There is a kingdom, parallel to our mundane world, where everything that we have deemed impossible exists. Faerie, as it is called, is bigger than the world because since the dawn of time each land that has been forced off the map by explorers going out and proving that it doesn’t exist transports itself into Faerie. Atlantis? Avalon? Shangri-La? El Dorado? Cloud cuckoo land? All of them are located in Faerie. Mythical species began to inhabit the kingdom as soon as humans discovered that they were not real. Dragons, elves (both Tolkien's and Santa’s), dwarves, goblins, bigfeet, abominable snowmen… all of these creatures and more are common. Other oxymorons or impossibilities, such as honest politicians or the sound of one hand clapping can be found in Faerie. And throughout the land, filling every corner and aspect of the residents’ lives, is magic. Magic which had taken a refuge in Faerie once mundane scientists had declared that the existence of magic would defy the laws of physics.
Faerie intersects the mundane world in several locations where humans sometimes stumble into a new land, never to be seen again, but this is not important to our story. Our story is about a cursed boy who set out to capture the heart of a star.
Once upon a time (for this is a fairy tale and all fairy tales start in such a fashion) there was a tavern wench. Her name was Tilda and she was a small, washed out, blonde woman of no great beauty, intelligence, or importance. She had a mean temperament and expected to be granted what she wished for without putting forth any particular effort and blamed anyone but herself for any misfortunes that befell her.
Tilda lived in a medium-sized village called Tree. At the centre of the village was an enormous oak tree (names in Faerie were often very literal). This tree was large enough to support hundreds of dwellings in its trunk, housing humans and dwarves and gnomes and sylvans. It was a major port for sky-ships, the upper branches providing mooring space for these ships to unload their cargo. The shops and dwellings and taverns and inns that made up the village of Tree were clustered around the base of the huge oak. Tilda worked in one such tavern - not a particularly nice one, but not a terrible one, either - and hoped that her life would get better and more interesting.
It did get more interesting (but not what Tilda considered better) when she found herself pregnant after an ill-advised affair with a dwarf. Humans and dwarves rarely made successful long-term romantic pairings because of cultural differences between the two species. Dwarves were possessive by natural and prone to jealousy while also being less emotional and far more literal than humans.
In early November she gave birth to twins; she named the elder Aaron and the younger Andrew. Now you, Reader, may not have any knowledge of magic, but magic can be found in the most ordinary things. However, extraordinary things almost always have more potential for magic and mixed species identical twins were very rare indeed.
Tilda was not the best mother - her innate selfishness made her a subpar mother, actually - but she didn't pass into the terrible category until she found herself in debt. Had she known of the dwarven-crafted chain that Aaron had found among his father's belongings she would have sold that, but she didn't so she agreed to sell Andrew to a witch that was interested in purchasing both boys for their magical potential.
At first the witch had been kind and Andrew had had high hopes for her being a better mother than Tilda. But once they'd returned to the witch’s home, she had left Andrew in the care of her cruel and sadistic son.
The witch and her son wanted to figure out how to extract Andrew's core of magic for their own personal use. He refused to help them, but they kept coming up with ideas on how to force him. First, they tried a spell that left him in a manic state of euphoria at all times. They reasoned that if he was happy he was more likely to do as they wished. It didn't work. Although he was smiling and laughing, his anger simmered beneath, waiting to be unleashed.
Next, they tried a spell of obedience. This spell was particularly complicated (and outlawed in Faerie) and only worked on those with weak wills. Needless to say, Andrew's will was not weak and the spell didn't take.
Finally, after years of failure, the witch and her son wanted to give up on Andrew. The witch travelled back to Tree to see if Tilda was willing to sell her second son. As Tilda had gotten into money troubles again, she was willing to sell, and Aaron accompanied the witch back to her home.
Andrew was filled with rage. He was not about to let the witch and her son break his brother because they'd failed to break him. He rebelled, causing havoc.
The witch was at the end of her rope. If only she could make it so that Andrew didn't care about what she had planned for Aaron. She was reminded then of an ancient curse, a spell that stopped the person affected from feeling anything. If she could cast it on Andrew, he would stop fighting them.
She and her son gathered up the ingredients and prepared to cast the curse. Aaron blocked the door to their room when they came for Andrew, trying to protect him from what would happen.
“I won't let them hurt you,” Andrew promised as he was dragged away.
“Soon you won't care,” taunted the witch’s son.
Andrew was both incandescent with rage and terrified, but as soon as the curse was laid upon him, he was empty. He couldn't feel any emotions, he was unconcerned about the witch and her son and uncaring about Aaron.
However, that didn't mean he was compliant. The witch and her son mistook his indifference for obedience and grew careless when monitoring him. Andrew did not forget his promise to his brother. He had no emotional connection to it, but he also had no reason not to uphold it. He slipped sedatives into the tea of the witch and her son and then burned their house to the ground while they slept.
Aaron looked at him in horror, both for what he had done and what had been done to him. Andrew, of course, didn't care about either.
With nowhere else to go, the twins returned to Tree. There, they found Tilda had disappeared some time before and their aunt and uncle wanted nothing to do with them, especially Andrew, whose curse frightened them. It was nothing new. In their voyage home they had learned that the witch-magic which clung almost imperceptibly to Andrew made people wary.
They found their cousin Nicky working in a tavern called Eden’s Twilight which catered to non-human clientele. Nicky was currently estranged from his parents because they didn’t approve of his relationship with a High Elf. The Elf, Erik, was currently far away across the kingdom hoping to find a place to live that would be free of the prejudices that a human-Elf couple faced in Tree. Nicky was working in the tavern to raise funds, but was looking for better paying work.
All this information had been provided to Andrew and Aaron shortly after they tracked Nicky down. He seemed perfectly happy to chatter away about his life, grateful for quiet, if not particularly interested, listeners.
Finally, Aaron got around to telling Nicky what had befallen them with the witch and her son.
“A curse!” exclaimed Nicky, running his eyes over Andrew with renewed interest. “We don’t see a lot of those around here. You should go see Betsy!”
“Why?” asked Aaron warily, his distrust of magic almost palpable.
“To help you break the curse, of course! She’s very talented with magic.”
“Why should he break the curse?” asked Aaron hotly. “I would give anything not to feel emotions. Nothing affects him, he’s never worried or angry or sad.”
“But what about love?” asked Nicky. “Or joy or amusement or relief? You would have him miss out on those emotions, too? You said he doesn’t want anything. How can you go through life without goals, without looking forward?”
“I don’t want anything,” confirmed Andrew. “Except for one thing. The curse allows me to want to break it.”
“Well if that is your only desire, then of course we must break the curse!” cried Nicky. “Come with me to meet Betsy, she is a mind-witch of extraordinary intelligence.”
“It was a witch that got us into this mess in the first place,” grumbled Aaron. “I don’t trust her.”
Andrew didn’t trust anyone, but he didn’t see the harm in going to see the mind-witch. If she tried to hurt or trick him or Aaron he would stop her and punish her. It seemed straightforward to him. Aaron’s lingering fear over their last encounter with a witch was clouding his judgment.
“Oh,” said the mind-witch as soon as she saw Andrew. “I’m not sure I can fix this. It is a very powerful curse.”
Nicky slumped in dejection. “There’s nothing you can do?”
“Curses like these are difficult to undo,” said Betsy. “It’s twisted into him, anchored in his core of magic so tightly that to undo it by force would damage him. Even if it is undone, it will always leave its mark on him. There are ways I know of that can ease the effects of a curse, but they’ll never be able to reverse it completely.” She cocked her head thoughtfully. “Of course I do not know everything there is to know. I have a very dear friend who travels far and wide and has knowledge that I lack. Perhaps together we can help ease your suffering.”
“I am not suffering,” said Andrew.
“Not that you can feel,” replied Betsy.
“Is your friend also a witch?” asked Aaron with hostility.
“Yes,” said Betsy. “But she is a healer, not a mind-witch like me. She is due to arrive in Tree in a fortnight; return then and we will discuss your curse with her.”
A fortnight later, they met with Abby, the healer. She and Betsy both observed Andrew, burnt herbs, and made him drink tea, all while having an incomprehensible conversation.
Betsy said, “But what about-”
And then Abby answered, “No, not with the-”
Which led to Betsy continuing, “Oh, right, because of that-”
Ending with Abby sighing, “And there’s no substitute for the cardamom.” Then they’d lapse into silence while staring at Andrew, before starting another almost identical conversation.
They fed him berries and potions under Aaron’s watchful eyes, but their frowns kept getting deeper and deeper.
Eventually, a large burly man pushed his way into Betsy’s house. “Abby, what in the blazes is taking so long?” he demanded.
“I’m working, David,” she said curtly, and then turned to Betsy and said, “Cuttlefish?”
The man, David, appeared to be human (although his eyes were of a colour that hinted at magical ability); he examined Andrew and his family. His strange-coloured eyes bored into them, as if he could see their truths. “Half-dwarves?” he asked, nodding to Andrew and Aaron.
“Yes,” said Aaron testily, on guard for hateful rhetoric.
