/ Language: English / Genre:antique / Series: Elfhome

Elfhome

Wen Spencer


Elfhome-ARC

Wen Spencer

Advance Reader Copy

Unproofed

Baen

Baen Books by Wen Spencer

THE ELFHOME SERIES

Tinker

Wolf Who Rules

Elfhome

Endless Blue

Elfhome

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2012 by Wen Spencer

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

P.O. Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

www.baen.com

ISBN: 978-1-4516-3783-0

Cover art by Clyde Caldwell

First printing, July 2012

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

t/k

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

Printed in the United States of America

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the many people that made this book possible: Ann Cecil, Nancy Janda, Laurel Jamieson, Susan Petroulas, Hope Erica Ring M.D., June Drexler Robertson

Special thanks to Lisa Janice Cohen for “Stone Clan Lullaby,” “Forge,” and “We are Pittsburgh.”

In Loving Memory of Ann Cecil

1: Tunnel to Nowhere

Life was so much simpler when Tinker didn’t have a horde of heavily armed elves following her everywhere; all ready to kill anyone that triggered their paranoia. It didn’t help that she was still recovering from hairline fractures to her right ulna and radius. Her shiny-new status as a domana-caste elf princess meant she was expected to cast spells triggered by complex finger positions and vocal commands. So, yes, breaking her arm was a very bad thing. It didn’t mean she was helpless. With an I.Q. over one-eighty and only five foot tall, she always considered her wits to be her greatest weapon.

Her Hand (the military unit of five sekasha-caste bodyguards, not the appendage attached to her arm) had spent the week acting like there were evil ninjas hiding in every shadow. With her Hand in protective overdrive, the last thing Tinker needed was a pushy stranger trying to talk to her. Not that Chloe Polanski technically was a stranger; the woman was one of Pittsburgh’s most popular television reporters. Elves, though, don’t watch TV. The tall sekasha towered between Tinker and Chloe like trees. Dangerous trees with magically sharp wooden swords that could cut through solid steel.

“Good morning, Vicereine.” Chloe greeted Tinker from the other side of the forest of warriors. “You’re looking—well protected. How are you today?”

“Oh just peachy.” Tinker sighed at the scale armored back blocking her view of the reporter. Tinker loved her sekasha, especially her First, Pony, but in the last few days, she just wanted to whack them all with a big stick. She suspected if she asked they’d find her a suitable club. They’d might even stand still and let her smack them. She would feel guilty, however, since she nearly gotten them killed the week before last. Cloudwalker and Little Egret still sported an impressive set of bruises and Rainlily had a slight wheeze from smoke inhalation.

“Elves have these nifty spells that focuses magic into their—our natural regenerative abilities.” Tinker put a hand on the center of Pony’s armored back and pushed him out of the way. Or at least, she tried; it was like trying to push a tree out of the way. “It sends our healing into overdrive. Compressing eight weeks of healing into one, though, hurts like—shit!” She made the mistake of using both hands and pushing harder. She hissed as pain flashed through her right arm.

Domi!” Pony’s hand went to his sword as Tinker curled into a ball around her arm. “Are you hurt?”

“No, I’m fine.” Tinker growled as she straightened up, forcing herself to ignore the pain. She’d learned the hard way that any sign of weakness on her part made her bodyguards extremely antsy. Nervous sekasha were deadly sekasha. She didn’t want them mowing down Chloe just because Tinker had been stupid.

“Are you sure, domi?” Pony looked down at her, his dark eyes full of concern.

“My arm is still bruised.” Tinker gave a few more futile pushes against his armor, careful to only use her left hand. “Can you give me space? I’m trying to have a conversation here.”

Pony gave her a worried look but shifted aside.

They were on the bridge that led into the Squirrel Hill Tunnels. It was the beginning of September but heat blasted off the sun-baked concrete, scented with ancient gas fumes. They had been out of the air conditioning of the gray Rolls Royce for all of three minutes but there was already sweat trickling down Tinker’s back. The only good thing about Tinker’s dress of jewel-green fairy silk was the breeze she could generate by flapping the skirt.

Despite the heat, Chloe Polanski wore her beauty like an impenetrable shield. Every hair of her pale blonde bob was in place. Her makeup was so flawless that only the black eyeliner around her pale blue eyes and the glint of lipstick on her full lips betrayed the fact that she was wearing any. Her tortoise blouse and black slacks managed to be elf flamboyant and yet human formal at the same time. Chloe seemed completely at ease; only her perfectly manicured fingertips, nervously fidgeting with her amber necklace, betrayed her awareness of how dangerous the sekasha could be.

“What are you doing here?” Tinker really didn’t want to do an interview. It had been a weird summer, even by Tinker’s standards. So far she had accidentally changed her species, unknowingly gotten married, ripped a hole in the fabric of reality, fell off the planet, crashed a spaceship into Turtle Creek and fought a dragon. If that wasn’t enough to set some kind of record for weirdness, there were twenty days left of summer to go. Trying to explain everything would take half the afternoon, a large white board, and a great deal of advance physics.

“I have a couple of questions that I wanted to ask you.” The corners of Chloe’s mouth tightened as she kept a predatory smile in check. Chloe didn’t cover the hoverbike circuit, so Tinker had been spared Chloe’s cat and mouse tactics. “You’re a bigger prize now that you’re Vicereine.”

Tinker fought the temptation to stick her tongue out at Chloe. The reporter was wearing her signature face-to-face camera eyepiece, allowing her to film both herself and her interview subject without a cameraman. In a fabled remote and secure place, often sought out by those she interviewed but never found, everything Chloe saw was recorded. Only part of Chloe’s success was based on her eyepiece. None of the other Pittsburgh reporters had the eyepiece since much of Pittsburgh’s technology was stuck in the last century. The rest of her success was due to her vindictiveness—if someone tried to play hardball with her, she took a hatchet to their reputation. She had the “impossible to look away” quality of a train wreck.

It would behoove Tinker to play nice for her first official interview as the elf princess, even if the experience was akin to water boarding. “So, what do you want to know?”

Chloe’s mouth curled up into her cat smile. “Everything.” She purred.

Tinker scoffed. “Here? Now? You do realize we’re in a war zone?”

“As I stated before, you’re now very well-protected. You’re a very difficult woman—I mean female, since ‘woman’ doesn’t apply to you anymore—to nail.”

Judging by Stormsong’s soft growl, Tinker wasn’t the only one feeling like that statement had been loaded with subtle insults.

“This isn’t a safe place nor time for an interview.” Tinker started to walk in hopes of scraping Chloe off somehow—perhaps against a wall or something. How had Chloe gotten to the stretch of abandoned highway in front of Squirrel Hill Tunnels? Had she walked? “Call Director Maynard of the Earth Interdimensional Agency and he’ll set up an interview for some other time. I’ve got tons of shit to do.” For her own subtle insult, she added. “Mind boggling complex shit.”

Chloe began walking backwards, keeping just a few feet in front of Tinker. “This is Chloe Polanski. I’m here with our own little Cinderella, Princess Tinker.”

“Do I need to use smaller words for you to understand me?” Tinker held up her fingers to indicate tiny words. “Call Maynard.”

Displaying what years of practice could achieve, Chloe sidestepped a pothole without glancing down. “Princess, please, the people of Pittsburgh could do with some reassurance in this time of uncertainty.”

Annoying, Chloe was right. Tinker stopped with a sight. “Prince True Flame and Windwolf and Director Maynard are working closely together to protect everyone in the city from the oni.”

“You don’t add yourself to that triumvirate of power? Or is this a male-only club?”

“It isn’t male-only. Jewel Tear on Stone is currently the head of the Stone Clan. She and Forest Moss on Stone are also working with the Prince and the Viceroy. They’re all out right not looking for oni.”

“And you aren’t?”

“I’m still recovering from a broken arm.” Tinker pulled up her sleeve to show off the impressive bruising. It made for an easy excuse.

“Surely there were things you could have done while you were recovering.”

“No.” Because that felt too rude, Tinker added. “The healing spells forced me to sleep through most of last week. Today is the first day I’ve felt awake enough to leave the enclave. I’m certainly not up to running all over Pittsburgh to fight oni.”

Not that it had even occurred to her to join in the combat. It wasn’t the best use of her abilities.

Chloe changed tactics. “Each Stone Clan domana was given a hundred thousand sen of land as remuneration for their help in fighting the oni. Earth Son was killed by his own people within a week of arriving. What happens to his share? With the Wind Clan still be giving up that land? Is it true that they will also receive part of the city?”

“I haven’t been paying strict attention to what’s going on” would be a truthful answer but would also made Tinker look stupid. She’d spent the last month or so either held captive or unconscious or busy trying to save the world or not even on the planet. She settled for “Jewel Tear has sent word of Earth Son’s death to the head of her clan in the Easternlands. Until the Stone Clan responds, all negotiations have been put on hold.”

“Are you really going to let your husband give away part of Pittsburgh for a one week’s worth of work?”

It was tempting and terrifying at the same time to know that the sekasha could stop this interview cold. Tempting because Tinker really didn’t want to talk about all the mistakes she’d made that summer. Terrifying because one slip on her part, and all of Pittsburgh could experience a digital recording of Chloe’s beheading. It would be one more mistake that Tinker wouldn’t want to have to explain.

“My husband and I only care for the safety of our people,” Tinker said carefully. “We will do whatever it takes to guard them.”

“The hundred thousand sen of land is to be all virgin forest beyond the Rim.” Stormsong was the only one of Tinker’s Hand that was fluent in English. The female sekasha had spent decades living in Pittsburgh, reveling in the human culture. Stormsong probably recognized Chloe, but judging by the look on her face, she also knew of the reporter’s venomous reputation.

Chloe’s hand went nervously to her necklace. Her perfect white-tipped fingernails tapped the dark honey stones. The pendant had an insect trapped within the fossilized resin. Did it represent her interview subjects, trapped for Chloe’s inspection?

“I see.” Chloe retreated on the subject and looked for a safer battlefield. She scanned the sekasha. Those working as Blades had spread out to secure the area while Pony and Stormsong continued to flank Tinker, working as Shields. “You’ve taken two full Hands now?”

Good, a subject Tinker didn’t mind talking about. “I only have five Beholden.” Tinker gave Pony and Stormsong’s Elvish names as her First and Second and then added Cloudwalker, Rainlily and Little Egret as the rest of her Hand. She wasn’t sure if the warriors continued counting out their positions; if they did that would be her Third, Fourth and Fifth. They’d become officially hers after she nearly killed them the third or fourth time. “The other five with me actually belong to Windwolf.”

“And Blue Sky Montana?” Chloe had spotted the boy among the adult sekasha. Blue Sky was just one of the many bastard half-elves in Pittsburgh, most of who were born to human women with a sexual obsession with elves. Blue, though, was the only one with a sekasha father: Lightning Strike. Blue Sky drifted among the adult sekasha, dressed in miniature version of the wyvern scale armor. The little half-elf lacked the spell tattoos that scrolled down the arms of the adults and the magically sharp wooden ejae sword, but had a bow and quiver of spell arrows slung across his back. At a distance, the only noticeably human thing about him was his short hair, gelled into spikes.

Chloe’s predator smile flashed. “Who does Blue Sky belong to?”

Stormsong’s hand went to her hilt. Tinker caught Stormsong’s wrist before she could draw her sword. The sekasha were a close-knit group and they were all fiercely protective of the boy for his father’s sake.

“Leave Blue Sky out of this.” Tinker fought to keep her voice level. She’d never met Lightning Strike but she had grown up with Blue Sky. He was one of her best friends.

“It was reported,” Chloe pressed on. “That the Wyverns forcibly removed Blue Sky from his brother’s home in McKee’s Rocks. Their neighbors are afraid that the Wyverns had executed Blue Sky.”

Chloe was obviously in full reporter mode. Tinker was surprised that she didn’t manage to work in the fact that Blue Sky rode for the Team Big Sky which was Team Tinker’s main competition in the hoverbike races. It reminded Tinker, though, that thousands of humans were going to witness the conversation. Things were rocky enough in Pittsburgh without Chloe stirring up resentment against the royal forces.

“Blue Sky was not forcibly removed.” Technically, he wasn’t, since that implied that he been dragged physically out of his home. John Montana, though, had been given little choice in giving up his baby brother. “Blue Sky is half-elf; he inherited his father’s lifespan.”

Blue actually inherited the entire sekasha’s package down to temperament: he liked to fight. He was a good, sweet kid but in a race, he was pure steel. According to Tinker’s Hand, as Blue got older, his urge to fight would spill out to day to day life. Despite being tiny for his age, he was also very good at fighting. Tinker didn’t want all of Pittsburgh thinking that Blue Sky was going to turn homicidal.

“Blue Sky will be a child for another eighty years,” Tinker said instead. “John Montana is already in his thirties and they have no other family in Pittsburgh. John asked me as a close personal friend to take Blue Sky into my household and see that he learns everything he needs to know to live among elves for the next ten thousand years.”

All true and innocuous, although not the complete truth. It left out the fact that Blue Sky didn’t like elves very much and was still very resistant to Tinker “adopting” him. The fight training, though, was slowly winning him over.

Chloe considered the partial truth with narrowed eyes, obviously looking for holes in Tinker’s version of the events. “It is my understanding that only sekasha-caste can wear the armor made of wyvern’s scales. Does this mean that Blue Sky’s father is one of your sekasha?”

“He was one of Windwolf’s Beholden.”

“Was?”

“He was killed by a saurus.” Tinker had witnessed his death. Since the Montana brothers had kept the identity of Blue Sky’s father secret even to Tinker, she had seen him die without realizing who he was.

“Oh, so his father was Lightning Strike?” Chloe said.

Tinker nodded; surprised that Chloe could put a name to a male that been dead for five years. Then again, elves were immortal; the traitorous Sparrow was the only other elf that Tinker had ever heard of being killed.

Blue Sky drifted across the pavement to stop beside Tinker. He didn’t bump shoulders with her as he normally did. Blue was seventeen to her eighteen; he considered himself as almost adult despite all physical proof that he wasn’t. Tinker had hit five foot tall—and then stopped growing—at thirteen. Blue Sky continued to be child-short; only recently had he’d caught up to her height-wise. Of course, one day he’d be as tall as the other Wind Clan sekasha and tower over her, but that was decades into the future. It a point of pride with him that he was tall enough now to be shoulder-to-shoulder with her and he usually took every opportunity to prove it.

Tinker glanced at Blue to see why he’d restrained himself. Apparently there been some unspoken sekasha consensus that Chloe was dangerous. Blue Sky had picked up the adult’s hard look and was trying to edge himself between Tinker and the reporter. Tinker bumped shoulders with him to get his attention and then scowled hard at him. Last thing she wanted was Blue throwing himself between her and the type of danger that came looking for her. She’d promised John to keep his baby brother safe, not use him as a shield.

Blue Sky gave her a look that started as a seventeen-year olds rebellion but ended as a ten-year old pouting hurt.

Chloe watched the interaction with interest. “Rumor has it that the hoverbike races will be starting back up now that martial law is being lifted. Will the two of you be riding against each other once that happens?”

“Yes,” Blue Sky said without thinking through the ramifications.

“No.” Tinker earned another hurt look from Blue Sky. “I’m going to be too busy. My cousin Oilcan will be riding for my team.”

“Will Blue Sky be allowed to race?” Chloe asked.

“Of course,” Tinker and Blue Sky said at the same. “It’s not like Blue Sky is under house arrest.” Tinker put her arm around his shoulders and felt the tension in his small wiry body. She gave him a little shake to try and get him to relax. “He’s always been like my little brother; now he’s officially family.”

Blue Sky gave her a shy smile and relaxed slightly.

“Now, if you don’t mind,” Tinker started again for the tunnel openings. “I have a lot to do.”

“Mind boggling complex stuff.” Chloe echoed back her earlier comment. “Like build a gate? Do you really think that’s wise, considering what happened with the last one?”

“I’m not building a gate.” Tinker said. “But in my defense, the gate I built for the oni did exactly what I designed it to do; it stopped the main oni army from invading Elfhome.”

“By destroying the gate in orbit?”

“Yes.”

“So how do you explain Pittsburgh still on Elfhome?” Chloe said. “Shouldn’t the city have returned to Earth after the orbital gate failed?”

Tinker really didn’t want to answer the question. In layman terms, Pittsburgh had been on a giant elastic band and held down on Elfhome by a simple on/off switch. Every Shutdown—with the flip of that switch—the city rebounded back to Earth. Chloe was right; Pittsburgh should have returned to Earth. It hadn’t because Tinker had managed to also mess up the fundamental nature of the cosmos—not a feat that she was proud of. “There were unexpected—complications—which is why I’m not building another gate.”

“What exactly are you going to be building?”

“Nothing.” Tinker held up her hands in an attempt to look innocent. Both Stormsong and Blue Sky gave her a look that spoke volumes—she was coming too close to lying for their comfort—so she added in, “I will be acting as project manager for work beyond the Squirrel Hill Tunnel.” Beyond as in another world beyond. “I probably will have no technical input on the undertaking. I’m just one of the few people that can easily supervise a large work force that includes human, elves and tengu.” And the dragon, Impatience, but Chloe didn’t need to know that. There, that was vague enough without lying. Tinker poured on more information in hopes to distract Chloe from important details. “I’m here today to inspect the tunnels for any defects. The tunnels are almost a hundred years old. They’ve been spottily maintained since Pittsburgh started to bounce between Earth and Elfhome. The discontinuity in Turtle Creek might have led to tremendous stress in all neighboring areas. The tunnels might not be safe to use.”

Chloe nodded through Tinker’s rambling and then launched a counterattack on her unprotected flank. “Tinker ze domi, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you how nervous all of our viewers are about the current situation. There are sixty thousand humans in Pittsburgh. The city doesn’t have the infrastructure to adequately take care of our needs. During Shutdown, everything from warm clothing to medical supplies was shipped in from Earth. The last Shutdown was mid-July. What is going to be done to address the fact that we’re facing winter without supplies from Earth?”

“I’m fully aware of the facts.” And scared silly by them. The number was actually closer to a hundred thousand once you added in tengu and elves and half-oni that were allied to the humans. As the Wind Clan domi and vicereine of the Westernlands, Tinker was responsible for them all. “We won’t starve; the elves are shipping in keva beans from the Easternlands. The first shipments arrived by train yesterday. Martial law is being lifted later today so people can go to distribution centers that the EIA will be setting up for their share of the keva.”

Giving away the first shipment had been her idea since she knew that the big chain food stores with corporate offices on Earth only stocked a thirty-day supply that became ridiculously low just before Shutdown. By now, only the little stores with ties to local farmers would have food. Those stores were holding steady because most Pittsburghers had small gardens and currently were up to their armpits in zucchini and tomatoes. In a few days, the first frost could kill off the gardens and the little stores would have to support all of Pittsburgh. Hopefully, handing out a supply of keva beans would keep those stores from collapsing and panic setting in. “We expect a second shipment within a week. That will go to food stores for resale.”

“That’s really just sticking your finger in the dyke.” Chloe smiled brightly as she refused to be distracted. “Shouldn’t you be focusing on reconnecting Pittsburgh with Earth?”

That’s exactly what Tinker was doing, but she didn’t want everyone in Pittsburgh knowing that. Tinker sighed at Chloe’s predatory smile. “You really like your job?”

“Love it.” Chloe’s smile broaden. “I get to corner people, ask them all sorts of embarrassing questions and watch them squirm.”

Tinker tried to keep her temper but it was fraying fast. “If you keep pushing people’s buttons, someone is bound to push back.”

Chloe laughed. “It wouldn’t be good for morale if Pittsburgh’s favorite field reporter was chopped into little bits while reporting live. So, be a dear, and smile and tell Aunty Chloe everything.”

Completely the wrong thing for Chloe to say. It triggered all sorts of other things that Tinker didn’t want to be thinking about. How her previously anonymous mother had nearly drove her insane. How her pseudo-mother had turned out to be her real aunt. How Tinker totally lost it all on a dark road and gotten an old friend killed.

“You are not my aunt.” Tinker growled, suddenly too frustrated to be nice. “And this conversation is over.”

And all the sekasha kicked into overdrive, spearheaded by Stormsong. One moment the warriors were flanking Tinker, ignoring the conversation to give her the illusion of privacy. The next, they were between Tinker and Chloe with swords out.

“Don’t kill her!” Tinker ordered in Elvish, afraid that they would do just that.

Stormsong snatched the headset off Chloe. “I know how irreplaceable this is.” Stormsong held it out of Chloe’s reach. “Either you take yourself and it away from here, or I’ll grind it into pieces.”

“Fine. I’ll go.” Chloe tucked away the headset after Stormsong handed it back. “My boss has been texting me for the last five minutes to go cover the keva handouts.”

Chloe had a hoverbike tucked into the shadows of the inbound tunnel. The mystery of how Chloe reached the abandoned highway was solved. She raced the motor, making it roar defiantly before taking off.

“I have never liked that woman.” Stormsong watched Chloe speed off, her hand still on her hilt.

“Neither have I.” Tinker said.

#

The “us versus her” lasted mere minutes after the sound of Chloe’s engines died in the distances. Then everything clicked back to normal. Tinker’s right arm ached dully, her temper was frayed, the sekasha scattered out to find hidden evil ninjas, and Blue went back to pouting. When they were growing up together, Blue always looked like his brother John to Tinker. Now she could only see the Wind Clan sekasha stamp on him—the black hair, the blue eyes, and the tendency to glower.

“They won’t come out and say it.” Blue glared at her borrowed Hand as they checked the ironwood trees growing beside the bridge for strangle vines and steel spinners. “But they don’t want me to be a Blade. They’re all scared something will jump out and eat me.”

“It’s entirely possible something could,” Tinker said. “We’re at the Rim.”

Blue Sky huffed like he was going to argue the point. At one time, “the Rim” meant only the line of destruction where the transfer between worlds shattered everything at the edge down to elementary particles. On one side of the line was Pittsburgh urban sprawl and on the other was virgin Elfhome forest. Over time, though, Elfhome’s deadly flora and fauna had pushed inward, sometimes by several miles. Pittsburghers now considered the Rim to be where the dangerous Elfhome vegetation started.

“So what am I supposed to do?” Blue scoffed the pavement with his boot. “It’s not like I can be a Shield; I don’t have spells or a sword and my bow is useless at close range. Besides, you have the great wall of kick butt.”

Tinker understood completely. She could outthink just about anyone in Pittsburgh, but she was vulnerable to brute psychical force, especially when applied rapidly. It was always annoying to know that ninety percent of her enemies could simply pick her up and carry her off. The current record of being “carried off” stood at four if you counted the black willow tree, which didn’t so much carry her off as flung her halfway across the city.

Dealing with Chloe had at least made it easy to think of something Blue Sky could do. “You know your way around tech though.” She led him back to the Roll Royce and dug through the backseat that become the catchall for her toys. “You can help me take measurements and stuff.”

“Measuring what?” Blue took her camera and flicked it on and checked the battery power.

“The tunnels.” Tinker waved a hand toward the absolute black of the twin tunnel entrances. The black holes created eyes for a skull-like building abutting the foot of the steep hillside. Between the two tunnels, a tall garage door completed the skeleton grin; a steel grate broke the white door into rows of teeth.

“Okay.” Blue took three steps toward the inbound tunnel before she managed to catch him by the collar and haul him back.

“After we get the lights on,” Tinker said.

Once upon a time, “Skull Mountain” wouldn’t have fazed Tinker. She would have plunged into the tunnels without a second thought. Sure, she would have known that the solid darkness within the nearly mile-long tunnels could hide virtually anything: collapsed ceilings, rifts in time and space, man-eating trees, frost-breathing wargs, or even just machine gun wielding oni. She would have naively assumed that her intelligence would carry the day. After tearing a rift in the fabric of space and time as a side effect of single-handedly thwarting an army of oni, falling off the planet, and other odd and painful misadventures, Tinker was starting to be a little more cautious. Her life wasn’t the only one on the line; wherever she went, her Hand would be bound and determined to follow. Worse now Blue would be caught up in the danger.

Blue obviously knew he was part of the reason she was being cautious and he didn’t like it. “I’m not afraid of the dark.”

“I want to get the lights before I start anything.” Assuming they could get Impatience to cooperate. To be completely fair, it wasn’t clear if the little dragon knew that she needed his help. So far she hadn’t been able to pin him down with translator in tow. He’d spent the last week drifting unfettered about Pittsburgh, walking through walls and whatnot, scaring everyone from Ralph at Eide’s Entertainment to the counter help at Jenny’s bakery.

She got a headache every time she just thought about the upcoming work. “I need to get a hyperactive dragon—that only tengu can communicate with—to build a pathway to Earth using work crews of elves that don’t speak English and humans that barely speak Elvish. I’m not going to do that in the dark.”

Speaking of language barriers, they were still speaking English which only Stormsong understood, although Pony had been working hard to learn. Tinker switched to Elvish. “I thought the tunnels would be lit. There are lights in Fort Pitt and Liberty Tunnels.”

Blue sighed, obviously wishing they’d stayed in English, but spoke Elvish in reply. “Those tunnels go someplace.”

“Technically, Squirrel Hill does too.” When Pittsburgh used to return to Earth for one day each month—before she stranded the city permanently on Elfhome—I-376 was routinely reattached to its severed half so that it once again lead to Monroeville. There was only a sliver of actual city beyond the steep hill, though, and it had been largely abandoned over the years. Man-eating trees, frost-breathing wargs and machine gun wielding oni had that effect on suburban life.

The there-but-not-there status of the largely unused tunnel made it perfect for the project.

“Why don’t we use the cars to light them up?” Blue pointed the camera at the three big gray luxury sedans.

There seemed to be a rule that when her Hand was working, only her First was allowed to talk freely. “Domi wouldn’t be able to call her shields inside the Rolls,” Pony explained. “Cars are easy to disable. You must always consider them as a possible trap, especially in confined spaces like the tunnels.”

Blue Sky nodded his understanding, now eyeing the tunnel warily. “So, how do we get the lights on?”

“Trial and error,” Tinker said. Hopefully “error” didn’t involve death and mayhem.

#

“Are you sure this is okay?” Blue Sky asked while he filmed her picking the lock on the access door. Someone had been serious about keep people out; there were two deadbolts on the heavy steel door. “Shouldn’t we call someone first?”

“I’m the Wind Clan domi. I can do whatever needs to be done.” At least, that was what being domi seemed to entail. She was still trying to figure out the limits of her power. So far, it was easier to plow on ahead instead of trying to track down someone that could verify if she had authority or not.

“But—but this belongs to the city, not the Wind Clan.” Blue tapped the faded words stenciled on the steel door that read “Authorized Personal Only” in English. “We should call….someone.”

Blue was always such a morally straight arrow. When they were kids together, he was the one that kept her out of trouble. She could talk her cousin Oilcan into anything, no matter how crazy dangerous, but Blue was an immovable rock, sticking firmly to the rules his older brother had laid down. The elves thought of the sekasha as holy because they had been created perfect in every way. The warriors were considered above flawed laws made by flawed elves. It was weird to think that Blue’s moral compass was genetically based.

“It was the city’s,” Tinker said. “According to the treaty, though, anything left on Elfhome after the gate failed would become the Wind Clan’s.”

Blue Sky made a face at the news. Raised by his human brother, Blue thought of himself as a Pittsburgher first and foremost. “Does that include people?”

“Humans are considered neutral at the moment,” Pony said. “Clan alliance can not be assigned, it must be chosen. It is the only way you can pledge your loyalty and be true to it.”

The cylinders of the second lock clicked into place and the door unlocked.

Stormsong stepped past Tinker and pushed the door open. It swung open to reveal a cavernous garage. Tinker noticed for the first time that Stormsong was wearing button-fly blue jeans instead of black leather pants. The rivets and buttons were done with ironwood instead of steel that would have messed up the sekasha’s protective spells. They were very much the female warrior’s style, matching her blue dyed short hair.

“I could have gotten it,” Tinker grumbled.

“I’m just doing my job.” Stormsong tucked Tinker’s right arm into the sling that Tinker had been ignoring. “You’re going to have to be careful or you’ll break it again.”

“I’m not made of glass.” Tinker complained.

Stormsong laughed. “I think you’ve proven that but for the next few weeks, it would be better if you pretended that you were. The bone has healed but it’s still bruised and fragile.”

Pony put a hand on Tinker’s shoulder. “Domi, let the Blades go first.”

What did they think was going to be locked inside the garage? Then again, this was Elfhome. She stepped aside to let the sekasha search.

#

The tunnels had a surprisingly complex and extensive control room for two cement-lined holes nearly a century old. Beyond the switches for nearly a mile of lights, there were also controls for a massive ventilation system and a fairly new monitoring array. Tinker flicked on the lights, powered on the cameras and scanned the screens.

A 1953 Pennsylvania Department of Highways report stated that the tunnels were driven through “poor ground” as they were being dug and that extensive reinforcements were put into place to make them safe. Between what happened to Turtle Creek and the war with the invading oni, it was possible that the tunnels were no longer safe to navigate. Before they started fiddling with the fundamental nature of reality, Tinker wanted to test the tunnels’ support beams for stress fractures.

At first glance, the passages seemed undamaged. Then she noticed the small lumps on the pavement near the halfway point in both tunnels.

“What are those? Did part of the ceiling collapse?” Tinker played with the video controls. She found the zoom feature and panned over the objects. They were obviously not part of the tunnel. They were some kind of device, fairly simple in design—seemingly nothing more than a stack of bricks with wires sticking out of them—but she couldn’t recognize any of the individual pieces accept an obvious tripwire that stretched across both lanes of the tunnels. “What the hell are they?”

“Something bad,” Stormsong said.

Tinker turned to look at the female when nothing more was forthcoming.

Stormsong shook her head. “I don’t know what they are, but my talent says that they’re very dangerous.”

Elves described magic as the power to render things down to possibilities and reshape them. The intanyai seyosa was an entire caste who had been bioengineered to take “educated guess” to scary levels. Stormsong’s mother was the queen’s oracle and the female sekasha had inherited some of her mother’s talent. If Stormsong said the objects were dangerous, then they were.

Tinker studied the twin machines. The tripwires were connected to a cylindrical object about three inches long that was inserted into what looked like blocks of white molding clay. Tripwire. Clay. Tinker suddenly realized what she was looking at.

“Shit! They’re bombs.” Tinker pushed the elves toward the door. The tunnels would direct most of the force of the explosion laterally, but there was no telling what would happen once the tunnels collapsed. “Everyone out. Out!”

“Our shields are not strong enough to protect us from bombs.” Stormsong caught Tinker by the good arm and made sure Tinker followed them out.

“I figured that,” Tinker said. The spells tattooed onto the sekasha were meant to counteract other sekasha’s attacks; their protective shields could only deal with swords, normal arrows, and to a limited extent, bullets. Tinker’s domana shielding spell was nearly impenetrable, but penetrating was only the start of the forces at play.

“Your shield won’t keep you from being buried if the roof comes down,” Stormsong continued.

“I fully understand the physics involved.” Tinker snapped. “I’m not going to do something stupid.”

They did an odd mutual herding back to the cars and then milled about at the—possibly—safe distance.

“So what do we do?” Blue Sky asked.

Tinker took out her phone. “Find someone that knows about bombs.”

#

The director of the EIA answered his phone with a barked, “Maynard.”

“I have bombs in the Squirrel Hill Tunnels,” Tinker told him.

There was a long pause, and then Maynard asked overly polite high Elvish. “Tinker ze domi, why are you going to blow up the tunnels?”

“What? Me? No! Someone else put them there; I’ve just found the stupid things.”

“Oh, okay,” and then Maynard leapt to the same conclusion as Stormsong. “Oh please god, tell me you’re not trying to disarm them.”

Tinker sighed. Why did everyone think she’d try? The only things she knew about bombs came from movies—which boiled down to cutting colored wire before a timer ran out—and a few childhood experiments with ANFO. Her experiments had been very educational on the destructive nature of explosives and how they could go wrong. “I’m not! I need someone to come get rid of them.”

“I’ll send my bomb squad,” Maynard said.

“You have a bomb squad?”

“Yes. So when we find bombs, someone knows how to disarm them. Give me your word that you’ll wait for the bomb squad to make the tunnels safe.”

Tinker sighed, recognizing the verbal snare that Maynard just put out. If she promised him, she’d have to keep her word, no matter how long it took to dispose of the bombs. On the other hand, there was no way she could attempt disarming the bomb without getting all the elves and Blue Sky involved. The bombs looked simple, but they could be booby trapped. “Yeah, sure. I promise.”

#

Apparently after living over a hundred years, standing idle for a few hours was no big deal. While her Hand were perfectly fine with doing nothing while they waited for the bomb squad, Tinker didn’t have that kind of patience. There were ironwoods growing beside the bridge into the tunnels, their trunks far below in the valley underneath the highway. After the sekasha triple checked the trees for strangle vines and steel spinners, Tinker settled in their shade to work on her datapad.

Inspecting the tunnels was just the start of the work needed to reconnect Pittsburgh to Earth. Next step would be pin down Impatience to work out the spell. Considering the fact that her Hand was in protective overdrive, it might be saner to put that conversation on hold. The dragon had the attention span of a five year old on a sugar rush. Having the large hyperactive dragon and the jumpy sekasha in one room together would be like doing cigarette tricks in a fireworks factory.

She leaned her head back against the concrete barrier. Life was so much simpler before she became an elf princess. The sekasha were just the tip of the iceberg. Almost everything on the continent was “hers” and she had no clue what the hell she was supposed to do with it all. She was a mad scientist. A hoverbike racer. A junkyard dog. What the hell did she know about being a princess? Did Cinderella have this problem once the prince tracked her down with the glass slipper? Was this the real reason she took off halfway through the ball? Did Cinderella see all the sekasha and laedin and nivasa and realized that all those people would expect her to be a princess?

What Tinker really needed were the technical specifications on “princess,” not fairytales.

An odd vibration suddenly thrummed against her awareness, like an invisible guitar string been plucked. Windwolf was tapping the power of the Wind Clan Spell Stone. A moment later a flash of lightning tore down from the clear sky, a jagged dancing column of brilliance. It struck southwest of where they were standing. Thunder boomed out instantly, confirming the strike insanely close.

“Oh crap.” Tinker scrambled to her feet. She felt another thrum of power, slightly different, and flame blossomed above the trees.

“Wow!” Blue Sky pulled out the camera. “What the hell is that?”

“Windwolf and Prince True Flame. Okay people we have to move!”

The flame strike had been close to the nearest on-ramp, less than a quarter mile away. The road elevated after that point; it was close to fifty feet off the ground when the highway entered the tunnels. With the bombs in the tunnel, the only way to safety was toward the battlefront.

Tinker hurried toward the cars, the sekasha flanking her.

Blue Sky trotted backwards, still filming, as lightning striking again—closer. “Coolness!”

“Blue!” Tinker felt a third thrum of magic; the Stone Clan had casted a scrying spell. In a weird other sense, like an invisible eye opened, Tinker could suddenly “see” the tight knot of domana-caste elves with their sekasha-caste at the on-ramp, and an unruly swarm of something racing toward her on the highway.

“We’ve got incoming—lots of them. They’re big and they’re moving fast. I think they’re wargs.” At one time wargs had been Elfhome cousins to wolves, but then, in some ancient war, were turned into oversized bio-weapons. “They’re going to cut us off.”

“Away from the cars.” Pony ordered. “Domi, shields.”

Tinker cocked her fingers and brought her hand to her mouth. Her domana shields were generated by the Wind Clan Spell Stones which sat astride a massive spring of magic. In theory, her shields could protect them from anything but it depended on her getting them up and keeping them up.

She spoke the trigger word that set up the resonance between her and the Spell Stones. It was if a giant engine just as kicked to life; magic growled deep within her bones. The vibration rumbled through her bruised bones. She barely kept from whimpering in pain. Power was blooming around her in a rush of heat; the wrong sound could be deadly. She pressed her lips tight, changed her hand position, and triggered her shield. The power shifted and changed and the wind wrapped her and the sekasha.

“Shitshitshitshit.” She hissed now that it was safe to talk. The pain continued to burn bright as the power flowed across the resonance between her and the Spell Stones. “Feels like someone is arc welding my bones.”

“Wolf is coming.” Pony wrapped his arms around her, keeping her steady against the onslaught of pain.

She focused hard on keeping her fingers locked into position even though she could barely feel them beyond the searing. If she moved her fingers, the spell would collapse. “He’d better hurry.”

Lightning struck closer and closer.

“That is so cool!” Blue filmed the sudden wild storm of lightning. “Can you do that?”

“Not yet.” If she could sense Windwolf, then he must feel her and was trying to stop the beasts before they could reach her.

The pack of wargs raced toward them, too many to count. They made a ragged wall of fur, taller than she was. The first one slammed into her shield hard enough to rebound a dozen feet, tumbling off its feet.

The next warg learned from mistake of its pack mate. The beast stopped, braced itself, and roared out white frost. The wave of magical cold struck her shield and wrapped around them, instantly encasing them in thick ice.

“Shit!” Tinker’s breath came out in a plume of mist. She hated that she could only stand there, hoping her shields held. She hated that if she flinched even once, they instantly become vulnerable to attack. The highway was lost behind the ice wall, an opaque haze, marking the range of her shield. She couldn’t see the road, or how many more wargs were between her and Windwolf. “Oh, Windwolf, hurry.”

Fire blasted down on them, making her flinch.

“Nothing can breach your shield, domi.” Pony sounded so calm and confident.

The ice wall cracked under the heat of the flame strike and rained down in thick pieces to the payment. One of the wargs was dead on the pavement, a smoldering corpse, and the rest were retreating into the tunnels.

