Snow White bustled through a sea of wraiths, giggling happily and clapping her hands together as she called over her shoulder. I often thought she must have some kind of crazy duck lungs because she could laugh, run, and talk all at the same time without ever seeming to lose her breath. In a full dress, no less. The rest of us struggled to keep up.
“It’s simply extraordinary, Aliss! She’s received over a hundred five star reviews in the last hour! I bet her Book is already starting to appear on the Warrior Princess Shelf. I think the kids have had enough of all these awful thirty-something spinsters telling them what they can and can’t read. You should see what a big ugly sword she has! Almost like an anti-hero! Why, this time tomorrow she could be getting blurbed!”
At several points I was accosted by the wraiths of lesser works shouting that they believed in judging people only by the content of their character and was only able to get by when they inevitably turned to face a reader who wasn’t there and smirk in smug self-satisfaction. The last ten or twenty years had polluted the Periphery with thousands of such characters. For her part, Snow White only seemed to attract the wraiths of mirthful woodland creatures and they always seemed to help move the rest aside. I envied her.
A pair of pale white arms threw themselves in the air in excitement, a beacon through the swarm. Small birds and butterflies flew between Snow White’s fingers, snapping into full visceral reality at the moment of contact and then becoming mere vapor a moment after they departed. Reality was weakest here and the Spark that came from Snow White attracted a lot of wraiths from her story looking to exist for a few moments. One of the hands extended an index finger and I realized Snow White was about to go on one of her rants.
“Let’s see the C’s try to tear apart someone who is Self-Published and Popular! I can’t wait for them to tear the whole corporate entertainment structure into a million pieces. Oh, they’ll pay for what they did to my beautiful little dwarves. Just you wait and see! Do you know they tried to turn them into common midgets? My magical little miners with their big ugly noses and their thick-fingered hands and all those darn suits in the boardrooms could think up was that each and every one should be played by Peter Dinklage! Ha, and they call that imagination! And if that wasn’t enough, those sneaky little internet quizzings tried to turn my darling Florian into a necrophiliac! My Florian, a sex fiend? I think not! Readers today are just common perverts, I tell you! Sex criminals to a one! Even grown women are like rude little boys now. Back when I was young we’d put a hot coal on their tongues and carve their crimes into their foreheads with a knife. Then give them a day in the stocks to think about what else they want to say aloud!”
Snow White sniffed, loudly. I had almost caught up with her but had been accosted by a grizzled self-published Sci-Fi space wizard telling me that he didn’t care about anyone’s ancestors as long as they could hold a laser blaster. It was easy to forget sometimes that Snow White had been born hundreds of years ago in German, before it was even called Germany, and that people in small villages used to have very different cultural norms about acceptable punishments. Eventually I was able to push the grizzled Sci-Fi self-pub aside and meet Snow White at the entrance to a small cube.
“Their parents need to start beating them again. The kids I mean. Well, they can start with the spinsters and the sex perverts and then slap them silly until they know how to beat the kids. There’s an entire generation that could stand a good flogging. It’s the only thing that’s going to turn the whole thing around and save imagination. You wait and see how dark and weary they are with two black eyes scrubbing a dirty cauldron in the basement of a castle! Hah, make that the dungeon of a castle! Their dreams will brighten up when there’s no other hope in their lives. Teach them to insult my darling Florian and cancel my dwarves! Anyway, here we are, I hope you all have a good time. I need to go to a Feast Scene with the other Princesses and see if I can’t win a few more to our side. At a minimum, I need to keep up appearances, you know. The corporate stranglehold on entertainment isn’t going to burn itself to the ground!”
And then she skipped off, literally holding her skirt and skipped off, into the sea of wraiths as dozens of misty elk and deer formed a blockade to clear her way. Her laugh was evil and sinister. We heard her muttering curses and petty revenges she planned to inflict on her enemies long after she had turned a corner and disappeared from sight.
“Remind me never to get on her bad side,” Huck laughed. “Worse’n a wild cat with a sore tooth.”
“She’s the only Princess still on our side. Even Cinderella doesn’t come out here anymore,” I said with finality.
We entered the Cube, myself Huck, and Watson as the others were still holding a meeting and deciding how best to prepare for the upcoming challenges. She sat on a bed in the cube, and she… glowed. Almost like the Girl with the Bow and Arrows had glowed before she’d been Expelled. There shouldn’t have been such a thing as a bed this far out but it had absorbed the Spark from her and a mere Rectangle had transformed itself.
“Announce yourselves,” she said, without turning. One small golden hand lay on what was about the sharpest sword I had ever seen.
“I’m Aliss Felicity. This is Huck Finn and John Watson. We’re here to see if you need anything.”
The Jade Princess stood but still did not turn. Instead she shifted her silk gown around herself, as if uncertain how to proceed.
“I am Min’lian Li Dragonborn who wears the Stone of Heaven and wields the Sword of Ancestors. You may think that because I’m a girl that I can only touch the Magic of Illusion but the Magic of the Elements is also strong in me. I am the prophesied savior of my people, the Dragon Queen.”
She turned to face us at last.
I winced. She had an apostrophe in her name. An apostrophe! That might draw the attention of the C’s right away in and of itself. Twitter mobs loved to moan on and on about how stupid people were for including apostrophes in words that were not contractions. And gendered magic, too! Having two halves of a traditionally separated magic was boringly common but gendered magic was taboo. That would upset the trans groups, even if all the chosen once nonsense didn’t. The real problem was the way she was described. Her eyes were almond shaped, and her skin golden as bronze, and a whole bunch of other ethnic descriptions that had killed a hundred characters in the last few years. Her clothing had been appropriated from a thousand cultures without attribution.
