***Trigger Warning: This story mentions the idea of suicide. If you are uncomfortable with this for any reason, please do not read it. Thank you.***
“Iron and Salt”
By Rose J. Fairchild
The sign read, “Volunteers Needed! Do you want to make a difference for the entire Fae race? Notify your commander and be part of this amazing opportunity today!”
Espero read the sign and snorted. Aware that things like this cropped up when some poor grunt was needed to do dirty work no one else wanted to, he typically did not give them a second thought. His mind raced as he read the notice a second time.
They’re awful scarce with the details, he thought, but my gut is telling me I should do it. The question is, why? I’m a warrior—a solider—and damn good at it! As a centaur, battle is bred into my veins and I’ve surpassed all others in wit and brutality. Why should I walk away from that?
But…maybe this would be something new and I could make a difference without cutting down enemies. War and assassination have paid the bills for ages, but perhaps it is time for a change. Besides, when I fight, I know I will win, and where is the excitement in that?
Scratching his chin pensively, he cursed and called lightheartedly, “Oh, General Onorren!” He swaggered through the barracks and out into camp in search of him. When he found him, the general was less than pleased. Despite their size difference, the Chupacabra practically dragged Espero to his office.
The door slammed behind them and General Onorren’s lips exposed long fangs as he snarled, “You’re one of my best soldiers and you expect me to just turn you over to the Queen as some plaything?”
Espero shrugged, “The sign says they need volunteers. I’m volunteering.”
Onorren’s lean, muscled stature and sharp snout were characteristic of the Chupacabras. But his affinity for cruelty was more extreme than others of his race. Normally the only blood they shed was what they drank. Onorren preferred the earth to be paved with it; able to bathe in sanguine glory wherever he went. Normally Espero was only too happy to oblige. But today, he wanted something different and refused to back down, afraid the desire and opportunity would pass him by. Crossing his arms, he stared down at the tiny general who blustered on about Espero’s loss of sense and motivation as the words flew in one ear and out the other. When he finally paused to breathe, Espero retorted, “Finished?”
General Onorren cursed under his breath and called, “Juniper! In here, now!”. The Spriggan burst through the door and brought twiggy fingers to gnarled, leafy brow in a salute. Onorren barked, “I’m leaving on official business. You are in charge. Make sure everyone runs their drills, and don’t screw up!” Juniper saluted again as Onorren shoved past him and stormed out the door. Espero shrugged at the Spriggan and followed his general into the sunlight.
Outside, the general whistled for a ride, and a horse with an earthen body crowned with a mane of knotted grass and vines trotted gracefully to them with head held high. It regarded Espero with a look of camaraderie. He tilted his head a fraction and said, “It’s nice to meet you, too.” The horse tossed its head in reply as General Onorren scowled at him. The Chupacabra leapt onto its earthen back and snarled, “To the palace, horse.” It high-stepped and danced eagerly, flipping a flowered tail to and fro.
Onorren’s eyes bored into Espero as he bit out, “You’ll obviously have to travel on foot, and you better keep up.”
He nudged his horse into a canter, and Espero grinned as his well-trained muscular legs ate up the ground between him and the earth horse. Freedom, he thought, as he savored the feel of the air whipping by him. He and the horse ran side by side the entire distance; the horse occasionally making playful nips and dodges at him.
He chuckled, “I like you, horse! You don’t take life too seriously the way war horses do.” It gave a soft snort of approval and he laughed again.
Too soon they arrived at the palace gates and were escorted inside. The Unseelie Queen, Lonomia, sat upon her woven throne of thorns regarding them with oil-slick eyes that seemed to swallow every drop of light in the room.
As they approached her throne, Onorren swept into a low bow. Espero cringed as the general’s voice came out low and groveling. “Your Majesty, I have brought you a fine specimen to volunteer for your special project. He has proven himself time and again in battle, as well as being strong, resilient, and clever.”
Face still low to the floor, Onorren straightened quickly when the Queen’s smoky voice snarked, “You may rise. But tell me, General, why does your volunteer not bend the knee? Does he not serve the Unseelie court?”
Turning his glare on Espero, Onorren said, “He can occasionally be a bit headstrong.”
Espero shrugged and felt his legs buckle as the backs of his knees were hit by one of the spear-wielding minotaur guards. He dropped heavily to the floor, knees crunching when they hit stone. The minotaur chuckled as Espero cursed under his breath. I should have seen that one coming, he chided himself.
