Axiom Thorne: Portrait of a Lady Unraveling

Axiom Thorne is tall and wiry, with skin the color of whole milk that’s been warmed over a slow fire, then forgotten on the bedside table. Her white-blond tresses hang like teaser curtains around her angular face, obscuring it when she doesn’t feel like letting you see her long, thin nose, or her sharp jaw, or the fear creases that whisper across her forehead like stray hairs.

When you do get to see her face, the first thing you see is the dark black makeup streaking her eyes and the irises that cut through it like emeralds half-buried in soot. Her lips, also painted black, curl into a smirk more often than a smile. She inherited her mother’s elven ears and her father’s humanly sardonic wit.

Stick around and she might shift her hair all the way back behind her shoulders with long bony fingers that poke out of black leather gauntlets. She uses her mother’s “parlor magic” — as her nasty aunt would scoff — to add a shimmering holographic affect to chunks of her locks so that they reflect the light in ever-changing pink, blue, green, silver, back to pink flashes.

When she first boarded the Tenacious Sea with the others, she wore a runaway’s uniform: Dark tunic belted at the waist over nondescript breeches tucked into sensible boots. Since then, she’s been gifted far more fitting regalia for a future deity of the dead. A crown of vipers’ fangs sits precariously atop her head, a proud change from the hood she once used to shroud herself. Shiny black snakeskins knit and fuse together to create a harness and chest plate that cuts just above form-fitting pants made of the same dark scaly material. Slices of her white thighs reveal themselves between the loose weaving, invisibly protected by the armor’s magic. Stare at her new black platform boots long enough and you might see a beetle crawl up a wedged heel, over the lacing that binds around her calf, over its edge and into the safety inside of it.

The one thing Axiom has kept from her first appearance on the Tenacious Sea is also the only piece of color she deems fit to wear: A striped scarf, scrappy and uneven. Be careful not to touch it: Each color is the materialized aura of someone from whom she’s stolen magic. The scarf itself won’t taken anything from you, but it’s best not to let her or the Man with the Diamond Shoes and Gravel Voice know that you’ve taken an interest in it.

Don’t stare too long at the Whip of Certain Death at Axiom’s hip, either. Another upgrade since setting sail: It hangs in a coil not unlike the snakes that gave up their skins for her armor. And somehow it’s the mostly tightly wound item you’ll find on this woman who’s mentally unraveling all the while you’re looking at her.

Vignette: Delilah, Spectral Resident of Haythorne Mansion Events and Memories Center

Delilah missed orange juice cans. Orange juice didn’t come in cans anymore — at least not in this new kitchen, with every surface now sterile stainless steel. There wasn’t any food in this kitchen anymore until the people in white coats arrived with clear boxes of sliced vegetables, stacks of boring white china, and unlimited cans of Sterno.

She missed rolling her waist-length black hair — freshly washed, maybe freshly ironed — up in the cans, pinning it there for an hour, and watching as she undid it all and the locks would fall now tit-height, perfectly bent in on the ends, the exact way Max liked it.

Max was her boyfriend at the time of her death, see. He took her to all the swinging pads for parties. She missed the parties too, come to think of it. And that low-cut orange jumpsuit she wore, with the brass and turquoise chain belt that hit just at the wide part of her hips. She bought it in a small boutique just down the street from this house she now called home. She should have been wearing it that night in 1973. She would have, had she known she’d spend the rest of eternity in the clothes she stepped out in that night.

As it was, she had worn the two-piece yellow set that everyone thought looked exactly like what Cher wore to the Oscars just months before: yellow chiffon with beading that showed off the flat belly she had finally attained on her steady diet of cocaine and not much else. She relished the reactions to it more than the outfit itself.

And now she was dead, and when people saw her, it wasn’t the scandalous clothing that inspired the gasps and double-takes. It was the fact they were faced with the spectral figure of a woman who had snorted a line and exhaled her life in the smaller guest bathroom at a hopping party at 666 W. Walcott Street on June 2, 1973, and now stepped out on any given afternoon to find herself in the middle of Haythorne Mansion Events and Memories Center during a wedding, anniversary party, family reunion, Super Sweet 16, bat or bar mitzvah, graduation party, christening, First Communion, bachelorette party, bachelor party, funeral luncheon or — and this was the most disgusting of all — an intervention.

So she did what any good cocaine overdose victim does for 50 years after dying in a house bathroom: She started pilfering whatever drugs she could find in guests’ purses and pockets.

