Join the modern fairies Chaxium and Ladyspiller as they use their transforming magic mecha-snake to intervene in the madness of the human world, this time doing battle with digital dragons and a thief stealing electricity to power his crypto-hoard.
This is the second in a series of novellas, so if you’re interested I’d recommend starting with the first.
(reading time: 1 hour, 9 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 2 hours, 41 minutes)
The Demon of Gougecoin
Kunk kunk. Nobody answered the door, so to the back of the line with Pollywig. The next fairy up guessed that she just hadn’t been forceful enough. KUNK KUNK! He succeeded in bruising his knuckles, but not in opening it, so Taxido had to cede his place. If the other nine failed again he could have another turn at it. Next was Bellirub, and she had bragged after every attempt that she had a way with stubborn magical things. Her knock was practically melodious: katunk kunk katunkituktuk.
“I think I heard something move behind it,” she insisted, but that was met with good-natured booing and hissing. It was time for the owners to give it another shot; they stepped up together.
“Do it as a couple!” somebody shouted from the back. “It’ll be twice as powerful.” The rest of the party agreed and cheered them on until their hands locked together and the blades of their transparent wings overlapped. They looked at each other encouragingly, both a little surprised and elated to see the happiness sparkling in the other’s eyes. They’d come a long way in a few short months.
Chaxium had friends again, and she was all too eager to open Snakewaist up to them. It had as many twists and turns as life itself, and that needed to be embraced if there was to be no depressed knotting. She was a tan athletic fairy borrowing her haircut from the pixies. That night she was wearing a skirt, part of a new habit of expressing clothing options that weren’t sweat-stained gym supplies.
Her partner Ladyspiller was slimmer and still uncomfortable with that fact, often leaning and then stumbling when her hips proved too small to actually touch anything. Back in her bumbler days, when she had weighed nearly a thousand times as much, she wore contact lenses to socialize. Fairies borrowed many inventions from mankind, fixing their flaws with magic, but the little lenses never appealed to them. Chaxium had gotten a beautiful pair of copper wire spectacles for her.
Together they shared Snakewaist, which was far more than a place to party with their new friends. It was a ferrier: an animal artifice of science and magic. Each one had a thousand tricks up its sleeve, Snakewaist especially, since it had the ability to transform into a sleeve of sorts. They resembled animals in their primary forms; the gathering took place in the small of the back, difficult to pinpoint on such a beast: an emerald-scaled serpent with the tiny but powerful legs of a gecko. When joined to four others and a heartbox it could take the shape of an arm, becoming part of a human-shaped collective called a fairanquin. That was how they’d first met, in person anyway: Ladyspiller staring dumbfounded as a gilded robot from another age held out its hand as a platform for the minuscule beauty of Chaxium.
That was before the door. Both their hands rose and hung in front of it, waiting for their guests to urge them once more. Ornate and green with a golden knob that wouldn’t budge, the door had descended from the artificial muscles strands, like red silk curtains, on the ceiling. It didn’t announce itself with a sound or provide a peephole or mail slot. It was just there in the middle of Chaxium’s first tour of the beast with her new lover, shocking them both.
“Fairy doors do have a tendency to show up in ferriers,” she had explained to Ladyspiller. There was a knocker: a snake’s face with a hinged forked tongue. Its jeweled eyes were pink. “Colors like that are supposed to mean something too, a clue about its destination, but I never paid attention in thresholding.”
“The study of fairy doors. It was a class.” She’d grinned. “I forget you’re basically a dropout. We should have Maribu assign you some homework to catch you up.”
“Hey if anything I dropped out of being human, not a fairy,” Ladyspiller had argued. “It is the first time in my life that I’ve heard homework and not panicked though. So… where does this door go?”
“Wherever it wants to. It’s magic. The fact that it’s here means we’re going to need or want it for something soon.”
“So it doesn’t open until the right time? That’s kind of a fantasy cliché.”
“Well since it’s integrated into Snakewaist it’s part of the same magidigital system. That means it could be hacked, but you’d really have to know what you were doing. Even if I did, that might hurt the old girl. When things other than fairies get inside ferriers, be it foreign code or god damn miserable shit-stirring shit-tunnel-constructing ants, they can even kill a ferrier.”
“It couldn’t be fixed?”
“Sometimes no. Nobody remembers how to build them. One of those lost-on-purpose secrets.” The door was just as stubborn with its information, as it had remained squarely there for months. They’d grown so used to it that it was nothing more than a centerpiece for a party game now. Their guests counted to three; they knocked together. No answer.
“Alright everybody,” Chaxium said to calm their hooting. “Finish up your drinks and flirt with whoever you’re going to flirt with. I’m turning this ship back to port.” Disappointed groans. “It’s nearly midnight and we’re due back at Beezgalore before daybreak. Nobody wants to get caught out here with bumblers.” Chaxium waded through them, dodging the champagne flutes full of crab apple wine and hummingbird-aid they tried to hand her. Ladyspiller could keep them entertained while course was changed.
The controls were in Snakewaist’s head. Chaxium had smartly put up a sign informing her fellows that there was to be no making out in the cockpit, so it was quiet and dim in there. The world outside could be seen through the glass parietal eye atop the machine’s head, like a bubbled porthole on a submarine. When she looked up she saw a sky so full of stars that it was indigo instead of black. This was an enhancement of course: a magical filter shutting out all the human light pollution.
She pressed a finger into an ink stone embedded in the console, then dragged it across the scrolling paper map near it. The path she’d drawn at the beginning of the party faded, and the ferrier accepted the new one. The serpent turned as it continued wading through the treetops. She sighed. Sometimes the sea of leaves in the night wind was so beautiful that she forgot it was just a state park, just one little square the humans had almost randomly decided not to destroy.
Back near the door everyone held onto something; the turn made the ferrier’s body temporarily rotate. When its segments were the most bent they could see through the glass membranes between body segments that were normally hidden. Everybody else marveled at the canopy as well.
“She said we don’t want to get caught out with the bumblers, but you don’t seem so bad,” Bellirub joked, nudging Ladyspiller with her shoulder. Lady laughed nervously, feeling three or four fairies bunch up behind her to listen in. It had been like that since the start of her new life; everyone was always so interested in what it had been like to be human. Added to that was the general lack of physical boundaries between fairies of the same family tree. She felt more loved and important than ever, but also that she couldn’t possibly provide an entire party with good enough stories to entertain.
“I’ve got everything I need now,” she said, staring out a membrane as it contracted and vanished under the metal and silky sinew. She reached up and touched her new longer earlobe, in the shape of a moth’s wing. It came with the other features standard to all Beezgalore fairies: iridescent irises, pearl nails, navel, and teeth, and four-bladed wings. “Humans are a lot less scary when they’re comfortable.” They laughed. “But you guys always make me tell you stuff!”
“Well what do you want to know?” Dandeloof asked, pulling out his showing glass: the fairy version of a smartphone. He grabbed its screen and pulled, turning it into a dome like a crystal ball and stirring the smoke within with his fingers. “All your answers lie within.” More laughter. Human obsession with fortune telling was a favorite joke in Beezgalore.
“Well what about the other family trees? What are the nearest ones and what are they like?” Her guests took turns answering.
“Closest is Molmountain. They live underground, but the whole place is magically flipped so they walk on the underside of the topsoil.”
“I went on a hypnotized hawk tour once. We flew by Berryberyl, Webplenty, and Scissortop. Even got to have lunch on their visitor balconies. Strange looking fairies, some of them.”
“I heard the ones in Owlarena have wings like hot air balloons.”
“But Beezgalore is the best right?” Ladyspiller asked to emphatic agreement. Their new course was set, so with their orientation settled and the corridor straightened out they went back to dancing. Someone had magically suspended lots of the drinks and snacks in the air, hovering on light-warping pads that looked like Lady’s old contact lenses. She reached through one, dissipating it, and took its piece of cashew jerky. Its aroma was luxuriously buttery, so she ripped a piece off with her teeth and chewed with gusto.
They finally let her slip away, which she did because Chaxium had not returned. Lady found her in the cockpit, feet resting on the console, staring up into the indigo. She sat in her lap and laid back, head fitting nicely between her neck and shoulder. Lady held up the strip of jerky that she had left, and Chaxium snatched it with her lips and chewed on the end.