“Either of you get any dwarven traits?” asked David instead.
“We’re both pretty good with machinery,” said Aaron hesitantly.
“And are both possessive,” muttered Nicky.
“Engines?” asked David, ignoring Nicky’s input.
“I’ve never tried,” admitted Aaron.
“Ever been on a sky-ship?”
“No,” replied Andrew. He could vaguely recall that he’d never wanted to - he thought he may have been afraid of them.
“Want to?” asked David. “I’m hiring.”
“We don’t know who you are,” said Aaron.
“I’m Wymack,” said David. “Captain David Wymack, to be precise, of the sky-ship Palmetto.”
“And you’re looking for crew?” asked Nicky.
“Depends. Who are you?”
“I’m Nicky,” he said. “I’m their cousin. They live with me. We’re all looking for employment.”
“I run a crew of lightning-hunters,” said Wymack. “We fly into storms and bottle the lightning within. We make port in Tree every couple months, because of the market, but we travel all over Faerie.” He went on to explain what tasks would be required of them and how they would be compensated, and after another hour the three of them had agreed and found themselves gainfully employed.
“Excellent,” said Abby. “Since you’re travelling with us, Andrew, I can continue trying to come up with a cure for your curse and we can consult with Betsy whenever we’re back in Tree.”
Wymack went with them back to Nicky’s house where they gathered their belongings and then escorted them to where the sky-ship was moored, among the highest branches of Tree.
“Listen up, crew,” he announced as he brought them on board. “I’ve hired some replacements for those good-for-nothings who abandoned us at our last port. This here is Nicky Hemmick, the new cook, and his cousins Aaron and Andrew Minyard, who are going to be working in the engine room with Renee. Now treat them nicely or else they might abandon us, too.”
The crew looked at them curiously, until one of them, a kitsune in her human form, stepped forwards. “I’m Dan, second-in-command,” she said in a high clear voice. “That means I’m in charge if Wymack isn’t around. These are Matt, Seth, Renee, and Allison.”
“What’s wrong with him?” asked Seth, pointing straight at Andrew. “There’s something off about him.”
“He has a curse,” said Abby patiently. “Betsy and I are working to try to counteract it. Don’t be rude.”
The others shrugged, and Renee came forwards, offering to show them to their quarters. Over the next several months, they settled into a routine. Working, and eating, and sometimes socializing with their crew-mates. At each new port, Abby dragged Andrew to various magic folk, but they never found anything useful. Andrew wasn’t frustrated or disappointed, but he’d come to realize that there was no cure. He would forever float along in grey disinterest while everyone else engaged in the world. He wasn’t angry or jealous, this was just the way the world was.
Until Kevin Day joined the crew and made a deal with him.
He met Kevin by mistake.
The Palmetto had taken port in a small northern town, close to the capital, Evermore. After he and Abby had met with the local wisewoman to no avail, Andrew had been making his way towards a tavern where Nicky and Aaron had decided to spend their free time when he’d been accosted by a pickpocket. He’d reacted violently. In the absence of emotions and feelings, Andrew’s worldview was black and white, with no room for shades of grey. He had strict rules and if anyone breached them, whether they meant to or not, Andrew reacted with extreme violence to ensure that it wouldn’t happen twice.
He’d made a deal with Wymack that he wouldn’t kill anyone. Deals were easy for him to understand, fitting right in with his worldview: he did something and someone else did something in return. Andrew always kept his word, but reacted badly if the other person broke theirs.
The pickpocket had broken two rules (entering into Andrew’s personal space without permission, and attempting to steal from him). Andrew broke his arm. The man’s shrieks of pain drew attention.
“What did you do that for?” cried the man.
“You attempted to steal from me and you touched me without permission,” replied Andrew.
“You overreacted!” said the man.
“I don’t care,” said Andrew.
“I’m going to call the city guard.”
“I don’t care,” repeated Andrew.
“I don’t know where you’re from, but around here we follow the laws of King Moriyama, and his sons the Princes Ichirou and Riko,” said one of the bystanders.
“I don’t care,” repeated Andrew for the third time. “I am not afraid of them.”
“You should be,” said someone else darkly.
“I am not afraid of anything,” said Andrew, and continued on his way to the tavern. He hadn’t gone far before he realized that someone was following him. “What do you want,” he said flatly without turning around.
“You are one of the crew of the Palmetto, correct?” a man’s voice asked.
“Are you really not afraid of Riko?” he asked hesitantly.
“Yes,” said Andrew.
“Can you protect me from him?”
“Why not?” the voice was petulant now.
“I don’t care enough to,” replied Andrew.
“What if I can offer something in exchange?”
Andrew turned and looked at the man who was speaking with him. He was dressed in the red and black livery of the Moriyama household, with a scabbard at his waist. His left hand was wrapped in bandages and held in a sling. His green eyes were earnest under his dark hair, and he had the mark of a knight tattooed on his left cheek.
“Like a deal?” clarified Andrew.
“Yes,” said the man. “What do you want?”
“I want nothing,” said Andrew.
The man looked at him with narrowed eyes. “Oh,” he said in realization. “You are cursed.”
“I can break it,” he offered.
“It is unbreakable,” said Andrew.
The man scoffed. “No curse is unbreakable. If you protect me from Riko I will help you break your curse.”
“If you can’t keep your end of the bargain, I will react violently,” Andrew felt compelled to warn. He had had this problem before; people not holding up their end of the bargain and being surprised when he punished them. He wasn’t angry, just reacting to the world in the only way he understood.
“I can do it,” said the man arrogantly. “Now take me to your ship.”
Kevin had been searching for the Palmetto for a while, he said, since he knew that Wymack was her captain. His mother and Wymack had been friends before Kevin’s birth. Once they arrived back at the Palmetto, they found Wymack and Kevin explained that he was trying to escape from his service to Prince Riko. His hand had been badly broken by the prince for an imagined slight and Kevin wanted a way out. He explained to Wymack and Abby the deal he had made with Andrew.
“And what is your plan for when you cannot honour your deal?” Abby asked, having been witness to several of Andrew’s punishments.
“I can honour it!” protested Kevin.
“I’ve been searching for months,” said Abby. “The curse can’t be broken.”
“Any curse can be broken,” replied Kevin imperiously. “All you need is the heart of a star.”
Abby had washed her hands of Kevin's plan as soon as she heard it. Stars, she said, were hard to come by. A star hadn't fallen into Faerie for at least twenty years, and the one before that had been over a century ago. She would continue trying to help Andrew the same way she had been, and Kevin could suffer the consequences of reneging on his deal. Abby did tend to Kevin's broken hand, though. Dark magic had been used to injure it, so she wasn't able to heal it completely, but Kevin was able to partially regain feeling and motor control.
Andrew started scouring the skies for falling stars. He took night watches in order to scan the heavens. The others made fun of him, saying that they hadn't thought he could experience hope. It wasn't hope that sent him to the crow’s nest night after night: it was simple logic. If his curse could only be broken by gaining possession of a star's heart, he had to find a star.
One night, a little over a year after Kevin joined the crew of the Palmetto, Andrew's patience paid off. It was in the very early hours of the morning when he saw a glowing light arcing across the southern sky. He carefully watched where the light touched down and went to wake Kevin.
Kevin did not want to be woken. Andrew grabbed his ankle and turned him out of his hammock. He fell to the ground in a heap of blankets, crashing loudly and swearing up a storm. Rude comments and entreaties that Kevin shut up came from the other occupants of the room.
“Kevin,” said Andrew. “There's a star. Get up.”
Kevin blinked up at him without comprehension, and then his eyes fluttered closed. Andrew unwrapped him from his blankets and prodded him until they were on deck, the cool night air helping to wake Kevin up.
“What's this nonsense you're spouting?” he asked through a yawn.
“A star, Kevin,” said Andrew. “It fell in the southern forest.”
Kevin blinked more awake. “Are you sure it fell in Faerie?” he inquired. “In Faerie, not the mundane world?”
“Yes,” said Andrew. “I watched it come down in the southern forest. To the west of Butterfly Falls, but to the east of Unicorn Valley.” He pointed.
“We'll never get there in time,” moaned Kevin. “There's going to be so many people who want the star for themselves.”
“You made me a deal, Kevin,” said Andrew. “You promised to break my curse.”
Kevin nodded and lapsed into quiet thoughtfulness. He straightened suddenly. “I know how we'll get it,” he said excitedly. “Pack a bag, I'm not sure I’ll have enough wax to get us back again.”
Andrew nodded and went to pack a bag. He filled it with warm clothes and non-perishable food and his money pouch. Aaron woke up, asked what he was doing, and pressed some medical supplies into his hands. Aaron also lent him one of his most prized possessions: a coil of thin, silver, dwarven-made chain, cold and slippery to the touch. He had found it among their father’s possessions when he was young and had hidden it at their uncle’s house when he’d been sold to the witch.
Andrew met Kevin back on deck. He, too, was carrying a pack and holding a stubby candle made of midnight-black wax.
“It's a Babylon candle,” explained Kevin. “As long as it's lit each step the holder takes lets him travel as far as his eyes can see.”
