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  • Randy Nikkel Schroeder

Only The Dead Flower Blooms (Free Story)

An adolescent Faerie staggered from the desert's empty quarter, nearly naked, stunned and sunstruck. For the last measure she clawed her way, finally to collapse at the wire fence that marked the borders of goblin country. Her breath ruffled the sand, a little less each minute. The sun cooled, and set, and slept.


“I find her trapped on that Abbey fence, fist full of night flowers.” Booma the ogre pulled a sweaty braid from her eye. It fell again, where the ear was missing. “She travel far. Babble much of sun’s fire. But sleep now, see?”


Two goblin nuns stood in the room's cool evening shadows, surveying their unexpected convalescent. The Farie’s limbs were stringed with rips and shreds not unlike those worn by pixie strippers of the Mesa. Her breath swished hot and cold, as if she had swallowed fiery noon winds and the chilled moon, or gulped equal measures of snow and sand.


On bed, signed Grinteeth, with the abridged hand gestures of the Mothite nuns, vowed to a silence.


Gently, added Fangash, fingers twiggling. The old nun brushed a curtain, calling light from the desert moon. They peered more closely. The Faerie’s skin was not the misty mauve common to her kind, but dark as plum.


Fangash shook her head. She looks Owl Clan.


“Snow Faerie!” Booma Gushed. “Cannot be.”


Grinteeth snapped a finger. They all dead. And why Snow Faerie travel the sands?


Fangash raised a hand. She stooped to examine the face, softly touched the nose, the hair, the ears. After minutes, she nodded. Unmistakable. Clan Owl. Hobgoblins called them Bruise People.

Ancient enemies. Grinteeth nodded.


Booma touched the Faerie’s forehead. “But Bruise all killed, even children. By Hobbin.” Her eye moistened, and her voice hushed. “Fog Marsh Massacre. Twenty years ago, now.”


Yes. A mystery here. Fangash crushed dwarven incense into a finger pot, once used for blood sacrifice by the pagan Field Faerie, before their Reformation.


The green scent of streamleaf mingled with chills of air, pumped from the abbey’s cool catacombs. The Faerie’s eyelid twitched. She inhaled, smiled deeply, and opened her eyes.


Her face registered perplexity, then shock, the ferocious hate. “Hobbin!” She lunged upward, grabbing for her absent dagger. Fangash quickly spat in the incense. Smoke choked the air, and the Faerie plunged back to oblivion.


***


No kneecaps.


Fangash probed the Faerie’s legs and head, looking up only to offer brief summaries.


Hollows under eyes. She grimaced, Cheekbone… she searched for the right sign… digested.


“Gone,” whispered Booma.


Grinteeth clawed out a string of signs. She flee disease? Or bring it?


Fangash set her palm at the Faerie’s heart, slowing her own to match the rhythm. But she could sense no flaw in the blood, no sickness she knew.


“Stop that pain.” Booma bulged over a tiny stool, rocking, wiping sweat from the scars that marked her missing ear. “Knit bones again, surely.”


I am truly sorry, Fangash signed. I cannot.


“What can that sickness be?” Booma said.


Fangash stared out the window, to where evening breezes swayed the goblin night flowers, and the sky hushed to a violet deep as the Faerie’s skin.


Sister, Fangash signed. I fear tidings may be true.


Grinteeth hung her head.


We must put on the kerchief, Fangash continued.


Grinteeth nodded. With their shaven heads and skullpoints they would look, to the Faerie, much like the hordes of marauding Hobgoblin in the thirteenth century oils of Greenwick, the Faerie master.


“But that Faerie sleeping,” said Booma. “Must rest, must live.”


She last of her clan, signed Grinteeth. And perhaps dying of strange disease. We can only know…


Fangash turned from the window. “We must wake her,” she said, in a voice harsh as smoke. “And we must break our vows of silence, in service of compassion.”


***


Grinteeth applied the rousing saltroot compress. “If this be what we have heard,” she whispered, “then a pox is on all Zoar.”


“Attend to this fallen one,” Fangash gently chided. “As the poet says: Just this, only this.”


“But can we ask after her private world? Is this a breach of respect?”


“No choice is perfect,” Fangash reminded. “Remember the poet: All actions are infected. This truth, alas, does not make any choice the easier.”


