Life in the landfill is hard. Between the ever-present danger of the deadly seagulls, problems with finding enough food, and the fights with other fairy tribes like the fearsome Boggarts, it's a challenge just to make it day by day.
Needleye decides that things must change and so she convinces her friends, Verdigris and Thaw, to help her steal a car battery from the Boggarts.
Winter is on the horizon and the acid from the battery will provide plenty of energy for her people. It sounds like such a good idea, but then again, bad decisions usually do.
How will Needleye's brother, King Albedo, react to the unauthorized mission? What is Waspider, King of the Boggarts, plotting? And who's the mysterious fairy gifted with a Glamour that's different from any other kind of magic Needleye has ever seen?
Find out in The Landfill War, the first chapter in a trilogy about the most ferocious beings in the entire world: fairies!
The small Italian house of Acheron Press have quietly been doing an amazing job of publishing Italian fantasy and horror fiction in an English translation. Poison Fairies, translated from Italian by Kieren Bailey, had such a great concept it immediately caught my eye, though I've enjoyed all of their titles. For those who don't know them, let this serve as a great introduction! – Lavie Tidhar
"We've got company."
Needleye looked up from the spyglass and blinked. "What?"
Verdigris slipped her hand out of her plastic cloak and a long, light blue finger indicated the ridge in front of them. "Up there."
Needleye lifted up the spyglass, a bulky contraption that required both hands, grimaced and then put it aside.
It wasn't working. The spyglass had been made from three variously sized pieces of lenses - a rare material to find in the Landfill - mounted on a straw cut so the focal length could be adjusted by pushing the parts backward and forward. But it was impossible to get the focus right.
She leaned out slightly from behind the rusty can she was using as a hiding place and gazed across the landscape.
The mound of rubbish in front was higher than the one they stood on, a thirteen feet-high rounded heap of color, with the autumn rays reflecting off the bits of metal and scraps of plastic bags that were flapping gently in the wind, like flags.
The uneven ridge stood out against the white sky and, just above, the giant, screaming shapes of the Pale Deaths circled.
Needleye clenched her teeth and breathed out a touch more Glamour to strengthen the cloud that hid her from any creature without fairy blood.
There were too many seagulls up there. A whole flock. Who would be crazy enough to walk around in the open under that carpet of death?
"Who are they?" she hissed. "Boggarts?"
Verdigris leaned out beside her and pushed back the see-through hood on her cloak. Her wide, black, shiny eyes stood out against her light blue skin, framed by her grassy green curls. Needleye could hear the Glamour given off by her companion like a low hum, the chirping of far-off insects. The smell was not unlike that of glacé fruit.
"I don't know." Verdigris shook her head slowly. "I can't see them any more. But they're there. More than one. I saw them moving."
Needleye looked back at the mound and then the birds. Technically that land belonged to the Boggarts, a rival tribe. The border ran right through the valley between the two walls of rubbish, eight feet below her, where the recent rain had left a stream with a definite tint of old soup.
This meant the battery was on enemy turf. And this was why she and her companions where there.
Thaw slid down beside her on the other side of Verdigris. "The sled is in place." He pointed to the valley with his thumb.
Needleye shifted again to look down, but she couldn't see it.
"It's under that black bag." Thaw moved to indicate a point to the right. "The biggest. But we must hurry. Stylus said the rats become nervous if they have to be still. He doesn't know how long he can keep them calm." They moved back behind the can. "I went down to the stream. It's not very deep, no more than two inches."
Verdigris hissed. "It's more than enough to drown in."
Thaw sneered and the sun lit up his cheeks, briefly revealing the myriad of tiny scales that covered them, like a veil of miniature pearls. This was the most evident sign his mother had been a Siren.
"If you don't want to get wet, you can stay up here." He pointed down again, towards a plank of sodden wood, the bottom of a crate or something similar that lay at the edge of the stream. "If we drop that onto the water, we can drag the battery across it and get it onto our side without even getting wet. I saw it close up. It's plywood, as thick as my arm. It'll hold."
Needleye pushed her dark hair away from her forehead and tried to think quickly. "We aren't alone. Someone is up there."
Thaw looked up at the ridge. "Where? I can't see anyone."
