Avalon was not going to be happy about this.
Lotus swore again under his breath. This was not his lucky day. He was pinned down by mortals and the bastards were pretty ingenious. They all had iron spikes with them for hand-to-hand combat and horseshoes to hurt him from a distance. Judging from his interaction with them so far, Lotus would be willing to bet they won competitions.
First the Changeling fiasco, now mortals who knew fairies all too well. He was beginning to think that something more proactive than fate was involved in his current trouble. For starters, he wasn't sure how they had detected him in the first place. He looked like any other man, though he was a tad on the short side. Blond hair was common enough for people in this part of the world. A tattoo of a bright pink Indian Lotus on the back of his left hand was unusual, but certainly no giveaway. The pale pink eyes were problematic, but mirrored sunglasses took care of that.
Just when Lotus thought things could not get any worse, they did. As he peeked from behind the corner to try and get a look at their positions, an iron nail whizzed past his head.
Well apparently they didn't need him alive. This was somewhat comforting since it meant that he wouldn't need to feel so bad about what he was going to do next.
Lotus closed his eyes and reached into his coat. He let his fingers play along the entirety of his guns for a moment, forming a tactile mental image before he committed, firmly clutching the handgrips of the two handguns.
Iron may be a fairy's enemy, but Lotus was quite aware that blued steel could be a fairy's best friend. His pistols had gotten him out of worse scrapes than this. Well, maybe not. He wasn't sure exactly where this fell on the badness magnitude scale. But he was reasonably sure he had gotten out of something at least as bad, if not worse than, this current scrape, with the aid of said pistols.
He drew the guns and shut his eyes for a moment, focusing all the magic he could muster. The humans didn't know it, but the spell would make it so that time was going a bit faster for him than it was for them. Or maybe it would slow down time on their end. The specifics were unimportant; the end result was the same.
He came from around the corner, popping a round into the head of each mortal before the first horseshoe was even close to touching him. Which was fortunate, as he had just enough time to duck before the spell ran out and several nails and horseshoes flew through the space where his torso had been moments earlier.
Lotus stood up and examined each human. Dead, for sure. He shook his head. It was a pity. He could remember a time when the Fair Folk were afforded the respect they deserved. Now, it seemed, they had to fight for it.
He put the guns away and walked out of the building and into the twilight. He had a baby to find.
Lotus knew what he needed to do to get the child back. He was, however, a tad reluctant to do it. Tracking magic was not especially difficult but it was a rare gift. Not many fairies had the focus or the attention span required to learn it.
Lotus knew one of those rare fey who could track, and do it well. And the fairy in question would help him; he owed Lotus a favor. Among the Gentry, favors were as valid a currency as gold. He'd been hoping to save this favor for something a bit more dire, but he really didn't have any other options.
Lotus flipped open his cell phone and dialed. After three rings, the voice of an elderly-sounding man piped through it.
"Hello?" inquired the voice on the other end.
"Cú," said Lotus. "Good to hear from you, old friend."
The troll's voice brightened at the sound of his elfish friend's voice.
"Kamal? What a pleasant surprise. It's been far too long." Lotus had always wondered why Cú insisted on using his Hindi name, but the quirk was one he had come to appreciate.
"Listen, Cú, I need your help, and quickly. Can you meet me at the usual place within the hour?"
The troll coughed twice before answering. "Of course, Kamal. I'd be glad to." And the line was dead.
Lotus put the phone away and started walking. The "usual place" was an all-night diner a few blocks from his current location. He and Cú had met there several times over the years.
Cú was already there when Lotus arrived. This was surprising since Lotus was almost certain that he, Lotus, had been substantially closer to the restaurant when he called. Lotus had a brief conversation with the hostess on duty, which mostly consisted of pointing to a waving Cú, before walking over and having a seat across the table from his friend.
The troll produced a pack of cigarettes and proffered it to Lotus.
"No thanks, Cú. Human poisons aren't my scene."
Cú shrugged as he lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.
"Suit yourself," he said, exhaling smoke. "I trust you're going to be calling in that favor I owe you. Otherwise you would have chatted a bit more over the phone, I think."
Lotus was beginning to open his mouth to speak when Cú held up a hand for silence. "Do not answer yet, our waitress approaches."
Sure enough, the waitress walked over and greeted them, bestowing a glass of water and napkinful of silverware on each of them as she did. Each fairy ordered a coffee and they waited for her to walk away before they resumed speaking.
"Yes I need to call in my favor," said Lotus, a touch of regret in his voice. "And yes, it's urgent. I pulled a Changeling switch, but I've managed to lose the human infant now. If I don't get him back before sunup, I'm in trouble."
Cú nodded, and took another drag on the cigarette before speaking. "So you need me to track the child, rightIn ? Find out where whoever snatched your baby has taken it?"
"Yeah, something like that," Lotus confirmed. "I have the kid's blanket. I knew you needed a personal item of his." Lotus was reaching into his jacket when Cú raised his index finger in a near-universal "wait" gesture. Once again, the waitress was upon them. She set down their coffees, asked if she could get them anything else, was assured that she could not, and went on her way.
Lotus took the blanket from an inside pocket of his coat and handed it to Cú.
Cú sniffed the blanket, looked at it from all angles, ran a finger over it. Finally, he apparently decided that it passed inspection.
"I can use this," he said. "Good work. Now, Kamal, you'll be accompanying me while we track. This is your fight. I'll get you there, but you take over after that. Am I understood?"
