Snakewaist (Part Two)

(Part One)

“Barf! Barf, barf, barf!” Clandestiny cursed into the channel.  “What do we do?”

“I don’t know; I wasn’t expecting this,” Drupe admitted.  “Quick, under there!”  The fairanquin tiptoed across the sidewalk and threw itself under a wood-slatted bench at the edge of Piston City’s one tiny park.  Its limbs retracted as much as possible.  The sun had been down for several hours, and most of the bumblers were asleep in their beds, but not the crowd gathered around Wallup Tower.

“There wasn’t anything about this on the internet?” Chaxium grumbled.  She curled Snakewaist underneath Heavenly Lovers to protect it from the thunderous footfalls in every direction.

“No,” Maribu insisted.  “This must be an impromptu demonstration.  I didn’t think bumblers did that sort of thing anymore.”

“Wallup has made them desperate.  They don’t want him in a crown any more than we do,” Twarly suggested.  The wood creaked over their heads as two bumblers sat on the bench.  The fairy channel fell deathly quiet.  One of the feet swung back a little, the point of the woman’s high heel jabbing Podcrown in one of its eyes.

“It’s really great that everybody’s coming together to shit all over this guy,” the man on the bench said to his partner.  He chuckled a little, without vigor.  His ankles leaned slightly, suggesting to the party of observing fairies that he leaned in for a kiss.

“Let’s hope we see the same crowd when he’s on the ballot,” his female partner commented.  His ankles leaned back.

“As much as I love cringing at bumbler love, I think we should move,” Clandestiny suggested.

“You’re right,” Drupe agreed.  “We need to get to cover, and fast.” Podcrown rotated, but couldn’t look up from that angle.  Chaxium took it upon herself to sneak Snakewaist’s head through one of the slats, right between the thighs of the unaware sitters, and look for a refuge.  There was a tree nearby, and its foliage was easily thick enough to hide them.  She reported it.  They needed a distraction, so Maribu went to work on some rapid calculations.  He integrated his spider eyes spell into his console to crunch the angles from every possible direction.  Then he prepped one of Leafshroud’s metal leaves.

They launched their distraction off its stem and sent it right into a metal trashcan.  The resulting dawng drew the eyes of both sitters away from the tree.  The fairanquin scuttled out from under the bench and, with one powerful leap, landed on one of the large tree’s upper branches.  After ricocheting three times the leaf came back to them, snapping back onto its stem.  They had time to breathe, but not relax.  Every hour they waited was an hour where Wallup might decide to go out to eat or simply move to one of the hotels he owned for a drunken night.

The fairanquin crept to the edge of the branch for some reconnaissance.  Podcrown’s eyes, as well as those of the limbs, focused in on the crowd surrounding the tower’s base.  There was absolutely no way to sneak up to a window with that many bumblers about.  Maribu might have been able to predict the movement patterns of one or two, but not a horde.  The only things keeping them from being utterly amorphous were the sculptures, statues, and installations serving as the catalysts for their noisy conversations.

With little to do until they came up with a new plan, a few of the fairies scouted the internet as well.  It quickly caught up to the demonstration.  It seemed Wallup Tower did not own much of the walking space directly in front of it, so the protesters felt free to erect whatever defiant work of art they could whip up in less than a day.  There was a cardboard statue of Wallup in his underwear, pants around his ankles, and with actual raw meat hanging out of his ripped box of a chest.  Next to it there was a giant replica of his head that popped open to reveal a chimpanzee smoking a cigarette; the cigarette was labeled big coal – extra smooth.  Chaxium counted at least ten other pieces, each less insightful than the last.

“We need a plan in the next five minutes,” Twarly growled, “or I say we abandon the mission.  A blind fairy winds up in a bug zapper.”

“I’m open to suggestions,” Drupe said again.  Chaxium could practically hear him rubbing his forehead.  “We’ve come so far.  I don’t care what we have to risk, as long as we have a real chance of him facing a fairanquin.  But…  I don’t see any way inside without us growing a cloak of bumbler flesh.”

“Chax has a bumbler friend!” Clandestiny declared into the channel.  Chaxium froze.  Her fingers twitched on the console.  All of a sudden everything felt very real, as if Snakewaist was a regular old garden serpent at the end of its lifespan.  She needed something to calm her nerves: a snack or a drink.  She practically lunged out of her chair and toward the round porous boulder under the right side of the console.  She grabbed its sides and twisted, cracking the rock open.  She set the lid aside and leaned over the hollow structure’s contents: foggy ice crystals and plenty of cold storage goods.

It was an ice geode, perfect for keeping cold treats edible for hundreds of years.  The magical ice within was extremely valuable, but Chaxium broke off a chip anyway to press against the back of her neck.

“Is this true?” Drupe asked over the channel.  “Chaxium?  How close are you with this bumbler?”  The first response was the loud sound of her hands rummaging through the icy clutter of the geode.  She pushed a bottle of rosewater out of the way in favor of a bottle of marigold water.  She snapped the glass ball cap off and chugged the first half of it.  The others waited.  She had to say something.  She wiped her mouth and set the tall wavy bottle aside.

“Close enough to know she’ll help us.  All the same, I don’t want to involve her.”

“Why not?” Maribu asked.  “I mean, I know revealing is frowned upon, but there are times where it’s vital.  I’ve read about at least three or four where it seemed like half of a good idea.”

“Everybody knows the trees in the U.K. reveal all the time,” Clandestiny argued.  “As forward as an Irish pixie… that’s what everybody says.  They’ve been jumping in front of cameras for a century.  What’s one bumbler when a nation’s at stake?”

“I don’t like it,” Twarly grumbled, “but it’s better than turning around in our turtle shells.”

“It’s not about whether all of you agree,” Chaxium barked into the channel.  She chugged the rest of the marigold water and tossed the bottle away.  “I don’t want her involved in this.  There are a hundred ways we can escape and none for her.  If she gets caught her life is over.  I’m not asking her to do that.”

“Chax, listen to me,” Drupe said, but it wasn’t an order.  This was as close as he came to begging.  “None of us are judging you.  I’m your friend.  I know you well enough to know that your friends can’t be worthless.  I’m thinking you know your friend as well as I know you.  You’re worried she’s brave.  You’re worried she’ll say yes.  I had this same worry, but I still came to you for help with this mission.  If this mission is bigger than us, if we all fit inside it, then your friend does too.  If she’s anything like you, she’ll want to help.”

“Fumbling frog legs,” she cursed.  “Fine.  Fine.  I’ll call her.  I’m doing all the talking though.  You guys need to zip your lips.”  The mouths on all the other ferriers closed tightly.

Two hours and fifty minutes later, the crowd had thinned little.  There was now a pair of news vans parked off to the side of the tower.  The cameras that emerged took their time recording the art installations and interviewing the creators.  The horde had shrunk just enough for Chaxium to spot Ladyspiller as she approached.  She looked just like her pictures, which was always a good sign when dealing with the human internet.

She was twenty-three if memory served.  Her height was average for a female bumbler, but her weight a little above.  There was a general roundness to both her body and demeanor, like a Christmas ornament or a butter cookie.  Her dusty blonde hair was quite short and sat atop sparkling eyes and freckled cheeks.  Chaxium knew she usually wore glasses, but for their first in-person meeting she had put in the contacts she usually described as ‘the plastic circles of searing agony’.  She wore a frilly jacket in a vintage style and carried another one over her arm.  The bumbler checked her phone, just to make sure, and then moved via her peppy waddle over to the tree.  She leaned up against it after looking around for a few moments, convinced her friend simply hadn’t arrived yet.

“Lady?  I’m up here,” Chaxium said as coolly and softly as she could.  She spoke into a blooming microphone on her console; her voice was amplified out of Snakewaist’s open mouth, but only enough for the person directly under to hear.  Ladyspiller looked up, but she couldn’t see them through the foliage.

“Chax?  You’re… in the tree?  That’s peculiar.  Why are you up there?”

“I don’t want you to see me yet.  I have to explain some things first.”

“Okay, but you could’ve texted me whatever it is.  Or worn a mask or something.”

“Tell me a mask wouldn’t be at least as creepy or more creepy than being in this tree.”

“Good point,” Lady admitted with a small snort.  “Okay.  Explain away.  I’m all ears.  Oh, I brought the coat and hat you asked for by the way.  It’s my aunt’s old, you know what, not important.  Go ahead.”

“I need you to first promise that you’ll believe what I’m about to say.  I promise I’ll prove it if you keep calm.”

“I promise Chax.  I’ve been waiting to meet you so long that I won’t let any…”

“I’m a fairy.”

“Bauuhhwha?  Oh excuse me, little bit of a shock burp there.  You’re a fairy?  Do you mean you’re gay?  You know that I’m…”

“Lady, I’m a literal fairy.  I’m a small magical creature with wings.  The ‘job’ I told you about is a mission to use magic to stop Gerald Wallup from ever running for office.  The ‘road trip’ was my journey here, alongside my four teammates, inside a human-shaped transforming artifice called a fairanquin.”

“Oh.”  The bumbler was silent for a minute.  She looked at her phone, half-expecting an article demonstrating the existence of fairies to randomly pop up on the screen.  “Chax, I want to believe you.  I know you’re not trying to rob me or prank me or anything, but this sounds like I’m being catfished.  I don’t care if you don’t look like your pictures.”

“She knows about the catfish!” Twarly growled into the channel.  He bent Barbelossa behind the heartbox to protect his fishy ferrier from any sudden attacks from below.

“Different thing Twarly, don’t freak out,” Clandestiny hissed at him.  “Chaxium has this.”

“I told you I would prove it Lady,” Chaxium said.  “Push the coat and hat up here first.  We’re going to use it as a disguise so we can come down.”

“That makes sense,” Ladyspiller said, “as far as what you’ve said anyway.  A fairan-queen would definitely need a disguise.  Be careful, it’s vintage.”  She stood on her tiptoes and held the coat as high as she could, brushing the collar against the lowest leaves.  Leafshroud snatched the item of clothing and delicately pulled it out of sight.  She sent up the hat next: a rather silly thing with a wide floppy brim and a plastic flower looking like a cross between a poinsettia and some neatly arranged salami charcuterie.  Leafshroud took it as well.  All the fairies were skilled in the use of their ferriers and their limb configurations, but it still took their combined efforts, two full minutes, and a fair amount of cursing to get the disguise on while balancing on a tree branch.  Fairanquins were definitely not intended to wear clothes.

