Caitlin Brady walked out of the Manchester, New Hampshire hospital, her nurse’s scrubs in the bag slung over her shoulder and her daughter Fiona’s small hand in hers. The four-year-old girl was skipping and humming a happy tune. She was always like this after a visit with Eddy. Caitlin completely understood. He’d always made her feel better, too. In fact, without him, she wasn’t sure how she would’ve made it these last few years.
Kris’s car pulled up in front of them, and the willowy young woman got out with a smile.
Fiona struggled with the back door for a moment before Caitlin opened it for her and the little girl climbed up on the seat.
“Thanks again,” Caitlin said to Kris. “I know it’s short notice.”
“No problem,” Kris said, smiling. “You go out and have a good time. You could use it. We’re going to have a night with everyone’s favorite pixie.”
Fiona cheered as she settled into the child seat.
Caitlin leaned in and buckled up Fiona. As she did, it struck her again just how much her daughter took after her. They both had the same curly, fiery red hair, unmanageable, to be honest. The same green eyes, though Fiona didn’t have the matching set of luggage under hers. They were both light skinned and liberally dosed with freckles, though Fiona, like all children, pulled off the look better. Caitlin silently hoped that Fiona wouldn’t also inherent the extra twenty pounds Caitlin carried around, or that she’d at least be tall enough for it not to be as obvious; Caitlin was several inches shorter than every other woman she knew. If she just worked less and slept more, she knew it would make a world of difference, but she had more important things in her life than sleep.
Caitlin ran her hand down Fiona’s cheek and let out a breath. “You behave for Kris, okay, peanut?”
“I will, Mommy.” Fiona’s green eyes lit up. “I love you.”
Caitlin felt a twinge at the words and smiled; even that matched her daughter’s. “I love you, too. Now give me a kiss.” She leaned down, got her kiss, and gave one back before closing the car door with a sigh.
She waved and tried to ignore the pang of guilt as the car pulled away. Eddy was probably right. No, he was always right, and it was annoying as hell.
After a minute or two, she convinced herself it was okay to go to the art show. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath of the crisp autumn air. When she exhaled, she found the guilt assuaged enough that she could probably do an hour or two with the girls. Baby steps, right?
Emerging from the parking garage stairwell, she pulled her keys from her purse and pointed the fob at her car. A sudden, overwhelming chill of dread and hopelessness washed over her. It stopped her so abruptly that she nearly fell on her face.
Caitlin could sense someone behind her, watching her. She could almost feel cold breath on her neck.
She stood there, frozen in place. The only sound was her shallow breathing. She struggled to move her legs, but fear had them cemented in place.
“Come on, Caitlin,” she whispered. “Just remember the self-defense class.” For the first time she could remember, she was glad Fiona wasn’t with her.
Hands still shaking, she gripped her keys so that they protruded from between her knuckles. Then she sucked in a breath and turned to confront whoever it was, spiked fist at the ready.
An empty lot stared back at her.
She blinked and looked around, knowing that she should be relieved, or at least feeling silly, but she wasn’t. Her heart still pounded, and a cold fist still held her stomach in a death grip.
The garage looked empty, but she knew it wasn’t. More disconcertingly, she couldn’t explain how she knew. When she saw the shadows at the far wall, her stomach lurched and her breath came up short.
She inhaled, then exhaled. It was a patch of darkness, that was all. She could see the wall through it. Nothing was hiding in the shadows. Nevertheless, she knew with absolute certainty that something, or someone, was staring back at her. A primal and desperate need to flee seized her and returned life to her legs. She bolted for her car, fell into the driver’s seat, then slammed and locked the door.
Fumbling with the keys, she stabbed at the ignition. “Come on, damn it!”
Finally, the key went in. She turned it, and thank God, the motor came to life. The sound of the engine evaporated the terror and dread. She let out a breath and leaned her head against the steering wheel as her body slowly stopped shaking. When it had, she started laughing.
She lifted her head and looked at her reflection in the rearview mirror. “You’re losing it, girl.”
In the mirror, she saw the shadows again. The cold and empty feelings returned.
She backed the car out, shifted into drive, and sped out of the garage, almost certain that she heard laughter buried under the squealing of her tires.
