WHEN THE LIGHTS in the house went out, Tristan pushed through the gate with a nudge and left it swaying open behind him.
A homemade bird feeder hung in the corner of the tiny yard; a set of wooden wind chimes knocked together softly, as if they, too, had secrets to keep. His footsteps landed soundlessly on the grass. Back door, kitchen window, living room with curtains drawn—these he flinched past, half expecting an accusing face would loom out of the darkness and stop him.
But no one did. Before long, he found a bedroom. Huddling in the shadows with his back against the wall, he drew his master’s silver knife in a line down his palm. Blood welled up, and he pressed it into the window frame. His hands were littered with cuts—some fresh, others scarred over—from a year of this work. The blood of a bondservant was a signal. It would guide his master to this home, this window, and to the person inside.
The first time had been the hardest.
“Please don’t make me do this,” Tristan had begged, voice choked with humiliating tears, after their contract was sealed and his master had described the errand he was meant to complete for her. “Not yet, not tonight—”
A pitiful attempt to stall, and it did him no good.
“Yes.” Her voice seeped, sludge-like, through the woods. “Tonight.”
Tristan had never been a brave person, and he didn’t want to die. So he’d obeyed.
There were no tears anymore. Now there was nothing but the task at hand.
He slept uneasily on a park bench with his backpack for a pillow and his worn-out coat for warmth. As he dropped off, she woke. From her prison in the woods, she sent her magic after the call of Tristan’s blood. Without him, it would have drifted, lost and directionless. Instead, it found the window and slinked inside. It skittered through the dark like a filthy, many-legged thing, sensed its victim fast asleep, and crawled inside their head.
Her voice echoed through their dreams, and Tristan’s.
Come, she told her victim, conjuring up the deepest desires of their heart. I can give you what you want. Whatever you want.
It might not be tonight. It might not even be tomorrow. But, sooner or later, they would go stumbling into the woods and never return.
* * *
ALONE, TRISTAN VENTURED deep into a part of the woods where no light penetrated, not even starlight. If he’d cared to consult a map, it would’ve told him he was in Blackthorn, Massachusetts. But as he walked, he drew further and further away from the world he’d grown up in, the safe human world of tidy suburbs, inflatable Santas, and Walmart supercenters. He skirted past fairyland’s boundary and entered a third realm—a pocket of space and time that bulged cancerously between human and fae territory. Those worlds had edges; this one didn’t. Entering it wasn’t a matter of crossing a border, but wading into the cold and dark. The forest, here, was gnarled and gray and dead. He picked his way through the withered roots and animal graves with only a flashlight and a stolen pair of hiking boots to aid him.
After a while—he had stopped paying attention to how long it took, since it was different every time—he came to a wide clearing where the ruins of an old cabin stood. The roof had caved in. The walls had moldered away to low stumps. A tree grew from what remained of the cabin’s floor, the trunk so swollen it had all but consumed the foundations. Its sickly gray-green bark was veined with noxious black sap, and its roots spread into the surrounding forest like an infection.
Tristan laid a hand on the trunk. In response to his touch, it split open at the fork, its branches peeling apart with a wet crack and exuding the distinct, rotten stench of black magic. From this gaping hole in the world crawled the creature to whom Tristan had signed his life away.
He wasn’t permitted to look at her; with relief, he averted his eyes. One time had been enough.
“I have a gift for you, my ward,” she croaked. Her voice was the rattle of wind in dead winter branches. She rarely spoke; she didn’t need to. The bond made her demands plenty clear enough.
He suppressed a shudder. A gift from the hag would be no gift at all.
“You understand, boy, that you have disappointed me. Too often.”
He bowed his head. “Yes.”
A year ago, the hag had offered him a simple bargain: ten years of servitude in exchange for a magical favor. Desperate, he’d agreed. But it was clear to him now that he wouldn’t last ten years; he had barely made it through one. She was always furious with him, for his ineptitude. His reluctance. His weak heart.
“What am I to do for ten years with an unsuitable bondservant?” she asked, and the bond ached inside him with an emptiness beyond anything he had ever known. It was the insatiable hunger of an immortal devourer, and her way of telling him, wordlessly, what she had not the energy or inclination to say aloud: My patience is not without limit. And I am starving.
“But just yesterday, I—” His throat was so dry he could hardly get the words out. “I’ve been … obedient.”
“He was ill,” she snapped.
“I didn’t know that.”
He really hadn’t. He hadn’t looked—he never looked beyond a cursory glance here and there, because he couldn’t stomach the thought of evaluating the hag’s victims like produce at the grocery store.
The moment lingered, his childish admission of ignorance hanging damningly between them. She was in no hurry. Time, to her, was meaningless.
“No matter,” she said. “I have found a remedy that will serve us both.”
“Please,” he said. “I…”
What could he say? I’ll do better?
He couldn’t do better. But she knew that already.
She cackled, and her laugh was whitewater crashing against stone. His breath came short and shallow; his heart fluttered against his ribs like a trapped moth. He couldn’t run. There was nowhere to go.
“This gift requires a living spirit. I cannot wield it,” she said.
But Tristan could. Tristan was a living spirit, and hers to do with as she wished.
She did something new to the bond, then. She had used it to hurt him before, but this was different, a pain that saturated his skin, pain that was everywhere, burning him up and breaking him down. It was in his bones and in his head, and it made everything wrong, from the way the clothes scraped against his skin to the way his mouth tasted to the colors on the inside of his eyelids to the sound of his own voice—
All at once, it stopped.
