And All The Foundation Shudders: Chapter One

Hello, dear readers! As promised last week in tandem with the first episode of Analogue Ruins, here’s the first chapter of my other ongoing serial And All the Foundation Shudders. A prose serial taking place in my Prisoners of This Riven Earth setting, And All the Foundation Shudders will eventually follow a number of different people as each experiences the collapse of the world we know in different ways.

A quick word of advisory: don’t go trawling through the Riven Earth setting guide unless you can enjoy the dramatic irony of knowing what’s going on long before the people in the story. The guide explicitly spoils most of the major worldbuilding ideas, and implicitly spoils a few story beats into the bargain.

Enough about that! Let’s wrap up this boilerplate so you can get to the goods. Each person’s PoV in And Alll the Foundation Shudders will have a subtitle which poetically alludes to something about their inmost nature. Our first? Jamie Underhill O’Fallows. A red-shifted autumn elf with power over decay and the things that bloom of it. In short: true fae. Her subtitle, as you’ll see, is Nine White Lilies Blossom Under the Barrow–hereafter shortened to Nine White Lilies. You may (ha–“may”) notice that I have abandoned any sense of control over my ludicrously-indulgent titles! I’m having fun, so I’m going to keep doing it.

So, without further ado, here are the document links to Chapter One of Nine White Lilies–“Ascension by Autumn from the Slumbering Land.” Enjoy!

Here’s the Google Docs link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1rFniFmHxcUaZBLKey95-sZgy1FFxRequfJrKCKCHNLE/edit?usp=sharing

And here’s our friend, the Word .docx file:

And All The Foundation Shudders

A free weird fiction web serial of the Riven Earth, most uncouthly delivered in pure prose, by

Kairlina Saelvur Urwollust
Copyright © K.S. Urwollust 2022

Nine White Lilies Blossom Under the Barrow:
Ascension by Autumn from the Slumbering Land

A lithesome shape slips through the shadows beneath the concrete fastness. Scents of water and mildew creep into a nose of pressed oak-leaves in red and gold and orange. Two double-core eyes dart about, round of pupils yet ever-glowing like a wolf gazing into the fire. Bioluminescent cheeks, and pink skin mottled with many red patches suturing it all together. And the ears, of course, big and shapely and sensitive to touch as to sound.

Her name’s Jamie Underhill O’Fallows. She’s an echo called I. She is in, short, me.

My walking reverie’s interrupted by the rumble of an explosion. Out of the tunnel from Faerie into the heated night of a late spring, and the babble of rushing waters towards a broad, squat, deliciously urban bridge on my left. A highway overpass winds across the sky behind it, and just upstream to my right there’s another, smaller, with stone supports and blue-steel trusses. And another beyond that, no less! Buildings of brick and stone and steel and glass line both banks. Human architecture… it’s just as liminal as I hoped!

But between all the sirens wailing in the distance, the constant buzz of unleashed arcane force in the air, and the telltale glows of fire on the night sky, I feel little joy.

“Oh,” I murmur, making myself stand a little taller, “oh, I fear they’re not taking it half so well as you’d hoped, old weaver.”

I sink into my mind for a spell and she’s not there. I give a shrug of falling leaves off my shoulders, and a rustle of the gown of fine red spider-silk trimmed with braided black roots. “And o’course, as to be expected, there’s complications ‘twixt a priestess and her lady.” Clear though it is that all’s not right in this city of Grand Rapids, I spare a few seconds for a fond sigh over humans and their stories.

Again I’m interrupted, this time by a shockwave of prismatic rays and the sight of two radiant figures punching furiously at concerning speeds. Could I match that if it came to it? I’m not sure. I’ll proceed as planned, then, and hope matters haven’t already degenerated to the point of folks picking fights with strangers on a whim.

I never did enjoy such things, nor the realms of Faerie that fostered them.

Swifter steps carry me along the worn porous grays of the waterfront. Towards the bridge. Towards the stairs leading up to the main street, and clear sight of the mayhem I hear echoing down–towards the place where mayhem will see me clearly.

Only, mayhem finds me sooner. Scuffle of boots, clatter of rubble and grits, the polymer tapping a rifle gives in settling to take aim. I raise my hands in hopes of buying myself at least a few seconds before she gets trigger-happy. Great gods of the old forest, does she have enough thrice-damned attachments on the front of that thing?