Aaron gasped. “I thought those were myth,” he said in awe.
Kevin shook his head. “I've never heard of another one,” he said. “This one was my mother's, and her mother's before her, and her mother's before her.” He stroked the side of the candle. “This will get us to the star, but probably not all the way back.”
“We'll head for Tree,” said Andrew. “We can stay with Betsy until the Palmetto is back in town.”
“Be careful,” said Aaron. “Just because you aren't afraid of anything doesn't mean that there aren't things to be afraid of out there.”
“Stay on board,” replied Andrew. “I expect you to be alive when I get back.”
“Ready?” asked Kevin. At Andrew's nod, he struck a match. “Hold on to me,” he ordered, and lit the candle.
Andrew kept a firm grip on Kevin's pack as he took his first step, and suddenly they'd reached the horizon.
It took five steps to get to the southern forest. Andrew jostled Kevin and directed him toward where the star had landed, and one tiny step later they were in a small clearing. Kevin snuffed out the candle and they looked around. There was a crater where the star had hit the ground with a boy climbing out of it. He was dressed strangely: barefoot and wearing a silver dress. Despite this, he moved like a flash. Andrew reacted quickly. The boy was stealing the star. He hefted a tree branch into his hands and swung it at the boy when he made a dash for it. He struck him across the stomach and the boy crumpled into a ball.
“Better luck next time,” said Andrew. “Now give me the star.”
The boy swore at him and glared upwards with eyes that were the same cold silvery-blue colour as stars on winter nights. His eyes flickered between Andrew and Kevin as he clearly plotted escape. Andrew couldn't let him go as he either had the star or knew where it was, so he slipped one looped end of his dwarven chain over his thin wrist, much to the boy’s anger.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, his eyes flashing.
“Making sure you don’t escape with my property,” replied Andrew, slipping the other end of the chain over his own wrist, essentially shackling the two of them together. The chain was made of cat’s breath and fish scales and moonlight on a mill-pond, melted and smithied and forged in a dwarven cavern. It tightened itself around Andrew’s wrist and could not be broken or slipped free from until he asked it to release him.
“Where is my star?” Andrew asked.
“Your star?” the boy spat. He spoke with an accent that Andrew couldn't place. “I do not belong to anyone, least of all you.”
“It fell here,” said Kevin, pointing at the crater. “What have you done with it?”
The big squinted at him, as if he were trying to make sense of the question. “I don't understand,” he said eventually.
“A star,” said Kevin loudly and slowly as if he were speaking to someone particularly dim. “We need its heart.”
The boy looked at him in horror and didn't answer. He crossed his arms petulantly and neither of them could get another word out of him.
Andrew wandered over to Kevin, stretching out the chain between him and the boy as far as it would go. “This is going nowhere,” grumbled Kevin. “One of us should hold him down while the other searches him and get this over with.”
At that moment, a small pop echoed through the clearing and two knights wearing the livery of the Moriyamas materialized out of nowhere.
They took a minute to get their bearings, but as soon as they did, one of them pointed directly at the boy.
“There it is,” he said. “Gods, it looks just like the Butcher. Look, it even glows.” Now that they mentioned it, Andrew could see a slight shimmer that surrounded the boy.
Kevin paled, but his voice was steady when he spoke. “Herrera, Leverett,” he greeted the knights, “there's nothing here for you.”
“Day,” said the female knight in surprise. “We're on a quest for the prince. He wants the star.” She indicated the boy - no, realized Andrew, the star - who had become incredibly tense and was starting to yank on the chain around his wrist, vying for freedom.
“He's our star,” said Andrew, raising his arm to show off the chain. “I caught him.”
“It's the property of the Moriyamas,” said the male knight imperiously. “It's coming with us.”
Kevin unsheathed the sword at his waist. “I'm afraid that that's not true,” he said, and attacked.
Both of the knights were taken by surprise, not expecting their former comrade to fight them; however, they were both highly trained and recovered quickly.
Andrew leapt into the fray, hitting Leverett with the tree branch he was still holding. He had limited movement as he was still chained to the star so he backed up towards him, giving the chain as much slack as possible.
Kevin dispatched his opponent and then took a knife out of his boot and threw it at Leverett. She ducked it at the last second and the knife sailed over her, headed right towards the star's heart. Andrew lunged and batted it out of the air with his branch. The star gaped at him in surprise before his face twisted up angrily.
Kevin knocked Leverett out and rushed over to them. “They were only the first,” he said. “We have to get as far away from here as possible.” He pulled out the tiny lump that remained of his Babylon candle. Andrew grasped Kevin with one arm and the star with the other as Kevin lit the candle. He only took two steps, the star fighting against him all the way, before it sputtered out. They were at least a day's journey from where the star had crash landed, but still deep in the forest.
The star shoved away from Andrew's hold and flung himself on the ground despondently. “I hate you,” he said fervently. “Do you know what you did?”
“I saved your life,” Andrew pointed out.
“Exactly,” sighed the star. “And now I'm bound by the code of my people to stay with you until I've returned the favour or you release me from your debt.”
“Are you just saying that to get me to untie you?” asked Andrew.
“No,” said the star, sounding sad. “Now I can't even kill you in your sleep.”
“Comforting,” said Kevin dryly.
The star’s eyes narrowed at him. “You I can kill,” he said smugly. “You're the one who threw the knife.”
Kevin stepped back a little. “Relax, Kevin,” said Andrew. “Just stay out of his range. He can only get so far away from me.”
Kevin took stock of their surroundings. “We’re west of where we started. If we head north, we should reach a road before long which will get us to a village.” He eyed the star’s clothing. “We’ll need to dress you in something different so you don’t attract undue attention.”
The star looked down at himself. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
“It’s a little… feminine,” said Kevin, wrinkling his nose.
“And that’s wrong?” asked the star in bewilderment.
“Well, you’re not female,” said Kevin.
“Am I not?” asked the star, again looking down at himself. “How do you know?”
Kevin growled in frustration so Andrew explained the differences between genders to the star.
“It seems very arbitrary,” said the star dubiously. “Who decides which gender can do what? And what if someone doesn’t like their assigned gender?”
“There are some people who don’t connect with their assigned gender,” said Andrew. “And some who connect with both or neither.”
“Then why assign genders in the first place?” asked the star. “Why not wait until everyone decides which they connect with? Stars don’t make everything so complicated.”
“Stars don’t have genders?” asked Kevin.
“No,” replied the star. “It’s a silly human construct. I used to think that I understood humans quite well - I’ve been watching you for quite a while, after all - but maybe I don’t.”
“Would you prefer for us to refer to you as a different gender than male?” Andrew asked.
The star thought for a few silent minutes. “No,” he eventually decided. “I was granted this body by magic when I fell into your land, and if you say it’s male, then I’ll be male. I’ll try to follow your strange customs, even if my clothes are wrong.”
“Do you have a name?” asked Kevin.
The star sneered. “You would not be able to comprehend the language of the stars.”
“Try anyway,” said Andrew.
The star opened his mouth and made a sound that was impossible to replicate or understand. Andrew could hear an N sound, later a th, and it ended with ‘eel’, but in between was a strange tinkling that sounded reminiscent of the waves in the ocean, the aurora borealis, the static of storm clouds before a lightning strike, and the crackling of melting ice on a fast-flowing river.
“Neil?” suggested Andrew.
“No,” said the star sounding almost despondent. “But you can call me that anyway.”
“We should get moving before more of Riko’s knights find us,” said Kevin.
“How did they arrive in the first place?” asked Andrew.
“Teleportation spell,” said Kevin with a grimace. “They’re not commonly used because they’re not very accurate, they make your stomach feel like it has been turned inside out, and they take an extraordinary amount of energy. I’m assuming that in order to capture a star Riko would go to any end.”
“And who is the Butcher?” asked Andrew. “Neil apparently looks just like him.”
“He’s a ruthless servant of the King,” said Kevin. He looked thoughtfully at the star. “There is a certain resemblance between the two.”
“You mean you don’t know?” asked Neil.
“Know what?” asked Kevin.
“He’s a star,” said Neil. “A corrupted one. Your king caught him and stole his heart but instead of letting him die he twisted him into something violent and evil.”
“You know him?” asked Andrew.
“He’s the one who came before me,” said Neil, with the air of someone explaining something basic. “He’s my… father, I suppose would be the closest word in your language. Plus,” he added, “we’re always watching.” He swept an arm upwards, indicating the star-studded night sky.
“Well that’s… a little disconcerting,” said Kevin, looking up. “That we’re being watched all the time.”
“Most stars aren’t that interested in watching your trivial lives,” said Neil. “My mother tried to prevent me from paying too much attention, she even forbade me at one point, because it’s always the stars that are fascinated by the Earth that choose to fall.”
“Your mother?” asked Kevin.
“The moon,” said Neil, again as if he were saying something obvious.
“Great,” said Kevin dryly. “Your father is a soulless murderer and your mother is the moon and you’re wearing a dress.” He paused to take a breath. “I was not expecting the star to be human,” he admitted.
“I am not a human,” said Neil, affronted.
