Previous | Next
An hour and a half later – Sam had insisted that I take some time to digest my food and go to the bathroom first, before setting out on our task – I had left the house wrapped up in my sturdiest winter jacket, over a dark red, ribbed sweater dress (Santa’s gift, actually) and thick black leggings. My feet were in my best winter boots (the one with the tiny hooks Papa had attached for me to hook into my backpack), and I had the matching backpack with me, as well.
Knuckleye didn’t know what exactly the invaders were, only that there were exactly four of them and they could change their shape, so I’d quickly skimmed my grimoire and, after some discussion with Sam and Knuckleye, had packed everything that might be useful into the backpack. I had a can full of salt, another containing pepper, a net containing eight heads of garlic (useful against more than just vampires, it seems) wrapped in a small plastic bag so my backpack wouldn’t smell of garlic after tonight and a bottle of oil, all from our pantry. I’d also grabbed a plate of chocolate from the fridge (Sam suggested to bring it along in case I had to bribe some minor phantasm) and I had taken my grandmother’s rosary (it technically belonged to me, now, but I could only think of it as hers) which now rested around my neck, hidden beneath my dress’ high neck.
Funnily enough, I’d never really paid religion much attention, only to learn now that, according to Sam and Knuckleye, the Christian God was very real – as were pretty much all other gods.
I’d seriously have to sit down and think about how to approach that whole subject, at some point.
Right now, though, I had to figure out how to save a whole kindergarten from a quartett of unknown phobophages.
To that end, I’d also packed chalk (in my jacket’s pocket), a black and a white marker and a length of rope, as well as a spool of copper wire from Papa’s workshop, as well as some other odds and ends.
I could only hope that it would be enough. Sam didn’t think so. He would have preferred me to at least take a few days to prepare, or better yet assemble a group to do so.
Admittedly, having my own adventuring party seemed like a really fun idea, and one which would give my papa a total nerdgasm if he ever found out, but I had decided against waiting so long. I partly did so because the two people I could think of whom I would trust that much (and whom I fully intended to awaken as soon as we got the chance) were currently simply not available.
Most importantly to me, though, I could remember my time in kindergarten with perfect clarity and the mere idea that this place of joy and childish wonder was being inhabited by monsters made my stomach upend itself.
Furthermore, it didn’t make sense for Rune to send me on a suicide mission, especially if, as both Sam and Knuckleye had agreed, it would damage his reputation among the other Awakened in town; so after some discussion, Sam had agreed that it wasn’t unreasonable to have a go at it.
Though he’d also explained that if the Lord of the land wanted me dead, then he really didn’t need to jump through hoops like this to get rid of me, which was another reason he thought his quest to be an honest one.
Not exactly the most reassuring argument, but I was willing to take it.
Thus we set out towards the Kindergarten, me walking through mounds of snow (someone who was not me really needed to clear the streets and sidewalks) while Sam walked… slid… moved atop the snow and Knuckleye was in my backpack, his hand-slash-head poking out of the top to look over my shoulder.
Though the hail had stopped quite a while ago – I’d just confused Knuckleye’s knocking for falling chips of ice – there was still barely anyone out and about. As alluring as snowfights may have seemed, I only saw one in a yard that we passed by, a few kids from the surrounding houses having gathered to wage war from two opposing snowforts. I waved at them, and a few wove back – only to cry out in horror (and some in delight) as I felt more than saw Knuckleye wave back at them.
We moved on as the disembodied, multi-eyed hand chuckled quietly to himself, while some of the kids who hadn’t looked at him took the distraction of her opponents for what it was worth and initiated a sneak attack which reignited the fighting.
“Having fun?” I asked, a smile on my own face.
“Oh, sho velly much!” he replied, his youthful voice full of mirth. “I lemembel mosht o’em flom a few yeas a-go.”
“That’s cool. You must know pretty much everyone around here. Almost all of the inhabitants of Sterlingwood who didn’t move here later have been to your place.”
“Yesh, it ish quite nice. Lotsh o’ new faces, lotsh o’ old faces tha’ are young a-gain. Lotsh and lotsh o’em.”
