Excerpt: A brief description of the Tersus

An excerpt from Magic in Flesh: A Study in Earthly Manifestation by John Fogg:

“The Tersus (from the Latin for “clean”) is a carnivorous creature that in its original form resembles a tangled mass of tentacles that entwine around a tiny void that acts as its stomach. It originates from a small quadrant known as Kushner’s Cove, a pungent area colloquially described as ‘the armpit,’ ‘the ballsack,’ or ‘the Florida’ of the Yoros Dimension.

“However, the Tersus derives its name from its behaviors, rather than its habitat. Although the timeline is murky as the waters of the swamp where it resides, we know that in very recent times the Tersus somehow gained access to a regional television station known as ‘Memorable Television’ (MeTV), possibly by picking it up via aerial signal. It was from what it saw through these signals — primarily sitcoms from the 1950s and 1960s — that it developed its sense of how humans in our dimension function.

“Based on these minimal observations, the Tersus has developed a form of camouflage that it deploys when hunting its favorite form of food: Humans. Similar to an Oblex (see p. 194: ‘Fictional adaptations of real magical creatures’) a Tersus assumes the form of whatever it eats, and the human form is possibly the most practical, or even comfortable, for it to inhabit due to humans’ size and adaptability. By appearing human, the Tersus also gains the benefit of human’s social nature, which allows it to continue coming into contact with others, essentially providing it a literal buffet. Although a Tersus can only occupy one human form at a time, it can remain in a single person’s form for up to three weeks before getting hungry again.

“How can you tell if you’re in the presence of a Tersus? Because its knowledge of its prey is limited to television programs such as The Andy Griffith Show, I Love Lucy, The Dick van Dyke Show, The Brady Bunch, Hazel and an occasional Happy Days episode, its concept of human habitats and behaviors is limited to those it sees in mid-20th century TV-land. It seeks to emulate the most senior, present member of the family unit, which more often than not is the maternal homemaker or housemaid figure of any of these ensemble casts.

“When in our dimension, the Tersus will reverse its pack-rat, slobbish ways in Kushner’s Cove and begin to emulate the Aunt Bea and Laura Petrie by cleaning and maintaining immaculate surroundings. Not a speck of dust or unswept floor will exist wherever a Tersus resides or hunts, which coincidentally gives it away to anyone with the right knowledge and perception. If your slovenly teenager’s room is suddenly sparkling, or your once-messy partner has recently begun obsessively vacuuming your home, you may have a Tersus on your hands.

“While the Tersus’ exact strategy concerning which types of human prey it prefers is still being researched, there are a few clear patterns already being discovered. A Tersus will not eat a magical human, as many could potentially have enough power to maintain control of their senses and actions after it has inhabited their body. It also tends to prefer devouring those with meat in their diets over those who are vegan, and appears to gravitate toward men with male-pattern baldness, Ed Hardy cologne, or anonymous social media accounts.”

About the author: John Fogg is a prominent documentarian of magical non-human creatures, specializing in carnivorous species that occupy the Dresden, Yoros, and Ishtarian dimensions. His encyclopedic studies are considered staples to magical beings, and he has has contributed to more than three hundred journals, compilations and anthologies. Fogg’s mysterious disappearance in 2013, has confounded and concerned his followers, but those closest to him hold out hope that one day he will return with knowledge of some new and exciting species.

True News reports: Beyoncé’s buffoon buys mummy

Once they had delivered the True News inkjet-printed onto fluorescent orange paper into every mailbox along Crystal Gorge Drive, Paul and Vic returned to the black Beetle parked in the cul-de-sac. Rhiannon had beat them there and leaned against the side, picking at the leftover spots of polish on her fingernails as if playing a scratch-off lottery ticket.

“All good, Rhi-Rhi?”

“A triumph, Vicky,” she said, flicking holographic paint chips onto the pavement. “Newsletters in every mailbox on Kinder Way, Bordello Avenue and Greeley Court. And now, let’s feast.”

The summer sun had had no problem turning the car into a hothouse, and Paul regretted wearing shorts as he sat on the burning leather seat and felt his skin toast against it.

“Lunch at Paul’s?” Rhiannon asked as she put the car in drive. She didn’t wait for an answer before peeling away from the curb and toward the main road.

This was how summer days were now that Paul had found Vic and Rhiannon. He didn’t believe a word of what they dished out into the neighborhoods — all this claptrap about three vampires living in Paul Rudd’s basement, the werewolf spotted on Paul Giamatti’s lawn, the succubus lounging on a float in the middle of Taylor Swift’s pool — but spreading obvious lies was worth finally having two friends who actually seemed to like seeing him every day. And to them, it was all very real.

“I’m digging into a story that Nicolas Cage was Rudolph Valentino’s familiar before being turned into a vampire himself,” Vic announced, like he was reporting on sewer testing or a city council meeting. “Might be ready to run for next week’s edition.”

