Aixa watched the plants sway across the light mist wilds. They rolled in impossible tandem across the dead, abandoned borough, rustling over stretches of fading graffiti, winking from the jagged hollows of broken windows.
Their motion was too rhythmic to be real, but that was the way of the world now. Before, there had been a specific order to things. Leaves and grass didn’t sway in the wind like they were under water. Light did not blossom from the ground in slow, otherworldly rivers that ebbed and flowed everywhere. The Bronx wasn’t a large forest, overgrown and quiet. Before, the world had been a place of human authority, where magic wasn’t real. Now . . .
“What are you looking for?”
Aixa breathed out and lowered her hexcaster. She’d forgotten she wasn’t alone on the roof of Belfer Hall, under its makeshift, tarp look-out; her client--an older, well-dressed man of moderate build who called himself Wit--had his arms crossed, his thick beard making the humidity of their summer morning cling even closer.
She ignored the impatience in his tone, too busy trying to figure out an actual answer, which meant deciding what to call the wilds. It wasn’t the Bronx anymore, but it also didn’t have a name that she knew. My home kept coming to mind, but it wasn’t that anymore either.
“Look,” Wit ultimately went on. “I know this new . . . world isn’t easy. I know I hired you to get me through,” he swept his hand over the view, “here, and that you have a reputation to uphold as a sherpa, but there’s no shame in being lost.”
He extended a hand, brows sharp. “Let me help. I’ll need to have a look through that . . . thing, but we can come up with a plan together. Figure out a way around all of the . . . monsters out there.”
Aixa smirked. You’re precious.
There was a great chance Wit didn’t know what her hexcaster was. A copper spike that thickened in its middle with strange compartments, cranks, and apparatuses--a scope and a long, flat trigger that most people overlooked--it seemed more like a bizarre, tactical walking stick than anything else, hobbled together from things she’d found. In a world without smart phones, there were many such analog-frankensteins.
But Wit’s eyes were still too eager when he reached for the caster. Even if he didn’t know that it could fire lightning and ice, he knew it was a weapon. One he felt he should be holding. That triggered her--made her wonder if it was her race or gender that made him feel inherently superior--but she shoved those thoughts away. It was a new world. A chance to be more than you were--better than you were.
Aixa took a deep breath. “First of all, this was the Bronx. Second of all, I’m not lost. Third, those aren’t monsters. They’re mythics, and they can hear in ways you don’t understand and talk in languages you don’t know. Fourth, you ask to hold my caster again and you die. No laws anymore--the mythics don’t care if we kill each other. They care about honesty--and I’m being very, very honest with you.”
Wit nodded slowly and stepped back, glancing at Aixa’s hand, at rest on the caster’s trigger. If he had experience with such weapons, he’d realize the rifle’s loading winch was already turned to Mundane, its secondary chamber loaded with common rifle rounds--useless against mythics, but deadly to humans.
The man stared for a moment before taking a breath. “Anything else?”
A sharp, digital beeping answered. Aixa looked down at the watch on her wrist. An alarm she’d set exactly a year ago. She shut it off, and muttered back.
It was hard to believe it had only been a year since trees and living light burst from the ground, all manners of impossible beasts climbing up with them. A year since an unknowable majority of the population was killed by living fire, were-creatures, and things she couldn't even explain, all intelligent, most capable of speech.
None of it made sense. The only thing that was certain for Aixa was that all of this had something to do with a secret society of people who could use magic---something out of a storybook. Somehow, somewhere, they'd failed to stop some calamity, and now the world was like this. Aixa knew because she met one of those wizards--or whatever they called themselves. They'd just been a rumor, one of the countless assumptions humanity thrived on now, but she’d talked to one--the woman who made her hexcaster.
Outside of that, the past year had been nothing but confusing. At first, it was the adjustment that was the worst; mythics were keen to subjugate humanity. Humanity, in reply, was keen to fight back or run, failing to understand that the best option was the third; to just accept the change.
All humanity had to fight with were mundane weapons--knives and bullets that passed through the mythics like stones through water. It made the panic so blinding that no one realized the mythics were hording them. Shepherding them into camps, only killing those who resisted. Breaking the world--making it theirs. When it was all done, things like farms and broadcast towers still existed, but mythics claimed them, ruined them, guarded them against humans. Controlled them, as they did with power plants somehow, deciding what parts of America had how much electricity and when.
America. Did they even take it all? If they did, could you actually call it America anymore? What would the mythics rename it if they cared?
