky shadow afforded by a particularly large cheeseplant, pulling Bruce with him and wrapping his large, warm arms around his chest.
“The Wild Hunt,” he murmured, the warm air tickling Bruce’s ear and sending a delightful shiver down his back, “they course their prey this way tonight.”
It was warm in the large, glassed in space; Bruce wriggled against the warm body of his companion, beginning to sweat. Pan ran one large hand down the front of Bruce’s body, cupping the bulge in the front of his jeans even as the other hand crept up to cover his mouth.
“Be still, little man, or neither one of us shall see the dawn.”
Bruce froze. Crossing the lawn, highlighted by the silvery glimmer of the moon was the biggest damn dog he’d ever seen; it scented the air, narrowing it’s eyes suspiciously as though it just knew that prey lurked nearby, just out of range of those senses. It was joined by another, and still more; before long the lawn was a swirling carpet of hounds, all jet black with eyes that glowed green fire in the darkness. They milled aimlessly for a moment, then the leader - the biggest beast, the one that had pulled up first - seemed to pick up another scent on the breeze, and gave tongue with a deep bellow of rage that made the glass in the conservatory frame rattle audibly.
As one, the hounds suddenly broke into a run, departing the area and not leaving so much as a pawprint behind in the soft, dewy grass; Bruce was about to relax but Pan tightened his grip, pulling him further into his wide chest and shrinking even further into the shadows.
Now hooves could be heard, and the ringing of a horn. Not the sort of rather squeaky sound of a normal hunting horn; this had harmonics straight from Hell that rattled the teeth and caused the body to ooze the cold sweat of panic, created an urge to flee mindlessly and not stop until the heart burst and the body failed, thrashing out the last of life in a welter of blood and fear.
Riders began to appear, checking briefly where the hounds had milled. Riders of all shapes and sizes, some appearing almost human but many...less so. Demons and imps, strange skeletal forms and deformities that turned the stomach rode a variety of mounts, hooved, clawed, winged - the contents of a hidden bestiary spilled out into the sweet night air. A huge creature aboard a tall black horse - complete with the same green glowing eyes as the hounds - turned and swept the side of the house with a burning gaze; he bore antlers on his skull, and his face was shadowed with a dreadful hunger.
Bruce pressed further back into Pan, and the God held him tightly. Whatever that was out there he did not want it to see them.
And then, with another shriek from the horn, the antlered figure spurred his horse away and the huntsmen followed their pack away, out of sight and presumably onto the trail of some other poor soul. Bruce wondered loopily just who; would it be in the papers the next day? ‘Jogger slain by hellhounds’ or some such nonsense?
Pan relaxed his arms and Bruce stumbled forward, sitting heavily on the cane sofa that afforded a nice place to sit in the good weather and look out over the gardens. He put his head in his hands and sighed deeply, peculiarly glad that Pan remained standing beside him.
“What,” he said, “the fuck was that?”
“The Wild Hunt,” replied Pan calmly.
“Right, right. You said. And if they’d seen us?”
“I would have been torn apart, my soul sent fleeing to the very depth of the greenwood for a thousand years until I could reappear with a new corporeal form,” said the beast, watching Bruce with those cool, unreadably deep eyes.
“Oh. And me?”
Pan sighed, looked away across the gardens. “Your body would have been disfigured beyond all recognition, and you would have suffered mightily before the life fled your ripped and savaged body.”
“And then, my friend,” and Pan’s eyes were almost gentle, “your soul would have been carried back to Hell, for such are Herne’s orders from his master.”
Bruce blinked. “Fuck.”
“So why --”
“We think,” sad Pan slowly, “it’s because of the Prophet. The Hunt have been loosed upon the world once more to slay those with the Sight, and try to eliminate any who might wish to open the door that has been sealed.” He cocked his head and smiled at Bruce, leaning in to lick briefly across his lips and snort in a lungful of air scented with the human’s emotion. “I would have you survive, little man...”
Bruce sneezed, and when he looked up Pan was gone; no sign remained that anything even remotely supernatural had happened here. He sighed, shook his head; time for bed. A beer first, maybe.
However, when he reached the kitchen he discovered that not quite all the visiting Fae had been terrified into hiding by the passage of the Hunt.
A bright light sliced across the dark gleam of the quarry tiles, and a steady stream of salad stuff was being thrown out from behind the open fridge door. Bruce walked up to the appliance, pulled the door all the way open; the goblin last heard snoring its head off in his bag screeched and dived behind a pot of mayonnaise.
“I can still see you,” sighed Bruce.
The grey head peeped out, nervous.
“Pass me a beer and we’ll say no more about it.”
The goblin cocked its head at him, narrowed yellow eyes and then carefully plucked a bottle of Grolsch from the carrier, passing it to Bruce.
“Thanks. Useful little bastard sometimes, aren’t you? Come on. I need to talk about this to someone, and it looks like you’re all I’ve got...”
Also snagging the remnants of a roast chicken Bruce took a seat at the long kitchen table, drank his beer, watched the goblin make a horrible mess and told it all his troubles. It wasn’t perfect, but it would just have to be enough; after all, one of them losing their mind per night was quite enough.
Chapter 4: Children Of The Damned
The mist lit with an orange glow, and he slowed his approach as figures began to swim out of the dimness, coalescing into a scene that was apparently straight out of the jaws of Hell itself.
Children Of The Damned
Steve was jerked awake by the sudden scream of air brakes, stressed to the point of locking up wheels in a desperate howl of burning rubber and flung from side to side by the slewing of an out of control lurch. Never mind the fucking nightmares, this was all too bloody real; the sodding bus was crashing.
This is it, he thought, no more prophecy, no more Prophet...it all ends in a mangled mass of metal on the side of the fucking road...just like the poor bastard from Metallica...squashed bassist ahoy!
The bus finally juddered to a halt, the doors eventually opening with a grateful sigh after all the other noises had ground away into silence; he waited for a moment, getting his breath back and heart under control, then poked his head out through the curtain of his bunk, hoping like fuck that was it. Nasty bump, bit of a skid, everyone all right thank fuck for that. Time for nervous laughter and nobody admitting how frightened they’d been been. Afraid of the hush, he began to call out to someone - anyone - who could tell him that everything was alright, start the relieved banter. You worried? Who, me? Nah. Too stupid for Heaven and Hell doesn’t want me...
Silence. Well, yeah; he should be on the other bus, safe and sound with Blaze. With any luck. Who was he riding with again? They were spelling each other at the moment; the dreams were particularly bad right now, and it got too wearing to ride with him after a while - you never knew what you were going to be woken by. Him screaming, or...other things. Worse things than screaming. Much worse.
Yet more silence, just the occasional ping of twisted metal settling to a new shape and the hot, acrid smell of overstressed engine and scorched tyres. But no people, not that he could hear. Not a one.
Stomach sinking - this wasn’t natural, and if it were unnatural events you were in the middle of then it could only be the fucking Fae playing silly bastards again - he scrambled out of his bunk and hurriedly pulled on a shirt, jeans, boots; still too damn quiet. Where was the driver? Crew? Flashing fucking lights, coppers, headlights, traffic? All the hullabaloo of a bus accident, however minor?
Slipping quietly out of the door he looked along the road both ways - nothing. Mist hung above the hedges, stained slightly pink with the approaching dawn; the air smelled of damp and dead things, rotting leaves and darker scents that carried so far on the damp morning fog. For crying out loud it was early summer; shouldn’t the odours have been of exuberant growth, life, green shit? All he could smell was endings, and not the rich flavours of autumn, either; the nettles crawling from under the hedge reflected almost a luminous green in the yellow light of the hazards, death personified with a streak of evil venom for good measure.
The other bus lay at an odd angle in the ditch on the other side of the road, hazards blinking silently in the early light. As worryingly silent as his own, so he made his way across the cracked tarmac, poked his head through the door and yelled; nothing and no one. Where the hell was everybody? Dead? Run away? Abducted by fucking aliens or what?
Voices! Next field over. Couldn’t see them but could hear them; they were over there, right enough. The fog must be deceiving the eye, making distance unreliable and confusing the depth perception in a swirl of grey droplets and breathless, damp air.
Overcome with relief he picked his way along the soggy verge, boots quickly soaking through with the heavy dew that smelt so damn bad; pushing through a five bar gate - almost immobile with rust - he swished through the silvery sward toward the voices, following the trail of other feet beginning to fade back to the background glisten of the wet grass. He supposed that he’d been the last one to wake up; there must have been a bit of a bump and everyone had got out to wait for the relief bus, rescue, salvation...he’d have words about that, you could be sure. You didn’t leave the scene until every single person had been accounted for! First rule, that.
The mist lit with an orange glow, and he slowed his approach as figures began to swim out of the dimness, coalescing into a scene that was apparently straight out of the jaws of Hell itself.
“Prophet,” sneered a voice.
He could see a fire, and in front of the sooty flames a rough semicircle of people. The first thought that flashed through his mind was that rescue had already arrived, as there were far more people than had been resident on the buses; but the voice had called him Prophet and these...were no rescuers. In fact, from the outlines he knew immediately that a fair number of them weren’t even human. His heart sank as the full force of what was happening became apparent; his friends were being held prisoner, and he appeared to have interrupted some sort of ritual - or trial, perhaps.
Nicko was on his knees, swearing sulphurously through gritted teeth; two enormous black dogs held his arms in their mouths, one on either side of him, and every time he moved they tightened their grip slightly, rumbling aggression. Blood was already beginning to run, and Steve could see the drummer’s hands clenched into fists, trembling slightly; whether with fear or anger was impossible for him to tell right now. Dave, ever the peacemaker, had apparently tried to reason with their attackers because he was gagged and on his knees, eyes closed and face pale, bloody streak stretching from hairline to jaw; Janick remained on his feet, white faced and silent, a dark figure behind him holding a wicked, black bladed knife to his throat. The rest of the crew had been herded off to one side slightly, most showing signs of a struggle; life on the road wasn’t always easy, and there must have been a hell of a scrap to have inflicted such injuries on their mob.
Worse was to come. Blaze was being held down firmly on a rough stone platform, stripped to the waist; the hairs on the back of Steve’s neck began to rise, and he glanced back over his shoulder toward the gate.
Which wasn’t there.
“Well done,” murmured the smooth voice that had spoken first, “you are correct. This is not your world; the gateway you came through leads to our place.”
“I thought that you couldn’t --”
“We can. Sometimes, with the judicial application of a little power, for just long enough.”
He took a deep breath, feeling the smoke and fear coil deep in his lungs. “Why?”
A heavily cowled figure stepped in to him, and drew its hood back as it drew near; the light of the fire reflected harsh and metallic from the smooth blonde hair and the finely drawn face pulled itself into an approximation of a smile. High Fae; Steve had heard of them, read of them, but this was the first one he’d met. The people who’d gone before, the watchers under the hills - the ones who’d retreated into their world and slammed the door behind them, locking out all they’d considered undesirable. There, according to lore, to live gloriously and forever in the gilded splendour they had enjoyed for so long before common mankind had overwhelmed their world with iron, driving back the magic and ringing the ancient places with steel.
This one didn’t look glorious. This one looked sick; skin once delicately pale now stretched yellow tight over brittle bone, parchment on ivory, dry as dust and no more alive than something dug from the sand after a millennia baking in the sun.
The Fae bared its teeth at him. “You prattle in your mind, Prophet. It is...displeasing.”
“You’re sick,” blurted Steve, truly appreciating for the first time the truth of what the other Fae had been trying to tell him for all these years. “Dying. There’s no --”
The creature backhanded him, hard, knocking him down; he stared at it stupidly for a moment before touching a hand to his lip and bringing it back wet with blood.
“Ah? I can trace my lineage back to the First Ones; you cannot say the same, mongrel man. Prophet.”
Steve climbed slowly to his feet, looking straight into the steel grey eyes of the Fae before him. They were cold, those eyes; they reminded him of the dream-hawk, the one who came to tell him when things were about to get nasty again, the one that warned of trouble approaching and pain to come. Only her eyes were yellow, and her cruelty was no more than that of a predator that was made to dispatch prey in the quickest way possible; these eyes contained the potential for far more considered, deliberate cruelty. Old, these eyes, cold and wicked and arrogant.
“What,” he said slowly, voice roughened with anger, “do you want?”
The Fae smiled at him, that stretch of skin to a rictus.
“You wish to open the door.”
A statement of fact. Oh shit. How had they found out, locked away in their arrogance? Still, no point in bullshitting about it now...
“Yeah. It’s time. Best thing for both worlds.”
“I think...that we can change your mind. Come.”
He felt a presence behind him, and didn’t need to look over his shoulder. Whatever the arrogant fucker had placed back there to ensure his co-operation was unlikely to be pretty.
The Fae moved toward the fire, and with a worried glance at his friends Steve followed him.
August, 1987. London.
Bruce staggered back to the table with an armful of dry smelling books and dumped them as quietly as he could. They’d already been glared at by about half the occupants of the reading room when Bruce had tried a little experiment with the acoustics of the place; a librarian had hurried over and threatened to throw them out. Bruce had turned on the charm and she’d eventually retreated, grumbling, back to wherever her lair was.
“Quiet, mate,” muttered Harry as Bruce theatrically stretched arms and back.
Dave was scribbling ferociously on a pad, finger following the twisting lines of script from some yellowing journal. Bruce sat next to Steve, selected one of the huge tomes at random and opened it; it turned out to be some densely-printed Georgian treatise on the medicinal properties of plants from the New World. Bruce sighed deeply and elbowed Steve.
“So what, precisely,” he whispered, “are we looking for?”
“Says here that squaw root helps native women in childbirth. I think that’s what it means, anyway.”
Steve glared at him then snorted gently, a reluctant smile creeping across his face. “Not that sort of anything. Anything to do with the Fae, prophecy, that sort of shit.”
Bruce nodded, began to page through the book. After a couple of minutes he frowned, picked up another one; another mutter and he was on to his third.
“None of these have got indexes.”
“Well, no. You’ve gotta read ‘em.”
“All of them?”
His voice rose with dismay, and the librarian glared at them again.
“Look,” hissed Harry, becoming irritated with his friend, “are you going to help me or not? ‘Cause if you’re not you can just fuck right off now, got it?”
Bruce blinked at Harry for a moment, a little taken aback by the ferocity behind the words; he kept forgetting that this wasn’t some intellectual exercise to his friend, but a part of his life for as long as he could remember. A heartily disliked part, at that, and any chance - no matter how slight - of getting rid of all the ‘interference’ had to be worth grasping at. He nodded reluctantly, and turned back to the dusty book with a sigh.
“We could be here for weeks, mate.”
“We haven’t got weeks. Anyway, you’re the one with the University education, mate...” Steve’s voice tailed off and he caught his lower lip between his teeth, worrying at it as he flicked lightly through the pages of the thick tome before him. He was becoming desperate, and Bruce’s expression softened as he realised the fact; his friend was probably relying on his mythical ‘University education’ - and history degree - to get them through this. Trouble was, most of the time he should have been studying had been spent singing with his band, drinking and trying to get laid; probably not information Harry needed right now.
So. To work, then.
But first -
The librarian was staring ferociously at them from over her rampart of books, and Bruce leaned over to whisper in Steve’s ear. He wasn’t good at apologies, but he knew if he could make Steve laugh he would be forgiven. Here goes.
“You ought to ask her -” tilting his head to indicate the dragon watching them, “- if she’ll help you. Bet she’d scream for you.”
Steve snorted with amusement and elbowed Bruce out of the way. “Shut up, fucker,” he grumbled, trying not to laugh out loud.
Satisfied that Harry was a bit more cheerful now, Bruce settled down with the first book he’d found and began to read through it with a resigned sigh. God, dusty old books...perhaps now wasn’t a good time to mention to the others that he was allergic to dust? Specifically, paper dust. Book dust.
Nah. They’d only think he was shirking.
Mind you, he thought as another library assistant staggered over with a stack of books even dustier, if that were possible, than the last lot, if I start sneezing and scratching they’re going to figure that something’s up. Oh well. I’ll just have to keep my head down and hope no-one notices...
Before the thought was complete, he let out a thunderous sneeze, causing tuts of irritation from all over the reading room and an annoyed roll of the eyes from his friends. It was going to be a very long day indeed.
September, 1981. France.
Dozing on the old green bus, Steve was jerked awake by Paul and shaken roughly by the scruff of the neck.
“What the -”
“You said they weren’t dangerous, you lying piece of shit.”
Awake now - but getting angry, because nobody used that tone of voice with him, not in his damn band - Steve slapped Paul’s hands away from him and turned on him angrily.
“The fuck are you on about, you mad fucker?” Maybe it was time to give Bruce a little call. He and Rod had been quietly discussing the possibility of replacing Paul, but not this soon; Christ, they’d at least thought they’d get this last tour out of him before giving him the boot. Between the drink, the drugs, the irrational temper - let’s face it, the whole self-destruct thing - Paul was getting harder to handle by the day.
This might just be the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Of course, no one but him knew that the Fae’s interest in Paul had grown to the point where there was always something in the corner of your eye, darting just out of sight behind whatever cover was available. Of course, if you went and moved whatever it was there was never anything there...and as a consequence he wasn’t the only one waking up in a cold sweat these days. The difference was that he was used to it.
H had settled to the assorted peculiarities almost immediately, surprisingly enough. What had been weird was listening (when he wasn’t supposed to be - eavesdropping was a terribly bad habit but, all things considered, an understandable one) to Dave explaining about the Fae to his co-lead guitarist.
“You’ll get used to it,” he’d said with a shrug, “and they don’t seem dangerous. It’s Harry and Paul they’re interested in, anyway.”
H had nodded, agreed in that quiet, affable voice of his and the two had soon been discussing football as though nothing was in the slightest bit out of the ordinary with the conversation they’d just had.
“There was this girl -”
Paul’s agitated voice dragged his attention back to the present.
“There always is. Let go of me you fucking psychopath.”
“I thought it was because she was French,” and Paul’s pupils were dilated, skin cold. He was in a hell of a state, and Steve rather gloomily wondered how fast they could get his replacement out. They’d been friends, once...
“Calm down. What happened?”
“We were screwing, and she fucking changed, man. She changed.”
“This is fucking crazy. Fucked up.”
“Calm down. Fucking - look. I’ll have a word with Rod, alright?”
For some strange reason this seemed to settle the agitated frontman down, and he collapsed into the seat opposite Harry’s.
“Good...good...you do that...”
His voice trailed off, and he fell to staring out the window at the passing French countryside, biting at the side of his thumb. The guitarists and Clive avoided his eye as he made his way up the bus, toward Rod; they knew what was happening, and were staying out of the way. When Harry was in a firing mood it paid to keep your head down.
Rod was scribbling frantically on some paperwork, cursing under his breath and occasionally exchanging the pen in his hand for the pencil gripped between his teeth. Harry leaned on his seat and waited; Rod knew he was there but an interruption would lead only to a storm of swearing rather than the quiet word he needed to have.
“Steve,” he said eventually, looking up without lifting his head. Steve nodded, face as unhappy as their manager had ever seen it.
“Rod. We’ve got a problem...”
Chapter 5: Hooks In You
Steve is made an offer he can't refuse, and Bruce gets a nasty suspicion...
Hooks In You
“Steve, you’ve got to tell me what’s happened. Not just what happened to Blaze - I don’t need to know the details - but whatever else has happened.”
Steve shook his head slowly, took another slug from the bottle. “Nuthin’. Just...just Blaze. Po’ Blaze. Thought he was singin’ for a band, didn’t he? Didn’t think he was going to be...to be...”
His voice trailed off, and he rubbed a hand across a face suddenly crumpled with grief. Bruce let out a long, soundless sigh; he’d already spoken to Dave and knew exactly what had happened to Blaze, to them all that horrible dawn. Apparently Nicko, visiting with Dave when Bruce had arrived, had considered walking away from the band as well, and seeing the horrific scars on his arms nobody would have blamed him for doing so. He’d almost lost both hands fighting to get to Blaze to stop what he’d seen happening.
“I didn’t like the little bastard,” the tall man had sighed unhappily, avoiding meeting Bruce’s eye and unconsciously rubbing at the angry welts, “but you don’t just stand by and see that sort of shit happen to someone, do you? No. I don’t, anyway.”
“Alright Steve,” said Bruce, keeping his voice low and firm, “stop it. Stop feeling sorry for your fucking self and tell me. You let Paul go when it happened to him. You let me go when it happened to me. What’s so fucking different this time?”
His friend waved the bottle aimlessly, indicating the wrecked lounge.
“Give ya three guesses. What’s so different about this place?”
“Apart from all the fucking ghoulies and ghosties and things going bump in the fucking night?”
“You forgot the long-leggety beasties.”
“Go on, guess.”
Bruce hissed through his teeth and swatted the goblin investigating his flight case once more. It squeaked and scuttled behind the sofa, peering out from its hiding place with a scowl. Bruce ignored it.
“Lorelei and the kids aren’t here?”
Steve finished the whiskey and threw the bottle at the fireplace, where it exploded loudly against the marble and scattered in glittering fragments across the cream coloured carpet. A buzzing of tiny wings, and he was gesturing at Bruce with a fresh bottle while the delivery service fell to squabbling over the droplets clinging to the fragments of the old.
“Fucking got it in one. Clever boy, Bruce. Have a biscuit.”
“There’s no fucking wonder she finally up and left you, mate. Never at home, always buggering off recording or touring and not even coming home when your kids were born.”
“Came for the fust one,” muttered Harry, staring into the amber depths of the bottle morosely.
“How many kids you got now?”
“Not the point. She couldn’t leave...not then. Not now.”
Bruce sighed. Long day. “Stop talking in fucking riddles. What do you mean, couldn’t?”
“Couldn’t. Not allowed. And now she’s gone, and she’s never coming back even if she wanted to, which I doubt...and the kids...I dunno. I don’t think I’m ever gonna see them again either.”
Bruce looked at the sad wreckage of his friend, and something began to nag at the back of his mind. This was the third time this had happened. Yes, the man’s wife was gone; but why now? Why was he acting as though the two things were linked? Because, he thought rather grimly, perhaps they were. So that must be the key. Find out how they were linked, solve the problem. Or rather, find out what needed to be done to solve the problem.
“You weren’t together when it happened to Paul.”
“I was young then.”
“True. And she didn’t leave when it happened to me.”
“Couldn’t. Couldn’t leave.”
“But what do you mean, she couldn’t leave?”
“She was...she was different. Couldn’t leave because that was what she was...”
He stared miserably at the wreckage of his home, mumbling nonsense under his breath and fiddling with a ring on his right hand, a complicated weave of silver filigree that he’d worn for - well, from what Bruce knew, he’d been wearing it ever since he and Lorelei had got together. Bruce blinked at his friend, and a nasty suspicion began to form in his mind. Getting to his feet he crossed to the other sofa, firmly removed the unopened bottle of whiskey from Steve’s hand and dragged him to his feet.
“Jesus mate, you really do fucking stink. Come on, we’re going to the kitchen and I am going to make us a pot of coffee while you, my friend, tell me why your good lady put up with your bullshit for ten years without so much as a whimper. And then fucked off without a word to anyone.”
“Fraid so. And you,” he snapped at the goblin, back again and picking at the lock of Bruce’s bag with its grubby fingernails, “if you won’t fuck off, then make yourself useful and carry the damn bag. Come on.”
The peculiar little procession staggered off toward the kitchen leaving nothing but an odour of unwashed body laced with the stink of stale alcohol, a fading sense of regret and the sound of fairies fighting angrily over the dregs left in a broken whiskey bottle.
May, 1989. England.
Meet us in the woods, the note had said. One will be sent to guide you. Tell no one.
Well, that had been clear enough. Of course, there was always the possibility that it was from someone - or something - that wished him harm, but that was a pretty slim possibility. He hoped. Still, it had been a long time since the Fae had approached him directly; that alone was enough to ensure that he would make his way to the woods when the ‘One’ turned up to guide him.
He shook his head, reading the note again; it had to be from his supernatural companions. Who else would be able to prop up a note written on parchment in a beautiful, flowing copperplate hand on his breakfast table? No noise from the dogs, or the alarm, so whoever had delivered it had either been a damn fine burglar or...
Been not quite human.
For anyone else that last thought would, he mused with a smile, have been a wee bit melodramatic. But not for him.
He leaned on the frame of his back door and sighed, inhaling the rich scent of his morning coffee as he looked out over his garden. He’d bought the house a few years ago, brought the occasional girlfriend here but...
He was lonely. And whenever there was a brief moment between touring, recording, playing football, hanging out...he would come back here, and rattle around the place all on his lonesome. He didn’t even bother to shoo out the few Fae that had followed him here; they were company, if nothing else. Christ, part of the reason he’d wanted the band to succeed was that he didn’t want his family to suffer and struggle and go without the way his parents had. Life had been tough, sometimes, and he’d wanted to be free of that.
So here he was, big house, more than enough money to keep him comfortable...and nobody to share it with.
Because what woman wanted a man that was never around? Oh sure, groupies a-plenty but they were hardly what you’d call lifemate material; fine for a one night stand, quick fuck or a blow job but good God, he couldn’t even stand them being around in the morning. Let alone be around his house, bear his children - and that wasn’t their thing either. Too busy waiting for the next rock star to blow into town, someone they could be seen on the arm of, or gossip to their friends about screwing. He wanted - needed - someone who would be here for him when he came home. Someone to drive away the loneliness and the fear in the night. To soothe him when the nightmares became too much to bear, to help him bear the burden of being the Prophet.
A movement amongst the trees caught his eye, and he carefully set his mug aside and stared at it. Was this his guide?
Had to be. After all, what else would a half human, half goat figure be doing in his garden at ten in the morning on a sunny monday in Essex?
He set off to follow it, and although the figure kept flitting out of sight it always remained just close enough to lead him on, deeper into the woods that ringed the back half of his property. This must be Pan, he thought as he scrambled through a stand of briar; the journal he’d been left had devoted several pages to this particular entity. A lusty sort, and not too particular about what shape or sex his partners took. Catching another glimpse of the figure stepping into the deep shadow behind a holly bush he shivered; the muscles that threw back the scattered rays of sun that made it through the foliage looked huge, rippling under the tanned skin. If this thing decided to turn on him he was well and truly fucked - possibly literally - and no mistake.
They came to a ride, an avenue through the trees clear of trees and scrub. The sunshine illuminated it, highlighting the wings of the butterflies that attended the wildflowers; the early summer haze made for a dreamlike quality to the scene, the drowsy buzz of bees in the strip of meadow, the calm singing of the birds and the slightly moist smells of growth, life exploding from the ground and settling in to a long growing season with a will.
Pan waited on the other side of the avenue, under the shade of a mighty oak; the massive tree was flanked on one side by an elegant ash, and just behind the stocky figure of Pan there stood a hawthorn, branches weighed down by scented, foaming white blossom. Something about the arrangement nagged at Steve’s memory, something he’d read about those three trees being...guardians. Guarding the doorways to different worlds. Representing the oldest of wild things in the sceptred isle, the spirit of old Albion herself; Oak, Ash and Thorn.
In fact, the whole character of the woodland over there seemed different. This way it was typical modern wood, a hotchpotch of native and introduced trees, scruffy thorny scrub, litter from the modern world and the sounds of traffic never far away. That side, however...from here it looked to be dense, ancient woodland. Forest, even. He couldn’t see any litter, and he sure as hell couldn’t hear any traffic from that direction.
Shrugging his shoulders he stepped into the sunshine and pushed on, wading through the knee high grass and disturbing clouds of pollen from the buttercups and scabious that crowded around his feet. Insects spiralled up, scattering before his clumsy intrusion, and before he had chance to think about the abundance of life he crossed an invisible threshold and everything -
He stopped beside the oak and looked around, amazed.
“You feel it?” chuckled a voice, and Steve jumped. Pan had appeared out of nowhere to take station just behind his left shoulder, eyes dark but a feral smile lifting one side of his mouth with cynical amusement.
Steve nodded. “What is it?”
“We’ve managed to keep a few places for ourselves. Hide them away from your people. This is one of them.”
“Near my house?”
Pan snorted, began to walk away. “Why do you think you were drawn to that property? Because we cling to our miserable existence on the fringes of it, that’s why. Now come along, we don’t want to keep them waiting.”
Brimming with questions but with no opportunity to ask them, Steve hurried along in the God’s wake, more confused than ever.
Half an hour’s hard trekking - for him, Pan had flitted through the trees with the ease of a bird, bastard - led them to another sunny clearing, this one almost perfectly circular with three standing stones arranged within it.
“Ah, Prophet! I see you made it.”
Steve huffed. Good job he kept himself fit or he’d have been lost long ago, trying to follow Pan through the thick forest. “Yeah, just about. What’s all this, then? What you brought me here for?”
He heard a deep snort of disgust from behind him, but by the time he whipped around Pan had vanished back into the concealing foliage. The original voice piped up again, and Steve had to look around carefully before he identified the source.
“Never mind him. He’s one of the really old ones; he remembers when your lot lived in caves and painted pictures of us on the walls. The modern world does not sit well with him, I’m afraid. And he does not support what we do now...”
The small creature shook its head sadly, then looked up at Steve and flung its arms wide in greeting. He had no idea what it was, exactly; some sort of very hairy goblin? It was certainly about the same size and shape as a goblin, but seemed to have a thick coat of brown, shiny fur. He wasn’t sure if the pelt extended onto the face, or if it was just an extraordinarily exuberant beard, moustache and eyebrow set that made it appear so. Whatever the case, the beady black eyes appeared kind and the hand that gripped his when he took it for a shake seemed firm and cool. It wore a clean, sleeveless leather jerkin and twill trousers, but remained barefoot; considering that the hair appeared to stretch down to his feet and along the soles this wasn’t surprising, he supposed. Still pretty unusual. Mind you, if all his research had taught him anything it was that the Fae took many shapes and forms, and no one could hope to list them all.
Go with the flow. They’d gone to a lot of trouble, and as far as he knew killing him wouldn’t achieve anything so he might just as well relax and see what happened.
The little creature propped its hands on its hips and cocked its head, regarding him sagely. “You have been feeling lonely,” it said softly. Steve stiffened. He hated the way they took an inordinate amount of interest in his private life; what right did they have? Still, no point denying it.
“Yeah. A bit.”
“Well now. Perhaps we can help you there, Prophet.”
The small figure waved him to sit down, and when he turned to look there was a small three legged stool in place of the empty patch of meadow that had been there a moment before. He blinked, then shook his head; despite a lifetime of being mystified by the actions of the Fae they still managed to catch him out.
He sat, and watched his companion lounge comfortably on the grass in front of him.
“You know your heritage now. You know of the prophecy.”
Steve nodded, reminding himself carefully that what these creatures said wasn’t always what it appeared to be. Double meanings, innuendo...he needed to keep his wits about him.
“Have you made a decision?”
The meadow, the woods, the whole world seemed to hold its breath waiting for his answer. He felt that even the breeze had stopped blowing, and swallowed hard.
“I will open the door --”
Time began to move again.
“-- when I learn how. I don’t know yet.”
“You’ll find out,” said the small creature with a grin, bouncing to its feet with a wide grin upon its furry face. “Now. When you do, are you sure you will be openin’ the door as soon as you can?”
Harry fidgeted. The way the words were phrased, so carefully - it sounded as though he was being manoeuvered, nudged delicately into promising something he couldn’t or wouldn’t deliver when the time came. “It depends,” he said slowly, “what I discover.”
The little Fae flapped its hands and jumped up and down in agitation. “What is there to find out? The High Lords slammed the door between the Summerlands and here, taking their own with them and excluding all they felt was not fair enough, damn their golden green-grey eyes! We are dying, slowly - and so is your world. You know this, Prophet! What more is there to know?”
Steve hissed through his teeth. “Look, what if opening the gate is a bad thing?”
The furry speaker bounded onto his lap, seizing his shirt tightly and pushing its snub nose into his face, snarling with suddenly revealed sharp teeth and bad breath. “Your world strangles on mundanity! Without magic it has no wonder! And - we - DIE! How can it be bad? Worse than this?”
