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The court of Melora, queen of the daions, was currently located in a beach house by the shore. Melora could alter her tan magically if she liked, but she still enjoyed lying out in the sun for hours at a time. This summer, Melora had taken on the persona of a very blonde, very skinny, and very dumb beach bum teenager. She spent most of her time sunbathing and painting her nails. Currently, both her fingernails and toenails were a perfect pale pink.
Melora insisted that her entourage match her persona, so she was surrounded by daions in the guise of lay-about teenagers. That suited her. Except for times when she held court, which Melora was loath to do, no one was permitted to "break character." That meant no mention of magic or daions or anything else of the daion world that Melora might find upsetting. Even during court, which she held every evening for fifteen minutes max, no one dropped his or her illusions. Melora preferred it if they only wore swimsuits. She had also become fond of gum.
When she was dismissing court that evening, she was chewing on a huge wad of pink bubble gum. She liked to crack it when she spoke. She also liked to blow very large bubbles, bubbles whose size she enhanced with magic. When the bubbles were the size of her head, she would suck them back into her mouth. They would deflate slowly as she did so, and somehow she never got any gum stuck to her face. There were perks to being the daion queen, after all. She had just sucked in one such bubble and was in the middle of telling the court to disperse, when Mik, who served as her page, rushed into the "courtroom" (the back porch of the beach house) and announced that there were petitioners at the door.
"God," said Melora, cracking her gum, "court is over. I, like, just dismissed it. Tell them to come back tomorrow."
Mik bowed. "Yes, your excellence."
"Mik," said Melora, "didn't I just say court was over?"
"Oh, yes. Yeah. Sorry, Melora."
Melora didn't like to be referred to with deference when they weren't at court. It ruined the illusion that she was just a kid hanging with her friends.
"Right," she said. "And don't bow. God." Melora adjusted her breasts in her tiny blue bikini top. "Wait. Mik?"
"What'd they bring me?"
Iris, Jaq, and Billy had completely forgotten they were supposed to bring a gift. In a panic, they offered the only thing they had with them that vaguely resembled a gift—Iris' walkman.
There had been some discussion on what to do with Buckingham. Bringing him in with them at the witches' house hadn't presented any enormous problems, but they didn't want to bring a prisoner into the presence of the daion queen. It might look bad. On the other hand, leaving in the car alone seemed not only cruel (it was evening, but the summer sun still beat down, warming a car considerably), but dangerous considering the beach was full of tourists, who might find a handcuffed man in the back seat of a car a little suspicious. They didn't want Buckingham freed or the authorities called.
Buckingham, it turned out, was really interested in seeing the daion queen. He begged them to take him with them, promising not to run. Reluctantly, they agreed and took off his handcuffs. Thus far, Buckingham had yet to make an attempt to escape.
The daion at the door, a real Ken doll type, turned up his nose at their gift, and told them to wait while he inquired of the queen whether she would hear their petition. When he returned, he unhappily informed them that the queen was delighted with their gift. So delighted, in fact, that she had extended this court session to hear their petition. He led them through the beach house to the back porch. Seated center in a lounge chair was the queen, blowing an enormous bubble with her gum. Swimsuit-clad teenagers flanked her, most with blonde hair. Some were also blowing bubbles with gum, though none of the bubbles were quite as big as the queen's. A few held surfboards. It was like a real life Barbie dream house.
The four petitioners exchanged a look. Iris stifled a giggle, expecting the Beach Boys to either appear or their music to burst out of nowhere. Instead, the queen spoke.
"The walkman is like way cool," she said.
Iris bit down hard on the inside of her cheeks to keep from laughing.
"I have totally been wanting one of these," the queen continued. "I don't know if Mik told you, but I was like, just dismissing court when you showed up, and I was so jazzed about the walkman, I totally extended court for you. Thank you very much."
After a long pause, Iris finally spoke up. "Um, you're welcome?"
The queen smiled and blew another bubble. They watched as it grew impossibly huge and deflated as the queen sucked it back in. "So," she said, "go ahead. I'm like sitting here waiting to hear your petition."
