Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"A Wild Hunt, Part Six"

A reminder that "A Wild Hunt, Part One", "A Wild Hunt, Part Two", "A Wild Hunt, Part Three", "A Wild Hunt, Part Four", and "A Wild Hunt, Part Five" are also available.

A Wild Hunt, Part Six
by Mercy Loomis

Kiran swallowed hard. "You're not very comforting, Ariane."

"I never claimed to be." Ariane let go of his hand as Kiran stepped reluctantly toward the mouth of the tunnel. He sucked in a startled breath as Gloria's spell took a firmer hold, no longer buffered by Ariane's presence. "Resist her as best you can, Kiran. Don't let her touch you if you can help it. I'll try to take her out before it comes to that."

Kiran turned, walking backwards, hand outstretched toward her, but Ariane shook her head. She released her human skin, Kiran's pleading eyes fading from her sight in a heartbeat, his protesting words growing distant as she spun herself out into the air. Before Kiran had finished three steps she was flesh and blood again, darting up into the sky on crow's wings.

She climbed quickly, her gaze searching the landscape. The faint crunch of leaves echoed up from below her as Kiran made his way inexorably back to the clearing. It was that dry carpet of leaves that had made her decide on the crow—there was no hope of sneaking up on anything if you had to go overland. Marty might have been able to do it in his squirrel skin, but Ariane had never bothered with that form.

The clearing came into view as she rose above the trees. The earth was undisturbed, as if the giant had never made an appearance. Typical, and a sign that it had most likely been dismissed already. Gloria stood alone in the middle of the clearing, staring fixedly toward the sounds of Kiran's approach.

Where is the other one? Ariane wondered, scanning the trees anxiously. She didn't dare attack Gloria without knowing…wait, there!

A dark form stood shrouded amongst some bushes just within the treeline, perfectly positioned to see both Gloria and the end of the trail Ariane had taken earlier. The mage's hood was pulled low to hide the pale skin of her face, and a human would have easily overlooked her, but the crow's eyes saw her shape against the branches.

Gloria's out in the open like bait. I don't think I'll take it. Maybe if I get this one out of the way, it'll distract Gloria from her spells…

Kiran was already nearly to the clearing from the sounds of his footsteps. Ariane dove, planning on changing forms just before the branches got in the way.

Impact shook her. A sickening crack as her left wing folded mid-bone, and she was free-falling, flapping uselessly with her right wing, the pain and sudden nausea of the break stealing her breath. She struggled to let go of the wounded form, but she was crashing through the branches now, out of control, her wings catching in twigs and leaves and sending new shocks of agony through her that shattered her concentration. It was only that stupid instinct to keep flapping that saved her from a brutal landing as she finally broke free of the grasping branches, half fluttering and half falling at the mage's feet.

Except the robed figure wasn't the mage at all, but the female initiate. Ariane had last seen the girl curled on the ground clutching her head, and apparently her own rescue of Kiran hadn't bought the girl enough time to get control of her new powers. The girl stood slack-jawed and glassy-eyed, arms limp at her sides, and took no notice of the bird trying to right itself in front of her.

An unseen force lifted Ariane from the ground, and she froze.

"Julianne here was telekinetic," a feminine voice said brightly. The air next to the tree wavered, and the missing mage stepped out of her camouflaging spell. She tossed a stone into the air, which hung suspended for a moment before dropping back into her hand. She'd been wearing jeans and a t-shirt under her robes, apparently, and a necklace festooned with what looked like bulbous homemade glass beads. "I think I've picked up the basics very quickly, don't you?"

"Show off," Ariane squawked.

The mage cocked her head to the side. "See, that's how I knew you weren't just an animal. I can touch an animal's mind, understand what they're thinking. But you, I get nothing." The spectral hand holding Ariane tightened. "Should I snap your neck now, or see what use we can make of you?"

"Tabitha, have you got it?" Gloria called.

The mage, Tabitha, pouted. "Yeah," she called back, and started across the clearing toward Gloria. Ariane floated along in front of her, and Julianne stumbled behind looking like a movie zombie that hadn't started to decay yet.

Craning her neck, Ariane saw that Kiran had stopped at the edge of the clearing by grabbing onto a tree. Remembering his affinity to the Underground forest, she wondered just what kind of fae his ancestor had been. Still, from the look on his face she didn't think he'd be able to resist the summons for very long, assuming Gloria didn't just go to him.

Gloria didn't. Instead she waited for Tabitha to join her, reaffirming Ariane's belief that Gloria had been waiting in the middle of a trap all along.

