Chapter 4

Stranger

The enclosed courtyard on the west side of the Ash's compound lacked the finely shaped topiary and carefully laid flowerbeds one might expect of a typical government building. The trees were never cut back; beech, linden, and oak free to spread and reach their full height, creating a loose canopy above and shaded pathways below. Arrowwood littered the ground, fed by dark soils imported from the rich loess deposits of Eastern European lowlands. It was less like stepping into a garden than several acres of temperate forest.

Inside, Lauren had been restless and edgy all day. But out here, the evening sun melted away her tension. She couldn't count the number of times she had slipped away at the end of a long shift to walk among these trees over the past five years. It was a place of unmitigated peace. Well, except for the occasional run-in with a hostile caretaker pixie.

She turned to Bo, hoping that by bringing her here the succubus might feel similarly, and caught her breath.

Bo's eyes were closed, face uplifted to the warmth of the setting sun. Her skin fairly glowed in the golden light. She was smiling, and she was beautiful. Why couldn't there have been more moments like this, she thought sadly, turning toward the path and walking at a leisurely pace. It wasn't long before she heard Bo following.

"How much would you bet that just yesterday I wouldn't have been allowed here?" she asked absently, taking in her surroundings. She turned in a circle as she walked, craning her neck back to watch the fading light filter through the branches above them.

"You think that security is being lax because you're the sacrificial stag?"

"I know it," her voice was soft and low. Facing forward, she took the lead. Lauren noticed the fluidity of Bo's movements, that unnerving grace fit for any Parisian runway, lithe and elegant. When she glanced back over her shoulder, her eyes were like dark velvet, dilated black.

Lauren was reminded of last night's display behind the Dál. She shivered, beginning to wonder if this was such a good idea after all.

"Earlier today I got all the way to the treasury door before anyone stopped me," her lips tipped into a playful grin, "And even then, no strip search."

"You almost sound disappointed," Lauren said, laughing.

"Why do you think I came to your office?"

Lauren knew better than to blush, but felt the heat rise in her face and neck all the same.

all the way to the treasury door…

She stopped in her tracks. "Bo, please tell me you didn't agree to do this so that you could steal something."

Bo's footsteps ground to a halt on the graveled path. "Of course not," her voice was suddenly hard. Her shoulders slumped as she faced Lauren. "I'm doing this for the people I care about.

"And according to my sources, there's an artifact here somewhere that can cure Kenzi."


"Hey, lady! You can't go back there."

"Oh please."

Dyson looked up from his computer monitor to see one of his coworkers barring Kenzi's path from the reception area to the precinct's main room. Openly smirking, he turned back to clicking through his email while an explosive tirade ensued that made him wish he could understand Russian. The guard never stood a chance.

Then the screen went blank. What the hell?

Kenzi leaned over the desk twirling an hdmi cable. "We've got problems."


The temperature had dropped while they meandered along the various paths, caught between night and day. The sun slipped just below the horizon, casting the clouds in streaks of sapphire and cobalt as evening fell. Ahead, an enormous white ash stood alone.

Lauren slowed to a halt while Bo continued forward, in awe of the massive tree. Easily nine meters in diameter, the trunk was free of moss; it's thick, vertically fissured bark indicative of a very old specimen. A domed crown of branches towered over them and obscured the sky.

Bo finally broke the silence. "Could this be-?"

"Yggdrasil. The Ash," a lilting accent came from somewhere among the surrounding forestry, unseen. "Or rather, a small graft from it."

Bo swung around to meet the stranger, drawing a knife as she did so. "Who's there?"

The Valkyrie emerged from between the trees, her stride even and purposeful, pale silver gaze on the great tree. "Some consider this is a sacred place. You shouldn't be here, considering your…political alignment," she said in a low voice, its timbre rough with age, and its tone as smooth as an expensive liqueur, sending a chill down Lauren's spine.

Bo positioned herself solidly between Lauren and the ancient fae. "I've never cared much about what other people think."

She didn't react, keeping a careful distance for which Lauren was grateful. Her oval face was almost featureless, a cool facade of perfect indifference. "A commonality between us."

Bo gave a short laugh. "Be sure to use that in your campaign speech."

