The Writer shuddered. The story had taken an abrupt turn into very dark territory! He suddenly had no idea whether Merbert was a good guy or only pretending to be, and now there was this psychic pain the Fairy Syndicate was apparently able to cause its members. Not to mention the Unseen Trailer; a creature possessed of an unbending will and a fondness for tree and rock flitting.
“Only a monster flits amongst rocks!” the Writer announced to his unnaturally productive spouse.
“What’re you doing back inside? I thought you were going to be bothering people on the Internet with your Wi-Fi,” she said. Only the top of her head was visible over the unmanned submarine she was building.
“Some kids got mad at me and made my battery run down.”
“Say, we wouldn’t happen to have, um, an air pump, would we?”
“You can use this electric one I upgraded,” his wonderfully handy wife said, indicating the machine. “I put some neodymium magnets in the motor. It’s twice as fast as it was before, but it gets kinda hot.”
“Good to know.”
“How’s your gnome coming along?”
“Dwarf. He’s fine. A little nervous, but he’s become very condolent over the last chapter. I believe he is growing as a character. Tell that to the Pulitzer people when they call."
Manipulating a joystick, the Wife patted her Writer on the head with the submarine’s robotic arm. “I’m very proud of you,” she said. “And ask me before you use this PlayStation 3 controller. It controls the sub now too.”
As the sun rose, coloring the horizon the color of a horizon in which a sun is rising, Stubs and Becky stopped to rest. Both were a little suspicious of the fact that the lack of nighttime forest noises had given way to a lack of daytime forest noises.
“You don’t look so good,” said Stubs, gently touching Becky’s feverish brow with his hammer. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I’ll be fine. Get that away from me. It smells like doilies.” She seated herself on a log.
“You’re all sweaty,” Stubs pointed out as tactfully as one could point out such a thing to a woman.
“You’re all short. But I don’t hold that against you."
“Ah! You’re retorting. That’s a good sign.” He joined her on the log. “You wanna tell me more about this Call thing of yours? It sounds pretty annoying. Is there any way you can, like, disconnect it?”
“Unfortunately not. The members of the Syndicate are all branded at birth, and linked into a big fairy computer system called Wingworth. It’s like... Have you ever read any of the Harry Potter books?”
“Good heavens, no!” laughed Stubs.
They both let out a sigh of relief. That was a close one.
“So, how does it work?” Stubs asked, rummaging in his pack.
“I’ve got a tattoo.”
“Hey! Merbert packed us some Twinkies!” Stubs said happily, tugging out a box of the gooey delights. “Wait. What?”
“It’s a tattoo. That’s the brand. It’s how we’re all linked up. See?”
Becky rolled up one of her sleeves and showed Stubs a tattoo about the size of a half-dollar on her biceps. It was a purple smiley face, and it was glowing.
“That’s the Optiglyph. All fairies in the Syndicate get one four days after they’re born. It’ll dim down eventually, but if they issue the Call again, it’ll light back up." She grimaced. "The worst part is the cramping and headache.”
Stubs went into deep thought mode, tugging his beard to indicate it. He originally grew the beard so that he could make that gesture. It will lend me credibility, the Stubs of the past had thought. The current Stubs planned to get a monocle, once he was done with this quest and had the time to go shopping for a really nice one.
“Optiglyph, huh? I am also a Linguistics Dwarf, and if my etymology is correct, which it sure as mead is, that is a portmanteau of the words optimist and glyph." He flourished a Twinkie.
“Yep. It's supposed to signify one’s eternal loyalty to the universal powers of Optimism.”
“Ugh. That sounds pretty dull."
“Tell me about it. But that’s the job fairies got stuck with millennia ago. If the history I’ve read since leaving the Syndicate is accurate, fairies weren’t always lame and pastel-colored. We used to build stuff. We used to be cool.”
Becky paused to roll her sleeve back down. She stared out into the damp, forest dawn and sighed heavily. “We invented electricity. Did you know that?”
“I thought Benjamin Franklin invented electricity,” Stubs mused. His hand drifted beardward, ready, in case extended musing was called for.
“Guy was a hack. I can show you an article on the Internet that proves it.”
“You seem pretty normal, though. Not all giggly and glittery, I mean. Twinkie?"
“No thanks. Look, can we forget about this for now? Let’s just say I’m happy to be out of their stupid club. I’m of the firm belief that anyone who is happy all the time must be defective.”
Stubs picked Twinkie bits out of his beard. “Me too.” He looked down at his feet, dangling a few inches off the ground. “I’m fighting a stereotype too, you know.”
“What stereotype would that be?”
“That all dwarves are bearded, overconfident and all too fond of mead.”
Becky stared at him.
“I didn’t say I was doing a very good job. Whaddya say we move on?”
The questers decided to keep heading east. This would keep them firmly in the shadows of the Mysteriolith range where the three wizards purportedly dwelt.
“We don't have time to check each peak for wizards,” Stubs reasoned. “If the Syndicate can mobilize in only a few days, I mean.”
