Azurine gazed down at the page that fell open, surprised to find that the words were written in her own language. She read the first few lines.
Victoria did not know, when she untangled a wild mouse from the brambles in which it had been caught, that the mouse was not really a mouse.
And Victoria did not see that there was a cat lurking behind the trees nearby.
She was too busy running from trouble herself. So Victoria did not see the mouse transforming back into her native form.
Short brown fur became dark blue skin. The long tail vanished. Membranous wings flicked open.
Azurine grinned and looked up at Victoria. “It is the story of our first meeting!”
Victoria returned the grin.
Azurine was quite young for a fairy. But by human measures she had lived lifetimes. Victoria had grown in the time the two had been friends, changing in face and form, gaining in wisdom and wit, and all the while, Azurine had remained the same.
Small as a mouse. Blue as the sky.
Had the child Victoria rushed along after rescuing that little mouse, all might have been calm and quiet in her life, save for whatever spectacle and commotion could be expected to unfold throughout the life of a scholar and an arcanist. But Victoria turned back that day, and she spotted the red-tailed cat that was stalking the mouse. She scolded the cat for chasing after the mouse (even as she admitted understanding that it was in the nature of cats to chase mice). She recklessly declared that the mouse was under her protection, and if ever that cat bothered that mouse again, he would have Victoria to answer to.
She gave her name.
Azurine watched in horror. She had intended to repay the girl for the kindness of untangling her and distracting the cat long enough for her to escape it. Then the fairy would be on her way.
But the girl’s declaration of protection bound her to the fairy and bound the fairy to her. For as the mouse had been no ordinary mouse, the cat that hunted her was no ordinary cat. He was none other than the fairy’s immortal enemy, the demon Eniruza, who had been chasing Azurine, and planning her destruction since the day she was born.
A name newly learned was a bright and shiny thing for a demon. Much as her demon loathed and hated Azurine, he could afford himself a recess from his hunt, for he was as long-lived as she was. He could turn from the hunt and relish the pleasure of tormenting a mortal, a human, for a short while.
For it was in his nature to do so.
Azurine had no choice but to intervene, and the only way to do so was to protect the child Victoria, until she grew strong enough to protect herself. Azurine would know when the child was ready. It would be when the child was no longer a child. Children were able to see fairies, but as they grew older, their sight for wondrous things faded, whether that sight was through their natural senses or through their minds.
Azurine would watch over the child. If she did not succumb to him first, Victoria would grow out of the reach of the demon. That was Azurine’s intent. But Victoria was a child whose mind was filled with stories of wondrous things, even moreso than other children. To Azurine’s surprise, the girl even managed to dazzle her with a tale or two that she had never heard before, because Victoria had made them up. For a people whose lives were ludicrously short, humans possessed a remarkable power, a glorious gift, a neverending magic, in their imaginations.
Victoria had turned to studying magic and alchemy at a young age. Encountering a fairy only sharpened and intensified her passion for the arcane sciences. Her study of and belief in magic kept her sight open to fairies and demons even as she grew older. Azurine tried to discourage her, to turn her towards other crafts, other scholarly pursuits, but to no avail.
Victoria claimed not fear the demon, not truly understanding that she was being shielded from him. Azurine was reluctant to speak of him, and had never told Victoria much about him, fearing that doing so would make the child more vulnerable still to the demon’s influence.
But by the time Victoria had seen nineteen winters, the fairy’s shield around the child and around herself had begun to fade.
“I am not strong enough to shield us from him for the duration of your life,” the fairy warned. “Especially if you insist on growing into a wizened old woman.”
“As is my intention,” young Victoria said, smirking.
“Then protect yourself. Renounce your name and take another. That will surely confuse him, perhaps even long enough for you to grow wizened as you intend.”
“I am proud of my name,” Victoria said. “I will not renounce what I’ve been given by my mother and father.”
“I think they would rather be insulted by their child, then be robbed of their child.”
“I am searching for ways to protect myself,” Victoria said, as she sat bent over a tome so wide and voluminous, it must have measured half Victoria’s height and weight. “And to protect you.”
Azurine shook her head. The span of a human life was hardly a flicker of the eyes to the span of a fairy’s life. What could any of them do in so fleeting a moment? How could Victoria possibly find a way to thwart the demon that had haunted Azurine for hundreds of human lifetimes, when Azurine herself had never found a way?