“Fairy food is so unbelievably good; I don’t even miss meat. I don’t specifically miss pork shoulder on a brioche bun at all.”
“Even if you did you couldn’t digest it,” Chaxium said. “That kind of violence is out of your life now.” She rubbed the back of Lady’s hand, thumb moving to the delicate skin between thumb and forefinger.
“I still get curious what all that violence is up to,” Lady admitted. “I guess because I like to hurt myself.” She stretched her leg and pressed her heel on something half-embedded in the console that looked like a marble with a watercolor supernova within. Crackling sound filled the cockpit, but the magic cleared away the interference until the words were velvety smooth.
President-elect Wallup addressed the American people today, assuring that the transition would be swift and quote ‘like flushing a toilet that badly needs it. Say goodbye to all that regulation toilet paper. Straight down the crap chute with the rest of the-
“No bumbler radio,” Chaxium moaned as she smacked the globe with her own heel and turned it off. “You promised me. No podcasts either. We’re focusing on us and Snakewaist now.”
“I knew they’d elect that bastard. I just knew it, like when mayflies know they’re about to die.”
“We should’ve figured that a couple of books wouldn’t stop him. I don’t think he can read anything other than a stock ticker. If that.” Chaxium flicked her own cheek. “Now I’m talking about him. See what you started?”
“Sorry babe,” Ladyspiller said with a pouting lip, but she couldn’t hold it. She had to smile because she’d never felt comfortable calling anyone that before. “My foot only knew where the frequency aquarium was because we’ve been practicing so much.” She pointed at something dangling above them like an umbrella of closed leaves. “I know that’s the venom concentrater.” Her finger moved to something like a cross between a novelty tangled drinking straw and an hourglass. “That’s the memory playback. There’s the scale rattler and the escape egg launcher. I’m all ready to take our ferrier out on a mission… so when do we get one?”
“Well… I mean… it’s not like somebody delivers them.”
“Come on! You taught me how to live in Snakewaist, fix Snakewaist, fight in Snakewaist, hide in Snakewaist… I even have my own ferrier and I want to do more than test drive it.”
“You don’t have your own ferrier; Shedcoil is a sub-ferrier okay? You try and take it more than a mile from Snakewaist or have it separate for more than an hour and it’ll fall apart. That’s what Rubbard said anyway. I’ve never had a copilot until now, so I’ve never had a reason to use it.”
“Was Rubbard that old guy you had to schmooze to learn how to fix her up?”
“Yes, and he’d probably have a heart attack if I told him we were less interested in preservation and more interested in righteous combat.” Ladyspiller sat up and spun around to face her, eyes wide.
“Oh my god… it’s so sexy when you say righteous combat. Let’s go find some.” Neither could hold back the snorting and giggling for more than a second. They would’ve fallen out of the chair if Lady hadn’t stood up.
“Look,” Chaxium finally said when she caught her breath. “We’re lucky just to have a ferrier. And we’re super lucky that you shed ninety-nine percent of your weight so you could fit in it.”
“But none of the anxiety! Hooray!”
“What I’m saying is: missions might be a once in a decade thing. We can make all sorts of memories in here though; they don’t have to be blood-splattered to be worth it. Right?” Lady leaned in, agreeing with a kiss. Their guests might’ve chastised them for breaking the edict on the sign just outside the cockpit, but it was their home and their rules.
Eight days later the couple was sat on one of Beezgalore’s many branches, at a tiny projection of its wood magically grown into the shape of a little round table. They were having brunch, surrounded by their fellow citizens, basking in the sunlight that poured down from the crack in the great boulder housing the tree. They were far from the hive of insects that protected them, but a few of the queen’s best had been borrowed and hypnotized into acting as waiters. They buzzed around between the tables, eyes pink and green, lost in a magical daydream, with drinks and sandwich trays strapped to their backs.
Eating in public was supposed to cheer them up. Even though they’d both sworn off news of the human world they couldn’t help but overhear other fairies discussing it, especially with their ears leaned so far in that direction. Gerald Wallup was being sworn in as the president of the United States that day, the same day that his former campaign chairman was being indicted for securities fraud. Chaxium didn’t know what securities fraud was exactly, it was the sort of useless artifice phrase that couldn’t fit in fairy heads without snapping, but it seemed like the sort of thing that should’ve stopped him from taking power.
“What even is securities fraud?” she asked Lady. Chewing the beeswax straw in her basil smoothie couldn’t occupy her mouth any longer.
“Well,” said the liberal arts major, “it definitely has something to do with money. Whenever I hear that phrase I think it just sums up America as a whole. Every bit of security you feel there is a fraud. All your stuff and your rights can just poof if someone says you owe money or if a company gets confused about you or if you get sued.”
“You’re away from all that now.” Chaxium reached across and grabbed her hand. “And you should know… poofing is a really technical term for us, so don’t misuse it.” Ladyspiller rolled her eyes, but stopped before one full revolution, not fully sure it was a joke. Something else occurred to her.
“I was saying there… but we’re still in America technically, right? Or are we? This has to count as a different country.”
“Countries don’t matter to us. It’s this tree or that tree. A home is an attitude. It’s one of the reasons we never fight; every fairy chooses their family tree because they feel like-minded to those within.” She snapped at a passing bee to get its attention; a small order of orange zest fettuccine would’ve been great. It was a little too hypnotized to notice.
“Right,” Ladyspiller acknowledged. “I’m not American anymore. I’m Beezgalorian. Beezgaloric? This is my home. These are my people. They want me here.” They want-”
“-you to have some citrus pasta,” Chaxium finished for her, standing and chasing after the bee. “Wait here.” Not the only one having an issue with the service, she had to dodge both fairies and bees in her search for the one supposed to wait on them. It had antennae painted with purple and red stripes like the marker on their table, so she checked each one. Before she knew it she was clear on the other side of the restaurant, where there were suddenly far too many bees to check.
Clustered on the wooden wall, the bunched up insects looked very agitated, yet they didn’t want to take flight. They only moved when something distant, all the way on the rock walls, shifted as well. Then they bulged so much that some spilled off the wall and flooded over Chaxium. She swatted them away, but before she could look across the great gap and see the cause of the commotion she heard the rest of it.
Fairies were taking to the air on the lower branches, parachuting down and hiding under them in case of falling debris. A swell of reactions poured into her ears: confusion, anger, but little fear in spite of their actions. That was because the intruder was programmed not to hurt them, but things didn’t seem to be going as written in the program.
Snakewaist waddled across the rock like a gecko, serpentine body wiggling like a wavelength indicator, much faster than it should have. The ferrier’s yellow eyes blinked on and off rapidly, the pupils opening and closing at nearly the same rate.
“What!? What are you doing here?” Chaxium hissed. It was forbidden to keep ferriers within the trees. The only way to store them was to allow them to roam their natural habitats. “We’re in so much trouble.” No sooner had she said it than the machine spotted her and went wild. Its twitchy ticks moved to its legs and toes, causing it to race across the stone and create scraping noises that would draw the attention of everyone in Beezgalore.
Chaxium tried to follow its path, but it didn’t know where it was going. She sensed it needed a pilot badly, but couldn’t navigate well enough without one to find a way over to her. If its frustration mounted enough it might try to jump over to her, crushing the restaurant and killing anyone who moved too slowly.
“Chax!” Lady shouted from across all the tables. Bees swarmed between them, their eyes blackening as their daydreams popped, technically poofed, out of their heads.
“Lady!” she screamed back. “Get Maribu or Rubbard or… anybody that knows ferriers! I’m going in!” Ladyspiller nodded and turned, running. A more experienced fairy would’ve glided away, but she still didn’t have a feel for her wing limitations yet. They weren’t as useful as those on birds, or even on the bees, thus making a path for Chaxium up to Snakewaist all the more difficult.
The ferrier’s tail thrashed out into the gap, knocking the wings off a bee and sending it spinning. Chaxium caught the poor creature and set it down so it could scuttle away. It could get magical prosthesis to fly again, but if the tail struck the tree directly there might not be enough magic to make up for it. Foolhardy as it was, that thrashing was her only chance. Chaxium ran along the edge of the café’s shaped floor to keep up.
“Come on! Reach for mama!” It was far too distressed to listen, but the emerald tail did shoot out again. Halfway to the crack of its whip she jumped, wings spreading wide and stiffening as they filled with blood. They throbbed not just with the acids of exertion but with the sapping power of overworked nerves as well. This was ten problems in one. Even if there were no fatalities this was unheard of. The tree could vote to strip her of her ownership of Snakewaist. All she could do to prove she deserved it was to reach out and grab.
