When I'd met Elaine we'd both been twelve. We were bright and stubborn and there had been a scarce time that we hadn't driven each other crazy. More than that we'd been the best of friends.
We did everything together. We spoke of our dreams of the future. Whenever we needed a shoulder to cry on the other was there. We both found school to be an exercise in tedium—especially when compared to our actual home work.
How important was trigonometry when compared with learning how to harness the cosmic forces of creation itself? Compared to learning to conjure fire the public school systems lessons were only nominally more difficult than sharpening a pencil.
It had been difficult to relate to other kids in many ways. It was as simple as being interested in different things. Our magical talents had also begun to make television increasingly difficulty to watch and to my greatest regret video games were borderline impossibilities.
It's funny how a simple thing such as skipping science class can change your whole life.
I hadn't let the school know that I was leaving. If I had they'd have insisted that I stay like a good boy and learn how to dissect frogs. Don't get me wrong. I was interested but I was more worried about Elaine. She'd had a fever last night and stayed home.
The gates were locked and the path was barred, but what were fences for if not to jump over them? I slipped behind the gymnasium and scaled the chain link fence with a bit more effort than I would have admitted.
"Alley-oop!" I called out as I swooped over the fence and landed in a light crouch on the grass. I stood up and turned towards the street and began to make my way along the border of the school. I made no attempts to hide as I walked along—I was beyond the reach of such things as 'school' and more importantly all the teachers were in their classrooms teaching class.
I shouldered my bag and began to hum an out of tune song I'd heard on the walk to school. Holding a tune was unfortunately not one of my many talents.
It didn't last long and soon enough I fell silent as I walked. A frown touched my lips as I thought about Elaine. She'd been getting sicker over the past few days and become sick enough that she'd stayed home. Even Justin had insisted that she stay home.
As far as I was aware she'd never been sick before. Neither had I for the matter. Justin's explanation when we asked had boiled down to 'its magic' and he'd never elaborated. So what did it mean if Elaine had been sick? It could have been a new magic eating virus, or a super virus!
I couldn't help but speed up my walk at the thought of Elaine—My Elaine being sick. I had to be there for her, it was my responsibility as her boyfriend wasn't it? That I could potentially get sick myself and avoid the utter chore of going to school was a potential side effect that had no benefit whatsoever.
I followed the long walked path from the school through the shopping square and resisted the urge to stop by the grocery store and get a chocolate or two. I didn't have the money to spare. With summer all but a distant memory my pockets were empty and Justin refused to give money to me for something as frivolous as chocolate. Little did he know that I knew where his secret stash was. I was saving the knowledge for the future to throw in his face the utter hypocrisy of having a stash of chocolate and denying that same right to others.
As I passed by the video arcade I noticed that someone was standing out the front. I almost faltered in my step as I caught the person's eyes. She—and she was definitely a she was a young girl with the most outrageously blue hair I'd ever seen outside of television. More than that—she wore a strange sort of costume that seemed more in place in one of those Japanese animations that had begun to become popular.
The girl turned towards me and I noted in the back of my mind that her eyes were the same colour as her hair. The strange costume that she wore was a bit more obvious from the front. She wore a blue vest over a frilly white blouse, with a sort-of-tie that had a large golden heart on the front. Oh and the skirt, a silky powder blue number that ended a foot above her knees, leaving a sliver of a gap showing her milky thighs before two long stockings covered the rest of her legs.
It took me a few moments to realize that I had been checking her out, and more than that from the amused look on her face she was very much aware.
"Hi there!" she said brightly and took five long steps towards me, just before I would have passed her.
"Hi yourself," I said to her, smiling. "You new in town?"
Her eyes glimmered with amusement. "The newest! Have a flyer!" she said brightly, offering one of the many in her arms to me. She winked at me and turned away, walking back towards the arcade.
I stared after her for a few seconds, my tongue tied. I gave a brief shake of my head and continued walking. As I did I lifted the flyer up.
"Your wish will be granted," I read aloud to myself and furrowed my brow as my eyes swept over the paper. My eyes briefly lingered on the middle of it where a strange intricate glyph sat. It took me a moment to process what I was seeing before I realized it was just gibberish and wasn't any sort of magical formulae that I'd seen before in my lessons.
I chuckled and turned it over a few times to look for other details but found none. It was probably for a new video game that had been brought in.
The thought brought a scowl to my lips and I stuffed the flyer into my pocket. Yet another game I wasn't ever going to be able to play. I glanced at the arcade for a moment before looking away and continuing on my way home.
It was a long familiar walk, even in the early afternoon. It took me the better part of half an hour to arrive at the gates of my home. I pushed the wooden picket gate open and stepped onto the property. As I did a sort of nervousness began to flood my body, an agitation that made me uneasy in my own skin. A sort of energy seemed to hang in the air, thick and almost oily.
I shook off my sudden hesitation and walked to the front door, unlocking it and heading inside. "I'm home," I called out as I walked through the entryway and into the lounge room.
As I entered I noticed Elaine sitting on the couch. The calm expression on her face took me back for a moment, and then I noticed other small things that caused my expression to devolve into a frown—her posture was too rigid and straight, she only ever sat like that when she was being sarcastic.
As I stared at her I realized something was terribly wrong. She wasn't even aware I was standing there. "..Elaine?" I spoke after a moment and took a step towards the lounge.
It was then that Justin appeared in the kitchen doorway, on the other side of Elaine, and stood there for a moment, looking at me, his expression calm and remote.
"You skipped class again." He sighed. "I probably should have seen that coming."
"What's going on here?" I demanded, my voice high and squeaky with fear. "What have you done?"
Justin walked forwards to the couch and stood over by Elaine. Elaine's eyes turned towards me for the first time and they both stared at me for a long moment. I couldn't comprehend their expressions at all. "I'm making plans, Harry," he said in a steady, quiet voice. "I need people I can trust with me."
