EPISODE 18: CUT YOUR TEETH

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Hace Matthews. Marday,  approximately 9:50 AM. 2344 AA. The Faed (Osseous Citadels).

Hace and Cyphira charged the spriggan simultaneously, approaching from its right and left in symmetrical crescents. The fae hissed and raised its arms to guard itself, unable to launch a successful counter attack. Before Hace reached the creature, he summoned another decoy and directed it to attack the Spriggan from it’s back. This time the feint worked.

The spriggan tracked Hace’s illusory double just as Cyphira and Hace launched their attacks. Hace fired a sidekick at the thing’s stomach just as Cyphira struck it in the head; her fist coated in a jagged, two-inch-thick gauntlet of conjured ice. The one-two strike threw the fae off balance, allowing Hace to follow-up with a palm strike, and Cyphira to launch a spinning back kick at the base of its spine.

The spriggan wretched up more sap-like blood and dust, but turned to spew it directly into Hace’s face, blinding him, and making his head swim with colors. At the same time, the fae spun around, whipping the back of its wooden, thorn-studded forearm into Cyphira’s jaw. Both aspirants staggered and raised their guard. But instead of launching a follow-up strike, the spriggan transformed. Both its legs grew an extra joint—or maybe they were always double-jointed, and concealed until now—while its right arm swelled to form a massive, thorn studded club.

“While I would prefer a matched set, I’ll settle for just one of you,” the spriggan sneered.

It extended its left palm toward Hace, and ejected a jagged shaft of wood, fast as a crossbow. Hace raised his arms and pulsed his wyrd, narrowly preventing the spike from piercing his flesh, but the force of the blow sent him sprawling backwards. Cyphira lunged, sensing an opening, but the telegraphed shot was a feint. As soon as she stepped into range, the spriggan swept his clubbed hand in a broad crescent. The blow struck her right ribs at center-mass and swatted her to the skull-paved ground. Before she could suck in air, the spriggan cocked its two jointed leg upward and drove its heel into her kidney.

Hace got to his feet, his wyrd blazing, and heart pumping pure fury. He bellowed as he extended both arms forward, and shot an explosive ball of fire at the spriggan. It raised its club arm as a shield, and then was lost to a vortex of flame and smoke. Hace started gathering more power, wyrd dancing on the edge of exus, unknown symbols flashing before his eyes, and alien voices hissing in his ears. Just before he could fire his second orb though, the spriggan spoke:

“Wait!”

As the smoke cleared, Hace could see that the entire right half of the Spriggan had been blown away. Its body smoldered with fae dust, and thick globs of sap, charred wood, and leathery flesh fell away from its ruined torso, ribs, and pelvis. It’s on death’s door.

But that didn’t matter. The spriggan held Cyphira by the neck in its left hand.

“Yield boy,” It rasped. “Or I shall shred her throat.”

To drive the point home, its clawed fingers extended until they pricked neck, drawing a trickle of blood. Cyphira’s face was twisted in a snarl, but she was still winded and having trouble breathing. Hace looked to Fitz, who stood, horrified and disbelieving. Neither of them could intervene. There was too much distance between them.

“Or you can yield,” it said to Cyphira. “The choice is yours. But I shall not suffer the disgrace of leaving empty-handed.”

I yield! I yield! But before Hace could speak, there was a keening sound like singing steel. The spriggan’s jaw went slack, its head twisted at an unnatural angle, and ultimately fell away from its shoulders. The rest of the fae’s body collapsed, and Cyphira fell forward, scrambling toward Hace and Fitz, clutching the right side of her chest. Hace rushed to meet her, supporting her with muscles and wyrd.

Behind the spriggan’s fast-dissolving body, a short, lace-winged humanoid stood amidst the cloud of fae dust. It held a sword that was wickedly serrated on one edge, and narrow as a razor on the other. Its entire body was coated with jagged, gleaming armor, the color of polished bone.

No. Not bone. Enamel. Oh no. Oh, Jesus Christ. This isn’t happening.

In a flash, Fitz appeared between her students and the tooth fairy. Its face was masked by an armored helm fashioned from countless teeth. Enormous fangs flanked its mouth, framed its eyes, and jutted from its head in elaborate designs resembling a horned helmet.

“I am called Porcelain,” it said in a silky voice.

A chill swept across Hace, raising the hair on his skin. Fae didn’t give their names away casually. A name could provide the basis for powerful binding spells or compulsion magic, even if it was only a moniker. If she was announcing it freely, it meant she thought her victory was assured.