Rising, the Queen reached a black-clawed hand back toward her throne. An ink-spot spider the size of a cat crawled out from behind it and skittered up her arm to perch parrot-like on her shoulder. It stared menacingly at Espero as it clacked its fangs together, its carapace shining eerily in the low light.
Lonomia prowled to where Espero had been forced to kneel, her massive grey and white moth wings trailing behind her. Standing over him, grey cheekbones gaunt in the flickering candlelight, she said, “We have ways of dealing with that. I can tell he’s going to be perfect for this assignment.”
Espero’s mind whirled. I might have made the wrong choice today. Maybe I should have stuck with beheadings and evisceration? But…my gut has never steered me wrong before, so I’ll stick with this, I guess. Not like I have a choice right now, anyway.
A sharp jab to his left hindquarter forced him to stand again. He turned and showed his teeth to the guard who had now stabbed him twice. The guard grinned, then faltered as Espero blew him a kiss.
The Queen’s voice echoed through the room, snapping the guard back to attention as she ordered, “Take him to his new room.” She gave Espero a mock salute and sneered, “Thank you for your service, soldier.”
The Minotaur’s spear jabbed Espero whenever he was supposed to turn in the damp, dark hallways. Their foray ended at a large wooden door, which the minotaur stepped forward, unlocked, and waited, spear at the ready in case Espero decided to bolt.
But Espero calmly entered the room and began taking in his surroundings, searching–as he had been trained–for any potential escape routes. His heart sank as he studied the small barred window up near the ceiling he would never fit through. He had seen the thick, reinforced door on the way in, and there were no vents, grates, or noticeable trap doors. He was stuck until they let him out again. It was all he could do to keep from jumping as the heavy door clanged shut behind him.
He checked his bleeding chestnut flanks and found they were not bad enough to worry about. A day or two and it would be as though nothing happened.
A gravelly voice from outside the door said, “The Queen will come speak with you soon.” The minotaur, Espero mused. “Then you’ll learn what you’ve signed on for.” He snickered to himself and Espero rolled his eyes. Really? This guy hasn’t had his fill of torturing me yet?
Unable to bite his tongue Espero said, “Aww, you mean the assignment isn’t to be your new best friend? I thought we hit it off really well!” The minotaur jabbed his spear under the small space at the bottom of the door, eliciting a laugh from Espero.
In one corner of the room laid a large, shabby purple cushion. There was also a small stand with a tin cup and pitcher of water, as well as a bucket–presumably for relieving himself.
Exhausted, he flopped on the stale smelling cushion and dropped off to sleep.
Sometime later, he bolted awake as a soft caress crossed his cheek and he leapt off the cushion. Hissing laughter skittered through the room as his eyes focused on the face of Queen Lonomia. She rose to match his stance, running her eyes over him and her hand down his back and flank. His guts squirmed at her touch.
“Yes, you’ll do just fine.” She returned to his front, lifting her chin to look him in the eyes. “Espero, is it?” He nodded curtly and she continued, laughing, “Oh, you are something different.” He was not sure that was in his favor right now, so he said nothing.
She smirked and steepled her fingers. “You will be the core of a special project to help our kind with their fertility issues. Some of my mages believe they’ve uncovered a way to better our chances of procreating, but I needed someone who could break the mold to carry it out, and I’m certain that’s you.”
Espero still said nothing.
Lonomia grinned openly at him, full of excitement. “As we speak, my mages are preparing your enhancements. Once that is finished, I will give you the full details of your assignment and you will begin your work to help save our kind.”
She left in a flourish of silks, and he could not help but wonder if it was spider silk.
As the Queen had promised, a short while later two Minotaurs showed up outside his room. They looked identical except for the head-to-toe scars covering the new one. They pulled him out of the room by his arms, then prodded him through the halls with their spears. Espero sighed. Either this was a minotaur thing, or the first one had filled the scarred one in on how much fun it was to tenderize him.
After a particularly sharp jab he hissed, “If you don’t stop that, I’m not going to have any skin left back there!”
The Minotaurs guffawed and the scarred one sniped, “That’s going to be the least of your problems.”
He breathed deeply and straightened his spine. Ignorant, sadistic fools. Some members of the Unseelie court were particularly fond of torture, and not just the physical sort.
