One Shot at Aeden
By Crystal Crawford
When I was just Deorain Ayer, with skin that could chill and a heart that still beat, grey soggy days made me wish I’d stayed home. But wisps no longer have homes— not until they earn them. My soaked jacket clings to the teenage form I’ve borrowed as I press against the wet brick wall of the alley. It’s nearing evening, and most of the shops in this quaint downtown district are closed or closing, the streets deserted except for a nearby delivery truck and a courier motorcycle a few stores down. Tonight, I get my one and only shot at earning my passage to Aeden, at grasping a life beyond wandering. Her name is Laurel.
I peer around the corner as she hurries down the empty sidewalk, chin tucked, eyes on the pavement. She’s about the age I appear now —seventeen, the age I was when I died— and pretty, though in her current state she resembles a waterlogged sunflower. Her umbrella turned inside out from the wind four blocks back. It dangles at her side now, her blond curls limp with rain, shoulders hunched against the cold. Laurel’s headed somewhere in a hurry, or I suspect she would’ve ducked under an awning to wait the rain out long ago.     
My sparse directives for this mission include tracking Laurel until she leads me to a bronze locket the Archneph needs. It functions as a key between worlds, access direct to Earthside from the Veil. And it’s been stolen by a Veil-Dearg. With it, she and her minions can stir up endless trouble on Earth, a problem the Archneph intends me to handle. 
Get the locket— earn my entrance to Aeden. But if I die in this borrowed form, or fail…I wander forever. 
As Laurel scurries toward my alleyway, I run through my plan. Stay hidden until she passes, then follow until she leads me to the locket. If all else fails, try to charm her. It’s not much of a plan, but I’ve always been the figure it out as you go type. Besides, she’s not watching a thing above her shoes; she should be easy to follow. I doubt she’ll even notice me.
The delivery truck roars to life. I flatten to the wall, try to blend into the shadows. It rumbles past me to the stop sign, pulls away in a cloud of exhaust fumes. I edge back to the corner quick as I can, worried I’ve lost sight of Laurel. But she’s there, hunched and hurrying, two store-lengths away— almost here. 
A navy sedan comes speeding through the puddles on the road, spewing arcs of muddy water. I tense, expecting Laurel to get a mud shower.
The car skids to a stop just before it reaches her. The rear passenger door swings open. A burly man in a red plaid button-down and Wranglers, baseball cap pulled low over his face, leaps out and grabs Laurel from behind.
“Stop!” I dart out onto the sidewalk. 
 Laurel kicks, screams. Her umbrella flies as he lifts her, drags her backward.
I race toward them, but he’s already reached the car with her. “Stop!”
Laurel’s eyes meet mine in panic as he yanks her into the backseat. The door slams behind them. 
I can still hear her screaming as the car peels out, soaking me with a spray of muddy water. 
I dash into the road, but the body I wear is too new for stamina, generated by the Archneph for this mission alone, and it’s exhausted before I reach the next corner. I can’t waste time running into shops to ask for help; the car is already a block down, I’ll lose it. Another engine rumbles and I turn— the courier pulls up to the sidewalk across the street on his motorcycle, hops off with a package, leaves his messenger bag strapped to the back of the motorcycle, keys dangling in the ignition.
I dart across the puddled street and fling myself onto the bike.
I crank the keys, squeeze the clutch, fire the bike to life. The man spins, rushes toward me. I twist the throttle. The man lunges, misses me as the bike surges forward. I skid on the wet road but keep the motorcycle upright. “I’ll bring it back later!” 
I don’t know if I actually will.
The man chases, shouts expletives at my back, but I hunch forward, eyes ahead— on the car that took Laurel. I can just make out its taillights a few blocks down, nearing a major intersection. 
Only now do I realize I’m on a bike in the rain again. The memory slams into me like a truck —Cara’s tiny hands around my waist, her voice screaming in delight, ponytail flapping against my shoulder, purple ribbon trailing out into the wind. Her broken body, limp, bleeding out beside mine— the reason I was cursed to be a wisp. Innocent blood on my hands. My kid sister, dead on impact. I had just gotten my license; I never should’ve let her ride.
Pain stabs straight through my cold, unbeating heart. The roar of the motorcycle blurs with the spectre of Cara’s screams and the rush of wind past my ears. I shake my head, force myself to focus. I don’t know if I even deserve a home anymore, much less Aeden, but it’s my only chance at seeing Cara again, at telling her I’m sorry. Besides, this isn’t just about me, now. Laurel’s in trouble, and I’m the only witness. Rain pelts my face, but I barely feel it in this borrowed form. I lock my gaze onto the taillights in the distance, hunch toward the bike’s windshield, and ride.
