With a deep breath, Rie left the pretensions of the High Court and its glittering throng behind her. The portal stretched and squeezed, drawing her cell by cell from the hard marble hall into soft sand touched by gentle waves. She rested her hand on the cool sandstone that arched above her head, gathering her bearings as her heart rate calmed.
Centering herself, Rie pulled the salty stink of fish deep into her lungs before beginning the two-mile walk to Lord Garamaen’s beachfront estate. The beach was hushed, as if setting the stage for the first appearance of the sun above the hills. Even the birds held their breath. It was too early for the tourists and dog-walkers to be out, and only a few surfers lounged on the calm waves in the distance. Rie savored the quiet, even if her two tiny companions didn’t.
“The human realm is so boring,” Hiinto said, spittle landing on Rie’s cheek.
She wiped it away, careful not to swat the two-inch pixie holding onto her ear, but made a show of flinging the spit off to the side.
“Why can’t we go somewhere new and fun?” he continued.
“Please. You wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. You’d hide in Rie’s hair the whole time,” Niinka replied from her makeshift swing at Rie’s belt. She lounged upside down, appearing as nothing more than a trinket on a chain hanging out of Rie’s pocket, while she sharpened her claws to a precise point.
Rie clenched her jaw, biting back her irritation. They were her friends, but sometimes she wished they would act like adults, rather than siblings.
“It is true, and you know it,” Niinka said.
“Quiet,” Rie snapped, patience gone. A headache throbbed behind her forehead. She needed to focus.
Two men stood on the beach, directly in her path. Still at least fifty yards away, they seemed out of place without the surfboards or exercise attire of the usual early morning crowd. Rie paused, assessing. The blond one crouched, taking something out of a bag in the sand. He flipped it once, a shard of light glinting into Rie’s eyes. The throbbing in her brain burst in white-hot light, leaving her blind to the real world as she entered a vision.
The blond man stands, facing her. He pulls his arm back, a knife whistles toward her. Blood streams from her belly, her shirt soaked in seconds, the sand absorbing the overflow. The sky is all she sees, expansive gray-blue dotted with thin wispy clouds. A small hand taps her face. Niinka’s wide black eyes float into view. Then darkness.
Rie gasped, coming out of the premonition. The blond man rose from his crouch, facing her. His arm pulled back.
Sending her thanks to the gods for the warning, Rie spun left as a knife passed through the air where she had stood. Dropping into a crouch, she scuttled behind a large rocky outcropping, just as another knife hit the sand at her feet. She picked it up, testing the weight as adrenaline surged and her heart rate sped. Fear twisted a knot of dread in her gut.
Curuthannor’s training kicked in. This might be her first life or death fight, but he had prepared her well. She took a cleansing breath, washed away the fear and replaced it with determination. The pixies let go of their hiding spots, chattering in the clicks and whistles of their native tongue. Rie ignored them, focusing instead on her surroundings, and her options. Stairs wound up the cliff to her left, heading toward the street above, but a hundred feet of open space stretched between her rock and the first step. No matter how fast she moved, she’d be an easy target. If she ran back toward the arch, she’d be similarly open to attack.
Rie grabbed a handful of sand with her left hand, while her right hand reached behind and traded the unfamiliar throwing knife for one of two eight-inch khukuri blades in the horizontal sheath at her lower back.
“What are they doing?” she asked Hiinto.
The little pixie crawled atop the rock, his translucent wings pulled back and naked skin camouflaged to match the color and texture of the sandstone. “They’ve split up, one on each side. They’re creeping along now, not sure what you’re doing, I think. What are you doing?”
“Which one is closer?”
“The one near the cliffs.”
“Fifty feet, coming closer.”
“Are you two hungry?”
Hiinto grinned, revealing a mouth full of sharp, serrated teeth, while Niinka rubbed her hands together. “Humans taste almost as good as the elves and greater fae,” she whispered.
“Wait until they are close. I will deal with the cliff-side man. You two take a bite out of the one on the ocean-side.”
“Yum.” Hiinto licked his lips.
