The bus pulled up to the curb with a tired-sounding wheeze and Cassie looked at the driver, waiting for him to unlock the back door. He took a minute to fiddle with his radio but finally pushed the button opening the door, and the heavy summer air hit Cassie as she stepped onto the sidewalk. There had been storms earlier in the evening and the ground seemed to be trying to give back all of the water it had taken. At 3am the sky was clear, but the air was still warm and wet just waiting for tomorrow’s sun to generate another storm.
Cassie listened to the bus rattle off down the street as she looked around at her neighborhood. At this hour she was the only one on the street, but the evidence from the day’s activities was all around her. She sighed, it seemed as though every summer people became more and more careless of their trash. Soda cans and beer bottles were almost as numerous as cigarette butts. Children, seeing the lack of concern over littering from their parents, had left their ice cream wrappers and Popsicle sticks wherever they happened to have been when they finished their treats. Waste from dogs (and perhaps even humans in a couple of cases) lay in piles on the sidewalk leaving its odor in the oppressive heat. Cassie sighed again, she understood people needing to get out of small, non-air conditioned apartments in the heat of the summer, but she didn’t understand why that always seemed to translate into turning the neighborhood they all shared into a landfill. She pulled out some plastic bags and put on some disposable gloves and started picking up the garbage that was along her route home. It wouldn't be necessary for her to carry anything very far; the neighborhood had a sufficient number of street-side garbage cans. None of them were more than half full.
As she tried not to think about what she was picking up, Cassie thought about the argument she’d had with her boss just before she left her 12-hour shift at the call center. Her boss had pulled her into his office to lecture her about the amount of time she was spending on the calls she took. She had tried to explain to him that she was only trying to listen to the customers to make sure she fully understood their problems and so would be in the best position to try to help them. She knew that most of her coworkers held the customers in contempt but she had taken the job as a customer service representative and so was trying her best to help customers. Many times she had been able to make customers happy just by listening to them and showing some concern over whatever had upset them enough to call. So many of the people who called her were just lonely people who wanted someone to talk to, someone who would listen and show some interest in their problems. But waiting for customers to finish expressing themselves and then finding a solution that both satisfied them and conformed to the company’s policies took time. Her customers nearly always (sometimes it was impossible to please people no matter what you did) ended the phone call feeling satisfied and as though the company she worked for actually cared if they were happy with the products and services they purchased.
Her boss had curtly informed her that the goal of customer service was not to serve customers but to get them off the phone quickly. He told her the company was obligated to provide some outlet for people to complain, but that her job was to move those complaints through as fast as possible. It wasn’t necessary to make everyone happy, just try not to piss them off so much that they’d want to complain to someone higher up. Her boss went on to explain that while her customer satisfaction scores were fine, that wouldn’t be enough for her to get a raise, or even secure her job, she needed to improve her turn-around time on calls. He then reiterated that her job was to take calls quickly, not make people happy. How depressing!
At 28 years old Cassie was still trying to find her niche in the world. She had worked at many menial jobs, the call center was just the latest, trying to find something she could tolerate until she could earn enough money to go to school. She was trying to save enough so that she could afford to finish a degree (not just start one) without taking on any debt. The problem was that tuition kept going up while her salaries did not. She’d tried working as a retail clerk at a clothing store, as a waitress, as a cleaning woman, and most recently as a customer service representative. At all of these jobs she’d been informed that she didn’t have the drive to do well. That her dedication to doing the job well, while admirable, was not what management wanted; management wanted fast not good. She’d had people tell her over the years just to give it up and borrow money to get an education, but she had never owed anyone anything and she wasn’t interested in starting now. Besides, she still wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted to study.
Most of Cassie’s off hours (of which there weren’t many) were spent at the public library. She and most of the librarians were on a first-name basis because they often helped her explore her latest topic of interest. Cassie was interested in just about every subject she had read about, so she was having trouble narrowing it down to just one subject to study. Her passion, if she had to pick one, was helping others. She had hoped the call center would help her fulfill that need, but apparently not. From everything she had read about careers that focus on helping others (social worker, school teacher, police officer, councilor, etc.) they also focused on speed over thoroughness, and she didn’t think spending years and tens of thousands of dollars to be just as frustrated as she was now sounded like a good idea. So Cassie planned to keep working and saving and hoping she’d figure out what her calling was one day.
