Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




Hungry as the Mirror Bright

She was born a low and needful thing. Hatched down in the tannin dark, dead leaf pillowed, gnashing her mouth in the loam. Burrowing deep where shed buttons and broken boot laces lay. Alone and babbling, prowling for worm-meat and snail-slick in the wet ground rot. Fattened on maggot and grub, she hardened white and lay sarcophagal. Then a second birth, splitting free and strange in new skin.

By bloated moon, she clambered a bending stalk and balanced on leaf blade, blinking back larval dreams. Body sticky still from the pupa, she studied what she’d become. Long abdomen flaring with golden light. Four serrated legs anchoring her to a stem. Extending up from her armored scales, a smooth torso and tender skin. Two slender arms, hands with thin fingers. Mud on her lips and face. Long, dirty hair falling on her elytra, glassy plates shielding delicate wings.

Antennae extended from her forehead, waving in the wind-damp. Some smell far off, under nectar and wood rot: the breath of another. So sweet, her wings shivered. Above, moon belly drifted through the treetops. She reached for that cold glow and felt her lantern pulse warm beneath her. “Please,” she said, language rising in her like bile, a call hungry for a response. But the tender dark only tightened its lips, withheld its hand, offered nothing.

• • • •

Days she followed windswept scent, testing her wings in clumsy crashes through twig and thistle-top, sniped at by swooping birds. Abdomen flat, she squeezed up through bramble and thorn thicket, searching the sky. There beyond a ring of magnolia, in a nectar-drunk honeysuckle hollow, she found what she’d been looking for.

Hundreds clustering low and high, dressed fine in egg shell and spider silk, tea towel and toad skin. They bobbed in clouds of lantern-light, abdomens spilling gold, drawing lines of fire against the black. Laughter chimed, and berry wine breath spilled down the breeze. Dew-touched and nectar-lipped, their chitin oiled shining. Sky-strutting, they clattered and sneered, shrilled like cicadas. Drunk, they brandished needle and cat’s tooth, spearing their rivals and dropping them dead as hail. Their hands tight in each other’s clothes and hair. Grief and comfort, rage and want.

How warm to be held by that same light, barked at and shoved, felt and seen. She lurked in the leaf spray, wings flexing an ache to fly to them. Her lantern throbbed, golden heartbeat, gilding the green beneath and giving her away in the curling dark.

Three fairies fell for her, dragging lines of lamp-light behind them. They splashed, comet-crashing and kicking their legs in the leaf tangle. Surrounding her in the thorns, they examined her from antenna to abdomen.

She spread her wings and arms, reached for them with hands and feelers. Showed them with her whole body that she was the same as they. “You came to find me?” she asked.

“Naked and dirty,” said one, half-rotted mouse-hide down his back. “Oaf girl. Dead snail stinker.”

“Dung beetle,” agreed another, pitiless face painted gold with pollen. “Mottle-spotted, or filth-flecked so? Shame to be bred by such.”

“Worm dumb.” The third nodded, this one cinched in a green doll’s dress with lace ruff, skirts bunching around his abdomen. “See the moon-stupid glint in her eye. Skin-hunger in her greedy hands. Nothing she has, not stitch, not scrap, not etiquette, or excuse. What could we take from her?”

They pressed close, scraped spiny legs against hers, tugged at her wing-plates, snapped at her cheeks, their lights glaring. Hurt, she backed deeper into the brambles, her lamp cold. What could she say? They were a joining, and she was broken off. What would let her in?

“Nameless thing, too boring for sport,” one of them said. “Might as well woo a porch light.”

“Rude we, to have come without flowers or serenade. Here, girl. Grow your own blossom.” They threw a cherry pit at her, tacky as blood, ragged tatters of flesh still clinging to the seed. Chortled they, complimenting the generosity of the gift. Then scuttled backwards and buzzed off.

Shameful to be seen so, to be cherry pit trashed, but didn’t she want them still? Want drink and touch and laughing light, for the pulse of warm blood flushing cruel cheeks, to be the same as they? She opened her mouth wide and planted her tiny teeth against the stony pit. Sucked juice and flesh from it. Cracked the seed and swallowed its bitter. Took what they offered down to the pulp. Her lantern’s desperate throb, echo to her heart.

Another fairy dropped kicking into the thicket above, rasp-throated and frail. Burned down his body, scars clotting his face and chest, one arm withered, wings small and cracked and barely able to lift him up.

“Come, bee-bread, dancing darling, nectar-cup,” he hoarsed. “Saw your light pleading. Let’s dress you for the regale.”

