Wolf Who Rules

Wolf Who Rules by Wen SpencerWolf Who Rules finds himself besieged from all sides in this sequel to TINKER. Viceroy and head of the Wind Clan, he had been able to guarantee the safety of everyone in his realm, but faced with an oni invasion, he has had to call in royal troops and relinquish his monopoly of Pittsburgh, which is stranded on Elfhome. He now struggles to keep the peace between the humans, the newly arrived Stone Clan, the royal forces, a set of oni dragons, the half-oni children who see themselves as human, and the tengu trying to escape their oni enslavement.

Meanwhile, Tinker strives to solve the mystery of a growing discontinuity in Turtle Creek. She’s plagued with inexplicable nightmares that may hold the keys to Pittsburgh’s future. The only clue from the Queen’s oracle to help Tinker is a note with five English words on it: Follow the Yellow Brick Road. Oni, and dragons and tengu – oh my!


Excerpt from Chapter One: Ghostlands

There were some mistakes that “Oops” just didn’t cover.

Tinker stood on the George Westinghouse Bridge. Behind her was Pittsburgh and its sixty-thousand humans now permanently stranded on Elfhome. Below her, lay the mystery that at one time had been Turtle Creek. A blue haze filled the valley; the air shimmered with odd distortions. The land itself was a kaleidoscope of possibilities — elfin forest, oni houses, the Westinghouse Air Brake Plant – fractured pieces of various dimensions all jumbled together. And it was all her fault.

Color had been leached from the valley, except for the faint blue taint, making the features seem insubstantial. Perhaps the area was too unstable to reflect all spectrums of light – or maybe the full spectra of light weren’t able to pass through – the – the – she lacked a name for it. Discontinuity? Tinker decided that was as good a name as any.

“What are these Ghostlands?” asked her elfin bodyguard, Pony. He’d spoken in low Elvish. “Ghostlands” had been in English, though, meaning a human had coined the term. Certainly the phrase fit the ghostly look of the valley.

So maybe Discontinuity wasn’t the best name for it.

A foot taller, Pony was a comforting wall of heavily-armed and magically-shielded muscle. His real name in Elvish was Waetata-watarou-tukaenrou-bo-taeli, which meant roughly Galloping Storm Horse on Wind. His elfin friends and family called him Little Horse, or tukaenrou-tiki, which still was a mouthful. He’d given her his English nickname to use when they met; it wasn’t until recently that she realized it was his first act of friendship.

“I don’t know what’s happening here.” Tinker ran a hand through her short brown hair, grabbed a handful and tugged, temptation to pull it out running high. “I set up a resonance between the gate I built and the one in orbit. They were supposed to shake each other apart. They did.”

At least, she was fairly sure that they had. Something had fallen out of the sky that night in a fiery display. Since there were only a handful of small satellites in Elfhome’s orbit, it was fairly safe bet that she somehow yanked the hyperphase gate out Earth’s orbit.
“This was – unexpected.” She meant all of it. The orbital gate reduced to so much space debris and burnt ash on the ground. Turtle Creek turned into Ghostlands. Pittsburgh stuck on Elfhome.

Even “sorry” didn’t seem adequate.

And what had happened to the oni army on Onihida, waiting to invade Elfhome through her gate? To the oni disguised as humans that worked on the gate with her? And Riki, the tengu who had betrayed her?

“Is it going to – get better?” Pony asked.

“I think so.” Tinker sighed, releasing her hair. “I can’t imagine it staying in this unstable state.” At least she hoped so. “The second law of thermodynamics and all that.”

Pony grunted a slight optimistic sound, as if he was full of confidence in her intelligence and problem solving. Sometimes his trust in her was intimidating.

“I want to get closer.” Tinker scanned the neighboring hillsides, looking for a safe way down to the valley’s floor. In Pittsburgh, nothing was as straightforward as it appeared. This area was mostly abandoned – probably with help from the oni to keep people away from their secret compound. The arcing line of the Rim, marking where Pittsburgh ended and Elfhome proper began, was defused by advancing elfin forest. Ironwood saplings mixed with jagger bushes – elfin trees colliding with earth weed – to form a dense impenetrable thicket. “Let’s find a way down.”

“Is that wise, domi?”

“We’ll be careful.”

She expected more of an argument, but he clicked his tongue in an elfin shrug.