It jumped off him, kicking him in the chest hard enough to knock him backwards from the stool, breath whooshing out of him as he crashed to the floor of the meadow and leaving him staring up at the bright blue sky, the uncomfortable feeling of moisture beginning to soak into the back of his shirt accompanying a whiff of bruised and broken greenery. Christ. He’d been afraid of this happening; the Fae could lose their tempers all too easily.
A contrite face appeared in his vision.
“I am sorry, Prophet...”
He sat up, brushing himself down and eyeing his companion coldly.
“..but this is so terribly --”
“Important, yeah I know. I just want what’s best for us, that’s all.”
The creature nodded, watching him closely. Once he was settled on the stool once more, it narrowed crafty little eyes and smiled at him. “What could we promise you, Prophet? What could we give you that would remind you of your promise?”
“I haven’t promised anything.”
“No, no, not yet...”
“I can’t think of anything.”
The creature laughed merrily, and beckoned him to follow it into the space between the three standing stones. When Steve saw what was waiting there - presumably for him - he swore under his breath and turned to the little beast at his side. Before he could say a word it tapped him on the leg and winked.
“Not even that?”
Chapter 6: From Here To Eternity
Recognising the tone - one not to be trifled with, ever - Dave gave up and returned to the others, casting worried looks back over his shoulder as he did so. This wasn’t the Steve he knew. This was someone...else. Someone he didn’t recognise, and after the events of the morning he wasn’t sure he wanted to; perhaps enough really was enough, as Paul and Bruce and even H had decided, in the end. Maybe they all needed to begin thinking that way, if they were to survive at all.
From Here To Eternity
Steve was sobbing into folded arms, a drunken, bubbling noise of self-pity as he finally collapsed into his grief. Bruce just stared at him, incredulous beyond belief at what he’d just been told. He felt himself getting angry, a wave of heat rolling aside his tiredness and making his fists itch to thump something.
“She was a slave? Not human? Given to you by - dammit man, look at me!”
A few hitched sobs, and finally Harry’s face peeked out from above his damp sleeve, eyes heavy and sad. Bruce sighed, handed him a piece of kitchen roll; he couldn’t stay angry with someone this broken. Not for long, anyway.
“I loved her,” sighed Harry, then noisily blew his nose on the piece of tissue.
“You owned her!”
“I loved her,” his friend persisted, closing his eyes against the pain and allowing the tears to fall once more, “God, Bruce, I loved her so much. You have no idea...”
Bruce shook his head. “I know that. But Harry...Steve...mate, you had to know it was wrong.”
“Wasn’t a slave,” he muttered, ignoring Bruce’s words, “she loved me too...”
May, 1989. England.
“Oh my God...”
“You like her?”
“She’s...” Steve’s voice trailed away, breath stolen by the form of the woman standing quietly in the green space between the standing stones.
“Beautiful,” he sighed.
He turned to look at the small, furry Fae at his side. “What? You don’t just give people away, for fuck’s sake!”
The creature looked wounded. “Strictly speaking, Prophet, she isn’t a person. Anyway, she’s one of us, so if we say she’s for you then --”
Overwhelmed by the horrible idea that they would try to buy him off like this, he directed an angry kick at the small creature. It dodged with the speed of a rat twisting away from a terrier; he stepped around it, blocked its escape then drew back his foot to punt it clear into orbit.
The musical voice stopped Steve dead in his tracks, turning his muscles to stone. It was the woman who’d spoken, taking one tentative step toward him and reaching out with one graceful hand to stay his movement to kick the furry creature now curled up in a ball at his feet. She carefully took another pace and he watched her come, stilled by the play of the warm sunshine on her pale skin; she wasn’t wearing anything, but on her it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
She had black hair, rolling to her waist in graceful waves; dark blue eyes - almost indigo, although they shimmered with lighter blue highlights here in the bright meadow - but the pale skin of the northern Celt. He felt an urge to protect her from the sun, take her away and keep her safe; what the fuck were they thinking, offering him a woman?
Alright, so it was what he needed but even bloody so --
The soft skin around her eyes crinkled slightly as she smiled, and she finally stood at his side and laid a small hand on his arm. He caught a whiff of her scent, and almost reared back; sun warmed skin, flowers, open air and - the sea?
“My Lord,” she said quietly, beginning to stroke his arm and inching closer to him, overpowering him with that bewitching scent that seemed to connect directly to his groin, “do not be angry with Wade. My people and his were both exiled when the Lords and Ladies locked themselves away; we are becoming desperate. I come to you willingly.”
He didn’t know what to say.
“She’s right,” shrilled the furry little creature, now hiding behind her leg and patting it as one would pet a beast of burden, “she’s here of her own free will!”
“For me,” said Steve slowly, mind still trying to put this bizarre jigsaw together.
“For you, Lord,” she said, and kissed him lightly on the cheek.
“I don’t understand,” he whispered, fighting the base biological urge to simply take this ravishing creature here, now, amidst the wildflowers and butterflies and watched by the ancient grey faces of the stones. Her scent tickled him again, and he shifted against an increasingly urgent erection.
“As a gift. A promise; her father gifts her to you from the Sea People, the Selkie, and thus from all the Exiled Ones. Every time you look at her, touch her --” and here his voice dropped into a sensual croon, “-- couple with her, you will remember your promise. You will find the way to open the door, loose magic in your world and allow us back into ours.”
Steve couldn’t breathe. The woman had moved to face him and held his gaze with hers, unafraid, touching her breasts lightly to his chest and cupping his cheek in one hand; she wore a slight smile, and her eyes held understanding.
“She will be yours until the day you die. On that day her skin will be brought to her, and she will return to her people.”
That got his attention. He closed his eyes, swallowed hard and carefully stepped back, shaking himself slightly to clear his mind before turning to the creature.
“What? Can’t she go back and visit, or something?”
Damn! He was weakening, and both Fae knew it. The woman laughed softly, and it was she who answered.
“It is my nature, my Lord. If I have my skin - my grey coat - I must return to my people in the sea. But while you possess it, then I remain tied to you; nothing can break that bond until the day the skin is on my back once more. It will be carefully guarded, Lord, of that you may be sure; it will be returned to me the day you pass to the Summerlands, and I shall sing sadly of you and our children until it is my destiny to join you there.”
He blinked, turned to Wade.
“She is of the seal people, Prophet.”
“Oh! Oh. Right.” This was madness. Utter madness. But...
“I will care for you, Lord,” and her voice was soft, singing to him of pleasure and comfort, of faith and loyalty. “Bear your children. No human woman is as patient as I, for we are a people that can bear much...”
Like touring, recording? Being away for months on end, taking second place to a four string mistress and four other men, crowds of screaming fans and the music - always, above all else, the music. She nodded, pressing herself to him once more and kissing him gently.
“Aye, Lord. Patient as the seas, we are...”
Wade’s voice was dark, creeping around the fog that her scent and warm, soft skin was drifting across his mind and body.
“Do you take her, Prophet? Make the promise?”
He closed his eyes, leaned his forehead on the woman’s and felt her hands gently gather him in. God help him now.
“Yes...yes. I promise.”
“My name,” she whispered in his ear, “is Lorelei. Let me love you, Lord...”
“Oh God,” he murmured, and her hands were suddenly everywhere, helping him remove his shirt, his boots, his jeans; her mouth claimed his and she tugged him down to the moist ground, rolling over in the grass until they were surrounded by the sweet smells of summer even as she drew from him fire he hadn’t felt for a woman in a long, long time. He kissed her hard, tasting the salty sweetness of her mouth even as his hands drew groans from her, massaging her breasts and rolling turgid, erect nipples between thumb and forefinger; she gasped and moaned, abandoning herself to him.
He pushed her back into the ground, entering her roughly; she cried out and clasped him tight in sudden fear and pain, whimpering when he froze in surprise. Bloody hell - been a long time since he’d been someone’s first...
He kissed her throat, murmured gentle words to her until she began to relax, breath coming in more measured strokes and not agonized sobs. He gritted his teeth and nuzzled her neck, pushing slowly until she wrapped her legs round him and began to moan, bucking her hips into him; he buried himself balls deep, biting at her shoulders and throat in a savage urge to mark her and make her truly his. She called out like a bird, shivering around him as she came, driven to it by his heat and unstoppable desire.
Any spectre of shame was driven out by her cries; gasps and moans, sweet urging as they joined there beneath the stones, sealing the deal struck with blood and passion in a meadow well hidden from more mundane eyes.
Collapsing in a panting heap, Steve rolled to his back and gathered Lorelei gently into his arms, cradling her against his chest as she trembled, spent. She curled into him, whispering into his skin of the time they would spend together and the fine children she would bear him; he felt a sick lurch as he thought about what he’d just done.
Bought a slave, basically.
“No going back, Prophet,” growled a voice, low and unfriendly. Pan crouched by one of the stones, obviously aroused by what he had - equally obviously - just witnessed. “She’s yours now. Care for her.”
He nodded, too tired to feel embarrassed, and in the next breath the angry form was replaced by a smaller, beamingly furry member of the Exiled Tribes. Wade.
He held in his hands a chest that seemed to dwarf him; it wouldn’t have been large if it were in Pan’s huge hands but the smaller creature struggled with it for a moment before dropping it unceremoniously to the grass. Waving his fingers like a conjuror he lifted the lid, showing Steve what looked like a beautifully preserved, much folded sealskin; with a wink he closed the lid, and threw something shiny toward the pair. Steve caught it clumsily, almost dropping it before bringing it to his face to examine it in more detail; delicate silver filigree, it fit on the ring finger of his right hand as though it were made for him.
“Your key,” said Wade with a nod. “Now sleep, Prophet. You will wake safe, I promise.”
Steve nodded, pulled Lorelei close in to his chest and in a moment was sleeping soundly. Wade stepped back, nodding to himself in some satisfaction as two more members of his tribe hurried forward to take the chest to its hiding place.
“You seem very pleased with yourself,” growled a voice. Wade snorted, any trace of friendliness gone from the beady eyes.
“I am. Stop being so difficult, Goatfucker. This will work.”
Pan hissed, narrowing slot eyes in anger and tossing his horns. “And would the Prophet be so pleased if he knew that you bought the Siren’s co-operation by threatening her people? That if she didn’t persuade him you were going to curse them to wander forever?”
Wade turned on the taller Fae, and advanced on him with such savagery that even Pan took a step back, hooves shuffling nervously on the sward.
“And you had a better idea, did you? Going to wait for the next Prophet to be born while this one dithers with his conscience, and we all suffocate in this steel net they call a world, knowing our betters --” he sneered the word, spitting it toward Pan like a snake, “strangle on their righteousness in the Summerlands? Faugh. You’re the wise one, Goatboy - you fucking work it out. Now do as you’re bid and get them back to his place.”
Pan growled again, but under his breath this time.
“Oh, and if you want her,” snapped Wade over his shoulder as he turned to leave, “you might as well have her now. We only needed her virginity until the Prophet had taken her. You want to plough his field, you go right ahead. Call it a reward for services rendered.”
The little creature took two more steps and vanished, humming a happy little tune as he made his way to his rest.
Pan shook his head in disgust and entered the sacred space within the guardianship of the stones. Lorelei was awake, and cowered back from him; he crouched lower, and smiled at her. Rather awkwardly; it was still obvious that he was aroused, and the poor creature appeared terrified by his - rather brutish, he’d be the first to admit - appearance.
“Come, little one,” he sighed, “I mean you no harm. I’ll take you to your new home.”
She nodded, and carefully disentangled herself from Steve who snored on, oblivious.
“Will he care for me?” she asked, a wistful note in her voice. Pan gritted his teeth.
“He’d better,” was all he replied.
June, 1999. England.
Bruce sat on the edge of his bed, staring blankly out of the window and listening to the goblin snoring in his bag. He’d decided, while pouring out his troubles and watching the little beast eat, pick its nose, belch, fart and generally display a complete lack of manners, to call it Lars.
It seemed fitting.
He sighed again, and pulled off his shoes; time for bed, even though the eastern sky was just getting pink with the dawn. He wondered if he’d sleep at all, after everything that had happened tonight; all the revelations, Pan, the Wild Hunt, Blaze...Lorelei!
“He grieves for her,” said a voice. Bruce jumped, dropped his shoe and swore.
“Fuck! Yes. Yes he does. Don’t you people ever knock?”
Pan laughed, a low, sweet sound his only answer.
“We didn’t know,” said Bruce quietly, after a few moments of silence had passed.
“I know that - now,” replied the creature, and sighed. “I was angry. I didn’t think it was right. I have...been no friend to the Prophet.”
Bruce nodded. It made sense; if Pan represented anything, it was wild freedom. He would be the last one to approve of sending another Fae into slavery, however benign.
“There is something else you must know,” Pan began quietly, the strange shuffling sound of hooves on carpet startling Bruce into realising that yes, this was real - it was a tiny detail he could never have thought up if he was just dreaming. He shook himself, faced Pan and tried to force his tired brain to pay attention.
“Yeah? Sorry mate. Tired.”
Pan nodded, horns gleaming in the gathering light. “Were it just the Lady Lorelei the Prophet would not have collapsed; but he knows the High Ones too well through books and learning. He thinks that she is most likely dead, not just returned to her people.”
He paused and turned to face the window. Bruce watched the God’s internal struggle with some wonder; he certainly would never have expected to see such a powerful being hunting so frantically for a way to break news to what he considered to be a lesser being. Still, it was so, and Bruce waited patiently for Pan to order his thoughts.
He turned to Bruce and caught his eye gravely. “It is most likely true. The High Ones do not release what they can kill.”
“Oh God,” sighed the man, sinking his face into his hands and rubbing tired eyes. No wonder Steve had collapsed so completely.
“And that is not the worst of it,” the voice rumbled on. Bruce lifted his face from his hands, leaving his fingertips resting under his bottom lip and tapping them against his skin thoughtfully.
“His kids,” he sighed eventually, and when Pan nodded he groaned.
“Aye,” said the God miserably, and hung his head.
They sat in silence then, watching the sun rise over the countryside beyond the window and each lost in their own musings on love, loss and betrayal. It seemed the only thing they could do, and so they kept their quiet vigil together until the sun was high, and the mist completely gone.
May, 1999. England.
Dave cradled a moaning Blaze in his arms, exchanging a worried glance with Janick.
“He’s bleeding,” he said, keeping his tone low, “badly.” Janick nodded, pulled off his jacket and wadded it under Blaze’s head, trying to keep him comfortable. He wasn’t about to try and stem the bleeding; he wouldn’t know where to start.
“We’ll call an ambulance.”
“No signal here,” snorted Nicko bitterly, throwing his mobile down and wrapping torn strips of his own shirt around the savage wounds in his arms, flexing his fingers and thanking his lucky stars that the demon hounds had left him with anything resembling functional digits. It had been a close run thing, and he was still going to have to get the deep, savage bites and slashes checked out in a hospital.
They would keep. Blaze, however, needed attention. And quickly.
“Steve,” growled Janick quietly. Harry nodded, still ashen faced from the brutality he’d witnessed. He stalked up to the leader of the High Fae, who was watching them all with a rather amused expression on his delicate features, as though observing animals perform some interesting new trick. His cohorts were beginning to melt into the thinning mist as the fire burned lower, the orange flicker of menace being gradually replaced by the pinker light of a natural dawn.
“Are you going to release us?” he snapped, folding his hands into fists and squaring his shoulders. The Fae snorted.
“Of course. But one more thing before we leave you to your steel-ringed misery. Will you open the door, Prophet?”
Harry snarled, lifted a defiant fist to the creatures face. “As soon as I can, you fucker. Bet on it.”
The Fae smiled and shook his head. “Ah. I thought you might be stubborn.”
With a gesture, one of his lackeys scuttled forward and handed the leader a wooden box, hacked and riven open. The Fae turned around, holding the object up and considering it from several angles, reflections of the growing dawn lighting the smashed carvings.
Steve went white.
“Now, what could this be...?”
Steve took a pace forward, then all the strength seemed to flow out of him; he fell to his knees.
“Steve?” said Dave, hesitant. The Fae hadn’t laid a finger on the man, and yet it seemed he’d been poleaxed.
“Oh yes,” growled the Fae, all pretence evaporated with the dawn, “your good lady. Lorelei, is it not? You might like to know that she wept with joy when we returned the contents of the box to her. And you have the nerve to call us arrogant.”
Steve took the box in his hands, cradled it against his chest and said nothing. The Fae nodded, and continued with his smug tone. “Your offspring will be held by us until the time of opening has passed. And then - provided that you have behaved yourself - they will be returned.”
He began to sob, running his fingers over the broken wood and moaning quietly at the words. The others exchanged concerned glances - now they had two broken friends to worry about? What the hell had been in the box? Alright, so having his kids held hostage was pretty bloody savage but even so...
The Fae made a movement of his hands then simply turned and walked away, vanishing into the heavy air a moment before the mist finally cleared; the gate reappeared, and the few road crew that routinely travelled with the band flowed around them and began to chatter with a mixture of relief and horror. Within moments an ambulance had been called, record company, management...the mechanism that would swing them back into reality began to grind and churn, and very soon they could begin to pretend that this event had never taken place. Blaze was dressed in borrowed clothes, the blood beginning to slow simply because he’d lost so much that it was getting harder for his body to push out what was left past the clumsy but effective pressure bandages rigged up by the crew; Nicko was being catered to by his terribly worried drum tech and the guitarists issued orders, sent someone to the road to watch for assistance and generally took charge.
Steve sat a little way apart from the rest, holding the broken chest on his knees and staring into space. Dave approached him cautiously.
“I want to go home,” he said abruptly. Dave blinked.
“No buts. I’m going home. Now.”
Recognising the tone - one not to be trifled with, ever - Dave gave up and returned to the others, casting worried looks back over his shoulder as he did so. This wasn’t the Steve he knew. This was someone...else. Someone he didn’t recognise, and after the events of the morning he wasn’t sure he wanted to; perhaps enough really was enough, as Paul and Bruce and even H had decided, in the end. Maybe they all needed to begin thinking that way, if they were to survive at all.
Steve just sat in the wet grass, and mourned.
Chapter 7: Another Life
“I’m going to end it,” he told his friends, “but I’ll need your help. Are you with me?”
“Always,” said Bruce, and the others agreed.
Voices. He could hear voices. And these weren’t nightmarish voices in his head, sibilant faery whispers or the hangovers of a nightmare, either; these were voices he recognised.
Real voices. Real people. In his house.
Steve sat up and rubbed his eyes sleepily. Three days, it had been; three days since Bruce had come round to see what the fuck was up, three days since he’d spilled his guts and told him everything. To be fair, he only knew it was three days because he vaguely remembered Bruce shouting at him earlier this morning that, as it had been three days, would he care to get his lazy ungrateful arse out of bed?
Well, no. He wouldn’t, actually. He wanted to stay right here in his bed until he died, thank you very fucking much. The world could just fuck right off.
The clock on the bedside read three forty five; it had read something before nine when he’d been awoken by the shouting.
He swung his legs over the edge of the bed, sank his head into his hands and sighed deeply. He was in a guest room; he couldn’t bear to sleep in the room he’d shared with his wife. His Lorelei. His slave, he supposed...
Although perhaps not. He’d woken from a nightmare, gasping for breath as though dying, at some point during the three days to find Pan standing in the corner of his room. He watched him with cold green eyes, a small crease in the skin of his broad forehead showing his frown, moonlight shining back from his polished little horns. A piece of the forest made flesh, he seemed out of place in here.
“I am not a forgiving creature,” he had rumbled, “but...you grieve, Prophet. You deserve my forgiveness.”
And then he’d been gone. Peculiar little conversation, somewhat one sided.
His mental ramblings were interrupted by a spike of pain so sharp and terrible he thought, at first, that he might be having a heart attack.
No. Just grief. Just the knowledge that he was never going to see his wife again. And that his children might be dead, of course. Best not forget that, eh? These bastards just didn’t know when to stop. I know, they must have thought, let’s just pile it all on and see if he breaks.
Steve shook his head at his own musings. I’m beginning to sound like Nicko, rambling away to myself.
The voices pushed through the haze in his mind again, tickling and tantalising on the edge of hearing; he tried to tune in, and began to separate the various threads. As familiar to him as his own, he began to pick up the various aural signatures of the individuals violating his solitude. As they were bound to do, he guessed; they’d only stay away for so long before coming to find him. He would do the same for them, too.
A deep rumble, spiced with the occasional rough bark of amusement; Nicko. A lighter tenor, flicking through the other weaving, bobbing melodies; Dave, undoubtedly. The staccato chatter of Bruce’s BBC English, Janick’s dry Geordie drawl never far behind it, soothing and calm. Then a voice he hadn’t heard for a while, a sound from the past that he was beginning to wonder if he’d ever hear again; the hesitant phrasing, soft chuckle, distinct stops and pauses underlining Dave and Jan. They sounded good together.
The fuck was he doing here? He’d stormed out and sworn he’d never return, eyes angry with fear after the night the Fae had pushed him just that little bit too far.
Reluctance cramping his muscles he made his way to the shower and cleaned himself up, mind far away from the everyday tasks. Watching himself in the mirror as he shaved he wondered if this was what they meant by post-traumatic stress; he’d been through enough to earn it, he supposed. But not as much as Paul. Or Bruce. Or Blaze.
He felt a brief twinge of guilt. He hadn’t called the hospital to see how Blaze was. He didn’t even know if he was dead or alive; there’d certainly been a hell of a lot of blood once the Fae had finished with him and thrown them back to their own reality. He’d been off orbiting around his own little planet of misery at the time, though, and nobody had wanted to make the attempt to break through it. Not then. Not that he blamed them.
A small noise at the door attracted his attention, and he was just in time to catch the form of a small, fleeing goblin; well, that was him busted, then. Bruce had told him - yesterday? The day before? - about the creature that had attached itself to him. The news of its name had almost made him smile.
Still, he’d been spotted so - time to face the music. The past. And perhaps even the future.
“Ah! The Lord of Harris graces us with his presence at last.”
“Don’t take the piss, Bruce.”
Steve took a seat at the big kitchen table, and avoided meeting anyone’s eyes. No one had any words of comfort to offer, and until Bruce piped up again it was an uncomfortable silence.
“He joins us at table, and deigns to break bread --”
Steve sighed, and tried to be patient with an enthusiasm that he didn’t share. “You’ve been reading Blake again, haven’t you?”
Bruce laughed, a bright sound in the thick gloom of the kitchen. “Yeah. And spending some time with Pan. It wears off on you a bit, after a while.”
“Pan?” said Janick, sounding surprised. “But wasn’t he the one --”
“He was,” replied Bruce, expression smug. “We’ve cleared up that little misunderstanding.”
Nicko looked outraged. “Misunderstanding? Bruce, he ripped you up--”
“-- cost us a fortune --”
“-- never seen such a mess, you daft bugger --”
Steve sighed as the chatter rolled over him. Some things never changed, no matter what was going on; Dave passed him a glass of orange juice and rolled his eyes at the antics of the others. Adrian just snorted, and watched Steve’s reaction through his fringe.
A warmth began to seep into his soul as he began to relax, the familiarity of the company finally working loose the knot of grief he’d been carrying since the cold morning in that field. He let them run on before clearing his throat.
Ah. Silence fell again, and everyone found something to look at that meant they could avoid his eyes. Dave finally spoke up, voice quiet as ever but shaded with grief.
“He’ll live. Be in hospital for a bit, though. He was--” and here he shrugged, lowering his gaze to a blemish in the varnish of the table, picking at it with his fingernail for a moment before continuing, “--pretty roughed up.”
Nicko sucked in a huge breath, about to explode with a roar. Bruce patted his arm, and his words caused their huge-voiced friend to subside with a hiss.
“I know the feeling.”
Dave looked miserable, Nicko shook his head, and Bruce rapped the table top with his knuckles for attention.
“Blaze’ll live. Paul did. I did. Point is,” and here he took his time to look at everyone in turn, “what are we going to do about it?”
Adrian looked up, face held blank. “We?” he asked. “What ‘we’?”
Bruce circled his finger about the table. “Us ‘we’. All six of us. I think it’s about time. Don’t you, Harry?”
And with the words something began to roar in his head, a broken dam of experience raging behind his eyes. Words and emotions and feelings and knowledge, rushing like a torrent, spilling through the tumbled spaces of his mind.
He’ll be the one to take them all home... Studying a little notebook under the bedcovers by the light of a torch. Ignoring the scuttling noises outside, because no matter what his parents said these things were very, very real. His nan had known. Whoever wrote the little book had known. And now he knew. Tell the Prophet that we are tired of waiting... The sinking feeling when he realised that no matter what he did, no matter how far from a mystical existence he might stray, it would always be with him. He’d always be the Chosen One. It was as much a part of him as brown eyes or his ability to play bass. Shitfire, ‘Arry, what happened? Grief upon grief upon grief. Different colours of pain. Shards and showers of horror, and no way to escape them in this life - or the next. Black depression and the bruise colours of reality. Yeah, it’s real... Very real and very dangerous but he didn’t know that then. Being young and stupid and thinking he could make the world dance to his tunes, and it didn’t matter a fuck what blood he carried in his veins. I’ve been doing that all my life and never yet got a straight answer... Answers to questions unasked and never an answer when you need one. Why? Who knows. Where? Second star from the left and straight on ‘til morning. Frustration and anger and never enough songs to vent them in. Weird shit in the toilet of his life. What you going to tell me? Fucking fairy stories? Finally he could see it all clear and it was so simple he could weep. Was that all? Nothing more and nothing less? Glowing mushroom cloud of triumph. Harris one, Fae nil. You’re sick. Dying... Fear. Bellowing like a bull but no trace of it in his eyes. Poker face in the card game between species. You said they weren’t dangerous, you lying piece of shit... What was truth? Who was lying to whom? The High Fae, who’d told their people that this was the only way? Humanity, for denying the existence of any other intelligence, secure in the complacency of steel? Couldn’t leave because that was what she was...
The joy found in kinship. Love and lust all rolled together until they became something more comfortable, less piercing. Something to keep him safe in his wanderings, something to endure the trials for. Soft glow shredded by sharp light of hatred held not for him, but for what he represented. The final loss more painful than all that had gone before.
We’ve managed to keep a few places for ourselves. Hide them from your people...
Not any more.
Steve blinked, shook himself and nodded. The torrent had subsided, leaving all doubt cast aside and wrecked upon the shore of fresh understanding. He knew what he had to do, and not only what but how and when; little time remained to him.
“I’m going to end it,” he told his friends, “but I’ll need your help. Are you with me?”
“Always,” said Bruce, and the others agreed.
Chapter 8: Blood Brothers
Paul had curled into a foetal position, moaning and weeping. Steve made his way across and touched his shoulder, hoping the warmth of his hand would tell him that it was finally over.
Davey’s voice was quiet but held a distinct note of triumph. Bruce looked up from the Latin tome he was slowly translating, and blinked reddened eyes; all the dust was getting him down. If they didn’t find the answers soon he was going to have to start shooting up with antihistamines, never mind just taking handfuls of bloody pills.
Steve slammed the book he was reading, earning him a hiss from the next table over. He ignored it, and hurried around to peer over Dave’s shoulder.
“Fucking finally. What you got, Dave?”
He spread the book on the table, smoothing the pages with a gentle touch from his long fingers. “Look. It’s an eighteenth century reference to the sealing of the door. Some clergyman was having a rant about it in his journal.”
The three men clustered above the worn leather bound book. Steve made a growling sound deep in his throat.
“All the thee’s and thou’s. What’s it say?”
Dave smiled, shot his friend an affectionate sideways glance. “Once you get your eye in it isn’t so bad. Basically, he caught a couple of his parishioners performing some sort of rite. He can’t seem to decide whether he’s more disgusted by what they were doing, or the fact that they were doing it naked.”
“Dirty old goat,” said Bruce.
“Yeah. But they said they were trying to open the door to bring the magic back.”
Steve grinned, clapped Dave on the back. “Anything about the rite itself?”
“They said...wait, here it is...that only the Prophet, the Chosen One could open the door and keep it open. And once the spell was broken it could never be put in place again.”
“So once the door is open --”
“It stays open.”
Bruce nodded. “Is that it?”
“Pretty much. He goes off into a long ramble about nakedness being the temptation of the devil. I think these parishioners - women, by the way - came up with a rather novel way to get him not to tell on them to their husbands.”
“Anyway, I’ll keep looking. From what I can see he got quite interested in the subject - so once he settles down I might get more out of him.”
Steve went back to his book, but Bruce stood for a moment, watching them both; they were talking about long dead people as though they still lived, so bound up were they in the study. Time and space seemed to lose their meaning in here; you could go anywhere, find anything. Break secrets and unlock the universe...
He sighed, and went back to his Latin.
September, 1981. France.
Hammering on his door. Who the fuck was hammering at - Steve blinked eyes filled with grit - half past three in the morning?
“Get up! Steve!”
Sounded like H. Scared. Very very scared. The fuck was going on?
He sat up, grumbling under his breath. A stirring beside him, and the small woman he’d taken to share the narrow hotel bed surfaced too. She muttered something in French; Steve ignored her. Just another bloody groupie to get rid of.
He rolled out of bed, wrinkling his nose at the rising odour of curdled sex and stale sweat that followed him out from under the covers.
“Steve! For fuck’s sake!”
Yanking on dirty jeans he pulled the door open, glaring at H and preparing to swear at him. The expression on his friend’s face, however, stopped him dead. Adrian was as white as a sheet, bulging eyes wide and rolling, shaking with apparent terror. His fingers dug sharp into Steve’s shoulder, and dragged him out the door. The groupie shouted something after them, but neither bothered to stop and work out what it was.
They ran down the corridor, Steve still trying to get his mind working; not ten minutes ago he’d been fast a-kip, curled up around the voluptuous body of a nameless woman, sated - for once - after playing and drinking and partying and fucking. Rock and fucking roll, right? And now here he was, stumbling barefoot and half naked down the grubby semi darkness of a cheap French hotel, following an equally shirtless Adrian toward the cluster of people outside Paul’s door.
As soon as he heard the noises drifting through the stained and peeling wood, he was awake.
People didn’t, he had discovered, actually scream when they were really terrified or hurt. They made a sort of shrill groan, deep in the throat, expressed through clenched teeth and bubbling through saliva, the register rising and falling as they struggled to breathe through chest muscles drawn tight with sheer terror. It was a peculiarly horrible noise, far worse than any mere shriek of sudden fear or shout of panic. It was much more primal than that. It sent shivers down the spine, appealed to the caveman that lives under the rational minds of us all; there is true fear here, it said, and if you don’t run you’re going to die, too. RUN. The beast is here...
“Fuck it,” snapped Rod, face as pale as anyone’s, “kick the fookin’ door in.”
Clive tried, then Dave, then H. They were discovering, as many had before and many would again, that it’s a damn sight harder to smash a door in than the television cop shows seem to imply. Eventually, with the massed might of five sets of feet - only two of which were shod, the source of yet more swearing - the lock gave way with a shower of razor splinters, and they got their first sight of the room. Or would have done; from the light of the corridor, all they could see was darkness. Someone was going to have to go into the rustling, squeaking lightless space to see what was happening to the luckless frontman.
Steve was the first to screw his courage up and step across the threshold, and he never forgot the sight that met him for as long as he lived.
“Stay back,” he snapped as soon as he knew that it was supernatural crap, feeling the movement of the others behind him. If it was Fae...then it was his problem. And Pauls, come to that. He’d think about that later, though.
The stench that rolled past him was enough to ensure compliance; much coughing and swearing was to be heard behind him. He ignored it, took a step forward. Something squelched and twitched beneath his feet, but he didn’t even pause to curse his lack of footwear, just pushed on ahead. He struggled to see Paul’s body beneath the rolling, shifting grey mass that filled the room with its roaming filth.
