Fairies exist, and they’re surprisingly tech-savvy, with their own magical internet, smartphones, and even giant transforming mech suits that can combine into powerful warriors… about the size of a short man.
Chaxium is just your average sour loner fairy, enjoying workouts and long conversations with her none-the-wiser human best friend online, but when a disgusting tycoon with an anti-environment agenda runs for office, she has no choice but to team up and use her family heirloom, the transforming snake machine Snakewaist, to put a stop to his plans.
(reading time: 1 hour, 2 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 2 hours, 22 minutes)
(NEW)(Ladyspiller): Hey, how’s my favor…
(NEW)(Podcrown): Chaxium, we really need…
(NEW)(Podcrown): This is urgent Chaxium,…
(OLD)(Leafshroud): Has Podcrown told you…
(OLD)(Podcrown): You haven’t gotten bac…
(OLD)(Podcrown): We have an offer for yo…
A bubble, tiny and blue, rose out of Chaxium’s pants pocket. It kept pace with her brisk walk as it rose to her face and popped in front of her eyes. She ignored it. Another bubble squeezed out and popped on the other side of her face. It was just going to keep going like that until she checked it or changed her settings. Chaxium stopped. There were others walking behind her, so she had to move over to the railing to let them pass.
Several of the young men were tempted to stop and flirt, but the flow of traffic and her general disinterested expression kept them moving. She had honey-kissed skin, sharp brown ringlets, and big green eyes. She was thin, but there was enough muscle tone to suggest visits to the gym were as much a habit as eating. She dug her showing glass out of her pocket.
The device was an oval lens of water framed in white gold. The lens bubbled like a shaken soda, and the flurry of tiny pops only abated when she dragged her finger across it. The first thing she did was go into her settings and turn off bubble alerts. That would keep Drupe’s incessant messages from tickling her nose and interrupting her workout.
There was a new message on the lens, and she was delighted to see it was not from Drupe. She still couldn’t believe he’d had his crew change their usernames. Calling himself ‘Podcrown’ was pure hubris. Everybody already knew how he got around the world; he didn’t need to advertise it.
The new message was from Ladyspiller. Now there was a friend. She didn’t care about Chaxium’s inheritance. She wasn’t looking for gossip. All Ladyspiller wanted was vapid conversation, the kind of vapidity that could burst and drop them both into an actual deep subject without warning. Their conversations about movies could turn into theories about how important a second pair of eyes on your life was. Their talk of sugary snacks could plunge them into debates of nutrition versus taste versus what Ladyspiller called ‘delicious mortality’.
It was easy for Ladyspiller to take her friend’s mind off things because they were so far apart. Chaxium lived in the Beezgalore family tree while Ladyspiller was off in an apartment with three other struggling students at the edge of Piston City. She didn’t know about Chaxium’s problems enough to comment on them, because Chaxium kept them to herself. Online friends were best kept in the dark. That way any lights they made were just between the two of them, fireflies spontaneously generating in the midst of a black hole and finding the strength to circle each other. Chaxium opened her friend’s message.
(NEW) (Ladyspiller): Hey, how’s my favorite woodland critter? Do you suddenly have some kind of crazy schedule? You missed our post-weekend movie chat. I was alone, with popcorn. Shortly after that, I was alone. The corn was slaughtered and it was entirely your fault.
Oh my god I’m being so clingy. Sorry. Just curious. Is that guy still bugging you about that job interview? I know you said you weren’t interested, but I get the sense there’s a lot of money involved. If you need any advice on selling out I’ve been there.
Anyway, love you Chax. Hit me up when you can.
Chaxium shoved the glass back in her pocket. Someone bumped into her, forcing her to lean over the railing. She stared down into the rock crevice, seeing every lit door and window of Beezgalore, except for those hidden by the trunk of the tree. It was a wimpy tree, a scrappy thing that had somehow rooted in the crack of a boulder. Chaxium’s family had settled there before its seventh winter, but they already knew how scrappy the perpetual sapling was. It could clearly support them for a few hundred years as long as the bumblers didn’t get to it.
Chaxium’s family did have a few other natural enemies, though they softened on her people every year, seeming to understand the mutual threat of the bumblers. While the walls of rock surrounding them kept out the hawks and wolverines, the bees kept out everything smaller. Lizards and weasels would’ve loved a mouthful of her kind, but there was a swollen golden wall of cells all along the rock crevice, partly attached to the tree, between the two of them.
Bees moved at all hours, giving them a wonderful hum to sleep by in the night and a consistent buzz to power their daily activities. Chaxium’s hands, wrapped around the railing, felt the slight vibration from the flight of the hundreds of bees overhead. She looked up at the sunlight filtering down through the orange of the wax and honey. It was another perfect day, and she couldn’t waste it thinking about the explosive garbage spreading outside her tree.
She’d gone out that morning for a workout, but the gym was on the other side of the crevice, behind the tree. The walkways were filling fast with others heading off to their social appointments, their inspiration spots, or any of the hundred festival clubs built into the rock. Someone bumped her again. She saw the crowd wind its way around her intended path, and she calculated her delay if she walked to be nearly half an hour.
Nobody in Beezgalore was supposed to use their wings in the central chamber. Though the bees were their incidental protectors, they did not take kindly to things buzzing about that weren’t from their queen. Chaxium stole another glance at the insects hovering far above her. They weren’t paying too much attention, and it was her risk to take.
She pulled herself up onto the railing and balanced on its smooth grown grain. Then she flexed her shoulders, spreading four transparent quills from the blades that widened as nearly-invisible lines of her blood filled them. Four-part wings were one of the gifts of her family tree, alongside her moth-wing ears, her pearlescent nails, navel, and teeth, and her iridescent irises. Every fairy living in the tree Beezgalore had the same set of features, though they didn’t all have her daring.
Chaxium leapt from the railing and glided out over the city. She landed upon a leaf at the halfway point and took a deep breath to power her wings once more. Though the gap was only a few feet, Chaxium was just over an inch tall, necessitating a rest. On her last inhale she looked ahead and saw the gym on the other side of the crevice: a cute hole in the rock with a glass outer wall, allowing a great view of many other fairies lost in the sweaty fugue of exercise.
Bzzz! An angry bee dropped down in front of her, stinger bared. Nobody would help her; very few even paid attention to the disturbance she’d caused. Fairy family trees were places of strong social contracts, and she was firmly between the lines at the moment. Before it had a chance to pinpoint a weak spot with its pointed pin, she jumped over it, her wings pumping to gain a little elevation. She stepped on its back, right between its wings, with one bare foot and launched herself forward to the other side.
Once she was safely back on the cobblemoss she rushed inside and closed the gym’s glass door. The bee bounced harmlessly against the barrier for ten seconds before losing interest and making its way back up to its sisters. Chaxium breathed a sigh of relief. She could cut five minutes off her workout after that exertion. First came the snack.
There were many gyms to choose from in Beezgalore, but Chaxium had her favorite because of the chef at their snack bar, which she approached practically salivating. She’d taken no breakfast at home, distracted as she’d been by her pet trilobite beetle. There were six curved shelves before her carved from clamshell with hundreds of divots holding beautifully crafted snacks in place.
Green banana triangles with sunflower butter. Pumpkin seed crumble. Poppy-coated kiwi. Smoked apple with honey drizzle. Glowing lemon jelly. Melon dew in softened acorn bowl. Walnut-mint scone. Rosemary peanuts on the half-shell. Honeysuckle and grape leaf wraps. Dandelion smoothies. Sugar crystal-coated clementine rinds.
