She hunted fairies. It was how she knew this whole thing was a trap. Jane had passed through Hartville, Wyoming about once a month for the past two years, and until today it was a town with chatter wafting out of every storefront, where the saloon reeked of sweat and booze, and so much wagon traffic that it slowed her down. Now the storefronts were silent, the saloon was empty, and the wagon tracks were filling in with dirt.
Six months ago when Jane had sworn off this job for good, she told herself nothing would bring her back to it, but this ... this she couldn't ignore. There was no way Earl would've passed this up, either. He would've known, like she knew now, that there was a fairy inside, in this art gallery painted storm-sky blue with the words "GALLERY OF DREAMS - OPEN NOW" arching over the black curtain serving as its front door. And it was open. Jane could hear someone singing inside.
And whatever it was, it wasn’t human.
She had eight cold-iron shells left over from when she'd given this all up, and now seemed the right time to use them. But if things started going south, she had to make sure there was one left for herself. So once there were two loaded in her shotgun, she took a step forward, but before her heel could touch down, a witch stepped through the curtain.
"Ah, Martha Jane, so glad you could come," the witch said as she approached. This had to be the fairy; she had skin too pale for frontier living and a dress and eyes the same midnight blue. There was a chill coming off her, like being near a mountain creek, and when she took Jane's cheeks in her fingers, her touch was February cold. "We've been waiting so long for this, you cannot imagine."
"Got a guess," Jane said. "'Bout six months?"
"Time is so fluid," the witch fairy said. "Come inside, we have a gift for you."
Jane grunted, her grip tightening on her shotgun. "Won't like it."
The witch only smiled, drawing Jane closer. "I can't give away the surprise. Come." She let go of Jane's face and walked to the doorway, holding the curtain open.
If Earl were here, Jane would have been more cautious. But he wasn't, so she shouldered her shotgun, set her jaw, and marched ahead through the door. There was only one way this was going to get done, and that was her way.
At least she wasn't in Faerie.
There was a dizzying quality to Faerie, where the ideas of up and down were intertwined and everything Jane said felt wrong in her mouth. Nevertheless, it was weird in here. The air felt used, like the whole world had breathed it all up before she arrived. Also, she was alone; the witch was gone.
That witch fairy had to be magical, and if she could disappear or walk through walls, she could probably do other things. One thing Jane'd learned about fairies was that they liked to show off early, which was sometimes a blessing -- it let her get a taste of what she was up against. But this witch's kind of magic? Jane was too rusty, too low on materials, and down one partner to go up against a fairy this powerful. If Earl hadn't gone missing six months ago, Jane would've been in better shape.
Oh she'd been looking for him, but he'd vanished, like a typical man.
It would have to just be her, the paintings on the walls, and the grand table set with all the food she could imagine. The smell of the food was sickly-sweet, like perfume layered over filth. She knew not to touch any of it or she'd get pulled into Faerie with no way out. That was the way fairy food worked. But she was so hungry, and that whole table was mocking her. She had to look at something else.
So she turned to the walls. Each painting was a landscape peppered with people, and although Jane wasn't much for art, looking at it beat staring at all the food she couldn't eat. She found each picture nice enough, feeling like she could live in each one, if she had to. Here was a painting of a forest, there a castle, then down the wall, a mountain range. But all those people in the paintings, they felt off, like they'd been added later by someone else.
It wasn't until she arrived at a painting of a beach with a dancing girl and a cowboy staring out at the water with their hands raised high that she realized it. Maybe it was the shocked expressions on all the people's faces, or the way they looked like they were caught in the middle of something else, or maybe how their clothes were wrong — a dancing girl wouldn’t wear her costume to the beach. These were the missing folk from Hartville, trapped inside the art, and now they were on display.
Was that the surprise? Not likely. Fairies never did anything without reason, made up with their own fucked-up way of thinking. It might not make any sense to one of these townsfolk, but she and Earl had started to puzzle fairy thinking out and see things the fairy way. This witch wanted something else from her, or had something for her, and Jane wasn't exactly Christmas-keen to find out what.