Pony leaned out over the bridge’s railing, the spells tattooed down his arms in designs like Celtic knots — done in Wind Clan blue — rippled as muscle moved under skin. The hot wind played with tendrils of glossy black hair that come loose from his braid. Dressed in his usual wyvern-scaled chest armor, black leather pants and gleaming knee boots, Pony seemed oblivious to the mid-August heat. He looked as strong and healthy as ever. During their escape, the oni nearly killed him. She took some comfort that he was the one thing that she hadn’t totally messed up.

As they recuperated, she’d endured an endless parade of visitors between bouts of drugged sleep, which gave the entire experience a surreal nightmare feel. Everyone had brought gifts and stories of Turtle Creek, until her hospice room and curiosity overflowed.
Thanks to her new elfin regenerative abilities, she healed far faster than when she was a human; she awoke this morning feeling good enough to explore. Much to her dismay, Pony insisted on bringing four more sekasha for a full Hand.

Yeah, yeah, it was wise, considering they had no clue how many oni survived the meltdown of Turtle Creek. She was getting claustrophobic, though, from always having hordes of people keeping watch over her; first the elves, then the oni, and now back to the elves. When she ran her scrap yard – months ago – a lifetime ago — she used to go days without seeing anyone but her cousin Oilcan.

As Viceroy, her husband Wolf Who Rules Wind, or Windwolf, held twenty sekasha; Pony picked her favorite four out of that twenty to make up a hand. The outlandish Stormsong – her rebel short hair currently dyed blue – was acting as a Shield with Pony. Annoyingly, though, there seemed to be some secret sekasha rule – only one Shield could have a personality at any time. Stormsong stood a few feet off, silent and watching, in full bodyguard mode while Pony talked to Tinker. It would have been easier to pretend that the sekasha weren’t guarding over her if they weren’t so obviously ‘working.’

The bridge secured, the other three sekasha were being Blades and scouting the area. Pony signaled them now using the sekasha’s hand gestures called blade talk. Rainlily, senior of the Blades, acknowledged – Tinker recognized that much by now – and signaled something more.

“What did she say?” Tinker really had to get these guys radios. She hated having to ask what was going on; until recently, she always knew more than everyone else.

“They found something you should see.”

#

The police had strung yellow tape across the street in an attempt to cordon off the valley; it rustled ominously in a stiff breeze. Ducking under the tape, Tinker and her Shields joined the others. The one personality rule extended to the Blades; only Rainlily got to talk. Cloudwalker and Little Egret moved off, searching the area for possible threats.

“We found this in the middle of the road,” Rainlily held out a bulky white, waterproof envelope. “Forgiveness, we had to check it for traps.”
The envelope was addressed with all possible renditions of her name: Alexander Graham Bell, ‘Tinker’ written in English, and finally Elvish runes of ‘Tinker of the Wind Clan.’ The sekasha had already slit it open to examine the contents and replaced them. Tinker tented open the envelope and peered inside; it held an old mp3 player and a note written in English.

“I have great remorse for what I did. I’m sorry for hurting you both. I wish there had been another way. Riki Shoji.”

“Yeah, right.” Tinker scoffed and crumpled up the note and flung it away. “Like that makes everything okay, you damn crow.”

She wanted to throw the mp3 player too, but it wasn’t hers. Oilcan had loaned it to Riki. The month she’d been at Aum Renau, Oilcan and Riki became friends. Or at least, Oilcan thought they were friends, just the same as he thought they were both humans. Riki, though, was a lying oni spy, complete with bird-feet and magically retractable crow wings. He’d wormed his way into their lives just to kidnap Tinker. She doubted that Oilcan would want the player back now that he knew the truth; it would be a permanent reminder that Oilcan’s trust nearly cost Tinker her life. But it wasn’t her right to decide for him.

She jammed the player into the deepest pocket of her carpenter’s jeans. “Let’s go.”

Rage smoldered inside her until they had worked their way down to the discontinuity. The mystery of the Ghostlands deepened, drowning out her anger. The edge of the blue seemed uneven at first, but then, as she crouched down to eye it closely, she realized that the effect “pooled” like water, and that the ragged edge was due to the elevation of the land – like the edge of a pond. Despite the August heat, ice gathered in the shadows. This close, she could hear a weird white noise, not unlike the gurgle of a river.

She found a long stick and prodded at the blue-shaded earth; it slowly gave like thick mud. She moved along the “shore” testing the shattered pieces of three worlds within reach of her stick. Earth fire hydrant. Onihida building. Elfhome ironwood tree. While they looked solid, everything within the zone of destruction was actually insubstantial, giving under the firm poke of her stick.

Pony stiffened with alarm when – after examining the stick for damage done to it and finding it as sound as before – she reached her hand out over the line.

Oddly, there was a resistance in the air over the land – as if Tinker was holding her hand out the window of a moving car. The air grew cooler as she lowered her hand. It was so very creepy that she had to steel herself to actually touch the dirt.

It was like plunging her bare hand into snow. Bitterly cold, the dirt gave under her fingertips. Within seconds, the chill was painful. She jerked her hand back.

“Domi?” Pony moved closer to her.

“I’m fine.” Tinker cupped her left hand around her right. As she stood, blowing warmth onto her cold-reddened fingers, she gazed out onto the ghost lands. She could feel magic on her new domana senses, but normally – like strong electrical currents — heat accompanied magic. Was the ‘shift’ responsible for the cold? The presence of magic, however, would explain why the area was still unstable – sustaining whatever reaction the gate’s destruction created. If her theory was right, once the ambient magic was depleted, the effect would collapse and the area would revert back to solid land. The only question was the rate of decay.

Pony picked up a stone and skipped it out across the disturbance. Faint ripples formed where the stone struck. After kissing ‘dirt’ three times, the stone stopped about thirty feet in. For a minute it sat on the surface and then, slowly but perceivably, it started to sink.

Pony made a small puzzled noise. “Why isn’t everything sinking?”

“I think – because they’re all in the same space – which isn’t quite here but isn’t really someplace else – or maybe they’re everywhere at once. The trees are stable, because to them, the earth underneath them is as stable as they are.”

“Like ice on water?”

“Hmm.” The analogy would serve, since she wasn’t sure if she was right. They worked their way around the edge, the hilly terrain making it difficult. At first they found sections of paved road or cut through abandoned buildings, which made the going easier. Eventually, though, they’d worked their way out of the transferred Pittsburgh area and into Elfhome proper.

On the bank of a creek, frozen solid where it overlapped the affected area, they found a dead black willow tree, lying on its side, and wide track of churned dirt were another willow had stalked northward.

Pony scanned the dim elfin woods for the carnivorous tree. “We must take care. It is probably still nearby; they don’t move fast.”

“I wonder what killed it.” Tinker poked at the splayed root legs still partly inside the discontinuity. Frost like freezer burn dusted the wide, sturdy trunk. Otherwise it seemed undamaged; the soft mud and thick brush of the creek bank had cushioned its fall so none of its branches or tangle arms had been broken. “Lain would love an intact tree.” The xenobiologist often complained that the only specimens she ever could examine were the non-ambulatory seedlings or mature trees blown to pieces to render it harmless. “I wish I could get it to her somehow.”

The tracks of both trees, Tinker noticed, started in the Ghostlands. Had the willow been clear of the discontinuity at the time of the explosion – or had the tree died after reaching stable ground?

“Let me borrow one of your knives.” Tinker used the knife Pony handed her to score an ironwood sapling. “I want to be able to track the rate of decay. Maybe there’s a way I could accelerate it.”

“A slash for every one of your feet the sapling stands from the ghost lands?” Pony guessed her system.

“Yeah.” She was going to move on to the next tree but he held out his hand for his knife. “What?”

“I would rather you stay back as much as possible from the edge.” He waited with the grinding power of glaciers for her to hand back his knife. “How do you feel, domi?”

Ah, the source of his sudden protectiveness. It was going to be a while before she could live down overestimating herself the night of the fighting. Instead of going quietly to the hospice, she’d roamed about, made love, and did all sorts of silliness — and of course, fell flat on her face later. It probably occurred to him that if she nose-dived again, she would end up in the Ghostlands.

“I’m fine,” she reassured him.

“You look tired.” He slashed the next sapling, and she had to admit he actually made cleaner, easier to see marks than she did, robbing her of all chance to quibble with him.

