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To his credit, he didn’t really manhandle me too badly that night. At dinner, he kept a hand on mine or an arm around my shoulder but little more than that. As he pointed out to me in a quiet moment, anyone could make a brazen display of fleshiness. What really indicated intimacy was how two people interacted with each other, what their body language said. So I worked on looking comfortable and happy in his presence, and from the shocked expressions on people’s faces, we must have done a pretty convincing job.
He took me to his bedroom after that, looking smug and presumptuous to those watching. But when we got there, he actually gave me my first lesson. Honestly, it was a bit disappointing. I’d been ready for fireworks. What I got was a lot of practice on quiet meditation and focus. He claimed if I couldn’t control my own mind, I couldn’t control the power.
So I spent the next couple hours with him working on this and found my most difficult challenge was in not slipping into trance or astral travel. Those behaviors came so automatically to me in still moments that I kept lapsing. The kind of meditation he wanted me to do involved turning my senses outward rather than inward, which seemed strange to me since I had thought magic came from within.
We finally ended the lesson with him giving me a heavy gold ring that he’d put part of his essence into. It was an anchor. Now if he left the Otherworld through a thin spot, he could transition to mine without appearing in a corresponding thin spot. He would simply travel to wherever the ring was. It would save both of us extraneous travel time.
What it also meant was that he planned on coming to my world for some of the lessons. I had mixed feelings on this. Certainly it would be more convenient for me. But the fact that he could even jump with an anchor like that indicated how powerful he was. That realization was just a teensy bit unsettling, as was the thought of him in the human world at all. And yet, by being there, his powers would diminish. He would be safer – or rather, humanity would be safer.
Back home, the following couple of days were more of the same: fights, fights, and more fights. Yet, as Dorian had predicted, some of the traffic dried up. I liked to think this was because my reputation was scaring would-be suitors away. More likely, my new connection to the Oak King made my assailants think twice about incurring political fallout.
As it turned out, I had to deal with my own share of fallout over this alliance – from Kiyo.
“Are you sleeping with Dorian?”
He stood in my doorway, his dark hair backlit by the late afternoon sun. He wore a white lab coat with KIYOTAKA MARQUEZ, DVM on the pocket. He must have driven here straight from work.
“Good news travels fast,” I said. “Come on in.”
I offered him a drink and a seat at my kitchen table, but he just kept pacing around restlessly. He reminded me of a wolf or a guard dog. I didn’t really know anything about fox behavior.
“Well?” he asked.
I poured myself a cup of coffee and gave him a sharp look. “Don’t take that tone with me. You have no claims to what I do.”
He stopped pacing, and his expression softened. “You’re right. I don’t.”
It wasn’t exactly an apology, but it was close. I sat down in a chair, folding my legs up underneath me. “All right, then. No. I’m not sleeping with him.”
His face stayed the same, but I saw visible relief flash in his eyes. It was petty, I realized, but knowing he’d been jealous made something warm flutter up inside of me.
Grabbing a chair, he turned it around and sat down so that his chin rested on its back. “Then what’s up with the stories?”
I told him. When I’d finished, he closed his eyes and exhaled. A moment later, he opened them.
“I don’t know what bothers me more. You turning to magic or you turning to Dorian.”
I beckoned behind me. “Have you seen my living room? I am not going to be responsible for inflicting Hurricane Eugenie on Tucson.”
That made him smile. “Tucson already deals with Hurricane Eugenie on a regular basis. But yeah, I get your point. What worries me…I don’t know. I don’t really use magic, but I’ve spent half my life around people who do. I’ve seen how it affects them. How it can control them.”
“Are you questioning my self-control? Or my strength?”
“No,” he replied in all seriousness. “You’re one of the strongest people I know. But Storm King…I saw him once when I was little. He was…well, let’s put it this way. Dorian and Aeson and Maiwenn are strong. Compared to other gentry, they’re like torches beside candles. But your father…he was more like a bonfire. You can’t use that kind of power and walk away unscathed.”
