The musty-smelling room was long, dark, and featureless. To Cary, it seemed more like a truncated bit of corridor than an actual room. He thought he could see a large shape at the other end. Cary wiped his palms against his pants and stepped forward.
“I’m looking for The Houndmaster? The guide brought me here.”
“For what purpose?”
The voice was clear and cool, a bit higher than Cary’s own.
“I’m an apprentice in the Turtle Bay Fishers’ Guild. We need to find a pollution source. My mentor told me to figure it out.” Cary paused. “I think I need your help to solve it.”
A ceiling light flicked on, causing Cary’s eyes to water.
“And so this is your trial.”
Cary nodded, rubbing his eyes. “Find a problem and solve it.”
“Do you know, I once heard of an apprentice who created their own problem, the better to earn their full membership.”
Eyes clear, Cary took in the person at the other end of the room. The Fae seemed small, sitting on the floor with faer legs hidden by loose, brown cloth. Behind faer was curled an enormous dog that seemed to be carved out of stone or or some dull metal, with patterns engraved in on its surface. The Houndmaster reclined against the dog’s side, with its head resting on faer shoulder. The eyes seemed to be flat black stones, set in the dog’s ornately carved face.
“What happened to that apprentice?”
“They asked one of us to solve their problem, and fae did. They no longer live in this city.”
“Well, uh, I didn’t create this problem, and even if I did, it still needs solving.”
“Good answer. Tell me what you have found.”
“Pathogens on the incoming tide. I believe it’s a sewage leak of some sort, and I did some digging. There aren’t any treatment facilities upstream, so it’s probably someone or something that’s operating without oversight.”
“And it would not do for our city’s clear waters to be sullied. Good. This is work that needs doing, and there will be no debt or payment.”
The Houndmaster stood, and Cary took a step back, bumping into a wall where the room’s door had been. As the Fae rose from faer sitting position, faer legs were revealed to be mechanical, shaped like the hind legs of a dog, and made of the same material as the hound. Cary’s eyes rose, and he saw that the hound’s head had risen with the human Fae, separating from its massive body to remain on faer shoulder. Fae stalked toward Cary, faer footsteps inaudible, and stood in front of Cary, half a meter taller than him.
Faer face was smooth and round, with a small nose, and full, black lips. Metallic tattoos glistened with gold and silver patterns on faer temples and forehead, looking a little like a crown.
“Outsiders call me Houndmaster.” Fae stooped slightly, extending a short arm, banded with the same metallic tattoos. Cary closed his mouth, and lifted his hand to touch fingers with The Houndmaster.
“Now, we shall see what we can do.”
The Houndmaster turned to the side and knelt. As faer legs slowly folded, Cary glanced at faer back, seeing that a sort of sort of metallic hump seemed to emerge from the back of faer tunic, forming a platform that extended back from faer left shoulder, supporting the hound’s head. Kneeling, fae reached up, lifted the head, and gently placed it on the floor, facing the Houndmaster. Placing one hand on it’s head, fae leaned in and spoke softly.
“There is work to be done, and it requires your abilities.”
Fae’s head tilted to the side, as if listening. Cary could see the corner of faer mouth tug upwards in a small smile.
“Because we are not the only ones present, and we wouldn’t want our guest to feel neglected… No, Eldest. You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
The Houndmaster glanced up at Cary and shrugged.
“The pack is shy at times, and faen’ve recently welcomed a new member. If you earn their respect, faen may choose to speak with you.”
“How might I go about that?”
“That is not for me to say.”
Fae turned back to the head. “Will you aid us?”
For a long moment, there was no sound, and no motion, then the head’s black eyes lit up with a soft, golden glow, and The Houndmaster stood, returning the head to its place on faer shoulder. Fae turned and looked down at Cary.
“The pack has agreed. We will find the source of this pollution.”
“We appreciate that. Will you need my help?”
“You may accompany us, insofar as you are able.”
Cary blinked. “Do you move that fast?”
