Originally posted 2015-12-04 16:00:10.
Life was never easy and Christmas was no exception. As much as Howard Conrad wished for the things that go bump in the night to take a holiday break along with the rest of us, it never seemed to be the case. Chicago was decked out for the holidays. Wreaths, giant Christmas trees, lights, ice rinks, the works. Howard, or Howie to his associates, rarely got away from the bluish lights of his monitors and his color coded cell phones. Pink for humans, red for vampires, orange for shifters, yellow for demons, green for hunters, blue for Fae, purple for mages, black for enemies, white for international and then one with a prismatic case for friends. He wondered what he’d do if the spirits learned how to use phones as well. He’d run out of colors eventually. The prismatic phone had been ringing off the hook since Halloween.
Even someone like Howie needed somewhere to go for the holidays and his friends had been fighting to book him. He almost regretted making social appointments every single night through New Years, almost. He would probably flake out of half of them, but being the network person for half of the supernatural population in the United States granted him some freedom. Speaking of which, Howie checked his watch, it was time to go. This particular appointment was not one he could skip, nor did he want to. He had set up through the ‘friend’ line, although technically, it was strictly business.
Howie didn’t make a habit of being friends with his clients. It got messy, people took things personally, and then it was bad for his reputation. His network supported him, protected him from the other evils on the line. Having a problem with a vampire? Call on the wolves and convince them it’s in their best interest to take out the target. The Fae breathing down your back? Give wind of it to the Mages and they’d be all over it. He never said that he was ever under threat because evil caused problems for everyone.
It took some time to learn that not all members of any particular group were evil. It took longer to accept that he was their equal. He wasn’t part of any established tribe, coven, agency, or family. He was his own person- one connected to the internet and the pulse of the world. He’d help people in need, grow his network, and they in turn would support him. It was system that worked.
Howie took one more look at his monitor and called in for his two apprentices, the only people in the world the man trusted, to monitor in his absence. They were college-aged kids, but for whatever reason found themselves on the street, and then under his care. They both had experiences with the supernatural that left them scarred, but the scars on their bodies didn’t hurt nearly as much as the ones good old humanity left on their souls.
He left the phones arranged on the table, taking only what looked like a simple pager. A hacker mage hooked him up with an untraceable phone that would pick up calls from the lines and forward them to Howie. He didn’t use it except when he was away from his office because that amount of information and the life he led meant a constant stream of “low battery” warnings.
“The purple line’s been busy tonight,” he warned Khaleb, who took his seat. “If anyone asks about the drownings, tell them I’m on it. Jessica, make sure you’re monitoring screens five through seven, that sector’s been running hot lately,” The girl nodded, she wore a shirt that was far too tight, but she didn’t distract Khaleb, he’d seen it all before. The two of them had been sneaking off together for weeks, and then tried to convince Howie nothing was going on. He was waiting for the day they’d admit their desires so he could harass them about it, the prospect made him grin.
“I’ll be back in a few hours. Meeting some friends tonight, so only interrupt me for emergencies. Today’s notes are by the phones. You know the drill.”
Khaleb was only allowed to answer certain phone numbers. He knew what to look for. The benefit of being perceived as being a busy man was that people didn’t get too miffed about having to leave a message. Howie always returned the call.
He protected his shaved head with a light gray hat that contrasted nicely against his dark skin. Throwing a scarf over his neck and wrapping a camel hair coat around his built frame protected him further against the cold. The last things to be checked were his weapons and a heavy black duffel bag.
They were waiting for him by the pier, looking out over Lake Michigan. “Heya Howie!” The girl hardly smiled, but the greeting was less serious than what he usually heard over the lines.
“Happy Solstice, Beautiful,” Howie smiled at her, tipping his hat. She stood at attention in her leather coat, tight jeans that disappeared into hunting boots, and her wild red hair flowing every which way in the cold winter air. The mass of muscle standing beside her stretched out his hand. Howie accepted the handshake and only winced a little as his hand was engulfed and nearly crushed.
“It’s hella good to see you, man.” Unlike the wild child beside him, the Irishman’s face erupted into a smile amid a thicket of red haired beard. His hair was down to his shoulders now, but pulled back in a low ponytail. It kept it out of his way. He wore a t-shirt, hoodie, and jeans. “You ready for tonight?”
