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Glem Hughes. Jovday, Libra 1st, 2353 AA. 11:40 PM. Arroyo (Remington Memorial Medical Center)

Hace broke down again, his entire body shaking. Glem stood and hugged him, his own eyes tearing up. This is the worst fate I can imagine for him. Saving his mother has always been the source of his drive.

“I wish I could be like you,” Hace said. “I wish I could have finished early, and—”

“Hace, you could have graduated young, earned all the money in the world, and it still wouldn’t change this,” Glem said.

“You don’t know that! Maybe if we got her to treatment sooner, she wouldn’t have developed the pulse. Maybe—”

“Don’t do that, man. Don’t look for ways for this to be your fault, because it’s not. The universe is a cruel, wicked bastard and that’s it. You have worked as hard as you can.”

I just got a head start. My father started drilling me on medicine the day I told him I wanted to be a medithurge. I don’t remember how old I was. Too young to remember it. But he and Hace had already had that conversation and it always left both of them dissatisfied. Sometimes I think my success has given him—this prodigy—an inferiority complex.

Hace dragged an arm across his eyes and sniffed sharply.

“So how do we fight this? Responsibly. My mother is dying, but you said we don’t stop until there’s no hope.”

Glem nodded, pleased to see he was already trying to rally.

“This will sound trite, but believe me when I tell you: it is crucial for us to give her a reason to stay attached. We want to make every day worth the fight. Ask her what she wants, Hace, and we will all do our best to give it to her.”

— Hace Matthews | Jovday, Libra 2nd | 6:24 AM —

Hace started awake and immediately groaned as his back was torqued horribly. He had fallen asleep in his mother’s observation room. Before falling asleep, he had told Fitz and his other teachers that he would be late to class today, and most of them were understanding given the circumstances. His mother turned to face him with surprise.

“You alright?” she asked.

“I’m good,” Hace said. “Just a sore back.”

He stood up, stretched, and walked over to her bed, taking a seat at the foot of the mattress.

“Sorry for ruining my own party,” Sivia said.

“You didn’t want one anyway, right?” Hace asked.

“No. But it was fun while it lasted.”

“Have you talked to the doctors?” Hace asked.

Sivia nodded. Her eyes were red. She looked pale. Hace sat there with her for a long moment, trying to find the right words.

“I’ve been selfish,” he began. “I’ve been asking you to hold on until I finish the Athenaeum. Until I can save you. But Glem told me that I should listen to you. See what you want. And how I can make your fight worthwhile.”

She reached out to his left hand.

“Every extra minute I can spend watching you grow is worth the fight, Hace.”

That doesn’t help me, mom. He turned to look at her, serious.

“There has to be something I can do to make it easier. Something I can do for you now, as opposed to later.”

Sivia took a deep breath and looked out her room’s window. They were on the top story of the hospital and the sun had just started to rise, providing a pleasant view of Old Town’s sprawl in the predawn light.

“I know it sounds trite, but I want you to be happy. To live a full and meaningful life as if you didn’t have a mother to save,” she said.

Hace snickered. He wanted to insist that he was happy, but there was doubt in his heart, and that was more than enough to still the lie on his half-faen tongue.

“I wouldn’t do anything differently,” Hace said. “I would have enrolled in the Athenaeum even if you weren’t afflicted.”

“You have a sense of purpose,” Sivia conceded. “You have valuable, rare gifts and you know how you want to use them. But that’s not happiness, sweetheart. Your life has to be more than your job. You have to think about what you want for your future—as a person, not a Keeper. You have to plan for a time when I’m long gone.”

Hace bowed his head. I don’t want to think about that.

“What if I can’t find that answer before… What if I can’t find it while we still have time together? There has to be something I can do now. Something to make you happy.”

Sivia thought for a long moment.

“Forgive me,” she said at last.

“What? Forgive you for what?”

“Forgive me for loving your father. And if you can, forgive him for loving me.”

Hace had not expected that. He had hoped she would ask him for something meaningful, challenging, and concrete, but he was still ill-prepared for her answer. My father is the worst part of me. His ‘love’ has been killing you in slow motion from the moment you met.