“We’re ready,” Chaxium told Ladyspiller.  “Don’t make a sound when we come down.  We could literally be captured and killed if we draw too much attention.”  Lady zipped her lips with her fingers and flicked away an imaginary key.  The fairies breathed deep.  In one fluid movement Heavenly Lovers lowered itself from a branch and landed on the ground.  The long coat covered everything but the edges of Barbelossa and Polecat; they simply looked like odd mismatched boots.  Both hands were hidden in the pockets.  Podcrown was angled down so the hat brim could hide its face, but Drupe slowly pushed its chin up so Ladyspiller could see.

Lady squinted and leaned in, quietly cursing her decision to wear contacts.  At first she thought she looked at a very expensive mask, but then she saw into the yellow crystal of Podcrown’s eyes.  There was clearly a space behind them.  She rubbed the knuckles of both her hands together and bit her lip.  How else was she supposed to react?  Here was a very odd thing, like a robot, with the voice of her friend declaring herself a fairy somewhere inside.

“Oh wow,” the bumbler squeaked.  “I wasn’t ready for this.  So… you’re in there?”  She reached out to touch Podcrown with a finger.

“No,” Chaxium answered.  She slowly moved Snakewaist out of the pocket and reconfigured it from hand mode back to the snake’s head.  She lifted it.  “I’m in here,” the ferrier mouthed.  It opened wide and folded back, turning the cloth tongue into a walkway.  Chaxium emerged from the back of the throat and walked to the end of it, spreading her wings slowly.  Her hands flared out and wiggled, even as her arms stayed glued to her sides.  She tried to convey that she was very much alive, but definitely not a toy of any sort.

“Huah!” Ladyspiller gasped.  Chaxium flicked her head, urging the bumbler to lift her cell phone and use it as a privacy screen to hide the fairy.  She did so, which bathed Chaxium in its whitish light.  The light illuminated her wings and reflected off her iridescent irises.  “Oh my god Chax…  You look like your pictures, but different.  Tiny, obviously.  Your eyes and your teeth.”

“It’s a filter,” Chaxium said, not having to whisper thanks to her miniscule lungs and voice box.  “My showing glass takes a picture and makes it look human.”  Ladyspiller looked confused.  “My phone.”  The fairy dug it out of her pocket and waved it for a moment.  She was nervous out in the open, even with all sides blocked by Ladyspiller, her phone, Heavenly Lovers, and the tree.  She told herself not to look any other bumbler in the eyes and not listen to what they said either.  She’d certainly seen where that could lead.

“Oh you guys have little phones!” Ladyspiller swooned.  “And filters?  Do you have…”

“Everything,” Chaxium answered immediately.  “Phones, movies, books, food, buildings, history, TV, and our own internet.  It’s all better than yours, no offense.”

“You’re too adorable to offend me.  Oh my god.  This is actually happening.  My best friend is a fairy.  Chax, there’s so much I want to say to you.  This is super weird, but it’s still our first meeting, and I was thinking maybe we could go have dinner…”

“Lady, I’m happy to see you too,” the fairy said honestly.  She wished for another bottle of marigold water, and perhaps a smack upside the head as a chaser.  “This isn’t how I pictured this either, but we’re meeting today because it’s an emergency.  We need your help getting into Wallup Tower.  We’re going to use magic to change what kind of person he is so he can’t destroy the state park we call home.”

“What do I have to do?” the bumbler asked, cheeks and lips still.

“You don’t understand.  We have ways of escaping, but it will be harder for you.  If you get caught, we don’t know what will happen.  This is dangerous for you Lady.  I want you to be absolutely sure if you’re going to help us, and I also want you to say no.”

“I’m sorry Chax,” she whispered, “but I have to say yes.”  The fairy furrowed her brow, suppressing an irrational flash of anger.  “No good person will ever get a chance to stop a man like Gerald.  He’s already in the machine; his big plastic head is already rotating on top and spewing vile shit like a firehose.  Everyone’s going to talk about him, and that talk will make him win.  Me?  I can’t talk like that.  I can only talk to you, with little words in digital boxes on whatever free service will let us float bottled messages to each other.  Aside from an editorial talking about how he ruined my life without ever meeting me, this is the only chance I’ll have to make a difference.  I’m ready, so just tell me what you need.  Plus, Chax, you know I lo…”

“I should introduce the others first,” Chaxium reminded.  “I have four companions with me: Drupe in the head, Maribu in the other arm, Clandestiny in the leg that doesn’t have whiskers, and Twarly in the one that does.”  The other fairies muttered meek greetings.

“Right.  Wonderful to meet all of you.  I look forward to… fighting… by your side.”

“Your sacrifice will live in glory within the branches of Beezgalore,” Drupe thanked.  He would’ve kept going but Chaxium turned around with an expression of hellfire on her face and a few wild hand gestures.  He clammed up.

“We don’t need you to fight Lady,” Chax said when she whirled back around.  “We need you to…”  Ladyspiller’s phone vibrated and blasted a snippet of an anime theme song, forcing the fairy next to it to bend over and cover both ears.  The bumbler fumbled with it for a moment, switching it to silent mode.

“Damn it.  That’s just an alert.  I don’t really care that there’s a sale on artisan cutting boards right now.  Okay, sorry.  Please continue.”

“As I was saying, we’re not fighting yet.  We just need you to escort us through the crowd and over to one of the tower’s low windows, behind a dumpster or something.  We’ll pretend to be inanimate, but I think we’re too heavy for you to carry.”

“Just give me a second,” Ladyspiller said, rubbing circles into her temples as if stirring a thick stew.  “I’m pulling an idea out of my doofy brain.  Extracting… loading… got it.  You guys wait here or in the tree.  I’ll be back in ten minutes.  Fifty bucks cash don’t fail me now!”  Ladyspiller scurried off, leaving the fairanquin to lean against the tree with the hat pulled as low as possible.  The others tried to talk to Chaxium, offering the opinion that Ladyspiller seemed very nice, but she shushed them all, an embarrassed smolder in her cheeks.  It was obvious what they really thought.  Chaxium was falling into the same trap as her caregivers: getting too close to bumblers.  They thought she was going to burrow into Ladyspiller’s ear and disappear into the selfish oblivious bouillon that was the bumbler brain.

Chaxium, after climbing back into Snakewaist, wolfed down a mint cake bar and chugged two royal jelly sodas from her ice geode during their nervous wait.  Ladyspiller did not fail; she returned eight and a half minutes later, pulling a red metal wagon with tiny wheels.

“Okay, friends of the forest,” she addressed, “hop up here and stand still.  I’ll pull you through on this and pretend you’re my art project or protest statue or whatever.  We’ll get you to that window.”  The fairanquin carefully stepped onto the wagon.  Ladyspiller advised them to strike a dramatic pose, thus making the art angle more believable.  The fairies argued for a moment over what drama looked like, but quickly settled on both elbows cocked out and both hands on the hips.  “Okay stand still.  Hold onto your wings.”

Ladyspiller slowly pulled the wagon into the boisterous crowd around the tower’s front doors.  The mass of people was thick enough that they had to move quite slowly, only making it about twenty feet after a full minute.  Every bump and jostle of the wagon squeaked noisily and threatened to tip the fairanquin over.  Only the delicate manipulations of the mechanical soles by Clandestiny and Twarly kept it upright.  Another five minutes turned into another hundred feet.  They inched away from the doors, to where the protest was sparser.  Unfortunately, that put them right in the path of a cameraman who had sought the extra elbow room of the outskirts.

“Hey Bryce, get a load of this one,” he called out after spotting the brilliant polish of Leafshroud’s long green fingers.  He waved a woman with a microphone and a green blazer over.  She abandoned an interview mid-question, leaving her subject to stroke his long amateurishly-grown beard in confusion.  She stopped right in front of Ladyspiller, looking the fairanquin up and down.

“This one’s made of real gold and silver and shit!” she spouted.  Without asking permission she leaned forward, practically through Lady, and undid two of the coat’s front buttons.  The garment popped open, unveiling the magical glitter of Heavenly Lovers.  “Now this is art!  Sharpen up kid; I’m going to interview you in about fifteen seconds.”

“I’m not really doing interviews…” Lady squeaked.

“Of course you are!” the reporter, apparently named Bryce, insisted.  “You’re out here protesting the CEO of A-hole Incorporated with a sculpture.  You’ve got something to say and I’m going to help you say it in a way your liberal arts degree never even had the chance to.”  She primped her ebony curls and whipped around, grabbing Lady by the elbow and positioning her in front of the camera, but not obstructing the fairanquin.  A light appeared on the camera.

“Remember to cap the shit when we’re taping,” he reminded his partner.

“Right, get it all out right now.  Shit, shit, shitty-wa, shit, shit shitty-woo…”

“Rolling.”

“Good evening Piston City.  Bryce Layjack reporting here at the base of Wallup Tower.  The protest here is very lively, with bold works of art scattered throughout the crowd.  My eye was certainly caught by this masterpiece!”  The cameraman approached the fairanquin and moved the camera up and down.  The fairies inside squinted when his light shined through their glass.  Their hands were on the controls, ready to fly out of the wagon at a moment’s notice.  Chaxium stared at their contingency escape route as it was hastily inked onto her console.  They would grab the camera, crush it, bound through the crowd on all fours like a lynx…  “Tell us about your protest young lady.  How did you make this incredible work, and what does it represent?”

“Well, Bryce, this project was quite difficult…” Ladyspiller started.  Chaxium dipped her head into her ice geode, pressed the crystals against her cheeks, because she could barely stand to listen.  Lady wasn’t a good liar.  Chaxium always knew when she was…  “It’s an articulated metal skeleton with five distinct pieces, plated in gold and platinum.”  The fairy lifted her head.  “Each piece is a symbol of something beautiful that you-guess-who wants to destroy.”

