Jacobian Peredhil eyed his companion across the fire. The flames licked the darkness and danced around the elf’s face, a perfect oval with large green eyes in flawless symmetry. Jack felt almost obliged to resent the elf’s beauty, but found himself lacking the desire to spend his energy so.
Jack himself was only half-elf, and even worse, both his parents had been half-breeds. His ears pointed only slightly, but enough to betray his heritage. He was athletic, but lacked the weightless grace of his companion. Yet he never saw himself as lesser than, or in any way flawed. He never really resented or disliked elves any more than he resented humans.
He was both in equal quantities, after all.
But he still felt as if he should resent Tahlyn on general principle, simply because he was Too Perfect. And this had nothing to do with the fact that the elf was garnering the most attention at the gathering. A waifish little faerie danced her way towards Tahlyn and giggled. She leaned towards him, the ribbons of her dress brushing his arm. He reached up to touch her face, smiling. He spoke to her in elvish, a language that was as familiar to Jack as the common tongue.
He didn’t care to listen to their exchange. Yet, all through the evening, despite the dancing faeries all around them, Jack had done little but stare at Tahlyn. The music of their impromptu hosts sounded distant, filtered through wet cloth. A girlish giggle, light and tinny, echoed somewhere to his right. He turned his head, glad for an excuse to look away from the elf but disconcerted to find nothing but a fleeting shadow.
“What is it?” Tahlyn asked.
“You don’t hear that?” Jack asked. So much for the superior senses of the elves.
“Hear what in particular? The music, the singing, the laughter? The wind? It’s a party, Jack, enjoy it.”
So the insufferableness of elves proves true. Jack let out a soft grunt of disapproval and silenced himself with a sip of his drink. It was honeyed wine, with an unusual hint of something Jack could not put his finger on. It left a spicy sort of aftertaste on his tongue, making it tingle. Faerie hooch, no doubt. Yet Jack was not intoxicated.
Except he still felt it was odd to pull laughter from thin air. Determined not to stare at Tahlyn any longer, Jack turned away and watched the dancing fae. The small creatures twirled around the fire, noticed his eyes on them and blew him kisses, both the males and the females.
Flirty bastards, Jack thought. He and Tahlyn had been looking for a place to camp for the night and had stumbled across the ongoing feast. The fact that they had even seen the faeries did not seem to bother Tahlyn, but it mystified Jack. The fair folk did not show themselves to just anybody anymore, not even the elves. But Tahlyn was pretty old, maybe he didn’t realize change had been in the air for a while now.
A little dancing girl-fae sauntered and spun toward Jack in a combination of movements that should have seemed comical but instead gave Jack a vague nervous chill. The girl was all joints and jerking strings, her steps spastic and oddly coordinated. She reached Jack’s side and collapsed on his lap like a pile of ancient bones. It startled a sharp intake of breath into Jack.
He felt suddenly nauseous.
The girl-fae giggled, voice like a rusty xylophone. “Hello, Jacobian,” she said. He didn’t remember giving any of them his birth name.
“Hi,” he said, forcing a noncommittal smile.
“Dance with me,” she said, lips peeling back from yellow teeth in a full-faced grin. Her eyes spun back in their sockets like greased marbles. Jack gasped, jumping to his feet, dropping her by the fire.
Tahlyn looked like he wanted to stand, but the other faerie girl was still sprawled bonelessly on his lap. Maybe she was the other half missing from the knobby mess at Jack’s feet. “Jack, what do you think you’re doing?” Tahlyn demanded.
Jack struggled to find words. A dozen or so pairs of faerie eyes stared at him, waiting. Tahlyn’s green eyes burned with twin reflected flames, red with anger. “You insult our hosts,” Tahlyn said. The girl on his lap looked vapidly at Jack, batting lifeless eyelashes over dull eyes.
“Our hosts?” Jack finally muttered. Then, forcing strength into his voice, he continued. “Are these the fair folk of all our tales? Or are we being deceived?”
