Winter fae ice was a trip.
With a limited shelf life. And terrible withdrawal.
Wyn followed the trail of one opalescent silver-blue drop down a thick icicle dangling like a dagger. She nicked it off the tip and raised it above her mouth. The driblet shivered. Was her hand causing the tremors? Sweat slicked through the short bristles of her buzzed hair, down the back of her neck to suction cup her shirt to her scarred flesh, making the fresh welts itch.
Wyn’s head fell back, heavy as the blade of a guillotine. Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest whirled above her, on a dizzying carnival ride. She forced herself to breathe as shades of green blurred with the bright blue of the sky, twirling and twisting like dancers across the stage.
Summer breeze wailing in her skull, she pressed her palms into her ears. The symphony of the forest’s dissonant backbeat almost drowned out the solo of her prey’s footsteps. Almost. Wyn’s heart was a piston, revving her pulse until it pumped the fae magic like super-heated diesel through her veins.
Too much, too much, too much.
Memories clawed their way from the depths of her mind, a mountain of maggoty reanimated bodies. Winter fae ice was a drug. A poison. Turning visions of her past into festering creatures with one purpose — to torture her, to bend her to the drug’s will.
Hell on steroids.
The fae’s first mistake? Passing through the ever-disintegrating barrier between the Faerie realm and Earth. It’s second wrong choice of its ever-shortening life? Slitting the throats of two innocents. Innocents Saul vowed to protect.
For Saul, who did not eat, Wyn suffered this defilement.
For Saul, holed up in his quarters, Wyn fought the memories dredged by the drug.
For Saul, who spoke with no one but their healer, Wyn bore the scorching blaze of wind shearing across her nerve endings, her body as tender to the July air as the prey she hunted.
Four torturous, hot and humid days she hunted her prey up the East Coast, but here, the game would come to an end. A human adept at killing fae, Wyn was unstoppable under the influence of Winter fae ice. At least, for an hour.
She stumbled into the trunk of the nearest oak. Beneath her hand, her flesh sizzled. Earth was a world on fire to the Winter fae she hunted.
The initial high ebbed, settling into the flow of dirty magic tainting her blood. Her heartbeat ceased its mismatched rhythm, and the tilt-a-whirl of the trees slowed to the natural sway of a forest in a constant dance with the wind. Enthralled, she picked out the rustle of the forest melody she wanted, when its footsteps ceased, leaving its hummingbird quick breaths as the last drifting notes.
Riding the high of the fae’s magic took focus, patience, mental resolve, all of which she’d learned under her Commander Cyrus’s tutelage. Without these, she would slip into the biting grip of memories.
Wyn’s lips drew back like a wolf who’d caught a scent trail. She sniffed the fetid stench of the fae’s fear, and said, on a giddy bubble of breath, “Olly-olly-oxen-free.”
A shockwave blasted through the trees, lifting Wyn into its glacial embrace, and threw her against the sharp bark of the nearest tree. She fell with a thud, the air knocked from her lungs. Her arms quivered. Inhaling in short bursts broken by hacking coughs, she waited for the dizziness to pass.
Patience paid off. It bolstered her spirit, the knowledge that the fae tired from the unbearable temperature. Needing the cold to survive, it expended precious energy on the blast of arctic air to keep its core temperature at a life-sustaining level. A fact Wyn hoped would tip the scales her way in their final battle.
Wyn’s head cocked to the side, movement too quick, too birdlike for a human. One hour to soar, three to come down. She would pay the price later. For now, she hunted.
Avoiding fallen branches with cautious, controlled steps, she hid behind one of the thick tree trunks. Ahead, the large aspen and ash trees gave way to a field dense with wildflowers, once pale and pink, now frosted in silver and blue. Peering round the trunk, she caught sight of her prey. Lithe and tall, the fae was a living ice sculpture with skin the same glistening shade of silver-blue as the ice it wielded. In one fluid movement, it sat, back pressed to the trunk of the tree farthest from where Wyn crouched.
Wyn stashed her pack, took to the tree in front of her, a hefty ash burdened with frozen branches, hissing at the price she paid for fae grace. Taking advantage of the canopy camouflage, she wound her way around the large field. Finally over the silky-haired fae, she slid her dagger from its sheath on her thigh.
Inhale. Exhale. Drop. Thud.