"Trust?" I echoed. His words made no sense to me. They didn't apply to the current situation at all. I couldn't see how they made sense at all or how they'd ever make sense. I looked between Elaine and Justin again, looking for some kind of answer, or sign that this was just one gigantic practical joke that I hadn't gotten. Their expressions gave away nothing. That was when my eyes fell to the coffee table and to the pristine white object that was lying next to my dog-eared paperback copy of The Hobbit.
There was a something awfully quiet and calmly sinister about the congruence. I just stared for a long moment, and then felt the bottom of my stomach erode away as I finally understood, for the first, awful time, what my instincts had been screaming at me from the moment I opened the gate: I was in danger. That my rescuer, teacher, my guardian meant to do me harm.
Tears blurred my vision and I couldn't help but ask him, in a quiet, lost and very confused voice, "Why?"
Justin remained calm and silent for a moment, before he spoke very precisely. "You do not have the knowledge that you need to understand, boy. You do not yet, but you will in time."
"Y-you can't do this," I whispered, my voice hoarse. "N-not you. You save me—saved us."
"And I still am," Justin said. "Sit down next to Elaine, Harry."
Elaine spoke, her voice a quiet, monotone. "Sit down next to me, Harry." She patted the spot next to her on the couch in a faint movement of her hand.
"Elaine…" I stared at her in shock and couldn't help but take a step back.
Something in the back of my mind screamed at me that I was in danger. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Justin move and felt the subtle sharp build-up of energy coming from him. I was too close to avoid it, so I didn't try. I lunged backwards and brought my hand up in a sweeping motion as I did, summoning my own will power and forming it into a shield. Rather than trying to impose the shield between us, I formed it behind me in a large almost sail-like construct.
The force of the blow hit me and blew into the shield, the force caught on it like a strong wind and sending me flying through the front window.
My eyes shut tight and I felt the window briefly impact on the shield before the enormous sound of shattering glass and wood filled my ears. I held in a gasp of pain as the hot sting of an uncountable number of tiny cuts appeared on my uncovered skin as the bits of flying glass and wood showered around me.
I hit the ground rolling and couldn't help but yelp as the glass that had been pushed to the grass by my shield dug into my body. I didn't stop rolling and came up sprinting the moment I could.
I looked over my shoulder as I ran out the gate and saw Justin standing in the broken window. "Boy!" Justin said, his voice booming loudly. His eyes were colder, more furious than I had ever seen them. "You are here with me—" he paused for a moment, "—with Elaine. Or you are nowhere! If you don't come back here right now you are dead to me."
My heart thudded in my chest rapidly and I forced my legs to move faster, taking me onto the street. He may have said it metaphorically, but I knew that he had meant it literally.
If I had stayed I knew he meant to render me helpless. There was no happy ending for me back there anymore. Justin and Elaine had revealed their true colours. I reached up and wiped away the tears that blurred my vision and held my teeth grinding against each other as I exhaled through my nose.
I was furious.
I had never been this angry before in my life.
How dare he—how dare they?!
I was beyond livid.
I knew that if I went back, I could fight him. I could rain down an ungodly firestorm and make them rue the day they ever decided to betray me. But, I knew I couldn't win — not against the man who had taught me everything I knew about magic.
My anger burned like molten hot magma through my veins. I kept running and running and as I did my mind worked furiously.
I couldn't call the cops. What would I tell them? That Justin was a mad wizard— they'd write me off as a nutcase without hesitation—or worse, they'd take me back to him and it would be game over.
"Boy!" Justin's voice roared, now more openly filled with rage. "Boy!"
He didn't need to say anything more. The sheer fury in that one word said it all. The man who had given me a home, had saved me from the orphanage and a pointless life was going to kill me.
I felt a stabbing pain in my chest that stole strength from my legs. It hurt—it hurt so much that I couldn't help but think that he already had. I put my head down and ran faster. The world became a blur as my tears continued to run.
As I ran, and the street vanished into the background I couldn't help but grit my teeth and breathe harder.
This wasn't over. I knew that Justin could find me no matter where I ran. He'd already taught both Elaine and I how to cast tracking spells. Everything I had in this world was back at the house. He had the pick of the litter for things that could lead him to me. No matter where I ran he'd come. No matter how well I hid it wouldn't be enough.
My mind flashed back to the pristine white straitjacket.
I hadn't escaped it yet. I had only delayed it.
My thoughts briefly flashed to Elaine and the utter disinterest she had displayed. She had been in on it from the start had she—had she ever even loved me? Was it all just a ploy from the start to keep me obedient? Give the orphan boy a cute girl to keep him distracted, had that been Justin's plan from the beginning?
I had thought we'd been clever, hiding our relationship from him, but had he been the one to encourage Elaine to be with me from the very start?
I couldn't help but laugh at the irony. Elaine and I had taken up running to 'hide' our activities from Justin. We had done actual running as well to hide the truth from him. The fruits of our labour, of that lie we'd used to hide our trysts were saving me.
As I ran my strides slowed but became longer, steadier, more machinelike. It felt almost natural as my limbs and body moved on instinct, one foot falling after the other, again and again.
I lost track of time as I ran. I poured everything in me, all the anger and seething fury into my muscles until they ached.
When I finally stopped, the terror had faded, if not the heartache. I found myself in an entirely unexpected position. I had no idea what to do. I stood there on the side of the road. What was I supposed to do? My entire world had been back at that house with Justin and Elaine.
I breathed in deeply and exhaled.
"I should have known," I muttered to myself. No one in my life had gone an inch out of their way to look out for me once my parents were gone. Justin's generosity, even seasoned with the demands of studying magic, had been too good to be true. I should have known it.
And Elaine. A sharp stab of pain went through my chest. She'd just sat there while he'd been doing whatever he was going to do. She hadn't tried to warn me, hadn't tried to stop him. She'd just sat there. The sheer uncaring coldness of the action stung me more than the betrayal. Elaine was anything but cold. When she was pissed at me she was pissed at me. I'd never known her to be anything but passionate—or had it all been a lie?
