The Last Life of Prince Alastor – Alexandra Bracken

A voice cried out through the darkening snowfall. It was a wisp of a sound, so very pitiful and weak. At first, Alastor had merely been surprised it survived the journey through the mirrors at all. And yet, that whimper had wrapped around his senses. It held on as he sat before his hearth of crackling green magic, dining on his evening feast of banebats and pumpkin mash. Help me … He might have mistaken it for a foul wind cutting through his tower, except that the words were laced with alluring pain. With delicious desperation. With the promise of powerful magic for the taking. Help me, I beg thee! I shall, the malefactor thought with a smirk. And gladly. And so Alastor, Prince of the Realm, had set his silvered knife down and risen to find the tether of magic already awaiting him on the surface of the mirror. When a mortal’s desire was strong enough, it created a shimmering ribbon of emerald power that Alastor could then trace back to its source. He lifted a silver chain off its hook on the wall, dropping it over his head. The small lantern dangling from the necklace clacked against his coat’s spider-shaped buttons. Alastor relished the shiver of the mirror’s glass as he passed through it.

Help … He followed the begging voice through the winding tunnels of the mirror pathways. The essence of that grief, that anger, only made the tether burn brighter through their smog and shadows. Excitement licked through him at the sight of it glowing. What sort of mortal wormling, he wondered, might carry the potential for so very much magic? Someone with immense responsibility, surely, with tremendous power over the lives of other humans. A king, perhaps? An emperor, even? Oh, how he would lord this over his brothers until their black hearts burst with jealousy and outrage! He’d make sure the bounty of magic from this deal would make them rue the day they ignored this particular summons. His brothers often relied on their many minions to go out and gather magic for them. They were far too busy hosting balls and duelling with trolls to do the very thing that they were born to do – that is, aside from ruling lesser fiends. As Alastor had learned, if one wished for power, one had to seize it for oneself. Only, the second he reached the portal into the human world, he knew his fantasies had been little more than delusions. The human mirror was small, no bigger than what most of those flea-bitten men used while shaving their faces.

Alastor had never understood that custom, as facial hair often improved their otherwise ratlike features and made them somewhat bearable to a fiend’s refined eye. This one, however, was not currently in use at all. He gripped the frame of the mirror. Considering. Watching from behind the glass, hidden. A frigid gust of wind reached him, coating the surface of the portal like frost. The warm, damp heat of Downstairs was at his back, urging him to return. A shaving mirror, of all things! One that served as a window into what appeared to be a bleak shack of dark wood, not a gilded mirror gazing upon a suitably glittering palace hall. Help … help us all … He ought to have gone back to the comfort of his tower and pumpkin mash and left the mortal to his suffering. Yet his hands were fixed to the frame, his claws digging into the wood.

He had already come this far, hadn’t he? And regardless of what rank of troublesome scab this human was, the strength of his desire had lit the tether like a torch. Alastor supposed, with an indignant sniff, all humans, whether peasant or king, longed, hated, feared and suffered, only to different degrees. That was the dance of human existence. They swung from one misery to another, trading partners and rivals as they spun through their ever-dwindling years. The potential for strong magic was still there, if Alastor could discover whatever desire had been powerful enough to summon him in the first place. He would wring it out of the man’s pitiful heart like the last drops of ooze from a rotbeetle, until he had his contract. Pouring himself through the tight constraints of the mirror’s frame, Alastor shifted into the form he took in the human world, that of an ivory-coated fox. Humans had a general distaste for darkly ferocious creatures, but the shifting also served the purpose of avoiding the glamour enchantment that plagued all fiends in the human realm. That curse of invisibility in their true forms had been a parting gift from the Ancients, before they walled themselves up inside of their own realm. The fact that only malefactors could shift was proof of their superiority, Alastor thought as he dropped silently on to the floor.

Other fiends were forced to rely on noise and shadow to provoke fear in the hearts of humans. While fear could be powerful, the magic the lesser fiends milked from that human emotion was a mere flame compared to the wildfire generated from each deal a malefactor made. Wind screeched through the gaps in the home’s slanted walls. Cold pierced him from all sides, like a thousand arrows. The frigid air alone almost made him turn back, but as soon as his paws had touched down, he was struck by wave after wave of agony. Anguish. There was so much of it in the house around him, it might as well have papered the walls. Alastor reached up with his paw, opening the small lantern that hung around his neck. The air wept magic. The power glittered and swirled as it flowed into the enchanted container.