"Ah, Martha Jane," said a different voice coming from the back of the room. This witch fairy had a friend. "We're so glad you came. We knew you would love our invitation, so we brought a guest."
Jane whirled around, her shotgun leveled, and she found herself looking not at two fairies but into the dead eyes of her old partner, Earl. The witch and this fairy in the gallery were holding his head up by his light brown hair. They smiled at her until she lowered the barrel of her shotgun, and when she did, they dropped Earl's corpse to the floor.
"We have a proposition for you," the gallery fairy said. She stepped into the light, her hair falling over her bare shoulders, grass-green eyes losing themselves in her pale face. "One we hope you'll keep this time, as your last broken deal didn't work out so well." She nudged Earl's body with her toe. "What do you say, Martha Jane?"
Jane couldn't say anything. Her mind was frozen in shock.
All those days spent on scouting jobs, chasing old leads and older stories for a glimpse of Earl's horse or a whiff of his aftershave. She should've stopped when everything came up cold, but no, she'd only gotten bolder, more brazen in her searching. And now, here he was, exactly as all her nightmares had played out.
"Good girl, Martha Jane," the witch said. "Finally willing to work with us."
"You'll be pleased with the outcome," the gallery fairy said. "We'll free your partner's soul from our realm and let the town go."
There was a pause, like they were waiting for Jane to speak. Which meant, by her reckoning, they had another boot left to drop. There was no sense in dragging this out.
"What else d'you want?” she asked.
"You must come with us," the witch said.
Earl had always been the talker, getting them out of most scrapes with his silver tongue while Jane spent most of her time getting them into scrapes by saying nothing at all. But this wasn't a good deal, even Jane could see that. There was no way she could let them stay here either, and she couldn't let them keep Earl's soul. Yes, she'd found him, finally, and the discovery was ripping so many holes in her she was finding it hard to think or keep her eyes dry. She didn't want to see him like this, or know he was suffering like he was, all because of her. It was time to change the game.
"I got a better deal," she said.
"Ah, Martha Jane wishes to counter-offer," the gallery fairy said.
"Intriguing," the witch said. "This worked in our favor the last time. That's how your man died, yes? From you trying to bargain? So please, go ahead, speak. We're eager to hear what you have to say."
"He's not my man," Jane said.
"Is that your entire bargain?" the gallery fairy asked. "Amusing."
"No, dammit." She had to be specific. "Let Earl's soul go, right now. An' then I'll go to Faerie, willing-like, but you're both comin' with me."
"Is that all?" the witch asked. "Aren't you forgetting something?"
"No," Jane said. "Fuck the town, I don't owe them nothing."
"This is a good deal," the gallery fairy said.
"It's better than your previous attempt," the witch said. "Your man would be proud."
"I said, he's not my man."
"But you were in love with him from the moment he paid for you," the gallery fairy said. She slid behind Jane, running her thin fingers down one of Earl's old jackets. "Your heart belonged to him, from the moment he said 'You're a different kind of girl'."
"But isn't it true," the witch asked, moving closer, "that he didn't love you back? You cared for him so much, and yet ... he nev--"
"Are you agreein' or not?"
"Oh Earl," the gallery fairy said in Jane's voice, "I miss you so much."
That was it.
Forfeiting contracts was her forte. Jane raised her shotgun to fire.
There was a door at the back side of the gallery, shut and latched with a wooden bolt on the inside. That would do. As the two fairies closed in, Jane fired at the door, aiming to hit the frame, or at least the wall around it. But her hands were shaking, and she was backing up, trying to avoid the table, there wasn't much space in here, and she missed, twice.
She'd have to reload.
"Is she shooting her little gun at us?" the witch asked.
"I think she is," the gallery fairy said.
Jane was fumbling with the second shell when the witch twitched her fingers in front of her, plunging the room into darkness. It was thick and blue as the midnight sky, and just as suffocating. Jane was suddenly in deep ocean, drowning and gasping for breath. Her hands clutched both shotgun and shell, grabbing onto anything to bring her up and out of this, help her climb up for breath.
No. This was a lie.
