I: Favor Owed
College was eccentric enough that Taryn passed by the stranger eating cereal in her apartment without a second thought. She also barely registered that there was an open book floating in front of the stranger’s face, pages turning by themselves.
All Taryn cared about was getting out of her rain-drenched clothes and praising every God if her textbooks had stayed dry. They were rentals, and she couldn’t afford to buy them at the end of the semester if they were too damaged to return.
Holding her breath, she dumped them onto her twin-sized bed in the apartment’s one bedroom past the kitchenette. She shared it with her roommate, who was doing her rounds for her residency. The two years it would be before Taryn started her own residency seemed way too far away.
Roommate’s gone, a part of her brain chimed in, so who the hell was that out there.
No longer caring about books or cold and wet clothes, Taryn rushed into the kitchenette, slipping on the linoleum. She bit back a swear as she prepared a spell, the rings on her left middle finger and right pinky hot against her skin.
“Angie wasn’t kidding about pre-med being full of zombies,” the stranger chuckled before slurping milk from the bowl.
Swallowing the spell, Taryn straightened. She ignored the already-fading pain in her backside and ankle—she must have twisted it in the fall—and she focused on her rings growing cool again. She couldn’t afford the energy waste. Spells required time of prepping jewelry and other physical objects to hold power for when she needed it, but with classwork, she didn’t have much time to even pay attention to the phase of the moon these days.
Luckily, it looked like the cereal thief hadn’t noticed any slips or altering of energy, and a smug smile cut across her round face when she caught Taryn eyeing the floating book. She must have done it for show, rather than entertainment, while she waited for someone to return. She shifted in the two-seat couch but didn’t get up, and the book slammed shut and lowered onto the old trunk being used as a coffee table.
It was Taryn’s ethics textbook, and she finally recognized the stranger.
She didn’t know her name; the ethics lecture hall held close to a hundred students. While not huge by the standards of other classes Taryn took, it was enough that the professor had made them do ice-breaker games on the first day. If not for the short exchange last week, Taryn would have never noticed her, magenta hair or no.
“You couldn’t have taken that seriously,” Taryn deadpanned, but she knew the stranger had.
Magenta Hair just stood and set the empty bowl atop the textbook. “We’ll need to leave soon, and don’t think about backing out.”
The exchange had seen innocuous enough. Taryn had been saving the seat next to her for Rina Ruiz, who’d been friends with her since freshman year. She’d been late, though, and that was when Magenta Hair entered and took the empty seat. She hadn’t brought a laptop or textbook, just an expensive-looking sketchbook she’d immediately opened, holding it so Taryn hadn’t been able to see what she was working on.
She hadn’t cared much, really. Along with the strong pre-med program, the art department was considered one of the top ones in the nation, so seeing art majors in some of her electives wasn’t uncommon.
Rina had run in soon after, making it into the lecture hall just before Dr. Donerlson closed the door.
“Do you mind moving?” Taryn had asked Magenta Hair, who’d looked up from her sketchbook. Her obsidian eyes had been glassy, like she’d been in The Zone and was slowly connecting back with the world around her. “My friend’s here.”
“Oh.” Magenta Hair had blinked and gotten up, closing her sketchbook. “Yeah, sure.”
“Thanks.” Taryn had smiled and waved at Rina to join her. “I owe ya one.”
At that, Magenta Hair had grinned in a way that had made Taryn shiver. “I’ll hold you to that.”
Taryn should know better than to throw such words around, but it had been decades since her last run-in with a faery. They didn’t exactly prance around Earth much anymore, the Veil stronger now than when it first formed over a millennium ago.
Maybe if Taryn, Morganna, and Aleron had died along with the others, the Veil wouldn’t have the week spots it did.
It thinned at certain points of the year, the end of October and beginning of May being when it was thinnest. And today was Halloween.
She didn’t have Aleron to help anymore. He’d stripped himself of his immortality back in the late eighteenth century.
And Gods knew where the hell Morganna had run off to.
Or maybe even They didn’t.
Taryn wasn’t sure if They were paying much of any attention anymore, if a faery was in her apartment, trying to hold her to a deal she hadn’t meant to make.