"Stop fighting. Come here, Kiran Connor Eckhart," Gloria called, and Ariane made a mental note to get Kiran a new true name if they managed to survive until morning.

Kiran shuddered but held his ground.

Gloria clicked her tongue. "There's no need to make this difficult, Kiran. You never had use of your full potential before tonight, so how can you miss it? Once we've taken your memories you won't even know you ever had any abilities. You and Julianne will be right as rain in the morning." Gloria laughed, but there was a steely edge to it. "We did have to give Steve to the elemental, but since your little friend killed Deirdre it's only fair, don't you think?"

When he didn't reply, she turned her attention to Ariane. "Is this a pet of yours? Some faerie creature? I knew there was something odd about you, but with a power like yours I was willing to risk it." Gloria smiled sweetly. "A dangerous little thing, this pet. Now, if it were your familiar, the backlash from killing it could do serious damage to you—and I wouldn't want to risk that just yet. But I don't think you know enough to have a familiar, Kiran, so I can avenge poor Deirdre without losing the chance to finish taking your power." The smile vanished. "Unless you come here. Now."

Even in the dark Ariane had no trouble seeing the blood drain from Kiran's face, and her heart sank even before he let go of the tree he was so desperately clinging to.

"Don't!" she cried, even as he yelled, "Don't hurt her! I'm coming."

We are so screwed. Ariane closed her eyes and did the only thing she could think to do. Fighting through the pain of her broken wing, she let go of her skin.

The two mages gasped as she vanished. A truly skilled telekinetic could have held her aetherial form even more tightly than a physical form, but Tabitha was too new and still thought too linearly, and Ariane squirmed free. Still, it mattered little. The trap sprung into place almost immediately, just as she suspected it would. It was a common enough circle of confining, but to a skinshifter caught out of her skin it might as well have been a cage of cold iron.

The sad part was that yesterday this spell would have had no effect on Kiran at all, but now that the Underground had accepted him, he could be caught and held just like any other demon.

Suspended in the aether between one plane and another, Ariane gathered her strength and belled. The cry reverberated through the ley lines, a ripple that spread outward with a lightning bolt's speed.

Far, far to the south, an answering ripple.

With a shock like being thrown into a frozen lake, Ariane was ripped out of the aether into her human form.

"You!" Gloria said, staring down at her. "I suppose I should've guessed, the way you're always mooning after him in class. Ariane, isn't it?" She paused, frowning. "Why isn't your arm broken?"

The crow's injury pulsed at the edge of her awareness, echoing down through the aether, mixing with what felt like a hangover from hell. She crouched at the center of her invisible prison and glared, but refused to answer.

Gloria opened her mouth, about to snap a command like the one that had forced Ariane into physical form, but Tabitha interrupted her, nodding toward Kiran. "First things first."

The ripple in the south was no closer. Despairing, Ariane turned her attention to Kiran, praying he could stall for time, not knowing how to tell him without tipping off the two mages…her jaw dropped.

Kiran was crossing the clearing, but no longer reluctantly. He held his arms out from his sides ever so slightly, but that and the set of his jaw were the only signs of tension. He stalked forward with a liquid grace that would have made Ariane melt under the best of circumstances, but now, with the air around him literally shimmering with heat, she thought she had never seen anything so beautiful in all her life.

True, Gloria's talisman was sucking away Kiran's power. But unlike the last time he'd been this close to it, now Kiran wasn't mindless with shock and pain.

It was still his power, and it knew its home.

"Burn it!" Ariane shrieked. "Burn the talisman!"

Suddenly realizing her danger, Gloria tried to shield herself, but the same principle that let her spell keep draining Kiran through Dave's wards now gave Kiran access to the talisman even through the mage's defenses.

Gloria screamed as something caught fire under her robes. Shrieking, she tore at her throat, trying to pull a necklace out from under the cloth, but the metal was melting, running over her hands. The glass beads stuck to her skin, red glowing spots under the fabric of the robes until the heat singed the cloth away.

In the south, the ripple winked out of existence.

Panic seized Ariane in its grip. "Kiran, you have to stop!" she shouted. "Right now!"

But Kiran didn't seem to hear her. He'd stopped walking, head thrown back, arms outstretched, welcoming back the power that had been stolen from him. The grass and leaves under his feet were starting to singe.

Gloria was clawing at her chest, still screaming, her concentration completely shattered. Ariane was free, but she didn't dare approach Kiran—the heat coming off him was painful even from where she stood already.

"Kiran, please!"

He looked at her, his gaze electric with the impersonal passion of wildfire. Welts rose on her skin, but it was the complete lack of empathy in his look that scared her the most. He could kill her with a thought. The tears that rolled down her cheeks hissed and steamed.