The Faerie moaned. Booma quickly pinned her shoulders, and the nuns backed away from the nearing fury. But the Faerie only blinked deeply, and said in a voice green and musical, “Why haven’t you killed me?”


Grinteeth stepped forward. “We never kill. We are called Keepers by your kind.”


The Faerie started as if from a hot brand. Sweat brindled her upper lip. “You are Keepers!” She groaned. “Oh gods. When will you pluck out my eyes?”


“That is rumor, never true.” Grinteeth reached to stroke the forehead, but pulled back at Fangash’s sign. “To where do you flee, fallen one? And what have you fled?”


The Faerie turned her head, refusing to speak.


“What is your name?” Fangash said.


The Faerie gnashed her teeth and tried to spit, but her mouth was parched from desert winds and missing waters.


“She never tell.” Booma towered overhead.


“Never!” the Faerie retched, tongue white and furrowed as a peach stone.


“That is well,” Fangash said, from the corner. “Yet we will tell you who we are, and something of our calling.”


The Faerie did not seem to listen, until the name of Booma, at which she turned her head, and quieted, and stared up in wonder.


Her bewilderment is fitting, Fangash signed to Grinteeth. Ogres, too, were a natural enemy of Goblin. Grinteeth nodded, and let Booma step into the Faerie’s orbit. The ogre looked down, tear drifting earward across her cheekbone. The Faerie simply stared.


She calms, Grinteeth signed.


Fangash stepped from the shadows and touched Booma, then spoke in the formal speech of the peacemaker: “We are compelled to help you, fallen one, but cannot unless you answer us, for you are a mystery bearing a mystery: a Snow Faerie wandering in the fiery Wilderness of Zin, carrying a sexual congress.” She paused. “Something ever eschewed by Owl Clan. How may we help you?”


The Faerie did not move.


“Thus,” continued the goblin, “you are of a dead clan carrying a live coal of rumor. By the salt mud still on your feet, you have traversed every crimp and corrugation of Zin’s Wazim River, which never freezes, and holds the sun’s fire, and can give no comfort to like as you. How may we help you?”


The Faerie inhaled sharply, as if surfacing from reverie, then snapped her teeth. “Never,” she said. “I will never tell a Keeper.” Then added sarcastically, “As your own prophet says: truth lives only in what is not told.”


Booma nodded. “Truth lives where word dies.”


“We prefer to call Moth a poet.” Fangash smiled. “And, as the poet says, no prophet can tell the truth.”

Grinteeth snapped her fingers impatiently. “You are dying, Faerie. And we do not know how to cure you.”


“Peace,” Booma cooed. “Try only kindness.”


Grinteeth looked at the floor. The ogre rarely spoke against her mentors.


Fangash put a hand on Grineeth’s shoulder, then peered kindly at the Faerie. “Friend, will you at least tell us of this disease, the Galadriella? Is it real?”


The Faerie grinned, and her tongue unstuck miraculously. “Yes. The contagion is passed only through the act of love, though the act is poorly named.” She laughed grimly. “It is called the Galadriella, like you say, and was begun by goblins through their pornographic ways, and must finally consume them.”


“Perhaps,” Fangash whispered.


The Faerie tried to rise, but lacked the sinews. “Why?” She demanded. “Why do you help me? Have you recanted Minsaunto, her thirst for blood and bones?”


“You know our most ancient Goddess,” said Grinteeth. “But clearly not the ways of our poet.”


The Faerie grunted.


“Have you a little strength left?” said Fangash.


The Faerie looked at Booma, and her shoulders softened. She nodded slowly.


“Peace,” said the nun. “Then we will show you our answer, come morning.”


***


After midnight, while the Faerie slept in a web of ancient dream-spells, the nuns conferred in the abbey’s tower. The Prick, as it was called by lewd desert folk—a single monstrous rock thrown up from prehistoric sands, buttoned with glass, carved and hollowed in the hazy past by some lost civilization. Grinteeth lit the moon stick, which gathered and dispersed the sky’s light in a glowing mist, while Fangash pulled two wooden chairs to the window.


“Speak,” she said. “The vow is broken.”


“Can this truly be a forgotten Faerie of Owl Clan?” Grinteeth said. “Or has the desert cast up a manifestation from its fiery heart, to the sun’s own purpose?”


