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Fera Fitzgerald. Marday, Pisces 14th 2351. 12:03 AM. Hollywood Hills (Surveillance Van 1).

I can’t believe he didn’t tell me. Maybe Wren told him not to. I would have thought he would tell me anyway. Fitz winced. That hurts. 

“Did you people hear anything about a ‘bonus objective?’” She demanded.

Sev, Juel, and Jecia all shook their heads and sharply backed away from her emanations. She looked away from the venture in disgust and closed her eyes again, reconnecting with Hace’s sensory feed after a second.

I’m trapped. She couldn’t call in the raid without putting Hace in greater risk. She couldn’t explode or lecture him without distracting him. And I can’t abandon him to go murder Wren. Fuck. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been cornered like this. I can barely stand watching. I want to be in control.

But am I worried about him or myself?

Fitz hadn’t been much older than Hace when she got her turn to play undercover super-cop. Same deal. The SFKF needed a fresh face who could phase into the Faed at a specific location. The people involved were smuggling guns instead of drugs, but it was still a “trust nobody over twenty-five” crowd. She remembered being excited. She remembered memorizing an alibi, agonizing about how to look authentically young enough.

And then she got somebody killed. It changed her whole relationship with the job. Forever. And I don’t want to watch him go through that.

Everything was going incredibly well. He was exorcising her fucking demons right in front of her. His eyes lingered an excruciatingly long time on women’s ‘assets,’ and he had zero game despite being the Athenaeum’s most notorious Casanovo, and watching him flirt was its own kind of hell—but he was doing well. Now he is going to put it all back into jeopardy.

Hace Matthews. 12:06 AM. Hollywood Hills (Gryfard Nixon’s Estate).

Hace didn’t have to go far before he found a room lit by the glow of an incanter screen. He crept in, removed the shard from his back pocket and knelt to the desk. According to Wren, the device was plug and play, though restarting the computer would expedite the process. Hace jabbed the data crystal into one of the insertion slots at the top of the tower, then hit the power button and held it down until the screen blinked. Easy-peasy.

“Put your hands up.”

Hace looked up to see one of the rabbit-masked chaperones leveling a Hegel Magnum at his chest.

“God damn it! Hace, I told you—”

Hace complied. Once the woman took two steps into the room, she was well-within his wyrd’s range. He immediately used sorcery to make the chaperone pistol-whip herself in the head, hard enough to crack her enameled rabbit mask. While she was stunned, he used his wyrd to twist the gun against the grain of her wrist, disarming her. He kicked himself over the desk in one fluid gesture, and attempted to tackle the woman, but she surprised him by taking a step forward, and driving her knee directly between his thighs.

His world flashed with pain. She has some kind of military training. The woman had turned, now aware that she was facing an amagia and hopelessly outclassed. Hace used sorcery to catch her by the ankle and yanked her to the floor with a chord of sorcery. She was about to cry out for help, but fortunately, the fall winded her. As she gasped, Hace prepped the second sedative contract, barely managing to think through the ache in his balls.

The spell surged into the woman’s wyrd, and her body instantly went limp. Hace retrieved the gun and shoved it in the back of his waistband.

“I am calling in the cavalry,” Fitz said.

“No!” Hace said firmly, and repeatedly tapped the black ring. “Those kids are in serious danger. I’m not going to just leave them.”

“Hace, your cover is blown!” Fitz said. “You’ll have those goons on you in a second, and unless you are prepared to start killing people—”

“We don’t know that. Nobody knows that chaperone is missing, and I’ve already come this far.”

“If they have an internal surveillance system—”

“They don’t,” Hace insisted. “Else they would have seen me knock out Nixon. Have some faith.”

He literally felt her seething in his head, but he kept moving, peering into the hall. He continued through the door and closed it behind himself, then used sorcery to jam the lock into place. He jogged back the way he came, and paused at Nixon’s room. The door was still shut, and no noise came from within.

 As soon as he came to the first guard standing attention at the hallway, he asked:

“Excuse me! Hi, how do I get to the wine cellar?”

“Down the stairs. Turn left and head into the kitchen. Go into the pantry on your right, then take the stairs down. Find a chaperone if you need help.”

“Thanks!” Hace said, and hastily jogged down the stairs.

A few proteges and mentors looked on, some giggling at his eagerness and encouraging him to hurry. See? Nobody knows a thing!

