© Charles Vess 2019
Janet cried, “Bloody hell that fucking madman’s got a sword!” And a moment later as a second question crashed through her mind, she cried, “Why isn’t everyone running away?” Then she realized the answer. Only she and Tom actually saw the swordsman and his pack of wretched beasts.
Tom face was a grim, determined mask as he pulled away from Janet’s arms. Suddenly there was a long thin blade in his hand as well. Seeing the flash of that blade, the other man hesitated. The feral beasts at his feet, though, continued to circle their prey, simply ignoring the crush of people that crowded the floor in front of the stage. Then Janet heard the leather-clad figure call out over the pounding music. He spoke in the same other-language as the troll on the bridge, and understanding every word the stranger uttered caused Janet to break into a cold sweat.
“Well then, at last the hunter has found his quarry.”
A grim smile slid across Tom’s lips before he replied, “Huntsman, you have no business being in this mortal realm. Why come you here?”
“For you, Sir Knight of the Rose. My master commands, and so I must obey.”
Before he even finished speaking, The Huntsman launched himself through the air directly at Thomas. At once, The Rose Knight leaped forward to meet his opponent. Their swords glittered, arcing through the air, flashing in the glare of the multi-colored spotlights from the ceiling above. Their blades glanced off each other with a harsh rasp. Again and again Janet heard the shriek of metal against metal. Then the two figures sprang apart. The Huntsman paused, clasping both hands firmly on the hilt of his sword.
He cocked his eye at Tom, “I was mistaken then, I thought perhaps you would listen to reason and simply let me take you from this unnatural place?”
“Unnatural? Have care, Huntsman, you speak of the land whence I was born.”
Janet grasped Thomas’ arm and spoke in that same unnatural tongue, “Tom, who is this man?”
Hearing her speak in the language of the Land of Summer’s Twilight, understanding flickered in the coal black eyes of the Huntsman. Still, he looked slowly past the pulsing crowd of gyrating bodies and sneers, “Spoken as only a mortal would,Thomas. But my gracious Lord has tasked me with finding a piece of a puzzle that is dear to his heart, so you and now this mortal girl will most certainly have words with him this very night.”
“In truth, after my master is done with this child, my blood quickens at the thought of flaying the tawny skin from her body to look for the Queen beneath.”
“Never! Not while I live.”
“As you wish, Sir Knight.”
Janet was unable to tear her horrified gaze from the great stalking beasts that casually wound through the legs of the oblivious crowd around the two duelists. All four creatures were larger than full-grown panthers, but instead of fur, their entire bodies were covered with stiff bristling quills. Protruding from each huge footpad were long talons that with each step left furrows in the linoleum surface of the floor.
Tom, seemingly unconcerned with either the beasts or the man who circled him, raised his sword and shouted, “Sir, you shall have neither!”
In answer, The Huntsman with his blade arced through the air once again. Janet was astonished watching Tom leap lightly aside and then twist before he hit the ground so that his blade deflected his opponent’s next thrust. Each move spoke to years of practice in every move that each made. Moments later, Tom stumbled back into Janet, a long thin gash of blood cut down the length of his chest. He grabbed at her arm to steady himself.
As if his touch were some spark to fan an unknown flame within her, the room around Janet began to ripple and shift as another reality subsumed it. Now a great multi-tiered courtyard with a lush garden of fragrant rose and dense with apple trees resplendent with their white blossoms rising around her on every side. Beyond the garden, an ancient marble hall lifted to touch the clouds, its rose-colored walls dappled with iridescent turquoise shadows cast from the trees of a surrounding forest that stood even taller still.
She had a single coherent thought before she lost consciousness.
Like a fucking migraine…
Suddenly the mind of the mortal girl, Janet Ravenscroft, was once again consumed by the inhuman will known in Her own world as The Queen of Summer’s Twilight. Regardless of Her actual appearance, She stood, oblivious to the crowd, the lights, and the pulsating music to indignantly consider the Huntsman and his stalking beasts. Unconcerned with the injuries Her knight sustained, She stepped regally toward the deadly intruders.
The Huntsman saw only a mortal girl of no consequence standing before him, yet when she spoke, he became even more certain that he had found the very thing his master had sent him in search of.
With a thin, hard smile The Queen spoke, “Huntsman, why are you here in my hall? I gave you no such invitation, for your presence repels me.”
A look of consternation flowed through the warrior’s narrowed eyes. “This place? You name this slovenly sty your great Hall? It is a place fit only for mortals and their useless entertainments…”
The great beasts, fawning at her feet, The Queen stared at The Huntsman and replied, “Creature, hold your tongue. Are you jealous of the court you once called home. …”
Deep in the recesses of her mind, Janet had never stopped tearing desperately at the cruel mind that clutched so eagerly at her soul. And at last she succeeded. Abruptly, there was only a young human girl standing amidst the swirl of oblivious dancing bodies. Then, seeing the Huntsman’s great snarling creatures gathered so closely around her, she screamed.
Only moments before Tad Lockerby had been enjoying himself. Once the mysterious boyfriend had appeared and attached himself to his quarry Lockerby had smiled to himself thinking that apprehending them both would put him solidly in his new employees’ favor.
But once he saw the man leap about by himself on the dance floor, shouting at some fucking ghost, he suspected that he was in for a long night. Then when his client’s daughter started to gesture frantically, pantomiming something incomprehensible, Lockerby shifted into prime work mode even though his backup still hadn’t arrived.
Bolting to his feet he pushed his way into the densely packed crowd. Tad has no idea what was actually going down tonight, but he was absolutely certain that his immediate job was to get Ms. Ravenscroft safely out of this place as quickly as possible.
Then, over the roar of the music he heard Janet scream and he bellowed at the people in front of him, “Out of my way. Now!”
Roughly pushing a still oblivious couple out of his, he grabbed his client’s daughter and attempted to shield her with his body from whatever she was screaming at. Immediately there was a sharp, tearing pain in Tad’s right leg, making it collapse under him. He hit the floor, hard. Momentarily dazed, Tad rolled away from his assailant and desperately struggled to pull his gun from its shoulder harness.
“Fuck! I should have done this before I even got out here…”
Sweat burned Tad’s eyes as he tried to locate the assailant through the tangle of legs and shoes and Doc Marten’s that surrounded him.
But there was no assailant to be seen.
“What the hell… has to be that dude Thomas… who else?”
Gripping his gun firmly with both hands, he drew down on the client’s boyfriend, who was now just a short distance away. But before he could squeeze off a shot, invisible jaws, filled with impossibly sharp teeth ripped away his arm. And whatever his tormentor was, it coughed once, spitting his gun out onto the floor.
As the guard’s body went into shock Tad collapsed in a pool of his own blood gathering around his crumpled body splayed out on the floor.
Looking up, the last thing Tad Lockerby saw before he died was a shadowy, leather-clad form towering above him with a satisfied smile curling across its lips.
Behind the bar, Charlotte noticed when the burly stranger lurched away from his seat, shoved into the crowd and then abruptly fell to the floor. She was pretty sure she’d seen him pull a gun before the excited crowd had blocked her view. Lottie didn’t know what was going on, but damned if she was going to let something awful happen in her bar tonight or any other. Pushing past her father and out from behind the bar, she headed straight for her friend.