This week’s short story is also featured on this week’s Marvelous Miscellany Podcast. You can listen to it and a ton of other original stories here, or on your favorite podcast platform.
The fairy twisted underneath the street lamp nearly splitting itself in two. It stretched its strange and angular form to try to slip through the iron rings of the snare that pinned it to the lamp. It’s captor, Brent Brooks sat on a low brick wall that surrounded the front yard of one of the more expensive looking houses on in the neighborhood.
His elbows were on his knees, hands clasped together, a look of patience on his face. He had always been told he looked young for his age, but felt ancient, worn thin like an old coat. Three hundred years would do that to anyone.
“All right, let’s try this again,” said Brent. He sat up and the fairy stilled. Its shimmering form was in constant movement, like a living scribble. Everything about it was made of sharp angles and jagged lines. Its eyes were flecks of fire, and its teeth were horribly pointed. It stretched its shape to be just about as big as Brent, if not larger, and wrapped its body in the illusion of a green suit.
Nothing about fairies is real, least of all their clothes. Deception and illusion, lies veiled as truths. This is how fairies operated and Brent was getting a little tired of it.
“Where did they take my friend?” asked Brent, for what seemed like the hundredth time.
“I won’t tell you!” snapped the fairy, its hair flaring briefly into flame as rage coursed through it. “I won’t! I won’t! I won’t! You silly mortal you’ll waste away, flesh melting to bone melting to ash, yes, before I even consider telling you where we took your friend.”
“You’ll be waiting a long time, my friend,” Brent stood and approached the fairy. A driver passed, the car’s headlights briefly illuminating the scene. If any passenger had noticed them, they should just see an unremarkable beggar talking to a pole. Assuming Brent cast the spell right, of course.
“Look, as much as I’d love to play who-will-live-the-longest with you, I really don’t feel like wasting a night watching you squirm. So you have two choices: You can tell me where they took Keith, or you can stay pinned to this lamppost for a couple hundred years. Your choice.” Brent waited for an answer, but the fairy just glowered.
Brent turned and began to walk down the street. He had hoped that the fairy would know something. It was only a minor sprite, capable of holding a solid form only briefly. Brent doubted that it had been entrusted with anything important.
The fairy softened, its edges melting and fraying. Its eyes drooped and the fire in them dulled.
Brent stopped and turned. He raised an eyebrow.
“Your friend was not taken. He arrived.”
“You mean he willingly crossed over?”
“Yes, yes, yes. To see the Queen. He was spirited to her court.”
The fairies were always obsessing over their made up royalty that populated each of their territories. San Fransisco alone held at least a dozen different courts, each jockeying for more power. A whole lot of gang wars happening under people’s noses.
The fairy flattened, almost melting into the pole, its body shrinking to the extent that the trap would allow it. It fixed him with a frightened gaze and whispered, “The Queen of Salt and Sorrow.”
The bus stop was deserted apart from Brent and the changeling. It sat very still next to him, eyes fixed ahead. It was an almost perfect facsimile of Keith. It watched the cars slip past, just like how Keith might have, with a certain removed curiosity.
Brent sighed and sat back, leaning against the bench. He closed his eyes. He felt himself begin to sink into the bench, his body relaxing into sleep. He hadn’t slept in two days, not since he discovered the changeling.
Keith and Brent had met by chance after a troll began camping at a bridge in Golden Gate park. It attacked Brent when he was walking his dog one night. He still remembered the twelve foot tall creature towering over him, yellow eyes glaring hungrily at him, blood and spittle dripping from its huge mouth. Keith appeared, a UV light in one hand and a net in the other, and the troll turned to stone.
From that day on, they would have brunch at a French place nearby and discuss the latest changes to the supernatural scene in the City. Amateur stuff mostly. Excited retellings of how they saw what must have been a witch at a Delores park, or rumors of a werewolf in Chinatown. Keith even swore he saw the creature that lives in the bay.
Then two days ago Keith had been abducted. The changeling was pretty easy to spot. It had none of Keith’s sense of humor, nor his mischievous streak.
A hand nudged Brent and he opened his eyes. The bus was here. The changeling stood and took out Keith’s phone — or was that too a reproduction?
They boarded the bus and took some seats near the back. The bus was mostly empty this time of night and so Brent felt safe enough to ask, “What do you know about the Queen of Salt and Sorrow?”
The changeling blinked, turning away from the window, and said, “I don’t have any memories about her. I— or Keith remembers reading something about her before our memories split.”
The changeling paused and furrowed his brow and bit his lip exactly like Keith would do.
“And?” asked Brent.
“Yes, and? What did Keith read?”
“Just that the Queen of Salt and Shadow is one of the oldest Faelords in America. The only older faelord is Mhari in New York. She is a bookworm or scholar.”
“And what about you? You remember anything?”
The changeling shook his head. It cocked its head. Despite being a near perfect replica of Keith, it was off somehow. It was the culmination of these small differences that tipped Brent off.
“No… not really. Just sort of images, impressions. Some snatches of sound, laughter mostly. I mean changelings aren’t really alive before they’re made. I was just a seedpod basically.”
Brent grunted. They came up to their stop and got out. Down the street he could see the sign for where the fairy said the court was located: a bar called the Riptide.
The bar was busy for a Thursday, most of the tables were full but the bar itself was empty apart from what looked like regulars. They were greeted by the bartender as they entered. Not-Keith ordered some import beer and Brent ordered gin.
“Are you sure this is where the court is?” asked Not-Keith, sipping his beer.
Brent had begun to doubt it himself. Apart from a fireplace at the far end of the room, the bar was much like any other dive bar in San Fransisco. The walls were decorated with a warring collection of fishing and hunting memorabilia, and the floor was covered in scattered sawdust.
Brent shrugged and sipped the gin.
He watched a cook emerge from the kitchen and scan the place. He not so subtly looked at them before returning to the kitchen.
“Get ready,” said Brent.
Not-Keith cocked an eyebrow. A pair of thick, meaty hands slapped down hard on their shoulders, spinning them around. A bouncer glared down at them. His face looked like it was hastily carved into stone .
“Alright, you two are outta here,” he said.
Brent sipped down the rest of the gin. He set the shot glass on the bar and flicked the bouncer’s hand off his shoulder.
“Look, can you let your queen know we are just here to talk?”
“She don’t wanna see you.”
The bouncer hoisted them off their stools and dragged them outside, flinging them onto the sidewalk. Brent brushed the dirt off his coat as he stood. The bouncer grinned stupidly at him before going back inside.
He helped Not-Keith back to his feet.
“Now what?” said the changeling.
“Now, we find a way inside.” Brent pulled a small stone from his pocket. It was small and white, worn smooth by endless pounding tides and through the middle was a hole. He held it up to his eye.
Through the witch-stone, the bar’s brick exterior fell away and a twisted wall of driftwood appeared. The driftwood was impossibly large. Sea glass was embedded in some areas, reminding Brent of windows. Urchins the size of coconuts and seastars larger than a house cat crawled between the smooth logs, chittering softly. Brent could hear faintly the distant sound of laughter and music coming from the invisible upper stories.
He glanced down the alley that ran beside the building and saw a gap in the wall.
“Come on,” he said, putting the witch-stone away. “There’s a way in here.”
Not-Keith followed as Brent ran his hand along the brick wall. It felt solid enough. The illusion was good. Almost like the real thing. Brent pressed on the bricks where he had seen the gap and tried to hold in his mind the fact that this wall that felt so insistently solid was nothing more than air.
The wall softened. He felt his hand slip forward. It was like pushing through a cobweb. The illusion strained to hold on, but it finally snapped and Brent stepped through.
Not-Keith looked wide eyed at the wall where Brent had just passed through.
“Come on,” said Brent.
“Where did you go? How?”
Brent reached through the illusion and pulled Not-Kieth through. He yelped in surprise as he passed through the illusory wall. Not-Kieth sputtered and wiped his face as if to clean off the illusion.
They stood inside the outer wall of driftwood that surrounded the court. Urchins edged nearer, curious. Their spines were half a foot long in some places, and each seemed ready to impale a stray limb at a moment’s notice. Brent wished he had brought the machete.
“Alright,” he said, “we push through to the court and once there, find Keith.”
“You think that the queen would just let us go?”
Brent shrugged. “Probably not. But maybe if we ask nicely she might not rip our heads off.”
“Don’t worry,” said Brent, “they can just grow you a new one.” He turned to the thicket and saw a small gap where a log had split and squeezed through it. So they advanced, slowly at first. The smell of the ocean, of the salt and rotting seaweed grew stronger as they struggled through the driftwood forest.
They heard the water before they saw it, the slow rhythmic boom of the surf.
The courtyard, as Brent had come to call them, of any faelord is where you truly get to see their madness on display. The court of a faelord consisted of three elements that seemed to remain consistent no matter where the fairy built its nest. An outer defensive wall to keep mortals out, an inner courtyard often filled with a menagerie to delight the faelord, and then at its heart a keep in which the court itself is held.
They stepped out onto a dune that spilled down into a sea. A distant sky filled with stars and a moon hanging in the sky shone with soft silver light, illuminating the scene. Brent figured that this too was an illusion, but he didn’t bother checking. This deep into a court there was no point.
The salt in the air tasted brighter than normal, and the waves curled elegantly as they broke on the shore. Below them, beneath the black water glowed small golden lights. Laughter rolled up the shore to them, carried on the waves.
“Did you bring a swimsuit?”
Not-Keith looked confused. Brent sighed. Keith’s sense of humor certainly did’t translate.
“Never mind,” he said and he started off into the water. It was cold, almost numbingly cold. Brent had to focus on his breathing, repeating with each breath that it was an illusion, only an illusion.
The water came up to his chest now and he was lifted up as the waves come rushing to shore. He felt himself hold his breath as a wave washed over him. The water felt so cold. The salt tasted so real. He had to remember An illusion! It is all an illusion!
He kept pushing forward until the ground dropped out beneath him. He could see the golden lights below him, hear the tinkling of delicate music and the sound of laughter, moans of pleasure echoing up to him.
He suddenly felt seized by a desire to dive down. He fought against it.
“Keep walking!” he called out between the waves which now swept over his head. “It’s not real! The water is not real!”
He said it more for himself than the changeling.
He stepped forward and felt himself falling. Water swirled around him, pushing into his nose and burning his eyes. He felt himself get lifted by a wave and swept around, rolling and tumbling. He hardly knew which way was up.
Brent kicked out his feet, desperate for purchase. His lungs burned. His mouth strained to open. The water roared in his ears. He finally broke and sucked in water. He felt it flood into his lungs, icy cold.
A hand grabbed his jacket and pulled him up. He felt his head break the water and he gasped for air. He lay on the seafloor, staring up at the moon through the water. Seaweed waved lazily beside him and a fish darted past.
Brent sat up and took another breath. Water or illusion, he couldn’t really tell. In any case, it was breathable. He turned his head and saw Not-Keith squatting behind him.
“You almost drowned.”
“I noticed,” said Brent. He stood, half expecting his clothes to be wet. The illusion was good. He could still feel the water in his mouth, pushing into his lungs with every breath. A florescent fish darted past him and he swatted at it. It burst as his hand struck it, the illusion popping like a bubble.
“Let’s get Keith and get out,” said Brent.
Not-Keith nodded. “I think the court is that way.”
He pointed to a structure that looked like it was built out of coral with seaweed streaming like flags from the top. There was a warm glow that shown through sea glass windows. The music was louder now and punctuated by laughter and calls for wine or food or sex. Sometimes all three.
Brent flicked up the collar of his jacket and trudged forward through the sand toward the keep.
He hated being in fairyland. It wasn’t a matter of deciphering illusion verses reality — it was all illusion. The struggle was to choose which illusions to believe and which to reject. That is what really caused madness.
A fairy in the shape of a seal with tentacles instead of flippers leaned against the wall next to the entrance. It offered up a tentacle languidly, and said, “Do you have an invitation?”
“We lost our invitation,” said Brent.
“That’s too bad,” said the fairy. It played with a bit of abalone shell it was trying to arrange to fit a mosaic. It looked back to its work and said nothing.
“Can we go in?” said Brent.
“Do you have an invitation?”
“No, we lost it.”
“That’s too bad.” The fairy held up the abalone shell excitedly, its tentacles began to twitch. It tried the piece but it didn’t fit. Deflated, it held the abalone up and continued staring at the mosaic.
Not-Keith looked puzzled and was about to say something when Brent signed for him to be quiet.
“Can we go in?”
“Do you have an invitation?” said the fairy.
“No, we lost them,” said Brent.
“Oh alright, go right in.”
The fairy barked in excitement as it plunked down the abalone shell right between a bit of blue sea glass and what could have been a gold tooth.
Brent waved Not-Keith forward and they parted the seaweed that covered the entrance and entered the court.
There was a long corridor carved into the pearlescent coral, gradually sloping upward. Carved into the entrance way were arches that lead to the grand ballroom of the court.
“What was that about?” said Keith.
“Rule of threes,” said Brent, “It would have been rude had he let us in on the first try.”
“Look, aren’t you the changeling? Shouldn’t you know this?”
“I—” Keith paused, looking deeply uncomfortable. “Look, I feel like I should know. Like I did know that a long time ago, like I should have seen the gap in the illusion. I did save you from the drowning charm after all.”
“Fair enough,” said Brent. “You know Keith about as well as himself. Where would he be now?”
“The library, if there is one — or the kitchen if not. He never liked parties really.”
“You take the kitchen, I’ll take the library,” said Brent. “Meet back here in ten minutes, okay?”
Not-Keith nodded stiffly and set off through an archway where a series of trays loaded with delicious chocolate with thick chocolate ganache, fruit pies that steamed and glittered sweetly. The aroma beckoned Brent forward. He had to steel himself and turn toward a spiral stair carved out of a giant snail shell.
He climbed, passing a floating school of jelly-fairies. The fairies in the ballroom below swirled around to the throbbing drone of the music, dancing with steps light and whirling.
The shell opened up to a landing. Across from him was an archway carved into the driftwood through which Brent could see a wall of cubbies holding piles of scrolls. Water logged books, their covers coated with muscles, sat stacked on either side of aa table that sat before a roaring fireplace. Brent could see a figure hunched over a tomb, dressed in a long trench coat.
Brent ducked into the library, looking around for signs of other fairies. They seemed alone.
Keith jerked his head up and turned around.
“Brent? Brent! What are you doing here? Never mind, come look at this —”
“Keith, we should go.”
“Not before you take a look at this. Did you know that sea trolls are a distinct species from mountain trolls? They are actually closer to —”
“Keith. We have to go.”
“You might,” Keith smiled but his eyes stayed cold. There was something off about him. His hair was tousled, there was a short beard growing on his face and his eyes were wide and wild. He looked thin and frail. He clutched a small blue book to his chest. Brent recognized it as Keith’s grimoire.
“Have you been eating? Have they been feeding you?” asked Brent.
“Who has time to eat when there is so much knowledge? Knowledge is the food of the mind! The best nourishment of all!”
Brent reached to grab the book from Keith’s hand. Keith pushed his hand away, snarling.
“Get away from me!”
“Woah, Keith, don’t you think you should maybe stop?”
“Why should he?”
Brent turned toward the voice and saw a small, prim woman. Her hair was braided and tied up, and her skin was a rich midnight black. She was dressed in a blue cable knit sweater and slacks and somehow Brent knew her to be a librarian. Perhaps it was a certain knowing glint in her eye.
“And you are?” said the woman, holding her hard gaze on him.
“Brent. I am here for my friend. He seems to have gotten lost.”
“Lost? No. Nobody is ever lost here. Everything has its category and its place. Keith here fits perfectly before the books. Just look at him.”
Keith had turned back to pouring over the books. He mumbled to himself, seemingly oblivious to their presence.
“Look, I —”
“Now we need to find your place, Brent. Where do you fit?”
“I prefer the couch in my apartment. It’s where I’d like to be right now, and I am very annoyed that I am not there. Now, you can ask Keith because he will tell you I’m not lying when I say that you do not want to see me angry.”
“I have seen your anger and remain unimpressed.”
“You’re the Lady of Salt and Sorrow.”
“Let me cut you a deal. You let me and my friend go and you can keep the doppelgänger you tried to switch.”
“You’d be so eager to give up the changeling? But, it saved your life.”
“It’s nothing more than sawdust and stolen memories.”
The faelord pursed her lips and frowned. “You have a very simple view of the effort that went into creating the changeling. It was a nearly perfect copy of your friend. Had I known you would be so observant, I would have taken you.”
“I’ll take that as a complement.” Brent sat down on a stack of books. He pulled a joint from his pocket and lit it on a candle that sat on the desk. He watched the Lady of Salt and Sorrow as she circled Keith, who was still mumbling to himself and pouring over the books.
“I tell you what. I will release your friend but I want you to stay instead. This one is so obsessed with books that he hardly has time to entertain me.” She messed his hair and Keith swatted her hand away absentmindedly like it was a fly.
Brent raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms. “And what do I get out of it?”
The Lady of Salt and Sorrow laughed a high tinkling laugh, like rain spattering against glass. “Why your friend is returned to the mortal world, and you get to spend eternity in pleasure. I have been meaning to add an arena should you get the itch to slay monsters. You’ve developed quite the reputation, Mr. Brooks. A black, three hundred year old monster hunter is a rare thing.”
“What about the changeling?”
“It will be deconstructed for parts.” The Lady shrugged, “Why should you care? You were so eager to trade it for your friend.”
“It belongs here. It wouldn’t last two months in the mortal world. Here it is in its natural home. It could be a powerful asset. The memories of a powerful warlock, all bound to a husk. Think of it.”
The Lady cocked an eyebrow. “Intriguing. If anything you have convinced me of the need to destroy it.”
“I won’t let you,” came Keith’s voice. They both looked at Keith but he stood with his back to them, absorbed in the book.
Not-Keith stood at the entrance to the library, fists balled. He looked fuller, more real somehow. Maybe it was the proximity to his likeness, or the time they’d spent in the fairyland. He glared at the Lady, eyes wide. Brent noticed that his eyes were a bright green, like new buds in spring. Keith’s eyes were blue.
The faelord turned to look at the changeling and laughed her high tinkling laugh. She twisted her hand in a dismissive gesture and a ripple of golden light shimmed out from her. It danced like motes of dust caught in a sunbeam, swirling around the changeling.
Not-Keith snarled and barked a harsh word that stung Brent’s flesh like a sudden burst of heat. The motes of light disappeared and the faelord was pushed back a step.
Apparently, the changeling remembered Keith’s spells too. The faelord caught herself and stood tall, her shadow stretching out behind her, extinguishing the candles. Her smooth face contorted, teeth elongated into fangs and delicate fingers into claws.
This was the true face of a fairy.
The Lady of Salt and Sorrow lunged at the changeling, swiping at him. Brent took one last puff of his joint before he slid off the book stack and came around to the other side of the reading desk where Keith stood.
“Sorry, bud,” said Brent as he jabbed the smoldering coal of the joint down onto the page. The ancient paper immediately caught fire. Keith roared in pain and reached into the flames out to grab the book. He cried out as the flames licked his hands and the book fell to the floor, vanishing into ash.
Brent helped him stand. Keith’s hands were badly burned and were beginning to blister. Keith looked up at him, confused and panicked.
“Where — Where?” Keith stuttered.
“Faelord’s court. Long story. Can you get us out?”
Keith blinked and licked his lips. He shivered and stuttered. Brent sighed. He looked up and saw the changeling dodge a blast of green fire that ignited a bookshelf, melting its contents into slag. The Lady of Salt and Sorrow shrieked and swung a claw. It blurred through the air, slicing a pillar in two. The changeling ducked just in time before answering with his own spell.
The changeling yelled, “I can open a portal!”
“What about you?” Brent pulled Keith to his feet. Keith could wobbled but stood.
“I’ll be fine.”
The changeling ducked behind a pillar and began chanting. Serpents made of smoke poured from his hands and wriggled across the floor. They wrapped around the feet of the Lady, darting up to snag her arms and pinion them to her sides. She fell over with a pathetic cry.
The changeling ran over to them, and grabbed a shard of bookshelf that still burned. He doused the flame against the ground and drew a circle with the charred wood, inscribing it with strange squiggling runes. The circle flared silver and shimmered.
“Thank you,” said Brent.
The changeling nodded, but said nothing.
Brent stepped into the portal. He felt his feet stretch away, then his legs, hips, stomach, chest and last his skull as he was pulled through the portal. He felt his body compress on all sides, an uncomfortable squeeze like fitting into a too-tight crawlspace. He felt his lungs cry out as they struggled to draw air. His head pounded as the pressure mounted and then —
They stood in a park, under a streetlamp that flickered briefly. Brent felt his knees threaten to give way, but he steadied himself and held Keith up.
“What happened?” said Keith. “Why am I so tired?”
Brent smiled thinly, “Come on, bud. Let’s get you home.”