I had never known anyone in my life I loved as much as I loved Elaine. Had it even ever meant anything to her?
I shook my head in disgust at myself.
I should have known that she was too good to be true.
I took a few wobbling steps off the footpath and slumped down against a fence on the grass. I drew my knees up to my chest and wrapped my arms around them.
And I cried.
I was tired, and cold and my chest ached with the pain of loss.
I could never go back home.
My life had been destroyed—it had been fake and it had never been real but it had been mine it was all I had.
I sat there for a while brooding before I began to feel the aches and pain in my chest subside ever so slightly.
I reached up and wiped my eyes and nose on the sleeves of my jacket. A few hours ago I would have never done such a thing, it was too much of a hassle to clean. I stared down at the mucus before shaking my head ferociously.
I was still in danger.
I had to think.
I had no means of travel, no money and nowhere to go.
What I did have was my new driver's license, a few dollars in my pocket and the clothes on my back.
A gentle breeze passed by and I felt a light shiver go through me. It was mid-November and my school jacket wasn't going to be enough to keep me warm once the sun had fully set; it was already getting dark and the street lights had begun to flicker on.
My stomach rumbled.
I was also starving, apparently. I hadn't really eaten since morning and worst still I'd spent the last hour running.
I was famished.
I went over my immediate list of problems.
I needed shelter. I needed food. I needed to find somewhere safe to hide from Justin until I could figure out how I was going to fight back—and the first step towards all of that was money. I needed money and I needed it fast.
My eyes swept down the street and I took note of the houses along it. I could break in to one of them, try and find money. But no one ever kept money in their homes anymore, and worst still it was around the time people started coming home.
Down the end of the street a gas station's large sign hung like a gigantic arrow. Scratch that it was a gigantic arrow. It was like a sign from whatever demented god was watching over me.
I exhaled deeply. "It's alright Harry," I said to myself. "What's the harm in a little robbery?" I pushed myself back onto my feet and began to walk towards the convenience store.
It occurred to me how easily I had accepted it as a course of action, and that realization was rationalized away just as quickly. I stared to play over how it went down in movies in my head.
I unzipped my jacket and tugged it off, before beginning to tear off the patches that were on it; I didn't want to make it easy for them to track me down off descriptions and knowing what school I went to was. I tossed the patches from my jacket to the side and set my jacket down, before I pulled my sweat-soaked T-shirt off. I pulled my jacket back on and zipped the front up, before tying the musky shirt around my face in a sort of makeshift balaclava.
It stunk, but it was only temporary. After I got the money I'd make my way to the other side of town and ditch my clothes and maybe break into a barber shop and shave my head. That would buy me some time.
My mind kept playing over what I needed to do, even as I began to walk towards the gas station. As I got closer I realized I was lacking a 'weapon' which to use to rob the store. I glanced around and found myself staring at a trash can that looked to be fairly full. I scavenged in it briefly, and found a paper sack. I emptied it of the leftovers it contained and stuck my right hand in it.
"...I fucking hate you Justin," I muttered to myself as I felt the grime and filthy of the leftovers inside the bag smear over my hand.
As I walked closer to the gas station I noticed the glowing light of the streetlamps outside the shop. I lifted my hand up and sent a quick hex at them. I say hex, but in reality it was really just a bolt of lazily directed magical energy.
The two streetlamps over the parking lot flickered and died; they never stood a chance.
Learning and doing proper magic was hard, but it after a while it became easy to do the small things with a bit of effort. As I had become frustratingly aware, one of my many talents was wrecking technology. It was my super power. Anything with enough wiring and computer chips is fair game for low level stuff, but for simple things like streetlamps it needed a bit more oomph.
I hit the lights outside the store next, and the two security cameras. As I got closer and closer I found myself becoming increasingly nervous and accidentally blew out the refrigerating unit stuck out the front that was filled with ice as well as the security camera that I had intended.
The only lighting left in the place by the time I was done came from a pinball machine and a couple of aging arcade video games. They'd no doubt be dead before I was done here as well.
I let out a slow breath and slammed my foot against the doors, blowing them open and stepping through in a sort-of crouch, so that there wouldn't be anyway to compare my height to the marker on the inside of the frame of the door.
I held out my paper-covered right hand like it was a gun—which in a way it was; a magical gun.
I grimaced as the slimey ooze in the bag. I had a feeling it was mayonnaise. I hated mayo.
My eyes swept along the rows of the gas stop before coming to rest on the cashier; a young man with a brown mullet and a Boston T-shirt. I pointed my make-shift 'weapon' at him and said as calmly as I could, "Empty the drawer."
He blinked reddened, watery eyes at me and then his eyes slit down to the paper bag. I felt like groaning and palming my face. If he wasn't high as a kite my name wasn't Harry.
"Empty the drawer or I'll blow your head off!" I shouted at him a bit louder and clearer.
"Huh, dude," the cashier said and I let out a sigh as I smelt the scent of recently burned marijuana. I could literally walk behind and empty the register and he wouldn't bat an eyelash. "Dude, what is … Did you see the lights just…?"
I stared at him for a few moments, before my eyes dipped to the cheap plastic badge that had been stuck to his shirt. His name tag read: STAN.
I stared at him for a few more seconds, before sighing and reaching up and pulling the paper bag off my hand and tossed it to the ground before wiping my hand off on the leg of my pants.
"Yeah man. I think someone was messing with the power box outside," I told Stan very slowly, enunciating as perfectly as I could. "I'll stay here and watch the counter, do you want to go check it? If it's dead won't you get in trouble?"
Stan blinked slowly and stared at me for a long few seconds, before his eyes widened. "O-oh shit man! They'll fire me!"
I had to give him credit. He managed to stumble around the desk and out the store front without tripping over himself. He saved that for the first step past it.
I rolled my eyes and walked around the counter. I stared at it for a moment before I reached and twisted the key that Stan had left in it. The cash drawer sprung open and I found myself confronted with an impressive amount of petty cash and a few bigger notes.