They ended up in a decidedly empty chamber devoid of any furniture or decorations. Several flickering torches were mounted on the walls, and manacles and chains hung from the center of the room.
Cold unease twisted in his gut as he took in the manacles, but he knew better than to show it thanks to years of battle experience. His muscles relaxed slightly as the snickering fools who had driven him here backed around the corner and out of sight. He breathed a sigh of relief, but the relief was short-lived.
Nine mages strode into the room, hooded cowls drawn so far over their heads their faces were invisible. He stared at nine black holes floating atop assorted gnarled and knobby bodies, and his stomach roiled with cold as he realized they watched him in return. They slowly filed in and arranged themselves around him in a menacing circle, then waited in silence. He cocked his head to the side and clenched his jaw, waiting for their dramatic pause to end.
One mage–a particularly shriveled and gnarled individual who was hunched almost in half–broke away and approached Espero with more swagger than it seemed his mangled body should possess. As he drew closer, Espero caught sight of the twisted face within–skin like the bark of an oak housed a broken mouth and milky eyes.
Espero knew little of magic, yet he was sure this must be the head mage. Magic, as he understood it, had to consume something to create something else. Apparently in this case, it consumed the mage.
The voice that wheezed its way from the twisted creature made his skin crawl as it called, “Guards! Restrain him!” The Minotaurs returned and clamped the manacles on his wrists. He did not fight them though fear crawled over him like fire ants. He had volunteered for this, after all, and hoped what he was about to experience would do some good.
The mage smiled at him, crooked and broken teeth gleaming in the firelight as he hissed, “I like you. I hope you survive this.”
Before he could stop it, Espero’s eyes widened and he felt himself pull at his shackles. But nothing comes without pain in the Unseelie court, and he was about to become a sacrifice to better his race. Hopefully.
Catching himself, he retorted, “Me too. The world would miss my beautiful face too much if I didn’t.”
The mage laughed–a strange, garbled sound as though his throat had collapsed in on itself long ago. “They will anyway.” He turned and made his way back to the other eight mages, completing the circle they had formed around their captive.
Espero allowed the sick, cold feeling in his gut to twist and coil as the mages raised their hands in front of them and began chanting. Every part of him wanted to fight as a molten glow shimmered into existence in the hands of each mage. It umbrellaed over him and his heart hammered against his ribs. He tensed and thought, what have I done?
He sucked in a breath and the mages’ chanting rose in volume as they uttered three sharp words and abruptly stopped. The air was pregnant with tension for a split second of silence, then the dome began to shrink, forming to Espero’s skin and searing every inch of it. A ragged scream tore from his throat as pain consumed him.
Bones shifted, reforming into painful new patterns–forcing him into a shape he had never known. He grasped for reality; tried to understand and analyze what was happening to him, but the heat and pain were too much. At one point, he thought his human head and torso had migrated to the middle of his horse-like back instead of heading it. And, was that another appendage where he used to be? No matter how hard he tried to understand, it quickly came back to agony and screams.
A moment later, drowning in pain, he dove into welcoming blackness.
When he awoke, he was surprised to feel the grit of sand under his face. He was also shocked at how raw and tight his entire body felt–how foreign.
As his eyes focused on the hand resting near his face, his heart sank. Devoid of skin, it looked like a hunk of raw meat some predator had spat out. His gaze traveled back along his arm only to discover it looked the same.
With great effort, he shoved up from the sand as the sibilant whisper of waves caressing beach reached him.
He tried to push himself up and realized he was indeed now in the middle of the horse’s back he used to head, as though he were a permanently fused rider. And in front of him, still resting in the sand, lay a skinned, sharp-toothed, three-eyed horse head.
He studied this new appendage with great interest. The two eyes on the sides of its head were closed, or at least the one he could see was. The third eye–a huge, bulbous red thing–sat in the center of its forehead, open and unblinking. It did not appear to have lids.
He reached forward, flesh pulling tight, and patted its neck gently. “Wake up, horse.” When it did not respond he whispered, “Please?”
Its lids lifted, revealing eyes of abyss-black, which stood in complete contrast to the middle red one. It snorted and swung around to look at him.
“Hey, I guess we’re…sort of–partners now.”
The horse head snorted again and lifted, and Espero found without its dead weight, he was able to push up to a standing position. He winced as his entire body burned and staggered to a small tide pool where he gazed at his reflection in horror.