There’s comfort in lit spaces filled with other people, even if they’re strangers, which is why Caitlin still went to the art show that evening. That, and going home would be admitting her brief lapse of sanity in the garage hadn’t been a delusion.
Also, a beer sounded absolutely divine just then.
The shaking in her hands was fading as she walked into the warehouse turned art gallery. The space retained much of its industrial history; the walls were exposed brick and the ceiling was all ventilation ducts. Scattered about the space were several temporary walls, on which hung various paintings and photographs. Caitlin’s friends stood around a small, high table, waving her over.
As Caitlin approached, Casey motioned to a pint glass of brown ale. “I ordered you a—”
Caitlin lifted the glass and downed half of it in a series of large gulps. The cold beer poured down her throat and smoothed over the last of her frayed nerves. She set the glass down, sucked in a lungful of air, and closed her eyes. When she opened them, her friends were staring at her.
“Uh, rough day?” Janet asked.
“Just some neuroses and hallucinations.”
“What?” Casey asked.
“You sound like Eddy,” Janet said with a smile.
Caitlin waved her hand. “I’m fine.”
The friends left the table and wandered around, examining the various pieces of art on display and making small talk. Caitlin was only half listening to them. The show was Celtic themed, so every piece stirred memories of Ireland and James.
As she forced her eyes away from a black-and-white photo of the Dingle coastline at sunset, she noticed something out of the corner of her eye. A tall, slender couple in their early twenties stood several feet away, examining a painting. They were both blond, tan, and so put together it looked as if they had a staff that did nothing else. Aside from that, they looked normal, but just moments before, she could’ve sworn they’d been looking at her and that their eyes had been, well, glowing.
She took another drink of her beer and brushed the incident off. Until it happened again, this time with a teenage girl, who was clearly the creator of a large painting, and then a third time with a large and ugly man who looked as though he might live under a bridge and harass young goats as they tried to cross. An old saying came to mind; if one person calls you a duck, you ignore it; if two people call you a duck, you begin to wonder; if three people call you a duck, you’re quacking.
The door to the gallery opened. Caitlin glanced over as a man who had to be at least six foot four stood in the doorway, guitar case in hand. Powerful, working-man muscles strained his black shirt. His long, copper red hair was pulled into a ponytail. He wore old work boots and a hand-folded olive green kilt, held in place with only a belt. Instead of a sporran, an old leather pouch sat on his hip. At the bottom front of the kilt was a pin so battered Caitlin couldn’t make out the design.
Caitlin started to look away, but her gaze locked on his face. Not because he was handsome, though he was in a classic sort of way. No, it was the two wicked scars that crossed his face. One ran from just above his left eyebrow, over his eye, and down to his chin. The second went from his mouth, across his face, and bisected the first, leaving lines of bare skin in what seemed to be several days of scruffy growth. She knew scars like that came from either serious injuries, poor treatment, or both. In his case, she leaned toward option C.
Before she could look away, he met her gaze. His face drained of color, and she thought his electric blue eyes went wide for an instant before he took half a step backwards. Caitlin looked away but could feel him still staring at her.
She looked back and opened her mouth—
“Brendan!” someone shouted.
He and Caitlin both saw one of the musicians on the makeshift stage waving at him. Brendan shook his head as though trying to clear it, nodded, and started to look back at Caitlin, but he stopped short instead and walked over to the stage.
Caitlin watched him for a moment before lifting her glass and taking a couple large gulps.
“Testing. One, two, three,” Brendan said with a heavy brogue into the microphone. No sound came from the speakers. “Riley, is it any use back there?”
“You going to be okay?” Sharon asked from behind Caitlin’s shoulder.
It wasn’t just the accent. Even the timbre of his voice was like James’s. Caitlin nodded to answer Sharon’s question and closed her eyes as unwanted memories broke through.
James had been charming, romantic, and handsome: not the kind of man who usually went for her. His attentions had made her trip to Ireland seem like a dream. In retrospect, she knew that she’d been naïve, but she’d been fresh out of college then. It had taken four days for him to wear her down and get her into his bed. It’d been sweet and tender, everything she’d hoped and more. The next morning, he was gone. Only his backpack and guitar had been left behind, and no one in town had seemed to know anything about him. Eddy said she’d never found closure, and now, five years later, she only really thought about him on Fiona’s birthday. But then, he was Fiona’s father.