“So… uh… how much did Snow White explain to you about what this place is?”
Min walked around Huck and John and gave them each a brazen appraisal from head to toe.
“I assume that I am trapped in a Dream by my great enemy the Serpent of Shadows. You are his servants? You are the leader of this group. I can sense it. Very well, take me to him. Even in a dream he will find my sword is sharp.”
She had come face to face with me, mere inches from my toothpick. She had the eyes of a dragon, green and slitted.
“Ah hell, this is going take some explaining,” Huck sighed.
“Oh dear, she’s one of those. Her story must have internal dream realities. It always takes them so long to accept.”
My stomach sank.
“Do you remember when you first came here?” I pleaded. “The… creatures that tried to kill you? The boy who took their wrath on himself?”
“His name was Sherlock Holmes,” John sniffed. “He was a great man.”
“Many slaves have died for me. I cannot be expected to remember all their names.”
“Your story,” I coughed, “has slavery?”
There was a pounding on the door. There hadn’t been a door on the Cube a moment ago. In fact, the Cube was starting to look downright scenic. Like a tavern or some other place where a brawl might take place.
“By blood right I command a horde of ten thousand times ten thousand slaves and I will sacrifice each and every one of them from the oldest man to the youngest child to defeat you, Serpent of Shadows.”
“This ain’t good,” whispered Huck.
The pounding intensified. We all knew better and we had assumed she would too. Mist curled around the door.
“The tropes! Aliss, we have to warn her about the Tropes!”
“What is this Tropes? Another Servant of the Serpent? I fear him not! Come to me then, Tropes! I am the Fury of the Divine, Hammer of Justice, Maker and Breaker of Law! I am the Dragon Queen!”
She raised her sword high overhead and at her invitation the door burst open. Spark flew from Min to they misty shapes and they solidified.
“Hey feller,” the first one said, “whatcha doing over there with that big ol’ sword, little lady.”
He wore a plaid shirt, a trucker hat, held a brown bottle in one hand and brandished a pool queue with surprising dexterity in the other.
Huck jumped over a newly formed bar.
“Come on and hide! It’s a bunch of Random Disposable Racists!”
A second later, Watson and I were hiding behind the bar beside him.
“What a lazy, cheap, no good way to show how strong somebody is. Just write in a character who the hero can kill without having to feel bad about it. Mark is rolling in his grave,” Huck spat.
Another man, tall and lean, picked up a chair and raised it over his head.
“You wouldn’t be here to take anyone’s job, now would you little miss?” The second one hissed.
A third one, short and fat with a thick beard appeared by the door. He looked around with big dumb eyes, almost confused.
“I’m just a mechanic that made a writer feel bad once because they didn’t know they had to have their oil changed every three months and they burned out their engine and I couldn’t believe anyone could be that dumb and I refused to help them lie to their insurance company. So they wrote me into a story as a racist and I just sort of kept getting rewritten into other stories. Also, my wife is Hispanic,” he said, and then he crashed two beer bottles on a nearby table and brandished two almost perfect glass knives. His eyes didn’t look dumb or confused anymore. Tropes were hard working and diligent. They didn’t shirk away once they had a job to do.
“Mist Beasts? Very well, the Sword of Ancestors has dispersed your kind before,” Min laughed.
She held out one hand and the sword flew into her palm. She spun and the sheathe flew off, but somehow stayed upright so she could use it to spring off into a spinning handstand… which wasn’t a thing I thought made sense. Her writer must not have been very athletic.
The trope with the pool cue wielded it like a bow staff, spinning it all around, almost at times like a cheerleader with a baton, but enough to be interesting and to get the blood pumping. When Min chopped off his head it flew away with enough force that it hit the fully stocked shelf above the bar and covered the three of us with booze and broken glass.
The head stared up from the ground for a second.
“We were all began as working class people who once made a writer feel like they weren’t the smartest people alive for a few seconds,” and then its eyes closed and its tongue rolled out.
“You did a smashing good job, old chap,” Watson said with a smile. “You were the most random, most racist, and most surprisingly skilled fighter of them all. Even managed to get sexism in there too.”
He patted its cheek. It was mist again a moment later.
When I peaked my head up over the bar, Min had impaled the second Trope to the floor with the Sword of Ancestors and was fighting the Third in hand to hand combat somehow perfectly avoiding each strike of the makeshift glass knives.
“I suppose he’ll slice her cheek just a tiny bit so it doesn’t even scar to show she’s still a person, and then she’ll kill him too,” Huck groaned, brushing broken glass off himself and muttering.
No sooner had Huck spoken then Min slipped on a pile of bar nuts that hadn’t been there a moment ago, which allowed the Third Trope to get lucky and slice off a tiny bit of her hair.
“Oh what a hack. How is this supposed to rouse the human spirit? What am I supposed to learn from this?”
“Maybe that women can be murderers too?” I said. My writer had thought this was the theme of a lot of contemporary fiction.
“Oh, quite right. Did I ever tell you that Sherlock once…”
Min punched the Third Trope with a dagger fist, which was another thing I hadn’t heard of before. Her writer really must have failed at researching basic combat. Her hand plunged directly into his rib cage and she pulled out his still-beating heart.
“Y’know, people are going to read her Story and this isn’t even going to be the part that bothers them.” Huck made sure to meet both mine and Watson’s eyes. “I mean, just think about that whole moral psychology.”
Enjoying very much. Perhaps Jade prefers Phoenix egg omelettes with Qilin veal ribs for breakfast.