There was no way to know. It wasn’t even clear where the mythics had come from or what they wanted. There was a month of slaughter, and then the last of humanity was pushed back to the Camps. The confusion only got worse when people ventured out and found that the mythics wouldn't harm them for whatever seemingly random reasons; in some wilds, humans could pass through if they had the right story to tell the lord mythic there, but the stories had to be important and incredibly personal and each one would only buy a one-way trip (and only if you called to the lord mythic first, before any of their smaller thralls found you). In other wilds, calling the lord mythic was a death sentence, taken as a challenge; it was better to sneak through and fight off that lord's thralls yourself, which would be horribly punished in other wilds. Aixa had even heard of a place in Pennsylvania where people lived normal lives in their original homes with their lord mythic's blessing, but outsiders were killed on sight. None of this was ever explicit; even the rule forbidding hunting in the wilds but allowing humans to pick the wild fruit that grew outside of them went unspoken. And there were stories of people entering a wild with the right tribute in mind only to be killed anyway. Mythics, it turned out, were like humans with immense power in that respect; you could do everything right, but if you caught them on the wrong day . . .
“So, what’s your story?” she asked Wit.
They were making their way across the University Heights Bridge. Since their chat at Belfer Hall, they hadn’t spoken at all. But she’d heard several times that the lord mythic of the western half of the Bronx was a massive, one-armed man, made of stone and completely naked. The explanation always came with “and well hung,” because humanity. At some point, someone decided to call him Ozymandias. Apparently, he didn’t mind.
She was hoping to spot Ozy from the school’s roof so they could go straight to him, but no such luck. His realm stretched from the Harlem River to the Bronx Zoo, but Ozy might’ve been waiting for them on the other side of the river, precognitive, as some mythics were.
The next best thing was making absolutely sure Wit was ready to talk to him.
“Right. My story.” He immediately cleared his throat. Stalled. “Well, I--“
“You’re taking too long. And remember, this is a test, so no bullshit. I told you that.”
She almost continued--almost threw him an impatient, “You said you’d have a story ready,” but when Aixa looked back at Wit, he was all professional fluster; a raised eyebrow, carefully casual hands, and deep breaths.
She gave him a moment instead. “A heartbeat; you need to have your story ready now and you need to be able to tell it immediately or we’re not getting through Ozymandias’s wilds. So come on. Something personal. Go.”
“Alright . . . Does it have to be something bad?”
Aixa peered at the wide eyes of him. It wasn’t that it was a stupid question--there probably was a mythic out there who took confessions of crimes as tribute. No, the problem was that Wit was immediately over-thinking this. It terrified her.
And it made her finally, reluctantly, let the old world biases flood in.
“Wit” had to be an alias. An alias for a man who she’d only met last night, after asking her hook-up at the Harlem River Camp if he knew anyone willing to make a big trade for an escort through the wilds. She was directed to Wit, who’d been a long-standing holy grail at their camp; a man who reportedly had a huge lot he was willing to trade for a sherpa that seemed capable enough. Only no sherpa had ever seemed capable enough. Months had gone by--apparently half of the entire year--and no one had been impressive enough for Wit to hire. None had been up to the standards of this forty year old white man, his closely tailored suit, and his well-groomed, salt and pepper beard.
It bothered her; the suit bothered her. He’d possibly lived on the northern side of Manhattan--one of the lucky few who didn’t have to run far for safety; he knew so little about mythics that maybe he hadn’t run at all, just stood in his apartment, watching refugees pour in. Either way, it was clear that, before all of this, he had money. Respect. A high-ranking position at a company that wasn’t actually important--even in the old world.
And it seemed like he was trying to cling to all of that--to maintain the level of control he once had. Keep it as his new nest egg. People like him--people who couldn’t let go of what the world was and who they had been--were common in the new world. And they were dangerous. She had no idea what he’d do when he got to the Heart Camp. Try to rally people against the mythics? Try to assert political control for himself; migrate to a new camp, like so many others before him, and attempt to become its new leader for some reason?
But it wasn’t her concern. Her concern was that the mythics really did value honesty over everything; somehow, it was their universal want.
And right now, everything about Wit screamed “premeditated.” Every inch of him, from his clean cheeks to his bright red tie, reeked of over-planned bullshit.
“You . . . do understand how they work, right? You’ve at least heard stories about them?”
Wit cleared his throat again and started in with hand gestures he’d probably used in presentations full of buzz words--an attempt to look commanding. “I’ve heard about them, yes. I’ve never se--”
“Then you know you can’t lie to them. Look, I don’t care who you are or why you want to get to the Heart Camp. But they care. Ozymandias cares. I’m saying that first so you understand; he wants confessions. And, if you don’t offer him a really good one first, he makes you pitch a bunch--picks the one he wants. We don’t want to know what happens when you don’t have a story he wants to hear. So we’re not going in there until you’re ready to confess everything you’ve ever done--like that,” she said with a snap of her fingers.