He raised shaking hands to his face–once strong and handsome–now hideous and gruesome. He had no skin, no lips. Just haunted eyes, a raw, sunken face, and permanently bared teeth like an acid-soaked corpse.
His body consisted of gnarled, naked muscles; veins pulsing purple, blue, and black over them. And the horse head–it seemed to have a mind of its own, but only for itself. Espero still had command over his own original body.
He almost jumped out of his skin (if he had had any to jump out of), as someone spoke behind him. “You’ll get used to it.”
He raised painful eyes to see Queen Lonomia exiting a nearby cave, followed by seven of the mages who had changed him. They looked decidedly more shriveled and knotted than when he had last seen them. Good.
He gestured to the mages. “What happened to the other two?”
Lonomia pursed her lips and said, “They were consumed by the magic used to change you.”
He laughed bitterly. “Well that’s a small blight removed from the world, then.”
Lonomia cocked her head at him, squinting her eyes. “But they will have unleashed something far worse as far as humans are concerned.”
His stomach did that awful twisting thing again.
She clasped her hands together in front of her, clearly delighted. “Now, let me explain your assignment. It is a well-known fact that humans tend to be extremely fertile as a race. With some experimentation, our mages discovered that through consuming human souls, we are infused with increased fertility. However, its effects are temporary, so we need a constant supply of fresh souls.”
He groaned inwardly. I don’t think I’m going to like this….
She rambled on, not noticing his trepidation. “You are charged with harvesting souls. You will live beneath the waves and collect souls in this special flask.” She handed him a small shell-shaped bottle on a cord and slipped it over his head. It burned against his flesh and all he wanted was to rip it off and throw it into the waves.
Seeing the look on his face, she mistook it for concern of a different sort.
“Don’t worry, you’re equipped to breathe underwater now. Or rather, the horse head is. Your new appendage is a Kelpie, and there are gills in its neck. Fortunately, that feeds oxygen to you, too, just as you supply it with air on land.”
It was in that moment he noticed the horse head did not have true nostrils–just thin slits in its gory flesh.
Lonomia looked at him hungrily, “Glorious, no? The mages really made you into something special. We’re calling you Nuckelavee.” She raised her gaze and pointed skyward.
“Every New Moon, you will leave the ocean and enter the cave you just saw us come from. It is a portal to my throne room. There, I will collect the souls from you to be used by the mages, and through your efforts, our race will flourish.”
Espero ground his teeth together, casting about for an escape.
Sensing his intentions, Lonomia narrowed her eyes at him and said, “I will have others of our race watching you. They will keep me updated as to your progress.” His heart sank again. “I look forward to seeing you at the next New Moon, Espero. Happy hunting.” She strode away with a sharp wave of her hand to the mages, who fell in line behind her as she entered the cave.
He raised his eyes as a seagull shrieked above him. Then, making eye contact with the kelpie head, he said, “Well, off we go, then.”
As they waded into the waves, despair and resignation settled over him like a lead blanket.
It’s a funny thing to be attached to a kelpie’s head, he mused. The blasted thing is always hungry and would rather drag me to a bed of kelp than work! Espero retained control over the actual body and won these battles of will, though the victory never came easily. And though it did not speak, Espero’s mind would occasionally receive messages in the form of images–like snapshots of whatever was important to the beast. He tried to reply in kind but was rewarded with some form of acknowledgement only once in a great while.
It was not great company but, in this lonely existence, the kelpie head was better than nothing. He had come to realize it had a distinctly male identity. Thank the gods, he thought on more than one occasion. Espero had always been rather hopeless with females, relying on his strength and looks to get him by. He was still strong, but the good ship “Handsome” had sailed. Hanging with one of the boys was much easier.
Studying the brute one day as it continued its endless pursuit of food he said, “You need a name, horse.” It had been a year after all, and yet it seemed as if they were only passing acquaintances despite inhabiting the same body.
The kelpie’s face swiveled around to gaze at him, that fathomless red eye sifting through his very essence. It blew bubbles at him and turned to snap at a passing clownfish. Unfortunately for the fish, he caught and ate it.
“Well, you do,” he persisted. The kelpie ignored him. “I can’t just call you ‘Horse’ for all eternity!”
Coughing a chunk of fish tail out, the kelpie head urged him toward where it sensed a small shark was hiding. Apparently, it was still hungry.