The power of the tail flick nearly took her hands off. Two of the blades on Chaxium’s right wing bent, sending her spinning. There wasn’t time to look at her palms, but she knew trying to grab had been foolish. They were little more than a pair of bruises now. With only one wing functioning she could only use them for balance, so she put everything she had into that, stabilizing herself upright just above the tail as it retracted.
Her feet touched down on its smooth metal scales. It wouldn’t hold an angle she could run on for long, so she surged forward, bare feet slapping. Snakewaist had only two means of entry: the mouth and the parietal eye. The latter would only open at the touch or words of its current owners. There was also the egg chute, but that was a one way passage that only opened during emergencies. Even from its back legs, one of which she leapt onto, she could hear the jaws snapping open and shut. The dome then.
The ferrier’s snout tipped toward Beezgalore’s trunk: a sickening motion that took half its body with it. The suction of its front feet failed, so the front half was left dangling pendulously. Snakewaist cried out again, its distressed call like a stack of stiff envelopes tossed into an industrial fan. Chaxium ran as fast she could, she was on the ribbing now, but a third foot popped free.
She closed her eyes and braced for the drop; it didn’t have the strength to hang on with just one foot. Something resembling quiet set in instead; even its cry lessened. She opened her eyes and looked out into the gap. There was a flexible beam of magic originating near the restaurant, arcing across the empty space, and flowing over Snakewaist’s tail like steam.
The crimson beam originated from the hands of three fairies working in concert. Their fingers opened and closed around its loose misty end as they pulled, like playing an imaginary game of tug of war. Their synchronization was nothing short of marvelous, as they had to repeat the incantations at the same time to magnify the effect. Each of them wore a red and yellow shirt with smooth crystal shoulder pads. There weren’t many fairies that wore uniforms, so they had to be from one of the magical fraternities, organizations, or sororities. Ladyspiller was stood next to them, silently cheering them on.
“That’s my Lady!” Chaxium huffed as she got off her bruised bottom and skittered further down the ferrier’s length. Moments before she would’ve fallen, but the magic was doing its job. Snakewaist had calmed significantly even though its eyes, mouth, and tongue still moved erratically. Its feet were back on the wall and its neck turned enough that Chaxium could slide down to the parietal eye without falling off.
Magical organizations always handled the spell installations for heartboxes, so outside of mechanics and pilots they were the most knowledgeable when it came to the war machines. It was exceptionally crafty of Ladyspiller to deduce who they were from uniforms alone and ask for their assistance. As it turned out they belonged to the Beezgalore Crystal Ball Council. Their idea was simple: generate a spell stream similar enough to the magidigital flow in heartbox passages that it would convince Snakewaist it was docking with one.
When the magic hit the tail, where Snakewaist would normally connect to such a fairanquin torso, it forced the ferrier into a passive mode until docking was complete. The only actual docking was done by Chaxium, who whispered an authenti-cantation to the dome of the cockpit. It popped open more violently that usual, almost tearing itself loose. She dropped down inside and rushed to the console.
Things didn’t look so bad at first. She’d expected dead falling leaves, spurting ink, and magical sparks, as if ants had once again gotten into the works, but everything was in order, if a little dim. The only thing out of the ordinary was the memory playback. The sands within its twisted glass were stopped from flowing in the correct direction; instead they vacillated within one tiny section. It looked like time itself was suffering from an invasive thought that just would not pass. Above the apparatus hovered a holographic spirit: a marble white torso a third the size of Chaxium’s complete with head and arms. Both were busy holding each other, fretting about something.
“Uhm… excuse me? Can I help you?” she asked the intruder. It spun around, giving her a much better look. It had a small round head with impish horns and tusks. Its fingers were knobby and clawed like an arthritic eagle’s. Despite its stony facade its lips were contorted in a fleshy exaggeration of alabaster anxiety.
“Can you help me?” it repeated indignantly. “You!? The one who allowed this to happen!? Do you have any idea how many years it has been since any of us have had to leave our perches? Of course you don’t! And neither do I! It’s been so long I’ve forgotten how time feels!” The gargoyle’s image gesticulated aggressively, making a crack appear along one shoulder. A piece of its skin fell away, revealing an electric jumble of numbers and images underneath. Reep! the creature squeaked, grabbing at the falling flake and reapplying it until the crack was smoothed out.
“I don’t even know what you are!” Chaxium barked back. “Just that you’re in my ferrier!”
“Your ferrier! Your ferrier she says.” It looked to its left and went slack-jawed. “Oh right, none of you are here. I was sent all by my lonesome even though this mess needs the whole flock!” Another crack appeared just above where a navel should have been. Reeeep! Its hands flew over the spot. The two stubborn beings could’ve shouted at each other all day long without exchanging much information, but that was prevented by the arrival of Ladyspiller and the senior member of the Crystal Ball Council that she’d snagged: an old woman, her hair an indecipherable dyed mess of gray, yellow and red, named Frilligree.
“Oh shit,” she grumbled at the sight of the whitish spirit before hanging her head between her knees and catching her breath.
“At least someone around here is appropriately unhappy about this!” it hollered. “Hag, you look like you know magic; help me out of this bind.”
“Who is that?” Ladyspiller whispered to Chaxium, who could only give an exasperated shrug.
“That,” Frilligree said as soon as she’d recovered, “is a gigagoyle.”
“Not a gigagoyle. I’m only the fifth one to ever break pose, so that makes me the gigagoyle, and the gigagoyle’s name is thus Gigafive.”
“Yeah that’s great,” Chaxium said, trying not to look at it. “Your name’s Frilligree right? Can you maybe just reset my console and wipe this thing? We’ll obviously owe you like a million favors.” Reeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep! Its protesting chirp was so loud that they had to cover their ears. Frilligree rushed over to the memory playback and flicked it. The resulting resonating glass note canceled out Gigafive’s voice and gave them something like peace, even though the creature’s lips still flapped.
“At least I can shut it up,” the experienced sorcerer said. “This is a real problem though. Your little lady here won’t know about this, but I trust you recognize the name Bountybyte.” The color drained out of Chaxium’s cheeks; all of a sudden she looked like a desiccated sunflower seed hull.
“As in Castle Bountybyte?” Frilligree nodded.
“What is that and why should we be freaking out about it?” Ladyspiller asked. She went right ahead and freaked out about it before everything was explained.
“We don’t have time for the bedtime story version,” the old woman said. “Basically, Castle Bountybyte isn’t really a castle. It’s a program, but in magidigital space it takes the form of a castle. It’s a stronghold that sits on the border between Fairnet and the bumbler internet, keeping our cyber-stuff safe from their cyber-stuff.”
“I thought it was abandoned,” Chaxium said, scratching her head.
“Nobody has ever lived there, except for the gigagoyles.” She pointed at Gigafive, whose flailing had not calmed. “They were written into existence at the dawn of data, before we knew whether we’d need them or not. It turned out human-made viruses and malware weren’t strong enough to get through the walls, so these fellas never have to do much of anything.”
“But the fact that he’s here means some kind of malicious entity is interfering with Snakewaist’s hard-drive-to-live.”
“The hard-drive-to-live is basically Snakewaist’s soul,” Chaxium explained for Ladyspiller. She accepted the information with a tiny nod, but was tight-lipped. She also looked like she suddenly had a full bladder.
“Yeah, that’s definitely what’s going on,” Frilligree confirmed, pointing out one of Gigafive’s slipping shards. “That stuff under his surface is whatever invaded, and he’s doing his best to contain it. The good news is it looks like he’s pretty much got it. Have you calmed down?” she asked it, spacing out each word. She tapped the glass.
“-of all the extremely irresponsible things to do! I can’t believe that my lega-” She tapped it again.
“I don’t understand how anything could’ve infected Snakewaist,” Chaxium thought out loud. “I run a diagnostic reflection after every use. Her dreams are clear of fear, doubt, and regret. Nobody but me and Ladyspiller have access to…” They, even the twitching gigagoyle, turned to look at the fresh fairy. Her face was tomato red and there was so much blood in her wings that the bases visibly throbbed. She vibrated them nervously, giving off palpable heat.
