Summary: Ever since he was eight years old, Anti-Cosmo has dreamed of becoming a father in a time period when Anti-Fairies are forbidden from reproducing. Forming a conservation program for genies has helped, but not enough. Never enough. Determined to find a loophole in the cruel law, Anti-Cosmo searches desperately for a way that Anti-Fairies might reproduce without being forcibly bound to the whims of their Fairy counterparts. And when he gets his hands on the information he desires at last, he's forced to make a painful choice: Pretend he never uncovered the forbidden secret that he did, or put his long-sought knowledge to use at the expense of those he loves.
A/N - Fair warning: This isn't really your average FOP 'fic. This fanfic fast became very, very long in my files. It contains a lot of in-depth worldbuilding, much of which is based on real world science and ridiculously anthropomorphized bat and insect behaviors. The rest of my worldbuilding is just needlessly complicated because that's my writing style and I must challenge myself to have fun.
This is a fanfic about Anti-Cosmo growing up in a world where Anti-Fairies have always been told they can't become pregnant unless their Fairy counterpart is pregnant too. Because of this, well, not a lot stops Anti-Fairies from enjoying very casual relationships. Perhaps you can also understand why the iris virus, or the STD that gives an Anti-Fairy colored eyes instead of default red, is considered so valuable. This is the culture Anti-Cosmo grew up in. So, be warned: There will be lots of kisses and, yes, a couple of sex scenes in this story.
If this doesn't work for you, then this isn't your kind of fanfic. Know your limits and proceed with care.
Additionally, this story runs parallel to my H.P. backstory fanfic, Origin of the Pixies. You don't have to read Origin in order to understand Knots (though it may supplement the worldbuilding). I'll note in the headings or in notes at the bottom when a chapter crosses over with Origin. Now, tally-ho!
ACT 1 - FRESH
In which the Year of the Black Lake occurs, and Julius is beside himself
It began with smoke. First it was black, then it was green, and I was not yet alive.
The world existed in minuscule form; I elaborate for poetic effect. I mattered but nothing, Cosmo mattered everything and more, and such is what I knew. It was black, and then it was green.
You don't know, you know. Thinking is so very difficult before you've been gifted your brain. You view your actions as meaningless in the rush of the moment, when in reality they will determine everything. Oh smoke, if you only knew… You are smoke, of course.
If my experience is typical of an anti-fairy, then when you wake, you find your first personality trait at random, and the second by luck. You're still feeling for the third, unable to see, when you realise you're running out of time. Gods, that boob Cosmo's head was spacious from the start… It took a painful ten seconds to even find his first aspect, and ten more to pry it from the wrinkles of his brain. "Patience". Not my first choice, desperate as I was; I threw it off in disgust. Something promising. Something worth it. Just something. There had to be something I could make my own.
I selected "Tact". Cosmo's once, but entirely mine now. It's the soft cold that attracts you sideways as you wander. Approaching, you recognise the rightness of it breathing against your soul. Your job is to search, to sort, to steal.
You do. A few aspects of your host counterpart's baby personality are favourable. Many repulse you. Still others you pick up, almost bite, but think twice about and return where they were.
These life-shaping decisions take but a matter of wingbeats. You're a soul within a soul, hovering in a mind that is not your own. Then you tumble out, and become smoke once again.
Cosmo's ear became my passage home. I lacked a mouth with which to echolocate. His father, his mother; I considered their existence as I sped past. Unimportant. There existed Cosmo. There existed me. I mattered everything. And for a time, he meant nothing at all.
You fly home at incredible speed, or at least I did. Tried to, anyway. Straight through Choketroll Pass. The name is appropriate: the ever-swirling mists lend themselves to lore and fantasy, and it's been suggested the bridge's guardians (long dead now) still linger about the shadows in Daoine form to pick pockets, chill throats, and taunt the superstitious fellow's mind. Rot and rubbish, all of it; if life existed after death, then someone up there would have told us so.
As you are not but smoke, you may pass across the Hy-Brasilian / Tír Ildáthachi border unharmed and un-sought for. A sleepy guard raises her head but a little. You are something of a common thread. Another insignificance. She does not know, then, that although demand for pups may rise in the coming years, supply will fall increasingly low. She does not know it will be so many millennia before one of your kind passes this way again.
Shining lavender grass and rolling pink clouds run themselves out to stubbled roots and ashy cinders. The sky falls from purple to pink, and from pink to red. You pay it no mind, for again, you don't yet have a brain. You cannot comprehend with thought. Only absorb. If you could consider, perhaps you might. Yes, perhaps you might say to yourself, "Why, this land of skeletal forests and rotting bones is no place to raise a child, and I shall file a complaint to our esteemed High Count and Countess as soon as I have got a mouth!"
But of course, you would then flit along your way, for an Anti-Fairy, well… He is a creature born and bred with innate independence, never meant to be moulded by his environment. Circumstances are irrelevant. Instinct is everything. You may realise as much, even as smoke; after all, as early as this point you've begun to formulate yourself into what your hosting counterpart is not.
As you go about your merry way over valleys checkered with shadows and shrubs, at some point it may occur to you that you are not alone. Other smoky shapes race alongside you. That's hardly a surprise, considering their parents would have joined the, er, migration three months ago… one shafted me hard in the shoulder as we flew. I careened left, then rammed her (him? it?) in return. Eight of us, at least; possibly ten. Twenty? That's what happens, of course, when all Anti-Fairy births are delayed through embryonic diapause until Friday the 13th.
I arrowed onward, colours and sounds zinging around me. This smoky form made up only half of who I could be. This may be my soul, my identity, but somewhere out there lay a blue body with my name imprinted upon his core. Tiny, square, and not quite born.
Oh, if I could but find him! How joyful the two of us, melding into one form of body and soul, would be then!
Fields melted into a clawing forest. Bare branches scraped the bloodied sky. Alongside two dozen other smoky puffs, I weaved among the clinging black leaves. Minutes streaked by as though they were seconds. Black land, red clouds, blue faces tilted upward to shout and wave and celebrate our coming home. Away from the town then, the onlookers, the bubbling green lakes and crimson lava pools. Several patches of lifesmoke veered from the main cloud, targeting tiny bodies tucked away somewhere only they knew. Not yet, I told myself. My time would come.
Twigs erupted into the sky a short ways ahead of me. Dark feathers swelled, birthing an enormous creature with snapping hands. Nearly half my company dove and scattered. An oblivious few charged on.
I, embarrassing as it is, must count myself among those who flinched foolishly back. A crawdad in a stream.
Long fingers closed around the part of me that served as my waist, crushing my chest. I squealed, for although I was smoke, I had form. By the time I realised I had been grabbed, it was too late. The hand flicked me sideways, into a glass jar. A lid smashed down after me.
There was no pain, no fear; hardly any confusion. I hit the bottom of the jar, then bounced off one side when it flipped up on its end. "See" would be an inaccurate verb, but I did become aware of other blue creatures with black feathers flying about, catching other blobs of purple lifesmoke in other jars. Plucking us out of the air like bruised apples from a hovering tree.
Some of us made off with our lives, I suppose. If I'd had lips, I would have pursed them. As lifesmoke, I had but one goal: To find my body, and fill it with life. Inside the jar, I could no longer progress. And if anything, I found it quite the puzzling predicament.
But, I could do little to improve my circumstances. Nothing at all, in fact. Encased in glass without the smallest crack, I could not phase myself through the jar. And so, I mused in silence as my captor carted me off. The passiveness, inevitable as it was, is something I have always regretted nonetheless.
Only later would I learn my captors' kind: anti-cherubs. Six of them, their fur so blue it nearly looked black. They skimmed beneath the trees, jars jostling in their arms. Deeper, deeper in the woods, as rats and insects scattered in the rotting scarlet leaves. We flew over a frozen river. We passed a canyon dotted with tunnel mouths. Then the trees turned to conifers, blooming with grey and orange. And when the anti-cherubs laughed, even wandering imps and kobolds chose to duck and cover.
The anti-cherubs slowed only when the conifer forest gave way to hills. Bright, green and pink hills blooming with juicy clover. A tilted tower rose in their midst. I pressed myself against the wall of my jar. The architectural style was recent, judging by the wide arched windows. The walls shone with alabaster and pearl. I searched them for flaws with all my limited ability as we swept through the door. There weren't any- not really. Every curve was smooth, every block unchipped. A smart contrast with the yellow curls of plants that snaked across the floor. Vines crawled up the walls and bled from ceiling corners. Decked-out trellises flaunted olives, bluebells, roses, and a rainbow of offerings for the spirits of the summer season. Kudzu sprouted through the dirt floor in every hall. Poison ivy waterfalled down the stairs. Not that I knew what any of it was called at the time.
In the first-floor parlour, the six anti-cherubs clinked our jars down on a low table that already held a couple dozen. So many lifesmoke clouds, so many souls. We "glanced" at one another, swirling about to indicate our mounting distress. Where were our bodies? Our journey hadn't brought me, at least, any nearer to mine.
