READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: I Walk Alone by Wren Handman





As the Phantasmer, Sylvia brought order to the Fairy courts. Now if only she could do the same to her own life...


It’s been three months since Sylvia used her powers to rewrite the ruling structure of Fairy, dismantling the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Recovered from her injuries, she’s back at school and struggling to balance her “real” life against the much more immediate (and exciting) world that magic has to offer. Not to mention the distraction of her utterly hot and completely fish-out-of-water boyfriend.


But in Fairy, there are rumblings that an ancient prophecy is about to come to pass. “Beware the coming of the one who should not have been, for he shall bring with him the end of days. Take back the mantle, or all will be lost.” Will Sylvia be able to uncover the truth behind the prophecy, learn how to use her ever-growing powers without risking her relationship, and convince her best friend Fiona that it’s not weird that her boyfriend is a thousand years old? It won’t be easy.


Follow Sylvia as we are led through Wren Handman's world of Fairy in I WALK ALONE—out Tuesday, June twenty-ninth. Pre-order your copy NOW!


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PROLOGUE


In the Abstract Land, there is a mountain that has remained untouched for over a thousand years. This mountain has a path, covered in a vine so richly green, it cannot be described, and the vine carries on it thorns so sharp, they cut the wind. Up the path there’s a cottage, built in a clearing where the guarding thorns have loosed their hold, and slim green saplings grow. The cottage is covered with spider webs which obscure the roof’s once-warm yellow trim. Flower boxes beneath the windows carry nothing but weeds.


Inside the cottage, an old woman hums a tune as she sweeps the floor’s crooked wooden planks. Her voice sounds like sandpaper and old cigarettes, and it catches at the back of her throat with a dry scrape. There are no words to the song, just a music that itches under the skin; or would, if there were anyone to hear.


The room is full of debris; strange odds and ends, forgotten marvels. A Norse helmet hangs on a hook from the door; a woolen cloak flutters despite the lack of a breeze; and in the corner of the room there sits a wooden chest. The chest is quite ordinary: square and simple, rather more like a box, with no decoration save an ornate keyhole in the front. And from the keyhole, golden sunlight spills.


“It will be so nice to have company,” the old grandmother murmurs, interrupting her own song. “It would be a shame to be all alone for the end of the world.”



 

CHAPTER ONE


The afternoon sun slants across the tips of the forest, and I lie in a pool of its warmth. There are a few perfect cotton clouds floating across a clear navy sky, but the sun is doing a fine job of illuminating the little river we’re lying beside and the weeping willow at our backs. My head is pillowed comfortably on Stranger’s lap, and he’s idly playing his flute, a little running melody that echoes the sound of the water. Closer to us, in the trees, tiny fireflies dart from pocket of shadow to pocket of shadow. I concentrate, reaching out a hand, and think blue thoughts. Shimmering blue, ocean blue, sky blue. I stare into the sky above us, sinking my thoughts into its dark, comfortable depths, and then I turn my eyes on the fireflies again and whisper, “Blue.”


Nothing happens.


I swear and lob the apple I was munching on at the little bugs. I think I hit a couple of them, but it’s hard to tell if I do any damage. Under my head, there’s a shiver as Stranger tries and fails to hold back a chuckle.


“Shut up,” I say.


He leans over me with a grin, slipping the flute back into his pocket. “Shut me up,” he suggests, and I oblige him with a long, searing kiss. But as soon as our lips part, my mind is back on the task at hand. “It shouldn’t be this hard!”


He just chuckles again, leaning back. Seeing a creature of darkness and shadow lounging in the sunlight will never stop being odd. He seems made for night, for a clandestine rendezvous or the soft glow of firelight. Here in this patch of warm, early autumn, his darkness makes him stand out instead of blend in.


“Your powers come from—” he starts, and I groan and tug my hair with both hands, interrupting him.


“Please don’t. I know how they work.” As a Phantasmer, I have the ability to mess with the natural order of the fairy world, but I have to already believe in the thing I’m changing. Or so everyone keeps telling me. But how do they really know? It’s been eons since a Phantasmer survived long enough to use their powers; which is a pretty dark thought. Not so long ago, a lot of people wanted me dead too. It’s hard not to let that linger.


“You know how they work,” Stranger echoes. “And yet here you are, trying to turn the fireflies blue.”


“There’s more to these powers than we understand,” I insist. “Besides—if I believe my powers work a certain way, and my powers work on belief, doesn’t that mean that I can literally do anything with my powers if I believe I can?”


“I, uh—” Stranger considers that, sliding a pair of sunglasses off his head and over his eyes as he tilts his head back to let the sun fall more squarely on his face. “I want to say no, but I don’t know why. It just feels like wishing for the genie to give you more wishes.”