“Go on,” Bryce encouraged with a ratings-eating grin.  She pushed the microphone up to Ladyspiller’s lips.  The girl took a deep breath and went to push her glasses up the bridge of her nose only to remember they weren’t there.  People started to turn; a small circle of interested stares formed around the fairanquin, the wagon, and their ringmaster.

“This leafy arm is the natural beauty of our national parks.”  She put her arm through Leafshroud as if the fairanquin was escorting her to a fancy ball.  Then she switched sides, hopping behind the fairanquin, and locked arms with Snakewaist.  “This snake is civil liberties, warning you not to tread on her scales.”  She bent over and lifted the coat, revealing Barbelossa and Polecat.  Chaxium heard Twarly nearly have a heart attack over the communication channel.  She knew it was all he could do to keep his ferrier from thrashing like it was on the hook.  “This fish leg is for our water supply.  Wallup seeks to taint it, oxidize it with lax regulations over how much lead you’re required to drink.  The furry-looking leg is… feminism!  This is for everyone who feels forced to shave just so the men in power will look at them with something other than disgust.  And the crowned armored head is… me.  An individual.  Expressing themselves by wielding the properly-trimmed limbs of the government!  I relax in the parks, I speak my mind, I drink the water around here, and sometimes I just don’t shave for a while!”

There came a sudden rush of cheering from all sides, enough to startle the cameraman who’d been slowly zooming in on a hint of movement from Podcrown’s visor.  Dozens of hands moved in and started touching the fairanquin.  The machines sensed the mission-intimacy Ladyspiller had been afforded, but at the first touch of oil from other bumblers’ fingers an alarm went off that could only be heard within.

It was the panicked trill of an owl watching the tree containing its nest burn down.  It was supposed to warn them of imminent discovery, but all it did now was put them on edge.  Drupe managed to silence it a few moments later, but that left them to contend with the shouting of the crowd.  So many bumblers paying attention to them gave each and every fairy a wave of something like nausea, but concentrated in the mind rather than the stomach.  Humans weren’t supposed to think about specific fairies that much.  It could have disastrous consequences for both parties, something Chaxium was keenly aware of.  Even with her face numb from the ice geode, she could only think of how close they were to the one precipice she swore she’d never tumble over.

With the fairies incapacitated by the frenetic imaginations of the bumbler collective, it was up to Ladyspiller to get them out.  The crowd wanted to take her ‘creation’ and have it crowd-surf all the way around the protest.  They tried to pick it up, but Lady hugged it and kept them both in the wagon.  She diverted them by holding up Leafshroud’s fingers in her own and starting a chant.

“Fuck Wallup!” she shouted.

“Fuck Wallup!” they cheered in response.  She shouted it again, louder, daring them to make the man himself hear it from the top floor.  “Fuck Wallup!  Fuck Wallup!  Fuck Wallup!”  Some of the artists whose work was now being ignored picked up the chant the loudest.  They jumped and raised their fists higher than the rest.  The chant turned the crowd into such a hopping mess that Ladyspiller was able to duck her head down, grab the wagon’s handle, and pull it in the vague direction of the side of Wallup Tower.

Two minutes later they were finally free of it.  Heavenly Lovers had buttoned the coat back up and was now staring at a second floor window.  It was well within reach of a fairanquin hop.  Ladyspiller confirmed that nobody was looking, and then gasped when her new companions busted a wheel off the wagon with the force of their jump.  The fairy machine landed on the windowsill and crouched like a cat.  Out came Snakewaist’s magical fangs, which glided along the glass silently.  Chaxium pushed her ferrier’s knuckle-brows into it, sending the cut pane to the inside carpet with a hushed whumph.

“What about Ladyspiller?” Clandestiny asked, keeping her leg on the sill so they couldn’t enter.

“Lady’s done.  Let her leave,” Chaxium argued.  “I’ll thank her profusely later.  Just wave goodbye Leafshroud.”

“Belay that wave; we might need her,” Drupe argued.  “We can dampen their security systems and confuse their cameras, but only she can talk us out of running into a bumbler.  Chaxium, you stabilize us.  Maribu drop a vine and reel her up.”  The plant ferrier did as ordered, unfurling a tendril all the way down to the wagon.  Chaxium could only see through the feeds of the other ferriers, as Snakewaist’s head was pressed against the sill, but she knew what was happening.  Of course she would come up.  She barely hesitated in putting her feet on the two leaves stretched out for her.  A minute later they were all inside a dark hallway, the fairanquin carefully replacing the pane, heating Snakewaist’s fangs to orange pinpoints of light, and melting it back into place.

“I can’t believe we’re up here,” Ladyspiller whispered, trying to aim her words at the snake head that had swallowed her best friend.  “It’s a resort, it’s a casino, and it’s like six other things.  This place is a topless club sandwich of vice.  Oh that’s good.  I should’ve said that out there in front of the camera.”

“It is also the residence of Gerald Wallup and his immediate family, yes?” Drupe asked.

“Oh yeah,” Ladyspiller said, standing tall and suppressing a salute whenever addressed by Podcrown.  “They live on the top few floors.  So we have to find him and put a spell on his brain or something?”  They crept forward.  Whatever this hallway was, it appeared to be in the process of renovation.

“Not exactly,” Chaxium said, injecting some false hope into her voice to sound less exasperated.  She lifted Snakewaist and had the fangs snap together a few times, making it look like a staple remover enlarged until it counted as a torture device.  “The torso of this fairanquin is fueled by a pyre of a single spell called whispering lies.  We’re going to corner him and I’m going to use these fangs to inject the spell into his bloodstream for maximum infusion.  It will either drive him mad or leave him too confused and silly to run at all.”

“Good plan,” Ladyspiller said with a nod.  “I like it.  No murder.  I think I’d still be sneaking closer even if it was…”

“We need a way up,” Twarly said after another thirty feet.  “I see elevators.”  The catfish’s whiskers converged and pointed at two sets of golden doors.

“I should be able to call them remotely,” Clandestiny said, fiddling with a knob of cherry wood.  A moment later the elevator on the left dinged and the doors opened.

“You guys can control all our machines?” Lady asked, putting her hands to her head as the questions inside expanded.

“The subtler the action the easier it is,” Chaxium explained.  “Calling an elevator is normal, so it’s easy.  Remotely firing a missile would lead to questions, and questions turn eyes our way.  We burn up under your gaze.”

“Wait, literally?  Was I hurting you when I was looking at you before?  I’m sorry; I didn’t know.”

“Relax young lady,” Drupe calmed her.  “Our Chaxium is being figurative.  Bumblers and fairies becoming obsessed with each other can have deadly consequences, but it takes more than eye contact to do it.  It is the desire to escape into each other that grabs hold and strangles.  When the mind can think of nothing else…”

“That… still worries me,” Ladyspiller admitted, chewing on a nail.  They stopped in front of the elevators.  Clandestiny sighed, holding the cherry knob still to keep the doors open.  They dinged repeatedly.  “This is kind of personal, but I think about her all the time.  Sorry Chax.  It’s just that she’s my best friend.  Do I have to leave her so I don’t hurt her?  Is that why you’re being a little short with me Chax?  I mean you’re very short, but…”

“I see what’s going on here,” Clandestiny interrupted.  Chaxium was almost glad for it; she’d been holding her breath for nearly thirty seconds now, pondering the ill effects of jamming ice geode crystals down her ear canals.  “You do need to relax big girl.  Fairies have unity.  We don’t fight each other like your species.  The things we make just turn out better because of it.  Like our internet.  Imagine yours, minus all the bad and false things.”

“Imagining that is too painful,” Ladyspiller said.

“My point is that your species messes up our unity,” Clandestiny went on.  The elevator dinged even faster, almost impatient.  “Your capacity to screw each other over is kind of infectious, but that condition is caused by lusts for power and ignorance, not… regular lusts… or whatever you guys have going on.  If you just like each other, that’s not a problem.”

“Take the other step Clandestiny!” Twarly shouted.  The catfish leg was already in the elevator, its fins waving and flapping against the carpet, trying to drag the rest of the machine in with it.  Clandestiny obeyed; Heavenly Lovers lurched into the elevator.  Snakewaist grabbed Ladyspiller’s wrist and pulled her in just as the doors closed, careful to not let the fangs so much as scratch her.  None of them knew exactly which floor their target was on, that information seemed weirdly absent from the thousands of articles and photos available online, so they had to make an educated guess.

Chaxium kept Snakewaist wiggling so she could steal glances at Ladyspiller’s face.  It was obvious she wanted explanations, but this was neither the time nor place.  She already had an emotional portrait of Chaxium, but all the facts had been altered or left out.  She knew the fairy’s shame, rage, and apathy, but not the mud pot it had all bubbled up from.  It was also obvious what she wanted even more than explanations.

Ladyspiller had shared every detail of her floundering attempts at relationships.  She had a favorite move where, in quiet places like elevators, she liked to take her date’s arm and drape it over her shoulder.  That way she could nuzzle up under their chin in a way that really can’t be misinterpreted.  Chaxium could see the twitch in her friend’s hand as she almost reflexively grabbed Snakewaist and wrapped it around her neck like a boa.

“So,” Lady said to break the silence, “you guys aren’t going to erase my memories or anything when we’re done right?  That’s what always happens in movies like this.  Not that this is a movie…”

“Some bumblers do keep the secret,” Maribu explained.  “We couldn’t even if we wanted to.  It takes a heartbox to do magic on a human scale, and we would need some master sages and mages to install a memory spell in place of the one we currently have.”  Leafshroud’s tendril fingers tapped on Heavenly Lovers.  “Most bumblers who know have fallen into the obsession trap we were just discussing…”  His voice trailed off.  That wasn’t aimed at Chaxium, but he realized a moment too late that it was insensitive to even mention it.  It was obvious she had joined their mission in the hopes that nobody would bring it up.  She let Snakewaist fall into disrepair, but how could she not when it was full of such toxic burning memories, like a sulfurous landfill.

“How does the obsession work?” Lady asked.

“It’s a long story,” Chaxium said, her voice tight enough to snap.  Just then the elevator dinged and came to a halt.  The doors opened, leaving the young woman and the machine face to face with a woman in a checkered blazer.  She looked to be nearly sixty, but she teetered on her bare feet like a toddler.  Her eyes were wide and watery, her lipstick smeared in a drag pattern that suggested she’d put a cookie to her lip but forgotten to eat it and let it slide down her chin.

