Category Archives: Guardian

Guardian – Chapter 2

The rest of the school day crawls by, one boring introductory class after another. Most teachers just introduce themselves and go over the general topics the class will be about. Some of them hand out ungraded quizzes to test people’s general knowledge. In English class, the teacher calls for the book report that was assigned over the summer. Terra doesn’t have it, and doesn’t bother making an excuse. He can’t exactly tell Mrs. Banilovo that he didn’t read the book because his dad was murdered and a magical being of pure, capricious evil became his new primary caretaker.

A few months ago the idea of missing such a big part of his grade would have bothered Terra at least a little. Getting bad grades usually makes him feel shitty, but the worst part was always telling his dad and seeing his disappointment. Won’t have to worry about that anymore, a bitter voice inside him says, followed by a flood of shame. Still, he can’t deny that a part of him is glad he doesn’t have to put up some front of normalcy and try to pass his classes. He just has to do the bare minimum that would avoid some parent-teacher conference.

His final period of the day is Social Studies, and Terra picks the desk right next to the door. He sits with his backpack on, staring at the clock as the teacher drones on about expectations for the coming months. The last few minutes toward 4PM finally tick by, and Terra stands as soon as the bell rings, heading out the door and barely noticing the startled look the teacher gives him. His thoughts are entirely on the meeting ahead as he walks quickly toward the back exit of the school.

Puck keeps up with him effortlessly, having stationed himself by the doors throughout every class. The fae doesn’t bother him during class time, some part of his oath no doubt counting that as harmful, but as soon as they’re on the move again, the devil on his shoulder is back.

“You should postpone this. Practice questions and answers with me, use some of your dailies to gather more knowledge-”

“I know. But the longer I wait the more damage she and the others can do,” Terra says. “Especially now that she knows I know what she is. I’m doing this, Puck. Today. So what can you tell me that’s actually useful, knowing that you can’t talk me out of it?”

Puck’s placidly amused mask slips, and for a moment some mix of haughty annoyance and boredom leaks through, there and gone in a blink. If Terra hadn’t been watching close he may have missed it. But he’s picking up a few tricks in deliberately invoking the Oath to do what he wants: if he’s right, making it clear that he’s committing to an action will force Puck to do his best to make that action safer.

After a moment of silence, the fae speaks again, and his tone has his usual careless cheer. “Do not accept any gifts. Do not offer any gifts. Do not say anything that can remotely be interpreted in any way as a promise or commitment of any kind. If your senses confuse you at any point, if you suspect even for a moment that she might be using glamour on you, then chances are she has.”

Terra glances at his Guardian. “What would she do?”

Puck shrugs a shoulder. “Impossible to know ahead of time without knowing who she is or what any of her titles are.”

Not reassuring. “Could she have done that in the cafeteria?”

“Harder with so many around, without warning or time to prepare. You’re removing every safety net by doing this.”

Terra frowns. If Puck had put it like that before, Terra might have actually listened to his warnings about this being a bad idea. The Oath may compel Puck to act in Terra’s best interest, but the fae still has to recognize the optimal strategy before he can be compelled to do it. “So what do I do if that happens?”

“Break whatever patterns she forms, keep her off balance. Irreverent improvisation, responding to sudden changes, these are skills that many fae do not hone, as they tend to disrupt the roles in our stories. This is less true of the exiled rabble around here, but you should still break whatever pattern you’re in if you notice one. Bark like a dog, jump up and down while spinning, take your clothes off and throw them around. Act unpredictably enough and her glamour will break, particularly if she’s the one setting the tone and tempo of the conversation. Of course, this will likely irritate her, but you must be constantly paranoid of your surroundings and ready to attempt a breakout at any time. She may test you with little things: be vigilant. Take nothing for granted.”

Terra nods along as he shoves his way through the crowds of students blocking the halls. After a moment he stops, frowning… then jumps around in place, quacking like a duck.

Everyone in the immediate vicinity slows and stares at him, a few giggling or rolling their eyes. His face flushes, and he keeps walking.

Puck tilts one hand up and taps his fingers against its palms in mocking applause.

Terra doesn’t react, still embarrassed by the way everyone looked at him. He reminds himself that he’s no more at school to make friends than he is to get good grades. As long as he avoids truant officers showing up at his door and finds other fae so he can throw a wrench in their plans, the rest doesn’t matter.

But it still makes his stomach feel hollow, knowing he’s probably going to be seen as a freak or clown all year.

“What if things go south?” he asks. “Can you take her in a fight?”

“If you are stupid enough to goad her into physical action, I will be compelled to defend you.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

Puck lets out a long suffering sigh. “I am stronger, but without knowing her nature or seeing what preparations she has made, I cannot guarantee I would escape unscathed, nor can I guarantee I could stop her from escaping or harming others if she chooses. After which we will need to be constantly on our guard by her and any others she may call to her aid.”

“But if push comes to shove, you can defeat her,” Terra insists as he pushes his way through the growing crowd.

“Yes,” Puck admits at last, and his grin is savage, bringing out the sharp angles in his cheeks and jaw. “But it will cost, foolish boy.”

“That’s fine,” Terra says as he goes down some steps. “I just needed to know how much I’m able to bluff.”

Puck studies him for a moment as they walk, then he chuckles. “Turn your shirt inside out,” he says.

Terra glances at him, brow raised.

“The image she has of you is one she can channel power through. Change something of yourself, and whatever she may have cast will have less of a hold.”

Terra grimaces, then makes a sharp turn into a bathroom. First day of school, and already the floor is wet and a soap dispenser is empty, its bright pink innards spilled all over the sink. There’s only one other boy inside, a kid from his homeroom who’s picking at a pimple, and Terra gives him a brief nod before finding a stall and going in. He sits on the toilet lid and tries to think quickly. If he inverts his shirt, it’ll be really obvious. He’d rather the fae be left wondering whether he did something on purpose or not.

Instead he quickly takes his shoes off, then turns his socks inside out before putting the sneakers back on. Another moment’s thought, and he takes a pen out of his pocket and doodles on the back of his hand. “Enough?” he mutters to Puck, whose eye is peering through the opening at the sides of the door. Why do they build these with such wide gaps?

“It’ll do.”

Terra puts the pen away and flushes the toilet, then steps out and washes his hands. The boy gives him a curious look, and Terra realizes he didn’t hear any peeing. Oh well. He goes back into the hallway, which is now even more crowded with students.

“If you’d told me this earlier I could have been prepared before the bell rang,” Terra says, trusting the noise and chaos around him to hide that he’s talking to himself.

“Had I known the depths of your stubbornness, perhaps I would have.” Puck’s movements in the crowd are almost hypnotic, a sidestep here, a body turn there, dancing between gaps in people that seem too small to fit him, his clothing brushing others’ without him actually touching anyone. The fae appears to have eyes on the back of his head, so effortlessly does he glide through the crowd… a feat that’s surely just for fun, since Terra knows he could make the students step around him instead. Or maybe not: he’s never seen his guardian use glamour on a crowd this big and tightly compressed, before. An important potential limitation to ask about later.

“Any other hard rules?” Terra asks as he reaches the doors to the parking lot and steps out into the sunlight, gaze roaming over mostly empty spaces. Not a lot of kids here can afford a car, and most here look old and used. Terra’s house is a fifteen minute walk, so he has no bus to catch. He spots the fae standing outside the gate, to all appearances still looking like a normal teenage girl. The chatter of the emerging crowd of high schoolers fades a little as he walks toward her, away from all the cars.

“Don’t do anything to reveal my presence. And don’t try to attack her.”

Terra considers this, and realizes he has a golden opportunity to find out something important without using one of his daily questions on it. He slows his steps. “Can I bluff that I’m ready to attack her?”