“Humanesque, then,” said Kevin. “We can’t just take his heart,” he said desperately to Andrew. “We gave him a name. You’re not supposed to name things that you’re planning on killing.”
“I know,” said Andrew. His own personal code of conduct allowed for murder, but only if provoked. Additionally, the part of his mind where the dwarven possessiveness that he’d inherited from his father was located was telling him that Neil belonged to him now, and therefore must be protected. “We’ll take him to Betsy,” he decided.
“There will be a lot of people looking for him,” warned Kevin. “We’ll have to teach him how to blend in. It would help if he’d stop glowing.”
“It’s not my fault,” said Neil defensively. “Stars glow. Especially when they’re happy.”
“Well be less happy, then,” said Kevin.
“Around you, I’m sure I will be,” said Neil, darkly.
Kevin’s plan to get them to the nearest village backfired almost immediately as Neil refused to move.
“I’m not sure where you got the idea that I was going to quietly comply with you, but I’m not,” he said. “I’m actually going to try to disrupt your plans as much as I can.”
“Why?” said Kevin in exasperation. “We’ve been nothing but nice to you!”
The star stared at him flatly. “You’ve tied me up and kidnapped me. The fact that you haven’t killed me yet doesn’t make you nice.”
“We saved you from the king’s knights who would have made you into a second Butcher!” cried Kevin.
“And are taking me somewhere to extract my heart,” countered Neil.
“We weren’t expecting you to be humanoid,” said Kevin, having learned his lesson about calling Neil human. “Don’t take it personally.”
“I have to,” said Neil. “It’s my life.” He then turned his back on them and refused to respond to anything Kevin said.
“Andrew,” Kevin eventually whined when he’d reached his wit’s end. “Do something.”
Andrew walked over to where Neil was sitting and nudged him with his foot. Neil lashed out, shoving Andrew’s leg away.
“What do you want?” asked Andrew.
“Everybody wants something,” said Andrew. “Tell me what it is, and I’ll give it to you in exchange for your cooperation.”
“Well, I really would prefer it if you left me alone,” said Neil sarcastically, “but I have a feeling that that’s not on offer.”
“No,” agreed Andrew.
Neil didn’t say anything for another couple minutes. “I don’t want to end up like my father,” he finally said quietly. “What he’s like now… just, don’t let anyone do that to me. Make sure I die before that happens.”
“We’re going to a town called Tree to see a witch,” said Andrew. “From now until then, you’re under my protection.” He decided to try and comfort Neil. “We’re not planning on hurting you,” he said. “And I don’t think she’s going to either. We were expecting you to be an inanimate rock of some kind; we’re not going to kill a sentient being just to break a curse.”
Neil didn’t appear to believe him.
“Now, get up and get going before Kevin blows a gasket,” said Andrew, tugging a little on the chain that connected them and heading over to get his pack.
“Hey, Andrew,” said Neil. When Andrew turned back to him, he asked, “If everyone wants something, what is it that you want?”
“I want to be able to want,” replied Andrew.
It didn’t take Neil long to discover that the best way to irritate Kevin was to ask incessant questions. Andrew, obviously, was incapable of getting annoyed or embarrassed and so patiently indulged in Neil’s curiosity. He had a theory that Neil would be more likely to answer Andrew’s questions if Andrew answered Neil’s.
Neil’s knowledge about life on earth had several large gaps in it. Although he had been watching from above, he was unable to see anything that happened under a roof and he was unable to hear what people were discussing. Also, his knowledge of things that generally occurred after dark was more complete. It was different, the way he saw the world, and Andrew couldn’t understand Kevin’s annoyance at hearing a brand new perspective.
They walked through the rest of the night. Once the dawn light started filtering through the trees, Neil’s steps got slower and the rate at which he was asking questions decreased.
“What’s wrong now?” asked Kevin irritably.
“I’m nocturnal,” said Neil, and although he didn’t say it the ‘you idiot’ was practically audible. “Aren’t you tired? You were awake all night.”
Kevin sighed, as if Neil were being unreasonable, and thought about it. “There’s a clearing not too far away,” he finally said. “We can stop for a short rest.”
By the time they reached the clearing, the sun was fully visible.
“Show off,” Neil muttered. “You’re not special!” he shouted at the sun. “You’re only so bright because you’re so close! I was much more impressive than you, when I was up there!”
“Stop yelling at the sky,” said Kevin. He pulled some dried food out of his pack. “What do you eat?”
“Hydrogen,” replied Neil.
“Try some nuts,” offered Andrew, passing them over.
Neil grumbled a little, but ate his nuts and eventually settled down under a tree at the maximum distance away from Andrew that the chain allowed. Kevin settled across the clearing, and Andrew leaned back against a tree. He didn’t feel relaxed enough to sleep, but he dozed lightly.
He came fully awake several hours later at the sound of something large moving through the underbrush. Kevin, usually impossible to wake, apparently had also been sleeping lightly, because he, too, was alert and looking towards the noise. Andrew tugged on the chain to get the star’s attention. Neil muttered uncomplimentary things about him, but was fully conscious by the time a large horse sauntered into the clearing. No, thought Andrew when he took in the horse's white coat and single horn protruding from its forehead, not a horse, a unicorn.
Kevin yelped when he realized what had entered the clearing. He made a beeline towards Andrew and Neil, but ran past them, hoisting himself up into the tree that they'd been sleeping against. The unicorn paid him no mind, as it was occupied by examining Neil. Of course, as an animal its method of examination was to sniff him all over. Neil had to gently guide its head to avoid getting skewered by mistake.
In consternation, he looked up into the tree where Kevin was wrapped around a thick branch. “What's he doing?” he whispered to Andrew.
“I don't know,” replied Andrew. “What's going on there, Kevin?”
“It's a unicorn,” Kevin whisper-shouted down at them, as if he was worried the unicorn would overhear him. “Everybody knows that they don't like men, and they viciously attack everyone who isn't a virgin.”
“Is that right?” said Neil, idly scratching the unicorn between its eyes. “What's a virgin?”
Kevin sputtered a little and blushed. “You know,” he said in a furious whisper. “It's someone who's never had sex.”
“Alright, okay,” said Neil. “And what's sex?”
Kevin choked so hard Andrew thought he might fall out of the tree.
“It's a physical act-” Andrew started explaining when it seemed like Kevin wasn't going to.
“No, no, Andrew,” interrupted Neil. “Kevin's explaining it to me.” Unseen by Kevin, his eyes glittered with mischief.
Kevin stumbled through an awkward description of sex while Neil made thoughtful humming sounds and asked occasional questions.
“So we should have sex?” Neil finally asked. “To physically express the deep feelings we all have for each other now that we are allies?”
“No!” cried Kevin, sounding completely horrified and Neil burst out laughing.
Kevin sighed deeply. “You already knew what sex was didn't you?”
“Yup,” said Neil joyfully. “People do it outside, sometimes in large groups.”
Kevin choked again. “You've watched orgies?” he squeaked.
“Not too many,” replied Neil, meeting Andrew's eyes and grinning. “You see one orgy, you've seen them all. Besides, nothing nowadays compares to the parties Dionysus used to throw.”
“Did you also know what a virgin was?” asked Andrew.
“No,” replied Neil. “That's another human construct, like gender. You can come down, by the way,” he said to Kevin, “the unicorn really doesn't care about human customs.”
“It's common knowledge,” complained Kevin.
“Unicorns only attack those who mean them harm,” said Neil, stroking along the unicorn’s neck. “I'm guessing there's a large overlap between those that mean them harm and men who are not virgins, but that's correlation, not causation.”
“What's it doing here?” asked Andrew, intrigued by the magical creature.
“We're both made of magic,” said Neil softly. “She could sense me and was curious and wanted to say hello.”
Kevin descended from the tree then, falling the last couple metres. He got to his feet and brushed down his clothes, before stomping away with a few twigs and leaves still in his hair.
“Go on, beautiful,” said Neil to the unicorn. “I'm alright.” The unicorn whickered and nosed at the chain around his wrist. “I know,” Neil assured her. “But I'm bound to protect his life so you can't kill him.”
The unicorn surveyed Andrew solemnly before nudging Neil's hand one last time and leaving the clearing. Andrew was fairly certain that he had just been judged and found lacking by a powerful, magical beast.
He turned from where he'd watched the unicorn disappear and found the star’s eyes on him, assessing.
“You weren't afraid,” Neil observed. “But I know you still have preservation instincts. Why didn't you protect yourself from her?”
“I didn't need to,” Andrew pointed out.
“No,” said Neil, “but you didn't know that at first.”
“She headed straight for you and I promised you my protection,” said Andrew. “I had to be close by in case she attacked you.”
Surprise flickered across Neil's face, before he was back to looking thoughtful.
“Come on,” said Kevin's irritated voice from close by. “Now that we're not napping anymore, we can get a move on.”