“So come on--hit me,” she added, not waiting for Wit to stammer.
He did anyway. “I . . .”
Aixa shook her head. “You’re dead. Just like that. Come on--fast.” She snapped her fingers again as she said, “Something. Anything. Go.”
“I once stole a friend’s video game. In uh--in grade school.”
Aixa sighed. “What? No one cares. Again--something real.”
“In high school, I . . . wanted to fuck my best friend’s sister.”
Aixa considered--then grimaced. “No . . . Every guy wants to fuck his best friend’s sister. There’s no story there.”
Wit put his shoulders into an oddly dramatic huff.
Aixa’s brows sharpened. “What? Am I talking to a fucking child here? Gonna stomp your foot next?”
“Tell me a fucking story right now or I go back.”
“What about your story?” he countered, his practiced calm immediately, suddenly gone. He wasn’t screaming, but he was breathing hard now. “Huh? What are you--what kind of name is Aixa? You Mexican?”
And, just like that, the old world racism. The idea that he was challenging her for her story, as if he was teaching her about the mythics, was its own brand of stupid, but the question--the concern for her ethnicity? Of course. As if it matters at all.
It was all she needed to hear. He was obviously struggling with his own issues--everyone was--but it didn’t change the fact that he was the worst kind of person who clung to the old world. The kind who spent the first year hiding, waiting for everything to go back to how it had been. Because they needed it to.
Wit’s lot had been a trunk full of loose goods--he’d shown them to her. Binoculars. MRE’s far from expiration. A new long coat. A gas mask with a new filter. An old rifle that likely didn’t work, although she didn’t need it to; she’d at least be able to rig its stock to her caster and see how it felt. It wasn’t as grand as people claimed, but it was everything she’d need to make her journey to Michigan--to her family--bearable.
Even so, she could figure out something else--find another job. She shouldered her hexcaster and started walking back to Manhattan.
But she was only three paces past Wit when he grumbled, “I never loved my ex-wife.”
Aixa stopped. Turned around, stared at him. Controlled her breathing so that he wouldn’t see how those words made her tense.
“I just,” he went on, “I have a hard time caring about anyone, really. So, I cared about her as much as I could, but I don’t think I loved her. Or anyone. I just don’t think I can. I told her this. And she was really patient with me. Stayed with me for a few years after that.”
Aixa unclenched her fists. “Why marry her then? Why date her at all?”
Wit shook his head. “I’d . . . been alone for years before that. I was just excited to have someone to sleep next to. That excitement can really . . . feel like love.”
Another long, controlling breath and then Aixa nodded. “Keep thinking of more confessions like that. Your life depends on it.
“Also… keep in mind: the world’s different now. The wilds? They’re the only place where our pasts matter anymore. And there, no one wants to hear about what job you worked or what clothes you wore--that’s human bullshit. The mythics only care about what we thought. How we felt. What we wanted. The things that made us who we actually were. You can lie to me all you want, but in there,” she nodded to the woods ahead, “honesty is the strongest currency.”
She lowered her hexcaster to the front of her leather jacket and walked past him again. “Let’s go.”
“What about you?” he demanded behind her, sharper than she expected, as if she’d forgotten that she owed him. “What’s your story?”
And just his tone--the sharpness of it, arching across her back--was enough to make her stop. In the summer heat and the silence of whirring insects, her breath caught. The anger from a moment before tangled with her reflex to turn around and apologize--beg him to calm down. Smile and pretend that she was kidding. In that moment, Wit was suddenly her fiancé, standing behind her, sneering at her back with one of his friends.
And in that same moment, he was Aixa’s mother, muttering about how ungrateful her daughter was, just loud enough for her to hear.
In a heartbeat, Wit was everything she had to push out--every memory she tried to forget. It’s a new world. A chance to be different--to be better.
Aixa sighed. Took a moment to think about what she wanted to do versus what she needed to do.
Finally, she turned around.
Fixed Wit with narrow eyes.
And said, “I’m Puerto Rican,” putting a little smirk on the end of it. “Move your ass.”
At the end of the bridge, Fordham Road ran on and up for a block before turning into dense, humid forest. They entered the light river quiet of it, trekking up until they passed an old church--its doors torn open, a light river slowly twisting inside among the broken shadows of its pews.
Aixa didn’t stop walking, even as she ejected her mundane bullet, turned the winch, pushed a different shell into the caster’s primary chamber--a round etched with countless, small runes. It was all a quick, involuntary act, sparsely lit by the patches of sunlight that reached the streets.
They continued down the ruined strip that was Fordham Road, through its maze of abandoned cars--upturned where trees had pushed out of the ground beneath them.
Only because she’d heard he was receptive to it, she climbed onto the hood of a nearby hatchback and tried calling, “Ozymandias!”
