(reading time: 1 hour, 1 minute)
Crash into a Tree
“Yeah can I get two of the…” The woman’s voice stalled as she scanned the menu even though she’d already been in line for ten minutes. Chef Ricky was grinding his teeth and sweating a puddle into his sneakers. He couldn’t, on his life, recall why he thought applying to run the Groadster for a week was a good idea. Every item sold was at a loss, and all the cameras that were supposed to follow him were gone after the first two days. “…churros.”
“Would you like them with vanilla sauce, chocolate, or my special dark cherry syrup?”
“Plain.” He whipped around to take them out of the warmer before she could spot his seething rage. For five years he’d been a god of syrup, formulating ones with less sugar and more flavor. He could turn Amerenas into ambrosia, mangosteens into manna from heaven, and papaya into a god-damned panacea, but she wanted it plain. The same way she kept her graying hair plain. Her expression vacant. Her shriveling toes in sandals. A street eater. Not the kind of customer he ever wanted, but the only ones the world wanted to give him… and he only got them at a loss.
Ricky hid his feelings as well as he hid his culinary school debt, so well most of the time except for the occasional explosive outburst. His hands shook as he wrapped the long pastries in paper. He wasn’t used to working in such cramped conditions; the floor was already a smattering of colorful stains thanks to escaping berries he’d stepped on. He had stuffed the wire baskets lining one of the back doors with fresh fruits, failing to comprehend how many fruit flies could exist on a gray city street.
The owners of the vehicle had included several motivational mini-posters on the inside, mostly depicting other young chefs whipping up something photogenic in a silvery bowl. Ricky had torn them all down on day two, rolled them up, and stuck them in the back of the churro warmer. He wanted to see what those photos looked like after a week of constant heat near the fryer. He needed the confirmation that they would look as haggard as he did, confirmation that the only photo of passion that mattered was the after photo. He turned and held them out to the woman, something resembling a smile holding his face together.
“Obviously I want a bottle of water with my desert doughnuts,” she said after several silent seconds. “That’s just common sense.”
“No bottles,” Chef Ricky hissed through structurally unsound teeth, “but I can give you a whole can of whoop-” The Groadster lurched into motion, saving his reputation at the last second. He was thrown back inside just as the serving window shutter dropped on its own. The vehicle was off, he was sure of it, yet he rapidly approached a red light. The young man threw himself into the driver’s seat, but he was immediately overcome with a sensation of trespassing, like he’d walked straight through another person’s body.
The wheel was moving on its own, as were the pedals. The needles on the gauges ticked back and forth in sync like a metronome, no longer concerned with what they were supposed to measure. The traffic light switched to green, but sooner than it was supposed to. It felt different as well, more like a sunset and a moon rise.
Ricky felt the green, the go, the rushing of watery energy through sun and rain drenched vines, as the Groadster sped through the intersection and pressed his back further into the seat. The truck was bulky and square, impossible to maneuver gracefully, yet once it got going he didn’t feel shaken at all. It was like riding inside a doe, springing weightlessly through tall grass.
As soon as they were through the light flipped back to red. There was a terrible impact as several cars collided. Ricky instinctively looked at the rear view mirror, but it was turned down like a drooping sunflower. The side mirrors curved away as well, to angles they were never meant to achieve, the black plastic around them somehow twisting like licorice without breaking. The Groadster would never look back.
From the screeching of tires and the storm of honking, almost a rhythm, too angry to be one, Ricky could discern that they were being followed by several vehicles. The number swelled, as did the chaos and destruction left in their wake. Had he done something wrong? Was it because he took down the posters?
The green monstrosity of a marketing stunt took several sharp turns it shouldn’t have been capable of. It looked like it was heading through the old town and out of the city, but there was an errand to run before it got there. When the pursuers were temporarily lost around a corner it slowed to a crawl, somehow without throwing him into the windshield.
The driver’s door opened, prompting Chef Ricky to look out it. The front of the restaurant had barely any parking, but under the cars the asphalt was a slightly different color, implying those spaces never got any sun. Regulars. The kind of customer that knew your name and knew how much money had gone into formulating your dishes, regardless of how much or how little you charged.
The sign said Bren’s Platter. There were people inside laughing, their faces through the window framing a smaller sign leaning on the glass with no sense of urgency to its big loose handwriting: chef wanted. Ricky stepped down before he even knew he was moving. That’s what was so special about the Groadster; it knew where to take your food. Something real in it after all. The door closed just as the Wild Hunt swerved into view, and off it went.
“That’s it everyone, keep it up!” Ladyspiller encouraged from the bridge of Geodin. The fairanquin was fully assembled and at the wheel, veering in and out of the pack’s back. The Groadster was visible ahead, but only its blocky green top. “Who’s even driving that thing?”
“It’s the prey spirit!” Morley barked as he curled his legs and kicked the phantom of an ice cream truck driver back through the door and into the street. “Something that never got caught once when it was alive!” He tucked into a ball and fired himself out the door like a ship’s broadside cannon.
“I heard there was a fairy queen who became a prey spirit,” Fleatopia noted as she kept Fatback’s foot-face pressed on the gas. “Maybe it’s her… and she could help us.”
“Just because she never got snatched by a hawk or a butterfly net? Big deal,” Onsyquence said.
“Well she never got married either; I think that counts too.”
“Hydrant!” Chaxium shouted, pulling the wheel. They avoided it, but the car behind them didn’t. With that one out of commission that left seventeen others in the pack, all snapping at the Groadster’s heels. They needed a way to get ahead of the rest or take them all out at once.
There wasn’t much time to come up with a plan, as the Groadster had one of its own. It steadily led them into less-populous areas until the roads doubled in width. At first that didn’t seem to do it any favors. The hunt had more room to spread out, revealing the black and silver scratches now covering most of the car doors.
The spacing made it clear who led the pack, partly by virtue of lucking into slightly faster models of autonomous car. There was the ghost of a very large woman, no longer weighing down one side of her vehicle as she did in life, ahead of the rest, cackling as her shoulder blocked the others’ view of the Groadster.
Behind her, neck and neck, were a bluish specter and an ashen one. The former must’ve frozen to death, given the icicles hanging from his nose and ears. The latter was probably in pristine condition in a mausoleum somewhere, adorable except for the cruel expression contorting his lips.
“Get after him!” Ladyspiller ordered, directing Cosmos Pops to follow the car containing the ashen boy. Onsyquence asked why. “Look at the way he’s swerving. I bet he never even got a learner’s permit before he died. Plus, he’s got a bowl cut. No sane adult gets a bowl cut. He’ll screw up and crash into somebody, then we take his place.” They followed her lead, Morley popping his head in through the dash as they started the tail.
“Oh good, you’re on him already,” the ghost praised. “You’re a smart cookie, Spiller.” He winked and made a clicking sound inside his mouth, like a door closing against a molar. It was all she could do to resist insulting him. He needed to be off his guard when they caught the Groadster, thinking he had friends in the living world.
She was saved by the emergence of a foreign hand over his head, another ghostly copilot invading their engine block. Its fingers came down and grabbed him by the nostrils, pulling him back under the hood. Their wrestling over possession of the vehicle destabilized them, forcing the fairanquin to yank the wheel back and forth.
Up until that moment there had been plenty of room to do so, but the Groadster’s strategy was revealed. The prey spirit had led them right into the parking lot of a giant wholesaler called Bulky Bliss. Ladyspiller recognized it, having been very fond of their six pound plastic tubs of honey roasted peanuts that fit neatly under her dorm room bed back when she was a student. They had everything in there, from TVs to an Asian live fish market to… it hit her.
