Ellie Lambert was everything Kes wasn’t--short and stocky, with a pudgy baby face which gave her a rabbit-like appearance due to her large pale blue eyes, rather over-sized ears and pink button nose. Her ridiculously short pageboy-style hair was the color of sun-bleached straw. She always wore pretty yet impractical-looking dresses with a lot of lace trim and silk sashes, not the sort of costumes Kes would prefer to be wearing especially when she was cutting firewood, hauling water or butchering and preparing meat.
Like the White Rabbit, Kes thought when she first saw this eccentrically-dressed human girl, wondering who exactly invited her to the mayor’s welcoming party. The twitching of the pink nose and the constant fidgeting and grooming of her shorned locks seemed to remind her of a nervous rabbit.
“Ellie,” the mayor’s eldest daughter huffily told her. “Her name’s Ellie Lambert and she’s from California, the State of Jefferson, to be exact. She may look totally sweet and adorable, but she’s not. She’s a compulsive liar as well as a kleptomaniac, so keep your wallet or purses close by and don't let her shake your hand or get close behind you.”
Unlike Kes, who rather was baffled and somewhat flattered by the party thrown in her honor, Vanessa thought the occasion was a total waste of her teenage time and she had way better things to do... in Vanessa’s case, attending a Mötley Crüe concert with all her friends.
Kes nodded. “Well, I don’t think she looks sweet and adorable,” she muttered. “She looks kind of freaky, like one of those creepy china dolls that comes to life and murders you in the middle of the night.”
“Yeah,” Vanessa shifted uncomfortably on her high platform shoes and sighed. “She gives me the willies, especially those eyes of hers. They’re like doll's eyes--just blank and vacant, you know? It’s not just me who notices this, other people at school, my sisters and dad. Even my mom who’s not the brightest fork in the drawer’s been giving her funny looks lately.”
Kes thoughtfully sipped her glass of lemonade as she discreetly studied the strange guest in the clamorous town hall. Ellie didn’t mingle, but just stood in the far corner near the table display of floral arrangements and local crafts--behavior that earned her a few curious looks.
Kes couldn’t help but feel a little bit sorry for the girl. Perhaps she was one of those naive Luddite country kids who had been home-schooled by strict religious parents. That might explain her lack of good social skills and compulsive lying and kleptomania.
“I don’t get it,” Kes looked confused. “If she creeps your mom out then why was she invited then?”
“It’s because her aunt happened to be a very prominent business person,” was Vanessa’s immediate answer, “and she doesn’t trust Ellie to be left alone in the same room with a purse, or alone in a coach and certainly never in the house.”
Kes frowned as she studied this pathetic fluff of humanity. “Aren’t there servants that could watch her... a nanny maybe?”
“Ellie just lost her ninth nanny,” Vanessa explained. “She goes through nannies the way some people go through Kleenex. The same goes for babysitters as well as tutors. Even her own cousin can’t stand to be around her. The eldest one--Sandra had already moved out and is now staying with friends up in Branshel. The twins--Marc and Philippe, however, well... they get along okay with Ellie... probably because they’re young and don’t know any better and she’s not interested in stealing lil’ kids’ toys. Just money and valuables.”
Kes thought for a minute and then asked, “You sure she’s not some kind of trickster animal in disguise... like a tanuki or fox or even a magpie?”
Vanessa shook her spiky thatch of jet-black hair. “No. She’s completely human as far as I know. I’ve even seen her parents when they brought her up here five years ago. They seemed like loving, caring people--not like druggies or fundamentalist nutjobs.”
“Her folks just abandoned her?” Kes stared at her, incredulous.
The goth girl shrugged. “They finally couldn’t cope with this rotten kid who just uses the Asperger excuse to be offensive to people. Her older brother and sister turned out fine yet Ellie was just born to be a hellbrat.”
“But why send her here?” Kes exclaimed in disbelief. “Can’t she get therapy back in the States?”
“The Republic of the Americas pretty much sucks at the whole mental health thing,” Vanessa replied pointedly. “Besides, Ellie’s folks still care enough not to foist their offspring onto a private and potentially dangerous reform company. Instead they decided to have a Hawaiian-style of adoption and hanai’d Ellie out to her aunt. I guess they’re hoping that Ellie might get a lesson in manners as well as the social skills needed to get a real world career.”