The five minutes Chaxium was going to cut off her exercise was quickly expended standing in front of the snacks, frozen by indecision. Her finger danced across the options while the chef absentmindedly checked his showing glass. She would never make it to lunch or dinner if she didn’t pick up breakfast, so she eventually asked for a cinnamon-stuffed blueberry, baked until its ruptured top emitted maroon steam. The chef handed it over gently and waved her away.
Chaxium scarfed it down on her way to the wind tunnels, the slight burns on her tongue nothing compared to its rich taste. As she licked her fingers clean of purple pulp, she found herself thinking of Ladyspiller again. If Chaxium told her best friend more about her diet than she already had, she knew exactly what response she would get. Ladyspiller would say she was so jealous of her metabolism, that she couldn’t have a slice of pizza without her thighs doubling in size.
Ladyspiller couldn’t know that Chaxium never had to worry about that sort of thing. Fairies couldn’t be husky; their bodies simply didn’t allow it. Their diets were more restricted than that of the bumblers, mostly fruits, sugars, herbs, spices, seeds, and nuts, but Chaxium didn’t see it as much of a shortcoming every time she stared at the variety on the snack bar shelves. There was simply no need for the hassles of meat, starchy vegetables, and the extensive labor of milk and cheese.
She wasn’t wearing much at the moment; her workout clothing had to let her skin breathe. It was just a simple top of dyed spider silk held together with feather shafts. Her high-waist shorts just covered her pearl navel. Shoes were for bumblers. Her feet pattered across the cold stone as she walked through the wind tunnel chamber. There were twelve holes in the rock with lanes in front of them. Most were occupied already with fairies training their wings, so she had to move all the way to the end and take the one next to the window.
She tapped the green-dyed twig off to the side, activating the wind. Her hair was pushed back as it picked up speed. She let her ankles go limp, her wings naturally fanning out as she leaned forward. Her body lifted. She was treading water now, nothing like the self-propelling exertion she’d used to cross Beezgalore’s central gap. If her previous efforts were any indication, she’d be able to hold her horizontal hover in the tunnel for nearly six minutes before she needed a break.
Unfortunately she only made it to four before happening to glance to the right, outside the window, and seeing the exact face she was trying to avoid. He waved at her. Chaxium whipped her head away so fast that it ruined her trajectory. Her body was forced down and to the right, the wind slamming her against the window and pressing her cheeks and spittle against the glass. Now the face saw her in all her glory, wind dragging her spit and sweat across the glass before peeling her off and tossing her to the end of the tunnel.
Chaxium picked herself up off the rock with a suppressed groan and rushed out of the chamber, limping slightly. They had to go around. They had to go around to the main entrance to catch her, and they could get there before she could, so she just needed some place inside the gym to hide.
The climbing roots? No, even in the thickest of them her feet would hang down. The dance hall? No, she was too good at dancing. They’d pick her out in a moment, especially if one of her five favorite jams was playing on the static-harp. The chocolate spa? Yes. She could hold her breath under the cocoa surface for more than a minute, enjoying the taste and the smell all the while.
Chaxium took the second left and passed through a couple thin doors. She grabbed a fibrous towel and then passed through the final barrier. There was peppermint steam everywhere, with four winding paths on the ground separating the chocolate pools. The hot chocolate tub bubbled in the corner, but Chaxium opted to wade into the largest pool of mousse. She left her towel very close to another patron’s so it didn’t look like there was anyone unaccounted for.
She took a deep breath and slid under the surface, putting her toes and fingertips on the pool’s bottom. The infused peppermint tingled on her skin as she waited in the smothering silence of the chocolate. She couldn’t hear anything outside the pool, so she had to estimate. If they checked everywhere else first they wouldn’t be in yet, and they had to take off most of their clothes to get into the spa, so there was another thirty seconds.
Her lips emerged for a quick breath. Maybe they were in the spa now, slowly circling the pools for any sign of her. She knew what they wanted; Drupe had flooded her inbox enough to make that clear. They wanted her to use the treasure she sat on like a fat dragonfly. They wanted to lecture her about responsibility; Drupe did at least. Maybe the others he’d wrangled actually cared about their cause…
They were gone by now, surely too afraid she’d managed to sneak out the front. They probably stared down into the crevice of Beezgalore, all the way to the squeezed trunk of the tree, wondering if she’d chosen suicide just to escape the mosquito-like persistence of their noble offer. Slowly, like a bubble forming in ancient mud, Chaxium’s head emerged from the chocolate. It slid right off her hair and skin, taking sweat and grime with it. Fairies could not be stained by sugars, as there were some in their perspiration anyway.
Nobody around. Just an elderly woman fanning herself with her wings and lounging in the corner of the hot tub. Chaxium grinned. How many weeks could she go without actually talking to another fairy directly? Pwik. Oh. That was the sound of a blink. She tilted her head up.
A moist purple sphere with a white pupil stared down at her. Chaxium lunged out of the chocolate like a pike from a lake and snatched the squishy orb, pinching it between two of her fingers. The moment she did she heard someone yelp at the far end of the spa, hidden in the minty mist. With a sigh she waded up the pool steps, the last of the chocolate dropping off as a single curtain from the back of her thighs.
She followed the hiss of pain until she found herself face to face with two male fairies: Drupe and Maribu. It was a rule that everyone remove their shirts in the chocolate spa, but Drupe still wore his: a tight piece of his ferrier uniform, complete with a few medals carved from fang and antler.
All three were siblings in their family tree of Beezgalore, sharing their moth-wing ears, iridescent irises, and pearlescent decorations, but Drupe was by far the largest while Maribu had the darkest skin. Maribu’s curly hair and hunched posture hid his face, but it was clear he held one hand over his eye. Chaxium squeezed the purple blob that had spied on her, forcing a moan out of the darker fairy.
“Spider eyes, huh Maribu?” she asked, noticing seven more of the purple balls above his head, all swirling in different directions. “That’s a quaint spell. I didn’t think anybody bothered learning that one anymore now that we all have cameras in our showing glasses.”
“A showing glass doesn’t let you look eight places at once,” he whined. “Please, let it go. The mint in here stung them enough without your squeezing.” Chaxium flicked the gooey ball in his direction. He poked it rather than catching it, popping the other seven along with it. That deactivated the spell and allowed his regular eyes to take over once more.
“We had to resort to spying because you wouldn’t answer any of our messages,” Drupe said, eager to insert himself into the conversation. “I’d heard you’d become a bit of a recluse Chax, but literally running from us? Is there no respect left from the training days we shared?”
“I don’t remember ever having respect in my body in any quantity. I think I lack that particular humour.”
“Maybe it was just awe then, at what we were all capable of.” Drupe eyed the old woman in the corner, who stared back intently as the flapping of her wings slowed. “I’d like to implore you, but I’d like to do it in private. May we go to your place?”
“No, but we can get out of the spa,” Chaxium answered. She led them out through the three sets of doors and back into one of the crossroads for the gym’s various sets of equipment. “I guess I should have told you no through E-mail,” she admitted. “Whatever your cause is, I’m not interested. Snakewaist is an independent beast; she doesn’t act as hands for any body politic.”
“Can I get through a few sentences without you interrupting?” Drupe asked. Now that the sting was out of Maribu’s eyes he looked quite serious as well, almost frightened. Chaxium nodded, leaning up against a slate wall and crossing her arms. “I’ll start with a name: Gerald Wallup. Does that mean anything to you?”
“I read enough bumbler sites to know it,” she admitted. She had much to hide now. If Drupe saw the emotions that name elicited he would think he had his yes. She swallowed the rage and disgust bubbling up inside, threatening to molder the wonderful blueberry snack of earlier, to turn its cinnamon into napalm against her back teeth.