“Room to drive,” she whispered. “Slow down!” Mudguppy hit the brake just as the ashen boy in front of them also did so. The Groadster smashed through the giant front doors of the wholesale warehouse, but that was all they were, glass doors. The portal was only big enough for one car at a time.
“She drove into a box!? Why’s she trapping herself?” Promp fretted.
“It’s a maze in there thanks to these giant shelves, and it’s just big enough for cars,” Lady explained. “She’s getting us split up and lost, stuck in a Celtic knot of a traffic jam, and then she’ll just drive back out the front or the back.” The rest of the Wild Hunt seemed to be falling for it, all honking at each other and trying to shove their way through the narrow opening. Ghosts flitted back and forth between the vehicles, brawling in backseats, arguing in snarls over seniority, experience, and the bad hands life dealt them.
“I paid a third of my taxes my whole god damn life!” one of them roared as he tumbled into the back of Cosmos Pops’s car, grappling with another dead fellow who had a hardhat pulled a little too far down over his eyes to be anything other than a brain-crushing injury.
“I got a calling pal,” the hardhat ghost shot back. “I’m gonna make it so nobody can honk at construction anymore! Finally some peace!” The fighters sank into the backseat without noticing the fairy machine behind the wheel.
“Okay, they’re gone,” Lady said, “now carefully do as I say. Back up, get us out of this cluster, and go around the left side of the building.”
“Why are we doing this?” Chaxium asked, having already obeyed the order. The honking was behind them. Bewildered onlookers fled, but few of them abandoned their double-wide carts full of goods. The fairies had to plow through one filled with pool toys and drums of lime gelatin mix, the possibilities of their combined purpose more distracting than the impact.
“This state is really stupid about its liquor laws,” Lady explained. “You can’t technically sell it inside grocery stores, which this place is in addition to every other kind of store. So they just built a little extension on the side and call it a separate store for all the booze.”
“Bumblers,” Fleatopia sighed. “Only clever when they want to hurt themselves.”
“There!” Lady pointed out the entrance. The smaller store was called Bubbly Bliss, and its automatic doors opened wide for them when they got close, but not wide enough. They crashed through, immediately knocking down a display and crushing boxes of wine as they powered in. “The back wall is super thin and leads right into the main store, so just push through! Oh, but honk first in case anyone’s on the other side.”
Loftalon’s clawed hand smacked on the center of the wheel enthusiastically. Meeeeuuuurrrhhhhh! Fatback gunned it, and despite the vehicle’s compact size it busted through easily, almost majestically thanks to the purple glisten of cheap wine on its bumper and tires. The fairies were momentarily stunned by the high ceilings and the small birds fluttering around between their crevices. They were right in the middle of the lawn goods section, green ends of hose hanging off the rising shelves like a trellis full of ivy.
“Is it a church?” Cirrumstance asked, unfamiliar with both capitalism and religion, but having seen the occasional picture of a cathedral interior.
“It was mine when I was human,” Lady said rather than truly explain it. She was about to order them forward again, but she caught sight of a single, giant, clear eye in the rear-view. It was actually the light of the hardhat; he apparently never fell all the way out.
“Oh this is smart,” the ghost said with a childish grin, “heh, real smart!” The specter turned tail and flew out the trunk, off to inform his copilot of the alternate way in. Soon the rest of them would flood through.
It only took going up and down two aisles to realize they weren’t going to locate the Groadster in time, so they switched strategies. The fairanquin broke up, allowing Loftalon to take to the wing with the finches and pigeons, scanning between the sections for their quarry. Snakewaist wrapped itself around the wheel twice, back legs waddling across the dash as fast as they could to pull the wheel one way or the other, but Chaxium insisted, albeit with a stammer, that she could handle it.
After driving into the book section they rain into their first rival, the large woman who could laugh as loud as her horn, using both to tell the fairies she wasn’t going to move for anybody. They had to be the ones to back up, lest they get run over. They had barely turned out of that lane when they spotted two more cars cruising by like patrolling sharks, just waiting for a splash or shout.
Loftalon swooped in to rejoin them, but a ghost leapt out from a bin of French action movie DVDs and grabbed the owl’s feet, partly possessing it and pulling it toward a deadly crash against the concrete floor. Salvation actually came from that floor, as Morley breached its surface like an orca, grabbed onto the other ghost’s waist, and dragged them into the wholesale depths.
“It’s hiding just inside this thing that looks like a greenhouse!” Promp said as she reattached the owl to Cosmos Pops. The rest of the fairanquin joined up as well.
“That’s the nursery,” Lady said. “Take us through aisle eight!” Their speed gave them away, as all the others had to slow as they searched the building. The Wild Hunt quickly converged on the squeal of their tires, turning into a stampede once more. The few remaining shoppers, whose expressions suggested they had just realized they were physically capable of climbing, clung to the shelves like cicadas on trees, vehicles whizzing by under their feet.
They hit the nursery and caught the Groadster off guard, but they couldn’t stop. Bumper to bumper they were pushed forward, well past the green truck as it restarted its engine and took off through a row of saplings in burlap bags.
“No, swerve!” Lady ordered, but they weren’t moving under their own power anymore. The car turned and was shoved by three others, plowing through shelves of potted flowers and ultimately through the back glass of the nursery and into the narrowest strip of the parking lot. There was a ravine back there, one so deep that it really should’ve had a fence separating it from the lot, but that would’ve prevented the employees from easily tossing the brown and dying saplings that didn’t sell over the side to rot.
Not all of them were quite as finished as they looked, a few managing to take root and grow to full size where their tips barely peeked above the ravine. The most successful of them, an American holly, had been making a go of it for over fifteen years. Its roots had torn through its bag, a prison long since rotted away. It was making strides toward the storm drain and housed some lovely birds in the winter, but they might not be so interested with an automobile as a neighbor.
The Wild Hunt shoved the fairies so forcefully that their car rolled onto its side, into the grass, and down the ravine. They were the only victims as well, their skidding bulk helping the others slow down enough to avoid the same fate. The Groadster was disappearing down a rural road, so they turned and followed, honking their ghostly march.
A single specter emerged from a fleeing engine, hovering with his feet dangling as he stared down into the pit. Morley saw that his autonomous steed was useless, skewered as it was through both front windows by the holly’s trunk. It hung there like a fat Christmas ornament, tires spinning. Even if he possessed it or the tree, neither object had the range of motion to get it down.
“You let me down fairies!” he shouted hoarsely. “Maybe that damn thing’s autopilot would’ve done better.” The hunt was disappearing in the distance, and he still had a chance if he could wrestle one of the other steeds away from its current owner. He flew off as fast as he could, without waiting to see if anything crawled out of the wreckage.
Snakewaist wriggled out from under a branch, obeying Gigafive’s command. He let it rest on the wood while he returned to the prone fairies, unable to do anything but whisper in their ears. He asked them to please get up. He didn’t want to be alone, and he certainly didn’t want to go back to the squabbling he caused at the castle. Lady looked to have taken the worst of it, having jumped from Geodin when the fall started to rejoin her partner.
