TETHERED BY a magic collar and trapped in the suffocating Mist, the great white salamander raged. Her thoughts, a jumble of midnight-blue taffeta gowns, an adoring audience, a black-haired boy with green eyes, and an enchanted frog, caused the serpent’s fury to spark… literally. In its prison of swirling blue and gray lay piles of charred bones and scorched remnants of winged creatures, unfortunate gnomes, trolls, and meaty ogres drawn by the fragrant lure of her fairy fire.
Words formed in the beast’s head, single syllables: eat, kill, mine, mine, mine. A spark turned to a flame in the worm’s gut. Her powerful jaws chomped through the femur of a fresh-killed troll and the blood-slick humerus of an ogre. Like cracking lobster tails, her tongue scooped out marrow and slurped down the tender morsels.
She growled and chewed. Bones shattered. Ogre and troll shards tumbled down throat and gullet and landed in her belly. She thrashed, mixing the fire in her gut with magic, both that which was hers and that which she stole. More, more, more. Satin, hunger, party dress, more, more, more.
As the troll’s and the ogre’s meager magic separated from bone and blood, an idea sparked in her tortured brain. An image, a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. Haffling. One of three.
She reared back, balancing on tail and hind limbs too small for her body. She sniffed the poisonous Mist, her mind fixed on the image. The girl, not so little anymore, nearly a woman, nearly ready. The vision cleared, a child of the human realm. Mine, mine, mine. She bounced up and down, feeling the bones, the meat, and the marrow meld with fire. Like pebbles in a tumbler, she mixed them well. Chants from her childhood, snippets of songs, skittered through her thoughts.
Grind them into paste,
Mix your magic well,
Come and taste, come and taste,
Fairy fire from my magic well.
She smelled fear, death, and cookies. She purred and settled back. Exhausted, she hummed and drifted into a dream. Come and taste my fairy fire, come and taste it soon.
LIAM SUMMER awoke naked in a strange room filled with smoke and heat. “No!” The smell, like poison cookies fresh from the oven, filled his mouth with saliva and his gut with fear. Fairy fire! He coughed as it burned his lungs. “No.” He cowered on the hot floor. She found me. She knows. She knows what I did…. I’m going to die. I am not sorry.
Smoke hissed up from the slatted wood floor as he scrambled on hands and bare knees in the dark. Through tearing eyes he caught pulsing red and white lights against the walls. They lit the strange space and revealed bare walls, stacked lumber, and tools scattered across a counter.
He crawled toward a blackened window. His hands brushed splintered wood and nails. Where am I? Why am I naked? I am going to die.
His head bumped against a wall. He braced against its solid surface and crawled toward the flashes of light. The smoke, so thick, made it hard to breathe. Not a dream. I don’t know this place, a dungeon… a place of death. The sweet reek of fairy fire was everywhere. It’s her. She’s come to kill me. He knew the uses of his queen’s double-edged poison.
Fairy fire and what came after—fairy dust—were both cheese for the mouse and the deathtrap. She’s here. She’ll kill me.
HE STOOD on shaking legs, his hands against the wall. Through a crack in a window painted black, he stared at a strange world. Yet he knew its name. The See. How did I get here?
On the ground, stories below, giant metal dragons flashed with red, white, yellow, and blue lights. They screamed like banshees in the night.
The floor burned his naked feet. How did I get here? Unable to remember. One moment asleep in the cave he’d called home since…. She is here… she will kill me… is killing me. This is an oven; she will cook me and eat me…. He pictured his mother and father, Ileana and Cullen, who’d given their lives to save his. All for nothing. Mother… Father… I am sorry.
Questions that no longer mattered had been answered. Queen May, who had stolen a haffling boy—Alex Nevus—and vanished from the Unsee to the See with deranged plans of multiworld domination, was alive. She’s killing me. She knows…. She knows I helped him.
Those last days in Fey had been a frightening blur. The Mist had gone rampant, swallowing villages in a single breeze. He, like so many others, had sought escape as families and fields disappeared beneath its foggy terror.
While life under tyrannical Queen May had been perilous, her disappearance had triggered the worst incursions of the Mist in memory. If he wasn’t about to die in a burning building in a strange land, he would have wondered at the connection. Her magic held it back.
His feet blistered, and he choked on the smell of his burning flesh. He pressed against the wall, wondering when she’d appear. Would she roast him to death and then pick at his bones or have a royal chef dress him in a sauce of honey and cream? Or would she do what he’d been forced to witness as a small child with his parents… slit him open from chin to navel and with dainty hands rip out and eat his heart and his liver?
Once her servant—more a slave, if he were honest—Liam knew Queen May better than most. He knew her secrets and the face she did not show. He’d seen what became of the unfortunate souls she butchered. Her murders were neither random nor capricious. Queen May’s magic was fed—literally—by the life force of every fairy, sprite, and elf she murdered. When he’d been her fair-haired boy, he’d watched her gloat, her lovely face flushed with stolen power.
I don’t want to die. His betrayal, his aid to the haffling boy she’d ordered him to seduce, had been discovered. It was treason. It would be punished.
Snippets from the last days in Fey flew through his mind. Her disappearance, the ravaging Mist… something exploded.
Backed against the wall, he braced one foot on the burning floor and shifted his weight to the other. There’d been a sound, like a tree limb cracking only thousands of times louder. It had ripped the Mist, or more exactly torn a hole, maybe more than one. Like a tunnel, like something he’d seen before.
The tunnel. I fell… was pulled… into this house on fire. Well done, Liam. Out of May’s frying pan and into her fairy fire. I have to get out! There has to be a way.
Choking on the delicious smoke, his heart raced. He searched for escape. He climbed into a tub in front of the blackened window. The inside was littered with tools; his feet slipped on sawdust and porcelain. He grabbed something half wood and half metal. He smashed the window.
It was a mistake. The influx of oxygen fueled the fire, and where before it had just been smoke, red and blue flames pierced the floor. Through shattered glass he looked out on the human world, with its flashing lights, sirens, streets of liquid black, and buildings far taller than anything in the Unsee.
The cool night air, like a cruel joke, tickled his face as he sought for his own magic. It would not come. He tried to quiet the terror in his heart, to steady his pulse. I have no magic! Since before he could walk, Liam could ride the wind. He felt for the rhythm of this strange world, for the moment when air would mix into the fabric of his flesh and carry him aloft, carry him from this prison on fire. He panicked. I have no magic. I cannot fly.
The porcelain of the cast-iron tub grew hot, like a pot set to boil. He felt the air and the smoke, but his body would not obey his will. It’s gone! My magic is gone. “Stay calm.” Try harder. But he knew, as all creatures of the fey are taught, travel between the worlds comes at a cost. I have no magic here.
He startled as someone banged on the door. An inhuman voice growled, “FDNY. I’m here to get you out. Please, open the door.”
Frozen with fear, Liam thought to jump out the sixth-story window. It would be certain death.
A crash came against the door that stood between him and whatever terror May had sent to kill him.
An ax ripped through the wood, once, twice. Liam stared across the floor on fire as steel tore away the door. With each blow, more of the murderous weapon slashed through.
He had but seconds. No magic. He looked out the window at a world of metal dragons and humans who gaped up at him. They pointed and held small black rectangles in front of their faces, all trained on him. Liam clutched the tool with which he’d smashed the window. It was puny compared to the ax that any moment now would reveal its wielder and Queen May’s assassin. It’s too far to jump. Certain death… but a death of your choosing, not of hers. I don’t want to die. He spoke aloud. “Then fight, Liam. For once in your life, fight. For once in your pathetic life… fight!”
The hinges of the door ripped. Liam turned from the window to face his death. A clarity washed over him. He stood firm as the door’s upper hinge separated from the frame by a powerful blow. It hung for an instant and then crashed to the flaming floor.
The impact caused Liam to slip and fall. The tub burned hot, and still clutching his weapon, he spotted the monster sent to kill him. Sweat poured down his legs and back, and he stared at the hulking ax-wielding creature dressed in black with bands of yellow, like a honeybee, around the tops of his boots and on the sleeves of his jacket. The giant, with his single glinting eye and strangely shaped head, straddled the doorway. All pretense of bravery gone, Liam curled up tight and tried to vanish in the depths of the burning tub.
An ogre with an ax… this is how I end. He wanted to stand, to face his death with honor, as his mother and father had faced theirs. But the heat of the tub and the sweat that poured from fear and fire made the porcelain too slick. So clutching knees to chest, he waited for the ax-wielding assassin. He waited for death.