Irongate – Chapter Seven

Tenley hadn’t slept. To close her eyes was to be visited by visages with their jaws agape, confused eyes looking into her for answers, her insides twisting as they were wrung out of her. She just – she had watched from her window too afraid and weak to even cry out when mother was killed. All Tenley could do was be strong for her now. It was all she knew – all she had ever been taught. Nothing else mattered, she told herself. Yet the twisting remained.

At least, although her brow was heavy and her guts kept torturing her, the sun seemed to rejuvenate Tenley somewhat. Another of Titania’s gifts, perhaps. Tenley wasn’t sure she liked or trusted the Queen, but so far at least she had delivered all she promised. Tenley had found a place away from everyone, hidden among a copse of trees. There she waited, alone.

Not quite alone – a lone magpie shared the copse with her, flitting and rolling and ruffling its feathers in the dirt as it desperately attempted to extricate itself from a small plastic cup. It must have been trying to get at some cream but the cream had instead caught it.

Tenley sighed, “it’s your own fault you know. You got too greedy and ahead of yourself, and now your heads stuck.” The bird ceased its thrashing, plaintiff warbling from beneath the suffocating cap (it had by this point managed to peck a portion of its beak through). But Tenley adamantly huffed, “no. I don’t care at all.”

Moping wasn’t doing her any good, and Tenley was certain the Magpie would free itself eventually, hopefully having learned a valuable lesson. No reason for her to get involved. None of her concern. None of her business. She had her own problems. And yet as Tenley walked away she didn’t even need to close her eyes before images screamed from inside her brain. Once when she was much younger than she was now, she had got her head caught in-between banisters. She had wriggled and pulled, terrified that she would keep growing and be stuck on those stairs forever, while mother sneered and told her she had to get herself out. Given that there was no staircase around Tenley’s neck now it can assumed she did, but the pain and fear she felt then – her shoulders bunched, tension trickling down into her fist before she relented, “fine!”

Tenley stomped back to the Magpie, telling it to hold still as she gently pinned it with one hand. The Magpie did not hold still, forgetting its previous predicament as it thrashed to escape her grip. “I’m trying to help, you stupid tuxedo wearing crow,” Tenley muttered, firmly holding the bird in place as she slid the cap off. The sun in its eyes once more relaxed the bird, re-familiarizing itself with nature then clacking at the girl. Tenley chose to interpret it as Magpie for ‘thank you’.

“You’re unlucky,” Tenley wagged her finger under the Magpie’s beak. “You’re greedy, a thief, and no-one wants you,” she scolded. “But you’re welcome.”

For a moment the pair felt safe and secure in each other’s company, Tenley even allowing herself a small smile as she inhaled the forest air. A drip, a splash of red across the Magpie’s eye, shattered the peaceful scene. The bird took off, leaving Tenley staring at her hand which had come away from her nose with crimson liquid between her thumb and fingers. She’d had plenty of nosebleeds before, mostly from Mother’s training. But she hadn’t felt anything. She’d taken a blow from a huge troll and been undamaged by it, so why was she bleeding now? Whatever Titania had injected in her blood was changing her from the inside. Could something be going wrong?

Slow clapping had Tenley glowering at a branch Ella had stretched herself on, dumb beads and flowers tied and twisted in her dumb blonde locks. “Well that was adorable,” the green-clad bully yawned, “how does that rhyme go again? One for sorrow?”

Tenley sneered, “If you’re here to annoy me then you’ll be feeling a lot of sorrow.”

“Relax, tough girl. I just saw you looking so glum so thought I’d come over to brighten your day,” Ella swung and dropped from the tree, wide grin on her face as she continued to purr, “two for joy, hm?”

So preoccupied was Tenley with the likelihood of another fight with Ella, and concealing her vulnerability, that she hardly noticed Lilian approach. “Three for a girl,” Lilian knelt to gently guide Tenley’s hand from her nose, “show me.” Unused to being cared for Tenley squinted suspiciously, but – whether it was due to the softness of Lilian’s voice or just the fact Tenley had no idea what was happening to her – Tenley found herself not resisting. After wiping a little Lilian assured her, “it is nothing to be concerned about. Just bits of the old you being forced out as your body is remade. See? It’s stopped already.”

