Orb Garden (working title) Chapter 3

A well, a throne, a collector

Everything was dark, rushing and cold. Lily kept her eyes squeezed shut, and prayed her lungs wouldn’t burst; she hadn’t had a chance to take a deep breath before being pulled under, and who knew how long she’d be underwater for?

Just as Lily was sure they were going to be drowned at the bottom of the well, she felt water break over her head. She opened her eyes with a gasp, gulping air, and found herself eye-to-eye with a delicate-boned, large-eyed creature.

The creature had smooth, white skin that Lily realised was covered in tiny iridescent scales, tinting the creature different colours as light reflected off them – bluish, purple, pink, even a green flash. Long, translucent blonde hair stuck to the creature’s smooth head. Silver, familiar eyes stared unblinkingly into hers, and Lily was sharply reminded of Kirsty, the part-siren girl staying with Aunt June.

The creature smiled, revealing shark-like sharp teeth.

Lily suddenly remembered Gwen. “My cousin!” she spluttered. “What did you do to her?! She’s not still in the well?!”

The siren laughed, a soft bubbling sound. “Nah, darl’,” she said in a strong Australian accent that sounded out of place coming from the otherworldly creature. “My sister’s got her, she’ll be right.” Since when did sirens have Australian accents? Lily blinked.

There was a splash, and then coughing and spluttering as Gwen emerged alongside them, arms pinned back by another six-fingered grinning dark-haired siren.

“What’s going on?!” Gwen bellowed with her first breath, wet ponytail plastered to her scalp. “Where’ve you taken us?!”

A portal, Lily suddenly realised. She remembered something June had told them – only the sirens knew the secret of opening channels between the two worlds. They must have turned the well into a portal.

Lily’s siren beamed. “Look around,” she said. “You’re missing out.”

Lily looked around for the first time, realising that they’d surfaced in a canal. Around them stretched high, rocky structures, Gothic buildings that reminded her starkly of Venice. The sky was dark, but four moons – all in different lunar phases – filled the canal with light, dappling and sparkling off the water, glinting off black mica-rich stone that looked like polished black granite.

Above them, a glowing red cloud was passing. Lily squinted, and gasped when part of the cloud broke off to descend and hover nearer to them. The cloud was made up of hundreds of tiny flying creatures, caps over their tiny heads glowing like embers in the night.

“Pixies? Or sprites?” Lily asked, and the siren laughed. “Neither,” she said. “Their lot don’t come around here. They’re Seelie Court, and we’re in Goblin City, heart of Unseelie territory. You’re in a lot of trouble, darling.”

Lily ignored the last part. “What were they?”

“Redcaps,” the siren said. “Little buggers, them. You don’t want to know how they get their caps red.”

“What’s going on?” Gwen demanded again. “You can’t just kidnap us and hold us hostage here. Tell us what’s going on.”

Gwen’s siren giggled. “You’re in trouble,” she said in a singsong voice. “The goblins are mighty upset with you two.”

Footsteps began to sound through the stone, and Lily glanced around the canal.

Figures turned around the corner, becoming visible as the footsteps grew louder. They appeared human, but as the figures drew close, Lily’s mouth fell open.

Three tall women with dark lavender skin stopped beside the water, staring down at them. They each had delicately pointed ears, with long, antennae curving up over their heads from where their eyebrows should have been. The woman in front had pale blonde hair pulled back into a loose bun, her long black gown sweeping the stones. Her eyes were sharp and bright, the left glowing orange, the right glowing pink. Her cheeks seemed to be dusted with gold.

Even without eyebrows, the woman’s face was grim and fierce. She pinned Lily to the water with a long, hard look.

Her companions were much the same. A woman with ashy brown hair in a long braid down her back and a white chiffon coat covering her ornate bustier-like top and skirt steepled her birdlike, talon-tipped fingers. The third woman with a honey-blonde half-up bun had a dress that looked almost like armour, and while billowy black sleeves covered her arms, she looked like she was hiding powerful strength.

June had talked about goblins, and described them in detail, but not even her drawings and stories could have prepared Lily to come face to face with the statuesque, antennae’d creatures.

“You’ve apprehended the suspects?” the first woman asked, and the sirens nodded. “Shall we escort them into custody, or will you be able to handle them yourselves?” Gwen’s siren asked silkily.

The woman’s jaw tightened. “We arranged for you to escort them with us,” she said coldly. “Were you told?”

“Our broodmother was vague,” Lily’s siren sighed. “Open the portal, seize the suspects. She didn’t specify where our responsibility was to end.”

“Will it take long?” Gwen’s siren asked. “I have responsibilities in the other world.”

Of course – June had said sirens frequented both worlds, creating homes and livelihoods in both. They lived in total secrecy in the human world, disguising themselves as humans, which made them excellent double agents. Perhaps their sirens lived on the Gold Coast of Australia, or something, hence the accents.

“Your responsibilities will have to wait,” the goblin snapped. “We’ll need you at least until we reach the palace. Can your responsibilities handle that?”

The siren sunk low in the water, blowing sulky bubbles, but didn’t argue. Lily’s siren sighed and pulled her to the stone side of the canal, lifting her onto the edge with shocking strength.

The siren pulled herself out, and Lily watched in amazement as her long, fishlike tail shimmered and melted, forming two human-like legs; just like a human’s but for the shimmering soft scales and six toes on each foot.

The siren stood, taking Lily’s arm and pulling her to her feet. She barely matched Lily’s height. She smiled, but her grip was like iron.