Puck’s jaw tightens, and he seems to be weighing something carefully. Terra doesn’t quite trust this serious side of the fae: normally he just assumes that any emotions Puck shows are carefully controlled and crafted to reveal only what Puck wants Terra to see, but it’s possible the oath has forced him to drop some of his subtlety. Or perhaps he’s putting on such a serious face because of the oath, to make Terra take what he says more seriously…

Well, it’s working if so.

“If you feel it’s necessary to prevent her from attacking you,” Puck says at last.

“Great. So what are some deterrents I could use?”

“You have nothing with you that would be a credible threat to her.”

Hmm. Well, it rules some things out, at least: now he knows fae aren’t weak against anything he has in his bag or pockets. “Let’s say I have to threaten her at some point. What’s the best way I could do it?”

“Put your hand in your pocket and act confident,” Puck says, and speeds up his steps before Terra can say anything more. His guardian steps off to the side, gaze downward as he approaches the other fae. He begins to playfully leap forward twice, then to the side, feet turning on their toes as he abruptly steps away from Terra, jumps sideways, turns 90 degrees, extends a foot in front of him and falls forward onto it…

Terra does his best to ignore Puck’s antics, keeping his gaze on the girl in front of him. He thought he was used to his guardian’s eccentricities by now, but then the thought occurs that he might be doing something important. Avoiding wards on the ground, maybe? It would make sense for the fae to set up protection after picking a meeting spot. Terra just hopes Puck’s confidence in his abilities are justified.

“So,” the girl says as soon as he’s within talking distance. “What say you? Two questions for one, under the same rules as our original bargain?”

Terra takes a deep breath. “First some introductions. I don’t know what to call you.”

“Valentina will suffice, as long as we are simple class mates.” She smiles. “Would you like to be something more?”

Terra doesn’t need Puck to shake his head from behind her to know the answer to that. “Val it is, then. I’m–”

“Terra, yes. And our bargain?”

“I won’t speak any more about Puck at this time,” he says, face straight.

Her smile fades, eyes growing cold. “Then what have you to bargain with instead?”

“How about a peace treaty?”

She smiles once again, but it’s different this time: slow and mechanical, like little wheels in her cheeks are spinning to draw her lips up on wires. “Ooo, how exciting.” The expression continues to grow, far past amused and into the uncanny valley of a creature trying to pass for human, her teeth showing in neat ivory rows that appear too clean, too perfect. “I did not realize we were at war. Shall we battle, then, so that I can judge the value of your peace?”

Sweat drips down Terra’s neck as his heartbeat flutters. She wasn’t thrown off by that at all, if anything she seems to be enjoying the prospect. Terra tries to control his breathing as he keeps his gaze on hers above the macabre grin. “If I thought you were stupid enough to want to fight, I wouldn’t have even approached you in the first place,” he says. “Fighting you would be inconvenient, and cost me time and effort I would rather not waste.”

Her head tilts to the side, and she begins to walk around him, her movements showing the same feline grace that Puck walks with. “But why would you wish to fight me at all? I’m sure there’s much we can learn from each other… help each other with…”

Terra doesn’t turn when she gets behind him, trusting Puck to protect him so that he doesn’t appear afraid, though the back of his neck itches as she disappears from sight. “Because you don’t belong here. I want you to leave the students alone.”

“Belonging is such an unfathomable thing,” she says from just behind him, lips an inch from his ear, and he flinches despite himself. “Consider the two of us, for example. I have been here for years and years, while you have just arrived, know no one, would not be missed.” She sniffs, and walks back around to his front. “It seems clear to me that you are the interloper here.”

Terra suddenly realizes that the fae is placing them into Roles. Puck spoke about this, a way that fae resolve conflicts through storytelling, pitching their own character against their opponent’s and arguing the clear dominance of their will through story narrative. If Terra can win this, he could greatly weaken the fae’s influence over him and the other students, perhaps even weaken her core being, if her nature is tied enough to the Role she’s taking on. But if he loses, she can gain power over him, and he can be restricted in his very thoughts and actions by the Role he’s been branded with.

A spell in the form of a story, Puck had said. A glamour woven word by word, by all who speak and to all who hear.

Terra folds his arms to hide the trembling in his hands as he tries to look relaxed and think of a way to flip her narrative around. “All of that can change,” he says as she circles back around him again. “I can make friends, become a part of the community. And through it all, I’ll be human, just like them. You’re not, can never really belong to a human school the way another human would.”

“And yet soon you will be gone, as thousands before you, while I shall remain here, a fixture, part of the very soul of the Alton High School experience for generations.”

“Generations who have forgotten you,” he lobs back. “Whose yearbooks are you in? Who remembers you once they’ve left? A particularly shitty substitute teacher can reside in a student’s memory longer than you.”

The fae’s smile is smaller now as she passes in front of him. “Remember or not, it is my interactions that affect them, the services I provide that makes me invaluable, unparalleled in impact across the school staff or student body.”

“You don’t perform a service. You’re only here for your own benefit.”

“Are merchants not entitled to some profit? The students here have their needs, like any others. Their woes,” she says, and Terra’s chest aches with grief, thoughts of his dad flashing through his mind. “Their pains.” He grits his teeth as the grief vanishes, replaced by a throb of agony from his pricked finger. “What I offer is the means to solve or salve them. The choices are always theirs.”

“Hard to make a real choice when you don’t know the full truth,” Terra says, relying on Puck’s description of how the fae folk tend to operate. “You deceive them in some way with every transaction, even if you don’t lie.”

“Is it Truth we serve, brave Knight? Then Truth we shall battle with. The girls you saw, whose names you do not even know, they each suffer a different sorrow. Trisha a difficulty with money, her family too poor to even buy her food for every meal. Kelly fears for her mother, drinking herself into a stupor night after night. And Alma, poor Alma.” The fae sighs, one hand rising to her forehead, palm out. “She has nightmares of her grandfather’s hands, she’s afraid for herself, afraid even more for her younger sister–”

“Stop,” Terra says, throat dry. Lying, she’s lying–

No, they have to speak truth.

Exaggerating then, goading me into–

“Does the Knight no longer serve Truth? Who is your new master, then, tell me, so that I may serve them too.”

“You don’t want to help them,” he says, pulse picking up as his face flushes in anger. “You just like being part of their suffering.”

“Oh, this one does know us. How gratifying, to be seen. But only in part, dear Knight, for when they accept my gifts, as they surely will, I’ll revel in their joy as well.” She smiles, and the clouds part to release a beam of sunlight onto her face, wreathing her hair like a halo. “Whatever they may feel, the good or ill, the excitement and despair, it’s all a part of what makes your mortal lives so precious!”

Terra stares at her, mouth slightly open. She’s… beautiful. An angel. He wants to kiss her, to bow his head, to kneel-

“Ahh!” Terra throws his arm over his eyes, staggering back a step. “Such beauty! I am besotted!”

There’s silence for a moment, and Terra lowers his arm. The “sunlight” is gone, the fae staring at him with the flat eyes of a doll. “Have a care, child. Mockery is the pastime of fools. That can be your Role as easily as a Knight.”

Terra worries that he pushed her too far, but Puck is twirling a finger in a “go on” gesture, and so Terra says the first thing that comes to mind. “But I don’t know how to juggle.”

It feels weak, but the girl isn’t paying attention, instead scanning the trees behind her. Terra’s heart thumps in his chest as she looks right at Puck, who twiddles his fingers cheerfully at her. But she turns back to Terra, eyes narrowed. “Who are you communicating with?”

“What are you talking about?” he asks, knitting his brow together in what he hopes is a convincing look of confusion.

“Your fear is too shallow,” she says, head tilted back as one finger caresses her neck. “It is here…” The hand moves lower, splays over her belly. “But not here. What gives you such courage, I wonder? I took you for some wizard’s get, or a hedge mage, but even they would know more to fear. If you’ve truly learned from some fae, and are here to prevent me from interfering with the lives of others, then you must be aware that you’re being used, yes?” She seems to be talking to herself as she starts to pace again, and Terra doesn’t offer an answer. “Or are you willingly acting their agent? Which is it? Foolish, or prepared?” She suddenly stops walking around him and steps forward, nose flaring, and he steps back, hand going into his pocket. She stops, eyes glancing at his hand before returning to meet his.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, but back off.”