“I can’t be part of the team without a team,” he sniveled. That was what roused Ladyspiller, who was able to sit up and assess her numerous scratches and her crumpled wings despite her spinning head. Chaxium was brought back by the affectionate nuzzling of their pet trilobite beetle Ruby Slipper, who was forced out from her cozy hiding slit by the impact. The couple, as soon as they remembered where they were and why they hurt, embraced and kissed. Morley was gone. It was over.
The only thing to do was check on the others, and they weren’t responding by ferrier channels, so Snakewaist’s pilots forced open the cracked parietal dome and crawled out. It was difficult to tell how much damage the car interior had suffered because it was stuffed so full of bent and broken branches. The leaves were waxy and spiny, which to a fairy meant slippery and deadly, so their progress through the brush was slow.
They were most concerned for young Promp, so bright-eyed that she made others’ expressions look like a combination of dementia and cataracts by comparison. Carefully they shuffled their heels along the collar of Cosmos Pops to get to the other arm. Loftalon was in disarray, a partly-transformed wing hanging off the elbow and missing a few feathers.
Promp wasn’t in the cockpit, but the beak on the shoulder was open, implying she’d slid out from it. There were some torn leaves for them to follow and just past a bunch of red berries they found her and the others, perched on a branch right where it connected to the trunk. Fleatopia and Cirrumstance were touching Promp’s shoulders, trying to get her to stop, but she shook them off. Onsyquence was sat with his legs crossed and his head down, tracing the lines in the bark with a finger.
“Is everyone alright?” Chaxium croaked.
“We failed,” Onsyquence said, the hurt in his voice raw as a canker sore. “I wasn’t even trying and I still feel like I failed, so thanks for that… stupid bitches.” They moved past his muttered cursing.
“Everyone’s alive,” Fleatopia reported, “and ferrier damage appears minor. We’re lucky.”
“Doesn’t quite balance the rotten luck of running into Morley Stepper,” Cirrumstance added, rubbing his shoulder that couldn’t decide if it was dislocated or not.
“Why isn’t anybody helping me!?” Promp squeaked. She was pressed against the trunk, arms gripping it, trying to move the wooden skyscraper all by herself. “Come on! One, two, heave! One… You’re just standing there!”
“Sweetie,” Lady addressed, unsure what motherly corner the word had come from, “what are you doing?”
“We have to get off this tree so we can get back on the hunt! Everyone’s counting on us! Hyeeaahh!” She strained again, succeeding only in widening some of the cuts on her forearms. Her blood wiped across the bark; she stopped briefly to stare at the stain.
“It’s over kid,” Chaxium said, the throb in all four blades of each wing agreeing with her rhythmically. “Stopping them would have been good, but we’re safe. We have to take the small victory and get out. Nobody’s really counting on us. The bumblers will barely even notice when-”
“But that’s the point!” Promp cried. “This is so bad, this rule of fingerprints, and none of them even care! So much hurt, but because it’s not a sword in the side they won’t lift a finger. We can! We’re lighter than fingers!”
“Promp,” Cirrumstance said, grabbing her shoulders again, but failing to peel her away. “Snakewaist is your heroes remember? And they’re telling you it’s over. You should listen to them.”
“But this is what Snakewaist does!” she protested. “It coils around evil! It gets a grip on something that should be able to just ooze free and it stays in the fight! When all is lost the great spells kick in! That’s how I know we can move this tree if we try!” She went for it again, forehead against it, screaming at it to move.
Chaxium and Ladyspiller looked guiltily in each other’s eyes. What had they done, hurting this girl so by letting inspiration calcify inside her? Snakewaist wriggled out of sticky situations, not into them. Lady escaped humanity for fairness. They roamed to save face from banishment. And now they could slink away again with another tale between their legs of a big gross one that got away.
The face of Gerald Wallup bubbled and laughed like a mudpot in their minds, Lady’s especially. He was out there now, behind the most well known desk, getting his fingerprints all over history. Morley was going to do the same thing, just from the ground floor instead of the penthouse.
“What are we doing?” she asked Chaxium.
“And is that what we’re here to do?”
“Fuck no.” Their voices rose.
“Is that what she flew her owl out into the wilderness to see!?”
“Do we just let the palm-greasers get each other red-handed and laugh about it?”
“Who are we Chax? Who the fuck are we!?”
“The snake in the keep-off-the-grass! The wurm that doesn’t show for the early bird! The self-tangling cord of their worst nightmares! We’re Snakewaist!” Even Promp was turned toward them, planets pulled into their blazing binary system. That’s right, that’s what it felt like when Lady squeezed herself into the crevice between species. What it felt like to bankrupt a demon and watch it die from it.
“We can’t do it from down here,” Chaxium declared. “Everyone to your ferriers! Get this thing back together. It’ll be the first fairanquin lumberjack!” They rushed back the way they came, even taking to the wing despite the claustrophobia-inducing spines all around. They knew the others were behind them without even hearing them. They nearly scared some color into Gigafive when they dropped back into the control center and started flipping switches and tossing colorful handfuls of magically-charged sparkling dust in the air.
“What’s happening?” he asked, claws clinging to the console like a wet cat’s.
“We’re pulling this tree right out of the ground and then we’re winning the hunt!” Neither of them knew exactly how they were going to do that, just that they were going to try their absolute hardest. The arm was stuck in place, but a partial transformation back to their snaking body allowed it to retract and spiral to freedom. They reconnected to the heartbox. Everything stalled.
“I’m stuck,” Promp said through the channel.
“Locked up down here too,” Fleatopia added. “We’re missing Geodin; he’s not cozy.” Lady didn’t even give Promp’s expression time to sink. She immediately said she would have a talk with him, leaving Snakewaist in the righteous strangling fury of Chaxium’s hands. The trip up was short, its shortness facilitated by her taking several more cuts around her neck and shoulders and ignoring the sting of blood. Geodin was sealed up in its rocky form, the single blue eye barely open enough for her to get in.
Onsyquence was slumped in his throne, turned away from her, but she knew he was fully aware as her bare feet slapped across the icy blue tile. She tried to circle around to him, but he just spun his chair away. The petty foolishness continued for a full rotation before Lady just sat herself on the console and played with buttons. The flashing of random crystals made him turn around.
“Don’t touch what doesn’t belong to you!” he snapped.
“This is a ferrier with a chance to do some good, and there are four others out there all willing to. By all logic it should belong to me, because fairies always help each other. This head should be nodding along.”
“You’re not even a real fairy; why would I help you?”
“Oh so you think I’m human? Don’t you like those better?”
“I never said that you stupid bitch!”
“No…” she said, voice fading to a growling whisper. “No I guess you don’t. If you spent any real time with them they would’ve taught you how to swear properly. You’re fucking bad at it.”
“This is how you’re going to convince me to hook up?”
“If I didn’t care about you I could just turn around and start using these controls. You could interfere with me, but not really stop me, could you? Ripping me off this panel would hurt me.” Onsyquence looked past her to the machinery, realizing she was right. “But I’m not doing that. I just want to know what your deal is.”
“Fairies can hurt each other,” he admitted after swallowing a lump in his throat with the size and attitude of a hand buzzer. “You guys hurt me every time you show up, every time you say yeah, let’s try! I tried to mind my own business in the trunk, protect myself, but you wouldn’t let me.”
“Trying hurts you?”
“I know you don’t underst-”
“Of course I understand. We live in the age of thorny effort. Everywhere we turn we’re faced with millions of faceless people acting counter to our goals, so far that they can never even hear our cries. That’s the world of billions.”