I bunched together at the base of my jar. Across the way, green fire flickered in a crevice against the wall. Below me gaped a chasm. Its edge lay mere centimetres away. Could I? Should I? Would I even dare?
Being little more than a bundle of instincts, I acted upon the impulse to throw myself to the floor. Whether I understood the cause and effect of my fall shattering the glass, or whether I was simply desperate, is up to some debate. I would like to argue the former. Either way, I made it to the ground… only to land in a soft nest of leaves and grasses and bounce, unbroken, across the soil.
I met the seventh anti-cherub for the first time then (though, looking back on it, it might be more accurate to refer to her as the first). She cocked her bare foot against my jar, halting my scramble to freedom. Claws tightened along glass. Instead of bending down to pick me up, she pushed me against the table leg, then flipped me into the air and caught me two wingbeats before I could smash into the fireplace. I hunkered, drinking in the snap and scorch of spicy green flames below.
Then she tossed me back onto the table, not even caring that I bowled four or five other jars over in the process. The world ripped back and forth. When it stopped spinning and I could bring myself to "look" up, she was there again. Scarlet-eyed and grinning with needle-point fangs. Powdery blue fur sprouted on her face; glimmering black hair swung in a braid down her back. She folded both arms behind her neck and shared her sickly smirk with the potted plants dangling, guillotine-like, from snaggled ceiling hooks.
"Anti-Ludell," she called into the next room, "Anti-Charite's company finally decided to show up with another batch of freshies. And woo-wee, are they ever ugly!"
Uncomprehending, we continued to swirl about as before.
A second pale blue anti-cherub, this one a sullen male, joined her at the table with his arms folded. "Did you bury the identifier arrows in your moonhouse again? I can't find them anywhere in this dump."
"Would I do a thing like that?" she sing-songed, and then yanked on his bangs until most of them tore out. With a click of her tongue, she tossed the hairs aside. "They're in the back of the silverware drawer. Don't prick a talon, luv."
Anti-Ludell gagged. "I thought those were beaststicks! I hosted a dinner party and served those to my guests!"
She burst into snickers; he scolded, "Anti-Venus," and stalked away.
The other anti-cherubs had gone- probably, to seek more innocent victims flitting above the trees. Anti-Venus leaned forward on her elbows, tapping on one glass jar after another, until her brother returned from the kitchen with a fistful of white arrows in his claws.
"Yeah, that's not enough for everyone," she told him.
"Thanks to you, the rest are soaking in the sink with bits of rice still stuck to their tips. Let's just do the first six, and then we can sterilize 'em and repeat." He thrust them her way. "You identify this time. I'll label."
"Nah." Anti-Venus linked her fingers behind her neck again. "I've identified before and it's basically literally the worst thing I've ever done. I'm just gonna label again and make you do the hard stuff."
Shaking his head, Anti-Ludell began righting the fallen jars. "Okay, your counterpart might have been born first, but between the three of us, my lifesmoke found my body way before yours did. I mean, look!" Turning, he snagged her forearm and held his own against it. "I indisputably have the lighter fur. So technically, I'm older. And you should listen to me."
I missed most of what happened next due to my angle, youth, and lack of care. I suppose Anti-Ludell lunged for his sister, resulting in a scuffle between them. We rattled along the table in our jars. Anti-Venus grabbed him beneath the armpits and launched herself into the air with a great sweep of feathered wings. Then she backflipped and slung him over her head. Anti-Ludell twisted as he fell and catapulted off the white wall. When he dove her way again, he aimed the arrows at her face.
… Something of the sort.
Anti-Venus won the skirmish in the end, I'm quite certain. Though, I thought little at all of the situation until Anti-Ludell rammed the point of one arrow through the lid of my jar. I flattened myself to the bottom, unable to avoid being nipped in the side by its point. The fire fizzled and flared not far away.
"His name is Anti-Cosmo Anti-Lunifly," Anti-Ludell reported after a moment had passed. "Fertilised at precisely 6:54 on a Sunday evening this last winter by the sperm of Anti-Florensa Anti-Lunifly and egg of Anti-Robin Anti-Cosma."
He withdrew the white arrow. I shot for the hole left behind in the lid, only to smack against his palm. Swelling, I recoiled and bucked again. Anti-Ludell slapped his other hand on top of the first. "Anti-Venus," he spat, "don't just watch me fight this thing. Go fetch a stopper!"
"You want me to go or you want me to stop?" But her tone came off as absentminded, and she floated into the kitchen. I wrestled with Anti-Ludell's finger for an opening, but his skin held firm even as Anti-Venus returned in a flourish of braids and silk clothing. She shoved the plug in my lid.
"Smoke, I think it bit me," Anti-Ludell griped as he drew another arrow.
"That sounds like a 'you' problem." Anti-Venus brought my jar near her face like she wanted to inspect her catch. She didn't. She didn't even glance at me before smacking a crooked label across my prison. I went onto a high shelf. Every successive jar shoved me further back.
So I lived in a corner, smoky and silent, and that was where I stayed. I struggled, even lacking a brain, to make sense of my situation every passing day. As lifesmoke, the single purpose of my existence was to unite with the body that had been laid out for me. It was the simplest task in the universe, as it required no effort, no thought- only instinct.
And yet I'd failed even that. Such a thing was simply Not Done. What body would even want a failure for a soul? Oh, the shame of it! There came some days I felt certain I'd be better off never escaping my jar at all.
… But of course, the thought bordered on sacrilege, and I'd always look about in fear the other lifesmokes would surge against me and strangle me out of existence for daring to entertain such a traitorous muse.
I did not recognise the voice. But it did bring me a strange pause. Like so many others, indistinguishable, I pressed to the side of my jar and craned myself. I'd been tucked near the back of my shelf for ever so long, never dusted, never shifted… but when I moved just right, I could "see" over the heads of other smoky figures, and to the boy who stood in the archway to the parlour.
All at once, we became very excited. A body! The boy beneath the arch held a rumpled blue body against his shoulder. It was a boxy thing, with sharp edges and sharper corners. Limp and obviously unalive. It didn't even have most of its fur yet- only the underlying layer of scales that rendered the creature ectothermic. The boy had dressed it in white mourning clothes. Not precisely reassuring.
Is that what we'll look like? Oh, Anti-Venus was right. How we're ugly!
The boy stared directly at the back of Anti-Venus's chair, which faced the fireplace (and, in a sense, me). Though every shelf along the wall bristled with curious spirits, he remained undistracted. His long nose twitched. Twice. Bucked front teeth fastened in his lower lip. Green eyes fixated on Anti-Venus's hand, which must have been the only part of her he could see considering that it rested on the plush arm of her seat over her wand. Not clutching the wand- simply… resting on the wand. Anti-Charite held his elbow, and the boy made no attempt to struggle against her grip.
"Dame Anti-V-V-Venus," he said again, drawing in his wings. Unlike the anti-cherubs, his wings were stretchy, leathery… not feathered. He looked sideways at Anti-Charite before drawing in a bit of air. "M-my name is Aug-g-gustus. I'm 38,599 years o-old, I have an e-education, and I want to… I w-want… I hoped you and I could make a d-deal f-for my little brother's soul."
I fought to peer past the other jars and observe Anti-Venus's movements. Her eyes wandered up the wall. Automatically, I cringed away. Without turning around, she pushed her toes through her dirt floor and said, "Here's to hoping. I've turned away Antis with higher education and fatter wallets than you, kiddo."
This was true. We had witnessed screaming mothers over the weeks, desperate fathers pleading. I think… even as lifesmoke, I held curiosity for this Augustus boy who practically glowed with the belief that he could flip her mind. What, pray tell, did he plan to offer her in exchange? His black clothes were nice, although rumpled. He had dirty fur. His ears were enormous, and both drooped near his shoulders, weighed down by golden rings.
"I'm the good girl here," continued Anti-Venus, crossing a leg over her knee. "I pretty much think I'm doing all us Hy-Brasilians a service, and quite frankly, I don't see why I should change my mind about it."
"What do you want, d-dame? Money? I brought s-some lagelyn."
"Oh, I've got money. I've got a beautiful tower, my fields, more garden space than I can manage in a hundred years on my own, and a canal with which to water it all. This close to the border with Fairy World, it thaws naturally in the summer. Imagine!" She took a fistful of dirt from the ground and let it sift between her fingers. "I may not have coloured eyes, and I may have started quite literally from the ground up, but I'm doing pretty okay for myself. And if someone gave you the directions to my place of business, I'll bet you've figured that out by now." The dirt depleted, she reached down and plucked a thorny red vine sprouting between her feet. "You go to school, Augustus?"
Augustus set his jaw as best he could. It slanted. One of his lower fangs stuck out over his upper lip. "My m-m-mother is Anti-Bryndin's th-third wife. The Blue Castle i-is my permanent res-s-sidence. I receive direct t-teaching from the camarilla court on a d-daily basis."
