Donny Sanz's battered hatchback cut through the late night drizzle. Through the dusty window set into one of the mismatched doors Donny himself could be seen, hunched over the steering wheel for support. One eye was swollen almost shut, his long hair had specks of his own blood clotting into clumps and his favourite jacket was torn at the sleeve.
He focussed on the road.
Noah sat in the passenger seat, staring at his rain-streaked reflection in the windows and the passing lights of the city.
"Pull over Donny," he whispered coldly. Donny shuddered.
"Are you sure, Noah?" On top of the layer of physical hurt was an emotional dread. "They might still be chasing us."
"You've got some questions to answer." Noah did not look at Donny.
"Yeah… yeah of course yeah," Donny babbled. "But maybe once we get home…"
"Now Donny," Noah rasped. The hatchback was reined in to the pavement. Donny killed the ignition and sat, hands still gripping the wheel tightly, as his brother turned to look at him. "Start talking."
"Okay," Donny said, letting out a long breath and closing his eyes. "Okay I lied to you," he said. "I bought a load of smoke from this dealer, Carson, but I couldn't afford what he was charging. I said I'd get him the money when I sold it, but it was slow going and he wanted the cash right then. I didn't know that he bought from the fucking Russian mafia. Carson came round looking for the money. When he didn't find any he knocked me about. Next thing there's this big Russian bloke talking to me about payment of debts, and you know the rest."
Noah did not move, did not give any sign that Donny's story had been heard. He sat totally still for what seemed like an age, then turned to Donny and said:
"I never want to see you again."
He opened the car door and stepped out into the rain, striding away down the empty, darkened streets.
"Noah!" Donny leapt out of his side of the car and ran to catch up. "Come on Noah, please. Listen I know I fucked up, but I can do better. Look you saved me, you bailed me out and I owe you. Please!"
Noah stopped, his shoulders dropped and he turned. Without a word he walked steadily back to the car's passenger door. Donny stayed close, still reeling off a torrent of apologies and promises. Noah was only half listening. He opened the car door. There was greenery and daylight beyond it. He laid his hand on Donny's shoulder as his little brother stared in innocent wonder at the way between worlds. Noah stepped forward, dragging his unresisting brother through the barrier.
Donny stared at the walls of thorns, the path that curved off into infinity, and the blue Arcadian sky.
"Where the fuck are we Noah?" Donny said. His voice trailed off as he turned to his brother. The colour drained from his face.
Outlined against the car-door shaped slice of Prague after midnight was a hunched, warped, pale creature. Its mouth was distorted into a perpetual scream, his black eyes were studying Donny in the same manner as a giant predatory insect. Most disturbing of all he was wearing Noah's clothes.
"Jesus fuck," Donny said as language failed him. "Holy bastard, oh shit. Oh shit."
The monster turned, stepped through the doorway, and closed it.
Donny Sanz was alone in the hedge.
The girl who called herself Frondine was walking through the city. She had spent the last few months engaged in this wandering, which to others would have seemed random, but it was not. She knew this city better than she knew herself by now. Up at the castle she had seen a man with transparent skin smoking beneath the portcullis, and she had smelt blood; heard the sounds of blows and blades meeting fleshy targets. She had seen the form of something monstrous beneath Jirasek bridge, where the flotsam and jetsam from the river's three great southern islands washed up, but it had spotted her also, and dived into the churning waters like a fish.
She saw many things, but it was whilst wandering in the Little Quarter that she saw the man who was following her.
He was skulking in the shadows as she rounded a corner into an opulent, white brick terrace. She turned and glanced back at the figure. Realising that he had been spotted, the man made no attempt to regain cover, and as Frondine turned to walk towards him he merely stood and waited for her. His eyes glinted in the streetlight, throwing the pale, insubstantial light straight back at her. Something at the back of her brain told her to run, but she had faced truly terrible things, and did not startle easily.
As she drew close the man stepped forwards. He was not a large man, and his leather biker jacket fairly swamped his form. She could see that he had turned up the cuffs and held his hands in his pockets. There were patches of dirt of varying colours on his knees and elbows, but as he stepped out from the shadow it was his eyes that she saw first. The pupils phased from black to white as he moved into the nimbus of the streetlight, each one surrounded by a fierce gold iris. Despite their strangeness the eyes were kind.
His face was covered in a layer of soft fur and his mouth hung open slightly, revealing prominent lower canines.
"Who are you, and why are you following me?" Frondine asked, without a trace of fear.
"My name is William," he said. His voice betrayed an English accent. South England. "And you have to remember, Emma." Frondine registered surprise. "Remember who you are."
William withdrew a scrap of paper from his pocket and handed it to her. She could not help but notice that each of his fingers ended with a wicked black claw, but his touch was gentle.
"Find her," he said softly, and then he was gone, bounding away across the city with primitive grace.
Frondine opened the note.
Sarah Sanz it read.
Major Charles Wayburn Wright, formerly of Her Majesty's Fifth Lancers, stood across from a door sandwiched between two designer clothing outlets. This had to be the place. He'd noticed creatures; automatons of a sort, standing at each street corner for a few hundred yards in every direction. They were transparent plastic constructs with brass clockwork innards. They stank of Arcadia, but seemed utterly disinterested in him. They were staring in this direction, towards the door which led up into Sanz Studios.
Charles ran one hand through the soft fur that coated his bisected upper lip and flicked his horizontal-slit pupils upwards. Jack Tallow's note had mentioned three individuals of note, but this Noah Sanz was top of the list. He strolled across the street, down the broad alleyway that accommodated the refuse skips for the various commercial properties. There was a patch of waste ground too exposed for the vagrants of the city, merely a scrap of ragged concrete, which lay at the base of the building. Above it Charles noted the presence of a forgotten fire-escape.
Charles tensed and leapt, his cloven hooves scraped against the wall for a fraction of a second, before he propelled himself away and grasped the ladder. It slid as he clambered up it, but he was soon level with one of the upper windows. He peered through.
The open-plan apartment was a little domestic for his tastes, but he approved of the open plan, almost minimalist style that had been applied. He slid the window open and dropped inside, tensing for a moment and remaining statue-still whilst his pointed ears swivelled this way and that, checking for any sounds that might indicate a presence here. There were none.
