“Here now, what’s happening? You’ve gone all green around the edges, pretty boy!”
Kellam frowned. It was difficult enough maintaining the trancelike serenity necessary to keep most of his consciousness in the Otherway, not to mention sustaining the connection spell with Farryn’s mind. Doing so while an intrusive old witch prodded at his shoulder with a long, knobbly finger was almost more than he could manage.
He grimaced and partially opened one eye to meet the ward witch’s disconcerting stare. “It’s him,” he said. “It’s the fae—Yhendorn. He’s there with her.”
“Yeah? Well, what’d you expect.” Ulla folded her arms and sucked on a tooth. “It’s his dream, after all.”
Kellam ground his teeth and shut his eye again, focusing back into that other space, feeling along the connection. He couldn’t really see the dream in which Farryn stood. Neither could he hear what she said or what was said to her. Not exactly. But he felt it all there in her head with a clarity that was unsettling to say the least.
He felt her flush at the sight of that tall fae lord. Felt her shock, her fear, and . . . and her admiration.
The fae was beautiful, after all. Beautiful and powerful and . . . and . . .
“Don’t you worry.”
Kellam grunted and opened one eye again at the sound of the ward witch’s voice. Mother Ulla grinned gummily and chuckled. “You’ll have to work harder to hide your thoughts if you don’t want them read plain as day on your pretty face, boy,” she said. “I know proper jealousy when I see it. But don’t you worry! Our Farryn’s not a complete fool. She ain’t likely to go fallin’ for a fella who kidnapped and threatened her life. Just sayin’. She may be a lazy-boned featherhead, but even she’s not that dim.” The old woman leaned in a little closer and pinched his cheek. “Don’t tell her I said so. I don’t want her thinking I credit her with any sense!”
Kellam pulled back from the witch’s fingers and firmly shut his eyes again, pouring his consciousness into the connection. He could almost, in a sense, see the golden forest. And the powerful being standing before Farryn’s vision. He could almost feel her quickened heartbeat.
“Steady, Farryn,” he whispered along the spellthread. “Steady.”
“What are you doing here?”
The words escaped, blurting out through Farryn’s lips before she could quite stop them. They rang too loud in that still, golden air, sounding terribly mortal and foolish in her ears. A flush roared up her cheeks back in her physical body, and she had no doubt it was perfectly visible here in her dream form as well.
The fae lord smiled. It was quite a devastating smile, not only for its beauty but also for the terror it inspired. Or not terror . . . that might not be the right word for the sensation that shot down Farryn’s spine. Maybe there wasn’t a word in her language that could describe the feeling.
It wasn’t wholly unpleasant. But it was certainly frightening.
“It is my dream, is it not?” he said, his voice rich and dark. “Are you really so surprised?”
“No, but I . . .” Farryn stopped. She was going to ask why he no longer appeared in the child form she’d twice before glimpsed. But something, some witchy instinct perhaps, told her that might not be a good idea. She couldn’t say why, but she suspected the fae had not realized exactly how he had appeared to her. It wouldn’t be wise to let him know she’d glimpsed him in such a young, vulnerable state. She might be able to use that knowledge later.
So she shut her mouth, shook her head, and started over again, “I figured you’d keep well away from that dream-demon of yours.”
“I am not afraid of demons.”
It wasn’t a lie, or not exactly. According to lore the fae never lied, were incapable of lying. But wasn’t the truth either. Not the whole truth anyway.
Before she could try to puzzle it out, the fae took three long strides, covering the distance between them, and planted himself directly in front of her, presenting her with a too-close view of his massive bare chest. Heart pounding, Farryn tried to back up, but her shoulders hit a tree.
“I am impressed, little kitten.” He lifted one massive hand and, very delicately, touched a long, tapered, claw-like nail under her chin, tilting her head back so that she was forced to meet his strange, golden gaze.
Farryn gulped but made certain that she neither blinked nor flinched. “Impressed? With what? I haven’t done anything yet.”
The corner of his mouth tilted in another of those devastating smiles. “None of the fae mages I brought into this place survived even one encounter with that monster. You have already doubly improved on their efforts.”
His eyes were so deep, so golden. So intriguing. Like the golden dream itself, which had lured her into its dangerous shadows, they beckoned her to wander in, deeper and deeper, to become lost. It would be all too easy to stray into those depths and not realize what she’d done until far too late.
Why would such a being look at her in such a way, full of fascinated curiosity? Could it be that he saw in her something as dangerously intriguing as she saw in him? Could it be—
Don’t be a fool!
It wasn’t a voice she heard. Not a voice, not a thought, more like a . . . sense. A vibration. Farryn blinked and realized that it was buzzing along the spellthread, like a tensed bowstring plucked a little too hard and threatening to break.
Don’t be a fool! He’s dangerous! He’s toying with you!
Don’t fall for his tricks, Farryn!
Kellam. Gods blight him.
There was sense in that urging non-voice of his, though. Everyone knew the fae were not to be trusted, that they would cast a glamour on an unsuspecting mortal quicker than a gnat in the eye. And she was already vulnerable enough without giving this particular fae any added power over her.
Farryn growled and pulled her head back, away from that claw-tipped finger. “Well, don’t go ordering me a parade just yet.”
The fae slowly retracted his hand, fingers curling gently. The other corner of his mouth twitched, and one eyebrow slid up the broad, smooth plane of his forehead. “No, indeed. I have something much grander in mind should you succeed.”
With those words, he took several steps back, and Farryn’s tightened chest suddenly relaxed, her constricted lungs let out a huge gasp of air. She pressed a little harder against the tree for support, then pulled upright and braced her staff firmly in the dirt. “So do you intend to help, or are you just here to make me uncomfortable?”
“Do I make you uncomfortable?”
“No!” She spat the word out a little too quickly to be wholly believable. Twisting the staff in her hand, she did her best to ignore the humming sensation from the spellthread, and flashed a fierce glare up at the fae. “But I can tell you’re trying to. And it’s not helpful! If you want me to concentrate on my job and actually do something about this gods-blighted demon of yours, you’d best leave me blighted-well alone.”
The fae nodded slowly, tucking his chin down toward his chest so that a lock of dark hair fell across his brow and hung in a silky coil between his shining eyes. “Very well, little kitten,” he said in a voice so rumbling and deep, it sounded like a cat’s purr. “Get on with your mouse hunt, then.” He bowed at the waist, sweeping one arm elegantly.
One moment there. The next moment, gone. As though he’d never been.
Farryn gaped into the empty space where the fae should be. But of course, he wasn’t truly gone, was he? This whole dream-forest was him in a true and vital sense that was frightening to contemplate. She walked inside his unconscious, which was, according to some theories of dream-magic, a more true state of mind than the conscious, for here there were fewer self-erected barriers to reality.
With a little shudder, Farryn looked around at the trees, trying to sense the fae. It felt empty, but that didn’t mean much. Her own mind could be convinced of one version of reality that had no bearing whatsoever on the actual reality. And when all was said and done, what did it matter?
She had a job to do.
The spellthread plucked and hummed again. Kellam’s presence whispered on the edge of her mind, not a voice, not an image, but a sensation for which she didn’t have a name. He seemed to be saying something about the fae and focus and . . .
“Will you hush and leave me be?” Farryn growled, and twitched her staff, jerking the spellthread. “I know what I’m doing.” At least, she hoped she did. “You just be ready to feed me that binding, you hear me, Mage Leocan?”
That seemed to work. She could still feel his nervousness vibrating along the thread, but the pressure of his presence retreated once more.
Farryn grunted and looked around the forest, her gaze trailing from tree to tree, searching for some glint of silver among the gold. Nothing presented itself to her immediate view, so, with a twist of her shoulders, she picked a direction and set off marching. Within a few paces, the golden tranquility began to work its effect on her mind, lulling her with its humming energy, and dulling all the uppermost feelings of fear to a more mild, more distant concern.
It really was a shame, she thought as she passed beneath one particularly grand tree, its girth so great, five men standing around it could hardly touch fingertip to fingertip, its roots enormous and gnarled, erupting from the soil in massive coils like bridges and arches formed by some architectural genius. It was a shame she didn’t have time or leisure to explore this forest properly. There were secrets here. Ancient, powerful, fascinating secrets. Memories of times long lost to humanity, riches of knowledge just waiting to be discovered.