They reached the outskirts of the tiny village around midday on the following day. Their trip had been mostly uneventful; Andrew had asked Neil several questions about unicorns and Neil had deigned to answer the majority of them until Kevin had gotten interested despite himself. Neil had stopped being so forthcoming when Kevin was listening, instead asking questions about the names of their surrounding flora; which led to some bickering between Kevin and Neil. Andrew was unsure why Neil seemed more inclined to answer his questions than Kevin’s. Kevin was generally rude and abrupt, yes, but Andrew was the one who had bound him with a chain. Andrew supposed that it may be due to the fact that he had answered many of Neil’s own questions and the star was trying to keep things even between the two of them. It was how Andrew himself operated, but he’d never met anyone else who desired reciprocity as much as he did.
Kevin left Andrew and Neil at the treeline near the village; although they could have cobbled together an outfit for Neil out of the clothes in their packs, they didn’t have any extra footwear and walking around barefoot would be certain to raise some questions.
“Aren’t you cold?” Andrew asked Neil as they waited for Kevin to return. The nights were very chilly and Kevin wouldn’t risk a fire, but the star had refused all offers of clothing warmer than the thin fabric that he wore.
Neil looked at him as if he had asked the stupidest question he’d ever heard. “I used to live in space,” he said. “It’s much warmer here. Plus,” he added with a little smirk, “I run hot.”
They waited in silence for a while, Neil humming a little. “Are we going to go inside?” he asked, sounding excited at the prospect. “I’ve never seen inside.”
“Probably,” said Andrew. “Kevin was going to look for an inn we could stay in tonight.”
Neil wrinkled his nose. “I don’t understand his obsession with sleeping at night,” he said with distaste, then yanked on the chain attached to his wrist. “Won’t it be suspicious that you keep me chained? I thought I had to put on shoes so that I wouldn’t be noticeable.”
Andrew was reluctant to release him - he wasn’t sure if it was his dwarven possessiveness telling him that a star was an impressive treasure or the guarantee of protection he had offered Neil - but he had to admit that Neil had a point. It would be bad enough that Neil still tended to shimmer at night; hopefully it would be less noticeable inside.
“Do you promise not to escape?” he asked.
“We made a deal,” said Neil. “I’ll accompany you to Tree as long as you prevent me from becoming corrupted.” He tilted his head to the side. “Also, I’m bound to protect your life. Do you not trust me?”
“I don’t trust anyone,” replied Andrew, but he asked the chain to release them. As Neil watched with undisguised interest the loops slipped off their wrists. Andrew coiled the chain and put it safely into his pack.
Neil emitted a happy little laugh, and sprinted away. Andrew watched as he ran, weaving through the trees, the skirt of his dress streaming behind him. He circled around the area a few times before he came to a halt right in front of Andrew. His cheeks were flushed and he was smiling.
“I didn’t like being chained,” he explained.
“I won’t do it again,” promised Andrew. “Unless you try to escape.”
Kevin returned before long, with clothing for Neil and news of an inn that sat at the crossroads in the small village. Neil began to change into his new clothes, but Kevin squawked in indignation. Neil was bemused by his insistence that he change clothes in private, for stars had no need for modesty.
“Do you know how many humans frolic naked in the starlight?” he asked when Kevin informed him that people were generally clothed in public.
“No,” said Kevin acidly, “and I forbid you from telling me.”
He really should have expected that saying such a thing would cause Neil to begin telling stories of all the naked revels he had witnessed; Andrew was unsure why Kevin had expected him to do anything else.
They arrived at the inn shortly before dinner, dusty and travel sore and looking forward to a hot meal. The inn was mostly vacant - it serviced the surrounding farmland and travellers along the King’s road, but the number of people who needed lodging was small in the winter - so they were able to rent three rooms for the night. They retreated to their rooms to clean the grime of the past couple days off of themselves.
Andrew then went to retrieve Neil and found him lounging naked in his room, skin flushed and clean from his bath. He was shimmering a little and curiously examining everything in his tiny room. The bed seemed to be under intense scrutiny.
Andrew watched him for a bit, even as hunger pains made themselves obvious in his gut.
“Clothes,” he said. “It's time for dinner.”
Neil huffed slightly, but got dressed and then headed out for dinner.
Andrew put his arm across the doorway to prevent him from leaving. “Shoes,” he said, giving a pointed look to where Neil's boots had been carelessly discarded in the middle of the floor.
“What - inside, too?” asked Neil in distress, glaring balefully at his boots. “I don't like them. They pinch my toes.”
“I am literally incapable of caring, Neil,” said Andrew. “You're trying to be inconspicuous, remember? Put on your shoes and try to glow less.”
Neil glared, his glow rapidly dimming, and the hunger pangs that had been bothering Andrew abruptly ceased. There was a rapid knocking at the door as Neil sullenly shoved his feet into his boots.
“What's taking you so long?” Kevin complained. “It's time to eat.”
Dinner was fairly standard inn fare, but it was hot and filling, which, after days of dried fruit and nuts, was immensely satisfying. Despite the lack of guests, the dining room was quite full - locals coming in for food and socialization. Neil watched the other diners in abject fascination, while Andrew ate his food and minded his own business and Kevin took advantage of the fact that the proprietor had cracked open a keg of ale.
As the evening wore on, the room grew rowdier as the keg of ale grew lighter. Longstanding arguments and jokes were trotted out. Andrew stayed on the outskirts of the room, keeping his eyes on Kevin, who was drinking as if someone had challenged him to single-handedly empty the keg, and Neil, who was in the thick of things, watching various conversations with interest.
His attention did not go unnoticed. One of the villagers, a large man with a mean look on his face, rounded on Neil in annoyance. He had just tried to sweet talk a woman who had laughed at him and her companions had started heckling him. Embarrassed and angry, he was looking for someone to vent his anger on.
“What are you looking at?” he demanded, shoving at Neil’s shoulder.
Neil glanced up at him guilelessly. “Your face,” he said. Kevin groaned in despair from beside Andrew, letting his head fall heavily against the wooden tabletop, and Andrew started inching his way through the crowd. The man had over a foot on Neil and seemed to be made entirely from muscle. He was going to break every bone in the star’s body.
“What did you say?” asked the man in a dangerous tone. Most of the attention in the room was now centred on Neil.
“I said I’m looking at your face,” repeated Neil, enunciating carefully. “It’s very ugly. Are you perhaps half-ogre? Or maybe you have a gorilla in your family tree?”
“Hear that, Hawking?” yelled another man from across the room. “Kid thinks you look like a gorilla!”
“GO-rilla!” chimed in another one of his friends.
Hawking’s jaw tightened and his eyes flashed murder at Neil. By that time, Andrew had managed to push his way through the crowd. He caught Neil’s upper arm, pulling him back and placing himself between the star and the angry man. He stared up at Hawking impassively.
At first it seemed like Hawking was going to hit him in Neil’s place, but before long an expression of confusion passed over his face and he stepped back. Andrew knew that his short stature - courtesy of his dwarven father - made him seem nonthreatening at first glance but that his curse unnerved people. Most people in Faerie were unable to see magic or curses, but both left their mark on whoever they touched. Andrew’s curse granted him an aura of danger that even the most magic-insensitive people noticed.
Conversations around the room slowly recommenced, now that it seemed that there wasn’t going to be a fight. Andrew escorted Neil back to where Kevin was sitting.
“You’re the worst,” Kevin muttered mournfully when they got back to him. “Why are you the way you are?”
“I just am, Kevin,” said Neil. “You should definitely give me more instructions on how I should act.”
Kevin opened his mouth, likely to do just that, but Andrew cut him off. “Don’t,” he said, foreseeing Neil doing his best to do the exact opposite of whatever Kevin counselled.
“Fine,” Kevin slurred. “Let’s just go to sleep before he can get into any more trouble.”
Andrew slept better than he had for days, secure behind a door that locked with a sturdy wall at his back. The following morning he went to Neil’s room to make sure he was planning on wearing clothes and shoes to breakfast. He found the door unlocked and realized that neither he nor Kevin had explained the concept of locks to Neil. Pushing the door open, he paused when he noticed the room was empty. Empty of Neil, that was. His hated boots were still lying in a messy pile on the floor.
The bed covers were a little mussed, but the bed hadn’t been slept in, and the window was wide open, leaving the room quite cold. Andrew sat down on the bed heavily. He hadn’t trusted Neil to keep his word but faced with proof that the star had lied and escaped, he realized that he had expected that Neil would.
There was a small shuffling sound from underneath the bed and Andrew leaned over to have a look. Neil blinked sleepily back at him from where he was curled up under the bed.
“‘Ndrew?” he muttered. “Whatzit?”
“It’s morning,” said Andrew gruffly.
“Time for sleeping,” said Neil, closing his eyes.
“Time for breakfast,” corrected Andrew. “Kevin’s going to barge in here if you don’t get up soon.”
Neil grumbled but extracted himself from under the bed. Andrew brushed some of the dust out of his hair.
“This is not how you properly use a bed,” he said.
“It was too soft and warm,” explained Neil.
“I thought you were gone,” admitted Andrew.
Neil huffed. “I told you I wouldn’t escape.”
“I know that now,” said Andrew.
Neil looked at him thoughtfully. “Like I now know that you actually will protect me,” he said. The coolness from the morning air entering through the window sent a shiver up Andrew’s spine.