“I appreciate the warning, Gandalf, but I don’t know that I have a choice.”
“I guess not. I just don’t want to see you changed, that’s all. I like you the way you are.” A smile flickered across his lips and then faded. “And as for working with Dorian…well, that just makes the situation worse.”
“You sound jealous.”
“Of course.” He answered without hesitation, not really ashamed to fess up to his feelings. “But he’s power-hungry too. And he wants to see the Storm King conquest happen. Somehow I doubt he’ll be content to have you be his pretend-lover for long.”
“Well, hey, remember I’ve got a choice in there too. Besides, contraceptive technology is a wonderful thing, right?”
“Absolutely. But Maiwenn says – “
“I know, I know. All sorts of wise and compelling things.”
Kiyo eyed me warily. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Nothing. Just that I think it’s funny for you to talk to me about Dorian when – “
I set down my cup of coffee and looked him in the eye. “Honesty again?”
He returned my stare unblinkingly. “Always.”
“You two seemed…more than chummy. Is there anything going on between you? Romantically, I mean?”
“No.” The answer came swift and certain.
I reconsidered. “Was there anything going on?”
This got a hesitation. “Not anymore,” he said after a moment.
“I see.” I looked away and felt my own wave of jealousy run through me as my cruel mind pictured him and that beautiful woman together.
“It’s over, Eugenie. Has been for a while. We’re just friends now, that’s it.”
I glanced up. “Like you and I are friends?”
His lips turned up wickedly, and I saw the temperature in his eyes dial up a few degrees. “You can call it whatever you want, but I think we both know we aren’t ‘just friends.’”
No, I supposed not. And suddenly, after so much time with him and the fact that I’d made out with a full-fledged gentry, Kiyo being a kitsune wasn’t really a problem anymore. The lines that organized my life had all blurred. That scared me because I wanted Kiyo, and suddenly I had no excuses standing in my way. And honestly, I realized, it was a lot easier having excuses. Excuses meant you didn’t have to work or open yourself to someone else and be vulnerable. If I really wanted to be near and with Kiyo now, I was going to have to look beyond sex. Sex was easy – especially with him. What was going to be hard was remembering how to get close to someone and trust him.
I looked away, not wanting him to see the fear on my face, but he already had. I don’t know what it was about him, but sometimes he seemed to know me better than I knew myself.
He stood up and moved behind me, his hands kneading the kinks in my neck and shoulders. “Eugenie,” was all he said, voice warm.
I relaxed into him and closed my eyes. “I don’t know how to do this.” I referred to him and me, but considering the rest of my life, that statement could have applied to any number of things.
“Well, we stop fighting, for one. Let’s drop this other stuff and go out.”
“Now? Like on a date?”
“Just like that? Is it that easy?”
“For now. And really, it’s only as easy or hard as we choose to make it.”
We took Kiyo’s car, a pretty sweet 1969 Spider, to one of my favorite restaurants: Indian Cuisine of India. The name sounded redundant, but the latter part of it had been a necessary addition. Considering all the local restaurants that served Southwest and American Indian cuisine, a lot of tourists had come in expecting to find Navajo fry bread, not curry and naan.
The tension melted between us – the hostile kind, at least – though he did have one pensive moment in which he asked, “All right, I have to know. Is it true you kissed him?”
I smiled enigmatically. “This is as easy or hard as we choose to make it.”
After dinner, he drove us out of town but wouldn’t say where we were going. Almost forty minutes later, we were driving up and around a large hill. Kiyo found an area with other cars but saw there were no spots left, forcing him to drive back down and park a considerable distance away. Twilight was giving way to full night, and it was hard to find the path up the hill with no lighting. He slipped his hand in mine, guiding me. His fingers were warm, his grip tight and secure.
