(reading time: 1 hour, 32 minutes)
The Knight and the Thief
After leaving Twarly behind their journey took several days. Snakewaist could not travel along interstates because of the danger of being seen, so they opted instead for the most forested route and a few old fairy tunnels that were magical enough to move out of the way of any cables and pipes bumblers tried to install.
There were several family trees on the way, but neither of them particularly felt like making diplomatic stops yet. If they succeeded in stopping the electric demon they would have something to show for their travels, and would be much less embarrassed to ask for lodging.
What they had to accept were the care packages from various trees, as without them their main sources of food would be dumpster diving, farmer’s market thievery, or raids on bird feeders. Hypnotized flies of all sorts brought them a wide variety of baskets, boxes, and bottles from fairy trees interested in the Fairnet posts about the start of their journey.
Often the fairies who sent them were quite young, including handwritten notes. One of them even called Ladyspiller a hero, which they should not have done, as it made her so hysterically thankful that she had to write ten different drafts of a return letter, many of them stained by tears. The robber fly that had brought that package had already left by the time she was finished, so they had to hypnotize one of the slower crane flies from another batch to send it instead.
Chaxium hadn’t had much food in her life that wasn’t from Beezgalore, and she hadn’t realized how different fairy cuisine could be between trees. It was a delight that the two of them could share several things for the first time: cotton candy pie, sawdust chips smoked in hamster’s breath, puddle wine with fool’s gold flecks, corn silk udon, and many others.
That, combined with Fairnet’s ability to access every movie and television show ever made, even some exceptionally old silent films that only fairies had stored before their remaining copies burned up, got them through the long dull slog up to Canada. In those films, so old and blurry that the cameras filming them seemed to have lenses made of cigarette ashes, they saw many monsters stalking around castles and alleys.
They wondered which ghoul or golem was most like their lightning demon. Eventually that led them to further correspondence with their contact in Saskatchewan. Trembleclef Daggerbush responded to their emails promptly, but never had much helpful information. Apparently sensing that Snakewaist’s pilots might be a little wary of some kind of trap, Trembleclef assured them that everything would be fully explained when they first met, on a trail near an abandoned barn with a very recognizable graffiti-coated fence.
“I’m a lesbian and an illegal alien now,” Ladyspiller mewed as they crossed the border. “Put another tally on the why-America-hates-me board. Three more and I get a free hate crime.” Approximately eight hours after that joke they found the fence. It was indeed in the middle of nowhere, nothing but trees as far as the eye could see, and most of them were drably brown or dropping their needles like a startled seamstress.
Snakewaist felt safe enough to wrap around one of the splintering posts, crawling along to give its pilots a good view of the graffiti and at a readable pace. Written in a variety of permanent markers and colorful feminine pens, it told the tale of a man named Darrel and the at-least-two women feuding over his heart. They only just got to the fatherhood accusations when Chaxium’s showing glass emitted its wind chime ring. She answered.
“Hi! This is Trembleclef. Nice to finally hear you… and see you.”
“Uhh… Where are you?” Chaxium tapped the controls to get Snakewaist to rear up. Its head panned back and forth, but they couldn’t see any other fairies. Not even so much as a natural squirrel.
“Well she sounds Canadian,” Lady whispered, her ear huddled up to the glass as well.
“I’m here,” Trembleclef assured. “I’m kind of hidden right now, looking at you with binoculars. Don’t mean to be creepy, but I need a chance to explain myself before you see us.”
“Us?” Chaxium coughed. “I thought you were a single ferrier. Are you a fairanquin? I knew this had to have a catch.”
“Hey,” Lady interrupted. “You had to explain yourself to me too, remember? I dealt with you telling me that magic was real and it was the key to stopping another idiot president!” Chaxium rolled her eyes, but told the fairy on the line to go ahead and get on with it.
“Okay, here’s the honest truth. I’m human.” Chaxium growled like a dog with its head flat on the floor seeing a hand approach its food bowl. “My boyfriend is too. It’s just the two of us. We know all about fairies and pretty much everything else we’re not supposed to know. I hope the fact that we can use Fairnet is proof enough of that.”
“That’s just evidence that you kidnapped a fairy in a mayonnaise jar and withheld air holes until they sent messages for you.”
“Well, I didn’t do that. We called you out here because we really do want your help with our monster problem, and since you two got kicked out of your family tree we thought you might be sympathetic to a couple of other weirdos trying to do some good.”
“Who said we got kicked out?”
“I know how to read between the lines with the fey. You’re not straight-talkers when it comes to hurting each other. Always trying to make things hurt less than they should. Anyway, can I come out and we can talk this over? I just wanted to warn you so you didn’t run when a couple of bumblers strolled out of the bushes.”
Lady slid her hand over Chaxium’s mouth so they couldn’t hear her continued growling and politely told them to approach the fence. Five seconds later the pair stumbled out of a wall of bushes, behind the ferrier, the sound prompting Snakewaist’s head to whip around and almost knock its pilots over.
The young woman who called herself Trembleclef waved at them, and it might have been the friendliest wave Ladyspiller had ever seen if she hadn’t seen her own in the mirror when practicing socializing. Their host was likely a little older than her, twenty-seven or twenty-eight. She had short, fluffy, bouncing, black hair and a cherry of a nose topping her face cutely.
Her build was similar to Lady’s back when she was human, with a general plumpness focused around the middle. Trembleclef had a good deal more muscle underneath it though, every ounce of it vital to carry and use the broadsword sheathed across her back. The sheath was held in place by a suit of leather armor, richly brown and red like fancy car seats, covering much of her body. Much more ordinary jeans and a ragged old shirt were visible through the uncovered patches.
The man with her had to be her boyfriend, but he didn’t look pleased to be there. Tall but with wilting posture, even before they got close Lady and Chaxium could see that he was extremely attractive in the conventional sense: strong cheekbones, full lips, silky blond hair, and eyes that waited for talented photographers to flash intent into them.
His hands, except for his thumbs, were buried deep in his pockets, pushing down hard enough to strain his fine leather belt. The rest of his clothes were much nicer than hers as well, freshly laundered and ironed. His bright shirt’s collar looked softer than a lily.
“Okay, this is the real first impression,” the woman said. “I’m sorry for the deception. Trembleclef Daggerbush was an alias. My real name is Charlie Knight. This,” she gestured to her partner, “is my boyfriend Travers Winebone.” He flicked his chin toward them as greeting. Snakewaist’s mouth opened so that the voices within might be amplified enough for the humans to hear.
“Trembleclef Daggerbush is a ridiculously believable fairy name,” Chaxium said, though it came out as a more aggressive hiss through the ferrier. “How did you come up with it?”
“Ha, thanks,” Charlie said, almost blushing. “I’ve been around long enough to figure it out. The first name’s my creation, but Daggerbush is an actual tree in Newfoundland. Worked with them once.”
“What exactly do you mean worked with?” Ladyspiller asked, asserting that she was part of the conversation as well, though Snakewaist made her voice nearly identical to her partner’s.
“I’ve run three different combat missions with left arm ferriers.” They didn’t understand what she meant, but then Charlie turned her left shoulder toward them. Now they knew why she waved so enthusiastically: to draw attention away from her other side. She had only the start of her arm, enough for a full shoulder and armpit but nothing else. “I was born without it. It’s kind of a convenient deformity because all the fairies I’ve worked with say it’s a perfect anchor for their craft.”
Some of the details came together for Snakewaist. Though it could be left or right, it was an arm ferrier through and through. The machines were meant to join up with heartboxes and four others to carry out the will of their kind on the human scale, but there was no reason they couldn’t act as prosthetic limbs for the humans themselves. The idea had never occurred to Chaxium, and pondering the logistics of it kept her quiet while Ladyspiller did the talking.
“Oh my god that’s so cool! So if we work together we’ll be your arm and help you swing the sword to fight the lightning demon! These are sentences I get to say now! Wow!” Her ebullience made Snakewaist sway back and forth and hold up its tiny paws like a chameleon reaching for a branch. “You do know how to use that thing right?”
“Oh yeah,” Charlie assured her. “This sword used to hang over my crib. Literally been in the family for ten generations, and that’s only as far back as we have records. That’s actually where my last name comes from. My line has been fey-adjacent knights for hundreds of years. I’ve sworn an oath to protect my home from anything that threatens it, and right now it’s the creature we told you about.”
“These other missions, did they go well?” Chaxium asked.
“Successes, all three,” Charlie said, beaming. She grabbed her pudgy stomach under her armor. “Put on a few lately, but I can keep up with the monsters. It’s kind of just what happens when you’re in love.” She winked at Travers and he sighed as if embarrassed.
“Been there,” Lady said. This confused Charlie enough that she leaned down to look into the parietal eye dome. The fairies twisted a console leaf, making the dome so it wasn’t opaque from the outside. They waved.
“I’ve never heard of a chubby fairy before,” Charlie said.
“Oh, I used to be human!” The couple’s mouths dropped open. Travers ran his hands through his hair and spun around once, as if he couldn’t believe Snakewaist would look the same the second time. “It was some kind of magic love spell… thing.” She hung on Chaxium and smiled. “It was so we could be together.” Charlie seemed about to congratulate them on their excessive adorableness, but Travers hopped between them before she could and spoke for the first time. His voice was stubborn and spoiled, like the plop of a wet monogrammed towel.
“This spell, what were the conditions? Any incantations? Has anybody else ever done it?” Charlie gently pulled him back and stared at him, eyebrows raised so high that it could only be a stern request for him to calm down and be polite.
“Don’t mind him; he’s always looking for opportunities to get ahead. The ambition’s actually very endearing, once you get to know him. We’re just a little shocked. We didn’t know such a thing was even possible.”
“It’s kind of a story for another time,” Chaxium said. “I want to hear more about your work… before we make any decisions.”
“Of course,” Charlie said with a nod. “Well let me tell you about the first mission I did with fairies. It’s also how we met.” She tried to hang on her boyfriend as Lady had, but he muttered something about fairy lacks of hierarchy and sullenly shuffled away. “He doesn’t like this story because it starts back when he was a bit of a bad boy…”
Chester Winebone called it the family vault, but the family couldn’t really afford an entire private vault anymore. Safes sure, even his grandson Travers had a safe in his room with a thumbprint scanner, but not one of those vaults that could withstand fires, explosives, and anything god might throw at it. In reality it was the bank’s vault, and more than a dozen families shared the drawers and cabinets within.
Travers was not permitted to see it, though it contained much of the documents for his eventual inheritance. It wasn’t his fault that his mother had started an insidious family tradition of stealing away investments intended for her future and blowing it on fancy cars and trips to the Bahamas. Nonetheless every descendant of Chester’s was now suspect, and Travers’s older brother had already been cut out of the will and excommunicated from the Winebone guest lists for such shenanigans.