The fury, the revulsion, the fear… she didn’t feel them for herself. She felt them for her poor friend Ladyspiller, who didn’t have a family tree to protect her from the likes of Gerald Wallup. When the fairy had first learned about Mr. Wallup she thought him little more than a boorish clown; Ladyspiller had written him off as well.
He was a man of finance in the bumbler world, a concept intentionally destroyed by fairies in their societies. For some reason they had put him on their televisions for a while, which eventually morphed into his abuse of his showing glass, or ‘cell phone’ as the bumblers called their equivalent. Drupe repeated the rest of the story while Chaxium’s mind raced and struggled to maintain her aloof expression.
“Now it’s looking like his campaign is actually going to happen. There’s a significant chance that creature will gain power. The worst part is the foundation of his promises. He plans on disassembling the national and state parks, swiftly and with greased palms.” He waited a moment for her to respond. “That’s us Chaxium. Beezgalore is in a state park. This mission is everything. We could be uncovered, exploited, and destroyed if he is elected.”
“If that’s true,” she nearly whispered, eyes looking through them, one pearl nail clicking against her pearl teeth, “then why are you trying to recruit me and Snakewaist? You should have no trouble getting a heartbox and enough ferriers for your cause. There are what… seventeen of us in Beezgalore? And five heartboxes to choose from…”
Her last words trailed off as she remembered the exact words Ladyspiller had used to describe Wallup. The worst. Just the absolute worst, as if someone made a parade balloon with a theme of ‘the worst’. I’m ranting, I know, but the idea actually terrifies me. It’s clear he doesn’t give a shit about anything, but the things the people sneaking around in the soles of his sweaty shoes would do… It’s weird to say, but… I think they would hurt me as soon as they had a legal way. Ladyspiller was a bumbler herself, and even she was that afraid.
“Everyone’s got their wings over their eyes,” Maribu explained. His eyelids were still purple with irritation, but Chaxium could see fear in them as well, utterly separate from the physical discomfort. “Nobody believes he’ll actually get elected, but I’ve been studying the human internet. Mentions of him grow every day. Already there are clear shadow webs spreading false information. You know the bumblers don’t have the same sort of data protections we do. Their computers don’t automatically burn out falsehoods.”
“In short, because time is short, we need you Chax,” Drupe concluded. “Suspicions say he’ll announce his candidacy next week. We know he’ll be in his tower in Piston City for another three days. We can strike there. Snakewaist would be the perfect delivery mechanism.”
“Delivery mechanism for what?” she asked. “What is it you plan to do to this man?” Drupe and Maribu shared a glance.
Three hours later, the trio of fairies landed on a broad wet leaf and nearly slipped off when it bounced. They were far from the sun now, deep in the woods of the Warrawoody state park. Beezgalore and its protections were at their back. They were immune to everything except bumblers in the magical barriers of the ancestral trees, but out in the open anything from a dragonfly to a strong gust could destroy them. It was best to get inside Snakewaist quickly.
Chaxium bent two of her fingers into an odd shape, put their tips in her mouth, and issued a whistle that could’ve pierced a wool blanket. They stared off into the lower canopy of the dark trees and waited, at first unable to make out anything against the foliage. Eventually Drupe and Maribu spotted a drooping coil wrapped around a high branch. It lowered until it was within their flight distance from the leaf.
Chaxium took off first, bouncing on the leaf and gliding over to the hanging structure. Her companions were forced to jump off the slippery surface as well and keep pace. All three landed on the metal hide of her ferrier. Its head appeared from atop the branch and descended near them.
The form of Snakewaist, beautiful machine that it was, bore a strong resemblance to a glass lizard. Its elongated body was bookended by two stubby pairs of limbs. Its metal scales were permanently polished to a satin finish in patterns of green, blue, and yellow. Snakewaist’s eyes were small, yellow, and convex, with a glass-domed parietal eye atop its head acting as the cockpit. The ferrier’s owner whistled again; its jaws slowly opened and extended a cloth tongue that stiffened into stairs for them. Drupe angled his head to get a good look at the fangs, the delivery mechanism he sought, but they remained retracted into the upper jaw.
Inside, once the mouth was closed, they found the cockpit and the maintenance paths to be in a state of clutter and disarray. A few tiny spiders and mites had gotten in, leaving webs and stalks here and there on the consoles. Chaxium alternately swept them up and snapped them off to reveal the main control panels.
“Well, here we are,” she said limply, “home sweet war machine.” She plopped into the pilot’s chair and forced a stiff lever upward. The control panel’s glass lights came to life as the whole thing hummed. Ornate needles spun around their dials, remembering what they were supposed to track. The cockpit rose into the base of the parietal eye, giving them a full view of the surrounding canopy. Tiny mechanical millipede wipers crawled all over the eye, scrubbing off the dust and pollen.
“They’re not war machines,” Drupe grumbled. “That’s an oversimplification. They are the ultimate in fairy engineering. Their likes will never be produced again.” Chaxium tuned him out while she adjusted herself back to the feel of piloting the mechanical beast. She knew the history, as did all fairy and fae minds around the world.
The ferriers were designed, forged, and machined in the years 1894-1907. They were the dawn of a new age where fairies embraced the possibilities of human science and technology to further their own goals. They never took anything wholesale of course; everything humans made was deeply impregnated with their flaws. The fairies took only the knowledge that fit their social structure, leaving behind anything cruel, misleading, or overly violent.
They never took up firearms or bombs. They never touched poison gases or radioactivity. Instead they focused on clocks, hydraulics, pneumatics, and, eventually, data. They mixed in their sorcery to create perfection: machines that ran on magic and repaired themselves, food and medicine in unlimited quantities, and an internet all their own, free of deceit.
On a separate tier, near to being worshiped, sat the ferriers: machines the size of bumbler limbs that fairies could pilot to manipulate the world on a larger scale. Like all fairy technology they mimicked the natural world, at least in part. They came in the shapes and personalities of animals, plants, geological structures, and occasionally fungi or sea shells.
Fairies, regardless of family tree, had a deathly contact allergy to iron, so they left it out of all their machines. The ferriers were built mostly of tin, gold, silver, quicksilver, galena, platinum, electrum, and copper. At the time of their construction the fairies admired one of humanity’s few compelling art styles: art nouveaux. The ferriers reflected that with their curved organic forms and the floral patterns etched into their exteriors. Snakewaist’s eyes were accented by curls of ivy in each corner. Its claws bore the veiny marks of leaves much like the one the trio had leapt from.
Snakewaist unfurled from its branch, from the marks it had left in the growing wood thanks to its long slumber. Chaxium glanced at Drupe, fully aware it took all of his effort not to scold her about keeping the ferrier limber and clean. Even from their school days he had always been eager to lead, a trait that often suffered in family trees with their lack of hierarchy. In his initial messages he seemed as self-serving as ever, but if he could hold his tongue now he was surely invested in the actual stakes of the mission.
“Excellent, she still works,” he said, pulling out his showing glass and tapping rapidly. “I can have the others meet us at the heartbox in twenty minutes. We can see how well everything fits together. I’m sending the coordinates to Snakewaist.” Chaxium leaned forward and opened a small panel on the console. Under its cover there was a paper map, which quickly responded to the mildly magical bubble that drifted out of Drupe’s glass and popped against the console. The map’s topography scrolled by. A pen nib struck from below, staining the coordinates with a red snowflake.
“Who are these lackeys that can hop in their ferriers at a moment’s notice?” Chaxium asked. She pushed the controls forward and then depressed a switch, allowing Snakewaist’s limbs and winding body to pilot themselves. She leaned back in her chair, just as Maribu crouched and snooped around the base of the controls.