The first goblin glared at Lily again, but said nothing. The goblins turned and began walking back up the canal, and the sirens followed, closely holding their hostages.

“You can’t just hold us captive like this!” Gwen called to the goblins. “This goes against everything, doesn’t it? All your human-fairy-relations stuff? At least tell us why you’re kidnapping us!”

“We’re not kidnapping you,” the white-coated goblin said. She and her companions all matched Gwen’s height head-to-head, their antennae towering above Lily’s six-foot-ten-inch-tall cousin. “We’re apprehending you on suspicion of criminal activity. Your society’s words, correct?”
“What criminal activity?!” Gwen demanded. “We’ve done nothing wrong!”
“We’ve reason to believe you’ve done plenty wrong,” the first goblin said. “You’re correct, we don’t apprehend humans without cause. Fortunately, we have plenty.”

The goblins refused to respond to Gwen from that point on, silently leading them through narrow streets and alleys, all lined with inky-dark channels of water.

They did not pass many people during their journey, though the few passers-by were not just goblins. Several sirens lurked just under the surface of the water like crocodiles, and Lily’s shoulder was jostled by a hooded creature with oversized beetle wings that stood several feet taller than her.
She didn’t recognise it, or some of the others that passed, which meant they were likely to be wraiths; creepy beings whose appearances varied wildly with each individual. Lily managed not to stare, but she couldn’t ignore the flutters of excitement and amazement in her stomach.

Gwen’s siren seemed nervous, silver eyes darting around the streets. She kept glancing at the water.

“Her baby’s not well,” Lily’s siren explained softly. “Whooping cough. Part-fae are susceptible to your diseases, unfortunately. She wants to go home and make sure her baby’s okay.”

“She’s got a family in the human world?” Lily asked.

The siren laughed. “Most of us do,” she said. “We don’t cut ourselves off like the other fairies. We’re still careful, though. Keep ourselves inconspicuous, try not to interfere too much.”

She nodded her head towards her sister. “Some of us just fall in love, though, you know?” she said. “With your world.”

Lily looked around the dark, sparkling goblin city; part of her already understood that. “Are there many part-sirens? I only know of one.”

“More than you’d think,” the siren said, her eyes twinkling. “We’re good at being discreet.”

Lily knew sirens were neither part of the Seelie nor the Unseelie Court; the two overarching ruling bodies of the fairy world. Along with a few other fairy types, they kept out of the politics that apparently kept the Courts’ horns locked in constant conflict, moving between both Courts without loyalty or preference for either. This meant that they freely moved between both Courts, though Lily could see how the watery domain of the goblin city would especially appeal to them.

Lily had only heard the stories about sirens acting very Unseelie, though – luring humans to their deaths, playing cruel tricks and generally seeking to harm humans rather than help them.

This was in contrast to the Seelie Court, whose intentions towards humans were largely benevolent. This point of difference between several fairy races had lead to the formation of the two Courts; one seeking to guide and help humans, the other seeking to exploit them.

However, even positive intentions could be harmful, and Unseelie motivations were not always simply out of malevolence. June had always warned them that, Seelie or Unseelie, all fairies were dangerous.

It was hard to imagine the agitated siren as a heartless killer, though. She kept glancing back at her sister with a worried expression, the distress of a parent wishing to know if their child was alright. Lily wondered if fairy baby monitors were a thing.

The girls were lead through winding stone canals and waterways for what felt like hours, the dark stone buildings all too dizzyingly similar for Lily to keep track of where they were.

The only landmark was a huge, looming structure that seemed to hulk over the skyline of the city’s buildings. It seemed to be made of the same black stone of the buildings that surrounded them, and was a great, Gothic marvel with tall spires and pointed arches, glittering huge windows of glasses of a hundred colours, and great flying buttresses that flung out across the city, a mother bird sheltering chicks.

It glittered and gloomed, and grew ever larger as the group approached. Ultimately, they were barred by a wall surrounding the palace, and the goblins led them through a gate flanked by monstrous creatures that looked like elephant-sized red-eyed boars.

“The palace isn’t just the realm of the goblin monarchy,” Lily’s siren explained. “The Green Lady stays here too, as she’s technically the leader of the Unseelie Court. Hence, wraith guards.”

“Green Lady?” Lily asked. “Like in Fyvie Castle?”

The siren laughed. “Not quite. Perhaps your castle ghost got her name from our Green Lady,” she said. “She’s the Queen Mother of the wraiths.”
Now Lily was just imagining the mother of Queen Elizabeth in one of her green ensembles, but she doubted that was anything like what the wraith queen looked like, judging by the fearsome forms of the guards at the gate.

The pair were marched into the castle, into a huge chamber that had the grandness and sobriety of one of the great European cathedrals. Lily wondered which had come first. Could architects long past have had a glimpse of the buildings in this world?

At the far end of the chamber, on a platform with two tall, polished-black thrones, stood two lone figures.

The group approached the platform, looking down as they drew close to the figures.

“Don’t make eye contact,” Lily’s siren said softly. “It’s disrespectful here.”
“With who?” Lily asked, and the siren nodded towards the two figures.

Despite the siren’s warning, Lily couldn’t help glancing up to look at them.

A man and a woman stood in front of them, already towering even without the platform. The woman was dressed in a sheer black gown, fabric fluttering around her legs as she stalked across the platform. A matching chiffon cape was held to her shoulders by way of delicate silver chains that attached to a choker of turquoise-blue crystals around her throat, and similar crystals glittered in the delicate silver tiara that disappeared into the woman’s burgundy-coloured hair.