“I wonder if her aunt now regrets her decision,” Kes murmured, taking another sip of her lemonade.
Vanessa thought for a minute before replying, “Probably, although Mrs. Lambert’s a pretty stoic person who tends to keep her personal feelings to herself.” She looked down at the tiled floor, her violet eyes following an iridescent green beetle as it crawled its way across it. “I think Ellie’s problems might be improved if she acquired a new hobby, maybe collecting bergmen’s beetles or pillywiggan poop.”
Kes started to say, “Well, hopefully she won’t end up like Norman Bates and...”
“How are you girls doing?” Mayor Desrosiers came up from behind, startling them both.
“Oh, we’re doing great, mum,” said Vanessa, her purple lips quickly curving into a most convincing smile.
“Uh, yeah,” Kes flushed as she stared up at the tall, platinum blonde woman in the tailored suit. “Just fine, Madam Mayor.” She quickly added, “Wow, you people are really nice! A welcoming party in my honor? I thought that was only for veterans and people who did great things like winning Tour du Faerie or climbing to the top of Mt. Ulinshan.”
“Well, scarcely do we get anyone new moving to Swanwick,” Mayor Desrossiers replied brightly. “So when it does happen it’s actually cause for celebration.”
“Am I required to make a speech?” Kes sheepishly asked.
Mayor Desrosiers shook her head. Wispy strands of hair fell against her glass smooth forehead. “Not if you don't want to.”
A look of immense relief flooded Kes’s features. “Oh, good, for a moment I thought I was going to have to tell my whole life story.”
“There’s no need to get stressed out,” Mayor Desrosiers assured. “We’re here to welcome you and make you feel part of the community, not to conduct a job interview.”
“Well, I’m really honored to be here...”
But Mayor Desrosiers didn’t notice. Her attention was now fixed over Kes’s right shoulder. She stared with wide opened eyes, her bright smile fading.
“Mum, what is it?” Vanessa asked with concern. “What’s wrong?”
Kes quickly glanced behind her, but she saw no sign of Ellie Lambert among the milling guests.
“Mum, are you sick?” Vanessa continued to ask. “Do you need me to call an ambulance? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
“Ghost?” Mayor Desrosiers quickly shook her head. “No. It’s just that... I thought I saw someone. Oh, never mind. Just a case of celebration jitters.” Her eyes brightened as her smile returned. “Well, let’s get this party started, shall we?” She tapped her champagne glass with a polished silver spoon to get everyone’s attention. “Before we begin the Ancient and Honorable Midsummer's Eve Celebration, I would like to welcome a brand new Swanwick citizen today. Her voyage to this country was long and arduous, often fraught with trouble and strife, and, more often than not, a great deal of frightful peril from the elements...”
All during the lengthy speech, Kes and Vanessa exchanged confused glances. Then Vanessa shrugged and discreetly moved her index finger in a corkscrew gesture near her right ear. “Mum gets a bit weird at times,” she silently mouthed.
Kes nodded, although she wasn't convinced, and she was beginning to wonder if Vanessa was, either.
Later that night, Kes stood at the window of her new house--or Heron Manor, as it was known, peering into the shadowy Swanwick Forest.
That was certainly a long welcoming party, she thought, in perplexity and amazement.
She let the curtain drop and turned to consider the stacks of presents scattered hither and thither, including an accumulation of new pets from an anonymous sender named Smiley Face.
You would think more people would be moving here on account of the gift-giving and hospitality, she wondered. Maybe I got this VIP treatment because my arrival happened to coincide with the annual Midsummer Eve tradition. I really should ask Vanessa more about this custom of gift-giving.
As she crawled into bed, she couldn’t help thinking about Ellie Lambert. Had that human cub received a similar welcoming party or had she been deemed unworthy... even for a gift of Krampus coal?
The girl certainly did act a bit funny, not funny in any obviously wild crazy fashion. No, quite the opposite--clinging to the corners of the room, or skittering through the crowds, never talking or laughing with anyone, not displaying the least bit interest or excitement in the fun games and revelry going on around her. Always sneaking glances in Kes’s direction like she wanted to strike up a conversation, yet she kept her distance. Maybe it was because Kes was hanging around Vanessa at the time, and the goth was giving Ellie the death stare as if in the hopes that her face might melt, explode, or shrink with Raiders of the Lost Ark dramatics.
