The demon, like all the others before it, appeared first in the form of a horizontal plume of rust-red grit and vapor. Almost a kilometer away, it moved low to the ground, camouflaged by the waves of hot, shimmering air that rose from the desert hardpan. Lieutenant Matt Whitebird watched it for many seconds before he was sure it was more than a mirage. Then he announced to his squad, “Incoming.”
“Don’t go down to the well,” said Theo to his son. So, of course, Tim went to the well. He was thirteen, and his father told him not to. There was no magic to it. To get to the well — and not the well in the center of the village, because everyone knows where that well is, and no one has any stories about it except for whose grandfather dug it and how soon it’s going to go dry.
The journeyer was still a young man when he embarked on his search for the all-powerful witch Cerile. He was bent and gray-haired a lifetime later when he found a map to her home in the tomb of the forgotten kings. The map directed him halfway across the world, over the Souleater mountains, through the Curtains of Night, past the scars of the Eternal War, and across a great grassy plain, to the outskirts of Cerile’s Desert.
I’m in your house, wearing one of your shirts. I’m sitting on your floor, with all the drawers of every desk and dresser open. I have them poured out and I’m looking at what you’ve kept. Your old laptops and love letters, your hard drives full of photos and emails, your string and wire tangled into little knots, hard and tiny, twisted so tightly that I can’t crush them more than they’ve already been crushed.
Her mother carved angels in the backyard. The largest was six feet tall and had the face of her mother’s first lover, killed in a car accident when they were still in their teens. It took eighteen months to sway the purple and blue webbed stone into wings and skin, to release the wisp of feathers from the metallic clasp. She carved through the seasons, the easy spring, the heat of summer.
The mule nipped at Marjan’s hand as she burdened it with her packs. She pushed its nose away, careful not to hurt it. She needed the mule to be well. Her life — and her unborn child’s — depended on it. She led the mule outside the stable and carefully latched the door behind them. She didn’t want the other animals to suffer from the cold. Bad enough she was stealing the mule.
“What do we call this thing?” Erm Kaslo said, gesturing to the smooth opaque walls. “It’s not a spaceship.” Diomedo Obron tapped the green leather-bound tome he was studying. “Testroni’s Impervious Conveyance, it says here.” They were inside an object that had looked to Kaslo like nothing so much as an oversized version of the silver dome that a butler would whisk away from an aristocrat’s meal. It even had a large ring on top — a ring that was now grasped by the talons of an honest-to-goodness dragon.
It was towards mid-afternoon that Chen became aware of the girl. She stood before Chen’s stall, watching the fake-jade effigies of the Buddha and the coloured incense sticks, her eyes wide in the sunlight — she was no more than thirteen or fourteen, with the gangly unease of that age. To her left, children shrieked as they passed the Bridge of Impossibility, holding each other’s hands, and went into the temple complex.
Masa makes a deep bow as Yoko holds a plastic bottle beneath him, waiting for the water to drain like a tea garden waterfall from Masa’s bowl-shaped head. A trainee at Headwater Bottled Refreshments stands behind Masa with a hose, filling his head up to the brim after he finishes his bow. “We have to wait five minutes before filling more bottles,” Yoko says. “The water needs time to change.”
Don’t be fooled by the breadcrumbs in the forest. This is not a fairy tale. The first lie is pretty and spirals from your mouth like candyfloss; sweet, so sweet, and I’m melting under your tongue. Baby, baby, baby, you say, and I gobble it up, unaware that every word you say comes with a candy thermometer and you’ve made me your latest caramel bonbon.