4.0 Applegate: The Fair Folk

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“If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends.”

– Robin “Puck” Goodfellow*

Ah, if only things were so easy as the Bard wants us to think. Unfortunately for this author, and any other who has run across them, the actual Fae are, barring a few exceptions, nowhere near as charming and good-natured as they appear in this play – and we’re talking about a story involving involuntary shape-shifting and mind-control!

Actual Fae – also in use are terms such as fair folk, faeries, faerys, pixies (though most of them detest this particular term), elves and sprites (usually used to describe one particular subcategory) – are among the most common phantasms one of us Awakened is likely to run into, whether we tread through city or wilderness. They are also some of the most capricious, self-centered and just plain unpleasant beings one is likely to meet, even though they – well, some of them – like to pretend otherwise.

This particular writing will hopefully prepare the studious reader to deal with these beings, which can range from mere pests and annoyances to nearly implacable horrors one must carefully manoeuvre around.

First, this author must stress that the Fae are diverse. For all that they may emphasize their dual nature, they markedly differ from one another even within their respective courts, and while their abilities are relatively consistent, the way they use them is most decidedly not so.

Ah, but this author should not be too hasty. Best to focus on some better more useful simpl general information first, no?

The Fae are phantasms, though they primarily inhabit the material world, living hidden amongst humans – or in the untamed wilds – in their real, flesh-and-blood bodies, rather than using proxies such as the ones favoured by demons and their ilk. As such, they can be killed like any other living being, yet they are also much harder to entrap with magic, as they also lack the usual weaknesses of beings possessing proxy bodies.

They tend to stick together in smaller courts, usually with a particularly powerful, brutal or intelligent fae acting as said court’s lord, a title distinct from the Lord of a region as acknowledged by Awakened society as a whole, which is why they’re also often named fae lords so as to avoid confusion – though there is nothing to prevent a fae lord from also becoming a Lord, provided they have the skill, power and ambition to claim and hold such a position.

Historically speaking, the various fae courts – as well as the two great Fae Courts – have been very close to humanity, for better or for worse (usually the latter), having more influence on even sleeper history than many would care to admit**.

To understand how to deal with the Fae, one must understand their nature, the duality of their courts which is so integral to their very being.

Most people have, of course, heard the stories of the Summer Court and its queen, Titania the Great. Just like how they have heard of her opposite number (and twin sister), Mab, the queen of the Winter Court, and their never-ending war for dominion over the land…

Except said war ended centuries ago, in 1803.

Ah, but this author is getting ahead of himself again. Let’s put up a few important tidbits of information, so my dear readers won’t be too lost when I explain what happened during that fateful time in humanity’s history.

First of all, back in the day, the Fair Folk – be they Summer or Winter – were powers of the Wild, lords of the untamed lands and forests (and in some cases, lakes and seas). By their very nature, they rejected human civilisation, even though they themselves emulated it in many ways.

Their famous vulnerability to cold iron and church bells was tied into their opposition to such concepts – it was not merely those specific objects*** which repelled them, but rather the very concept of human civilisation and refinement which they so embodied. Church bells – and the churches they were a part of – were symbols of human civilisation and progress, in many ways; the most refined objects in most any village or town for many, many centuries, swollen with tradition and ritual, overflowing, really.

For the same reason, the Fair Folk have had (and still have) trouble entering a private dwelling, provided it is not a mere hovel – civilisation repels them.

Obviously, this presented their kind with quite the conundrum as human society advanced, especially when the Industrialisation kicked off for good. Cities became more and more… refined, less and less wild****.

More and more hostile to the Fair Folk. They found themselves increasingly driven back into their forests, locked out of many human settlements by sheer dint of such things as paved roads, proper fortifications and and decorated, sturdy buildings.

With their forced abstinence from the centres of human society, their influence and power also waned; more and more of their kind was forced to retreat into the Dreaming, rather than remain in the Material World they so adore to mess with.

It was then that one particular Fae, the Princess Gloriana, daughter to Titania, hatched a daring, one might even say deranged, plan – if humans were changing so much, then the Fair Folk had to change, as well!*****

Against her mother’s and aunt’s wishes, Gloriana gathered several faithful retainers and set out for what was, at the time, the centre of human civilisation – our beloved London itself!

Walking into the city during the early nineteenth century, when the Industrialisation was at its height, must have been a profoundly tormenting experience to Gloriana and her people. Eye witness reports speak of their feet burning at the touch of the pavement, of coughing up bloody lung tissue after breathing in the soot-stained air and other, worse ailments that befell them.

And yet, this was not nearly the beginning of what Gloriana had planned.

This author does not know what followed their arrival in London, other than that it is considered to be unspeakable among the Fair Folk, the things Gloriana and her retainers did to themselves and each other so horrible, perverse and wrong, it is considered abominable to merely mention the fact that such things might ever have occured, especially amongst the Wyld Court.

No matter what kind of ritual was performed – if it even was a ritual in the classic sense – the results were impossible to overlook:

Gloriana and her people had changed themselves, inverting their very nature. Where before they had been spirits of the wild, free, unrestrained and indulgent, they had now become their own opposites – beings who revelled in the trappings of civilisation, in ostentatious appearances, rituals and gestures, as refined as they had once been wild; they had become the Fae of the Urban Court.

Summer, Winter and the Urban Ones. Three were one too many, said the very nature of the Fae.

Perhaps Gloriana had foreseen that this would happen. Perhaps not. But what followed was utterly unprecedented in all history this author is privy to – when the duality of the courts had been upset… the courts adapted.

Now that Gloriana was queen of the Urban Court, Summer and Winter, being so much more alike to each other than they resembled the Urban Court, literally fused together, becoming what is now known as the Wyld Court, which opposes the Urban Court.

Titania and Mab themselves became one being – or perhaps, two beings inhabiting one body, one of them always dormant while the other rules, switching places during solstices – when it is summer in the Northern Hemisphere******, Titania rules over her Summer Court, when it is winter, Mab rules over her Winter Court, both opposing their now shared daughter Gloriana and her Urban Court.

With this change, the roles of the Court’s changed, too. Whereas before it had been a struggle between growth and decay, emotion and reason, what now opposed each other were the forces of rigidity versus fluidity, civilisation and wilderness, oppression and savagery.

The Wyld Court is, in many ways, the true heir of the courts of old. Its Fae are wild things, unrestrained by the trappings of society (most eschew any and all clothing, these days, or only wear plants or animal skins), savage and coarse. Their animalistic orgies are as legendary as their mercurial nature, as is their hatred for the sound of church bells and prayer (regardless of the actual religion behind said prayer). They adore the crude, the rough and savage, and are repelled by refined speech and bearings, abhorring them the way humans abhor physical abuse. In the same way, they are vulnerable to symbols of such refinement, be it cold iron (meaning, any processed iron), religious icons held up with true faith to bolster them and so on.

The Urban Court opposes the Wyld in nearly every way, revelling in elaborate celebrations of themselves, wearing incredibly expensive and fanciful clothing and always speaking in the most refined, convoluted manner they can manage. They adore intrigue and manipulation above all else, abhorr direct confrontations and anything savage, wild and unrefined. They are particularly harmed by rough weapons (a branch broken fresh off a tree to serve as a weapon, a chipped, worn old stone knife, etc) and repelled by rough, coarse language and appearances.

However, beneath these facades, both Wyld and Urban Fae are ultimately not so different. Both are cruel, capricious, self-obsessed, xenophobic and, above all else, vain creatures.

You see, dear reader, it is no coincidence they are known as the Fair Folk, for you see… what you will see when you encounter a Fae will not be its true form. It will be whatever form they choose to wear, currently, using their glamour magic to make themselves look however they want to.

For beneath their Glamour, all Fae are… Butt Ugly.

This author can not stress enough just how disgusting and, paradoxically, bland the Fae appear beneath their pretty illusions.

And they hate nothing more than to be reminded of – or worse, forced to confront – that fact. It is considered just good sense for a Fae to murder any outsider who sees their true form, regardless of the repercussions it may yield. In the name of their own vanity, they would bring untold Calamities upon themselves, just to make sure no one sees them as they truly appear.

Which ought to tell you just about everything you really need to know about these creatures, dear reader.

