Max Ravenhill smiled as he caught his reflection in the darkened glass of a butcher shop. A scruffy white dog with blood red markings was sniffing around the door and broke off to wag its tail at him. A young man who jostled Max's elbow while he and several others waited for the lights to change at the corner of Queen and Bond, smiled and apologized before walking off. Max shook his head in disbelief, feeling his smile stretch even wider. Everyone must be feeling good today.
The light changed and Max stepped out into the road. He felt a heavy, warm impact on his left side, and a sharp blow on the back of his head. He heard rather than felt the crack of his knees as they hit the pavement. Car hit me, he thought, as the world began to darken. His vision shrank down, down, until he was looking at a tiny image, like a T.V. screen at the end of a long hallway, surrounded by blackness. Max concentrated, and found that he could hear what people were saying, see what they were doing. The blackness got no worse, but the messages from his brain faded to nothing long before they reached his hands and feet.
He couldn't be badly hurt, he reasoned, he could feel the hands that took him up under the armpits, and lifted him to his feet. The hands on his left arm felt wrong somehow, as if the person was wearing mittens, or had his hands bandaged. The cold city air, more than half car-exhaust, had an overlay of faintly rotting meat, and Max flashed on the image of his own reflection in the butcher shop's window. When he tried to pull away from the awkward grip it became firmer. I need to lie down, he thought.
The people holding him folded Max into the back seat of what felt like a large car. No, he thought, I need to lie down. He wasn't sure whether he'd spoken aloud. The car door closed and Max felt hot, moist breath on his cheek. He turned and looked directly into the panting muzzle of a huge dog, inches away from his face, so close that Max recoiled, banging his elbow on the car door. He blinked, but his eyes refused to focus. The dog, light coloured with dark markings, at first looked short-muzzled like a bulldog, and then long and razor-mouthed like a wolfhound, the image blurring and flickering until Max felt nauseated. Only the eyes, black as holes and intelligently aware, never changed. The sickly sweet scent of old meat grew stronger and Max shut his eyes, willing the insulating blackness to grow thicker. The car rolled forward with a jerk that almost spilled Max to the floor and caused the dog to stand up on the seat. Saliva dripped on him from the dog's jaws, and Max's stomach lurched again.
They hadn't gone far when the door of the car was wrenched open and something yanked Max bodily out, knocking his head against the doorframe. A voice he strained to recognize called to him to run and Max found himself able to stagger a couple of steps. On the third or fourth step the numbness abruptly disappeared and the world came into sharp and normal focus.
He had no idea in what direction they were running, or even what street they were on, but the woman who had hold of his wrist seemed to know where she was going and that, at the moment, was good enough for him. His rescuer was almost his own height, wearing a black ankle-length coat. Her thick blond hair, crisply curling in the damp air, was held back with a silver clip, and she had a long leather bag with an ornate silver clasp slung over one shoulder. Max's right wrist was clamped in her gloved hand, and when she turned the corner onto a more deserted street Max instinctively dragged back a little.
The woman increased the pressure on his arm and at the same time turned her head to look at him. Recognition relaxed his muscles and Max exerted himself a little until they were running side-by-side, her hand still on his wrist.
"Where are we going?" They had turned another corner and still she didn't slow down.
The alley she pulled him into was about fifteen feet wide, long and dark, with a chain link fence connecting the buildings at the far end. A motion sensor clicked and a light came on, showing Max a loading platform along the left side of the alley. Cassandra pushed him behind her into the shadow created by the platform and turned to face the entrance. She slipped the long bag off her shoulder and lowered it to the cracked concrete close to Max's feet. The way she handled it told him the bag was heavier than it looked. With a sound like a sharp whistle, she drew a sword out of the top of the bag. Max saw that what he had mistaken for the bag's elaborate closure had actually been the sword's hilt. Cassandra shrugged off her coat as well, leaving her in a dark red T-shirt, a pair of heavy black jeans faded almost to silver tucked into knee boots. She was wearing gloves as finely scaled as fish skin, the same bright silvery metal as the sword, with gauntlets that reached almost to her elbows.
"I saw only one, were there more?"
Max dragged in a lung full of cold air. You always thought you were in great shape until you had to run for your life. Then you wished you'd spent more time at the gym.
"The Hound, I saw only one."
"Uh, yes, I think so."
Cassandra nodded, "We have a chance then."