It took us almost a half hour, walking until the path finally crested to a small clearing. I hid my astonishment. It was filled with people, most of whom were setting up telescopes and peering up at the clear, star-thickened sky.
“I saw this advertised in the paper,” Kiyo explained. “It’s the amateur astronomy group. They let the public come out and hang with them.”
Sure enough, everyone there was more than happy to let us come and look through their telescopes. They pointed out sights of particular interest and told stories about constellations. I’d heard a lot of them before but enjoyed hearing them again.
The weather was perfect for this kind of thing. Warm enough to not need jackets (though I still wore one to hide weapons) and so perfectly clear that you could forget pollution existed. The Flandrau Observatory, over at the university, had fantastic shows, but I loved the casual nature of this one.
While listening to an older man talk about the Andromeda galaxy, I thought about just how vast our existence really was. There was so much of it we didn’t know about. The outer world, the universe, spread on forever. For all I knew, the inner world of spirits continued on just as far. I only knew about three worlds: the world we lived in, the world the dead lived in, and the Otherworld, which caught everything in between. A lot of shamans believed the divine world was beyond all of this, a world of God or gods we couldn’t even imagine. Looking up at that snowstorm of stars, I suddenly felt very small in the greater scheme of things, prophecy or no.
Kiyo shifted beside me, and I felt his arm brush mine. My body kept an exact record of where we touched, like some sort of military tracking system. He caught my eye, and we smiled at each other. I felt at peace, almost deliriously happy. For this moment, all was right in the world between us. Maybe I’d never fully understand what pulled two people together. Maybe it was like trying to comprehend the universe. You couldn’t measure any of it. It just was, and you made your way through it as best you could.
“Thank you,” I told him later, as we walked back down the hill toward the car. “That was really great.”
“I saw the telescope at your house – er, what was left of it anyway.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Being up here had sort of taken me away from reality. I’d forgotten that my home was in a state of disaster. “Mine couldn’t really compare to any of these. Maybe I’ll have to upgrade now.”
We passed the other cars and finally finished the long trek back out to his car. The temperature had cooled down a little, but it was still nice out. Kiyo wrinkled his nose as we walked.
“Smells like…dead fish out here.”
I inhaled deeply. “I don’t smell anything.”
“Consider yourself lucky. You probably couldn’t smell how many people hadn’t showered back there either.”
I laughed. “I remember how you smelled my perfume back in the bar that night. I thought it was crazy. So super-smell is another kitsune perk?”
He shook his head. “Depends on what you’re smelling.”
We got into the car. He started to put the keys in the ignition, then decided he wanted his coat.
“Can you reach it? It’s behind my seat.”
I unfastened my belt and shifted around, practically hanging through the seats to reach his coat. It was crumpled and lying on the floor.
“Jesus,” I heard him say.
“Are you staring at my ass?”
“It’s practically in my face.”
I snagged the troublesome coat and leaned back, but his arm caught me and pulled me onto his lap. It twisted me in an awkward position, and I squirmed to straighten out my legs. I finally ended up sort of straddling him.
“I can’t believe you lectured me earlier about the dangers of losing control,” I chastised. His hands had slid down to the ass he so admired.
“What was I supposed to do?”
“Hey, I’m not complaining. Just surprised, that’s all.”
“I think it’s the fox in me.”
“Never heard that excuse before.”
“No, it’s true. You’d be amazed how simple the instincts are – and how strong. Sometimes I have to fight to not jump every woman I see. And then I always want to eat. Like I have this paranoid fear if I don’t stock up now, I could be starving later when winter comes. It’s really weird.”
It was compelling too, but wrapped up against him, I realized this conversation was wasting perfectly good make-out time. I unfastened his seat belt and then put my hands palm down on his chest. Leaning forward, I kissed him, pushing myself harder into his lap. His grip on me tightened.
“I thought you didn’t want to get involved with a kitsune.”
“Well…I happen to think foxes are cute.”
