She moves like a cat, this girl.
I didn’t mean that old cliché—thin-hipped and swaying, high-stepping her way through life, always landing on her feet no matter where you drop her from. No, this one was suspicious, careful, darting from wall to wall, between shadows, never moving slowly in an empty space or bright lighting. Like a cat being hunted.
The Mission District of San Francisco is a weird place, even by SF standards. If Herb Caen was right, if this is Baghdad-by-the-Bay, then the Mission is the back corridors of the seraglio, where the eunuchs trot about with chilled sherbet and headsman’s axes. You’ve got Ethiopian restaurants next to crack hotels next to cock-eyed little bookstores with fat bald cats inside.
I like it here. My place was built a hundred years ago, and fortified by some 1950s paranoid who thought the Reds were going to start WWIII by parachuting into Golden Gate Park. While I like a good round of urban renewal as much as the next guy, I don’t think that’s what Khruschev had in mind back in the day. What I got now, though, is about as burglar-proof as the mind of a welder with PTSD from the Battle of the Bulge can make it.
That he died sweating in fear fifteen years later only adds another kind of armor. I’m not into the black candle, silver pin through a tarot card kind of shit, but anybody doesn’t see there’s magic in the world ain’t opened their eyes. Watch a gang lead swagger down the street, see how the shit never sticks to his shoes. Likewise, pick out some dork in an old windbreaker who can’t catch a promotion at the Tru-Value, and look at the crap that accumulates in his life. Like begets like, power draws power, and I’ve met those who always rolled double sixes. Some people got the golden spark inside ‘em, and most of the rest of us can read it.
For every Spark woman with weapons-grade charisma, there’s somebody on the flip side. Maybe not literally, though you might think that from the Law of Correspondences. But close enough to matter.
So I got the inside of this place painted in seventeen kinds of magical stealth – no, I ain’t telling you what or how. Let’s just say you’ll never see the door to my stairwell, even if you got plans from the city and a licensed surveyor to shoot the block. Not unless you got some weapons-grade eyeball juice of your own.
I live in the Mission, I do odd jobs around the Bay Area and beyond, but mostly I notice people. Like cat girl there. She moved in a way no one normal should move. I’d have bet she was leaking power, but I couldn’t see it. Protected? A sending? Or just an unconverted Natural?
I didn’t know. In a way, I didn’t care. But there’s bad guys who do, and I did care about what they got up to here.
So I had a bead on this woman, this girl. I watched her juke and bounce and slink, and stop to purr over a half-eaten burrito propped on top of a city trashcan, and I was waiting until I understood. All things come to the patient man, but learning how to wait is a bitch.
It sucks when your greatest strength is also your most painful weakness.
Life in this city should be a festival of love, sex, happiness, and chocolate-covered-macaroons for me. But it’s not. Not even sort of. Because as soon as I pull one in, with my super-powered Fae web of attraction, then I own them.
Oh, that doesn’t sound so bad, you say? You want to own all the men you pull in with your fairy spells?
No, see, what happens once you do that, you have to feed them. You have to take care of them. You have to protect them from the other demons. And then before you know, they’re bound to you for all eternity.
Just like the seventeen others before them.
I was walking through the Mission, just trying to get a breath of fresh air, take a look around, judge the mood of the city, and feeling entirely too much relief at having left my latest pet behind in the apartment, sleeping, spent. The humans had changed presidents, and they were making a big noisy deal of it. At least in San Francisco they were. “Hope!” “Everything’s different now!” “Yes we did!” It was a time of chaos and jubilation and distraction and, well, just general unsettlement. People were leaving their spouses, adopting Yorkshire terriers, coming out as gay. Moving to Mars, for all I know. It was out of control.
I was wondering whether to walk all the way to the bay or to turn back once I passed the linens store when a whiff of tasty food nudged my nose. I paused to investigate. Someone had left three-quarters of a burrito nestled sweet in its crinkly paper on top of a garbage can. One of San Francisco’s very sophisticated garbage cans, of course, with the separate receptacle up top for recyclables, and a broad, flat plate covering the whole thing.
And this wasn’t just an ordinary burrito either. This was a Triple Deluxe Carnitos Special from La Cumbre, up on Valencia. And still steaming.
I bent over to take it, and that’s when I noticed my next victim.
Which, trust me: at this point it only makes me sigh.
She looked up from her half-gnawed burrito and caught my eye. Some things stirred in me that I’d given away years ago, trading power for power.