Vanessa wouldn’t go into specific details about the incident that caused her to totally reject Ellie’s friendship, except to say that it nearly ruined her middle school reputation and further cemented her hatred for the anime genre and its numerous fandoms.
A hardcore otaku then, Kes thought with a grimace. Or as Yoda would say, ‘The weeaboo vibe is strong in this one.’
However, Kes kept her personal comments to herself and made a silent vow never to get too close to ‘Lil’ Miss Bo Beep for she didn’t want a repeat of that nonsense back in Simak where she had to deal with a raging otaku mental case.
When she had looked over at Ellie again, the girl had moved under the central domed skylight. Rays of moonlight shone brightly through the Art Nouveau-style stained-glass.
Kes froze rigid, staring transfixed. For a moment, just as the girl stepped into one of the moonlit patches, the whole shape of her face seems to have changed. Her tight Buster Brown curls grew loose and dark while her cherub features grew pimply-cheeked and dough-faced. The eyes that continued to stare back were now murky-brown and bulging like a frog’s. Even the wide, pale mouth was frog-like as it slowly lifted in a lazy smile.
Her hair fluffing up in shock, she whirled around, expecting to see Vanessa staring also in mute horror. Instead, her new friend had her back turned and was waving cheerily across the vast hall to a group of her fellow goths. Looking back, Kes saw that the moonbeam was now occupied by a noisy Japanese tour group.
She could be anywhere, Kes thought numbly, if she could change her face like that then... she could look just about anyone.
She no longer wanted to be in the city hall even though she was surrounded by swarms of people. And when Vanessa asked if she wanted to come to a Gothic theater production of a famous horror movie, Kes immediately accepted.
Watching a bunch of goths pay homage to the golden age of B-rated horror movies, accompanied with a heavy dose of hardcore techno and fake gore, seemed preferable to waiting around to be eaten up by some shape-shifting monster.
It turned out the show was taking place in Vanessa’s backyard, and it was a reinterpretation of John Carpenter's The Thing.
For a moment, Kes lay staring up at the ceiling. Her mind was teeming with the images from hours earlier--the corrugated iron and scrap wood arrangement that was supposed to resemble an Antarctica research station, the werewolves dyed to resemble sled dogs, the imps and spriggans animating the mechanical monster parts, the actors rushing about heroically in corpse paint and cold weather gear, the whole set going up into flames that would have met with John Carpenter’s approval.
Frowning, she wondered if she would be able to hang out with Vanessa again, now that Vanessa was majorly grounded for burning down the Licorne Pavilion, part of the roof of her dad’s tea house as well as the neighbor’s topiary fence.
Having watched The Thing before, Kes already knew the entire story.
She always thought that the assimilated humans, unlike the Borg and the Pod People, had no idea they were imitations... like Norris with his bad heart or Palmer when he was tied up on the couch, waiting to have his blood tested. It was like when the Thing took over a body, it left just enough of the ‘host’ consciousness so that the imitation still felt like the original.
Thinking about Ellie again, Kes wondered if that was also the case with her.
“Well, crap!” she sighed in annoyance. “Been here hardly a month, and I wind up being assimilated by some weird alien monster. What a crummy way to start life in a new country!”
As if sensing her distress, the animals rustled agitatedly in their various crates and cages.
“You know,” said Kes after a while. “I don’t think Ellie is an alien shape-shifter... cause why would I see another person’s face then instead of a... I dunno, something utterly alien and inhuman?”
Her new roommates paused in their noisy rustling to listen and offer up the occasional chirp and squeak.
“I think I might have even seen a ghost,” she went on, “and you know what, I’ve even seen that face before.”
The countless small beasts ceased their comments as they all waited patiently for what she had to say.
“It all started back a few years ago. I was among the Saffrasia Island population suddenly displaced due to the nearby volcano. Since Saffrasia was a Merlian Overseas Territory, we were all granted full residency rights in the Merlian United Kingdom.
