Jacaranda’s grove had been formed eons ago during the Elder Wars, when a rival god had launched an attack into the Deep Wild, aimed at Naiya. That wasn’t even his greatest mistake, but it was his last; Mother Nature had little sense of humor and no capacity for forgiveness. Jacaranda hadn’t come along until uncounted centuries later, long after life had come back. At this point, she’d had plenty of time to make it her own, and her claim was respected by all the Deep Wild’s inhabitants, even the dryads. Occasionally they, or the odd satyr, would poke their heads in at the very edges, and sometimes would stop to talk with a pixie if they met one, but mostly the grove was left to its own peace. There was ancient bad blood there.
Of course, the little frost fairy knew none of that; she mostly knew that it was safest where it was loneliest, around the uppermost, outermost edges. Dryads, satyrs and the odd questing adventurer were interesting and a little scary, but for the most part, they were harmless.
The crater had, over time, been reclaimed by nature, as everything ultimately was, and now was home to a deep, ancient forest of towering sentinel trees that all but blotted out the sky above, leaving only deep blue-green gloom throughout the crater’s floor. Relatively few plants could flourish in the dimness, just mosses, lichens and fungi, several of which were luminous. A few streams cut through the massive roots, descending to form a deep pool at the very bottom. From the center of this rose a little rounded hill, topped by lushly soft moss, where perched the Pixie Queen, surrounded by her court.
There were no animals in the grove beyond insects, and of those, only species adept at hiding. Nothing else lasted long.
She went in cycles, lurking in the outer reaches, then gradually drawing closer to the middle before fleeing back to safer, darker territory. The closer one flew to the center, the more pixies one encountered, and the reverse was true; the outer reaches were dim and silent, nothing but wide open spaces between massive tree trunks. At the very middle and the bottom, of course, Jacaranda’s mossy throne was the center of pixiedom, and they buzzed about her with such intensity that the whole clearing was always as bright as day. The frost fairy was one of relatively few who could make the comparison; she had flown up above the canopy to see what daylight looked like, several times.
This time she was drifting closer to the middle again, warily greeting other pixies as she passed through the gradations of population density. There were lots of new pixies today; the Queen had made a bunch more, which was the thing that had piqued her curiosity enough to draw her in. New pixie days were always…interesting. She would get carefully closer and closer, possibly until she could see the court itself with all those hanging about their Queen, until something happened to spook her into retreat. An encounter with an aggressive pixie, perhaps. Or maybe, if she stayed long enough, a brush with that idea which had begun growing in the back of her mind. She wasn’t sure quite what the idea was, just that when it came almost close enough to consciousness for her to recognize, it scared her into fleeing.
The woods weren’t quite bright at this elevation, but they were neither silent nor as dim as she was used to. Pixies were about, not in any great concentration, but on all sides, filling the near distance with their chiming and their multicolored glow. She paid careful attention to them. None seemed too interested in her, unless—
One popped up from under the dirt, hovering right in front of her. The frost pixie jangled in alarm and shot upward and back, quivering. He just hovered there, staring quizzically up at her. He was a dirt fairy, with a green glow. She’d begun to think, lately, that the earth-type elementals really ought to be brown or something, yet they were always green. She wasn’t sure where the thought came from.
“Hello,” she said cautiously. “You startled me.”
“I’m sorry!” His tone was bright and obliviously cheerful, even by pixie standards. “I’m exploring! I like it out here. How are you?”
Comprehension dawned. “Ohh. Are you…new?”
“Yes!” He bobbed up and down. “I am! It’s nice to meet you!”
The frost fairy relaxed, drifting down closer to him. “You should be more careful. If you startle people, something bad might happen.”
She sighed, chiming softly. “You’ll find out soon enough, I suppose. Nice to meet you.”