A trick maybe? But he was speaking to her, had come down for her and no other. She came, the light-boiling sky calling to her. Rushed up from the leaves and took his hands, the frail tailor with his burned face. Worth any hurt to be one of them.

He clucked. “Too eager and pleasing. Guard yourself. Cultivate a cooler affect.”

“I can cool,” she said. “I’ll frost, if that’s the price of love.”

“The regale will have you,” the tailor said. “Only . . .” He looked up, catchlights dancing across his eyes, and flinched. “Only, leave being loved for the fairy queen.”

“Because of her you’re marked so?” she asked, tracing his burned palm.

Fearfully smiling, the tailor shook his head. “Mustn’t blame her for the candle that tipped and burned me. My own punishment for being displeasing. But worry not about that. We’ll garb you better.”

Hand in hers, he pulled her into the branches above, to an owl-hollow packed with gleaming things. He showed her piles of his farmhouse thievings: doll’s clothes and lace knitting and silver coins. Fruits of his treetop scrounging: hawk feather and chick down, broken shells in every hue. And from the forest floor, the fallen and forgotten: molted spider-shell, bundles of silk and cotton plumes, flower heads dripping with pollen. But outside the hollow, more marvelous than all he had and close enough that she could count the rings on their fingers, the dancers careened and crowed.

The tailor fit her in a jacket of stitched oak leaf. Braided blood-colored thread around her four thin legs. Tied a red paper mask over her face. “Need no one, and keep moth-quiet. Learn their games before you play. Too eager to grab the light and you will burn. But before you go . . .” He extended his shriveled hand to the rich pelts and piles of his tailory. “Choose you one lovely thing.”

Doll wigs stitched of yarn and bright pennies shield-big. Shaving razors like scythes, bee stingers dripping, and flowers of blown glass. Gnashing mites begging to latch, fox fur cloaks stinking of dog-breath and danger, and a glutted leech lounging in a purse. Acorn casks of pollen, of crushed shell, and there, what was it? A something lovely, star dust maybe, salt-smelling and bright as moon-dirt. A powder that stained her fingers mirror-bright. A wonder that couldn’t be ignored, and with it might she be such?

“Nacre,” said the bitter-tongued tailor. His smile said she was free to take it, but a warning in the tightness around his eyes. “Pearl mother. Narcissus mirror for the eyeless oyster deep. Favorite, of course, of the fairy queen.”

Loved by everyone, the tailor had said. She plunged in up to the shoulders, spread gobs over her neck, rubbed it down her arms and into the crevices of her fingers. Smoothed it over her pointed ears. Every inch of exposed skin. She twirled for the burned tailor, a mirror girl dressed in red and green, her lamp bright.

“Before you fly, a name for you,” the tailor said. “Silver-limbed, but I’ll call you gold. Brassy, desperate brazzle. Golden fool. Tell them your name is Pyrite. I did all I could to save you.”

• • • •

What a gift, what a gift! Pyrite, ordinary and everywhere, stream-spilling and bright. A common beauty, and one that delighted all. The regale towered up through oak branches and viny tangles, floor after floor, Babel tower rising toward the face of the moon.

She flew to the first group she saw, lounging low on shelves of white mushroom caps jutting from the tree bark. At their center, a fairy half-swallowed by a toad, struggling to keep head and arms free, the amphibian tossing its bloated head and smacking on him. The others clapped and doubled, pissed themselves with delight, their friend red-faced and laughing in fear.

Petulant on its own fungal step, a sparrow with clipped wings and a tether around its throat watched her with killing eyes. Its minder, a fairy knight in fish-sour crayfish shell, lashed the leash.

Pyrite lit on the bark beside them, arms gleaming like rivers. The others stiffened and grew quiet when she came, but only sighed at a closer look.

“Fox mean and dummy dangerous to play so,” said one wearing a hydrangea puff. “Thought you were conniving on us queen-like.”

“Thought we were meat for milk,” said the knight, eyes dark within her crustacean helm. “But look near the moon. Her ribbons still snake. The queen’s not here to sport with us.”

“I’m Pyrite,” she said. The others introduced themselves: Dungsour held in the toad’s jaw, Bitter Dream fragrant in his hydrangea robe, and Mud Valor the Herald of the Dross armored in shell and claw.

“What do you mean, meat for milk?” Pyrite asked.

“Winter Milk,” breathed Dungsour, slipping up to his chest now, hands wrestling the heavy lip. “The fairy queen.”

Pyrite snapped her wings, not liking not to know, to look new and not belonging. “What’s she queen of?”

The others hooted mean, spilling their seed cups. “Of you, to start.”

“Queen of magnolia grove and nectar bloom,” said Bitter Dream. “Of the regale all round.”