“Your eyes have gone unfocused twice. You’re hearing something I am not. No? Seeing something, then… but trying not to draw attention to it… yes, that’s it. Now you’re more nervous. It takes so much effort, to keep it secret. It would be easier to just tell me. One less secret to keep. You want to tell me. You feel the answer, fighting to get out.”

Terra clamps a hand over his mouth as the he feels himself about to speak, and the answer gets lodged in his throat. Literally: it feels like there’s something in his throat, squirming and wriggling as it tries to escape.

Her hand rises, fingers curling as she beckons. “That’s it. Come on out, now…”

He feels like he’s going to vomit, except instead of bile there will just be the word “Puck.” He’s about to run for it, hope to get far enough before the word comes out, then quickly takes the pen from his pocket and jabs it into his leg.

“Pnnngfhhucking ow!” he yells, eyes closed against the sharp pain. He lifts his fist and inspects the damage: the tip didn’t penetrate his pants, but he knows he’ll have a spectacular bruise beneath it soon.

The fae’s eyes gleam. “Clever boys should not reveal a weakness so readily. How many holes will you poke in yourself if I ask again, I wonder? Let’s find out…”

“You’ve just proven my point,” he says, trying to ignore the pain and force her back on the track of the narrative. “You professed a love of humanity, but free will is one of our most cherished values. That’s why I want to stop you from interfering with their lives. Free will is too large a part of being human, something you’ll never understand if you keep using tricks like that.”

The fae’s eyes narrow. A moment of silence passes, and Terra wonders if he said something important, but doesn’t dare look to Puck to check. His guardian has moved out of his field of vision, likely having the same thought.

“Unfettered decisions is an unrealistic standard,” Valentina says at last. “I do not subvert their values or coerce their choices, thus their will is their own. I simply offer them help, and they can choose to take it.”

“Your gifts are poisoned,” Terra quickly says, still trying to find his footing, then remembers what she called him: a Knight. “I’ll help them myself, so they don’t need your ‘gifts.'”

“A challenge!” she trumpets, and Terra jumps a bit, startled. “I accept your vow, most solemnly stated. Help the three fair maidens, oh noble Knight, and my power over them shall be broken!” she sobs, hands covering her face. When she reveals it, her grin is back, and this time her teeth fill her mouth in a nest of countless needle-thin spurs, her eyes glowing blue like some deep sea creature’s lure. “But if you fail, I shall feast on your intestine.”

Terra feels horror creep up his body like cold, dark water of unimaginable depths. He remembers Puck’s warning, tries to will himself into doing something spontaneous and at odds with his feelings, but he somehow just… can’t, the fear is paralyzing, and a moment later he recognizes that it’s not a glamour, he’s actually afraid of what this monster would do to him if he fails.

“More,” he croaks through numb lips, and his voice quavers. He clears his throat and makes an effort to sound confident. “I need more. You have to leave all the students here alone, not just these.”

“Such demands are not yours to make.” She breathes deep, savoring something in the air, those glowing eyes lidding halfway as her grin widens even further. Her face looks like a mask stretched too tight from behind. “I am not some lesser fae, driven to gamble no matter how lopsided the wager. Try for these girls if you feel compelled, but if you wish to intervene with others, you must do so in the same fashion, one by one.”

Terra tries to think through what he’s agreeing to, but it’s hard with a literal monster grinning a few feet away from him. “I don’t need your permission talk to or help them. If you have nothing to offer, then I’ll feel free to take more drastic steps to interfere with your games.”

“Ah yes. This… peace treaty you spoke of. I must admit I find myself curious of what exactly you’re threatening to do… especially while you sweat through your shirt from just speaking with me. It might prove an even better diversion than your oh-so-noble challenge.” She steps closer, and her nails abruptly sharpen and elongate into claws. “Do you really think you can win a fight with me, child?”

“I won’t have to,” he quickly says. I’m safe, Puck will intercede, I’m safe… “I’m nervous, sure. I would be stupid not to be. But that doesn’t mean a fight with me wouldn’t cost.”

Valentina makes a sound somewhere between a chuckle and a pair of scissor blades sharpening against each other… but her claws retract, her face returning to its normal teenage self. “Very well then. What do you have to offer in this peace treaty?”

Terra is careful not to sigh in relief. “The way that I found you? I can teach it to others.”

“Magic is not so easily taught and spread. And to pierce the masquerade so blatantly would earn you enemies far greater than I.”

“It’s not magic,” Terra says. “Just a trick anyone could learn.”

Her eyes narrow. “But those who learn of it can still point to you as the teacher.”

“Nope. I don’t even need to teach it to people directly.”

There’s silence for a moment, brief as a heartbeat. “You lie.”

To that, Terra just smiles. He feels jittery, his blood pounding in his ears from a mix of fear and adrenaline, but he hopes the smile, at least, shows all the confidence he feels. He’s thought about it, of course, just letting the world know what’s really going on, putting the proof out there somehow. He’d have to bring the idea up with Puck later to see what the consequences might actually be.

Whatever the fae sees in it makes her fingers tap together. “A temporary restriction,” she says at last. “For the duration of the wager, I’ll not offer others my gifts. We’ll play for these three only, you and I.”

But Terra shakes his head. “Peace treaty, remember? Not a wager. I don’t plan to haggle over how much time you’ll give me or what stakes there are if I win or lose. You know my intentions and the boundary I want you to abide by. And now you have some idea of the consequences if you step over them.”

Valentina appears angry for a moment, but then she laughs. “Oh, yes! Your intentions are quite clear!” She laughs harder, the sound gaining an edge of hysteria to it. “Ahh, and the consequences! Oh, this will be fun!”

Terra stares at her, unnerved but not wanting to show it. Particularly since he has no idea what makes this so amusing. He has a bad feeling Puck is going to tell him how badly he screwed up, but he can’t exactly check now. “Right. Well, that’s all I wanted to say. See you around.”

Valentina has tears pouring down her cheeks now, laughing so hard her face is red, one hand braced against her knee. She nods and waves a hand at him in a shooing gesture, then begins to laugh even harder, eyes closed as she leans against the fence. Terra begins to back away until he’s past the gate, then turns around and hurries in the direction of his house, her laughter following him off the school grounds.


The trip home is uneventful, a fifteen minute walk through suburbs that all look the same punctuated by constant checking of the map on his phone to make sure he’s going the right way. Terra made some token effort to get to know the town of Hillsboro when he got here, even knowing that they would probably move again in a year or so, but after the one-two punch of his father’s death and Puck’s appearance flipped his world upside down and then sideways, he had too much on his mind to care about learning the lay of yet another American small town.

Puck is a silent figure beside him as he walks, both from lack of speech and lack of audible footsteps. The fae is walking on top of a metal fence, his feet carefully balancing on each tip with what Terra suspects is false care, considering how gracefully Puck usually moves. Terra would say his guardian is brooding if he knew what a brooding fae looks like. Or rather, a brooding Puck: now that he’s actually met another fae, it’s easier to think of Puck as an individual among a specie, with what are probably his own quirks.

Terra isn’t sure what to make of Valentina. She seemed to have a flair for drama, which is different from Puck’s constant nonchalant playfulness. More willing to become visually monstrous, to frighten, though part of that may be the pact restricting Puck’s behavior. More to the point, she also seems a bit more… unhinged.

If he’s interpreting Puck’s silence right, his guardian is either furious with him or trying to think of the best strategy to ensure Terra’ well-being. Or both. But that’s fine with Terra, so long as whatever it is doesn’t get in the way of helping the other students.