“They can. And they will.” Becky favored Stubs with a wry smile. “If there’s one person in the world who embodies everything the Syndicate hates, it’s the Dirty Forest Man.”
“Yeah. Being a miserable crotch is sort of written into his mission statement."
"That's part of his charm. That, and his willful lack of hygiene."
"So, you were a Syndicate insider for, what, multiple years?”
“Have you ever heard of this magic staff? You’d think something so dangerous would be well-known in fairy circles,” Stubs said, twirling his hammer thoughtfully and giggling for no reason.
“There are legends,” Becky said, and grinned. Spreading her arms dramatically and adopting a deep, melodramatic voice, said, “And it is written that a stick was forged in the land whose mighty powers of whomping would be such that a single swing would whompeth the living crap out of any fairy foolish enough to be within the arc of its swing!” She laughed, and swung an imaginary stick, stomping the ground as she brought it down. “It’s mostly told to frighten children, though. God, I love frightening children.”
“Did you hear that?”
Becky turned to see Stubs standing a couple of yards behind her. “Huh?”
“A stomping sound.”
“I did that. Sound effects. All the best dramatic moments have sound effects. Weren’t you paying attention?”
“Nuh uh. This was much bigger. Didn’t you feel it?”
“Dunno. I was too busy acting,” Becky shrugged.
“And now you’ll be too busy dying!” rasped an unpleasant but familiar voice from the shrubbery to her right.
Before she had a chance to react, Tony had wrapped one arm around Becky’s waist, pinning her arms to her sides. He held a dirty sneaker to her throat with his free hand, and peered over her shoulder at Stubs.
“Don’t try anything funny, dwarf!” he sneered. “I’m going to finally kill one of you this time, by cracky!”
“Villians don’t say things like ‘by cracky,’” Stubs pointed out helpfully. "Didn't they teach you that in bastard school?"
"I had top marks, you horrible twit," Tony said, smugging up.
“Seriously, why the hell do you keep bugging us?” asked Becky, exasperated. “You’re so bad at this antagonist stuff.”
“Shut yer facehole!”
Stubs advanced. “Is that a shoe? You’re going to cut her throat with a sneaker?" He glanced down at Tony's feet. "Your own sneaker?"
"Heinous, heinous, heinous!" Tony laughed. "This sneaker’s got dog doo on it! All I have to do is—hey! Did either of you hear a stomping sound?”
From behind Becky and Tony, a huge shadow shadowed itself hugely, like a monstrous darkened area.
The Writer wrote a Post-It to remind himself to come back to this bit and de-lame it. It turned out to be rather difficult to describe a giant something's approach from deep in the woods. It'd fall pretty flat if he just came right out and wrote "A giant thing approached through the woods."
That certainly wasn't the kind of vivid imagery that was going to earn the money he needed to staff his personal eyebrow massage parlor with supermodels.
Stubs' eyes flickered upward. WAY upward.
The ground shook with another booming impact.
“There it is again!” screeched Tony. “What’re you trying to pull? You using some sort of nasty, beardy dwarf magic to make me hear things? Well, it ain’t gonna work.” Tony said, moving the old sneaker closer to Becky’s throat. “I’m gonna--”
“Oh my mead, wouldja lookit that," sighed Stubs. He pointed a into the woods behind Tony.
“That’s the oldest trick in the book, dwarf,” sniggered Tony.
“You would have a book of tricks, you hooker,” Becky laughed.
“How lame!” Stubs lamented. "I mean, it's like he's not even trying any more. All that buildup for...this? I--I don't know what to say. The fruitiness is palpable. Feeling faint...I think I'm going to...going to fall down."
Twisting at the waist and craning his neck, Tony looked into the trees behind him.
“Oh, shit! A unicorn!” he screamed. He released Becky and dove out of sight into the shrubbery from whence he’d come.
“Someone really oughta have pity on that poor boy and let him kill them a little,” Becky sighed, smoothing her skirt out. She looked behind her. “He was right though. It is a unicorn.”
Stubs, a quivering, insensible, bearded mass on the ground, twitched miserably and said, “Yes, but a shiny one the size of a factory! Get it away, get it awaaaay!”
“Oh, don’t be such a pansy, you big pansy. She’s adorable!”
“And he can talk,” said the giant, chrome silver unicorn, stepping into the clearing. “The name’s Bruce.”
The Writer kicked his feet in wild arcs of glee. This was too much! First dwarves, fairies and wizards, and now unicorns! This story was…
“Heeeey...Unicorns? This is highly suspect.”
He yelled for his wife.
“Wife? You haven’t been doing any clandestine genetic engineering I should know about, have you?”
“No more than usual,” she said, ducking around a propeller the size of a garbage can lid. “Why?”
“Because I appear to be having a really good time writing about dwarves, fairies and wizards. And now there’s a giant unicorn in the story. It was mere months ago that I was writing stories with hardasses in ‘em, and now... unicorns?”