I nodded in agreement, still smiling – until my brain leapt to another point that I’d been meaning to ask about. A non-sequitur, but that wasn’t too unusual for my thought process.
My smile disappeared as I addressed Knuckleye again. “Hey, Knuckleye… what’s that business with Rune killing the Kindly Monk about?” Creepy as the man had been, he’d been helpful and I kind of didn’t want to imagine him as some kind of cold-blooded killer. “Who was this Kindly Monk, anyway? Why’d people call him that?”
Knuckleye remained quite for a while, until I started to think he wouldn’t answer at all, when he spoke up. “The Kindly Monk wash Shtellingwood’sh lold fol mole ‘an two decades, befoah Lold Lune killed ‘im and became ou’ah new lold.”
“Did Rune kill him just for the title?”
He wiggled on my back, as if shaking his head… hand. “Dun think sho. Lold Lune doesh not sheen to like the djob all that much. An’ the Kindly Monk was a bad, bad man. They shay he cavo’ted with demons and made them shacrifishes.”
I felt a tension I hadn’t even noticed go out of my body. “Oh,” I sighed. “That’s… that’s good, right? Rune took down a bad guy.” At least, I hoped that being a demon worshipper (or demoniac, as the book named them) counted as being a bad guy around here.
“No one lik’d the Kindly Monk an’ he wash shupposhed to shacrifishe even children,” Knuckleye responded with no small amount of anger in his voice. “Though I’m alsho told that Lune ish not bein’ the besht of loldsh; he appallently plefelsh to shtay out o’ thingsh.”
“That is not necessarily a bad trait,” Sam spoke up from our left, for the first time since leaving the house. His voice stirred the snow he was gliding upon, creating an oddly nice-looking effect I’d happily revisit in my memories, dark ripples on white snow. “Many a lord choked and smothered their dominion by attempting to maintain too tight a grip upon it, to take too active a role. Or they’d waste their resources and be vulnerable to attack by pretenders to their throne.”
“Pelhapsh, Mishtel Sham,” Knuckleye said in response before I could say anything. “But I haff heald that Lold Lune hash mole than onsh ignoled gleat thleatsh, lea’ing ’em foa hish shubjectsh to sholve.”
Well, that’s still better than him being a cold-blooded killer, I thought to myself, but stayed quiet, preferring to listen to them talk about this – I still didn’t have that great a read on Sam or Knuckleye, though I could tell, at least, that Sam was feeling… amused, but also worried and just a little bit curious.
“If you don’t mind me asking, dear Knuckleye, how come you know so much of local politics and history?” Sam changed tracks, his voice more openly curious now. “It is rather unusual for boogeymen in my experience, for a variety of reasons, one being that your kind rarely leaves its immediate territory.”
That was an interesting point, actually. What was more interesting, though, was Knuckleye’s response, one neither I nor Sam saw coming.
“Intelnet, Mishtel Sham,” he explained matter-of-factly. “The computel in the kindelgalten’s offish hash an Intelnet connectshion. I figu’ed out the pashwold and shigned up to a messageboald fo’ ush Boogey-men. A shishtel who wash pashing thlough the alea told me of i’.”
I stopped in my stride, blinking in surprise. What? Sam seemed no less surprised than me. “There’s a messageboard… for boogeymen? Are there more like that?” I looked at him over my shoulder, even though that put my face just inches from his palm and tongue.
He nodded in response. “Thel ish a lot of shtuff fo’ ush all on the net. The Mashkelade keepsh it sheclet flom the shleepelsh.”
Sam and I exchanged a look. “We really need to look into this!”
I took a double take. We’d said that in perfect synch, which just made me smile at him. I was pretty sure he was, too, even if it was invisible.
“Glad to hear the magic world ain’t totally behind the times.” I just had to giggle, thinking of all the urban fantasy stories I’d read where the author would come up with reason after reason why the supernatural didn’t use modern technology, or any technology at all. “I was afraid I might have to stay away from electronics or something due to a murphionic field or something.”
“Not unless you’re hit by a forsomantic curse, or dabble in that kind of magic,” Sam replied lightly.
“Magic dealing with the prediction and manipulation of probabilities. Luck magic, in short,” he explained. “One of the most annoying kinds to deal with, I assure you.”