I wriggled out of my coat and then pulled off the tank top underneath, neither of which was easy to do with the steering wheel behind me. I rose up on my knees a little, putting my breasts near his face. His mouth showered my cleavage with kisses while his hands tried to undo the bra.
Meanwhile, my own hands unfastened the button on his pants. I reached down and slid my hand into his boxers.
“Eugenie…” he breathed. He managed to combine a cautionary tone with an utterly turned-on one. “We don’t have condoms.”
I moved my hand farther, suddenly very turned on myself by the thought of having nothing between us. “The pill, remember? Besides, contraceptive technology is a – “
The car suddenly lurched dangerously onto the side we weren’t sitting on. My back jammed into the steering wheel, and we half-tumbled onto the other side. Kiyo’s arms went around me, pulling me toward him in an effort to shelter me with his body and keep me from falling. Guess I shouldn’t have undone his seat belt earlier. Fortunately, the car didn’t flip all the way over, and a moment later, it slammed back down on the side we were sitting on with a jaw-rattling crash.
“What the – ” I began.
In the dark, I could just barely discern Kiyo’s wide eyes staring beyond me, through the windshield. “I think we should get out of the car,” he said quietly, just as something heavy and solid slammed down on the hood behind me. I heard headlights smash. The entire car shook.
I didn’t need to be told twice. We kicked open the driver’s side door, and I scrambled out. A smell like rotting fish slammed into me. Kiyo started to follow me out, and then the car was lifted up from its front end and slammed back down to the ground. Glass and metal crunched as the motion tossed Kiyo back in the car. The windshield cracked like a spider’s web.
Fear for him shot through me, but then I finally saw the culprit, and fear for me shot through me.
It looked like one of the fuaths, I thought. A fachan, possibly. If so, he was far from home since they were native to Ireland and Scotland. Still, the Otherworld had become as global as the human world, and you never really knew what could pop up where.
He looked like something you might get if Bigfoot had sex with a cyclops and then their offspring moved to the Deep South and interbred for another century or so. He was almost eight feet tall and every part of his grossly muscled body was covered with hair – matted and smelly hair that needed a thorough washing. One giant eye, its color indeterminable in the starlight, peered out at me. One extra hand extended weirdly from the right side of its chest, and an extra leg hung off of its hip. The leg didn’t seem to help him walk; I wondered if it and the extra arm did anything at all or were just used for effect.
Seeing me, he left the car alone and started lumbering forward. Hopefully Kiyo would be able to get out now. I reached for my gun and discovered it was gone. Son of a bitch. It had slipped its holster either from grappling with Kiyo or when the car had tipped.
“Get my gun out!” I yelled back toward the car.
Meanwhile, I took a few cautious steps back, assessing how to handle the fachan. Fachans, despite inhabiting the earth, originated in the Otherworld. They could therefore be banished back there. They also crossed to this world in a physical form, which meant they could be killed. I had both athames in my belt. Silver would be more effective, but iron would probably do some damage too. Okay. I just had to manage one of those while keeping it from getting too fresh with me. No problem.
He swung one of his long, almost awkward-looking arms at me, and I intercepted it, stabbing him in the hand with the silver athame. I pushed as hard as I could, shoving through tendons and bones. The creature shrieked and jerked his hand back. My hand was on the hilt, but he moved too quickly, too strongly. He took the athame with him. Shit.
“Kiyo!” I yelled.
I took out the iron athame and darted over to his right side, opposite the car. The fachan was bigger, but I was smaller and therefore faster…right? My blade snaked out, digging deep into the soft flesh of his stomach. This time I made sure to bring the athame back with me before he moved and took this one too. Blood, looking black in the dim lighting, gleamed where I’d cut. I put some distance between us. I just needed to slow him so I could snag a few moments for the banishing.
But he wasn’t slowing. He hadn’t seemed happy about the injuries, but he still kept coming for me. I kept the distance between us, wanting to injure him without getting within his range. It was kind of hard when it felt like his arms were as long as my body.