The Wife put down her blowtorch and joined the Writer in front of his laptop. “Yeah, but you named him Bruce. That’s a pretty tough name.” She pinched his cheek playfully with a pair of Vise-Grips™. “Don’t tell me the Writer I married is suddenly insecure in his masculinity!”
The Writer reached out and broke something to prove that he wasn’t.
“Attawriter!” his wife said. “I’ll go get some epoxy, and we’ll have that screen back on there in no time.”
“Yeah. Yeah! I can write about all the pink, glittery things I want! I’m awesome!” the Writer growled. He made a swipe at his Wife’s femmy bits, but she dodged nimbly aside.
“You finish this chapter, then we go get ice cream,” she said, smiling at him over her shoulder.
“Damn yes!” the Writer cried. He braced his laptop’s screen against a plush, stuffed frog and attacked the keyboard with manly vim.
“Gosh. Those sure are big fangs you got there, Bruce,” said Becky, unable to keep the awe out of her voice. “And those shades. Too cool!”
“I’m not technically a unicorn. But that’s a little too complicated a story to tell before I even know your names.”
“Becky,” said Becky. “And that’s Stubs. He’s a sparklephobe.”
She kicked Stubs gently in the ribs. He flopped onto his back and moaned up into the sky.
“Giant mythical horses! It’s just too lame!”
“Yes, but I’m a bad-ass mythical horse,” said Bruce, lowering his head, which was the size of a truck, to Stubs’ level. “Check this bad boy out.”
Stubs opened one eye and looked. Bruce's unicorn horn was about ten feet long, had a chrome lightning bolt decal on it, and was made entirely out of carbon fiber. It did look pretty bad-ass.
“Okay then,” Stubs said, easily vaulting the short distance to his feet. “My name’s Stubs, and I’m on a quest.” He waved a hand at Becky, “and this is my sidekick.”
“She’s afraid of wizards,” Stubs whispered into Bruce’s ear.
“Lousy dwarf,” Becky muttered.
“Quest, huh?” Bruce did a backflip and landed with a boom.
“Indeed,” said Becky, picking herself up off the ground. “We seek the Mysteriolith Wizards. There are th--”
“—Three wise men of darkish Cloak
Dwell atop lofty Peaks Uncharted
With eyes of Fire and Fists of Smoke
They shun the One who Farted
“Driven folk, neither Laugh nor Play
Stong, they are, in Hypermagica
A Third of their number, Fallen away
The One who says ‘Yuh Yuh Yuh!’” Bruce finished. “Those the ones?”
The Writer's telephone rang.
"That's a horrible rhyme," his father's voice said. It sounded echoey.
"Well, I like it. ...Are you in the bathroom?"
"And why shouldn't I be?"
"Oh. No reason."
"Unnecessary flummery gives me the gut gripes. I'm where I need to be."
The Writer promised his father that he'd read some poetry books, and hung up.
“Hey! Cool rhyme!” laughed Stubs. “Where’d you hear that?”
“I serve the Mysteriolith Three. It’s from their theme song.”
“Cool. Can you buy it on compact disc?"
“Hey. Plug right in, fella,” said Bruce, nodding down at the front of his stainless-steel hoof. “I’m fully USB 3.0 compliant. Got 7.1 DTS surround, too.”
“Bad ass!” cried Stubs, and jacked his iPod in.
“Bruce. Do you know where we can find the wizards? That’d be unbelievably useful right now. We’ve only got four days at the most to avoid a clash of catastrophic proportions. So, like, any help you can offer would be pretty spiffy.”
“Hey. Don’t sweat it, babe. I don't like catastrophic clashes anymore'n you do. I can take you to ‘em. Climb aboard!”
Bruce knelt and offered Becky and Stubs an...
“Escalator?” Becky said, stunned. “Who ever heard of a unicorn with an escalator?”
“This one certainly is loaded,” said Stubs, allowing the motorized handrail to slide smoothly under his palm. “Deee-luxe model unicorn, with all the luxury trimmings."
“I told you before. I’m not really a unicorn. And if the escalator does it for ya, you’re going to love this! You two seated comfortably?”
“Wow. Cupholders and everything,” marveled Becky, poking the velour armrest on her seat.
“Then hold on tight!”
With a mighty leap, Bruce hurled himself into the sky. As he cleared the treetops, there was a clank, a hiss and then a roar as four independent rocket engines in his hooves ignited.
“Flying unicorn. Not quite as gay as he first seemed,” Stubs said over the noise.
Ahead of them, a piece of the sky started acting weird. The air rippled and stretched, as if it were being heated.
Becky leaned forward and yelled into Stubs' ear. "Do you see that?"
There was a sharp bang, and a red hot-air balloon appeared out of the turbulent air. Stubs jumped. Becky gasped.
"Loneos!" she said. Then, "oh, geez. Next time I ride upstream, okay?"
Becky's voice went cold. "It's Merbert."
"And he's got missiles," added Stubs.