Which is what he’s worrying about now. Regardless of his long term plans to get rid of the fae at the school, for now he can undermine Valentina by helping with the things that are driving them to accept the fae’s double-edged gifts. Which means all he has to do is help a family overcome poverty, a mother deal with alcoholism, and…

“…nightmares of her grandfather’s hands…”

Terra shudders. Okay, that one definitely gets dealt with first.

“So?” he says at last. “Did you learn anything from observing her?”

“Very little of importance,” his guardian says from above him.

“Importance to who? No, better yet, to what goals?”

“The only one that matters, of course. Ensuring your well-being.” His guardian’s tone isn’t mocking, but it doesn’t have to be. “She was careful with what she did so as not to reveal anything of her domains or titles. She suspected from the start that you may not approach alone, and she did not forget the potential presence of another just because she acted as though she did.”

Terra waits, but Puck doesn’t deign to say anything further. He decides to change tracks and start working on the more immediate problem. “You once mentioned a rune for changing my appearance and voice… what’s the cost?”

“No measly prick of your finger, you can be sure. But you would live without lasting harm, if given sufficient time to rest. Still, I must advise against it. To trick another in such a way can have complicating effects–”

“I don’t mean the blood,” Terra interrupts, impatient with Puck’s standard warnings against him doing anything besides wake up, eat, and go to school. “I mean the part that makes the specific effect.”

“Ah. Mind your terminology: a cost is paid in the moment to activate the glamour, an exchange is what’s put in ahead of time to inscribe the rune. I should think it would be obvious?”

The mesh fence gives way to a wooden one as they pass a yard with a large German Shepherd behind it. Terra half-expects it to rush at them, barking its head off at the fae beside him. Instead it trots alongside them, and Puck does a quick handstand so he can briefly pet it before flipping forward onto his feet. “Not really,” Terra says after the distraction ends. “I get why I had to give up some sleep to be able to put others to sleep with the other rune, but I don’t understand what I’d be giving up to make people think I look and sound different. My appearance? My voice?”

“Such are for much more powerful glamours. If it’s not a change in the essence of the world itself you wish, but just a fooling of another’s senses, then an equivalent exchange would be similarly fleeting as that which you impose on the other.”

Similarly fleeting. Why would someone seeing or hearing a disguise be fleeting? “Will their memory stay the same? Like after an hour will they still remember my disguise, or will their memory of the event change?”

“No more or less than all memories do.”

Ah. “Memory itself, then. Memory is fleeting. I have to forget what someone looks and sounds like, to mimic them.”

“Again, I must warn you that–”

“How long would it last?” Puck didn’t deny it, which Terra is taking for now as moderate evidence that it’s true.

The fae is silent for a long while, and Terra worries that the fae just thought of something that would stop him from answering. “How long would it last, Puck?” No answer still, and Terra reaches out to shake the fence picket. The fae quickly skips to the next one, which does nothing to lessen Terra’s anger at being ignored. “I want to remind you that I’m doing this with or without your help. If you don’t answer my questions it’ll just be more dangerous for me.”

“Naive genius,” Puck says, tone bored. “Clever idiot of a child. If you were half as smart as you believe you are, you would not have walked right into her traps back there. Instead I must now give serious thought as to whether your well-being actually would be improved by you failing in your endeavor, failing in so spectacular a way that you are put beyond her reach… such as perhaps in a jail cell.”

Terra’s throat is dry, and he struggles not to panic as he reminds himself that while Puck may not be outright lying, he’s almost certainly being deceitful in some way. “I’m noting your insults as a reaction to you disliking me finding a way around your three question limits, and not letting it influence my decision.”

“Note them however you wish: I’m bound by my understanding of the pact, not yours.”

“But you will still tell me what traps I walked into, because even you know that can help me avoid them in the future.” Terra tries to sound confident.

“Unless it makes you so overconfident that you blunder right into another.”

“That’s…” Terra can’t think of something to say, so he just says, “Stupid.”

“Bravo. Your pithy rejoinder has convinced me.”

Terra doesn’t bother asking what it’s convinced Puck of. “I don’t find it convincing, is what I mean. So if you hope it’ll change my behavior then you’re wrong, and should act accordingly.”

Puck hops down onto the sidewalk and walks beside him, hands clasped behind his back. “Do you truly not see it? She set you up in the role of the Knight, and despite your initial misgivings, lured you by the nose until you leapt headfirst into it.” Puck shakes his head and sighs. “The Fool indeed would have suited you better, but their stories can often end in unexpected victories. She chose well to seal your fate.”

“I think I can fulfill the Role.”

“Can you, now?” Puck sounds cheerfully curious, but Terra has learned to hear the cutting edge beneath the words, the tone of laughter that delights in his misfortune. “And how many monsters have you slain? How many oaths have you sworn and abided by? How many innocents have you championed? Who have you saved, ever, in your paltry sixteen years of life?”

Terra’s face is flushed by the end of it. The answers, of course, are none and no one to all of the above. But… “Every story starts somewhere. Maybe this is mine.”

And Puck only shakes his head, and lets the silence fill with nothing but Terra’s footsteps as he finishes walking home, each scuff of sneaker on pavement somehow sounding like fool, fool, fool


Terra feels a familiar ache as the house comes into sight, a bland one story building with a small yard and fence around it. Its emptiness echoes to him from a block away. When he first arrived in town, it was like any other place they’d rented: peeling paint, plain curtains drawn over the windows, no personalized welcome mat or signs of habitation. Just a place to keep his meager possessions and sleep at night for the year or so before they moved again. Nothing to get attached to, nothing to mark it as a “home.”

Now, however, he knows it will never be that to him, but also that it will never be the same as all the previous places, never be as easily let go. It would always, to him, be the place his father died. The last place they lived in together. Terra hasn’t given much thought to what he would do in the future, but he knows that despite the pain it brings him to return to it every day, leaving it will be harder, a renewed wound waiting in his future.

He unlocks the door and lets it swing open with a creak, standing in the threshold for a moment as the pain returns, the momentary expectation of seeing his father at the kitchen table, surrounded by old books, a cup of hot chocolate and a distracted, but warm, smile waiting for him.

Instead the house is dark and empty, and he walks inside, letting Puck close and lock the door behind him as he goes straight to his room and lets his bag fall to the floor.

The ache in his chest is getting stronger. He knows why, knows that his time is nearly up, but he lets it linger for a little while, lets himself feel it as best he can. His throat becomes clogged, tears threatening to seep through his eyelids as he lies on his back in bed and struggles against the urge to reach up to his necklace. He won’t use it this time, he won’t, he’ll just… let it come crashing over him, let himself feel it, and it’ll be better after, he’ll feel better…

But a few minutes later he’s curled up in a ball, sobbing into his sheets, and his hand moves on its own to the silver coin hanging from his neck. His thumb rubs over it three times in quick succession, and the pain immediately begins to fade, the hole in his chest closing rapidly until all he can feel is the numbness again.

When he finally dries his face and sits up in his bed, the first thing he sees is Puck, crouching over the far side of the bed with his toes on its frame. His face is appropriately solemn, but his bright green eyes gleam with some inner satisfaction.

Your gifts are poisoned. That’s what Terra said, to the creature that called herself Valentina. So it is with all fae gifts, perhaps all magic. Anything that seem too good to be true, someway, somehow, the cost comes due. But even if he feels frustrated that the girls taking her gifts wouldn’t consider that…

Well. He can’t judge them too harshly.

Terra turns away from the creature and busies himself with taking his shoes off. His breaths are deep to control the anger that comes in the wake of freshly grieving his father. The pendant takes the sadness away, but only dulls the associated emotions, and just looking at Puck is like salt to an open wound.

“You dodged the question before, but that doesn’t mean I’ve forgotten. So. Losing my memory of what someone looks and sounds like seems too easy for a glamour so strong. There’s got to be another catch. Do I just lose the memory of what they look and sound like? Or also the other memories associated with them?”

