Sprouting from the Ashes
A droplet formed at the end of the human’s finger. Fianynlas watched with avid eyes as the drop slowly swelled and rounded, then fell, gleaming and perfect in the still air. The liquid shone for a moment where it landed, rich as garnet against the dark bark beneath.
The blood vanished, soaking into the bark as though it had never been. Power gathered heavy in the air like a storm. Fianynlas closed his eyes to savor the sensation. Energy hummed under his skin; potent, electric. A new tree sprouted. He heard the heaving of soil and creaking of bark as the trunk shot skyward. Fianynlas reveled in the feeling, as though each stretching branch and furling leaf was an extension of his own flesh.
The Heart Tree spread, branches reaching wider, and roots burrowing deep into the soil. Fianynlas smiled. Slowly, the surge settled but the power remained, steady and soft as the whisper of the leaves. The Forest grew. Fianynlas thrived along with it. The magic at his fingertips was stronger than the day before, dancing all the more eagerly at his whim.
Before the fire, Fianynlas had been a god within his borders. The Forest stretched far as eyes could see across his portion of Faerie. The entirety of his court had once easily gathered in the shade beneath the Heart Tree’s massive branches. The most beautiful of them all had shared his bed among the boughs. His lips curled with a fierce snarl as Fianynlas shoved the thought of Melanthian aside. Flames licked at his memories, agonizing and bitter as the betrayal.
His hands curled into fists at his sides and he exhaled sharply. He was still Fianynlas. The Forest grew again. His Court would flourish once more. Fianynlas weighed the power within him and smiled. He had enough now to begin.
Opening his eyes, Fianynlas spared a last glance for the mortal. The man hung limp, pale, and empty-eyed in the embrace of the brambles. “I did say I would take you away from all your troubles.” He shrugged. “But mortals now never remember to ask the price.” Fianynlas flicked his fingers as he turned away. The brambles released their burden. The soft rumble of shifting roots filled his ears as they pulled the empty husk beneath the moss.
No trace of the human remained to mar the beauty of the grove when Fianynlas looked again. He weighed the power once more, the steady feed of it through his veins. He could not quite contain his exultant smile. There was enough for the most important of them, the beginning.
Beside the heart tree’s trunk, Fianynlas settled himself cross-legged on the velvet moss. He tugged the pouch from his belt. Fianynlas spilled the precious contents of the pouch into his palm. With a forefinger, he stirred the seeds and counted them, gloating and grieving over each one. For every small husk he touched, a memory stirred alongside a small tingle of energy. He whispered their names in the silence of his heart as he sorted through them.
All were here, as they had been each time he counted them. One by one, Fianynlas dropped them back into the soft embrace of the pouch. His chest ached with every precious seed smoothed between his fingers and tucked away. Little traces of remembered agony sparked beneath his skin like an echo of the fire. He stopped when only the last remained in his palm; an acorn, large and golden brown, one side scorched dark. Life still slept beneath the surface despite that darkness. Fianynlas could feel the force of the sleeping spirit within, fierce and strong.
Slowly, Fianynlas curled his fingers around the acorn. He pressed his fist against his chest, over the steady beat of the heart many said he lacked. “I will have you back, Gwyllynir, my Lord of the Hunt.” Surely then, Maerenath would come home too, and everything would finally begin to be as it should.
He rose with purpose, tucking Gwyll’s acorn into the small pouch around his neck. Fianynlas reached to grasp one of the Heart Tree’s low hanging branches. Planting his feet, he grounded himself. He drew from the power within the tree. Fianynlas fed the energy to the nearby Gate, making the portal flare to life once more.
His glamour settled into place around him as he started toward the opening. Sharp features and pointed ears softened into a more human approximation of beauty. Crimson eyes dulled to the soft red-brown of cherry wood, and dark feathered wings melted out of being altogether. Fianynlas had learned something of human fashion in the recent months. Dark leather would not be entirely out of place in the alleys he frequented. He allowed himself a single indulgence, and smiled as he chose the color. Cobalt hair drew just enough of the attention he craved.
The small back alley room was dark when Fianynlas emerged. A pile of blankets made a shadowy lump on the worn mattress in one corner. A small lamp sat unlit on a crate beside the bed. Fianynlas stepped across the musty carpets to open the flimsy door. He slipped out into the night.
Fianynlas took a deep breath as he emerged onto a makeshift walkway above the street. His nose wrinkled a little at the ever present stench of the district. The air smelled of humans and all that came with them; sweat, food, cigarette smoke, alcohol, and desperation. Fianynlas didn’t really like the smell, but the district was starting to grow on him.
He hunted in these streets nearly every night. However, even in some of the most dark and desperate bowels of Londinium, Fianynlas did not always find someone foolish enough to come when he beckoned. They did not call the city by that name any more, he reminded himself. The name was London now, modern, fashionable, and changed, rather like himself. Some things about the darkest parts of a city never altered. Mortal needs remained the same. Underneath the worn buildings and modern concrete, the bones of Londinium lingered.
