Your name is Alex and you live in a small town at the edge of the sea. You have a sister and two parents and no pets. In your town, everyone follows their destiny: They cross the street, cook endless meals, stand in the same room, deliver the same mail every day. You can’t remember most of their names. It’s the way it’s always been. You’re different. You wake up one morning and know something’s wrong. It’s an unsettled ache in your chest. Bad things will happen soon. Unfortunately, you can’t articulate these feelings. No one but you knows anything is different about today.
They gave me directions, not an address, and once I arrived, I could see why. There was no church here, no hall, no theater. I parked at the end of the dirt road by the lightning-blasted oak and peered toward the line of fir trees, fuzzed orange by the sinking sun beyond. I wondered, briefly, if this was a trick—lure the lady bartender out to the woods for nefarious purposes—but they’d paid half up front and the check had cleared, so I checked my professional demeanor in the rearview mirror, grabbed my bag, and got out of the car.
A dirty little backstreet in London, bordered upon the east by Tottenham Court Road and upon the south by Oxford Street. A dirty little backstreet, shadowed and unfashionable, the walls darkened with unattended soot, the windows blinded with grime. It was home to the backs of restaurants on one side and the rears of glittering retail emporia upon the other, and little else but for a couple of residences, a pawnbroker, and a bookshop. The sign over the window read “Vesperine & Daughter. Dealers in Rare & Antique Books” and, while this was true, it was also somewhere short of the whole truth.
When the witch came across the man whose leg had been shot through by the arrow he was hollering and disorderly and seemed like a bit of a nuisance. Still it could be said honestly that the man had a particular charm about him. For example when the witch asked if he was all right the man responded with only an agonized groan but beyond the groan there was also a look he gave her like the groaning in agony was a joke they alone were in on and she felt an immediate conspiratorial intimacy with the man with the shot leg.
The wizards appeared at 8:41 a.m. out of a cloudless blue sky. Dapper in their green plaid public school uniforms, they whooshed through the air on broomsticks, wands extended to defend against an incipient threat. In unison, they intoned a solemn chant. Their words burned bright sigils into the air which swirled and coalesced into a glittering white sphere of light. The light pulsed and flashed and shimmered. The crowd gathered on the ground below looked up. Some had noticed the wizards when they’d appeared and then dismissed them as some kind of publicity stunt
There’s a faerie tree in my front yard. Its branches are gnarled like an old woman’s fingers, knobbed like her knees, and the trunk hunches down like she’s reaching for my house. Mamaw said the hole at the base of faerie trees is where faeries come out or rush in or leave gifts if it’s big enough, though I was too young to remember. She says I was fussy in any arms that weren’t hers or the tree, least ’til I got used to everything. When I was real little, Sister says she could always find me curled half in the tree if I’d toddled off, like I fell asleep tryin’ to find Mamaw’s faeries.
The stranger emerged from the shadows by the backstage door, proffered lighter held in long pale fingers. Winged eyeliner emphasized the charcoal of his heavy-lidded eyes. He wore the absence of a smile like expensive jewelry. Morgan leaned in for the light. “Hello,” she said huskily. She liked the look of him. She was stuck working this show as a stagehand, staring at the actresses who could get real work, and she wasn’t even supposed to smoke during her well-earned breaks.
Back in originspace, Basher sobbed in Doom Maiden’s arms. Sparks stared at the ground. I didn’t know what to do with my hands. I wanted to punch something. Mostly I wanted to punch myself. Or maybe Domino. If only he had listened to me! Why did I ever think I could be a leader? Not even my best friend listened to me when it counted. How could I have been so stupid? How could he? “We’ll get him back,” Basher said. She was frantic. “He’s still alive. Right, Sparks? He’s still alive.”
When I made the decision to take up an after-school job closing trans-dimensional portals into pocket-worlds full of dangerous monsters and traps, I thought it would be easier—or at least more fun—than working the counter at a fried cockatrice joint or selling newssheets on a street corner at the crack of dawn. My team’s first outing into dungeonspace—when we defeated The Cavern of the Screaming Eye on our first try—had gone pretty good. Since then, we’d been running low threat level, poorly synced dungeons as practice, the kind that don’t actually kill you if you take damage inside them.
This story is at least a thousand years old. Its complete title is “The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle: It Contains Strange and Marvelous Things.” A single copy, probably produced in Egypt or Syria, survives in Istanbul; the first English translation appeared in 2015. This is not the right way to start a fairy tale, but it’s better than sitting here in silence waiting for Mahliya, who takes forever to get ready. She’s upstairs staining her cheeks with antimony, her lips with a lipstick called Black Sauce. Vainest crone in Cairo.