The Quinarth rim valleys harbored a dense population of Faire Folk or as they prefer to be known—the "Free Folk." Hundreds of permanent towns and villages dotted the misty shores of the Quinarth Rim Area. Hundreds more nested in the surrounding trees or in dens among the root system. Others were always on the move, wandering in pursuit of trade, the next seasonal crop or greener pastures for their herds. Although they were living in a beautiful and fruitful land that was protected from the hostile outside world, the Free Folk knew better than to trust the idyllic scenes before their eyes. Their land held many dangers—huge predators like the weira and yowie lurked in the deep wood.
Then there were things worse than any wild beast, and far more terrifying. There were things that could suck out a person's soul as easily as a vacuum could suck up a herd of dust bunnies. And how long could a body live with no mind let alone a soul? Not very long—it would be a very dismal death indeed. Even worse was the horrible loss of oneself by substitution. Such was the case in the quiet woodland community of Branshel seventy miles from the Swanwick Coast.
It was a cold, wet and gray morning on the last day of October. The sort of morning when anyone with a reasonable amount of sense pulled the blankets up over their heads and reset the alarm clock to noon. A wolverine was snuffling about in the gloomy woods, as a rule; wolverines don't have a reasonable amount of sense, being mostly an appetite with claws and teeth.
To Krissa Beetle, an eleven-year old Ainsel girl, crouching behind a nearby clump of blackberries, this wolverine was different. It was larger than usual, like a large sheepdog or a small owl bear, and it seemed to be humming a tune as it rummaged about in the brush. The humming had a kind of rattly, snarly pitch somewhat like acorns going down a vacuum cleaner hose, but that was to be expected from an animal whose mouth wasn't shaped for singing or speaking.
Nevertheless Krissa recognized the tune as an old human folk song, one that seemed to be designed for the sole purpose of driving people completely and utterly insane.
"Ninety-eight bottles of beer on the wall,
Ninety-eight bottles of beer,
Take one down and pass it around,
Ninety-seven bottles of beer on the wall…"
Krissa shivered and nervously fingered one of the numerous amulets that bedecked her orange rain poncho. Before she went out to pick mushrooms, her mother came in carrying a cedar chest crammed to the brim with supposedly magical trinkets, and insisted that she wear all of them. When Krissa skeptically asked why, her mother replied in a severe tone that it was to keep her safe from the dark powers that were out in force during this time of year. Krissa though her mother was crazy to believe in such superstitious nonsense; but knowing her mother, she obediently took the talismans and fastened them on.
The collection of protective charms was proving to be a hindrance rather than a help. When she walked, it felt like she was carrying several pounds of lead-weight, every time she brushed past a branch or a bush, she almost always had to stop and untangle herself. Finally, the blasted things rattled, tinkled, and jangled until Krissa sounded like a Christmas tree in a heavy windstorm. Not a healthy combination considering the beast snorting and rooting about a few steps away.
"Take one down and pass it around,
Ninety-five bottles of beer on the wall…"
Krissa was trying to decide whether she should try to slip quietly away or just stay put, when the humming abruptly stopped.
She looked up shakily, wondering if the wolverine had finally sensed her hiding place. Heart pounding wildly, she peered through the leaves. The creature wasn't even looking in her direction; instead it was staring upward. Following its gaze she saw a bright red spark darting and shifting high overhead like a dust mote in a sunbeam. It dropped swiftly down, stopping just a foot away from the wolverine's head and hovered there. The animal stood absolutely still, and eyed the thing intently.
Krissa sat still, wondering what was going on. She lifted her nose and gave a speculative sniff. There was a rank musky odor in the air along with a faint electrical smell, like that of ozone.
That's a funny-looking lantern fly, Krissa thought, puzzled. I wonder why the wolverine's so afraid of it?