"Please," she begged, putting every ounce of emotion she could muster into her face, her voice. "Please, if you've ever trusted me, trust me now. They'll kill you if you don't stop!"

Something flickered in his eyes. Recognition. His face softened, the heat faltering.

The ley lines thrummed as the Hunt burst out of the barrow.

As Kiran released the fire—or it released him—the strength went out of him and he collapsed. Ariane sprinted to him, throwing herself down next to him as the first riders came pounding down the path.

"Say nothing!" she hissed in his ear. "Nothing at all, not your name, not a word, not a sound, do you understand me?"

For one gut-wrenching moment she didn't think he did, but then he met her gaze with dazed but lucid eyes and nodded.

The Hunt swept into the clearing, beasts and riders of every description ever penned in a fairy tale, and some that had never made it into the stories. Kiran stared with mouth agape, but Ariane ignored them all, save the one wearing the antlered crown of the Huntsman. He was one of the gentry, and she didn't recognize him, but then she tried to stay out of politics. It didn't really matter anyway—whatever station he held normally, for tonight he was the Huntsman, and his word was law.

"You called the Hunt, little hound?" said the Huntsman.

"I did, my lord." Ariane climbed to her feet and pointed to the mages. "Here are two that have wronged the fae. They have injured and bound me against my will."

Gloria was curled in a little ball, huddled moaning around her blackened chest, but Tabitha stood wild-eyed with terror. "We didn't know she was fae!"

The Huntsman turned to Ariane. "Is this true?"

Ariane considered. "They didn't know I was, that is true." She pointed to Kiran, still sprawled at her feet. "But they summoned him. The trap they bound me with was meant for him. For him, they knew."

The Huntsman turned his gaze on Kiran, and Kiran lost what little color he had left. "The accused summoned you?"

Kiran nodded.

The Huntsman frowned. "Speak."

Kiran turned a frantic glance toward Ariane, but she was already answering. "My lord, he has vouchsafed me his voice."

"She speaks for you?"

Kiran nodded again. Ariane could have kissed him. Except, she realized giddily, she would have anyway.

"Very well." The Huntsman leveled his gaze on Ariane, but she was a skinshifter, descended from the original fairy hounds, and the Hunt held no terror for her. "And you say he is of the people?"

"The path opened for him. The land aided him. He is of the people."

The words rang with an undercurrent of the hound's belling, and a murmur went through the gathered host. Ariane tried not to show that she was just as startled as they were.

"The land speaks through you." The Huntsman was suddenly disinterested. Settled was settled, and there were hours yet until dawn. "Take the condemned."

The Hunt surged forward en masse, dashing past Ariane and Kiran on either side, a rush of bodies that would probably have pulled Ariane into their frenzy if Kiran hadn't caught her hand.

The Huntsman smiled at them as the host retreated, Gloria and Tabitha and Julianne lost somewhere in the throng. "You'll run with us," he said, not asking, but Ariane nodded anyway.

I'll have to try and find Julianne, and make sure Gloria and Tabitha can't tell any tales. "We'll catch you up in a moment, my lord," she replied, bowing. With a knowing, amused look, the Huntsman turned and set off after the host.

Ariane let out a breath and pulled Kiran to his feet. "That was perfe—"

His mouth descended on hers, and all the passion of the fire's grip was nothing compared to the blaze in Ariane's heart. She kissed him back fiercely until he broke away, laughing.

"I do trust you, Ariane. Enough that I'm going to go with you now and trust that you'll explain what the heck just happened later."

She smiled back up at him and gave him another quick kiss before stepping back and taking hold of her horse skin.

There was a lot to explain, like how he wasn't quite human anymore, and yet wielded the most feared of all human powers. And how he could never, ever tell anyone he was pyrokinetic, because fire killed almost every living creature on Earth or in the Underground, and there'd be no end to the list people gunning for him if it ever got out. And that he'd have to learn how to shield his thoughts or telepaths might be able to find out anyway.

She shuddered briefly and knelt so he could climb on her back. She'd have to try and keep him from meeting Gabriel for as long as possible. Nothing scares you as much as a firebug when you're as flammable as a vampire. Ariane didn't think there was a favor in the world big enough to keep the vampire from killing Kiran the moment he found out.

Over my dead body.

But that was all for later, along with teaching him about the Underground, and all the varied creatures on both planes he never dreamed existed. And, of course, more kisses. Lots of kisses. "Hang on," she called back to him as she headed after the host. "It's going to be a wild ride!"


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