Miro woke to darkness and a sense of wrongness. He pushed off the bedclothes and sat at the edge of the bed, trying to figure out what had woken him, trying to decide if it was nothing and he should go back to sleep. Perhaps it’s the wrongness of being sense-blind that woke me, he thought, dryly. He rose and drew on a dressing gown anyway, and had started for the stairwell to the living room when he saw a fey stranger with an ugly soul coming down it. Miro ducked back into his room and conjured a messenger to send to Ardent: “Intruder in the apartment. Please come.”
Instead of winking out to deliver the message, the will-o-wisp reported, “Ardent is not accepting messages at this time.”
Miro cursed inwardly, and instructed the wisp to relay as soon as it could: “Intruder on the bottom level, perhaps several. Includes a fey we saw at the party talking to Fallen: flying merman with black and white scales. Please come.” It had been too dark to make out the fey’s shape on the stairs, but soulsight needed no light. Miro reviewed his other options quickly: I can teleport, but only to where I already am. I can message my father, who can’t message me back. I could send a message to Play Until Collapsing Dreams, or Contemplation After the Storm, and hope that doesn’t make matters worse. I can hide.
He ducked into the wardrobe and closed its door, sinking down to its floor. He heard the door to the room open, and voices talking. “He was staying in this room, don’t see him now. Check the bathing chamber?”
“Didn’t we just go through the bathing chamber?”
“I assume there’s a private one.”
A third voice said, “Search the bedroom, too.”
Miro sent a message to Play Until Collapsing Dreams. “Intruders in Ardent’s apartment. At least three. Ardent blocking messages. Please help if you can.” The wisp winked out as someone yanked open the armoire door.
The strange fey had a monstrous shape, even by the standards of the Moon Etherium: a kind of giant wolf with tentacles rayed out from their back, and a scorpion’s tail. They grinned at him. “Found him!” they yelled.
Miro considered yelling for help, but even if Ardent’s room wasn’t soundproofed – and why wouldn’t it be soundproofed? – the intruders were unconcerned about being overheard and could have rendered the area soundproof themselves. Instead, he rose and stepped from the armoire with all the Sun Etherium dignity he could muster. “Good evening, gentlefolk. May I inquire as to the reason for this visit?”
The other two intruders entered the guest room behind the wolf. One, who’d been the merman with the ugly soul at the party, was in the shape of a six-armed humanoid panther, head crested by horns. In his upper right hand, he held a short rod with purple-striped white petals bound to the top. The third fey had a minotaur’s form. All three had corrupted souls and thick obligations, though the mer-turned-panther was the worst of the lot. The panther-man parted his jaws in a fanged-tooth grin at Miro. “Heh. You may not. Bull, is he watched?”
Miro didn’t recognize any of the three forms, but he knew the panther’s soul, and the minotaur’s looked vaguely familiar. They cared enough about being caught to use disguised forms. That’s something. “The hour is quite late, and you are intruding upon my space. Kindly depart,” Miro said, more to establish a tone of civility than out of any hope of compliance. The wolf lolled their tongue, amused.
The minotaur ignored him to fiddle with a crystal ball, tracing runes over it and twisting it.
The six-armed panther tapped one foot impatiently. “Well?”
“Give me a few minutes.” Bull tapped the crystal’s surface. “It’s designed to check for the wielder, not a random other fey. And it’s slow anyway.”
As the other fey were looking at Bull, Miro dove between the minotaur and the panther towards the open door behind them. The humanoid cat roared and made a grab for him with his left set of arms. He wasn’t accustomed to the extra limbs: the lower two were clumsy and the upper one didn’t have the reach as Miro somersaulted across the floor. He came to his feet by the door and ran for the stairs.
Aether swirled into a wall of rock before him. Miro pulled up short as his hands hit it. “Really, Sun boy?” The panther stepped through the bedroom door. He gestured, putting a stone wall on the corridor behind him, and another to cover the door opposite his bedroom. “How far do you think you can get without aether?”
I can still straddle to the mortal world and walk through this wall, Miro thought, but they can straddle too, and they’ll have aether-speed on me. And that trick will only work once. What is my strategy, here?
The panther stalked towards him. When the other two fey joined them in the corridor, the feline put a wall over the door to the bedroom, too.
A will-o-wisp messenger formed by Miro’s head. Right. I’m stalling for time and hoping someone rescues me. He reached for the message. It was from Play Until Collapsing Dreams: “Can’t port in without permission. Trying to bypass Ardent’s block. Hang on.”
“What’s that?” The panther grabbed for the message, but the will-o-wisp dissolved into mist at his touch. He snarled at Miro. “Who’s talking to you, Sun boy?” He’d taken a large form, almost a foot taller than Miro, and glowered down at him.
Miro kept his back straight. I will not cower. “My lady Ardent Sojourner. She checks in on me periodically.”
“Hah. She’s got better things to do right now than talk to you. And how would you answer?”
The wolf-beast conjured a messenger. “She’s still blocking, Cat.”
Cat narrowed his eyes at Miro, and tried to grab him. Miro didn’t have fey evasion, but the Moon Host fey was clumsy enough in his unaccustomed form that Miro was able to dodge the first hand. Miro feinted a counterstrike, which Cat evaded automatically, and dodged to the left. A brief scramble ensued. It ended when the panther slammed cage walls into place on either side of Miro, then seized him by the throat from the front. “Don’t lie to me, light-brat.”
Miro clawed at the panther’s fingers ineffectually. The panther-man took his wrists in his extra hands and dragged them down with aether-fueled strength. The panther raised him from the floor and slammed him back against the stone wall, grinning ferally. Miro fought for breath, spots swimming in his vision after the impact.