Fangash sat slowly, squeezing her knees. “I have no skill on this question. We must dismiss it.”


Grinteeth nodded. “Only clear skies hold the lightning.”


“As the poet says.”


The moon stick hummed, pouring soft glow. Stars dimmed beyond the window, where the night flowers gulped their cold light.


“And yet…” Grinteeth poured the tea, fragrant Pixie Fooba plucked in the far archipelago, then smoked over smoldering pine needles. She sipped. “Can this creature be in disguise?”


“Impossible.” Fangash plopped a sugar cube with twiggy fingers.


“Perhaps a shapeshifter, from a school we have never seen, or a walking god. Or,” Grinteeth’s voice dipped, “perhaps the poet herself, a sun-ghost formed of our filmy desires.”


“Here to what end?”


“Truly. But I have wished almost daily for some sign from our own history.”


Fangash laughed. “A leaf drops ever into tomorrow.”


"Each precious leaf knows only Autumn."


"Only the desert knows the tree."


"As the poet, as the poet."


They laughed. They were not above a little sacrilege. Then Fangash shook her head. “No, sister, it cannot be.”


"What, then?” Grinteeth leaned forward and put her teacup on the oak table. “Is our visitor the offspring of Faerie and Goblin, a Faedroon? Even now the Hobgoblin and the spooks of Nebbinezzar hunt them throughout the four quarters, as an abomination.”


Fangash also set down her tea. She tugged her lip thoughtfully. “Ever have the Goblins and Faerie accused each other of willfully spreading impurity. Ever have they destroyed the artifacts which do match their own accounts of history. They are mirrors of each other. Sisters, even.” She chuckled, and let her fingers swim through the moon stick’s misty light. “No, Grineeth, we must finally believe what we see. Still, we see only that a Snow Faerie dies on a table, and nothing of her goal or purpose.”


“Booma knows.”


The nuns startled, for they had forgotten the ogre in the shadows. Grinteeth spun in her chair, stray finger clinking the teacup.


“Speak,” she said.


Booma was silent.


“How would you know?” Grinteeth demanded.


Booma tapped the scar that marked her missing ear. Grinteeth stared into the shadows, blinking quickly, then bowed her head.


“Forgive us, Booma,” said Fangash, “Sometimes our attention flows clear as swampwater.”


For Booma had many years earlier been a Hobgoblin slave, at the Fog Marsh Massacre, in the Icicle Forest. Her masters had commanded her to kill some Owl Clan children throwing stones from a ditch. When Booma refused, the goblins killed her own daughter, and took her ear. Only the Mothite nuns saved her from suicide.


“That Faerie travel to the Icicle Forest,” Booma said. Then, softly, “Faerie go home.”


“Of course," said Fangash. “She wants to die in her own country. How did we not see?”


“More.” The ogre stepped into the mist-light, creaking the slatted floor. “That Faerie want her spirit to go to the Green Kingdom of the Dead. She need her people.”


“Her people are dead,” blurted Grinteeth. “Has she not heard of the Massacre?”


“Peace, sister.” Fangash raised a hand. “Booma, sit and drink tea. Will you tell us of the Faerie Kingdom of the Dead? This is history we have not kept.”


Booma sat on the floor and plucked a teacup from the table. It looked like a thimble in her hand. “Spirit of dead Faerie must march into that Kingdom just so, at right pace, and stay awake, always awake. Clan member must perform ceremony, only same clan, see? Else that spirit miss Green Kingdom and pass into shadows. Or worse!” She slurped the cooling tea.


“And how does the clan help?” said Fangash.


Booma hesitated. “Must tap the bones, make rattle, just so.”


“The bones?” Grinteeth frowned. “Do you mean the death sticks? The Death Rattle Ceremony?”


Booma nodded.


Fangash also frowned. All goblins knew tales of the Faerie death sticks, thin rods carved from Fangoo bark, tapered and serrated, supposedly driven up through the nostrils of baby goblins in order to smash the brains. Faerie scouts and warriors carried them always into battle, on a neck-chain. If the warrior fell—as the tale went—a comrade would tap the bones in a particular rhythm, as a reminder of goblin babies killed, in order that the fallen go happy to the afterlife. There were other tales, too, darker rumors.


Grinteeth shivered. “They do hate us so.”


