Authors: Nina Smith
Pierus seemed to be waiting for something. After a moment he spoke to the other muse with him, a tall woman with curling brown hair and a smattering of freckles across her nose who wore a leather bodice, a flowing skirt and a sword strapped to her belt. “Flower, you know all the Bloody Fairies. Is there something wrong with this one?”
Flower gave Hippy a kind smile. “Nothing at all. She’s just shy. This is Hippy Ishtar.”
Hippy blinked. She had to say something. Her voice came out as a squeak, so she cleared her throat and tried again. “Pleased to meet you.” Curiosity overcame her. “Are you really the king? Do people call you king? Or just Pierus? Is it true you’re as old as Shadow?”
“I think she just overcame her shyness,” Pierus said to Flower. “Come my dear, walk with us.” He put an arm around Hippy’s shoulders and began to stroll along the track. Flower walked ahead of them. “You may call me Pierus.”
Hippy looked up at him. The hair that curled down from under his hat was a rich, dark brown, the same as his eyes. He had the oddest face she’d ever seen. A full lower lip made him seem boyish, but his overhanging brows and hooked nose made him look as though he could erupt into temper at any moment. All the fairies said the muse king had a bad temper.
“Pierus,” she echoed.
He gave her an indulgent smile. “And tell me, what are you doing out here on your own? I thought all the young fairies were confined to camp during the day. You can’t be too careful, you know.”
“I’m not a young fairy,” she said with dignity. “I’m twenty years old. I’m allowed out.” She paused. “But you won’t tell my mum, will you?”
His grin got bigger. “Twenty years old? Positively venerable. But you still haven’t told me what you were doing out here.”
“I was looking for my Fluffy Ducky.” Hippy opened her hand to show him the spider. “I found him.”
Pierus shuddered. “Oh, how dreadful. What did you call it?”
“Fluffy Ducky! He’s my friend.”
“Can’t you put it away?”
“Alright.” Hippy deposited Fluffy Ducky into his pouch at her belt. “There. He won’t hurt you, you know. I trained him to only attack vamps.”
“Bloody Fairies,” Pierus muttered under his breath. Then, louder, “and has he attacked any vampires lately?”
“Oh yes.” Hippy gave him a cheerful grin. “Last night he jumped on one’s face.”
“Last night?” Pierus stopped walking. “You were attacked?”
“Yes. When I was looking for Fluffy Ducky.”
“All attacks are supposed to be reported.” Pierus’s brows drew together, turning his whole face fearsome.
Hippy shrank away from his arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
Flower rejoined them at that moment and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t be afraid, Hippy. You’ve done nothing wrong. Why don’t you tell us all about what happened?”
Pierus’s features relaxed. His smile turned everything sunny once again. “Quite right, my dear. Forgive an old man.”
“You don’t seem old,” Hippy said.
He chuckled. “You know, I think I’m going to like you.”
“Why don’t you show us where it happened?” Flower said.
Hippy skipped ahead of the two muses, leaving them to a muted conversation about vamps and statistics and something about a plan. When she came to the tree where Fluffy Ducky had been hiding last night, she skirted the bloodstains on the grass and told them the whole story, except for the part with Ishtar and the blood. No Bloody Fairy worth the name would admit to being terrified of blood.
Pierus and Flower both looked very serious after she’d finished. Flower knelt to investigate the
pile of sparkling ash, but did not touch. The other vamp, the one Ishtar had skewered, had disintegrated at sunrise, leaving nothing but dried blood. “It was probably a standard patrol,” she said.
“Agreed.” Pierus stayed by Hippy and watched Flower’s progress. “There were just the two, you say?”
“Just two.” Hippy looked at Pierus rather than the blood. “My father said we should be worried about the vamps being this quiet lately. He said they’re getting ready for something. Is it true?”
“We believe so.” Pierus’s brows dipped. The motion changed the whole shape of his face. “
The scouts say they’ve been holding their position at the Bitter Tower and building their numbers. Believe me, if that’s the case, we intend to be ready.”
“There’s not much more we can do here.” Flower got to her feet. “Why don’t I take Hippy home and you can go and meet Nikifor?”
“Yes. Off you go my dear,” Pierus said. “Stay out of trouble.” He gave Hippy a little nod and then strode back toward the forest.
Hippy watched after him until Flower put an arm around her shoulders and started walking in the direction of the camp. She sighed.
“What’s the matter?” Flower asked.
“He seems very nice,” Hippy said. “Not at all like I expected.”
Flower laughed. “What did you expect?”
“Someone really, really, old. Is it true he’s been around as long as Shadow?”
“Of course it is.” Flower swept her arm around to indicate the forest, the road, the fortifications in the distance. “When the world of Dream was plunged into chaos by the dreams of humans, Pierus helped to create all this, to save them from their own imaginings and give their phantoms somewhere to go. When all of the chaos became the world of Shadow, he carved out places of light and order for all our kinds to live in. That’s why he’s our king.”
Hippy shrugged. “Everyone knows all that. I want to know how old he really is.”
Flower leaned closer. “About three thousand,” she said. “Give or take a few decades.”
Hippy’s eyes widened. She didn’t talk all the rest of the way home, trying to imagine what it must be like to be three thousand years old.
Only when they went through the gates in the fortifications and then entered the Bloody Fairy camp did Hippy remember she wasn’t supposed to talk to muses. She quickly moved away from Flower’s arm.
Flower didn’t seem to notice. She beamed around at the staring fairies. “Where’s Leaf Ishtar?”
Hippy winced and backed away. “Do you have to?” she hissed.
“I’ve been meaning to talk to him anyway, you know.”
“Well I’ll just be-” Hippy bumped into someone. She knew who it was without turning around. She sighed. “Right here.”
Leaf laid a hand on Hippy’s shoulder. “Now what’s she done?”
Flower gave him a sunny smile. “Nothing, my friend. We just found her out and about, looking for her pet.”
Hippy sidled away. Her father scrunched up his nose and gave her a puzzled look. “You have a pet?”
“Fluffy Ducky,” Hippy said. “My spider. You said I could keep him. Remember?”
Leaf shrugged at Flower and motioned for her to follow him. “You mustn’t
mind young Hippy,” he said. “Her mother dropped her on her head as a kid. Never been the same since. Now what news do you have?”
Hippy scowled at her father for a full minute. When he completely ignored her, she turned on her heel and stalked away. She scooped Fluffy Ducky out of his pouch, cradled him near her chest and sniffed loudly. “He always has to tell that story. I don’t think it’s even true. There’s nothing wrong with me.” She plonked herself down on a rock and raised the spider to eye level. “Pierus liked me. I bet he wouldn’t like any of the others.”
“Talking to yourself?”
Hippy hurriedly slipped her spider into his pouch. She screwed up her face and glared at Ishtar, who stood in front of her, arms folded and eyes narrowed. “Go away.”
“Oh, I suppose you were talking to that nasty spider?” Ishtar grinned. “It talk back yet?”
“Get lost!” Hippy clenched her fists.
“Where were you this morning? You were supposed to be spear throwing with us.”
Hippy got to her feet. She drew herself up and gave Ishtar a haughty look. “I was reporting those two vampires from last night.” She paused, to make the next bit sound impressive. “To the muse king. He said he liked me.”
Ishtar stared. Her lip curled back. “Liar.”
“You ask Flower! She’s over there with Dad!”
“Liar, liar pants on fire!”
Hippy sprang at Ishtar and knocked her to the ground. Ishtar lashed out with her fists. Hippy grabbed chunks of hair and yanked. The sisters rolled around and around on the ground, clawing and scratching at each other.
A straggly circle of fairies gathered to watch the fun. Nobody bothered to break it up for a good ten minutes, until Willow Ishtar strode into the circle, hauled them apart and clouted them both around the head with an over-large fish.
She stuck her finger in Hippy’s face. “How many times have I told you not to pick fights with your sister?”
Ishtar made a gruesome face behind Willow’s shoulder.
“Enough! You’re both on sentry duty tonight. Go get cleaned up.” Willow Ishtar rolled her eyes at the nearest fairy and shrugged. “Honestly,” she said. “The things I put up with. You know that girl hasn’t been right since I dropped her on her head as a kid.”
Hippy balanced on top of the wall around the Bloody Fairy camp. Darkness blanketed the muse camp, the outer fortifications, everything. The moon hid behind thick, wet clouds. She patted her belt to make sure Fluffy Ducky was safe.
Ishtar balanced beside her, bare feet wobbling on the blunted spikes. A wolf’s tooth tied into her hair bumped against her face. A bunch of crow feathers dangled over her eyes.
Hippy pushed back her numerous thin plaits to hide the shiny beads threaded through them. No wonder vamps didn’t take her seriously. She didn’t have a single feather, or even a tooth.
Ishtar eyed her. “Ready?”
Hippy jumped. The air rushed past her face. She landed lightly ten feet below, Ishtar beside her, and started walking.
At least four of their brothers patrolled the tops of the outer fortifications tonight, watching for any sign of vamp activity. The muses patroll
ed the ground, because they couldn’t climb or jump like fairies.
Hippy wondered if Pierus patrolled, or if he didn’t have to because he was king. She tried to make out the muse camp, but it was too dark. Her foot caught on a branch and she stumbled into Ishtar.
Ishtar pushed her away. “Pay attention!” she hissed.
Hippy made a face at her back. Ishtar was going too fast. They’d already done a circuit of almost half the outer fortifications and seen nothing. She sighed and went back to looking at the tents.
Something moved in the darkness.
“Ishtar,” Hippy whispered.
Ishtar stopped and held her finger to her lips. She’d seen it too. She beckoned Hippy forward.
The fairies crept toward where the movement had been, their bare feet making no sound on the lush grass. Hippy kept a firm grasp on her spear. If a vampire had made it through the walls there would be big trouble.
Ishtar paused at the spot where they’d seen the movement. There was nothing there.
Hippy found a murder hole and peered out through the wall. “Out there,” she whispered.
Ishtar felt around the wall until a bolt clicked under her hand. “Come on, let’s follow.”
Hippy ducked through the low door after her. Out here, the walls didn’t make things quite so dark. The moon peeked out from behind a grey cloud. A tall figure disappeared into the night.
She didn’t wait for Ishtar. She ran after the spy, just because she could, and because she knew Ishtar couldn’t keep up. She closed the distance fast. Her heart hammered like the drums at midwinter. The spy wore a cloak and hood just like the spy she’d followed earlier. If she could only catch up and find out who it was, maybe she could tell Pierus. She could take her sister and then Ishtar would believe her.
Her foot hit a rock and Hippy went flying face first into the ground. She spat grass, said several bad words and lifted her head to see the figure had completely disappeared.
Ishtar caught up a few seconds later and hauled her to her feet. She snickered. “Nice trip.”
Hippy scowled. “Shut up.”
“I bet the vamps just shake in their boots when they see you coming. In case you fall on them!”
“Shut up!” Hippy’s voice rose.
“You can’t help it though,” Ishtar said. “What with being dropped on your head and all.”
Hippy dropped her spear, tackled Ishtar to the ground and slapped her in the face.
Ishtar slapped her in return. Hippy gave a furious hiss, determined to show Ishtar she was–she was–she couldn’t even think of anything, so she pummelled her in the ribs while Ishtar held her down and dug her knuckles into her head.
Someone cleared their throat above them.
Hippy and Ishtar paused mid-fight and looked up.
Hippy squeaked. Four pairs of pink eyes glittered down at them. Pale skin glowed in the darkness.
“Bloody Fairies,” said one, sounding bemused.
Ishtar went for her spear. Hippy did the same, but neither fairy got anywhere near their weapon. A hand grabbed Hippy by the hair and hauled her to her feet. Two vamps grabbed Ishtar’s arms. These guys didn’t waste time. The fangs were already out.
Hippy jammed her elbow backward into soft flesh and was rewarded with an “oof” of pain. She kicked the nearest vamp in the shins, balled her fists and punched anything within reach until her hair was released. Then she went into her pouch, grabbed a handful of fairy dust and threw it in the face of the nearest vamp.
The distraction gave Ishtar enough time to plant her fist in her attacker’s nose. Both fairies dived for their spears and went back to back. The remaining three vamps regrouped.
“Feisty little fairies,” one of the vamps said. “I’m working up an appetite.” He licked his lips.
Ishtar shook her spear at him. “You know what I’m going to do?”
“What?” the vamp sounded bored.
“I’m going to make you into a blood fountain.”
“I think you’re going to die,” the vamp said. “Slowly.”
“Why do they always say that right before we kill them?” Hippy tightened her grip on her spear.
“Dunno.” Ishtar snickered. “Maybe that’s the only way these
sparklers know how to die.”
There was a second’s icy silence.
“What did you call us?” the vamp said.
Ishtar drew the word out and made it
hiss at the end. “Sparklers.”
The vamps dived for them. Ishtar impaled one on her spear. Hippy made a wild swing, missed and accidentally sliced a vamp right down the side of the face, before Ishtar skewered the last one.
Blood spurted in every direction. Fountains of red poured down Hippy’s spear and onto her hands. She screamed and dropped the spear. Her stomach revolted. She froze to the spot, staring at her wet red hands. Her head pounded.
“Hey Hippy,” Ishtar said into the sudden silence.
Hippy turned her head.
Ishtar plunged her hands into the now subsiding fountain of blood flowing from one of the dead vamps. She ran them over her face, turning it red, and grinned. Her teeth glowed white.
“It’s good for the skin. You should try it.” Ishtar reached for her with dripping hands.
Hippy ran. Her breath came in sobs under each convulsive dry retch. Ishtar’s feet pounded behind her.
“Come on Hippy!” Ishtar yelled. “It’s just a little vamp blood!”
Hippy threw herself through the door in the fortification and kept running. She stumbled to her knees in the darkness and frantically wiped her bloody hands on the grass. She could smell it. She could almost taste it. Her own blood pounded. She couldn’t even remember where she was.
“Hippy!” Ishtar’s voice purred through the darkness, low and soft. “I’m going to paint your face with blood. Come out, come out. You can’t get away from me.”
Hippy stumbled to her feet and ran for a dim light shining ahead. Her feet made no sound. She slowed down when she came up to the silk walls of a row of tents and flattened herself between the nearest two.
Ishtar prowled the darkness behind her. She could smell the blood on her. Her stomach heaved again.
Hippy slipped down the side of the tents and peered around the edge. Her eyes widened. She’d never been into the muse camp. The tents surrounded a big open area where there was a huge central table and a fire pit. Shiny banners of purple and green were hung from all the tents, making pretty, pretty walls that flickered and glowed in the firelight. A group of muses sat around the fire talking in low voices. Soup bubbled in a huge cauldron, sending clouds of fragrant steam into the air.
The sound of footsteps sent her darting into the shadows around the edge of the clearing and then down a passage between a row of larger tents. She slowed and trod carefully over the taut ropes.
More voices, closer this time. Any minute now they’d see her and she’d be in trouble. She dropped to the ground, lifted the silk wall of the nearest tent and rolled underneath just in time to see a pair of feet go past.
Safe. She lay on her back, eyes closed, and took a few deep breaths. She couldn’t smell blood any more. Her stomach unclenched. The fog in her head cleared and she opened her eyes.
Hippy stared. This tent was huge. The walls were hung with shiny, shiny mirrors everywhere, some big, some small, one very long with a gilt frame. Little tables gleamed here and there, and on them shiny statues stood watch. Most of the statues were of a woman holding a mirror, except for one little one of a woman with snakes coming from her head. A huge bed was draped with purple and red sheets in one corner. In the centre of the space was a gleaming, polished wooden table.
Hippy cautiously sat up and looked around. She was alone. She got to her feet and brushed her fingertips over the mirror with the gilt frame. It reflected a big-eyed girl with dirt on her face and wild hair back at her.
She scrubbed at a spatter of blood on her forehead.
She crept around the edge of the tent towards the door. She would just go before anyone came in. Of course she would. She had no business being here.
She glanced at the table and stopped. It was covered with a huge map of Shadow. Hills and mountains were sketched out around Shadow City. Below the city was the forest and next to that, a little purple flag marked the spot where the camp was. Hippy drifted closer, intrigued. She’d never seen a map of Shadow.
Something shiny caught the edge of her vision. She left the table and touched a crystal hanging around the neck of a tall statue of the woman with the mirror. It sparkled in her hand. So pretty. She picked up a little sparkly figurine of a horse with wings from the base of the statue, studied it and put it down again.
Behind the statue there was a curtain. Unlike all the rest of the hangings in here it was plain black, with just a little sheen to it. Hippy twitched it open. Her eyes got very wide.
There was no room behind the curtain. She couldn’t quite figure out what she was looking at, except that it was a dark space and it was somehow torn. Light gleamed through jagged edges going from the roof to the floor, shimmered and moved like water. It was so shiny.
Hippy reached her hand toward the light. The rip widened.
A voice right outside the tent made her freeze. She ducked behind the curtain and flattened herself in the corner.
Footsteps entered. Three different voices. Hippy crammed herself further into the corner, away from the rip. She shoved her knuckles in her mouth to keep from making a noise. That was Pierus out there, with Flower and Nikifor from the sound of it. Holy Shadow, she’d be in deep trouble if they found her here.
“More incursions.” Pierus’s voice filled the tent. He didn’t sound pleased at all. “
Vampires are pouring past the Bitter Tower now. We’re sitting targets out here with nothing but a pack of fairies and an untried Champion. These raids are just distractions. We can’t delay any longer.”
“But it’s madness!” Flower sounded even less happy. “Even if it did have a chance of working, who’s to say you’d even find it? We’re talking about a legend here!”
“My dear girl, Shadow is made of legends,” Pierus said. “And I can assure you this one is very real.”
I may be untried,” said Nikifor, “but I swear to you I can defend Shadow as my father did before me.”
“My dear boy, your father spent one hundred and fifty years defending Shadow, and he still got himself killed. What chance does a librarian barely out of Muse College have against this horde?”
There was a brief, raw silence. Hippy winced in sympathy for Nikifor.
“That’s why we need it,” Pierus said into the silence.
“But did you not say you cannot wield it alone?”
“There’s the rub, Nikifor my boy. The ancients didn’t trust anyone with it, not even me.”
“Then one of us should go with you,” Flower said.
“Not a muse.” Pierus paused. “It has to be someone of the blood of the first guardian.”
“What does that mean?” Nikifor asked.
“Wait,” Pierus said. “Something’s not right.”
Silence. Something moved. Hippy held her breath. The quiet stretched out.
She closed her eyes and pretended to be invisible, but that only lasted until Pierus yanked the curtain open and glared down at her. His eyebrows met like the wings of an angry bird. He reached down and hauled her out by the front of her tunic.
Hippy squeaked. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to come in here! I was hiding from my sister and then someone came along so I hid under the silk and I just ended up here and I didn’t touch anything, honest!” She blinked at Pierus, who still had hold of her shoulder.
Flower and Nikifor looked stunned.
The corner of Pierus’s mouth twitched. His brows receded the merest millimetre.
“Why were you hiding from your sister?” Flower’s voice was gentle, but there was a flicker of amusement behind it.
Hippy’s cheeks grew hot. She couldn’t look away from Pierus. “I-” she stopped.