No one answered--only mundane birds taking wing to the thick canopy overhead.
“Was that a good idea?” Wit asked, brows sharp.
Aixa sighed. Give an actual answer. “When lord mythics respond well to being summoned, yes, it’s always a good idea to try and call them immediately.” She watched the darkness surrounding them, but nothing stirred--only Wit, crossing his arms.
“Right, but he’s just the lord. What about the smaller ones--his minions?”
“You’re just going to keep challenging, aren’t you?”
“I’m making a point. They’ll have heard you, right? Now they know we’re here.”
Aixa jumped down and started walking again. “They knew we were coming when they saw us from the bridge.”
“Right--but now they’ll know we’re right here--”
Motherfucking . . . She spun around, saw that he was still standing beside the hatchback, arms still crossed. “Oh, just shut the fuck up. Seriously. Did I hire you to get me to the Heart Camp? Are you the one who’s done this before?”
Wit cleared his throat. “No, I--”
But then Aixa saw the anger drain from his eyes. Watched them go wide and snap to something behind her.
She spun around.
And found a pile of rubble that stood in the center of the road. It was shaped like a man, but still clearly just a bunch of rock and torn asphalt. It nodded its head.
Aixa took a deep breath and nodded back. “My name is Aixa. You understand the weapon I’m holding?”
The asphalt man nodded.
“Good. I don’t intend to use it. It’s been a year and I’ve only ever scared mythics away with it. I’m just trying to get this one,” she nodded back to Wit, “to the heart of the storm.”
The asphalt man looked back at Wit. Continued to say nothing. Aixa wasn’t sure if he could speak, but she knew he could understand her, at least.
“We would like to speak with Ozymandias--your lord mythic.”
The man began to nod, but then his head snapped to one side. She followed his gaze and her eyes went wide as something like a snake with an almost human face looked back from the roof of a nearby shop. Its huge, black eyes stared directly at her. The asphalt man pointed away and the snake creature immediately whipped through the air, out of view, countless other shapes that she hadn’t even noticed rushing away with it, from every rooftop. It happened too quickly for her to get a good look at any of them, but she could swear one had countless, thin arms hanging from a winged body.
Wit’s mouth hung open. Even Aixa had to take a deep breath. Were they waiting for us? She always assumed countless mythics were watching her at any time, but she’d never been stalked by so many.
“How… often do humans come through here?” Aixa asked the asphalt man before she could think better of his silence.
But, with a voice that was so clear she knew it was in her head, the asphalt man actually spoke. “Often.”
He bowed. “Come with me. I will lead you to our lord.” And then he started to walk, his legs breaking beneath his knees with each step, new calves of dirt and tarmac shooting out of the ground to meet him each time.
She had to give Wit a calm, “Let’s move,” to get him to stop watching the buildings around them and follow.
They continued down Fordham Road in silence, the wilds growing denser as they went. Eventually, the canopy grew so thick that they had to travel through the shifting haze of the light rivers hugging the ground, throwing everything into bizarre relief as they walked. It made it almost impossible to spy the lesser mythics that had to be following and watching, just out of view.
That did not stop Wit from trying, breathing hard enough for her to hear in the dim quiet.
When they neared Fordham Plaza, he finally found the courage to whisper something to her. “You said that thing is a hexcaster, right?”
Aixa gave him a wary eye.
“So use it. I’m paying you--get us through here. Forget Ozymandias. Just shoot your way through.”
Aixa’s eyes went wide. “Stop talking. Right now.”
“No--no! I’m paying you! You want that key? Start shooting.”
“. . . Motherfucker, the only reason I can lead anyone through any wild is because I don’t walk in and start shooting! Stop asking! I’m not doing it!”
“I wasn’t asking,” he hissed back, brows sharp and slick with sweat.
“No,” Aixa said. She hefted her caster, still hanging against her chest. “You heard about hexcasters before? Maybe just from stories about the Rage Casters, burning camps down, setting ruins on fire? Any idea why you never hear about those idiots burning wilds down? Think about it.”
And when Wit opened his mouth, brows still furrowed, Aixa spat, “Go ahead! Order me again!”
His mouth closed and she could hear him panting through his nose. He glared at her until his head snapped to the darkness beside them, catching a black shape that slid out of sight quickly, across the glass-strewn floor of a fast food restaurant, disturbing not a single shard.
And as if he hadn’t just lost an argument--as if they hadn’t even just been talking--Wit said, “Tell me about the kind of mythics we’ve seen.”
Aixa breathed, slow and deliberate again, lowering her hand from the hexcaster’s trigger. She hadn’t realized she’d put it there, or that the asphalt man had looked back at them at some point during their argument. She gave the mythic a quick nod and a reverent, “Sorry about that.”