We leave the city, curving down backroads until abandoned lots give way to pastures and a narrow highway unlit by streetlights. I keep my distance, high beams off. The rain lets up after another half-hour, but the clouds are still so thick there’s no noticeable sunset, just a dimming from grey to charcoal. The highway is empty, save the two glowing red taillights ahead of me and the occasional blinding flash of a car passing the opposite way. When the dark sedan finally turns onto a No Outlet side street to a sketchy neighborhood swallowed by overgrown oak trees, I pull off. I rummage through the messenger bag on the bike, find a flip-knife and pocket it, then ditch the motorcycle— it’s far too loud for stealth. 
The neighborhood smells like feral cat urine and possibly a dead raccoon. I skirt the road, keeping to the shadows of sagging oak trees, following the glow of red taillights. The grass in every yard I cross is long-dead, every house derelict, every driveway empty. I wonder if anyone even lives in this neighborhood.
The car slinks down the potholed road and parks in a driveway. A security lamp bathes the driveway in a yellow glare. It’s the only light I’ve seen on this road— no lights are on in the house, or in any house nearby.  I slink as close as I can safely get; press myself against the wall of the house next door. 
Laurel is unconscious, arms dangling limp, as the man carries her inside the dark house. Her hair has dried into messy blonde curls that hang past his arms. The driver, another man —it’s too dark to see clearly— slides out, slams his car door, and follows. The front door shuts behind them.
The security light is still on. I dart across the yard, press myself against the house, creep sideways until I reach the front stoop. The window to the right of the door reflects the outside light, obscuring my view of what’s inside. I’m not even sure if there are curtains. I stick to the shadows of the entryway, position myself against the doorframe, and slowly turn the handle. It’s unlocked. The security light winks off just as I’m nudging the door open. When it doesn’t flick on at my slow movements, I breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe things are finally turning in my favor. I keep the knob twisted and push against the door with my shoulder. It releases from the jamb with a thwoosh of peeled paint and wood swollen from humidity.  I freeze. When no one reacts, I ease the door open enough to peer through.
An empty living room greets me, no furniture except the chair Laurel is strapped to. She’s still unconscious, head slumped against her shoulder. I can hear the men’s voices down the hall, where flashlights flicker from under a closed door. The floor is dull and speckled, unpolished terrazzo.
For a moment I consider leaving, trying to find the locket some other way. But if I leave Laurel here, she’s probably dead. And I have enough innocent blood on my conscience.
I edge the door open, slip inside, ease it closed behind me. “Laurel.” My whisper scrapes the silence, harsh against my ears, though I’m sure the men can’t hear it.
The dark shape hiding in the shadows beside Laurel, however, does. A massive, scaly, doglike thing rises slowly from a crouch. Its gaze flicks toward me— if you can call it that. Its face has no eyes, no true mouth, only ridges of bone and sinew with a gaping maw, topped by two openings of bone like nostrils. A low growl rumbles from its throat.
A fadehound. I’ve never seen one before— except in my grandmother’s family journals. I spent hours studying those journals as a child, fascinated, but I’d never believed her claims of ArcFae blood in our distant lineage, until I found myself trapped as a wisp, a fate particular to cursed fae. Funny how death reveals truth. But I didn’t realize wisps could see fadehounds; they’re invisible to humans, even most fae. I almost wish I couldn’t. It’s by far the ugliest creature I’ve ever seen, way worse than the sketches. Fadehound breath is toxic to humans, their bite deadly even to fae. 
The fadehound stretches, then saunters in front of Laurel, its horrid face locked in my direction. Its posture is relaxed, unbothered, as it positions itself in front of its charge. Challenging me.
I peer at Laurel’s slumped face. Is she human? Fae? How is she tangled up in this?
The door at the end of the hallway opens.
I don’t know who these men are or what they have planned for Laurel, but I’m out of time for strategizing. I say a quick prayer that fadehound breath doesn’t work on resurrected wisps, and launch myself at the creature.
The fadehound leaps to meet me with a snarl. 
 I twist, slide under it, and crash into the base of Laurel’s chair, knocking it sideways. I dive to catch it, but miss. 
Laurel slams into the hard floor. The chair cracks. The fadehound thuds to the ground behind me and howls, claws scrabbling on the terrazzo. 
