Tereus descends the stairs rapidly, realizes the last alcohol in his system has burned out. It’s bright in the kitchen — he lifts the bar and slides the deadbolt by feel while his eyes adjust. He hears a series of heavy steps, throws the door open, grabs his nephew by the armpits and guides him in. Valerius drops to his knees groaning as Tereus bolts and bars the door in one swift motion. Valerius crumples to the floor face-down. Tereus stretches him out full length, rolls him onto his back. For a moment he’s puzzled, still dazzled by the light. His nephew’s eye sockets are dark with blood, blood pours from the corners of his mouth, his cheeks and forehead are scratched and cut.
And then Tereus sees: His eyelids have been incised, stripped away.
They carved Drow characters into his left cheek:
We see you.
On his forehead, etched in flesh and blood: A lidless eye.
He pries Valerius’s mouth open, and feels a sick throb of sympathetic pain: His tongue is gone. He’s gagging on his own blood.
He hears Valeria behind him, says, “His injuries are serious, but not life-threatening.” He looks up, pins her with his gaze. “There’s some danger that he’ll go into shock. He’ll need the same care that you gave Lucius. Stop the bleeding by packing the wound, then cover him in blankets. Lavinia will care for him, and you will return to me and Lucius. Take his feet. We’ll carry him to the cellar.”
They bang on the door, haul him in, Tereus curtly telling everyone to be quiet and allow Valeria to work. He kneels down next to Valeria and says in a clear, cold voice, “Return to me and Lucius when you’ve packed the wound. I expect you upstairs in 10 minutes — no longer.” He adds softly, “It looks worse than it is. He’ll pull through.” He turns to leave, adding, “Lavinia, bar the door behind me, and when Valeria leaves.”
As he climbs the stairs to the kitchen, and then to the second floor, he hears Drow message chatter, eerily clear and loud. He finds Lucius crouched in Valerius’s bedroom. “I can’t see them — I can’t even see the tree line.”
Tereus peers out through the shutters. The clouds have blocked even starlight. The darkness is sudden and absolute.
And yet he can hear them coming.
He prowls from room to room, stops in the nursery. There he hears them perfectly: The loud, buzzing, insect-like chatter. He slows his breath, allows his vision to blur and soften, then closes his eyes entirely. A long-quiet part of his mind starts up, initializes. He’s scanning, trying to home in. Then, quite suddenly, he’s locked on, and he hears the broadcast plainly:
[Θ] [action] [location] [speed] [bearing] [target] [Θ]
It takes a moment for him to resolve the coordinate system and units. Then he calls out to Lucius, “I’ve got them.” His closed eyes dart back and forth as he maps the coordinates against the farmyard. “Two Theates, three yards in front of the tree line. One at ten o’clock, one at two o’clock.”
Lucius scrambles into the room, takes his station at the window. “Ten and two? No.”
“They’re moving slowly, heading for the parlor door in a straight line.”
He hears a sharp intake of breath as Lucius spots them, raises his crossbow.
“Wait for a good look and a clear shot.”
“Wilco.” Lucius gets off three shots in rapid succession. “Got ‘em.”
“Fuck yeah, JP.”
They wait in silence. Tereus with his eyes closed and head tilted, Lucius scanning.
They hear Valeria on the stairs. She says, “He’s stable. The bleeding’s stopped.”
“Good girl,” Tereus says. He opens his eyes briefly, looks her full in the face. “Lavinia will care for him. Stay with us, OK? We need you up here.”
A few more brief packets of chatter, then silence. Tereus opens his eyes, stretches. “They’re regrouping. Come with me, Valeria.”
He resumes his watch at the window, now listening more than looking. He pulls back, lights another cigarette. “How are you holding up?”
She jerks her gaze up from the ammunition laid out on the bed. “I feel like shit,” she confesses.
“That’s normal.” His voice softens. “You’re doing great. Just keep doing what you’re doing.” His smile is intensely sweet, confiding. “We’re in combat. Most people don’t care for it.”
He goes back to watching, listening. It’s both boring and frightening.
After a moment, he hears a small sob of horror. Tereus looks back. Valeria is sitting on the bed, arms wrapped around herself, fingernails digging into her upper arms. She can’t stop thinking of her son lying downstairs, disfigured, in shock.
Tereus says quietly, “Hear that?”
She frowns, shakes her head. “No.”
“Listen carefully. It sounds like locusts, or crows when their nests are threatened. It helps to close your eyes.”
Her eyes drift shut. Suddenly she’s tuned in, and it’s unmistakable, like wind or birdsong or waves.