“I just got an update from Wren. She says we’re into their network. We have access to their surveillance system, every file on their incanters, and we have a worm spreading through every mobile device connected to their wireless web.”

“So are they aware of me yet?” Hace asked.

“You’ve pushed your luck far enough, Hace.”

“Trust me, Teach,” he said, smirking.

Hace came to a chaperone standing in the kitchen who motioned for him to head towards an enormous pantry. It had literal granges for different cereals and fruits. As Hace approached, he saw that one of the walls of cabinets was actually a hidden doorway, pulled ajar to reveal the top of a narrow staircase which he quickly descended.

The cellar was almost completely different from the rest of the house. Instead of concrete, steel, and glass, everything was warm hardwood and gray stone. It was nearly the size of the kitchen above it, boasting row after row of expensive vintages in temperature-controlled glass vaults. There was also a small tasting lounge where a group of girls waited and chatted giddily. He overheard them say something about the auditions, flowers, and so on.

Hace continued through the vaults to the far end of the room, where a ritualistic runic array had been drawn on the stone in chalk. Hace could tell that the runes were designed to thin the veil and direct intrusions to a specific destination in the Faed. The magic wasn’t terribly powerful, fueled by reagents in the chalk, rather than the strength of a caster’s wyrd, but it was precise and efficient. The fae had to show them how to pull this off.

“Mr. Matthews?” one of the chaperones asked, looking up from a tablet.

“We were wondering if you got lost,” the other said. “We sent Vecca to find you.”

“Sorry! I was entertaining Mr. Lion.”

“No worries. Do you have your party favors?”

Hace fished the lims out of his pocket and presented them.

“Excellent. Take one here, and our fair friends will tell you when to take the other.”

Hace pulled out one of the seeds, which gave off a dizzying amount of energy, and pretended to drop it in his mouth at the precise instant he phased into the Faed. The ritual array was like a vortex and a catapult combined; his ethereal being was sucked through the veil, and abruptly launched into the Faed. Hace landed on his feet, but acted unsteady and disoriented as a non-akrasiac would be. 

The air was thick with perfume and the scent of flowers; roses in particular. Strange. Roses are usually associated with the Autumn Court. He was in a narrow, Grecian courtyard enclosed at the top by a pergola laden with wisteria. Through the canopy, he spied a slate sky threatening rain, but the courtyard was brilliantly lit by countless pastel candles. A fountain was at the center of the space, a broad pool with a statue depicting two nudes mid-coitus, a woman with her legs wrapped around a man who stood upright, head rolling back in ecstasy.

A water nymph of Spring peeked her head out from the opposite side of the fountain, despite its impossibly narrow profile, startling Hace. Was she there all along, or did she pop in when I couldn’t see her? Who knows! It’s the fucking Faed! Christ, I hate this shit.

“Hello sweetling,” the nymph said, stepping toward Hace. “Here to audition?”

Hace nodded, trying to act timid.

“Our Lady is currently entertaining our other proteges. Please. Avail yourself of some refreshment and mingle while we prepare for your performance. Or if you would prefer more intimate company…”

Of all the women he’d met that night, the water nymph was easily the most beautiful. At least, that’s what Hace’s senses were telling him. His head knew better. As a rule, fae were either extremely beautiful or extremely ugly, but nymphs in particular were beings of lust. They thrived off it. They were drawn to it. And they could almost effortlessly inspire and control it. No better than a succubus. No. Worse. Succubae have the decency to stay dead.

Hace made a great show of bashfully hiding his groin, as if she had given him a prominent erection. She tittered and gestured for him to head to the room left of the courtyard.

He followed her directions and headed to a large lounge with one wall opened up to a view of a roiling sea under stormy skies. Every time the waves crashed, they formed brief water sculptures. A horse galloping. A ballerina twisting in midair.

The middle of the room was covered by a gravity defying flower garden—roses again, pinks, yellows, and faen lavender—which gently rained petals onto the floor, dotted with mattress-sized pillows and chaise lounges.

He spied most of the proteges milling around the room or reclining in the petal rain. Some of them were enjoying the spread of food that was set up at either end of the room. That is astonishingly stupid. Fae food could bestow boons on those who ate it, but it also could result in drastic quirks or mental instability. He had to fight the urge to slap a glass of wine out of a young girl’s hands.