“I don’t hold anything against you. I never have. And…” he took a deep breath and sighed, “I will try to come to terms with Síol. But first I need to know… why him? Grandpa, Uncle Tibbon, and Sera always said he abducted you.”

Sivia considered the question carefully.

“He took me into the Faed when I was sixteen. In the legal sense, he did abduct me. But when I met him in my dreams, I followed him through the Veil willingly. Eagerly. You know how fae are. They understand what we want better than we do, give us choices, and let our desires do the rest.”

“What did you want?” Hace asked.

His mother gave him a mildly exasperated stare.

“I was a poor, bored, and lonely seventeen-year-old girl, Hace. He was literally the man of my dreams. What do you think I wanted?”

Hace blushed and realized he didn’t want to pursue that line of inquiry any further.

“Still. He held you captive, didn’t he?”

Sivia shook her head.

“The Summer Court tried to stop me from leaving. But it was Síol who gave me the opportunity to escape.”

Hace froze as his mother continued:

“I never asked to leave until I was pregnant with you. He knew I was scared. He knew that I missed Sera and my dad. He begged me to stay. But when I told him that I was leaving—no matter what he said or did—he gave me a boon.”

“What did the boon cost?” Hace asked sharply. “Fae don’t do anything for free.”

Sivia took a deep breath and nodded.

“Our relationship was a little bit like a game because of that. Everything was an answer to something else. Neither of us could give or take anything from the other without appropriate recompense. But when he put his hand on my head and kissed me goodbye…”

Sivia shook her head before continuing:

“He warned me that it would be dangerous, but he didn’t tell me what it would cost. Maybe that’s why I’m cracking. And if it is… I am so sorry, sweetheart. But I would make the same choice in a heartbeat if I had to do it over again.”

“What was the boon?” Hace asked, hoarse.

“Knowledge. Power. I had never fought before in my life, or used magic beyond what was exempt at the time. But he gave me the abilities to fight my way out of the heart of Summer. And I can’t be sure, but I think he may have created a diversion as well.”

Hace had never heard that. Betraying the will of his sovereign Court… Hace didn’t know Fae were even capable of opposing the will of their King and Queen. There was evidence of a fifth column in Faen society. Stories about wyld-fae. They were supposedly courtless, nomadic entities that were not beholden to any Faen accords save for true speech. Hace always assumed that they were outcasts. Exiled from their respective courts as punishment for mistakes or failure. And outright disobedience would certainly earn that sentence. But my father is still a Lord of Summer. How?

“Why did Summer want to keep you so badly?” Hace asked.

“I don’t know,” Sivia said. “The most seductive thing your father ever told me was that I was important. Because I felt like my life was meaningless. And he told me I was special again and again, in different ways. It’s funny. I eventually asked him what he meant by that. And of course, he told me that he loved me, but I pressed and asked him if that was the only reason. And he said he couldn’t tell me. He blamed it on his Court.”

“Sounds about right,” Hace muttered.

“Eventually he had a change of heart. He said he would share his secret as long as I agreed to stay with him. And I’m not going to lie, Hace… that was the hardest decision I have ever made. But I’m human. I wanted the security of reality. I missed my family. I was worried about you.”

“Thank you,” Hace said. “For choosing to come back. And for telling me all this.”

“I always hoped that you would ask me someday,” Sivia said. “I wanted to tell you many times but… I don’t know how to talk to you about your father. I remember when you asked me why you didn’t have a daddy. I tried to explain it as best I could… but you were only… three? If that? And you said you hated him. It was the first time I remember you using that word.”

She sighed.

“It didn’t help that I was angry at him for a long time too. I missed him. I hoped he would find ways to visit. But after everything he did for me—and, I suppose—everything he did to me… Nobody else would ever measure up. But by the time I figured out how I felt about him… everybody else had spoken for me. And your mind was made up.”

Hace scowled, his long-ingrained fury sparking to life. If you actually loved her… If her escape wasn’t just another ploy… If you truly disobeyed your Court to help her escape, why the hell didn’t you visit? You could have found a way. But you broke her heart. And maybe that’s what broke her mind as well.