At one time she had thought that the sekasha were the greatest weapons of the clans, but then she discovered the truth. The warriors were mere escort for the heavy artillery that the domana-caste represented. That fact was clear as the royal troops moved down the highway in a wash of Fire Clan red. Prince True Flame was walking in the lead, all regal elf splendor in white and gold, the hot shimmer of his protective shield running before him. His Wyverns were behind him and a horde of laedin-caste troops were bringing up the rearguard.

True Flame summoned another strike with a quick series of hand motions and hard utterances and the roar of fire was deafening as it flared past her shields. It struck one of the trailing wargs, igniting the beast instantly. The rest, however, made it to the safety of the tunnels.

True Flame moved forward until she was behind his protective shield. “Are you hurt?”

Tinker knew he meant hurt by the wargs, so she said, “No.”

She was about to release her shields when Pony tightened his hold on her and murmured, “Wait for Wolf, domi.” Stormsong had shifted between Tinker and the Prince and a heartbeat later, Cloudwalker followed suit. Why were they leery of True Flame? She thought she could trust Windwolf’s older cousin.

Then she realized that Forest Moss of the Stone Clan stood beside the prince. The one-eyed and quite mad domana had come to Pittsburgh without sekasha or a household. Wyverns guarded Forest Moss; Tinker had missed Forest Moss in the wash of Fire Clan red because he had no Stone Clan black to mark his movement. The male watched her intently with his one good eye. His pure white hair was unbound and flowing in the heat that True Flame’s shield gave off. The left side of his face was an unreadable mask of scars radiating around the sewn shut lids of his eye. The right side showed hard, cold anger. Last time she’d seen him, he’d tried to kill her; no wonder her Hand was jumpy. Forest Moss was insane, but surely even he wasn’t crazy enough to attack her in front of True Flame and the Wyverns.

Where was Windwolf? She wasn’t sure how much longer she could maintain her shield. She was getting all weird lightheaded which usually meant she was about to go facedown.

A small knot of Wind Clan blue pushed through the royal red as Windwolf made his way to her with his two Hands of sekasha. He stopped at the edge of Tinker’s shield. His face was full of concern for her, making him look impossibly young. There had been a time where she thought of him as “lots older” and was only lately realizing that he was much a teenager as she was. Tinker dropped her shield and he swept her up into his arms.

“All is well. You’re safe.” He murmured, and she realized it was to calm himself as much to soothe her.

It did weird scary things to her heart to see him so vulnerable. It reminded her that he was out all day, fighting oni forces, with the Stone Clan at his back.

“Wolf,” Prince True Flame started toward the tunnel. “Send her home where she’ll be safe and come.”

“Wait!” Tinker tightened her hold on Windwolf as he moved to set her on the ground. “There are bombs in the tunnels. A blast could collapse the whole hillside. I called Maynard; he’s sending someone to disarm them.”

True Flame scoffed at her. “The wargs split up; they went through both tunnels. They would have set off any bombs.”

“Cousin, wait.” Windwolf put out his hand to stop True Flame. “The oni could be using the wargs to bait us into a trap. The beasts know this area. They could have scattered into the woods, but instead they chose to funnel us in this direction.”

“The wargs are smart enough to avoid a simple tripwire,” Tinker said even though she wasn’t totally sure that was true. It was as close to lying as she could get to keep Windwolf out of the tunnels. “Maynard’s people should be here soon.”

True Flame glanced to his First, who gave a slight nod in agreement with Tinker. The prince growled slightly in annoyance. “There’s no need for us to waste time waiting. Forest Moss,” True Flame waved the Stone Clan domana to him. “Jewel Tear.”

A Hand of sekasha with black chest armor and spell tattoos shifted forward. They belonged to Jewel Tear. Like Tinker, the short female was hidden behind a wall of tall warriors. Jewel’s First, Tiger Eye, stepped to the side to reveal his domana.

What was it about elves? They were out hunting oni and yet all of them looked ready for the red carpet. Jewel was wearing a forest green silk full length gown with a shimmering, overdress of fairy silk patterned with leaves. Her hair was the same dark brown as Tinker’s, but instead of Tinker’s jagged spikes of a haircut, Jewel’s flowed down to her ankles. It was braided with a glorious complication of pearls, ribbons and flowers. Two small stone orbs whirled about her head like she was the sun. The elf female was radiant and Tinker felt rough and unkempt in comparison.

It didn’t help to know that once upon a time, over a hundred years ago, Windwolf had asked Jewel Tear to marry him. Apparently he had a type: short, dark haired and dusky skin. Tinker’s only consolation was that Windwolf married her and not Jewel Tear. It was small comfort, though, since technically Jewel Tear had ended the engagement.

True Flame explained the bombs in the tunnel. “Can you contain the blast so it doesn’t damage the tunnel?”

“Easily,” Forest Moss said.

Jewel Tear eyed the tunnel more warily. She cast a scrying spell but the magic hit upon the steel reinforcements in the tunnel and tangled into useless noise. “Forest Moss is correct. We could easily contain the blast, but if there are other traps…”

“Pft, we are Stone Clan.” Forest Moss waved away her objections. “We have nothing to fear; we have the strongest protection shields of all the clans.”

Forest Moss activated his protection shield and marched fearlessly into the right-hand tunnel. There was a moment of hesitation among his borrowed Wyvern Hand; they were clearly not happy of having to follow the mad domana into danger. Jewel Tear was even more unhappy. She went up on tiptoe to whisper something into her First’s ear.

Tiger Eye shook his head, took Jewel’s hand and kissed her fingers. “I will not let you go into danger alone. My place is beside you.”

Jewel Tear sighed and smacked him lightly. “Sekasha fool.”

Tiger Eye grinned down at his domi. “Always.”

Her Hand gathered close to Jewel Tear as she activated her shield, and they went determinedly into the left tunnel.

True Flame waited until Jewel Tear was out of sight before turning again to Tinker. “Go home.”

It felt a lot like being sent to her room so the grownups could talk. Worse, it probably was how True Flame and his Wyverns saw it too. Even with her arm feeling like someone had beat on it with a baseball bat, Tinker opened her mouth to protest. Her mind was blank but she was positive she’d think up some intelligent point—eventually.

Windwolf kissed her. “Beloved, I’m proud you protected our people, but your arm is still weak. Anything could break it.”

“Damn it, I’m not a child,” she whispered to him in English.

“I’m fully aware of that.” Windwolf kissed her again. “There will be another day, after your arm is fully healed, when you’ll fight beside me. Today, though, you are hurt. If you break your arm again, the damage would probably be worse.”

There was a thrum of magic against her senses as one of the Stone Clan domana cast a spell. News that Forest Moss had cleared his tunnels was shouted from the entrance. She hugged Windwolf fiercely with her good arm, not wanting to let him go. She hated that she couldn’t do anything to protect him.

“I don’t need two Hands at the enclave.” Tinker offered up the only help she could give him. “I’ll take my Hand with me but the others can stay with you.”

Windwolf nodded to her logic. Despite their innocuous appearance, the enclaves were fortresses complete with guards and magical barriers.

“Wolf!” True Flame called from the tunnel entrance.

“Keep yourself safe.” She said and let him go.

Knowing he’d wait until she was in the cars and gone, she left as quickly as she could.

She needed to know how to do the scry spell so she could see danger coming. She needed attack spells so she could stop it instead of just stand there and hope that her shields didn’t fail. She had the genome keys needed to tap both the Wind Clan and Stone Clan spell stones, and possibly even the Fire Clan’s too. What she needed was to learn how to use them.

Ironically, it all came down to having time. It would be one thing if she could study them on her own, but someone had to sit down and teach her.

“That was so cool.” Blue Sky murmured beside her in the back of the Rolls.

She glanced over and saw that he was replaying the footage of the warg encasing her protection shield in ice. She grunted slightly; it was incredible that the beast could generate so much coldness, but she didn’t think it was “cool.”

“How does it work? You’re not drawing spells on paper with grease pencils! He just—just—” For lack of words, Blue waved his hands in mad parody of the domana casting. “Whoosh! And boom!” He held out the camera, giving her pleading eyes for an explanation. On the display, he’d paused on Prince True Flame cocking his hand up to his lips to trigger the flame strike.

“I’m not sure.” Tinker said slowly, taking the camera, and stepped through the frames showing True Flame casting. It looked so simple. “But I think I can figure it out.”

2: Echoing of Merriment

It was the elf’s tunic that caught his eye, a sun-ripe splash of yellow, like a daffodil in a raw spring morning. A female elf stood just outside the train station at the edge of Pittsburgh’s bleak Strip District. She was staring at a Coke machine as if it was the most amazing thing in the world. Her thick braid of walnut-brown hair swung back and forth as she swayed hip to hip, nearly dancing to music only she heard. She drummed her silent melody with a pair of olianuni mallets, complete with exuberant flourishes of victory.

Oilcan found himself slowing down as he drove past the station, watching her. There was something joyous about her that made him smile.

She was impossibly slender and surprisingly short. It made him think that she was an adolescent—she probably wasn’t over a hundred years old. A small mountain of brightly colored travel sacks and the distinctive bulk of an olianuni sat at her feet. As he rolled past her, she paused in her drumming to reach out cautiously and touch the selection buttons on the Coke machine—clearly mystified. The train aside, it could be the first machine that she’d ever seen.

He reached the light at the corner before he realized that it was odd that she was just standing there, alone. Usually one of the elves at the train station would be herding a newcomer to safety, especially a child. He sat through the red light, studying her in his rearview mirror. It took him a minute to realize why she was alone—there wasn’t a speck of Wind Clan blue on her. Her loose tunic shirt was yellow and her leather pants and slouch boots were black. Even the ribbons and flowers threaded through her braid were yellow and black. She was Stone Clan.

The elf clans weren’t allowing a common enemy to deter them from feuding. Since the train station was Wind Clan territory, none of the elves there would help the female.

He sighed, put his pickup in reverse and backed up to pull even with her.

“Hoi!” He called to her in Elvish. “Do you have someplace safe to go to? Is there someone who knows you’ve arrived here?”

She startled, looked behind her as if suspecting he was talking to someone else, and then came down to the curb to look in his pickup window. “Forgiveness, are you talking to me?”

“Yes. The streets aren’t safe after dark. The oni have been raiding at night. Do you have someplace safe to go to tonight?”

Her eyes went wide at the news. “I—I’m coming to my majority.” He was right, she wasn’t an adult. “I’ve heard so much about Pittsburgh. I’ve heard the music they play here—it’s so raw and wonderful—and—and with the war and everything, the Stone Clan is receiving remuneration…”

Oilcan sighed as she trailed off. “Do you know anyone that lives in Pittsburgh?”

“I—I have a letter of recommendation to the domana Earth Son—is that bad?”

His dismay must have shown on his face. “Earth Son is dead.”

She gave a quiet “oh” of hurt as her plans unraveled. She frowned at the ground, worrying her lower lip with her teeth. “Majority” for an elf was a hundred which made them psychically equal to an eighteen year old human. Elves, though, sheltered their children so much that the extra years did little to prepare them for Pittsburgh.

“My name is Nahala kaesae-tiki waehae lou.” There was a reason most Elves in Pittsburgh picked up short English nicknames. Literally her name was “echoing of merriment in stone,” but truly meant “laughter echoing through a cave” with the implication that it was the innocent laughter of children. The focus of sound in her name meant that her family were most likely musicians. If he had to pick an English name for her, he’d probably choose Merry.

Merry gave him a hopeful little smile.

“I’m Oilcan.”

“Oilcan.” She repeated the English word, clearly puzzled by it but undaunted. “There, we know each other now. I know someone that lives in Pittsburgh.” She paused, losing courage, but then rallied to finish with, “Can—can I stay with you tonight?”

Why were the human runaways so more streetwise than the elves who were nearly five times their age? She clearly had no idea what kind of danger she could be stumbling into.

Maybe it the color of her hair, the hesitantly of her smile, or the open sweetness of her face, but she reminded him of his mother. Having recognized that, he couldn’t just drive away, but she was a minor female and he was an adult male, albeit still nearly eighty years her junior.

“I’m not sure I can just take you home with me,” Oilcan said.

Merry nodded as if she expected the answer. “Your household wouldn’t allow you—”

“No, no, I don’t have a household. I live alone.”

“That’s horrible. What happened to your household? Oh! Did the oni kill them?”

Oilcan laughed, shaking his head. “It’s something humans do when they reach majority. They live alone until they find someone to love.”

Clearly the idea was so completely foreign to her that she couldn’t quite grasp it. “But—isn’t that lonely?”

Months ago he would have said no. He had a comfortable rhythm to his life. He shared his work day with his cousin Tinker and split the weekends between hovercycle racing and the local rock scene. He actually had to work hard to create his time alone. But then the oni invaded and everything changed. “Sometimes it is lonely.”

“Let us be lovers,” Merry suddenly said in English, stunning him. “We’ll marry our fortunes together.”

He laughed after a moment, recognizing the lyrics, keenly aware that they were across the street from the old Greyhound bus station in Pittsburgh. He sang the next line of lyrics back to her. “I’ve got some real estate here in my bag.”

Her smile was radiant with delight. “You know the song!” She cried in Elvish and dived into one of her travel sacks to pull out a hand bound journal. “An olianuni apprentice that I know let me copy his songbook.” She flipped through pages of carefully hand-drawn musical scores to find the Simon and Garfunkel song. Below the English lyrics were Elvish translations. His eyes caught on the line: I’m empty and aching and I don’t know why.

Yes, that’s the way I’ve been feeling.

The first line had been horribly mangled in translation. “Lovers” had been mistranslated to an Elvish word that meant members of the same household and “marry our fortunes” to “face a common enemy.”

Oilcan laughed, shaking his head at the discrepancy between the two. “Get in.” He’d take her out to the enclaves and make sure the Stone Clan wouldn’t try to kill him for taking her home. “We’ll see what we can work out.”

#

The closest thing that the Stone Clan had to an embassy was Ginger Wine’s enclave out at the Rim. While the gates to the enclaves on either side stood open, the heavy doors to Ginger Wine’s were shut and barred. He rapped on the door and the spyhole opened to reveal a pair of Wind Clan blue eyes.

“Forgiveness,” a male voice went with the blue eyes. “We are not able to take customers.”

“May I speak with someone from the Stone Clan?”

A slight shake of the head indicated that he couldn’t. “The Stone Clan domana are not here. They are out with Wolf Who Rules Wind ze domou ani.”

The door guard was one of Ginger Wine’s staff since the title he used for Windwolf was the ultra formal “our lord.”

“Anyone would do.” Oilcan reassured him. “Someone from their household? I merely have a question on propriety.”

“Earth Son’s sekasha are here,” the door guard said hesitantly, as if he wasn’t sure he should be telling Oilcan the information. “They—they would be well-versed on propriety.”

“May I speak with one of them?”

Nagarou!” The male gasped. He obviously knew who Oilcan was. For some reason, the Wind Clan elves had adopted his relationship to Tinker as his nickname. He was never sure if he should be flattered or offended. Did they call him that because they couldn’t remember his name, or because they’d adopted their domi’s cousin as their own? “They are sekasha! And they are Stone Clan.” The male glanced at Merry behind Oilcan and then whispered in English, “The Stone Clan are arrogant and conceited and they eat and eat and eat as if they’re hollow. Everyone is frightened. We’re tripping over each other in our fear. It might be too dangerous for you to speak with their sekasha.”

Recent history made clear how deadly the sekasha could be. “Do you really think they would hurt me?”

The door guard obviously wanted to say “Yes” but elves have a thing about telling the truth. Finally he admitted, “I do not know, but if they wanted to, they could. It is their right.”

As holy warriors, sekasha had the divine right to do whatever they wished to whomever they wanted. They were considered above the law. From what he understood, though, the very nature that made them above the law also meant that they didn’t run amuck, randomly killing people, only people that deserved it. For his own sanity’s sake, he had accepted their role as judge and executor.

“It will be all right,” he said. “I have a few simple questions and then I will go.”

The door guard considered him for a minute and then unbarred the door. “Please, nagarou, be careful.”

#

Merry refused to face the sekasha, even though the warrior was of her own clan. She cowered in the front garden, too afraid to go deeper into the enclave. Oilcan couldn’t understand why the lower caste elves were so terrified by the higher caste that they claimed to be perfection embodied. He knew from personal experience that anyone could become a killer. Wasn’t it better that the sekasha were so righteous that their violence was controlled and not random?

The door guard summoned Ginger Wine, the elegant red haired head of the enclave. She also tried to convince Oilcan that talking with the Stone Clan sekasha would be unwise.

“Everyone is on edge here,” Ginger Wine murmured in English. None of the Stone Clan must be fluent in the human language. “It’s as if suddenly we all have two left feet.”

“I will be careful.” Oilcan promised.

The female elf sighed and nodded. “I’ll take you to Earth Son’s First.”

Ginger Wine led Oilcan through the sprawling public dining rooms of the front building to the inner courtyard. Apple trees heavy with ripening fruit filled the square acre protected on all four sides by the enclave’s other buildings. It was an area that normally no human would ever see.

From the kitchens to the right of them, there was a crash as if dozens of metal pots had been dropped, and High Elvish quickly devolved into shouted low Elvish.

Ginger Wine sighed and bowed an apology. “Forgiveness, I must attend to that. Thorne Scratch on Stone is over there.”

Oilcan wondered through the acre of apple trees until he found the female sekasha.

Thorne Scratch was undeniably Stone Clan, with the brown hair and dusty skin that marked the clan. Her wyvern armor was iridescent black, shimmering like an oil slick in the dappled sun as she moved through her sword practice. Tattooed down her arms were the spells that triggered her protective shields, done in stone black.

“Forgiveness.” Oilcan bowed slightly.

Her eyes flicked to him, checking his position, and then her focus returned to her practice. “Well?” She had a smoky rasp to her voice like Janice Joplin. “What is it?”

“A young female of the Stone Clan arrived today by train. She came with letter of introduction for domana Earth Son, but he is dead.”

“I know.” She snapped. “I killed him.”

“Condolences on your loss.”

She whirled and her sword’s point was suddenly at his throat, a strangely small prick of pain considering the danger it posed. “Do you mock me?”

“No.” And seeing the doubt in her eyes, he held out his own hard won truth. “My father killed my mother in a drunken rage. Afterwards, he was so grief-stricken by what he had done that he tried to kill himself. I imagine you must regret what happened—even if you thought it was necessary.”

Tears glittered in her eyes and she turned away from him. “That is not the same.” She growled after a moment. “Your mother’s death is tragic. Earth Son’s death was inevitable.”

“It doesn’t lessen your pain.”

She glanced at him and surprise flowed across her face. “You—you’re human?”

“Yes.”

She sheathed her sword. “I thought you were one of Jewel Tear’s household. You have the Stone Clan coloring. What are you doing here?”

“A young female of the Stone Clan arrived—”

“Yes, yes, you said that. Your point being?”

“The city is not safe for a child to be wandering around alone.”

“Child?”

“She is very young.”

“A double?”

Oilcan nodded. It meant that the elf only needed two numbers to count represent their age, not three or four. It was the Elvish equivalence to “teenager.” Since majority came at a hundred, Merry was definitely a double.

“Gods save us from idiots.” Thorne Scratch growled in her raspy voice. He wondered what she’d sound like if she sang something slow and tragic. “What is a double doing traveling alone to this oni-infested hellhole?”

He could only spread his hands in ignorance. “I wish no harm to come to her, so I’ve taken her into my protection.”

“You?”

“Is there someone else that will? Would Jewel Tear take her?”

Thorne Scratch looked away, fighting to keep anger off her face. “Jewel Tear could not, even if she wanted to. She came here destitute. She has pushed herself to her limit, and perhaps beyond it, taking in Earth Son’s household. She is trusting beyond reason that the clan will compensate her for Earth Son’s failure. Jewel Tear can not do anything for your double.”

“What of the other domana? Forest Moss?”

“Bite your tongue!” Thorne Scratch snapped. “Do not even suggest such a thing. He is mad. I would not give monkeys to him, let alone a child. And do not even breathe a word to her of the possibility that he would happily take her, because she can not imagine the pain he would put her through. Doubles think of now and tomorrow and maybe the day after that—they do not think in hundreds of years.”

Oilcan nodded. “Is it acceptable then that I continue to take care of her?”

She studied him a moment before asking, “Why are you doing this?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do. There are the oni and wild animals and—I’m ashamed to say—some humans…”

She cut off his honesty with a huff of impatience. “And there are some elves that would see a child of another clan as prey. We are kin at even our baser nature.”

He’d suspected as much.

“What is your name, human?”

“I’m Oilcan.” He held out his hand without thinking. Normally elves didn’t shake hands, so he was surprised when she took hold of his hand with both of hers. Her fingers were strong as steel and rough with calluses. They were a good match to his own rough hands. “I’m nagarou to the Wind Clan domi, Beloved Tinker of Wind.”

“I see.” Thorne Scratch scanned the courtyard. “And where is this double?”

“She’s waiting in the front garden.”

Thorne released his hand and sent off with a long purposeful stride.

Oilcan hurried after her. “Go soft with her. She’s in the front garden because she was afraid…”

“Yes, yes, they always are.”

#

Merry squeaked when she saw the sekasha bearing down on her. As Thorne silently studied her, Merry edged slowly sideways until she was tucked up against Oilcan, looking very much like she wanted to hide behind him.

“Where are you from?” Thorne Scratch broke her silence to ask quietly.

“Summer Court.” The city was named for the fact that the Queen held court in the city during the summer. It was located in Elfhome’s version of England, approximately where London stood on Earth. Merry had come across half the world by herself. “The Stone quarter by the ninth bridge. My household is small, beholden to Crystal Vein of Stone, who is beholden to the clan head, Diamond. I studied under Bright Melody of Fire.”

Thorne nodded. “Did you sever ties?”

Merry’s lip trembled and she whispered, “I severed ties.”

“Why?” Thorne snapped.

“I had to.” Merry flinched in the face of the sekasha’s anger. “It was the only way they’d let me go.” Merry caught hold of Oilcan’s shirt and twisted the fabric around with her fingers. It was as if she soaked courage through the touch. She raised her chin to meet Thorne Scratch’s eyes. “If I’d stay, I’d have to play everything the way it’s always been played, because only the ‘gifted,’ the ones that play like gods walking the earth, can change anything. You have no idea what it’s like, to see your whole future laid out for you and it’s nothing but fitting into a neat little box they’ve designed for you. And all of a sudden, there’s this place across the ocean where you won’t be locked in because you’re—you’re just acceptable.”

Thorne shook her head and looked away. “I’d tell you at length what an idiot you’re being for coming here—but I was just as stupid at your age, so I have no right to criticize. What is done is done. Try to be a little more wise. You are in a city full of enemies. And terrifying as I might be, I am the only one that you can trust fully. Anytime you think you’re in danger, day or night, come to me, and I will keep you safe.”

Merry gave a tiny wide-eyed nod.

Thorne turned to glare at Oilcan. “I am trusting you. Betray me, and I’ll have your head.”

Merry squeaked again in alarm.

“I won’t betray you.” Oilcan bowed to the sekasha.

Then Merry all but dragged him from the enclave by the tail of his shirt.

#

There—permission granted. Oilcan melted on the hot leather of the pickup’s seat in the late August heat. He still wasn’t sure how he was going to work Merry into his life, but at least he knew that he wouldn’t have holy warriors chopping off his head for shacking up with an underage female.

Snow Patrol had come up on the random play of his ancient iPod, and Merry had her eyes closed, air-drumming in accompaniment. She seemed sublimely happy.

“…there’s this place just across the ocean where you won’t be locked in a box just because you’re—you’re acceptable.”

Windchime used to wave away praise, embarrassed, saying that his amazing skills were just passable. Oilcan always thought modesty was part of the elf psyche; every elf artist he’d ever met from glass blower to weaver would denounce their skill. It never occurred to him that the elves were comparing themselves to masters still alive in Easternlands. It would be as if Mozart and Beethoven and Elvis had never died and you were constantly being compared to them.

Hell, even Elvis wouldn’t have been “acceptable” for a world still locked onto Mozart’s standard. Elvis in a powdered wig trying out for the role of Figaro? Oilcan shuddered for the poor elf soul mates to the rock and roll king.

Oilcan wrote songs for local bands, but they were a hybrid blend of rock and roll and traditional elf music. No one compared his music to past masters because there weren’t any. Not many people understood both cultures well enough to create a fusion of the two. A few years ago, before the first generation of humans grew up on Elfhome, there wasn’t even an audience to appreciate it. His art was embraced and celebrated because it was new.

The artistic freedom of Pittsburgh would explain why most of the elves that came to the city were artists. Weavers. Potters. Painters. Musicians. They settled close to the enclaves and sold their wares to humans. They were all young and they all had been Wind Clan. But that was most likely about to change. Merry was probably just the first of the Stone Clan artists to arrive.

The next Snow Patrol song cued up on the iPod.

“Oh I don’t know this one!” Merry waved her mallets in agitation. “He didn’t have this song.”

“He?”

“Chiming of Metal in Wind.” Merry gave Windchime’s proper name in Elvish.

The songbook with the mangled Simon and Garfunkel lyrics clicked into place. Windchime had been called back to Easternlands last spring by his family. He had left with a solar battery recharger, three mpeg players and promises to return within a decade or two. His leaving had seriously crippled the band he played with since all their sets were built around his olianuni.

“If you know Windchime, you could have gone to Moser.”

Merry made a raspberry. “I asked for reference letter, but Chiming of Metal said I was too young to travel alone. He wasn’t sure if Briar Rose on Wind would let Rustle of Leaves above Stone stay. He was sure, though, that she would refuse someone else from the Stone Clan, since they only needed one olianuni player.”

Yeah, that sounded like Briar. Carl Moser technically owned the artist commune but his elfin lover had ultimate veto power. Oilcan hadn’t heard anything about a new olianuni player in town, but then again, elves operated on a different time sense than humans.

“When was Rustle of Leaves coming to Pittsburgh?”

“He left ahead of me.”

#

Pittsburgh and its outlying suburbs had been home to two million humans before the first Startup. Only sixty thousand remained. It meant whole sections of the city were nearly abandoned. Finding housing was easy—making it safe and livable was the trick.

Carl Moser was leading vocalist and bass guitar for his band Naekanain, Elvish for “I don’t understand,” which was usually the first thing humans learned to say. Moser had laid claim to entire block of porch front row houses on the edge of the Strip District. He was in the constant state of renovation as he merged the individual houses into a commune for artists. The place confused most humans since it presented twelve front doors to visitors. Since only the middle seven of the twelve houses had so far been merged into “main house,” it was sort of an intelligence test. The “front” door was the one painted Wind Clan blue with Moser’s name written out phonetically in Elvish on the lintel.

Moser threw open the door a few minutes after Oilcan rang the bell a third time. “Freaking hell, I’m going to take this damn thing off its hinges if no one else answers the frigging door.”

Naeso sae kailani.” Briar barked somewhere in the back the rambling house. The High Elvish was an extremely polite way to say “no way in hell.”

“Then answer the damn door!” Moser shouted back in English.

“It’s not my job.” Briar called back.

“Not my job, not my job.” Moser muttered in falsetto and then shouted. “Then freaking tell someone else to answer the door!”

“Floss Flower!” Briar shouted in Elvish.

“Shya.” The reply from the newest resident, a weaver, came from somewhere far to the right.

“You’re door guard for now on!” Briar shouted.

There was a pause in the clacking of loom and then a slightly defeated, “Shya.”

“Elves.” Moser growled quietly in English. “Always ‘who answers to whom.’ Who freaking cares as long as it gets done?”

“Anarchist,” Oilcan said.

Moser pumped his hand over his head. “Freedom!”

“You’ve gotta give for what you take.” Oilcan sang the George Michaels tune.

Moser launched into song. “Freedom! Freedom!” He jerked his head to indicate that Oilcan was to come in as he continued to sing, his fingers picking out chords on an air guitar. “You’ve gotta give for what you take!”

Merry eyed the Frankenstein monster of a room beyond the front door. Originally it was the living room with a large archway to the dinning room and a staircase to the second floor. The stairs were completely walled off with plywood and a steel garage door had been installed in the archway so the foyer could act as a barbican. All the enclaves out on the rim had similar fortified entrances, but usually more elegantly decorated. Oilcan tugged Merry gently inside and made sure the door was locked behind her.

The two houses to the right and four to the left of the building they entered had been merged into the great “main” residence. The load bearing walls between the houses had been carefully breeched so the dinning rooms merged into one long room. Moser had paid someone that could cut ironwood to make him a twenty foot long table with nearly two dozen mismatched chairs around it. Platters of food were laid out for dinner.

“We’ve got meat!” Moser cried as Oilcan guided Merry into the dinning room. Moser hit the automatic door opener on the wall and the steel garage door rattled down into place. “You’re staying for dinner.”

“We won’t have meat if you invite all of Pittsburgh.” Briar came out of the nearest kitchen carrying another platter. She was wearing daisy-duke cut off shorts and a halter top. She gave Oilcan a slight smile that vanished instantly as she glanced past him at Merry. “We’re not feeding her.”

“What?” Moser said.

“She’s Stone Clan.” Briar stomped back into the kitchen. “We’re not wasting food on her.”

“Hey, hey, hey,” Moser said. “I caught the damn river shark. I bought the damn groceries. We’re feeding who I say we feed. Someone has to witness that I’m a mighty provider.”

“I’m not feeding a filthy Stone Clan bitch.” Briar snarled.

Oilcan was glad that the conversation was in English. By the way Merry was ducking behind him she could still understand the tone of Briar’s voice.

“She’s Oilcan’s friend,” Moser said.

“I don’t care…” Briar started to protest.

Moser played his trump card. “Nagarou’s guest.”

Briar went still except a muscle in her jaw that jerked with her irritation. “Fine.” She finally snapped. “But he’s not leaving her afterwards.”

“No, she’s staying with me.” Oilcan said.

Briar stormed into the kitchen to crash pots and pans together.

Moser leaned close to whisper, “She’s so proud of Tinker saving us from a Stone Clan domi, you’d think Briar had given birth to her.”

Oilcan winced and whispered, “Please, never repeat that to Tinker. She’d freak.”

“I am not a stupid man,” Moser whispered.

“Yes, you are.” Briar grumbled as she came back out of the kitchen with two bowls of salad. “Sit. Eat.” She thumped the two bowls out and shouted, “Food!” to gather the troops.

Moser had added to his “family” since Oilcan had eaten there last. The count was now fourteen adults, equally divided between human and elf. As always the conversation slipped and slided in and out of English and Low Elvish, often changing from one to the other in mid-sentence. The food was mostly produce out of the commune’s walled-in garden, cooked into elfin dishes. The star of the meal was fillet of river shark grilled to flakey perfection.

“It was just little baby river shark.” Moser stretched out his hands as wide as they would go. “Boy it put up a fight.”

“You’re lucky it didn’t pull you in and eat you.” Briar growled.

“Or the jump fish didn’t nail you,” Oilcan said.

“I told you I’m not a stupid man.” Moser served Oilcan another fillet. “I was fishing from the Sixteenth Street Bridge. It’s too high up for jump fish.” Because Moser loved to entertain, he grinned at Merry, trying to make her more comfortable. “Do you like it?”

“Yes, it’s very good.” Merry’s smile was incandescent. “I like Wind Clan cooking. So many flavors in every bite. There’s a lot of human food I want to try. Chiming of Metal said I have to have peanut butter.”

There was laughter from the humans and a chorus of “peanut butter is wonderful!” from the elves.

“Wait, you know Windchime?” Moser asked.

“We studied together under Bright Melody of Fire.”

“You play an olianuni?” Moser shouted and slipped into English in his excitement. “You’re fucking shitting me!”

“No!” Briar snapped.

“We need an olianuni,” Moser said to Briar.

“Never!” Briar stood up.

Moser stood up too. “We need an olianuni!”

“No, no, no!” Briar thumped on the table, making all the dishes around her jump and rattle.

“This is Pittsburgh.” Moser put his hands on the table and leaned toward Briar. “We are Pittsburgh. We don’t let the chains of tradition binds us.”

“I will not work with a lying Stone Clan bitch!” Briar cried and stormed from the room.

Moser sighed and sat down.

“Shouldn’t you go after her?” Oilcan asked.

Moser shook his head and picked up his fork. “Nah, she’ll just throw things at me and be ashamed about it later. I’ll give her time to cool down. Since the war broke out, the elves are the only ones with money to burn and elves want the fucking works—the drums and guitars and the olianuni. The other bands are booking gigs but not us. We have too many mouths to feed not to work.”

“So, you haven’t heard from another olianuni player? A male called Rustle of Leaves?”

Moser shook his head. “Never heard of him. Why?”

“Windchime gave him a letter of recommendation.” Oilcan said. “Merry says he should have arrived already.”

Merry nodded. “At Aum Renau, they said he took the train to Pittsburgh almost a month ago.”

“A month ago?” Moser’s voice echoed the dismay Oilcan felt. “If there was a new player in town, we should have heard about it. You know how people talk.”

Merry’s hand stole into Oilcan’s. “Do you—do you think something bad happened to Rustle of Leaves?”

Oilcan thought of Merry standing alone on the street where any stranger could have picked her up. She would have gone with anyone. “Rustle of Leaves? Is he a double too?”

Merry nodded. “Windchime said it would be safer for him to make the trip, since he was male and older than me. He said that Moser was a good person and would keep him safe.”

“Ah shit,” Moser swore. “We’ve got to find this kid, Oilcan.”

#

The NSA agent, Corg Durrack answered his phone with, “Well, if it’s not the other Bobbsey twin.”

“I need some help,” Oilcan said.

“What? Is it Find Novel Ways to Kill Durrack and Briggs Day? Fucking hell!” Gunshots rang loud over the phone.

“What the hell was that?” Then Oilcan realized what Durrack meant by “Bobbsey twins.” “Is Tinker with you? Is she okay?”

“Oh the fairy princess went home hours ago! God forbid she gets hurt! Let the NSA deal with fucking spiders from hell!” Another gunshot. “I’ve seen dogs smaller than these things!”

“Stop whining, Durrack.” His partner Hannah Briggs growled. “And ask the kid the best way to deal with spiders.”

Judging by the sound, they’d found a nest of steel spinners. “Flame thrower is the only way to clean out a nest safely.”

“Ha! Told you! Flame thrower!” Durrack said.

“Fine, let’s get out of here and find some flame throwers.” There was another gun shot.

“Hold on.” There was noise of the two NSA running with occasional gunshots and a good deal of cursing on Durrack’s part. Finally he put the phone back to his ear. “Okay, so how do you want to kill us?”

“I need help finding a kid.” Oilcan explained how Rustle of Leaves had left the train station on the east coast but hadn’t arrived at Moser’s.

“Wait, the kid you’re looking for is an elf?”

The NSA agents had just arrived in Pittsburgh in June. While they obviously learned fast, there was much they didn’t know about elves. “An elf child. He’s like sixteen or seventeen.”

“Like?” Durrack laughed. “But he’s really sixty years older than me?”

“Elves are still basically an eight year old when they’re your age. Rustle of Leaves might be ninety but he’ll look and act like a seventeen year old human—only he’s going to be a hell of lot more naïve. Elves are extremely sheltered while they’re growing up. He would have walked off with anyone that offered him a ride to Moser’s without realizing the danger he was getting into.”

“If Pittsburgh supported video on their cell phone network, you could see me playing the world’s smallest violin.”

“He’s just a child,” Oilcan said.

“He’s an elf; let them look for him.”

“I can call Tinker, and she’ll call Maynard and Maynard will call you and tell you to do it. Or I can owe you a favor.”

Durrack was silent for a minute and then breathed out a sigh. “Oh fucking hell, I hate this planet. Fine. I’ll help you find this kid.”

3: Protection Money

Tommy Chang had no sympathy for the humans of Pittsburgh. Every time he heard someone complaining about how dangerous the city had become with the war between the elves and the oni, he wanted to punch the speaker in the face. Pittsburgh had never been safe—not for his half-oni kind. He’d grown up a slave to his brutal oni father; his money controlled, his family held hostage for his good behavior and his every action watched.

Tommy had wanted freedom, so he had thrown in with the elves during the last big battle. Somehow everything had changed, yet stayed the same. The city was under martial law, so the elves were controlling his cash flow. His family had to register as known oni dependents. And the arrival of a summons from the viceroy meant that the elves were keeping track of his moves.

If Tommy was currently free, then somehow, he’d confused freedom with starvation. He didn’t want to go talk with the viceroy at his enclave, but the elf owed him money that he desperately needed. At his knock at the enclave gate, a slot opened and elfin eyes studied him with suspicion.

“I’m Tommy Chang. The viceroy sent for me.”

The slot closed. When the gate opened a few minutes later, armed elves filled the courtyard beyond. Most of them were common garden-variety laedin-caste soldiers, but sprinkled among them were sekasha with spells tattooed down their arms in Wind Clan blue.

Tommy figured it would go like this, but it was still hard to ignore the fear racing through him and calmly step through the gate. He raised his hands carefully as the gate clanged shut behind him.

“I’m a half-oni.” They were going to find out one way or another, and he didn’t want to give them an excuse for killing him. “The viceroy ordered me here.”

“Weapons?” One of the sekasha-caste warriors asked.

Tommy surrendered over his pistol and knife. They searched him for more. He hadn’t been stupid, so there was nothing for them to find. As a final humiliation, they had him take off his bandana and reveal his cat-like ears. Tommy locked his jaw on anger; he’d vent his annoyance when he knew he was safe.

Windwolf waited in a luxurious meeting room. With cool elegance, the elf noble wore a white silk shirt, a damask cobalt-blue vest, and black suede pants. That was elves for you—everything had to be done with polished style. Windwolf acknowledged Tommy with a nod.