Paul knew better than to bring up that Valentino, silent film’s original Latin Lover, had died at age 31 from an infection — hardly the mysterious vampiric ending that True News prided itself in publishing. But to his surprise, Rhiannon took the lead in bursting Vic’s bubble.

“You’ve seen the same photos of Cage as I have, and you know that if anything, Valentino was his familiar. The man’s been alive since the mid-1800s, at least.”

They pulled up to the ranch house that Paul lived in with his parents and sister, Joy Lee. To his dismay, the garage door was already open, and his mom was sweeping out the floor. Paul hated coming home to find his mother doing housework: It made him feel bad for leaving to deposit buffoonery in upper-middle-class mailboxes.

“Hi, Mrs. Lim,” Rhiannon said, getting out of the car.

“Beautiful day out, isn’t it?” Paul’s mom said. “So, what’s the poop?”

Paul’s face went pink. His mother had been born in San Francisco on August 5, 1973, but talked like she was in her prime during the early 1940s. But it wasn’t her WWII-era slang that made him nervous: It was any time Rhiannon and Vic had an opportunity to tell her what exactly the three of them were doing to pass time on the summer days.

“We’re hungry,” he blurted before either of his friends could answer.

“Well, Joy Lee’s inside. She’s been experimenting in the kitchen again, so you’ve been warned.”

“Mrs. Lim, I’m so hungry I could eat Frankenstein’s leg. No fear here,” Rhiannon joked as Paul pulled them inside.

Joy Lee had definitely been experimenting. A thin veil of smoke draped above the kitchen, accompanied by the smell of cooking oil and fried dough. Last week she had almost burned the house down making a blueberry tart. Today she’d been trying to tackle various deep-fried snacks.

“Potstickers coming to the pass!” She yelled, practicing for her self-determined destiny on Hell’s Kitchen. “Hope you’re all hungry — and don’t mind some slightly-burnt edges. The oil got a little hot.”

“Smells great,” Vic said as they each slid into a wicker dining chair at the kitchen table.

Vic held a bottle of Purell in his outstretched hand, and Paul gratefully accepted a squirt. Rubbing his hands briskly, he was reminded of how many paper cuts he’d gotten folding the pamphlets— by the time his hands were dry, his eyes weren’t.

Joy Lee brought a tray out bearing potstickers, egg rolls and what were probably supposed to be jalapeño poppers, though their cream cheese filling had started leaking out the sides.

“I heard Jay-Z bought the mummy that they just found in that excavated pyramid,” Rhiannon said, spearing a potsticker on a single chopstick. Paul watched as it fell apart halfway to her plate, spilling searing chicken filling across the table.

“Think I heard that, too,” Vic said. “Makes sense, really, seeing as he’s married to Beyoncé.”

Joy Lee perked up at the sound of her idol’s name.

“What’s Beyoncé got to do with a mummy?”

“Great egg rolls, Joy,” Paul said loudly, hoping to turn her 13-year-old brain back to her number-one passion. “Perfectly crispy and not too greasy,.”

“Beyoncé’s an immortal Egyptian goddess in human form,” Rhiannon said matter-of-factly. “The mummy’s probably a long-lost lover. And with Jay still needing to make things right after that Rachel Ray nonsense…”

“…Rachel Roy,” Vic corrected her.

“Right, well, I wouldn’t be surprised if this isn’t the last mummy they buy,” Rhiannon finished. “How’s this for a headline, Vic? ‘Beyoncé’s buffoon brings back Biblical-age boy-toy to beg forgiveness for bad behavior.'”

Vic chewed the idea along with a potsticker while Joy Lee laughed. Paul couldn’t taste anything as he waited to see how these two storms — the believers and the uninitiated — would collide.

“Sounds like a Bossip headline,” Joy Lee said. “You should write for them!”

The jalapeño flavor came back to Paul’s mouth. Rhiannon looked flattered.

“Thanks, but I prefer the real news,” she shrugged. “Say, kid, you haven’t read anything in your Teen Vogues about Harry Styles’ fairy circle, have you?”

“That’s an awfully homophobic thing to say,” Joy Lee said, taken-aback. As she turned back toward the kitchen, she looked at Paul with distinct disappointment that he could find friendship with someone that close-minded.

“She means real fairies,” Vic said. “Paul, haven’t you shared the True News lexicon with your sister?”

Paul’s face got hot for the second time, and it wasn’t because of the jalapeño now sizzling down his throat.

“True News?” Joy Lee asked, returning to the table.

“We run a paper,” Vic said. “True News: All the things the normies don’t want you to know. This week we covered the amazons in Gwendolyn Christie’s family tree, Hayley Williams’ secret past as a wood nymph, and how you can see a pixie reflected in the glass in Stanley Tucci’s latest cocktail video.”

