Richard woke in stages.
The fingers in his left hand twinged first; useless, swollen appendages throbbing in time with his heartbeat. The painful itch of the Cold Fire burns on his thigh joined the throbbing chorus.
Grit and gravel and sand had abraded the seeping Cold Fire blisters when the Dread Host pinned him to the earth on the dark side of Winter's portal. Richard had struggled as best he could and in the struggle managed to rip a few feathers from sluagh Prince's ebony wings.
Then the Prince ordered Richard's hand broken as punishment.
"Human bones are fragile, just like human minds," said the Prince, wormy white tongue flicking in contemplative circles as it directed two lesser sluagh to hold Richard down while a third smashed his hand with a chunk of rock. "I have need of your mind yet, but your bones will serve whole or in pieces. Touch us again without permission and you'll soon be naught but a sack of jelly."
Richard screamed when they held him prone on the beach. The air burned his throat and the sand stung his flesh. Where the lesser sluagh gripped his forearms Richard's jacket and shirt smoked away and frost-bite fingerprints marked his flesh.
Aine, standing motionless in a circle of wing and tooth and claw, watched Richard's fingers snap and didn't make a sound.
The hungry, hollow pit of Richard's stomach woke next. They'd had nothing to eat for at least a day, maybe longer.
"There's nothing grows on or near the Dark Waters safe to eat," the Prince explained. Its voice, unlike the rest of it, was beautiful. "Mayhap, when we reach the Catacombs, there will be something suitable."
"We'll die without food," Richard argued. "Food, and water." He'd still had spirit, then. Spirit, and his fingers.
"You were willing enough to die only hours ago," rebuked the Prince. It had raven wings, dark and glossy, and man-high. They moved gently when the sluagh inhaled and exhaled. "And this side of the Door is no place to regain hope."
"What about Aine?" Richard challenged. "She'll die, too."
The Prince clicked its teeth.
"The human siofra will need nourishment," it acknowledged. The Prince pulled its wings close, for warmth or protection against the acrid air. "She'll last until the Catacombs."
Now Richard's eyes were sealed shut. Thick, dried crusts glued his lashes together. He rubbed at his eyelids with his good hand, gritting his teeth to keep from groaning when the bones in his other hand shifted. He scrubbed until the crusts fell away and his eyes wept fresh tears, stung by the poisonous air.
He was afraid to open his eyes, but he did anyway. He'd been afraid for most of his life. Until Winter came along and showed him differently, he'd assumed everyone walked through life in a constant state of dread.
He'd fallen asleep on his side, but somehow he'd shifted without waking, and now lay on his back. The sluagh dimension's round white sun hung directly overhead, shedding a cold grey light.The sun was high in the sky, which meant half the day was already gone. It was one of the first things Richard noticed: the alien sun kept time with the still-running pocket watch on his belt.
Which meant maybe it wasn't an alien sun after all, but the very same Earth star seen through a different filter.
Richard's pocket watch was failing. It was too difficult to wind the spring one-handed. But when he'd collapsed into a nest of gravel many hours earlier, the sun was setting. Which meant he'd slept for far longer than he'd yet managed. Usually the Prince allowed his army only a short break.
Richard sat up carefully, cradling his left hand in his lap.
The sluagh Prince crouched only a few feet away. It sat on its heels, clawed hands resting on its knees. The sluagh's wing feathers trailed in the gravel. It smiled at Richard, showing sharp teeth.
"The path ahead is blocked," the Prince said. "We must wait until it's safe again before we move on."
"Blocked?" Richard asked, but the Prince only stared and smiled.
"Water?" the monster offered, polite as a maître de at any four-star restaurant.
Richard was almost overcome by a wave of hatred. He wanted to pummel the sluagh until the ghoul's ugly face was nothing more than slime, until those knowing green eyes were jelly on his knuckles. Only the pulsing agony in his broken hand kept him from trying.
"Yes," he said.