“This wasn’t necessary,” Tommy said. “You could have mailed me a check.”

“I wanted to talk to you. Sit.”

Tommy considered Windwolf and his bodyguards. While the sekasha bristled with swords, guns and knifes, the viceroy seemed unarmed. Tommy had seen the elf blast down buildings and set oni troops on fire with a flick of his fingers; Windwolf didn’t need knives or guns—he was a living weapon.

Tommy took a chair. “So talk.”

Windwolf laid an envelope onto the table.

Tommy studied the thick, white envelope as if it was a trap. He couldn’t see the strings attached, but he was sure they were there.

“That is for the damage I did to your family’s restaurant.” Windwolf said.

Tommy’s great uncle started Chang’s at a time when Pittsburgh existed solely on Earth. After the first Startup, the oni sought out Chinese families who had family members in Pittsburgh and used them to gain a foothold in the city. While his grandfather, his mother’s husband, and Tommy’s half-brother were held hostage for good behavior, his mother and her three younger sisters escorted Lord Tomtom and his people to Pittsburgh and the sanctuary of the restaurant. Once Lord Tomtom was safely in Pittsburgh, all three hostages were killed. His mother and aunts became useless except for whatever pleasure they could give the oni.

Tommy was the oldest of the half-breed children that survived. For twenty-eight years, Tommy had done mostly what he was told, and dreamed of somehow killing every last oni, starting with his father Lord Tomtom. A week ago, he risked everything to save Windwolf’s life. The stupid elf fuck picked a fight with oni warriors, blowing out the restaurant’s front wall and structurally weakening the building to the point that it collapsed.

But it worked as Tommy hoped. The oni stranglehold on him was broken and Windwolf crossed the half-oni off the elves’ “kill on sight” list.

“This is not stake money,” Windwolf tapped the envelope between them. “But a repayment of what I owe you.”

“Which makes us even.” Tommy wanted that clear even though he wasn’t sure if it was a good thing or not. There was some degree of security inherent in having Windwolf in his debt, but the elves were making it clear that their protection came at a cost.

“The question is now, what does the half-oni intend?”

“My family wants to rebuild.” Tommy left the envelope on the table, waiting for the outcome of the conversation. “We have a good reputation in Oakland, so we would stay in the same place.”

He used “want” to indicate desire, not concrete plans, as lying to elves was a dangerous thing to do. He wasn’t sure, however, if the elves approved of his more lucrative but illegal operations.

“We hope to have a way back to Earth opened before winter. I have spoken with Director Maynard, and the Earth Interdimensional Agency will help you move to Earth, if that is what you want. Through the EIA, the UN has set up extensive programs to help the humans dislocated by Pittsburgh’s move to Elfhome. Those programs can apply to the half-oni.”

Tommy shook his head, locking down on a flare of anger. Remember the sekasha. “Moving to Earth would be a serious step down for my people. We don’t know shit about Earth. The only people that know us over there are oni. And I know Earth history enough to know that the UN could completely dick us over—‘relocating’ us to whatever hellhole no one else wants.”

“I see.”

“There’s no golden promised land for us. Let someone else chase that shit. We know the score here.”

“Very well. Here you will stay.”

When Windwolf said it that way, it sounded ominous.

“Are we done here?” Tommy asked.

“We elves had our own cruel masters, the Skin Clan, whom we turned against. We know that good can come from evil, which is why we’re allowing the half-oni to live, but not without conditions.”

Here it comes, Tommy thought. “Those being?”

All of the half-oni must allow themselves to be known to us, so we can weed them from the oni. We are still set on our course to eliminate the oni from our world. The EIA are urging us to detain them and have them deported to Earth. Whatever is decided, the half-oni will be spared only if they reveal themselves.”

“And have a Star of David sown onto their sleeves?”

“The oni invaded our world. If we are not ruthless in our actions, the oni will take Elfhome from us by merely breeding like mice and overrunning us. We are sparing the half-oni because we believe you have inherited compassion and the capability of honor from your mothers.”

Tommy flinched, as always, at the thought of his mother. His father had murdered her when he’d grown tired of her. “You don’t have to convince me that oni are filthy pigs.”

“The half-oni will also have to conform to elfin culture. You will form households under the Wind Clan.”

“Why not the Stone Clan or the Fire Clan?”

Windwolf raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Has the Stone Clan offered?”

So Prince True Flame of the Fire Clan was so unlikely that it wasn’t even a question. “Not yet, but rumor has it that Forest Moss on Stone is quite insane, and capable of anything.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s the truth. I would not recommend him.”

“Because he’s insane?”

Windwolf shook his head. “I don’t know if he is as insane as he makes out to be; it might be a ploy he’s found useful. I believe, however, that the Stone Clan sent Forest Moss here because they saw him as expendable. If that’s true, he does not have firm backing by his clan. Nor does he have sekasha, which leave any household he builds vulnerable.”

“Ah.” Tommy fought a flash of respect for Windwolf. The elf was shrewd. Unfortunately, that could work to Tommy’s disadvantage.

“This is repayment.” Windwolf tapped the money on the table. “If you wish to establish a household under me, I will advance you stake money. You would be under my protection.”

Tommy had lived under the oni “protection” long enough to know that was a two-edged sword. “I’ll need time to think about it.”

Windwolf nodded. “We’re lifting martial law today. Do what you will, but know that the offer is still on the table.”

#

Tommy collected the money, his bandana, his knife, his pistol and his freedom, in that order. With the money stuffed into his jeans’ pocket, he rode his hoverbike up to Mount Washington. There he sat, smoking a cigarette, looking down at the city. He spent years taking calculated risks trying to free himself from his father, Lord Tomtom, leader of the oni. Looking back, it was odd which ones led to this moment.

The most unlikely was staying silent when his father started looking for a man by the name of Alexander Graham Bell. Tommy knew Bell was really a teenage girl genius who went by the name of Tinker and ran a metal salvage company in McKees Rocks. He saw her and her cousin, Oilcan, every week at the hoverbike races. Knowing what his father would do to Tinker if he found her, Tommy went to her scrap yard to kill her. He told himself it was the merciful thing to do.

Tinker been working on an engine, but greeted him with a smile, a cold beer, and a blithe assumption that he cared about the inner workings of big machines. She was so small and trusting. He’d waited until she leaned back over the engine and wrapped his hand around her slender neck…

And realized he was rock hard with excitement. He was getting off on the idea of killing someone who, with her pulse pounding under his thumb, only looked at him with mild confusion. It was like the monster that was his father suddenly woke inside him and stretched against the limits of Tommy’s skin. It wanted out to fuck with something that had been beaten to bleeding and then kill it. Like Lord Tomtom had done to his mother. Like his father had tried to do to him.

Tommy jerked his hand back off Tinker’s neck and wiped it against his pants, wanting it clean. He wasn’t his father. He refused to be.

Three months after he’d fled his heritage and Tinker’s scrap yard, she killed Lord Tomtom, blocked the oni invasion, and kept Tommy from being beheaded. Of all his little rebellions, he would have never guessed that the most important had been wrapped around that small life. Knowing how close he came to killing her made him worry about what he should do next. It was so easy to misstep.

He took out the cash and counted it. The insurance adjustors had been generous. His family could rebuild the restaurant and still have a small nest egg. But it did nothing for the other families that looked to him for protection. He employed all the half-oni that couldn’t pass as human, making sure they could make ends meet without risking being discovered. His father’s warriors had always controlled his cash flow; his oni watch dogs had stripped Tommy bare before they fled. Then the elves locked down the city, shutting down his businesses. What little he had hidden away had been drained just keeping everyone fed.

If he took care of just his family, he lost the ability to do anything for the other half-oni. With the loss of that power base, he would be less able to defend his family. It was a self-defeating loop. The more he tried to protect his family alone, the less he would be able to do it. Any disaster would put them at the elves’ mercy. They’d go from being owned by the rabid oni to the being controlled by the rigid elves. Slavery, no matter who was the master, held unknown terrors of helplessness.

But if he used the money to restart his businesses, then it was more than enough to keep them free of elfin entanglements. The most profitable was running numbers on the hoverbike races. Now that martial law had been lifted, racing could start again. Carefully managed, he could grow the seed money.

And money meant freedom.

#

John Montana ran a repair shop and makeshift gas station out of the old McKees Rocks Firehall. He also captained Team Big Sky, which had ruled the racing season until the elves locked the city down. The firehall’s three tall garage doors were open to the summer night as Tommy pulled up on his hoverbike. John had a car up on the end rack. Surprisingly, his younger half-elf brother, Blue Sky, was with him. The boy was practicing drawing a wooden sword and bringing it up into a guard position. It confirmed the rumors that the elves had discovered that the boy’s father had been a Wind Clan sekasha and taken custody of him. Apparently they’d given John visitation rights to the brother he had raised like a son. How good of them.

John came out from under the car and greeted Tommy with a cautious look and a nod. “Blue, I’m getting hungry. Can you heat up the food you brought home from the enclave?”

Being a good kid, Blue immediately put away his sword. Blue was seventeen years old, but because of his elf heritage, he was as small and naïve as a ten year old. “Is Tommy staying for dinner?”

“No, he’s not.” John mussed Blue’s hair and then gave him a little push to get him moving. He waited until the boy had left before asking, “What do you want?”

Did John know that Tommy was half-oni? Of all the people in Pittsburgh, he might know, since Blue was coming and going from the Viceroy’s enclave. It was hard to tell, as John had always been protective of his little brother around Tommy.

“Elves lifted martial law,” Tommy said.

“I heard.”

“I’m setting odds for this weekend.” Tommy leaned on his handlebars, keeping to his bike out of grudging respect for John. The man had always done right by his brother, even though he wasn’t much more than a kid when they’d lost their mother. “Is Blue riding?”

John nodded. “The sekasha figured out fast that taking everything from him would only break him.”

Was it good of the elves to be worried about breaking their possessions? The oni never did. Did it make the elves more compassionate, or just more careful with what belonged to them? “Letting him come back here is also to keep him from breaking?”

John pressed his mouth into a tight line, as if he’d said more on the matter than he wanted to.

“If I was you, it would piss me off.” Tommy pressed for more information, wanting to know what is was like to have elves control your life. “Them taking him like that.”

“Didn’t say I was happy about it.” John lowered the rack, dropping the car down to the garage floor. “But some of it makes sense. He likes to fight. It’s why he likes to ride. And since we don’t have any family here on Elfhome; they’ll take care of him if something happens to me. He’s going to be a kid for a long time; probably longer than I’m going to be alive.”

Trust John to still be thinking of what would be best for Blue Sky even while the elves were rubbing his nose in shit. What made humans so damn noble and oni so monstrous? Was it because the oni greater bloods had bred the lesser bloods with animals? Tommy didn’t like to think what that made him, but he couldn’t deny the cat-like ears hidden under his bandana. And did those ears mean he could recognize nobility, admire it, but never attain it?

Tommy distracted himself by starting up his hoverbike. He had dozens of teams to visit. “Still think it sucks.”

#

Since Windwolf had reduced their warren to rubble, Tommy had hidden his family away at an industrial park on the South Side. The building was large enough to hold them all, had running water and toilets, and was easily defended by a handful of people. After the luxury of the enclave, it was also very dirty and ugly. His cousin, Bingo guarded the main door. He slid the massive door aside to let Tommy ride his hoverbike into the cavernous warehouse.

“Glad you’re back.” Bingo pulled the door shut and threw the locking bar. “I’ve been getting calls all day. People are asking if we’re taking bets.”

“I’ve been out to the teams.” Tommy fished out his datapad and handed it to Bingo. “Call Mason at the Post-Gazette and give him the list of teams that will be racing. Tell him we’ll be starting to take bets tomorrow morning.”

There was a brittle crystalline crash from the back of the warehouse. Tommy reached for his pistol then stopped as he realized Bingo looked only mildly disgusted by the noise.

“What’s that?” Tommy asked.

Bingo shouldered his rifle. “Numbnuts got Aunt Flo knocked up last time he boinked her—just before Windwolf turned him into an oni candle.”

“Shit, again?”

His cousins were all mildly terrified of Aunt Flo, even though their oni blood made most of them nearly two feet taller than her. The more the oni humbled her, the more she would rage at his cousins. Tommy suspected her fury was the main reason she’d survived where his mother hadn’t. If he didn’t stop her, she was capable of breaking all their dishware. Sighing, he headed to the back of the warehouse.

They had salvaged what they could from the restaurant, including the dishes. They had nailed up shelves to the back wall and stacked the survivors there. Aunt Flo had worked through rice bowls and was now throwing bread plates.

“Stop that,” Tommy snapped. “We’ll need those to start up the restaurant again.”

She flinched away from him, shielding herself with the plate.

“I’m not going to hit you.” Tommy wanted to though, just for thinking he might. She read the anger on his face and continued to quail. “Throw the last one, and then clean up the mess.”

Reassured that he wouldn’t act, she let loose her anger again. “I didn’t want another baby!” She flung the plate against the wall. It shattered, its pieces raining down to a pile of broken china. “I’m sick of babies! You could have stopped him!” She turned to flail harmlessly at him. “You stood there and let him finish and then you killed him! You should have just killed him when he first walked in!”

He caught her wrist and controlled himself so he didn’t hurt her, despite his growing anger. “He had his warriors with him. Did you want us all dead just to save you from…what? Doing what he’d done a hundred times before? We’re free of oni now. This time, you can go to the human doctors and have an abortion.”

The fight went out of her and she started to cry, which only made him angrier, because he’d been helpless to protect her in the first place. It had been Windwolf that killed the oni, not him. She clenched the front of his shirt with both hands, seeking comfort from him as she sobbed. The herd of his younger cousins thundered pass, all shrieking loud enough to wake the dead, the one in the lead with some treasured toy that all the rest wanted.

God, he needed a drink.

4: Three Esva Shy of a Full Deck

Tinker had spent the evening studying the recording that Blue Sky had made of the warg fight. She ran it through a video editor so she could isolate the domana and analyze every frame as they cast their spells. Blue Sky had caught Prince True Flame doing the fire strike, Jewel Tear doing the scrying spell and both the Stone Clan putting up their shields. The fire strike scared her slightly. It looked so simple she barely could keep from trying it out; her curiosity, though, was often deadly to those around her. The problem was she wasn’t completely positive how the prince was directing and limiting the power of his attack. She’d gone to bed wondering how she could practice the spell without worrying about setting things on fire.

She dreamed that she was back at the archery range at Aum Renau. She’d bolted marshmallows on sticks to the mechanical targets that the sekasha used for archery practice. Once on fire, though, the warg-shaped targets had somehow run amok, like crazed flaming sheep. Afraid that the entire palace would go up in flames, she’d wondered around lost, trying to find the Spell Stones in order to call a rainstorm to put out the wargs.

She woke slowly in a warm nest of sheets that smelled of Windwolf with the images tumbling in her mind. She thought of elaborate traps to catch and contain the flaming wargs until she woke up a little more and realized how silly the whole dream had been.

It did remind her, though, that during the three weeks at Aum Renau, she had visited the Spell Stones only once. From the air they had looked like giant slabs of black granite, but up close, it turned out they were layers of stone, each layer inscribed with spells, connected by jumpers just like integrated circuit boards. Why hadn’t she taken the time to study them closer?

Nothing for you,” Sparrow stated the first time Tinker saw the Spell Stones from the airship.

Oh yes, that was right, Sparrow had kept detouring her away from the massive granite slabs. Strange how in retrospective it was easy to see that Sparrow wanted Tinker helpless when the oni kidnapped her. Things would have gone so much differently if Tinker could have called her domana shields. Even now, though, it was still hard for Tinker to wrap her mind around “why” Sparrow had betrayed her.

I’m using the oni to fix what is wrong,” Sparrow said. “I’m going to take things back to the way they should be.

Like that would have worked. How would flooding Elfhome with oni do anything other than just wipe out the elfin race? By the oni’s count, there were billions of them to the few million of the elves. The oni apparently bred like rabbits. The elves were killing all the oni they found in fear even two would eventually reproduce enough to outnumber them. How did Sparrow think she was going to get rid of the oni after the world suited her?

There was the murmur of male voices as Pony greeted Windwolf with “Brother Wolf.”

“Little Horse,” Windwolf said fondly. “She is still asleep.”

“Hhmm,” Tinker said to indicate she was really awake.

Windwolf came to kiss her. “Go back to sleep. Your body is still healing.”

She moaned since him saying that would get Pony all protective. Almost on cue, the bed dipped and Pony slid in beside her to wrap his arms around her. He slept only in loose cotton pants, so she found herself snuggled into warm skin over hard muscle. Assured that she was pinned in bed by her First, Windwolf went back to getting dressed. She groaned in protest, one that they were ganging up on her, and two that Pony was there, being sexy and available, and Windwolf approved. It was a little facet of elf culture still freaked her out; elves operated on an equation that read:

If Wolf Who Rules then (Wolf Who Rules + Tinker) Else (Tinker + Pony).

Everyone (except her) understood that when she took Pony as her bodyguard, it also made him the go to guy for sex if her husband wasn’t handy. The elves reasoned that immortality and basic nature would eventually lead you to want more than one sexual partner, that you’d naturally want to screw with your sexy bodyguard, and besides, said bodyguard was safe, where someone outside the household wouldn’t be. Everyone (except her) would be fine if she made love to Pony. She felt guilty just being curled up in his arms and tempted to snuggle closer. Nor did it help that he nuzzled into her hair and brushed against the tips of her ears. It felt sinfully good.

She groaned again and pulled herself out of Pony’s arms to sit up. “No fair ganging up on me.”

Windwolf grinned at her as he sat on the edge of their bed and pulled on boots. “I could call Discord in too.”

Discord was his nickname for Stormsong. Gods, she’d never get out of bed if both Pony and Stormsong decided that it would be better if she stayed in it. She smacked Windwolf—unfortunately with her right hand. Pain lanced up her arm. She curled around it, hissing in pain as both males moved to comfort her.

“I’m sorry beloved.” Windwolf let Pony scoop her into his arms, a sure sign that he needed to be somewhere else soon.

“I’m fine,” Tinker growled. “Where are you going?”

Windwolf sighed. “We’re still trying to figure out where the main oni forces are hiding. That there are nearly twenty thousand tengu in Pittsburgh is proof that there are more oni than we first thought. Pittsburgh is so large and has so many abandoned buildings, they could be anywhere. It has been like fighting shadows.”

“Be careful.” She had planned on working on casting spells, so there was no need for him to leave two Hands with her. “Take all three Hands. If I leave the enclave, I’ll stay where there’s cops and EIA.”

He kissed her forehead. “I will be careful, my little savage.” He nodded to Pony. “Keep her safe, Little Horse.”

#

Poppymeadow’s was the oldest and largest of the enclaves in Pittsburgh. Its outer wall was fifteen feet high and had a defense shield that could be triggered to make the enclave nearly impenetrable. On staff were a score of laedin-caste guards that patrolled the grounds. The various wings and outbuildings formed a second line of defense around the inner courtyard filled with peach trees. All the buildings presented blind walls to the outer world; their only windows faced inwards. The small orchard was the safest place in Pittsburgh.

For her Hand’s sake, Tinker settled in a spot where she was in full view of the practice hall when its great double doors stood open to the courtyard. Spared the need to be endlessly vigilant, her Hand took the opportunity to spar with each other.

If she was going to safely cast the fire strike and find other spells she could learn on her own, she needed to widen her search. She went crawling into Pittsburgh’s Internet. It was a stunted stepchild of the one on Earth, but it had its uses. First contact with the elves had been nearly thirty years ago. She had expected a lot more footage of Windwolf using magic, but apparently there hadn’t been a whole lot of need for him to break out the big guns.

There was only one recording of him fighting; it was taken during the first Startup. She had seen the video dozens of times but never realized it was about Windwolf, mostly because he never actually appeared on camera. The clip was most commonly known as “WTF” because the human military officer kept repeating “What the fuck?” as tanks pin-wheeled down the street and Hummers were reduced to molten lava. Because of the refrain, it was actually pretty funny, especially with the right music added.

There was a lot of footage of Windwolf being handsome and princely without throwing around tanks. She loved watching him move effortlessly through the political dance, endlessly patient and yet unbending. He knew what he wanted, knew how to get it and would not stop until he had it. He was the only person she ever met that could match her in imagining huge and making it real. He felt like her other half. That he was handsome, rich, powerful, sexy as hell, gentle and patient, and loved her without reserve didn’t hurt, either.

Realizing she’d been sidetracked for nearly an hour, she dropped Windwolf from her search words and added Prince True Flame. She found a mother lode of recordings from the black willow fight on the north side. Apparently her failed attempt to stop the black willow had given people time to get into position with cameras. From the various recordings, she was able to assemble a composite of the fight. Annoyingly the black willow (which had tried to eat her) instantly seemed to recognize it was out powered and retreated as the prince blasted it into cinders. The increasing distance between the tree and the domana gave Tinker the vectors she needed to determine how the prince controlled the fire strike spell. None of the cameras, however, had caught the prince putting up his very cool fire shield.

She flopped back onto the blanket and held her hands up to the sky, studying her splayed fingers. So much potential locked away from her. So far she only figured out the Stone Clan shield spell and one Fire Clan attack spell—in theory—and she wasn’t even sure she could tap the Fire Clan Spell Stones.

“The Fire Clan esva is combined with the Wind’s at Aum Renau?” she asked the sky.

“Yes, they are.” Pony’s voice was level and calm despite the fact he was fending off Little Egret, Rainlily and Cloudwalker. “Cover!”

Tinker glanced over and watched as Pony whirled back as Stormsong slid into his place, graceful and strong, blocking attacks with her practice sword. They were as beautiful to watch as dancers. They were all smiling widely; they loved to fight, even just each other.

Stormsong took up the discussion. “The first thing we did when we arrived in the Westernlands was set up the stones for both esva at Aum Reanu. We slept that winter among the stones; warmed by their heat and protected by their shields.”

The stones generated a constant shield that could shrug off a nuclear bomb. From what she understood, the shield not only protected the stones but also acted as a safety valve on the massive pool of magic under the stones, bleeding off excess power when the stones weren’t being tapped.

“And the Fire esva is keyed to Fire Clan, not Wind?”

“Windwolf can use both esva,” Stormsong said. “Since he used himself as a blueprint when he transformed you from human to elf, you will most likely be able to use the Fire esva once you’ve been trained.”

Tinker considered her hands again.

Windwolf’s mother was Fire Clan and his father was Wind Clan. Of their ten children, Windwolf was the only one that could use both esva. Tinker knew enough about genetics to know that nature flipped a coin when a child was conceived. Heads, the child had the Fire Clan blonde hair. Tails, the child had the Wind Clan black. How did Windwolf get both esva? Was this like blood type where you could have AB blood from an A blood type mother and a B blood type father? That didn’t seem right, though, since if that was the case, statistically half of Windwolf’s siblings would have had both esva.

It wasn’t simply that the gene was recessive. There was no way that it could be and Tinker still had access to the Stone Clan esva. It had been half a dozen generations since her elfin ancestor was trapped on earth and married a human. If the key was recessive, it would have been bred out along with the immortal lifespan, pointed ears, and almond shaped eyes.

She was aware of movement and suddenly she was bracketed by Pony and Stormsong in full Shield mode. “What’s wrong?”

Lemonseed was Windwolf’s major domo and thus head of the housekeeping staff (embarrassingly enough, Tinker thought she was just very bossy cook for the longest time.) Nine thousands years had made her infinitely patient. She waited a few feet away; hands folded over her stomach in a manner that Tinker had learned meant that someone was here on official business. “Ginger Wine would like to speak with you.”

“Sure.” Tinker sat up.

Only recently Tinker had started to learn how to tell identify castes on sight. What she always considered as “high caste” was actually nivasa-caste. They had been bred by the Skin Clan to be elegant, beautiful, and empathic in nature; they used their gifts to run the enclaves as long-stay hotels. Unlike most of the other Wind Clan members, they weren’t uniformly black hair and blue eyed. Ginger Wine had glorious auburn hair and eyes like emeralds, though she compensated by drenching herself in Wind Clan blue silk.

The enclave owner bowed in greeting and said tentatively, “I—I’m worried about cousin.”

Judging by the way Pony went tense, this was bad news. Tinker couldn’t remember, though, who Ginger Wine’s cousin was. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“He brought a Stone Clan female to my enclave yesterday. None of the domana was available, so he spoke with Earth Son’s First. Not only did Thorne Scratch refuse responsibility for the female, she forced cousin to accept it and then she threatened cousin.”

“Did Thorne Scratch hurt Oilcan?” Pony asked.

“Oilcan?” It felt like Tinker had grabbed hold of a live 220 line. “What did Thorne Scratch do to Oilcan?”

“She did not hurt him.” Ginger Wine said. “But this Stone Clan bitch—she clearly has no sense. Who knows what trouble she will get herself into and the holy one will blame cousin for it.”

What the hell had Oilcan gotten himself into? Tinker had to see him, make sure for herself that he was fine. She headed for the coach house where the Rolls were stored, trusting that her Hand would follow.

5: Train Spotting

Even when Oilcan was young, he always knew his tiny cousin would eventually find something large enough to express her soul. He’d assumed that it take the form of a sixty foot tall robot that she could ride around in, smashing cars underfoot like Godzilla. It was somewhat of a relief that she settled on a collection of warriors. She was better off with flesh and blood that loved her than a thousand tons of quasi-intelligent metal. Still, it was a little bit startling to open the door to her “shave and haircut” knock and be face to face with sekasha first thing in the morning.

Pony filled the doorway, right hand on ejae, scanning the apartment behind Oilcan with eyes cold and hard. When no danger was found, the warrior abandoned the death mask and smiled bashfully, revealing his gentle spirit. “Good morning, cousin.”

“Hi, Pony.” Oilcan had learned the drill well enough that he stepped sideways without being nudged. Pony and Stormsong brushed past him to search for spear traps and hidden ninjas. Oilcan lived in a three bedroom loft in a high rise apartment building on Mount Washington. It always seemed ridiculously huge until Tinker visited; even before she picked up her elves, she overflowed the condo. With the sekasha, however, the space became claustrophobic.

Tinker was on Stormsong’s heels. She poked Oilcan in the ribs. “You have a female move in with you and I have to hear about it from Ginger Wine?”

“I was busy!” Oilcan said.

“Obviously,” Tinker said.

Cloudwalker grinned in greeting, handed Oilcan a basket smelling of breakfast, and closed the door. Because his condo could only handle so many warriors comfortably, the rest of Tinker’s Hand would stand guard in the hall, frightening his neighbors to either side.

A slight squeak from Merry reminded Oilcan that his new roommate was terrified of sekasha. Pony had moved into the bedrooms, accidentally herding Merry out of her room. The little female scurried into the hall and careened off of Stormsong with another frightened squeak.

“Is that her?” Tinker’s surprise made Oilcan realize that she was expecting someone older.

“Yes.” Oilcan sighed as Merry took cover behind him. “Merry, this is my cousin, Beloved Tinker of Wind, her First, Galloping Storm Horse on Wind and her Second, Singing Storm Wind. They brought breakfast.”

Merry made little meeping sounds.

“Gods, finally, someone smaller than me!” Tinker drifted back, giving Merry space, but was studying the little female intently.

“For about a decade.” Stormsong took up guard against sliding glass doors out onto his balcony, which was the farthest point from Merry that the room would allow. “How old are you? Sixty winters?”

Merry pressed closer to Oilcan under the scrutiny of all the adults. “I’m seventy.”

“Oh—geez,” Oilcan barely kept from swearing. Seventy meant Merry was only about thirteen. No wonder she was so small.

“If she’s only seventy,” Oilcan said quietly in English. “Shouldn’t we send her home?”

Stormsong shook her head. “She probably can’t go back if she severed ties.”

Pony was frowning as he struggled to follow the conversation. The young warrior had been studying English but wasn’t fluent. He understood enough to add in Elvish. “Between seventy and their majority, a child is allowed to sever ties with their parent’s household to make new alliances. At seventy, I chose to join Brother Wolf here in Westernlands.”

Pony’s mother was a sekasha beholden to Windwolf’s father, Longwind. If Oilcan understood correctly, Pony normally would have been part of Longwind’s household for the rest of his life.

“You’re sekasha.” Stormsong pointed out that the normal rules didn’t apply to Pony. “And you went with blessings. Wolf is your blade brother and he’d just been named Viceroy of the Westernlands, bringing honor to the clan. He needed support from the clan to keep his position. Most households see a child leaving as a betrayal.”

Oilcan sighed as he remembered Merry’s conversation with Thorne Scratch. “She severed ties.”

Merry rested her forehead against the middle of Oilcan’s back and said, “My mother—she—she called me a liar.”

Lying was an unforgiveable sin to elves. To call someone a liar was to deal the ultimate insult. Oilcan wanted to tell her that everything would be fine, but they were empty words against the weight of the insult.

“But—I thought children were so precious,” Tinker murmured in English. “They really won’t take her back?”

“It’s complicated.” Stormsong said. “It’s the head of household’s decision to take her back, not her parents. If her sama is old enough to have lived through the worst of the Skin Clan’s reign—which they’re probably are—then they would see any shift in alliance as treasonous to the entire clan. The punishment used to be stoning.”

Tinker eyed Merry with pity and then gave Oilcan a wry grin. “Congratulations. You’re a dad.”

And that was why he loved his cousin so much. The fact that Merry was an elf and part of the Stone Clan didn’t enter into Tinker’s equations; she saw simply a child in need.

“There’s a double missing, too.” Oilcan told them about Rustle of Leaves. “I went to the train station and talked to the elves there. They confirmed that he arrived, but he was Stone Clan, so they ignored him. I have the NSA, the EIA, and the police looking for him but they keep harping about how the kid is close to a hundred years old.”

Stormsong growled in anger.

“Even Maynard?” Tinker asked.

Oilcan shook his head. “I didn’t talk to Maynard himself. I didn’t realize the kid was missing until after dinner. I talked to someone on the night shift. I wanted to go out looking for the kid myself, but I had Merry to think of.”

“I’ll call Maynard.” Tinker said. “And I’ll get the Wyverns looking…”

“Let us deal with the Wyverns,” Pony said.

“Fine,” Tinker tapped on Oilcan’s chest. “You don’t go out alone looking for him. There’s oni and shit everywhere. And Merry does not count as backup. You call me or your take someone that can kickass with you.”

“I won’t.” Oilcan promised, knowing that once he did, he would have to keep his promise.

#

As usual, the condo seemed huge after Tinker and her Hand left. Oilcan distracted himself from the sudden quiet by investigating the baskets of food that Tinker had brought from Poppymeadow’s. Apparently the enclave decided Oilcan was in danger of starving to death. Considering the state of his pantry, they weren’t that far from wrong. He better spend some time laying in food before things got really sparse.

It seemed wrong, though, to be going through the normal motions of living when there was a child missing. He’d promised Tinker not to look mostly because he couldn’t even start to imagine where to search. So much time had passed since Rustle of Leaves had left the train station. The male could have reached any point in the city within a day. How far had he gotten? The train station lay in the triangle formed by the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. The male could have only gone less than a mile in three directions without having to cross a river. What kind of directions did Windchime give to Moser’s place? Did they include “if you come to a river, turn around quickly”? The river’s edge was a dangerous place. That section of the Allegheny was thick with jump fish.

He had a sudden and awful vision of a pile of travel sacks sitting next to the water. Maybe he should check the river’s edge.

“Beloved Tinker of Wind is nothing like I expected.” Merry broke the silence. “She’s so—so—so much like the sky.”

Oilcan laughed. “The sky?”

“She’s the only thing that Summer Court is talking about—the Wind Clan’s new domi this and the new domi that. We hounded Chiming of Metal to tell us about her. He said he didn’t know any words that would truly describe her, and anything short of the proper words would be a betrayal to his domi.”

Poor Windchime. He was probably the only person in the Easternlands that had ever met Tinker. When Windchime had left, Tinker was a human hover bike racer who occasionally acted as a roadie for Naekanain. During the summer, a chance encounter with Windwolf had catapulted her to status of domi of the Westernlands.

“Chiming of Metal played this song, and said it captured her essence.” Merry hummed a tune that Oilcan recognized. He had written the song for Tinker but had never told anyone that it was about her. He’d called it “Godzilla of Pittsburgh.” Apparently Windchime had recognized Tinker in the oversized melody.

“When he played me the song, all I could imagine was the sky. How it’s big and unlimited, and sometimes it takes your breath away when you watch it, but you can’t hold it and make it yours. You can only watch and be amazed.”

“Yeah, that’s her,” Oilcan said.

“Do you think she’ll find Rustle of Leaves?”

“If anyone can, she will.” Oilcan said.

“What will happen to the others?”

“Others?”

“They said Earth Son needed clan members to build our presence in the Westernlands. Most people wouldn’t dream of coming so far into the wilderness, but Earth Son was going to sponsor anyone that made their way to Pittsburgh. It was a chance in a lifetime for anyone that wanted to set up their own enclave.”

“I don’t know.” Oilcan said. “That will be up to the Stone Clan.”

Thorne Scratch had said that Jewel Tear couldn’t take in any more people, and that Forest Moss couldn’t be trusted. What did the Stone Clan think was going to happen to the people they were sending to Pittsburgh? Were they actually just dropping them into the city and hope they survive?

“Come on,” he said.

“Where we going?”

“To the train station.”

#

Oilcan always loved watching the train coming into the station. The big diesel train rumbled up to buffers with a growl that could be felt the whole way into his bones. The brakes hissed and cars lurched to a stop. For a moment, he was back in Boston, holding his mother’s hand, waiting to go on some special adventure. Down to the harbor to watch the tall ships unfurl their bright sails. To Boston Commons to feed the mallards gliding beside the swan boats. Out to the windswept bay islands to fly kites. Anywhere his father wasn’t drinking himself into a murderous rage.

Sometimes, his mother talked about getting on the train and just keep on going. She kept their immigration papers for Elfhome in the zippered compartment of her purse; just in case they would ever need to flee to another world to be safe. Their ancestor had come from Elfhome, once upon a time, and they could always run back. They were both fluent in Elvish; it had been handed down through the family for generations. They used it as their secret language as they tiptoed around his drunken father. She’d get work translating and they’d live with the grandfather he’d never met.

But they always went back home. Despite all his father’s weaknesses, she loved him and that love killed her. Only after she was dead did Oilcan take the train to Elfhome.

And it was Merry holding his hand tightly. “It makes the most marvelous sounds.” She was nearly vibrating in place with her excitement over all the sights and sounds of the city. Her hands twitched as if she wanted to translate it all to music on her olianuni.

Laedin-caste royal marines in scarlet uniforms spilled out of the passenger cars like school kids on a field trip. They pointed up through the glass ceiling at the buildings that towered over Pittsburgh. They pointed out onto the street where a hoverbike was passing a slow moving van. They pointed at him.

“It’s a human. Look, Blaze, your first human.”

The soldiers gathered around Oilcan, creating a tall wall of red, to study him closely. In amazed exclamations, innocent of any contempt, they made comments on his short hair, his rounded eyes and ears, his t-shirt and blue jeans, and his obvious lack of any weapons. Perhaps because of their school children exuberance, Merry showed no signs of being afraid of the laedin-caste warriors.

“I thought they would all have guns.” A female lifted her shoulder to indicate the rifle slung over it. The rifles were fairly standard issue, not the magic-insulated ones that the sekasha carried.

“Are you sure it’s not an oni?” A male that seemed barely out of his doubles asked. “They said that the oni are disguising themselves as humans.”

“He is not an oni!” Merry gave the young soldier a slight shove, which made all the soldiers laugh and push the soldier themselves.

“Oni are tall, Blaze.” One of the officers stated. “And they tend to smell of vinegar.”

“I didn’t realize humans were so small,” Blaze said.

“Forgiveness, I’m considered fairly short for a human male.” Oilcan said in High Elvish. He didn’t want the incoming troops to think all tall humans were oni. He raised a hand over his head to indicate several inches taller. “Most human males are taller. Some are as tall as you are.”

“I’m still growing.” Blaze snarled in Low Elvish.

The young elf male got smacked in the back of his head by his officer.

“You speak the high tongue very well, child.” The officer gave Oilcan a slight bow that begged forgiveness.

Oilcan ignored the mistaken about his maturity. He knew from experience that his height misled elves, but his true age would only reinforce the impression. “Thank you. Were there any Stone Clan on the train?”

There was a rattle of a drum toward the back of the train.

“Fall in!” The officer shouted and the troops dutifully shuffled into formation. “No, child, there were no Stone Clan with us.”

The drum rattled again and they marched out, shouting excitedly and pointing at the new wonders of the human city.

#

Until the war broke out, the trains had been run by Americans, mostly by necessity since the freight cars would roll directly off Earth onto Elfhome and back during Shutdown. The tight schedules, the hundred of freight cars that needed to be linked into one long train, and the necessity to match up rails to the exact inch meant humans well familiar with technology ran the system while elves worked in apprentice-like positions.

Oni had infiltrated most of the human organizations in Pittsburgh and the train was no exception. In the name of security, the elves had taken over the rail lines.

The station didn’t have a ticket booth, since tickets weren’t required to ride the train. It did have a staff of three elves in Wind Clan blue who looked seriously overworked.

Oilcan bowed to the eldest looking of the three. “Forgiveness, but can you tell me if any of the Stone Clan arrived in the last few weeks?”

The elf male shot a look at Merry and pursed his lips as if he’d tasted something sour. “It is not my duty to pay attention to the coming and goings of the Stone Clan.”

Oilcan locked down on his anger. All this bigotry was starting to really make him mad. “Just yes or no, did any other Stone Clan get off the train?”