Iris decided to speak. After all, she had vowed to do more than just be rescued from now on. "Well, um, your majesty, we have come to ask for your help."
"Duh, that's why it's called a petition. What's up?"
"It's about the daion Kei. I don't know if you know who that is, but she—"
"Yeah, I know who she is. She's a total bitch. She whines a lot."
Iris nodded. "Okay. She and some other pixies—daions—whose names I don't really know . . ." She shot a glance at Billy.
"Ona, Mor, Flim, and Yan," Billy supplied.
". . . have formed a rock band, Mischief."
"Yeah," said the queen. "Tell me something I don't know."
"They've raised Zain the Devourer and are planning to unleash him on the all the humans on earth," Iris said. She steeled herself for the inevitable laugh.
None came. "No way," said the queen. "No way."
Iris half shrugged. "Uh . . . yes way?"
"Whoa," said the queen. "That is like . . . God. I mean, I didn't even know that Zain was real. Did anybody think Zain was real?" she asked of her entourage.
"That's crazy!" the queen exclaimed. "You guys rock. First you bring me a walkman. Then you tell me Zain is real. I'm like so jazzed."
"Um . . . thanks?" said Iris. This was going well. She thought.
"Okay," said the queen. "So what's your petition?"
"We were wondering if you would stop her," said Iris.
The queen looked at Iris like she was crazy. "No."
"Was that it?" asked the queen.
Okay. So, this actually wasn't going well. Iris wasn't going to take this lying down. The queen was their last and only hope. She had to help them. She just did. "If you'll pardon me for asking, why not?"
"Because I don't feel like it," said the queen. "If that's all, you can like go. Thanks for the walkman."
Buckingham started for the door, and Jaq made a move to follow him.
Iris shook her head. "Wait. We're not leaving. You're our only hope. If you don't do something, the human race will die."
The queen rolled her eyes. "Whatever."
"Whatever?" repeated Iris. "How would you feel if you were about to die?"
"Listen, you little ghoul girl," said the queen. "I'm like the queen of the daions, okay? It's not my job to save humans. Do you understand?"
Oh good God. The queen was disguised as a human and she didn't want to save humans? "Maybe not," said Iris, "but you obviously like humans, or you wouldn't spend so much time trying to seem like one. This is the royal court of your race, and you've got everybody dressed up as humans. Why aren't you in your true forms?"
The queen heaved a huge sigh and took the wad of gum out of her mouth. She threw it into the air, and it popped out of existence. "Members of the court, leave us."
When none of the beach bums moved, just glanced at each other in confusion, the queen stood up and thundered, "That was an order. Out!"
Her voice had grown so terrible and old. The pixies tripped over each other trying to get away, leaving the queen and the petitioners alone on the porch.
"Come closer," said the queen in her new cold voice.
"You know," said Billy, "Iris is sorry, and we can just go. Really. Glad you liked the headphones."
"Come closer," said the queen.
The four inched towards her.
"Better," said the queen. She waved her hand and a neon orange tent went up around them. Hidden from view, the queen herself began to dissolve, her young blonde body melting into a much smaller one. The queen was soon standing on the edge of her chair, no more than a foot tall. Her nut-brown skin was wrinkled and wizened. Wisps of white hair clung to her shrunken skull. She spoke, and her voice was old and weathered: "I am about to die."
The queen rose on her tiny gossamer wings and fluttered in front of Iris' face. "You humans," she said. "You're like candles. You wink out so fast. I was alive before your race was on earth. Why should I care if you are on the verge of extinction? After all, you've caused my people nothing but harm."
Iris looked at her feet. It was true.
"Face me, child," ordered the daion queen. Iris did as she was told. "How did you become what you are? Were you eating the flesh of my brothers and sisters for pleasure?"
"Yes," said Iris.
"And you come to me for help?" The queen chuckled. "Ah, but you're right. I do like humans. For this exact reason. Your gall. Your utter impetuous insistence on finding ways to survive. Finding better ways to live."
The queen fluttered away from Iris and perched on the top of her lounge chair. "You humans are so . . . hungry," she said. "You want. My people don't want. Or we didn't, anyway, until we got caught up in your little world. You taught us fear. You taught us to want to live.
