Episode 0: Prologue
Steadman Hirsch, premier and proudest realtor in all of Due North, stood in front of his latest job-well-done. Handy job, real estate. Supported his lifestyle quite well, what with everyone always welcoming him in with open arms and big, teeth-baring smiles.
This particular listing was a particular brand of fantastic. 8 Brook Way. Oh, if these walls could talk! (The fact that some of these walls could, in fact, talk, had no bearing on Steadman Hirsch’s use of the expression, for he was born with a rare condition preventing him from recognising any sort of irony whatsoever.)
There was the siren who turned 8 Brook Way into the hottest karaoke bar in the entire town, the witch who fireproofed the place for her litter of dragons, the harpy who added the marble cornices on the house’s back end, the oread who turned the entire house inside out and built a wildlife sanctuary like none other, the satyr who quite appreciated the oread’s work, the – oh, no matter! The house would soon show it all to the new residents! They’re out-of-towners so there’d be an adjustment period, yes, but he was confident they’d pick it up quickly.
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Episode 1: 8 Brook Way
8 Brook Way currently held the form of a picturesque cottage, the likes of which can be found front and centre of just about every children’s book. It was quaint, simultaneously large and small, and somehow smelled wonderfully of fresh baked cookies even empty. It had taken on several forms over its extremely long life, several far more interesting than the one it currently donned, but its walls were presently abuzz with murmurs of excitement nonetheless.
8 Brook Way was no longer empty, and its new residents, Alberto Zecca and Isabella Autin, fawned over the shape it had taken for them. A tree, the type of which eluded every botanist that had ever attempted to classify it, stood guard from the backyard garden, its branches graciously extending to the perimeter, keeping time with the wind. It sang with the wind, hundreds of voices chiming in to make one, beautiful harmony that wafted throughout town, a siren call rumoured to be able to lift the spirits of those in mourning or even heal a broken heart. Ivy crawled across the bounding walls, weaving into its very make, and small, almost imperceptible paw prints and claw marks were pressed on top. The ivy snaked and stretched underground, far further down than anyone had ever explored, secrets resting on its every strand.
8 Brook Way was the only house in its vicinity, forming a sort of block of its own, and Brook Way was the closest street to the house, rather than the one it was on. The actual Brook Way skipped the number eight, an oddity that had led to several confused new postmen. Alberto and Isabella didn’t mind the confusion in the slightest – in fact, Alberto said it was one of the endless positives that came with the house.
Having moved in only a few hours ago, the pair were lounging on a chesterfield sofa that came with the house, in the otherwise almost unfurnished living room. The full moon shone brilliantly through the glass wall opposite them, the silver light falling delicately on each surface. Beyond it lay a presently untended garden, the moon’s light dipping and diving between its weeds and many, many secrets that Number 8 couldn’t wait for the residents to uncover.
It seemed though, it would have to wait. Tonight, the residents stayed indoors, unknowingly nested amidst the liveliest walls in the house.
‘I really don’t want to cook tonight,’ Alberto complained.
‘Yeah, I’m too tired too,’ Isabella agreed. ‘What about that diner we passed on the way in? Something with an O,’ she said, desperately trying to picture the wooden sign jutting out of the doorway. ‘Oh, it’s no use. We went by so quickly, the only thing I remember is that it was painted blue and green.’
‘What about pizza? There’s always pizza.’
‘But…diner!’ Isabella protested, always having adored a good diner. ‘Come on, let’s just walk around town. It’s a small place, we’re bound to find it eventually.’
Alberto begrudgingly conceded, which is how they found themselves face to face with a man in a suspiciously large trench coat, asking for directions after having gone down three long, wrong roads. Isabella suspected he was hiding snakes under that coat, judging by the suspicious hissing sounds interspersing his speech, but the fact that said speech seemed to be exclusively rhymes annoyed her more. His confusing aid, if you could even call it that, led them to yet another wrong street.
They did, of course, eventually make it to the diner – ‘Ossario’s! I told you it had an O!’ – after being seemingly guided by a particularly friendly dog. As they approached the establishment, Alberto thought he saw the paint of the building shimmering and changing colour slightly but dismissed it as hunger (and slight annoyance at Isabella’s insistence on eating at the diner, if he was honest).
The woman behind the wrap-around counter introduced herself as Alecia Ossario, the owner of the diner. If you passed her on the street, she would most likely end up as nothing more than a face you see in a dream and wake up trying to place. Yet, for some indescribable reason, both Alberto and Isabella couldn’t help but be drawn to her, intrigued by the notion of her very existence. The room’s light seemed to bend around her, respectfully leaving her untouched; but rather than leave her shrouded in the dark, she shimmered as she moved.
‘I’m Isabella and he’s Alberto. We just moved in.’
‘Berto and Bella – how sweet! I didn’t know number eight had gone to such a lovely couple,’ Alecia said with a smile. She smiled with her eyes, her genuineness probably the only reason Bella noticed them. She couldn’t be sure because it really wasn’t the sort of thing you saw very often, but she swore she saw her eyes change colour.