I collected the notes and quickly counted them, muttering as I went along until I was certain that I had the better part of half a grand. I couldn't help but chuckle slightly and pocketed the amount.
I shoved the register closed, and as I did I sensed a sort of movement behind me, an almost subliminal pressure. It was the kind of conscious realization that you experienced while standing in a line—the silent presence of another living being behind you, temporarily intruding on your personal space. But I wasn't standing in a line.
I spun around in a panic, my fist clenched and ready to break on someone's jawbone.
There was no one behind me. I looked both ways and the door to the supply closet was still closed and there wasn't any sort of movement.
And yet, I could still feel the presence behind me, on the back of my neck, closer and more distinct than it had been previously. The more pressing matter, was that there was literally a counter right behind me. There was no way anything could be there, and yet it lingered.
"Run!" said a resonant baritone voice.
I spun and drew up my hand, summoning a surge of force into my palm—and found myself facing the video games. The magical energy in my palm fizzled and died listlessly.
"Run!" repeated the voice from the Sinistar game. "I live! I…am…Sinistar!"
I let out a breath and turned back to the register, just in time to see Stan stumbling back into view. I considered what to do about him, and a moment of inspiration hit me as I noticed the toy guns to the side of the counter.
I reached over and tore one out of its packaging, hiding the discarded plastic and drew the kids gun up, holding it as if it were a real gun. I aimed the plastic toy at Stan as he entered the store.
"How do you fix…" Stan began to say, before he blinked and realized I was standing on the wrong side of the counter. "Hey man, what are you doing? You'll get me in trouble."
I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and lifted the gun up. "Ka-bang! Ka-bang!" I shouted as I gathered my will and pointed it at a stack of soda bottles that had been piled on one of the shelves.
The spell was just basic kinetic energy, I'd literally thrown baseballs harder than it could hit. It was enough for my purpose for the moment however, and the bottles shattered with a bark of breaking glass and a tinkle of said glass hitting the floor.
"Holy crap!" Stan shouted, his eyes wide and terrified. He flinched down and brought his arms up around his head. "Don't shoot me!"
"I don't intend to shoot you Stan," I told him calmly, licking my lips. "I just want the money, understand?"
"O-okay, okay!" Stan said. "Oh, god. I'm supposed to do whatever you want, right? T-that's what the owners told us, r-right? I'm just supposed to give you the money!"
"I already have the money," I told him calmly. "It's not worth dying over, is it?"
Stan's hands hesitantly came down from over his head and he looked at me. "…G-got that right," he said with a weak laugh. "They're only paying me five dollars an hour."
As Stan spoke I could again feel the insubstantial pressure against the back of my neck, and worst it was increasing. I turned my head and looked behind me, but there was nothing there—nothing I could see, at least. Frowning I looked back at Stan. "Stan no one else is here are they?"
He shook his head in the negative.
I swallowed. What if there was something there? Something that I couldn't see? I chewed on the inside of my cheek and my eyes flickered around the store. Justin had told us—me—about such creatures from the netherworld, especially when I had repeatedly asked. I didn't think he was lying at any rate.
An invisible beast would be the perfect hunter, just the sort of ideal thing to send out after a wayward apprentice you wanted to kill—or have returned home to put on his straitjacket in time for prom.
I let me gaze slip across the store, looking for anything out of the ordinary, a slightly misplaced item, a packet of chips shifting slightly. Eventually my gaze wandered to the reflector mirror that had been installed in the far corner of the shop.
It reflected the dark store perfectly, the rows of products, the shelves, the powered down freezers, the shattered mound of bottles and the growing puddle of soda, Stan crouching on the ground in front of the door.
And the Thing standing just behind him.
It was massive, and I mean massive it was taller and broader than the door was. It was vaguely humanoid—I mean the proportions were all wrong. The shoulders were too wide, the arms too long, the legs crooked and too thick. It was covered in fur, or scales or some scabrous fungal amalgamation of both.
Its eyes were empty, slanted pits of dim violet night.
Everything about it screamed that it was wrong.
I felt my hands begin to shake. Violently. It wouldn't be a lie to say I lost all control of them as the toy gun in my hand slipped from my fingers and clattered against the desk in a not at all convincing sound.
There was a creature that looked like it didn't belong on this side of creation less than eight feet away from me, right behind Stan. My mouth was dry and my throat felt numb. It was every bit as real as Stan, or I, or the floor beneath our feet. Real to every sense except my sight.
It took real effort to glance away from the mirror to Stan.
Nothing. There was nothing there but Stan. The store was completely empty except for us. The door hadn't opened again since Stan had come back in. There was a bell on it. It would have rung had it opened. Did it come in with Stan?
I looked away for a second, and when I looked back it had vanished from behind Stan.
And instead was standing behind me.
And it was smiling.
It had a head whose shape was all but obscured by growths, or lumpy scales, or matted fur, or any other number of grotesque things—or maybe it was just a series of tumors and I was being judgmental?
I considered it for a fraction of a second before I found my eyes dipping further below its glowing purple eyes to its mouth. It was far too wide to be real, filled with teeth too sharp and serrated to belong to anything on this earth. The smile was something out of Lewis Carroll's acid laden nightmares.
My legs felt like they were going to give in at any second. I couldn't seem to breath. I couldn't even move.
Something malicious slithered up my spine and danced in spiteful shivers over the back of my neck. I could sense the thing's hostility—not the hormonal anger of a fellow teenager that I'd needled beyond self-restraint, or Justin's cold, calculated rage. This was something different. Something vaster, something more timeless and deeper.
It was a poisonous hatred, something so vile—so ancient that it felt like it could kill me without any overt action to support it. A hate so virulent and beyond contempt that it manifested itself into a physical sensation that needed nothing to exist, it simply was.
The creature wanted to destroy me. It wanted to hurt me. It wanted to enjoy the process and every inch of torment it could draw out of me. Nothing I could ever do, or say would ever change that irrevocable fact. It was as certain as gravity and the march of time.