"I don't remember real magic," she continued. "Even I am not that old. But mother did. My mother remembered Zain. So, yes, I know that he is real. He was the last of real magic. My mother used to tell me about real magic. How anything could be created or destroyed with our power. That's why I like humans. What you do . . . the way you use your technology. It reminds me of real magic. I've seen it all. Seen you make fires and spears. Seen you erect monuments and build roads. Seen you tame beasts. Seen you create machines. Whatever it is you want, you eventually get. You make it happen. It is truly stupendous, when I consider that my people—the oldest race I know of on this earth—have spent our time hiding and blending in.
"And why shouldn’t we? We have no hungers. Not to conquer, not to destroy, not even to eat. We don’t have the drive that you have to manipulate the earth to our will. That's why you amaze me. And that's why I like the walkman."
No one spoke.
"Your majesty," said Iris, "I think Kei does have that hunger."
"Kei is quite troubled," said the queen. "I agree."
"And you're her queen," said Iris. "You could stop her."
"Perhaps," said the queen. "Perhaps not. I am old, even for a daion. I simply want to lie in the sun and create silly illusions for the rest of my life. Anything too strenuous might kill me, and, oddly enough, I find I don't want to die. The world may be a bit sadder without humans in it. I may mourn for you. Even Kei might regret what she's done."
"If you won't help us," said Iris, "can you at least give us some advice? Is there any way to stop Kei?"
"It's not really Kei you need to stop," said the queen. "It's Zain. And Zain is unstoppable."
"But—" said Iris.
"No," said the queen, shaking herself back into her dumb blonde getup. "I'm so over this conversation. Go away."
They got back on the highway and drove towards home. Iris wasn't sure what they should do next. In a way, all of this was her fault. Billy had been content to drink away his last days on earth. Iris was the one who insisted they try to do something. If it weren't for her, Billy would have never known Jaq was in jail. They wouldn't have busted her out, and the pixie police would never have been after them. Hell, it had even been her idea to go back and get Jaq. They wouldn't have even made it to the pixie queen otherwise.
But that was it. That was the extent of Iris' plan. She hadn't looked beyond that. So now, they were no closer to stopping Mischief, but they'd made such a mess of things, they couldn't even return to their houses for fear that the pixie police were watching them. Everything turned out like this in Iris' life. She had big plans, and they didn't work out. Since she'd orchestrated this disaster, she supposed the others would turn to her for where to go next. But she had no idea.
She was right. As they approached familiar exits, Billy asked, "Iris, where are we going?"
"Let's go back to my place," said Buckingham cheerily.
Applause thundered in Rhett's ears as he made his way back the hallway of the backstage area at the venue Satin Blades was playing. He was trying to get out as fast as he could, so he could avoid Rosalyn. He wanted to do a quick search of Mischief's tour bus while they were on stage. This might be his only chance, considering it hadn't been easy to swipe the bus keys from the roadies.
A few days ago, he'd managed to get inside Snake's hotel room by convincing the hotel housekeeper he was part of the band but had lost his key. The room had been immaculate. The beds didn't even look slept in, and, apparently, Mischief didn't carry any luggage. He'd found nothing. He'd searched in closets, in drawers, even between the sheets. Snake had nothing in his room.
Iris wanted him to look for pieces of paper. She said they'd be photocopies, possibly of handwritten pages, maybe even photocopies of very old books—like medieval or something. He'd promised to try, but he'd also promised to be careful, and he meant to be, especially after that groupie chick had disappeared sans clothes a few days ago. There was something strange going on on this tour. He didn't know if he quite believed Iris that Mischief was hiding an ancient monster backstage, but if they were, he wanted to stay as far away from it as possible.
So this was it. He was going to check the tour bus, and then he was going to call it off. If he found the photocopies, great. If he didn't, too bad, but no more sneaking around. He hurried through the backstage hallways. Behind him, he could hear Ros calling for him faintly. He ignored her. A few more steps and he was outside. The buses that carried passengers were still parked in the back lot behind the venue. Silver behemoths, they rested quietly in the shadow of the venue. Satin Blades and Mischief were heading straight to the next city tonight, no dallying in the hotel or partying at local bars. He crossed the loading area and made his way across the parking lot to the buses. They were both dark and locked up.