‘Oh! Oh, no,’ Berto countered, a little tired of the same song and dance over and over again. ‘We’re not a couple.’
‘Definitely not,’ Bella picked up, easing him of the burden of explanation. ‘He’s a writer, and I’m an artist, so we can both work from wherever we want, as long as his editor and my gallery get something every now and then. “Wherever we want” just so happens to coincide, so we moved in together to save money.’
Alecia seemed impressed and asked a little about their work, Bella noticing each time her eyes changed colour, before segueing into their orders.
‘We’re starved,’ Bella blurted out before Berto had a chance to ask for a menu. ‘Whatever can be made the fastest.’
‘Burgers and chips coming right up,’ Alecia noted, turning to the kitchen.
The moment she was out of earshot, Bella pulled Berto in close. ‘Dude! Did you see –’
‘Her eyes?’ Berto interjected, nodding vigorously. ‘Yeah, I saw ‘em too. You know what else? I saw the paint on the outside change colour too.’
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Episode 2: Same Night, New Fight
Tony Hall walked into Due North’s one and only gym, strutting up to the ring in the centre, basking in the crowd’s cheers and laughter. He’d fought in this ring for nearing five years now, five nights a week – same as any other job.
In those years, he’d faced all sorts of opponents: small, impossibly fast fighters; large, bulky fighters who moved slowly but packed a punch and a half; bears; bearotaurs, terrifying bear-minotaur hybrids; bearees, which are towering creatures that can split into several smaller bears and still not be against the rules since they aren't technically more than one entity...okay, mostly bears. He had about evens odds on winning, which weren’t exactly thrilling, but, for reasons beyond even his own understanding, he drew larger crowds than anyone in the history of the ring.
He ducked under the ropes, his confidence ebbing and flowing through him, absolutely loving the cheers of the only town in the south of England with “North” in its name. Then his opponent entered the ring, and it went up in a puff of smoke, leaving a sputtering river in its place.
Tony looked into a face held somewhere just under two feet higher than his own, a snarl rippling across it. One eye was covered with a scar, leaving it permanently shut and the other stayed steadily transfixed on Tony, as if it were looking right through him, instantly identifying his every weakness. Apparently having chosen to fight bare-chested, three tally marks could be seen tattooed on the left of the minotaur’s chest and Tony really did not want to find out what they were for. While most fighters used their species’ characteristics to their advantage, the minotaur had wrapped a cloth over his horns and some of his head.
The act of kindness did nothing to ease his worries, and only one word blazed through Tony’s mind.
Mr Tunt’s disapproval began to take over that singular thought, clouding Tony’s assessment of his opponent. I don't want you to wind up in a hospital. Or worse, in the ground! Tony had joked about wanting to be cremated, assuring him he had nothing to worry about (three broken noses, a fractured arm, and a sprained leg later, there wasn't exactly nothing to worry about, so much as only recoverable injuries). He protested but eventually gave in, realising there was no way to talk Tony out of it.
It was initially just about the money. Tony had wound up in Due North quite by accident. His parents had been killed in a botched, still-unsolved burglary, leaving his eighteen-year-old self with little money, a flat he could no longer afford to stay in, and no relatives to turn to.
Eventually, he found his way to Due North and to Mr Tunt's brownstone, sanctimoniously named Tunt Towers even though there just the one, average-sized building. He gave him room and board in exchange for handyman services, which, as it turned out, Tony had a particular knack for.
There was only so much the old man could do though, and Tony didn't want to burden him for longer than he had to. He picked up other jobs around town and eventually caught wind of Frankie's ring.
It was initially just about the money. But each blow, delivered and received, helped to numb some of his constant pain. He had gotten quite good at keeping it hidden, but it never lurked further than just below the surface. Each punch helped push it lower, pushing the rainy day upon the dawning of which the cloud would burst further into the future.
So, Tony stayed on. He stayed on in spite of promotions at his day job, and eventually he stayed on instead of them. He couldn't be called a professional fighter - none of them could be, on account of the ring not being entirely, well, legal - but as far as he was concerned, he was.
Tony shook his head clear and tried to regain some of the confidence he entered the ring with, pushing aside all other thoughts with a deep breath. He tried reasoning that larger opponents may be stronger, but they’d be slower too, but knew from experience that was more of a human rule than a universal one. Before he could come up with a more actionable plan, Frankie, the ring organiser and referee, blew his extremely shrill whistle (which Tony had begged him to replace multiple times) and the fight began.
The minotaur, contrary to what Tony had come to expect, had no characteristic bellow or over the top pre-fight intimidation sequence. Instead, he nodded his head as a sign of respect, and Tony couldn’t help but return the action.
The pair circled each other, beginning the fight as usual. The minotaur stared at Tony unblinkingly, drawing his attention to eyes Tony had only ever seen on a snake. His irises were soaked yellow, shining in the ring’s similarly coloured lighting, and his pupils were thin black slits. His chest heaved mechanically up and down, each breath a deliberate action, each deliberate action mimicked by his pupils.