He crept forwards and began rooting through drawers, unsure of what, exactly, he was looking for, but sure that when he found it he would know what it was. There were no mirrors in the entire house, and very few doorways. If Charles had not already known that the esteemed Mr. Sanz was no longer wholly of this world, this would have been enough.
He made his way up a wrought iron helical staircase, up into an attic space. Blank canvasses were stacked against the walls and floor-to-ceiling windows, and the floorboards were peppered with a plethora of coloured dots. One painting contained a toadlike, screaming monster tearing away at the fabric of its own picture, another was languishing beneath a cloth. Charles pulled it to one side and glanced at the pale, elfin woman represented within. She was surrounded by thorns and held a lock of blonde hair in her fingertips. He pulled his slender moleskine notebook from his pocket and jotted down some details.
His pen skipped as a buzzer sounded from downstairs.
Swiftly he folded the notebook and stowed it, taking the stairs down onto the main floor carefully and descending down to street level. He glanced through the fish-eye in the sturdy front door. His gaze was met with a milky white stare from the eye-socket of a scaly, green-skinned creature, obviously female, with tentacle-like hair and a shimmering blue dress. She was vaguely familiar. Charles attempted a mental catalogue of all the female changelings with whom he had been physically intimate, but gave up as the figure spiralled up out of the dozens and into the hundreds.
It didn't really matter though. The lady wasn't here to see him, and just in case she happened to have a key, he thought that making tracks would be for the best.
He left the same way he entered, darting off the rusted metal of the fire escape, over the bins behind and out onto the street with scarcely an effort.
As he headed back to his car he recalled the second name on his list, the Spring court's newest member. He would be able to give Charles an in so that he could do his job and fulfil the pledge to Tallow.
He had to find the Doctor.
Frondine disliked Noah Sanz on an almost cellular level. When they had last spoken she had seriously considered shooting him through the head. However, it was only through Noah that she could hope to track down Sarah.
She didn't know why she trusted William. Certainly his bestial appearance did not naturally inspire this kind of feeling, but he had been gentle and soft, and he had called her Emma. That name had a resonance with her. Could it really be hers?
She remembered that Noah's studio lay in Old Town, in one of the newer commercial districts, and her infallible sense of direction led her straight to it. As she approached she made out a figure standing at the door to the studio. As she drew closer she noted the pale green sheen to the woman's skin, the webbing between her fingers and toes, and the shimmering scales that bordered her flesh.
The mermaid was talking on a mobile phone, but the conversation was cut short as Frondine approached. The mermaid looked distinctly put out.
"Hello there," said Frondine amicably.
"Hello," said the mermaid. Her white-on-white eyes were utterly unreadable.
"My name is Frondine," Frondine said, her eyes roaming of their own accord over the creature's skin. "You have beautiful scales, may I touch them?"
The woman angled her head, studying Frondine with what seemed like disdain.
"Sure," she said, and allowed the plant lady to touch her. She winced and drew back. "You're too dry."
"Sorry, Frondine said.
"I'm Zannah," she said. "Zannah Merrow."
"Pleased to meet you."
"Do you have business here Frondine?" Zannah asked brusquely.
"I'm attempting to meet with the… man who lives here," she said. Zannah had no eyelids, but it seemed as though she blinked.
"And how do you know Noah Sanz?" Something about Zannah's tone made Frondine stop. What had begun as small talk had strayed into an interrogation. She decided that discretion was necessary.
"Not terribly well," she said. "I was just checking in to see how he is."
"Well, unfortunately he isn't here." This utterance seemed rather final.
"Oh," Frondine said, disguising the dislike she was beginning to feel for the fish-woman. "Well, I'll come back later then." And with this she strode off down the alleyway. Of course she had no intention of leaving. Now that she had found a use for Noah she would be damned if she did anything but pursue this lead until it led her to… to what? Answers?
The destination wasn't important, but the path was right in front of her.
Someone had left the fire-escape's ladder down and she found it an easy task to clamber up the rusty rungs and up to a window, which was conveniently unlocked.
She slipped inside.
Noah was walking away from Donny's now vacant car when his phone began to ring.
"Mr. Sanz?" said an unfamiliar female voice. Noah hesitated.
"Yes," he said.
"Mr. Sanz, my name is Zannah Merrow," she said. "Old Man Ash has assigned me as your w…retainer. I am currently outside your apartment. Where are you?"
"Don't call this number again," Noah said and hung up. Then he hailed a taxicab and gave his address.
Within fifteen minutes he was pulling up outside his apartment. There was no sign of Zannah, so he unlocked his front door and strode straight in, mounting the stairs two at a time. He stopped dead as he smelt something, then spotted a green movement in his kitchen.
"Hello Noah." Frondine's voice floated sweetly across towards Noah. On a scale of one to ten Noah had experienced an eleven on the emotional distress scale, pretty much constantly since he came through the hedge, and last night's madness had taken its toll on his patience and politeness.
"What the hell are you doing in my fucking apartment" he growled hoarsely. "And what's burning?"
"I was looking," said Frondine calmly. "For Sarah. And it isn't burning, it's cooking."
Noah stalked over to the kitchen at speed, pushed past Frondine and opened his cooker to be confronted by the sight of a goblin fruit of some kind. He snatched the thing up in a teatowel, walked over to the window and hurled it out into the street below.
He turned to level a barrage of questions and/or threats at Frondine, but his eye was caught by the woman with tentacles for hair standing in a corner of the apartment and investigating an empty fruit bowl.
"I don't recall," he said in a dangerously low voice. "Inviting either of you in."
The mer-lady turned around and straightened up.
"I was under the impression that this is precisely this kind of problem that I am here to aid you with, Mr. Sanz." Zannah looked pointedly at Frondine for a moment. "I took the liberty of letting myself in after I noticed this lady entering. I don't believe that we have any time to waste in getting your wards set up."
"Indeed," said Noah.
"However, Old Man Ash instructed me to remind you that there is still the matter of your task…"
"I am aware of this."