“Was I not supposed to use the console as a browser?” she asked; it took every ounce of her strength to finish the sentence.
“Oh shit,” the other two fairies said together.
“I’m sorry! I thought it was fine! I use my showing glass to look at stuff all the time, and the dome,” she pointed up, “makes a cool projector like one of those curved theaters!”
“You absolutely cannot use a ferrier’s brain to peruse the human internet,” Frilligree informed her. “Their software is both ancient and something like a consciousness. We don’t even write updates for them, because they live their lives and update themselves.”
“So Snakewaist got a virus or some malware,” Chaxium said to wrap her head around it. She paced, rubbing her chin, forgetting to give Ladyspiller the hug or calming gesture she very much needed. “But it’s fine now, because Mr. Gigafive there has it under control, right?” The creature refused to nod; instead it mimed shaking the memory playback. She tapped it.
“The threat, thanks to me, is contained,” he assured. “For now! To think I was brought into a ferrier, and that it was corrupted by a fairy dumb enough to window shop through bumbler glass!”
“She’s not dumb, she used to be human.” Chaxium defended. The gargoyle’s jaw dropped open. A blob of the nefarious routine swelled out of his mouth like toothpaste, but he pushed it back in, only speaking when he had swallowed it down three times. “I prevented Snakewaist from tearing itself apart, but I couldn’t fully control its behavior. I had to bring it here in the hopes the owners showed up.”
“Oh my god I can’t believe I screwed up this badly this fast,” Lady sniveled. Her arms were limp at her side, but her wings buzzed and trembled. “It was just a tutorial video for how to dress when you’re skinny! I… Are we okay? This can be forgiven right? Fairies are forgiving!”
“I think everything is all set for your banishment,” Crier Ocratoke whispered to them. Chaxium and Ladyspiller looked rather nice despite their expulsion; Matching uniforms had been made just for them. They wore full bodysuits with colors matching Snakewaist’s hide and had the helmets, complete with pale, pink, forked-tongue scarves, held against their hips. They stood as straight and tall as they could, for the entirety of Beezgalore was watching, whether it be on their showing glasses or by simply sticking their heads out the window or off the side of a branch.
“You’re not supposed to call it a banishment,” Chaxium growled at him. This was difficult enough without the town crier messing up his lines. He likely knew better, but Beezgalore was normally a peaceful tree, and he was annoyed at being called into service more than once in a single year, thanks to the same two fairies no less. He smirked slyly, pretending to remember that the official script for this event called their departure a ‘nomadic excursion’.
Ocratoke’s eyes drifted to Ladyspiller’s, but he couldn’t even tell where she was looking. Their friend Maribu had applied a small spell to her glasses to help her keep her composure; the lenses attracted her tears and held them on the inside as a sort of second lens so they wouldn’t stream down her face. They were so many though, and they rippled thanks to the new ones added every second, so her pupils were giant wiggling globs. Maribu had told them there was nothing he could do for her sniffling.
“Friends and fairies,” Ocratoke addressed the tree when he turned around, the tiny flower microphone on his cheek blooming, “we are gathered here to see off our sisters Chaxium and Ladyspiller on their exciting voyage.”
Chaxium donned her helmet so none could see her roll her eyes. They stood on one of the highest and thinnest branches with Snakewaist behind them; the ferrier’s body held a zigzag pattern in the rock fissure just below the hive, mouth open and tongue ramp extended. Hypnotized bees flew in synchronized rings around them. The whole show could have been exciting, if the reasoning behind it wasn’t so spineless and detached.
Snakewaist’s malware was just the final straw for a tree that had been uncomfortable with Ladyspiller from the beginning. There was always whispering that she was dangerous to the collective, that she would lure her siblings into bumbler minds and they would be lost to their hothouse imaginations. That was absurd of course, given that Lady’s very core must have been devoted to the fairy lifestyle for her to transform into one. Others had worried, with only slightly more reason, that she was the start of a tide of immigration, of bumblers abandoning their poisoned Earth so they could ruin the purity of fey hollows.
Then she had made a real mistake, and the fears behind this one were not wholly unjustified. Chaxium even shared some of the concerns. Gigafive hadn’t returned to Castle Bountybyte, insisting that he needed to stay within the ferrier to monitor it. The machine’s soul was now bruised, and that could affect its compatibility with the others of Beezgalore. There might even be a risk of it spreading anomalous behaviors.
Fairies didn’t have elections; even surveys proved too formal for them. A family tree could reach decisions by vote though, and all at once. Less than a week after Snakewaist blundered in with blinking eyes, the couple woke up to a series of paper letters under their door. They were from close friends, overseers, and magical organizations, all asking for them to submit to a plan of nomadic excursion. Ocratoke announced the details with vigor and flourish.
“So we bid them adieu as the first ever representatives of Beezgalore to the world! They will journey far and wide and deep, bestowing aid wherever it is needed, getting cozy as the boldest mixed fairanquin. Remember that you can support them with a care package, to be delivered by mesmerized mayflies, any time. Packages like this.” Another fairy handed him a basket full of goodies, which he handed off to Ladyspiller: hexagonal bars of beeswax soap, magical books that contained different tales when read backward, boxes of algal grain sushi topped with tadpole egg sashimi, and a dozen other toys and treats.
“Thank you v-very m-much,” Lady sniffled.
“Just give everyone a wave,” Ocratoke advised with his hand over the microphone. “Then you can be on your way. Do cheer up. It’s better to plunge through than to be on thin ice. Less anticipation.” The pair waved at the crowds. Hundreds of fairies threw up their wings and buzzed, some even flipping in the air, pretending they weren’t relieved to see them go. The parading bees opened the sacks of potpourri-confetti cradled in their legs and flew by, dropping it in colorful curtains. Snakewaist’s tongue looked like the sewer drain a rainbow fed into by the time Ladyspiller scurried up it with the gift basket in front of her. She nearly tripped, but the ferrier’s tongue bent and grabbed her ankle to save her the embarrassment. She disappeared down its gullet. Chaxium followed, spinning and offering a disrespectful one-legged salute as the tongue rolled up.
The cheering was muffled once the maw was closed, filling the ferrier with Ladyspiller’s heavy sobs. Chaxium followed her up to the console and the pilots’ chairs. She found her, cheeks rouged by unstable breathing, curled up in her seat with the basket. Its leaf wrappings were already torn open; her wet snort was an attempt to smell a bar of the fancy soap.
“I got you kicked out of your home, and your city, and the park!” she blubbered. “This soap is the last thing we have that smells like Beezgalore.”
“That’s not true, we’ve still got Ruby Slipper.”
“W-where is she? Slippyroo!?” Lady asked, suddenly panicked. She cast the basket aside and leaned to see under the console, but their pet trilobite beetle wasn’t there. She clung to the ceiling, a very ordinary place for an insect pet to be, but Lady was still too accustomed to cats and dogs to look there first. Ruby dropped at the sound of her nickname, landing right between Ladyspiller’s wings. She yelped and spun, but Chaxium plucked the creature off and held her up so that when Lady faced her she could snatch Ruby away and give her a tight rug.
“She’s the only family we need,” Chaxium assured, “except for… you know… each other.” Only then did she realize she still had the helmet on, so she yanked it off and took a deep breath. “This isn’t the end of the world.”
“Do you know any fairies doing nomadic excursions?” Ruby Slipper sucked a tear off Lady’s face, found it unpalatable, and wriggled until she was placed on the console. Her skittering hit a few buttons, setting Snakewaist in motion. The cheering swelled outside, but faded once the ferrier had slither-crawled out of the boulder and down to the ground.
“They had to invent banishment j-just for m-me!?”
“It’s not like that,” Chaxium insisted. She grabbed Lady to stop her from fretting and wrapped her up in her arms. Just to be safe she threw in all eight wing blades as well. They weren’t strong, but that was the point. If she thrashed too much she would tear her partner’s most delicate feature. Lady took the hint and stood still for the embrace.
“Then what’s it like? What are we going to do out here on our own?”
“Ocratoke wasn’t lying; we’re representatives. We can visit a bunch of other family trees and help them out with anything strange they might be too scared to address. You know a lot of pilots don’t even use their ferriers, too afraid of scuffing their nails. We’re a working serpent.”
“So, like, we’ll be busy right? I won’t even have time to wallow?”