Max watched as she crept forward, her eyes focussed on the opening of the alley. Light from the street lamp touched the curve of her cheek like a lover's fingertip. Max took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Cassandra tilted her head, straining to listen. Max could hear nothing over the sound of his own breathing. He edged closer to have a look for himself. Without turning Cassandra put her palm flat against his chest and held him back from the edge of the wall.
"Stay behind me."
"Cassandra, it's me, Max."
"I'm quite capable of recognizing you, Mr. Ravenhill, thank you." Her cool tone took Max right back to the party where they had met. He almost laughed.
"Just not capable of returning my phone calls."
She spared him a glance over her shoulder before returning to her look out. "Which would you prefer? That I return your calls, or that I pull you out of the cars of people trying to kidnap you?"
"Well, if it's one or the other, I choose the bit with the cars."
"Everything's turned out well then, hasn't it?" She flicked another glance at him. "Did they hurt you? Were you bitten?"
Max shook his head. "I banged my head, but I feel okay."
Cassandra took another quick look at the street and bent down over her shoulder bag. After rummaging for a moment she retrieved a short, thick-bladed knife and held it out to Max.
"Here," she said. "Watch the edge, you can cut off a finger if you're not careful. If the Hound gets past me, use it."
Max told hold of the knife, surprised to find how comfortable and familiar the hilt felt in his hand. "If you can't stop it with your sword, I should use this?"
"Not on the Hound, on yourself."
"Ah, that clears things up."
"Here it comes. Stay back, and don't look it in the eye."
Now Max could hear it, the soft sound of a dog's great paws, padding along the concrete. Faster than he could have imagined possible the large dog he had seen in the car rounded the corner of the alley, moving so quickly it almost lost its balance as its claws scratched for traction on the slick concrete.
Max realized that the trouble he'd had focusing in the car had not all been because of the blow to his head. The shape of the creature, of the Hound, was changing, flickering around the edges even when the central shape remained the same. It changed twice in the time it took to round the corner, its dog's fur morphing to leathery skin, to scales, and back to fur.
As soon as it saw Cassandra it leapt, and for a moment Max thought she wouldn't be able to get out of its way. Faster than he could follow, she ducked and twisted, the sword whistling through the air, but even as it leapt, the creature changed form. What landed was not hound, but a kind of chimera, its lion's head maned with snakes, and its dragon's tail spiked. After scrabbling to regain its balance, it headed straight for him. Max raised the little knife and, feeling how inadequate it was as a weapon, snatched up the only other thing to hand, Cassandra's shoulder bag, and threw it into the creature's face.
It stopped abruptly in mid-leap and fell back, but not from the bonk on the nose he'd given it. Cassandra had grabbed its spiked tail as it passed her and hauled back on it, slicing the tail off at the root with a quick downward cut of her sword. She wiped her glove clean on her jeans, and with the same motion pulled a long dagger out of her boot. The chimera turned its attention back to her, twisting in midair and flickering into yet another monster, hydra-headed with the body of a lizard, both heads and claws reaching out for her. But its injury transformed with it, leaving it tailless and bleeding. Cassandra struck off the left-hand head as it foolishly turned to look at its lack of tail, but even as blood gouted, spattering them both with hot drops, the head grew back. Cassandra held it at bay for a few moments, her blades at the ready, as it circled her, looking for an opportunity to lunge.
"Stay behind me," she called, as she dashed forward to slash at the creature's foreleg, her hair flying loose. "It's trying to split us up." Max nodded and shifted his own position. The creature lunged again, and Max lost track of the action as Cassandra moved with blurring speed and the thing flickered through half a dozen further changes before settling into a leathery, scaled parody of a griffin. Max glanced around and spotted Cassandra's bag where it had fallen after bouncing off the Hound's face. He dashed forward and picked it up, wrapping the straps around his fist, and took an experimental swing. With any luck, he could manage a head blow.
In the meantime Cassandra, breathing hard, had landed another cut, this time to the creature's shoulder. Blood flowed freely, but its injuries didn't seem to slow it down. It kept circling, and Max realized that it was maneuvering the woman into the pool of blood.
"Watch your feet, there's blood on the ground."
Cassandra grinned like he'd just given her good news. I'm glad one of us is having a good time, he thought.