“Backing out is exactly what I’m thinking of doing.” Blinking back tears, Taryn stomped into the bathroom, not caring if the neighbors below her complained. She kicked off her sneakers by the tub, and she peeled off her socks, tossing them into the hamper, followed by her Jon Snow You Know Nothing hoodie. “Now get the fuck outta here before I call the cops.”
She’d probably sound more intimidating if she hadn’t picked up the South Carolina accent after living in various towns there for fifty-odd years. Everyone in San Francisco seemed to think it made her sound endearing and sweet, and some people would come up to her only to hear her talk. The fact that she looked to be of Indian descent always seemed to make anyone within earshot tickled pink whenever she opened her mouth.
Magenta Hair leaned against the bathroom doorway, blocking Taryn in. This faery really thought she was human, had no clue that with a few words, she could be blown through a wall. Taryn would end up unconscious for the effort, but she was considering the risk worth the reward.
“Call me Blythe.”
More like Blight, thought Taryn, corner of her mouth twitching. “Got a last name for when I make a statement to the police?”
“Won’t do any good.”
“Because…?” Taryn already knew why, but she wasn’t about to reveal herself. As far as faeries were concerned, Taryn’s kind were dead, killed from the effort of forming the Veil.
She was keeping it that way.
“Look, you said you owe me a favor.” Blythe’s tone was one of forced patience, like a teacher explaining something for the umpteenth time. “With my kind, we hold you to it. Promises with words are good as ones with blood.”
So she was a sidhe. Only they were powerful enough to force a human to keep a bargain.
“So either you follow me on your own, or you end up going the hard way.” Blythe wasn’t smiling anymore, and the glassy look was back in her eyes. Shadows played over her dark brown skin in an eerie, unnatural way.
She was casting—gathering energy for a travel spell.
“Go where?” She didn’t have to fake the hitch in her voice.
Blythe smiled again, but there was nothing pleasant in it. “Faery. Name of my realm and my kind. Not as confusing in my language.”
Risking suspicion, Taryn quickly cast her senses to feel Blythe’s emotion. She felt a turmoil that would have made her double over if not for her own dread freezing her in place. Blythe was terrified and excited and furious and filled with hate that tasted like sour milk on Taryn’s tongue. There was something Blythe needed, but she needed a human to get it.
There was only one place in Faery where faeries could not go, and Taryn’s stomach flipped in her stomach as her pale grey eyes widened.
He should be dead, but, then, so should Taryn.
“What do you want?” She was unable to force her voice above a whisper.
Interest and puzzlement slipped into Blythe’s blending of emotions, and she searched Taryn’s face as her smile turned vicious. Venom dripped from her voice as she spoke.
“You to help me kill a god.”
“A god.” Taryn shoved Blythe aside, needing to move. She clenched her fists to stop them from shaking, and she could feel Blythe’s annoyance at her concentration being cut.
She would have to start again to ready a travel spell.
She thought Taryn didn’t believe her, but she had to be ready for that. Had Taryn actually been human, this all would be too ridiculous for her to swallow.
Not Davorin. Not Davorin. Not Davorin, she thought, going into the kitchenette. She poured the rest of the now-cold coffee into the last clean mug and stuck it into the microwave. “What, you’re hoping, to trigger Ragnarok or something?”
It was getting harder to keep panic out of her voice. She crossed her arms and stared at the window above the sink. Her short, black hair was plastered to her head like a helmet, and her brown skin looked ashen. Behind her, Blythe leaned against the wall, next to the junk closet. She continued to stare at Taryn, the puzzlement in her growing and twining around… guilt?
Blythe was desperate.
“We need to leave now,” she said, tone devoid of emotion. “If it makes you feel any better, you will be kept safe.”
She didn’t say for how long or how safe. Safe as in without injury? Impossible to promise. Safe as in with all her limbs intact? Maybe, maybe not. Sidhe couldn’t lie outright, but they could withhold information and knew how to stretch the truth long enough to strangle you with.
The microwave screamed, and Taryn opened it.
“Killing a fucking god doesn’t sound safe,” she growled, grabbing vanilla-flavored creamer from the fridge.
Empty. Of course. She’d send her roommate an angry text about it if she cared enough. Instead, she grabbed the milk. It was a few days’ past its expiration date, but she didn’t care much about that either.
“You just need to grab something for me,” said Blythe. “I can’t go, because the place has iron everywhere, and just being here is already beginning to drive me nuts.”