Fianynlas sought no more blood tonight, nor did he seek communion with the bones of the city that had been. His hand lifted to the small pouch at his neck again, fingers brushing briefly over the leather. He made his way down the rickety staircase and into the streets below.
Eyes followed him, the sensation a familiar prickling over his skin. One by one he sought the watchers out, weighed and dismissed them. The tall youth on the corner lowered his cigarette from his lips as Fianynlas passed, elbowing one of the small group around him.
He spoke just a little too loudly. “What do you think that one charges?”
Fianynlas didn’t slow for the words, but something about the speaker caught his eye. His hand lifted once more toward the pouch. He paused, and turned to assess the youth. The young man was easily half a head taller than the rest of the small group. Fianynlas raked his gaze thoughtfully from the platinum tips of spiked hair to the toes of worn sneakers, and then back up.
One of the others chuckled. “I think ‘e’s considering your rate, mate.”
Fianynlas shook his head. The height was right, but the bare arms that showed beneath the t-shirt were too thin and weak, the youth’s features too coarse. Gwyllynir deserved better. Shrugging he turned away again and continued off.
“Shit, man…” Another peal of laughter sounded behind him. “How’s it feel when they won’t even take you for pay…”
The sound of a blow followed, and a flood of cursing in several voices. Fianynlas didn’t glance back.
He wound deeper into the Dark Angel district, through broader streets and into the narrow alleys the streetlights barely found. He eyed each tall young man he passed thoughtfully. One after another Fianynlas rejected them: too soft, too ugly, too foolish.
Frustration tightened his jaw. Something dangerously akin to despair ached in his chest. Fianynlas thought he had seen the right youth earlier. Just a glimpse, but enough that when he held Gwyll’s acorn he remembered the human. He wanted that one. Alley after alley, Fianynlas failed to find him.
The hairs at the nape of his neck prickled. Fianynlas tensed. Eyes had followed him all evening. There was a heaviness to this particular gaze he understood too well, a dangerous and altogether unwelcome familiarity. He ducked into the next alley mouth, heart beating suddenly fast in a way not one of the looks he’d drawn all evening had inspired.
Fianynlas set his back against the wall, and glanced upwards. All he could see were worn walls and the edges of rooftops. He didn’t need to see the glow of the tower to know its presence. Fianynlas had chosen the District for that reason, perverse as it seemed. What better place to go to ground than at the very feet of the one who had tried to destroy him?
The Light King wouldn’t look for him here, Fianynlas was certain of that. There were far more likely places for him to flee. The eyes on him had been faerie eyes. He did not need to see the watchers to know they did not belong to one of his own scattered Court. Taking a deep breath, Fianynlas moved on along the alley, steps hasty and light. He didn’t look over his shoulder. Another street loomed ahead. He followed it, ever wary for a return of that prickling sensation.
No one but the Light King himself could see through his glamour, Fianynlas told himself. Weak as he had been, even before he sprouted a new Heart Tree, he still held that much power. Tonight, he did not want any fae eyes on him, not when his hunt was so very important. His hand lifted to the pouch at his neck, closing briefly about it like a talisman.
Fianynlas ducked down another street. He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket as though the faint chill of the night air troubled his fingers. Slowly, the tension eased from his shoulders and he lifted his head. Someone was studying him from across the street, but it was only a human. Fianynlas gave him a small pleased smile that had nothing to do with him at all and continued on his way.
The small pleasure of shaking off dangerous attention quickly faded. He was no closer to finding what he sought. Somewhere in the distance a clock chimed the hour. Fianynlas frowned as he counted three. Night faded so rapidly. Time never mattered in Faerie, but here the fleeting passage of it ate at him. He sent another scowl in the direction of that barely glimpsed skyscraper. “I’ll repay you tenfold for the flames, Jayadeva.” He told the lights and ducked into another alley.
No streetlights brightened the small, dead-end space. It stank dimly of refuse, sweat, and other things Fianynlas did not care too much to contemplate. The hulking shape of a dumpster loomed up in the small space, and for a moment he almost gave it up as empty.
Somewhere under the unpleasant scents of old food and smoke, Fianynlas detected another cleaner smell. Frowning, he stepped forward along the front of the dumpster, feet silent and cautious on the concrete. A bundle of something rested close against the wall between one end of the dumpster and the end of the alley. Cardboard and fabric, Fianynlas eased closer, crouching down to peer at the pile. A fine pair of hiking boots peeped from beneath one end of a flattened box. There were feet still in them.
As he eased closer, Fianynlas could just make out the soft steady sound of breathing. A hand showed in the shadow beneath another scrap of cardboard, loosely curled around a lump of fabric. Fianynlas reached out to ease the protective covering back. His lips curved into a small smile, that only grew as he drew the cardboard further back.
Even half curled up, the young man seemed to be a tall one. The length of that pile of cardboard readily revealed his height. His slumbering features were pleasantly handsome, the hair falling half across them silky despite a few days without washing. A jacket concealed the shape of his arms, but his hands were capable ones; lean and long fingered. Fianynlas could easily imagine them on the string of a bow or curled around a spear.
