“Why are we missing the Fremont Naked Bike Parade for this, again?”
“Because we’re going to debunk the Aldensburg Procession on our blog, that’s why,” said Ron. “And that, Darren my love, will get us some attention.” He hefted his camera for emphasis.
Darren sighed, looking around their tiny motel room. They’d had to book months in advance: every hotel, motel, Airbnb, campsite and spare sofa in Aldensburg was spoken for. People from all over the country — no, the world — were packing themselves into this tiny town in western Washington, ready for tomorrow’s spectacle.
“Faeries,” Darren sneered. “How dumb can people get? A goddamn faerie court is supposed to parade down Main Street tomorrow? Way too much weed around here.”
“Well, that’s what we’re going to prove,” said Ron. “We’re going to burst the bubble and finally get some good ratings on the blog.” He laid a hand on Darren’s arm. “Just remember not to say anything before then, okay? Be polite.” He ran his hand up over Darren’s shoulder, caressing the back of his neck.
Darren couldn’t help but melt a little, leaning into Ron’s touch. “Saving the savage invective for the blog?”
Chuckling, the pair left the motel and set out for dinner. It was a bright summer evening in Aldensburg; tomorrow was the summer solstice. The actual summer solstice, falling, inconveniently, in the middle of the week. Aldensburg did insist on holding their parade on the precise astronomical day instead of a nearby weekend. Just more proof of their New Age bullshit, in Darren’s opinion.
He had to admit, though, that Aldensburg was a nice little town. Located on a small peninsula extending into the saltwater Hood Canal, it boasted spectacular natural scenery, and the town itself was frequently written up as one of the most charming in America. Main Street, when they reached it, was lined with cute little shops and restaurants and was beautifully decorated for tomorrow’s festivities. Flower ropes and ribbon streamers wound around each streetlamp, all the shops had put up wreaths and bouquets, and the town hall had hung out the flags of both Washington State and America, as though for visiting dignitaries. No cars were to be parked on the street for the next three days, by town regulation, and Darren found it made the shopping district much more open and welcoming.
Then he noticed something odd. “Is that … salt?” He bent over, peering at the thick, sparkling white line laid in the street gutter.
Ron looked. “Yeah!” Two lines of salt, drawn on either side of the road, stretching all up and down Main Street.
“It must be to keep the faeries in line, so to speak. ‘Cause they can’t cross lines of salt, right?” grinned Ron. Prior to taking this project, they’d studied up on faeries and faerie lore, and so were familiar with the myth.
“Well, good for verisimilitude, I guess.” Darren shrugged as they ducked into a pizza shop.
A friendly young lady named Renee introduced herself as their server for the evening. “You here for the Procession?” she asked, dimpling at them.
“That’s right,” Ron smiled back. “We’re from Seattle.”
Darren accepted his menu. “Are you going to be part of it?”
“Part of it?” She cocked her head, not understanding.
“Are you going to be in the Procession? Going to have a costume?”
“Oh, no!” She shook her head, wide-eyed. “Didn’t you know? Townspeople are never in the Procession.”
“Right.” The words shot out of Darren’s mouth before he could stop them, sharp and caustic. “It’s the faeries out in the woods.”
Renee’s smile vanished. “Not good to talk about them like that, sir.” Her gaze flickered between them. “You here just to see the Procession, or …?”
“We were actually hoping to get a video of it,” said Ron.
“A video?” Renee’s frown looked strange on her perky face.
“Yeah. A video of the famous faerie parade.” Darren just barely refrained from rolling his eyes.
“Well, good luck with that.” Renee paused. “Seriously, though … you might want to be careful. The Ones in the Woods don’t like it when people take pictures or videos of them. Stuff happens to people who try. Bad stuff.”
Darren blinked. “Is that a threat?”
“Just a warning.” She hoisted up her smile again. “You gentlemen want any drinks while you decide?”
“Nice going, Darren,” Ron muttered when she’d gone. He punched Darren’s arm.
“What?” Darren massaged his forearm. “Am I supposed to keep a straight face when these people actually talk about the Wee Ones marching through their town?” He shook his head, opening the menu. “This is ridiculous. Worse than that haunted house down in Oregon.”
“Well, it should be quite the show tomorrow, from everything I’ve heard.”
“From everything you’ve heard.” Darren sipped ice water. “It’s like we researched: the Procession is supposed to have taken place every year for over a century, since 1870, and there’s not a single photograph or video of it. Just people’s drawings and descriptions. Doesn’t that prove it’s all a hoax? How come nobody’s called it out before now?”