She made a rude noise. Actually, she was exhausted – nightmares had disrupted her sleep for the last two days. But she didn’t want to admit that; the sekasha might gang up on her and drag her back to the hospice. That was the problem with bringing five of them – it was much harder to bully them en masse – especially since they were all a foot taller than her. Sometimes she really hated being five foot nothing. Standing with them was like being surrounded by heavily armed trees. Even now Stormsong was eyeing her closely.

“I’m just – thinking.” She mimed what she hoped looked like deep thought. “This is very perplexing.”

Pony bought it, but he trusted her, perhaps more than he should. Stormsong seemed unconvinced, but said nothing. They moved on, marking saplings.

#

With an unknown number of oni scattered through the forest and hidden disguised among the human population of Pittsburgh, Wolf did not want to be dealing with the invasion of his domi’s privacy, but it had to be stopped before the Queen’s representative arrived in Pittsburgh. Since all requests through human channels failed, it was time to take the matter into his own hands.
Wolf stalked through the broken front door of the photographer’s house, his annoyance growing into anger. Unfortunately, the photographer – paparazzi was the correct English word for him, but Wolf was not sure how to decline the word out — in question was determined to make things as difficult as possible.

Over the last two weeks, Wolf’s people had worked through a series of false names and addresses to arrive at a narrow row house close to the Rim in Oakland. The houses to either side had been converted into businesses, due to their proximately to the enclaves. While the racial mix of the street was varied, the next door neighbors were Chinese. The owners had watched nervously as Windwolf broke down the photographer’s door, but made no move to interfere. Judging by their remarks to each other in Mandarin, neither did they know that Wolf could speak Mandarin in addition to English, nor were they surprised by his presence – they seemed to think the photographer was receiving his due.

Inside the house, Wolf was starting to understand why.

One long narrow room took up most of the first floor beyond the shattered door. Filth dulled the wood floors and smudged the once white walls to an uneven gray. On the right wall, at odds with the grubby state of the house, was video wallpaper showing recorded images of Wolf’s domi, Tinker. The film loop had been taken a month ago, showing a carefree Tinker laughing with the five female sekasha of Wolf’s household. The image had been carefully doctored and scaled so that it gave the illusion that one gazed out a large window overlooking the private garden courtyard of Poppymeadow’s enclave. Obviously feeling safe from prying eyes, Tinker lounged in her nightgown, revealing all her natural sexuality.

Wolf had seen the still pictures of Tinker in a digital magazine but hadn’t realized that there was more. Judging by the stacks of cardboard boxes, there was much more. He flicked open the nearest box and found DVDs titled: Princess Gone Wild, Uncensored.

“Where is he?” Wolf growled to his First, Wraith Arrow.

Wraith tilted his head slightly upward to indicate upstairs. “There’s more.”

At the top of the creaking wooden stairs, there was a large room stark of furniture. A camouflage screen covered the lone window, projecting a blank brick wall to the outside world. A camera on a tripod peered through a slit in the screen, trained down at the enclaves. This room’s video wallpaper replayed images captured this morning, a somber Tinker sitting alone under the peach trees, dappled sunlight moving over her.

Wolf moved the camera and device’s artificial intelligence shrank Tinker’s image into one corner and went to live images as the zoom lens played over Poppymeadow’s enclave where Wolf’s household was living. Not only did the balcony provide a clear view over the high stone demesne wall, but into the windows of all the buildings, from the main hall to the coach house. One of Poppymeadow’s staff was changing linen in a guest wing bedroom; the camera automatically recognized the humanoid form and adjusted the focus until she filled the wall. The window was open, and microphone picked up her humming.

“I haven’t done anything illegal,” a man was saying in the next room in English. “I know my rights! I’m protected by the treaty.”

Wolf stalked into the last room. His sekasha had broken down the door to get in. The only piece of furniture was an unmade bed that reeked of old sweat and spent sex. His sekasha had a small rat of a man pinned against the far wall.

On the wall, images of Wolf’s domi moved through their bedroom at Poppymeadow’s, languishingly stripping out of her clothes. “You want to do it?” She asked huskily. Wolf could remember the day, had replayed it in his mind again and again as his last memory of her when he thought he had lost her. “Come on, we have time.”

She dropped the last piece of clothing on the floor, and the camera zoomed in tighter to play down over her body. Wolf snarled out the command for the winds and slammed its power into the wall. The wall boomed, the house shuddering at the impact, and the wallpaper went black. Tinker’s voice, however, continued with a soft moan of delight.