Anti-Venus winced, but still didn't get out of her chair. She tossed the thorny vine into the fireplace. It dissipated in a guzzling of green sparks- even I saw them shower the floor. Ash floated towards the ceiling, and after a beat, Anti-Venus flicked her wand at the poker and ash broom lying in the dirt and set them, magically, to work. "First rule of bartering, skip: Don't lead with a proclamation of your wealth."
"Um. I d-didn't, dame. I said 'third wife'. I have ninth p-pick of everything. I don't really have as much lagelyn as you seem to th-think I do…"
"Second rule of bartering: Don't imply you have nothing to offer."
"I didn't. Dame."
"Does being homeschooled upset you?" Anti-Venus asked, batting away a yawn.
"No, dame." Augustus shifted his weight from one foot to the other. His ears flopped, the dangling hoops swinging and sparkling. He tightened his grip on the square body in his arms. "I-it's the way of things now. I'm sure the c-camarilla has taught me the same stuff S-Spellementary School would've. Um. Because, the F-Fairies don't let Anti-Fairies go to their school anymore, a-and that wouldn't be fair, if we weren't being taught the same things. So it d-doesn't upset me."
Anti-Charite stifled a snort in one wing. Anti-Venus nodded, fingering the star on the tip of her wand. "Get it, got it, good. Rock solid. But if you're so confident, tell me what your camarilla says about me."
"You don't make d-d-deals with Anti-Fairies," Augustus stated. Rather firmly despite the stutter, eyes flashing emerald- I wanted to cheer his name. The pale light of the fire licked along his face. I studied his fur, but couldn't pick out the shade it was in the dark.
"No, I do not. I live this close to the Barrier for a reason: I only work with the Seelie Court." Anti-Venus considered for a few seconds, then sat up on her knees and peered over the back of her chair for the first time. "Hey. Are you Seelie?"
"I'm an Anti-Fairy," he deadpanned. "Unseelie C-Court."
"Then why can't I unsee you and this conversation? Run along, pupper."
Anti-Charite tugged him towards the archway in a manner that suggested she felt obliged to obey her sister's command, but she was no less curious than I to see if he would force the conversation on from here.
"I brought you s-something I think you're going to want to s-see," Augustus said. Anti-Venus cocked her ears forward.
"Really? Huh. I do like seeing things. Give it to Anti-Charite."
Still cradling the unmoving body with his other arm, Augustus dug around in the pockets of his coat. He came up with a bound scroll, and twisted around so Anti-Charite could take it from him without releasing his elbow.
"That's from the High S-South Region archives," he explained as she tapped it against the wall to check for loose fairy dust. When she was satisfied that it hadn't been enchanted with any hexes, she brought it to Anti-Venus, pulling Augustus after her. "Well, i-it's a copy I wrote while I w-was in the archives. I had the N-Navy Robe sign it for me to confirm i-it's legit."
Anti-Venus snapped the ribbon between her fangs and opened the scroll with a flap. "What's so important?" she asked as she did.
Augustus cleared his throat. "That s-s-scroll, I think, should be all the proof you need to see that my c-counterpart's family lives in p-p-poor circumstances. I, um, I know about you, like I s-said. They talk about you on the c-camarilla, dame."
"I do cause a lot of problems for the bigwigs in the hot seats."
"Yeah, and I think it's n-noble."
She looked up, and I longed for a glimpse of her facial expression. "What?"
The fire snapped. Augustus scuffled back as a handful of embers rolled into the dirt and smouldered. Anti-Venus stretched out and poked his cheek with the end of her wand to direct his attention back to her. He squinted, wings shivering, but won the internal fight to maintain eye contact when he spoke again. "Th-they didn't want to tell me why you don't make deals with Anti-Fairies, but I f-f-figured it out myself. I read some books, I talked to people, and I th-thought about it a lot."
"About me capturing and ransoming off newborn Anti-Fairy souls to the Seelie Court for insane prices because without a counterpart by next Friday the 13th, their children will up and croak and I think it's hilarious to remind the Fairies that although they've locked us in this wasteland they dare to call livable, we control more of their lives than they would like to remember?"
"You're smarter than you sound," she said with a smirk. "How'd you figure me out?"
Augustus grinned. "I actually d-didn't. But you j-just told me."
Her smile snapped away. Good show, Augustus! If my smoky form had had a tail, I would have wagged it. Anti-Venus flopped over the arm of her chair, kicking her legs until her head almost brushed the ground. Her braid swirled up dust flakes and stray cinders that had blown from the fire. Augustus glanced at Anti-Charite, then took a careful step closer to Anti-Venus.
"I know you want t-to make the Fairies uncomfortable, dame. But s-since my counterpart's family can't pay the r-ransom, well, I was hoping that you might, um, consider s-selling my brother's soul to me directly i-instead. I mean, even if they did pay the f-fee, I'd still be getting the lifesmoke anyway… and I'm sure I can p-pay you more th-than their family can. They probably don't even know their s-son doesn't have a counterpart yet."
"Oh, they know." Anti-Venus continued to hang upside-down from her chair, gazing into Augustus's eyes. "Your brother's host will have been two weeks past Friday the 13th without a counterpart now. He'll be absolutely reeling with sickness."
That made Augustus stick the knuckles of his free hand to his hip. "Well, th-they're not coming. They don't have n-nearly enough lagelyn to meet your d-demands, and they don't know who or w-where you are. So you can either sell to me, dame, or next F-Friday the 13th comes, and my brother e-evaporates because he's not in his b-body. Just like all the rest. And then you won't make a single c-click."
"You said High Count Anti-Bryndin's your step-dad?" Anti-Venus asked, not moving from the floor.
"Plotty McPlot Twist, bucko. Mmm. So, what can you offer me? For your sake and my conscience, we should prrrobably leave the iris virus out of this."
Augustus touched the fur beneath his eye. "Oh, uh, that seems p-p-p-prudent."
"Well, make it rain. I'm listening- for now. Don't bore me, saltlick." Anti-Venus flipped to her feet again. After nodding for Anti-Charite to tighten her grip on Augustus's arm, she unfurled her wings. At least four of her black feathers fell to the floor when she did. Others curled up or down or sideways in crooked bunches. Anti-Venus smoothed down a patch that (comparatively speaking) had already been pretty smooth before she kicked into the air.
"Um…" Augustus's wide green eyes followed her from shelf to shelf as she flitted about the parlour. He switched the body of the anti-fairy pup to his other shoulder. "W-well, I worked it out, and I was thinking that if we started at a base amount of six hundred lagelyn, with a 15% interest rate for the first two hundred months-"
"That sounds like math," she scoffed. "I don't like math."
His claws moved from his eye to his ear. "I'm not really a-allowed to, but I can give you my canetis rings, d-dame. You could use them on your k-kids, or they'd look pretty if you wore them on your f-fingers. But they're not real gold."
Anti-Venus clucked her tongue. "Should've pretended they were. I would've believed you. Probably. Or not. You're a little old to have pre-can plugs weighing down your listen-holes, aren't you?"
"Um. W-well." Augustus dropped his gaze to a sapling near his foot as she picked her way through a lower shelf. "I s-still have to wear them b-because of my- my- because of m-my- Anti-Bryndin wants-"
"Ahh… Daddy child-safety-locked you because the stutter interferes with your echolocating, eh? Rude. I like it."
"A-Anti-Bryndin doesn't like it when we leave the Blue Castle without an e-escort…"
"He's alone," Anti-Charite confirmed before anyone could ask. "I did a perimetre check myself, and Anti-Ludell's still out there with a patrol."
Anti-Venus rose a shelf higher. My shelf kind of higher. First, her claws appeared over the edge. She drummed the wood. Her fingers strayed in my direction-
-but veered away towards another jar. I bristled.
Her eyes appeared, red and narrow. Glass clinked as she slid her hands back and forth. I stiffened with a nonexistent prayer when, ever so slowly, Anti-Venus eased me out from the shelf's corner. The other jars of smoke swirled in tight balls of sour envy.
Oh gods. Oh gods. She picked me. I pulled to the far edge of my jar to hunker beneath my fluttery unease. Was I expected to communicate? I had limited ability to do so, and what if I made the wrong gesture? Would Anti-Venus put me back? How long would I be left to wait, then, for a new body to show up on my doorstep, plumb for the taking? How many more weeks did I have before next Friday the 13th struck, and my time in the mortal world ran out like sand in a glass?
"So," Anti-Venus called down, "you're out here against the High Count's orders, then."
Augustus coughed. "Well, yeah. My m-mother didn't actually want the pup. Said she d-didn't care if he died. And my papa's s-so busy working in the kitchens and c-cleaning floors all the time… s-so I'll just raise him by mys-s-self."
My exhilaration popped. I unfolded myself and stared at the stuttering boy, as much as I could stare in wispy form. It was the longest I'd "stared" at anyone before. He hugged the limp blue body - my limp blue body, with its sharp corners and white mourning clothes - to his chest and wouldn't meet my nonexistent eyes.
"Yowza! Plumes and ashes, I like you, kiddo." Anti-Venus plonked my jar down on the table between an assortment of dirty gardening tools and empty clay pots, and left one claw on the lid. "Is this him? Take a goose and a gander for me there."