“The microphone isn’t on, Brendan,” Riley shouted from behind the bar, and when he turned his head just right, the tips of his ears looked pointed. Caitlin blinked as Riley looked away and the illusion was gone. Must’ve just been the lighting.
Caitlin shifted her attention back to the stage as one of the other musicians switched on the microphone and said something to Brendan while pointing to the amp.
Brendan looked at it as if it were some sort of alien technology.
A guitar strum sounded through the speakers. “Aye, this better, then?” Brendan asked.
The bartender gave a thumbs-up.
“Right, then. How about a pint of plain, if you please?” Brendan cleared his throat.
Caitlin drank the last of her beer as Brendan leaned forward again and spoke into the mic.
“Well, as you might’ve guessed, we’ll be playing for you tonight. If there’s something you’d like to hear, just let us know.”
He turned to the others on stage, and they started a nice pub song. The band was good, but Brendan was exceptional. Caitlin just watched and listened, until he started to sing “The Fields of Athenry.” She found herself being drawn in by the emotion and power of his voice.
Caitlin could picture the scene. Ireland, 1847, and a young woman, ravaged to nothing but skin and bones by the famine. Leaning against a stone wall, she spoke to her love, imprisoned on the other side for stealing food to keep their children alive. Every word Brendan sang was a brush painting emotions in Caitlin’s heart. She could feel the lamenting sadness and pain as the man was led to the ship bound for Australia. The young woman’s heart broke, and Caitlin’s broke for her.
Caitlin opened her eyes, unaware of when she’d closed them, and shook herself from the daze. She looked up at Brendan; his eyes were wet, and he stared off into space as his fingers made the guitar sing. He looked almost, well, wistful was the only word for it. If she hadn’t known it impossible, she’d swear he was singing his own story.
As she glanced around the room, her mouth went slack. The entire place was watching him. Every single person, including the staff, was staring in rapt silence. No one was moving. No one was talking. As the last note faded, her hands began to shake again.
There was a long and heavy moment of silence before abruptly, as if someone pressed the play button, life returned to the room. People applauded, or returned to their earlier conversations, and no one seemed the wiser.
“Thanks.” Brendan looked around the room. His eyes found Caitlin’s and held them for a split second. He looked like he wanted to say something, but instead he turned away. “Bit of an emotional one, I know. I think for the next, maybe something a wee bit easier on the heart.”
The band began an instrumental, Brendan staring intently at his guitar strings.
“Caitlin? Are you okay?” Casey asked.
Caitlin struggled to find words as her friends shared a concerned look.
“Why don’t we sit down?” Janet said.
They led Caitlin back to the small table and resumed their idle chatter while keeping a watchful eye on her. She struggled to put the weird happenings aside or explain them away, but soon it all combined with the beer, the music, and exhaustion from too many sleepless nights. She reached her limit.
“I need to go.”
Her friends looked at her, then over her shoulder at Brendan.
Casey put her hand over Caitlin’s. “Go home, kiss Fiona goodnight, and get some sleep.”
“Thanks, I’ll make it up to you, I promise.” Caitlin hugged each of her friends and made for the door.
Outside the air was brisk and, after the events of the night, she could describe it only as delightfully real. She breathed it in and leaned against the wall. Once calm, she headed to her car. As she rounded the corner, she fished out her keys and was about to unlock her car with the fob when fear hit her like a sledgehammer and it felt like her heart went into ventricular fibrillation.
This was the same feeling she’d had in the parking garage, only now it was amplified. This wasn’t a normal, everyday fear that she could push aside. This was a soul-freezing, primordial dread that spoke to an ancient part of her psyche, a part born from staring into the darkness and knowing that in its depths there are creatures born of nightmares.
“It’s not safe for a pretty girl to be out this late all by herself,” a soft, melodic voice said from behind her.
The voice was beautiful, almost hypnotic, but very, very cold. Gooseflesh erupted over Caitlin’s entire body, and every instinct told her to run. Instead, she closed her eyes and let her logical, rational mind wrestle the panicked, screaming part into submission. Her heartbeat slowed to something slightly less than a scared hummingbird’s and her muscles eased their tension, reluctantly giving control back to her.
She shifted her keys into the spiked fist configuration again. “Well, I’m just about to my car, so …” She let the sentence trail off as she started walking away.