“I wouldn’t have had to protect you if you didn’t instigate a fight,” Andrew pointed out.
“That’s not necessarily true. That gorilla man was definitely looking for a fight.”
“All the same, you should refrain from doing that in the future.”
Neil grinned. “No promises,” he said. Then he jumped up from the bed. “You said something about breakfast?”
“Shoes,” said Andrew. Neil groaned theatrically.
They met Kevin at breakfast. He was still only half-awake, shoving toast and coffee into his mouth at a superhuman speed while he winced at bright lights or loud noises.
“We should head west,” he said.
“Tree is to the north,” argued Andrew.
“Yes,” said Kevin, “but if we travel there on foot it will take several months. One the other hand, if we head west it’ll take us about a month to reach Wall, just in time for the last few days of the Night Market. There will be a large number of merchants heading off in all directions after the Market’s closed for the season; we’ll likely be able to find passage to Tree.”
“Wall’s in the mundane world, isn’t it?” asked Neil, sounding cautious.
“There’s a stone wall, in the west, that divides the mundane world from Faerie,” said Kevin. “On both sides of the wall there is a village called Wall. The Night Market occurs in Faerie.”
“Why does it matter?” asked Andrew.
“In the mundane world, I’m an impossibility,” said Neil. “Scientists there have discovered that stars are actually burning balls of gas so far away that it takes millions of years just for their light to reach Earth. Falling stars are just space rocks that are colliding with the atmosphere. If I crossed into the mundane world, that’s all I’d be.”
“What if we brought you back into Faerie?” asked Andrew.
Kevin shook his head. “He’s a being of magic, and magic doesn’t exist in the mundane world,” he said, sounding uncomfortable. “Once lost, it could never be regained. He’d never be more than an inanimate rock.”
“And rocks don’t have hearts,” said Neil blithely. “So you’d better make sure I don’t end up in the mundane world by mistake.”
“I will,” said Andrew, somewhat disturbed by the mental image of Neil turning into a rock.
Kevin cleared his throat. “We should also stock up on supplies. It’s at least a four day trip to the next village along our route.”
Neil perked up. “When we’re not in town, do I have to wear my boots?”
Now that Neil was no longer chained he didn’t spend a lot of time near them as they travelled along the road that cut westwards through the forest. He sprinted ahead, climbed trees, and disappeared into the underbrush (often returning with nuts or berries). For some reason that Andrew didn’t understand, this behaviour annoyed Kevin even more than the star’s constant questions had. Andrew found himself expecting to hear Neil’s chatter but instead there was only silence.
“Can’t you just stay still and walk with us?” Kevin asked Neil in exasperation, when he’d returned with a flower he’d never seen before, asking Andrew to identify it. Andrew, who had spent years living with a witch and was an avid reader with an eidetic memory, was able to properly identify most of the plant species that Neil presented him with.
“Why are you such a fun sponge?” Neil asked Kevin in response.
“A what?” sputtered Kevin.
“A fun sponge,” repeated Neil. “You suck the fun out of everything.”
“There are people hunting for you,” complained Kevin. “And you know better than I do what kind of terrible things they’ll do to you if they catch you.”
“Aw, it almost sounds like you care about me.”
“They will catch all of us, not just you, if you’re obvious and suspicious,” said Kevin.
“Ah, there it is,” said Neil. “You’re worried about your own skin.” He turned to Andrew. “Does he do anything else other than panic about possible things that may happen?”
“Not usually,” said Andrew.
“I have hobbies,” interjected Kevin, sounding stung.
“He does spend a lot of time training with his sword,” Andrew admitted. “And he likes studying magical theory and history.”
“Impressive,” said Neil dryly. “Look, the life expectancy of a star that falls to Earth is very short,” he said. “And I don’t want to spend whatever time I have left following whatever arcane rules about behaviour that my kidnappers have for me.”
“I told you I would protect you,” said Andrew.
“As long as that suits your interest,” replied Neil. “What’s going to happen when we get to Tree and your witch tells you that the only way to break your curse is to kill me?”
“I don’t know,” answered Andrew, truthfully. “I already told you that we probably wouldn’t.”
Neil shook his head. “Stop trying to control me, Kevin,” he said. “It’s not going to work. The only thing that’s going to happen is that I’ll put energy into trying to spite you.”
It wasn’t long before Neil found a tree that he just had to climb.
“Why didn’t you tell him something more reassuring?” asked Kevin in an undertone.
“I’m not going to lie to him,” replied Andrew simply.
It ended up taking them five days to reach the next village. There’d been a slight delay when they’d run into a group of molemen travelling in the opposite direction. The molemen had been intrigued by Kevin’s face tattoo, wanting to hire a certified knight as protection, much to Neil’s amusement. They hadn’t been graceful in defeat when Kevin rejected their offer, and had somehow come to the conclusion that trying to steal Kevin’s belongings might cause him to change his mind. Andrew had set them straight, but a small altercation had left Kevin with a sprained ankle. He’d spent the last two days limping and complaining.
Kevin’s sour mood hadn’t been helped by Neil’s mockery, as his injury had resulted from him tripping and falling over one of the molemen. Nevertheless, Neil had disappeared shortly after Kevin had hurt himself and returned with an offer of willow bark to reduce the pain and swelling. Kevin didn’t seem to know how to respond to the thoughtful action, especially as it was accompanied by comments that questioned Kevin’s competence.
It was already dusk when they arrived at the village’s inn. Kevin groaned at the sight of the little, cheerfully lit building as odours of roasting meat and freshly baked bread wafted over them. He hurried inside, quickly procuring them a table. Again, the dining room was quite full, although there were more travellers interspersed with the locals than at the previous village. The meal was filling and hot and satisfying, and Andrew found drowsiness creeping over him as the evening progressed.
He was knocked out of his stupor by Neil’s annoyed voice carrying over the fray. “Yeah? Well at least my mother wasn’t a hamster!”
Andrew scanned the crowd and found Neil facing off against three much larger men. He resembled a tiny dog, or maybe a raccoon, bravely but stupidly challenging much larger animals. Andrew pushed himself off of the bench and started making his way across the room.
One of the men facing with Neil said something taunting about Neil’s size and his parentage, making Neil puff up angrily. “And your father smells of elderberries!” he replied.
Apparently that made the man lose his temper and he took a swing at Neil. Neil went down heavily, but was back on his feet in the blink of an eye, launching himself at the man who had punched him. It devolved from there; several bystanders were drawn into the fight and several more responsible people were trying to break it up. Andrew waded into the fray, wrapped his arms around Neil’s waist and dragged him away.
Neil was laughing, looking truly deranged due to the blood that was dripping from his nose and staining his teeth. His face was lit up, both figuratively and literally.
“Stop glowing,” hissed Kevin angrily after Andrew had manoeuvred Neil back over to their table.
“I’m enjoying myself,” said Neil.
“You enjoy getting punched in the face?” asked Kevin incredulously.
Neil made a fist. “I can show you?” he offered.
Kevin ignored him. “Stop picking fights,” he said irritably.
“They’re picking fights with me,” replied Neil. “They don’t seem to like me, for some reason.”
“Imagine that,” said Andrew dryly.
Neil flashed him a grin. “It’s unfathomable.”
The inn’s proprietress bustled over and threatened to evict them.
Andrew motioned to Neil. “He didn’t take the first swing,” he said.
Kevin offered her a couple extra coins for their rooms and she made them promise that they wouldn’t leave Neil unattended again.
“Like I’m an unruly child,” muttered Neil.
“That actually sounds fairly accurate,” said Andrew.
Neil scoffed but didn’t cause any more problems that evening and the three of them managed to leave without incident the following day.
It was an recurring set of events, though. At practically every inn where they stopped Neil managed to somehow get into a fight, usually acting as the instigator. Kevin had given Neil the silent treatment for three days after Neil had actually gotten them kicked out of an establishment, robbing them of soft beds for the night.
Andrew just assumed that Neil liked running his mouth; he was exceedingly talented at started fights, but definitely lacked the ability to end them. After a couple weeks he began to suspect that Neil had another motivation.
“Haven’t I proven that I’ll keep my end of the bargain yet?” he asked Neil one evening after another fight. He was getting ready for bed, moving the bed against the wall so that he could sleep with his back propped up against it. Since Neil still preferred to sleep on the floor, they’d stopped paying for him to have his own room and he’d been sharing Andrew’s. He’d pulled open the wardrobe and was making himself a nest to sleep in on its floor.
“What do you mean?” asked Neil.
It was something that had occurred to him earlier. Neil had agreed to travel with them to Tree in exchange for Andrew’s protection, but he’d had no guarantee that Andrew would actually be willing or able to save him from harm. In every fight he’d been in, every time he was threatened, Andrew had entered the fight to extract him because it was part of their deal.
“You’ve been testing me,” said Andrew. “You want to make sure that I’ll protect you like I promised.” He raised his eyebrow in Neil’s direction. “I will. You’ve seen it now. You don’t have to continue checking.”
Neil’s eyes shone in the low light as he thoughtfully regarded Andrew. “Maybe I’m just a jerk who likes antagonizing people.”