The fae somersaulted away from the tree into a crouched position. Scuttled backward. Too weak for flight — its last option was to fight.
Wyn circled, foot over foot, torso sideways to present a smaller target, dagger pointed at her enemy. The fae mimicked her, step for step. Frost dripped from its fingers. Power radiated off its body in waves, like ripples across a lake.
Two heavyweights, they waited for the other to strike first.
The fae bared pointed teeth.
It zigged. Wyn zagged, thrusting and catching the fae across the leg. A loud screech pierced the quiet. Black smoke billowed from the wound. The acrid scent of burning flesh wafted across the field.
Speed and strength equal, they fought through the haze. Wyn’s dagger was a blur, taking little bites out of the fae’s flesh. Etched grooves into every limb. Black ichor oozed. The fae’s movements turned sluggish. Wyn’s lips kicked up on one side, grin turned into a feral snarl.
Then, the fae faltered — swayed from blood loss, gaze glazed, feet stumbling back one, two, three steps.
Wyn pounced, landing on the fae with all the force of her small frame, carrying them both to the ground. Straddling the creature, she dug the tip of her dagger into the tender flesh above its arctic heart.
“This is for the family you slaughtered, and for the man who watched them die, and the world you and your kind destroyed,” she said, her voice sharper than the weapon she wielded. She leaned closer, adding one name to the list, the name she added to every list, before she killed a fae. “And Dylan.”
Wyn drove her iron dagger through the heart of the silver-skinned faerie. Craaunch.
It screeched, the high-pitched death knell worming its way down into Wyn’s soul. Adding to the haunting music with her own voice, she turned her suffering into a keening ballad. Their cries died and she gasped, tears stinging her eyes and blurring her vision.
Her eyelids fluttered, the fae in front of her flickering back and forth between the visage of another winter faerie she’d assassinated. Instead of an iron dagger to the heart, she’d had to improvise, use a fireplace poker. Memories dug into her flesh like chigger fleas, to fester and reproduce.
Each bite spilled guilt, brought torment, burrowed deeper like a poison into her veins.
Until all she was, was poison. To fae. To herself. To the world.
To kill the fae was to save more children from their grasp, while never allowing herself to forget the child who mattered most and slipped right through her fingers.
Frost shot up the blade. A desperate effort to halt the fae’s execution. The cold bit into Wyn’s fingers, black splotches blossoming up the tips. She hissed in a breath at the sharp sting drawing her from the chaos of her memories.
Wyn rose up, grip tight on her dagger, and put all her hundred-and-thirty-pound weight atop it. The slick metal dug past the fourth and fifth rib to the delicate heart beneath. Choking black smoke poured from the wound, coating her nose and mouth with sulfur.
Time ran out. For the fae. And Wyn.
A shockwave of arctic wind, the release of the fae’s life force, lifted her off the creature and tossed her across the field like a cigarette butt from a speeding car.
Cyrus is gonna kill me if I come home with another concussion.
Oxygen shot through her lips like a bullet from a gun’s barrel upon impact with the frozen dirt, her head a coconut bashed against a rock. Black fireworks did a jig in front of her eyes, their booming eruptions ringing in her ears. Her fingers spasmed against the ground. Her chest bounced like a half-deflated basketball.
Rolling over onto her stomach, Wyn hocked a loogie into the grass and dragged the back of her arm across her mouth.
“Fucking Fae.” Her teeth chattered louder than the birds chittered. The lump at the back of her head was the size of Mount Everest. She rubbed her fingers across it, wincing at the bowling ball of pain ricocheting across her skull. “Never die easy.”
A bemused chuckle invaded the silence.
Wyn shivered from the bump on her head to the tips of her stubby toenails. No one should be around, not in the remote forests of Vermont. The shiver latched tighter, the Winter fae’s magic leaching from her system. Her fingers blurred. Teeth crashing together like cymbals. Cold drilled down through her bones to the marrow.
Withdrawal made her its bitch.
Awe, damnit. Wyn ground her teeth, half to halt the clacking and half because she detested the slow descent and ensuing withdrawal of Winter fae ice. She’d forgotten—the tactical advantage of the Winter fae ice was not worth this hell.
Disguising her movements as an attempt to stop the tremoring, she pressed her fingers to her stomach and slid them toward her heart. Prayed the fae at her back didn’t notice. A second dagger sat sheathed between her breasts, smaller but as lethal to the iron-phobic fae.