Nobody catches my eye, because nobody sees me, unless I want them to. That puts the wind up my back like nobody’s business, a solid, hard chill. But this one, she wasn’t hunting me. It wasn’t that kind of look, not the way a cat watches a mouse hole. More the way a cat watches a fish tank. Interested, curious, but with flat indifference in those amber eyes.
If she had pupils, I couldn’t see them from across the street. More like ball bearings in the middle of her face. And that scared me most of all.
I stepped into the little political bookstore right behind me, hiding among the Marxist tracts and the biographies of Emma Goldman and Chou En-Lai. Good magical insulation in a place like that, almost as good as a Christian Science reading room, because people who work and shop amid Che and Engels are true believers. No one rational would gobble that shit, not if they wanted clean shirts in the morning and enough food to eat.
Faith is armor. I borrowed someone else’s for a little while.
Out of line of sight, the spell is broken. If that’s what it was. I carefully considered the fear I hadn’t yet acknowledged, even to myself.
Two problems here, Bailey, I said in my mother’s voice. That’s what I use when I want to make myself listen. (She hasn’t needed it for years, trust me, so at least it gets some exercise from me.)
One, she can see you. That could just be the Law of Correspondences again. Every power, every effect, every phenomenon, has its correspondent. Not necessarily an opposite, though often shit works out that way. I can be invisible, therefore to some people I am irreducibly visible. Almost everyone can’t notice me, so there must be a few people out there who can’t help but noting me.
Which would be annoying, but there’s loads of ways to deal with someone you can’t have around, ranging from a well-honed k-bar all the way up to some deep, dark bindings.
Except for problem two.
Two, her eyes are wrong. Very wrong. Which of course was why she could see me, right?
You’re circling the real issue, Bailey. Mother always called me that. It wasn’t my given name as a boy, and it sure as hell ain’t my name now, but it was one of her many little revenges upon my father. He must have really hated someone named Bailey.
Her eyes were wrong because she ain’t human. Beautiful, so damned beautiful that my shriveled, empty gonads hopped to life like they ain’t done all the years since the night I worked a life-for-life binding under a dark moon on Mount Shasta. But not human.
I’d have expected to see cockatrice turning the cats to stone sooner than one of Them, here in the city.
Somehow, I just couldn’t stop myself sidling over to the window to peer from behind the Objekt 775 concert poster to see if she was still there. Suicide, I know, or nearly same as, but the throbbing in my groin mixed with sheer morbid curiosity in a call I could not ignore, any more than I could ignore an open flame.
He skittered away as soon as I noticed him, running in fear, running for his life. They don’t all do that—some of them walk straight into the fire with open arms and broad grins on their foolish faces—but enough of them do so that it’s sadly familiar by now. This one darted into a little bookstore and hid behind a tall aisle of hopeless human sentiment.
Smart, I suppose.
He thought he was safe in there, blocking my power with the faith of others. And he would have been, for I had no interest in acquiring another pet, another victim, another mortal soul to add to my already overburdened collection. My life was busy enough, full of interesting things. I smiled privately and turned away, swallowing the last bite of burrito as I set my sights down the street — past the Bikram yoga studio, the decades-closed movie theater, the double- and triple-parked trucks in the street.
A jarring, jabbing flicker pulled at the back of my neck, sending a shiver down my spine. Pleasure and pain, and a faint hue of the color green.
I turned around and looked. Nothing.
But there was something. Something—someone—had called to me, had peered out of a window of their soul, and poked at my soul.
Nobody pokes at my soul.
I locked that up years ago, I did; back when I learned that my power is far greater than any of them. Back when I learned that I was fundamentally alone, that the rest of my kind had died out, or moved to the farther shores, or vanished altogether.
Or never existed in the first place.
I stood on the street, quivering, shoving my power-sense out in every direction, not just where the nudge had come from. Humans flowed past me, a steady stream of them, most immune to my draw, thank the heavens.
There: the bookstore window, the fool who had fled from me moments before. Already he regretted his flight. Already he wanted more.
I shook my head and turned again, striding quickly now. If I could get far enough out of his field of vision, he’d be safe.
Another nudge, this one a bit lower. I stopped again, two blocks away by now.
This was different. Nobody’s field of vision holds this far.
He had to be following me.
I followed her. Stupid is as stupid does, but I couldn’t not follow her.
Not her, but Her. She. I didn’t have a name for this one yet, but She was definitely capitalized.