He swung out his uninjured fist, and I ducked it, using the opportunity to draw blood again. As I did, something occurred to me. His blow, had it landed, would have done some serious damage. Very serious. It had had no purpose, save to inflict as much brute pain as possible. I could understand the tactical advantage of rendering me unconscious before sex, but being in a coma – or dead – might complicate the prophecy a bit.
My blade bit into him again, and I followed with a sharp kick to his side, dodging at the last minute. We soon developed a little dance. His large, muscled arms would swing out at me, and I would sidestep and get in my slash or kick. Considering my fight with the mud elemental had been two days ago and I wasn’t entirely in peak condition yet, I felt my performance here wasn’t too shabby.
At least until I moved too slowly, and he caught me with the edge of his hand – his extra hand. Apparently it wasn’t useless after all.
It was a glancing blow, but I flew backward, into the car, up onto the roof, and into the windshield. The glass – already cracked and fractured – shattered upon impact, and sharp, excruciating pain burned through the side of my stomach as I hit. The skin there was still bare and uncovered from where I’d stripped in the car. My head felt like a cartoon character had just dropped an anvil on it, and for a few seconds, I couldn’t get my body to do the things I wanted it to do.
The fachan lurched toward me, his limbs and their bulging muscles swinging, and I didn’t have anywhere to go. He grabbed me by my shoulders and lifted me up high. I knew in those slow-motion seconds that he was going to slam me down and that I would be dead. As it was, the jerking, lifting motion alone made my addled brain scream.
Suddenly, the fachan’s head tipped back, and a look of agony crossed his face. His hold on me released, and I dropped back to the hood. It was much less painful than what he’d been about to do, but it still hurt. I frantically tried to sit up and see what had happened, but everything spun.
Some wolf was attacking the fachan. No, no wolf. The colors and shape weren’t quite right. The ears were more defined, the tail haughty and white-tipped. It was a fox. It was Kiyo. But he was bigger than I’d ever seen him, which was why I’d mistaken him for a wolf. He was huge, muscled and powerful, and his teeth were tearing into the fachan’s back.
The fachan turned and swatted him away. Kiyo took it with grace: hitting, rolling, and then getting right back up. I wished I could do that.
I still felt like crap, but my vision had righted itself. Peering into the car, I could see where my gun had rolled across the passenger seat and lodged between it and the door. Beyond me, I heard blows and yips as Kiyo and the fachan continued their fight.
Gingerly, I started crawling back into the car on all fours, careful to avoid the shards of glass ringing the gaping remains of the windshield. I didn’t do a very good job and brushed sharp points in a few places. They stung my skin. Worse, I could do little to protect my hands when forced to creep over the broken shards covering the dashboard.
At last I made it inside and retrieved the gun. Grabbing it, I worked my way back to the driver’s side seat and took aim at the fachan still grappling with Kiyo. Only, my hand could barely hold the gun up. That was no good. I shifted and held the Glock two-handed. My arms still shook, but I was steadier now.
I watched them pace and attack each other, moving fast. Too fast, I worried. I was likely to shoot Kiyo in the process. But I had to try. Nothing was hurting this thing. It was unstoppable. I didn’t want to try to banish it at full strength, particularly since I’d never get close enough to put the death symbol on him and speed his passage. I therefore needed him wounded and easy to send over.
Taking aim, I waited for a window of opportunity, for a broad target on the fachan. There. The bullet bit into his back, and he jerked in surprise. It slowed him just enough. I fired again. I kept firing until I’d unloaded the entire clip into him. He made horrible noises and staggered slightly. I half-expected him to keep coming, but then Kiyo the Giant Fox leaped at his chest and knocked him to the ground, teeth tearing into what appeared to be the fachan’s throat. Ew.