“Still,” said Fangash. “We are Mothite, and will let nothing snuff compassion. Booma, do warriors alone die to this tapping, or must all Snow Faerie have the ceremony performed at death?”


“All must.”


“And what happens if no clan member or sticks can be found? What is worse than passing to the shadows?”


Booma shuddered. Her voice cracked. “Spirit walk all the way to Mudworld.”


“Surely you don’t hold this superstition!” Grinteeth barked.


“Peace.” Fangash poured more tea into Booma’s cup. “Let us not judge another’s faith. Booma, have you seen the true ceremony for the bones?”


The ogre looked down. She exhaled heavily, but said nothing.


“Booma?”


Booma gulped her tea in a single shot. Sweat moistened her upper lip.


“Tell us.” Grinteeth clutched the table’s lip. She looked to Fangash, who brushed a subtle sign. Gently.

“Please,” Grinteeth added.


Booma stood. “Cannot.” She turned. “Will not.” She strode for the door, slats creaking behind her.


Grinteeth glared at the empty door. “Our friend grows unsubtle and belligerent.”


“She has much inside her.” Fangash moved to unlight the moon stick.


Grinteeth gulped the cold tea remaining in the pot, then stood. “It matters little. The Faerie is the last of her kind, and has not the deaths sticks on her. No sticks are likely to survive in the Icicle Forest, nor anywhere in Zoar.”


Fangash looked strangely at her companion, one eye squinting. “This makes our visit to the catacombs more urgent yet.”


“How so? Have our long-dead sisters kept a set of death sticks, somewhere deep in Haggahowl Cavern, where we have never been?”


I have been there.”


Grinteeth surveyed the older nun. “May we learn another’s most holy art? Can we?”


“We are Keepers.”


“But not Faerie.”


“True.”


Grinteeth frowned. “This ritual is not an artifact, but a living ceremony. We are Keepers, not soul thieves.”


Fangash sighed. “I fear you are right, and we may not steal another’s ritual. Though our ogre friend has seen this ceremony. I know it.”


“She will not tell.”


“Yet we will see, in the morning.”


Grinteeth nodded, half-heartedly. “Sometimes the bones will dance.”


Fangash snuffed the moon stick. “As the poet says.”


***

Chill catacomb breezes fluttered the torches, summoned from the earth’s secret places by some unknown magic. Booma’s iron boots clapped a slow castanet on the stone steps, as she carried the Faerie past ancient frescoes of goblin faith, deep into the monastery’s vaults. The nuns followed, veiled and soft-slippered.


They stooped to avoid throbbing skin pips, organic plumbing grown by dwarves; they brushed walls bricked with white. The Faerie retched from her perch on Booma’s back. “Move quickly through these unwholesome corridors.”


“We only accept,” said Grinteeth. “These are incantations of Death, whose welcome none can refuse.”


“True, Sister.” Fangash shuffled behind. “But perhaps this is not a judicious time to insist on the truth.”


Grinteeth frowned. They entered the Fingcrow Stairs, steeper yet, breathless with the weight of earth above.


“I thought goblins hated mines,” said the Faerie.


“Some do, some don’t.” Grinteeth lit a scented torch. “We are not one clan, but many. Like your own people.”


The Faerie sniffed. “Faerie perfume. Sifa.”


“Yes,” said Fangash.


The Faerie inhaled, then coughed. “My people would spit in your perfumes. What kind of order are you to keep the curios of your most bitter enemies?”


They stopped at the front of the stairs, where a dark doorway exhaled muddy breezes and silence so deep it stiffened the bones.


“This is The Passage,” whispered Fangash. “Here begins our collection of histories: there is much beyond, some of which you will scarcely believe.” She swept a thick curtain. Beneath it hung Greenwick’s painting, The Fallen, an icon of Faerie culture; beside hung an ancient Kelpie map of Zoar, fragrant with unrolled secrets and vanished geographies.


The Faerie hissed. Her fingers clawed at Booma’s neck. “Are those the ornaments of your hope? Poached from other cultures to guarantee your own afterlife?”


No one answered.


“You are soul thieves,” the Faerie snarled.


“Perhaps.” Fangash closed the curtain. “But we have no care for an afterlife, which cannot be proven. We care for this life, and all lives, and all histories. And so, fallen one, we respect your own beliefs, though we do not share them.”