The fingers in question twitched. The youth’s body jerked slightly as though some unpleasant dream troubled him. Fianynlas froze, studying the young man more carefully. His clothes were fine, but no longer quite clean. His head rested on a fabric and leather backpack that sported what looked like a monogram: WRB. Fianynlas mouthed the letters rather than speaking them. He eased forward again, lifting the cardboard enough to look. The corner of a wallet protruded from the young man’s pocket.
Deftly, Fianynlas tugged the wallet free and flipped it open. William Blackburn, the license within told him, 23 years. A few other cards lurked in the wallet; a college identification, a membership for a sports club: some sort of running and kicking balls thing. Fianynlas smiled. The sport didn’t matter, but the strength to run and play it suited him. Closing the wallet, he set it down beside the youth’s hand.
A careful look over his shoulder showed him the alley was still empty. Fianynlas reached out to touch the young man’s cheek. The glamour faded away. The youth stiffened, sucking in a startled breath. He struggled half upright. Fianynlas moved with him, keeping his hand on his cheek. The youth’s eyes snapped open to meet his.
In the darkness, the young man likely couldn’t see him well. Fianynlas saw something in that startled gaze that made him smile. His eyes were green. Not the brilliant emerald of Gwyllynir’s, human eyes were nearly always dull and muddy, but green nevertheless. Fianynlas was pleased by the omen.
“Shhhhh.” Fianynlas said, leaning closer until even in the darkness the human could see his face. “I have a gift for you.” He wove magic into his words, dark and soothing. The young man’s tension eased, enthralled by the sound of Fianynlas’ voice. “Such a beautiful gift. It will lift you far beyond this place, William.” Names had power, even over mortals. Fianynlas was grateful humans gave them away so easily.
The youth’s breaths panted over his lips, so rapid and close they tickled at Fianynlas’ own. “Who are you?”
“That doesn’t matter.” Fianylas said. “What matters is who you are. Don’t be afraid.” He stroked his fingers gently along the young man’s cheek, trailing the lines of the high bone under the skin. His fingers followed warm skin down along the strong lean lines of his jaw. Slowly Fianynlas shifted his grip, grasping William’s chin gently in his fingertips. He tipped the young man’s face up into the meager light, leaning in as though he considered kissing him.
The sharp intake of breath was loud in his ears as he ghosted his lips briefly over William’s. Fianynlas smiled as William’s tension eased even further. Rather than leaning in to claim the kiss, however, he tightened his fingers until he heard a startled whimper of pain. Keeping those green eyes locked on his, he tugged the acorn out to trace it gently over the young man’s lips.
The young man’s lips parted so easily it caught Fianynlas by surprise. Two fingers pressed the seed into William’s mouth. Fianynlas stroked the damp tips of them over his lower lip as they withdrew. Pressing against his chin, he pushed William’s mouth closed. “Swallow…” Fianynlas whispered, sliding his hand gently but firmly down the length of the young man’s throat.
Once again he found himself startled by the young man’s easy compliance. Magic surged in Fianynlas’ fingertips. He leaned closer, cupping the young man’s face in both of his hands. Fianynlas fed the life of the Forest into that seed, helping it take root. The smallest spark of a familiar spirit flared at him briefly from behind the mortal’s eyes and then vanished.
He could feel that scrap of life now hidden away in the depth of human flesh and spirit; the tiniest sprout. Leaning in, Fianynlas pressed his lips to the young man’s again, more forcefully this time. The caress of his lips and tongue was deep and lingering. He soothed and shaped the magic around that frail wisp of spirit.
Fianynlas’ own breaths were a little rapid as he pulled back.He smiled into startled emerald eyes. “Gwyll.”
More puzzlement than recognition answered him from the young man’s gaze. Fianynlas stared at him, fingers caressing gently at Gwyll’s cheeks as he wove another web of magic into his carefully chosen planter. The magic was a subtle thing, as well hidden as old roots beneath winter soil. A compulsion, one designed not even to be remembered, only acted upon. Find my enemy, sprout in his garden, keep your eyes on him to warn me.
When Gwyllynir truly awoke the magic would fade. The compulsion shaken loose by his own essence, no longer needed. Yet, it would take months, perhaps years, for the slow feed of the Forest to restore his Lord of the Hunt from this mortal shell.
Fianynlas sighed, some of his exultation fading with the thought of that time. A weariness settled on him in the wake of his work. Such a small thing it took to tire him, when once he might barely have noticed. Leaning in, he rested his brow briefly against Gwyll’s. Fianynlas smiled when the young man’s hand lifted hesitantly to touch his shoulder. I miss you, cousin.
Swallowing, Fianynlas pulled back. He gathered his glamour and the darkness around him once more. His fingers drifted in one more brief caress down the left side of the young man’s face, a tattoo of twining vines shaping under the skin in their wake. Fianynlas smiled gently at his handiwork.
“Grow. And come home.”
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