My crooked label had peeled and curled from the moment it'd been slapped on. Augustus smoothed it out with thoughtful care, studying the words Anti-Venus had scribbled across it all those days ago. "Anti-Lunifly. Th-this is him."
It was me.
"You're not making a grab for it," she noted.
"We didn't agree on a p-price."
"For smoke's sake, pup, don't get all noble on me. I was just warming up to you."
Augustus checked me over again, ignoring my indignant puffing about the "Mother didn't want him" comment. His wings ruffled. "How d-do I know it's really the r-right one, dame?"
"You don't trust me?"
"I deserved that. Smart drake." Anti-Venus rapped her talon against my lid. Echoes rebounded off every surface. I swirled. "The smoke won't take to the wrong body. And, unlike some people, you actually had the brains to bring the body. So, I'd get busted pretty darn quick if I steered you wrong."
"Do I have to do anything s-special to it?"
"Just pop the lid. The smoke knows what to do."
Augustus glanced up at Anti-Charite. Then he looked down again. He picked at one of my body's drooping ears. When he noticed how I rotated in his direction, he stopped and smoothed his fingers. "You don't want my m-money. And y-you don't want my canetis rings. Can I do s-something else for you? J-just name your price, dame."
Anti-Venus cackled in a soft way, sticking one hand to her waist. "You're really determined not to take advantage of me, aren't you? You terrible little barterer, you."
"Um. Mama s-says I went goody-goody because I didn't hang upside-d-down enough after I shed my e-exoskeleton." Cautiously, Augustus lowered my body. He set it right beside my jar, and I got a solid look at… me… for the first time.
I was blue. Very blue, very square, and very small. That wasn't any surprise. Dark tufts of upturned fur sprouted between the scales of my exoskeleton, with the darkest of all curling from the back of my head. Black wings lay like crumpled paper fans against my spine. I had tiny white dress shoes on my feet and baby claws on my hands, and a long nose with a rounded tip. I wasn't breathing.
That was me. That was me. I pressed against the curve of my jar, straining to scratch a hole in the side and reach through. Just one touch. One would be enough.
"I have nothing else to p-pay with, if you don't want lagelyn or f-fake gold jewellery," Augustus said. Although he stuttered, I didn't detect any trembles in his voice. He kneaded his hands on the table's edge and went on with, "But i-if you let me come, I'll sweep the solid parts of your f-floors every day. I'll clean your dishes, polish the r-rust from the bars on your windows, empty your b-basins, weed your garden, and I can p-preen your feathers too. If you want. I can t-try."
"Weed my garden?" Suddenly, Anti-Venus's attention clicked in. Augustus pressed his ears against his skull.
"D-does that work for you, dame? Do we have a d-deal?"
Anti-Venus folded her arms. "Weed my garden… I think, sweet Gus, that you may be on to something here." She handed my jar to Anti-Charite, and then grabbed a trowel from the coffee table. "Snag a pair of gloves and that big sack from the hook in the corner, and follow me out front. Look sharp now."
She left the parlour, a puzzled Augustus floating at her heels with the indicated gloves. Anti-Charite and I shared a sideways glance. With a shrug, she followed after them, leaving my unmoving body completely behind.
Despite her wings, Anti-Venus made her way through the tower on foot, hopping left and right to avoid thorns and clumps of poison ivy. Augustus and Anti-Charite took advantage of their wings and soared overhead. I focused what little attention I could scrape together on his jerking movements. The parlour had been lit by the fireplace. No lanterns or torches watched over the halls. Anti-Charite flew with the inattentive air of a damsel who had wandered the tower passageways a hundred years or more. Augustus hit every pillar and gargoyle on the way out.
The ever-scarlet sky tinted each grey and green hill with orange. Black clouds scuttled between Anti-Fairy World and the silver moon half-hiding beneath the horizon. If I elaborated further, I would be drastically exaggerating the abilities of my smoky form. One constant thought wrung my neck with every passing wingbeat: my situation was fast deteriorating. The further Anti-Charite hauled me from my body, the more squeamishly erratic my movements became.
Anti-Venus lighted on the tower's front step and waited for Augustus to stagger outside. When he did, bruised and bushy-furred, she grabbed his wrists and flipped his palms upward. Her tongue clicked in disapproval. "Tender hands. Well, we can fix that right quick, eh?"
"W-what do you need me to do, dame?"
"Take care of an invasive species, dear Augustus." Anti-Venus wrapped one feathered wing around his thin shoulder. With the other, she gestured to the hills. "Living this near the Tír Ildáthach border is a blessing as far as unfrozen water is concerned. I have more of that then I know what to do with. But, no paradise is unfailingly upendi, hm? No, honeycomb; no it's not. Now. You see that blurry green wall across the lake?"
She scrubbed his ears. "Atta boy!"
Come on. Even I knew that one, and I wasn't even born yet.
"Did you know that millennia ago, before the War of the Sunset Divide, that nasty ol' gate didn't used to be there clogging up our skies and telling us where in the cloudlands we can and can't go?" Anti-Venus folded her arms. "No, no- back in my day, the Fairies were more subtle about expressing their dislike for us. They used to mark the entire length of the border up and down with clover. Clover, Augustus! How I long for the political correctness of those centuries once more."
"Oh. Um… F-four-leaf clovers, dame?"
"Some of them. They were trying to breed an entirely four-leafed strain, last I heard." Anti-Venus released his shoulder. "You said your camarilla were giving you an education back at the Blueie. I'm curious. Tell me, what'd happen if some local fauna like a jackalope went and gobbled up a four-leaf clover from that field?"
"W-we Anti-Fairies can't eat it, then. Or t-touch it at all while it's still in its s-stomach."
"Right. And what happens if an Anti-Fairy like you, or like me, goes and rolls about over there?"
Augustus played with the gloves in his hands. "Uh. W-we're manifestations of negative energy, warded off by g-good luck. As long as we k-keep away from clovers with f-four leaves, we'll be o-okay."
"Ayep yep and dazzle me Jane. Hey, I should ask three more questions just so you can shout 'Bingo' for the sheer heck of it. Thing is, those Fairies never took back their clover when they put up their wall, and now the nasty stuff has encroached upon my poor garden. That's why I need you to pluck those four-leafs out for me."
She drummed her talons against his head. Augustus swallowed. "Okay. I can do that, if I c-can have my brother when I'm done. W-what part is your garden?"
Anti-Venus and Anti-Charite both swept their arms and wings out to indicate the gentle hills. I watched Augustus's ears, already weighed down by the canetis rings, sink even lower.
"It stretches from that corner of the woods way out there, along the Barrier, and allll the way to that mill over there, by the canal," Anti-Venus said, in case he hadn't gotten it yet. "I want this whole field plucked of four-leafs before I give you your brother."
Augustus slipped on each glove and studied me, still stuck and agitated in my jar. "W-would you be okay if I j-just burned it?"
"And put that poisonous aura of good fortune in the air? Yeah, that was my original plan." She flashed her fangs in a smirk. "But then you volunteered to do it the hard way. So get cracking."
Without any further complaint besides a twitch in the corner of his mouth, Augustus waded into the field. He cocked his head to the right and began a careful sweeping motion back and forth. It took him a few minutes to nail down a four-leaf, even with the repulsive cheeriness it emitted into the magical energy field. But when he crouched to pluck it out, he jerked back at once. Even through my jar, I heard a sizzling snap not unlike that of a lightning bolt. He looked over his shoulder, glove steaming.
"Use the trowel," Anti-Venus advised, lacing her talons behind her back.
I'd have made a face in his position- at the utter least. Screamed for assistance and hexed her when she refused, more probably. Stomped about her plants until all that were not relevant had been trampled underfoot? Quite certainly. But Augustus simply did what he was asked. He was just so… so… goody-goody that way. The crumpled clover balanced on the tip of his trowel for three long seconds. Then he dumped it in the linen sack and blew out a sigh.
"Do it just like that," she said, and walked back inside the tower.
Anti-Charite propped my jar on a sack of seeds within a wheelbarrow. For the next three hours (or so I've been informed), she advised, comforted, and taunted Augustus as he milled about the hills. Eventually she tired of the game, and wandered after her sister with me in tow. My countenance brightened as we scaled the tower's porch. We were nearing my body once again!
First, supper. Anti-Venus, Anti-Charite, and Anti-Ludell prepared their eggs and salad in the tower alone, without another anti-cherub to be seen, and they bickered ceaselessly amongst each other; even having food on her tongue, it seemed, could not deter the former from running her mouth.
From my new vantage point on the sill of a barred window, I had an excellent view of Augustus as he continued to prune the clover across the hills. His movements were tender, as though he took no joy in disturbing the pink wildflowers and browning leaves any more than absolutely necessary. I found it revolting, and perhaps Augustus did not actually disagree. Ten minutes into the anti-cherubs' mealtime, he leaned over and released a barrage of monarch butterflies from his stomach. Live, squirming butterflies that wriggled from his throat and took off into the shadows like they were chasing prayers.