Then, the calm before the storm ended and Tony realised why his opponent had his horns wrapped – he didn’t need them in the slightest. The minotaur unleashed a flurry of fists, throwing Tony this way and that, his body never hitting the ground before another punch threw him awry. With a huff, he shoved Tony in the chest, pushing him into the ropes on the other end of the ring, where he took hold and managed to get some much-needed relief. The minotaur stood in place, not a single bead of sweat on his brow, nor a strand of hair out of place. The tussle had apparently taken nothing out of him at all.
Frankie offered Tony a bottle of water from the side lines which he took gratefully, and had to stop himself from downing whole for fear of cramps. The next few minutes went a little better than the beginning of the fight, with Tony getting in a few punches of his own. “Few” being the keyword.
Just as Tony thought the fight was called, the minotaur faltered. It was an almost imperceptible mishap, a block thrown up a second too late, but Tony saw it. He seized his chance, loosened his arm, tightened his fist, and swung at his foe’s chest, knocking him back with surprising strength.
Speed on his side, Tony didn’t let his small window go to waste. He lunged forward, rapidly jabbing three more punches into the minotaur’s chest, then (cautiously) swinging at the side of his face for good measure.
He pivoted and grabbed his head in a headlock, waiting for him to tap out. Even with the apparent advantage, Tony braced himself for a painful upcoming manoeuvre, something that would knock his temporary advantage out of the park and have him pinned down instead, but the minotaur conceded, and Frankie blew the whistle, calling the fight. Tony exhaled and lay flat on his back. He was still heaving when Frankie pulled him up to announce him to the crowds and was grinning absurdly wildly as their cheers grew louder. The minotaur shook his hand and left before him, not a hint of malice or disgrace in his poise.
Frankie handed Tony a significantly larger wad of notes than he was used to, which he took with a cheer of his own. He waved his winnings at the crowd, then ducked out of the ring. Leave when you’re on top, right?
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Episode 3: Into the Thick of It, Part I
The quiet early morning moon washed Alecia Ossario in its silvery tinge. She was dressed in black from head to toe, turtleneck covered with a leather jacket with far too many pockets to even be possible on top and jeans and lace-up boots on the bottom, save for her hair which had decided green was the way to go tonight. She made a mental note to tell Jasper to bring the delivery time a couple hours ahead, so she doesn’t have to be up when the only other people awake are the aquatics, gnomes, and faeries. Still, primetime for client scouting.
The silence of the night was broken only by the faint sound of an approaching car, thrumbling slowly down the end of the road. It purred along almost noiselessly, but on this particular night, nothing else, not a frog or an angry moth (those things could work up a real racket when they wanted) stirred even in the slightest, and no music from a water sprite afterparty rung through the night (If there’s one thing those guys know, it’s how to party, Alecia thought to herself), making it the loudest sound for miles.
Its busted headlights illuminated only a few feet of the winding road in front of it, something that Alecia thought was a touch risqué, especially considering she quite valued the cargo, and the side lines were more amphibian than she would have liked. She spun her fingers by her side, weaving a little light in between her slender fingers and let it fall in front of the car. Grateful for the light, it steered a bit more steadily before coming calmly to a stop a few feet in front of Alecia.
The driver turned the engine off and stepped out. A black boot hit the ground first, a tiny spark flying off, before a jaunty, dapper man stepped out. He had a dark trench coat draped over a brown suit and a half-buttoned olive-green shirt. He rounded out the sombreness with a yellow scarf and topped it all off with a top hat balanced on his head, tilted precariously to one side. His face belonged to a much younger man, all save for the eyes, which betrayed his true age.
‘Alecia!’ he exclaimed. ‘How you doing, darling?’
‘Just fine, J, just fine. You should really get that headlight fixed, ya know.’
‘Yeah, you know how it is. Always something in the way.’
‘Uh huh. Well, shall we get down to business?’
‘Always so quick on the draw, Alecia. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you didn’t like me very much,’ he jested, leading the way to the back of the car nonetheless.
‘Who said I liked ya? I do like what you’re carrying though, if that helps,’ she said, winking.
Jasper mimed being shot in the heart with a laugh, then opened the trunk; Alecia twiddled her fingers and redirected the light from the road to the trunk to get a better view. Two plastic-wrapped packages, roughly the size of sacks of flour, gleamed in her light, boasting colourful pills packed to the brim, threatening to spill and scatter across the pavement.
‘Jasper, plastic? I thought we’d already had this conversation, come on.’
‘I know, I know, sorry. Last-minute complication leaving me with no choice. Won’t happen again, don’t worry.’
Alecia huffed. ‘Fine. Leave it with me. If a satyr drops by, I’ll throw it in as a “gesture of good faith”.’
Producing a knife from one of her jacket pockets, Alecia made a small, sharp cut in the packaging of one of the two, scooping up the pills before they could hit the ground. She crushed the edge of one of them and sucked on the produced powder, testing its strength and pocketing the rest.
‘What? Still don’t think I’m good for it?’