“I’d rather you didn’t call them lackeys,” Drupe said acerbically.
“I really don’t think of myself as a lackey,” Maribu added. “Chax, I think there might be a husk in the console somewhere. There are some chalky grinding sounds. May I take a look inside?” She nodded. He closed his eyes, whispered words of old wise fairies, and produced the purple orbs of his spider eyes spell. From there he opened a panel next to Chaxium’s legs and sent three of them in to investigate.
“Wallup is a threat we all understand and properly estimate,” Drupe resumed. “We’ve been ready to go for days now. The others have been sleeping in their ferriers. You were the last piece of the puzzle Chax.”
“Which heartbox are we joining?” she asked. Snakewaist continued to slither through the trees, never drawing the attention of the forest’s real animals; they knew it wasn’t predator or prey. The ground beneath them grew uneven and rocky. According to the map there was a waterfall nearby.
“Heavenly Lovers,” Maribu answered from under her, his voice echoing from inside the console. A few spider eyes turned in her direction. She remembered it well. As with ferriers, heartboxes each had unmistakable and unforgettable chassis. Heavenly Lovers was the size and shape of a bumbler torso, with its design split into two sides depicting sun and moon as embracing lovers with a combination of crimson and ghostly blue. “The spell installation was handled by… augh!”
The three investigating spider eyes shot back out of the panel and knocked Maribu onto his back. A black armored head with wide flat eyes emerged from the panel, chattering its mandibles and wiggling its antennae.
“Oh, nasty!” Chaxium said with a grimace. Ants. She really had shirked her duties if ants had gotten in. That was a level of filth even she wouldn’t tolerate. She lunged forward, grabbed the ant by the scruff of its exoskeletal neck, and yanked it out. She put one foot on its abdomen and pulled as hard as she could, popping the head off its still-scrambling body. The head was as large to her as a toaster. Ferriers, like family trees, were magically larger on the inside. Sometimes pests didn’t interact with that magic well and wound up a touch gigantic. She dropped it and kicked it to the front of Snakewaist’s jaw. The ferrier’s mouth opened and dumped the trash.
“Now that’s what a lackey looks like,” Drupe said with a scowl as he picked up the ant’s body and tossed it toward the open mouth. Fairies rarely questioned their natural hatred of ants; to them it was self-explanatory. They filled similar roles in nature, but in wildly different ways. Where the ants lived in united peaceful societies toward the single goal of perpetuating their colony, fairies lived in united peaceful societies toward the single goal of maintaining satisfying individualized lives.
To them ants were slaves: vile creatures that would throw themselves on the pyre without trying to understand what started the fire. As to how other eusocial insects like bees escaped their rage, the prevalence of wings was a likely culprit. Bees, hornets, and fairies at least shared the pleasures of flight. The average worker ant was not so fortunate.
Chaxium hit another switch, which opened a small panel on the floor to her right. Five green sticks rose out of it, each carved to fit hostile hands well. She grabbed three and tossed one to Drupe and one to Maribu. Where there was one ant there had to be more. The trio moved along the undulating circular maintenance hallway that was Snakewaist’s body, checking every loose panel for ants.
The engineered magical muscle tissues billowed around them like red silk. There were rips here and there from ant chewing, but they would regenerate over time. Drupe spotted one of the offenders and used both hands to wrench it out from under a copper arm joint so Chaxium could bash its head with her stick while he had it immobilized.
“So you didn’t tell me… exactly how this magic is supposed to stop Wallup,” she said, pausing for another swing. They heard Maribu yelp, but then he assured them he had the ant he wrestled under control.
“Heavenly Lovers has been charged with the spell whispering lies,” Drupe summarized. He used his stick to lift a few muscle tissues and check behind them. “Our plan is to have you inject whispering lies directly into Wallup’s bloodstream with Snakewaist’s fangs for the swiftest possible effect.” The heartbox was the only piece that could hold a significant purposeful magic charge, but one of Snakewaist’s abilities allowed it to act as a conduit for that spell. Magic was its venom, as long as the ferrier was attached.
“Yeah, but whispering lies induces madness,” she pointed out. She smacked the wall with her stick, but there was nothing there. Just a shadow. Typical of ants. Even when they were gone they stayed on the brain. “It feeds bumblers lies until they can’t discern the truth. This Wallup swine lies all the time. It might not even affect him.”
“We’ve taken that into account,” Drupe assured. “The spell has been recalibrated. It will inject him with nothing but truth, which we believe will have a maddening effect on a narcissistic mind like his. His psyche should break down after a few hours of auditory hallucinations. He’ll be unable to stand on a platform, let alone run on one.”
“Okay, I think that’s all of them,” Maribu said, his breath ragged. There were a couple scratches on his face and neck, but he had a firm grip on a severed antennae. “I bet the cockpit’s gorgeous now.” With the infestation cleared the three of them walked back to the controls, only grabbing the wall handles once when the ferrier spiraled through a few tight branches.
Maribu was right. With the last of the non-fairy life cleared, Snakewaist felt safe enough to bloom once more. The ferrier was a fusion of technology, magic, and nature, and the last of those ingredients had not been truly visible until now. The soil-filled boxes next to the control panel blossomed into moss and sprouts, enriching the air with the smell of loam and rain.
Several gray withered buds on the panel itself turned green, swelled, and opened, airing their stamen switches for the first time in seasons. Green-white bunches of lichen grew from the sides of the parietal eye dome, providing padding should the occupants ever be rattled by battle. Drupe clapped Chaxium on the shoulder when she settled back into the pilot’s chair. All that was left now was the assembly.
A short while later they arrived at the hiding spot of their heartbox. The waterfall wasn’t particularly showy, as its flow was too weak to froth or separate from the stone that carried it. That kept it safe from the prying eyes, biological and digital, of the bumblers. Halfway up its stony backing there was a small ridge and a pool just big enough for a family of raccoons to bathe in. Snakewaist slithered out of the nearest branches and crawled across the dark wet moss of the ridge.
The ferrier was much more nimble in the trees, so once it had slither-crawled to the side of the pool it coiled up into a less awkward stance. Chaxium kept its head held high and its mouth open so she and her companions could sit on the edge of its lower jaw, dangle their feet in the spray, and enjoy the sights until the others arrived. She stared into the pool. It would take five ferriers to make it appear, to make use of it at all.
“There’s my dearest!” Drupe declared as he stood and pointed. He’d sent an autopilot order to his own ferrier as soon as he’d confirmed Snakewaist was functional, so it was the first to arrive. A pearlescent green mass, somewhat cone-shaped, appeared out of the nearest branches. It had no limbs, instead moving about with an assembly of wires and hooks atop it. “Behold Chaxium! Podcrown! The forever chrysalis! The watchtower of the great fairy scholar Wotambuln!”
“I remember her,” Chaxium said. As Podcrown lowered itself on its main wire she could see Drupe had never let it suffer a speck of dust. It had the form of a chrysalis, with more than a few surprises hidden under its shell. It would act as the head to their heartbox. Drupe flew over to it and disappeared inside.
“Is it being the head that always makes him act like that?” Chaxium asked. The question wasn’t really directed anywhere, but Maribu assumed he was supposed to answer.
“He’s just so proud that he convinced someone to hand over the reins. We got ours through nesting. He earned it, you know? It would be nice to have the chance to… but if that was the case I never would’ve gotten Leafshroud. Speaking of the weed…” Maribu took off as well, as his own ferrier had just arrived.
Leafshroud had the form of a cluster of vines, making it among the best camouflaged ferriers of Beezgalore. Looking at it, there was no easy way to tell the various strands of its body apart, or which ones were the important ones. It crawled close to the pool, using its metal leaves like paws, and settled across from Snakewaist. It would act as the other arm.