“Immortals do not embrace death.”
“A new adventure for them, then.” Wyn’s words warbled from the arctic cold.
She wrapped numb fingers around the hilt, the grip comfortable, but made all the more precarious by her deadened digits. Her gaze dashed to the half-frozen dagger still protruding from the dead fae’s chest. The blue-tinged body, ice in human form, was cracked with a million spidery spindles zig-zagging out from the dagger's point of entry. One touch and the dead fae would disintegrate.
“Hope she enjoys it.”
“Doubtful.” The stranger’s voice was a forest melody given human speech. Vivid and compelling. A word or a sentence — he spoke, you listened.
Grated tooth sand pooled beneath Wyn’s tongue and mixed with half-masticated cheek skin. She swallowed hard against the grit. Swayed in the dagger’s direction. Imagined herself grabbing it. Plunging it into this mysterious fae’s cranium.
He tsked like a cartoon villain about to monologue. “Do not be fool-headed.”
Roots shot from the ground. Gnarled, contorted, rough with thick bark. They flew toward her arms. Wyn tucked and rolled, using her father’s untested and treacherous school drop off method, to avoid capture and ascend to her feet. The attack amplified. More crackling roots protruded from the frozen earth.
A thick one shackled her wrist. Yanked. Hard.
She fell to one knee, wobbled once, wrenched back, wrestled harder. Her teeth grit against the hot friction of bark sawing tender flesh. Two good kicks and the root snapped. More waited. Body slamming back into the ground, the thick bindings circled her wrists wrenching them behind her back.
Wyn howled and howled and howled.
Trapped. Trapped in bindings. Trapped in her own mind. Trapped in time.
Around her the world constricted until all she saw was sky. Breaths louder than rushing rapids, she spluttered, gulped for more, but the oxygen was too thin. Black spots blotted out the vibrant neon blue above, which dulled to a natural sky blue the more the Winter fae magic faded. The stench of her fear filled her nostrils, dribbling through her hair, beneath her armpits, and lower to slick between more intimate areas. Those areas knew the horror of being trapped.
Tied up and at the mercy of an unknown fae. Who would use her. Hide her. Hurt her.
She would be lost to Faerie. Unsavable.
Not again. Not again. Not again. NOT AGAIN...
A tear slipped down her cheek.
Tongue flicking out to catch the salty evidence of her collapsing resolve, Wyn punched the plague of memories into the inky black hole at the back of her mind. Locked away with chains of her own making, not bark but steel. Forged each night of her tenure in Faerie to imprison the memories of each prior day. Her eyelids snapped open, fluttered, narrowed. The world was too bright. Mocking her predicament with its grotesque serenity.
Six seconds — three to ponder fight, three to ponder flight. Two years Cyrus, her commander, bashed the concept into every joint and tendon and muscle, until the only choice was fight. Never again would she be vulnerable to attack or capture. Which made the current situation like sand in her swim bottoms.
Wyn perp walked her options, from bad to worse to worst.
Coming off of Winter fae magic was akin to sitting in a vat of ice cubes at the dead center of Antarctica, during a hail storm, drinking ice water mixed with speed. Every nerve ending yowled, then died the slow numb death of hypothermia. Her entire body quivered, the uncontrollable oscillation digging the roots deeper into wrists chunky with scar tissue. The bare skin of her arms was licked by invisible flames, the rays of the sun against its numb surface too great a change in temperature.
A one hour high ran out of gas faster than a Hummer doing ninety on the Merritt Parkway. But, three hours unable to modulate her body temp melted like butter in a pan on a burner never dialed higher than off.
She was left with one option. The worst.
To talk her way out of her bindings. Fortunate for the fae, peace negotiations came as easily to her as cutting someone's head off did to a pacifist.
“Y-y-you’re Seelie Court,” she said, attempting friendly and failing, her tone warbling, teeth chattering, taking away any intimidation credit she possessed. She jutted her chin toward the body. “S-she was Unseelie-e-e. What do you c-c-care that I killed her?”
“A fledgling assassin, shame.”
“Age hasn’t made you wiser, so s-s-she must have-e been dum-m-b as a b-box of rocks,” Wyn said, sure the fae behind her had witnessed eons.
Each word pulsed with power, beat against her back, and ricocheted. The epicenter of a ripple in a lake. He was suffocating warmth, a blanket twisted around her body on a hot summer’s night with no air conditioning.