It felt far more real than the store we were in—and for a moment far more real than I felt I was. It had no fear. It had no mercy. It was as old and ancient beyond my brains ability to comprehend.
And I was something to be eradicated, preferably in some amusing fashion, and if I proved to be too disappointing for it, I would only break through the thin veneer of that contempt that demanded it consider me nothing more than an ant—and I would be destroyed far more thoroughly than the heaviest hammer, or the sharpest sword.
I felt nauseous. I felt… contaminated, simply by being near it. It wasn't touching me in any real sense of the word, yet by simply being in the same vicinity as it I felt as if it had irrevocably damaged some integral part of who I was. No matter how hard I scrubbed the taint would never wash away.
It leaned down. A forked tongue slithered out from between its horrible shark-tooth maw, and it whispered, in a perfectly low, calm, enunciated, British accent. "What you have just experienced is as close as your mind can come to comprehending my name. How do you do?"
My blood pounded in my ears. I tried to speak. I couldn't. I couldn't form words or make a single sound come out of my mouth. I couldn't move enough air to even make a squeak come out of my throat.
My teeth ground together as the sheer frustration of the situation became unbearable.
I was more than some terrified child.
I was more than some helpless orphan preparing to endure what something vastly older and more powerful than me was preparing to inflict.
I had touched the very forces of Creation and shaped them to my will.
I was a young force of nature.
I had seen things no one else could see.
I had done things that no one else could fathom!
"I-I am fine," I managed to say in a hoarse voice, barely a whisper. I swallowed and gained a bit more courage. "That's a mouthful, I'm a bit busy. D-do you have a nickname?"
Its smile widened.
"Little Morsel, among those whom I have disassembled," it purred, its long forked tongue wrapping lovingly around the last word, "I have been several times been called by the same phrase."
I held in the shiver of fear that crept along the back of my neck. "O-oh, w-what is it?"
"He," purred the thing. "Who Walks Behind."
"He Who Walks Behind?" I said, fighting a losing battle to keep from trembling. "I'm a bit relieved honestly, if you had been a She I'm not sure I would have been able to live with myself." I licked my lips. "Personally I'd stick with the first one. It's much more you."
"Be patient," purred the creature's disembodied voice. "You will understand it before the end."
"Uh, dude?" Stan asked quietly. "Uh… who are you talking to?"
My eyes snapped towards Stan. I had completely forgotten he had been there.
"Tell him," the creature said. "That should be entertaining."
"Shut up, Stan," I shouted at him. "Get out!"
Stan's wide eyes stared at me in confusion.
In frustration I reached over, picked up a far of peppermint lollies and hurled it at him. It hurt the glass door behind him and shattered it.
"Woah! Dude!" Stan all but screamed. He fell over himself as he tried to comply, literally flinging the door open and diving out to get away. He clambered to his feet and stumbled out into the night.
I turned back to the reflector just in time to feel fire erupt along my spinal cord. I was slammed into the counter beneath me, and my head hit it hard enough that I felt something break—whether it was the counter or my head I couldn't tell. Pain, sickening and harsh flooded through the crack in the front of my skull and I barely kept myself up against the counter.
But I didn't fall. Justin DuMorne had been hard on me. It hadn't ever been this bad—this scary and had never hurt so much before—but then it had never been for real. I grasped the counters edges and forced my fingers to hold on and keep me from haplessly sliding down to the floor.
"Run! Run!" screamed the pinball machine. "I…am… Sinistar!" I noted somewhere in the back of my mind that hadn't been overloaded with main that the voice was disturbingly deep and malicious—distorted and warped. The game's computer was apparently failing. It probably didn't help that I was almost at the point of emotionally shitting myself.
"You think that the inebriated little mortal is going to run to fetch the authorities," purred He Who Walks Behind.
I steeled my nerves as he spoke and pushed myself off the counter and stumbled along the side of it, trying to put some distance between myself and the immaterial assassin that had been sent after me. As I did the world blurred and I barely held myself back from passing out as vertigo set in. I could feel a trickle of blood begin to dribble down my face.
"You believe that if they come running in their automobiles, with their lights and their symbols, that I will flee."
I reached over and steadied myself on a chip stand. I breathed in deeply through my nose and exhaled. My head was on fire and my knees felt like they were going to give, but I was beginning to get through the worst of the pain—that or I had brain damage.
"That must be it," I said as I continued to stumble my way away from the counter. "M-makes perfect sense."
"I assure you," came the creature's bodiless voice, "that we will not be disturbed. I have made certain of it. But it does demonstrate that you possess a certain aptitude for performance under pressure, does it not?"
"Get away from me," I snarled through clenched teeth. "You sound like my guidance counselor." I wiped the blood from one of my eyes. I took a breath and stalked onwards, wobbling only a little. I reached over to a stack of mars bars and tore the wrapper off one. My stomach growled and I tore into the snack.
"What are you doing?" The creatures voice came from across from the far side of the store, near the door.
"M'starving," I mumbled as I swallowed the single bite of chocolate and nougat. "Haven't eaten since morning." I tossed the barely touched candy bar to the ground and let out a breath. "Alright. I guess maybe you are a little scary." I said finally, my eyes sweeping along the vast store and looking for a surface that reflected the creature.
"Neither fear nor pain sway you from your objective. Excellent." Its voice was stilling coming from the same spot. That was good to know. "But there's no knowing the true temper of the blade until it has been tested. Even the strongest-seeming weapon may have hidden flaws. This will be educational for both of us."
I was certain it had been over by the door, which is why it came as a shock to me when something gripped the back of my neck and effortlessly flung me into an end cap of various doughnuts and pastries. I went through it and hit the shelf behind.
It hurt. It hurt so much more than I believed it was possible. Even the love tap against the counter or being hurled through a glass window didn't come close.