"Excuse me," Frondine interjected politely. "But I came here to see your wife, Noah. Could you tell me where she is?"
Noah stared at Frondine as though she had just started goose-stepping through a synagogue.
"She is not here," Noah said.
"Well, could you tell me where she is?"
Noah turned his attention towards Zannah, pointedly ignoring Frondine.
"I believe we have much to discuss," he said.
"I am going to speak with her Noah," Frondine said petulantly. "You can't stop me." And with that Frondine stormed out.
"Can you?" Noah asked Zannah after he was certain that Frondine was gone.
"We can take steps," she replied. "Although to protect your family, which I believe was my mandate, I will need to know the locations of each one of them."
Noah told her where he thought Sarah had gone, where Sergei lived and the approximate location of Ana. He outlined what he knew about them.
"And what about your little brother?" Zannah said, after taking copious notes on the others.
"Don't worry about him."
The Doctor and Suzie were watching television. He had dressed his adopted sister in a garment he had constructed himself from the curtains in the master bedroom. They were perfectly fitted, if a rather coarse material, but as neither of them had overly sensitive skin this was a fact that completely passed them by.
A knock at the door startled them out of their catatonia and the Doctor stood like a frontier hero.
"I'll take care of this!" he said in a loud and dramatic voice, then hurried over and opened the door a crack.
The rotund, dark-skinned woman who stood in her beige suit jacket and skirt was oddly familiar to the Doctor, but thankfully no glimmer of recognition was present in her face. She levelled a warm, maternal smile at a point around six inches north of the Doctor's plastic indentation of a navel and said;
"Hello there little boy. Is Mr. Thompson there?"
The Doctor thought for a moment.
"Yes," he said, making no move away from the door.
"Could I speak to him?" said the lady with infinite patience.
"Why do you want to?" The lady lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
"I'm a social worker, and I need to have a word with Mr. Thompson about you and your sister."
"Oh," the Doctor said, feeling a mild panic creep into the chaotic mixture of random emotions which he rattled through at all times. "Okay, wait right there, I'll go and get him."
The Doctor closed the door and ran along the hallway towards the sitting room. He dragged a jacket which had doubled as a tent and a riverboat in its time, and shrugged it over his shoulders. It did not fit, but that was important. As he stepped into the hallway he raised his head and his body adapted, adjusting to the height which the late Mr. Thompson had possessed. As he turned to look in the mirror he saw his mask, merely an impression of a child's face faintly superimposed over his true, plastic grin, become subsumed by the angular, stubbled complexion of the house's former owner.
The Doctor opened the door. The social worker's smile fell from her face and smashed into tiny, razor sharp shards at their feet.
"Mr. Thompson," she said with contempt." My name is Ms. Reed from the childcare and wellbeing division of social services."
"Oh," said the Doctor. "What can I help you with?"
"We received a number of phone calls that indicated that you might not be providing your niece and nephew with a stable environment."
"Well that's certainly not true," the Doctor said affecting a smile. His eyes were drawn over to the window of his neighbours house. He thought he saw Jane Jones watching the drama unfold. He would have to have words.
"I will need to see all of the paperwork concerning the parents of your supposed niece and nephew, and I will require access to the entirety of your dwelling to check living conditions for myself."
"Now's not a very good time," the Doctor said, desperately attempting to buy himself some time.
"I can come back with a court order, Mr. Thompson." She said vindictively. The Doctor weighed up the potential loss here, then flung the door open.
"Okay," he said cautiously. "But the house is in a bit of a mess right now. We've been decorating."
Ms. Reed of social services took two steps into the house and stopped talking altogether. Every wall was coated in crude, hand-drawn sketches in wax crayon, splats of paint and more noxious coloured fluids and the occasional football sized dent. The stairs were ruined, each one buckled inwards at the centre, and every single piece of furniture in the place had been torn out of position and re-ordered as something other than that which the original designer had intended it as.
The only positive note was that the general chaos detracted from the attention that the blood stains received.
"Oh my god," Ms. Reed said, turning around to the Doctor and giving him a look of pure hatred. "You monster! What kind of an environment is this for a child, let alone a pair of children?"
The Doctor attempted to interject, but Ms. Reed continued, her voice rising to a shrill shriek, threatening and enraged. Finally the Doctor stopped trying to talk to her and turned to the stairs.
"Suzie!" he shouted. There was the sound of something vast shifting upstairs and four heavy footfalls as the ogre hauled herself around the upper banister. Suzie filled the stairwell, her teeth grinding on one another as she looked from the social worker to the Doctor.
Ms. Reed's face immediately settled back into maternal mode, and she took a step forwards. The Doctor, who had Suzie's full attention, looked up at her and said:
"This lady isn't playing fair."
There was a horrendous sound as Suzie tore the solid wooden banister free with one hand, a stifled grunt of shock from Ms. Reed as what she was seeing stubbornly refused to make sense, and a sickening wet cracking sound as the piece of wood struck her just above the right temple and tore a bloody trench six inches deep into her skull.
The Doctor poked his head out of the door, snuck out and closed it behind him, then strolled down his path and up his neighbours. He rang the bell and, after a few seconds pause in which there were no sounds of footfalls, a man appeared.
"Oh," he said, feigning surprise. "Hi Rob."
"Hello neighbour," said the Doctor. "Did you call the lady from social services?"
"Oh," said the man, looking mildly terrified. "No Rob, of course not." The Doctor just stared at him. "I mean, I suppose Jane might have put a call in, but it was only because we haven't seen you around, and the kids…"
"The kids are fine!" The Doctor said. He was losing patience with the intruders in his den. "They'd be a lot happier if people didn't keep coming in and messing up our games!" There was a pause. "I mean their games!"
"Erm." Suddenly the neighbour's attention wandered to the Doctor's door. "Do you know that man?"
The Doctor turned to see a satyr, complete with long horns and goat legs, stride into his house.
"Of course I do!" The Doctor proclaimed. "Now I have to go!"