It’s not that the pocket squares hiding joints, hollow tampon tubes of blow, sticker books of acid, Altoid tins of molly, or sunglasses-case-turned-heroin-kit did much for her. They did nothing, actually. Delilah just needed the high of causing a bit of mischief to brighten her days. She also liked the privacy of that second bathroom and didn’t need another fool OD-ing and joining her domain here in the house.

It was crowded enough in here with Walter tsk-tsking her from his perch on the upstairs banister, wearing that filthy coat from 1918 and going on and on about the goddamn Spanish Flu.

Axiom Thorne: I saw Ansel kissing Flora Jayne

With our crew number shrinking and body count growing, it’s come to my attention that the ensemble on the Hydra might want to know what the fuck is going on.

Ansel asked me that once — in those exact words, too.

“What the fuck is going on, Axiom?” He screamed from the center of the locust- and beetle-filled vortex spinning around him. Though at that time, I had to answer honestly: “I don’t know.”

Momma had died by that time.

Wait — Momma’s not dead. She just forgot I exist, that’s all. Sorry: I can’t keep straight which version of the story I’ve told you. There have been so many variations at this point.

So Momma was still alive and well. She was in the kitchen, though whether she was cooking, baking or fixing something is foggy in my memory. Momma did it all because there was no one else who could.

Ansel and I had to be 13 or 14. I think it wasn’t too much time after Stephan the Baker’s Boy disintegrated into bony mulch on the riverbank. Even on the hottest days that summer, every time I saw a beetle scuttle across my window sill or heard a cicada in the tree, I grew chilly under the colorful striped scarf tied around my neck. Just the buzz of a worker bee would force me to look at everyone in the vicinity and think lovely things about them, just in case it could save them from whatever I had conjured up to eat Stephan alive.

Maybe it worked. Or maybe it was paranoia triggered by literal garden-variety insects — in any case, by that fall, I had started to let my guard go.

Until I saw Ansel kissing Flora Jayne.

Yes, Momma was definitely fixing something. The strong smell of wood stain had permeated the house and sent me fleeing outside, mind swimming in a lake that was starting to drain from my eyes. There they were, in the eaves of Flora Jayne’s house next door, holding each other close. Ansel was on tiptoe, as puberty hadn’t yet blessed him with the foot he’d grow when we were 15. Flora Jayne, like most villainous popular girls in these kinds of stories, had woken up one day at 14 with a fully developed woman’s body and a seemingly intuitive knowledge of how to use it to her advantage.

So there I was, still a lanky frame of knobby joints and flat flesh, standing on the back porch, trying to free my lungs of wood stain stink, and instead I had the breath in my lungs crushed out by the blurry sight of two figures standing just 20 feet away.

I wish I could tell you that I wiped the tears out of my eyes to make sure I wasn’t just delusional from the fumes. I wish I could tell you that I found that it wasn’t Ansel, but Charly Moon from down the road, with her newly shorn hair, kissing the woman who would later be her wife. And maybe in a different version of this story, that will be the case, but in today’s memory of it, there was no doubt that it was Ansel and Flora Jayne.

The weight of an invisible hand landed on my shoulder, and the gravel roll of a voice purred in my ear words that I don’t dare repeat now that I know what they’ll create.

Ansel came flying toward me, landing on his knees in the barren yard behind our house. Flora Jayne screamed, then grew silent. The hand that had been on my shoulder seemed to be clapped over her mouth now, and I could see faint colorful stripes fade into the gray masonry of the house behind her. The life didn’t leave her eyes; it just decided to stand still at their windows, watching helplessly.

I turned my attention to Ansel, who just weeks before had been sitting with me on the same dirt patch he lay prone in now. We had built a tent and watched the stars together, inches of bloated space between our skin saying more than if we had been snuggled together like we had been as small children.

The dirt around him grew darker, wetter. Soon it was mud, and the mud was writhing in the same way it had around the Baker’s Boy’s feet. I turned back to Flora Jayne, pleading the spot above her head to make it stop. The crusty deep reply came from right beside me: “It’s entirely in your control.”

I tried to think of every nice memory I had of Ansel to keep the bugs at bay, but my mind was clouded by the realization that while I had no reason to expect it, I wasn’t the only girl in Ansel’s life. That there were others and would always be others, because our long half-elf lives were just beginning. But while I had no right to claim him for myself on that summer’s day, my heart shrieked otherwise as it shrank yet another size smaller inside my chest.