“Hey! Hey!” the man cried in English. “Do you have any idea how expensive that is? You can’t just smash in here and break my stuff. I have rights.”

“You had rights. They’ve been revoked.” Wolf returned to the balcony and knocked the camera from its tripod. The wallpaper showed a somersault of confusion as the camera flipped end over end. When it struck pavement, it shattered into small unrecognizable pieces, and the wallpaper flickered back to the previously recorded loop of Tinker sitting in the garden.

“Evacuate the area,” Wolf ordered in low Elvish. “I’m razing these buildings.”

Apparently the man understood Elvish, because he yelped out, “What? You can’t do that! I’ve called the police! You can’t do this! This is Pittsburgh! I have rights!”

As if summoned by his words, a commotion downstairs announced the arrival of the Pittsburgh Police.

“Police, freeze.” A male voice barked in English. “Put down the weapons.”

Wolf felt the sekasha downstairs activate their shields, blooms of magic against his awareness. Bladebite was saying something low and fast in High Elvish.

“Naekanain,” Someone cried in badly accented Elvish — I do not understand – while the first speaker repeated in English, “Put down the weapons!”

Wolf cursed. Apparently the police officers didn’t speak Elvish and his sekasha didn’t speak English. Wolf called the winds and wrapped them about him before going to the top of the stairs.

There were two dark blue uniformed policemen crouched in the front door, keeping pistols leveled at the sekasha who had their ejae drawn. The officers looked human but with oni, appearances could be deceiving. Both were tall enough to be oni warriors. The disguised warriors favored red hair while one policeman was pale blonde and the other dark brown. The blonde motioned with his left hand, as if trying to keep both his partner and the elves from acting.

““Naekanain,” The blonde repeated, and then added. “Pavuyau Ruve. Czernowski, just chill. They’re the viceroy’s personal guard.”

“I know who the fuck they are, Bowman.”

“If you know that,” Wolf said, “Then you know that they have a right to go where I want them to go, and do what I want them to do.”

Bowman flicked a look up at him and then returned his focus on the sekasha. “Viceroy, have them put down their weapons.”

“They will only when you do,” Wolf said. “If you have not forgotten, we are at war.”

“But not with us,” Bowman growled.

Czernowski scoffed, and it saddened Wolf that he was closer to the mark.

“The oni have been living in Pittsburgh as disguised humans for years,” Wolf said. “Until we’re sure you’re not oni, we must treat you as if you were. Lower your weapons.”

Bowman considered the request for a minute, eyeing the sekasha as if he was considering how likely it was that he and his partner could overwhelm Wolf’s guard. Wolf wasn’t sure if Bowman’s hesitation was born from over estimating his own abilities, or total ignorance of the sekasha’s.

Finally, Bowman made a show of cautiously holstering his pistol. “Come on, Czernowski. Put it away.”

The other policeman seemed familiar, although Wolf wasn’t sure how; he rarely interacted with the Pittsburgh Police. Wolf studied the two men. Unlike elves, where one could normally guess a person’s clan, humans needed badges and patches to tell themselves apart. The officers’ dark blue uniforms had shoulder patches and gold badges identifying them as Pittsburgh Police. Bowman’s brass nameplate read: B. Pedersen. Czernowski’s nameplate was unhelpful, giving only a first initial of “N.”

“I know you,” Wolf said to Czernowski.

“I would hope so,” The officer said. “You took the woman that was going to be my wife away from me. You ripped her right out of her species. You might think you’ve won, but I’m getting her back.”

Wolf recognized him then — this was Tinker’s Nathan, who bristled at him when Wolf collected his domi from the Faire. The uniform had thrown Wolf; he hadn’t realized the man was a police officer. At the Faire, Czernowski had acted like a dog guarding a bone. Even though Tinker had stated over and over again that she was leaving with Wolf, Czernowski had clung to her, refusing to let her leave.

“Tinker is not a thing to be stolen away,” Wolf told the man. “I did not take her. She chose me, not you. She is my domi now.”

“I’ve seen the video tape,” Nathan indicated the open box of DVDs. “I know what she is, but I don’t care. I still love her, and I’m going to get her back.”