He turned and vaulted over the dividing wall, scrambling into the house as the satyr sparked up a sweet smelling cigarette and glanced with vague disdain at the body in the hallway. Suzie, still manning the staircase, brandished her banister, but he kept his distance. Jack Tallow's instructions had included a briefing on the Doctor, but he had clearly been unaware that a gristlegrinder had set up shop with him. From the appearance of the creature Charles would have guessed that it was Sawtooth, an ogre who lived up in the Vetenska farmhouse, but this creature was wearing a dress, and that didn't fit somehow. Under ordinary circumstances anything female was fair game for him, but he had to draw the line somewhere. Besides, he couldn't take glamour from other changelings.
The Doctor was reputed to be well liked by Breaker, which put him into the sociopath bracket. It could have been worse. The real crazies ended up in the Summer court. At least he was working for them.
"What are you doing here?" the Doctor demanded. "And who are you?"
"My name is Charles," he replied. "Jack Tallow sent me to ask for your assistance. I have a task to perform for the Spring court."
"Oh," the Doctor said. "I'm in that club too. They haven't given me a badge yet though."
"I'm sure they are working on that," he said diplomatically. "I've heard that you know a changeling named Noah Sanz?"
"Oh yes," the Doctor nodded, smiling; although as his face was constructed from moulded plastic he probably didn't have much of a choice. "He broke my televisions, but I met his girlfriend."
Charles pulled out his notebook and jotted down Girlfriend? In a flowing cursive script.
"Do you know a girl called Frondine Vine?"
"I haven't seen her in a while," the Doctor said, then produced his mobile phone. "But she gave me a number that I can use with this toy to talk to her. She has one too. Isn't that cool?"
"Indeed," said the satyr. He was used to dealing with the emotionally or mentally damaged, it was part and parcel of being who he was and living in the world that he had been forced into. He saw an angle. "Show me."
The Doctor gleefully, if rather slowly, keyed in Frondine's number. Charles understood the concept of mobile phones, but he was a slow learner and had yet to master the secrets of the electric age. Even the Doctor's childlike mashing of the keypad was more elegant than his own attempts.
The Doctor called Frondine.
Frondine was crouched in the broken tarmac of what passed for Noah's back yard, delicately stroking the leaves of a tiny plant sprouting from the cracks, when a taxi pulled up on the road behind and two figures emerged.
She recognised the Doctor at once, and was glad to see a familiar face. The creature that emerged after him was covered in coarse fur, with the goat legs and short, sharp horns of the ancient deity Pan. He exuded a kind of naked sexuality in the way he moved, and as he drew close she was conscious of a musk in the air; a heavy, sweet, animal scent that promised utter depravity. She was rather surprised when the creature took her hand and said;
"Miss Vine. Major Charles Wayburn Wright at your service, my lady." He kissed the back of her hand, seemingly unperturbed by her chlorophyll skin tone, or the network of root-like scars that covered it.
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "A gentleman."
"Indeed madam," he said, smiling like the devil himself.
"Why are we waiting out here?" the Doctor said impatiently. "If we ring the doorbell Noah has to let us in."
"I sincerely doubt that," said Frondine. "He was distinctly unpleasant when I was last in his home."
"You mean the time he killed your kitten?"
Charles looked at the Doctor, withdrew his notebook, and wrote Killed kitten, just in case it turned out to be important. From what he had learned Mr. Sanz was not overly interested in ingratiating himself with anyone.
"Well," said the Doctor, mounting one of the refuse skips and striking a pose with hands on hips. "We shall have to storm the castle."
Charles sent a questioning look in Frondine's direction, but the former gardener of the Hedge was watching the Doctor as he scaled the fire escape that had proven to be by far the most popular method of entering Noah's abode.
"The wards are in place here, Mr. Sanz," Zannah said as she walked away from the final window. "They should hold against most forms of Arcadian life, provided that you haven't actually invited them in."
"Excellent," said Noah. He felt drained. He needed peace, solitude and sleep to order his thoughts. "Thank you Zannah. Please pass my thanks on to Old man Ash." He paused. "And please inform him that, to further cement our relations, I will perform both of the tasks he requested."
"I shall," Zannah nodded, smiling. "I'll place similar wards on the homes of Sergei and Anastazie."
"They must not see you," Noah said, with a little more force than he had intended.
"I assure you, Mr. Sanz, that you darklings are not the only beings capable of moving unseen."
To illustrate the point Zannah stepped away from her own image. The snapshot remained in the air, slowly fading, as the mobile form exited the apartment. Noah found that he could not remember exactly when she had left.
He let out a long sigh and was heading for bed when an insistent tapping sounded at his window. He turned and saw the Doctor sliding open his window and attempting to step in. He met a barrier.
The Doctor extended his hand, and a transparent, liquid wall, somehow suspended over the gap, pushed it gently away.
He struck it and it merely absorbed the blow. A few bubbles settled on its vertical surface, then disappeared.
"Noah!" he shouted through the gap. "You have to let me in or the game will be ruined."
Noah shuddered and turned towards the front door, leaving and locking it behind him as the Doctor made futile attempts to break through.
Finally admitting defeat he hopped down, landing between Charles and Frondine.
"It won't work," he said somewhat petulantly. He stamped his foot, then slid it across, then brought the other one up, tapped and turned.
"Are you dancing?" Charles asked with a smile on his face, he turned to Frondine, who was not smiling at all. In fact she had unhooked something that looked like a rake carved from ivory from her shoulders. The Doctor turned his head in time to an invisible beat, extending his arm. Charles followed his finger along the alleyway to T-junction where it met the main road. There, standing in a wedge formation, each tapping their feet in time to the beat that held the Doctor, were five of the clockwork dancers.
Charles read the situation immediately and unsheathed the sword that had been concealed within his cane. A contract was called into effect and the blade whirled overhead, slashing and parrying in a dazzling display of skill. The dancers stopped. The Doctor, finally regaining control over his body, pulled the butcher knife from his jacket as the four dancers on the outside turned towards the one in the centre and began, without ceremony, to tear off its arms and legs.
Noah stepped out of his front door and caught movement out of the corner of his eye. In the monochrome expanse of his peripheral vision he had spotted something crouched on the roof opposite his home.
