The man stood, backlit from the door of his cabin, holding a shotgun and staring slack-jawed at four talking animals on his stoop. Finally, he waved us in.
We went right to the fire. Bracey shook snowflakes from her head.
The man turned around and watched us move to the hearth to warm up. “Who are you?”
I glanced at Dichall, but he was too busy thawing his paws. I sighed. “My name is Eve Pixiedrowner. These are my colleagues:” I gestured around at the others as I spoke. “Gretchen Flix, Dichall Smileyes and this,” I indicated our owl, “is Bracey the Talonted.”
Bracey swiveled her head around backwards and blinked at the man. “I can talk too,” she hooted, “I just don’t have anything to say right now.” I noticed, for the first time, that she also had a veilring, which was now sitting on the hearth in front of her.
“Okay, and what are you doing here?”
Bracey swiveled her head back around, then turned her entire body to face the man and spread her tail feathers out in front of the fire. Thawing her rump, I guess. She stood a little straighter. “We have some questions for you, first!”
The man’s face darkened, as if he’d been insulted or something. He raised the gun so it was pointing in our direction. Just talking with an adult human was making me very uncomfortable. My skin itched and my heart pounded. The gun wasn’t helping and I didn’t feel like taking any more chances. I shook the snowflakes from my cloak and whiskers. “It’s about your son. Nathan.”
He lowered the nose of the gun a fraction of an inch. “What about my son?”
“The faeries, the things from the other side of that weir, are draining his spar…” oops. I wasn’t sure if he’d understand what spark was. I hadn’t the first time I’d heard the term. “…his soul.”
The gun’s point dropped a few more centimeters but he didn’t take his eyes off us. “He mentioned something that sounded suspicious.” He narrowed his eyes and looked directly at me. “Go on.”
I cleared my throat, fighting the urge to dash for cover, and nodded. “The faeries collect human artistic inspiration. They call it `spark.’ They take it from kids and…”
Dichall stepped between me and the gun, which felt very gallant. “Hey, hey, please point that thing somewhere else!”
The man gave a short shake of his head. He adjusted his stance so the gun was pointed straight at Dichall. “I’ve seen faeries transform before. How do I know you’re not faeries?”
It was actually a good point. Which didn’t make me feel any safer at all.
Gretchen held up her red bead. “You see this? This means we are sworn to protect children, ja?”
The man’s expression didn’t change.
Bracey turned her head and glanced at Gretchen, then looked back at the man. “These mice are esteemed agents of the Micean Council, I’ll have you know! I can assure you they are not the creatures you’re concerned about. They fight them! I can personally vouch for their integrity in these matters.”
He snorted and shifted the gun to point at Bracey. “Convince me you’re not a faerie.”
Bracey’s beak opened, but she had nothing to hoot.
I stepped to the side and put my paws out in front of me, trying to be disarming. “Look, sir, we’ve spoken with Nathan. We only knew how to find you because he told us where you were.”
The man stared at me. “He told you…”
Dichall spoke up, stealing my thunder. “Yes, well mostly. He told us you were living across the river, in the woods in Gatineau, and protecting people from monsters. If we were faeries, and knew you were a danger to us, would we have come knocking on your door?”
The man’s hard look was softening slightly, but he was still wary. I stepped forward to get the man’s attention again. “And besides that, we’ve told you what’s happening to Nathan. Now, if we were in league with the faeries, we would not have told you that this is happening, or what their plan was. Would we?”
The man cocked his head, then, after a moment, lowered his gun. “I suppose not.”
My heart started beating again.
He shook his head. “It’s just…You’re talking animals. You’re obviously magical. I’ve never seen anything magical that was good.”
I chuckled. “We’re not magical, all animals can talk. Well, animals bigger than bugs,” I gestured a bug-sized entity with my paws. It felt uncomfortable about giving him so much information about animals, but the stakes were high… “We prefer to keep that information private, though. Kids don’t have a problem with it, but for some reason, most adults… So please don’t talk about it. It’ll make everyone’s lives easier.”
He thought that over some, then nodded and leaned the gun against the wall by the door. “My name’s Guy Thomas. Would you, ah, like some water or something?
Dichall turned and smiled at him, turning on the charm. “Yes, please!”
Guy placed a shot glass on the floor, filled with water. I could smell traces of whiskey. “Sorry, I only have one glass. I don’t have a lot of visitors.”
Dichall leaned in and took a sip. “Quite all right!”
Guy settled down on the couch, facing us. “So tell me why you’re here.”
Bracey, who hadn’t touched the water, fluttered her wings a bit. “I think we have some questions for you, first!”
“Yes!” Dichall crossed his arms. “Before we tell you anything else, we need to make sure we can trust you!”
I blinked and stared at the back of Dichall’s head, and tried not to panic. What is he doing?!
Guy sat forward on the couch, his face clouding over again. I eyed the gun and hoped he hadn’t just changed his mind. “We’re talking about my son, here! Of course you can trust me!”
Dichall shook a finger at Guy, as if he were lecturing a child that had done something bad. “I’m not so sure about that. You say you care about your son, yet you abandoned him and your family to come live out here near a portal to the faerie realm. Doesn’t that sound suspicious to you?”
I put my paw on Dichall’s shoulder. “Uh, Dichall, dial it back a little, maybe?”
Guy frowned and pointed his own finger at Dichall. “I don’t need to defend myself to you!”
Dichall nodded as though some suspicion of his had been confirmed. He turned to us. “I don’t think we can trust him. Coming here might have been a mistake, we’re going to have to save Nathan without his help.”
I started looking for a way out of the cabin. Things were getting tense.
Guy stood and raised his voice. “Not if you want to get more than two steps, you’re not. If you’re doing anything related to my son, I’m coming with you! Especially if it involves faeries!”
Gretchen and I jumped, Bracey took a step to the side, her neck feathers raising. Dichall just crossed his arms, as if something large enough to step on him wasn’t angry and yelling. “We’ll make that decision, not you. If you want us to let you join us, then how about you tell us why you’re out here, and so close to a weir, instead of with your family?”
Guy threw his hands up. “I didn’t leave my family! Wendy threw me out!” He flopped back down on the couch so hard its boards creaked. I was actually surprised it didn’t break. He ran a long-fingered hand through his hair. “She thought I was going crazy.” He stared past us at nothing and his voice changed, got quieter. “I was bird watching one day, out here in the woods with my dog. Just walking along, enjoying the weather, and I stumbled across something strange. At first I just thought there was something wrong with my eyes. But even though I rubbed them, took my glasses off and cleaned them, it didn’t vanish.” He shook his head, then shook himself and seemed to see us again.
“There was something in the air. Just a patch, a big circle, where the world looked more… colorful. More… vibrant… I guess is a better word. It wasn’t doing anything, didn’t seem to be affecting anything and I got curious. Had to know what was going on. So I got closer and looked around it. Didn’t see anything that could have been causing it. But just then a long claw came out and grabbed my dog. And that claw was attached to… something horrible on the other side of that spot!”
He shivered and scrunched his face up for several seconds. Then took a deep breath and looked at us again. “The thing pulled her in and ate her in, like, seconds. And then looked straight at me! I ran. I started reading, learning things. Disturbing things. I wanted to do something about it. I started hanging around here, around the… weir…, you called it?—and one day I found some awful thing drinking the blood of a fox. I kicked it, and it turned into something else and flew off.”
He sighed again, shook his head, and his expression turned from angry to sad. “Wendy didn’t understand. I tried to explain, tried to make her see what was going on. I couldn’t get her to come out to see the portal. I didn’t try to convince her very hard. I didn’t want her getting hurt. She accused me of being crazy, wanted me to go to the doctor. I wasn’t, I knew I wasn’t, and refused to go. She and I started to fight. We got divorced, she got custody.”
I wanted to comfort him, but putting my paw on his boot would have been weird. “And you moved out here?”
“Yeah. I work remote. I can live anywhere I want so I built this cabin. Bought a truck. Now I just make sure nobody goes near it.”
“You’re telling us,” Dichall’s voice had softened, “that you’re committed to protecting people from faeries?”
“Yes, of course! I make sure people don’t come close to that thing, and keep my eyes open in case anything comes out of it.”
Dichall turned to us around and winked at us where Guy couldn’t see. “Okay, I’m convinced. I think he’s telling the truth and I think he can help us.”
Guy stood up and stepped over to the window, glanced out it, then turned back to us. “What are you planning?” He settled down on the floor beside us.
“We appreciate the work you are doing here. Great stuff,” Dichall sat on the edge of the hearth.
“You have had help.” Bracey gestured to the outside. “There’s a bear around here who’s also been watching it.”
“Ah… you said a—a bear?”
Bracey turned her head to Guy. “And a deer. They keep animals away, you keep humans away.”
Seemed to me that a bear would be pretty good at keeping humans away, too.
“We’re working on a plan,” I opened my arms to try to include all the animals, because it felt like Gretchen wasn’t quite there with us. “There’s a greater fae who’s behind it all. A creature called Yonya. We want to stop her.” The man looked into the fire, his eyes glistening. Here he was, separated from his wife and child, and now his only son was being preyed upon by monsters. The whole thing hit my heart, hard. “Guy.” His head jerked back to me, “we had Nathan talk to his mother. Wendy, is it? She won’t take him out of Ottawa.”
He shrugged, nodded, and let out a big breath. “He’s got a big concert.”
“Which doesn’t get him out of danger. So that means we have to kill Yonya, the greater fae behind all this.” I put my hand on my sword hilt.
He thought this over and I could almost see wheels turning in his head. His expression changed several times before he nodded again. “Do we go through the portal and hunt her down?”
Bracey gave a strange little hoot-cough. The owl’s version of clearing her throat, I guess. “That would be unwise. The greater fae do not die easily in the Interstitium. We need to draw her here, into the Mundane World. How big is your weir?”
Guy stood up and held his hand out near his head. “Like this big. I could walk through it.”
Bracey blinked. Slowly, like owls do instead of nodding. “We need to lure her out. Fae are reluctant to enter the Mundane World because they are vulnerable here. But they get careless and sloppy once in a while. Especially if there’s something they really want on this side.”
Guy stared at her. “Wait, wait, wait. You want my son—you want to use my son… as bait?”
Bracey straightened and looked at him as if he were a mouse she was considering for dinner. I shivered.
Dichall stepped in front of Bracey and took over. “The only way to stop her from draining Nathan is to kill her. And the only way to do that is to get her out here. She’s already after him and…”
Gretchen shoved Dichall off balance, yanked him around to face her, and stuck her nose on his, her eyes flashing. “We did not discuss this! We are a team, and we need to agree on plans!”
“We’re discussing it now!” Dichall pulled his head back and tried to push Gretchen out of his way.
The man looked from the mice to the owl, a bemused expression flitting over his face, then reached down and put his hand between Gretchen and Dichall. “Could you two fight later? I’ve seen something on the other side of the portal. It was like ten feet tall. You actually want me to put my son at risk so that three mice and an owl can try to kill it?”
“We’re well trained,” Dichall jerked his arm out of Gretchen’s grip. “And he’s already at risk. She’s already after him. So nothing changes except we’ll be ready to attack instead of him being alone somewhere.”
I certainly wasn’t trained, but I kept my mouth shut. I let Dichall deal with Guy and tried to smooth things over with Gretchen. “Gretchen,” I put my hand on her shoulder. “There isn’t any other way.”
Gretchen shook my hand off and stalked closer to the fire and sat, facing it, her head in her paws.
Dichall didn’t seem to notice, continuing on to Guy: “Plus you’d be there and we could probably get that bear involved. Our shaman has an acorn trap, enchanted by owls to trap spirits.” He gestured to Gretchen, stewing by the fire. “She can use it to catch Yonya. She just has to get close enough to make it work.”
Guy looked at Gretchen, sulking by the fire. “She doesn’t look like she wants to.”
“Gretchen will help us. She’s part of our team.” I put my hand on Gretchen’s shoulder. “Gretchen, please show him your acorn trap.”
Gretchen sighed audibly and shook her head. But then she stood and pulled the acorn trap from her satchel. She held it up for Guy to see.
Guy looked at us like he was trying to gauge if we were kidding or not. “You’re going to trap a ten foot monster in an acorn? That’s kind of small…”
“It’s magical, and she’s a fae, not a human. She’ll fit. And if that doesn’t work,” I drew Grassblade, “I plan to kill her with this.”
Guy raised an eyebrow at me. “That? That’s not big enough to kill a fly, much less a ten foot tall…”
I agreed, privately. To a human, Grassblade didn’t even look like a toy. And probably not as dangerous as a needle. And if Yonya had been human, it sure wouldn’t do anything to her. But I had faith in the enchantments on it. “It’s magical. It’s designed to kill fae. All I need to do is hit her with it.”
“All right. Here’s the plan,” Gretchen wasn’t making eye contact with us, “We want to bring the child here. We’ll get word to Yonya that Nathan is here, in this cabin, and when she comes out, Guy gets Nathan away to safety. We deal with the fae.” She seemed to be on board, for now. But I wondered how far we could push her.
Guy frowned, and shook his head. “His mother will never agree. Why does my son actually have to be here? Why can’t you just make the fae think he’ll be here?”
Gretchen shook her head. “She’ll have spies. She’s going to be very wary. He’s got to really be here.”
I leapt onto the couch next to him and put a paw on his leg. “I’ve got this worked out. When Yonya comes out, you drive him away in your truck. She won’t be able to go fast enough to catch you in a truck.”
We hope, I thought. We hadn’t actually seen Yonya in action yet.
Guy shook his head at me. “The truck is at the road–almost half a kilometer from here. We’d have to walk there, and that’s not a fast hike.”
I thought fast. Visions of Yonya closing in on us as we fled before her flashed through my head. “Okay, then you wait in the truck and we’ll get the bear to bring Nathan to you. Bears are fast.”
Guy’s eyebrows shot up so high on his forehead I thought they’d wind up on top of his head. “You want me to let Nathan ride a bear?”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” We all turned to look at Bracey. “Her name is Celina Weirwarden, and she’s a very nice bear.”
Guy gestured out the window, presumably at the bear. “A nice bear? Nice? Bear?” he shook his head at her, then looked around at me again. “I can’t believe this is your plan. We’d be putting my son at great risk at almost every step of the way. Even if it is a nice bear, and it’s willing to let him ride it, how’s he supposed to stay on it while it’s running? He can’t even ride a horse! I can’t allow this.”
“Mr. Thomas,” I lowered my voice to sound authoritative. “Your son is already in great danger. The faeries have already tried to kidnap him once. They almost got him to walk through a weir near his hotel and we barely were in time to stop them. They’ll try again, or worse. We can’t kill a fae in the Interstitium, they’re too powerful there. If we don’t kill this fae, and put a stop to her plans very soon, even if her faeries don’t succeed in getting him to walk through a weir, they will drain Nathan until he’s a shell of what he is now. The risk of not acting is far greater that what you fear might happen here.” I sounded a lot more confident than I was. “If things go according to plan, it should work.”
Things didn’t go according to plan.