THE PATH

Stay on the path.

It was the only advice anyone ever gave Mira, and the only advice that mattered. Everyone knew that staying on the path was the only way to make it through the forest safely. The fair folk who lurked among the gnarled trees did not make it easy; they worked tirelessly to entice even the most wary travelers. The twinkling fairy lights and the tempting, ethereal music that often drifted through the otherwise-stale air of the forest had lured countless souls off of the path. Mira knew of no one who had escaped the fair folk’s grasp once they had strayed.

Stay on the path.

The phrase was a constant refrain in Mira’s mind as she stared at the beaten-down dirt. The moon was full and bright overhead, casting the half-dead trees in a luminous haze. It was risky, traveling through the forest at night; the fae were more mischievous and more attentive to the few lonely travelers who walked the path after sunset. But her mother was ill and the medicine woman lived in the heart of the forest. The gossips claimed she was half-fae herself, and Mira believed them. How else could the old woman live in the midst of the fairy wood and not succumb to the fair folk’s wiles?

“Pretty girl…” Mira jumped at the sound of a deep, smooth voice beside her ear. She turned, but no one was there. Of course not; it was a magic trick, like so many others. The girl knew their games, and knew better than to play. They could sound as close or as far as they wanted, and even if the voice’s owner was right beside her, she would not see him unless she stepped off of the path. She shook her head, pushing the voice from her thoughts, and kept walking. Just a few more minutes, and she would reach the medicine woman’s cottage.

“Rude girl,” the same voice chided. Mira could hear the disapproval in its tone, and wondered how a pesky, deadly fae had any right to call her rude. She scowled, and a laugh pierced the air. It was quickly joined by a chorus of cackling voices.

“Silly girl, alone in the woods!”

“Foolish, more like!”

“Doomed, in fact!”

Brave” the first voice purred, still close beside Mira. The other voices fell silent—in confusion or respect for the speaker, Mira didn’t know.

“Daring girl,” the voice continued. “Come and play with us, love. Step off the path.” Lights appeared between the gnarled trees, blinking and pulsing in the darkness. Enticing. Mira bit her lip, wondering what harm it could really do to go and see the twinkling lights up-close. Just once, just for a moment…

Stay on the path.

She closed her eyes tightly and when she opened them, she kept them focused firmly on the packed dirt beneath her feet. The voices were gone; perhaps they realized she would not be easy prey and gave up. The medicine woman’s cottage was in sight. Relieved, Mira sped up, anxious to reach the safety of the old woman’s home. Her fingers grasped the doorknob…

And passed right through it. The girl recoiled, confusion etched on her delicate features. The cottage disappeared, as did the well-worn path beneath her feet. Mira spun around, searching for the path and the cottage. She saw them both not too far away. The fae had tricked her. While she was walking, they had somehow diverted her from the path. Mira thought back, looking for the moment she might have given them an opening to enchant her.

The lights. She had closed her eyes when the beautiful, flickering lights had tempted her, and the tricky beasts had created some sort of illusion—a false path for her to follow. A moment of weakness, a moment of allowing herself to consider leaving the path, and they had sprung a trap on her.

As if the fae had been waiting for her to realize what they had done, the twinkling lights reappeared. They created a shimmering trail and Mira knew that she was expected to follow it. But it wasn’t too late to run back to the safety of the path. It wasn’t too late, and yet it was. Mira wanted to follow the lights—she always had—and now that she had already strayed away from the path, she found it very hard to think of reasons not to. Her feet shuffled forward a few steps, tentative. Mira looked around. There was no sign of anyone else traveling through the woods—nothing to hold Mira back or bring her to her senses. She ran through the woods, following the shining fairy path.

The lights shined brighter, warm and inviting. Soon enough, strange, bouncy music joined the lights, and Mira could hear the sounds of chatter and laughter weaving through the trees. When she finally reached the point where the lights glowed brightest, a fairy celebration appeared before her eyes.

Dozens and dozens of glittering fair folk filled a clearing, dancing and celebrating some unknown festival. Mira stepped closer to the fae gathering and a shower of fine specks of iridescent dust fell from the air above her, coating her skirt, hands, and hair. A stream of joyful laughter bubbled past her lips as the shimmering dust continued to fall around her and she twirled, sending her skirt swirling around her legs. She looked down at herself—sparkling just like the fair folk all around her—and laughed again.

“And here’s my brave girl,” a voice cooed. The same deep voice Mira had heard in while she was on the path. She whirled around and finally came face-to-face with the fae who owned the voice. Wide-set orange eyes stared down at her from beneath a curtain of wavy black hair. The fae was easily a head taller than her, and his snowy-white skin was a sharp contrast to her own olive complexion. He tilted his head to one side and smirked.