“I don’t have to answer you, human.”

A black tattooed arm suddenly flashed past Oilcan’s head with the speed of a striking snake. Thorne Scratch caught the male elf by the collar and slammed him hard up against the wall. “Yes,” Thorne Scratch rasped in her rough scratchy voice. “You do have to answer him.”

Merry squeaked and backpedaled from the female sekasha.

“Holy one!” The elf cried, eyes going wide with fear.

“Answer him.” Thorne snapped.

“Yes! Yes, some Stone Clan arrived. They got off the train and left the station.”

“How many? When?” Thorne said.

“I don’t know,” The elf said. “One every few days for the last three weeks. Six or seven total.”

“Which was it?” Thorne snapped. “Six or seven?”

“I’m not sure. Let me think. There were the two olianuni players. The taunrotiki came first and a taunlitiki came just yesterday.” He meant Rustle of Leaves and Merry. “There were three taunrotiki. One nivasa with his soup pots all clanging and two other—I don’t know what they were. There were two—no—three taunlitiki before the olianuni player yesterday. One was in court fashion; I think she was a seamstress. One had the hands of a potter—she was the first to arrive. I’m not sure what the smallest taunlitiki was.”

Oilcan felt sick. The Wind Clan male was using the gender words for children instead of adults.

“They were all children?” Thorne cried.

“They looked young,” the male said. “Either doubles or just hit their triple.”

“And you let them walk out into a war zone?” Thorne said.

“They were Stone Clan,” the male said it as if it explained and forgave everything.

“No!” Oilcan cried as Thorne pulled her sword. “Holy one! Please don’t! You will only make things worse. Please.”

“He as good as gave those children to the oni,” Thorne growled.

“Killing him will only turn the others against the Stone Clan more,” Oilcan said. “This is for Wolf Who Rules. As viceroy, the protection of all the elves in Westernlands is his duty, not just those of the Wind Clan. Let him punish his own.”

She glared at him for a long minute before sheathing her ejae.

Oilcan turned to the nearest elf, making him step backwards when Oilcan pointed at him and said, “You.”

“Me, domana?”

“Yes, you.” Oilcan ignored Thorne’s scoff behind him. “Do you know how to use a phone?”

“Yes, domana.”

Oilcan took out the tablet he kept for making lists, tore off a sheet of paper, and wrote his phone number on it. “This is my phone number. Every day, without fail, watch for Stone Clan getting off the train. If any get off, ask them to wait here at the station and call me.”

It was a poor temporary fix. Hopefully either news of Earth Son’s death would stop the masses from traveling to Pittsburgh, or another Stone Clan domana would arrive that could sponsor the incoming. The damage, however, was already done. Seven children had disappeared into the city.

#

“Are you out looking?” Tinker cried when he told her about the other missing children. By the sound of it, she was still in the Rolls. “You promised not to!”

“I’m at the train station, not the river’s edge.” Oilcan said. “And I have Thorne Scratch here with me—she qualifies as someone who can kickass.”

There was a long silence to the point he thought the connection had died, and then Tinker said in English, “Be careful with Thorne Scratch. Just because I sleep in the nest of dragons, doesn’t make them less dangerous.”

He sighed. “I know. She nearly killed the elves that work at the station because they let the kids wander off to be kidnapped. I told her that Windwolf would do something about it. He’s the viceroy.”

“Windwolf, hell, I’m coming down and kicking butt myself.” Tinker promised.

He suspected Windwolf would have been gentler than Tinker.

Thorne was studying him with a look of mild annoyance, as if it bothered her to not understand him. “Why do you care about these children?”

“I was ten years old when my mother was killed. Humans don’t have clans. My only kin lived here on Elfhome. Since news could only be passed during Shutdown, it was weeks before they learned of my mother’s death, and then my grandfather needed to wait for the next Shutdown to come get me. I was alone on Earth for nearly three months, in the care of strangers, not knowing if anyone was coming for me.”

“So you understand what these doubles are facing by leaving everything behind and coming here.”

He nodded. “My grandfather was too wrapped up in his own grief at first to really take care of me. My baby cousin, Beloved Tinker of Wind, was only six.” Oilcan measured off how tall Tinker was at the time. “But she understood that she was all I had. By day she taught me what I needed to know to be safe and at night she let me grieve without judgment.”

Something that could have been envy flickered across her face before being banished. “You were kin. Why does she care for these children who are not her blood and not her clan?”

“Because that’s the way she is,” Oilcan said. “She cares about people. When she was basically the same age as Merry…” He was going to use Merry as a demonstration of size for when Tinker fought a saurus to save Windwolf’s life. The little female, though, was nowhere in sight. “Where’s Merry?”

Thorne scanned the room and then clicked her tongue in an elfin shrug. “I think I scared her away.”

That was entirely possible. Merry probably retreated to the safety of the pickup. Still, with all the kids going missing, it worried him to have her out of his sight. He walked to the entrance to check his pickup. Merry wasn’t in the cab.

“Merry?” He called.

The area was amazingly empty for an entire troop of marines having just unloaded from the train. Neither the soldiers nor Merry were in sight. The only thing moving was a dark van that was just pulling away from the curb.

He realized suddenly that he’d seen the van half a dozen times since arriving at the station, always slowly trolling past. “Merry!”

Five running steps and he caught the van and jerked open its back door. There were four big men crouched in the back. They looked up as the door opened, surprised but unafraid. They had Merry pinned to the floor, a hand clamped over her mouth.

“No!” He growled and scrambled into the moving van. He needed to stop the van; he needed to get to the driver.

He ducked a backhanded blow from the nearest one, jerked sideway from a grab, caught the driver’s head by the hair and slammed it into the steering wheel. The van jumped forward and bucked as the horn blared loud in protest. Oilcan grabbed the spindle and jerked the van into park. It shuddered to a halt, throwing him hard against the dashboard. It was an old van and keys dangled in the ignition.

He reached for the keys, but hands caught him from behind and flung him through the front window. Merry was screaming as he hit the pavement in front of the van. He heard the unmistakable clacking of a shell being chambered in a pump-action shotgun.

He looked up into the barrel of the gun as it fired.

The pellets rained to the ground inches from Thorne Scratch as she stood over him, her sekasha shields protecting them both. “Idiot! You’re not a domana!”

The van’s rear lights flashed, indicating that the driver was shifting back into drive.

“Cut the wheels!” Oilcan pointed at the van’s front tire.

Thorne caught Oilcan by the collar and spun like a matador before an enraged bull. The front bumper just missed Oilcan. She struck with her ejae as the van roared past, driving the blade through the driver’s door and cutting a long gash down the side. The van careened as it leapt forward, jumped the curb and slammed into the streetlamp on the corner. The horn stuck on, blaring loudly.

“That works too,” Oilcan said.

The back door flung open and the males inside leveled machine guns at them. Thorne growled a curse and shifted in front of Oilcan as bullets chewed a path toward them. The first handful pinged off her shield, but then Thorne grunted as one plowed through her weakened defenses and hit her.

“Thorne!” Oilcan shouted.

The air around them suddenly changed and the gunfire muted oddly as bullets ricocheted harmlessly to either side.

Pony pulled Oilcan up and back, eyes cold with fury. The Wind Clan sekasha ignored the oni, though, to square off to Thorne Scratch. “Peace?”

“We have peace until we agree to war.” Thorne gave a slight bow.

Pony matched the bow. “Peace it is until we agree otherwise.”

“Do we have to do this now?” Tinker was trembling with effort, right hand outstretched, finger cocked into odd positions.

“Yes.” Both Pony and Thorne Scratch said.

“Are you hurt?” Tinker asked Oilcan.

Oilcan shook his head. “They have Merry.”

“We will get her back.” Pony unsheathed his ejae.

“Don’t kill them!” Oilcan cried, getting a surprised look from all the sekasha. “We need to find out where they took the other children.”

Pony sheathed his ejae and pulled out two knifes. “We’ll take them prisoner. Ready, domi?”

“Yeah, fine, whatever.” Tinker growled.

In one fast and violent motion, the sekasha attacked. Tinker had shifted forward, maintaining her shield spell to protect Her Hand as they dove into the back of the van. Merry screamed as Thorne slammed into the oni holding her, knifes flashing. Oilcan’s heart hammered in his chest at the sound. Rainlily grabbed Merry and jerked her back, out of the fray. She was drenched with blood and her yellow tunic hung in tatters. Oilcan tried to move toward her, and only then realized Cloudwalker had hold of him and was shielding him from stray bullets.

Just as suddenly as it started, it was over. The sekasha had the disarmed oni pinned and bound.

“It is not her blood, cousin.” Rainlily rocked Merry as the little female clung sobbing to her.

Oilcan breathed out relief. When Thorne slashed through the driver’s door, he realized, she had cut the driver in half, spraying the inside of the van with his blood. The smell hung thick in the hot air.

“Where are the other children?” Thorne kicked the oni that been holding Merry. “Where did you take them? Are they still alive?”

Oilcan repeated the question in English, and then tried the little Mandarin that he knew. The oni gazed up at him blankly. “I don’t think they speak anything but Oni.”

Judging by the looks on the sekasha, none of them spoke Oni.

“I’ll call Jin.” Tinker rubbed her arm, grimacing in pain. “The tengu will be able to talk to them.”

Tinker’s Rolls Royce sat abandoned twenty feet down Liberty Avenue, all doors open and engine still running. As Tinker climbed into the Rolls to find her cellphone, Thorne staggered to the low planter in the center of the street and sat down. Blood streamed down Thorne’s arm from a slice in her shoulder.

Oilcan got the first aid kit from his truck and bound the wound. “You’ll have to have the hospice staff look at this.”

“After we find the children,” Thorne said.

Oilcan nodded and then hugged her carefully. “Thank you. I couldn’t have stopped them. They would have just driven away with Merry and I wouldn’t have been able to do anything to save her.”

She hugged him tightly, burying her face into his shoulder. There was something desperate in her hold, like he was the only safe handhold in a flood. She breathed deep, with only the dampness of his shirt to tell him that she was crying.

“Idiot,” she growled after several minutes. “You don’t have shields. You don’t have a weapon. Next time, just stay out of my way and let me deal with it.”

He opened his mouth to say that he sincerely hoped there wouldn’t be a next time, but then, that would mean there would be no reason for her to stay close. “Okay, next time, I’ll stay out of your way.”

6: Whelping Pens

Tinker expected Jin to come with bodyguards. He was, after all, the tengu’s spiritual leader. He came alone, apparently trusting her to keep him safe. He glided down out of the summer sky on great black wings. With one easy backstroke, a muffled clap of glossy feathers, he landed on the far side of the train station’s parking lot. He stood there, bare chested and panting, letting the sekasha grow used to his presence. His wings were solid illusions, called into existence by the spell tattooed on his back, real down to their vanes and quills and hooks. He dismissed them with a word, making them vanish back to the nothingness from which they came.

Tinker really had to figure out how they worked.

Jin had a white button-down shirt tied to his waist that he pulled on, buttoned, and tucked into his blue jeans like a priest donning his vestments. When he crossed the parking lot, he seemed nothing more than an Asian man out for a summer walk. He wasn’t even wearing fighting spurs on his bird-like feet; he wore a pair of tennis shoes. The only things that marked him as the spiritual leader of all the tengu was the air of calmness that he seemed to radiate and the dragon birthmark of the Chosen faintly showing under the fine linen of his shirt.

“Thank you for coming,” Tinker said as he bowed to her.

“You needed me, of course I would come.” Even though she had greeted him in English, he’d answered in fluent Elvish. “You’re our domi, it is our duty to serve as it yours to protect.”

It was weird having elf pledges coming out of a tengu’s mouth, but the tengu were safe only because they were her beholden.

Jin tilted his head and then stepped closer to hug her. “Are you all right, domi?”

“No.” She had nearly lost Oilcan. If she had been a minute longer reaching the train station. If Oilcan hadn’t called her. If Thorne hadn’t been there to protect Oilcan. It had been so very, very close. “I’d say ‘give me time’ but we don’t have it.”

“Was he hurt?” Jin asked after Tinker explained how Oilcan had discovered that Stone Clan children were arriving in Pittsburgh and being kidnapped at the train station by oni.

“He got a couple of impressive bruises. I had him take Merry to the hospice; she’d been fairly roughed up by the oni.” It had taken Tinker twenty minutes of bullying to get Oilcan to agree to stay at the hospice and wait for Tinker to find the children. After seeing Oilcan nearly killed, Tinker wanted him a safe distance from the fighting. He agreed only after Tinker had ruthlessly pointed out that the hospice were all Wind Clan elves and might not treat Merry without Oilcan there to force the healers into it.

As soon as he left, though, Thorne Scratch started to restlessly pace like a big cat in a cage. Sehaska apparently were calmer when they had someone to protect.

“It’s unlikely the children are still alive,” Jin said. “Lord Tomtom was very careful with you because he needed you well and functioning. Obviously the oni wanted the children for some reason, but still, they’re rarely careful with their prisoners.”

Tinker shivered and nodded. She had seen how the oni tortured their own; she didn’t want to think of the horrors that the missing children were suffering.

Jin crouched down beside the first oni prisoner and spoke at length in the oni coarse language.

After several minutes, Thorne Scratch growled with impatience. “What are you telling him? Your life story?”

“No.” Jin shook his head. “He knows he’s going to die. He knows that the elves don’t take oni prisoners. He also knows that the elves are too noble to torture prisoners.”

“I’ll show him noble.” Thorne growled.

“You don’t have enough experience in inflicting pain to impress him,” Jin said gently. “I’ve reminded him that we tengu have lived as slaves to the oni for a thousand years. We had every excruciating torture that our masters know inflicted on us. We tengu are known to be clever and quick to learn. I have reminded him that we tengu have a bone to pick, so to speak.”

The memory of sharp knives and white bone flashed through Tinker mind. She wrapped her arms tight around herself. “Gods, Jin, I know what oni do…”

“So does he,” Jin said. “You would give him a quick clean death. It would be merciful compared being turned over to those who hold a thousand years of misery against his kind.” He spoke again to the oni, and this time the oni glanced at the other oni tied up, and started to talk. Jin listened intently nodding.

“They were told to come to the train station every day, that there would be elves traveling alone. They were to grab them quietly and take them to warren on the north side. Human’s think that it’s a dog kennel. There’s a greater blood called Yutakajodo who wanted them for a project.”

“Dog kennel? Shit, I know where that is.” Tinker even knew people who had bought dogs from the kennel. Big ugly mutt dogs. She thought of Chiyo and the warg and shuddered. “What project?”

Jin asked the oni questions but it was obvious that no more information was forth coming—much to the oni’s distress. “He doesn’t know. I didn’t expect him to. Greater bloods rarely explain themselves to the lesser bloods. All they knew was they were to keep the elves alive until Yutakajodo dealt with them.”

“How did you get him to talk so much?” Stormsong asked.

“I promised that the first to speak would earn a clean death. I pointed out that you needed only one of them to talk. I told them once you had the information that you wanted, you’d turn your focus to the missing elves.”

Jin had implied that the remaining oni would be left to the tengu.

“I’m not giving you them to torture,” Tinker said.

Jin gave Tinker a smile that came straight from his heart. “I know and I’m glad. I want my people to make your nobility theirs. We’ve learned too much cruelty from the oni. It’s time to learn a new way.”

#

Tinker didn’t want to go after the children with just her Hand, not with the oni armed with automatic assault rifles that could chew through the sekasha’s protective spells. Her people needed someone that could fling tanks around and reduce cars to molten lava—not someone that could barely maintain one shield spell. Judging by the very faint tingling against her magic sense, though, Windwolf was someplace very far away, fighting the oni. She couldn’t wait for him to finish his battle and return to Poppymeadow’s. The oni were so elusive because they scattered any time one of their number were captured. As soon as it became apparent that the oni in the van weren’t returning, the oni with the children would abandon their hideout, either taking the children or killing them.

“You need more than six sekasha to take out a warren,” Jin said. “I’ll call some of my warriors.”

“Thank you.” Tinker felt uneasy at the idea of leading her Hand and the tengu into danger. “I hate risking lives to save lives.”

He smiled at the worry. “This is our war, too; if the elves lose, we’ll fall under the oni’s control again.”

She supposed no one understood the dangers facing Pittsburgh better than the tengu.

Jin turned to face northeast and let out a crow call that resonated across her magic-sense like a spell being cast.

“What the hell was that?” Tinker asked.

“It’s a power of the Chosen to be able to call the Flock,” Jin said.

“You called the entire flock?” Tinker said. “All twenty thousand?”

Jin laughed and shook his head. “I have warriors I know I can trust and are fluent in Elvish. I’ve called them.”

“So it’s like calling out for Chinese? An order of sum yung gai with wings?”

Jin laughed again.

Who else could she highjack into the effort? Remembering that Oilcan had mentioned a troop of royal marines, she sent Rainlily to track them down and then called Maynard.

“Durrack and Briggs are still clearing out the steel spinners.” Maynard said when she identified herself. “There’s a huge nest up in the air ducts.”

She frowned at the phone for a moment. Which air ducts and why did Maynard think she cared? Maynard made it clear when he finished with, “Until we have the steel spinners cleared out, the highway engineers can’t do safety checks on the tunnels.”

“No, I’m not calling about that. I need backup on the north side. The oni are holding some elf children prisoner. I’m going in to rescue them.”

“Just you?”

She scoffed at the question. “Just five foot tall me with the badly bruised right arm? No!”

“I’m at Shippensport with Windwolf, Prince True Flame, and both Stone Clan domana.” In other words, all the heavy hitters were tied up protecting the nuclear power plant.

“I’ll have my Hand—plus one—and some tengu—and some royal marines if Rainlily can find them between now and then.”

There was a moment of silence, and then, “I’ll send you backup.”

#

The royal marines turned out to be a small regiment that specialized in warg hunting. Her Hand claimed that they were a crack commando team, but they were like an unruly group of teenage boys, laughing and joking about the upcoming fight. She had the commanding officer repeat the information that “the tengu were allies and not to be shot at when they showed up” many, many times and loudly.

Maynard’s assault team of thirty men seemed more like the steely-eye soldiers she would expect out of “crack commandos.” They too were warned of the incoming tengu.

The warnings turned out to be a good thing as the tengu looked dangerously feral when they showed up. They landed on the roofs of the buildings around the parking lot. Unlike Jin, they wore fighting spurs and war paint and not much else—it was like they’d pared clothing down to offset the weight of knives and guns. The lack of shirts really showed off the fact that flying was great for upper body strength.

Riki winged down and landed beside his uncle. “You called.”

“The oni have taken some elfin children,” Jin said. “Domi needs us to help rescue them.”

Dismay and anger flashed over Riki’s face. Tinker thought for a moment that he was upset at her for asking tengu to save elves, but then he said, “Oh domi, nothing will us more pleasure than to kill these monsters, but the children are most likely dead already.”

Jin put a hand to his nephew’s shoulder. “A greater blood wants them alive.”

“Then there’s a chance,” Riki admitted.

“The greater blood is named Yutakajodo,” Tinker said. “Do you know him?”

Riki shook his head. “I only dealt with Tomwaritomo. The oni don’t play nice even with each other. Yutakajodo is a true greater blood and automatically outranked Lord Tomtom but Lord Tomtom had clawed his way up from the lesser bloods and he didn’t see it that way. If Lord Tomtom could have gotten the upper hand, he would have killed Yutakajodo long ago. Yutakajodo, though, was always three steps ahead Lord Tomtom. True to form, Kajo killed all his tengu a few hours before you returned Jin to the flock.”

“Kajo?”

“It’s oni for snake. Yutakajodo is the name of the most poisonous snake on Onihida.”

#

Fear skittered through Tinker as they drove across the city toward the dog kennel. Thanks to her elf regeneration abilities, the pain had been more bearable when she cast her shield to save Oilcan, but this wasn’t going to be a short skirmish. She thought of Prince True Flame leading the royal forces, his shields protecting all his people. She was going to have to do that but she wasn’t sure she could withstand the pain for hours.

They stopped a mile from the base and the tengu scouted ahead. The Rolls proved to have a small arsenal in its trunk. Throne Scratch geared herself along with Tinker’s Hand. With ninja-like stealth, Riki suddenly appeared overhead and dropped down with quiet rustle of feathers. Since her protection of the tengu was through Jin alone, she had asked him to stay behind and give command to Riki.

“This is not going to be easy.” Riki spread a map out on the hood of the Rolls.

“The warren is tucked between the river and this cliff. The oni know that they can’t run, so they’ll dig in and fight. The only way in is down this street.” Riki slid his finger along a road through several blocks of empty lots, void of any cover. “And through this reinforced gate. There’s netting over this area here, so my people can’t drop in and eliminate any guards quickly.”

The netting and reinforced gate were new additions. The one time she’d been down this street, years ago, the compound looked and sounded like just a dog kennel.

“So we go straight in.” Tinker’s stomach was doing flipflops at the thought but if they went in fast and hard, the fight would be over quicker. “I’ll lead and my Hand will take out the gate while I protect them.”

Pony pointed to various points on the roof. “Put your people here with rifles. Use the cover to stay safe but protect the others as they follow domi in.”

Riki nodded his understanding. The marine commander took it for granted that the domana would lead the assault but the EIA commando leader looked slightly alarmed that she would be first one into the fight.

“Get into positions.” Tinker ordered, ignoring him. Actions would speak louder than any words.

She spent the next few minutes bracing herself for what was about to follow. She was going to lead a hundred of her people into a fight to the death for the lives of seven children—and it was going to hurt like bitch in more ways than one.

“We’re ready, domi.” Pony took his place slightly behind her and unsheathed his ejae.

Tinker took a deep breath and set up resonance with the Spell Stones and quickly called her shields. Her right arm throbbed with dull bearable pain. “Okay, let’s do this.”

#

She walked as quickly as she could straight up to the gate. The EIA commandos might have been dubious, but the oni knew trouble when they saw it coming. They unleashed a thunderstorm of gunfire onto her. At the gate, her Hand slashed through the tall steel gate. When it crashed to the ground, the marines charged with a roar up the street, and there was no turning back.

The first part of the complex was a wide roadway with small buildings to either side, which at one time housed security guards and office workers.

“We’ll keep them pinned; search the side buildings.” Pony ordered the commandos and marines. He sheathed his ejae and unslung the bow from his back and nocked a spell arrow. The rest of the sekasha followed his lead.

The spell arrows screamed away. The sound of their flight triggered the spell inscribed on their shafts. The arrows flashed to laser-intense light and punched through the ranks of oni. Pony led the others slowly forward as they carefully picked out targets for their arrows, trusting Tinker to keep them safe. Tinker gritted her teeth against the pain throbbing in her arm and followed in their wake.

With Tinker pushing her shield forward, the oni had no choice but to retreat. The other fighting units fanned out to search the smaller buildings. Tinker tried to ignore the gunfire behind her to stay focused on maintaining her spells. She hated that she couldn’t protect all her people. Until they found the children, she couldn’t even use her one attack spell.

The narrow street ended at a loading dock with a dozen bays facing the road. All the doors were closed, the oni retreating in through a man-sized side door on the far right.

“Hold here.” Pony stopped short of the loading dock. “Advise me, domi. What would lie behind those large doors?”

“It’s a warehouse,” Tinker said. “All those doors including the small one will lead to the same large room. If we hit the left-most door, we can clear the room left to right.”

Of course there was the slight matter of getting onto the nearly five foot tall loading dock. The stairs were barricaded.

Pony backed up, slinging the bow across his back. “Cloud, assist domi.”

The sekasha charged forward and leapt up onto the loading dock.

“Assist? What do you mean by…” Tinker yelped in surprise as Cloudwalker lifted her up and deposited her onto the loading dock. Somehow she managed to keep her shields up. “Oh for the love of god, I wish people stop doing that to me.”

“Forgiveness.” Cloudwalker vaulted up beside her.

Her Hand and Thorne Scratch slashed through the bay door like it was tissue paper.

Apparently when you bred for animal size, strength and brutality, you lost housekeeping somewhere along the way. The football field-sized room looked like someone had backed garbage trucks up to the loading dock and dumped the contents into the warehouse. Oni warriors had a weakness for Twinkies and Milkbones judging by the multitude of the empty boxes. There were walkways kicked through the litter. There were odd little semi-cleared areas—containing only filthy blankets, chewed pillows, and worn clothes. Oni of all shapes and sizes were bolting for more fortified positions.

The tengu came winging down and cut through the netting stretched across the street.

“Find anything?” Tinker called to Riki as he landed on the dock.

“No sign of the kids yet.” Riki shifted so he was still protected by her shield and shot at a small oni that was struggling to reposition a tripod-mounted machine gun. “Most of the outbuildings were lightly guarded dog kennels and pig sties.”

“This whole place looks like pig sty.” Tinker picked her way slowly through the garbage. The pain made it hard to keep her footing while maintaining her shield. She was losing track of the fight around her. “What’s the deal with this mess?”

“This is a sleeping nest.” Riki watched her nervously. “I’ve never seen one this disgusting before.”

“If the kids are tied up somewhere in here, they’ll be difficult to spot,” Tinker said.

“Gods forbid.” Riki fired off more shots. “The only reason they’d be in here is the greater blood had no more use of them.”

The other teams came spilling into the sleeping nest. They spread out, weaving through the litter, looking for oni. Tinker started toward the only visible door on the warehouse’s back wall. A dozen steps forward and she nearly tripped over a small body, half-hidden in an avalanche of trash.

She recoiled with fear, seeing only a snarling face. Riki shot it twice before either of them realized it was already dead.

“What is it?” Tinker asked. The creature was smaller than any oni she seen before. It had a pig-like snout, sharp tusks, and was covered with coarse hair. It was wearing only a loincloth and a bandolier filled with fat shells for the grenade launcher lying beside it.

“Oni.” Riki reloaded his rifle. “Lesser blood. Very lesser.”

She kicked it for scaring her. “How did this even get to Elfhome? Did the oni put it in a dog crate to get it halfway across Earth and through EIA checkpoints?”

“It was born here,” Riki stripped off the bandolier and picked up the grenade launcher. “This is a whelping pen. The Greater Bloods brought females that could pass as human to Elfhome via Chinese visas. The father of that thing was probably one of the wild boars locked up outside.”

She’d been so focused on getting through the trash while keeping up her shields that she hadn’t thought about why the oni would have animals kenneled in the middle of the city. She shuddered. “What logical reason would you mate a female to a wild boar?”

Riki passed the piglet’s weapon and ammo to one of his warriors. “These hybrids reach maturity faster than humans. Think of Chiyo; her pregnancy will run less than two months, not the nine months of a human. Within a decade, her puppies would be ready to breed.”

Tinker flinched at Riki using the word “puppies” for Chiyo’s children but she’d seen the mating; the warg father had been pure animal. Chiyo already had fox ears and a tail—how human could her offspring possibly be?

“This is why the oni are hiding instead of fighting,” Riki said. “They’re immortal like the elves; they can afford to play the waiting game. The longer they wait, the stronger they become. Within a few decades, they’ll easily outnumber the elves in this area. In thirty or forty years, they could have several million of their kind in Pittsburgh.”

“Millions?” Tinker scoffed. “Even with a generation a decade, do they really have the numbers to hit that mark?”

“Do you think that the humans will be left out of their plans forever?” Riki asked. “There are sixty thousands humans in Pittsburgh but with the exception of these EIA soldiers, they’re sitting on the sidelines, watching. The Greater Bloods know that if the humans took up arms, it could tip the scales in the elves’ favor, so they’re leaving the humans alone. When the time is right—maybe as long as a decade from now—they’ll kill all the men and turn all the women into breeders.”

Tinker stared at him in horror. “You can’t be serious.”

“This is a war to the bitter end,” Riki said. “The only ones that don’t know this are the humans. If the elves lose, then the humans will end up like the tengu.” He lifted his foot and flexed his bird-like toes. “Remember, we were once human.”

She knew the oni well enough to recognize the truth in what he was saying, but she didn’t want to believe it. “So—we’re going to find oni children in here?”

“That is one of the oni children.” Riki pointed at the dead tusked oni. “It’s about nine years old. Don’t worry—all the other oni ‘children’ will do their damnedest to kill us too.”

#

She had just reached the door when a shout went up from the other corner of the sleeping nest. One of the marines waved and flashed a series hand signals that Tinker didn’t recognize.

“Domi, no.” Pony blocked her from moving closer to the discovery. “You do not need to see this.”

“What is it?” she asked.

“The oni killed one of the children,” he said. “A female.”

Tinker wavered, not wanting to see the dead female, but feeling like she should force herself to look. She looked down at her arm. The only thing she’d done the entire fight was keep it locked into one position. It hurt so bad she felt like crying. “I feel so useless.”

Stormsong scoffed. “If you were useless, there would not be nearly a hundred warriors in this filthy hole. We would still be trying to beat the information out of the oni and failing.”

Pony hugged her. “Beloved, there is nothing you can do for this child. Focus on the ones that might be still alive.”

#

Beyond the back door was a maze of halls and small rooms. Tinker pushed the oni down the hallways with her shield and the sekasha. The other teams fanned out behind her, searching the rooms. Reports came back of weapon lockers, food caches, another animal kennel, and a “breeding room” that she so did not want to see. Arguments started to flare up as the tengu looted anything valuable.

“Damn thieving crows.” The marine commander muttered to her at one point, apparently unaware that they were her beholden.

Shouts in Elvish dragged Tinker back a dozen feet where Riki was blocking the door to a large outdoor courtyard. Wood smoke drifted in through the open door, scented with roasting meat. Smoke and heat rolled up from crude fire pits of cinderblock, rebar and corrugated metal. Clear of burnable trash, the courtyard was strewn with broken pallets, split wood, full logs, and well-gnawed bones.

“What’s wrong?” Tinker asked.

“My people will search this area,” Riki said.

“Why yours?” The marine commander demanded. “Why can’t mine do it?”

Riki looked to Tinker for appeal. “It’s the kitchen. The oni eat—the oni consider children a delicacy. It would be kinder, if they butchered one of the children, for us to recover the body.”

The looks on elves’ face were enough for Tinker to say, “Yes, do it.”

#

Deep in the maze, the constant pain of maintaining her shields caught up with her. One moment she was on her feet, and then she was in Pony’s arms, face pressed against the strong column on his neck.

“You need to rest, domi.”

She swore. “We don’t have time for this.”

“We need to let our rearguard to catch up with us. We’re spread too thin.”

Only then she realized that there were only a handful of the royal marines with them. The rest were scattered somewhere behind them. She couldn’t argue with his logic. With the marines covering their retreat, he carried her back to a smaller room they’d already passed. The room had been so obviously void of both oni and children that they had only given them a quick scan. He settled on a tufted leather bench so she could rest in his arms, safe within his shields.

“We’re going to need to be deloused after this,” Tinker grumbled, frustrated by her weakness. Bad enough to be wading through the trash, sitting down was making her skin crawl. She eyed the bench suspiciously and realized that it was surprisingly clean. In fact, now that she looked closely, they weren’t surrounded by the normal oni filth. The litter here was entirely different; it was expensive, luxury clutter. There was good solid ironwood furniture buried under heaps of furs, bags of United States bills and Elfhome coins, and cascades of jewelry. The floor was scrubbed clean, covered with oriental rugs, and then stacked high with weavings, paintings, and electronics. If anything, the room looked like a warehouse of loot.

“Huh, what is this? A treasure room?”

“I am not certain, domi.”

The tengu were going to be overjoyed, probably much to the annoyance of the elves and the humans. Much as she hated the thought, she should assign someone the job of cataloging the loot so it could be divided among the three groups. Perhaps the EIA could send an accountant over.

The shadows stirred and suddenly moved.

Pony jerked to his feet, moving back even as the others surged forward, swords ready.

“Put me down! Put me down!” Tinker squirmed out of his hold. She had her hand to her mouth when she recognized the lean body that snaked through the wall. “Impatience!”

Yanananam Tinker.” The oni dragon seemed large in the room, but after fighting his near cousin, Malice, Tinker knew he was actually quite small. Still ten feet of scaled muscled body was nothing to sneeze at.

“Can we trust him?” Pony was between her and the dragon, ready for an attack. They had fought the little dragon once when Impatience was “unconscious” and lost horribly. The only reason they weren’t all killed was Impatience had come to his senses before he actually did lasting harm.

“He’s talking, so he’s sentient.” Tinker still backed up as Impatience came bounding through the clutter toward them. She would have thought, though, that Impatience would have stayed far away the oni. What was he doing at the oni whelping pens?

Radadada aaaaah huuu ha….” Impatience leapt back suddenly. His mane rose, triggering his impenetrable shield moments before Maynard’s commandos spilled into the room.

“Hold! Hold!” Tinker shouted even as her Hand shifted to protect her from possible attack from both the dragon and the commandos.

“Tinker radadada pooookaaa aaaaah huuuuu Yutakajodo haaaaa ramaaaaanan.”

What the world was Impatience trying to tell her?

“You!” She pointed at the nearest commando. “Do you have phone?”

“Yes.” He handed it over.

“Hello?” Jin answered on the first ring.

“It’s Tinker. Here, listen to this.”

She held out the phone to Impatience.

Naadaaan pookuu.” He reached out with his great five-clawed paw and plucked the phone out of her hand.

“No! No, don’t take it apart! God damn, how can someone that’s so smart be so stupid!” Tinker grabbed his paw and pried the phone free. “Talk! Talk!”

Yanananan?” Jin’s tiny voice came over the phone.

Impatience cocked his head and then gave a dragon laugh of “Huuhuuhuuhuuhuu.”

“Tinker radadada pookaa,” Jin said.

Impatience launched into a long discussion and then after a minute, stopped and looked expectantly at Tinker.

Tinker put the phone back to her ear. “What did he say?”

“There is a box near you. It holds something that belongs to the greater blood, Yutakajodo. You alone should take possession of it, but do so carefully.”

“Why carefully?” Tinker asked.

“I’m not certain,” Jin said. “He’s speaking very quickly and seems to be using…slang?”

“Dragon slang?”

“Yes. Maybe. I’m getting the impression that the box might harm you if you’re not careful.”

Tinker eyed the collection of boxes piled high about the room. “How do I ask him which box?”

“Huunaaaaahaaaa.”

Tinker carefully repeated the word.

At the far end of the room, under a pile of furs, there was a large ironwood chest. The thick lid was spell-locked.

Once Tinker focused on it intently, she realized the chest buzzed against her magic sense with contained power. It felt much like getting too close to a hornet’s nest. There had to be an active spell inlaid on the back of the lid. Logically, keying open the locking spell would deactivate the hidden spell. Most likely if the lid was forced, then the active spell would trigger some kind of trap. The question was what kind of trap? A simple alarm? Or something more deadly? She spent time playing with spell-locks. She thought she might be able to pick the lock, but it might be her ego talking. She wasn’t sure how much she actually knew about magic compared to the elves themselves…

She blinked at the lock. “This is elf magic.”

Pony and Stormsong eyed the lock and nodded in confirmation.

“Transmuting wood and metal are Stone Clan magic,” Pony murmured, glancing to Thorne Scratch. “They create such chest for other clans at a steep price. The owner chooses the key when it’s made.”

It seemed unlikely that the oni would have stolen it and not tried to open it. Unblemished as it was, it seemed more likely that the elf that owned it worked with the oni.

“Could it be Sparrow’s?” Tinker asked.

Stormsong clicked her tongue in an elfin shrug. “She took advantage of the fact that none of us sekasha liked her to keep her activities hidden. I was with her most, but I don’t remember her having a chest like this.”

They would have to deal with the chest later; they needed to find the missing children. She assigned Little Egret, a half dozen of the marines, and one of the tengu the chore of getting the chest to Poppymeadow’s, and then pushed deeper into the whelping pens.

#

She was losing hope of finding any of the children alive. They reached the back of the maze to find another large courtyard with pits dug into hard packed dirt. The holes were filled with garbage, urine and feces.

“Are these their latrines?” Tinker asked. The holes seemed too big for latrines but too small for anything else.

“They’re holding pens.” One of the tengu said.

“Oh gods,” Tinker whispered as something stirred in the nearest hole and started to whimper. “Get them out!”

One of the Fire Clan marines slid down into the hole and lifted the whimpering child out. It was a male, small in comparison to the laedin-caste marine. He started to keen inconsolably once he realized he’d been rescued and was safe to finally react to his torture.

“This one needs a healer!” A female marine shouted as a limp male body was passed up from the second pit to the waiting adults. His left arm had been broken so many times it barely seemed like an arm. One of the marines produced a healing spell on a strip of paper and pressed it to the child’s barely moving chest.

“Here’s another one!” An EIA commando called from a pit near the back.

A tiny naked female was lifted, wide-eyed and desperately squirming, by the humans. She saw Tinker and lunged toward her, arms outstretched.

“It’s all right!” Tinker cried even as Thorne Scratch caught hold Pony’s sword hand. “It’s fine! She’s just scared.”

The tiny female was a patchwork of bruises ranging from violet to sickening green to pale yellow. She wrapped arms tight around Tinker and wouldn’t let go.

“She probably thinks you’re Stone Clan domana,” Stormsong murmured in English, nodding toward Thorne Scratch who had grown angry and silent.

Quiee.” The little female said. “Quiee. Quiee.

“What is she saying?” Tinker asked Stormsong.

Stormsong listened to a moment, and then said with great uncertainty. “Quiee?”

“What does it mean?”

“It’s what baby ducks say.” Pony said.

“Ducks say quack,” Tinker said.

“Adult ducks say quack,” Pony said. “Baby ducks say quiee.”

The little female nodded solemnly. “Quiee.”

“We’re going to have to make sure she’s not with child.” Stormsong murmured in English.