Besides, someone else was on Her trail. That was why I’d picked up the hunted vibe when I first spotted Her. She was wise to me—too wise, damn it—but I didn’t think She’d made this other guy.
Maybe they were a guy. Gender identification usually ain’t a big stretch for me, not even here in San Francisco. That’s no special skill, just situational awareness, a better-than-average nose, and decent powers of observation. But this one—Pat, I dubbed them—defied me. And by damn, seemed invisible to Her.
Pat bulked out their purple chambray shirt. Not muscle, really, more like someone wearing a dozen yards of cotton batting under their clothes. High neck, long sleeves, leather gloves. Parachute pants, big too. Like maybe Pat didn’t fit inside their skin so well.
I’d never seen Pat before in my life. In the Mission, this wasn’t so unusual. People pass through constantly. But two Specials inside of ten minutes was very unusual. Pat did something and She twitched. Nothing in particular happened, no silver athames flashing with captured moonlight, no flying daggers out of a bamboo forest. Just a ripple invisible to anyone without second sight.
Glaze me over and fire me hard, She had me pegged for the source.
This bastard Pat was going to be a problem. Hippie sylphs (or whatever the fuck She was) tripping through the neighborhood were one thing. A stalker with the power was another.
Pat was hunting Her, and She was looking to me as Dangerous Dan.
I upped my step, planning to pass Pat by and give them a good, hard jostle. See how damned invisible Pat was to Her when She was scoping me, and draw out something about Pat in the bargain.
If they were a suburban mystic with wild genes coked up on some half-phony Don Juan magic, that was one thing. But if they were out of the same parts bin as Her, San Francisco had just gotten a whole lot weirder.
Wishing I had the time to call Silver or the Fourth Eye, I closed in my quarry. Just as I reached for Pat’s elbow, some bastard on a chromed up Vespa cut between us, tootling that stupid Italian horn to blow me a kiss from under a fright wig. Pat made it across 21st and I got stuck behind a garbage truck.
Damn damn damn.
Something shifted beyond the rusting green slab of the truck’s bin, another ripple in second sight.
It is undignified to scurry, to scamper, to flee. It is even more undignified to appear to be so doing. Therefore, I moved as if casually, but my pace increased. You’d have never known it to see it, unless you were tracking me with a stopwatch.
Like my new wanna-be pet behind me, I was afraid.
I didn’t turn back and look; that would draw the power far more firmly than was prudent, or safe. Safe for him: it’s no dust off my wings, other than my increasing sense of guilt and responsibility for snaring yet another victim. I just kept on moving forward, forward, forward. . .
Yet the power kept growing. It was building, almost doubling—who was this dude? I confess, it was actually starting to worry me, just the slightest bit. Or, well, puzzle me: it made no sense, none at all.
If someone with this much power had already been in the city, I’d have known it.
If new power came to the city, ditto.
So. . . how could this be?
Horns blared as I stepped up onto the curb of 21st Street, and I felt the power behind me seethe and roil, an angry panic, a frustration, a fear. Suddenly the doubling divided, lessening back down into a manageable lump. Very odd. I risked a look back. My pursuer had vanished. All I saw were the usual swarms of human, some of them dressed way too warmly for such a nice day. And hadn’t purple gone out of style in the eighties?
I smiled to myself, shaking my head, and walked on.
Knowing I wouldn’t lose him so easily, I crossed Valencia, doubled back again, and slipped up the one block of Hill. I was aiming for San Jose Avenue—a broad, semidiagonal swath that would funnel the energy cattywonkers, sending it up towards the hills of Twin Peaks and away. But I couldn’t head there directly, or it would just cling to me. So: Hill, then Guerrero, then back down 22nd, and onto San Jose.
I was nearly sprinting by the time I felt the energy running clean again, even though you still would have marked me for a girl on a summer’s day stroll. Catching my breath, I eased my pace, stared into a few windows, licked a bit of hot sauce from the corners of my lips, and began to decide what to do next.
At the corner of San Jose and 25th, my vision filled with purple. I hissed and swore and fell through the pavement into the safe zone below before I’d even had a chance to cover my trail.
Damn, this girl moved like the wind. Pat wasn’t any better. Me, following, like a kid brother chasing after Bubba and Cissy. Weird, too, because all three of us passed like we weren’t there.
I shoved that thought aside. It’s a hell of a lot easier being invisible in a crowd than all by yourself. Ask anyone speeding on the left lane of the Interstate. But in any situation, being overly self-conscious is the death of invisibility.