Her hair was shaved on both sides, like a mohawk, with the length in the middle long and loose and flowing around her shoulders and over her cape.

Her face was pierced and tattooed, as were her ears, silver chains and gems glittering in the woman’s dark skin. And for all of her finery, she stalked barefoot, her toes tipped with vicious talons like her fingers, clicking on the stone floor.

The man was similarly dressed in black flowing clothes, a matching tiara in his silver hair, which had the same shaved sides and flowing length, although the ends appeared to have been dyed teal blue. He didn’t have as many piercings or as much jewellery, but Lily had the feeling that the power the two goblins shared was equal.

The man glanced down to Lily, and she made the mistake of catching his eyes. One was turquoise blue, the other deep amethyst. For the first time she noticed that the goblins had slit pupils, like cats, and instead of being black they glowed golden.

The man’s antennae twitched. Lily lowered her gaze and stared at the floor.

“Majesties,” the first goblin said. “We’ve apprehended the human suspects, as promised. So far, they haven’t been difficult.”

“Good,” the Goblin Queen said. Lily wondered how it was that queens always managed to sound so… distinctly queen-like. “Have they said anything? When you seized them, perhaps?”

“No, they seem confused,” the first goblin admitted. “Either very good actors, or not the culprits after all. They’re definitely involved, though.”

“How can you be sure?” the man asked, now. The King, Lily realised. “What evidence?”

“The girls were seen around the area of the death of one of the human victims,” the goblin said, and Lily’s jaw dropped. Her head shot up to stare at the goblin, until she remembered what the siren said.

The goblins thought they’d been involved in Dougie’s death?

Why were they interested in a human death, anyway?

“They were also seen carrying out suspicious behaviour at the resting place of the victim’s body,” the goblin said.

“Called a morgue,” Gwen’s siren added helpfully.

“No evidence that they had a hand in the murders, though,” the Queen said.

Murders?

She looked down at Gwen. “Are they aware of their charges?”
“No,” Gwen growled, though she kept her head down. “We still haven’t been told what we’ve been apprehended for, and I’m honestly unsure if what you’re doing to us is acceptable by your own laws. Certainly not by ours.”

The Queen nodded, smiling. “Well, allow me to enlighten you,” she said silkily. “Ladies, you’ve been seized under reasonable suspicion that you had a hand in the murder of a human in your world, as well as the murder of several goblin citizens of ours. And possibly the murder of countless other fairies, though we have found difficulty keeping track.”

Gwen’s jaw dropped.

“We’re not guilty of any murders,” she said in a hollow voice. “We – the human, he was my friend. We didn’t kill him, we were investigating his death.”

Lily was pretty sure that if the Queen had had eyebrows, she would have raised them. “Investigating?” she asked. “Are you a police officer, then? Or a detective?”

Gwen flushed. “Neither,” she admitted. “We… were snooping illegally around the crime scene. I’ll admit to that. But we knew the cause was magical, and we knew the police wouldn’t find a cause of death that they could explain. We knew if we wanted to know what killed Dougie, we’d have to find out ourselves.”

“Dangerous,” the King said in a soft voice.

“What else could we do?” Gwen asked. “I’m sorry about your other murders, but we have no idea about any of those. If what killed them also killed Dougie, though, then we’d love to know.”

The King smiled. “I don’t think they’re the killers,” he said.

The Queen frowned. “And you’re a mind-reader, Ariel?” she asked. “We can’t prove their story. We can’t know they’re not lying.”

“Perhaps not,” Ariel said. “But Sky can.”

The Queen stopped pacing. She fixed the King with a surprised stare. “You want to pester the black hole goddess?” she asked faintly.

Ariel crossed his arms. “We’re not pestering,” he said. “She offered to help us with the murders. We’re not pestering if we’re bringing potential evidence to her.”

The Queen frowned. “If you want to involve her, I won’t stop you,” she said warily. “But I don’t think it’s wise.”

Ariel laughed. He turned to the group, like a rock musician addressing an audience. “Sycorax is scared of Sky,” he explained. “Not that I blame her, but still. She won’t even speak to her.”
The Queen flushed. “Fine,” she said, and her voice was seething with fury. “Go to the goddess. You’re a little horror, Ariel.”

Sycorax’s glare was starting to look familiar. Lily smirked, glancing at Gwen.

Ariel was smiling too. “It’ll get things done faster,” he said to the Queen’s turned back. She was bristling. “We can’t spend hours running an interrogation, we’d just be wasting time. Why waste time and resources on interrogations when we have a mind-reader at our disposal? Who can tell if they’re telling the truth within moments? She’s willing to help us – she offered.”

“And I said I wouldn’t stop you from sending for her,” Sycorax said icily.

Ariel pouted. “Don’t be angry with me,” he wheedled. Sycorax rolled her eyes.

“Visit Sky, have her read the suspects, and then come back to me,” she snapped at the first goblin. Then she turned heel, marching off the platform to disappear through a corridor beside it. Her footfalls still echoed throughout the chamber.

“Someone’s going to be sleeping on the couch,” Lily murmured.

Her siren laughed. “Perhaps, if he still shared a bed with her,” she said. “But they haven’t done that since they were young’uns. They’re siblings, darl. Technically, they’re twins.”

Lily blinked. She was suddenly embarrassed that she’d interpreted a sibling row as a lover’s spat.

Gwen chuckled. “Don’t beat yourself up, Lily, you’re an only child,” she said. “Besides, they still get along better than me and Josie.”

The goblins began walking, and the sirens led the girls after them.