She fluttered by him, giving him a respectful berth, and continued on her way toward the middle. The concentration of other pixies was growing; at the point where she could see the constantly-shifting inferno of multi-hued light around Jacaranda’s throne sparkling through the trees, but not quite see the clearing itself, she paused, darting upward to hover above a thick branch and observe. Most pixies, she’d noticed, didn’t go up too high, not much farther from the ground than the Queen could physically reach them if she happened to be standing there. Not that she ever left her perch. They also tended not to look up; sitting on a branch or just over it kept her relatively hidden.
“You’re making frost on the bark! Are you an ice fairy?”
She chimed in alarm and shot straight upward. That silly earth fairy had followed her and was now floating just behind her perch.
“What are you doing?” she demanded furiously.
“Following you!” he said brightly. “You’re my first friend! It’s nice to meet you! Are you going to the middle? I like it in the middle, everyone’s there. She’s there,” he added with a dreamy sigh. “It’s so busy, though, very crowded, so I decided to go exploring. You know, have a look around.”
The frost fairy slowly drifted back down as he spoke, her alarm abating. He seemed harmless. “Yes, I’m an ice fairy. And I might go closer to her throne. It depends on what I see. Sometimes it’s risky.”
He chimed in puzzlement. “Why?”
“Um… Have you ever had a…bad encounter with another pixie? Or seen one?”
She sighed. “Nevermind. I’m going closer.”
“Okay! Wait for me!”
She was annoyed. The fool fluttered along behind her, chattering aimlessly and making stealth quite impossible; she had to keep a careful eye out for other pixies, but despite their increasing prevalence as she drew closer to the middle, none approached. The frost fairy kept to the higher reaches, going up a few more feet whenever she saw another pixie rise to her elevation; it was the surest tactic she’d found for being left alone. Though she wasn’t exactly alone this time; her new friend hovered right with her.
Even he fell silent, though, when she brought them to stop in the high fork of a tree, just where they had the best view of the throne. This tree leaned inward, as a lot of them did so close to the pool, and the frost fairy’s selected perch put them only a short distance away from Jacaranda’s spot and nearly above it, closer horizontally than vertically.
“Hush,” she urged. “Someone will hear you.”
He didn’t seem to hear her. “There she is,” he whispered in awe. “Isn’t she beautiful?”
“Yeah,” the frost fairy agreed, sighing. Some of the tension slipped away from her and she joined him in just staring dreamily down at their Queen.
She really was beautiful. Jacaranda resembled an elf in size and general build, though her hair was a cloud of wispy azure the floated about her in the breeze. Her ears, too, were resplendently long, though basically elvish in shape; they towered above her and leaned somewhat out to the sides, sort of like a rabbit’s. Glorious dragonfly wings sprang from between her shoulder blades, sometimes waving slowly, sometimes buzzing as she moved about, this way and that. They glittered with a profusion of colors, four crystalline stained glass sculptures carrying her on the breeze. All she wore was a sheer, diaphanous “dress” assembled from scraps of fabric that concealed nothing but accentuated nicely. The effect was wasted on the pixies, but Jacaranda liked to occasionally take lovers from the adventurers who stumbled into her grove.
Right now, the Pixie Queen drifted above a patch of luminous toadstools on her island, reclining backward in the air. Her wings fluttered slowly, not enough to keep her aloft through aerodynamics; like her little creations, she flew by magic. The wings were mostly decorative.
Those creations were putting on a show for her benefit. The little coterie of pixies who constituted her present court swirled and danced through the air around her, creating trails and flashes of their elemental effects; the rest of the eager cloud of pixies had retreated from the immediate vicinity, likely after a few of them had been singed, splashed, and/or blasted. Little bursts and streamers of fire followed the largest, an orange flame fairy; there were sprays of water, artful gusts of wind that swirled fallen leaves into their own little dance (before being incinerated in a spiteful display by the fire fairy), shoots of grass that sprang up from the moss and danced to their own rhythm. Flowers blossomed from nothing, even a few in midair, where they drifted down to rest in the water. Even small spires of rock and crystal sprouted artistically from the ground around the island, quickly crumbling and falling into the pool.