An AR-15. It’s always a damned AR-family piece. Never some real cherry hardware, oh no, never a Mosin or an M1A or–

Enough. Focus, Jamie. Let’s see: custom flak-jacket, all black of course. Shoulder and chest patches, a logo with a gold casing and simple bursting effect of orange streaks on a black field. A ridiculous skull-mask that’s probably Level IV in name and maybe Level II in practice.

A cape, I think, losing a little color to the sagging fatigue the thought fills me with. Of course my first meeting had to be a cape. And a wannabe anti-hero at that.

“Halt and declare yourself, trespasser!” she yells. “CORDITE is here to–“

“Cordite?” I interrupt. “You’re a century behind the times, m’heart! Notwithstanding that it’s starting to look a little like the Somme out there.” Another spray-wave punctuates my words. Water-drops outpace the sonic shock-front of impact by a split second as one of the radiant figures slams another into the rapids. “Though I confess cordite does have a fair ring of poetry to it, the artillerist’s current preference for smokeless powder would be triple-base, I’d think. And anyway, you’re loading five-five-six, are you not, that being an AR-15? ’tis…” I can’t help it. I have to snicker at least a little. “… Ball propellant, then, that’s giving your bullets their killing force.”

Gambles like this make a soul look very clever if they work, and frightful foolish if they don’t. Cordite’s barrel drifts downward. “Uh… well… that’s not all bad, right? I can work that. The return of a power from the good old days?”

I raise a hand of pale amber and stained-glass claws to hide my dark-red lips as I clear my throat. “Are you, um… are you suggesting World War One counts as good old days?”

“Well, n-no!” she stammers, lowering the gun. I’m thankful to see my fae presence works as promised: flustering, flooding human wits with a sense of surrealism. They forget their masks and speak a little truer. At least, such humans as this woman. “I mean, my grandfather fought in World War Two, you know, and I wouldn’t claim to understand what it was like at all! I’m not glorifying, I just… uh…”

She reconsiders her kit. “Um… you may pass, stranger! But know that Cordite is watching you!” She whips around, sweeping my belly for a heartbeat from her poor awareness, and hurries away from the banks and out of sight.

The night’s noise only grows. But the sirens, I note, have gone silent. And out in the rapids, one distant and radiant figure, standing, begins to dim. The other lies shadowed already, and unmoving. I look to the top of the stairs. A glance to the motionless forms.

I don’t carry the authority here that I did in Faerie. Still… someone should. Besides that, I’ve yet to test my magic.

“Now, here’s a pretty start,” I mutter. “A rail of iron.”

Of course, it’s a lie spread of old that cold iron is fae-bane. All iron is: pure iron, iron in steel, iron in human blood. In our hearts, fae are children of the middle world, or the idea of it. Iron is a fell thing from the deep stars. It’s never forgotten the self-consuming fire that spawned it–the awful heat of supernova. Even I, a fell thing in my own right, feel the freezing unseen that spills off this rusted rail. It makes my hands to peel and my color to bleed away into crackling dust on the air.

I embrace its death-kiss, and within me, I become it. Sinking into the cold until the cold becomes so familiar I can’t feel it at all. That is emptiness. Emptiness calls the rusting iron to join it. Still, it is only rusting. A ragged howl echoes across the river-shallows, and it is only rusting. A transient Lichtenberg of lightning-bolts hurtles upward from the ground past the buildings on the far side of the river and sets the clouds briefly ablaze, and the rail is only rusting.

The emptiness turns once more to cold. I emerge from my unself shell. I know again the frightful peril of this gambit, and so I know the name of fear. The necrotic blackness in my veins turns colder now. Dry. Crystalline cell-walls too entangled with iron-essence to tear myself away. Fading, fading, fading…

Rustling. Sprinkling, unfurling flakes from the rail, of black becoming orange becoming dust and then nothing. The first few peels rapidly become a torrent, and four seconds later, the rail crumbles away and my color swiftly pours back out along my limbs.

I grit my teeth. My pearly facade gives way to my true maw, dark thorny branches and brambles clattering awfully behind my plump, pretty lips. Yet no scolding seeps into me.

“Where are you, oh phantom?” I shake the thought away and drop down to the waters. They run swift and cold, though in truth I’d not call them rapids if I were the one giving the names. In any case, the cold’s not the leeching star-cold of iron, but the invigorating chill of night waters. It fills me right back up. I mustn’t forget that while I feel as strong here as ever I did in Faerie, Earth is not my home. It resists me more. I’d guessed as much centuries ago. Earth must resist any foreign magic at least a little, lest it cease to be Earth.