She juked and dodged through the neighborhoods like O.J. in an airport, out of the comfortable seediness of the Mission itself into the almost-yuppified stretch above Guerrero, then back down again. Drunkard’s Walk, a higher order form of vanishing, eschewing the comfortable straight line-and-corner patterns of urban humanity for diagonal crossing, weaving among parked cars, jaywalking and never holding the same street for more than two blocks.
Not like I didn’t know She had power, but She also had a lot of sense. Pat stuck to Her like a band-aid to arm hair. Me, I watched, and hoped like hell She caught on.
Then She slowed down on San Jose like She thought She was safe or something. Pat closed with Her before I could close with Pat. In a complex, stumbling tangle like a meth-head doing capoeira, they went down through one of the street gratings.
I made swift acquaintance with the aluminum pole of a street lamp. It wasn’t much cover, but it broke my profile in case something really ugly popped back up out of that grate in the next few seconds. Urban camouflage.
Ooookay, Bailey. Mother’s voice again. Two problems here. First, she’s not your responsibility. Second, you are outside your own turf, home boy.
Not that my mother would have used the word ‘turf’, or even know what ‘home boy’ meant. She was still right.
Walk away, Son. And don’t look back.
Over my years in the Mission, I’d walked away from more muggings and assaults than I could count, at least a dozen rapes, and five murders. What people did to each other wasn’t my problem.
She wasn’t people.
Neither was Pat.
The price I paid for all those walkaways was that this was my problem.
Don’t play those mind games with me, Bailey, Mother said. I know you better than that.
She was right again.
Discarding decades of cautious habit, I slipped from behind the lamppost and sprinted to the grate. I just couldn’t let Her be taken down by Pat.
If you’re going to throw it all away, throw it away on something good.
When my foot hit the metal, it wasn’t there. Darkness opened like a mouth to swallow me damp and screaming.
The power dogging me halved as soon as I dropped below. Good.
Then it doubled again. Bad.
That’s when I knew that Purple wasn’t just a poor fashion choice, and that my potential new pet wasn’t the only one following me.
Next question was, why? I’d given everyone more than enough chance to realize their mistakes and choose another path in life. Yet on they came.
So, it was time to change the rules of this game, and fast.
I half-smiled to myself as I trotted on, now below the streets of the city, but still in the human realms. Just the sewer, and not even the deepest layer at that. Sure, I might need to drop farther, sooner or later. And if I understood my pursuers, they’d be right there with me.
No rush, though. We could walk here a while, amid the foul flushed waste and carrot shreds and used condoms and all the other forgotten loved things of the ephemeral metropolis above. The things we thrived on, even as they turned our senses just the slightest bit askew. Like a floor that wasn’t quite plumb, or a singer who couldn’t hold a note.
The few bites of burrito I’d managed to grab before all this nonsense had started would be enough to keep me going a good long while. Which, hooray for me, because from the sticky, sappy energy of my two followers, I wasn’t going to be getting out of here any time soon.
But I would lead them on a merry chase, I would. And when all was said and done, I’d deposit them at the doorstep of Emperor Norton himself, and go back to my own life.
Oh, you thought he was a myth? No ma’am, he was a real man. Ruled the whole upper city, too, he did.
You thought he was long dead, then? Shows what you know. He’s just gone a bit, well, underground. As they say.
I was grinning to myself as I kept one-two-three steps ahead of Big Purple and Mr. Marxist, almost starting to love the pursuit again, the feel of being a deer in a meadow, the rush of wind in my hair, the sense of play-danger and utter freedom—when I turned a corner and came face to face with a wall that wasn’t there.
I shied off fast enough to not run smack into it, of course. My paparazzi were at least three turns behind me, so I had a moment, although not long. I reached out a tentative hand, made it sparkle with Fae-energy bright enough to light this dank arsehole of a tunnel…
It wasn’t enough. I couldn’t see through the cursed thing. There was no energy behind it at all. The wall was a blank lump, though solid as a rejection.
I pushed my hand further, touching the wall itself.
The coldness of it just about froze my copper-painted fingernails solid.
I spun around, clutching my wounded paw, panting hot breath to coax life back into it. What the….? This wasn’t right, this just was not right.
Footsteps fast approached—four feet, just as I’d suspected. And one pursuer was breathing hard. Too hard.