Tenley wasn’t sure she wanted to lose all of her old self as Ella elaborated, “it’s just like when all your baby teeth fell out. Not like you’re going to shed your skin or go into a cocoon or anything. Mostly you won’t notice anything at all apart from getting stronger. Congratulations – soon you’ll be just like us.”

“So,” Tenley’s eyes narrowed warningly, “you are just here to annoy me?”

“Well, not just for that.”

Lilian craned her neck, holding up fingers as she explained, “four for a boy.”

“That’s right,” Ella nodded, “found another of those people you’re looking for.”

So soon. Once again Tenley had no time to rest, not that she could anyway. Mother would never see how strong she’d become but perhaps when it was all done, then they could rest. The sooner the better. But Ella seemed intent on tormenting her, yapping on, “I always wondered why it was more for a boy? Guess Magpies are just sexist.”

“Who cares?” Tenley sighed. “It’s just a dumb rhyme. Just tell me where they are then get lost.”

Now Ella dropped her faux cheeriness, casting a hateful glare until Lilian reminded her, “five for silver, six for gold.”

“Yeah,” Ella composed herself again, “her majesty sent us to give you another gift. So here,” Ella tossed some kind of coiled vine on the ground by Tenley.

“Some kind of rope?” Tenley peered. Although there were segments at one end that looked pretty sharp. “Or a whip?”

“Only in the hands of a feeble human,” Ella snorted. “In your hands… well, just go ahead. Pick it up.” Tenley did so, and the moment she did the vine uncoiled until it stood straight and strong, the segmented end arranging itself into a blade.

As Tenley twirled her glaive Lilian explained, “it receives instructions from your nervous system.”

And then Ella explained even more simply, “so what that means is it becomes an actual part of you whenever you hold it. So you can use it as a whip, a spear, or just to strangle people. Isn’t that all fun?” Ella beamed encouragingly with her hands her hips. The next instant her smile vanished, replaced by shock as the blade swooshed like a dart right under her ear. It had not, in fact, been aimed at Ella but one of her flowers which was now pinned to the trunk of a tree. Ella’s eyes followed from there, down the length of the extended spear, to the expressionless black eyed girl holding the other end.

“Yay,” Tenley said.

The vine recoiled as Ella visibly simmered. It was obvious that after their last fight she was forcing herself to be on her best behavior so as not to cross Titania. Equally obvious was that a child had no problem exploiting that knowledge to its limit. Nevertheless she again pulled herself in and asked, “what was seven again?”

“A secret,” Lilian answered, “never to be told.”

“But,” Ella grinned, “maybe if you’re real nice, and start showing some real gratitude for all these gifts you’ve been given, maybe then I’ll tell you where those murderers are. Or we could just stand here staring at each other,” she said with a flick of her hair, “although you’d obviously be getting the better end of that deal as well.”

Tenley was in a quandary. On one hand she didn’t want to give in to someone like Ella. On the other, she really wanted this conversation to end so she could get on with more important things. Deciding that a moments humility was worth it to get rid of them, she bowed, “Thank you for the weird spear-tentacle thing. Now will you please tell me where they are?”

Lilian looked from Tenley to Ella. “Eight for a wish.”

“That is a much better attitude,” Ella admitted. “But, what was nine?”

“A kiss.”

“So,” Ella pondered a moment before putting one foot forward, “maybe if you kiss my boot, then I’ll tell you.” Tenley changed her mind – intense staring until they all died of boredom was the way to go, since there was no way she was doing that. Ella needed to hear no words to see her refusal, shrugging, “I’m kidding. Actually,” Ella gritted her jaw, “I still owe you for that cheap-shot from before, don’t I? But I tell you what – if you can keep up with me I’ll grant your wish.” Tenley would have rather they got to fighting than play more dumb games, but before she could protest Ella had skipped back up to the branch, winking back at her, “you’d better start running.”