The fairy feared for her friend. She feared for herself.
And so, one night, she fled.
She fled, hoping to draw the demon away from Victoria, hoping to slip his grasp and stretch the distance between them once again, a distance that had closed in the time that Azurine had stayed still to watch over the child.
But all she managed to do was leave Victoria vulnerable.
The demon did not follow the fairy.
And without the fairy’s protection, Victoria became visible to the demon.
The demon came and began to haunt Victoria, when she was alone in her house. The demon could not touch Victoria directly. The fairy’s protection still clung to her, though barely. So it shook her bed until she woke in terror. It showed itself to her in mirrors and puddles. It opened and closed doors as she tried to walk through them. And when she entered the kitchen, it threw knives at her. Victoria would surely have died had she not learned spells of deflection. And still, one knife managed to slice four fingers of her left hand so deeply that she feared she would have to cut them off, so as not to lose her entire hand to infection. She sought the help of healers among her fellow arcanists. They were able to preserve her hand.
Victoria understood what the demon planned on doing, tormenting her when she was alone, and leaving a wake of destruction so that her family would think that she was doing it, that she was troubled.
So she kept herself in the company of others, until she could find some way to dispatch the demon.
During the day, Victoria burned with anger and drove herself with a hard and unrelenting resolve.
But at night, even with two or three of her friends nearby, or those among her family who believed her tale of being haunted by a demon, she shivered in her bed, and when she was not shivering, she dripped with sweat from holding her muscles taut. And she winced at every shifting shadow.
And she held her bandaged hand close to her chest.
A fortnight and three days passed in that way, before Azurine returned.
The fairy found Victoria, exhausted and fighting sleep as she sat at her desk in her bedchamber, the walls painted with symbols of warding, the ceiling hung with charms of protection, and Victoria herself wearily muttering chants.
The fairy had never seen Victoria so drained of vitality, so gray, so withered. So frail.
Azurine wept tears as bright and blue as her long blue hair.
She fell before Victoria. “Forgive me!” the fairy cried. “I deserve nothing but your loathing and disdain. But henceforth, I shall never leave your side until you grow old and die in peaceful sleep.”
Azurine knew of only one way to truly stop the demon once her own powers failed. She would let him capture her and destroy her. For even as he destroyed her, she would destroy him. So it was. They had come into the world together, she and her demon. They would leave it together.
And they would finally leave the good scholar Victoria alone.
But Victoria had other ideas.
Stirred by the fairy’s lamentations, she stopped her chanting. “I must rest,” she said. “Then I will tell you what we will do.”
The fairy’s protection fell upon her once again. And Victoria slept.
When she emerged from the delirium of exhaustion, the scholar told the fairy what she had been planning before the fairy fled.
Victoria had been studying a particular subject—magical traps and labyrinths—in the hope of helping Azurine become free of her demon. Most of the spells she found were too complex for Victoria to do, even with the help of the best arcanists she knew. They were the kinds of spells that very old mages built, and then passed on to the next generation to test and use. As fleeting as human life was, such great spells were meant to be built, re-built, honed, and finished by many hands over many lifetimes.
But the one thing that Victoria believed she could do and do well was create a book.
Victoria had woven stories since she was a child, and as she grew older, the tapestries of tales she wove had grown more and more enchanting. She had written many of her stories down in many a book.
But once she began to learn the arcane sciences, she had practiced making little charmed books to give to her friends, books containing invisible pockets where precious trinkets could be hidden. Books with enchanted pages where secrets could be written that none but the writer could ever decipher.
“We will build a trap, you and I,” Victoria said. “A trap to cage the demon for the duration of your life, even if that duration be eternity.”
Azurine smiled a sad but fond smile. “Such hope. Such arrogance.” She crossed her arms. “What do you have in mind, then?”
“You must tell me now,” Victoria said. “After all that I have borne in only three days and a fortnight. Who is this demon, and why is it after you?”
A fairy’s eyes were a carousel of colors. Azurine felt hers spinning as she gazed in Victoria’s dark eyes. A human’s eyes were solid, steady, faithful. Ten years had passed since the fateful day when a girl saved a mouse from a cat. Azurine’s heart had only beat once in all that time. She felt her heart give a shiver now.