Back against the wall, I considered my next move. Never a good position to be in, to be sure.
I was knee deep in shit, listening hard for Her or Pat. Wonder I hadn’t cracked my shins with that landing. This was definitely through the looking glass, so I dropped my cauls and wards. No point now.
Power ain’t my trip, but power I got. Not like a Natural, but for a born-human, I do okay. I knew I was out of my league here, in deep in every sense of the word, but I couldn’t let Pat take Her down.
She was too beautiful.
Bailey, my mother said. You always were a terrible judge of women.
“She’s not a woman, Mother,” I gasped, running now, following a trail I couldn’t quite see but had to believe in.
I saw you looking at her bosoms.
“Shut up, Mother.” Why the hell my invisible friend couldn’t be Horace the Hamster was beyond me. My breath was getting away – what was it down here? Swamp gas? I skidded around a bend, following the course of San Jose Street, and there was Pat, purple coat looking black now in the faint light spilling from overhead grates. Something shimmered beyond them, and She danced in front of it like a mayfly on a stage.
Insects eat their lovers.
“Shut up, Mother.”
Her eyes met mine, for the first time really. Bright, brittle, deeper than seasons. Was She pleading for help? Dismissing my feeble efforts?
She was amused, damn it.
Pat’s arms went up. Dark light crackled, light I hadn’t seen since the summer of 1969 inside a manleather tent amid Golden Gate Park.
Blood magic. Or a damned weird Natural. This was bad, bad business, my reactions to Her notwithstanding.
She might be amused by me, and Pat might be indifferent, but this couldn’t go on. People would be dying on the pavement above us any second now. I palmed a shuriken made from meteoric iron dusted with a ground up Hand of Glory – damn near the equivalent of going nuclear—and launched it at the point between Pat’s shoulder blades. If Pat had shoulders. I was pretty sure about the blades, though.
And there they were. Both of them, come screeching around the corner like kids on their first Big Wheels, and just about as subtle.
Purple didn’t flinch, though I knew he—He? She maybe? Who knew?—wasn’t expecting the second one. Just as I hadn’t expected Moby Grape.
Which, it occurred to me that something was wrong there, even as I was still focusing on the human. Yes, that was what was making my skin turn somersaults and try to unroll from my arms: Grape-Beast wasn’t human.
I almost smiled again, in my relief at figuring it out. But that didn’t change the situation: the fact that I was pinned against a wall that shouldn’t be there.
And that Mr. New Pet was suddenly flinging something loud and sharp and angry and deeply noumenal straight at Grape’s back.
I screamed, just to get some noise into the place, to scatter the energy. “Emperor!” I shouted, beating my fists on the wall behind me. Great Fae Mother, it sure felt solid. But how could that be?
I couldn’t let myself worry about that now. Because in the half-second it took me to see the shard of doom, Grape gave a twisting wrench of supernatural speed and removed himself (herself, itself, whatever) from the thing’s path.
So that it was now coming right at me.
Being supernatural myself, of course, I was able to get out of the way. But not in a dignified fashion. I dropped to the ground, into half an inch or more of filth the consistency of half-set Jello, cursing Norton’s entirely short-sighted (and almost certainly fatal someday) edicts against using Fae power in his empire.
Not just rules, mind you, or guidelines. I mean, it doesn’t work down here, beyond the spark-power of my light. Believe me, I’ve tried. More than once. More than ten times. And I have the scars to prove it.
None of which changed the fact that I was now lying nose-deep in manshit, pressed hard up against a nonexistent wall, with an impossible purple demon trying to kill me, and a reckless, frightened human trying in turn to kill it. The thing, whatever it was, that the human had thrown shattered against the wall, then vanished. I could feel the reverberations echoing through my body.
Sitting up, I snorted, spewing offal out of my nose and onto my blouse. Then I got my first good look at the human.
“Oops,” he said, looking at where his little tinkertoy had hit the wall, then back at me, mere microns from the impact. “I’m sorry.”
His eyes were full of worry, and with good reason. Purple was already regaining its feet, sliding a bit in the muck, but regrouping rather effectively, for such a large creature.
“Right this way,” I said, making a sudden decision. We couldn’t go backwards, and there was no right or left. So forward it would have to be. I grabbed his hand and yanked, and into the wall we went.
She touched me and my world changed.
There wasn’t no other way to put it. A spark, arcing the microscopic distance between Her finger and mine. I’d been feeling stirrings of long-forgotten lust for the past half hour, but this was soul-deep, head-wide, a wildfire inside of me.