These were the pixies who had names. The others were nearly as much in awe of them as they were of Jacaranda herself—largely because those names were a sign of her favor, of the lucky recipients’ intimate place at their Queen’s side. A pixie’s fondest dream was to one day be given a name and join Jacaranda’s court.
The frost fairy didn’t know them all; their roster tended to shift. She recognized Fiero, though, as well as Flurr, Arokk, Wautri, Gusti and Kistral. A few she remembered from previous visits were missing; a few others were here now. Fiero, the fire fairy, was the only one who had always been here, at least since the frost fairy had been made. By this point, he was the biggest and brightest, and unquestionably Jacaranda’s favorite. Everyone knew it, even if they didn’t come out and say it.
Their uncoordinated display staggered to a rather destructive halt as flashy elemental effects interfered with each other until most of their individual efforts to show off had turned into clouds of steam, dust and ashes. Just when it seemed about to devolve into an outright fight, however, Jacaranda sat up straight, beaming with happiness, and applauded, as though the mess had been a perfectly orchestrated climax. And just like that, the pixies forgot their ire at each other, swooping over to swirl around her adoringly. From around the clearing came enthusiastic chiming from the rest of those present.
“Didja see that?” the earth fairy chattered. “How she brought them all together like that? She’s so smart!”
“Yeah,” the frost fairy said with a wistful sigh. She really was. Smart and beautiful and just perfect.
And then, like the creeping scent of a predator stalking her through the trees, that thought began trying to bubble up. She tensed, about to shoot off into the darkness as usual. She couldn’t flee from her own mind, but the act of fleeing was usually enough to distract her…
“Oh, how you do keep me entertained,” Jacaranda said below, and her voice—her beautiful voice—arrested the frost fairy completely. “Whatever should I do without you, my little friends?”
“You’ll never be without us!” Wautri cried, the assurances of the others coming a split second behind her. Fiero aggressively bumped into the water fairy, irked at not being the first to praise the Queen, but it went no further than that.
“I’m just so in need of distractions lately,” Jacaranda said with a melancholy sigh, settling backward to lounge in midair and raising a hand to her brow. “It’s just so tedious, all these…these people. I can’t get any privacy in my own grove anymore!”
“Stupid adventurers!” shouted Arokk. “Stupid humans, bothering our queen!” There came a chorus of outraged agreement from the others. Above, the frost fairy buzzed her wings thoughtfully. Not more than a handful of adventurers came to the grove a year; Jacaranda usually wanted them brought to her pool for sex before having them disposed of. Was that too many? How often had they come before? For that matter…how old was she?
“So…do you not want us to bring them to you anymore, my Queen?” Gusti asked hesitantly when it quieted enough for him to be heard.
“Oh, don’t be silly, my pet,” Jacaranda chided, laughing. She raised her hand, allowing him to perch on her fingers for a moment to take the sting out of the rebuke.
“It’s just awful that you should have to suffer for this,” Fiero said decisively.
“We should try to catch some satyrs or something to patrol the grove!” Arokk added.
“Yeah,” Flurr chimed, sparking in excitement. “The big dumb fairies outside should be doing their jobs! What are those dryads thinking, letting humans into your grove?!”
“What was that?” Jacaranda sat bolt upright, her expression suddenly fierce. The overall light level in the clearing plummeted as panicked pixies fled in all directions from her displeasure.
Flurr’s lavender glow dimmed as she realized her mistake. “Oh, I… I didn’t mean… I didn’t say… It was just a slip—”
“Those creatures are not to be spoken of in my presence!” the Pixie Queen raged. “I won’t have it! I hate them! You’re not to remind me! You know this!”
“I’m sorry!” Flurr wailed. “I didn’t mean—”
“Remove her!” Jacaranda commanded.
“Yes, my queen!” the rest of the court chimed in unison.
“Nooo!” Flurr sped off toward the treeline in terror.
Not fast enough.
