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Deanna came easily when I summoned her, making me wonder if she’d been hanging around invisibly since our last chat. Regardless, she didn’t mention the fake ultimatum, thus letting Kiyo continue to believe we were in a time crunch. I called Volusian as well, figuring it couldn’t hurt to have his protection while traveling to the ghost cutoff point. The two spirits didn’t interact as we traveled, no surprise seeing as they had little in common. Deanna was tied to the living because of unfinished business and love for others. Volusian’s soul was damned for eternity, forced to wander for his crimes – unless I ever sent him to the Underworld.
Deanna hadn’t been able to give us a time estimate on how long it would take to reach the crown’s lair (as I was beginning to refer to it). The Otherworld’s twisted terrain always made travel hard to gauge, plus spirits could move faster than we could. I wouldn’t have minded walking, but the unknown variables made me ride horseback. Kiyo did the same out of courtesy for me, though he could have tirelessly covered miles and miles in fox form. The only thing I really knew for sure was that this wouldn’t be a day trip.
Kiyo and I were as silent as the ghosts, though once we crossed out of the lands adjacent to mine, he would occasionally tell me where we were. I’d never ventured this far into the Otherworld, and it made me uneasy, though knowing we were clear of the Rowan Land was a relief. Even Kiyo, neutral as he claimed, had tensed in Katrice’s territory.
“This is the Honeysuckle Land,” he said, when the road led us to a hot, riotously colored landscape. Flowers grew everywhere, and even the trees were covered in blossoms. Arizona was notorious for all its hummingbirds, but here, they swarmed like flies.
“Dorian was right,” I mused. “It is beautiful.” It was hard to imagine this place mustering up a military. This seemed more like a world where people frolicked in scanty clothing, beating drums and engaging in free love. Well, since they were gentry, free love would have been a given.
“Dorian would know,” said Kiyo stiffly, eyes focused straight ahead. “I’m surprised he let you come with me.”
“Dorian doesn’t say what I can or can’t do,” I snapped. “If you’re going to just keep doing this the whole time, I’ll – “
“You’ll what?” asked Kiyo with amusement, when I didn’t continue. “Send me back? Face death-threatening situations alone?”
“I would gladly escort you back, if that is what you choose,” Volusian told Kiyo.
I sighed. “Please. Just don’t get on Dorian the whole time, okay? He wants this over. It was his idea to get your help. He’s worried, believe me.”
“That,” said Kiyo gravely, “I can believe. I don’t trust him. I don’t believe his alliance with you is as straightforward as it seems. But I do believe he cares about you.” The landscape suddenly shifted around us, becoming a rolling desert of white sand. It stretched out under a blazing sun, reflecting back at us in a way that was hard on the eyes.
“Ugh,” I said, focusing down on the road. “What’s this?”
“The Myrrh Land,” said Kiyo. Even with my eyes averted, I knew he was smiling. “Figured you’d like this place. You should go make friends with its king. They’ve got some badass fighters.”
“Big difference between this and the Sonora Desert,” I said.
Although harsh and scalding, the desert I’d grown up with was full of life. This place was desolate and dead. Mercifully, we soon passed out of it into sweeping moors, covered in snow. I took my leather jacket out of my pack. I’d brought it knowing we might travel through lands that were in winter. It still wasn’t much protection, and I realized I could have easily gotten one of my servants to whip up something more suitable. No doubt it would’ve been gentry-style, probably a cloak. Look human, Jasmine had said. Mostly I looked cold. Kiyo identified this place as the Birch Land.
We crossed into the Honeysuckle Land again, which was typical of the Otherworld. Other places repeated as well. When the road took us through a landscape that reminded me of northern Texas, Kiyo had nothing to say.
“What’s this?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
“The Pecan Land,” said Volusian.
“Sounds delicious,” I teased. We’d had few stops and mostly eaten travel rations. “I could go for a pecan pie right now.”
Kiyo didn’t respond. He seemed lost in thought, his expression growing darker as we passed through more and more terrain he didn’t know. He seemed to know the names, though, and didn’t like them.
“You’re taking us to the Unclaimed Lands,” he said to Deanna. It was near the end of our day, the sky burning red.
“I don’t know,” she said simply. “I’m only going where I was shown.”
“Volusian?” I asked.
“Of course we’re going to the Unclaimed Lands,” he said, sounding mildly annoyed by my stupidity. “We’re nearly upon them. Where else would you expect a coveted object to be hidden?”
I glanced at Kiyo. “I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess these are kingdoms no one controls?”
“‘Kingdoms’ isn’t even the right word,” he said. “No one lives here.”
“Why not?” I asked.