The main aggregation centred on the bed, with bubbling, slick grey tendrils crawling across the walls, floor and - he flinched as a drop of something thick and chill fell on his neck - the ceiling. The bubbles looked like eyes; blind, milky, gelatinous eyes, all rolling to watch him, pupilless but horribly aware of the heat of his body, the life, the breath of him. They were cold, regarding him with a callous lack of expression while their slimy body sucked and smothered at his friend. They drooled greasy fluid to pool upon the floor, and dropped extra strings of bubble-eyes to stare at him, blind but somehow aware.
“Get off him,” he breathed, strength sapped by the eyes. He felt them pulling at his will, dragging at his mind.
Watch...relax...see how we swirl...watch us...be still...watch...
The mass paused, searching hungry motion replaced by wary stasis. He hoped like hell that it recognised him; he had no idea how else he was going to get rid of the fucking thing. Monster hunting wasn’t something he’d ever expected to have to do.
Part of the slimy mass slid off the bed with a liquid plop, moving toward him and pulling itself up into a vague column. By the time it reached him it was humanoid; a few more seconds and a grey figure of a woman faced him, features carving themselves as he watched. He watched her, stunned; the skin began to flush with healthy pink, and in a matter of moments he was looking at a naked woman. Her figure was perfect, her skin bore no trace of the grey goo she’d been not a minute before. He swallowed hard, and forced himself not to take a step back. She cocked her head, regarded him with clear blue eyes, and smiled.
The shifting, bubbly tentacles overhead resumed their aimless crawling.
“Prophet,” she said by way of greeting, and with a flick of her finger the door was slammed behind him, enveloping them both in noisy, crowded darkness.
Don’t panic. Whatever you do, don’t panic.
“Let him go,” Steve said, finding his voice at last. He blinked, aware that there was some light in the room; it appeared to be coming from some of the eye-bubbles, glowing with a faint deep-sea phosphorescence that made him think of dead things rotting in the dark.
“He invited me in,” said the creature with a pout of rose red lips.
Steve blinked at her. She heaved an exaggerated sigh, and waved a hand in front of his eyes; he cried out as a strap of grey slime shot from her palm, wrapping itself around his head and sending cold threads under his eyelids. He tried to scream, then fell silent when he realised that she was showing him what had happened...earlier. Feeding the images straight into his brain, pulling him direct to the events that had lead to the horrors he’d just witnessed.
Skirt so short it was almost a belt, stockings and heels, white-blonde hair teased into an artful storm of gleaming curls, pouting mouth just begging to be kissed, huge pale breasts on the verge of spilling over the neckline of her top. Perfect. Typical groupie, all hunger -- and just what he needed tonight. Someone to get down and dirty with. Someone to drown in and silence the doubting voices in his head.
Paul kicked the door shut and unbuckled his belt, grinning at her. She sashayed closer, narrowing those exquisite eyes and licking her lips.
She pressed herself in for a kiss, licking hungry at his mouth, busy fingers opening his jeans and caressing his cock to hard enthusiasm despite all the beer. Paul groaned, broke the kiss, arched his back against the door and pushed his hips toward her searching, grasping hands. She nipped at his neck, squeezed his balls, and when he shoved her roughly down she fell to her knees and engulfed his cock, willing to do his bidding.
He fucked her mouth for a while, tugging her hair and cursing, sending a stream of obscenities into the dark air of the room; she drew back, rose and pulled him over to the bed. She stripped him, and then herself; performed a striptease over him that would have stirred a response from a stone. She rubbed and caressed, pulled at organ-stop nipples and slid her fingers into her own depths, waving the musky scent under his nose.
She knelt over him.
“You have to ask,” she hissed, hungry eyes and heated skin.
He just pulled her down for another clumsy, wet kiss, tried to hump his cock into her from the awkward position they were in. She drew back, holding him down with surprising strength.
“Ask me in. Invite me,” she said again.
Paul sighed. “Whatever. Come on in, baby...”
The succubus smiled, and lowered herself on to him. He groaned; she was sweet, all wet silk and glorious pressure.
But the little sober voice in his mind told him there was something wrong. There were too many points of contact. She was touching him in too many ways. Too many places. And the touches were cold, and damp, and--
He opened his eyes just in time to see her dissolve into her true shape. And that was when he tried to scream.
Steve ripped the damp, leathery strap from around his face, coughing and spitting to clear the stale sick stench from his mouth. His sight blurred and eyes watered; not all the finest of greasy filaments had been pulled from under his lids. He had a momentary, fleeting panic that she might have blinded him; blinded and incapacitated so that she could eat him, too.
More coughing and desperate swiping of fingers across his face and his vision cleared. He found he was kneeling amid the filth on the floor, strings of bubble-eyes like rancid frogspawn trying to climb up the rough surface of his jeans. They squirmed between his toes, stroked the bare soles of his feet but when he felt one try to get inside the waistband of his jeans he lurched upright, making a desperate attempt to tune out the feeling of fluid filled bubbles bursting beneath his feet.
“I’m just hungry, Prophet,” she pouted, her voice sweet and musical, at terrible odds with the appearance of her feeding-self. “And you don’t want him anymore, do you?”
“Leave him alone!” Even if you are right, and he’ll never sing for us again...
“But he’s got such a delicious soul. All that pain and indecision and doubt...”
She stretched yearning fingers toward the naked figure on the bed, now just visible beneath the swirling lumps of slime. His spine arched, his teeth ground together and his eyes stared sightless at the ceiling; grey threads smeared across his eyeballs, holding the lids apart and sucking with a delicate touch the tears that threatened to fall. Steve ground his teeth, fighting down the nausea when he saw what the tendrils were doing to his friend’s still erect cock. He was being spared nothing; penetrating and penetrated, lifted and pressed down and tasted by the obscene shape that slid around him with such terrible intimacy.
“No. Leave him.”
She sighed. “You’re going to insist?”
Steve bared his teeth. “Get out!”
“As you wish.”
The sight of her pulling all her pseudopodia back into her body was one that would haunt his nightmares for a very long time. She opened her arms, dropped her head back; they spun themselves back into her body by every orifice, the finer strands creeping under her nails, bumps of eyes running under her skin before diving deeper and being lost to outside vision. They poured into her like water, and when they were done she licked the tips of her fingers and winked at Steve.
“We shall meet again, Prophet.”
“Not if I have anything to do with it. Fuck off.”
She sketched a bow and was gone. The door burst open, admitting the other members of the band and Rod in a swearing, hysterical crush; he hit the light switch and the room was flooded with harsh electric light. The room was a mess, furniture smashed, greasy slime dripping from the walls and forming rancid pools on the floor. Paul had curled into a foetal position, moaning and weeping. Steve made his way across and touched his shoulder, hoping the warmth of his hand would tell him that it was finally over.
Paul convulsed, cried out in fear, and vomited across Steve’s feet.
“I want to go home,” he moaned.
Ignoring the shouts of the others, the questions, the anger, Steve just stroked Paul’s shoulder and sighed.
“Tomorrow,” he said, and tried not to feel guilty.
August, 1987. London.
“From what I can see,” said Bruce, paging through his notes in the dimness, “this magic thing is a doddle. It’s to do with your will.”
Dave made a noise of disagreement, then took another pull of his pint.
They’d retreated to the tired smelling pub in the train station next to the library, found themselves a corner and were discussing the day’s progress. They hid in the vaulted Victorian gloom, using the heavy graceless furniture to best advantage; worn and dusty, the decor invited none to stay long. At least they were unlikely to be disturbed in their arguing. Dave seemed to think the problem could be cracked, Bruce was just relieved to be out of the damn dust and Steve was tired. It had been a very long day.
“Yeah. You want to do something badly enough, you focus that want, and wallop. There it is. Just like real life.”
“Bruce, this is real life.”
“Doesn’t bloody feel like it sometimes.”
Steve snorted. Dave licked his upper lip to clear the foam fringe that had settled there, and tapped his notebook. “This spell is different. You have to find the place the spell was set. The exact place.”
Dave’s face fell at Steve’s eager query. “Dunno yet.”
“That’s not all. You have to have your brothers with you.”
“I haven’t got any brothers.”
“I don’t think it means actual siblings. I think it means people you’re connected to.”
Bruce chuckled, a quiet sound almost lost in the hubbub of tired travelers searching for refreshment. “Blood brothers. Heap big injun and all that.”
“Yeah, I guess...anyway, you need to get to the place, and it has to be a midsummer night when the moon is new. The door opens and closes according to the moon, you see.”
Dave peeled his notebook off the table, to which it had become welded by the potent mix of varnish, stale beer and old fag ash. The table gave up its prize with reluctance and an obscene sucking noise, allowing Dave to flip the cover closed and snap an elastic band in place to keep it shut.
Steve groaned. “I knew it would be astrological crap. I hate that stuff, can’t get my head around it.”
He propped his elbows on the table and sank his face in his hands. Dave patted his shoulder, and wondered if Steve would ever get his elbows off the revolting sticky surface or if they’d have to call the fire brigade to cut him loose.
“So,” grinned Bruce, breaking the gloom thickened silence, “you need to gather a group of people, but you don’t know who. Find a place, that you have no idea how to get to. And figure out a date that is dependent on something you don’t understand.”
Dave laughed, but Steve looked stricken and groaned again.
“That’s about the size of it,” Dave agreed, raising his pint in salute before finishing it in one smooth draught.
“We’re fucked, aren’t we?”
“Looks that way. Another?”
Chapter 9: The Fallen Angel
What Happened To Blaze - and what happened after. (Warning! Non con sex here. And if you like your elves and unicorns all floaty and noble then I would suggest giving this chapter a miss...because they've had the Mad Andy treatment. In spades.)
The Fallen Angel
Steve was led past his friends to a spot just to one side of the bonfire, close enough to the scorching heat to crisp the nose hairs and take his breath away. The High Fae stretched, seeming to enjoy the cessation of the damp, cool atmosphere.
“Let them go,” Steve said, throat tight, addressing the creature by his side but watching Blaze’s confused, wide eyes. He’d either been drugged or hit very hard; he appeared not to be completely conscious. No bad thing, perhaps.
“No,” said the Fae, turning to Steve with a smile. “For what then would be the profit in bringing you all here? No. I feel we have need of a small...demonstration. We are not playing games here, Prophet.”
Steve took a deep breath. He couldn’t believe he was going to try this, but he’d seen enough pain inflicted on his friends to last a lifetime. “Then let Blaze watch with the others, and put me...on there.”
He nodded at the stone slab Blaze was spread-eagled over. He had no idea what he was offering to put himself through; Paul and Bruce had been, effectively, raped. Blaze had so far lost only his shirt, so it appeared that the plan was to kill him; sacrifice him to some long forgotten God, make an example, scare the shit out of them all with their savagery. Whatever it was, he was damn sure he didn’t want to see it. A third dose of bloody guilt to cope with he needed like - well, like a hole in the head. Better if he was the one dead, or suffering. Or - knowing this bloody lot - both.
The Fae laughed. “Nay, Prophet! Make a martyr of you?”
“So you are going to kill him, then.”
He tried to keep his tone calm, his voice even. There were too many of them; fair words might be their only chance for escape.
The Fae narrowed its eyes. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. He may survive; but whatever the outcome, none of you will forget it.”
Steve wiped a hand across his eyes then pinched the bridge of his nose. He didn’t doubt the words of the arrogant creature, not for a moment. Blaze was beginning to struggle, testing his strength against his bonds; Dave seemed to be a hair away from passing out and none of them looked exactly ready to fight back. Except, maybe, Nicko; he kept flexing his arms against the huge dogs holding him captive, and it seemed that if he got angry enough he’d give them a pretty serious scrap. Of course, he’d lose both hands...not so good.
The Fae interrupted his musings on the hopelessness of the situation. “As you know, Prophet,” it began, adopting a lecturing tone and folding its skeletal hands before its chest, “we chose amongst our brethren very carefully when we sealed the junction between the worlds. We hand picked our companions, down to the least little bee to pollinate our gardens.”
“Get on with it, you wordy bastard!”
Steve stifled a smile at Nicko’s bold shout, and saw Janick do the same. The Fae flicked a finger, and Nicko was soon screaming; blood ran freely down his arms as one dog and then the other chewed, sinking huge shearing, cutting molars into the flesh of his arms. Janick struggled, and even Dave tried to move toward their friend; Blaze shook the dull fog from his eyes and began to struggle in earnest.
“Leave him alone!” yelled Steve, grabbing the stick thin arm of the Fae. “Stop it!”
Another indolent gesture and the dogs stilled their jaws, uttering a rumble of warning as their prey sagged between them. Janick’s captor forced him to his knees, placed the point of his knife against his throat. The implication was clear; one more word and he was going to be down another guitarist. Not to mention a drummer.
Dave had received a savage kick during the disturbance and now lay on his side, gulping huge draughts of air in spasmodic gasps. He opened his eyes, blurred with tears, and stared at Steve with something akin to misery in his expression. All they’d been through, everything they’d seen...and there seemed a good chance that it was to end here, at the whim of a creature as cruel as it was old. Unable to do anything, Steve just stared at his friend, wracked with guilt; Dave shook his head, a tiny motion against the wet grass, and slumped flat. Unconscious or dead, there was no way to tell from his reluctant post so close to the fire.
The Fae must have given some signal, because now Steve was approached by three more of the creatures. Dressed in forest green, from a distance they might have looked to be the classic, fairytale interpretation of elves. Up close, however, things were slightly different.
Yes, they had the fair hair, blue eyes, and pointed ears so beloved of fantasy writers the world over. Their skin, like that of their High Fae cousin, should have been an unblemished ivory; Steve thought that if you had to compare it to anything, then the teeth of dead elephants would indeed make a good subject. There was something creepy about these creatures; their eyes reflected the firelight in a flat gleam, no vital spark showing in the pale blue of their disinterested stare. Their hair hung lank, dull with dust and dirt which, far from implying that they spent time communing with living forests, seemed to say that they spent their free time rotting in shallow graves. The smell backed up that theory, too. They stank.
“My servants are fast, Prophet. They can catch a swallow in her flight, although their habit of eating them raw is one we try and discourage.”
The Fae stretched its face into a smile, and the ragged creatures sidled a little closer to Steve. Their clothing, from even a short distance the classic woodland garb, when viewed up close was little more than stained rags held together with strips of rawhide. He swallowed his disgust, and stared instead at their tormentor.
“Attempting to escape would be futile.”
“Harry --” Blaze spat from between teeth clenched tight, no longer content to just lie and wait to see what was going to happen, “-- what the fuck is going on?”
Steve raised his hands to try and shush him before his mouth got them into any more trouble; the elves must have taken this as a sign of resistance, because he found his arms seized, forced behind him, and hair dragged on from behind. The trio held him so, pinning him close with their foul bodies and snarling with sharp yellow fangs, bullying him into submission as another of their number approached Blaze with a slender copper knife. Steve forced his head to turn enough to catch the gaze of the Fae with the corner of his eye.
“What’s your name?”
“I’m going to need it so I can carve it on your headstone, you son of a bitch.”
Teeth scraped his neck and he fought the urge to struggle; he didn’t doubt that the arrogant bastard standing hipshot just out of kicking range would order his minions to fuck him up royally, if the mood so took him. And if he was damaged, then God alone knew what would happen to the others. Stinking hot spit sprayed across the side of his face as one of the elves snarled again, barging him with its bony hip as the three fought him to a standstill. He submitted, unhappy but not knowing what the hell he could do to change anything.
Nothing to do but wait - and watch.
And it seemed that the waiting was over. The Fae blinked twice, a lazy motion of dry skin over the lizard-cold eyes, and the elf with the knife began to cut Blaze’s jeans from him with an economy of movement that, had it been under any other circumstance, would have been a marvel to behold. Once the clothing was in shreds around the base of the stone the elf took a small vial of oil from some vile recess in its rags, and poured it over Blaze’s back. The bound man fought hard, rubbing wrists and ankles raw with his thrashing; blood began to mark the sides of the stone, and the Fae licked his thin lips at the sight.
Despite his movement, the minion was able to smooth the oil in a layer across his back, dipping its long fingers in an almost loving fashion across the muscular dips and bony ridges of Blaze’s spine, ignoring the almost mad howling of the captive. He brought his other hand into play, digging filthy nails into Blaze’s skin, running horny palms down to his buttocks and playing there for a while. Blaze put another surge into his struggling, and began to screech in panic as the elf - now baring snaggle teeth with wicked delight - dug its fingers into him, violating him with a casual efficiency. Nicko began to roar again, and even Janick cried out in protest; the Fae simply smiled, and beckoned to another outside the ring of firelight.
A new set of sounds became audible over the roar of the fire and the panicked bellowing of the captive. The elf withdrew its fingers, slinking back into the shadows and licking its nails with every apparent delight.
Steve spat at it, fury overcoming good sense. The elf that had its filthy claws tangled in his hair yanked, nipped at his ear and growled.
Hooves crashed on the damp turf, and chains rattled and snapped; whatever approached did so in a fury. The Fae laughed, a light sound that grated on Steve’s ears nevertheless; whatever amused it --
He didn’t get chance to complete the thought. Into the circle of firelight was dragged a creature that he never would have expected to see, not in a million years; despite knowing of their existence - logically, considering the fact that the Fae themselves were real - he’d never expected to actually see one. And never in a circumstance like this.
As with the elves, it was a skewed vision. Its neck arched, eyes flashed wild and breath came in great heaving snorts; its pale coat was darkened with sweat and blood, and the firelight glittered on the strings of bloodied foam that drooled from its snapping jaws. More blood stained its massive shoulders, spattering from barbed darts that hung in the skin, although for what purpose they were there - other than the Fae’s apparent lust for pain - wasn’t clear. Not yet, anyway.
It bucked and squealed, arched its spine to stand upon hind legs and lash out at its captors with sharply cloven forehooves. Failing to reach any of its tormentors it dived forward, making an attempt to slash them with its single horn. The collar around its neck, bolted tight behind its jaw, pulled it up short as a stocky individual yanked hard on the attached chain. The creature screamed, tried to turn; every effort was thwarted, every movement that could have been so graceful was turned into a hideous parody of power and beauty. Its mane was matted with filth, and the lion-like tail thrashed with fury. Steve got a single glance into the animal’s eyes, and groaned with a pain soul deep.
The unicorn was mad. Nothing remained of its bright intelligence but pain and fear.
“You bastards,” he hissed through his teeth, refusing to open his eyes. The Fae made a noise in its throat, and the elf behind him shook his hair, hard. The pain made him blink, and he found the High Fae had moved to stand beside him. Had his hands been free he would have made an attempt to strangle it, but as it was all he could do was glare.
The Fae fixed him with its disdainful gaze. “You see the beast before you? Of course you do. One of the races chosen for their grace and beauty to accompany us.”
The unicorn still fought, long feathers of hair that should have been silky flags now reduced to matted spikes rubbing the delicate skin of the heels beneath red raw. It shook its head and howled froth into its beard, blood running freely along the lines of its neck from the cruel collar, such a noble creature reduced to a slavering, screaming captive.
“It’s quite mad, of course. They cannot abide captivity. But we have ways of keeping things alive...”
It touched Steve’s face with its long, cool fingers, and laughed again when he flinched from the contact.
“For as long as we need them. You observe the darts? Yes. They are tipped with a poison peculiar to our world; it heats the blood beyond endurance. We often have need of it; we were never a fecund race, even before the door was sealed. It provokes lust that would kill a mortal - but not alone. It requires another essence to activate it.”
Blaze, who had been listening to the speech, suddenly began to yell again. The Fae smiled, bringing its leathery face close to Steve’s, almost touching their cheeks together.
“Your little friend appears to have figured it out. The oil my servant applied so...skilfully...contains the catalyst. Once the beast smells him -- ah. You can see it taking effect now, in fact.”
The unicorn had indeed stopped its attempts to escape and paused, lifting the bruised and torn muzzle to scent the air. Tattered ears switched, uncertain, and the head swung in a fashion almost blind. The eyes blinked, and tried to peer through the mist and the shifting flicker of the firelight, seeking the scent that spoke in such an urgent fashion to its fevered blood. It turned again, the motion still but a shadow of its former grace, and called out. The sound would have been a soft query, had the creature not been screaming for who knew how long. As it was, the call was a harsh demand, and on hearing its own changed voice the unicorn reared again, slashing hooves at anything within reach, fury ignited once again.
“In just a moment...there. Yes. You are about to get quite a show, Prophet. One not seen since before our court moved from this sad, grey plane.”
“You have got to be fucking kidding,” snapped Steve, as the unicorn homed in on the sprawled, bound body of his friend. Blaze had run out of breath for screaming, and was concentrating with silent madness on another attempt to break the ropes that bound him. It wasn’t working.
“Stop it, for fuck’s sake!” yelled another voice from the darkness, followed by a squeal of pain. Janick.
“Stop it? When we’ve gone to all this trouble? You wound me, Prophet.”
“I fucking wish!”
The unicorn lunged forward, dragging its captors, until it could touch Blaze. He froze, moving just his eyes to plead with Steve, begging without words to be set free, to escape - anything.
“See how the heat of the blood inflames the body...”
Steve realised he was going to get a running commentary, and ground his teeth with impotent rage. One day....
The unicorn pawed the ground and rumbled deep within its much abused chest. It tossed the razor sharp horn, twisting its head this way and that, afraid and uncertain still. Coming to a decision somewhere in the depths of its hot, mad little brain it began its final approach toward Blaze. Below its belly swung its erection, purpled with blood and curving like a sabre. The fear must have shown in Steve’s face, because Blaze began to weep - and the elves to cackle with wicked delight.
“But the beast is still unsure --”
“Shut the fuck up!”
The Fae just laughed, wrapped the cowled cloak around itself and watched the rest of the unfolding scene in silence.
Blaze cried out once, when the horn slashed along his sides; after that - when the teeth savaged his shoulders and bit at his neck, the hooves scrambled for purchase along his sides and struck sparks from the stone - he ground his teeth and shrieked between them, screwing his eyes shut as though that might hide him from what was happening.
From the distant sounds Nicko was fighting again; he could no more bear to see another being abused than he could fly. Blaze had gone from bubbling agony to begging, pleading for the torture to stop. When the beast found its mark and began to force itself into him, arching its tail and grunting with the effort, he fell silent at last. The beast continued, obscenely humping its back, fresh sweat mixing with blood to run down the sides of the glittering stone.
The elf behind Steve appeared to find the scene arousing, and began to rub its bony body and obvious erection against him. He held silent until the elf next to him sniggered.
“Look, it’s fallen asleep!”
“Shame,” hissed the other, and Steve broke his silence. Swearing, he struggled once more; it didn’t help. The elves leered and laughed while Blaze’s unconscious body was jerked across the stone by the rhythm of the mad unicorn’s thrusts.
It seemed to take an age, but the beast stiffened, arched its neck and screamed to the cold sky; it was over. It withdrew, dripping a mess of blood, semen and filthy oil from its softening cock. It fell to its knees, lifted its head and moaned, a soft, sad sound; it seemed that with completion it had found its soul again, only to lose it once more with the realisation. The Fae clicked his tongue in disgust as he watched the grieving creature, collapsed in the mud it had created with its frantic attack.
“Kill it and bring it with us. It’s time to leave this place.”
The dogs that had been holding Nicko ghosted past, followed close by the other captors. One of them paused by the unicorn, shrugged, drew its head back and cut its throat with a single huge slash. The elves holding Steve dropped him and ran to join the one that had killed the unicorn; they let its blood flow over their hands and laughed and chattered like children, dancing out of the way of the dying creature’s attempts to kick them away.
Until a familiar form hit them from behind, a screaming dervish of fury. Steve forced his legs - made of rubber now, it seemed - to propel him forward. If Janick didn’t get help he was going to be killed; Nicko, bleeding badly, bounded into the fray, eyes red and teeth bared. Dave slipped behind the melee, going to free the still unconscious Blaze.
Steve fought like a madman, doing his best to get his own back on the filth that had attacked him, wounded his friends. For a moment, the elves were confused, overthrown by the humans they’d been guarding and tormenting. Then their native intelligence and speed kicked back in. The tide was turning, but a harsh word from the Fae had them retreating, slinking back behind the dying fire with many a snarl.
Nicko was sitting on the ground, the unicorn’s head in his lap, stroking the dying creature’s face. It blinked, watching the big man with the bloody arms as he smoothed the strands of forelock out of its eyes. He reached out to the collar, twisting the fastenings off and releasing the creature. It sighed, shuddered once, and died. He stroked its face, closing the darkened eyes, then flung the collar as far away as he could and bowed his head in grief.
He remained so, ignoring the commotion around him while the sky lightened in the east, and the others ran to attend to Blaze.
Steve, however, walked past them. The High Fae stayed behind its brethren, watching them with cold eyes; this wasn’t over yet. Not by a long way.
June, 1999. England.
Adrian stared at Nicko, eyes wide. It had been the first time he’d heard the whole story, Blaze and the unicorn, the abduction and probable murder of Steve's family. The big man shook his head, sighed.
“You’re - no, you’re not, are you? You’re serious.”
Nicko looked away, down at his bandaged wrists; he picked at the label on his beer bottle. Anything to avoid meeting anybody’s eyes, it seemed.
H sat back and hissed through his teeth. “Makes what happened to me look...like nothing, I guess.”
“And me,” agreed Bruce, voice soft with compassion. He saw Nicko wince, close his eyes with remembered pain; Steve looked into the top of his bottle and said nothing. Janick let out a soft sigh, touching his bandaged shoulder; the stab wound had been shallow, but even so --
The quiet moment was shattered by a clatter from the fridge. Bruce blinked, shook his head. That goblin had the worst sense of timing --
The goblin froze, ugly face going from twist of concentration to wide-eyed innocence in a moment. Bruce snorted. Perhaps it wasn’t so bad after all; Steve was shaking his head with a half smile, and Nicko had given a gruff snort of amusement. It was like having their own court jester, not quite three feet tall and with a distinctly relaxed attitude toward personal hygiene but even so. Came in handy.
“Bring those up here and we’ll say no more about it.”
The grey skinned creature lugged six cold beers up to the table, and departed with a squeak when Bruce scowled at him. Adrian stared for a second, then shook his head and laughed.
“I’d forgotten what it’s like being around all this.”
Dave chuckled. “You’ll get used to it. In time.”
Steve looked at him, surprised, then turned to H. “You’re staying?” Because you told me you’d never come back, once.
Adrian ducked his head, then met Steve’s eyes with a shy sideways glance. “If you want me to.”
He snorted. “Yeah. That would be good.”
Dave tapped the bottom of his bottle on the table. “If you’re serious about ending this --”
“Right. Because you remember that passage we were fretting about? The one about brothers?”
“That’s us then. Tied together with blood, aren’t we? Maybe not all at the same time,” he continued, at H’s half-formed protest, “but together.”
“Paul and Blaze?” asked Janick, still prodding at the sore spot on his shoulder.
“Leave it alone or it won’t heal. Blaze will probably not want anything to do with us - and I know Paul doesn’t. So not them - they left. Seems unfair but there you are.”
“I left,” said H, scratching at his goatee and watching Dave.
“Yeah, but you came back.”
“Which leaves just one thing,” Bruce replied. “Where.”
“Two,” said Steve. “When.”
“I know where,” said Dave with a smile, waving a piece of much-jotted-upon paper at them that he'd retrieved from his back pocket.
“And I know when.” Steve’s voice was firm, and he felt something of his old purpose begin to flow back. The prospect of achieving this thing he’d dreamed about for so long was rather daunting; but the Fae had conspired to strip him of everything he valued --
He looked at the men around his table, Bruce trying to show the others some tricks he’d apparently been teaching the goblin. Farting on command may not be the nicest thing to do, but it was quite impressive. Nicko pointed out that if it crapped on the floor then he, Bruce, would have to clean it up before he, Harry, went bananas. Dave began to encourage the beast to do so, and H just sat back and laughed at the scene that was, as per usual, degenerating into chaos. Bruce alone was bad enough, but throw a goblin into the mix and hysteria was pretty much guaranteed at some point.
No. Not quite everything of value.
Chapter 10: Powerslave
Adrian would have sworn that you would never, ever be able to find a situation in which you could put the words ‘menacing’ and ‘Nicko’ together.
He’d found it now. He’d never seen anything like it.
Nicko remained quiet during the rambling conversation that followed; not quite his usual self, chipping in from time to time with a wry comment or barking a sharp laugh, but on the whole...quiet. This did not go unnoticed.
Adrian managed to waylay him as the day shaded toward evening, and Nicko nipped off for a pee. On his return, he had to pass the bottom of the stairs before going back into the kitchen, where the others still talked and argued.
“So,” said a familiar voice, from the shadows. “Still upset, eh?”
Nicko blinked at his friend, lazing on the third step with his legs stretched out past the newel post, hidden in the dusky gloom of the stairwell. “Well, yeah. Fucking unicorn, wasn’t it?”
“I was talking about Blaze.”
Nicko snorted, a soft sound a world away from his usual explosions. “Yeah, right. You weren’t there, H....”
His voice trailed away into silence, and he shook his head. “You had to be there,” he said again, the sound of his voice drifting out of the darkness like a breath of regret.
“I’ve had my share, though. Remember?”
“Harry did tell you not to go with that girl,” replied Nicko, voice of reason. “Said she looked a bit dodgy.”
“Yeah. He could have been a bit more sympathetic, though. You know, afterwards.”
Nicko snorted, more like himself. Adrian cocked his head, blue eyes catching the light with a flash of cold amusement. “Instead of just saying ‘what the fuck do you expect if you fuck a succubus?’ and going back to bloody bed.”
This time the laugh was much more what H was used to.
“I had to look it up,” he added. “Once I’d finished being ill, of course....”
“You threw up for two days straight, if I remember rightly.”
“So would you if you’d had frogspawn up your bloody bits and pieces. Nasty. I kept wondering if it had left any of those bubbles behind - y’know, Things hatching out.”
“Every time I had bloody indigestion I thought something ‘orrible was going to explode out of me guts. Didn’t dare take any antacid thingys ‘cos I’d read that stomach acid would dissolve anything.” He tipped his head and smiled, hand creeping up to scratch his beard. “So I played the next few gigs with horrible bloody indigestion, sweating me nuts off and waiting for something to leap out me head. Bloody ridiculous, when you think about it.”
Adrian eyed his friend, seeing if his words were having any effect. Some, he thought; for a few moments the old light was back in Nicko’s eyes, the wicked humour kicking back in and things felt more, well, normal. Quiet and sad Nicko was a disturbing creature indeed.
“According to Harry it’ll all be over soon anyway. About bloody time.”
Adrian sat forward, eyeing his friend. “You think he’s right?”
“I think he thinks he knows what he’s on about.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“True. I dunno, truth be told.”
“Davey seems sure.”
“And he’s the expert.”
“Perhaps,” rumbled a voice from the shadows. Adrian scrambled to his feet and Nicko jumped back, cursing; from a dark space beside the stairs - that you would have sworn a mouse couldn’t have hidden in - a figure detached itself, stepping into the half light and cocking its head. Small horns peeked out from curled and shaggy shoulder length hair, and the light caressed the lines of corded muscle in the chest. A large hand lifted, gestured at the two men; open palmed, a meaning they understood. I mean no harm, I bear no weapon...
Nicko squared his shoulders and stepped somewhat in front of H.
“You’ll be Pan then, I ‘spect?” he said, voice low, curling his hands into fists.
Adrian would have sworn that you would never, ever be able to find a situation in which you could put the words ‘menacing’ and ‘Nicko’ together.
He’d found it now. He’d never seen anything like it.
Pan approached, placing each hoof with care upon the unfamiliar surface, until he was face to face with the angry drummer. They were almost of a height, H noticed; perhaps an inch in it, although the horns might be what was making the difference. Pan tilted his head, blinked slot-eyed gaze, and lifted his hand as though to touch Nicko’s face; a fist swift raised aborted the movement, and the forest God sighed.
“I mean you no harm.”
“Yeah well. I don’t know that, do I?”