The wind kicked up, lifting the edge of my own scarf so that it tickled my cheek. A cyclone had started rising from the dirt, carrying with it every manner of insect in a flurry of wings, stingers and tiny teeth.

“What the fuck is going on, Axiom?” Ansel yelled.

“I don’t know,” I cried, wishing it would stop. I turned to Flora Jayne and her invisible captor. “Make it stop,” I begged.

“You’ll have to get used to not being the only one,” the invisible man said.

Another look back at Ansel. I am not special, I thought. But if I’m not special, how can I do this?

“Because you have me,” the rock-tumbler voice said.

“Please,” I begged, squeezing my eyes shut, as if it would make me deaf to Ansel’s screams. “Please make it stop. I’m not special. I need your help.”

“Good girl,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes said, his unseen hand giving my shoulder a squeeze that turned off the noise around me.

When I opened my eyes, I was on the porch still, and when I looked over to see if the Man in the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes was still there, instead I saw Ansel and Flora Jayne kissing, just as I had before. A lone cricket sang in the hedge. The patch of dirt in the yard was cracked and dry, much like my heart, which was now considerably smaller and harder than it had been before I stepped outside that day.

Take it or leave it, of course. I’ve been lying to you fairly steadily since we started this voyage. Why would I stop now?

Follow Axiom Thorne through her character’s Spotify playlist.

Vignette: The Tinkerer

The bell above the entrance tinkled its chime — two back-and-forths of the tiny bauble, then the clink of the whole ornament against the glass as the door shut. Malfi looked down the row and saw a middle-aged woman in a periwinkle knit sweater set standing at the entrance, clutching a jewelry case that was too big for a bracelet but too small for a necklace.

“Back here,” Malfi called, hardly looking up from the porcelain duck she was fixing. She had to hold the beak to its head for no less than 30 seconds for the glue to dry, and she had just rounded on the fourteenth.

The woman looked down the aisle with trepidation, as if unsure she had arrived in the right place despite the bold gold lettering on the door announcing it as Icarus Antiquities and Repairs. Deciding she was better off by the door, she decided to stay put and shout her wishes across the cluttered shop floor.

“I need something prepared,” she announced.

“Back here,” Malfi repeated.

“I was told the owner can help.”

“That’s me, but I you have to come to the back of the shop,” Malfi said. Twenty-two seconds.

The linoleum tiles overlaying dull wood flooring groaned as the customer began her journey toward the back of the shop, dodging the chandeliers and braziers hanging from the ceiling like a jungle explorer ducking vines. Malfi’s 30 seconds were up long before the woman reached the back desk.

“I have an old pocket watch that needs fixing,” the woman said, not even acknowledging the broken ducktail that Malfi was now trying to match with the back of its glossy cream body. “I was told the owner could help.”

Malfi put the ducktail back onto the purple cushion where the other broken pieces sat.

“Let’s take a look,” she said, deftly sliding a drawer under the counter open so she could retrieve her jeweler’s glass.

The woman clutched the box to her chest as if Malfi had insulted the watch she had not yet seen.

“I was told the owner could help,” she said.

Malfi flashed her a disingenuously wide smile, as she all too familiar with this comment. At 28 years old, with jet black hair, a gold bar threaded through her left eyebrow, and a miniature version of Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith and Holfernes tattooed on her right forearm, she wasn’t the person most people expected as the proprietor of a high-end antique resale and repair shop. The truth was that even she didn’t believe it some days, but leave it to that reclusive Uncle Pius to bequeath the shop to her — provided she allow keep the staff on in his absence.

“Ma’am, I am the owner of this shop,” she said. “If you’re looking for Pius Brown, he died a year ago. I’m his great-niece, and I would love to help you with your pocket watch. But first you need to take it out of the box.”

You’re the Tinkerer?”

Malfi was surprised to hear someone mention the Tinkerer by name.

“I’m not, but may I ask how you know them? A friend, perhaps?”

“My neighbor said they fixed their mantel clock,” the woman said. “I was hoping they could help me with my great-grandfather’s pocket watch. He found it in the war, see, and I want to give it to my son for his high school graduation gift.”

Malfi nodded and pushed the duck aside. She held out her hand for the box. Before the woman could hand it to her, however, the trap door behind the counter swung up and open with a bang that knocked the newly glued duck’s beak right off its face.