Lotus nodded. "Sure thing, Cú. And I know being back by sunup is an even bigger issue for you than me, so I'll try not to slow you down too much."
The troll took another drag from the cigarette and grinned at the elf. "I expect that's true."
Lotus was cursing quietly but profusely. He was doing his absolute best to keep up with Cú, but it was getting difficult. Trudging through a wet forest at night, following nothing that even resembled a path, was not Lotus's idea of the perfect evening. He couldn't even do the minor magic it would take to traverse effortlessly and without trace through the forest. The time-manipulation had really taken it out of him. There was a reason that time flowed at a pretty consistent rate. The riverbed of time had definitely become a canyon by now and diverting its course, even for a few moments, was exceptionally difficult.
Lotus was shaken out of his reflection by Cú suddenly stopping.
"Tread carefully, Kamal," he breathed. "We're getting very close to your child. In fact, you should probably be able to see it if you look around. Your eyes are better than mine."
Lotus had taken off his sunglasses once they had started into the woods. Away from humans, there wasn't much point in them. Pale pink eyes scanned the wood ahead of him, the moonlight providing all the illumination he needed to see. He spotted something near the base of a large tree around 20 meters away. Undergrowth obscured the thing, but he pointed at it. Cú looked and focused his tracking magics for a moment, then nodded. Together, they began making their way towards the child.
There was a very small clear area when they got close to the tree. Sure enough, there was a basket with a sleeping human baby in it at the base.
Something is wrong here, thought Lotus. From across centuries, the voice of his sensei rang in the back of his mind. "Remember Lotus, you musn't mistake an object's reflection for the object itself."
Lotus was, to the best of his knowledge, the first and only Zen Buddhist fairy. He had traveled East many years ago and his sensei's teachings always seemed to help him when he least expected it.
Lotus held up a hand, stopping Cú from approaching the child further.
"That," he said. "Is not the child. It's a glamour."
There was laughter from the higher branches of the tree. Lotus looked up and saw exactly what he hoped he wouldn't. Standing on a branch, holding the basket with the real child, was another fairy. She was an elf like Lotus and he knew her well.
"Nightshade," he said, shaking his head. "I should have known." Lotus couldn't prevent a rueful smile from creeping onto his face.
Cú looked from Lotus back to Nightshade, surprise apparent on his face.
"This is Belladonna?" he asked in mild awe. "She is as beautiful as her name would imply."
"And as deadly," agreed Lotus. His voice suddenly took on a cold and impersonal aspect as he spoke again to Cú. "Cú, I thank you for your assistance. You have fulfilled your debt to me and your presence is no longer required."
Cú was transfixed. He had never seen the Unseelie Court's most deadly assassin and Lotus seemed to have prior dealings with her. This was about to get interesting; he had no intention of leaving.
"I said you can go now, Cú."
Something in Lotus's voice made Cú reluctant to press the issue. So he shrugged and cast a spell, fading from sight into the Otherworld.
Lotus looked up at Nightshade. "Now that we're alone, do you want to come down and discuss this like two mature fairies?"
Nightshade laughed maliciously. "If you'd like to pretend that's what we are then I'll humor you, Lotus."
Nightshade leapt from branch and landed effortlessly. Now that she was on the same level as he, Lotus could get his first good look at her in three years.
She hadn't changed much. She still had her long, shiny black hair; large eyes that were a deep purple shade most people mistook for black or dark brown. She was about Lotus's height, maybe a tad shorter. In short, she was still everything that Lotus dreamed about: Beautiful, sexy, and extremely deadly.
"Nightshade," he said. "I know why you're doing this. Can we perhaps come to an agreement?"
Nightshade sniffed contemptuously at Lotus. "Your precious baby boy will please my lords to no end. I see no reason for me to give him back to you."
Lotus was pretty sure he had a solution to this, but again, he was very reluctant to go through with it. The problem was largely in the origin of Nightshade's enmity. Three years ago, Lotus had come out on top in a conflict between the two of them. Long story short, he won her servitude. She was bound to his service for a year and a day. Nightshade was a very proud fairy, and she hated every single second of her subservience. In her opinion, no one was superior to her, and being forced to serve him was a blow from which her pride still had not fully recovered.
The elfs stared each other down for what seemed an eternity.
Lotus sighed. There was only one way to set this right. To win back Nightshade's favor. (And oh how very sweet her favor was, he thought, reflecting on their pre-conflict days.)
"Listen, Nightshade," he said. "Just let me take the babe back to Avalon. If you do, beginning tomorrow at sundown, I will be bound to your service."
Nightshade grinned wickedly; it made Lotus shudder, for a variety of reasons. "And how long shall this service last?"
Lotus sighed again. "The traditional span. A year and a day shall I be bound to your whim."
Nightshade was satisfied. "I have your word that if I let you take this babe back tonight, you will be mine starting tomorrow at sundown. For a year and a day?"
Lotus nodded. "To those terms, I pledge my word."
Nightshade's grin grew wider still. She handed him the babe. And then she did something she had not done in almost four years. She kissed Lotus, deeply and passionately. Then she winked at him and disappeared.
After recovering from that shock, Lotus looked down at the baby and shook his head. "You have no idea what I've gone through because of you tonight, little one."
The babe slept on, content and oblivious. Lotus had a feeling it would be a long year.
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