Sliding a foot or two to the left, closer to the cliffs, Rie listened for the man’s footsteps in the dry seaweed. When she guessed he was within a few feet, Rie lunged sideways out from behind the rock and threw the sand into his face. He sputtered, dropping his weapons and scrubbing at his eyes. Rie dodged into range. Her right arm snapped out and up across the man’s body, drawing a horizontal figure eight across his torso, the razor-edged khukuri knife sliding through the soft tissue of his unprotected belly like a spoon through pudding. She pulled back and away, but not before a loud pop echoed off the cliff face.
Rie’s right leg crumpled beneath her. She fell to the ground, blood saturating the cloth around a hole in her upper thigh. She rolled away from the dying assassin. Sand exploded from the impact of another round. Rie tucked in behind a driftwood log, waiting for the second assassin to make another move. Blood seeped into her leggings, staining the blue denim a dark burgundy. The wound wasn’t fatal, but the blood-loss was already making her feel faint.
Rie peeked out from behind the log. The pixies were nowhere in sight. The man drew closer, carrying his gun out and away from his body, held loose as if he had all the time in the world to deal with his target.
“Thanks for taking care of Grant,” he said, a wicked grin on his face. “I hated his constant bragging, and now the bounty’s all mine.”
Rie kept silent, thoughts frantic for a plan.
He took a deep breath, exhaling on a groan. “You smell delicious. I can’t wait for my first taste.” His tongue slicked out across an extended fang. Blood sidhe, otherwise known as vampire. Shadow Realm hunters of humans.
Ten yards, and closing. There was no way out, nowhere to go, not with a wounded leg and open beach. She crouched, body weight centered on her good leg, the assassin’s throwing knife drawn and ready. She would have to be fast, stand up and flick the blade end over end to hit her target.
The man screamed, gun firing two rounds in quick succession. Rie flattened against the log, but the rounds weren’t aimed at her. Poking her head above the wood again, Rie gagged, the contents of her stomach threatening to spill onto the sand.
The pixies were hard at work. A fine red mist gathered like a cloud around the assassin’s head. He swatted at empty air, turning in circles, but never close to touching Rie’s friends. His cheeks disappeared first, hollowing out as the pixies stole chunks of soft tissue. Only visible as a flash when they paused to strike, the pixies made fast work of the man’s face. With little meat left on his cheeks and Hiinto harassing his eyes, Niinka tunneled into the skin beneath his jaw. His scream abruptly cut off, Rie assumed when Niinka bit through his vocal cords.
The assassin faced her, mouth gaping like a fish. Lidless eyes glared, whites showing all the way around the chocolate colored iris. He stepped forward, lifted his gun for a final attempt on Rie’s life. Hiinto landed hard on his wrist, clawing his way into the tendons and veins, sending the weapon to the ground along with a hard spray of arterial blood. Having eaten most of the man’s tongue, Niinka crawled out through his mouth. Rie stood, aimed. A flick of her wrist sent the knife spinning through the air, once, twice. The third round connected the pointed blade deep into the man’s neck.
The pixies continued to feed as the assassin fell face first into the sand. Blood arced from multiple wounds, slowing along with his heart rate. The pixies, bloated with blood and flesh, flew to Rie’s side, bobbing drunkenly from side to side.
“Sorry we were late,” Hiinto said, his head tilted to the side. Blood and gore streaked his face and body from eyes to bellybutton. “We got a little distracted when you cut the first one.”
“They were blood sidhe, not human. A more complex flavor, more depth to savor,” Niinka added, dragging her fingers one by one through her mouth, licking off every drop of red liquid she could find. Despite her trip through the gunman’s throat, she was already clean, only a few spots of red marring her smooth white complexion.
“We survived. That’s all that matters.”
Adrenaline long gone, Rie’s limbs hung heavy with fatigue. She shivered, whether from shock or dread, she didn’t know. Her leg was still bleeding. Making a tourniquet out of a strip of her shirt, Rie tied a knot above the hole in her leg. The blood loss slowed, but she knew it was a temporary measure.
“We’ll have to take their heads.” Rie leaned heavily against the driftwood log. As badly damaged as they were, the assassins might find a way to feed and heal. Decapitation was the only way to ensure they didn’t rise again.
Using the driftwood for support, Rie dragged herself to the gunman. Niinka’s work, plus the knife protruding from his throat, made it easy to take his head. It was nearly detached already. The second assassin was harder, in part because she kept having to chase off the seagulls that wanted his guts for lunch.
Through it all, Rie existed in a cloud of detachment, as if the entire incident had happened to someone else. She didn’t even regret killing the blood sidhe, the first sentient lives she’d taken. She hoped it was the shock, and not some sign of a malfunctioning conscience, but she didn’t have the energy to worry about it. It was all she could do to finish her assignment and get home.
“Lord Garamaen will send someone to take care of the bodies,” Niinka said. A deep yawn cracked her jaw. She climbed her way up Rie’s shoulder to cuddle in the crook of her neck. Hiinto tucked himself into the pocket of her shirt.
Using the last of her waning strength, Rie hid the bodies as best she could under some loose driftwood, and stumbled in the direction of Lord Garamaen’s hall. Salt and sand coated her mouth and throat, the gritty texture grinding between her teeth. She spit to the side. With a dry mouth, it didn’t do much good. She prayed for enough strength to make it to his door.
Lord Garamaen’s estate sat high atop a cliff, the creamy white house known for expansive views captured by floor to ceiling windows. It was plain compared to the ornate edifices in the Upper Realm, with their spires and arches and filigreed railings, instead focusing on simple lines and asymmetrical angles that maximized the beach exposure. That its owner was not human was a well-guarded secret.
“What sadistic bastard put 52 uneven steps from his house to the beach?” Rie asked no one in particular as she dragged her battered body up the last few punishing wooden boards.
“That would be me,” a man said from the paved stone patio that led to the mansion’s back door.
Rie’s head snapped up. Recovering as quickly as possible from the surprise, she straightened and donned her court persona, the neutral facial expression her high elf warden, Curuthannor, had drilled into her.
Lord Garamaen didn’t resemble the high elves she knew in the Upper Realm. He hardly looked like an elf at all. He was more muscular, and far too casual for the High Court. He kept his dirty blond hair trimmed short, just brushing the tips of barely pointed ears, and he wore the cotton shorts and thin shirts native to the area. He was taller than the average human, she supposed, well over six feet, but nothing extraordinary by greater fae standards. Worse, his right hand had been severed at the wrist, the handicap setting him apart from his flawless brethren.
She wondered, not for the first time, whether Garamaen maintained a personal glamour to help him blend with the humans he loved so dearly. She didn’t think so, but then she was only human.
“Lord Garamaen, I am Nuriel Lhethannien, from the High Court messenger service. I have come with a message from High King Othin.” Rie held out her messenger pendant for inspection, pulling it from beneath her shirt on its long satin cord. This was not the first time she had visited Lord Garamaen, not by a long shot, but protocol required the same introduction with each missive.
“Looks to me like you’ve had a bit of trouble getting here. And I prefer to be called Greg in this realm, if you recall,” Lord Garamaen said, not even glancing at the badge.
Rie’s thumb twitched, but she was sure no pain or anxiety showed on her face. She returned the medallion to its place.
“I remember, but I have to follow protocol. The King sends his regards and requests the honor of your presence at the High Court in three human days time.” Her voice stayed steady, but her heart raced and her right leg trembled. She locked her knees and hoped Lord Garamaen wouldn’t notice.
“Come in and let me look at you. We can’t have a king’s messenger returning to service in such a state.”
Rie shivered. It would be nice to get warm, if nothing else, since the sun had apparently decided to take its heat elsewhere.
“I appreciate the offer.” Rie’s vision swam. She could barely feel her right leg below the tourniquet. She was forced to admit she wouldn’t make it back to the portal without passing out.
“If you hurt her, you’ll regret it,” Niinka snarled from her hiding spot behind Rie’s left ear.
“Who do we have here?” Garamaen asked, not quite covering the twitch that gave away his surprise. “A pixie? Two? How would you like a reward for helping me with your messenger friend?”
“What have you got?” Hiinto asked. He poked his head out of her shirt pocket, resting his arms on the edge of the fabric, and his chin on his arms. He must still be too full to move, since he wasn’t already swarming Lord Garamaen for his prize. The pixies were suckers for a shiny trinket or length of satin ribbon, Hiinto the greediest of them all. Like tiny dragons, they hoarded their treasures in personal nests, keeping them hidden from everyone, even the other members of the swarm.
“Be careful,” Niinka hissed. “He will help, but he’s a tricky one.”
Rie took a step forward. Her leg buckled. Lord Garamaen caught her before she hit the floor. Pulling her arm over his shoulder, he half-carried her through the doorway and into the sunken living area.
“Have a seat, I’ll be back in just a minute.” Lord Garamaen eased her down into an ivory leather chair without giving her the opportunity to protest making a bloody mess on his furniture, and sped out of the room.
“Don’t forget our rewards!” Hiinto called out after him.
Unable to resist, Rie’s head drifted back to relax in the supple leather support. Snuggling her entire body deep into the cushions, she sighed in pleasure. The comforts in this home were far removed from her sparse quarters in the messenger barracks. Even her room at the estate was stiff and cold compared to the cushioned warmth of Garamaen’s — Greg’s — living room. Decorated in creamy ivory accented with soft blues and greens, every seat had an unobstructed view of the beach, ocean, or both.
When he returned, Lord Garamaen carried a red box with a white cross on the top and a bowl of loose change, buttons, and other assorted baubles.
“Pixies, you can have whatever you like out of this bowl, including the bowl itself, if you can carry it.” He placed the bowl on the slate ledge surrounding the fireplace, then turned to Rie and opened the red box. He withdrew a pair of scissors and using the stump of his right hand to hold the fabric in place, positioned them in the hole created by the bullet. “I’m going to cut away your jeans, so I can see the wound. Alright?”
Rie nodded, her head getting woozier by the second. The pixies, meanwhile, were busy searching through Lord Garamaen’s offering.
“My name is Hiinto, and I will take three silver coins and a pearl, plus this ribbon to tie them up in.” He selected three dimes and a round white button, wrapping them carefully in the bright red satin ribbon and strapping the entire collection around his waist.
“You can call me Niinka. Rather than anything in the bowl, I would like a strand of your golden hair, if that would be acceptable?”
“That is a very personal request, Niinka,” Lord Garamaen replied, his tone low and serious. He paused his ministrations to Rie’s leg and held Niinka’s gaze for a few seconds before continuing. “I will grant this request, but you will owe me one personal favor of my choosing, and to be completed at the time of my choosing.”
“Done!” Niinka zipped to his head and plucked a single strand of hair, wrapping it around her wrist until it made a thick bracelet, which she tied into a knot. “It’s so beautiful,” she whispered, stroking her new jewelry.
Hiinto hissed and clicked, clearly yelling at Niinka in their native Pixl. She turned her back, ignoring his protests while admiring the bracelet.
“The bullet went all the way through, which is good. It means I don’t have to dig around in there. But now I have to clean it, and this could hurt a bit.” Lord Garamaen used a pair of tweezers to dip a swab in alcohol, then began to wipe away the blood and dirt from the perimeter of the bullet hole. Rie gasped when the swab pulled across the wound, the stinging pain making her jump and squirm.
“You don’t have a healer, by any chance, do you?” she asked, eyes tearing.
“If you mean a magical healer, I can close the wound and repair some of the damage, but first I have to get it clean. Just hold on for a few more minutes. Then I’ll take you up to your room where you and the pixies can take a bath and rest.”
Rie clenched her hands on the cushioned armrests and glanced wildly about the room, looking for something, anything, to take her mind off the pain. A large painted portrait of a dark-haired woman sat in place of honor on the wall behind the couch. She was beautiful and exotic looking, with almond shaped brown eyes and flawless golden skin. Her hair hung loose around her shoulders, with the exception of a single braid that carried a large white feather.
“Who is the woman in the painting?” Rie asked,
“She was my wife, long ago,” Lord Garamaen replied.
“She was human?”
“Yes, we lived together with her tribe in what is now known as the Ohio Valley. She was a shaman of her people.” The warmth and passion in his voice was overwhelming. He paused his ministrations and looked up at Rie, critically examining her face. “You look a bit like her, you know,” Lord Garamaen said before returning to his task. “Your hair is almost the exact same color, but your eyes throw it off. The violet is rare in humans, and uncommon even in elves.”
Rie didn’t know how to respond, unused to compliments of any kind. The high elves had such perfect beauty, there was no way he could compare her favorably to his brethren. Yet he’d bonded with a human woman and chosen to live in the human world instead of amongst the glittering throng. His preferences must be a little warped, but she couldn’t mention that.
Rie watched the pixies dart about the room. They were everywhere, examining objects, opening cupboards, and generally causing mischief.
“Get out of there, you pesky little beasts,” a gravelly voice said from beneath the kitchen sink. The cabinet door was open a crack and four knobby fingers gripped the edge. “You’re going to muck up my house.”
“Hilgor, they are guests. They are free to move about the house and grounds, but if they try to take anything without my permission, you can go ahead and swat them. Until then, leave them be.”
“Hey!” the pixies protested in unison.
“We know how to behave.” Hiinto returned a silver toothpick to its place by the stove.
“We were just looking,” Niinka added, a guilty expression crossing her face.
Rie smiled. There was no reforming a pixie.
“At least make them wash up. I’ll have enough trouble cleaning that chair. I’d rather not have to clean the whole house.” Hilgor’s hand disappeared, then reemerged, waving an old stained rag in the air. Without protest, the pixies dashed to take the rag from his outstretched hand and scrub themselves clean.
“You have a nisse living here?”
“Hilgor came with me when I decided to live here on a permanent basis.”
“Who else would take care of him?” Hilgor said from his hiding spot. “He has no woman, and little family left.”
Rie had never heard of a nisse so dedicated to an individual. They were notoriously shy, and typically only cared for a particular house or property. That Hilgor chose to follow Lord Garamaen was a sign of his power and respectability, especially since he lived in the Human Realm.
“Why don’t you tell me what happened on the beach?” Garamaen asked, changing the subject.
“Two men attacked me. I survived, they didn’t.”
“Come on, spill the details. Why were they after you?”
Rie clenched her teeth as Lord Garamaen tugged on something in her leg.
“I don’t know. They were blood sidhe, but I wasn’t just a breakfast target. They wanted me dead.”
“And you know that because?”
Rie hesitated. Only her wardens and the pixies knew of her abilities. Curuthannor had encouraged her to keep her premonitions secret, to use them as a tactical advantage. He had tried to teach her to bring them on at will, but she had never been able to manage that kind of control. With almost seventy-five years of practice, she didn’t think it was going to get any better. “I have a minor gift, a small premonition. It’s the only thing that saved me from a thrown knife to the gut.”
“You’re also skilled with a blade, and quite fast.”
“You were watching?”
Lord Garamaen nodded. “I know everything that goes on, on this beach.”
“And you let them attack me?” Rie held her expression and kept her tone controlled, but not without effort. It was typical elven superiority, unwilling to help the so-called ‘lesser’ races.
“You handled yourself well.” A flash of warmth in her leg drew Rie’s attention downward. “All done,” Lord Garamaen announced, removing his hand from the air above the wound. “Let’s get you up to your room to rest.”
“My room? While I appreciate your help, I need to get back to the Upper Realm before sunset.” Without the magic of a faerie realm surrounding her at the fading of the sun, she would wither and die, gaining the physical age that had been suppressed for so long.
“Yeah, yeah. I know you’re a changeling, but my estate holds a piece of faerie. You’ll be fine.”
The pixies giggled. “Of course, she’ll be fine,” Niinka said as Hiinto elbowed her in the ribs.
“I really must insist.” Rie ignored the two-inch pests. “I need to get back to the messenger barracks and report in.”
“In your condition? I don’t think so. You need to rest that leg, and I believe I still outrank a messenger. It’s not going to be a problem. Trust me.” Lord Garamaen extended his hand.