They only had to wait a few more minutes for the remaining members of their party. The fourth ferrier launched from the waters below, swimming up the thin flow in a way no real fish ever could. It was a silvery catfish with segmented barbels and spotted eyes like quail eggs.
Chaxium never talked about ferriers anymore, most of her talking was to Ladyspiller, but she kept up her studies regardless. She knew every one of them and all their pilots across eighteen states and nearly seventy family trees. The catfish was Barbelossa: a left or right leg depending on what was needed. Its pilot was Twarly Beezgalore. He was on the older side and constantly agitated, likely due to his injuries. Twarly once had a run-in with a raven out in the wilderness when he had no ferrier to hide inside. It had torn off his right arm and wing, and left him with a vicious scar across his face, neck, and chest.
“Drupe should treat me with a little more respect,” Chaxium told Snakewaist. She might not have kept up her maintenance, but she wasn’t a loon like Twarly. He lived in his ferrier and never stepped off its fins. He only surfaced for fresh air and sun every month or so. She hadn’t heard tell of him stepping foot in Beezgalore in years. A pilot like him wasn’t really considered the most respectable of assets.
Barbelossa leapt from the falls and arced into the pool. Twarly emerged from one of the mechanical fish’s gill slits and strolled across its head as it circled the pool. He wore some kind of fish scale pilot suit that looked like it hadn’t been washed since its creation. He looked up at her dangling feet and saluted with his remaining arm, which Chaxium reciprocated. At least he wasn’t much for words. That she could respect.
Last to arrive was Polecat the weasel ferrier and its pilot Clandestiny Beezgalore. She, like Drupe and Maribu, had been in the same pilot training program as Chaxium. She was a vapid fairy with a heavy crop of blonde and silver hair that hung over her head and shoulders like an umbrella. She appeared hanging off the side of Polecat’s reddish ear, face covered in war paint like a burning raccoon’s mask.
“Who’s ready to defend the park?” she shouted to all the others as they closed around the pool. “Good to see you Chix-chax. Twarly, looking sturdy as ever.” Polecat was flexible in a number of ways, but wasn’t ambidextrous. It could only act as a right leg. Its talents lay elsewhere, like in its ability to change the color of its artificial coat when the seasons changed. Ferriers were funny like that; even if they didn’t start with special talents, quirks, or weaknesses, they often developed over time anyway.
With five ferriers assembled in the immediate vicinity, the heartbox was coaxed out. Its hiding spot was enchanted, so even when it started rising from the pool they couldn’t see the rest of it under the water. Heavenly Lovers emerged slowly, letting them bask in its beauty as the sun reflected off the droplets in its seams. It was broad but thin, like a flattened bumbler chest plate, with five deep round slots. It stopped two feet above the pool and rotated slowly, awaiting its new limbs.
“Does anybody mind if I go first?” Drupe asked over the radios. Chaxium pressed the little branch wrapped around her ear in a bit further. When she felt its leaves curl she knew she could respond.
“This mission is your baby,” she said.
“But we’re all adopting it!” Clandestiny chimed in. “You’re still the head of the household Daddy Drupe. Get up there so we can get this dazzling show on the road!” Podcrown fired two hooks into the stone and pulled itself near the top of the heartbox. The base of its body sank into the neck-slot and clicked into place. Its true purpose activated, Podcrown transformed. A few of its seams moved to create a pair of sly eyes that lit up brilliantly yellow. Its mobility hooks separated and turned upward, forming the points of a green crown. It was now more regal head in appearance than chrysalis.
“Podcrown is cozy!” Drupe declared. “I forgot how good this felt. Brothers and sisters of Beezgalore! Join me!” Leafshroud went next. The vines crawled up the side of the heartbox and screwed their hidden roots into its right arm socket. Its leaves became organized like lizard scales, compacting to form a sleeve. The end of it twisted and sprouted to create a hand with four long finger-tendrils. The rest of its mass was shunted off to the side as a small over-the-shoulder cape.
“Leafshroud is cozy!” Maribu bubbled. “Who’s next?” Clandestiny disappeared into Polecat’s ear. A moment later the weasel jumped and flipped, sliding its tail into the right leg socket of Heavenly Lovers. Its small limbs folded into its body and its teeth extended through its lower jaw to form a cleat excellent for climbing. The weasel’s back popped out into a small dome, bending and forming the knee.
“Polecat is cozy! I’m pretty lonely down here, where’s my other leg?” Clandestiny squeaked. Barbelossa inverted in the pool, inserting the closing fins of its forked tail into the other leg slot. Its head shifted into rounded toes like a boot as jointed barbels danced their way up its back, weaving in and out of slots along its vanishing dorsal fin. They tightened, becoming the spitting image of high laces.
“Barbelossa is cozy!” Twarly said gruffly, but he offered nothing beyond that. The heartbox still hovered and spun. None of the limbs would function unless all five were in place. It required cooperation. The centerpieces of that great fairy technology had been designed that way from the beginning; no rogue fairy could control such power on their own. None could use the magical amplification of a heartbox without four other assenting parties.
“I guess it’s my turn,” Chaxium said to herself. She climbed the back of Snakewaist’s throat and settled into her pilot’s seat, then twisted two green stems on the panel around each other to initiate docking. “Snakewaist is mine. It’s not theirs. There’s none of them left in her. I’m comfortable here. I won’t see what they saw. I’ll stop it. I’ll stop Wallup and I won’t hesitate for one mounted cross-section of a second.” Snakewaist sprang up and inserted its tail into the left arm slot. Its limbs folded away as its serpentine form coiled and bent into the shape of an arm. Fangs extended to form two giant sharp fingers while its lower jaw folded into a broad third. “Snakewaist is cozy!”
Heavenly Lovers dropped out of the air. Twarly and Clandestiny engaged the legs, landing them on the mossy ridge. A moment later they leapt down the waterfall, tilting the heads of their ferriers so they would slide along the stone. Leafshroud’s tendrils stabilized their angle as they slid. Chaxium extended Snakewaist’s fang fingers. The tips glistened with magical sharpness, and with venomized drops of the spell installed in the heartbox. Those drops were very dark, nearly black… strange. She remembered Whispering Lies as purple, but perhaps the spell’s truth recalibration had altered its color.
She lost her focus when their great machine leapt off the end of the fall and stepped foot on the surface of the river. Polecat folded up like the leg of a flamingo. Leafshroud and Snakewaist extended straight out to keep balance. One of Barbelossa’s talents activated, the fishy leg propelling them across the water’s surface, spraying water to each side as they leaned forward and sped down the river’s flow. Podcrown plotted out their course, a course that dotted the maps in each Ferrier a moment later.
Chaxium took a deep breath. She and Snakewaist had joined up before, but never for a genuine mission. She’d trained. She’d explored. She’d played tricks on bumblers, but she’d never done good with her inheritance. She wanted to laugh it off, to make a joke about Wallup’s chances or their own, but found it impossible.
The joining of five ferriers to a heartbox was the most serious business to a fairy, after joining their family tree. When they were all connected, moving as one, spirits aligned on an arrow’s path, they ceased to be ferriers and a heartbox. Assembled as they were, they were called a fairanquin, like the bumbler palanquin. A fairanquin was a machine of war for creatures that did not war. They were the height of fairy drive, even more than a century after their creation. Fairanquins gave them the scale and power of bumblers, and it was their duty to never be as irresponsible or single-minded as one of those beasts. They were five in one, each with a hand clasped around a single moral, but with the other stroking their heads and chins, constantly considering whether what they did was right.
