Michelle Licciardi has been summoned into the realm of Fae by unseen forces. Despite the protests of her reluctant guide, fallen knight Edward DeSorcy, she has entered deep into the very heart of the Fae Queen's city. There, a strange command has drawn her into the lair of evil creatures.
The interior was pitch black. A flight of stone stairs led down to disappear into the flickering shadows cast by their torchlight. DeSorcy leading the way, they crept down into the dank passage. After about ten feet, the walls on either side recessed to hold shelves of books. Small landings held alcoves to the right and left of the stairwell, each of these containing books also.
"A private collection?" Michelle whispered.
"So it would seem."
She stepped into one of the alcoves and took a moment to glance at titles. Kais. Nunziata. Shannonhouse. Asman. Shillingford. All names. Most of the books were fairly thin. She selected one and opened it. Illustrated plates depicted a young girl watching over a flock of sheep. The text appeared to be a short biography on a shepherd girl named Marie Kimbril whose voice was particularly lovely. She would sit by a well, according to the book, singing while her sheep grazed. The lovely strains appealed to the troll who lived in the well and he absconded with her, keeping her locked in his cave in the realm of Faerie to sing for him for all time. A quick glance at one or two other books revealed the same general format. Interesting. Michelle was about to move on down the stairs when a title caught her eye. DeSorcy.
"Lady Licciardi?" the whisper came from down the stairs.
"Just a minute." She flipped open the book. The book began with a young knight of great purity and greater beauty, betrothed to a gentle maid fond of wild roses. On a foray into the forest to gather a bouquet for his beloved, none other than the Queen of the Fae caught sight of the handsome DeSorcy and lured him into her realm, where his skill as a swordsman, huntsman and lover made him a great favorite with the Queen. For a summer he wielded the silver blade she gave him as her champion, rode at her side every night at the head of the Great Hunt, and served loyally in her bedchambers as her chosen concubine. After a season in her service, the Queen offered him his choice of gift. Said to be chilled at the sudden realization that he had tarried for so long, he had requested to see his home and those he had left behind. The Fae Queen brought him to her seeing pool and in the reflection off the still waters, showed to him his family, his friends and his once-promised betrothed. Ten years had passed already. His family's lands had been ravaged by war and were now under the rule of a rival house. His father was slain in battle, his brothers enslaved or imprisoned, his friends away at war or turned traitor, and his betrothed was dead of a broken heart, buried in the convent she entered when she finally gave up hope for his return. Stricken with remorse, he garnered the wrath of the Queen by shunning her bed and requesting to return to the mortal realm. Out of spite, she refused to let him go but dismissed him from her presence so that he must remain imprisoned here in the realms of Fae for no purpose.
Michelle jumped guiltily and slammed the book shut as the voice reappeared on the landing with her. She looked up into a blue-eyed glare. He stared pointedly at the book and then lifted an eyebrow at her. "Look," she held up the tome with a feigned innocent smile. "A book with your name on it. Isn't that odd?"
"And I suppose you found reading that to be absolutely necessary."
"Well, it's... there was... I was just..." Michelle took a breath and then looked at him apologetically. "Yes. You're just so dreadfully mysterious and angst-filled. Sorry."
"I don't suppose it occurred to you that part of that 'mysterious' quality might have been because I prefer to keep certain aspects of my life private?"
"You don't even know what the book said," she pointed out.
"I can imagine. I glanced through a few titles while I was waiting for you. The level of detail made me cringe. As great a scandal as I fear I made at the time, I doubt this clever little biographer left it out."
"Scandal? What do you mean? All the book said was that you were good with animals and frequently rude. Were you involved in some sort of scandal?"
Disapprovingly, he turned and began walking down the stairs again. "It's really not the sort of thing I'm inclined to joke about, lady."
"I'm sorry, Master DeSorcy. I probably shouldn't have read the book."
"No, you shouldn't have. I appreciated up until this point that you had obviously made attempts to respect my privacy."
"That was before I knew it was interesting enough to have a book written about it." She trailed after the knight as she made her way down the spiraling stairwell behind him. It appeared to be time to change the subject. "Anyway, why do you think something that dislikes people with souls would have a library this extensive on them?"
"Difficult to say. There may be dark magics at work that we cannot percei..." All of a sudden, he flung himself back, shoving Michelle into a book alcove. She tumbled backwards with a cry, landing on her rump and snapping her head back against the shelving, glancing up in time to see him drawing his sword. Then a billow of blue flame flooded the passageway and the alcove, snuffing their torches and searing her skin. In the absolute blackness that followed, she heard DeSorcy cry out once, the sound of a blade striking stone, then another torrent of blue flame that burned her flesh without heat and neither disturbed the books nor provided light. "Michelle!" she heard him cry once, his voice coming from frighteningly far away down the stairs and then she was left in silence and pitch blackness.
She huddled against the shelves of the alcove for several moments, listening to her heart pound in her ears and fighting feelings of claustrophobia and disorientation. Would whatever it was that got the knight come back for her? Should she follow the stairs down and try to save DeSorcy, or should she head up the stairs and try to get help? After a hundred pounding heart beats in the complete silence, she quietly attempted to crawl toward the stairs.
