Deadly Dreams – K. J. Sutton

Snow drifted from the sky as I watched them discover Shameek’s grave. A woman—probably his mother, judging from the streaks of gray in her hair— fell to her knees in front of it. Her shoulders shook with soundless sobs. Slowly, she leaned forward and pressed the top of her head against the gravestone. Carved into its surface, just a few inches above the woman, was an epitaph. For what felt like the thousandth time, I read the handful of words. His last act was in the name of courage. Though I hadn’t been there at the time, I could practically hear Collith saying it, almost as if he were speaking right in my ear. He was the one who’d ordered the stone made, back when he’d given the human an honorable burial, despite the Court’s displeasure. It had been, perhaps, his first brave decree as a king. I dearly hoped it hadn’t been his last. From where we watched, so far away that I couldn’t hear what the human family was saying, I buried my fingers deep into the bark. I’d hoped the pain would overpower the guilt, but no such luck. “It wasn’t your fault, Queen Fortuna,” my Right Hand murmured. Plumes of air left her mouth with every word.

She stood beside me. Apparently Lyari had no interest in watching the scene play out, because she faced the other direction, her spine pressed against a tree. She’d been tossing a knife into the air, again and again, and caught it by the tip of that shining blade. Was my guilt so obvious? Or had my mental wall begun to crumble? A swift check showed that it was firmly in place, however. “I appreciate that,” was all I said. If Lyari knew the guilt I still felt, then she knew that I didn’t believe her now. But so much else had changed since the day Shameek had died. My relationship with her, for instance. More and more lately, she treated me with begrudging respect and I actually trusted her. A faerie.

In that moment, a gentle breeze stirred my hair. A few strands blew across my mouth, and I pulled them away, still watching Shameek’s mother. She probably read it first, I thought. That goddamn letter. There was so much I couldn’t control these days. But that letter—ink to paper, letters on a page, words to a dead man’s mother—I could control. I lost count of how many drafts I’d written. In the end, it was brief and vague. It contained the coordinates for their son’s grave and that he’d died trying to return to them. Ever-cautious and hyper vigilant, Lyari had made sure that I handled everything with rubber gloves.

Literally, because the last thing I needed was to be the suspect in a murder investigation. Someone else approached the headstone now, bringing my mind back to the present. As a man I guessed to be Shameek’s father began to speak, I turned away, feeling like an intruder on their grief. “Let’s go home,” I muttered, shoving my hands in my coat pockets. Lyari tucked her knife away and followed without comment. We walked in an easy silence. For a few minutes, the only sound was my boots crunching through the blanket of fresh snow covering the forest floor. The stillness shattered when something moved amongst the trees. Seeing it, my heartbeat quickened. No one else knew we were here—it couldn’t be another Guardian or someone in my family.

It seemed Lyari shared the thought, because she began to move in front of me. As she did this, she reached for her sword, which was a constant companion at her hip. It slid out of its scabbard with a delicate ringing. I had weapons of my own, hidden in my pockets, my socks, my sleeves. With a subtle, practiced movement, I produced my new gun, a Glock 43, loaded with holy bullets. I disliked using guns, but they were more effective than knives. As one, Lyari and I stopped and waited, our stances deceptively relaxed. Up ahead, the bulky figure came closer, moving through the shadows. A sound like rain drifted through the air. Before I could draw breath to speak, the newcomer stepped into a shaft of moonlight, and the Tongue’s deep-set eyes met mine.

The beads he always wore flashed and faded like stars. “What are you doing here?” I asked, frowning. I didn’t put the gun away. I watched his gaze flick down and take note of this. For a moment, the only sound in the forest was a distant crack. Probably a branch breaking underneath the weight of the snow. The faerie tucked his hands into the sleeves of the cloak he wore and regarded me with an expression akin to disapproval. His bald head gleamed in the moonlight. “They are calling for your blood, Fortuna Sworn,” he said at last, his voice like an earthquake, deep and rumbling. It felt out of place in the serenity of our surroundings.