Wyn wrenched her wrists back and forth, the roots biting into her skin and drawing blood. The rusty smell mixed with the damp earthy musk of the churned-up dirt. It was a balm compared to the lingering sulfuric reaction of iron and fae skin.
“Kill or be killed, nowadays.” Wyn’s throat was parched as the Mojave, it turned her words hollow as a tumbleweed. She swallowed hard, desperate for a splash of her own saliva.
At least, I don’t sound like a prepubescent twelve-year-old with a stutter anymore.
The roots tightened. “Precisely why I desire your services. I need a killer.”
Wyn’s lips pancaked. She flicked her tongue out across them, as if tasting for syrup instead of the right words.
“Look, I’m no chosen one, prophecy fulfiller, or faerie helper. Find a different mortal or you can all go fuck yourselves.”
The Fae laughed, the sound summer leaves blowing in the wind. Familiar. So damn familiar. It grated the flesh from the tips of her ears. Unlocked the chains around the skeletal memories she hid in her proverbial closet. Phantom hands skimmed across every inch of her body. A nasty trick of the mind. Lightning arced across her nerve receptors. Her skin wanted to march off her body in escape.
Wyn bit hard into her spongy tongue. Drew blood that slicked along her throat. All in an attempt to rip herself from the nightmares.
“And so decorous. Bracing.” Warm, plush lips skimmed the shell of her ear, an unnerving temptation.
The sick fuck was, no doubt, amused by her predicament.
Wyn opened her mouth, a witty retort knocked on the bow of her lips. Silence, her attention drawn to the shimmering downpour of golden pollen. Immediate warmth soaked into her skin and drove out her unwanted tenant — the unearthly cold.
Her gaze narrowed. Her heart raised its sword. Her mind countered with a gun.
Never bring a sword to a gunfight.
For Saul. Were her mind’s final words to her heart.
She tipped her head back, mouth still open, and drank.
Particles landed like snow upon her tongue, warm instead of cold. The only antidote to the Winter fae magic. Long sips slowed to short laps, a dog at the bottom of its bowl. The ambrosia, produced by Summer fae alone, was a ruby-red raspberry ripe upon the bush on the eve of summer, a sunny yellow banana pocked by black blotches of sweet mush near ready for baking, a green grape tearing open to trail its tart juice down the back of her throat.
But, below the sweetness, the ambrosia scraped a souring aftertaste across the buds of her tongue. More rained down, drowning out the bitterness. Her mind gorged itself on the sinful treat. The ever-quickening pace of her mortally wounded heart beating against her brain to shut her mouth.
Wyn’s eyes slammed open. Her mouth clamped shut.
Instinct urged her to continue drinking the Summer fae ambrosia. Intellect knew what it would do to her now that the Winter fae magic was out of her system: make her a zombie, bend her to the will of the fae who created it.
She was no mindless puppet. Not anymore.
She held her breath. Waited. But the mist continued.
Never using fucking Winter fae ice again. Not worth this shit, damnit.
“You must breathe eventually.” His voice coaxed and caressed, tempting her to open her mouth.
Become his pet.
Practice gave her two minutes tops. Expending energy would zap that time in half. Still, Wyn focused on her wrists. She ignored the pain. One popped. Then a second. She was almost free, but her lungs shredded, like tissues grated against sandpaper.
Her body bucked under a bronco also known as time. It snorted and kicked, spun and jumped. Anything to get her off its back. Though she’d wrapped her hand tight round the will to remain unblemished by the fae’s ambrosia, her oxygen ran thin. Time raced toward a win. Tears dripped off her lashes and the world began to fade. She couldn’t let go. Couldn’t lose this battle. Not this one, not her autonomy.
“Obdurate lass.” Hands, untainted by hard work, slid behind her back and beneath her knees.
Her mind, a gnarled clawed, broken creature, dragged her down into dark memories, unchained and left to rot and fester with time.
“No!” She thrashed against the thorny vines binding her wrists and ankles until they sawed through the delicate flesh all the way down to the bone. Blood flowed fresh from her wounds and soaked into the crisp white linens below her naked body. “Please.”
“Hard way it is then.”
Wyn struggled to lift her head, movements sluggish, darkness consuming her vision of golden flesh and one perfect dimple.