Try and avoid them*******. These shadows will offend you. And most likely get you killed on top of that.


* Interestingly enough, the Puck is not strictly an elf, so much as he is – as was discovered several centuries after that play was written – merely a Mask worn by none other than that trickster Loki!
** For a well-known example, read Madame Chevreuil’s excellent treatise on the subject of Louis the Great, ‘Le Roi Soleil é le Fées de la Nuit’
*** Well, one object and one sound made by another object.
**** From a metaphysical standpoint, at least.
***** The idea that the Fair Folk might be anything less than perfect, and thus having to adapt, was and still is utterly alien to most of their kind.
****** You ask, ‘but what about the opposite seasons on the Southern Hemisphere? How does that work with the Wyld Court’s seasonal journey!?’. To which this author can only reply, ‘Dear Reader, have you read anything on how the human population is distributed across the globe?’
******* Or if you cannot, at least play to their insanities and their vanity. Kissing their butts is universally effective in keeping them happy and indulgent of their ‘guests’.

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3.5 Who’s afraid of the Boogie-Man?

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The darkness around me was all-encompassing. There was no light, at all, only blackness before my eyes, so dark I saw random colours flicker across my sight, indistinct after-images of the hallway just moments earlier, when my torch had still been whole.

As if it wasn’t enough that I was stuck in a locked, lightless hallway with no other human within screaming distance, I could also feel the presences of the monsters I had earlier believed to be able to scare away… only now they were scaring me, and doing a damn good job at it.

They hadn’t attacked me, yet, even though several seconds had passed during which I’d been frozen entirely, completely open to any attacks – but nothing happened. Yet just when I started to relax even the tiniest bit, I heard something scuttle up towards me from behind.

Click-click-clicklick-

I whirled around, blindly, raising my arms up to shield my face… and the sound of the approach stopped, leaving only the beating of my heart and my suddenly laboured breath to fill the hallway with their sounds.

What’s going on!? What are they… what are they doing?

Turning my head left and right yielded no results whatsoever, a weak attempt at triangulating sounds that weren’t there, stupid as it was.

My heart was beating a mile a minute, getting so loud it drowned out my own breath, and I had no idea what to do.

Sam is… Sam is gone. Shadows need light, without it, they might as well not exist, I recalled what the book had said. Knuckleye is… he wouldn’t be any use, anyway, he’s a disembodied hand for crying out loud!

I was so screwed. There was nothing, nothing I knew to do. There’d been a spell for creating light, in the grimoire, but I hadn’t had the time to practice it, and it required drawing a precise symbol on a flat surface… finding a flat surface wasn’t hard, I still remembered exactly where everything stood, but actually drawing something with any degree of precision…

Even without the monsters around me – quiet though they were being, instead of just swarming and eating me, or whatever they planned to do – I would have been hard-pressed to cast a spell, any spell, when I hadn’t had time to practice even one. I’d only ever cast a single door-unlocking spell, and it’d nearly made fall over!

The cloying sensation around me thickened, and something came at me again, bony claws making those unnerving, sharp clicks on the floor.

“Eeeeh!” I cried out, even though I should have seen it coming, and pressed myself against the wall – really, I pretty much threw myself at it – trying to dodge, but I needn’t have bothered. It just stopped before it even got to where I’d been a moment ago.

What the hell?

I stayed where I was, slowly regaining control of my breathing, and my wits.

They’re not attacking me, they’re just… toying with me, I realised, surprised. But why? I’m easy prey, aren’t I?

Unless…

They’re phobophages… they feed on fear. They don’t want to kill and eat me, they want to scare me and eat my fear!

Which meant… I actually stood a chance, if all they wanted to do for now was use scare tactics like that to mess with me.

It’s not like I have to beat them up… I just need to get to the door. I didn’t hear it lock, really. It just fell shut. I just need to get to it, open it and there’ll be light… I can just run into the big room, where there’s plenty of light, and fight them, or just run away.

I took a deep breath. That was a plan that could work. I just had to… make it work.

Using my left sleeve to wipe the sweat that’d gathered on my brow, I didn’t wait for them to do anything more – I ran towards where I knew the door to be, as fast as I could.

That was a mistake, as I found out presently, having barely taken two of the five steps I assumed I’d need to get to the door when something surprisingly light, but very bony in a very sharp, pointy way, slammed into my legs with an angry hissing sound.

Another squeal, this time of pure shock rather than fear, escaped my lips, my arms flailing around in a futile attempt to regain balance – with the only result being that I couldn’t use them to cushion my fall and slammed onto the thin carpet and, more importantly (and painfully) the hard wooden floor underneath.

For a short, dizzy moment, I groaned in pain and surprise, but even that was short-lived. Next thing I knew, something tackled me again, slamming into my side even as I lay there flat on the ground.

I cried out at the sudden pain, getting thrown around onto my back, just in time for another of those things to scuttle up my legging-clad legs, until I felt the disgusting, stinking, bony body of that thing I’d seen on the stairs lay on top of my stomach, its bony legs clamping down on my sides, hanging tight, while it took a hissing breath that, on the following exhalation, shot its disgustingly sweet, rotten aroma straight into my nose.

It made me gag, and it wasn’t a small one, either. I very nearly threw up in my mouth, fighting to hold what remained of my earlier meal in, while my brain registered the fact that the most disgusting, monstrous thing I’d ever seen was now perched atop me.

Demonstrating my chops, which clearly qualified me for this mission I had taken upon myself to fulfill, I freaked out.

I freaked out hard.

There was a sharp, loud sound, something screeching and discordant that hurt my ears, until I realised it was my own scream as I flailed around, tears sliding out of my eyes as I screamed and trashed and screamed and trashed…

One of my fists connected with what I assumed was the head of this creature, though it was higher up than I would have expected, even though it was pressed flat against my stomach, and it was thrown off of me, its legs letting go of my waist.

Ugh… uhhhhh… I turned on my side, groaning, nearly throwing up on the nice, clean carpet. What just… what just happened? It had let go of me, even though my strike hadn’t been all that strong, nor had I aimed it in any way. Not that I could, without any light to go by (fighting in the dark was not in my list of skills. I’d never found much use for martial arts in my life… a stance I clearly had to re-examine once this was over…

I put a pin in that thought, feeling my mind calm down again as it treaded more familiar territory, and started to push myself up onto all fours, in preparation for getting back up on my feet and get to that darn door!

Clearly, I should’ve recalled that there were supposed to be several of those things in the kindergarten, as another one leapt onto me from behind, slamming hard enough onto my back that my arms lost their grip and slipped, my face kissing the floor hard enough to hurt.

This one felt different from the one I’d seen on the stairs, its body longer, more sinuous yet just as skeletally thin and, judging by what I could feel through my sweater and jacket, probably covered in rough scales on a snake-like body that promptly began to wrap around me, its long tail rubbing over my calves, then my thighs and butt, making me shiver in disgust and fear.

I struggled, I really did, but it was too heavy, pushing me down with its rough, snake-like body’s weight, slowly, so damn slowly, wrapping itself around my waist and legs – the cloying, oppressive sensation that filled the entire hallway nearly to bursting only getting worse, while it also somehow tore my backpack from me, nearly dislocating my arms with the motion as it prepared to completely wrap around me and squeeze the life out of m-

“FUCK OFF!” I shouted, my voice high, shrill and utterly unrestrained in fear, as I realised what it had in store for me.

And the snake-thing obeyed, its body making a motion that seemed like a pained flinch to me, its coils loosening around my lower body.

Perhaps if I was more lucid, I would have stopped to consider what that reaction meant (and probably gotten caught again when it decided to tighten its coils once more), but fortunately, I just scrambled onwards in near-blind panic, trying just desperately to get away from whatever was attacking me.

The door, the door, get to the damn door, Ash! I told myself, eyes wide even though they couldn’t see anything.

Then there was a very distinct sound, a sound I had no trouble whatsoever recognising, which made my stomach plunge down into my feet.

The lock turned, very audibly locking the door and barring my exit, just a moment or two before I could take the final step and grab the handle that’d lead me towards (relative) safety.

After that, the sound of one of the old, rusty antique keys they still used for the doors actually inside the building scraping out of the lock, beyond my reach the moment it no longer was within the lock whose position I actually knew.