‘I don’t think you’re smart enough for it, J. Twice now you’ve been duped into bringing me candy. Not even the good kind. Ended up giving it away with meals at the diner both times.’
‘Hey, twice in – shit, how long has it been? Whatever. Twice in however many years is still pretty damn good!’ he protested.
‘Yeah, well, I’d just like to make sure it’s not three. But yeah, you’re good for it this time.’ She reached into another pocket and produced a wad of cash. Jasper took it with an exaggerated bow, Alecia’s response to which was to roll her eyes, and unloaded the two packages before closing the trunk and walking back to the driver’s seat.
‘Fix that headlight, J,’ Alecia called out. ‘Can’t count on me for light on your other routes.’
‘Bye Alecia!’ came the singsong reply as he sped off into the night.
Berto, true to himself woke up well after noon. Bella, most untrue to herself, woke up even after him, having chosen to finish moving in after dinner the previous night. After a decidedly most undignified wake up, as Bella had so elegantly put it, Berto dragged the pair of them to a bookshop simply named Deluca’s. He raved about it the entire way there, claiming it was half the reason he moved to Due North at all.
Large glass double doors stood front and centre, opposite the canal that ran through the town. Small tables lined the two storefronts it occupied, its wonderfully comfortable light spilling out onto the pavement in front. Postcards hung from near invisible strings, each one unlike its neighbours, boasting fantastical narratives and landscapes dipping in and out of reality.
Overlapping scents floated around inside, books, new and old, mingling lively with fresh-baked cakes and pastries; the quietest music, soft around the edges, piggybacked on the aromas. Rows of books lined the front half of the store, some simply stacked on shelfs, some on painted carousels, others on platters hanging from the ceiling, and still other, ludicrously expensive ones, behind glass cases. The latter half boasted the most impressive patisserie either one of Berto or Bella had seen (‘And I did a year in Paris!’ Bella remarked). Lines of pastries, macaroons, puffs, breads, doughnuts, waffles, and more streaked down the enormous glass casing, leaving the two of them instantly famished, despite having eaten only half an hour ago.
Alia Deluca herself manned the counter, introducing herself proudly. It wasn’t arrogant pride, Berto noted silently, even though, looking around, she had every right to be. Rather, it was indulgent and her smile warm and welcoming, inviting you to enjoy with her.
Bella ordered a black coffee with a plain muffin and Berto, with a little more than a little difficulty, managed to ask for a strawberry tart and an iced coffee. Bella thought she glimpsed something vaguely bear-like in the kitchen while placing her order, but then kicked herself for making fun of someone’s body.
‘Such a vanilla order,’ Berto chided once they were seated. The sun was shining, a light breeze was blowing, and the riverbank glittered with fish merrily making their way about, so they took a table outside.
‘What? Afraid I embarrassed you in front of your new little friend?’
‘What?’ Berto cried incredulously.
‘Oh please, you could barely make it to the end of that order!’
‘I’m sure I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ he firmly negated, smiling slightly nonetheless.
Bella would have perhaps been less focused on teasing Berto if they had sat inside. For all the attention they spent on the bookshop itself, they had completely neglected the patrons, a mere glance at whom would have proved to be a rather useful introduction for the oncoming evening.
Dotted across the tables and mingling amongst the books were people of all sorts. Faries, harpies, and other small, winged creatures were either sat at tiny tables hanging from the ceiling, enjoying appropriately sized coffees and breads, or zipped around through the shop, their own light mixing comfortably with Deluca’s’ ambiance.
At a table on the ground, sat an elf and a dwarf dressed for two completely different occasions. The elf was clad in colourless clothes, black from the top to bottom, save for a red and white striped scarf. The dwarf, on the other hand, looked like he would be right at home amongst the stars of Milan’s fashion week (if, you know, they allowed people standing at half the average human height). A white shirt was tucked into burgundy trousers with a chequered blue jacket buttoned up on top. He completed the ensemble with a small yellow scarf tied around his neck, half tucked into his shirt, half falling out gracefully on top of it. Their coffees had gotten cold and were instead signing rapidly at each other and pointing to places on maps strewn across the table, apparently amid a high-stakes discussion.
Another was occupied by a donsy of gnomes, chattering across enough servings of biscuits and cups of tea to go around two per gnome and still have more to spare. They were a little lounder than Alia would have liked for a bookshop crowd, but they ate a lot and tipped heartily so she didn’t mind them all too much.
Cats floated around the books section of the store, merrily browsing Alia’s collection. Only their heads were visible at any one point, the rest of their limbs operating invisibly, and even they puffed in and out of visibility. Contrary to what one would have thought, the cats had exemplary hygiene standards: these cats didn’t shed nor drool and if they happened to somehow make a mess of things, they could magic it away along with themselves. Of course, their little disappearing act gave their kind the ability to be very, very good thieves (Alia had even met a few, thankfully not at her own place though) but the clowder that frequented Deluca’s spent a small fortune every month on books and then spent hours talking to her about them – they were her favourite customers.