Energy flared around us strong enough to power an apartment block. I could perform dark rites for a year and not touch what She did with a step and a wave. Pat was caught in the flare, smoldering, blown back, even as the copper wall opened like fog and we slid through the spaces between the metal.
This wasn’t just invisibility to the wandering attention of observers. This was invisibility to the whole universe.
We tumbled onto a wider walkway, paved with sparkling gravel and lit by darkness. I don’t know how else to describe it. A garden of shadows, each rotting tree limb and towering fungus visible in a sort of anti-light. She turned to me, smiled like an orca before a seal, and said, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
That voice—I felt it all the way down my spine. The contempt and irritation flowed right past me, leaving only the body-warmth of who She was.
I might be caught in raging torrents of love, but five decades of habit don’t fall away in a moment. My mouth got ahead of me. “Saving your sorry ass from that damned stalker!”
“That thing wasn’t your sending, was it?”
“I don’t do sendings. I’m not a Natural, and there’s not nearly enough study to open those channels for a guy like me.” Bitterness I hadn’t felt since the 1960s oozed into my voice.
“You’re a warden, aren’t you?”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “I watch the Mission District.”
Bailey, you sound like a fool.
“You shouldn’t be down here.” Her voice was warm, even sympathetic now.
I realized where we were. The Emperor’s Garden. Like Moses on Mount Pisgah, a place I was barred from ever entering. Until now.
Something behind me rumbled like a subway train. Pat, catching up once more.
“You can run from it, but you can’t fight it, right?”
Her eyes widened slightly. “No. It would be like. . . fighting myself.”
“Then run,” I said, the most loving words that had ever passed my lips. I pressed Her shoulders and spun Her around. “I’m a warden. I’ll stand and fight.”
Down here in the Garden, my powers might be multiplied. They might be void. I had no way of knowing. There were reasons my kind was banned by the Emperor, and it wasn’t just old grudges.
I was dying to kiss Her, but instead I took out my knotted twine and my leaf from the Devil’s Bible.
“Go,” I whispered over Her shoulder, then turned to face what came for Her.
Once we’d passed through the wall that wasn’t there and I found myself on much more familiar footing, it all started to make a whole lot more sense. Not in a good way, I’m sorry to say.
The Emperor was going to be most unhappy at this unpleasant embassy from the Fae. And I wasn’t willing to be made a point of.
But I had no time to contemplate the finer nuances of the situation. Purple was fast upon me, while the hapless human who had stumbled down after me had volunteered to stand and fight.
It might actually work. And if not. . . well, as I mentioned, I had plenty of pets already.
So I ran. I fluttered my vestigial wings behind me and let them speed my way as I fled through the forests of the dank underground. Skirting the edges of the deeper realms where even I dared not go, I let the battle rage behind me.
The battle that I could still feel, no matter how far and fast I fled.
The battle that the human was losing.
After turning the fourteenth corner around the broken stone that marked the boundary of the Emperor’s innermost sanctuary, I paused, then stopped altogether. The burrito I had eaten was long gone, fueling my flight and the passage through Norton’s barrier. But I was more than hungry. The emptiness I felt inside could not be filled by another helping of scavenged food, not even from the finest tables in the city.
No, I had a hole in me that burned and ached and cried to be filled, a hollow place in my heart.
Nobody had ever defended me before.
No one had ever, since the beginning of my time here in the city, so many cycles ago, come to my rescue. No one had soothed my fears in the dark of the night, had held my hand when the terrors came, had stood up in the face of insurmountable odds and fought back—for me.
I couldn’t let him battle Purple alone. Even if facing it was going to be like fighting myself.
Already flying back towards the copper wall, I mused upon whether it was better to die together or to live forever alone. I suppose my fleet footsteps spoke the answer for me.
The space where the copper wall wasn’t bowed like a rubber sheet. Pat was coming through, with all the raucous panic of a herd of stampeding subway trains.
I didn’t have much left. Sooner shout down an earthquake than fight anything from the Fae domains. Human talent just didn’t tangle with those things. Not monkey-meat wardens like me, anyway. There were some very heavy people types indeed in the world, some of them in a nest up on Telegraph Hill, but that was far beyond anything I could ever hope to touch.
Yet the Emperor Norton himself had been human.
My leaf of the Devil’s Bible flapped in the wind of Pat’s approach. A thin shield it was, blasphemous sanctity against a force that looked at churches the way I looked at anthills, but it was what I had.