“Unbelievers.” The Faerie coughed. “Fence-sitters. Nibblers. Infidels.”


“But kind.” Booma’s voice crackled with disuse. “True always to vows.”


The Faerie snorted. “I suppose your vows include chastity? One more thing to keep?”


“They do.” Fangash smiled at Grinteeth. “And we also pleasure each other.”


The Faerie licked her lips, as if unable to chew this contradiction.


Booma clomped forward, bobbing the Faerie’s head. They padded through The Passage, lucemaria pumping faint air and sunlight from the far desert skin. Fangash maintained a whispered commentary—here were graves pierced in walls, loculi stuff with the dead of many races. Some walls were honeycombed so densely with loculi that the ancient frescoes were scratched or destroyed. Grinteeth explained that goblins, especially, were frantic to be buried near strong relatives, in order to follow them to the sweetest places in the Land of Death.


The Faerie coughed again, then shuddered. This was a great hive of the dead, an ant’s kingdom haunted with small histories, where even the greatest life was diminished to the compass of an insect’s. And where in all the kingdoms did these spirits now dwell?


They stepped finally through a last curtain, into the galleries, where the light thickened, at once dimmer and deeper than that of the outer catacombs. Its source was invisible.


“The Grumgnash Tunnels,” said Fangash. “Gaze about you. I will tell each story.”


“And so,” said Grinteeth. “We will answer your recent question. Then, perhaps you will answer ours.”


***


Of all the old kingdoms tattooed on Zoar’s skin, none contained the sheer bounty of the Mothite catacombs, mazed deep in the desert’s belly. An underworld never glimpsed by Faerie, and rarely by Goblin. Rarely did its rumours pierce the surface, and never the frosty haunts of the Icicle Forest.


And so the last Snow Faerie looked in awe, and said little, but listened with wide eyes and mouth, as the tangled threads of old Zoar unspooled themselves through countless artifacts, each accompanied by the softly spoken stories of Fangash the goblin nun. And few surface dwellers would have believed the conversation, fewer still the speakers assembled, and almost none the objects of discussion….


Here was one of Moth’s own hairs—green as poison—preserved in crystal, suspended by an unremembered spell. Twirling next in the heavy air, the finger of Octoberon, once chieftain of the Highland shapeshifters. Behind floated a rainbow of dead butterflies from the Age of Wizards, while between, like flotsam, drifted the lipsticks of goblin harlots and the magpie cutlets of the jaded Field Faerie, once worshipers of King Magpie, now harvesters of boredom and gloom.


“Dear gods,” said the Faerie. “These are totems of despair.”


Fangash nodded. “This is a chamber of horrors, seen one way. Yet there are more ways of seeing, as the poet says.”


And indeed, some of the curios were more comic than tragic. On the far wall hung the four-legged pants of a prudish Mennozite centaur. Next, a goblin eye-ring, surely the most painful piercing ever contrived. And a scroll of vegetarian troll recipes, always a surprise to those familiar with the more carnivorous myths. And a whole gallery of brownie gardening tools—bizarre clamps and forks, strings hung with hooks and bits of glass, hollow pipes with cups on top. Elbow-length gloves fingered with spoons, tiny vials of insecticide hung in clever frenulums between knuckles. Root movers, petal shakers, leaf washers. And sweet poems for pumpkins, chanted under the kissing moon.


“Brownies could really grow,” said Grinteeth. “Alas, they were worthless in war.”


Fangash plucked a gardening glove. “Imagine trying to kill a giant with this.”


One staggered cabinet housed an orchestra of musical instruments, shaped and sharpened to weapons by skilful Snaggers—the ludicrous battering piano, the ominous violintor, the unsuccessful bow-and-trumpet. Overhead, a Bonewalker’s mirror, better left unlooked. Here, in a sheet of floating dirt, was the last remaining grass from Cloudland, once razed, hazed and poisoned by malevolent green-hating Goatsuckers, who planted, instead, the rank and deadly fangweed. Roots dangled to the floor, which was scattered with clumps of clover and rotting turnips. Between turnips, in stark counterpoint, sat a sparkling crown and a crude crayon landscape.


“One king, one child,” said Fangash. “All are treasures to Moth, with not the slightest discrimination between between them.” Then added, “We keep a fangweed garden in the deeper galleries.”