He unlocked Mischief's bus and stepped inside. He'd brought a flashlight, because he was afraid turning on the lights inside the bus would attract attention. Mischief's living area, the first section of the bus, was as clean as their hotel room. Satin Blade's bus was always a wreck. Their table was perpetually littered with beer bottles, and they were always digging chip crumbs out of the couch. Rhett shined the flashlight in every nook and cranny, but there was nothing there.
He moved to the back of the bus where the bunks were. Each of them was made up perfectly, and utterly nondescript. Rhett had decorated his own bunk area with some posters. None of the members of Mischief had done so. Rhett was about to give up, when he saw it. Nestled in the corner of one of the beds was a rolled up cylinder of paper—like a diploma. It was secured with a rubber band.
Rhett grabbed it, slid the rubber band off, and unrolled it. Shining his flashlight onto the first page, he noticed it was a photocopy of a handwritten notebook page. It read: "To bind the power and control—"
That was enough. Rhett hastily rolled it back up and put the rubber band back. He tucked it into his jacket pocket. Then he got the hell off the bus.
Buckingham knew that (from his captors' point of view) it was reasonable that his captors hadn't shared their situation with him, but after the meeting with the queen, the last pieces of the puzzle had fallen into place, and he wished they'd told him what they were up to. He could help. He wanted to help. Now he just had to convince them.
"Your place?" said Iris.
"My place," said Buckingham. "I live a few miles from Iris' apartment. It's not big. We might be a little cramped. But I think it's our best option."
"It's just after we handcuffed you at gunpoint," said Billy, "it seems a little odd for you to be extending hospitality."
It was odd. Buckingham still didn't know quite what to make of the three of them, but it seemed to him that their motives were good. "I want to help," he said. "At first, I admit I was a little wary. I didn't believe any of you, because you didn't strike me as particularly reliable people. But after the meeting with the queen, I'm convinced. And I think something needs to be done."
"Why should we trust you?" said Iris. "You're in a position to pretty much say anything if it'll mean we let you go."
Buckingham shrugged. "I take it your best shot in solving this problem was going to the queen?"
Iris didn't answer.
"Then you've got no other options, do you?" said Buckingham. "If I am lying, and I turn you over to Magic Management, which I may say might not even take you, then you'll all die. If this rock band releases Zain the Devourer onto the earth, you'll all die. I don't think you lose much by trusting me."
"That's a good point," said Jaq.
"No it's not," said Billy. "Besides, why would Mr. Buckingham want to help us?"
Why indeed? Buckingham wasn't entirely certain, but he did know that he was intrigued by the reality of Zain. He was familiar with the myth. He had translated it to English from an ancient pixie test for his thesis at university. He thought his expertise might come in handy. "The human race is in danger," he said. "I think that's reason enough."
"What could you do to help?" Billy asked.
"Stop malevolent magical creatures? I believe that's what I've been getting paid to do for years," said Buckingham. He related to them his familiarity with the Zain myth.
"Why didn't you say something before?" Iris asked.
"You didn't mention Zain until we got to the pixie court," Buckingham said.
"Sure, or you just didn't know about him until then," said Iris. "Now you're just using him as—"
"Come to my house, I'll show you my translation," said Buckingham. "I have several books that mention the myth. I think that if we look over them, maybe we'll find something you missed in your research."
"We didn't do any research," said Iris. "Billy said that there weren't any resources besides the copies of the myth Kei had."
"Well, there aren't," said Billy. "I know the myth."
"There are resources," said Buckingham. "Did you check the library?"
"They don't have books about pixies in the library," said Billy.
"Certainly they do," said Buckingham. "My degree is in pixie and magic studies. There are books. What made you think there weren't?"
"Kei told me that," Billy said quietly.
"Look," said Jaq. "We've got to figure out something. We're only a few miles from our exit."