Cassandra's right heel skidded, her hands went up, her blades flying into the air, and the creature lunged forward, snatching at her head with its outstretched neck. Desperately Max swung the leather bag, catching the lunging beast on the side of its head. Its saucer eye flicked toward him, its clawed foot flashed out, but the beast continued moving forward, stepping into its own blood and slipping in its turn. Cassandra twisted on the heel that was still on dry ground, caught her blades in the opposite hands as they came down, stabbed her dagger into the creature's reaching limb, pulling it towards her, encouraging its slide and simultaneously bringing down her sword left-handed on its outstretched neck.
The creature dropped in its tracks, momentum taking Cassandra down with it, its head bouncing off the wall and rolling to a rest at Max's feet. It flickered again, ringing the changes on every form Max had seen, and a few that he hadn't, until it finally took a twisted human form, a man's thin and wasted face, eyes staring, before it disappeared. The alley was once again empty and quiet, as clean as it had been when they entered it. No beast, no blood, except what still steamed on their clothing. Cassandra was back on her feet with blades still raised to strike, breathing hard, and grinning, a tear in her T-shirt showing not skin, but a another gleam of metal.
"You did that on purpose," Max accused her, "made it think you'd slipped in the blood."
"They like to kill, it makes them too eager."
"How about you? Do you like it?" Now that the adrenalin was seeping out of him, it was all Max could do to control the shaking of his hands. How could she stand there, smiling?
She took a deep breath and looked at him, the light fading from her face, the smile gone.
"You're bleeding, where did it get you?"
"What? Nowhere . . ." Max's stomach clenched, and even as he spoke his knees gave way for the second time that evening, but this time Cassandra caught him before he could hit the ground. He clutched at her arm, getting a handful of metal gauntlet. A tremor began in his hand, moved up his arm and claimed the rest of his body. Dimly he heard the knife 'chink' as it fell from his other hand to the pavement. A spot on his left side, down near the hip bone, felt very cold, and the coldness spread, and a shhhhhhhhhh of static in his head grew louder and louder as his body floated farther and farther away.
Cassandra hissed, and Max felt her hand, warmer than the metal glove should allow, press firmly on the icy wound in his side. He could feel her arms cradling him, feel her shift on the cold concrete until his head fell back on her shoulder. She put her mouth on his lips and breathed. And breathed. And BREATHED. And his body soaked up her breath like a dry wick soaks up oil, filling itself with her warmth and air and sweetness and still Cassandra breathed. Until Max began to fear that he would empty her, until the cold place in his side finally became warm and Max took a deep, shuddering breath.
"What the hell was that?" He'd been dying, he was sure of it, and somehow Cassandra had stopped it, had made it simply . . . go away. His side, under the torn and bloody cotton shirt, wasn't even sore. He cleared his throat. His voice sounded like he hadn't used it in weeks and he could feel the exhilaration of being alive already beginning to fade. Cassandra picked up the short-bladed knife from where it had fallen and tossed it into her bag as she walked stiffly over to where her coat lay next to the loading dock. She kept her face turned away from him as she crouched down on her heels, wiping her perfectly clean blades on the skirt of the coat. She glanced back at him as he got to his feet, but otherwise acted as if nothing had happened. As if she hadn't just saved his life. Twice.
"Do you know what I mean when I say the Hunt?"
Max blinked as he mentally changed gears. If that was what she wanted to talk about, he was willing to play along. But soon she'd have to explain what it was she'd done . . . and how.
"Well, folklore's not my field, but I believe there are several schools of thought --" Max broke off as Cassandra raised her eyebrows. "Okay, I take it you mean the Wild Hunt? So there's huntsman, horses, hounds--some say human spirits--but most agree it's something to do with the Sidhe." Max leaned back on the edge of the loading dock and crossed his arms. "Specifically the Trooping Faerie, yes? They hunted some kind of supernatural prey, didn't they?" Max shook his head slowly. It was crazy, it was impossible, but he had seen what he had seen. "That's what that was? One of the Sidhe?"
Cassandra put her coat back on, slipped the long thin dagger back into her boot, her hand trembling ever so slightly. "As usual, a little bit right, and a little bit wrong. The Hunt is not made up of what you call the Sidhe, it hunts the Sidhe."
Max handed Cassandra her bag, but took a step back instead of helping her as she slung it over her head and adjusted it until it hung along her back. Of all the crazy -- "I don't get it. You mean that thing was after you?"
Cassandra gave a final shrug to her bag and turned until she was looking him in the face.
my lord. It was after you."