“So, since when do goblins marry their siblings?” Lily asked.

“They don’t,” her siren said. “Unlike in your world, monarchs don’t need to be married. There’s always a male King and a female Queen, but they rule together as partners. Not like how your Queens are usually just a King’s consort, unless there’s no male heir and they have to crown a girl. Here, Kings and Queens are picked from the ruling family as the previous monarchs pass away or abdicate. They’re voted in based on how fit they’re considered to lead, and they might be cousins, or siblings, or sometimes a married couple. But usually they’re siblings.”
She pointed to Ariel, who was walking alongside the goblin women. “He and his sister were primed for rulership from when they were very young. Twins are very rare in goblins, and considered extremely lucky. In addition, they both showed promise as intelligent, capable leaders, especially together. They won the vote without a contest when the previous monarchs died in war.”

“Yikes,” Lily said. “I thought monarchs were usually protected from getting killed in wars.”

The siren laughed. “Here, they charge right in the middle of battle,” she said. “Goblin monarchs are warlords, conquerors. Not all the inhabitants of the Unseelie Court joined willingly; some were subdued by force.”

The group passed under a huge mural depicting bloody battle scenes and gory victories. The siren pointed. “Goblin history makes humans look peaceful, sometimes.”

The group entered a chamber that resembled a drawing room, where several other goblins were waiting.

There was a goblin with dark waist-length curls and ruffles all over her black gown; a male goblin with a long black braid down his back and dressed in clothes that seemed nearly Victorian; and a smaller goblin with white-blonde hair and no antennae.

The smaller goblin looked up immediately, and seemed about to speak before the white-coated goblin descended on her.

“Ursula,” she said. “How’s your head? You’re about due for more pain relief.”

“Viola, don’t fuss, it’s not so bad,” the smaller goblin insisted. She looked past Viola to the first goblin. “Mother, what’s going on?”

The first goblin glanced back at the girls. “We’re taking the humans to see Sky,” she said. “The King suggested we ask her to read their minds – they insist they’re innocent, but we need to be sure.”

She turned to the goblin in the ruffled gown. “So we’re going to need your skills, Miranda,” she said. “We need to get to the Orb Garden.”

Miranda sighed and cracked her knuckles. “Alright,” she said. “But get Viola to look at Ursula’s head first. We don’t want a repeat of last time.”

“Stop fussing, I’ll be fine!” Ursula cried futilely from the couch. The white-coated goblin, Viola, tutted and knelt next to the girl, pressing her fingers to Ursula’s forehead.

“Her antennae are coming in,” Lily’s siren explained. “Last time, she passed out while they were travelling.”

“She what?” Gwen asked, turning her head to glare at the siren. “I’m so confused.”

The siren smiled. “Goblins don’t grow their antennae until they reach maturity,” she explained. “This girl’s just about there, but antennae emergence is a bit like teething in human babies. Well, worse.”

“How?” Lily asked.

“The antenna form inside the skull,” the siren explained. “As they develop, they take up room and put pressure on the veins and tissues covering the brain, which causes extreme pain. A bit like a migraine in both sides of the head. The pain intensifies until the antennae finally burst out, relieving the pressure.”

Gwen stared at her with a horrified expression. “Jesus,” she said. “No wonder they’re cranky bastards. That’s straight out of an alien horror movie.”

The goblins fussed over their younger charge a bit longer, before she was deemed fit for travel. Then, Miranda cracked her knuckles again, and clapped her hands.

A crackling ball of purple energy burst out from them with an angry sizzling sound. The ball expanded, enveloping the inhabitants of the room. Lily felt her hair rising and crackling with static electricity, and Gwen winced as the energy passed over them.

Miranda frowned with concentration, then clapped her hands again.

The energy ball exploded with a thunderclap, and as the smoke and energy cleared, it became apparent that the group were no longer in the palace.

They were in a dark, green garden. Weeping willows surrounded them, with a trickling fish-inhabited stream winding between the trees. Lily shivered in the cool air. The sky was dusky purple overhead, and light mostly came from a collection of eerie, floating glass orbs that glowed in the tree branches.

Lily shuddered. They reminded her of something, but she wasn’t sure what.

“This is the Orb Garden,” her siren explained. “The home of the Black Hole Goddess. She calls herself Sky.”
“What exactly is a black hole goddess?” Lily asked faintly.

“Nobody’s sure exactly,” an eerie voice called out from the trees. It sounded ghostly, and like a chorus of a hundred voices at once, all trapped in a single form. It echoed a thousand swallowed worlds, silenced voices.

The form emerged from the trees, and looking at her made Lily’s head spin.

“I’ve never known anything like myself,” the being spoke. “Though one holds out hope. The probability is too unlikely that I could be the only one, but then this universe is full of strange miracles and accidents.”

The being smiled.

“Some of them call me a black hole goddess, but I’m not sure about that. I’ve never met any goddesses, and I’m not sure you could consider me one.”

The figure approached them. She was tall and Amazonian in build, though not as tall as Gwen or the goblins, and up close her skin was so black it sent Lily’s eyes reeling, like she was looking into a black hole. Under the dark skin, galaxies swirled; thousands of glittering stars twinkled and spiralled deep within, like the figure’s body was a living telescope, providing glimpses to worlds unseen, undreamt of.

Her skin was like a membrane, barely containing all the collective light and energy of a thousand galaxy superclusters, and Lily found herself suddenly afraid the comparatively tiny creature might burst, releasing unimaginable energy.

So much power contained into such a compressed space.

Her hair was an undulating cloud of soft, sunset colours – mauve, orange, peach, yellow, all swirling like nebulous clouds. Her eyes were glowing cyan, the neon blue of a beach’s worth of bioluminescent phytoplankton crammed into them, bright enough to hurt when Lily tried to make eye contact. And worse, they were disturbingly familiar. She looked to the side, at the figure’s blue feather-wing ears instead.

“Oh,” the figure said. “Forgive me. I don’t mean to be rude. You can call me Sky.”

She smiled, and held out her hand. She was holding a packet. “Chocolate button? Don’t be polite, I remembered to stock up, last I visited your world. These must be my favourite thing about it.”

Lily blinked. “Um, thank you,” she said, reaching into the bag.

She was accepting chocolate buttons from a living galaxy. Black holes apparently liked Cadbury. For the first time, she began to really marvel at how weird her day was getting.

“I don’t, want to be rude, but, um…” Lily began.

“What are you?” Gwen finished bluntly. Lily squeaked and elbowed her cousin. Gwen glanced at her. “That’s what you wanted to know, isn’t it?”

Sky smiled. “Doesn’t seem rude to me,” she said. “I’m – well. I used to be a black hole. That’s the simplest way to explain it.”

“Truly? How are you all – compressed?” Lily asked.

Sky cocked her head, birdlike. “I don’t remember,” she said. “Such a long time ago, now. All I remember is one day, deciding, I didn’t want to stay put. I was at the centre of a vast galaxy, and I realised I wanted to know it. Wanted to see it. So I gathered myself. I’m not sure how. I used to be mass, but I’m all energy now. Easier to travel light.”

“You explored an entire galaxy, and decided to settle here?” Gwen asked. “Why?”

“This world had life,” Sky said, and smiled. “So much life. Creatures who didn’t only feel and love and fear, but wondered. Imagined. Created. I hadn’t seen that before. I wanted to know it. Know them.”

She looked around, neon eyes fixing on the goblins and sirens. “I’m still learning,” she said. “Still trying to know. Such a long time now, but I don’t think I’ll ever truly know everything. Which is fine; the day I know everything will be the day I return to the centre of the galaxy and revolve mindlessly once again. I’m not looking forward to that.”

There was a pause, a silence as the girls tried to process the creature’s words; the concept of her existence. She should have been impossible, and yet she stood in front of their very eyes, offering them chocolate.

The first goblin cleared her throat. “Forgive me,” she said. “But we actually visited to ask you a favour.”

Sky smiled, holding out the packet. “You’ve no need to ask favours,” she said. “I told you, I want to help however I can. What can I do for you, Olivia?”

Olivia swallowed, not taking any chocolate, and glanced back at the girls. “These humans are actually suspects in the investigation,” she explained. “We discovered them snooping around one of the crime scenes – the first human death. They claim they were investigating themselves, but they had no clearance or authority under their own laws – we can’t be sure of the truth of their claims, you see.”

“I see,” Sky said, cocking her head again. “You want me to validate their claims. Or disprove them.”

“Yes, if you would,” Olivia said hopefully. “It would save us time, save us from having to carry out a full interrogation.”

“Of course,” Sky said. She smiled, turning to the girls. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It won’t hurt. Perhaps a light tingle.”

She pressed a hand over the forehead of both girls, and Lily stiffened – the creature’s palm buzzed, like her hand contained a billion hornets.

Warm heat spread out from Sky’s palm, radiating into Lily’s skull. It was a light, soothing heat, and when Sky pulled her hands away, Lily had never remembered feeling so delightfully calm. It was like she’d roused herself from dozing off in a bath. A bath filled with stars.

Sky’s smile was gone. “You poor dears, I’m so sorry,” she murmured. “Your poor friend. He didn’t deserve that.”

Olivia made a confused sound. Sky turned back to her.

“They’re innocent,” she said. “Snooping around to find what killed their friend, as they said.”

Olivia groaned. “So we’re no closer to finding the murderer,” she said. “So much time, wasted.”

“Time is never wasted,” Sky said. “They may be innocent, but we’re very much closer to finding the murderer. They… saw things.”

Sky turned to Lily, and she suddenly realised why her eyes were so familiar.

“You found one of my valkyries,” she said softly. “I’m relieved you escaped and survived it.”

“You – your what?” Lily asked, heart pounding.

Sky stepped back, and whistled. From the trees, several strange creatures emerged.

They were all humanoid and inhumanly tall, standing on smooth digitigrade legs tipped with cloven deer hooves. They all had wings, horns, orange-red hair, white clothes and the same stark turquoise-blue eyes to match Sky’s, and that was where the similarities ended.

One had orange skin and a long braid, with gazelle horns and moth wings. Another had blue skin and deer antlers, hair cut short and upswept like she’d been caught in a strong wind, and iridescent-cased beetle wings – Lily suddenly recognised the hooded figure that had bumped into her earlier. Had the creatures been tailing them?

“My valkyries,” Sky explained. “At least, that’s the name your world gave them. To me, they’re my helpers, my collectors, my darlings, my daughters. As close as I can get, anyway.”

She motioned, and the blue-skinned creature approached, standing next to Sky with a faint smile on her lips.

Lily suddenly realised that all of the goblins, and even the sirens, had gone very quiet, stepping back. The goblins were pale, eyeing the valkyries with an expression of horror.

Sky smiled. “Oh, you didn’t know,” she murmured. “Yes, they’re mine. What did you believe the orbs contained?”

“We – we didn’t know,” Ariel stammered. “We – you’ve been taking souls this whole time?”

Sky’s smile disappeared.