As Cassie picked up a dirty diaper that someone had left lying next to a garbage can instead of in it, she realized she’d reached the point on her walk home where she needed to make a decision. She could either continue on for another two blocks and cross over to her street via an open, well-lit thoroughfare and then have to walk back two blocks to her building, or she could cut through the narrow, dark alley she was standing next to now and save herself four blocks (and about ten minutes) of walking. She knew the alley was often a hiding place for thieves and other criminals, but the streets were so empty at the moment, except for her, and she only had about five hours before she’d have to go out again to her second job as a barmaid. She was tired and she thought it would be safe enough to take the shortcut at 3am because the criminals were normally home in bed by that time (she hoped). Cassie looked around one more time and saw nobody; she heard nothing except for the normal hum of traffic a few blocks away on the highway and the electrical buzz of the street lamps. She took a breath and decided to risk it, she really did need to get home and get some sleep.
The Erlking had left Faerie for the human world, something he hadn’t done in decades and didn’t do lightly now, to hunt the one who had killed a pixie child named Coel. The Wild Hunt (also known as the Wild Horde among the Fae) often punished murderers (as well as oath breakers, liars, and others who committed crimes against the goddess) but catching a child-slayer had special meaning. Children were revered among the Fae (probably because they had so few) so when Aeronwen, Coel’s mother, spilled her own blood and called for vengeance against Griogal (the male Sidhe who’s suit she had rejected and who had murdered her son out of spite) the Erlking responded immediately. He had reviewed the evidence against Griogal and found it more than sufficient. No one called the Wild Hunt lightly because if the evidence didn’t support the charge, or the offense was not great enough to warrant a punishment by the Hunt, the one whose blood had called them would be punished instead, and the Erlking was the sole judge, jury, and sometimes executioner when the Hunt was called. Even more so than the US Supreme Court, the Erlking decided which calls to heed and his judgment was final, no appeal possible.
In this case the Erlking had heard Aeronwen’s call for vengeance against Griogal for the crime of child-slaying and had traveled to the scene of the crime immediately. The ability to instantly appear to a caller was a power that was unique to him, as far as the Erlking knew, and was one he only possessed when a call for vengeance was released onto the wind with blood. He could carry any or all (as he chose) of the rest of the Horde with him to the initial call, but the rest of the hunt had to proceed by other means of travel.
When the Erlking and his Horde appeared at Aeronwen’s side she accused Griogal and her accusation was supported by two other witnesses who had seen Griogal cast a spell of fire against Coel. The Fae were very hard to kill but a magical fire was one of the few things that could accomplish the task, especially with a child who would not have grown into his own magical protections yet. The Erlking cast his own spell of revealing which did indeed show that Griogal had used magic fire to murder Coel. With the charge being child-slaying and the guilt of the Sidhe proven beyond any doubt the Erlking had immediately started the hunt for Griogal.
Coel had been loved within his community (as any child would be) but even those who had never met him refused to shelter Griogal. People were rarely willing to risk the wrath of the Wild Hunt, for to interfere with the Hunt was to be magically compelled to join it and the duration of the service was entirely at the discretion of the Huntsman who was always the Erlking. However, it was also rare that there would be any who would be willing to aid the Hunt. Usually nothing could compel the residents of Fairie to draw the attention of the Wild Hunt except the most urgent and righteous need for vengeance. In this case, with a child-slayer the focus of the Hunt, the Fae had not only refused to hide Griogal, they had left signs to direct the Hunt to places Griogal found to hide himself. With the act of murdering Coel, Griogal had literally left himself with nowhere to hide. In fact, the Erlking would have long ago caught Griogal except for the fact that he had escaped to the human world.
The human world was fraught with peril, more so now than in older times. The humans had dirtied their world to the point that the air was dangerous to breathe and the water not fit to drink. They had covered whole swaths of land with tar and metal and other artificial things so that nothing natural could grow in those places. There had always been risk in entering the human world, any manmade metal could poison a Fae if it broke the skin and some Fae would even be burned by touching such materials. These were the reasons the Fae’s deadliest swords and spears had always been made from manmade metal, but never had it been so dangerous as it had become in recent years with humanity’s enormous increase in numbers and apparent determination to destroy their world. Humans were still susceptible to Fae glamour (the ability to change appearance or to become invisible) though the Erlking was not sure what (if anything) would show on their recording devices, so he was concealing his Hunt while he searched for Griogal. In ancient times, if the Hunt had revealed itself in the human world the humans who saw it went mad. The appearance of some members of the Hunt was so fearsome as to make it impossible for an unshielded human mind to survive an encounter with them without breaking. The Erlking was worried about what might happen if a modern human happened to see them. Would they also go mad or had humanity lost too much innocence for that?