And to Wit she said, “There are no types.”
“You don’t know the types of mythics we’ve seen?”
“I said . . . that there are no types. You’re expecting classes, right? Video game shit? Sorry--no races here. None of your neat categories or labels. They’re mythics. No two are the same.”
“So they’re like humans,” Wit said, as if she was an idiot for not realizing it.
“No,” she turned a raised eyebrow on him. “Not like humans. All mythics are physically different; even if you find two that are wolves, one will be spectral, like a ghost, and the other will be half man. Their personalities might seem similar, but, from what I’ve experienced, every one of them is specific. Unique.”
“Like humans,” Wit replied.
She wanted to shut him out--to roll her eyes and pretend like he wasn’t there. But, no, some part of her challenged that reflex. Contest this. Talk. Try an actual conversation. Get that key. She drew from a discussion she’d had the previous night at the Harlem River Camp. “Are we all different? I wish. I really do. But I look at you and I see an entitled asshole. I tried not to--tried to just let the stereotype go--but you proved me wrong with it. I’m sure you look at me and you see a feisty Latina. We’re both more than that, but will you tell other people I kept a level head in here? No. Will I tell anyone else you did something other than act like an asshole? If I ever have a reason to talk about you after this, no--of course not. So are we more than those stereotypes? Because, most of the time, we gladly accept those labels--call ourselves workaholics or soccer moms. But, even if we don’t categorize ourselves--if we don’t identify as blue collar or hipsters--everyone else slaps those labels on us anyway. Other people treat us like categories, so we start acting the part. I’m sure a large part of you being an asshole is derived from the example of greater assholes, forced on you by other people.
“But the mythics actually are individuals. Because they’re powerful enough to not care what others think of them. A culture without society.” She shook her head. “Maybe that’s why they love honesty; it’s what makes them different from us.”
“That and the fact that they’re monsters,” Wit said.
The asphalt man stopped and turned around. “Are we?”
Aixa took a clandestine step away from Wit, watching as he blinked in horror at the mythic. Likely, this was the first time he was hearing one speak. Likely, he’d already assumed the asphalt man was a mindless servant, despite what Aixa had just said. This was it then--Wit would be murdered and Aixa would apologize to Ozymandias, ask to loot Wit’s body for his key, go back and claim her pay regardless.
But the asphalt mythic didn’t attack. Their discussion had lasted all the way down to Fordham University, and as they stared, the asphalt man instead gestured for them to enter the school’s opened gate. “Some of us are actually quite beautiful.”
Aixa looked through the gate, following his gesture. In the wild dark, the ambient, light river glow made a silhouette of the giant man who sat there, the hole that ran from his shoulder to his face alive with starlight.
* * *
* * *
The black shape of Ozymandias did not stir as they came near. The reports she had were only half right; he was a giant man, made of stone, but his arm wasn't simply missing and the wound of it wasn't just a raw break; it was a strange tear that went from the mythic's right side, up past his shoulder, to half of his face. She couldn't see the edge of the wound itself--couldn't tell if it looked like raw flesh, carved in bizarre detail--but she could see the way the wound itself glowed, deep purple and black flecked with shimmering spots of white. There was a galaxy inside of Ozymandias' stone chest. Aixa didn't want to know if it was just a glamour.
The small, flickering stars of Ozymandias’ eyes shifted to a nearby tree and a river of light curled out from behind it, sliding to the ground between them so Aixa could see the strange detail of his face and body. In true mythic fashion, he wasn't just a statue of a man either--his limbs and features were exaggerated, more blunt and squared.
Aixa gestured for Wit to stay back. She walked in front of the lord mythic and nodded.
"Ozymandias, I am Aixa. This human hired me to bring him through your realm. He seeks the heart of the storm--the Camp between your wilds and those of the Storm King."
Ozymandias’ voice came like the voice of his asphalt servant--oddly clear and clean. "Are you aware of my tribute?"
"A confession," Aixa answered.
And the lord mythic nodded.
Aixa lifted one hand, began to gesture for Wit to step up and confess first, hoping his bit about his wife was enough.
But Oxymandias spoke first. "No. You first, Aixa. I'm eager to hear your story."
She almost repeated it. “I am eager . . ." Why? Why was he eager? Did he know her? Was he precognitive? If so, why make them come to him, this deep into his wilds?
But she took a calming breath; it didn’t matter--she was already here, and fretting wasn’t going to get her out. Confessing was.
But she took a calming breath; it didn’t matter--she was already here, and fretting wasn’t going to get her out. Confessing was.
So, to Ozymandias, she said, “Very well," and began with the lowest common denominator of what she never wanted to share. "I was a horrible daughter. A disappointment to my mother in a lot of ways. But she--"
"No," Ozymandias decreed. "Something else."