He made his way across into the tiny yard of the empty house and began to climb. His elongated arms allowed him to find purchase where others would have struggled, and when he emerged onto the rooftop he was able to make out the shape of a man crouched by the chimney stack.
"What do you want with me?" he demanded, growling and placing his hand on the tip of his cane.
"Nothing," said the man, shifting position. Noah tensed for an attack, but the figure had simply adjusted his position to something more comfortable. Noah could now make out the soft fur that covered his body. "You'd be Noah Sanz then." Noah said nothing pointedly. "Heard that you weren't exactly the most popular fellow in town."
"Why are you following me?"
"I'm not," said the man. "I'm following the girl."
"Do you really care?"
"I think you'd better make your mind up soon."
The dancers parted. Their confederate was now little more than a limbless torso, but each one of them had crafted the clockwork innards they had seized into wicked looking swords, maces and daggers. Cogs whirred and span along their length. They began to advance.
The Doctor began to move forwards, but something drew his eyes to the other end of the alleyway, where four more of the creatures, each similarly armed, were also approaching. He tugged at Charle's furred sleeve and the satyr glanced across. It was at this moment that Frondine leapt forward like a rocket. She vaulted over the mess of discarded boxes, sprung from the top of one of the boxes and brought her rake screaming overhead; down towards the lead dancer. Their weapons met.
The dancers were within range and Charles struck out with markedly less skill than he had demonstrated before. The Doctor's efforts, hampered as they were by the inferior quality of his weapon, made up for the natural disadvantage with savagery. He did not flourish the blade, he merely used it, stabbing and slashing at the constructs, but he had played this game before, and last time he had lost a hand.
He turned and began rooting through the refuse sacks for the heart that he felt sure must be guiding and controlling their enemies.
"Find the heart!" he shouted. "Follow the ticking!"
In amongst the uproar of combat each of the dancers clockwork innards was ticking and whirring. The Doctor slashed angrily at one of the black bin-liners in frustration. Then they heard an engine.
Noah twisted the wires of the car together and brushed the tiny squares of safety glass from beneath him as the ignition caught. The car probably belonged to one of his neighbours, but oddly enough he hadn't spoken to any of them in over twenty years.
He hauled the steering wheel around, marvelling at the power steering, knocked his headlights onto full beam and pulled into the alleyway. The four dancers before him were intent on their targets, and the ones further away were attempting to deal with Frondine, who was battering their weapons aside with her rake. None of them noticed as the car struck the pavement, accelerating rapidly, and slammed into the back of the aggressors.
The first dancer simply shattered, whilst the rest were thrown clear, breaking limbs on the wooden fencing and concrete masonry that bordered this rough tarmac battlefield. Noah ignored the impact on his windscreen and dimly registered the fingers of the dancers snapping against the car's metalwork as he snapped the steering wheel to one side and sent the vehicle into a slide.
Charles leapt towards the fence as Noah fought for control, backflipping over the impact point and landing with perfect poise, and a certain supercilious air, exactly where he had been standing. Frondine rolled backwards, spotting the car and heading towards the place where it was coming to rest. The Doctor did not move in time. The bumper knocked him off his feet and sent him careening into the edge of the windscreen. Noah registered the plastic cracking sound with a wince, then kicked open the door nearest to his three associates.
"Get in!" he shouted hoarsely. Charles obliged, grabbing one of the Doctor's arms as Frondine took the other. The satyr slipped into the front seat and turned towards Noah. They eyed each other conspicuously for a millisecond, then Charles barked:
And they were away.
The four dancers who remained had clustered, and learning from their associate's mistake, split before Noah could drive the bonnet of the car into the mass of them. Two latched onto the passenger door, their transparent, brass-filled fingers buckling the bodywork to remain attached. Charles kicked out savagely as a clockwork fist crashed through the window. The door bent outwards, forcing the creatures to hold on for dear life rather than attempting to throttle the satyr. He looked up as two sets of feet-shaped dents appeared in the roof of the car, followed by two clawed hands.
Frondine raised herself up, breaking through the window with the straight end of her rake and sweeping the business end in a broad overhead swipe. There was a thunk, and Noah saw one of the creatures sail from the moving car onto the street and shatter.
"Hold on!" he rasped as he pulled the car around. Now on the road they began to pick up speed quickly. As Frondine brought the rake around once more and scraped off the last roofborne assailant, Charles fastened his seatbelt. As one of the stricken dancers began to crawl through his window he leapt forwards, secured by the seatbelt into an arc. He drove his horns upwards, shattering through the clockwork torso, then threw his head back, battering the badly damaged creature against what remained of the doorframe.
The impact finally snapped the door's hinges and it rattled free, taking the last of them with it.
"Mr Sanz," said Charles, smiling and picking cogs from his horns. "It's a pleasure to finally meet you."
"Likewise," said Noah disingenuously. "Who the hell are you?"
An hour later the four changelings exited Prague General Hospital. The Doctor was still limping slightly, and making very little sense, but no-one noticed. Noah seemed calmer than usual. He had explained to the creatures he had rescued, including the strange horned man, that he wanted nothing to do with changelings, but that on an individual level he could just about cope with them. It was the closest that he had ever been to amiable, and those who had known him for long enough were positively shocked.
Still, Noah reasoned that the other world would always try to intrude, and if he couldn't prevent it entirely, at least he could ensure that, when these things happened, they happened on his terms.
Still, the atmosphere of amicability was clearly a strain on him, and he soon made his excuses.
He hailed a taxi and made for the Castle. He had business to attend to.
The others stood in a loose triangle as Charles lit a cigarette.
"We need some information here," said the satyr thoughtfully. "What do you know about these tin men?"
"They aren't made of tin," said the Doctor unhelpfully. Frondine interjected.
"They appear to be servants of the Doctor's keeper," she said. The satyr turned towards the doll.
"Is this true?"
"Yes, the princess sends them. They dance for her."
"I think that we should check with someone higher up."
"Who do you suggest?" Frondine asked.
"Well," Charles replied. "The Spring court has a property on the Children's Island. We could check in with Jack Tallow."
"I know this Mr. Tallow, we've spoken before."
"I bet you have," said the satyr, his lecherousness going completely over the young lady's head. "Come on then, best foot forwards!"