“Queen of pin cushion justice and murder japes,” said Mud Valor.

“Winter Milk,” said Dungsour again, a bright and dumb look on his face as he sunk to his chin, arms vanishing. “Queen of Stillness and Grief.”

The toad forced the fairy down, crushed wings spilling from its mouth.

Mud Valor sighed and paged through a Swiss Army knife, finding a serrated sword half as long as she. “Dungsour’s unpalatable and been vomited back before. Still, best not to chance things. Sticky work to excavate a toad, but needs doing.”

“Or save the toad, and let me sit Dungsour’s place,” Pyrite said. “Time maybe for a fresher scented friend?” She laughed, like it was joke, watching to see if they laughed too.

The knight turned to her, grim in crayfish armor. “Dungsour’s too known and loved to throw away. Losing him would leave a hole. But feel free to linger, if you like.”

Pyrite looked up to the regalers bright above, eyes stinging. The tailor would be disappointed. Her own hunger embarrassed.

Bitter Dream flit alongside Pyrite and touched her hand, eyes wet and all pupil, like he’d eaten poison. “Enjoy the regale, but need less,” he said. “You’re egg-soft still.”

Leash unattended, the sparrow snapped for her. Pyrite hopped back and buzzed off the trunk. Wind carried her higher, up to a spread of branches gold-cloaked and dripping with dance. A crowd to lose herself in and start anew, unashamed. Maybe these arms would be quicker to open. She left Mud Valor and her dim companions below.

• • • •

She twirled in and among them, trying to be what they were, smearing her coat with pollen and paint. Sloshing wine from snail shell cup and eating seed ticks from silver platters, their pop between her teeth bright with hare’s blood. The dancers took her hand, spun her dizzy, and flung her outside their circle of light.

A mistake, maybe? But each time she tumbled back, she was thrown out again. She searched their faces, wondering what she was doing wrong, but they laughed without looking at her. Tossed from dancer to dancer and then aside, she was losing a game she didn’t know how to play.

Wasn’t it fine, though? To be here, in and among and no less for being new. Best to wait and learn like the tailor had said. But she wanted more than they gave, more than mocking smiles and clever hands uncoupling from hers. To be seen, to be held and wanted, throat-kissed and clung to. Feeling a-tatters, she filled her shell and circled the crowd. Abdomens flashed. She answered, pulsing too bright and too long, the molten core of her too much.

Out of the crowd they came, the trash-throwing fairy three who’d discarded her. They bowed low and kissed her hand, breath smoldering on her knuckles. Introduced themselves as Meadow Love with the mouse hide grimacing on his shoulder, Better Veil with his pollen caked face, and Petty Pay with his velvet green gown. Said that they wanted to start on another foot.

“Pyrite,” she snipped. “A good golden find.”

“And aren’t you, true? All tailored so,” said Meadow Love, soft “o” of the mouse mouth chorusing beside him.

“Soggy-headed us not to have seen it,” admitted Petty Pay, nodding solemn. “The bright, gleaming vein of you.”

“Mirror-clean and outshining,” said Better Veil. He smeared his pollen like a man weeping. “Nacre-armed like the cream of frost, the grease of cold. Aren’t you Winter Milk’s own sister to be such? Is Pyrite bright enough a name?”

“Pyrite’s enough,” she said. “Pyrite glimmers in cold creek shallows and tumbles out of potato beds. Admired by minnow and pill bug both.”

“Agreed, agreed,” said Petty Pay. “Down among root-rot, or silver sky riding with the queen, wanted wherever you are.”

Pyrite drank fast, emptying her cup. She bit the shell, grinding salt. “Would she want such, she of Stillness and Grief? Lady on the lips of all?”

“Lonely is the queen,” said Meadow Love. “Forgotten and friendless, though she regales us with such.”

“Neglected as the moon,” agreed Better Veil. “We wear her light and reflect back little. She who delights in every gleaming thing.”

Pyrite’s abdomen betrayed her, hopeful glow, and her wings twitched. “Every gleaming thing?” she asked. “Broken glass and quartz spar? Camp embers, and the dull shine of a cricket eye? She would want such ordinaries?”

They smiled huge, teeth against teeth, something unspoken held in their mouths.

Meadow Love twirled his dead mouse tail. “To queens rich as she, all gems throw the same light. How do you know so little of our lady? Aren’t you one of us?”

“Never have I been another thing,” Pyrite said.

She’d lost her mask somewhere, hair blowing across her cheeks, and she rubbed nacre from her palms over her lips and face. She watched the queen dive back and forth, high above the regale and alone against the moon’s broken head. Alone, and maybe wanting too? What if the queen craved like she did, knew a hunger that only hunger could sate?