“Don’t break him, Cat. We need him alive,” the lupine said. “How’s that check coming, Bull?”
The minotaur approached Miro, circled the crystal over his face, then drew back. “Sorry, gonna be another minute.”
“Take your time,” Cat growled. “I always wanted a fey toy to play with, anyway.” He loosened his grip on Miro’s throat slightly. “Who sent you a message? What did they say?”
Miro gasped. “That you’re a clumsy buffoon and Fallen should find a better class of minion.”
The panther-man bared fangs as long as fingers. “Wrong answer, cat toy.” He unsheathed the claws of one free hand and ran them lovingly down the side of Miro’s face, drawing blood. “But you get it, don’t you? I can see it in your eyes. Fear. You can act arrogant, but you know how helpless you are.” He closed, pressing the length of his body against Miro’s. “Can’t evade. Can’t escape.”
“Wait, how’d he know Fallen sent us?” the wolf asked.
Any time you would like to bypass that block would be lovely, Play. Miro closed his eyes. “Well, I know now. And you can’t do anything, little kitty. I’m no good to your mistress dead.”
“He’s not being watched by anyone,” Bull reported. “Still waiting on the tracking.”
“That’s all right, cat toy. It’s more fun playing with your prey while they’re still alive and squirming,” the panther growled. He licked a broad, abrasive tongue over the cuts on Miro’s face, then shredded Miro’s robe and night shirt dramatically under two sets of claws, lacerating the skin underneath
“Uh, Cat, what are you…” The wolf edged nearer.
“Just having some fun. Haven’t you ever wanted to fuck a scared fey?” Cat flipped Miro around, evading without effort Miro’s vain attempt to kick him. Cat slammed Miro’s face against the wall, and shredded the back of his clothing, leaving shallow furrows in the skin. Miro gritted his teeth under the urge to scream.
“No. That’s disgusting, Hunt – Cat. Stop that.” The wolf drew closer and slid their tentacles between Miro’s body and the panther-man.
Miro wished he could think of something else brave to say, wished he weren’t grateful for the intervention, wished he wasn’t just as sick and scared as Cat had taunted him with being. He could have made my clothing disappear but it was more fun to tear them. Just playing, with a sapient possession – Miro opened his eyes as he suddenly realized who else he could contact. If I can get out.
“He’s not being tracked, either. Can we just go now?” Bull asked.
Time to use that one chance. Miro shifted to the mortal world. He fell through the wall, Cat’s hands, the tentacles—
He heard the fey shout and grab for him, but fey who never left their Etherium had no reason to shift to the mortal world, and were not quick to think of the possibility. By the time they realized what had happened, he was below the floor and conjuring a farspeaker. “Sessile, port to me NOW!”
Before he’d finished the message, Miro struck a ward – the fey below Ardent had made their wards impenetrable in both worlds. He scrambled and slid to the edge of the ward. As he dropped into empty space, Fallen’s second-rate minions shifted to the mortal plane and flew after him.
The air beside Miro shimmered, and then Sessile uncurled out of nothingness. She blinked. “Help!” Miro shouted at her, in freefall. She snaked after him. The lupine ported to him, and Miro twisted away from his tentacles as Sessile caught up to them and chomped her mouth neatly over Miro. “Port, top of the Etherium,” he told her. “Keep falling.” Still floating in freefall inside of her, Miro grabbed for one of the ridges of her interior segments, and pulled himself to one of the chairs. He tried to seat himself as best he could, wincing at the touch of the backrest against his lacerated back. Through Sessile’s glamour-window-walls, he could see them plummet past the towers and skybridges of the Moon Etherium. “Pull out of the fall now, please, gently. As if you’re hauling a fragile cargo you didn’t want to break with a too-sudden stop.”
“Um. I can’t actually fly,” Sessile said, sheepishly.
“…right. Can you port to the ground and earthswim to slow the fall?”
“Sure, I can do that.”
“Please do so.” The scene outside shifted from the glamour-lit cityscape to the road before the palace. They plunged through it and into complete darkness. Miro lurched forward in the chair as Sessile began to decelerate. “Is your interior warded?”
“Good.” Might be safer underground anyway. Although that justice-lost cat has an airswimming form and is probably familiar enough with earthswimming to do so casually. “Please let me know if anyone makes contact with you or tries to enter, all right?”
“Sure! So…why are they trying to kill you, m’lord?”
“I think they mean to capture me so Fallen can have another channel. Can you teleport into Ardent’s bedroom?” Miro did not have much hope that Sessile would have better luck than Play, but they should at least try.
A moment’s pause, then: “No, she’s not responding to the request.”
“Are you able to port about at random?” Miro asked.
“I’m not so good with random. Can you give me a place?”
Sessile grunted. “There’s someone on me.” The scene outside changed from darkness to the Promenade. The arched crystal bridge with its shop-portals was a brightly lit jewel against the night. The golem juddered as she hit the street, almost knocking Miro loose from his chair. She hadn’t quite finished decelerating from their earlier freefall. He twisted to look around them, and saw Cat clinging to Sessile’s tail.
“Blight take him. Can you shake him off?”
“Probably not.” She thrashed her tail, but he didn’t jar loose. “He’s…ow…he’s hurting me.” She sounded suddenly small and scared. Bull ported in near Cat and clung to a couple of the long spines adorning Sessile’s back. Cat was doing something with his rod against Sessile’s side. Miro saw an actual hole, not just glamour-transparency, start to peel open on her flank where he was prodding.
“Make a fuss. Yell for help. I’ll try to draw them off you, Sessile.” Miro jumped out of his chair and yelled at the gap with a bravado he did not feel, “You want me, O Pitiful Inept Hunter? Come get me.”
Then he snapped his fingers on both hands, and disappeared.
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