“Maybe I should look into it. It sounds really useful,” I said as I imagined the havoc I could cause in Papa’s D&D sessions with that kind of spellcraft.
“I am hardly an expert – though I, of course, know a lot of anecdotes and have some experience observing it – but Forsomancy can be endlessly frustrating and may often be relegated to little more than a parlor trick. It is a hideously complex art to employ to its full potential and not something a beginner should attempt. I advise you to look into a more… basic discipline or two, first,” Sam explained calmly.
“Duly noted. But do I really have to go so in-depth into one field of magic? Couldn’t I just, say, learn a load of spells from all over, so I’ll always have something that can help with whatever situation I find myself in?” I could go D&D on anyone who’d try to stop me!
Just as soon as I figure out where I want to go in the first place.
“Think of it as learning a language,” Sam replied, his voice causing the snow to ripple as he passed over it. “With each discipline of magic being a separate language. You can memorise words from any language and use them as they are and perhaps even make yourself understood, but unless you truly study the intricate framework of a language, you’ll never be truly eloquent. Thus, mages like you aspire to study specific disciplines of magic, instead of just memorising individual spells – though it always pays to have a few useful ones in store, I am told. And there is a lot of crossover, just like with real languages belonging to the same class – for example, logomancy and dictomancy have enough in common that most people who study one find it relatively easy to expand into the other.”
I stayed quiet for almost half a minute, mulling it over as we kept walking, approaching the old, squat, colourful building. It was already close enough for me to make out some details on the numerous paintings that decorated it.
There was something similar in the grimoire, I thought, re-reading those pages before my mind’s eye. Yeah, more wordy, more dry, but pretty much the same point. There were even some suggestions as to suitable disciplines to start with.
“Thanks, Sam,” I said as we crossed the last intersection before the kindergarten, walking down the pavement. “It helps a lot to know that.”
“You’re welcome. Now let’s focus on the task at hand,” he answered warmly, drawing my attention to our destination, which we’d just walked up to.
The Saint Martin Kindergarten was not something anyone was liable to overlook, unless they were blind. Or even then, really, considering how it was never really quiet. It had once belonged to the owner of one of Sterlingwood’s namesake silver mines, Jacob Rene Marthers, but he’d been forced to sell shortly before the turn of the century, when he’d closed his mine and fled the town as quickly as he could. There’d been stories of the mine being haunted and he’d even talked about a monster down there… which, now that I thought about it, may actually have been the truth and nothing but the factual truth.
There were a lot of “old folk tales” and “local ghost stories” I’d have to reexamine now that I knew there actually were monsters and ghosts and demons out there.
Anyway, the building had been bought by one of his rivals, Jacob Rene Jasons, whose identical first and middle name had apparently been one of the many, many things the two had disliked about each other. He’d bought all of Marthers’ properties after his rival had finally given up and fled, refurbishing the house into lodging for his mining personnel, only for himself to die while inspecting the supposedly-haunted mine, the cause of his death never disclosed.
After that, his company had been liquidated, the assets sold to the highest bidder, and the Catholic Church had bought the property, intending for it to serve as lodging for the local priest and as an impromptu church (Sterlingwood’s own had burned down the same year, for no reason anyone could ever determine) until the actual one was restored.
Once that came to be in the late thirties, the house became a Christian orphanage, which it remained all throughout the war and until nineteen-sixty-seven, when the orphanage was dissolved and it became the kindergarten it now was.
I knew all that because there was a series of three posters in the entry hall which detailed the house’s history, and I’d of course read them all, just like every other bit of writing I could get my hands on back then. I’d even snuck into the office to read the manuals and books there.
Even at four years old, I’d known more about the way a kindergarten’s bureaucracy was supposed to run than the actual adults working here.
I’d totally made sure to rub that in every chance I got.