She couldn't let herself believe in this. They wanted her to feel she was drowning, to die gasping for air in a simple building like someone who had no idea what they were getting into. But she was Jane Canary, she knew better -- it was only darkness, magic darkness, and the gallery was still the gallery, with the table in the middle and the paintings on the windowless walls. This was no night sky, this was no deep ocean. This was Wyoming.
Whatever the witch had done, that kind of power was huge, bigger than anything Jane and Earl had ever gone up against, and there were two fairies in here with that same immense magic. With Earl's soul at stake, her own soul at stake, and the few shells she had left, she was outmatched and had too much to lose. She had to get away, but there was something she had to take care of first.
So she darted right but misjudged her distance and knocked two paintings off the wall. The two fairies whispered. If they were planning, it didn’t matter. Jane knew where she was going and was already feeling her way toward the rear of the building. This place wasn't that big, and since they were still on real, actual ground, it wasn't going to get any bigger. She just had to get there.
"Are you staying little girl? The door is the other way," the gallery fairy said. She was a few paces behind.
"Giving up? Just like you did with him?" the witch said. "Riding away like a coward into the night and leaving him behind to die?" Her voice was coming from everywhere. It surrounded her, echoing off the walls, creeping out from under the table, dangling on webs from the ceiling. It stopped when Jane reached Earl's corpse.
"You cannot save him," the gallery fairy said.
"Only we can do that," the witch said.
"Come with us," they said together. "And we will put him back where he belongs."
"You don' seem innerested in keepin' your word," Jane said. "So how about three play at that game?"
"We did not agree to your deal, foolish girl," the witch said, the words rushing in angry from the walls.
"Violence is not the answer," the gallery fairy said. "Did your man teach you nothing?"
"He wasn't my man," Jane said, and lifted Earl's body with one arm, feeling along the back wall with her shoulder. "Not ever."
"So sad for you," the gallery fairy said. She was too close now, Jane had to move faster. "You did love him so."
She had to make sure these two never got out of this building again. Cold iron fired into the door frames should do it, then they'd be stuck in here forever. Jane had six shells left for four targets, and she had to hit exactly.
When her shoulder connected with the back door, she stopped and fired a third time. The cold-iron pellets hit the reinforced wood, digging in just enough to serve as an anchor. She only had to do it again on the other side of this door, and then both sides of the front, all the while hoping these two couldn't figure out what she was up to. So she hefted Earl higher, dragged him a few feet backward until she fired again.
"Give up, Martha Jane," the gallery fairy said. “Know when you’ve lost.”
Jane’s hands were shaking, she couldn't reload like this. Not with Earl under one arm in this darkness. She could hear the gallery fairy close behind her, so she pulled Earl in tight and pushed off the back wall, feeling along the floor to avoid the table.
"Little girl believes she can kill us with her tiny shot and simple gun," the witch said, her voice wrapping around Jane like a cocoon. "You cannot."
Their taunts mixed her fear with a fury that was welling up inside her, sending her mind racing. The mix, she knew, was poison. This recipe of emotions was what got her into scrapes she couldn't win, and had started the whole situation that ended up getting Earl killed. Anger and fury had given her black eyes, broken fingers, and a dead partner. And now, if she wasn't careful ...
No, she needed to clear her head, she needed her full concentration. Her jaw was already aching from her clenched teeth, her arm seizing from Earl's weight. Her mouth had long ago gone dry from fear, now the anger was making her speed up. She had to regain control.
Damn tortoise won the race, she told herself. Slow the fuck down, Jane.
There was a chill approaching, coming in slow and sinister like a draft. The witch was getting closer, and Jane's shotgun was empty. She had to reload now, but her hands were wild and slick with sweat. She had no choice. She grabbed two of her four remaining shells and whispered an even older mantra: two in the hand is worth one good and shot, rack em in, close it up, good as got.
It was supposed to get her to concentrate and focus, but it wasn't working. She loaded the first shell in a panic; the chill was coming on too fast, her heart was clawing at her ribcage, and her mind was playing tricks on her -- she swore she'd just felt Earl move.