The Prince whistled, the sweet trill of a bird in spring. A smaller sluagh detached itself from the shadows of a boulder. Richard recognized the sluagh by its vacant, one-eyed stare. A warty growth of small tentacles grew where its other eye should have been.
Richard had taken to mentally calling the one-eyed ghoul 'Water-Bearer' because as far as he could tell its only purpose in the small army was to lug around a large leather jug full of drinkable water.
Water-Bearer bent at the knees in front of Richard. It un-stoppered the jug and held it out so Richard could suck from the leather tit like a baby. The sluagh smelled like rotting flesh and moldy soil, and the water from its jug tasted metallic, but at least the water was cold and not poison.
Water-Bearer waited patiently while Richard drank, then resealed the jug and took it back into the shadows.
Bracing his injured hand, Richard inched backward until he could set his spine against a boulder for support. The rock was cold even through his clothes, but it was dry, which meant he didn't have to worry. The sluagh had put the poisonous lake at their back quickly, marching away from the shore on a well-worn path. Even with the lake well away, the air remained acrid until they passed into a rocky valley between low hills and the wind died.
Now he could breath the air without searing his mouth and lungs. His eyes still burned and wept, but some of the blur was clearing from his vision. He no longer felt like he was watching the alien landscape through a pair of foggy glasses.
The Prince rose, stretching its dark-angel wings. It lifted its chin, opening its mouth, fat tongue quivering between sharp teeth, tasting the air. It hissed, Richard thought in anger, then leapt from the gravel and into the air.
The draft from the Prince's wings smelled foul. But once in the air the monster was graceful, almost beautiful, a misshapen dancer between the white sun and dark hills. Richard couldn't look away. He watched until the Prince disappeared and he couldn't pretend the lurch in his heart wasn't more envy than fear.
Water-Bearer stirred. As Richard watched, it inched away from its solitary pool of shadow and approached the rest of the Host where they gathered in a knot against the sheltering hill, guarding the changeling. Richard could see only their dark forms, a wall of feathers and grotesquely twisted limbs, but he knew Aine was there among them, guarded by sharp teeth and wicked claws.
At first Richard assumed they were protecting her from the poisons in the air. Now he wondered if it was something more.
The group muddled, parting enough just enough to let Water-Bearer squeeze through. Richard rolled to his knees, hoping to catch a glimpse of Aine, but the feathery gap closed again too quickly.
Once he'd eased back onto the gravel it occurred to Richard that he was ignored. Whether out of curiosity or distrust, the Prince had been his guardian since they'd crossed through the rift. As far as Richard could tell, the rest of the Host had dismissed him in favor of the jewel that was Aine. And now the Prince was gone.
Go! Richard's conscious always sounded an awful lot like his father. Get your ass up and go! Just like I taught you, Rick! Now!
He was up and away before he really thought about it, running through the ever-present twilight, dodging boulders and slipping on gravel, leaving the sluagh path behind. The resulting pain in his hand made his head spin, but he didn't slow, even when his Cold Fire-damaged leg began to drag.
Richard put the lake behind him and limped uphill. As he climbed out of the shelter of the valley, the wind picked up again, stinging. It sucked the air from his lungs and he was forced to slow to a jog, then a staggering walk.
Eventually he stopped. He found a man-sized spear of granite and sank down against it, cradling his hand. The sun seemed brighter from the hillside, the cold light malevolent. He looked back the way he'd come, but saw no sign of pursuit. He could just make out the trail the sluagh had worn into the earth. A pale thread through the darker gravel: it ran parallel to the lake and toward the lowering sun.
West, Richard decided. East was where Winter's portal had spat them out, all in a rush, the heat of C4 following them through, singeing sluagh feathers and making Aine cry out in terror.
Richard shivered. The explosion was bigger than he'd expected. Richard's father was infamous for his immolation expertise - or had been until he'd had both legs blown off in one of his own traps. From Bobby, Richard learned how to build and rewire; he'd repaired old clocks and old buildings, antique phones and rusting gas-lamps. Richard was a tinkerer. Bombs were no more difficult than analog clocks.