“Oh, no you don’t! Not until you have a name.” Resting a finger on his chin, he perused his memories and thoughts of the kelpie, searching for something that would capture his personality. “I’m going to call you Aeron.” The kelpie unleashed a squeal.
Clapping his hands together Espero exclaimed, “Right, now let’s go get your main course.”
As Aeron finished his favorite meal, sharing a few bits with Espero, his head whipped skyward and a sharp keening sound burst from his mouth. A human approached.
Time for work.
Espero patted Aeron’s neck and began swimming upward as the red eye on the kelpie’s forehead glowed brightly, guiding him toward the soul he would soon harvest.
They had harvested so many already. Shipwrecks (some caused by the very sight of them), grabbing hapless swimmers, and sometimes they encountered a soul that had been ready to depart anyway.
Today was a day for the latter. Espero could already feel the despair and hopelessness pouring from the wounded soul above him. As they drew closer, the despair remained, but his skin thrummed with the vigor contained in that same fragile body. Whoever it was, they were not truly ready to end their life.
He felt the soul tip off the clifftop and plummet toward the rolling waves and propelled himself toward it, powered by the urgency coursing through him. He watched the water fall away beneath him as he rose to a dizzying height and caught the girl in his arms. He cradled her and used his body to shield hers as they slammed into the surface of the sea.
He was so accustomed to pain that it only took him a moment to recover. Aeron struggled to swim downward, ready to drown the girl as they normally would.
But Espero had other plans. He swam up, breaking into briny air, pulling the girl’s head above water. Aeron gave him a questioning look and Espero shook his head in response. Snorting, the kelpie had no choice but to be dragged along for the ride.
Once on the beach, Espero placed the girl on the sand as far from the water as he dared to go. He also steered clear of the cave entrance. He did not want Lonomia to scent her and come looking.
He studied her, searching for what caused such pain, but found nothing. She could not be more than fourteen years old. What could have made her want to jump like that?
The girl came to a moment later. Upon seeing Espero, instead of screaming as most did, she reached up to touch his face. He pulled back as if she had tried to slap him.
Her voice was soft, pained, and full of concern. “What…happened to you?”
He shrugged, “That’s not important–I’ll always be this way. Let’s talk about you.”
She gazed warily at him through eyes the color of freshly turned earth. Her dark hair fanned around her in the sand, clinging in strands like errant tentacles.
“No,” she replied curtly.
He sighed. “Listen kid, I’m supposed to kill you and steal your soul.” Her eyes widened and a hand flew to her heart. “Letting you die would have made it easy for me. But this…” He sighed heavily. “…this probably won’t.” He paused, thinking, “A piece of you needs to keep living. I can’t steal that away…there’s something in there that burns too hot and bright to be snuffed out.”
Her eyes welled with tears, so he quickly continued, “Now, I don’t know who hurt you or how, but they aren’t worth this. You hear me? You can get through this. I can feel you’re going to be something amazing. Promise me that I didn’t save your life for nothing. Promise me you won’t waste this precious life you’ve been given!”
Nodding as she gently swiped a runaway tear from her cheek, she said, “I promise.”
Espero stood, Aeron still gazing indignantly at him as he helped the girl to stand.
“I’m Naia.” She shook the hand he had pulled her up with, still not bothered by his appearance. Poor girl must be delirious.
He dipped his head. “I’m Espero, and this dopey horse head is called Aeron. We’re kind of cursed to be together for eternity.” He could not help but smile as she giggled in response. He had not heard that sound for a year, his life typically a soundtrack of screams and the eerie silence of drowning.
“Now Naia, I want you to go live your life to the fullest. Have a long, happy life, and stay away from this spot.” She tried to look away, but he gently brought her chin around and met her eyes with his own. He urged, “Okay?”
She nodded, and Espero flinched as she practically jumped on him and hugged his waist. He patted her on the back and after a moment, she turned and left without another word.
A gull called overhead and Espero cursed. His mind raced, and feeling he was being watched elsewhere, too, Espero glanced around until he noticed Aeron’s glowing red eye studied him, the feeling of judgement in that stare overwhelming.
“Shut it, horse. It was just something I had to do.” Aeron tossed his head but seemed to let it drop as they returned to the sea.
After that day it was impossible for Espero to reap souls as he had. Something about that girl and her energy had changed something in him, and he could not break away from this new path.