Berto and Bella would have met all these people and more, if only they had sat inside, and would maybe even have been advised not to cross a minotaur’s territory, even by accident. Instead, all they saw were the fish, scales gleaming in the sun as they dipped in and out of the water, swimming merrily along the canal.
Episode 4: Into the Thick of It, Part II
The last few nights had been good to Tony, and he’d began to get accustomed to winning and to a winner’s money. He suspected word had got around about his fight with the minotaur and now his opponents lost before they entered the ring.
A little restaurant, perched atop a cliff overlooking the sprawling town below, had become his new favourite. La Francesca was named after the original name of the owner’s hometown, with some town rumours suggesting Giuseppe had been alive ever since it went by the name. They were famously secretive though, so no one knew how much truth there was to the claim. Giuseppe mingled freely and openly with their patrons, laughing and smiling their way through each diner, but always deflected any questions about themself. The only thing anyone knew about them was the history behind their restaurant’s name, something that they proudly exclaimed to the world, and had on display under a painting of the town’s shoreline.
‘You obviously love the place so much. It’s practically the only thing anyone knows about you. Why don’t you ever visit?’ Tony once asked them.
Giuseppe smiled. ‘You’re not from around here either, Tony. Why don’t you visit?’
Tony sighed a sad smile. ‘Ah, there’s nothing left for me back where I come from.’
‘What’s your story, Tony?’
‘Giuseppe, you have your secrets, I have mine,’ Tony replied smirking. Truth be told, it was less of a secret and more a painful memory, but he liked sounding mysterious, especially considering it wasn’t often he got to.
Giuseppe laughed. ‘I can appreciate that. Looks like we’ve both set up shop pretty well out here though. I’ve heard about your fights.’
Tony smiled modestly in reply and Giuseppe moved on to their next patron.
The shop Giuseppe had set up, as they rather modestly put it, had a line of tables along a glass-panelled wall affording a magnificent view of the town it oversaw, bathed in candlelight encased in intricately carved glass and marble holders in place of electric lighting. Tony generally sat at the bar, seeing as how it was the only place where a solitary diner could get a table. In addition to the countless bottles proudly on display behind the counter, a carousel to the left shielded in a glass casing boasted a most delicate selection of wines. Tony generally wouldn’t drink much but did order a lot of pie and usually ended up taking a little home (in all honesty though, “home” ended up meaning the walk there).
Today, something a little different was in store. Usually the walk home was quiet, the cool evening breeze mixing with the pie’s (somehow everlasting) aromas as he walked home, a whistle on his lips and not a care in the world. This time, a familiar face emerged from the shadows.
Tony whipped around abruptly, keeping one hand on his box of pie and the other up in a defensive stance. The minotaur from the other night stared down at him, his face entirely expressionless. His horns were no longer wrapped, their deep green mixing with the night.
‘There’s no need for that,’ he continued. ‘Please, relax.’
Tony eyed him suspiciously.
‘My name is Taur. Yes, Taur, the minotaur. Go ahead, I’ve heard all the jokes.’
Tony stifled a laugh and let down his guard. ‘Pie?’ he offered.
‘No, thanks. But please, follow me. We’ve got something to show you.’ Taur turned around and began walking down the other side of the hill, opposite to Tony’s house, without waiting to see if he latter would follow.
Tony considered his options. On the one hand, he could go home, maybe drop in on Mr Tunt’s poker game, and go to bed with beer and pie in his stomach. On the other, Taur’s appearance felt like something out of a movie with secret agents recruiting an unsuspecting citizen to save the world. He knew it was stupid, he knew it didn’t make sense. He also knew there was no way he would be sleeping tonight if he didn’t find out what Taur wanted to show him. He jogged to catch up.
‘Quit your complaining. You got to pick the bookshop, I pick the hike,’ Bella chided.
‘Yeah, well, at least you liked the bookshop too. I’ll never understand what you like about running through the woods and mosquitoes, all drenched in sweat.’
‘Oh, shut it. You’ll see. You’ll love it by the end,’ she said forging ahead, much more chipper than he was.
‘Starting to think staying in the city would have been better,’ Berto muttered.
‘What was that?’
‘Nothing!’ he said, running to keep up with her.
Berto eventually ended up sharing some of Bella’s enthusiasm after a while, but there was no way he could give her the satisfaction of knowing she was right, so made sure to grumble periodically. In the middle of one such complain, Bella shushed him abruptly.
‘Wait, shut up.’
‘Shh! Look there,’ she said, pointing an extended arm ahead of them. The trees grew shorter and shorter as they hiked further away from the town boundary and stood somewhere around the eight-feet mark where Bella was pointing.
There were two men ahead of them, one of whom had their head quite literally in the trees. She couldn’t quite make them out, but she thought she saw horns protruding out from the sides of the head too; they blended in with the evergreen trees overhead, making it seem like they were only sometimes there. The two didn’t seem like hikers: they had no backpack or gear of any sort – not even a water bottle – and one of them was carrying a box marked with the sign of La Francesca, a restaurant both Berto and Bella had been meaning to visit.
The taller one seemed to be in charge, as if he were leading the other somewhere, but it didn’t feel like a hostage situation. Bella could make out conversational noises coming from them, but couldn’t quite understand what was being said.
‘Want to follow them?’ she asked Berto.
‘Are you insane? Have you seen the size of that guy? If we follow him and it turns out we aren’t welcome, we’re done for.’
‘Oh, come on. If he didn’t want to be followed, he should have been quieter. He’s clearly leading the other guy somewhere. Aren’t you even a little curious where?’
Now that she pointed it out, Berto saw it too. The larger of the two walked with purpose and navigated the forest’s uneven terrain with ease. He knew these grounds.
‘Goddamn it,’ he finally caved.
Berto and Bella followed the other two until the trees narrowed to a passage and eventually gave way to a large clearing enclosed in a circle of trees of its own. The taller man strode confidently forward down the line of trees and the other followed, albeit a little more meekly. Berto and Bella followed until they reached the clearing, at which point they hung back, huddled in the shelter of the trees. They were too far away to make out much of what was being said and their view was shielded both by the absurdly large people there and the trees standing guard.
‘What do you think’s going on?’ Berto asked.
Bella shushed him. ‘Shut up! We don’t want them to hear us.’
They observed in silence, desperately trying to hear even a snippet. Berto inched a little closer, dangling from a tree with an outstretched arm.
And that was his mistake.
The towering man had only made it a little past the edge when Berto’s foot caught a protruding root and he tripped and crushed a set of twigs underfoot.
The man whipped around, confirming the fact that Bella was not, indeed, hallucinating the horns, and snarled at them, menacingly stepping closer.
‘Just what do you think you two are doing here?’ he questioned, drawing out each syllable threateningly.
Berto and Bella shuddered in fright by way of reply, something that only seemed to anger him more.
‘If you know what’s good for you, you two will leave. Now!’ he bellowed.
‘Hey!’ came a familiar voice from somewhere in the back. ‘Ease up on the threats. They’re cool.’
Berto and Bella relaxed a little. They had been going to her diner almost every day and had become good friends in that time. Seeing her there eased their worries a little.
‘Really though, you guys should get out of here,’ she continued, getting up and walking towards them. ‘This place is kind of invite-only and we’re pretty serious about that. Taur more than others.’ Taur gave a low growl to punctuate that last addition and huffed.
Berto and Bella gave Alecia a nod of thanks who promised them answers when they next met, and they hurried away, but not before Berto glimpsed Alia amongst the crowd giving him a little wave with an embarrassed smile.
Episode 5: The River’s Song, Part I
Bella, solo this time, trudged through the forest trying her best to retrace their steps from the night before. For all the craziness and world-shattering revelations she had quite literally stumbled upon in this very forest, she knew it was the best place to clear her head.
Canvas and colours in tow, she had a very specific place in mind. Just before she saw the minotaur, she spotted the most beautiful river all the way at the bottom of the cliff face. The deep blue silk, dropped from the heavens, had left Bella instantly mesmerised. The sunrise was her first thought, and sure enough, here she was, fumbling around in the dark forest before first light; she had forgotten her phone at home, leaving strange-looking luminescent shrubbery as the only available light source. Whether she doubled back, walked in circles, changed directions, or simply stood in place, they were always there and couldn’t ever be seen more than a few feet ahead.
Truthfully, some small part of her thought they were guiding her towards the river. A few days ago – maybe even just a few hours ago – she would have immediately dismissed the thought, but now she wasn’t so sure. If minotaurs were real, why couldn’t mildly telepathic (hopefully helpful) berries be?
In the end, it was these berries and their guiding light that led her to the river she ardently sought. Without them, she was sure to have continued blundering about well into the morning, missing the sunrise altogether (that had happened once on her holiday to Greenland, with the slipup ending in the week’s supply of ice cream magically disappearing overnight and a slightly ticked off girlfriend).
Her eyes were treated to the sight of miles upon miles of uncultured land, stretching to the very ends of the earth until it merged with the horizon and gradually rising sun. Through it all, cut the river. The startling, glorious, sparkling river that glittered impossibly bright. The moment Bella saw it, she breathed an impossible sigh. One of calm and elation and serendipity and ease. A sigh more complicated than she could have ever imagined being possible, but one that was there all the same.
She cast a glance across it, trying to process its enormity and find the perfect spot from which to paint the sun whose ascent she wished would slow, but it was a futile effort. The river stretched just as far as the pastures did, perhaps even further, with seemingly no end in sight, so she began to walk.
As she scaled the riverbank, her enchantment grew. Music wafted all around her, apparently being carried by the light breeze itself. The river’s song permeated every faction of the pastures, dipping to the bottom of the stream, jostling flowers, and soaring up to mingle with the clouds all at once. It tickled the grass, carried stray leaves to the ground, and sang with the distant hills. More than anything though, more than the magic it seemed to breathe into the world, it felt like the source of life all around.