“His name is Eniruza,” the fairy said. “Uttering it summons him and angers him. He is already drawn to and angered by me, but I avoid saying him name all the same. He was born into the world as I was, a heartbeat after I was. The one who created me wished for me to be only good, and so cast a spell to cleave off any wickedness from me as I was born.”
Azurine shook her head. “The spell worked, and it worked such that the evil was born as a separate being.”
“The demon,” Victoria said.
“For the trap to work,” Victoria said. “Or I should say, if there be any hope of the trap working, then I will need to know the entire story of your life.”
Azurine frowned. “I would not have the time to recite it to you before your skin turned to ash and your bones to dust.”
“Speaking is slow,” Victoria replied. “Even thought is too slow. But there is a way that is faster than both, so fast that I will surely still be young before we are done writing your story.”
The fairy was intrigued. And when she learned how it was that the young scholar and arcanist planned to capture the story of her eon-spanning life, she delighted in the cleverness—and even the sometimes charming arrogance—of humans.
For Victoria would use light in her spell to capture the fairy’s story.
Victoria’s idea was a simple one.
“The demon knows the details of your life,” Victoria said, “for as he followed you into life, he has followed you through your life—most of it that is.”
There were times when the demon broke from Azurine for a short while to torment another soul—usually a mortal soul, and one for whom Azurine cared.
Victoria continued. “We will create an illusion, a changeling of you, and we will send it into the book. He will follow, and once he is inside, he will be inside your story. He will follow your story, moving deeper and deeper into the book, and become trapped.”
Azurine gazed at the book. “What if he escapes?”
“Anything or anyone who goes into the book cannot come back out of their own will. They have to be taken out.”
“Are you certain?”
“The deeper he goes in, the less likely it is that anyone reaching into the book will find him and pull him out. But just in case he is powerful enough to escape, the story is also meant to occupy him. I will add to it. And I will add others.”
Azurine had her doubts. But she was also impressed by Victoria’s plan, by the simply bound book that upon closer look was a complex construction of lettering in alchemical ink, and gears the size of dust motes, and scaffolding built from wires of sunlight and webs of lightning, all humming and churning with the story of one fairy’s life.
They brought the book into a clearing on a crisp autumn morning, and lay it on the litter of amber leaves and twigs damp from an overnight rain.
Victoria opened the book and chanted a brief summoning. But it was not necessary. All she needed say was the last words she spoke.
“Eniruza, blood demon! Come forth!”
Victoria glanced about and up, as if she expected the sky to darken and crack with lightning, or the air to swirl with storm.
But Azurine glanced down at her reflection in a puddle of rainwater.
She saw the blue hair in the reflection turned red. Her dark blue skin turned dark red. The carousel of colors that spun in her eyes turned white, a sickly, ghastly white.
Out of the puddle leapt the demon. The demon grew as Azurine could never grow. Bigger than a mouse. Bigger than a cat. Bigger than a human.
Eniruza, with his pale eyes and raw red skin, grew twice as tall as Victoria. His skin rippled with searing heat. Azurine saw Victoria draw back from the demon.
But then the scholar held up her left hand, and with her right, she pointed to the open book. She began her chant and a changeling appeared, crawling upon her shoulder, a changeling that looked just like Azurine.
Azurine herself was hidden in an illusion of her own making. Where she stood, the demon should see only trees. He would sense her close, but if their trickery worked, he would see the changeling, and believe the changeling to be Azurine.
As Victoria chanted, the changeling raised a rude gesture toward the demon, and then dove into the open book from the center of which poured gray fog.
By instinct, the demon stepped toward the book, teetering and looming over the book and over Victoria.
Eniruza caught himself. He shook his head and huffed through small, narrow nostrils. He stepped back, away from the book.
“I would rather stay here, sweetmeat,” the demon said, sneering at Victoria. “I would rather stay with you.”
She stopped chanting and Azurine’s heart pulsed out of rhythm.
But then Victoria began to chant again. She returned the demon’s sneer and shouted her commands to the gray fog that poured from the book. Tendrils of the fog reached out, straining toward the demon.
The tendrils caught the demon by his wrist, his neck. They wrapped around his shoulders, and they began to pull him toward the book.
The demon roared and yanked his arms away from the fog.
In a voice that sounded like the barking of monstrous hounds, the demon Eniruza began chanting his own spell. The tendrils of fog fell away. His pale eyes seeped with dark red blood.
He cast those eyes toward Victoria.
