Isn't this world a crazy place?
"Are you dead?" repeats the demon with the crazed look in her eyes. She comes a few steps closer and her voice sounds urgent, almost insistent.
I sneak a quick look at the witch who's now coming closer as well. He stops to stand beside me and I move a few steps to the left. Just because a new potential threat turned up doesn't mean I suddenly trust him!
"Are you dead?" the demon persists.
"Uh." I slowly shake my head. "No, we're not dead." After all, I know I'm not and since dead witches aren't in the habit of walking around – that's vampires for you –, I'm reasonably sure the man by my side isn't either.
"We're very much alive," he confirms.
The effect on the demon is instantaneous. She drops in her knees, not seeming to care about the wet and dirty ground, and hides her face in her hands. She mumbles something that might be "thank God".
She is, I think, entirely too trusting.
"If we were dead, would we really tell her?" I ask no-one in particular. My voice is quiet enough so the demon can't hear, or if she does, she doesn't react.
The witch, apparently thinking I addressed him specifically, replies quietly, "Ghosts are notoriously honest."
"Does she look to you like she knows the habits of ghosts?" I hiss back.
"She is a demon," he points out thoughtfully.
"Does she look to you like she knows she is one?" I argue, raising my eyebrows.
He inclines his head, before slowly shaking it. "No, she doesn't look like she knows anything about what's going on with her anymore."
That was my thinking.
Taking a step towards the demon, I call out, a little louder, "Are you alright?"
Abruptly, she raises her head. Her eyes are wide and now I distinctly see fear in them. "I don't… I don't know," she stammers.
"What happened to you?" asks the witch, reappearing at my side. Once again, I move a little to the left to bring some distance between us. I've let go of the keys as my fear of him slowly started to subside, but inside my pocket, I still turn the pepper spray between my fingers, ready for immediate use.
For a long second, the demon just stares at the witch, as if not knowing quite where to begin.
"You saw someone die, didn't you?" I prompt, because that's always how demons are made. They start out human, just like witches and vampires do, but then they see death and their lives acquire a whole new dimension.
"I… I did," confirms the demon. Her lower lip quivers, but she composes herself enough not to start crying. "There was an accident at the train station. The man, he… he just stumbled and there was a train coming in and… and… he lay on the tracks and he looked at me and…" She breaks off, overcome by emotion.
Automatically, I exchange a glance with the witch.
"And then you started seeing strange figures all of a sudden," the witch finishes and his voice sounds surprisingly gentle.
The demon nods, first slowly and then ever faster, while getting back to her feet. "There was… there was a man with a gunshot wound in his forehead and a very gaunt woman wearing a crinoline and… and one of the other ones carried his head under his arm."
Huh? I didn't know ghosts had a flair for drama.
"I thought it was a costume party at first, but the head was talking, so then I thought maybe I was imagining things…" continues the demon, before hiding her face in her hands again and groaning. "Am I going mad?"
"You aren't," I assure her, perhaps a little too cheerfully, given the situation.
Her look, when she raises her head, is understandably doubtful. "You must think me mad though."
"We don't," I promise, trying to tone down the cheerfulness as I do.
"I'm a witch," the witch tells her. "And while I haven't yet figured out what she is, she's not your run-of-the-mill human either." He points a thumb at me. I roll my eyes back at him.
The demon stares at him, wide-eyed. "A… a wi – witch?" she stutters.
"Don't you dare hex anyone," I warn him, lest he gets any idea to show off his skills as a sort of proof.
The demon wipes her nose, her head swinging from side to side as she looks between us. Her eyes are still wide open and I'm beginning to think she just looks like that all the time, whether fearful or not. "You're a witch," she states slowly.
"I am." The witch nods.
"And you're… magical?" the demon asks, turning to me.
I purse my lips. "Off a sort, I guess?"
The last thing I want to do right now is to yet again go over the riddle of what, exactly, I am. Much easier to focus on the obnoxious witch and the clueless demon in front of me. At least with them, there's no doubt what kind of beings they are.
"And the people I'm seeing are…" The demon breaks off, maybe because she really doesn't know the answer or maybe because she can't face speaking it out loud.
"Ghosts," I supply helpfully, glad not to have to deal with myself. "They used to be people, but now they're ghosts. They're all dead, you see?"