The fairanquin bent its knee and increased speed. They had more than a day’s journey before they reached the city and the tower at its center, and there was a stop they had to make first. Chaxium looked at it on the map: a cluster of wheeled homes and picnic tables. A warm-up encounter with the bumblers before they faced the worst of them.
Friend and Fairanquin
“Remember to hug the tree line,” Drupe reminded them over the comms as they came to the clearing. Chaxium and Maribu lifted the Fairanquin’s arms, allowing themselves a better view over the bushes. It was a bumbler picnic and campsite flanked by motor homes of various sizes and gaudiness. The paper maps on the fairies’ consoles flipped over, showing a much smaller rendering of just the clearing. Drupe marked their target: the vehicle with the minuscule American flag flying from the corner of its hood.
“That’s our target?” Clandestiny asked just as its door flew open and belched out four bumblers: two adults and two children. They all wore shorts. The father carried a platter of smoking sausages. Corners of melting cheese slices draped over the side. He marched their feast over to one of the tables and set it down. “Monsters inside and out,” she said with a shudder. “What are we to do with these things?”
“That wheeled ship of fools is our ticket to Piston City,” Drupe explained. He sent them a few more packets of data. Chaxium activated the art-pollen projector on her console: a glowing flower that spewed colorful particles. Those particles arranged themselves in the air into representations of Drupe’s findings. “Their older child,” he went on, “the one wearing suspenders… Her name is Zizi and she loves complaining to her friends on social media.” Chaxium poked at a few of the girl’s posts, letting the relevant collections of pollen shine brightest. “Thanks to her updates we know her family is leaving, back to the city, in three hours, probably right after they finish consuming all of that flesh.”
Chaxium threw her hand out, dispersing the pollen. It was best not to let traces of the human internet linger too long; you would eventually see some of the lesser opinions that dwelt there. The internet of her kind, Fairnet, moved seamlessly between the pages and packets of the human network, taking and sharing only what was good and true. The magical filter between the two was perfect.
There were times, after her caretakers had transformed in shame, Chaxium couldn’t bear to look her fellow Beezgalore fairies in the eye. Those were the days she spent alone in Snakewaist, the most use she ever got out of the ferrier, roaming around the park or slithering along the riverbed. She stayed away from Fairnet and instead picked through the viscera of the human internet. It was easier to find raw emotion there, to vent into a space that was already ruined by the emissions of creatures far worse than her.
Bumbler data had no privacy from fairies, as the whimsical sprites had always moved freely through both nature and human poetry. Chaxium didn’t think anything of it when she plundered their electric diaries for rage and sadness like her own and found the words of Ladyspiller in the process. It was a post about being cast out by her parents for something as trivial as preferring the softer lips of other women. Chaxium had not been cast out; her caretakers had cast themselves out, flung themselves from civilization and into blissful idiotic denial, and left her behind. Still, the young fairy felt a connection to this giant sad girl who had no idea there was a tiny magical being nodding along with her digital rants, daydreaming about swimming in one of her tears.
“Leafshroud’s fingers will handle the crawling, so Snakewaist is on periscope,” Maribu announced, pulling Chaxium out of her thoughts. ‘Periscope’ meant they would be dropping down onto three limbs to keep a low profile as they traversed the relatively open field. She locked Snakewaist into its current raised position so she could act as the lookout while they moved.
“Give us the signal once their backs are turned Snakewaist,” Drupe ordered. “We’ll make our way to the opposite side of their vehicle and use it as cover. When they’re about to depart we’ll attach ourselves to the undercarriage and ride to the city.”
“Understood,” Chaxium answered. Snakewaist’s head swished side to side, following the play of the bumbler children as they chased each other around the picnic table. Chaxium could see the blue glow of the girl’s phone screen through the frayed pocket over her navel: the constant updating drama of bumblers she would never know, calling the girl back to her gray boxed civilization. Chaxium felt the urge to change their mission, to break up their play and steal the phone away just to see if she could get the girl in suspenders to look, really look, at how the trees towered around her. If she could really look then she could really smell. She could inhale the real air that the bumblers had mostly destroyed in favor of the caffeinated and microwaved brew their lungs had adjusted to. The glow disappeared when the girl turned around. “Now.”
The fairanquin bent at the waist. Leafshroud’s long fingers grew even longer as the forearm split. The tendrils pulled the front half of the fairanquin’s body along the ground like a creeping octopus, with the legs keeping pace behind them. Chaxium kept watch while the patriarch of the bumblers pulled a metal claw from his apron and began docking the sausages and patties into buns. None of them turned around in the four and six tenths seconds it took the fairanquin to cross the clearing.
Fairy machine rose back into a standing position on the opposite side of the motor home, legs hidden by one of the back tires. It was parked in the grass at an odd angle, their side only barely visible from the portable toilets fifty feet away. The closest structure was an overflowing trash bin with a pile of corn chips coated in white cheese powder at its foot. A line of squashed cigarette butts dotted the edge of its square lid, like a row of pigeons nestled on a power line.
“Something’s off,” Twarly growled into the channel. “Look at the chips.” The other limbs of the fairanquin adjusted to give their pilots a better view. There was a small cluster of chips in the middle that were crushed: a shape vaguely resembling a bumbler shoeprint. That on its own was not suspicious, but there were two holes in the line of cigarette butts as well, spots where the ashes had been swept away. A bumbler had no reason to grab the lid with both hands, on the same edge no less. Chaxium didn’t have the knowledge of eleven fairanquin campaigns like Twarly, but to her it looked like something had hoisted itself up, had crawled inside…
“Your fairanquin is what’s off,” a new voice proclaimed into their channel. “You’ve darkened Heavenly Lovers with that twisted magic. I don’t know if there’s a spell that can scour it clean.”
“Show yourself,” Drupe demanded of the voice.
“Gladly, as there is no shame in what we do with our ferriers.” The orange lid of the trash bin popped up. Two distinct sets of metal fingers grabbed it and raised it into the air. Granola bar wrappers and dripping smoothie cups flowed over the sides. The new entity released the lid backward and pulled itself out of the bin completely, taking a strong stance, feet uprooting some grass as they twisted into the ground. With a tiny whining sound, like a hummingbird’s war cry, it asserted its magical aura. The grime of the trash, every last scent and stain, flowed off it like water. A rival fairanquin.
While Drupe and whichever fairy helmed their rival’s head bantered pointlessly, Chaxium identified its pieces as quickly as she could. The left arm was scaled green and brown, with two onyx balls on the wrist joint. A three finger arrangement made out of a jaw, much like Snakewaist, but with its needle-like teeth converted to knuckle spikes. Its animal form was a pike, and it was called Pikearm.
The right arm? Most of it was blocked by a large round shield, reflective and green. Its hand was a vice-like claw made from a gray beak. The tortoise, Tortshield.
Onto the left leg… A tall spiral of glassy dirt-colored beads without too many other distinguishing features. A wide round foot. Antheel, normally disguised as the dirt funnel topping an ant colony.
Right leg. A thigh clothed in rubbery reddish orange. A white ankle. Retracted serrated spines around the knee. It was the mushroom ferrier, Mushine, currently closed up like an umbrella to make for easier movement.
The head was a golden dome of hexagons, with a few lit up to give it a simple face. It hid well deep in the layered hive of Beezgalore, but out in the open its identity was clear as day: Honeydome.
Last was the heartbox. It was white and almost spherical, with a line of black buttons down the center. A tale of ten winters was etched around the buttons like a curling wind growing bold at the end of autumn. It was called Cold Snap.
“Stand aside,” Drupe ordered into their now-open channel. “Our mission is righteous. The bumbler Wallup must be stopped or he will destroy the park.”