“Who are?” I asked, though I already knew. I’d discovered, during my brief reign, that playing dumb had its advantages—the fae were constantly underestimating their new queen. “Your people,” the Tongue answered, humoring me. The air around us thickened, whether from his power or my own rising emotions, I couldn’t be certain. “Those you swore to protect and defend. They suspect you’ve taken a life, and the tide is turning much faster than your Guardians can handle. One of the attempts on your life will eventually succeed.” “For the millionth time, I didn’t kill Collith,” I snapped. I knew the Tongue couldn’t be speaking of Ayduin, since no one suspected my involvement in his death. Yet.

Someone— I assumed Lyari—had seen to it the recordings in that passage were erased the night I’d entered the Tralee rooms. “Just as I told everyone else, the Unseelie King will return when his task is finished. I can’t say anything beyond that. But you couldn’t have come all this way to give me a simple warning. Get to the point, please.” The faerie’s jowls swelled as he lowered his chin. “I will help you, Queen Fortuna, because I believe you speak the truth about our king. All I would like in return is an apology.” Whatever I’d been expecting, it hadn’t been this. For a moment or two, I just stared at the faerie blankly.

Beside me, Lyari made a sound that was suspiciously similar to muffled laughter. “An… apology?” I repeated. The Tongue responded to this with a single, overly regal nod. “I have dedicated my existence to the crown, Fortuna Sworn, along with every Tongue that came before me. We learn the blood arts, giving our very life force over to the rituals and sacraments, to uphold your decrees and maintain balance. The least you could do in return is show some respect.” As always, my first instinct was to counter his words with sarcasm or insults. But now a memory surfaced every time I was on the verge of giving into it—Collith’s wide, unblinking eyes. That stream of blood slipping from his nose. The moment I felt our bond break and fade into nothing.

The sound of my own unending screams. That was what happened when I didn’t control myself. That was the result of acting without thinking. “You’re right,” I said. I felt both of the faeries’ surprise through the bond we still shared. I took a breath before continuing. “I’ve recently discovered that some faeries are actually likable. I should’ve formed an opinion of you based on your behavior, not your species. For that, I am sorry.” For a moment, all three of us fogged the air with our breathing, sending a strange, swirling pattern to fill the space between us.

Finally, the Tongue acknowledged my words with a slight bow. “I forgive you, Queen Fortuna.” His words made my lips purse into a thin line. Forgiveness was never that simple. Forgiveness was never so painless. He was either lying to me or lying to himself. When it came to faeries, it was impossible to tell. I wasn’t sure what to say next, but the Tongue was already retreating. The beads around his neck—I’d only recently learned they were carved from teeth—made that whispering sound. I caught myself wondering how many lives had been lost to make those grisly necklaces.

How much blood had been spilled for him to learn his precious rituals and sacraments. However noble he seemed, the Tongue had taken lives and used others for his own gain. “You’re doing so well,” Lyari said from the corner of her mouth, as though she’d heard the rumbling thought. “Don’t ruin it now.” Being queen sucked. The Tongue was out of view, anyway. Once it was obvious he was truly gone, Lyari and I turned to continue southward. It was getting colder with each passing moment, and suddenly I wanted nothing more than my warm bed and the sounds of my family around me. Lyari seemed to sense my mood, because she walked faster. How rare it was, I thought, to walk in silence with someone and not feel the need to fill it.

Once again, the serenity was disturbed when faint sounds suddenly filled the woods around us. A moment later, there were minor tremors, like the ground was shaking. Earthquakes were rare in Colorado, though, and my instincts told me this was something else. I slowed to a stop, frowning, and pushed my senses outward. Lyari’s sword flashed in the moonlight as she drew it again. There was a line between her brows and a frown tugged at the corners of her lovely mouth. “Do you feel that?” the faerie muttered, her blue eyes searching the darkness. Fear crept through the dark and circled me like a wolf. I shook my head, still trying to detect a consciousness with my own abilities. “Feel what?” “The wind.

