Sprite: Norah, 82:

Neistah couldn't help but wonder if he had had anything to do with Avery's newfound bloodthirst. Mortals who mixed with fae were always affected, and not often for the better. He regarded Avery's self-satisfied grin and debated whether he should reinforce his influence over the human, or just let it go. There was a reason the dark fae in particular enjoyed coming to the mortal world. Neistah let it go.

He left Avery gloating at the edge of the river and strode over to where his men were camped. Unknowingly, they had made their camp in the exact spot Rellan had chosen to kill the road-builders. The leader watched Neistah warily but he didn't get up or attempt to go for his weapons, which was a good thing. Neistah wasn't sure he would have been able to influence all of these men quickly enough to avoid a bloodbath—his own. As it was, he was bluffing heavily. Already his influence on Avery was fading. But that was what made living in the mortal world so exciting. Anything could happen.

"Hold him."

Avery didn't give him time for any other decision. These men, at least, still answered to him. They surged up and grabbed Neistah's arms, pinning them behind him. Neistah grinned back mockingly. "I wasn't going anywhere," he said.

Avery avoided looking into his eyes. Smart man. That didn't mean Neistah couldn't affect the other men who held him. He turned his gaze to the man on his right. "Release me." The man obligingly let go. He turned to look at the other man.

"Get the chains!" Avery shouted.

No, that wouldn't do at all. Neistah caught and held the second man's gaze, freeing himself in an instant. He stepped away, grinning, and bolted for the river while Avery's men scrambled for the iron-forged chains. Avery, like a fool, charged after him.

Neistah transformed into something other the minute he entered the water. His eyes gleamed in anticipation. Avery wanted to play? Then they would play!

Avery dove headfirst into the river after Neistah, but he never had a chance. Neistah circled him shark-fashion and caught his leg in an iron grip, dragging Avery deeper. Bubbles rose from Avery's mouth as he lost his last breath. Neistah snorted derisively. Avery could never be one of them.

"Stop!" 'Stop!' The command rang out both vocally and subvocally. Neistah immediately let Avery go. The man kicked weakly for the surface and Neistah followed him slowly up. On shore, Avery's men waited poised to fire their weapons into the river, only now their weapons drooped as they, too, obeyed the imperative to stop.

Norah ran up the abandoned road flanked by two others. It was her silent command which had stilled Avery's men and stopped Neistah before she ever even reached them. She was becoming more powerful by the day.

'Keeping all the fun for yourself again, cousin?' Breyan grinned at Neistah who hung, disgruntled, just below the surface of the river.

"Grandfather, are you all right?" Norah rushed to the side of the river where Avery lay gasping for air. She ignored the by-play between Breyan and Neistah.

Avery coughed and peered up at Norah. When he realized who it was, he lurched back in alarm, his eyes darting apprehensively between Norah and the water where he knew Neistah waited. "He tried to kill me!" he wheezed.

"No, he didn't," Norah said soothingly. "He was just trying to scare you. Isn't that right, father?" She turned around to look at Neistah, who obligingly came up out of the water. He dripped on Avery as he stood over them, but he grudgingly nodded.

Avery eyed Norah in disbelief. "What are you doing here?" he asked, struggling to his feet. Norah sat back on her heels as it suddenly registered that she had not expected to see either her grandfather or Neistah in this place.

"Why are you here?" she asked, directing her question obliquely to both of them. And why were they together? Was Pup here with the rest of his new mutants too? No, she could tell from Neistah's burst of surprise that he hadn't seen Pup yet either.

While her attention wandered, Avery's men slowly came out of their enforced trance. One of them wrapped the chain he carried more securely around his arm and moved towards Norah from behind.

"Watch out!" Billy More yelled as Breyan threw himself between Norah and the creeping hunter. The hunter threw the chain, catching Breyan across the back and shoulders. With a hiss of agony, Breyan fell to the ground.

"Breyan! NO!" Norah screamed in horror. Immediately the hunter froze—all the hunters stopped in their tracks at Norah's shout. She paid no attention to them as she ran to lift the heavy chains off Breyan. Angry red lines bit into his flesh and he lay unresponsive to her urgent cries. Tears coursed down Norah's cheeks. "Grandfather, how could you?"

Avery, frozen into immobility with the others, slowly came to life under Norah's tearful regard. His eyes widened to see the proof of iron's effect on these creatures, although Norah herself seemed unaffected. Even Neistah, that time he had been captured by Avery and bound in similar chains, had not exhibited such a—drastic—reaction. "I—didn't know," he whispered.

Neistah pushed past him and knelt by Breyan's side. 'He will survive,' he assured Norah, rubbing Breyan's shoulders vigorously. 'He should have never jumped in the way. The iron would not have hurt you. But I suppose he had no choice.'

'No choice? He could have been killed! I've been selfish. I should not have kept Breyan here this long. He would be safe if he was back in faerie.'

Neistah raised a brow. 'Do you think he would go back without you? The time for such things is past.'

'But I thought—' Breyan stirred and moaned, and Norah's attention snapped to his face. He settled again without waking. 'I thought the Lady wanted him to return to faerie.'