Tahlyn snarled. The firelight bounced off his perfect teeth, though perhaps it was just a trick of the light that made his canines look like elongated fangs. “You will apologise right now, Jack Halfelven.” He finally evicted the girl from his lap and stood. “While you travel in my company, your actions reflect upon my honour.”
“Don’t you see it?” Jack insisted, unable to look at the bone girl on the ground. Perhaps she was no more; perhaps she had never been but in his mind. But he couldn’t bring himself to put the question to the test.
“See what? How you treat those of greater stature?”
“Go to hell,” Jack snapped, and turned away from the elf. He couldn’t believe how he’d misjudged the ranger, thinking him reasonable, not as stuck up as others of his race. But an elf will always be an elf, won’t he?
The forest was a wall of black beyond the small clearing, but Jack began to stomp away from Tahlyn regardless, ignoring the watching eyes. It had been a mistake to travel with the ranger, no matter how skilled he was. Jack, city boy as he may have been, had always managed to pull an ace from his sleeve before; there’s no reason why he couldn’t take care of himself now.
“Yes, run away, Jack, it’s what you do best,” Tahlyn snarled from behind him, his voice raw and suddenly very feral. But Jack had no desire to entertain his twisting fancy tonight; he continued to walk, pushed his way through the group of puzzled faeries and on through the treeline at the end of the clearing. He continued to walk even as he still heard the hollow clapping of bone against bone, the rattle of eyes loose in their skull.
“Is that the best you can do?” he wondered aloud, not sounding half as nonchalant as he wanted to.
The presence giggled in the breeze and without thinking about it, Jack turned towards it source. Nothing but the movement of leaves showed itself to him and even that faded almost before he noticed it. He spat out one of the few draconian curses in his repertoire and turned away from the disturbance.
“So nice of you to rejoin us,” said Tahlyn, lifting up a cup of wine. Jack was once again in the clearing, suddenly, without warning. One moment he’d been heading back towards the road they’d abandoned not long ago, and the next it was like nothing had happened.
Except Tahlyn’s eyes had gone from hunter green to sunlight yellow, and the grin he greeted Jack with was positively wolfish. The faeries detached themselves from him and circled Jack. They began to dance, their hands above their heads and their feet barely touching the ground.
“Wasn’t my idea,” Jack said, but his gaze was on their feet. They weren’t barely touching the ground, no, they were not touching the ground at all. Their skirts and ribbons billowed in the air as they spun, their dance not unlike that of the bone girl. As they began to approach him he stepped backwards, but the circle was drawing tighter all around him. “Tahlyn,” he said, turning around in a circle to try and find an opening. The twisted fae stared at him with undisguised bulbous eyes, spheres that dominated their shrivelled faces.
“He doesn’t want to dance,” one of them said, the sudden addition of speech to the music making Jack turn towards it in spite of himself. Yet he couldn’t see which one had spoken.
“But he must dance,” another replied, and Jack turned again, but couldn’t catch the speaker in the act.
“His friend wants to dance.”
Jack tried to find Tahlyn but the circle was drawing ever tighter, and where there’d once been only twelve or so beings, a good half dozen more stood there, blocking his view with their diaphanous bodies. “Tahlyn?” Jack insisted, but got no response.
Then, a growl, behind him yet all over, was echoing where there’d been no reverberation at all.
“First, dinner. Then we dance!” The bone girl laughed, throwing her head back. Behind her, a dark hulking shape grew out of seemingly nothing, dark fur bristling in the firelight.
Jack stepped back, but bony fingers held him tight. The flesh behind him was spongelike, but strong enough to hold him while the beast moved closer, bypassing the bone girl and heading towards the tightening cluster of fae. Jack remembered the wine, the strange taste of it which still lingered in his mouth. Tahlyn wasn’t intoxicated, or at least, Jack always assumed he couldn’t become so. He remembered the fanglike teeth and saw them again, dripping saliva as they rushed towards him.
He could still hear the bone girl laughing as the giant wolf’s teeth sank into his neck.