“Well, that’s true, too,” said Andrew. “But I’m just saying that you can relax. I have your back.”
“Okay,” said Neil quietly, snuggling into the blankets in the wardrobe.
“Neil?” Andrew asked, taking a chance that Neil was comfortable enough with him to answer a question that he had so far been avoiding. “Why did you choose to fall?”
Neil was silent for a long time, long enough that Andrew thought he might not answer. “I was lonely,” he finally whispered. “I never belonged up there, and I thought it might be better here.”
“And is it?”
“I don’t know,” said Neil. “I still don't think I belong, but at least I’m not alone anymore.”
Andrew got comfortable, listening to the now-familiar sounds of the star settling into sleep and made a note to buy some ginger tomorrow when they were getting supplies. The indigestion that had been plaguing him on and off for the past week or so was particularly strong that night.
Neil’s outright antagonism dropped off significantly after that, but he still got into his fair share of arguments. He seemed more relaxed, more settled, more likely to partake in small talk instead of jumping straight to insults. Kevin noticed the change, but he didn’t question it, happy that Neil was calming down.
Of course, now that Neil wasn’t being actively unpleasant people were taking more notice of his physical attributes. Andrew knew that Neil was aesthetically pleasing and that the feeling of magic that clung to him was also attractive. Neil was confused by this new attention.
He told Andrew that he observed people closely enough that he was able to discern that they were attracted to him - it would be hard to miss, the way that some people were blatantly propositioning him - but that he couldn’t figure out why they were doing so. In turn, he wasn’t interested in anyone and didn’t seem inclined to accept anybody’s offers.
“Do you think they’re trying to trick me?” he asked Andrew. “That they know what I am and are trying to lure me?”
“No,” replied Andrew. “I think they want to have sex with you because they find you attractive.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You said you knew all about sex. Something about orgies…”
“I know the mechanics,” said Neil in exasperation. “I don’t understand the motivation though. They don’t even know me. How could they want to do that with someone they don’t trust?”
Andrew shrugged. “For the physical pleasure.”
Neil wrinkled his nose. “I still don’t want to.”
“No one’s making you,” said Andrew.
As they drew closer to Wall, there were more and more people on the road. Kevin spent most of his time ducking his head, hoping no one would comment on his tattoo and Neil stayed close by. When they were less than a week away from Wall, the inn where they stopped for the evening was hosting a wedding reception. The bride and groom gave both gave tearful speeches and the overt romance of the occasion permeated through the guests, prompting many displays of affection.
Neil didn’t leave Andrew’s side through the entire evening, watching everything with a wrinkled brow. Kevin was perfectly happy, as always, with the food and drink and felt no urge to socialize with anyone.
Neil was still being uncharacteristically quiet as they prepared for sleep. The window in the room had a large bench underneath it and he’d commandeered it for his bed. He was sitting beside the window, tracing shapes on the glass and whispering foreign words. “Andrew,” he said eventually. “Will you kiss me?”
Andrew sat up from where he’d been attempting to sleep. “Why?” he asked.
Neil raised one shoulder. “I want to know what it’s like,” he said. “And you’re probably the only person I trust enough not to hurt me or want more from me.”
Andrew considered. “Alright,” he said. “But it’s not like I’ve had a lot of practice; there’s no guarantee that I’m any good at it.”
“Well no matter what it’s going to be the best kiss I’ve ever gotten,” said Neil. “...Also the worst, the sloppiest, the longest, the shortest…” Andrew threw his pillow at him and Neil laughed. He picked up the pillow and brought it over to Andrew’s bed, perching on the edge of it. “You don’t have to do this just for me,” he said earnestly.
“I said yes.”
“Technically you said alright,” babbled Neil nervously.
“Neil,” said Andrew. “I’m saying yes.” He reached up to cup his hand around the back of Neil’s neck and drew him into a kiss. It was not a very technically proficient kiss. Andrew had kissed a handful of people throughout the years, but his inability to feel desire had never made kissing all that exciting. Neil was clearly a novice, unsure of exactly what he should be doing. He threw himself into it regardless, trying his best to copy Andrew, who tended to kiss as if he were fighting.
“Huh,” said Neil, when Andrew ended the kiss. “...Interesting.”
Andrew felt the foreign urge to laugh, but it disappeared as quickly as it had come. Neil was examining his face and he stared back without concern.
“Thank you,” Neil eventually said, and got up to return to his bench. Andrew watched him go, understanding that something had shifted between him and his star. He wasn’t sure exactly what had transpired, but he knew that something had.
They reached Wall on the second last day of the Night Market. It was an annual tradition that ran for a fortnight every winter and was widely attended. Even visitors from the mundane world came to experience the market. Merchants from all over Faerie congregated in Wall to sell their wares.
Kevin set about trying to obtain passage to Tree, but Neil was desperate to explore the market. Andrew followed him, watching as he examined the stalls that were attached to brightly coloured wagons. Everyday items, such as potion ingredients and food and drink, were sold next to things that were much more rare. Glass flowers, vials of dreams, rings of power, bottles of courage and happiness were just some of the wonders they saw. Andrew met several magical folk who he knew through Abby, and even came across a merchant who was selling bottled lightning that the crew of the Palmetto had harvested.
He got drawn into a conversation about his curse with an old friend of Betsy’s when he realized that Neil was no longer at his side. He looked around and saw Kevin pushing his way through the crowd towards him.
Kevin was out of breath, having run to get to him. “I saw Moriyama men,” he panted. He, too, looked around. “Where’s Neil?”
There was a sudden crash from the next row of stalls, followed by angry shouting. Andrew met Kevin’s eyes which were wide with horror and the two of them pushed their way through the crowd, following the sounds of conflict.
They arrived too late. The ground was trampled and several nearby tables had been knocked over, their wares smashed on the ground.
“What happened?” Kevin demanded of one of the merchants lamenting over her spoiled stock.
“Prince’s men,” she said shortly. “Arrested a kid who wasn’t interested in being caught. They called him Junior.”
“What did he look like?” asked Andrew. “Junior?”
“Short… though he probably wouldn’t seem that way to you,” she said, eyeing him. “Reddish hair, blue eyes…” she wrinkled her nose, “...no shoes.”
“Which way did they go?”
The woman pointed. Andrew felt like he had a lead brick in his stomach. What was happening? Was this - was this feeling? Was he angry or worried or anxious about Neil? Thinking about Neil made the lead brick throb, so Andrew knew that this was a symptom of his abduction. If this was feeling, then Aaron had been right. This was terrible, why would he want this? All he knew was that he needed Neil back so that the lead brick would disappear.
“Come on,” Andrew said to Kevin, heading back towards the stall of the friend of Betsy’s he had been speaking with previously.
“Andrew,” said Kevin suddenly, pulling up short. “What if they’re taking him to the mundane world?”
The lead brick burned. “They’re not,” said Andrew forcefully. “They want his magic, they want to make him another Butcher, and they can’t do that if he’s a rock.” He drove the words out; they felt like they might choke him.
When he got back to the witch’s stall, he smacked his hand on the table. “The prince has taken something of mine,” he said. “I need you to make me a locator spell so I can get him back.”
The woman cocked her head. “Magic like that, not to mention opposing the prince, is too rich for your blood.”
Andrew threw down his pack and dug through it, unearthing the dwarven chain that had lain unused since he’d freed Neil. The witch’s pupils dilated when she saw it; it was very rare and therefore had high magical potential. She involuntarily reached for it, before snapping her hand back.
“We have a deal,” she said, still watching the chain greedily. “I’ll need something belonging to this person in order to make a locator spell.”
Andrew searched through his pack again. At the very bottom, he found the silken dress that Neil had been wearing when he’d first fallen into Faerie. The woman’s eyes widened even further as she took in the material that was clearly not of this Earth. “The prince won’t give up a treasure like that lightly,” she said.
“The prince doesn’t have a choice,” replied Andrew roughly. “I kidnapped him first.”
Kevin argued briefly against opposing Prince Riko before Andrew pointed out that Kevin owed him a star as part of their deal and if Kevin was willing to break their deal then Andrew wouldn't have any issue strangling him or surrendering him to the prince. Kevin was also quite confused about the emotions that Andrew was displaying as he could tell the curse was still in effect. The nerdy part of him that loved the history of magic was excited about this development, but it was mostly drowned out by his anxiety.
The locator spell directed them south, away from the link between Faerie and the mundane world. They were probably losing time to Neil's captors as they were still on foot but they hurried onward anyway.
After a couple hours following the spell, they came across a ruined castle. There was activity around it, including carriages that proudly displayed the Moriyama coat of arms.
Kevin shuddered. “What's your plan?” he asked Andrew in an undertone.
“Go in there, kill everyone, get Neil back,” replied Andrew grimly.
“That's a terrible plan,” hissed Kevin. “It's severely lacking in specifics!”
“Do you have any better ideas?” asked Andrew testily. He couldn't remember ever feeling impatience like this before.
Just then Neil's screams of pain echoed through the courtyard. Kevin turned white. “Right,” he said faintly. “Let's go get him.” He drew his sword in his right hand.