In his periphery, Terra sees Puck make a show of looking at his wrist, which suddenly appears to have a watch on it. Terra closes his eyes and tries to reset his expectations when he opens them, but the watch is still there. Which means either the glamour is stronger than he expected, or Puck stole someone’s watch.

“It doesn’t appear to be tomorrow yet… would you like to negotiate for more questions?”

Terra’s jaw clenches. “My well-being is tied to helping these girls. How can you justify not answering?”

“Your well-being is unaffected at all by whether you help these girls,” Puck says with a smile. “You did not agree to any consequences to yourself, remember?”

Terra considers Puck quietly, wondering if he’s pretending not to understand, if he can even do that, or if he really missed it. “You can’t seriously think that Valentina’s going to let me live?”

Puck’s brow rises.

“The trick,” Terra explains. “The one that can help people see her. I deliberately told her about it so that she would consider me a threat. There’s no way she’d let someone who can teach others to find her just walk around free. She’s probably hoping to find out what it is before she attacks me, but maybe she’ll just kidnap and torture me… what?”

Puck has been shaking his head. “You humans. Always thinking on such direct lines. So ignorant of the richer tapestry that makes up the threads between us all.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Valentina will not attack you directly,” Puck says. “You don’t need to understand why. It is enough that I know it.”

Terra’s pulse begins to pick up again, heat blossoming in his chest as he stares at that smug, smiling face. “What if you’re wrong? You can’t take that chance, or your arrogance would get me killed. You–”

Puck laughs, clutching his belly and falling backward off of Terra’s bedframe only to land on the desk chair behind it, body draped over the seat as his feet stay kicked up over his bed. “Oh, do excuse me… it was just so amusing, to be lectured by a relative infant about what I know and don’t know about my own kind.” He takes the headphones off Terra’ desk and puts them on, then opens his play list and begins to scroll through his music library.

Terra is up in a flash, heat flooding through him as his pulse pounds in his head. He steps toward Puck and makes a grab for the headphones, but the fae somehow tilts his head just right, and Terra’s hand passes by. He tries again, and again, touching nothing but air.

“Ah, love this one,” Puck says as he selects a song.

Terra’s head pounds with his heartbeats as he kicks at Puck, but the lithe blonde uses his hands to grip the chair and push himself up, avoiding Terra’s foot. Terra kicks again, then punches at him, fist connecting with the back of his chair as Puck slumps lower in his seat, then crouches on it in one smooth motion that avoids another kick to his legs.

Anger makes Terra’s vision blur, and he suddenly grips the chair and yanks it away from the desk…

…only for Puck to calmly step off of it, headphones still on as begins to tap his foot to the beat.

Terra swings the chair at the fae with a cry of rage, and Puck leaps backwards over him with a somersault that results in the chair bashing his monitor off his desk. The wires pull his computer tower over, and the power cable is yanked out of the wall.

Terra stares at what he’s done, anger briefly overwhelmed by shock and regret. The headphones lie on the floor, and he turns around to see Puck calmly straighten and brush off his spotless clothing, icy green gaze insolently meeting his.

“Is there anything else you require of me, or should I prepare dinner?”

Terra just barely restrains himself from lashing out at the fae again. “Get out–” Icy fear suddenly floods him as he realizes what he almost said. “–of my room and bring food. I’m hungry.”

“As you wish.” Puck bows, then turns on his heel and steps out.

Terra puts the chair down, then collapses into it, breathing hard as he struggles to get his emotions back under control. Stupid. Fucking stupid. He knows from experience what happens when he tries to attack Puck, he’s done it half a dozen times at least since the fae first showed himself to Terra and admitted to killing his dad. Each time, it’s been like fighting a phantom, or a mind reader, like trying to punch smoke, always whirling and flowing just beyond his reach.

Terra eventually remembers to use the calming techniques his dad taught him, closing his eyes and breathing deep, focusing on the feeling of the air rushing through his nose and into his lungs until his heartbeat begins to slow. Stray sparks of anger and flushes of heat keep returning, but soon his thoughts are flowing in other directions again, and he replays what happened in his mind’s eye with something other than frustration or shame.

Terra’s eyes open, and he looks up at the ceiling of his room. He stands from the chair, then lifts an arm until his hand touches the ceiling.

His fingertips brush it, and he stares at his arm, considering the length of it. Could Puck’s body really pass through a space that small without hitting the ceiling? Was he that agile and compactable? Or was Terra just attacking a glamour all along, or maybe just at the end?

He lowers his arm and presses his hands to his face. He can’t cry: the locket doesn’t just take his sadness about his dad, it takes it all, but he feels a bone deep weariness that’s somehow worse than tears, a sense of hopelessness about his life. The world went mad three months ago, and at this rate he knows it won’t be long before he joins it.

After a minute he lowers his hands and stares at his computer, not feeling the energy to pick it back up. He knows he just hit the monitor, the computer itself is probably fine, but with his luck the way it fell onto its side damaged something in it anyway. He doesn’t want to know, if so, wants to delay the truth.

What’s true is already so…

Terra’s eyes squeeze shut at the sound of his dad’s voice in his head, but there’s no accompanying stab of grief, just the hole in his chest that does nothing to stop the rest of the Litany of Gendlin from coming.

What is true is already so. Owning up to it doesn’t make it worse. Not being open about it doesn’t make it go away. And because it’s true, it is what is there to be interacted with. Anything untrue isn’t there to be lived. People can stand what is true…

“For they are already enduring it,” Terra whispers, staring at his computer. He takes another deep breath, then crouches down and straightens the tower up, puts the monitor back on his desk and plugs the power cable in.

He hits the power button, fully expecting nothing to happen… but the familiar beep and hum of it coming to life eases some tension in his chest. It boots up quickly, and he watches the monitor with trepidation until the damage becomes clear.

A massive blotch, discoloring the whole screen, concentrated on the left half of it. The pixels are dead at the center, but he supposes he should be lucky it works at all.

Terra signs in and gets to work. The internet is a blessing and a curse. Hundreds of books and articles, tens of thousands of pages of information available to read all about magic and fairies… and the vast majority of it isn’t true, or is only partially true, or is missing key bits of information. Looking for charms/glyphs/runes/glamours that change one’s appearance and voice isn’t the hard part: finding one that at least somewhat matches what he already knows about how it should work is.

His stomach growls in hunger as he skims through page after page, hours removed from his sparse lunch. When Puck returns with a lamb stew that makes his nose wrinkle, he starts eating without complaint or wondering where Puck got it. The broth and meat have a sour taste, but it’s not as bad as egg salad, at least.

“I must tend to my own sustenance, now,” Puck says from the doorway.

Terra eyes his guardian. “Must have taken a lot out of you, keeping so many spells going throughout the day. How much time will you need?”

Puck shrugs a shoulder. “It will take what it will take. I must ensure that you will not leave the house and potentially endanger yourself while I’m gone, however.”

“Since when?”

“Since you began a crusade to interfere with beings that could make your life a living nightmare.”

Well, when you put it like that… “So what exactly are you going to do?”

“I’ve already set wards to protect against intrusion, but I still need to extract a simple agreement from you that you will not leave the house while I’m gone. It is to your benefit to do so.”

Terra snorts. “Right. And what will you do if I don’t agree?”

“Stay. Be weakened by my inability to properly care for myself, and be potentially unable to properly defend you if the situation calls for it.”

Hm. Not much he can squeeze out of this without shooting himself in the foot, then. “Tell you what, I’ll agree to that if you agree to pick me up something I actually like to eat when you’re out.”

“Have you been dissatisfied with my service?”

“Perish the thought. But I would be more satisfied if you brought some pizza back.”