“Should just wish to be a free genie,” I say.


“Do free genies still have powers?”


“The one in Aladdin does.”


“The one in the children’s movie version of Aladdin does,” Stranger corrects. “Excuse me if I haven’t been alive for five thousand years and so have had time to read every single book in the world,” I tease, and he responds by tickling me. I try to fight him off and we roll around, laughing, as the stubbornly yellow fireflies dance around our heads. Winded, he finally lets me pin him, and we kiss again.


I retrieve his sunglasses, which have fallen off, and put them on. “We should probably get going.”


He looks at his wrist as if there’s a watch there, which there definitely isn’t. “Don’t want to be late,” he agrees.


He’s joking, but the whole telling-of-time while in the Abstract Land, not to mention the whole no-cell-reception, is a problem I’m still trying to figure out how to handle. Stranger has a decent sense of how time is passing in the real world, probably just a thing inherent to fairies that I won’t be able to learn, but for me it’s an issue. Dad lost his mind the first time I decided to go to the market for the afternoon and accidentally came back six hours later.


On the whole, though, Dad is taking this whole ‘fairies are real’ thing really well. Eric lost his mind and wanted me to take him to see something magical every day for like three weeks, but after we ran into a really aggressive bridge troll, Dad forbade me from taking my younger brother over. He tried to forbid me, too, and there was a big fight and now we’re in a sort of uneasy truce. As long as I handle my life and it doesn’t seem like it’s getting away from me, he’s okay with it. In exchange, I try to avoid the more unpleasant parts of the fairy world. It’s not like I have plans to be a superhero or anything; my powers are definitely not useful in a fight.


Not yet, anyway.


I pack up the remains of our picnic, and Stranger steals his sunglasses back and takes my hand. I still haven’t gotten the hang of crossing back and forth through the Shadow like Stranger can; I have to use a mushroom circle. I did figure out how to bring in a token of where I want to go to direct the portal, which I was pretty proud of, but it’s not as convenient as going places together. Stranger’s good at navigating, apparently even for a fairy. That horse told me.


Yeah, I’m still friends with the horse I met during my first trip to Fairy. I looked it up after everything went down, and we hung out a few times. It’s nice having a friend who’s neutral in everything. Someone I can trust to just tell it like it is. I’m still getting used to the whole fairy aversion to names, though. It feels so rude to call it ‘the horse,’ but when I suggested a nickname like I have with Stranger, it was really offended.


My thoughts are abruptly interrupted as Stranger takes a step forward and I lurch along with him, out of autumn, right through the soft half-light of the Shadow, and firmly into the center of a roaring winter storm. The snow is three feet deep and still blowing steadily, and wind stings my eyes. I can’t see the sky, just a mass of bright white and mottled grey clouds, and the street is deserted. Ah, New York.


“Stranger!” I scream, hopping back and forth in my short-sleeved shirt. “Couldn’t you have popped us inside?”


“Yup,” he says, laughing, and I shove him before running up the stairs to the front door. I try to open it but it’s locked, and I swear and dance around as I hunt for my keys. Nope, not that pocket—


“I hate you so much,” I tell him through chattering teeth, and he grins as I find the keys and get us both inside. He’s not quite as cold as I am, but he’s still feeling it, and I take a small glimmer of satisfaction from the fact that his practical joke bit him, too.


It’s still weird seeing Stranger on Earth. We spend most of our time together on his side of the Shadow, where he looks like his real self. When he pops over to Earth a glamour takes over and makes him look human, and I can’t quite get used to it. He looks...diminished. Like he’s less himself. I wonder if he feels any different, or even if I could learn to look through the glamour. That would be a good, easy Phantasmer skill to practice.


We head into the dining room, and I’m pleased to see we’re right on time. Eric is already at the table, on his phone, but Dad hasn’t gotten there yet.


“Hey, sprout,” Stranger says, and instantly the phone has disappeared into a pocket and Eric’s eyes are shining brightly. If I called him a freaking sprout he would bite my head off, but no matter what Stranger says, it’s taken as a cool nickname. I think he likes Stranger more than me.


“Hey! I didn’t know you were coming for dinner.”


“Last night of freedom before you both go back to school? How could I miss it!” Stranger says. Eric kicks out the chair next to him, nodding at it eagerly, and Stranger gives me a soft, private smile and a squeeze of my hand before settling down there.


“Where did you guys go? Was it somewhere really cool?”


“Not really,” Stranger says with an overly dramatic sigh. “Your sister won’t go gretwich hunting or shark sailing.”


Eric groans sympathetically, and I sit down across from them, trying to hide a smile. “You can die in Fairy, you know,” I remind my overly enthusiastic brother. “It’s not Neverland.”


He wouldn’t let anything happen to you,” Eric says, nodding his chin at my mystical boyfriend. Stranger doesn’t let them use his name yet, so there are a lot of awkward ‘you know who’s and ‘that boyfriend of yours’s.


I don’t mean to, but one of my hands strays to the scar on my shoulder. Two months later and it still hurts sometimes, especially when I try to reach behind my back. Stranger gave me some magical healing herbs that worked like—well, like magic—but I’m still human. Apparently that means I had to do a certain amount of the healing on my own.


I catch his wince, the painful acknowledgement that he couldn’t protect me from everything. I still have nightmares, sometimes, mostly featuring cornfields and scarecrows and blood. But he saved me. Brought me back when everyone else thought I was too far gone. I’ll never stop being grateful for that.


I didn’t tell Dad and Eric the whole story. I don’t think I ever will.


“Tell him what gretwich hunting entails,” I challenge. “Tell him about the spray that smells like a cross between dead skunk and durian.”


“Ew!” Eric says, with the exact same tone I would use to say, “Awesome!”


“You only get sprayed if you’re too slow,” Stranger says.


“This is no one’s idea of a good time.”


“It’s mine!” Eric says.


“Let me go rub a skunk on your face and you might change your mind.”


“I wouldn’t be too slow,” Eric says, and he and Stranger high-five.


“I’m being ganged up on. Where’s Dad?”


“Probably forgot what time it is,” Eric says, rolling his eyes, and I scrape my chair back.


“I’ll grab him.”


I leave Stranger to regale Eric with the sordid details of how to go about hunting a gretwich, and jog up two flights of stairs to Dad’s office. After three months here I’ve stopped getting lost in the expansive halls, but it still doesn’t feel like home. I’m not sure it ever will. Three weeks ago, Dad rented out our place in Topaz Lake for the Christmas holidays. I cried for an hour at the idea of some other family sitting on our couch and eating dinner around our table. I don’t know what will happen after Mom gets out of the mental health facility where she’s being treated, or if we’ll ever go back to Topaz Lake, but every day that passes makes it feel a little less likely.


I knock on the door to Dad’s study and pop my head in without waiting for an answer.


“Oh, Sylvia! You’re back early,” he says. He’s distracted, not quite looking up at me, his eyes firmly on the work spread out in front of him. He’s in the middle of some big merger and he’s been head down for weeks, pretty much missing the entire Christmas holidays. We got his full attention for the whole of Christmas Day and that was it— and I’m pretty sure that was only because no one would take his calls.


“It’s seven,” I say with a smile, and he startles and looks at the big wooden clock on his wall.


“Oh, shi—shoot,” he says, recovering badly from the minced swear. “When did that happen?”


“Probably sometime between statements of liability and financial reclamation forms.”


“Neither of those are things,” he says, laughing. He jots down a few more notes, and I’m not sure if he’s just finishing what he’s working on or if he’s gotten distracted. You can never really tell with Dad.


“If I walk away, you’re going to forget we had this conversation.”


“I’m not senile, Sylvia,” he reminds me dryly.


“Senile and overworked may be different conditions, but they have the same symptoms.”


“I’m coming. Okay? Look at me...getting up...” he says, drawing the words out as he quickly finishes typing a note, still sitting. “Okay!” He leaps to his feet and spreads his arms wide. “Let’s go find out what’s for dinner.”


He comes out from behind his desk and puts an arm around my shoulders, pulling me in for a kiss on the top of my head. Things have been weird between us since I told him everything, but we’re both trying to act normal; just figuring it out as we go along.


“I’m hoping for macaroni and cheese,” he whispers into my ear, and I laugh as we leave his study and work behind.


 

We have a very laid-back dinner. Stranger has gotten Eric all worked up about the idea of hunting strange magical creatures, and he begs to be allowed to go back if they pick a really safe area. Dad surprises me by promising to think about it, and after that the conversation drifts on to other topics. We chat about the holidays, about school starting up again tomorrow, about chores and TV shows and life; just normal stuff. It’s a nice relief after months of uncertainty.


When I got back from...everything, I was pretty beaten up. I spent a few weeks in bed convalescing, doing homework that Fiona brought me and trying not to fail the whole semester. We told everyone I was in a car accident, and I got a lot of sympathetic visitors. Addison actually came a few times, and the day after Halloween a few people came over in their costumes and we had a party around my sickbed. It was kind of perfect.


By mid-November, I was up and moving around again, visiting Mom every two or three days, and trying to come to grips with my powers and this new reality. That meant a lot of trips to Fairy with Eric and Dad and Stranger. Dad immediately took a dislike to the whole place—he doesn’t like unpredictability, and after being fifteen minutes late to some important meeting because time was running funny, he pretty much decided never to go back, although he hasn’t actually said so out loud. Eric loved it, of course, until he was banned. Stranger was reluctant to come to the Mortal World since the laws of the Accord are technically still in effect, but after a little while it became clear that no one was enforcing them, and over the past few weeks Stranger has gotten bolder about coming to visit me here; hence this family dinner.


As for Fairy itself? Well, it’s...adjusting. The Commoners are having a hard time letting go of how things used to be, and meanwhile, the Gentry are extolling democracy and acting like thousands of years of a bitter class system never existed. I guess to them, it kind of never did. They can be told about it, and probably have been, but they don’t remember it. It’s just facts in a history book to them. Stranger says I still need to be cautious around them —their ambitions for power haven’t necessarily faded with their memories.


It’s hard, running into them so often. Stranger explained that only certain parts of Fairy are easily accessible from Earth, and that’s where the people I know live. Apparently there are huge areas of the...country? world? that I’ve never seen, because they can take a few days travel to get to; they’re not connected directly to Earth. It’s weird to think that there are some laws of physics Fairy respects, since most of the time it throws it all to the wind.


Once school was out for the winter break, Stranger and I took the opportunity to travel around and fix some problems that my big Phantasmering had caused. We rescued a fairy princess from a glass coffin, settled a border dispute between two cities that used to divide their land based on which Court they were in, and yes, went hunting a gretwich, which is how I discovered how much they smell. Those two weeks were, pardon the pun, magical. Spending all that time with Stranger, just the two of us, having adventures with low stakes, being free to just be ourselves...it was perfect.


I’m scared, a little, of school starting again. I did a terrible job of balancing my magical and human responsibilities these last few months. I had so much catching up to do in school that it took my whole focus, and then when Stranger and I went away we were pretty much cut off from everything human. Now, though...now I have to introduce Stranger to my friends. Oh, God.


What will I tell them his name is?

 

After dinner, Stranger and I head up to my room. Dad still insists we keep the door open, which seems a little silly given that we traveled alone together for two weeks, but dads will be dads.


We curl up in the big comfy chair I have beside the window, Stranger sitting first with me in his lap, and I lean my head against his chest.


“So. Random,” I say.


“Thirty-two.”


“What?”


“You wanted random.”


I laugh and shake my head. “No, I was going to tell you a random thing. Or bring up a random thing. It’s my way of totally subtly asking you an awkward question.”


“Oh.” There’s still a trace of laughter in his voice. I love that about him. “Go on.”


“What do I tell people your name is? At school.” He considers it for a moment. “Not a problem I’ve ever had before,” he says. “Can’t you just...not tell them my name?”


“People will ask.” This whole fairy obsession with names being private drives me up the wall. People can only use your names against you if they know them all.


“Your family doesn’t need a name for me.”


“I use your name. In my head, when I think about you.”


“Which one?” he asks, teasing, and I stick my tongue out.


“Toadbutt.”


He laughs. “Please don’t. You might accidentally make it real.” I grin mischievously and he laughs again, but there’s a note of unease to it. “You have to be careful with your powers. You’re not totally in control of them.”


“Now you sound like my dad.” I get up, moving over to my desk to organize some things for tomorrow. It’s all done, of course, so I’m really just double-checking.


“I sound like I am wise beyond your petty mortal years,” he intones, putting a heavy dramatic overtone onto the words. I pretend not to laugh, smothering my smile.


“You sound like you’re avoiding the question.”


“It’s just... How would you feel if we went to visit the nymphs of the Faded Crown Woods and I told you that they find clothing alarming, so you had to go totally nude?”


“Is that a real thing?”


“It is, actually.”


I consider it. I plug my cell in and arrange the pillows on my bed. “I don’t know,” I admit with a sigh. “I just... I can’t tell people I have a boyfriend and without telling them what your name is. We just don’t...work that way. It’s gonna get weird.”


“You like weird.” He grins. “You like me.”


“You’re not weird, you’re quirky.”


“That’s just a nice human way of saying weird.”


“And you’re not human,” I say, reminding myself of that fact. As if I could ever forget.


I think he senses the dissatisfaction in my voice because he comes over to me, pulling me down onto the bed. I pillow my head against the crook between his shoulder and arm, where it fits perfectly—other than my earring digging into my neck—ow. I adjust and get comfortable on my magical boyfriend.


Life is weird.


He kisses the top of my head. “We’re from different worlds, Sylvia. It’ll take some navigation getting this right.”


“I know.”


“I gave you my name early in our relationship. Maybe that made it...not obvious how important it was to me. Do you know that fairy with the gunnysack? The scarecrow?”


I make a face. That fairy gives me the creeps, though I know it’s a friend of Stranger’s. “Yeah.”


“We’ve been friends for...a thousand years? I still don’t know its name.”