New York has a sixth borough populated by fae with werewolves to police them. What could go wrong?
I glared down into the clogged toilet and decided that it was better to let my bladder explode than try to use the bus’s facilities. Of course, there was always the sink. I eyed it dubiously. Judging from the smell and the yellow stain around the chipped drain, I wasn’t the first passenger to have that bright idea.
The exploding bladder sounded better and better.
Breathing through my mouth, I turned away and wondered who had destroyed the bathroom. On my way back to my seat, I eyed the motley crew I’d been cooped up with for almost sixteen hours. I opened my fae senses to get a feel for them. I didn’t do it often. Too much emotion from mortals overloaded my circuits. The guy passed out on the seat in front of me had a yellowish stain on his pants. Probably not the sink pee-er.
No signs of guilt.
I sank back against the faded blue polyester seat and tried to hold my breath. The entire bus reeked of urine, BO, and desperation.
I’d been on the stupid vehicle so long that I’d gone nose blind to the worst of it, at least until the latest deposit in the can joined the cacophony of stank.
I closed my eyes. Think positive, Emma.
Bad smells were better than being dead.
Nothing stinks more than death.
Was I good at thinking positive or what?
A car backfired and the people around me gasped. Wussies. Don’t they know they were on their way to New York?
My eyes popped open and I pressed my head against the grimy window and stared out at the buildings as the bus crossed the bridge into Manhattan. It was a good place to get lost in a crowd. A good place to hunt for a killer.
Not that I knew what I’d do with him if I actually found him. Malcolm’s Swiss Army knife was tucked into my boot. Knives were shitty weapons for women. I’d have to get close in order to use it and the idea of stabbing someone….
A shudder rolled through me and I looked around for a distraction. The guy across the way was watching something on his tablet. My keener than average eyes picked out the headline on his digital tabloid. Fae Invasion! They Hide in Plain Sight!
Old news, pal. The fae had been around for at least two decades.
I was living proof of that.
The article went on to detail the fae pocket realms and the grisly things that happened beyond the borders. Human experimentation, weapons of mass destruction, dogs and cats living together. In other words, pandemonium.
The writer was full of shit. No human had gone into a pocket realm and come out again. No wonder people were jumpy.
They were still wussies, though.
The bus lumbered up to a red light. My leg bounced in impatience as I tried to think of anything beyond the impending UTI I was sure to get from holding it so long. From the seat behind me, I picked up the threads of emotion from an octogenarian. Her feelings were dark, a swirling vortex of grief. I noted the black dress she wore, the fabric old and fussy. In town for a funeral perhaps.
The boy and his father two rows in front of the drunk had their noses pressed to the glass. Their energy was light and excited. Tourists most likely on some sort of trip. Come to New York, see the sights, smell the local color of our public transportation!
The drunk man was a black pit of grief. Tabloid guy emanated boredom.
The driver was weary and anxious to get home. His energy was a cloud of been there done that.
My own emotions were locked down tight. Cold, I had trained myself to be stone cold. I would either live or I would die trying to kill the ones I hunted.
I didn’t much care which as long as I got to pee first.
The brakes squealed as the large conveyance ground to a halt. I waited for the rest of the passengers—other than Mr. Unconscious, who’d drunk himself into a coma—to disembark before standing to retrieve my guitar case.
The guitar it’d housed was long gone.
A woman with a pinched face greeted the mourner. Tabloid guy received a searing kiss from his boyfriend. Tourist and son hailed a cab, their map already out.
No one waited for me.
Story of my life.
I rushed past them all and made a beeline for the bus station bathroom. It was hardly any better than the bus but at least it was clear. I sighed in relief.
“You play?” The toothless woman standing at the sink giving herself a sponge bath nodded at my guitar.
“Not well.” I washed my hands and made a hasty exit back out onto the street.