Ella leapt away, skipping from tree to tree leaving Tenley to ponder for a few seconds whether it was worth pursuing. Titania would surely ensure she got the information anyway so there were no stakes for her other than time. In that case, fine – she would keep playing for now. But Ella had a head start. Tenley decided to use her latest gift, whipping it so the end wrapped around then gripped a branch, then like a rubber band propelled her up into the air.

“Ten,” Lilian frowned after them, “for a bird you must not miss.”

Although not actually flying, even a very fast computer could not have kept up with the myriad of muscle changes and adjustments needed to avoid colliding with any branches at the speed Ella and Tenley were going at as they jumped from tree to tree. But for them it was quite effortless even as they cleared tens of meters at a time, then sprang straight into the next glide. Even more exhilarating for Tenley was that she was definitely catching up, although she had a suspicion Ella was just leading her to some place nasty. But whatever – she’d faced murderers and trolls and her own mother. She was never going to be scared of some dumb blonde bully.

Just as Tenley drew neck and neck, the forest was broken by a brick building. Both racers fell, legs bowing on uncut grass, and on closer inspection Tenley saw that it was just a shell of a building; no door or window frames, crumbling walls, some rusted playground equipment. A school, maybe, but it must have been abandoned for some time. Yet, this was where Ella had led her.

“Well,” Ella said with another slow clap, “you kept up. Not bad, Tych.”

For the moment Tenley had forgotten what the race had been for, finding it strange that somewhere that must have once been alive with the voices of so many kids just like she was could become so silent. “What is this place?” She asked.

“This?” Ella scrunched her nose like she’d just caught a whiff of something, “this is where Lil and I grew up. Saint Clarion’s Orphanage. Never anything saintly about it though. The nuns here – they just really hated fun. So one day we ran away and, well, that’s how we became the fair folk we are today.”

“But what happened here?”

“Closed down, obviously. Never mind about that. Look,” Ella’s fingers snapped, flames bursting out of her like they had in the cave. “Do you like my fire? You might receive a gift like this too. See, your body is becoming like a battery that can store lots of energy you can use in different ways. Lilian says exactly how it manifests is psycho-so-something.”

“Psychosomatic,” Lilian finished, her approach as soft and quiet as ever. “Your mind affecting your body, and anything that may spring from within.”

“Right. That,” Ella rotated her arm like it was a spit, although despite the fire nothing was actually roasting. “I always loved flames. The way they dance. Like seeing spirits.”

Sure, Tenley liked to look into flames to see worlds on the other side as well. But in a fireplace or campfire where they were safe. She looked away from Ella’s to the orphanage, noting there were black marks above the holes windows would have been. Feeling that she knew the answer she asked again anyway, “what happened to this place?”

“After we were made fair I did come back here,” Ella explained, “to teach the nuns a lesson for a change. Guess it didn’t stick. Kind of hard to retain anything when you’re a pile of ashes. Oh, don’t look so horrified – they got what they wanted. They’re all up in the sky with Jesus.”

Tenley winced – she’d known, but hearing it said made it real and she found her gaze drifting to the rusted playground. “What about the other kids that were here?”

“Hmmm,” Ella acted like she was thinking, “yeah, I suppose they’d have been inside as well. Honestly most of them were as bad as the nuns, so,” she shrugged.

“They,” Tenley slowly shook her head, “they can’t have all deserved that.”

Ella scoffed, “what’s deserves got to do with anything? The children, the nuns – they all had the same disease. So I burnt it out.”

“What disease?” Tenley didn’t dare to hope it would be anything that made sense.

Sure enough Ella’s answer was, “they were weak. Very few have been chosen to be cured. Fewer still can handle it.”

Tenley inhaled, centering herself. “I was wrong about you,” she said.

“Well that’s a big thing of you to admit, Tych.”

“I thought you were a bully. But you’re actually just insane.”