“The human billions,” he said, cracking his fingers, wings twitching with rage. “I couldn’t stand to see the others in my tree going about their day. Gambling on falling blades of grass when there were mowers just above. They’re deforesting us, our whole kind, and they acted like nothing was happening, like it was reasonable to be happy and plan for a tomorrow that’s going to be on fire.”
“So you left.”
“You’re right I left! I went and I sat on their greasy ears and I learned why they do those things. Those thoughts, those ideas, some of them maybe even fairies who never made my mistake. They’re so self-absorbed. They can’t even see. Why shouldn’t I have that? Why shouldn’t I be able to bathe in that golden ignorance so I don’t have to watch fairies get further and further away, where I can’t fucking bitching reach them, and they get snapped out of the air… I… Ruuaarrhh!”
“They’re just thoughts,” Lady said calmly. “We humans know we’re not supposed to live in them. We mostly fail. If you went in there… it’s suicide.”
“Suicide,” he said with a sigh. “Also known as the only achievable fantasy.”
“I see. The only effort you can make where you can’t fail. I thought like that once.”
“Maybe that thought was a fairy,” he said, just as surprised as her that he struck a nerve. They stared at each other for almost a minute, digits trembling as they thought about that thought’s life, whether or not it had been a little, waxy, green capsule of an egg on the underside of a leaf at some point.
“That possibility… should be enough to make you rethink ever doing that,” Lady said, “because I don’t think like that anymore.”
“How can you not?” he asked, no longer energetic enough to be angry. He was pleading now. Ladyspiller could practically see blood pouring out of him. “Things get worse every year.”
“They do,” she admitted, “but are they worse right now?”
“Even if we had a working car it’d be twenty to one.”
“No, your math is all wrong. They’re not working together and we are. It’s six versus one versus one versus one and so on. It’s in our favor.” She could tell by the look on his face that argument wasn’t good enough. Fine. Being a fairy was about being all the fairies, so he could have it: the narrative that gave her hope when she had failed herself right out of her own family tree. “Onthinice.”
“Onthinice. It’s a family tree. Not a real one. One Chaxium and I made up. It describes us and holds us together.”
“What does it mean?”
“It means we’re always on the verge of losing something. Always, even after losing it. The line we walk is a cliff’s edge, but the power of Onthinice is that it’s an identity. Even after we fall we still walk that edge, because we’re still Onthinice. God,” she laughed, “with all the glaciers melting it describes the planet too. It’s powerful.
Being Onthinice means that all your bad feelings are built in. You’re not being flawed, you’re not making mistakes, you’re just panicking. And panicking is natural. Taking an earwax bath isn’t.
So be with us Onsyquence. Be Onthinice. Be a fairy that knows they’ll fail and perseveres, not because we’re hoping for outside help, but because our death throes are as much a part of us as anything else. We’re not here to win; we’re here to drown the loudest. We’re here to leave a mark before they can. We are-”
“Snakewaist?” he said with a tiny grin.
“Come on man,” she said, choking up and laughing, realizing she had stood from the console and was stabbing at the air around her head with a finger. “I’m trying to be your fairapist here.” His face scrunched. “Like therapist but-”
“Yeah I get it,” he chuckled, “it’s just terrible. I do like the sound of that family tree though. I think… I think when we’re done here I’ll go find the real one.” He stood, nudging her aside so he could direct a shooting star on his panel across a polished gem plate. The ferrier whirred to life, crystals rising, rotating and rearranging, opening them up to a full view of the holly canopy stuffing.
“I actually believe we can do this,” she said, hugging him from behind.
“Geodin is the greatest ferrier there is. A diamond in rough seas. A lot to handle. I could… I could use a copilot.” Ladyspiller lifted her feet, trusting the machine to provide her with a seat on the way down. Not only that, it extended a gemstone microphone for her.
“Geodin is cozy!” The fairanquin came to life, magical steam hissing out of its joints as all the limbs thrashed at full power. Krak went a dozen branches as they freed themselves. Geodin cut through the falling leaves with a scorching beam so they could get a good look at the trunk that had dared cross them. “That’s too big to be an air freshener; get it out of here!” Lady ordered.
“Hyaaaah!” Promp screamed, digging the owl-arm’s talons into the side to gouge out decent grips. Snakewaist joined in, wrapping under the thickest branch, trying to use its forearm and bicep as a nutcracker. Fatback’s tusks dug into the bark while Mudguppy kicked. Lady was tempted to look for the beam controls in Geodin, but Onsyquence warned her away from them because of the fire risk.
The machine had enough energy stored in its heartbox to go like that for ages, and eventually they would triumph, but by then the Wild Hunt would be long over and the Groadster would be nothing but roadkill. The most vulnerable thing in the car was actually Promp’s voice box, her sustained shouts quickly starting to screech and cut out.
“We’re doing our part,” Lady seethed, stalking back and forth while Onsyquence examined the possibility of spinning some of the crystals into a sort of drill bit. “And we’ll keep doing it until you work with us!”
“Who are you yelling at? It’s not me right? I’m already doing every dumb thing you suggested!”
“You’re doing great Onsy; I’m talking to the magic. It’s been batting us around every time Snakewaist goes for a casual garden slither. We did what it wanted and now we need a favor back. Come on! Give us one of those big old spells! Right to the mission statement!” She punched the air, half-hoping it would make the tree trunk in front of her explode, but with no luck.
By now they were all hungry again, but food couldn’t be further from their minds. Anger burned within them, generated a heat their wings couldn’t fan away, that served only to intensify their efforts. Cosmos Pops was like a cat clinging to a scratching post that wouldn’t stop growing, hissing and clawing and slashing because if they couldn’t get what they wanted that way they were out of options.
“Keep pushing!” Chaxium boomed.
“Really now,” the tree sighed in a voice only for itself.
“Fall, fall, fall!” Promp cried.
“This is getting a bit much,” the tree groaned.
“For the good of the world!” Onsyquence joined in.
“Even that one?” the tree muttered. “Should’ve figured fairies would come eventually. It’s my fault for showing off. Look at me, tallest and deepest of the garbage-filled ravine. The holly that can make it anywhere. Who wouldn’t want to make it with me? I guess there wasn’t much left for me to do here anyway, and if it gets them to knock it off…”
The fairanquin paused. Had they done it? The tree definitely moved, but not as if they’d cut through. The fairies inside all blinked and leaned in. The wrinkles in the bark and the branches were all in different places. It shuddered again, prompting Promp to pull her talons out before they were dragged along with. The others pulled back.
“What’s happening?” Cirrumstance asked. “Promp did you cast a spell?” She might have answered, but she was far too hoarse for it to be audible. The sound of the holly shrinking would’ve drowned it out anyway. A branch curled in the broken window and crawled across the roof. Five more on the other side. The car’s body tilted, forcing Cosmos Pops to brace itself. Snakewaist grabbed the seat belt and fastened it.
Suddenly they dropped, but not all at once, steadily inching their way down toward the ground as the holly’s trunk got thinner and thinner. Roots ripped their way out of the deep loam, splashing some into the vehicle as they crawled inside and looked for places to settle under the floor mats and between the seats. A large portion of them were immediately fond of the dark compartment of the trunk, pulling it open from the backseat and quickly filling it with a three dimensional labyrinth.
The fairies were bounced out of their seats as tires hit ground. The impact did nothing to slow the holly, as the tree had never done anything halfway and was anything but a procrastinator. Its trunk, now reduced to the width of a firefighter’s pole, centered itself between the front and backseats.