“Well,” Chaxium squeaked after a moment, “you know how frequent missions have been so far…” Ladyspiller started crying again, and all her partner could think to do was comfort cleverly. “Hey, easy, easy, easy. Do you remember what Ocratoke just said? We were on thin ice? That kind of sounds like a family tree doesn’t it?” Lady lifted her glasses and wiped her eyes, accidentally breaking the spell and splashing her mouth with a teacup worth of salty water.
“I’m okay,” she sputtered. Suddenly a giggle burst out. A moment later they were both laughing, their wings flattened tightly against each other’s waists. “Onthinice. Yeah, that does sound like a family tree.”
“It’s a state of adventurous mind, and it’s all ours Lady. All ours.”
“Oh my god… I think I’ve got one.” Ladyspiller flicked her finger off her showing glass, which turned the Fairnet page on it into a bubble and sent it drifting over to Chaxium. She flipped her glass around and caught it, with Lady waiting patiently while she scrolled through the page. Her lips grew progressively more pursed every time Chaxium looked up skeptically and then glanced back at the link.
“Lightning Demon Sucks Saskatchewan Dry… This just looks like clickbait,” she said softly, trying not to hurt Lady’s feelings. They were in Snakewaist’s cockpit, as no other part of its body constituted a comfortable room.
They were only four days out from Beezgalore, but already the ferrier’s interior passively shifted to accommodate their living in it. Some of the drawers hung open, their tin covers having changed to a wire mesh that turned them into something like hampers. The console bent away from them when not in use, like a bed folding into the wall, probably because they kept accidentally pulling levers with their feet. The two pilots’ chairs could now connect easily with netting, forming a hammock for them to sleep in. They were in it now, facing opposite ends, massaging each others’ bare feet with one hand and searching both kinds of internet for missions with the other.
“It is clickbait,” Lady said, “the kind that I usually gobble down all day, but I think this particular bait is real. Keep scrolling. The article is just evidence; there’s an E-mail at the bottom.” Chaxium’s finger flicked across her glass.
“I saw the Beezgalore announcement,” she read, “and knew I had to ask for your help. Please send us a message if you’re willing and follow the provided coordinates. Respectfully, and somewhat desperately, Trembleclef Daggerbush.”
“Have you ever heard of the tree Daggerbush?” Ladyspiller asked.
“Oh… well you don’t know all of them right?” She took the silence as permission to continue with the pitch. “It sounds right up our bend! There’s a mysterious beast, sighted by many people, wandering the outskirts of polite Canadian civilization. The one thing they all report is that it has giant glittering fangs the size of fillet knives.” She used her fingers to mime saber teeth, rocking the hammock in her excitement.
“And it what, sucks bumbler blood?” Chaxium asked skeptically. “You guys always have vampire stories popping up in your tabloids. Don’t you even have a vampire that’s like, just for goats?”
“That’s the chupacabra and it’s not a vampire; it looks more like a lizardy alien on a 70’s scifi show.”
“Neither of them are real.”
“Wait, there are no vampires?”
“No Lady, no vampires.” The hammock stilled. Her expression was so sullen that Chaxium felt compelled to offer something else. “There are leprechauns, pixies, dragons, unicorns, and stuff that you guys never even wrote down okay? Just no vampires and I think no lightning demon either.”
“That’s the thing, this demon isn’t sucking blood,” Ladyspiller countered. “It’s sucking electricity.” Chaxium looked back at her glass and reread a section. “Yeah, tell me that’s not weird. Wherever it goes they find transformers and generators torn to shreds. People nearby wind up with these massive power bills and no way to cover them. It’s like a whole town of people passing through and all streaming marathons of their favorite shows.”
“And this Trembleclef person wants our help? We’re supposed to catch or slay this beast so that a bunch of bumblers don’t have to worry about their bills? If they hate bills so much they should just stop using money.”
“I tried to tell lots of colleges and gyms that they didn’t need my money,” Lady said with a roll of her eyes, “but they never really listened. Chax.” She rubbed the inside of Chaxium’s elbow with her big toe until she looked up. “I’m serious. Electricity’s a big deal for other reasons. Making it equals pollution, and the more that goes to waste the worse it is for the surrounding forests. We protect forests right? Besides, a fellow fairy is asking for our help. If we do one of these and get it right, maybe all the fairies will think we’re hot spit.” Chaxium snorted.
“You’re serious, but you’re pulling out hot spit?” She asked, grinning. For a while she mulled it over. There was something appealing about getting to hunt a genuine monster. The last one they went after was a bumbler, and even when they won their victory was neutralized by everything around the troglodyte: money, lawyers, TV cameras, weaponized memes, and an electoral college. Fangs were fangs; nobody would pretend not to notice them in pursuit of some other agenda.
“I need to get my mind on something,” Ladyspiller insisted when Chaxium asked her one more time. “I can’t stop thinking about getting us kicked out. There needs to be some other kicking in its place, like kicking this thing’s teeth in… if it turns out to be, you know, evil. Judgment will be reserved until I actually see the Canadian fiend.”
“Mmmmmm… Okay,” Chaxium agreed. Lady squealed and wriggled free of the hammock. She spun in circles a few times, looking for whatever outcropping she had left her glasses on, and stopped when she spotted them hanging in a tangle of a moss curtain.
“What do we have to do? Just spin the helm?”
“We don’t need to change course yet; Twarly’s still taking us north at the moment.” Sensing her intent, the console came down. Chaxium smacked it with her foot. A gray shutter membrane overhead retracted in an instant, flooding the cockpit with daylight. Bright energetic wave patterns covered everything, including their skin, thanks to the five feet of fresh water above them. Snakewaist’s body undulated slowly: a passive swim just meant to take the edge off the work done by Barbelossa.
Chaxium had never been out of her home state as an adult fairy, so as their excursion began she was more than happy to take the offer of help from Twarly. The older fairy was a rugged woodsman, his brain practically a cake of sawdust, and his catfish ferrier knew every channel in and out of their park. He had agreed to tow them for old times’ sake, north up the river to a fey crosswinds point, where magical beings and events became intertwined.
“Oh my god, so bright,” Lady grumbled. “What time is it even?”
“Time to get your butt in gear,” Chaxium answered, doing so herself by finally standing. “Snakewaist hates the cold, so you’ll need to go get the rolled-up insulation and cover the muscles. You remember where that is?”
“Yes! Don’t you worry; I’ve got it covered.” Lady pointed down Snakewaist’s throat, her finger zeroing in on a memory from their many exploratory sessions. She could place almost anything eventually, after sorting through all the spots where they’d gotten distracted, rolled into a crease of the beast, and made out. When she was confident she had it she started walking off down the red-tinted corridor.
“I’ll call Twarly while you’re doing that and tell him to just take us as close to the border as he can.”
“Hey if we’re crossing the border do we need fairy passports or something?” Ladyspiller called out as she got further away.
“No, passports are dumb.”
“Oh my god, so dumb. Fairies!” Her exclamations faded away as the slithering of their ferrier split them up. The machine’s inner proportions were magically exaggerated, so each step she took was more like seven. It only took thirty seconds for Lady to feel completely alone, like they were in different warehouses on the opposite sides of a valley. The artificial muscles around her expanded and contracted with a pleasant sound like breathing, but other than that it was quiet.
Figuring it was best to start from the back and move forward, Ladyspiller went for a walk and marveled at how long it took just to reach the junction behind the legs where the tail was attached. The passage got narrower as she went, so she stopped when she had to squat just to move forward. Unless her memory had failed her, the insulation was in the floor panels on either side of the corridor. There were no handles, but a soft tickle on the seam popped the compartments open. She pulled out a large roll of something quilted and blue, like a rolled mattress pad. When she undid the loop holding it together it sprung open and smacked her in the face.
“This is what winning feels like,” she muttered. It had knocked the glasses off her face, so she crawled along just under the billowing silk of the artificial muscles, feeling for them, dragging the insulation pad behind her with one foot. Several panels misconstrued her search as playful tickling, popping open with sounds like giggles and cracking knuckles. She slapped them closed, a little nervous to even see blurs of the machine’s inner inner workings after she’d nearly killed its soul with malware.
Finally she found them, but while she rose and put them back on she smacked right into something else. This time it wasn’t her fault, because it hadn’t been there moments before. Lady backed up to see the fairy door.