It was Fiero who caught up to her. It was almost always Fiero anymore, the frost fairy noted, shifting her position to watch. A blast of fire sent the flower fairy fluttering to the ground with singed wings; in half a second, he was on her.
Despite their distance, the two fairies lurking on the branch high above could clearly see what followed. It took only seconds; Flurr’s wail died away quickly as Fiero landed on top of her, her glow diminishing to nothing and the tiny physical form beneath it withering away to wisps of vapor that streamed upward and into the fire fairy. His own aura flared brighter for a moment, and then he sprang upward, giddy with the rush of energy.
“How awful,” the earth fairy whispered. “Why would he do that?”
“Because he can,” said the frost fairy just as quietly. “That’s what I meant about aggressive pixies. We have basically infinite energy, you know; we’re all connected directly to the Queen herself. There’s really only one kind of creature that’s a threat to a pixie.” She buzzed her wings once. “Other pixies. Look around. Down, outward, at the others.”
He drifted over to the other side of the branch, peering down. Now that she’d pointed it out, he could see the spectacle of Fiero and Flurr being repeated here and there amid the rest of the random gyrations of pixie lights.
“That’s how we get stronger,” the frost fairy said noncommittally. “It’s how you gain power. You have to get a lot to be allowed close to the Pixie Queen. If you’re not strong enough to assert yourself to the rest of the court…they’ll eat you. I mean, literally. This is what happens to most new ones. Not a lot last.”
“Wow,” he said in an awed tone. “Wow, I’m really lucky to be up here with you.”
The frost fair buzzed again, turning to peer at him. “You know, I’m older and a lot stronger than you. What makes you think I won’t do that to you?”
“You wouldn’t do that,” he said immediately. “You’re my friend.”
She chimed in confusion. “Why are you so convinced we’re friends?”
“Why wouldn’t we be?”
She was spared having to answer by the sound of the Queen’s voice, which immediately commanded the full and undivided attention of every pixie in earshot.
“Well, anyway,” Jacaranda tittered, “what were we talking about?”
“How pretty you are!” Arokk proclaimed. He was swiftly echoed by the others.
“Oh, stop, you,” Jacaranda said modestly, beaming.
The frost fairy quailed. That thought was creeping up on her again.
“We really ought to do something,” the Pixie Queen went on, again seizing her attention. “The humans have never been so aggressive before. I mean, there’s an awful lot of them these days. I don’t know what they think they’re even doing in the Deep Wild, but if Naiya won’t rein them in, I suppose it falls to me.” She sighed tragically. “As it always does.”
There came a round of sycophantic condemnation of Naiya and humans from the surrounding pixies; they all blended together. The frost fairy didn’t bother trying to pick out individual voices, fixated as she was on the Queen.
Jacaranda, for once, seemed to be ignoring her hangers-on, frowning in thought. “All right, it’s decided,” she said suddenly, cutting them all off in an instant. “We must address the humans directly! I’ll send them an emissary. Let’s see… Who rules the nearest kingdom?”
She peered around expectantly; bashful pixies dimmed, drifting downward to hover a bit lower.
“Oh, honestly,” Jacaranda exclaimed, planting her fists on her hips and frowning in disapproval. “Doesn’t anyone know?”
“We…we don’t like to leave your side, my Queen,” Wautri said hesitantly. “We don’t know much about the world outside your grove.”
“What else could we want?” Fiero added. “You’re here!”
“Aww.” Jacaranda gave him a little smile, then suddenly brightened in earnest. “I know! I’ll send someone to the Arachne. She knows fairy ways and human ways; she can introduce my emissary to the human king. It’s perfect!”
Above, while the pixies of the court fell over themselves to assure their Queen how brilliant it truly was over her modest protests, the earth fairy asked, “What’s the Arachne?”
“I don’t know,” the frost fairy admitted.
“But who shall I send?” Jacaranda asked in a voice that made the question a proclamation. “Who shall go forth into the world on my behalf?”
