My phone buzzed, but I didn’t have the hands to dig it out of my pocket. I was hanging off the side of a huge metal structure in an abandoned shipyard. “Are you sure this is right?” I called to John Henry. “It doesn’t look like there’s room for anything up here!”
“’Course I ain’t sure!” he called back in a stage whisper that did nothing to disguise or lower his voice. “Damn pixies! They’ve got about a thousand hiding places!”
I took a moment to hang from my knees and admire the view. The water, black in the darkness, lapped at the concrete below me. Across the bay, the Oakland shipyards twinkled.
I watched with interest, lulled by the peaceful night air, until another twinkling light zoomed directly in front of my face, startling me so much that I jerked upright. My stomach muscles spasmed and my arms flailed as I attempted to catch myself with wings I could barely sense through the boundary between worlds. For a moment I felt utter panic before I grabbed a rusty bar to steady myself.
The spark of light drifted on a bar just above my head, coalescing into a tiny, filthy winged man. He gestured at me frantically.
“We’ve been looking for you,” I told him. He nodded. “So where is it?”
He pointed at me and then pointed down at John Henry. Then he leaped off the structure and dove toward the chain link fence on the other side of the lot.
I cursed and followed more slowly. If I had been alone, it would have been difficult to resist the temptation of simply flying down, but with a member of SFAIS present I felt compelled to keep up the charade.
When I reached the bottom, my hands numb from the chill metal bars, John Henry had already followed the pixie to a section of chain link fence that, on investigation, appeared to have been cut and loosely reattached.
“Huh.” I said. “You think something’s on the other side?”
“Only one way to find out,” said John Henry. He took a pair of bolt cutters out of a pocket in his cargo pants and matter-of-factly cut through the reattached links before raising a piece of fence. “After you.”
On the other side of the fence, we found ourselves in a vacant, dusty lot. Without the reflection of lights on the water to brighten it, the space was dim and gloomy. John Henry and I stood for a moment, looking around us and waiting for our eyes to adjust.
The pixie was joined by a trio of flickering lights, and the four of them zoomed in a quick circle around our heads before heading to the far end of the lot. A peeling clapboard fence marked the boundary with the road, and I could hear an occasional car pass as we walked toward it.
John Henry took a flashlight out of his pocket and shined it around us, turning as we went. I caught a glimpse of something white.
“There!” I said. “Stop. To your left, on the fence.”
The pixies danced excitedly in the air as we surveyed the circle-shaped hole in the fence. It was just the right size and height for a person to step through, and it led into a misty blackness devoid of the streetlights or reflective paint we should have been able to see on the road. In fact, I couldn’t see the road at all.
John Henry hesitantly approached the hole, shining his light into it. The beam of his flashlight seemed to get sucked into the blackness. He backed up and turned his light to the edges, where we could see graffiti in white chalk. That explained the flash of white I’d seen.
“It’s some kind of gate,” I said.
“Seems so. We should check out what’s on the other side. Give me a hand?” He handed me the flashlight and took a firm grip on the edges of the hole before stepping carefully over. “It’s solid ground here, at least.”
I followed him. Once through, I didn’t need the sudden weight of my wings to tell me that we were in the Otherworld. I could feel it in the way the mist cuddled up to me like an old friend and in all the connections to the past around me. I let out an involuntary sigh.
“You know this place?” asked John Henry. He scanned the rocky ground and low shrubs, which were barely visible through the fog.
“It’s the Otherworld,” I explained. “What Coyote calls the Shadow Land. I go here when I collect souls.”
“Interesting. Collected any souls around here?”
“No, not at all. Anyway, I wouldn’t leave a gate like this open. I don’t even use gates.” I bit my lip, understanding that John Henry was right; I was the most likely suspect. But John Henry had already moved on to exploring the hole: walking all the way around it in the Otherworld and then stepping through to inspect it again in the empty lot. He’d taken out a notepad and pen and begun jotting down notes, but he glanced up at me briefly when he noticed me watching.
“Check and see if the hole is visible from the other side of the fence,” he suggested. I obeyed, switching to the living world to examine the area from the road. As I expected, the fence on that side seemed completely intact. I switched back to the Otherworld to find John Henry grinning at me. “It’s pretty goofy to see your wings just floating around like that,” he said.
I grimaced, though I doubted he could see my expression in the dark. “It’s not an ideal fix, but nothing in the Otherworld has bothered me so far. Anyway, the gate’s not accessible from the road.”
“I figured. In the Shadow Land it’s only visible from one side, too.” He sighed, looking up from his notebook. “Well, that settles it. It looks like another Yaoguai is loose.”
“What is it?” I asked, startled that he had managed to close the case so quickly.
“It’s a minor Chinese demon; usually an animal or even a corpse that has managed to gain some powers. We had one running around Chinatown about a year ago opening gates like these. Yixin can help us hunt it down later.”