Its canopy spread thin and flat across the roof, making sure not to obstruct the view from any angle. Bridges of foliage extended seat to seat, the wood supporting them already forming knotholes that would eventually be perfect for young fairy couples and professionals to settle in. The roots were more serious-minded, making sure they wrapped firmly around the door locks and handles to keep everyone secure.
The air conditioner kicked on, blowing with a chill that was unmistakably seasonal, even spitting out a light dusting of snowflakes. Clusters of red holly berries swelled around the interior, the dashboard in particular, where some of them shifted color to match the icons they now blocked.
The cacophony faded, leaving only the purr of the engine, which was changed also. There were no flaws in it, none of that inherent gravel to the sound that suggested the process of internal combustion could not go on forever. This one now could, like the tides, like the persistence of some very disturbed fairies.
Onsyquence and Ladyspiller were back on their feet, but not all the way up, heads still ducked in case a branch decided to swing through and decapitate them, when something struck them. It hit in the stomach, like a snowball they couldn’t remember swallowing, and spread from there as icy harpoons.
Ladyspiller leaned, assuming the strange sensation would make her stumble, but her feet were frozen in place. Her gums were numb and her face stiff like she’d spent all day playing in the snow. When she looked at her flexing fingers to see if they were turning blue she instead saw the pearlescent luster of her nails fade.
There was a flash of fear, like lightning right through the middle of her brain, that she was turning back into a human. Not only could she never go back to that life and find happiness, but her growth would surely destroy her, Geodin, or both. About to shout a warning to Onsyquence, she saw that he was suffering the same transformation.
His frumpy hairy wings slumped, but then his spine quivered and they shot back out, shape dramatically changed. Now they looked like snowflakes, thinner patches letting the ferrier’s blue glow through in mesmerizing geometric patterns.
The tip of every hair on his head was frosted with white, eyelashes included, but the feathery swell on his chest, just below the collarbone, was purest white, like the winter plumage of a showboating male grouse. Ladyspiller put her hand to her own chest, feeling the luxurious softness of an identical patch. She urged her wings forward and reached back, grabbing long points that weren’t there before. She touched her ears. The distinctive moth-wing lobes of Beezgalore were gone, replaced by a few fleshy icicles hanging off the bottom.
“What just happened!?” Promp shouted through the radio. Her hoarseness was gone, as her throat had been given a fresh coat of paint.
“We’re… we’re not Candolier anymore,” Cirrumstance said as if addressing his thoughts rather than her question.
“My Fernfall things! They’re gone!” Fleatopia squawked as if someone had just ripped her underwear out from beneath her clothes and run off with them.
“Lady!” Chaxium called to her lover. They both rushed to screens so they could look at each other. Lady’s hand jumped up and tried to pet her girlfriend’s cheek through it.
“Oh my god you look so good with frosted tips! And look at this thing!” She bounced up and down, causing her winter plumage puff to do the same. “It’ll look awesome sticking out of a scarf. Can you believe we actually did it!?”
“No!” Chaxium shouted, throwing up her hands and accidentally hitting wings that were never in the way before. “This isn’t supposed to be how you create family trees! It’s supposed to be a pilgrimage of serious-minded statesfairies from their overpopulated old home, to an old growth tree wiser than the history it endured!”
“We did it with some banished dum-dums and a gutter shrub!” Lady squealed. “Oh I love breaking the rules! And I love you! And I love our new home!”
“This can’t be happening,” Onsyquence babbled, smacking at his plumage as if it was a twitching tumor. “Fairies can’t switch family trees. They can only dissolve their bodies and become notion-nymphs again.”
“Unless they make a family tree,” Chaxium corrected. Geodin amplified her words as if it agreed with them, her confidence pinging off each protruding crystal as smug echoes.
“Wait, I’m in the same family tree as Snakewaist?” Promp interrupted. “Yes!”
“Yes? Yeah, I guess yes,” Cirrumstance said. He’d seen enough strange things since the outing started that not being able to go back to his old life was just the logical conclusion.
“I would’ve liked to be in the loop,” Fleatopia griped, “but anybody who hasn’t heard of Fatback will now! The ferrier that can make its family tree go sixty miles an hour! So, what is this home sweet home called?”
“Onthinice,” Onsyquence said, eyes dancing across the points of Lady’s snowflake wings. “It’s the one you two dreamed up. I’m… Onsyquence Onthinice.”
“And I’m Ladyspiller Onthinice.”
“We’ve still got a mission,” Lady said, stretching her legs that were the same dimensions but felt new all the same. “A new friend has hopped onboard, that’s all. Everybody to your stations!”
“You really have to convince a tree to take us on,” Onsyquence said, still flabbergasted even as he sat down and made adjustments on the console. “We definitely didn’t do that… I think we just annoyed it until it gave in.”
“That’s right,” Lady barked. “We’re a car with a lot of self-drive and four squeaky wheels. Now let’s hunt!” Cosmos Pops put its mismatched mitts on the wheel and its clashing socks on the pedals. There were a few more saplings in their way, but they bowed down to let the coolest tree they’d ever known pass over. The plants popped back up after in a verdant wake, the car climbing an incline on the side of the ravine until it found pavement once more.
Eat our Dust
The radio worked perfectly, any hint of static scrubbed out by their tree’s rushing new magics, but they still had to turn the dial frequently because the newscasters just couldn’t figure out how to phrase the information the fairies needed. Ladyspiller had never heard voices so accustomed to rapidly spouting highway names and numbers between commercial breaks get so tongue-tied.
One station called it an in-progress pileup. Another called it an illegal street race. A third, which may have been the first again but with one confused caster swapped out for another, said that it was definitely a hacking-oriented terrorist attack.
Whatever the theory, none of them could account for the Groadster leading the pack of self-driving haywire cars. By all accounts that vehicle required a driver, so someone had to be hidden away inside. The fairies weren’t actually sure if the bumblers could even see the ghosts, with Fleatopia guessing that if they could it would only be at night, so in the end they would assume all of this was the world’s most captivating software malfunction.
They learned from the broadcasts that police had attempted to pursue, out onto rural hilly roads, but a few in the back of the pack, perhaps already disillusioned regarding their success, seemingly sought favor with the eventual winner by sacrificing their steeds to drive the cruisers off the road. By the time Onthinice caught up there were only seven vehicles left hunting, but a veritable school of bluish and greenish phantoms flying behind.
Ladyspiller directed them straight through, and they paid little attention to the curious faces of the ghosts as they examined the chilly greenhouse interior. Each spirit checked for vulnerabilities or opportunities, but they very much didn’t like the look of the family tree, scowling at it before going back to the business of waiting for one of their kin to crash so they could pick through the remains.
Onthinice emerged from the cloud of them. Geodin panned left and right, searching for openings to squeeze in. They had to get to the front, and they had to be the ones to take the Groadster out. There was someone with a couple ideas, and he flew to the driver’s side window to express them.
“Hey now! Look at you!” Morley declared as he backstroked through the air. “You actually got her out of that ditch? You kids are scrappier than I thought. Alright, move over, it’s my turn to show off.” He leaned to dive through the door. Pwoonk. So that was the sound of a ghost bouncing off something, of its possession being firmly rebuffed. Pwoonk. The spirit of the tree was much stronger, and even if it hadn’t been, a tree on wheels was not likely to give up its mobility without a fight.