“She’s just a baby!” Tinker protested. She didn’t think elves could get pregnant until they were out of their doubles.

“If she’s over fifty, she can get pregnant,” Stormsong said gently. “Just like an eleven-year old human girl would if raped.”

Searching other pits, they found a female hiding in a mound of garbage, armed with an animal leg bone. As they were convincing the female to give up her grisly club for one of the commando’s nightstick, Riki slipped in beside Tinker. His wings and war paint were gone and he seemed nearly human.

“I don’t want to frighten the children,” Riki said quietly in English. “If any of my people knew about this and didn’t report it, I’ll wring their necks.”

“What did you find?” Tinker asked.

“There were two children in the kitchen,” Riki said. “One had been already butchered down to roast.”

Tinker clamped down on a whimper and tightened her hold on the little female in her arms. Seven children subjected to this merely because they weren’t Wind Clan? “Someone is going to pay.”

#

Two Hands of Wyverns and a swarm of royal laedin-caste marines arrived to secure the area, apparently sent by Prince True Flame, via Maynard. After making sure that the children would be delivered to the hospice and properly treated by the Wind Clan healers, Tinker headed for the train station. Thorne Scratch was reluctant to leave the children, but once she understood Tinker’s mission, she agreed to help.

Tinker held her cold fury close as they drove back to the station in the Rolls, the smell of the pits clinging to her dress. She stalked into the building, wishing for the thousandth time that day that she could fling tanks around with a word and a gesture.

The handful of elves that ran that station came to a halt of the sight of her and sekasha.

“Which one did my cousin talk to?” Tinker growled.

“This one.” Thorne Scratch pointed out one of the male Wind Clan elves.

The male flinched back as Tinker bore down on him.

“You saw children get off the train and you did nothing to help them?” Tinker asked.

Domi, they were not of my clan.” He said it as if it was a reasonable answer.

“They were children! You knew they were children—didn’t you?”

“Yes, domi.” The male said quietly, apparently still missing the point.

“You know that we’re at war with the oni. That the oni will kill and torture anyone they find unprotected.”

The light finally went on; it lit up a sign that read “she’s angry about something.” He started to look worried. “Yes, domi.”

“And you just let them go?”

If she wasn’t so angry it would almost funny to watch him realize that telling the truth was going to screw him over and yet, as an elf, he was unable to lie. “Domi—I—I—I did not care what happened to them.”

The last person that gotten her this angry, she’d beaten with a crowbar. She clenched her hands tight on the desire to beat the elf to a pulp. “Get out.”

Domi?” The male glanced at the various doors, unsure which direction she wanted him to go.

“Go home, pack your bags and get out of Pittsburgh.” Tinker snapped. “I won’t have you in the Westernlands. I don’t want your kind—so blind in your petty hate that you bring down poison on a child that you don’t even know.”

Domi! Please. My household is here.”

“I don’t care!” She thrust her hand in the direction of the whelping pens and the ironwood forest beyond it. “Be glad that I don’t stake you out in the forest for whatever finds you! Be glad I don’t let you be raped by the oni, beaten senseless and then eaten! Be glad that I have more morals than you!”

The elf had gone completely ashen. “Yes, domi.”

“Get out! Now!” Tinker shouted.

He bowed and fled.

She turned toward the other Wind Clan elves that were standing, listening, mouths open. “If anyone allows harm to come to another child—be it human or Stone Clan or tengu—I don’t care what it is—if anyone allows harm to come to another child, I’ll see them gone!”

She was still shaking in anger as she stormed out of the train station. It wasn’t until she reached the Rolls that she realized that she just assumed she had the power to kick an elf out of Westernlands.

“I can do that—can’t I?” She asked Pony. “I can tell him to go?”

“Yes, domi, you can, and considering we are at war with oni, it was wise that you made an example of him.”

7: Lullaby of Stone

Oilcan heard the wailing first. It was a thin, horrible sound. He followed it back through the hospice to where a Wyvern stood staring at a small quivering heap of filthy rags on the floor. It took him a minute to realize that the thing was an elf crying hysterically.

“Why isn’t he being taken care of?” Oilcan asked the Wyvern.

“The hospice staff is busy with the others,” the royal sekasha said. “This male is not badly hurt.”

The Wyvern used the male gender that indicated a child. Was this Rustle of Leaves? Or was it another child and the musician was one of the ones that died? Either way, the child would stay hysterical until cleaned, feed, and comforted. The Wyvern stood looking at the child, dismayed but seemingly helpless.

“There’s a bathing room in the other wing,” Oilcan said.

The Wyvern gave him the closest thing to a “deer in the headlights” look he’d ever seen on a sekasha. Apparently childcare was not part of the warrior’s training.

“Can you take responsibility for him?” The sekasha asked.

Saying “yes” might mean something beyond just bathing the child. Oilcan glanced to Merry who was clinging to the doorframe as if it was the only thing that kept her from bolting. This is what would have happened to her—or worse—if he had just kept driving and hadn’t gone back to be sure she was safe.

What was one more kid? He did have another spare bedroom in his condo.

“Yes,” Oilcan said. “I can.”

The sekasha bowed slightly but then asked doubtfully, “Will you be able to carry him?”

Oilcan checked an automatic “Yes” to consider. He’d have to get the double halfway across the hospice, through several sets of doors. The double was smaller than him, but not by much. “Could you please carry him to the bathing room?”

The child started to keen louder the moment the sekasha lifted him up. The sekasha stoically ignored the wailing, and followed Oilcan down the hall.

At the start of the summer, the hospice had been a strange, unknown place. Oilcan had barely known where it even laid beyond the enclaves. Since delivering a wounded Windwolf to the hospice just before Mid-Summer’s Eve, Oilcan had been back many times, visiting Tinker as she recovered from one mishap after another. By now, he knew the hospice well. The bathing room was huge, tiled in soothing shades of blue. There were hand showers to scrub off dirt before climbing—already clean—into a soaking tub large enough to fit a football team.

The sekasha settled the double onto the floor and backed off.

“Hush, hush.” Oilcan carefully stripped the remains of clothes ripped into shreds and soaked with dirt, blood, urine and feces. Under the filthy rags were massive bruises and dirt crusted wounds. The oni had cropped the double’s hair so short there were nicks from the knife they’d used. Excrement had been ground into the stubble as added insult. The boy’s nose been broken and both his eyes were swollen shut. Blood leaked from his nose as he cried.

“You’re safe now. You’re safe.” Oilcan felt so helpless. What could he possibly do to make things right? The poor thing had merely walked out of the train station and into a nightmare.

…his mother lay so still on the kitchen floor, his father slowly crumbled down, arms outstretched, wailing in denial of what he’d done….

There were things that nothing could make right. They stayed hidden as black holes inside of you. You went on the best you could, pretending everything was fine.

“Gold is the light that scythes the hay; dusk softens the edge of day.” Oilcan crooned softly the Elvish song his mother used to sing to him. “Lavender and Lilly sweeten the sky, nightingale warbles a lullaby.”

The little male leaned against him and went silent. Singing softly, Oilcan worked at washing away the filth. A river of muddy water ran from the child to the drain. It was difficult to keep singing and scrub. He was aware that the Wyvern had left and felt weirdly abandoned.

Merry came to sit beside him and sing. “Quicksilver shadows pierce the dark starflash fireflies blaze and spark. Moonbeams soothe the fractured night. Sleep and dream, close your eyes.”

So they sang and washed the double. When the water finally ran clean, Oilcan lifted the male into the soaking tub. Merry surprised him by suddenly stripping down and climbed into the tub too. He supposed that the point of a swimming pool sized tub was joint bathing, but he hadn’t totally considered the implication.

Once in, Merry turned pleading eyes on him. “Sama?”

Oilcan sighed. In for a penny, in for a pound. Since much of the double’s filth had rubbed off on him, he could use a bath. He stripped down, sluiced the dirt off, and climbed in.

8: On the Nose

There were a million things that needed Tommy’s attention if the races were to happen. He worked out how much of the seed money had to go to operating expenses and how much could be risked in betting. He would need to pay wages, stock the food concessions, and put aside tax money. True, he’d double his amount with the admission fees, but the money had to be spent upfront first. Lastly, some cash had to be spent immediately so that various families didn’t starve before race day. The entrance fees more than covered the purse money for the winners, so that money didn’t need to be held in reserve. He set the starting odds, downloaded the spreadsheet to his datapad, and made sure his cousins’ phones all worked.

“Remember, your cap is five hundred.” Tommy paced the room. “Anything above that, call me first. We have to watch our bottom line closely on this one, so call in after every bet. The elves are jumpy; keep your guns out of sight. Watch your back. Remember that the oni are still out there loose.”

“Danny. Yoyo. Zippo. Quinn.” He tapped the chests of the teenagers as he passed them. “You’re to guard the warren. If the elves know where we are, the oni might too. They might raid us for food, money, and sex. Call Bingo if you see anyone suspicious. He’ll be stationed closest to the warren. If you’re raided, don’t give them any reason to kill you.

“This is just like before—only this time, we’re doing it for ourselves.”

#

All day his phone rang, giving Tommy a constant barometer of Pittsburgh to be entered into his spreadsheets. True there were some names he recognized as die-hard gamblers. They carefully weighed the odds, dispassionate in their choices. The rest of the city, however, bet with their hearts.

The elves bet on Blue Sky without exception. They believed the holy sekasha-caste were perfection made flesh, and having seen the half-elf race, Tommy wasn’t sure if he’d quibble with that.

The human population splintered into a multitude of factions. The younger crowd that thought of Elfhome as their world bet on Team Tinker or Team Big Sky. John’s team had the most recent wins, their custom-modified Delta hoverbike, and their “perfect” rider. Team Tinker was still a strong contender even though Oilcan wasn’t as aggressive a rider as Tinker used to be. Team Tinker had the experience and the only other Delta. While the team was all humans, Tinker had been magically transformed into an elf and was now married to Windwolf, which tainted the team through association.

The older humans didn’t bet on either of the top two teams. They saw Pittsburgh as still a city of Earth and men. They supported the underdogs. Then under that, came bets on teams connected to certain political ideology, or someone just had a lucky feeling for, but those were usually only to place, not to win.

He was out at the racetrack, when he realized that his phone had stopped ringing. He took it out and checked on the signal strength. “Trixie, is your phone working?” he asked the half-oni in charge of the food concessions.

She took hers out and glanced at it. “Huh, no signal.”

He went up to the track office and picked up the landline. It was dead too.

Trixie had followed him. “What do you think it is?”

“The oni might be attacking town.” He swore. “Last thing we need is to have the elves slap martial law back on.”

“Well, we’ll be eating hotdogs for the next two weeks.”

He picked up the microphone to the racetrack’s PA system. “I’m heading into town, do we need anything out here?”

There was a call from somewhere near the concession booths.

“What was that?” Trixie’s hearing was as human as her ears appeared.

“Toilet paper.” Tommy tied his bandana back into place and headed out to his hoverbike.

#

“I’ve been trying to call you.” Babe held out a list of bets.

“All the phones are down.” Tommy entered the information into his spreadsheet. Babe had only taken four bets, one at the five hundred dollar cap for Team Providence to win. It was a fairly new team made up of tengu, having only run half-dozen races, and never even placed. None of Tommy’s information suggested that they could pull a win off. They were such a long shot that the large bet required an immediate adjustment to the odds. “Shit, what a hell of a time for the phones to go down.”

He didn’t recognize the name: Kenji Toshihiko. Most the Japanese in town, though, were part of the tengu. “I don’t like this taking bets blind. Spread the word: I’m closing the books.”

Doug had a five hundred bet for Team Providence. And Syn too. Tommy swore and ran numbers right there. If all of his cousins had taken bets at their cap, locking in the same long shot odds, and Team Providence won, then his family were going to be royally screwed. Not only did it take out all the money they set aside to cover the bets, it also would eat up all the money that the race would bring in with admissions.

He checked his phone. It was still dead.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.” Tommy punched Syn in fury.

“We’ll just call the bets off.” Syn scrambled out of the way of a kick.

“We can’t!” Tommy shouted. “The fucking anal elves and their frigging honor! A bet is a promise to them! If we welshed on the bets, they’d be all over our asses because they know we’re half-oni!”

“Someone is suckering us!”

“Don’t you think that I know that? I’m going to fucking find them and kill them. Spread the word. No more bets!”

#

Whoever planned the strike against them had done it with great precision. It had only taken an hour to close down the books but the damage had already been done. Twenty bets, all at cap, all made within minutes of the phones going dead. Ten thousand dollars with a payoff of half a million dollars.

“The bets are to win,” Bingo pointed out as they gathered at the warren.

“Because to ‘show’ and ‘place’ gave lower odds,” Tommy snapped.

“How the hell do they expect Team Providence to win?” Bingo said. “Team Big Sky was creaming everyone before the elves locked the city down. And there’s Team Tinker, and Team Banzai and Team Eh?”

Tommy had talked to all the teams. They assured him that they were all racing. Some of them might have been lying, in on the scam, but not Team Tinker nor Team Big Sky. They were tied too closely to the honorable elves to cheat, and they were the favorites to win. “Whoever the hell they are, they’ve got something else planned then. They’re going to cheat somehow. We’ve got to find out how.”

9: Thorne Scratch

Oilcan had washed four battered souls, seen that they were dressed in simple gowns, fed, drugged and put to bed. He was trying to determine his obligations to them when Thorne Scratch found him.

“Take the children and go home,” she said.

Her command was fairly clear, but still he said, “I don’t understand.”

“The children can not stay here. Take them and go.”

“Why can’t they stay? Is the staff trying to throw them out? Tinker won’t allow…”

“The Wind Clan is not the problem,” Thorne said. “Forest Moss has learned of the children. He will be here shortly to claim them. He cannot be allowed to take them. Take the children and go.”

He sat down mostly because his knees suddenly didn’t want to support him. “I—I don’t know—all of them?”

Thorne went to her knees in front of him and caught his hands tightly. “Please. He is mad. If the oni did not drive him mad with their torture, then nearly three hundred years of isolation has. He is desperate for physical contact. The prince has given Forest Moss only male Wyverns to guard him, and he has pressed his suit on them. None of Ginger Wine’s staff will be in a room with him with good cause; his actions are as close to rape as they can come and not be worthy of charges. Within an hour of Earth Son’s death, he tried to corner even me. These children can not be given over to him, not after what they’ve been through.”

“Can’t we just tell him no?”

“He’s domana. If he comes prepared for a fight, then only Wolf Who Rules and Prince True Flame could stop him. The Viceroy has no grounds to deny Forest Moss access to the children since they are Stone Clan and the prince would sacrifice them to keep the peace.”

What the hell was he going to do with five children, four of which had just been dragged through hell? But she was right—he couldn’t give them to Forest Moss. They were more than a head count to him now. They were the emotionally fragile Fields of Barley, little Baby Duck who no longer knew her real name and nervously quacked, Rustle of Leaves who only cared that Merry hadn’t been captured despite the fact the oni shattered the young musician’s left arm, and stoic Cattail Reeds. Oilcan knew their names and faces, seen the breadth and width of their strengths and weaknesses. Even Fields of Barley, once he stopped crying, had shown incredible resiliency, but none of them would be able to deal with an adult male demanding intimacy from them.

“Okay. I’ll take them home.” It was a big city. It was unlikely Forest Moss would be able to find him—but the elf did have magic. “How long do I need to keep the kids hidden from Forest Moss?”

“Once they wake and have the situation explained to them, they can choose what to do. If they decide to stay with you, they’ll be safe from him. The Wyverns will not allow a holding to be broken by an outsider.”

“Even if I’m human?”

“A precedence must be set and protected if humans are to be part of our society.”

Knowing that she wasn’t lying to him didn’t help; he also knew that people often deceived themselves into believing they were telling the truth.

#

Moving the children was surreal. They had been dosed with saijin, so all but Merry were asleep beyond waking. The staff lined the back of his pickup truck with mattresses and then tucked the sleeping children in like a litter of kittens. Thorne rode in the back to his condo and then helped him move both children and mattresses into the spare bedrooms. While he knew that he was doing it for the good of the children, it felt horribly wrong to snatch them out of the hospice and take them unawares to his home.

Luckily Oilcan had put Merry in the larger guest bedroom, so there was room for Cattail Reeds and Baby Duck. Rustle of Leaves and Fields of Barley went into the other bedroom which was more of an oversized closet. He needed to get bunk beds so the kids didn’t have to walk on each others mattresses. The hospice had sent only sheets, so he also needed to track down five sets of blankets before it started to get cold. Tomorrow, he would have to find them clothes and shoes. He only had four sets of dishes. His pantry was half bare.

His new responsibilities loomed larger and larger before him like an ice berg sliding out of the mist. It made him want a drink so bad that it scared him. He opened the fridge and stared at the beer bottles gleaming inside. It was his father’s answer to all life’s little problems. This wasn’t, however, a little problem.

Thorne Scratch shifted in the darkness that was gathering inside his apartment, reminding him that she was still there. There to stay, since if he drove her back to the Rim, it would leave the kids alone. Helpless as they were in their drugged sleep, he couldn’t do that. Newly arrived, Thorne probably didn’t know the city well enough to walk the six miles out to the enclaves. Hell, he would have to guide her through using the incline just to get down off Mount Washington.

The need for a drink became impossible to resist.

“Would you like something to drink?” At least he shouldn’t sink to drinking alone. “I’ve got ouzo, apricot wine, mead.” He’d been collecting things that Tinker might enjoy drinking since her transformation had made beer unpalatable. “Water?”

“Ouzo,” Thorne said in her raspy voice. “Please.”

He poured an inch or so of the clear, anise-flavored liquor into one of the canning jars that he used for glasses. Opening a bottle of cold beer, he carried her glass to her, and then kept walking out to his balcony that overlooked downtown Pittsburgh, distancing him from the temptation in the refrigerator.

She came to lean against the railing with him and drank in silence.

Usually when someone visited him, they stared at the forest, ignoring the city for the vast carpet of green. As night fell, and lights of Pittsburgh came on until the city was bright island of circus brightness, visitors would continue to stare at the willow-o-wisps faintly dancing over the ironwoods. It was like they were blind to the city below.

As Thorne Scratch studied Pittsburgh, Oilcan realized all his visitors, with the exception of Tinker, had been humans from Earth. They were on Elfhome because they wanted something strange and new in their life.

“What do you think?” he asked Thorne.

“I remember being these children’s age. You are so certain you know all that is to be known.” She shook her head. “I raised at Cold Mountain Temple.” She scoffed at herself. “At this point you’re supposed to be amazed and impressed.”

“Snow falls on Cold Mountain Temple, hewed from living stone, rock solid, rock strong.” He sang the chorus of the Harvest epic. “Even here in Pittsburgh, we know of Tempered Steel. I am amazed and impressed.”

She scoffed again, this time at him. “The song does not do justice to the isolation of Cold Mountain Temple. It’s a day’s walk to the nearest holding, which is nothing more than a collection of pigsties. By nature of its location, Cold Mountain Temple is a complete but small world in and of itself. We had to grow all our own food, so every day we trained and tended to our crops. I hated the crops. The dirt. The bugs. That you worked and worked, then winter would come, and you would have to start all over again. Then one day, Otter Dance came to visit her father. She heard me cursing the same damn weeds I had to pull up for the thousandth time, and she laughed, and started to help me, saying it had been Nae hae since she last had to weed. And I was amazed. How was it that she hadn’t been weeding? Even her great and famous father, Temper Steel, weeded.”

Oilcan closed his eyes as a feeling something akin to vertigo hit him. Nae hae was short for kaetat nae hae, which meant “count no years.” It meant the person didn’t want to sit and figure out how long ago an event actually happened. It could mean anywhere from a decade to a thousand years. The elves switched to nae hou, or “count no millennias.” The puppet shows of Tempered Steel saving the world from starvation always started “Nae hou, a great famine swept the world.” He always assumed that Tempered Steel was as dead as the pilgrims of Plymouth Rock. Yet, here, this female had weeded gardens along side the famous warrior monk.

“Otter Dance had become First to Longwind, head of the Wind Clan,” Thorne continued, most likely unaware of the disorientation she’d caused. “She told me about her life at court; how she spent her day protecting her domou or training and had nothing to do with weeds. It sounded like heaven to me.”

He could see why the children had her thinking of her own youth. “So you left everything you knew behind to go to court.”

“The day after I earned my sword, I left Cold Mountain Temple and never went back.” She went to sip her drink and found her glass empty. She held it out to him. “May I have more?”

Surely someone as old and trained as Thorne Scratch knew how to handle her drinking. After long consideration of his own condition, he got a second beer. By the time he returned to the balcony, he remembered how she started the conversation: you are so certain you know all that is to be known. Was she implying that she had discovered the hard way that she didn’t?

“So life at court blindsided you?”

She considered the question with the cant of her head. “Blindsided implies a quick awareness that things have gone horribly wrong. Everyone at Cold Mountain was brutally honest; keeping true to the belief that lying is a sin. At court, everyone carefully wove lies out of truths and wore them as masks. It was years before I saw enough of the true Earth Son to know I had made mistake in offering to him. If I had left him, I would have destroyed what little credibility he had at court.”

“So you stayed.”

“It was a mistake.” She whispered. “We could tolerate him being a pompous ass at court, but he had been cowardly on the field of battle, had undermined the defense of Elfhome for his own personal gain, and nearly plunged us into a bigoted genocide of a useful ally.” By “we” she meant all five sekasha of Earth Son’s Hand. “I was his First; it was my duty to put him down.”

“I’m sorry.”

She reached out and caught him by the front of his shirt and pulled him to her and kissed him hard. She smelled of leather and anise. She kissed him like she was drowning and he was air.

“From the moment I struck him down, it’s been like I suddenly went invisible. No one will look at me. I—I know they don’t think I was wrong—they would have killed me right there if they did—but they’re scared of what will happen to us and they don’t want to look like they’re afraid—so—so…”

“I see you.” Oilcan murmured. “You’re right here with me and you’re beautiful.”

She tugged at his clothing, kissing him hard and desperate. Inhaling him.

Where was this going? He’d never been with a female elf, but if she was a human, it would certainly seem as if they were careening toward sex. She was a sekasha, a deadly holy warrior; surely they weren’t about to go at it like rabbits.

Then her hands were on his bare skin, just as needy as her kisses, suggesting that he was wrong to dismiss the possibility of sex.

She had grown up in monastery. Maybe she wasn’t used to drinking. Maybe she was drunk and he was taking advantage of her.

She pushed him up against the wall and pinned him there. Yeah, sure, who was taking advantage of whom? The angle of their bodies made it clear that she was inches taller than him.

Naekanain?” Which was the politest way he could think of to say “what the hell?”

She pulled back, hurt on her face.

“Are you sure—” He fumbled for something safe to say. “Is this really a good place for this?” Whatever this was. “Maybe my bedroom?”

“Your bedroom.” Her husky voice was full of need and promise.

He led the way through his condo, emotions in a tumbling freefall. He wanted her—had always wanted her—had wanted to hear her raspy voice make needful sounds since the first time she spoke. The sane reasoning part of him was nearly lost under the want, but it was there, whispering ice cold points of logic. He had an apartment full of kids. She was a sekasha; she could kill him if he pissed her off, and things like this tended to end messily for him.

Then they were in his bedroom with the door safely shut and the reasoning part of him went silent as Thorne pushed him onto his bed. Somewhere between the balcony and his bedroom, she had shimmed out of her wyvern-scale armor. Underneath she wore a pale camisole that was taunt over surprisingly full breasts, considering how lean she looked in armor. As she peeled off her leather pants, he realized he better work at getting naked too. He kicked off his tennis shoes, stripped off his shirt and undid his pants. She caught hold of his jeans and pulled them off him. His boxers followed. She moaned softly as she saw how ready he was for her. He reached for her and graceful as a dancer, she moved onto the bed, kissed him and lowered herself onto him. They hummed delight into each other’s mouth as they fit together as if they were made for each other. Each movement of her hips was sweetness and fire.

Afterwards they lay, still joined, sharing the same breath. Her braid had come undone at some point; her hair flowing wantonly down across her face and shoulders. She smiled and traced his grin with fingertips. Slowly the whisper of logic started up again, murmuring how this wasn’t sane, but she felt too right in his arms to listen.

10: Panty Raid

No one was happy about the unopened oni mystery box being at the enclave. To make everyone happier, Tinker allowed herself to be bullied into a bath. She still reeked of the pens. It made her skin crawl thinking of the fleas, ticks or whatever else she might have picked up wading through the filth. After everything she’d seen today, she could use a deep cleansing of the body and a couple of stiff drinks. She hated, though, to take the time.

“An hour will not change anything now.” Stormsong scrubbed Tinker’s back for her after checking her hair for bugs. Tinker still wasn’t comfortable with the elf mixed-gender communal bathing stuff, but there was no way she could feel totally clean without help. At least with Stormsong, there was no weird “I’m cheating on my husband” vibe that being washed by Pony would have triggered.

“If we’d gotten to the station just minutes later this morning—ow!”

Stormsong had smacked her lightly on the top of her head. “Don’t drive yourself crazy with ‘might have been.’ We were there in time to save cousin.”

“But—”

“But nothing. We were there in time.” Stormsong wrapped her arms around Tinker and kissed her on the temple. “And an hour will not change anything now. You need to take care of yourself before you can take care of others.”

Tinker leaned back against Stormsong and made herself trust in her Beholden’s instincts. Stormsong had an annoying way of being right all the time. Now if she could only ignore the feeling that Stormsong was right because they were days too late already.

#

Tinker suspected that Windwolf’s household staff had burned her dress. There was no sign of it. She really starting to hate the way her clothes vanished behind her back. All her human clothes had gotten left behind when the Wyvern’s all but kidnapped her to Aum Renau. The missing dress had the sleeves removed, the skirt shortened, and pockets added. It was the second or third modified gown that she’d trashed to the point that the staff had made it disappear. They’d laid out two new unaltered dresses as possible replacements. Tinker really loathed trying to work in the long flowing gowns of fairy silk, especially in the nearly hundred-degree heat.

It was time to beg, borrow or steal some better clothes.

All the sekasha had shuffled bedrooms the last few weeks as she picked out the rest of her Hand. As Tinker’s Second, Stormsong was now just two doors down. Tinker wasn’t sure exactly the whole etiquette for entering a sekasha’s bedroom. Everyone seemed to pop in and out of her and Windwolf’s bedroom unannounced. The warriors, though, were always armed; they even bathed with their ejae within reach. It seemed unwise to walk into Stormsong’s room unannounced.

“Come in, domi.” Stormsong called as Tinker raised her hand to knock.

“You’re scary sometimes,” Tinker grumbled as she entered.

“I know the sound of your footsteps.” Stormsong was still only dressed in her tattoos. For Tinker’s sake, she pulled on black silk boy shorts. “We learn everyone’s so we can tell who is moving around.”

The bedroom was very much Stormsong despite the recent move. Weapons dominated the room, from a stand that displayed her wyvern-scale armor and ejae to wall racks that held various bows, guns and knives. Sprinkled in were human mementos: a bookcase crammed with paperbacks and manga, stacks of vintage CDs, a set of skateboards, and an amazing number of Goth Hello Kitty. Most startling was Stormsong had the hoverbike poster that featured Tinker coming around the turn just before the grandstands, head to toe in mud, just inches off the ground, trying to slide under the leader of the race who was taking the curve high. It was a great shot. What it didn’t show was seconds later, the jerk had dropped down to cut her off and hit her, destroying both their hoverbikes and nearly getting them both killed.

“I can’t believe you have that.” Tinker gestured to the poster. “Roach just started to sell those before—you know—everything.” Before Windwolf. Before the oni. Before her and Stormsong.

Stormsong grinned smugly. “Print number four.”

“You’re shitting me.” Tinker leaned close to check. Roach was part of her pit crew but he functioned mostly as the business manager. The master of merchandising, he numbered the posters and sold them as “limited prints.” In the corner, in Roach’s careful printing, was “4/50.” She knew for a fact that Roach always kept number one, and she and Oilcan had two and three. “Okay, you’re now officially very scary.”

Stormsong laughed and pulled on a silk camisole top that matched the boy shorts. She looked like a lingerie model in the outfit; lush, leggy and perfectly fit. “I saw him take the picture and asked for a copy. He told me he’d make posters of the shot.”

With Stormsong’s love of all things human, it made sense that she’d been at the races, but it still felt odd. Her entire life, Tinker had seen the sekasha moving through the city on unknown missions but she had always given them a wide berth. Until the queen summoned her to Aum Renau, they’d remained faceless strangers. Now that their lives were explicitly tied together, it seemed impossible that they had always been so close, and yet never interacted. After the picture had been taken, the race ended in a brawl between pit crews. Stormsong had been standing close enough to reach out and touch—and Tinker never noticed her. How did she miss a blue-haired elf? Then again, Tinker had been busy trying to kick in the teeth of the other rider.

Stormsong put her hand on the glass covering the poster. “I’d seen you race dozens of times before but that day, that moment, I suddenly knew.”

“Knew what?”

Stormsong gave a dry laugh. “That’s the shitty thing; my talent is good for knowing ‘duck now or die.’ Every now and then it hits me with a sledgehammer that’s simply labeled ‘this is important.’ I knew I would love you, but I had no idea how you would come into my life.”

Tinker eyed her and then the poster. “I was right there.”

“I was a sekasha bound to Windwolf and you were human. I could not imagine how our lives would intertwine. Even if I had taken you as a lover, I was only in Pittsburgh when Sparrow came to the city.”

Not to mention Tinker would have been totally freaked out if a female sekasha had asked her out on a date. Scratch that. To be perfectly honest, Tinker would have been curious enough to agree. It probably wouldn’t have ended any worse than her date with Nathan.

That thought took her down a dark road to an intersection where Nathan laid headless.

Tinker distracted herself to safer things by randomly opening up drawers and rifling their contents. “What was that with Thorne Scratch? The peace and war thing? And why did we need to do that in the middle of fighting?”

“She was inside your shield. If we had engaged the oni, she could have easily killed you. That is why we needed to agree to a truce immediately. You have to remember—always—that the Stone Clan has tried to kill you twice.”

“Idiots. We’re at war with the oni. That’s what they should be focusing on, not killing me. Is Windwolf safe with them?”

“They would not dare do anything while Prince True Flame is there with the Wyverns in force.”

That made her feel only marginally better. How insane Forest Moss was open to debate. Was he crazy enough to ignore the royal forces?

Stormsong apparently had a mild lingerie fetish for silk boy shorts and camisoles; two of the deep drawers were filled with every imaginable color and pattern. Stormsong pulled out cheetah-print done in Wind Clan blue and offered it to Tinker.

“Cheetah print?” Tinker asked.

“They’ll look cute on you.”

Tinker dropped her towel and pulled on the camisole first and then the boy shorts. As always, Stormsong was right; they were cute on her.

Stormsong comforted Tinker by adding, “His First Hand protected Wolf’s grandfather Howling for thousands of years while he fought against the Skin Clan and during the Clan Wars. And Wolf spent half a century at court. They know the dangers well.”

Better than Tinker did—it hadn’t even occurred to her that Thorne Scratch might attack her instead of the oni.

The rest of the dresser was T-shirts. In this heat, did she need a T-shirt? No.

“Do we have to do the truce thing every time we see her?” With Oilcan taking care of Merry, it seemed likely that they might be tripping over Thorne Scratch a lot in the future. It was odd, though; she was the only one from Earth Son’s Hand who had shown up at the train station.

“She had given her word. You are safe from her until we mutually agree on an end to our truce.”

“Really?”

“Thorne Scratch is of the perfection that all sekasha seek.” Stormsong had switched to High Elvish, as if nothing else could capture the truth of her words. Tinker wondered what subtle meaning she was totally missing. “Earth Son was a fool to play politics in a war zone with one such as her at his side.”

Tinker found the jeans. “Wow, an entire dresser of blue jeans? I never figured you for a clothes horse.”

“I was afraid Pittsburgh would go away one day.” Stormsong opened the second drawer and pulled out two pair of shorts. “Hm. I think the low riders.”

Tinker tried them on and considered the mirror. “You can see my panties.”

“That’s the point.”

Tinker stuck out her tongue but left the shorts on. They were the most comfortable thing she’d put on since she was dragged to Aum Renau nearly three months earlier.

“We can trust Thorne Scratch completely? What if she became beholden to Forest Moss or Jewel Tear, and they ordered her to kill me?”

“Even then.” Stormsong pulled on a pair of boot-cut jeans. “According to the Wyverns, Thorne Scratch refused Forest Moss already.”

“What about Jewel Tear?”

“They say that Jewel Tear has not asked.” Stormsong seemed slightly puzzled by the fact.

Frankly, as much as Tinker loved her Hand, it drove her slightly nuts to have them constantly under foot. She could understand why Jewel Tear would skip taking on five more. “Windwolf says she’s nearly broke. You guys have to be expensive to keep. I’ve seen you eat.”

“If she had a second Hand, she would be well rewarded by her clan. It is a loop. The more sekasha a domana holds, the more they can protect, the greater their reputation, the more sekasha will offer to them. It behooves the clan to support their domana to keep the clan strong.”

“Like Prince True Flame and all his zillions of Wyvern?”

“Yes, the Fire Clan supports him so they can send him where he is needed to enforce the queen’s rule.”

Perhaps she needed to rethink taking a second Hand. How did she find more without stealing them off of Windwolf? “Okay, I understand why Jewel Tear should have offered to Thorne Scratch. Maybe she scares Jewel Tear silly; she did lop off Earth Son’s head.”

“Jewel Tear has many faults, but she is not a coward. I believe that Tiger Eye pressured Jewel Tears into not asking.”

“Why?”

“It would be difficult to put into words.”

“I’m patient.”

Stormsong laughed and pulled on her scale armor vest. “You are anything but patient. Because I love you, I will try to explain.”

“We are considered holy because we are perfect, but perfection has its degrees. While I have my differences with my father, even I have to acknowledge that he is one of the greatest warriors our caste has produced. There are only two or three others that are of his match. Tiger Eye is not of the caliber of Thorne Scratch. He loves his domi well but he treats her like a child. At the tunnel, Jewel Tear should not have felt the need to whisper her order to him. He should not have then so loudly defy her. It is embarrassing that any First would act in that manner.”

Tinker had thought the two had been disgustingly cute.

“It would be impossible for Tiger Eye to be First to Thorne Scratch. It would only a matter of time before both Hands would look to her as if she was First, and such a division of power would be catastrophe.”

“The importance of fit.” Tinker said.

“Yes.”

“So how do we get sekasha to Pittsburgh that we know will fit? I think I should take a second Hand.”

Stormsong hugged her tight, laughing. “Tell me again how you’re patient!”

11: Spell Lock

Her Hand was silently unhappy in the loudest way possible. After what Stormsong had told Tinker about Tiger Eye being a bad First, Tinker was hyperaware of Pony’s silence beside her as she carefully examined the chest from the whelping pens. Apparently deemed too dangerous to take deeper into the enclave, it’d been tucked into one of the empty bays of the coach house. Unlike rough utilitarian garages of humans, the enclave’s coach house was a shrine to transportation. The floor was paved in a herringbone of glazed brick. The walls were rich stained wood. The beveled glass windows gleamed as if freshly cleaned. Still, the chest managed to positively lurk in the shadows.

The chest was two feet high, three feet wide, and four feet long. It had no seams or joints. It looked like one solid hunk of ironwood, as if the chest been carved out of a tree trunk. An eight-phoneme spell lock was inscribed in a band, three inches down, marking off the lid. Even standing several feet from the chest, she could feel the active spell hidden within. If the trap was explosive in nature, there was enough oomph to it to level the coach house. Her Hand had a good reason to be unhappy.

“The little dragon said you needed to take possession of it, but he did not say you had to open it.” Pony murmured quietly for only her to hear.

“If I can’t open it safely, I won’t try.” Tinker promised because she knew Pony would be in blast range.

Personally Tinker could understand Jewel Tear wanting Tiger Eye out of danger’s way. Yet Tinker saw the logic of the male staying beside his domi—there could have been any number of other dangers in the tunnel. They were stronger together as a team than apart.

Tinker was clueless, though, as to how to get the chest open safely. She took reference photos and measurements and then retreated across the driveway to the stable’s hayloft. With the loft door open, she could see the chest where it lurked in the garage. Pony settled beside her, still silent, but no longer unhappy.

Magic basically reduced material to possibilities and spells realigned the material to the desired end. Spell-locks used magic to flip the lock material between two states. Generally an “open” state where two halves of the material were separate identities, and “closed” where they merged into one solid object. When Tinker was learning to create spell-locks, she had reduced about several hundred pieces of wood down to instant splinters before she figured out how pre-tune the lock material.

The chest was made of the ironwood. The super dense wood had been bioengineered to have the same structural strength of high quality steel. Normally boards ran an inch and a half thick and required special spells and tools to cut. She assumed that any attempt cut the chest open would most likely trigger the trap. Without knowing what was inside, even if she managed to shutdown the active spell, cutting the chest open might damage the contents.

She could use a magic null spell on the chest. That would wipe out the trap, but it would also render the spell-lock inoperative in the “locked” position, forcing her to cut her way into the chest.

What she needed was a set of picks and something akin to tumblers that she could feel her way through. She needed to experiment.

#

Several exploded pieces of wood later she remembered why she hated spell-locks.

12: Morning After

The fire alarm screamed Oilcan awake. It died moments later; a wooden sword through its heart, but its death only muted the sound slightly as the rest of the fire alarms in the condo were still screaming.

“It’s a fire alarm!” He shouted to forestall the death of his other alarms. “Something is burning!”