How horrid! Must I cough up such revolting insects when I become an anti-fairy?
I "glanced" for the thousandth time at my body, which Anti-Venus had sat on her lap for the purpose of toting about like a doll. My scrappy fur had gleamed a deep, dull sapphire from the moment Augustus brought it in. Even in the kitchen's red torchlight, it looked just a shade darker now. Another day gone without a soul.
When the dishes had been cleaned of food but not yet cleared away, Anti-Venus excused herself to touch base with the new gardener. I watched their hands move as they spoke. Elegant for Anti-Venus. Jerky for Augustus, like his stutter. After a time, she pointed across the hills to the conifer forest, and sent Augustus presumably off to the Blue Castle (under strict orders, I'm sure, not to inform anyone of the deal the two of them had struck).
He looked up at my window. And before he disappeared into the trees with his bulging sack, he waved. Like he thought I could wave back.
Anti-Venus plucked a few stray clover from her tower's base before she came inside. "He made good progress for just one afternoon," she announced, tossing them in Anti-Ludell's lap (He fell back, hissing as they steamed). "The dazzling thing about getting an anti-fairy to do this for me instead of a Seelie is, Antis can pin down a four-leaf from a quarter of a mile away."
"Six metres," Anti-Charite corrected.
"So I was wrong for once in my life. Statistically, it was bound to happen."
"What time does he show tomorrow?" asked Anti-Ludell, grabbing a wet cloth from the sink.
"First thing, he said. What a guy! So, I don't have time to waste. You two are going to want to haul tail and bring in all the clean water that you can for storage. And where'd you tuck that new crystal ball?"
Anti-Charite pointed from the kitchen and into the parlour. Humming, fingers fluttering, Anti-Venus went after it. I'd hardly completed a frustrated rotation inside my jar when she said, "Hilda McPunchy, do I ever have a dealio for you. Anti-V. herself here. Anti-Venus. Serafina? From the- Atta girl. Now, there's a major Anti-Fairy water source just inside the border that would benefit remarkably from a dash of clover sprinkled in and roundabout. A crate would suffice- you know the kind I mean."
Even in my smoky form, I think I may have started. Augustus hadn't made it to the banks of the canal yet, and there was Anti-Venus, plotting to stock her fields! She was cheating!
I found myself impressed.
"Payment?" Anti-Venus snickered to the stars. "What else! Listen, Hil. Can I call you Hil? I don't cut this kind of slice with just anyone, but you do this and I'd be willing to offer your counterpart her daughter's soul. Probably. Mostly probably. Fair?"
McPunchy couldn't hustle over fast enough.
The next day, Anti-Charite hauled Augustus through the parlour and across the kitchen by his elbow. Anti-Venus hardly glanced up from her watering can.
"What did you drag him in here for?"
"He wanted to see the thing," Anti-Charite said, shoving Augustus towards my windowsill. He straightened his rumpled bow without expression. His eyes flickered to me. Then away.
"I j-j-just wanted to wish you a fine morning, brother. I'll have y-you out of there soon enough. I'm s-sorry. I know you want your body, but I c-can't let you out yet. Y-you'll just have to be p-patient, even though p-poor Cosmo Prime must be s-so sick…"
"Don't let him too close, sister," cautioned Anti-Ludell, "or he's liable to break that jar and be done with us here and now."
Augustus's ears, weighed down though they were by their rings, snapped to attention. He turned his neck. "I made a p-p-promise to Anti-Venus. The ag-g-greement is, I'll have my brother w-when I'm finished weeding the c-clover from your gardens. I g-gave my word. And I will not go back on it n-now."
I could have cuffed him for his obliviousness. But I didn't have hands.
"So noble," Anti-Charite said, her voice glittering with mockery.
Anti-Venus leaned over and splashed Augustus's shoulder with the water from her can. "That's enough looking. Please leave now."
The day passed, marked by ashy clouds sliding across the hills, and no one removed my jar from the window. The day after that passed again, and the day following it too, and then the day after, and after that, and after that. Every morning without fail, Augustus stopped in to see me. And every evening, when he left for home, he would wave to my window on his way. A charming gesture, if a rather pointless one.
"Charming," Anti-Venus agreed one day, standing near my window with one hand placed on her chest. With the other, she lifted a sip of water to her lips. "It's delightfully ironic that a young drake who's spent three months up to his calves in good-luck charms could befall such misfortune all of a sudden, don't you think so, Anti-Cosmo?"
I didn't respond- wouldn't have if I'd been able to. Augustus had already left for the evening, but now he was coming back. And two hulking anti-elves were yanking him along by the wings. A third trailed behind with a black wand raised. In Augustus's trembling hands was a linen sack.
A familiar linen sack.
"What's that shouting about?" Anti-Ludell called from the parlour as Augustus's frantic, "I didn't do it! Stop!"s drifted through the bars on the kitchen windows.
"Three members of Anti-Bryndin's camarilla jumped our poor wittle Gus in the woods as he was skipping along with his load for the day." Anti-Venus placed her mug beside my jar with a clink of ceramic. "Sounds like they're investigating the pollution in our water supply. Good news! I think they just caught their culprit red-handed."
"It wasn't me," Augustus sobbed. He clung to the damsel's wrist. His pupils zipped left and right, and landed on my jar. "Don't t-t-take me back to the Castle. Don't t-tell Mama that I snuck out. A-Anti-Bryndin will flay me if he f-finds out I came this close to the b-border!"
I recoiled in silent pity.
The stockier of the two drakes spotted Anti-Venus at the window and lifted his crown with one thumb. "Beg pardon, dame, but we'd like to have a word with you."
She leaned forward on her elbows. "Of course, Anti-Alin. Thanks kindly for coming so soon after I called. When I saw that boy poking around the canal, I figured there was about to be trouble. It was over there, by the mill. Anti-Ludell, be a champ and show them where I mean. I'm super lazy and don't feel like doing it myself."
He rustled his way towards the door with a mutter.
"Can you identify or have you had any recent dealings with this young drake?"
Anti-Venus tapped her cheek. "Hmm. Well, since his eyes are green instead of red, I can see he carries the iris virus. He's got those canetis rings in his ears this late in life along with that huge honker of a nose, so by my calculations he's probably Anti-Bryndin's little Anti-Robin. I mean, probably. I don't remember his private name. Huh. But yeah, I think I saw him at a migration once or twice years ago. Don't think I've ever talked to him, except for yesterday when I shouted across the field for him to stay away from our water. Then I called you up. Oh look, here we are now."
"That's a lie- she's l-l-lying! I was only at the c-canal because sh-she told me to go!"
"Really?" Anti-Alin fixed Augustus with one blue eye. "And what sort of business did you have up here at the border with Fairy World, with the ambassador of anti-love herself?"
With the delicacy of a crumb cake, Anti-Venus placed a warning claw on the lid of my jar. I steamed in silence. Augustus clamped his jaw shut and refused to answer.
The damsel holding Augustus's wing bumped his shoulder. "That about does it. C'mon, Gus. Let's get you home." Then she chuckled. "Yeesh, your mom is gonna spaz."
"Back to the stables for you," Anti-Alin said, rumpling his ears.
"Don't- You d-don't understand. Friday the 13th is j-just a week away- Please-"
"Lighten up," scoffed the third anti-fairy. "We'll bring you back a souvenir."
I could feel Anti-Venus's amusement burning through her fur as she got up to put her mug in the sink. Hot, sadistic, amusement. And brother or not… I couldn't even blame her.
"I'm not going to l-let you j-just-just tie me up with the u-unicorns again. That's! Not! Fair!" Augustus swung his sack of clover blindly. It clashed against the bars of the kitchen window and caught my jar smack in the centre. I flew off the counter. I flew across the kitchen. I flew until I hit the nearest wall and shattered in a firework of glass.
Anti-Venus let out a long, low hiss. I didn't even wait to hit the ground before I zipped for the door.
"Oh, smoof. I d-didn't mean to. I-I just got really frustrated and… Good smoke- Anti-Venus, I'm s-sorry!"
I'd have been prepared to race through every room, around the corner, up the stairs, down the hall, in and out of doors- but my square body, smart in its white funeral attire, lay only as far as Anti-Venus's armchair in front of the parlour's simmering fire. That made everything so much simpler.
Just one touch. One was enough.
Smoke exploded in all directions. My senses zinged from nilch to beyond infinite. I found that I was standing, although not for long. The moment I became aware of my legs, I staggered back, grabbing uselessly for the armchair- the coffee table- the bookshelf- missed. Shortly thereafter the ground was beneath me, and I rolled about on the rug in my awkward square form, clinging to my stomach and laughing like a madman. This was it. This was it!
When I had finished hugging myself, I swayed to my feet and arched my back. My arms stretched for the ceiling, whereupon I wiggled my fingers. And then I laughed at the sensation. Bringing them level with my chest, I flipped them over and studied the wrinkles along my palms. Oh, and such beautiful wrinkles they were! I swore then and there I would love all of mine, no matter how old I ever grew. My face- I had a face, coated with some mix of soft skin and baby scales and downy fur that I had no name for. Over and over, I ran my hands up and down my long nose and flushed cheeks.