There’s a strange scent…” I raised my face and sniffed experimentally, but I detected nothing beyond the crisp night and vast sky. Faeries had far superior senses than Nightmares, so I took Lyari for her word. We stood there a minute longer, both of us tense and silent. Slowly, the other female started moving forward, and I followed suit. I half-expected one of Savannah’s corpses to lumber out of the underbrush. After watching one kill Fred, then having to burn down my own home to kill the rest, I wasn’t ashamed to admit that I was afraid of them. I would bet my entire savings account that Oliver had been keeping more bad dreams away, each one probably filled with the undead. “What did you smell?” I asked Lyari once our shared sense of unease faded. Still, my voice was hushed, as though someone were listening. At first, she didn’t say anything.

She turned her face toward me, and I saw that she was still frowning. A strand of long, brown hair draped across her throat, and in that moment, she had never looked more fae. “Death,” Lyari said finally. “I thought I smelled death. But it’s gone now.” I was too unnerved to respond. Months ago, I probably would have dismissed her words as paranoia or some faerie trick. But after everything I’d been through—goblins, wendigos, werewolves, sirens, zombies—I had learned the true meaning of fear. And it wasn’t some image I could put in people’s heads. By the time Lyari and I emerged into Cyrus’s yard, every window in the house was dark.

Someone had left the porch light on, though. It felt like a hand, beckoning me home. Relief expanded in my chest and I allowed a small sigh to escape me. As we left the cover of the trees, my gaze went to the barn, a hulking shape that stood off to the side. Part of it was destroyed in a fire decades ago, according to Cyrus. Much of the structure was still standing, but the roof sagged, the windows were broken or dirty, and the siding had needed a paint job about twenty years ago. I couldn’t understand how Cyrus Lavender—who took meticulous care of Bea’s kitchen and his home—could watch it fall into such disrepair. When I tried to ask him, my friend had just turned his face away, that fiery hair of his glinting in the dying light. I’d realized, in that moment, how little I actually knew about the fry cook that had taken us in. He also had yet to ask a single question about Finn, who came into the house as both wolf and man in regular intervals.

Now, as Lyari and I walked past the barn, I noticed a light through one of the broken windows. I halted instinctively and the faerie’s voice drifted past me as she said, “Your Majesty?” “Collith is in there,” I murmured, staring past those glinting shards and into the shadows. Nothing moved, though. “How do you know?” Lyari asked. There was no surprise in her tone—besides Laurie and my family, she was the only one who knew the truth about the Unseelie King. That he was, in fact, very much alive. Considering how much time she spent at the house, I saw no way to avoid telling her. Unlike the others, though, she asked no questions. Maybe that was the moment I’d started truly liking her. Seconds went by, marked only by snowflakes and heartbeats.

Doubt began to trickle in—maybe Collith was in the house, sleeping like all the rest of our small, broken family. I turned my gaze to that light, a single lightbulb that dangled from a string. As another stillness settled around us like a cloak, there was no sign of Collith, and I couldn’t deny the longing that stirred in my chest. The hope that I might catch just a glimpse of him, the faerie that I had been falling for shortly before I killed him. “It started a couple weeks ago,” I said at last, forcing myself to turn away. Lyari fell into step beside me, this time, instead of following closely behind as she usually did. “Collith took my van, went into town, and came back with all this stuff from the hardware store. Then he disappeared inside the barn for an entire day. All we heard was smashing and breaking. The day after that, all the noises were sawing and hammering.

I thought it was good—Collith was doing something, instead of spending the day in his room or sitting in that damn rocking chair.” “But now?” Lyari asked, her long-legged strides matching my own. I let out a breath. It clouded the air in front of my face. “But now I’m worried he traded one hiding place for another.” “Maybe he just needs more time,” she suggested. “Yeah. Maybe,” I said. Uncertainty leaked in my voice, though I didn’t mean it to. Lyari thankfully refrained from commenting on it, because I didn’t want to talk about Collith anymore.