It was the recording devices that the Erlking really worried about. If humanity saw proof of the existence of the Fae would they try to find the entrance to Fairie? Would they succeed? Humans had worshipped the Fae at one point in history but had forgotten them in more recent times except for old stories which were dismissed as imagination. If the humans realized that those stories were real what would they do? The Erlking tried to dismiss these concerns as questions for another day; he had a child-slayer to catch. It was a testament to Griogal’s desperation that it would even occur to him to try to flee to the human world.
Of course those hunted by the Wild Horde were nearly always desperate (the punishments devised by the Erlking were the stuff of legend) and Griogal was not the first Fae to run to the humans to hide. It was more common in times gone by, but even more recently there had been some Fae who had tried to hide with the humans. The magic held by most Fae made it possible for them to hide their true natures behind glamour and in some cases to amass wealth of the kind recognized by humans. In past times, some of the Fae the Erlking hunted would try to blend in with a human community and sometimes they even succeeded for a time. In more recent times this happened less frequently because of how polluted the human world had become. A full-grown Fae could not die of thirst or starvation, but they could suffer from them. As dirty as the human world had become, it was almost impossible to find food or water that was not contaminated with the very manmade substances that would poison a Fae so trying to survive for any length of time in such an environment was not a happy prospect.
The Erlking was not compelled to run a target to the ground before he could leave a hunt, but he had made it a point of pride to do so unless called to another hunt. Considering the fate that awaited those who were hunted by the Erlking the Fae were usually careful about committing the types of crimes for which he could be called, but with all of Fairie to care for it was certainly not unheard of for one hunt to be interrupted by a call for another. If such a thing happened, and the Erlking elected to respond to the second call, then he left his second in command, Ionhar (a skilled hunter and expert archer), to continue the hunt while the Erlking responded to the second call and decided which hunt took precedence. Lately, however, the Erlking had not been pursuing his targets into the human world because they usually returned to Fairie so quickly, but had just been waiting near the portal the target had taken out of Fairie for their return.
Millennia ago the Erlking had cast a spell on all of the portals of Fairie so that he would know if one he chased passed through to the human world or back from the human world to Fairie. The portals were difficult to find in the human world unless you knew exactly where they were, so it was unusual for a Fae to return to Fairie through any portal except the one through which they left. The risk of entering the human world was not justified when it was so easy for the Erlking to track his prey’s movements into and out of Fairie, so he had not been entering the human world in recent years. Griogal, however, had entered the human world and had stayed there for quite some time, and with the crime of child-slaying to avenge it had become worth the risk for the Erlking to take his Hunt into the human world. The Erlking did not know how Griogal was surviving in a world so saturated with toxins, but he would find him no matter how cold the trail.
The Erlking sat upon his each-uisge (a Fae horse that is wild in nature and known for tearing would-be riders to pieces, especially if the horse-like creatures caught a whiff of the sea air of their native lands), Uasail, a great black beast with eyes that flickered with red and blue flames, wearing his battle armor. Together they were a frightening sight. The each-uisge had once been dubbed the “hell horse,” though the Fae had nothing to do with a Christian heaven or hell (they were much older than that) and stood half as high again as a human draft horse. The hooves on the ends of his six legs, which he stamped on the ground hard enough to draw sparks, were made of some type of hard, black, shiny stone. One might guess they were obsidian, which would seem to fit with the creature’s fiery nature, but they were much harder and less brittle than that, though they were as sharp as a razor blade and could slice a foe’s flesh from their bones. His mouth was full of razor teeth more like what one would find in the mouth of an earthly tiger than in the mouth of a vegetarian horse. Periodically the animal would snort flames from his nostrils and smoke would waft from his ears. Having those flickering eyes turned on them had been enough to make battle-hardened Fae freeze in terror.
The Erlking himself was an imposing presence. In his battle armor he stood nearly seven feet tall. The spiked armor was black and shiny, like the exoskeleton of some prehistoric insect, and the enormous helmet he wore had a visor with the snarling visage of a wild boar and two sets of antlers coming out of the top like the rack of some great stag. Outside his armor the Erlking’s appearance was not much more comforting. He stood six and a half feet tall with a wild mass of red and gold hair that seemed to shimmer with its own internal flame. His eyes were a brilliant deep green, like living emeralds, but so cold as to make one think that the stones they resembled had taken their place on his face. He was a handsome man with high, chiseled cheekbones and pale, luminescent skin, his muscles were developed and hardened from millennia of hunting and battle. He did not fall into any category of Fae; he was not Sidhe or Pixie or Goblin or Brownie or Blue Man or Spriggan or Elf or Giant or Leprechaun, he was the Erlking.