“Pizza is bad for your health,” Puck says, to all appearances deadly serious. “The pact would not allow me to–”

“Oh that’s bullshit, plenty of people–” Terra frowns. What exactly does Puck know about human nutrition, anyway? “Whatever, a hamburger then. Normal sized. Throw as many vegetables on it as you want.

Puck’s mouth twists. “And in return you promise to remain indoors?”

“Until you return, or midnight, whichever comes first.”

“So mote it be.” He gives a mocking bow, then turns away.

“Puck.”

The fae looks over his shoulder, eyebrow raised.

Terra’s face is set, voice a deadly whisper. “If you try something clever with this that messes up my enjoyment of my hamburger, I’ll never agree to such a thing again, and we can both go down in flames together.”

Puck grins, tips an imaginary hat–no, wait, a hat actually appeared on his head while he made the motion–then walks away.

Terra waits until he hears the front door close. Then he waits a little longer, still researching the glamour to change his appearance.

After about half an hour passes, he quickly saves all his notes and opens a new tab in his browser’s incognito mode. He types “how to kill fae” into the search bar, and begins his true research.

Guardian – Chapter 1

“Are you dissatisfied with my service?”

Terra sighs and picks a fig out of his lunchbox. He hates figs. “No, Puck. Thank you.”

The lunchroom is noisy, and Terra sits alone at his table. Being the new kid at school is something he’s used to, but for once he doesn’t mind the solitude. No one around means no one to see him talking to himself.

“Alone” is, as Terra discovered over the summer, a relative term. Across from him sits a boy only he can see.

Puck currently looks like a lanky teenager about Terra’s age, with spiky blonde hair and bright green eyes. His skin is pale, his features sharp and angled, and his lips are perpetually curved in a slight, sarcastic smile as he watches Terra continue to search through his lunchbox for something edible.

A pair of fellow 10th graders walk by, their gazes sliding right over Puck without seeing him before coming to rest on Terra. “Hey, you’re in our spot.”

Terra resists the urge to roll his eyes. “It’s the first day of school, how do you already have a ‘spot?’”

“This is where we always sat last year.”

Terra opens his mouth to argue, then remembers Puck’s presence and lets his breath out. “Fine. Whatever.” He puts everything back in his lunch box and moves to one of the few remaining empty tables at the corner of the cafeteria, so he can still see the whole room from where he sits.

Puck keeps pace with him, stepping around and between tables and chairs before lowering himself into his new seat, across from Terra again. He moves with the effortless grace of a cat. “Pitiful. Why not stand up for yourself? Perhaps one of them would lay hands on you, and I’d have to turn them into a frog.”

“No transformations, I told you,” Terra says as he sits back down and unpacks his lunch again.

“Forget the frogging then, what about a subtle illusion? I could make all his food taste rotten. Going hungry for a day never killed anyone.”

“No.”

“A minor hex? Trip him as he sits, so his face lands in his food?”

Terra smiles at the mental image, but just shakes his head.

“You’re no fun.” Puck leans back in his seat and braces himself against the underside of the table with his knees. A girl walking behind him veers around his outstretched form without looking. Terra knows that if he asked her why she took such a sudden detour, she would just stare at him in confusion and insist that she didn’t step around anyone. Faerie glamour can be a frightening thing. “What’s the point of having me around if you won’t make use of me?”

“You’re here to ‘protect and promote my well-being,’ not hex anyone who’s mean to me.” Terra unwraps the sandwich and bites into it. It takes all his willpower not to spit it back out. How did Puck know how disgusted Terra is by egg salad? Did he mention it at some point and forget?

Terra chews the mushy slop with as straight a face as he can, but by the slight widening of Puck’s smile Terra knows the faerie isn’t fooled. He curses himself for not being a better actor. He’s better than he was a few months ago when his unwilling guardian entered his life, but still not nearly enough to contend with Puck or the other so-called “Fair Folk,” who seem to do nothing but act.

“Speaking of which,” Terra says, putting his sandwich down and biting into some tasteless saltine crackers. “Let’s get started. How many Others are here?”

“Millions.”

Terra rolls his eyes and picks his words more carefully. “How many fae, other than yourself, did you sense since we entered the school building?”

Puck’s smile widens. “Three.”

“Are any of them in the lunchroom now?”

“Two.”

Terra bites his lower lip, then lowers his voice, just in case. “Is their masque on, or are they dim?”

Puck wags a finger. “Ah, ah. That’s three questions asked and answered. If you’d like to bargain for more—”

“No, it’s fine.” He wasted his first question because he was distracted. Now he’ll have to wait 24 hours until Puck has to answer any more. It was one of the first bargains he struck with his guardian: three questions that Puck would be obligated to answer a day, in exchange for the freedom to watch TV while Terra is asleep. Unless Terra decides to renegotiate, he’s stuck with it for a full year and a day.

Still, he got what he needs, if he’s thorough.

Terra closes his eyes and concentrates on his breathing. The sounds of the cafeteria fade to a dull drone. He does his best to clear his mind, as his dad taught him: not to literally remove all thoughts, which is impossible, but to let the thoughts go. He imagines himself sitting on a rock in a river, the sound of the rushing water blending with the mixed voices and laughter of the other students around him.

He knows he must look strange: a skinny kid with second-hand clothes, sitting by himself with his head bowed and his eyes closed. Anyone looking at him probably has their weird-o-meter on high alert.

Terra lets that thought go with his next exhale, breathing in and trying to focus on the feel of the air entering his lungs. He can’t afford to be distracted.

When he finally opens his eyes, the first thing he notices is that Puck isn’t smiling. The fae is gazing at him with an intensity that most kids his apparent age can’t match.

But then, Puck is older than he looks.

Much older.

That thought, combined with his heightened attention, affects his perception. Glamour, the primary magic of faerie, is all about beliefs. As Terra looks at Puck, really looks at him, and acknowledges the lie he knows is in front of him, the edges of the glamour start to unravel. Puck’s blonde hair becomes lighter, ears growing points, face stretching-

Terra quickly looks away, not wanting to see what the being that calls itself “Puck” really looks like.

Instead he lets his gaze drift over the cafeteria from one end to the other, slowly. His eyes jump from one thing to another, but he doesn’t linger, letting anything that catches his attention go a moment later as he tries to equally take in everything he sees.

Two boys take turns trying to steal fries from a third’s tray. A group of girls have their heads together and giggle over something one of them is saying. Some other kids sitting apart like himself, a few in pairs, others with books or their phones out. All completely normal.

He finishes a full turn, and blinks. He thinks back to what he saw, every face, every interaction… then shakes his head. He can barely remember any of it. He closes his eyes and starts again.

And again.

And again.

It isn’t until after his seventh try that, upon thinking back, he sees it.

A group of three girls, all smiling, talking, laughing. Smiling at who? He can’t remember.

He looks at them now. Four girls, chatting and smiling. Normal.

He looks away, and thinks back, and something is… off. Three girls, laughing, then smiling, with looks of attention on their face as they look at…

…who? A fourth? There were only three.

He looks at them again, then away and thinks back, picturing them in his head. Three girls, all laughing as they look at…

As they look at…

Terra grabs three figs and holds them in his hand. He takes a deep breath, closes his eyes, turns toward the girls… and opens his eyes.

Four girls, all talking and laughing.

Terra’s hand tightens around the figs. Three figs.

Four girls.

Without looking away, he takes a fourth fig and adds it to his hand.

Then he closes his eyes and thinks back to the three girls who were all laughing-

Three?

Terra feels the four figs in his hand… and smiles.

Got you.

Terra opens his eyes and studies the four at the table. Two of the girls are white, the first with curly blonde hair and the second with wavy black hair. One is Hispanic with her hair in a long ponytail, and one is black, with a neon pink hair band. He tries to fix all four of them in his memory. He takes his phone out and snaps a picture, then looks away and checks it to see which of the three girls- no, the four girls seems new to him.