“Sounds cool,” Joy Lee shrugged. “Let me know if you ever want me to introduce you to the phoenix our grandfather brought from Hong Kong in a shoebox. Grandpa worked on movie sets back in the day. Got the bird as a gift from Bruce Lee after finishing Thunderstorm.”

Rhiannon almost choked on an egg roll as she and Vic turned to look at Paul in disbelief that he hid this from them. He buried his face in his hands as a birdsong trickled from the living room.

Excerpt: Eddie Fitzjohn

We trudged up the stairs, each step echoing on the concrete. Every door was in varying degrees of decay: A couple paint chips here, a fully rusted door handle there. A few looked as though they belonged to tenants refusing to acknowledge they lived in a shitty rundown building — a “Welcome to Our Home” hanger dangled from Apartment 409’s door, while a wreath of wine corks clashed with the mint green of Apartment 419 — but for the most part, no one was keeping up appearances.

Raff stopped in front of Apartment 428. The paint was in good shape, but the knocker was missing. As he raised his fist to rap on the metal, I looked to see a letter jammed in the tenant’s mailbox. Part of the addressee’s name was visible, halfway out of the slot, and suddenly the identity of the “muscle” that Raff had been talking about was no longer a mystery.

“No,” I said, shaking my head. “You’re an asshole, but not that much an asshole.”

“We need Eddie,” Raff shrugged.

“Like I need a hole in the head, no thanks,” I said. My face was burning, my knees radiating with the desire to either kick him in the nuts or sprint out of the building and down the street — maybe both, in that order.

“What do you have against talent?”

“Nothing, if it doesn’t belong to your—”

I didn’t finish, because the door opened, and I came nose-to-nose with “talent.”

Here’s what I knew about Eddie Fitzjohn:

Eddie was born Edmunda Fitzjohn seven years before I was born Sylvia Erris, and by the time I popped out of my mother’s womb, she had a six-figure contract with a top ad agency as the face of Puppy Love, the hottest clothier for kids between five and eight years old. At 12 she had her own Disney sitcom called “Everything Eddie,” and by 17 she had renounced the Mouse, emancipated herself from her parents, and turned up at some small liberal arts college in Canada, where she extracurricularly ran an underground fight club for women sick of being prey at frat parties.

Graduation came and went, and she not only had two degrees in economics and philosophy, but also a blossoming mixed martial arts career that ended abruptly when she took to the internet to expose her manager as a pussy-grabbing sexual predator with a thing for 14-year-olds. He got three years probation and a life ban from the league. She got three months of internet trolling and a life sentence to self-imposed anonymity.

Of course, all of this knowledge was readily available on Wikipedia for anyone interested, which I wasn’t until a year ago, when I found out that Eddie Fitzjohn had been in a long-term relationship with one Raff Manning — and it had ended less than a year before Sy had entered his world.

Vignette: Still life of an in-joke

“Let me get that heifenweiser,” Charlie said once taking her coat from Leslie and slinging it over a director’s chair that sat next to the apartment door. Above it hung a dartboard with three darts pinning a picture of the president to it. At least, she thought it was the president: His face had been obliterated by holes.

Charlie turned into the kitchen, leaving her to meander into the larger room and get a better feel for who she had just decided to go home with, much to her friend’s chagrin.

It was a strange haven, to be sure: The blue fuzzy dice hanging off the ceiling fan. The stuffed Pusheen cat sitting on the window sill. A couch draped in a sublimation-printed tapestry depicting the final battle of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, still creased and reeking of the plastic that encased it during shipping. A desk cluttered with playing cards, dice, magazines, hand-scribbled notes, and a smooth copy of Stephen King’s On Writing that didn’t have a single mark or crack in the spine — so meticulously scattered that it looked to be on purpose, a still life painting befitting an eccentric nobleman-thinker. When she picked up one of the clear boxes of different-sided dice, she noticed a clean line of dust that had settled around it.

It felt like the scene from The Great Gatsby where one of the partygoers drunkenly discovers that his host’s books have never been read.

Charlie returned from the kitchen with two bottles of beer, each bearing a label written only in German and bearing a scantily clad woman sunning herself on the wing of a 1920s airplane.

“Cheers,” he said, clinking the neck of his bottle to hers. The glib-globs of the orange lava lamp on the side table reflected in his glasses, which were just big enough to be ironic.

Everything about this place seemed to have been procured and placed as part of some inside joke that Charlie had, and it made Leslie wonder if she had been selected to be the next oddity to be used for his personal image.

Excerpt: In need of a witch

Some people, when they leave you, take a piece of your heart to fill a hole in their own. Others take a piece, plop it into their pocket and forget it’s there when they store their coat in the closet for the summer.

Raff Manning was the kind with the rotting chunk of my heart in his parka pocket, so when I saw his name light up my phone for the first time in six months, I assumed he had been cleaning out his closet and wanted to know if I’d like it back.