"You don't have any feet," said the Doctor as they headed out into the streets to find a taxi.
Noah tipped the taxi driver and strode into the castle grounds. Like most of the architectural wonders of the medieval age it subsisted now as a tourist attraction. Its many spires, which once bore the proud colours of Czechoslovakian noble houses were now adorned with banners indicating what the fat, obnoxious American or small, camera-wielding oriental could expect to see for a few crowns a head.
Noah ignored the areas which had undergone extensive conversion to create this fountain of gold, and headed into the areas which they had not seen fit to light.
He descended a set of stone steps at the rear. Ash had indicated that the Summer court held its nightly revels here, and as soon as he came within thirty feet of the heavy, riveted oak door he could hear the roar of crowds.
This was a good spot. There were no dwellings in the castle grounds, and by night the nearest human being must have been a good half mile away. No-one would hear them. This also meant that no-one would be coming to rescue anyone caught doing something he shouldn't be doing up here. Like spying.
Noah decided to take the most direct route possible. Duplicity was not his strong point.
He walked up and knocked three times on the heavy, stained wood.
The door slid open.
The creature that stood before him was a little over half his size, bearded and stocky like a Tolkien dwarf. His flesh, of which a sizeable amount was on display, was laced with tattoos in black, white and red, with a general mushroom theme present. He glowered at Noah with one good eye, and Noah did his best to glower back. The tableau would have been comical if anyone was looking, but they were not. All eyes, of all shapes and sizes, were focussed on the centre ring, where a creature that was halfway between a rat and a man was slicing at a pale, icy youth who trailed condensation in the air.
"Who're you?" demanded the dwarf.
"I am Noah Sanz," said Noah.
"Never ‘eard of you," said the dwarf in an accusatory tone.
"I am here to speak with your leader."
The dwarf sniffed. It was a sound like a boot being sucked down into a swamp.
Then, as a cheer sounded from behind them, the dwarf laid one hand in a friendly manner on Noah's shoulder, and without warning thrust him down the circular stone steps and into the arena.
There was a puzzled murmur from the crowd, but the rat-creature turned and hissed at Noah and they picked up.
Noah saw the faces of innumerable monsters contorted in a blood-fever around him, but high above, seated on a wooden throne at the highest point, a man sat with dignity. He studied those below him with golden eyes. His scaled, greenish skin was scarred and utterly inhuman, but oddly pleasing to look upon. He wore red, and only red. Tough leather plates and red-coated metal ringmail beneath. He was watching.
"We who are about to die," said Noah towards the man on the throne. "Salute you!" The utterance was met by the smallest of small nods.
Noah turned, throwing off his jacket and inclining his head towards the draconic overseer, before turning his attention to the rat, who was already airborne.
The creature darted forwards, moving in jumps and starts. Noah was on the back foot, reeling backwards as slim, razor sharp claws raked across his chest. The scratched weren't deep, and Noah managed to parry a few, knocking the rat-creature's hands down away from him and halting his advance.
He swung inwards and the rat shrunk back. Noah followed with another blow, which connected with the small of the creature's back, but suddenly the monster darted forwards with preternatural quickness. His elongated, rodent jaws clamped down on the flesh between Noah's neck and his shoulder, tearing an inch-wide gash which began to pump crimson onto the already blood-spattered floor.
Noah roared and brought his cane around just as the rat shrank back, smiling through blood-sodden teeth. Bringing the cane around from below he adopted a golfing stance and struck.
The blow hit hard. The rat man was quick, but merely a featherweight. The upward strike sent him spinning end over end to land in a feeble, crumpled heap in the centre of the arena. He tapped the ground lightly, but made no move to rise.
Noah turned to the rampant, mindless applause of the crowd as the rat man hauled himself from the floor and dragged himself out of the arena as two new combatants forced their way into the centre.
Noah left the circle, wincing as the edges of his jacket scraped against the ragged edges of torn flesh.
The rat creature inclined his head and did something that was a rough approximation of a smile.
"Good fight," he said. His warped vocal chords lent the sound a kind of pitiful squeak, mingled with a deep, bestial rumble.
"Thanks," Noah rasped. "What's your name?"
"Listen, Sirius. I'm looking to join up. Who should I talk to?"
"Ah," said the rat. "Well that depends. See if you want to go right to the top." The rat paused and indicated the draconic warrior on the high throne. "You want to talk to the General. But then again, word is that Tatterdemalion is making a play. Maybe you should get ahead of the herd and go see him." The rat indicated a figure at the edge of the arena. Around him a number of assorted changelings kept their distance, looking outwards like bodyguards. He had utterly transparent skin and wore a set of mismatched biker leathers. His body language screamed a challenge to all within range.
"Thanks," Noah said to the rat, and headed off in the direction of the General.
"Don't mention it," said Sirius, and started slowly licking his wounds with his long, pointed tongue.
Charles, Frondine and the Doctor stepped out of their cab opposite the youth centre. The Children's Island was smaller than Shooter's Isle, and where the latter had attracted capitalist success stories and luxury property developers, the former had been bought up by various charitable foundations and local government initiatives. It was a veritable paradise for the young, the desperate and the disenfranchised.
The youth centre itself had, by some miracle, been saved from the typical ravages of graffiti tags and general background vandalism that most of the city's public areas had been forced to endure. It was surrounded by assault courses, adventure playgrounds and basketball courts, and Charles led the way across them to a door which he opened with a gesture.
The innards of the building were darkened. It was well past ordinary closing time. Silhouettes of pool tables crouched in corners and a bar, lay across one wall. At the far end of the high-ceilinged expanse stood a set of stairs rising up.
The Doctor parked himself at the bar and proceeded to create a concoction of various spirits that was most probably undrinkable, but that did not dissuade him. Frondine joined him as Charles made his way upstairs. He knew this place. He'd served the court faithfully for seven years, or thereabouts, and so when the heavy door at the top of the staircase opened and Jack Tallow appeared he was not in the least surprised.