“Damn,” Malfi swore as she caught the porcelain piece just as it was about to hit the ground.

“I heard my name,” said the person now emerging from the cellar under the shop. “Did someone ask for the Tinkerer?”

“This lady’s got a pocket watch that needs repairing,” Malfi said. “Says you fixed her neighbor’s mantel clock.”

The Tinkerer emerged all the way out from their subterranean workshop, and Malfi got to enjoy yet again the expression on the face of any customer who had never yet met the shop’s star repair expert. Six-foot-seven with a feathery shock of white-blond hair, the Tinkerer was almost 80 years old but had failed to shrink in their old age. In fact, they seemed to have failed to age at all. The only sign of dilapidation on him was the inch-thick lenses they wore in his glasses, though Malfi had been told that they had always needed that strong a prescription. The Tinkerer’s daily uniform consisted of black pants faded to gray, a thick canvas-like button down that was yellowing around the cuffs and armpits, and a worn leather apron that caught all manner of soot, glue, metal shavings, threads, cotton fillings, straw, staples and more.

“Let’s have a look,” they said. A warm smile to the woman, and whether she wanted to or not, she was handing the pocket watch box over to them.

The Tinkerer opened the box and drew the watch out by its chain. It swung like the paper lanterns hanging above the counter, catching their light.

“Good casing. A few scratches but nothing that can’t be buffed out.” The Tinkerer opened the watch and examined its face. “Ah, but it has most definitely stopped ticking. We can get that fixed pretty easily — a lot of times these old watches just need a little cleaning and TLC. That means ‘tender loving care,'” they said, peering over their lenses at the woman, who stood transfixed. Her gaze was locked on the Tinkerer’s hair, which had a holographic effect that reminded Malfi of a plastic unicorn’s mane.

When the Tinkerer’s eyes fell back to the watch, they spotted something that even its owner hadn’t noticed. Malfi handed her jeweler’s glass to the Tinkerer, who then replaced their glasses with it.

“There seems to be some odd staining here, right above the 6 numeral,” the Tinkerer said, leaning even closer to it so that the jeweler’s glass in their eye almost collided with the watch face.

Malfi and the customer only saw the brow and cheek squeezing to hold the jeweler’s glass in place as the Tinkerer examined the watch. They didn’t see the horrors that were passing through the lens into the Tinkerer’s mind. Palm trees on fire. An ashen thatched roof blowing in the wind caused by a bomb blast close enough to raise the temperature in the tiny village. A skeletal child running through dirt streets crying for her mother, clutching the gold chain in her hand as the watch dragged across the pavement. A dying man pulling himself along the ground behind the watch, reaching for it in his last living breath, and disappearing as his fingers brushed the metal.

With a gasp, the Tinkerer pulled away and dropped the watch on the table. They ripped the jeweler’s glass from their eye and put the watch back in the box. The customer, unsurprisingly, looked concerned.

“I’ll need at least six weeks,” the Tinkerer said, trying to compose themself as they slipped the box into their oversized apron pocket.

“That’s not acceptable,” the woman said, the concern wearing down to annoyance. “My son’s graduation is in two weeks and I want to give it to him at his party that night.”

“Get him a keg and a laptop,” the Tinkerer said, their whimsical charm gone. “They’re better presence for an 18-year-old. Especially considering that if you give him this watch, he’ll be dead before he can get to college.”

Excerpt: “What kind of afterlife is this?”

Sylvia’s knees buckled under her as the ground met the soles of her boots. Her palms scraped across the cobblestones as she caught herself from fully face-planting, and once she had regained her balance, she saw Raff hadn’t been so lucky. He lay supine about five feet from her, one arm and both legs bent askew in a nasty, broken way.

Before she could crouch down to check on him, he straightened out and lifted himself on all fours. His face was dirty, but unharmed.

“What the fuck just happened?” He asked. “There was a car coming, and you appeared out of nowhere, and then the world disappeared.”

Sy chewed the inside of her cheek, trying to find the way to begin explaining, before Raff’s attention was turned elsewhere. She followed his gaze upward and realized he was looking at the same castle that had been embroidered into the tapestry that hung above her crib as an infant and bed as a child.

She had never seen it in person, but it lived up to the legend that passed through the witches in her family. The sky surrounding it was an ethereal lavender that reminded her of summer dawns captured through an extreme Instagram filter. The castle itself was sepia-colored stone, with tall glass windows and sharp spires lining the parapets.

“Erris,” she breathed in reverence. In doing so, she snapped Raff from his speechlessness.

“What the hell is this place?” He asked, turning to her. “Where have you kidnapped me to this time?”

His last two words and the emphasis he placed on them particularly stung, even if they weren’t accurate. She hadn’t kidnapped him at all, not this time nor the time before. That was all the Tersus’ doing.

“Well,” she said, canine teeth catching on to a particularly swollen piece of inner cheek. “Remember how you almost died last spring?”

“How could I forget?”

“Well, before you almost died, I gave you some medicine—”

“Spare me the euphemisms. Just call it a ‘potion.'”

“Right. A potion. So, it was a potion that would save you from dying—”

“So you did cure me with magic,” he scoffed, throwing his hands in the air. “You promised me you didn’t. You swore that I pulled through from — what did you call it? — ‘my own human strength.'”

“You did!” Sylvia exclaimed. “You did, Raff. The potion I gave you was just a precaution in case you didn’t survive. It was a potion that would save you from dying like a human. Instead you’d die like a witch, and you’d end up here.”

She waved around, and felt the sheer absurdity of it all as her eyes caught on to the dichotomy of the place. While the castle was exactly as she had expected, nothing else in this realm was as it had been described. The bridges that were once “shrouded with dark, lush forests” instead rose from clumps of ashy, empty dead trees and stretched across dried-up riverbeds. A carrion crow landed up the road and picked at a large carcass that Sylvia hadn’t even noticed. As it pulled meat from the bones, the body shifted, and the light glinted off something narrow and metal sticking out of it.

“What, in hell?” Raff asked, his voice echoing in the quiet. “What kind of paradise is this?”

“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Sylvia said. “It’s supposed to be lush and green. A sort of Witch Paradise.” She started walking toward the crow and its meal.

“Don’t walk away,” Raff said, giving in when she didn’t slow down and hustling to catch up. “This is really a great heaven, by the way. Great place to spend the afterlife. You witches really are fu—”

“Raff, something’s wrong,” she said.

“No shit,” he said. “If I’m in the place where you decided I should go if I died, then that means I’ve died. So since you’re here, too, that means you can figure out a way to magic us back or something so you can save me again.”

Sylvia reached the crow. Try as she might, she couldn’t shoo it away — instead, it glared at her with its red eyes before dipping its beak back down to take another bite. Now that she was closer, she could see that the body on the road was indeed human. The light had reflected off of a long narrow sword that had been plunged into its chest.

“I’d say pick the pockets for identification, but it doesn’t look like this guy has pockets left,” Raff said, crouching down next to Sylvia. His cold demeanor had started to thaw.

“Raff, it’s not supposed to be like this,” she said again, turning to him. “My grandmother is supposed to be here. My great-uncle, too. But it’s all destroyed. The forests, the streams — something terrible happened here.”

“I don’t think I’ll be much help figuring out what,” Raff said gently. “But why don’t you send me back before you start searching?”

“Raff, I can’t send you back,” Sylvia said. “The only way you got here is because you died. The same goes for me — my Earth body is pancaked out on Lake Shore Drive just like yours is right now. We have to stay here and figure out what happened before whatever got this guy,” she motioned to the body before her, “gets us, too.”

“How do you die in an afterlife?” Raff said.

Almost on queue, the body before them began to stir. Its arms unfolded themselves from around its head, and its neck straightened so that the face looked straight up at them. One eye socket was empty; the other was so coated in blood that the blue of its iris almost glowed against the deep black stain. The mouth opened, and from it came a gasp that should have been a scream, but for the slashed vocal chords dangling from its opened throat.

“You don’t,” Sylvia said, putting a hand on the body’s shoulder in sympathy. “And sometimes that’s worse.”

Excerpt from “Stet:” Hibiscus blossoms

It was like when you think you smell smoke in one inhale, but then never catch a whiff of it again — but you’re sure you smelled it, and now you’re looking for fire.

I find the fire: She’s dressed in all black, form-fitting and intimidating. Her dark hair is exactly as Agatha had described it, cropped in the back and dangling long in the front, stick-straight and glossy.

As she steps up on the porch, heeled boots clump-clumping on the soft wood, something in the corner of my eye hooks my attention. The blossoms on the large potted hibiscus bush have puckered like raisins, wilting down under the weight of whatever demon she’s brought with her.

“You must be Agatha’s editor,” she says, dark cherry lips lifting, as Agatha said they did, to reveal perfect white teeth. “She spoke very highly of you.”

“Only one of those things are true,” I say, settling for a tight smirk that won’t betray my coffee-yellowed smile. “From what Agatha told me, you must be Maeve.”

“I’m certainly not Handel,” she smiles. “He’s finishing a call in the car. Another client needs our help, and rather desperately, so we won’t take up much of your time today.”

I wonder if the client actually exists or is their escape route when I start asking harder-hitting questions than Agatha ever posed. I’ve listened to all the interview recordings, remember: I know the softballs she lobbed about whether they believed in an afterlife (obviously) and what their most challenging house was to purge (“They’re all challenges, but they’re all learning opportunities”). I prefer to play fast-pitch without a catcher’s mit.

“I don’t think you have to worry too much about that,” I say.

“No, I don’t suppose we will,” Maeve said. “Unless, of course, you want to come with us to this client?”

Now I understand how Agatha fell under her spell, as I feel a strange pull around my shoulder, as if Maeve has put her arm around me to gently guide me toward their car, even though she’s still standing three feet in front of me. I have no doubt now that the client is fake; that I’m being tricked into my own abduction; that Handel is in the car, ready to drive me to an undisclosed location where I’ll either die or be driven mad as Agatha was; and that all of this is exactly as it should be, exactly as I want it to be.

“Good? Good,” Maeve said, turning on a heel. “We’ll take you with us. You’ll enjoy it, I promise.”

As we walk down the steps, I feel something crunch under my foot. It’s one of the hibiscus blossoms, just moments before a Tropicana pink saucer, and now a shriveled, veiny ball of tissue player crumpled beneath my heel. A puff of black smoke seems to cough out of it as my shoe grinds it into the floor.

Axiom Thorne: The Crestbalm Fete

It was all my aunt’s idea, sending me in my mother’s wedding dress dyed with indigo I had collected from the riverbank. She proudly presented this plan to us while showing off one of three gowns she had just commissioned from The House of Raheem in Dragon’s Head.

The dress has been stored in her attic since my father had died — Mamma had asked her sister-in-law to take care of it, as we needed the extra closet space for my clothes now that they no longer fit in the little prayer chest at the foot of my bed. My aunt had grumbled and eventually obliged by shoving the dress in a crate. I can only assume that’s where it had spent nearly 12 years when she drew it from her wardrobe. In no way had the the wrinkled mess been hanging there for longer than a couple days.

“You’ve got the same stick-straight boy build as your mother,” she said, lifting the creased fabric up to me. “Just add some beads and use some of those flowers from behind the house to dye it, and it’ll be a whole new dress.”

“That should be fine, thank you,” Mamma said, our eyes locking as I dared her to laugh and she dared me to spit in her sister-in-law’s eye. Neither of us felt confident enough to do either, so we shoved as many scones from the tea tray into our pockets before gathering the dress and bidding my aunt farewell.

The Crestbalm Fete arrived a week later. Ansel arrived at the door in his oldest brother’s best suit, clutching a bouquet of forget-me-nots in his hand. They had gone limp from the heat in the air and the sweat from his palms. As my mother hugged me goodbye, I saw the blueish-purple under her fingernails and remembered that it would likely be another three weeks before they were cleaned from the memory of late nights filled with stinky dye and strained eyesight.

Mamma’s alterations had turned her simple white wedding gown from a heavy bundle of wrinkled satin to an indigo dress so light that it almost floated. The four layers of skirts we removed were now blanketing our beds — a luxurious addition to our tiny boudoirs — and the final one hovered gently on the breeze, tickling my legs as Ansel took my hand in his and led me down the street toward the village square where the annual striped tent had been erected, its walls draped with vines and fragrant flowers.

Gardenia Smote and Louie Berenger met us at the mouth of the tent, inviting us to their table. I knew they liked Ansel and more-or-less tolerated me, but compared to the many others whom Ansel called friends, they were far more tolerable. Louie once threw a rock at the baker’s boy for calling me a slug when we were six, and Gardenia made a fuss over my dress and how she far preferred it to the fuchsia organza gown she had inherited from her sister.

We were hardly the only girls there in a hand-me-down or makeshift dress. In fact, those who had new gowns from the Dragon’s Head fashion houses or even Porfery’s Emporium in town were mocked behind their backs for their extravagance. Who would spend a single gold coin, let along fifty, on a dress for our tiny town’s annual fete? In this way, the Crestbalm Fete every year saw the same dresses, suits and robes swirling around different bodies.

Ansel had just returned to our table with two glasses of sparkling wine when the tent dimmed and the center of the room illuminated to reveal Mayoress Andreu in periwinkle taffeta that glistened against her red tiefling skin. She wasted no time in launching into the speech she likely gave every year.

“In Crestbalm we have a saying, ‘The fete is the future taking flight,'” her voice lilted, almost in song. Her gossamer wings unfolded, glowing in the magical spotlight. “And what a beautiful future, indeed!”

With one pump of her wings, she launched into the air and disappeared with a crack. The tent relit itself, and a band no one had noticed before began playing soft dinner music as waiters delivered platters of chicken, potatoes, carrots, greens, waffles, berries, scones, noodles, spare ribs, grapes, hollandaise-coated asparagus, salmon, quail eggs, and more. Dinner at the fete was traditionally donated, so each table received what their families had worked together to provide. Our table was ladened with Gardenia’s family’s brisket, arugula salad from the Berengers’ garden, corn pancakes cooked and salted butter churned on Ansel’s farm, and Mamma’s signature green tea cakes, and creme d’violete custards that almost matched my gown.

We stuffed ourselves silly, the sauce from the brisket staining our mouths and the green tea cakes crumbling into our laps as we licked the frosting from our fingers. The sparkling wine in our glasses magically replenished, though whether it was at the hand of our wizard mayor or stealth waiters, we weren’t sure and didn’t care to ask.

Doreena Cowl started the dancing by dragging her date to the middle of the floor, and the band took her lead by playing a louder, faster tune. I recognized her pale green dress as the one her sister had worn two years earlier — it was new, then, and those of us still too young to go to the fete had salivated at the notion of wearing something so fancy. Now there were hints of mud stains along the hem, and the left strap kept sliding down Doreena’s shoulder, but it was still as magnificent as the day we first saw it, glittering with the cut glass that encrusted the bodice.

“Pretty, how the light flashes off it,” said Ansel in my ear, and I turned to agree but found myself face-to-face with someone I hadn’t seen in a year.

He hadn’t changed, but the scarf had. When I saw him after my thirteenth birthday — weeks after visiting Hanso Jon in her swamp and almost losing my mother — he had already started creating a new scarf from the magic the stole from others. This one was almost twice as long now as the one hidden under my floorboards from anyone’s eyes and touch but mine. Every time I saw him, it seemed to get longer: Tonight it had four new stripes of burnt sienna, dark mauve, sky blue and light lavender: the same color as Mayoress Andreu’s gown.

“Of course, not as pretty as you,” he said, paternally patting me on the head with his long-fingered hand. “I see young Stephan’s totem came with you tonight, but not my scarf.”

I whipped around, looking for someone, anyone, to be staring at us. In a tent full of 18-year-olds, the grizzled Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes would surely stand out.

“They can’t see us or hear us, my dear,” he smirked. “But if it makes you feel better, we can step outside so I don’t feel like my ass is in your date’s face.”

Sure enough, Ansel was still sitting in his chair, drinking the sparkling wine while emphatically nodding to something Louie was saying. I rose from my place and walked toward the side flap of the tent and into the chilling night air.

“Do you have to appear at every major event of my life?” I asked.

“Only when you don’t bring me along. I see Stephan’s viper fang accompanied you tonight,” the Man with the Colored Scarf and Diamond Shoes tapped the gold totem hanging from my neck — a souvenir from watching Stephan burst into beetles five years before. “I feel dishonored, Axiom. Why not wear my gift, too?”

“It clashed with the dress,” I said dryly.

“Such is the foibles of fashionability,” he sighed, the gravel in his throat rattling ominously. “You’ve probably guessed by now that my gift to you was not given without expectations. I need an apprentice. I can provide the powers and direction, but this body of mine is no longer able to handle as — complicated — of deeds.”

“But I take it mine can?” I asked. In the dark I couldn’t see his face, but I could feel his breath pouring from his mouth and into my face.

“There’s nothing holding you back, Axiom,” he rattled. “The fete means you’ve reached adulthood, independence. Your mother won’t expect you to stay in your little cottage with her any longer.”

“Ansel wants me to marry him,” I blurted.

“You and I both know that’s not true,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf scoffed. “He asked you to the fete; he didn’t propose. Don’t lie to me, Axiom. I always know when you are, and it makes me angry.”