His younger siblings, the twins, were in hot water as well for lying to their grandmother, taking advantage of her slipping memory. They were brazen enough to stack an entire year onto their age, telling her they were turning eighteen instead of seventeen. They each got a convertible out of it, with custom red and yellow paint jobs they called strawberry and banana. Their grandfather called it an absurd disrespect, and they were both sentenced to working at a grease monkey’s shop for three months if they wanted to maintain eventual access to the Winebone stock portfolio.
Confident he was the good one, Travers nevertheless needed some money with no other fingerprints on it. Oddly enough, it was all the result of bad luck linked to what he thought of as his fiscal responsibility. Rather than spend two of his Christmas gifts on a fancy car he had chosen to purchase a used one from a close friend, in a sensible color scheme that a silly name wouldn’t even stick to.
The problem came when he opened the glove box upon taking it home for the first time and found about three lines of cocaine in the seams. There had been a party on those leather seats, and somebody had been desperate enough for a hit to use the curve of the glove box’s door as a surface for snorting. He didn’t even really know why he did it, other than some vague notion about getting the full value of his purchase. He thoroughly cleaned the compartment with his left nostril.
After that his friend became his supplier and there was a habit that lasted six months, cost him point five on his GPA, and put him down several thousand dollars. He was clean when he walked into the bank that day and showed his ID. The Winebone name was enough to get him into his family’s drawer.
What he was after was Uncle Bradley’s personal collection. The man was deceased thanks to a house fire supposedly caused by his smoking habit getting too cozy with his drinking habit. After the autopsy suggested a bottle had exploded on him, one of the aunts at the funeral joked that he hadn’t so much died as been glazed and charred like a fine Virginia ham.
The man was an eccentric to put it bluntly, and much of his portion of the waning Winebone fortune was converted into numerous physical collections: fossils, gemstones, old coins, stamps, and mounted insects. The coins were locked away in the bank’s drawer, and all in one package. Rather than take anything that would be missed Travers simply hoped to remove one of the more valuable coins and sell it, with the missing piece not going noticed until the next time the collection was appraised, which might not be for decades.
It was simple to justify, because Bradley had wanted him to inherit at least one of the collections anyway, so he was just taking a little of the promise from his future to ensure its stability. One of the Winebone family traits was the ability to only sweat on the inside, so he didn’t appear nervous at all as the guard led him to the vault.
The man wouldn’t leave him alone without a more senior member of the family present, but that was fine by him. All he needed to do was reach in and take one, and he already had an improperly struck gold coin from 1845 picked out.
The only thing that gave him pause was the step over the vault’s threshold. It was less utilitarian than he expected. Rich carpet. Bronze handles. Wood finish on everything. It smelled like the basement of a hotel that only served people rich enough to own their own hotels but too bored to stay in them. The drawers had silver and gold plaques, but when the guard took him all the way to the end and pointed out his family’s he noticed it was the dingiest. It hadn’t even been opened in years by the look of it.
To simulate actual privacy the guard put his back against the wall and stared straight ahead, pretending to be some kind of shut down machine until the moment Travers closed the drawer. He thanked the man, who didn’t even nod in return, and then huddled around the drawer with the key until he was sure nothing could be spied over his shoulder.
When it opened a crack he smelled something a little like sulphur and a little like the felt from a billiards table. The latter made sense, as that was where the family fortune was concentrated in the middle of the twentieth century: felts. Felts for game tables and boards. Felt for walls. Felts for shoes and jackets and coasters and all sorts of little places that rich people liked to felt to make their world that much softer and more pleasant. As he slowly pulled the drawer open he saw some of their finest green felt lining the bottom, complete with gold leaf designs making it look more like an Oriental rug.
The drawer was deceptively deep; he had to pull past a jewelry box, a stack of sealed envelopes, and some kind of medal in a glass case before he found anything interesting. Unfortunately that interesting thing was not the coin sleeves; in fact it looked like a piece of scrap from some handyman’s drawer.
The thing was dark green, leathery, scaled, and coiled up like a piece of cut garden hose. Nobody in his family was the type to use up precious space at that bank with emotional keepsakes, but he couldn’t see any way the thing would be of value. He poked it. It flicked on its own, revealing a front end and a back as well as tiny feet with suction cup toes. It was alive!? Though serpentine, he would never dream of calling it a snake. A fleshy disc unfolded from one end, covered in spots of flickering blue like a low flame.
He felt the heat off it, pulling his hand back and glancing over his shoulder. If the guard noticed his distress at all he pretended not to. Nothing had changed. He still needed that coin, no matter what the little critter was. His hands went in again, their shadow passing over it. With luck those little slits on the side were its eyes, and they were slits because they were closed. It was just tossing and turning in its sleep, like a dumb dog.
His fingers found the plastic edge of the sleeves, but he had to pull one slowly so the sound didn’t disturb the drawer’s resident. A row of silver dollars. He pulled further. A row of coins in such poor condition that they weren’t even circular anymore, more like crackers with their edges nibbled all the way around by mice.
Pulling again revealed another oddity, in the third pocket of the third row. As comfortably wrapped as any of the coins sat a black flash drive marked with a golden dollar sign, the ends of it trailing off into the black like curls of smoke. Curious, Travers pinched the tip of it and pulled it out, flipping it over. There was nothing to indicate what was contained, if anything, though he thought the dollar sign was information enough.
Suddenly the skin on his wrist was searing, and when he twisted it he saw a mark like he’d been stuck with an old car’s cigarette lighter. His sweating on the inside turned into screaming on the inside, which he was luckily just as good at. Quick as he could he pulled his arms back, only getting a glimpse of the furious little animal before the coin sleeve landed on top of it. Its blue fire had flared yellow and orange, and its body was writhing as if trying to knot itself. Even with the plastic covering it, Travers saw some of it shrivel and melt, blackening the side of a coin, before the lump stilled.
He shut the drawer. Pressed his throbbing wrist against his side. Pocketed the flash drive. Whatever it was, it was all he was getting thanks to that disgusting little guard dog. The evil thing was probably supposed to be long dead and pinned next to a lunar moth somewhere under glass in the back of the drawer, but it had defied the odds and slithered free.
“Are you finished?” the guard asked. He could only say yes.
Back at home that night, with his parents off at a homeowner’s association dinner and his twin siblings playing video games with the projector meant for classic films, Travers was safely locked in his room, sitting at his desk with a tablet computer he no longer used. It was the perfect device to open the flash drive, if it even could, because it could be disposed of at any time.
He had a few hopes for its contents. An electronic deed or title to a vehicle maybe. The location of more hidden coins. Perhaps even some logins for one of the cryptocurrencies. His uncle had still been alive when those were just starting to surge in popularity, and he had kept it with the other unorthodox pieces of money after all.
Clik. It plugged in without self-destructing, which was always a good sign. The device was properly recognized, but when he tried to open the contents all he got was a white box with no text, and no way to close it. His finger glided back and forth across it, probing for information. The screen was a little hot, but the device was old, so perhaps it wasn’t recognizing the file properly after all. He brought it close to his eyes like he was reading some fine print, looking for even a pixel in the white that was a different color than the rest.
He found one, slightly green. Then another, slightly blue. Then another. They were moving, back and forth, in a way that did not feel like data at all. They slithered. The box on the screen was suddenly full of writhing shapes like worms in a bucket. The metal sides of the tablet scalded him, so he threw it onto his made bed. It continued to wobble, as if it didn’t know how to finish being thrown. Travers didn’t dare lean in to see what happened on the screen now, but he heard it crack.
Worse than any simple phone screen crack, it spread out of control and turned into a small explosion, issuing fire, sparks, and a dozen coils of living garden hose. His internal scream was almost enough to pop a blood vessel, so Travers silently turned around and marched out of his room, closing the door. He didn’t even feel safe collapsing against it, so he took two steps to the left to do it against the wall instead.
With his ear to the wall he couldn’t hear much, but occasionally something small flopped to the floor. Unequipped for this outcome, Travers just sat there and stared at the ugly but extremely valuable landscape hanging across from him in the hall. There was an orange highlight on its pine trees indicating imminent sunrise, but when he looked at it he heard the crackle of needles blackening.
“What happened to you?” Marcy, his younger sister by three years, asked. She was the one who always wore strawberry colors. Her fraternal twin Gwenna, younger by three years and an additional forty-six minutes, was right there as well in her bright yellow pajamas.
“You look like you did something,” she noted. They weren’t traitors. Generations of Winebones worked together against the others, almost like sports teams. If anything they were the only ones who could help him.
“I…” He didn’t know how to explain it. “I took a flash drive from the bank, needed some money. Didn’t know what was on it. Tried to open it. Things came out. They’re still in there, so don’t open the door.” The girls looked at each other.
“What kind of things?”
“Like leeches or something, with fire in their mouths. I know it sounds nuts-”
“Dragons,” they said in unison.
“I’ll get the Knight card,” Marcy said, shuffling away in her loud fruit salad themed slippers. While she retrieved whatever that was, Gwenna took her brother by the arm and escorted him to a safer couch so they could talk it over. Too stunned to question any of it, he just listened. Apparently they had encountered the pyrotechnic pests before, during a similar attempt to raid one of their grandfather’s secret stashes in a hidden compartment beneath his wardrobe.
“We were shocked too, but while it chased Marcy around I looked at the envelope it was sleeping on. There were instructions inside on how to handle it if got out of control. We just followed them and had an exterminator kill it before we… you know. I don’t think he even knows it’s dead.” Marcy came back with a badly designed business card: gunmetal gray with pink text in an old English font: Knights and Dragon slayers, inquire by landline.
Out came the dusty corded phone the older Winebones used to plot with each other, and while one twin placed the call the other told him what to expect. The dragon slayer they’d dealt with was an older bearded man, thick as an oak, wearing leather armor and wielding a broadsword. He charged nothing, claiming dragon removal was a public service, yet demanded that the twins babysit for him for two weeks afterwards. They had agreed, and all had gone smoothly after that.
“But how was it in a flash drive?!” he asked once his wits had returned. Bored of being helpful, they told him to just ask the knight when he got there. Like a pizza delivery, he promised to arrive within ninety minutes. They went back to their video games, leaving him to answer the door an hour later.
“Hello!” a broad-chested young woman greeted him with an exuberant wave, hair pulled back into a tight bun and enclosed in a vulcanized rubber bulb. Aside from her sex and age she looked the part, complete with armor and sword. Another new creature, or perhaps a toy, was perched on her shoulder, staring at him with unblinking eyes. It looked like a mechanical beaver, but a little too small, complete with buck teeth made of something too perfect to be ivory but too organic to be anything else.
“What is that?” he asked before introducing himself.
