The sound of her own stomach growling woke Mira up sometime after dawn. That, more than anything else, served to show her how helpless she was. She had no food, was barefoot, lost, and probably surrounded by unseen demons. But she had a plan.
Roads didn’t just go into nowhere. If Vinmarch was at one end, there had to be somewhere else at the other. All she had to do was follow it until she found a place that didn’t want to jail her on sight. Maybe then she could finally get some answers.
Finding the road proved to be more difficult than she’d expected, but she did reach it eventually. It took her a few minutes to work out which direction she wanted to go in, but she was confident that she’d gotten it right. That was less of a comfort after the first four hours of walking.
Mira passed the rest of the day hungry, thirsty, and increasingly sore. There wasn’t another soul in sight for the entire journey, and night caught up with her before she found another town. Rather than stumble around in the dark, she used the last bit of twilight to scrounge up some unidentifiable berries and locate a small stream to drink from.
The berries were sour, but the water was clear and cold. They did a little to ease her hunger, but not much. What she really wanted was a bacon cheeseburger, but that didn’t seem likely to happen. Instead, she found a small glade and settled in for another cold night. For as much trouble as that cloak had caused her, she’d take it back in a heartbeat now.
She’d just started to doze off when a soft giggle came to her hears. Instantly, she was wide awake, pumped full of adrenaline. “Who’s there?” she demanded, coming to her feet.
More giggles filled the air, and dozens of soft pinpricks of blue, green, and yellow lights drifted up into the air. One of them flew at her face and landed on her nose. “You smell bad, human,” a small, piping voice informed her.
More lights landed in her hair and on her shoulders. “Someone needs a bath. You reek of demons.”
“That’s… not, I mean…” Mira took a deep breath. “I’m not a demon.”
The light that had landed on her nose bobbed up. “Well, yes, obviously you’re not a demon. But you smell bad enough to be one. Are you one of the humans from behind the big stone wall, the one that makes humans feel safe even though it doesn’t actually protect them?”
“No, I’m from somewhere else… somewhere I’d like to get home to.” Mira raised a hand and the light flitted over to perch on her finger. “My name is Mira. What’s yours?”
“Pipalistraleshar,” the light told her. “Humans just call me Pip though.”
“I can see why. That’s quite a name you’ve got there.”
Once Mira looked past Pip, she could see not just dozens, but hundreds or even thousands of little lights filling the glade. They flitted about, weaving around each other in dizzying patterns, breaking apart and reforming so fast that she couldn’t keep track of any individual one.
“What are they doing?” Mira wondered aloud.
“Playing, of course,” Pip said. “What else would we be doing?”
Mira laughed for what seemed like the first time in weeks. “Of course, that makes perfect sense. Am I keeping you from playing too?”
The light bobbed before settling back onto her hand. “Plenty of time to play. I like talking to humans, and we don’t get very many here.”
“Um, I don’t want to be rude, but I’m not from here,” Mira said. “What… what are you?”
“We’re fairies of course. What else could we be?”
Mira looked out again at the hundreds or thousands of lights. “Wow,” she said. “Fairies are real. And demons are real. Where the hell am I?”
“Oooh. Are you from another world?” Pip squeaked out. “Which one? Which one? I bet I’ve heard of it!”
“My world is called Earth,” Mira told him.
“Really? That’s dumb. Who names a world after dirt?” Pip stopped for a second. “Sorry, that was rude. Earth is a… um… fine name… I guess.”
“So this really isn’t home then,” Mira said to herself. It wasn’t exactly a huge surprise after everything that had happened. But it did open up a whole new set of problems, namely that no matter how far she walked, she wasn’t going to find something familiar. She wasn’t going to hitchhike a ride back home. Her cat was going to starve to death before anyone ever thought to check her apartment.
Mira frowned. Her cat… there was something there, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. Whatever it was, it couldn’t have been important. What mattered to her was figuring out how to get back to her own world. She’d deal with getting home once she made it that far.