Sometime during the night, Thorne had pulled on her underwear and arranged her weapons close at hand. She placed her hand against the door, and finding it cool, triggered her shields, jerked open the door and disappeared down the hall. A moment later, the screams of children joined in that of the fire alarm.

“Shit, shit, shit,” Oilcan grabbed clean boxers, tugged them on, one leg at a time, as he hopped after her.

Smoke was pouring out of his microwave. Thorne looked like she was considering skewering it. The children were ping ponging around the living room like cornered mice.

“Wait! Wait! Wait!” He shouted over the screaming fire alarms and children to stop Thorne. The microwave was counting down from eighty-seven minutes while a bag of popcorn blazed. He grabbed the fire extinguisher off the wall, flipped open the microwave door, and blasted foam over the burning bag. “There, it’s out. We’ve just got to clear out the smoke to stop the alarms.” He wove through the children to open the sliding glass door to the balcony. It was mid-morning outside, surprising him how late he’d slept in. “It’s all right! It’s all right! The noise will stop in a little while.”

He went to open his front door and discovered the children had built a barricade in front out of his recliner and one of his end tables. He picked up the end table and carried it back into the living room. The kitchen counter was covered with his pantry goods. All the boxes and bags, from his baking soda to his polenta—were sitting open. Thankfully they hadn’t figured out how to open the cans.

“I’m sorry,” Merry said. “We were hungry. So I thought we could make pop pop pop.”

“It’s called popcorn,” he gave her the English word. He had made her a bag of it the night before and played her High School Musical. “You should have just woken me up.”

Merry’s glance toward Thorne explained why the children had decided to fend for themselves. This was not the morning he should have slept in.

He muscled the recliner back to where it belonged, and then propped open his front door and the building’s main entrance down the hall. He came back into his apartment to discover that the children clearly regarded the open door as more alarming than the nearly naked and armed sekasha.

“There were people talking.” Cattail Reed pointed out into the hall. “Just beyond the door.”

“There are other humans that live in this building. They are—” Friendly? Not completely. The other tenants regarded him as their lazy handy man. They resented that he wasn’t around every hour of the day, fixing all the little things that went wrong in the building. His lease, though, stipulated that he was only responsible for the heating, air conditioning, and the elevator. “They’re harmless.”

Her eyes went wide suddenly, warning him that someone was at the open door.

Margaret was head of the building association. “Do I need to call the fire department, Orville?”

No matter how many times he asked her to use his nickname, she insisted on his real name. “A bag of popcorn just got left in the microwave too long. The alarms will go off soon as I get the smoke cleared out.”

She glanced down over him, making him realize that he was still just in his boxers and then flicked her gaze over Thorne in her underwear and the children in the hospice gowns that looked like pajamas. “You can’t sublet your bedrooms. You can’t have these—people move in.”

Her voice suggested he had a herd of pigs in his apartment. He was getting so sick and tired of bigotry from every angle. He thought Pittsburgh was better than this. “I’m not subletting. I’ve adopted these kids. Thorne will not be living here.”

She glanced over the elves again. “Five children?” She shook her head. “No.”

“I have three bedrooms…”

“The co-op board will never approve six people for your square footage. Four is the most we would consider.”

“Fine,” he snapped. Thankfully the alarms shut off, so he kicked the prop on his door free. “I’ll find another place to live.”

He slammed his door shut. Immediately there was a knock on it. He jerked it back open, expecting Margaret.

Blue Sky jumped back from his snarled “What?” and held up a basket. “I brought breakfast!”

“Sorry, come in,” Oilcan stepped back to let the half-elf in. Blue wore tennis shoes, blue jeans and a black t-shirt that expounded “It’s all about racing.” Only his eyes and ears gave him away as a half-elf.

“Did you just get kicked out of your building?” Blue Sky pointed over his shoulder to where Margaret had been standing.

“Yes.” Oilcan took a deep breath as he realized that Blue would probably tell Tinker and she would hit the roof. As of late, Tinker had been stomping over everyone in her path Godzilla-style. It was tempting to unleash her but the place was cramped for six and the kids weren’t comfortable with strangers living so close. “No. Not really. This place is too small. I needed to move.”

Blue Sky took in the chaos of the kitchen, the smoke lingering in the air, and the fact Oilcan was still in his underwear and smiled brightly. “I thought Tinker was just trying to ditch me when she told me to come help you but I guess you really do need me.”

“Yes, I could use some help.” Oilcan really needed to get dressed. He pointed to the Stone Clan children in approximate order of their ages. “This is Fields of Barley, Cattail Reeds, Rustle of Leaves, Merry and Baby Duck. This is Blue Sky. He was born here in Pittsburgh. Listen to him.” And then added in English. “Make sure they don’t burn down the place while I’m putting on clothes.”

“We’re supposed to obey a Wind Clan baby?” Baby Duck whispered to Fields of Barley.

“He is sekasha first,” Thorne Scratch said. “And you will obey him as you would obey me.”

The children flinched back from her and Baby Duck quietly said, “Quiee.”

#

Oilcan, Tinker and Blue Sky had all learned how to drive on go-karts that Tinker made out of lawn mowers and leaf blowers. They’d blocked off deserted streets on Neville Island and raced through the abandoned neighborhood at insane speeds. Blue Sky might look ten years old, but he had a driver’s license and could probably out drive anyone in the city—as long as he could reach the pedals and see over the dashboard. Thus it was no surprise that Tinker had sent Blue Sky in one of the Viceroy’s Rolls Royce. It was raining, after all, and the cab of Oilcan’s pickup could only fit three people comfortably.

Figuring out who should ride where was like the logic problem of ferrying a fox, a chicken and grain across a river in a rowboat. There were eight of them; too many to comfortably fit in the Rolls. He and Blue were the only ones that could drive. All the kids but Merry and Blue were terrified of Thorne. Rustle of Leaves’ left arm was splinted, inked with healing spells, and was still healing, so he couldn’t be squeezed into a shared seat. In the end, the only logical configuration had Blue driving the Rolls with all the kids, and Oilcan following with Thorne in his pickup.

Luckily for Oilcan’s nerves, it was a short trip. No oni leapt out to snatch up the kids and take them away.

Tooloo’s was the only store in Pittsburgh that sold used elfin clothes, albeit usually to elf-obsessed humans. Her place was in McKees Rocks, just a few blocks from John Montana’s gas station. From the street, her place looked like tiny little hole in the wall, just one large glass block window and a thick bullet-proof glass door. Only the hand painted English and Elvish running under the window, stating “Bread, Butter, Eggs, Fish, Fowl, Honey, Internet Access, Milk, Spellcasting, Telephone, Translations, Video Rentals” gave clue to what lay hidden within.

Tooloo had carved out an entire farm from what had been pure city. Orchards and pastures and terraced gardens climbed a hill that was too steep to build on. Out buildings that started life as garages had been repurposed into chicken coops, dove coves and a milking barn. For some unfathomable reason, Oilcan and Tinker had spent endless hours working the farm under the guise of being babysat by the old half-elf. How Tooloo ended up as his grandfather’s primary babysitter was one of the unsolved mysteries of his childhood. It was a relationship set in stone by the time Oilcan came to Pittsburgh. He’d asked Tinker about it once when they were little and discovered she was under the delusion it somehow involved spinning straw into gold. (Looking back, he really should have disabused her of that lie but it was so cute, he let it stand.)

“My brother always said that we looked like we poured a can of oil over us and then rolled in dirt all day,” Blue was telling the kids as they got out of the car. “At some point we just started to call him ‘oil can.’ That’s what Oilcan means.”

The bells on the doorjamb jangled as Thorne opened the door and stalked into the dimly lit store. Oilcan kept close on her heels, not sure how Tooloo would react to the sekasha. Hell, there was no telling how Tooloo would react to anything. The old half-elf defied logic and reason; Oilcan suspected she did it to keep people at a distance.

Tooloo was stocking the stand up refrigerator case with milk and eggs. As always, she was in an elegant dress of elfin silk, faded and threadbare with age, and battered high-top tennis shoes. Her ankle length silver hair was braided into a thick cord. She glanced up as Thorne entered, looked mildly surprised, and then her eyes went wide when she saw Oilcan and the children.

“No!” Tooloo wailed and leapt up. “No, no, no!”

For one moment he thought she was going to object to the Stone Clan invasion but she swooped down on Oilcan and caught him by both ears.

“Ow, Tooloo! Thorne!” He caught Thorne by the wrist to keep her from drawing her sword. “Tooloo!”

The old half-elf let go of his ears only to press his face between her hands and peered closely at him. Tooloo smelled of smoke and honey; she must have been working with her beehives prior to opening her store. “Oh my little wood sprite! It’s you, just you.”

“Yeah, it’s me,” Oilcan tried to pull his face out between her hands but she had him fast.

“Get your hands off him.” Thorne growled.

Tooloo turned her attention full to the warrior. “Shame on you. By the sword and the blood.” Tooloo scoffed. “My little wood sprite is not for you.”

“This is Thorne Scratch.” Who looked like she was about to slice and dice the crazy half-elf into small pieces. “She’s a Stone Clan sekasha.”

“I have eyes. I can see.” Tooloo let him go. “Stupid guard dog. Tear the throat out of one master only to give its leash to another. Loves the pat on the head and the toss of the ball too much to leave it for true freedom.”

Thankfully Tooloo had been switched to English. Thorne Scratch continued glare hard enough to cut.

“Tooloo, we’re just here for stuff for the kids.” Oilcan was glad that the kids had already trailed off after Blue Skies, who was explaining the use of the plastic shopping baskets that Tooloo had salvaged from Walgreens.

Tooloo scoffed but went back to stocking the refrigerator, muttering darkly. “It be all well and good if they were satisfied at staying on the leash, but they’ve wound it tight around all the rest, binding everyone in place. Humans understand true revolution. Fight to be free and then stay free, don’t just hand the keys over to the next master that rises up.”

Oilcan had learned that when the half-elf got on a rant, there was no reasoning with her.

“You be careful of them.” Tooloo crashed the milk bottles into the case. “The Stone Clan are the worse of the domana bastards. They were so sure that they would be the next masters after the Skin Clan were thrown down. Want is a dangerous thing. It’s a seed planted in darkness and grows in secret. It grows and grows until it consumes you. Don’t let them get their hands on you, or they’ll twist you around and then murder you in your sleep.”

“I’ll be careful.” Oilcan promised.

Tooloo harrumphed and stomped out the back of her store without another word.

Relieved, Oilcan went to check on the kids. He found Fields of Barley down the next aisle, loading bottles of spices into one of the Walgreen baskets.

“There are clothes in the other room,” Oilcan said.

Barley nodded. “Cattail Reeds is looking at them. She is a seamstress; she’ll find something for me. If I’m going to be doing the cooking, I need more pots, dishes, spices, knives…” He closed tight his eyes, his breath suddenly ragged.

“Are you okay?” Oilcan asked gently.

“They took my knives. They used my paring knife to cut my hair and then they took them.”

What could he say in the face of that? “I’m sorry.”

Barley nodded rapidly, blinking. “It’s—it’s just my knives were made for me; the best I could afford.”

Oilcan glanced around but Tooloo had no knives for sale. “There are other places to buy things. I’m sure we can find knives if we look…”

“Yes, I know. In truth, my knives would have not lasted more than one or two hundred years. I feel stupid. I thought I could come and start an enclave. I was in the city no more than an hour before I was captured. What idiocy to think I could protect others when I could not even protect myself.”

“One failure does not make a life,” Oilcan said. “The important thing is you’re alive. You failed because you knew nothing about Pittsburgh. Once you know the city, you can try again.”

“The mistake I made was thinking I could do it alone,” Barley said. “It’s a major undertaking. It takes lots of people.”

Oilcan nodded encouragingly.

“We could start one with the six of us. Blue Sky told us that we would be leaving that unsafe place with humans.”

“What? Wait. No.”

“We’re staying there?” Barley’s dismay at the condo was clear; the young male’s façade started to crumble at the edges. His hands trembled slightly and he blinked rapidly to keep tears out of his eyes.

“We’re not staying.” Oilcan quickly reassured him. “I don’t know where we will be going. I haven’t had time to think about it.”

“Good. It’s far too small and vulnerable.” Barley ticked the points off on his fingers. “Everyone will need their own space to maintain the harmony of our household. The commons need to be at least five times bigger than where we are now. The bathing room should be separate from the toilets. We need a safe room. We need garden space. We need…”

“Okay.” Oilcan held up his hands to stem the flow of information. If opening an enclave was Barley’s dream, then the elf had probably spent decades studying their design and function.

Somehow this felt all very familiar. Tinker been this focused when she decided that opening a salvage yard would be the answer to many of their problems. “No one is going to think we’re helpless orphans if we’re running a successful business.” She’d been right, as usual. Every cop in Pittsburgh knew they were living on their own, but looked the other way since they were obviously doing well enough to be left alone.

“We’ll start looking for a new place to live after we leave here.” Oilcan promised.

Barley nodded and wiped at his eyes. “Thank you, Sama.”

Cattail Reeds came up with a bundle of clothes in her arms. She was already dressed in a black checked mini-skirt and a pink flowered baby doll shirt. “I will have to take in most of these; everything is too big. Hold this please, sama.” She pushed the clothes into Oilcan’s arms and then tugged free a pair of black denim jeans. “We’ll have to roll up the cuff until I can shorten these, but they should fit you in the waist and inseam.”

She had to show Barley how to zip up the jeans but her eye was perfect; the pants were a perfect fit. She sighed at a cotton tunic that was Wind Clan blue. “If we can dye this, it will work well.” She flipped it over her shoulder and pulled out a black Steeler’s T-shirt. “Will you wear this?”

“What is it?” Barley took the shirt and examined it closely.

“It’s human fashion!” Cattail grinned. “Isn’t it awesome? They write on their clothes. You should see what they do with patterns. I want to get some of their fabric and make dresses and tops.”

“But what does it mean?” Barley held out the shirt so the NFL logo was prominent.

Oilcan spent several minutes trying to explain professional football and the Pittsburgh habit of clinging to the memory of something that didn’t exist anymore. All the professional sports teams had left immediately after it became clear that Pittsburgh would routinely be stranded on Elfhome. Hoverbike racing had filled the void.

Sama,” Rustle of Leaves came out of the next room, trailing Blue Sky and Merry. He was wearing ear buds linked to an iPod by white cords. He held the mpeg player out to Oilcan. It was old but irreplaceable now that Pittsburgh was stranded permanently on Elfhome.

“I told him it’s expensive.” Blue Sky said. “Tooloo wants over a hundred dollars for it.”

“You can have it.” Oilcan said. Rustle of Leaves was the one he was most worried about; the quiet male wouldn’t be able to put his captivity behind him if he never regained the use of his arm. Music would be a comfort and a distraction for him.

Rustle of Leaves smiled his thanks.

“Here,” Cattail Reeds dug through the clothes to find khaki slacks and a white button down shirt for Rustle of Leaves. She and Merry helped Rustle strip down and eased him into the new clothes. Oilcan was glad that the kids all seem to be taking care of each other. It was only after Rustle was dressed that he realized that Blue seemed to be on the brink of losing it.

“Hey,” Oilcan pulled the boy aside. “Are you okay?”

And just like that, Blue Sky wasn’t a confident seventeen-year old but a rattled ten-year old. He wrapped his arms around Oilcan and buried his face into Oilcan’s side. It was always so odd when something like this served as a reminder that Blue Sky wasn’t just short for his age, but actually stuck young. Oilcan and Tinker had moved forward, grown up, and somehow Blue Sky ended up left behind.

“What’s wrong?” Oilcan asked quietly in English.

Blue Sky mumbled something into Oilcan’s shirt; the only words that Oilcan could pick out where “hurt” and “so bad.” The boy had seen Rustle’s massive bruises, the fresh ragged wounds and the ink of all the healing spells needed to save Rustle’s life. What could Oilcan say? “It’s okay” was so inadequate, especially with the knowledge that the oni were still out there, fully capable of doing it to someone else.

“I know,” Oilcan said finally.

To be brutally honest with himself, he’d been grief stricken at first when Tinker had been transformed into an elf and then whisked away to Aum Reanu. What made it bearable was seeing how much she loved her new family and how much they loved her. He constantly searched for ways to be okay with the sudden turn of events. He reminded himself that sooner or later she would have married, that at least she hadn’t gone to Earth and been a full universe away, that he didn’t have to worry that if something happened to him that she’d be left alone in Pittsburgh. And now he could add that he was glad that Tinker would be there for Blue all the years it took for him to grow up.

#

“Is that everything?” Tooloo asked at the overflowing checkout counter.

Baby Duck squeezed in between Cattail Reeds and Fields of Barley and held out six baby chicks. “Quiee.”

There was exclaims of delight from all the kids and each picked up a chick to cuddle. He knew, though, that Tooloo never sold live chickens in the store and all her eggs were refrigerated for hours. Baby Duck must have gone out the back and raided Tooloo’s chicken coop.

“Oh, Baby Duck.” He didn’t have a heart to tell her no without even asking Tooloo. “Can we have the chicks too, please?”

The old half-elf pressed her lips into a tight line, but after a moment, said. “Oh my poor little wood sprite, you don’t stand a chance.”

13: Knock Knock Open the Box

Windwolf found Tinker deep in mad scientist mode in Poppymeadow’s woodshed. He hadn’t come home the night before. She distracted herself from his absence by blowing up wood and telling herself someone would come tell her if something horrible had happened to him. Wraith Arrow—if he were still alive—which would be doubtful. Maynard. True Flame. The Wyverns. Chloe Polanski. Someone!

She worked through all of Poppymeadow’s spare lumber and had the staff raid the neighboring enclaves for more. She was starting to think she would need to decimate Pittsburgh’s entire supply of ironwood when he appeared.

“Finally!” She launched herself into his arms. He swept her up off her feet. He smelled of blood and smoke and mud. He hugged her so tight she realized that he had had his own fears.

“We really need to work on communication.” Tinker said.

“Yes.” Windwolf laughed tiredly. He slid up her safety goggles and kissed her. “The marines, once they were able to fight through the oni to my side, told me of your adventure. You impressed them.”

She blushed, feeling like a kid again, caught raiding the dynamite locker. “You’re not upset with me?”

“You are my domi, Beloved. It means we will be together, forever, but it also means that in times like these, you must act for me. I cannot have one without the other, and in truth, I would not want it any other way. I love your courage and your ability to lead.”

She supposed that made sense. She hated that he needed to go out and fight, and yet she would not want him to let Pittsburgh fall to the oni either. Blood and mud were sprayed across the front of his white silk shirt, and there was a bruise on his cheek. Something had gotten through his shield and hurt him. The Stone Clan children had forever, and yet three of them were now dead. She hugged Windwolf tighter, wrapping arms and legs around him. And for a while, all that matter was that they were together.

#

After Windwolf examined the chest with her, they ended up in the hayloft, like they were just two average teenagers sneaking away for some privacy.

The problem with going into mad scientist mode was it didn’t shut down for nookie. Even as Windwolf nudged up the blue cheetah print camisole with his nose, her mind was pointing out inconsistencies in the events she just told him.

She sighed and gave up resisting the demand for answers. “Did Sparrow know about Earth Son’s offer of sponsor anyone from his clan that came to the Westernlands?”

“I do not believe so.” Windwolf used his lips and tongue to quieted the mad scientist…for a few minutes.

“The thing I keep going back to with the kids: how did Yutakajodo know? He sent the lesser bloods to the train station because he knew that there would be elves traveling alone. Elves no one would miss. How would Yutakajodo know about the kids when the rest of us were so clueless?”

Windwolf leaned back. Emotions played across Windwolf’s face, starting with anger. It gave way to confusion and he shook his head. “I sent word to the Queen after the oni kidnapped you—before they even took Little Horse as your whipping boy. I knew that my cousin would probably request the Stone Clan to send domana; they excel at city sieges and guerrilla warfare. If this were a battle all in open fields, Ember would have just sent more Fire Clan. She could only require the Stone Clan to send someone—she could not select the domana herself—not without insulting the head of the Stone Clan.”

“Gods forbid we insult people,” Tinker growled.

He grinned at her, and then sobered as he traced circles on her bared stomach. “Ember has a thankless job of keeping four clans that would happily slit each others throats from doing just that.”

“Earth Son was at Aum Reanu. Perhaps he told Sparrow while he was there that he planned to sponsor these children. She could have passed that information on to the oni.”

Windwolf considered it and then slowly shook his head. “I doubt it. Sparrow was misleading me to how many strong the oni force was in Pittsburgh. I wasn’t willing to give up my holdings for help until the oni took you. Then I was willing to give it all away to get you back.”

It made her all fluttery inside to know he meant it. “Wow.” She slapped him slightly on the shoulder. “Don’t say things like that. It wouldn’t have been fair to people like Poppymeadow and Ginger Wine. They depend on you.”

He grinned and kissed her. “You are perfect.”

She blushed and yet felt giddy happy. “Why?”

“Because you’re right.”

“Of course I am. I usually am. I don’t see how the two relates though; what does that have to do with Earth Son telling Sparrow about sponsoring people?”

“Because he had no holdings in Westernlands until the crown rewarded him remunerations for coming to Pittsburgh.”

She saw the cause and effect then. When Earth Son was at Aum Reanu, he couldn’t have known that Windwolf would ask for help. Sparrow was dead by the time Earth Son arrived in Pittsburgh.

“Could someone have sent Sparrow the information before she was killed?”

“No. My cousin came in all haste, leaving behind half of his people just to get here quickly as possible. No messenger with a letter could have outstripped him. The entire enclave would have known if we received a message via the distant voice; Sparrow couldn’t have kept the information secret.”

There had been distant voices at Aum Renau. When Tinker was the all-important pivot who would stop the oni invasion, the elves answered all her questions about the magical devices in great detail but very politely refused her request to experiment with them. With everything else, she’d been given free-rein—well—they had made her promise not to dissemble the dreadnaught.

Far as she could determine, the elves had discovered how to entangle elements at the quantum level on a large scale. The distant voices appeared to be two marble slabs. A spell was embedded within the stone. As a special pen was moved over one, a special magic-sensitive paper on the paired slab recorded the pen strokes as they were written. Given earth technology, it wouldn’t seem amazing to the causal observer. To know that the distant voices could operate half a world apart without a satellite system or wires connecting them fascinated Tinker. She desperately wanted to take one apart so she could view the spell.

An idea bubbled up. She nudged Windwolf chest until he rolled them over.

“We have distant voices here?” She sat up. So far she hadn’t seen any at Poppymeadow’s but at Aum Renau they were kept in a small, locked and guarded room.

“We have four. They work in pairs. We have one to the other three Wind Clan settlements here in Westernlands and one to my father in the Easternlands.”

“Show me.”

#

It turned out that the distant voices were as tightly guarded at Poppymeadow’s as they had been at Aum Reanu. They were always attended by a member of Windwolf’s personal household, who rang a bell as a message was received. The bell summoned someone who could take the message directly to Windwolf without leaving the device unattended. Like Windwolf said, Sparrow couldn’t have received information without the entire household knowing.

Tinker would be more worried that other members of Windwolf’s household had been in league with Sparrow if she hadn’t spent the weeks at Aum Reanu. It been clear that Sparrow had no friends.

“How did you end up with her as your husepavua?” Tinker dug through the supplies for the room. Windwolf—being rich and systematic—had stocked the room with several reams of the special paper.

Windwolf laughed. “I inherited her, like so many things in my life. Sparrow was vital to the clan during the clan wars. After my grandfather was killed, my father took certain steps to secure his place as clan head. One was to marked Sparrow with the dau to make her domana in name, though not in blood. She thought he would make her his domi—and perhaps if the war continued—he would have. Politically it would have been a good match, although loveless.”

“The sekasha, however, decided that the war was decimating our people and that it had to end. They united and forced the clans to accept Ashfall as king. He was a wise choice. Ashfall was willing to do whatever it took to create a lasting peace, even sacrificing his children to the cause. He summoned the heads of the clan to court and proposed marriages to tie the clans together with blood. When my parents met for the first time, my father was smitten.”

A whooping ten kids later, Windwolf was born. Apparently Ashfall missed out when the Skin Clan was handing out infertility. She wondered what it would mean for her and Windwolf. Babies—gah! So not ready for that.

Tinker counted out a dozen pieces of special paper. “Your dad falls for your mom, dumps Sparrow, and she has an axe to grind forever after.”

“So it appears,” Windwolf followed Tinker back to the woodshed. “My father had no choice. Sparrow would not let go of the war and focus on peace. War would have torn Father’s heart and home apart. He all but exiled her to remote holdings. Anyways, I did not want another domana taking control of Pittsburgh and yet I did not want to abandon my holdings on the coast; using Sparrow seemed the perfect compromise. Since there were no other clans in the Westernlands, I thought she could do no harm…”

Pony had told Tinker once that Sparrow hoped Windwolf would take her as his domi. Twice burned. That would piss anyone off—but enough to betray your entire species?

“Other than redecorating Poppymeadow’s woodshed, what you attempting to do?” Windwolf fingered the splinters embedded into the wall, making it look like a cactus.

“I’m trying to safely open the chest from the whelping pens.” Tinker laid the distance voice paper on top of one of her newly created spell-locks. “It requires me to pick the lock.”

“I did not think that was possible.”

She held up a finger to indicate silence. Into the hush, she slowly pronounced, “Three point one four one five nine two.”

There was no outward sign from the spell-lock, but the spell glyphs appeared on the paper as she spoke the syllables of the key. Only when she hit “two” did the spell-lock gleam with power and the lumber it was etched on split into two pieces.

“Owned!” She shouted and danced around the wood shop.

Windwolf scooped her up and kissed her.

“I don’t understand.” Wraith Arrow murmured to Pony. “Yes, it copied the spell, but she made the lock, so she knows the key. How does that help with a lock that she does not know the key to?”

“Ah! Look!” She locked the spell again and put another paper in place. “Two, nine, five, one, four, one, point.” She held out the still blank paper. “Nothing!” She put it in place again. “Three.” The first glyph appeared. “It only reacts to the correct phoneme when it’s spoken in correct order. Each glyph as it’s unlocked gives off a minuscule amount of magic in order to activate the next section of the spell. The paper transcribes the glyph—Oh, I think I know how they build the distance voices.” She frowned at the paper. “But how do they make the paper?”

“That is a Stone Clan secret,” Windwolf said.

“Figures.” The mad scientist suggested other secrets that the Stone Clan might have. “Do they have distant voices here in Pittsburgh?”

“I assume they do but at this moment, I don’t know. I can ask Ginger Wine. She will know.”

Tinker considered that possibility that Earth Son had dealt directly with Yutakajodo and frowned as the logic went neatly circular. “Oh that’s ugly.”

“What is?” Windwolf asked.

“What if the reason Earth Son offered to sponsor anyone that could get to Pittsburgh was to guarantee a steady stream of elves that no one would miss?”

Windwolf’s face went cold. “Earth Son was sacrificing his own people?”

“These kids started arriving weeks ago. Earth Son died last week. Why didn’t he make arrangements for his people to get safely to Ginger Wine’s? Pittsburgh is a strange and dangerous place. He didn’t talk to you about it. He couldn’t have told True Flame, because the Wyverns didn’t know anything. He didn’t even tell his own Hand.”

Windwolf started to pace. “It is dangerous to assume it was him.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s safely dead. There is still Forest Moss to consider. He may or may not be mad and he was held prisoner by the oni, and then conveniently escaped, leading them back to Earth. He was the one that opened the door.”

#

Deeming the woodshed already half-ruined, they moved the chest to it for her attempt to unlock it. Elvish had thirty-eight phonemes, so she rigged her datapad to speak each and then check to see there had been a reaction in the paper. After that it was simply reprogramming one of her hacking programs to use Elvish phonemes instead of numbers and the English alphabet. She set up a remote camera and watched from a safe distance. Even using her datapad, it took the entire morning to pick through the lock. Windwolf slept for two hours and left again.

Shortly after lunch, lock cracked open but otherwise it was all slightly anti-climactic.

They slid the lid off and a pair of laedin guards took it off someplace. Pony checked the chest for bombs and poisonous snakes and midget ninjas.

Tinker frowned at the contents. There were stacks of used spell papers. “Great, more puzzles to work out.”

She lifted them out and carried them to the dining room to spread out on the one bright table. The spells scrolled down the left side of tissue-thin paper with such identical precision that they had to have been printed. She lifted two up to the light, aligning the edges of the paper, to check. The spells started and ended in the same exact points. “These were printed on a printer.” Smeared across the page were odd blurs of color. “They look like DNA scans.”

“D-N-A?” Pony asked.

“It’s—it’s stuff I don’t know much about.” She admitted. “Well, my grandfather said when dealing with things outside of your field, go to an expert.”

14: Monster Popsicles

“I thought you said that black willow saplings were non-ambulatory,” Tinker grumbled. The one-foot tall seedlings were zipping around Lain’s high walled nursery bed like mice on crack. They were cute in a very ugly way. Their trunks thickened into a wrinkled old man “face” and then their branches splayed out like a head of mad hair. They looked like little miniature Albert Einsteins racing blindly about the box.

It was a lot easier to focus on the saplings than how badly she missed the ordered serenity of Lain’s house. Her earliest memories were filled with the smell of fresh dirt and bruised greens.

Tinker studied Lain out the corner of her eye. Lain was a head taller than Tinker ever hoped to be with strong shoulders and arms from decades of relying on her crutches to move around. Her eyes were a pale blue-gray and her hair been gray as long as Tinker could remember. Tinker could see nothing of herself in her aunt. It was like her father’s side of the family had won every chromosomal flip of the coin; Tinker was dusky skinned, dark haired and dark eyed, small nosed and chesty. Not that it was all that surprising. The Skin Clan apparently had made sure that the genes that they wanted were extremely dominant.

How much different would her life been if she’d looked more like Lain? Would she have guessed then that Lain was her aunt?

Lain seemed willing to totally ignore their fight and everything that followed. “I said the saplings that I observed were non-ambulatory. After I was able to study the mature Black Willow, I realized that the level of magic altered the plant’s activity level. This bed is on a ley line.”

A weak ley line meandered through the back corner of Lain’s greenhouse. When Tinker was growing up, it was the corner where her radio-controlled cars would suddenly run amuck. As a domana, she could now sense the flow of magic as a slight trickle of power over her toes, like she was standing in a shallow stream of warm water.

While Tinker could understand how magic could influence the sapling’s movement, she wasn’t sure about accelerated growth. When she last saw Lain, she had been culling seedpods. “Did you grow these from seeds?”

“No, I transplanted them from a very magic weak area to test my theory.”

Tinker leaned down to catch one. She wanted have a closer look at their feet. “I didn’t think plants could move so fast.”

“Careful,” Lain blocked Tinker’s outstretched hand with the tip of her crutch just as Pony caught Tinker by the shoulder and pulled her backwards.

“They bite,” Lain said in English as Pony murmured in Elvish, “Domi, they can bite.”

“Why am I not surprised?” Tinker’s shadow seemed to have attracted the saplings attention; they gathered against the wall in front of her and scrambled wildly at the smooth surface. It was creepy and funny at the same time.

“When the saplings are in mass like this, they act like a school of piranha,” Lain seemed inordinately pleased at that. She was probably wallowing in the joy of alien biology. Lain had thought her career as xenobiologist ended with the shuttle explosion that crippled her; Earth’s space agencies only tapped the most physically fit for extraterrestrial missions. When Pittsburgh had been accidentally transported to Elfhome, though, Lain had gained a second chance to study life on another planet. “They tore a large groundhog apart in the matter of minutes and swallowed even the bones whole.”

The rust-colored splashes on the nursery walls took on ominous meaning. “You fed them a live groundhog?”

“Not intentionally. The stupid thing burrowed into the nursery.” Lain pointed out a mound of disturbed dirt near one corner. “So far when Earth’s flora and fauna meets Elfhome’s, Elfhome’s come out the winner. Magic seems to raise the whole ‘evolution of the fittest’ to a higher level. Just consider the elves themselves; they’re taller, stronger, and immortal. If we could use magic to bioengineer…”

“You can study how magic changes plants.” Stormsong was the only one of Tinker’s sekasha fluent in English, thus the only one following the conversation. “But you must not try to use what you learn. That type of magic is forbidden.”

“Forbidden?” Lain looked pointedly toward Tinker who had been human up to a few months ago and was now undeniably elf.

“There are exceptions, but they are few and strictly controlled,” Stormsong said. “Nature did not make us this way. The Skin Clan enslaved us and treated us like animals. They bred us for desired traits and slaughtered any infant that didn’t meet their standards.”

“Yeah, spell-working—bioengineering using magic—is a major no-no.” Tinker waved a warning to Lain to back off the subject. The Skin Clan had set out to create the perfect being in the sekasha to act as their bodyguards. While they wildly succeeded, the perfection worked against them. The sekasha were morally horrified by their makers and wiped them out.

“For a long time spell-working was completely forbidden,” Tinker explained. “That’s the importance of Tempered Steel, the sekasha monk that they make such a big to-do over during the Harvest Faire.” While she was growing up, the story competed with the pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving; every Harvest Faire featured a cute little puppet show and an odd fixation on keva beans. Only after becoming an elf did she realize all the little nuances of the story that she’d missed. “Wheat blight was creating a massive famine until Tempered Steel successfully argued for special allowances for spell-working.”

What she didn’t realize as a child was the fact that despite the domana-caste being “the lords” of the elves, it was the sekasha that had the final say in all matters. Tempered Steel hadn’t gone to the elf king but to the sekasha monasteries of all the clans to argue his case. Being sekasha, his argument had been backed by serious sword skills. In the puppet show, he would defeat the monastery’s champion before uttering his famous line of “Evil lies in the heart of elves, not in magic.” In the end, it was the sekasha that decided that spell-working would be allowed and created the guidelines.

“Spell-working is really at the heart of why the elves so vehemently oppose the oni. The greater bloods practice wholesale bioengineering on their people. The tengu were humans that an oni greater blood spell-worked as punishment for resisting their takeover. He merged them with the crows who were feasting on their dead fathers and brothers.”

Lain sighed. “Yes, I understand that applying bio-engineering indiscriminately to sentient beings is morally wrong. But there is so much that the elves and even the oni could teach us. Most biologists coming to Pittsburgh from Earth look down their noses at the ‘primitive’ elves without realizing that the elves had been manipulating DNA with magic for thousands of years before we even began to imagine what it was.”

Tinker didn’t want to stand and argue the point in front of Stormsong. She was fairly certain that Stormsong wouldn’t hurt Lain, but she didn’t want to find out the hard way that she was mistaken. Being wrong once was enough. “Lain. Really?” Tinker motioned to the sapling dashing madly about the nursery bed. “A food we need to chase down and catch?”

Lain scoffed but allowed the subject to be changed back to the saplings. “I’m going to have to do something with them before they get much larger. Based on what I learned from the mature tree, I think they’ll freeze nicely. I could thaw them out one at a time to study.”

“Monster popsicles,” Tinker said. “Black willow flavored.”

Lain smiled at her; a rare and treasured thing. “I’ve missed you.”

Three little words that made Tinker’s heart seize up. While she was growing up, Lain was the closest thing to a mother that she had. Betrayed couldn’t describe how Tinker felt when she learned that Lain had lied to her every day of her life—she let Tinker believe that they weren’t related when in truth Lain was her aunt. She had to cling to the knowledge that Lain had always been there for her. Lain had nursed her through childhood colds, stitched up cuts, cleaned out wounds, taught her how to deal with the mysteries of menstruation and expanded her knowledge past quantum physics. Without Lain, she wouldn’t have been able to save Windwolf life, escape from the oni, or anything. And wasn’t that the truly important thing? “Yeah. I’ve missed you too.”

Lain took Tinker’s right hand and ran light fingers over the spectacular purples and yellows mottling her forearm. “Did you break it?”

Tinker tried not to wince as the feather touch still gave her tinges of pain. “It was just a hairline fracture. I basically slept for a week while the healing spells were running and it’s back to new.”

“With all our science, we still can’t heal a bone that fast.”

“The spell focuses magic onto the elves’ regenerative powers, puts it into hyper-drive, which is why I slept for most of the week. Also ate like a pig every time I woke up—which also meant I spent the rest of my awake time in the bathroom. It was a really annoying week.”

Lain kissed her on the forehead. “I was worried about you, ladybug. I’m glad to see you’re looking like your old self.”

“It’s the shirt.” Tinker didn’t want to go out in just a camisole so she had raided Stormsong’s bedroom again. The result was yet another of Roach’s limited editions: a hoverbike sliding sideways through a cloud of dust that spelled out “Tinker.” (She wouldn’t have borrowed it but Stormsong had pulled it over her head and grinned.)

Lain hugged her and then let her go. “I had a feeling that you would be coming to see me, so I made cookies and lemonade.”

#

A rifle was lying on the island of Lain’s sprawling kitchen. It was Lain’s Winchester. The twenty-two-caliber rifle was the least powerful of Lain’s guns, just a popgun when compared to her Barrett Light Fifty. Any trip into Elfhome’s virgin forest required a gun and often a flamethrower. Lain used to collect samples of Elfhome plants, kept them in quarantine for a month and then ship them to Earth during Shutdown.

“Are you going out?” Tinker sighed as she realized that Pony and Stormsong had drifted between her and Lain. She wanted to smack them for acting suspicious of Lain. In truth, though, she couldn’t entirely blame them. They had been there when Lain finally admitted the truth. They had seen how badly Tinker lost it. They knew how crazy Lain and her sister Esme—Tinker’s real biological mother—had made Tinker.

“I’ve been having a problem with groundhogs,” Lain took a pitcher of lemonade out of the refrigerator and set it beside the rifle, making the sekasha twitch. “I expanded my outside beds and planted them all with keva beans. The damn rodents act like I set up a feeding trough.”