“Because they didn’t have us.” Ron’s eyes gleamed. “We’ve busted myths all up and down the West Coast for the blog. We’re going to bust this one too, and get our own Netflix show.” He snatched up Darren’s hand and planted a kiss on it. “Now eat up, my love, so we can get started!”
Back at the motel, Darren transcribed the last of the interviews while Ron rechecked their equipment. They’d been in Aldensburg a week, checking out the site and conducting interviews with both locals and tourists concerning the Procession. The tourists had produced varying results, from wide-eyed belief in the faeries’ existence to laughing skepticism, but the townspeople had been harder to pin down. Few of them had even agreed to be interviewed, and those who had had proved weirdly elusive.
“It’s funny,” Darren murmured, running the program that turned the spoken interview into blocks of text on his laptop. “Even though it’s their main tourist attraction, they sure don’t like talking about it much. Everyone we’ve spoken to agrees that it’s bad to talk about the faeries.”
“Well, that’s a fairly classic superstition.” Ron put down his camera with a grunt of satisfaction. “Along with that origin story they have for it. How’d it go …?”
“The town’s founder, John Alden, bargained with the Faerie King for the town’s eternal prosperity.” Darren saved the final interview and stretched, arms over his head. “And in exchange, the King snatched away Alden’s daughter, Joanna. When he tried to get her back, the King said she’d be riding a white horse down Main Street at midday on the summer solstice, and Alden could have her back if he managed to snatch her off the horse. Easy enough, except she was riding the horse in the middle of an enormous parade of faeries and he couldn’t get near her.”
“And every year, Joanna Alden rides again,” grinned Ron. “On the horse, in the Procession, beside the King. If anyone manages to get her off the horse, the spell will be broken and the town won’t belong to the faeries anymore.”
“Man, talk about misogynist,” Darren muttered. “Why doesn’t she just get off the horse herself?”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to. I mean, isn’t life with the faeries supposed to be an eternal party?”
“Until they kick you out and you age a hundred years in a minute.” Darren closed his laptop. “I wonder who they’re going to get to play Joanna this year. Maybe it’ll be that redhead in the bookstore.”
Ron planted a kiss on Darren’s head. “You wish, my bisexual friend. Come on, let’s go to bed. We have a big day ahead of us.”
The men prepared for bed, while outside the wind soughed through the moaning trees, beneath wavering summer stars.
Ron and Darren woke early and hurried to get to their chosen street corner, hauling their equipment, eating breakfast bars and drinking coffee on the way. Even so early, they had to fight their way through the developing crowd.
“Jesus,” Darren panted, squeezing past a family seated on deck chairs. “The parade doesn’t start until noon.”
“Everyone wants a good place. Here we are.” Ron marched to the curb and began setting up the tripod. Around him, the crowd slowly accumulated, an excited murmur rising, all eyes fixed to the west, where the parade would appear.
As Darren understood it, the Procession would begin well outside of town, in the forest, then proceed up Main Street, loop around at the marina, and follow First Street back west to a large meadow, where there would be a days-long carnival and craft fair. It sounded like a good time, Darren had to admit. If only Aldensburg could acknowledge that it was just a parade and a local festival, without dragging faeries into it .…
The day progressed, the sun rising higher. It was a clear day, and the temperature rose steadily, but still the sidewalks filled, everyone wanting a good view. There were many artists in the crowd, setting up easels and brandishing sketchbooks, ready to render the fantastical parade. The upper floors of shops were also crammed, people leaning out of windows or even standing on roofs. But no one set foot on the road itself, or crossed the lines of salt, even as the noise of the crowd grew clamorous and the sidewalks seemed to bulge. Still the asphalt remained sacrosanct, except for a cloud of rose petals blowing gently down it, breathing a heady fragrance over the crowd ….
Darren blinked, straightening up from his camera to stare and sniff. He was no botanist, but he was fairly sure loose rose petals didn’t have a scent, let alone such drugging perfume. And so many of them: a cloud of petals, swirling down the street, a multicolored swarm, flying in the summer sun.
One petal blew against Darren’s shoe, and he bent to pick it up. It was smooth as silk in his fingers, and sweetly scented, and colored a deep royal blue.
