HEX WAS like a warren. Unsurprisingly given the age of the building, the rooms were kept small so they were easier to heat. Cozy, private, and mismatched. I wandered down the narrow hall, pushing past a few patrons who leaned against the crumbling plaster and brick walls. To my left, salvaged tables and chairs filled some small rooms, empty cups and napkins littering the scuffed wooden floor the only indication they’d held patrons earlier in the evening. I finished my drink and left my glass on a shelf beneath a calendar, something with Romanian priests. It hung from a single thumbtack.
Finally I reached the open area at the back of the building, where half a dozen round tables surrounded the jukebox and a pair of pool tables. Some absolute bastard had queued up a string of Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift songs, and I winced. I thought the goddamn sadists hung out below. Manufactured crap with about as much substance as cheese dip in a fucking jar. I would’ve kicked the machine, but it was one of those digital jobs, and it wouldn’t have done shite.
As I shook my head, the music stopped and blocky letters proclaimed “Unable to Complete Request.” I looked over my shoulder at a pretty Asian in a black sweatshirt, a few streaks of cobalt in their hair. “Thanks.”
They nodded. They were striking—a gummy candy shark with a meaty sweetness beneath the sour, citric crust—studded with sugar crystals like goddamned diamonds. I wondered why they were sitting alone, twirling the stem of a wine flute between their thumb and finger. “You got it, man,” they said, winking an eye lined sparkly blue. “I can’t stand that crap.”
They pulled a device—maybe it was a phone? Who the hell knew with tech-mages?—from a pocket, and I was forgotten. I touched the pillowy squares on the screen in front of me to pick out some songs: David Bowie, Queen, the Eagles, Blondie, Darude…. “Sandstorm” was one of my guilty pleasures—one of many.
“Starman” played as I looked around. Apart from the tech-mage, who was engrossed in their phone or whatever, I was alone. I looked apprehensively at the narrow door off to the right. The newly-mown-lawn-drizzled-in-Tabasco scent was coming from the stairs beyond it, so I went down.
Underneath, it was darker and more open, the low ceiling supported by thick concrete pillars. There was a second bar here, a U-shaped beacon in the darkness thanks to blinking red Christmas lights strung beneath the counter, and I ordered another drink to bolster my courage. Fuzzy spray-painted glyphs adorned the walls—magic to hide what happened down here from the eyes and ears of others. I shivered at the twisted desires assailing me from the few people milling about. It tasted salty and sick—like what you puked up after too much tequila and too many chimichangas, but without the innocent fun that implies. Here I felt the desire for pain, the longing to see others degraded, broken. Abusing fellow mages and magical beings was a pastime of a certain set of the community, one I’d heard about but never seen up close… or felt. I wanted to run.
I had to be careful around things like that.
As I stood near the bar, cradling my scotch like a flame that would keep me from freezing in this desolation, a group—two men and a woman—moved past me dragging a seraphim by the collar around its neck. It was naked but for a gauzy loincloth, and it looked at me with pleading silver eyes… and I had to turn away. I tasted blood and agony in that glance, coppery, rotten… but I could do fuck all to help. Sure, I could sense what it longed for—freedom, clouds, and to not be hurt anymore—but I had no way of fulfilling its wishes. As far as what the human mages considered magical beings, I was low on the totem pole. My skills were specific, and they could inspire amazing things, but they were no good in a fight, and right now, that sucked a whole hill of dirty arse. I downed the rest of my drink, but it couldn’t stopper the shit feeling spewing up like a clogged loo.
Fucking mage bars. This was why I couldn’t stand them.
One of the reasons, anyway.
I stood and walked beneath another arch into a wide-open space, cold, loam-smelling, the walls crumbling stone, the floor dirt. In the center, two men were battling with creatures summoned from mystical planes. A shimmering blue narwhal drove its horn toward a fiery fox, which leapt out of the way just in time, a puff of piney smoke in its wake. Great. Real-life fucking Pokémon matches. Mages or not, people are pretty much the same. Most of them revel in fantasy and distraction.
But there…. There in the corner, sitting on the edge of a folding plastic chair, the blue and orange warring across the planes of his face…. There he fucking was.
I didn’t even have words. I mean, I’d heard about the fey, about their beauty, but… I couldn’t describe it. He was a ray of sunlight penetrating this hellhole, a shaft of brilliance tearing through the clouds to light on a single perfect blossom. The kind of shit that makes you question your whole damn existence, your place in the cosmos, existentially fucking you silly.
All I could think was how glad I was to be alive in this moment.
I tasted rain and honeysuckle and ginger, and I wanted to cry. How could these mages, volleying their creations of water and flame, not feel what was in their presence? Must’ve been some kind of a spell, a ward or a glamour. Best I could guess was I could see him—really see—because I was closer to what he was than the humans around us. He was a waterfall of sparkles, so bright I had to squint as I sat down across from him, straddling the cheap plastic chair and resting my elbows on the back. I didn’t know what to say, and I gaped. My mouth was probably open, and I might have been drooling. But….
“No one has seen one of your people in a thousand years. What are you doing here?” Here, in this basement reeking of mold, where the elite practitioners of magic demonstrated their strength by raping angelic beings. “Why now?”
“You think I have chosen this?” His corn-silk hair, almost white, spilled in waves over his shoulders. His skin was like marble, marred by no pores, but tinged slightly blue, especially around his eyes. It looked like makeup, intentional. Maybe it was. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked around with opalescent eyes that changed hue depending on the light. “The humans don’t smell any better than they used to.”
For all his bluster, he was scared. I could taste it, like bile on ice. I saw it in the way he wrapped his long fingers around his shoulders, his crossed arms protecting his heart.
Mostly I could feel it: his wish to be away from this place, his longing for open spaces and the meadow-scent of plants.
“Go home, then,” I said. “Back to your merry green fields and softly swelling hills.”
“I would, but I have been summoned. Invoked. I find the ways back closed to me, demon.”
“I am not a demon,” I said. “At least no more than you. If you want to judge us by human standards, we’re both dangerous creatures. Both of us possess powers they cannot control… though mine are usually seen as innocuous. It’s why I’m safe in a place like this. I don’t have much the mages can use. But you… you…. You’re a fey?”
“Have you really never seen one of my people before?” Instead of looking at me, his eyes followed the streams of light zipping back and forth.
“Are you kidding?” I was getting nervous, and I looked around to make sure we hadn’t drawn any attention. He was a hundred-dollar bill dropped on the ground, and I wanted to snatch him up before someone else noticed. Don’t ask me why. Maybe just out of selfishness. “We should talk. In fact, we should really get out of here.”
I couldn’t sense much of his desires; usually desires are the first thing I notice about a person, whether it’s an aching to be chained to a bed and tickled with a feather duster or just a craving for a late-night taco. The void was unnerving and eerie, like looking at a person with no facial features, blank where there’d always been something before. Still, his pride and defiance showed in the lift of his pointed chin. Telling him he was in danger wouldn’t work. I wished I’d listened more when mages talked about dealing with fey. There were a thousand and one rules that no one really knew or agreed on—kind of like that lame joke about the book on understanding women. Not that I’d ever had a problem in that department….
He was staring at me now, his face a perfect equilateral triangle from the points of his long ears to the sharp end of his chin. I hadn’t noticed the ears before. Was I the only one who could see through his glamour? Fuck, I hoped so.
Still, it seemed to be wearing thin.
“Why do you wish for me to accompany you?” He drummed his long, sharp nails on the sticky table carved with insults. “Can you provide some distraction better than this one?”
“I’d be willing to try?” Was that what he wanted, a spectacle? Something resembling the decadent faerie balls I’d heard about? Well, I could take him to a club… but I didn’t want to. There were a lot of mages in Philadelphia; it was easier for them to hide out here than in nearby New York, especially in neighborhoods like this, the ones the chamber of commerce liked to pretend didn’t exist. The mages liked places like that, forgotten and ignored places, because people here knew how to mind their fucking business, so the mages didn’t have to be as careful. If they realized he was here, in the city, he wouldn’t be safe anywhere. They’d chase his skinny alabaster arse all the way to Mexico if he tried to run. And why did I care? It wasn’t my nature to be a protector. I was a selfish creature, and a lazy, opportunistic one. I’d come to terms with it long ago. It had never bothered me before, but then I’d felt out of sorts since I decided to come in here. I wanted to leave, go someplace with way fewer fucking mages. None at all would probably be safest. “I’d just really appreciate it if we could go somewhere else.”
“So you desire my company? Well, a favor for a favor, then, perhaps.”
I was tiptoeing toward a minefield. “What favor?”
“I come with you, and you help me find whatever mortal charlatan pulled me into this….” He looked around the dingy basement and shook his head. “Ugh.”
“And force them to release you, I assume?”
“Oh no,” he said, low and dangerous and hungry. “No, I’ll take care of that on my own.”
“Still a little one-sided, don’t you think?”
He lifted one shoulder, and it jangled an earring I hadn’t noticed—little cloisonné leaves hanging from chains. “Then I suppose I’ll have to amuse myself.”
This wasn’t fun. It wasn’t flirting. Flirting was an amuse-bouche; even when it was tangy, it made me curious to sample the next thing. Even when it straight up tasted like shit, I wondered if I could change the flavor. This was a cup of poison, and I was about ready to say fuck it and go on my way—I’d come looking to feed, after all, hoping to satisfy my curiosity, and I’d done that—but just then I noticed a silhouette, backlit from the lights of the bar, coming our way. I recognized her, or rather, I recognized that aching yearning to see someone broken and begging, to have their pain or salvation in her hands. It was the woman who’d been tormenting the seraphim.
I almost panicked. I didn’t know if this fey motherfucker could fight, and that evil bitch was a mage. Probably powerful too—a seraphim was no cheap plastic trinket. How would we get past her? Fucking hell. I avoided people with her kind of desires for a reason: I didn’t want to fulfill them, and I didn’t want to reach the point where I wanted to want to.
Pancakes and tea…. A book you could read six times and still notice things you’d missed…. Heirloom tomatoes….
Motorcycles with neon lights, a computer virus that would erase all student loan debt, and a blonde in a red dress with big tits, tattoos, and a nine-inch cock…. For a fucking Square Enix game to come out on time, for once…. Two blondes….
Emrys and the tech-mage. They intercepted the woman, and Emrys put his hand on her shoulder, gently guiding her behind one of the concrete pillars and away from us. The tech-mage shone some kind of bluish light on whatever Emrys took from his pocket—whatever it was, the woman wanted it. I could feel her hunger.
“Now,” I said to the fey. “We have to go now.”
“Then you agree to my bargain?”
“Ah, good. Then let’s just seal our agreement.” He stood and placed a long-fingered hand on my belly.
I felt like something crawled up my spine on the inside and bumped against the base of my skull. For a second everything blurred into a smear. “What did you take?”
“Don’t worry. I’ll give it back when our arrangement is concluded.”
I tried to push it to the back of my mind as I grabbed his elbow and tugged him toward the steps, hopefully before the woman’s attention wandered back our way.