Oh no… what do I do? What the hell do I do!? They’d locked my way out into the main room, had destroyed the only source of light I had with me, other than some matches…

My matches! I knew where I’d put them, of course, the left front pocket of my jacket, however… if I pulled them out now, they’d likely just be slapped out of my hand, or something like that. The phobophages didn’t seem to have any problem seeing in the dark, after all.

I still don’t know what kind of phobophages they’re su-

My train of thought was cut off when something soft, squishy and yet firm wrapped around my ankles, making me cry out again before it tightened, drawing my ankles together painfull, then yanked, and I was pulled off my feet, hitting the ground hard with my back, barely avoiding taking a hit to the back of my head.

Owwwwww…

I sniffled, turning sideways and curling up in pain – but that was a mistake, again, as it only made more pain shoot up and down my back. That had been a bad fall.

Still, I wasn’t helpless, yet, and so I kicked my feet, straining against the disgustingly soft, squishy thing wrapped around my ankles… that scorpion-thing’s raflesia-topped tail?

Ewwww…

Trying to kick it off or force it to loosen its grip wasn’t having much of an effect, and I could hear something else, something like a huge snake, coming closer from where I’d left the other one behind earlier, from the side my head was pointed at. Soon, they’d both be upon me, and I had no illusions about my ability to fight these things off by main strength.

I have to make light. I need Sam! He, he’d know what to do! He had to! But if I try to use my matches right now, they’ll just stop me… unless…

I flipped myself around, onto my stomach – as much as that hurt me – and curled up, making a bit of a hollow beneath me, steading myself with my elbows on the ground as my hands went for my jacket’s pocket, even as the thing holding onto my ankles started to pull me towards itself.

Finding the matches almost immediately, I pulled them out, trying to hide what I was doing beneath my body, angling my head so the top was pressed against the ground, allowing my to look – not that I could see anything yet – towards where my hands were at work.

Snapping a match out of the paperboard folder, I pressed it against the striking surface. My hands were trembling so much I was afraid I’d break it off rather than ignite it, but when I scraped it over the coarse paper, it ignited.

I never would have thought I could feel such relief at the simple sight of a burning match, but there it was…

“Get the HELL away from her in a flea’s poo, you damned sheep’s farts!” Sam’s voice boomed near-instantly, the moment there was light, its usual smooth, honey-like beauty twisted into a rough, trumpet-like sound, making me jump on the spot, nearly dropping the match.

But that was nothing compared to the phobophages’ reaction, both of which screeched, audibly scurrying back from me, the one that had been pulling on my ankles letting go of them, too.

“S-sam?” I asked in a mixture of bone-melting relief and utter shock at his sudden, coarse language, and the effect it’d had.

“Ash, they’re urban fae!” he hissed, his dark form dancing in the small area of light my match created on the floor. “That’s what I was trying to say – they’re repulsed by all things coarse and unrefined!”

I remembered how the snake-like one had reacted to me cussing at it. So that’s why, I thought to myself.

“S-so how do I fight them?” I asked him, my voice nearly breaking. We had to hurry, before those things caught themselves again and rushed me – they had to know that they could just put out my match and leave me helpless in the dark again.

“Use that stick you brought along,” he said, referring to the old hokey stick I’d packed just in case I’d need a blunt instrument, “Beat them out of this place, and cuss like a sailor on shore leave while you’re at it!”

“I can’t!” I replied, immediately seeing the flaw in that plan. “Even if that’s effective, I can’t see them! A match ain’t enough to illuminate the hallway, and I can’t swing a hokey stick and also keep a match safe at the same time, anyway! Nevermind the fact that I don’t know where they put my backpack!”

“You have to open your sight,” he spoke hurriedly, while I could already hear the two faeries starting to move towards me again. “Bugger off, you smelly dogs! Go and scratch!” he shouted seemlessly, his voice shifting easily from smooth and soothing to coarse and loud.

“M-my sight? What?” I blinked away tears I hadn’t even realised were running out of my eyes.

“Your sight, your third eye!” he continued. “I’ll open it for you – use it to find them and beat them!”

And then I felt the oddest sensation, as Sam slide up my knees, where they touched the floor he was on, and across my thighs, hips and stomach, from where a long, slender arm slide up to my face, the sensation so alien it nearly made me drop the match which was the only thing letting him be with me.

“Ash,” he spoke, as I felt something not unlike a thumb being pressed against my forehead. “Open,” the scuttling sounds of the two faeries were almost upon me, their hissing breathing filling the air with that disgusting, cloying odor, “Your eye!”

Then the world unraveled around me, at the same time as the cuttling scorpion-faerie slammed into my butt hard enough to make me cry out in pain, rolling over my head, flipping over, with the sudden impact, dropping the match.

The sensation of Sam on my body vanished the moment the light went out, the same moment that I landed on my back again, making fresh pain lance up my back.

I opened my eyes, startled, even though there was only darkness to be seen…

Except, it wasn’t dark anymore. At least, not really.

There was still no light, but… there were other things. I could see… not really the ceiling above, not the walls, but I could see something… cloying and dark, like a blueish-black smoke curling in the air above me, interspersed by motes of pale light, both flowing around in entrancing swirls.

W-what am I seeing? I thought to myself, startled by the strange beauty of it.

I didn’t have long to enjoy it, though, as I felt something crawl onto me again, this time onto my front, bony, claw-tipped legs scrambling over my legs again…

Crying out, I lowered my gaze to look at it, expecting to see the scorpion-like thing I could feel on top of me – but I only saw a figure, roughly humanoid even if it was moving on all fours.

Except, I couldn’t really see it, because there was no light. But I could see how it moved through the flowing smoke and the motes of light, displacing them, making them flow around it, giving me a rough idea of its contours.

It looked like nothing so much as… a child. A very young teenager, perhaps, only thin, almost cadaverously so, and its head was malformed. Though I couldn’t make out any details, it reminded me of nothing so much as a dog’s head, perhaps. I couldn’t be sure, it was really hard to make out, would be really hard to make out even if it wasn’t climbing on top of me.

Fight back, Ash! I ordered myself, and lashed out with my right fist.

Clearly, the faery – that was what it was, right? – had not expected that. Taken aback by my sudden attack, it didn’t even try to dodge, and my fist took it fully on its misshapen snout.

With a startled cry, it was thrown back violently, blown clean off of me. It was much lighter than I had expected.

Even so, its snout had been hard. It freaking hurt, even though I’d punched it just like how my Papa had explained to me, keeping my thumb outside the fist, and all.

No time to pity yourself, there’s another one! And you need to find your things, too!

However I was now able to see them – this had to be the third eye Sam had mentioned, something the grimoire had only mentioned in passing – I still had two faeries to deal with which ought to be getting pretty pissed off by now.

Flipping myself over onto my stomach, I looked up just in time to see an identical humanoid shape scuttle towards me, on all fours, even as the only thing I heard was the sound of a snake-like, roughly-scaled body sliding across the carpet and hardwood floor.

They’re using… illusions! I realised, seeing the way the smoke immediately around them was clinging to its form in the rough shape of some kind of huge serpent, even as I pushed myself up onto my feet, running towards it, my mouth opening into a loud, unrestrained scream. I howled at it, and just like before, it screeched, repelled by the sudden, unrefined noise. I could see it flinch and avert its charge towards me, as if faced with something utterly repugnant.

As it did, I saw the smoke that filled the air – if it even was anything like smoke – brush against a lump on the ground that certainly had not been there before.

My backpack! I almost cried in joy as I ran towards it, reaching the discarded bundle.

My hands closed around the grip of the hokey stick that I’d put into it upside down, its bottom end sticking out of the top of the old backpack, and pulled it out like King Arthur pulling the Sword in the Stone out of the stone – Note to self, check how much about the Arthurian Myths is true! – and whirling around, now standing near the end of the hallway, next to the door I’d come in through originally.

Shifting into a broad stance, I held the stick in front of me with both hands, as if brandishing a sword.

Down the hallway, I could see my enemies – the two dog-faced, child-sized figures, both on all fours on the ground, snarling and hissing at me, more dark smoke shooting out of their snouts towards me, accompanied by that sweet, cloying, disgusting smell and… more shapes, coming down the stairs, two walking like people and another on all fours.