As was my habit when entering a new territory, I closed my eyes and silently recited my own version of the Serenity prayer. Grant me the serenity to accept the things I can not change, the courage to change the things I can. And the ability to make a difference. Then I opened my eyes and took my first hit of New York air.
It was way too hot for my leather jacket, but I needed to wear it until I secured shelter. My arms, along with my ears, would draw notice.
I did a quick scan of the passersby. No sign of any fae. Good.
Only a few months had passed since the Unseelie queen had announced the fae’s presence to the humans. Informed them that the fair folk were real and asked for asylum while their own land, Underhill, was being restored to its former glory. The ultimate renovation project.
At first, a sense of wonder and awe had taken over the humans. Fae attractions sprang up at every crossroads. Come meet a real live fairy! Signs proclaimed in neon from LA to Tampa. For the most part, the “fae” at said attractions were just humans doing cosplay. Most of the fae hadn’t budged from the pocket realms.
The sticky July air hit me like a wet dishcloth to the face. Even with the sun about to set, heat radiated up from the concrete through my combat boots. New York was a transitional city for the fae. They learned how to eat, drink, talk, dress, work and generally blend in with the humans. The gateway to the pocket realm where the transitioning fae were kept in a sort of halfway house sat alongside the Hudson River.
I headed in the opposite direction.
I walked for several blocks, beneath the metal grates and past closed storefronts that were under construction.
I kept a tight rein on my feelers as I wound my way through the bustling crowd, careful to avoid touching or being touched. Physical contact always heightened my sensitivity to other’s emotions. Their feelings still crept past my carefully constructed shields without it, but it was a trickle compared to a tsunami. Part of the reason why my mother had dragged Malcolm and me out west, to keep my ability under wraps. Less dense population meant less risk of exposure.
We’d threaded the needle, trying to find less populated places that wouldn’t trigger my empathic powers but large enough where we could blend. No small towns where everyone knew everyone else. A single mom and her two teenagers stuck out like a pimple on a supermodels’ ass in those places.
I turned streets at random, not paying much attention to where I was going, just sifting through what I was feeling. Only sheer desperation or madness would have brought them to New York, so close to the fae’s top-flight security. Yet the last one I had found told me there was to be a convergence in the city.
Right before he’d walked in front of a truck.
With luck, I would find the gathering place before any of the dark fae knew I was there. It was harder to catch wind of any wonky fae abilities in a city where the forever young slipped up all the time. I’d had enough practice not drawing attention to myself that I’d become almost invisible. Lying low I could do.
All the hair stood up on the back of my neck. I paused and scanned the crowd. Searched for the source of my unease.
My lips parted as I saw a tall man with the same sandy blond hair as me turn away. My throat went dry and I’d taken two steps after him before he disappeared amidst the throng.
Not him. Just a guy who looks like him. Malcolm is dead. I’d seen the body myself.
I moved to join a crowd waiting to cross an intersection. A fae wearing a purple dress and a glamour so thick I could barely penetrate it, stood beside me.
The only way I knew she was fae was because I couldn’t feel her emotions the way I could the impatient mortals around us.
“Shit day,” she murmured. “The weather is total balls.”
Standard transitioning fae line. I imagined it was the first thing they were taught in the pocket realm social training. Engage with the mortals. Talk about the weather. I’m not sure why they were taught to curse but they all did, like sailors on leave.
She didn’t recognize me as one of her own kind. And I wasn’t about to enlighten her.
“Yup,” I responded. I knew the fae couldn’t hurt humans, but I didn’t know if the same held true for me. What if her seemingly banal conversation was meant to entice me to follow her? Was she a dark fae? No telling beneath the glamour. I could follow her.
And do what, Emma? Wait for another truck to take her out?
The light changed and we surged with the group across the street without saying another word. The fae headed up the street, probably going to the nearest Starbucks where she would test her new mad conversational skills on the barista and other patrons before heading back to the pocket realm, aka the PR.
Unless she was a twisted one. And I’d just missed a golden opportunity.
Damn, I sucked at this.