There were very few Fae who were a kind unto themselves, not falling into any other category and not a lingering remnant of a nearly extinct race, but the Erlking was one. Most of the others, such as the Morrigan, were deities in the past whose powers had faded as their worshipers decreased. The Erlking was unique in that from the time he came into existence he was who and what he currently was.
All of Fairie feared the Erlking, from the monarchs of the Season Courts to the smallest of the Goblins. The Erlking could not hunt a Fae unless they committed some transgression against another, but he did decide which transgressions were worth punishing and which were not. While his usual practice was to wait until he received a call for vengeance, he was not bound to do so. If the Erlking witnessed a wrong for which he wished to bring justice he was free to do so, and who could know when he would choose to watch? To offend the Erlking was to draw his attention, and the Fae were very long-lived creatures. In such a long time who would be able to keep from transgressing against anyone? Yes, the Erlking’s powers were limited by the condition that he must punish a wrong, but that condition did not stipulate that he couldn’t search for a wrong to punish or that the punishment had to be in proportion to the wrong.
The Erlking was aware of the awe in which the rest of Fairie held him and he occasionally used it to his advantage (especially when dealing with the monarchs of the Season Courts), but for the most part he tried to avoid abusing his power. After several hundred thousand years of existence the Erlking was lonely and did not want to drive other Fae further away from him. His position as the personification of vengeance required a certain ruthlessness, which he could display when needed, but he had no need to be so ruthless in all of his personal dealings and he chose to be temperate when he could.
His current task, that of hunting Griogal, was not suited for temperance, but he was having a hard time bringing the ruthlessness of which he was capable to bear; he could not find Griogal! Somehow the Sidhe had managed to cover his tracks in the filth of this human world and the Erlking was having a hard time figuring out how. The Erlking had been on this hunt for longer than any other in recent memory and had ignored a couple of other calls to the Hunt (none were of as serious a nature as child-slaying). He was growing tired of this hunt, the human world was no place for self-respecting Fae and he wanted to return to Fairie. Some of the members of his Horde who were more reliant on the magic of Fairie had already been sent back to Fairie to avoid the risk of them dying from the human poison that was everywhere in the human world. What sustained the Erlking now was the thought of what he would do to Griogal when he caught him; there were few things more satisfying than bringing justice for the death of a child.
Something pulled at the Erlking’s attention but he knew it was not Griogal so he tried to ignore it. He needed to be focused and catch this bastard! The same thing had been pulling at the Erlking for several days now, but he could not determine why anything not related to the hunt would be vying for his attention at a time like this and so he’d been trying to push it away. Now, though, it was closer and the pull had strengthened to a compulsion, the Erlking could not ignore it any longer. He called Ionhar to him and told him to continue tracking the last few leads they had found, and to summon him if Griogal’s trail was found. Ionhar nodded to acknowledge his lord’s instructions, but did not question the Erlking about where he was going.
The Erlking, still in glamour and mounted on Uasail, followed the pull to a dark, garbage strewn alley. There was nothing there! Just the detritus left by the human inhabitants of the area and one small, human woman. His attention was drawn to the woman as she made her way around the obstacles made by the piles of trash in the alley. She seemed nervous, as though she feared being attacked, but he didn’t know why since (other than him) she was the only one in the alley.
He continued to watch her. She was very small for a human, he doubted she was much taller than five feet and she was very slender, though her breasts filled the strange thin shirt she wore very nicely. He thought he could see the outline of another garment underneath the thin shirt and wondered if it was there to help conceal such treasure or if it was there to make it appear as though her body was different than it was. It had been several decades since he’d seen a human up close but he remembered they were fond of such deceptions. Her hair was straight as a ribbon and black as the velvet night. It fell in a shining wave to her small waist and light reflected from it as though it were the finest silk. He felt the strongest desire to run his hand through it to see if it felt as soft as it looked and marveled at himself; he’d never been drawn to a human before! He felt compelled to discover the color of her eyes and directed Uasail to move around her.