Five urban fae, all of them at least a head shorter than I, but with unknown magic powers of which I’d only figured out one yet – the ability to create illusions which I now could see through.

They were weak to rough, coarse stuff. Cussing at them was like using some kind of repelling magic.

Beating on people with a hokey stick was unlikely to count as anything other than unrefined and brutish, either.

Also, I had a perfect memory and had heard plenty of insults and curses from listening in on my Papa and his friends when they thought I was asleep, nevermind all the stuff I learned from Maeve.

Taking a deep breath, I stared hard at the faeries in front of me and snarled, baring my teeth.

“Come and get some, you arseholes!”

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3.4 Who’s afraid of the Boogie-Man?

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The door swung open with an ominously slow, squealing motion – the way it always had, ever since I’d first entered this place. Well, it hadn’t been ominous, back then, but then again, there’d been nothing scarier in this kindergarten at the time than Mrs. Hursons’ broccoli-flavoured candy.

Now, though, a gloom lay over it, and I wasn’t sure whether that was because of the presence of these ‘phobophages’ or because I knew there were in there…

Either way, I didn’t like it. Not in this place.

So, even though the whole situation was scary, not to mention kind of insane, I entered the Saint Martin Kindergarten, preceded by Sam and followed by Knuckleye, stepping into the entry hall, a relatively small room that ended in an obviously newer, rubber-like wall; it had been added when the place had been repurposed as a kindergarten, a cushioned wall that could be folded aside to connect the main room with the entry, for bigger events. Normally, this one was illuminated by candle-like lamps along the walls, and a few normal lamps on the ceiling, but those were, predictably, turned off. That, and the lack of windows that weren’t made of stained glass, plunged the room into a deep, almost impenetrable gloom.

Fortunately, I’d come prepared with an electric torch, which I promptly pulled out and turned on.

Just for a moment, I really thought I was going to turn it on only to immediately illuminate some hideous monstrosity that’d just been lurking in the darkness, waiting for silly little girls to come wandering in (mostly) alone and be eaten.

A sigh escaped me as soon as that particular fear was dispelled, the bright light of my torch revealing only the all too familiar entry hall. The posters with the building’s rich history had been replaced with new, updated versions, protected behind plastic screens, and there were more and newer photographs of ‘before and after’ scenes, showing students the way they were when they came in, and then older, years later, when they left, but otherwise, it was largely unchanged.

I tracked the beam of my torch over the walls, looking at the colourful images until I found mine. A group shot of eight kids, including me, Maeve and Nathan. Maeve and I had been friends even then, but we didn’t befriend Nathan until much later. I took some time to look at our smiling faces, enjoying the memories the image conjured up, before I moved on.

“Nothing here. They must be further in,” I whispered to the others. “Can you, like, sense their location, or something?” I asked, directing my question at both Sam and Knuckleye. I could barely see the former, unless I pointed my torch straight at him, while Knuckleye was crawling around on his fingers, somehow reminding me of a dog sniffing for a scent.

“I’m afraid not, Ash,” Sam replied calmly while following the cone of light my torch cast. “I can sense their presence, but little else besides.”

“Shame hea,” Knuckleye continued. “They ah shomewheah alound hea.”

“Alright, I guess we’ll have to search the old-fashioned way, then,” I said with a sigh, before focusing on Sam again. “Hey Sam, do you think these things could hurt you?”

“It’s unlikely, unless Rune completely misjudged their power,” Sam replied easily. “No mere run-of-the-mill phobophage could harm one such as I.”

“And you’re basically invisible in the dark,” I continued as the beginnings of a plan began to form in my mind. “So couldn’t you scout ahead, figure out where they are and maybe even what they are exactly?” I gave him a hopeful look.

“I’m afraid not, Ash,” he dashed my hopes immediately. “I am a shadow. I need light to… to be. Most of this place is completely dark, especially the places where they would hide. I would have neither strength, nor sense, or even the ability to move, in such places, until some amount of light was provided.”

“Ohhh, I didn’t even think of that. That’s why you were sealed inside that package?”

He nodded. “All it takes to truly trap a shadow is to deprive us of light entirely. Without it, we barely exist, trapped within our own minds, unable to perceive, much less affect anything. Even with sufficient light, I still only have the strength of a toddler,” he admitted grudgingly. Clearly, he didn’t like admitting weakness. “Even so, I am still the strongest shadow you’re ever likely to meet; my lesser brethren are even weaker,” he added, and I barely managed to restrain a giggle.

Afterwards, though, I sighed, disappointed at my brilliant plan being so easily foiled before it even got off the ground. “Alright, so, I guess we search the old-fashioned way… and then we gotta figure out just how to get these things to leave.”

“Uh, how ah we going to do thah, Ash?” Knuckleye asked worriedly. “You haven’old me youah plan.”

I shrugged. “Well, honestly, I thought we might start by trying to talk to them,” I said simply. It seemed rather obvious, after all. “It’s not just a lone boogie-man now – you got an awakened with you, and the Lord of the town wants them gone, too. If we explain that to them, it ought to be enough to chase some little fear-eaters away, no?”

I had, of course, read up on phobophages before setting out on this quest. I wasn’t stupid, after all. While I didn’t know what kind of phobophages these were, exactly, if Rune thought I could deal with them on my first day as a witch, and assuming he wasn’t completely off the mark or deliberately trying to get me hurt, then they couldn’t be one of the really dangerous, powerful kinds. According to the grimoire, lesser phobophages were cowards by nature (perhaps unsurprisingly so, seeing how most of them fed on children) and unlikely to stand up to a direct confrontation of any kind. Even if they did, bright lights (such as that cast by my torch) would either scare, or outright harm them.

A simple circle, empowered with a mote of essence, could also either keep them out or trap them thoroughly.

Lastly and most simply, a lesser phobophage was powerless against someone who wasn’t afraid of them. No stronger than a shadow. Which meant I had a pretty good chance here, since I knew I was going up against phobophages and I knew all the means at my disposal, so I had no reason to fear them, no matter what kind of form they took.

All in all, I figured I had a good hand to play here.

Shows how little I knew.

***

Since Sam couldn’t scout ahead, and Knuckleye was, well, a disembodied hand with nearly zero ability to defend himself (he couldn’t even bite stuff unless he wanted to bite his own tongue off), I opened the door into the main room – the former prayer room of the church, now used as basically big indoors playground for the kids, and shined my torch inside, allowing Sam to rush inside, followed by Knuckleye (holding onto my shoulder, his palm just an inch off my coat) and I.

The room was brighter than the entry hall, thanks to the big windows on what had once been the second level, though they were made of opaque glass and thus not exactly the best sources of illumination, casting the room into a murky, gloomy twilight, except wherever I pointed my torch, though even that light didn’t reach far. The room was seriously big, it could probably fit a whole house inside.

Shining the light around, I saw low tables with equally low chairs, some covered in toys or papers, but no weird, child-scaring monsters (I didn’t count Knuckleye for that, since he was hardly a monster).

“It’s changed a lot, since the last time I was here,” I observed, stepping carefully deeper into the room, moving from the door (which had been next to the lower left corner of the room) diagonally towards the centre. “New tables, chairs… well, mostly knew, that table and those chairs were here even back then,” I continued as my cone of light fell on the mentioned objects, recognising the scratches we’d left on them. The purple chair, now barely high enough for me to sit on it if I stretched my legs out, used to be my favourite, though I suppressed the sudden, irrational urge to sit down and see just how well it still fit me.

“It looks quite pleasant,” Sam commented, always staying at the edge of my  torch’s cone, trailing after it around the room. I tried to keep my movements a little slower than they’d usually be, so he’d have an easier time keeping up. “This is where you mortals rear your children these days? Quite the improvement to what I remember.”

“Saint Martin’s is rather atypical, though,” I said, feeling the need to correct his implied assumption that all kindergartens were like this. “It’s way bigger than the usual kindergarten, for one. And even then, they really only use this room, and a few smaller ones off to the left. Also, it’s financed in large part by the church, so it’s got more money than the usual state-run place.”