The building itself certainly showed its history. What had once been a small Victorian mansion had seen been expanded, reworked and re-decorated several times. The original building, about as big as my own house, but with one more storey, had been expanded to the back, a rather ugly, squat single-story addendum built to house more silver miners, taking up about a third of its original backyard. Then the church had added a small, but functional bell tower on top, as well as rebuilding the front gate to be more of a church-appropriate portal, as well as taking out a large part of the ground floor’s ceiling, to fuse the dance hall on the ground floor with the dining hall on the first floor and create a large, central room of worship. The church had also added some minor religious decorations to the outside – restoring a few small gargoyles which had been neglected by Jasons’, adding a few iron crosses to the outside walls, exchanging the largest windows for stained glass. Then its time as an orphanage had caused all that to fall into disrepair due to lack of funding and care.
The most noticable changes, however, came when the church decided to repurpose it as a kindergarten. Money came, and parents took an interest. The bell tower was restored and now actually worked on an electronic timer, the stained glass windows were expensively repaired and there’d been a LOT of projects over the years by the children and their families, covering its outer walls into amateurish and professional murals, hand-made lanterns, wind chimes and more.
The end result was a glorious explosion of colour and sound which changed at least slightly each year, as children left to go to school, with the tradition being that everyone who’d leave would leave something behind.
I’d etched a poem on a metal placard and had Papa nail it to the wall in a nook between the main building and the addition for the silver miners (now a place for storing all the toys and tools for the backyard).
“This is quite the… sight,” Sam said as we looked over the front. There was nothing obviously amiss, at least as far as I could tell from outside.
“Hmhmm,” I nodded, feeling my lips turn up into a soft smile as the sight of it brought back all the fun memories of my time here. A lot of memories, seeing how I remembered it all. “I really only have good memories of this place. The bad stuff only came later, after I left.” Focus now, Ash. Don’t go there, you’ve got a job to do!
“Let’s make sure it remains a place for good memories, then,” Sam said firmly, his voice heavy with conviction.
“Yesh, let’sh!” Knuckleye agreed.
I took a deep breath and walked onto the property.
Almost as soon as I stepped onto the kindergarten’s front yard, Knuckleye leapt off my backpack and landed on his fingers, looking way more animated than before. He turned around, fingers moving like a spider’s legs, to look up at me. “Ready to do thish, Ash? Sham?”
“I… I’m ready,” I replied, suddenly having trouble speaking past the clump of nervousness which had spontaneously manifested in my throat. “… I think.”
“I’m always ready,” Sam added plainly. “Let’s scout the place out before we try anything though, alright? I’m already uncomfortable with our course of action, let’s please not be even more foolhardy.”
Both Knuckleye and I nodded at him, who was flat on the ground in front of us, between me and the building.
“We can walk around it once, maybe we’ll see something through the windows. The sun’ll still be up for a little bit, even if it’s overcast again,” I suggested.
“Very well. Let’s keep our eyes open and look for anything suspicious or useful,” Sam concluded. “And above all, let’s make sure we stick together.”
I smiled at him, rubbing my gloved hands together. “Don’t split the party,” I repeated the second law of roleplaying.
We started on our first circuit, from North of the building and moving counter-clockwise around the Western side.
Or at least we tried. It was no problem for Sam or Knuckleye to move atop several feet of snow, but it was a problem for me to move through it. Making my own path was a no-go – even if that wouldn’t get my legs soaked and frozen, it’d leave me way too tired to actually deal with the problem inside the kindergarten. In the end, I stuck to the edge of the property, where it bordered on the pavement; since it and the street were in use, unlike the kindergarten over the holidays, the snow hadn’t piled up nearly as high and had been cleared at least partially. Since it stood further within the town than my own home, it was surrounded by streets and other buildings, so as long as I stayed off the actual property, I could easily walk. It would be harder to get in, though.
On the other hand, with how quickly it was growing dark, the loads of snow all around, the low temperatures and post-christmas hangovers and food comas, it was really unlikely that anyone would notice me sneaking in.
A full circuit of the property revealed nothing. Sam had even moved up to the windows themselves and looked right in, but noticed nothing out of the ordinary, so we stopped once we were back in front of the main entrance, the path to which was, at least, mostly clear of snow.
“Alright, so the creepy phobophages won’t show themselves so easily. Are they even still in there?” I asked the two of them.
“Shertainly, Ash,” Knuckleye responded. “I can shtill shensh thea plesence.”
“There is something foul in the air here,” Sam agreed. “Certainly not something which belongs to a place that children are meant to frequent.”