“Who gives a fuck?” The thrice damned photographer shouted behind Wolf. “It doesn’t give these pointed ear royalist freaks the right to break down my door and trash my stuff. I’m a tax paying American! They can’t–”

There was a loud thud as he was slammed up against his broken wall to silence him.

“Sir, can you step aside?” Bowman started cautiously upstairs before Wolf answered.

Wolf stepped back to make way for the two policemen.

The policemen took in the open window, the recording of Tinker in the garden, the smashed down door, the broken wallpaper now stained with blood, and the broken-nosed paparazzi in Dark Harvest’s hold.

“It’s about time,” the photographer cried. “Get these goons off me!”

“Please step away from him.” Bowman told Harvest, his hand dropping down to rest on his pistol. He repeated the order in bad Elvish. “Naeba Kiyau.”

“He’s to be detained.” Wolf wanted it clear what was to be done with the photographer before relinquishing control of him. “And these buildings evacuated so I can demolish them.”

“You can’t do that.” Bowman pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “According to the treaty…”

“The treaty is now null and void. I am now the law in Pittsburgh, and I say that this man is to be detained indefinitely and these buildings will be demolished.”

“The fuck you are,” Czernowski spat the words. “In Pittsburgh we’re the law and you’re guilty of breaking and entering, assault and battery, and I’m sure I can think of a few more.”

Czernowski reached for Wolf’s arm and instantly had three swords at his throat.

“No.” Wolf shouted to keep the police from being killed.

Into the silence that suddenly filled the house, Tinker’s recorded voice groaned, “Oh gods, yes, right there, oh, that’s so good.”

Bowman caught Czernowski as the policeman started to surge forward with a growl. “Czernowski!” Bowman slammed him against the wall. “Just deal with it! He’s rich and powerful and she’s fucking him. What part of this does not make sense to you? He drives a Rolls Royce and all the elves in Pittsburgh grovel at his feet. You think any bitch would pick a stupid Pole like you when she could have him?”

“He could have had anyone. She was mine.”

“The fuck she was.” Bowman growled. “If you’d scored once with her, all the bookies in Pittsburgh would know. You were always a long shot in the betting pool, Nathan. You were too stupid for her – and too dumb to realize that.”

Czernowski glared at his partner, face darkening, but he stopped struggling to stand panting with his anger.

Bowman watched his partner for a minute before asking, “Are we good now?”

Czernowski nodded and flinched as Tinker’s recorded voice gave a soft wordless moan of delight.

Bowman crossed to a section of the broken wall and pressed something and the sound stopped. “Viceroy, none of us like this any more than you do, but under international law, as of five years ago, this scumbag is within his rights to make this video.”

“He’s under elfin law now, and what he has done is unforgivable.”

“Your people don’t have technology capable of this.” Bowman waved a hand at the wallpaper. “So you don’t have laws to govern capturing digital images.”

Wolf scoffed at the typical human sidestepping. “Why do humans nitpick justice to pieces? Can’t you see that you’ve frayed it apart until it doesn’t hold anything? There is right and then there is wrong. This is wrong.”

“This isn’t my place to decide, Viceroy. I’m just a cop. I only know human law, and as far as I last heard, human law still applies.”

“The treaty says that any human left on Elfhome during Shutdown falls under elfin rule. The gate in orbit has failed – it is currently and always will be – Shutdown.”

Bowman wiped the expression off his face. “Until my superiors confirm this, I have to continue to function with standard protocol and I can’t arrest this man.”

“Then I’ll have him executed.”

“I can put him in protective custody,” Bowman said.

“As long as protective custody means a small cell without a window, I’ll agree to that,” Wolf said.

“We’ll see what we can do.” Bowman moved to handcuff the photographer.

Wolf felt a sudden deep yet oddly distanced vibration, as if a bowstring had been drawn and released to thrum against his awareness. He recognized it – someone nearby was tapping the power of the Wind Clan Spell Stone. Wolf thought that he and Tinker were the only Wind Clan domana in Pittsburgh – and he hadn’t taught Tinker even the most basic spells…

As the vibration continued, an endless drawing of power from the stones, cold certainty filled him. It could only be Tinker.

#

Tinker and her sekasha had neared the far side of the Ghostlands, crossing once again into Pittsburgh but on the opposite side of the valley. The road climbed the steep hill in a series of sharp curves. As they crossed the cracked pavement, Stormsong laughed and pointed out a yellow warning street sign. It depicted a truck about to tip over as it made the sharp turn – a common sight in Pittsburgh – but someone had added words to the pictograph.