“A long story is right,” she blurted at Ladyspiller.  “It seems like these stories get longer every week.”  Her words were slurred and her blinking slow.  “Did Zha order you?  What do you do?”

“Zha is Gerald’s ex-wife,” Ladyspiller whispered in Podcrown’s ear before turning to the clearly intoxicated woman.  “Yes.  We were ordered as… entertainment.  My… robot here does all sorts of tricks.”

“Good, we can stop talking about this shitty book,” the woman said with a grimace.  “I mean I didn’t read it, but the bitch on the back who wrote it just has one of those faces like she’s a lizard person from space and if she actually ever went outside or got laid instead of writing her disguise would melt off.”  She took a moment to remember which way she’d come from.  “We’re over here in the lounge; grab your robot thingy and follow me.”

Ladyspiller grabbed Snakewaist’s neck-wrist and dragged the fairanquin deeper into the tower.  They passed all sorts of discarded shreds of luxury: shoes flung far from their partners, gift wrapping stuffed under couch cushions, corks siting under mirrors and the foam stains they left on the glass, and plenty of sequins in the cracks of the hardwood floor.  The drunken woman led them into a sitting room with several small plush couches and chairs dragged into a circle, the carpet beneath them forced into tall folds.  The woman flopped into the empty one and sighed, gesturing impatiently for Ladyspiller and the fairanquin to come to the center.

“Who is zis?” another woman of similar age asked, lounging in a cream-colored pant suit and swirling a giant glass of white wine.  She had bleached blonde hair, bangs as stiff as turnstiles, and plumped up lips wearing either an expensive lip gloss or the sheen of heavy drinking. All the other furniture seemed to have been pulled closer to hers, making her the obvious leader of this gang of six guffawing women.

“She says you ordered her for our entertainment,” the woman who escorted them said after suppressing a small belch.

“I did?”  The woman, who the fairies correctly guessed was Zha, said, looking them up and down.

“Yes, the other day,” Ladyspiller spoke up.  “Remember?  Over the phone?  You were worried…”  The girl hastily looked about.  She saw six discarded copies of some novel with a light blue jacket and clouds across its cover.  “…You were worried the book for your… book club… was a little dry this week.  So you hired us as a surprise for your friends.”  She smiled as widely as she could without looking guilty.  Zha scrutinized them again, narrowing her gaze down to streaks of eye shadow.

“Ahh!” she practically hiccupped.  “Yes, I remember.  Thursday it was, yes?”  She turned to her friends.  “Champagne day.  I always seem to lose my head zat day.”  They all laughed.  “In zat case, welcome to ze sexy criminals book club!”  She shook her shoulders and pursed her lips as the others hooted and hollered.

“Thank you, that’s very kind,” Ladyspiller said.  “You left some details out over the phone Miss Zha.  I was surprised to find out you still live in Wallup Tower.  I don’t really read the gossip magazines, but I thought your divorce from Gerald was on all the covers back when I was in grade school.  Everyone said you were the power half of the power couple.”

“And you thought I would give up zat power?” Zha asked in response.  “Hahaha!  No.  Gerald wanted zat new wife of his, but he didn’t want to give me my half of his fortune.  We settled it… under ze table.”

“Under the table!” one of the other women blurted, reaching forward and smacking the bottom of a wooden coffee table like a drum roll.

“Thank you Sasha,” Zha said, dismissing the silliness with a slosh of her glass.  “Yes, we are still technically married.  Don’t tell anybody or I’ll have you ruined.  For keeping quiet I get to keep my floor of ze tower and I get my generous stipend for…” she sipped, “my books.”

“Two wives is illegal,” the woman named Sasha clarified, as if Ladyspiller’s sober state precluded her from understanding the specifics, “so Gerald and Zha are criminals.  We are all in on it, so we’re criminals too.  Thus we are the sexy criminals book club!”  Another holler filled the secret lair.

“And as criminals we meet in ze dead of night,” Zha finished.  “So, now you tell us your story.  And ze story of zis beautifully weird machine.”

“Story?” Ladyspiller repeated, biting her lip.

“Yes,” Zha said.  “I hired you for ze book club so you must be story tellers.  Make it a good one or we’ll ruin you.  Any online place where you can be reviewed.  Collectively we have hundreds of thousands of followers.  If you want five stars it has to be a story at least ten times better zan zat stupid book.”  One finger separated from her glass and pointed at the blue stack.  One of the sexy criminals grabbed one off the top and flung it across the room.

“Right.  The story,” Ladyspiller said, nervously fiddling with some of the decorative facets across Heavenly Lovers.  “The story…”  Chaxium wrung her ears red as her heart raced.  It was too obvious what was happening.  She hated herself for knowing Ladyspiller this well.  The bumbler wasn’t the least creative person, but she could never do it on the spot.  They had many long discussions about movies and books, but any time Ladyspiller tried to offer constructive criticism it just turned into a different well-known plotline.  She didn’t even realize it most of the time.  She just kept stammering and pawing at the fairanquin, wiggling Snakewaist…

“I hope you like fairy tales,” Chaxium announced, her voice emanating from the now raised head-hand of Snakewaist.  She slithered around Podcrown to get a look at the other women, to make sure they were all mesmerized by the snake’s eyes and its hissing voice.

“I love fairy tales,” Zha said, stone-faced and without hesitation.  “Zey got me where I am today.”

“Then do I have a tale for you,” Chaxium continued.  Her fingers danced around her console as she spoke, sending messages to the others, instructing them.  The vintage coat and hat fell to the floor.  Polecat and Barbelossa strutted dramatically as Leafshroud waved a vine about like a ribbon.  She kept Snakewaist’s mouth flapping to complete the illusion.  There was only one story she had to tell.

“First you must know exactly what fairies are really like.  Our fairy was born from a tiny cluster of green eggs on the underside of a leaf.  She was born with no one to guide her.  She was invisible, for though the shell cracks nothing but air seems to escape.  A newborn fairy is just magic.  Just ideas and hope.  Her first task in life was to find a place to form.

There were several possibilities.  Humans walked the woods that day, and there was something akin to an enticing smell wafting out of their ears.  It was intoxicating.  The closer she drew the more she understood.  Human minds were hot tubs full of ideas that writhed and made love to each other.  She could live there, but the human owned the form.  She would never have a body of her own.

Somehow she found the strength to fly by them without even touching their skin.  She wanted a life of her own, so she had to find a subtler home.  A family tree would be more to her liking.  The first one she found was full of amber-sweating fairies with lotus ears and drooping wings.  They didn’t seem quite right, so she moved on.

There was another tree growing out of a boulder, guarded by bees whose hive bridged the crack in the stone.  She felt the fairies inside.  They were kind, but also pragmatic.  She tasted the air of magic around them and, though nervous, judged it to be perfect.  She passed through the spell of the tree’s life force and was given form.  It was the form of the tree Beezgalore: pearl nails, teeth, and navel, strong flexible wings, and moth-wing ears.

She was welcomed as family and given a home.  They celebrated her because she had made the right choice, something proving more and more difficult for fairies around the world.  She had chosen a family tree and the responsibilities of life lived among others.  They rewarded her with two caretakers to raise her.  They would give her a bed and food, teaching her of Beezgalore and the world around her.  From them she would learn the joys of being a solid fully-formed fairy kin.

Live, learn, and grow she did.  Her caretakers owned a great machine that looked like a snake with little paws: the ultimate privilege among the fairies.”

It was at this point that Leafshroud arranged its tendrils into a harp and plucked at them, the music drawing the women further into the tale.  They leaned in, one of them spilling a little wine.  Ladyspiller had her hands over her mouth.  She knew this story.  Parts of it at least.

“And so she lived her privileged life, piloting the snake across the forest, joining with other fairy machines to fight for causes righteous and noble.  She fought alongside her caretakers.  They loved her and she loved them, even more than all three loved Beezgalore.  She didn’t realize until too late… their love was not moral.

When a family tree gives you a body you become a part of it.  You are like its blood or its immune system.  It cannot live without a significant number of you, the same way a human will run out of the will to go on if they run out of ideas.

Her caretakers saw too many things through the slit pupils of the snake machine.  They coveted the one thing they, as family tree fairies, could not have.  Ignorance.  When their missions brought them close to humans they saw the unique human power: the ability to shut down their heart and think only with that thin patch of thirst always at the back of their throats.  They could pretend that nothing existed beyond their bodies and that there were no consequences.  Nothing could suffer if it was not contained within their greasy skin.

The young fairy, she did not see how her caretakers could look out that slit and lust after such things.  Yes, caring for others hurt, but it was a shared pain.  The fairy is not the animal; the family tree is the animal.  It takes the blow of objectification so that we may be a civilization.  She knew this, because she had already resisted the fatty warm smell leaking from human ears.  She did before she was even a child, and yet her caretakers drooled over it now, in their advanced age.

She was disgusted.  She was horrified.  She begged and screamed and fought with them.  It was all for nothing.  One day she entered the snake machine and found them gone, only a recording in their place.  They said they were off to paradise.  They wouldn’t have to fight for anything.  They could just sink into the steaming bubbles and lose themselves.

She never even knew which human they found, but she knew what they did.  They perched at a sleeping ear, whispered the instinctive incantation, and unraveled their bodies.  They went back to being nothing but hope.  They slithered inside their new home and knew only carnal selfish bliss.

They never returned because they could not.  When a fairy dissolves their body there is no getting it back.  Once they are human ideas they can never leave those heads.  They die with that human’s last thought.

They gave up on the world and left her alone.  For a while she gave up too.  She couldn’t bear to go back into the snake they’d left her because it reminded her of them.  She let the machine, which did not deserve such treatment, fall apart.  She let god damn dirt-masticating ants into it.  Her friends called for aid, asked the roar of her machine to join theirs in declarations of valor and integrity, but she ignored them.  She put her headphones in and went to the gym.  She took cooking classes down in the roots of Beezgalore, where nobody knew her.  She lived online, talking to humans, trying to find one who wasn’t a head full of lust and hummingbird hungers.  Before she knew it her best friend in the whole world was the same sort of creature that seduced her family.

That’s changing.  She’s not afraid of the snake’s head.  She’s not afraid of being brave like her fellows in the other alloyed beasts of Beezgalore.  She’s not afraid to get right up to a bumbler’s face.  She’s here to challenge that callous human heat, that hot breath on the helpless world as they strip out what they want.

She’s here to challenge Gerald Wallup!”

The sexy criminals went silent just as Ladyspiller failed to contain herself and gasped.  Chaxium winced.  Perhaps that finale was too much.  This Zha woman obviously had all her fun with the Wallup wallet, and the loudmouthed fairy had just declared war on it.  The women were wide-eyed, almost blinking their intoxication away as they waited for their leader’s response.  The head criminal pursed her lips and stared.  She set down her drink, which hadn’t left her hand since Heavenly Lovers had arrived.

“I did not hire you,” she said.  Chaxium took a deep breath and raised Snakewaist, presenting the snake’s head as the dominant force on the fairanquin rather than Podcrown.  She kept the fangs hidden.  She’d already spilled her secret; there was no point in pouring venom after it if she didn’t have to.  “You have come to ruin my husband?”

“Yes,” Chaxium admitted, ignoring Drupe’s protests.  He was supposed to have authority over the communication devices, but the magical circuitry overrode him.  It knew Chaxium had the most helpful things to say the same way the fairanquin’s programming had dropped them off on that floor.  “He is evil; it doesn’t matter how good his family is.  They may have to pay a price for being connected to him, for caring about a dark soul.  I’ve paid mine.”

“I don’t know what you are exactly,” Zha said, “but you are ze girl from ze story?  Zis is ze snake machine, back in action?”

“Yes, these are the coils of Snakewaist.”

“Wish I had a waist like that,” one of the sexy criminals commented, downing the rest of her glass.

“Gerald is not my family,” Zha declared.  “When he pisses ze bed I do not feel a drop.  I already beat him, and I would not take anything from anozer woman come to claim a pound of his gristle.  From one sexy criminal to anozer, go and get him!”  The book club applauded for the fairanquin, rising from their chairs, wobbling a little and hooting.  They pushed and shoved the two bodies out of their circle and toward the apartment’s entrance.

“Thank you!” Ladyspiller bubbled.  “I always knew you were cool, but don’t we need to go back to the private elevator? How are we going to get to his office?”  They were hurried out the door and a short way down an opulent hallway.

“My elevator does not go where you need to go,” Zha explained.  “Gerald has several zat don’t go to certain floors.  His new wife, bless her cunning, can’t reach my floor.  She can’t reach ze third eizer.”

“Wait, the third what?”  The book club pushed them into a new elevator. Zha reached in and hit an unusual combination of buttons.  The doors started to close.

“Say hello to ze shit muffin for me,” Zha said with a smile, which was followed by a unanimous rising hoot from her gang.  One ding of the elevator later and they were gone.  Ladyspiller patted her heart, trying to slow it, while the fairies exploded into conversation.

“Excellent work Chaxium.  Really excellent,” Drupe praised.

“I didn’t think you were going to say any of that stuff,” Clandestiny gushed, “but sweet grilled pine nuts did you need to say it.”

“Gerald has secret elevators keeping his wives hidden from each other,” Maribu noted, remembering the actual relevant information.  “I think we’re going to stop there next.  Heavenly Lovers wants us to meet them both.”

“So that’s the whole story,” Ladyspiller whispered.  She didn’t grab, but she did slowly lift her arm, raising her palm under Snakewaist’s chin, bringing the serpent’s eyes up to hers.  Its tiny legs grabbed at her wrist like a chameleon clinging to a wet twig.  “Your guardians gave up being fairies to live in a human’s head?”

“I’m sorry I never told you exactly,” Chaxium said, fighting back the color in her cheeks.  Music crept into the snake’s skull.  It was the soft plucking of a harp with a few other gentle accompanying sounds.  The ferrier was trying to set a mood, one that suggested Chaxium and Ladyspiller were somehow walking hand in hand through a peaceful garden.  Chaxium jammed her finger on a button to shut it off.  “We can talk about all this later, Lady.  We need to get this done and get you out of here.”

Ding!  The elevator doors opened.  Ladyspiller and the fairanquin stepped out.  Already it wasn’t like the previous apartment.  It was much dimmer, and the space they were in was full of metal clothing racks stretching across several rows.  It was almost like they were in a mall rather than a private residence.

“I think… I think these are all her clothes,” Ladyspiller guessed.  “They must not fit in the closet.”  She grabbed a green blouse and looked at the still-attached price tag.  The sight of it made her cough.  “Yeah sure, just spend three of my paychecks on this.  That’s fine.  Oh by the way, when we meet her, her name is Amaltis.  Don’t ask me what country she’s from because I have no idea.”

“Who is there?” another voice snapped.  Ladyspiller and Heavenly Lovers instinctively ducked below the racks.  Klik klak klik klak klik klak.  A pair of high heel shoes rounded the corner, practically torturing the tile underfoot.  “Hello?”  Chaxium maneuvered Snakewaist through a sleeve to steal a glimpse at the woman.  Her arms were crossed.  Her hair was luxurious and wavy.  Her incredible beauty was nothing compared to the natural expression of hatred in her narrow eyes.  Her head twitched, stare seeming to focus in on the glimmer of Snakewaist’s scaled hull immediately.  Chaxium pulled back, but not without rattling one of the metal rings on the rack.

Klik klak klik klak klik klak…  She rushed to the end of the rack, moving with astonishing speed for someone in such restrictive footwear.  Ladyspiller watched Heavenly Lovers slip under the clothing and come up on the other side, so she followed suit, directly under a suit in fact.

“You are trespassing!” Amaltis shrieked.  “I will have you arrested.  Better yet I’ll catch you myself.”  They heard her pull something off the table at the end of the racks.  It could’ve been a letter opener.  It could’ve been scissors.  Klik klak klik klak.  They snuck to the next row to avoid her once more, utterly terrified by their stalker.  There was something in her voice, something that suggested blood on the clothes wouldn’t bother her one bit.  “Don’t you touch anything, thieves.  It’s all worth ten times what you are.  I’m going to find you and cut you open, and then file a suit against you for every drop of blood that lands on my wardrobe.”

“Why does the magic want us to meet her?” Ladyspiller squeaked from under a line of gowns.  There was one in her eyes, but she didn’t dare move it.  She felt that Amaltis would immediately sense its flutter.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Drupe agreed, though the message only went out to the other fairies.  “Our time is just being wasted.  Perhaps Snakewaist’s charms aren’t calibrated correctly and it’s acting out of sync with the others.”  Chaxium wanted to argue, but thought better of it.  She had forgotten to even check the magic synchronization strands before they’d left; he might’ve been right.  “We’re sneaking past her and out her front door.  We’ll find another elevator.”

There was no argument, so they continued slinking under the racks.  They had little sense to their direction, just that they needed to keep moving away from the klik klak klik.  At one point they actually found themselves in a walk-in closet, but every shelf was full of shoes.  They turned around, shaking their heads at the excess, the fairies especially, as they hardly ever wore so much as a sock.

This Amaltis woman was surely taking advantage of the opportunities provided by Wallup.  It was a very strange transaction: wealth and fame in exchange for photographs holding hands and perhaps-annual instances of bedroom behavior that anyone else in the world would work to avoid thinking about.  Ladyspiller and the fairies couldn’t avoid those thoughts when they passed the massive apartment’s bedroom and looked upon its pristine sheets, as if nobody had ever slept in it.  The space was so opulent yet so devoid of life that they expected to run into velvet ropes that kept tour groups from touching the antiques.

The apartment was so large that they almost started to see the bloated leaking logic in Wallup’s plan.  You could get lost in such a place.  There was no guarantee, especially with the different elevators, that they would ever find each other’s residence.

Getting out the front door was like a breath of fresh air, but there wasn’t a moment to relax.  There were people walking and talking just a hall over, laughing and joking about how poor the service in their stadium box had been earlier that night.  There was a joke that perhaps the chef should be paid as much as the head coach.

Heavenly Lovers spotted another elevator and dove into it before they rounded the corner.  They didn’t have to press any buttons; the floor numbers blinked on and off on their own in strange patterns like one of the never-used settings on a string of holiday lights.  They were rising; they knew that much.  The doors opened into yet another apartment, but this one was simpler than the other two.  Nothing was covered in gold or marble.  The hardwood floors were obviously extremely expensive, but their dark red color didn’t shine.  They heard the crackle of a fireplace, following the sound into a sitting room.

Despite all they’d seen so far they weren’t prepared for the person sitting in a velvet chair in her pajamas, arms drooping between the armrests thanks to her size.  She was reading a book with a gray cover, no dust jacket or title.  The floor squeaked under Ladyspiller, causing her to look up, but there was no fear or surprise in her eyes.

“Hello,” she said with a smile.  Everything about her was perfect, except for her teeth.  There was a significant gap between most of them, but Chaxium could just make out the gloss of transparent braces.  They were being brought into line like every other freckle, pore, and lash in her appearance.  Her skin glowed under the firelight the way only a child’s skin can.  Whoever was in charge of her, whoever left her in a place like that, knew just enough about true beauty to let her go a few more years before burying her under foundation.  “What is that you have with you?”  She closed her book, one finger holding her page.  She held out her other hand, offering Ladyspiller the seat across from her.

Ladyspiller cautiously walked over and sat down.  Heavenly Lovers followed, but stood between them, careful not to look too alive.  The girl’s eyes widened at the way the fairanquin walked, but with delight rather than shock.

“Uhm, hello to you too,” Ladyspiller started.  She looked over at Chaxium, who made Snakewaist nod.  Hopefully this was still part of the ferriers’ programmed magic.  “I know we’re the intruders, but we’re wondering who you are.  You seem awfully young for a place like this.”

“It’s never awful to be young,” she answered.  “I am fifteen if you actually wanted to know.”  There was a thump above them, enough to startle Ladyspiller.  Snakewaist’s fang fingers sharpened and Leafshroud’s tendrils curved into claws.  “Is that a robot?”

Yes,” Ladyspiller answered, seizing on the line of thought.  “I represent the company that makes it.  We’re going to show it to Mr. Wallup.  He might want to use some of them in his resorts.”  Drupe straightened out the fairanquin’s posture, with the limbs following his lead.  It went from looking feral to looking poised to deliver a stack of fresh towels in an instant.  There was another thump from the ceiling, followed by a muffled woof like an old dog trying to decide if it had the energy to bark at a passing stranger.

“Don’t mind him,” the girl said.  “He’s just putting.  He had a lot of caffeine today, and he always gets frustrated if he misses more than once.  You should probably get up there before he misses five times.  He won’t hear a word you’re saying after that.”

“He?  Is that?  Is Gerald just up there?” Ladyspiller asked, her finger pointing up.  Her expression made the girl smirk; it suggested someone had just told her that Satan had rented a room in heaven.

“Mhmm.  I know all his little sounds by now.”  Her eyes wandered toward the fire.  “Oh!  I can practice my introduction on you.”  She set her book aside, still open, her page seemed more precious to her than anything else, and stood.  She curtsied.  “Hello, my name is Lauren Wallup.”  She sat back down, hands on her knees, clearly expecting feedback on her performance.

“I’m pleased to meet you,” Ladyspiller said slowly.  “People just call me Ladyspiller.  It’s a really great nickname.  So you’re… his niece?”

“No no,” she said with a giggle.  “My name isn’t technically Wallup yet.  Three years until that happens.  And the name Lauren is just so I sound American.  My real name is much prettier.”

“I don’t understand,” Ladyspiller said.  Chaxium swallowed.  Her hands tightened on Snakewaist’s controls.  The arm coiled, nearly knotting itself in rage.  She couldn’t hear Twarly telling her to calm her serpent because of the hiss in Snakewaist’s muscles and in her own mind.  Ladyspiller understood just as the fairy did; she just didn’t want to say it.  The strange beautiful girl said it for her.

“I’m going to be his third wife, but I’m not old enough yet.  I’m still learning to live here, plus my teeth need to finish closing.”

“His wife?  He’s fifty-eight years old!  You’re fifteen!”  Ladyspiller’s face reddened.  Raging tears budded in her eyes; she wiped them away with a loud sniffle.  “He’s already married to Amaltis!  And that’s like fifth on my number of problems with this!”

“Well we’re not doing it until I’m eighteen,” Lauren said, still quite calm.

“Where are your parents?”

“They’re still in Croatia.  They visit me every year.  Mr. Wallup takes care of them.”

“You two haven’t had sex have you?  If you have he is so going to prison.”

“No.  I just sit at the foot of his bed sometimes.  Read him stories when he can’t sleep.  I know I’ll have to do it eventually…”  She ran a finger across the spine of her book.  “Amaltis doesn’t even pretend to like him anymore.  She won’t even hold his hand.”

“I bet a pair of cuffs would hold them pretty reliably.”

“He’s too rich to go to jail,” Lauren said, no pride, envy, or bitterness.  “That’s why he’s lonely too.  So much money that that’s all people see.  The only way he can trust somebody is if he picks them out.”

“He picked you out…” Ladyspiller repeated.  “He’s got more wives than I’ve had phones.  Than my passwords for my phones.”  There was another thump.

“You better go,” Lauren said, “he’s running out of patience.  Here, take my elevator.”  She stood and grabbed Ladyspiller by the wrist, dragging her to the corner of the room.  She opened a pair of closet doors and pushed the coats within to each side.  She held out her hand.  “There’s only one button.”  Ladyspiller stepped inside, the fairanquin squeezing in behind.

“A secret elevator straight to his office?” Ladyspiller muttered.  When she was done eyeing the corners for hidden dart traps or spike panels she looked back at the girl.  She tried and failed to hide her pitying expression.  When she realized she asked a question, in the hopes that would hide it better.  “You told us a lot.  Aren’t you supposed to keep yourself a secret?  We could be anybody.”

“You found me in the first place.  Nobody has ever found me before.  That makes you and your robot powerful.  I know how to be handled by powerful people.  You can never stop them from doing what they’re going to do.  You have to float around them like dandelion seeds.”  She touched a few of the fur coats delicately, as if seeing and hearing the purring creature they used to be attached to.  “He likes to bring me up in this after he makes a deal, so he can tell me what a good job he did,” Lauren explained.  She reached inside and hit the button for them, then waved goodbye.  “Good luck on your presentation.”

“This is it,” Drupe told them all when the doors closed and the coats shuddered on their hangers.  “No more distractions.  Everyone prepare yourselves.  Thank you for your help Ladyspiller, but I suggest you simply stand back.  Maribu, Chaxium… prime the spell for casting.”  Maribu did as ordered, taking some words from his mouth, cradling them like a hatchling, and then lowering them into a crystal funnel on his console.  He spun flower-shaped dials until they spat tiny jets of pollen.

The heartbox vibrated and made a sound like fencing hummingbirds crossing their bills.  Chaxium remembered her tour of a deactivated heartbox back when she was in ferrier training.  She was at the back of the group: the girl who inherited her war machine.  The girl who caught the limp treasure after it slipped out of the pockets of two fools who couldn’t even stay in their family tree.

Inside the heartbox was a circular arrangement of paddles.  It was a turbine that stirred up the magic regularly and kept it from stagnating.  With the spell primed it would be swirling inside as if in a blender.  The magic would not drool out of Snakewaist’s fangs, but shoot out as if by hose.  That wasn’t how they were to use that pressure though.  It would be a bite.  The fairanquin would come up behind him, Snakewaist would constrict his neck, and then Chaxium would have it bite his shoulder and inject whispering lies straight into his bloodstream.

“Priming fangs,” the fairy declared, making the adjustments on her console.  Snakewaist’s form loosened as the magic tract under the access tunnels filled with the spell.  The ferrier groaned.  The skin under its jaw-wrist expanded, now pregnant with the enchantment.  She heard it flowing under her feet, compressing against the tips of the fang-fingers as they transformed back into a more head-like configuration.  Snakewaist wasn’t an arm anymore; it was just a serpent hanging off the body.  A whip with a mind of its own.  Chaxium turned all the little switches in her head as well, letting herself feel all the rage and hatred she had for this bumbler.  Her mind transformed into one ready to lash out, ready to vomit venom until everything alive in the world was drowning in it.

“I’m with you guys,” Ladyspiller whispered.  “From the bottom of this tower to the top and back again, I’m with you.”  The elevator ceased its rattling.  It dinged aggressively and the doors slid open.  Heavenly Lovers and Ladyspiller stepped out.  When the doors closed a moment later they revealed themselves to be life size portraits of Gerald and Amaltis.  “Oh great.  His teenage mistress literally comes out of his current wife.  That’s only the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.”

Snakewaist was poised to strike, but Chaxium had to take a moment to get her bearings.  The office was massive.  Barbelossa and Polecat scratched across the red hardwood floor.  It was the sort of room that was intended to be mostly empty, meant to be filled with profound and magnanimous thoughts, but Gerald Wallup had perverted it.  There was a television mounted on each wall every few feet with speakers between them.  Each and every one was tuned to a different channel.  The volume was muted on all of them, for classic rock was playing from a vintage stereo atop a pedestal in one corner.

His desk was long enough to serve as a trough for five bulls on steroids.  It was covered in loose papers, some of them documents worth hundreds of thousands of dollars and some of them wrappers from Bum-a-Burger’s smoked salmon sandwiches.  Their heads turned when they heard something rolling across the wood.  Gerald was headed right for them, scurrying after a golf ball, gold-headed putter in hand.

“Get back here you little son of a bitch,” he snapped at it, only scrambling to a stop when he saw it roll through the completely alien legs of the fairanquin.  His own feet were bare, but the rest of him was covered in a suit.  His belt was undone, hanging open like the flaps on a manta ray’s face.  His tie was untied.  He had a face like a career politician fed on a diet of greasy bar food: stuffed mushrooms and orange watery chicken wings.  His eyes were empty and glazed, like pastries out of an industrial oven, and they communicated very little emotion.  “What the hell is this?  I’m not seeing anybody this late.”

“You’d better just do what they say,” Ladyspiller warned, “if you want to live.”  Her eyes widened and she swallowed as if she’d just received the threat rather than delivered it.

“You are Gerald Wallup?” Snakewaist asked, Chaxium’s voice an ominous hollow hiss out of the flapping serpent mouth.

“The one and only,” the businessman declared, casting aside his putter to put his hands on his hips: a pose somewhere between a superhero during a photo op and a male turkey scratching a rival-dueling arena in the dirt.  “Who am I speaking to?”

“We are not speaking!” Snakewaist shrieked.  Its body writhed and coiled, but its head kept still.  “You are being judged for your bumbling mind!  Do you not plan to run for major political office?”

“It’s not official yet,” he said, licking his teeth as if they were sugar-coated.  “Some people worked up a platform for me.  I might step out on it if I feel like it.”

“This platform includes the destruction of public lands, does it not?” the mechanical serpent asked.  “You wish to destroy national and state parks.  You wish to bring a tide of litter and vandalism to sacred wild lands, the few that this continent has left.”

“Destroy?  I wouldn’t do that.  I’m a builder, not a wrecker.  We’re just going to privatize those lands.  Trees are nice and everything, good for you, I know that, but they don’t exactly keep up with the times.  It’s fine.  I’ll whip them into shape.  We’ll put some cheddar on that whole wheat, close the deal in a month flat, and everybody walks away rich and happy and the trees are still green for all the little hedgehogs and tadpoles.”

“This will not come to pass!” Snakewaist declared.  Chaxium throttled the controls, tugging on a banded cord, twisting it into a predatory shape.  The ferrier obeyed and the other machines followed her lead.  Heavenly Lovers lunged for Wallup and wrapped around behind him before he could even turn, before the floppy smile could even leave his jowls.

Barbelossa’s barbels crossed over the top of a foot and stabbed the floor on the other side.  Polecat simply bit into the other.  Leafshroud’s finger-tendrils stretched out and wrapped around his midsection, binding his arms to his sides.  Podcrown bashed its forehead into the back of Wallup’s to stun him.  Snakewaist’s body wrapped around his neck.  Its scaly paws suctioned onto his collarbone.