She nods, very slowly. "I think I see."
Perhaps the severed head was a giveaway after all.
"If they're ghosts, was does that make me?" asks the demon, thus proving that she has really no idea that she is, in fact, a demon.
"A demon." That's the witch, stating the obvious.
"A… a demon?" repeats the very same, obviously puzzled. "So, if you're a witch and I'm a demon… is this like Charmed or something?"
The witch briefly closes his eyes, as if he can't face up to the momentous task of having to explain to a newling how witchcraft in real life is very, very different from how it's portrayed fiction. And we haven't even gotten to Harry Potter yet!
"It's not like Charmed," I therefore take it upon myself to answer. "In reality, demons are the good ones. Whereas witches…" I trail off deliberately and raise both eyebrows.
Besides me, the witch snorts quietly.
The demon blinks, as if trying to process everything we just old her. After a moment, she shakes her head. "This is madness," she murmurs, mostly to herself. "Utter madness!"
It sure must seem like that to her. I've grown up with magic around me from the very beginning, but for someone who used to be human until a few hours ago, it must feel like they fell straight through a rabbit hole. A very, very deep rabbit hole.
"Didn't someone come and talk to you about all this?" the witch wants to know.
"There was a man," answers the demon, frowning in thought. "He appeared outside the train station and went on about how everything was going to change for me. I honestly found him creepy, so I… I kind of ran away from him."
I nod, understanding her point immediately. "It's scary to have strange a man talking to you when you just want him to go away." As I speak, I throw a side glance at the witch, but he studiously ignores me.
"He was trying to help you," he explains to the demon. "It sounds like he didn't do such a good job though."
Yes, because telling her outright that you're a witch is a much better idea, is it?
"How did he know where to find her anyway?" I want to know. "Do the demons have someone listen in on the police radio at all times?"
"They used to have many people working in emergency services," explains the witch with a shrug. "More recently, we put a system in place that alerts them automatically."
'Magically' he really means to say, because the 'we' in that sentence denotes the community of witches and they have no use for automatons at all. In fact, as a group, they're mostly known to be rather… antiquated.
"How generous of you." I scoff slightly, to indicate my true feelings on the matter. The witch shakes his head at me, but despite the still dim light, I think I see the corners of his mouth twitch slightly.
It doesn't seem like the demon really listened to us anyway. When I look back at her, I find her staring into space, an expression of complete bafflement on her face. I can hardly blame her.
"Are you okay?" I ask her, crossing more of the distance between us. "Do you feel dizzy or something?"
She raises her head and looks at me. Not replying to my question, she instead whispers, "What do I do?"
Considering the circumstances, that's a perfectly valid question.
"For the time being, may I suggest getting out of this rather grim back alley?" That's the witch. "I think it's going to rain soon."
"And where do you suggest we go?" I ask, annoyed. "We can't well let her go home, given the state she's in."
The witch shakes his head. "No, probably not. Maybe there's a restaurant still open where we can go and talk about this?"
"So that we can sit there in public and chat about how she sees dead people?" I mock. I mean, really, how does he imagine this to work?
"Perhaps not," the witch admits, now looking a tad irritated as well. "But the only other place I can think of right now is my flat and I don't imagine either of you will go there."
"Over my dead body!" This time, I'm utterly serious. "She's not going anywhere with you and neither am I. We don't even know you!"
He frowns, looking irritated. "I already told you –"
"That you won't harm anyone?" I press my lips together. "Unfortunately, as I told you, that's exactly what a serial killer would say. Therefore, no, sorry, no-one's going back to your place tonight."
"Hence why I never wanted to suggest it in the first place. But since you consider a public place to be out of the question, too, where do you suggest we go?" He raises both eyebrows to almost comical heights.
"First of all, we're going to ask her what she wants to do." I nod at the demon, whose wide eyes are moving between us. "It's called consent. You might want to look it up."
I turn to look at the demon and invite her, "Do you want to come home with me for now? We could chat and I can try to answer your questions." As an afterthought, I add, "I'm Rilla, by the way. This is Kenneth-Ken."
"My name's Miranda. Miranda Pryor," she replies, probably thankful that there's one piece of information she can be sure of. "And I should really go home. My father will be worried about me."