“Of course. It’s good to see you too, Shane.” Howie wrung out his hand, checking to make sure his bones were in place. The behemoth just laughed at him. Well, he was a werewolf, Howie was not. It really was no contest.
“For fuck’s sake, Shane, what did I tell you about breaking hands?” The redhead punched him in the arm, she was a wolf too, and nearly as strong.
“Aw c’mon Rhy, Howie knows I’m just playing.”
Howie laughed, holding up his hand. “It’s true, love, I’m fine.”
The girl’s gaze pierced them, one, then the other. The stare was full of intensity, rage, and possibly some mirth. “Let’s get on with this. Why did you bring us here?”
Always to the point with Rhylyn O’Leary. The woman was all steel on the outside and Howie let her save that image. He knew better and would worry about her if Shane wasn’t at her side, keeping her grounded.
“Solstice.” Howie explained. “Shane told me you two were going to be in town. How’s business going in Detroit?”
“Rough,” Rhylyn answered. “A little better now that we’re working for the Druid.” Another one of Howie’s contacts. He put them in each other’s path when some mages started stirring up trouble, knowing they’d make a good team, and his assumptions were rarely wrong. He was a little disappointed the Druid couldn’t make it tonight- though his contribution would prove invaluable. Howie put a hand on the duffel bag, weighted down with his surprise.
Howie pointed and the crew started off down the bank of the water. They talked about nonsense, vampire nests that had been destroyed, small talk about the weather- it was probably going to snow soon though as it had been fairly mild. Howie’s phone went off a few times, he had to answer it once. To any outsiders, they appeared as three friends walking along the bank of Lake Michigan. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Shane stopped mid- sentence, sniffing the air. Wolves had access to smells beyond Howie’s abilities, but it was not something he envied. He smelled enough of Chicago himself, he couldn’t imagine how worse city grime would smell to the wolves.
“Is this the place?” Shane had a way of talking that almost sounded like a growl. His partner went rigid, using all of her senses to detect whatever it was Shane felt. Howie nodded, unzipping the duffel.
“Are we finally going to do something?” Rhylyn’s voice was more sarcastic than good natured.
“Yup. You ready, beautiful?” Howie smiled, knowing what was to come. He had led them to the spiritual center of the city. Nothing brilliant marked its location, nothing came out of the shadows to disrupt them. Howie had seen to it that it was kept clear. Now to see if his preparations would pay off. He pulled a log out of the duffel bag, it was thick, but short and light.
Shane lit the fire, and it caught immediately. Faerie Wood was significantly more flammable than its earthly counterparts. The smell of summer engulfed them as flames sparkled and danced in the air, warming the three individuals in the cold. Silence fell over them as the fire burned. The flame crackled in the wind, twisting and turning as if possessed. Shane looked up, the others followed his gaze. A single snowflake fluttered down, touching the flame and hissing. Then another, and a third. The sky opened up and snow began to fall in earnest. Shane stood as a statue, waiting. Rhylyn moved to her feet, glancing around the clearing, on edge. Howie kept his gaze on the sky with Shane, no demons were going to pop out of the shadows, not tonight.
Howie turned his gaze to the flame. Nostalgia filled him. How many years had it been since he had actually been able to spend the Holidays with his wife? With his kids? He had done the best he could to protect them. Had to in his line of work. They didn’t know about the horrors their dad faced. They weren’t prepared when work followed him home one night and he hadn’t seen them since, protecting them from afar…Damn, he tried to forget. To bury himself in work, to do anything to keep his mind off of those he lost, those he failed. He considered the lovebirds working back at his office. I’ll be back soon, kiddos.
Shane didn’t want to do this, not initially. Howie had been helping them hide from their enemies, erasing the trail the fugitives had left behind them. “It’s too painful.” He had said. “She can’t handle it.” He sighed, knowing the truth. “Sure, blame it on Rhy, you idiot.” He thought. She may have been the one exiled, but he was the one who lost everything. Shane Murphy stood in the snow, feeling the cold on his back, the warmth of the faerie flames. “This is how it should be.” Howie had told him. He wasn’t letting them suffer alone, not on their first Solstice away from home, the first time they had to survive the winter. Shane was from Canada, he didn’t care about the cold. He cared about the girl across from him, her eyes glued to the flame, coiled like a cobra poised to attack.