“What does it say?” Pony asked.

“Watch for Acrobatic Trucks.” Stormsong translated the English words to Elvish.

The others laughed and moved on, scanning the mixed woods.

“You speak English?” Tinker fell into step with Stormsong.

“Fuckin’ A!” Stormsong said with the correct scornful tone that such a stupid question would be posed.

Tinker tripped and nearly fell in surprise. Stormsong caught Tinker by the arm and warned her to be careful with a look. Most of Tinker’s time with Windwolf’s sekasha had been spent practicing her High Elvish, a stunningly polite language. Stormsong had just dropped a mask woven out of words.

“For the last twenty-some years, I pulled every shift I could to stay in Pittsburgh—” Stormsong continued. “–even if it meant bowing to that that stuck-up bitch, Sparrow.”

“Why?” Tinker was still reeling. Many elves first learned English in England when Shakespeare still lived and kept the lilting accent even if they modernized their sentence structure and word choice. Stormsong spoke true Pitsupavute, sounding like a native.

“I like humans.” Stormsong stepped over a fallen tree in one long stride and paused to offer a hand to Tinker – the automatic politeness now seemed jarringly out of place. “They don’t give a fuck what everyone else thinks. If they want something that’s right for them, they don’t worry about what the rest of the fucking world thinks.”

The warrior’s bitterness surprised Tinker. “What do you want?”

“I had doubts about being a sekasha.” She shrugged like a human, lifting one shoulder, instead of clicking her tongue like an elf would. “Not any more. Windwolf gave me a year to get my head screwed on right. I like being sekasha. I do have – as the humans say – issues.”

That explained the short blue hair and the slight rebel air about her.

Stormsong suddenly spun to the left, pushing Tinker behind her even as she shouted the guttural command to activate her magical shields. Magic surged through the blue tattoos on her arms and flared into a shimmering blue that encompassed her body. Stormsong drew her ironwood sword and crouched into readiness.

Instantly other sekasha activated their shields and drew their swords as they pulled in tight around Tinker. They scanned the area but there was nothing to see.

They were in the no-man’s land of the Rim, where tall young Ironwoods mixed with Earth woods and jagger bushes in a thick, nearly impassable tangle. They stood on a deer trail, a path only one person wide, meandering through the dense underbrush. For a moment no one moved or spoke. Tinker realized that the birds had gone silent; even they didn’t want to draw the attention of whatever spooked Stormsong.
Pony made a gesture with his left hand in blade talk.

“Something is going to attack,” Stormsong whispered in Elvish, once again becoming the sekasha. “Something large. I’m not sure how soon.”

“Yatanyai?” Pony whispered a word that Tinker didn’t recognize.

Stormsong nodded.

“What does she see?” Tinker whispered.

“What will be,” Pony indicated that they should start back the way they had come. “We’re in a position of weakness. We should retreat to –”

Something huge and sinuous as a snake flashed out of the shadows. Tinker got the impression of scales, a wedge-shaped head, and a mouth full of teeth before Pony leaped between her and the monster. The creature struck Pony with a blow that smashed him aside, his shields flashing as they absorbed the brunt of the damage. It whipped toward Tinker, but Stormsong was already in the way.

“Oh, no, you don’t!” The female sekasha blocked a savage bite at Tinker. “Get back, domi – you’re attracting it!”

A blur of motion, the beast knocked Stormsong down, biting at her leg, her shield gleaming brilliant blue between its teeth. The Blades swung their swords, shouting to distract the creature. Releasing Stormsong, the creature leapt to perch high up the trunk of an oak. As it paused there, Tinker saw it fully for the first time.

It was long and lean, twelve feet from nose to tip of whipping tail. Despite a shaggy mane, its hide looked like blood red snake scales. Long necked and short legged, it was weirdly proportioned; its head seemed almost too large for its body, with a heavy jawed mouth filled with countless jagged teeth. Clinging to the side of the tree with massive claws, it hissed at them, showing the teeth.
Its mane lifted like a dog’s hackles, and a haze shimmered to life over the beast, like heat waves coming off hot asphalt. Tinker could feel the presence of magic on her domana senses, like static electricity prickling against the skin. The second blade, Cloudwalker, fired his pistol. The bullets struck the haze – making it flare at the point of impact – and dropped to the ground, inert. Tinker felt the magic strengthen as the kinetic energy of the bullet fed into the spell, fueling it.