Adrian touched his friend on the shoulder, hissing through his teeth when his friend flinched. “Nicko--”
“No,” said Pan, still looking deep into Nicko’s eyes, “your friend is correct. He has no reason to trust me.”
“Well then. What you doing here, then? You come to knock Bruce around a bit more, or to try it on with us? ‘Cos you won’t find us an easy target if that’s the case, I’ll ‘kin tell you that for nothing.”
Pan looked at Adrian. “I need to talk to your friend alone for a moment. Leave.”
H opened his mouth to protest, but Nicko interrupted him.
“Yeah, go on H. He don’t want an audience that’s fine by me. Go get me a beer for when I’m done.”
H went, wondering if Steve or Bruce could stop whatever carnage was about to break out in the elegant hallway. He hoped Harry didn’t have anything breakable or too valuable stored in there; both combatants were big men - well, sort of men - muscular and strong. If it turned to violence it was going to get really nasty in there.
“I do not, as a rule, carry messages--”
“Oh right, on an errand, are we?”
Pan controlled his temper by an effort of will, curling his lip and inhaling through his nose, chest broadening as he shifted position once more, clenched fists shifting muscles.
“I was prevented from trying to save the one who passed, trapped by low trickery by those who consider themselves more noble than I.”
Nicko snorted. “Noble? My arse. Bastards.”
“On that point we agree.” His voice softened and he cocked his head, holding Nicko’s gaze. “You performed a greater service than you know. You freed him from the iron --”
“I speak not the base name for such a regal spirit.”
“Sounds fair enough to me, squire. I took the collar off, yeah. What of it?”
Pan shook his head, hissed through his teeth. “You know nothing, do you?”
Nicko bristled. “Don’t see what it has to do with you, pal.”
“You,” growled Pan, enunciating each word clearly, “freed. Him. Freed his soul. Allowed him to seek redemption in his own way and no,” he held up a broad palm, shaking the horns in a negative, “I cannot tell you how. Or why. Your language has too many limitations. But know that you have the gratitude of a being powerful and primal enough to command even me.”
“You? I thought you were this God thing, Bruce said.”
“I am. Think you I would carry a message to a creature such as yourself of my own free will?”
“You cheeky --”
Bruce’s voice lashed like a whip from the doorway, and even Pan took a pace back.
“Fuck it,” said Nicko, and threw a punch.
“The fuck’s going on out there?” asked Steve, eyes wide as the wall trembled under another enormous crunch.
“They’re just playing,” sighed Bruce, flopping down in a chair and rubbing his hand through his hair. He’d shouted at the fighters for a bit then given up when it had become clear that neither was listening to him; well, that and the fact that one of Pan’s hooves had damn near taken his head off. Best to let the two of them work it out between them.
“I’ve never seen Nicko so upset,” said Dave, his normal cheerful expression muted. “He’s been itching for a scrap for days. Needs to let off some steam, I think.”
“I didn’t think he could get that angry,” agreed H with a worried nod. His eyes slid sideways to the closed door as it bent under another impact. “I mean, really that pissed off. Scary shit.”
“They’re trashing me house!” howled Steve. The others looked at him.
“So get the decorators in,” shrugged Janick, hiding a smile at his friend’s agitation.
“Look, it’ll be fine,” soothed Bruce, “I’ll get the Brownies to fix it.”
“Little girls in bobble hats? What you been taking?”
“Nah, ugly little fuckers that fix stuff. How do you think the house got sorted out while you were sulking upstairs?”
Steve blinked at him.
“You can talk to them?”
“Nah, Lars can. He’s --” Bruce paused, looking around. “Lars? Oi! Leave the fucking beer alone, you know it makes you puke.” He hissed through his teeth, shaking his head. “Yeah. I just tell him and he passes the message on, stuff gets done. Impressive really.”
Crashing, banging noises - interspersed with the odd splintery crunch and bright, glassy shatter - continued to echo through the kitchen.
Dave looked worried. “Are they going to be alright? Only that Pan’s a big lad, you know?”
“Dirty bastard,” sighed Janick.
The grin got wider.
“No shit,” snorted Steve, a wicked glint in his eye. “You should have seen ‘em the other night.”
The rest of the men settled in to watch, seeing Harry slide into storytelling mode - which wiped the smile from Bruce’s face and replaced it with a rather sheepish blush. “The bloody goblin wakes me up, right --”
“Shut up, Harry.”
“It’s worried, shakes me bloody foot and chatters like a monkey, won’t let me go back to sleep. Anyway, I gets up and follows it --”
“Shut. Up. Harris.”
“It runs down to the conservatory and points. Seems it’s scared of what’s going on in there, what with all the hootin’ and hollerin’ - didn’t exactly blame it, sounded like someone was bein’ murdered so I thought I’d take a look. I tell you, you’ve never seen the like! Fucking porn show. I went back to bed, no way I was gonna disturb that, I’d have got me bleedin’ ‘ead kicked in, wouldn’t I? But you’re a dirty bastard, Bruce. Took me ages to tell that goblin you were OK, what with all the yellin’. Good job I’ve got no neighbours, innit?”
Bruce closed his eyes even as the rest of the men snorted with laughter.
“What’d you see?” asked H, eyes alight with curiosity.
“Baaaaa-aaa,” replied Steve, poker faced.
“Oh, that’s nasty...”
“You fucking pervert, Dickinson...”
“You gotta stop the screamin’, mate. It frightens yer goblin.”
“Yes thank you Harris that’s information I didn’t want --”
Bruce paused, looking at the door. The sounds of the fight had ceased.
“Maybe we should see if Nicko’s OK,” said Davey, not leaping to his feet.
A rumble of voices, a snort of amusement then silence.
“After what I saw the other night,” said Steve, folding his arms and eyeing Bruce with a mock fierce expression, “I am not looking round any bloody doors with that thing behind them.”
The five men stared at the bowed, splintered door.
The goblin emerged from under the table, where he had been curled up against Bruce’s boot snoring and muttering in his sleep. He plonked his grey bottom on the quarry tiles, and picked at his nose while staring up at Bruce in adoration. It seemed to be an automatic reaction, or a nervous habit; nothing else to do with the hands? Jam a finger up your nostril...
Steve wondered if it was a goblin thing in general, or just Lars in particular. Whichever, it was revolting and he’d be damned if he could figure out the bond Bruce seemed to be developing with the ugly little beast.
“Go and see what’s up.”
The goblin squeaked and dived back under the table, wrapping arms and legs around Bruce’s ankle.
Dave snorted with laughter.
“Fat lot of good he’s going to be,” sighed H.
Bruce flicked the reluctant creature across the kitchen floor with a practised twitch of his foot. “Go on. I know you can be out of there in a moment if there’s trouble. Get. Now.”
Reluctance in every line of the small grey form, the goblin crept across the kitchen. Casting a last, accusing look over his shoulder, he sighed and slipped through a large crack in the bottom of the door.
“Blimey, but that’s one ‘ell of a left ‘ook you’ve got there, mate,” said Nicko, poking at the side of his face and wincing. The pair had run out of energy, and had collapsed in two separate heaps of pain either side of the wrecked hallway. Splinters of wood and glass surrounded them.
Pan, slumped against the opposite wall, snorted in pained amusement. “Aye. And for a human thou art no mean opponent, friend Nicko.”
They panted for a moment, exploring new hurts with tentative fingers, wincing and muttering under their breath. Nicko sighed and looked over at Pan, eyes haunted. He started to speak, hesitated, then took a deep breath before finding the right words at last. When they came, they bubbled over with the force of the grief that had been building since that terrible night.
“Freed him, you say?”
Pan nodded, compassion in the inhuman eyes. “You forgave him,” he said, voice low. “Of your own will, and knowing that he was a sentient creature who felt the pain of what he had done. You forgave him his terrible crime, and freed not just his physical body but his spirit as well. It took a great soul and a brave heart, my friend. You did well.”
“The boy done good, eh?”
They sat in silence for a while, each lost in their own thoughts, then Pan shook his great head and shuffled up on to his haunches.
“You are hurt.”
Nicko blinked. “Wot? Oh. Yeah. Like I said, that’s a mean --”
Pan grumbled in his chest, taking Nicko’s hand and stretching his arm out. During their scuffling the deep bites on Nicko’s arm had opened up again; they oozed blood still, and as the God turned his arm the great, angry slashes gaped open. “Not from myself. The hounds did you grievous harm...”
Locking his eyes with Nicko’s, Pan pulled the arm toward him, lowering his head until his lips hovered a bare fraction of an inch above the bruised and bloodied skin, looking through dark eyelashes up at the startled drummer.
“I can help.”
Any rebuttal died on Nicko’s lips as Pan slowly licked along his palm and up over his wrist. He felt he should pull his arm back, jerk away from this inhuman thing; but somehow, he couldn’t. He wasn’t sure if it was the compassion still so evident in the sharp featured face, or the fact that following in the wake of the breath and the touch the pain was fading. Fading fast, and being replaced by --
He closed his eyes and dropped his head back, letting out a sigh. Damn. He was beginning to get an idea of why Bruce did what he did, and took it to mean that his mind was completely lost, out there, wacko. After all, this wasn’t what he did. Wasn’t what he was.
He looked once more into Pan’s eyes, and couldn’t stop the smile that flickered across his face in reply to the deep, wicked grin that he saw above the healing tongue.
The goblin sneaked through the gap in the bottom of the door, and settled himself to watch the two men. He didn’t want to be spotted; the big one with the horns could make his life very uncomfortable, if he so chose. However, he didn’t want to go back in there without the information that the fascinating one with the beautiful eyes wanted.
If he went back and just shrugged, he’d get kicked. If not by The Man then by one of the others, in all likelihood. The Prophet didn’t seem to like him, although Blue Eyes looked to be an alright sort of a person, all smiles most of the time. Hairy Chin was a bit off, and Long Legs stared at him funny; so far the one he’d been sent to check on - dubbed in Lars’ mind as Big Hands - had ignored him, but he was pretty sure that if he was caught watching him being seduced by the Horned One then there’d be trouble.
Of course, if he went back and pretended nothing was happening then, in all probability, the one with horns would find him - after he’d been interrupted in his seduction - and kick him a hell of a lot harder. The Horned One sure seemed to be on a roll tonight; very few creatures were immune to his sexual allures when he turned them on, and from the way Big Hands was fidgeting and looking a bit wild eyed he wasn’t one of them. Still, he might turn out to be stronger than he looked, yes? Right.
So. Until it became really, really bloody obvious just exactly what was going to be happening in the wreckage-strewn hallway then his best bet was to just...wait. And watch.
And pick his nose, naturally.
“Pan...mate,” muttered Nicko through his teeth, pressing his back into the wall and trying to ignore the hardon that was becoming truly uncomfortable. Pan tilted his head, never pausing in his slow progress up Nicko’s right arm, eyeing the nervous man with a sly sideways glance. He didn’t reply, simply dropped his eyes and nuzzled into the crook of Nicko’s elbow, pushing his lower arm so that Nicko ended up caressing the maned head. Of its own volition, his left arm - all healed by the miraculous, devilish touch - crept up, but instead of pushing away the hand came to rest on Pan’s shoulder, sensitive fingers appreciating the warm, silken skin under them.
“I don’t think this is --” he began. Pan chose that moment to lift his head, and the pair of them stared at each other from a very short distance indeed. Nicko felt as though he were about to go cross-eyed trying to watch whatever the forest God was going to do next.
Pan leaned in closer still, and Nicko screwed his eyes shut, wincing at the pain of the bruises on cheek and brow.
Pain which began to fade as Pan’s breath washed over the side of his face, spicy and warm, moist with musk. The delicate touch of a tongue along his jawline made him shudder, cock jumping inside his jeans.
“Oh...oh bleedin’ ‘ell...”
“Precisely,” murmured Pan with a smile, and kissed him.
Oh well. Time to go and tell The Man what was happening - because it looked like Big Hands and The Horned One were going to be busy for quite some time, judging by the way clothing was beginning to be discarded.
Lars slipped back under the door, leaving Pan and Nicko wrapped around each other.
“Hello,” said H, with a smile, “your mate’s back.”
The five men looked down at the goblin, which blushed and shuffled its big, ugly feet on the warm brown tiles.
“So?” asked Bruce.
“What they up to, then?” added Harry, cocking an eyebrow.
Lars looked at each of the five men in turn, as though gauging what their reaction was going to be. Once he was satisfied, he gave them a small pantomine which left none of the watchers in any doubt whatsoever what was going on behind the broken door.
As if to underline the point, a long drawn out moan - and not one of pain, either - was heard, echoing around the kitchen and raising everybody’s eyebrows skyward.
Bruce snorted, shaking his head. The others stared at each other in disbelief.
“No way,” said Janick.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” agreed Dave.
H sniggered, and Steve stared hard at the now chuckling Bruce.
“What can I say?”
Steve frowned. “That you ‘ad nothing to do with it.”
“I didn’t! I swear. Pan can be very...” he cocked his head and looked down at Lars, slumped once more against his boot and staring in a somewhat loving fashion at the denim covering his lower leg, “...persuasive. Right, Lars?”
The goblin farted, and Steve rolled his eyes.
“That’s disgustin’. Look, while we’re waiting for Nicko,” and he nodded toward the door, behind which murmuring could be heard rising and falling with a definite cadence of sensuality, “we need to work out a plan.”
Davey’s grin faded somewhat and he too nodded. “We don’t have much time, if you’re serious about stopping this.”
Steve looked determined. “I am.”
“Then we’ve got to be there...first full moon after the summer solstice.”
“This Saturday?” said Bruce, wrinkling his forehead. H snorted.
“Gives us four days,” replied Steve, “is there much we’ve got to learn?”
Dave shook his head no. “It’s more to do with determination. There’s some words but I’ve got them here. Reckon you can learn ‘em in four days?”
Janick gave a bark of laughter. “Fuck, I should hope so!”
“Just one fing, though,” sighed Harry, face taking on its haunted expression once more. “We have to have one of them with us.”
“The Fae. I was gonna ask Lorelei but --”
He fell silent, dropping his eyes to the tabletop and studying the scratched, worn surface. There was silence, broken only by the goblin’s snoring from around Bruce’s left ankle. None of the men could find words to comfort their grieving friend. H peered under the table at Lars, appearing again with a hopeful look.
“I don’t suppose...?” asked H.
Dave shook his head, forehead creased with worry. “No. It has to be one of the more powerful ones. Someone like--”
“Me,” rumbled a voice, and all five men turned to see Pan, shoving the broken door open and being followed by a shirtless - and rather sheepish - Nicko.
“What ho, chaps.”
He was greeted by a chorus of laughs and catcalls, blushing as he walked back over to the table. Steve looked up, eyes still shadowed with pain. Pan made his way over and bowed deeply, the large form graceful and dignified. Under the kitchen spotlights his muscles moved under his skin, rippling like slow waves of oil; his coat gleamed, and he smelt of the deep woods and wildness. Each of the men sat back, a little perturbed by the raw power emanating from the presence amongst them. Bruce smiled, and Pan shot him a swift wink as he straightened up.
“You’ll stand with us?” said Dave and Pan nodded, shooting him a very direct glance that made Dave blush and drop his eyes. Janick, rising to pound Pan on the back in relief, winced and poked at his injured shoulder. Pan turned and cocked an eyebrow, taking Janick’s hand and extending his arm, touch gentle but insistent.
“You are hurt too?”
Jan nodded, hissing between his teeth as the God pulled him close, exploring the tender area with long, strong fingers travelling in careful sweeps.
“Let me help...”
Jan swallowed hard and, for some reason, blushed.
Bruce roared with laughter, earning him a squeak from Lars, a clout on the arm from Nicko and another wink from Pan.
“Here we go again!”
Chapter 11: Revelations
"They return," rumbled the God, "they are all going home."
“What time is it?”
“We’ve got a couple of hours, if that’s what you’re worried about...”
“Why here? Anywhere but bloody here.”
“Sod’s law, innit?”
“H, you scratch that fuckin’ face fungus once more and I’ll cut your fingers off, so ‘elp me.”
“You learnt your lines?”
“Yes I ‘ave!”
Chattering like a flock of starlings the six men piled out of Harry’s car, and took a look at the place where - come moonrise - they would be beginning the work that would end in the door between the worlds being opened again.
“He’ll be here.”
“Tell you that in bed, did ‘e?”
“You’re just jealous because he didn’t want you, H.”
Steve walked to the gate and propped one boot on the lowest bar, folding his arms along the top and resting his chin on them. From here he couldn’t see the scars left from the events a month ago; the crushed hedge, the gouges in the soft earth from the bulk of the buses sliding along. From here, it was just a quiet meadow, no sign of the horrors...
Steve cocked an eyebrow at Bruce, who’d come to stand at his shoulder. Hands in his pockets and face serious he looked over the gate, eyes far away as if he could see the things that had happened here. Steve sighed.
“No. But I’ll ‘ave to manage, won’t I?”
He heard a strange chuckling noise by his foot, and looked down to see the goblin patting his boot and looking up at him with soulful eyes. The breath caught in his throat; that such an ugly little beast could be so compassionate--
Bruce laughed, a soft sound under the breath, and Steve gave him a wry, sideways smile. Bruce cocked an eyebrow at him.
“No. But let’s go.”
It took Dave an hour to set up the area of the field to his satisfaction. The others watched, mostly in silence; Nicko, especially, had a distant look in his eyes, and said not a word. The others kept their comments to asking what he was doing--
“What’s that, then?”
“I don’t want to know why. If you’re happy I’m happy. Honest.”
Dave shot a fond grin at Adrian, and continued with his preparations as the sun shaded toward the horizon. The moon would be rising soon, and they had to be ready. He pointed out where everyone would have to go, double checked that they all knew their places and parts and --
“He’ll be here,” said Dave, flicking a rather nervous glance over his shoulder at Bruce.
“How’d you learn this stuff, anyway?” asked Bruce, squatting down to inspect the designs Dave had drawn on the grass, glowing faint and silvery in the approaching dusk. Anything to distract a Harry beginning to fidget and curse with nerves.
Dave paused, looking at the horizon and pursing his lips.
“There was this woman--”
“Oh yeah? Might ‘ave known...”
“Shut up, H. It wasn’t like that. I was digging around for stuff, information, you know, and she found me in this library one afternoon. Tried to warn me off.”
Well, at least Harry was now paying more attention to the conversation than his fretting, thought Bruce with a wry smile. He went back to tracing the complex design with his eye, wondering how on earth it was shining with that faint, hesitant phosphorescence.
“She said that what we’re doing was - is - dangerous, and I didn’t have a cat in Hell’s chance of getting it right. So I kept her talking, found out that she knew a lot about this sort of stuff. Weird sort of a woman, all tattoos and black hair. Anyway, she agreed to teach me some stuff in the end.”
“So what happened?” asked Janick, edging away from a tendril of mist that was beginning to rise from the ditch surrounding the field, creeping toward them all.
“She went off to do her own thing when she said I knew enough. Never seen her since.”
“The lady Yoz,” rumbled a voice from the mist, “is a law unto herself. You escaped lightly, friend Dave.”
“Bruce. Are we ready?”
The men looked at each other.
“Yes,” said Steve, jutting out his jaw and looking as determined as any of them had ever seen him.
“Then we should begin,” replied Pan, glancing over his shoulder at the darkening sky, “for the moon will be rising soon...”
“Remember,” fretted Dave, eyeing them all as they moved, “concentrate. Think about what we’re trying to achieve.”
“Let nothing distract you,” agreed Pan, voice almost a croon in the summer dusk.
The men took their places, five in a ring - each on the points of the pentagram Dave had drawn on the ground with the strange, glowing powder - and the remaining two in the centre, facing the direction of the rising moon. Pan placed both large hands on Harry’s shoulders, and began to chant in his deep, resonant voice. Dave joined in, his lighter tenor weaving between the threads of Pan’s voice, and Steve spoke the lines he’d been taught, ending each of the phrases with a precise snap.
The mist, noted Bruce as they chorused their lines one more time, was beginning to behave in a most peculiar fashion. Sneaking up from the ditches and damp of the field and little wood it hesitated when it reached the ring, beginning to heave and swirl in apparent confusion. There was pressure, too; a congestion in the skull bones like that preceding a summer storm.
“They come,” rumbled Pan, tightening his fingers on Harry’s shoulders, “so be strong--”
Dave began the phrases again, concentrating hard. Janick’s eyes were closed and H was sweating, Bruce noted; Nicko boomed out his lines with seeming unconcern and he wondered where Lars had got to.
The mist gave a peculiar shudder, a twist, and began to rear up; figures could be seen within it, flitting just on the edge of vision, and more menacing shadows lurked just beyond.
“They seek to break the Opening,” said Pan, and Bruce wondered how the hell he could be hearing him; his voice still boomed the repetitive phrasing of the spell, but still, he spoke. Inside his head or out of it didn’t matter, he decided; it was comforting, and that was all that mattered.
More movement from the mist that now coiled around the outside of their circle, sending sparks of evil contact up into the night air where it tried to reach them. Davey had done a good job. Bruce gritted his teeth and kept chanting, noting that the others were doing the same; Steve alone seemed relaxed, shoulders low and unbraced under Pan’s large hands.
People began to coalesce, becoming clearer as they took up station around the outside of the circle. The mist drew back, uncertain; one woman in Victorian costume flicked her hand and it retreated as if stung.
“Who the fuck - ?”
Steve. But still chanting. Were they inside each other’s minds or what?
“Your blood,” rumbled Pan once more, “drawn to this place. They block the Lords of the Summerlands...”
Bruce blinked. He recognised one of them; he’d seen a picture, once, of Steve’s gran, the one that had told him about all this stuff when he was a kid. Only this woman was a lot younger--
She winked at him, and turned to scowl at a tendril of the greasy mist as it tried to squeeze past her ankles. She kicked it, and it withdrew with a squeal more felt than heard.
Now, lad! came a voice, definitely in the mind, but all could see the person it issued from with such commanding power; a tall man with long dark hair, the same burning eyes as his descendant but wearing clothes that placed him at least three hundred years in the past. Steve nodded, and his voice and Pan’s rose together to a final crescendo, striking out at the mist and clearing hundreds of year’s worth of congestion from the place where the two worlds met.
A shout, a pause, and Bruce felt his ears pop. An ominous silence loomed over the circle.
“Is that it?” said Janick, from a very long way away.
“Aye,” growled Pan, somewhat out of breath.
“Did it work?”
“Oh yeah,” said Dave.
“Now what?” asked Bruce, his own voice sounding breathless and weak even to his own ears.
“Duck,” replied Dave, already face down in the grass. Bruce and the others followed, with some alacrity; the sight of the forest God dragging Steve down was more than enough for them.
The explosion that ripped over their heads tore away the mist, rolling it up and tearing it to shreds and splinters, blasting the shades of family and evil ghosts alike to oblivion and clear air. The ground flexed and rumbled, pressure dropped and rose once more, and then the shock wave rolled over them all, bringing with it a bellow of sound that even they - veterans of many a massive PA and huge-voiced crowd - had never heard the like of before in their lives. Bruce jammed his hands over his ears and swore soundlessly into the grass even as the storm charged through the little meadow; if he survived this he was never, ever going to mess with this sort of shit ever, ever--
Silence fell, leaving the ears and brain to ring with the sudden absence of anything but the normal, peaceful sounds of a perfect English summer night.
Bruce sat up.
Pan lounged in the grass, a rather startled looking Steve cradled in his lap.
“And that,” he chuckled, showing no more than the very slightest flash of sharp, white teeth, “is all there is to it.”
They’d picked themselves up, dusted themselves off and gathered in the centre of the disintegrating pattern. Davey swept a toe across a fragment of line, smiling as it scattered in a brief flash of glittering particles before vanishing.
“Worked well, that,” he said, sounding pleased with himself.
Steve had disentangled himself from Pan with as much speed and dignity as he could, but the God had still managed to get a good grope in. He glared at him and rubbed his backside as he joined the others in their huddle. Pan made his way across, dropped Steve a wink and draped an arm over Bruce’s shoulders.
“So what now?” asked Nicko, raising his eyebrows at them all. Davey chuckled.
“I hadn’t thought about it, really. Steve?”
He blinked. “Me either. I guess...”
Pan cleared his throat, and all six men looked over at him. He lifted his hand, gestured at the sky; for a moment, none of them could see what he was waving at. Then they did, and the night was filled with exclamation.
A million million little sparkles, and once they’d realised that they were there a host of other sounds too; rustling in the grass and larger movements beyond the hedgerow, the darkness suddenly alive with bodies.
“They return,” rumbled the God, “they are all going home.”
Chapter 12: When Two Worlds Collide
He became aware, then, of a pattering and rustling all around them; he grabbed Steve's arm again, and crowded close to him, breathing ratcheting up a couple of notches with the fear of the unknown that crept and ran and chattered all around them.
When Two Worlds Collide
The growl of the motorcycle coming into the old courtyard alerted Steve, dragging his attention from the pile of papers he’d been working on. He looked up, watching the distorted image flicker across the uneven glass of the old window; sure enough, it was the visitor he was expecting. If this interview went well - and with fair luck and a following wind - his beloved band would stop being the lost, fractured thing it was currently and be a functioning entity again.
It had to be. It had to work. He wouldn’t let it not work.
Memories of what had happened to Bruce and Paul flashed through his mind and nagged at him, but he pushed them aside firmly. That was not going to happen again; third time was supposed to be the charm, after all. Superstitious it might be, but he’d seen too many superstitions turn out to be rooted in solid fact to ignore them.
The rider cocked his leg over the bike, dismounting, and stared at the offices for a moment before pulling his lid off. Steve grinned, watching the young man stare at his converted barns; studio, office, flat...it was all here. Impressive as all get out. And if he gave all the right answers today, why, he could be a part of it too.
“Blaze!” he called out the open window, waving the visitor toward the main door. “I’ll buzz you in.”
Ushered to the studio, Blaze nodded and made all the right noises, asking just enough technical questions to leave his host in no doubt that he knew what he was on about. The two men chatted for a while until Steve made a run to the kitchen for bottles of water; turning away from the fridge he jumped, startled to find that Blaze had followed him. The younger man smiled, dropped his gaze.
“Jesus! You move like a bloody cat.”
Blaze chuckled, accepting the bottle passed to him. The two men swigged, watching each other; Steve let the silence stretch out for a moment. Something was bothering Blaze, that much was obvious; equally obvious was the fact that he didn’t have a clue how to phrase a question about it. Serious enough to make him doubt the offer, from the way his eyes flickered away from Steve’s, and yet odd enough to make him shy of putting those same fears into words.
Somebody had been telling him stories, and Steve leaned back against the fridge and waited for Blaze to work his way through the emotional minefield until he felt able to ask a question. Not something he wanted to rush, after all.
“I was just wondering,” said the younger man, his voice quiet and uncertain.
Here it comes, thought Steve.
“Only I’ve heard stories.”
I bet you have.
“Funny stuff. Weird rumours about what happened to...to Paul. And something about a hotel in Paris.”
You’ve left out Adrian.
“There’s some sort of fucked up story doing the rounds about Adrian, too. Why he left.”
Silence fell. Blaze looked out the window, clearly embarrassed; he fiddled with his helmet, and blushed a bit.
“And what do you think?” asked Steve, watching the other man. He was going to have to tell him, he supposed; no point in claiming no knowledge, because the first time something unpleasant happened he could well find himself down another singer. And that was a royal pain in the bum, quite frankly; all he wanted was someone who could perform the material, put the band first, tour until they fell to bits, write good material and--
Well yes. Put like that, perhaps it was quite a bit to ask but anyway. That was what he needed, and if he had to be honest about the... other... stuff to get it, then so be it. Or more or less honest - as honest as it took to get what he wanted. What was best for the band, he amended piously in the silence of his own mind, and his conscience snorted at him from its dark, dusty corner.
Blaze was beginning to look like a kicked puppy, and Steve chuckled. Somewhere in the little grove of ash trees behind the barn was a good place to look for strange stuff; there was a fairy ring outside it and true to all the Old Wives tales it did indeed mark the spot where supernatural things happened. Of course, the fact that fairies themselves were a good deal less pleasant than often portrayed was something else that Steve tried not to think about; how the little savages ever got themselves linked with flowers was beyond him. More gore than gossamer, and he hoped they weren’t the ones he’d have to show Blaze. Something a little more peaceful would be nice. Something more sociable and less sociopathic.
“I think there’s no smoke without fire,” finished Blaze, and tilted his chin up in a show of defiant resolution. Steve smiled.
Blaze blinked. Not the answer he’d been expecting. Not at all.
“In fact, come with me. I’ll show you something that’ll make your eyes pop out yer ‘ead; then we’ll come in here, I’ll give you a beer and we can talk contracts, right?”
The defiance had shaded back to uncertainty. It was plainly obvious on his face that he thought the older man a nutter; what could he show him that would make the wild stories seem so unimportant that he’d sign on the dotted line straight away?
“Come with me,” said Steve with a wink, and led a very confused Blaze out of the room.
June, 1999, England
Bruce ran after his friend, catching his elbow and spinning him round. The others paused, looking back; they’d thought they were leaving until Pan had rumbled something at Steve and he’d turned, marching across the field toward the other gate without so much as a word.
“What’d you say?” asked Adrian, scratching his chin and eyeing Pan. Pan eyed him right back.
“I reminded him of his obligations.”
“But it’s over, innit?” asked Nicko, and Janick nodded in agreement. Davey, on the other hand, swore and took off to join Bruce and Steve where they argued, beginning to wave their arms at each other.
“Yeah. What obligations?” asked H, and Pan snorted.
“His family is still lost, is it not? I meant not his obligation to us,” and here the tall creature tapped his own chest, cocking his head and narrowing his eyes at the dismayed expression, “but to himself. And his own.”
“Bugger,” said Nicko, and the three men made their way through the damp grass to join their friends.
“And your obligation to him, of course,” said Pan to himself, and looked pleased.
“You can’t go in there!”
“Why not? I want me kids back. They’re alive. Pan knows they’re alive so I’m going in there. Either you come with me or you fuck off, Bruce; your choice. But I’m going.”
Bruce searched his mind for reasons. There had to be a way to stop him, surely? Dealing with the ones marooned in this world, bereft of most of their power and glamour had been bad enough, but facing them on their home ground?
He thought of something, ignoring the hurried arrival of Dave closely followed by the others. “Time. Time runs differently in there, doesn’t it? You could go in there--”
“We,” said Nicko, tone firm. Bruce ignored him.
“-- and come out to find a hundred years had passed. Do you want that?”
“I don’t care.”
“You forget,” added a deep brown voice, shaded with something that sounded suspiciously like satisfaction, “he is the Prophet. Time will dance for him there; it is in his blood and his--”
“Shut up, you great hairy fool. It’s dangerous, Steve.”
“I’m going anyway. You in or not?”
“You’ve got nothing! No weapons! No plan! No map!”
Pan opened his mouth to speak but closed it when Bruce turned to glare at him.
“No fucking clue. You saw what the fuckers did to me--”
“I have apologised for that,” said Pan, sounding rather wounded. Nicko snorted.
“--and Paul, and you can’t have forgotten Blaze so quickly, can you?”
Silence for a moment, broken only when Steve grabbed Bruce by the front of his jacket, bunching his fists in the fabric and dragging his friend forward until they were nose to nose, his own face contorted with anger.
“Forgotten? I’ve watched it happen to all three of you. I’ve watched my friends suffer, my life crumble around me, my family stolen and I haven’t been able to do a fucking thing about it! Not a fucking thing. I’ve begged and I’ve pleaded and that’s been fucking useless. I’ve stood up to them and got my fucking arse kicked, and a friend nearly killed. Forgotten? You arrogant bastard, Bruce. I’ll never fucking forget! Ever!”
Big hands gently disentangled him from Bruce, turned him round. The same hands gripped his shoulders, gave him a small shake; he looked up into Nicko’s broad, concerned face, and felt the anger beginning to drain away. Bruce was right, of course; going into their territory unprepared was indeed suicide. The fact that he was right made it all worse, naturally.