My wand was in the car. I swapped it with the gun, and called upon Hecate, focusing on the snake wound around my arm. My mind slipped this world, opening the gates, and I aimed for the fachan’s spirit. My will, pouring through the wand, seized him and ripped a hole between the Otherworld and my world. It was harder than usual. “Mind over matter” might be the adage, but the mind was reluctant to obey when the body was so weakened and had had its head slammed into a windshield.
My path to the Otherworld was clear. But then, seeing him start to get up, despite Kiyo’s mauling, I decided I didn’t want him potentially coming back. So I pushed my mind past the Otherworld, brushing the gates of the world of death instead. I felt Persephone’s butterfly flare on my arm as I connected with her domain. The fachan roared as it recognized the tug. He resisted me, his body and spirit presenting a formidable match for my own.
I focused harder, pushing every ounce of me into forcing him through the black gates. I called on – no, I begged – Persephone to take him.
At last he went through, his physical body disintegrating as the Underworld sucked his spirit through.
Only it was pulling more than him through.
I’d pushed so hard that my spirit had touched more of the world of death than I normally allowed. In my weakened state, my focus wasn’t as sharp about keeping me out. My mind felt like it was being sucked in by a whirlwind, and I had the impression of ghostly, skeletal hands pulling at me.
“No, no, no, no!” Whether the words were in my head or on my lips, I didn’t know.
I struggled against the hands, trying to gain a grip on the human world. I would have even settled for the Otherworld. There I could survive, but from the world of death, there was no return. Half of me prayed to Hecate to pull me back through the gates while the other half of me prayed to Persephone to block me out.
At last I fell back with a snap, my spirit returning firmly to my physical body. My physical and mental senses burned. Almost immediately, I slumped forward, unable to support myself. Only my hand on the edge of the steering wheel caught me from falling out of the car.
I felt nauseated and dizzy, with too many parts of me hurting to count. Kiyo, still as that giant fox, stood by me, gleaming eyes watching me with all seriousness.
“Hey,” I said, reaching out a tentative hand. His fur was as soft as silk. I stroked it carefully, my motor control still not all it could be. Those fine hairs touched my skin like the lightest of kisses. “That was some trick. How’d you do it?”
He neither answered nor changed shape, merely nuzzling my hand with his nose. I smiled but then felt too tired to keep holding my arm up. I dropped the hand to my side, feeling something wet and sticky. Pulling my arm up, I saw blood covering my fingers, dark and glistening.
“Oh, man,” I muttered. The world had started spinning again; black spots danced in front of me. “We need to…go…somewhere. Do something. Change back; I can’t drive.”
He kept watching me, eyes solemn and intent.
“I mean it. Why aren’t you changing? Are you hurt?”
He rested his chin on my knees, and I petted him again, even though I got blood on that gleaming fur. I didn’t get why he wasn’t changing. Could he not hear me in this form? No, he’d always understood before.
Well, if he wasn’t going to help, I needed someone who could. I had a cell phone in the car somewhere. I could call Roland or Tim. But where was the phone? I couldn’t climb in the backseat, not in this shape. Could foxes fetch?
Maybe I could summon a spirit for help. Not Volusian, not like this. But maybe Finn? What were the words? How did I call him? It was suddenly too hard to think.
“Help me…” I whispered to Kiyo. “Why won’t you help me?”
White spots now danced with the black ones. I closed my eyes, and it felt better.
“I’m going to lie down,” I told him, stretching back. “Just for a minute, okay?” I rested my head on the passenger seat, lying perpendicular to the seats.
I heard a soft, almost doglike whine. He must have stood on his hind legs, because I next felt paws and a head resting near my knee.
“Why won’t you help me?” I asked again, feeling tears spill out of my eyes. “I need you.”
I heard the whine again, mournful and contrite. My hand reached out, grasping for soft fur. I clutched the strands as though they alone could keep me alive. Then, my fingers lost their grip and slipped away as my hand dropped.
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