"Jack," he said, nodding politely as he stepped in. Tallow led him up into the highest room of the building. As soon as the door opened they were hit with a fresh breeze, carrying with it the scent of leaves, and something deeper. There was a female voice floating on the air, through the greenery of innumerable potted plants that were clearly in control of what was, under the undergrowth, an apartment.
"She's in the shower," said Jack, sitting down on a low leather couch and motioning to the chair opposite. "Have you got anything for me?"
"Some," said Charles, producing his notebook and passing it across. Jack sat in silence for a few minutes as he read through the notes. He raised an eyebrow.
"He killed a kitten?"
"According to the girl, yes."
"Have you seen any indication of anything we should be alarmed by?"
"No," said the satyr. "But I haven't been able to pin him down for long enough to get all of the information. He's got his own agenda."
"I should probably mention," said Charles. "That his intervention in an engagement prevented injury to myself, your Doctor and the girl."
"You were attacked?"
"Yes," Charles said, leaning in. "Some form of constructs. Clockwork men. They were in the alley outside Sanz's studio."
"We've got guards posted on the trods, but sometime things from the hedge slip through."
"These things seemed to have some kind of a link with the Doctor."
"We're aware of that," said Jack. "We're looking into it. It's nothing that you need to worry about. What is your concern though, is the safety of the girl."
Jack stared at the satyr, his flickering, fiery gaze unwavering, his smile frozen in place. "That's between me and the lady." He stood. "Listen Charles, just keep an eye on her for a little longer. You're doing a good job, and we appreciate it. And here," he threw a set of keys across the table towards him. "Take this car. We don't want you chancing public transport."
Charles descended and found the Doctor poised over some dreadful brownish cocktail which he had mixed in a jug. He pulled up a stool next to him and Frondine.
"Well," he said, and was about to give his standard here we are again speech, when something in the bar's rear mirror caught his eye. A movement. A face. Pale and faint, but definitely there.
He leapt up onto the bar, scattering glasses and bottles, and dived forwards, extending his arm and plunging it into the mirror.
A cascade of glamour burned along his fur, causing it to prickle as he hauled with all of his strength on whatever he held, using the bartop to brace himself and impressing deep hoofprints into the solid wood. A hand emerged. An arm. A tattered sleeve, all pink and distinctly human. Then the rest of the body followed all at once. Charles toppled backwards over the bar to be caught by the Doctor and Frondine. All three of them looked up as a young man with long hair over his face and a death-metal band T-shirt swept his fringe aside and stared wide eyed at them. His breath was shallow and rapid.
"Oh Christ on a stick," he mumbled, slowly backing away.
"Hello," said the Doctor, stepping forwards. This simple action caused the human to bolt, trip over his own feet, and crash down onto the floor. The Doctor knelt down beside him. "What's your name?"
"Holy fuck," said the human. "You're a giant doll! This is one fucked up trip."
The Doctor turned and looked at where he had fallen out of the mirror.
"You fell out of the mirror," he said simply.
"Let me take a look at him," Charles said, picking himself up from the floor and advancing. The human whimpered, but made no move to run. Charles held his chin in his hand and gazed into his eyes. "He hasn't been walking the hedge long. He's just elftouched. Still human, but with the sight." He tutted. "Poor bastard."
"What's your name?" said Frondine, stepping forwards. Her kindly tone seemed to strike a chord somewhere.
"Donny," said the man, struggling to his feet. The Doctor held out a chair, which he sat down heavily in. "The last thing I remember," he said. "I was talking to my brother, and then there was this giant, screaming frog thing." He closed his eyes and rubbed at them with his thumbs. "Must be some bad acid."
"Giant screaming frog?" said Frondine slowly, the others looked at her. "What's your surname Donny?"
"Sanz," said Donny. The changelings shared a knowing look. "Listen, if it's not too much trouble could you take me home?"
"Donny," Frondine said, leaning in. "Is your brother's name Noah?"
"Yeah," Donny nodded. "How do you know that?"
"We're friends of his," lied Frondine. "We've been trying to keep an eye on Sarah for him. Do you know where she is?"
"Er," Donny hesitated, before glancing around and clearly deciding that this wasn't real, so what the hell? "He pissed her off somehow and she went to stay with my mother in the Little Quarter."
"Well," said Charles, offering a hand, which Donny took with some trepidation and hauling him to his feet. "Perhaps you could use a drink?"
Donny shook his head.
"I just want to go home."
"In that case, I have a motor vehicle we can use," he smiled broadly at the terrified young man. "It's always a pleasure to help out a fellow escapee, no matter how long your durance was."
"Whatever you say man," Donny said blearily. He patted his pockets down, but apparently turned up nothing of any interest. He looked crestfallen.
"Where do you live Donny?" asked Charles, but before he could answer he heard the Doctor counting steadily.
"One, two, three, four," he said.
"What are you doing?"
"Frondine is playing hide and seek," he replied, in the tone children use to address particularly stupid adults. "It's the rules."
Charles looked round. Frondine was gone.
"Shit," he said, and rocketed out of the door.
Frondine strode along the ranks of parked cars until she found the right wing mirror. It belonged to a cream-yellow sedan, but that didn't matter. It was the right one. She touched one finger to the silvery surface and her body folded into her hollow. In amongst the circle of mirrored shards and thorn-wrapped doorways she found another mirror and knew where it went.
Another touch and she was there, standing by a modern hatchback outside a moderate sized semi-detached property. The garden was immaculate, she had to respect that.
It was dark, but there was a light indoors, a flickering that she now recognised as the moving picture box known as a television. She had educated herself extensively in the past few weeks, and though these things still seemed strange they had lost their terrifying aspect.
But this place scared her. She didn't know what she would find.
With the timidity of the smallest of field rodents she approached the front door and knocked.
The Doctor emerged onto the pavement with Donny in tow, and both stood expectantly looking at Charles, who stomped his feet and snorted, something which he only did when exceedingly distracted.
"She's gone," said the Doctor.
"I can see that," snapped Charles. He looked upwards and started making a noise in his throat.
"What's going on?" said Donny blearily. He was along for the ride. Sooner or later, he thought fervently. I'm going to wake up with a mother of a story to tell Chris.