Axia kept breathing--slow and calm--but she couldn’t keep out a flash of doubt. There was always a chance you didn't have the tribute, even when you thought you did. She might not have a story Ozymandias wanted to hear. Or someone at camp might have oversimplified his tribute just as they’d oversimplified his appearance.
Still, she tried--a story that she’d already used as tribute once. A confession she’d never wanted to make again. "When the mythics first came, I was living with my fiancé. He was... a bastard. He--"
"You told this story to the Mother of Wolves."
Deep breaths. So deep that she just stood there, staring.
"I have heard it. Another story."
Aixa faltered. "I . . ."
"Calm yourself, human. You cannot think of a confession, so I shall ask."
Aixa, made significantly less calm by that suggestion, nodded.
And Ozymandias’ gaze fell on the weapon slung to her chest. "Tell me how you came to own your crude spell thrower."
Aixa looked down at her hexcaster. At some point, she’d grabbed it--not even in a smart, tactical way; she had one hand on its magazine compartment, its end tucked lazily, inoffensively under her other arm. She’d never told anyone how she got it and was hoping to keep it secret, as unrealistic as that was; most humans didn’t know what it was, but she always thought it was strange that no mythics had ever asked about it. Now, knowing that the lord mythics passed human stories along to each other, it made some kind of sense. Ozymandias might already know where she got it and how.
But then why ask?
She took another deep breath. It was the story he chose, so all she could do was nod and decide where to start.
“I didn’t live in one of the Camps. Some people were lucky--didn’t have to pick up and run. I wasn’t one of them, and I didn’t get to pick up anything before I ran. Back then, no one even knew there would be Camps; we just ran and hid.
“I was good at that. The first few months were slow. And rough. But, I didn’t get caught.”
“Where did you live?” Ozymandias interrupted.
“Place called Eastchester . . . It’s to the northeast of here.”
“In the land of the Storm King.”
Aixa nodded, slowly. My home.
Ozymandias stared, waiting for her to continue.
“I ran further north--never saw the King. Just . . . common mythics. I managed to avoid most, but, one time, in Valhalla of all places, a mythic found me. Something like a . . . a giant lizard with… hundreds of swords stuck in its back?”
Ozymandias said nothing.
“It chased me for a long while and I was sure I wouldn’t escape. But when I finally collapsed and it lunged at me, lightning struck. I couldn’t see anything, but someone helped me up, pulled me into a building.
“When my vision cleared, it was an old lady. I was in her apartment--out in the wild somehow. I didn’t understand, but even though she was exhausted and . . . broken, she explained some. That her people had failed to stop the mythics from being freed. That she could use magic. That she could make . . . weapons that could kill mythics.”
“Your spell thrower,” Ozy said.
“She called it a hexcaster. Gave it to me because I reminded her of her niece--the only reason she saved me to begin with, I think. She taught me how to use it. How to clean it. Pretty much said to me as much as I’ve said to you now; she would just . . . stop talking sometimes. Stare off into space for hours. It’s how I knew.
“Even before I found her body, I knew she wouldn’t make it. She didn’t want to.”
Ozymandias nodded. “And what did she want you to do with that hexcaster?”
Aixa shrugged. “Protect myself, I think. It’s all I’ve ever done with it.”
“We know. That is why you’re allowed to keep it, Aixa Silva.”
The hair on the back of her neck rose. The panic surged back, strong. She’d never said her last name. She tried her best to calm down--to believe that Ozymandias had it from the Mother of Wolves and that it meant nothing.
But the lord mythic asked, “What was the old woman’s name?”
Aixa opened her mouth to answer, but the moment the name came to mind, she finally heard the smile in Ozymandias’ voice. The tense mirth hidden in that question. Her eyes went wide and she spun, looking for Wit.
Wit, the well-dressed old man. Who was always looking for a sherpa. Always offering a hefty reward, but always refusing every single person who came to him. For half a year, he’d refused every single one--until Aixa. She’d assumed it was some kind of race thing--that he’d wanted a sherpa he thought he could control.
But it wasn’t.
Because he was Wit, a man who reeked of over-planned bullshit.
A man with an alias.
Ozymandias chuckled. “The old woman’s name,” he asked again.
Aixa was holding her caster like a weapon now, ready to shoulder it. She looked back at Ozymandias and panted, “Elizabeth Terrance.”
And Ozymandias’ starlight eyes looked down at his side, where Wit now stood. “And your name?”
“William Isaac Terrance.”