Her court hesitated, caught on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, they longed for nothing more than to please her; on the other, this duty would mean leaving her side, when everything they had struggled for was represented by being in her presence.
Other pixies, not having made the same risks and sacrifices to attain their positions, were not so conflicted. They also weren’t accustomed to being addressed directly by their Queen, and so the cloud of would-be volunteers drifting out over the pool was slow, hesitant.
With the exception, of course, of one who’d not yet learned circumspection.
“Me!” shouted the little earth fairy, plunging over the edge of the branch and down into the court. “I’ll go!”
“What are you doing?!” the frost fairy hissed, unheard.
“I’ll go!” he cried obliviously, fluttering down toward the Pixie Queen. “Send me, my Queen!”
Jacaranda glanced up at him, and he froze in midair, poleaxed by her smile.
“Hey, now!” Seizing an opportunity to deflect attention from his own recent failure to volunteer, Fiero shot upward, hovering menacingly before the earth fairy. That close, the differences between them were blatant; the fire fairy’s aura was a whole order of magnitude larger and brighter. “Who do you think you are to bother the Queen? Were you given permission to approach?”
“She—she asked for someone to go,” the earth fairy said dumbly.
“She asked for someone to go,” Fiero mocked, eliciting a chorus of derisive giggles from the rest of the court. “And you thought that meant you?”
“Well, I—hey!” He plunged a few feet, buffeted by a burst of flame. “Ow! What’d you do that for?”
Above, the frost fairy wanted to look away, and found she couldn’t.
“Stop it!” the earth fairy cried plaintively, trying to flutter away now. Fiero was too fast, and too strong. The next wash of flame was in earnest, sending the little earth fairy careening toward the ground with a scorched wing. The fire fairy dived after him.
The frost fairy finally tore her eyes away, edging back over the branch to hide the spectacle from view.
It was only seconds later that Fiero re-emerged. “Pfft, hardly worth the effort. No energy at all!”
The other pixies of the court joined in his mocking laughter.
And suddenly, the frost fairy was mad.
She tried to repress it. Getting mad didn’t help anything. This was the world; this was just how life was.
“Yes, yes,” the Pixie Queen said languidly. “Enough of your little games, now, though, let’s be serious.”
“Little games?” the frost fairy heard herself say quietly. Suddenly that thought was there, clawing at the gates to her consciousness. She could feel it about to break through. Reflexively, she plunged into action to drive it away.
Yet this time, she wasn’t running away.
Fiero was still grandstanding, hovering above the others. Jacaranda was looking in another direction. It was perfect. The frost fairy plummeted down into the court’s space and hit Fiero from behind with a blast of elemental frost.
“WHAT the—” he squawked, buffeted off course. Righting himself, he pivoted to stare incredulously at the icy pixie, no more than half his size and a fraction of his power, hovering a few feet away. The frost fairy gave him another blast for good measure, then turned and buzzed off into the darkness as fast as her wings could carry her.
“WHY YOU!” Fiero was right behind her in seconds.
The rest of the pixies scattered from their path, unwilling to face Fiero’s wrath. Some few might have the foresight to try to curry favor by helping him, but they wouldn’t be willing to risk him in this mood. She could count on there being no interference.
She led him on a spiraling course through the trees, laying down a trail of frost for him to follow across the ground, over roots and through fallen logs. He blasted it to vapor as he went in a showy display of magical ferocity. For the first few tense moments, she wasn’t sure of her surroundings, but soon enough she found a landmark, and then another, and then she was on familiar ground, just outside the center of pixiedom. Leading him on the same course she’d led all the others. Still, she backtracked and pivoted, making ice tracks and permitting herself some grim satisfaction as he blazed them away. It cost her almost no energy to lower the temperature around her, turning the moisture in the air into frost; it was costing him a lot to throw all those fire blasts.
The longer this played out, the less energy he had.