He looks at the picture and tries to remember each of them. Where did this Hispanic girl come from? “There,” he says, tapping the screen. “It’s got to be her. Some kind of memory charm, making everyone but the girls she’s talking to forget any details about her.”

“You humans and your toys.” Terra looks up to see Puck chewing on one of the remaining figs. His teeth look sharper than usual as they bite into the soft fruit. “So what will you do now? Expose her?” Puck isn’t leaning back anymore, gaze intense on Terra’s face.

Terra looks away. “I want to know what she’s doing first. If she’s got some plots going, or has anyone ensorcelled, or gave someone a token…” He sees the blonde girl playing with her necklace, and wonders if it’s a gift from the fae sitting next to her. Something that would help her get good grades? Get out of doing her chores? Maybe just a charm to give her good dreams.

If only it were that simple. With gifts from faerie, there’s always a catch.

Even if it’s something as simple as figs and egg salad sandwiches for lunch.

Terra gives up on trying to stomach down the sandwich and opens the box of raisins. He empties them into his mouth and tries to ignore the sour taste in favor of the sweetness. Thanks to some cleverness from Terra’s dad, Puck was bound by oath and contract to look after Terra’s well-being. However, there’s a lot of wiggle-room in the word “well-being,” as Terra discovered again and again over the past few months since Puck started watching over him.

“I could reveal myself to her,” Puck says. “Ask her what she’s doing with her playthings.”

Terra turns back to Puck warily. “In exchange for what?” He wants to keep Puck secret as long as possible, but he’s curious to know what the faerie would try to bargain for.

“An hour of freedom after school today, once you’re safely home.”

“Denied.”

“Half an hour.”

“No.”

“Five minutes.”

Terra pretends to think it over. Puck doesn’t seem particularly interested, but then, he’s a masterful actor. It’s hard to tell if this is something he actually wants, or if he’s just testing Terra’s desires the way Terra is testing his.

“No, I’ve thought of a better idea,” Terra says.

“Oh? Do tell.”

Terra ignores him and stands. He closes his lunch box and approaches the table with the fae and three girls, drawing curious looks from all of them. When he sits to the side in one of the empty chairs, they become annoyed.

“Um. Can we help you?” the brunette girl asks. The Hispanic girl looks the least hostile, as she plays with her fork over her untouched food and appraises him curiously.

“Yeah, mind looking at my drawing? I want a second opinion.” Terra pulls a folded slip of paper out of his pocket and opens it to reveal the simple sketch on the inside. It looks like a capital F, but with the top and middle lines slanted downward at an angle rather than sticking straight out, and with a dot to its left side.

“That’s not a drawing, it’s barely even a doodle,” the black girl says.

The blonde rolls her eyes. “Get lost, weirdo.”

Terra ignores them and pulls a thumbtack out of his belt, where its pin pierced the looped stretch of leather. He pricks his finger with it, just enough to draw a drop of blood, and presses it against the underside of the paper, so that it would bleed through onto the rune he drew on it. As soon as his open wound touches the paper, it begins to prickle with renewed pain.

“Ew, what’s wrong with you? Are you some kind of emo fre—” the blonde’s words trail off as she watches the blood seep through the paper and completely cover the rune. Her gaze suddenly becomes unfocused, and her eyelids droop closed. Her breathing slows until she’s fast asleep.

The other two follow suit, but Terra keeps his gaze on the Hispanic girl… or rather, the fae creature that’s pretending to be a Hispanic girl.

Her eyes are the only ones that moved away from the rune as he pressed his blood to it. Now she studies him with her chin on her palm, one brow raised.

“You’re human,” she says at last. “How did you find me? Where did you learn that symbol, and how to use it?”

“Three questions for three questions?” Terra asks.

Her other brow shoots up. “Bargaining now, are we? Are you sure you know what you’re doing, child?”

Not really. His heart beats hard and fast as he wipes a sweaty palm on his pantleg. His other hand stays where it is, keeping the wound on his finger pressed to the paper. This is the first time he’s interacted with a fae other than Puck, but in any given setting, the middle of a crowded lunch room is probably his safest for such an experiment. As long as he’s careful with his words, that is.

Puck, meanwhile, walks in slow circles around their table, humming to himself. The other fae doesn’t seem to have noticed him, which is encouraging. It means that Puck wasn’t just boasting when he implied that he’s stronger than most of his kind, and likely more than those who got exiled to the human world, like any at the school probably were.

Or maybe she’s just pretending not to notice him, and the humming is some secret language. Either way, all Terra can do is take a chance and hope to learn something.

“I believe I do. So, three questions each?”

“Very well. Three for thee, and then for me.”

“If you don’t mind, be more specific.”

The Hispanic girl smiles. “You may ask three questions, and if I deem them acceptable, I will answer. Afterwards, I will ask three questions that you must answer honestly.”

Terra doesn’t miss that she’s changed the rules, nor the slight difference at the end. “I’ll ask three questions, and if you choose to accept them, you must answer all three. Then I’ll answer those three questions you’ve already asked, honestly.” Knowing that the fae can’t lie makes this much easier than it otherwise would be.

Her eyes narrow. “I’ll ask three questions, and if you choose to answer them, you must answer honestly. Then you will ask three questions, and I will answer them.”

Damn. Terra hoped that she forgot the other questions she asked, so he could re-answer those instead. Over her shoulder, he can see Puck lean against the wall and cross his arms, fingers tapping against his arms. Is his guardian giving him a hint? He would only do something like that if he feels Terra’s well-being is at risk.

He remembers what Puck told him during one of their many Q&A sessions, where Terra was desperate to learn all he could of Puck’s kind. “The fae love the game of back and forth, but it does grow tiresome if neither side admits defeat. It is natural to try and gain advantage, but both sides must demonstrate good faith, or else risk the other’s ire. If you wish to spar with the fae, you must learn to lose a battle, here and there.

Maybe it’s time to lose, a little. “Let’s just make it fair as can be. We’ll both ask three questions. Then, if we both agree that the questions are acceptable, we’ll answer all three honestly, me first, then you. Sound alright?”

The fae sitting across from him considers a moment, eyes upward and finger twirling in her hair. “Deal,” she says at last. “My questions are: How were you able to remember me? What was the name of the one who taught you that rune? And what is your true name?”

Terra stays quiet, repeating what she said over in his head. Overall, he thinks he can get away with answering them without revealing anything too important. He’s about to say yes when he notices Puck shaking his head, with three fingers pressed against his jaw. Something wrong with the third question? It seems the most harmless… Terra knows that true names are important for all sorts of things, but it wouldn’t be too hard for this creature to get his if she really tries. It’s in the school records, after all.

Still, better play it safe. “I accept the first two, but would need a different third one.”

“Very well. Why were you looking for me, how were you able to remember me, and what was the name of the one who taught you that rune?”

Much easier. Puck seems unconcerned too.

That leaves his own questions. He takes a deep breath and lowers his gaze to the table, thinking hard. All around them the other students happily chat and eat their lunches, unaware that there’s a pair of monsters in their midst, or that three of their classmates are unconscious.

Another, stronger throb of pain goes through Terra’s finger. It’s slowly getting worse as more and more blood leaks out with every passing second. Terra does his best to ignore it. He can’t rush this part in particular, or all this would be for nothing.

He takes his time and thinks the questions through, word by word, forming them in his head and considering them from all angles. The trick is to have questions that aren’t too narrow, or she might say no, and aren’t too broad, so she can’t give a vague answer.

An impatient noise from the fae makes him look up at her. Her brow is creased again. “Your questions are acceptable,” he says at last.

“Exquisite. And your questions are?”

“My three questions are… Why are you attending school? What do these girls have that you gave them? What crime were you exiled from fae for?”

The fae’s eyes narrow. “I accept the first one. Not the other two.”

Shit. He thought the third would be too personal, but the second is something he needs to know.