Since Lain didn’t need the rifle for anything life threatening, Tinker picked it up and carried it to the gun rack in the center hallway. The Barrett Light Fifty was missing. The big gun was protection against the giant reptilian saurus; it was extreme overkill for groundhogs. What was Lain thinking? “Why aren’t you using your live traps?”

“I thought it would be good for my neighbors to know that this little old crippled lady was armed.”

The neighborhood of Observatory Hill had been quite wealthy at the end of the eighteenth century and was filled with grand Victorian houses. Lain lived on the edge of the scientific commune huddled around Allegheny Observatory. Her mansion sat apart from the houses that had been converted into dorms for the rotating base of Earth scientists that came to Elfhome to study the parallel universe. The distance of Lain’s home from the dorms reflected the fact that normally only Lain lived in Pittsburgh while all the other scientists were transient. That of course changed when Tinker destroyed the hyper-phase gate that shuffled Pittsburgh back and forth between the two worlds.

It was disturbing to realize that all of Lain’s neighbors had been on Elfhome for only a couple months. They were complete strangers who had signed up for a thirty-day visit to an alien planet and found themselves stranded. “They’re scientists! Do you really think they’d attack you?”

“I don’t know them, ladybug, and they don’t know me.”

Tinker considered the missing Barrett and how it sounded like a cannon when shot. “At this rate, they might be afraid to get to know you.”

“That would be fine with me.” Lain said, and Tinker knew that Lain meant it. “Fiercely private” must run in the family. Before Tinker became an elf, she spent days alone at her salvage yard, focusing on her inventions. Looking back, though, she knew that deep down, she’d been lonely.

Was Lain lonely? Tinker, at least, had Oilcan while she had been in her mad scientist phase. He was always quietly but intensely protective of Tinker. Everyone in Pittsburgh knew that the cousins fought as a tag team.

“It’s going to be a rough winter,” Lain called. “Everyone up here knows that I’ve been laying in stores of food. Not that I made a point of telling anyone, but an acre of keva beans is hard to miss. These newcomers don’t know me. As far as they’re concerned, I’m just a harmless crippled geek.”

Tinker suddenly hated the idea of Lain being alone. “Is Esme staying with you?”

There was no answer from the kitchen except extremely loud rattling of silverware. Apparently Tinker wasn’t the only one annoyed with Lain’s little sister.

Tinker put the Winchester in its place and relocked the gun rack. The rifle safely locked away, the sekasha drifted off, giving Tinker the illusion of privacy as she went back to the kitchen. “Have you seen Esme?”

Lain scoffed. “If you count watching her sleep at Mercy Hospital, yes, I’ve seen her. She apparently was suffering mostly from exhaustion. When I went back yesterday, she had checked herself out and left.”

“You’re kidding! She’s been gone for…”

“For a few weeks.” Lain overrode Tinker. “For Esme, she’s was only in space for a few weeks, not eighteen years. According to the nurses, she didn’t realize at first that she’s basically jumped forward in time nearly twenty years. It apparently sunk in yesterday morning.”

And Esme promptly checked herself out. “Oh.”

“You didn’t tell her?” Lain leveled a hard gaze at Tinker.

Tinker could deliberately misunderstand and pretend she thought Lain meant about the time difference, but she knew what Lain really was asking. “No. That didn’t come up. We were kind of busy.”

Lain scoffed and released Tinker from her medusa gaze. “You two are entirely too much alike. God have pity on me, having to deal with both of you at the same time.”

Tinker focused on raiding the cookie jar. It was filled with her favorite—thin, crunchy sugar cookies. Lain had known she was coming. Apparently both sisters could see the future. It explained how Lain had always managed to stay one step ahead of Tinker when her grandfather couldn’t.

“So, what’s this puzzle that you can’t figure out that you’ve brought me?” Lain proved that she was two steps in front of Tinker.

Stormsong had loaned Tinker a canvas messenger bag to carry the DNA spell sheets. Tinker spread them out on the butcher-block topped island as she explained how the oni had kidnapped the Stone Clan children.

“I’m afraid that the oni might have done something to the kids. It’s horrible to say this, but the best thing we can hope for is that the oni simply bred them with an animal. The hospice made sure that’s not a worry anymore. Considering what the oni did with the tengu—transforming an entire generation of humans into half-crows—I’m afraid of what the worse could be.”

Lain picked up the first sheet and studied it intently. “These look like DNA scans.”

“That’s what I thought.”

Lain picked up another and studied the two side by side. “It’s against the treaty to cull any genetic samples from elves.”

“I don’t think the oni care.”

Lain gave her a dark look. “I have nothing to compare these with. Are you even sure these are from the children?”

“Um, no.”

Lain sighed. “First you’re going to have to get DNA samples from the children and see if these are indeed matches. And it has to be you—I can’t do it.”

Tinker decided not to point out that the treaty no longer existed. If someone was going to get in trouble for this, she wanted it to be her.

“While you’re at it, any other baseline samples you can get me would be good. I would have to build an entire index to see what is normal before I can tell if there’s anything abnormal.”

Tinker winced. The elves were not going to like that. “I’ll see what I can do.”

15: Sacred Heart

If Oilcan really didn’t want to move, he probably could have sic’d Tinker on his condo board, but to be truthful, he had a three-bedroom condo because he liked having space for himself. It would be only a matter of time before having the five kids crowded in with him would drive him nuts.

He needed a much bigger place. He needed someplace like the abandoned hotel that he grew up in. Last time he checked, it was still standing empty. Nothing, however, could get him to brave the spring floods on Neville Island again. He had the barn in the south hills where he often did art, but it was very isolated. He didn’t want to drag the kids out where they’d be vulnerable to oni. The remote barn would probably give them nightmares.

If they were going to open an enclave, then it would probably be best to be out by the other enclaves. He knew it was the custom of incoming elves to go from one enclave to the next until they found one with space still available.

Once he started to actually think “enclave” the type of building became clearer in his mind. It would need a large public dining room, a hefty kitchen, multiple bathrooms, sleeping rooms for guests and separate sleeping quarters for the kids. Too bad he couldn’t just move the hotel from Neville Island out to Oakland.

There was a building, though, in Oakland that always reminded him of the hotel.

The oni had launched an attack on the enclaves from a house across the street from the faire ground. The elves had evacuated all the buildings and proceeded to level the block. The last building on the street had been a private high school before Pittsburgh first traveled to Elfhome. The lack of high school age kids had forced the school to close and it had been turned over to the EIA. It seemed to Oilcan that someone had been squatting in it over the years, but they would have been evicted along with the rest of the street.

“Blue Sky, have they torn down Sacred Heart High School?”

“Not yet.”

The elves were tearing down the buildings to keep the oni at arm’s length. Surely they wouldn’t mind if someone they could trust moved in.

#

Oilcan was less sure about his decision as he drove up to Sacred Heart. The east side of the street had stayed on Earth; it had been replaced by virgin forest that pressed up against the edge of the ruined sidewalks. The ironwood trees had been cut back for over a mile to create a wide-open field that made up the Faire grounds and doubled for safe tethering for the living airships. Flocks of indi, Elfhome’s near cousins to goats, were out grazing, splashes of white against the green. When he thought of this street, the idyllic faire grounds were what came to mind.

Less than a month ago, the west side of the street had been lined with stately brownstone townhomes. The houses had been reduced to rumble, making the street look like a war-zone. He never realized how much this street meant to him until he gazed at the ruin. The juxtaposition between faire grounds and brownstones had been idealization of the humans of Pittsburgh living beside the elves of Elfhome—and the war had torn it to shreds.

Baby Duck tumbled out of the Rolls, pointed excitedly at the indi and took off running. The others got out, milled about and then reluctantly followed. The indi had laedin warriors keeping watch over them to fend off wargs and oni. Blue Sky was along to make sure the Wind Clan adults behaved toward the Stone Clan children.

Oilcan was glad that the kids would be distracted as he checked out Sacred Heart.

The high school was a solid three-story brick building. The first floor windows were narrow as arrow slits but higher floors had huge bay windows that promised lots of natural light. Wide stone steps led up to an arched doorway. At one time a stout oak door had protected the opening, but it was laying in pieces in foyer.

Apparently the previous occupants had been oni. Bullet holes peppered the plaster in the foyer. The stone floor was smeared with blood, showing that the oni had been killed and their bodies been pulled from the building. Judging by the amount of blood dried on the carpet in the cavernous room to the right of the foyer, a sekasha had beheaded two or more oni and their bodies had gushed out all of their blood. Flies buzzed lazily through the air and the bloodstain writhed with maggots.

Oilcan steeled himself against the blood and explored deeper into high school. The building was everything he hoped, although hip deep in garbage. How did the oni live here without attracting notice? Were some humans this disgusting that no one noticed what animals the neighbors were? The volume of work needed to make the place livable was daunting. Still the bones were good. The first floor had three huge rooms that been a gym, library, and dinning room, a small warren of offices, two bathrooms and an industrial grade kitchen. The large backyard was already fenced in by a high brick wall, although piled with garbage. The twenty classrooms on the upper floors were large, littered with clothes but had sunshine streaming in through big, dirty windows. While the urine-soaked bathrooms lacked showers, there were enough of them that he could easily turn one into an elfin bathing room. The roof showed no signs of leaking. No one had gutted the cooper pipes. The hot water tanks were sound. The heating system had been upgraded in the last quarter century. The only glass that needed replaced was in the lower, smaller windows—they’d been smashed outward during the fight.

His grandfather always said that you needed a plan for everything from baking a cake to total global domination. He’d drummed project management into both of his grandchildren. Again and again, Tinker had used her training to change the world: from creating hoverbike racing to defeating the entire oni army single-handedly. Oilcan had always kept his projects smaller and more personal. This was going to be the largest project he had every taken on. Still, the key to any project was to break it into small manageable steps.

First things he would need were a chalkboard (this was a school after all,) chalk, and every dumpster he could get his hands onto.

#

The third floor of the school, Oilcan decided, would be the “family” level, while the guest rooms could be on the second. He picked out the room at the head of the stairs for himself. From it, he could keep watch over all the comings and goings. He’d cleared a path to the chalkboard and started sketching out a plan on how to make the kid’s life right.

There was no way he could get the building cleaned all at once, so he needed to prioritize the rooms. He would also have to fix the front door and make sure the back door locked tightly and any other entrances were secure. Utilities were on, but he wasn’t sure if all the light fixtures worked—he should check those before it got dark.

The building was silent except for the scratch of his chalk, so he jumped when someone said directly behind him, “I had no idea that project management was genetic.”

Last time Oilcan had seen Riki Shoji, the tengu was still pretending to be a human physics grad student that lucked into a job at Tinker’s salvage yard. All that remained of the disguise was the tone and cadence of Riki’s voice—a wry sense of humor that scraped along the baritone registry. If it wasn’t for voice, Oilcan won’t have recognized the tengu warrior as Riki. He stood in the door like a dark angel, wingtips brushing the doorframe. From the machine gun on his hip to the steel fighting spurs on his bird-like feet, there was nothing of the witty scholar Oilcan had called friend.

The only other person that ever triggered so many conflicting emotions in Oilcan—most of them negative—was safely dead by Pony’s hand. There was a point, just a few days ago, when Oilcan was sure he would kill Riki given a chance. That was before he found out that the oni had been holding Riki’s six-year-old cousin Joey as hostage.

It was an uncomfortable feeling knowing that Oilcan had the luxury of never having to decide how far he would go to protect Tinker. He never had to kill someone. He never had to betray someone that trusted him. If faced with the same choice, could he have saved Tinker by allowing the oni to torture someone that trusted him? Especially now that he intimately knew the horrors that the oni could inflict? Oilcan couldn’t even imagine choosing either and staying sane.

Rage had been wonderfully simple compared to what Oilcan felt now.

“What are you doing here?” Oilcan growled.

The tengu shifted uneasy. “I heard that you ended up with the kids we rescued yesterday.”

Oilcan took a deep breath and let it out. He knew that the tengu had been instrumental in the rescue but he didn’t know that Riki had been involved. Tinker had told him that as part of the Chosen bloodline, Riki had been considered the leader of the tengu prior to Jin’s return. It was why the oni kidnapped Joey Shoji; it gave them a hold on all the tengu through Riki. It would make sense for Riki to lead an assault instead of Jin. “And?”

“I’ve stayed at your place. It was okay for two, but way too small for six. I figured you needed help moving.” Riki nudged the mounds of trash that threatened to block the door. “Looks like you could use a lot of help.”

Oilcan scoffed and turned back to the chalkboard. What had he been writing? “Wish” was all he had written down. Wish he could go back to comfortably hating Riki? Not that he really was comfortable with all the rage he’d felt. It had felt like putting on his father’s skin.

Wish list. He needed to know what the kids had lost to the oni. If Merry was any example, the kids had pared their luggage done to what they must have to start a new life. If the kids were going to put the nightmare of their captivity behind them, they had to have those essentials back. Oilcan wrote “Barley: knives, Rustle: instrument.” Assuming of course Rustle could ever use his shattered left arm again.

There was a noise behind him and he realized that Riki had picked up a handful of the garbage and was carrying it downstairs.

Tinker had clearly forgiven Riki. She talked about how Riki had subtly protected her while she was held captive, and how adorable his cousin Joey was. Riki knew the oni; he knew what they could do to a child and what he was setting Tinker up to endure. How could Oilcan blame Riki for protecting Joey? How could he forgive Riki for hurting Tinker?

#

Oilcan still wasn’t sure how to deal with Riki when an odd tip-tapping in the foyer heralded the return of the children from the faire ground.

Sama?” Merry’s voice echoed through the building.

“Up here.” Oilcan went out to the hall and leaned over the banister.

The children hadn’t returned empty handed; they had a pair of baby indi on twine leashes.

“Where did you get those?” he asked. Oh please gods, hopefully Baby Duck hadn’t stolen those too.

“They gave the indi to us.” Cattail Reeds said.

Blue Sky shrugged his shoulders when Oilcan looked to him for confirmation. “Tinker apparently put the fear of god into everyone. The enclave people were really nice.”

Merry wrinkled her nose at the smell as she eyed the trash-covered foyer. “What is this place?”

“This is going to be our enclave—once we get it cleaned out.”

The kids eyed the mess around them.

Quiee,” Baby Duck said what they all clearly were thinking.

“Yes, I know it looks horrible,” he said. “It just needs some work.”

There was the rumble of a big truck outside and then the hiss of brakes. The first of the dumpsters had arrived.

#

Riki was in the kitchen, cleaning. He had slipped on the scholar disguise again; there was no sign of his wings or gun or fighting spurs. His sandals were so nondescript that they camouflaged Riki’s bird-like feet with normalcy.

Considering the emotional state of the kids, Oilcan was glad that if Riki was determined to be underfoot, at least he was doing it in the least threatening of modes.

“What are you doing here?” Oilcan whispered since the kids had followed him into the kitchen.

“First room on your list to clean is the kitchen,” Riki said evenly.

Oilcan scoffed and kept picking his way to the back door. “There’s been a change in priorities. I’m starting with the backyard.”

“Why?”

Oilcan pointed at one of the indi as it bleated as if in answer. He already assumed it would be days before the building would be clean enough to actually move into. While he could slip the chicks into his condo, they’d have to leave the indi here.

“Yeah, that could be a problem,” Riki said.

The backyard lacked any kind of a path to the tall iron back gate. He had to all but wade through the trash. Roach was waiting in the back alley, looking as soulful as the pair of elf hounds sitting beside him. Roach’s family handled most of the garbage collection in Pittsburgh. Their place was out by the airport in what was quickly becoming ironwood forest; they had to keep a pack of the massive dogs to safely operate their landfill business.

“Dude, you’ve got to be kidding,” Roach said in greeting. “You’re moving into this dump?”

“Probably.” He still had to check with Windwolf since the building was supposed to be torn down. The indi made cleaning up the yard a necessity regardless of the end result on the building itself. “Once I get it cleaned up and jump through a few hoops.”

The lock was rusted open—something else to put on his list—but the gate would only swing inward a foot or two before grinding to a halt on the trash spilling into the back alley.

“There’s a shitload to do.” Roach picked up a mangled office chair and tossed it with a deep clang into the dumpster still on the truck bed.

“Yeah.” Oilcan had been assuming that the kids would help, but as he moved aside the surface layer of trash, he was uncovering hidden landmines of broken glass and sharp rusted metal. He didn’t want the kids near the trash now. “I’m not sure how I’m going to do this.”

“I’ll call the team.” Roach gave him a worried look. “We’re still going race—right?”

“Yeah. It’s just going to be little crazy for a while.”

Roach laughed. “And this differs from most of this summer how?”

“Little crazy.” Oilcan measured with his fingers. “Instead of a lot crazy.”

“I can live with that. Tommy Chang called and asked if we were racing this weekend and if you’d be lead, and I told him yes. I’d really rather not have Tommy pissed at me.”

“I should have my shit together by the weekend.”

Roach worked the hydraulic controls on the truck and dropped the big steel container within a foot of the wall. “You sure you want two more?”

“Yeah, out front so I can build chutes down from the second and third story.” The kids could work at cleaning out one room to sleep in if things turned sour fast with his condo association. The stuff in the classrooms seemed fairly harmless compared to the trash in the backyard.

“Okay.” Roach said and whistled to his dog. “Andy’s bringing the second one. I’ll tell him to drop it in front.”

#

There were ten tengu in the kitchen. Not a feather was showing, but they were unmistakable from the lean muscle builds, beak-like noses, and the flutter of nervousness that went through them as Oilcan walked back into the kitchen. The center island been cleared of clutter and they were gathered around it like flocking crows.

“Where are the kids?” Oilcan asked.

“Upstairs.” Riki pointed above his head. “I told Blue Sky to have them pick out rooms on the third floor and write their names on the chalkboard and make out wish lists.”

It was fairly down Oilcan’s to-do list, but the tengu weren’t on his plan at all.

“And the indi?” Oilcan asked.

“My little cousins have them across the street,” Riki said. “Indi are kind of stupid—they’ll eat plastic and other stuff that will make them sick. I figured it would be better to keep them out of the building until it’s cleaned.”

“Why are you doing this?” Oilcan growled.

“Because you need help.”

“Maybe I don’t want your help.” There was no “maybe” about it, but the logical part of him, the part most like his mother and so different from his father’s unreasonable passion, knew that Riki was right. He needed a lot of help to clean out the building and make it livable. He just didn’t want to acknowledge that Riki was right.

“I didn’t think you would want my help,” Riki said.

A reasonable person would stay far away knowing that they weren’t wanted, but then, Oilcan wouldn’t use words like “reasonable” to describe Riki. “Is this some kind of plan to make me grateful enough to forgive you?”

“No.”

“Then what the fuck are you doing here?”

Riki stood silently for a few minutes and then said, “Did you know there were oni children at the whelping pits yesterday?”

Oilcan recoiled as he realized that the elves wouldn’t have let a single oni live; the oni children wouldn’t have been spared. “What does that have to do with you screwing us over?”

“Tinker went into that warren to save your kids. She didn’t go there to kill the oni children. She didn’t want that. She hated that.”

“Leave Tinker out of this!” Oilcan shouted. “That’s—that’s totally different. You wormed your way into our lives. You lied to us. You made us trust you. I told you things that I have never told anyone in my life—not even Tinker. And the whole time you were standing there, going ‘I watched my mother die too,’ you were planning on killing Tinker.”

Riki flinched as if Oilcan had struck him, but didn’t deny it. He hunched his shoulders and continued, “Tinker went into the warren because that’s what had to be done to rescue those kids.”

“That doesn’t make what you did right!”

Riki nodded. “What I did was wrong but I had to do it. The worse of it is: if you ask me what I do differently, the honest answer is ‘nothing.’ I wouldn’t dare. I got my baby cousin back safely. I got my uncle out of orbit and on the right planet. I got my whole frigging race protected. I wouldn’t change anything but it still doesn’t make it right.”

Oilcan hands clenched into fists against his will. He looked away from Riki and forced his hands to relax. “So this is some insane plan: to make it all right in your head, you’re going to force me to take your help?”

“This is trying to do the right thing so I can live with what I had to do.”

#

Apparently doing the right thing involved a small army of tengu. Oilcan saw not a feather or heard no rustle of wings; they simply appeared with ninja stealth. By the time Roach’s younger brother, Andy showed up with the second dumpster, there were tengu in every room and the dumpster in the back alley was full.

“Already?” Andy said when Oilcan told him. The boy glanced at the big steel container he was about to drop under the largest second story window. “You still want this one in the front, or should I take it around back?”

With the tengu “helping,” the dumpsters were going to be filled as fast as Roach and Andy could rotate them. At several hundred dollars a load, hauling away the trash was going to run Oilcan a lot of money and he still didn’t know if Windwolf would allow him to move into the building. It was tempting just to stop all work and wait for permission. Yet, if Windwolf said yes, then the work had to be done and everything was in motion already and running smoothly.

“Here is good,” Oilcan told Andy. “You’ll have to take the full dumpster out of the alley before there’s room for another.”

“I’ll grab it after I drop this.” Andy worked the hydraulics to lower the container into place. “And bring another empty one back?”

“Yeah.” He wished he could be more confident that he was doing the right thing. Tinker sailed forward so sure and true—it was easy to follow in her wake. It made life a joyful ride. This was like being lost at sea.

If they were going to open an enclave, then they would need tables, chairs, dishes, silverware, food—the list went on and on. He had some money saved. Tinker always paid him well and he lived rent free, but he had expensive hobbies. If things continued at this rate, he’d burn through it fast.

#

He was in a cleared corner of the dining room with the pieces of the front door. He’d just triggered the last spell to knit together the splintered wood, when stillness ran through the building. He looked up and found Windwolf standing in the foyer with his sekasha arrayed around him.

Oilcan had seen Windwolf helpless, mauled and bleeding, close to death. Oilcan had also seen Windwolf calling down bolts of lightening like a god. What mattered most to Oilcan was he’d seen the loving way Windwolf treated Tinker. How the elf felt about him, though, was a mystery.

“Wolf Who Rules Wind.” Oilcan gave him bow and used his full name because he needed to talk to Windwolf about official things.

Windwolf raised an eyebrow at the formality. “I thought I recognized the pattern of chaos,” Windwolf said in English. “But I guess I was wrong.”

“Oh! Yeah, this is all me.” Oilcan slipped back to English since Windwolf obviously wanted to keep the discussion informal. “I’m glad you’re here. I need to talk to you.”

Windwolf smiled wryly. “Yes, you do. I ordered this building to be torn down.”

“I know. I need to discuss with you setting up an enclave.”

“Ah.” Windwolf considered a moment, apparently thinking about the fact that their conversation would be public. He tilted his head toward the Faire Grounds. “Let us walk.”

Windwolf was nearly a foot taller than Oilcan but he matched stride with him as they walked out of the school and across the street to the rolling pasture. Oilcan waited until they were out of earshot before starting up the conversation again.

“I don’t know if you’ve been told, but I’ve taken in the Stone Clan children.”

“Yes, I’ve been told,” Windwolf said. “I know your family will go through extraordinary lengths to protect anyone that lands in your lap. I love you both for your boundless empathy and selfless courage.”

It surprised and touched Oilcan how easily Windwolf used the “l” word. He supposed it was a difference in culture. Still, he could hear the “but” lurking in Windwolf’s voice.

“So what’s the problem?” Oilcan said.

“I’ve become aware, too, that you often act without knowledge of the inherent—” Windwolf paused, searching for appropriate word.

“Danger?”

“Entanglements.” Windwolf smiled. “But yes, also danger.”

“What am I missing?”

“I’m assuming that if you wish to talk to me about starting an enclave, you’re seeking Wind Clan sponsorship.”

“I think I am,” Oilcan said cautiously. “I need to learn more about it before I can be sure.”

“Basically I would supply you with money to start an enclave. It is not a gift given freely.” Windwolf frowned. “I want to be sure you understand all that sponsorship entails. I do not want to assume that since your Elvish seems flawless that you actually understand what I’m saying to you.”

Considering Tinker had accepted Windwolf’s engagement gift in total ignorance that she was agreeing to marry him, Oilcan couldn’t blame Windwolf for being leery.

“I realize it isn’t a gift, that I would be somehow indebted to you.” Oilcan said. “It’s the level of debt that I don’t understand.”

Windwolf nodded and sighed. “I’ll try to explain. I don’t know English well enough to feel comfortable that I’m correctly translating the concepts.”

Considering Windwolf’s English was as good as Oilcan’s, the statement was intimidating.

They walked in silence across the grass. The sekasha had moved away, giving them the illusion of privacy.

“We have songs and legends that tell of a time, long ago, when we were much like the humans. We were nomadic tribes, bound together mostly by blood ties, waging wars with even friends and family over land and beautiful females. But then the Skin Clan discovered their dark magic and built an army of monstrous beings—wyverns and wargs and baenae—that swept over Elfhome, enslaving all before them. The Skin Clan would scatter each newly conquered tribe through their nation. A cousin here. A cousin there. All the children were taken from their parents. No siblings were raised together. They killed our priests and scholars and burned all our books, determined that nothing would bind their slaves together. They could not, though, destroy our hate of them—and in the end—that was what bound us together.”

“This is how the clans started?”

Windwolf nodded. “Two slaves with nothing in common but their hate would pledge to protect each other. And two became three. And then three became four. Secretly. Quietly. One by one, we built a society based on vows.”

“If I give you my word, I will keep it.”

“I trust you, cousin.” Windwolf said. “That is not my fear. It’s the children.”

Oilcan was surprised that Windwolf’s statement hurt like a blow. He wanted Windwolf to be better than everyone that he’d dealt with.

“It is not that I don’t trust them,” Windwolf said gently. “If they give their word, they will keep it. You are, however, about to put them into a terrible quandary.”

“I don’t understand.”

“That was what I was afraid of.”

They had come to the great mooring anchors in the center of the field; ironwood timbers were affixed to bedrock by columns of iron. Windwolf sat down on one of the anchors.

“There are layers—hierarchy—to our loyalty,” Windwolf said. “The most basic loyalty is to the clan. If a battle is pitched between two clans, you fight with your clan.”

Oilcan nodded. It had become blatantly obvious since he took in Merry.

“Our clans, though, are not as united as they seem,” Windwolf said. “That’s where the layers become important. If two people within your clan are at odds, who do you support? The—the—” Windwolf frowned, once again searching for the right word. “The strongest is the bind between beholden. Do you understand what is between Tinker and Little Horse?”

There was a loaded question. It was impossible to miss how Tinker and Pony felt about one another. He knew Tinker was struggling with her feelings. Did Windwolf see how much she loved both Windwolf and Pony? Did Windwolf trust Tinker not to betray him, or did he expect to share her heart? “I know that Pony would die for her. She would do anything to protect him.”

Windwolf nodded. “Little Horse was raised as my blade brother. I held him in my arms just minutes after he was born. Whenever I was home, I would spend hours playing with him. We love each other well, but if some strange madness overcame me and I raised my hand to Tinker, I know Little Horse would kill even me to protect her. And if I tried to harm Little Horse—I would expect to have to fight her first. Little Horse is hers and she is his.”

It boggled his mind completely how nonchalantly Windwolf explained it. “Even though she is your domi?”

“We are like this.” Windwolf clenched his fists and pressed them together, side by side. “My beloved and me. The right hand and the left. Domi and domou. We are separate and yet we cooperate to create for the benefit of us both. Neither is greater than the other because it’s our cooperation that gives us strength.”

Windwolf opened his right hand and held it out, flexing his fingers. “Tinker and Little Horse are like this. They are one; you cannot separate them without harming both. And thus, their loyalty must be first to each other.”

Oilcan nodded although he was struggling with how accepting Windwolf could be toward Tinker loving another male. “I’m not sure how this relates to starting an enclave.”

Windwolf laughed. “That was what I was worried about; this has everything to do with sponsorship. If I sponsor you, between us would have to be a bond nearly as strong as that between Tinker and Little Horse. I would protect you as you serve me—no other tie that you have can be stronger—not even with your cousin.”

Oilcan shook his head. “I couldn’t put you above…”

Windwolf waved away his objection. “That problem is simple enough to circumvent. Tinker could sponsor you and your loyalty need not be tested.”

“I’m confused now.”

“The problem lies with the children,” Windwolf said. “It was agreed that all humans would be considered without a clan unless they entered into an agreement with an elf. You are a human and it’s assumed that you have no clan. If you are sponsored, then you would become Wind Clan. And by extension, your household would be Wind Clan.”

The most basic loyalty is to the clan.

“Oh,” Oilcan said. He had assumed that since Tinker was the Wind Clan domi that he was automatically considered Wind Clan. Perhaps the reason all the Wind Clan elves called him “cousin” was because it was the only way they felt connected to him. How did Thorne Scratch see him? Did she think of him as a free agent? Was that why she asked him to take the children? Did she only trust him because she thought he was completely neutral?

“I think you’re starting to understand,” Windwolf said quietly. “The moment you agree to sponsorship, the children will have to decide if they want to stay with you and be Wind Clan or to find another household. It would be one thing if you were an elf, they could choose with the knowledge they would have a home forever. You are a human; the household you form will have a lifespan limited by your own. And it would be nearly impossible for the children to be accepted by another household after you died, since they would have abandoned not only the household of their birth, but also their clan.”

“Couldn’t the household last beyond my life?”

“I can not give you that reassurance; I do not know these children well enough. My grandfather, Howling was head of the Wind Clan for nearly ten thousand years. He would still be head if he hadn’t been murdered. His household shattered after his death; many had not found a refuge until I took them in, over a thousand years later.”

The worse of it was, even if Oilcan lived to be an old man, the children would barely be considered adults when he died.

The rumble of a big truck announced Roach’s return with another dumpster.

“What about the building?” Oilcan asked standing up. He couldn’t afford to pour more money into the school if he couldn’t move the children into it.

“I will tell Maynard that it is free to claim and you can purchase it for a dollar,” Windwolf said. “We will help you no matter what path you follow. Sponsorship, however, is more than just money. All that is Wind Clan would be available to you. The children need a clan protecting them and the Stone Clan does not appear willing to maintain a strong presence in Pittsburgh. My beloved and I will be sure that the children are cared for if they chose the Wind Clan. Our ability to protect them, however, is limited if they remain Stone Clan. Speak with the children.”

#

Team Tinker had assembled while he was gone. They sat on the front steps and hoods of cars parked in the street in front of the school waiting for his return.

“What did he say?” Roach asked what everyone else wasn’t brave enough to ask.

“The building is mine.” Oilcan said and waited for the resulting cheer to die down. “We talked about sponsorship, but there’s a lot I didn’t know about it. Both Windwolf and Tinker are willing to sponsor me—”

“Are they going to arm wrestle for you?” Andy asked and got smacked by Roach.

“If the male is smart, he won’t come between Tinker and Oilcan,” Roach said and there was a laughing agreement.

“Both are willing.” Oilcan repeated. “But I need to think it over.”

“I went upstairs to check out the rooms,” Abbey Rhode, the team’s spotter, said.

“She means she went upstairs to slack off,” Roach said.

Abbey stuck out her tongue as everyone laughed. She was often teased because her job was simply sit, watch, and report. “This place is going to be sweet once it’s cleaned up. It’s really cool that you got the kids to write out what they need—although it impressed on me how little I can read Elvish. I took photos of their lists and posted them online.”

“I’ll translate the lists.” Gin Blossom offered.

“Thanks,” Oilcan said.

“And we managed to get one of the things on the list already,” Abbey said.

“We?” Roach said.

“You don’t read Elvish either,” Abbey said. “So it was joint effort.”

Roach opened the door to his truck and elf hound puppy tumbled out into his arms. “Pete sired this little one, so we’re calling him Repeat.”

Another baby animal. Oilcan was going to be able to open a petting zoo by the end of the week.

16: Morgue Breaking and Entering

Lain had given Tinker swabs for taking DNA samples from the kids. They drove back into town with the box in her lap as she argued with Stormsong.

“All we’re going to do is stick these swabs in their mouth and rub them around a little.” Tinker couldn’t see why this was so hard to understand.

“Collecting DNA smacks of spell-working,” Stormsong repeated using different words. So far she’d found three ways to say it.

“We’re not going to do any spell-working!” Tinker cried. “We need to know what the oni were doing with the kids. The oni could have been designing a plague to wipe out elves, or creating a spell to merge elves into crows like the tengu, or—or—I don’t know and that’s what scares me. They could have been planning anything.”

“This is a bad idea.” Stormsong found a fourth way to say the same thing. “The first step of spell-working is establishing a baseline.”

Tinker wanted to scream. “Are you getting hit with a big sledgehammer that says ‘duck now or die’ or are you bitching just general principle?”

Stormsong scoffed. “Unlike some people, I don’t need a clairvoyance to see trouble coming.”

“The children are Stone Clan.” Pony stepped in to mediate. “It is true that their clan is failing them utterly, but Stormsong is concerned that the Stone Clan will attempt to use anything questionable we do against us.”

Stormsong finally put her objection into a format Tinker could understand. “If the Stone Clan accuses us of spell-working, then the Wyverns will most likely see it in the worse light. They are the best of us because they were most heavily spell-worked.”

“Okay, that’s useful to know,” Tinker said.

“And since Oilcan is acting the children’s sama,” Stormsong said. “He could be punished for recklessly endangering them.”

“Oh.” Tinker considered pitching the swabs out the window.

Domi is right,” Pony said. “We need to know why the oni were kidnapping the children and keeping them alive. We will have to use caution in gathering the samples.”

Tinker scoffed. Obviously, it was time to prove that she was the smartest person in Pittsburgh.

#

Which was how they ended up at the morgue.

Tinker avoided the front door on the theory that the fewer people they talked to, the better. She had Pony park where the ambulances and hearses unloaded the bodies. There was a big button marked “Press for Night Attendant” that she ignored. Instead she proceeded to hack the digital lock that required a transmitter key for entrance.

“You have no idea how disturbing it is that you know how to do that.” Stormsong murmured.

Tinker blushed. “People lock themselves out of their cars all the time. Since we operated a tow truck, they expected us to be able to help them.”

“Cars don’t have these types of locks.”

“This is just the end of the natural progression of experimentation once you begin playing with locks.”

Stormsong scoffed and the lock bleeped as it unlocked.

The body admittance area was all bare cement, easy to hose down. The place smelled like a hospital, only worse, and their footsteps echoed weirdly.

There seemed to be no one there. It was perfect that the place was deserted but spooky. The actual morgue was through a series of locked doors that she had to hack the security to get open.

#

The morgue was one giant walk-in freezer. The door opened to the solid smell of decomposing flesh. There were banks after banks of smaller doors to the drawers that held the actual dead people. The cold made Tinker’s skin goose bump over.

What a smart idea: visit the morgue. Who knew it would be so big?

But it made sense; Pittsburgh area had once had a population in the millions. Considering they were in the middle of war, it was probably a good thing too.

She so didn’t want to start opening drawers. There were dead naked strangers inside. Only way it could be worse was if they weren’t strangers. Gods, surely by now, Nathan was safely buried.

Tinker scanned the freezer doors. She was really hoping for labels identifying who was where. The drawers were only numbered. Apparently there was a computerized list somewhere. It would be quicker to open and look than find a computer, hack through its security and then figure out their filing system.

She just hated how icky it was going to be. It did not help that her Hand looked as freaked out as she felt. From what Windwolf told her in the past, elves had very little experience with the dead. Counting her grandfather, she had known more than a dozen people that died of old age. Morgues, funerals, and graveyards were human territory.

At least when she cracked open the first drawer, she found herself looking down at bag-shrouded face and not bare feet. She should probably get gloves on and a mask.

#

After the first dozen or so times, you kind of got used to unzipping the bag and finding someone dead underneath the heavy plastic.

#

A systematic search was going to take forever. It took longer than she expected to pull out a drawer, unzip the bag, verify that it wasn’t an elf inside, zip it back up and get the drawer back into place with the door closed. It was going to take hours, and every minute they spent at the morgue increased the risk of being caught.

Tinker was reconsidering taking the time to hack their computer system when she realized that Pony and Stormsong were in full Shield mode; close enough to her to cover her with their protective spells, hands riding on their swords, their focus toward the front door. “What is it?”

“Someone is coming.” Stormsong said.

“Shit.” Tinker whispered.

Tinker heard footsteps nearing and a moment later the far door opened. “Hello?” A woman bellowed and only when she yelped, “Nae, nae, nae! Scarecrow! Call off your dogs!” did Tinker recognize Esme’s voice.

“Hold!” Pony called to the others.

Esme came stomping up the hallway, ignoring the elves now that they had stood down. It was still weird looking at Esme and knowing that she was her mother. Due to a fluke in the hyper-phase gate design, Esme had spent all of Tinker’s life stuck in one moment in time and hadn’t aged. She was still only a few years older than Tinker. Like Lain, Esme was a head taller than Tinker could ever hope to get, boyish thin, and judging by the color of her eyelashes, a pale blonde under the purple hair dye. Despite a week of hospital rest, Esme looked haggard. She still wore her torn, bloody and soot-smudged jumpsuit.

“I keep running into you at the strangest places,” Esme said. “What are you doing here, Scarecrow?”

If Tinker ever heard a stupid question, that was it. Breaking into the morgue was so blatant, it had to be obvious. “I’ve got official business here. What are you doing here?”

“Last I checked,” Esme said. “I’m here because of a snarky elf princess who landed me in Pittsburgh.”

Tinker shook her finger at Esme in frustration. “I saved your ass.”