Nicko sighed, holding Steve firmly and looking as though all the weight of the world was on his shoulders.
“Don’t bollock him for giving a shit, Harry. We got a good idea what you’ve been through - no we don’t know for sure, don’t shake your head at me - and we don’t want to see you get killed. If we thought we could just waltz in there and say, what ho, give us the kids and nobody gets ‘urt then yeah, we’d be off like a shot. Brothers in arms and all that. But it isn’t gonna be like that, is it? You know it and I know it. What we need is a plan.”
Pan cleared his throat.
“I have a plan,” he said.
August, 1995. Essex.
Blaze followed Steve through the waist high bracken without speaking. He was probably, thought Steve wryly as he stepped over a particularly nasty tangle of sharp thorned bramble, trying to figure out how to tell me I’m crazy without offending me too much. Still, we’ll see what’s about and then we’ll see who’s crazy, eh?
They crashed their noisy way through the scrub, emerging finally into the little copse of woodland some distance from the studio; the air was thick and hot, smelling of drowsy summer and sleeping greenery, not a breath of air here under the trees. Blaze flipped a hand in front of his eyes, chasing away the tiny sweat flies that had homed in on him and trying to brush bits of briar stuck in his clothing with the other.
“You sure about this, mate?” he asked, sounding dubious. Steve cocked his head, reaching out with his mind to see if he could ‘feel’ anything close by. This was something he’d only realised that he could do recently; he supposed he’d ignored it for so long that the ability had become rusty, closed down in a box in a corner of his mind with all the other supernatural stuff he’d try to pretend didn’t exist. He sort of remembered being able to do something similar as a teenager, which is why he’d tried again; he’d been more than a little startled when he concentrated and found that he had an ability to mentally map the supernatural beings in any given area. Weird and unsettling didn’t even begin to cover it, but he’d decided to stick with it and keep a constant eye on who and what might be mooching around close to him.
Because after Paris... well, a lot of things had changed after Paris.
Blaze shook his head. Here he was, travelling all this bloody way to chat about a new job and he’d been dragged out into the bloody woods to watch a man who he’d thought was one of the most grounded, sensible individuals in rock zone out and make like a shaman. In Essex. Behind his own studio. Searching for fucking fairies. Ha bloody ha.
He folded his arms, rocked back on his heels and tried to ignore the flies. He wasn’t a country boy, and all this greenery was getting on his nerves; at this rate he’d vanish and his body would never be found, because it was dumped in a shallow grave in the middle of bloody nowhere in Essex. He could see the headlines now - missing rock frontman, police baffled. Any minute now Steve was going to pull out a spade and bash his head in, horror movie style, you just watch.
The whole thing felt unreal.
Steve blinked, shaking his head as he came back to himself. He turned to the younger man and grinned, setting off into the trees and beckoning him to follow.
“Come on, mate. You’re not gonna believe this!”
Quite possibly, thought Blaze as he stomped through the undergrowth after him. After all, what was he going to see? A carefully set up diorama featuring fake looking fairies, or some sort of light show? The guy was clearly nuts. Too many years at the top had fried his brain, and--
“What the fuck,” he breathed, slithering to a stop and grabbing Steve’s arm, “is that?”
“It’s a pig,” chuckled Steve, unwinding Blaze’s fingers from where they were bruising his arm.
“Not that. That.”
‘That’ was a series of smaller figures accompanying - and riding, in a couple of cases - the pig as it foraged through a hollow amidst the undergrowth. Grey skinned, ugly, with large feet and hands and faces only a mother could love they were carefully shepherding the large, pink skinned animal through the woods, watching it feed and chattering amongst themselves in their guttural, rough language. The largest one spotted the two men, and turned to bow, sweeping a filthy felt hat from its head and brushing it low in a gesture of respect. Blaze stared, trying to tell himself that it wasn’t real; his mind, however, was insisting that it must be.
Details, it said, details. That hat. You’d expect it to look like something from a toy shop, right? No, this one looks exactly like something that’s been used hard for years - you don’t get that much dirt and wear overnight and I don’t care how fucking good a model maker you are. The feather in the cap - now being held in front of the chest of the dirty grey creature, which was watching them with black, shiny boot button eyes - was green, and looked like it had come from a budgie; Blaze’s gran had kept a neurotic budgie for years, and as a kid he’d been fascinated by the feathers the shrieking horror had scattered whenever he went close to the cage. The colours were amazing, exotic; especially for a boy who saw nothing more interesting than dirty grey city pigeons and the occasional seagull on a regular basis.
It was a budgie feather.
He was watching a troupe of midgets no bigger than Barbie dolls chasing a pig through the woods. In England. Essex. In the mid-nineties, not some Victorian novel or movie, this was happening here and now and it was real and--
“They’re Gnomes,” said Steve calmly, nodding to the one that still stood before them. “Carry on, mate, I just wanted to prove a point to my friend here.”
Blaze blinked, and realised he’d forgotten to breathe.
The individual - must be some kind of foreman, or head of the family or other type of boss - bowed again to the two men, slapped his hat back on his head and ran to the others, waving his arms and shouting in a high pitched, squeaky voice the tone of which indicated extreme displeasure. The group scattered, some of the smaller ones laughing, others ducking their heads and grimacing under the tirade. The pig, who had been snuffling through the undergrowth while all this was going on, turned to eye the two men; she blinked impossibly long lashes across her grey eyes, and Blaze swore she winked at him before turning away and allowing herself, in the good natured fashion of free range pigs everywhere, to be prodded toward another part of the woods. The Gnomes on her back touched their caps as they passed Blaze, and went back to poking their patient mount with sticks, which she continued to ignore.
He became aware, then, of a pattering and rustling all around them; he grabbed Steve’s arm again, and crowded close to him, breathing ratcheting up a couple of notches with the fear of the unknown that crept and ran and chattered all around them. They were surrounded; the little beasts weren’t just running along the ground, they were scrambling through the trees, popping up out of holes in the ground, everywhere. He turned, trying to see his way back to the studio and encountered another one, sitting at eye level on a branch and scratching its nuts. It looked at him for a while, cocking its head at his sudden flinch, then winked and scrambled straight up the smooth grey trunk of the tree. Blaze stared at the place it had sat; there were marks from small feet there, tiny claw scratches in the bark and a muddy scuff where it had pushed off to run up the tree.
He could smell it, too. Not a pleasant smell, but not too bad; a little like something small and dead left out in the sun too long.
Another one sheltered under a stand of briar, and this one was taking a leak; clawed hand clutching a small grey cock, it directed the jet to spray a snail, laughing in a sharp, wicked little voice when the snail drew its head in, rolled from the twig and lay upside down on the ground, foaming.
The rolling patter swept past them, Blaze turning in place and watching the cascade of tiny, ugly figures running past them after the pig. Details kept jumping out at him; a hat made from a worked piece of Coke can, even tinier individuals kicking a stone between them like a football, the chattering of two gnarled, bent individuals that snorted as they scuttled past the two men, identical to two old women commenting sourly on the state of the youth of today. Blaze’s eyes darted around until the woods fell silent once more, and then he turned to Steve.
He was leaning against a tree with a smug smile on his face, watching Blaze dealing with his first brush with the really and truly supernatural in all its grimy glory.
“That,” said Blaze, and had to stop to clear his throat, “was all real, wasn’t it?”
Steve snorted, and turned to lead the way back to the studio. Blaze followed him in thoughtful silence, not saying a word until they scrambled out of the undergrowth and stood once more on good, honest concrete; he touched Steve’s arm, turned him and looked into his eyes.
“Just one thing.”
“Are they... I mean, can they be--”
Steve held his hand flat, then weaved it in a maybe-yes-maybe-no motion. “Well, there’s one or two aren’t that friendly. But as long as you’re careful and ignore anything small and weird in your hotel room then it’s me they bother, nobody else.”
“Bruce and Paul?”
“Weren’t too careful. Took an interest in it and it took an interest right back.”
Blaze nodded thoughtfully, looking across the sunlit courtyard and sucking on his teeth before canting a sideways glance back at his host. “So if I ignore it, it’ll ignore me?”
“That’s about the size of it, yeah.”
He grinned, and Steve returned it, relieved that Blaze seemed to have taken it so well. Of course, they had a long way to go, still; but the biggest hurdle was the first. Once you’d accepted the concept, the details could be sorted as they came along. His conscience was still having a bit of a squeak about the whole business, but he was used to ignoring that.
“Well,” said Blaze, offering Steve his hand, “I believe you were talking about a contract?”
Steve took his hand, gripped it. “You in?”
“Welcome to Iron Maiden, mate.”
Chapter 13: Brave New World
The crossing from one reality to another is rarely easy. Where disparate parallell universes rub against each other they wear their walls thin; thin, but not completely through. And pushing through the skin of not one but two universes can have its consequences; this is, of course, why so much magic must be expended to smooth the passage of travellers.
Brave New World
“So where do we cross then?”
Steve lifted his face and closed his eyes, turning to sweep the quiet meadow with his other sight. Pan held back, a small smile tugging at his lips. Once he’d told them he had a plan it had been the work of a moment to get Bruce’s reluctant agreement that they should move, and move now; the High Fae would be in chaos, he’d said, and it behoove them to strike as soon as possible before they could move the captives somewhere even Pan couldn’t find them.
Or kill them, of course.
“There,” said Steve, grinning at Bruce who sighed and shook his head. ‘There’ was a small stile leading to a wood, little more than a scruffy patch of scrub trees over a ditch, thick with litter and dull with grime.
He snorted, but held back as the others walked past him and gathered before the rickety structure; the fence either side of it was in disrepair, and it didn’t look like it would hold any of their weight. Pan winked, hurdled it in a single leap--
-- and vanished in midair. Steve stepped back, eyes wide in surprise; even he had not expected the crossing to be so, well, blatant. Davey laughed with delight, and elbowed his way through.
“Come on,” he grinned, “I’ve always wanted to see Fairyland.”
He vanished as he cocked his leg over the rotten top rail of the fence, his yelp as he lost his balance cut off in the middle. Adrian cried out, jumping forward; he waved his hand over the top rail, but nothing happened.
“Who’s next, then?” asked Janick, folding his arms and stepping back, removing himself from any hint of candidacy. The remaining men looked at him, and shuffled their feet.
Steve rolled his eyes. “Oh, come on. Me next.”
He too slipped into thin air at the top of his climb, managing to yelp out half a word before the little copse was once more inhabited by no more than a few scruffy sparrows and half a ton of rotting, windblown rubbish.
Nicko, Adrian, Janick and Bruce stared at the stile. Now what? Bearing in mind how dangerous they’d all been saying Faerie could be, and the two that had gone yelling out as they vanished? What had they been calling, a warning? Were they waiting, grumbling, on the other side, or lying in a series of bloody heaps with one of those supercilious bloody High Fae waiting patiently for the next one to come through?
The silence stretched out until Bruce sighed. “Well, we can’t stand here all bloody day, can we?”
Adrian snorted, and scratched his chin whilst eyeing the fence. “I dunno, mate. I think we ought to wait until one of them comes back and gives us the all clear.”
“What,” asked Janick, still keeping his distance, “if it doesn’t work like that?”
“Then we’ll be here all fucking night and Harry will bollock us six ways till Sunday when he does get back. I’ve got an idea.”
Sure enough, a mere five minutes later Janick and H were balancing on the stile together, sneaking nervous glances at the creaking fence and wobbling a bit. They would both go over together, followed immediately by Nicko, waiting with one foot on the bottom step. Bruce, of course, wasn’t going to bother with the stile; he was going to start his run up as soon as they started moving, and hurdle the fence all in one go.
“On three!” called Nicko, and Bruce shouted agreement from half a field away.
“I’m not so sure this is a good idea...”
“Shut up, Jan.”
Janick attempted to step off the stile back into the field, getting tangled with Nicko who was coming up. Adrian was half way over, hanging on to Jan’s arm and pulling him, while Nicko was trying to lift him over from behind.
“No! I’m not ready!”
“Bleedin’ ‘ell boys, move!”
Bruce leapt, hitting the three men squarely and carrying all four over the top with a yell and a crash of splintering, rotten wood as the top of the fence gave way.
The crossing from one reality to another is rarely easy. Where disparate parallell universes rub against each other they wear their walls thin; thin, but not completely through. And pushing through the skin of not one but two universes can have its consequences; this is, of course, why so much magic must be expended to smooth the passage of travellers.
But in some ways it’s like birth. Dangerous, messy, and never quite what you expect it to be...
A drop that rivalled anything any of them had ever experienced on a rollercoaster, tremendous pressure and heat that was chased away by roaring black clouds of ice, tearing through their unprotected flesh and splitting them open, scattering their minds to the solar winds and throwing their bodies into the blistering inferno. Personality fading, pain and pleasure singing along every nerve ending, light shining through their souls and blackness swallowing them into its icy maw, they fell.
The four men hit the ground in a swearing, groaning tangle.
“Bloody hell,” said a familiar voice, “you lot took your time. And what the fuck were you up to?”
“I think,” said someone else, leaning over H and rolling his eyelid up with his thumb, “they came over together.”
“Why? Bloody fools.”
“Because,” groaned Bruce, rubbing a hand across his eyes and trying to remember what shape his head should be, “you and Davey yelled going over and we weren’t sure if you were supposed to do that or if something had happened to you. Get off me Nick, you great oaf!”
“Yeah,” agreed Nicko, still face down in the grass, “we thought you might need help. I can’t move till Janick does, boss.”
“Help?” Steve snorted.
“Yeah. You still alive there, Jan?”
“Help how?” asked Davey, crouching by Bruce’s head and eyeing the tangle of limbs. “I mean, if there’d been something nasty waiting for you what were you hoping to do? Have them laugh themselves to death?”
“Fuck off,” grumbled Janick, crawling out of the tangle and banging his head on a tree stump. “Ow. Stop laughing, y’bastard.”
This to Pan, who had found their arrival most amusing and was indeed laying on the grass bellowing with laughter. Dave grabbed Adrian’s hand and pulled him up, which let Nicko crawl off Bruce’s legs and climb unsteadily to his feet. Bruce lay there, eyes closed, relishing the lack of pressure; he tried to remember the crossing, and was faintly disturbed to realise that he couldn’t. Oh well, it would come back to him, he supposed.
“You going to open your eyes or what?”
Steve’s voice, amused.
“Am I going to regret it?”
“Try opening ‘em and find out.”
Bruce opened his eyes, and began to laugh.
“This? We thought you were being menaced by this?”
Steve snorted. “Apparently.”
Once they’d all straightened up and got over the shock of being greeted by what appeared to be the cast of a Disney movie Pan - who told them it was something to do with animals being attracted to the vibrations of arrival - sat them in a circle and gave them what Bruce liked to think of as the Idiot’s Guide To Faerie. One, accept no gifts. Unless you could return something of equal or greater value then you would be beholden to the giver until such time as they chose to release you. Two, eat or drink nothing unless Pan said it was all right to do so; again, this could lock you to Faerie so tightly that you might never get free to go back home.
“Drink nothing unless it’s been passed by the management, eh?” grinned Janick, and H elbowed him.
Three, don’t wander off the path. Faerie could be a confusing place at the best of times, and after the door had been opened it would be doubly so, for a while; the very structure was in flux, and if they became separated the lost member of the party may never be found. Because not only might they be irretrievably lost, but the possibility of becoming a meal for something was also disturbingly high.
The woodland wildlife - cute as it had been - had finally wandered off. Picking themselves up and dusting down, the six men began to follow their guide deeper into the magical realm. They walked in silence for a bit, until Nicko ambled alongside Bruce.
“Have you noticed something about Pan?” he asked, cocking an eyebrow down at his friend. Bruce snorted.
“He was going to look different here. What did you think I meant when I said it would be a bad idea to come here unprepared?”
“Well, yeah...” replied Nicko, voice trailing off as he studied their guide, frowning a bit and biting his lip. Bruce snorted, shook his head; he knew they hadn’t really believed him that they would be in danger - not really - but none of them could deny that Pan certainly looked a lot more dangerous. Untamed. Savage.
Maybe it was the air, maybe it was the place but big as he was, he seemed bigger here. His horns no longer peeped from his loose mane, but arched above his head and swept down, making a formidable curl that stretched some three feet out from either side of his head and ended in sharp-looking points. They gleamed with health, as did the coat on his bestial half; that seemed shaggier, stouter, as though the travel had transformed him from half domestic goat into something that was much wilder. The sort of thing you’d find half way up a mountain that wouldn’t so much eat your socks as push you off a precipice - and laugh while it did so.
The hair on his human half now fell to his waist, a glossy tumble of curls that bounced and swayed with his walk - well, Bruce had to admit to himself, it wasn’t so much a walk as a swagger. Not that Pan hadn’t always moved with a certain, well, confidence; but here he stepped through the glades as though he owned the place. Of course, with Steve at his side he probably did, and speaking of Steve...
Bruce began to chuckle, and when H and Nicko looked at him he pointed to the part of the path Steve was walking on; it took them a minute to figure out what he was pointing at, but when they did H called Dave and Janick across and the five men stood and watched Steve walk in astonishment.
“I wonder what happens,” asked H, giving a sly half-smile, “if he stands still for a bit?”
“I dunno,” Nicko said, “let’s find out.”
Pan, realising the rest of his group had formed a stationary huddle behind him, frowned and stopped, turning to glare at them. He watched them chuckling for a minute, then turned and cocked an eye at Steve, who glared back at him.
“You don’t know what they’re laughing at?”
“No I don’t. Although it don’t take much to set that lot off.”
Pan stroked his chin, smothering a wide smile; Steve hissed between his teeth, then seemed to feel something move beneath his feet. Looking down, he staggered back with a yelp, falling on his backside; sitting there staring at the verdant growth where he’d been standing all he could hear were the hoots of laughter from his bandmates, who’d been watching the greenery lovingly growing beneath his feet while he’d been standing and staring at them.
Indeed, the trail they’d been walking along was marked with a line of extra, fresh growth where Steve’s feet had fallen; it seemed that Faerie was determined to welcome the Prophet, and shower him with as many of its benefits as possible.
Steve scrambled to his feet, trying to ignore the lush growth where he’d fallen, and shot Pan a very dirty look.
“Fear not, Prophet. The effect should be... temporary. The land is still welcoming the release you afforded it, and it appears to be grateful to you.”
Dave elbowed Bruce, who was leaning on his shoulder almost crying with laughter.
“What was it you said that day, outside the library?”
Bruce cast his mind back, then began to snicker again. “’Needlessly messianic’?”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“I’d say he looks pretty messianic now though, wouldn’t you?”
“Through all the daisies? Yeah, I’d say so.”
And they both folded up again. Pan snorted, shaking his horns, and Steve grumbled under his breath.
“If you bloody hyenas are quite finished, we ought to get on. Alright?”
Wiping the tears from their eyes they resumed their walk, admiring the scenery even as Steve’s verdant green trail still drew the occasional snort of laughter. Sweeping down, Dave pulled a small handful of grass and regarded it thoughtfully. Janick ambled over, nudging him.
“What you got there?”
“Why? You gonna eat that?”
Dave laughed, then looked contemplative again. “No. But it’s interesting; look at this place. I mean, it’s all green, but see where we are it’s even greener?”
“The trees,” Nicko agreed, cryptically.
Indeed, although the network of small copses that surrounded them were green they were constantly surrounded by a fluttering storm of falling leaves every time a breeze rustled the branches; beneath the old leaves fresh new ones were pushing forth from the twigs, displacing their drier, older counterparts. Bruce caught a leaf as it drifted past his nose and hurried to catch Pan up. He passed it to him, and the forest God nodded slowly as he examined it, finally crumpling the leaf in his hand; when he opened his fingers nothing but a swirl of dust was carried away on the breeze. Bruce’s eyes widened.
“That’s some grip.”
“Nay, Bruce. Try it.”
Before long they all had, and all wore puzzled frowns; the leaves blowing from the trees - although still green - were drier than any autumnal fall, and crumbled away to dust in the hand. Pan sighed, angled his head to look at the trees with some fondness.
“That’s why the door had to be opened,” he said, his voice a caressing rumble as he held out his hand and caught a dry leaf in its flight, “the land choked on its magic. All the magic could do was preserve; there hasn’t been a springtime here since the door was closed. The door is opened at last, and the magic can escape; your world is even now finding wonders in the wind, and here?”
He smiled at the nearest tree, ran his hand over the gnarled surface in the same way one would pet a horse, and the bark brightened even under his touch. “Here, we have spring again.”
No-one could be sure how long they’d been walking for, but all were tired, hot and dusty by the time Pan called a halt. He led them to a small grove of willows, right by a pool fed by a small waterfall; the sunshine danced on the water, and it was quite the most beautiful spot any of them had ever seen.
“I believe,” he said, smiling in a distinctly paternal way at them all, “that some refreshment is in order, don’t you?”
“I didn’t think we were supposed to eat anything?” grumbled Janick, who’d pulled his boot off and was examining a reddening blister on his heel. Pan clucked his tongue and shook his horns, his mane tumbling down around his face.
“Sit, gentlemen,” he rumbled, “my children shall provide.”
He waved his hand at the surrounding trees, and Nicko yelped as he felt the trunk he was leaning on move under his shoulders.
“Children?” asked Bruce, and laughed when he saw the trees twisting and opening, letting their spirits out in the form of beautiful, scantily clad young women. It was like watching a drawing by Escher come to life; the slender young willows couldn’t possibly contain girls, and couldn’t possibly be turning inside out to release them, and couldn’t possibly--
Best to stop there, Bruce thought as one of the green skinned lovelies brushed past him. Following a train of thought like that around here could drive you insane, what with all the impossibilities running around living and breathing and being real; and the Dryads weren’t the least of it. From the sparkling pool arose more of the young women, chuckling like the river as they brushed their cool fingers across the faces of the men.
Pan clapped his hands together, and more forms began to whirl through the glade; slender Fauns giggled at the stunned expressions of the men, and young male Satyrs winked at them, their goatlike hind ends being playfully tweaked and stroked by the Dryads and Nymphs. Blankets were spread, and plates of food brought out from nowhere; flagons of drink and goblets of glass and silver spread before them, although it took some effort on Pan’s part to persuade them that they were quite safe to partake.
“But you said,” objected Adrian as a particularly flexible young lady Faun climbed into his lap and tried to offer him a sip from her goblet, “that we weren’t supposed to - no dear, not right now, ok?”
Pan rolled his eyes. “You are under my protection here, and nothing bad will happen to you if you refresh yourselves. You have my word.”
“Good enough for me,” replied Janick, who had settled back into the lap of a Dryad, having his hot feet massaged in the cool fingers of one of the water Nymphs. The Dryad appeared to be fascinated by his hair, and was running her barky green fingers through it, exclaiming to one of her sisters in astonishment. She leaned over to look into his eyes, which brought her small breasts right above his face; Janick relaxed even more with a happy sigh, accepting the morsels of food the Dryad was slipping between his lips, following it with sips from her goblet.
Pan reclined across the glade, attended by several of the Fauns and Satyrs; he might have called them his children, but some of the things they were doing with him were definitely not, Nicko observed somewhat acerbically, the sort of thing you should be doing with relatives. Bruce waved a hand at his friend, who was trying to dodge the attention of three Nymphs in various shades of blue. They appeared to find his height something of a challenge, and it looked as though they were just itching to begin an assault on Mount Nicko.
“Relax, Nick. We’ve got plenty of time, we’re quite safe right here, the food is edible and the lovelies are very lovely. Right love?” he said to the Faun who was running her fingers through his short hair and laughing gently with her sisters about it.
The meal passed in a leisurely fashion, and it was only when the sun began to slide toward the horizon that Dave sat up - dislodging a giggling Dryad from his lap - and looked at his watch, shaking his wrist before putting it to his ear.
“Damn! Pan, shouldn’t we be --”
Pan looked up from where he and Steve had been talking quietly, and shook his head. “Worry not, friend Davey. Plans are afoot; the High Fae know not that we are here. At first light we mount an attack on their stronghold, but for tonight...” he smiled broadly, and stroked the curly hindquarters of a handsome young Satyr that passed him a flagon, “you get to enjoy my hospitality. The finest the Summerlands have to offer. Once you are sufficiently refreshed you will be led to bowers prepared exclusively to you; there you may rest - or do as you please - until you are called to press the attack in the morning.”
He smiled at them, and they looked at Steve, who shrugged. “Fair enough, squire,” he said with a sigh, and settled back to watch the sun set over the forest.
A fire had been lit, and the men were becoming quite engrossed in watching the dancing put on by the various revellers for their entertainment; it had become clear that if they didn’t want to spend tonight alone in their bowers - whatever they might be - they wouldn’t have to. Janick looked to be about ready to call it a night with his coterie of Dryads, who’d spent all night giggling and fussing over him; Adrian, after some initial reluctance, had also been beguiled by the amount of supple non-human flesh on display and even Nicko had rather fallen for his trio of Nymphs.
Davey was laughing with a group of Satyrs and Fauns, urging them to greater efforts as they danced, and only Steve sat somewhat apart, attended by many with great respect, but singling none out for attention. His eyes kept turning to the west, where Pan had said the stronghold was; Bruce could almost read his friend’s mind, and knew he wanted nothing more than to go, now.
But not even he was so stubborn as to ignore Pan’s counsel in this, and so he waited, watched the feasting and dancing, smiled at the fireworks and displays of blazing sparks put on by some of the Summerland’s stranger inhabitants, enjoyed the tales being told by the gnarled old creature that had arrived late, to much excitement amongst the Dryads. Known only as the Storyteller, he held even the melancholy Prophet’s attention with his weaving of words; shaking his head at the revelry - which promised to get more debauched as the night wore on - Bruce strolled to the edge of the clearing, and leaned on a tree to watch the moving darkness.
“I hope you weren’t considering wandering,” said a familiar voice, and Bruce smiled up at Pan.
“Nah. Just feeling bad for Steve,” he said, looking up at the form of the God that he’d become so familiar with over the last month.
Funny, but here it seemed as though he didn’t know him at all, really; his form was so different, so much more powerful - primal, almost. Here you could see the form that early man had glimpsed, and shaped within his own imagination to Bacchus, and Pan, and the less frightening, more playful form of Puck. But back on his home turf, the centre of his power, surrounded by his own kind and feeling the life flowing back into the land?
He seemed unstoppable.
The horns seemed even longer, the chest broader; in fact, he resembled nothing so much as some of the drawings of Satan that Bruce had seen. Pan stretched, curling his arms behind his head and arching his back, flexing all his muscles and spreading his arms to the starry arc of the sky, tipping his head back and sighing, shaking himself down and giving Bruce the wide, wicked smile he’d become accustomed to. That, it seemed, hadn’t changed a bit.
“Can you feel it, little man?” he asked, lifting his head and breathing deep. “The air here is... alive. No taint of steel in this place...”
Bruce laughed softly. “You old poser,” he said, and Pan dropped him a lewd wink, swaggering a few paces closer.
“The air dances for me here,” he rumbled, and Bruce noticed that the shadows couldn’t hide the erection that was beginning to rise up, breathing the electric night air for itself. Another pace, his hooves making muffled thuds on the turf, and then he was right there, overwhelming presence looming over Bruce; the air must indeed be alive, he thought, for sparkles of light limned the edges and curves of the being before him, glittering on the horns and sparkling in the corners of his fathomless black eyes.
And when he reached out one large hand and touched Bruce’s cheek he couldn’t help but nuzzle into it; Pan smiled, a slow spread across his face that revealed his teeth, sharp and white. Who could resist such a specimen, here on such a night? When the Nymphs and Dryads danced and the very ether itself caressed them both, inviting desire to rise and spark for the sheer joy of being alive?
“Come with me,” said Pan, and Bruce took his hand and allowed himself to be led away into the forest, aware of whispering and rustling around them, catching quick glimpses of slender forms dancing along beside them, gasps and murmurs following them into the waiting dark. They emerged into another clearing, smaller than the one where his friends sat around a fire and sported; lights hung from the trees, all the colours of the rainbow and then some, living lights that writhed and sighed even as they lit the breathing space.
A floor of soft mossy grass, arching branches, a small spring chuckling from a rock; a pile of soft animal skins heaped into a natural hollow beneath a gnarled and contorted thorn tree that twined its thick, spiny limbs around a sturdy oak and a tall, solemn ash. The ancient three watched over their son as he drew Bruce down, hot breath on his neck as he reacquainted himself with the contours of the human that had bravely followed him so far.
“Strip,” he growled, and there was less of the human in his voice every time he spoke, “I want to see your flesh.”
Bruce rose to his feet, and although he didn’t exactly do a strip tease - ‘tease’ was not going to be something he would risk around this Pan, not ever - he took his time, letting Pan’s eyes roam across his skin as he exposed it, touching him as he stared, lust glowing in those dark eyes. Naked, Bruce stepped closer, allowing the rough fingertips to stroke him, trace the line of muscles and cup his balls, rubbing back between his legs and then putting his fingers in his mouth with a wicked chuckle.
Pan rolled closer, drawing his hands up Bruce’s legs, nipping along his thighs and lapping at his skin with his roughened tongue; Bruce groaned, and ran his hands along the glossy arch of the horns, rubbing down to bury his hands in the thick mass of curls. The bestial form of the God encircled Bruce’s hips with his arms, pulling him close while he nuzzled and nipped at his stomach, hot breath washing against his skin making him shudder and lean back, feeling somehow safe even though the form that was holding him, caressing him, was as strange as anything in a mediaeval bestiary.
He relaxed, allowing Pan to sweep him into the pile of skins laid ready to receive him; the softness of the furs stroking along his spine made him arch, pushing himself into the rougher texture of Pan’s chest, the harshness of the coat around his hips and groin teasing nerve endings already tingling with the spicy anticipation of the unknown. He grabbed the horns, stilled Pan’s head to kiss him; hot and deep, that inhumanly long tongue delving and demanding, stroking the inside of his mouth and drawing back, pulling his with it to return the favour. Grinding and bucking, mouths locked together and groaning into each other they let the heat of their coupling sweep them away, the witchfire outlining their bodies and drawing their forms into one creature made up of lust and desire, passion and fire.
Ignited by the rutting of their God, the clearing filled with the forms of Satyr and Faun, Dryad and Nymph, all sharing in the hunger of the couple in the hollow; stranger creatures twined amongst them, scales and smooth skin, fur and feather, limbs and wings and claws all dancing to the oldest tune in the universe.
The very ground itself trembled; the life flowing back into the land jolted into white fire by the sheer vitality of the dance, spreading out from the sacred hollow to twist through channels long dried out for the glut of magic, static and congested. Roaring as a living flame the passion flowed, and every creature in Faerie felt it in their bones, their skin, their being.
Lurking in their sullen fortress, long white faces scowled out at the vibrant forest and swore vengeance on the one that had broken their long, silent hold on the land, and every living thing within it.
Chapter 14: Heaven Can Wait
A rustle at his window drew his eye, and in the gap perched a wren. She bowed to him, made her quick call as of two stones clicking together, and winked.
Heaven Can Wait
When Bruce woke up he found one of the svelte Fauns waiting for him, her slender hind limbs and dainty hooves tucked under her sleek, glossy haunches. She smiled into his eyes, and asked him something in her native language; the bright chirrup was incomprehensible as words, but the tone he got right away.
“Bit sore, actually,” he smiled, rolling on his side and hissing as abused muscles stretched and cursed.
She laughed, and handed him a silver goblet. He took it, raising an eyebrow at her; he hadn’t forgotten Pan’s admonishment of them not to eat or drink anything unless it came from him. The Faun rolled her soft brown eyes, and mimed Pan’s great sweep of horns with her hands. Bruce snorted, decided he’d deal with any consequences later, and drank.
Whatever was in the goblet did the trick, though. He sat up, blinking down into the depths of the silver; about the only descriptive word that came to mind when he looked at the stuff was ‘green’.
But it tasted of - oh, it tasted of--
It tasted of the forest, of fresh spring mornings and lazy summer afternoons, of flowers and foliage and the rich darkness of the fallen leaves in the winter.