“Well, I pretty much hated the Merlian weather. If it was not raining, it was windy and icy-cold, and it was hardly even sunny! I also hated the capital--Dimoil-Nu along with the native population. So unfriendly, superficial, and self-absorbed. Just all stiff-upper-lip presentation, no one bothering to listen to one another because they were all much too busy trying to present themselves in a certain narrow-minded manner.”
Her furry, feathered and scaly audience made various sympathetic-sounding noises.
“Well, the place I got in West Dimoil-Nu certainly wasn’t the Ritz, but it wasn’t a total nightmare. Although we did find mushrooms growing atop the kitchen counter-top... plus it had roaches as well as rats. Not small ones. The big scary kind that tended to scurry over your face in the middle of the night.”
Her listeners shivered in sympathy and burrowed deeper into their straw and shaving bedding.
“Still most of my housemates were great, the place was laid back and fun... I just didn’t want to live there forever.
“Well, anyway, I was standing in the checkout queue at this nearby supermarket, and I happened to spy this tabloid paper.
“‘SCANDAL IN LIMOUX COUNTY, WALDALCHIA’
“Proclaimed a banner in bold capital letters:
“‘YOUNGEST HEIRESS OF PROMINENT VAN DEVEREUX FAMILY ACCUSED OF SERIOUS CRIMES--HARASSMENT AND EXTORTION OF INNOCENT PRIMARY SCHOOL STUDENTS, CASTING OF DEBILITATING AND DEADLY HEX SPELLS, AS WELL AS A HORRIBLE HALLOWEEN PRANK LEADING TO MASS PANIC AND INJURY.’
“Then another banner:
‘UNLESS GRANTED CLEMENCY--SENTENCE WILL BE A DOG’S LIFE.’
“And I’m like ‘What? Exactly what do they mean by ‘a dog’s life?’
“I must have said the question out loud then for an old woman’s voice answered right back. ‘Well, dearie, its local slang meaning exile in a mortal shell.’
“Turning around, I see a couple of old goblin women--a fat one and a very thin one standing right behind me. It was the fat one who spoke up next.
“‘They turn the felon into a mortal first before they send ‘im off,’ she explained. ‘Don’t know how they do it exactly except it’s long and complicated. Isn’t that right, Lottie?’
“‘Right you are, Fran,’ the thin goblin nodded. ‘Shortens 'is life down to one mortal span, plus it grounds ‘im hard to the Midgard earth so ‘im wouldn’t be able to hold a magical charge or anything else. Makes ‘im as weak and powerless as a dog.’
“‘Hence the saying-- ‘Being mortal is no better than being a dog,’ Lottie replied.
“‘Well, that’s awful!’ I exclaimed, shocked. ‘Why not have them do their time as an ordinary animal like a donkey or a cow?’
“‘Oh, they still do that sort of thing in a few primitive parts,’ Fran told me. ‘Used to do it here until the Labor Party came along and abolished it.’
“‘Yep, got rid of that sort of punishment in 1965 along with the death penalty,’ Lottie muttered. ‘Too barbaric, they say-plus there was a potential of magical backfire, causing the transformation to go horribly wrong.’
“‘That and the felon sometimes tried to get revenge in animal form.’
“‘But that Van Devereux girl looks feebleminded!’ I exclaimed, turning back to regard the vague dull-looking brunette on the magazine cover. ‘Surely the court wouldn’t sentence a natural to lifelong exile.’
“‘A natural?’ Fran’s scaly eyebrows went up. ‘A natural, you say? Oh no! Definitely not a natural, dearie.’
“Lottie chuckled, shaking her feathered head. ‘You don’t follow that news, do you? Ain’t no innocent halfwit, she is. That elf girl’s a cunning lil’ thing, cunning and mean like a lil’ viper. She don’t care nothing about anybody, not even her mamma, papa or any of her brothers and sisters!’
“‘Right,’ Fran snatched up the magazine from the rack. ‘A really mean lil’ witch indeed.’ Flipping through the pages, she added, ‘Never seen such a nasty beast in all my born days.’
“‘Ere!’ Lottie grabbed the magazine from her stout friend, thrusting it forward. ‘You can see some of that meanness in Clarissa’s eyes!’
“‘But...’ I started to say, and then as soon I saw that magazine cover again, my eyes widened in disbelief.