As he waited for the gathering to finish, he took stock of his surroundings. The only source of light in the room had been from the dying fire in the hearth. His own hearth was a mighty structure, dominating the room like a glowering giant. He’d instructed the goblins to craft it from the finest dragonglass and encrust it with petrified elf hearts. This one, however, was little more than a pile of scorched stones, and the figure that sat before it was even less impressive by his estimation. It was a shapeless creature, wrapped in a faded quilt – a woman? The magic now seemed to be streaming solely from her. It rose from her shoulders in great, shuddering waves. A fearsome pain, indeed. It would be a simple thing to make a deal with a creature so vulnerable. Yet the tether did not lead to her.

It led outside. Her desire, it seemed, was not within his power to fulfil, or else he might have heard her voice through the mirror as well. He knew not to dally here any longer, but it was a curious sight, and Alastor found the curious to be irresistible. A pot for food had fallen on to its side beside her, as dry as a bone. Human fire was so strange – so very inefficient compared to the magic they used for heating, cooking and lighting Downstairs. Far more feeble and needy as well. The last of the fire survived on a few thin branches and what the woman fed into it. Bits of lace. A knitted bonnet, too small for her own head. A pair of shoes, no longer than a human thumb.

Alastor did not wish to look any longer, and did not have to. Exhausted, the woman released a soft sigh and slumped down on to the ground. The wind threw the door open with a terrific roar. Freezing air exploded around him, momentarily blinding him with a wall of endless white. Reluctantly, he slipped outside. The humans called this … snow. His lip curled back from his fangs. How he loathed snow. How the flecks of it caught in his coat, how it stung his eyes, how it made him shake like a hob about to have a horn removed. The only thing in its favour was that it better disguised this form; a white fox could travel far to find its prey unbothered when it all but disappeared into the landscape.

By the time he found the tether again through the driving wind, ice had frozen on to the pads of his paws. But there wasn’t much farther to go. Within moments, he realized he was no longer hearing the cries of the man inside his mind, but in his pointed ears. ‘Sorry – so deeply – my daughter—’ The man’s shape was dark through the veil of the winter storm. His black hat and cloak provided no shield from the flurries, but the man did not seem to care. He did not so much as look up as Alastor approached him from behind. The emerald glow of the magic in his lantern spilled out over the snow, but the man could not see it. Alastor did not think he would care about that either. Before him was a small hole in the ground, rapidly filling with snow. Beside that, a small wood chest.

The name CHARITY had been carved into its lid with careful strokes. They must not have been far from the ocean. Even with the sharp scent of frost in the air, Alastor’s refined nose detected the brine of its churning waters. The dirt piled beside the man was mixed with sand and rocks. His pleasure at this prospect deepened. Such soil, he’d come to learn over the centuries, meant little could grow. Little food meant little hope. Strangely, though, there seemed to be dozens of small growths, leafless saplings almost buried beneath the snow. No, he realized. A breath momentarily caught in his throat.

These were not saplings. They were grave markers. He waited until the man had lowered that box, which was so very small, into the ground. Until he had covered it again with dirt-stained snow. Alastor half expected the man to begin weeping again. Ice had crystallized on his lashes and flakes of snow had caught on his wet cheeks. The man sat back, his hands raw and red from the cold, his hard breathing forming white clouds around him. ‘Such loss,’ Alastor said, at last. The man looked up, his expression like that of a human lost in a nightmare. Seeing the magnificent creature before him, however, did not fill him with the appropriate awe.

Instead, he threw an arm over his face with a horrified cry. ‘Begone, devil!’ he moaned out. ‘A fox – speaking! Perhaps the fever now is upon me as well …’ Closer now, Alastor could see the wasting in the man’s form. Skin clung to his bones, chapped and seemingly bloodless. His already beady human eyes had sunk farther into his face. Hunger and suffering had hollowed him out, leaving, Alastor knew, more room to consider the offer now before him. He reached out to touch the tuft of fur on Alastor’s head, then yanked his hand back as if scalded. ‘Thou art real …’ ‘Indeed. However, I am no devil,’ Alastor said, because it was, for all intents and purposes, true. ‘A devil would not come to thee in thy time of great need.

’ ‘That is precisely when a devil would come,’ the man said, his voice hoarse. ‘When my heart is weak, and my faith shaken.’ Hmm. Fair point, well made. Alastor shifted strategies ever so slightly. ‘I am no devil, but I am a creature of business,’ he explained, miming innocence as he licked his paws. ‘I heard thy cries and came only to offer thee my services. I am Alastor. What is thy name?’ The man did not give it. Instead, he sat stone-faced, staring out at the hill of graves before him.