“Not taking,” she said, and her previously soft voice had taken on an echo of fury. “Never taking. We never steal.”

Ariel’s mouth opened and closed for a moment, then he fell silent.

“When I first arrived here, I discovered so many wonderful and beautiful things,” Sky said, looking away to stare into the trees. “Especially the sentient living beings I met – they, too, pondered the stars and the universe, and that truly was what made me settle here; finding fellow stargazers who could wonder and dream and create with me. And then I discovered something awful – that none of it was permanent. And nothing ever is; all stars fade and go out, with time. But all this beauty and life and joy – it’s particularly transient. People live, flourish, and then perish as I blink, along with all their hopes, dreams, and beauty. I was heartbroken. Especially when I found that, to cope with so much death and decay, they believed in gods, afterlives, futile hopes that their souls moved on to some kind of eternal paradise.”

She stared pityingly at the goblins. “They don’t,” she said softly. “All your energy, memories, all that you are – it disperses, dissolving into the universe. I see it, all the time.”

She sighed. “I decided to do something about it,” she explained. “I started collecting your souls as you died – encasing them and keeping them from dispersing, so that if nothing else, I could provide the afterlife you all prayed for.”

She turned to the valkyries. “I created them to help me,” she said. “I can’t collect every deceased soul on my own, but with them, we can cover at least the sentient fae. Hence why they turn up at your deaths, your crime scenes, your funerals, your hospitals.”

“No better than grave worms,” the armoured goblin sneered.

“Which are necessary for decomposition, breakdown of organic materials so they can return to the earth and sustain life,” Sky insisted. “In the same way, what my valkyries do is unpleasant, but helpful. They’re not here to steal souls or feed on death – they’re here to help your loved ones have a wondrous afterlife, here in the garden.”

She gestured, and Lily suddenly realised the purpose of the glowing glass orbs. They contained souls.

Sky’s jaw tightened. “But one of them went rogue,” she said darkly. “I was afraid she was behind the murders plaguing the fae. But I didn’t know for sure until I saw the girls’ memories.”

She looked at Lily, with the same glowing blue eyes that had startled her in the forest.

“She saw my valkyrie in the human world,” she said. “I saw through her eyes. My valkyrie was stalking to kill, and she killed their human friend.”

“How?” Gwen asked. “We saw he was spellbound, but the spell – we’ve never seen anything like it. His heart just stopped.”

“I saw that too,” Sky said softly. “You see, I can sense, understand, and manipulate pure energy, including life forces of living creatures. I avoid doing so, of course – but the ability is there. And I passed that ability to my valkyries, so they can collect your energy upon death. But it means we also have the ability to take energy.”

“Your valkyrie stole my friend’s soul,” Gwen realised.

Sky’s face darkened, galaxies winking out into a turbulent storm. “She did,” she said. “And we do not steal. Stealing lives before their time is abhorrent to us; we want all creatures to live as long as they can. Only when their lives cannot be saved and their energy passes, do we collect it and save it.”

“But why?” Olivia asked. “Why would she start stealing souls? Why did she go rogue?”

“That, I don’t know,” Sky said. “She closed herself off to me before she disappeared. Normally, I know all my valkyries’ minds; they have no secrets from me. But Six, she started withdrawing. I don’t know how; she shouldn’t have been able to. But she closed me off from her mind, and then she disappeared. And because she closed her mind to mine, I cannot know where she is, or what she plans to do.”

“Six?” Lily asked.

“My valkyries are named with numbers,” Sky explained. “The goblins don’t understand, but perhaps you might; numbers are the language of this universe, my magic. To me, numbers are sacred, and it felt fitting to name my valkyries after something sacred to me.”

In all honesty, Lily had been terrible at maths, though she did have a classmate in high school who was fascinated by numbers, calling them the ‘universal language’ and claiming they were at the root of everything in the universe. That same classmate went on to be an astrophysicist, so maybe she’d been onto something. Lily nodded and tried to look like she understood.

Sky gestured to the blue-skinned valkyrie next to her. “This is Three. Six is the one who went rogue. She’s the one we need to find, now.”

Olivia was still a pale shade of lavender. “Flyn, you’ve been writing all this down, right?” she asked. The dark-haired male goblin nodded, and Lily noticed he was fervently scribbling in what looked strangely like a clipboard.

“So our murderer all along was one of your valkyries,” Olivia said. “And it never occurred to you at all to tell us?”

Sky’s face was thunderous again. “And risk exposing myself and my valkyries to your wrath for nothing?” she said. “I know how your kind treat my valkyries. I couldn’t be sure that you wouldn’t reject me upon learning of their connection to me.”

She glanced back at Three, who gazed at the goblins sombrely. “I had my concerns,” she said. “My suspicions that Six could have been involved, which is why I offered to help with the investigation. But I never knew that she was the murderer. Now that she’s been confirmed as the murderer, I’ll take full responsibility as her creator-mother, and help minimise her damage as much as I can. But her actions are not my fault.”

“Minimise her damage?” a shaky voice piped up. Lily realise it was the male goblin with the clipboard who’d spoken. She saw his hand holding the pen was shaking.

Sky’s face softened. “Poor choice of words, I’m sorry,” she said. “You’ve suffered loss because of her too, haven’t you?”

The boy’s face was furious. “She killed my sister,” he exploded. “But to you, that’s just damage.”

He swallowed hard, gripping his pen tightly, looking nervously around at Olivia and Ariel. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I-I’ll control my temper.”

He looked down, hunching over his clipboard. His grip on the pen didn’t relax.

Sky looked down. The expression on her face was distinctly sorrowful.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I promise you, though, no death is just damage to me. I’ve been mourning since I settled on this planet, and it stings all the more when people die before they should.”

She gestured around herself, to the garden glittering with light from the orbs, blue clouds of pixies and fireflies. Brightly-coloured fish gently gulped at the surface of the stream bubbling gently between the trees, and an iridescent-plumaged bird trilled softly from its perch in one of the willows. Around their feet, wildflowers that Lily didn’t recognise studded the lush grass, some of them glowing faintly.

“Would I have worked so hard to create all this if your sister’s death didn’t matter to me?” she asked.

The boy visibly gritted his teeth, but said nothing.

Ariel took a deep breath. “Now that we know who’s behind the murders, we need to track her down and apprehend her before she can take any more lives,” he said carefully. “We will still need your help with that, Sky.”

Sky nodded. “Of course,” she said. She frowned a little. “Please don’t make my work public,” she urged softly. “I understand if you’re shocked, or don’t wish to continue working with me. But please don’t reveal what I’m doing.”

“We will keep it secret,” Ariel said, glancing back at the stony-faced goblins. “Moons know the chaos that would erupt if the public knew you’re behind the valkyries, and why they collect souls. Not everyone will be… understanding.”

Looking at the goblins, Lily wasn’t sure even their small group was understanding of Sky.

Ariel turned to the girls, now. “We apologise for the trouble,” he said. “You understand why we had to take you into custody, though, don’t you?”

“Not really,” Gwen snapped. “We’d have come willingly to explain ourselves if you’d just asked. The kidnapping and everything was entirely unnecessary, and we don’t appreciate it.”

“We apologise,” Ariel said. He didn’t look especially remorseful, but then he was a king. “We’ll do all we can to comfortably escort you home and recompense you for your trouble, if that helps to make up for it.”

“It really won’t,” Gwen said.

Sky smiled. “What if we offer the girls to join us?” she asked. “Their detective work was impressive, if illegal. I wouldn’t have recognised my valkyrie if not for them.”

Lily blinked. “You want us to help?” she asked.

Gwen shot her a heavy glare. “We’ll discuss this later,” she said to Ariel, eyes boring a holy into Lily.

As Miranda prepared to take the group back to the goblin palace, Lily’s siren explained how valkyries were viewed in fairy society, and why learning Sky was involved with them was a big deal.

“Valkyries are feared and hated,” she explained. “Fairies don’t like giving up their dead to them, and view them as scavengers and opportunists. Little better than graveworms, like they said. Just another parasite at the scene of death, like flies and cockroaches.”

Lily shuddered. She imagined the valkyries would be especially disturbing hovering nearby a dead body.

“They can’t do much to stop them, as valkyries don’t seem to be stopped by locks or barricades. And they’re invincible – people have tried harming them or fighting them to keep them away from their dead, but they don’t seem affected. They can’t be stopped from carrying out their work, so fairies grudgingly accept their presence, but they don’t appreciate it.”

“Sky, though,” the other siren said, “she’s revered.”

“She’s been a part of fairy history for as long as there’s been a fairy history,” Lily’s siren said. “Longer than anyone can remember, even the nymphs, whose memories stretch back thousands of years. She’s beautiful, and possesses the most miraculous abilities, and so she’s regarded with awe and respect. But truthfully, nobody knows why she’s here.”

“People speculate,” Gwen’s siren said. “Whole religions have formed that hold her up as a goddess, the creator of the world and the fairies. They think she modelled them in her image.”

“It’s the other way around, though,” Lily’s siren said. “She created her own image based on the fairies she met here. Nobody knows what her true form looks like, because she can appear as anything she wishes.”

“So you’ve got of the most hated creatures in fairydom,” Gwen’s siren said, “And then you’ve got the most revered, even worshipped creature in the world. And apparently, they’re connected. Apparently, she created them, and assigned them the purpose that fairies despise so much.”

“So you can see why we’re a bit shocked,” Lily’s siren said. “I mean… I get it, I guess. I kind of like the idea of my grandma floating around in her garden, actually, she’d get a real kick out of it. But it’s still pretty horrible.” She made a face. “Those things still give me the damn heebie jeebies. I can imagine a lot of fairies who’d be much less understanding. They’d probably hate Sky, think of her as worse than the valkyries. And she doesn’t want that.”

“She’s here because she loves us,” Gwen’s siren said. “At least, that’s what some of her worshippers say. But if it’s true, she probably doesn’t want us to reject her love. That’d sting. So she’d want to keep her connection to the valkyries secret, keep the truth of her garden secret.”

Lily glanced back at Sky, who still looked deeply melancholy. Three was rubbing the being’s shoulder, a concerned look on her face. It was hard to imagine either of them as hated or despised, even if the valkyrie was a bit creepy.

Lily’s siren was looking wistful. “Do you reckon Grandma was in there?” she asked her sister. “Maybe she saw us!”

“Maybe,” Gwen’s siren said softly. “I hope Grace doesn’t end up there too, though. I wish they’d let us go.”

Lily suddenly felt guilty. They were free, weren’t they? The goblins no longer had any reason to hold the girls in custody. Did that mean their siren bodyguards could go, now? Gwen’s siren still looked distracted and worried, fretting about her baby.

Miranda brought them back to the drawing-room, this time with Sky and Three.

“Alright,” Ariel said once they arrived. “I’ve got to find my sister, and let her know of everything if she’s still talking to me.”

