Visitor from the Mushroom Ring is a folk legend originating from the Xeng Empire. Some believe it to just be a tall tale, while some argue that it was based on an actual historical events.
Nerida breezed through the maroon blades of grass frantically searching for food. Cherries. Where were the cherries? Nowhere to be found. The other fairies had gotten their first, and she had not met her quota for her offering to the Queen of the Sinine Clan. If the Queen doesn’t eat, then there will be no more fairies - that’s what was bored into her head since birth. Not just repeatedly told, but charmed with spells to force the fairies to do their jobs.
Searching and searching, she gazed upon something she had not seen before. Some sort of a tear-shaped stone sitting upon a small clearing in the grass. What was it? Have the other fairies seen something like that? It had a strange, pale smooth texture - not really a stone, but something like it. May as well be a stone. What else could it be? She had little choice as she wouldn’t dare go back to the Queen empty-handed. She used her tiny arms to lift the rock into the air - it was surprisingly lighter than it looked.
She flapped her butterfly wings, carrying the stone to the top of a gigantic mushroom tower that towered over all the others. Burrowed into the uppermost part of the stalk was a great chamber and a throne of food upon which the great fairy queen sat. Dozens of other fairies were setting down their offerings. Nerida’s single stone paled in comparison to the plentiful fruit that the others brought. Most of the food had markings of other fairy clans - they were stolen.
“Nerida, you’ve returned,” began the Queen. “I thought you were eaten by some frog. Where is your offering?”
“This,” Nerida said holding her prize up in the air with both arms. It had gotten heavier for some reason. Perhaps she was exhausted from flying so high up. “This is my offering. A strange stone I found on the forest floor.”
“What is that?” The Queen raised an eyebrow in disappointment. “Have my charm spells been failing? This is unacceptable.”
“It’s a new food! Please,” Nerida begged, “Try it!” Not knowing if the stone was actually edible or not, Nerida desperately flew closer towards the Queen.
“Stop!” The Queen raised her hand. “That is close enough. Set it down on the table.” Nerida obeyed, finally getting the chance to rest her arms. The Queen reached with her fingers, and then promptly tried to sink her teeth into it. The texture was repulsive to the taste buds - she spit out some grit and tossed the strange object aside in disgust. “You would have been better off not bringing back anything at all!”
“I-I’m sorry!” Nerida replied. “Please! Give me another chance!”
Only moments in response, the Queen stood up and raised her butterfly wings decorated to look like the face of a beast. As the monarch loomed over, Nerida cowered. Shivering in fear, chills ran up and down her spine.
“You are free to leave.” Nerida’s fear quickly transformed into confusion at the Queen’s puzzling response. “Everyone else has been punished. They will have to work harder to make up for your failure.”
“You are worthless! A disgrace!” the Queen interjected. “If I can’t charm you into feeding the clan, then I have no use for you. Get out of my sight. Go as far as you can and live the rest of your days in the wilderness. May your next reincarnation be more useful.” Nerida tensed up as a single tear slipped from her eye. “GET OUT!” the Queen shouted frightening Nerida into frantically turning around and soaring out of the chamber and into the wilderness going as far as she could without looking back.
It was not long before her wings grew stiff. With each flap, it became harder to sustain flight. Unable to fly any longer, she dove down towards the ground to a cleared patch of dirt. She lay down on her back on the soft earth, hands on her chest, looking upon the pale, orange sky. Worthless. Shame. Disgrace. Those words echoed in her head.
She lay there for hours upon hours. Just staring at the golden sky and its double crimsons suns. Somehow, it was soothing, yet hypnotic. Never had she stared at it for so long as she never had the time. Always had she just been constantly searching for food. As the sun dipped towards the horizon, a meteor whisked across the sky - something she had never noticed before. She reached with one of her arms, pretending to grab it. It was so far away.
Her soothing stargazing was soon interrupted. The ruffling of vegetation made her spring up, transforming relaxation into anxiousness, and the moving foliage was accompanied by swift footsteps. Something was nearby. Her first instinct was to fly up to get an aerial view. Only moments later, a pink tongue lashed out at her, only narrowly missing. Turning her head, Nerida spotted the source. A two legged, brown furry creature with a strange looking tube-like mouth. A Pixeater. The two locked eyes for a moment, before Nerida took off in the opposite direction. The Pixeater stalked her with a speed walk.
Get high up in the air, she thought. Stay out of reach from them. But the Pixeater was getting closer. With another lash, the monster’s tongue latched onto her lower left wing. No, this couldn’t be the end. She flapped her wings as fast and hard as she could to escape from the creature’s sticky grip. Don’t look at it. Don’t look at it. Just keep trying to move forward.
The Pixeater begun to retract its tongue and open its circular maw wide, but Nerida kept struggling to escape. When she broke loose, the tongue ripped off with a sharp pain in the wing. The next moment, she was in freefall, tumbling down the blades of grass and landing on her back with a thud. Hearing the encroaching footsteps of the monster, Nerida quickly got up and dashed for her life.
Dashing and dashing, she came across a clearing with a ring of mushrooms about as tall as the Queen were she to stand up straight. The monster was only a few moments behind her, but Nerida quickly took cover, hiding behind one of the mushrooms. The monster came into sight. Nerida stood with her back against the mushroom stalks, cowering, but remaining as silent as she could. A series of huffing noises filled the air - the sound of the Pixeater sniffing out its prey.
But only after minutes of standing within the mushroom ring, the landscape begun to change. The warm, wet humid environment of the Mushroom Woods changed drastically into something else. The suns disappeared, and the sky turned to a deep black dotted with distant glowing stars. What was this darkness? Where did the suns go? Did they suddenly burn out?