“Quite the contrary, but we will not stop until the source has been found, and if – as you suspect – it is under water, then we will follow our quarry into the depths. Do you dive? Have you a submersible?”
Cary shook his head. “Just a canoe.”
“Then you may follow in your canoe.”
“I’ll do that. If you need to keep anything on board while you work you’re welcome to.”
“No, there are no things we would need to keep on your boat. We will meet you at the southwest boundary of Turtle Bay in an hour.”
The Houndmaster turned and stalked to the back of the long room. Fae pressed faer palms against the wall. Glowing signs appeared on the wall around faer hands, and then both wall and signs faded showing the dim waters of Central Park. The Houndmaster stepped forward as the water poured in, not changing pace as fae entered the torrent. Cary stood frozen, and braced himself as fae disappeared into the rushing water, but the wall re-appeared, and the flood was cut off. The water spread out on the floor, and was only millimeters deep as it gently flowed around his shoes. The water sank into the floor, leaving it dry, and Cary stepped back through the newly re-opened doorway, and into the passage beyond.
As it had on his way into Manhattan’s Otherworld, a bright speck of light was projected into the air in front of him, and he followed it through the dim, dripping corridor, until it vanished by the lift. He entered, and was carried back to the surface. He stepped out into the warm air and bustling noise of Central Park’s floating market, and made his way through the evening crowd to his docked canoe. Cary stepped lightly into the vessel, sat, and pushed off. He had an hour to meet the Houndmaster, so he decided to save the outboard’s battery and move under his own power. His paddle bit into the water and he slid forward.
A warm breeze blew droplets of rain into Cary’s eyes as his canoe coasted close to the ivy-covered hulk of an ancient tower. His earpiece chimed softly as he passed his mentor’s lot beacon, and he dug in his paddle, turning the vessel into a gap in the ivy. Jo’s canoe was tied a metal railing, and his mentor was lounging in a hammock over the dark waters inside the building, her wrinkled face and silver hair lit up by the tablet she was looking at. He stilled his canoe near her hammock.
She glanced down at him.
“Your face says you found somethin’.”
“I think there’s a sewage leak.”
“Fecal bacteria in all four quadrants.”
“Well, sounds like you’ve found a problem.”
“Can’t have the fish getting contaminated. Where do we go from here?”
Jo raised a bushy eyebrow at him, and turned back to her tablet. Cary suppressed an urge to groan. Jo had taken him as guild apprentice when he was 10, and the past seven years had taught him to dread the moments when she simply didn’t answer a question. It invariably meant that she felt he should already know the answer, and so it was on him to figure it out, or to ask a better question. He set his paddle on the bottom of the canoe, and rolled his shoulders, thinking.
Jo was a senior member of the guild, and in addition to turning Cary into a competent fisher, had also shared her belief that any task that arose should be tackled immediately, lest it cut into their free time. The guild’s strict fishing quotas meant that each fisher started their shift knowing the maximum they could take. Jo had sent Cary to other fishers, to see how they worked, and it made him realize how many different approaches there were. He could see the value in the meditative approach that some of his guildmates took, but he preferred Jo’s goal of spending as little time actually working as possible. The key was always to take the time to do it right, so no followup would be needed.
The apprenticeship was his job, and so he had to take the time to do it right, and now his mentor had told him that he’d missed something. He glanced up at her. Whatever he’d missed, it wasn’t big, or she wouldn’t be smirking at her tablet. Even so, he was annoyed that he’d missed something. After seven years of apprenticeship, he was on the verge of becoming the guild’s newest full member. He’d even heard Jo telling Leon that he’d learned everything he needed, so that just meant-
Jo glanced at him, her smirk widening into a grin. Cary’s stomach fluttered as he stared up at her.
“Yup. This is your first chance.”
The last stage of his apprenticeship – find a problem in Turtle Bay or the Fishers’ Guild, and solve it. He looked at the water beside his boat, watching the phosphorescent glow that tailed a small school of fish. Jo wasn’t going to help him on this. Some mentors would help on a final task, but he knew Jo would be disappointed if he just gave a general request for help.