He looked at Olivia. “Can you handle the investigation from here? Just be sure to send us regular updates so we can provide resources as you need them.”

“Of course,” Olivia said. “You assigned me head of the operation, after all. We’ll let you know how things proceed.”

“Excellent.”

Ariel glanced at the girls before he left. “My sister didn’t send her regards, but I’ll send mine for both of us,” he said. “Again, apologies for the inconvenience. Olivia will arrange for compensation to alleviate all distress this situation might have caused you.”
“It’ll have to be a bloody lot of compensation,” Gwen snorted, and Ariel smiled.

“I like this one,” he said. “We’ll have to invite these two back sometime.”

The Goblin King swept out of the drawing room, leaving the group.

Olivia sighed. “So now we have to figure out what to do with you two,” she said, looking at Lily and Gwen.

“I’d still love for you two to join the investigation team, if you’re both willing,” Sky said.

Gwen looked at Lily again. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Can we discuss it in private?”

“Of course,” Olivia said. “We’ll leave you alone to make your decision.”

The goblins and sirens filed out of the drawing room, leaving Gwen and Lily alone. As soon as they left, Gwen spoke.

“We are not running around with fairies chasing supernaturally-powered serial killers,” she snapped. “Look at how much trouble we’ve gotten into just by snooping into Dougie’s death! If we get involved in this now, we could very well end up in serious danger.”

“Gwen,” Lily wheedled. “They said we could help. A literal sentient black hole just said we did a good job. And besides, aren’t you curious at all?”

“Curious about what?!” Gwen sputtered.

“About what’ll happen!” Lily said. “Don’t you want to know if they catch the valkyrie? If we can help them catch her, and prevent any more murders?”

“Actually, not in the least,” Gwen muttered. “To be honest, I’m more curious about how pissed Don’s gonna be that I didn’t show up for work. I’m also curious to know if our house has been ransacked, considering we didn’t bloody lock it when we left.”

She sucked in a deep breath. “We have a life, responsibilities back home,” she said. “Like those sirens. We have things we need to do. Don’t you think that’s more important than chasing fairytales?”

“We’re not chasing fairytales!” Lily snorted. “We’re investigating a serial killer. People have died, Gwen, including someone we knew!”

“And we might be next, if we don’t bloody get our noses out of this business!” Gwen snapped.

“I’m sorry Lily, but I’m putting my foot down. We can’t do this. What if it gets too intense? What about the stress?”

“What do you mean stress?” Lily asked, feeling the back of her neck bristle.

“You know exactly what I mean,” Gwen said, and the worst part was the sympathy that had replaced the anger in her brown eyes.

“You quit film school because of it. Hell, you moved in with me because living in London was just getting too much.”

“This has nothing to do with what happened at film school,” Lily hissed, and now she was angry, fury rising in a red hot rage in her stomach. “What happened then was totally different, and you know it. Besides, I can handle it now! I’ve been working on it! Wasn’t that the whole point of me coming to live with you?!”

“Yes,” Gwen said. “And it may be that you’re better able to handle it now. But Lily, I’m not going to throw you into the psychological deep end. Getting a job at the library, taking on extra responsibilities around the house – that’s one thing. A bloody murder case, though? I’m stressed, and we’ve not even agreed to help them investigate.”

“Yeah? We can handle it,” Lily insisted. “What did Aunt June say?! We’re witches!”

“Yes, but we need to recognise our limits,” Gwen pleaded. “Lily, please. This isn’t safe. Your parents let you move in with me because they wanted you to be safe.”

“Don’t you dare bring my parents into this!” Lily exclaimed. “How dare you try to guilt trip me!”

“Christ, I’m not trying to –” Gwen stopped, and sighed, kneading her fingertips into her forehead.

“Lily,” she tried again, “Listen to me. My priority is keeping us both safe and sane. Alright? So I’m going to do everything I can to try to ensure that. And this, what they’re asking us to do, it isn’t safe. I can’t keep us safe out here, in the heart of a society that June also said is intrinsically dangerous to us by nature. Hell, we can’t even eat here, and we didn’t even have breakfast earlier! I don’t know about you, but I’m famished – and I can’t eat anything here or I could get dangerously sick. You know that. We’d have to go home, or starve.”

Lily chewed her lip, fury still bubbling in her chest. But now despair was creeping in, mingling.

“Even without the potential danger of chasing an actual serial killer on the loose, we’re still simply not prepared,” Gwen continued. “We can’t stay in this world as we are. We’re so vulnerable, Lily.”

Lily sucked in a deep breath.

Gwen was right. Food, water, even the air here was dangerous and could potentially corrupt the two human girls. Even if the goblins could promise to keep the girls out of danger of the valkyrie, they couldn’t promise to keep their home environment from affecting the girls.

“Fine,” Lily said through gritted teeth, as bitter as the word tasted. “We’ll go home. And give up the chance of a bloody lifetime.”

Gwen let out a deep breath, shoulders sagging. “Thank you,” she said. “And I’m really sorry, Lily. But it’s just too dangerous.”
Lily didn’t speak; she was a little afraid she’d say something awful in her fury. She shrugged, and Gwen opened the door of the drawing room.

The goblins were waiting outside. The hope on Sky’s face stung a lot.

“We’ve decided that we thank you for the opportunity,” Gwen said carefully. “But we’ve discussed it, and we’re afraid it’s just too dangerous for us. We wish you luck in the investigation.”

Sky’s face sank in disappointment, but Olivia just nodded. “Alright,” she said. “Well, we’re sorry to hear it, but respect your decision. We’ll take you home.”

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