“This is Chipperwood. It’s a ferrier. You don’t need to worry about the details; it will be my assistant.” She turned to it. “You ready?” The beaver nodded, grabbed her collarbone, and swung around to her other shoulder. Only then did Travers notice she only had one arm, and he normally considered himself quite observant. That must have been a hell of a wave.
The ferrier transformed before his eyes, biting down on her shoulder without breaking the skin. Its teeth flattened as its jaw suctioned. Its limbs folded under it as its body revealed hidden extensions. The tail broke up into a flat hand, still bearing enough of the distinctive beaver tail pattern that it looked like a glove made from an umpire’s vest.
“Chipperwood is cozy,” a voice said from within the mechanical limb. With her new arm in place she drew her sword, though she could let it rest comfortably enough on one shoulder pad without the need for both. Travers shook the stranger hand, less to be polite and more to feel whatever it was made of. Even after he still couldn’t classify the material, somewhere between titanium, a pincushion, and the stick of an ice pop. The knight looked at him expectantly, and he found presence of mind enough to step aside so she could enter. He pointed down the hall, toward his room, and they walked.
“I was expecting the guy my sisters used,” he said sheepishly.
“Yeah, that’s my dad, but now that I’ve figured out how to get a second arm going he’s retiring and handling the phones. This is actually my first extermination!” She caught his nervous swallow. “Oh but don’t worry, I’ve killed dragons before, just not outside a controlled environment. It sounds like the ones you’ve got are juveniles. My name’s Charlie by the way.” Her smile was nice, though it felt more like a life preserver being thrown his way than something meant to charm him.
“Travers,” he reciprocated as they reached his door. “They’re in there. A bunch of them jumped out of my tablet. Can I ask… what is up with these things? I saw one in a bank vault earlier, just sleeping until I tried to take something.”
“It’s kind of your fault and kind of not,” Charlie said, looking around at the excesses of the Winebone mansion. “Dragons are attracted to treasure, but they’re not from our world, so they can pop up wherever greed and money come together in sick ways. They probably came out of the tablet because whatever data you were looking at was worth a lot.”
“I didn’t even get to see what it was. Won’t touch it now, at least not until I get these dragon things fully figured out.”
“Your family probably already has,” she chided. “That one in the vault was probably guarding. Lots of wealthy families have trained them to do that for hundreds of years. It’s half my family’s business, killing the ones they bred but couldn’t handle.” She grabbed an item off her belt that looked like a miniature fire extinguisher in blue.
“A couple things pressurized: extinguishing foam and dragon sedative mostly. Wish me luck.” Without another word she shouldered her way in and closed it as quickly and quietly as possible. Travers stuck his ear to the keyhole, imagined a dragon snaking through there and grilling its lobe, then moved it to the wood.
At first it sounded awfully dull for a dragon extermination, but the moment he heard the sword plunge into his mattress and screech against the springs he wished it would go back to calm. A dozen sounds flickered like blowtorches, and then the broadsword cut the air in wide whooshing arcs. Terrible screeches came next, like nails on a chalkboard covered in slimy gravel. Then there was the pshhhhhhh of foam and some gurgling even worse than the screeching. Finally a sound that would require a full investigation to figure out, but he guessed it was the Chipperwood hand squeezing a live dragon until it was marmalade. All of this was followed by some heavy breathing, and distressed as it sounded it was definitely human.
“Everything alright in there?” he asked after knocking with one knuckle.
“Oh yeah!” she insisted from the other side. “Your sisters told you about, like, liability and stuff right?”
“No… they left that part out.”
“Okay well, basically you don’t owe me anything for my services or bravery… but I’m not responsible for damages done in the process of getting rid of dragons. Really, not bad for my first time though. Let’s… let’s have a look.” She opened the door and let him in. Expecting a disaster based on her hemming and hawing, it really wasn’t too terrible. There was one long slash in his wallpaper that could be covered by a poster. The bed had been skewered all the way through, but only in one place. The foam was already dissolving and she told him it was formulated not to stain.
“Where are the… bodies?” he asked, unsure of the correct terminology. “And nothing’s burned either.”
“The foam suppresses their ability to even make fire,” she explained, red in the face but thoroughly pleased with herself, “and dragon viscera disappears back to where they came from once they’re dead, so at least that part’s convenient.” Chipperwood detached, transformed back into a beaver before it hit the carpet, and then scurried away without a word. “Sorry about that; ferriers don’t look to pal around with humans any longer than they have to.”
“So that’s it? I don’t owe you anything and no more dragons will manifest or whatever?” She didn’t answer right away, instead taking another look at his room. Her expression was concerned, as if something crucial was missing, like the bed or the door. “What?”
“If you try to open that flash drive again the same thing will happen. Since you didn’t know, that means you stole it.” She waited to see if he would deny it, but he just stared back, already getting a sense of her angle. Payment was indeed being requested, and he didn’t think it would be babysitting this time. “What are you doing stealing? You seem like a good guy. Do I need to keep an eye on you?”
“Is it your business?” Her face soured a little, but she just leaned on the open doorway and drummed on her thigh armor with her fingers.
“Knights are more on the reporting crime front than the collaborating one. Technically there’s some honor and lordship stuff going on, so we usually just tell the families involved. Whoever owns that drive should know where it is… but I could be persuaded not to say anything as long as I get to keep an eye on it. You know, because it’s so dangerous.”
“You want it?”
“Oh no, no, no. You can keep it. Just let me take you out to dinner so we can talk about how not to burn your house down. And it could be fun because you’re… we’re cute.” She smiled again, but he saw her hand twitch, suspecting that any time she was in trouble she wanted to pull out the distracting wave.
Dinner wasn’t getting caught. It was just another poster over the wall.
“And that’s how I was blackmailed into a relationship,” Travers said, having wandered back near the end of the tale. Charlie’s eyes widened.
“He’s just kidding!” she honked, touching his shoulder to demonstrate that he wouldn’t cringe. “It’s just his sense of humor, always a little inappropriate. I’m always telling him to not do it with new people, remember Travers?”
“I didn’t use the word hostage, just like you asked,” he replied with a shrug.
“Oh my god come on.” She slapped him lightly on the shoulder before turning back to the serpent. “Well, that’s the best case we can make. What do you two say? Do you want to help us battle the beast?” The fairies turned around to discuss it, flaring their wings so the humans couldn’t see.
“What do you think?” Chaxium asked Ladyspiller.
“I like them. Alot.”
“Why is she even doing this? These attacks don’t seem to concern her in the first place.”
“Something is plundering her home; what more reason does she need? Remember that we didn’t exactly stop our plunderer, and everything is kind of over down there. Beezgalore could lose its park.” Chaxium took a deep breath and nodded. They split up and took to their seats, giving Snakewaist its orders. The ferrier coiled and sprang, tail wrapping around the stump of Charlie’s left arm. The joint formed with its distinct whimsical pop, and the head split up into its fanged fingers.
“Snakewaist is cozy!” the couple declared together. The knight drew her sword and tested the power of their collaborative slash, cutting straight through the fence and collapsing the tale of Darrel and his illegitimate children.
Jaws of the Demon
Ms. Knight had actually been very thorough in the planning of the mission. She had with her several folders full of information about the attacks and destruction, but most useful was a map of the electrical grid marked with the locations of each sighting. From it they could clearly see the monster’s progress, noting that, oddly, it appeared to start near a city before moving to more remote areas, suggesting that its genesis had occurred within civilization.
“If it’s a dark spirit a bumbler probably summoned it,” Chaxium suggested as they set up the tent for their stakeout. The location was chosen because, based on the demon’s path, it was the next logical source of unguarded electricity. Just two hundred feet away there was a high voltage substation filled with transformers sitting at the base of a wired tower, its lines stretching into the distance. They were technically trespassing on municipal property, but the government was apparently not yet concerned enough to investigate or post a guard.
They camouflaged the dark green tent with branches and brush, leaving the front flap open so they could look out and observe the intimidating machinery. There was no guarantee it would actually strike there, so Travers had brought numerous distractions for them while they waited, including board games and a portable DVD player. He also had a gigantic can of bug spray, its label showing a truly gruesome fate for a cartoon mosquito, but he was forbidden to use it in the tent, as the occasional hypnotized bug needed to enter and make a delivery for the fairies.
Chaxium and Ladyspiller took turns controlling Snakewaist’s mouth, which was used to move their token in a neon board game. Chaxium didn’t understand its rules at all, seeming to be a combination of Olympic curling, a runoff election, and hopscotch, but Ladyspiller assured her she had played it many times before and had the strategy covered.
They were currently winning outside the ferrier and gorging on their latest delivery within: bubbling tree sap fondue with cubed apple core and cherry stems for dipping. Though the transformers buzzed constantly it was still quite peaceful, especially when the sun dropped and the stars poked through.
“I’d like to be a fairy,” Travers said, somewhat out of the blue, but probably because he’d just realized his chances in the game were getting slim. Before that the most words he’d said in a row were in regard to fairy pizza and its pound cake crust sounding unpalatable. “No more worrying about money. My parents actually give us a ‘net worth’ in the household, and they say if I don’t hit my target by the time I’m thirty there will be consequences.” Charlie grabbed his hand and squeezed.
“I’m no bumblerologist,” Chaxium said through the ferrier, “but aren’t you a little old to be living with them anyway?”
“That’s what I tell him,” Charlie said. “I think he should move in with me. Dad can make him a squire, which is like an apprentice.”
“Except I don’t want to man phones and treat leather all day,” he argued, grabbing a tiny twig from the grass outside and twisting it like the neck of a whiny restaurant chain manager. “I want what my family promised me. Enough to just do as I please. Everybody in the world deserves it, but I can actually have it, if all the stupid games just stopped. They’re like fairies, except fairies don’t carry spite. You guys actually know how to walk away from a problem without losing anything.”
“Hey dude, I’m living what you’re talking about,” Ladyspiller said. “Being a fairy is the best thing that’s ever happened to me… but we’re not perfect.”
“We may not have jobs or money,” Chaxium said, taking over, “and we’ve never had violence amongst ourselves, but we can still hate and hurt each other. As far as jobs, most fairies sort of have them. We kind of fall into roles, like me with Snakewaist. If you wake up one day and part of the street outside has collapsed, a fairy who doesn’t get paid will come and fix it, either someone with a magical association or just a concerned citizen who likes architecture.”
“Nobody’s going to take your ferrier from you though,” Travers countered. “It’s yours.”
“Actually, it’s not unheard of,” Chaxium said darkly. “When you’re outside your family tree you’re kind of fair game, and if someone thinks you an irresponsible pilot-” Kwunk kwunk kukwunk. They stopped and stuck their heads out the flap. There was little mistaking the sound of bare feet on metal never meant to hold them up.