Laughter erupted from behind her, and it hit like a physical blow. It wasn’t jovial or even a forced chuckle. It was a derisive, mocking laugh. It made her think of kids at recess encircling some poor outcast, everyone pointing and jeering.
Then the laughter wasn’t just behind her. It came from the shadows ahead of her, too.
Her heart dropped and her body tensed.
“You’re not going anywhere,” the voice behind her said.
The knot in her stomach began to tighten, but she thought of Fiona and her resolve hardened. She clenched her jaw and turned, ready to fight.
“Leav—” Caitlin stopped when she saw who’d been speaking to her.
An eerily beautiful boy, perhaps thirteen, looked at her with more confidence than anyone that young should have. His skin was white—not just pale, but unreal, alabaster white. His hair was sheer black, as were his clothes and fingernails, and he must’ve been wearing some kind of special contact lenses, because his eyes were all black, no whites at all. He was thin and not much over five feet tall, just about her height.
He smiled, showing his teeth. Every single one, upper and lower, came to a sharp point.
Caitlin felt the blood drain from her face and her heart skipped a beat.
The boy’s eyes narrowed and he looked at her for a moment before he smiled wider. “Boo!”
Caitlin flinched and he laughed again. She could feel his black eyes bore through her. This child exuded evil. She tried to slow her breathing or bring her heart rate back down, but nothing worked. She couldn’t even cry out for help.
“Listen to her heart pound,” purred a voice from behind Caitlin, this one more feminine. “Oh, I think you scared her, dear brother.”
Light footsteps sounded on the concrete as whoever it was drew closer and the screaming part of Caitlin’s brain kicked the rational side to the ground and locked it in a closet.
“Now,” the voice said, this time in her ear. It was soft, almost seductive. “While we’ll enjoy you trying to fight, in the end it will only be worse for you.”
The breath was as icy as the voice it carried was alluring. Soft fingers ran along her neck, sending waves of pleasure through her, and she found herself enthralled by the cold touch and voice.
“But if you just go along with us … ,” the voice cooed, “oh, it will be so much better.”
Caitlin had a flash of all the horrible things that were going to befall her. As desperation set in like a raging river, she found a handhold in steely resolve. She wouldn’t go without a fight, if not for herself, then for her daughter. Her parents had left her at an early age. She wasn’t going to leave Fiona. She gripped the keys in her sweaty fist and spun to see the female counterpart to the Goth boy, clad in Doc Martens, fishnet stockings, and a black dress.
The girl gave her a pouty look. “Uh-oh. She’s mad now.”
Caitlin set her jaw.
“I don’t think she likes us.” The boy laughed and stood next to his sister.
“Get out of my way, right now.” Caitlin began to plan where and how she would strike if it came to that. Part of her hoped it would.
“Tisk, tisk,” the girl said, then gave a disapproving look, a shake of her head, and even a wag of her finger. Black eyes, like her brother’s and just as empty, locked on Caitlin’s, and the girl bared her sharp teeth in something closer to a snarl than a smile. “I tried being nice.”
Caitlin had to swallow before she could find any words. “Don’t, don’t make me repeat myself.” Her muscles went tight, ready to strike.
Both sets of black eyes blinked at her, turned to each other, and looked back to Caitlin.
The girl’s look went back to the haughty sneer. “Well then, if that’s how you’ll have it. Brother, would you like the pleasure?”
The boy moved much quicker than Caitlin expected, but she’d been waiting for something to happen. She punched with all the strength she could muster, and her fist connected hard with the boy’s neck, the metal keys sinking into his white flesh.
His eyes went wide as he staggered back a step.
When she pulled her hand back, it was coated with a cold, black sludge.
“That hurt, you bitch,” the boy said through gritted teeth. He licked the pad of his thumb and dragged it over the wound. When he was done, the punctures were gone.
Caitlin’s brain locked up trying to process what she’d just seen.
The boy rotated his neck as if stretching it, causing it to crack a few times before he leveled his gaze at Caitlin. “Just for that, I’m going to take you slow.” He bared his teeth and drew back.
“That’s a skawly idea there, Tinker Bell,” said a familiar voice at the corner.
Caitlin turned. James? No, it couldn’t be.
Brendan stepped out of the shadows and folded his arms over his broad chest. “Best you and that oíche-bitch let the cailín go on her way.”