I scramble for Laurel as the men burst into the room.
“Hey!” one shouts.
They dash for me as I struggle with the rope holding Laurel. It slips free just as one of them grabs my arms, yanks me away from Laurel. 
I struggle but he’s strong, or this borrowed form is weak. “Hold on, it’s okay, I’m coming back for you!” I yell. I thrash, drive my foot backward into the man’s groin like a donkey kick. He grunts and drops me but the other man is on me in an instant. 
“You—” He wrestles me to the ground, jams his knee into my back, but my attention is on Laurel’s moaning.
She’s stirring, and I’m sure she’s been hurt, though I can’t see how bad.
The man twists my arms behind my back. I feel a pinch of what should be pain. My sensations are dulled in this form— which means I have an advantage. I suck in a breath and ram my head back as hard as I can. The man’s face cracks against my skull.
He jerks back, screaming.
I flip over and scramble to my feet— right into the man I’d kicked in the groin.
His furious eyes lock on me. The fadehound paces behind him, once again blocking my path to Laurel.
“Who are you?” the man yells over his friend’s shouts of pain.
His sneer is meant to be menacing, but I’m just relieved to learn he wasn’t sent to derail my mission, that this isn’t personal. That he appears to be completely human.
I lunge into his stomach.
The man slams into the fadehound, and it grunts out a cloud of toxic breath.
I stagger back as the breath fogs around the man’s head. The man sags to the ground, unconscious.
The facehoud’s face flicks back up to me. It coils to lunge.
I drop to my stomach just as the fadehound leaps, grabbing a piece of the broken chair.  It tries to turn in the air but sails past me, crashes into the man behind me. I spin, slam the wood into the fadehound’s head so hard it staggers sideways, hits the floor.
I drop the chair leg, dart to Laurel, haul her into my arms and stand. I sway but get my bearings and run for the door. I shift Laurel’s weight, yank the door open… and stumble to a stop.
On the front lawn wait a half-dozen veil-wraiths, spirits so dark they never even got a chance at Aeden — the only creatures who can actually cause a wisp pain.
They can’t harm Laurel, no spirits can. Without this borrowed form, I’d simply pass right through her. But as I stare out across the twelve red eyes watching me, trails of dark essence undulating around them like drifting black cloaks, I realize they’re here for me. Veil-wraiths feed on wisps’ essences, absorb them to strengthen their own. They’re the reason most wisps hide Earthside until our shot at Aeden, rather than drifting the Veil.
One wraith slides forward and the others wing out behind her, forming a V on the lawn. “Drop the human, wisp.” The voice is high-pitched, female, rasping. Her black, smoky form shifts into a female shape, lithe, shadow-hair dancing in an invisible breeze. Red eyes pulse from the shadows where her face should be.
All six wraiths hiss in unison like a mob of snakes, shaping words I don’t recognize. Behind me, the fadehound howls. I hear the men inside the house shriek in pain, two thumps, then silence.
Confusion startles a question from me. “Who were those men?”
“Fae-stealers. Smugglers,” the front wraith hisses. “An inconvenience.”
So Laurel is fae, then. A type that looks mostly human— selk-blood, maybe? I never got a chance to look closely, and I can’t risk taking my eyes off the wraiths now to check. The fadehound returns to the doorway behind me and paces. I clutch Laurel tighter. “What do you want from me?”
I can hear the smile in the wraith’s voice as she responds. “We want your soul.”
Oh, only that, then. Laurel stirs against my chest and I steady her, whisper, “It’s okay, I’ve got you.” I still don’t know what they’ve done to her, why she hasn’t woken up yet, but I can feel her breath against my arm, her body warm against my chest— she’s alive, and I plan to keep her that way.
This is too coincidental, Laurel taken right in front of me, the men, the fadehound, the waiting wraiths, and I still don’t know how Laurel is connected to the locket I was sent to retrieve. I narrow a glare at the floating red eyes. “Why me? Why now?”
The shadowed head tips to the side, red eyes peering at me. “Did you expect to earn Aeden so easily?” The wraiths behind her pulse and swirl into female shapes, too, strands of hair flapping in unison. The lead wraith’s smoky hands sweep wide, presenting her sisters. “We are your trial. If you make it past us to the street, we let you both go. If you fail, we feed.” Grey smoke lips appear on all six faces, curve into unified smiles. All twelve red eyes pulse. Their rasping voices speak in unison. “We do not intend to let you pass.”
I sweep my gaze across the front lawn. The motorcycle is at the end of the block. If I drop Laurel and dart down the row of houses, I might take the wraiths by surprise, outrun them long enough to make it to the street. But if I drop Laurel, I leave her at their mercy. They can’t hurt her, but the fadehound can. And if I drop Laurel, I lose my path to the locket, the whole reason I’m here.
I lock my gaze onto the lead wraith’s glaring red eyes, clutch Laurel tight, and step out onto the stoop. “Bring it on.”
The wraiths swarm, latch their lips to me like suckling leeches, every surface they can find, pulling life from my veins in an all-consuming fire.
Pain screams through my nerves, my vision blurs. I want to give in right then, but a memory of Cara flashes in. “Catch me!” Pink-striped leggings, bare feet racing through our front yard, ponytail flying, giggling as she spins back to make sure I’m chasing her. The loss of her slices through me again, followed by a hot rush of determination.
Aeden is my one shot to end the wandering, but more than that, it’s my shot to see Cara again, to tell her I love her— to tell her how sorry I am. I force my legs to stay upright, keep moving. Flames sear my veins but I take step after shaking step, focusing on the edge of the street, the end of the yard, my chance at relief, at seeing Cara, at freedom.
Halfway across the lawn, my arms give out. Laurel tumbles from my grasp and I trip, topple onto her. The wraiths release for one sweet moment as I fall, then dart in at me like bats, latch with vampire teeth to whatever part of me they can reach, suck life again. Pain rips through me anew. I arc backward. A rasping scream tears from my chest. 
I force a breath through the pain, push up on shaking arms. I’m so near the street— a few feet, maybe. I stagger to my knees, crawl around behind Laurel, tuck my arms under hers, dig my heels into the ground, shove us backward toward the curb.  
A dark shape rushes at me from one side— the fadehound, waiting for his chance, for me to fail. I roll my body toward Laurel’s, try to cover her. The wraiths flutter, shriek, drink harder.
My vision sways, blackens, returns in a blur. I haul Laurel another foot or so, then fall to the grass with her. The curb is inches from my hand, almost within reach. I push up on my side. My elbow buckles and I fall. 
I take another breath, and Cara’s smile flickers through my mind— her eyes full of life, the way they were before. Do I even deserve a final home, an Aeden, a chance to make amends? Maybe this was always the end I deserved, a second death of pain, an eternity of wandering lost. But Laurel moans, and I remember this isn’t just about me. If I leave her here, my trial will be over, and whatever rules hold the fadehound back from feeding on her will be void. 
A few more inches, I tell myself. Just to the street. Once I’m there, I can let go— let the pain take me, let the Archneph decide my fate. But if I make it to the street, the wraiths’ rules state Laurel can go free. At least then I won’t have an extra death on my conscience. Can I even trust them to uphold their agreement? I suppose I don’t have any other choice.
I summon the last bit of my strength, wrap an arm around Laurel’s waist, and heave us forward. We roll over the curb, crash hard onto the rough street.
The wraiths vanish.
I suck quivering breaths as the flames recede from my veins. Every part of me aches. My whole body trembles. I feel like I could sleep a year and still not regain my strength. But this borrowed body is still alive. We’re alive.
The fadehound paces the edge of the yard, but it seems he can go no further.
I roll to my side, slide my arm from Laurel’s waist. “Laurel?”
She doesn’t stir. She’s breathing, but it’s shallow. I force myself up onto shaking arms, brush the hair from her face. No visible injuries to her head or face, nothing on her arms or torso. I scan over her legs. Her jeans are torn at one ankle, a seep of blood staining the hem in the shape of a bite.
She’s been unconscious since she arrived at the house, and now I know why— the fadehound had already bitten her. Without an antidote, that means death within hours, even for a fae. I’ll never find an antidote in time, even if I knew where to go. I was too late before I even arrived here— I failed the moment she was taken on the street.
A dark form materializes on the pavement in front of me. I don’t bother to look up. I’ve already failed, what does it matter?
The voice sends ice down my spine, a dagger through my heart. I peel my eyes up. “Cara?”
I knew it wasn’t her before I looked, but it hurts worse than I imagined, this poor imitation of her. The smile is there, the rosy cheeks, the glossy brown hair, even the purple ribbon, tied now into a perfect bow. But the eyes are wrong— glinting with malice. The false smile on the forged face doesn’t even touch them.