The sweet smell of sugar and chocolate filled my nostrils. I had little doubt that my ass was as brown as one of Elaine's attempts at baking with half as much frosting, cream filling and powdered sugar. Despite just having had a bite of the candy bar, my stomach gurgled loudly enough to be heard over the sound of items falling from the shelves here and there.
"All living things must eat." Its voice was unchanged by the violence. What an asshole. "Such a useless scrap of meat contains you," the creature said, falling silent for a brief moment. "It is entirely inconsequential, yet it shapes you, moulds you. Your existence is a series of contradictions."
"But here is a certainty, mortal child: This time, you cannot run."
The hell I couldn't!
Running had served me pretty damn well so far, and I saw no reason to change my policy now. I pushed myself to my feet, careful not to slip on the dozens upon dozens of squashed doughnuts and made a break for the back of the store, away from the presumed direction of my attacker.
I dove behind the far corner of the aisle and pressed my back up against it, panting. I strained my ears for any sign of where it was, before I realized I could just look up at the reflector in the corner.
I immediately regretted the action as something hard, hot and slimy settled around my neck; a noose made of a moist serpent, and just as strong. The reason I regretted looking was that I could see that it was the creatures tongue, poured out of its maw like a pulsating black ribbon.
The creatures tongue jerked me up and off of my feet, a bruising force that threw me into the air and released me almost instantly. I lost sight of it in the mirror as I fell and landed on my ass, hard. I scrambled towards the other aisle on my hands and knees, only to feel another terrible force strike me. A contemptuous kick in the ass, literally.
It drove my forwards into a glass door on a wall of the refrigerated cabinets holding the racks upon racks of chilled drinks. I bounced off the door and landed, dazed, staring for a second at the blood coated large cracks my head had left in the glass. My mouth opened and closed listlessly as I tried to voice a complaint or an utterance of the pain I found myself in.
"No one will save you."
I attempted to move away, my body ached and had barely enough strength to endure that small motion. I made it only far enough to reach the next cabinet and another blow struck me in the chest. I felt something break and knew it was a rib. The strike flung me into the next glass door. My shoulder hit it this time and didn't break the glass, but I felt my arm go next with a pop.
I screamed as the entire arm lit up like a Christmas tree that filled me with an abrupt awareness of white hot pain.
"Child of the Stars. I will unmake you this night."
My head was full of pain and fear. I could sense it getting closer again, coming up behind me—always there. I understood quite well why it had been named He Who Walks Behind. It was always there, where I was weakest, most vulnerable. That was where it would always be. That was the only place it could be.
With that thought came a fresh wave of pain and nausea, but it also brought with it an incessant and virulent determination.
I had to move. I had to do something. The terror felt like lead weights on every inch of my body, sapping my remaining strength and making muscles turn to jelly. I pulled myself to my feet and began a slow, slippery walk down the aisle of cold drinks, careful not to make any sudden moves or 'attempt' to escape. It capitalized on those moments.
"Pathetic," said He Who Walks Behind, growing nearer with every word. "Whimpering, mewling thing. Useless."
I licked my lips and swallowed. "You are a coward," I said.
He Who Walks Behind stopped in his tracks. There was a flickering heartbeat of uncertain surprise in that inevitable presence, and the creature said, "What?"
"I mean, don't get me wrong. You have a face a mother couldn't even love. It makes sense that you never show your face to people," I kept talking, because I knew the moment that I stopped it was going to make me regret it.
"I hear there are some really good plastic surgeons these days. Who knows, they might even be able to do something about that nasty tongue you've got there." I licked my lips.
If I couldn't stop it from coming at my back, then I could always choose where to turn it. "If—" I began before I turned and slammed my back against one of the refrigerators and then again and again until I felt the glass crack.
"It seems I have damaged you too severely." I could practical taste the disappointment on its lips. It brought an immediate panic attack on as the utterance of its name hit me again. The sheer veneer that held it back from ending me was wearing thin.
But then, didn't they always say; if at first you don't try again succeed until—Holy shit maybe I did have brain damage.
Without another thought or word I stumbled to my feet and began to run towards the door, spinning with every step I took until the world was a blur around me. I stumbled against the aisles and sent canned goods and packets of chips flying before I slammed into the door and forced it open.
I fell through the door still spinning, out into the parking lot and fell over, immediately throwing up me barely digested mars bar.
Once I was there, on the ground, I realized that my escape plan did in fact not have a phase two. It hadn't been concerned with anything more than getting me as far as outside of the doors of the gas station.
The lights I had blown in the parking lot had made the area dim when the sun had been setting, but in the small amount of time that I'd been in the store, the sun had truly set. The darkened parking lot was a mass of shadows. The nearest lights were over a hundred yards away and seemed fainter than they should have been, and more orange.
There was a heavy pressure in the air and the faint, faint stench of rot and decay. It was something similar to what I had felt back at my house, but somehow at the same time something far more wrong. The creatures' earlier words rang in my head. Hadn't it said that it had made certain of our privacy? Was it a spell that it had cast?
Stan was still in the parking lot. He was out between the two islands housing the gas stations pumps. There was something wrong. He looked like a man who was trying to run in slow motion. His arms were moving too slowly, his legs bent as if he was sprinting, but his pace was glacial. It was like he was trying to run in a pool filled with jelly.
He was looking over his shoulder at me, and his face was contorted with terror, a horrible mask that hardly looked human in the shadow-haunted parking lot in slow motion. He was more of a caricature than a person.
My first thought was to run towards him. Herd instinct, really. It made sense that there was more safety in numbers against a predator. But this wasn't any predator. If I ran to Stan he would be squashed like a bug with half as much satisfaction from the creature.
"What will you do now?" the creature asked, its voice somehow coming from no direction, yet at the same time from all of them.
"Probably plan B as soon as I come up with it," I told it as I stared at Stan, my voice far calmer than I felt.
"You had such fervor moments ago. I see you need incentive to act. Allow me to facilitate."
I spun around, bringing my arms up in defense. I hadn't needed to. I could see everything in the reflection of the convenience store's broad front windows.