White winds scraped across Nerida’s skin, shivering to the touch. While the ring of mushrooms was exactly like it was before, there were no towering blades of grass anywhere, just a strange pale, crystalline substance that covered the ground stinging her bare feet. Giant pillars of wood with shimmering leaves surrounded the whole area. Some kind of forest? This was nothing like anything she saw before. Where was this?
Nerida did not have much time to ponder about this alien environment. She stood shivering in the cold clutching the sides of her shoulders. Her wings were completely stiff and frozen solid as if they were about to break off.
Not long, the boom of a tremor echoed in her ears, yet it did not shake the ground. She frantically looked around. The Pixeater was nowhere to be seen, or for that matter, any kind of creature. When she heard a second boom, she realized that it was not coming from a stalking predator, but rather the unsatisfied gurgle of her stomach. This was a different kind of monster. Hunger.
Nerida could not recall the last time she ate a decent meal. The majority of a Sinine fairy’s offerings went straight to the Queen, while the gatherer merely had the table scraps in return. And here, Nerida did not see anything. No food. Nothing, except the chilling air thrashing about like an untamed beast. But at that moment, she would rather be here than the Queen’s domain.
Not willing to give up, she took sight at a distant, hollowed out log obscured in the darkness. With the sting of the cold travelling up her bare feet with each step, she dragged herself towards what may be the only means of shelter. Finally, it was within arm’s reach. Her head spun and her vision blurred, fading in and out from black. She crawled into the log, which was only slightly not as cold as outside. At the very least, the white crystals did not rush inside.
Curling up into a ball with her head buried into her arms, she closed her eyes and tried to fall asleep, but couldn’t. She fidgeted, changing position to try to bask in the warmer spots, but it was ultimately fruitless. All she could do was just sit and shiver and think about food and warmth.
Only a few hours later, the sky lit up, changing from black to orange to blue. Warm rays of light beamed to the ground as a single yellow sun rose to the sky. The shivering stopped, and she lifted her head. It was still chilly, but it was a welcome relief. Yet, even so, it was hard to enjoy with her head spinning of exhaustion.
Everything was so strange. Why was there only one sun and a blue sky? There supposed to be two red suns in a yellow sky. She crawled out from the log and gazed at the unusual sky. Wherever she was, it was not Ishtar. No. She lay in another world. Stranded. With her wings frozen stiff and no food in sight, she crawled back into the log and waited for the inevitable, but at least she could rest in peace.
Early in the morning, a young Frost Elf girl energetically skipped across the frozen ground carrying a wooden basket and humming a tune. The cold didn’t seem to bother her as she methodically approached each of the gridlocked trees and plucked the snowapples from them, placing the fruits in the basket. As she was gathering, she picked one of the snowapples from the basket and took a bite into it. Delicious and juicy as always. Harvest was plentiful this week, and she had not even finished collecting all of the apples.
As she proceeded to another tree, her ears perked up. The sound of wispy, otherworldly panting and shivering. What was that? It was in the middle of winter, and all of the animals were supposed to be underground and hibernating.
The strange sound got slightly louder. It was coming from a nearby hollowed log. She took a knee and examined it, peering down the hollowed part and was astonished. What was that creature in there? A tiny humanoid being with wings. Only moments later, it raised its tiny head and stared at the girl with half-opened eyes.
“Eek!” The creature shrieked then cowered upon getting a clear view of the girl. “Don’t eat me! Don’t eat me!”
The girl backed away, startled that it could talk. What was it? She heard of a strange assortment of animals that inhabited all of world, yet she never heard of anything like the creature that was before her. Not even from any of the legends of the mysterious western continent. This creature was almost skeletal - unhealthily thin and covered in ice.
“I won’t hurt you,” the girl gently replied. “Are you hungry?”
“Food...need...food.” The girl tore a chunk out of the half-eaten apple she was carrying, and offered it. The weakness of the creature turned to excitement at the sight of something so juicy, and it hurriedly devoured the apple slice. “More! More!” The girl placed down the entire half-eaten apple, and at that point, the creature ravenously wolfed down the whole fruit, leaving behind only a seed which the creature briefly recognized. “Thank you! You’re the first creature that has been nice to me!”
“Don’t worry about it.” The girl grinned. “My name is Kaori. Do you have a name, too?”
“Hi, Kaori!” Feeling more energetic, the otherworldly being flapped its wings and came eye to eye with the girl. “I’m Nerida!” Still puzzled, Nerida turned her head quizzically, staring in awe at her savior. “You...don’t want to eat me?”
“Why would I do that?” Kaori giggled at the seemingly odd question. “I’m sure you don’t taste that good.” The girl took out one of the fruits from the basket showing it to the creature. “This is what we eat. These snowapples are the most delicious thing ever.”
Nerida’s eyes glimmered with awe and excitement. “You have more of those?!”
“I’m picking these apples from the trees. I come out here to collect them, while Mom takes them to the market.” Suddenly realizing what Nerida’s situation was, Kaori smiled. “You must be freezing out here. Why don’t you come home with me? You can have all the apples you want when we get there.” Nerida, overjoyed at Kaori’s friendliness, flew around in a few circles. The girl put out her hands, while Nerida landed in her palms, a plush surface against Nerida’s feet.
“So warm!” she happily exclaimed after starting to lie down in Kaori’s hands. The girl then moved the fairy into her satchel - an even nicer and cozier place, and Nerida immediately dozed off. Kaori smiled, then chuckled, and made her way back home to a log cabin, bringing the basket of apples with her.
It was strangely exhausting picking apples. There were just so many of them, and the basket had grown heavy to carry. Where Kaori had found Nerida was quite a lengthy distance for Kaori to walk back home.
By the time Kaori arrived outside her house, Nerida was sound asleep in the satchel. Treading through the snow-covered forest, Kaori stood up to the front door to a log cabin with a tall, smoking chimney. She reached into her pocket, plucking out a brass key and opened the locked door. The chilling wind rushed through the door from behind as she stepped inside, and she quickly closed it behind her.
After walking down a short corridor, she opened another wooden door into a living room with a carpet made from mammoth’s fur. A table was against the wall, near a fireplace and a large crate. Taking a seat near the fireplace, she was relieved to finally be in the warm, yet musty air.
Kaori set the basket down and took off the satchel, placing it next to it. After, she placed her coat on a rack and removed her snowshoes. She begun to take the apples out, counting them as she placed them in a nearby crate. Overhearing Kaori’s voice, Nerida opened her eyes and yawned, peeking her head out from the satchel.
“One thousand eight hundred and twenty-two,” Kaori said. Nerida’s eyes widened in astonishment after hearing that. She crawled out from the satchel, standing upon the creaky floor.
“One what?!” she exclaimed.
“One thousand eight hundred and twenty-two.” Kaori smiled, meeting Nerida’s groggy gaze. “That’s how many apples are in the crate.”
Nerida tilted her head. “The Queen never showed me how to count that high. How much is that?”
“It’s a lot for this harvest. But it’s hard work.” Kaori gestured. “The snowapple trees are very delicate. They need the right amount of care and attention to grow properly. It’s my job to pick them every day.” Kaori turned to see Nerida reaching up towards the crate, jumping up and down, trying to flap her stiff wings. “Oh, are you hungry?”
“May I have some apples, please?” Nerida turned to look directly at Kaori.
“Here.” Kaori reached with her palm face up and Nerida stepped on it. With her other hand, the girl grabbed an apple from the crate, placing the both near the basking warmth of the fireplace. Eager to dig in, Nerida embraced the apple and sank her teeth into it. Kaori joined her and grabbed one of the fruit for herself.
“Oh! I almost forgot!” Kaori said after having taken a bite. “These apples go great with some caramel!” After standing up, she searched the cabinet. The caramel was gone. Puzzled, she took a quick look around and spotted it, hidden at the top cabinet out of her reach in a bowl sealed with a lid. “Oh...that’s right,” the girl said slightly drooping her head.
Almost done with her apple, Nerida turned to look in puzzlement. “What’s wrong?”
“Mom said that I couldn't have the caramel until we get two thousand apples. And that’s going to take at least another month. Guess we can’t have it now...”
“Ooh!” Nerida jumped in excitement. “I could get it for you! I can fly up there!”
Kaori’s eyes widened and her mouth watered. She could have it now. That warm, rich, sweet, delicious caramel. A heavenly food which she had waited much too long for. The luxury that made the already tasty snowapple even tastier. Want. Want. But Mom would not approve. She had not met the quota. But that bowl of caramel. It just waited. Like a magical relic just out of reach.
“Please! Let me get it!” Nerida jumped and speedingly flew in circles. “I want caramel, too! Please? Please?”
Nerida’s words were somehow convincing enough. Mom was not home, and she would not arrive for a while. It was just the two of them. Nobody would know, right? No longer could Kaori resist. Giving in to the temptation, she told Nerida to go up there. The excited fairy flapped her wings, finally meeting eye to eye with the prize. A treasure trove of sweetness. The fairy swung around to the back, pushing it. So heavy.
“Easy there!” Kaori cried out. “The bowl is delicate.” Nerida pushed and pushed. The bowl tilted slightly over the edge. Slipping and slipping. Then, it plummeted. Quickly, Kaori raised her hands and safely caught the bowl. It was theirs now. Grinning in delight, she hurried back over to the crate, and set the bowl down near the fire for it to warm up, then removing the lid.
After the caramel had heated up, both were eager to have a taste. “Here’s how you eat it,” Kaori said, taking an apple from the crate and placing it on a stick nearby. “Dip it in like this.” The apple was soon drenched with the caramel. As she lifted it in the air, it dripped off viscously back into the bowl. “Then…” Kaori took a bite into the caramel covered apple. Nerida immediately followed by picking up her own stick and doing the same. The fairy set down the stick, hovered slightly above the floor and buried her face into it.
“Good! Good! These are good!” Nerida happily exclaimed. “Even better with it!” Before Kaori even got the chance to take a second bite, she turned to see Nerida had already finished hers. “Can I have more?” Nerida asked, tilting her head to the side. Kaori could not help but slightly giggle. Neither of them could resist, and they looked to the crate with glimmering eyes. Hundreds of apples just laying there, waiting to be eaten. Their appetites uncontrollable as they dug into the crate, stuffing themselves.
Her mouth smothered with caramel, Kaori chewed. Then, her ears perked up, and she stopped chewing. Footsteps. Someone had just unlocked the front door. “I’m home!” The call of her mother..
“Oh no...” Kaori hurriedly told Nerida to take the bowl back, but the fairy could not lift the bowl. Having eaten so many apples made Nerida drowsy and groggy. Frantically, Kaori grabbed the bowl and shoved it inside one of the lower cabinets, quickly looking for a handkerchief. She grabbed one, wiped her mouth with it, and quickly wiped the floor of any of the messy caramel. Hearing the footsteps growing louder, Kaori quickly took a seat towards the wall while Nerida hid behind Kaori’s back.