In the days following, his reaping went something like this:
A man had become caught in the undertow and all but drowned. Espero harvested his soul. He also harvested the soul of a child who had gotten tangled in some underwater debris, though it left a bitter taste in his mouth. “You had a lot more living to do, little one. I’m sorry that happened. And I am sorry to do this to you, ” he mumbled as he opened the flask so it could suck the tiny soul in. He hated to steal such a young life, but there was no saving the wee thing by the time he had gotten there.
Another woman had plunged from the cliffs above, leaving her body broken by the surface tension of the water. Her soul slipped into his shell-shaped flask as her body drifted to the seabed below, an almost willing participant in the harvest.
With her, Espero had not needed to intervene. She had been ready. And when he had reached her, all semblance of life was gone.
And it went like this until the next New Moon when it was time for Espero to face Queen Lonomia. He left the sea, holding the small collection of souls in his hand. Aeron glanced nervously at him as he forced them to take that first step into the cave.
“Sorry, buddy. I hope this doesn’t get us into too much trouble.” Aeron snorted in agreement.
They trudged through the darkness as slithering and skittering things occasionally passed them by. Once, Aeron twisted around to look behind them, ears swiveling to and fro. Espero stopped walking but heard nothing. When Aeron settled, they continued, feet growing heavier with every dreaded step they made.
The passageway eventually opened into Lonomia’s throne room where rich tapestries adorned the walls. Black crystals glittered sharply across the ceiling, kissed by amber firelight that swelled and retreated like the ocean’s waves.
The Queen reclined on her throne with a trembling satyr as her footstool. Plucking an eyeball from a tray in front of her, she sucked it into her mouth, popping it between her teeth like a grape. She gave one to her spider who sank its fangs gleefully into the orb. After licking a hooked claw, she cleared her throat and addressed him with a honeyed tone.
“Espero. How’s the reaping business?”
He shrugged, “Slim pickings these days.”
One corner of her mouth quirked up in a particularly nasty smirk. “That’s not what I hear from Greyback.”
A shrill cry echoed through the throne room as a gull soared in from some unknown corner, shifting into the pale, naked form of a sharp-nosed, small-eared, beady-eyed man. As he strode to the Queen’s side, Espero noticed that he did indeed have a grey back as he did in gull form.
Espero said nothing.
Lonomia snarled, “Apparently, some damaged little trollop was enough to break you.” She waited, receiving only silence in return. “What do you have to say for yourself, Espero? Speak, or I will cut out your tongue and feed it to Greyback!”
Greyback licked his lips.
Sighing, he tried to explain. “She wasn’t a trollop. She was still a child, and someone had hurt her deeply. She was not ready to die, and I refused to be the one to steal the flame from a candle still meant to light the world. It made me think of how many thousands of souls I have stolen indiscriminately over the years, and I felt sick. Men, women, children…and so many not ready to be snuffed out. Yet I did!” He paused to breathe and steel himself before continuing. “But, no longer.” His throat thick with emotion, Espero struggled to clear it. “I will only take souls that are ready to depart, and I hate handing even those over to you knowing they will never cross into the Great Beyond; that they’ll be fertility pills to be consumed and burned up.”
She glared at him, eyes sparking in the firelight with jaw clenched and lips pressed tightly together.
Espero raised the shell she had given him to collect souls, disgust written all over his face.
“In fact, you can’t have these either.” He smashed the shell to the floor, delighted as pieces scattered around his feet. His laughter rang off the rock walls as wispy souls rose up and out of the throne room.
Lonomia stalked over to him and hissed in his face, “I had such high hopes for you.” She stepped back, quickly leashed her anger, and said off-handedly with a flip of her hand, “Kill him.”
The Minotaurs and Greyback charged him, but he was ready.
“Okay, Aeron, see the guys in black hoods? Get ’em!”
They charged through the throne room, Espero stealing a spear from the guard beside Lonomia’s throne as he barreled toward the remaining seven mages. The same words raced around and around in his mind. I will destroy them. They won’t do this to anyone else ever again.
Lonomia’s scream rent the air as he skewered the first Mage, its twisted body flopping on the end of the spear like a fish as he added a second to it. Flinging them off, he felt Aeron ripping into a third, his sharp teeth shredding its throat as black blood poured down its chest.