“Uh oh, is it locked buddy?” Lady mocked in a syrupy cheek-squished tone, weaponizing some of the maternal energy she’d developed with Promp. Pwoonk. “Here, let me hit the button.” Pwoonk. “Whoops, let me try again.” Pwoonk. “Are you pulling the handle while I’m hitting the button? You know that doesn’t work.” Pwoonk! Pwoonk! Pwoonk! The fairies laughed so hysterically that they got to feel their first Onthinice tears, which were pleasantly chilled.
“That’s my car!” Morley snapped, slapping at it. Pwoonk. “You wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for me!”
“You’re right; this is totally your fault,” Promp answered for the others. “Bye now.” Fatback hit the gas as if Morley’s face was printed on it, propelling them forward. The magic invigorated every system, so they weren’t expecting it to go quite so fast. They smacked the bumper of the next car up, crumpling it. Its ghostly pilot panicked, swerving out of the way and onto the grassy shoulder where it then rolled out of relevance.
“Damage report,” Lady requested. Snakewaist aimed its parietal eye dome as far forward as it could so Chaxium could see the hood.
“I think we’re fine. There’s barely a dent. Wait… I see some root in the seam.” She realized a second later that was an understatement. The seam was striped with the stuff, but those stripes weren’t staying put. The entire hood was barely in place, quivering from the freshly uprooted tangle underneath.
They became aware of a small symphony of scratches and dings: the melody of romance between tree and vehicle. The two felt each other out, learned their ins and deeper ins, and grew more comfortable together each time they changed lanes. Of course, they thought. The interplay of magic, technology, and nature was always the greatest strength of the fairies. It was how they got ferriers. It was how they were still there in the twenty-first century.
“We’re like a bumper car!” Ladyspiller realized. The tree held the plates of their shape together, and its roots could both bend to absorb shock and push to send others off course. With the Wild Hunt’s attention on the Groadster, acting quickly was their best shot, so they plowed forward until the honking of the horns became discordant and became a chorus of squealing tires.
“Did anybody see where Morley went?” Fleatopia asked.
“Just pretend he’s in every car!” Promp shouted back. Now that there was wood spiraling around the steering wheel the young fairy seemed much more adept at manipulating it, perhaps because the talons on her owl-arm felt right at home on a branch. Together with Snakewaist they aggressively steered the craft’s nose into the side of another, and the tree finished it off with a bash from the driver’s side door. Five to go.
Not to be outdone, Onsyquence glued his eyes to the driver’s side mirror waiting for them to get boxed in by the remaining hunters. Someone came up behind. There were two ghosts behind the windshield, obviously a couple by their matching theme park tee shirts. The man had a mullet that, to a fellow bumbler, dated his death as exactly 1987, and his wife somehow had the same one.
Both of their faces were a mess of flattened nose and missing teeth, and taken in combination with the words Maelstrom of DOOOM on their shirts, it was likely they had perished together on some kind of spinning ride that should’ve been decommissioned a decade earlier.
Definitely not the sort of people you wanted coming up behind you, so once Onsyquence accounted for the mirror’s advice that objects in it were closer than they appeared, he fired a burning beam of sapphire light from Geodin, bouncing it off the mirror and sending it sizzling through their glass and across their interior. They panicked and fought over the wheel, the resulting spin creating an entirely new maelstrom of doom that took them out of the hunt and into a deep mud puddle. Four to end.
“Score one for the glitter-beam!” Onsyquence shouted between laughs. Lady offered him a high-five and then turned back to her command, but he just sat there, staring at his tingling palm, savoring all the little pops in the wrinkles of his fingerprints. Things couldn’t feel this good forever. Eventually their enemies would be on different roads, and there would be no chasing them down with miles per hour.
The Groadster wasn’t passively fleeing either. Onthinice was about to claim another victim when the truck’s rear lights flashed brighter than their engineering was capable of, blinding ghosts and fairies alike. The tree had no eyes though, and had been peeking over the lip of a parking lot, witnessing what humans do when they fight over spaces, for years. It was wise to all tricks of the road. With a tug on the branch wrapped around the steering wheel it pulled them out of the way of an oncoming freight truck with a trailer as long as the hunt itself. The behemoth’s horn wailed as it took out two hunters at once, the spirits escaping through the roof like the souls of beetles leaving their stomped husks behind. Two to kill.
Those two took advantage of the fairies’ eyes needing longer to recover, putting themselves at Onthinice’s sides and locking it between them. On one side a man with a red mohawk, dyed eternally by his own blood, stuck his tongue out and shook it at them. On the other a limp-haired woman glared, one half of her face in perfect makeup, suggesting the family had changed their mind about an open casket halfway through the funeral home’s efforts.
Maybe the mohawk wanted to make it so that self-driving cars always tuned their radios to heavy metal. Maybe she wanted funeral directors to get in a few too many accidents. There was no telling exactly what they would instill in the technology just to keep themselves around, to insist that their way of life was the pinnacle.
“Shit… uhh… okay! This is what we’ll do,” Lady said, coming up with her plan as she babbled. “That stupid dangerous thing my dad always did when he had a coffee in one hand and his phone in the other. Fatback, push the gas with your toe and lift your knee so it’s holding the wheel steady.” Fleatopia obeyed. “Good, now I want the arms to strike out!”
“But we can’t hit them!” Promp protested.
“Their steering!” A hiss and a pop as Snakewaist and Loftalon disengaged, morphing back to animal shape. The owl dove out the window and smashed straight through the mohawk phantom’s, grabbing the top of his steering wheel and yanking him off the road.
Snakewaist couldn’t fly, but that was difficult to discern with Chaxium behind the controls. In a motion so fluid that it could’ve inspired the snakes of the world to actually adopt it as their new form of locomotion, Snakewaist leaned out the other window, spiraled, and launched off the door like a spring, breaking into the female specter’s vehicle as well as her comfort zone.
She must’ve been deathly afraid of snakes in life, for even though the ferrier couldn’t touch her she wailed and panicked, dropping through her seat and abandoning ship instantly. Chaxium had to pull off the same spring trick again, but this time with the car listing away toward a cornfield. Both ferriers reattached successfully as the Wild Hunt finished crashing and burning. Onthinice collectively cheered.
“It’s not over yet,” Cirrumstance reminded them. “The Groadster.” Their quarry was still a good distance ahead, and it looked like it hadn’t suffered so much as a dent yet, even after navigating the bowels of the wholesaler.
“Why doesn’t it just stop?” Promp asked. “We’re on its side.”
“I don’t think that’s how the prey spirit works,” Chaxium said. “It can’t allow itself to be caught… otherwise it wouldn’t be the one fleeing the hunt in the first place.”
“Is it getting further?” Onsyquence asked. He tapped the map on his console and watched several tributaries of mineral water under its glassy surface measure the varying distances over time. “Yeah, it’s speeding up. We’re already at top speed. I think it’s getting used to its new body.”
“At this rate we’ll lose sight of it in five minutes,” Chaxium confirmed with her own calculations.
“But we’re so close!” Promp squeaked.
“The tree’s weighing us down,” Onsyquence said. “It’s over.” He dropped back into his seat, unable to watch the boxy vehicle shrink on the horizon. It was practically a reflex to spin his chair toward the wall, but Ladyspiller stopped its rotation halfway and yanked him back.
“You want to be an idea so badly?” she growled. “Be one. Be the first real thought of Onthinice. We’re the head of this fairanquin and it’s our responsibility to think our way out of this.”