The fangs rattled and grew as the mouth opened wider and wider.  Chaxium smashed her console, driving the syringes down into the soft flesh of the billionaire’s shoulder.  He grunted in shock, but the coils of Snakewaist cut off the air he would’ve used for a scream.  Chaxium looked down at her feet, staring through the metal grate, watching for the magic to pulse under her and into the fangs.  It arrived a moment later, but not as she expected.

Whispering lies was a lilac spell with a smell of tap water fog.  What coursed under her now was pitch black and thick; it smelled of suffering extinct things and pressurized darkness.  It made her cough, but the spell didn’t need her input any longer.  It was already in the fangs, already under his skin, already making its way to his heart.  It was all over in moments.  Snakewaist unfurled.  Barbelossa kicked the man to the ground.  The fairanquin and Ladyspiller watched him struggle to his feet, coughing, and examine the dual holes in both his suit and flesh.  Something black and gloppy oozed back out.

“What the hell did you do to me?” the man asked, eyes struggling to stay focused.  He stumbled away and cracked one of his televisions, the line bisecting a news anchor’s face.

“What did we do to him!?” Snakewaist hissed, turning on the rest of its body.  “How dumb do you think I am Drupe?  If that was whispering lies I’m a skunk’s scent gland!  What spell was that?”

“You have total deniability,” Drupe insisted through the communication channel.  “It will all be on me, I promise.  Leafshroud, do it now!”  Maribu stretched a finger-tendril once more, all the way back to the desk where a tiny clay vase held wooden matches for the man’s deal-closing cigars.  The mechanical vine grabbed a single one and brought it back.

Chaxium realized the truth.  The spell they’d fueled Heavenly Lovers with was tar blood, not whispering lies.  It was a poisonous hex that turned blood highly flammable.  It was the sort of thing bumbler wizards, back when they existed, used on each other.  One touch of fire to an open pore would make them explode and burn in a way that struck fear into all their allies.  Heavenly Lovers had, from the beginning, come to murder Gerald Wallup.

The fairanquin stalked toward the man while he was still dazed.  Leafshroud flicked the match, igniting its tip.  They were just inches away when Snakewaist pulled in the opposite direction.  The fairanquin’s shoulder joints squealed from the conflicting pressures.  In pulling away Snakewaist’s eyes wound up aimed at the confused Ladyspiller.  Chaxium felt anger and fear bloom in her cheeks.  Her neck prickled.  They couldn’t do this.  Not to her.  To any other bumbler, but not to her.  They’d shared too many nights where words had taken the place of sleep.  They’d tested the boundaries of awkwardness around each other’s souls until they knew the exact delicate shape of them.  Not to her.

“Chaxium stop!” Drupe boomed.  “Just let us do this; we came all this way!”

“No, she came all this way!” Chaxium hissed.  “We piloted our privileges here!  Not a footprint or a wingbeat among us!”

“Chax, what’s happening?” Ladyspiller asked.

“They’re trying to kill him!” she shouted back.

“What?” Wallup practically belched.  His pupils were big and blank like a goldfish’s.  “Cheddar on the whole wheat… Everybody says yes to that…”

“Which would be fine,” Chaxium continued, “if you weren’t standing right here!  Tons of people saw you down in that crowd and all three of his wives know you came up here!  If he dies you’ll get blamed while we slip away.  I’m not letting you go to bumbler prison for murder.”

“Oh god,” Ladyspiller babbled.  “Yeah, I would definitely like to not go there.”

“I’m sorry Ladyspiller,” Drupe claimed from his place atop the fairanquin, “but this is bigger than you.  We have to protect Beezgalore and every other family tree this man would have chopped down.”

“Try protecting a raccoon shit without me!” Chaxium roared.  She punched through a paper seal on her console, breaking up an inked image of the whole fairanquin.  Snakewaist disengaged with a puff of magical steam and dropped to the floor.  Black residue of tar blood dripped from the shoulder.  Chaxium’s ferrier transformed back into its animal form and slither-crawled away.  Heavenly Lovers could only move in unity, with all fairies aligned, so it ground to a halt.

“We don’t have time to argue!” Drupe shouted.  “The spell is already cast.  Everybody disengage.  Light him up!”  One by one the ferriers popped off Heavenly Lovers, leaving it hovering in place like a bewitched knight’s breastplate.  The machines morphed back into their primary shapes.

Chaxium watched in horror as they executed a contingency plan she’d been locked out of from the beginning.  Barbelossa, with no water to move in, flopped over to Wallup and wrapped around one of his legs.  Twarly dug its barbels into the flesh to hobble him; it worked.  The billionaire was on his knees, practically kissing the golden head of his dropped putter.

Podcrown shot around the walls on its silken tethers.  It centered over Snakewaist and then dropped like a weight, pinning the serpent’s midsection.  The impact nearly knocked Chaxium from her seat.  Leafshroud and Polecat crawled over to Wallup’s desk to grab more matches.  Ladyspiller hopped over and snatched the little vase containing them away at the last moment.

“My apologies,” Maribu’s voice tinkled through his ferrier’s metal leaves.  The cluster of vines jumped on Ladyspiller and bound her limbs, causing her to drop the vase.  The matches scattered.  Polecat weaved between Ladyspiller’s legs, picked up one in its jaws, and bounded toward its crawling target.  Clandestiny turned the weasel machine’s mouth and lowered its head, dragging the match across the floor and lighting it.  Its fwoosh sound was magically magnified in Chaxium’s control center, as if she heard an engine fire flash through the door behind her.

“Clandestiny don’t!” she shouted as she whipped the controls back and forth.  Podcrown still had her pinned.

“Sorry girl,” the other fairy answered through the radio.  “Greater good.  Fairies first.”  The weasel rushed by.  Chaxium bent her ferrier’s neck and torso, tensing it like a cobra, and struck.  Its head stretched just far enough to bite Polecat’s tail.  The weasel struggled against the pull, mouth full of fire, but it was still inches away from the bare soles of Gerald’s feet.

Chaxium couldn’t hold her forever.  Drupe worked his own controls; Podcrown’s base twisted back and forth like a drill, crushing the muscle connections in Snakewaist’s middle.  He had several lines of steel-strong silk embedded in the wood, pulling his ferrier’s weight down.  She didn’t doubt that he would break Snakewaist in half if he had to.  Already some of its glittering scales had fallen away and the skin had torn.

“I’m not letting go!” Chaxium roared.  None of them knew except for Chaxium, because despite her neglect of the machine she was still the only one of them to pilot it.  Snakewaist, among its many hidden coils and tricks, had one of the powers of many reptilian ferriers.  Once its jaws were set around something it would never let go unless commanded.  Snakewaist could be torn in two, run out of power, and fossilize in the wake of time before its fangs would come out of Polecat’s tail.

Clandestiny was not without tricks either.  She could see the match flickering in her mount’s mouth, so she curved its head and had it lap up a drop of tar blood that had spilled to the floor.  Polecat chewed up the matchstick, mixed it with the magical gunk, and started breathing fire.  The weasel snapped and snapped, each puff that much closer to Gerald’s sole.

“We’re supposed to do this!” Drupe bellowed.  “The ferriers wouldn’t have allowed me to bring us together if we weren’t.  You lost faith in their power Chaxium, but we never did!  These are the best homes for us.  We don’t want to bury ourselves in bumbler earwax like you and your…”

Ding!  The portraits of Gerald and Amaltis slid open once again.  Polecat swallowed its fire and turned its head.  Podcrown rotated without releasing Snakewaist.  Leafshroud, still binding Ladyspiller, flicked the ground with a tendril and spun them both around.  Amaltis emerged as if stepping out from her own shadow.  Zha strode in behind her, holding Ladyspiller’s coat and hat.  Lauren followed them.

“Oh, are you stuck?” the young girl asked when she noticed Ladyspiller’s bindings.  She walked over and pawed at Leafshroud, forcing a stunned Maribu to reduce the pressure and fall off.  His ferrier slunk away like a brittle star, made spineless by the mere thought of hurting an adolescent in the course of their duties.

“Gerald!” Amaltis snapped.  “Get up!”  Barbelossa released its grip as well.  The fairies slowly made their way back toward Heavenly Lovers, unsure of the path forward.  Wallup grabbed his putter and used it to brace his weight.  It took a moment for his eyes to focus and for him to find all the words he’d swallowed.

“Malty, beautiful.  Malted milkshake!  What are you doing up here?  You know I hate distractions when I’m working late.”  He didn’t spare a glance for Zha or Lauren.  They were just moths a little disappointed to find a room with no flame to circle.

“And you know I hate you,” she spat back.  Her eyes were daggers, the sort that would stick in a savior’s wounds even as they tried to ascend to the afterlife.  “You stay up here and I stay down there.  That was the agreement; I didn’t know what you were stuffing in the space between!”  She gestured to Zha, who smiled and cocked a hip as if posing for a magazine cover.  “She shows up at my door and tells me that you two are still technically married!”

“You can thank zis girl and her robot for zat,” Zha said, handing the coat and hat to a stunned Ladyspiller.  “Zey reminded me how much fun it was to mess with him.”  Heavenly Lovers slowly reassembled while they spoke.  Chaxium slipped Snakewaist back into its socket.  She held her breath, but it seemed like the violence was coming to an end.  This felt just like the elevators opening on their own.  The force of their journey had tugged on the fabric of magic itself, and everything they’d pulled with their dragnets was now catching up.  They were going to leave.  Soon.  She used a fang-finger to tap Barbelossa and urge the catfish-leg to walk.  The fairanquin inched closer to Ladyspiller.

“You keep your trap shut,” Gerald told Zha.  His face was a grimace like a collapsed rotten soufflé.  “I’ll kick you out of here so fast that it’ll be the fastest anybody’s ever been kicked.  That fast!  Trust me!”

“You don’t kick anybody out!” Amaltis fired back.  “Every woman that ever came through those doors is your wife it seems!  This girl!  This child!”  She shook her hands in the general direction of Lauren, who was comfortably seated in the giant leather chair behind his desk.