“I’ll offer her a present,” Pyrite said. “A bright and shining something.” Though saying so, she hoped she only would be enough.

Petty Pay curtsied. “So generous, our golden fool.”

Pyrite thundered away, eyes out for a gift in the roil and thrash of the regale. If the queen saw worth in her, then Pyrite would have the affection of everyone. And didn’t she deserve it, she who could give so much? She drifted up and up, falling into the sky.

• • • •

The regale burnt to embers, fairies drunk slumbering on branches or dumped chattering together in trunk hollows. Laughs gone whispery, throats red and tired. Pyrite prowled the ragged edges, picking through overturned platters and trash piles, the party rot-soft by night’s ebb.

Among the carcass of a fish, naked bones like tentpoles holding up the gray sky, Pyrite pulled free a single, perfect scale. Palm-big and light-vibrant, like a mirror in her hand. A welcome ordinary, same as she. Might the queen want to see it? Might she, or might she not, but better to bob and bother with full hands.

Climbed up and up, fairies wind-drifting on weary wings. The regalers held hands and buoyed together, lamps glowing like circlets of flame. Far below at the end of a branch, Meadow Love and his clique watched her.

Rising over tree fingers, Pyrite broke into naked sky, the hollow shrinking dim beneath. Exposed in the owl- and hawk-harried deep, she’d never felt so alone. More solitary than her larval memories, voiceless in the mud where at least crickets squealed their want. A river wind whipped at her, and she shattered air under her wings, struggling towards a cluster holding themselves above the regale.

Only a few fairies here, the queen’s own court. Beautiful they, the ruins of their gowns twisting in the air like the calls of ghosts. Winter Milk, silver-limbed in her nacre and trailing ribbons of white, lay back in the arms of her companions. The courtiers beat their wings until muscles bled, shaking and grimace-grinning, killing themselves to keep queen aloft.

Pyrite buzzed up among them, blundering into the circle silent. Winter Milk slipped free of the arms that held her and zipped around Pyrite, delicate hands tracing her wings and barbed legs, tightening a moment in her hair. Upside down, the queen hovered, studying Pyrite’s face. A hunger in her gaze, but not the same as Pyrite’s need. A glutted and too full look, stuffed sick with all she had and still devouring.

Oaf girl, Meadow Love had called her. Filth-flecked. Worm dumb. Her mouth went dry. There was no shelter here, no crowd to dissolve into, every eye on her. Just as she’d wanted, and nothing like she’d hoped it would be.

“Painted like a queen,” Winter Milk said. “Come to steal my moon?”

“No, no, nothing to take. Just a reveler, like all the rest. Come to reflect a spot of your light back on you.” Pyrite held out the fish scale, letting the moon skip over its face and throw shine on the queen.

Winter Milk turned her hand to the offered scale, letting it tumble down through the sky. The court cinched around them, bluster of their wind warm and close.

“Not to give you came, because empty-handed,” Winter Milk said. “Came to take. To sop favor. Not a mirror. A quick-silt, a greedy piglet suckling.”

“No and never,” Pyrite said. “Came to give. Mirrored such to give yourself back to you. All I want is at your feet.”

Winter Milk gestured to one of her court and was handed a pair of mustache scissors, enormous in her hands. “What if I wanted your hair? The tip of an antenna, or your dewy left eye? Would you submit to such?”

“A small price to be yours.”

Winter Milk smiled, amazed and interested now. “For that is all you want, just to be mine?”

“All and all,” Pyrite said. “My only.” She would agree to anything. To have her antennae snipped off and be blind to air-scent, to have her new gown cut away and hang exposed. To be a hound laid in her queen’s lap. To carry Winter Milk herself, and who better for the job of bearing their liege? Who might love the queen more only for keeping her?

Winter Milk fluttered behind her. “Mayfly sad, that. To want the smallest thing. To learn that it’s too much to hope for. Down, worm. Return here never.”

Pyrite opened her mouth to plead, heart stopping to be thrown away. How could she be so unwanted? What had she done?

The fairy queen forced the blades together, severing her wings. A wash of pain like fire down her back and crackling up through her nerves. She dropped, at once alone in the cold air, wings wicked away from her on the wind.

Above, the laughter of queen and court against the bone-white moon. Below, raucous shouts of the regale, pointing and jeering as she fell through the sky. She looked away from Meadow Love and his cohort, finding Mud Valor. The knight held her gaze all the way down, crayfish helm staring silent as Pyrite crashed into the brambles below. Falling through thorns and jagged tangles, back mouth-first into the loam that made her.