Ozymandias chuckled on his mound of earth, back pressed against an array of trees. “I must be clear with you, Aixa. I do require a confession. That is not a lie. However, people often misunderstand. I spread the word and the people of your Camps assume that I accept emotional admissions myself. They come alone, unthinking. My thralls devour them. If they came in pairs, it would not be so. Because the stories I demand are meant to be confessed to other humans. Old lies and dark secrets conceded to their victims. All in front of me. Because it amuses me.
“I have been crafting this story since Mr. Terrance first came to me, asking how he could get north, through my lands, to his home. I have wanted a confession such as this since I first heard of you and your hexcaster, Aixa Silva. So when he told me who his wife was, I told him all that I knew about you and your hexcaster. Where you got it. Who you got it from.
“And now, here you are. This man, eager to reclaim what he says is his. And you, Aixa, willing to kill to survive.”
Her spine went cold.
“Do you know what we call her, William Terrance? With the hexcaster she has never harmed a single mythic with? Aixa the Man-Slayer. What do you think of that?”
William Terrance’s fists were clenched. “That hexcaster . . . is mine. My wife built it. You killed her and took it.”
“No,” Aixa said. “She killed herself--I don’t know why, but I didn’t--”
“Is that true, Aixa Man-Slayer?” Ozy asked. “Who did you kill to survive then?”
Aixa didn’t answer.
Ozymandias lauged. “So tense! So reluctant! So ashamed! Do you hate that ‘Man-Slayer’ is our meaning for your name? In your tongue, it means something beautiful, no doubt, but we mythics value honesty above all. Whatever your name meant, it was a lie.”
“Give me that hexcaster,” William demanded. “She was making it for me--she knew this was going to happen--that the world was going to shit. It’s mine. It’s been mine this whole time. This entire fucking year, you thieving spic.”
Aixa’s hands were shaking, teeth clenched. She could shoot him. She could kill him. That’s what she wanted to do. If she didn’t, was she being honest?
No. It’s a new world--a chance to be better than you were. “It was yours until she gave it to me. You’re entitled to nothing. That’s how the world wor--”
“No, you don’t decide what I’m entitled to! All that garbage about who we were not mattering? I matter! My name is William--fucking--Terrance! I matter! You’re nothing! You’re nothing but a fucking thug and a liar! Look at you! You keep threatening me, but you won’t use that thing, you goddamn coward!”
“Is he right, Aixa? Are you afraid to use it? Afraid to kill another human with it?”
“I’ve never killed a human with it!” Aixa shouted at the lord mythic.
“Ahhh. So you killed someone before you got it, but you never would again? You won’t sully Elizabeth Terrance’s memory--is that it?”
Aixa couldn’t think of an answer before Wit pulled back one side of his blazer. His hand darted for the handle of the pistol concealed there.
But slowed down before reaching it, the world becoming a shimmering crawl in the dark.
Ozymandias was whispering into her ear somehow.
“How many times did you threaten this man today? How often do you threaten people without meaning it? How often do you lie, Aixa? How often do you deny what you are--what you would do to survive? And when you lie, does it cool the blood on your hands? Or does it shame the memory of your fiancé?
“Are you going to let William Terrance’s honesty outshine yours?
The sight of William’s hand had long-since blurred. But she still saw the speed of it--the ease with which Wit reached for his gun.
No hesitation. No second thought. Just like her fiancé.
Aixa muttered, “Give me ten more seconds like this. Then I’ll confess to him.”
Ozymandias said nothing and Aixa wiped her eyes. Lifted her hexcaster. She checked it quickly, then took aim, and together, she and Ozymandias waited until the ten seconds were up.
When the world sped up again, William’s eyes went wide and he finally gave pause at the sight of the caster suddenly pointed at him. He said something--the beginning of a word, a single letter--and then his hand was on the grip of his pistol anyway. He pulled.
And the world exploded in a burst of cruel, white lighting, a bolt firing from the lance barrel of Aixa’s hexcaster and instantly shattering Ozymandias’ head.
She couldn’t hear anything--for all she knew, the wilds around her had erupted in outrage. She could barely see William Terrance fumbling on the floor, blind but looking for his pistol.
Still, she shouted, as loudly and deeply as she could.
“My name is Aixa! By Ozymandias’ words, I owed William Terrance a confession! Here it is!
“I killed my fiancé! I killed him because I hated him! He thought he owned me! He treated me like a fucking pet! Tried to use me like a decoy--a goddamn decoy--to survive out in the wild when the world turned! But even before that--even back when the world was ours, I hated him. Because he was a manipulative, belittling fuck. And I forgave him for it for years.
“So it was easy to kill him! When the choice became me or him, I didn’t hesitate for a second, and I wouldn’t again!
“But this?” She held up her hexcaster. “Fucking this!” And she shook it. “It’s too much! It makes it too easy! Who we were doesn’t matter, so I didn’t earn it! It’s mine because of chance! This thing, the fact that I have it, is all fucking chance! I don’t matter! Nothing matters! And no one! So if someone--anyone--fucks with me, I can kill them! No questions!