Alongside Bella swam tadpoles, moving faster than she thought was possible. As she watched, they grew right before her eyes, tiny limbs building in their upper sections before springing out, tails shrinking inward, and a fully formed frog taking its place in a matter of minutes.
Bella watched on in quiet bewilderment, managing no more of a reaction than a smile as she continued forward, finally having seen her perfect spot. As she sat down to paint the sunrise in her own, beautifully distorted style, she took note of the sky and all it had to offer for the first time, having previously been much too preoccupied with the grandiose of the river.
Pegasi dotted the clouds, their pearly whites, rich browns, and obsidian blacks, bathing in the sun’s light, renewing their coats for the new day. Leading the sun’s ascent, almost carrying the light itself, Bella saw a bird flanked by luminescent wings. Red, orange, yellow, and fantastically golden gradients graced its feathers, simultaneously blending in with the horizon and outshining the rest of the sky. It grew as it flew upwards, a new colour appearing with each beat of its impossibly large wings.
There were flocks of traditionally flightless peacocks soaring confidently; birds with two heads and others with four wings; griffins, somehow poised regally even mid-flight; and large, three-eyed ravens. A sudden fire on a cliff face preluded the arrival of a phoenix, the raging plumes chasing its coattails as it pushed higher and higher, disappearing into a puff of smoke at the edge of Bella’s vision.
In the distance, was a bird that seemed as though it was born of the river, its feathers glowing an enticing blue, creating a second, bluer, sun in the sky. Bella was instantly struck with jealousy, desiring such an innate connection to the river of her own. The bird streaked across the sky, landing on a distant mountaintop, morphing into a humanoid figure as it touched down, still retaining its wings.
Some part of her expected these incredulities. She was beyond bewilderment at this point, and instead rested comfortably in quiet amazement, soaking in the wonder around her. As the sun painted the pastures, Bella painted her canvas, and as the river glimmered, basking in the dawn, she began to mentally connect the dots, a clearer picture slowly beginning to take place. Alecia and her twinkling, changing eyes might not be human; the dog that guided them to her diner on their first day might actually have understood them; and minotaurs, and possibly even other beings that could previously only be found on the pages of myths, were real.
There would be others too, she reasoned. There was every possibility that people she had gotten to know and grown close to weren’t human. She wondered what that meant, if at all it meant anything, and ultimately decided that it didn’t. It didn’t matter at all. She sighed contently, a smile brighter than any that had ever graced her face never once faltering, marvelling at her luck at having found this town.
Episode 6: The River’s Song, Part II
Berto found himself staring at the face of one of those mornings. One of those days where you wake up irritated and annoyed at the world in general for no real reason. He was glad Bella had left early, or he was sure to have started a fight over something stupid and come to regret it immediately.
Pushing himself up, he cast his mind back to the events of the previous night, the entire thing feeling like a fever dream. Minotaurs, secret societies in the woods, Alecia and Alia somehow wrapped up in the whole business? It all sounded like something from a book – something from one of his books! He didn’t know what to make of it.
He did know that sitting around and doing nothing would only drive him insane, so, thinking some coffee would do him good (ease his typical morning discomfort if nothing else – he was, and there’s no stressing this enough, not a morning person), he went down to the kitchen, but changed his mind and decided to go to Deluca’s instead, craving a hot brew better than he could ever hope to make on his own.
In all honesty, what he really craved was Alia’s company; he always came away from their conversations smiling, but that wasn’t really something he was ready to admit to himself just yet. Plus, she might have some answers for the questions that plagued his mind. He grabbed a light pullover and headed out, already feeling a little better.
At the end of the lane, he stopped, something else having caught his attention. Where the road forked, one path towards town and the other leading to the forest, Berto paused. It was faint, almost indiscernible, but it seemed to him, there was music in the air. There was no mistaking it – coming from the path leading to the forest, there was the most sensational melody Berto had ever heard, instantly easing his mind, calming his nerves, and shaking of the weariness of the morning.
He looked up to find its source; where he expected a performer of some sort, he was instead met with the sight of a horse made entirely out of water. Currents swirled and eddied throughout its body, sending ripples across it as it stood in place, wholly unaware of the wonderful music that emanated from it. Nose buried in the ground, it was apparently in deep conversation with an unusually whirlpooled pile of leaves.
The moment it saw Berto’s curiously fascinated gaze fixed upon it, it neighed an embarrassed goodbye to the leaves and exploded on the spot, a light shower splattering down around it. To Berto’s surprise, it rematerialised a few paces away, slowly picking up speed. He paused to weigh Alia – Deluca’s coffee, he corrected – against a literal horse made of water, groaned, and set off after it.
It proved remarkably difficult to follow, with the repeated disappearing and whatnot, but he managed to largely keep track of it, following deep into the woods, dipping and diving between trees and jumping across low-lying shrubbery and stray roots. He didn’t pause for breath or grumble once. He was much too afraid of losing track of it; one misstep, one momentary sideways glance, would be all it would take.