Ella’s mouth curled, “I haven’t made up my mind about you. Are you strong, or are you weak?” She crouched, ready to pounce and spit fire, “guess I’ll just have to find out.” Opposite her Tenley unwound her glaive to assume a battle stance. But Lilian still stood in-between them.

“Her majesty will not be pleased by this,” she reminded Ella.

“So?” Ella shrugged, “we’re not going to tell her, are we, Tych?”

Tenley could think of no reason to do so, but Lilian’s eyes pointedly darted sideways as she whispered to her fellow orphan, “I rather think she will know anyway.”

A cat sat in the empty space the orphanage’s door once was, the narrow slits of its pupils with either hunger or disapproval. Tenley still wasn’t sure exactly how Titania’s ‘eyes and ears’ worked – she couldn’t possibly see through all these creatures all of the time, could she? In any case Ella decided not to take the risk. “Guess that bird was actually lucky for you,” she said, lowering her flames. “We’ll find out another time. Lilian will share with you what you need. I’m out of here.”

*****

Near but not quite in the center of Irongate was a shop called ‘O-Balls’. The ‘O’ could stand for odd, or open, or refer to the owners, the Oshiro family, but not zero since there were in fact three balls dangling from the sign, an old symbol for pawnbrokers – it honestly just was not a good name since explaining all of it just left people more confused. Ren and Rei owned the store, but it was their daughter Sayuri manning the floor when the cops came, which was convenient since she was the one they wanted to talk to.

“If you see or hear anything,” Sergeant Delainy told her, “you let us know, okay?”

“Of course,” Sayuri smiled sweetly from behind the counter, bowing as the policemen left the store, “thank you. Have a nice day, sirs.” She waited a moment to be sure they’d gone and weren’t coming back, so that she could drop her smile, mess her hair, and say, “shit.”

At this moment Sayuri knew that Kaya’s car was wrecked and that she was missing – no one had seen her since last night. And the murders had been on the news. This was as much as anyone seemed to know. Kaya had obviously been down at the club, but Sayuri had been too preoccupied with Angela being a troll to take her seriously. Perhaps she should have. Perhaps she should have stayed and talked more, not let leave her on her own, at least gone with her to the car to make sure she was okay…

Sayuri could feel pulses from within the right side of her cranium, knew her eye was twitching. Balls – she needed her stress balls. Grinding them felt good, and helped her see things a bit more clearly. She was not a prophet, nor could she travel back in time. So, was there anything she could do now? Was it even her responsibility? Sayuri hadn’t been in the Killer Aqua Bunnies that long – she’d responded to an ad about a year ago and really did just see drumming as a way to blow off steam. Outside of the band she didn’t socialize much with any of them, since she was usually here running the store while mom and dad watched game shows upstairs. She found Kaya the least insufferable of the KAB’s, but how well did she know her, really? Well enough, Sayuri supposed, to know that there was no-one else Kaya could or would ask for any help.

Likely the police had already tried calling Kaya’s phone, but maybe she would answer for Sayuri. She only got through to voice-mail, which meant Kaya either thought the police were here, wasn’t taking any calls, or she couldn’t. If she was hiding then she wouldn’t be in any of the usual places she hung out. Still squeezing the balls, Sayuri racked her own brain trying to recall Kaya ever mentioning anywhere else she might go. There was the place she worked that she said she hated – the music shop, B-Naturals. Sayuri had heard it through the grapevine that Kaya had been fired, but in that case maybe it was somewhere few people would think to search.

Business was slow today anyway. Sayuri’s mental well being often wasn’t done favors by leaving her parents in charge. It often resulted in dad paying way more than he should for a collection of knock-off That Witch Which dolls, or something. But she figured this counted as an emergency so she had to risk it.

B-Naturals wasn’t far, but Sayuri took the car anyway. If she did find Kaya, and she was hiding, then she was without transport of her own and would feel better hidden in vehicle than walking out in the open. Doubtful Kaya would be inside the store, but maybe hiding somewhere nearby where she’d be just out of sight of the employees. Round the back, behind a dumpster. Sure enough that was exactly where she was sitting.

