Tholas watched the human as unobtrusively as he could. His behaviour was odd, but not threatening. He was obsessively watching the footage of the Fey encounter, and seemed to be muttering to himself. This – technology – the humans had these days seemed wonderful at first, but he wondered if there was a price to pay in mental illness, or a tendence for it.
‘Is something worrying you about the recording?’ he asked.
The man jumped and looked at him, guilt on his face. He spluttered something unintelligible, and finished with, ‘I just thought that, if that Sidhe girl ever grew up, she’d be a real hottie!’
Tholas sighed. It looked like he was affected by Perverse Irony. Choosing his words carefully, he said, ‘Those beings have a way of making you think the very worst your mind can imagine. Even to see them in an image, their presence can taint your mind – so you find yourself thinking the very opposite of what you want to do.’
The man visibly relaxed. Tholas thought, that was one man ruled out of the next phase against the Fey. Humans seemed to be especially vulnerable to the mental assault the Shadow caused… or at least these ones were. Maybe others whose ancestors were never under their sway would fare better.
Today was the day they were meeting with the Psychologist. Tholas had little time for the man, his work would be unnecessary if only humans would sort themselves out.
But, no, he thought with a shake of his head, they couldn’t. Even the Powers knew that. Charlatan or well-meaning busybody, he would have to talk with the person. The meeting began with the usual bare-bones human civility: No verses, no amusing stories, not even enquiry after each others’ families. Tholas was pleasantly surprised at how perceptive the man was. He came away knowing or intuiting a great deal about the way humans could sabotage, cripple or outright lie to themselves, and each other. Based on what he now knew, he could only imagine two or three people who could face the Fey without going mad immediately or eventually – and one of them was restricted to base duty, he just couldn’t handle it physically.
Time to take steps. You didn’t need to be fighting fit to aim and shoot, dammit.
The dropoff went off well enough. The evening helicopter ride to Islay was great, the party of four set down in the Trudernish district just fine. It was after the helicopter had gone that things started to get amusing.
Every one of their expensive little gadgets curled up its toes and died. No satnav, no mobile signal, no site recording devices – even someone’s digital watch became an expensive wrist ornament. Tholas checked his sniper scope – nothing. Now he knew why humans spouted obscenities so much. It didn’t help, but it did give you a feeling of letting off steam.
‘Please nobody tell me you’re using electronic sighting or firing mechanisms?’
Terry, the skinny, migraine-prone data analyst from the London office, giggled. The man was what they called a geek, and his admittedly high intelligence, combined with an awful lack of athleticism had left him with permanent short-man syndrome, glaringly obvious to all but himself.
Jim, the other one, was a grizzled, slightly-handicapped former hunter now mostly retired, a man of very few words. He checked their coms, keying his helmet mic. Tholas’ earpiece buzzed with static, and Jim’s voice came over, only just audible. The other two just shook their heads.
Dieter, the Austrian hunter with a taste for this stuff, just shrugged.
They were going to have to do this the hard way. ‘I hope you guys like splitting heids,’ he deliberately put on a tough, working-class Glaswegian accent, ‘We’ll be doing this the auld way.’
Without their satnavs they had to make an informed guess as to their target: an old rath just up from the road between Fairy Hill Cottage and Kildalton Cross. Fortunately their guess was lucky, and they found the place. The fence was little obstacle, but Terry was worried in case there was a bull in the field – of course. They got to the circle around ten at night, just as the sun was going down.
‘Equipment check,’ announced Tholas. The non-electronic gear was all they had until the extraction vehicle got here in a couple of hours. The mission began.
Walking anticlockwise around the rath was supposed to show up the entrance after nine circuits. They didn’t have to wait that long. On the third circuit the music started, and Terry and Jim got a little nervous. Tholas and Dieter were unmoved, which stiffened the spines of the others a little. That revolting blue glow appeared soon after, and Dieter took off his helmet and gave a theatric sigh. ‘Dis is a waste of time,’ he declared in his Arnie accent.
The bait worked. Dieter was ridiculously good-looking, and the Sidhe were suckers for a pretty face. With shocking suddenness, a beautiful young girl appeared out of nowhere by the side of the road. ‘Och, lads’, she said, ‘Will ye not help a lass in trouble?’ Tholas could tell her appearance was a work of some Art, but the other guys just about lost their minds at the sight of her. It was down to him.
‘I can gie you a hand,’ Tholas offered, and in his own language chanted, ‘Be Still and Be Bound, you rebel and tarryling!’ He took out a spray bottle of holy water and squirted it at her. She screamed, a high-pitched, supernatural sound of loss. She stopped dead in response to the word of power Tholas had used. All her glamour fell off, and she was revealed as she was: a lanky, pre-pubescent girl with an unsettling look of wildness about her face. The human men recoiled to think they had been ogling a witch-child.
Tholas whipped out his net. It was weighted around the edges and it hit her in the face. Terry managed to clear his mind fast enough to use his net-launcher, and his luck was better. The Sidhe was tangled and fell to the ground.
Then the luck ran out. With a sound like a hundred souls shrieking in terror, a mob of sidhe vomited out of a black void in the slope above them. Purple lightning crackled from their hands as they surged towards the monster hunter, their eyes opaque and shining silver. The human hunters moaned in horror as the fey magic invaded their minds, dredging images of horror from the darkest recesses of their minds.
Tholas stood untouched, though horrified at the effect on the humans. Could they not see that it was all illusion? But then, he thought, the Sidhe had had centuries of practice in afflicting humans. He had none. It was time. Pocketing his holy water squirter, he unhitched the nailgun. Adapted from a commercially available one, it looked like a miniature sawnoff, and worked on a similar principle. He worked the cocking mechanism and aimed at the closest. The range was very short, nails are not designed for flight. There was a loud ‘crack!’ and the closest fey screamed and fell. Blue lightning seethed around his head, trying to drive him mad. He turned, pumped the action and shot again. The nail bounced off the sidhe, but it howled in pain at the touch of iron and fell to the ground, writhing. He pumped and turned again – Crack! – it misfired. There was smoke from the nailgun. He worked it again, shot and missed! Sweeping out his bayonet, he slashed at the closest sidhe. Blood sprayed from a slashed forearm and the little figure burst into flame!
It was too much for them. They broke and ran. He stomped on the edge of the net as they tried to drag their netted friend away. They gave up as he cocked the nailgun again.
The night was quiet. The fairy hill stood as solid and inconspicuous as ever under the evening glow of the western sky. It was as if nothing had happened… except that a real, live Sidhe lay under the iron-weighted net at his feet.
He keyed his com. ‘Finn to transport, do you copy?’
‘Loud and clear, Finn, do you have contact?’
‘Better than that, Jimmy – I have a bogey!’
There was a moment of shocked silence. ‘That was quick! Is this Tholas?’
‘How are the others?’
‘Passed out – they may be in a bad way.’
‘We have a casevac facility on the van. Is it all of them?’
‘It is. The enemy knows how to nail humans, too well.’
‘We’ll get them tucked up and turned round. The Ardbeg Distillery is just a few minutes down the road, they’ll have them right in no time!’