The Faun clapped her hands, laughing. Bruce realised he was staring into the goblet, eyes wide with surprise, muttering nonsense under his breath - something that the creature watching him found most amusing. He shot her a dark glance, and with a chuckle she leaned forward and kissed his cheek before she pointed at his clothes, heaped on the end of the pile of furs he’d shared with Pan the night before.
Draining the goblet he shooed her away from the bed, rolling his eyes when she pouted at him.
She jumped to her feet, turning to face the intruder with an expression as fierce as anything he’d ever seen; recognising Steve, she bowed low before shooting Bruce another very naughty little wink and bounding away into the dappled green light of the forest.
He pulled his jeans toward him, and began to dress. Steve ducked under the low spread branches of the thorn tree, cursing under his breath when it snatched a tendril of long, auburn hair. Bruce snickered, zipped up his jeans and hunted for his shirt.
“Watch it, Harry - they can be vicious, those spines.”
“You’re telling me.”
He flopped down on the end of the makeshift bed, and looked off into the distance with a sigh. “Pan says to hurry up,” he said, then fell silent again.
Bruce finished pulling his clothes on, laced up his boots then shuffled to sit next to his friend, bumping him with his shoulder. “Hey. You OK?”
Steve was silent for a moment longer. “What if they’re already dead, Bruce? We could be doing this for nothing.”
He looped his arm around his friend’s shoulders and pulled him in for a hug, sighing for the pain in Steve’s voice. “Look, we don’t know. You’ve got to keep hoping, Harry. Never give up hope.”
They sat in silence for a while longer, and listened to the sounds of the forest coming to the fullness of morning life around them. Eventually Steve shook himself, disentangling from Bruce.
“You smell like a goat.”
Steve shot Bruce a mischievous sideways glance. “I dunno, you and your weird kinks. Come on, we’ve got to meet up with the others--”
They scrambled out from under the thorn tree, Bruce laughing at Steve when he got himself tangled in a particularly nasty cluster of sharp edged spikes.
“Watch it, Harry.”
“Ow! Why a thorn tree?”
“Symbol of old England, mate.”
“Bloody perverse if you ask me.”
Snorting with laughter, Bruce punched him in the shoulder when he managed to make his way up out of the hollow to join him. He took a moment to look into his eyes, the deep brown still haunted but clearer than it had been for a long time. With a nod, he turned to follow him out of the glade to rejoin their friends - and begin the journey toward war.
“If you’re all quite finished?” grumbled Steve, and the amusement faded from Pan’s eyes.
“Indeed, Prophet,” he said. “This foolishness has persisted for long enough. Atop yonder hill waits the whole of the Fae nation that swears their allegiance to your cause; many of us were exiled or imprisoned, oppressed beyond belief by the ‘High’ ones in their stronghold. But the gate is open, and the spring has come again... follow me, now, and we shall triumph over those that hold the ones you keep closest to your heart.”
They followed Pan and Steve out of the forest, climbing the steep slope of an earthwork close by; as they neared the summit Nicko cocked his head and nudged Bruce.
“What’s that noise?”
It was a rumble, a sigh of presence, a shiver of anticipation that reached them on the morning breeze. Bruce shrugged; he couldn’t see any Fae nation, and to be quite honest he was beginning to worry about this whole enterprise. Pan was powerful, yes, but--
They reached the summit of the hill, and Steve swore under his breath at the sight that greeted them. Pan swung his arm wide, and flashed his teeth in a sharp grin.
“Your army, Prophet. They wish to swear their allegiance to you, and then fight at your side and on your behalf.”
The slope down to the grassy plain was covered in creatures large and small, shapes exotic and bizarre; the crowd spread across the plain, becoming a multi-coloured carpet of movement and noise from their lofty vantage point. There must be thousands of them....
Pan shuffled the humans around into a semi-circle, and remained at Steve’s shoulder as the Fae made their way up the hill and bowed to him, swearing their lives to his service in gratitude for the saving of their world. Bruce glanced at Nicko, who shrugged; looked like they had a plan, and an army, and even a General. Maybe they would succeed after all.
“Good grief,” he muttered, and Steve’s eyebrows shot up to hear the God make such a mundane expression of exasperation.
The reason why, however, soon became clear. Marching between the ranks of Fae came the latest addition to their little army; goblins, of all shapes and sizes from some little larger than Gnomes - and thus the size of your average action figure - to hulking great Trolls, blank eyed, fanged and dangerous.
In the lead, clothed in armour that didn’t fit and pushing his helmet up from where it kept falling into his eyes, scampered an all too familiar figure. Dragging his sword point in the dirt and waving a rusty javelin he grinned proudly, gesturing for his army to halt and yelping when the troll behind him almost walked right over the top of him, having missed the signal totally. The scream of pain from having something resembling an ambulatory concrete block tread on his toe was shrill enough to make the army pay attention; they stopped in a rough clatter, and the troll picked Lars up and placed him atop its head, hooding its blank grey eyes and squatting back into apparent lifelessness, nothing more than a platform for the odd shaped general to make his pronouncement from.
Lars grinned at Bruce, then bowed.
Pan covered his eyes when Lars’ helmet fell down, confusing the goblin to the point where he fell from his platform with a squeak.
Recovering his balance on the ground, Lars pushed his helmet back up his brow, settled his sword and picked up his javelin. Squaring his shoulders - and ignoring the sniggering from around the circle of watching nobility - he marched to Steve’s feet, and went to one knee; he waved his hand back at the long, scruffy column of goblins, squeaking and growling away in his own language. Steve nodded, fighting down a smile when the goblin laid javelin and rusty sword at his feet, bowing his head.
The meaning was clear; my people are your people, and yours to command.
Pan cocked his head, and asked a question in the goblin’s own tongue. The troll - waking from apparent immobility - growled an answer, added to by the piping voice of the smaller goblin they’d all become so used to. Pan’s eyes widened, and he asked another question; the troll laughed - a series of grating, grinding sounds that made Bruce think of stones rolling downhill - then answered.
“What?” asked Steve. Pan blinked at him, then turned to Bruce.
“Your little...friend down there,” he said with a shake of his horns, “has somehow managed to mobilise the entire goblin nation. Every species, every tribe.”
“Whoah,” Bruce replied, but Pan shook his head again.
“You don’t understand. This has never been done. I could not do it. The High Fae cannot do it. The Prophet - alone - could not do it.”
Bruce looked at Lars, waiting by Steve’s feet, head bowed again while he waited for his help to be accepted or rejected.
“But your goblin there has managed it.”
They stared at the long line of grey forms, twining down the hill and back into the forest, and all eyes went back to the rather stunned Prophet.
Steve went to one knee in front of the motionless goblin, and picked up the small sword. Turning it over in his hands for a moment, he looked up at Pan, a question in his expression; rolling his eyes, the God said something under his breath and reached down to touch the sword. In a moment it went from rusty relic to brave emblem; sharp silver, embossed and engraved, the weapon of a hero.
Steve offered it back to Lars gravely, hilt first. The little goblin looked up, gulped; he shot a quick glance at Bruce, who nodded.
He took it back, and to everyone’s surprise the troll raised itself up, turned to the army and bellowed something in their own language; the roar that returned had the very ground shaking, and the troll bowed to Steve before settling into immobility once again. Bruce bent down, dropping to both knees; Lars walked up to him with a huge grin on his face, shiny sword safe in its tatty scabbard - still dragging on the ground - and javelin over one shoulder.
“You done good there, kid,” he said, and while the goblin blushed he picked him up and gave him a hug; Lars froze for a second, then flung both skinny arms around Bruce’s neck, and hugged him back as tightly as he could whilst wrapped in his ill fitting ironmongery.
“And now it is time to march,” said Pan.
Accompanied by more and bizarre creatures than any of them had even dreamed existed they made their way down the hill toward the distant stronghold of the High Fae; what they would find there they didn’t know, but the evil that had closed this wondrous land off for so long would give up its secrets to them.
Or it would die.
The Prophet set his lips into a thin line of determination, and marched away to war.
June, 1999, A Hospital in Sussex.
“And how are we today, Mr Bayley?”
Blaze glared at the nurse, who smiled at him brightly and helped him to sit up.
“The same as yesterday,” he muttered at her, scowling, “and the day before. Still like shit.”
The nurse made soothing noises, fussed around him for a little longer then left him in peace. Blaze sighed, and stared out the window gloomily; nothing ever changed here. It was supposed to be, according to the literature, a place to heal from trauma emotionally, spiritually and physically; well, they might be doing a bang up job on the physical side, but the rest of it?
The nightmares, he thought, watching a wren pottering through the bushes outside the window, were probably the worst of it.
Well. That and the broken bones. And the examinations. And the stitches. And the pitying looks which, although he had yet to catch anybody doing openly, he was sure he was getting.
A psychologist had been in to talk to him, yesterday. She’d been very good, very calm. She’d never used the word ‘rape’, and indeed had looked away from him when he’d screamed it at her, spittle spraying from between his wired jaws. She’d just sat there and accepted his anger, his rage, and told him it was a normal reaction to the sort of violation that he had been forced to suffer.
Then he’d thrown the water jug at her, and she’d stalked out with her dignity intact and he weeping in fury, unsure whether he was more devastated about the attack itself or the fact that he had just attacked a woman.
Like it mattered.
He pulled his knees up to his chest, wincing from the way it pulled on his still only half-healed injuries, wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his forehead on them. He was, he knew, in a specialist programme; he was being treated by the very best head doctors in the country at dealing with, well, his sort of trauma.
He rolled his head to the side and eyed the bright summer day outside the window. Yeah. Like he could open up and talk to them even if he wanted to....
There had been another guy, a young chap. He’d come into the room - walking with a stick, bruising still evident on his face - and offered to talk about it. He’d been attacked after a night out, beaten up and left for dead. Raped. Repeatedly. And yeah, he felt sorry for him and he seemed like a nice guy but what was he supposed to say? Yeah well, at least your attackers were human? Somebody - a friend of his mother’s, he thought - had sent him a card with a unicorn on it, and he’d had to hide it underneath all the others. And he still couldn’t sleep without drugs until it was ripped up and thrown away.
The wren was sitting on the windowsill, watching him with bright black eyes. The window was standing open a little to admit the fresh, summery breeze; the nurse had thought it would do him good, and he’d ignored her. What did it matter to him if the bloody window was open, closed, smashed or whole? Nothing mattered anymore.
The wren hopped to the gap, and leaned its head round. He couldn’t help the smile that tugged at the corners of his mouth - the way the bird was sticking its head round the frame then pulling it back when he met its eyes reminded him of a very small child playing peek-a-boo. He shook himself mentally. This was a bird, for fuck’s sake. They didn’t do stuff like that.
Only apparently they did, because the creature gave a sharp whistle out of the window then flew in and perched on his knee.
He stared in shock. Had the little brown bird just winked at him?
More shocks were to come. The wren fluttered up to the window above the door, and peered up and down the corridor; it cocked its head to look at him and - he was sure of it this time - shot him a conspiratorial wink. It resembled nothing so much as a guard, ready to warn him if anyone came down the corridor. Him? Or someone else?
That question was answered a moment later when a larger bird fluttered to a halt on the sill. A blackbird, plumage gleaming in the sunshine, bright orange-yellow ring around its eye giving it an expression of intelligent humour. It tipped its yellow beak at him, and dived into the room; when it landed on his knee he noticed (with the part of his mind not wondering what the fuck was going on) that it was a great deal heavier than the wren.
He knew he shouldn’t have been surprised when the bird bowed, cocked its tail and turned to reveal a tiny rider.
“Go away,” he said with a sigh. The blackbird gave a melodious whistle, and fluttered back to the window; its rider, however, remained on his knee.
Unable to do anything more than stare he did just that as the little man made himself comfortable on top of the bedcovers. Wizened and ancient, there was nevertheless a friendly twinkle in the tiny, boot-button eyes; Blaze had thought he’d never trust a denizen of that other world again, but the wren, the blackbird and the bearded little gnome all exuded an air of... friendliness. As bizarre as that sounded.
“Go away,” he repeated, but his heart wasn’t in it.
“Young man,” said the gnome, and Blaze’s eyebrows shot up at the deep, rolling power the little creature put into its voice, “you have suffered terribly. Not all of us approve of what has been done to you, you know.”
And oh God, he might have only been three inches high but there was such compassion in that voice that Blaze felt tears begin to well up. The blackbird whistled mournfully from the window, and the gnome waved his hand at it.
“I know, Goosegog. Time is short, Mr. Bayley; do you give me your permission to work a small magic, prove to you the truth in my words?”
“I don’t know....”
“Your suffering - even though it has lead to the opening of the door between worlds - is wrong. But with the opening of that door, we can finally put it right - please, Mr. Bayley. Let us put right what our brethren made wrong.”
Blaze settled back against his pillows and sighed, letting his eyes drop closed. Why not. It sure couldn’t be any bloody worse, could it?
He nodded, and the gnome clapped his hands and grinned so widely his tiny eyes vanished into the weathered folds of his cheeks. He turned and barked a single word at the blackbird, who whistled once more; Blaze cracked his eyes open in time to see a steady stream of butterflies - butterflies? - begin to flap their dizzy way through his window. Goosegog the blackbird hopped around, shepherding the brightly coloured insects into the room; the gnome scrambled to his shoulder, steadied himself on Blaze’s ear and began to hum a cheerful little tune. The blackbird cocked its head, flipped its wings in time with it then echoed the melodic sound, and the wren added her high-pitched descant; the butterflies danced in the warm, antiseptic-smelling quiet of his room, and Blaze began to smile.
This was magic. The magic he’d believed in as a child, healing magic, beneficial magic.
He smiled as the butterflies danced and the gnome and the birds sang to him, and he allowed the music and the slow grace of the insect wings to lull him into a light doze; he missed the gnome murmuring words into his ear as he slept, the healing magic stirring through his body and his mind, driving out the poison implanted there by the wicked High Fae.
When Blaze awoke, he thought it had all been some kind of pretty dream; but he felt a great deal better, and even thought that he might like to talk to that counsellor now. Maybe she really could help him.
But damn, that had been a strange dream.
A rustle at his window drew his eye, and in the gap perched a wren. She bowed to him, made her quick call as of two stones clicking together, and winked.
Chapter 15: These Colours Don't Run
"You cannot go into battle as you are," he explained, and the gaze he ran up and down Janick's long form in its customary jeans, tee shirt and denim jacket was really rather lewd.
These Colours Don’t Run
The company reached a small hollow, the castle of the Fae beginning to loom over them as they drew closer. In the hollow had been a glisten, a tremble in the air as of heat shimmer; a word from Pan and it cleared to reveal a series of tents, several fine horses (six, to be exact) tethered outside the largest. Pennants in brave colours snapped and fluttered in the breeze and the whole scene looked as though it had been conjured straight from a fairytale.
“What’s this?” asked Janick, his brows knitting. Pan winked at him.
“You cannot go into battle as you are,” he explained, and the gaze he ran up and down Janick’s long form in its customary jeans, tee shirt and denim jacket was really rather lewd. Janick blushed and shuffled behind H. “Inside this tent is apparel more suited to battle, and attendants to assist you in donning it.”
Steve hissed between his teeth, glaring at the castle. “We don’t have time, Pan.”
The forest God laid one large hand on his shoulder, and the slot-eyed glance was filled with compassion. “Come with me, Prophet. We have time, and more than time.”
And with that cryptic comment he led Steve away, several slender, diminutive men coming out of the tent to usher the others inside. Lars and his enormous troll placed themselves on guard outside the largest tent; the troll watched the goblin march up and down with something close to affection; his helmet kept slipping down over his eyes and he tripped over the end of his javelin every few paces, but the expression on the wrinkled grey face was serious. None would pass, not while he was on guard.
The five men inside the tent had no difficulty understanding their assistants, even if they didn’t speak the same language; the clothing they were brought appeared archaic, but the hardened leather armour and helms fit them as though tailored. Boots of fine leather, but armoured with plates of thin steel; chain mail, each garment looking to their eyes as though it should weigh a ton, but lighter than they could have imagined. The attendants - although taking their work seriously - understood the exclamations of surprise; they explained about each item in their own language, then shook their heads and laughed at the expressions of confusion.
“I don’t care what it is,” said Bruce, turning his shoulders to admire himself in the full length mirror supported by a somnolent troll, “it looks great. Think they’ll let us keep it?”
“I am not,” grumbled Adrian, trying to step away from a fussy little creature that was making a brave attempt to tighten a strap around the top of one boot, “playing guitar in this getup. It’s alright for you, dashing about without a care in the world--”
“Do I get a sword? I want a sword,” added Davey, nudging Bruce aside to admire himself in the mirror.
“’Kin ‘ell,” was all Nicko could manage, staring at his reflection with wide eyes.
“Yeah, this is all very well, but I want a--”
“Weapons,” rolled the mellifluous sound of Pan’s voice from the tent flap, “will be provided. As will aides to ensure your safety - you are not experienced enough in the use of sword or staff to be able to adequately defend yourselves.”
Bruce stalked up to the forest God and poked him in the chest with one finger; Pan looked down his nose, and fought down a smile.
“I beg to differ,” grumbled Bruce over the stifled snorts of the others.
“Perhaps you won’t be a complete liability,” replied Pan mildly, full lips twitching. Before Bruce could reply he shook his horns, gesturing for the five men to accompany him outside. What they saw when they emerged into the sunshine of the fine spring morning stopped them cold; they thought they’d seen all the impossibilities this world had to offer, but it turned out that they’d barely scratched the surface.
“My friend, the staff will never break - be sure to keep your opponents at the far end of it and you will live a long time!”
Nicko nodded and went to take his place by the centaur contingent, standing a little shorter than they and shuffling his feet to keep them out of the way of the large hooves.
H was claimed next, by a squad of elven archers; slender and tall, they differed from their High Fae cousins in only minor ways - the most obvious one being that they had very little by way of magic, and thus had to make do with bodies and senses not so very different from the human norm. They presented him with a bow and a short sword, the hard-eyed female commander attaching the scabbard to his waist herself. She handed him to her second in command then bowed to Pan, who acknowledged her with a sweep of his horns; H joined the ranks, folding his arms to watch his friends and looking right at home amongst the elven force.
A tall, robed man came next; he presented himself to the company as the leader of the magic-users of the force, the ones who would be fighting with minds and elemental powers alongside the more mundane, metallic weapons. They were all of different species, some beautiful to look at and some horrific; all sizes and shapes were there, the common thread that ran through their ranks the knowledge that shone in their eyes. Their leader bowed to Davey and requested his presence, presenting him with a short sword in a silver-inlaid scabbard as a token. It was sharp of edge and could be used as any other sword, if he so wished; but it also bore enchantments that would warn him of approaching High Fae, and allow him to focus his energies through the gleaming blued sheen of the blade. Davey stared at it, eyes wide, then bowed to Pan and took his place amongst the magicians.
Janick was claimed by the pikemen, their weapons jabbing fearsome toward the skies; he was given a sword, and a horn to call assistance should he need it. He went with them, cocking his head to eye the steely sharp tips of the long spears and already laughing with the stern-faced men that made up the company.
Pan shook his head at the next choice; from the ranks of Fae nobility and spirits of the forest came a familiar grey form, less than knee high, and followed by the blank-eyed troll that had assumed the role of bodyguard. To the apparent disgust of many of the ranks of high-born creatures that waited the troll was leaving furrows in the new grass; Lars might be light of foot, but his companion was leaving a trail that a bulldozer could be proud of.
Lars stopped in front of Bruce, and grinned; Pan rumbled unhappily deep in his chest, then turned to Bruce with a sigh.
“The goblins have requested that you march with them; it’s up to you, of course, but there are many would relish your help. The dryads, or the water elementals? You can pick your force, you know.”
Bruce looked at the small goblin, and dropped him a wink. “I’ll fight with the goblins,” he said, and was rewarded with a cheer that shook the leaves from the distant forest trees.
Pan - after shooting Bruce a very direct look that suggested they would be discussing his choice later that evening - raised his hands for silence once the men were all settled with the forces they would be attacking with. As soon as they had all fallen silent and were watching him he turned back toward the main tent, and dropped to one knee; bowing his head he waited, the entire force holding its breath.
Steve emerged, but even Bruce had to look twice to be sure. Not only was he attired in armour richer than any of theirs, a scarlet cloak swirling heavy around his shoulders, but there was a difference to his expression and bearing that none of them had ever seen before.
He was no longer just Harry Harris, rock bassist, West Ham fan, father, husband, friend; this was the Prophet of the Fae, his power crackling through the crowd and demanding the respect due the last holder of the title. Head high he regarded them all, hand resting loosely on the pommel of the long sword at his hip; Bruce had never seen Steve handle a sword in his life, but he was suddenly sure as he could be that once he drew that fearsome blade the Prophet would know exactly what to do with it.
As one, the company dropped to its knees in acknowledgement of the ancient power before them - and the five men knelt too.
It seemed to be the right thing - the only thing - to do.
Their magic was reluctant to obey them, the very fabric of their world resisting their attempts to force it back into the cold stasis it had been trapped in for so long. The land of Faery was more alive than most; it had tasted freedom, could breathe for the first time in centuries, and had no wish to return to the state it had been in before. It couldn’t refuse its erstwhile masters, though; it fought, it resisted, it did everything it could to thwart them.
But in the end it had to capitulate, and the High Fae assembled their soldiers and their magics, and awaited the arrival of the opposing force.
Deep under the castle, where dark things hid from the hideousness of their own existence, a small squad of Fae hand-picked for their savagery and lack of conscience hurried on their way. Their mission was vital; if they failed, then their entire species may well fall. Their leader glanced behind them; none followed, not yet. And with any luck they would be well away before anyone realised what they were up to.
With a sharp gesture of his long fingers he set free the magic that held up the walls, and the passage collapsed behind them. The heap of stones formed a natural-looking slope, and there was no evidence that there had ever been a hollow there at all, let alone a tunnel.
Eyes shining in the darkness, the evil hurried away.
Lars, seated in front of Bruce on his horse, shivered and eyed the ground. It was a hell of a long drop for the little goblin, and the mobile block of concrete that was his aide couldn’t hide a grin at the expression. Bruce steadied him, and hoped that the little beast didn’t get horse-sick. Goblin-puke he could seriously do without.
The attack was begun almost before they realised what was happening; no long siege this, but a swift crush of annihilation. Davey’s horse was obvious amongst the sway of the magic-users; they threw a barrage of power against the gates, their battle almost silent as they matched their minds against those of the Fae inside.
It was over all too soon, and the archers raked the courtyard with a storm of arrows. Bruce hoped that Steve’s family, should they be in the castle, were safely out of the way; he guessed they were, or the Fae wouldn’t have hesitated to use their presence against Steve and his army. Which meant that they might not be in the castle at all, which begged the question of where they actually were--
Janick’s pikemen crossed the bridge and entered the castle, and Bruce realised that his army was moving as well. Time to go.
And speaking of swords--
Bruce ducked back into the battle, using his greater size to sweep attackers back from the hordes of shorter goblins. The trolls dealt with Fae by just walking over them; they kept going, slowing by degrees as the High Fae slashed at them with swords and with magic, each one replaced by another of its brethren when it fell. And when they died they returned to the stone of which they were made, which was quite inconvenient for any creature held in their grasp at that point.
A roar and a cloud of dust made him stumble back, swiping his sleeve across his face to clear the choking fumes and grit; he heard Pan shout, the edges of the God’s voice coloured with fear and Steve called as well, Nicko’s boom just a hair after their yells. He turned, still blind, raised his sword in defence - and had it torn from him by a swipe that, had it connected, would have torn him in half. Aware that the shouts around him had become screams Bruce dived to the floor, rolled; something massive swept over his head again, and he knew that if he couldn’t clear his eyes he was going to die.
Shrieks of triumph made him angry enough to dash the last of the blinding grit from his face. What he saw had him scrambling to retrieve his sword, although he knew it wouldn’t do any good.
A Fae sat astride the neck of a monster, narrow face alight with devilish glee. Its mount resembled one of the trolls, but was three times the size and bore far more by way of claws and teeth. And as fearsome as the trolls could be, they were nothing compared to this beast; under the control of its master it stormed through the courtyard, slaughtering all it came across. And now its rider had Bruce in his sights, and the beast was hunting him.
And it carried a club, Bruce noticed as he hurdled a piece of fallen stonework to escape it. Its aim wasn’t fantastic, but considering that said club was the size of a medium-to-large oak tree it didn’t have to be accurate, it just had to keep pounding until all the enemy was dead. And if they couldn’t figure out how to stop the damn thing soon, then they were all going to be so many greasy smears against the stonework.
A cry, a figure outlined against the sky; some of the force must have struggled up through the walls of the castle, because the archers now lined one side of the courtyard on the battlements, picking off enemy Fae with pinpoint accuracy. And amongst the slender forest-green of the force stood one a little heavier, a little broader.
Bruce just had time to wonder if H’s aim was any good when the rider of the monster shrieked and straightened, clutching at the white fletching of the arrow that had sprouted from the dead centre of its chest. A quick glance up at the battlements confirmed the surprising truth; H was a better shot than even he thought, if his astonished expression was anything to go by.
Unfortunately, killing the rider had exactly the opposite effect of the one they were hoping for. Instead of evaporating on the death of its summoner, or vanishing once the spell was broken the beast froze for a brief heartbeat - and then went insane.
Pan’s shriek of fury tore across the courtyard, but had no effect on the hulking brute. It now raged around the relatively confined space, striking at whatever it could see; one of Nicko’s centaurs was caught across the middle and ground into one of the walls, the monster pausing long enough to lift the dripping corpse and stuff half of it into its mouth with every evidence of glee. Bruce skidded to a halt, eyeing the creature; perhaps it was hungry, and would shamble off into the forest once its hunger was assuaged?
No such luck. It clapped eyes on the tired, dirty human and growled, eyes narrowed, bloodied lips quirking into a dreadful approximation of a smile.
It homed in on him, the whoosh of the club coming so close to his head that he wasn’t sure it hadn’t killed him, and he was watching the damn battle from outside his body. But it hadn’t, and in the brief glimpses he got of the battle as he dived for cover he could see Nicko and his troops chopping at its legs, H and the archers firing bushel after bushel of arrows, Davey and the magic-wielders - who had taken another side of the battlements - trying in vain to send it back to whatever Hell it had come from.
Nothing worked, and Bruce made one last desperate turn - and realised that he’d backed himself into a corner.
He was trapped.
Nicko’s shout was frantic, and the grey centaur skidded to a halt. His respect for this human had risen a hundredfold since the beginning of the battle; he knew to keep out of the way, how to take advice, and when backed into a corner could fight like the very devil. Several of Asterius’ people owed their lives to the big blond human, and this would never be forgotten.
But for now he was frightened, eyes wide and close to panic. Asterius grabbed Nicko’s shoulders and gave him a short shake, dragging the man’s eyes back to the here and now.
“Nicko, what ails thee?”
“In the courtyard!” and he was almost gibbering again, the fear rolling back over him. “The monster--”
“We cannot kill it, Nicko. We must leave it to the archers and press on--”
Nicko threw a glance over his shoulder and his breath hitched, a sob caught in his chest. “But it’s got Bruce cornered,” he said, that great bellow of a voice almost silenced. The centaur closed his eyes, and tightened his hands on the human’s shoulders in a brief gesture of solidarity.
“Then he is beyond our help,” he said, his voice soft with regret.
But all he could focus on were the great, glowing eyes that focused on him, back against the stone of the courtyard wall, the eyes that knew he had nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. His flight was over, and very shortly the beast was going to have the pleasure of crushing him to nothing and scooping the remains into its great, wet, red maw....
A smaller shriek, the merest echo of the greater voices that rang across the battlefield. Tiny against the bulk of the monster a small grey shape scrambled up its side, too small to be noticed; a great paw swatted at the annoying little interruption, but it missed; it took Bruce several seconds for his numbed brain to catch up with what was happening right in front of him.
The goblin had reached the great hunched shoulder, and with a brief glance down at Bruce he jumped, and plunged his rusty javelin into the huge wet gleam of the eye closest to him.
Time accelerated again. The monster arched, its spine snapped straight with the agony of the spear in its eye; it reached up to grasp the goblin who still clung to the end of the lance, that taloned paw closing on the tiny body with a crunch audible even from the ground where Bruce shivered. H screamed, and a shower of arrows sped for the other orb; the goblin’s body was flung aside, striking the wall to fall in a crumpled heap amongst the rubble.
Davey was shrieking something, and Nicko’s long form charged out of the shadows to slice at the back of the creature’s legs with a stolen polearm. The monster, wounded now, began to stagger in circles; Bruce waited for it to go to one knee, and with his heart in his throat ran toward it.
Up on some rubble, slash at its face and away; whatever they were doing appeared to be working, for the creature was now on its knees. Pan leaped from the shadows, eyes ablaze with fury, wielding a wickedly curved sword with a skill that would have amazed Bruce if he’d been paying any attention to it. He wasn’t, focusing instead on the creature as it dropped even lower.
It was crawling now, the huge talons still lethal as they swept across the flagstones in front of it. He timed his run, jumped over the closest paw; close enough to the huge bloodied head to count the whiskers, surrounded by the whistle and hiss of the arrows still being poured into the huge body Bruce stared at his foe for a moment, and felt an anger greater than anything he’d ever felt before. This creature was not only a symbol of every evil thing the Fae had ever done, but it was also a bloody great thing that had killed a creature that never wanted to do anything but be his friend.
And he wasn’t having it.
Bruce plunged his sword into the beast’s throat, pulled it through the tough flesh until a stream of hot black ichor burst from beneath the wrinkled black skin, then dropped his weapon and leaped away. The monster gurgled, attempting to draw breath through its punctured windpipe; all it could do was bubble in agony as its life drained away across the cold stone of the castle floor. Bruce straightened, and watched it expire; its last action was to stretch out a hand toward him, as though in supplication, or to beg for mercy.
There was no mercy here, and Bruce cast his gaze around the courtyard until he saw what he was looking for. Crumpled against the floor, no movement obvious from what he could see.
Bruce turned his back on the battle, and went to see if the goblin was still alive.
The roar of the battle continued to shake the walls, the air, the stones under his feet but Bruce was oblivious to it; his focus had narrowed to one crumpled grey form, oozing green fluid and shuddering with those last, heaved breaths.
Ducking under the sweep of a lance and hurdling a barrier of collapsed stone he made his way to where Lars had fallen. Fearing the worst, he hunkered down next to him and reached out, expecting to be too late. The skin under his fingertips was warm, and he was surprised to feel the weight as he turned the goblin over; he’d never realised how heavy the little beast was. Dead weight, ha ha.
Not quite gone. Lars grimaced, rolled his eyes and tried to focus as Bruce knelt beside him, carefully trying to prop him up, make it easier for him to breathe. Hidden from the rest of the fighting by a bulwark of fallen stone and the great hulk of the creature Lars had saved him from they crouched in the eye of the storm, a tiny backwash of quiet amidst the white waters of the battle.
There was no hope, Bruce saw that immediately; the helmet had stopped Lars’ head from being split right open, but there was still a deep gash over his left eye and an ominous swelling that oozed dark green. Worse, though, was the great rent in the chain mail, the rings driven into grey flesh and now soaked in blood; blood that bubbled with every heave of the narrow chest. The goblin coughed, and more of the green froth ran down his chin.
Bruce cradled the dying creature in his arms, and looked into his eyes.
“That was a very brave thing you did,” he said quietly. “You saved my life, you know. Thank you.”
He was making the assumption that Lars understood him; he’d always seemed to in the past, although God alone knew what the head injury had done. He must be assuming right, though; the gaze rolled toward him, and something that approached a smile tugged at the goblin’s bloodied lips.
He didn’t know what else to say, so he said nothing; any more words would have been inadequate, anyway.
The light faded from the goblin’s eyes, and his chest heaved; once, and again, one last, and then with a long, rattling sigh he went limp in Bruce’s arms.