“They’re sending out position and state data, forming up,” he whispers. “Mixed Theates and Xyrec. They’ll line up, wait for a signal, move out together. Do you know any cryptography or code?” She shakes her head, eyes still closed. “It’s simple, structured — like an algebraic equation, or a chemical formula. I’ll teach you later, when there’s time. There’s an elegance to it.”
He breaks off, takes a deep breath of almost pained exhilaration.
To Valeria, the chatter seems unchanged.
He drops into firing position, aims, shoots. She hands him a loaded crossbow, and for the next few moments, she’s preoccupied with loading and handing off. He’ll shoot several rounds, then pause, wait for a good shot.
There’s a longer pause. “How many bolts are left?” he asks.
“Good. Call it out at ten and five, just like I said. They’ve retreated behind the tree line for the moment.” His stance relaxes. After a moment he says, “Be my lookout.” He steps back to light and smoke a fresh cigarette while she peers into the darkness. As her eyes adjust, she sees that the pasture is littered with Drow troops. She counts eight for 18 crossbow bolts expended. She’s startled to see that they advanced to within 20 feet of the house before retreating.
She notes simple facts. Otherwise, her mind is pleasingly blank.
He finishes his cigarette, and they switch places.
She asks, “How many are left?”
She considers this. “What do you mean?”
He turns back from the window to face her. “Darling, the horses are dead, we’re outnumbered and low on ammunition. It’s not even midnight yet.” He watches as puzzlement, anguish and joy ripple across her face.
Her heart struggles painfully, takes flight.
Now that it no longer matters, she allows herself to look again: To study his features, revel in them. His smile is sweet, angelic, inviting. His eyes look black against his stark, white features. He glances down almost shyly, and a lock of hair falls across his forehead. He pushes it back, tries to tuck it behind one ear.
He’s beautiful, just like he has been all along.
He turns back to the wild darkness, murmurs, “Nothing matters now.” His voice is low and sweet and rapturous. It’s how he sounded when he said that he adored her.
He watches for the enemy, and she watches him. For all of his grace and masculine competence, there’s always been some mismatch between Tereus and his surroundings. Now, sitting at the window, weapon in hand, he’s entirely calm.
He stiffens and start to track with his crossbow. He breathes, “That’s it. Come to daddy.” He shoots, discards, reaches back. She slaps the second crossbow into his hand. He tracks, fires, discards. She loads hastily, and hands him the weapon just as he’s about to look back.
“How many bolts left, love?”
“Count ‘em when we get to five.”
The next five go off in a series of smooth, uninterrupted motions.
“Five,” she says, handing off.
“Nice.” He’s tracking another target. “Leave when I’m taking the last shot. Bar the cellar door when you get inside. Don’t make a sound. We’ll hold them as long as we can.”
The last shots go swiftly. They clatter down the stairs. Over the sound of their footsteps, Valeria can hear the Drow swarming around, front and back. She hesitates, half-turns towards the parlor. “Go immediately,” he says. He strides across the parlor floor, longsword drawn.
Portable battering rams slam into both doors. She gives a horrified start, runs down the steps, hammers on the cellar door. After an agonizing moment, Lavinia unbars the door.
Upstairs, things happen quickly. The doors are stout, but they’re not made to withstand light siege equipment. The timbers groan, split. On the last few blows, Tereus sees four Xyrec working the battering ram. He hears the Theates swarming around behind, aiming crossbows, offering instructions and encouragement.
The door gives way and the Xyrec raiders tumble into the room. Tereus goes straight at them, swinging his longsword, lashing out with his bullwhip, snarling insults in Drow.
The Xyrec perk up and draw weapons merrily — they love a good hand-to-hand fight. He cuts one down, gives the second a solid crack across the face. She flinches reflexively, then rattles in, screaming in High Elvish that she’ll rip his dick off and force-feed it to him.
“Fuck yeah, baby, let’s roughhouse,” he roars in Drow. He and the last three Xyrec square off as the archers push through one by one. He maneuvers to get his back to the fire, forcing them to squint into the flames. Behind him he hears the kitchen door shattering and Lucius striking out with a short sword and a hot poker.
One last archer peers through the shattered door, raises a blowgun. He feels the sting of a dart hitting his left shoulder. He plucks it out, surges towards her. Someone calls for the archers to hold fire. He feels darts hit his neck and hairline. The Drow pull back sharply as he lurches towards them, drops to his knees, slumps to the ground.
For a linked table of contents, listing all of the Shelawn family adventures, click here.