He Who Walks Behind emerged from the shadows in front of the terrified Stan. Broad shoulders stretched as its massive, horrible arms wrapped around him, crushing him as easily as a man picking up a child. A third limb, possibly a tail or more likely a tentacle, covered in the same fungal-like growths as the rest of the creature joined the two arms.
Stan was wrapped at the shoulders, at the bottom of the ribs, and at the hips.
The creature was strong enough to bench press a car. I knew what was going to happen. I couldn't look away.
With a slow smile and a simple, lazy motion that one would expect from a tired man stretching, He Who Walks Behind tore Stan the gas station clerk into three pieces.
I'd seen death before. I'd seen my own father die in front of me. But nothing I had seen could have ever prepared me for what happened to Stan. I spun around in time to see the three sections drop to the asphalt. Blood went everywhere. In the dim light of the parking lot it looked more black than red. Stan's arms were jerking rapidly in frantic windmills, and his mouth opened as if to scream, but nothing came out except a short sound followed by a vomiting gurgle and a thick splatter of blood.
Stan's wide, terrified eyes stared at mine for a second, and I couldn't force myself to look away. I should have looked away.
When a wizard looks into another's eyes, they see them in another light, an unfathomably intimate and personal light. And, for just a second they see you in the same way. As Stan fell to pieces, he and I looked at each other.
Stan was unremarkable. He was your average underachiever. Behind his gas station attendant job there was little to nothing he aspired to. Once upon a time he had. A few years ago he had goals and he had drive—but they were beaten out of him.
He was the epitome of try and try again until you give up. He wasn't a pothead who lit up to feel good. He did it to get away from the nagging sensation that he was never going to amount to anything.
In that instance that we looked upon each others soul, I feel an impending, unerring terror as what I understood about Stan grew, and at the same time, what he was, who he was became less and less.
I watched Stan's soul as he died, more intimately and more attentively than I would have ever wanted to. It was disturbing beyond all concepts of understanding. One moment it was there, and the next it was violated with a nothingness so primal and otherworldly that he stopped being human.
The thing that had once been Stan fell to the ground into an empty pile of soiled clothes and meat.
Something in my mind broke.
I had never seen death come like that. As a humiliation, a reduction of a unique soul into nothing and a human being into nothing more than the components that constituted its body. When the creature killed Stan, it didn't simply end his life. It had violated the sanctity of his soul and—there were no words in the entirety of existence to explain what it had done.
The action had underscored the underlying futility, the ultimate insignificance of that life. Stan had been a man, albeit a fairly unmotivated and flawed one. It had made him into less than nothing—something that had been a waste of the energy and effort it had consumed to exist. Something that had never had a future, or a choice in its own destiny or fate.
Stan would never have a chance to be anything more.
I had chosen to rob the gas station. I had involved Stan in the struggle. It hadn't been his fight at all. He hadn't deserved to die. He had done nothing to earn his death.
I had never intended to hurt the guy and I never would have. Nonetheless, without my decision to stick up the convenience store, Stan would have still been loitering behind the counter, killing time until his next joint. He had been caught up in violence that had nothing to do with him. He was a bystander, he had always been a bystander and it had finally, pointlessly killed him.
A heat began to build in my chest.
That wasn't right.
Stan should never have died like that. I should not have had to watch his soul be annihilated by that creature. No one should. No one—no man, no beast, no creature, nothing—should ever be allowed to decide, in a moment of malicious humor, that it got to end someone's life. To take away everything that a person was, or everything that they could possibly be.
Stan hadn't deserved it. He had done nothing to earn the attention of the creature, that demon—that monster—that had murdered him.
I felt my jaw begin to ache as it clenched harder and harder. I could feel a rapid pulse beating behind my eyes. There was a terrible pressure inside my head and the heat inside my chest began to burn and spread, and with it came a rising wave of anger, and something brighter, and deadlier than anger that came welling up like a great wave from a sea of fire.
It. Wasn't. Right.
No, it wasn't, and something like that never could be. The world wasn't a fair place, was it? I had more reason to know it than most people twice my age. The world wasn't a nice place, and it wasn't fair. It would take everything from you if you let it, and even if you didn't let it—it would take it anyway and ruin everything you loved. People who didn't deserve it suffered and died every single day.
No one ever did anything about it. Maybe someone should.
The heat in my chest that spread, spread until it burned in every corner of my body. It was too hot, too all encompassing. I had to do something, I had to burn something.
I closed my eyes and let out a long breath. The heat within me began to flicker and pulsate, and then in an instant it vanished and it felt like the sun itself was shining down on me. My skin felt warm, so warm. It was as if I was standing in the middle of a field, the summer sun overhead warming me.
I opened my eyes and stared at He Who Walks Behind.
"I can see you."
The creature was crouched over Stan's corpse, its talons tapping lightly on the dead man's open eyes. Its mouth was still stretched into that horrible, wide smile, and when our eyes met, its smile widened and its eyes narrowed. "Ahhhh," it said. "Ahhhh. There you are."
"I am not a victim. I am not a powerless child. I am a wizard." I spoke, my voice calm and soft. I was furious, my anger burned as bright as the sun.
A moment of clarity hit me as we stared at each other "This isn't your world." I told it.
"Not now," He Who Walks Behind murmured, its smile widening. "But it will be ours again in just a little more time."
"You won't be around to see it." I said.
I had never used my magic in anger. I had never consciously tried to harm another being with my power.
However, I had never met something like this creature before. If I had never met it maybe I never would have ever wanted to use my magic to hurt another being. But if anything ever in the history of this world had ever had it coming, if ever a being that was deserving of my violent, it was the bloodstained creature crouching over Stan's mangled body.
"I…I have nothing left." I whispered, my fist clenching. I felt the knuckles of it pop one by one. That was new. "My home, my family, I have nothing left except my life. I'm not going to allow you to do as you please with it."
I couldn't run around anymore. If I did I may have gotten more innocent bystanders killed.
I reached into the miniature star that had formed within my chest, that ever burning source of my righteous fury and anger. It answered my touch like a puppy, eager and with endless enthusiasm.
"Flickum bicus just doesn't seem appropriate for what I'm feeling right now," I replied. The head in my body burned brightly and I felt like my very skin was on fire. The scent of burning hair and fabric crept up my nostrils and I began to see wafting ribbons of black smoke begin to drift skywards. "In fact, there are no words."
Words, incantations. They were crutches wizards used so that they didn't accidentally unleash their powers. They tied the thoughts and energies of their spells to words unique and ones they would not use in their daily lives to avoid accidentally setting things on fire, or exploding them.
I no longer had any need of them. There was a single purpose for my magic. I would never need it for anything else.
I lifted my hand up into the air above my head. The ever burning heat in my body flickered and seemed to draw up into it, leaving the rest of my body cold and my hand on fire. Literally.
My right hand glowed with Starlight.
I brought my hand down like a guillotine upon He Who Walks Behind.
For a single brief moment it was as if the sun shone again and the darkness of the night was washed away, and the world was bathed in daylight.
The area in front of me erupted into light, a single great column of pure white light.
There was a great noise, a groaning of steel and the world before me exploded. The column of light faded away and a conflagration of gasoline fuelled fire. The explosion flung me back, scorching my skin and burning away the hair on my eyebrows. I hit the thick glass of the store windows and fell to the ground in a heap. I laid there, slumped against the window for a long moment.
A sudden weariness, a tiredness that was deeper and more profound than anything I had ever felt before began to fill the emptiness that the warmth had occupied.
I was dying.
And then the second tank went up.
Hot wind and pieces of smoking metal showered against the front of the convenience store. There was a sickening crash and the sound of shattered glass behind me and a pain erupted in my chest. I didn't have to look down to see the large, long fragment of corrugated iron that had impaled me.
I stared blankly at the flames and saw a shape within it—or rather, what was left of it. He Who Walks Behind wasn't entirely there any longer. It was missing half its body and what was left glowed impossibly bright, brighter than the hottest metal.
A voice emerged from what was left of its mouth, something huge and terrifying, a voice that belonged to gods and the monster of myth.
"HOW DARE YOU!" it roared. "HOW DARE YOU RAISE YOUR HAND AGAINST ME!"
The figure collapsed to the ground within the raging inferno and the roaring flames swept in and consumed what was left of it.
"Get bent," I gurgled.
The bone deep weariness that I felt seemed to grow and grow.
I'd won my first fight. But it looked like it was going to be my last. How pointless it all was. In the end I killed myself.
I couldn't help but give a bitter smile. Life wasn't fair.
I struggled to keep my eyes opened. If I closed them I wasn't sure they would ever open again. The sting of the metal that had been driven into my stomach by the explosion did a good job of keeping me awake for the moment. It no doubt did a good job of making me bleed out as well.
"I don't want to die." My eyes began to blur with fresh tears.
I had nothing left to live for, but I didn't want to die.
It hurt, it hurt so much.
I wanted anyone to save me. Anyone at all would have been fine. Even Justin would have been fine. I'd have put the straitjacket on if it meant the pain would end. I wished—I wished I wasn't going to die. I wished it had turned out differently.
I lost the feeling in my body.
I couldn't feel anything at all but the creeping coldness of death as it sunk deeper and deeper into my body.
My vision was going. I could see blue.
I blinked slowly.
I was seeing blue.
In front of me, a scant few yards a glowing circle had appeared on the ground, and had begun to form complex shapes within it until it had formed a familiar magical circle. The circle began to rotate and lift off the ground, and as it did. Something began to appear within it.
"Levi-tan here to grant your wildest drea—Uwah! What happened to you?!"
I stared at the figure that had appeared from the magical circle. "…Am I hallucinating?"
What stood before me could only be described as a magical girl. I wasn't talking about a female wizard. I meant a genuine bonafide Japanese magical girl. Pink sailor outfit, magical wand and all. More than that she was stacked and more importantly she couldn't have been more than 14 years old.
She had black hair that had been tied up into two high-sitting pigtails. She had the prettiest pink eyes I'd ever seen.
"Don't die!" 'Levi-tan' told me as she crouched in front of me. "You're not allowed to die yet!" She spoke with a strange accent, but was more or less fluent.
I gave her a weak smile. "I'm definitely trying not to," I told her. "But I don't think its taking."
She gave me a confused look before smiling. "Ah! You summoned me to save your life, right~ right?" she exclaimed happily, giving me a beaming smile. Like she was delighted that I was dying.
"Not intentionally," I told her. "You know I've always heard of people having their life flash before their eyes when they're dying," I coughed out a part of my lung. It splattered on her pristine pink outfit.
"Sorry," I told her. "I've never heard of Japanese schoolgirls appearing to people who are dying."
She blinked slowly and a more tender smile graced her lips. "I can save you," she told me, her voice soft and gentle. Her gloved hand came up and gently cupped my cheek. "If you wish for it, I can save you. You summoned me with your desire to live."
The hand against my cheek felt so warm.
"I don't want to die," I told my hallucination.
"That's all I need to hear," she told me. "But I'll have you take responsibility for having me save your life!" she beamed at me. "What's your name?"
"Harry." I told her.
She puffed her cheeks out. "I meant your name!"
I stared at her for a long moment. If it had been another day or another time I'd have refused to give my name up to a stranger. "Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, pleased to meet you." I gave her a bloody smile.
She stood up and held out a hand over me. A small magical circle appeared beneath her fingers and something translucent and dark red appeared from it before it fell to my chest. I couldn't feel it as it landed; I was too numb.
"I, Serafall Leviathan of the Four Satans, command by my name, to thee, Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden: To allow thy soul to remain on this earth, to become my devil slave. As your new master, I grant you with a new life."
I felt what blood that remained in my face drain out as I listened to her chant and felt the—what I now recognized to be a chess piece sink into my chest.
I had made a terrible mistake.