“Mind your own—” The girl stopped midsentence when she saw Brendan. Her eyes moved from his scarred face to his kilt pin. “The Fian!”
The boy’s mouth turned up into a wicked grin. “Oh, I could go for a piece of that as well.” He held his arms out, extended his fingers, and his nails grew to sharp claws.
“I’m about to lose me head here, bucko.” Brendan smiled. “And if I do, then you’ll be losing yours. Let her go. Mind, if I have to be asking again, I won’t be nearly so polite about it.”
“He’s mine!” the girl said, then leapt at Brendan.
Brendan drew a large, curved knife out from behind his back. It glittered in the streetlight as he stepped to one side and slashed.
If Caitlin had blinked, she would’ve missed it. The blade cut across the girl as she flew past, and when she fell to the ground, shrieking in pain, Caitlin could see what looked like thick black smoke filled with tiny motes of light wafting away from the wound.
Caitlin’s mouth opened, but the boy went for her again. She punched with the keys, this time hitting his face and one eye.
He grunted in what sounded more like annoyance than pain.
She kicked his groin, but he didn’t crumple. He just grunted and sucked in a breath.
She swallowed hard and stumbled as she tried to back away.
“You’re starting to piss me off, a bhitseach dhaonna!” The boy glared at her with one good eye as black fluid poured down his cheek. He rubbed his injured eye, and when his hand came away, his eye was whole once more. A streak of black across his face was the only evidence of her punch.
Reason stopped banging on the door and decided it was nicer in the closet. “What are you?” Caitlin asked.
The boy lunged again.
Caitlin punched, but he caught her fist in one hand and took her by the throat with the other, lifting her off the ground as if she weighed nothing at all.
Caitlin clawed with her free hand at the vise of flesh and bone squeezing the life out of her. Her back slammed into a wall, hard, her head bouncing off brick. Her vision began to spin and fade to blackness as she tried to draw in a breath that wouldn’t come.
No, please, God.
“Mind yourself!” Brendan shouted, but it sounded far away, or like it was underwater.
The hand came loose and Caitlin fell to the ground. Cool air rushed into her lungs as her vision, though still blurred, opened back up. Sharp pain lanced through her head as she gulped air and struggled for any kind of coherent thought, but each just slipped away.
Brendan crouched down and lifted Caitlin’s face by her chin so he could look her in the eyes. “You all right there, love?”
He glanced over, and Caitlin followed his eyes. The girl was gripping her side and grunting as she struggled to her feet, the black smoke still seeping from between her fingers. Behind Brendan, Caitlin could see the boy clear on the other side of the street, also getting to his feet.
“Are you all right?” Brendan asked again.
“I, I think so.” She put a hand to her head and kept blinking, waiting for this all to make some kind of sense. “What’s going—” She stopped.
“What?” Brendan asked.
“Go, Brother!” the girl shouted through clenched teeth.
“No, you don’t!” Brendan spun in his crouch and threw his knife at the boy. It turned end over end as it sped to its target, the blade flashing in the streetlight.
The boy jumped several feet up to grab an overhang, swung himself up into the air, and landed on the roof of a ten-story building.
The knife passed where the boy had just been and stuck in the bricks.
Caitlin stared, openmouthed, hoping that any moment she’d wake up.
The boy turned and ran, vanishing into the darkness, his laughter fading behind him.
“You fecking coward!” Brendan screamed.
Caitlin’s heart was trying to escape her chest, then her vision snapped into clarity as she saw the girl charging Brendan. The warning moved up her throat, but she knew she couldn’t say it in time.
With one hand, Brendan snatched the girl out of the air like a lobbed softball and, with a grunt of effort, drove her into the wall. The girl’s skull made a cracking sound as it hit the bricks.
Caitlin gasped and reflexively turned away, eyes closed tight. She covered her ears with shaking hands, desperate to deflect the sounds of the girl’s struggle. A nightmare, this had to be a nightmare. Nothing this bad could be real. It had to be bits from a horror movie she’d seen as a kid that her subconscious had dredged up and formed into this.