• • • •

It was full morning before she could get up, bruised and aching from the fall. Dangerous to be about during day, sun-lit and hawk-sought. She should dig down, cower under a leaf and wait. But she needed to be further from it, the cruel regale, party that went on playing in her head.

Her snipped wings burned. Mantis-legged, she staggered through dead leaves and mud mash. Slipped on a wet stone and swept spinning down a stream. Clinging to mosses and climbing up again, wolf spiders stalking her. They froze when she turned to them, their eyes unfeeling as stone.

“Creep then!” she said to the vermin watching. “Try and bite. Might be bitten back.”

She was hungry, but the spiders stayed off, waiting for sun or bird to wound her. Animal rot, the black bloody smell of souring meat, raised her feelers. Something had died nearby. The gift of the dead and their fruit-ripe meat—they never said no.

A long climb up a steep slope, legs tangling in ropes of dewberry vines all furry with thorns. Shaded by poisonous ivies, the treetops singing danger. At the crest of the hill, under the shade of an apple tree, she found the cattle bones.

Ridges of vertebrae and shoulder settled into a deep skull, twin horns rising. Scraps of skin and dark blots of meat still packed into its hollows. It crackled with drab beetles and their prospecting larvae, dripping from the bones in reeking heaps.

Pyrite walked into the rotten mouth, through columns of blunt teeth, a carpet of bugs sucking the wet soil below her. She picked up a thrashing worm and bit deep, tasting the soured cow mixed with larval blood.

A fallen apple, fly-pocked and sinking in its skin, had fallen close. She sucked sweet liquor from it until dizzy and soft-minded. The saw and scrape of beetles thrummed. Might she stay here, watching the world through a cow’s eye, cider drunk and queen of the cattle bones?

Apart, yes, her own head conjuring voices to cringe and gape at what she had become. Better those phantoms than warm hands that could hurt, smiles that could cut. Her wings were gone. She’d never fly again.

Let her lurk here alone, then. Let her be cruel to a smaller kingdom, find some dumb thing to kick and twist, to jeer and name Pyrite, common and discarded. But what if it wouldn’t sate? She ached still to be gowned, named, and seen, another star in their burning sky. Mayfly sad, Winter Milk had said. So it was.

By dark, she walked the spine, neck to tail, surveying her duchy bleak. The bones white and shining under thin branches above. She touched the heavy skull, moon on the ground. Imagined the lonely, dying low of the thing. For a heartbeat, it seemed almost enough.

Carried on the wind, she heard their voices. Clatter and laugh, the explosion of wings. The wounded wail of a fairy drunkard begging for sex. When a breeze stirred the trees, she saw them hanging not far off in their magnolia grove. The cattle bones rested high in the wood, and from them she could see everything she had lost. Even the court of Winter Milk, bobbing far above.

Agony to sit and watch, vibrations of the beetles devouring the world beneath her. She couldn’t remain. But when she turned on her perch, Pyrite saw another glow. Far off in the woods, down in the deep cut of a ravine. A single lantern burning alone, bright like a coin of flame, hidden where no one would see.

She crept down the slope on her thin legs. Had others been cut down from Winter Milk’s court? Terror weighed on her, heavy as the plates on her back that folded over nothing. But what did she have left that anyone could take? Maybe in the dark was a thing as hungry and alone as she.

• • • •

The light lured her into the deep cut. Slimy-leaved hollow, hairs of roots brushing her. The slow, damp digestion pit of the world. Pill bugs lowered their visors at her passage. At the center of the ravine, she found a midden mound.

Mantis claws and spider limbs cracked open and sucked clean. Floral butterfly wings scattered and glowing, her back aching to see them. Shells clicked and shifted under her feet. The split bodies of empty insect heads tossed like masks on the ground.

From below a deer hoof, she pulled free a thin bone. The length of her own forearm and sized to match. Would one fairy eat another? She had never considered. Pushing aside chitin and hoof, she unearthed more bones. A half skull, jaw misplaced, antennae holes above the eye sockets. Hunger she had expected, but not like this.

A voice smothering as smoke came from the dark behind her, arresting her step. “Bee bread. Isn’t that what the tailor calls?” it asked. “Honey stuck and nectar drunk?”

A flash, the rotten hollow bathed in green-gold light. Pyrite turned and felt everything in her still. Immense, a segmented body armored and long. Six clawed legs to carry its bulk. Dark, shield-like plates stacked over her back and hooding a human face. No other skin than that, no arms and fingers, no torso tender. Only her hungry, mournful stare out from a chitin collar and blood smearing her soft lips.

Some instinct, buried still from Pyrite’s larval past, saw the ravine dweller and told her, This is the Glowworm. Dark goddess of leaf-fall, lying lantern, and fisher of hope. Come to curl you again in egg sleep. Heavy blanket, dragging you back into the lightless loam.