Terra jerks as his finger feels a stab of pain, repeating with every heart beat. He’ll have to figure it out later: for now he just needs to get some info.

“Why are you attending school, why are you attending this school, and how long have you been attending this school?”

“Accepted. You first.”

“I wasn’t looking for you specifically, I was just looking for any fae. I found you by picking up figs for each person at your table, and noticing that I couldn’t remember four people. As for who taught me the rune, the only name I know for them is ‘Puck.’”

She rolls her eyes at the last bit. “I’m attending school because it amuses me, I’m attending this school because it’s the only high school in town, and today marks the start of my twenty-third year attending this school. Would you like to exchange another question?”

Hmm. If she wants something specific, chances are he won’t want to answer it. He tries to make himself appear interested before he says no.

“I’ll even give you two for one,” she says, clearly reading his reluctance anyway.

Now that’s tempting. Puck is shaking his head behind her, but Terra is intrigued. “May I hear the question first?”

“This ‘Puck,’ who taught you, where did you meet them?”

Well, he’s certainly not going to answer that. But maybe he can work her down to something more vague…

The pain in his finger suddenly pierces his concentration again, so deep it feels as though a needle has driven into his bone. He gasps and struggles not to let the paper go yet. “Perhaps we can negotiate this at… another time,” he says, eyes watering.

Before she can respond, the bell rings, and the lunchroom surges into motion around them as kids prepare to return to class. “Meet me after school by the parking lot gate,” the fae says.

Terra finally pulls his finger away from the blood-stained scrap of paper and stands. The room spins, and he puts a hand on the table to steady himself. Damn. That took more out of him than he was expecting. He feels light headed, like he just gave blood for some free movie tickets. Far more than he should have lost from such a tiny wound. Where it all went, he can’t begin to guess.

The girls start to stir, and he pushes away from the table before they wake up, only to stumble on legs that feel like jelly. Terra staggers past kids heading for the exits until his legs give out, and he collapses into a chair at a recently emptied table, taking deep breaths. He spots some unused napkins and wraps one around the paper before stuffing it in his pocket, then takes another to wrap around his finger.

Terra closes his eyes and rests his forehead against the cool table, tuning out the sounds of the crowd around him. He can still hear it when someone sits across from him, and knows that it’s Puck before his guardian even speaks.

“If you’re fishing for a response, you can save your energy,” Puck says, voice amused. “I know you can handle a little spell like that without your ‘wellbeing’ coming to risk.”

Terra bites back an insult. He’s been trying to avoid cursing Puck out, to avoid getting too used to letting his temper get the best of him. All it takes is one careless phrase implying he doesn’t want Puck around anymore, and the fae would be free of his bond.

“So, how did I do?” he asks instead. Perhaps even more valuable than the explicit agreement for three questions per day is the understanding he reached that, in dealing with the fae, he needs constant, honest feedback to safely navigate their social ties. Puck can’t refuse to answer or mislead him when it comes to them, and still hold true to his oath.

“Average at best,” Puck says. “You didn’t sign your life or first born away, but you missed four opportunities to close loopholes, and gave more information away than you needed to. Our adolescents can negotiate better than you, but for a human’s first attempt it was an acceptable show, even if it demonstrated why your kind so often gets overconfident enough to be drawn ever deeper into our webs.”

Terra feels nauseous, and he’s not sure if it’s from what Puck said, the blood loss, or the egg salad sandwich. It’s much harder not to take insults personally when you know as they’re being said that the speaker is compelled to tell the truth.

“Okay, well what should I have done different? Did I ‘lose’ too early, or too late?”

“Too early.” Puck leans his chair back from the table again, this time somehow managing to balance it on just one hind leg, arms to the sides for balance. “It’s a subtle dance indeed to know when a fae is actually upset, and when they are playing at offense to pressure you into disadvantage. Of course, she had a right to be upset in any case, with you barging into her plot unannounced. If you weren’t such a novelty, I think she would have made you regret it rather quickly.”

“Ugh. Well, I must have done something right, if I didn’t completely fail?”

“Yes, that’s true,” Puck drawls. “You showed good faith. Too many mortals to count lose an eye or a finger or their Wednesdays after their first conversation with the fae, simply because they can’t help but try to be too clever with their endless clauses and qualifiers and insecurities.”

“Um. That… might have been accidental. Just to be sure I do it again though, what does ‘good faith’ cover, specifically?” Terra asked.

“There’s no easy answer there. Some fae are more prickly than others, and either kind can still make you regret not being more strict. That said, a good starting rule of thumb would be not to demand conditions you would find insulting. For example, it’s not usually a problem to insist that a fae answer your question in a timely manner, say, ‘within one minute.’ This can ensure that you are not made the fool left standing with hat in hand for years and years. But if you also request that some fae speak in the same language as you when answering a question, it implies they have an intention to cheat you of your answer… which is another thing entirely from fully intending to give it to you, but on their terms.”

Terra tries to wrap his head around the distinction, and doesn’t quite succeed. “But… they will want to cheat me if they can, won’t they?”

“Of course. It is in our nature. But only to the extent that you allow yourself to make mistakes, and be deceived.”

“So I’m not allowed to make super extra sure that a fae can’t trick me, but it’s my fault if I end up being tricked?”

“Can’t trick you in subtle ways. A true fae does not act in obvious ways. One who answers a question while bashing their fists on the table to obscure the sound… terribly unsubtle. The mark of a weak mind. And implying that one might resort to such is insulting, even if it’s deserved.”

“That’s totally contradictory.”

Puck smiles, and somehow manages to bow from the waist while still balancing the chair on one foot. “That, too, is in our nature.”

Terra sighs. “Well, I’ll try to keep that in mind when I see her after school.”

“It’s a terrible idea, you know.”

“What do—”

“Excuse me.” Terra turns to see a teacher standing over him. “Lunch time is over. You need to head back to class.”

Oh, right. He looks around and sees the lunch room has mostly emptied of students. Terra’s head feels clearer, but he’s still a bit nauseous. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t feeling well. I accidentally cut myself, and the sight of blood makes me faint.” He holds up his napkin-wrapped finger, with its big red splotch on the front. It looks like it finally stopped bleeding, but he’s not sure. Puck would say something if he pierced himself too deep, right?

The teacher’s skeptical look changes to alarm as soon as she sees the blood. “How did… why haven’t you gone to the nurse’s office for a band-aid?”

“I was just sitting here until my head is clear. Also I don’t know where it is…”

“Come, I’ll walk you there.”

Terra dutifully gets to his feet and follows her. Puck straggles along, zigzagging left and right through the hallway behind them with his gaze on his feet, but somehow never falls behind.

“As I was saying, it’s a terrible idea,” Puck repeats. “What do you hope to accomplish, seeking out other fae like this?”

“I want to know what they’re up to,” Terra mutters, low enough that he knows only Puck’s sharp ears can hear him. “If I learn enough, maybe I can stop your kind from screwing up anyone else’s life. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“It is, in fact. At some point they may try to harm you, and I’ll be compelled to intervene.”

Terra shrugs. “That’s your problem. All I care about is making sure your kind doesn’t hurt anyone here. Just be a good guardian and keep me safe while I do it.”

Puck gives a long-suffering sigh. “Well, I would like to be on record as advising you against it… with only your well-being in mind, of course. There are limits to my power, and if you antagonize too many fae, I won’t be able to protect you. Think of your father. He went through quite a lot of trouble, binding me to watch over you. Surely he wouldn’t want you to go seeking danger, and make it all for naught.”

Heat floods Terra’s stomach and chest as his hands curl into fists. He’s trying to get a rise out of you. Don’t take the bait. One hand goes to the silver coin hanging from his necklace, and Terra focuses on his breathing until he’s a bit calmer and knows he can control the volume of his voice. “Well since he’s dead, I don’t know what he’d want,” Terra mutters. “And his murderer is the last person I’d listen to about respecting his memory.”