Kayla blinked, and stared at the stranger, re-evaluating rapidly; the other smiled wryly, and spread both hands.
“Like I said, I might be able to help.”
“Okay, let’s try this again,” Kayla said. “Come have a seat. I’m Kayla.”
The dark woman’s strides were long and effortless; Kayla, who had little patience for women who equated being feminine with being helpless and weak, regarded with approval both the way she moved and the muscle visible in her arms as she drew nearer. “Riley. Do you want to get your friend?”
“No.” She saw no need at this point to explain that Max wasn’t here. And before I let you near him, sister, you’re going to have to convince me this isn’t a con game of some sort and you aren’t going to hurt him.
Riley nodded, and seated herself on the opposite side of the picnic table. “Sixty seconds after I start explaining, you’re going to believe that I’m insane or I’m a sadistic bitch getting her kicks or both, because the other option is going to be that the world is very different than it seems. I’m not asking you to believe everything I say right off the bat, that’s too much to expect from anyone. But if you can give me the benefit of the doubt enough to keep an open mind, I’ll do my best to prove that I’m not crazy or out for kicks.”
“I’m very good at being open-minded.”
“Good, hold that thought.”
“If I promise to listen to the evidence and explanations, can you hit the high points in a hundred words or less?”
“Um, I can try, but it’s going to be tricky given how limited my specific info is and how much I’m guessing.” Riley paused, visibly thinking. “I have reason to believe that your friends have extremely exotic DNA that was activated the night of the blackout, which is probably related to their being missing. They are probably not in immediate danger, but they are probably extremely confused and possibly frightened and unsure who to trust. I was asked by the great-granddaughter of the woman you helped that night to come investigate and help. I don’t have hard answers yet, but I’m working on it.”
Kayla considered that. “Right. And by exotic you mean…?”
“Well… not human.”
Riley reached into the bag at her side, and brought her hand out carefully cupped. “Don’t freak. She’s as harmless as any other mouse, but she’s special more or less the same way your friends are.”
She moved her hand to the table and released, well, something.
It did look like a mouse, except that as Kayla watched it look around, the dark fur faded and changed to match the sanded pine of the picnic table.
Riley scooped it up and reached for Kayla’s phone, the case of which was metallic red; when she set the mouse on top of the phone, the soft light brown deepened to a very improbable red that almost perfectly matched the phone. When placed on the paper, the mouse turned bright white with, no less, broken black squiggly lines like smeared and distorted text. A tiny harness of flat cord hardly more visible than fishing line fit securely around the little body, fastened with a jewellery-type lobster-claw clasp; Kayla could see nothing attached to it or supported by it except a copper tag less than half a centimetre across, too small to have legible info on it.
“Just a mouse, but with some exotic DNA,” Riley said. “Her name is Hob. She’s not really much smarter than any other mouse, although that can be pretty smart, but I’m kinda fond of her. Mostly she’s helpful for situations like this, but now and again she can sniff something out for me. If I’m right, she’s actually a lot like your friends. Can you try to give me a fair hearing while I give you all the details and explanations and stuff?” Kayla’s people-sense told her the sympathy in Riley’s voice was genuine.
“Yeah, I think I can do that.” Kayla was rather surprised by how calm her own voice was. “You’ve got a freakin’ chameleon mouse and I can’t think of a way to fake that easily in my back yard or a reason to, and I’m pretty sure the rules of reality as I understand them don’t allow for that, so, uh, yeah, I’m listening.” Was the world weirder than she’d thought, or was she losing her mind, or was this an absurdly elaborate trick?
“Good. I hate shocking people, but, well, it’s very important that you actually hear what I’m about to tell you, and people seem to absorb less while they’re being rational and sceptical about some extremely irrational concepts.” Riley absently reached back into her bag for a couple of hard pellets of compressed seeds with brighter bits, which she gave Hob; the mouse settled down to eating happily, once again the colour of the wood of the table, except for her front paws that matched her snack. “Do you have any particular religious beliefs? I can try to put it in those terms, if you do.”
“Not really.” Yeah, just try to reconcile my life and priorities with what organized religions tend to say…
“Okay. As rational as I can make it, then. There is a form of energy that is actually quite common in the world, but it interacts with us only in relatively subtle and hard-to-measure ways, and while it does follow a very clear set of rules, those rules are quite different from the ones that physics says the universe runs on.”
“All right,” Kayla said warily. “Does this energy have a name?”
“Not in the sense that, say, gravity or electricity do. No one believes in it so why have a word for it? Call it aether, for the fifth element in classical science that couldn’t be directly perceived like the others. Or quintessence, if you prefer.”
“Aether. Right. And?”
“More accurately, humans generally can’t perceive it, but there are living things that live within and use it extensively, the same way we use ambient heat and light to survive and function. Because of that, however, they exist just far enough out of sync with us that typically we have trouble perceiving them and they typically have trouble perceiving us.”
“Okay, that’s an interesting sort of abstract theory another day maybe, but I’m not much in the mood just now.”
Riley nodded. “Yeah, that’s frequently where I start getting funny looks. Try this.” She sorted through the chaotic collection of pendants on cords of varying length and material and colour, and untangled a ring the size of a dollar coin on a bright green silk cord. As she held it out by the cord, it gleamed. “This adjusts frequencies enough to work like a lens. Look through it at, oh, the nearest large tree, say.”
Warily, Kayla took it. Despite having been in contact with Riley, it was cool in her hand. A highly polished circle of silver two millimetres thick had two fine copper wires wrapped around it in opposite directions, forming a regular pattern; otherwise, it was an unremarkable hoop of metal. She raised it and looked at the lush old maple that cast one corner of the yard into perpetual deep cool shade.
And nearly dropped the ring.
She knew birds lived in the tree, and squirrels, and creepy-crawlies she preferred not to ponder too closely—but lounging on one heavy low branch, partially visible through the leaves, was a woman whose skin seemed to blend into the bark, her long hair the colour of the leaves around her. She lay on her back, one long leg dangling, her attention on the sparrow currently sitting on her hand.
Without the ring, Kayla could see a sparrow sitting on a thin branch, one that with a bit of imagination could look like a hand with impossibly thin fingers, but no sign of the tree woman.
“What the hell…?”
“There’s a person in the tree who looks like part of it?” Riley said, without turning around to look at it, but it didn’t really sound like a question.
Kayla twisted so she could see the tree in the neighbour’s yard, an ancient and knotted apple tree.
Perched on a branch next to the trunk was a gnarled humanoid figure of indeterminate sex, so shrivelled and twisted as to be hard to distinguish from the branches—except that it looked right at her, grinned with very white teeth, and gave her a mocking little wave.
Kayla yelped and did drop the ring, but Riley caught it, and set it down safely next to Hob.
“It just waved at me!”
“That’s, what, an apple tree? Yeah, they’re tricky buggers. Generally pretty benevolent unless you offend them, but a lot less easygoing than maple, and they don’t miss much.”
Kayla picked up the ring again, turning it in the sunlight. Silver band, copper wire, nowhere to hide anything and no markings on any surface. And she wasn’t seeing static images, both figures had been bizarre but looked very much alive. CGI could create that… but how?
“Okay, what the hell are those?”
“If I tell you the name that’s currently in use in English, it’s going to have all kinds of pop culture garbage and preconceptions attached to it, and it won’t really tell you anything. They’re an example of those living things that need the aether. Sentient humanoid ones, in this case, closely associated with those two trees.”
Associated with trees. Needing a form of energy that followed different rules. “Are you seriously trying to tell me that there are fucking magical dryads living in my back yard?”
“That’s one name that particular kind have been called,” Riley admitted. “They have a lot of names. Every culture has encountered these kinds of things, sentient and otherwise, and they’ve invented names for them and, usually for lack of real info, have made things up about them. Magic is a word that’s used at times but it has so much baggage it’s really not a good one for explaining anything.”
“And this current English name for these things is…?”
For a second or two that failed to process, as Kayla stared at her. “You have got to be kidding me. Theo’s been kidnapped by fairies?”
Riley shook her head. “No, the odds of that are close to zero.”
“Then how the fuck does this insanity relate to the fact that I have friends missing?”
“Most kinds of fae have overwhelmingly more females than males. Female fae frequently go looking for other options, and a very popular one is seducing human men. If they have a boy, they always keep him; if it’s a girl, she may be left to grow up among humans. It doesn’t take many generations for it to go into a dormant form.”
“Which I take it you think my friends have.”
Riley stroked Hob’s back thoughtfully with a finger. “In a word, yes. It’s not uncommon for humans to have fae genes. There are two steps necessary for that to have any relevance at all. The first is that they have to be stimulated, partially activated, prenatally by very specific and infrequent environmental conditions, which tends to mean that a small local group will be affected all at once. We call those dormant faelings. Um, not everyone loves the term ‘faelings’ these days, but it’s actually quite old and just means belonging to the fae bloodline, and there aren’t a lot of terms available that mean ‘human who has a fae ancestor at some point and their fae genes are at least potentially active,’ y’know? It’s commonly used and understood and doesn’t usually offend anyone. Dormant faelings are basically just regular people, but there’s a fae soul underneath that will always make them a little different from the rest of us. A little more sensitive to what’s around them, a little more attuned to rhythms the rest of us can’t sense, often a little more conscious of cause and effect. A preference for living where they were born. An affinity for other faelings, especially other local ones. If you’d rather, I can put it all in terms of epigenetics, the activation and deactivation of genes and traits without any actual alteration of the DNA. It amounts to the same thing.”
“And you figure my friends are part fairy why?”
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