Faehound lowered his nose to the dirt and took an air sample. Particles of dust, plants, and animals drifted with the air into his nasal scent analysis chamber. Filters caught particles while air was ejected through tiny holes under his eyes. The filters generated a list of inorganic materials and species, complete with an estimate of time since sample deposit. Faehound lifted his head and wagged his tail. “Master, Mistress, Tinchild, we are here.” His measured, cheerful voice emerged from a circle of small holes on his throat. “The fairy scouting party returned through the portal approximately 3.43 hours ago. There has been no further activity from this side of the portal.”
Tinchild waved a lantern over the forest scenery. He narrowed his eyes and rubbed his fingers on his chin, as he had learned to do after careful observation of humans in a state of heightened curiosity.
Faehound was excited for Tinchild. The Masters said he could not go far from home because he looked like a human but was not one. This generated fear in some humans, which could make them dangerous. If this portal to the fairy realm had not opened so close to the village, he may have never had a chance to see one.
The Masters stood on either side of Tinchild.
“Good job, boy,” said Master. “How big is it?”
Faehound’s ears pricked at the pleasant tone in Master’s voice. The words were like a fresh animation spell on a depleted magical cell. He extended four fingers from his sides and pointed the tapered ends at the edges of the portal. “It measures approximately five feet across in the circumference of a rough circular shape, Master.”
Mistress dipped a hand into one of many voluminous pockets in her black witching coat and withdrew a clear crystal. Since humans could not integrate things into their eyes for enhanced optical performance, she had to hold it up to one eye and squint to look through it. She took a step toward the portal.
A warning lit in Faehound’s brain. A fifth finger shot from his side and wrapped around her midsection with a loose, gentle grip. She flinched backwards and dropped the crystal. Faehound used a sixth finger to fish it out from a pile of moldering leaves and return it to her. “Humans should not interact with the portals, Mistress. It is dangerous.”
He released her and withdrew the restraining finger.
She patted him between the ears. “Silly boy. I don’t have to get that close.” She caught her husband’s eyes and frowned. “It’s half frayed ‘round the edges, Wyatt. I think we may be too late.”
“How long?” said Master. He removed his hat and unclipped a piece of metal shaped like a sphere cut in half from its band.
“No way of knowing.”
Mistress withdrew a notepad and a pencil from another pocket. She wrote, and then stared at the portal through the crystal again. She tapped her foot and nibbled the blunt end of the pencil.
Faehound withdrew his fingers and bounded up to her. He sat at her feet. “Can I be of any other assistance, Mistress?”
She gave him a pat. “No, you have been quite enough help already. You may relax now. We have it where we want it.”
That energized feeling returned. Faehound was glad to be given an order to rest, because it meant he had done his job with a quality as close to perfection as it was possible to achieve. He lay down beside Tinchild, who was now sitting with his arms crossed over his knees.
They watched Master throw the metallic half-sphere on the ground before the portal. Eight thin legs shot from the object and it landed with a soft crunch of leaves.
Faehound’s ears pricked. He had not realized it could be a SpidBot because it was so small. They were interesting to watch, though their conversation skills were disappointing. Two older versions, almost as large as himself, patrolled the cottage on a tireless watch for anything that came to harm the Masters or their possessions.
Four white lights blinked on and the SpidBot spoke in a tinny voice. “What are your orders, Master?”
“You are to step through the fairy portal and continue for a distance of three feet,” Master said. “Take visual/audio recordings and samples of any physical material within reach, and then return.”
The SpidBot scuttled across the ground until it hit the portal. The faint shimmer of green and purple that emanated from the portal blazed with new light, a harsh white glow like heated metal. Tendrils wrapped around the little figure, drawing it in like the tongues of a hungry beast. It vanished.
Mistress pressed the crystal into Master’s hand. She scribbled hasty notes while he stared through it and made quiet human mumbling sounds.
Tinchild laid a hand across Faehound’s shoulders. He lifted his eyebrow plates in a friendly manner, the closest he could come to a smile while he waited for an upgrade which included lips. “This is fun,” he said. “I’ve been waiting to see you at work ever since you started your journal. It will make a fine memoir someday. Won’t it feel good to go into the booksellers and see copies on the self?”
Faehound lowered his ears. The Masters did not have much to say about the journal, so he was uncertain how he should feel about it. “Do you really think humans would read it, Tinchild?”
Tinchild nodded. “Why not? Humans love to learn. There is no one in the world like you, or who understands the fairies the way you do. They are bound to be drawn to something so unknown to them.”
It still did not add up. If the Masters did not take the time to read it, he could not understand why any other human would. He blew a snort of air through his nose, the way he had seen dogs do when they were tired.
They watched the portal. Dim flickers of green and purple faded in and out of view. Nothing happened.
Mistress broke the silence, voice downcast in disappointment. “It must have closed on the other side. I suppose you can give another one to Faehound on his next job and see if he can get the samples for us.”
“That’s not it,” Master grumbled. “The bastards must have finally gotten wise to us. If they’re getting harder to catch on this side what do you want to bet they’ve got plans for anything that makes it over to theirs? Thing’s probably in a million pieces now. Faehound, come.”
The urgency in Master’s voice sent a jolt through Faehound’s brain. He leapt to his feet and ran to Master’s side.
Mistress placed her hands on her hips. “And just what have you got in mind?”
“No more waiting for them to show. We take this to them. See how they like being abducted from their homes. Faehound, go through the portal, capture as many as you can, and bring them back.”
Faehound extended a paw towards the portal.
“Faehound, do not move!” Mistress shrilled. She jabbed a finger into Master’s chest. “Have you gone mad?”
Faehound froze. He set his paw down. He lifted it again.
“He’s perfectly designed for it! All that iron, they won’t be taking him apart.”
“What if it closes after he goes through? What if the next one opens on the other side of the world?”
“We have to try it, Hazelle. Soon we’ll be using more soul energy than we’re bringing in.”
“You can’t just replace him like one of your tools.”
On and on they bickered.
Extend. Withdraw. Extend. Withdraw. He could not disobey a Master. He could not please one Master without upsetting the other. The harder he tried to decide which order to obey, the more excess heat he detected building in his brain. A warning clicked on. The movement in his leg hastened and a tremble rose in it.
“Faehound, go home.”
Tinchild’s firm voice cut through the Master’s arguing. He stood with his chest out and his eyes narrowed. They fell silent and stared at him.
The warning clicked off. Faehound turned from the couple with a wobble in his steps. “Yes, Master.”
No further orders were given. He never wanted to experience that again. Orders were supposed to be pleasant to follow. On the way home he performed a scan, which revealed no damages, but also no explanation for his compulsion to obey Tinchild.
After some time the Masters returned and went straight to bed.
Faehound approached Tinchild with head and ears lowered. “Will you be punished, Master?”
Tinchild smiled with his eyes. “Don’t worry. I explained how they were hurting you, and they agreed they should treat you better.” He paused for a few moments. “Also, you shouldn’t call me Master. It’s… not how I want you to think of me.”
Faehound wagged his tail. “Yes, Master.”