Backing away and tripping through the bones, Pyrite tried to run. Quick as silverfish, Glowworm struck, wrapping around her with vising legs, lantern bright to see what she had caught. The monster was face to face with her, breath like the grave.

“Hush and still,” Glowworm said. “Imagine whatever loveliness you like. You can take it with you when you sleep.”

“Don’t feast on me,” Pyrite said. “Thought you were a lonely thing, thrown out from the fairy court. Thought you might know a hunger like mine.”

“And if I do?” Glowworm asked, sadness pouring down her face.

Pyrite scoffed, held still in the worm’s grip. “You roost on a house of bones, all love devouring. What could you know of being lonely?”

Glowworm nuzzled her teeth against Pyrite’s skin, mouth unhinging open huge. One bite would sever her, scissor-snipped and dead. But when Glowworm felt beneath her elytra and found Pyrite’s missing wings, the monster let her go.

“You misjudge. I am more than appetite, sweet bug,” Glowworm said. “Come and greet my vassals.”

Into the gaping mouth of a mossy log, Glowworm brought her. Cringing in the dark, Pyrite found a pair of young fairy-kind, brother and sister maybe, their wings severed too. Had Glowworm snipped them so, or were they victims of the regale same as she? With them, a blind mouse too old and soft of tooth to nip any harm. A treefrog, thorn-pierced through the side and beating the drum of its throat, watched them from the ceiling with blown glass eyes.

“Companions for you,” Glowworm said, “if you would be happy to have us.”

Dark and silent, the air hot and fear-drenched. No touch and love here, no boisterous light. All glow given up for Glowworm. A claustrophobic place. Court or pantry, she wasn’t sure. But who else would have her?

“I would stay,” Pyrite said. “In any dark place, pyrite might be found gleaming.”

“But not happily?” Glowworm asked. “Still, you crave their mocking songs, their selfish lamps, callous bite of your fellows’ flying wit? Even after all they took from you?”

“All I ever wanted was to be among them. But no returning now. Winter Milk said so. If only I’d guarded better.”

“I too growl for company, for their prickly press and cold glow,” Glowworm said. “But they won’t have me above, and they’ve become too clever to draw down into the ravine so low. Maybe we two together could call them? Scout the edge of the regale and find a place your fellows can see. Set lights to reel them in. You can’t return, so lure them to you. Fairies can’t resist a lamp burning.”

Heaped against the walls of the log, skulls and insect heads alike looked at her, sucked clean as cherry pits. Barely could she look at Glowworm’s face for all her mind rebelled. But the creature had been tailor-kind, had scraped up some sympathy for her. The worm hungered too, so she said. None had understood her better.

“I know a cattle bones,” Pyrite said. “On the hill above, apple tree shaded. There we’ll have fruit fermenting sour and beetles abundant enough. Only need light to draw them in, a lowly court for them to sport with. You can hide deep in the heart of it, close enough to soak it in, and far enough not to scare them off.”

Glowworm stroked her face, and Pyrite trembled. “What a marvel you are, little flame. A regale of our own. Let’s do it tonight. Hunger is my only promise kept.”

• • • •

In the heart, where taffy-thick organ muscle still stretched, she brought Glowworm. The creature curled deep under the breast of the cattle bones, where tissue and bone blocked the sky. Out of sight of the fairies, but close enough to hear their revels. Would it be enough for the glowworm? Pyrite hoped, but knew she herself wouldn’t be able to sit so close and stay apart.

On top of the cow skull, she stood a dirty jar. When she flared her lantern behind it, the light smeared, blurring big. From afar, it would look a cluster or a clique conniving. Nothing fairies loved more than to feel inside a conspiracy.

First to arrive, struggling under his ashen wings and calling—“Out, bee-bread, shy pirouette, my wild honey drop. I come to engown you.”—was the tailor old.

Down behind the murksome glass, he stumbled into the arms of Pyrite, gasping to be seized by her.

“Come to give a gown or lay a trap?” she asked. “Your kindness baits.”

“Still a brazzle.” He winced a smile. “Perhaps I could have done more to save you.”

“No.” Pyrite looked to the lights sporting far off through the woods. “You steered me best you could. I might have listened better. But come. I have some others you should know.”

Cautious, he followed her into a cathedral of blood and bone, cranial vault of the cow skull dripping, its beetles vibrating their hymns. The old mouse yipped and fell over when she pulled an apple from its tray, handing the drunk fruit to the tailor.

One of the fairy siblings offered writhing beetles wrapped in mint leaves, and the tailor flinched to take it. He recognized them, she saw. Each wingless lonesome had been clothed under his hands.