"You can call him." I wave a hand vaguely in the air. "Tell him you're staying with a friend. I mean, you want answers, don't you?"
Miranda nods slowly, which I find to be a promising sign. Judging from the changing expressions on her face, she veers between all kinds of emotions, but for now, she indeed seems to be wanting answers. I can't even begin to describe how well I understand that feeling.
"Do you think you're best-placed to provide those answers?" asks the witch, sounding doubtful.
I glare at him. "Seeing as no-one's going home with you, it appears I'm the only one available to give answers. Besides, I grew up magical. I know the theory."
"Well, then, how are demons created?" he wants to know.
"What is this, a pub quiz?" I roll my eyes. "Someone becomes a demon whey they've seen someone else die. Easy."
"Not quite all that easy," corrects the witch. "If it happened like that, the world would be run over by demons. Rather, it needs to be a violent and unexpected death and the future demon needs to look the dying person in the eye as it happens."
He's really quite the know-it-all, isn't he? Of the obnoxious kind, obviously.
I cluck my tongue. "Details."
Miranda, I notice, has started shivering as she undoubtedly remembers the death she herself witnessed not long ago. Impulsively, I walk over to her and place an arm around her shoulders, letting go of the pepper spray as I do. "Don't worry. Carl and I will look after you."
"Carl, huh?" repeats the witch. "Is he your…?" He makes a motion with his hand and lets the question hang.
"My none-of-your-business," I finish for him, smiling my sickeningly sweetest smile.
For a moment, the witch watches me, his eyes thoughtful. When he speaks, he pivots back to the previous subject again, "I really think I could help you with any questions she might have. I studied demons quite extensively for a while."
Do I even want to know how a witch goes on about studying anything? Knowing them, there are probably cages and sharp objects involved.
"What even is it to you?" I ask him darkly. I don't understand why he doesn't just go away to be with his awful friends or something.
"You want to help her, don't you?" he asks back. "Not because there's anything in it for you, just because you want to. Right?"
"Right," I confirm, somewhat sullenly
He nods and it's a little too smug for my liking. "Well, so do I."
The problem is, I can see the logic. I have no more right to step into the role of Miranda's saviour than he does. And one truth I can't deny is that my knowledge about demons is… rather limited. There's a chance much higher than zero that he actually does have better answers than I do.
"Answers would be good," remarks Miranda, sounding somewhat timid, and for a moment I think she's read my mind. But no. Demons can't do that. Even I know as much.
I'm not enamoured with the idea of taking the witch along, but Miranda wants answers and she shall have them. Besides, if he wanted to hex, kidnap, kill or otherwise maim us, he already could have done so. Of course, there's a chance he has some cunning plan to do it later or in some other place, but… sometimes, I guess, you have to go with your gut and for now, my gut tells me he won't harm us, at least not tonight.
"Well, that settles that then." I nod briskly. "We're all going to my home and then we'll try to answer your questions." Turning, I look at the witch, "You may call a cab for us."
He obliges with a little mock-bow and pulls a mobile phone from the inside of his jacket. While he presumably calls a cab and turns to leave the alley, I briefly hold Miranda back to let him walk in front of us. After having talked to him, I deem him to be irritating more so than dangerous, but I still don't want to turn my back to him for longer than necessary. With witches, you never know when they decide to hex you.
Thankfully, the cab arrives quickly, just after Miranda finished a call to her father that I hear very little of, and we pile into it. I give the driver my address in a not-so-nice part of Edinburgh, and off we are. In hindsight, maybe it wasn't the best idea to let a witch know where I live, but this can't be helped now. Nothing for it but to power ahead.
Apparently, I'm not the only one who is having second thoughts, because about halfway through the drive, Miranda leans close to me and whispers, "Are you sure I'm not going crazy?" Her eyes look a little wider than normal.
"You're not going crazy," I reply, trying to be my most reassuring.
"I'm not… I'm not drugged either, am I?" she asks hesitatingly. "I know I'm not drunk, but my father always warns me about someone slipping me something when I'm not careful."
"You're not drugged or drunk," I assure her. "You just…" Vaguely, I shrug.
