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 they’ll be covering throughout the year. 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, if 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 guilt. 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 half-jogs 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 really 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 best strategy before he can be compelled to do it, and he’s shown himself far from omniscient, particularly when it comes to understanding human nature… though once in a while his insights into people seem incredibly deep, if often cynical. Terra doesn’t know how magically assisted that is; one of the first questions he asked is whether Puck can read minds, but there may be subtler ways to know what others are thinking or feeling.
“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. He’s just here to avoid a truant officer showing up at his door, and ideally to find other fae so he can throw a wrench in their plans. Nothing else matters.
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?
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 hall… 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.”
She’s putting us 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, and 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 to 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 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.
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.