I harbored slightly more hope for my knotted twine. The sisal in the strands came off the Mary Celeste. The twine had been braided by a blind adept deep in the Florida Everglades, a woman who lived in a castle of cut coral guarded by albino alligators. The hank my piece was cut from had bound Lee Harvey Oswald’s corpse for a while.
Not a shield. Not a weapon, exactly. But an artifact of power nurtured over the last century. A very thin tan line to hold between me and the eruption now taking place.
I hoped like hell She knew the difference. I was laying down my life for one of them, uncaring as cats, loving as ferrets.
You should have been gay, Bailey. You might have stood a chance. Men are stupid enough to go for you.
“Not now, Mother!”
None of it mattered. Purple haze boiled in front of me, removing all choices. My leaf of the Devil’s Bible smoldered. I began shouting Orff’s Carmina Burana – it was the only thing in my head.
Pat emerged, grinning, which was the most frightening thing yet. I don’t know why I’d ever thought they were human. Those teeth were big, flat, the size of dominoes.
Flat teeth? Herbivores had flat teeth. What kind of demon wasn’t a raging carnivore?
Mother had a point. Too late to think it through. I lashed out with the string, trying to catch Pat on the point of all that history and power. Sooner stop a street car with a noodle. Pat ducked under the knotted twine and knocked me back so hard I flattened an eight-foot mushroom.
I staggered to my feet, yelling, the Devil’s Bible page on fire now, and wondered why I’d thought today was a particularly good day to die.
Then I saw Her coming back for me and remembered.
Once I got a good look at Purple, I understood the rest of it. And I smiled, despite the screaming fear in my suddenly-full heart.
I drew right up beside the warden and set my feet on solid ground. Snaking an arm around his waist, I faced the fetch and stared.
My Fae power was worthless here, true. . . but now I had something deeper to draw on.
Purple knew, though it didn’t like it. The demon growled and snarled and gnashed those big flat teeth, but didn’t advance on us.
“Begone, fetch,” I said. “Nice try.” I pulled the man closer to me, feeling his warm human energy twining with mine just by virtue of my body against his. He gave a soft moan, nearly inaudible, that wended its way into my core. Down that channel flowed his studied power, complement to what I did as naturally as breathing. Not taking my eyes from Purple, I started to murmur the human’s name. . . then realized he had never given it to me.
“Bailey,” he whispered, somehow reading my mind—though we all know how impossible that is. “You can call me Bailey.”
“Genevieve works for me.” But I knew I’d be giving him my true name, if we got out of here in any kind of coherence.
All this while, Purple was standing before us, unable to cross the invisible barrier of our combined power, our unexpected collaboration. I leaned forward. “Hard of hearing, are you? I said begone.”
Purple grimaced and groaned and wailed and flung its puffy arms out, but still could not advance against our meshed selves.
Clutching Bailey tightly, I took one step forward. The skin of his arm thrilled against mine as he came with. In his other hand, I noticed he clutched a sacred knot. But that wasn’t doing anything more than my forbidden Fae dust, not down here.
O Emperor, my Emperor, I thought, and closed my eyes.
Norton may or may not have heard me. I’ll never know. But here in this place where human met Fae and our powers mingled like a river, Purple gave a screaming gasp, lurched forward, then was gone. The breath of deepest underworld brushed my face as Purple vanished shrieking into the abyss.
Had we pushed it? Or had it fled what we shared? It didn’t matter.
I sighed and relaxed into the warden. I’m not entirely sure when he started kissing me. All I knew was that this one—this one—would not be a pet.
That I was no longer alone.
That everything would be different, starting now.
And all because Bailey picked up my scent on the street and just couldn’t help himself.
She—no, Genevieve—held me.
How had we beaten Pat? I tried to analyze the paths of power, what would need to be warded against, what would need to be folded away to counter future need. She had enemies, so did the city. I needed to—
Then Genevieve twined Her tongue in mine, and Pat was fled as surely as last week’s fog.
Bending close to Her ear, I breathed Her in. It was like taking in the world. She was everything: prairie fire, summer rain, wildflowers, the deepest forests. All the fields of my heart. In that moment I knew how Pat had been banished.
I opened my mouth and gave Her my true name, whispering a word that had not passed my lips in decades. She closed Her lips over my ear and gave me back the name of Her name.
There in the Emperor’s garden, we were one.