She just turned magical tonight. Perhaps, in hindsight, drugs might have been the more straightforward option.
I don't tell her that though, so we ride in silence until we arrive at our flat. Carl probably went to bed already, but as always, he left a light on for me in the tiny hall and his bedroom door is slightly ajar, too. I know that, also like always, he set his alarm to the time he expects me home. If I'm not there when it wakes him and haven't messaged, he comes and finds me.
Despite our lengthy conversation in the alley, I'm still a little early today, so it's not the alarm that wakes him but us entering the flat. While I'm still directing the witch and the demon about where to leave their jackets and shoes, he appears in the doorway to his room, his hair askew and his face crumpled from sleep.
"This is my friend Carl," I introduce him. "Carl, these are Miranda and Kenneth-Ken."
Typically, Carl takes it in his stride. "Hello, friends of Rilla!" he greets them cheerfully as he pats down his hair. It remains a futile attempt.
"You can go ahead into the living room," I direct my not-quite-friends and point to the door ahead. "We'll be there in a minute."
I give the witch a sort of warning glance that he doesn't miss. "Don't worry," he assures. "I won't attack her and I won't steal anything either."
Carl laughs good-naturedly. "If you find anything worth stealing, you can keep it."
He's not wrong. Neither does our lifestyle lend itself to hoarding possessions nor do we have the money to buy anything of worth. I mean, right now, I'm still worried about next month's rent!
I watch as Miranda and the witch go into the living room, before Carl draws me back into his bedroom. He leaves the door open, but it offers us a little privacy to talk.
"I'm not surprised by you bringing a handsome man home, but this is new," Carl jokes and wiggles his eyebrows.
I roll my eyes at him, but I smile as I do so. "Someone ate a clown tonight, eh?"
"I think it's of more interest what you did tonight," he shoots back and wiggles his eyebrows once more, for good measure.
"It's really, really, really not like that," I stress, shaking my head.
Carl shrugs. "I'm not judging. He's certainly good-looking. She looks like she's seen a ghost though."
"Several," I correct with a sigh. "She turned into a demon tonight and has not idea whatsoever what's happening to her."
"Ah, drat." Carl makes a sympathetic face. "And how does Romeo factor into it? Are they a couple?"
I shake my head. "No. As far as I can tell, they're total strangers. He's a witch who was in the bar today. I was trying to get rid of him when Miranda turned up." As an afterthought, I add, "And you shouldn't call him Romeo."
"Why not?" Carl wants to know. "Because he's a witch and you're a –"
"Squib," I finish, cutting across him, sounding more bitter than I want to.
"You're not a squib," Carl contradicts me, his voice managing to be both caring and adamant at the same time. "You've got magic all of your own."
See? This, right there, is why Carl is my person.
He leans forward and gives me a brief hug, before prompting, "Come on then. Let's see what we can do for the demon newling."
The demon newling waits in the living room, just as instructed. The witch is there, too, apparently without having stolen anything or attacked anyone. He's by the window, looking outside with a disinterested expression on his face. She sits on one of the mismatched armchairs, right on the edge, as if ready to jump up at a moment's notice.
"So, Rilla tells me you started seeing ghosts tonight," Carl addresses her, not beating around the bush at all, and yet making it sound like he's talking about something as mundane as the weather.
Miranda nods cautiously. "They say they're ghosts." She waves in direction of me and the witch, thus identifying us as the 'they' in her sentence. "They say I'm a demon."
"I'd say so, too," confirms Carl. "Only demons can see ghosts."
Once more, Miranda nods. Her eyes move to the far corner of the room. "There's one inside here. Did you know that?"
On cue, all three of us look to the same corner. There's nothing there but a neglected rubber tree – or, nothing we can see, anyway.
"He has an axe stuck in his head," Miranda continuous wondrously.
"Tell him not to creep," Carl asks her, sounding perfectly relaxed.
Miranda starts. "I can talk to them?"
"You should be able to," confirms the witch, obviously thinking he isn't being given enough attention.
"How about you try?" I suggest, hoping to sound encouraging.
There's a doubtful expression on Miranda's face, but she tries anyway. "Uh, um, Mr Ghost? Carl here asks that you maybe find somewhere else to stay."