“Oh, hello… You… This isn’t your usual spot.” It didn’t have anything to say in response. “If you’re lonely, that’s cool, we can hang, but I have to work while we do it.” The insulation didn’t have any fanciful magical requirements, just little cloth loops to wrap around corresponding hooks at the muscle roots. She stretched as high as she could and snagged the first one.
The door was in the way of the other side, so she squeaked an excuse me as she squeezed between its frame and the wall. After the second top hook was up she did the bottom and remembered she’d missed the bottom one for the first side. She turned to see the fairy door again, facing her again. It being a magical door that came and went as it pleased, there was no particular reason to be alarmed, but Ladyspiller had seen approximately twenty times more horror movies than the average human and thirty-five times more than the average fairy.
The snake eyes of the knocker stared into her, the pupils sharp and deep like a broadsword puncture in the belly of a whale. The irises gleamed gold, even though she recalled pink, flashed gold, burned gold, and then melted gold. It didn’t so much as creak in its frame, but she felt a pulsing aura behind it like the heavy breathing of a werewolf trying to sniff out the residents of a tiny cabin in his woods.
What Lady learned from those movies was that you didn’t bother doors like that. She averted her eyes and slipped past it as quickly as possible to get another sheet of insulation. She had to do every layer exposed in the main catwalk, so it was close to thirty more pieces. Panic flashed as she undid the next roll and it went to slap her again. She managed to prevent it this time, only out of the sheer dread of scrambling for her glasses with the door breathing down her neck.
When she turned it was closer. There was no machinery atop it with shaking wires to show that it had moved, no pistons hissing with any exertion. It had moved, but insisted it had always been there, or that she had always been at its threshold and was not worthy of a knock until now. She recalled something Chaxium explained about it to help keep calm: the door’s source was Snakewaist. Its intent could not be hostile because ferriers weren’t capable of hostility.
Fairy doors in ferriers were projected from the ferrier’s spine, if it had one. Connected to blood-like magics and those of the subconscious, the spine above them was like a simple track for it to move back and forth on. They were both just flotsam in a narrow channel that drifted into each other. A perfectly reasonable explanation.
She squeezed past it again, but as its frame dragged across her skin it pulled goosebumps out. She shivered as if she needed insulation of her own. Resolute, she marched over to the next empty muscle hooks and put the corners up. This time there wasn’t even room to turn away. The knocker locked eyes with her, which meant it had moved further up the door.
“Stop scaring me!” she chided it. “I’m not stupid enough to knock without Chaxium arou-” It didn’t require her knock. The knob turned, a flick, further than any wrist could twist in a single motion without the bone cracking fifty times. It drew open like the maw of someone whose last words were also their cursed manifesto.
All of the air from the corridor was drawn in, and only then did she realize that the stuffy tinny place was comparatively fresh in the grand scheme. Ladyspiller had to learn her fairy reflexes, so she had trouble remembering that her wings tended to fan out on their own, especially when she was excited. The blades caught all that rushing air like a kite and pulled her in. To her stunned horror there was no floor on the other side, at least not within reach of her legs. Quick as a reflex betrayed her, another saved the day when she tightened her grip on the insulation.
The sheet hung halfway through the door and swung, nothing close enough in any direction to catch. The fairy door was even less rooted in this other place, firm despite it, like a hole in the sky. Ladyspiller screamed so desperately that her voice crackled and gave out. If this was like the movies, now that she had cued it with her scream, the otherworldly resident would grab her leg and yank her down, to do with her things she could never understand but always suffer.
The fairy cracked one eye to look down, expecting infinite darkness, and getting endless glitter instead. Gold. A rolling ocean of gold coins five feet below her, a drop she was no longer comfortable with. There wasn’t any choice, as the hooks snapped and the insulation plummeted with her. Lady flattened herself against it and pumped her wings as hard as she could to slow her descent. Fear had the blades terribly out of rhythm, scraping against each other, but her vocal cords hurt so much from the same that she didn’t notice the pain.
Whutish! The impact was softened by her toboggan of padding, but she was still tossed off and into the field of treasure. The door still hung open far above her; Snakewaist’s warm red interior, like the foil wrapping a mid-tier Valentine’s Day bonbon, still shined. It was the only star in the sky and there was no sun or moon to outshine it.
“It’s not quite black,” she whispered, half-expecting to see her breath. Though empty and dark the sky of that place still had a burning color to it. It was like the darkness was just painted over a throbbing feverish orange-red, and any moment the heat would melt it and come blazing out. The whole sky was a corona, a blackhead on the sun, an eclipse seen inside a pinhole camera made from an active meat smoker.
It was frightening to observe, so instead she turned to the coins. Each was as big as a serving platter to her. The pile moved and shifted, but not in a way that pulled on her. It was the details of each individual piece that changed. Picking one up and holding it as she would an open scroll, Lady watched as the face in profile on it, perhaps a president she didn’t learn enough about in school, grew a longer nose and turned his beard into braids.
“I should probably know the name of every woman respected enough to be on one of these, but I don’t know you.” The face winked, but by the time the eye opened it belonged to someone else. None of these leaders wanted to stick around. Too many foreign currencies to visit perhaps. When she turned it over the pictures on the back proved to be just as fickle. The buildings depicted couldn’t decide if they were domed or if they had bell towers. Sometimes they even morphed into statues of cavalry or fountains.
She looked at the edge and saw that it had several minds of its own as well. The ridges she was familiar with turned sharp like tire treads before smoothing out completely and then bubbling up into bumps. Her only guess was that these coins had potential, like stem cells, and could be any gold coin in the world if they were needed. There was no date, only an inscription, and only decipherable when it passed to English between French and cuneiform: Time is money, and time is infinite.
“Chaxium!” It was so far and her voice felt blown out. Snakewaist would surely carry her voice as far as it could, tail to fang, but it first had to pass through the door. She stood with a plan: leap for it. Fairy wings were for air control, jump power, hovering, and gliding rather than true flight, but there were probably fairy Olympians that looked at that gap and laughed. The least she could do was give it her best.
Bending her legs, she prepared her jump, but realized she still held the heavy coin. One hand dropped it, but the other refused. When she managed to let go the sound was startlingly loud. Kingh! It had to be an echo, but the hundred other matching chirps she heard sounded like they came from beneath her feet.
As far as she could see the ocean was still, its surface only shimmering with the faces of all the most important men and women of the world, at least those most important to the distribution of cast gold tokens. Her tensed knees dropped out from under her, and her hands started gliding over the coins again.
“What am I doing? This is money. These are solid freaking gold. I mean I don’t know pure gold from nacho cheese, but it has to be. Who collects this many fake gold coins!?” Her mind filled with possibilities. Sure, family trees didn’t use currency, but she knew other magical creatures sometimes did. Plus, there had to be a way to convert it into human money. “We could buy anything we need and just have it shipped to some senile person’s doorstep.”
They could buy ferriers off their irresponsible pilots. Pay some clueless gardener to raise and sculpt a new family tree just for them. Order buckets of human fast food and just swim in it until their skin broke out and their wings were as gooey as tooth whitening strips. She didn’t even want to eat any of it, just swim in that old familiar smell of hot grease and trans fats.
She stretched out onto her stomach and pretended to swim through it. Snakewaist was providing. It made the fairy door after all, and filled it up with the solution to all their problems. She slid one under her chin and looked at the face, which wore a knowing smile. They were all in this together: her and ten trillion gold coins. Every one a leader. Every one confident, even as they turned into someone else.
“Well it’s our decision and it’s already been made,” Chaxium told Twarly through Snakewaist’s console. “All you have to do is take us as far north as you’re willing old man.”
“You know what happens when you chase monsters?” he asked. A question like that, one that made it clear the answer was coming no matter what, was not typical of the gruff veteran. Usually if he strung four words together in a single day it was along the lines of good morning and good night.
“You find them.”
“That is the idea.”
“Like I said, bad idea.”
“And like I said, it’s our decision. Just tell me how far you’ll take us so we can work out rendezvous points for our care package bugs.”
“Those hypno-bugs aren’t reliable. Don’t want you two starving to death. Come get a few cases of my fruit leather before you make land. I got enough to last a century: huckleberry, elderberry, wild stra-”
“You’re sweet Twarly, and you know I don’t turn down a free snack. Let me just…” A breeze tickled her ears. Snakewaist had artificial breezes in the cockpit, but only as indicators of Snakewaist’s respiration. They were outside of strenuous activity and the ferrier was holding its breath underwater, so the air shouldn’t have moved in such a way. “I’m popping off for a second Twarly, right back with you.”