“What I say wasn’t a slovenly-dressed girl with an empty, flat face of a large baby. Instead, what I saw was an immaculately-dressed girl with curly blonde hair that was braided and tied back with silk ribbons. Although her oval face was fixed in an expression of charm and delight, the dimpled smile seemed icy while the wide blue eyes seemed cold and calculating, as though she could see into my unsettled mind.
“‘But I swear I just saw...’ I began.
“Lottie narrowed her reddish eyes. 'You alright, dearie?’
“‘Don’t look alright to me,’ Fran observed. ‘Looks to me like she’ve seen a ghost.’
“‘Yeah, that’s what I think I saw,’ I wanted to say, but I didn’t because I didn’t want them to think I was losing my mind.
“Instead I blurted out something a little more reasonable-sounding:
“‘Well, for a minute there... I thought she was a brunette.’
“Both goblins screwed up their beastly faces in puzzlement before looking down at the magazine once again.
“‘Ooh, you might be right on that one, dearie,’ Fran remarked, pursing her bulldog lips. ‘She does seem to have some dark roots.’
“‘Hair’s a funny color too,’ Lottie chuckled without mirth. ‘Weird ginger blonde... like she did her own dye job, but botched it though.’
“‘Well, they probably don’t have any professional hairdressers where she’s at now,’ Fran replied brightly.
“Meanwhile I walked forward with my groceries, leaving the cackling goblins behind to their gossip. I wasn’t going to get involved in gloating over someone else’s troubles, even though, like the majority of goblins and working fae, I wasn’t too fond of the Gentry class.
“By the time I got home, I pretty much dismissed the strange occurrence as due to stress, travel fatigue along with shock of moving to a strange new place.”
Kes’s voice slowed to a mumble as drowsiness crept slowly over her. Still she continued on--recounting the events that prompted her coming to this country.
“Eighteen months later, I had nearly forgotten the supermarket incident. I had a new job waiting tables at this tea and coffee tavern. The landlord finally got around to repairing the apartment house and evicting the animal freeloaders. A few of my roomies even started up a backyard community garden.
“It was starting to be a pretty good place to live although I still didn’t like Dimoil-Nu. Then autumn rolled around with its lengthening chilly nights and thick fog, along with the weird wild life you tended to expect with the closing season--spectral hounds, blue and green goblin cats, multi-tailed foxes, pipe-smoking draugar, ghost pirates and sailors on shore leave, people with detachable heads, various bogeymen coming over and borrowing the lawn furniture and party lanterns.
“Since many of these ‘people’ patronized the tavern where I worked, I was pretty used to them by now.
“As strange as this might sound, I actually welcomed their company, their noisy house parties as they stood in the nearby yard and street, drinking and carousing.
“But on miserable wet nights when the streets were generally deserted, something would wander near the apartment complex and sing in this phlegmy burble. Always it would be the same song, this bit of nonsense ditty about nobody liking this person, and this person saying--guess I’ll go eat some worms then... or something to that effect.”
A shrill chorus of inquiring menagerie noises rose up from inside the cages and pens.
“Well, I didn’t know what it was exactly,” Kes replied with a yawn. “Just that this thing was invisible and that I wasn’t the only person who heard it, and it only came around on dark lonely nights of heavy rain or fog, and never tried to come inside.
“It seemed a mild-mannered spook and most of the residents along that particular street were used to it, treating it as a trifling nightly inconvenience, even going so far as accepting it as a rather eccentric member of the neighborhood. Some of the more sympathetic ones left it treats and small toys, thinking it was a ghost of a small child.
“I was one of the few people who never grew accustomed to the spirit, and often times slept with ear plugs whenever it came around. Even complained about it at work once, and the people there just nodded while I pitched a fit, then my boss told me I should consider myself lucky that the ghost/boggart/whatever only came around once a year. Then he mentioned the Skrim apartments where the residents were pestered by a full-time phantom in a veiled widow outfit banging on a gong.
“‘You’ll get used to Short Hoggers,’ he told me. ‘Everyone eventually does.’
“Now ‘Short Hoggers’ happened to be an affectionate local phrase used to address really small children. I think it meant 'Little Boots,’ although at the time I felt like calling it something a little less sweet and chucking some heavy duty boots at it.