Letting out a long sigh of his own Bruce sat back, leaning against the rough surface of a chilly block of masonry. He turned the body, held it to his chest; he knew that the life was gone, whatever had made the little goblin such a quirky, unique little person flown to wherever the souls of such things went but still... he couldn’t quite bear to put his burden down. Not yet. The battle was proceeding without him - in fact, from the sounds it was pushing further into the stronghold - so for now he could huddle in this corner, and mourn the creature who’d been a better friend to him - to them all - than they deserved.
Still warm blood soaked through his own chain mail, spread through the shirt beneath and cooled on his skin. Bruce lowered his head and sighed; the sob caught him by surprise - he wasn’t, on the whole, a man much given to weeping. Perhaps it was the place, perhaps the time or the circumstance--
Whatever the reason, Bruce held the body of the goblin to him and mourned, tears rolling down his face and dropping onto the still, grey form in his arms.
Chapter 16: The Longest Day
Every time they cleared a room, pushed their way through another section of the Stronghold and found nothing his heart sank a little further; what if the Fae had taken the time to kill their prisoners?
The Longest Day
Steve paused at the threshold of the most recent room to be cleared, and cocked his head up at Pan.
“Where are they?”
The forest God shook his head, and called out in an unfamiliar language to one of the enormous Trolls that was bashing holes in the delicately painted plaster of the walls. Steve winced; helpful they might be, these guys, but they sure had no appreciation for architecture.
Still, if it got his family back, who gave a fuck?
“The ground floor and the dungeons are cleared,” and Pan shook his head; the dungeons had been horrific. Adrian, Dave and Janick had led the assault down there, and even Pan had to turn away from the look in Adrian’s eyes when he’d come back up to tell him that the area was clear. “So that just leaves the upper levels. No creature has escaped us, of that you can be sure.”
Steve shook his head and turned away, biting at his lip. Every time they cleared a room, pushed their way through another section of the Stronghold and found nothing his heart sank a little further; what if the Fae had taken the time to kill their prisoners?
The touch on his cheek made him jump. Pan’s slot-eyed gaze was calm and sure, compassion overlaying everything else he might be feeling.
“They are alive, Prophet. This much I know.”
Steve hissed. He just hoped the hulking great bastard was right - or nothing would stop him until he’d hunted down every one of them that had anything to do with it. And if they thought things had been bad since he’d opened the gate, his retribution would be terrible indeed....
A sound behind them made them both turn. Bruce stood in the arched doorway, a small figure in his arms; they had all seen the monster in the courtyard fall, but few had realised just who it had been to make that heroic first jump to strike out the creature’s vision and distract it from its dreadful purpose. Adrian was the first to Bruce’s side, touched his shoulder gently; he shook his head, and crossed to where Pan and Steve waited for him.
He tilted the body that he cradled so close, and Steve closed his eyes with the pain when he realised exactly who the small grey creature was. Poor Lars, who had followed Bruce so faithfully since that first night when he’d arrived at his home to find out what on earth was wrong with him. If he’d handled his loss better his friend wouldn’t be going through this now--
Pan was beside him then, and he folded Bruce into his arms. Steve came closer, unsure if he would be welcome; a long arm snaked out, and he found himself drawn into the strange close hug that comforted Bruce, that comforted them all in their shared grief.
Some of the combatants had taken their dead away to their own sacred places; others buried them in the field before the castle, still more built huge pyres for their immolation. The goblins had come to Bruce, explaining through Pan in a very odd three-way conversation that they wished to take Lars’s body, to add it to the pyre of the fallen. There had been a brief argument, Bruce demanding that his friend be treated with greater respect than merely being added to a mass conflagration; Pan - to his surprise - agreed, and there had been a fierce discussion between the goblin leaders and the forest God that, under other circumstances, Bruce and the others would have found quite amusing. Seeing the huge power surrounded by creatures that barely reached his hocks and arguing with them in all seriousness would have brought a smile to many faces, had Bruce not been watching with the torn body of his friend in his arms.
Eventually there seemed to be some consensus, and Pan reassured Bruce that his friend would be treated with dignity. He watched the grey skinned goblins bear his friend away, the still form looking almost peaceful as he was borne off on a litter made of crossed spears.
They withdrew then, gathering at the tents where they had stopped before the attack. Tired, dirty and somewhat dispirited the leaders of the force gathered around a central conference table, food and drink brought by Pan’s children for all those that could stomach it. Steve paced, face tight with worry; no word had been received as to the whereabouts of his children, and he was all but ready to tear Faery apart stone by stone to find them.
“There will be no need for that,” said Asterius, Nicko’s centaur companion. “Word shall come. We have emissaries out through the whole land--”
Steve turned with a snarl. “Not doing any bloody good though, is it? I need - dammit.”
He walked out of the tent, the blackness of his anger following him in a great cloud. Those left within the tent exchanged glances; just how long could the Prophet continue under the terrible strain?
Pan roared, grabbed Steve’s arm in one hand and Bruce’s in the other, and raced outside.
The camp was in chaos, and with good reason: there in the very centre stood one of the High Fae, his companions ringed behind him, lit by the flicker of a bonfire that could not be seen. Each of the Fae held a captive; they had managed to take five of Steve’s children, the eldest being away from home when the Fae had struck. Their leader had his youngest by the hair, forced to his knees, the seven year old boy white faced with fear beneath his blindfold.
Steve didn’t even have the breath to swear.
“Ah, Prophet,” said the Fae, baring its teeth in a wicked smile. “We are, before any of your people try anything foolish, not actually here.”
“A projection,” breathed Bruce, and the Fae angled its head in agreement.
“For an animal you really are remarkably clever. Now. You see here our captives, yes? Do not doubt that what you see here is real, Prophet.” The smile widened, and the tone became playful. “You don’t doubt us, do you, Prophet?”
Davey appeared, and skirted the edge of the projection to join his friend. “Harry, it’s real,” he said, his own face now pale with the terror of what they were witnessing. “Trust me on this. What you see is what’s happening, it’s just a long way away.”
Steve gripped Dave’s hand in thanks - still unable to speak - and approached the projection with Bruce at his side, Pan hanging a little behind.
“Let them go,” he said, voice reduced to little more than a whisper.
“No,” replied the Fae. They were now less than ten feet apart, close enough to hear the noises the captives made as they shuffled in their bonds. Steve’s son could hear him, and they could all see the slow leak of tears from under the blindfold as he twisted his head, trying to escape and run toward his father’s voice. “However. We will allow them to live provided that you do as we say - and to prove how serious we are--”
And as casually as if he were pruning an overgrown bush the creature tipped the boy’s head back, and cut his throat from ear to ear.
Pan roared as Steve went to his knees, eyes bulging and face white as he watched his son choke on his own blood, limbs twitching in their ropes; Bruce was close enough to hear the gurgle of blood foaming through the slashed windpipe, and thought he was going to pass out. Steve kept trying to reach out, flinching when his hands went right through the image; Nicko was howling, his voice audible above the shocked cries of the watchers.
The Fae smiled, and gestured for the next youngest to be brought forth. He nudged the still twitching body to one side with his toe, and put the bloody knife to the girl’s throat.
“Will you do as we say, Prophet? Or will you watch the next of your line bleed out on the stones?”
Bruce knelt next to his friend, and tried not to look at the boy’s body. He’d watched all of Steve’s children grow up, become familiar with them and their personalities, even had some of the older ones over to stay. His mind couldn’t grasp what had happened - was still happening - and his greatest fear was that his friend would simply go insane without ever being able to help any of them.
His hand found Bruce’s, the grip painful, and the two men staggered to their feet like drunks on a Friday night, unsteady, red eyed and as frightened as children.
“What do you want?” grated Steve, fully aware of his daughter’s whimpers from where she was held in the Fae’s hard grasp.
The smile vanished from its face. “Close the door. But do it from the inside - that way you and your seed are sealed in here with us. They will live on, although they will serve us in whatever way pleases us; you will present yourself and your company to us, to punish as we see fit. That is the deal, Prophet. Many of our people have died this day, and there must be pain and blood to pay for it.” The Fae sawed the blade of the knife across the girl’s throat, lifting it to lick her blood from the shallow cut it had inflicted. “So,” it continued, eyes warm with pleasure, “what say you, Prophet?”
Bruce had one arm around Steve’s waist, holding him up; his legs shook so hard he would fall without the support. Still unable to drag his gaze away from the corpse of the little boy cooling in the circle of firelight he took a deep breath, and shook his head.
“Bruce,” he said, then looked up at the Fae. “You’re going to pay for this,” he said, his voice shaking.
The Fae smiled, and placed the point of the knife against the girl’s throat once more.
“What say you?”
Bruce found himself shoved back, caroming off Pan and landing hard on his backside. The forest God was still, a statue carved from oak in the firelight; Steve’s voice rang across the clearing, and his words drew gasps from all the watchers.
“I say fuck off!”
Bruce leapt to his feet, but had taken no more than three fast paces before the Fae plunged the knife into the little girl’s throat, the blood exploding from her pale skin in a dark arch, catching the light of the fire that burned beyond the range of the projection. Steve cried out, a small noise, choked to the back of his throat and it was Pan who caught him this time, those strong arms catching and cradling. Bruce stumbled to a halt, and stared at the awful truth of the events happening right in front of him - of them all.
Cold. All he could feel was cold; ice ran in his veins while he watched the child fall, the gurgling no less horrible for being expected. She was ten years old, and he’d first seen her when she was a week old; she called him ‘uncle Bruce’ and he’d brought her little presents from various exotic locations he’d flown to.
And her father had murdered her as surely as if he’d held the knife himself.
“God, Harry,” he whispered, but his voice was lost in the tumult. The Fae was screaming, demanding that Steve give in; Nicko was being pinned down by two burly centaurs, crying and fighting to get to the projection. Davey, Adrian and Janick clung to each other, eyes wide and wet, as horrified as any; Pan’s children and the low elves raced around the camp, throwing together what would be needed for a rescue mission, however abortive such an effort may prove to be.
And Harry clung to Pan, whose face was as still as rock. His large hands soothed, and the glitter in the dark eyes promised that whatever the end was going to be for the Fae that tortured them so, it would not be easy.
But when Steve pushed himself away and dashed the tears from his eyes, all stopped at his gesture. Even the Fae, in the process of forcing the next child to his knees - Thomas was twelve, and was fighting as hard as he could - froze at the raised hands, the cold stare.
“That’s what you want?” he said, and the Fae narrowed its eyes. Steve’s voice was strong, his spine straight; he was white faced and still trembling, it was true, but there was a strength to his voice that was unexpected. It snarled at him, and any caution that had whispered in its mind was thrown to the wind.
“Yes. Seal us in once more, Prophet. Seal us and they live.”
Harry’s snort even silenced Nicko, who was somehow managing to drag almost two tons of centaur forward in his sheer fury.
“I don’t think so,” snapped Steve, and although he stepped forward to glare almost nose to nose with the Fae he still avoided looking at the two crumpled bodies near his own feet. “Because I know something you don’t know.”
The expression on the Fae’s face went beyond words, and Bruce suspected his own was probably pretty close.
Harry looked down at the bound and gagged boy, and swallowed hard. “You know what to do?” he asked, and the small lips curved into a smile even as the boy nodded his head. The boy who was not, as it turned out, a boy at all; Steve turned away, making his way back to the main tent while everyone else stared, rooted to the spot, at the horror now unfolding within the scene thrown so far across the mad, magical land of Faery.
The corpses shifted and turned, the illusion of shape and form falling from them in layers to reveal the skin of the beasts underneath. Tremulous and quaking the flesh flowed, a shiver into its final form that was as well armed as any demon. White eyed but not blind the many-limbed things shredded their bonds, turned on their captors, and gleefully began to tear them to pieces.
The crowd watched in utter disbelief. All were glad that this was a mere projection; more than one flinched when a bloody limb was flung toward them, only to vanish at the limit of the projection’s field. The tight, pinched faces of the High Fae stretched wide in agony when the hooked claws of the monsters latched into them, appearing to take great delight in worming into every possible orifice then ripping it open until the skin exploded under the force. Innards splashed and fluids darkened the greasy skin of the monsters, their calls of joy promising to haunt the sleep of the watchers for many nights to come.
They called out the name of the Prophet, sang his praise to the sky that they could make such a glorious kill in his service; their forms flickered through an entire bestiary and beyond, even continuing the wanton destruction in gaseous and liquid forms. The grim show did not stop, and none of the watchers could leave; all that saved them from the madness that began to creep from the monstrous acts being performed was when the blaze that illuminated them began to die. The fire must have been driving the projection, for when it began to sputter low the images wavered, broke to pieces; the five companions of the Prophet found themselves the last to remain, final witnesses to the destruction of the creatures that had tormented them all for so long.
“And good fucking riddance,” said Nicko at last, some time after the last gruesome fragment had flickered away to nothing.
Bruce couldn’t help but agree.
Bruce couldn’t wait. And when he spotted Pan making his way into the side tent that he knew Steve was using to hide from everyone he dumped his tankard out on the grass, swept the pretty dryad from his lap and followed him. He wasn’t sure what he would find; it was not, however, the sight of Pan stretched out on a heap of rich, silken pillows and throws, Steve cradled in his arms. Bruce let the tent flap fall closed behind him, and watched them both for a while.
Pan knew he was there; the dark gaze had flicked to him as soon as he arrived, although he never stopped the slow stroke of those big hands along Steve’s spine while he shuddered in his arms. Bruce reminded himself that jumping to conclusions was a bad thing, counted to ten in at least four languages, then cleared his throat.
The Prophet’s gaze was bleary, red, and without a doubt even drunker than that of any of the mob outside.
“Bruce,” he said, and passed out.
Pan and he stared at the unconscious body for a moment, then the forest lord heaved a great sigh and scooped the man up, making him comfortable and calling a brace of nymphs in to care for him. He beckoned to Bruce, and they slipped out of the tent; the sounds of the revelry in the camp faded as they walked out beyond the circle of tents, strolling along in the moonlight as though nothing had happened.
Bruce couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“What the fuck happened back there, Pan?”
“You’re fucking telling me.”
Pan’s face wore a slight smile when he turned to face him, but the expression was cleared with a wince when Bruce began to spit words at him in an increasing fire of rage.
“So did they ever have the kids in the first place? Or was this - yet again - your fucking way of making us do what you wanted? How many of you did it take to cook up this fucked up scheme - and was Steve in it from the beginning? Because if he was that was a fucking cruel way to make sure we all played our parts. And if he wasn’t in on it, then how dare you force him to go through pain like that?”
Snarling now, Bruce jabbed his forefinger into Pan’s broad chest. “Not to mention the fact that have you seen what’s behind you out there?”
He indicated the plain behind them, the flicker of funeral pyres dotting the darkness, the still smouldering bulk of the castle hanging over it all. “You remember them - all those that fucking well died thinking they could save the Prophet’s children? What about them? What did they die for, Robin Goodfellow? Tell me, did they die for nothing? or does it make you feel all warm inside to know that you can send so many good, true friends to their death--”
Bruce’s voice broke, and he turned away. He knew Pan had stepped up behind him, but when he felt one big hand touch his shoulder he spun and knocked it away, coming up on the balls of his feet to threaten the God.
“No. Don’t lie to me, Pan. Tell me the truth!”
The tall creature sighed, and to Bruce’s surprise he folded his hind legs and sat down in the grass, his stare taking in the fires but focused on something else, so far away that it was possibly not even in the same world. He patted the grass next to him, and sighed when Bruce just folded his arms and glared; long fingers plucked a single blade that swayed in the breeze, and he inspected it for a moment before tearing it into pieces and letting it flutter away.
“Last night, while you were asleep, your goblin came to me. One of the goblin tribes include a very dangerous creature - so dangerous that it has no name. They almost do not exist at all.”
Pan raised his hand. “Please, listen. They exist in the spaces between the Universes; they have no real existence that you would understand.”
The God made a disgusted noise deep in his chest. “Your language is so - limited! These creatures could best be described as a wild idea. They can become anything they touch, but it goes far, far beyond simple changes of shape; what you saw truly were the Prophet’s children, for the time that they wore that identity. But they are not friendly, beneficial entities. They use their power to torture and to kill, and to destroy hope and love wherever they find it.”
Bruce, remembering what he’d seen them do to the Fae, believed Pan’s quiet words. He gave in, and sat himself down next to the sorrowful creature. Pan pulled him into his arms, against his chest, and wrapped in the safety of that warm grasp Bruce listened to the rest of the tale.
“Somehow - and it is beyond even my vast mental scope to understand how - your goblin persuaded these creatures to aid us. They were to replace the children, see them safely back to their own universe; and then, when they were allowed, to destroy those that had held them in any way they choose. They are not often released like that; even their own tribe fears them greatly, and keeps them under tight control. But the price was to be high.”
“Lars,” said Bruce, voice soft with regret, and he felt the brush of Pan’s short beard as he nodded.
“Indeed. But before you throw any more accusations at me, know this; the attack on the castle was genuine. Had we been able to rescue the children from the Fae, then the monsters would have retreated and the children would still have been unharmed. But we could not be certain that they remained within, and so the goblin’s plan was to be a fail-safe. One that, in the end, we needed.”
“It was his idea,” replied Bruce, mulling the words over in his mind. “But the creature - would it have killed me, or was Lars the target all along?”
“It would have destroyed you with the greatest of enjoyment - there are many demons that can be summoned from the darkness by those with will and knowledge, and that was not even the worst of them. Had your goblin survived the battle, the creatures would have taken him when they took the Fae - and you would not wish that on him, I assure you.”
“Stop calling him ‘your goblin’. He had a name.”
Pan’s chuckle rumbled through his body, and he nuzzled the side of Bruce’s face with affection. “Indeed - but to use your name would be disrespectful to his memory, and you could not pronounce his real name. Bruce,” and he turned in Pan’s arms; the God rarely used his given name, and the tone was heavy with sadness, “you were the very centre of that creature’s world. When he first encountered you he intended to do no more than cause mischief; that is what his kind do. It is what they are. But somewhere amongst following you around and helping you deal with the Prophet’s pain he saw something in you that inspired him; he saw greatness and fire, honour and dedication, and from that moment his whole being was focused on making you proud of him.”
Bruce couldn’t swallow; there was a great lump of something stuck in his chest, and he would have given almost anything to have had his grubby little grey-skinned shadow clowning around to make him laugh.
“You can be very proud of him, Bruce,” murmured Pan in his ear, and he gave in to the tears.
“You’re in my world, silly,” said a familiar voice, and that brought him round with a jerk. He sat up, blinked, and realised that he was sitting - naked! - on a blanket set amidst waving dune grass above a long curl of white sand beach, lapped by an impossibly blue sea.
“In the flesh,” she replied with a wink, and then he was in her arms. He laughed to feel her; warm and alive, the scent of her skin as he buried his face in her shoulder as familiar to him as his own. She held him tight, wrapped around him and kissed him, tickled him and wiped away his tears of mixed relief and pain and joy and sadness.
When the storm of emotion had passed they lay together in the grass of the sand dunes, and did nothing more than stare into each other’s souls while the gulls cried overhead and the waves sang to them from the beach far below. She smoothed long fingers across his cheek, and her smile was sad.
“The children are safe?”
He groaned, the sound so heart-wrenching she pulled him close again. She could feel his shudders as he told her of what he’d felt when he saw their two youngest children murdered in front of him; despite the fact that he’d known it wasn’t them it had looked like them, sounded like them - and part of his mind had thought that it was them--
He kissed her, long and hard, before he opened his eyes again. “But I’ve spoken to them. Pan helped me - they’re safe at home, wondering when we’re coming back. I told ‘em in the morning, and they should behave themselves and not watch too much TV. But god, love, it looked so like them--”
This time she kissed him, and her fingers played across his body in the patterns she knew excited him, drove him wild with desire; she kissed his neck, lapped her way down to his chest and nuzzled the hair there, took his nipples in her mouth to tease and suck. Her body rubbed against his, the soft silk of her drawing from him all the pent-up want and frustration to the surface with a rush of blood and sweat that drove the pain from his mind. He drew her back up his body, rolled them both over and sank into her welcome with a groan.
They made love amongst the grasses, the sun warming their bodies while the wind sang to them through the vegetation that survived on the dry slopes.
He was almost asleep when she touched his face, kissed his cheek, and told him she had to go.
“What? No! Lorelei, please--”
She looked over her shoulder, and when he followed her gaze he could see them; seals in the bay, watching them from where the swell rocked their sleek grey bodies. Her people waited for her, and he knew enough of her history to know that she must return to them.
“Don’t,” he said, and kissed her. She returned it, but he could taste the salt of her tears and when they broke apart he could see the tearing, terrible grief in her eyes.
“I have to,” she told him, and reached for the grey sealskin that had been hidden amongst the grasses. “I’ll wait for you - when it’s your time I will come for you, and we can be together again.”
She rose to her feet, and he followed her to the water’s edge. She turned, the skin across her shoulders, and leaned her forehead on his even as she held his hands tight. “I love you, Stephen. I was terribly afraid of you when I was given to you, but you were so gentle that I was hopelessly in love before the end of the first week.”
“I left you alone so much--”
“We are a patient people. And you always came home.”
She looked up, and cupped his cheek in the palm of her hand. “As you will come home again, one day. And I will be waiting for you. Be happy, my husband. Look after our children.”
She turned away, and shrugged into the sleek grey skin even as she arched into a long, shallow dive into the waves. He lost sight of her, waded into the surf a few paces to try and see where she had gone; the wind and the waves pushed him back, and although he thought one of the seals paused to look back at him he couldn’t be sure.
He watched the creatures swim away into the crimson glow of the sunset, and listened to the sound of his heart breaking.
Chapter 17: Journeyman
"I suppose we just go home," replied Adrian, fingers finding their way to his chin for a scratch. A group of young gnomes nearby giggled at him, and he shot them a dirty look.
Bruce had cried himself out, and Pan still held him close while the wind across the plain grew colder. Smoke from the funeral pyres and the sacked castle got in his eyes, and he was forced to admit that he would really much rather be in a nice warm tent, drunk as a skunk and not dreaming at all. Or maybe erasing some very unpleasant memories with some of those nymphs, or maybe even--
Pan, reading the shape of his thoughts, rumbled a laugh into his neck.
“That is a very fine idea, my friend - but I believe that we are about to be disturbed by an emissary on a far more serious mission.”
“Oh god, no more--”
It was the troll that had been Lars’s viewing platform, aide and announcer. The flicker of fire that made up its eyes burned low, and Bruce thought that he could read sorrow in the cracks and crags that made up its face. It ground out a sentence at Pan, who inclined his head in acknowledgement. He set Bruce on his feet, and the expression that the mobile rock turned up to him was so woebegone that he felt moved to touch it, surprised beyond belief that a simple comradely grip of the shoulder could bring fat, slow tears to roll down its face. He was still watching their progress when Pan ran his hand along Bruce’s spine, and sighed.
“It is time to say farewell to your friend,” he said, and they followed the troll into the darkness.
“Why are they so upset?” asked Bruce in a whisper.
“They have never been united before,” rumbled his companion, the great horns a curl of bolder darkness against the star speckled sky, “and for the first time they understood the strength that comes with unity. And now they do not know if there is one amongst them that can keep them together, and so they mourn the one that brought them to that understanding.”
He shook his head. “There are many - including myself - that would have said that uniting the tribes was impossible. But then, love finds a way, does it not?”
Bruce nodded, not trusting his voice to reply.
They were led to a pyre on top of a small rise, a spot that would command a fine view of forest and plain once the sun came up. The wood that made up the pile formed an odd tangle, and when he looked a little closer Bruce saw that none of the branches had a cut end.
“The forest itself gave the wood willingly,” said Pan.
They were surrounded by a sea of goblins, eyes that glowed red, green, yellow in the dark; the whiter glow of the stars echoed the gathering overhead, but the only goblin Bruce was looking for laid on top of the pile of wood. Lars had been washed and dressed in white, a very sober robe that - Bruce had little doubt - had it been worn in life would very soon have been adorned in food and drink stains. Not to mention being tripped over, shut in doors and generally torn to shreds by the mishap-prone little beast.
His gnarled grey hands were clasped on the pommel of his fine sword, the broken javelin lay at his side, and his face wore an expression of peace; Bruce made his way to the side of the pyre, and laid his hand on the goblin’s cold, still shoulder.
“Thank you,” was all he managed, and took a last look at the little creature who had been so proud to call him friend that he had achieved the impossible.
A rumble from beside him, and he saw that Lars’s aide had returned with a torch. He held it out toward the human, meaning clear on the grief-fractured face. It was Bruce’s job to put the flame to the wood, and bid his friend farewell.
The flames leapt across the twine of branches, their twist and jump resembling the greenery that had once flowed so gracefully across the living limbs. Now, though, the illusion of life was brief; the flames claimed the wood and used it to hide the still form of the goblin from view. Bruce threw the torch into the fire, and stepped into Pan’s side; the God wrapped him in his embrace, and they were kept company by the tribes of goblins as the fire burned itself to nothing, and the sun made its way over the horizon.
The Prophet himself he left to last, slipping into the tent and watching him sleep for a while. He knew of his dreams, as that had been the only way that he - and others of power - could arrange for Steve and Lorelei to bid each other goodbye. And he knew of the pain that he would feel when he awoke, and so the God stretched out beside him, carefully pulled him close to his chest, and waited for the storm to break.
The three of them had arranged themselves along a fallen log by the main firepit, and busied themselves just watching the comings and goings within the camp; a plump little woman with a cloth wrapped around her head like a turban kept them supplied with a drink that smelled a bit like coffee, but tasted far better, and bits and pieces of whatever she was cooking. The three of them felt rather like baby birds, lined up on a branch being stuffed with choice morsels.
Their benefactor appeared human - except for the bulbous green eyes, and the antennae that protruded from beneath her turban. Still, she was one heck of a cook--
“I suppose we just go home,” replied Adrian, fingers finding their way to his chin for a scratch. A group of young gnomes nearby giggled at him, and he shot them a dirty look.
“I can’t believe it’s over,” added Davey. “Everything that’s happened over the years....”
The three of them sat in gloomy silence for a little longer until a very familiar voice broke into their thoughts.
“So what’s with the long faces then, lads? We won the day, good has triumphed over evil and all that good stuff so I don’t know what you’re moping about. Why, thank you luv, that looks very tasty. Budge over there, Jan my boy.”
The three men regarded Nicko with affection as he joined them on their log. The cook brought them full plates, then returned with a jug to top up their mugs; she chattered away at them in her own language, laughter lines wrinkling her round face, cheeks flushed with pleasure at their noises of appreciation for the food and drink. Nicko slapped her backside when she bustled past him on her way back to the fire, and she menaced him with a wooden spoon for a few moments, laughing so hard she could barely manage to scold him.
“All the girls love Nicko,” Janick grinned.
“They appreciate my stunning good looks,” he replied with a grin. “But seriously, boys. You think it all ends here? No more involvement with all the weird wonderfulness that’s stalked Harry all his life?”
Nicko boomed his outrageous laugh, turning heads all across the campsite. “You bloody fools. If he had that much attention when the door was locked, how much do you think he’ll get now it’s open? And the rest of us - they know about us all across the place, now - how many d’you think will want to just drop in and see us, you know, ‘what-ho, let’s go and see the heroes of the hour’ sort of thing? I tell you what boys, this is a long way from finished.” He gave a firm nod and a wink, then turned back to the cook. “Excuse me sweetheart, do you think I could have a bit more of this grilled goblin’s-bits or whatever it is? Oh go on. Ta, love....”
Feelings notwithstanding, it was time to go. Steve blushed a little when he was boosted up onto his mount; he’d grumbled that six white horses with bells and ribbons was a little more ostentatious than was really necessary, and Pan had just laughed at him.
“We want to show you our appreciation,” he rumbled, chucking the Prophet under the chin with a wicked smile, “and short of marrying you off to all our most beautiful daughters and prettiest sons this is the next best way of doing it.”
Bruce had collapsed with laughter at his friend’s blush, and Steve had just stalked away to get on the damn horse.
Nicko mugged it up for the crowds that lined their route, waving and smiling, catching flung flowers and jollying the others along until they almost got into the spirit of it. Bruce grinned at him, although Nicko noticed that his eyes were still haunted; he drew his steed next to him, and reached out to touch his hand.
“How you holding up, chief?”
“I’m all right, Nick.”
“Ooo, but you’re a rotten liar. Come on - they don’t know if they’ll ever see us again and we’ve saved their world, haven’t we? Don’t get to say that very often - so come on, stiff upper lip, smile and wave and make all the pretty girls happy!”
A group of trolls called out in their voices that sounded like a rockslide, and Bruce couldn’t help but notice that the one at the front had crags that were almost curves, and a wreath of flowers around its rocky pate. And it was flickering its eye flames at him in a most alarming fashion, the thick fingers beckoning in a come-hither movement that had the rest of the crowd roaring enthusiasm.
“Well,” added Nicko with a snort, “I think that’s a girl... go on, I dare you.”
Nicko was right, Bruce decided, and dug his heels into his horse’s flanks to ride over to the trolls; leaning over its shoulder he accepted the rather crushed flower she gave him, and allowed her to wrap her arms around his neck and bus him most enthusiastically on the cheek. He managed to wriggle out of her embrace (which could, in his opinion, have crushed mountains) and rode back with a smile and a roguish bow.
“I think she’s in love.”
“Shut up, Nicko.”
“You could settle down and raise a garden of little mountains.”
“Shut. Up. Nicko.”
“I bet she could crack more than walnuts with those thighs--”
Even Steve gave in, and the laughter spread through the party to lift the spirits and speed the journey. And with the showers of rose petals and the glitter of fairy dust settling to the grass and the tumult fading behind them, they reached the place where they were to cross back home.
“It falls to me,” he said, the roll of his deep voice bringing a smile to Bruce’s face, “to bid you final farewell from this place. But we cannot allow you to return to the greyness of your own plane without some small measure of appreciation for the aid you have given us - despite the pain it has caused you.”
Steve looked away, and Bruce couldn’t meet Pan’s eyes.
“You all, should you wish it,” he continued smoothly, “may keep the weapons that you fought with. My one piece of advice is that you do not let Adrian practice with his bow within half a mile of any inhabited areas--”
The crack - accompanied as it was with one Pan’s devilish winks - lightened the mood considerably, both the commander of the archers and H objecting loudly to his comment. Once the laughter had died down Asterius stepped forward, and bowed to Nicko.
“It was an honour to fight beside you, friend Nicko,” he said, and after handing him the staff he had used to such great effect - now rather dinged and battered - produced another item, small against the broad spades of his hands. It was a drum, the traditional Celtic type called a Bodhran, the rim inlaid with silver and the leather of the skin written with strange runes that appeared and vanished before they could be read. “This is the drum of a shaman - use it wisely. It can clear the mind, summon spirits, or soothe the soul; if your way appears blocked, or the future seems dark and confusing play the drum. It will aid you in your journey through life, and you can use it to aid others the way you have helped us. We will never forget you, centaur-friend, and we hope that you will never forget us, either.”
He bowed again and Nicko, speechless for once, bowed in return.
The magician stepped toward Dave, and his bow was deep. His bright blue eyes glittered with the same mischief that often lit the guitarist’s; it seemed that a wicked sense of humour and an ability to take pleasure from one’s surroundings were important in both professions.
“The sword’s properties you are aware of, friend Davey. To add to it we gift you with this - use it wisely, and know that should you ever require assistance from us you need only call with your heart while holding the athame. We will hear you, and we will come.”
The athame was made of obsidian inlaid with quartz, the white veining through the glossy black like summer lightning. It was a beautiful piece of work, and Dave found it hard to summon up more than a stammer of thanks. The magician gave him an exuberant hug - which looked most strange, and very much at odds with the dignity afforded by the long wizardly robes and pointed hat.