"I'll hardly need one," she dismissed the taunt easily, straightening a smartly cut blazer over her shoulders. Even in modern dress, she was no less intimidating. "For someone so young, you seem to attract a lot of attention."

"My reputation precedes me," Bo's stance was defensive, but Lauren thought she sounded as confident and daring as ever, which usually made for a violent confrontation. She questioned the wisdom of prolonging this encounter.

"Indeed, it does," quicksilver eyes focused over Bo's shoulder briefly to consider Lauren, who felt like her heart was racing dangerously towards myocardial infarction.

"So what do you want?"

The other woman glided forward, further into the clearing. "This situation is unprecedented, and I find myself curious as to why exactly you volunteered."

Bo hesitated before she sheathed the knife at her hip and crossed her arms. "The council seems to think that I'm a problem worth getting rid of, and I needed a way to get the Light off my back. I have the right to remain neutral, and so should everyone else."

It was half-true at best, but for Lauren's sake, Bo wasn't going to be more forthcoming. The Valkyrie continued to pace, her footsteps eerily silent against fallen leaves. The slightest hint of a smile played at the corner of her mouth.

"Even if you live, it's not as if the government will have somehow lost all legitimacy and collapse in on itself. If you wanted to prove something, or enact some sort of change, this isn't the way to go about it."

"It's a start. There are fae besides me who want to live outside the divide. And others who have died because of it."

"Like Aife?"

Bo visibly tensed.

"Many more fae died during the war, the blood cost to our people greater than I can expect you to appreciate. We went from scattered tribes killing each other in droves to a society that has stood for centuries," the serene, unearthly tone of her voice never changed. "The Blood King's laws maintain peace."

Before Bo could further insult a participant in said war, Lauren decided to try to neutralize the situation. She had a million questions, but had so far held her peace. She knew her place in this world, had learned it the hard way - in a dungeon cell. "Let's go," she whispered softly, stepping forward to tug gently at Bo's elbow and earning a backwards glance.

"No. The system is broken." Shrugging off Lauren's hand, Bo took two steps forward into the Valkyrie's space, drawing herself up to her full height. "I once met a vampire whose mother was Light. She had had an affair. His family gave him over to the Dark at birth.

"Imagine the reaction to a necromancer," her eyes were dark and her smile was terrible. "You consider yourself a hero for the Light, but you wouldn't have stood a chance today."

In that moment, Lauren was sure that the Valkyrie was going to kill Bo right there if front of the sacred tree.

"If I've learned anything," Bo continued, "it's that the Dark enjoy being narcissistic monsters, and the Light have to try really hard to justify to themselves that they're not exactly the same."

The movement was too quick for Lauren to follow, but she heard an audible crack that she recognized. The succubus was on her knees before the Valkyrie who held one of Bo's arms in a viselike grip at an awkward angle. It was broken.

"Take another step and she loses the arm," she commanded when Lauren rushed forward. Bo didn't cry out or struggle in her pain, but her eyes burned bright, evidencing her instinctual response to heal herself.

"Monsters. It that truly how you see us all?" The old fae jerked Bo to her feet, twisting the broken arm.

Bo was unsuccessfully trying to keep a straight face. "Go to hell."

"Or," the Valkyrie pulled her close, bringing their faces together, "Is that how you see yourself?"

Of all the things that could have happened, Lauren honestly never expected her to kiss Bo.

"No!" Now Bo fought in earnest against the other woman, as well as her own nature. She turned away as much as the hold would allow, grasping at her rapidly vanishing control.

A cruel smile graced the Valkyrie's features, and she gave another brutal wrench. Bo inhaled sharply in pain, and her body took over in response to the proximity of a chi source without her conscious consent.

Lauren didn't move, rapidly devising and rejecting plans to somehow defend Bo as she was essentially force-fed against her will. It was all so wrong. Knowing she was powerless against an ancient seemed a small thing against the sight of Bo's tears tracking down her face when she finally tore her mouth away.

"You have no idea of what I've sacrificed to 'stand a chance.'" With that, the Valkyrie unceremoniously cast her aside.

Lauren watched her toss her black hair over one shoulder, a surge of unadulterated hate sweeping through her before turning toward the crumpled heap that was Bo. She was shaking, trying to scrape herself back together. When their eyes met, hers were empty and lost.

"Remember, you're more valuable to me dead than alive, little succubus."