“It’s a shield!” Tinker cried out in warning. “Hitting it will only make it stronger.”

Stormsong got to her feet, biting back a cry of pain. “Go, run, I’ll hold it!”

Pony caught Tinker by her upper arm, and half carried her, half dragged her through the thicket.

“No!” Tinker cried, knowing that if it weren’t for her safety, the others wouldn’t abandon one of their own.

“Domi,” Pony urging her to run faster. “If we can not hit it, then we have no hope of killing it.”

Tinker thought furiously. How do you hurt something you can’t hit but could bite you? Wait – maybe that was it! She snatched the pistol from the holster at Pony’s side and jerked out of his hold. Here, under the tall ironwoods, the jagger brushes had grown high, and animals had made low tunnel-like trails through them. Ducking down, Tinker ran down a path, the gun seeming huge in her hands, heading back toward the wounded sekasha. The thorns tore at her bare arms and hair.

“Tinker domi!” Pony cried behind her.

“Its shield doesn’t cover its mouth!” she shouted back.

She burst into the clear to find Stormsong backed to a tree, desperately parrying the animal’s teeth and claws. It smashed aside her sword and leapt, mouth open.

Tinker shouted for its attention, and pulled the gun’s trigger. She hadn’t aimed at all, and the bullet whined into the underbrush, missing everything.

As beast turned to face her, and Stormsong shouted warning — a wordless cry of anger, pain and dismay — Tinker realized the flaw in her plan. She would need to shove the pistol into the creature’s mouth before shooting. “Oh fuck.”

It was like being hit by a freight train. One moment the beast was running at her and then everything become a wild tumble of darkness and light, dead leaves, sharp teeth and blood. Everything stopped moving with the creature pinning her to the ground with one massive claw. Then it pulled — not on her skin or muscle, but something deeper inside her, something intangible, that she didn’t even know existed. Magic flooded through her – hot and powerful as electricity – a seemingly endless torrent from someplace unknown to the monster — and she was just the hapless conduit.

She had lost the gun in the wild tumble. She punched at its head, trying to get it off her as the magic poured through her. The massive jaws snapped down on her fist – and suddenly the creature froze — teeth holding firm her hand, not yet breaking skin. Its eyes widened, as if surprised to see her under it, her hand in its mouth. She panted, scared now beyond words, as the magic continued to thrum through her bones and skin. Her hand seemed so very small inside the mouth of teeth.

A sword blade appeared over her, the tip pressing up against the creature’s shields, aimed at its right eye. The tip slid forward slowly as if it was being pressed through concrete.

“Get off her,” Pony growled, leaning his full weight onto his sword, little by little driving the point through the shields. “Now!”

For a moment, they seemed stuck in amber – the monster, Pony, her – caught in place and motionless. There came a high thrilling whistle from way up high, bursting the amber. The creature released her hand and leapt backwards. She scrambled wildly the other direction. Pony caught hold of her, hugging her tight with his free hand, his shields spilling down over her, encompassing her.

“Got her!” he cried, and backed away, the others closing ranks around them.

The whistle blew again, so sharp and piercing a sound that even the monster checked to looked upwards.

Someone stood on the Westinghouse Bridge that spanned the valley, doll-small by the distance. Against the summer blue sky, the person was only a dark silhouette – too far way to see if he was man, elf or oni. The whistle thrilled, and focused on the sound, Tinker realized that it was two notes, close together, a shrill discord.

The monster shook its head as if the sound hurt and bounded away, heading for the bridge, so fast it seemed it nearly teleported from place to place.

The whistler spread out great black wings, resolving all question of race. A tengu. The oni spies created by blending oni with crows. Tinker could guess which one – Riki. What she couldn’t guess was why he had just saved them, or how.

“Domi.” Pony eclipsed the escaping tengu and his monstrous purser. He peering intently at her hands and then tugged at her clothing, examining her closely. “You are hurt.”

“I am?”

“Yes.” He produced a white linen handkerchief that he pressed to a painful area of her head. “You should sit.”

She started to ask why, but sudden blackness rushed in, and she started to fall.