Her voice was cracking, fading now. She was losing her strength. Her upraised arm shook. And the old scars on the fingers of her left hand—from the wound that the demon had given her—split open and began to bleed.
But still Victoria chanted.
The demon stepped toward her with another roar.
And still Victoria chanted.
The gray tendrils rose weakly now, easily batted away by the demon’s counter-spell.
And still Victoria chanted.
Azurine watched, hidden and helpless.
As much as she feared and loathed him, the fairy knew there was only one way to thwart her demon.
Azurine threw off the cloak of illusion. Her wings flicked up and thrummed as she jumped into the air. She wheeled toward the demon, throwing herself between him and Victoria.
The fairy was too small to grasp any part of the giant demon save for one thing. She flew toward his head, grasped a clump of six hairs, and pulled them.
“Follow me,” she said.
And so he did.
For such was his nature, and he could not resist his nature.
Azurine pulled the demon with ease as she turned and dove toward the open book.
As she passed Victoria on her way down into the book, the fairy noted the shock in the scholar’s wide eyes. As short-lived as humans were, they moved surprisingly slowly.
“Farewell, my friend,” Azurine said. “Rejoice, for we are victorious!”
Azurine plunged into the gray fog, feeling it resist, but softly, as if she were diving into a pool of honey.
Still she held onto the demon, and would hold on as long as she could. The gray fog gave way to a gray sky, and Azurine found that a world was beginning to form around her, a world that seemed real, and yet could not be. For she was inside the book.
Victoria had been right. So clever was the book’s construction, such a labyrinth of words and particles and threads and charms was it, that neither Azurine nor the demon could escape. For nothing could escape the book of its own will, but had to be extracted by another. So Azurine drew the demon deeper and deeper into the book, away from the surface where hapless hands might reach for it and draw it back out into the mortal world.
Somehow, she did not know when, Azurine lost hold of the demon. He escaped her, but she knew he would not—could not—escape the book.
The fairy landed on a path and noted that there was a nearby bramble in which was caught a little mouse.
“I am in my own story,” Azurine said to herself.
The fairy flitted back up into the sky and gazed at the roads leading away from where she hovered, trying to determine which way was closest to the surface of the book, and which way led deeper into the book.
Even as she did, she spotted a red glint in the east.
Azurine sighed. She would have to draw him further into the book, before she even thought of trying to venture out of it.
To do that, she would have to do the opposite of what she had done all her life. She flew toward him.
After many days, Azurine found herself no closer to the red glint in the distance that she knew was the demon. Perhaps he was now trying to flee from her, even as she chased him.
She also found herself in a fair but unfamiliar country blessed with gentle breezes and sweet-smelling fruit trees. She landed in one such tree and enjoyed a juicy plum. When she heard movement below her, she glanced down, and was startled to find a familiar face gazing up at her.
“Victoria? Why are you wearing a crown?”
“I rule this realm,” Victoria said, removing the crown.
Azurine glimpsed a carousel of colors in the “queen’s” eyes. This was not Victoria.
“You’re a changeling,” Azurine said. “Did she send you in here?”
The changeling Victoria nodded. “Speak to me as if you are speaking to her. And I too will speak as her. You can rest here in this realm for a while, but do not stay long, lest you become stuck.”
“If you’ve come to pull me out, I’m thankful,” Azurine said. “But I can’t leave until I am certain that the demon won’t be able to follow me out—in the same way I pulled him in.”
“I thought you would say so. But until I find a way to separate you from your demon, to bring you out and keep him in, I will send you more and more stories from the world, so that you do not grow weary of being alone, of living the same life over and over. And I will send you more and more stories to confound and confuse your enemy, to drive him deeper into the labyrinth we have built.”
Azurine smiled. “Now that sounds promising.” Her smile faded. “You should forget this book, Victoria. I am safe here. I’ll live here and battle my demon. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll defeat him. Or perhaps I will make peace with him. Or perhaps we will both abide here until we wither away—or until the book does.”
“I gave my word, don’t you remember?” Victoria said. “To defend you. I am sorry my strength failed you this day. But one day, I will help you be rid of that demon. And I will reach into the book and pull you out.”
“A happy day that will be,” the fairy said. “But until then, grant me a favor.”
“Live your life, Victoria.”
Azurine gazed up at the imaginary sun. “And I will read this book that you have written for me.”
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel