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14: Oni Moon

Tinker woke with her head pounding and stared in confusion at the strange ceiling above her. For several minutes it seemed like a normal white plaster ceiling. Then she felt as if a long, thin-limbed spider was picking its way across her forehead. She bolted upright, swatting at her brow. Her fingers found nothing to kill, nor was there anything now on her lap except a spill of fine linen sheets. She sat on a futon mattress, level on the floor, with a nest of sheets, blankets, and pillows so comforting to look at that she nearly sank back into them. Things were wrong, though, and she dragged her eyes back to the ceiling. Same plain white ceiling, or was it? She got the vague impression that something had changed, only she couldn't put a finger on what.

A few feet from the end of the mattress was a stone wall with a deep-set window. Sitting on the floor, she could only see a slice of blue sky. She crawled to the wall, having difficulty controlling her overly light limbs. She looked out the window and gasped.

A city rolled out to the horizon, endless heavy stone buildings with red clay roof tiles. It reminded her of martial arts vids. As she stared hard at it, she finally made out the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers, converging to make the Ohio, meaning she was on Mount Washington, not far from Oilcan's apartmentonly at least one reality removed. Whatever they called the city below, it wasn't Pittsburgh.

"Wondering where you are?"

She turned and discovered that a female dressed in a kimono, feet tucked under her, sat in the far corner of the room, watching her. Had she always been there? Tinker's mind was too drug-clouded for her to remember.

"No," Tinker said, not because it was the truthshe was dying to knowbut mostly because it was the opposite of what the female wanted her to say.

"Obstinacy will get you nowhere," the female said.

"It's all I have at the moment, so I'll stick with it."

Tinker went back to staring out the window. This wasn't Earth, nor Elfhome, but something beyond Elfhome. Judging by the room she was in, the narrow twisting roads, and the lack of any outward sign of machinery, the technology level of the reality was on par with Elfhome. Unlike the elf world, though, it seemed as if this place staggered under Earth's population problems.

"You're on Onihida," the female said. "There is no escape."

No need for bars on the window; the whole world was a prison. Still Tinker examined the possibilities for escape. The building she was in continued the Oriental theme, only on fortress scale. The outside wall was of massive stones and was mortared tightly, presenting seriously scary rock-climbing potential. The drop down to the ground was thirty or forty feet. A misstep would put her down over the cliff edge too, adding two hundred feet to the fall.

All things considered, she should find another escape route.

Tinker turned her attention finally to the female. She seemed familiar. While lacking the elfin ears, she was beautiful in the way of elves, perfection in the small-pored, unblemished skin, symmetrical features, a cascade of red-gold hair, and eyes of a vivid reddish-brown. "Who are you?"

"I am Taji Chiyo."

"What did you do to Pony?"

"The little horsie betrayed you," Taji said casually, but her eyes sharpened with interest, as if she wanted to see the pain her words caused.

"No he didn't. Riki did."

"You will call me Lady Chiyo. And yes, he did, he drove off and left you. Ta ta."

"I don't know how you did it, but he didn't betray me," Tinker growled. "Pony wouldn't do that, and you have no reason to tell me the truth, Chewie."

"Chi-yo. Lady Chiyo."

"Look, bitch, you snared me this way because you needed to get around Pony." Tinker scrambled for facts to support her gut feeling. "If he was one of you, he could have delivered me up in the Rolls at any time. The first day Windwolf left me at the lodge, or all the next day while I was running all around Pittsburghhell, Riki talked me into ditching Pony at the scrap yard just before the Wyverns nabbed me. That probably pissed you all offdidn't it? You got me all by myself and the Wyverns showed up unannounced." Chiyo's eyes went wide and the startled look fit another piece of the puzzle together. "You're Maynard's secretary."

"Was." Chiyo rose out of the awkward-looking sitting position with grace and poise. "Someone else does that petty work now. If you want to know what happened to your warrior, come with me."

Chiyo glided to the door with little delicate footsteps nearly completely masked by her flowing kimono. Tinker thumped after her, annoyed with the way her feet seemed enormous. Had they always been that big, or was it a side effect of the drug that Riki had given her, making them look bigger?

Chiyo had paused at the door; she noticed Tinker's inspection of her feet and gave a small smug smile. Tinker decided at the first possible point to step on those delicate lady points with her steel-shod feet, hard. Lady Chiyo frowned slightly, slid open the door, and hurried down the hall in tiny little steps.

There were two burly armed guards outside the door, bracketing it. Tinker slipped between them, trying blithely to ignore them. I'm not scared of you. I'm not scared.

Oh, gods, she wished she and Pony were home safe.

Lady Chiyo led, and a step behind Tinker, the guards followed.

Tinker forced herself to amble, trying to stay oriented despite the drug. Except for occasional windows looking out over the sprawling city, the stone passages were maddeningly the same, like a computer-generated video screen with a limited algorithm. Abruptly they were in a garden courtyard, all done in Oriental style. A stream meandered through the heart of it, through a bed of mossy rocks. A ribbon of silver here, murmuring over a slight falls. A widening and deepening there, to make a still dark pool full of darting fish. Chimes rang in the wind with stunningly clear tones, and yet, yet, there was something hazy about the whole thing, like a dream.

It's the drugs, isn't it? Tinker wasn't sure.

Lady Chiyo led her to a gazebo overlooking one of the still ponds.

Riki sat in the gazebo, wearing an over-large muscle shirt and loose black pants, with bare feet. Despite the causal clothes, he perched in the gazebo window, looking as unhappy as a caged bird. He wore earbuds trailing wires down to an old MP3 player. Surprisingly, he was smoking, something an elf could never do.

He was alone.

"Where's Pony?" Tinker said.

Riki sighed, and pulled the earbud from his right ear, letting the music play on in his left. "Hopefully, your guard is even now reporting your untimely death, a mid-air stunt resulting in a fall into the river. Of course the river will be dredged, but that will prove nothing."

"You're lying. Pony wouldn't betray me."

"He's not betraying you; we've deceived him." Riki took a deep drag on his cigarette, and breathed it out his nose in a twin column of smoke. "We have magic that the elves do not, the bending of light and sound to make illusions."

Chiyo complained in a foreign language made harsh by her sharp tones.

Riki gazed at Chiyo unrepentant. "Stop your barking. I'm in charge. I tell her what I want."

"Lord Tomtom gave orders for"

"He wants her to work. She won't work if she thinks we killed her warrior." Riki stared Chiyo into silence. "The magic works on the lesser elves, but not on you greater bloods," he explained, meaning the domana. "We didn't want to expose the people we have in Pittsburgh. If the elves knew you were kidnapped, they would tear the city apart looking for you. They're already searching; the fewer clues we give them the better. So we split your guard away and fed him what we wanted him to see. You got increasingly daring with your flying until you fell and the hoverbike crashed. Oh so tragic, but accidents happen, and your warrior provides the incontestable witness."

Strange how she could be relieved and increasingly terrified at the same time. Pony was utterly loyal, and safe and oh so far away. Windwolf would never question her death with Pony witnessing it. She clung to hope. "What about all the people that saw me being chased?"

"We oni know that what is seen is not always correctly perceived." Riki took one last drag of his cigarette, and ground the tiny ember out. "Think of the difference of being in a race and watching it from the pits. To you, it was clear that you were being chased. What did the average person see? You going fast and dangerousthat matches Pony's story. A hoverbike chasing you? That would be Pony. Did they even see a second or third hoverbike? If they looked away for an instant, probably not. And what if they did? If Pony says no one was chasing you, they must have been mistakenthat must have been another group of hoverbikes racing."

She tried to resist the logic, but it was too sound. There would be no rescue.

Chiyo murmured something to Riki in the foreign language.

He nodded, flicking the dead butt out into the garden. "So, you understand your situation."

"I've been knifed in the back by a man I thought was my friend."

"I am not a man, nor, regrettably, have I ever been free to be your friend," Riki corrected her almost gently. "I was under orders, penalty for failure greater than you can imagine, although you will soon be educated in that regard."

It hurt to think she had been so wrong. "You're a tengu."

"Yes."

The wings she remembered were massive, but there were no signs of them now, as he sat in the window, even as he flicked away the cigarette butt.

"Where are your wings?"

Wordlessly, he turned around. The muscle shirt covered only his front, leaving his muscled back exposed. An elaborate spell had been tattooed onto his skin, from shoulder to waistline, in black. He whispered a word, and magic poured through the tracings, making them shimmer like fresh ink. The air hazed around him, and the wings unfolded out of the distortion, at first holographic in appearance, ghosts of crow wings hovering behind him, fully extended. Then they solidified into reality, skin and bone merged into the musculature of his back, glistening black feathers longer than her arm.

She couldn't help herself. She reached out and touched one of the primary feathers. It was stiff and unyielding under her fingers. The wings were real, down to the tiny barbs of the feather's web. "Howhow can they come and go and yet be part of you?"

"They aren't truly real, but solid illusions, crafted out of magic."

"You should not be telling her this," Chiyo snapped.

"Go play with the dogs," Riki said.

"Shut up," Chiyo cried.

Riki spoke another word, and the wings vanished, and only the tattoo remained as evidence.

This close to himand without the distraction of the wingsshe could now recognize the song leaking out of the one earbud; it was one of Oilcan's favorite elf rock groups. With a jolt, she recognized the MP3 player as Oilcan's old system.

"Where did you get that?"

"Your cousin gave it to me when I told him that I had nothing to play music on." Riki gazed at the thumb-sized player. "It was kind of him."

"Have you hurt him?" she asked fearfully.

"No, of course not." Riki glanced toward Chiyo and added, "It would endanger my cover."

Chiyo said something that earned her a glare of disgust from Riki.

"What did she say?" Tinker asked.

"Something stupid. It's stunning that her kind is considered clever. She must be a throwback to the original bitch."

Chiyo curled back her lip in a snarl. "At least I'm not from blood stock of scavengers easily distracted by bright and shiny toys."

"Yes." Riki seemed only amused by Chiyo's retort. He gave a suddenly birdlike cock of his head, and another verbal poke. "But your blood stock has a tendency to run mad, frothing at the mouth."

Tinker took a step back in sudden horror. "Your people interbred with animals?"

No wonder the elves fled back across the worlds, closing gates behind them; the oni had crossed moral lines that even the Skin Clan hadn't. The two oni turned to look at her as if they'd forgotten she was listening.

"Shut up!" Chiyo snapped and sulked to the other side of the gazebo.

"The greater bloods are still pure." Bitterness tainted Riki's expression. "They mixed their servants with animals at the genetic level to create us lesser bloods. We tengu have the crow's ability to fly at an instinctual level."

Chiyo responded to Tinker's questioning gaze with, "Don't look at me that way, little fake elf. You're a dirty little human girl in a fancy skin."

"Thank you, you don't know how good that makes me feel."

Riki gave a squawk of surprised laughter.

"So why did you kidnap me?" Tinker asked.

Riki sobered. "Lord Tomawaritomo wants you to build him a gate."

"Who?"

"To-ma-wa-ri-to-mo." Riki sounded out the syllables. "He is Windwolf's counterpart among the oni."

Remembering Chiyo's comment earlier, Tinker asked, "Lord Tomtom?"

Riki gave a very human shrug. "That's what those of us born on Earth tend to call him."

No wonder he passed so easily for human if he grew up around them. "That's why you speak English so well?"

"Yes. I was born in Berkeley, California."

"Hatched! Hatched!" Chiyo barked. "If you're going to go all truthful with her, then tell it all. Your mother popped out an egg." Chiyo measured out a stunningly large sphere with her fingers. "And brooded on it to keep it warm, and when the time came, listened all so close so she could break you out of your shell, and as a child they kept jesses on your feet to keep you from picking your nose with your toes."

Tinker glanced downwards and noticed for the first time that Riki's toes were stunningly long, thin, agile-looking and only three in number. "Your mother wasn't the woman killed when Lain was crippled; she couldn't have passed the physicals as human."

Riki looked at Chiyo in cold rage, and said, "I hope you are keeping your focus. You know how angry Lord Tomtom would be if this failed."

Chiyo went white and silent. For a minute only the tinny music from Riki's earbud could be heard, and then like a bubble breaking, the background noise from the garden started again. Chiyo stared at the ground, panting like a frightened animal.

"I don't understand," Tinker said. "If you can get to Earth, Elfhome, and back again, why does he need me to build a gate?"

Chiyo giggled and murmured something in their own tongue.

Riki shot her an irritated look and explained, "When the elves destroyed the door from our world to Earth, they stranded a large group of tengu and others in China. We've lived in secret among humans, hiding our differences."

He lifted his foot up, flexing his toes to demonstrate what differences he meant. "Like the elves, we're immortal on our own world, and long lived on Earth. We waited for our chance to return to our own land, our own people. When the gate opened the door between Earth and Elfhome, it also opened a door to Onihida, but it's inconveniently placed. We don't have the ability to move an army through it."

The seer's words went through her mind. There is a door, open but not opendarkness presses against the frame but can not pass through. The seer must have been talking about the unusable door. But what the hell did the rest mean? The light beyond is too brilliant; it burns the beast.

Chiyo murmured something to Riki which surprised him.

Tinker was tempted to kick her. "I don't like it when people talk about me in front of me."

"It's better you don't understand her poison," Riki said.

So, the seer was right. She was going to be the pivot. "You want me to betray Elfhome?"

"I know what they've done to you. They took you and changed you to make you loyal to them. All the while they held you at the palace, I was with your cousin, watching him go quietly insane with worry whether they'd bring you back or just decide that you were too dangerous to allow to live."

"Windwolf would never" She bit off the retort. Riki had no reason to tell her the truth and every reason to lie. "Oilcan didn't say anything to me last night."

"He's a fair man. He wouldn't try to poison you against your husband, not even if what he had to say was the truth."

Tinker backed away from him, shaking her head. "You've lied to me since the first moment I met you. You're probably lying to me now. You'll say anything to get me to help you."

Riki lunged and caught hold of her tightly. "Yes, I would!" he cried, looking pained. "I'd say anything because I know what Lord Tomtom will do to get his wayand I'd rather not see you go through that."

"I believe Lord Tomawaritomo has arranged a demonstration." Chiyo turned to speak to one of the guards.

With a thin shriek of terror, the little oni who had knocked her over the cliff was brought forward between two of the massive guards. He begged in the oni tongue, sobbing.

"They're going to remove the bones from his left arm," Chiyo told Tinker in a casual tone, as if what was about to happen had no more import than picking wildflowers. Tinker had a sudden sympathy for black-eyed susans. "All of them. While he's awake."

While the guards pinned the oni down, a third, wizened-dwarf of an oni with a bloodstained leather apron and bright sharp knives started to cut.

After putting the earbud back in his ear, Riki held her still, made her watch.

Tinker curled her arms up tight against her chest, trying hard not to cry. If she had still been on Elfhome, she might have been able to defy them, clinging to the hope that Windwolf and Oilcan would be there to rescue her, or even that she could escape. All alone on this strange world, every hand upraised against her, she couldn't find the courage.

When it was done, Riki said, "Lord Tomtom expects results."


* * * | Tinker | * * *