“Oh, there you are!” A tall woman gently pushed the door open and walked into the musty room. “Have you collected the apples this morning?”
Scratching the back of her head, Kaori’s face blushed slightly. “Yes, Mom, I did.”
“How many do we have so far?” her mother asked.
Kaori hesitated for a moment. “One thousand...eight hundred and...um…” She had not counted the apples they both had eaten. Her mother looked at her in puzzlement for the delay. “One thousand...eight hundred and...um...Twenty-two! Heh...heh...just slipped from my mind for a moment.” Kaori’s blushing grew to an almost burning sensation.
“Thank you! You’re almost there, Kaori.” Her mother smiled. “Another month and we can celebrate this year’s harvest with some caramel.”
“I’ll be outside doing some gardening. Be sure to stay warm!” The woman stepped back through the door. Upon the final click of the door shutting, Kaori exhaled in relief and Nerida stepped back out from behind. Way too close.
Nerida came out of hiding, climbing up onto the armrest, then onto the table, sitting down with her legs stretched forward, leaning back with her arms supporting her. The two smiled at one another and chuckled.
“She...approved of you.” Nerida’s grin loosened a bit, transforming into something solemn and calm rather than excited. “I’ve never been so happy before.”
Kaori tilted her head in puzzlement. “What do you mean?”
Nerida’s face grew even looser and more sullen. “The Queen is so...ungrateful” Overwhelmed with sentiment, tears begun to slip out of her eyes. “She works us so hard and never says thank you! If I give her some of these tasty apples, maybe she’ll thank me.”
Nerida’s gaze was somehow hypnotizing to Kaori. Those widening eyes drenched with tears. They were difficult to ignore. “How about I share with you? I’ll save some of the apples I pick just for you to take back to your Queen!”
“You...you would do that?” Nerida’s solemn face saw an abrupt change in a matter of moments. She leaped into the air, embracing Kaori’s arm. “You are the best!”
Kaori paused for a moment. “Where...is your Queen? Where are you from?”
Nerida flew in the air, leading Kaori outside the house into the cold again. It was mildly cool with the distant afternoon sun warming the area. The snow stung Kaori’s feet - she carelessly forgot to put on her snowshoes and her jacket. She ran back inside to get it along with the apple basket, then followed Nerida who told her to lead her back to the hollowed log where she was found.
After a good long while, they had came to a ring of mushrooms. Nerida perched on Kaori’s shoulder. “I don’t know how the mushrooms did it or where they came from, but they sent me over here. Where I'm from, the sky is a different color, and there's another sun.”
Setting down the basket, Kaori gazed at the sky with her companion fairy. Could it really be true? Could Nerida actually be from another world? She then turned her gaze to the ring of mushrooms, crouching down to stick her arm within it. A strange, tingling sensation accompanied by warm, thick air. Then, her arm begun to disappear. Frightened, she pulled it back, patting it down to see if it was okay. No harm was done.
“We should get the apples first!” Nerida pleaded.
“Okay! Extra apples it is then!” Kaori cheerfully replied. Both of them went to work. Kaori reached directly into the trees while Nerida flew up to pluck them, placing it in the basket. There was no comparison on the amount of work. Nerida quickly lagged behind when it came to plucking the apples. For every fifteen apples Kaori picked, Nerida only picked one. She was only a tiny fairy while Kaori was an elf.
Yet, very soon, Nerida grew exhausted. She landed on Kaori’s shoulder, with her arms lazily supporting her weight. To Kaori, the fairy seemed heavier than usual. Maybe it was all those apples Nerida ate. Nonetheless, Kaori kept picking until dusk, occasionally biting into one for a snack.
Both had finally arrived at the house. Her arms aching and cramped, Kaori set the basket down, but did not store the apples in the crate, instead, placing them in another smaller crate for delivery back to the Queen. Nerida flew to the cabinet where Kaori had hidden the caramel.
“Please? Please?” Nerida restlessly flew in circles. Kaori grinned, taking the caramel out. They chose not to take any of the apples they had picked today. Instead, they looked to the crate. Just as they did earlier, both gorged themselves with caramel covered snowapples. And just as before, Kaori hid the caramel before Mom walked. Nerida had hid in the same spot before: just behind her back.
“How was apple picking today?” the tall woman asked. She came in carrying a plastic container.
“Oh, it was just fine! Just fine!” Kaori said.
“I trust you have been counting the apples?”
Kaori’s face blushed again. “Heh...heh...yeah!” In truth, she had not. Her mind had gotten a lot more carefree lately.
Mom raised an eyebrow, but it quickly shifted to a grin. “Well, I went to the market today and got a hold of something special for dinner.” She set down the container, opening it up to reveal a giant fish that looked as if it was scorched by boiling water. “A Scalderfish caught straight from the Da-Chuan River!” Taking a kitchen knife nearby, she sliced up the fish, serving Kaori a plate. It wreaked of a peculiar stench, nothing like anything from the forest.
Her Mom explained that geothermal activity in the river made it so hot that the fish’s scales were charred. The outside was cooked but the inside was not. It was a delicacy in the lands to the west, but not the least bit appetizing for Kaori.
Reluctantly, Kaori grabbed a bit with her fork, staring queasily at the exotic dish. The scales tasted like tree bark, yet she tried not to spit it out as it would no doubt offend Mom. But the insides. They were worse. When she saw the fish’s insides, she could have sworn she saw it pulsate for a moment. Only after taking a few bites, she put her fork down and just stared at it.
“Is something wrong, Kaori?” Mom asked.
Kaori looked down at Nerida’s tiny face, noticing her wink. “I feel sick,” Kaori replied. Undoubtedly, her mother was suspicious. Of course, Kaori was exaggerating, yet in truth, the bits from the Scalderfish did not settle well in her stomach, especially with the caramel she had earlier.
“How about you go lay down, then? You might have caught a cold.” Her mother’s face became less tense, yet she was still puzzled by her daughter’s odd behavior. Kaori nodded in response while Nerida stealthily hopped into the girl’s pocket. Kaori made her way upstairs to her bedroom and lay down on the sheets, staring at the ceiling, exhausted.
Nerida climbed out of Kaori’s pocket, flying towards the glass window, gazing outside at the stars. Her eyes widened in wonderment. All those bright lights in the distance. And brightest of all shined a great, silver moon. Never before had Nerida imagined anything like it. Sort of like a star, but too large. Sort of like the sun, but too dim. Ishtar had nothing like that in its sky. Long after Kaori had crawled under the covers and fallen asleep, Nerida just sat, staring at the captivating disc in the sky.
The sun had risen, yet Kaori was still fast asleep. By now, she should have woken up, but had not. From a nightstand, Nerida climbed out from a glove she had tucked herself into, then flew up on the bed. She shook Kaori’s shoulder, but she only turned to the other side. Lazy. Lazy. Not wanting to draw attention, Nerida waved her hand then muttered some strange words. “Shine and rise, rise and shine. Please wake, up. It is past nine”. It worked. Kaori’s eyes slowly, but lazily opened, greeted by Nerida excitedly jumping up and down.
“C’mon! C’mon! Let’s take the apples to the Queen!” Kaori rubbed her eyes and yawned, stretching her arms. She then got up and grabbed her coat from the closet, then grabbed her snowshoes. Nerida rushed ahead while Kaori followed, lifting the small crate of apples which were reserved for the Queen.
As the noon sun shone high in the sky, they finally arrived at the ring of mushrooms. Curiously, Kaori stared at the ring. This time, she stepped in the center of it with the crate of apples and Nerida followed. Only moments later, the landscape changed, transforming from the snowy forest to an alien swamp.
The air was muggy and stuffy. Kaori removed her coat and tied it around her waist. Hearing the footsteps of another animal nearby, Nerida promptly hid herself in Kaori’s satchel. The girl was puzzled, yet intrigued. To her, it was just a small animal the size of a dog. Kind of cute, she thought. But it was so weird-looking. It was all furry, but it had only two legs and a long snout. Nerida peeked out, then immediately hid again. Curiously, Kaori reached with her hand, attempting to pet the creature. While she meant no harm, the creature squealed, then promptly dashed away in the opposite direction, undoubtedly afraid of the alien being that appeared from thin air. The fairy popped back from the satchel once more.
“You...you scared the monster away! Thank you!”
“Monster? But it looked so adorable,” Kaori said.
“Those things eat fairies!” Nerida jumped up and down in the satchel, hurrying Kaori along, not giving her time to adequately enjoy the scenery. Understandable for a fairy where predators lurked in every corner.
It was not far of a walk for Kaori, but for Nerida, it seemed like miles away. The fairy led Kaori to the Queen’s home - a giant, towering mushroom with a spiral set of stairs leading up to a grand, organic palace. So high up. Kaori climbed and climbed, carrying the crate of apples. With every step, it grew heavier and heavier, and it become harder and harder to breathe. So hot. So hot.
Finally, she reached the top, climbing upon a great wooden terrace with crude, indigo banners adorning a great gateway - great to a fairy at least. Exhausted, Kaori set the crate on the floor, slightly crouching to catch her breath. It felt like her feet were being jabbed with fiery spears - the preliminary feeling to blisters. But she soon forgot about her own discomfort when she realized the vista that stood before her. She could see for miles in every direction where this swampy, mushroom covered world lay. Unreal fields of crimson grass, and stalk-like plants bent in very strange ways, as if it were sculpted. Twinkling fireflies, like tiny floating stars, swiftly danced across the pale orange, watercolor sky as a lazy crimson sun watched over.
Dragging the crate of apples, Kaori had to duck her head to get through the gate. Only moments later, two fairies garbed in chitinous armor carrying wooden spears flew up to her, crossing their spears in an X-shape.
“What are you?!” said the guard. “What are those strange fruits in that crate?” Kaori set down the crate, and Nerida emerged out of her satchel. Immediately, the guards recognized her. “Nerida?! You managed to tame this alien beast?! What are you doing?!”
“Nerida!” A powerful voice boomed from the far side of the room. Kaori looked to see a rather large fairy sitting in a throne. “How dare you return! And what is this giant that stands within my throne? I did not invite any guests!”
“Queen! Please!” Nerida begged. “My friend Kaori has brought you some apples! This...this is my offering! I’m making it up to you! Please! Please accept!”
“Enough!” The Queen raised her hand upward, commanding Kaori to dump the apples onto the floor. The Queen grabbed one of the exotic fruits for herself, sinking her teeth into it. Then, she promptly devoured the rest of it.
“Well?” Nerida tilted her head, her eyes widened, her mouth tightened. Could this be it? She waited and waited for an answer.
“These fruits taste unreal!” the Queen exclaimed. “Where did you find them?”
Kaori opened her mouth to talk. “Well, I can’t-”
“Silence, outsider! You are not worthy of speaking in my presence!” The Queen flew up into the air meeting eye to eye with Nerida. This was her opportunity to impress her. Nerida’s opportunity.
“I found them in a fairy ring that led to the blue star! There’s a whole forest of apples in it! It’s a bit chilly there, but there’s not a predator in sight!” Nerida grinned almost uncontrollably.
“But the apples are-”
“I want to see this land of apples for myself!” the Queen declared. “Nerida, command that creature to take me there.”
“Hey, I have a name!” Kaori shouted, but the Queen ignored her, joining Nerida in the satchel. Kaori stepped out on the terrace into the open sunlight again, trying to stand up straight. She had to shift her weight significantly to the side to accommodate the new luggage. The Queen was far larger than Nerida. The girl then peered over the edge, suddenly coming to the realization that she had to walk all the way back down. She sighed, and begun the long, strenuous trek downward.
By the time, she reached the mushroom ring, it was as if her feet were going to fall off. They stung and stung, writhing in fiery pain. Her clothes drenched in sweat. After stepping through the portal, the chilling cold was like a breath of freshness. She did not even put her jacket back on. A nice, warm bath sounded like the best place to be right now.
The Queen emerged from the satchel, but still remained inside. It was much too cold. She gazed around in awe at Nerida’s newly discovered land. Crystalline trees were everywhere, yet they were short on apples. None were ready for picking. Yet, it was still a treasure trove - one of the greatest discoveries Nerida had made.
“You found this place?” the Queen asked Nerida. “Where are the apples?”
“At my friend’s house!” Nerida exclaimed. “The apples taste even better with caramel!”
“Tell your alien pet to take me there! I want some of this ‘caramel’.” The Queen slouched back into the satchel, expecting the girl to move, but Kaori didn’t. Her eyes widened, and her fists clenched. Then, she stood her ground. No. She would not move. Nerida flew up to Kaori’s eye level, staring at her in puzzlement.
“What...what’s wrong?” The fairy tilted her head. Kaori’s head drooped down, her eyes closed, and her face tense. She shivered and shivered. Not because of the cold. When Nerida took an eye down at the Queen, who signaled her fairy subject. Nerida waved her hand, creating some dust-like pollen which Kaori breathed in.
“It’s...nothing,” Kaori said shortly in response. The girl made her way back to her house. Exhausted. Tired. Soon enough, she arrived, dragging herself into the dining room. Something compelled her to take the caramel from the hiding spot, then stash it in her satchel. The Queen, who was hiding inside, eagerly awaited her prize, and she soon stuck her stubby fingers into the caramel, then licked it. A delicious, heavenly taste.
“Delicious! This is coming back to Ishtar. Such a sweet dish is only fit for a Queen.” Overhearing that comment, Kaori’s face tensed up and her eyes widened. Yet, from earlier, something strange compelled her not to do anything about it. She tried to say ‘no’ but she could only remain silent.
And only a few moments after, the Queen peeked from the satchel, spotting a large crate. That undeniable sweet scent of snowapples. The same crate that once contained one thousand eight hundred and twenty-two apples.
“Those! I want all of those! Then, today’s quota will be met,” the Queen greedily demanded.
Kaori stood her ground in response, clenching her fist. “No!” she shouted. “Not those!”
“I want those apples! Give them to me, now!” The Queen flew out from the satchel in front of Kaori’s face. The girl rebuffed as the Queen infringed on her personal space. Waving her hands in a hypnotic matter, the Queen blew some strange yellow pollen which Kaori breathed in. “You will obey...you will obey…”
“I will obey...I will obey…” the girl muttered. She stood there, eyes half-closed and her mind completely blank. The voice of the Queen echoed in her head. The only thing she could understand. She dragged at the crate which had a set of skis on it for convenient transportation. Dragging it and dragging it out into the snow outside. Everything after that went blank.
Kaori’s mind was hazy, spinning all over the place as her vision faded in and out. When she came to her senses, she was sitting at the dining table, and her mother walked in. Both Nerida and the Queen were gone.
“Kaori? Do you have all the apples? We’re meant to deliver them to the market today.” The girl turned her head to where the large crate should have been. It was gone. “Where’s the crate?”
“I...I don’t know.”
“That was several months of work! How could you let the crate go missing!” Then, her mother spotted a small stain on Kaori’s satchel with an undoubtedly familiar sweet scent. She then quickly glanced, checking the area where the caramel was normally stored.
“You...you didn’t.” Kaori’s mom stood there, brows slightly tensing. Her daughter, knowing what she was requesting just from her stern expression, removed the contents of her satchel, placing it on the table. A completely empty bowl. “I told you the caramel was reserved for special occasions! And...what did you do with all the apples? Surely, you could not have eaten them all!”
“I didn’t eat all the apples! I gave them to the fairies!” Kaori pleaded.
“Fairies?!” Her mother shouted. “Don’t start making up stories now!”
“But they wanted the apples, so I gave the crate to them!”
Her mom calmed down slightly. Only slightly. “If these fairies were real, why did you just give them away?! Those were our apples that we worked so hard for!”
Kaori did not respond. She tensed up, her eyes all crinkled about to overflow with tears. The next moment, she got up from the chair and dashed outside while her mom stood in place. The girl dashed and dashed, running as deeply as she could into the woods, then she knelt to the ground in the snow, covering her face, weeping and weeping endlessly.
“Today is the greatest moment in Sinine history!” In the vast mushroom hall near the throne were more than a hundred fairies sitting at a great table stacked with apples. The Queen turned to look at Nerida, then continued her speech. “I thought we were going to live a continued life of mere cherries, but I’ve now found the snowapples! Let us begin the eternal feast! Eat until you can eat no more!”
Everyone except Nerida promptly begun stuffing themselves, unable to resist the apples which were all smothered with the remaining caramel. As for Nerida, she just stared at the apples. Just staring and staring.