I know of this creature, the Veil-Dearg, the one who commands the wraiths. Its venom is ten times as powerful as a fadehound, but that’s not what makes it so dangerous. It is skilled at imitation, at false realities— it lures pureblood fae children to the Veil, traps them, then feeds on their powers. It takes innocent life on purpose. It is everything I hate.
I slide my hand into my pocket, finger the knife. Veil-Deargs are vulnerable outside the Veil, but they’re fast. The odds of taking this one down without getting bitten are slim, and if it bites me I’ll be dead again in moments, my one shot at Aeden wasted.
The false Cara stretches out both arms in front of her, opens her palms one at a time. In one hand, she holds a bronze locket, heart-shaped and engraved with symbols, just as the Archneph showed me. In the other, a vial of silvery liquid. “Choose, Deo.”
I hate that it sounds like Cara’s voice, that it calls me the pet name Cara called me, that it’s stolen my sister’s form.
She tilts her head, smiles. “Save Laurel”—she lifts the hand with the vial— “or take your ticket to Aeden.” She dangles the locket by its golden chain. “You can only have one.”
I glance at Laurel, pale and still beside me. This is my fight, not hers. Another life on my conscience. For ten whole years of wandering, I thought of nothing besides my guilt, how I would give anything to undo Cara’s death. I can’t undo it— but I can prevent this. I can save Laurel and stop this Veil-Dearg from getting what she wants, from ever getting anything again, even if it costs me Aeden. Even if it means I never see Cara again, never make amends, never find my home.
I may wander forever, but this time, I can do something right as I die.
I stagger to my feet, stand tall on my shaking legs. “I’ll meet you in the Void.” I yank the knife from my pocket, lunge forward, and drive the blade into the Veil-Dearg’s chest.
She shrieks and flails. The locket and vial go flying.
I dive for the vial. I don’t catch it, but my hand deflects it so it bounces on the pavement rather than shattering. I grab it, pull the stopper with my teeth, and dump the liquid over Laurel’s ankle.
The Veil-Dearg flings herself onto my back, drives her fangs into my neck. I thrash, toss her off. She thunks to the pavement, twitches, falls still. The punctures on my neck flare to life like lit matches against my skin.
Laurel stirs, sits up. Blinks at me, gasps. From her expression, I must look terrible.
Fire rushes through my throat, up the back of my neck.
Laurel crawls toward me, grabs something from the road. “My locket. Quick, take it!” She shoves it into my hand.
The Veil-Dearg venom flashes through my nerves like lightning. My vision explodes with pain. My brain catches fire. Somewhere in the distance, I hear myself scream— but I’m already falling into blackness.
The air has turned warm when I blink awake, morning sun stinging my weary eyes. I prod my neck with one hand. The fang punctures are smooth, healed over. I push up —my fists find soft grass beneath me— and open my other hand. The locket is gone.
I’m on the edge of a garden, halfway between wild and landscaped. Orange peel and warm soil scents flood my nose. I glance around. Trees heavy with ripe citrus stand all around me, sun glinting between them. Wildflowers dot the hilltop I sit on. In the distance I hear bird-chatter and moving water, like a brook. A cool breeze drifts past and I realize I can feel, like I haven’t in years: sun on my skin, wind on my face, the palm-tickle of soft-poking grass blades. I yank my sneakers and socks off and wiggle my toes deep into the cool soil.
Branches rustle to my left. I turn. My breath catches.
I jump to my feet as she steps into the sunlight.
My heart lurches —it’s actually beating— as I turn to face her. She’s just like I remembered: the glossy brown ponytail with wisps around her temples, the purple ribbon, the smile that shines all the way to her wide, blue eyes. “Cara.” I stare, waiting for reality to rebound, for the apparition to vanish. “I’m so, so sorry.”
The Archneph steps out from the trees. “Well done, Deorain.” He towers over Cara like a statue of pure light. The locket dangles from one of his massive hands. “The Veil-Dearg could’ve done much harm with this. Thanks to you, this key has been returned, a fae life spared, and many things were set right today.” His obsidian eyes lock on mine. “You have earned your passage to Aeden.”
Cara gives a little squeal, bounces on her toes, and rushes for me. “I told them you could do it!”
I drop to my knees, catch her, wrap my arms tight around her. I don’t understand all of what happened today, but I no longer care. Cara is here— solid, warm, happy. Real.
Cara pulls back, eyes shining. “I’ve been waiting for you, Deo.” She grins, throws her arms around me again, buries her head against my shoulder. “Welcome home.”
DreamForge Anvil © 2022 DreamForge Press
One Shot at Aeden © 2022 Crystal Crawford