“But as the weeks went by, I eventually got used to it. Even stopped griping about how it kept on singing the same old song.”
Kes fell silent and her audience waited with many a nervous scuttling and tail twitch.
“Unfortunately, one roomie in particular who was clever about occult things, but not so in common sense, decided to do a little dabbling, innocently thinking that what she was contacting was a lonely little ghost.
“Poor Joan. She was always boasting constantly about her great magical abilities. She claimed to have even vanquished a nest of shadow demons that normally would never have been defeated by just one person. She actually thought she was on par with the greatest human spell casters in history, instead of just being a trust fund hippie/wiccan wannabe. So when everyone was out at a movie one Halloween night, she called that something in... something that she thought was a lost child.
“She thought that something would also be her friend and would help her become the spell caster she always dreamed about. Poor stupid Joan.”
Kes gulped as her hands tightened onto the blankets.
“The neighbors heard her shrieks and came running, but it was already too late.
“They later told me that it looked like she had been attacked by lions. She was horribly mangled, claw marks all over her. Yet there wasn’t a trace of blood anywhere, just this black, stinky slime drenching the inside of the room.
“Me and everyone else who lived in that house had to go to an inquest, even though we weren’t around when the murder occurred and there weren’t any suspects, although we had a pretty good idea who it was, cause while we were at the movies, we kept hearing Joan’s voice going around the aisles--singing that wretched worm song... just like the Short Hoggers.
“The court ordered us not to talk since Joan happened to come from this ultra-rich family who didn’t want the negative publicity. But a person just can’t keep quiet about that sort of thing. I’ve got to tell somebody--even though that somebody’s a house pet.”
Several dozen bright beady eyes stared in bewilderment. What was their new owner trying to tell them? Was there a possible monster on the loose or was she just completely unhinged?
“But that wasn’t why I left Merlia,” Kes went on slowly. “Not wanting to stick around for a repeat performance of Joan’s messy demise, I fled West Dimoil-Nu. Much to my relief, the thing didn’t follow; it stayed on in the neighborhood, moving from one house to the next, although it didn’t take anyone this time. Instead it would sit outside either on the porch or on any lawn furniture left out. It would always leave in the morning, and all the wicker wood or couches would all be soaked in black oily slime--unfit for anything but the bonfire.
“I ended up moving to a house in East Dulwicher with five others in it. I was to share a room with a chatty Aussie exchange student and the privilege would cost me about £550 per month. But I felt it was all worth it after my harrowing experience in West Dimoil--Nu. Then, a few months later, I came home late from working as a kitchen assistant and found the house filled with police and freaked out fellow tenants. Meanwhile, my roommate was having hysterics on the couch, and I thinking to myself--’Oh great, someone just caught with a bag of Sparkle Freeeza or Brain Boasters.’ But it wasn’t about an illegal substance; it was about my roommate seeing the Short Hoggers. And when she finally told us the story, a shiver of cold horror ran through me. For it wasn't a ghost she saw sitting in the lawn chair when she went to take the trash to the curb. This was something much darker than any vengeful earthly shade, and far worse than any merely infernal spirit.
“‘It was squirming and twisting around in a chair,’ she stammered. ‘I thought... I thought it was an animal at first... like a seal or a giant eel even. Just lying there, wriggling and squirming horribly around... like it was dying or turning itself inside out. Then it saw me and stood up. But I ran back inside and locked the door. Then I saw it looking in through the window.’
“Then my roommate pointed to the window overlooking the drive.
“‘Right over there... it was pressed up against the glass. Its face... it was like that Wiccan girl that got killed a year back in West Dimoil-Nu, and yet it wasn’t. Like a death mask without any eyes, with the nose and lips all shriveled and rotting away. And I knew there was something hiding behind it--something even more terrible!’
“I moved out the very next morning and emigrated shortly afterwards. So that, everyone, is my story, and I know nothing more than what I just experienced... and I don’t want to know anymore.”
Her audience waited but Kes had nothing more to say. Eventually sleep overcame them and they drifted off to dream too.