“Sorry about the intrusion, dear old marble,” I whisper. I daren’t cast my senses down. If Jemisin had the right of it, I doubt greatly that Earth will cherish fae much more than it would a human. A planet with heart of iron? That’s a foe all of Faerie couldn’t overcome. I’ve no wish to stir it awake if it be so.

I spare a glance to the skies, and thank my luck that the moon’s hidden by the clouds. I know not if she’s still against us. Who can say who remembers the old grudges?

Enough. I’ve reached the once-radiant figure kneeling over a mess of flesh, brain and skull.  Scraps of sun-tanned skin stretch like fronds from the seam where a lower jaw splits into emptiness. The river has already taken most of the blood away downstream. The survivor–I’d not say there’s a winner here, from the mood of it all–seems scarce more than a child. A pale slip of a girl with wisps of blond hair whipping about her head, black makeup running with her tears into the shadowy crevice of her hooded jacket.

“I…” she shudders. “I thought…”

I cloak my heart with other things. A hollow wind stirring lifeless brown leaves. “Before you speak further, child, mind that you speak to fae. I will give you truth as I see it. Not politeness, nor custom, nor courtesy nor pity.” I take a knee. The waters carry my gown outward from the spongy spotted skin of my legs in fitting effigy of a fungal cap. “Maybe that’ll suit you better now, than the words another human would give?”

“Maybe.” She rubs her nose. “I think I deserve it.”

“Hm.” Waters slosh around the corpse’s half-empty skull. “I’ve been frightful close to this. My own form of this moment. I’d give you the greater compassion, only…” I clutch my shoulders. “Someone offered me compassion then. The pain’s inevitable, of course. But you don’t want to believe it, do you, what you know in your heart? If I came to you offering succor, you’d give me anything. I can’t but see myself becoming someone I hate with someone so easy to use. So, this is the best I can do– say nothing that takes advantage.”

The shadow in her eyes deepens. “Yeah. You’re right. Fuck you, ‘cuz, you know… she’s still dead and I still love her. But you’re right. So, thanks for that.”

I lower my hands. “Only doing my duty, m’heart. So… I’ll wager you didn’t think, really. You had some power and some powerful feelings, screaming at you that nothing you did could end a sentiment as strong as all that. So you and your friend…”

“She’s my fiancée,” the girl whispers. Chokes up. “She… she was my fiancée.”

“Ah.” I sigh. “Not frightful close, then.” Visions of blood glittering in black hair. My own words arrive as though with another’s breath from my throat, my own voice a sharp whip into the present. “Same fate exactly. Fortune save us from the follies of our love, eh?”

She snort-laughs. “Yeah. God… how can I fucking laugh right now?”

“Partly dissociation,” I answer. “Partly, the airiness of the fae. Cherish this numbness. After it leaves, you never get it back.”  I consider the omen of a wounded fish in the waters at my ankles. “You already know aught I’d say. You wanted to be special.” I fold my hands. “Take solace that you’ve certainly achieved that much. After all, you’re a murderer now.”

“That’s it?” She wants to be angry, but can’t muster it. “Nothing more?”

“The woman you love is dead.” I stand. “You killed her. I’m sure ’twas an accident. Do you care? Will you feel better if I lie to you, as many might, and say it’s not your fault?”

An amber hand spreads above the dead woman. “Among the powers returning to the world, I’m sure there’s one that can return your love to the living. But she won’t forget her death. You will still have to reckon with yourself.”

“You’re an asshole,” she mutters. “You’re such a fucking sociopath.”

“You want me to preserve her body?” I ask. “It broadens your options. Better chance of finding someone who can help.”

She palms her face. “Yeah. Thanks. Sorry.”

“For what?” I ask. “Speaking your true thoughts?” Sporacular haze drifts from beneath my stained-glass claws. It settles on the broken form. Fills out to the porous dome of a half-made skull and muddled sockets like divots in snow. “Better that, child. Better that than silence, and growing fury, and balled-up fists, and a rash rush to a swift and stupid death.”

“The world was already falling apart,” she says, “even before. Is it… is it so bad that we wanted to do something? Wanted to push ourselves, even if we weren’t…” She clutches her skull. “… weren’t ready?”

“Between just the two of you?” I look up to the burning skyline. “No. It’s not a bad thing. The risks you choose to take with your life are your own. I don’t call you a murderer because I believe you did anything wicked. I say it because it’s just what you are.”

“So the fae really are heartless, huh?” she murmurs.

Aquatic tendrils sprout from the rocky stream-bed, a circle of pale blue glows around the fungal mound now covering her beloved.

“Fae don’t age.” I turn on my heel, stirring water and rock and mud. “So, we have known for many millennia death has to exist, an open path though never the only one. How else can we choose life? Should we trap others in lives they wish to leave behind, and call it a kindness?”

Her voice is ragged and gauzy. “I didn’t want my girlfriend to die, though. And I don’t think she did either. We just… we just wanted the idea of it, you know? The big cool lesbian fistfight. Two girls saving the world.”

I look over my shoulder, and see her staring at her murdering hands. “Whether word or deed, she wanted to live without avoiding death. Or if she did not, her lies to you caused this.” I exhale dry grass and a cloud of lifeless flies on whirls of pale fog. “Enough. Death has a way of mirroring us to ourselves. Look for a necromancer or a witch if you wish to know your lost love’s true mind. “

I turn my eyes back to the bank, and the stairway. “Do not even consider trusting them unless they are brave, and firm, in confessing to you that they are terrified of their power.”

“And if I don’t trust fae, either?”

Though she cannot see, I smile. “Then you are beginning to find the virtues of thinking.”

The walk back seems to pass more swiftly now that I’ve carried out my duty. Was that too preachy? I think, knuckling my chin. Too callous? I want to seed the extant life-form, not to bring forth toxin in it… I shake myself. Enough. Later. I dry quickly once I clamber back to the concrete path and approach the stairway, for there’s little of me that soaks. Think with sight and sound, not with maybes, perhapses, or should-have-beens. This is an hour of wolves.

Up the stairs, over the path dividing plain grass between a riverside screen of trees and a squat red-brick restaurant, until I reach the main road. Here’s the reason for the lack of traffic on this bridge: a madcap jam of mangled cars, many afire, one already exploded.

Blackened forms inside. Fireflies and foundlings, what a senseless disaster.

It’s simple enough to pick out living humans. They’re cold spots in the warm haze of death all around me, in the shell of a vast half-sensed form that doesn’t quite belong to me.

Rather than pluck out someone from hiding, I make to intercept a presence plunging toward me through the smoke and fire up the road. A haggard white man with a gristly face, lanky save his potbelly and clutching the stock of a shotgun. Mossberg 500 series, I believe. I glimpse the ejection port, and the brass-bottom greeting of a red shell stuck in it.

Given he’s not taken the time to unjam his weapon in such dire straits, I bring very low expectations to my wary greeting. “Ho there, sir! I’d–“

“Stay the hell away from me, you knife-eared freak!” he screams. He takes aim.

Ah. I see. My mistake was to have any expectations at all.

It’s not exactly obscure lore by this point that elves are swift. How swift tends to vary with the tale-teller, and this suits well enough to the metatextual truth, given that how swift a real elf is tends to vary with the elf. Age has much to do with it. I’m quite an old elf.

Suffice to say that when I lunge across the thirty feet between us, it takes only as long as it takes him to pull the trigger. My right hand wraps the muzzle and yanks the piece away past my side before he can check it. After that, the harm I did his wrist occupies him.

“I knew the old tales had fallen out of favor,” I mutter, partly cloaked by his screams at the red-painted shard of bone jutting through his limp flesh. “Still… ’tis a poor choice for you. Now, you can call a fae lady many things.” I cradle the shotgun, press the release, and manage to coax the shell into place. “You may call her quirksome, or wicked, and you may surely call her dangerous. You could even call her a freak, if you did so in the right way.” I consider the weapon. Turn it side to side before me. The iron in its barrel chitters at me.

“The only reasons you’re still breathing are that your insult gives me an excuse to acquire your weapon, which I like, and that I happen to have a most untoward fetish for being slurred.”

He’s almost slackjawed by now. “What?”

“It turns me on when people insult me,” I repeat. “A terrible quirk. I’ve no idea how I came by it. Still, examples must be made–and I’m not one to trust such a man as you, free.”

I seize him by the collar, quite careless about the cuts my claws dig into his flesh. His kicking feet scuff on the street, then the sidewalk of the intersection ahead, and finally in the dirt of the planters. Poor soil, but not too poor for my purposes. And it’s true there’s iron in human blood, but a fae’s weaknesses are no more binary than those of a human. In a dose of ten grams or less, I could even ingest it. I’m told it’s a potent hallucinogen for us.

So to call his veins to the promise of rotting open, his cells to the promise of coagulation, to bring forth the festering and the moldering and tendrils burrowing from his skin–it barely even stings. Just a few pinprick sensations. For me, that is.

I fill myself with surgical disinterest at the sounds he makes. His screaming, his writhing and gurgling as his back splits open into a mass of blue stalks. Translucent, milky roots burst from his shoes and dig into the soil. Shoots pour upward from his skull, and the glow of phosphorescence kindles beneath his skin.

I palm his cheek, speaking the ancient words in a soft and motherly voice.”‘Fear the day when the foundations of Faerie shudder, for all the roots of humankind are in its soil, and if the Fair Folk become but autumn leaves, then we are only dust.'” A pat on the trembling, sweaty skin. His tongue flails. He wheezes. But there is black mold filling his throat, and fuzz on his gums. “You will remain here until you learn your lesson, and emerge from your old self to become a man of spores, or dry out and die.”

I smile, thorns and brambles. “It is quite fair, as fae games go.”

His last human features stretch and discolor. His teeth, and spine, and ribs and jaw-bones remain, fused here and with the mottled skin of the mushrooms he has become.

“Holy shit.” A small voice, and feminine. I whirl to regard a quaint punk pairing: both black girls, one pixie-faced with a puff of neon pink hair, the other taller and broader with fiery red dreadlocks. Piercings, and netting, and spiked clothing abound. It’s the larger woman who speaks. “You’re, like… legit fae.”

“I should certainly hope so,” I answer. “If I was human, what I just did would be absolutely horrifying.”

Beside me, glowing spore-clouds spell out the essentials in basic English:

I slurred one of the Fair Folk. Water me if you would see me have a second chance.

“I, uh…” the shorter woman speaks, in a much deeper voice. “I feel like he’s probably going to dry out.”

I shrug. “Then he will perish before he can learn the name of God. Second chances must be given before they can be earned. There is no redemption without communal grace.”

“Oh, yeah, to be clear,” she says, “I’m saying you should’ve just killed him.”

“That would likely have been kinder,” I agree. “But that is why we’re called the Fair Folk, you see. We are not always kind. We are seldom reasonable. But we are very…” I grin, relishing the rustle of thorns inside my mouth, “fair.”

I hold the Mossberg forth in offering. “Here. You need this much more than I do.”

“Oh, hell yeah–” the larger woman says, reaching for it. The shorter swipes it.

“You don’t know how to shoot,” she says.

“Might I know your names?” I ask. “If you are cautious about speaking them, I understand. Still, I am likely even more ignorant of the situation than the two of you. We should find a safer place to speak. Then, I would be grateful for any information you can offer.” I tilt my head. “I will, in fact, owe you a favor. A fae-vor, if you will.”

“Oh my god.” The taller woman tugs on a dread and scrunches up her lips. “That was fucking terrible.” She shrugs. “Gotta be honest, the name-stealing thing never bothered me so much. You steal my friend’s, though, and I’m gonna pull your ears off.”

“It’s, uh… kind of personal,” the pixie-faced girl agrees. “Really personal.”

“I swear that even if I knew a spell for such a thing, I would not,” I say. “That little red-brick building near the waterfront, will that suffice for safety?”

“Sounds good to me.” The woman with the flame-hue dreads falls into step beside me. Her friend, by right of holding the shotgun, takes the lead. “At least for a minute.”

Soon enough, after the help of a little elven muscle to rip the locked door loose, we’re hidden away in a corner-booth where we can watch the bridge without being exposed to traffic on the road, or anyone moving in the parking lot to the south.

“Right, so,” the larger woman extends her hand. “I’m Akenzi.”

“Kestrel,” her diminutive friend says.

I smile. “That is a spectacular choice of name. And it’d be foolish indeed of any fae to thieve it, if even they could.”

“Thank you,” she says. “Is that, like… even a thing?”

I frown. “I’ve met none in Faerie who wield such a power, but no more does one fae know all fae, and all they can do, than one human knows every human.”

Kestrel smirks sidelong at Akenzi. “Fucking called it.” Akenzi rolls her eyes.

“Jamie Underhill O’Fallows,” I offer, shaking their hands in turn. “So… I will offer my perspective first. In very incomplete terms, your world, this mortal Earth, has for a long time been cocooned from the greater ways of our universe. In Faerie, that manifested as a phenomenon we called The Wall. Two thousand years ago it surged up with nary a warning or a would-you-kindly. Strong as the fae may be, all of us together could not break it–and we did try, m’hearts, for the forests of Earth are yet dear to us. Any who tried to pass through were burned–if they persisted,” I shudder, “they burned right out of being.”

A pause. “Two hours ago, The Wall disappeared. Instantly, completely, with no sign it had ever been there. I’ve wanted to visit Earth for a long time. So, I came, and…” I gesture to the windows, and the sky full of embers beyond.

“That answers, uh, some stuff,” Akenzi says. She frowns. “Hey… how do you know what the time was?”

I grin. “I keep a personal computer in my home. The Wall did not allow beings through. Information, however, it seemed fine and free with–so long as it was coming our way, and not yours.” I raise an eyebrow. “So, yes. I’ve spent a great deal of time on Earth’s internet. I know the sort of stories English-speaking humans like to tell about the fae, and I was not surprised to hear you assume that I might steal your names. Otherwise? As I was coming through the tunnel earlier, I heard a clocktower’s tolling. It is true that I know the name of this city is Grand Rapids because it is simply a fae gift to know the names of things.”

“And… people?” Kestrel asks.

I shake my head. “People are not just ‘things’. Their names, I cannot know so easily.”

She relaxes. “That’s, uh…” Again, that stiffness, fiercer this time. “Fuck it. You’re the first person I’ve met who’s not human. The first who’s, you know… magic. I want to get this over with.” Her tension radiates out, raising phantom stiffness in me. “I’m a trans woman.”

A slower nod, which I give with the respect this is due. “I had thought so, but of course, it was for you to speak if you were comfortable. You say you’re a woman, so you’re a woman. Simple as that.”

“Okay…” she exhales. Sags. “Thanks… that helps…”

Akenzi hugs her. “So, uh… fact is, Kes and I don’t know much more than you. Got this real weird feeling at 9 P.M. A few minutes later, crazy lights started going off all over the city. And, um…” She squeezes her eyes shut. “When I ran into my parents’ bedroom to find them, they were gone, and so was my kid brother. I-I thought Kes would be gone too…”

She breaks down. I hold my own counsel while Kestrel comforts her.

When it seems acceptable to do so, I ask my next question. “Do you know what the great blaze is? Further up… whatever street that is, running up the hill?”

“Fulton,” Kestrel answers. “And, yeah. There’s a bunch of government stuff, including police, in a big building up there. Akenzi and me were nearby. A bunch of, like… I wanna say they were anarcho-comms just dropped down from the buildings. Lightning, fire, one girl who had a bunch of summon swords.”

“And they attacked?” I ask.

“Uh… you’d have expected that, right?” she says. “But no. One of them pulled out a megaphone and started giving a speech.” At my groan, she nods vigorously. “Yeah? Yeah. Like, I’m not surprised. I know people are dumb. You give someone superpowers and they start talking shit to everyone.” She folds her arms and slumps forward into them. “Cops showed up pretty quick, some of ’em from inside the building. Standoff starts. Then some fashy-looking assholes come sprinting out of the little corner park with the monument.”

I wince. “And they attacked.”

She pushes her lips together, widens her eyes, pushes back as she speaks. “I thought for sure they were gonna. That’s the big fear, right? The fash gets all decisive and cuts the lefties apart while they’re giving their big speech. But I’m getting the impression you and me are both,” she considers, “guilty of giving credit where it’s not due. I underestimated how stupid people are. No, the fash leader, in his full-body Confederate Flag outfit–“

“We’re in Michigan,” Akenzi adds helpfully.

“–also gets up with his megaphone and he started giving a counter-speech, they started screaming over each other, a cop gets up to try and ‘restore order’, obviously handling the fash with kid-gloves while waving his gun at the anarcho-comms, and then of course it’s the fash leader who punches him in the face so hard his head explodes.”

She grimaces. “Then it turned into a big, messy fight between a bunch of people with powers they had no idea how to use and a few trigger-happy cops. Total massacre.”

“We only got out alive because we were already headed away when it happened,” Akenzi says. “This, uh…” A cloud passes over her features. “This is after we ran into the queer supervillains. Kept saying they were leftists, but they also wouldn’t shut the fuck up about how they were going to strap us down and hypnotize us, how we secretly liked it and we were just being uptight.” She looks well and truly ill. “I…”

“I couldn’t tell, that’s what keeps eating me,” Kestrel says. “They made so many jokes that I couldn’t get any feel for who they were inside. No way to ground myself. So I genuinely don’t know if they were seriously thinking about pouncing us and forcing us into hypno and doing all the other shit they talked about. If I just had a straight fucking answer I could anchor myself in it, you know? I don’t know if they’d just spent so much time hyping each other up that they don’t know how to talk to outsiders like normal people, or…”

Her words ebb. Somewhere away in the night, there’s the slow rumble of a collapse.

“I’m familiar with it, that poisonous tripe of a ploy,” I say. “It’s the real purpose of many of the worse fae riddles. The non-answering. Twists you up. Wastes your energy. Exhausts you enough that you’ll just go along with whatever heartbleed scheme is afoot.”

“Yeah.” Kestrel taps a rhythm on the table. “All I know is they kept crowding us, following along, and Akenzi was visibly terrified and they thought it was funny.” A familiar rage enters her eyes. “My girlfriend was scared and they thought it was fine because they were just fucking joking… yeah. Sure they were.”

My reserve fails. “Would you like their skin? I’ll bring it to you if you wish. A gift.”

“That’s…” Akenzi casts her eyes about, trying to read the answer to all this in the red-shifted shadows of the abandoned eatery. “I don’t know. Maybe that is the right answer. I’m too worked up. Can’t think clear. Everything I’ve ever done when I felt like this, I regretted.”

“Let’s go with no,” Kestrel says. “Honestly, it’s just… I think I just needed to know you didn’t think we were crazy, you know, or prudes or something? Like, god, I want to be into hypno, but how am I supposed to trust people like that with total control over me?”

“I do not know their hearts either,” I say, “but from your description, it sounds as though they want to force you to ignore your own discomfort rather than working through it.  If they’re bluffing, there’s no way to separate the look of the bluff from the look of the real threat. That is all the reason you need to fear, and stay away.”

“Elven wisdom?” she asks.

I consider. “I… I suppose by definition it is, m’heart.”

“Well, I appreciate it too,” Akenzi says. “I’m glad the first, like, magic-magic person we meet is cool.”

They like me? These girls like me. Is this what surrealism feels like from outside?

“Glad I could help,” I manage. “These ironically-unironic supervillains you mention. Do they have uniforms, a shared appearance? A few, I can surely take, but they sound likely to pile on in large numbers and scorn the laurel. Diplomacy, I mean.”

“Well, no real uniforms yet, but a lot of them had a black and gold color scheme,” Kestrel says. “I saw a couple of different versions of a symbol going around. Six smaller spirals around a big one in the center. I, uh…” she sighs. “I’d love to tell you they were all white, but no… it was a pretty diverse group. I guess I can’t blame folks for gravitating to someone who promises them power, that they can get revenge, that they won’t have to feel scared anymore, but did it have to be so goddamn grody? A few were furries who I guess got a transformation out of this mess, whatever it is.” She sniffs. “Fucking figures.”

The pieces fall into place. I straighten. “Is there something you’d like to be, Kestrel? Other than human?”

She looks away. “I, um… I know it’s not the same. But you said fae do like to travel, so… have you, um… have you met any…” Her hopeful eyes come up to meet mine. “… demons?”

Oh. Oh, you poor child.

It takes as much will to force these words from my lips as it did to court the iron railing, earlier. “Though I am fairly old for an elf at some one-thousand three hundred and sixty-eight years, I know little of demons. Only the eldest children of Faerie can say they’ve met the infernal brood in person, soul to soul. It’s true that there was a great war, long ago, and… and I was told the history of humans and demons in that war is among the greatest tragedies any world has ever known.”

Kestrel hugs herself. “We were the ones who betrayed them, weren’t we?”

My claws trace rasping circles on the tabletop. “That’s the tale as I heard it.”

She toys with an empty glass. “Yeah. I figured, y’know? I’m human. I know how humans write stories.” Another sniffle. “Other than that, you ever hear about them?”

“I heard that they were complex beings,” I say. “More so even than fae, and humans. Obsessed with their own completion. Strange strivers. But,” I shred a napkin into little slow-growing moss strips, “there are levels of pain that make us lose ourselves. A few demons of the elder Earthly days do survive. I can’t say how many. But they’re very old, very powerful, and I truly don’t know if there’s a one of ’em left who would nurture a fledgling as once they did so quick.”

Visions of fire, of leering fangs. Flesh burning. Sight splitting with a shattering mind. “I’ve met one. One was enough.”

Kestrel folds. I’m watching a dream die before my eyes. The light going out of her. Her breath losing its deepness. And I can’t bear it. I should hold the words in, but…

“I can open a circle,” I say quickly. “Get the two of you out, to Faerie. If there’s anyone left who knows of a demon you can look to, you’ll find ’em there. I’ll open your way to the Hale House on the Winding Sigh. I know of the fae lord who rules there. Muir Halgair, the old Viscount of Glass. He’s older than I, and as strange a sort as you’d think, but he’s kind and generous and many fae owe him favors. There’s none better to help you on your way.”

It takes a few breaths, but Kestrel’s eyes get some of their shine back. She pulls herself out of her hunch. “Yeah… he sounds good. Yeah! Let’s go for it, Kenz!”

I hate myself for baiting her with false hope. Well, I guess there’s naught left but to bait myself too. I hope the journey helps her grow enough to take the crushing when it comes.

“Fuck,” Akenzi says, “seems worth it just to get out of the city.”

“Oh, right, that point.” I click my tongue. “What’s the fastest way out? I’d no control over where the tunnel would come through, y’see, with all the old anchored ways vanished long since. It’s the killing time. They’re all fire and stupidity, these upjumped ones. Needs a while before the taste of death takes the glitter from their power, and things settle out.”

“Northwest,” Akenzi says. “We’re already on the northwest side of the city, so if you go further you’ll get out. After the first few blocks over the bridge it’s mostly suburbs, like…” the shadow comes over her eyes again. “Like my family’s place. Here.” She pulls her phone out. “Number combo’s 7731. Google maps…” she checks. “Yep, still works for now. Once you’re out, stick to the west coast. It’s less dense. And given you’re a pretty white-coded elf, all the boogie families out on Lake Michigan will let you into their homes no problem.”

She shakes her head. “Ha, you know what? Fuck ’em! I’m taking my girlfriend and I’m going to Fairy World! Fuck this country, I am so out!”

I exchange a wry look with Kestrel. Yes… there’s something there. A sparkle in the deep.

“Like… they’ll probably know better than anyone else where to find my family, right?” Akenzi asks.

“Perhaps. Kestrel,” I say, standing. “I know little to the left of nothing about what it takes to become a demon. But I know this much: you do not need another demon to do it for you. It would help. But it can be done alone.”

She seizes my hand, squeezing with stunning strength for such a small girl. “Thank you, Jamie. I mean it. When I get there, I’ll owe you a favor in turn, okay? I…” Tears glitter in her eyes. “Yeah. I can do this. I’m gonna be me!”

I creep to the door, dimming my colors and my sheen to peer out. Stillness. Smoke.

“Getting quiet already,” I mutter. “Dangerous in its own way. Fights show you where people are. They shape the paths others take to get away. There’s predictability around a slaughter. When the night gets quiet…” I trail off, looking to their faces. “Sorry. Fae habit, muttering to m’self. Come.”

Back to the path leading down to the river. Quickly to the grass, to the life I raise with an upward lift of my hand, to the glowing circle.

“Remember, girls,” I say, “fae are complete people, same as humans. Some are compassionate and will help you for nothing but the price of a smile. Some are vicious monsters. Appearance is no guide. If you can’t get a sense for what’s beneath, get away.”

“Thanks, Jamie,” Akenzi says. “This is more than anybody’s ever done for us, aside from my mom and my dad. Just, uh… who do we tell him sent us? The Viscount, I mean?”

I’m not strong enough to meet her gaze when I answer. “Don’t mention me unless you have to. Just say ‘an elf.’ Plenty of elves in Faerie. I… I’m not a very good person, Akenzi. They’re liable to take ill hearts against you, if they know it was me who sped you on your way. But if you have to answer, be honest. And if that happens… I’m sorry.”

“Hey, for what it’s worth?” Kestrel shoulders the Mossberg and steps into the circle, arm in arm with Akenzi. She faces me. “You seem pretty alright from where I’m standing.”

The soil contorts up, crawling along their bodies and pulling them down–slow one moment, and a great rush the next. The mushrooms fold back into the depths.

My breath bursts out of me in a quaking rush. “By the phantom queen, I hope you’re right,” I murmur. “I truly, truly do.”

So I step off the path and back to the sidewalk. And much I’d do, and many places I’d go, in the future that falls out of my grasp the moment a strident voice rings out.

“Halt, strange one! I wish you no ill will, but I must challenge you to know your nature!”

I turn, wearier in heart than ever, to face a figure standing with her hands planted on her hips. A tall human, heavily muscled. Her black hair blows sideways as if in a breeze, even though the night is still. A great billowing orange cape, a green spandex suit, and the emblem on her chest of many hands of every skin tone clasping a bright light. The skin of her lower face, beneath her bright purple mask, looks to be an even shade of brown.

“Because I am the beacon of togetherness, the power that gets stronger with every heart that shares it!” she bellows. She spreads her arms. A pulse of silver radiance explodes from her, amply bright enough to catch every eye within three miles as she widens her stance and shouts at the top of her lungs, “I am Synergy!

“Maiden of decay,” I groan, “just kill me now.”

-To be continued-

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