Faerie light in the dark of winter fended away the evils of the world. Shane felt the calming magic in the flame. He saw the faces of his sisters and his mother in the smoke. They were all gone now. All he had left was Rhylyn, and she was little more than a shell. No, he corrected himself. She was more than a shell, more like a vault. She had been stuck on survival since the night his family was slain in late July. Since they started running. They didn’t stay in one place until Detroit, and even now they had plans to go to Canada. Stopping was out of the question.
Except for tonight. The protection of the Faerie Light would guard them against evil and get through the cold months. Shane welcomed the light, allowed the power of the spirit to fill him. Faerie wood burned bright and slow. He intended to spend as much time in its healing light as possible.
Rhylyn watched the fire burn with alert eyes. Her face stony, her hands wrapped around her branded wrist. A nervous tick she picked up somewhere along her journey. She felt the fire calling to her, warming her. A glance around showed Shane and Howie, fully embracing its power, they looked somewhere between smiles and tears. She refused, too broken to feel it, too stained, too scarred. Her soul shattered with her exile, and all that remained were the ashes. She hated the light. The Christmas lights brightened even the dark streets of Detroit. The carols that she used to sing with her pack now went silent in her throat. She closed her eyes.
She had been here before, done this before. Solstice was a time of celebration, of rebirth of the hunt. The smell of the sweetened smoke and the frigid snow brought back memories. Memories of a time before she was branded, before the world turned against her. On the solstice, her tribe burned not a single log, but a bonfire of faerie wood to fill hearts with the joy of summer, face the darkness with defiance, and kindle the inner fire that would sustain them. She used to think it was silly. In San Diego, the temperatures didn’t change all that much from one season to the next.
Now she understood. Standing here in the cold, with snow falling around her, collecting in her hair, on her boots, she got it. There was no warmth, not for her. Yet the fire, standing with trusted friends witnessing the flames, she almost believed she was finally safe.
She opened her eyes, surprised to find her cheeks wet. She stared into the fire, expecting to see the monsters of her nightmares. Instead, she saw the face of her mother, her brother, and her lost friends. They smiled and called to her, wrenching her heart open. Tears flowed down her cheeks, freezing as they went. The power of the Fae invaded her, and she felt alive.
Three souls stood in solidarity against the cold. Each too caught up in their worlds to stop, each a little afraid of what might happen once they did. The Faerie Fire burned long into the night as the snow continued to fall. The weight of their demons lifted, if just for a moment. The struggles of the year burned with the crimson embers. Sparkles danced in the air. In its dying breath, one last burst of light rose against the dark, danced among the clearing, and shot into the sky, piercing the clouds.
The muted city, now covered in snow, sparkled under the light of the moon.
Howie glanced around the clearing. Shane closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Rhylyn wiped the last of her tears away, a true smile on her lips. Howie nodded, this was right. He knew this ritual was being performed by tribes across the globe. Ushering in the start of winter with a bonfire and a hunt. It was supposed to cleanse the soul and rekindle the fire of life. He stood, brushing the snow off of his coat. “You ok, hon?” he asked Rhylyn. She shook her head.
“I don’t know,” she answered, but lights sparkled in her eyes, she spoke easier than she had earlier in the night, her breath crystallizing in the air. For a moment, she was whole again. “I’ll get back to you after the hunt.”
Howie laughed from his belly. He didn’t mean for this to be a set-up, and it wasn’t. He always wanted to experience the Solstice Ritual. Until now, he was never close enough to any wolves or fae to pull it off. It was a spiritual thing and Faerie Wood was hard to obtain. The Druid had found some for him.
“You’re coming with us, right?” Shane asked, he seemed revitalized as well. “You have to. You ushered in winter, you have to join the hunt.”
“As long as we go after a mage who’s been playing Siren to drown people in the lake, sure.”
It was Rhylyn’s turn to laugh with the realization, “You asshole, making us work on a holiday!” Howie had never heard the sound of her laughter before tonight. Even Shane looked a little surprised. Rhylyn smiled, shaking her head. “Sounds perfect. Lead the way.”
Two sets of enlarged paws and one set of boots left tracks down an alley as the lingering sparks of light disappeared into the snow.