Tattered clouds scudded past the closest moon and gray banks of fog rolled in from the Chuderheim Channel. Beneath the mist, wandering wild life turned tail and fled, and dogs huddled, trembling and whimpering in their yards and kennels. Down the old rutted coach road weaving through the Swanwick Forest, someone began singing a strange song.
It was close to midnight when Kes awoke. For a minute or two, she lay there and blinked bewilderedly up at the ceiling. Then she sat up, rubbed her eyes and stared fixedly at the window.
A sharp tapping had sounded against the pane. She sat very still, listening carefully, but did not hear the sound again. What could it have been? she thought as she laid back down. The wind? A branch scraping against the glass? No, the weather forecast had said it would be a calm night with a bit of fog and there weren’t any trees close enough to tough the cottage. It had to have been an animal then--maybe even a bat or an owl brushing up against the glass. That sounds reasonable, more reasonable than someone running around late at night, knocking on windows to freak people out.
Kes felt her eyelids growing heavy as her mind started drifting off into a dreamless sleep.
Tap, tap--tap, tap, tap, tap
She sat up quickly, eyes widening as they stared at the window.
No. That definitely wasn’t an animal. Must be a bunch of bratty kids then.
Tap, tap, tap, tap--tap, tap, tap
Clutching the covers, she pulled them up to her neck. She didn’t want to get out of bed. The night was disagreeably cold--unaccountable so for the middle of summer. The air also felt clammy like that of a damp cellar, and there was also a peculiar smell--kind of like cheap perfume mixed with stagnant seawater.
Tap, tap--tap, tap, tap, tap
Nope, Kes thought as she burrowed deeper underneath her blankets. No way. Uh-huh. I’m not getting up for some damn stupid kids. I’m just going to sit tight and let them think I’m a heavy sleeper then maybe they’ll get bored and go away... hopefully.
Rolling herself up tighter in her blankets, she lay quite still, occasionally glancing at the window which was lit up in silvered moonlight. Just as she was finally dozing off, she was roused by an entirely different noise.
Knock, knock--knock, knock, knock, knock
“Oh freak this!”
Furious and wide awake, Kes threw back the covers as her feet hit the cold floor.
“What the deuce is this, waking people up in the middle of the blooming night?” she muttered. “Freak! It’s like Fimbulwinter in here!”
Bleary-eyed, she stomped toward the door. “Hey, doofuses! I’m trying to get some shut-eye here!”
Then she stopped suddenly when she felt the intense cold on her bare feet, the cold that was seeping through the cracks around the door.
Her spine tingled as her hair rose on end. Instinctively, she took several steps back, and as she did, she heard a voice call out from the other side of the door.
“It’s me. Vanessa. Let me in! It’s cold!”
“Vanessa?” Despite the cold, Kes started walking toward the door. “What are you doing? It’s late!”
“I got something to tell, something to tell you!” Vanessa called out. “Something very important. Just open the...”
“Look,” Kes interrupted. “Can’t this wait until tomorrow? It’s 12 AM. You ought be in--” She nearly stumbled over Miss Tabitha suddenly brushing up against her ankles. The cat had her ears back, and was growling away furiously.
Glancing back at the door again, a new shudder rippled down her frozen spine. Embedded under the edge of the door and into the door frame were several dozen cutlasses, daggers and dirks--the types used back in the Golden Age of piracy. Nowadays, you only see these sorts of weapons in museums or in the possession of historical hobbyists. But while the blades put on the display were just inert metal, the ones dug deep around the door were of a completely different nature. These weren’t toys to be trifled with by enthusiasts or fools in garish pretentious costumes. These polished blades most likely had ferocious wills of their own; they meant business, and Kes was right now wondering if this was the “Something” that Vanessa wanted to talk to her about. Were these living weapons possibly a midsummer present that the goth was now having second thoughts about? Would Vanessa really do something really crazy like this?
Kes didn’t know. All she wanted now was not to remain here any longer. Not in this living room, not even in this house. She backed away from the front door, edging toward the back. Then her jaw fell open as her trembling hands brushed against coarse rope. Jerking around, she stood as rigid as a dressmaker’s dummy, staring at the taut heavy rope crisscrossing the door, securely attached to various grappling hooks, belaying pins and marlin spikes.
“Unblock the peephole, Kes,” it pleaded. “Unblock it if you wanna hear a secret. Please, you got to come in close. Come a bit closer then and unseal the barrier.”