"Verdigris saw them."
Thaw's eyes seemed to scowl at the blue-skinned Goblin, but he said nothing. Needleye wasn't surprised because not even a born rebel like Thaw would doubt the Glamour of a Sluagh, a stillborn seer.
Thaw bared his sharp white teeth. "How many?"
"I wasn't able to count them," whispered Verdigris. "I only saw them for a second."
"They're also here to get that damn battery." Thaw scanned the ridge, screwing his eyes up to try to see better. "But if they go into the open up there, the Pale Deaths will carry them away in an instant."
"The same goes for us," replied Needleye.
Thaw looked at his hand and breathed out a touch of Glamour. For a second his hand disappeared, lost behind a haze not unlike the heat rising off the desert. "The seagulls won't see us. Our Glamour beats that of the Boggarts's. It always has."
"Okay, but how come we can't see them?"
"Perhaps because they aren't there. Perhaps the blue fairy here is seeing things."
Verdigris turned around, darting like a snake bearing its fangs, and Thaw automatically reacted, ready to fight.
"Stop it!" cried Needleye, slamming her hand against Verdigris' chest to keep her back. She tried to do the same to Thaw, but he darted out of her reach.
She looked them both in the eyes, first the one, then the other, and angrily breathed out Glamour with an odor of electric sparks. Only when she was sure thatthey weren't going to go at each other's throats did she look back at the mound.
The battery was about halfway up the Boggart side, lying sideways amid the rubbish. It was blue and white plastic, taller than a Goblin and at least twice as long. It looked big. Heavy. For the umpteenth time Needleye wondered if a sled made from the back of a chair and pulled by eight rats would be enough to drag it away. She had never seen one before, except in photos, and had no idea how much it might weigh.
But it was worth trying.
The battery had come straight from a car. It was special rubbish that should have been disposed of elsewhere. It could only have ended up here by mistake. And it was brimming with sulphuric acid.
She wondered just how much poison they could distil from it. Needleye closed her mouth tightly. Enough poison for at least a hundred Goblin weapons. Enough to win a battle. A major battle.
She looked back at the ridge, closed her eyes and listened, letting her Glamour sense the airwaves like a fan of invisible antennae. Radio waves, fragments of human cell conversations. She didn't detect anything out of the ordinary. No noise from hidden enemies.
She breathed in deeply and looked at Verdigris. "Show me."
Verdigris hesitated, but only for an instant. Then she raised her hand, opened her mouth and plunged her sharp teeth into her wrist. The blood ran down her arm, almost black against her skin.
Her eyes filled with tears, but Verdigris didn't let out even the slightest whimper. She used a trembling hand to wipe her wet cheek, stretched out her hand and touched Needleye's eyes, first one and then the other.
Needleye felt a powerful tingling sensation and her nose filled with the sickly-sweet smell of Sluagh Glamour, but she resisted the urge to rub her eyes. An instant later, she was able to see clearly again.
She looked at the ridge and something moved.
"I can see it!"
Verdigris nodded, her eyes looking in the same direction.
"What can you see?" hissed Thaw.
At the top of the mound a number of milk cartons spilled out of a ripped bag. Behind it the silhouettes of numerous heads were now visible, perfectly still against the white sky.
Needleye couldn't see their faces well because the light was behind them, but she could make out the black-painted skin and large eyes.
"Boggarts. At least five. Maybe six."
She could hear Thaw giggling. "We can take on six. Or be faster than them."
Verdigris breathed in, about to object, but Needleye silenced them both with a sharp gesture.
The Boggarts weren't moving. Had they seen them?
Needleye looked up at the seagulls circling above their enemies' heads, at times passing frighteningly close but never seeming to realise they were there. Just like she and Thaw hadn't seen them.
She swallowed a curse. That was no ordinary Glamour, the type any fairy creature breathed out. It was Gramarye. An authentic spell.
It could blind even fairy eyes, except those of a seer.
"They're protected by a spell. The seagulls won't see them even if they jump around dancing. But they will see us if we aren't careful."
Verdigris shook her head. "They're better placed than us. We're not ready, not now. Let's leave it, Needleye."
Thaw spat out a breath of some burnt-smelling Glamour. "Leave the battery to the Boggarts?"