And it might be true. Tooth fae were peerless warriors. Hace had never seen one before, but even asfalis children knew the stories. They were the personal bodyguards of high-ranking royals, often lords in their own right, and frequently commanded significant portions of the Courts’ armies. Their weapons and armor were fashioned from the teeth of countless different creatures—venomous fangs, serrated incisors, wicked tusks, and more. They could animate, shape, and conjure bone. Meaning it can turn this entire environment against us with its Eminence. And even from ten yards away, Hace could tell its power was tremendous. Strong as Síol’s, if not stronger.

“I have been dispatched to make an example of those who would put the girl in jeopardy,” the fae said, inclining her head toward Cyphira, then turned her gaze to Fitz. “Including reckless, so-called guardians.”

Everyone was perfectly still. Porcelain continued:

“My liege has determined you are unfit as an educator and protector. If you surrender the girl to my custody and she comes willingly, we shall part ways peacefully. Else I will be forced to take her by force.”

“See that huge pelvic bone?” Fitz asked. She directed the question to Hace and Cyphira with her emanations, but kept her eyes locked on Porcelain. Hace and Cyphira looked around, before spotting an enormous, upturned coccyx on top of a mound of bone, two hundred yards behind them. Fitz continued:

“I feel a soft-spot in there. Run as fast as you can. Get outside. I’ll follow in a couple minutes.”

“Like hell,” Cyphira snarled, still clutching her ribs. “We’re a team. We stick togeth—”

“I can’t protect you and kill this thing,” Fitz snapped.

“You are well past your prime, witch,” Porcelain said, matter-of-factly. “I doubt you can even save yourself—”

Fitz whipped her hands in front of her, firing off a dual contract that used electricity and focused sonic energy in a broad blade. At the same time, she shouted:

“Go!!”

Hace turned and half-lifted, half-dragged Cyphira into a rough retreat. She fell into step just behind him, but he could tell from her emanations that she was in sharp pain. The spriggan must have broken her ribs. Shit! Running on the skulls was hell. Then Hace saw the mound of assorted bones leading up to the coccyx begin to stir, clicking and clacking to form a menagerie of skeletal constructs. Four, six, twelve… She’s building a goddamned army between us and the soft-spot!

Hace turned to Cyphira, who had stumbled on the skulls. Jesus, she can barely move, let alone fight. He wheeled around and scooped Cyphira from the knees and shoulders, just as Porcelain landed in front of him, sword drawn back for a thrust that would certainly kill him. Fitz stayed the blow, binding the fae’s arms with kinetic sorcery. Hace retreated just in time, carrying Cyphira as best he could. He was strong for his age, but both his legs and wyrd ached from exertion. Push past it. No time for pain.

“Can you cover us?” he asked, sprinting toward the coccyx—and the constructs that waited there.

“Yeah,” she grunted.

As Hace poured all of his might into movement, Cyphira slung her left arm around Hace’s neck and extended her right in front of them, drawing in energy. When they reached the first bone construct—a scorpion like thing—Cyphira unleashed another of her monstrous kinetic bolts, shattering the construct in a single blow. But a minotaur-shaped skeleton charged directly toward Hace. He leapt to the side at the last second, shielding Cyphira from the ground with his back. As he rolled roughly to his feet, he could feel the bones around him clawing at his uniform, a host of skeletal limbs trying to pin him in place.

Cyphira’s wyrd blazed with pain so intense it seemed to lash Hace’s skin. But pain can be a useful resource for amagia. And you know how to use it! She took a gasping breath, drawing the anguish into her wyrd to fuel her sorcery and then fired a spread of five bolts, crying out with exertion. Two shots went wild, but three others atomized a construct each. There’s an opening!

Hace screamed, forced his fatigued muscles into motion with his wyrd, and continued his ascent to the top of the hill as the other constructs rushed forward. Explosive etheric ripples unlike anything Hace had ever encountered exploded behind him as Fitz continued her duel with Porcelain. Blasts and crashes echoed across the osseous expanse. Sprays of bone shrapnel erupted from the ground as magic missed its mark. But Hace made it to the top. The constructs were too slow to catch him.

In the shade of the coccyx, he could feel the Veil thinning. He tried to lower Cyphira to the ground gently, but his muscles and magic finally gave out. Cyphira landed on her feet, and immediately turned, trying to lift Hace up, but he waved her away.

“I’m fine. Just need to catch my breath. Go! I’ll be right behind you!”

Cyphira nodded and turned, vanishing into the Veil. Hace heaved in several breathes, closed his eyes, and drew as much ambient power from the Faed as he could to restore his fatigued wyrd. When he could stand, he staggered toward the soft-spot, only for another titanic crash to come from the slope, followed by a tidal wave of an urdic ripple.