Nerida sighed and sat there, but the Queen quickly ignored her and promptly turned back to the feast, continuing to eat. Nerida just stared and stared. Continuing to stare. Seeing all the gluttonous fairies devour Kaori’s hard work, the snowapples that were once mouth wateringly delicious to look at were now gut wrenchingly sickening. That Scalderfish that Kaori had eaten for dinner the other day sounded appetizing at the moment. Desperately seeking fresh air, Nerida flew outside behind the other fairies into the open air. A single tear dropped from eye, plummeting far down to the ground below. And worst of all, not even so much as a thank you from the Queen. No acknowledgements or anything.
Those hours, Nerida did not sleep, only perching atop the mushroom palace and looking at the eternal sunset.
Days passed as Nerida continued sitting atop the palace. When Nerida finally went back inside the palace, what she saw was sickening. Every last apples was gone. More than a thousand of them. Gone. Not a trace of juice or caramel anywhere. And in place of all the food, the Queen among numerous fairies slumped on the floor like overstuffed sacks of flesh about to burst any moment.
“Nerida,” the Queen said after sending some pollen her way. “Go find your round-eared friend again, and tell her we need more apples. We must continue to eat forever.“ Promptly, she obeyed without question as her charms overridden Nerida’s sensibility to tell her that enough was enough.
Nerida made her way back to the ring. The snowy forest on the other side was quiet. Way too quiet. Every tree she saw. No apples. None. Where did they go? Frantically, Nerida searched the farm, looking everywhere. Not an apple in sight. She flew back to Nerida’s house through an open window, but no one was there. It was quite dusty, as if no one had been there in a while. The fireplace was cold, and the sweet scent of caramel and apples was replaced by mold.
“Kaori!” Nerida called. “Kaori, where are you?” Still searching and searching the forest, she found the girl kneeling on the ground holding a single apple in her hand. “Kaori? What’s wrong?”
The girl continued kneeling, tears rushing down from her reddened face. “The apple farm is going to be closed down.”
Nerida was silent for a moment. “But...why?”
“That large crate that I gave to you. That was supposed to be sold at the market. But Mom said that we’re going to have to sell the farm if we don’t make up for it.”
“I...I can’t give any more apples. My Mom and I can barely put enough food on the table now.”
Quietly, Nerida left her alone. She flew up into the air to perch atop a tree, staring at the moon. Sitting there, she didn’t cry. Only drooped her head. What have I done? She thought. But even though Nerida was using her powers to control Kaori, the Queen’s words were echoing in her own head, too.
Go find your alien friend again, and tell her we need more apples.
Go find your alien friend again, and tell her we need more apples.
Go find your alien friend again, and tell her we need more apples.
Go find your alien friend again, and tell her we need more apples.
Go find your alien friend again, and tell her we need more apples.
Go find your alien friend again, and tell her we need more apples.
Go find your alien friend again, and tell her we need more apples.
Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!
Go find your alien friend again, and tell her we need more apples.
I will not obey! I will not obey!
I WILL NOT OBEY!!!
Nerida couldn’t fall asleep. The moon had only ever shifted slightly. It seemed like hours to Nerida, but really, it was only a few minutes. Finally, Nerida’s mind was clear. The Queen was not whispering in her head anymore. No longer was she being controlled by the Queen’s charms.
Nerida got back up from the top of the tree and flew down looking for Kaori. Nerida made her way into the window next to the girl’s bed. Kaori wasn’t sleeping. Only staring at the ceiling. When she took notice at Nerida, the girl perked up her head to look at the fairy, not saying anything.
“Kaori...I’m...I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it. Please...I-”
“You don’t have to apologize...It was my fault. I was too careless. I should have watched the apple trees more closely. I should have been more careful about picking them. And I should have been careful about the Queen.”
“But I was using some of that mind control stuff on you, too!” Kaori turned her head, but unexpectedly had no surprising reaction. “I’m sorry! The Queen made me do it!”
“There was nothing you could have done,” the girl said. “It wasn’t you entirely. When I saw you freezing to death when we first met, I...I couldn’t help but feel sorry. So I did everything I could to care for you. But I gave too much away...”
“I didn’t ask for this! I didn’t know the apples could run out!”
Kaori drooped her head. “I should have known, too…”
But, then an odd thought struck Nerida. A thought so odd, she wondered why she didn’t think it earlier. As it turned out, it was a thought that the Queen had never let her think in the first place. “Where do the apples come from, anyway?”
Then, Kaori got an idea. Things brightened up. Of course! But then again, the farm was long dead now. It would be another few seasons before any snowapple trees could grow in the area again. Even so, she brought the idea out. “I can show you.”
Kaori sliced the apple she had earlier with a knife and pulled out a stone, similar to Nerida’s rejected offering all those days ago.
“Plant this seed in the ground. It takes a long time, and a lot of care and effort, but once it grows, there will be fruit again.” A seed, Nerida thought. That’s what that thing is called. There were seeds back in Ishtar. Kaori continued, “but the ground here is not fertile anymore. It won’t grow here. We’ll have to find somewhere else to plant it.”
Nerida’s eye grew wide. She had a reluctant, yearning question. “Can we plant them in Ishtar? I want to start my own farm.” Kaori nodded her head suddenly excited.
“I don’t know how the snowapples will grow in a different climate like this one, but it’s worth a try!”
Both woke up at the same time. Eight AM. Kaori trotted off to the mushroom ring while Nerida flew by her side, full of energy and not caring about the cold. They stepped into the ring and warped to Ishtar back out into the mugginess. A Pixeater, the same one that had chased Nerida earlier, was wandering about, and Kaori quickly shooed it away to protect her fairy companion.
Kaori reached for a pouch of seeds she brought with her, and cleared a patch of dirt, far away from the Queen’s Palace. She showed Nerida how to plant each one, and the fairy eagerly helped taking seeds out of the bag. Now, all the seeds were planted in a grid-like pattern. Now, it was time to wait, and cultivate the seeds.
The two looked at one another with sullen expressions. This would be goodbye. Kaori handed her a tightly folded note with instructions as one last parting gift.
“Whenever I can, I’ll give something back to make up for what I did, okay?” Nerida flew and hugged Kaori’s finger. Kaori stepped back through the ring, and she vanished into thin air.
Nerida worked tirelessly, watching and watching to make sure the snowapples were okay. She carefully followed the instructions step by step, making sure everything was just right. Days passed. Weeks passed. Little stalks were springing out of the ground with tiny little fruits not yet big enough to eat. It was working.
As Nerida worked, another Sinine fairy named Elin saw what she was doing, and approached.
“Nerida? I had no idea there were snowapples here! Where did you find them?” Elin asked.
“I didn’t. I grew them here,” Nerida replied. “It takes a lot of work, but one day, there will be more apples here.”
Elin drooped her head. “Ever since we ran out of snowapples, the Queen’s demands became unreasonable now. None of us have been able to gather enough food, and most of us have been banished. Please, can you spare some of those apples?”
Nerida paused for a moment. She didn’t want to repeat the same mistake she made before. “I could use a little help on this farm. The more help I get, the more apples I can make. But it’s going to take a lot of work. But once these are grown, we’ll be able to eat”
Elin immediately agreed, eager to taste apples once more. “Thank you!” Those two words touched Nerida, raising her spirits. Never before had she heard that phrase from one of her own kind.
Not too long after, more fairies discovered Nerida’s farm and pitched in to help out. The farm would grow larger and more widespread.
From the throne, the Queen smelled a very strange, familiar, yet sweet scent. Oh, how she missed it. Oh, how she craved it. Oh, how she very much desired to gluttonously gorge herself on those apples again. She gave the command to her servants to carry her, and the Queen made her way towards the farm.
The Queen arrived. “Nerida! You finally brought more apples!” The Queen proclaimed. “It took you long enough to get them! Now, bring them to my throne!”
Nerida’s face grew to disgust. She clenched her fists. “Go away you ungrateful pig! You’re nothing but a fat, ugly swine! We give and give, work and work, and what do we get?! Nothing!”
“You are all drones! You are my spawn, and you are only made for work!” The Queen bellowed. “It is time I teach you obedience!” She raised a small wand, readying a spell. The wand grew brighter and brighter. Frighteningly, all the fairies fled the sight. Not from her, but from a brown beast approaching from behind. A Pixeater, and it lashed out its tongue at the Queen’s wing. She turned around, staring at the beasts eyes, only offering it a face of shock. The Queen did not move. She could not escape. The tongue pulled upward, more and more off the ground. Then, the trunk mouth opened up wide, and the Queen watched as she came closer and closer to it, unable to avoid the inevitable fate. Then, everything turned black as the mouth closed in around her.
The fairies peered out from hiding after a large gulping noise. The Queen. Gone. The Pixeater wandered away having just had its most satisfying meal in weeks, and it left the other fairies alone, too full to eat more fairies.
While the other fairies were suddenly relieved being safe from the Queen’s wrath, Nerida was overwhelmed with dread. In truth, the Queen was the reason they all existed. She was their mother, albeit an ungrateful one, but still a mother. Was it Nerida’s fault for this untimely event? No, she wasn’t responsible for the Queen meeting her demise. It was an accident. After all, Ishtar was dangerous to fairies. But even so, it never would have happened if the Queen had stayed up in her throne, so in a way, Nerida had lured her over. A regretful moment that would never leave her memory.
“We’re free now,” Elin said. “Nerida, you should be the new Queen.” But Nerida didn’t want to be Queen. Sitting on a throne all day while laboring servants brought endless food didn’t seem like her sort of thing. “Please, we need someone to lead us. We’re just drones, but you’re different. You have to show us all how to farm these apples.”
Nerida stood there reluctantly accepting her new responsibility. The fairies all rejoiced proclaimed her the new Queen, but she still didn’t like that title. Chieftess sounded better. The years that would follow would certainly not be easy, and they would all struggle and toil in hardship much like Kaori had been. More work and labor awaited them all to rebuild the Sinine Clan. But at least a light of hope existed at the end of the dark tunnel. The promise of enough food for everyone.
Kaori had wandered through what was hardly recognizable as the old farm. It had been ten years, and Kaori was on her own, trying to make a living. Ten years since those carefree days. She had lived off Scalderfish for far too long, and just this once, she wanted to reminisce those moments long past.
The plot of land had little more than wild conifers randomly dispersed about. It was still quiet as ever with no signs of other life. The animals hid, and the wind was still in the cold, chilling air, and snow covered the ground
But then, something caught her eye. A small wooden crate sitting on the ground. Curiously, she approached it, puzzled. Who left this box in the middle of the forest? Then, she opened it. Inside, numerous snowapples. Then, she eyed something only a stone’s throw away. A ring of mushrooms. Now it all made sense. Kaori couldn’t help but smile.
That night, she chose not to have the apples for herself. She instead sent them to her mother who replied with a jar of a delicious substance Kaori once knew as caramel. Guess this was a special occasion after all.