Something went wrong, Richard thought, recalling the roaring flame and the seismic blast. It was only supposed to be enough to collapse the Way.
"Forty thousand tons of stone, Richard. That comes down, there will be real damage." Bran had warned, right before the timer on the ignition clicked down to zero, triggering the accelerant, blowing the tunnel.
"Sorry," Richard whispered to the alien sun. "I'm sorry, Bran."
He used the side of the granite spear to leaver himself back upright, even though his legs and eyes ached. His broken hand sent tiny zaps of nauseating pain straight to his stomach. He missed his cane - a cane that had once belonged to Oscar Wilde - and wondered if it had survived the explosion. Last he'd seen it, Aine had been using the long ebony stick as a weapon against the invading Host.
Aine, who'd gone faded and dull since she'd surrendered to the sluagh. The few times Richard had gotten close enough to whisper a word, she'd been unresponsive. He wondered if she hated him. She'd sacrificed herself, and all for nothing.
It didn't matter. He'd find a way to rescue her from the Host, just as soon as he recovered some of his strength, and got a good look at the environment, and figured out what sort of materials he had to work with. He'd come up with a good plan, because he always did, even if a good plan meant tossing chunks of rock at the Prince and its minions. And because he'd promised her, in a whisper, that he'd save them both.
Then he'd gone and run off like a coward and a fool.
"Recon," Richard reminded himself. "Recon is good. Always start with recon."
He'd run, but not far. Maybe he'd just circle back down the hill, follow the army at a safe distance and wait until an opportunity solidified.
He started back the way he'd come, jogging slowly. He couldn't help but wish for Winter and one of the sidhe's pain-blocking Cants, or for Gabby and her magic healing ointment.
It was a lucky thing Richard was moving carefully, because if he'd gone back to barreling about in fear and distress, he'd never have noticed Water-Bearer in time. As it was, he barely had a moment to step out of the sluagh's half-flying, half-shuffling trajectory, and freeze.
You can't see me, Richard thought, motionless. I'm not here. You can't see me.
It was the tiny prayer he'd held close to his heart since Bobby had first busted his nose, when Richard was three. It was every broken child's useless mantra, but for Richard, it always worked.
Water-Bearer loped past Richard, unseeing, exactly as they all did, because Richard refused to be found.
I'm not here. You can't see me.
Bobby, and Bobby's goons. Elementary school teachers. Social workers. The retail clerks on the Capitol streets, and grocery store baggers. Tourists, street police, museum guards, fish-eyed cameras, traffic cops. If Richard didn't want to be noticed, no one paid him any attention.
The only person Richard couldn't fool was Winter, and that was because of the sidhe's wicked sense of -
"Smell," said Water-Bearer, just as Richard remembered. His heart jumped into his throat. "I can smell you, Jehovah's child. I know you're near, I can smell your blood and bones and sweet, sweet flesh."
The monster stopped ten feet up the hill. It turned, wings partially spread, and peered back down in Richard's direction. It swiveled its head, seeking blindly, single eye narrowed, no longer vacant. Then it snuffled, scenting prey.
"Brave, but naive." It had the Prince's alto tones. "You won't last long without water, mortal. And there's none safe to drink outside the Catacombs." It grimaced, tongue flicking. "Only what we carry."
Richard edged sideways. The sluagh turned its head, following his progress. Its fat tongue flickered gently in the air, snakelike. Richard shuddered. He stood still, wondering if it was the heat of his body it sensed, or truly the scent of his flesh.
"I'm faster than you by far." Water-Bearer minced back down the slope. It had bird feet; bare, toes curled under and clawed. It didn't move gracefully on the ground, but Richard remembered the Prince in flight and knew the monster told the truth. "Flee again if you like, but I've caught you, and you'll only work up a bigger thirst in the running."