'Does she?' Neistah smiled mysteriously. 'Then she must tell him so.'

'Tell me what?' Groggily, Breyan sat up, only to be knocked flat again by an armful of Norah.

'The Lady bids you return to faerie.'

'What!' Breyan stared over Norah's head at a grinning Neistah, before glancing with confusion at the warm girl in his lap.

Norah reluctantly let go of Breyan. 'Anais never wanted you to stay away so long,' she sent. 'Now I understand why. Breyan, I was so scared when you got burned by the iron. I don't want that to ever happen to you again.'

All the while Norah was conversing subvocally with Breyan and Neistah, a piece of her attention remained firmly fixed on Avery's men. Unlike the first time she had yelled stop, this time she maintained her hold on the men. None of them had moved an inch, not even Avery, although since Norah had lifted her compulsion enough for him to answer her, his eyes followed her every movement now.

'Do you want me to leave?' Breyan asked softly.

Norah sighed. 'Of course not,' she sent. 'But-,'

'Then it's settled.' Breyan got to his feet and kissed her swiftly but fiercely.

At that moment, Pup cautiously approached through the woods with his small group of followers. He took in the scene with a glance and sent his group to wait with Billy. "Neistah," he acknowledged. "Should I be concerned?" With a toss of his head, he indicated the frozen states of Avery and his men.

Neistah laughed. "Ask Norah."

But Pup did not have a chance to ask Norah because the other groups who had split up to meet here at this spot started arriving. The Sprites who had led them immediately went to flank Avery's men, questions in their eyes, but nothing they would speak aloud. Pup would tell them what they needed to know. They nodded to Neistah, who nodded back.

'Norah, you can release them now,' Neistah sent, after the Sprites, with Pup's help, had systematically removed weapons, both iron and not, from Avery's men. 'We have it under control.'

Pup had not commented on Breyan and Norah's brief kiss, which he had witnessed as he came into the clearing. He noticed, however, the deep red marks criss-crossing Breyan's back. "Are you all right?" he murmured to the sprite, clasping his arm but careful to avoid the burn marks.

Breyan, who had noticed Pup's arrival and planned his kiss accordingly, nodded. "She is safe; that's all that matters."

Pup nodded his agreement.

The mutants who had accompanied Pup and the Sprites in small groups now milled around Billy More, casting anxious glances at the hunters who now sat with Avery in a group by themselves in the middle of the abandoned roadway. Avery had not been among the councilmen who had approached them about going into the forest to lure the other mutants out, but they recognized him nonetheless as an important factory-owner from Datro. A few of them had even worked in one of his factories at one time or other. They were disconcerted to find him here in the middle of the forest, glaring at them along with everybody else.

Pup, Neistah and Breyan spoke quietly by the river, while Norah hovered nearby, listening but not participating. After a while, the three of them approached Avery. "We need to work together," Pup said as their spokesman. "Atwater's hunters have already passed the place where these mutants set up their village, and are headed in this general direction. Neistah tells me that you were on your way to stop them. Do you think you can?"

"They're my men!" Avery snapped. He avoided looking directly at Neistah or Breyan.

"What will you do?" Breyan stepped closer, causing Avery to back away. He had hazy memories of this Sprite in particular making him see things that weren't really there.

Avery swallowed and cleared his throat. "They'll listen to me. I'll take them back to Datro after . . . ."

"After what?" Neistah pounced on Avery's hesitation. "Do you still think you can take over Hanan's land and rule the forest? I told you, that's Norah's land. Why don't we agree to work together to stop these hunters? I'll leave it up to you whether we kill them or not. If they follow you, they may get to live. You, too."

Right now those hunters are not aware Avery's in charge," Pup pointed out, having gotten the whole story from Neistah earlier. "They are carrying out their original orders, which is to capture as many of us Sprites as they can, and now we know their real objective is to take over the Hanan estate. They may not even be following our trail any longer. We have got to get to Hanan's compound and let them know what's coming. I can send a few of my Sprites ahead to warn them, and the rest of us can follow behind. The trail through the woods is fastest, but it's not cleared, and the horses will have trouble." Pup glanced at the rag-tag group of mutants he had brought with him. Several girls and young children were among them. They would slow down the group also. "The only good thing is that it will take Atwater's hunters even longer to reach Hanan lands."

"I can get there faster," Norah said. "I know a way."

Pup frowned. "Are you sure? Can you take me there? I don't want you going alone."

"She wouldn't go alone; I'd go with her." Breyan put an arm protectively around Norah's waist.

Pup's frown deepened. He liked Breyan, he really did, but the boy could be annoying, especially when it came to Norah. Now was not the time, however. "I think I'd better go."

"You can't." Norah gave Pup an apologetic smile. "It's underwater. You'd drown."

And Breyan, of course, wouldn't. "Fine, you'd better get going. Norah." Pup gently extricated Norah from Breyan's arm and gave her a soft, lingering kiss. His eyes, when they met hers, were hooded. "Be safe." He turned to Breyan, who was watching them with a faint smile. "Take good care of her."

"Always."