The remaining four mages attempted to reach the safety of the guards, but Espero swung the bladed edge of the spear, decapitating the nearest one with such force that the head rolled several feet after hitting the floor. Its skin was so blackened and twisted, it was impossible to tell what he might have looked like once. Espero felt he had done the mage a mercy, whether he wanted it or not.
Aeron bit into the back of another mage’s neck, detaching its spine from the base of the skull and tearing it out with a sickening sound. The mage dropped like a sack of potatoes.
Espero lunged, his spear driving home through the eyes of two more mages as they simultaneously turned at the sound of his galloping hooves. They convulsed on the spear and he released it, allowing them to fall. They did not get back up.
Bloodlust sated, Espero’s hearing came roaring back and he realized Lonomia was still screaming.
“Kill him! KILL HIM! He’s ruined EVERYTHING!”
With his mission completed, he braced for impact as the Minotaurs raced at him, spears angled to bite into his flesh. Greyback rushed at him, small dagger raised, looking too eager for it to taste Espero’s blood.
Espero opened his arms wide, inviting the pain he knew was about to come.
He took one last deep breath and sighed. I’ve done what I can to protect the world from them. Now this will end, and I’ll be free.
He closed his eyes, awaiting impalement, when a small body crashed into his. A series of small metal projectiles clattered on the ground.
His eyes popped open to see Naia standing protectively in front of him, iron nails scattered across the floor between them and Lonomia’s thugs. She took something out of a basket she held and showered the floor with it. Salt.
Lonomia and her gang of nasties hissed and shrieked, frantically searching for any opening in the nails wide enough to pass through. Luckily, Naia had good aim and a shockingly ample supply.
A few sprites flew down from the ebony crystals above, their wings humming as they searched for a way to count the salt grains. Their angry buzzing increased as their frustration grew.
Naia dug around in the basket again when Espero, noting the unobstructed exit, scooped her into his arms and tossed her across his shoulders to race out of the cave. They burst into the light of day and still he kept running.
It had been night when he had gone to meet with Lonomia, but time moved strangely in their world. Worried someone might see him, he carried her up and away as far as he dared into the cover of tall, waving grasses. If he ventured much further, he would be within clear sight distance of major roads, and he could not chance that. They stopped and Aeron began eating the slender stalks, the sound of his chewing obnoxiously loud.
He dropped down beside her and for the first time he could remember since childhood, allowed himself to cry. Naia sat next to him and placed a hand on his shoulder as she let him stew in his emotions. Is it so obvious I need this release? That I haven’t let myself feel so much in many, many years?
Finally, he pulled himself somewhat together and croaked, “Why, Naia? Why didn’t you let them kill me? Why did you come?”
For a moment she did not speak. Then, softly, “Because you saved me. I wanted to thank you.”
Holding his head in his hands, he shook it slowly. “You should have let me die. I told you to stay away!”
A whisper. “You didn’t let me die.”
“That was different.”
“How?” Still soft, but more demanding now.
“You’re young, innocent, and someone else had made you feel all that pain. Despite what your mind told you, your soul still wanted to live. I could see its fire and could not let it be destroyed. I couldn’t steal it away, either.”
Raising his eyes to look at her, he appreciated that she did not flinch under his gaze. “I’m hideous. A freak–both inside and out. I have shed buckets of blood for centuries. Sometimes in the name of war, and some simply in the name of duty. It doesn’t matter, though. Blood spilled is all the same and my soul is permanently stained with it; I’m drowning in it. Worse, I liked it…for a while, anyway.”
Naia was silent for a long moment. She watched his face with soft, dewy eyes. “You’re not hideous to me. When my world was full of ugly, you were the most beautiful thing in it. And you didn’t spill my blood; you saved me and gave me reason to live. I have a feeling our stories aren’t much different, actually.” He scoffed and she persisted, “I’m serious. For instance, the killing you were doing – you said some of it was in war. Did you start the wars?”
He shook his head.
“I didn’t think so. And what would have happened to you if you refused to do your duty?” He gave her a hard look and she nodded. “So, kill or be killed. Most people would have made the same choice as you, then.” He felt her hesitation before she said, “And I don’t know for sure, but I’d be willing to bet you weren’t born the way you are now. You seem scarred.”
He barked a laugh loud enough to pull Aeron away from his feast. He regarded Espero with disdain before continuing to crunch.