“All deals are off!” Gerald barked at Zha.  “You had to keep your powdered nose out of my business!”  He turned to Amaltis.  “And Malty!  The kid’s just part of a mentor program.  I’m her big daddy!  She’s living her dream in a mansion for a while and then she’s going back to Borscht Boulevard, I swear.”

“I’m from Croatia,” Lauren corrected.  “It’s a very wealthy place actually; my parents just make bad decisions.”  Snakewaist’s fingers wrapped around Ladyspiller’s.  She couldn’t help blushing, but that was mostly because she’d nearly passed out a minute prior when imagining life in prison.  Heavenly Lovers pulled her behind the wall of wrathful wives.

“Nobody believes your lies,” Zha claimed.  “I know what you have planned for her.  She is too young Gerald.  You are too old and fat, like some fairytale goblin.  All zis ends now.  We’ve decided to draw a line in ze sand.”

“Oh, you’re teaming up are you?” Gerald mocked in a voice like a walrus on helium.  “I’m so scared.  What are you going to do?  In a year I’m going to be president of this whole country.  I’m going to be holding the stamp for all your papers.”  He waved the putter in their direction.

“We’re going to write books,” Zha declared, cracking a wicked smile.  “Maybe ze next girl you find can read zem to you as a bedtime story.  We’re going to divorce you and put a fancy cover on all of ze documents.  Zen out zey go to ze shelves.”

“I prefer reading to writing,” Lauren mused, staring at the ceiling as she spun in his chair.

“Zat’s fine dear,” Zha told her.  “You can have a chapter in my book: Ze Sexy Criminal and ze Billionaire Baboon.”

“We’re going to ruin you,” Amaltis said prophetically.  Zha’s smile widened wickedly at the utterance of her favorite word.

“Ruin me?  Ruin this?  I’m untouchable.  There’s so much cheddar on this whole wheat that you will never, and I mean never ever never…”  The elevator doors closed.  Heavenly Lovers and Ladyspiller descended hand in hand.  For the longest time they said nothing.  Chaxium’s heart felt too big for her chest, but she had to keep it there.  She desperately wanted to fly from her ferrier and land on Ladyspiller’s ear.  She wanted to curl up inside it, stare into her soul, and just talk.  She wouldn’t lean in though.  They didn’t need to be so close that they were the same flaw.

She couldn’t leave Snakewaist.  If anything it was her closest partner.  She kept its head wrapped around Ladyspiller’s hand, letting all the little magical muscles communicate what she couldn’t.

It Doesn’t Work that Way

Chaxium lounged in bed with her pet trilobite beetle.  She held it on her chest, fingers running down the orange-striped plates on its back.  The distant buzz of the bees put her at ease, though it was nothing compared to the gentle hissing breath of Snakewaist.  She decided she would take the ferrier out for a walk that evening.  It was supposed to rain; it would give her a chance to try out the new mud-diving module she’d just installed in its traversal lobe.

She’d done it all on her own too, spending entire evenings buried in the bramble of the ferrier’s neural circuitry.  There were a few magical contact burns here and there, on her neck and forearms, but unsightly as they were they smelled like grass stains and dropped nickels.  The harder part was acquiring the knowledge, which took buying drinks for an old ferrier mechanic three days in a row as he babbled about a leprechaun stump in Ireland and their new obsession with gold cryptocurrency.  It was worth it because she didn’t have to ask Maribu for help.

Snakewaist had practically shed its old skin thanks to her upgrades, but it was worth it to slither-crawl through the branches on a…  The thought was interrupted by a text bubble popping in her face.  She pulled her showing glass out from under her mossy blankets.

(New) (Polecat): You need to get to Fissure right now.  I know we haven’t talked, but it’s an emergency.  I swear on both wings.

Chaxium hopped out of bed and threw on some clothes.  Fissure was the entrance to the city itself, where the stone cracked in front of the trunk of Beezgalore.  The bees came and went from there.  It wasn’t far, especially if she skipped across a few bee backs between walkways.

There was something obviously amiss.  Fairies were leaving their homes in droves, flocking toward Fissure.  They hopped over railings and drifted recklessly to get ahead of the crowd.  Chaxium bested their efforts by tiptoeing across their heads.  Everyone was babbling about the source of the chaos; there was an intruder.  A bumbler had found Beezgalore.  A possibility struck Chaxium and it nearly knocked her out of the sky like a tossed stone.

“Don’t tell me…” she whispered as her breath turned into a pant.  She passed around the trunk of Beezgalore and saw Fissure.  Normally it was an unobstructed patch of sunlight: bright rays striking around the city like zip lines from the heavens.  This time it was blocked by a giant shadow that had jammed itself into the crack.  It had an arm reaching inside the stone, trying to pull the rest of itself through.  It made a very familiar grunt.

Chaxium grabbed a passing bee by the legs and jumped as high as she could.  With its wings plus her own she managed to gain an impressive altitude.  She zoomed to just inches from the shadow’s face and then pumped her wings as hard as she could to put herself into a hover.  The bee protested, but she shook it back and forth until it calmed down.

“Ladyspiller!?” she shouted in disbelief.  The details of her face became clear.  It was her.  Chubby cheeks.  Eyes that thought crying went well with every emotion. Feminine lips that her face could never really tell what to do with.  Glasses bent against the stone.

“Chaxium!” the human squeaked back, overjoyed at the sight of her.  “I was hoping you’d show up.  I realize I look like Godzilla crushing Tokyo right now…”

“How did you even find this place?” the fairy shouted.  “You have to get out of here!  They’ll want to erase your memory!”

“I don’t know if you meant to,” Ladyspiller explained, “but you put all these clues in your old messages.  You said you lived near this park.  You mentioned a lake.  I figured Beezgalore meant a lot of bees, so I spent like a hundred bucks on gas, drove down here, and started listening for buzzing.”

She didn’t have to listen for the buzzing anymore.  The bees were all around and getting more agitated by the second.  A couple of them crawled across Ladyspiller’s trespassing fingers.  One of them stung, but the young woman did her best not to flinch.  She bit her lip.  Chaxium dove at the encroaching insects and kicked a few of them away, but there were others buzzing around the giant’s hair now.

“What are you doing here!?” Chaxium asked desperately.  A bee buzzed between Ladyspiller’s eyes.  She blew it out of the way, but nearly sent Chaxium spinning as well.

“Oh god, sorry!” the human chirped.  “It’s just that I had this idea…  I couldn’t stop thinking about your story.  The fairies that took care of you went into a human head and turned into human thoughts.  They became human.  So I thought… I could do the same thing in reverse.”  She tried again to pull her body through the stone crack.  There was a wave of sound from the crowding fairies around the tree.  Some laughed.  Some gasped.

“It doesn’t work that way!” Chaxium shouted.  She released her bee and dove toward Ladyspiller’s face.  She pushed against the wall of skin that was her giant forehead, trying to send her back out.

“How do you know?” she asked.  “Ahh!”  Another bee stung her neck.  The chemicals released would have them swarming in moments.  She could’ve died chasing fairies, something that hadn’t happened to a human in over a hundred years.  “Has anyone ever tried this?  I know your parents were running from responsibility, but I’m not!”  She grunted and squeezed further in.  “I’m running toward it!  I can help you with Snakewaist!  Those machines have more power than I’ve ever had.  I can help you make things happen rather than sit around waiting for some rich asshole to press the trapdoor button that ruins my life!”

“We stopped Wallup!” Chaxium argued.  A drop of Ladyspiller’s sweat rolled over one of her pushing hands.  “Everybody knows he was juggling wives and grooming a teenager!”

“That’s just it,” Ladyspiller cried, enduring two more stings.  The bees crawled into her hair; she made no attempt to swat them away.  “I don’t think the scandal’s going to stop him.  There’s this momentum around him, this doom.  Too many people want him to wreck everything.  I have to get away from it; I have to be with you so we can fight our way!”

“You can’t!  Go!  The bees won’t stop!”

“Chax, let me in!  It’s okay to want ridiculous things!  I haven’t spent a single moment not being ridic…”  Chaxium was losing altitude.  She couldn’t push Ladyspiller out.  The fairy reached over, grabbed one of her eyelids like a tarp, and pulled.

She fell backward; the shadow was gone.  Sunlight poured in and the bees dispersed.  She had a hold of something, but it wasn’t an eyelid or lash.  They tumbled, wings flapping back to one of the walkways around the tree.  Several other fairies caught them, laying them flat and giving them space.  Chaxium couldn’t wriggle out from the fairy on top of her.  She helped her get her hands under her, lift her head…

“Ladyspiller!” she gasped.  She’d done it.  It was the same face Chaxium had just pushed against, but shrunk down a hundred times.  It happened the moment she stopped pushing her out, the second she pulled her in.  Her face and body were dramatically thinned.  Her bumbler clothes had come with her, but there were two holes in the back for her shimmering new four part wings.  Her eyes had gone iridescent.  Her ears were the shape of moth wings.  Her teeth and nails were pearl.  All the marks of a proper fairy of Beezgalore.  She couldn’t believe it either.

“Oh my god, it actually worked!  I’m… skinny?”

“We have really high metabolisms,” Chaxium said, her voice still too stunned for emotion.  “You were right.  You’re here.  You’re one of us.”  She pulled Ladyspiller to her feet as she experienced the thrill of breathing her first hummingbird breaths.  Chaxium wrapped her arms around Ladyspiller’s waist.

“This is as far as my plan got,” the new fairy admitted.  “What do we do now?”  Chaxium’s face split into a grin like she’d never felt, like the seeds of her soul were finally freed from the pod and taking to the wind.  She giggled and put her forehead against Ladyspiller’s.

“Want to take a ride on my snake?”

The End

 

Ladyspiller’s Fairy Diary

(Excerpt from Day Two)

Fairy foods I absolutely have to have in my face right now

  • Fruit leather s’mores
  • Wild strawberry steak with mineral sauce
  • Perfumed rose hips
  • Ten thousand other things…

Don’t forget that weird door in Snakewaist.  We have to investigate it!  Chax says it was never there before I got here.  I still can’t believe it’s happening.  I’m real here.  Nobody questions whether or not I’m genuine.

  • Chia-stuffed currants (Chax’s favorite)
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