Tristan curled into himself, his head pressed against the base of the tree, its roots digging into his side. At some point, he must have fallen. And his throat was raw like he’d been screaming. The bark was cold and sticky, so he forced himself to pull away. He almost felt like himself again, but there was a—a residue. It wasn’t on him. It was in him.
The sound of a wet, inhuman panting filled the clearing.
His teeth clicked together. He didn’t move.
“Can you feel them?” she asked.
What he felt was—a breeze carding through his fur (he did not have fur) and dry soil under his claws (he did not have claws) and his tongue against the back of his fangs (he didn’t have fangs) and a hunger that almost matched the hag’s. The urge to chase and catch and kill beat inside him like a pulse—
And they weren’t his feelings at all. With a gasp, Tristan wrenched away as if dismissing an intrusive thought: cutting it off before it could take the landscape of his mind and reshape it, give new names to its peaks and valleys, own it more than he did. “What did you do to me?”
“I have given you a gift of magic,” she said.
The knowledge came to him then in bits and pieces; some of it she said aloud, some of it he learned from the bond, and later it would be so muddled in his head that he wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. The hounds were his familiars, she told him. They belonged to him, and he belonged to her, and when they hunted their nourishment would be hers, too.
“I don’t understand,” he said. The hounds pawed at the ground or snapped at one another; others paced, their immense forms swaying in and out of the shadows. Some just watched him with unnervingly intelligent eyes. They were tense, unhappy, restless. He didn’t know how he knew. He just did.
“You understand power,” said the hag. “All living things do. All dead things, too.”
“Power? So I’m supposed to control them?”
He extended his hand toward one of the hounds. It approached slowly, reluctantly—but it did approach, looming over him, closer in size to a bear than a dog. Its obedience was fragile, his control tenuous. If he wavered, it would resist.
“Like this?” he asked the hag, when the hound stopped a few feet away from him.
“Go on,” she whispered.
He got to his feet, reaching this time with his thoughts. His hand curled reflexively as he grasped, in his mind, the fresh link between him and his so-called bond-sibling. Again he felt what the hound did, but the hound felt him, too, his fear and desperation, and what a year’s worth of suffering had done to him. With all the resolve he could muster, he pushed a single command through the bond:
The hound gave a full-body shiver, from the tips of its ears down the arch of its spine. It shook its head, jaws snapping, and its claws raked the ground. At last, it whipped its head up, and its black eyes locked on the decrepit old hag in her perch.
With a growl like an engine revving up, the hound lunged over Tristan’s head and onto the gateway tree, clinging to the bark with its claws. It climbed with deadly speed and heaved itself up onto the branches at level with the hag.
Keep going, Tristan thought. He stoked its most base and potent instinct. Kill.
The hound sprang at the hag with jaws gaping wide, and then—and then—
It twisted away, fell from the gateway tree, and landed on its side atop a raised root with a crack that reverberated through the clearing. At the same time, pain drew a searing line of heat up Tristan’s back, there for only a brief, terrifying instant. The hound was bent almost in half. A few weak, piteous whimpers escaped its panting mouth. Its spine was broken; it was dying.
Tristan watched, stricken, as it shuddered and jerked.
Then—the hound rolled to its feet. Gruesome snapping noises filled the air as its crooked back popped into alignment. It shook out its fur, shot Tristan a reproachful glare, and loped away into the woods.
The gateway tree creaked, though there was no wind. Laboriously, it bowed, lowering the cup of its branches until the hag hovered before Tristan. Her putrid stench, like rotten meat, suffocated him. Blind though she was, her face was angled toward his, as if she could see him. He didn’t dare turn to check.
“Do you know why that didn’t work?” the hag said.
Shivering, Tristan shook his head.
“The hounds are only as strong as their master,” she said. “It didn’t fail. You did.”
She stroked a finger down his cheek. Her touch was leathery and so hot it stung his skin, like candle wax. Tristan flinched and screwed his eyes shut, giving in to cowardice.
“But you have a vicious streak,” she whispered. “I intend to nurture that.”
“YOU CAN’T STAY there,” she said. “You’ll starve.”
The Christmas tree towered over her, a three-story-tall monument to its corporate sponsors, whose logos had been etched on glass snowflakes, stitched into ribbons, painted in gold on red baubles. Standing beside it with her hands in her pockets, quiet and intent, she gave every appearance of caring deeply about which fitness brand or retail chain had paid to put their name on a tiny plastic reindeer. But Aziza was more interested in what was under the tree than what was on it.
“There’s nothing down there for you,” she went on, her back to the scattered crowds. “No campers or lost children. Nothing with fingers or ears for you to bite off.”
Light poured down from the lampposts lining the park trails. Ropes of flashing rainbow bulbs crisscrossed the walkways and studded the vendors’ stalls. Here, though, at the heart of the fair, under a mountain of tinsel and fake pine needles, was a pocket of darkness. When people walked too close, their shadows met the base of the tree and briefly merged with that dark place. She tensed.
Shadows were vectors for certain beings. Get two shadows to touch, and you had a bridge.
Under the pretense of tying her shoelaces, Aziza knelt to study the shade—this cunning little predator that had taken such pains to blend in.
Copyright © 2023 by Rochelle Hassan