I can do this.
New York City was a complex web of collectives, all with their own purposes and ways of doing things. The Fisher’s Guild oversaw Turtle Bay, which meant maintaining the fishery for future generations, monitoring the water quality, and checking the “ruined” towers for signs of instability. When the city had been reclaimed, it was decided that Turtle Bay would remain a wild zone. At the time, it was a mix of whimsy and limited resources. A local legend held that there was a huge, ancient turtle that lived in the bay, and they had to make sure it had an ecosystem that would support her so she wouldn’t go looking for food in more populated areas. Nobody had ever seen the turtle, but the idea stuck. That had meant refitting the buildings for their new purpose as stable structures for vegetation, bird life, and as Cary had learned when Jo sent him up to inspect the building they were in currently, a thriving population of enormous spiders. He shook his head, putting those memories aside, and thought about his problem.
Because Turtle Bay was so closely monitored by the guild, it was a near certainty that the leak was outside their territory. In theory, Cary could simply alert the City Council of the problem, and they’d deal with it at some point, but he knew that Jo would find that to be unacceptable. She’d probably decide she hadn’t trained him properly, and set him to studying the city’s history or something. No, he needed to at least figure out how to track down the source of the contamination. He needed help from outside the guild.
Jo looked up.
“You have a plan?”
“I think so.”
“Run it by me.”
“Wherever the sewage leak is, it’s probably under water, or someone would have smelled it, right?”
“So I need someone that can trace bacterial contamination in the water back to its source.”
“You have someone in mind?”
“Then what’s your plan?”
“The guild has a good working relationship with the Fae, right?”
“As does anyone with half a brain.”
“So I’m going to Otherworld to incur a debt.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I know faen’ve got people who can do this, and frankly it’s about time I made my own connections, don’t you think?”
“Good boy. Yes, that should do. You know how to get there?”
“Everyone who grew up here knows. I’ve never interacted with one, but faen do make sure that every child in this city knows where to go if there’s trouble.”
And every parent in the city knew that if the didn’t treat their children well, they might decide that living in Otherworld was preferable. It wasn’t perfect – it wasn’t even a system – but it did mean that Cary knew where to go.
“Ok. I’m off to Central Park then.”
Jo shook her head.
“Go tomorrow afternoon, late-ish. The current will be in the same direction and that’ll help the- whoever you manage to get trace the contamination.”
“Oh, good point.”
“Of course it is. Are you catching any fish tonight?”
Cary shook his head.
“I think I’d better make sure I’m well-rested, and I’ve got some things to attend to at home.”
“Give my regards to your parents if you see them, and update me when you have something.”
He grabbed his paddle and moved to leave the building.
“By the way,” called Jo, “Stop by the boathouse and note your findings. Say you’re dealing with it so that nobody else will waste time on it.”
Cary grinned as his canoe slid out from under the building. This would be his first solo entry in the guild’s logbook.
The gray sky was beginning to dim as Cary reached the southern boundary of Turtle Bay. Looking around, he saw the tall, Otherworldly form of the Houndmaster waiting for him on a small jetty. The hound’s eyes were still glowing, and several small drones were chasing each other around in the air nearby. As he approached, the aerial drones darted out to swoop around him, and then returned to the Houndmaster, settling to rest on faer head and shoulders. Now that faen weren’t moving, Cary counted six.
As he pulled his canoe alongside the jetty, the Houndmaster crouched slowly and gestured to the drones using him as a perch.
“These ones took a turn around the area, and the only traces of sewage faen could find were right by the water’s surface. I think it is safe to say that the source is below, so I will take the other half of the pack down, and see what we can find.”
“Sounds good to me.”