The scenery changed again. The texture of the ground was like recently dried mud, covered in a pattern of cracks that reminded me of one of my jigsaw puzzles. Odd holes were scattered here and there. This eerie landscape stretched far, far ahead, no end in sight. Not far from us – ten miles at most – the land rose sharply along the sides of the cracked road, forming high, rocky cliffs that curled in at their tops like jaws. Erratic gusts of wind blew through the tunnel they formed. The setting sun made everything blood-red.
“Guess,” said Kiyo. “Because we’re here.”
I peered around, studying the depressing landscape. Its superficial appearance meant little, really. Any gentry seizing control of it could shape the land to his or her will, instantly beautifying it. Then, a strange feeling settled in me. I couldn’t quite define it. It didn’t make me ill or disoriented. It just didn’t feel right. I squinted at the cliffs, taking in their striation. Through the red haze, I could see many of the loose rocks were a dull gray, streaked with orange. Oxidized metal.
“Iron,” I realized. “We’re surrounded in iron. We’re not even in the crown’s lair yet. We can’t get to the lair without passing through iron.”
“Can you feel it?” asked Kiyo.
“Yes …” That was the odd feeling in the pit of my stomach.
“That’s the gentry in you. Even with your human blood, you can’t help but be affected. There’s a lot of iron here.”
“I don’t feel weak,” I said, astonished the iron would affect me at all. “Or sick or in pain.” I’d seen gentry scream just from the smallest touch of iron. I summoned the magic within me, letting it reach out to the air and unseen moisture, though I didn’t actively use it. “I don’t think it’s hurting my magic either.”
“Good,” said Kiyo. “You’re strong, so I’m not surprised. You may just have a simple awareness of it.”
I thought about this for a moment and came to another realization. “You’re not affected at all, are you?”
He shook his head. “Nope.”
I always thought of Kiyo and me as being alike, children born of both worlds. That part was true, as was our half-human heritage. But my Otherworldly blood came from the gentry. Only gentry were affected by iron, and kitsunes had no fairy connection. As with the demon bear and the fetch, a kitsune’s bane would be silver. At least, a full-blooded kitsune’s would be. I’d seen Kiyo handle silver objects; his human blood protected him as mine did me. The bottom line was that he was a more useful companion here than I’d realized. I wondered if Dorian had made the connection.
“We will cross through no other lands until you turn back, mistress,” said Volusian.
“So this is the world’s end. The Otherworld’s end, at least.” I turned to Deanna, hovering alongside us. “Will we reach the entrance before night?”
She thought about it, and I braced myself for another vague response. “No. If you don’t stop, you’ll reach it in the morning.”
Kiyo and I exchanged looks, both of us thinking the same thing. Get to the crown sooner or camp and be rested?
I looked over at Volusian. “You said there are no other lands. But will the terrain in this one change?”
“What do you think?” I asked Kiyo. “I don’t want to be tired when we face whatever’s guarding the crown, but this isn’t great camping territory.”
“No,” he agreed. His eyes scanned around us, able to see more than mine in the waning light. He pointed. “There. There’s a small outcrop that’ll block most of the wind. Enough to keep a fire going. I hope.”
I couldn’t see the spot but trusted him. “Camping it is.”
When we reached it, I saw the site was indeed sheltered. I tethered the horses while Kiyo built up a fire. We watched it warily as the wind abruptly came and went. The fire flickered and waved but appeared capable of lasting the night.
“I could hold off the wind a little,” I said.
“Don’t bother,” said Kiyo, settling down beside the blaze. “Save your magic. This’ll hold.”
I wondered if he really was concerned about me conserving my strength or just wanted me to avoid my magic altogether. He’d never liked it. I didn’t question him, though, and sat down as well, mostly because the cold was finally starting to get to me. I buttoned up the leather jacket, achieving little. Our dinner consisted of more travel food: jerky, granola, and some bread that would probably be stale tomorrow.
“I don’t suppose you can use your wilderness skills to go hunt us something fresh?” I asked.
He smiled, the campfire casting strange shadows on his face, now that night had fully come. “I would if there was anything alive out here. It’s just us.” He eyed me, taking in my shivering. “Don’t you own a warmer coat?”
“Where am I going to get a down coat in Tucson?” I demanded.
“This time of year? Any sporting goods store. For the skiers. Lara could order you one if you can’t be troubled.”
“I think Lara and Tim are in love,” I said abruptly, remembering that bizarre development.
“What?” asked Kiyo, as astonished as I had been. “Are you sure?”
“Well, they’re in infatuation, at least. Volusian, were they together when you went back?”
My minion was off in the shadows, only his red eyes visible. “Yes, mistress. They were in bed, their bodies naked and – “
“Okay, okay, stop,” I exclaimed. “I don’t need to hear anymore.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Kiyo. While we’d dated, he’d been witness to their phone battles. “But I guess stranger things have happened.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Look at us. We’re sitting in an iron landscape, being led by a ghost to a mythical object, which – if it even exists – may or may not make me scary enough to end a war.”