It paused, head tilted, claws scratching for purchase in the gravel. "But mayhap you ran off to die, a dog abandoned by his pack. Is that it, apostate?"
Richard snatched up a jagged chunk of rock and pounced. He hit the sluagh sideways, shoulder-to-shoulder, and swung the rock hard at the monster's head. Skin and bone crunched. Water-Bearer fell backwards against the slope. Richard landed atop the ghoul, sprawled on the creature's chest.
He lifted the rock again and brought it down. The sluagh twisted sideways and Richard missed. No longer surprised, Water-Bearer was quick. It squirmed and Richard couldn't maintain a good grip. His hands slipped. Water-Bearer hit him once, hard, with the back of its wing.
Richard rolled down the hill, fetching up on his stomach against a boulder. Water-Bearer hopped after, wings flapping. It landed by Richard, set one foot hard between his shoulder blades, talons biting through Richard's shirt and scoring his flesh.
"Useless animal. I see you now," it hissed. Dark sluagh ichor ran from a gash above its eye. "Kin-slayer and coward, to leave your female alone and unprotected, in the grasp of the Wild Hunt."
Richard bucked against the pressure of the sluagh's foot. Water-Bearer flexed its claws, ripping flesh. Fueled by pain and desperation, Richard wriggled sideways and rolled again. He grabbed Water-Bearer's foot in his good hand and squeezed until he felt bird-bones shift.
The sluagh shrieked and spat. It kicked, raking Richard across the chin, then fell in a huddle, wings pulled around its front, a defensive, feathery tent.
Rubbery flesh and a single claw dripped ichor in Richard's hand. Where the sluagh blood fell on gravel it smoked. Where it stained Richard's fingers blisters rose. Hastily he dropped the grisly trophy, wiping his hand on his shirt.
Breathing hard, he regarded the sluagh. Water-Bearer glared back. Its one eye was grass-green and very bright. One beautiful fairy eye, in an ugly, warty face.
"I'm not leaving Aine behind," Richard said, surprising himself. What did it matter what the sluagh thought? "I'll kill you all and get her back."
Water-Bearer laughed. "We aren't easily killed, mortal. And this time, you've no human technology to aid you." It showed its sharp teeth when it smiled.
"Maybe, maybe not." Multiple agonies threatened to pull Richard under. His body wanted to give up and fall down. But he'd faced pain before, and always beat it back. "I'm resourceful."
"Yes," Water-Bearer hissed. It studied Richard thoughtfully. Clawed hands crept from behind the wing-curtain and fisted in the gravel. Richard couldn't help but notice the elegant fingers attached to those claws. They were Winter's hands, sidhe hands.
Water-Bearer caught Richard staring. It laughed again.
"Aye," it whispered, single eye bright. "We were all beautiful once. The Queen's glorious Host. Most beloved, most powerful, most dangerous. Until Gloriana grew jealous, and frightened, and we were exiled here, a land more poisonous than envy. Here - " it stuck a pale foot from beneath its wings - "here, we change, and fall apart."
Richard swallowed to keep from gagging. The foot wept black blood. A jagged piece of bone showed where he'd torn the monster's claw away. The bone was thin, see-through, and pocked with tiny black craters.
Water-Bearer shrugged its wings and pulled its foot back behind the curtain of feathers.
"I've nearly reached the end of what I was," it admitted softly. "Your blood and bones are of little use to me; I've forgotten how to hunger." It tilted its head, bird-like. "Just like I've forgotten other things. Tell me how you do it, your magic, here in this place where none exists?"
"I don't know what you're talking about," returned Richard. He took a few steps back away from Water-Bearer. He wondered if he'd best run again, or try to tear the creature to rotting pieces. He wasn't sure he had the strength for either.
"I'm not so close to ending I can't chase you to the ends of this cursed prison," the sluagh said. "The Prince asked me to bring you back and so I shall. Far better for us both if you return willingly. Are you thirsting yet?"