I’d made it another two blocks when I heard her scream.
Every cell in my body froze. No one else turned a hair, so I knew it was her, crying out on a psychic thread that only supes could hear. The second thing I’d bet they been taught in the PR? Don’t disturb gen-pop. It’s worse than kicking an anthill.
The cry came again.
I hurried back in the direction I’d seen the woman turn. A thrill coursed through me at the thought of finding another of those monsters so soon. I had my knife and a few other surprises.
Emma’s motto on urban survival? Do whatever it takes.
But it wasn’t the twisted ones. The emotions that pulled me forward were fully human and full of hate. The fae woman I’d seen had been backed into a corner. Her pretty purple dress was ripped down the front.
Three mortal males surrounded her. All somewhere in their mid-twenties, one Hispanic, the other two Caucasian. All three had the tattoo I’d learned to spot a mile off. A pair of silver wings with a bloody red x slashed through them. Fae haters.
The fae woman’s glamour had faded, revealing the creature within.
She was delicate, willowy, her skin shimmering even in the filthy alley. A nymph or perhaps a dryad from the looks of her. How had the mortals spotted her?
Gen-pop assholes I could take. Maybe even pluck a better weapon off them. I hid my guitar case behind a dumpster and crept closer to the group. The larger of the two white males had his hands wrapped around the fae’s thin neck. Choking her.
Because of the Oath, she couldn’t fight back. Not even to defend herself against the scum.
“Hey,” I called to the trio of bottom feeders. “What’s your problem, dickheads?”
Too late, I noticed the switchblade in the white guy’s hand. His head was shaped like a bullet, coming to a hollow point at the crown of his bald dome.
“We’re just teaching this fairy trash that she don’t belong in our neighborhood.” The other white guy, who had a jaw like a bulldog, grunted.
“And why’s that?” I eased my jacket down off my shoulders. My magic was pathetic, a shadow of what my brother’s had been, but at least I could freaking use it. “Afraid she’ll class up the joint?”
“Bitch,” Bullethead sneered. “We can teach you a lesson, too.”
“Doubtful,” I said. “In fact, I don’t think you have enough sense not to piss on your own feet.”
His anger fluctuated from a sickly orange-yellow to a full-on red rage, driven higher by my disrespect. Fae haters were easy targets, mostly because they never took their blinders off long enough to see what was right in front of them.
Bullethead’s anger rippled as he lunged for me, switchblade out.
I slapped my newly freed leather coat down on his hands with all my might. The blade got tangled in the heavy fabric and I jerked it back. The switchblade clattered to the ground.
He lunged forward, either to retrieve it or to grab me. I kicked him in the face hard enough that his nose broke with a meaty crunch. Blood splattered the brick wall of the nearby bakery.
The Hispanic guy got one look at the swirling gold glyphs on my arms and took off in the opposite direction.
Bulldog wasn’t so smart. He barreled toward me with the force of a freight train. Large, but slow, he was easy to dodge. I crouched low and spun out a foot, sweeping his legs out from underneath him as he stumbled past me.
“The larger they are,” Malcolm had taught me. “The more satisfying the thud when they hit the ground.”
When he was down, I pressed my combat boot to his neck. “Do yourself a favor and let it go. Hunting stray fae won’t end well. For any of you.”
I kicked him in the head, knocking him unconscious. The one with the broken nose had scrambled up.
“What are you?” He sneered at my glowing purple and gold glyphs.
“Your worst fucking nightmare.” Okay, it was corny as hell, but I had always wanted to say that. “Better slither back into your hole before I decide this is boring.”
The guy eyed the fallen bastard and, with a final glare in my direction, abandoned his friend and sprinted down the alley.
I turned to face the fae female. “You okay?”
“You can hurt them?” she breathed. “You can fight back?”
“Lucky for you, yes.” I retrieved my jacket, wincing when I saw the cut in it. After pocketing the switchblade, I picked up my guitar case and turned to go.