The breath in my face was suddenly cool compared to the heat building around my neck. At first I thought it might be anger, but soon I felt a searing pain against my skin. Reflexively I snatched the viper fang from around my neck and tore it away. My hand stung with the burn even after I had tossed the necklace away into the grass.

“Now,” the Man with the Colorful Scarf said, his words deliberate. “I don’t want to ruin your evening even further. Tonight you should go and dance with your date, and tomorrow I will leave you a little reminder that great things are expected of you.”

And with that, I was alone.

I should have been more incensed that no one had noticed I was gone, but it was hard to feel anything but numb the rest of the night. Every bounce of the light off of a glittery shoe made me wonder if the Man with the Colorful Scarf had returned, and I started seeking out dresses and robes that matched the new stripes on his scarf, paranoid that I might be dancing beside one of his newest victims. Mayoress Andreu was nowhere to be found the rest of the evening.

To combat the cottonmouth feeling, I drank as much sparkling wine as I could — it peppered my mouth and reminded me that I was still alive, still 18, and still expected to have a good time.

When Ansel took me home, his fingers fidgeting between mine.

“I hope you had fun,” he said. “I’m not sure you did.”

“It was a wonderful night. I think I just drank too much sparkling wine, is all.” The words drunkenly tripped out of my mouth.

“Can I kiss you goodnight?” He asked, and suddenly every worry I’d had all evening melted away as I nodded and he took me in his arms.

Everything I had read in books about first kisses pointed to a spark that ignited in your chest, or a hook that pulled you up from your belly. I kept waiting for one of those things to happen — to assure me that this was what I wanted, what I’d been waiting for — but all I felt was warm, wet human lips against mine.

I closed my eyes, thinking maybe that was the issue. It changed nothing at first, and then it became the stuff of nightmares as my mind turned to the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes, snarling on the inside of my eyelids.

Ansel pulled away gently, and I turned to open my front door. The curtain in the side window shifted just slightly, and I knew my mother was still awake.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Ansel,” I said.

“Tomorrow, Axiom,” he nodded, absentmindedly scratching his bottom lip with his thumb.

Mamma was up, but the lights were off, and I allowed her the pleasure of thinking she had gotten away with watching us from the window by running right past the tiny parlor and up the stairs to my bedroom. Hiking my dress up to my waist, I dropped to my knees next to my bed and started scratching the wood floor for the loose board. A moment later, I had found it.

There it was, the striped scarf. And on the end of it, a new stripe — tiny, barely a hem: Aquamarine, like Ansel’s eyes.

It wasn’t the only new stripe, either. One the color of a blueberry stain; another mahogany. In the years I had left the scarf under my bed, another two feet of material had grown on it, capturing the colors of the magic I had subconsciously stolen from people by accidentally brushing against them in the market or grazing their hand when giving them change or loaning them a quill.

My fingers caressed the tiny aquamarine strip at the end of it. I think I fell asleep praying that it wouldn’t get bigger, even though I knew that Ansel likely had no more magic to give.

The next morning I awoke, suffocating under the heavy satin fabric from Mamma’s wedding dress. The floorboards looked undisturbed, and I wondered whether I had put them back myself the night before — it was hard to recall everything I did with adrenaline and sparkling wine coursing through my veins. As I lifted myself out of bed, a headache pressing behind my eyes, the sun caught a glimmer of something on my bedside table: A golden viper fang on a chain.

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.

Music of the Write: “Warriors” by League of Legends, 2WEI and Edda Hayes

Imagine Dragons’ “Warriors” was already built to be an epic theme. It launched at the League of Legends 2014 World Championship and was later used as the theme for WWE’s Survivor Series. I’m also certain it was one of the original songs I used when writing Omaha back in 2018.

It’s hard to believe it can get any more heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping, fight scene-inspiring than that, but it can. Just add trailer music mavens 2WEI — responsible for the Tomb Raider reboot’s take on Destiny Child’s “Survivor” and the orchestrated cover of Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” for the Valerian trailer.

This month I’m going to use the remainder of Illinois’ stay-in-place order to complete a book that came to me while listening to this version of “Warriors,” which means it’ll be on heavy rotation. I’m particularly envisioning a scene where a house implodes under the weight of very dark magic, and another where our witchy heroine has to face the “friend” she accidentally banished into a tiny stationery box so they can help her combat forces trying to end the world.