“I’m sorry, mom,” he said at last. “But I doubt I’ll ever be able to love that bastard.”

“I’m not asking you to, sweetheart. I just don’t want you to hate yourself because he’s a part of you. And like I said, I hope you can forgive me for loving him.”

“Like I said, I never held it against you. Knowing the truth hasn’t changed that,” Hace said.

Hace had never seen such relief on his mother’s face before. Her wyrd, her expression—it all seemed lighter. Something in her unclenched. But Hace worried that he had unwittingly undone something that was keeping her grounded. I’m worried you’ll disappear.

“I wanted to become an Amagia, did you know that?” Sivia asked.

“What? No. I thought you always wanted to work at the shop.”

She rolled her eyes.

“I wanted to be an Archivist. I took the assessments three times. And when I was finally accepted, we couldn’t afford the tuition they set.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Well, at first, I didn’t want to discourage you. Because if you didn’t get your scholarship, the same thing probably would have happened. It’s one of the reasons I was so desperate to feel special. Wanted. After I met Síol, I stopped moping about what might have been.”

In certain respects, Hace felt like he was meeting his mother all over again. It all fit. Every little revelation made her make more sense to him. But how did I not know this? Was she keeping things from me, or did I just never think to ask? She easily read the concern on his face.

“I didn’t mean to keep things from you,” she said apologetically. “Sometimes it feels like I barely know you. Since you turned twelve… I feel like I’ve only been half a mother—”

Hace emanated dismissal and hugged his mother.

“You are my only mother. And the only mother I need. Frankly, I’ve started to learn that I’m not very good at listening. Síol has been trying to talk for me years, but I hated him too much to ever hear him out.”

“Maybe it’s time you find out what he has to say,” Sivia suggested gently.

“Maybe,” Hace admitted.

He was surprised that he was able to speak the word. He had long vowed to himself that he would never listen to his father. For the first time, it struck him as childish.

“The next time I see him…” Hace said, standing up from her bed. “Is there anything you want me to tell him?”

Sivia thought for a long moment and finally shrugged.

“Tell him I miss him.”

—Fera Fitzgerald | 9:23 AM| Westridge (Athenaeum – Fitz’s Office)—

“Lemme get this straight,” Fitz said. “You want to visit your father for a friendly chat. The same father you have willfullygleefullymurdered, every time you have met him, since you were seven-years old?”

Hace nodded.

“I want to know more about his relationship to my mother.”

I understand wanting closure, but seeking answers from fae—family or no—is always a risky proposition. He could come away even more distracted than he is now. Especially if Síol implies there is a way to save his mother from apopsychosis.

“Hace…” Fitz started. “Look, I hate to be blunt, but I don’t think Síol will give you the answers you’re looking for. Not at any price you’d want to pay.”

“Maybe not,” Hace admitted. “But I have to try. I have a specific argument in mind. Should give me a decent amount of leverage.”

“What’s the argument?” Fitz asked.

“He owes me a debt. A big one. And I intend to collect.”

Fitz considered pressing him for more details, but she tried not to demand more from him than he was comfortable providing. Interrogating people who don’t have the option of lying was unfair, and there were plenty of other people who would exploit that weakness for the rest of Hace’s life. Fine then, keep your secrets. He seems confident enough, and usually his instincts about the fae are pretty good.

“If I don’t take you, are you going to do something stupid? Like try to meddle with your license records so you can go without getting flagged for Illegal Transference?”

“I considered it,” Hace admitted. “But I doubt I’d be able to figure out a surefire way to spoof them. I’ll probably just wait until my next seizure and go looking for him then instead of exiting the pocket dimension. I’m not going to risk expulsion for this, but I am going to confront him. And I’d prefer to do it sooner rather than later.”

The truth is, I have a debt too. Sivia trusted me with Hace, and I’ve tried to do my best by him, but I’ve put him in more dangerous situations than this, dozens of times. If she really is dying, and his father is keeping some sort of secret from him… She took stock of Hace. Twenty-one was a precarious age. He was still a teenager in many respects, and more adult than she was in others.

