The Suburban pulled into Granger’s Own a little after one in the morning. Ed and Granger were both dead tired. Two solid days of driving, stopping only for food and bathroom breaks, had taken its toll. As they stepped out of the vehicle, Granger noticed a bright light under a tarp off in the corner of the garage draped over the front end of the Charger that Taz had acquired on their last mission. He could hear the muffled sound of music, probably from headphones. Suddenly reenergized, Granger mischievously snuck over to the tarp and quickly lifted it, shouting, “HEY TAZ!”
“Jesus, Granger! Oh, hey Ed. How’s the Sphinx? When did it get dark out? Anyway, welcome back. Radiation levels are still cool. Toss me the air wrench, will ya?”
“Guys, I think I’m going to crash for a while.” Ed left Granger and Taz to chat. He yawned, his jaw cracking.
Ed shuffled into the small office at the garage and collapsed on an old couch. Within moments, he was asleep.
He found himself standing on an abandoned stretch of asphalt. The moon-lit fog extended in all directions, obscuring his vision, but the smells and plant life at the road’s edge told Ed he was still somewhere in the low country.
Out of the swirling fog strode a massive wolf made of vines and earth. The creature was easily the size of a draft horse and its presence filled the air with the smells of growth and the sounds of branches rubbing against each other in a storm. Flanking the creature to the left was a fox right out of a Disney movie, standing around five feet tall and walking like a human. He carried a thyrsus. To the wolf creature’s right was Leanna. But most surprising was the young girl, not much older than five, that rode on the creature’s back.
Okay, a dream, Ed thought. I clearly didn’t wander out into the wilderness at night, so this isn’t real.
The fox laughed. “You are both right and wrong, I’m afraid. While this is most certainly a dream, it is also quite real.”
Ed stepped back in shock. “How the hell did you know what I was thinking?”
Reaching for the spot at his hip where his pistol usually rested, Ed found comfort in the cold steel suddenly there. He drew the pistol, but didn’t yet level it at the fox. Instead he took the revolver into both hands, pointing it at the ground in the fox’s general direction. The fox’s tail twitched in disapproval.
“Ed! Don’t!” Leanna called out. “He’s just here to talk, I promise.”
The fox’s face twisted into a sneer as he glared across the wolf’s snout at Leanna. “Ah, yes, talking. Something I don’t recall giving you permission to do!”
Leanna’s shoulders slumped and her gaze fell back to the ground. “Start talking, fox, before you find yourself mounted and decorating my mantle.” Ed snarled.
More disapproving tail twitching followed. “Well, I certainly see why you think he’s useful,” the fox droned.
The little girl finally spoke. “Mr. Grumpy Pants, you are being rude.” She pointed a tiny finger at Ed. “All we want is to be friends, and Mr. Fluffy has some ‘portant things to tell you.”
The fox’s eyes rolled at the girl’s name for him “I am not called Mr. Fluffy! The name is Sorni. Ugh, what’s the point?”
Sorni turned to face Ed, drawing himself up to his full height. “Fine. It seems our little Child of Spring here did you a great service recently. But she didn’t follow the rules. And then someone got greedy and took more than his share.”
The wolf creature growled; the throaty bass made the very ground rumble.
The fox turned to face the wolf, his free hand going to the fox’s hip. “Oh, you most certainly did! Desire, yes, that one was yours. But you gobbled up his Wrath, Fear, and Sorrow right along with it. Those weren’t yours to take, and you know it!” The fox punctuated each emotion by poking the wolf in the side with his thyrsus.
“Bad puppy! Greedy puppy!” the little girl shouted, reaching down to bop the wolf on the nose.
Unbelievably, the creature actually appeared ashamed by her admonishments. Its ears and tail drooped, and its shoulder sagged.
“On top of that,” the fox continued, leaning across the wolf’s snout and pointing his thyrsus at Leanna, “this one, my own courtier, hid away your memories.”
“I was just trying to help him!” Leanna pleaded. “He’d done so much for us—I didn’t know what it would do to his mind to have the memories and not the emotions!”