"Have you seen how many seagulls there are?" Verdigris indicated the sky with a nod of her head. "The Boggarts are much closer than we are. It's suicide."
"No," replied Thaw. "It's a plan. We have prepared carefully and now we need to execute. Boggarts or no Boggarts."
"We prepared a recovery operation," gnarled Verdigris quietly. "Not a border raid with Pale Deaths lurking above."
"You're a crazy fool."
Thaw just laughed, a laugh that reminded Needleye of metal being torn to pieces.
"Needleye." Verdigris' voice had a new sense of urgency. "Your brother has no idea we're here. That would be enough to make him furious. If we take on the Boggarts without his permission, he'll skin all four of us alive."
"Only if we go back empty-handed." Thaw was no longer laughing. "That acid is really valuable. I'm not giving it to the Boggarts."
Needleye closed her eyes for a second.
Both were right. If she wanted her brother to know nothing about this little unauthorised mission, then they should retreat straight away, in complete silence. It would mean leaving more poison to the enemy than had been seen in years.
She opened her eyes and looked at the battery again. "Stylus will never be able to get the sled down there without the Boggarts attacking."
"Needleye..." Verdigris was shaking her head hard.
"Okay, we'll get the battery down to the stream," said Thaw.
"How? We won't be able to budge it even if all three of us try."
"Us three, no." Thaw's smile shone like a shard of glass. "An avalanche, yes."
Needleye and Verdigris both opened their mouths at the same time, but it was too late.
Thaw gave off a gust of Glamour that felt like acid rain on Needleye's skin. She reached out to grab his arm, but he was already running for the ridge.
Needleye cursed and jumped over the can.
"Get to Stylus!" she shouted at Verdigris. "Tell him to be ready!"
She nodded, but hardly seem convinced. Still, she too jumped over the can and ran zig-zagging down the rubbish, her see-through plastic cloak wafting behind her.
Needleye turned and followed Thaw down, although he was well ahead of her. She'd seen him run before and knew how fast he was, but this time the distance he'd opened up between them in a matter of seconds astounded her.
Thaw was at least three feet down the mound and heading straight for the putrid stream. Needleye hopped between soggy cardboard boxes and plastic bottles, tripped on something and tumbled into a battered alarm clock before getting back onto her feet and dashing off again in the same movement.
Below her, less than three feet from the water, Thaw jumped.
It was a terrifying leap of over twenty inches, crazy even for him. For a second Needleye saw him silhouetted against the water; a short, fast Goblin with ivory skin covered by a few leather strips, pointed ears and a long, jet-black braid of hair whipping against the air.
He landed on the other side in a small explosion of rubbish and carried on sprinting up the other side, towards the battery.
Needleye moved faster, looking up. The Boggarts were rushing out from behind their cardboard barrier. Six. All armed. And no more than six feet from Thaw. But Thaw couldn't see them.
Two seagulls were attracted by the commotion, swooped away from the ridge and dived towards the stream.
Needleye could feel her heart in her throat. She ran, keeping as low as she could, breathing out so much Glamour the cloud around her was thick like a blanket of foam.
The shadow of a seagull passed over her, the bird obviously not far away and its ear-splitting screech almost made her shiver. Then, the Pale Death moved on, flying towards the other seagull who had been distracted by something.
Needleye dashed down to the stream, not stopping when she got there. There was no time to swim across.
She shifted all her Glamour down, praying it was enough. She felt the air thickening under her feet and, as she jumped at the water's edge, she felt the air holding her up. She dashed over the surface of the water, leaving a fine spray and reaching the other side in an instant.
She looked up again just as Thaw reached the battery and threw his full weight at the rubbish lying immediately below the enormous object.
Some items rolled away. The battery shifted slightly, but nothing more.
Needleye drew on what breath she had left to keep going while Thaw dug furiously into the rubbish. The first of the Boggarts was nearly there and, to catch him, Needleye's only hope was to jump on the battery and then roll off it. She landed on the rounded surface of a bag bulging with trash, got up, drew her sword and faced the Boggart that was almost upon her.