Finally, Fitz sighed and said:

“Alright. We’ll take a field trip to the Summer Court. But you have to promise me you’ll focus on your studies—specifically your thesis proposal—after we get back, even if we come away from this emptyhanded. And you have to be very prepared for the possibility that he will fuck with you—use whatever secret he’s carrying to hurt you. It’s a gamble, not only in terms of physical safety but your peace of mind.”

Hace breathed a sigh of relief and emanated tremendous gratitude.

“Thank you. For trusting me.”

Fitz pulled a requisition approval sheet off her desk and signed it, then handed it to Hace.

“Go get two anima and your sword, along with anything else you think you might need. We are going to treat this as seriously as we can. But no iron, Hace. If we are headed into the heart of Court territory, I do not want us to risk a diplomatic disaster.”

Hace hesitated half a second before nodding. If Fitz didn’t know him as well as she did, she would assume that he was considering arguing with her. But no, he wears that expression when he is ‘forgetting’ to tell me something.

“Something you want to tell me?” Fitz asked.

“No,” Hace said.

“Give me half an hour to get ready and meet me at the sorcerium. We’ll use an array.”

—Hace Matthews | 9:40 AM| Westridge (Athenaeum – Sorcery Lab 7)—

Hace and Fitz stood on the metal altar in the unlit lab. Akrasia, like most magic, was easier in the dark—or areas so bright that you could barely see. And the circumscribed metal symbol in the floor would serve as a focus that would sharpen their ability to project to a specific destination in the Faed.

“You’re driving,” Fitz told him.

Hace raised an eyebrow. Fitz usually led the way on tandem dives, as they could be risky.

“Your connection to your father is a better sympathetic link than anything I have to work with,” Fitz said. “Unless you know exactly where he is currently?”

That makes sense. I should have figured as much. God, I’m distracted. Part of him knew that what he was attempting was reckless. Waiting for a seizure would be smarter. But Hace knew he’d continue to live in this mental fugue state until it finally happened. Better to lance the boil now.

Hace took Fitz’s left hand in his right and did his best to synch up his urdic breathing with hers. Then with a surge of will, he ejected himself and his teacher from reality. He focused on his father and his Summer heritage. Parts of himself he had willfully neglected. He expected resistance or inscrutability. But it felt as if his wyrd blossomed at the thought of it. The Faed was happy he was coming ‘home.’

The Veil itself still resembled water in shape and consistency, but there was almost no moisture. Any sensation of dampness was stricken from their bodies by their point of arrival—the wind was so dry it felt corrosive.

They stood in what appeared to be a vast desert, riddled with colossal gears that reached into a slate sky, uncharacteristically empty of clouds, faen constellations, or moons. As Hace further assessed his bearings, he realized that they were actually in an enormous clock, riddled with clicking, ticking, and the slow groan of larger mechanisms, as well as the constant hiss of spilling sand.

The sands that covered their respective gear spilled from a shattered hour glass that was as large as any mountain on earth. Its top half disappeared into the interminable gray heavens amidst other columns of gears. Sand fell from each of these columns, flowing through the cracks between gears. One column stood higher than all the others, miles away.

“Never been here before,” Hace said.

“I have. Once.”

Fitz’s voice was hoarse. Is she afraid?

“What do I need to know?” Hace asked, drawing his sword.

Fera glared at him.

“You first, Hace. What did you do when you rescued your mother from the Faed?”

“I…” Hace faltered. “I used iron on the people who took her.”

“What?! How many did you kill?”

“Not sure,” Hace said. “I wasn’t thinking clearly.”

“You still aren’t! Good gods, Hace… you think they would let that go unanswered?”

Hace lowered his head and desperately tried to think of an excuse, or at least an apology.

“I don’t want an apology; I want an explanation. How many fae? What court were they? What breeds were they?”

“Summer Court,” Hace said. “Elves, mostly. One Dryad.”

“Who struck first? Were they hurting your mother?”

Hace choked. I butchered them. For taking her again. I butchered them. But he couldn’t get himself to tell the truth.

“We’re leaving. Now,” Fera said.