The drones took off again, and the Houndmaster stood, and stepped off the jetty with a splash that rocked Cary’s canoe. Holding his paddle to shade the water’s surface, he watched the Fae sink down, submersible drones darting out of the hound’s mouth. Fae hit the canal floor with a large puff of silt, and looked up at the drones. Bubbles emerged from faer “hunch”. The drones sniffed around a bit, and then faen moved southeast, followed by the Houndmaster. Fae moved along the bottom slowly, each footfall kicking up a puff of silt. The aerial drones kept pace with the rest of the pack, and Cary dug in his paddle and followed. Where the buildings created dark patches against the reflected sky, Cary could see fish following the Houndmaster, darting in around faer feet to eat things kicked up by the Fae’s passage. Bubbles rose from faer back at regular intervals.
As he glided forward, he also watched the aerial drones. In general, one or two would hover directly over over the Houndmaster, while the others would dart ahead and perch on railings, windowsills, or docks, until the Houndmaster was level with faen, at which point faen would switch out with the ones keeping pace. Occasionally, one would loop around Cary as if to make sure that he was still following. The Houndmaster’s pace was steady, so Cary stuck to paddling. The outboard was easier, but he preferred conserving its battery. A thought occurred.
As a drone looped back to check on him, he waved to faer.
“If you all want to save your energy, you can ride on my canoe, and I can keep following the bubbles.”
The drone came to a halt in the air, darted down to hover in front of his face, faer propellers giving a pleasantly cool breeze. Fae then darted over to the others, and faen all flew to the canoe and settled on the gunwales, extending little metal limbs to hold on.
“Good”, said Cary. “No sense in wasting energy when I’m already tagging along, eh? Let me know if you need anything.”
He wasn’t sure faen had the means to do so, but faen had understood his offer, and faen seemed able to communicate with the Houndmaster. He dug his paddle into the water and pushed them forward, following the trail of bubbles towards a pair of apartment buildings by the southwest edge of Turtle Bay. The Fae drones rocked a little with the motion of the boat, but faen held faenselves in place. Satisfied his passengers were safe, he looked up at the buildings. From the line of bubbles, it seemed they would be going between them, under the lattice of bridges that connected various floors. Dripping ivy hung down from the lowest bridge like a ragged, green curtain, and Cary could hear the sound of children at play as he approached. Peering up as he paddled, he could just make out shapes darting around in the support structures under the bridge. He felt a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. His family’s home was in a similar building, and the bottom bridge was one of their favorite playgrounds. By the time he’d taken on his apprenticeship and moved into his own flat a few rows down, he’d become an expert at swinging himself along the bars that made up the bridge’s support, and for the rare moments when he missed his handholds…
A small, dark shape tumbled into the canal, pulling a laugh from Cary. He looked up at the other kids, and moved his canoe to the leftmost edge of the canal.
A high voice called, “boat!” and the movement among the ivy paused.
The one who’d fallen had surfaced and swum toward him, curly black hair cropped close against their head. A brown hand came up to wipe water out of their eyes.
“Those your drones?”
Cary grinned and shook his head.
“Fae, so be nice to faen.”
“Fae? Really? Are you Fae?” The kid grabbed onto the side of his canoe, looking up at him. “You don’t look Fae.”
“I’m not. I’m just a fisherman.” He pointed a thumb over his shoulder at Turtle Bay. “But we needed help. I’m Cary.”
“Greg.” Greg peered at the nearest drone. “Nice to meet you. I’ve never met a Fae before.”
The drone lifted off with a buzz, and landed on Greg’s head for a second, before returning to its place on the gunwale. Cary glanced toward the Houndmaster. The bubbles were stationary. Squinting, he could just make out the distorted form of the Houndmaster standing on the Canal floor facing them.
“Cary, right? Don’t faen talk?”
“The Houndmaster said faen will if faen feel like it, but I don’t think faen talk to outsiders much.”
Cary pointed to the water. “Fae’s down there, waiting for us.”
Greg’s free hand plunged into a pocket in his shorts, and he pulled out a pair of goggles. He jammed them on his face, took a big breath, and dove. Peering over the side of the canoe, Cary watched him turning his head around, and then waving frantically at the Houndmaster. Fae waved back, and Greg surfaced with a shout.