Grinteeth plucked the tine of an antler worn by Nixie Psychiatrists, who claimed to make goats speak the truth of one's unconscious desires. "We even keep this... pseudo magic."


“But what are—” the Faerie coughed. A trace of blood lined her chin. “What are these?” She pointed beyond the butterflies, to a wall cut with gloomy alcoves, which admitted no light yet glimmered with mouthfuls of armored teeth, spikes and spines, stakes and skewers. Above hung a clan of ceremonial masks, faces twisted in hate and agony.


“Yes,” Fangash whispered. “That is our own history. The torture tools of Shaggabite, once Minsaunto’s greatest inquisitor, and Moth’s murderer. For our sect has been an abomination to the faithful goblins, as they call themselves.”


The masks, inflected with some old magic, mimicked the nun’s sadness. Then their faces changed to wonder, as the Faerie said to Booma, “Bring me closer.”


“We do not recommend…” Grineeth watched the ogre mince toward the alcoves, but did not follow. The masks squeezed shut their eyes. Fangash remained beside her sister, breathing slowly.


“That is called a…” The nun cleared her throat. “That was once a… The Inquisitor named that her…”


“Throatfucker.” Grinteeth finished in a hoarse whisper.


Fangash looked down. “It did not enter through the throat.”


The masks each opened a single eye, while the Faerie reached a trembling finger to touch a long wire spiked with barbs as fine as hair.


“The noodle,” said Fangash. “Swallowed and excreted many times, in a… growing series of loops.”


Grinteeth gulped. “This strains our faith, sister.”


“Truly.”


Many masks clamped their mouths. Those with unlucky tongues whipped them like snakes set afire.


The Faerie touched a steel mask, with an inward nail at the eyes, and a hollow horn at the mouth. “And this?”


“The Hunger Head. Through which were forcibly eaten things that will not be mentioned here.”


And so it went, each device more horrific and inspired than the last, till the masks heaved as if to vomit, and some vanished into their own mouths, and others fell from the wall. But the nuns did not move, and named everything with a grim and steady measure.


At the end, the Faerie was shuddering, and coughing harshly, and only Booma’s firm hand kept her from joining the fallen masks.


“And what, finally, is this scroll?” the Faerie said. “A compendium of goblin atrocities, with instructions, with illustrations to savour, with the most ingenious diagrams?”


“No,” said Fangash. “That is an ancient Faerie scroll. It contains the Forgetting Ceremony, with its proprietary spells.”


The Faerie gasped. “I don’t believe it. Then our old stories are true?”


“The scroll is much older than the catacombs themselves, and is only remembered here. Its sister, the Remembering Ceremony, is forgotten to history.” She smiled sadly. “An irony that would have delighted Moth.”


The Faerie hacked up more blood. “You stole it from us! Your kind.”


“It is lost. We keep it. It is useless without its counterpart.”


“No!” the Faerie thrashed and gargled.


The blood flushed from Grinteeth’s face; even her ears whitened. But Fangash simply pressed her lips.


“You are beguiled,” the Faerie slipped a laboured breath, “to think you have no effect on the world.”


“Oh, truly.” Fangash clenched her teeth.


“Fog March Massacre,” Booma whispered. “Would not have happened without Forgetting.”


A long deep silence, hollow and bottomless.


Fangash stepped forward and gestured at the grim tools. “Our kind have desired nothing more in this world than to somehow open the scroll and use the spells, in order to forget the horror of the Inquisition. The Forgetting, it is told, can be directed precisely by Faeries at any unwanted memory.”


“Like the location of a village,” the Faerie murmured. Booma gasped.


“But we will not use it,” Fangash blurted. “To forget would destroy all we believe, and hold dear.”


“And so,” said Grinteeth, “the scroll remains with the torture tools—as counterpoint, as irony, as a living reminder.”


The Faerie clutched at Booma’s throat. “Why?” Her voice was like burning sand. “What kind of creatures are you?”


Fangash reached to stroke a plate of hobnailed iron. “We stare without blinking at all the world’s offerings, no matter how cruel or lovely. We keep all things.”


“Yours is a demented order.” The Faerie spat.


“To turn from the world’s beauties is to rob them of power. To turn from the world's horrors is to offer them power.”


“As the poet, as the poet,” the Faerie gibbered sarcastically. She spat again, this time with blood. “Then why are you cloistered?”


“We are cloistered in order to keep alive the trembling flame of compassion,” Grinteeth said. “To cradle it from the winds of hatred.”


“What good is a candle kept away from darkness?”


Fangash let her finger drop. “A good question. We have never been able to answer it.”


“Do you have compassion for those who hold none?” The Faerie clutched Booma’s hair and leaned forward. “Do you keep them, as you say, and live in paradox?”


Fangash began to pluck at her fingernails. “Logic is not the language of the spirit.”


“Oh, truly!” the Faerie cried. “Does your charity extend to those who nourish impurity? Those who spread disease?”


“It does.” Fangash plucked faster.


“What of warriors who only love violence? They have always been the scourge of your kind. Do you keep them?”


“They too are of this world.”


“Ha!” the Faerie sneered. “And torturers?”


“Yes.”


“Your own?”


“Look around you.” The nun’s breath stormed her nostrils.


“And those who preach bloody judgement?”


“Yes.”


“Who preach only vengeance?”


“Yes.”


“And despair?”


“Yes!” Fangash snapped.


The Faerie’s voice slowed, and softened. “And those who threaten your goblin children—does your compassion extend to even them? To us? Do you respect our hope that you be destroyed? We teach our own children to pray that—”


Her voice choked off. She fell back. Booma caught her.


“Your children all dead,” the ogre whispered, tear on her lashes. The Faerie thrashed weakly; Booma held gently.


“Did you not realize?” Grinteeth said. “You are the last of your kind.”


The Faerie’s face clenched in despair. “I had hoped otherwise.” Her lips slackened. Her limbs collapsed. “I will hope no more. I am already halfway to Mudworld.”


Fangash had folded her hands. But her lips were pressed almost white, and her eyes burned. “Set her to rest. Now.”


They laid the Faerie on the bed of a long-dead Kelpie King, its canopy hung with moons and stars. There she began to sing, in a voice tinged with ghost harmonies, smoky as lit sage, green as winter pine. The wall stones hummed in sympathy, then the hems of the goblin’s robes, and then, very softly, as if the air were delicate enough to puncture, the blades and tines on the instruments of torture. The nuns forgot each sweet note in turn, as they would a song made of mist.


“Here is something we will never keep,” Grinteeth whispered.


But Fangash stared grimly at the torture tools, clutching her robe about her. She moved from the bed. “Stay, Grinteeth. I will return anon.”


“Where will you go?”


Fangash turned, and her face twisted in a way that her sisters had never seen, as if she held a live coal beneath the tongue. “I will descend alone to Haggahowl Cavern,” she said. “I will retrieve the death sticks, and touch them in spite of our vows. Then, as I breathe, Booma will teach us the ceremony.”


The song ended. Spidery notes hung in the darkness, strung with harmony and dissonance.


***


Fangash gone, the Faerie peered upward through layers of gloom for what seemed an eternity. Her skin slowly drained from plum to ash. She did not blink. “I will tell you an old Faerie folktale,” she said at last, “while I am still a few leagues from Mudworld.”


“Only rest.” Booma wrung her hands.


The Faerie did not hear. “Long ago, Silgreen of the emerald hair grew tired of the burnings…”


“Hobgoblin catch and torture scouts,” Booma explained in a sandy whisper. “To find and burn secret villages.”


“Silgreen journeyed the far Wilderness of Zin, to steal the Forgetting and Remembering spells. She wrote them on two scrolls, and paid the price for her theft: she could not return home, but wandered forever in the desert, with no one to chant her death…” The Faerie gulped a rattling breath.


“Faerie scout use that Forgetting Spell,” Booma said. “They not give up secret, and no more burnings. One scout—only one—keep that Remembering Spell, so they can all go home again.”


Grinteeth bowed her head.


“And my people prospered.” The Faerie’s breath shrieked, flutelike. “But the goblins prayed to Minsaunto, their bone goddess, who flew into rage, and destroyed the Remembering Spell. After that, the scouts all wandered like Silgreen, and could never go home.” She clawed a shallow breath. “And my people, in great sadness, cast the Forgetting spell into deep waters, where it remains.”


She turned to the wall, and said no more.


“Except it does not,” Fangash muttered from the shadows. They had failed to notice her return.


“I will not teach you,” Booma said.


Fangash tapped the sticks. “You will.”


The Faerie inhaled, pinched and percussive. Her skin had paled completely, almost bone.


“Quickly,” Fangash said.


Grinteeth stared at the floor, but Booma turned.


“You steal that sacred secret? No.” She raised her fists. “You will not.”


“Her faith demands it.”


“Must never give more secrets to goblin.”


Fangash stepped forward. “Booma. We saved you from despair. You owe us your allegiance, even your obedience—”


“Sister,” Grinteeth said. “You overstep.”


Fangash pressed. “If you do not teach us, then this fallen one departs, without family—”


“Superstition,” Grinteeth whispered roughly. “We do not believe.”


She believe, but not betray her own people.” Booma pointed at the Faerie. “I owe nothing. I once bring you that Forgetting Scroll. No more.”


“Booma!” Fangash stepped from the shadows. She had the Inquisitor’s saw in one hand, and held it notched against the sticks.


“Sister!” Grinteeth gasped. “Where have you gone?”


“I will cut them to bits if you refuse,” Fangash said. “Teach me the Death Rattle Ceremony, and after we will use the Forgetting Spell to chase it forever.”


Grinteeth collapsed to her knees. Booma stared at the Faerie, then up through the vault.


“Please,” Fangash whispered, saw drooping in her fingers. “She is the last of her clan. We cannot keep her.”


“A fitting symmetry,” choked Fangash.


Booma’s fist uncurled, one thick finger at a time. “It is useless.” She looked down, tear bubbling on her cheek. “They not death sticks, anyway. They Hobbin sticks, made to torture Faerie children. Called shaggabiters.”


Somewhere in the witchy darkness, or perhaps behind the teeth and razors, Shaggabite’s ghost seemed to laugh.


Fangash gulped. “Then…” She looked at her hands. The saw dropped, and clattered. The sticks quivered.


“The poet, the poet.” Grinteeth muttered from the floor. “She was ever in love with irony.”


“Our gods, too.” The Faerie, almost forgotten, shifted in the sheets. “Because it doesn’t matter.”


“It matters,” Fangash growled. “Your spirit will wander, homeless.”


“No. Any sticks will work. The ceremony is simple.” The Faerie smiled, teeth filmed with blood. “I will teach you myself, and, against our history, against our better judgements, we will part as sisters.”


***


They buried her among the night flowers.


“A pity we cannot bring her home, to the Icicle Forest,” said Grinteeth.


Fangash nodded grimly. “Our cloister has outlived its truth.”


Grinteeth stooped to pluck a flower. Then pulled each dark petal, one by one, and cast them northward on the morning breeze.


“Only the dead flower blooms.” She looked up. “You know, sister, in truth I sometimes do not understand the poet.”


Fangash stared at Booma, watching the sun rise at the far corner of the wire fence. “Grinteeth. It is time to leave.”


“Sister?”


“Time to open the Forgetting Scroll, and erase our remembrance of the death ritual we have just performed.” She raised her eyes to the sun. “And perhaps lose all we have known. Perhaps forever.”


“Sister!” Grinteeth stood. The flower stem broke in her fingers. “We must stay. We must preserve.”


“We must honor.”


“At the expense of our own faith? We are Keepers.”


“Are we?”


The sun was hot in the sky when they finally called to Booma; late afternoon they began to chant the ancient Faerie spells. Booma squatted outside to burn the shaggabiters, yellow smoke drifting against the wind.

“We did not keep the Faerie’s name,” Grinteeth said.

“Nor she ours.”

Names lost, music lost. If nothing else, it had a kind of poetry. They chanted through supper, while Booma kept watch over the smoldering sticks, which were infected with hateful magic, and consumed themselves with agonizing languor.

“What will we remember?” Grinteeth asked.

“I do not know.”

“Where will we go?”

Fangash looked up from the scroll. “Perhaps we will find the truth of this disease, this Galadriella, and wander in search of its remedy.”

Grinteeth peered at the Inquisitor’s tools. “And will we come home?”

In the evening, the goblins emerged from the cloister, blinking like newly wakened children.

“Come,” said Booma. “Moon waits.”

They followed her over the Abbey’s fence and through the flowers, which would soon open in the moonlight, to blossom briefly in defiance of morning.


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