Fitz needs me. I can’t leave her. He tried to court exus again. Tried to let himself be consumed by magic, but the etheric momentum that had gripped him in his fight against the spriggan had petered out. There was too much pain, too much fear, for his wyrd to take hold. Hace stood, and forced himself to jog to the top of the slope.

Porcelain had pushed Fitz halfway up the slope. The bone constructs had been obliterated, but that meant the tooth fairy could devote all her attention to fighting Fitz rather than working puppets simultaneously.

Hace trained his fist on Porcelain, waited until her back was turned to him, and fired a kinetic blast at the tooth fairy’s back. It was a sloppy shot—barely put a dent in her tooth-mail armor—but it was enough to distract her. Her head whipped toward Hace. Fitz seized on the distraction, thrusting her blade at the Fae’s gut with her her might.

Porcelain turned with the thrust, so Fitz’s blade only grazed her flesh. She continued to spin, using the momentum to bash Fitz in the bicep with the molar-shaped pommel of her sword. Another awful crack. Fitz’s arm fell limp immediately, and she cried out. Porcelain turned back toward Hace, her black and violet eyes flashing with murder. Before Porcelain could get off a spell, Fitz threw herself at the fae’s back, bringing her down to the bones in a rough tackle.

“Hace, go!!” she bellowed, as she wrestled the Fae with her one good arm.

Her emanations were desperate enough to unmoor him from his fear and hesitation. Gritting his teeth, he turned and limped back to the soft-spot, retreating out of the Faed.

— 6:01 PM | Los Angeles (West Olympic Boulevard) —

It was night when Hace re-emerged in Los Angeles. Time passed irregularly in the Faed. Sometimes it progressed at a one-to-one ratio, but it also could slow or speed up exponentially. He had emerged in an alleyway leading to the sidewalk where they had first crossed through the Veil. There was no sign of Cyphira. He walked down the alley way haltingly, each step was agony.

“Cyphira!” Hace shouted.

There was no answer. He panicked, tried to speed up, only for his leg muscles to give out again. He hit the pavement, knee sparking with pain and going fuzzy as it hit the asphalt. Fucking idiot! What did you think you were going to do to help Fitz? She’s probably dead because of you…

“Hace!” 

Cyphira had appeared at the mouth of the alley, still clutching her ribs. She’s slow because she has a cracked bone, you hysteric piece of shit! As soon as she saw him, she rushed forward, wincing with every quickened step.

“What happened? I thought you were right behind me!” She asked

“I… I fucked up,” Hace said, pushing himself back on his feet. “I tried to help Fitz and…”

“Are you okay?” Cyphira demanded.

“I’m fine. I just—I tripped—my legs gave out. But Fitz is still—” he grunted. “I distracted her and that thing broke her arm. She’s still fighting! How long was I gone?” He asked, looking at the sky.

“Like an hour!” she snapped, yanking him forward by his uniform jacket. “Fitz told us to run—I thought you were both dead—I have a broken fucking rib!” she let him go roughly and he tottered on his feet briefly before falling back on his ass.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” She asked, disgusted.

“Gee, I dunno; maybe the passage of time isn’t one-to-one over there! Forgive me if I’m still a little tired from carrying your ass up a mountain of sentient fucking bone!”

“Oh. I get it. You’re pissed because I didn’t swoon or whatever. Go fuck yourself, Hace,” she spat and turned sharply.

Hace’s cheeks blazed to the point that he felt like they would pop. He tried to think of an insult that wouldn’t cheapen him. He struggled to come up with a retort that proved she was A) wrong, B) a bitch, and C) …wrong! Yeah, like, so wrong! He thought for a split second. No, I’ve got nothing. Fuck. But I do have a pretty good idea of how to piss her off…

“So, what’s the deal with your mom?” Hace asked, raising his arms and letting them flop to his sides. Cyphira stopped walking. Hace kept talking: “I mean. If she has tooth fairies running around on retainer? Psh, I mean, my dad thinks he’s somebody, but he definitely ain’t that somebody, you know?”

Cyphira turned around, her golden eyes blazing twice as bright with tears.

“Hace, I swear to god—”

There was a hissing, electric snap, and Fitz reappeared in the alleyway behind Hace. They both whirled around to find their teacher swearing profusely, left sleeve burned off to the still-smoking shoulder of her jacket, and her right arm still hanging useless and limp. Her wyrd crackled until she slowly exhaled, a lingering light fading from her violet eyes.

“Bitch!” Fitz shouted at the empty air.

Hace and Cyphira stared, then Hace noticed that a middle-aged couple had paused on the sidewalk, at the end of the alleyway, alarm written on their faces. Hace smiled and waved. Cyphira followed his lead and called:

“She’s drunk!”