“All we’ve got is the beam, and it’s already out of damage range! It’ll be no good tickling it with…”
“With? You’ve got it, don’t you!? Here, over here.” She pushed his back, forcing him to shuffle toward the console while otherwise frozen in thought. Lady tapped the microphone to make sure it was receiving and then bent him forward. “Spit it out.”
“Promp?” he said, as if he couldn’t tell the difference between internal notions and speech anymore.
“Yeah?” the young fairy’s voice twittered back.
“That spell you used to make us food… could you reverse it?”
“What, like turn food into dust? I guess. Just have to do the hand gestures backwards.”
“Would there be the same electrical discharge?”
“Okay!” he honked, causing all the listening fairies to wince at the burst in volume. “Now, could you install it in Cosmos Pops?” There was a pause.
“I’ve never done that before. You need a team so you have enough magic to kindle its base core over the threshold.”
“What about Onthinice? The tree’s got tons of magic now. Can you channel that?”
“Yes she can!” Cirrumstance answered for her. “You auditioned for a group once, remember Promp?”
“They rejected me.”
“Onthinice won’t! I’m heading up to the heartbox with you, get going. Th last thing we need right now is the brake anyway.” There was the sound of his safety belt clicking open; he wasn’t giving her a choice.
Promp’s audition had been in a model heartbox, formed from wood, so when she actually stepped out of Loftalon’s shoulder gate and into the open space of Cosmos Pops’s metal torso she was overwhelmed. Its stars and nebulae were present on the inside as well, but paler, like she saw them all with their backs turned.
A metal gangway ringed the entire structure; she leaned over its rail and was nearly sucked in, not by any physical force, but by the awe of seeing a heartbox core in its undifferentiated state. Like a star itself, but made of white sand so fine that it was liquid. Clouds revolved around it, magical gossamer that would be absorbed into the first thing to touch it. The sound its slow fluid spinning generated was heard in every molecule of her being, like waves breaking on the first beach to ever form, sand and water flirting and jabbing as they learned what their relationship should be.
She thought it too perfect to corrupt with her amateur magic, but then another sound broke through, that of Cirrumstance’s steps up the stairs to her level. He had her by the shoulders, pulling her away from the dangerous lean, filling her with confidence. That was right; she had a job to do. Her prey was trying to slip through her talons.
“Okay, weave it out of the air,” she told herself, hands drifting back and forth above her. She tuned her magical frequency with a whistle that echoed all around, like a songbird finding a bottomless breath. When she found it, all of it there like a sudden downpour, she tilted her hands forward, encouraging the ambient magic of her new family tree to interface with the heartbox core.
When she did the spell normally it was so small that she never saw its exact color, but as she performed it she learned it was blue, for that was the color the core took on, the shade progressively getting deeper, throwing off matching clouds, and speeding the stars around them across their plated sky.
“It’s installed,” she whispered, smiling. She could’ve stared at it for hours that felt like days, but the others needed to hear her. She raised her voice, knowing it would echo all across the fairanquin. “It’s installed!”
Back in Geodin Onsyquence worked furiously, opening channels between the heartbox and ferrier. Random crystals around them flushed with swirling navy blue magic. The Groadster was barely bigger than a postage stamp, and they were getting into hills now. It might disappear over one at any second and never return.
“Snakewaist can be a delivery mechanism, but the fangs have to make contact,” Lady stressed.
“No need,” he said, voice tight. “Geodin’s glitter-beam can be a spell. We’re at the limits of its range, but a concentrated spell only has to touch a little to be fully effective.” All the crystals around them were full now, like they sat in the nexus of a mineralized thunderhead.
“What exactly is the full effect?”
“You said it was a food truck right? So it’s full of food. We hit it, it all turns to dust, and the electrical discharge should be enough to screw up something in its inner workings.”
“Probably the battery,” Lady said with a nod, even though she knew less about car guts than she did about about the atmosphere of Neptune. “Fire!”
“Charging… charging… now we fire!” He swept his hands across the console, causing the fairanquin to lean out the window and lock on to the shrinking Groadster. A venting wind whipped their new wings as the viewing port flashed brightest and darkest blue. The beam, flagrantly disregarding the speed limit, shot forward, clipping the top of the Groadster with a few magical sparks.
Inside, Ricky’s supply of fruit took the brunt of it. Pears, apples, mangoes, and apricots paled, went gray, and then exploded into dust like depressurized mummies. Lightning rippled through the ensuing cloud, visible even on the exterior.
“Come on,” Chaxium and Ladyspiller growled simultaneously. One last snapping bolt produced a puff of smoke from under the hood, and the truck began to waver and slow.
“We’ve done it!” Fleatopia yelled.
“Fatback, brake!” Lady reminded. The Groadster slowed so rapidly that they were already close, and still going eighty. The piglet ferrier hopped off the gas and slammed down on top of the adjacent salamander foot. The fairanquin strained against the seat belt as they screeched to a halt.
They stared at the large back doors of the stilled Groadster, its tail lights blinking and fading. As they caught their breath after moving forward so relentlessly they realized they had no idea how to do so figuratively. What was the ritual that officially ended the hunt? What counted as catching the prey spirit?
Woohnk! The green doors swung open without bouncing back. Dust and smoke billowed out, but there was a shape inside the clouds. Something invisible but for the vaporized fruit rolling around it. A figure, tall, taller still when the antlers were considered. A woman? Were those wings? Altogether their eyes couldn’t catch it, and looking at it directly felt shameful, like the regret a child would feel upon accidentally squishing the frog they chased. Whoever or whatever it was, it didn’t flee. It stood there with open arms, awaiting the brave determined hunter. Ready to reward those who fought their grave so intensely that they tore it open and rolled out of dark decomposition into the shaded rays of day.
And he was ready for his reward. Morley Stepper descended from his seat on the roof of Onthinice, where he had safely been riding in the fairanquin’s blind spot. He strolled forward, pretending to use his legs so it wouldn’t look as strange when he pretended to kneel and accepted his new mantle: lord of the hunt.
“Shitty shit, he’s still here!” Onsyquence panicked. “He was on top! Does that still count as riding? Is the car still his steed!?”
“I don’t know!” Lady yelped back. “Get the belt undone!” Cosmos Pops struggled with the seat belt, but the sudden stop had strained something in the buckle; it wasn’t releasing. “Hurry!” The ghost was halfway to the spirit’s embrace, slicking back the wispy remnants of his hair. He reflexively checked his breath with his palm over his purely decorative nose.
Snakewaist rose as the fairanquin strained back and forth. Out came a fang-finger that slashed their machine free. All desperate to stop him, their collaborative effort flopped out of the open driver’s side window and smacked its neck against the asphalt.
“Hey Beautiful!” Morley hailed.
“There’s no time,” Onsyquence said calmly. Without a word to Ladyspiller he placed both hands on the console and swept, then he stepped up onto it and leapt. The venting wind came again, but without the beam. The lone fairy was the only thing to emerge from Geodin’s open facet, soaring on the expelled air.
Lady was unprepared for it the second time, the gust grabbing her by the wings and throwing her to the facet’s lip, where she hung from the cyclopean eye of the fairanquin. Even with a tenuous grip she swiveled her head to see.
“Onsy no! Come back to us!” He was too lost in the moment he’d dreamed of, his snowflake wings catching and riding the natural winds. Without hesitation he rose and then swooped, circling Morley’s transparent head and diving into his ear. None of them had ever wondered whether a fairy could become the idea of a ghost, the notion was too disturbing, but they found out right there against their will.