“Is this the tailor’s art?” Pyrite asked. “To gild logs for burning?”

“Hundreds I have helped,” he said, brows tight and desperate to believe it. “With gleaming garb, I clothe the lost and give them the regale. Place of dreams and love, worth all its pain. I try to warn them. Never did I want my fate for anyone.”

“I don’t blame you,” Pyrite. “Happy you’re here with us. We’ll regale on the ground.”

He ate nervously amidst the quiet court, the thorned frog watching them and chirping in pain. “Well,” the tailor said. “Soon again to wander and work. But it’s been a diversion.”

“Too soon, and not diverted enough. Stay. I’ll see if others have come.”

Pyrite went back to her jar and signaled again. From the skull’s eye, the tailor glowed cautiously. Dim within the cow’s heart, Glowworm shined, her light filtered red and strange through old flesh. Drawn to their lights, more fairies came. The air shimmered and gleamed with them, cautious blinking under leaf stem and beyond flower head. And then, the rot-sweet reeling them, they fell and streamed within, exclaiming over the feast.

Soon the bones were lit with them, fairies bobbing above and crawling below, their lights probing deeper into the remains. They chorused and called, joyousing like locusts in the crop. The hilltop burned with their happy fire.

A trio of fairies fell beside Pyrite on the skull, Mud Valor and Bitter Dream with crumpled Dungsour saddling the bird, skin pocked and part digested.

“The golden fool,” said Mud Valor, face still shielded by bulbous helm. “Thought we’d find you compacted in an owl pellet.”

“Dangerous to lurk so low,” said Bitter Dream. “Carcasses call out to vicious teeth.”

“I am wingless,” Pyrite said. “And host to all of these. My regale is here on the ground.”

“We could catch a bird for you,” Mud Valor said. “Saddle it and tie its beak. The sky isn’t so far away.”

She tried to imagine it, a bird caught and carrying her. But would she then be one of them, or always outside? Kindness the knight offered, but was it pity only? Besides, Winter Milk said she wasn’t to come back.

“Wings aren’t what I want,” Pyrite said. “But stay a time. You were better to me than most.”

“For an hour or so,” Bitter Dream said. “Until drunk and tired enough.”

The three zipped away to join the bonfire of fairy-kind reveling in the bones. Beneath the ribs, a smaller glow merged with Glowworm’s halo. There was a flounce like a fish striking, and then, only a single steady pulse. The fairies, not noticing, put thimbles on their heads, sat beetleback, and jousted with sticks. The regale burned on.

Pyrite crawled through the cow’s eye to join them. Adrift again in their light, she studied and watched, careful this time. Enough just to be here. But still they ignored her, no history or love between them. A stranger yet. How her heart struck. How her hands itched to pull them close.

• • • •

Only when most of the others were deep in the bones, like a coal seam burning, did Winter Milk finally descend. Into the skull’s mouth she dragged her silver ribbons, nacre like mercury on her skin and rosemary plaited thick in her hair. The regale bent around her.

With her came a new court. Meadow Love shuddering within his mouse hood, one eye missing and promising to amuse her better. Petty Pay holding the mustache scissors like a scepter, and Better Veil with him, both solemn in their service to the queen.

There was nowhere to shirk, the bones pressing. Winter Milk found her standing alone. “My flightless little worm,” the queen said. “Was it you who stumbled into such?”

Pyrite knelt, back muscles jumping under her elytra. “A regale I’ve made for you, my queen. All my loyal love writ in the feast.”

Winter Milk looked around, her court sneering. “A regale you’ve made?” she asked. “All I see is my own. Come again empty-handed into my court? Must I take another prize from you?”

So this was she, lady who laid claim to all and nothing ever enough. Even this poor regale the fairy queen would take from her. Again, Pyrite’s love discarded. So be it. She would let Winter Milk have it all. Show her what hunger was.

“Seeking in the mud, I went,” Pyrite said, “and the best saved, a richness hidden in the cow’s heart. A mirror fit to reflect her majesty’s gleam. No poor trash for the Queen of Stillness and Grief.”

A softening in her jaw, mix of ecstasy and cruelty. Not believing her, but thrilled to punish her for failing. Winter Milk said, “Then take me to what’s mine.”

Deep they plunged into the mess of the cattle bones, Pyrite leading the queen and her court between gorgers burrowed into the meat and fairy lovers coupling. Into the narrow hollows, wings pressed tight and folded away. Meadow Love watching her with his single eye. Only their lanterns guiding them. Halls of stained bone and eroded tendon, air furry with a gloom of rot. Away and away into the tunnel of the chest, into the open cup of the shattered heart.