“You sound plenty nuts already,” Taryn grumbled. Fear thickened her drawl, which had been thick to begin with. She drew in a deep breath and got the sugar, dumping enough into her coffee to give a dentist a heart attack. “I know you art kids are weird as all get-out, but this is much, even for y’all.”
Anger shadowed over Blythe’s face, and Taryn felt a sudden pull that made her gasp and drop the spoon she was using to mix her coffee.
She needed to tread lightly. A sidhe may not be as powerful as she was, but they could cast more spells for a longer period than she could. They didn’t even need to rely on physical charms to hold energy the way she did. If things came down to a fight between them, it would be a hell of a fight.
And then Taryn would need to run afterwards, no money and with new identities harder to create nowadays. She could always live as a fox or raven for a while, like she had back when she’d lived in Japan, but being an animal for too long did things to the mind she didn’t like.
And she wanted to hear more. As much as she feared it being true, she needed to know if this god was who she thought it was.
Stepping forward, Blythe growled, “This isn’t some game. My people are in danger, and if I didn’t have to rely on some weak-willed human, I wouldn’t. You made a deal, and whether or not you meant to, you did, and it’s law. Follow it.”
The door flew open so suddenly, Blythe took a step back.
“Jesus Christ!” Rina cried as she shut the door behind her and dropped her umbrella, which had been torn up by the wind.
The rain was still coming down in sheets, and Rina had been left resembling a drowned rat. A blue drowned rat. Her shoulder length curls, made straight by the rain, were aqua now, to match the plastic frames of her glasses. Her red umbrella was broken and useless, and she dropped it to the floor.
“Nope, faery apparently,” Taryn drawled before taking a long sip of her coffee. She rolled her eyes at Blythe’s sharp look. “Rina’s a Wiccan witch who doesn’t understand psychic boundaries.”
The last part was directed towards Rina, who often spied on Taryn to practice her scrying skills. She’d likely been doing exactly that, saw Taryn was in trouble, and rushed over. She was a natural witch, gifted in divination, and she had a moral compass that led her to trouble more often than not—but always for the right thing.
Casting out her senses, Taryn felt her fear, anger, loyalty, and determination; she was right that Rina had been spying on her again. She could always put up psychic shields. They were easy enough, and she knew how to form them in a way that Rina wouldn’t realize shields were in place—not at first, anyway. Taryn had never seen much point, though. She trusted Rina, even if the uninvited readings irritated her from time to time.
“Another witch.” The anger disappeared form Blythe’s face as the rolled the word over her tongue and gave Rina a once-over. “Good. You can keep the grump company.”
Taryn just about choked on her coffee. “Oh hell no.”
She realized Blythe had said another witch. So either she had noticed her preparing a spell earlier, or she had snooped through her things—she would bet on the latter.
“Go where?” Rina stayed by the door and stared at Blythe. “You’re in our ethics class.”
“Rina, go,” Taryn commanded, forcing Rina’s flight response to grow, to be heard, to drown out her curiosity and need to protect her loved ones. “I can handle this.”
She hated manipulating Rina’s emotions; she felt dirty and like she’d destroyed a foundation of trust. She hadn’t loved a human as much as she loved Rina. She’d had acquaintances, and she’d had bed mates. She’d never had friends, people she trusted with everything—almost everything. Rina didn’t know what Taryn was. She knew she had a knack for magic, which Taryn explained away by saying she practiced witchcraft.
Rina visibly paled. Her dark brown eyes were wide, but she swallowed and stood her ground, glaring at Blythe as though she blamed her for the sudden invasion of panic.
“I’m not going anywhere.” Her voice was soft but sure.
“Oh, we’re going somewhere.” Blythe snapped, and Taryn heard the door lock.
She smelled burning metal, and the seven-pointed star hanging from Blythe’s choker glowed. A drake must have charmed it for her. Sidhes couldn’t use fire magic without help.
Rina, also smelling the melting lock, jumped forward as she looked at the door. Her heart thundered in her chest, and Taryn felt ill.
“She never made a deal,” she growled through clenched teeth.
Whipping around, Rina looked panicked again. “What deal?” She looked form Taryn to Blythe and back. “Don’t tell me she’s a crossroads demon or something.”