"You're the only one with an actual court order for execution," said Billy. "Why are you suddenly so gung-ho for the pixie police officer?"
"I'm not gung-ho," said Jaq. "I'm just saying nobody has any better ideas."
"Speaking of the pixie police," said Buckingham, "why didn't you go to them in the first place?"
"God," said Iris. "Why does everyone keep asking me this? I tried. I called the hotline. They didn't believe me."
Hotline operators weren't supposed to do that. They were supposed to take the information from the call and pass it on. Even if they thought a complaint was ridiculous, it wasn't up to them to pass judgment on it. Clearly, the organization was going to hell in a hand basket. On the other hand, if this report had come across his desk a few weeks ago . . . "Yes," he said. "I suppose I can see why they might not."
"Shit," said Billy. "Why is traffic suddenly slowing down all of a sudden?"
The cars in front of them were indeed slowing down. Within a few minutes, they had stopped.
"Fuck," said Billy. "I've got to take a piss."
"Thank you for sharing," said Jaq.
"It must be an accident," said Buckingham, gazing out the window at the line of cars in front of them.
"Well, can't they get a lane open or something?" Billy demanded. "We're gonna get stuck here for hours."
"Be patient," said Iris.
"My bladder's gonna explode. You be patient," said Billy. No one said anything for a few moments. Billy leaned his head out the window to look ahead at traffic. "They're stopped for fucking ever," he said.
"You know," said Buckingham. "If I really wanted to escape, now would be a perfect opportunity. I'm not even handcuffed."
"Oh yeah," said Billy. "you could run out of the car onto the highway on foot. That'd be perfect. Whatever."
"We should go back to Buckingham's place," said Iris.
"What?" said Billy.
"Jaq's right. It's our best option," said Iris.
"I can't think straight," said Billy. "I'm gonna take that exit up there."
"How?" said Jaq.
The car was in the right lane, but was at least fifty feet from the exit ramp. Billy swerved onto the shoulder.
"Billy, don't," said Jaq.
"You're gonna hit someone," said Iris.
Miraculously, the car sped by on the shoulder, not touching the other cars. They got safely on the exit ramp and drove off the interstate. Darkness greeted them. At the end of the ramp was a road. Their headlights illuminated a sign opposite the road, attached to a barbed wire fence, pointing either west or east.
"Jesus, Billy, there's nothing on this exit," said Jaq.
Billy turned onto the road and immediately pulled the car over. "I'm gonna go piss," he said. He got out, slammed the door, walked into the field beside the road, and disappeared into the darkness.
After he left, the other three didn't speak for a few minutes. Iris peered into the field Billy had just wandered into. The tall grass was visible in the ghostly light of the headlights, but she couldn't see Billy. Then they started to talk about what they were going to do. Buckingham suggested guns. Iris said she'd thought about that. The concert was in two days, so they were on a tight schedule. Iris filled Buckingham in on the sacrifice that would supposedly bring Zain into his full power. Buckingham didn't remember anything about sacrifices in the Zain myth, but he was familiar with sacrifices in other pixie texts. It was something to look into. The three talked for quite a while about Zain, Kei, the copies she had of the myths, and whether or not stopping the sacrifice would stop Zain.
Finally, they realized Billy had been gone too long. Iris rolled down her window and leaned out. "Billy?" she called. "Are you okay?"
There was no answer.
"Billy!" she called again. She pulled herself back into the car. "How far do you think he went?"
"I don't know," said Jaq. She rolled down her window. "Billy?"
"Billy," Jaq yelled, "this isn't funny. You get your ass back here."
"I'm gonna go look for him," said Iris, opening her door.
"No," said Jaq. "Don't you go out there too."
"He probably saw a gas station or something," said Iris, getting out and shutting her door.
"Then why can't we see the lights?" said Jaq.
Iris looked in the direction Billy had gone, then turned back to the car. "I don't know. But he's been gone a while. I'll just go check and see if I can find him."
"Wait," said Buckingham. "There's a flashlight in the dash. Take that with you."
Jaq handed it out the window to Iris.
"Thanks," she said. "If I don't find him in like ten minutes, I'll come back."