“He might,” their rival countered, “but it is not our place to intervene. Every bumbler might find us, might destroy us. If they do we will flee and find a new family tree. Where you’re going there are eyes of both kinds in every crack. You will be found out. You are the greater risk to Beezgalore.”
“There are bumblers just on the other side of this thing!” Clandestiny shouted at them. “If you fight us here they’ll know!”
“We are aware,” the rival fairanquin answered sternly. “Better those four than the millions in that city. Besides, we can fight quietly. It’s not our fault if you cannot.” Cold Snap took a step forward. A growling hiss emerged from the hollow palm of Pikearm. Honeydome’s many panels flashed in wave patterns. “We are surprised you managed to get four others Drupe. Many more favored the cause of stopping you.”
“Like all fraternal battles, this one is pointless,” Drupe argued. “This is your last chance to turn back.” Drupe sent a silent message down to Chaxium’s console. He wanted her to use Snakewaist’s discerning eyes and scan the heartbox in order to see what spell had been installed. She silently obeyed, focusing her ferrier’s slit pupils into subtlety mode. The machine’s stare pierced the aura and then the shell, revealing the spinning ball of magic at its core. ‘Drowned memories’ was the name of the spell; it was a bubbly charm that stole bumbler memories and plunged them into the nearest stream so they could drift away. She sent the data to Drupe and the other limb pilots.
Drowned memories meant they were more concerned with the bumblers seeing them than they let on. If the humans were to see, Cold Snap could chase them down and use its magic to erase the encounter from their minds. This might’ve conferred a tactical advantage if Heavenly Lovers wasn’t also loaded with a spell that only affected bumblers.
“We’ve got more experience in our left leg than you’ve got in your entire assemblage,” Drupe said, referencing Twarly’s extensive combat record. The catfish leg extended aggressively, pointing its knee at Cold snap like the barrel of a gun.
“That’s why we brought two!” the voice in Honeydome exclaimed. Phunth! The door to one of the portable toilets flew open, and out stepped a third fairanquin. Chaxium had to perform her little analysis all over again as it approached and stood beside its partner.
The head was born from the bat ferrier called Echoface, its transparent ears pulled over its eyes like goggles. The left arm was Needlesleeve: a collection of tiny green spines resembling the branch of a fir tree. Its counterpart was Rattlegrip; its articulation was much like Snakewaist’s, but it was disguised as a rattlesnake, the rattle transformed into a bracelet that shook menacingly as they approached.
The left leg was Luckfoot: a rabbit, and the right was Bubblebath, a collection of crystal bubbles best for aquatic missions. It also had the benefit of being able to arrange into any limb given its numerous small pieces and their magnetic attraction to each other.
The heartbox was a furious monster face behind vertical spear-tipped metal bars: Caged Instinct. Its spell was drowned memories as well. Everyone in Heavenly Lovers knew the odds of the fight as soon as the double-team was revealed. Between the three fairanquins all but two of Beezgalore’s ferriers were accounted for. No punch or spell had been thrown yet, and it was already one of the greater conflicts of their family tree.
Fairies do not war, but they do disagree. As family, as spirits bound to the same tree, they could never fight at home. Such conflicts were too destructive, too human. They, as the humans would put it, ‘took it outside’. There in the park, far from the tree, their disagreements were given bodies.
Chaxium thought about making an appeal, about her caretakers, about sensing the same virulent strains of thought that took them over within the internet postings of Wallup, but she found her hands responding before her mouth. She moved Snakewaist into striking position and primed its fangs.
Surprisingly, Drupe beat her to rash action. One of Podcrown’s suspension cables shot out and latched onto Caged Instinct’s head. He reeled the fairanquin in, smacking them both against the side of the motor home. Snakewaist wrapped around its torso, but Rattlegrip responded with the same maneuver. While the two were tangled, Cold Snap barreled forward for a head butt.
Twarly was too slippery to fall for something so simple; he pulled Barbelossa down. The ferrier leg wriggled back and forth like a beached fish, pulling the rest of the fairanquin enough to twist it under the carriage of the vehicle. Thus Cold Snap collided with Caged Instinct, forcing Rattlegrip to relinquish its hold. Heavenly Lovers, on all fours, crawled backward until it was under the center of the motor home.
Forcing them to fight low might give them the advantage, as only Twarly had ever fought with fairanquins in a space that cramped, but heir opponents didn’t fall for it. A fairanquin couldn’t move if even one ferrier detached, but any detached pieces could attack on their own. Cold Snap braced itself against the side of the vehicle so it wouldn’t fall over. Then its leg, Mushine, detached. The mushroom ferrier opened its cap and extended its spines. Its shaft burrowed a few inches into the soil so it could pull itself along as the cap rotated, quickly reaching a speed that turned its spines into a circular saw. It sped under the vehicle toward Heavenly Lovers, ready to cut it limb from limb.
Not content to attack from one angle, Caged Instinct went around to the hood and stuck Needlesleeve underneath. The conifer ferrier fired green filaments at them at high speed, immediately doing significant damage to Polecat’s eye glass. All of Heavenly Lovers heard Clandestiny yelp as one of the needles broke through and pinned her pilot’s uniform to her seat.
“All of you disengage!” Drupe ordered. “Get the bumblers’ attention!”
“We can’t risk that!” Maribu shouted back. He yelped a moment later, as a metal needle pierced his cockpit as well. Mushine was inches from Podcrown, from beheading their fairanquin, when Leafshroud shot up and wrapped its tendrils around the disk, forcing it to a whining stop.
“We’re not risking anything. Our opponents both have memory erasing spells. If they see anything too significant they’ll have to peel off and deal with them instead. Leafshroud has Mushine locked. Now’s our only chance. Disengage!” The other three limbs obeyed, popping off the heartbox and transforming back to their more beastly states. Barbelossa, Snakewaist, and Polecat slithered through the grass and let just enough of their hides stick out to catch the sunlight.
Chaxium watched the family as they sat with their backs turned, chowing down on animal tissue and volatile condiments. They weren’t looking. The fairy swore under her breath and forced a branch-like lever to its highest setting. Snakewaist’s jaws opened as wide as possible, with the bottom one looking like the lid of a tin can ready to pop off. She howled at them, ordering them to pay attention, to actually see the distress of the world around them. Snakewaist took up her raging howl, turned it into a loud seething hiss, and directed it at the bumblers.
Their heads turned. The moment they saw color in those giant eyes, the ferriers turned and rushed back to their heartbox, swiftly transforming and locking back into their joints. Leafshroud released Mushine, which hurried back the way it came. The fight had lost priority, as now the greatest threat was the attention of the bumblers.
“Jerry? Jerry what was that?” the bumbler mother asked as she followed her husband around the front of the vehicle. He brandished his tongs like a sword in one hand and a bottle of green ketchup in the other, ready to spray it in the eyes of whatever wild animal had made that horrible noise.
“I don’t know sweetie. Kids, stay back.”
“Dad, it was a snake!” the daughter exclaimed. “I saw it! It was so gross.”
“Snakes aren’t gross,” the son insisted. “They’re misunderstood.” He tried to march past his father, but was held back by the tongs pinching his collar. Slowly the whole family rotated around back, finding an overturned trashcan, but nothing more. The three fairanquins had circled around, always keeping to the opposite side. When Heavenly Lovers noticed the ladder bolted to the back of the vehicle, they took it up to the top, with their opponents following silently, and now all three lay with their torsos flat against the roof as the bumbler children disobediently crawled underneath in search of the snake.
“They’re going to lose interest. We’ll be right back where we started,” Chaxium hissed into the channel.
“We shouldn’t fight up here,” Twarly added. “If any of us fall we might hit one of them. It’s a lot harder to erase a memory of an injury that stays.”