Actually, the text message preview showed a single line: “Hi: been a long time. Need your…”

Need my what? The part of me that hadn’t gotten laid in half a year liked to imagine the next word was “pussy,” but even when we were buck-naked in my bed he had never been that forward. And from the fact I was, as of that morning, “terminated “with cause” from the job I had worked for more than four years, I highly doubted even Raff needed my expertise or skills — especially when my resume centered around staff analysis and succession planning.

I let the message languish on my phone while I unpacked the sad cardboard box I’d trekked home from my ex-office. Half of it was useless junk I should have left behind — the fake plant I dusted rather than watered, a Funko Pop of Ginger from Gilligan’s Island, and since when did I own a hacky sack? — but it did the trick of covering up the ingredients I’d need to exact my revenge whenever I’d had enough wine to feel pissed enough to override the guilt.

So my boss believed that asshole Billingsly in the accounting department that I had forged my paid time off count, huh? I had a crumpled napkin filled with danish crumbs and a single hair that I had gotten off of my boss’ desk while he was in a meeting and a sliver of fingernail I had watched Billingsly bite off and spit out as he talked to me. There were two voided reports with both their signatures, a sample of the fern my boss walked into almost every day when he entered his office, and a scrap of loose fabric that dangled off the bottom of Billingsly’s chair. When mixed with a few of my own ingredients — ballpoint ink, dried and diced highlighter tips, Eucerin hand cream, and a skimming off the top of a cup of creamed coffee left to sit for a week — they’d both have to use all their paid time off to recover from the irritable bowel syndrome that had suddenly befallen them. Always treat your co-workers with respect, I smirked to myself: You could never tell which ones were witches.

But that project would have to wait.

The message floated there ominously, that “your…” looming like the foggy rim of a cliff: I knew a drop laid just beyond the edge, but I couldn’t be sure just how far down I’d fall.

I opened it.

“Hi: been a long time. Need your help on a job. $$. Meet at Ravish around 7?”

So it was a job, then. The same hook in my pelvis that had regrettably pulled at the thought of Raff wanting me back was now in my stomach. I never liked his line of work — found it dirty, despicable — but my last paycheck was currently in my handbag, and my half of the rent was due in a week. Magic could only get you so far, and a little cash wouldn’t hurt.

I changed out of my work slacks and button-down into my best-fitting jeans and a tank top in Raff’s favorite shade of green. As I checked to make sure I had locked the front door, I dashed off a text to Philippa letting her know that I wouldn’t be home until late. Her job at the lab kept her past 7 most nights anyway, but I didn’t need this to be the night she decided to bring home a takeout feast for us.

In her role as best-friend-and-avenger, Philippa had sworn that the minute she saw Raff again she would inject him with whatever pharmaceutical misfire she had cooked up at work. Forever my warrior, she was indefatigable in her hatred for him, despite how long they had gotten along in the two years I dated him. Philippa implored me to delete and block his number, and maybe she was right, but deep down I also knew that maybe one day I’d need his professional skills. You never knew when you’d need a bounty hunter.

Halfway to our meeting, I got a text from her asking if I was meeting with anyone she knew — she was almost done and wouldn’t mind joining us for a happy hour drink. “Friend from work,” I said. “Long story.”

After all, if this assignment was worth the trek up north, it wouldn’t be too far from the truth.

Walking into the bar was like stepping out of a time machine. The tables were in the same place; the bartender was the same; the TVs were even playing the same rerun of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia — a naked Danny DeVito was lying face-down in a puddle of hand sanitizer. And there sat Raff, in the same black leather jacket as he’d worn the day I met him, in the same spot he always sat in at the bar, and with a can of the same milk stout he always ordered when we came here.

I had avoided Ravish since the breakup. I didn’t want to have to answer the bartender when she asked where he was, as she was accustomed to seeing us at least once a week. I didn’t want to stare at the same wall of drawn-on dollar bills that I’d stare at when his eyes got too intense while we dissected whatever movie we’d just seen across the street. And yet here I was, walking in to act as if six months hadn’t passed.

Just to be safe, I took the stool on the right side of him, rather than on his left like I had all those times before.

“You look—” his eyes fluttered up to my hairline. While debating how much vengeful cleavage to display, I had totally forgotten that in the month following our breakup, I had chopped my hair into a punky little pixie and dyed it a luscious aubergine, then crimson, then green. I had recently experimented with turquoise. “Nice hair.”

“Thanks,” I said, running a hand just over the pompadoured front. “Thought I’d change it up.”

“Well now it’s like old times,” the bartender came over — same butterfly tattoo on her wrist, same nose ring. “Loving the hair! What can I get for you, babe?”

“Whatever Three Floyds is on tap,” I smiled at her.

“And I’ll take another one of these,” Raff said, lifting what turned out to be a near-empty can that he easily crushed in his fist.