Chaxium stood and headed down to access, calling Lady’s name. When she saw that the muscles were still uncovered she picked up the pace; she should’ve been much further along in the chore than that. Once at full speed she jumped and extended her wings, though there was barely room to glide around the muscle curtains.
Snakewaist’s slithering forced her to slow some, and it made the undulating walls obscure the object in the distance. She caught glimpses of its stiff darkness, of color flapping in and out. The fairy door. It was open. Chaxium flew right up to it and grabbed the frame, staring out into the abyss of toasted shadow.
“Chax! Down here!” Ladyspiller bubbled. Chaxium looked down to see the other fairy on her back, doing her best attempt at a snow angel in the giant coins. “Somebody dropped some change, hehe.” Chaxium didn’t laugh, and for a moment she had no words either. Much had distracted her from the prospect of the fairy door, but in a million years she never would have guessed it connected to that terrible place.
“Lady!” she hiss-shouted, torn between the risks of not being heard and being heard by the wrong entity. “Get back up here, now!”
“What? Why?” Ladyspiller stood and spun in a circle, releasing a coin like a discus. She cackled as it sailed away.
“I’m serious! It’s extremely dangerous down there. Get up here now!” Lady’s smile faded. Chaxium wasn’t one for practical jokes. She barely ever initiated regular jokes, only returning humorous volleys. If she said there was danger, then there was no doubt.
“I can’t fly back up,” she explained. “It’s too far.”
“Okay, just hang on. I’ll get a rope or something. Don’t-” Kshheww! A geyser of coins in the distance interrupted her. They fell back down quickly, but their impacts couldn’t explain the shifting motion in the golden sea: a quickening that snaked toward Ladyspiller. “Dragon.”
“Oh my god, what is that?” Ladyspiller wrung her hands as her wings trembled. “Probably not a president this time.”
“Lady you have to fly!” Chaxium screamed down at her. Kshheww! One of the coins landed perilously close to her as another bounced off the door’s frame. “It feels movement on the coins! Stay off your feet! I’ll be right back!”
“Chax don’t leave me!” It was too late; she’d already vanished back into Snakewaist. “Okay. I can do this. Just fly. Just fly.” Ladyspiller got a running start, as there was simply no way to take off without one. The coins were suddenly much more hostile to her feet, slipping out from under her as if it was a world of air hockey pucks instead. She wasn’t airborne for long before she realized it would be impossible to stay off the coins for more than twenty seconds at a time.
Gliding just over the golden dunes was terrifying, and it was only made worse by the shifting mass that slid under her to investigate her launch point. In order to turn, and keep the fairy door visible, she had to do so slowly and with precise motions. It meant she couldn’t look back to see the monster attack the spot, but she still heard it: a rush and a crash like a whale beaching itself and knocking over a row of vending machines at the same time.
To turn she needed her arms out, but they felt glued to her sides. When she finally managed to pull them away one brushed a coin. Sick fear lurched inside her, made her stomach feel heavy. The rushing gold had a smell now, like green pennies coated in spit. Ladyspiller was sure she would crash, so she pulled up and started running to prevent it.
Shkshkshkshkshk. Whatever it was turned on a golden dime, zeroing in on her when a single toe touched. Lady ran as fast as she could; she needed as much speed as she could afford to make. Her foot slipped again, and as a reflex she looked over her shoulder. The creature surged forward, coins spraying in a wake on either side. Pale green flesh. Ventral holes like deep navels. A fin that, were it in the regular world, she would say could only belong to a long-dead fish.
The head emerged, at least she guessed the flat wet thing was the head. A ring of gum tissue more than big enough for her to sink into like quicksand. Rows of curved divots where teeth should have been. It looked like the mouth of an elderly lamprey. At first it seemed like it was going to swallow her whole, but sparks spat out of it and then ignited its mouth.
The holes that made up the rings became blowtorches, cones of blue flame extending toward her. Teeth of fire. Her wings shriveled under the heat, but they still had to work. There was no time left, so she jumped and swerved, praying her wingtips wouldn’t bend against the coins. The beast rushed through her previous path, descending below the surface again. She was still extremely low, but she could hold her flight for another twenty seconds. She was sure of it this time, for no smell or sight could make her falter as much as that blistering heat. Where was Chaxium? Was there even any rope aboard the ferrier?
Her partner was just as out of breath, having sprinted all the way back to the console. She still couldn’t believe what she’d just seen. It had to be a corruption of some kind. Snakewaist would never connect them to that realm, not without it being confused. Whatever the door’s original destination, Ladyspiller’s unfortunate browsing must have caused it to shift. That was the only explanation Chaxium could come up with while hyperventilating.
There was a tiny spiraling set of stairs on either side of the console, barely large enough to use. They were placed in what ferrier engineers called the pocket of the jaw: the place behind the teeth where sour flavors sometimes struck downward like drills. Whenever Snakewaist swallowed something its essence could be seen as concentrated sparkles on those stairs, sparkles that were perfect for collection and use in impromptu spells.
For now they were just annoyingly small stairs. She folded her wings against her chest as tightly as possible and bolted down them to the floor of the mouth, where Snakewaist’s silken tongue was. It was the only rope-like thing available. Chaxium grabbed it and yanked; it only stretched a little. The fairy pulled with all her might, but it wouldn’t budge, and only then did she realize that the tongue’s forked tip was clenched between the lips, and those were sealed along with the nostrils and sensory pits because they were submerged.
Opening them would flood the entire ferrier in seconds. Chaxium cursed and dropped it. She opened her wings and buzzed them as loud as a bumblebee’s, instantly cramping the muscles powering them but allowing her to jump up to the edge of the console and hang from it without climbing the pocket stairs. With her chin placed just over the edge she slapped at the controls until a copper flower turned in her direction to catch her voice.
“Surface now! Emergency!” His straightforward attitude was a tremendous blessing, as within three seconds Snakewaist surged upward, so quickly that her ears popped. She looked up at the dome and saw the surface rushing closer. “Come on, come on, come on!” The moment it broke through she slammed her hand down, grabbed a tin jaw bone lever, and pulled.
Barbelossa’s barbels were still towing Snakewaist, and one of them was wrapped around the jaw, but Twarly had intuited enough to cede maximum control to the more appropriate pilot. The barbel’s hold was just loose enough that the jaw could spring open three inches. The tip of the tongue was freed, and two seconds later it was bundled up under Chaxium’s arms and stretching around the spiral stairs.
She couldn’t give any thought to the tongue’s maximum length, something she’d never had to test before because it wasn’t a prehensile limb, as it might be in a chameleon-shaped ferrier. It was only cleared to support the weight of three or four hollow-boned fairies when they were entering or exiting.
There was a microscopic moment of triumph when she ran into the muscle gangway and wasn’t immediately pulled back by a rubber band effect. The spatial distortion magic that expanded the machine’s interior seemed to be working on the tongue as well, as she hoped. It was the third time she’d crossed nearly the whole ferrier within three minutes, and hopefully the last.
The fairy door had at least done her the favor of not shutting and locking itself. Rather than toss it down and have it drift slowly like a ribbon, Chaxium leaped across the threshold and let her weight pull it down, almost losing her grip when it finally stopped stretching and bounced. Its twisting made it impossible to pinpoint Ladyspiller, so she just screamed.
“Lady! I’m here! Grab on!” Six seconds passed, and all she managed to see was the charging lump of coins that marked the position of the swimming dragon. It was headed right for her now, but she hadn’t touched the coins at all, so that had to mean Lady led it. She looked down in time to see Lady snatch the end of the tongue and wrap her arms and legs tightly around it. “Climb! Fly!”
“Both damn it!” Lady would only have a harder time climbing if she had to scramble over another body, so Chaxium immediately started back up. It was more climbing that flying on her part, for her cramped wings would only vibrate sporadically. The door got closer with every moment, but so too did the crashing dragon. Kshheww! A springing pounce. It had to be; they were mindless predators. Nothing had ever given a dragon pause, which was how so many villages burned to the ground before anyone even realized they had an infestation.
Chaxium grabbed the bottom of the frame. A strong hand grabbed hers and pulled: Twarly. He must’ve flown over as soon as they surfaced and slipped in the open mouth. She saw the look in his experienced wrinkled eyes. It was horror. Even in his storied career he had avoided seeing it directly until that moment. He looked like he wanted to set fire to every last ferrier and flee, never so much as looking back.
He still had the presence of mind to pull her up, and together they grabbed the tongue and ran backwards to get Ladyspiller through the final foot. She popped up before the door, wings looking as thin as watery mucus, all the color gone out of her face. They yanked one last time and pulled her through.
The dragon popped up as well, the top half of its serpentine body visible through the door. Its tiny alien eyes, bubbling black pupils set in fiery gold and affixed to the side of the head, stared directly at them before the whole creature wilted toward the door, blazing blowtorch teeth shrieking. Ladyspiller was in a heap at the threshold, with no time or energy left to get out of the way. The fairies had successfully visited their destination though, and none were left stranded, so the door closed itself.
The monster’s weight crashed against it, but the door didn’t budge. The only sign that there was anything at all beyond it was the burning glow in the eyes of the knocker. They belched tiny flames and puffs of smoke before returning to their natural color. Quiet set in. Then crying set in.
“Oh my god, w-what was t-that!?” Ladyspiller bawled, grabbing Chaxium as soon as she ran over and pulling her down to the gangway. While they embraced, Twarly, without asking, grabbed both by their collars in his single hand and dragged them away from the door, all the way back to the console where he placed them in seats.
He cracked open the ice geode underneath the controls and took out three glass bottles, though he cracked the top of his against the side and guzzled it before handing the couple theirs. When the last drop was gone from his sumac soda the other two had recovered enough to speak coherently.
“You don’t just jump into magic doors when I’m not there!” Chaxium scolded, wiping her tears on one of Lady’s wing blades. “I could’ve lost you.”
“I’m sorry, but I didn’t jump, I swear,” Lady explained. “It kept following me and when it opened it was like an airlock. I got sucked in. What was that place? And what was that disgusting thing?”
“Dragon,” Twarly said, leaning forward and tapping the bottle of untouched pulpy kiwi juice in her hand. “Hydrate.” She took a swig. “Both of you.” Chaxium downed a third of her white peach nectar.
“That was a dragon?” Ladyspiller asked. “It looked more like a deep sea eel crossed with a gas stove.”
“Remember what I said about humans getting magical creatures all wrong?” Chaxium reminded. “You guys got the treasure hoard thing right and the fire breathing, but not much else. Dragons are avaricious cruel spirits wrapped in slime and smoke. They go wherever there’s too much money for healthy decisions to be made, but they all come from that dark sea of gold.”
“Bottomless Greed,” Twarly said. He looked at the ice geode like he wanted to grab another drink, but turned away as if deciding it was in his best interest to not appease the craving.
“Twarly, thank you. You’re a beautiful perfect lifesaver… but I need to have a personal talk with Lady. Will you give us a few minutes?” The veteran fairy nodded and left wordlessly, returning via Snakewaist’s cracked lips to his cozy catfish. When he was gone she made sure to close the mouth and vent the water that had washed in out the sensory pits. She asked him to leave, but she was so unsure how to start the conversation that she just nervously bit her nails, a habit she apparently adopted when faced with that subject alone.
“Did I screw up again?” Ladyspiller asked. “I’m not supposed to be a fairy am I? I broke some kind of big rule and now we’re cursed.”
“We’re not cursed,” Chaxium quickly rebuked. “Something might still be wrong though, and I’m not quite sure…” There was someone aboard who could at least clear something up. Chaxium leaned over and tapped the memory playback, assuming that Gigafive still slept in there. The gigagoyle did appear, but not hovering over the glass apparatus like before. Instead he manifested strolling across the console like a cat with four complete limbs and a long prehensile tail. She had correctly guessed that he was napping, for he was in the middle of a yawn that showed off the impressive and creepy degree to which his jaws could open.
“You rang… not that I’ll respond every time that you do. I just wasn’t busy. Usually am.”
“We have a problem Giga.”
“I know; that’s why I’m still here. Can’t leave this ferrier in your hands alone with human shadows creeping around its code. I have finally figured out how to project myself anywhere inside.”
“Listen, we just had the fairy door open on us… and it went straight to Bottomless Greed.” Gigafive was not corporeal, he wasn’t even as present as the carbon dioxide from an actual yawn, but he still stumbled and nearly fell off the console at the news.
“That is a bad jest young lady. Doors are one of the great spells.” He glanced at Lady and elaborated for her benefit. “Great spells are ones cast by powerful fairies that are so righteous in their intention that they forever more affect the rest of fairy kind. Castle Bountybyte, where I hail from, is the most recent of these spells, setting us to safeguard fairy data.”
“The doors can only be for our benefit,” Chaxium continued, “but it doesn’t change the fact that ten minutes ago we were nearly barbecued by a dragon, which leads me to my question. Could this have to do with our data corruption? The door is connected to Snakewaist’s systems.”
“Impossible!” Gigafive blurted, but a moment later he was muttering calculations and curses. “Umm… Hang on.” He leapt off the controls, vanishing in midair but still startling Ladyspiller, thanks to his trajectory being aimed squarely at her lap. They heard a few sounds from the ferrier, unable to even hazard guesses as to what they were and how the magical grotesque could cause them. When the series of whistles and groans was done he landed back in visibility, perched on the chair behind Ladyspiller’s head. “Okay, yes. Impossible! I’ve double checked everything. While the influence is still there, it’s not recorded as having directly affected anything in the memory for at least the last forty-eight hours.”
“And that means?” Lady asked.
“It means you didn’t do anything to cause this,” Chaxium explained, grabbing her girlfriend’s hands and squeezing to make sure the message sunk in. “The door was supposed to go there.” Gigafive grunted, not disrespectfully, but as if he had just learned of a disease present in his system since childhood. The creature stared into the middle distance, claws dangling and tail limp.
“What is that place?” Lady went to drink, but her bottle was empty. Chaxium tipped her bottle and poured some nectar into Lady’s. “You’re all calling it Bottomless Greed.”
“The easiest way to explain is to start with us. Fairies use magic. With me?” Lady nodded. “Magic isn’t made in our bodies; it comes from a place called Bottomless Magic. You’ve seen lots of scifi stuff… It’s like parallel dimensions in one of those movies. Though we can’t go there under normal circumstances, all fairies are connected to it. Even you.”
“My sparkles,” Ladyspiller whispered, recalling that she had successfully produced baby blue sparks of magic from her fingertips in a test of her magical aptitude shortly after becoming a fairy. Chaxium had said they were better results than her first test.
“Right. What I haven’t told you is that there’s a human equivalent to Bottomless Magic, containing the thing they can use instead of magic to achieve.”
“Wait, greed is the human version of magic? That sounds like the short end of the stick.”
“It’s not really. The endless desires of human greed is what leads them to innovate technologically. Everything in your old world is the result of bumbler magic. Lots of our stuff too. We never would have thought to invent ferriers, or even have anything to base them on, without seeing mankind’s machines. Fairnet as well.”
“Except fairies actually have to learn and practice magic to use it. Any old idiot where I’m from gets to be greedy. If you’re way greedier than you should be they put you in charge of everything!”
“And that is where bumbler moral failings come in,” Chaxium pointed out. “It sucks, but most of their problems come from the misuse of their one advantage. Anyway, Bottomless Greed is where they get the stuff. I’d only seen illustrations before but… but there’s no mistaking it.”
“And the dragon?” Gigafive shivered at the word, turning and vanishing, presumably to go back to his nap.
“Dragons are the natural inhabitants of that place. They occasionally crossed over to Earth whenever greed was out of control in history. Often piles of treasure are the catalyst. They don’t show up much these days because there’s usually a lot of other factors muddying up the path of the greed. Things like currency exchange, inflation, and all those other financial things I don’t know anything about: stocks, loans, mortgages…”
“So should we find a way to lock the door or something?” Ladyspiller asked. “Or maybe we could just wrap a bunch of tape around it.” She smiled, but Chaxium didn’t. She took Lady by the shoulders and looked in her eyes, not at them but in them, searching for something. Lady just sat there quietly as if receiving a medical exam.
“This is very important Lady. I need you to promise me, on our love, on Snakewaist, on the family tree of Onthinice, that you will not go back to Bottomless Greed. No matter what the door does. It’s not in charge of you.”
Concluded in Part Two