“There’s a Fae in the water!”
“You’re just trying to get us to lose, too,” came the answer from above. “Let that person go through so we can keep playing!”
“No really! Fae’s working with the Turtle Bay Guild and fae’s right under the bridge, standing on the bottom! Fae waved at me!”
“It’s true,” called Cary. Everyone knew about the Fae, but faen kept to faenselves. Jo had once said faen enjoyed being mysterious.
Another kid plunged into the water, and looked around, before waving at the Houndmaster, who waved again. The kid surfaced, and yelled to the others.
A second later, several kids dropped into the water at once, and the Houndmaster found faerself surrounded by children diving down to get a look. Fae waved at them, waited a moment, then turned and continued walking. The kids surfaced and surrounded Cary’s canoe.
“That’s so neat!”
“What’re you doing with faer?”
“Are there others around?”
“Did you see the big head on faer shoulder?”
“Yeah, with the glowing eyes”
“Faer legs are so cool! I want legs like that!”
Cary laughed, and answered the question directed at him.
“I found a little pollution in Turtle Bay and we’re trying to find the source.”
“Is it safe to be in the water?”
“Yes, and we’re going to keep it that way. Someone’s not taking care like they should, so we’re going to make sure it’s dealt with.” He glanced at his Fae passengers. “And yes, these ones are also Fae – faen’re part of the Houndmaster’s team.
“Oh! Sorry we didn’t say hi!”
This was followed by a chorus of greetings and waves. The drones lifted off, gently touched down on the bobbing heads, and then returned to the boat. It seemed that was how faen greeted children.
“Sorry kids, but I’ve gotta get moving. The Houndmaster’s getting ahead, and I don’t want to slow faer down.”
“Back up to the bridge and we’ll start over. Last one there has to be the ref!”
They all splashed toward the nearest building and began clambering upward, still chattering.
“Faen touched all of us! Do we have magic now?”
“Don’t be silly Milo. You don’t get powers unless you become a Fae.”
“Auntie Kat said faen don’t have powers, faen just use tech different.”
Cary paddled after the Houndmaster, grinning as he listened.
“Did you see fae just walking around on the canal floor? If that’s not magic, it’s close enough for me.”
“Faen wouldn’t take you, Ana. Everyone knows your parents treat you so well they probably get “parent of the month” medals from the Fae.”
“That’s not a thing, Walter.”
“I bet faen’ve got a list of good parents though. Faen’d have to.”
“If faen know who all the bad parents are, then it stands to reason faen know the good ones too.”
“You’re both being silly. Faen don’t know all the bad parents. Faen don’t have to. Faen just make sure that kids know where to go.”
“You see those drones? I bet faen have got them like that all over, to keep an eye on us.”
Cary brought his canoe to a quick stop and looked back. The child’s voice had a note of panic in it.
“Guys I’m stuck! I can’t- Ah!”
Greg, the kid who’d first fallen in the water, had lost his grip and was hanging upside down by his right ankle. It seemed to be caught in the vines a couple stories up. His right hand was bleeding.
“My ankle’s caught! I can’t- It hurts!”
“Oh shit! Greg hang on!”
“I think he’s hurt?”
“Mister can you help?”
Cary had already pulled his canoe around, and was paddling toward the wall as fast as he could. The drones lifted off and hovered near the crying child, but Cary was pretty sure faen couldn’t do anything to help. As he reached the building wall, he took a second to inspect it. The vines were old and sturdy, firmly gripping the building’s outer surface, which had been designed for that purpose. Their age, however, made them dangerous. Woody branches jutted out, making for easy climbing, but a painful fall if you were too close. One of the younger kids from his family’s building had had a fall like that and ended up losing an eye. Ray hadn’t been willing to play under the bridges after that.
Greg whimpered, and Cary grabbed a vine and hauled himself out of the canoe and on to the wall.
“I’m coming Greg, just hang on for a second. You’re gonna be all right!”
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