They are called redcaps in stories: monsters with hats the colour of blood, dipped in the bodies of their victims. I was young when I ran into one: eighteen years old, so new at magic and unaware that fae glamours could hide monsters even from magicians. I barely survived the encouter and walk slowly down side streets of the city as I remember it. Other times, too. A choir of creatures calling themselves angels, a town that tore open a place between the universe and hungry things that sometimes wait Outside. Magicians prepare for battle in diffeent ways: I armour myself with my failures, with the knowledge that I survived in every scar and ache in my body.
Jay walks along beside me in silent, scarfing down subs from Subway. He is arming himself in his own way, and from far Outside the universe as well, bound into my service to save him from creatures far more dangerous than he. He can bind and see bindings; he’s the one who connected six stories of homeless people on the ‘net and figured out something not human had to be killing them. It was not hard to guess what, and he can feel my fear through the bindings between us.
He came anyway, because it is always easier to be brave for someone else rather than yourself.
I let the magic out, feeling the shape and texture of the world ahead of me. “Corner, threee homeless men. One dead, two awake. Talk to me, Jay.”
Jay gulps back food and scowls for a few moments. “The one furthetht from uth ithn’t human,” he says firmly. “Not from outthide, but thtill not human.”
The lisp comes from damage he suffered entering the world; there is other damage was well, some far newer than that. Other kinds I dimly sense at best. He looks about ten, and is faster and tougher than humans are, but there are limits to such things. I gesture for him to remain behind me and he doesn’t protest at all.
I step around the corner. Need. Will. Desire. The magic flashes out of me in a surge of energy that makes my teeth hum slightly. The homeless man is standing over a woman, a dead man spread out behind him in a pile of bones. The man is stout and red: Flesh, blood and bone, his hair a cap of dripping blood.The redcaps absorb all the blood of their victims and turn filthy red after eating, their bodies stronger than anything human in that time. And they do it for the joy of the butchery alone.
It senses me and moves, but is not faster than magic. My will slams it into a wall and I speak a Word, the binding ripping the stolen blood and strength out of it. The redcaps screams, the sound young and shrill, formed of loss and shock. I doubt anything has hurt it like this in a long, long time. I bring myself not to care, move closer, wrapping the wind of the air and the electricity from homes about it into a net, electric fire burning through it where stolen blood once did. It convulses in weak screams before collapsing in a smell of burnt flesh.
There are probably other ways to deal with redcaps; I only know the one that has worked for me.
“Honcho!” Jay’s voice is sharp and he is around me in a blur, slamming bodily into the woman the redcap was standing over and driving her into the wall. She is homeless, smelling of old clothing and cheap cigarettes and only beaten things lie behind her eyes. Which is – odd, if a redcap just tried to kill her. Death normally brings people to life, no matter how far from themselves they’ve gone.
The woman throws Jay off of her and he lands in a crouch, springs to his feet in a blur, a foot slamming into her throat. She staggers, not falling, and the world tears as she rips a hole between it and what lies Outside with a sharp gesture.
Jay’s scream shakes me from watching, and I close the hole with a thought, binding the world in the alleyway to be just the world. Jay is behind me, stumbling even with his speed, the idea of having been sent back away sending fear spasming between us as he crouches behind me in a low whine of terror.
“Jay.” I don’t turn. “Talk to me.”
“Honcho,” he manages, and then is against my left side, pressed hard against me for protection, sucking in frantic terror on his right thumb. I wrap my arm about him and the kid just pushes harder, using the bindings between us to make himself believe he’s safe, trembling in violent terror.
“I wouldn’t have let you be sent away.”
“I know,” he mumbles, but doesn’t cease sucking on his thumb. he does that when scared; nothing I say could stop it now, or get more from him.
The woman is rubbing her throat and stares at me in silence. She seems thinner than she did a moment ago, and shorter as well. Or taller. I am not surte which, and not at all sure what she looks like.
She nods. “I am. I was about to – discipline this creature in the ways we do such things. Your arrival changed that, magician. As did whatever that creature us beside you.”
Jay relaxes a little but doesn’t stop sucking his thumb. His truest ability is that he can hide his nature from almost anything I’ve met. Even me if he needs to, and we’re bound together.
“He is a friend. That,” I wave a hand to the redcap, “is not. Nor are you, if fae put glamours on such things.”
For a moment the bindings I made don’t exist in the alleyway at all, her illusion that they aren’t overriding even magic. The fae are ancient and powerful, but a moment later the bindings exist again as she nods slightly. “We offer glamours to creatures from Outside, and monsters on your world as well. Else many would have been made extinct long ago. We put conditions upon them, to hunt nothing without just cause and to serve us if we have need in our armies.”
I’ve heard as much, but never from a fae themselves. “And how large are these armies?”
“In the thousands, at least. Our kingdoms are far from this world, but not entirely Outside the universe. You can consider us to be forts in the wall, magician, with many conscripts ready to aid us. It keeps make creatures from trying to break in by force, and magicians deal with most of us the rest. This one broke our trust.”
“What would you have done?”
The fae pauses, then says: “I had not decided yet. I will take it from this place and mete out judgement.”
“Jay?” I make the question as gentle as I can.
He forces his thumb free of his mouth and stands, trying so hard to seem brave. “The fae ithn’t lying, about the redcap, but it had planth for the creature before we got here. I dunno what.”
“Ah.” I consider the fae, then let it go. I can beind reality to my wishes; the fae can make glamours that override reality. “If I run into this redcap again, we will have words.”
The fae doesn’t mock my threat, doesn’t even laugh. Just studies me, then Jay, and nods. A moment later there is no fae or redcap in the alleyway, along with no butchered human body for us to clean up. I have no idea if that is an apology, or if such a term can truly apply to the fae. I reach down and Jay grabs my hand and follows me out, still trembling but holding my hand tight so he doesn’t suck on his thumb.
“I don’t mind if you do. You know that,” I say gently.
“I’m trying to be brave,” Jay snaps.
“How is that working?”
“It’th not; and you’re athking ithn’t helping at all!”
I let go of his hand and crouch down; the boy stares at me wide-eyed and pale, looking so human and very, very scared. I wrap both arms around him and he collapses into the hug and cries until he feels better, pulling away after.
“Sometimes it’s better not to be brave,” I say as I stand.
“Okay,” he says, not understanding yet.
“You sensed a fae; I couldn’t do that on my best day, not alone.” I ruffle his hair gently. “That was pretty awesome.”
“It was. I’d just like to know how the hell you learned to jump-kick anyone in their throat.”
I look down; he grins hugely in reply, the truth radiating between our bindings.
“You seriously copied a move from a video game to fight a fae. Having never done either before.”
I shake my head and ruffle his hair again, snagging his hand and walking further from the alley. “This doesn’t mean I’m going to buy you another video game, you know.”
“It thhould,” he sulks, and spends the next ten minutes telling me video game moves he means to practise now as a kind of punishment.
I let the words wash over me and just relax. The redcap is gone, no more people will be needlessly butchered for it and Jay’s indignation has banishes most of his terror away without him even knowing. I buy ice cream before he can get into the next round of video game characters, and the ice cream headache he acquires from sixteen cones keeps him quiet for a few minutes at least.