“Yes, you did.” Esme scrubbed at her face as if she was exhausted. “I’m sorry; it’s all just hitting me hard. Everything I’ve been working for is over, and done, and I’m here, and I’m not going to be stuck out in space, trying to piece together a life on whatever was left of a colony on the other side of the galaxy that’s been hit by a major disaster. I’m stuck on Elfhome—in a city that’s been hit by a major disaster—so there’s sixty thousand humans instead of a few hundred—and there’s oni and tengu and a talking dragon. And last week was eighteen years ago.”

Tinker winced. It hadn’t occurred to her that Esme was facing such a wrenching mental readjustment. The tengu had been taking it all in stride, but they knew about the tengu, oni and talking dragon going in. When all was said and done, Esme had risked her life to save countless others.

“I don’t want to talk about what I’m doing here,” Tinker admitted reluctantly. “Because it could get me killed.”

“Oh,” Esme’s eyebrows knitted into worry. “Maybe you should just leave. I had a bad dream.”

“You dreamed about domi?” Pony asked, making Tinker realized that they’d been speaking Elvish with a smattering of English.

Esme shook her head. “No. I—I’ve been looking for someone. I had a dream about the place where he used to live. I dreamed of him running through the big empty rooms, laughing in hazy sunlight and when I woke up in the hospital, it suddenly hit me that I could see him. I never thought I’d actually get to see him and I just about lost it when I realized I would.”

“Him?” Tinker feeling slightly betrayed. Esme realized that eighteen years had past and went looking for an old lover? Did she even remember she had left a kid behind?

Esme gave a laugh that edged along mania. “When I checked out of the hospital, I had some vague plan of calling my sister, but I just kept walking and walking. I hiked the whole way to the island. The place is in ruins—no one has lived there for years. The place looks like it was ransacked. There were pencil marks and dates on the wall—a record of him getting taller and taller—and then five years ago, it just stops!”

Tinker’s grandfather must have only told Esme that he was calling his grandchild Alexander Graham Bell. Esme was looking for a son. From the sounds of it, Esme had gone to the abandoned hotel on Neville Island where Tinker had grown up. After their grandfather died, Oilcan had talked her into moving to McKees Rocks. He moved their grandfather’s books and files to safe storage, leaving behind all their childhood clutter, and boarded shut the hotel.

“There were all the little bits of him scattered around,” Esme said wistfully. “Little toy robots and model airplanes and one hallway that had tiny little handprints all up and down it in blue paint—okay, that was kind of Blair Witch creepy—but it was his hands. And he had the constellations done in glow-in-the-dark paint on his ceiling—just like I had when I was a kid.”

Lain had helped Tinker paint the stars, muttering darkly, “Nature or nurture?”

“He was everywhere and nowhere,” Esme whispered. “And that’s when I really did lose it.”

All of which Tinker could have prevented if she had just told Esme the truth when they were on the Dahe Hao together. “I’m sorry.”

“I cried myself to sleep on his bed.” Esme walked to one of the morgue drawers and pressed her hand to the stainless steel door. “And then I dreamed where I’d find him.”

“What? Oh, no, no, no.” Tinker moved to stop her but Esme opened the door and pulled out the drawer. “You don’t need to…”

There was something horribly wrong about the shrouded body inside. The hidden geography was all too short and lacking in landmarks: the peak made by the nose, the valley of the throat, the distant points of the feet. Esme unzipped the bag in one rushed motion, like she was getting it done fast before she chickened out.

It was the male child that the oni had butchered down to eat—a gruesome collection of parts. Laid out like a half-assembled jigsaw puzzle, it was made more horrifying by what was missing.

Esme whimpered and stumbled backwards.

Despite coming to the morgue to find the murdered children, Tinker wasn’t prepared for the sight. She could only stare dazed at the butchered male and remember the smell of roasting meat that hung in the air of the whelping pen’s kitchen.

Domi,” Pony murmured. “Can we do what is needed and cover it up?”

Tinker blinked up at him, confused for a minute as to why they were there. Oh yes, DNA samples. She fumbled with one of the swabs to unwrap it and then forced herself to rub the clean white tip against the bloody stump of a severed arm.

Only as she closed the cap did she realize Esme was silently weeping.

“Oh, Esme, this isn’t your son.” Tinker said. “This is a male elf child killed by the oni. I was looking for him.”

Esme shook her head. “I dreamed that I’d find him here. I opened the drawer and there he was—newborn like when I left Earth—crying. It’s him.”

Stormsong scoffed. “You’ve flung wide open a door that’s not easy to keep closed in the first place. Your blood tie to domi means that her nuenae can easily overlap yours. The more you interact with her, the more her nuenae will transpose yours.”

Esme wasn’t listening. “He’s here!” She walked halfway down the row of doors and opened another drawer, seemingly at random. “And he’s helpless—and flying monkeys are coming for him.”

“Oh gods, I thought we were done with that shit,” Tinker whimpered. Esme had driven her nearly mad by invading Tinker’s dreams; calling for help through the only line of communication available to the astronauts trapped in space. It had been an insane week full of prophetic nightmares. Again and again, Tinker had found herself facing a twisted echo of something she had dreamed. She so didn’t want to go through that again.

Esme unzipped the body bag to reveal the young elf female.

Tinker groaned at the sight of the child. None of the humans dead had been battered into broken bones held together with torn flesh. Tinker’s hand shook has she swabbed the inside of the female’s mouth, trying to ignore that her jaw been broken so badly that the bones had pierced the skin and half her teeth were missing. Tinker murmured apologies as she plucked a few strands of hair free, just in case.

“What are you doing?” Esme asked.

“I’m trying to figure out why the oni kidnapped these children,” Tinker explained. “Only establishing DNA baselines is the first step of bio-engineering magic—which is highly illegal—even for me.”

“We should hurry,” Pony said. “If someone else is coming.”

“There’s one more.” Tinker told Esme. “A second male. Can you find him too?”

Esme frowned but nodded. She concentrated for a minute before picking a third drawer on the other side of the room.

Taking samples from the second male was even more emotionally wrenching. His face was relatively undamaged and he reminded Tinker of Oilcan. Suddenly she couldn’t bear to be in the room, wearing the gloves and the mask, breathing in the omnipresent reek of rotting flesh. She fled out of the room, blinking back tears, desperately tearing at the gloves with latex-encased fingers.

Pony wordlessly caught her hands with his and pulled free the gloves and then held her until the need to scream and throw things passed.

“They shouldn’t be here.” Tinker growled. The children been innocent and trusting and had forever ahead of them; they shouldn’t be locked in these little boxes, surrounded by death.

“No, they should not. They be should be given up to the sky so their souls can be free of their bodies.”

“What do you mean? How do we give them up to the sky?”

“They should be cremated as soon as possible. To be trapped in a dead body is torment to the soul.”

Tinker remembered then that most elf ghost stories started with someone dying and not being properly cremated. “How—how do I make this happen? Who takes care of these things?”

“Normally their clan.” Pony reluctantly added, “But none of the Stone Clan would know how.”

“Are you sure about that?” Tinker muttered.

“I did not know that you locked your dead into steel drawers.” Pony admitted unhappily. “I would have not known how to find this place, even if I had known that was your custom.”

Tinker wanted to argue that any of the elves could ask Maynard for directions but Pony had a point. The Stone Clan might have assumed that the children’s bodies had been automatically cremated by the humans once they’d been recovered from the whelping pens.

“Someone is coming.” Stormsong moved between Tinker and the door.

“It’s the flying monkeys.” Esme whispered and wisely moved back, giving the sekasha lots of room to move.

Tinker doubted it very much it was literally flying monkeys. Riki had been the last person associated with that imagery. He had saved her life two or three times during the week of insane dreams. He also kidnapped her twice. Tinker hid away the swabs in the messenger bag, freeing up her spell casting hand.

She listened closely but could hear nothing. The sekasha, though, shifted as they tracked someone moving through the otherwise empty building.

Pony signed a question in blade talk.

Stormsong lifted up one finger then indicated that the sole invader was just beyond the last door. They stood tense for a long silence and then the doorknob slowly turned and the door creaked opened.

TV Reporter Chloe Polanski stood in the doorway, eyes narrowing as she took in Tinker and the sekasha. She was in a flawless black pantsuit belted with a wide swatch of alligator leather. After a moment of calculating study, her predatory smile slid into place. “You’re so much easier to catch now, Vicereine. What are you doing here so late at night?”

Oh gods, could it get any worse? By tomorrow, everyone in Pittsburgh could know that Tinker was taking DNA samples.

Pony drew his ejae, his face set to a cold warrior death mask. Taking their cue from her First, the others drew their swords.

Yes, it could get worse. Tinker couldn’t lie in front of the sekasha. If she told Chloe about the DNA scans, her Hand would probably kill the reporter to keep her from spreading the information. Time to dance on the razor-sharp edge of truth.

“Several children of the Stone Clan were killed by oni.” Tinker frantically signed hold in blade talk. “Their bodies were brought here by mistake. Well, not really a mistake, but elves see storing the dead like this as a torture to the soul. I need to find someone that can cremate the children so their souls are released from their bodies—tonight if possible.”

Yes, as of this moment, that’s the new plan, I’m not lying.

Chloe’s smile faded several notches. “The coroner and his staff are currently swamped with the oni dead from yesterday. They’ve set up a mass grave beyond the Rim. I doubt if you can get the bodies officially released tonight.”

That would explain why the morgue was so empty.

“I don’t need to have them officially released.” Tinker waved that aside; she was domi after all. “I just need someone that can burn the bodies. Tonight.”

Get rid of the evidence. Good plan. Who would know about cremation? Lain would.

Lain answered on the first ring with worry in her voice. “Are you okay?”

“I’ll have to get back to you on that.” It was not a good sign that apparently both Esme and Lain were seeing bad things in store for Tinker. “When you had my grandfather cremated, who did you call?”

“McDermott’s in McKees Rocks.” Lain didn’t ask why, she simply supplied the phone number. Did she already know or did she just stop asking awkward questions when Tinker descended on her with weirdness? “When you see my sister, bring her to me.”

Tinker sighed.

“Ladybug.” Lain used the “you will obey” tone.

“Okay, I will.”

Chloe’s smile vanished completely as Tinker dialed McDermott’s. “You—you can’t just take them.”

“Yes, I can. The coroner’s office has no jurisdiction over elves—dead or alive.” A man picked up the line, identifying himself as Allen McDermott. “Yes, this is Tinker ze domi, head of the Wind Clan. Can you come to the morgue? I have three bodies that need to be cremated.”

Tinker hung up before the annoying questions on authorizations could start.

Chloe reached into her suit pocket and pulled out her eyepiece. “This is a clear abuse of power. You can’t just walk…”

Chloe froze; her eyes going wide as Esme suddenly stepped out of the shadows with a gun leveled at the reporter.

“I don’t know who you are—although you look very familiar…” Esme trailed off, cocking her head.

“You’ve probably have seen me on television.” Chloe held up her eyepiece as explanation. “Pittsburgh only has three TV stations.”

“Put it away.” Esme growled. “And stay away from my kid.”

“You have a child?” Chloe paled.

“Alexander Graham Bell is my…”

“Daughter.” Tinker said to cut off any confusion since she was fairly sure Chloe—if not all of Pittsburgh—knew her real name by now.

“Daughter?” Esme glanced sharply at Tinker.

“You’re Captain Shenske’s daughter?” Chloe gave Tinker a horrified look.

“Yes, I’m her daughter.” Tinker stayed on focused on Chloe, not wanting to see how her mother took the news. Why, though, was it so upsetting to Chloe? It wasn’t like she was suddenly getting a daughter dumped in her lap.

“Fine. I’ll stay away from her.” Chloe backed out the door.

Tinker really wanted to bolt out of the room on Chloe’s heels instead of turning around and facing Esme.

She made Lain lie to me. She drove me nearly insane.

With that smoldering anger stoked back to a flame, Tinker turned back to Esme.

Esme was giving her a befuddled look, as if Tinker’s words had sunk in but hadn’t made any sense. “Wait! What?”

“I’m Alexander Graham Bell.” Tinker pointed to herself. “I’m your daughter.”

“Scarecrow?” Esme said faintly.

“Daughter,” Tinker said. “As in: not a boy.”

Esme shook her head. “But—but—you’re an elf!”

“Well, that’s a little more complicated to explain.” Tinker allowed.

#

Explanation had to wait, though, as city officials descended on them, responding to anonymous phone calls about “someone stealing bodies from the morgue.” Chloe must have started calling in strike forces before she even left the building. The police showed up first, followed by the deputy mayor and three city council members for reasons that Tinker couldn’t fathom except maybe that they were pigheaded enough to argue with Tinker. Someone made the mistake of contacting Maynard, who was out with Prince True Flame, which lead to the Wyverns getting involved.

The sudden incoming wave of red made Tinker’s heart hammer in her chest. If the Wyverns found the DNA swipes, things could go ugly quickly. She causally swung her messenger bag with the swipes back behind her so it was hidden from view.

“I will deal with them, domi.” Pony murmured.

That was what she was afraid of: he would only tell them the truth. Her fear must have shown on her face as he gave her a slight smile.

“Don’t worry,” he whispered. “You have taught me that truth is a weapon to wield carefully.”

She had? That made her feel weirdly guilty. Pony embodied a hundred years of perfection; corrupted by her in one hectic summer. She nodded, trusting him.

Signing to Cloudwalker to take his place as Shield, Pony intercepted the incoming Wyverns. Their conversation was in machine gun High Elvish, rattling out faster than Tinker could follow. She focused on keeping the undertaker from McDermott’s from leaving empty handed.

“The coroner would tell you—if he was here—that he doesn’t have any jurisdiction over elves—alive or dead.” Tinker stood firm on her strongest argument, then pushed on to points she wasn’t as sure about. “I’m the Vicereine of the Westernlands.” At least that’s what people kept telling her. “That means I do have jurisdiction over all elves—not just the Wind Clan.” As far as she could tell, that’s what it meant. She was going with that until someone told her otherwise. “These children have suffered enough. It’s time they are decently put to rest.”

“The elves have their laws,” the councilwoman said. “And we have our own laws and procedures. We’re tired of having your people walk all over our rules. This is still our city.”

Her people? Had they forgotten she was a Pittsburgh-born human until Mid-Summer’s Eve? And this wasn’t about who owned the city but basic decency. “Do you have any kids?”

“Yes, a little boy.”

“If your boy died outside the city, on Elfhome, you’ll be happy with letting the elves do whatever they want to his dead body? Let it lay out where the animals could eat him? Stuff and mount him?”

The woman gasped with outrage. “They wouldn’t dare…”

“That’s what you’re doing to their children! Locking those kids up in boxes is an abomination on the level of having your boy taxidermied.”

“Waiting until tomorrow morning will not make any differ…”

Tinker hadn’t noticed that the Wyverns had left the room until they came sweeping back in from the morgue. They projected extremely pissed off, which was good, because they were talking High Elvish full tilt; she suspected none of the humans were following. Unfortunately, they were aiming their conversation at her.

“Forgiveness, I don’t understand.” Tinker looked to Pony for help.

“They demand that you have the children given to the sky immediately.”

Tinker turned to the humans, who thankfully spoke enough Elvish to understand Pony. “Okay, are you going to do what I asked or do you want to tell the Wyverns that they need to wait until tomorrow?”

Luckily none of them were totally stupid as well as pigheaded.

#

Remembering her promise to Lain, Tinker dragged Esme along on the impromptu procession to the funeral home. Her mother hadn’t said anything during the entire three-ring circus; she only watched Tinker in unnerving silence. The silent treatment continued even once they were safely isolated in the Rolls Royce. Tinker figured that Esme was angry that Tinker hadn’t explained their connection the first time they met.

“You’re the one that popped me in the easy bake oven and skipped town,” Tinker grumbled, slumping down in the front seat between Pony and Stormsong. “If anyone has the right to be pissed off, it’s me.”

Esme sighed in the back seat. “I knew that the oni would kill every last human in Pittsburgh if Leonardo Dufae didn’t have an heir to his genius; a brilliance that could close the door that he opened. So I found your grandfather and talked him into using Leo’s sperm to make—to make you. And I knew that I needed to save Jin Wong, so I had to jump through the gate.”

Anyone else probably would have just tried talking Lain into leaving Pittsburgh. Lain, though, needed Elfhome like she needed air. Esme couldn’t simply move her sister to the safety of Earth; she needed to make Pittsburgh safe. The route she took seemed insane but it was hard to argue with the proven success of it.

Still, Tinker tried. “So you just handed over an egg and took off? Didn’t you even bother to find out your baby’s gender?”

In the rearview mirror, Tinker saw Esme flinched as if struck. “No, it wasn’t like that. At first, yes, you were just Leo’s heir but then I started to realize that I might not survive the crash and if I did, I wasn’t ever returning to Earth. You would be all that was left of me after I was gone. You stopped being Leo’s child to me; you became mine. You became precious to me.”

“No, you thought you had a son. I’m in no way precious to you.”

“Yes, you are.” Esme leaned forward over the seat to pinch Tinker’s cheek. “And you’re so much cuter than I ever imagined.”

“Oh, gee, don’t do that.”

Stormsong caught Esme’s hand and twisted it hard enough to get a yelp of pain. “I don’t care who you are, you will respect domi.”

“Okay!” Esme sat back, rubbing her hand. “Now, exactly how did you end up an elf princess?”

#

Tinker started with saving Windwolf’s life during Shutdown just before Mid-Summer’s Eve and everything that followed. Well—not everything—she been embarrassingly clueless through many points. Just because Esme was her mother didn’t give her rights to a full confession. Tinker got detoured back to the first time she saved Windwolf—the day Blue Sky’s father died—when she made an off-hand mention about the magical tie she had thought existed between her and Windwolf.

“It happened so fast that my memories are blurred and disjointed. Everyone was running and screaming. There was a big tri-axle Mack dump truck sitting at the edge of the faire ground and I scooted under it. The saurus pinned Lightening Strikes to the ground beside the truck and was tearing him in half.” Tinker shuddered at the memory. “I don’t know what I was thinking—I was thirteen and about ninety pounds dripping wet—but I tried to kill it with a crowbar. Not my best plan.”

“You saved Wolf,” Pony murmured. “He was unconscious next to Lightening Strikes.”

“I didn’t see him at the time.” Tinker laughed. “All my attention was taken up by pissed-off saurus trying to dig me out from under the dump truck. When I did finally see Windwolf, I thought he was mad at me. His first words to me were ‘Fool, it would have killed you.’ It wasn’t a very romantic first meeting.”

“And this magical tie?” Esme asked.

They were crossing the McKees Rocks bridge, so Tinker made a long story shorter. “That’s just something Tooloo made up. She’s an elf that has a small farm at the end of this street.” Tinker pointed in the direction of Tooloo’s.

“I know Tooloo,” Esme said.

Tinker supposed that shouldn’t surprise her but it did. Lain and Tooloo seemed to have a weird unspoken agreement that they would keep to their respective neighborhoods as much as possible. She had assumed that Esme would know only the places that Lain frequented. “Tooloo taught me everything I know about elves; but I’m finding out that she was lying about half of it. The whole ‘magical tie’ was a way to keep me away from Windwolf.”

“She was trying to keep you safe.” Esme said. “She knew what kind of danger lay in store for you.”

“How the hell would she know?” Tinker snapped. “Did you tell everyone but me who I really was?”

Esme shook her head. “Tooloo is the one that taught me how to control my dreams.”

#

It was totally unfair that at that moment they arrived at McDermott’s and Tinker had to go back to being ringmaster. Much as she wanted to grill Esme on Tooloo, she had to focus on the cremation.

McDermott’s was a big Victorian mansion full of dead stillness and memories Tinker thought were long forgotten. Once inside, she remembered the floor plan, the big rooms with stuffed chairs lining the walls and the painful smell of roses and age.

McDermott had endless forms he wanted signed guaranteeing he’d get paid and not arrested by the EIA. He also insisted she tour a room filled with coffins of oak and steel, making it sound like the law required a coffin for cremation. Considering the elves reaction to the drawers at the morgue—their horror at the idea of “locking the bodies in steel boxes”—the coffins were probably a bad idea. She managed to frighten McDermott into admitting that the coffins were optional and that cardboard boxes were acceptable. She talked him into forgoing even the boxes with assurances that no one would press charges. All the details, though, made her realize how much Lain had quietly taken care of when her grandfather had died.

Start to finish, the cremations would take a good part of the night. Even though McDerrmott’s had four furnaces (a number that slightly boggled her mind,) it would take more than two hours to render the bodies to ash, and then several hours more for the ashes to cool enough to be safely handled. She stayed only long enough to see the bodies safely loaded into the furnaces and talked the Wyverns into standing guard the rest of the night. Tinker wanted to stay in motion so Chloe’s strike forces couldn’t corner her again. She didn’t need witnesses while getting the DNA from the living children—although she wasn’t sure how she was going to do that without rising questions.

Back in the Rolls Royce, Esme proved she had used the time that Tinker had been distracted to piece together the logical end to Tinker’s story. “So you and Windwolf fell in love and he used magic to change you into an elf?”

“That’s the basic gist of it.” Tinker was glad she didn’t have to go into details.

Esme cocked her head. “What I don’t get is why you would be in trouble if you’d been caught at the morgue.”

“Collecting DNA smacks of spell-working.” Tinker quoted Stormsong.

“So, why is it illegal for you do something that simple when Windwolf is going around doing wholesale transformation?”

Tinker sighed. “Technically, it isn’t illegal. The problem is political maneuvering shit. The Stone Clan are being asses.”

Esme nodded as if that made perfect sense.

Proof that Pony had been feeling nervous around the Wyverns, he hadn’t asked where they were going when they left the funeral home. He stopped the car at the end of the McKees Rocks Bridge—a good safe two miles from the Wyverns—to wait for Tinker to chose a direction.

Take the three swabs and Esme to Lain? Track down the other children with Esme still in tow? Surely the less people involved, the better, but the whole deadly trinity of Esme, Lain and Tooloo could derail Tinker when time was against her. Not Lain’s then—and she needed a cover story for tracking down the children and sticking things in their mouths.

“Let’s go to Poppymeadow’s,” Tinker told Pony and he turned the big gray car toward the gleaming city instead of taking the dark twisting roads up to the observatory.

“So you’re an elf with all the bells and whistles?” Esme asked.

Tinker nodded.

“And you wanted this?” Esme said it as if worried that Tinker been transformed against her will, or worse, she had been desperate to be an elf.

Tinker realized her Hand were all listening intently. She had never considered before how they may feel about Windwolf using the nearly forbidden magic to change her. They must have been in full agreement with his decision or they would have stopped him. It was weird knowing that they had gone so against their principles to allow Windwolf to do the spell. They had all been nameless strangers to her then. She couldn’t even remember who had been with Windwolf the night he took her to the hunting lodge and changed her. It was a testament of how much they trusted Windwolf.

It seemed dangerous to admit she didn’t know what Windwolf had planned. It was her stupidity, not his. And yet she couldn’t lie—not to her Hand—they deserved the truth.

“I still don’t have a full grasp on what Windwolf was offering me,” she said cautiously. “It’s too big. I haven’t lived long enough to understand the limits of a human life to really wrap my brain around being an elf. I know, though, I have forever now to be with people I love.” Pony reached out and took her hand and laced his fingers with hers. “Besides, the bells and whistles are pretty cool.”

“Bells and whistles.” Esme stared out the window at the night-shrouded city. The streetlights overhead spilled light across her again and again as they drove through the dark streets. “The spell that Windwolf used—could it make anyone perfect as the sekasha yet able to use the domana spells?”

All the sekasha laughed at the question. “You can not see the world as black and white and in color at the same time.”

“In theory, though, someone could be god-like?” The light slid through the car and left Esme in shadows.

“We would not allow it.” Pony spoke as First. The others were so much in agreement that they didn’t even nod. “That is what the Skin Clan wanted: to be gods in flesh. We did not hunt them down for thousands of years just for someone else to replace them.”

“Sparrow said something about that the night she kept me from escaping the oni.” Tinker said. “She said that the Skin Clan had taken elves from one step above apes to one step below gods. She thought the elves were stagnating. She wanted to go back to old ways.”

“What a fool.” Pony growled. “The reason we’re tall, fair and immortal is that, in the beginning, the Skin Clan could only improve their blood line by breeding with us after they had improved us.” His loathing for how the Skin Clan had genetically screwed over the elves was obvious in his voice. “They couldn’t introduce a weakness into our stock without fear of passing it on to their children. After they became immortal, though, they eventually stopped caring about their bloodline; they only wanted to enhance themselves. They created spells that allowed them safely manipulate their own DNA. They could experiment with us until they found a desirable trait and then duplicate it in themselves. We would have become as twisted as the oni if we had not killed them all.”

“Sparrow must have seen the oni as a replacement for the Skin Clan.” Tinker said. “I suppose it made sense for her to work with them; she wanted be made domana caste. I don’t understand, though, why the Stone Clan domana would be working with the oni.”

“Wait, what’s this?” Esme asked. “They’re working with the oni?”

Opps. “I told you that they were being asses,” Tinker grumbled. “We think—but can’t prove—that the Stone Clan lured those children to Pittsburgh and all but handed them over to the oni.”

“That’s—that’s brutal! Why?”

“We don’t know,” Tinker said. “But I’m going to find out.”

17: Give Me a Beat

Oilcan missed the start of the war. He wanted to believe that the tengu had started it, intentionally or not, with a simple show of inhuman speed and strength. More likely, Team Tinker, knowing full well what a scumbag Riki had been, decided that Pittsburghers (meaning humans) weren’t going to be outdone up by tengu. Certainly showing superiority by going faster fit the mentality of hoverbiker racers. Team Tinker took over cleaning the third floor and trash started to fly out the window, sans chute, as if fired from a confetti cannon. The tengu picked up the challenge and responded with a massive outpouring of trash from all the windows of the second floor. When Team Tinker realized that the tengu were outdoing them simply because the tengu outnumbered the humans, they must have started to call in reinforcements because soon half of Pittsburgh descended on the school.

The elves at the enclaves would have to be blind to miss the activity. While they arrived late, the elves made up for it with millennia-practiced teamwork. They plowed through the front door, bearing brooms and mops like spears. They took over the foyer and spread outward in all directions, herding the tengu in front of them.

It was only a matter of time before the tengu collided with the humans and things would turn violent. Oilcan had lost any pretense of control shortly after Windwolf dragged him off for the talk. In hopes of cutting the tension, he tried to coax Merry into getting out her olianuni and playing. Her music, he hoped, would remind everyone that they were working to help the kids, not outstrip the other groups.

“Oh, sama, I’ve never played all by myself,” Merry was peering up the foyer staircase where voices were raised in anger. “I—I don’t know…”

He needed her playing well from the start, not going into a downward spiral from nervousness. He would need to take lead and let her follow him the best that she could.

Oilcan went out to his pickup and got his Stratocaster and his sixty-watt amp from behind the bench seat. Luckily the gym had been cleared by the tengu and the hardwood floors scrubbed clean by the elves until they gleamed, smelling of lemon polish. If you ignored the bullet holes gouged into the walls, it was a perfect venue. He plugged in his amp, jacked in his guitar and started into the melody for “America.”

Sama!” Merry’s eyes went huge and her hands slowly creep up to her cover her heart as if she was afraid it would burst out of her chest. “You—you’re an artisan?”

Oilcan laughed. “No, no, I can play well enough to get by. Moser is an artisan. But come on, play with me.”

At that point she couldn’t unpack her instrument fast enough. Looking like a bastard child of a xylophone and steel drum, the olianuni wrapped around Merry with twice the range of a piano but played like a percussion instrument. The low notes rumbled like thunder and the high notes chimed and it jammed like heaven with his Stratocaster.

It was hard to imagine anyone calling Merry’s playing just adequate. She glowed as she played, her mallets a blur. As she warmed up, she added mad flourishes with her mallets on the upswing and little yips of excitement. He started with the songs he was fairly sure she knew, those he had glimpsed in her hand-scribed songbook. He had been hoping that she could just keep up with him but she outstripped him. Encouraged, Oilcan launched into songs that Windchime had been most familiar with and thus most likely taught her.

Almost as if their songs summoned them, the members of Naekanain appeared. Snapdragon showed up with his tribal drums, Moser with his bass guitar, and Briar with a bottle of ouzo and they really let lose, tearing into the human elf fusion of music that was uniquely Pittsburgh. As always, Moser’s deep growl of English and bastardized low Elvish was electrifying against Briar’s angelic high Elvish. As they played, more and more people drifted into the gym up to listen.

Oilcan was glad to see that the growing audience was all three races, although they still kept to separate camps. The tengu with their backless tanktops and unruly short black hair perched on the bleachers. Elves, looking ethereal even while leaning on brooms, their glorious long hair braided with ribbons, kept to the back of the room. Humans gathered close to the music, varied as snowflakes: short and tall, thin and wide, ugly and beautiful, white and black and Asian.

“You should have charged a cover for this,” Moser shouted at him as Snapdragon and Merry blasted into an instrumental duet that was more like a duel of speed.

“They paid with labor.” Oilcan shouted back.

“No food?” Moser pouted.

“There is food.” Tinker appeared out of the crowd, carrying a basket fragrant with the scent of meat dumplings. A great deal of food, considering the number of Poppymeadow’s people behind her bearing baskets.

“Coz!” Oilcan bumped shoulders with her in greeting. She bumped him back with a grin. She was dressed down in T-shirt and shorts, looking the most like herself in months. She had her five bodyguards with her; although for some odd reason they all had cat whiskers drawn on their faces.

“You always were my favorite.” Moser swung his guitar onto his back and snatched the basket out of Tinker’s hands.

“What about the next set?” Oilcan cried. While he was glad to see Tinker, her arrival certainly was triggering a shift in the audience. All three groups were moving in, trying to be as close to her that her Hand would allow. He knew that the humans were peeved that the elves had “stolen” their girl. To the elves she was domi and “singlehandedly” defeated the dragon that even Prince True Flame couldn’t kill. She held the tengu, and judging by the way they looked at her, that mattered a lot to them.

But none of the groups seemed happy about having to share her. Stopping the music would be bad. But it wasn’t like Moser was being paid to perform beyond the food that Tinker just handed him.

“Sing your cousin that new song you wrote for her,” Moser said.

“You wrote me a song?” Tinker squealed.

“Bastard.” Oilcan snarled at Moser. He hadn’t told Moser that the song was about Tinker but the words were obviously inspired by her.

Moser backed away with the basket. “You said I butchered the words anyhow!”

“You wrote me a song?” Tinker said. “You’ve never wrote me a song before.”

Oilcan had written lots of songs about Tinker; he’d just never shared them with anyone. The lyrics ranged from angry to loving to overprotective, depending on his mood, and once the moment was passed, the words felt too dangerous. What if Tinker thought he was always that angry with her? How badly would she take (because she would take it badly) the rant against her self-centered obsessive curiosity—especially since the whole thing with Nathan had ended so badly? And gods forbid, someone got the wrong idea about the whole “crawl into my bed, hold me tight, and make me feel all right” which he wrote when he was ten and she was six.

Tinker smacked him. “Don’t you dare say no if you sold it to Moser.”

“Okay, okay, I’ll play it.” He had sold it because it felt safe—mostly because it wasn’t about his relationship with her. He wasn’t sure, though, how she would take it. He led into the melody so Merry had a chance to learn it. “It changes though, watch for it, and—and improvise.”

Merry laughed and nodded, eyes gleaming with her joy, her face glistening with sweat.

It was started as a ballad duet in High Elvish between him and Briar. He sang of the attack and defense sword movements of a sekasha and moved his guitar into rough approximations of the stances. Briar’s counter lines were the domana shield and attack spells; she moved her hands elegantly through the movements that a domi would use to call magic from the clan’s spell stones. And then the song changed, dropping into something wilder, untamed, and in low Elvish, speaking of the shared vow of protection, guarding each other, loving each other. Two people, bound together, determined to protect the other at all cost.

Tinker was burning red with embarrassment but she was holding tight to Pony and Stormsong’s hands with tears in her eyes. It didn’t seem as if she was going to freak out on him. When they went into the chorus the second time, all the elves joined in on Oilcan’s bass line, a thunder of approval.

He thought of himself as Wind Clan not just because Windwolf loved Tinker, although that was part of it. He thought of himself as Wind Clan because all of the clan had opened their hearts to his cousin and taken her in and she loved them back. Her sekasha would die for her, and she would die for them and for that reason, Oilcan was Wind Clan.

And maybe that was the key to breaking the tension between the races. The music was only distracting the audience—and only mildly—from their hostility. The songs weren’t trying to unify them. What could he use? What would make them feel as if they were part of the whole? The only thing they had in common was Tinker.

He launched into “Godzilla of Pittsburgh.” It was strictly instrumental and its reference to Tinker was obscure. The crowd, though, seemed to recognize her sweeping nature in the music. He thought about all the other songs he’d ever written for Tinker. Like the Godzilla song, they were obscure by their intimate nature. The people that really knew Tinker would recognize her, but this crowd didn’t know the real person, they only knew Tinker via second hand stories.

What songs would suggest Tinker? Songs about hoverbike racing were obvious since she had all but invented the sport.

He had just launched into the lyrical “Sky Diving” that he wrote about doing the jumps at Chang’s racetrack when he realized that Tinker was doing guerrilla-style face painting attacks on the audience. He watched with confused amusement as she zigzagged about the gym, grabbing random people, pulling them down to her five-foot level, and lightning quick, drew cat whiskers on their faces. She pounced on elves, tengu and human alike—seemingly at random—but after a dozen or so ambushes, he realized that she was cycling through the races, keeping even the number of painted per race. The oddest thing was that she seemed to be purposely ignoring anyone that was paying attention to her and only ambushing those focused on the music. The result was a growing mass of confused decorated people in her wake, gingerly touching their faces, unsure what Tinker had just done to them.

What was she up to?

The crowd, at least, had stopped snarling at each other and was moving with the music. They were seeing Tinker in the song, taking the massive ramps into the jumps, soaring through the air, and free-falling back to earth. Moser joined him, mouth full but hands free, whiskers drawn on his face, for the instrumental bridge. They were tearing down the last stretch when Merry gave a loud meep of surprise. Oilcan glanced behind him to see that Tinker had whiskered a very startled Merry. A wall of sekasha kept the rest of the audience from seeing whatever Tinker had done to the little female.

“Fields of Summer,” he shouted the next song in the set to Moser and then sidled up to Tinker. “What’s with the whiskers, Tink?”

“Prestidigitation.” Tinker waved her left hand in a showy flourish—and sketched whiskers on him quickly with her right. “There, you’re one of us now.”

Oilcan laughed despite the slight alarm that went through him. What was she distracting people from while she drew whiskers on them? As Wind Clan domi, she should have been able to command this crowd to do just about anything. It probably wasn’t something they should discuss in shouts in front of a crowd.

“Fields of Summer” wasn’t holding the whole audience. The humans were getting the reference to the ultimate causal in parties: a big empty field, a campfire and an acoustic guitar for music. The elves and the tengu were drifting away, unfamiliar with the Pittsburgh tradition. Near the door there was a shove that turned into an angry staring match between the fringe of the tengu flock and some incoming laedin enclave guards.

Oilcan scanned the audience, found Riki at the edge nearest Tinker, watching her with a slight frown. He caught Riki’s attention by paying the jarring notes of the song he had only ever shared with the tengu. Mother’s blood on my toes…

Riki’s head whipped around and he gave Oilcan a look of surprise and—oddly enough—hurt. Had it mattered that much that Oilcan had confided with him? That they shared that kind of pain? Oilcan jerked his head toward the brewing fight and Riki followed his gaze and then nodded.

“What’s that?” Moser asked of the melody. “A new song?”

Oilcan shook his head. There was no way he’d play the sorrowful song publicly, especially with the audience on the edge like it was. He needed a song though, one to tie this whole crowd together. An idea of a song went through his head and he started to fumble through a melody.

Moser quirked up an eyebrow but followed his lead. His frustration with the crowd fed into the tune. Couldn’t they just see that despite everything, they were all one people? At the very core, they had to have the same drive as his kids. Pittsburgh wasn’t a sane and simple place to live. You had to have a deep need to live there. The melody was defiant and angry and the words, when they came, were furious.

“Blood on the pavement, blood on the blade, blood flows through common veins.” The words poured from somewhere deep inside of him, like they were being torn from his gut. “Three worlds bridged by a single span, steel that climbs from earth to sky. Freedom to create, freedom to fly—one world, one people, one kind. We are Pittsburgh.”

When he hit the chorus the second time, they all sang with him.

#

He and the rest of the band were all panting and dripping sweat and glowing with joy. It was like they had a long session of really good sex. The humans in the crowd started to call for encore, but Oilcan’s body felt rubbery with the effort to stay standing.

Tinker appeared out of the crowd, bouncing like a mad thing. She couldn’t possibly know how cute she looked because she would have stopped otherwise. She bound up, claimed the microphone, and shouted. “We are Pittsburgh! We are one people!”

The crowd roared, loving her.

“When you see the whiskers on your face and the faces around you, remember! You’re not human, elf or tengu—you’re a Pittsburgher! You’re one of us!”

They roared again.

“Thank you for all the help you’ve given my cousin. Now, go home.”

The crowd laughed and went.

Despite his obvious exhaustion, Moser was still dancing. “This song is mine!” He had unplugged his electric guitar so there was no music to draw the crowd back, but he could still strum through the chords of the new song. “I call dibs on it.”

Oilcan laughed. “If you can remember the words.”

Moser laughed and pulled out his cellphone. “I saw the gears grinding and knew what was coming. I recorded it.”

Oilcan high-five’d Moser. “Let me hear.”

Tinker made a negative sound and gave Moser a little push. “You start that and you’ll be up all night. Go home, let the boy rest.”

“I’ll write up the score!” Moser promised as Briar grabbed his arm and hauled him out of the gym.