Espero’s voice came out as a bitter snarl. “They turned me into a freak–something they called a Nuckelavee. I was a centaur–designed for the battles they sent me into. Then one day, I saw a sign in the barracks…an opportunity to volunteer to help other Fae, so I signed up and the mages changed me into–this.” He swept his hands over his body, face drawn in despair.
Aeron glared at him, mouth working the tough grasses back and forth within it.
“Don’t worry, horse. I like you well enough. It’s just…I miss what I was, too.”
Naia placed a hand on his arm and said, “So, this is also not your fault. You were hurt, too, and only trying to stay alive. And not only that, but you inspired me to stay alive. For that I thank you.”
He glanced at her out of the side of his eye. “You’re welcome.”
She patted him. “Now it’s time to pick yourself up and go on living.”
“I don’t think I can. There’s nothing left for me to do.”
She barked, “Of course there is!” and he snorted. “Well, there is! You have been working to help the Fae all this time, but now that you turned on them, they will have turned on you, too. I think it’s a lucky thing they are never going to want your services again. Now you can do some real good.”
“And what’s that?”
“You can be a protector. You can watch over the humans they will likely try to hunt again, and you can save others like me who are so lost in despair they cannot find their way back to the surface. It’s your gift.”
Espero sighed, “Aeron and I did take care of the mages. Hopefully, that means no one else is powerful enough or knows how to do this to anyone again.” He looked Naia square in the eye, “And you gave them enough iron and salt to keep them busy for a while.” She laughed and he paused to think.
“What were you doing down there anyway?”
She smiled impishly at him. “I was coming to see you and just followed you in.” Holding up the basket she said, “I even brought a picnic!”
Despite himself, he laughed. “Do you normally pack bags of nails and large containers of salt in your picnics?”
She twirled a strand of hair around a finger and looked at her lap. “Well, no. But I was worried you would be mad I had come back. You did tell me not to.”
At his incredulous look she cried, “I had to be prepared!”
He chuckled. “I’m glad you didn’t listen to me.”
She smiled warmly and held up the basket. “Picnic?”
At his nod, she took out food and lemonade. They picnicked together, talking, and laughing as the afternoon sun faded to evening. And before they left each other, Naia promised to come back to visit him once a week for as long as she was able.
She kept her promise and continued to visit him for years as he watched over the lost souls who wandered his way, occasionally fighting off some Fae reaper or assassin, but often battling only the person’s own demons. When she visited, she would always bring a picnic of some sort. During colder months it was cocoa instead of lemonade, and meat pies instead of boiled eggs, fruit, vegetables, and cheese. Aeron always appreciated the treats. Almost as much as Espero appreciated the friendship and company.
As she grew up, Naia eventually brought a man named Jim to meet Espero, and though wary, he joined their picnics without hesitation. Years later, they wed on the beach so Espero and Aeron could watch discreetly from the waves. Espero thought he would burst with joy.
Yet the greatest day of all was when he got to meet their daughter, Ella. She looked so much like her mother. Completely unafraid, she took his finger and cooed at him from the warmth of his arms. Espero felt his heart melt all over again, stolen away by yet another fearless little girl.
Espero lived for the days Naia, Jim, and Ella came to visit. No matter how dark the world seemed, just a few minutes with them filled him with enough light to conquer anything. And when the time came for Naia to leave this world, Jim and Ella brought her to the beach, where they could all be with her until the end. His heart shattered as he watched her soul float upward, stopping for a moment to press against each of their foreheads. Espero was sure she had kissed each of them in turn. Then she floated away, leaving him to grieve with her kind husband and a daughter who looked and behaved so much like her.
A few years later, Jim passed in his sleep, and Ella came to give him the news. She gave him a bitter smile after telling him and said, “But there’s more–I’m also pregnant. I just wish…I wish Mom and Dad were still here to meet my baby when it comes.” He held her as she erupted into a puddle of tears and assured her they were still watching from the Great Beyond.
His heart broke for her, but also dared to flutter with hope and joy at the thought of another child. And as her mother before, Ella continued the picnics, bringing the two rowdy boys and fiery girl with her as they each came into the world, respectively.
Starting with Naia and on down the line, Espero had finally found a family. And Naia taught him that iron and salt–sometimes in the form of an iron will and salty attitude–can sometimes be found in unexpected places.
Every week, he meets his family for a picnic, rejoicing that such goodness exists in the world. And to this day, he lives with Aeron beneath the waves, guiding lost souls back from the depths of despair.