Richard licked his lips, then wished he hadn't. His tongue felt thick and fuzzy. Water-Bearer showed its teeth again.
"And hungry," it guessed. "They've fed the female. But you - they've neglected you. They didn't realize what they had. I won't neglect you, mortal."
Richard didn't remember sitting down, but somehow he was on his knees in the gravel.
"Shut up," he said. "I need to think." He scrabbled in the dirt for a rock, clutching the chunk in his good fist.
Water-Bearer only laughed.
"A valiant attempt, apostate," it murmured, "but above ground and without water you'll die in a matter of hours. Your wounds have stopped bleeding. You're drying up. Give way."
Richard looked at Water-Bearer. The sluagh stared back, one-eyed and calculating.
"If you perish here on the scree," it said. "You waste a life better spent for your female."
Aine, Richard mourned. Aloud, he said: "You're talking riddles and nonsense. Shut up, or I'll rip off your wings."
Water-Bearer snorted through its melted nose. "No riddles. She's got Mending in her veins. It's not a quick or easy end she'll face, not as a bridge between two worlds. She's sacrifice. You've guessed, or why come through in our wake? Slit her throat, spare her the suffering, redeem yourself. That's why you've come."
"I came to save her." Richard's eyes were gooping shut again, lashes drying together in crusts.
"There's no saving either of you." Water-Bearer rose. It shuffled across the gravel and stood over Richard, wings rustling. "But it will be interesting to watch you try."
It bent in a swoop, and before Richard could twitch, it scooped him up in wiry arms, then sprang upwards. The last thing Richard heard, before he passed out, was the unearthly whoosh of strong wings beating against poisoned currents.
He dreamed he was drowning, then woke to a trickle of water past his tongue.
"Carefully," Water-Bearer cautioned. "Swallow."
Richard swallowed. The water was sweeter than he remembered. He drank until the jug was taken away. He reached up to rub the gunk from his eyes and a wet cloth was pressed into his hand.
"Use this. Hold it against your eyes until the scabs loosen."
Richard didn't argue. The damp eased his stinging face, soothing.
"I've splinted your hand. The bones are beyond resetting; fingers are difficult. The splint will prevent further damage. Even better if you shield it from notice."
Richard took the wet cloth from his face. He opened his eyes, shuddering as lashes stuck together and tore. The world had gone blurry again, but Water-Bearer's one eye glinted clear-as-day, and over the sluagh's shoulders Richard glimpsed familiar shifting shadows: the Dread Host.
"Aine?" he called.
"Quiet," Water-Bearer hissed. "Your female still lives. They're preparing her for travel. The path is clear; we're walking on. Now, eat this, quickly."
He took the rag from Richard's hand, replacing it with something small, hard, and warm. Long as a carrot and beet-red, it reminded Richard of a skinny turnip.
"What is it?"
"My dinner. Journey-root. Eat it. I haven't saved you from death on the rocks only to poison you now."
Richard was too hungry to be cautious. He took a bite, chewing greedily. Journey-root tasted like bitter onion. Richard didn't care. He finished the root in four quick bites.
"Hasn't anyone ever told you never accept food from a fairy?"
This time his conscious sounded like Winter. He shook his head, chasing the voices away. It was far too late for warnings or premonitions. He'd left common sense behind the day he'd stolen C4 from Bobby's basement.
"Remember," Water-Bearer whispered as it rose, shedding feathers. "End yourself now and your female will suffer later."
"Her name is Aine. And she's not mine."
But Water-Bearer was gone, disappeared into the rocks. In its place stood the Prince, beautifully frightening, and at the Prince's side two tall sluagh. They held chains in their clawed hands, short chains made of links of bronze.
"Very stubborn, for a mortal," the sluagh Prince sang. "Or entirely without wits." It clicked its long tongue, then dipped its chin.
"Bind him," it ordered and the sluagh fell upon Richard, shrieking delight.