The girl screamed in pain. Caitlin pressed her hands harder against her ears, but the shriek pierced into her brain. She wanted to scream, or vomit, but instead she chanced a glance and saw the girl pinned to the wall by a knife in her shoulder. Darkness, not smoke, Caitlin realized, poured from the wound, and again tiny white lights danced in it. She jerked back around, closing her eyes and bending near double to shield herself from this horrific scene. Why was no one coming? Someone had to have heard all this. Where the hell were the cops?
Brendan said something, but Caitlin couldn’t hear it over the wailing. The girl screamed back in that glass-shattering shriek, and while Caitlin couldn’t understand the language, there was something familiar about it.
There was the sound of metal against stone, followed by another scream. Caitlin heard the unmistakable sound of splintering bone, and the girl’s voice became a pathetic gurgling sound.
Caitlin pressed her head against the brick wall beside her and drew in deep breaths to try and keep the sudden dizziness at bay. This wasn’t like the things she’d seen at the hospital. That was always after the fact, always insulated from the actual violence. She’d never been in the midst of it. Now she was drowning in it.
The gurgling finally stopped, and the sudden silence was overwhelming. Caitlin turned and opened her eyes in time to see the girl disappear into a cloud of darkness sprinkled with lights. In moments, the cloud had dissipated, leaving only a knife handle sticking out of the wall.
Brendan knelt down beside Caitlin. “You still with me, Áin—” His breath caught in his throat. “Uh, love? Did they hurt you?” He looked at her arms and face, his gentle hands moving over her neck and shoulders.
Caitlin’s mind was grasping for anything that even resembled normal, but she couldn’t find it. She still felt dizzy, and nothing seemed to hold in her mind, until finally, a single thought rose to the surface of the maelstrom when she looked at the knife still in the wall. She kicked at Brendan. “Get away from me!”
He stumbled back and stared at her.
“I don’t know what, who you are, but just stay back.” She began inching away from him.
He raised his hands and his eyes looked sad. “I’m not going to hurt you, love. If I wanted that, I wouldn’t have stepped in, now, would I?”
He kept talking but Caitlin didn’t hear it. She tried to speak, but nothing would come out. Tightness in her chest made it hard to breathe, and things started to go black again.
“Don’t lock up on me,” Brendan said. “Come on back, love. It’s over. You’re safe now. They’re gone.”
“You—” She stopped, and looked from Brendan to the knife buried in the wall. With a great deal of effort, she pointed a shaking hand at the blade. “You killed—”
Brendan made a pained expression, but it was gone in an instant. “Breathe. You’ve got to breathe.” His eyes seemed to radiate something that was oddly comforting, but the streetlights cast shadows over his face that made his scars more prominent, almost feral.
“I, what just happened?” The logical voice in her head was now out of the closet and ranting.
“I’m sorry? What?”
“Faeries? The sidhe, fair folk?” He glanced over his shoulder. “Though the oíche aren’t what I’d call fair.”
“No, that’s not possible.” She shook her head and started laughing. “No, there’s no such thing as faeries.”
“I think they’d beg to differ with you on that, love.” He stood and offered her his hand. “Come on now, up with you.”
She stared into his eyes and somehow knew he was telling the truth. Her floundering mind seized on this ridiculous explanation as a refuge from the unexplainable events.
“Faeries?” She thought of all the stories her grandmother had told her, but the faeries in those stories were nothing like these. No. Faeries don’t dress like Hot Topic refugees. They dance in mushroom circles or drink the bowl of cream left out for them.
This was all too much. Caitlin had to get home, back to the sanity of her life. She looked around. “Damn it, where are they?”
“Where are what?”
Her eyes darted to a glint in the streetlight. She grabbed the keys and got to her feet.
“Would you wait a bleeding minute?”
Caitlin got to her feet and shoved Brendan aside. “Just stay away from me.” She moved on shaky legs to her car. “I have to get home.”
Brendan followed her. “I can help.”
Caitlin unlocked her car, opened the door, and got in. She paused when she saw Brendan, then forgot to shut the door. She tried to put her key in the ignition, but her hands were shaking so badly she dropped them. Brendan bent to pick them up for her, but she got to them first.
“I—thank you, but—” She closed the door as she jammed the key into the ignition and turned the engine over.
“Wait, you should ride with me. You’re in no shape to drive, and me truck is just—”
Caitlin put the car in gear, stepped on the gas, and sped away from the curb, leaving Brendan with nothing but the smell of burned rubber.