The water horse led Berto to a clearing of which he stopped just short, choosing to stay hidden in the trees. His first impression was that the hiding may, however, have been unnecessary for this clearing was nothing like the one he and Bella had happened upon the day before. There was no guard of trees, no angry figures standing taller than any regular human should have been able to, no gathering shrouded in secrecy, and no angry bellows threatening them to leave. Instead, Berto found himself, once again, facing something of which he understood little to nothing. He thought he would have been getting tired of the same song and dance, but instead felt something more akin to tranquillity.
The same song he had heard coming from the horse he followed intensified tenfold here. Instead of being imposing and loud though, it fit in contentedly with the other sounds of the forest, weaving between empty spaces and comfortably filling in quiet spots. An orchestra sprung forth, creating a uniquely designed padded backdrop. Berto wasn’t sure how he knew – there was no way it was possible – but the melody seemed to be coming from the river flowing through, each horse likely having sprung forth from the same waters.
The horse he followed joined a herd, all trotting around idlily, doing basically what Berto expected from a regular herd. There seemed to be loosely defined groups scattered around, but the horses being made of water rendered “groups” more of a conceptual idea than an actual definition.
From his hidden vantage point, Berto watched two horses engaged in a tussle of some sort along the riverbank. They ran headfirst into each other, bursting into water the second before impact, the water flowing through one another with life of its own, momentarily reforming as one horse with two heads, dissipating, forming a horse twice the size of one, then finally separating back into two.
Tony knew he shouldn’t interfere, especially after the events of the night before. He woke up wanting answers and, although he did indeed have new questions, he had gotten some. There was something magical about Due North, and not just in the sense that the town was everything he wanted and more. There was actual magic at work here – myths turned to reality, fiction to fact, and stories sprung forth from the page. He knew he ought to just leave and be glad he got to witness this marvel, but some part of him compelled the rest of him forward, acting independent of all rationale.
He stepped out of the bushes and into the clearing. Everyone around him froze, staring intently at him. A horse quietly materialised behind him and nudged him forward with a surprisingly solid – and sharp – horn. It didn’t feel like a threat, there was no anger in the action, but Berto understood the message clearly enough. Forwards. Please.
He walked slowly, drinking in the surroundings, lost entirely in awe, any notion of the possible danger he may have landed himself in pushed far out of his mind. His was afforded a much richer view from his current position than he had from his hiding spot in the trees. It looked more like a fairy tale, than it did real life. No. No, it felt more like the cover of a fairy tale.
There was nothing specifically remarkable about the clearing. In fact, just about the only thing that stood out was the river. It dazzled Berto with its brilliance, shining in the sun soaring overhead. It was a purer blue than he had ever seen before – ever even imagined before – and made the sky seem like a reflection of it, rather than the other way around.
The horse behind him continued nudging him towards that river until he was on its banks, almost at the very spot the horses…Berto wasn’t sure what to call the other-worldly display he saw. The water began to froth and churn and as he watched, another horse grew out of the disturbance.
The newcomer was smaller than the rest, but had an air of confidence and importance, and Berto immediately understood it to be in charge – the chief, mayor, sheriff, leader, emperor, or whatever name they used for leader. The new horse wasted no time dawdling with lengthy preambles about who they were and the extent of their powers. It immediately charged Berto with trespassing and demanded to know how he found them.
A quick glance back at the horse he followed told him that the truth would probably not bode well for the equestrian. On the other hand, he had no idea what these horses were capable of, and if they came with some sort of in-built lie detector, lying would not bode well for him.
He cursed silently. There was no real choice here.
‘I’m not sure. I’m – I’m extremely confused right now and don’t have a clue about what’s going on. What are you guys? Where am I? And what exactly am I trespassing on?’
Needless to say, Berto was frightened throughout the lie so wasn’t sure how convincing he was, but it seemed like it worked. The chief grumbled something about weakening magic and it not technically being Berto’s fault, so settled for an immediate escort off their land.
‘Oh, yes! Yes, for sure. I will leave right away,’ Berto said, relieved at the verdict.
‘That won’t be necessary, human.’
Before Berto could voice his confusion, the river rose up and engulfed him whole, sending him into a terrified shock. He didn’t know how to swim – he had tried learning for years on end, but never seemed to be able to get the hang of it – and drowning was right up there on his list of fears. He tried holding his breath, but his hyperventilation made that impossible, and he was swept into the currents a panicking mess.
His distress proved to be for naught. He was pulled deep into the river, but with a protective bubble surrounding him, shielding him from the torrents and his fears. Once Berto realised this, he calmed down and began to laugh out of delight.
He could see perfectly and breathe with ease. The bubble carried him forwards, pushing him through the river, giving him a front row seat to the wonders that lay within. He saw water foals, only able to hold their equestrian forms for a few seconds before reverting to a swirl of water. He saw fish with scales that glittered and changed colours in front of his eyes – gold then silver then red then orange. Merfolk and sirens mingled freely, the river’s hauntingly beautiful song finding new life in theirs’.
Berto was too engrossed in the river’s secrets to notice when it had brought him back to town, depositing him a little way away from Deluca’s. He smiled. He didn’t have to make a choice after all.