“How do I get back to Earth?” Mira asked.
“Who knows? How did you get here to begin with?”
“I don’t know. I woke up in the woods one morning. I can’t remember much about the night before.”
Pip fluttered up into the air and floated over to Mira’s eye level. Up close, she could see a human-shaped figure in the light, maybe the height of her thumbnail. He, at least Mira thought Pip was a he, looked like he was covered in fine, glowing glitter that poofed into the air with every movement.
“Lots of things steal memories away,” Pip said. “Even fairies, sometimes, when we don’t want our guests to know how to get to our homes after they’ve left.”
“So maybe the reason I can’t remember is because some…thing? I guess? Something took my memories of being taken here?”
“Sure,” Pip agreed. “Don’t know why, but it’s possible.”
Mira’s head whirled. She flopped down into a sitting position, making Pip squeak angrily and flutter up into the air. Dozens of other fairies that had been flying around her shot off in every direction with a chorus of scolding chitters. Mira put her head in her hands and felt hot tears on her fingers.
“Why is this happening to me?” she asked. “What did I do to deserve this?”
Sudden warmth blanked her, and she looked up to see hundreds of fairies landing all over her. Their lights flared up until she couldn’t make out individual fairies anymore. The anxiety and fear drained away, leaving Mira relaxed and calm. For the first time since she’d woken up naked in the woods, she felt clear-headed. She knew what the problem was now. It was time to find a solution.
“I need to find some way to get back to my own world. I don’t know how to do that. Any ideas, Pip?”
Pip bobbed in the air again. “You could ask the Queen. She knows lots more than us regular fairies.”
Mira’s eyebrows shot up and she stifled a laugh. “There’s actually a queen of fairies here?”
“Well, sure. There are lots of fairy queens. Some of them aren’t very nice, but ours is.”
“Ok, that’s a start then,” Mira said. “Can you take me to her? Do I need to do something special?”
More chittering came from the fairies all around her. Then they started circling her, more and more of them until she could see nothing but a blurred wall of colors rushing around her. Laughter filled her ears and she had to squeeze her eyes shut just to fight down sudden nausea.
Just as quickly as it had started, it was over. The wall of fairy light broke apart into a thousand little blobs of color and rushed away to reveal a world where literally every single leaf and blade of grass she could see glowed in the star light. The fairies rushed away from her, deeper into the forest.
Pip flew up near her face and said, “Come on, it’s this way. The others will let her know you’re coming, so you shouldn’t keep the Queen waiting.”
“Oh…ok. Just… give me a second,” Mira said, holding her stomach. “I’m trying not to throw up in your front yard.”
“Ok, jeez. Let’s go.”
She walked for a few minutes amidst a swarm of fairy lights. At first, she worried about stepping on them, but she quickly realized that they would keep themselves out of her way. Hundreds of them landed on her, only to fly away again a few seconds later and have new ones take their places. They were warm, though not so much as they’d been when she’d cried.
She came to a tree with a hollow in it. Mira wasn’t sure what kind it was, but either way, it was enormous. Its bough was a hundred feet overhead, and she could see thousands upon thousands of lights winking through it. The fairies who’d accompanied her to the tree all took off to join them, one mass exodus of color and light and sound.
“Wait,” Mira said. “What do I do now?”
“Hold out your hand,” a new voice told her.
A figure had appeared in the hollow, one that was seven or eight inches tall. She would have been a giant compared to the other fairies, but to Mira that just meant it was large enough to make out some details. She was all graceful curves and elegance, with tiny tapered feet that trailed behind her as she glided through the air to land on Mira’s outstretched palm.
Her hair floated out behind her, forming a sparkling halo as it wafted back and forth. It was the Queen’s eyes, though, that were her most striking feature. They were otherworldly, misty and hypnotic. Meeting the Queen’s gaze was enough to make Mira’s mind go blank. Tension she hadn’t even realized she had drained out of her muscles.
“You are our visitor from another world?” the Queen asked.
Mira was so lost in the fairy’s eyes that she forgot to answer for a second. The question barely registered in her mind until the Queen blinked and broke the spell. “Oh, sorry. Yes, I guess I am,” Mira said.
The Queen said something else, but Mira was lost in her eyes again. “What was that?” she muttered absently. “I’m afraid I didn’t hear you.”
The Queen flew up into the air. “I will search for an answer for you,” she said. “My people will guide you back to where they found you, and bring you back to me tomorrow.”
Then the Queen kissed Mira’s forehead and flew back into the hollow of the tree. The trip back was a blur. By the time she came back to herself, she was already sitting in the glade, surrounded by tiny fairy lights. With a contented smile, Mira curled up in the grass and fell asleep.
* * *
She woke up just before first light, feeling warm and inexplicably happy. That feeling lasted until she rolled over and saw a pair of black leather boots three inches from her nose. With a yelp, Mira jerked backward and scrambled to her feet.
“Sleep well?” Shy asked.
Mira took a deliberate step backward. “What do you want?”
“I have a present for you.” Shy held out a pack. When Mira made no move to grab it, she gave it a jiggle and tossed it. “Here, take it.”
The pack thumped against Mira’s chest and fell to the ground, where she kicked it back at Shy. “I don’t want anything from you.”
“Oh, I’m hurt. And after my last present was so useful.”
Mira shuddered. “I don’t know what you are, but you’re bad news.”
Shy’s lips curled up into an evil grin. “Damn right I am, but right now, I’m on your side. You’re not going to get better help from anyone else.”
“And why would you want to help me? What’s in it for you?”
Shy laughed. “Now you’re worried about what someone else might want from you? It’s a little late for that, don’t you think? You’re lucky to have come back at all from your night with the fairies.”
“Oh you sad, foolish little girl. You’re so ignorant of the dangers of this world, yet so eager to rush headlong into them. Do you know what fairies eat, girl?”
Mira’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know. Fruit, berries? Maybe leaves or grass?”
Shy lifted a finger and pointed it at Mira. “You, girl. Fairies eat emotions, the stronger, the better. And you’ll thank them for doing it, right up until you forget how to talk. It’s a wonderful thing to forget all your troubles, to leave behind all the pain and sadness. No more heartache. No more stress. No more happiness. No more anything.”
That cast her encounter with the fairy Queen in a different light. Mira couldn’t even remember much of it, other than being contented and docile. “No,” she said, “I’ve still got plenty of emotions. For example, I’m both afraid of you and disgusted by you.”
“Both healthy, sensible reactions,” Shy said. “But the only reason you’re feeling good right now is because you have so much negative emotion that they had their fill. Do you think there’s enough left to survive a second night as their dinner?”
“I… I don’t believe you. They helped me. They said they’d find out how to get me home.”
Shy smirked. “They’re in over their heads. You’re not going home any time soon, probably not ever, but definitely not before Jorath’s done with you.”
“You might call him the source of all the misery in the last six months of your life. His method of traveling worlds is… taxing… on humans. You had to be prepared for it.” Shy smirked again and tapped a finger against the metal piercing through her lower lip. “I don’t know exactly what he did, but you can thank him for that cut on your wrist. Just imagine, one single person to blame all your problems on. How many humans are lucky enough to have that?”
Mira looked down at the thin line on her wrist, parallel to the veins. She didn’t think she’d tried to kill herself, but she couldn’t remember. It was possible that she had during that missing night. Or maybe she hadn’t just tried. For all she knew, she’d succeeded and was dead. If so, the afterlife certainly wasn’t anything like she’d pictured.
“I’ve got to be off now,” Shy said. She nudged the pack back toward Mira. “Enjoy my gifts. Have fun with the fairies, dear. Try not to lose your head.”