“You left the path,” he pointed out. He sounded somehow proud. “Care for a dance? Some wine or sweetcakes?”

Something about the fae terrified the girl. Perhaps it was the knowledge that she was already in forbidden territory—already so far from the safety of the path. Or perhaps it was the predatory gleam in those unnaturally-colored eyes. Mira stumbled back, away from the festival and the fae. When the orange-eyed fae moved to follow her, she spun on her heels and ran, praying she could find her way back to the path. If the strange fae or his fellow fair folk were pursuing her, she didn’t hear them.

After what felt like hours of running, Mira saw the safe, familiar path in the distance. She was amazed. She had strayed from the path, yes, but she had found it again, safe and sound. The old medicine woman’s cottage was nowhere in sight, but as long as she had the path beneath her feet, she was sure that she could find her bearings again.

Once her feet were planted firmly on the dirt path, Mira let out the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. She was safe and sound and away from the fair folk. Looking down at her hands, she frowned. Although most of the strange fairy dust fell off her clothing as she ran, iridescent glitter still coated her palms. She wiped them on her skirt, and fear twisted her insides. The glitter didn’t come off. A verse of an old nursery rhyme flashed through her mind:

Not flame, nor air, nor thorough bath

Will hide you’ve left the wooded path

And once they know you’ve seen them play,

They’ll spirit you away.

She had forgotten the rest of it, but the little song mentioned something about being “marked” by the fair folk, though there weren’t any specifics as to how one became marked. Mira had never put too much stock in the rhyme. After all, everyone already knew that leaving the path would draw the fair folk’s attention, and all of the rumors made it clear that once they lured a person away, they didn’t let go. No reason to “mark” a person, then.

And yet, the fairy dust still wouldn’t come off of her skin.

Mira shook her head, hoping to clear it of the unease that had taken root in her mind. She was safe. She had escaped the lure of the fairy festival and returned to the path. As far as she knew, no one else had ever managed such a feat. That thought—the idea of having done the impossible—eased some of her worry. She was the exception, surely; if she had found her way back to the path, she could certainly figure out some way to avoid being claimed by the fair folk.

“Leaving so soon, love?” Horrified, Mira turned and saw the orange-eyed fae. She was on the path; she shouldn’t have been able to see him.

She started down the path, refusing to answer. Following the fairy lights was enough of a mistake; she wasn’t about to compound it by actually speaking to the fae. It seemed that he was unwilling to let her wander off, though. As she walked, she could hear his muted, measured footsteps following alongside her.

“Do you have a name?”

Mira bit her tongue. Stay on the path, don’t talk to fair folk.

“You’ll tell me eventually,” the fae murmured. He sounded awfully confident, and Mira’s own resolve wavered. “You’re glittering, by the way,” he continued, a sing-songy tone creeping into his deep voice. “Glowing, almost. You’ll be positively luminescent by the time you reach your home. What will people say, when they see we’ve marked you?”

Mira stopped. A subtle glance down at her hands showed her that the fae wasn’t lying. The slight shimmer had become more pronounced. She frowned and sped up. Ignore him. Ignore him and stay on the path.

The fae kept pace, and though he swung his arms casually as he walked, a hint of exasperation tinged his voice when he spoke again. “I don’t see why you’re so reluctant. You’ve seen our celebration; it’s better than anything you’ll find in that sleepy little village of yours. You know you would rather be among us—”

“I wouldn’t!” Mira shouted, spinning to face the fae.

The fae stopped walking and a wide smirk crept across his face. “Oh?”

Mira scowled. Leaving the path, following the fairy lights, and speaking to a fae. But it was too late to take any of it back. She turned around and kept walking. “I wouldn’t leave my mother,” she murmured.

“Your mother? That’s all that keeps you away from us?”

“She’s ill,” Mira hissed, defensive. As soon as the fae put it into words, though, the girl realized the absolute truth of it: she would leave home in a heartbeat—join the raucous and beautiful festival she’d stumbled upon and never look back—if it weren’t for her mother. “I can’t abandon her; there’s no one else to take care of her.”

The fae didn’t speak right away. He walked along beside her, a thoughtful frown tugging at the corners of his mouth. “And if she were not ill?”

“What?”

“If your mother were to recover—then would you stay with us?”

“I…I don’t know,” Mira sighed. “Why? Why do you care about me? Or my mother?”

A surprised laugh met the girl’s words. “I don’t care a bit about your mother. But we do so hate to lose our grip on someone once we’ve pulled them from the path. And you…once we got you off of the path, you practically ran to the festival. You belong with us. If we fix your mother, will you come?”

Mira chewed her lip. She remembered the burst of pure delight that had surged through her when she entered the fair folk’s festival.

“Yes.”

“Done.” The fae extended his hand to her, his eyebrows raised, expectant. Mira met his orange gaze and stepped off the path.

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