A few fae were present too; satyrs dressed in tuxedo coats, nymphs and floral dryads in various states of undress. One boy was passionately kissing a nude naiad, which resembled a woman made out of dark blue water, hair literally streaming from her head and coiling around his back. Haven’t you people read bedtime stories? Everything comes at a cost with the Fae. And if you take their offerings at face value, you end up shortchanged at best.

“Still with me?” Hace whispered under his breath.

“I really hope you have a plan.”

“I’m open to suggestions.”

He scanned the room for inspiration. I need to evacuate them. If I just shout it out though, the Fae will sequester different parts of this demesne. Then their guests are trapped and good as gone.

Hace spotted two of the three girls he had spoken to earlier; the young blonde and the redhead. Kadie and Aspen. He approached them with a smile and asked:

“Hey, can you two help me with something?”

Kadie bobbed her head and eagerly approached him. Aspen tailed more warily behind her. They both leaned in as Hace gestured his intention to whisper to them.

“Stay calm,” Hace said, solemn but soothingly. “The LAKF is raiding Nixon’s house right now. I need your help getting everybody to take their lims. It isn’t safe here.”

“Oh. Oh my god,” Aspen gasped, then looked around her.

“It’s going to be okay,” Hace said and emanated powerful reassurance at both of them.

“No, I can’t!” Kadie said, somewhere between a whine and a whisper. “If the Keepers convict me of transference, my life is over!”

Hace wanted to tell her that no charges would be pressed, that she was a victim in this, and that the Keepers were there to help. But he honestly wasn’t sure whether the proteges would be prosecuted for transference or not. May depend on whether they are minors or not. Still, better to get a fine or do some time than to end up trapped in this hellish funhouse.

“I promise you and the others will be safe outside. But if you don’t leave now, you may not have the chance.”

“Kadie, go,” Aspen said. “I’ll try to convince the others, but I don’t know where Aviada is. She said she had a private lesson—”

“I’ll find her,” Hace said solemnly.

“Making promises you can’t keep will cripple your wyrd, Hace.” Fitz warned. Hace ignored her.

“How many other people are still inside?” He asked.

“I don’t know,” Aspen said. “They usually take their lims after they audition. I think almost everybody has gone already… But there’s somebody else you should know about. She’s an Asian girl. I’m worried about her. I think she’s been here since the last party.”

“What!?” Fitz exclaimed.

“What!?” Hace said.

Aspen swallowed and nodded.

“I didn’t see her come back last time. But I didn’t do anything about it, I didn’t even think about it at the time because…” She shook her head, anguished with shame—or affecting it.

“Where is she?”

“There’s a hookah lounge, with all these… Caterpillars. Lots of the mentors like to hold their lessons in there.”

“Mr. Matthews,” A spindly old rabbitkith called from the doorway. “It is time for your audition.”

Hace froze for a second then slowly turned to look at the door.

The rabbitkith wore a tuxedo that contrasted his white fur, drooping ears secured behind his head with a regal bow. He also had an exquisitely curled goatee. He furrowed his brow as he surveyed the room, and pulled out an odd pair of opera-mask-like-binoculars attached to a stick, and began to survey the crowd.

Hace turned back around before the anthropomorphized rabbit could see his face.

“I’m not here, okay?” He told the girls, who both nodded.

The rabbitkith called for “Mr. Matthews,” twice more, then once more gruffly, “Matthews!” stamping one leg in annoyance. Just when Hace was about to relax, a voice called:

“Wait, there he is!”

It was the girl who showed him in. Cheva.

“Hey, Hace!”

Hace shut his eyes slowly, gestured, “be cool,” then turned around as if he had been absorbed in conversation:

“Huh? Oh, Cheva!”

“It’s your turn buddy,” she said suggestively then tilted her head toward the rabbitkith chaperone.

“Oh! Great,” Hace said.

Some of the other proteges said good luck, or called “Merde!” and Hace gestured thanks to all of them. He made his way to the rabbitkith hastily, followed by an obsequious, gestured apology to the geriatric fae. The faen butler twitched his nostrils, then nodded, as if to suggest no harm was done, and he regally gestured for Hace to return to the fountain courtyard.

“What shall you be performing, sir?” The rabbitkith asked, putting away his opera-mask binoculars and producing a pad of paper and quill from the small of his back.