“Roses aren’t blue, are they?” said Darren, just as two little gold lights suddenly shot past him, several feet above the street, laughing madly and scattering golden dust, and the crowd burst into a clamorous roar.
The volume rose as the Procession drew nigh, heralded next by a pair of enormous trolls banging drums with huge booms. Darren gaped up at them. They were puppets — they must be — but they were the most lifelike puppets he’d ever seen. They really looked — and smelled — like trolls.
“Ron, are you seeing this?” he gasped.
“Turn on your camera, Darren!” Ron was behind his own camera, practically dancing with excitement.
Cursing his inattention, Darren bent behind his camera, hastily focusing it on the Procession. He kept having to straighten up and stare with his own eyes, though. How were they doing this?
Music rang, high above even the shouts of the crowd: rhythmic, piercing, enthralling. A part of Darren tried to grasp at the tune, wanting to hold it in his heart forever, even as the rest of him gaped at the parade itself. After the trolls came more puppets: golden-feathered griffins, snapping their beaks and rattling their wings, their front talons scratching the asphalt while their lion’s paws padded behind. The griffins were led on golden chains held by breathlessly handsome men who smiled around with blindingly white teeth, eyes brilliant green. One of them caught Darren’s eye and blew him a kiss; Darren’s hand flew to his cheek, where — he could have sworn — he felt the kiss land. The stranger laughed, mocking and beautiful, and passed on.
Darren bent down behind his camera once more, watching through the lens as the next automaton strode up. They must be pumping hallucinogens into the air, he thought as the blue-green dragon, muscles rippling under its scaly hide, passed by, silver chains clanking as it dragged along the first real parade float.
Literally, a float: the giant bubble, filled with water, hovered several feet above the street, while the three mermaids within circled gracefully, tails glittering silver, voices ringing out. Their song was so beautiful, so mesmerizing, that the crowd fell silent as they went past, every face going slack. Darren thought he smelled the sea, felt the pull of the tides, the currents and the endless depths, and for a moment he seemed to drift, hair floating free, cradled in the boundless ocean.
Beside him, Ron’s mouth hung open. He stumbled after the mermaids. Darren pulled him back just as he was about to step over the salt line. “Who’s bisexual now?” he grinned.
Ron blinked, face turning pink, as the mermaid float drew away. “Sorry,” he muttered.
Darren would have continued ribbing him, but the next attraction was on its way — wood nymphs, hair full of living leaves and flowers, seated on giant walking toadstools and throwing petals to the crowd — and he glued himself back to the camera.
It went on and on: wonders and miracles, processing past. Little people flying past on butterfly wings, scattering luminous dust on the already glittering and petal-strewn street. Raven-headed men escorting fox-tailed girls in colorful kimonos. Heartbreakingly beautiful ladies mounted on unicorns, their whorled horns tossing in the air. Musicians playing instruments Darren couldn’t name with unsurpassed virtuosity. Hellhounds, black of fur and glowing red of eye. Knights mounted on giant cats and wolves. This craftsmanship … unbelievable, Darren thought in a daze as a group of walking flowers, taller than the street lamps, swayed past. He couldn’t see a single sign of artifice. And the costuming! Some of the actors really looked utterly inhuman.
“Darren, look!” Ron tapped him on the shoulder, eyes still glued to the camera. “I think the King is coming!”
“Oh, so now you think there’s a King?” Still, Darren couldn’t help paying more attention as a ripple of extra excitement ran through the crowd and an honor guard drew nigh, swords gleaming.
In the center of the military phalanx rode a man on a black stallion, with skin as glossy as raven feathers, hair as gold as sunlight, blowing around his pointed ears. If his followers had been beautiful, he was gorgeous and regal beyond measure in his forest-green silks and glowing crown: even the locals, who’d seen him before, all gasped as he went by. He raised a hand to them in acknowledgement, even as he leaned over to say something to the woman who rode a milk-white mare beside him.
She was human, was Darren’s first dazed, stupid thought. She was beautiful indeed, blond hair glowing in the sun, blue eyes bright, but it was a human beauty and all the more glorious for that. She wore a long white gown and bore a golden circlet in her hair, and she laughed at whatever the King had said and reached out to squeeze his hand.
“My God.” Ron was staring, mouth agape. “That’s … that’s Joanna Alden.”
Perhaps there came a lull in the noise, allowing his exclamation to ring too loud. Or perhaps the King would have heard him anyway. The King’s head swung around, and he frowned as he took in Ron, Darren and their cameras.