He was gone, turned into a swirling vapor visible inside the phantom, behind his eyes. Morley stalled. He took a good long look at the prey spirit, but his determination wavered. He squinted, head jerking away, all the way to Cosmos Pops and Onthinice.
“I don’t need this,” he said, rubbing his stubbly chin. “There are people for me back in the dark. People who really get me. You hear that?” He raised his voice. “I don’t need you fairies or any of these other limp wheelmen. Self-driving cars. It’s disgusting. I wish those bastards had just killed me faster, instead of doing it slowly with headlines. Screw you!”
Their ghostly abductor thinned and vanished, confident, where that confidence had come from he had no idea, that he’d gotten the final word in.
“Was that… Onsyquence?” Promp asked on the verge of tears. Ladyspiller barely heard the question as she pulled herself back into Geodin and rushed back to the console. Her palms made contact and it responded as if startled, like it knew its owner was gone and had been settling into a fossilizing sleep.
“We’re not done. Everyone move!” she ordered. “To the prey!” Cosmos Pops rose on its legs, its gait a touch wobbly since they’d spent so much time learning to operate pedals instead of walking. Fatback and Mudguppy adjusted as fast as they could, hobbling until they were safely in the shade of the Groadster’s open doors.
“Kneel.” The voice of the spirit was like a hundred: birds, bucks, bears, and beasts of all kinds. Strong, but not in battle, in flight. Whatever it had been in life, it was now the fish smart enough to never bite a hook, the duck that knew the decoy, and even the cow that knew the slaughterhouse for what it was.
The fairies sensed what she was becoming in this new world, where cars drove themselves, where treasure was no longer physical, and where cowardly liars somehow accumulated the power that true hunters used to earn. She was tragic, sad, and knew it herself. She was the moose caught walking down a suburban street. The raccoon breaking into a burger chain to lick its fryers.
“You are truly the lord of the Wild Hunt,” the spirit proclaimed. Cosmos Pops knelt, and she bowed her head, tapping their shoulder with an antler to imbue them with the power. “Fairies, here? The world is changing. I wish you the swiftest charges, and even swifter retreats.” The fairanquin rose, Geodin cast down in deference.
“As our first and only act as lord of the hunt,” Ladyspiller voiced into the crystal microphone, “we banish all ghosts from the computers of autonomous vehicles! Never again can they be used as steeds! And we hereby disband the Wild Hunt entirely! As much as we can!”
“And what of my fate?” the prey spirit asked.
“Uhmm… You’re, like, free!”
“Catch and release, thank you.” She was gone a moment later, along with the last wisps of dust. The fairies waited, bodies braced for a wave of magic, or at least an involuntary twitch, but they felt nothing. Fleatopia wondered aloud if only the ghosts could feel it, and that question was vaguely answered a few moments later.
Another car nearly made it to them, salvaged from the hunt’s earlier infighting. It was scraped to hell and its tires were as ragged as a skunk’s tail, but it was still operable, at least until its attempted ram of Onthinice slowed to a standstill and its drivers were ejected into the sky as if out of a jet’s cockpit. They vanished, howling and swearing, before they could even start to fall.
The fairies couldn’t relax quite yet, not with their family tree vulnerable out in the open. They returned to it, and found themselves on their way into the fields without ever touching the wheel or a pedal. The tree had watched carefully, and had made the executive decision to handle the driving from them on. When they were plowing through stalks of corn, surrounded by plants taller than them, like a forest, they felt safe enough to rejoice.
The fairies exited their crafts and met on a wooden plateau grown just for them to observe out the passenger side window. Collectively they embraced, laughing and sighing and kissing at each other. Ruby Slipper crawled all around them, trying to squeeze into the warm huddle.
“No fingerprints!” Chaxium yelled, the others joining her in a chorus.
“And finally a family tree for the times,” Ladyspiller added. “One that doesn’t sit and wait for the bumblers to destroy it. We can fight the good fights and run the good marathons! Onthinice is freedom. It’s home.”
“I’m so happy… I… I have to sit down,” Promp said, bright spots popping in her vision. She dropped down and crossed her legs, inventing a breathing exercise to make sure her ecstatic spirit didn’t drift away.
“Well I’m so happy I have to fly!” Fleatopia hooted. Despite being the grayest of them all she sprinted and took off with gusto, soaring around the holly’s trunk and shouting things unintelligible, though it wasn’t too difficult to identify the pig snorts likely made for the benefit of Fatback.
“I bet Gigafive will stay if we let him interface with the GPS and be navigator,” Chaxium suggested in her lover’s ear. Their hug wasn’t quite over yet. The only thing that could pull them apart appeared, but it didn’t know how to use its voice yet, so Promp had to point it out.
Their little bare feet, skin almost translucent, couldn’t stay still on the holly floor. Their toes wiggled like they were trying to escape in ten different directions, but the infant fairy’s expression was blank and smiling as if they hadn’t taken stock of their body parts or what they were likely to do yet.
A beautiful little creature, naked and glowing, with wings too small to be anything more than decoration, and with eyes almost as big as binoculars. They were, and had been for almost ten seconds now, Onthinice. Every feature of the fresh tree was present, from the frosted eyelashes to the icicle earlobes.
“Oh my god what is that?” Ladyspiller blurted. “And where did it come from?”
“It’s a nymph,” Chaxium explained, not any more comfortable with the little one’s presence than her partner was. “I didn’t think one would show up so quickly. A minute ago they had to be just a notion on the wind, but their instincts drew them here and now they’re…”
“Family,” Cirrumstance finished. He stepped forward and held out his hand. The little one stared at it for a moment, and then reached out, all five fingers wrapping around one of his. He started leading the child away, taking care to not go too fast. “You two don’t have to worry about this part. I’m great with kids.” He looked down at the nymph. “Let’s find where you get to sleep.”
“I feel like I just got shot,” Lady squeaked, only raising her voice when the pair was out of earshot, “but, like, instead of killing you the bullet just makes you a role model.” She took her glasses off to clean them even though the lenses were already clear.
“Yeah, we’re so not ready for this,” Chaxium agreed.
“It’ll be great,” Promp said, standing. “Cirrumstance could handle a hundred kids. He did a great job with me.” Her eyes widened. “We’re sisters aren’t we?” When they confirmed it she looked like she was about to sit down again, but a fallen brother came to mind. “Onsyquence. He stopped Morley right?’
“We couldn’t have done this without him,” she said solemnly. “I’ve got lots of work to do I guess, since I’m the one who knows magic. I have to set up magical fuel, find a way to center our frequency when we’re moving… but should we honor him first? I could have the tree make a big monument of Onsyquence and we can-”
“No,” Ladyspiller said without hesitation. “What he did was important, but it wasn’t brave. Brave for him would’ve been staying alive, acknowledging how he felt, and staying with us. The real sacrifice would’ve been for our family, himself included. We won’t forget what he did… but no monument.”
“This isn’t going to be a tree where the only good men are dead,” Chaxium said in agreement. She took her partner’s hand and led her away, back to Snakewaist. There was plenty of time to get to know the holly, and their already expanding family, but first they needed a dose of ferrier coziness to help wrap their heads around it.
Nestled inside the green serpent’s cockpit, the pair nudged the controls, its mechanical head and its glassy slit eyes hanging out the open window as they rolled along, enjoying the wind the way a dog might.
What a wild ride it had been, and so much there was to share.