“Uh. Improvisation,” Hace said.

“How utterly eccentric. Our Ladyship shall adore it.”

“What is the name of Our Ladyship? If I may be so bold?” Hace asked.

The rabbitkith considered him seriously.

“You may be so bold.”

“Who is she?”

“That is not for me to disclose.”

Hace couldn’t be certain, but as the rabbitkith turned around, he thought he could hear a chuckle. Jesus Christ! I hate the fucking fae so much.

“This way, sir,” The rabbitkith said, directing Hace to the right of the fountain.

“I, uh,” Hace looked around. “Can I get some drugs first?”

The rabbitkith peered at him, inscrutably.

“Fucking honestly, Hace?” Fitz asked.

Hace shrugged at the rabbitkith. In for a penny.

“They’ll help me perform,” he said.

“Most certainly, sir. But you shall have to be more specific.”

“Opium,” Hace guessed. Fae Caterpillars didn’t put tobacco in their hookah pipes.

“As per Salon regulations, each aspiring protege shall be entitled to fifteen minutes in the opium den prior to performance. Though I feel personally obligated to mention: our opium is a great deal more potent to what you may be accustomed to.”

Hace nodded with a game smile.

“The good stuff.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Unbelievable,” Fitz muttered.  

The rabbitkith led him out of the courtyard to the left, enormous rabbit feet padding against the marble floors. The hall was outdoors, lined with Grecian columns and covered by more wisteria. To the right, there was a garden with a lotus pond, all lit by an early dawn light that was completely incongruous with the dusky sky visible in the scene to the left. It was the same storm-tossed ocean cliff that had been visible from the lounge.

At the end of the hall there was a door leading to a stone tower that unified the discordant scenes, or the back side of a boulder on the garden half, depending which side you were looking at it from. The rabbitkith knocked on it in an odd little rhythm, and the doors swung inward, as an all-encompassing tide of smoke billowed forth.

The already oppressively perfumed air was augmented by the pervasive, deep funk of faen opium. Hace felt an effervescent tingling suffuse his wyrd, and it left him feeling slightly lightheaded.

“Jesus Christ, you were making me sick already!”

“Not a picnic for me either,” Hace said, trying to filter the air with his wyrd. Fortunately, sorcery came easily in the Faed.

But the glaring lights were harder to deal with. The flowers required to produce fae opium were called gem poppies, and were traditionally included in the hookah solution itself, as it yielded brilliant, psychedelic light when exposed to water. These glowing vases—some of which were as tall as Hace himself—lit the otherwise-cave-like chamber, which was far larger than the base of the tower he had just entered.

In a far corner, a spider-maiden spastically plucked at a web with her arachnid legs, producing sounds bizarrely similar to a DJ, while her human torso and upper-body gyrated. As Aspen had said, most of the other clients were giant caterpillars with some deeply unsettling human features. Jesus Christ. Who dreamt this up?

As Hace pushed the smoke away, he saw a pink, clamshell shaped couch nestled into a corner with a pearlescent pillow in its center. And there lay an Asian girl in her late teens or early-twenties. Jesus Christ. Half a month in a Faen sex dungeon. She wore faen garb; a diaphanous robe that left nothing to the imagination, and a strange crown that resembled deer antlers.

No. That’s not a crown.

The antlers were growing directly out of her forehead, curling to either side of her brow, and upward, over her ears. That’s going to be a hard quirk. Nothing drew derision and inspired fear like a physiological quirk. Her career in Hollywood was done.The girl’s wyrd was diffuse, and heavily intermingled with the opium haze.

She was badly strung out and barely cognizant of what was happening around her. Her bloodshot eyes eased open as Hace leaned over her. A silly sort of smile spread across her lips and she stared at him with belladonna pupils:

“Are you prince charming?” she asked, giggling.

Hace didn’t answer. I can’t get her to the soft-spot without alerting the entire room. He also wasn’t comfortable taking her with him via his akrasia. That was a skill that took a lot of practice, and a poorly executed tandem-phase could be extremely dangerous.

“Kiss me and I’ll wake up…Or maybe I’ll turn to sea foam,”

God knows what they did to her. He looked over his shoulder at the rest of the room, checking for witnesses. One of the swaying caterpillars waved one of its hands at him, also high as a kite.

“If I wake up, won’t you turn to foam?”

Hace looked back at the girl. It’s not just the drugs. The Faed has fucked up her head. My mom was here for a full season…but half a month can be long enough. His mother said strange shit like that when her episodes got particularly bad. Her head got stranded in the Veil, or dreams, or possibly the Faed itself. But even his mother had not developed physiological quirks.

She needs to get out of here now. Fuck it. If I have to butcher some bugs, so be it. He pulled one of the lims out of his pocket and dropped it into her open mouth. The girl vanished, ejected back through the Veil. Hace spun as the etheric ripple spread through the room, preparing for a fight. But the caterpillars kept swaying and humming, and the spider-queen plucked her webs sedately. The doorway he had entered through, however, had vanished.

Great. I can’t make it back to the soft-spot. They definitely know I’m here.

“Hace, take the other lim. Now. That is an order,” Fitz commanded.

“Not until I find Aviada,” Hace insisted.

He scanned the room and found a new door on the far wall that had not been there before. The spider-maiden had left her web, and most of the Hookahs gradually started to wink out. Hace made his way to the open door, which led to a theater-lobby-like interior. Or maybe the nave of a church. At the front of two other double doors, the rabbitkith butler waited.

“It seems your opium privileges have been temporarily revoked, sir. Lady Erato of Spring shall see you now.”

Hace’s head gagged on the announcement. Lady Erato? Erato as in one of the original nine Ancient Greek muses? Holy fuck. That is…. That is very, very bad.

Faen Muses were dangerous, and cunning enough. There were countless numbers of them now, with domains ranging from Arcanet Web-Design and Stain Glass Window Setting to Latte Foam Art and Bodice Ripper Covers. But the original muses were technically egregoric transplants from the Olympian Pantheon. As the Ancient Greek faith waned, the muses retreated into the Faed, swore themselves to the Spring Court, and quickly rose in esteem. They were all over two thousand years old. And while they weren’t the most martial fighters, they could do a hell of a lot of powerful magic, and had many, scary creatures on retainer.

Hace briefly considered taking the lim. But I doubt anyone will ever see Aviada again if I decline to meet my hostess.

Hace walked to the next set of double doors which the rabbitkith opened. Beyond them, there was a narrow stone path flanked by two symmetrical streams.On each side of the path, different scenes of lust waited in between cherry trees, tiny pseudo-realities spliced together.

There was an elven couple in a finely appointed room fucking like their lives depended on it. A naked dryad sat in a barn by herself, beckoning for a partner. Hace passed by an orcish BDSM club next. Then there was a goblin strip bar. Each scene vanished behind Hace as he strolled by them, appearing only when he was in parallel. Finally, he came to a staircase leading to a stone dais.

An intensely beautiful girl seated on a throne of river rocks waited for Hace to approach.

She had evergreen hair and golden eyes. And even at a distance, he could smell her on the wind. Pine needles and spice. She wasn’t as beautiful as some of the other girls Hace had seen that evening, but some reason, the sight of her—and the smell of her hair—made him ache all over. She stole his breath, and filled him with a near implacable longing. It was like he was looking at something that had been torn out of his heart.

It’s just an illusion. Ignore it.

“Hace Matthews. I understand that you wish to perform for us,” The muse said.

“What would it please you most to see, Lady Erato?” Hace said with a bow.

“There’s really no need. You’ve already given us quite the performance, Hace Matthews of Síol Dawncreed, and of the Arroyo Athenaeum.”

Hace froze a beat, then smirked. It didn’t even occur to me that the Fae would recognize me by my pedigree. Is Síol really so important that the courts can afford to keep track all of his bastards by name? Or maybe they can sense something of his eminence in my wyrd?

“It seems my reputation precedes me,” Hace said with a bow. “And you are the Muse of Erotic and Lyrical Poetry, formerly of Olympus, now of Spring.”

“A keen eye, an informed mind, and a silver tongue. As expected of one who traverses the realms regularly.”

I’ve got to keep her talking.

“How long did you know I was here?”

“We took notice of you the second you crossed Nixon’s threshold. We were intrigued to see you incapacitate your host, and greatly entertained by your tete-a-tete with the chaperone. How very brazen of you when you knew we were watching. Unless it didn’t occur to you?”

“If you know who I am, you can guess why I am here. Keepers have already been dispatched to Nixon’s estate. Your whole operation is over.”

“Indeed. It is a substantial loss. The Producer shall be most displeased. But I am willing to let bygones be bygones in exchange for a favor. A simple thing really. Swear yourself to Spring.”

Hace exploded with laughter.

“You aren’t in any position to threaten me, Erato.”

“No?” Erato snapped her fingers twice, languidly.

Behind Hace, two satyrs marched into the room, dragging a raven-haired girl in a black dress between them. Aviada. She looked at Hace helplessly. One of her eyes was swollen shut and her mouth hung open, lipstick smeared with blood. The satyrs’ hands were big enough to snap her biceps like twigs, and she was too far away for him to pull off any kind of intervention, even if she saw an opportunity to struggle. Shit.

“It’s a simple trade,” Erato said. “Your leal service for her life.”

“What happened to the rules of hospitality?” Hace countered.

“Hospitality was forfeited when she attempted to steal from us. We freely offer food, drink, and intoxicants, yet she ventured where she was not supposed to go, and attempted to take what was not hers. A gold ether lily. She has an eye for quality. The right buyer will pay up to twenty thousand of your Erician dollars for it.”

Aviada spat a glob of blood onto the stone path.

“If you’re going to take a risk, make it worthwhile.”

Hace sighed and muttered:

“I could use an assist, Fitz.”

But Fitz was silent. She had been totally quiet since he left the nave. They may have detected the necklace and blocked it off. A well-made enchantment could escape the Fae’s notice if they weren’t specifically looking for it, but once they were aware of any outgoing magic, it would be trivial for a powerful fae like Erato to block it off. But knowing Fitz, she’s on her way. Which means I just have to delay long enough—

“Her clock is ticking, hero,” Erato said, then nodded at the satyrs holding Aviada.

One of the satyrs casually torqued his wrist, snapping Aviada’s right humerus with a sickening crack. She shrieked and struggled on reflex, worsening the injury. Hace considered the gun in the back of his waistband. No. Satyrs are tough. Even if I get them in the head, they could survive and absolutely savage the girl. If only I could… Then a desperate plan occurred to him.

He grabbed the remaining lim out of his pocket and used his wyrd to create an elastic band of force that stretched from the seed to Aviada’s open mouth. He released the seed, and the elastic sorcery fired it down her throat. She vanished with a gagging noise, leaving her satyrs captors holding empty air.

Hace looked back at Erato, who was no-longer green-haired, golden-eyed, or teenaged. She was slightly older and more voluptuous, the picture of beauty in Greek antiquity. She wore a toga that scarcely covered her body, and her blonde tresses were braided into a crown like loop, interwoven with roses and myrtle flowers. Everything about her was sensuous—save for her expression, which was a twisted snarl.

“Think I’ll pass on the whole ‘leal service’ thing,” Hace said. “But how’s this for a deal: let me leave peacefully, and I won’t blast your pleasure dome to dust on my way out.”

“Kill him!”  Erato commanded her satyrs.

Hace ignored them and pulled the magnum out of the back of his waistband. Erato is the biggest threat. Need to take her off the board first. The muse conjured a lyre into her hands, but before she could begin to play, Hace emptied six rounds into her chest, neck, and head. Guns were far from the ideal weapon for taking on Fae—it was the whole reason why Amagia still carried melee weapons—but fortunately, the gun was chambered with the same .454 Bear-Stopper rounds that Locke revolvers used, which were chosen with monsters in mind. Erato dropped her lyre and fell out of her throne, body lost to a cloud of fae dust gushing forth from her enormous exit wounds.

Then something smashed into the side of Hace’s head, knocking him onto the dais.  He narrowly rolled to his feet before the satyr could follow up with a hooved stomp, strong enough to shatter the top layer of stone. Hace back-stepped to the left, trying to keep the first satyr between him and the second. They were extremely dangerous opponents, boasting about 400 pounds of pure muscle and tremendous eminence that would allow them to easily change the environment and perform magic.

Hace adopted a defensive stance and started casting a contract that would provide a barrier. Rather than attacking, the Satyrs responded by conjuring weapons. One created an enormous longbow, and the other created a pole-axe. As soon as Hace’s barrier was complete, he used the second kinetic anima to cast a reflex-enhancing contract. The spell kicked in just in time for Hace to dodge the first broadhead arrow loosed by the archer.

The poleaxe satyr was perfectly set up, however, and he swung his massive weapon in a broad arc toward Hace. It was all Hace could do to deflect the blow with his wyrd and the axe blade still made contact with his barrier, straining the contract’s strength perilously.

Another arrow, then another, and another. Hace dodged the first, swatted the second aside with the barrel of his gun, and caught the third by the shaft, just as it pricked his chest. He sprinted at the archer with a curse, dropping into a sorcerous slide to avoid a broad horizontal chop from the axe-wielding satyr. The archer sprang back as Hace advanced, and loosed a three-arrow spread.

Hace broke off his assault at the archer to avoid the volley, and used sorcery to redirect himself into a mid-air lunge at the axe-wielder. Taken aback, the satyr faltered and attempted to bat him away with the butt of his poleaxe shaft. Hace used a second burst of sorcery to jump over the satyr’s guard, and buried the arrow he had caught into the satyr’s neck. When the axe-wielder thrashed, Hace used the arrow shaft as a handle to swing around to its back.

The archer stayed his next shot, unable to shoot without risking harm to his partner. Hace hooked his gun arm around the satyr’s neck and pulled out the arrow roughly. A gout of dust erupted from the gash, showering Hace with the intoxicating substance. But he continued to press his attack, stabbing the satyr first in the ear, and then through the left eye.

In response, the beast dropped his weapon and tried to pry Hace off his back. But he held on, frantically ‘stirring’ the arrow in the satyr’s eye socket, simultaneously worsening the damage to its brain, and preventing it from regenerating. The creature finally shook so violently that the arrow shaft broke in Hace’s hand and he fell back to the dais. As the creature continued to thrash, its eminence receded, and it finally fell to the floor, rapidly burning away to dust.

That’s two!

The archer looked on with rage, stamped its cloven foot, and tossed its bow to the side, conjuring a pair of scimitars instead. Hace squared off with it, breathing heavily and trying to prevent himself from falling into exus, even as he started reached for the electrical animus in his left license. But he couldn’t undertake a contract before the bastard charged him in a whirl of superhumanly quick slashes and thrusts.

Even with his contract-enhanced reflexes, it was all Hace could do to dodge and retreat. The satyr had horrifying stamina. Hace stole a glance at Erato, who had nearly recovered from his initial salvo. I need to end this now! Hace retreated in serpentine loops, leading the satyr toward the fallen pole axe.

When the satyr stepped forward to deliver a killing thrust, Hace used sorcery to make the pole-axe’s shaft shoot upright. The length of wood smashed into the satyr’s nose, forestalling its assault. It was a cheap trick, like something out of a cartoon, but it bought Hace a full second to put a contract together.

At the risk of fatal retaliation from the satyr’s scimitars, Hace grabbed him by his wrists, and channeled the full might of the electric anima into his flesh. Before the anima could exhaust itself, Hace extended the spell with his own wyrd, cooking the creature with coruscating arcs of purple lightning until it finally exploded in a cloud of iridescent dust.

Hace took a deep breath, then turned his attention to Erato. She lay at the seat of her throne, now whole, but still physically weakened by the gunshots. He strode forward with menace, gathering sorcerous flames around his hands.

“Wait. You, a Son of the Summer, would dare lay hands on a retainer of Spring’s—”

“With pleasure. I am a mere bastard of Summer. And you fucking bedtime stories are all the same to me.”

The muse’s beautiful face faltered. It was a microsecond twitch, but Hace caught it. Fae were very good at lying. They were the best liars in the world. But if you could surprise them? Well. I’ve always believed humans are better at Poker. Especially when we don’t need to bluff.

Hace gathered his wyrd at the front of his fist and aimed it squarely at the Muse. She raised her hands in defense and cowered, though her face remained fierce.

“Who is the Producer?” Hace demanded. “Talk. Or die.”

The muse considered his threat and gradually lowered her hands. She looked around, probing the region with her eminence, as if to check for eavesdroppers, then beckoned him to approach, as if she intended to whisper a secret.Hace placed his palm, still rich with blazing energy, onto her head, and reluctantly leaned in. She whispered:

“What’s one more life?”

And she stabbed Hace square in the flank.

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