Taryn almost laughed at Blythe’s scowl. “Crossroads demons” had usually been sidhe preying on humans for one reason or another, but they resented being lumped in with entities that could be summoned and banished at a human’s will.
Before she could be corrected, Rina remembered Taryn’s earlier words. “Oh, a faery?” Awe joined the fear. While she’d talked to spirits using a Ouija board, this was the first time she’d (knowingly) seen someone supernatural.
Blythe’s ears were no longer round, like a human’s. Gentle points poked out through her thick mass of hair, and her skin changed in a way not immediately able to be described. It shone, but not the way a diamond did in the light. It was more like a feeling, a pull, that got translated in the mind as an angelic shimmer.
“You could have tried that trick earlier when convincing me,” said Taryn, trying to sound bored. But seeing a sidhe in her true form reminded her of a life she tried to bury with good deeds, like if she helped enough humans, it would balance out the faery blood she’d drunk and spilt.
“I assumed the floating book would have sufficed,” Blythe deadpanned, meeting Taryn’s gaze.
“Midterms were last week. For all I know, I’m hallucinating all of this.”
“Well you’re not,” said Rina, going to Taryn to take one of her hands. “Everything will be okay.”
“Doubt it.” Taryn downed the rest of her coffee and set the mug on the counter. “Rina stays here. I made the ‘deal’”—Taryn used her free hand to make air quotes—“not her.”
Rina’s almond-shaped eyes narrowed to show she was putting her foot down. Taryn didn’t need to read her emotions to know there would be no budging her.
“Excellent.” Blythe clapped and smiled. Her teeth were smaller now, too, and sharp.
She snapped, and the messenger bag Taryn had kept under her bed was now in Blythe’s hand. It looked full, probably of Taryn’s charms and other magic supplies.
Blythe’s eyes turned glassy again as she stepped forward. “Now let’s get going while the Veil’s still thin, shall we?”
Taryn still considered blowing Blythe through the wall, but she stayed put, tense.
It’s not Davorin, she thought.
It couldn’t be Davorin. He was dead, and she wasn’t powerful enough anymore to kill him again.
III: Some Kitchen Witchery
During his days as a battle magician for the Constellation Court, Shyl would have blanched at the suggestion of using his talent on kitchen magic. Times changed, though, and with the Constellation Court now under the rule of the Illusion Court and King Davorin, Shyl had few choices.
“Quit daydreaming,” said Sage as she entered the kitchen with a small stack of orders.
She wore a light brown scarf embroidered with green flowers and vines over her ebony curls, which were kept cut close to her scalp. Her free hand rested on her swollen belly. There was still time before the twins were due, but Sage looked ready to evict them now if she could.
“Has it glowed yet?” Shyl after kissing his wife on the cheek, having to bend down to do so.
It felt weird to be speaking English after so long of either speaking Common Faery or Constellationian, but based on what he’d heard, English was currently the most widely-spoken language on Earth. He’d been teaching Sage and Mordred and had taught Blythe before she left; they’d picked it up pretty easily, though Mordred still stumbled over pronunciations.
Shyl hadn’t spoken it since childhood, and it felt oily on his tongue. He needed whoever Blythe brought back to understand them, though, and he had to admit that it made him feel better that most faeries wouldn’t be able to eavesdrop.
“She will come. The times here and the human realm don’t match up exactly.” Sage sighed and handed over the lunch orders. “My patience can only withstand Mordred right now.”
“Blythe has been his only friend since Byron moved his mother and brother to the Winter Court.” Shyl spelled the small pieces of paper to levitate over the oven. “It’s been half a year. The iron….”
“She’s reckless but not stupid.” Sage sighed again. “Or so I hope. She would have only gone somewhere with lots of iron around if she got desperate.”
“The times are desperate.” Shyl started peeling squash for the soups. “If I could go….”
Sage moved so he could see her out of the corner of his eye. “The vampires there would drain you soon as they smelled the Court in you, and you handle iron about as well as I do.”
Meaning it wouldn’t burn him, but he’d lived in Faery, eating its food and drinking its water, long enough that it weakened his powers and sapped his strength the longer he was around it.
Shyl rolled his thin lips inward but nodded, setting the squash and knife down. “Are we making the right choices?”
“In war, there’s little room for right choices,” Sage said gravely. “There’s just doing what you can and leaving the rest with the will of the Gods—the true Gods.”
“King Davorin is no god,” Shyl whispered. He could hear his fellow magicians’ screams in agony. His scars felt suddenly tight, and he let out a long exhale.
“You survived, because the Gods knew you are the only one in all of Faery who can match me as my equal,” Sage said matter-of-factly, and Shyl laughed. “Now get started on those lunches. Hiding princes and planning regicide doesn’t pay shit.”
She left the kitchen.
Chuckling, Shyl got cooking, focusing on imbuing the ingredients with low-level spells. The people that ordered the squash soup wanted spells for health. The orders of roast wanted spells for strength. An order of tearberry pie wanted it spelled for self-love, and two orders of dusk apple tarts and crown cherry-and-rose tea wanted them spelled for confidence.
At first, doing kitchen witchcraft for customers had felt tedious, but now it felt calming.
When the lunch rush ended, and the customers slowed to a trickle, Shyl found more time to sit and rest. There was a chair for him by the pantry, and he cast a levitation spell to make himself tea. Strands of his long, raven hair had escaped from the ponytail he kept it in while working, and the lines around his monolid eyes and wide mouth deepened. The more time that went by, the more worried he grew, but he needed to stay calm.
Sage would be giving birth in just a few moon-cycles, and he needed to be as strong and sturdy as he had imagined his own father would have been.
Barely a minute after Shyl started drinking his tea, Mordred burst into kitchen, his pale green hair in disarray. It looked like he hadn’t brushed it in weeks, and his eyes were wide enough that the whites could be seen around his dark green irises.
“It’s glowing!” Mordred called before running out again, and it took a moment for Shyl to realize what he’d said.
He set his cup onto his seat after getting up and ran after the teenager that had been trusted into his and Sage’s care. He ran past the staircase, a guest jumping aside as Shyl apologized. Down the hall, the door to the basement had been left open, and Shyl closed it behind him. The door immediately sealed behind him, spelled so that no one other than those with permission could find the door—unless a certain teenager left it open.
And the fact that he’d been down in the basement meant he hadn’t been doing his training exercises.
Shyl would scold him later.
In the middle of the basement was a Seal. It was five interlocking circles inside two much larger circles, and between those two circles were runes and sigils. All the lines were glowing, as Mordred had said, and Shyl pulled him away from the Seal.
“Give them space,” he warned, and he could feel Mordred’s freckled, brown skin start to harden into bark in some places from excitement. “And calm down. You don’t want to turn into a tree in front of them. They may not have seen much magic before now.”
“I thought you told Blythe to find a witch,” Mordred pointed out.
“Magic doesn’t flow as easily in the human realm as it does here.” Shyl sighed. “At least, that is what all my sources tell me.”
“I’m sorry you can’t pass through the Veil, r’aem.”
Shyl smiled at the Illusion Court’s formal name for a teacher. “My heart is here; it is only natural my soul stay with it.”
Mordred nodded but then started bouncing on the balls of his feet. “What’s taking so long?” He spoke through clenched teeth.
There was a flash so bright that Shyl and Mordred had to shield their eyes, and when it faded, three figures stood in the middle of the interlocked circles.
“Blythe!” Mordred cheered as Shyl blinked away the spots in his vision. “You found two!”
“I have to overachieve somehow,” Blythe laughed, pushing the two humans forward.
As Shyl’s eyes adjusted, he saw that they were two girls, in their early to mid-twenties. The taller one had a sturdy body type that reminded him of a dwarf, and the short one with bright blue hair and glasses was lithe, like a nymph. Blythe held a bag, but the taller girl took it from her, looking angry. She didn’t want to be here; her whole body stood tense.
The shorter one whispered something to her, and the taller one shrugged. Shyl couldn’t hear exactly what had been said, but he’d heard enough to know that it had been in English.
“Welcome to the Apple Star Inn,” Shyl greeted.
“Cut the shit,” said the tall one. Her accent sounded like she came from one of the Southern states in America. “Crossroads demon here”—Blythe bristled but amazingly said nothing—“said y’all need something only we can get. So point us where, so we can get it and get the hell out.”
Shyl’s smile grew strained, but he nodded, telling himself this was for the good of Faery. Telling himself that the girls would succeed and be able to return home safely. His conscience refused anything less.
“Of course,” he said. “Follow me.”