The dry magic of the place pressed in on them. The Veil was farther from here than it was in reality. We must be deep in the Faed. The nearest soft spot was at the edge of the dunes. It was so faint Hace wasn’t sure he wasn’t imagining it.

“Spot’s about a mile out,” Fitz said grimly, and started walking.

Hace fell into step behind her, somewhat unnerved, but also perplexed. Aren’t we safer in uncourted territory? Nothing has a strong eminence here.

“The Summer Court can’t—or won’t—touch you,” Fitz said. “I don’t know why, but otherwise you would be long dead for your serial patricide. But if you killed other fae with the bane unprovoked…”

“Fitz, what is this place?” Hace asked.

“A trap!” she spun and shouted. “It’s a gods damned trap, Hace! When the Courts can’t take action into their own hands, they hire Wyld Fae to mete out justice for personal slights. And for some reason, Wyld Fae can track us. That’s why the Veil was almost non-existent. They were waiting for you to cross over.”

Hace felt a chill.

“Who has eminence here?” Hace asked.

Fera gave Hace a disgusted look. Oh. Yeah. Better not to speak their name in their own domain, unless I want to call it on us. Jesus, I really am unwell. The thought weighed like a stone in his gut. And if Fitz is afraid to call this thing when we are together—

There was an abrupt gust, sweeping the sand from the dunes into a curtain that completely obscured the horizon. When the gust passed, a man-shaped fae in olive-green leathers stood before them. He was muscular, but otherwise nondescript. Fitz sighed and gestured at the figure:

“This is Flicker. He’s an asshole.”

“That’s rude,” Flicker said.

“What’s wrong with his face?” Hace said, squinting.

“Wow. That’s even ruder.”

Hace intrinsically knew that Flicker’s ‘expression’ meant “distaste, offense, and anger,” but the actual features of his face… didn’t seem to exist. Or they existed in some kind bizarre, biblical angel superposition; an ever-shifting fractal mass of lips, eyes, nose, ears, teeth, hair. Is he glamoured or… is that just what his body is like? It was like staring at one of those patterned optical illusions hidden pictures, but the more Hace tried to make sense of it, the more his head hurt.

“He’s a grayman,” Fitz explained. “They are pseudo-emotive.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means they use their eminence to convey their emotions even though their faces are typically indistinct in their base form. Graymen are faen doppelgängers, essentially. Their appearance makes them impossible to remember clearly…. Unless they are shapeshifted to look like somebody else. Ideal faen assassins.”

“I don’t suppose I could persuade you to quietly accept death, Fera?” Flicker asked.

Huh? Fera started laughing, then asked:

“You’re here for me?”

“I know the kid has a contract on his head,” Flicker explained, pointing at Hace. “But he’s also off-limits. So I’m supposed to teach him a lesson another way. And you’ve had bounties on your head for a long time. So… Two birds.”

“Bounties for what?” Fitz scoffed.

The non-face was clearly incredulous. Then he seemed to laugh, though the movements were indistinct, and the whole thing was extremely unsettling.

“What haven’t you done, Fera the Witch? Every Court wants you dead for one reason or another.”

Fitz tilted her head to the side in concession as if it was a fair point.

“Aren’t you forgetting that I’ve killed you once before?” Fera asked.

“In your prime,” it pseudo-scoffed. “And now you have a pupil-shaped liability with you.”

In answer, Hace used sorcery to detonate Flicker’s breath. It was a tricky spell to cast without an animus, and even harder to use against Fae who had a natural resilience against elemental magic, but the grayman was caught flat-footed. The resulting explosion whipped the sands into a violent tempest, blinding Fitz and Hace.

“Contracts!” Fitz commanded.

She cast a barrier contract over herself and Hace, and Hace answered with a reflex enhancer. The spell kicked in just in time for Fera to dodge Flicker as he emerged from the curtain of sand, arm shapeshifted into a jagged glass claw. The tips of his fingers managed to leave a long, but ultimately shallow cut across her chest.

Hace created an illusory clone of himself as he tried to dart around Flicker’s back, but Flicker saw through the feint and deflected the blow. Hace pressed his assault, keeping the faen hit-man on his backfoot. Before he could follow up with his wyrd, Flicker burst into a cloud of heavy, sharpened sand, leaving Hace blind and coughing.  

As he retreated and tried to wipe his vision clear, he heard Fera grunting. Again, the sands around them swept into an all-consuming tempest, obscuring the environment around them.  When the storm cleared, no fewer than six clones of Flicker stood amidst the dunes, limbs each shapeshifted into different glass weapons.

Oh, you like smoke and mirrors? Me too.

Hace created a phalanx of illusory clones and directed each of them to attack the closest copy of Flicker. Usually, Hace ‘hardened’ the edges of his glamours, so that they could function as real combatants as well as distractions. But we’re doing something different this time. Instead of imbuing them with kinetic energy, he gave each glamor a thermal core. And as soon as Flicker made contact with that core…

Plumes of fire erupted in sequence as Flicker’s clones engaged Hace’s suicide bombers. Again, swirling clouds of dust swallowed the combatant’s sightlines. As the smoke started to clear, Hace caught a glimpse of Fera. Her stomach had become a gaping hole of gore. She was trying to hold in her viscera with one hand, and reaching toward Hace with the other.

“Fitz!” He shouted, and ran toward her.

As soon as he reached her, Fera melted into a pool of sand and Flicker emerged—seemingly out of thin air—to strike him in the back of the knee, the kidney, and his solar plexus, winding him. Shit! It was an illusion! He lay on the ground hacking, trying to force air back into his lungs with his wyrd.

He felt electricity crackling through the dry air. Gusts of sand-saturated wind whipped at his face. Fera cried out with pain. Flicker cursed in some unknown faen tongue.

Get up, Hace. Get up and get mad. He forced himself off the ground, drawing as much heat into his wyrd as he could. I still can’t do this one reliably, but we need all the help he can get. The air swelled and shimmered with thermals. He waited a moment, making sure he was targeting the real Flicker, who was locked in hand-to-hand combat with Fitz, and then unleashed his sorcery.

Rather than trying to burn or blast Flicker, Hace funneled the feverish heat around Flicker’s body, and used the thermals to augment his glamour abilities. He used illusions to split Fitz into three, then six distinct doubles. As they assaulted him simultaneously, Flicker hesitated for half a second, which was all the time the real Fitz needed to slam a devastating spinning hook kick into his head. But before Hace could trigger the second half of his technique, Flicker turned to sand, hiding amidst the dunes again. But a plume of fae dust was interspersed with the sand. That was a solid hit.

Hace ran to Fitz and put his back against hers as they waited for Flicker’s next assault. A laser of focused light slashed across the dunes, reducing the sand into pools of molten glass. Hace and Fitz had to dive for cover, breaking their back-to-back formation, and by the time they rolled to their feet, the molten glass had cooled to form floating, reflective sheets of glass.

“Destroy the mirrors!” Fitz commanded.

Hace smashed the closest patch of glass with telekinesis, and Fera blasted another, but there were too many to crush at once. Flicker came screaming out of one of the mirrors, slashing Fera in the bicep and thigh, then disappeared into another mirror. Hace gave chase, only to get singed by a laser that fired from one mirror before bouncing to the others, creating a prison of searing beams. The beams that missed created more molten patches of glass, which in turn created more lasers. Jesus, this is really bad.

It was all Hace could do to dash and dodge between the beams. He had completely lost track of Flicker, and only caught a fleeting glimpse of Fitz. You can use this. Heat and illusions are your specialties, Hace! How do you stop illusions? How do you stop light? Hace used his second animus, a wind spirit to cast a tempest contract.

The remaining un-melted sand was swept into a swirling torrent that blinded all three combatants once again. And as the sand saturated the air, the beams that were firing wildly were rendered weak and diffuse by the constant shifting particles. Crucially, the contract allowed Hace to feel the individual grains of sand, allowing him to pinpoint Flicker’s position. Before the dust could clear, Hace lunged with his sword and thrust it thickly into the grayman’s flank.

Flicker howled with pain and retorted with a backhand that sent Hace spinning. He let go of his sword and struck the ground heavily. That single blow had been powerful enough to break his barrier. I’m defenseless now. If I take another hit like that I’m dead. As his vision swam, he saw Flicker curse and pry the sword from his side, dust gushing out of the wound.

Then he felt a familiar urdic crackle. A ripple like a gathering storm. Amidst the dust, Hace caught a glimpse of Fitz’s outline, just before she unleashed an arc of brilliant, violet electricity at Flicker. The bolt of lightning struck his right bicep and he spasmed, then his entire shoulder exploded into a cloud of prismatic fae dust.

Fera picked up Hace’s fallen sword and advanced on Flicker. But her approach was slow, and Flicker, despite being electrocuted and blown apart, was ready to meet her with the good half of his body. He turned his left arm to jagged glass, blocked her first two strokes, then smashed her across the jaw, stunning her. Before she could sink to her knees, he kicked her in the chest and sent her body streaking across the sand toward Hace.

Their bodies collided, knocking them both into a wretched heap. Hace began to panic as he felt Flicker leach the power out of the environment with his eminence… but then the grayman exhaled abruptly, allowing the power to snap back into place.

What? Did he cancel the spell, or…?

“I yield,” he called.

Hace lowered his guard cautiously. Really? I’m not sure we had this one.

“This isn’t worth it,” Flicker said, then pointed at Hace who was cradling Fitz. “You were supposed to come through alone. I catch you. Lecture you about the bane. She comes to get you later. I kill her in front of you to drive the point home and leave after. Killing you both at the same time is too much hassle. Too dangerous. So fine, you win.”

“To hell with that—” Fitz snarled, but Hace held her back.

“What can you offer in return for your life?” Hace asked.

“I will escort you to the exit of my domain and I will find other means to settle matters with my employer.”

Hace narrowed his eyes. For the first time, the grayman’s face came into sharp focus and he smiled what appeared to be a genuine smile. It was more of a smirk, but wickedly grotesque and full of earnest malice.

“You aren’t a fool boy, so you shouldn’t mistake me for one. It is a fair deal.”

Hace scoffed and helped Fitz to her feet.

“Oh, I can be plenty foolish.”

Flicker sighed and his not-quite-face torqued in a way that Hace recognized as exasperation.

“You came here seeking Síol. But your sire is dead.”

“You killed him?” Hace asked.

Flicker’s pseudo-emotions switched to condescension:

“There’s a war going on, little Meascach. Summer and Autumn. Many casualties on both sides. And I think that information is more than enough to sweeten the pot.”

Hace held Flicker’s gaze—even though it made his head ache—and finally nodded. Fitz spat another glob of blood on the sands and nodded once. Flicker nodded in answer, and slowly called another wall of sand to swallow the world around them.

When the storm dissipated, they stood at the foot of a white dais, built on the balcony of a massive tower. Hace could tell that it was far away from where they had fought. And higher up. They now had a bird’s eye view of the hour glasses and deserts below them. This is a pretty impressive demesne for a single fae.

“There’s a soft-spot up there,” Flicker said. “Go on and get out.”

The grayman gestured toward the dais. As Hace and Fitz started to limp toward the soft-spot, there was an abrupt out-pulse of Faen energy, and a body in a tattered Keeper’s uniform tumbled out of thin air and collapsed on the dais. His hair was long and black, his skin was paper white, and blood steadily seeped from his torso onto the stone. His wyrd was weak. Faint.

“What the hell?!” Hace turned to look at Flicker.

Once again, the grayman’s ever-shifting features momentarily froze in a portrait of shock. Then his face became indistinct again, and he shrugged.

“Hey, don’t ask me. He’s one of yours.”

Hace knelt to the man. He was still awake, gritting his teeth and clutching a wound in his gut. I’ve met him. Or seen him at least. Fitz was still wary of a trap, eyeing Flicker.

“Since he entered my domain uninvited, his life is mine,” Flicker said mildly. “But I don’t want to be blamed for dead amagiate royalty. So do me a favor and show him out, yeah?”

Royalty? Hace looked back at the man again. Wait. Is that…

“Athren Valmont?”

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