The week was up.
I stood at the designated meeting spot and tried my best not to look like food.
Teeth snapped, hackles raised, chops were licked. I was obviously not doing a good job.
Dogs, I thought, watching a rottweiler give me the evil eye. I hate dogs.
And if the number of growling Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, German Shepherds, and hell-knows-what other breed of mongrel were anything to go by, then the feeling was mutual. Something poofy and small started yapping at my leg, just barely out of kicking distance.
I groaned. Didn’t I get enough dog at home? Nobody had told me that that morning was the day of some kind of dog lover cult get together- though I had the distinct impression Hastofur must’ve known. Chances were he set the meeting specifically to annoy me.
Hastofur. . .
I stuck my hand into the pocket of my jeans. Yep, the charm was still there. Still swirly feeling, still on the chain. It was probably still blue, but I didn’t take it out to check. With my luck, some Dalmatian or something would eat it.
I tried to think of which story I was going with.
Hastofur! You won’t believe what I stole off of Shemyaza! . . . And completely forgot to tell you about.
Hey, Hastofur. I found this on the sidewalk. I don’t know where it came from, but it matches the photo you gave me. . .
Well, better late than never, right?
It was all Riley’s fault!
Yeah, something told me he wasn’t going to buy any of it.
I didn't notice that all the dogs had gotten quiet, or that all the color in the park had been muted. What I did notice was a thin, pale arm that came from behind and wrapped itself around my shoulders.
“Hi there, Bricky.”
I didn’t squirm.
“Hey there, Khoress. Long time no see.”
She leaned on me, resting her head on top of mine. Her dark curls hung around the sides like a thick curtain.
“I know," she said. “It’s been too long. And I think we left things on bad terms, too.” She didn’t move except to clasp her hands together in front of me.
“Hey, Khoress?” I said, a few minutes of nothing later.
“You, ah, wanna get off my head?”
“Not really, no.”
“Where’s Hastofur? I was supposed to be meeting him.“
“I know. That’s why I’m here. He sent me. Said he’s too busy to deal with you.”
“Oh,” I said, unsure whether to be relieved or not. The charm seemed to be burning a hole in my pocket. He has to know, I thought. “Well, what does he want me to do?” I said.
“Courier duty. All you need to do is go to Faerie and deliver a message."
"Seelie Court or Unseelie?"
Damn. I hate the Seelie side of Faerie. It's full of faeries and everything is trying to kill you.
"That's it? No breaking in? No cults or demon hunters or virgin sacrifice or anything?"
"Nope. Just the delivery."
"Okeedokee, then." I wondered who Hastofur could possibly know in Faerie and came up with the answer: anybody. Hastofur's that kind of guy.
Another minute of nothing happened.
“Can I, you know, have the message?”
She sighed and stood up. I nearly stumbled with the sudden lack of weight.
“Here,” she said. With a small twisting of fingers, an envelope appeared in her previously empty hand. “He said it would be impossible for you to mess this one up."
I took the envelope. “What is it?” I said, starting to open it.
She smacked my hand. “No peeking!”
I rolled my eyes and tucked the letter into my pocket. "Yeah, yeah. Who am I delivering it to again?"
She examined her fingernails. "Titania."
"Tita-" I choked on my own bubblegum. She watched with interest as I spluttered and coughed. "Titania?" I finally managed. "Oberon's wife, Titania? The Seelie Queen, Titania? The Titania who could turn me into little sticky smear ground into the carpet- that Titania?"
"Yup, that's the one."
The air in the park seemed to get simultaneously colder and hotter, though that might've just been me.
"Oh, and Bri? One more thing.”
“Yeah?” I said faintly.
“He says not to bring your card with you.”
“Did he say why?”
She shrugged. “Didn’t ask.”
“Yeah. Okay. Thanks, Kho.” No card. Why no card? Did he want to take it while I was gone? Must be. Revenge, then. He did know about the charm-
Khoress hadn’t left. It took me a moment to notice the weird look she was giving me.
“What?” I said.
“You just thanked me.”
“Yes.” She shook her head. “You’ve been up here too long, Bri. You're going soft." The ground at her feet started melting away, replaced with black, swirly nothing.
"Soft? I'm not-"
She was gone before I could finish. Her portal wasn't as flashy as Hastofur's had been, but it got the job done. Color and sound rushed back into the world as the last traces of darkness drained away. A Pomeranian with an attitude chose just then to start growling at me.
"Oh shut up." I kicked it square in its little doggie belly. It scrambled away, still barking, its tail tucked between its legs.
"I am not going soft," I said to nobody in particular.
* * * *
I threw open the front door.
There was a yelp from the kitchen, followed by the clacking of nails on hardwood. The hellhound scurried into the hall, mouth open, tongue trailing out like a moist pink banner.
"Oh hell no."
I ran into the living room and tried to go through the door there into the back hall. It was, of coursed, locked.
The dog jumped me. For a brief -very brief- second, the football-sized ball of fluff was overshadowed with a monster the size of a Volkswagen. Short black fur was stretched taut over thick muscle, smoke leaked from its three maws and fire burned in all six of its eyes-
And then it was a puppy again, with only one head, sitting on my chest and licking my face. Bossman came in a moment later. He leaned against the doorway and grinned like a loon, mug of something drinkable in his left hand.
"Aww, he likes you."
I shoved the mongrel off. "Like nothing. It's taste-testing."
The dog began lightly mouthing my hand. Not biting, exactly, but definitely gnawing. I smacked it. "No. Bad dog."
"You're back early," said Bossman. "I thought you said you'd be out with your friends all day."
"Change of plans. Hey, you wouldn't happen to have an interdimensional portal to Faerie lying around, would you?" I was only half joking. If he didn't, I'd have to go around doing all kinds of stupid stuff like finding wild mushrooms and hanging around in fields of flowers. Yech.
Bossman didn't so much choke on his drink as he did snort it out.
"What?" he sputtered. "Why? Why do you want to go there? You can't go there!"
"So you do have a portal, then."
"You're not using it. I command you not to touch my-"
"Command?" I said sweetly.
He scowled. "As your legal employer and landlord, I forbid you from touching my portal."
Damn, he had me there. "Then can you set up a temporary one for me?"
"Because I'm saying 'pretty please'?"
"I mean, why do you want to go to Faerie? I don't like the idea of you running around over there."
Hmm. Personal concern for me, or him hiding something over there? Either way, I wasn't touching that mess with a ten-foot pole. I opened my mouth to tell him.
"Because none of your fucking business, Meatsack."
My mouth snapped shut.
"No," I said. "Wait. It's because yo mama's so fat, she sells shade in the desert. Go shove a-"
And thus began a torrential outpour of cursing that could have wilted flowers and peeled paint. It started off on subject with a list of things Bossman could go do to himself and to others that I didn't think were possible for a human to do, (at least, not without some outside help) and went into a range of speculations of things his mother had bred with in order to create something like him. It was all very creative and colorful and it culminated in a detailed description of Bossman's intimate relations with livestock, specifically those of sheep.
Problem was I didn't mean to say any of it. What I meant to say was 'Hastofur's sending me'.
Bossman watched me spew out my word-vomit with mild interest, like a doctor watching a patient exhibit some new symptoms.
"You know," he said once I'd run out of breath. "Every so often I start to forget that you're not really a person. Then something like this comes out of nowhere and reminds me. Thank you, really."
He scooped up the dog and left.
Okay, I thought, still catching my breath. What the hell was that?
A spell obviously. One not to mention Hastofur. So a geas, then. But despite common misconception, gease have to be done up close and personal. That's sort of the point: letting someone know what they're not allowed to do. So not Hastofur, then. The only geas I'd had set on me lately was from. . .
Shemyaza. Whatever Hastofur was up to, Shemyaza was in on it, and in deep enough that the geas wouldn't let me talk about it to third parties. Swell.
Well, the prudent thing to do would be to patch things up with Bossman and lie. A lot.
I found him outside the door to his study, using an old hammer and chisel to carve sigils into the wood. There were several jars and a small mortar at his feet. All of them were filled with plant-smelling sludge in varying shades of green. I crept up behind and watched for a minute. Each time he'd finished carving a spot out, he'd stop to go over it again with a paintbrush loaded with glop.
"What are you doing?" I said.
He didn't look up. "Warding the door so you can't get in." He refreshed the paintbrush in the goop.
"Perfectly reasonable of you."
Shit shit shit!
"Oh, one more thing." He picked up a mortar and got to his feet. "Hold still for a sec."
"Wait, what are you- ow!"
"Thaaaank you," he chirped. He took the bit of my hair he'd pulled and began crushing it into mortar with the rest of the green goop. With one last sweep of the brush, he spread the glop with my hair in it in the carved-out center of the door.
He set the pestle and mortar down and then snapped his fingers. There was a flash of bright green light from the signs on the door. It was gone almost instantly, along with the green goop, leaving the once-inky markings burned into the wood.
"There," he said, gathering up all the jars and things. "That'll keep you out."
"You know, I can't shake the feeling that you don't trust me."
"Oh no," he said, heading down the hall towards the kitchen. "Perish the thought."
I waited until he'd turned the corner before rushing over to examine the door. The ward was good quality for a fast job. What he couldn't do for finesse, he'd made up with in brute force: the whole thing was crammed full of magic that quite clearly said 'no imps allowed'.
Yes, the ward was quite specifically designed to keep me out.
I went into the livingroom and found a small, rubber squeak toy half-hidden beneath the sofa. "Hey, dog," I said, giving the toy a squeeze. "Dog?"
Again came the tell-tale clattering of little claws, then the padding of paws on carpet. The dog ran into the room, tail wagging madly.
"See the toy? See the toy?" I ran back into the other hall, and the dog followed. "You want the toy?" We stood beside the study, me waving the squeaker and the dog doing the want-dance.
"Go get the toy!" I threw the toy at the study door and closed my eyes, waiting for the worst.
I don't know if the dog was just really, really stupid, or it knew what would happen and didn't care. There were splintering sounds. There was a yelp. There was a flash of green light and a warm gust of wind as all that fresh magic was displaced. When I opened my eyes, I saw the shattered, smoking remains of the study's door on the floor below, and the dog laying on the steps just inside, gnawing on his squeak toy.
"Good boy," I said.
"What's going on over there?" shouted bossman.
"Nothing," I called back, picking my way over the wooden remains. "Dog's breakin' stuff."
The study was almost more like a burrow, set a few feet below the first floor proper. I leapt onto the stone floor, not bothering with the stairs.
Bossman's study looks pretty much exactly like the study of every other wizard I've had to work for. Which is to say, it was cramped, dark, and full of arcane junk. There must be some sort of genetic memory passed on thought the magic side of things. Sure, I can see that the summoning circles and the walls of bookshelves and things are just necessities, but that doesn't explain why the only light comes from candles and a fireplace when there's a perfectly good ceiling light installed, or why he uses expensive vellum when we just bought a ream of printer paper for the office.
There was only one portal in the room, and it was a stationary one. An oval carved partway into the wall and part into the floor, lined with more sigils and empty hexagonal spaces. All of the lines were woven with complex smelling and slightly delicate magic.
I hadn't used a stationary portal like this in ages. Usually I stuck to the one-shot ones favored by the supernatural folks. The kind you keep in your pocket and trigger when you feel the urge to rip the universe a new one. Bossman's was all complicated, tangled with spells dedicated to harnessing leylines and nodes of power and following the set dimensional gateways and ensuring safe travel and all kinds of other things I'd never had to worry about.
I went over to the shelf beside the portal and started rooting around through the jars there. Some of the jars were filled with water, some with dirt. Most of them were labeled in permanent marker over masking tape. The names were all places; some familiar, most not. There was a set of fancy crystal jars off on the side with a shelf all their own. They, too, had dirt in them, but the dirt in there was steeped in the same plant-smelling magic Bossman liked to use. Their labels were in some unfamiliar curly script.
I grabbed a jar at random and dumped a handful of the dirt onto the ground. After, I grabbed a knife from off the workbench and lightly ran the blade across my thumb.
As soon as the blood touched the stone, the entire setup came to life. The lines began to glow with a steady yellow light. A teeth-aching hum emanated from the center of the oval. The empty space inside rippled, melted, and turned into something like grey molasses. Unlike Khoress' portal- which was basically a slapdash tear in the universe, this one had all kinds of pointless, built-in safety measures to make sure color, sound, and time outside the oval remained unaltered. The dirt inside the hexagon began to smoke.
Pfft. What a waste of energy, I thought. The built in safeties may be triggered automatically, but there was no way I was going to waste any effort into triggering the rest of them.
The dog, who had been watching with mild interest from across the room, chose just then to go all yappy on me.
"What's going on?" called a voice somewhere in the vicinity of the kitchen.
"Nothing," I shouted. "Dog's being stupid."
I heard the sliding of a chair and the thumping of feet. "Are you in my study?"
Exit, me, stage right.
I hopped over the lines the same time Bossman saw the lack of study-door. The last thing I heard was Bossman's cursing.
* * * *
I had ten seconds hang-time to revise my opinions of Faust's interdimensional safety measures before I hit the ground. Dirt the same color, smell, and texture as that in the jar rushed forward to meet me head-on.
I waited a few seconds before getting up. Then decided to wait a few more, just in case.
You know Bossman's going to claw his way through any second now to drag you back, right? I thought.
Yeah, I thought back. I'm goin', I'm goin'. Just gimme a minute.
The minute turned into two and two into five before I actually managed to peel myself up from the dirt. I looked around and found myself surrounded by trees. Lots of them. Big, tall pine looking ones that smelled like sap and winter, despite the fact it was obviously the middle of summer. The dirt I'd gotten to know so intimately was part of a hard-packed trail that ran into a clearing a few feet away. The clearing was clear because it, too, was full of packed earth.
Huh I thought. Why would Bossman have a shortcut here?
The corner of the envelope poked into my side. There was no time to worry about Bossman- I still had a job to do.
Something in the brush behind me began to wuffle.
Oh, no. I thought. Not here.
I turned and found the hell hound, sniffing its way through the brush until it found the trail. It looked up. When it saw me, its tufted tail began beating back and forth like a windshield wiper.
"How did you get here?"
The mongrel plopped onto its rear, head tilted slightly to the side, its jaw slack.
I fixed it with one of my double barrel glares and said, "Go home."
It was a wasted effort: the dog looked up at me with its stupid, slightly confused but still optimistic doggie face.
"Fine," I snarled. "But if you get into trouble, I'm leaving you."
The dog started scratching himself behind the ear, apparently uninterested in what I had to say. I sighed.
If this road was important enough for Bossman to make a shortcut to, then there had to be something worthwhile at the end of it. Maybe I'd get lucky, maybe Titania herself would be coming by any minute. Maybe Hastofur would be so happy with the timely delivery, he wouldn't tan me and wear my skin like a jacket. And maybe I'd suddenly grow four feet taller and get my wings back.
I took one last look around the clearing before shoving off. The dog, having finished his business, padded along beside me.
* * * *
The ground shook slightly. I took my eyes of the road in front of me and looked around. What. . . ?
Something was making its way through the trees. I could just barely make something over the tops of the trees. I stopped walking and watched stupidly as the whatever-it-was got closer and closer. The dog started yapping and dancing, apparently torn between wanting to run after the thing and to stay by me.
Wait I thought. Is that a. . . house?
A roof came into view over the tips of the trees, bobbing up and down as it went. Like it was walking.
It is a house.
I was wrong, of course. It wasn't a house at all.
It was a cottage. A cottage free of windows and doors, with only a large chimney spewing out smoke to show that anyone could have lived there.
I thought at first that the cottage was on stilts. That maybe there was some kind of mechanism that allowed the stilts to move and look as though they were legs. Then the whole rickety mess got close and-no. They were chicken legs. Giant bony chicken legs grayed with age and ending in giant, bony chicken claws.
Well okeedokee, then.
"Hey," I said. "Hey! Hold up!"
I waved my arms and tried to get the house's attention. Unless the owner just liked to let their home run around the countryside blind, they probably had some way of watching the outside world, windows or no.
The chicken cottage must have seen me: it stopped a little ways away. Then it leaned forward and peered.
"Uh. Hi." It occurred to me that I'd been assuming the person was inside the house. But this was Faerie. All kinds of weird things happened here. What if the house itself-
Suddenly, the cottage bolted upright. The chicken legs bent and the house fell until it was just a few feet off the ground. The dog went insane, barking and growling at the chicken claws without actually touching them.
I took a step back. "Listen, if I've offended you-"
The chimney stopped smoking. Something round and dark flew out of the chimney and flew straight for us.
Pure instinct took over: I hit the deck. I leapt into the nearest bushes, covered my head, and waited for the worst. Out on the road, the dog's barking ended abruptly in a yelp.
Oh fuck, the dog is dead.
Dammit, now Bossman was going to mope for days. The idiot loved that stupid thing. Ah well. Maybe whatever had got it was full, now. Maybe it would leave-
"I see my reputation proceeds me."
The voice was dry in every sense of the word. Not only the tone, but the voice itself had the slight crinkle in it reserved for the especially old and the especially amused.
I peeked up. An old woman was standing above, smiling at me through the brambles. Her gray, straw-like hair was tied back and bushed out behind her head. Her narrow face was pale and looked like someone cut it out of aged leather, with a noticeably large, hooked nose. The smile, upon reflection, wasn't a particularly nice smile.
"I must say," she went on. "It's quite a compliment. That a former member of the host would hide as I approach." She took in a breath of fresh air. "It does an old woman good to know she's still got the touch." She grinned, revealing row upon row of spiny teeth.
"Stand up," she said. "Clean yourself off. I refuse to talk to someone hiding in the shrubbery." She smoothly backed away. "Come onto the road."
I crept out of the bushes, feeling particularly stupid. Great first impression. I was taking Faerie by storm. I stepped into the road.
The old woman wasn't tall after all: she was floating. She hovered a couple feet in the air, sitting cross-legged in a stone mortar that was a giant mirror to the one Bossman had been using. The pestle was set across her lap. She hadn't killed the dog after all. It was on the other side of the road, staring up into a tree.
She seemed to be waiting for something, though I didn't know what.
"Well?" she said after a moment. "Have you got anything to say to me?"
"Could you give me directions to wherever the Seelie Queen is at? I kinda need to find her. Ah, please," I added after a moment.
There was an awkward silence. The only noise came from the dog, who was scratching at the trunk of a tree and making want noises.
"Please?" I said again, a little louder.
The mortar floated close and she leaned over to get a better look at me. I found myself cringing away. "Interesting. You've no idea who I am, do you?"
"No, sorry. Afraid not."
She chuckled. "Others would have torn you to shreds for impertinence."
"What? I said please, didn't I?"
I glanced over and saw the dog now in a staring contest with a large crow a little bigger than it was. The bird was sitting on a low branch, dancing back and forth and teasing the dog.
She snapped her fingers in front of my face. "Pay attention when I speak to you."
I nodded meekly, unable to speak. She was, it seemed, one of those people whose personalities not only extend outside their bodies, but managed to squash down the personalities of everyone around them.
"Now," she said. "You may call me Baba."
Again came the unsettling smile. "Good," she said. "What was it you wanted?"
"To find Titania, Baba. I've a delivery for her."
"Well," she said, "you're in luck." She thumped the ground with her pestle. "This road is the dividing line between Seelie and Unseelie land. To the west," She raised the pestle and pointed. "Lies Unseelie. To the East," She swung the pestle around and nearly lopped my head off. "Titania and her own."
"And if I keep going straight?"
She shrugged. "The road forks, eventually. Everything between the prongs is wild land, even by our standards."
"I don't suppose there's a straight forward way to get to Titania's place?"
Quicker than I would have thought possible for a woman her age, she brought the pestle up and thwacked me on the head. "You shouldn't ask questions until you learn to do so properly. That's your third one so far."
The dog and crow started taunting each other in animal. The sound seemed to amuse the old bat. She set the pestle down again and sat back in her bowl.
"You smell of god spit and hellfire. I haven't seen one of your kind here in a very long time. . . "
She trailed off, apparently lost in thought. At the risk of getting another thwack to the head, I glanced over at the dog. The crow had gone to the ground, now both were dancing around one another in a circle. Every so often, one would try and snap at the other.
The woman snapped upright. "Take my advice," she said. "Go home."
"I can't, Baba. I've got a job to do." A thought struck. "I don't even have a way to get back."
She nodded, like she'd expected as much. "In that case, you may want to warn your companion against pestering the crows."
The dog snapped again. This time it managed to get a mouthful of tail feathers before the bird, apparently sick of the game, got away.
"Why?" I said, stomach sinking. There was the subtlest change in the air, as if the whole forest was holding its breath. I felt it, she felt it, the only one who didn't feel it was the dog, who kept frolicking after the now hopping crow. The crow, for its part, began to cry.
"Well," said Yaga, floating up in her mortar. "I suppose you're about to find out."
A crow called overhead, and the dog's chew toy answered. Another cawed from the next tree over. Then another. I looked up and saw that the surrounding trees were all filled with crows. At least a hundred of them. A dozen or so were cawing, but the majority of them were watching us in silence. None of them had been there thirty seconds before.
"Baba," I said. "Wait-" She was already halfway to her chimney.
"I suggest you run that way," she said, pointing with her pestle. A moment later, she'd vanished inside her chimney.
The place went dead quiet. Then, with only the faintest sound of wings beating air, the crows rose up as a whole and attacked. I screamed. The dog whimpered. In the air, the flock of morphed and grew until it was no longer a group of individual birds, but a black morass of shadow and feather. I ran the way the old woman had pointed and glanced back only once. I saw the house get to its feet and trot off, going the way the dog and I'd just come from.
After that, I'd a lot more on my mind to think about than a chicken legged house.