The sound came every few seconds, but much as they angled their necks they couldn’t see where within the labyrinth of wires and gray boxes it originated from. They hadn’t agreed on any kind of signal to charge, but the moment the sound transformed into one of tearing shrieking metal they all jumped to their feet and hurried out.
Snakewaist slithered up Charlie’s leg, around her waist, and settled in as arm. The knight drew her sword. Travers stayed a healthy number of steps behind, armed with only a fancy hunting knife sheathed on his hip, but it was obvious he was at least going to get a good look at whatever it was. There was no need to be stealthy, as the demon was making such a ruckus that there was no way it could hear footsteps in grass or on concrete as they got closer. Upon climbing half a set of thin metal stairs they saw that there was no such thing as a good look at it, only revolting ones.
There was the demon, in plain sight, attacking the machine it was atop like a mongrel going at a haunch of meat. There was already a big shredded hole in the metal, and electricity was being drawn out of it in great drags, like cigarette smoke. The bolts of bluish mist went straight into its gruesome and confusing trap of a mouth, but the throat didn’t glow or bulge, suggesting it stopped short of the uvula. That was probably best, as there was no way a human digestive tract could handle lightning.
It was undoubtedly human, everywhere above the lip and below the chin. That human was male, possibly early twenties, but his condition made his age difficult to judge. Emaciated. Skin like wet polystyrene. Eyes gone cloudy like an obscured full moon. Hair that wanted to be wild and bushy, but that had stopped growing far short of that and was too statically charged to house lice without frying them.
He was barefoot, wearing denim shorts covered in grass stains and a dark shirt that might’ve had a collar at one point. As for the thing taking up half his face, they couldn’t really tell if he was wearing it or if it was part of him.
Blue and gold, polished to a shine when its wearer hadn’t bathed in weeks, the device covered both his ears, his jawline, and the entirety of his mouth. Something like a cross between a staple remover, the arms of a praying mantis, and the jaw of a pelican eel, it controlled two giant extendable fangs that served as the siphons for the stolen electricity. A membrane, like the skin of a trampoline, held the pieces together as they yawned, gaped, and stretched grossly, like some predator priming its stinger for the hunt.
“Do we try to communicate with him?” Ladyspiller asked, bu Chaxium only had a shrug for her. Normally, while in limb configuration, a ferrier tentatively followed the orders of the ferrier acting as the fairanquin’s head. This time the equivalent was Charlie, so the plan of attack was her call, and she acted decisively.
“You there!” she addressed it, leveling her sword at its Adam’s apple. “Cease this at once. None of this belongs to you.” The demon, on its toes and fingertips, circled around the hole to face them without slowing its gorging. That let them see down its throat, and they were disgusted to see the inside of its human lips pulled in all directions to fit into the device, tiny teeth gnashing before a blackened still tongue. Its suction ceased for a moment, and it stared at them blankly before issuing a single distorted word in a growling electric voice.
“Did… did he say Gougecoin?” Travers asked. “What does Gougecoin have to do with any of this?” The beast didn’t answer, dipping its fangs back into the hole to drink again.
“We’ll worry about that later,” Charlie said. “Alright fairies, we don’t know if the guy under that thing is alive or not, so we’re only going for the fangs. We want to sever those. Clear?”
“Clear!” the copilots answered in unison. The knight leapt onto the metal and charged, but the demon was far from sluggish. It hopped backward with the speed of a flea, immediately crossing a gap and landing on the next utility over. Its fangs snapped together into a deadly ice pick, but not to fight. It stabbed the machine under it and sucked quickly like a mosquito, trying to get as much energy as possible before the next assault.
Charlie got a running start and jumped. She would’ve cleared the gap, and been poised for a perfect strike, but the demon bucked, suddenly spewing fire and curls of slime from its mouth. Several of the curls struck the knight in the chest, immediately latching on with suction cup mouths and blasting her armor with concentrated fire.
“Dragons!?” Ladyspiller blurted. “Where did they come from? His stomach?” While she was figuring it out Chaxium was keeping their partner intact, coiling Snakewaist to absorb their impact on the side of the utility like a spring. They bounced off and landed painfully, for Charlie at least, deep in the concrete rut between them.
The leather smothered the flames well, but the juvenile dragons had to be removed quickly before they got through. She expertly slid the giant blade, with the finesse of a butter knife, under the lips of the three attached monsters and popped them off like suction cups. A moment later she was on her feet, stomping away with her fireproofed boots. They popped in squelching blasts of grimy grit and smoke, but that only hung around for a moment before fading out of the world.
They were making room for their kin, as more dragons flowed down into the rut as if dumped from a bucket. The demon disgorged a sickening amount, one so large that it proved it couldn’t be keeping them in its gut after all; they had to be manifesting as they did from Travers’s tablet. Pursuit would be impossible if they were stuck fighting the fiery leeches, something Ladyspiller was acutely aware of, mostly because it provided an opportunity.
“Chax, I can use Shedcoil to keep the dragons off you!” She didn’t respond immediately.
“What are you waiting for, permission!?”
“oh uh… I thought you’d say no or say it was dangerous or something!”
“This is all dangerous! Get out there girl!” Ladyspiller leaned over and kissed her on the cheek, vital even though it wasn’t part of the subferrier’s activation. She grabbed a translucent toothed stripe on the console, like a crystal zipper, and yanked it. Her half of the control center responded immediately, turning gray and waxy. She was lifted, along with that strange layer, into the parietal dome, where a new set of controls took shape in front of her, like the skin flakes from a sunburn being used as building blocks. Outside Snakewaist this looked like a snake shedding its skin. The flat peeling thing, still retaining the ferrier’s gorgeous shape and details like a wax cast, fell away and moved on its own, slithering off to do battle with the encroaching dragons.
“Shedcoil is striking out!” Never before had Chaxium been properly able to use that functionality, as it required two pilots. Shedcoil was an uncommon ferrier feature called a subferrier. At its most basic it was a second fairy war machine, embedded or hidden away in the first, though it didn’t have a magical pulse of its own and could not sustain itself indefinitely.
Shedcoil was a particularly thin and insubstantial one. Where a possum ferrier might have a smaller version tucked away in its pouch, Snakewaist’s shed skin was so thin everywhere but its control center that it was barely more than a belt. Fragile and translucent, it would have to reunite with Snakewaist within the hour or risk destruction.
“Convenient,” Charlie muttered as she took off in the opposite direction of the dragons, leaving Ladyspiller to cover their back. The vermin tried to slither after her, but Lady blocked their path. Some of them were nearly as big as Shedcoil, about the same size as the one that tried to incinerate her in Bottomless Greed. They thought her irrelevant at first, which suited her just fine. She flattened Shedcoil’s scales against the ground, and when several of her foes were halfway across she struck, rolling her subferrier up like croissant dough.
She constricted her prey. With no idea if dragons actually needed air or not, she covered her bases by also striking into the writhing mass of them with Shedcoil’s fangs. They were much thinner than Snakewaist’s, but deadly sharp. The bucking of each strike nearly gave her whiplash, but the splashes of drab dragon blood across the dome whipped her into a frenzy.
After cutting off her third head one of the fangs broke off in the fourth set of gill slits. That head took the opportunity to ignite its flame teeth and lunge right at the dome housing Ladyspiller. The intense heat started melting the waxy magical skin, obscuring her vision of the battlefield.
“Don’t panic,” she told herself. “This isn’t a fight for your life. It’s one you picked. It’s a fight for Onthinice.” She pushed the controls forward, looking under her feet and following the blurry color of the dragon. As the path took her upside down a snakeskin belt strapped itself across her chest to keep her in place. When there was no more dragon left to climb under her she squeezed again, like a tie coiled around a forearm. The beast squirmed in her grip, but it was nothing against her determination. She wrung it out like a sock soaked in brown mustard.
On the other side of the transformers Charlie and Travers were in pursuit of the demon. It was fleeing now, through the progressively taller grass, apparently having had its fill of Canada’s power grid. It wasn’t responding to the knight’s stern commands, and it was gaining distance as it loped along on all fours, so she resorted to the desperate measure of launching her left arm at it. Rather than shoving off like a javelin, Chaxium first transformed it back to serpentine form and swung its head low like a pendulum. When sufficient force was built she released, the ferrier spinning toward its prey like bolas.
It was a direct hit, entangling the demon’s ankles and sending its fangs into the ground like tent stakes. Its human hands reached down and squeezed Snakewaist, the strength surprising. The hull creaked as Chaxium frantically adjusted the pressure in the spinal column. The demon might have shredded her if Charlie wasn’t there a moment later, sword under its throat.
The extent of its intelligence was unclear, but it knew enough about the threat to pull its hands off the ferrier. The knight didn’t see much point in interrogating it, so she went straight for the fangs. The demon clamped its mouth down on the blade like a snapping turtle, locking itself into another tug of war. Travers apparently thought asking questions was worth it, as he hovered just out of its reach and demanded answers.
“Are you using that power to mine?” he asked it, but it just growled. “How much do you have in there? Who put that thing on you?” Another question popped into his head, one he asked more quietly. “Is it a scam?” He’d struck a nerve, the milky pupils darting in his direction and the crackling growl in its throat halting. It opened its mouth to answer, the start of a clear denial, but Charlie swung outward with all her might, severing the ends of the fangs as if they were no thicker than pool cue tips. The monster’s horrible squeal forced them to put their hands to their ears, freeing it to scramble away and disappear in the tall grass.
They tried to catch their breath, but something gave them a start as it slithered into view. Luckily it was just Shedcoil, stained badly and with a partly melted head. One of the advantages of the subferrier’s fragility though was the speed at which it could be repaired once reunited.
“Shedcoil is cozy,” Ladyspiller said once the reintegrating skin opened up and put her right back next to Chaxium. They embraced and kissed, wings stiff with the thrill of the battle. While they did that Charlie collected the two fang tips from the grass and examined them closely with Travers. When he looked at them he saw a material similar to the teeth of Chipperwood, both organic and obviously not.
“This looks fairy made,” he said, drawing the attention of Snakewaist.
“Well thanks to these two they’re fairy broken as well,” Charlie said to keep the mood positive. “I don’t know what that thing is, but it’s going to have a much harder time gumming the electricity out of anything.”
“Maybe not,” Chaxium was forced to argue. “If that is fairycraft, something like a ferrier, then those fangs might grow back. Snakewaist could replace a lost limb in about a month with nothing but sunshine, rain, and potting soil.” She turned the ferrier’s head to her boyfriend, its forked tongue flicking. “Travers, what’s Gougecoin?”
“Let’s talk about it at the hotel,” he sighed, pocketing a fang.