The second shell went in just as the witch took Jane by the throat. She was laughing, and then the other fairy was laughing. If Jane didn't know better, she'd've thought it was a pretty sound, like carousel music. But she did know better, this meant bad things were going to happen, really bad things. The witch squeezed her throat and brought Jane so close she could taste the ice coming off her breath. But the witch said nothing, and she wasn't laughing anymore.
Because Jane had just gotten an idea.
Magic wasn't all powerful. It could be outdone by the right tools, if you outsmarted it, and Jane had been paying attention. This witch really liked this thick darkness. It let her do the voice thing, disorient people, and no light could get through. Except, judging by those tiny glimpses of daylight from where her cold-iron pellets had sprayed the back wall, well, Jane had two shots to figure out if she had the right idea.
Feet firm on the ground, Jane closed the break and fired from the hip.
The witch squeezed harder, seething through clenched teeth, "What are you doing? What are you doing?"
More light peeked through the front wall. Jane had one shot to see if she was right. One shot to see if she was headed for death and all these heroics were for nothing. The witch tried to turn Jane’s head to meet her eyes, but Jane wouldn't have it. If she was gonna die today, she'd be damned if she let these fairies get a hold of her soul that easy. No. If they wanted all of her, they were gonna have to work for it.
So she set her arm steady at her side, stiff and solid as a cottonwood tree, and threw all her fear and anger into wrenching back the second hammer. The witch drew Jane in until they were nose to nose, but Jane just grinned into the dark, putting some of her malice there. The rest she saved to throw into her trigger finger to fire the second shell.
The shot hit, sending daylight bridging across the room like signals from a hundred stars.
The witch screamed, scraping her nails down Jane's throat and then digging them into her own skin while she stood, wailing and illuminated. The gallery fairy flipped the table, sending food flying everywhere -- whole chickens knocked the paintings from the walls, pudding spread thick on the floor, and Jane crept through it all, holding Earl close.
"Stop her!" the witch said. "Stop her!"
Jane loaded her last two shells with steady hands and turned, her shotgun aimed at the right side of the door frame, but the gallery fairy was behind her, pulling her back. "You'll regret this, Martha Jane. You'll regret this as long as you live."
"I won’t." Jane steadied her arm and fired.
The cold-iron pellets hit home. The gallery fairy let go, doubling over on herself as the witch writhed on the floor, becoming part of the debris and darkness. Jane walked three slow steps to the left and took her final shot.
"We will never forget this!" the two fairies called out. "We will plague you for the rest of your days. Your life will be chaos, turmoil, mayhem. You will lose everyone you love. You will never be at peace. We curse you, Martha Jane Canary!"
"I got what I wanted," Jane said, the shells spent, the curtain drawn back and Earl against her chest. He was closer to her now than she'd ever held him in life, and his cold, heavy body was comfortable in her arms, like it was a natural extension of what she should have done six months ago. Standing like this, she knew they were free to go.
"We will follow you!" they called out. "You are curs--"
When the curtain shut behind her, their voices cut out as if she'd closed a book, ending their story, forever trapped inside by the cold-iron anchors she'd shot into the entranceways.
The sun was low on the horizon when Earl was finally in the ground, and Jane was tired. She knelt down at his grave with her hat in her hands. There was something she had to see to before she left.
"Hey, Lord," she said. "I'm tryin' to give you Earl Hinkman. He was a good man, better'n most. He didn't deserve what he got."
She looked up for some kind of confirmation, but she got none. There was only that wide expanse of airless blue to get lost in.
"I'm not good at this talkin' stuff, so if you could protect him like I'm askin.' Do me this favor and take good care of him, like I couldn't. Just keep him safe an' ask him to wait for me. I'll probably be joinin' him soon enough.”
When Jane rode out, she left everything behind her. The storefronts were silent, the saloon was empty, and the wagon tracks were lost in the dirt.
As for the fairies, it was time for someone else to take up that mantle. Let them be filled with all the danger, wonder, and loss that had occupied her life for two years, Jane was done with it, for good this time. She had a curse to get to, and nobody else could live it like her.
This story originally appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies.