A story begins its life quietly, told around a campfire or a dinner table, over a pint of beer or a cup of tea. It is small and innocuous and answers small, innocuous questions. It exists to create familial bonds, to explain away a mood, to relay information necessary to that particular moment in space and time.
No one pays it any attention, and thus most stories are lost long before they can ever, truly, be called stories.
Most stories die, swallowed by the churn of daily life.
Most, but not all…
Magic, raw and unfettered, smells like vinegar being poured into open eyes; like the taste of vomit on the back of the throat; like the sound of screaming. Like remembering the face of someone long dead, and the creeping realisation that you’re lost, far away from home.
Mistasinon was drowning in it. It swamped him, engulfing the familiar scents of his world: the wood of his desk, the soft material of his satchel and the precious papers it held, the faint traces of almost-finished cups of tea. It saturated his clothes, his hair, his skin, his senses.
As the sun had set over Ænathlin, the sole surviving city of the fae, there had come tremor, a whispered promise of devastation, and the stink of magic. As soon as he could breathe again, Mistasinon ran, long legs propelling him through the narrow, uneven streets to the Grand Reflection Station, following the razor-sharp stench to its source. The reek of magic cut away the competing smells of the overcrowded city like a knife paring flesh from bone.
He careened around corners, more than once slamming into hard bricks and soft bodies as he tried to dodge through the crowds, shouted curses following him. Mistasinon didn’t hear them. There was nothing except the scraping, vile, all too familiar malodour of magic and, screaming at him from beneath the waves of terror and sickness, his own voice, demanding he run faster, push harder, be better.
When he finally arrived at the Grand Reflection Station, the magic overcame him. He swayed, the sharp, sparkling smell wiping out his senses, robbing him of his one true advantage. Now more than ever, Mistasinon longed for the security of being many, not one. Of not being alone. And all the while, the magic crawled up his nose and down his throat, stripping away every competing scent, burning him and leaving a trail of invisible scars in its wake.
He dug his nails into his palms. Pain and the fear of failure forced him to focus beyond the absence of colour, beyond the shuddering panic he felt at his inability to sense the myriad, conflicting, maddening smells of the city.
Someone fell into him, tripping as they tried to get away from the Grand. He put his arms out, catching the fleeing brownie as he tumbled. Mistasinon wanted to ask him how many people were in the station, but when he saw the brownie’s face, the words died in his throat. The brownie struggled free and was lost.
Mistasinon whipped his head back and forth, looking for a place to start, a way to help. The GenAm would send the brown suits—but did they know what was happening? Oh gods, he should have alerted the Departments, raised the alarm. How could he have been so stupid?
No, no time for that.
He had to do something.
His gaze landed on a brown-suited dwarf from the Contents Department, standing like a solitary tree caught in a flood, his back pressed against the pillars fronting the entrance to the Grand. Mistasinon made his way through the final rush of escaping fae, towards the dwarf.
The dwarf looked up at him, eyes wide. A small trail of black blood ran from his nose, but he didn’t seem to notice. He was shaking.
“What happened?” Mistasinon repeated, more gently.
“There was this noise... drumming... and then something... this thing... the glass...” The dwarf trailed off, his eyes unfocused. He began to moan, hands flying to his ears, his body rocking on his heels.
Mistasinon did the first thing he could think of. He slapped him.
Dwarves are by their nature strong creatures, and anyone choosing to hit one needs to be very sure of their capabilities. A slapped dwarf was more than likely about to become a very angry dwarf, and very angry dwarves had a tendency to spread their dissatisfaction around. Hit a dwarf by all means, just be damn sure you knock them out on the first go.
When Mistasinon slapped him, the dwarf reeled.
“What’s your name?”
“Sam,” the dwarf said, wincing. A red mark was already appearing on his cheek.
“Well met, Sam. I’m Mistasinon. Can you tell me what happened?”
“I don’t know,” Sam said, his voice papery. “There was this noise, by the mortal gods, like a thousand drums... It hurt to hear it... and then people were screaming, and this thing was in the Grand. It came through the Mirrors—the glass! Glass and blood, everywhere...!”
“Have you been back in?”
“No,” Sam breathed, shaking his head. “No, no.”
“This... thing... is it dead?”
“I... I don’t—It was so big, and everyone—”
“Is it dead?”
“...yes, I think so. The glass, the Mirrors exploded, and the glass cut it... Oh, gods...”
Mistasinon took in the scene outside the Grand. Despite the mad panic of the fleeing fae, there were only a dozen or so bodies lying injured on the uneven cobbling, most of which, Mistasinon suspected, had been harmed in the rush to escape. Small groups were already helping them, though in a city that relied on elven healing more than it did on physiological know-how, it was debatable how much aid they were, in fact, administering. But still, the wounded outside the Grand were minimal and were being attended to.
Close by, however, a boggart lay on the steps in a black puddle. She was holding something tightly in her hands, like a treasure she didn’t want to be parted from. Then the perspectives clicked, and Mistasinon realised she was clutching a shard of glass impaled in her chest.
“By the mortal gods...” Sam said, following his gaze. “Can you help her?”
Mistasinon dug his fingers into his neck. What in the five hells had happened inside the Grand?
Screams in the darkness, too many eyes and not enough coins for them... No, wrong place, we don’t pay the ferryman here...
Think. What was the question?
Can I help her?
“You check inside the Grand,” Mistasinon instructed. “See what the situation is—just look, don’t go in.”
Sam nodded. There were fewer people escaping the station now, and he was small and sturdy, able to push his way through the last trickle of escapees. When he came back, the boggart was unmistakably dead. The shard of glass was missing from her chest, tossed carelessly aside. Even more compelling, however, was the angle of the boggart’s head, which lay awkwardly against her shoulders.
Sam’s mouth fell open. “Did you...?”
“What’s happening inside?” Mistasinon asked, balling his hands into fists to stop them shaking. He had to keep calm; he had to help Sam help him.
“Er. No-nothing. It’s quiet. There’re a lot of... a lot of...”
Sam’s voice broke. He wiped his hand over his mouth, his eyes screwed shut. Mistasinon waited, his back turned to the dead boggart.
“...bodies,” Sam finally managed. “Bodies and pieces. Pieces of that thing.”
“If there’s anyone still alive, we have to get them out. Are there any more brown suits?”
Sam stared at him. “Who are you?”
Mistasinon gestured at his blue suit, grateful he hadn’t changed out of it. He’d been about to leave the GenAm for the day, ready to meet Bea and the others at the pub. A trickle of new, horrendous panic dripped down his spine. But no, the Fairies United meeting was being held near the wall, away from here. She was safe.
“I work for the Plot Department, Sam,” Mistasinon answered, hoping his tone would carry the authority his jumping nerves lacked. “Are there any other brown suits here?”
Somehow, against Mistasinon’s expectation, Sam pulled himself together. “There were ten of us outside, checking papers. I think four inside—more people wanted to get in than out.”
“I suppose that’s something to be grateful for.” Mistasinon took a deep breath, ignoring the blinding, burning pain that shot through his brain, making his eyes water and acid climb up his throat. The magic was too strong, and it would be worse inside the Grand. How long would it take to dissipate? How long could he stay immersed in it before there was nothing left of him at all?
But he had to do something. He had promises to keep.
“I’m going in,” Mistasinon announced. “You get any brown suits here and start organising things.”
“Organising what?” Sam wailed, panic rising in his expression. “I only finished training a few weeks ago. No one will listen to me.”
Mistasinon took him by his shoulders and looked into his eyes. “You can do this, Sam. I believe in you. We’re a team, you and me, and we’re going to save anyone still alive in there. Right?”
“Oh... yes, a team,” Sam said. And then, with more certainty, “Yes. I can help. There’s Fred over there—”
“Good. I’ll be out again in a minute.”
“Wait! You can’t go in alone—”
But Mistasinon was already running into the darkness of the Grand.