He made a sound of understanding, but otherwise fell quiet as we looked around. My light trailed over more tables, and a plastic slide attached to a surprisingly big (and new) castle made of brightly-coloured blocks for the little ones to climb around in. Theoretically, I guessed that a phobophage who wasn’t any bigger than me could hide in there, so I approached it while trying to keep my breathing level.

All things considered, I did feel nervous. A lot. But I had to control it, I didn’t want to mess this up – this was my first darn adventure, after all!

I walked around the blocky climbing frame, illuminating its insides, but found nothing. All the while, my own breathing was the only sound in the room – neither Sam nor Knuckleye breathed as we made our way around the hall.

Nothing, not a sign of any kind of horror. Just a murky gloom, silence and… and… an atmosphere, like a pressure I could barely feel; as if the air was heavier than it should be. Even with my limited experience, I could tell that this was wrong, that the place shouldn’t feel this way.

So far, it was really the only tangible proof I had that there even were any monsters here. Not that I mistrusted Knuckleye, really, but… otherwise, I might have thought they’d already moved on.

Suddenly, a rasping sound made me flinch, before I realised it was Knuckleye drawing in a breath to speak. “Thea’sh no’one hea in thish loom.”

“Aye,” Sam agreed, sliding closer to me, pooling around my feet as if trying to become my shadow. “I can feel them, but they’re not in this room, at least. Probably somewhere less open… and darker.”

I nodded, shining my torch to the rightside wall, which sported three doors – one of which led to the faculty bathroom, and two for the kids, one per gender. “Let’s check there, first. Then we can go the other rooms in the ground floor.”

We walked, slid and crawled to the rightmost door, the boy’s bathroom. A place I’d actually never been in, in spite of my rather pronounced disregard for rules during my time at the kindergarten.

First of all, when opening the heavy wooden door, I smelled just what I’d expect from a bathroom shared by loads of boys, though it wasn’t nearly as bad as the boys’ bathrooms at my school. What I saw, though, was not nearly as bad as said bathrooms. Just an old, but clean bathroom, the only real difference to the one for girls being that the drapes on the two small windows were blue, not pink, and the walls were painted in that same colour.

Shining the torch around, I found nothing, even when checking the ceiling. Neither Sam nor Knuckleye found anything, either, so we moved to the middle door, the faculty bathroom.

This one was slightly larger than the other two, and it housed a bathtub that also doubled as a shower, with a curtain to pull around it. I could remember taking more than a few emergency showers here, usually after the kids repurposed their water colours as weapons, after food fights and after particularly lively mudgames. It was also brighter, due to the two windows on the wall opposite of the door being full-sized. Once again, I found nothing.

“You know, I really thought this would go along more smoothly,” I complained to my companions, though I still kept my voice down, and went back to the main room. “Can’t these things just come out and talk?”

“You haven’t exactly announced yourself, Ash,” Sam countered. “They have no idea why you’re here or who you are to begin with.”

I stopped mid-motion as I’d been reaching out for the door leading to the girls’ bathroom. It can’t possibly be that easy, can it? I thought. If I’d just wasted time because I’d not thought to announce myself, I’d feel so stupid.

There was only one way to find out – I turned around and step to the side, so my back was to the wall, just in case they had been hiding in the bathroom, and took a deep breath.

“Hear me!” I began, barely considering my words before I formed them. “I am Ash Blackhill, one of the Awakened! I have come to talk to you, on a quest given to me by the Lord of Sterlingwood! Reveal yourselves!”

I figured invoking the local lord was a good idea, so they would think twice about antagonising me.

There was no answer. I waited for a minute, but the only thing that changed was the sound of something hitting the windows, lightly at first, then again and again. A sound I easily recognised.

Great, it’s hailing. Getting back home is going to be a chore, I thought as I gave them another half-minute to respond to my challenge.

Nothing.

I sighed. “Couldn’t be that easy.”

“At the very least, they should be less tempted to simply attack you now,” Sam tried to console me, his resonant voice so low it could barely be heard over the rapidly rising sound of hail pounding the building. “Lest they offend the town’s Lord.”

“Thought so,” I whispered back, opening the door to the girls’ bathroom. It was darker than the boys’ bathroom, now, as the clouds were blotting out the sun, along with the hail coming down to hit the glass, but it was just as empty, differentiated only by its pink colour scheme.

I stepped outside again with a sigh, rolling my shoulders. “I guess they have to be in some other part of the building. Let’s go look at the offices, next?” I looked at Knuckleye.

“Tha’ may be foa the besht,” he agreed. “The uppah floas ah weah Ah’ve notisht them the mosst.”

I looked at the opposite side of the room, absorbing that. There were only two doors there, one leading out onto the yard, another to a hallway which connected to the former barracks turned toolshed, and the stairs leading up to the second floor (as the first and ground floor were essentially one), where the office and other utility rooms, as well as some unused bedrooms, as well as the old library were situated.

“Alright, let’s go take a look,” I said and made way there.

As soon as I reached the door, I knew it was the right choice – I could now feel them, if faintly, but better than before; the pressure I’d felt before seemed to actually come through the door, this dirty, cold, cloying sensation, like the world’s ickiest goosebumps.

Looking at Sam, I saw him nod to me, having turned sideways so I could see the motion in profile. Then I looked to the other side, at my left shoulder, where Knuckleye was sitting, and he twitched his forearm forward, making a motion reminiscent of a nod.

Here we go.

I opened the door and shined the cone of my torch into the hallway.

***

The hallway looked completely normal. There was a thick, red carpet on the ground, not wide enough to cover the wooden floorboards on the sides, and an old wooden cabinet halfway towards the stairs, for the employees to store their coats within (and impudent little girls to hide in).

Looking left first, I only saw the wall next to the door, as it opened right at the end of the hallway, so I traced it along the wall towards the right, the light running over a series of photographs not unlike the ones in the entry hall, only these ones showed past and present caretakers instead of children. I recognised several towards the end of the row, smiling in spite of the tense atmosphere in the hallway.

If the atmosphere had been a little cloying and uncomfortable in the hall, it was oppressive here, as if there was actually something in the air, something… dark. It made the tiny hairs on the back of my neck and arms stand up in an instinctual response.

“I don’t like this, Ash,” Sam said, rushing around within the cone of light, the only source of illumination in the hallway except for the little light that came in through the door I still held open. “These phobophages are up to something, I’m sure of it. Their touch on his area is too strong for them to just be hiding from you. We should leave.”

I frowned, looking at him. “We can’t just leave without taking care of this,” I replied firmly. I’d promised to consider his counsel, of course, but this was just obvious. “Putting aside the fact that we’re apparently on a quest given by the Lord of Sterlingwood, I do not want to have anything that feels like… like this,” I gestured at the darkness and the air, “in this of all places.” I stepped into the hallway, the door falling closed behind me. “There’s no telling what they’ll do, to this place or to Knuckleye, if we leave them.”

“Thank you for you’a contshern, Ash,” Knuckleye mumbled next to my ear. “But I don’t want you to put you’shelf into dangser like thish. I wash jusht hoping they would leave when confronted, without a fush.”

“Hrrm…” It didn’t sit right with me, even if they were both making sense. I didn’t want to retreat from my first ever quest, of all things!

“Ash, let’s leave, prepare better, and come back in a few days, when you’re ready,” Sam continued to speak calmly and clearly. “This place will be closed down for over a week more, right? There is no reason why we have to resolve this today. It’s not like Rune gave us a time limit, so why not take the smart route?”

There was really nothing I could (or wanted, really) to say to the contrary, when he phrased it like that. It was the smart move, and starting off my life as a witch by being not smart wasn’t on my list of good things, either.

“Ok, you’re both right. Let’s go,” I whispered, turning around towards the door.

Just then, there was a scuttling, scraping sound coming from down the hallway, just barely louder than the hail outside, followed by a hoarse moan.

I whirled around, my heart beating, and aimed the torch in the direction.

In spite of my earlier self-assurance, I was not prepared for what I saw.

There was something on the stairs, halfway down. A dark, flat shape, scuttling closer, which the beam of my torch threw into stark contrast to the carpeted steps it stood on.

It looked like nothing so much as a madman’s attempt at turning a human into a scorpion – after flaying them alive. Its torso lay flat on the stairs, on its back, looking emaciated, but that was where the similarities with a human ended. It had no skin, exposing reddish and black flesh, tendons and white bones; from its sides sprouted six bony legs tipped with sharp claws, balancing on their tips. Nearer to me, its hips did not connect to legs, but to a pair of long, stick-thin arms with two elbows each, ending in pincers made of bone. Between them, where its… well, where its genitals should have been, grew a squashed, pointed head, made of bone and meat, misshapen, eyeless with empty sockets and mouthless, for that matter, while its neck, which made up its rump, sprouted a long, thick, fleshy tail that curved up over its body, like black intestines wrapped around each other to form a disgustingly soft worm, ending in a rafflesia-like mouth without teeth.

The first thing I did was cry out in a shrill voice, as I realised that, just because I had seen loads of horror movies, didn’t make it any easier to stomach such a sight in real life.

Then, I gagged, when its smell hit me, a nauseatingly cloying fragrance, like rotten sweets.

“Ash, be careful, it’s a-” Sam began to shout, but the moment he started to, something long and thin lashed out from above me, so fast I barely saw it before it hit the torch in my hand, making me cry out in pain this time as it was smashed out of my grip and broke against the wall, the light flickering out.

Sam’s voice cut off the moment the light was gone.

“A-” Knuckleye began, but then there was a sound like something moving fast, and I felt the air brush my cheek, warm air, and a wet, sucking sound, and then the weight of Knuckleye on my shoulder disappeared.

As if that wasn’t enough, I felt, more than I heard, something leap down from the ceiling to the floor behind me, putting itself between me and the door. I heard the sound of bones clattering against each other, and raspy, hoarse breathing, but no more.

I couldn’t see, my companions were either essentially sealed or gone and there were at least two monsters in the dark with me.

I shivered in fear.

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Rewrite Complete!

Finally, I have finished rewriting the last few chapters (mostly) to my satisfaction!

Several details have changed, as well as one rather large subject; the changes begin in 2.2. Due to the extensive changes in that part, I merged 2.4 into 2.2 (2.3 was and still is a special chapter and I will not change a thing about it^^).

Otherwise, I have changed several details in 3.1, and more so in 3.2, including a bigger change at its end. Finally, some changes to 3.3, especially the spellcasting at the end.

I know this may not seem like much, but this’ll change a lot about what’s to come, compared to what I had planned. I’m really excited to write the next chapters, there’s lots to happen there.

Currently, I intend to write a new chapter (though it might be a short one) within the following week. I can’t give a precise release date, yet, but I already have a rough outline done.

Hopefully, I can have it done very soon and share it with you all.

Sincerely,

Tieshaunn Tanner

3.3 Who’s afraid of the Boogie-Man?

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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.

“Forsomancy?”

“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.

“Yeah, why?”

“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.

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3.2 Who’s afraid of the Boogie-Man?

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“Kn-kn-knuckleye,” I whimpered, looking up at one of my childhood fears. When I’d been new to the kindergarten, the older kids had made sure to tell me all the stories about Knuckleye, and to emphasize that me not wearing shoes made me an easy target.

I used to have nightmares about him hunting me (I’d been pretty naughty).

Knuckleye looked down at me, his hand curled into a loose fist so the eyes in his knuckles – at least the ones in his first and second one from each finger, and the one on his thumb – could look at me. They looked surprisingly normal, just light gray-blue eyes like you’d see anywhere, weirdly out of place on him.

“Are you going to invite him in?” Sam nudged me. “It can’t be comfortable being out there for a disembodied arm.”

“Yes, of course!” I replied and jumped up, opening the window wide.

The  cold air blew into my face, carrying a few snowflakes with it, but I didn’t mind – it was nothing compared to what I went through during my Awakening, after all.

I was just about to tell Knuckleye to come in out of the cold, my mouth already open, when common sense kicked in. How do I know he’s not a threat? I asked myself as I snapped my mouth shut, turning my head to look at Sam.

He hadn’t moved from his spot, nor had his posture changed in any recognisable way, but somehow he radiated approval. “Invite him in to be your guest,” he told me. “If he accepts, he’ll be bound by the laws of hospitality.”

“That’d be safe enough?” I asked him suspiciously.

“Usually, no. But he is a boogie-man, I can tell that much, and I’m here, as well,” he replied smoothly. “Besides, your house is… safe. I can taste it in its mana.”

“Huh?” My house has its own mana? What a weird thought that was.

“I’ll explain it later, Ash,” he said. “But you really should invite him in – provided he promises to adhere to the laws of hospitality.” His head turned a bit, looking at the boogie-man and his voice hardened towards the end.

“I mean Lil’Ash no harm,” spoke the boogie-man and I jumped with a squeal. He’d timed it perfectly to catch me off-guard with his surprisingly young, but heavily slurred voice. He sounded like a teenager talking through a swollen tongue.

I turned around with an indignant glare, but that only caused the jittering arm to shake with a chuckle. My cheeks heated up.

Fortunately, he glanced over it by continuing to speak, “I plomish I hold no ill will towaldsh Ash, and shall conduct myshelf accolding to the laws of hoshpitality.” That tongue really did distort his speech.

I straightened my back and folded my hands in front of me, giving him a serious look. “Then… be welcome to my home, as my guest, Knuckleye,” I replied formally. It felt… appropriate.

He nodded and literally hopped inside, like a cartoon character’s arm hopping towards them. Not very scary.

In spite of his lackluster anatomy, he was very nimble, landing on my desk without hitting anything, and I closed the window behind him so as to keep the cold out.

“Thank you,” he said. “The cold alwaysh getsh to me, you know?”

“I guess so.” I felt lost and I was starting to suspect that I was going to feel that way a lot in the future. Here I was, in my bedroom, reading a grimoire written by a mysterious mage, with a living shadow bound to be my servant and a boogie-man from my childhood on my desk. Who was also a disembodied, multi-eyed arm. “Uh, hi Knuckleye. Nice to meet you, I guess. Again, too, I guess. I always thought I’d just imagined you during that sleepover at the kindergarten.” I smiled at him, though I don’t think it came across as anything but insecure.

“Oh, I lemembel that one,” he said happily. “I love it when thell ish a sleepover at home. Always sho much fun!” He laughed merrily. “And sho tashty, too!”

I grinned at him. “Well, yeah, it was always fun. Weird, how getting scared as a kid can be so much fun.”

He nodded empathically. “On anothel note, I nevel expected you to awaken, Ash,” he admitted, bending his elbow a little to look at my face with all of his eyes. “I wash quite sulplised when I hea’d.”

“Well, it kind of… sort of… happened,” I admitted. “I didn’t plan it or anything.” I sat on my chair, rolling back a bit so I wouldn’t sit inches in front of him. “How’d you find out?”

“Thish ish a shmall community, Ash,” he said. “Wold spleads fasht. Though I only found out it wash you a few hou’s ago.” He turned on the spot, looking at Sam – who, I now noticed, had moved up to the mirror of my small vanity, so he was easier to make out. “And you musht be he’ familiah. Nice to meet you.”

“My name is Sam and the pleasure is all mine, Knuckleye,” Sam replied courteously, but he didn’t continue, leaving it to me to carry the conversation. Jerk. “I am not Ash’ familiar, though, merely her servant.”

“Oh, excush me. I didn’t mean to pleshume,” the disembodied arm excused himself.

“So, uh… why’re you here, Knuckleye?” I finally asked after an awkward half-minute of silence. “I mean, not that I’m not happy to finally meet you properly, but I just read that boogie-men are very territorial and unlikely to leave their home except under… extreme circumstances.”

He nodded by moving his forearm up and down, his fingers curling into a tight fist for a moment. “Aye, aye, that ish tlue,” he confirmed in an earnest tone of voice. “I’m aflaid I’m hele becaush I need youl  help.”

Wow, barely a day in and I’m getting my first quest already, I couldn’t help myself from thinking. “What’s wrong? What could I possibly help you with – I’m completely new to all this,” I replied calmly.

“I know, but my need is urgent and I couldn’t get anyone elsh to help me,” he explained. “Thele ah bad thingsh in the kindergalten. Bad, bad thingsh that ah going to hult the kidsh, once the holidaysh ah ovel.” He closed his eyelids until his many eyes were only angry slits. “I can’t fight them on my own, sho I came to ashk fo’ youle help.”

I gasped at the thought of some monsters going after the children at the kindergarten. “That’s horrible!” I said loudly. “How come no one’s around to help?”

“I agree, that seems rather worrisome,” Sam supplied. “Such things should draw the local community’s wrath quickly enough. Nevermind that the local Lord’s – you still have lords here, right? – duties should extend to such matters.”

“We have lord here?” My train of thought got distracted from the threat to one of my favourite childhood places.

“Yesh we do,” Knuckleye replied.

“Most places have been embracing a more democrating system over the last centuries,” Sam explained, “With councils ruling them, or elected triumvirates and the like. Started in France, spread to the Americas and then came back here, but the British Isles have always been resisting the change.”

“They shtill do,” the boogie-man said. “Sho we have a Lold and I went to ashk him fo’ help. Lold Lune took a look and told me to come to you, inshtead. Thatsh how I found out about you, too.”

“Lord Lune… you mean, Rune?!” I asked in surprise. “Rune is a lord?!”

Knuckleye bobbed his hand. “Yesh, Lold Lune. He killed the Kindly Monk and hash been luling Stellingwood eveh shince.”

“So you went to Rune and he sent you to talk to Ash about your problem? That sounds suspicious to me, to be honest,” Sam noted.

Knuckleye focused his eyes on me, standing straighter than before. “He told me to tell you that thish would be a gleat oppoltunity foh youle debut and that he ish shure youle up to the tashk.”

“My debut?” I turned to look at Sam, questioning.

“Your introduction to the awakened community. It’s supposed to set the tone, so to speak,” he said calmly. “Some summon a phantasm and bind it, or cast a particularly impressive spell. Others hunt monsters or exorcise some local pest. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to introduce yourself by ridding the kindergarten from threats. Hard to have a more positive debut, all things considered.”

I nodded. It sounded reasonable, at least. And if Rune thought I was up to it, then… well, he’d become a lord, which didn’t seem to be an inherited title in this case, so he probably knew what he was talking about, right? Though I made a note to myself to inquire about this whole “killed the Kindly Monk” business.

“I… I don’t know, Knuckleye,” I temporised. “This is all rather sudden… I’d like to help, but I’m not sure I’m the right girl for this – I literally just awakened a little over a day ago, I can’t even cast any real spells yet!”

Knuckleye rubbed his fingers together, a motion that somehow made me think of a human nervously rubbing their hands. “Uh, Lold Lune shaid you’d shay that, and he shaid that he thinksh you a’ leady, and that he would conshidel thish a plopel quesht, with recompenshashion.”

I blinked, not sure what he meant. It took me a moment to decipher his speech properly. “My quest? What the heck?!” I looked at Sam, hoping that he could shed some light on this. I’m getting a quest? Less than two days after getting magic? I don’t know whether to be giddy or horrified…

“Hrm, that is interesting,” Sam admitted pensively. “To offer you a quest just like that… it obligates him to reward you properly for your performance during it and makes it a matter of… status, for him. If you fail, it will reflect badly upon him, as he chose you to undertake it. It’s unlikely he’d risk his reputation among the local community if he didn’t think you fully capable of succeeding.”

With a sigh, I mulled that over, looking away from both of them. This is all rather sudden… I wasn’t planning to go on an adventure so quickly, without some time to train and learn some cool spells first… would’ve waited at least until I had Maeve and Nathan here, for backup… but I can’t allow some monsters to sully the kindergarten, either! That place… I don’t want them to taint all those happy memories.

I looked at Knuckleye again. His eyes were fixed on my face and, with a start, I recognised the expression in them – I saw a weak hope, and a whole lot of fear and respect.

Knuckleye was desperate, in spite of his lighthearted behaviour so far.

That, above all else, decided me. I didn’t want any more parts of my childhood to be like that.

“Tell me everything you know,” I told him as I smoothed out my skirt and sat up straight.

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3.1 Who’s afraid of the Boogie-Man?

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If a God-knows-how-old sentient shadow ever asks you what ‘pop culture’ is, don’t try to explain it. It’ll just keep asking questions trying to understand modern culture, and you’ll end up talking until the sun rises and not get a lick of sleep. We’d gotten on the subject after he’d answered my questions about the guardians of balance (shudder), and hadn’t stopped until I’d been plain unable to keep my eyes open.

At least Papa never expected me to get up early these days, so I got to sleep through the morning, waking up only when he called me down for lunch.

I blinked my eyes, trying to get desert-like amounts of sand out of them. I got teleported to the desert, I thought. Sand in my eyes and stinging light everywhere. It’s gotta be the desert.

Another few blinks and I could finally see again – or I could have, if it wasn’t for the bright, evil sunlight coming in through the window.

“Good morning, Ash,” said Sam in his dulcet tones. After a night full of talking with him, I’d gotten more used to it, but his voice was still a seriously nice sound to wake up to. “It appears your father made lunch.”

“I heard,” I replied with a groan. “Way too early…” I turned around in my bed, pulling the blanket up over my head.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his voice now coming from the wall next to my bed

I peeked out at him from beneath the folds of my winter blanket. He’d moved to the wall, as I’d thought, his shoulders and head peeking out from beneath the bed. “What are you apologising for?”

He rubbed the back of his head. “I got too curious and kept you up all night. I’m really sorry about that – it’s easy to forget that humans have to rest much more regularly than I do.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” I said, though I was happy that he was considerate enough to even consider apologising over something like that. “I made the choice to stay up myself. I could’ve just cut things short, but I was having way too much fun.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed that educating an old shadow on modern culture would be that much fun for anyone, least of all a girl your age,” he replied with some surprise in his voice.

“Eh, I’m not like most girls at all,” I told him. “I-“

“Ash! Get out of bed, sleepyhead, lunch is served!” my papa’s voice thundered all the way from the kitchen to my room.

Sam chuckled and slid down beneath my bed to continue his reading – I’d given him some novels and some magazines, so he could familiarise himself with modern culture; I hadn’t gotten much out of him about the circumstances of his sealing, but it seemed to have taken place sometime in the late sixties or early seventies (he admitted to not having paid much attention to year numbers), so there was a lot to catch up on for him. I’d given him a flashlight so he could read beneath my bed without waking me up (apparently, he could not see in absolute darkness, though he could see even with the slightest amount of light). Normally, having a boy I’d just met (or any boy, really) spend the night in my bedroom (I had some ideas about providing him some space of his own, but hadn’t had the chance to arrange it yet) would have sent me into apoplectic fits, but the fact that this particular boy was not only at least old enough to be grandfather, unfailingly polite and curtous and, also, completely two-dimensional, had put that worry to rest before it even reared its head.

All in all, I didn’t feel bad for leaving him alone for a while, since he had more than enough to do and I wasn’t worried he might do anything naughty in my bedroom. I just got up – getting a little dizzy for a moment as my blood rushed out of my head – and smoothed out my pyjamas before I rushed through the bathroom for the necessary stuff and went on my way to join Papa for lunch.

***

In our house, we’d always had certain traditions when it came to the holidays and food. One of them was that lunch on the days after Christmas had to be greasy and totally unhealthy – partly because my Papa and his friends tended to go out and get drunk, so it was good to have hangover food in copious amounts available.

Today, that meant burgers. And not those pathetic fast food burgers. No, real meat from a real grill with fresh salad, lots of good cheese and actual whole wheat buns (my father was one hell of a food snob, and he’d rubbed off on me). The burgers were overflowing with grease, and neither of us cared as we dug in.

Even suffering from a serious hangover and sleep deprivation, my father did not forget his ongoing quest to fatten me up already – though we each had only one burger, mine was noticable fatter, with more meat and cheese. And I had a whole lot more fries to go along with it, as well.

It was, honestly, too much for anyone to eat, I was sure of it. But Papa always worried about my weight problems (which, amusingly enough, ran in the opposite direction from the usual) and I tried to assuage his worries by eating as much as I could, at least during lunch.

Since we weren’t talking – not a good idea, with his hangover – lunch passed quickly, and I managed to eat almost half of my burger, and a handful of fries. Papa was clearly disappointed, yet he didn’t comment.

He did put my plate into the oven, “for dinner”.

I seriously doubted that I’d manage even a quart of all that after this kind of lunch. My belly was noticable bigger already and it would take me hours to digest all this.

***

I entered my room again, walking through my relative chaos (when you have a perfect memory, it really does not matter where you put your things – as long as no one else moves them, you’ll always find them!) to sit down at my desk.

“Did you have a nice meal?” Sam asked from beneath my bed (there was something incredibly amusing about hearing his voice coming up from there, though I couldn’t find the words to properly express it).

“Very much so,” I replied, opening up my grimoire. “Now I’m in the mood for some brain food! Let’s see, what’s next… ah, Boogey-Men!”

***

Five minutes later, I was crying like a baby, tears staining the old, thick pages of the grimoire as I tried to read on through them.

“What are you reading, Ash!?” Sam asked with concern in his voice.

I sniffed, then took a paper towel from a box which stood on my desk to blow my nose. “J-just read up on b-boogie-men, Sam,” I blubbered.

“I wasn’t aware that boogie-men were generally such tragic figures,” he said as he came up from behind my desk, sliding up the wall until he was facing me, part of him on the window. Fortunately, it’d been snowing again (yay!) so there was a lot of white in the background to provide some contrast. “Why are you crying?”

I sniffled again. “I-I just read the story of Czarna Siostra.”

He chuckled. “And that’s enough to get you crying?” The jerk had gone from concerned to amused in a heartbeat. “It’s not that sad a tale.”

“N-not that sad? She died! To save all those children!” I half-shouted at him, incredulous. How could he think it was anything but sad!?

“Yes, she did,” he replied calmly. “She was called to task, and she grew beyond her limits, beyond her nature to go the extra mile and protect her charges – even though she had no obligation to do so.” He tilted his head to the side. “There are far, far worse fates in this world than to give all you have for that which you love,” he finished gently.

I sniffed again. “I guess,” I admitted reluctantly. “But… she shouldn’t have had to die for it. And she died thinking she’d failed, that her children would be next!”

“That may be so. But they did not. They would have, if not for her. She saved them, even if someone else happened to finish the job,” he countered. “Whether she knew or not, she’d succeeded. And besides,” he shrugged, exaggerating the motion a bit, “those children loved her. They still do, I bet, if they’re still alive. I’m sure their love reached her.”

That’s a nice thought, I told myself, though it seemed… a little too perfect to be real. “I didn’t take you for a romantic, Sam,” I said, instead of voicing that thought out loud.

He laughed quietly. “I am like a true master’s artwork,” he said with that easy confidence, “no matter how long and how often you look at me, you’ll always find something new to admire.”

Yeah, he said that. Smoothly, without a hitch, like it was the most normal thing in the world to say.

I wish I had his self-confidence.

We both fell silent, after that. He slid down from the window and behind me, to read the book he’d been at (a history book focusing mainly on the cold war) in the light from the window and the lamp above. Even though the clouds in the distance promised heavy snow and perhaps even hail, it was yet bright outside.

It took me a minute or so to clean my face up with some wet wipes and calm down. I’ll admit, I’ve always been a sucker for stories like Czarna Siostra’s. No matter how often I heard them, they always tore me up.

Being such a sucker, I read the entry on boogie-men again (there wasn’t much, beyond those few pages – the author hadn’t had much to say on them) and this time, I focused on a particular detail in Czarna Siostra’s tale.

“Hey Sam? Do you know about angels?” I asked curiously, spinning my chair around to look down at him.

“Some,” he replied, though I couldn’t tell whether he turned around to look at me or kept reading. “Why do you ask?”

“Well, one of them is part of that story, and it says some weird things,” I explained. “It calls her the eighty-first angel, as well as the youngest and the least of them, but then it goes on to say that angels are notoriously unorganised, which just, makes no sense to me, because everything I’ve ever read about angels describes them like, well, like an organised army of God, or something!” Just how many of the stories were actually true, and how much stuff were the normal people actually wrong about, anyway?

“Ah. So people still believe that, huh?” He sounded amused. “Army of God, heh heh. Perish the thought. For one thing, it’s hard to call a group of less than a hundred people an army,” he replied. My eyes widened, but he continued before I could comment. “When the story calls her the youngest, it’s being literal. Last I knew, there were only eighty-one angels in the world. In fact, Kothiel may well have been born during or just shortly before the second world war – there’s no mention of her anywhere beforehand and I know for a fact that there were only seventy-nine angels by the end of world war one.”

“Whu-what?!”

He laughed again. “Sounds weird, right? But that’s how it is. There’s really only a very few of them. And last I knew, seven of those were fallen, so it’s more like there are only seventy-four angels now, unless the Big Guy made another one since I was sealed,” he continued.

“And they lack organisation? No heavenly choirs or circles of power or such?” I flinched as something hard struck the window behind me – was it starting to hail early? I didn’t turn around to check, though, I wanted to focus before I got sidetracked.

“Oh no, nothing of the sort. I am hardly what you’d call an expert in angelology, but everyone – well, most everyone – knows that angels are as likely to work against each other as together, most of the time. I’ve heard a conductor once complain that getting two angels – just two! – to work together without issue is harder than to herd a score of  cats in heat.”

“That’s… wow. Um, I’m almost afraid to ask, but… how many demons are there? Can’t be that many, if the angels can oppose them individually…” The hail stopped as suddenly as it had started.

“Ah, a few billion? I’m not sure, I try to stay far away from those pricks,” he said off-handedly.

If I’d been holding something, I’d have dropped it right then and there. “Eighty-one… or rather, seventy-four angels, against billions of demons? And the demons haven’t won yet? Because that seems like, you know, an overwhelming advantage.” A stray piece of hail hit the window again.

“The angels have Michael. He is the overwhelming advantage,” he replied matter-of-factly. “Another prick you should stay away from. In fact, best if you stay away from angels and demons entirely. They’re honestly more trouble than they’re worth, every single time.” He turned a page. So he was reading while talking to me. A habit I shared, for which I had often been scolded by my papa.

I… didn’t know what to say to that, so I decided not to comment further.

“Do you know any?” he asked, suddenly.

“Angels?” I asked back, surprised. Why was he asking me that? He knew I’d just recently awakened…

“No, boogie-men,” he clarified. “Not in person, of course, but are there any local stories of such beings?”

“Well, there’s Knuckleye,” I replied instantly, smiling softly. “The caretakers and older kids at the kindergarten used to tell us about him.”

“Oh, that sounds interesting,” he said, and his form moved – he’d turned around to face me properly. “What’s he look like?”

Why’s he so curious all of a sudden? “Well, the way I got to know the story, he’s a disembodied arm – the story says that there was a bad man once, who hunted bad children to pinch and tickle them and to lick the soles of their feet if they misbehaved, but there was an accident when he was chasing a little boy who’d cussed at his parents – a tree fell and crushed him,” I told him the familiar story. Even without an eidetic memory, I would certainly always remember this one. Hail struck the window again.

“But his arm was still poking out, you see, and it wanted to punish the child, so it tore itself off from the rest of him and hunted the child. And the man’s blood, which shot out of his shoulder, turned it red all over. But it couldn’t see the boy to track him, so its knuckles opened like eyelids to reveal thirteen eyes – three on each finger, except for the thumb which only had one. Then it crawled after him with its fingers, and its nails got so dirty they’re now permanently brown-black. But when it caught up to the boy, it could only pinch and tickle him, so a mouth opened on its palm with a big tongue, so it could lick the soles of his feet. And that’s how Knuckleye was born, the disembodied arm who punishes misbehaving children by tickling and pinching them, and by licking the soles of their feet,” I finished the tale, taking a deep breath. Then I tapped my chin. “Now that I think about it, it’s really a rather silly story.”

“It’s good to know, though,” he replied in an amused voice as another piece of hail hit the window, rather lightly this time.

“How so? And why’re you so curious?” I asked suspiciously.

“Because a brown-nailed, red-skinned arm with eyes and a mouth has been knocking on your window for the last five minutes,” he explained casually.

So I whirled around to take a look myself and of course I screamed like a little girl and fell off my chair when I saw just what I’d described earlier outside my window!

“Maybe you should invite him in?” Sam, the jerk, said as if everything was normal, while I tried to ignore the pain in my butt. “I doubt it’s all that comfortable for him, out there.”

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