And all of Darren’s awe and enjoyment vanished, replaced by a bone-chilling fear as the King’s slanting golden eyes burned into them.
“Joanna.” Darren glanced frantically at his partner. Ron’s jaw was sagging, his eyes blank with stupid adoration as he stared after Joanna Alden. “Joanna,” he muttered like a zombie as he stepped off the curb into the street, feet crunching through the line of salt. “Joanna …. ”
“Ron!” Darren lunged for him, but Ron strode forward, disappearing into the river of the Procession, eyes fixed on Joanna Alden, who hadn’t even looked at him.
“Ron! Ron!” Darren screamed, trying to drive forward, fight toward his love, but a small green goblin with strong, apelike arms pushed him back.
“He’s gone, mortal,” hissed the goblin. “Gone!”
“Damn you!” Darren kicked at the goblin, who dodged. “Give him back! Ron!”
But Ron didn’t turn, and he was soon lost in the Procession as it wound up through the town, leaving Darren behind.
“I’m sorry,” the police officer said, “but there’s nothing we can do.”
“Nothing you can do?” Darren’s voice rang loud in the empty police station while outside, the noise of the festival went on. “My boyfriend’s been kidnapped in broad daylight and there’s nothing you can do?”
The officer rubbed her forehead. “Sir, if there was anything we could do about the Ones in the Woods, do you think we’d even have this damn Procession at all?”
“The Ones in the Woods …?” Darren stared at her. She stared back. There was no humor or mockery in her gaze, no sign that she was lying or playing a joke. Because it wasn’t a joke, Darren realized.
“My God,” he whispered, “they’re … they’re real, aren’t they? Real goddamn faeries.”
“Don’t talk about them like that,” the officer said. “Here, have some water ….”
Darren drank mindlessly. Real. The faeries were real. And they’d stolen Ron.
“What can I do?” he whispered. “What can I do?”
“They do sometimes come back, you know,” said the officer.
He snapped back into focus on her. “You mean this has happened before?”
“Not every year.” The officer shrugged. “Not even every ten years. But every now and then, someone’ll get snatched, especially if they’ve offended the Ones in the Woods somehow.”
Darren shuddered, thinking of the old stories they’d researched, and what the Ones might do to Ron. “How can I get him back? There must be a way to get him back!”
“There isn’t,” said the officer, gently but firmly. “You just have to hope.”
“No.” Darren shook his head. “Isn’t there a festival tonight? And the faeries bargain, don’t they? I’ll go there. I’ll ask for his release, I’ll offer anything —”
“No!” The officer’s voice rang loud and sharp. “Sir, please don’t do that. It’s extremely dangerous to strike bargains with Them. Trust me.”
“I have to.” Darren lurched to his feet. “I have to save Ron!”
“Sir, please, wait — !” But Darren was already outside, in the bright day filled with faerie celebrations, lit stark by fear and desperation.
The solstice night took a long time to fall completely over Aldensburg. By the time it did, the carnival was ready: tents glowed like jewels, inhuman vendors called from stalls, and strange lights glowed above the revelers’ heads. The human customers bargained for sun-jewels and everlasting flowers, in exchange for things like a single kiss or a lock of hair. Fires flared, and multicolored sparks rose. Music played from a thousand instruments, and faeries and humans alike danced with wild abandon. Humans took the risk of eating faerie food, every bite enchanting in more ways than one. Acrobats tumbled through the crowd, amazing everyone with their incredible tricks, which involved collapsing into dust or transforming into brilliant, multi-colored birds.
It might have been Monday afternoon in Dullsville, USA, for all the notice Darren took. He marched through the carnival, hauling the cameras, scanning the crowd. Where was the King? Or did he not attend the carnival? Did he just go straight home, taking his human captives with him? This possibility, once Darren thought of it, seemed so likely that his heart squeezed.
Then, outside a glowing green-and-white tent guarded by faerie knights, he spotted a familiar-looking goblin. “Hey!” he called, hurrying forward.
The green goblin looked up from his beer can. “Scram, mortal.” He drained back the Budweiser.
“I want to talk to the King.” Darren came to a halt with the cameras.
“The King doesn’t talk to mortals.”
“He’s married to one, isn’t he?”
The goblin sighed. “Okay, let me rephrase that. The King doesn’t talk to stupid, ignorant mortals who make a mockery of one of our most important traditions by taking videos of it and trying to prove that we don’t exist and that our allies in Aldensburg, who we’ve lived beside for over a century, are a bunch of idiots. That a bit clearer, mortal-man?”