“And I will! Because that’s who I am now! That’s who this fucking world made me! That’s what fucking humanity made me! That’s what this thing made me!” she shouted, thrusting the caster at the darkness around her.
“Him?” she said, turning to William, still fumbling on the floor, one hand outstretched.
And, as if the shadows didn’t believe her, she walked up to him, teeth clenched. Ejected her spent, smoking Lightning shell, catching it without thinking as she turned the winch to Mundane.
William Iverson Terrance shook when she shot him in the back. He fell, coughing, balling up in pain as she continued shooting him until he stopped moving. She never heard a single crack of her rifle. Not a single cry of pain.
The moment he died, she pulled the winch, pushed a round of Ice into the barrel, turned back to the darkness around her.
“That’s who I am! Someone who shoots first when she has to! Someone who fucking--” she looked down at her hexcaster, shaking in her hands “--who fucking . . .”
But no more words came. She wanted to throw the caster on the floor but knew she was dead if she did. So, instead, she held it close.
And spun, aiming at motion just next to her. The asphalt man stood there.
And into her mind, he said, “Aixa the Hexcaster, I will show you the way out--to the Heart Camp.”
She panted, wiping the tears from her eyes, mind already turning to what she wanted--what she needed. This wasn’t a moment to be careless. She swallowed and spoke through the pain of her raw throat. “Can I check William Terrance’s body first? He has a key that I need--payment for bringing him through the wilds.”
The asphalt man nodded.
And Aixa looked, as carefully as haste would allow. In the end, she took a ring of keys from his body--a ridiculous tangle of loyalty cards and souvenir charms. A few of its keys were small enough to fit the lock of a trunk.
* * *
Aixa wilted. Their walk down Fordham Road had been so silent that she’d had time to assume all of this--at least the first part. She’d already decided to circle back through the Storm King’s land--her home, where she’d killed her fiancé--instead of doubling back.
As if he could read her thoughts, the asphalt man asked, “You were hoping to go west?”
“Yes.” And then, because she thought that he would find out regardless, she added, “To my family.”
“Go south. Through the lands where the Eight Arms rule, not caring about the humans who roam through. From there, use this story--the tale of how you got your new name--to get further west.”
Aixa nodded, exhausted, still unable to hear, aware that blood had run from her ears. She started to walk away.
But the asphalt man said, “And beware.”
She stopped and turned her tired eyes on him. “Other mythics?”
“Other people like me.”
“No. Beware of your family. You seem to be . . . confused about this, so I must make it clear. Who you were before, when humans controlled the world, does matter. Not just when you’re in the wilds, not just as currency, but always. One could say it’s all that matters. Many of us mythics adore humans for their strange hypocrisy; humans abhor liars, yet they lie. Some humans celebrate their right to be offensive monsters, but somehow get upset when others call them offensive monsters. I cannot speak for all of us, but I know that, for many, rooting out the truth in that hypocrisy is addicting.
“Many of us love to break humans down to their base instincts--their wants, desires, and vexations. As once we relished killing your kind, now we enjoy naming you, because when we do, we make you more like us.
“So beware, Hexcaster, for just as certainly as this wild has made you honest, other wilds will have done the same to your family. Everyone you’ve ever known. Everyone you ever thought you loved.
“A year was enough time to make you like this. What has the world made them? What are the chances that your siblings hated you? That your mother resented you?”
Aixa just stared, the tear-mottled blur of the asphalt man shifting in the light flows as he came near.
“Go, Aixa the Hexcaster,” he said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
“Go, and shoot first when you have to.”
* * *
Louis Santiago is an aspiring Fantasy novelist based in Bronx, New York, where he was born and raised. This is the first of his pieces to reach publication! It’s also his first attempt at testing the boundaries of the genre-- a cornerstone of his writing style ever since he was warned to “keep race out” of his Fantasy. His dream: to contribute more short stories and novels that further diversify the genre. He maintains a monthly blog at louissantiago-author.com.
Usually from a bunch of different places. A premise can come from an innocent question, the mood of a place, or my manic criticism of the genre’s tropes. The heart of a story is always personal though; I can’t feel confident about a plot unless I start with a conclusion that makes me feel something. So, for “Aixa,” the premise came from a question: “What would a magical apocalypse be like?” followed quickly by, “Without resorting to zombies.” The answer: maybe it would be a social apocalypse. Maybe a new, insurmountable race would take over the world, forcing humanity to live by their standards. And what if those standards included the need to be completely honest, in words and deeds, at all times? How would that change our concept of honesty? How would it change our concept of family?