The woman tugged on the man’s arm, leading him away. Jesus H. Christ. Hace turned and walked to Fitz’s side, legs still burning.

“So. What’d I miss?” Fitz asked.

“Nothing,” Cyphira said tersely.

Hace gestured “doesn’t matter,” simultaneously.

Fitz blinked slowly and languidly gestured: “Right. Great.”

— 7:12 PM | Arroyo (Athenaeum – Mediclave) —

Hace and Cyphira were speechless as Fitz drove them back to the Arroyo Athenaeum. She tried cracking jokes, and filling the air with inane topics that Hace barely heard and didn’t remember later. Why aren’t you mad? He wondered. I let the spriggan take Cyphira. I got you hurt. I could have gotten you killed. And if you died, I would have died as well. Cyphira would have been stranded downtown with a broken rib. And I’m the only one who isn’t hurt. I fucked up! I fucked up!

Fitz took them directly to the mediclave parking lot, and started walking across the bridge leading to the hospital when Fitz held them up.

“Ah shit,” she said. “I forgot my purse in my car. Has my ID. Cy, can you get us checked-in?”

Cyphira nodded and continued on inside. Hace started to follow, but Fitz called out to him.

“Hace, hold up a sec.”

He stopped dead in his tracks, wincing. Here it comes. He turned, bracing himself. But Fitz wasn’t even looking at Hace. She was leaning on the railing of the bridge with her good arm. Hace approached cautiously and took up a position on the bridge next to her.

“I want you to know that what happened was my fault. Believe me when I say I underestimated the spriggan. That thing would have given me trouble and you both nearly had it. I honestly don’t know how I’m going to face Cyphira. She’s not used to losing, especially after I tell her she can win—”

“Why aren’t you mad at me!?” Hace growled and startled Fitz. “I broke your arm! I could have gotten us both killed, I created cover for the goddamned spriggan to grab Cyphira!”

Fitz used her good arm to draw Hace into a firm one-armed hug. He didn’t know what to do at first. He froze up, overwhelmed and frightened. But eventually he returned the embrace, careful to avoid Fitz’ broken arm.

“Don’t get me wrong, Red: when I tell you to run, I need you to run,” Fitz said, gently. She pulled away looking at him with a sad smile. Tears swelled in Hace’s eyes. “But you didn’t break my arm. Toothache did. And if I thought you didn’t learn anything from this, I’d be furious. You clearly appreciate what you did wrong. I just want to make sure that you understand what you did right.”

“What?” Hace wiped his eyes with his bandaged hand, confused.

“You navigated a dire situation to save Cyphira. And you came back for me for the right reasons, even if you were wrong to do it. When you’re in a venture, you need to protect each other at all costs. You got your injured partner to safety, and then went back to help your commanding officer who was in over her head.”

Fitz smiled at Hace, who said nothing.

“But you aren’t in a venture yet. And for the time being, I need you to trust my judgement, even though I fuck things up on occasion. I know you’ll fight if I tell you to fight. Even when I’m being stupid. But I need you to run as well—especially when I’m being stupid.”

“I promise,” Hace said, so earnest it hurt.

Fitz’s face twitched and her brows knit. An odd, choked-off sneezing noise escaped her throat. Are you crying too?

“Honestly, kid,” she said, trying to scoff. “I’m not your mom, alright?”

“I know,” Hace said, a touch terse and thoroughly embarrassed.

Fitz ruffled his hair, completing his humiliation.

“There’s one more thing I need to say. It was lucky Toothache arrived when she did. If she was a second slower, I would have broken my pact to kill the spriggan. And then I’d have to fight her with a broken wyrd.”

Hace squinted.

“You could have saved her?”

It seemed impossible. The creature had her by the throat. There was just too much distance between them. But Fitz laughed.

“Give me some credit! That thing was on its last legs, and while you all were fighting, I cast a couple contracts on myself in case things went south. I was working on one to kill him when Toothache arrived.”

Hace felt reassured at first, but the statement pitted his stomach as he digested it.

“What would have happened if you had to fight Toothache with an injured wyrd?”

“I’d be a lot worse off,” she admitted heavily. “But we’d still probably be right here, right now.”

“Really?” Hace asked.

“Believe me kid. I’d die twice before I let either of those things take you or Cyphira. And I’m not easy to kill.”

Warmth swelled in Hace’s chest. He tried to think of something sweet. Then came up with something better.

“I thought you weren’t my mom.”

Fitz’s brows went flat and she jabbed a finger at Hace.

“Now see here you little shit…”

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