Andrew really had no experience in stealth and lacked finesse, so he kicked in the front door. Everyone in the large cavernous room turned to stare at him and Kevin. There were about seven guards in the room, including a man with a savage expression that so closely resembled Neil that he couldn't be anyone except the Butcher. Neil was restrained on a table on a dais at the far end of the room, and the prince himself stood over him holding a bloody knife. Andrew saw red and took a step forward.
“Andrew,” Neil called in a hoarse voice that came out as a half-sob. He smiled, glowing, his teeth bloody. “You came for me.”
“I promised, didn't I?” answered Andrew.
“Kevin,” said the prince in surprise. “You've remembered your rightful place and returned.”
“Never,” vowed Kevin. “I will never be yours again.”
“Kill the short one,” said Prince Riko dismissively, “but leave Kevin for me.”
“No,” gasped Neil, who had been steadily getting brighter since he'd seen Andrew. “They came for me.” And then he shone so brightly that Andrew had to close his eyes.
He heard Kevin gasp beside him, and distant screams throughout the room, but he felt infused by warmth. His star’s light seemed to wrap him up like a warm blanket, thawing all the distant, frozen parts of him. The areas where he had once been empty were now filled with starlight.
The glow in the room faded, letting Andrew blink open his eyes. He could hear Kevin's harsh breathing, but otherwise the room was silent. Neil was still tied up, but the only indication that anyone else had ever been in the room were the piles of ash that dotted the floor: one for every now-missing guard and one each for the Butcher and the prince.
“What did you do?” gasped Kevin as Andrew picked his way across the floor to the dais.
“I shone,” said Neil tranquilly. “The wicked cannot stand against pure starlight from a happy uncorrupted star.”
“Happy?” asked Andrew, picking up Riko’s still bloody knife and showing it to Neil, before starting to cut away his bindings.
“You came for me,” he said.
Andrew felt overwhelmed looking at Neil. “What did you do to me?” he asked.
Neil reached out and laid his palm against Andrew's chest, directly over his heart. “Fallen stars can only glow like that once,” he explained. “It eats up most of our magic and requires a certain set of circumstances. We call it showing our hearts.”
Kevin made a noise of realization. “You mean…”
Neil nodded. “The curse is broken. You can want things now.” He smiled with a tinge of sadness. “I saved your life, so I'm no longer bound to you. You don't need me anymore, you can do what you want.”
“What I want,” said Andrew harshly, “is to leave this drafty ruin. You might not be cold, but I am. And don't even think that you've gotten out of hearing my opinion about you wandering off on your own. Two seconds you were out of my sight and you managed to get kidnapped.”
Neil looked confused. “You're cured,” he said again, “and I depleted my magic. I'm of no use to you anymore.”
“Are you trying to get out of your promise to come to Tree?” Andrew demanded.
“N-no,” stuttered Neil. “Of course not. You still want me to come?”
“How else will I stop everyone in Faerie from punching you in the face if you're not with me?” asked Andrew. “You belong with me,” he said more quietly.
“Oh,” said Neil happily. “You want to keep me.”
“Of course I do,” said Andrew. “I stole you and you're mine now.” He caught Neil's face in his hands and leaned forwards. “Yes or no?” he asked lowly.
“Yes,” said Neil, and brought their lips together. It was still unpractised, and they were both still amateurs, but it was an infinitely improved kiss now that Andrew could feel desire and joy.
“Better,” said Neil approvingly. "But we probably still need to practice more."
Andrew rolled his eyes and kissed him again.
They managed to secure passage in a merchant's wagon that was headed to Tree. Kevin and Andrew took turns describing life on board the Palmetto to Neil since he had decided to stay with Andrew.
Andrew was trying to sort through his emotions. There were so many that they often overwhelmed him, and he sometimes found it easier to ignore them and pretend he was still cursed. He had trouble identifying them and telling some of them apart, but he assumed he'd get better with practice. Spending time with Neil gave him plenty of time to practice considering all the different emotions his star awoke in him. There was one he'd identified as frustration, and there was also fear, but interest and happiness and desire were all there, too.
It was just under two months after he had left the Palmetto that they arrived in Tree. Wymack’s ship wasn't docked, so they went to see Betsy. Neil was slightly agitated about meeting her since he'd spent weeks thinking that Betsy was going to dissect him. Andrew just held his hand and promised to protect him from the super scary mind-witch.
Betsy was happy to see them. “Andrew,” she said warmly, coming forward to greet him before pulling up short as soon as she got a good look at him. “Oh,” she said in wonder, before turning to Neil. “I assume you're the one to thank for this?”
Neil blushed and looked abashed. “It was a team effort, really,” he claimed.
Andrew scoffed. “Neil, meet Betsy. Betsy, this is Neil, my star.”
“Pleased to meet you, Neil,” said Betsy pleasantly. “I must admit I am a little surprised. I had heard that stars were stubborn and disinclined to help humans without incentive.”
“Oh, really,” said Andrew dryly. “That doesn't sound familiar at all.”
“I don't know what you're talking about,” said Neil haughtily. “I'm delightful.”
Betsy laughed. “I'm sure you are,” she said.
They stayed with Betsy for a little under a week before the Palmetto made port. Neil watched with undisguised interest as the sky-ship docked in the upper branches of Tree. He was very excited about looking down on the earth from above again, unlike Andrew who had regained his fear of heights.
There was a shout from the deck of the Palmetto. “Hey, Andrew and Kevin are here!” echoed Matt's loud voice. The other crew all gathered at the railing, staring at them in interest. They were especially intrigued by Neil as he was holding on to Andrew's hand.
“Andrew,” Neil whispered, staring up at the crew of the Palmetto with as much interest as they were showing him, “which one is your brother?” Neil had been both confused and excited about the concept of twins. The fact that there was someone out there who looked exactly like Andrew both alarmed and intrigued him.
Andrew raised an eyebrow, but dutifully pointed out Aaron. “He's the one who looks exactly like me,” he said.
Neil followed his finger and frowned. “He doesn't look like you at all,” he argued. “He's blue, but you're yellow.”
“Why are you lying to me?” demanded Neil. “You look most like her, but I thought that brothers were male.” He pointed at Renee.
“What are you looking at?” asked Andrew. “Aaron and I have the same colour hair and eyes, and our faces and noses are the same shape, and we're the same height.”
“But that's all physical nonsense,” said Neil. “You're very different at your core.”
“Humans can't see whatever it is that you're describing,” said Andrew.
“Oh,” said Neil sheepishly. “You can't see auras?”
“No,” said Kevin peevishly.
“But they’re so useful!” said Neil. “For instance, when we met I could tell that Andrew was honest and that Kevin was easily annoyed.”
“Wait,” said Kevin. “Does that mean that you always knew which people had the shortest fuses when you were picking fights?”
“Obviously,” replied Neil. “How else would I have been able to rile them up so quickly?”
“I thought it was just your sparkling personality,” said Kevin.
By that time, the Palmetto had finished docking and the crew came stomping down the gangplank.
“You’re back!” cried Nicky happily. He gave Neil an appreciative once over. “And who’s this?”
Andrew tightened his hold on Neil’s hand. “This is Neil. He broke my curse.”
“Your curse is broken?! AARON! His curse is broken, did you hear?!” Nicky shrieked. “You can feel things? What are you feeling right now?”
“Mostly annoyance,” said Andrew. “Some apathy.”
Dan cocked her head in a way that was reminiscent of her fox form. “You’re not really very different, are you?”
“What’s the hold up? Why are you all gathered here?” asked Wymack, coming out on deck with Abby.
“Andrew and Kevin are back, Cap,” said Matt. “And they brought someone new!”
Wymack grumbled, but turned his piercing stare on Neil and Andrew in turn. He nodded once. “Welcome aboard.”
Neil fit in wonderfully with the crew of the Palmetto. He climbed all over the sky-ship and poked his nose into every nook and cranny. Most of the crew adored him, with Seth and Aaron being the only holdouts. Seth hated him with a vengeance and Aaron disliked him but tolerated him because of what he had done for Andrew.
Between his dwarven heritage and the aftermath of his curse, Andrew never felt emotions as strongly as others seemed to. Still, his fear of heights was always enough to get a response out of him, and he never doubted how he felt about Neil.
Neil still preferred to be awake at night, and it was a common sight to see him sitting on the Palmetto’s railing, watching the people below. Andrew felt a thrill whenever he saw him so close to the edge and would wrap an arm around his waist to anchor him.
“I’ve fallen farther,” Neil pointed out.
“Let’s not risk it,” said Andrew.
Neil just laughed and leaned back, promising that he had no interest in leaving, that living with Andrew on the Palmetto had been everything he’d been searching for when he’d decided to fall. Andrew wondered sometimes how he’d gotten to this point, how he’d managed to find somewhere where he was safe and happy. He knew that one day he and Neil would move on from the Palmetto, that they’d find somewhere else to live and something else to do. But he wasn’t worried. He knew that they’d do it together.
It was a fairy tale, after all. A happily ever after was required.