“I want to bargain for Ron’s freedom.” Darren rooted his feet in the ground, willing his hands not to tremble. “You — your people make bargains, don’t you?” He gestured at the carnival. “And this is a fair. A place where bargains are made.”
The goblin looked up, red eyes gleaming. “Well, now,” he murmured. “That’s more like it.” He clambered to his large, flat feet. “Follow me, mortal-man.”
Darren followed the goblin to the tent flap. The knights cast him cold looks, but stood aside to let the goblin sidle in and Darren trail after.
He came to a halt, blinking, frozen until the goblin, hissing annoyance, poked him into motion again. He proceeded in a daze. The inside of the tent — wasn’t a tent. It was a garden. Far overhead, a fantastical night sky shone, but the space itself was lit bright as day, stretching out far beyond the tent’s walls in a series of terraces and groves. Fountains played and flowers grew in billowy clouds, couches on which faerie courtiers lounged and laughed, mockingly, as the goblin led Darren over a delicately arched bridge crossing a babbling brook, to the floral bower where the King and Queen sat, eating pastries and talking quietly together.
“Hail, King of the Forest, and his Queen,” said the goblin, bowing. Darren hastily followed suit.
“This had better be good, Toadflesh,” said the King without looking up. “The Queen and I want to celebrate another successful Procession. And enjoy our new servant.” He beckoned, and a disheveled figure shambled forward.
Darren bit back a cry as Ron, clothes already ripped and ragged, skin stained with strange substances, set a tray of wineglasses down before the royal couple. He stared at them adoringly, a mindless, besotted smile on his face. “Anything else?” he cooed.
“Not right now, Ron,” said Joanna, and Ron bowed and backed away, still staring at her lovingly.
“Ron? Ron!” But Ron didn’t turn at Darren’s voice. He didn’t even seem to hear.
The King, however, looked over. “Oh,” he said, lip curling. “It’s you. The other cameraman.” His courtiers tittered maliciously around him. “I suppose you’re here to save your lover.”
Darren didn’t ask how the King knew they were lovers. “Sire — uh, Your Majesty.” He held out the cameras. “I’m — I’m sorry for what we did. What we tried to do. I can see how that might be, uh, pretty insulting. To you. But I’m giving you the cameras, with the videos inside, and I can give you all our other research materials —”
There came a flash and a vile stench, and Darren yelped, dropping the suddenly scorching cameras. The King smiled as smoke plumed up from the equipment, now twisted and half-melted. “There,” he said. “That’s what your foolish videos are worth to me.”
Darren gritted his teeth as the courtiers laughed and even Joanna smiled. “Then what can I give you in exchange for Ron’s freedom?”
The King sat back, regarding him. “Your lover is getting what he deserves,” he said. “He insulted us and mocked one of our most important ceremonies. He deserves to be carried off, a servant to us for the rest of his life. And you deserve to lose him.”
“Then take me instead,” said Darren desperately. “Let Ron go and take me.”
“Oh, how delightful,” murmured a courtier, eyes gleaming.
Joanna placed a hand on the King’s arm. “Husband,” she said, “perhaps we could listen? He may have something valuable enough to trade.”
“This one?” The King raked contemptuous eyes over Darren, from his shaggy hair to his beat-up sneakers. “I doubt it.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t be too hasty, sire.” Toadflesh gulped back wine from the goblet he’d appropriated from a nearby table. “This mortal makes movies, after all. He is … a storyteller.”
The faeries all shifted at this, an odd current running through them, and even the King went still, gold eyes gleaming. “What sort of stories?” asked Joanna, looking almost as eager as the faeries.
Darren hoped no one saw him gulp. He willed himself not to tremble. He had only one chance, he knew. He had to get it right the first time, facing an angry King, while surrounded by predatory faeries, with Ron’s sanity and freedom at stake.
“Stories of human folly, Your Majesty,” he said. “Stories of human credulity and foolishness. The things mortals will believe when they’re desperate to do so. We — Ron and I — we debunk myths. We show what really happened instead. Until now, we never encountered a story that was real.” He looked around, at the magical tent, the wondrous courtiers. “You have opened our eyes to true magic. And, if you would grant my love his freedom, we would put our talents at your service. We would travel the world and bring you back stories of humanity: our foolishness and our wonders. We would collect those stories, and bring them back to you.”
