Ensign Sallith drew his hand over his face, but the new jungle scenery around him remained. Where his path had once been, there was a broad cypress blocking the way. The forest was far thicker, and he did not recognize the area. It was as if he had been yanked into a different part of the Crown of Pines, miles away in another direction.
This is wrong, he thought, looking to the cute yet unfamiliar creature below him. The nude, winged figure rested on a branch from another cypress, jutting from the side of the river valley.
With a child-like wave, the thing kicked into a standing position. The intense rumble of a beetle or dragonfly’s wings, but much larger, sent shivers up his back.
Sallith drew his bow. He had thirty arrows, some lined with poison that could kill, others that could paralyze, and some that could inflict sleep. Each had its own compartment in his quiver, and he readied a paralyzing shot. He hung the long reed between his fingers.
This thing must be a Fey, he thought. The King of Mirek, Roras at the time, craved more knowledge and exposure to elvenkind. If he could paralyze and capture this thing, the King would reward him, surely. It was a mystery how the Fey brought the elves into existence, after all, and a captured Fey was perhaps the most valuable research subject in the entire world.
Yet, he undulated from this confidence into another feeling, harder to grasp or admit. This thing seemed totally comfortable in his presence, even with his bow out. Is it a simpleton? It must have drawn me here. Perhaps it has powers, but lacks intelligence.
“Human,” the thing said, touching down with one foot on the grass in front of him. Its tenor voice matched its genderless form, but then that began to change in front of him. Breasts grew, flesh curved and softened, and vulva formed at the meeting of its legs. “Please, put your weapon away. I mean you no harm.”
What in the name of the Seers is this?
“What are you?”
“Your kind call me Fey. I wish to learn more of men.”
“Fey?” His senses rose as it came closer, walking with pronounced hips. Instead of answering, it reached out with one hand to grace his cheek. Though the thing’s eyes were inhumanly large, they belied no innocence.
Sallith’s nose knew the smell of every flower in the Crown of Pines. He could appreciate each, from bitter arum to sweet orange blossom, but now they rushed into his mind all at once and washed his vision away.
She leaned in on the tips of her toes and kissed him. She was moving closer, her damp skin cooling him beyond his leather jerkin. He tried to open his eyes, but the sudden orange and arcing yellow in his vision brought pain unlike any other.
Something was scooping out his eyes, but his jaw was suddenly tight and molten. Then it felt like he had no eyes or jaw. Nothing about his body felt familiar, apart from the things about it that were ripping and undoing.
Then came the worst part, as he felt perfectly normal. The pain was gone, and he could see, although he felt slightly shorter. His steps were not his own, and he felt a breeze all along his skin from the west, carrying the mist of the waterfall. Unable to control anything, his foot kicked off the ground and his buzzing wings—wings?—sent him gliding back to the tree root where he had first seen the Fey. There his body rested, two hands over a folded knee and the other leg teasing the churning waters.
Even the effort to think clearly was slipping away. A thicker layer of inexplicable desires told him to wait. Another man would come soon.
“The thing had fused with my own body,” Sallith said, fists closed on the table. “While it happened, I could barely remember myself, who I was. But I clung to it. It was like hurling against the walls of a cell in an abandoned prison, hoping that somehow you’d escape. It lasted for exactly 381 days. I was terrified to fall asleep in that form. I knew I might become nothing—no more independent and self-aware than one hair among thousands on your head. I made an effort to count each day, to remain awake and consider each sunrise and sunset. I felt everything, even the pleasure of it, as it captured and melded with other humans. I saw what had happened to me done to others, over fifty times. I wasn’t always at the Crown of Pines, either. It liked to travel, but always waited in the wilderness to lure men. Then there were times when it hungered for women. That was more difficult. Women don’t travel as much. But younger ones did. Little girls running from home, or bravely trudging through unknown lands beyond their shanties. There’s no telling how many people were missing at the hands of the Fey. Maybe they all felt just as I did, after the melding.”
“How did you escape?” Brinne asked. She hadn’t moved an inch, still standing and casting a shadow over the table.
“My best guess is that somehow it got sick. It had been consuming me, all that time, very slowly. I don’t know why a thing that eats entire beings in that way, and fairly often, wouldn’t have destroyed me completely within that time. But eventually, it released me in the same spot I had been captured. I was so weak I couldn’t sit up. My skin threatened to rip against my bones. Then it said something to me: ‘I’m sorry. Please raise them. They are Chosen.’”
“Raise who?” Daliah asked.
“I wondered the same, and managed to turn over. Next to me on the ground were three infant boys, their skin tones ranging between my brown and her pink. Excuse me. Sometimes I use ‘her.’ Then, it vanished. I never got answers, I was just back once again, gasping like a fish after not having to breathe by myself for so long.”
“…and yet it gave you no clues?” Claudia asked, desperate to keep her expression and tone the same. Sallith’s children are Chosen too, like Rat and Merrian? What could that possibly mean?
“What drove the Fey to do these things?” Daliah asked.
“That is what I’ve wanted to know,” Sallith said. “I rose in rank, grew power and status, and cemented myself as the king of my city. It was the only way to truly protect my sons, and to gain the resources to find the Fey again. To capture it, and to stop it forever.”
Claudia stood up, and the King kept his eyes on hers, even as they twitched behind her strands of wild hair.
“You vermin,” she said, and Sallith rolled his eyes. “This is why you banned all other beings? This is why you’re a tyrant? Because a strange being preyed upon you?”
The King’s boys, who would have ordinarily struck back at their father being called vermin, were too shocked to even listen.
“No, I banned other beings because they are hardly different from the Fey. Mage, Ozarian, Thaumaturge… shapeshifter… all are dangerous. Elves may be powerless, but that in turn makes them untrustworthy.”
“I fought with everything in me to defend mothers and children in the courts. There was a mother whose husband was an elf. Do you remember her? Do you even remember signing the paper that vetoed the case that I won for her? No, you just had the husband killed and the wife imprisoned. Even her half-elf children… they didn’t matter, oh, no.”
“Claudia, listen carefully,” Sallith said. “Mirek has been taken by elves.”
“You do not know what happened, after Merrian freed you and you ran for your mother. For your sake, I will explain it again.”