As the Doctor and Donny watched a pigeon detached from its night-time roost in one of the alcoves of the building and fluffed into a ball of feathers as it landed on Charle's shoulder. The satyr angled his head and made a series of polite cooing sounds, then the pigeon flew off.
"Right," he said with forced joviality. "Let's get you home boy."
He walked up to the nearest car and tried the key. It did not open the door. He moved on to the next one.
After about seven cars Donny piped up.
"Do you know what your car looks like?" he asked.
"Yes," said the satyr, trying the key in a yellow sedan's door to no avail.
"Um," Donny stepped forward. "It's just that… well that key's for a Mercedes."
"Yes?" said the satyr, as though he had known this all along.
"And, well… that's not a Mercedes."
It took them ten minutes to locate the aging Mercedes estate which Jack Tallow had parked up behind the youth centre. Just as Charles was about to climb in another pigeon, or perhaps the same one, flopped down onto his shoulder and cooed in his ear.
"Good," he said. "That's on the way."
"What?" said Donny, but he received no reply.
Then he sat down in the drivers seat. Donny slid in beside him and the Doctor took over the back seat.
The satyr turned the wheel. He pushed the cigarette lighter in and turned on the radio.
"You can't drive can you?" the Doctor said with a smile.
"Of course I can," snapped Charles and sprayed the windscreen liberally with slightly anti-freeze scented water.
"Um," Donny ventured. "Should I drive."
There was a moment of crystal silence.
"Fine," barked Charles. "You probably know the way better anyway."
Noah strode up to the outer circle of the General's guards and was immediately stopped by the massive form of a cyclopean warrior wearing, of all things, a white Lacoste track suit, but a barked command from behind him convinced the creature to back down and he was permitted to approach.
The General watched him with his metallic eyes as he stepped up, kneeled, and offered his cane head first to him. The General smiled.
"That was a good fight, darkling," said the General in a rich, booming voice. "It has been many years since I saw one of your breed perform so solidly in a circle of combat."
"I wish to fight for you, General," Noah said without raising his gaze from the floor.
"We could use one with your skills," the General said, nodding. "What is your name?"
"I am Noah Sanz," said Noah.
"I have not heard of you," the General mused.
"I find it best to keep a low profile, sir."
The General stood, and parted the throng with a motion of his hand. A door was revealed at the back of the arena, hewn from the same heavy oak as the main doorway, but far smaller. He opened this and led Noah through into a space of brutal serenity after the din caused by the combatants. Every piece of furniture was constructed of leather, and the walls were littered with ornamental weapons which were only ornamental because they were hanging up. Horns from various large woodland creatures stuck out from the walls, several dead, glass eyes watched him from stuffed, mounted faces.
The door slid shut behind him and disappeared. The General turned.
"Why do you wish to fight the Others?" he said, pouring a large brandy from a huge decanter.
"They threaten my family," Noah said honestly. "They have sent clockwork men to harass and harm those closest to me."
"We are aware of these constructs," the General rumbled. "They have been making their way through the Nadeje station's trod. The site is supposedly guarded by the Winter court's spymaster, but he has obviously been lax in his duties, or perhaps it is something more sinister. Regardless, providence has clearly led you to us, that we may strike a blow against the Others."
"What would you have me do?" The General leant in close. He smelt of brimstone and liquor.
"You will take my most favoured lieutenant, and a squad of your choosing, and you will destroy the Nadeje trod."
"How, my lord?"
"There are two paths," the General boomed. "You may enter through the hedge. If you have a capable guide and a strong magician you may survive long enough to seal the breach from that side." The General paused. "Or you may attack directly from this side, from our world. Kill the guard and seal the portal."
"As you wish," said Noah. The General forced the doorway to reappear with a wave of his hand, and Noah turned to leave. "One more thing," he asked on the cusp of the door. "Who is your favoured lieutenant?"
"His name is Tatterdemalion," the General said. And then Noah was gone.
Donny pulled the Merc to a halt outside his shared house in Faust's Parish.
"Well," he said, unfastening his seatbelt with something approaching panic. "I'll see you guys later."
Despite his frantic efforts to get away both the Doctor and Charles followed him up the steps to his front door. Just as he was about to slip his key into the lock the door was thrown open. A wild-eyed, thin-limbed, nerdish individual reached out and gripped Donny by the lapels.
"Donny!" he fairly shrieked, before lowering his voice to a conspiratorial shout. "Your brother's a killer frog!"
"I'm sorry," said Donny to Charles. "My room-mate's gone crazy."
"Has he?" said Charles and headed back to the car. The Doctor turned to Donny.
"See you soon Donny," he said. "And when I do, we'll play a game together, okay?"
The pair of them left the collection of human fallout in their homes and sped off across the city.
The door opened.
Sarah's face, backlit by the television's dim, artificial light was exactly the same as… her mother.
Frondine was beneath a canopy of white that shone in the sunlight. The wind whipped at the fabric as it revealed itself as a parasol. Her mother wore her best dress, as she always did when out walking with father. She was so beautiful, her blonde hair shone in the sunlight, a shower of gold, just like hers.
She looked down at her pale skin, devoid of scars, saw her father – the soldier – towering above her, his whiskers wrapping his face in a harsh black. How he longed to be like his father.
The little boy playing with the dogs.
Her little brother.
Emma's little brother.
Suddenly she was back, and Sarah, her face full of genuine concern, was staring at her.
"I'm sorry," Frondine said, sobbing through the words before composing herself. "I'm sorry to call so late, and I know how this must sound, but I think that you and I are related."
Sarah stared at Frondine, and she watched as the cynicism faded away as if by magic. There was recognition, pity and concern there.
"You look so tired," Sarah said, extending a hand towards her cheek, she drew back instantly and Frondine was terrified for a moment, but then she reached out and grabbed her hand. "You're freezing. Come on inside, I'll get you a mug of hot chocolate and a biscuit."
The Doctor was getting homesick for his fort, but his furry accomplice had clearly decided that they were heading out into the middle of nowhere for no apparent reason. It was not a good game, but the goat-man had provided a little entertainment, and so he felt obliged to humour him.
"It's just up here," said Charles, oblivious to the fact that the Doctor didn't care.