“Kaya!” Sayuri ran up on spying a red pony-tail, but slowed down on seeing that around Kaya were several empty glass bottles and one half-emptied in her hand.

“Huh?” Kaya squinted hard like Sayuri were some creature made of pure light, then beamed, “Hey Say!” But the joy of recognition faded instantly as she then started to mutter, “oh, but you – you should not have found me. I’m bad, bad news.”

Sayuri knelt to ask, “what happened? The cops are all looking for you.”

“I figured. But you just would not believe the night I had. No-one would. They’ll all just think I’m a crazy person and lock me up.”

“Hey,” Sayuri put a reassuring hand on her, “I believe in crystals, horoscopes, scented candles, and all kinds of crap. So why don’t you just try me, okay?”

Kaya blinked up at Sayuri’s encouraging smile, caving in just a moment. “I don’t know. It did happen pretty fast, but it was definitely humanoid but covered in bark. Like a spriggan or fairy or something.”

“Uh-huh,” Sayuri nodded, being careful not to say out loud how crazy that sounded. “A fairy.”

“Faerie,” Kaya corrected, “with an ‘e’. This wasn’t a cute Disney thing – it was man sized and wanted to gouge my eyes out. Oh, and then – then I found Jennifer.”

“Who’s Jennifer?”

“She was my oldest friend. Was,” Kaya threw her arms up, “I screwed that up like I’ve screwed up everything in my life. You see, I’m like that guy, you know the one who everything he touched turned to gold?”

“King Midas.”

“Right. Only everything I touch turns to shit. I’m cursed. So you should get away before I do it to you too. Just let it find me and have my eyes. It’s for the best.”

“No, look,” Sayuri put her hands around one of Kaya’s, “see? I’m not turning into a big pooh.”

Even in her current state of mind it seemed Kaya saw that was a very strange sentence. “You think I’m crazy.”

“I think we need to get you cleaned up so we can think clearly how we’re going to solve this, okay?” In truth Sayuri hadn’t planned much beyond finding Kaya. All that was clear to her now was that the police would, eventually, have to be told something. Maybe not the fairy story.

Unfortunately Sayuri wasn’t the only one to have found Kaya. One of the shop employees – a young man wearing round sunglasses – had come out, must have seen Sayuri, then come over to see who or what she was talking to. “What the hell?” He gasped.

“Oh,” Kaya raised her bottle, “hey Neil.”

Sayuri didn’t know anything about Neil, but saw he was reaching for his phone so sprung up to stop him. “Hey, what are you doing?”

“Calling the cops!” He growled. “She is crazy, and there was a murder!”

“Come on,” Sayuri gently nudged him to obscure their voices from Kaya. “She’s a punk, and a little bit stupid, but you don’t really think she’d be involved in an actual murder, do you?” From the look he gave maybe he did, but there was a moments doubt which Sayuri pushed through. “Look – she’s obviously seen something very traumatic and isn’t thinking straight. Just give me a chance to get through to her, then I’ll convince her to go to the police.”

As they were surreptitiously negotiating a course of action, Kaya – whose shoulders had been slowly sliding lower on the back of the dumpster as she drank more – called over, “hey Neil. You’re not my boss anymore so I gotta tell you something; those glasses do not make you look cool. You’re not John Lennon. You’re more like John Lame-man,” Kaya snorted, sinking lower.

Neil conceded to Sayuri, “well obviously she’s confused. But how exactly do you expect to get through to that?”

While they’d been talking Sayuri had come up with one idea, “she was rambling about curses and fairies. So, maybe if I take her to Madame Lumina. Get her to cast a protection spell or something.”

“A protection spell?” Neil looked askew at her. “You don’t believe in that stuff do you?”

“It doesn’t matter. Right now, she does. Like you said she’s confused. And placebos are proven to work sometimes,” Sayuri seemed to more or less have convinced Neil. It occurred to her that if she smiled and made herself look a little more demure she might convince him to do one more thing. “Hey, you’ve finished your shift, right? I could really do with help getting her into the car.”

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