"No light in our lair," said a cold voice in the blackness directly above Michelle. "My husband abhors it." A slight, scaly shift in the darkness, like the whisper a snake's belly might make on stone, let Michelle know that whatever it was had been watching her in the darkness. She stretched out the fingers on her right hand and touched a clawed toe.
"Forgive me," Michelle whispered, crouching on the stone, throat parched in fright. "But I was summoned here."
"By me. I loathe your kind. You don't belong here in our realm. You've poisoned and defaced your own world, I see no reason why you should be allowed here to do the same. Take this city, for one. Long ago, before your sun-grubbing ancestors made their first ghoulish version of flames, the capital was one tower and the land around it was forest. Deer grazed at the gates and the canopy of trees was so thick that I and my husband courted in the shadows at high noon without troubling ourselves over sunlight. Now look at it. Humans and their bizarre desire to take what is beautiful and reshape it into their road-ridden dung mounds."
"Sorry." It wasn't supposed to be flippant. Michelle just really wasn't sure what else there was to say.
"Of course you are. There are rules, child. No mass production, no assembly lines. Each product must be a work of art. These are our rules. No cold iron. No Fae can stand it." More faint slithering in the darkness. From far below, Michelle thought she heard another shout, as if of pain. Here and now, however, her mind raced wildly to determine a way out of this harrowing situation. Cold steel. Hadn't she made sure there was none on her when she came here?
"Forgive me, did I miss some? I tried to..."
"Silence, child! You yourself are not the problem, but the solution. Listen to me. We walk in darkness, my husband and I. And in the darkness made by mortal engineers - artificial caves and tunnels made for water runoff because they have perverted the soil so that the rains flood their foolish streets - we found a dead body."
"In the... sewers, you mean."
"Pay attention, child!" Blue flames exploded but did not illuminate. "The body was dead!"
No aging, no changing, no dying in the realm of the Fae. "How... did it happen?"
"Murder. The corpse reeked of cold iron. We could not go close to it. But you can, and you will. Then you will find the filthy pet that has brought cold iron into our realm and you will take the iron away that we may kill it. I will dismiss you to your home after, and you will take the filthy iron with you. Do you understand?"
"But... Am... Yes, I understand."
"Wise child for a disgusting mortal. Come!" Frighteningly large hands seized her and Michelle found herself being sped deeper into the depths of the darkness in the grasp of her strange patron, carried with a sinuous motion. "Now, it is of complete importance that you do exactly as you are told. Violate my commands in any way and you shall be the second dead mortal these realms have seen in a hundred years or more. Well, perhaps the third. It remains to be seen how the knight has fared with my husband. Now, close your eyes and do not open them until I give you leave."
In the darkness, Michelle squeezed her eyes shut. She felt a slowing and a gentle backwards glide, heard a slithering like something coiling back on itself, and then a door was opened.
"My love," hissed a similar voice.
"My darling. Ugly child, are you listening to me?"
"Yes, ma'am," Michelle replied meekly, eyes shut.
"So clever for a mortal. I shall set you down. You will walk forward until I tell you to stop. At that point I will tell you if you may open your eyes. You shall not look back towards me. To see us in the light is your doom. Now," Michelle found herself set upon her feet on a flat stone surface. "Walk."
Carefully, Michelle stepped forward, eyes shut tightly. Through her closed eyelids she became aware of some sort of light. "Stop. Whatever may happen, resist the urge to look this way. You may open your eyes."
She blinked once or twice in torchlight and then realized she was standing next to a slightly disheveled DeSorcy. He hadn't turned toward her, but he was looking at her steadily out of the corner of his eyes. "Are you well, my lady?"
"You're hurt," she whispered, realizing there were a number of tears and rends in his clothing and the flesh beneath.
"Attend to the business for which you were summoned!" The tone of command caused them both to bite their tongues and look straight ahead. "If your knight has been injured, it is through his own folly, coming uninvited into our lair with flame and blade. Before you is the corpse. Approach it and tell us what you see!"
Silently, Michelle gave him a questioning look. At his reassuring nod, she stepped forward to look at the dead body laying in the trickle of water that ran through the middle of the tunnel. It was her first time seeing a dead person and she turned her face away with a surge of lightheadedness and nausea. She felt an arm wrap around her and DeSorcy stepped in close. "Careful of your gaze, my lady." She realized he was using his chest to shield her peripheral vision. "Are you all right to continue?"
"Yeah, I just... ugh."
He gave her a slightly quizzical look. "Have you never prepared a body for burial before?"
"Oh my god, no. When someone gets sick you take them to the hospital and if they die, they go to the undertaker."
"What if they die peacefully at home?"
"You still call the hospital."
"So they can officially declare the person dead."
"Isn't whether a person is alive or dead rather too obvious to require an official declaration?" Their whispers were cut short suddenly as DeSorcy gave a sharp exhalation. "I knew this woman."
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