“Fair point,” said Kiyo, his smile returning. We sat in companionable silence. It was a nice change from the animosity and tension that had surrounded us for so long. I’d missed him, I realized. “Eugenie?”
“Hmm?” I glanced up, feeling embarrassed by my thoughts.
“Why didn’t you bring Roland with you? He could’ve fought unaffected. And God knows he doesn’t want gentry power.”
I looked away from those dark eyes, down at the fire’s blue heart. “He doesn’t want me to have gentry power either.”
“Yeah, but he’d put that aside if he knew you were walking into – “
“He doesn’t know anything,” I said bluntly. My voice then grew soft. “We aren’t speaking anymore.”
“How …” Kiyo paused, no doubt trying to wrap his mind around this. “How is this possible?”
I shrugged. “He cut me off. When he found out I’d been keeping the truth from him, about the Thorn Land and everything else … Well, ever since what happened with Leith, he’s refused to speak to or acknowledge me.”
“But your mom …”
“Talks to me occasionally. She’s caught in the middle, and I don’t want to make it harder on her than it already is. She shouldn’t have to go against her husband.”
Kiyo’s confusion was becoming anger. “Yeah, but you’re her daughter! She should be able to – “
“Just forget it, okay?” I drew my knees up to me and wrapped my arms around them to draw in more warmth. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Eug, I’m sorry.”
I kept quiet. There was nothing to say.
He cleared his throat. “I don’t suppose you brought anything else to keep you warm? Blankets? Camping supplies?”
“I didn’t think about the possible overnight part,” I said, grateful for the subject shift. “I’ve got a change of clothes like these, food, weapons, and first aid supplies.”
“You brought first aid stuff?” He sounded impressed. “It’s not like you to think ahead. Er, I mean, you don’t usually worry about – “
“I know what you mean,” I said with a weary smile. “And don’t worry, the universe is the same. I didn’t plan ahead. It’s for current injuries.”
“I got hit by a table.”
There might be a million reasons that Kiyo and I were wrong for each other, but one nice thing was that when I made a statement like that, he just didn’t question it.
I was still freezing when it came time to sleep, forcing Kiyo into a bold suggestion. “Come sleep over here, between me and the fire. The cold doesn’t bug me as much, and I can block the wind.”
“Kiyo – “
“Yeah, yeah. I know. Dorian. But if he wanted me here to protect you, then here’s the perfect chance. Besides, we all know you can kick my ass if I try anything.”
I said and did nothing. When this continued for about a minute, he sighed and lay down on his side, back to the wind. I attempted the same, after ordering Volusian to stay on watch, but even with the fire’s warmth, I was still cold. I’m tough, I’m tough. I played those words over and over through my head, not wanting to admit weakness. After about fifteen minutes, I gave in and crawled over to Kiyo’s side of the fire.
There was no “I told you so.” He simply made room but was surprised when I positioned myself to face him.
“I thought you’d want your back to me.”
“Can’t,” I said. “That’s where the injuries are.”
“From the table.”
He could have attempted propriety by turning over so his back faced me, but that would have put his face to the wind. He didn’t deserve that. I wiggled myself closer, curling myself against his body, and resting my head against his chest. He was big enough that he did almost completely shield me. His whole body stood still as I made myself comfortable, either from his astonishment or for my ease. Once I was settled, he relaxed slightly and tried to put his arms around me. He suddenly fumbled and pulled them away, grazing my breast as he did. I don’t know if he noticed. I certainly did.
“Wait. Where are you hurt?”
“Back. Left shoulder.”
Tentatively, he reached out again and wrapped his arms around my waist. “This okay?”
Holding me, he shifted closer so that our bodies pressed together, holding in the warmth. “This?”
He relaxed again and exhaled. Tucked against him, I couldn’t see his face but had the sneaking suspicion that I wouldn’t be getting much sleep tonight. Survival-wise, this plan was sound. I was warm(ish) now, protected and heated by him. But I was also pressed up against a body that I knew intimately, one that used to move in mine with a possessive fierceness. Dorian claimed me with mind games and exquisite acts of dominance. Kiyo had always done it through strength and ferocity, an animal taking his mate.
I bit my lip and closed my eyes, hoping I’d fall asleep if I mentally enumerated the reasons we’d broken up. But mostly, I kept remembering how his hand had lightly rubbed my breast. Sleep finally took me, but it was a long time in coming. As I drifted off, I wondered how he was coping. This probably didn’t affect him at all. If he really wasn’t sleeping with Maiwenn again, then he was probably out picking up women all the time. Kitsunes had kind of a supernatural allure, and God knew he’d been pretty persuasive the night we’d met.