I nodded, relieved to no longer be the object of suspicion. “What should we do now?”
He stood back and surveyed the scene. “We’ll have to close the gate as quickly as we can. I’m not sure what would be worse: humans wandering into the Shadow Land or whatever’s out there,” he waved his hand, “wandering into the city.“
We stepped back through the hole and gazed at again it from the lot. John Henry tried rubbing away some of the chalk markings around the edges to no avail. He turned to me. “You want to try?”
I surveyed the gate, reaching out with my mind to feel where the Otherworld had been pulled into the gate. It should have been easy, but although I could feel where the space wasn’t right, I couldn’t seem to grasp it. There were no anchors for me to pull. Could the air itself have been moved? Sweat began to roll down the side of my face as I tried and failed to grab hold of the slippery Otherworld air.
I paused, swaying slightly, and felt a heavy hand clasp my shoulder. “Try and use me as an anchor.” John Henry’s smile gleamed reassuringly in the dark. “I don’t have your knowledge of the Shadow Land, but I can lend you my strength.”
I took a breath, brought my wings back, and tried again, this time with John Henry’s strength anchoring me, letting me reach deeper into the Otherworld. Suddenly I could feel the air itself, its particles and the spaces between them, and I could feel how wrong that space was within the gate. I reached out and grasped John Henry’s huge hand and felt it close around mine. His strength poured into me, and I pictured a net finer and more expansive than the fishing nets of my childhood sweeping through the gate, enfolding each particle of Otherworld air and letting any residual Midgard air slip through its cracks. With one hand firmly in John Henry’s for balance, I found I had enough traction to pull the net with both of our combined strengths. The gate shrank to a pinpoint and disappeared. I dropped John Henry’s hand and staggered back, my wings automatically unfolding to catch me. Legs buckling, I did a slow, flapping somersault in the air before landing on my ass in the dirt.
John Henry laughed.
I scowled up at him.
“Oh, come on,” he squatted down and offered me a hand. “That was great! Last time it took at least three of us to close one of those gates. Even Toci couldn’t do it on her own, and she is older than the hills and twice as solid.”
I felt weakness shivering its way through my body, and my head ached. “Just leave me here while I get my breath back. I’ll catch up with you,” I told him, putting my head in my hands. I was almost sure I would never move again. This kind of magical exhaustion felt utterly different from my usual satisfying muscle-ache after a day fighting. I felt almost insubstantial, as if the mist swirling gently around us might drift straight through me as I dissolved.
When I looked up a few moments later, John Henry was still standing there. He shifted from one foot to another. “I’m waiting for you,” he admitted. “We still have to talk to the pixies.” He held out his hand. “You want help?”
“No, no, I can do it. Just give me a minute.” I sat up with a groan, trying to work some feeling back into my hands and feet. “I don’t suppose you have any alcohol on you? It helps my accelerated healing.”
He surprised me by reaching into his pocket and pulling out a flask of Fergus’s whiskey. I drained it and curled up on the ground wrapped in my wings, letting the mist, alcohol, and soft feathers revive me.
A few minutes later, the two of us walked to the shipyard. John Henry took a pair of pliers out of his pocket and closed the chain link fence back up. Then we stood next to the metal structure (he’d told me it was called a crane) and waited.
After a moment, a light once again materialized into a pixie. John Henry reached into his pocket and brought out a plastic baggie, which smelled strongly of blood. “Are you in charge?”
The pixie danced in what appeared to be a triangle formation. John Henry nodded. “Good. Get a few of the others.” The pixie shot into the air and returned almost immediately, followed by a shower of sparks. They hovered around John Henry’s head, periodically diving and speeding off as if afraid to get too close. John Henry addressed them.
“On behalf of the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals, thank you for bringing this matter to our attention,” he began, sounding absurdly formal. “I would like to request that you continue to keep watch and alert us with any information you find about these gates. I’ve brought you a gift as a token of appreciation for your service.”
A pixie of indeterminate gender with an enormous feather in its ragged waistband dove to just in front of John Henry’s nose and hovered briefly beside his ear. John Henry nodded, and after a moment, two more pixies joined and the three of them zipped into a complicated triangular flight pattern. John Henry watched patiently. When the three pixies finished their dance, he bowed carefully and removed a raw, dripping steak from the baggie. He tossed it into the air.
It never hit the ground. The cloud of pixies tore it apart so quickly and silently that soon only a few drops of blood remained on the poured concrete of the wharf. I felt ill. John Henry grinned at my expression.
“Not a fan of raw meat?”
I grimaced, suppressing a shudder. “I didn’t realize they had such sharp claws.”
As we walked away from the miniature carnage, I checked my phone and found a text message from Octavia. Back in Ann Arbor, and the Rivera Xmas prep is in full swing. This shit is gonna be real! How’s the Valkyrie act? Send me pics!! XOXO
I smiled, already thinking about my reply as we headed back to the bar.