Adrian, apart from his bow, received a mirror that would show him whatever it was he sought; it would give him directions to the nearest pool full of fish, or reveal the location of a lost item at home. He laughed out loud, and claimed that it would be of most use when searching for his car keys whenever he was running late. The hug he was given by the stern faced commander was warm enough to make him blush, and there was a heat in her almond eyes when she kissed him farewell that had him both stammering and scratching his chin in confusion when she stepped away.
Janick had his short sword, and the horn that the pikemen had given him; he could use it to summon assistance from any Fae nearby. It would reach even to the depths of their land to call for help.
“As you were ready to help us in our hour of need, then we shall ever be available to you,” said the commander, and his face was dark with emotion when he wrapped Janick in a bear hug.
Bruce accepted his sword from Lars’s troll, but when it half-turned to take a package from the aide behind it he reached out a hand to stop it. It turned back, a question in the glowing eyes, and Bruce cleared his throat with some unease. He didn’t want to offend, but there was only one thing he really wanted as a memento.
“I’m sorry,” he told Pan, then turned back to the troll. “I’m sure whatever you have there is a very fine gift, but there really is only one thing I would like to take with me. Would you be terribly offended if I asked for something else instead?”
“Bruce--” began Pan, but the troll stopped him with a rumble. It bowed to Bruce and waved its hands in a go-ahead gesture.
“I know he took the sword with him on the pyre,” he said, trying very hard not to think about how the flames had claimed the body of the little goblin, “but I don’t know what happened to his armour. Do you think, I mean, would it be possible for me to have his helmet? I know it never really fitted him, but I just thought--”
The troll touched Bruce’s hands, and its smile was as broad as an earthquake fault. One golden eye flared in a wink, and it pressed the carefully-wrapped package into Bruce’s hands. He stared at it for a moment, then cocked his head at the vastly amused troll; it winked again, closed his fingers around the soft leather of the wrapping and stepped back to stare at Pan with a ‘ha - told you so’ expression on its craggy face.
Pan covered his eyes with one hand and sighed, deeply, while the other dignitaries muttered amongst themselves. For there under the fine leather was Lars’ helm, the blood cleaned from it but otherwise in exactly the same state as it had been when his body had been carried from the field of battle in Bruce’s arms. He looked up, and in the alien eyes of the living stone there was understanding; somewhere in all the fighting and the fear and the pain Bruce and the troll had come to know each others hearts, and their embrace, while wordless, was warm.
“This,” said Pan to himself, eyeing the tears that rolled down the faces of both human and rock, “is how legends get started, you know. Next thing you know you’ll be the saviour of the whole goblin race - if you’re not already.”
It took some throat clearing before Bruce was ready to rejoin his friends, and he cradled the damaged helm close to his chest as Steve stepped up to Pan. They gripped each others wrists, and when Pan bowed his great shaggy head it was with real respect; his eyes were warm, and his words soft with emotion.
“You have saved us all, Prophet,” said, “brought our world back to life, and brought back the magic to your own. The land was at a loss as to how to reward you; but it was Wade’s people that gave us the solution.”
Steve remembered the furry little man that had been present when he and Lorelei had joined that day so long ago, the one who had watched while they made love in the stone circle. He took his sword - a very fine piece, the blade razor sharp and the pommel bejeweled and a-glitter in the sun - and watched Pan with interest as he cupped his hands and breathed on them, a glow solidifying into what appeared to be a sphere of crystal.
He passed it across with a low bow, and Steve examined it. Beautifully made it gleamed in the bright sunshine; it was, as he’d thought, a crystal ball, but cradling it was a writhe of spun blue glass that foamed across its surface like waves. They left enough of the surface clear that he could see into the depths, and what he saw there stopped the very breath in his throat.
From a distance, it appeared to be nothing more than an exquisitely crafted snow globe, of the type that can be bought as a very expensive souvenir from many exceedingly expensive holiday resorts. When one looked from much closer, however, and searched the very heart of the transparent crystal one could see the ocean, waves beating against rocks green with weed, the white spray and foam whipping in the swift sea breeze.
And seals sported in this rush and whirl of water, played together amidst the rocks and explored the ocean floor beneath them. Somehow he knew that these weren’t just any seals at home in one of the mundane seas of Earth; these were Lorelei’s people, and they sported in the unknowable oceans of Faery, wild and free as they were always meant to be.
“We hope it will bring you some measure of peace, Prophet,” said Pan softly, “and help to remind you that one day you will be together again.”
The embrace that Steve gave the forest God was more than warm, and the slot eyes filled with tears as he held him close and rumbled comfort to the man who had given them so much of himself.
“And now it is time for you to leave,” he said, and stepped back to bow one last time. Without further ado they climbed the stile and hopped over the fence for the trip back to the cold, windy field in Essex; Bruce was last to leave and although he could have sworn he saw Pan wink at him just before he jumped, he couldn’t be sure.
The long fall into nothing, the kick and swoop of arrival and they were home.
It was over.
Steve drank his coffee, and watched the children play in the garden.
His homecoming had been... strange. The house still felt empty without Lorelei, and he supposed it always would; he kept expecting her to be there when he turned a corner, or hear her voice call to him from the garden. She’d loved the garden so.
Explaining to the kids had been hard, but they’d taken the news that their mother was gone and wasn’t coming back very well, on the whole. Perhaps it was their mixed blood, or maybe it had something to do with what they’d been through while captives of the Fae. From what they’d told him they had been treated well, although none of them wanted to talk about the creatures that had rescued them; he’d already had to deal with a few nightmares, and he supposed that there would be more over the days, months and years that would follow.
His not least of all.
He wondered if heading straight out on tour again was such a good idea. But then, Bruce was probably right; they were together again - blood brothers to the end, now - so wasn’t it fitting that they showed their new solidarity to the fans that had carried them so far? And they were all bursting with ideas that would, no doubt, yield awesome results once they hit the studio.
“Is that it, then?” he asked the empty air, but it couldn’t give him an answer.
Things to do. His sister had agreed to look after the kids while he was away on tour, and he had a million calls to make, a million things to do. He supposed it would be pretty quiet when they toured; now that the Fae had no reason to interfere, there should be none of the unpleasant incidents that had dogged them so in the past--
He frowned, and peered out of the kitchen window to get a closer look at the bush that grew there. Two fairies fought over the remains of a baby blue tit, shredded and bloody; they grabbed at the tiny corpse and squeaked in fury at each other, and he sighed. Now that Davey had taken such an unhealthy interest in magic he would have to see if he could come up with a spell to keep the damn things out of the bird boxes. Fairies. Evil little bastards, they were.
He gave a snort, and put his mug in the sink. Life, it seemed, carried on as usual - and it would certainly never be dull.
Dusk was beginning to fall over the dusty sports ground, outlining the figure of the lone teenager kicking a football around a series of traffic cones with a golden haze. His intensity was obvious to even the casual observer; not an ounce of energy wasted, the ball obeyed his demands and moved as precisely as a geometric exercise, weaving a complicated path around the obstacles until a final driving kick directed it into the back of the net.
“Nice work,” said the watcher, leaning casually on the goalpost.
“Thanks,” puffed the teenager, retrieving the ball and beginning to bounce it off his knees, keeping a steady rhythm and never missing a beat.
“You should do that for a living,” said the watcher, and Steve caught the ball and narrowed his eyes.
“What do you care?” he asked, a feeling of suspicion beginning to creep up on him. He could feel something odd about this bloke; he got the same kind of - vibe, would that be it? Yeah, vibe - off him as he did when he saw some of those things that his grandma liked to talk about so much. The watcher shrugged, face indistinct in the gathering dusk.
“It would seem a shame to waste such - talent,” he said.
“Yeah well. I’m either gonna be a footballer or a drummer - but me mum says I can’t have a drumkit in me room.”
“You could always,” said the man, “play bass instead.”
The teenager thought about this for a moment.
“I suppose,” he muttered under his breath, then snapped his dark gaze back to the man. “Anyway, I’m late for me tea. See ya.”
And without another word he was gone, dribbling the ball ahead of him with a skill impressive in one so young. The man watched him go, and tilted his head with a smile; the light gleamed briefly from the tips of two small horns nestled amidst the thick brown hair of his head, and the rumble of laughter echoed around the playing fields long after the figure had vanished.
Hell of a show. All six of them were in the best form they’d had for a while - notwithstanding Davey’s now-mended broken finger - and the crowds were more enthusiastic than they’d ever been. The sound had been great, the crew was on top form and overall the gig had been a blinder. There was going to be one hell of a party later, that was for sure.
Bruce grinned, and flicked his towel at Nicko when he emerged from the shower.
“Good show, yes?”
The drummer turned on him with a mock-growl and chased him through the dressing room. “I know it was a bloody good show - no need to sting me on the ‘kin arse now was there, you devious bugger? I think someone needs to learn that he’s not the be-all and end-all, right? No great hairy goat boy to protect you here, my lad!”
Laughter and catcalls followed them until, with a gentle box of Bruce’s ears and a final admonishment to behave himself - at least until they got back to the hotel - Nicko departed to finish getting dressed. Bruce, still chuckling under his breath, returned to his clothes and stopped dead.
There was something in his bag.
This tour had been quiet, with regards to any less-than-normal interruptions; although it had been strange not to have things darting just out of sight all the time none of them had really missed it. That sort of thing was just too damn stressful these days, bearing in mind that none of them were as young as they had been - and they’d had more than enough oddness to keep them going for a lifetime after the events of that summer. But from the mutters and squeaks emerging from his flight case that was about to change--
In one smooth movement Bruce grabbed the bag and upended it on the floor, his roar bringing the others at a run. The heap of clothes, toilet articles, deodorant and all the other essential bits and pieces that make up a musician’s life on the road twitched a bit, shook then were still. Steve glared at it.
“What is it?”
Bruce wound his towel around his fist. “I have no idea, but I’m going to make it sorry it ever picked my bag--”
He flicked the heap with the end of the towel, and yelled for whatever-it-was to come out and show its face. The entity revealed by the swinging flick was curled into a shivering ball, hands clamped over its head and bottom sticking up in the air. It didn’t appear to realise that its cover was blown, and held that position until the startled exclamations eventually revealed to it that yes, they could all see it.
“You’re kidding,” said Janick.
Davey just covered his eyes, shook his head then walked away with a sigh, H grinning at his side. Nicko gave a huge snort and poked the creature with his toe; it squeaked in fear and fled to clutch at Bruce’s bare leg, big green eyes wide with terror and an unspoken plea for protection as it looked up at him.
Bruce felt faintly embarrassed to be standing stark bollock naked backstage in Paris, the cold air starting to have negative effects on his physique whilst being stared at lovingly by a small grey goblin that was attached to his leg in a death grip.
He bent and unwound the stringy arms, lifted the creature up and stared at it. It wasn’t Lars; once you got used to them they were as individual as people, and this one was smaller, had somewhat finer features and was a slightly different colour. But a goblin it was, and it looked nervous--
It farted, and Bruce laughed.
“You look after it, you clean up any mess it makes, and if anyone asks me I haven’t seen a fucking thing,” snorted Steve, and wandered off to finish dressing. Bruce glared at the goblin.
“Did someone send you?”
It shook its head.
“You came on your own.”
A nod, accompanied by a broad, happy grin.
“And you’re my, what, my helper goblin?”
The nod was faster this time and came with an earnest look, and Bruce sighed.
“Fine. Stay out of sight, do as you’re told and we’ll get along just fine. And for a start you can repack that bag.”
He watched the goblin do just that while he dressed, and something in his chest that he hadn’t even known was knotted relaxed; he’d got used to having one of these guys around, and now that one was back their family was complete once more.
After all, he thought with a grin, it wouldn’t be Maiden without a goblin creating havoc, would it?
Chapter 18: Epilogue - The Legacy
They left the clearing, Nicko heading back to his own reality, home, a hot shower and a cold beer, Pan to a different reality altogether. And who could say when—or if—the two would ever collide so spectacularly again?
Nicko stared out of the window, watching the lights glitter through the smog that lay over the ancient city of Athens. Another tour done, the parties finished, back in the studio next month and whoop-de-do, back on the treadmill. And about bloody time too.
“Enjoying the evening air?” said a familiar voice. Nicko started, jumping away from the window. He frowned when he spotted who it was that had spoken.
“Don’t you people ever bloody knock?” he snapped.
“So what’s up, then?” asked Nicko, still a little uneasy around the forest God. Even after everything he’d gone through with them he still found it hard to trust him; this was the creature that had beaten Bruce so badly in Paris that he’d cleared off for four years. Also the one that had healed his own wounds and shown him that even he could feel--
But best not to go there, right?
“Come with me,” said Pan, beckoning Nicko toward the window of the hotel room.
“Where are we going?”
“But we’re in Athens, mate. You know, Greece. No gateway here, sunshine--”
Pan held out a hand and cocked an eyebrow. “Of course not. Now, are you going to come along with me, or are you too afraid?”
Nicko let out an explosive snort, grabbed the forest God’s hand in his own and stepped out through the window. It didn’t occur to him until several days later that the wicked gleam in Pan’s eye might well have been because he knew exactly how to manipulate the big man into doing whatever he wanted - but that got filed into the tray marked ‘uncomfortable thoughts’, and promptly forgotten about.
His eyes were riveted on the clearing, or to be more precise, on what reclined there in the long grass, amidst the wildflowers.
“Oh God...” he breathed, and Pan made an amused noise deep in his broad chest.
“Perhaps,” he said.
They fell silent then, watching the unicorn as she breathed hard, neck stretched out, eyes half closed and nostrils flared. Sweat stained her silver coat, and she groaned. Nicko made to step forward, to go to the aid of the suffering creature; Pan stopped him, one hand on his chest.
“She does this alone. If you step into the circle, you will be killed.”
“Does wha-- oh.”
At first he’d thought she was injured, groaning in pain. Well, the pain part was right, but she wasn’t injured.
She was giving birth.
“Why... what am I doing here?” Nicko asked, trying to hide himself in the shadows. The mare groaned again, swollen flanks rippling with muscular contractions that had her turning her head to eye her own sides.
“She wanted you here to bear witness.”
“Yes. Now hush.”
“But why would she--”
“Because of the service you did to one of their kind.”
“But that was ages ago!”
“Time moves differently here. Now are you going to be quiet or do I have to gag you?”
Nicko opened his mouth to retort, but caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye; turning to follow it he realised that the mare was watching him, dark eyes filled with amusement as she observed he and Pan bickering. At his side Pan - also aware of the scrutiny - bowed deeply, shooting out an elbow to remind Nicko to do the same.
The unicorn rumbled a snort when he did so, still feeling rather awkward.
A sigh rippled through the clearing when she closed her eyes and lowered her head once more; Nicko felt a big hand grab the back of his neck, holding him in place. He’d tried to take a step forward, his automatic reaction to seeing anything in pain. Normal or not, he hated to see suffering; this time, though, it looked like he was to have no choice but to stand in the shadows and feel useless.
He bit his nails and shuffled his feet, unable to take his eyes from the mare labouring in the moonlight; she must have heard him, for she looked up at Pan and snorted quietly. Nicko felt the forest God beside him go very still, even pausing his breathing; the mare snorted again and shook her head, gesturing with the single horn that flashed in the moonlight, terrible and deadly. Pan murmured something under his breath, and she made a move to rise, lifting herself on her forelegs and tossing her head, murder in the eyes now as sharp and dark as an obsidian knife. Pan bowed once more, keeping his head low and the back of his neck exposed, curled and trembling in the long grass.
Nicko stared, looking between grumbling unicorn and cowering God. They were that powerful?
He began to rethink the whole experience of a few months back; looked like they’d survived by a combination of sheer luck and brass neck. Whatever the case, he was surprised to hear Pan’s voice hissing at him from somewhere around knee height.
“Go on wot?”
“Go to her!”
“But you said--”
Pan tilted his head enough to shoot Nicko an evil glare from his amber eyes, and he raised his hands in surrender.
“I’m goin’, I’m goin’....”
Feeling horribly exposed under the gazes of the still hidden Fae - shocked to silence by the unicorn’s call - Nicko stumbled across the grass, falling to his knees by the mare’s head. She laid on her chest, forelegs tucked neatly beneath her, and extended her nose to touch Nicko’s face, whickering a gentle greeting. Her breath stirred his hair, smelling of grass and hay, warm with her presence and sweet with freedom. He closed his eyes, sat back on his heels; her thoughts washed across him, confusing in their complexity. They left a fading sense of amusement; she found it very droll that she had to quieten her mental processes in order for a human to understand them.
And unlike many of the higher-born Fae, Nicko got no sense of the thought being about a ‘mere’ human, either.
Pushing her nose into his chest, her breath cool through his jacket, he cradled her head; running his eyes up the formidable lance projecting from her forehead he swallowed hard. Damn thing looked sharp.
It is. But you have nothing to fear, Nicko.
The roll of her eyes at him was so human he had to laugh.
Another contraction seemed to catch her unawares, and she pushed her head into him, screwing her eyes shut and groaning deep in her chest. Smoothing a hand across her face he pushed the silky forelock from her eyes, petted her sweat damp neck and muttered encouraging words to her while she trembled in his arms. A hind leg kicked at the turf, and she snorted, pushing her face into Nicko and sighing when he hugged her a little closer, crooning what comfort he could.
He didn’t know why, but he got the impression of youth from her; perhaps it was just that--
This is my first.
That answered that question, then. But where was--
You witnessed the death of my mate, he heard in his mind, and the thought was shaded with such dignified grief that the breath caught in his throat. Or he would have been here with me, watching over the appearance of his - ah! - firstborn.
“Steady there, girl,” replied Nicko, looking for Pan in alarm as she rolled to her side with a sigh, resting her head in his lap.
Don’t be afraid. All proceeds as it - oh - should. Have you never observed, and the thought paused for a lengthy heave, her teeth grinding and eyes closing for a moment, horses?
“Not closely, my Lady.” Damn, where had those words come from? Still, it seemed right and he could have sworn she smiled up at him, so it couldn’t have sounded too silly. “I’m a city boy, me.”
That explains much, came the rather droll reply, but before he could answer she was shuddering again, groaning in pain and finishing the sound with a whimper. Nicko stroked her neck, tried to wipe away the sweat that threatened to run into her eyes. She sighed and rolled her eyes up to look at him; staring into that deep, solemn gaze was at the same time one of the most frightening and yet enlightening things he’d ever done.
He saw himself, and the rest of the boys, and her life with her mate before--
I wish he were here, she said into his mind, and the moisture that gathered in the corner of her eye this time was not sweat, but tears of grief. Nicko took a deep breath, told himself to go with his heart and wiped them away with his thumb, stroking the pale face gently.
“Well, I’m here now. And we’re gonna be just fine, alright girl?”
The thought that caressed his mind was as close to tearful laughter as made no odds, so he just hugged the noble form and chattered on, taking her mind from the pain that racked her body and made her so afraid.
His legs had gone numb and the sky was beginning to lighten by the time she lifted her head from his lap and looked at him with tired, triumphant eyes.
He comes, she said, and rolled back to her chest, arching her neck and lashing her tail as she made the final heave that brought her son into the cold light of dawn. Nicko, one hand on her neck, called encouragement; she bared her teeth and shook her mane, face fierce with exhaustion and pride as she completed the most difficult task of her young life.
Resting her head on the ground for a moment she panted with the exertion, moving her nose to blow against Nicko’s knee.
Ow, she said, the thought so defined in his mind he laughed out loud with delight. Giving her another exuberant hug around her damp white neck he sat back, giving her room to rise to her feet. She hoisted herself on to her front legs and snorted, shaking her mane and eyeing Nicko fondly as she prepared to heave her weight forward, get her hind legs under her and finally get up. He grinned back at her, earning a gentle touch to his cheek with her velvet soft muzzle.
A movement to their side caught his eye; Pan had crossed the open ground and, with a low bow, approached the newly born foal. Watching the Fae, Nicko’s heart gave a lurch when he saw a frown entrench itself on his face, his hands busy turning the foal, rubbing at its head and beginning to hiss through his teeth.
“Pan?” asked Nicko, uneasy. The mare - on all four feet now, and looking happier for a good shake - turned her head, touching her nose to the still white bundle on the floor.
The cry echoed in his head as her scream tore at his ears, the grief in both outbursts spearing straight into his heart. It wasn’t hard to see what was wrong, as he scrambled to see if he could help; the foal was still wrapped in his wet sac, head freed but eyes closed, unmoving, lips and muzzle the bluish cold of death. The tiny chest wasn’t moving, and the neat, dark hooves weren’t stirring, reaching for life and tearing their way free.
He was alive!
The mare turned wide, frightened eyes to Nicko, who grabbed the body and pushed on its chest, reasoning that no matter how big a baby was still a baby, wasn’t it? And before his own had been born he’d been wracked by nightmares of disaster, silent cots and horrible accidents. He knew this fear all too well, and it left an acrid taste in his mouth.
Pan shook his head. “Perhaps,” he rumbled, voice shadowed with grief, “the intrusion disturbed--”
Nicko ducked as hooves whistled above his head, striking at Pan, knocking him away from Nicko and the foal.
He lives! I felt him behind my heart and he touched my mind!
“My lady,” groaned Pan, “sometimes it happens that the effort is too great--”
Pan dived to one side as the mare turned on him, lashing out with her hind feet before she wheeled once more, rearing over Nicko’s crouched form and striking at the Fae, ears flat to her head and eyes wild. Taking several steps toward the forest deity she slashed her horn in his direction, squealing rage between her teeth and threatening him with everything she possessed.
“My lady,” came Pan’s voice, from all around them, “rage as you might, it changes nothing. We shall grieve with you....”
“No!” yelled Nicko, feeling the departure of the watching throng, sorrow alive in the air around him. They were giving up, writing off the foal, assuming nothing could be done. The mare turned to him, dark eyes wide, for all her wisdom and power as lost as a child in a strange land.
“You hang on in there, darlin’,” he said, “I ain’t giving up yet. Never fear!”
Air. It needed air. Air and a heartbeat and warmth. How’d you clear an airway? Well, with a baby you just--
“Stand clear, girl!” he yelled, throwing off his jacket and stripping the last of the sac from the foal in two great swipes of his hands, then seized him around the waist and lifted, the small white body dangling across his arms. Too long to lift by the heels so lift from the middle, bang and swing, back down to the floor, swipe round the nose and mouth--
Nicko! What-- ?
“Got to clear his nose!”
Stripping off his shirt to wipe around the nose and mouth, soaking up the sticky birth fluids, press on the chest and--
How did you give mouth to mouth to a unicorn, anyway?
Same way as any other baby, thought Nicko firmly, trying not to look at the devastated mare by his side, head hanging between her forelegs, eyes closed against the annihilating pain of the loss of her son as well as her mate.
He lifted the tiny muzzle, held the mouth shut and blew carefully down the nostrils, watching the small chest inflate; two more breaths and he laid the head down, massaging the chest, rubbing the foal down with his shirt, rolling him over and starting again. Again, once more, watch the chest rise, look into the staring eyes and hunt for a flicker of life. Again.
A velvet nose pressed against his shoulder stopped him, vision blurred in the morning sunlight as tears began to flow. He’d been so sure....
Nicko. Let him go.
The big man swiped his filthy forearm across his face and shook his head. “No. One more try.”
The shirt he’d put on when he got back to the hotel after the show - about a million years ago - was now unrecognisable, a rag that he ran across the tiny ribcage and flung aside, pushing more breath into the body, demanding that the foal breathe with a break in his voice. Nothing. Not a flicker, not a twitch. Yelling wordlessly he thumped the ribs, trying to jolt the silent heart into motion; still nothing, but he refused to stop. After everything he’d seen, everything she’d gone through--
Perhaps she was right. He straightened the foal on his side, stroked the tiny face and closed the eyes before hugging his knees, dropping his head on them, and bursting into exhausted tears. A muzzle nudged him, and he felt the mare lean her head on him; he unfolded one arm enough for her to worm her nose next to his face, and they wept together.
So lost were they in their joint grief that they almost missed the first, tentative cough from behind them.
The sneeze, however, definitely caught their attention.
If his face looked anything like as startled as the mare’s did then he must have looked pretty damn funny. For there, rolled onto his chest and shaking his long ears in the bright morning sunshine sat the foal, very much not dead at all. His coughs, snorts and sneezes had dislodged more fluid from his long pipes, and Nicko grabbed the ragged shirt with a whoop and jumped to wipe the wet strings from the foal’s face, earning himself a screwed up expression from the young prince and a swat from his tiny, blunt horn for his trouble.
He sat back, then, relaxing in the long grass and watching mother and son bond there in the little meadow, ringed by whispering birches and watched over by larch and beech; word began to spread - how, Nicko didn’t ask - and from the corners of his eyes he saw the Fae begin to arrive to greet the new unicorn. He snorted; quick to give up and walk away, just as quick to return. He just hoped none of them tried to take any credit.
Right now, of course, the baby was just interested in getting up; Nicko chuckled to see the long legs fold and wobble, and grinned when the foal fell across his lap, blinking at this strange beast under him with wonderment. Carefully - mindful of the pounding he’d had to give the little beast to get him breathing - he set him upright, steadied him with his hands until he stood strong, and managed to wobble two short steps toward his mother before tripping over his own hooves and falling on his nose. Moving in to comfort her son, the mare licked him and, when Nicko laughed at the outraged expression on the foal’s face, lifted her head and swiped her tongue across his cheek, too.
Nevertheless, before the sun got much higher he was standing strong, taking his first drink while his mother cropped her first meal for many hours and Nicko relaxed in the sunshine, reflecting on how he never would have imagined encounters with unicorns to be so damn stressful. Watching the mare licking the coat of her son he chuckled; with every drag of her tongue he staggered, but remained standing, little tail twitching with delight, growing stronger by the minute.
I owe you a great debt, Nicko, said the mare, turning to regard him with grave eyes. He snorted, shaking his head.
“Nonsense, lady. I’m just glad the little one made it. Close run thing there at the end, eh?”
I shudder to think what would have happened if you had not been present.
The colt, finishing his meal, turned away from his mother and eyed the human sprawled nearby in the grass. Curiosity getting the better of him he walked across, extended his muzzle and snuffled noisily in Nicko’s ear. Laughing, Nicko scratched the foal under the chin, where the first wisps of hair that would eventually become the silky beard stuck out comically; tilting his head and closing his eyes the foal let Nicko pet and scratch him, delighted by the fact that this strange creature had a talent for reaching all the itchy places that he could not. Shaking himself, the colt eyed his mother, then with a snort flopped down on the grass, putting his head in Nicko’s lap and falling asleep almost immediately in the warm sunshine.
He likes you, said the mare and snorted, amusement colouring her mental voice. Nicko propped himself on his elbows and grinned at her.
“I’m just glad he’s around to like anyone. What are you going to call him?”
The mare’s head shot up, her eyes widening in surprise. Names are power, Nicko. We... do not share them.
“Oh! Oh. Sorry, luv.”
She snorted and shook her head, and watched him thoughtfully for a moment as he stroked the fuzzy white neck of the colt.
My name, she said slowly, is Farasha.
Nicko looked into her eyes, and bowed his head. He knew she’d put a great trust in him; he remembered - now that he thought about it - Davey saying something about names and power. Name a thing, own a thing or something like that? Whatever, it was very important.
“I’ll remember,” he said gravely, and blinked when she approached him, lowered her head and stared straight into his eyes.
What would you call the little one?
“Well. Um. I dunno, really, I mean... it’s not my place, is it?”
She huffed, brushing her soft muzzle across his forehead. I would like you to.
He looked down, patting the colt again, then nodded. “What about--” he looked around to make sure none were close enough to hear, and Farasha tilted her ear closer to him, “-- Wren?”
The bold little bird?
“Yeah. Is that OK?”
He got an affectionate nuzzle in the chest for that remark, and gathered by her reaction that it was indeed acceptable.
Closing his eyes he stretched out in the warm grass, surrounded by the scent of wildflowers that overwhelmed even his own rather sweaty stink, Nicko was surprised to hear Pan’s voice coming from close by. Although not actually addressing him, Nicko rolled over and sat up, watched the forest deity approach the unicorn humbly, keeping his head bowed and back bent, apology in every line of the usually proud form.
You would have left my son to die.
“My Lady, we thought that he--”
Were it not for this human, and with a swish of her tail she indicated Nicko, sitting cross legged in the grass and letting the colt nibble his fingers, that you, I might add, were reluctant to admit, we would this day be preparing a burial party. Instead, we shall present him to the Herd this evening, and sing to his birth - not lament his death. We shall not mourn this day. No thanks to you.
Pan said nothing, keeping his head low. The mare took a pace closer, drawing one forehoof across the ground and rumbling menace in her deep chest.
I am displeased with thee, Old One.
“Forgive me,” replied Pan, and Nicko thought he sounded most contrite. For once.
She tilted her head and gave Nicko a long look with her glorious eyes before nodding, as though reaching a decision. Approach me, Nicko.
Scrambling to his feet, Nicko tried to dust down his jeans as best he could, strode through the long grass with the colt at his heels, and dropped to one knee in front of the unicorn. She lifted her head, and expanded her mind-voice to encompass all the Fae gathered around the little meadow.
Know this. For his services to my kind - to us all - this human is henceforth Nicko Unicorn-Friend. He knows my name. He named my son.
A collective gasp ran through the watchers. From the reaction - and Pan’s sharp intake of breath - Nicko gathered that this was rather unusual. Still, he thought it best to keep his trap shut until he knew how to react - a joke cracked now, he thought, might not be the most diplomatic move he’d ever made.
Nicko, take a lock of my mane.
“But... won’t it hurt?”
She snorted, and eyed him kindly. Nay. Just take a hank and pull - there. That didn’t hurt, did it?
He would have sworn she winked at him, and unfolded his hand to stare in disbelief at the long, silvery strands lying across his palm that shimmered in the sunlight.
Roll them into a circle.
He twined the strands together, rolling them until he was left with a circlet in his hand, looking for all the world like spun silver but for its weight. She nodded, then lowered her head and breathed on it; he felt it quiver, warm then cool, settling back into his hand. He lifted it, examined the bracelet closely; it was seamless, the strands twining around each other and enchanting the light in an intricate dance that drew the eye and lifted the soul.
Put it on.
He did so, admiring the silver where it lay against his skin.
You are welcome. If you ever have need of us - any of us - sleep with it in your hand, and think of my name. I will hear, and one of us will come. Always, Nicko; we owe you a great debt. Twice now you have saved one of us - one in body, one in soul. We will sing of you for millenia for the services you have done us. She nosed his cheek, and sighed. But now you must leave. The Old One will return you....
She fell silent, and Nicko got to his feet, throat tight. He didn’t want to leave, for all that a shower and a beer - not to mention a few hour’s solid kip - would be very welcome right about now. Farasha lifted her head and looked into his eyes, and in their endless depths Nicko saw that she didn’t want him to go, either. But then, they both did what they had to, and sometimes you just had to walk away.
He put his arms around her neck, and gave her a hug; he heard Pan gasp behind him, probably horrified at Nicko’s audacity. He didn’t care, because she was leaning into him, returning the hug with as much contact as she could maintain. Wren bumped Nicko’s thigh with his horn then tore off across the meadow to chase butterflies; man and mare watched the colt for a moment, then Nicko cleared his throat and gave her his best smile.
“He’s gonna be a quick one, your lad.”
She snorted, and brushed him one last time with her velvety nose. He stroked her face, and she turned to go, calling her son to her with a snort and a shake of her head; Nicko watched them as they left the clearing, his last view that of Wren craning his neck to look back, catching a last glimpse of the strange creature he’d known for all his short life so far.
Nicko sighed, and looked at the silvery bracelet around his wrist.
“Unicorns,” he said, and shook his head. “Who’d a thought of such a thing?”
“Indeed,” said Pan, watching the big man with something approaching respect. “Are you ready, then?”
Nicko winked. “Ready as I’ll ever be, old man.”
They left the clearing, Nicko heading back to his own reality, home, a hot shower and a cold beer, Pan to a different reality altogether. And who could say when - or if - the two would ever collide so spectacularly again?
After all, the door was open now.