For a moment, she seems to listen to something – someone rather – before turning back to us. "He apologises. He didn't mean to spy on us. He's going now." There's a small pause. "He's gone. He disappeared."
"That's nice of him," comments Carl and smiles.
Miranda takes a deep breath, before a smile flickers over her face as well. "He wasn't scary," she remarks, with relief. "He looked scary, but he wasn't."
Yes, I can imagine he was quite the sight, having an axe stuck inside his head and everything.
"You can talk to all of them, if you want to," explains the witch. "Some might be nicer than others, but they can never hurt you."
That knowledge seems to reassure Miranda. She nods slowly. I have a feeling that it will all look very different once the shock has worn off and she truly realises how surreal her life has become, but for now, she's taking it extremely well. You know, considering.
I wonder whether she ever saw The Sixth Sense? It would make explaining her new life a whole lot easier.
"Are you a witch, too?" Miranda asks and I feel my body tense up before I realise she's speaking to Carl.
"Me?" He laughs. "No, I'm neither witch nor demon. I'm a shapeshifter."
"A shapeshifter?" Miranda knits her brows into a frown.
Instead of using words to explain, Carl seems to think that in this case, showing is much easier than telling. With a dramatic flourish, he bows – and proceeds to turn into a rat.
Miranda's lips form a surprised o. The witch raises an eyebrow. I hide a smile.
Within seconds, the rat is gone again and Carl stands before us once more.
"A shapeshifter," he repeats and grins somewhat smugly.
"So, you're like Peter Pettigrew or something?" Miranda asks.
And there's the Harry Potter reference!
Carl grimaces. I laugh. So does the witch.
"We both turn into rats," Carl admits reluctantly. "Other than that, no, I'm not a lot like Peter Pettigrew."
Miranda covers her mouth with her hands. "I didn't mean to insult you!"
"I'm not insulted," Carl assures. "But I think there's a lot you still need to understand, so considering that we'll be here for quite a while… who wants hot chocolate?"
The title of this chapter is taken from the song 'Save the best for last' (written by Phil Galdston, Wendy Waldman and Jon Lind, released by Vanessa Williams in 1992).
Hello and welcome back! I hope this finds you well and that everything is fine in your corner of the world =).
I actually planned to start posting this story a week earlier, but the title gave me quite some trouble and I must also admit to not having done as much work on it as planned during the Christmas break (I prioritised sleeping), so... the new story got pushed back a week. But it's here now and I'm ten chapters ahead of you with my writing, so I'm confident that I'll be able to keep up a regular posting schedule once more.
The funny thing about this story is that I'm no great reader of modern fantasy or supernatural stories either. Like you, I know Harry Potter and I saw Charmed back in the day, but that's basically the extent of my immersion into the modern fantasy genre. Thus, I'm going into this quite cluelessly and am happily making things up as I go along ;).
I admittedly held my cards quite close to my chest with this first chapter, but I promise that as the story moves on, more and more questions will be answered and more and more riddles explained. And yes, as this chapter confirmed, Carl is, indeed, a rat - of sorts.
Yes, I'm back! Not, perhaps, with the story I or anyone else expected me to write, but sometimes, I like a good challenge. Being not proficient in the fantasy genre, this feels suitably challenging for me to try it ;). I promise say though that we're not about to dive head-first into a magical fantasy world, because the premise of this story is magical beings living in this world. We're mostly staying on the ground of a reality we know, just with magic added to it. To be honest, I wouldn't even say that it's mainly a fantasy story. Mostly, it's turning out to be another of my stories focusing on characters' personalities and developments, just with a dose of magic thrown in. And no, we're definitely not going 136 weeks again! ;) There'll be more than 10 chapters for sure, but I'm not seeing this story stretching out over the next three years. I can, therefore, safely say that it will fit in somewhere between my two previous stories, length-wise.
As you correctly concluded, it's a modern story once more. I haven't pinpointed the exact date and month, but I'm thinking sometime in the 2010s. Close enough to today that it's current, but far enough removed that I won't have to deal with that pesky pandemic. Right now, it's set in Edinburgh, but we'll be moving to other parts of Scotland as well and, eventually, to other countries, too. After all, one advantage of writing modern stories is the inclusion of air planes!