I awoke a couple hours before dawn – and not by choice. Volusian’s warning came only seconds before the surface below us began to tremble. I was up in a flash, but unsurprisingly, Kiyo had already beaten me. I’d gone to sleep with weapons, uncomfortable though it was. I hadn’t known what I’d need out here, except that I wouldn’t need the iron athame since this was a gentry-free zone. I had my gun (safety on) and the silver athame. Both were out as Kiyo and I stood back to back, staring around us.
The tremors shook the ground, forcing some fancy footwork, and creating more of the cracks that already covered the ground. A few more seconds passed, and then all went still.
“An earthquake?” I asked uncertainly.
“No,” said Volusian. He was in his solid, two-legged form, staring around with narrowed eyes. It was a little disconcerting that he didn’t seem to know precisely what the problem was.
“Then what are we – “
The ground below us suddenly split open. With only the light of the fire, my vision was bad, but I thought I saw what looked kind of like a serpentine shape emerge from the earth. No, it was exactly like a serpentine shape because a moment later, a giant fucking snake shot up and landed neatly in a perfect coil, its head towered over Kiyo and me as it regarded us with glowing green eyes. The light from them illuminated a flicking, forked tongue, and the loud hissing that followed was kind of a given.
“Volusian!” I yelled. My minion sprang into action. The deadly touch of his hands made the snake jerk in surprise. Beside me, Kiyo was shifting into fox form, and I decided a gun was probably going to get me farther here than the athame’s small blade. A drop of venom fell from the snake’s mouth, and it sizzled when it hit the ground in front of me. Lovely. Still, I felt confident the three of us could take this thing.
At least until the ground shook again, and another snake popped up. It was soon followed by a third.
“Son of a bitch.” I deliberated, wondering if mass force on one snake at a time was the way to go. No. I’d leave Kiyo and Volusian to the first. I yelled a warning to Kiyo that the snake was poisonous, but it was hard to say if he understood.
I turned on the two new snakes. Even with part of their bodies coiled, their heads stood a good ten feet above mine. More venom dropped before me. Deciding not to play favorites, I aimed the gun and quickly fired off a couple of rounds into each. I’d had the foresight to load up silver bullets, but it didn’t look like the gun was going to kill the snakes anytime soon – at least not without fifty more shots. Mostly, the bullets seemed to piss them off more.
Still, I kept firing since that seemed to make the snakes keep their distance. It proved to be a short-term solution, seeing as my bullets soon ran out. I reached for another clip. I could reload a gun quickly, but that pause gave one of the snakes an opening. Its head – no pun intended – snaked toward me, giving me a close-up view of large fangs. I’d been on guard for such an attack and jumped out of its way, only to be struck by the other’s tail. It knocked me several feet away, causing me to lose my grip on the new cartridge. The cartridge disappeared into the night, and I landed hard on the ground. My back and shoulder screamed in agony, but I had no time to baby them. There were two other clips in my belt, but as one of the snakes came for me again, my hand went to the athame after all.
The snake that had hit me leaned down, its face and dripping jaw inches from me. Rather than run again, I leaped forward and plunged the blade into its eye. It cried out in pain, suffering from the silver, just as any Otherworldy creature would. Well, actually, any creature with a knife in its eye would probably suffer, magical or not.
I had the sense to jerk my athame out, having no desire either to lose the blade or get pulled along as the snake reared back up. The suffering of its pal made the other hold off. In those moments, I shoved the athame back into my belt, yelping in surprise. Apparently, the snake’s eye was poisonous too, and whatever liquid had come away with the blade ate through my jeans and burned my skin. Nonetheless, I managed to get another cartridge loaded. Without hesitation, I turned and emptied the entire gun into the snake’s head. I wasn’t precise enough to hit the eye, but all those bullets took their toll. The snake wavered in the air, blood mixing with venom on its skin, and with a last hiss of pain, it fell over and slammed into the ground.
Wondering why the other snake hadn’t come for me, I spun around and saw Volusian and Kiyo attacking it. I took it on faith that the first one was dead and loaded the gun with my last cartridge. Volusian’s touch was searing the snake’s skin, and Kiyo was simply ripping into it with his teeth. Opting for what seemed tried and true, I fired into the snake’s head again. Between the three of us, we soon literally took the snake down.
I stood there tense and ready, empty gun in one hand and athame in the other. The world was silent except for the wind and the occasional twitching of the third snake as it died. Moments later, Kiyo morphed out of the fox shape, giving me a better view of any injuries now that he wasn’t covered in fur. He grimaced and spit on the ground a few times, but biting the snake apparently hadn’t destroyed his mouth or face. A couple red spots on his arms made me think he too had been splattered with the venom. Otherwise, he looked unharmed.
He sighed and raked a hand through his black hair, which was curling slightly from sweat.
“You know,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to bring myself to watch Dune again.”
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