“That was not your choice to make!” the fox bellowed. Bits of spittle flew from his mouth. “You’ve broken the Contracts and put us all at risk! And now, when we need him and his kind the most, he’s this pitiful thing, wallowing in this sweltering mosquito pit instead of preparing to defend the Laurels!”
Ed’s frustration level had reached its peak. “Someone is going to start talking sense, or I’m going to start shooting things until I get answers!”
The fox turned his head to face Ed, having obviously forgotten Ed was even there. “Ed!” he said with a big grin. “Ed! My buddy, my pal. Look, no hard feelings, right? No reason for you to mention this business to anyone else. No reason to ever mention that Leanna broke the Contracts or the Ysengrim got greedy. We’re even going to give you back everything Ysengrim here took, okay?”
The wolf-creature obviously didn’t agree with the Fox’s plan. “Okay, fine! You can keep the Desire—that’s fair, I guess.”
Ed’s Super Redhawk barked, throwing up chunks of asphalt onto the trio. "Enough! Whatever the fuck you guys took from me, you’re going to give it back. Otherwise, I know where the next bullet is going.”
The young girl giggled, bouncing up and down. “He said a bad word!”
Sorni squared his shoulders and put himself between Ed and the others, holding the thyrsus in both hands like a warrior. The humor in his voice dropped. “Yes, but I’m fairly certain that he’s not a bad man. Just…frustrated. So tell you what Ed, Ysengrim and Leanna will give you back what they had no right to take, and I’ll even add a little something extra for your trouble.”
Ed leveled the steel barrel at Sorni and looked over the sights into Sorni’s eyes. “You will give me back everything you took, or we’re going to find out exactly how real this dream is.”
Sorni’s tail twitched. “Ed. I can’t just give back the Desire—it’s Ysengrim’s, fair and square. He held up his end of the bargain. Or close enough.”
Ed’s index finger moved from the trigger guard to the trigger itself. Sorni’s eyes grew large “Wait!” he shouted. “But he can give it back! If you do him a service. Yes, a pact. We can do this the right way. Everything we owe you, repaid with interest. And if you will defend the Laurels for a complete cycle of the moon, Ysengrim will give back the Desire he took.”
Ed lowered the weapon. “For the last time, what the hell are the Laurels? And why do you think I can defend it?”
“Ed, the Laurels is what my people call the Farm.” Leanna explained. “And since you defended it once, Sorni and Cicuta think you can do it again.”
“The Farm? Who would be insane enough to attack the Farm? It’s protected by werewolves.”
Sorni glanced back over at Leanna. “Yeah, they’re not exactly at their best right now—problems with leadership. That part will make more sense once your memories are returned.”
Ed’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What’s the rest of it? If I know anything about fairy tales, there’s always a catch.”
Sorni sighed. “Remind me to shit on Grimm’s grave later—bastard spoiled everything,” he muttered to himself. “Alright, so not a catch per se…but there is a penalty. If you fail to protect the Laurels, everything goes back to Ysengrim for time eternal, a pox on your head, yadda yadda yadda. Honestly, not a problem…unless you run out on us. And I imagine that if you fail in the attempt, there won’t be much ‘after’ to worry about.”
Silence stretched for long moments. Finally, Ed holstered the weapon. “Fine. I’ll do it.”
Sorni’s ears perked up and his tails swished from side to side “Excellent! Now we just need you to swear on it.”
“Swear it, on your name.”
“Fine. I, Edward McLaughlin, swear on my name to protect the Laurels for the next month.”
Sorni nodded. “And in return, we swear to return to you what was taken without right, and will return your Desire upon completion of your Task.”
The fog bank at the road’s edge broke, mist spilling onto the asphalt between Ed and the fairy creatures. “Good luck, Ed,” Sorni called out as the fog obscured all details.
“A bunch of dudes with guns and some werewolves? I think we’ll be fine,” Ed called back.
“Oh, no. Not with that.” Sorni shouted, sounding incredibly far away. “Good luck with what comes next. Those memories might be better left locked away, I’m afraid.”