Clearly, this was the way to talk to faeries. The courtiers’ eyes practically glowed with avarice, and they crowded in with longing, gazes darting to their King.
He leaned back with a nonchalance belied by the eagerness in his eyes. “You would do this?” he said. “In exchange for your lover’s freedom, you would go and bring us back stories for the rest of your lives?”
The King was bargaining, Darren realized. “For ten years.”
“Done,” said the King. “For the next twenty-five years, you and Ron Markman will travel the human world, gathering stories for us: stories of foolishness and laughter, of heroism and glory, of mortal failure and mortal triumph. And every year, you will bring those stories — those movies — back to us, here in Aldensburg, to show them to us at the summer solstice celebrations. You will become part of our festival.”
The courtiers all applauded, and Joanna’s eyes gleamed. Toadflesh grinned — a hideous sight.
Darren shifted, wondering how to put this. “We — might need some help. We don’t have a lot of money for traveling.”
“I would ensure that you always had what you need to fulfill your task,” said the King.
Not quite the same thing, Darren suspected, but something told him not to push it. “And after?” he asked. “After the twenty-five years?”
“Then you have your freedom,” said Joanna Alden firmly. “It’s no more than fair,” she added to her husband when he looked as though he might protest.
He sighed. “I suppose you’re right.” He looked back at Darren. “Do we have a bargain, Darren Smith?”
Darren bowed. “Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Then be it so.” The King turned to Ron and snapped his fingers.
It was like a light turning on. Ron’s stupid, besotted expression vanished as intelligence relit his eyes. He stared around, blinking. “What …?” Horror grew on his face as confusion gave way to realization. “Was I …? Did you …?”
“Congratulations, Mr. Markman,” said the King. “Your lover here has won your freedom. Now, both of you have work to do.” His eyes shone. “I expect something special next summer.”
And then the tent and the Court were gone, replaced by darkness and wind, as the two men staggered in the parking lot before their motel, the faeries’ laughter still ringing in their ears.
“Okay, Toadflesh.” Darren made the final minute adjustments to the large double screens set up in the pavilion and rechecked his camera. “Looks like we’re ready to roll.”
“About time. I’ll go tell their Majesties.” Toadflesh finished off his beer, grinned (Darren and Ron both shuddered), and loped off, letting the tent flap fall behind him.
“Oh, boy.” Ron hid behind the screen, rechecking the equipment and ducking down his burning face. “Their Majesties. Who made me into their serving slave.”
“Well, they won’t do that again, not if they want us to bring back more movies.” Darren shook his head. It had been a hell of a year, equal parts marvelous adventure and fiendishly hard work. It was, the pair had discovered, no easy task to create an interesting and informative video documenting a year’s adventures in so short a time — even if help, money, and equipment mysteriously showed up out of nowhere. Darren laughed a little, helplessly. What it was to have a magical benefactor. They’d just barely made it back to Aldensburg in time for the Procession, which had been just as stunning and wondrous as last year’s. Ron and Darren knew this because, according to the King’s specific command delivered by Toadflesh, they’d been forced to watch.
But now the Ones in the Woods appeared in the pavilion, between one blink of the eye and the next. The benches were lined with goblins and kobolds, forest-nymphs and winged fey, raven-men and fox-girls, dryads and gnomes and other, weirder things that had no name but occupied the vast, dark space in a multi-colored, multi-limbed, happily chattering crowd. Even the mermaids were present, hovering in their water-filled bubble at the back, tails glimmering.
And there were the King and his Queen, hand in hand, both glowing with their eternal youth and beauty, their everlasting love, seated on the thrones of living flowers set at the very front. Ron and Darren both bowed, though Darren noticed that Ron was careful not to look Joanna in the face.
The King gestured them up. “Well, mortals,” he said. “It’s been a long year, hasn’t it? Let’s see the fruits of your labors.”
Showtime. Ron and Darren looked at each other, took deep breaths, and retreated to start the movie.
Darren’s final thought, before he hit the start button, was, We really should have gone to the Naked Bike Parade instead.
[Rose Strickman is a speculative fiction author living in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in e-zines such as Luna Station Quarterly and Enchanted Conversation, as well as many anthologies, including Sword and Sorceress 32, Monsters in Spaaaace! and Air: Sylphs, Spirits, & Swan Maidens. She has also self-published several novellas. Please see her Amazon author’s page.]