“Sure thing,” she said. She had been privy to every thought we had in the early days when we clung so hard to each other’s sentences that we lost all grip on time, and now she was trying to determine if this was a date or detente.

“You shotgun the first one?” I asked, nodding at the crinkled can.

“Got here early.” It was like old times, I thought.

I watched the amber slosh into the pint glass as I waited for Raff to start talking. By the time the foam had started to crest the top of the glass, I had grown impatient.

“So this job?” I prompted him, smiling in thanks as the bartender placed the glass in front of me.

“I need some information from you.”

“Raff,” I said, shaking my head as I lifted the draught to my lips. A brief touch to my lips and I knew the strawberry-tinged hops flavor immediately: Zombie Dust, the first beer I’d had here. Nostalgia really had to bust my ass today, didn’t it? “If this this about Spencer, you can forget it. I don’t know what he’s up to; I don’t know where he is; and even if I did know, I would sure as fuck not tell you.”

“It’s not like that,” Raff said, tapping his nail on top of the fresh stout can in front of him. He once said it was to keep it from foaming over the top when you cracked it open, but now I realized it was likely just a compulsive ritual for him. “It’s nothing to do with your brother.”

Step-brother,” I corrected him. Spencer and I were never close, but on the scale of who was annoying me most right now, he was far from where Raff sat, which granted the amateur fireworks maker and trafficker amnesty in my head.

Raff opened the beer can and took a tentative sip. His eyes flitted to my hair with every blink.

“I really do like it, actually,” he said, as if admitting something to himself more than to me.

“What’s the job, Raff?” I needed to refocus so my face wouldn’t go pink.

“Have a bit more beer before I tell you,” he said.

I knocked my glass back hard, sloshing more than a sip or two down my front as I chugged half of it down. Even though I closed my eyes, I could still see this place on the night of our first date, when we had stayed talking at this bar until they closed. Him in that leather jacket, smelling of paper and pepper, and not only enthusiastically talking about his life, but also enthusiastically listening to me talk about my own.

Half the beer gone and my stomach roiling in discomfort, I put the glass down.

“Now?”

Raff chuckled. “OK, here’s the gig. There’s a guy up in Edgewater who’s been fencing stolen cars, and I’ve been monitoring his place all week so I can bring him in. Except I’m not the first one to try it. I’ve seen pairs of cops show up almost every day, warrant in hand, marching up to the house looking like they mean business. They go inside, and they come out looking like they’ve just had lemonade and cookies out on the back porch with the guy.”

“Maybe they are,” I shrugged. “Cops can be dirty, you know.”

“If he’s got this many cops as pals, how’d they ever get a warrant approved in the first place? Nah, something witchy is going on here.”

I twinged at the word and took another sip of beer to clear the bitter taste in the back of my throat before I spoke.

“So that’s why you need me. To do something ‘witchy’ back.”

“No,” he said, almost too quickly. “I just need you to come to the house with me so we can see what he’s got going on out there. If I know what I’m up against, I might stand a shot at getting him into custody.”

One more tip back, and my beer was nothing but suds sliding down the side of the glass.

“How much?”

“I’ll give you $600 if you come with me right now.”

That would be almost all my rent this month, and while the thought of helping Raff with his greasy bounty hunter assignment made me want to immediately take a shower, I also needed that $600 to afford the running hot water. But I wasn’t about to let my ex know I was that financially distressed, so I ran my finger around the rim of my pint glass as I smiled coyly.

“You must be desperately in need of a witch,” I said, turning my head around to see if I could find the bartender to order another pint. I didn’t want to leave yet. He’d likely walk out with me, and I’d be forced to remember in stereo the first night we left here together and he kissed me on the sidewalk outside, and the last night we left together and he told me it was over on the same patch of pavement.

At the word “witch” his eyes flashed cautiously toward the bartender, who had just reappeared behind the bar to ring in a kitchen order.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “She’s one, too, you know.”

“Serious? How do you know?”

“Witchy-sense,” I said sarcastically, adding a particularly exaggerated jerk-off motion. The truth was I had seen her add a little something to a drink if it was headed toward a particularly awful customer: whether it was to loosen their wallets or slam shut their sphincters, I didn’t know. Maybe both. “You seriously can’t tell? She must be better at hiding it from you dim people.”

“You know, ‘dim’ isn’t exactly an endearment.”

“In your case, no,” I said. “You didn’t figure me out for upwards of two years.”

He took another sip from his beer to avoid responding, but I could see his neck flush with embarrassment.

“I moved in with Philippa, by the way. She had an extra room in that brownstone she inherited from her grandma. We’re very happy and have satisfying casual sex with each other every night, in case you were wondering. I think we might take the next step and adopt a hamster next week.”

This made him crack a smile.

“Are you still living with Benjamin and Theo?”

“Yep, though the band’s long finished. We posted that music video on Youtube and got laughed off the internet.”