"Bloody Darkness! Oooh, I'd no idea in the slightest that uniting lifesmoke and core tasted sooo scrumptious. It's a smashing day when you hear someone say 'Good smoke' and know they're speaking of you, you know what I mean? Oh goodness, I daresay I'm overselling myself. It would seem I've yet to learn how and when to wag this sudden lump of vocabulary I've procured. Ah, where was I now?"
My ears. I had enormous ears; beautiful ears that swivelled at my command, scooping up sound from all directions. The little black crown that had always been firmly stuck to my body's head was floating now. Floating between my beautiful ears. I touched each one of its six points. Little wings dangled from my back, drooping and weak from months without use. Thick blue hair, darker even than my fur, dangled in front of me. It made me dizzy just to cross my eyes and stare at its ends. I had… eyebrows? Yes. Shoulders? For sure. Knees? They could bend. A neck? Chunky at best, but I'd grow into it. My fascinated fingers dropped to my clothes. White suit. Three buttons. Socks, shoes, and…
"Ah!" I felt again just to be sure, but yes. A tail! A little tufted tail crumpled in the back of my trousers. No one had informed me I was going to have a tail. What a delight, to have solid shape and form!
My ears twitched at a sound. I turned my head then, still grasping my rear. Anti-Venus herself leaned against the arched doorway, coughing on lingering traces of smoke. The stinging of it had turned her eyes red around the rims. When she looked up, her nostrils flared at the smell. Or with fury. But her fangs flashed in a sweeping grin. She spread her arms.
"Anti-Cosmo. Well, you sure got bigger since the last time I saw you. Seems like only yesterday, you were thiiis small."
"Blinding, isn't it? And about jolly time too. Though of course, had I been at all punctual, you wouldn't have been around to appreciate it." I pressed my hands - two actual hands - to my chest and ran them down to my waist. The motion was so exhilarating that I did it again. "Good smoke, talking is delicious. Did you know that? I hope you treasure the thought, darling. I've been locked away in that gloomy gas chamber for months now, hearing words and only just being able to make sense of them. They were such pleasant words, too. And how I can speak them now, ahaha!"
I wrapped my arms about my middle again, vaguely aware of the way Anti-Venus studied me in silence. Let her gawk, I thought, opening one eye to a slit. I embraced myself more tightly. I've waited a pre-lifetime for this.
The novelty of soul and body becoming one all but wore off a wingbeat later as I remembered precisely where I was. I straightened in a snap, jabbing my claw towards the kitchen door. "Ooh, and I remember. Yes! I remember it was you who told those nasty lies about my brother. It was you who poisoned the canal with lucky clover- you and McPunchy both. I remember it exactly."
"Is that so?" Anti-Venus continued leaning against the archway, but now she placed her hand to a sort of pouch that hung by her left hip. "That's too bad."
"Rrreally?" The word rolled pleasantly off my tongue and filled me with a strange warmth. Or… perhaps that was the roaring fire at my backside. I shifted a few steps away from it, still wobbly on my new feet, and smirked up at her. "Why, pray tell?"
"It's too bad because if you were a fairy, I'd just kill you and get this over with. But Anti-Fairies don't die easily, do they, blocky? Huh. So, I'm going to have to beat you into submission if it keeps you from throwing me under the carriage." Before she even finished her sentence, she snapped her wand out and slammed me in the chest with a burst of pink light. I flew against the low part of the wall, this time without a glass enclosure to take the hit for me. My spine hit first, and then my skull. Briefly, the universe blinked to black. My wings twisted beneath me, crackling with dry skin. Jars rattled on their shelves. I did not stick to the wall and then slide down- I bounced and flopped face-first into the thorny vines and roots snaking over the dirty floor.
"Oof," I mumbled, unnecessarily and with a highly delayed reaction. I made an attempt to roll, only to find that the flat sides of my cube-shaped body made that impossible. Apparently, rolling could be achieved only with a great deal of momentum. Poppycock. I was going to lose my first fight because I was a big pathetic baby who couldn't even roll over.
"No hard feelings?" Anti-Venus asked as she strode towards me.
I lifted my head, my thin arms trembling with the effort. My ears pricked up at the sound of rattling above. Then I pushed myself up to my knees and said, quite simply, "No."
The first jar plunged directly between us and split in the dirt. The crack along its glass was thin, but effective. Smoke billowed into the room. A second jar fell. Then a third. I stumbled to my feet, pinwheeling my arms and wings. One hand slapped the wall. I glanced back, squinting through the rushing smoke. I was… It was… I hadn't moved far from the fireplace. Right. And if there was a fireplace…
I flattened myself to the wall just in time to avoid Anti-Venus's next blind blast of blue. Each time I took a step, I did so with my flailing hand stretched out in front of me. My vision was blurred with grey, but I quickly deduced that the smoke in the room was rising. It clung thickest around Venus's eye level - at least for now - which left me with the slightest advantage.
Slight was all I needed. There. Three metal poles lay in the dirt by my shoe. Long metal poles- meant for creatures of the cold to stir up the logs in a fire from afar. Four times my length, easily, but I wrapped both thin fists around the poker anyway and hoisted it up. My feet slipped backwards. My wings, for the first time, flapped in an effort to maintain my balance. I clenched my fangs.
"I say. You're not nearly as heavy as I thought you'd be."
Anti-Venus reacted instantly. The moment she heard my voice, smoke or not, she aimed her wand in my direction. The star on its tip glowed bright red, but fired pink. It grazed my cheek, knocking me down again. By the time I'd braced myself against the wall, Anti-Venus had snatched me up with her free hand.
The last of the bitter smoke filled my mouth and nose. I squeezed my eyes to slits as Anti-Venus brought me near her face. "Pleasant dreams," I choked out, and swung the poker at her head.
As I did so, the smoke cleared enough that I realised my mistake. This wasn't the poker.
This was the ash broom.
The bristled end of the broom smacked against Anti-Venus's forehead. I blinked at her, and she blinked back at me. Then I reared my foot and kicked her jaw up into her teeth.
Anti-Venus released me at once, and her hands flew to her mouth. That, at least, was what I'd been counting on. Between her distraction and the momentum of my fall, I intercepted her fingers on my way to the ground and wrenched her wand right out of them.
I hadn't planned to- I didn't even know how to- I was only- and yet-
The world fell away beneath me. I materialised in front of Augustus, startled and jittery. He was by the trees again, being dragged backwards by the same two, er… "camarilla court" members. And I was floating?
I fell the moment I became aware of my height. Augustus yelped and yanked his hands from his captors, I yelped and made a grab for the heavy wand as it slipped in my grasp, and everything went black again.
As suddenly as I had disappeared, I found myself standing in the parlour once more, now facing the corner farthest from the kitchen. Green light from the fire painted shadows in front of me, and one in particular was growing huge. I spun around, wrapping as much of my body as absolutely possible around the wand, as Anti-Venus stalked towards me. Embers glowed in her black hair and fell like comets to the floor. Dirt crumbled along the folds of her blouse. She held out her hand.
"Give me the wand, Anti-Lunifly."
This heavy thing? I could barely lift it. Every second strained my muscles to their max. Out of impulse, I directed the star-tipped end of the wand at her shoulder. Anti-Venus didn't stop coming. I shut my eyes.
"I'll shoot. I'll shoot!"
One accidental beam did go off. It nicked her arm. "And that hurts?" she scoffed. "There's like half a centimetre between your crown and your head, tops. Hate to break the rotten eggshell over you, but a late bloomer like you only got the dregs of yours and your counterparts' magic pool."
"I just…" Burning, I tightened my grip. "No…"
"Pup, you're a newborn in a deteriorating body. You're nothing. Now. Give. Me. The. Wand."
I fired again. Not at her shoulder. Under it. Anti-Venus didn't whirl around at first- not until my green blast hit the fire and erupted. Her mantel caved in, bringing trinkets and teacups along with it. Chunks of alabaster flew across the room. Plants vaporised to instant crisps. The reek of strange chemicals filled my nostrils like rotting food and smouldering hair.
And all her shelves, every jar, came tumbling down.
"Ta-ta," I managed, before hugging her wand and blinking outside once again.
"Aug…" I croaked when I saw him, dropping Anti-Venus's wand. My teleporting had left me in the air again. At least without the wand's weight, my wings were winning the fight to stay aloft. Behind me, shouts barreled back and forth between antis that I assumed had been Augustus's guards a mere second and a half ago.
My brother stared straight through me to the burning tower. "S-something reacted badly w-with the Ghostfire in the p-p-parlour. Nothing can p-put that out. It will e-engulf the building within a m-minute and burn for years. Those p-poor anti-cherubs."
"What?" All of a sudden I was back at peak alertness. My wings, finally giving out, dropped me within a centimetre of the yellow grass. Stepping over Anti-Venus's wand, I took his trousers in two fists. "Augustus, Anti-Venus lied about you. She tried to get you in trouble with the camarrrilla- and, from the sound of it, the High Count himself. And… And I'm alive now! We don't need to stay here."
He looked down at me, not… not really looking. "Th-those other jars… I was g-going to ask A-Anti-Venus if I could work f-for them after I saved you."
"It's fine! I broke them. That smoke- see all that smoke leaving this place? That's them! The other lifesmoke jars. Augustus, I…" The notion was so ridiculous, I pressed the heel of one hand into my eye socket and laughed. "I saved them! You spent months crawling about in that dratted clover field, a-and I just took the easy way and shattered them all."
Augustus recoiled. "Well. That doesn't s-solve the actual problem. We d-didn't change their hearts. A-Anti-Venus and her anti-cherubs are j-just going to do it again, c-catching lifesmoke in jars…"
"Who cares?" I screeched, tearing fabric with my claws. "I'm alive! Now let's go!"
"Look sharp!" Augustus dropped himself over me, shielding me almost entirely from an explosion of heat that dried all moisture from blistering the sky. Even before he moved his arm away, I had to blink ash from the lashes of my eyes. Augustus tried to keep me from seeing, but it was difficult to miss the green fire pouring from every window on the tower's bottom floor. Which now consisted of about every floor. The upper half of Anti-Venus's tower had, completely, collapsed.
"Good," I said. "Now we can leave."
"Hey!" Augustus shoved me to the grass and, scrambling as he ran, tore across the clover field to the base of the rubble. He whipped his head back and forth, then found what he was looking for and grabbed something I couldn't see. An… arm? Was that an arm? As he yanked, he stammered out, "A-Anti-Venus, I'm so s-sorry. I made a p-promise that I wouldn't f-free my brother until we ag-g-greed-"
She pushed him back, and he floated in the air, wings snapping like the sparks of the Ghostfire, as the anti-cherub heaved herself to her feet. Most of her braid had come loose, and she pushed her fingers through its waves. "I think you've done enough."
"B-but I'm so-"
"I think. You've done. Enough."
Augustus trailed back to me, glancing over his shoulder every few paces. I hadn't gotten up from the grass where I'd been tossed aside. And when he extended his hand, I didn't take it. It was only when he actually scooped me up and held me to his shoulder that I found my voice again.
"So… are we…?"
"I'm t-taking you home to the B-Blue Castle now. M-my name is Augustus A-Anti-L-L-Lunifly. I'm your big b-brother."
"And I'm the Anti-Cosmo, aren't I?" I twisted in his grip, straining to catch his eye. "Ooh, don't you despise it when someone answers his own question? I do."
Augustus continued to gaze hollowly through the trees, sticking perfectly to the marked path and only veering to one side or the other when he absolutely had to. "Uh, d-don't throw your adult name around like that. W-we'll have to call you s-something else for now. Um. Well, you are the Anti-Cosmo, s-so I guess we can call you… Omsoc."
"Omsoc." I lay a claw to my lips, and used the other hand to snap my fingers a few times. My chin bumped against his shoulder. "It is awfully memorable, isn't it? I'm rather fond of it."
"I hope so. B-because I'm going to talk to the N-Navy Robe and make it official as soon as I can. Then m-maybe they'll let us stay together. We c-can't let Mama find out you're still a-alive, okay?"
Insulted, I scrunched my nose at him. "I'll introduce myself to whomever I please, thank you."
"No. Omsoc." Augustus took me off his shoulder and held me out at arms' length. For the first time since I'd received my body, those green eyes found their way straight into mine. "Please, l-listen to me. I know y-you're just a pup and i-it's hard to understand, but you c-can't go looking for Mama. Don't t-talk to anyone about Mama- don't even th-think about Mama." His eyes slipped away. "It's b-better like this. I promise."
"Oh." I stared over his shoulder, back towards the burning tower. "I left Anti-Venus's wand in the grass. We could have used it to travel there in an instant."
His fingers tightened around my waist. "Sh-she's going to need it more than w-we will. Mama could t-track us if she heard us p-poofing nearby anyway."
Augustus taught me how to fly properly as we continued on our walk, though he kept his own feet firmly planted on the ground. "F-flying's not for me," he said each time I took his wrist in my hands. "You g-go ahead. I trust you to be c-careful. Just stay c-close, is all."
"But if I fly ahead, I'll have to fly back every other minute to confirm you haven't gotten lost or attacked by those camarilla ruffians, because my going ahead evidently has no impact on your willingness to increase your walking speed," I pouted, ducking a sweeping conifer bough.
He smirked. "I p-p-play to everyone else's needs all the t-time. Other people can p-play to the way I w-walk once in awhile."
"Do those heavy rings weighing down your ears truly render it difficult for you to fly?" I flipped onto my stomach as I coasted beside him. "You'll have to enlighten me on the subject."
"Oh. Yeah, I g-guess you were just born a f-few hours ago." Augustus snagged a cone-like seed from the ground and bounced it in his palm. "Well, a canetis is a h-hunting ritual every Anti-Fairy pup p-participates in the year they turn f-fifty years old. You're s-supposed to prove you can use your e-e-echolocation, and that you c-could survive on Ear- er… i-in the woods if you h-had too. A-and then if you pass your canetis, then you g-get to have someone t-take the rings out of your e-ears."
All of a sudden, Augustus began to pick up the pace. For just a moment, I hung back to study him.
"So the rings stay in if you don't pass your canetis," I prompted then.
He tossed the cone aside. "Y-yeah. Pups wear r-rings when they're young, to k-keep them close to their parents ins-s-stead of just w-wandering off. The rings w-weigh them down, so they can't use e-echolocation easily. S-so they can't see, and they won't l-leave. The r-rings are important like that, f-for helping parents raise r-rebellious pups. I mean, if you… well…" Augustus turned his head, fiddling with his claws. "R-rings are involved if the p-pup is raised in civilised s-society, I mean. There are, um… Th-there's lots of stuff about it. Uh. Yeah."
As he continued hurrying along the woodland path, I squinted. "So the canetis is a rrrequired evaluation that determines your worth in society based wholly upon a skill you have been actively discouraged from developing your entire life. Am I wrong?"
"Eh, well. It's t-t-tradition. I'm s-sure it made more s-sense a long time ago. This is j-just what the Anti-Coppertalon l-line expects us all to d-do now. And there's n-no helping that."
"You're over 30,000 and never passed," I stated in my bluntest voice, just to see what Augustus would do if I pushed him around a bit.
"I haven't p-passed," he said cheerily. "Yet. N-no one pays attention to me, which means I c-can afford to slip away from the C-Castle more often than anyone. I g-get away with doing a lot of good d-deeds. I've improved the l-lives of so many p-people…" He set his fangs, brightly beaming, as the pale fur prickled across his cheeks. "A-and the only price I had to pay to h-help them was my wings."
"Hm," I said, and flew ahead again.
Within a few more minutes we reached the woods' edge, and I could gape at the splendour of the Blue Castle for the first time. It floated like an oasis in the dreary red sky. Floated on a little plot of cloud all its own. And in case the moat of pure emptiness that dropped straight from this plane of existence to Earth didn't dissuade unwelcome visitors, nasty coils of barbed wire promised to turn them away.
"I live here?"
"Three words: You d-do now." He ruffled my hair into my eyes until I smacked his hand away.
A violet bridge connected the floating fortress to the mainland clouds. Enormous chunks of metal and glass jabbed from its pathway like fishhooks. Augustus picked his way across to the Castle's entrance regardless. No guards on the turrets. The portcullis was up and everything. He just lifted the knocker, eased open the door, and walked straight in. As Augustus had explained to me that the Blue Castle functioned as a government building as well as the home of the High Count, Countess, camarilla, and all their children, I amended my belief that politics were a bloody business.
"Yes… I suppose it's physically impossible for we Anti-Fairies to die so long as our counterparts are thriving, hmm? Fair enough, then."
"W-we'll regenerate if we get t-too hurt." His ears pricked just a bit, rings jingling at their tips. As soon as we stepped within the castle, a line of torches lit the hall with red. On instinct, I shrunk behind Augustus. Pillars, arches, tapestries emerging from the darkness… it was a little much, all at once. I zinged my eyes back and forth, not sure which detail to focus on first. That the pillars were round and ionic, with black vine designs wrapped about their lengths? That many arches tapered to a sharp point at their tops? That the tapestries bore designs of crescent moons swallowing the stars?
The castle's floor was stone, and it made Augustus's footsteps echo like the dickens. As he continued speaking, he eased off his shoes until he stood there in just his socks. "They sh-should've all gone to d-dinner. No one would ever come c-calling during dinner, We'll n-n-need to hurry while they're d-distracted, but I th-think we can sneak you p-past."
"Brilliant. I am awfully famished, though."
"You'll have to w-wait until we get you s-settled in."
"But I'm hungry," I repeated, lifting my shoulders and my brows.
Augustus turned to me and sighed. "I kn-know, okay? I know. I d-didn't even want to b-break your jar this early, b-because now that you have a body, y-you'll want to eat, even though you can't d-die and you don't really have to. But I'll b-bring you something later. We c-can't let Mama see you, r-remember?"
I mumbled my assent.
"Besides, intruding on a b-big meal is very rude."
"And I certainly have an aversion to presenting myself as rude."
"I'll c-carry you," he said, holding his arms out to me. "Y-your flapping is stirring up the magical e-energy field. Even Mama will h-hear that."
"I'll walk, thank you." I landed on the stone with all the elegance a newborn cube is capable of and smoothed out the wrinkles in my white suit with my hand. "I wish to retain some sense of dignity."
"You let me c-carry you in the woods."
"Growing up so fast, aren't I?" I asked, clipping after him in my little shoes.
Of course, I paused in front of a set of enormous double doors on my right. Warm, indescribable scents that my baby self couldn't quite name even with all its vocabulary uncurled like tentacles from within. That's what made the scents indescribable, you see. My ears picked up the clatter of plates and silverware, the murmured conversation, the sliding of a chair over stone, the beginnings of an argument. "Hey," Augustus said, tugging me on by the hand. "P-please hurry. I've set up a bed for you in one of the o-old storage rooms. Let's go."
"Shh, shh, y-you have to be quiet. I said- I said you can't go in there. Just t-trust me."
"Trust you? I hardly know you." I flicked my ears. "Anyway, they're eating in the dining room. The kitchen should be safe."
Augustus tightened his lips. "Just b-b-because you can't hear him right now, it d-doesn't mean he isn't there."
"Later." He yanked me along the hall, and this time I moved after him. "H-haven't you learned enough to s-satisfy you right now? You d-don't have to get all the answers all at o-once. Let's please just-"
He ran straight into another anti-fairy before he could finish speaking. His head jerked around. If his ears could have fallen lower, they undoubtedly would have.
"Look who decided to crawl home after all."
"Mama? I…" His hand twitched toward the double doors. "I don't unders-s-stand. I th-thought you were having supper. You never l-leave supper so e-early."
Aha, so this was the infamous damsel who had given birth to my smoke. I peeked beneath Augustus's arm, sizing up her bulky figure. Her black hair coiled across her head and curled about her ears, almost breathing like sleeping snakes, until it fell down her back in easy waves. Lean muscles threatened to pop from her violet tunic sleeves. In her left hand, she braced a wooden staff against the floor. I'd briefly seen a mirror of her face when I'd paid my obligatory visit to Cosmo Prime months before. This damsel had the same pale blue eyes and rounded nose, but the purple-black burn scars on the left side of her face were new, and so was the distant look in her hooded blue eyes.
"We never begin a meal until the entire camarilla is assembled," she said. "Anti-Alin, Anti-Karina, and Anti-Henry poofed here only ten minutes ago. When they told me how they'd met you at the border, and you ran, why- I requested Anti-Bryndin's permission to excuse myself and await your belly-crawling arrival out here. I see you didn't have the basic common sense to run in the opposite direction." She knocked him on the back of her head with the thinner end of the staff as she finished up.
"Oh," Augustus managed, not moving.
Mother's eyes oozed down his shoulder, along his arm, and to his hand, which he'd planted over my chest. She jerked herself backwards with a shove of her wings. "Is that your brother? I thought we had his body thrown out for the opossums and crows months ago. Oh gods, that's disgusting. Don't bring it into the house."
"This is a house?" I asked Augustus, not taking my eyes off the damsel in our way. "You mean, she dresses in an outfit that tight and short on a daily basis? I thought you'd smuggled me into a brrrothel."
Mother reeled back a second time. Her staff flew up, and this time Augustus threw out his arm to take the blow. I flinched automatically, even though I hadn't been the one hit. The rod thunked against his neck, sending him staggering against the wall. I crept backwards with one foot directly behind the other, feeling the skin beneath my fur chill. I should not have said that. At least, I shouldn't have let my brother take the punishment for something I had said.
I tried to decide if I'd be brave enough to leap forward if Mother swung her staff at Augustus again. I couldn't come up with a satisfactory answer.
"You d-don't have to see him," he sputtered, pushing himself upright again. "I-I'll keep him in my room- It'll be l-l-like he's not even here."
"I had to give birth to that thing," she snapped back, turning her attention my way, "and I will be rewarded for my services. There are no rogues permitted in the Blue Castle. I'll simply have to train him to act proper in public."
Augustus threw himself in front of me again. "Mama, stop! Y-you'll hurt him!"
This time, when I saw her lift her hand, I turned my back and plugged my ears. I stayed that way as Mother pushed one of the double doors to the dining room in. As one, two rows of furry blue faces locked onto the sight- a tough damsel yanking her son into the room by one dangling ear.
"Here." Mother shoved Augustus at Anti-Karina, the damsel from the tower. "Explain to Anti-Bryndin what he did today and have him determine a suitable punishment. I of course support any decision of our High Count."
"Mama, no! P-p-please don't hurt Omsoc. He did n-nothing wrong in being b-born!"
"'Omsoc'? Oh, smoke no. No. Not just 'No', but smoke no. He'll be given a proper name before the evening's out." Mother reeled her attention around to me, who hadn't moved and hadn't succeeded in blocking out the conversation, even with my claws as they were. For a moment… her blue eyes actually softened. "What would you think if we called you 'Julius', my little cockroach?"
I loathed to admit it, but I did prefer the ring of 'Julius' to 'Omsoc' in my ears.
And speaking of ears, mine were stamped with holes practically the minute our feet crossed into the nursery. I squirmed in Mother's grip as she replaced the puncher on the vanity table, realising what she was about to do, but her arm around my stomach kept me locked in place.
"I think emerald would look dashing on you," she said, oblivious to the way I kicked and bit at her skin. "It matches your lovely eyes. Another iris in the castle, after all these centuries- perhaps, Julius, with you around, I shan't be a lowly third wife of the High Count much longer."
"Don't! I prefer my ears when they're not hanging down my back!"
"You've no choice in the matter of Anti-Fairy tradition. You're no Anti-Coppertalon, scamp." Mother found the emerald rings in the vanity drawer and locked the first one onto my ear. "And, green instead of gold will tell you apart from your brother in case you should turn out to be as hopeless at passing your canetis as he's been."
"I'll just take these off as soon as you leave," I pointed out, my voice half-muffled by her furry bicep.
"No, you can't. Only a grown-up can figure out how to get them off." She rearranged me on her lap and lifted my chin until I had no choice but to face her. "Leave them as they are, Julius. Or I, Anti-Bryndin, Anti-Elina, and the entire camarilla will all become very, very cross with you."
I folded my arms, the way I'd watched Anti-Venus do a hundred times over the last few months. "If grown-ups are the ones who're supposed to put the canetis rings in, then I certainly won't stick them on any of my pups' ears. You can't make me."
Mother pinched my cheek and set me down on the nursery floor. "Then your pups are going to run wild across the cloudlands and cause you no end of misery."
"Perhaps. But at least they'll be happy I didn't put canetis rings in their ears."
"I'm off to supper," she said as she rose to her wings. "I'll check in on you again when it's over. In the meantime, I expect you to stay here. I don't want to have to punish you." She tucked her staff beneath her arm. "I really don't like punishing, Julius. Don't make me do it, okay?"
The instant she locked the door behind her, I scrambled back onto the stool. The vanity had three drawers, and I wrenched out all of them. Utterly, entirely out, so all the contents and the wooden drawers themselves went bouncing across the floor.
Spinning around, I surveyed the nursery again. I was actually heaving now, my body sucking in and puffing out air between my teeth. Ice crystals gathered on my tongue. The nursery contained a diaper-changing table, a deflated rubber ball, a toy chest with its lid thrown back and flowing over with boring wooden unicorns and sailing ships, one crib modelled after an open coffin…
… and in the centre of the room, on top of the craft table, lay a scattered heap of construction paper, a half-eaten packet of salty crackers, a loaf of banana bread, a jar of peanut butter, and a knife as long as my arm. Perfect.
Standing on the table before the vanity mirror, grinding my fangs, I grabbed the tips of both ears in my fist and went to work without a gram of hesitation.
*** UPDATE: I would like to clarify something. A Fairy religion known as Daoism is mentioned in this 'fic. It is named after the Daoine Sìth, who are nature spirits described in Scottish folklore. Followers of this religion believe Fairy and Anti-Fairy counterparts will become a single being in the afterlife. This is known as the Daoine form. H.P. is Daoist; Anti-Cosmo is not.
These beliefs have NO connection to Taoism / Daoism as we know them in our world, and I should have chosen a different name for this religion to avoid confusion. I humbly apologize.
Also, much of the worldbuilding in this story is influenced by the folklore of several cultures (Celtic folklore especially). Creative liberties have been taken. This 'fic does not intend to portray its worldbuilding as 100% accurate to its inspiration. Everything is intended to be fictional, and if I accidentally portrayed something offensively, please kindly reach out and make me aware.