And the fae himself. So ancient and ageless. So beautiful and terrible. What secrets might he be willing to share—
She startled and spun on her heel, as though someone had caught her by the sleeve and yanked her around. “Kellam, for the last time, would you leave me . . .” Her voice trailed off and with it the flash of anger.
There, no more than ten yards from where she stood, was a blasted tree, tortured limbs still dripping great globs of molten silver.
Her stomach clenched, both here and back where her physical body knelt in the cell. This was it then. The demon—the Noswraith—was near. She touched the strange rune from Mother Ulla, like a knight touching the hilt of his sword.
Then, drawing a shaky breath, she started toward the three.
Farryn . . .
One step. Two steps. Three.
Farryn . . .
She shook her head, determined to shake off that uneasy sensation. She couldn’t even tell if it was her own feeling or Kellam’s. It didn’t matter. Now was not the time.
Farryn, be careful . . .
“Yeah, well, that’s the plan, isn’t it?”
A pool of simmering hot silver surrounded the stricken tree, and the healthy gold trees nearby seemed to cringe away from it. She could almost see their roots rippling beneath the soil as they sought to withdraw to a safer distance. Farryn drew another steadying breath then carefully circled the tree, trying to determine from which direction the blast had come.
And she saw another tree, a few yards away.
And another beyond it.
And another, and another, a whole swath of forest full of dripping, steaming silver. The poor tortured trees seemed to shiver in pain, still dying, not quite dead. Which meant the Noswraith had to be close.
Farryn gripped her staff hard and started toward the silvered forest, her bare feet cringing with each step she took. She licked dry lips, half fancying that she felt her physical body doing the same thing back in the cell, and gently circled her runes around her, touching each one by turn. The Gweyir shield-rune faltered at her touch but held. Would it be any use to her? Maybe just enough to partially deflect a blow, give her a chance to escape?
But she couldn’t escape. Not this time. This was the moment of now or never. If she didn’t stop the Noswraith here, in this encounter, she would certainly die. By the monster’s hand or the fae’s, it hardly made a difference.
In the same instant that the sensation of Kellam’s voice burst in her brain, Farryn saw it. Shadowy and indistinct through the heat haze of dripping silver, a hunch-backed, razor-spined form. It moved in weird, jerking lurches, without rhythm, without grace, dragging its overlong limbs behind it.
It came around from behind one sagging, suffering tree, and its horrible misshapen head lurched up. The long, vertical slits that may have been its nostrils flared, and strange movement flickered behind its silver-fastened eyelids.
On impulse, Farryn reached for her faltering shield-rune. But no! She couldn’t, not this time. She had to take a stand, finish this.
Brushing the Gweyir back out of her line of sight, she drove her staff into the ground. The last thing she wanted to do was close her eyes, not with the monster’s sightless face fixed on her, not with it gathering its ungainly limbs and lurching into motion, heading straight for her. But she forced her eyes shut and called to mind the new rune, pulling it to the forefront of her mind.
Seven gods, but it was powerful! And much more complicated than she’d realized at first. Keeping her eyes shut, she started to draw the shape, her staff painfully slow and uncertain as she connected the lines and added the curves.
She felt the ground shake. The Noswraith was coming, bearing down. How soon before she’d be in range of its hot silver spew? Her hands shook, the spell wavered.
Steady . . . steady . . .
The power of the rune mounted, burning at the end of her staff, burning in the darkness of her head. She could almost see it, could almost call it up to float before her. She was so close.
She opened her eyes.
The Noswraith was there—right in front of her, so close she could count the weird bristling hairs sticking out from its slitted nostrils, could almost see the black pupils of its eyes behind the fastened lids.
Mother Ulla’s rune broke, shattering in a burst of sparks. The monster’s jaw gaped wide, and Farryn saw silver rising up from its gullet.
She grabbed the Vatris running-rune and, turning on heel, fled before the blast of molten silver struck the ground where she had stood.