It didn’t take any prophesy potions to know that that was going to happen. I had seen the storyboards for their project, and it was laughable even on paper.

“They miss having you around, though,” he said quietly. “Didn’t get off my back for weeks after we broke up.”

“Was it really because of the witch thing?” I asked, figuring that I might as well put it out there now before we decided to try to haul in a car thief together. The beer had loosened me up enough to decide I’d rather regret things I said than things I didn’t say.

“Maybe,” he shrugged. “It wasn’t anyone’s fault, Sylvie. I think it was just our time to end.”

He hadn’t called me Sylvie since the height of our romance: Otherwise it had always been “Sy” or the dreaded “Sylvia.” I had no intention of starting over with him — six months had been enough time to brew and drink the right potions to detox him out of my system — but I didn’t mind him hoping this misadventure would bring us back together. Maybe we’d get through this together without going for each other’s throats, after all.

As long as he never put two-and-two together and realized that he stopped loving me shortly after he shaved all his hair off for that damn music video.

Axiom Thorne: Seeking help from Hanso Jon

After Stephan crumbled into a pile of cockroaches and beetles, I fled home in need of my mother. My heart beat so hard that I was sure it would bounce the silver viper fang right off the chain around my neck, but instead the metal just grew warm against my skin and I sprinted up the high road toward our small house on the edge of town.

She was in the kitchen, kneading bread dough. Of all the things to be doing, did she have to be baking? The round loaves rising in the sun reminded me of the baker’s shop window, and how he’d be looking out of it in just a few hours, expecting his son to come rounding down the street. My face drained, white as the flour on her hands.

“Baby, what’s the matter?” She asked. “What happened by the river?”

“Stephan—” I stuttered.

“I thought you were going to stay away from him,” she said, turning back to her baking. “He’s a nasty boy and a bully.”

“But Mamma—”

“What, Axiom?”

“I didn’t mean to. I mean, I didn’t do anything. He just — he just disappeared. Vanished without a trace, like the ground had just swallowed him up.”

The viper fang was hot against my skin. Mamma’s kneading stopped.

“What do you mean?”

“Stephan called me a freak, and then all of a sudden all these bugs just came up and…and…and ate him.”

She didn’t look mad. She didn’t look angry, either. Instead, she just looked at the colorful scarf I had wrapped around my neck. The one I had gotten two weeks earlier at my thirteenth birthday party from the Man with the Diamond Shoes.

“Right,” she said. “Go rinse off your legs change your dress — you’re muddy all over. We have an errand to run.”

An hour later, the bread was left to rise and we were walking down the high road. I was sure that we were heading back to the scene of Stephan’s demise so my mother could inspect it for herself. Maybe she would use some of those strange elven powers her sister crowed about to find out what exactly had happened and why.

But when we got to the top of the riverbank, Mamma didn’t ask which way we should go. Instead, she firmly took my hand and led me in the opposite direction of where Stephan had been torturing fish — past the bridge that acted as a boundary for where I was allowed to play, and into a wide bog dotted with stepping stones.

I put a foot out to step onto the first one, but Mamma yanked me back by my dress. She put her finger to her lips before turning to the bog and yelling: “Hanso Jon! Cretia Lilliput Thorne and her daughter seek your wisdom!”

The stones before us sank, and the bog’s surface crested and rippled as they reassembled into a straight walking path toward an island that had started to rise. My mother stepped out before me, leading the way down the path.

When we arrived at our destination, I turned back to see that the stones had sunk and scattered again. By the time I redirected my attention to my mother, she had cleared a chunk of moss from the center of the island to reveal a latch. Her housework-strong arms had no trouble lifting the trapdoor up, and she nodded her head toward the stairs.

“Watch your step,” she said.

Our half-elf dark vision lit the way as we inched down a flight of stairs and landed in a world all its own. Although I knew we were under the bog, there was a night sky above us, peppered with stars that glimmered. The stairs behind us had disappeared, too, so that we stood in the middle of a field, the breeze gently blowing the smell of imminent rain, blossoming honeysuckle, and fresh cut grass clippings into our faces.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“Somewhere I never thought I’d have to come again,” Mamma said, and she set down the path toward a house that looked suspiciously like our own.

The door opened before we knocked, though no one stood there. My mother led me inside, and we found ourselves staring at the presumable owner. She was tall — not yet stooped with age, though her hair was white and wispy, and her skin was like a piece of the crinkled sepia paper the butcher used to wrap meat.

“Cretia Lilliput, as I live and wheeze,” the woman said with a strong chuckle that turned into a dry cough. “Never thought I’d see your face in the Underbog again. What is it this time? Has he left you yet?”

I turned to my mother, but her face was stone.

“He left a long time, Hanso Jon. But you already knew that. Just like you know I’m here because of my daughter.” Her hand gripped my shoulder. It was warm in temperature, but not in emotion.

