“We get a lot of weather here,” the Sniffer shouted with his scratchy voice. Clean white feathers flurried into his eyes, and he wiped them away.
Black-Note Benny squinted at the sky. “It’s like some sort of blizzard. A blizzard of feathers!”
“Yes. Barrelbottom collects not only the characters that were rejected, but every element of every story that refuses to fit in. So today, it’s raining feathers. Tomorrow we might suffer a thousand-year drought. The day after, maybe a monsoon of kittens.” The Sniffer smiled. “Once the moon itself crashed into the Swamp.”
Wanda stumbled closer to the old man, rubbing her shoulders in the cold. “What happened?”
“What usually happens. The next day it all started over. But that’s every story, isn’t it? The illusion of change! Everything changes but it all stays the same. Usually, anyway.” The Sniffer stumbled to a stop and took a deep inhalation. “Yes. We’ll need to register you. From there, I can show you around wherever you’d like to go. There’s a thriving musician borough you might enjoy — Jubal. Right next to it reside the rejected gangsters and dons. You might feel at home there, too.”
They shuffled through the feathers. They lay about knee-deep already, but Wanda had no trouble pushing through them. They scratched her bare shins, but that was the price of being fashionable.
Her green dress shimmered in the light. Just like Sniffer had said, their clothes cleaned themselves off so they looked about what she recalled from her story. Just like that.
And just like that, they were in town. She didn’t even notice their approach to the buildings. They stood on either side of them on a hard-packed dirt road – or at least, that’s what it felt like under her feet. It was hard to tell with the feathers.
Each building looked different. Here was a Wild West general store. There was a speakeasy. Over yonder stood… well, what was it? The sign in front displayed books smeared with blood.
People filtered onto the street. Why hadn’t she noticed them before?
No, not just people. A great lizard stalked away from them. Some sort of half-man, half tornado whooshed down the street. A centaur plucked feathers from the air and chewed on them. No, that wasn’t a horse under the man’s torso… the legs were far too long…
“It’s not considered polite to stare,” Sniffer huffed at her. “Even here, among the rejects, there are rules. The thing to remember is that we were all rejected, and that makes us all equals. Nobody’s better than anyone else when we’re all bad enough to be kicked out of a dream. Or a story. Keep that in mind as you stare; just because they’re strange to you doesn’t mean you’re normal.”
Benny shook his head as he tracked a gigantic purple bird that held hands – wings? – with a little boy.
. “Geez, Sniff, and I thought you were weird.”
“Your brother always that deaf, isn’t he?”
Wanda shrugged. “You’re the one who said he smelled like a horse’s heiny.”
Sniffer gestured to the shop with the books that dripped blood. “This way, to the book butchery.”
“The what now?” Benny tore his eyes away from the strangers.
“The book butchery. You will need to be registered.”
“You said that before. Why you gotta register us? Afraid we’re gonna do something you might regret?”
“Yes.” The Sniffer tilted his head. “I’ll let Brarrian tell you all about it.”
He pushed open a stainless steel door.
A smell like fresh meat and old pages wafted out to Wanda. Something both enticed her and repulsed her about the combination.
Benny held the door open for his sister. He laid a hand on her shoulder as she passed. She felt it shaking against her skin.
Inside, shelf upon endless mile of shelf greeted her. They stretched forty, fifty feet toward an arched stone ceiling. People of all sorts jabbered at men in bloody aprons behind a counter that kept the crowd from the shelves. Sometimes a butcher would reach back to the shelves and come back with various cuts of meat or flowers or bags of salt.
A tiny man in a business suit and quickly vibrating wings hovered in front of their escort. “Ah! Sniffer!” He called out in a high-pitched English gentleman’s voice. “Some new arrivals, I see. Well then. Greetings! I surmise by your attire you are from a high-class story. We need more of us around. Far too many working-class tales have been coming lately. Far too many! Ah! Pardon my bad manners. I am Pelisar, son of Thrumomend. I come from an epic retelling of Lord of the Rings set in a fairy world run by bankers. Why, my story was quite interesting before the author rejected me, of course. Let me tell you –“
“Pelisar, old friend,” Sniffer interrupted, “we must register our new friends. I am certain they would enjoy hearing your tale, but not yet.”
“Ah, yes. Pardon me, pardon me. I shall call on you once you have settled yourselves. Please forgive an old man his ramblings! No one wants to listen to a proper story anymore.” He hovered away shaking his head.
Wanda watched him go. “He never asked our names,” she whispered.
“Oh, no, he doesn’t need them. He read your auras, your debts and your credits. That’s what his kind does. At least that’s what he says. We’ve never seen another quite like old Pelisar.” The Sniffer smiled. “Come.”
He guided the siblings around the counter. One of the nearby butchers – a large man with a tiny mustache – nodded to the sniffer as they passed.
The old man shuffled past several rows of the tall shelves. Now that she was closer, Wanda saw that the books… moved. They shifted on their shelves like patrons at the bar trying not to dance to good music. She reached out a hand to pluck up a thin volume as they passed.
A gaunt hand slapped her arm. “Stop that! Never touch the books! Your fingerprints could ruin someone else’s life!” Sniffer shook a finger at her. “Remember that!”
Wanda retracted her arm and sulked after.
Sniffer stumbled ahead, leaning heavily on his thin staff.
Benny snaked his arm around her shoulder and whispered, “The old man’s a little cranky, huh?”
Wanda chose not to reply.
Sniffer paused at an intersection of shelves, inhaling deeply. “She’s this way. Come on.” He followed his schnozz left, right, up, down, through an endless maze, until finally they found their way to a clearing in the shelves. A large wooden table took up the space. Piles of maps covered it. Behind the table stood a woman, her skin the color of parchment.
Wanda gasped when she saw the woman’s face.
It was drawn on. Her head was made of some sort of paper-mache substance, and charcoal and ink made her face. The charcoal lines moved into a smile. “Greetings. I do not know your stories. You have come to be registered?”
Sniffer nodded. “Fresh from the swamp.”
“Ah. Well, please, sit down.” The woman gestured to some leather chairs. “And tell me all about yourself. It’s time to register you and put your story here in the Book Butchery.”
Wanda remembered the sign on the street: books dripping blood.
This is a Barrelbottom Tale.