Glowworm revolved behind them and covered the door, body curled like a knot tightening. The cavern flooded with her sickly green-gold light, trickling over the queen’s silver-slick skin like she was the daughter of the harvest moon. Winter Milk’s eyes blazed with it, horror on the faces of her court, even in the ragged sack scream of Meadow Love’s mouse hood.

“Stupid and loveless slug,” Winter Milk hissed at her. “Faithless as a cat. Keep back the glowworm, if you really would be mine.”

“Faithful and loving she is, to bring me such shining delights,” Glowworm said. “A new court awaits you, delicate queen, a silent regale of hundreds. Come home.”

Glowworm closed over her like a fist. For a moment, Winter’s Milk was pressed eye to eye with her, the queen screaming full-throated into the worm’s parted lips. Then the queen vanished in her coils, the two tumbling together in the dead dark. The others opened their wings and battered the bones above, clambering for a way out.

“You kill us!” Better Veil shouted.

“False fairy, this Pyrite! Not a sister, but a worm devouring,” said Petty Pay. “Come to sup on fairy throats.”

“Said she was lonely, was all!” said Pyrite. “Understood me. Was kinder than any of you.”

“Then if not the spider, the web,” said Meadow Love. “Never did you belong with us.” He ran towards the tunnel mouth.

Pyrite shoved him back. “Quiet, nectar cup. Glowworm’s feasted now, so we’re safe. No reason to scare the others off. Why not enjoy the regale?”

Glowworm rose again in the dark, her spotlight shining down on them. They looked up to see if it was true, nacre painting her lips and teeth. The worm snatched up the mouse-hooded Meadow Love and stuffed him down her throat.

Dropping the scissors, Petty Pay and Better Veil sprinted off. They wailed in terror, shrieking, “Glowworm has come!” The word vibrated like a saw in Pyrite’s mind.

Glowworm shifted her bulk closer to Pyrite, sighing and sated. “Mind nothing these scraps say. Didn’t have to bring the queen to me, but you did. Everything you wanted, you gave away. Rich and generous Pyrite. I will never leave you, little worm. Always you’ll have me.”

Pyrite fled, back through the tattered corridors and following Petty Pay’s shouts. Had she given away it all? Was the regale ruined and nothing left for her? She broke into the skull, fairies pouring through the cow’s mouth and out from its eyes, fleeing and calling out that Pyrite had betrayed them.

She ran to Mud Valor, the knight lingering to see the fairies safely out. But at Pyrite’s approach, she dropped her dripping apple hunk and beat her wings, lifting away.

“No,” Pyrite said. “Please, don’t leave me here named and alone.”

She snatched at the knight, trying to grab her arm. But Mud Valor turned, and Pyrite caught her wing instead. Clung too tightly against its frantic beat. The wingtip tore in her greedy fingers. Mud Valor fell to the ground, armored and heavy. Helm falling free, she looked at Pyrite in hurt, her face pocked with spider bite and raked by bird claw, dark hair coiled tight against her head and neck.

From the bloody hollow, Glowworm slithered up among them. Dungsour landed his bird and cried for Mud Valor to scramble, but the knight flicked open her knife and stood firm, letting others run. Bitter Dream hung over the knight, unable to fly away as fairies abandoned the bloody regale. Even the lowly court was gone, the silent fairy siblings escaping with old mouse and wounded frog.

In Pyrite’s fist, an iridescent shard of Mud Valor’s wing. Too selfish and wanting she had been. Hungry rot winding through the core of her. Starving, and nothing ever enough. How to make whole everything she’d broken, to show Mud Valor that she could be better than she had been?

“Didn’t mean to clutch so tight,” she said. “Let me try again with a lighter touch. Constellate me your faintest star, but take me with you, please.”

Glowworm swept forward, knocking Pyrite aside, forelimbs raised to strike.

Mud Valor didn’t look at her. The three of them pulled close, shoulder to shoulder against the hungry worm. With dawn breaking through the dead eyes of the cattle bones, Pyrite held the shred of wing against her chest and waited for their answer. Love surrounded the fairy companions like walls.

Micah Dean Hicks

A white man with a shaved head, glasses, and red goatee smiling in front of a forest of twisting branches, vines, and saw palmettos.

Micah Dean Hicks is the author of the novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones and the story collection Electricity and Other Dreams. He is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts creative writing fellowship, has been awarded the Calvino Prize, and is a two-time finalist for the Nelson Algren Award. His writing has appeared in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, The New York Times, Lightspeed, Nightmare, and elsewhere. Hicks grew up in rural southwest Arkansas and now lives in Houston.