“A little Lilliput!” Hanso squealed. “Well let me look at you properly, my girl!” My mother pushed me forward a little into the light as the old woman scanned me. “Eyes and hair like your mother, but a willowy build like your father, if I recall correctly.”

Without warning, she swooped in on me and pressed her hands to the sides of my head. My vision compressed, then expanded into a memory of my father letting me chase him on my three-year-old stubby legs along the river; a flash of my mother crying next to an empty bed; Ansel smiling, his eyes squinting in the sun; then the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes as he unwrapped the scarf and began to bleed from the gash in his neck.

“Ah,” Hanso said, pulling away. “I see. Tea, anyone?”

I hardly thought it was time for tea, but my mother didn’t object. We sat at the small wooden table in the corner as Hanso brought a tray over from the kitchen. Three china cups filled with pungent peach tea were already steaming on it.

“I know how much you like peach,” she turned to me. “This is my own special concoction.” I looked to my mother for her permission to drink and watched her lift her own cup to her mouth.

“So tell me about your birthday present,” Hanso said, nodding to the scarf. “It seems someone very powerful gave it to you.”

My eyes glanced at my mother, but something strange had happened: She was frozen in place, holding her tea millimeter away from her lips.

“She can’t hear you,” Hanso said with a wave. “And she won’t know we had this little discussion. So who’s the man with the bleeding neck? And why on earth did you think it was a good idea to take a gift he offered? I know you don’t come from smart stock, but even an idiot knows not to trust a man who’s clearly lost his head once or twice.”

It was hard to hold all the information in my head, so I just answered with a shrug while I tried to sort through everything I had learned since stepping foot outside the bog.

“Well, next time you should be a little smarter,” the woman said, sipping her own tea. “So just tell me — how do you know him?”

“He’s a magician in our village,” I said. “He does tricks like change the color of fire and make water taste like vinegar and nectar and stuff.”

“A charlatan act, surely,” Hanso said. “I can do that, too, but you don’t see me scrounging for gold on the streets with it. Watch.” She flicked a finger at my tea, and the smell shifted to tangy pomegranate. “So you know him from the village. What does he know about you?”

That I liked his scarf, I thought. That I didn’t mind talking to strangers, and sometimes I talked too much. That I felt belittled by the baker’s boy, and that I was about to turn 13 and felt like I should be considered far more grown up by now, especially since I towered over the other kids in the village.

I didn’t need to tell her any of this, though. She nodded like she had read my thoughts.

“Now what about the boy I saw smiling in your head?”

“Ansel?” I coughed on the pomegranate tea. “He’s just a boy.” A wonderful boy, I thought, and I’m sure she read that, too.

“Like mother, like daughter,” she sighed. “Do yourself a favor and stop thinking about beautiful boys. They’re only there for a meal, and once they get tired of your flavor, they go to find somewhere else to eat. And not even magic can fix that — just ask your mother.

“Speaking of which,” she said, and Mamma suddenly animated again.

“It appears that scarf around Little Lilliput’s neck has more than couture qualities,” Hanso said. “Do you mind if I examine it?”

I hadn’t removed it from around my neck — not at bed, not during baths — because I feared that my own neck would start to gush blood. But now that we were in the presence of a true sorceress (at least, I thought so), I felt safe to try it. Slowly I pulled it away, feeling the coolness of the house hit my skin.

“Yes, hand it here,” Hanso commanded, and I placed it like a large snake across her arms.

As the material touched her bare hands, the wrinkles in her face deepened; the creases caved in. The light draft inside the house blew her hair away like cotton off a dandelion, and she fell backward into the chair, shrinking until her chin was level with the tabletop. My mother gasped and reached for the scarf. Afraid of what the material could do to her, I pulled her back.

“It might hurt you too!” I yelled, taking it away from the mummy now sitting at the table. As I pulled it away, I saw that it had gotten longer — a thick stripe of metallic bronze knitting had affixed to the end.

Axiom Thorne: Sweet, sweet thirteen

So it was my thirteenth birthday. “Unlucky thirteen,” my aunt — screw her soul — would have said. “Such a nasty age,” she’d warned me and my mother, who just squeezed my hand to assure me that it wasn’t true. “The ugly duckling phase and all that,” she’d sneered. Mamma pushed a piece of blond hair out of my face lovingly. As it fell back into place, I saw that her magic had turned it an iridescent purple.

That year my aunt decided to torture me by throwing me a birthday party at our small house with all her large friends. Women in unseasonable silks and men in brocade suits crushed into the front hall, exclaiming loudly, “My, such a quaint little foyer!” and being sure to pronounce it “foy-yay,” as if the pretentious syllables would sweep away the peeling wallpaper and tarnished wall sconces.

Mamma cooked all the food, though my aunt declared it would be her job to provide the cake. A few of the neighborhood kids — forever latchkey lifters and storm door slippers — had wormed into the house to nick pastries and meat pies almost as soon as they came out of the oven. Mamma was quick, though. She let them have their fill as long as they promised to stay for the festivities so we could at least pretend this was a 13-year-old’s party and not some story for her sister’s friends to tell over champagne and steak tartar.

Just when it seemed the party had started to dwindle and the gilded rabble was ready to go home, my aunt burst through the kitchen door with a cake on a platter. It was stood five tiered layers tall with icing the color of pond scum and pale pink sugar orchids winding their way up the sides.

“Every birthday girl gets her cake and eats it, too!” She crowed to her friends’ delighted tittering. She set it in front of me and snapped her fingers dramatically to light the thirteen candles sprouting from the grass-green icing.

I inhaled dramatically, my mind trying to pick a wish. A wheel spun in my head, ticking past all the unlikely wants that had stacked up over the last hour: An empty house, my own room, my aunt gone on a long voyage, a kiss from Ansel next door, more (or just any) friends, fewer chores, bigger breasts, a cake that didn’t look like it might be poisoned…

But before I could exhale, my eye caught something — rather, someone — at the window. A man stood there, his face long and shoulders broad and adorned with a colorful scarf. The sun lit up the back of his charcoal hair like a halo, but his eyes remained shrouded by some mysterious source, as if he had brushed black dust across them. The gray pupils sparkled like jewels in the dirt.

The wheel in my head continued to spin, but every time my thoughts clicked onto one of its segments — my own room, my aunt gone on a long voyage, a kiss from Ansel — the mental inscription on it changed to “the man’s colorful scarf” until every single option was just that: The bright knitting that encircled the stranger’s neck.

I closed my eyes and blew.

Only seven of the thirteen candles extinguished, but Mamma subtly wished the rest to go dark.

“Happy birthday, darling,” she whispered in my ear, collecting up the cake so she could cut it in the kitchen without having to listen to my aunt share the life story of the baker who had made it.

“His daughter…a clubbed foot, if you can pity her,” her voice seemed far away, and soon it was, because I had risen from my chair at the head of the table to walk past the enthralled strangers, through the “foy-yay,” and out the front door to meet the man with my birthday wish.

“Thirteen, eh?” He asked, his voice rattling like pebbles in a tin can — not at all matching how youthful he actually was, now that I was this close to him. “A lot can happen at thirteen.”

One of his dark-powdered eyes winked, and I looked down at the ground bashfully. That’s when I noticed his shoes, encrusted in shiny stones. I can’t imagine they were real diamonds, but they certainly sparkled bright enough to make lies starbursts pop in my vision when I finally looked back up.

“I believe I have a gift for you,” he croaked, and he began to unwind the colorful scarf around his neck.

“Do you know what this is?”

“A scarf?” I asked, trying not to sound mesmerized as the brilliant knitting caught the sun with each pass around his shoulders. It must have been ten feet long, for how many times he had to untwist it. As soon as he had enough to reach, he started draping it around my own neck, winding it there like a weaver shifting thread from one reel to the next — tethering us together during the transfer.

“It’s magic,” he said. “You want to do magic, don’t you, Axiom?”

I nodded, mouth agape as I felt it warm against my skin.

“Each stripe is a different kind of magic I’ve found,” he said. He nodded to the window. “Do you know the man in the purple jacquard duster lustfully eyeing your mother right now?” Sure enough, my aunt’s friend was practically drooling as my mother leaned over him to hand a plate of cake to another partygoer.

I snorted in disgust.

“He passed me on his way inside and dropped some magic on the way,” the man nearly whispered, though I knew he wasn’t telling the whole story. “That’s this new shiny purple bit on the end.”

He waggled the very end of the scarf, which indeed looked more vivid than the other stripes.

“A lot of magic in this scarf,” the man was nearly audible now as he almost finished putting it around my neck.

As he began to lift the last loop away from his neck, I saw it: A fresh puckered scar across his throat. As the knitting peeled away, the wound began to open again, like he was ripping it open.

“Stop!” I yelled, watching the blood start to drip into the yellowed collar of his shirt.

“You don’t want your birthday present?” He asked with a gurgle. A bubble of blood expanded and popped along his neck.

“Not if it’s going to do…that,” I gestured to his throat. “Not if you need it.”

“Sweet, sweet thirteen,” he cooed. “What an age.”

“What an age!” My aunt hooted. I was sitting back at the table. The man in the window was gone, and the guests were still here. The guest in the purple jacquard duster coat was still salivating over my mother as she came over to me with my own slice of cake.

She leaned down close so only I would hear her: “I know you hate chocolate, baby,” she said apologetically. Sure enough, the green icing had been hiding what I wanted least — a dark chocolate cake that looked like compacted mud.

“By the way,” she asked, running her hand along something across my shoulder. “Who gave you such a beautiful scarf?”