One of his hands stroked a gash in the fabric of his cloak. Then, without a word, he unknotted its strings from around his neck and draped the wool over Alastor’s small form. Though it was damp from the snow, the fabric was still warm and reeking of the man’s body. ‘Wh-what is the meaning of this?’ Alastor spluttered, too shocked to move out from beneath it. ‘You are freezing, creature,’ the man said simply. He rubbed at his thin shirtsleeves, all stained with soot and dirt. ‘Only one of us need die of this cold.’ Alastor momentarily lost his ability to speak. The mortal’s voice lowered. ‘It is for the best, you see.

There is but enough food to see my wife through the winter. She will need to keep her strength, to fend off the sickness.’ ‘Thou has lost a child,’ Alastor said, recovering. ‘Others, too, it seems … How heavy the heart sits, with that knowing. How it sickens. And yet you do not have to lie down and die beside them.’ ‘Thou art a devil,’ the man whispered, his face crumpling. ‘What dost thou know of pain?’ ‘Only,’ Alastor said, ‘that I have helped many out of its darkness.’ ‘Can thou bring back those that this desolate wilderness has taken from me? Can thou make it so they never followed me across the sea?’ Ah. Alastor understood now why his grief had felt so powerful, similar to those kings and queens and generals he had encountered in his life.

Woven through it all was the weight of his responsibility for the others. His guilt. ‘I cannot bring back the dead as they once were,’ Alastor said. ‘And you would not wish to disturb them.’ Realizing that he was still under the man’s cloak, Alastor stepped out from beneath it. The cold bit at him once more. His own breath fogged the air as he rested one paw against the rip in the fabric. The other he used to open the lantern, and let out a small bit of magic. The man’s eyes widened as the fabric stitched itself back together. ‘Witchcraft,’ he breathed out.

Alastor gave a sharp shake of the head. ‘Possibility. I mend. I grant wishes and good fortune. That which your soul most desperately desires is within reach. Release thy notions of good and wicked and see the gift before thee. Make the choice to seize it … what is thy name?’ ‘Honor,’ the man said. ‘Honor Redding.’ Somehow, Alastor swallowed his noise of disgust. What a perfectly repulsive name.

Humans and their irony. As if honour existed among them. ‘It is … a business transaction?’ Honor said, his voice weak. Alastor threaded the needle quickly. ‘Yes. Business. I will merely provide services in exchange for something of value to me.’ Honor shook his head, snow falling from the brim of his hat. ‘I have nothing of value to trade.’ ‘Thou hast thy life, dost thou not?’ Alastor asked.

Honor looked stricken. ‘I do not need this life,’ Alastor told him. ‘Merely a promise of service in my realm after your life in this one is finished, before you move on to your next. Domestic things, really.’ Honor closed his eyes, as if he could imagine it. ‘How …how long would I be in this service?’ ‘Until I am satisfied,’ Alastor said simply. He, of course, was never satisfied, but this was the joy of toying with humans. They often did not know the right questions to ask, and never seemed capable of following a possibility down its many avenues. ‘It’s only … such a thing … I’ve been taught such bargains are evil,’ Honor said, his voice hoarse. But there was hunger in his eyes.

A need to survive. A need to care for those around him, the ones who had followed him to this bitter land. Alastor smirked inwardly. It was a familiar protest, and he knew precisely how to answer. ‘What evil can come from a choice made with a pure heart and the best of intentions?’ Alastor asked. ‘Will thou allow this suffering to continue, when thou has the ability to end it? When thou might stop these needless deaths?’ The frail man looked upon the new grave, brushing away the snow that had fallen on it. ‘Honor Redding,’ Alastor said, ‘who will be left to bury thee, when all those thou love are gone?’ The man released a shaking breath. ‘Could thou prevent anyone in this town from dying of sickness?’ Honor asked. Mortal fool. At least a worse sort of human would have known to ask for more.

He might have negotiated until he arrived at no one dying an untimely death before old age. It would have taken more magic, however, and Alastor might have asked for more in return. ‘Certainly,’ Alastor said. Malefactors dealt in curses and left spells and enchantments to witches. It was simple enough to adjust to fit more … wholesome needs such as this. He would cast a curse that eradicated any sickness from entering the town’s boundaries, make it so fever and infection could not set in. Snow fell silently between them. The sky darkened with oncoming night. ‘Do we have an agreement?’ Alastor asked. Honor took a deep breath and said, ‘Tell me what I must do.

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