Still, she couldn’t tire him out too much; biggest and strongest pixie or no, Fiero was still a pixie, and had a strictly finite attention span. Very quickly, he began to slow behind her, the fire blasts petering out.
“Yeah, you better run,” he called out, coming to a stop. She halted as well, but he didn’t see; he’d already turned and was fluttering back toward Jacaranda’s pool.
She hit him from behind with another ice blast.
This time he let out a yowl of wordless fury, streaking off after her again.
The bursts of fire which followed were aimed at her, now, and she decided to cut this short. He wasn’t a very accurate shot, but if he set the forest on fire the Queen would be annoyed. Was he weakened enough? Well, no time to wonder. She followed the familiar turns of the ground, around the big old tree with the tunnel under its roots, then around and down into the darkness, slowing just enough on the turn to make sure Fiero saw which hole she entered.
She’d done this maneuver enough times for it to be nearly instinctive. The tunnel branched off ahead; she coated the rim of the hole leading straight down with frost, then zipped around a blind turn. She was just far enough ahead in the twisting darkness that he shouldn’t have seen which way she’d gone, hence the false trail of ice. This particular tunnel twisted around, coming out right above the fork. She arrived back at that point just in time to see Fiero plunge into the iced hole with a cry of triumph, thinking her cornered.
He was quick; he managed to come to a halt before plunging into the water that filled the deep hole. He wasn’t so quick that he didn’t stop and stare dumbly at it, completely at a loss as to what had just happened.
They all did.
The frost fairy plunged down on him from above, channeling a tight, focused burst of her power onto him. The fire fairy was forced downward into the water, where his power was stifled. He tried to boil the liquid around him, but she continued pouring cold on. He wasted energy flailing blindly, spewing instantly-doused flames in all directions, no longer even sure which way was up, while all around him the water froze faster than he could boil it. Tired out before he’d been lured here, panicked, confused and in the very unfamiliar position of total vulnerability, all his power did him no good. If he’d focused, he could probably have beaten her. Easily, even.
None of them understood what she did: smarter was better than stronger.
The first time she’d done this had been a total accident. A stronger pixie was chasing her, and she’d tried to hide in the tunnels… The second, she’d done it deliberately, remembering the useful twists down here. For a while, the frost fairy had used this tree’s root complex as a defense mechanism for when she couldn’t avoid a confrontation, honing her method, developing the false trail of frost for those enemies a bit more quick-witted than the rest. This was the first time she had deliberately goaded someone into the trap.
Fiero’s critical moment of weakness came, and she reached out with her mind, with her being, seizing that which was him and drawing it into herself. He flailed harder, sensing what she was doing, but he was an aimless ball of panic at this point, and could do nothing to stop her.
Amazing, how quickly that much energy was absorbed. It was almost fast enough that she absorbed the sheer power for its own sake, rather than doing the thing that only she knew how to do…but she held onto herself, and changed the power as it rushed into her.
Pixies didn’t gain the full energy of another pixie they absorbed, not by a long shot. There was substantial energy loss in the process. The frost fairy’s method didn’t take in the energy directly, though, but channeled it into…something else. Something smarter. She didn’t have a way to measure, but she had the impression she kept a lot more of the power this way, even if she didn’t get power from it, exactly. Energy flowed into her mind, sharpening, organizing, heightening. Her senses grew more acute; connections she hadn’t been conscious of before were suddenly there. Everything about the world made a little bit more sense.
Her ice wasn’t any stronger, but that was fine. She had something better.
No…more than a little bit more sense. She’d never taken in a member of the Court before. This changed a lot. Fiero’s power represented enough mental acuity to shift her thinking several steps ahead.
In that moment, an understanding settled on her, followed by an idea.
The understanding was that she hated living here. The idea was that she had the chance of a way out.
The frost fairy shot out of the tunnel complex, making a silver streak back toward the Pixie Queen’s island. This time, not recognizing her, the other pixies didn’t get out of her way; she navigated swiftly around them, single-minded in her goal.
It had only been moments. Tense as her deadly encounter with Fiero had been, it had gone at the highest speeds the two of them could manage, and she made it back before too much had changed.
“Well,” the Pixie Queen was saying with some asperity, “if nobody wants to go, I can always just pick someone. I would have hoped you’d all care enough about me to volunteer, but I see—”
The frost fairy zipped out of the treeline, right past the startled members of the court, and slammed to a midair halt directly in front of the Pixie Queen’s face, where they wouldn’t have dared create a disturbance.
“My Queen, I volunteer! It would be my honor to serve you!”
“Why, what have we here?” Jacaranda said, tilting her head bemusedly. “It’s a little ice spirit. Hello, little one. Have I spoken to you before?”
The answer to that was simply no, but the frost fairy had a newer, subtler understanding now, derived from all the time she’d spent watching the court from above. “I have never had the honor, my Queen. I’m sorry to presume like this. But no one else was coming forward, and I just couldn’t stand to leave you without the help you need!”
The chiming from the pixies of the court took on a distinctly annoyed tone, but Jacaranda smiled in pure delight. “Why, what a dutiful little pixie you are, my dear. Yes, indeed! For this service… Yes, I believe you deserve a name of your own.”
The frost fairy almost fell out of the air in shock. Volunteering to be sent on a mission outside was one thing, but this… “I…I’d be honored, my Queen,” she whispered tremulously.
“It’s no more than you deserve, my newest little friend,” Jacaranda proclaimed. “Hm, let’s see, you’re an ice fairy, aren’t you? Yes… We shall call you Fross.”
Fross. She had a name!
The sheer bliss of it was spoiled by an unwelcome rush of comprehension. Fross, like “frost.” Fiero, fire, Wautri, water… They were all like that. She’d just named them after their elements, with no imagination at all.
In that moment the thought she’d been avoiding all this time finally crashed through:
The Pixie Queen was kind of stupid.
Very fortunately, the sheer, horrified shock of having had this treasonous thought paralyzed her, preventing her from blurting it out. That very likely saved her life.
“Now, Fross,” Jacaranda was saying imperiously, “my most faithful little servant, here is the task I have for you…”
Nothing had prepared Fross for how big the world was. She counted forty-three days of travel, but that was after quite a few had gone by before it occurred to her to keep count.
She’d found a helpful dryad in the Deep Wild beyond Jacaranda’s grove to give her directions and advice. She was nervous about approaching the tree spirit—despite her Queen’s loathing of dryads, she knew very well where they stood on the hierarchy of fairies, and it was well beyond the reach of anyone she should be speaking to. Aspen had been friendly and seemed glad to help, though, and over time her directions had proved spot-on.
Fross had learned to keep up as high as possible. The ground was full of predators; at a given altitude, there were only hawks to deal with. Being eaten wouldn’t have harmed her significantly in the long run, but it would have been inconvenient, not to mention gross. She’d had to ice a good few birds on her journey, but they were the lesser hazard. The winds up high were something else; it was tricky to stay on course.
Choosing to err on the side of caution, she’d swung to the south to avoid the Golden Sea, which, from above, wasn’t really distinguishable from the non-magical prairie surrounding it. Thanks to Aspen’s advice, she learned to recognize the landmarks of human construction as signs she was safely outside the Sea’s radius. In fact, they proved extremely useful. Once she came to the Sea’s edge, she just had to follow the towns, forts and whatever else, making sure to drift southward for safety’s sake in the long stretches between them, before she eventually, finally came to the one she needed.
Last Rock was well-named and truly unmistakable.
Luck was on her side when she finally got there; she didn’t have to look far to find the Arachne. Upon being smacked into a windowsill by an errant gust of wind, Fross decided that was as good a place as any to stop and rest, which she’d not done in several days. The window was open slightly, and she could hear conversation from within.
“But only seven? It’s without precedent.”
“Eight, Alaric. We won’t be seeing Vadrieny most of the time, gods willing, but she’ll be conscious, so I’m putting her on the rolls.”
“Eight, then. Even so, Arachne, that’s less than half the size of any previous incoming class.”
Fross buzzed upward, her weariness forgotten. She was through the open window in an instant.
The room was an office, carpeted in royal blue and surrounded by bookcases, inscrutable devices and old maps on the walls. Four people were present: an elf sitting behind a desk, a dwarf standing before it, a half-elf lounging in a chair against the wall and a human standing at ease near the door.
She knew immediately who her goal was. Quite apart from being the only elf present, the Arachne was just like the dryad’s description: She wore green clothes, gold-rimmed lenses over her eyes and a scowl.
“I refuse to pad the rolls, Alaric,” the Arachne was saying. “Besides, there’s an argument to be made about quantity as opposed to quality.”
“I wasn’t aware we took on students of poor quality,” the human said in a mild tone.
“Ahem,” said the half-elf, looking directly at Fross. None of the others paid him any mind.
“You know what I mean, Emilio,” the Arachne said impatiently. “Consider the names we’ve already got. I very much fear it’s going to be all we can do to attend to them properly. Yes, it’ll be a small class, but as things stand I don’t feel a need to go looking for more. And that’s what we’d have to do, gentlemen. These are the students who’ve been brought forward to us, and that’s how we’ve always recruited. The University does not ask for attendees.”
“Hey, guys?” said the half-elf.
“For heaven’s sake, Admestus, what?” the Arachne exclaimed.
He pointed at Fross. “Whose pixie is that?”
Everyone turned to stare at her.
“Hello!” she said. “My name is Fross!”
“What the hell is this now?” the Arachne said by way of greeting.
“That’s not a very nice word,” Fross admonished.
“Yes, I know. Just what are you doing in here? If your witch is trying to get my attention, there are easier ways.”
“Uh, my… I’m sorry, I don’t have a witch,” she said nervously. This wasn’t going at all the way she’d anticipated. “I’m here on a mission from the Pixie Queen to the human lands!”
“Fross, was it?” the human said in his calm tone. “Are you sure that’s the story you want to stick with?”
“Arachne,” the dwarf said softly, frowning up at Fross.
“Yeah,” said the elf. “I see it.”
“Care to let us in on the joke?” asked Admestus the half-elf.
“This pixie is brimming with arcane magic,” said the Arachne.
“I, uh… I don’t know what that means,” Fross said, keenly aware that this conversation had well and truly gotten away from her.
“It means you’re not much like any other pixie that’s ever existed,” said the Arachne.
“Well…I sort of knew that.”
“Is it even possible?” the human asked, frowning.
“I would not have said so,” replied the dwarf, “but…there she is. Arachne…she can’t be more than a few years old. They have tiny auras, but the energy they draw upon… If she’s somehow converting it into the arcane, and storing it up, why… In a couple of centuries, she could rival any archmage in existence.”
“Is that…good?” Fross asked uncertainly.
“Well, it could be good,” the Arachne mused. “Or, alternatively, it could be very, very, incredibly bad. That all depends on you, Fross.”
“What are you talking about, converting fae magic into arcane?” the half-elf scoffed. “Even I know my Circles of Interaction better than that. Even Ezzaniel does, I bet. Converting pressurized oil into fire is more like it.”
“Do you suppose this is a latent trait of pixies that no one’s discovered before?” the dwarf asked thoughtfully.
“I can’t credit the idea,” said the Arachne, shaking her head. “Witches who have pixie familiars tend to be of the more ambitious sort. Someone would have noticed and made use of it. No… I don’t think pixies are secretly the gnagrethycts of the fairy world. Far more likely we’re looking at an outlier. Sort of like our November.”
“What does that mean?” Fross asked. “And what’s it have to do with me?”
“That is the question, isn’t it?” the Arachne said thoughtfully, staring up at her.
“Well, yes. That’s the question.”
The elf smiled. “I think you’d better tell us your story, Fross.”