The driver of the car they called to pick them up didn’t bat an eye at the two dirt and greased stained people waiting on the side of the empty road with a broadsword. She looked far too tired to care, and like she’d already picked up stranger people in stranger places that day. She didn’t even ask about Snakewaist, which was draped over Charlie’s shoulders like some kind of neck pillow.
Chaxium and Ladyspiller expected cheap lodgings for their venture, but about an hour later they were dropped off at an extremely fancy hotel. Their room was a suite where even the ice bucket was as ornate as Snakewaist’s iris filigree. They closed the thick curtains so the ferrier and its pilots could move about freely.
Charlie and Travers shared a quick shower to wash off the grime and both emerged in full silk pajamas, her in burgundy and him in green. With wet hair and soft skin, a smile passed between them as they emerged under a billow of steam. It was the happiest they’d seen the young man so far, but it was gone a moment later as he perused the room service menu, his new expression suggesting it was just a list of cars set to be compacted at the junkyard.
“This place is awfully fancy,” Lady noted. After the food order was placed they all settled on the bed with crossed legs. Snakewaist was coiled tightly, both fairies seated in folding leaf chairs on the tip of its nose.
“Travers’s parents agreed to foot the bill when I told them we were taking a trip for my work,” Charlie said.
“I thought he didn’t get along with his parents.”
“I don’t,” he confirmed, “but they just looooove Charlie.”
“They think I’m a shrewd hardworking businesswoman,” she said, beaming.
“You know, a good influence on my lazy leeching self,” Travers spat. “Anyway, let’s talk about the important stuff. Gougecoin is a cryptocurrency.”
“I don’t know… exactly what those are,” Chaxium admitted.
“It’s fake money,” Ladyspiller said. “It’s all digital and no government runs it, so anybody can start one. If people actually use it they gain some value.”
“Doesn’t currency need something backing it up?” the lifelong fairy asked. Finance talk didn’t make her head hurt exactly, it was more like letting an unkempt snoring obsessive nap in there. “Precious metals, right?”
“Not anymore,” Charlie corrected. “Not many are still on the gold standard. Usually it’s a government providing the stability. All this dumb crypto stuff is based on something called the blockchain. It’s like a permanent record of which computer made one of their coins.”
“It’s more complex than that,” Travers snapped. “Gougecoin in particular is a clever beast. Most cryptocurrencies suffer from wild price instability, gaining and losing tons of value if the right or wrong person sneezes on them. The geniuses over at Gouge built stability into the definition of their coin. Its exchange has a set rate for value shifts, and it can’t grow or shrink faster than that rate. That way, if it drops precipitously, the drop occurs over like two weeks and people have time to properly react to it. Usually the drop is balanced out by rising in that time as well.”
“Uhuh,” Chaxium groaned, surprised at how violently her boredom flared into anger. She was starting to think fairies could hate money as much as ants. “Why is our demon obsessed with this fake coin?”
“Electricity,” Lady muttered before speaking up. “Mining these coins, making them, takes computer power, so the more computers you have going at once the more you can make and the richer you can get. And all that processing takes electricity.”
“That bastard!” Charlie blurted, standing and stomping around. “We actually have this problem all the time. Some of Canada’s power is really cheap, so parasites like this guy move in and buy it up to mine. I heard about it on the news. This whole crypto thing uses more power than some countries each year! And all for nothing! It doesn’t help anybody or make anything real. It just gives them profit for being harmfully sneaky.”
“Not to mention the environmental impact,” Lady added. She was on her feet as well, her short stomping path between Snakewaist’s nostrils amusingly identical to Charlie’s behind her. “One of a hundred things shrinking the places where family trees are hidden.”
“Nobody here is going to get rid of crypto,” Travers reminded them, “so cool your crusades over there. The average miner looks like our demon, but minus the fang-mask-thing stuck on his jaw. So what is it, where did he get it, and how do we get it off him?” Just then there was a knock at the door. Apparently the suites received insanely fast room service as well. The fairies jumped into Snakewaist’s open eye dome, had it flick the chairs off and swallow them, and then slither-crawled into the bathroom as fast as they could.
Charlie closed the door and then answered the other one. A moment later she heard the shower turn on and correctly figured that her new partners were taking the chance to wash off the day’s dirt as well.
Snakewaist’s tail and back legs wrapped around and gripped the curtain rod, the rest of its body hanging under the flow of the warm water. Its toes flexed back and forth over each other, washing grit out from between its scales. In the control center the couple sat in their hammock and ate their own dinner made from assorted delivered snacks: jalapeno popcorn hulls, poppy seed fruit cake, and cups of pink bleeding heart petal soup.
“You know, I may not know much about finance,” Chaxium mentioned through a full mouth, somehow also managing to blow the steam off her soup without spraying everywhere, “but I’ve got some ideas about that fang machine already.”
“That’s good, because I’ve got nothing,” Lady encouraged. “Let’s hear it.”
“Leprechauns.” Lady stopped chewing. “I’m serious. Back in Beezgalore I heard some people mention those burrowing weirdos had a gold magical cryptocurrency of their own. They also are extremely industrious.”
“Do they have ferriers?”
“No, they never quite figured those out. They’re no fairykin, so they lack our complete nonviolence, and some of them are downright nasty. They like shiny things, more than magpies, and they’ve been known to make deals with bumblers.”
“So what are you thinking exactly?”
“That the bumbler got in over his head. He’s somebody like Charlie or Travers who found out about magic and thought he could game it to his own ends. So he put his head together with some leprechauns, pitched himself as a cryptomancer, and said if they helped him build the ultimate mining computer he would split the money with them.”
“You think he agreed to put that thing on his face?”
“At firs yeah, but he got duped. It took over his mind, so now he’s just ravenously seeking power for it. The fake coins are all digital right?” Lady nodded. “Then that thing is probably sending all the coins straight to Ireland.”
“What about the dragons he hocked at us?”
“It’s like Travers’s tablet. There’s a bunch of odd money in there, so it connects to Bottomless Greed. Either the demon or the device itself is using them as a defense mechanism… but I think that’s good for us. We can use it if we open the door agai-” Snakewaist shuddered. Its head was already at a slight angle, to wash out its nostrils, but it should have immediately corrected.
The jaws dropped open enough for water to pour in, quickly flooding the palate. The fairies scrambled out from their hammock and leaned over the controls to see the rising levels. Ladyspiller worked the jaw lever repeatedly, but it refused to open further or close. She would’ve continued, but the lever locked up as well. To make matters worse, the ferrier’s coil around the curtain rod weakened, and the whole craft slipped closer to the porcelain below.
“Stop touching things! It’s all under control!” Gigafive shouted. The pale gargoyle appeared perched between the two forks of Snakewaist’s tongue as it curled up out of the rising water. He looked down at it nervously, pawing at the surface like a cat at a filled sink.
“Did you do this!?” Chaxium yelled down at him. “Give us control back; you’re going to flood the whole place!”
“No I will not!” he insisted. “I know what I’m doing… see the water has already stabilized.” He looked closer. “Okay well it’s still rising, but minutely. It would take hours to reach you and the gangway, and I’ll have the details figured out by then.” He stood as tall as he could with his Capuchin monkey-shaped body and stuck out his bare alabaster chest. “On the authority of Castle Bountybyte I order you to cancel this adventure and take Snakewaist back to America!”
“Eat shit!” Chaxium screamed back, the force of her rebuttal nearly knocking the incorporeal creature off the tongue. His mouth hung more open than Snakewaist’s, stunned by the disrespect. “You give me back my ferrier right goddamn now!”
“No!” he managed to counter. “I heard you. Opening that fairy door again is grossly irresponsible. I don’t care if you want to shove some demon or other in it. This machine has been compromised, and you want to taint it with more bumbler madness, with a copilot who’s made of such rot!”
“Hey!” Ladyspiller defender herself. “That door showed up in Snakewaist before I even screwed up. Its destination has nothing to do with me.”
“Oh? Then why did it open for you? And why are you feeding the connection even now, forcing me to take executive action?” Chaxium looked over at Lady to ask what he was talking about, but immediately saw something in her eyes. A strike of wet fear. The quiver of a trapped tear. There was something.
“Lady, what’s he talking about?”
“He’s overreacting,” she whimpered.
“Overreacting!? I Absolutely cannot overreact!” He slipped all over the tongue, trying to keep his composure. When he fell and struck the water he broke up instead of splashing, reforming on the lip of the console much closer to them. “Chaxium, you can be the judge. Go look in the insulation storage bin closest to the tail tip and tell me if I’m overreacting.”
“What’s in there?” Chaxium asked Lady, begging her to give any real reason to exclude Gigafive from the conversation.
“Nothing,” she yipped. It had so little meaning that it was barely a word. Chaxium turned toward the gangway to go see for herself, but Lady grabber her upper arm. “Okay, It’s something! I just… really don’t want you to look at it. I promise it’s nothing bad; it’s just embarrassing.”
“Embarrassing enough to make him clog up Snakewaist?” she asked, pointing at the gigagoyle. His little arms were crossed and he would’ve looked smug if his expression wasn’t overwhelmed by anxiety. Lady had no further argument, nothing real anyway, but she continued to belabor the point as her partner marched all the way to the ferrier’s tail and opened the compartment in the floor. Gigafive had already projected himself in there by the time she opened it, and his little arms were outstretched, encompassing the contents and flailing as if they were toxic waste or a rabid coyote.
Chaxium pulled out three dinner plate-like metal objects stacked together. Bumbler coins. A nickel and two pennies to be exact, one of the latter so green and grimy that the face on it couldn’t be made out anymore. Without a word she rose and turned around, walking back to the control center, shuffling through the coins like a series of disturbing propaganda posters.
“See?” Lady said, trailing right behind. “It’s just some loose change I found. I thought it was cool because they’re so big now, so I kept them for a little human nostalgia. It’s no reason to put our home on lock-down Gigafive.” The creature stuck his tongue out at her as he crawled across the insulation pads over the billowing curtains of muscle.
“You don’t get it,” Chaxium said softly, though her tone hardened like a boiling egg. “You can have all the nostalgia you want on the internet, but instead you get out of Snakewaist, go rummaging around in the dirt when I’m not looking, and then weigh down our beautiful beast with these.”
“Chax they’re just pennies!”
“So why!? What do you plan on doing with them!?”
“It’s a hoard!” Gigafive chimed in. “She’s seen Bottomless Greed and now it’s all she can think about! She’s going to let dragons into Snakewaist and it’s going to die!”
“You shut up!” Ladyspiller barked. They made it back to the ferrier’s maw. The shower was still going, a waterfall in the background. Steam crept across the roof of the mouth and fogged the parietal eye dome.
“He’s right,” Chaxium defended. “How could you not see it Lady? This is a hoard; it doesn’t matter how little it’s worth. Tell me the truth; why did you pick these up?”