The “peephole” was actually a natural knothole. Shortly after she moved in, Kes had sealed it up with plaster of Paris to keep out the drafts and any befuddled wildlife mistaking the door for a hollow tree.
THUMP! THUMP--THUMP! THUMP! THUMP! THUMP
She stood rigid in her loose-fitting pajamas, sweat beading on her ashen face. Shivering, she watched as the door creaked inward, scraping against the tightly-wedged blades. Another heavy thumping, but the blades bit deep into the surrounding timber and threshold; the door held. There were strange garbled words that instantly filled her with dread and sick revulsion. Then the very weighty tread of very heavy feet crunching on the gravel walk, waiting.
That definitely didn’t sound like Vanessa. She wouldn’t have shown up unannounced in the middle of the night; she wouldn’t be pleading in a sniveling-sort of manner like a brattling child, and certainly wouldn’t be strong enough to shake the entire door with her fists. Something else stood outside instead, something which was large, hefty and very formidable, but still needed help to gain entry. Something that would require an immediate and “permanent” response.
Walking stilly like of a somnambulant, Kes went into her bedroom and carefully fetched down her “surprise.”
The “surprise” in question sat in the wooden rack near her bed. This wasn’t the bow and arrows that Kes used for hunting nor the repeating Gerdin crossbow that she often took with her whenever she visited a large city--a show of force to any unsavory aspects that she was not to be trifled with. The “surprise” was a far more sophisticated weapon that required a special license given only in a special circumstance, and in the baronial domain of the Quinarth Rim Region, most citizens cannot obtain one. Although she carried a license for the bowstring weapons, Kes knew she would be severely prosecuted if anyone found out about this relic of the by-gone Technol Age that had been smuggled inside a metal coat rack.
It was a Saffrasian-made rifle, a room temperature, superconducting Langston with a telescopic scope and a carbon fiber barrel, to be exact. This weapon had been wrought centuries ago not by the Jötar or the Dwarves or even the nearly extinct Yngui, but by Kes’s own people--the most diligent and talented of mechanicians: against such powerful weapons, foes both human and nonhuman stood not a chance. In an effort to secure universal peace, the Langston rifle along with the other Technohance weaponry were banned from the Mortal and Free Folk Territories.
Kes still found it amazing that she managed to pull off this incredible smuggling feat. Had this happened in human-dominated Midgard instead, she would have not only been detected by the numerous security devices, but promptly whisked away and placed in a holding cell somewhere.
As she did last minute safety checks, Kes wondered if it was the very same Thing that was haunting her last two residences. Did it follow her, somehow... even across the sea?
But no sooner did that unpleasant thought enter her mind than she quickly shut it out. No, no, it's best not to think about it... best to concentrate on the here and now instead... like putting that Thing out of action for good!
Tightly clutching the Langston, Kes trudged slowly back into the living room. She waited until the intruder was at the front door again before carefully prying away the plaster of Paris. Then she jammed the barrel of her rifle into the opening and pulled the trigger.
A loud boom echoed through the house, and the animals began shrieking in earnest.
The rifle’s recoil sent her backwards, where she tumbled like a rolling stone along the floor finally coming to rest against the far wall.
As soon as her ears stopped ringing and her heartbeat slowed down to normal, she counted to ten before pulling herself up. Vaguely, she became aware of the panicking animals and that the various arcane barricades had now vanished. Her attention soon focused on the splintered peephole, and she stumbled across the living room, finally dropping to her knees beside the door now hanging limply off one hinge and peered through the ragged hole.
A putrid odor instantly filled her nostrils, choking her with its stench. Coughing and sputtering, she quickly covered her nose and pushed past the shattered door and then fixed her eyes on what lay before her in the middle of the yard, tattered and torn, besmirched with gore and black slime. Slowly, it began transforming before her widening eyes, Clarissa Van Devereux, Ellie Lambert, the nameless frog-like girl, and then a twisted myriad of other forms—human and nonhuman, some she hardly recognized. Then there was nothing left of it, but a sticky blackish patch on the dewy, moonlit grass.
Frowning, Kes went to repair the door.
Written by Mmpratt99 deviantart