“Wow, you can both do the ‘disturbance in the Force’ thing?” I asked them enviously. “Can you teach me that?”
“Disturbance in the… Force?” Sam asked slowly, as if hoping that repeating the words would put sense into them.
“It’sh a moden tale, Mishta Sham,” Knuckleye supplied. “Quite populah with the kidsh.”
“I see. Well, Ash, it’s certainly a skill I could share with you – merely an extension of the ability to feel essence, which I already said I’d teach you as soon as we have the opportunity,” Sam continued, his form shifting on the snow next to me – was he turning to look fully at me? “But not right now, it can be highly… distracting at first.”
“That would be bad at this time,” I agreed. Though I was really curious how he wanted to teach me – I’d read the chapter on the Third Eye, but the Author claimed it was incredibly difficult for humans to open it. “Now let’s stop beating around the bush and go look for some phobophage butt to kick, alright?”
“Yesh, let’sh!” Knuckleye agreed eagerly. Sam didn’t disagree, and so we walked up the short path to the smaller door built into the side of the portal-like main entrance.
We immediately encountered a problem.
The door was locked.
Knuckleye couldn’t open it. He’d just snuck in and out through an air vent.
Sam couldn’t open it. He fit in through the gaps in the door easily, but he could not produce a key out of nothing.
I neither had lockpicks, nor any knowledge of how to use them (I made a mental note to have Maeve tell me how to do it for later – she was usually the one responsible for that kind of stuff in our group).
“Well, this sucks.”
“I’m sho shorry, I didn’t think of thish at all.” Knuckleye looked really embarrassed.
“Do not be disheartened,” Sam spoke up. “Let’s review our options. Where could we find a key?”
“The ceahtakas nevah liiv thea keys hea,” Knuckleye replied. “An’ I dunno whea they live.”
I scratched my chin as I was looking at the door (it was, like the portal, decorated in wood carvings – in this case, trees), trying to think of a solution while Sam and Knuckleye were discussing the merits of tracking down and breaking into one of the caretakers’ home (an idea I would never have gone along with).
As so often, I actually found something among my memories.
“I read a spell for this, just this morning,” I spoke up as I reviewed the instructions I’d read. “It’s one I can probably cast, too – the grimoire said it’s a very basic one. A spell for unlocking locked stuff that’s not magically warded.”
They both turned to look at me, surprised.
“Would that be your first spell, then?” Sam asked, not questioning whether I remembered it well enough to cast. He seemed quite curious, though.
“Oh, I’m just looking forward to seeing that. Since this door is not warded at all, you should have no trouble using the spell,” he said, sounding… cheery. Which was kind of weird to hear with his deep, gorgeous voice.
I blushed a tiny bit and stepped forward, drawing a white pen out of my pocket.
Reviewing the spell’s formula in my head, I set to work on my first ever proper spell.
First, I drew a square around the lock, the white lines standing out starkly against the dark, aged wood. Then came a triangle I created by drawing a line from each of the lower corners of the square up to the centre of the upper line, encasing the lock once more.
Next, a bigger triangle a hand’s span from the former diagram, to the left and, within it, a square touching its lowest line, with one of its upper corners touching on the centre of one of the upper lines. I made the triangle and square big enough to write into it.
Finally, I wrote the word ‘locked’ into the square, before I drew a line from the tip of the triangle to the tip of the triangle encasing the lock.
A small effort of will invested some of my Essence into the spell’s diagram and I could feel it come to life, in a weird way. As if it was radiating heat, only without the heat.
Oh God, please let this work!
I stuck my tongue out, tucking it into the corner of my lips, as I reached to the square with the word inside and added the syllable ‘un’ in front of ‘locked’.
I felt a rush in my head, like water rushing out of a suddenly leaky glass. Essence rushed out of me, sucked into the spell’s frame that I’d just activated with a mere mote, and I nearly collapsed from the surprise and the sudden, draining sensation – as if the warmth was sucked out of me. It was intensily uncomfortable.
And yet, there was an audible click as the spell unlocked the door.
To this day, I can’t believe no one called the police on that squeal I let loose.
Previous | Next