“Wait. What’s your name?” The fae woman called as I was about to turn out of the alley.
I paused. A rumble of thunder growled in the distance. It was going to rain soon. I’d have to find a doorway to shelter in, or maybe beneath a bridge.
“Please,” she begged. “They were going to…you stopped them from…I just want to know who to thank.”
The fae can’t lie. Part of me wanted to tell her. I wanted to scream my name is Emma Slade. My mother and brother were siphoned by the dark fae. It was a foolish impulse. The equivalent of a mortal swerving their car into oncoming traffic.
“Just a girl passing through.” I said and then moved on before the storm broke.
Liam watched as the rogue fae female left the alley. He’d spotted her several blocks ago and knew she wasn’t one of his charges.
He’d kept his distance. If she was a twisted one, she might lead him to the hive where the rest of the dark fae congregated. Their very presence was a blight on his city. It was his job to protect the mortals from the fae and vice versa.
He was failing on both counts.
He’d heard the cry and had been prepared to abandon following his quarry to help the fae in need when she’d beaten him to it. He’d stood on a rooftop overlooking the alley and seen her taking out the fae haters.
No fae should have been able to harm a human. The Oath taken by the Seelie kings and the One True Queen held all of the forever young to their words. The young woman with the golden hair hadn’t used magic, but it shouldn’t have mattered. The phrasing of the fae Oath was specific.
None of our kind will raise a hand against a mortal. Under no circumstance will the fae cause deliberate harm to a human, whether by action or deed.
Yet the girl had dealt with those punks in an efficient and almost brutal manner that his inner beast admired.
His cell phone rang. “What, North?” he barked at his PA.
“Just wondering whose leg you were humping,” the cheeky Russian voice sneered. “You’ve been gone all day.”
“Get someone down to the corner of thirty-second and Broad. We had another fae hater attack.”
North cursed in Russian. “Is anyone dead?”
“No, just a couple of banged-up mortals.” The fae girl turned a corner. “Hurry up. We have a transitioning dryad who dropped her glamour like a hot potato.”
“Da. Potatoes are best turned into vodka—”
Liam shut the phone before the sylph could finish and then ran across the rooftop. The momentum propelled him up and to the next, he landed with a crouch and breathed in.
The city was a miasma of smells. Humanity and their byproducts. Garbage, steam from food vendors, sweat, urine, blood, deodorant, lotion, perfume and cologne. He’d grown used to it long ago. It was different than the Black Forrest, but familiar. As a D.C. native, Liam loved the energy a big city brought. His wolf did, too. It had been too long since he’d had a real challenge and acting as the law for the sixth borough was a big one.
He followed the girl as she moved farther and farther from the river. Not heading to the PR. Her scent drifted up to him. Wild honeysuckle. What sort of fae was she that the Oath didn’t apply to her? Seelie or Unseelie?
She stopped outside of an abandoned Italian restaurant. The lights were off, the windows covered with plywood. She glanced around and then turned down an alley. Liam scrambled down the nearby fire escape. What was she doing? Did she have some connection to the place?
He approached cautiously. Rain began to fall, washing away the worst of the city’s grime. He spied her huddled in a doorway. Her leather coat once again covered those fascinating markings on her arms. She tried the door, then waved her hand over the bolt. His werewolf hearing picked up the sound of the chain sliding over.
So, she could use magic.
She let herself inside and the door shut behind her with a click.
Liam tipped his head to the side and surveyed the place. It didn’t look like a hideout for the dark fae. Because of the dark power they wielded, they could acquire whatever they needed. Clothes, cars, weapons. They often had money to burn. A dark fae wouldn’t have bothered to help another, not without draining the dryad to a shriveled husk.
No, the girl was something else.
Thunder boomed and lightning flashed. Liam settled in to wait.
He didn’t like unsolved puzzles.
Sign up for Hart’s Hitist and receive “The In-Between” a short story that bridges
The Unseelie Court books to the Spellcaster series!