He was careful to make sure that neither he nor his mount touched her. She wouldn’t have felt it if they had, not with glamour as strong as his, but she already appeared so apprehensive it seemed cruel to do anything that would infringe upon her space. He leaned down to look into her face as she passed and it hit him: the Siorghra, literally, 'eternal love,' the bond between Fae who were Anamchara (soul mates). He’d heard of it, of course, all Fae knew of the Siorghra and hoped one day to feel its sweet sting, but after so long? And with a human? Impossible! He had never heard of a Fae finding their Anamchara in a human, not in all the millennia of his existence. Long ago some of the Fae had kidnapped humans and brought them to Fairie as mates or as servants, but even in the cases when the Fae and the human had felt the deepest of love for each other he had never heard of them forming the Siorghra. And yet it was unmistakable.
The Erlking looked into the human woman’s eyes, blue eyes that sparkled like the darkest sapphires, and felt a devotion unlike any he had ever felt in his very long life. His connection to this woman, who he had never even spoken to, was stronger even than his connection to the Wild Hunt. He hadn’t even thought that possible! He thought to wonder if this was some sort of spell cast by Griogal to distract him from the hunt, but no, Griogal was Sidhe and it was Pixies who had power for love and lust charms. No Pixie would aid one who had slain one of their children and even if they would, no love charm could be mistaken for the Siorghra. Dea Matrona (the great mother goddess) had created the Siorghra so that the Fae would always know when they had found their perfect match; she had made it so that all Fae would instantly know what it was when they felt it. She would never allow a cretin like Griogal to pervert such a magic for his own petty uses. No, this woman must truly be his Anamchara.
There was no question in the Erlking’s mind about what must be done next. All Fae only ever received one Anamchara; he could not possibly leave her in the human world. Aside from all of the perils she would face as part of her human existence, just being his Anamchara would make her a target for his enemies…and he had many enemies. Several hundred thousand years as the final arbiter of Fairie had resulted in more than one Fae holding a grudge against him; and along with their very long lives Fae had very long memories. The Erlking himself was impervious to injury (both physical and magical) and had survived blows that would have killed any other Fae. On one occasion an opponent in battle had managed to strike off his head, which would have been a mortal blow for any other Fae, but the Erlking had just picked up his head and carried it under his arm while he cut his opponent down. He had heard this had given rise to a human legend called 'The Headless Horseman.' But the woman was human, she did not have his resistance to death and so he would need to make sure she was protected at all times.
He would need to immediately take her and bring her to his fortress in Fairie. There only those who were oath bound to him would have access to her. It was possible for a Fae to break an oath, of course, but if they did so they were subject to vengeance from the Wild Hunt. Thus far none had ever broken an oath to the Erlking. Aside from that, he had only ever brought those he trusted to want to remain loyal to him into his personal service. Over the years he had compelled certain targets of the hunt into one form of service or another, but never to serve within his personal strong-hold. As liege lords went, the Erlking was considered a good one, always fair and generous with his people, as long as one didn’t cross him, and many of the Fae came to his service quite willingly. The Erlking always protected what was his and everyone in his service could depend on that protection. Fairie could be a dangerous place for those without strong kin or strong magic. The Erlking was quite selective about which calls to the Hunt he responded to, and often the only protection the Fae had from other Fae was what they could provide themselves or what their kin would provide. To be in the service of the Erlking was to be protected.
The Erlking immediately laid a spell of claiming on the woman (something that all other Fae would see and recognize) which she remained completely oblivious to, and thought about how best to bring her to Fairie without frightening her too badly. It had been centuries since most humans had believed that the Fae were more than stories to charm or frighten children, so it was unlikely she would take it well if he simply revealed himself and Uasail. He could use a glamour to appear human and walk around the corner of the alley on his own feet so that she would see him and believe he was just another human using the alley to travel, but he couldn’t see how that would help him convince her to return with him to Fairie. No, the only solution he could see that would get her to Fairie quickly (and time was of the essence, he had a hunt to return to after all) was to put her in an enchanted sleep and kidnap her. He would have to leave her in his castle and hope he would be able to return before she woke from her sleep.She wouldn’t be harmed, the magic sleep would make her feel stronger and better rested than she had felt in years, but he was pretty sure she’d be angry. If he remembered correctly, the last time he was in the human world the trend had been for women to take umbrage if men tried to force their will on them. He doubted that trend had reversed itself to when women were more biddable to the commands of men, so he would just hope that he would eventually be able to convince her to forgive him. He planned to spoil her more than even the monarchs of the Season Courts were spoiled and to offer her the kind of safety seldom known in Fairie or the human world, and once she was in Fairie she would cease to age (all humans who were brought to Fairie became as long-lived as the Fae as long as they stayed in Fairie). Surely all of that would be worth forgiving him for one kidnapping? He hoped. He took one more breath and cast the sleeping spell.