“I’m open to suggestions,” Drupe said. They all stared as Cold Snap and Caged Instinct closed in, silently creeping nearer. They would try to hold them down, to lock their limbs against their sides and prevent squirming. Beyond the possibilities of being injured or killed in the battle, simply being taken prisoner could be worse. They could be forced to transfer ownership of their ferriers to parties deemed more responsible. Fairies were never exiled from their trees, but former pilots were miserable creatures, among the most likely to put themselves under a bumbler boot.
“Snakewaist has a suggestion,” Chaxium growled. Without running it by the others, she once again extended Snakewaist’s fang-fingers. Rather than strike at her foes, she aimed her ferrier at the roof and started to slash. It scored the thin metal instantly, shrieking with each strike.
“What’s that crazy arm doing?” Clandestiny yelped.
“Yes, what are you doing Snakewaist?” Drupe asked in a tone divided between fake confidence in Chaxium and genuine horror.
“Bumblers don’t have homes that grow back on their own!” she explained. “This thing is probably worth more to them than one of those kids’ lives! Just you watch!” The first result was the apprehension of their foes, which could be seen in the body language of their fairanquins. They backed off, partly convinced that Snakewaist’s ferocity was the sign of a serious malfunction.
“Oh god the roof!” the father bumbler moaned. “Uhh… Alright everybody! Vacation over. Get inside. Hurry now.”
“Dad, our hot dogs,” the son protested.
“Lost cause. The camper isn’t. Hurry, hurry, hurry!” The motor home rocked as four bodies piled inside. A second later the engine started and they pulled toward the shorter grass, toward the pavement on the other side of the portable toilets.
“See? Now they have to get off unless they want to be caught in a crowd in Piston City,” Chaxium said.
“Good thinking!” Drupe praised. “Leafshroud, hang onto the cuts she made; make sure we don’t fall off.” Maribu did as he was told. They picked up speed, the wind now whistling through the finer points of the fairanquin bodies. Caged Instinct swiped at them, but the attempt was halfhearted. The same could not be said for the response. Twarly whipped Barbelossa out the way only an angry catfish can be whipped. He struck Bubblebath right near its core bubble: the one with the pilot in it. Many of its lower bubbles broke away and bounced across the back of the motor home, out onto the road.
Bubblebath’s pilot immediately disengaged to chase after the lost pieces. The ferrier rolled back to the ladder and dropped out of sight. With one leg gone, Caged Instinct could not function. The other four were forced to disengage and flee before the motor home found its way onto a more populated road. The head, Echoface the bat, had the presence of mind to grab its heartbox in its claws after transformation and fly away with it.
Cold Snap retreated, climbing down the ladder. Honeydome was the last to disappear, its light-up hexagons displaying cartoonish arched eyebrows of pure rage. They were not happy with the actions of their brothers and sisters aboard Heavenly Lovers. They might try to punish them again on their way back, but that was all they could do. No other fairies would dare oppose their actions that deep in bumbler territory.
The bumbler family merged onto the freeway, and Heavenly Lovers went as flat as it could against the roof.
(Chax): Hey Lady. I know. Super absent. Super busy. I’m on something of a road trip, so I can’t talk long.
(Ladyspiller): Road trip? Do you even have a license? I thought you were a homebody like me. I distinctly remember us both using the term ‘hermit crab’. Typing it simultaneously in fact. We sarcastically called it agoraphobic destiny, paused, and called it regular old destiny instead.
(Chax): I’m amazed by your ability to remember these things.
(Ladyspiller): So what’s this trip about?
(Chax): I can’t really say. I ended up taking that job, but mostly just for one project. They need us to consult on some political stuff. Let’s just say I’m going to help stick it to that Wallup goiter come election season.
(Ladyspiller): Really!? That’s great. He scares me. I mean, not him. The people that would gladly shake his hand scare me. I actually hate him.
(Chax): You hating him is the only hope I have for humanity.
(Ladyspiller): You still have some of that? Lol. I sold mine for some blackberry crepes down at Griddle Gully. But yeah… I know that if I ever got in his way, for any reason, every word out of his mouth would be something delegitimizing my existence. I’m gay, so fuck me. I’m a woman, so fuck me. I’m young, so fuck me. I like being nice to people, so fuck me until I don’t anymore.
“Watch your wings!” Clandestiny blurted right after the fairies collided. They each walked the maintenance tunnels that now connected their ferriers to the heartbox. It was a sort of ring criss-crossing its interior, the tissues only alive with color and motion when the ferriers were attached. The magical silken muscle tissues twitched and billowed. If you were quiet you could hear the fairanquin’s enchanted pulse, less like a heartbeat and more like a brook finding a new rock to flow over.
“Sorry, my distraction,” Chaxium said with a bowed head. She cupped her showing glass in her left hand, holding the screen against her thigh so Clandestiny couldn’t see her conversation with Ladyspiller. The longer-haired fairy smiled and held up her own glass.
“Ehh, I was doing the same thing. I say I’m off to walk the muscle-ways and clear my head, but I’m really just filling it with internet trash.” Chaxium moved to slide by Clandestiny, but she grabbed her upper arm to stop her. “What kind of trash do you fill up on?”
“It’s not trash,” Chaxium argued, wrenching herself free. She took a moment to look at Clandestiny. The silver-haired fairy wore a tight piece of cloth armor, black and white, divided down the middle. Her sleeve had a few wet chew marks on it. She was nervous about their mission, just trying to make real conversation, just trying to bond with her sister off in another limb. Chaxium took a deep breath. “I was just talking to a friend.”
“A bumbler friend?” Clandestiny guessed with a slight tilt of her head that hid one of her eyes. Chaxium stared back dumbly, her grip loosening so much she nearly dropped her glass.
“How did you know?”
“Well, why else would you hide it from a sister?” Clandestiny asked. “I’m not judging, and I won’t tell anybody. It can be hard to find that person to talk to, the one that convinces you you can still… talk to people.”
“That’s… that’s a good way of putting it,” Chaxium admitted. “Thanks.”
“No problem girl. And if your bumble-buddy’s ever off, I don’t know, doing taxes or something, you’ve got at least one sister with at least two ears.”
“And a brother with at least eight eyes,” Chaxium said with a small smile. Clandestiny knitted her brow. “I just mean Maribu with that spider eyes spell of his.”
“Oh yeah, he’s a real smart hand with the magic. Sure did a number on Heavenly here.” Now it was Chaxium’s turn to be confused. Maribu was good, but there was no way he could create enough magic to kindle a heartbox engine on his own. Installation was always handled by an organization of wizardly fairies. There were several qualified in Beezgalore; Chaxium had just assumed Drupe had plied one of the shadier ones with the roguishness of their upcoming mission to topple a Wallup. Perhaps the Beezgalore Merry Shards, the Table of Tiny Twitches, or the Shapeless Craft…
“All pilots back to your ferriers,” Drupe’s voice interrupted, playing both in their earpieces and out of the holes in the brass all over Heavenly Lovers. “We’re switching vehicles in two minutes.” There was no time to ask Clandestiny what she meant, as they had to jog their separate ways. The fairanquin was still holding tight to the top of the motor home, but the route of the family inside was about to diverge, off the path to Piston City.
The maneuver proved difficult, especially at sixty miles an hour in heavy traffic, but they pulled it off. They had to creep down the side while the father wasn’t checking his rear view mirror, leap to the skirt of a large freight truck, and lock themselves to its undercarriage. They were able to read the truck’s GPS, and thus knew it would eventually stop in a warehouse just outside the city proper. From there they could make their way on foot, under cover of darkness.
Finished in Part Two
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