He towered more than two inches, a nearly half a inch taller than her, and his arms were as thick as her legs. His sooty skin seemed to trap the sunlight and, below his shaved head, his typical bright silver Boggart eyes were like mirrors, betraying no emotion. He had a breastplate made of plastic washers and insect carapaces, but it was seeing his sword that caused Needleye's heart to miss a beat. It was a real blade, a flick knife broken in half that was so big even the Boggart needed two hands to wield it.
Needleye glanced at her own sword, a sharpened strip of sheet metal stuck into a pencil stub, but didn't even have time to finish her thought. The Boggart thrust at her, but she rolled out of the way, the flick knife blade piercing the plastic bulging out of the rubbish bag, causing the ground to shift under their feet. The Boggart staggered and Needleye, who was already on the ground again, seized the chance to roll behind him and strike at his leg. A piece of his armor splintered off, but the blade did not cut deeply enough to draw blood.
The Boggart turned around with a grunt, raining down a tempest of blows that Needleye blocked with the swiftness of desperation, until one blow struck her sword in the middle, shattering it in two.
Needleye froze, eyes wide open, drawing all the Glamour she could muster into her mouth. As her enemy raised his sword above her head, she spat a splodge of poisonous saliva at his face, straight into his eyes.
The Boggart screamed in pain and staggered back, lifting an arm to his face. Needleye shot back to her feet. Normal Goblin poison couldn't seriously hurt a Boggart - both tribes had been exposed to the other's poisons for many ages - but it could gain you three precious seconds.
Needleye bent forward, driving her shoulder into the Boggart's stomach and, as he staggered, tripped him up. The Boggart fell back with a roar of rage and Needleye started kicking him until he rolled down over the bulging bag and fell off the other side.
A thud behind her caused her to turn. Another Boggart had landed on the bag and the others were just behind him. Needleye clutched the remnant of her sword in both hands, gnarled her teeth and smelled the hot metallic tinge of her furious Glamour as it welled up, overwhelming the sour smell of fear.
Then, the bag shifted and both she and the Boggarts ended up on their backs.
Needleye grabbed the plastic and, as the bag tumbled farther, she glimpsed the landslide of waste below the battery slipping towards the valley. Thaw was clutching onto it with his arms and legs, his braid flailing in the wind.
The wretch had done it.
For a few seconds, Needleye's world was caught up in a haze of tumbling garbage as she sought solely to avoid being crushed. But when everything stopped rolling, the silence lasted only a few seconds.
Needleye kept hold of the side of the bag and pulled herself up until she could see over the top. The Boggarts were nowhere to be seen, but they had to be scattered around, hidden among the trash. The bag was now less than three feet from the stream and the battery was actually in it, sitting at an angle in the frothy brown water.
Thaw had also ended up in the water and was powering his way to the other side, where the sled now stood in the open. The rats strapped to the back of the chair with nylon threads were more agitated than ever, pulling in all directions. In front of them stood Stylus, tall and thin like a shadow. He waved his brown, twig-like arms frantically as he tried to calm them with waves of Glamour.
Verdigris appeared from behind the sled and when she looked up, her eyes were wide with sheer terror.
Needleye was still trying to get her bearings back after the avalanche, but she managed to follow Verdigris' gaze. She realised what was going on even before she actually saw it, as the cacophony of shrieks rained down on her from above.
The Pale Deaths had been drawn by the landslide. The whole flock.
Everything happened too fast.
The seagulls plunged down to the stream, blocking out the light and turning the air into a wall of grey. Instinctively Needleye released all the concealing Glamour she had left and hoped the others were doing the same. But Stylus was using a lot of his to control the rats and it was too late by the time he realised he wasn't concealed.
A Pale Death dived down at him with lightning speed, but he fell backwards and the seagull just missed him.
Stylus rushed for the nearest piece of rubbish, but another bird was right on the tail of the first one. Verdigris drew her sword and started running to his side, but then she staggered, took a step backwards and dived for safety. Stylus was watching her when the bird's head darted forward.
Needleye clung to the side of the bag, unmoving and powerless, as the Pale Death soared upwards with the slender silhouette of Stylus in her yellowish beak. Above all the piercing bird shrieks, she was sure she could hear him screaming.
Then there was a sharp snap and he was silent.