A moment later, we reached the edge of the yard. The dead grass was buried beneath a layer of snow. Footprints led from the driveway to the front door, and I knew they were Cyrus’s—Emma was retired and Damon hadn’t been working at Bea’s much, due to the unforeseen event a few weeks ago. At the bottom of the porch steps, just as I was about to ask Lyari if she was spending the night, I paused. My mind registered the object that my gaze had grazed over in passing. I backtracked a few steps, frowning at the ground. “What is it?” Lyari asked, keeping her voice low. She touched the pommel of her sword again, and I wondered if she was even aware of it. I squatted and scraped some snow away with my bare fingers. Ice lodged beneath my nails.

“A flower,” I murmured, staring at it. The small bloom had a yellow center and dainty white petals. Nestled amongst frozen blades of dead grass, it looked like a lost child in a vast crowd. I turned my head to see Lyari’s expression. She just raised her eyebrows. “So?” Smiling faintly, I stood up and shook the melted frost off my hand. Her reaction was a blunt reminder of the fact that Lyari was not human—she had never lived among humans, never known a world absent of magic or spells. She knew about seasons, of course, but strange things happened all the time at the Unseelie Court. Why shouldn’t a flower thrive in winter? “So, it’s November,” I told her patiently, though I was eager to get out of the cold. “There’s no way this thing should be alive.

” She lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “You know better than anyone that we live in a strange world, Queen Fortuna.” “Damn it, Lyari, I’ve told you a thousand times. It’s just Fortuna, all right?” The beginnings of a smile lit her eyes, but the faerie didn’t allow it to reach her lips. “Your Majesty, I would prefer—” The entire porch shuddered and a blurred shape came at me. I stumbled back, my heel sliding through gravel, and I hit the ground. Air whooshed from my lungs. Lyari started to move forward, her sword bright as a star, but she stopped when the thing on top of me released a long whine. A moment later, a pair of yellow eyes met mine. I blinked, still struggling to catch my breath.

After another moment I rasped, “Finn? Are you okay?” Those wide eyes blinked. Slowly, making a whining sound deep in his throat, the enormous wolf backed away. I knew guilt would set upon him soon, if it wasn’t already, so I forced myself to stand and act as though the fall hadn’t hurt. “You can go,” I said to Lyari, barely managing to hide a wince as pain ricocheted up and down my spine. I must’ve landed even harder than I thought. I would be healed by morning, though—I’d discovered that my bond to the Unseelie Court lent me power. Enhanced my abilities. It was the only explanation for how I’d been changing. From Lyari’s expression, I knew she would protest before she opened her mouth. I mourned the loss of her newfound trust for the werewolf.

“He’s not stable, Your Majesty,” Lyari said, confirming my fear. “If the werewolf slaughters you—” “Oh, stop. I’m not in any danger from him and you know it.” Lyari and I argued as Finn began the transition back to his human form. We both pretended not to hear the sound of flesh tearing and bones cracking, but as the minutes ticked by, Lyari started to look faintly ill. Seeing that, I was barely able to contain a smirk. She wasn’t fearless, then. The rebellious, deadly Lyari of bloodline Paynore got squeamish at the sounds of a werewolf transformation. Weeks ago, I would have mocked her endlessly for it. Used the discovery as a weapon.

It meant something that I didn’t now. The faerie saw my expression and stopped mid-sentence. The breeze drew her hair across her mouth, and she pulled it away impatiently. She said something in Enochian, then probably remembered I couldn’t understand her, because she abruptly switched to English. “Why are you smiling?” she snarled. I was still smiling. “No reason, really. It’s just obvious that you really like me.” “I beg your pardon?” Lyari asked. Her expression was so comical that I nearly laughed, but something told me she’d like that even less than the smiling, so I suppressed it.

“You heard me,” I told her, then turned away to go up the steps. “For the record, I like you, too. Anyway, I need to get some sleep, because I’m going to work in the morning. You’ll just have to trust that Finn won’t hurt me—not fatally, at least. You’ve slept on the couch every night this week. Go home.”

.

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