“It’s money,” she relented, throwing up her hands and flattening her wings. “It’s worth something, even if it’s not to us. We can use it. We might have to, in the end, when humans take everything from us and we have to fight on their terms with their weapons. It’s an investment, for when they screw us.”
“I love you,” Chaxium reminded, “but you still have a human heart Lady. You’re still imprisoned by their rules, and it’s hurting us. It’s hurting Snakewaist.”
“Don’t say that! Just don’t say that I’m hurting you! I don’t scream at you, I don’t hit you, I don’t hide your things, and I dump my insecurities on you as little as possible. All I’m doing is being afraid. I’m keeping an eye on the people who will kill us when they get the chance, and I’m preparing for it. Wallup has the whole world in his greasy pocket, and only because he has a hoard.”
“You’re right Lady. All you’re doing is being afraid. That’s the problem. Fear is wrecking you, and you’re thrashing, and you’re dragging the whole of us down. You’re hurting me with your weakness. It must be weird for you to hear it, because humans don’t say that kind of thing to each other, but you need to glide the fairy glide now.” She nodded at Gigafive, then gently pushed the mandible lever. He allowed Snakewaist’s mouth to open much wider. Hurling it like a discus, Chaxium tossed the nickel out the opening, none speaking again until they heard it clatter against the porcelain below.
“One of those pennies is Canadian,” Gigafive added, “and the other American. So she went outside more than once to do this.” He glared at her. “Go ahead, call it an innocent collection. I’ve watched from my parapet as a thousand humans made excuses for their collections. They post about needing their hundred cats, even though the animals are in poor health. Needing their newspapers even though cockroaches nest between the pages. Needing their guns, for that one day where they only use two or three.”
Chaxium sent another penny sailing into the steamy falls, a hot droplet blasting a flake of green off it as it went spinning down. All the while Ladyspiller stood there stiffly, face getting redder, throat getting tighter. She had a hard time feeling her fingers; they seemed despondent without a ridged metal edge to glide along. But that wasn’t the fairy glide.
“I feel like we have nothing!” Lady blurted just before her lover threw out the last penny, stalling her.
“Lady… You turned into a fairy. You have something no other human has. Only greed could make you say that now.”
“I was rejected by the commune.” Tears filled up her glasses, the enchantment on them still active. There were so many that they quickly expanded beyond the edge of the lenses, making her eyes look like two jellyfish that had their tendrils snipped far too short.
“They didn’t reject you Lady, they banished us.” Chaxium rolled her eyes at her own comment, recognizing that it didn’t sound any better. “We’re still called Beezgalore. We’re out here for their safety, and it’s because of the power you have. Right now is when you decide if you’re going to misuse it.” She reared back, ready to throw again, but waited to see how Lady would respond. The pair of jellyfish grew a bit larger, but then she whipped off her glasses and flicked them out of the lenses. They drifted off like globs of an astronaut’s beverage.
Ladyspiller sniffled and nodded firmly. The coin was let loose, tinkling below them a moment later. The two embraced as Gigafive faded away, unsure if he should cede control back to them, but doing it anyway. Their food was cold and on the floor. The door was still back there, in the back of their minds too, and they couldn’t get rid of it until the glimmer within wasn’t needed anymore. Tunk tunk tunk.
“Everything okay in there?” Charlie asked through the door. “I thought I heard, like, coins or something.”
“Yeah, we’re okay,” Chaxium called out through Snakewaist. It slithered lower, front paws grabbing the handle and turning off the flow. “And we’ve got a plan.” Lady pulled back and looked at her. “We do.”
Take the Money and Run
Chaxium couldn’t even call it her plan, not really. It was Snakewaist’s. If they got even more technical it was a plan intuited by magic itself, by the great spells that guided fairies in their lives. When they were on their mission to assassinate Wallup they had been waylaid three times, the elevators escorting their fairanquin instead taking them to the homes of his wives, giving them information as ammunition.
It was worth noting that they didn’t stop the man, but that they thought they had thanks to the guidance of their fairanquin’s enhanced magical aura. Snakewaist’s current troublesome fairy door had to be the same sort of phenomenon, Chaxium realized. They had a way to Bottomless Greed because they were going to need it in order to combat the demon of Gougecoin. With that assumed she built the plan around it, leading to more strategies as she vocalized them to Ladyspiller as well as Charlie and Travers.
The demon’s mouth had to be a portal to Bottomless Greed in order to produce dragons, and it was likely powered by the device. That meant there was a magical frequency at play, something telling both the door and the monster’s maw how to open a path to that specific place. That in turn meant, with a little magical expertise on their side, they could turn the two gates into one.
In this case the expertise had to be the fairies’ friend Maribu back in Beezgalore. He had studied magic his whole life, but with a focus on ferriers rather than joining any of the homebody magical associations. When they called him up that night and described the situation to him, doing their best to gloss over the danger of having a fairy door to Bottomless Greed at all, he agreed to assist remotely.
According to him magic spells could be cast through showing glasses during an active call, but the effectiveness of strongly physical ones was greatly reduced. Luckily the one he had planned for them just involved changing a magical frequency, which was influencing a thing that barely existed, like turning the dial on a radio’s shadow.
To check that everything was working well enough to pull it off, Chaxium held her showing glass up to the troublesome door while Maribu was on the other end, and he cast an additional magical lock in the form of ethereal icy chains. Ladyspiller looked away while he did so, all too aware that the lock was probably to keep her out until the door was needed.
When that worked Maribu became confident that he could also tune the door’s frequency to exactly match the one in the demon’s jaw. Theoretically this would split the gateway and make the door a portal to both Bottomless Greed and the enemy’s device. Then would come the hard part: infiltrating the demon’s gullet and finding a way to destroy or disengage the thing from within.
This was a task Chaxium volunteered for, sparing Lady the conversation where she laid out the hundred reasons why she couldn’t pass through Bottomless Greed and be trusted to finish the mission. Maribu didn’t have much to offer in terms of leprechaun technology, but he did speculate that such a machine would likely have traversable paths inside much like Snakewaist’s gangway.
“I’m worried you’ll get hurt in there. There could be a dragon inside it too,” Lady confessed when all four of them were in another car on their way to hopefully their last encounter with the demon. Charlie’s map had revealed the next likely target; this time it was a hydroelectric dam. Fort Knox to the previous day’s couch cushion change. It wouldn’t be able to resist.
“It’s a risk we have to take,” Chaxium said. They were once again draped around Charlie’s neck, the controls inactive so no one else could hear them. “We have to split up like before, only this time I’ll keep close to the demon while you use Shedcoil as Charlie’s arm. Maribu said I have to be within fifty feet of him for the gateways to overlap.”
“But that means Snakewaist will be unmanned while you’re in that gross thing’s mouth!”
“The autopilot can handle it. It will keep out of sight at the right distance. If it can’t, well then Gigafive can take over.” She paused, glancing around to see if the creature would manifest and argue against it, but he didn’t. She took it as silent agreement.
“Lady, enough. You can’t be there to help. It will try to pull you back in, and you’ll only make things worse.” They rode in silence after that, and it only got worse when they reached the outskirts of the dam. The rushing water of the river feeding it reminded them of the uncomfortable shower the night before. Their silence intensified when they set up their tent again, a bit further than they would’ve liked, but they had to go with the treeline so none of the dam’s employees would spot them.
It intensified more as time passed. The evening and night. The next day. There was no sign of the demon, and their human partners were running low on food. The least grumpy thing the four heard out of each other was Travers repeatedly complaining about having to use a bush as a bathroom.
They got through it by watching the dam, analyzing where people came and went from, and imagining the best places to combat the demon. Much of it was sheer concrete slopes, but Charlie assured them that dragons had no trouble with such surfaces, their inactive fire claws working perfectly as suction cups, as did their mouths.
Worse yet, a dislodged dragon rolling down a slick surface was among the most unpredictable things to exist, and if one landed on you it would have its fire on you, your blood boiling, as fast as a falling cat could get its feet under it. The knight pointed out an optimum place to battle, if they could corner the demon there. It was like a miniature marina, largely cut off from the main facility, holding a number of small vessels for surveying and transporting supplies.
She said that while dragons were excellent swimmers, immersion did quell their fire for a time, so they could jump into the river if they were in extreme danger. Otherwise the area was open, but still paved enough that there weren’t many obstacles the demon could scale or corners for its defenders to pounce from.
“People are so dumb,” Travers offered on the evening of their second day camping out there. He had a pair of binoculars trained on the marina. A small motorboat had just come in, loaded with nondescript boxes. He watched the man who had piloted it into its slot bend over and wiggle for a few moments. “He’s stashing the key under the cushion. Anybody could just take it. It’s no wonder, whatever this demon’s real name is, that he’s taking us for all we’re worth.”
Night came again, and both human stomachs were growling loud enough that they could be heard inside the ferrier, like two ornery bears grumbling at each other. Chaxium and Ladyspiller were ill with anticipation as well, hardly able to touch the caramel marinated pomegranate seeds a few male mosquitoes had just delivered.
The last lights at the facility switched off, but as the final employee left they saw that there was a row of motion-activated ones by the marina, probably to keep anyone from slipping and falling in. That limited their options, as they weren’t dumb enough to attempt fighting dragons by nothing but the light of their breath. That meant they had to leave the warmth and comfort of their tent in favor of leaning up against a concrete wall under those lights.
The main entrance was behind them, so hopefully the demon would be funneled along that stretch in any attempt to enter and siphon the incredible amount of energy stored within. Once they were in position they stood still enough for the light above them to go out. Darkness and silence had them for nearly two hours before some movement illuminated the marina again, except this time it was two hundred feet away.
Even without the motion sensors its approach wouldn’t have been invisible. The demon’s jaw had something like headlights embedded along the bottom edges, so it appeared as two pricks of aggressive golden light. They were low, so it was on all fours, further debasing itself in pursuit of riches.
It was better to make the creature wary, to buy time, than to fight it outright, so Charlie stepped out into the middle of the path, the light above them revealing them to their quarry. The demon paused twenty feet away. Closed, its mouth looked like the carrying case for a teenager’s retainer, but when the demon recognized them its fangs unfolded and hung almost to the ground. They could see the fresh white tips, regrown in just two days as Chaxium had feared. They were probably just now back to functionality, explaining the extra day they were stuck waiting in the tent with nothing to do but brood.
“Everyone to your stations,” Charlie whispered. Travers had his knife out, but he hung back.
“Shedcoil striking out,” Ladyspiller said gravely, the waxy barrier rising between her and Chaxium. She put her hand against it, the split actually painful, like duct tape across the scalp. The subferrier peeled away, this time retaining the shape of the arm rather than the serpent. It made for a much thinner limb, much more flexible, but it could still handle the sword well. Its touch on Charlie’s shoulder was silken, tightening even more comfortably than the ferrier itself. She drew the blade. “Shedcoil is cozy. Be safe Chaxium.”
“For Onthinice,” Chaxium answered loyally, but somewhat detached. Snakewaist, fully detached, scaled the nearby wall and wrapped around the light fixture, hoping to go unnoticed. She switched on the autopilot, gave an observing Gigafive a thumbs up, and then rushed down the gangway toward the fairy door.
“Are we in range?” Maribu asked through her showing glass; the poor fellow had agreed to stay on call and ready for however long it took the demon to show its disturbing face. Chaxium affirmed that they were, in the hope that Charlie and Lady could keep the fight centered directly below the ferrier and buy her the time she needed.
Maribu started his incantations as she aimed the glass directly at the doorknocker. First he undid the lock, sending the ethereal chains clattering to the floor where they vanished into mist. The door flew open, sucking in the last vapors of it. Chaxium hadn’t doubted Lady’s account of the suction, but she assumed the former human had exaggerated its actual power. She had not.
She nearly lost both herself and the glass to the gaping hole and Bottomless Greed. Only leaning back and putting her feet up against the frame saved her, her wings flattening against her body so they wouldn’t catch the sudden wind. Shouting for Maribu to hurry did no good, as neither of them could hear the other over the windy wail. His casting must have continued, as the toasted shadow of that terrible realm didn’t go uninterrupted for long.
The left side of the door’s frame shuddered, but not its material. It was a sparkling wobbly bulge, and with each pulse it took up more of the gate until the entire left side was a different color and texture. Instead of a void over a golden sea she saw walls of moist pinkish-gray. Giant gnashing teeth crashed into each other, sounding like iron-hulled ships clashing at sea.
Chaxium was normally about four inches tall, enough to take up a whole human mouth, but the leprechaun device seemed to employ the same space-distorting magic used by ferriers and family trees, as the demon’s mouth seemed more like a movie theater to her. There wasn’t time to dwell on it. She let go of the right side, hanging into the mouth and getting a blast of its ghastly breath: rusty coin slots and cigarettes lit by car battery.
“Identical frequency achieved,” she heard Maribu say once she dropped out of the door fully. “Your way back to Snakewaist is open as long as you’re in range.” With no time to thank him she tucked the glass into her pocket and started running. There was still wind, but it was the demon’s forced artificial breath. She was on some kind of maintenance gangway inside the cheek, so what she needed was way deeper in the machine itself, where they would store anything sensitive.
Having already had more than her fill of the place, she never intended to look out into the subverted gum tissue again, but she was forced to when something, born from a wave of wet heat in the back of the throat, roared by. It was like a train passing through a tunnel, the sheer speed of it forcing Chaxium to put her back against the device and hold her breath until it passed. Green. A flash of a limb. A dragon.
Something was wrong. It seemed too big, even with spatial distortion at play. When Chaxium turned her head to follow its progress she saw out the side of the mouth as its trampoline-cheek flapped. There was the marina. There was Charlie and Lady. The look on her face said it all, especially as she had to angle her head up to follow the creature’s emergence.
Snakewaist was forced to adjust itself when the dragon bumped into the light. Twenty feet long and as big around as a fire hydrant, it was the largest dragon the knight had ever laid eyes on. There weren’t supposed to be any like that left, split up as the ancient treasures were around the world. She had grossly underestimated the corruption of cryptocurrency if it could call forth such an ancient wurm. No smaller ones came with it, taking up the demon’s maw as it did.
Its tail must have had a bulge of some kind, one too big for the device to accommodate. The demon dangled off the end of it, suspended in the air by its wide open mouth, limbs hanging uselessly. The powerful beast rose up into a striking position, three feet over Charlie’s head. Its eyes were unusually focused for a dragon’s, blazing with red fire where they were normally black, gold, and lifeless.
Empty puckered claws inflated and ignited, hissing like lit bottle rockets. Its fleshy mouth flared, the spiraling teeth of flame each as long as a shoehorn. From the color of the fire Charlie could judge its temperature, and it looked wholly capable of melting through her ancestral sword. She had no choice but to leap back when it struck.
Suctioned onto the concrete, the focused flame caused cracks to radiate outward. They traveled so fast and shifted the stone so significantly that two more motion sensing lights in front of and behind them activated. When the dragon’s mouth broke off with a sickening slurpuch they saw the residual heat glowing in the fissures like magma breaking out of the earth.
The monsters didn’t have much in the way of a roar, but it gave its all, belching fire at the knight in a rising spray which ended up threatening Snakewaist more than her. The ferrier had to move to the wall to avoid the extreme heat, and then again when the demon’s bare human feet grazed it. It was a vicious tail whip, trapped schmuck at the end used as a club.
Charlie didn’t dare swing at him, lest he still be alive under his bad decisions, so she took the brunt of the blow and was slapped against the wall. She shouted for Travers to stay back, thinking they were doomed. This was a dragon worthy of a name, meant to be recorded in the history books somewhere, if history existed after its reign. It rivaled finned and flaming terrors that stalked some families across generations, like the dreaded Moxarley and the explosive Tintangle.
Shedcoil did not share her fear, or her reservations about harming the miner. When the tail came in for a second blow Lady pulled out her fangs and dragged them across both tail and side indiscriminately, succeeding in getting the wurm to recoil. Its retreat didn’t last long however. Its locomotion somewhere between a bound and a slither, it pounced on them and wrapped around Charlie’s torso like a python. She squeaked as it constricted, its blazing face drawing close to her cheek.
Chaxium couldn’t watch any of this; she was the only one who could end it. The dragon never finished coming out of the demon’s mouth, its body still stretched all the way down the throat, so she had to run alongside it until she found a maintenance hatch that would actually let her enter the device. It was sheer luck that the entrance she found wasn’t locked, likely because its leprechaun manufacturers had never imagined any creature willingly entering that gullet after installation.
The inside was a sterile relief from the electricity-mummified breath of the demon, its stagnant air something like the air inside an abandoned or dead ferrier. The tight halls did not share the flashy paint of the exterior, and the walls were lined with dull computer interfaces and hundreds of unlabeled levers.
“Where’s the damn off button!?” she hissed as she ran, kicking aside the food wrappers of the workers that had put the finishing touches on it before its inaugural attachment. When she found a large tube on the ceiling, transparent and alive with electrical charge, she followed it to its source, which she guessed to be at the outer edge of the jawbone. It made sense for the control center to be back there, away from the dangerous hacking of the fangs.
There was a bank of monitors, most of them looking like hallway mirrors and showing things in greater detail than any human screen could manage. She saw the fight outside from every angle, though the only detail that mattered was that terrible purple color on Charlie’s face. Shedcoil was flattened against her side, its head lost in the coils. Lady’s dome might’ve popped under the pressure already.
The central screen handled the account, wherever it was, that stored the Gougecoins. It depicted a great ball of gold, like a planet, like Bottomless Greed rounded out, feeding on glittering meteors that crashed to its surface. She realized she laid eyes on a representation of the hoard that could call forth such a mighty dragon. Numbers surrounding it ticked up, showing its value in currencies around the world, some of them inhuman. Chaxium wasn’t even peripherally aware of what things were worth what amount of American dollars, but the device claimed it had over sixty million worth of them.
“I don’t care what any bumbler or computer says, you’re worthless!” she cursed it. “You are drive made inert! Gold into a ghost! May you become real enough to rot!” She grabbed the bottom of the account screen and pulled, on a hunch. The whole thing lifted on a hinge, and behind it there was one more lever, larger than all the rest.
It was also unlabeled, those crafty leprechauns wrote most things in invisible ink only they could see, but its size and hidden nature told her everything she needed to know. Whether an off button, a disengage, or a self-destruct, it had to be something that could stop the dragon, otherwise she was out of ideas.
She wrapped both arms around it and pulled, but it took her foot on the wall as well to generate sufficient force. It groaned, dropping flakes of rust, screeching almost as terribly as the beast, but it moved. When it snapped the rest of the way all the mirrors blinked off like old televisions, single white-hot dots at their centers buzzing out of the frame like fireflies. The control center, and the path that got her there, went black.
The whole device shuddered, and a moment later she was thrown violently against the wall, bending all the wing blades on her right side. The pain was like four root canals on her shoulder all at once, nearly knocking her out. For a moment she was sure she was unconscious, everything as dark as the back of her eyes felt. The impact had to be the device detaching, she realized, and that gave her the will to crawl forward.
Outside the situation was much clearer. The tip of the dragon’s tail was exposed, trailing thin smoke. The demon lay crumpled on the ground under it, like a handkerchief stiff with dried mucus. Its jaw had rolled a short distance away and now sat inert, light fading from the asymmetrically positioned fangs. This was the only opportunity he would get, so he took it.
While the dragon was momentarily distracted by the burden off its tail, without lightening its pressure on Charlie, Travers ran up and scaled its coils like steps. He leapt over her and drove his hunting knife into the dragon’s cartilaginous skull, right between the eyes. Every last glint of the blade disappeared.
Fwunf! All at once its blowtorch claws and mouth were snuffed, looking like a suddenly dead man releasing a final slack-jawed drag of his cigarette. The monster quivered before entering a violent spasm. He knew it was dying, the flame wouldn’t go out otherwise, so Charlie was fine. The coils loosened as they moved, and she was dumped back to the ground, gasping for breath and holding her injured side where the sword had pressed into her.
Shedcoil slithered out from two dying folds as well, cracked in a few places around the head but intact. Ladyspiller rushed to Charlie’s side, prepared to flatten the subferrier into a pressurized bandage, but as soon as the knight got her words back she assured the fairy the wound was minor. She was confused though, looking about, because she should’ve been attended to by her beloved. Instead, as the dragon still thrashed in its death throes, he was hopping over its sections to attend to the mining device.
Charlie’s vision was still blurry, and she couldn’t stand, but it became clear regardless. He cared only enough to ensure they weren’t going to die. The young Winebone snatched the thing off the ground and made a run for the water. Moments later he hopped into the boat they’d observed earlier and pulled out the key from under the cushion. The engine burbled to life, the wake large enough to splash those he was leaving behind.
“Travers!” Charlie groaned, unable to make it a shout. “I love you! Don’t-”
“Chax!” Ladyspiller yipped. Shedcoil swiveled around and scaled the wall, all the way up to Snakewaist, and assimilated back into it. Lady didn’t even wait for it to finish, ripping her way through the waxy skin and stumbling toward the gangway. There was the door, still flung open, with no Chaxium in sight. She skidded to a halt in front of it, but something was wrong. Maribu had described a door of halves, like the spinning top of a salt shaker not quite aligned with the holes, but all she saw was the endless sea of gold. The same sight burning in Travers’s brain.
In words they would’ve called it a pull, or a call, but words could not express it exactly, for those who gave into it never returned enough to engage with their fellows and craft a proper description. It was somewhere between a resonance and feeling an ember swell and glow in their core. It was the knowledge that they’d found their substance, and the indifference to its effects on their personality, which now felt like so much flimsy scaffolding being knocked over by their true selves.
It was a confrontation over the word hardship. The challenges in their lives were what defined them, but when their greed flared they saw the ability to overcome them all. In doing so, would their old selves be lost? Their suffering meaningless? Sandblasted away by the revealed human of influence?
Travers wanted respect. Ladyspiller safety. Yet as they saw the potential of riches they wanted in the same way, without end.
Chaxium pushed open the hatch that got her into the jaw, but the dragon and the mouth were gone. Instead she saw only the seat cushion of the boat, and heard only the chugging of its engine. She couldn’t lean very far out without her bent wings catching the wind, but it was enough to see that her doorway back to Snakewaist was no longer there; they were out of range. She held on for dear life as the thing swung around; Travers’s hand passed overhead. He was just examining it, but he spotted the fairy sticking out.
“Shit, you’re still in there?” he asked, eyes flicking back and forth between his prize and the waters ahead. “Sorry, we can’t go back.” The fairy’s eyes hardened, since it would be impossible for her tiny voice to be heard over the vehicle. Even with working wings an attempt to fly up to him would just get her swept into the wake. Her only weapon was her accusatory stare.
“Doesn’t this thing have a radio?” he muttered, fiddling with knobs. “Relax, I’m not kidnapping you or anything. As soon as I’m clear of her I’ll drop you off at the nearest crosswinds or tree or wherever. I just need this thing; it’s my golden ticket.”
The fairy stared. Eyebrows like snapped twigs.
“You know nothing has ever been my choice. You fairies start off with a choice. How unfair is that? You actually get to pick your families. I didn’t even pick my girlfriend. She really did pressure me you know.”
The fairy stared. Eyebrows like coal.
“With this I can mine up a fortune! I don’t have to justify myself to anyone ever again. It’s all legitimate, because it’s all covered in gold! No more stupid games. Not even taxes can touch this stuff I bet.”
The fairy stared. Eyebrows like black diamonds.
“Christ, you’re the meanest looking fairy I’ve ever seen! Whatever. I’m not going back. The demon had the right idea, he…” Travers winced. “Right. It was a scam, as much as he prickled at that.” He picked up the jaw and examined the fangs. “It’s not independence. Nothing is. So it’s a lie, right?”
Th fairy stared. Eyebrows like black holes.
“He’s a mosquito. He can’t do anything on his own.” He looked at her, long enough to not notice the log drifting in the river. The bump left him standing as he piloted the craft, a feeling rushing up his spine. “Fuck! Fine, but it’s not because of you. I do sometimes make my own decisions!”
Charlie was on her feet at the edge of the concrete, supporting herself with the sword like a cane. Some of her armor was in tatters, hanging off her like mostly snapped branches. There was dragon blood too, but the stain faded and dried with every passing second. Even at its incredible size, there would be nothing left of their foe’s corpse in five minutes. Already it was just a deflated pile like a punctured parade balloon. The cracks in the ground would stay though, and though others would pay for the repairs she certainly thought it worth all the electricity they’d saved.
“I knew he’d come back,” she bragged to Snakewaist, but the ferrier was still far above her, coils shifting without going anywhere. Lady was alone, and unaware, before Bottomless Greed. Gigafive knew of it, but had no authority to shut a fairy door, and a deep fear of approaching such a maelstrom of bumbler obliviousness. Down in the sea of coins, dragons shifted just under the surface.
“A fishing rod,” Lady muttered. “I can just sit here and reel the coins in, one by one. They’ll never even notice. We’ll buy that fancy hotel and root Onthinice in the highest suite and lock the door. Fairies in and out through the window, no people.” She sat down, legs dangling into the abyss as if it were a warm river. “Our riches will make us richer; that’s how it always works. This was just one coin at the beginning, the first one minted: a religious idol and not a financial token.”
A bolt of magic sizzled to her left. The seam of the door glowed and hummed, but she paid no heed, too busy imagining how her empire would expand. After they owned all the hotels they would start lobbying politicians. Buying laws. Nobody could touch fairy trees, or the land for thousands of miles around them. Nobody could have anything; that’s what they would get for trying to take so much from her.
One person had everything. Gerald Wallup. He’d never done a decent thing in his life, never deserved an ounce of it, yet he had it all. The great lump of power just swelled on someone’s head, like a boil, until it burst and it all spilled onto the next random wretch.
Only Lady thought she would be different. Nobody had ever gained it all just for revenge before, just to watch as the man on top lost every last drop. That made it pure. It wasn’t greed; it was hatred. She didn’t want to hoard it or spend it. Burn it. Use it all up in one devastating lob of power. Break the man and the system and then fly away to her high tower with Chaxium forever. Never come out to see what became of mankind.
Something was missing for that plan though. There was no Chaxium. At the moment it didn’t seem like the greatest hindrance. Not everything swimming under the treasure had to be dragons. Maybe one of those trails was Chax, having come around, already reveling in their future. Lady inched forward, the greater part of her thighs dangling now, as if about to launch down a water slide. The glowing seam bulged outward. The jaws of the demon were in range again, yet the connection hadn’t opened all the way. It was just a crack. Chaxium was there, but she could barely see through it, just the soft skin on Lady’s wrist as she held the frame.
“Lady, get away from the door!” she screamed, but the arm didn’t move. When her partner’s voice came it was soft and calm, swaddled in something invisible and impenetrable. Chaxium tried to grab the sides of the crack and force it open, but it instantly scalded her hands. Even her yelp of pain didn’t seem to upset Lady particularly.
“I’ve got a plan Chaxium,” she said. “I know better than to just have a hoard now. It won’t stick around gathering dust. We’ll make a pyre of it, and we’ll burn him.”
“Lady, what are you talking about? Get away from it! Help me!” Travers held the jaws in one hand as he stood, and when Chaxium looked away she saw Charlie getting closer. They were so near now that the opening should’ve been half the door, but it wouldn’t move while Lady’s legs obstructed it. Chaxium went to put a hand through sideways, but it was no kinder to her knuckles than before.
“We need to hurry. Travers sees it too. He’ll take it if we don’t get to it first.” Lady leaned forward. A drop of drool fell to the coins, and the swimming dragons sped up as it struck. Fins broke the surface. Puffs of smoke.
“No! Travers came back! That’s why I’m here! He’s doing the right thing!”
“What?” Lady blinked. “What!?” All at once she scuttled backward, and once her legs were back in Snakewaist the portal widened to its intended half. “He didn’t run away? That privileged, whiny, rich, white boy didn’t take the money and run? What the hell!? If he’s not doing it then I’m not doing it! I’m stronger than him!” She rushed forward and grabbed Chaxium’s shoulders, pulling her through. The fairy door slammed shut, almost immediately ascending into the ceiling and breaking up into its constituent boards. It seemed almost relieved that it didn’t have to exist anymore, the knocker disappearing last between billowing folds of muscle. They never needed to visit Bottomless Greed again.
Just outside and below them, Travers pulled into the dock and stepped off the boat. He hung his head, but Charlie looked at him with pity, hurrying over and embracing him.
“I hear crypto’s really bad for the environment anyway,” he said with a shrug. Wordlessly they swapped items. Charlie stepped back, holding the jaws open before him. Travers hefted the sword, and with a grunt brought it down through the joints. The vile device snapped in half, spraying a final burst of gold, blue, and red sparks. To be safe they stomped it into even smaller pieces and sprinkled them in the water, keeping two handfuls of the shiniest most important looking pieces to drop in the grass after taking a car far far away.
Snakewaist slithered over the demon’s stolen human body, one foot checking the young man’s neck for a pulse. There was none. His eyes were pale and empty. The skin of his cheeks was gone; the jawbone was exposed. The ferrier closed his eyes, but that was all it could offer him. Chaxium and Ladyspiller slithered away to confer with the couple.
“Well we did it,” Charlie said, shaking her fist weakly in triumph. “We defeated the demon of Gougecoin. The world’s cheap electricity is safe.” She looked down at the mechanical serpent. “I don’t really know how to thank you two. I can access Fairnet and write up a glowing review, but it feels weird to review you.”
“Five stars though,” Travers added.
“Fairies get wind of these things,” Chaxium said through their mighty steed. Suddenly lights flashed behind them, though none of them had moved. Charlie threw up her hand, practically blinded. The sound that came along with the headlights was unmistakably that of an engine. The surprise vehicle pulled up slowly, stopping just short of the upheaval in the concrete. It would’ve been atop the dragon’s carcass if it hadn’t vanished already.
Oddly shaped, to be sure. The midsize car had a high roof; it was boxy but with very rounded corners. Sky blue paint with white accents. There as an icon on the passenger side door, something like a webcam riding a unicycle. They only had a second to examine it before the door clicked and opened on its own. There was no driver and no passengers, but plenty of new car smell.
“Its one of those self-driving cars,” Charlie said. “I’ve seen a couple around lately. What’s it doing here?”
“They’re supposed to have drivers on standby,” Travers reminded. “I don’t think it’s even supposed to work without a person in it.”
“I think it’s here for us,” Ladyspiller said, surprising even Chaxium. “When we were done with our last mission the fairy door immediately showed up. The word’s out on us alright, but it’s not just fairies that know. Somebody else needs our help, and the great spells are taking us there. Wind under our wings.”
“I guess this is goodbye then,” Charlie said, waving her best wave. Travers did the same, with a quarter of the skill but a smile that finally looked relaxed. “A girl couldn’t ask for a better left arm. Call us if you ever need anything.”
Under the direction of its two pilots Snakewaist rose up, bowed deeply, and then slithered into its ride. The door closed gently, the car signaled its complex turn, and in no time at all the dam was far behind them. The fairies opened Snakewaist’s mouth to get a blast of that new car smell.
“That takes me back,” Ladyspiller sighed.
“Nothing can take you back,” Chaxium insisted, grabbing and kissing her as the headlights illuminated row after row of towering trees.
And so it is inscribed here upon the blockchain, that the venerable Charlie Knight, the cunning Travers Winebone, and the fairies Chaxium and Ladyspiller Beezgalore slayed a most avaricious demon trying to keep all of Gougecoin to himself.
In doing so they bested the dragon Vidiaguzzle, taking to its constriction with the matched constriction of the mighty ferrier Snakewaist, warding serpent of technology, wyrm of man’s madness weaved in code.
In each and every coin we remember them and their deeds in this year of our gold 2019, from now until version 1.1 or the end of days, whichever may arrive before the other.